Burn, p.14
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       Burn, p.14

         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  body. She loved that he was so open with her. There was no doubting how he felt, that he wanted her. No silly guessing games. No games period. But then, he’d told her that. That he didn’t play games. That they were real. What they did was real. Maybe she hadn’t fully appreciated that at first, but he’d proven to her that he meant those words.

  Every day, he didn’t hesitate to tell her how beautiful she was, how much he wanted her, how much he liked having her in his apartment. That he adored her gift of submission and that he treasured the fact she’d given him her trust.

  In a week’s time, this had surpassed any relationship she’d ever had in the past. In just one week, Ash had become more deeply entrenched than any other man had. With Michael, their times apart hadn’t felt interminable. She didn’t watch the clock, anxious for the next time she’d see him.

  Her heart hadn’t been involved. And now it was. Ash didn’t just own her body. He owned her heart and soul and he’d conquered it in less than a week.

  It sounded crazy. Things like this only happened in books or movies. Relationships were tricky things you had to work at. They didn’t just happen. Love didn’t just happen. Did it?

  But it had.

  She couldn’t love him so soon, could she? Not when they were still learning each other, exploring the boundaries of their relationship.

  She was in lust. Definitely. She was definitely in “like” with him. She liked him a hell of a lot. But did she love him? Did she feel as though every minute apart was the most agonizing torture?

  It made her crazy, because she knew she was falling hard for this man, but she fought the idea, knowing it was too soon. Knowing there was still too much she didn’t know about this man. She hadn’t even met his friends. His family. Though she doubted that would ever come. He hated them. He’d made no secret about that.

  She couldn’t imagine hating her family. She’d adored her mother and mourned her after her passing. But she hated her father, so who was she to judge Ash? But then, she didn’t count her father as family. Because family didn’t bail on you. Not true family.

  No, her father was a sperm donor and nothing else.

  “Baby, you’re not here.”

  Ash’s gentle reprimand brought her abruptly back to the present and out of her scattered thoughts. She glanced up to see him staring down at her, his brows drawn together as he slid his cock from her mouth.

  She flushed, guilty that she’d been caught out so easily. There was no hiding from Ash. He saw everything. He was in tune with her moods, her thoughts. It was scary to her that he read her so easily after only a week together.

  “What are you thinking about, baby? Because it’s definitely not my dick. Not that what you’re doing doesn’t feel good, but your head’s not in it.”

  She sighed and rocked back on her heels, her fingers still wrapped around his length.

  “Sorry, Ash. My fault. I was just thinking about a hundred different things.”

  She wondered if he’d punish her. It’s certainly what Michael would have done. And his punishments weren’t kinky pleasures. They hurt. They were meant to hurt.

  Ash’s gaze narrowed as he continued to study her. “What the hell is going through your head right now? Whatever it is, I don’t like it.”

  She pursed her lips, almost allowing the word “nothing” to slip out. It would do no good to deny him. He’d only push her until she gave him the truth. He liked bluntness and honesty. He liked knowing what was going on in her head.

  “I was wondering if you’d punish me for zoning out,” she said quietly. “And I was thinking about Michael’s punishments and the fact that he would absolutely have punished me for not giving him my full attention. And his punishments aren’t kinky pleasurable punishments like yours. They . . . hurt. Just hurt. There’s no pleasure in them.”

  There was a spark of rage in Ash’s eyes that made her withdraw her hand instinctively. Darkness tracked over his entire face and she immediately regretted the fact that she’d been so honest. She shouldn’t have brought up Michael. Not brought him into Ash’s apartment. Into their lives.

  She lowered her gaze, knotting her fingers together between her knees.

  Above her, Ash swore but she didn’t look up. Then his hands closed gently around her shoulders and lifted upward until she was standing right in front of him. He pulled his pants up and refastened the fly.

  “This is one of those times when we’re going to talk, but we’re going to do it with you in my arms.”

  He didn’t look angry, and relief coursed through her. Damn it, but it was hard navigating the waters of a new relationship. Always worrying about doing or saying the wrong thing was exhausting. She didn’t want to screw this up. She was already half in love, okay maybe a lot in love with Ash, and she wanted to see where things would take them.

  Ash turned her toward the couch and then sat, pulling her with him. His hands slid over her body, up her arms, before giving her another gentle squeeze. He cupped her face, thumbed the small area right at the corner of her mouth where there was still the faintest hint of a bruise.

  “Told you before, I’m not your father. You aren’t my daughter. We aren’t playing daddy/daughter roles here. You’re a grown woman, free to make your own choices. And if that sounds contradictory to the kind of relationship you and I have, it’s not meant to be. You have a choice whether to submit to me. I can’t make you. Can’t force you to make decisions you don’t want to make. Don’t want to make you do that. Ever.

  “Which means that I’m not into punishment for things you supposedly do wrong or to displease me. That just makes me an asshole, and that’s not who I want to be with you. Now, when I feel like reddening your ass because it turns us both on? Yeah, I’m down with that. And it’ll happen often if I have my way about it. But as for pulling out a crop and inflicting pain on you for no other reason than you did something wrong, or you pissed me off? Not going to happen. Ever. Because that would make me no better than the bastard who hit you because he was pissed that you dumped him.”

  She nodded, understanding where he was coming from.

  “Do you really get it, Josie? It pisses me off to think of him meting out pain to you because of a supposed infraction. I am never going to touch you physically or sexually when I’m pissed. I may say shit that hurts you. I have a temper. But I’m not ever going to hurt you purposely.”

  Again she nodded, some of the tension lightening in her chest.

  His voice lowered until it was soft, his gaze finding hers, warm and tender.

  “Baby, what I need you to understand is that your relationship with Michael was not good. It wasn’t healthy. And it’s not indicative of the kind of relationship you thought you were getting with him. Maybe that works for other people, and if it does, more power to them. As long as both the man and the woman are down with it and the woman consents. If that’s what she wants and needs from the guy she’s with, then fine. But it doesn’t work for me. I’m a demanding bastard. You and I both know that. But I’m not so egotistical and arrogant that it’s all about me all the time. If there’s something you don’t like or something you don’t want, then all you have to do is tell me. We’ll talk about it. Figure out if it’s really important. And we’ll find a way to work around it.”

  She battled a smile but it broadened her lips and relief registered in his eyes.

  “Was going to do this when I got here, but seeing you on your knees, naked and waiting for me . . . Let’s just say I forgot all about what I was going to do. But you’re here in my arms now, and I think this is the next logical step.”

  She cocked her head to the side and looked inquisitively at him.

  “Let me go get it out of my briefcase.”

  He turned, easing her onto the couch, and then slid from underneath her. He strode toward his discarded briefcase, rummaged around for a moment and then returned carrying a long, rectangular box.

  He tucked the box under his arm and resumed their earlier po
sition. Him on the couch leaned against the arm with her on his lap, his arms firmly around her. He held the box in front of her so they could both see it and then he carefully opened it, revealing a stunning choker.

  She gasped as he took it out and held it up. She knew what it was. He’d told her he was having one made. But she’d never imagined it would be so exquisite.

  “I want you to wear this, Josie. I want you to understand what it means.”

  “I’d love to, Ash,” she said softly.

  He held it up, wrapping it around her neck. She turned so he could fasten it in back and then turned back to him, taking in his fierce expression.

  “It’s perfect,” she said. And it was. “It’s absolutely something I would have chosen for myself.”

  He smiled. “Yeah, it’s you. It suits you. I wanted something to match your eyes, but I also wanted something that reflected your personality. Your vibrancy.”

  Tears bit the corners of her eyes and she sucked in a breath so she didn’t lose the battle and let them fall.

  He touched her cheek, stroking tenderly over her skin and then slipped his fingers down to trail over the collar resting at the hollow of her throat.

  “Want you to understand what this means, baby,” he said again. “I know it’s fast, but just because it’s fast doesn’t mean it’s not real. I saw my two best friends fall hard and fast. Very fast. I know it can happen and that it can last. I want you and me to last. Not saying we’re there yet. But I want us to get there. And I want you to understand the significance of this collar. In some ways it’s even more important than an engagement ring. Not that you won’t have that too. When it’s time, you’ll have the rock and you’ll have my commitment. But this collar is every bit as important as a ring and those formalities.”

  “I don’t even know what to say,” she said, her voice cracking as she stared down at him in awe.

  “Say you understand its meaning and say you’ll wear it. Then we’ll get to the other parts of the conversation I want to have with you.”

  She nodded and then lifted her fingers to touch the collar. “I won’t ever take it off, Ash.”

  Satisfaction gleamed in his eyes and then he pulled her down into a long, breathless kiss. When he pulled away, his eyes were half-lidded and smoky with desire.

  “Now, to get back to your relationship with Michael.”

  She made a face but he put his finger to her lips.

  “I get that it’s not a good subject. I understand you not wanting to talk about it or even being afraid to bring him up when you’re with me. But darling, this is you we’re talking about. I’m not going to pretend that your relationship with him didn’t happen and I’m not that much of an asshole to forbid any mention of your past and the things that affect you. You never have to be afraid to say anything to me. If it concerns you then it concerns me and we talk about it. Got it?”

  “Yeah, I get it. I just didn’t want him here, you know? Your apartment is our world and I hate bringing him here.”

  “I understand, baby. But here is where you should feel the safest bringing up shit from your past that hurts you. I don’t want you ever holding out on me. Now, what I was going to add was that your relationship with Michael was all sorts of fucked up. And I’ll tell you why I think that. I don’t want you thinking I’m judging you or thinking you were an idiot for being with him. But what I’m going to say is important and it has bearing on what you and I have now.”

  God, she loved this man. If she hadn’t already acknowledged that she was falling hard and fast for him, these words, completely and utterly sincere, amazingly awesome words, would have sealed the deal for her. Where else would she ever find a man like this? Someone who was so caring and considerate. So tender and gentle with her and yet rough and demanding when she needed it?

  He was, in a word, perfect. And she hadn’t thought perfect men existed except in fantasy land.

  She settled into his arms, warm and content, waiting to hear what he’d say next.

  “Michael took from you in your relationship but he didn’t give shit back. And I know this from what you’ve told me. He expected things from you. He punished you when you didn’t comply. But he didn’t give you anything back. You said he was cold and distant. He was never affectionate. He didn’t give you the things you needed. And he didn’t reward you when you did something that pleased him.”

  She pursed her lips in distaste because Ash had nailed it right on the head. And the hell of it was she’d never seen it while she was in the relationship with Michael. She’d wrongly assumed that all relationships like the one she had with Michael were that way. Ash was fast proving her wrong.

  “He didn’t show you affection. He didn’t do things for you because he knew you’d love them. And, baby, that’s wrong. Your relationship with him was all about him. Not about you. It was about what he could take from you without having to give back. And that’s ten sorts of fucked up. It’s no way for a man to treat a woman he’s supposed to cherish and protect.”

  “You’re not like that,” she whispered.

  His eyes flared. “Thank fuck you feel that way, baby. I wouldn’t be pleased at all if you thought I wasn’t giving you back what you needed from me. And if it ever comes to that, I want you to let me know. Because I’ll fix it. I won’t ever consciously do it. But if it does ever happen, I expect you to give me a loud wake-up call.”

  She grinned. “No worries there, Ash. Now that you’ve shown me how it can be, I’m a greedy bitch and I’ll never go back to the way it was with Michael. You’ve spoiled me for any other man.”

  His expression darkened. “It’s a good damn thing because I have no intention of you ever finding out what it’s like with another man. If I’m not giving you what you need, then you better be telling me what it is I’m not giving you because you going to another man for that . . . Not happening. You’re mine, Josie.”

  “I’m yours,” she whispered, tracing her fingers down his firm jawline.

  “Now, let’s talk about me letting you off the leash so to speak.”

  Her eyebrows shot up. “Leash? Ash, that sounds horrible! Is that what you think you’ve done? Put a leash on me?”

  He laughed. “Was just joking with you, darling. Jace accused me of having a leash on you because I’ve been keeping you all to myself. And he’s right. I’ve kept a pretty tight rein on you this week. It’s me being selfish. I haven’t wanted to share you with anyone yet. And that’s not fair to you. You’ve only been out once this entire week.”

  “I haven’t minded, Ash. I’ve loved this week with you. And I’ve been working. So it’s been fine.”

  “Yeah, but it’ll get old after a while. I just wanted to make sure . . .”

  He grimaced and broke off.

  “Make sure of what?”

  “Not important,” he said gruffly. “The point is that I want you to meet my friends. They’re the most important people in my life next to you. They’re my family. My real family. Gabe and Mia are going to get in late Saturday and if they’re up for it, I’d like to take you to meet everyone Sunday. I’d like you to meet my sister, Brittany, too. She’s having a hard time of it and she’s almost the same age as you. Mia and Bethany and Mia’s girls are a bit younger but I think you’ll like them too. Mia and Bethany have good heads on their shoulders and they both have hearts as big as Alaska.”

  “I can’t wait,” she said sincerely. “If they mean that much to you, I have no doubt I’ll like them, Ash. And I want to meet the people you care about. I’m happy you want to share that part of yourself with me. I just wish I had that to share with you as well.”

  He squeezed her again. “Want you to have people to love and support you, baby. Hate that you’re alone with no family and that you lost your mother. I’m sure I would have loved her if she’s everything you’ve said.”

  She smiled and reached up to kiss him again.

  “Bethany is different, Josie, and I want you to know that going in. She
s had a hard life, so it would probably not be a good idea for you to ask her about herself. Before now I mean.”

  Josie’s eyebrows came together in question as she stared up at Ash. “What do you mean?”

  Ash sighed. “She was homeless when Jace and I met her. She was working Mia’s engagement party. We didn’t know that at the time. We slept with her that night as I’ve already told you. But she bailed the next morning and Jace damn near turned the city over looking for her. He found her in a shelter and took her home with him. The rest is history, but even after that, she had some tough times. She had a foster brother who lived on the streets with her and he was mixed up in some shit. Bethany used to be addicted to painkillers and she’d worked past that, but the heaviness of her relationship with Jace nearly made her go back. And then her brother, Jack, drugged her hot chocolate and nearly killed her. We all thought she’d overdosed and that she’d tried to commit suicide. It was a cluster fuck because the night before Jace came home to find me with Bethany in his apartment and he flipped. Took it out on me and her and upset Bethany. So the next morning when this shit happened, it didn’t look good.”

  “Wow,” Josie breathed. “That sounds unbelievable! Like something you’d see on a television show or something.”

  “Yeah,” Ash muttered. “Only it was all too real. Jack didn’t mean to hurt her. He was the one going to commit suicide but Bethany picked up the wrong cup and ended up in the hospital fighting for her life. I just wanted you to know all of this so you don’t ask the wrong questions or bring up shit that makes the situation awkward for you or for Bethany.”

  She bit her lip, a question burning, but she wasn’t sure she should ask because it made her sound . . . jealous. Even if she still did feel a bit of the sting when he talked about Bethany. Because his expression changed when he talked about her. It was obvious that even if she did belong to his friend, he definitely cared a lot about her.

  “What’s on your mind?” Ash prompted. “I know that look. You’re wanting to ask me something. Just ask, baby. You have to know by now you can ask me anything.”

  She sucked in a breath. “It’s just that you said Jace found you and Bethany in his apartment and flipped out. But you told me it was just that first night . . .”

  Ash’s lips twisted. “It was nothing. I’d gone over to bring Jace stuff from work. We had a deal going south, which is why he was in such a pissy mood when he got there and immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion. I owed Bethany an apology. I came down on her pretty hard in the beginning. Didn’t think she was right for Jace. Saw how he was losing his damn mind over her. I also wanted to move past the awkwardness of that first night and how we all met. So I apologized to her and told her I wanted us to be friends. That Jace was important to me so it meant now she was important to me. That was what Jace walked in on.”

  Josie nodded. “I understand.”

  Ash cocked his head, staring intently at her. “Does the thing with Bethany still bother you?”

  Her shoulders heaved with a sigh but she was honest. She owed him that much at least.

  “Yeah. I won’t lie. It makes me a little nervous to meet her. It’s not that I don’t believe you at all. But I don’t know a woman alive who likes being confronted by her man’s ex-lover, even if it was just a one-night stand. And bad enough to have to meet her, but to have to spend time together long term. I’ll get over it. But I’m honest enough to admit that when I meet her for the first time, I’ll be picturing you with her and that won’t be fun.”

  Ash didn’t look happy with that statement.

  “I don’t want you torturing yourself over this, baby. It meant nothing. Or at least I should say it meant nothing to me. It meant a hell of a lot to Jace. And if he’d been honest with me from the start, that night would have never happened. I would have backed off because I wasn’t into her. Not then and not now.”

  Relief settled into her chest. His words were absolutely sincere, and she believed him absolutely.

  “I’m being silly. I won’t let it bother me, Ash. I promise. And I won’t bring it up. I won’t bring up Bethany’s past either. She sounds like a pretty amazing woman.”

  “She is,” Ash said. “She’s perfect for Jace. And you’re perfect for me.”

  chapter nineteen

  Ash led Josie into the bedroom, his jaw clenched tight as he battled the urge to haul her onto the bed and thrust into her and ride her long and hard. He was on edge, the thing with Michael still bright in his mind.

  And it only made his desire to possess Josie, to reassert his claim and possession, that much more fierce. It was inexplicable, this urge that came over him whenever he was near her. He wondered if it would ever dim with time. Somehow he didn’t think so.

  Something this volatile, this consuming, wasn’t just a flash in the pan. It wouldn’t go away next week, next month or even next year. He could well imagine himself feeling this way ten or twenty years into the future. Which told him he was already thinking long-term, no matter that he’d decided to take it a day at a time and not look beyond the present.

  It was damn hard to only think about today when he was dead set on tying her to him on a permanent basis. Everything he did now was to convince her to remain with him. To show her how perfect she was for him and hopefully how perfect for her he was.

  Josie turned, her naked body soft and warm against his. She gazed up at him, her eyes glowing with soft desire. He thought, at times, could swear, that he saw love in her eyes. But maybe it was what he wanted to see. She hadn’t said anything, but then neither had he. It was too fast. No matter what he told her, it had only been a week. People didn’t fall in love in a week.

  Only they did. He’d seen it. Knew it happened. Knew it lasted.

  Did he want Josie to love him?

  Hell yeah he did. He wanted it, could taste it, would savor the sweetness of those words when they finally passed her lips.

  “What would you like tonight, Ash?” she asked in a soft voice. “Tell me how you want me. You’ve had a long day. I want to make you feel good.”

  His heart softened. Sweet, darling Josie. So eager to please. So warm and willing. The darkness that had hung over him ever since he’d left the office building to go after Michael lifted under the ray of sunshine that was Josie. Some of the tension left his shoulders as her hands smoothed up his arms and to his neck where she cupped his jaw in her palms.

  “Not going to mark your ass tonight, baby. I did that last night. Loved every minute of it. Loved those marks on your sweet ass. But it would hurt if I did it
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