Fever, p.11
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       Fever, p.11

         Part #2 of Breathless series by Maya Banks
 

  they’re just going to forget about you because they suddenly can’t find you where you usually hang? I’m going to make sure they don’t get anywhere near you and part of doing that means Kaden and Trevor here are going to stick to you when I can’t be with you. Which means that you go nowhere without them. You understand?”

  “You really think they’ll find me here?” she whispered.

  “Let’s just say I’m not taking any chances.”

  Kaden cleared his throat. “Ma’am,” he said politely. “Men like that don’t give up easily. They have a point to prove. If they don’t make those points, they lose street cred. If it’s perceived they wimped out on collecting a debt, it means more people will decide not to pay up. They operate on fear and intimidation. If people cease to fear them, then they are rendered ineffective and they go out of business. They aren’t going to let that happen, so yes, they will make the effort to come after you. Trevor and I are going to make sure they don’t succeed.”

  Her mouth formed a silent O and she stared wide-eyed at Jace.

  “You understand now?” Jace asked quietly.

  She nodded but she was still reeling from all the sudden changes in her life.

  Jace’s driver brought in a small bag and handed it to Jace. It wasn’t one she recognized, though there’d been so many that she lost track of them hours ago.

  Jace pulled out a box, opening it to reveal a brand-new cell phone. He popped the battery in, powered it up and then fiddled with it for several long minutes. Then he pulled out his cell and punched buttons before finally tossing the phone toward Kaden.

  “Program your numbers into her phone. I want her to have you on speed dial in case anything ever goes wrong.”

  Bethany’s eyebrows drew together as Kaden and then Trevor rapidly punched buttons before returning the phone to Jace. Then Jace handed her the phone.

  “I programmed my number in. It’s number one on speed dial. Kaden is number two and Trevor is number three. My office number is four and my apartment is number five. Carry this phone on you at all times, and if you don’t want me freaking out thinking you’re in an alley dead somewhere, then you better damn well answer when I call. Got it?”

  Numbly, she nodded. Holy shit but her head was spinning in circles. She could barely breathe and her head was starting to ache horribly. Fairy tales didn’t happen for girls like her and yet she’d walked right into the middle of one. But this one wasn’t destined for a happily-ever-after. That only happened in fiction. She was too well acquainted with the way things worked in real life. Real life sucked. But it was real. It was unapologetic. It made no excuses. It just was.

  Jace leaned over and kissed her forehead. “I’ve got to run into the office. I have a meeting I can’t miss, but I won’t be gone long. Kaden and Trevor will stay with you until I get back. Groceries will be delivered soon as well. Make sure one of them answers the door and you stay out of sight until they give you the all-clear. And whatever you do, listen to whatever they tell you. Their job is to keep you safe. Make it as easy for them as possible by cooperating. Okay?”

  “Okay,” she murmured.

  “If you need anything, call me. I’ll have my cell on me even during my meeting.”

  She nodded mechanically.

  He kissed her again. “We’ll go out for dinner. Wear one of your new outfits and be sure to bring your damn coat. It’s supposed to snow tonight. Then we’ll spend the night here so you can get acquainted with your new apartment.”

  She marveled at how arrogantly he assumed he would be staying with her. She also marveled at the fact that she didn’t correct him. Didn’t offer argument. And she marveled at the relief that surged through her blood when she knew she wouldn’t be alone.

  Lost. Already she was lost in him. So completely immersed that she wasn’t sure she’d ever find her way out again. When he decided to walk away, it would break her in a way nothing else ever had. Her life. Her addiction. Her fuck-ups.

  He had power over her that she’d never imagined another entity having. And that scared her more than the thought of drugs, sex or the men who’d threatened her.

  chapter fifteen

  Jace strode into the building that housed the HCM offices and rode the elevator up. If he didn’t have this damn meeting, he would have ditched work altogether today. He didn’t like leaving Bethany on her own so soon after he got her back.

  No, she technically wasn’t on her own, but he still didn’t like leaving her to fend for herself.

  When he walked into Gabe’s office a few minutes later, he saw that Ash was already there—as was Gabe—and the way Gabe looked at him, that flash of concern in his eyes, he knew that Ash had been running his mouth.

  Jace’s mouth set into a firm line and he plopped into the chair in front of Gabe’s desk.

  “Let’s get this over with,” Jace said tersely.

  Ash didn’t meet his gaze and instead stared straight ahead at Gabe. That was fine with Jace. He didn’t have time for the intervention both of his friends were likely plotting.

  Gabe frowned but didn’t offer argument. Jace was five minutes late—not typical for him at all. Ash and Gabe were probably convinced he’d lost his goddamn mind.

  Maybe for the first time he’d found it. He and Ash had been fucking the same women for years. How messed up was that? Gabe didn’t blink an eye over that practice. But he was going to pass judgment because Jace had finally found a woman he had no intention of sharing? And Gabe had no damn room to talk anyway. He’d lost his freaking mind over Mia. Jace’s sister, for Christ’s sake. Jace hadn’t ripped Gabe’s head off, though he absolutely should have. The bastard had been pathetic enough without Jace heaping more punishment.

  Jace blinked when he realized they were already well into the meeting and he had no clue what had been discussed so far. When there was a prolonged silence, Jace figured out quickly that they were all waiting for his input. Damn it.

  Ash sent him a look of disgust and then plowed ahead with the information Jace should have provided. Ash handled it like a pro, his charming, polished mannerisms easily winning over the group of investors on the other end of the line.

  Jace gave a sigh of relief when it was finally over. Ash packed up his shit and walked out of Gabe’s office, never once speaking to Jace. Real mature. Jace shook his head and prepared his own exit. He was already thinking ahead to where he wanted to take Bethany for dinner. He’d call her on his way out and give her a heads-up so she could get ready.

  “Jace, a minute, if you don’t mind.”

  Gabe’s quiet tone filtered through Jace’s thoughts. He frowned when he saw Gabe’s expression.

  Fuck.

  He wasn’t down for a come-to-Jesus moment with Gabe. Why the hell couldn’t his friends just back the fuck off?

  Even as he thought it, he acknowledged that he wouldn’t do the same if the positions were reversed. He’d gotten into Gabe’s face plenty during his time with Mia. But goddamn it, Mia was Jace’s sister. He had a vested interest in Gabe’s treatment of her. Bethany had absolutely no connection to Gabe or Ash. Well, not unless you counted the fact that she’d fucked Ash, but Jace was trying his best to forget that fact.

  The image of his best friend with a woman Jace considered his was burned into his mind. He may never get rid of the sight of Ash’s mouth and hands on her skin.

  “Make it quick,” Jace growled.

  He stood, refusing to sit, because sitting gave leeway for this to become an extended thing. Jace had better things to do. Like take his woman to dinner and then take her home and fuck her.

  “What the hell is going on with you, man?” Gabe asked softly.

  Jace made a sound of impatience. “Nothing is going on with me.”

  “That’s not what Ash says.”

  “Ash needs to keep his fucking mouth shut.”

  Gabe’s frown deepened. “What’s going on with you and Ash? This isn’t like you. Ash is as tight-lipped as you are, but it’s obvious
you’re pissed at each other. He said you’re all sorts of fucked up over a woman. Anything you want to talk about?”

  “Bethany is not up for discussion,” Jace said in a frigid tone. “Besides, if there’s anything you want to know, I’m sure Ash’s background check will provide fodder for gossip between you two.”

  Gabe’s expression turned from concern to pissed off in two seconds flat. “What the fuck is up your ass, Jace? I’m not gossiping about anyone. I don’t know fuck about some goddamn background check. I don’t even know who the hell Bethany is and I’m damn sure not gossiping about her with Ash. Ash hasn’t said fuck-all either, for that matter.”

  Jace knew he was being a dick. He knew he was a flaming hypocrite. He’d never let his friends get away with the shit he was pulling. But he was still pissed at Ash for trying to warn him off Bethany. And if he were completely honest, he was still pissed that Ash had fucked her. Maybe he’d never forgive Ash for that even though Jace had gone along with it. Even with his instincts screaming like a motherfucker, he’d allowed it to happen. He’d hated every goddamn minute of it, but he’d still let it happen. Maybe he hated himself most of all.

  “Bethany is someone I care about,” Jace said, forcing himself to speak calmly. “That’s all you need to know. She needs help—my help—and there’s no way in fuck I’m turning my back on her.”

  “Do you need my help?” Gabe asked.

  And there it was. The unconditional friendship that had existed since they were in college. Always there, at each other’s backs. They’d taken some knocks, no doubt. Gabe’s relationship with Mia had been the most recent threat. But not even the fact that Gabe was fucking Jace’s baby sister and that he’d broken her heart in the process had been able to destroy the bonds of friendship that existed between them.

  Gabe had made things right with Mia. He’d made them right with Jace.

  Jace sighed and then his hands relaxed, his fingers uncurling from the tight fists they’d formed.

  “No, man, but I appreciate it,” he said in a low voice. “I’m not crazy. I’m not obsessed.” Okay, maybe he was, but it sounded a hell of a lot creepier than it was in reality. “This is something I have to—need to—do. Bethany’s different. She’s special. And I don’t even completely understand why or how. But I saw her and things changed. Everything changed. And I have to go with it now or spend the rest of my life regretting it.”

  “I get that,” Gabe said slowly. “Believe me, I get that.”

  “Yeah, I guess you do. Mia,” Jace said by way of saying he understood.

  “Yeah. Mia.”

  “Then you get why I just need some space and time to deal with this my own way.”

  Gabe nodded. “I get it. Ash would too, if you just explained. He’s pissed, Jace. Not because of Bethany. Not because you’ve seemingly gone off your hinges. He’s pissed because he’s worried about you and you’ve shut him out. You more than anyone know he’d do anything in the goddamn world for you.”

  Jace briefly closed his eyes as guilt sludged through his veins. “Yeah, I know.”

  Fuck it all. He hated it when Gabe was right. Smug, superior bastard. Even now he had that knowing glint in his eyes.

  “I gotta get out of here. I left Bethany at the apartment. She’s taking Mia’s old place.”

  Gabe lifted an eyebrow in clear confusion. “Surprised you didn’t lock her up in your place. Ash said things were pretty . . . intense.”

  “How the fuck would he know?” Jace muttered. “I wanted to give her some space. Some time to adjust before I just take over. And you know that’s what will happen. Me taking over. It’s inevitable and I want her secure and confident in herself—in me—before this turns into something else entirely.”

  Gabe nodded. Yeah, he’d understand better than anyone. Except Ash. The need and desire for control was a trait all three shared. Not just in certain aspects. In everything. In and out of bed. But yeah, especially in bed.

  Bethany had seen nothing of the way things would be with him and she was already so fragile, so damn unsure of herself and her place in the world, that Jace was extremely reluctant to move things too fast. If he scared her shitless and she ran, he’d never forgive himself.

  “Work this out with Ash,” Gabe said quietly. “You know it’ll eat at you both until you do. And before you bitch because I’m getting too personal, this affects the business too. We can’t afford fuck-ups because you and Ash are at fucking odds. And if you won’t think of me, the business and your own self and the fact that you’ll feel like a complete asshole for throwing away a nearly lifelong friendship, think what it will do to Mia. She loves you both. Think what it’ll do for Bethany if she ever finds out she drove a wedge between friends and business partners.”

  “Jesus, you’re a manipulative bastard,” Jace said in disgust.

  Gabe’s mouth quirked up at one corner. “Mia has said that about me a time or two.”

  Jace shook his head. Then he changed the subject because he was tired of having his personal life dissected by his best friend.

  “Decided on a wedding date yet?”

  “Fuck me,” Gabe muttered.

  Jace’s eyebrow went up and he laughed. Then he laughed harder. “Wish you could see yourself, man. You look like you swallowed a lemon. What the hell is my sister doing to you?”

  Gabe ran a hand through his hair. “Look. I just want to get married. I want my ring on her finger, her last name to be mine, her signature on a marriage certificate. Everything else is inconsequential. I’d do whatever she wanted, whether it was holding the mother of all weddings, the likes of which this city has never seen, or eloping to Vegas.”

  Jace winced. “Uh, if I get any kind of vote, can we not go with ‘the likes of which this city has never seen’? That sounds all kinds of fucked up.”

  “Tell me about it,” Gabe muttered.

  “So what’s the problem? Sounds like you’re being uncharacteristically accommodating.”

  Gabe ignored the ribbing. His expression was utterly serious when he responded. “I love her. I’d do whatever the hell it took for her to be mine. This wedding is for her. I’ve been there, done that, didn’t want to do it again at all until her. The problem is, she hasn’t decided what she wants. And until she does, the wedding is on hold. I don’t know the date because there is no fucking date. Part of me wants to lay down the law and tell her we’re getting married at New Year’s but the other part of me wants this to be special for her because it’s the only goddamn wedding she’s ever going to have.”

  Jace smiled. It was funny as hell to see his friend in knots over a woman. Especially since the woman in question was Jace’s baby sister. Some of the tension in his chest eased. This was his family. Gabe. Ash. Mia. Always had been. It had been the four of them for nearly twenty years. And family looked out for family. Hell, he got ten kinds of pissed every time Ash’s family gave him shit. He’d damn near taken Gabe’s head off for hurting Mia. And then he’d felt sorry for the bastard and hated to see him hurting when Mia refused to accept his groveling.

  “You’re family, man,” Jace whispered. “Never going to forget that.”

  Gabe blinked, but his jaw tightened. “Always. We’ll become brothers by marriage, but we were brothers long before that. Just thank God I never viewed Mia as a little sister—or at least that shit stopped when she hit adulthood.”

  Jace burst out laughing and held his hands up. “Okay, okay, can we not have this conversation? She is my sister and I do not want to hear how you see her. It’s disgusting enough having to watch you two together.”

  Gabe grinned and then he grew somber once more. “Go make this right, Jace. Ash is hurting. His family is giving him shit. You know it’s that time of the year. They don’t give a shit about him ten months out of the year and then they want to pretend at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And now this with you . . . I know we’re all three friends. I don’t ever question it. But I also know that you two are closer. Always have been. What
ever happened between you hit him hard. He hasn’t been himself. He’s all brooding and silent. Now you, I expect that from. Total brooding, moody bastard on a good day.”

  Jace flipped him the finger.

  “But Ash? That’s not like him. He’s irreverent as shit and has a fuck-it-all attitude. Fix this. I worry about both of you and if it’s all the same to you, right now I don’t want to worry about either of you. All I want to worry about is getting my ring on Mia’s finger and moving forward with the babies she wants.”

  Jace groaned. “Christ, man, really? You had to go there?”

  Gabe smirked. “Hey, I didn’t give you details.”

  “Thank fuck,” Jace muttered. Then he sighed. “And yeah. Ash. I’m on it.”

  He started for the door but when he got there he paused and turned around.

  “Thanks, man,” he said sincerely. “I know I’ve probably never said this. At first I was too pissed off to ever give you this. But I’m glad Mia has you. She’ll never find a better man. I know you’ll take care of her.”

  For a long moment Gabe was silent. His jaw ticked like he was trying to keep his reaction in check. Then he simply nodded. “Appreciate that, man. You’ll never know how much.”

  Jace smiled faintly. “Oh, I think I do.”

  Again he started to go and then Gabe’s call halted him as he got into the hall.

  “Jace?”

  “Yeah?”

  “When am I going to meet her?”

  Jace gripped Gabe’s doorknob and breathed deeply. Then he met Gabe’s gaze and said, “When it’s time, you will. Absolutely. Right now there’s a lot we have to work out.”

  Gabe nodded. “Good luck.”

  “Thanks, man,” Jace murmured.

  Then he turned and went in search of Ash.

  chapter sixteen

  Jace leaned against the doorway of Ash’s office and waited for his friend to get off the phone. Ash was turned away—he had no idea Jace was standing there or that he’d opened the closed office door. Which meant that the phone call was absorbing all of Ash’s concentration because he hadn’t so much as acknowledged Jace’s presence.

  “I don’t really give a fuck what you and Dad want,” Ash said acidly.

  Jace grimaced. Gabe was right. Ash’s family was fucking with him again. Persistent assholes. Jace had never known of a more shallow, self-absorbed lot than Ash’s family. Jace was mystified how Ash had come from a pit of vipers and not been shaped or influenced by them. God knew the rest of his siblings hadn’t fared as well.

  Gabe and Jace both used to tease Ash about being adopted. It was the only logical conclusion. Ash was so different than his parents and his siblings. Where they were calculating, selfish malcontents, Ash was laid back, had a good heart and was loyal to his bones. His family? Would stab you in the back before you ever got all the way turned around. Hell, they’d stab you in front. They didn’t give a shit. They’d leave their shoe prints all over you on their way past.

  “Your manipulation won’t work. There is no way in hell I’d spend Christmas with my beloved family. I’d rather have my fingernails plucked out with pliers,” Ash bit out.

  Jace sighed. Same old shit. Every fucking year. He was convinced they only wanted Ash around so they’d have someone new to torment. When Ash had been younger, he’d made the attempt to keep peace, to be a good son and brother. He’d attended the family gatherings—such as they were.

  The first two years, he’d gone alone. Gabe and Jace had immediately noticed a difference. Ash had brooded for weeks after and it had taken a long time for him to get back to himself. After the second year of that shit, Jace and Gabe put two and two together and the next year, they’d insisted on going with him. After that experience, they both had vowed never to allow Ash anywhere near his family without a solid support network.

  It may seem ridiculous, but Ash’s family was fucking poison.

  After a few years of either Jace or Gabe or both accompanying him and witnessing firsthand the dysfunction that was the McIntyre family, Ash had told his family to fuck off and he hadn’t gone back. Not for lack of trying on their part. Jace knew that Ash was deeply shamed by his friends seeing his family and instead of letting them continue to see his family in action, he’d simply pulled the plug. Which suited Jace just fine. Ash was a better person when he wasn’t around the cesspool. He was happier.

  “We’re done with this conversation. Don’t call back. I won’t take your call next time,” Ash warned.

  He hung up the office phone and then swiveled in his chair. He did a double take when he saw Jace standing in the doorway and then he frowned.

  “What are you doing here? Would have thought you had shit to do.”

  Jace sighed again and sauntered farther into the office. He slouched in one of the chairs along the wall and put his hands behind his back, leaning so he could pull Ash into his gaze.

  “Look, man, I was an asshole. You know it. I know it. I also know you just got finished talking to your bitch of a mother and now you’re in a shitty mood so
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