Fever, p.15
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       Fever, p.15
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         Part #2 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  sneaking away from Kaden and Trevor that she’d left it here on the counter.

  Flinching ahead of time at the dressing-down she’d receive, she pushed up from the couch to go in search of her phone. She needed to at least text Jace to let him know she was okay.

  More guilt surged over her. Now, back at the apartment, realization settled in at just how irresponsible and selfish she’d been. Jace had been nothing but kind to her. And she hadn’t even taken her phone so he would know she was all right. Maybe it had been subconscious to leave the phone because Jace would have started blowing it up the minute Kaden reported her absence, and she would have felt even guiltier about ignoring his calls.

  She found the phone, just where she’d left it, on the bar in the kitchen. She flinched when she saw the sheer volume of missed calls and texts. From Jace. From Kaden. From Trevor.

  She pushed it away, not even wanting to look at them, but she still had to let Jace know she was okay.

  With a sigh, she reached for it again just as the door burst open and Kaden and Trevor surged into her apartment. Startled, she dropped the phone and took a hasty step back before she fully registered who it was.

  “Thank God,” Kaden muttered. “Are you all right? Did anyone hurt you?”

  She mutely shook her head, her eyes wide at the look in Kaden’s and Trevor’s eyes. Then without another word, Kaden yanked up his phone.

  “Mr. Crestwell. Yeah, I got her. She’s back at her apartment. Looks okay. I haven’t had a chance to question her. I knew you’d want to know. Okay. I’ll see you shortly.”

  Kaden closed the phone and then turned his furious stare in Bethany’s direction. Trevor stood just behind him, arms crossed over his chest, a scowl firmly planted on his face.

  Kaden advanced, stalking toward her until her kitchen felt small and suffocating.

  “Do you mind telling me what the ever-loving fuck you thought you were doing today?” he seethed.

  “I—”

  He yanked up his hand, evidently not finished.

  “Trevor and I were frantic. Mr. Crestwell was losing his mind. He hired us to protect you. He hired us to ensure your safety. Do you mind telling me how the hell we’re supposed to do that when you pull a stunt like you did today?”

  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

  Tears burned her eyelids but she blinked furiously, determined not to break down in front of these men.

  “You’re sorry.” He blew out a long breath. “You could have been raped, killed, horribly injured. Take your pick. And you’re sorry. Jesus.”

  The blood drained from her face. She started to explain that she’d been perfectly safe when the door banged open again and Jace strode in, his features set in stone. He looked cold. Unmovable.

  He spared only a quick glance in her direction before turning his attention to Kaden and Trevor.

  “Thank you. You both can go now. I’ll take it from here.”

  “And do we report in tomorrow morning?” Kaden asked.

  Jace hesitated a long moment. “I’ll let you know.”

  Bethany couldn’t breathe around the panic knotting her throat. This was it. Jace was going to toss her out. They were over. He was pissed. It was just as well. The longer she existed in this fantasyland, the worse it was going to be in the end. Better to end it now before she forgot what her life was really like.

  Kaden and Trevor left the apartment after both directed meaningful glances in her direction. They both said the same thing. Stupid. Foolish.

  Her mouth wobbled and she clamped her lips together. She wasn’t going to make a fool of herself. She’d face this with as much dignity as she could possibly gather.

  She carefully put the phone back on the bar and then walked toward the bedroom, Jace’s gaze following her every step.

  “I’ll just get my stuff,” she said quietly. “I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

  She went into the bedroom, fighting against the surge of tears that bathed her face. And then she realized she had nothing to pack. No things to collect. This was all Jace’s. Stuff he’d bought her. Even if she took them with her, she’d have no place to put them.

  Then a firm hand closed over her shoulder. He turned her sharply to face him and then looked taken aback when he saw her tears.

  “Mind telling me what the fuck this is about?” Jace demanded.

  “I know you’re angry,” she said in a low voice. “I’ll be out in just a few minutes. I’d appreciate a cab, but if not I can walk.”

  His jaw clenched and bulged and a look of utter fury entered his eyes.

  “You think I’m kicking you out?” he asked in an incredulous tone.

  She flinched. “Aren’t you?”

  He swore. “Goddamn it, Bethany. You and I are going to have a long talk. This has been a fucking day from hell and I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to end it with you walking out on me.”

  She blinked in surprise. “You don’t want me to go?”

  “Does it look like I want you to go?”

  Her mouth went dry. “But you’re so angry. A-a-and you didn’t ask Kaden and Trevor to come back tomorrow.”

  “Would it do me any fucking good?” he snapped. “You aren’t exactly complying with their protection.”

  She flushed and looked away. “I’m sorry.”

  “Fuck it all, Bethany, I thought you’d left me today. What was I supposed to think? You took off. No note, no phone call. You wouldn’t answer your phone or my texts. I was in a fucking panic because I couldn’t find you anywhere.”

  “No!” she said in a stricken voice. “I wasn’t leaving you! I just had something I needed to do. I came back.”

  He nodded. “Yes. You did. And that’s the only reason why I’m not completely losing my mind here. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that you took off to God knows where without the men I hired to protect you. I made it abundantly clear that you weren’t to go anywhere without them. What about that did you not understand?”

  His grip tightened on her arms and he hauled her against his chest. She stared up at him wide-eyed, her tears forgotten. He looked furious, absolutely. But not for the reason she thought. He thought she’d left him?

  She reached up to touch his face, seeing for the first time the fear that accompanied his anger.

  “I wasn’t leaving,” she whispered.

  “Thank fuck for that,” he muttered. “But Bethany? You and I have a hell of a lot to go over. I’ve tried to play this as delicately as possible but fuck it. Not doing that anymore. It’s time we do this my way.”

  chapter twenty

  Jace had to let go of her and take a step back, putting distance between them. His breaths hurt, squeezing from a chest so tight it felt as though it was in the grip of a vise.

  He had to get his shit together.

  First things first. Before they could work out the evolution of their relationship—hell, he’d been patient for a week. Yeah, it wasn’t much time, but for him? It may as well have been a fucking year. He’d never waited this amount of time for something he wanted. But before he could lay down the terms of their relationship, they had to address the reason she’d taken off, without protection, without telling anyone shit.

  That made him insane. For the space of a few hours she’d been beyond his control. Beyond his ability to provide for her, to protect her. He still couldn’t dwell on those hours without losing his tenuous grip on his sanity.

  Maybe Ash was right. Maybe he was utterly obsessed. But obsession seemed such a mild term for his thoughts and feelings where Bethany was concerned.

  Where did it come from? Was this how Gabe felt about Mia? Why he’d lost any and all control when it came to her and why he’d been determined that no one would come between them?

  Jace didn’t have an explanation. Some things just were and such was this obsession with Bethany. He wasn’t going to fight it. Hell, he couldn’t. He was utterly powerless when it came to her, and he lost all reason. All ability to make ratio
nal decisions.

  Jesus, if this is what love and emotion did to a man, he wasn’t at all sure he wanted it. But he wanted Bethany. With every breath. With every conscious thought. He wanted her and he wasn’t letting her go without one hell of a fight.

  “Are you all right?” he asked when he had a better handle on himself.

  He stared at her, checking for any sign that she was hurt or shaken. But all he saw was uncertainty as she carefully watched him with large, wounded eyes. Christ. She’d thought he was kicking her out when he was the one who thought she’d walked out on him.

  “I’m fine,” she said in a low voice. “Jace, I’m sorry. I know what I did was stupid.”

  “Stupid? Yeah. That about covers it. Jesus, Bethany. Do you have any idea what could have happened? I know you’ve lived on those streets and it’s only by the grace of God you haven’t already become a statistic in a city full of sad statistics. Why did you do it? Where the fuck did you go? What did you think you were doing?”

  She sank onto the couch as if her legs would no longer hold her up. Her hands trembled and she pulled off her coat, laying it in a neat arrangement beside her. He couldn’t sit yet. He hadn’t calmed enough. So he paced back and forth in front of her, waiting.

  “I had to find Jack,” she said quietly.

  “Jack.”

  The one word was explosive in the living room. Fucking Jack. She’d risked her life because she had to find Jack. A man who’d thrown her to the wolves. Who hadn’t given a shit about her when he’d borrowed money he hadn’t a hope of repaying and then left her with the fallout.

  “You had to find Jack,” he repeated.

  “I was worried,” she said, near pleading. “He’s all I have, Jace. And with those men . . .”

  Jace huffed in a huge breath. “Exactly, Bethany. Those men are exactly why you shouldn’t have gone off on your own. Did it ever occur to you to talk to me about it? To talk to Kaden and Trevor, who are hired to protect you? Do you think I hired them for the hell of it? Do you think I make it a practice to hire a professional security firm to follow people I don’t care about around?”

  She dropped her gaze and he continued on, needing to get this out, needing to rid himself of his anger and the images of her lying on a sidewalk bleeding.

  “And he’s not all you have. You have me.”

  Her gaze jerked back up, her eyes stricken. “I didn’t mean it that way, Jace. Please believe me. I know I sound so ungrateful. I didn’t mean to make you feel like you weren’t important. I just meant he’s the only family I have. For so long, it’s been just me and him.”

  “He’s not your brother,” Jace said tightly, addressing the other issue that had bothered him ever since Ash had given him that piece of information.

  Fuck, Ash’s warning played over and over in his head. Was she playing him? Was he the victim of some scheme hatched by two down-on-their-luck lovers to take him for a ride? Staring at her, he didn’t see it. But then, maybe she was one hell of a good actress. There was no guilt in her expression as he revealed that he knew Jack Kingston wasn’t her brother. Or maybe he was only seeing what he wanted to see.

  There was only sadness.

  “Am I being played, Bethany?” he asked in a dangerously low tone. “Is this a scheme you and Jack have going? Did you give him the money I left for you?”

  All the blood drained from her face. It was so stark, the look of utter horror, the absolute revulsion that spread across her features. In that moment he knew he’d been terribly wrong to even suggest such a thing, even if he’d never really bought it to begin with. It had come out, a product of his fear and anger and frustration. He’d felt the need to bite at her, to make her feel, just for a moment, what he was feeling. He regretted it with everything he had as he watched her falter, her pale face looking like he’d just pulled the rug right out from underneath her.

  She rose unsteadily, her knees buckling. She almost went down and he lunged for her but she yanked back, the color completely leached from her face. Her expression scared him. More than her disappearance. More than the idea of her playing him. Her eyes were haunted and betrayed, so wounded he wondered if she’d ever recover.

  Haltingly, she walked toward the kitchen, her gait that of a much older woman. Her shoulders were hunched in a defeated posture and her chin was lowered. Her arms wrapped protectively around herself as if defending herself from a gut punch.

  He watched with a growing sense of dread as she riffled through one of the kitchen drawers. A moment later, she pulled out a familiar envelope. The bank envelope he’d gotten when he made the withdrawal. Inside was several thousand dollars in cash, mostly in twenties. It had been stuffed full, and it was still stuffed full.

  She carried it back over to where he stood but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. She held it out to him, her hand shaking so badly that he caught her hand in his to stop the trembling. When she tried to pull back, he tightened his grip and held on, fearing that if he let her go he’d never get her back.

  “I used a hundred dollars,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. I took a cab downtown. I thought it would be quicker. I didn’t want to be gone long because I knew you’d worry. So I took a cab there and back. I tipped. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But I know what it’s like to need money and taxi drivers don’t always get good tips.”

  She was babbling and it hurt him to hear the pain in her voice that was caused by his misjudgment.

  “Baby,” he whispered.

  He pulled her to him and she was rigid against his body.

  “Baby,” he said again. “Tell me why you went. Tell me why you couldn’t discuss this with me.”

  Even as he spoke, he walked backward, pulling her with him. He dropped onto the couch and tugged until she perched on his lap. He wrapped both arms around her so she couldn’t flee, and judging by her expression, he still had a long way to go before she willingly stayed.

  “I had to tell him to be careful,” she whispered. “I didn’t want those men to hurt him and I knew he couldn’t pay them back. And I had to tell him about . . . us. He’d worry when he didn’t see me. I basically disappeared and I didn’t want him to think I was dead or that I’d just moved on and left him.”

  Jace knew the matter had been taken care of but Bethany didn’t. And now he was curious—genuinely curious—why she’d left the cash he’d given her here. There was enough in that envelope to have paid Jack’s debt and yet she’d left it behind.

  “There was enough cash in that envelope to pay Jack’s debt,” Jace said quietly.

  Her voice was barely a whisper. “Yes, I know.”

  “Why didn’t you take it to him?”

  She tensed against him but when he said nothing else, her shoulders slumped and she looked at him, disappointment burning in her eyes.

  “I’d never do that,” she said softly. “It wasn’t my money. I wouldn’t take it from you to pay Jack’s debt. Jack got himself into that situation. If I had the money, I’d give it. No reservations. What’s mine is his. But that money wasn’t mine. I’d never take advantage of you that way. You’ve been so good to me, Jace. I don’t want to repay that kindness with deceit, even if what I did today is just that.”

  Jace sighed. “Jack’s debt is paid off. The men are no longer interested in you or Jack. They have their money and that’s all they cared about. That’s why I told Kaden and Trevor that I wasn’t sure I’d need them tomorrow. Not because I’m kicking you out.”

  Her gaze became troubled and her lips turned down into an unhappy frown.

  “What did you do, Jace?” she whispered.

  “I took care of the matter.”

  She shook her head. “No. It wasn’t your problem. I don’t want you involved.”

  Tears were shiny in her eyes and his heart squeezed as she fought them.

  “You are most definitely my concern,” he said gruffly. “I did it because those sons of bitches came after you for the money. That I won’t allow. I’ll do anything in this wor
ld to keep you out of harm’s way. There’s absolutely nothing you can say to change my mind on that score, so save your breath.”

  He slid his fingers along her jaw and then feathered the tip of one over her full lips.

  “Now that we have that out of the way, there’s more we need to discuss. But I want to have this particular conversation with you naked. In the bedroom. You focused solely on me and me on you.”

  Her eyes widened and her cheeks remained pale and she stared intently up at him.

  “Do you trust me enough to do what I’m asking, Bethany?”

  It was a test. Not because he was being an asshole. But he needed to know he had her trust. He was about to take a huge step forward in what would be a very demanding relationship. He had to know she could handle that. He couldn’t hold back much longer.

  She licked her lips and dipped her chin, but he wouldn’t allow her to look away. He wanted to see every thought that flickered through her eyes. Every reaction. Every doubt and every question.

  “Are you still angry with me?” she asked softly.

  Her eyes were troubled and she looked worried.

  “I’m angry, yes. Not at you. I’m frustrated. Again, not at you. Our relationship is what’s frustrating me at present. I’m holding so much back, Bethany, and it’s killing me.”

  She cocked her head, her eyes narrowing in confusion. “Why are you holding back?”

  He groaned. “Because I don’t want to scare you away, baby. It’s going to be intense. Overwhelming, even. I’m trying my damnedest to take things slow because I want to take care of you. Make sure you’re with me every step of the way.”

  “I’m with you,” she said quietly.

  “No, baby, you aren’t. Not yet.”

  “Then tell me. Show me. How can I know what it is you need from me if you don’t show me? You’ve given, Jace, but you aren’t taking. And I need to be able to give you something. I have nothing that you lack. There’s nothing I can give you except me, and you don’t want it yet.”

  “I want it,” he said fiercely. “There’s nothing I want more. But, baby, you have to be sure about this. We’ll still take this in steps, but tonight we’re going to take a big one if you’re ready for that.”

  “How will I ever know unless we try?” she whispered.

  His senses went on red alert. His entire body tightened and savage satisfaction gripped him by the throat.

  “Get up and go into the bedroom,” he said in a measured voice.

  Calm descended and he took control. He had to do this right. Couldn’t let himself fuck it all up. Not when Bethany was putting all her trust in him.

  “Undress and kneel on the rug by my bed. Wait for me there.”

  chapter twenty-one

  Bethany slipped the clothing from her body and folded it neatly, laying it on the dresser before going to the thick rug by the bed. She hesitated a long moment as she stared down at the floor.

  She knew the significance of kneeling. Of waiting for Jace to come into the bedroom. It was a signal of her submission. He was asking her to submit to him, to trust him. Did she?

  Her thoughts went back to the first night. The night she’d had sex with Jace and Ash. When Ash had very bluntly laid out the terms of being with them. They were dominant men, but Jace was perhaps more so. Ash seemed to be more laid back while Jace was . . . intense.

  Had he been fighting his nature the entire time he’d been with her? Had he held back his true self for fear of frightening her away?

  Her mood softened. He hadn’t ramrodded her. Okay, so he’d definitely been forceful and demanding. No doubt there. But there was a controlled edge to it and she had the impression that if Jace wasn’t holding himself back, things would be that much more intense.

  Could she handle that? Him controlling every aspect of her life? Dictating her every movement in and out of bed? Would it be so bad?

  In many ways, she relished the idea of relinquishing all control. Of having
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