Fever, p.14
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       Fever, p.14
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         Part #2 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  you have gone solo in a long time.”

  Jace cringed. Well hell. The very last thing he wanted his baby sister to know about was his and Ash’s propensity for threesomes.

  “So this woman. I take it Ash isn’t involved?”

  Jace sighed. “He’s not now.”

  Mia’s lips formed an O. “So he was then. Awkward!”

  “Well, it could be. At least at first. Look, Mia, she’s different.”

  Mia nodded knowingly, a wide smile curving her lips. “Oh my. My big brother has finally fallen. This is worth the price of admission.”

  Jace shook his head. “Just listen, please?”

  As if sensing the importance, she dropped the teasing air and her expression became more serious.

  “What’s going on, Jace? Is everything okay?”

  Jace ran a hand through his hair and leaned back in his chair. “As I said, she’s different, Mia. Way different than you and me. Gabe or Ash. Bethany is—was—homeless.”

  Sympathy immediately darkened Mia’s eyes. If nothing else, his younger sister had a heart as big as the world.

  “How did you meet her then?” Mia asked.

  “She was working your engagement party. Of course, I didn’t know all of that then. To make a long story short, Ash and I hooked up with her even though I knew I wanted her to myself from the very start.”

  “That’s pretty screwed up,” Mia muttered.

  “Tell me about it. Anyway, she bailed the next morning and I spent two weeks turning the city upside down looking for her. The shelter called me when she came in looking for a place to sleep, and she’d been roughed up by assholes her brother owes money to.”

  Mia’s expression was stricken. “Oh no! Jace, is she okay?”

  He nodded. “Just scraped up. That was a week ago. She’s fine now.”

  Her brow furrowed. “Why haven’t I met her? Why hasn’t anyone met her?”

  “I plan for you to,” he said quietly. “I want her to spend Christmas with us. I don’t want her to be alone and I damn sure don’t want to tell her that I’m going to spend Christmas with my family and have her feel like she’s nothing to me by not inviting her too.”

  “Of course not. Of course we’d love to have her,” Mia said in a rush. “I’m looking forward to it. Is she staying with you? Surely you didn’t let her go back to the streets.”

  Jace scowled. “Hell no. I’ve put her up—temporarily—in your old apartment.”

  Her eyebrow rose. “Temporarily?”

  “Very temporarily,” Jace muttered. “Just until I move her in with me.”

  Mia’s mouth formed the same O of surprise it had earlier. “You’re serious about her.”

  “Do you think I’d be bringing her to Christmas if I wasn’t? When have I ever risked what you and me and Gabe and Ash have by bringing in an outsider? You’re my family, Mia. All of you. No way I’d let just anyone enter that inner circle.”

  “Then I really can’t wait to meet her,” Mia said softly. Then her expression grew thoughtful. “Does she have any friends? It doesn’t sound like she has anyone at all. How old is she?”

  Jace shook his head. “She’s your age. She’s had a hard life. Never had a chance, really. But she’s smart. She’s sweet. She lights up the entire room. I can’t explain it, Mia.”

  Mia’s smile broadened. “Oh, Jace, I’m so happy for you! And it definitely sounds as though she could benefit from some girl time. Is it all right if I swing by the apartment sometime? She could go out with me and my girls.”

  Jace hesitated, hating what he had to say next. But Ash knew and it was likely by default Gabe knew. Mia would have to know so she didn’t do anything to put her foot in her mouth later.

  “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” he said slowly. “Bethany has had some . . . issues . . . in the past with addiction. May not be a good idea to throw alcohol at her and I know you and your girls tie one on when you go out.”

  “She can drink water with me,” Mia said firmly. “Not like I have a good tolerance for alcohol anyway. The important thing is that she get out with girls her own age and make friends. Unless you have a problem with it?”

  Jace found himself shaking his head. “No. No problem. I appreciate this, Mia. You’re an angel. I’m sure Bethany will appreciate it. But a warning. She’s quiet and she’s definitely shy. It would be easy to overwhelm her and I know your friends can be a little pushy.”

  Mia shot him a glare. “They’re the best kind of friends and they won’t be mean to Bethany. I wouldn’t let them, even if they were the type to do it.”

  Jace smiled at her ferocious defense. And she didn’t even know Bethany yet.

  “I have every faith you’ll take good care of her. But, Mia, there’s something else you need to know and Gabe will be made aware too.”

  She groaned. “You have to get Gabe involved?”

  “When it comes to your safety, yeah, I do.”

  Her brow furrowed up and her nose scrunched into an adorable line.

  “I’ve assigned bodyguards to Bethany. As I told you already, some assholes who want money from her brother roughed her up. I’m not taking any chances until that situation is resolved. Which means if you’re going out with Bethany then those bodyguards go too and they look out for you and your girls. We clear?”

  She rolled her eyes but nodded.

  “I’d like to see the poor fool who tries to take me and my girls on,” Mia muttered.

  Jace chuckled because she likely had a point. But still, he wasn’t taking any chances.

  Mia rose and then came around his desk to wrap her arms around his neck. She hugged tightly. “So you and Bethany will come for Christmas?”

  He kissed her cheek. “Yes, baby girl. You can count on it.”

  As Mia headed for the door, she nearly collided with Ash on his way in. Ash put his hands out, grasped her shoulders and then laughed.

  “Whoa there, sweetheart.”

  “Hey, Ash,” she said in a cheerful voice.

  Ash dropped an affectionate kiss on top of her head. “I need to see Jace about something. I’ll see you around later, okay?”

  She held up her hands. “I know when I’m being dismissed. Guess I’ll go see if Gabe has time for me.”

  Ash snorted. “As if he wouldn’t. Ever.”

  She grinned, waggled her fingers and then disappeared down the hallway.

  Ash turned back to Jace and then closed the door. Jace lifted his eyebrows in question as Ash made his way to the chair Mia had vacated. He tossed another folder onto Jace’s desk before sitting down. Jace was really starting to hate those damn folders. They never contained anything good.

  “Bethany’s brother’s debt is taken care of,” Ash said with no preamble. “Good news is the assholes who roughed her up weren’t interested in anything but getting their money back. Plus sizeable interest, of course.”

  “Of course,” Jace said acidly.

  “Bethany should be good now.”

  Jace nodded. “Thanks, man.”

  “But there’s something else you should know. Not sure what it means, but I figure you need all the information you can get.”

  Jace’s shoulders sloped downward and he leaned back in his chair. “What now?”

  “Bethany’s brother? Jack Kingston. Not her brother at all. No blood whatsoever. But they’re tight. Been on the streets together ever since they left their last foster home. Well, they weren’t even in the same foster home. I should say since Bethany left her last foster home, since Jack’s older and he’d been out of the system for a while. Apparently he busted her out or at least came for her and she ran away. They’ve been together ever since.”

  Jace frowned. “So what are you suggesting?”

  Ash held up his hands. “I’m not suggesting anything, man. I’m giving you the facts so that you have them all at your disposal. Bethany calls him her brother. Thought you should know he’s not. Now as to what that means, I have no idea. But you should be
aware of the fact that she could be running a pretty slick scam. She milks you for what she can and Jack’s debts are paid.”

  It pissed him off but he would have to be stupid not to at least consider what Ash was saying.

  “Thanks,” Jace murmured.

  “Sorry, man. Know it sucks. May not even be true, but you have to be aware of the possibilities.”

  Jace nodded. “Yeah. I know.”

  Jace’s cell rang and he glanced down to see Kaden’s number flashing on the LCD. He held up a finger to Ash and then yanked the phone to his ear.

  “Yeah?”

  He listened a moment, his blood going cold. Anger surged in close behind as Kaden related his report.

  “Stay on it,” Jace barked. “You find her. I’m on my way.”

  He put the phone down and glanced up at Ash, who was listening in confusion.

  “Bethany ditched her security and disappeared.”

  “Oh shit,” Ash murmured. “What are you going to do?”

  “If she’s going to walk away, she’s damn well going to say it to my face,” Jace bit out. “She owes me that damn much.”

  chapter nineteen

  Bethany pulled her coat tighter around her and walked through Madison Square Park—she’d lost count of the city parks she’d searched—hoping this was where she’d find Jack. She’d searched all their usual haunts but had come up empty. She’d even checked the shelters she and Jack frequented, hoping that maybe he had a warm place to stay for the night.

  She hadn’t intended to be this long. Jace would be angry. No, he’d be furious. She’d snuck away from her security detail, Jace’s faithful watchdogs, because really, what could she have said? That she planned to go searching the not-so-great parts of the city for her brother because she was worried?

  They’d have pulled the plug on that idea so fast her head would have spun.

  “Bethy, what are you doing here?”

  Jack’s voice cracked over her like a whip and she spun around, relieved to see him standing in the lengthening shadows wrought by evening’s fall.

  “Jack, thank God,” she breathed. “I was so worried.”

  She went to him, intending to hug him, but he pulled back, putting his hands to her shoulders. His gaze scraped up and down the length of her body, his eyes shrewd.

  “You’re looking good,” he said quietly.

  He didn’t ask where she’d been. Didn’t ask anything at all. He just stared at her and told her she looked good like they were old acquaintances who’d bumped into each other on the street.

  She hastily dug into her pocket for the piece of paper she’d written her address on. Then she shoved the folded paper at him.

  “I have a place, Jack. It’s a nice place. On the Upper West Side. You could come. Have a place to stay. You’d be safe there.”

  He stared at the paper for a long moment before finally taking it and shoving it into his pocket without looking at it.

  “Heard you got hurt,” he said, pain creeping into his voice. “You have to know I never intended that to happen, Bethy.”

  She stiffened as anger she didn’t feel she had a right to possess edged over her.

  “How did they even know about me, Jack? Why would they come to me for money you owed them? Why did you borrow it? How on earth did you plan to pay it back?”

  He shook his head, sorrow and fatigue weighting his shoulders until they drooped. His expression was grim. Hopeless and as gray as the twilight surrounding them.

  “I’m sorry,” he said simply. “I endangered you, Bethy. It’s best you aren’t around me now. Whatever you’ve gotten yourself into now . . . it’s good. You should stay away from me. I’ll only bring you down.”

  She shook her head adamantly and she leaned forward to grab him into a hug. For several long seconds, she held him and his arms remained stiffly at his sides before finally he enfolded her in his embrace and hugged her back just as fiercely.

  “It’s always been me and you,” she said, her voice muffled against his tattered jacket. “I’m not leaving you, Jack. You’d never have left me.”

  He pulled away and touched her cheek. “Listen to me, Bethy. It’s not safe for you out here. It’s never been safe. The best thing you can do for me is to go back to your apartment on the Upper West Side. Live your life. Embrace the good. Don’t do anything to mess it up. And be happy.”

  Tears filled her eyes. “How can I be happy when you’re out here? Am I supposed to be happy knowing I have a safe place to stay, food to eat and a bed to sleep in when I know you’re out here on the streets?”

  He grinned crookedly. “I’ll be fine. I’ve always got an angle working.”

  “You’re not fine,” she insisted.

  He sighed. “Maybe I’ll come look you up.”

  She latched on to that, hope taking hold. “Do that, Jack. Promise me. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve met someone. He’s . . . He’s good to me. Things can change now.”

  Jack smiled. “I’m happy for you, Bethy. Really. But how well do you think your man is going to take to another man sniffing around his woman?”

  “If he can’t accept you, then I don’t want to be with him,” Bethany hissed out.

  Jack touched her cheek again, his breath puffing out in a visible cloud. It had begun to snow again, the flakes spiraling between them, landing wetly on his shoulders and seeping through the thin, worn material. Cold had settled in, gripping the city in its relentless grasp. She couldn’t bear the thought of Jack being out here, at the mercy of the elements and those who would do him harm.

  “Please, Jack. Come back with me,” she begged. “You can’t hide from them forever.”

  One corner of Jack’s mouth lifted. “Problem is solved. They have their money. In their business, it’s not personal. They aren’t going to come after me as long as they have their money.”

  Confusion wrinkled her brow and she began to shake as the cold permeated even the thick coat Jace had bought her. Her knees trembled and her breath stuttered over numb lips.

  “Go back to your man, Bethy,” Jack said gently. “You’re cold. He’ll be worried. You shouldn’t be out here.”

  “Neither should you!”

  “I’ll be fine. I always have been.”

  She searched his gaze, looking for any indication that his eyes were dulled by drugs or alcohol. But they were bright. Tired and lines of fatigue etched his brow, making him look older than his twenty-five years. He didn’t look like a young man. He looked like one with the weight of the world on his shoulders. A man much older than his age, a man who’d seen and experienced more in his young life than men twice his age.

  “Do this for me, Bethy. Be happy. Be safe. I’ll look you up sometime. We’ll catch up. It’s time for you to get on with your life. I’ve held you back far too long.”

  Her mouth dropped open in shock. “No!” she whispered. “Jack, you saved me. You’ve never held me back. It’s me who’s held you back. You’ve always taken care of me, always looked out for me.”

  He shook his head and gently turned her back toward the street. “If you believe that, you’re a fool. It’s always been you taking care of me, Bethy. You picking up the pieces. You making sure we eat, have a place to sleep. I’ve done you no favors.”

  Tears pricked her eyelids and froze on her cheeks. This sounded too much like good-bye, like he was sending her away forever.

  “Come on. I’ll get a cab for you. You got money?”

  She nodded numbly. Jace had given her cash and she felt hugely guilty about using it to escape the men he’d hired to protect her. But now, if she was going back, she had to hurry. He’d be frantic, and she’d have to face him with what she’d done.

  Jack walked her to the street and she was blinded by the glare of headlights, blurry through her tears. He waved at an oncoming taxi and it slowed, pulling to the curb.

  “It’ll make me happy to think of you in a cushy apartment having a good meal and staying warm.”

&
nbsp; She threw herself into his arms and hugged him fiercely. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks as he hugged her back.

  “I’ll miss you, Jack,” she choked out.

  And she realized it was true. Even as she knew his shortcomings. Even as she knew all they’d endured and the fact that she’d struggled to ensure they had food and that he had money for the demons that drove him. Guilt crowded into her mind, heavy and suffocating. How much had she contributed to his addiction?

  All she knew was that she couldn’t tell him no. Not after all he’d done for her, all he’d suffered for her. A part of her had known that if she hadn’t come through, he would have turned to other, more dangerous methods to get what he needed and she hadn’t wanted that. And yet somehow it hadn’t mattered. He had borrowed money. Money he hadn’t been able to repay.

  She frowned as she started to duck into the cab. “Jack?”

  “Yeah.”

  “You said the money was taken care of. How did you pay them back?”

  Fear paralyzed her. What had he done?

  He shrugged and started to swing the door shut. “I don’t know. When I went to see them about an extension, they said the debt was paid. I’m not going to argue with them. I just want you safe and away from here.”

  She sat numbly as he shut the door and then he stepped back, disappearing into the darkness. Her throat closed in and she nearly flung open the door and ran after him because she feared this would be the last time she saw him.

  The cab started forward, preventing her from doing just that. She stared back as long as she could before they merged into traffic.

  She bowed her head and clutched her arms tightly around herself in an effort to alleviate the swelling grief.

  The city passed in a blur of traffic lights, Christmas decorations, honking horns and stop-and-go traffic. She wasn’t aware they’d arrived until the cab driver gave her a gentle prompt.

  “Ma’am? We’re here.”

  She yanked herself from the melancholy surrounding her and sat forward, digging hastily into her pocket for the fare.

  “Thank you,” she murmured before opening the door and stepping into the cold.

  She hurried toward the apartment entrance only to be met by the doorman, who looked hugely relieved.

  “Miss Willis, thank God.”

  She didn’t register him saying anything else but her brow puckered in confusion at the idea that he would be relieved. He ushered her toward the elevator and as the doors closed, he already had a cell phone to his ear.

  She dragged herself into her apartment—her apartment. She felt like a fraud. Seeing Jack tonight brought home the fact that she didn’t belong here. She didn’t fit into this world. She certainly hadn’t earned this. She didn’t even have a job.

  How long could it possibly last? Until Jace got over his current infatuation? She still wasn’t sure what it was he saw in her or why he’d bother. Not when there were only too many women more than willing to take her place.

  If there was one thing she’d learned in the past week when she and Jace went out, it was that there was no shortage of female interest. And the women were understandably shocked that Jace would be with someone like Bethany. Not that they knew anything of her circumstances, but it was very clear that she wasn’t even close to his socioeconomic status. For all practical purposes, Jace was slumming.

  She winced even as she sagged onto the couch, not even bothering to take off her coat. She was still cold, even within the warmth of her apartment. Cold on the inside, the kind simple heat didn’t thaw.

  She laid her head back against the cushion and closed her eyes. She should call Jace. He’d probably been trying to reach her. But in a really stupid moment, she’d forgotten her cell phone here at the apartment. She’d been so intent on
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