He wasn’t Jeff. He never would be. No one would be.

Not even with her eyes closed.

She shook her head and stood. “I’m sorry, Sir. I can’t.”

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Cole didn’t say anything.

“It wouldn’t be fair to either one of us,” she said. “We both know if we went into that playroom, it wouldn’t be just the two of us. There’d be four people present.” As much as she had imagined him to be Jeff, she knew there was a good chance he pictured Kate in her place. “We deserve better.”

He sat and thought for a long moment. “You do at least,” he finally said, then looked at her with a serious expression. “Do me a favor and ask yourself one last time why you’re here and then think about whether that reason is worth what you’re giving up.”

“Sir?”

He stood. “You’re living with a ghost. Either bury it once and for all, or banish it by fighting for the real thing.”

A week after her talk with Cole, Julie and Sasha came to visit her at the Wests’ estate. Abby welcomed them inside. Nathaniel took one look at the group of women gathering in his kitchen and told Abby he was taking the kids out for ice cream.

As much fun as it was to sit, drink wine, and gossip with her friends, Dena found that Cole’s words from the week before refused to leave her alone. They had run through her head nearly nonstop. They taunted her at work. And at night they echoed in her empty room, keeping her from sleep.

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She’d thought she’d done the right thing by letting Jeff go. She’d given him up so that he could take the business over from his father. She told herself it would have been selfish to ask him to stay. If she thought about it enough, she could almost convince herself it was noble of her to sacrifice him like that.

During the day when she was busy, she could convince herself she’d made the right choice. But at night, when there was only herself to listen, she knew better. The truth was, Cole was right; she had let Jeff go because living with his ghost was easier than facing her fears and fighting for the man.

It was useless to try to keep her thoughts hidden from her friends. They were always able to see through her.

Julie raised an eyebrow at her. “You’re awfully quiet today. It’s not like you.”

“Just a lot to think about.” She had told her friends about the call she’d received and how the voice sounded familiar.

“Have you figured out who you thought it sounded like?” Sasha asked.

“No.” She hadn’t, which was irritating. “I keep thinking if I try harder, I’ll know. But no luck so far. And I feel so guilty. I know Jeff’s working on it, and he shouldn’t be. He needs to be with his dad.”

“It’ll come,” Abby said; then, as if sensing Dena didn’t want to talk about it, she looked to Julie. “How’s Daniel’s grandmother?”

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“Doing much better, thanks. He’ll be able to do the next session with Ron.” She laughed. “Just as well. I think Cole scared him.”

“Probably good for him.” Dena knew she should talk about it, and this was her chance. “Speaking of Cole, I had an interesting conversation with him the other day.”

“Oh?” Julie poured herself more wine. “He’s certainly an interesting guy.”

“I can’t imagine talking with him,” Sasha said. “He seems so … different. But in a hot way.”

Julie shook her head. “He’s a nice guy. Out of the playroom, that is. I can’t imagine submitting to him.”

“I almost did,” Dena quietly admitted.

Her three friends stared at her in shock and spoke at the same time.

“You did?”

“What about Jeff?”

“No way.”

Dena nodded. “After the mentoring session we did together, after Ron left, Cole found me in the kitchen and we just started talking.”

“Must have been one hell of a talk,” Julie said. “I can’t imagine anything making me want to play with him.”

“Please.” Sasha punched her arm, and Dena was glad to see some of her old playful spirit. “You can’t imagine playing with anyone other than Daniel and you know it.”

“True. But even if I could, it wouldn’t be Cole.”

“I don’t see why not. He’s hot. And that accent?” Sasha sighed, then looked over at Dena. “It was the accent, wasn’t it?”

Dena had almost forgotten she was the one talking, she was so flustered at Sasha’s remark. As far as she knew, this was the first time Sasha expressed an interest in any guy following the scene with Peter that had put her in the hospital months ago. And she really couldn’t believe it was over a Dominant with Cole’s reputation.

She tried to cover her surprise. “No. It wasn’t his accent. I think it was because so many of his actions and responses reminded me of Jeff.”

Julie looked down at the table. Sasha absentmindedly twirled her wineglass. Abby met her gaze but remained quiet.

“You know, he said to me that all my friends tiptoed around it. And he was right,” Dena said. “Look at you guys. And I let you do it. I’m a big girl. I can talk about Jeff without breaking into pieces.”

“We don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable,” Julie said.

“Yes, that’s true. But it’s also true that I should know better.” Sasha looked especially pained. “I remember my first group meeting after … Peter. Everyone would look at me and whisper, but it was all, ‘How’s work going?’ when they worked up the courage to talk to me. And I let them avoid the subject. I was hiding.”

“It’s okay,” Dena said. “I’ve been unwilling to talk about it for so long, I should probably put a sign around my neck that says ‘It’s okay. I can say the word “Jeff.”’”

“Tell us what you and Cole talked about,” Abby said.

“We went through our sob stories. Mine with Jeff. His with Kate. After a while the room just hummed. You know that feeling?” The women nodded, so she went on. “We never made it to the playroom, though. I realized Jeff was too much in my mind to be with anyone else.”

“If it had been a different situation, would you have done it?” Julie asked.

“You mean if both of us still weren’t hung up on our exes?” At Julie’s nod, she continued. “I think so. He’d certainly be an interesting Dom to play with. But I couldn’t—not with Jeff so fresh in my heart.”

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