Burn, p.18
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       Burn, p.18

         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks
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  her lips. Josie could swear she saw relief in the other woman’s expression. Perhaps she’d been worried that Ash wouldn’t come.

  And when she smiled, Josie could see just how stunningly beautiful Brittany was. But then, Ash was a beautiful man. Brittany was more his feminine counterpart. She didn’t have the hard edges that Ash had. She lacked Ash’s intense gaze, his expression, the way he carried himself.

  No matter how crazy or horrible his parents were, they definitely gave their children the beautiful genes.

  Brittany rose but stood still, as if waiting to see how Ash would greet her. Ash circled the table and enveloped his sister in a big hug. He kissed her cheek and then took her hand, squeezing it. Brittany’s reaction was sweet. She stared up at Ash, just like most sisters stared up at their big brothers when they’d done something huge and nice for their baby sisters. She looked at him like he hung the moon.

  “Britt, I want you to meet Josie. Josie, this is my sister, Brittany.”

  “Hello, Josie,” Brittany said in a cultured voice that just screamed money and privilege.

  But there was no pretension about her. She grasped Josie’s hand warmly and then, to Josie’s surprise, Brittany hugged her and kissed her on the cheek.

  “Hello, Brittany. I’m so happy to finally meet you. Ash has told me so much about you.”

  At that, her excitement dimmed, and her eyes grew cloudy with worry.

  “It was all good,” Josie hastened to say, regretting that she’d already put her foot in her mouth. “He said you were doing wonderfully in your job here. He bragged that you would end up running the entire thing before it was over with.”

  Brittany smiled and relaxed. Ash guided both women to their seats and then motioned for the waiter.

  “I’m enjoying it,” Brittany said, once the waiter took their drink order. “It’s nice to be . . . useful. I’m remembering how smart I am. It just took a while because unfortunately I’ve become very adept at being dumb over the years.”

  Ash shook his head. “Cut yourself some slack, Britt. You’ll get there. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

  Josie laughed at the old saying. “He’s right, though. I’ve made my share of really dumb mistakes. But I’m through beating myself up over them.”

  Ash squeezed her hand under the table but then surprised her by dragging it up and over the table where he pulled it to his mouth and pressed a kiss into her palm.

  “Glad to hear that, baby. About time.”

  Brittany looked inquisitively between Ash and Josie and then her eyes widened before a broad smile lit up her entire face.

  Josie guessed it was pretty obvious that she and Ash were more than just a casual date. But then Ash had made it pretty clear that Josie was someone important to him. Why else would he bring her to lunch with his sister?

  “Mom giving you any more trouble, Britt?” Ash asked.

  Brittany made a face and then took a long swallow of the wine the waiter had served. “She came by that one time I told you about. After that she resorted to calling every day. I ignore the calls and let them go to voice mail. She called work one time, and I told her off. I haven’t heard from her since.”

  Ash nodded approvingly. “That’s good. You’ll get there. Eventually she’ll figure out that she can’t get her claws into you anymore and she’ll find another target.”

  “Like she did with you?” Brittany pointed out, a snort passing her lips.

  “Okay, maybe she won’t,” Ash said ruefully. “But you’ll figure out how to handle her and after a while it won’t bother you as much.”

  “I envy you,” Brittany said. “I know I’ve said it before, but I’d give anything to have your confidence.”

  The wistful tone in her voice made Josie wince with sympathy. But she sat quietly, not wanting to interrupt their conversation.

  The waiter came and took their orders, and Ash leaned back, reaching for Josie. She slid into his side, their chairs mashed up against each other. His arm settled around her shoulders as he continued his conversation with Brittany.

  “So how long have you two been dating?” Brittany asked.

  Josie went still, her mouth suddenly unable to work. What could she say? They didn’t date. One could hardly call what they’d done dating. They’d bypassed that stage all together. And somehow, the word dating seemed so tame. Not at all indicative of the intensity of their relationship.

  “Josie and I have been together a while now,” Ash said easily.

  “Oh, that’s good. You look so good together. Tell me more about you, Josie. What do you do?”

  Apparently Ash hadn’t spoken of Josie to Brittany. Josie licked her lips, suddenly feeling self-conscious in front of his sister. No matter that Ash had clearly outlined the difficulties Brittany had experienced, the woman still came from money. From a world Josie didn’t fit into. She’d had a wealthy husband, rich parents. Hell, her brother Ash had more money than God.

  “I’m an artist,” Josie said in a husky voice. “I also design jewelry. But mostly I paint.”

  Brittany’s eyes widened and Josie wasn’t sure if it was surprise, judgment or what. Her nape prickled and she immediately felt defensive.

  “I’d love to see your work sometime,” Brittany said.

  “I’m sure that can be arranged at some point,” Ash said. “Right now she’s busy working on something for me and she has a client who buys up all her work so she’s pretty focused on that at the moment.”

  “You sound so successful!” Brittany gushed.

  Josie ducked her head. “Well, yes, I suppose you could say that. It’s a rather new development, though, so I still have a hard time thinking of myself that way. Someone came into the gallery where I exhibit and bought up all my stuff and demanded more. I have no idea what they’re doing with it. I haven’t heard anything about them doing a private exhibit. Perhaps it’s for a private collection that will never be shown.”

  “But still, you must be thrilled. I’d love to be that independent,” Brittany said wistfully.

  “I am thrilled,” Josie said. “It means a lot for me to be able to stand on my own two feet and support myself.”

  Brittany nodded, understanding bright in her eyes.

  Ash had gone still beside her, his lips drawn into a firm line. Had she said or done something that displeased him? Surely he couldn’t fault her for liking being able to support herself. It in no way interfered with her relationship with him. But it gave her the confidence to remain with him, submissive, because she knew she didn’t have to. Didn’t have to rely on him to support her. And that was important. It gave her much more power to choose to be with him rather than having no other option.

  Their food came, breaking the current topic of conversation. For several moments, they ate, silence descending on the table.

  Brittany looked up, her mouth open as she was evidently going to say something. But then her eyes flashed and her mouth snapped shut.

  “Shit,” she murmured.

  Ash frowned and started to turn around to see what Brittany was looking at, but before he could, a woman strode into view, standing between Ash and Brittany at the table.

  Without needing to be told, Josie guessed that this had to be their mother. It was also obvious that she was who both siblings got their looks from. She had long, blond hair that was probably helped by a bottle to cover the gray because Josie couldn’t detect any sign of her age. At least not by looking at the healthy, glossy mane of hair.

  For that matter, there wasn’t a single wrinkle marring the other woman’s face. No indication of her age. Her skin was smooth and free of blemishes. Her fingernails were immaculately manicured and expensive jewelry dripped from her wrists and fingers.

  “Fuck,” Ash muttered.

  His mother sent him a look that would have fried a lesser man.

  “Watch your language,” she snapped. “There’s no reason to be vulgar.”

  “What the hell are you doing here? In my hotel,” h
e bit out.

  The emphasis on it being his hotel wasn’t lost on Josie or his mother.

  Her eyes flashed with anger as she glared at Ash. Then her gaze turned to Brittany. Josie was just glad that so far the woman was ignoring her.

  “When are you going to stop this silly game?” she demanded.

  Color suffused Brittany’s cheeks. No matter what the younger woman had said about handling her mother before, it was evident that she was still no match for her.

  “And you,” she said, rounding on Ash. She pointed her finger in an accusing manner toward Ash. “I know what you’re doing and it won’t work.”

  Her voice was like ice and the coldness of it made Josie shiver. These were her children and yet she treated them like they were people she hated.

  “And what, pray tell, is it that I’m doing?” Ash drawled.

  He hadn’t moved his arm from Josie and in fact he’d tightened his hold around her shoulders. She could feel his fingers digging into her arm, but she made no move to get him to loosen it. She doubted he even realized how painful his hold was. It was her only indication of how his mother’s impromptu visit was affecting him.

  No matter what he might say about his mother, it still hurt him that she was so . . . bitchy.

  His mother’s eyes narrowed, fury spitting from the green eyes she shared with her children.

  “Using Brittany to get back at me for some imagined slight. Really, Ash. Putting her to work in your hotel? How vulgar and common is that? Do you get a good laugh out of watching her work? Does it make you happy to know how it makes me feel?”

  Ash sat forward like a shot, his face dark, anger gleaming in his eyes. Brittany cast a worried look in Josie’s direction, but at least it didn’t reflect hurt. She hadn’t believed her mother’s accusation. Josie gave her a look of support and sympathy, letting her know that she didn’t believe it any more than Brittany did.

  “I don’t give a fuck how it makes you feel,” Ash gritted out. “All I care about is how Brittany feels. But don’t take my word for it, Mother dear. Ask her yourself. Ask her if she feels like I’m making a fool of her by giving her a real job where she gets paid a real salary for doing real work.”

  His mother never turned to look at Brittany. But Brittany spoke up, her tone even and unaffected.

  “I asked him for a job. He gave me what I asked for. Now please go, Mother. You’re making a spectacle of yourself and that’s one thing you’ve always hated.”

  Fury sparked in the older woman’s eyes. Josie was surprised that steam didn’t rise from her ears. And then her gaze settled on Josie, almost as if she was looking for a new victim. Josie fidgeted uncomfortably underneath her gaze but refused to react. She kept her expression serene and unbothered.

  “Is this your latest whore, Ash? How dare you take my daughter to lunch with you and your latest piece of ass.”

  Brittany gasped, her face turning red. Horror reflected in her eyes as she stared at Ash.

  Ash stood, the clatter loud as he pushed back his chair. Then he motioned for security who were already hovering on the fringes.

  “Escort this woman out,” he said in a frigid tone. “Furthermore, she is never to be allowed back on the premises of any of my properties. You photograph her and distribute it along with her name. The person who allows her back will be terminated immediately.”

  His mother’s face went white with shock. And then color invaded as embarrassment took over. She glanced right and then left, dismayed when she saw a security person on either side.

  “Get out,” Ash said, enunciating each word. “Stay away from Brittany and stay away from me. And stay the fuck away from Josie. She will be my wife and the mother of my children. I’ll not allow any disrespect to be shown to her. Ever. Now get the fuck out of my sight. And tell dear old dad and the old man that Brittany and I are out. We have no desire to be a part of the family.”

  “Ash, wait,” his mother begged. “I need to talk to you. Please. I let my temper get the best of me, but I came here today to speak to you. I didn’t even know Brittany would be here. I was just caught off guard. But there’s something I need to talk to you about.”

  “And I don’t give a fuck,” he said coldly. “I have no interest in anything you have to say.”

  Josie sat there, stunned by what Ash had said. His wife? Mother of his children? Holy shit but that was deep! They’d only known each other a very short time. He’d said nothing to her about marriage and babies. Not that she had anything against either, but shouldn’t he have at least mentioned it to her before he blabbed it in a public restaurant?

  His mother licked her lips as the security closed in. “I need to speak to you, Ash. It’s important. It’s about your grandfather.”

  “You aren’t manipulating me like you manipulate everyone else in your life. I have no interest in you or the old man. Look around, Mother. I don’t need you. I don’t need him. I’ve made a success of myself without any of you. And perhaps that’s the biggest reason you despise me so much.”

  She went white, but anger glittered in her eyes. Josie’s heart ached for Ash. It didn’t matter that he’d hardened himself to his family. This was his mother! Everyone needed a mother. She could only imagine how it made him feel to know his own mother despised him.

  She reached up, not knowing if it was what she should do, but she curled her fingers around Ash’s hand and then rose to stand beside him. Only he shifted so she wasn’t exactly beside him but more behind him, nestled into his side. He was protecting her even now from his mother’s judgment and vitriol. Josie just wanted him to know that she was here. Beside him. Always. He might be protective of her, but she sure as hell would protect him from whatever she could.

  “Escort her out,” Ash said to the two security officers.

  “I know my own way out,” she huffed, shrugging off the hand of one of the guards.

  “I have no doubt of that. But then letting you walk out on your own would deprive me of the pleasure of having you thrown out,” Ash said.

  He nodded toward the two security guards and they grasped his mother by the arms, one on either side, and began to lead her away.

  Her shrieks of indignation filled the air. Josie flinched because every eye in the restaurant was on them. She’d even seen a few camera flashes. She had no doubt today’s incident would be all over the tabloids. Ash was one of the wealthiest men in the city. He came from money, from people with connections in society. His grandfather was a well-known figure in politics. No doubt the papers would be tripping over themselves to report the estrangement between Ash and his mother.

  What if Michael saw it? Would he try to cause trouble for Ash once he realized who Ash was?

  More camera flashes, this time much closer. Josie flinched away, covering her face with a hand. Ash pulled her farther behind him and then flicked his hand toward the people taking pictures. In a moment’s time, more security rushed forward, effectively shutting down the impromptu photo session.

  Josie sagged into her chair. Brittany looked shell-shocked. She was pale and looked mortified as she sagged against the back of her chair. Josie’s heart went out to her.

  “I’m having a girls’ night out Wednesday night,” Josie said casually. “You should go with us. It’ll be fun.”

  Brittany blinked in surprise as she stared back over at Josie.

  Beside Josie, Ash had retaken his seat and he curled his fingers around hers, squeezing as she issued the invitation. She chanced a peek up at Ash and saw warm approval—and appreciation—glowing in his eyes. She smiled encouragingly up at him, as if to say, It’ll be all right.

  “I don’t know,” Brittany began.

  “You should go, Britt. Josie is going with Mia and Bethany and their girls. You’ve already met Bethany. They’re solid. You’d like them. No better women anywhere,” Ash said.

  Brittany’s cheeks turned pink but delight simmered in her eyes.

  “I’d like that, Josie. Thanks. Tell me when an
d where.”

  Josie glanced up at Ash because she didn’t know the when and where. Only that she was going Wednesday night and that she and Ash were shopping for a dress and shoes after lunch with Brittany.

  “I’ll send a car for you,” Ash promised. “I’ll warn you, though. They take girls’ night out pretty seriously. You’ll need a sexy dress and some to-die-for heels. It’s the dress code, or so I’ve been informed.”

  Brittany laughed. “Well, I have plenty of those. Thank God I’ll have a use for them. I took a look the other day and thought to myself that I’d never have a need of them again.”

  Ash smiled at his sister. “Be ready at seven. It’s Jace’s turn to ride herd so he’ll be around in a car. I’ll let him know to pick you up and to drop you back off when you’re done.”

  Her eyes glittered with excitement. In that moment, Josie was glad she’d issued the impulsive invitation.

  “Thank you for inviting me, Josie. It sounds like fun!”

  Josie smiled warmly at Ash’s sister and then reached across the table to squeeze her hand. “Us girls have to stick together, right?”

  Brittany grinned back. “Yep. And with guys like Ash around, it’s even more important not to let them get one over on us.”

  “Hey,” Ash defended.

  Josie elbowed him in the gut and he pretended to double over in pain.

  “Let’s finish eating. Not going to let that bitch ruin the meal for us,” Ash proclaimed. “You have to get back to work, Britt, and Josie and I have some shopping to do.”

  Brittany’s eyes rounded. “Shopping? You?”

  Ash glared at her. “Some things are worth going shopping for. Like the results of this shopping trip.”

  Josie elbowed him for real, her face flaming with heat.

  Brittany laughed and Ash grinned. Josie relaxed. The awkward moment was over and Ash and Brittany hadn’t let it ruin their day.

  Fifteen minutes later, Ash was guiding Josie into the car and they rode off toward the stores Ash was taking her to.

  He pulled her against him, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. He kissed her temple and left his lips pressed to her skin for a long moment.

  “Meant a lot that you’d invite Britt on your girls’ night out,” he rumbled. “That was sweet of you, baby. I won’t forget it.”

  Josie smiled and then sobered. “You don’t think Mia and Bethany will mind, do you? I didn’t even think about asking them first.”

  Ash shook his head, pulling back from her temple. “No, they’re the best. They won’t mind a bit. Especially if I put a bug in Mia’s ear about Britt. It was a nice thing to do, baby. It was something you didn’t have to do, but I’m really happy that you’re including Britt in your girls’ stuff. She needs that. She needs good friends.”

  “I was happy to do it,” Josie said softly. “Everyone needs friends. Brittany probably more than most. She looked so miserable and embarrassed when your mom showed up.”

  Ash’s face darkened and he went stiff next to her. “I’m sorry for that. Sorry she ruined our lunch.”

  Josie shook her head. “She didn’t ruin it, darling. You and Brittany didn’t let her. I don’t know the woman. Don’t care what she thinks about me or that she doesn’t think I’m good enough for you.”

  He went utterly still, his eyes blazing across her face. “You called me ‘darling.’”

  She blushed and looked away. “Sorry. It probably sounds stupid.”

  He took her face, not too gently, and forced her back to him. “I liked it. Liked it a hell of a lot. You’ve never called me anything but Ash.”

  “You do?”

  He nodded. “Yeah. Don’t give a fuck what other men like or don’t like or what anyone thinks because you call me something sweet. I like it. Makes me feel like I mean something to you, so yeah, I like it a whole lot.”

  She smiled. “Okay then, darling. I’ll remember that.”

  He kissed her, hard, long, breathless. His tongue pushed in, roaming through her mouth with sensual familiarity. When he finally dragged himself away, his eyes were dark with desire. He stroked her cheek, palming it with one hand as he stared back at her.

  “Don’t give a shit what my mother thinks about you either, baby. As long as you remember that it’s bullshit you not being good enough for me. Don’t want that ever on your mind. Doesn’t even need to cross it. You’re fucking perfect for me and you need to always remember that.”

  She smiled again and leaned up to kiss him, savoring the sweetness of his mouth against hers.

  “I will.”

  chapter twenty-three

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