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Taking It All

Maya Banks


  CHESSY Morgan pulled into a parking spot at the Lux Café in Houston, her eyes widening in surprise when she saw both Kylie’s and Joss’s cars parked short distances away.

  Kylie being there didn’t shock her. Kylie was always punctual. But Joss? Joss was perpetually running late. Chessy and Kylie almost always had to wait on Joss, who’d dash laughingly inside the restaurant where Chessy and Kylie waited, an unnecessary apology always on her lips for her tardiness.

  And, well, who could ever get mad at Joss? Especially for something so insignificant as being habitually late. Joss was just someone who lit up a room with her warmth and sweetness. She’d come a long way from grieving widow after losing Carson to where she was now. Happy. In love. Married to Dash, her former husband’s best friend. Chessy was genuinely thrilled for both her friends. Joss and Kylie had both found love. For Kylie, this was huge. She’d made monumental steps in her life, being able to finally overcome the demons from her past that had ruled her present for so very long.

  Kylie had more than met her match in Jensen and they made a wonderful couple. Chessy didn’t doubt for a single moment that Jensen was absolutely perfect for Kylie.

  If only Chessy could say her own love life—her marriage—was as perfect as her friends’.

  She let out a sigh and climbed out of her Mercedes SUV, glancing ruefully back at the seven-passenger vehicle. When Tate had surprised her with it, she’d wondered why on earth he’d gotten her something so big, but he’d looked at her with that charming, devilish twinkle in his eyes and told her that it was the perfect car to hold their children. The children they used to talk about having—it had been a frequent topic early in their marriage. They’d spoken of their dreams of a large family and a house full of children, love and laughter. But more recently, Tate had been unwilling to broach the subject of having children.

  He was still building his business after going out on his own and having his partner bail on him. He wanted to wait until things were more stable and he was established before having children. But Chessy wondered quietly if that day would ever come. She hadn’t had the courage to broach the subject in the last year.

  She felt as though Tate was slipping further and further away from her, his career taking over, and she was second or even third or God only knew how far down his priority list she currently was.

  “For God’s sake, Chessy. Quit being a drama queen. It’s not that bad. Tate loves you. You love him. You just have to be patient and see this through. Everything will work out,” she scolded herself aloud.

  She braced herself to greet her friends as she entered the restaurant and made certain her expression contained none of her dour thoughts. The last thing she wanted was to worry them more than they already were. They’d known for months that things weren’t as they should be. She saw the looks passed between them when they thought she wasn’t aware. But she missed nothing. Not the worried looks. Not the doubt in her friends’ eyes. She knew they were deeply concerned about hers and Tate’s relationship. But both women were happy. Deliriously so. And Chessy didn’t want to drag them down into the mire of her own unhappiness.

  She was the “bubbly” one of the group. The one everyone always counted on for good cheer, the happy spark. Except she was absolutely horrible at concealing her emotions. Good or bad, she was utterly transparent. When she was happy, she was really happy. Exuberant. Bubbly. Sparkling even, as her friends often told her. The problem with that was when she wasn’t happy, she was an open book for her friends to see right through any sort of façade, and no amount of acting ever fooled them for a second.

  Still, she gathered herself and pasted on her brightest smile, which made her cheeks ache with effort as she walked up to the booth Kylie and Joss already occupied.

  “Thank God you’re here!” Kylie exclaimed, immediately grabbing Chessy’s hand and dragging her into the curved booth beside her. “Joss is practically glowing and she has that ‘I’ve got a secret’ look in her eyes, but she refused to spill until you arrived.”

  Chessy plopped down, having been yanked into the seat by Kylie, and grinned at Kylie’s outrage that Joss would hold out on her until Chessy arrived. Some of her earlier ache dissolved, because how could it not when she was with her two best friends in the world? Just being in their presence lifted some of the sadness that seemed to have become a permanent fixture in her life lately.

  “Ah okay, I see what Kylie’s talking about now, Joss,” Chessy said, studying her friend. “You’ve got a definite ‘cat who got the cream’ smug look on your face and you are positively glowing. So spill. The sisterhood is together and accounted for. Don’t make me hurt you, because I can guarantee Kylie will be with me on this. Poor girl has already had to wait for me to get here. We’ll sit on you if we have to, so spill already!”

  Kylie nodded fervently and all eyes were glued to Joss’s radiant smile that spread over her face, lighting up every delicate feature. It was a sucker punch to Chessy’s stomach. Joss did look radiant. And so happy that it almost hurt Chessy to look at her. But there was no freaking way she’d ruin her friend’s moment in the sun by allowing even a hint of her own unhappiness to cloud the gathering of best friends.

  “Dash and I are pregnant,” Joss said with unconcealed joy. “I’m pregnant,” she amended, her face softening, eyes glowing with love and happiness. “We’re having a baby!”

  Kylie squealed and immediately threw her arms around Joss, hugging her tightly, ignoring startled looks from other restaurant patrons seated in close proximity to the women’s booth.

  Chessy immediately rose, though her stomach had plummeted, and rushed around since Kylie separated Joss and Chessy. She slid in on the other side of Joss and tugged her away from Kylie’s fierce grasp.

  “I’m so happy for you,” Chessy whispered so she didn’t have to choke the words out around the lump forming in her throat.

  Joss hugged her back and then pulled away, her gaze piercing as she studied Chessy.

  “Thank you,” Joss said quietly. “Now perhaps you can tell us what’s going on with you and why you look so unhappy. Is it Tate? Have things gotten worse?”

  Chessy’s heart sank. She should have known of all people she couldn’t fool her best friends. And now that Joss was basking in the glow of her news—glorious news—and the realization of a long-time wish come true, the very last thing Chessy wanted to do was dampen the celebration.

  She reached down, grasping Joss’s hand and squeezing. “This is your moment to shine, girlfriend. We can talk about my woes another time. Right now we need to be toasting the mother-to-be and planning all the fun stuff like baby clothes and possible names! Oh my gosh, Kylie, you and I have to plan a kick-ass baby shower for Joss. The likes of which no one has ever seen. And we’re so making the guys get involved. No wimping out because it’s a girly activity.”

  Kylie and Joss exchanged looks, as they often did when they didn’t think Chessy could see, and Chessy inwardly winced that she was evidently the cause of so much worry for her friends.

  “Do you honestly think for one moment that I would be so wrapped up in the wonderful news of my pregnancy that it would override everything else?” Joss asked, clear reprimand in her tone, though it was the gentlest of reprimands.

  Joss was hardly the kind of woman who ever came across bitchy or mean-spirited. She simply didn’t have it in her. She was kindness personified and had the biggest, most forgiving heart of anyone Chessy had ever known in her life.

  Chessy held up her hands. “I know, hon. I know. Believe me, I do. I’d just rather not rehash it all on a day we should be celebrating. It’s not like anything has changed. It’s just the same old story and I’m just being a whiny, needy baby. Things will get better.”

nbsp; Joss lowered her voice, her eyes filling with love, so much love, for her best friend that it nearly brought tears to Chessy’s eyes.

  “I know it had to be hard to hear that I’m pregnant,” Joss said gently. “I know you’ve wanted children. That it was once what you and Tate both wanted and that you still do but he’s the one wanting to hold off now. And now you’ve even questioned the motives for wanting a child now. We’ve had that discussion recently and agreed that until you and Tate get beyond this current rough patch that a baby would only complicate matters.”

  Chessy wasn’t going to lie to the women she loved most in the world. Her best friends. Her sisters. Her rocks.

  “I won’t say it doesn’t sting a little. Okay, a lot,” she amended when she caught sight of the look Kylie shot her. One that said you aren’t fooling anyone, girlfriend. “It’s no secret that I’ve wanted children. A big family. I want what I was never given as a child. I want a brood of little ones that are secure in the fact that they are loved and wanted with every single part of my heart and soul.”

  “You want for them what your parents never gave you,” Kylie said softly.

  Chessy shot her a look of understanding. Chessy and Kylie had one thing in common as far as childhoods went. They were both unwanted, but the similarities ended there. Kylie had suffered a horrific, abusive childhood at the hands of the monster that was her father.

  Chessy could never say she was abused, physically or verbally. She simply didn’t . . . exist. Not to her parents. Chessy had been a very unplanned child to parents who’d never intended to have children. And as such, they didn’t change their lives to adjust to having a child. They simply went on as before, Chessy being an unwanted nuisance. Her childhood had been one of neglect, not abuse, but then some would argue that neglect was indeed a form of abuse. Chessy hadn’t been physically harmed, but emotionally? Definitely.

  Tate knew of Chessy’s childhood, her memories of being lonely and overlooked. It had infuriated him and he’d vowed she’d never feel that way with him. Until . . . now. He’d always made it his priority to put her first. Her wants, her needs, her desires, some of which she expressed, but mostly Tate intuitively understood and satisfied them for her without prompting. He often fulfilled needs she hadn’t even realized she had at the time. He’d always gone above and beyond to give her all the things she’d lacked as a child.

  God, she wanted that back. She wanted her husband back. Wanted for things to be the way they had been before he’d branched out on his own, forming his own financial planning company with a partner who’d then bailed, leaving him to meet the needs of all their clients.

  And in her heart, she knew that Tate was still acting on his desire to see to her every need. He never wanted her to lack for anything he could provide. Financially. She knew his heart was in the right place, but money wasn’t what Chessy wanted most. Financial security was all well and fine, but at the expense of her marriage? She just wanted her husband back. The one who saw to her emotional needs above all else. Not her financial needs. Because money was no substitute for love, no substitute for the man she adored beyond reason. How could she get him to understand that without causing a rift between them? One that may not be able to be repaired. And she simply couldn’t countenance that. Nothing was worth losing Tate over. Certainly not her ridiculous insecurities and needy, clingy demands that seemed insignificant in the larger picture. Most women would be grateful for a husband who busted his ass every single day to provide for his wife. How to explain that material things meant nothing to her if they came at the expense of her marriage and the broadening gap forming between them?

  “Sweetie, what is going on with you and Tate?” Joss asked, concern creasing her forehead. “We’ve discussed this so many times and yet I keep getting the feeling that you aren’t telling us the whole truth. That you’re holding back at least a part of what you’re feeling and experiencing. Are you still worried he’s cheating on you?”

  Chessy sucked in her breath. The very thought, however fleeting it may be, that Tate would ever cheat on her filled her with such agony that she couldn’t dwell on it for the pain it caused her. She truly regretted that moment of weakness when she’d shared that fear with her best friends, no matter how little she truly believed it.

  “I know he loves me,” Chessy said firmly. “I know he wouldn’t cheat. He has too much honor. If he wanted another woman, I know he’d be forthright with me and just ask for a divorce.”

  God, the word divorce sent waves of agony through her heart and soul even though she knew it wouldn’t come to that. But panic quaked through her at the very idea of her marriage truly ending. It wasn’t a thought she could even linger over because of the devastation it caused her.

  “But love isn’t about causing pain for the person you care about,” Kylie quietly inserted.

  Lord knew Kylie recently had become very acquainted with pain and love and her own brush with the end of a relationship. If she hadn’t kicked Jensen’s ass for ending things with Kylie “for her own good” they’d probably still be apart and absolutely miserable without one another.

  “He doesn’t know he’s hurting me because I haven’t told him,” Chessy said softly. “That’s on me. He can’t be expected to fix something if he doesn’t know the problem or the solution. I admit I’m being a coward. A part of me wants to just beg him to stop focusing on business, tell him that I don’t care about having a lot of money in the bank, while the other part of me thinks that if I just suck it up and ride it out a little longer things will resolve themselves and I’ll have my husband back and everything will go back to the way it used to be.”

  Joss and Kylie both sighed in resignation. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t discussed this subject a half a dozen times already. Chessy knew that neither agreed with her thinking or approach to the problem but they loved her and supported her unconditionally. And for that she loved them beyond reason.

  Part of her recognized that they had a right to be frustrated with her. They listened to her whine about a problem she herself wasn’t willing to address, much less try to fix. Chessy knew she had her head firmly in the sand and was in denial over the state of her marriage, but to even contemplate any other alternative meant she had to admit that her marriage was in trouble. And she wasn’t prepared to do that. Yet.

  “Our anniversary is this Friday,” Chessy said, purposely brightening her tone in an effort to relieve the somber turn of the conversation. “Tate has promised me an intimate dinner at the restaurant where we always have our anniversary dinner. No cell phones. No business. He plans to take off early and he said the entire weekend is ours. And,” she said, drawing out the word, “he says he has very distinct plans for after dinner, so I can hardly wait. I think having this, one weekend where it’s just us, will do wonders for my insecurities and silliness. I never should have let it get to this point. I recognize that I’m at fault for not communicating better with Tate, for not telling him of my unhappiness. But this weekend, when it’s just the two of us and our focus is solely on us, I absolutely plan to talk to him about . . . everything.”

  Kylie and Joss both wore identical looks of relief.

  “That’s wonderful, sweetie,” Joss said.

  “I’m so glad you’re taking this step,” Kylie said. “I agree with you. A weekend with just the two of you is probably exactly what you need to feel better about everything. And talking to him and opening up about the way you’ve been feeling is a huge step in the right direction. I can’t imagine Tate not moving heaven and earth to make you happy again. But as you said yourself, he has to know about the problem if he’s going to be able to fix it.”

  Chessy smiled, her heart lightening and some of the ache slipping away as she soaked in the healing balm of her girlfriends’ unfettered, unconditional love. God only knew Chessy was usually the one freely dispensing advice and threatening to kick Joss and Kylie’s asses over certain matters when it came to their happiness. It made her a flaming hypocri
te that she wasn’t taking a dose of the same medicine she dished out to her friends. And that she was quick to tell them what they should do but then shrugged off their advice. Sound advice to boot.

  Ah well, no more. She was resolving to have the best anniversary weekend ever. She and Tate would rediscover the love she knew they still shared. They’d spend a wonderful weekend together loving and laughing and she would talk to him about her growing unhappiness. It was time for her to stop being a spineless guppy and take a stand when it came to her own life and relationship with a man she loved with all her heart and soul.


  THAT Friday, Chessy sat at the table Tate had reserved at the restaurant for their anniversary dinner, resisting the urge to look at her watch. There were a million reasons Tate could be late. Traffic. Difficulty in breaking free from work. She didn’t mind any of it as long as he showed up and their weekend began, just as he’d promised her.

  In the beginning of their five-year marriage, Tate had always gone the extra mile to make it a special day for her. One year, they’d eaten here and then he’d taken her home, told her to pack a bag, that they were going to the Bora Bora for an entire week.

  She still smiled over the memory of that. Her bubbly excitement over Tate arranging such a wonderful surprise for her. He’d taken her on a reenactment of their honeymoon. Same bungalow set out over the water. Same honeymoon bed. They’d spent most of that entire week in bed, only venturing out to eat or to play in the water.

  But in the last two years there’d been no time for such frivolities. They still ate at the same restaurant, but on Monday morning it had been off to work for him as usual.

  She glanced at her watch again, breathing a small sigh of relief. He wasn’t late. She was merely a few minutes early. Deciding she’d take a quick trip to the ladies room to double check her appearance, she rose and hurried to the bathroom.

  She’d paid extra attention to her makeup and hair and had donned a sexy, slinky dress she knew would get a rise out of Tate. With any luck he wouldn’t be able to take his eyes off her during the entire meal and his gaze would smolder with all the things he’d do to her once they arrived home.

  She shivered in delight as she retouched her lip gloss and patted her upswept hair. Little curly tendrils floated carelessly down her neck and against her cheek. She knew without false modesty that she looked her absolute best.

  Hoping that Tate would be at the table when she returned, she closed her clutch and rushed back, her heart sinking when she saw his chair still unoccupied. She slowly retook her seat, scanning the interior to see if he was arriving.

  She’d just let out a heavy sigh when her cell phone vibrated. Hoping it was Tate, she opened her clutch and lunged for it. As she glanced at the incoming name she saw it was indeed Tate.

  “Tate? Where are you?” she asked breathlessly, trying to keep an accusing note from her voice.

  “I’m sorry, my girl.” His deep-timbered voice slid like silk over her ears and she got a delicious thrill every time he called her “my girl.” “I just got caught up in a last-minute client call but I’m on my way out the door. Give me twenty depending on traffic and I’ll meet you there. If you like go ahead and order for us. You know my preference. By the time the food is served, I’ll be there.”

  Chessy couldn’t help the frown that curved her lips downward. That wasn’t the way things worked in their relationship. Not at all. Tate was her Dominant. Not just her Dominant but her lover, her husband, the man she adored—and trusted—with all her heart.

  He always made the decisions. He always ordered her food. Her heart gave a guilty twinge. She was acting like a petulant, pouty two-year-old. He merely didn’t want to hold up their dinner, but still, there was a small part of her that registered that lately, with recurring frequency, he’d drifted away from the dominance he’d always held over her. More and more she was forced to act on her own. Make the decisions that Tate always made.

  It sounded silly to anyone looking in from the outside. Like she wasn’t capable of making her own decisions and was some helpless twit, lost without her husband. But she willingly ceded power to Tate in their relationship. He made her feel safe. Cherished. Utterly adored because he took care of her every need. Or at least he used to.

  Their relationship—their lifestyle—was her choice. Perhaps the biggest choice of her life. She was an intelligent, smart woman. She had no reservations when it came to knowing what she was capable of. But she chose to give up power to her Dominant, and submissiveness wasn’t for the weak. Not at all. She knew she wielded every bit as much power in her marriage to Tate as he did. Just in a different way.

  “I’ll take care of it,” she said softly. “Drive safe. I can’t wait to see you so we can kick off our anniversary and have an entire weekend to ourselves. It’s been so long, Tate. I can’t tell you how much I need this. How much I need you.”

  There was a lengthy pause and she cursed herself for already putting a damper on the evening before it ever began. It was as if he had no idea what to say in response to what amounted to a plea.

  “I love you. See you in a minute,” she said brightly, to cover up the awkwardness caused by her passionate, needy sounding outburst. And, well, the words were truth. She did need him. She needed her husband back, even if it was only for one weekend before things went back to the same day-to-day routine.

  “I love my girl too,” he said gruffly. “Be there as quick as I can.”

  When she ended the call, her stomach felt as though it had lead in it. And she didn’t understand why. He was only going to be twenty minutes late. Thank God he was making it at all. When the phone had vibrated, she’d fully expected him to tell her he couldn’t make it. That something had come up and he was cancelling. On their anniversary of all nights.

  Was this what their marriage had come to? Her always expecting the worst? But in her defense, that’s precisely what she’d gotten over the last two years. Ever since his partner had bowed out and Tate had to take over the entire client load, Tate had been determined to step up and not lose a single client.

  To date, he’d only lost one and he wanted to keep it that way. Which meant being called out at all hours of the day. Clients wanting to meet with him. Or calling him in panic after a bad day in the stock market. It seemed to never end.

  In the beginning, Tate had wanted Chessy to accompany him to his dinners with his clients. Had wanted her to play the consummate hostess. They’d even had small dinner parties at their house that Chessy had arranged with Joss’s help since Joss was such an amazing cook.

  But lately? He hadn’t asked her to accompany him for anything. He’d made an offhand remark that it was becoming too much for her and that he didn’t want his job to consume them both. At the time Chessy had taken it as a sign of his caring. That he wanted to take care of her and not put her in high-pressure situations. But marriage was all about partnership, wasn’t it?

  She didn’t think she’d ever failed Tate or embarrassed him, but now that paranoid side of her wondered just that. If he was somehow ashamed of her, that she was too outgoing, too bubbly for the staid, moneyed clients he catered to. His not wanting her to be a part of him courting and wining and dining his clients had ended up being yet another rejection, one that at the time hadn’t bothered her, but in retrospect made her heart clench. Was Tate growing tired of their marriage? Did she no longer satisfy him? Had she done something to cause him to lose faith in her? Their relationship? The not knowing was eating her up on the inside and it was growing harder and harder to cover up her growing unhappiness with a bright smile and words of understanding. She was lying to her friends, even though she knew they saw right through her façade. But the simple fact that she was lying, keeping so much locked inside her, made her feel like the ultimate fraud.

  She swallowed the quick knot in her throat, determined she would not cry tonight and ruin her carefully applied makeup. Joss and Kylie had both come over to lend advice and help her prep
are for her anniversary night. She’d needed their support because she was starting to doubt herself and she hated that.