Burn, p.13
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       Burn, p.13

         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks
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  first night together. I mean not exactly, but it’s the first day of you going to work and coming home. I’d like to spend it alone with you.”

  He smiled, because he understood what she was saying. He had no desire to share her with the world yet. It suited him just fine to stay behind the doors of his apartment, prolonging the inevitable, when they both would go out together.

  He wanted to introduce her to Jace and Bethany. Gabe and Mia. He wanted to share her with his friends. Hoped they’d become her friends as well. But for now, he was content to let it remain only the two of them for as long as they could hold off the outside world.

  He leaned in to kiss her, brushing his lips long and sweet over hers. “That sounds perfect to me. I’ll order the food and you can show me what you worked on today.”

  chapter seventeen

  Ash fingered the choker he’d had designed for Josie as he waited for Jace to make his appearance in Ash’s office. He’d known exactly what he wanted for Josie, but finding someone who could custom design it in a matter of days had been challenging. But he found, as with everything else, if you had enough money, nothing was impossible.

  He’d chosen bronze because he loved the contrast of the golden metal against Josie’s fair skin and it matched well with the golden streaks in her hair. But the stones, he’d been adamant that they match her eyes. Aquamarines, rarely found on the market, were embedded in the metal, creating a dazzling jeweled choker that would look stunning against her skin and provide a perfect accompaniment to her gorgeous eyes.

  He could have chosen blue topaz, but they weren’t as rare or as expensive, and he wanted only the best for Josie. Smaller diamonds crusted the edge, providing a glittering border around the choker, and in between the aquamarines were smaller emeralds, just to provide a richer array of color.

  He’d wanted vibrant. Something that reflected her personality. Not just some dull, colorless piece of jewelry chosen without thought or care for the person receiving it.

  The result, he had to admit, was stunning. He knew, without her seeing it first, that she would love it.

  And the timing was perfect. Because he hadn’t felt as though he could take this step with Josie until after the situation with Michael had been addressed. Tonight he would be taken care of and then Ash’s focus would be solely on Josie. Michael would no longer be a threat.

  The entire week Ash had been adamant that Josie remain in his apartment. He hadn’t wanted her going out, and the one time she had—a trip to the gallery to bring Mr. Downing more artwork and also to pick up her check for the last pieces—he’d sent his driver with her, and his driver had accompanied her inside. Ash hadn’t wanted to take any chances that Michael would by lying in wait for her or that he’d make a public scene, which Ash knew would appall Josie and embarrass her.

  He hadn’t explained to Josie why he’d been so forceful in his expectations, or why he’d told her that the next week she would be granted more freedom to do as she liked. He could hardly tell her that he had to first take care of the asshole who’d put his hands on her. None of what he had planned would touch Josie. He’d make damn sure of that. And neither would Michael ever touch her again.

  A sound at the door had him looking up to see Jace coming through. His friend’s expression was grim and worried, but then Ash had already told him why he needed to see him.

  “I’ve got everything set for tonight,” Jace said quietly.

  “Bethany’s out, right?” Ash asked. He’d been explicit. While Jace would be involved, at least in the capacity of providing an alibi for Ash, he hadn’t wanted Bethany to have any part in lying for him. Just as none of this would ever touch Josie, neither did he want it to touch Bethany. She’d had enough hardship in her life and Ash wasn’t about to pile on more.

  Jace nodded. “I told her, just as you’ve told Josie, that we have an important meeting here at the office. I’ve set up the conference call with investors. You’ll be here at the start so they all get a good look at you. You’ll get up a few minutes in and excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. Mute the call for a period. But then it gets a little tricky, because you’ll have to continue to conduct the conference call while you’re on your way. If I angle the monitor just right, I can make me the primary focus and have your guy come in and sit in the background. Your coat, him there, but you on the actual call. Make sure they hear you periodically. I’ve arranged for the building’s security monitors to ‘go down’ right before the time you leave, so no cameras will catch you departing. I have an extra security badge you can use to buzz out, so according to the logs you’ll still be here with me and if necessary I’ll use your badge to leave when I go. I can only make the call go on for so long, so once you go silent to handle your situation, you need to make it quick and then pipe back in so it appears you were there for the entire call. It would be best if you come straight back here so we can both leave together once the cameras all go back online.”

  Ash nodded. “Thanks, man. Means a lot. And just so you know, if shit goes down, you’re clean. I won’t let this fall back on you.”

  “Just make sure shit doesn’t go down,” Jace said in a dry tone. “I still think you should have someone else handle this. You’re risking a fuck of a lot by doing this yourself.”

  Ash’s lips tightened. “I want my point made, and the best way to do that is to deliver the message myself. I want this fucker scared shitless. I want him to know that I have him by the balls, and after I beat the shit out of him, I want him to know that I can easily ruin him if he ever steps out of line again.”

  Jace’s smile was rueful. “Have to admit, you have a point. Also have to admit that if some fucker messed with Bethany, I’d beat the hell out of him myself and not rely on others to do the dirty work for me.”

  “You understand me, then.”

  Jace nodded. “Yeah, I get you. Don’t have to like it, but I get you. I’m worried, Ash. Don’t want this shit falling back on you. Not when you’ve found . . .”

  He broke off and Ash pinned him with a look. “When I’ve found what?”

  Jace’s smile was crooked as he stared back at his friend. “Your kryptonite.”

  Ash didn’t flinch. Was that what Josie was? Yeah, he could see it. He’d given Gabe and Jace no end of grief over falling head over ass for a woman and going against their play hard and live free motto. But now that he was in a very similar situation, he didn’t object one bit.

  A sense of peace settled over him.

  “You’ve been a lot more calm. Settled lately,” Jace said. “I like it on you, man. After Bethany . . .” He broke off again with a sigh, almost as though he hated bringing it up after they’d sworn not to go back there. “After Bethany, I was worried. About you and me. Hated what happened even though I don’t regret it. I hope to fuck that makes sense. I didn’t like what it did to us and I didn’t like how shitty I was to you and Bethany after that night. But I also don’t regret the decision I made not to share her with you.”

  “I don’t regret it either,” Ash said with a smile. “I’m good with it, Jace. You need to stop dwelling on it. We’re good. You got over being a dick. Bethany makes you happy. Now I’ve got Josie, and she makes me happy.”

  “Glad for you, man.”

  “Yeah, I know you are.”

  “No word from your family? How are things with Brittany?”

  Ash sighed. “Nothing this week, and that makes me nervous, because it’s not like them to just give up and sit back. Brittany’s happy in her job. She hasn’t done much more than work and go home, but she’ll get there. I want her to meet Mia and Josie and hook up with Mia’s girls. They’d be good for her. Josie is more Brittany’s age, so maybe the two of them will hit it off.”

  “You sound positively domesticated with all the girlfriend-arranging you’re trying to do,” Jace teased.

  “Fuck you, man.”

  Jace’s expression grew serious. “So nothing from the Wicked Bitch of the East? She laying low? An
d what about the old man? Can’t believe he wouldn’t have anything to say about Brittany’s defection. Not when he’s so high on family bonds, no matter how fake they may be.”

  Ash sighed. “Yeah. Nothing this week. But I don’t expect that to last.”

  “Well, when the shit hits the fan, I expect you to let me know. No way I’m letting you into that viper’s nest without backup.”

  Ash chuckled. “You make it sound like a sting operation.”

  “Hell, an evening with your family qualifies.”

  Ash checked his watch. “Want to grab a bite to eat before our conference call? I want to call and check in with Josie. Make sure everything’s all right with her and remind her that I’ll be late.”

  “Yeah. Want to hit the Grill again?”

  Ash nodded. “Thanks again, Jace. Know I don’t say it enough, but you and Gabe always having my back . . . Don’t have words.”

  Jace grinned. “After tonight, how about you let your lady off the leash and let her mingle with the rest of us?”

  Ash laughed. “Yeah, I know, I’ve kept her to myself this week. It’s been nice. But yeah, I want her to meet you and Bethany. Gabe and Mia will be back by Sunday. Would be nice to get together with them too.”

  “A year ago would you have ever thought that the three of us would be so tangled up with women? Gabe married, me engaged and you head over ass for a woman you only just met?”

  Ash shot him a glare. “You’re one to talk about being head over ass for a woman after only just meeting.”

  Jace’s grin was unrepentant. “Only takes one time, man. When it’s the right woman, you just know. I would have never thought it would go down like that, but then when I saw Bethany, I just knew.”

  “Yeah, I hear you. I wasn’t much of a believer myself, but then I met Josie and something just clicked. Can’t even explain it.”

  “Don’t need to. I get it,” Jace said as they walked out of Ash’s office. He stopped outside the door and turned to Ash, his eyes serious. “Just remember this, man, and it’s applicable and so true on so many levels. Take it from me, because I did my best to fuck it up. Falling in love is the easy part. It’s everything else that happens afterward that’s hard and takes work.”

  “Christ. You’ve turned into a pyschobabbling pussy,” Ash said in disgust.

  Jace flipped him off. “Fine, don’t listen to some friendly advice, but don’t come crying to me when you fuck things up.”

  “Yeah, whatever,” Ash grumbled.

  “Want to walk or take the car?”

  “Walk,” Ash said. “I’ll call Josie on the way.”

  • • •

  Ash stared stonily down into the bloody face of Michael Cooper while the other men who’d accompanied Ash stood to the side, their gazes alert, watching for any sign of discovery.

  Ash flexed his fingers, working the stiffness from his knuckles, the gloves he’d worn torn across one hand and smeared with the other man’s blood.

  “You forget Josie Carlysle exists. Understand? If I hear of you coming within a mile of her, you’ll regret it.”

  Michael nodded his head, spitting blood from the side of his mouth. “I understand. Jesus. She’s not worth it.”

  “Wrong, asshole. She’s worth it. More than you could ever imagine. She’s mine now and I protect what’s mine. Furthermore, if you even think of going to the police like she should have done when you laid hands on her, I will make your life hell. I’ll be watching you, Cooper. Don’t ever forget it. If you try to start trouble over this, I’ll ruin you. You’ll have nothing left. And if you don’t think I have the money, power and connections to make it happen, just try me. When I’m finished with you, you’ll be living in a cardboard box begging for money so you can eat.”

  Michael nodded again, fear and panic blazing in his eyes. He was a pathetic, ball-less worm.

  Ash let go of Michael’s shirt and shoved him to the ground where he lay panting for breath, quiet moans of pain slipping from his battered mouth.

  “This is what you did to her, you son of a bitch,” Ash said, fury lacing his every word. “You hit her and then held her down on the floor while you hit her again. Count yourself lucky that this is all I’m doing to you. Forget my warning, and I’ll come down on you so hard that you’ll feel me when you’re taking a piss. For that matter, I’m watching you, Cooper. If I ever hear of you hurting any woman again, you’ll go down.”

  “Need to go,” one of the men said in a low voice. “Few minutes was all you said. It’s dangerous to be out here any longer.”

  Ash nodded. “I’m done with this asshole.”

  Ash and the others turned, leaving Michael along the side of the building where they’d ambushed him. It was a path he took every evening and, luckily for Ash, it was well out of sight of the main streets. Still, he was taking a huge risk. If the wrong person happened upon them, all hell would break lose. He couldn’t afford to be seen, couldn’t afford any witnesses that would counteract his alibi if Michael pulled a really dumb move and went to the police.

  He pulled up the collar of his long coat, one that would be discarded and never used again, one he’d purchased specifically for tonight. Satisfied his face was shielded by the cap he’d pulled low over his hair and the lapels that covered his cheeks, he hurried off, leaving Michael lying on the ground, the victim of an apparent mugging. He’d been more than willing to let the other men take what they wanted.

  Ash slipped the man on his right a wad of cash and muttered his thanks.

  “No problem, McIntyre,” C.J. murmured. “If you need us, you know where to find us.”

  Ash nodded and strode in the opposite direction from them when they reached the street. He was only a few blocks from the office building and he had to hurry to make it back before the cameras came back online. He grabbed his phone, the call still open, and brought it to his ear. He still had the mute button punched and left it so the sounds from the streets couldn’t be heard.

  He listened in as Jace effectively held the conversation, giving no opportunity for Ash to have interjected anything. When he reached the door of the office building, he hurried in, making sure his face was obscured. He ducked into a bathroom on the first floor and stuffed the coat into the gym bag he carried and ripped off the cap. After checking his appearance and ensuring there was no blood on him anywhere, he punched the mute button on his phone and headed toward the elevator.

  A few minutes later, he stood in the doorway of Jace’s office and motioned for the other hired man to step away. They traded jackets, the other man quickly disappeared and Jace joined the wrap-up, thanking the investors for their time and fielding a few last minute questions. Jace looked inquiringly at him, his gaze sweeping up and down Ash as if to gauge whether there was any indication of what he’d done.

  Ash just nodded in his direction as they ended the call.

  There was silence a long moment before Jace finally broke it.

  “Any problems?”

  Ash shook his head. “No. Fucker is taken care of. He’ll wear the bruises longer than Josie did. And he’ll think twice before raising a hand to another woman again.”

  “Glad it’s done with. This shit stresses me out, man. Would love to know when the fuck you fell in with the kind of guys you pulled in for this job. Hell, for that matter, how you knew the men you had take care of Bethany’s problem with the man Jack owed money to.”

  Ash shrugged. “Does it matter? They aren’t people I’ll ever invite to dinner or people you, Gabe and especially our women ever have to meet.”

  Jace sighed. “Just makes me wonder what kind of shit you’ve been into that I didn’t know about.”

  “Nothing illegal,” Ash drawled.

  “Until now,” Jace said quietly.

  “Until now,” Ash agreed. “But it had to be done. Not going to allow anyone to fuck over my woman. Won’t hesitate to do it again if there’s ever the need.”

  Jace rose, blowing out his breath in a deep exhale.
I’m ready to get home to my woman, and I’m sure you’re ready to get home to yours.” His gaze drifted over Ash again, concern bright in his eyes. “You okay, man?”

  “Yeah, I’m good. Fucker didn’t touch me. My hand’s sore, but nothing serious.”

  Jace shook his head. “Let’s get out of here and make damn sure we’re seen leaving together.

  chapter eighteen

  It was the first night all week that Ash had been late coming home from work, and it sucked. Despite them only being together a week, Josie had grown used to Ash coming home to her before dark. They’d fallen into a comfortable routine. She worked during the day. He worked during the day. But then he came home and she was waiting for him. Every day. On the couch, naked. And when he walked through that door, the air immediately changed.

  She’d asked for kink, and Ash had certainly delivered. Her ass was still sore from last night’s interlude. The first spanking on Monday night hadn’t been overwhelming. It had been perfect. Then he’d laid off the rest of the week, opting for other explorations that didn’t involve him taking a crop to her ass.

  But then last night?

  She rubbed a hand over her bottom, enjoying the tingling sensation from the still-raised welts. He’d used a crop, and he hadn’t been as gentle as he had that first night. But then she’d begged him for more. More edge. More of that fine line between pain and pleasure.

  What did he have in mind for tonight? Or would he be too tired after a long day at work and a late meeting?

  Her phone rang, and she pounced, her eyes lighting up when she saw it was Ash calling.

  “Hey,” she said softly.

  “Hey baby. I’m on my way. Be ready for me. Been a long day. Just want to get home to you.”

  A thrill shot through her chest. It made her ridiculously giddy that this man looked forward to coming home to her so much. Ash was a man who could have any woman he wanted. And he wanted her. There wasn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t enjoy a stroke to the ego like that.

  “You got it,” she said. “I’ll be waiting, Ash.”

  She already had in mind the way she wanted to greet him tonight. Granted, they did things his way. His control. His authority. He called the shots. But he hadn’t asked her to suck his cock since that first night either, and she knew he enjoyed it. A lot.

  Tonight, she wanted to do that for him. Take control just long enough to give him pleasure after a long, exhausting day. Somehow she didn’t think he’d mind giving her that tiny bit of control.

  She shrugged out of her clothes, brushed her hair and then checked her appearance, just as she did every day when she expected him. Then she went into the living room to wait for him on the couch.

  She didn’t seem to have as long to wait this time, which either meant he’d waited longer to call her or perhaps she’d relaxed enough in their routine that each minute didn’t feel as though an hour was passing.

  As soon as she heard the elevator open, she swung her legs over the couch and slipped to her knees on the thick, fur rug in front of the sofa.

  When hers and Ash’s gazes connected, she felt a jolt at the intensity in those brilliant green eyes. They were hard, but appreciative. Dark, so dark it made her shivery. If his expression was anything to go by, this hadn’t been the best day in the world, but he seemed very satisfied to find her waiting on her knees, even if he’d told her he didn’t expect her to kneel.

  He stalked toward her, discarding his briefcase with a thump on the floor. He also pulled off his suit jacket and tossed it toward the armchair and immediately began unbuttoning his sleeves.

  When he stopped in front of her, she put her hands up, sliding them to his fly, and his eyes flared in surprise.

  “What are you up to?” he asked softly.

  She smiled. “I’m welcoming you home. Just stand there and enjoy it.”

  “Oh hell,” he breathed out.

  She unzipped his pants and impatiently shoved them down over his hips and then dove into his boxers, gently pulling his rigid erection free of confinement. She licked her lips, anticipating that first taste of him. The feel of so much hard flesh over her tongue.

  “Jesus, Josie. You licking your lips like that is about to drive me crazy.”

  She smiled again just as she guided the broad head of his penis to her mouth. “That’s the idea.”

  He sucked in his breath, a sharp inhalation that was audible in the quiet. She licked the head and then tucked it inside her mouth, sucking gently as she pulled him deeper inside.

  “I’ve missed you today,” she whispered as she let his cock slide free momentarily. “Been waiting all evening for you to come home. Wanted to make it special. Something you won’t forget.”

  “Guaranteed I’m not forgetting this, darling. Never. Love coming home to you. This week has been the best week of my life.”

  Again that giddy thrill attacked her, spreading warmth through her entire
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