Fever, p.12
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       Fever, p.12
 

         Part #2 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  you’ll bite at me. I deserve it, so I’m okay with it. What I’m not okay with is this space between us.”

  Ash’s lips tightened. “You put it there, man.”

  “Yeah, I get that too. I’m trying to apologize here, Ash. Don’t be a hard ass. Let me do it.”

  Ash leaned back and drawled in a familiar tone that sent relief through Jace’s chest, “The mighty, arrogant, demanding bastard Jace Crestwell humbling himself to make an apology? Do go on. This I gotta see.”

  “Fuck you,” Jace muttered. But he was already grinning.

  Family.

  Just as he’d observed in Gabe’s office. Just as he knew—had always known. This was his family. And it was a family he wanted Bethany to have too.

  “Now that’s an unusual apology,” Ash said. “Fuck you . . . I’m sorry . . . They sound almost the same.”

  Jace laughed. “God, you are such a dickhead.”

  Just as quickly, he sobered and met Ash’s gaze.

  “I’m sorry, man. I was a dick. I overreacted. I know you were trying to help. Trying to look out for me. I appreciate it. More than you know. But I’m good. I promise. You may think I’m crazy. That I’ve lost all perspective. But I’ve got this. I’m solid.”

  “What do you have?” Ash asked curiously. “You have to see this from my perspective, man. We have a threesome with a woman. Not unusual. Woman disappears next morning. Not unusual. The only atypical part of this equation is that she walked away instead of us issuing her the walking papers. So when you go apeshit over the fact she left, I’m thinking, okay, he’s pissed because he wasn’t the one cutting her loose this time. And I get it. Maybe you weren’t done with her. You’re a control freak like me. You like to make the rules. She broke them when she walked out. What I did not expect was for you to turn the city upside down looking for her.”

  Jace sighed. Yeah, when Ash described it, things sounded bad.

  “If you could have seen yourself these last two weeks, Jace. You looked like shit. You were absentminded. The very last thing on your mind was work. Mia came in to see you twice and you blew her off both times.”

  Jace’s brows came together. “Bullshit. She didn’t come in to see me.”

  Ash sighed. “You don’t even remember her coming in? Or do you just not remember being a dick to her?”

  “Christ. She really came to see me?”

  Ash nodded. “You bit her fucking head off, which prompted Gabe to want to bash your skull in. I told him to back off, that you were having a bad day.”

  “Shit.”

  “So there you are, barely existing in those two weeks. Acting like some insane, obsessed person. So I do some checking. Then you find her and go off half-cocked. Then I don’t see you again until a few minutes ago and you act like nothing happened. All of this after you told me to stay out of it and that it didn’t concern me.”

  Jace blew out his breath and rubbed his hand over the top of his head. “Okay, you’ve made your point. I was a dick. That was out of line and we both know it.”

  Ash made a rude noise. “I don’t give a fuck that you were a dick. You think this is about my feelings being hurt? I’m worried about you, Jace. Worried about how wrapped up in this woman you are. I’m worried that she’s all wrong for you and you can’t see it because she’s got her fingers wrapped around your balls.”

  Jace breathed through the instant surge of anger that hit him. Ash was his friend. He was worried. Jace was going to be rational about this if it killed him.

  “She needs me,” Jace said, fully aware of how lame it sounded. But fuck, he couldn’t even explain it himself. How the hell was he supposed to explain it to Ash?

  Ash studied him a long moment and then his lips parted with a sigh. “This is going to piss you off, but it needs to be said. I could back off, let you do your thing, but we both know if the situations were reversed and this was me acting the way you’ve been acting that you’d be in my face and you wouldn’t back off. So hell if I’m going to do it. You’re my brother. More of a brother than my own. You and Gabe both. We busted his balls over Mia. He deserved it. Now I’m going to bust yours over Bethany. Because someone has to.”

  Jace’s fingers clenched and he was tempted to walk out. But Ash’s words seared through his anger, effectively taking the wind out of his sails. They were brothers. In every sense of the word. And yeah, he wasn’t so pissed off that he didn’t realize he’d absolutely be busting Ash’s balls if his friend had pulled a stunt like this.

  “Just say it then,” Jace said in resignation.

  “You took care of Mia for a lot of years,” Ash said in a quiet tone. “Always looked out for her. Hell, you were father and brother to her. She needed you. Now suddenly she doesn’t. Not in the way she did before. She’s no longer your responsibility. She has Gabe and her focus is going to be primarily on him.”

  “What are you getting at?”

  Ash blew out a long breath. “Don’t you find it ironic that within days of Mia becoming engaged to Gabe that your head is turned by a woman in need? And I don’t dispute she needs help, Jace. I’m not an asshole. Her situation is ten kinds of fucked up. But the fact is, you’re a provider. A caretaker. And Bethany is your Kryptonite. She’s down on her luck. She’s pretty. And you like the idea that she needs you. Have you considered that maybe you need a break from being a sole provider and that maybe you should live a little without becoming weighted down by another person in need?”

  “What the fuck is all of that?” Jace demanded. “Are you even listening to yourself? Mia wasn’t some kind of goddamn weight. She’s my sister. I’m her only family. I have never once resented having to take care of her.”

  Ash held up his hand. “You know damn well that’s not what I’m saying. Pull your head out of your ass. Mia belongs to all of us. I never suggested for one minute that she was some kind of unpleasant burden. I was there while she grew up. I have almost as much invested in her happiness as you do, okay? That’s not my point. Mia was never my point. My point is that you’re at loose ends now that Mia has Gabe and she no longer needs you in the same way she did before. And you latched on to Bethany, who is like Mia only ten times more in need. You saw a woman in need and that appealed to the provider in you. Not saying it isn’t noble. Not saying you’re a dick for wanting to help her. What I am suggesting is that you’re in too deep and that you need to take a step back and gain some perspective. You can help her without becoming so fucking emotionally invested. What do you really know about her? You’re acting like you’re goddamn soul mates and you know fuck all about her.”

  “I’m going to ask you to shut up now before you really piss me off,” Jace bit out.

  “So I’m wrong?”

  Hell yes he was wrong. Wasn’t he?

  Shit.

  All that psychological crap Ash spouted spun around in Jace’s mind. And it was crap.

  When all else failed, honesty was always the best way to go. It wasn’t as if he and Ash weren’t always straight with one another. The idea of trying to dissect whatever this was—this obsession with Bethany, as Ash had labeled it—made him twitchy.

  Jace dragged a hand through his hair and was tempted to pull it out in frustration. “Look, Ash. I won’t bullshit you by saying I have all the answers, okay? But if you’re trying to say that I have some kind of savior complex when it comes to Bethany, you’re wrong. I was interested in her from the moment I saw her at Mia’s party and I damn sure didn’t know all the crap about her that I know now. I didn’t know she was homeless or that her situation was so crappy. I just knew I wanted her. And that didn’t change when I found out all this other stuff. All it did was make me more determined that I was going to be a part of her life.”

  Ash’s expression grew pensive but he remained silent as Jace struggled with how to explain his reaction to Bethany.

  “How fucking shallow would it be of me to back away from her once I found out that her situation isn’t the best in the world? Like she
s suddenly not good enough for me? That shouldn’t matter, right? If I was interested in getting close to her before then, that shouldn’t change just because she doesn’t measure up to my financial status or because she doesn’t have a place to sleep.”

  “Christ,” Ash muttered. “Now I feel about three inches tall.”

  Jace stifled the smile that twitched the corner of his mouth. It would be okay. Ash was nothing if not a huge softie. Especially when it came to women. Ash may not have acted like it, but Jace knew that at the core of this all was Ash’s deep concern for him. He got that. He appreciated it. But Ash had to understand that this wasn’t some fucking charity case.

  “I’m guessing I won’t be invited to another threesome,” Ash said dryly.

  Jace scowled and Ash held up his hands.

  “I get it. She’s yours.”

  “This isn’t a joke,” Jace said darkly. “I’d like to forget that threesome ever happened. And when you see Bethany—and you will see her—I really don’t want this to be a topic of conversation. It’s going to be awkward as hell. I don’t want her to be embarrassed. I don’t want to give her any reason at all to back away. I’m already having one hell of a time making her see things my way. And I really want to forget the fact that you’ve seen her naked. That you’ve had your dick in places that, from now on, are mine and mine alone.”

  Ash shook his head, his expression priceless. “Holy fuck, man. You’re serious. I mean, really serious. I never thought in a million years that you’d fall so fucking hard for a woman in so short a time. How long did it take? Five minutes? Hell, I should have seen it that night, but how could I have? You’ve never acted that way over a woman. You were growly and possessive from the start but I ignored it.”

  Ash leaned forward, his arms planted on the desk. “I know I asked this but now I really have to ask. If you felt this way about her, then why the hell didn’t you just tell me? That night should have never happened. For God’s sake, why did you let me fuck her?”

  Jace closed his eyes briefly and when he reopened them Ash was staring a hole through him. There was genuine confusion in his friend’s eyes. And regret. As though he feared that night was forever going to be a bone of contention between them. Jace didn’t want it to be. Maybe he was being naïve. It was fact that Bethany and Ash would cross paths again. If she was going to be a part of Jace’s life—and she absolutely was—then she and Ash would see each other a lot. He wasn’t about to turn his back on a friendship that was as deep as any blood tie. But what if it made things forever awkward?

  Ash could deal. Of that Jace was positive. But the unknown in the equation was Bethany. How would she react to Ash? Did she have feelings for him? Did she still desire him? It was obvious she had been turned on by both men when they’d had sex with her. Would Jace have to always worry that Bethany would be looking in Ash’s direction or that she’d even pursue him?

  It was enough to drive him crazy and it was stupid to dwell so hard on that. He wasn’t being fair to Bethany. It was obvious she was freaked out by that night and the fact she’d had a threesome with him and Ash. He couldn’t assume the worst about her and be suspicious before he ever gave her a chance. Their relationship would be doomed by jealousy and mistrust before it ever had a chance to get off the ground.

  “Jace?” Ash asked in a quiet voice. “Why’d you let it happen, man? I don’t get it. You have to know I would have understood. I would have been surprised as hell, but I would have absolutely backed off. I’d never let a woman come between us.”

  But Jace had. Hell, he’d put Bethany between them because he’d been desperate and he’d seen her waver. He’d been so afraid of having her walk away that he’d hastily agreed to something he was vehemently against.

  It hadn’t been fair to Bethany and it sure as hell hadn’t been fair to Ash.

  “I fucked up,” Jace said in just as quiet a voice. “It was completely my fault. I thought at the time it was what I had to do. Before I could step in and put an end to it, she agreed. And once she agreed, I didn’t feel like I could say never mind, we’re not having a threesome, but oh by the way, I still want to take you home and fuck you. And then she seemed to have second thoughts and I panicked because I didn’t want her to walk away. It was all so goddamn fucked up and it got out of control before I could fix it. And I regret every single minute.”

  Something flickered in Ash’s eyes and he went silent. He settled back in his chair and looked away.

  “Is this going to change things?” Ash finally said. “Between you and me? You sound like Bethany’s going to be around a long time. What does that mean for us because of that night?”

  Unease crawled over Jace’s skin. If only he could go back to that night, he’d never say a goddamn thing to Ash. He’d have never brought Bethany to his attention. And he damn sure would have never fucked her with Ash.

  And now Ash was voicing the same concerns that Jace had himself. This was huge. He could not let his relationship with Bethany ruin his relationships with the people who meant the most to him. But neither could he let her go. He had to make this work, which meant handling the entire situation as delicately as possible.

  “All it changes is that you’re not sleeping with her again,” Jace said with more confidence than he felt. He hoped to hell he wasn’t deluding himself. “I’m sure the first couple of times that we’re all together will be awkward. But it’ll only stay awkward if we make it that way. You’re both in my life, man. I’m not choosing between you. I hope to fuck I never have to. All we can do is make sure it doesn’t become an issue. But I need your help. Your . . . support.”

  Relief simmered in Ash’s eyes. “You going to name your first kid after me?”

  “Jesus. Now who’s moving fast? Pump the brakes, Ash. I’m not marrying her.”

  “Yet,” Ash muttered.

  “There’s a hell of a lot we have to work out,” Jace said in a grim voice.

  “Anything I can help with? You asked for my support, but man, you gotta know you have that. You’ve always had it. That’s not going to change.”

  Jace hesitated for only a moment, relief buzzing through his blood like potent alcohol. Then he related the entire chain of events involving Bethany from start to end. When he finished, Ash’s face was contorted into a fierce scowl.

  “Motherfuckers,” he swore. “They beat up a helpless woman because her asshole brother borrowed money he had no way of paying back? And the little bastard hung her out to dry? Jesus, my family may be batshit crazy but they’ve never sicced a bunch of street thugs on me.”

  Jace snorted. “Not yet, anyway.”

  A glimmer of amusement lighted Ash’s eyes. “True. Give them time.”

  There was a lengthy pause. Silent understanding.

  “I don’t like you getting involved. I know some people. I can get them on it. Make sure the assholes get their money and a message not to fuck with Bethany again,” Ash said. “That is, if that’s the way you want it to go down. I assume you want that debt paid.”

  “You know people?” Jace said incredulously. “What the hell, man? What kind of people do you know who would handle a situation like this? And yeah, whatever it takes. I want the debt to go away. Not because I give a fuck about her asshole brother but because I want Bethany safe and I want her removed from any possible situation that threatens her.”

  Ash shrugged. “Never know when you might need these kinds of people. They owe me a favor anyway. I gave them good stock tips. And I comped their stay in one of our hotels.”

  “I’m not even going to ask . . .”

  “Better that way,” Ash said cheerfully. “Not people you’d invite to Thanksgiving dinner anyway.”

  “I’m getting that,” Jace muttered.

  Ash’s expression became more serious. “How much money are we talking here?”

  “Five thousand.”

  “That’s all?”

  Jace sighed. “It’s a fortune to Bethany. As she said, it may as well b
e a million. She was going to fucking peddle to raise the cash.”

  It still scared the hell out of him to think what could have happened if Kate hadn’t called him the day Bethany wandered into the shelter. Or what would have happened if Bethany hadn’t gone back. That she could even now be on the streets and vulnerable to God knew what . . .

  “Fuck,” Ash bit out. “Jesus Christ. Peddling?”

  “Yeah, that pretty much sums up my reaction.”

  “She needs a fucking leash,” Ash muttered.

  “Figuratively, she’s going to have one,” Jace said calmly. “She’s not going anywhere without the men I hired to protect her and when she’s not with them, she’ll be with me. Hopefully once you arrange for her debt to be paid that threat goes away. But I still have to address the issue of Jack.”

  “Well, and it doesn’t appear that she’s sold on the idea of you two as a couple yet,” Ash said dryly.

  “She will be.”

  Ash lifted an eyebrow. “You sound confident.”

  “I won’t entertain the alternative.”

  “And that is?”

  “Her not being a part of my life.”

  There was a pregnant pause and Ash shifted uncomfortably. “Look man, I’m way overstepping my boundaries here.”

  “As if that’s stopped you before,” Jace said dryly.

  Ash chuckled. “True. Not a fan of boundaries, particularly where my family is concerned.”

  Again that word. Family. And yeah, Ash, Gabe and Mia were his family. He’d said that Mia was the only family he had and that wasn’t true. Gabe and Ash . . . They’d been there. Always been there. Stepping in when his parents had died. Steady, unwavering loyalty the likes of which Jace had never imagined.

  Maybe he’d taken it for granted over the years. It had been a huge mistake. Other people didn’t have this. Unconditional support. He was lucky.

  “How is this going to work?” Ash asked. “You and Bethany. I know you, man. You and I, we’re alike. Hell, so is Gabe. Cut from the same cloth. We like control. Dominance. Not the pretend kind. We can play it light, but that’s all it is. Playing. At the end of the day, you and I both know that any serious relationship is going to be about ultimate control.”

  Jace nodded. He didn’t even attempt to deny it.

  “So how is this going to play out with Bethany? Is she ready for that from you? Is she prepared? Does she even have a fucking clue how it’s going to be? Because with another woman, she gets freaked out, she doesn’t go far. Back to her apartment. You know where to pick up. You call her or go see her. Work it out. That isn’t the case with Bethany. She freaks, she runs, you may never see her again.”

  “Fuck, don’t you think I know that?”

  It came out more explosively than he intended but it was a testament to the uncertainty he felt when it came to this woman. How fucking helpless he was and how Ash had managed to voice his biggest fear.

  If he didn’t play this just right. If he came on too hard. If he did anything to scare Bethany, she could bolt. Back into the night. Back onto the streets, where those assholes—and a million others—waited. Where he couldn’t protect her. Couldn’t take care of her. Where he’d be absolutely fucking helpless to save her from the dangers of being alone and vulnerable.

  “So what are you going to do?” Ash asked quietly. “How you going to play this?”

  “I don’t know,” Jace said in resignation. “Fuck if I know. I know what I want. I just have to hope like hell that I play it right. And I have to hope it’s what she wants and can accept from me.”

  chapter seventeen

  Bethany submerged in the huge sunken tub and blew gently at the suds foaming close to her mouth. She felt positively decadent. Like someone from a movie. She’d piled her hair on top of her head in a messy arrangement that she thought looked rather sexy. Pinned-up tendrils floating down. Suds climbing from the water and candles lit around the perimeter. It was perfectly cliché, but she didn’t care. It gave her a whimsical delight and she’d learned a long time ago to enjoy simple pleasures, however they came.

  The hot water surrounded her, comforting and making her loose and limber. Jace’s sister obviously had a love for candles. Girly candles that smelled wonderful. And they were pretty. Fancy candles that were likely expensive. Not the cheap kind you got at a dollar store.

  And the bubble bath. She’d been positively gleeful when she’d found it in one of the bathroom drawers. It too was expensive. A name brand she recognized. At first she’d hesitated to use it, but the temptation had been too great and she’d delightedly dumped it into her bath as it was drawing.

  She cupped a handful of the suds and then blew them across the water, laughing as they scattered and drifted like leaves in autumn.

  “You’re so fucking beautiful, you make my chest hurt.”

  She gasped and automatically sunk lower in the water, her gaze jerking to the doorway where Jace leaned, his eyes on her. His hands were shoved in his pockets and his lazy gaze drifted up and down the bathtub.

  “When did you get here?” she squeaked. “I didn’t expect you for another hour, at least.”

  He grinned and pushed off the doorframe to saunter across the bathroom until he stood next to the tub, looking down at her.

  “Are you saying you wouldn’t have been in the tub soaking if you’d known I was going to be here this soon?”

  “N-no,” she stammered.

  “Pity,” he murmured. “I could get used to finding you this way.”

  He sat on the edge of the tub and reached out to touch her cheek, rubbing his fingers over the curve and then down to her jaw.

 
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