“That’s because you wimped out on me and Chessy and e-mailed us,” Kylie said in a dry tone.
Joss laughed. “Yes, I did. I figured it would be easier to just e-mail you both and get it out. It would certainly take less time than a phone call because you both would grill me mercilessly.”
A grin tugged at the corners of Kylie’s mouth as they entered Dash’s living room. Kylie glanced around and when she saw no one she turned to Joss, lowering her voice.
“Is he good to you, Joss? You look happy but are you really?”
Joss smiled, letting her happiness show on her face as she looked at her friend. “He’s very good to me, Kylie. Things are better than I imagined they could be. I really am happy.”
Kylie reached out and squeezed her hand. “Then I’m happy for you. I know I didn’t seem that way in the beginning, and I’m sorry for that. I was just worried about you. I do want you to be happy, Joss. I hope you know that.”
“I do. I love you. Don’t ever forget that.”
Dash entered the living room and walked over to kiss Kylie’s cheek. “Glad you could make it, Kylie. Would you care for a drink? I have something I need to discuss with you before the others arrive.”
Kylie sent him an inquisitive look. “Wine will be fine. You choose. I’ll like whatever you offer.”
Dash poured glasses for both women and returned, holding them out to the two women.
“What did you want to talk to me about?” Kylie asked curiously.
Dash sighed and briefly looked discomfited. But Joss knew he wasn’t the type to dance around an issue. He’d come out and say it and then deal with the blowback, whatever it was.
“A new partner is joining our business,” Dash said as bluntly as Joss knew he would be.
Kylie’s eyes widened and her lips parted but she didn’t respond. She simply stared at Dash, seemingly frozen by his statement.
“His name is Jensen Tucker,” Dash continued. “Carson and I had considered taking him on a few years ago. When Carson died, I put those plans on hold and focused on keeping the business afloat. But it’s time. He’s a solid addition and he’ll be an asset to the company.”
“You’re just replacing him?” Kylie said hoarsely. “Why? You’re doing a fine job, Dash. Why do you need this guy? What could he possibly have to offer?”
Her voice rose, her tone growing more emotional at the end.
Joss went to Dash and laced her fingers through his, squeezing to signal her support. He squeezed back, shooting her a grateful look.
“You’re okay with this?” Kylie asked Joss accusingly.
Joss’s face flushed and for a moment she was at a loss for words. No, she hadn’t expected Kylie to take it well at first, but she hadn’t expected the outright accusation in her tone. That she would direct her anger at Joss. This wasn’t her company or her choice. Yes, she owned a part of the business, but she had no power and no say in the decision making. That was all Dash’s and now Jensen’s. She and Kylie both benefited from the profits. Carson had made certain of that. But neither woman had a say in the running of the business. Carson had trusted that to Dash, and Joss agreed with that choice.
“I can’t believe you would support his decision in this,” Kylie said in a hoarse voice. “Have you forgotten Carson already? Are you so wrapped up in a new relationship that you’d turn your back on what your husband built?”
“That’s enough,” Dash bit out, his jaw tight with anger. “You will not direct your ire at Joss. If you have something to say then you damn well say it to me. You will not make her feel badly over this. It wasn’t her decision, but yes, she supports it and me. Deal with it. You can make this as easy or as difficult as you want, Kylie. That’s your choice. Jensen is coming over tonight and you’ll meet him then. I expect you to be professional and cordial.”
Warmth spread through Joss’s chest at Dash’s instant defense of her. He was angry and it took a lot to make him so. But he was positively seething over Kylie’s outburst and he’d wrapped his arm protectively around Joss, silently and not so silently giving her his absolute support. Just as she’d done for him.
“And if I’m not?” Kylie challenged. “Are you going to fire me if I don’t like this person you’ve brought in to replace Carson?”
“If it comes to that, yes,” Dash said in a low voice. “I hope it wouldn’t come to that, Kylie. You are very good at what you do. This company needs you. I need you. I would hate to ever have to replace you, but if you make trouble for Jensen, you can and will be replaced.”
Kylie paled, her eyes going stark with pain. Her gaze flitted over Joss with the same accusation she’d voiced just moments before. Joss flinched at the look, knowing Kylie saw this as the ultimate betrayal. Not just by Dash but by Joss herself. She’d expected Joss to side with her. To protest Carson’s replacement.
It was evident in her every expression, her body language, that she was furious, not only with Dash but with Joss, and perhaps more so with Joss.
“You invite me over, dump this on me like this and then expect me to play nice with a man who is replacing my brother,” she said painfully. “How did you expect me to react?”
“We invited you over because I would rather tell you in private and give you time to collect yourself before he arrives. The alternative was telling you in the office on Monday, and I thought we meant more to one another than for me to tell you in a business setting. Perhaps I was wrong about that.”
Dash’s voice was cold, anger radiating from him in waves. Kylie had pushed him too far and her attack on Joss had infuriated him all the more. Joss squeezed his hand again, a silent signal that it was all right.
“It’s okay, Dash,” Joss said softly, voicing her thoughts so he would know without question. “I understand why she’s upset. She doesn’t mean it.”
“It’s not okay,” Dash bit out. “She has no right to treat you this way and I won’t allow it in our home.”
“Our home?” Kylie asked incredulously. “Have things progressed so far then, Joss? Have you already moved on and forgotten the man you were married to for three years? What exactly is going on here? Are we all supposed to just forget that Carson existed? Maybe you can, but I can’t. He was my only family and he’s not so easily replaced. Not for me.”
“If you don’t apologize to Joss right this minute, I’ll ask you to leave, and furthermore, you will come into the office on Monday only to clear out your desk and tender your resignation,” Dash said in a frigid tone. “What is between me and Joss is none of your business. She doesn’t require your approval or blessing, though she’d like to have both. She loves you and she’d cut off her arm before ever purposely hurting you. But you’re hurting her and that’s bullshit. I won’t have it and I damn sure won’t allow you to come into our home. Yes, our home, Kylie. Joss is with me, and you have two choices. Accept it and be happy for her or get out. Which is it going to be?”
Joss felt the color bleed from her own face, a match to Kylie’s. She shook uncontrollably and it seemed to anger Dash all the more. His hold tightened around her to the point that she could barely breathe. No, she hadn’t expected Kylie to take it well, but neither had she expected Kylie to lash out at her like this.
Was it what Chessy thought too? That she had so easily forgotten Carson and moved on at the first opportunity? Were neither of her friends truly happy for her? Would she lose their friendship because she wanted to be happy again? Why was being happy asking too much? Why couldn’t Kylie accept that all Joss wanted was to not be so lonely any longer?
Tears burned her eyelids and Dash saw. His entire body tensed and fury fired through his eyes.
“You’ve upset Joss and that I won’t accept,” Dash said tightly. “Apologize or leave, and make it quick. I will not stand by and allow her to be abused in her own home.”
Kylie looked shocked and pained at Dash’s words. The word abuse struck a chord in Kylie and it obviously horrified her that she would be accused of abusing another person.
“I’m sorry, Joss,” Kylie said in a near sob. “I didn’t mean to hurt or upset you.”
“You’ve done both,” Dash said in a curt voice.
“It’s okay,” Joss said quietly. “I know you didn’t mean it, Kylie. Give Jensen a chance. I’ve met him and he seems like a good man. Carson liked and respected him. That should be enough for you.”
Kylie briefly closed her eyes and then she hurried over, throwing her arms around Joss, knocking Dash away.
“I’m sorry. I love you. I do. I’m so sorry, Joss. What I said was awful. There’s no excuse. I was just caught off guard. I wasn’t expecting it. Please forgive me.”
Joss hugged her back, her heart still constricted at the things Kylie had said. She believed Kylie was genuinely sorry but her words still hurt. Like tiny darts finding their target. Was it what everyone would think? That she’d so easily gotten over Carson and could so easily replace him? It had been three years! It wasn’t as though she’d hopped into the sack with Dash a week, a month or even a year after Carson died.
Dash looked at Joss over Kylie’s shoulder, his expression murderous. He knew Joss was hurt—was still hurting—over Kylie’s outburst, and it was obvious he’d do anything to spare her pain.
Joss shook her head at Dash, a signal to drop it. Kylie was emotional. She’d always been so. And she often spoke without thinking. Joss knew Kylie loved her just as she also recognized Kylie’s faults. And when you loved someone, you accepted every part of them. Even the not so perfect things.
Dash nodded grimly, accepting Joss’s silent plea to let it go. When Kylie pulled away from Joss, she turned her troubled gaze to Dash.
“I’m sorry, Dash. Please forgive me. I’ll try to accept him. I won’t do anything to embarrass you. And if I still have a position with you, I’ll do my best. I’ll do the job you’ve come to expect from me.”
Dash’s expression softened just a bit and he pulled Kylie into a firm hug.
“I would appreciate that, Kylie. You’re damn good at running my—our—office, and I fully expect you’ll do the job going forward. But if I hear of you speaking to Joss the way you just spoke to her ever again, I won’t be as understanding the next time.”
The warning fell over the room. Kylie nodded her acceptance and glanced back at Joss, sorrow and regret brimming in her eyes.
“I forgive you, Kylie,” Joss said quietly and sincerely. “Please, let’s just forget about it and enjoy the evening. Chessy and Tate will be here soon, as will Jensen. Please give him a chance.”
Her tone was pleading but she had always been the peacemaker. She hated dissension or strife of any kind. It was just her nature and Dash was well acquainted with that aspect of her personality. It was why he’d shut Kylie down so quickly and fiercely. She loved that he was so protective of her. She felt safe with him. Not just physically but emotionally, and perhaps emotionally was the most important because she’d already suffered so much in that area. She needed and wanted her feelings protected and cherished. If that made her weak, oh well. It was what she wanted—needed—and Dash seemed determined to provide it for her.
“I’ll give him a chance. For you, Joss,” Kylie said, making the distinction that she would do so for Joss and not necessarily Dash. Which was odd considering Dash was her boss and it was him she needed to be concerned with pissing off.
But Joss was her friend—her sister—and that bond was solid and unbreakable, or at least Joss hoped it was. She prayed this wouldn’t be a strain they wouldn’t recover from.
“We appreciate your support,” Dash said quietly. “It means a lot that you’ll stand behind us, Kylie. You aren’t just an employee. You’re family.”
Kylie’s eyes watered and she quickly wiped the betraying moisture away. “We’re wasting good wine,” she said shakily, a tremulous smile on her lips. She was trying, making the effort, and Joss loved her for that.
“Why don’t you come into the kitchen with me while I prepare the hors d’oeuvres,” Joss said, extending her hand to her sister-in-law. “We can wait for Chessy to get here and we’ll drain a bottle of wine while the guys do their thing over the grill.”
Kylie smiled genuinely this time and took Joss’s hand, squeezing it in silent apology.
The two women entered the kitchen, awkward silence between them. Joss busied herself preparing the tray of appetizers and she turned the steaks in the marinade. She checked her watch, knowing the others would be arriving shortly. She was impatient for Chessy to get there so she could alleviate the tension between Joss and Kylie.
She breathed a sigh of relief when, a few moments later, Chessy sailed into the kitchen, a cheerful smile on her pretty face.
“Hey, guys,” she sang out.
She hugged Kylie and then went over to offer Joss a hug.
“What’s up with Kylie?” Chessy whispered against Joss’s ear.
“Tell you later,” Joss murmured back.
Chessy’s eyes narrowed as she pulled away but she quickly pasted her smile back on and went to plop onto the barstool next to Kylie.
Kylie was noticeably subdued even though Chessy chattered on, filling the awkward lapse between Joss and Kylie. But Chessy’s sharp gaze didn’t miss the discomfort that lay like a blanket over the other two women.
When the doorbell rang, Kylie paled and then immediately excused herself to go to the bathroom. The moment Kylie left, Chessy pounced on Joss, walking around the counter to stand beside Joss while Joss pulled the steaks from the marinade and patted them dry.