Dash gripped the back of his neck as he poured another cup of coffee and glanced at the remnants of his and Joss’s earlier breakfast. In a kitchen that had never entertained another woman. Certainly not breakfast after a sleepover.
He liked her stamp in his home and in his space. Liked the remembrance of her walking into his kitchen wearing his shirt, and those sleepy, beautiful eyes.
He hadn’t wanted to let her go. Not after finally making a move to make her his. But it was the right thing to do.
You had to let her go to see if she’d come back to you.
He shook his head at the absurdity of his thoughts. It wasn’t like him to spout hokey psychological shit, and he wasn’t one of those who indulged in philosophical crap “like if you love someone, set them free.”
He was more of a “if you love them, then never let them go” person. And yet he hadn’t kept Joss. He’d driven her home and had very civilly informed her that they’d be seeing one another soon. And then he’d kissed her. Not as he’d wanted to. She’d looked too fragile, too close to unraveling at the seams, and so his kiss had been one of comfort and reassurance. Not a kiss of a man consumed with passion for the woman he was holding.
He looked up when his cell rang, and he remembered he had an important call today. He cursed, because his mind was not on business. Bringing in a new partner, while necessary, wasn’t ideal at the moment. He’d wanted to ease Joss into it, and then everything had changed. Would this put a barrier between them at a time when she was finally seeing him as more than a friend?
He picked up the phone and strode into his office, his mind quickly shifting gears to the task ahead. He had to put Joss out of his mind, at least until he squared away this particular matter. And then? He was pulling a full-court press. He missed Carson too, but his best friend was gone. His business partner was gone. It was time to start thinking about his own best interests instead of pushing them down, as he’d done for the last six years.
He and Carson had founded a successful consulting business. Corporations called on them when they needed or wanted to downsize and cut costs. Most of their contracts came from the many oil companies in the Houston area, but they also did consulting work for other large corporations and even a few smaller ones.
Carson’s natural affinity for people and Dash’s analytical mind had been a very successful combination. The two had worked in tandem, Carson on the front lines, wining and dining potential customers, Dash on the back end, doing the analysis, drawing up the proposals that Carson would later present.
Only now Dash had been forced to be both the front line and the back end. By bringing Jensen on, Dash would effectively take over Carson’s responsibilities and push himself to the forefront while Jensen would handle the behind-the-scenes details.
“Dash Corbin,” he said, when he entered the confines of his home office.
He closed the door behind him and then went to his desk to open his laptop as Jensen Tucker gave his greeting.
“I’m glad you called,” Dash said. “We have a lot to discuss. Did you have time to look over the documents I couriered over?”
Jensen Tucker was someone Dash had met through business a few years earlier. He and Carson had dealings with him, and Dash respected the other man. Thought he’d be perfect as a partner when he and Carson looked to expand. That was all before Carson’s death.
Dash had set aside their plans and focused on keeping the business afloat because he’d wanted to make damn sure Joss and Kylie were both provided for. Kylie was a damn good office manager, but losing Carson had put a strain on her. Dash had wanted Kylie to take a break from work. Take a few weeks off to deal with the grief and shock over her brother’s death, but she’d insisted on coming in to work. She’d needed the outlet, something to occupy her time, but Dash knew it was a temporary bandage. He wasn’t sure if Kylie had ever truly dealt with that grief or accepted Carson’s death.
Neither Joss nor Kylie would likely take well to Dash replacing Carson, but perhaps Joss would be more accepting than Kylie since Kylie was the one who would have to work with someone other than Dash and her brother.
The two men spoke of their ideas, Jensen adding several of his own that Dash found appealing. They’d met several times already but all that was left was for Jensen to formally accept and the two businesses to merge.
What was once Breckenridge and Corbin would now become Corbin and Associates. Leaving room for further expansion down the road if he and Jensen so chose that route.
Jensen wasn’t an arrogant ass who insisted his name be plastered or that he receive credit. Dash wouldn’t have minded giving the man his due, but he was content to leave Dash’s name at the forefront and work more behind the scenes.
Where before Carson had been the front man and Dash had worked out the kinks, troubleshot and worked the back end, now Dash would take his place, leaving Jensen to do more of the legwork.
He hadn’t planned it as a way to be able to give Joss more of his time and not be so wrapped up in his work. After all he hadn’t had any clue that he would be making a move this quickly. But the timing was perfect, because if he had his way, work would take more of a backseat to his relationship with Joss now that he finally had her precisely where he wanted her.
The men spoke several more minutes, confirming what Dash already knew. That Jensen would be joining him. All that was left was for him to come on board and for Dash to announce it.
“There’s one thing, Jensen,” Dash said at the end of their conversation.
“I need time—a few days—before we make this public. I want to tell Joss and Kylie myself.”
There was a pause. “Are they resistant to my presence?”
Dash could hear the wariness in the other man’s voice. The hint of irritation that Dash would approach a business decision allowing emotion to rule. But Dash wasn’t heartless.
“They don’t know about your presence,” Dash said. “And I want it to come from me. No one else.”
“And will they be trouble?”
“No,” Dash said shortly.
“I can give you a few days. Nothing more.”
“That’s all I need. We’ll meet on Monday. My office.”
Jensen agreed and then rung off, leaving Dash sitting at his desk in brooding silence.
He’d told Jensen the women wouldn’t be trouble. And they wouldn’t, simply because they had no choice in the matter. Carson had left Joss enough to keep her financially protected her entire life, but the business had been left in Dash’s hands. Joss had no power, no decisions. She’d have to accept whatever Dash decided. As would Kylie. But neither had to like it, and Dash didn’t want this to drive a wedge between them. Any of them.
When he finally made his way from his office back toward the kitchen, he heard the sound of a vehicle outside his house. Frowning, because he wasn’t expecting company, he walked toward the window that looked out to his drive.
To his surprise, he saw Joss’s car parked there. But she hadn’t gotten out. She was still sitting in the driver’s seat, her hands curled tightly around the wheel.
A curl of apprehension snaked down his spine as he stepped out the front door. When she saw him, the car door opened and she stepped out.
It was obvious even from a distance that she was upset. She was pale, her eyes large and wounded. And when she lifted her gaze to meet his, fear gripped him.
He was ten kinds of a fool for pushing her so hard, so soon. This was it. She was here to tell him . . . no. And this time, she’d run, and she’d keep running. He may never see her again, and that simply wasn’t an option.
He’d lost her before he’d ever had a chance to win her.
She looked desperately unhappy. Sadness shadowed her eyes and that was the very last thing he wanted for her. It hurt him to see her like this. It hurt him to know that he was the reason for her sadness.
“Joss,” he began.
To his surprise, the moment he said her name, she hurried toward him and threw herself into his arms. He caught her against him, holding her so she didn’t fall. So they both didn’t fall. And he savored the warmth of her body, her softness tucked so sweetly against him.
For a moment he closed his eyes and inhaled the scent of her hair, wondering if this was good-bye.
“Oh Dash,” she said, his name catching on a sob.
“What is it, honey? Why are you so unhappy?”
He stroked a hand down her hair, pushing it behind her ear as he gently pulled her away so he could look into her eyes.
“I was on my way to the cemetery,” she blurted. “I was going to explain to Carson. To ask for his blessing or perhaps make him understand. It sounds so stupid, I know.”
Dash slowly shook his head. “It’s not stupid, honey. He was your husband. You loved him very much. It’s only natural that you’d want to share this kind of thing with him.”
She closed her eyes as a tear slid down one cheek. That single tear nearly ripped him in two. He didn’t want Joss sad any longer. He wanted her happy. Even if it was without him.
“I didn’t go,” she said. “I couldn’t. I promised him—myself—that I wouldn’t go there anymore. It’s not how I want to remember him. I can’t go there anymore. It hurts too much.”
“You came here instead. Why?” he asked, dreading her response.
She lifted her gaze back to his, emotion smoldering in those beautiful eyes. Eyes that were drenched with moisture. Misery clouded the depths, and he swore viciously to himself, because this wasn’t what he wanted at all.
“Because I have to try,” she whispered. “I won’t know unless I—we—try.”
His insides caved in, relief overwhelming him. His knees wobbled and he had to steady himself so they didn’t both end up on the ground.
Then he hugged her to him, holding her, savoring her touch and smell. He pressed his lips to the top of her head and closed his eyes, giving silent thanks that she hadn’t bolted. That she had enough guts to give them a chance.
It was all he’d ever ask. If he could have this, he’d never ask for another single thing in his life.
“Joss, look at me, honey,” he said gently, putting enough distance between them so he could angle her head upward. So she met his gaze.
“If it makes you this unhappy, then you have to know I won’t ask it of you. I only want you to be happy. For us both to be happy. Preferably with one another.”
“I won’t know if you—this—will make me happy unless we try,” she said softly. She licked her lips, nervousness evident in her features. “I do want to try, Dash. But you have to promise to be patient with me. I don’t know what to do here. I don’t know how to act or react. I’m without a guidebook. This isn’t something I ever imagined happening.”
He caressed her cheek, wiping away the last traces of tears.
“We have all the time in the world, Joss. No rush. No impatience. Give me your trust. And your submission. I’ll do my very best to ensure you never regret it.”
Her expressive eyes gleamed with sudden light. Her pupils flared and he saw the stirrings of desire in the deep pools. Asking for her submission had fired her imagination. Had reminded her of all she wanted.
“What do we do now?” she whispered.
“For now, come inside. Let me make you a cup of coffee. There’s nothing more I’d love than to just sit with you awhile. We can talk. Just be. We’ll talk about us. Make a date. I want to take my time with this, Joss. It’s too important to rush. I’ve waited this long. I’ll wait a hell of a lot longer if I have to.”
“I’d like that,” she murmured, her eyes warming.
He saw her acceptance. Not only of what he proposed, but of the inevitability of them. As a couple. He watched closely for any signs of hesitation. Of fear or uncertainty. But her gaze remained steady until he was satisfied that this was truly what she wanted. A chance. His chance to have her.
He was nearly undone by the implications. Joss in his arms. In his bed. His.
“There are other things I need to discuss with you,” he said, reminded of his conversation just moments ago with Jensen.
She cocked her head to the side, evidently picking up on the change in his mood.
“What is it, Dash? Is something wrong?”
He tucked her hand into his and then guided her into his house.
“No, nothing’s wrong. Just something I want you to hear from me.”
She tensed but remained silent as he took her into the kitchen where the half pot of coffee remained from earlier.
He poured two cups and warmed them in the microwave before returning to her, handing her one of the mugs.
“Let’s go into the living room where we’ll be comfortable,” he urged.
When he had her settled on the couch, he took the armchair that was diagonal to the sofa, even though what he wanted most was her in his arms. Against him. Her body warming his.
He sipped idly at the coffee, wondering which of the two tasks he should tackle first. Cement their relationship? Or possibly crush her with the news that he was replacing Carson?
He winced, deciding to postpone the latter until after they’d discussed their relationship.
“I know this was a lot for you to take in, especially on the day of Carson’s death,” he began. “I need you to understand that I didn’t plan it that way, Joss. You forced my hand when I saw you at The House. Yes, I absolutely intended to make my move. Soon. But the anniversary of your husband’s death wasn’t when I wanted to begin this with you.”
“I understand,” she said quietly. “And I’m sorry, Dash. I don’t remember if I told you that or not. But I am. Sorry for the way it happened. For it even happening at all. You have to know that wasn’t one of my prouder moments when you saw me at The House. I was . . . embarrassed. That certainly wasn’t the way I would have wanted to tell you.”