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         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  Ash stretched on his couch, drink in one hand, as Gabe sprawled into the armchair across from him. The two had eaten takeout that Gabe had picked up on his way over after leaving the women at his apartment.

  Ash checked his watch and grinned. “How drunk you think they are by now?”

  Gabe grimaced. “I’m sure they’re well on their way.”

  Ash chuckled, though he was willing the hours to pass. He wanted Josie back, drunk, cute, and he was dying to see her in that dress and heels she’d bought. She wouldn’t even let him see them when she tried them on in the store. All she’d said was that she thought he’d like the end result.

  Hell, he’d like her in a sackcloth or with a paper bag over her head. Didn’t matter to him what she wore, because he’d get her out of it quick enough. It was what was underneath that mattered the most. But still, the image of her made-up, teetering on sexy heels and eyes cloudy with alcohol? Yeah, that did it for him. He’d listened to Gabe and Jace enough to know that girls’ night out was not something to miss.

  Neither man had any issue with their women going out and having fun because afterward they came home to them and the reward was pretty spectacular.

  His cell phone rang, and he picked it up immediately, thinking it might be Josie. He hoped the evening was going well and that she was relaxed and having fun.

  He frowned when he saw his doorman’s name as the incoming call.

  “Ash,” he said shortly.

  “Mr. McIntyre, you have visitors in the lobby. They wanted to go up, but I called first. They say they’re your parents.”

  “Oh Jesus,” Ash muttered. Just kill him now. They had to be here tonight of all nights? They’d never set foot in his apartment building, just as they’d never set foot in his office building either. Hell, before the lunch his mother had intruded on earlier in the week, he seriously doubted they’d ever stepped into one of his hotels either.

  Such a move reeked of desperation. His mother had wanted to “talk” after making her scene in the restaurant and he’d let her know in no uncertain terms that he had no desire to discuss anything with her. He’d banned her from his hotel properties, but perhaps he should have broadened his parameters a bit. But he wouldn’t have imagined that they’d come here. Making him come to them was more their style.

  He glanced over at Gabe who was regarding him with a frown. He shook his head to let Gabe know it wasn’t anything going on with the women.

  “I’ll be down. Do not let them up. In fact never let them up if they show up again. They aren’t allowed here,” Ash bit out. “I’ll come down and take care of the matter personally, but in the future, if they show up, you’re to show them the door. And you damn sure better not ever let them up when I’m not here and Josie is.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Ash ended the call and then got to his feet.

  “What the fuck, man?” Gabe demanded. “What’s going on?”

  “My parents are paying me a visit,” Ash said dryly. “I’m going down to inform them they aren’t welcome.”

  “Shit,” Gabe swore. “I’ll come with you.”

  “Not necessary,” Ash said in a calm voice. “Just hang out up here. I’ll be back in a few.”

  Gabe got up, ignoring Ash’s response. “Didn’t say it was necessary. But I’m going with you.”

  Ash shrugged. Most people wouldn’t want their dirty laundry and family drama aired in front of others. But Gabe wasn’t just anyone. He was Ash’s real family. Just as Jace was. And Gabe knew everything there was to know about mommy dearest. Except her showing her ass at lunch. It wasn’t that Ash hadn’t wanted to tell him or Jace, but it had slipped his mind. He’d been too focused on other things.

  “She showed her ass the other day,” Ash said as they got into the elevator. “I was having lunch with Josie and Brittany at the Bentley and she strutted in making a scene. I had her escorted out and gave instructions that she wasn’t to be allowed on any of our hotel properties.”

  “Jesus. Does she ever quit?”

  Ash shook his head. “Evidently not. She insulted Britt and Josie. Then she wanted to talk. As if I’d give her the time of day even if she hadn’t spewed her vitriol all over Britt and Josie.”

  Gabe shook his head as the elevator descended. “It’s a sad fact but maybe you ought to look into a restraining order. Have their asses arrested the next time they come poking around. Maybe that would be a wake-up call and let them know just how serious you are about them staying the hell away from you and Brittany.”

  “I’ll make my point face-to-face,” Ash said, his face going hard over the impending confrontation.

  Having it out with his parents in the lobby of his building wasn’t his first choice, but no way in hell was he allowing them into his home. That was his sanctuary. And Josie’s. He wasn’t about to have it invaded by people he loathed. And he damn sure wasn’t having this confrontation on their turf. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of going to them. Ever.

  When they got off the elevator, Ash saw his mother and father waiting in the lobby. Neither looked happy and when they turned and saw him, there was no welcome in their eyes. No recognition that he was their son. But then there’d never been. He didn’t understand it. Couldn’t fathom being so cold toward your own children. The hell he’d ever treat his own kids this way.

  He strode up to them and halted several feet away, his face drawn into a glacier of ice. He stared at them both coldly until his father actually flinched and looked away, guilt edging into his eyes.

  “Why are you here?” Ash demanded bluntly.

  His mother’s gaze flicked over him and then to Gabe, annoyance sparking in her eyes.

  “Really, Ash, this is a private matter. Couldn’t we speak privately? Perhaps in your apartment?”

  “Gabe is family,” Ash said in a flat tone. “Anything you have to say can be said in front of him.”

  She sniffed delicately and then schooled her features. He could swear she was actually trying to appear . . . nice. Beseeching even. His nape prickled because she resembled a bloodthirsty vampire closing in on the kill.

  “I wanted to apologize for my unfortunate behavior earlier in the week.”

  Color rose in her cheeks and it looked as though the words nearly choked her. They probably had. Issuing an apology was not something she ever did.

  “Apology accepted. Now if that’s all?”

  Anger flashed in her eyes briefly before she pushed it away, once again composing herself to look more congenial.

  “Your grandfather would like to have us all for dinner. Brittany too. He—and I—would like it very much if you would come. Your brothers and their wives and children will be there too, of course.”

  Ash’s eyes narrowed. “No chance in hell.”

  His father cleared his throat, speaking for the first time.

  “I wish you’d reconsider, son.”

  Ash stared at him in disgust. “‘Son’? When have I ever been your son? Suppose you cut the crap and tell me exactly what it is you want here. Because it sure as hell isn’t some family quality time over dinner.”

  His mother’s lips thinned and her eyes flashed. This time she did nothing to try and hide her annoyance.

  “He’s going to change his will. He’s pissed because our family has gone to hell as he put it. He’s not happy with Brittany’s defection. Said if I was more of a mother then my children wouldn’t all despise me. He’s made noises about how we should start to support ourselves and that he’s tired of dumping money into a nest of vipers. He said that if a mother and father can’t even keep their family together then why should he reward us by leaving us everything.”

  Ash laughed and it only pissed his mother off even more.

  “This affects you too,” she hissed. “And Brittany! If he cuts us out of his will, he cuts everyone. You won’t get a dime and neither will Brittany.”

  Ash shook his head, still chuckling. “Maybe you haven’t been listening to me all
these years, Mother dear. I don’t give a flying fuck about the old man’s money. I never have. It comes with too many strings. Just as everything with you has strings.”

  “If you don’t care then at least think about how this will affect your sister. She won’t get anything either.”

  “I’ll provide for Brittany so she never has to give a fuck about the old man’s money or strings either,” Ash said icily. “She doesn’t want to be part of this toxic family any more than I do. She wanted out. I gave her that option.”

  His mother’s fingers balled into tight fists at her sides. Then she turned to his father and all but shouted at him.

  “Do something, William! Don’t just stand there like a coward. We’ll be ruined if he changes his will!”

  “There’s nothing he can do,” Ash said calmly. “There is nothing either of you can possibly say that will make me go play nice with the family. I don’t give a fuck about my brothers or the fact that they can’t support their wives and children. I don’t give a fuck about you and dear old dad. You made your bed and you can fucking lie in it. Brittany and I will be just fine.”

  “I hate you,” his mother hissed.

  He flinched, even though he knew as much. But somehow hearing those words from the woman who gave him life cut deep.

  “Elizabeth, stop it,” his father snapped. “You don’t mean that. He’s our son for God’s sake. Is it any wonder he won’t have anything to do with either of us? Think about what you’re saying.”

  But Ash knew she meant every word. It was there in her eyes. It had always been there since the day he’d brushed his family off and made his own way in the world.

  “I think it’s time you left,” Ash said quietly. “And don’t come back. You aren’t welcome here. You aren’t welcome on any of the properties I own. And here’s a warning. Stay the hell away from Brittany. Stay the hell away from me. And you sure as fuck better stay the hell away from Josie and the rest of my family. You spread your poison to any of them and I’ll come after you. I’ll take everything away from you. Furthermore, I’ll make certain that the old man does change his will and leaves you nothing. If you don’t think I’m deadly serious, just try me.”

  “You’re bluffing,” his mother spat.

  Ash raised one eyebrow and engaged in a stare down. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. She blanched and then looked away, her face going pale as she realized just how serious he was.

  When she glanced back at him, she looked . . . old. Haggard and defeated. She took a step forward, her hand going to his arm. It took everything he had not to flinch away.

  “Ash, please. I’m begging you. Don’t do this. If you want us to back off, we will. I’ll never come around again. Not even to Brittany. If you’ll get him to change his mind. If you’ll just come to one dinner, I swear you’ll never see us again unless you want to. I’ll issue that promise in writing. Whatever you want. Don’t let your hatred of me ruin your brothers’ lives. Think of their children. Their wives. Think of your father and me. We’ll have nothing.”

  “Don’t let her fuck with your head, Ash,” Gabe growled, speaking up for the first time.

  Ash held up his hand. “I won’t come to dinner. No way I’ll expose Britt to that. Or Josie. And where I go, she goes. That’s in stone.”

  Seeing that she might be making headway, his mother leaned forward eagerly. “You don’t have to come to dinner. But meet with him, Ash. You can put a different spin on Brittany leaving. Tell him whatever you want. Tell him we’ve reconciled. Just do whatever you have to in order to convince him not to cut us all out of his will.”

  “Jesus,” Gabe spat. “This is pathetic.”

  She sent Gabe a chilling look so full of hatred that Ash recoiled. What the hell was wrong with these people? How on earth had he come from these two self-absorbed malcontents?

  “I’ll call the old man,” Ash offered.

  Gabe shook his head in disgust.

  “But that’s all I’m doing,” Ash continued. “And I’m telling you now, this shit stops. If I hear of you coming near Britt or Josie, if you make another appearance at one of my hotels, my office building and especially my home, I’ll yank the rug out from under you so fast that it’ll break your neck. Got it?”

  She nodded quickly, her eyes filled with hope. Desperate didn’t even begin to cover it. The fact that she’d humbled herself enough to beg for anything from him told him just how desperate and afraid she was.

  He should walk way. Should wash his hands of the lot of them. But they were his family. His blood. Even if he never wanted a familial relationship with them, the idea of them being destitute left a bad taste in his mouth.

  “Get out,” Ash said. “I’m done with this. I’m not letting you ruin my evening.”

  “Thank you, son,” his father said in a quiet voice. “This means a lot to your mother. To me. And to your brothers as well. Tell Brittany . . .” He broke off with a sigh and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Tell Brittany I love her and that I miss her and hope she’s doing well.”

  Ash nodded and then looked pointedly at the door.

  His mother, evidently satisfied that she’d won this round, whirled and stalked away, her nose in the air.

  When Ash turned back toward the elevator, Gabe was staring at him, a grimace twisting his lips.

  “Christ, man, that sucks. I knew they were bad, but until I saw that, I just had no idea.”

  Ash shrugged. “How’s the saying go? ‘You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family’?”

  chapter twenty-five

  Josie followed Bethany and Mia who followed Caroline and Brandon to a private room located above the dance floor. Though you could see out to the floor below, Brandon assured them that no one was able to see into the box, so they were afforded complete privacy.

  “I’ll be back to check on you in a little while,” Brandon said to Caroline as he brushed a kiss over her lips.

  Caroline flopped onto the comfortable couch next to Josie. Mia took the other side of Caroline and Bethany perched on the arm.

  “So you’re moving to Las Vegas,” Mia murmured.

  Tears filled Caroline’s eyes. “Yeah. Brandon wants to get married before we go. We have six weeks to find a place to live there, get married and move out there before he starts his new job. Mr. Wellington is being fabulous about everything. He’s paying for relocation and also helping with the down payment on the house. He’s very serious about Brandon and wants him to consider this a long-term position. He’s doubling Brandon’s salary so we won’t have to worry about money and I have plenty of time to find a job out there.”

  “That’s wonderful, Caro,” Mia said softly. “But I’ll miss you terribly.”

  “We all will,” Bethany amended. “Girls’ night out just won’t be the same without you!”

  Caroline hugged them both and then rose. “I’m going to head to the ladies’ room and see if the others are coming. I’ll also snag the waitress and tell her we all want another round. Be back in a flash.”

  Mia watched her best friend go with an unhappy frown. When Caroline left the room, Mia sighed.

  “Damn, I’m going to miss her.”

  “I know,” Bethany said. “So will I. But you still have us, Mia.”

  Mia looked up and smiled and then impulsively reached for both Josie’s and Bethany’s hands to squeeze.

  “Okay so we’re alone now and I have to admit, Josie, that Bethany and I are bursting with nosy questions about you and Ash. I hope we don’t offend you but we’re dying to know all the details!”

  Josie laughed. “I don’t mind. But I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment. There’s nothing really exciting about our relationship.”

  Mia snorted. “You’ll forgive us if we don’t quite believe that. The first thing you have to tell us is just how good he is in the sack. I suppose Bethany already knows, but I have to admit, I’m curious!”

  Then she promptly clamped a hand over he
r mouth, her eyes rounding with horror.

  “Oh my God, Josie! I’m so sorry!” A low moan escaped and Mia buried her face in her hands. “I’m so stupid. I swear. Gabe and Jace are always telling me how I just blurt out whatever I’m thinking without any consideration for what I’m saying.”

  Josie smiled wryly. “It’s okay, Mia. Really. I know about Bethany and Ash.” She glanced over at Bethany to see the other woman was even more mortified than Mia. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes were mirrors of discomfort.

  “I hope you understand,” Bethany said. “I mean that it didn’t mean anything to Ash. Oh God, this is even more awkward than things were the first time Jace and I saw Ash together after that night.”

  Josie reached over to squeeze Bethany’s hand. “Please don’t. It’s okay, really. I admit, when Ash first told me what happened, I dreaded meeting you. I wasn’t crazy about having to spend time with a woman who’d had sex with Ash. I hated the idea of picturing the two of you together. But after meeting you it was okay. And I think in a lot of ways, seeing how Jace was with you helped cement for me that there was nothing between you and Ash except deep friendship.”

  “I’m glad,” Bethany said sincerely. “I love Ash. I really do. But as a friend. I adore Jace beyond all reason.”

  “I suppose I’ve ruined any chance of us getting the dirt on you and Ash now, Josie,” Mia said glumly.

  Josie laughed. “Well, no, not if you give me return dirt. I’m dying of curiosity over your men too. Like for instance, is that a collar you wear, Bethany? Or is it just a necklace?”

  Bethany’s cheeks went pink as she fingered the diamond that rested in the hollow of her throat. “It’s a collar,” she said softly. “Jace wanted me to wear it. I never take it off.”

  “Is yours a collar too, Josie?” Mia asked.

  Josie nodded.

  “Well damn,” Mia muttered. “I want one too. I think they’re so cool. I’d love for Gabe to pick one out and put it on me. But he’s not into collars. And to be honest, I never was until I saw Bethany’s. The meaning behind it is pretty awesome.”

  Both Bethany and Josie nodded.

  Josie downed the last of her drink and set it on the table in front of the couch. She had a pretty good buzz going, but she wasn’t even close to being plastered. She slipped her heels off her aching feet and stretched her toes, nearly sighing in contentment.

  “Oh look, there’s Jace,” Mia said.

  She’d gotten up and walked to the glassed-in area of the box to look down on the floor.

  She turned back to Bethany. “He’s here early isn’t he? Or have we not been drinking enough?”

  “I don’t think we’ve been drinking as much,” Bethany said ruefully.

  “Well damn. We have to fix this. And the only way I know to get shitfaced in a very short time is to do shots!”

  “Oh hell,” Josie said. “I’ve never even had a shot of anything.”

  “You’ll be okay,” Mia said. “After the first one, you don’t really taste them anymore.”

  Just then the door burst open and the rest of the women came in noisily. The waitress was with them, and handed out drinks and then listened as Mia gave her the next series of orders.

  “Shots?” Caroline asked. “Since when do we do shots?”

  “Since we’re not nearly drunk enough,” Mia said dryly. “Jace is already here, which means we don’t have much longer. We have to catch up!”

  “Bring the bottle,” Chessy called to the waitress. “Better make it two! We have a lot of women here tonight.”

  The waitress grinned. “You got it.”

  Everyone piled onto the couches and chairs, shoes going this way and that. A few moments later, the waitress returned and began lining up shot glasses on the table.

  “Everyone got one?” Trish yelled.

  After a chorus of yesses, Gina held up her shot glass in a toast. Everyone raised theirs and then amid shouts of “Go, go go!” they downed the first shot.

  Fire blazed down Josie’s throat. She coughed and sputtered so much her eyes watered. She could feel it in her belly. Hell, she could even feel it travel to her bladder. It was sitting in her bladder, hot and swirling. Already she needed to go pee.

  “Let’s do the next!” Trish encouraged.

  They picked up the next shot glasses, held them up as they did the last ones and then tossed the contents back.

  A low chuckle sounded from the door. Everyone jerked around to see Jace standing there with Brandon. Both men looked amused. Jace was outright laughing.
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