Burn, p.23
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       Burn, p.23
 

         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  Brittany shook her head. “No. He’s been in Vegas getting the new club ready to open. Now that it is, he’s planning to spend a lot of his time out there, or at least for the first few months. He travels a lot, going between his clubs, so he doesn’t maintain a permanent residence anywhere.”

  “How long will he be here then?” Bethany asked, her lips turning down into a frown that mirrored Josie’s own.

  Brittany shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to take it one day at a time and see what happens. Who knows? Maybe I’m just an itch he wants to scratch while he’s in town. I know better than to read more into the situation. Good way to get my hopes crushed.”

  “He could scratch his itch with me,” Mia muttered.

  Bethany died laughing. “I’m so telling Gabe you said that.”

  Mia glared at her. “No you won’t. Girlfriends’ code. What’s discussed with girlfriends stays with girlfriends.”

  “True,” Bethany agreed. “But it’s fun to tease you.”

  “Besides, I’ve got more than I can handle with Gabe. I can look. Nothing’s wrong with my eyes—or my hormones for that matter. But I have no desire to touch another man,” she said cheekily.

  “Is it possible to fall in love at first sight?” Brittany asked wistfully. “I’m thirty years old and I’ve never been in love. I certainly wasn’t in love with my husband. I’m worried that Kai just overwhelmed me and that I latched on to him because he was so attracted to me. I just wonder if I would have responded to any guy the way I responded to Kai.”

  Josie reached over to squeeze Brittany’s hand. “Absolutely it is possible. It happens more than you’d think. And you need to stop beating yourself up over your first marriage. Shit happens. But you got out. Now it’s time to move on and give yourself a chance at happiness.”

  “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Bethany said. “And Jace swears that he fell for me the first time he laid eyes on me. And from what you say, it certainly seems that Kai fell pretty hard himself.”

  Mia slung an arm around Brittany’s shoulders. “Go for it, girlfriend. Have a great time. If it works out, great. But if it doesn’t? You’ll have us to fall back on. Not to mention Ash and the guys will beat the crap out of Kai if he fucks you over.”

  Bethany grinned her agreement. Even Brittany’s eyes sparkled with amusement. Josie didn’t say anything since she well knew that Ash would do just that. Mia’s words were just that. Words. But Ash wouldn’t hesitate to go after someone for hurting someone he cared about. He’d already proven that much.

  “You’re right,” Brittany said. “I should just go with it. Have a good time. I’m reading too much into it. He probably just wants some action while he’s here. And since he’s the bomb in bed that’s not a hardship. I just hope I don’t get all whiny when he leaves.”

  “Maybe he won’t,” Josie said with a shrug. “He looked pretty into you last night and from what you’ve said about him, this doesn’t look like just a pussy call for him.”

  “Pussy call!” Mia cracked up. “I’m so going to steal that from you. That’s hilarious!”

  “I think you’re right,” Bethany agreed. “I mean that’s all I thought I was to Jace that first night. I never dreamed he’d turn the city over looking for me! And let’s just say once he found me that was it. Not that we didn’t have issues. But he was in it for the long haul.”

  “So what about you and Ash?” Brittany asked, turning the attention to Josie. “I’ve never seen my brother this intense over a woman. Not that we spent a lot of time together, mind you, but I would have known if he’d been with the same woman for a long time.”

  “Long time!” Josie exclaimed with a laugh. “We’ve only been together like two weeks.”

  “He’s a goner,” Mia said solemnly. “Trust me, I know. He and Jace always fucked the same women, and it wasn’t always pretty. I met their last piece of ass.” She winced and cleared her throat. “Not you, Bethany. Before you. Ah shit, but there goes my foot into my mouth again.”

  Bethany’s cheeks turned pink, but Josie laughed. “Don’t Bethany. It’s okay. Really. I love that we can talk about it and not let it be all awkward between us. Really it’s better that way.”

  Brittany looked thoroughly confused but they didn’t fill her in.

  “Anyway, as I was saying,” Mia said. “Before I inserted the foot. Was that I met up with Jace and Ash’s last chick. They took me out to eat and I swear she followed us there. No way she just happened to be in the same place we were. Totally wasn’t her style if you know what I mean. We were in a pub munching down on nachos and other yummy lowbrow stuff. And she marches up like a woman scorned and made a scene. Insulted me in the process because she assumed I was her replacement.”

  She shuddered delicately as she said the last.

  “Didn’t go over too well, huh,” Bethany said with a grin.

  Mia winced. “No. Uh, let’s just say she didn’t take the ‘it’s the end’ message very well. And my point in bringing this up was that Jace and Ash were banging the same chicks for a long time. And then suddenly Jace met Bethany and that was over. And then Ash met you and it’s obvious that his banging random chicks is over too. I’ve been around him a lot of years, and he never hung on to the same woman for as long as he’s been with you, Josie.”

  “Glad to know that,” Josie murmured.

  “So, are you in love with him?” Brittany asked. “Should I be asking what your intentions toward my brother are?”

  Everyone laughed and Josie held up her hands. “I was gentle last night. Promise!”

  “You didn’t answer the question,” Mia said pointedly.

  Josie sighed. “Yes, I’m in love with him. I haven’t told him. I wanted to make sure I told him at the right time. It sounds so stupid, but I don’t want to scream it out when we’re having sex or caught up in the moment, nor do I want to tell him when he’s doing something really sweet for me because I want him to know I mean it and that I’m not just spouting something in the heat of the moment.”

  “Has he told you he loves you?” Bethany asked softly.

  Josie grimaced. “No.”

  “He does,” Mia said resolutely. “No doubt in my mind. Holy hell, the way he looks at you? Totally makes me shiver.”

  Brittany nodded her agreement. “Not to mention the way he went off on Mom when she made that scene at the restaurant and said that crap about you. I thought he was going to choke her. I wouldn’t have tried to stop him either!”

  They all laughed again and then were interrupted by the waiter bringing their orders. For the next several minutes they shoveled food in and laughed and talked about the guys, sex and well, more sex.

  Josie couldn’t remember when she’d had a better time. Everything was so . . . perfect. She had Ash, and really, if that’s all she had, she’d be one happy bitch. But now she also had really good girlfriends. She really liked them. They were genuine, had huge hearts and there wasn’t a fake bone in their bodies.

  What more could she ask for? She was now a successful artist—her work was actually in demand! So what if it was only one person. It only took one. Whoever it was had loved her work enough to scoop everything of hers up as soon as she brought it in. And now she had great friends and a man she adored. And she was pretty sure he adored her too.

  Maybe they hadn’t said the words yet, but Josie was confident that Ash was the one. The words would come. He’d already talked about their future like it was a done deal. He’d even told her she’d get the rock! He’d even mentioned their children! No man who wasn’t thinking long term talked about engagement rings and babies.

  She sat back with a sigh, indulging in a glass of wine with the others. She had someone to drive her home. Why not?

  An hour later, the girls said their good-byes and got into their respective cars to head home. Josie offered Brittany a ride since she’d walked to the restaurant and the two chatted all the way to Brittany’s apartment.

 
Today was fun,” Brittany said when they pulled to the front of her building. “Thanks so much for inviting me today and last night, Josie. I really enjoyed myself.”

  “You’re welcome,” Josie said with a warm smile. “I had fun too. We absolutely have to make this a regular event.”

  “Absolutely!” Brittany said as she climbed out of the car.

  “And keep me posted on Kai!” Josie yelled after her.

  Brittany turned and gave her a thumbs-up and an exaggerated smile.

  Josie settled into the backseat and texted Ash on her way back to the apartment. She’d told him she was having lunch with the girls and he’d told her to have fun and let him know when she was headed back. Maybe he’d even get to come home early from work.

  Anticipation licked up her spine as they drove through the city. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so . . . happy. So carefree and utterly satisfied with the direction of her life.

  When they arrived at Ash’s apartment building, she got out and thanked the driver. As she headed inside, the doorman, who was on the phone, put his hand over the receiver and called from across the lobby.

  “Miss Carlysle, a package came for you while you were out. It’s on my desk. Shall I have it brought up to the apartment?”

  Josie smiled. “No, that’s okay. It’s small, right? I’ll take it up with me.”

  She’d ordered some new brushes and knew they were coming in today.

  “It’s in the office. Give me just a sec and I’ll get it for you.”

  “Oh no need,” she called. “Finish your call. I’ll just get it and bring it up with me.”

  “Miss Carlysle!” he called after her.

  She pushed inside the small office that housed deliveries and glanced at the desk where a small package was sitting. With a smile, she went over and tucked it underneath her arm. When she turned to go back out, her gaze caught on several covered paintings resting against the far wall.

  She frowned because one of them wasn’t fully covered and it looked an awful lot like hers. But what would they be doing here of all places?

  She hurried over, unrepentant about snooping. She pulled back the covering and gasped. They were her paintings!

  chapter twenty-eight

  Josie quickly rummaged through the others, her stomach knotting as she took in every single painting she’d sold in Mr. Downing’s art gallery.

  What on earth?

  She let the covering fall and stepped back, the knot in her stomach growing bigger. Oh no. No, no, no. It couldn’t be. He wouldn’t have.

  But he had. The evidence was staring her right in the face.

  “Miss Carlysle, please. You shouldn’t be in here,” the doorman said from the door.

  “No, I don’t suppose I should,” she murmured.

  She pushed past him, ignoring his calls for her to stop. What on earth could he possibly say?

  She shoved into the elevator, tears stinging her eyes. How could he have done it? She felt like the biggest fool on earth. She’d never dreamed that Ash had been the one to buy all her paintings, but it shouldn’t have surprised her. He’d orchestrated every aspect of their relationship so far.

  Desolation settled over her. She wasn’t successful. She wasn’t independent. Everything she had came from Ash. She was living off his money, in his apartment. Nothing had been bought with her money. Her earlier sensation of rightness, that she’d found her place in the world, was gone with the discovery of those paintings.

  She swept out of the elevator so agitated she couldn’t even think straight. Her gaze settled on the boxes, most of which had already been unpacked. She walked right by them and sagged onto the couch, covering her face with her hands.

  She was utterly humiliated. Every single time she’d excitedly exclaimed to Ash over the success of her work came back to her in waves of embarrassment. And he’d let her!

  He’d lied to her, something she wouldn’t have imagined. No, he hadn’t come out and denied buying the paintings, but then she hadn’t asked. She’d never dreamed that he’d been behind it. His was a lie of omission. So huge, so monumental that she couldn’t even fathom.

  What else had he kept from her?

  Tears burned her eyelids but she refused to give in to them. She also refused to believe she was overreacting. This wasn’t something small. Her success had enabled her to say yes to Ash’s demands. She’d felt like she could agree because she felt capable of supporting herself. No way would she have gone blindly into a relationship with Ash with such a huge disparity between them. She’d been willing and able to submit because she’d been strong enough to come to him as an equal. Not that there’d ever been true equality between them, but her success as an artist, having money in her bank account and the means to support herself, had been very important to her and it had evened the odds between them. At least in her mind.

  What she hadn’t realized was just how unequal things were between them.

  She was living in his apartment. All the money in her bank account was his. Not hers. Oh God, he’d even paid her double. She should have questioned her good fortune. People didn’t just walk into an art gallery and magnanimously offer to pay more than asking price for art.

  She was so stupid. Naïve. A complete and utter moron.

  She’d actually believed that someone had been awed by her work. She’d believed she had real talent even though Mr. Downing had refused to display more of her art because it wasn’t selling. Now she knew the truth.

  She closed her eyes, devastated by her discovery. She’d trusted him. Had kept no part of herself from him. And he’d shit all over that gift.

  All his words about cherishing her gift, about protecting it and appreciating it, meant nothing. He’d made a gigantic fool of her. God, she’d even told the others about the sale of her artwork. She’d been so proud. So excited. Did they all know that Ash was her benefactor?

  Ash apparently operated on a need-to-know basis. What else had he decided she didn’t need to know?

  She picked her head up, grief welling in her chest until she couldn’t breathe. She sucked in ragged breaths, trying to assuage the burning in her chest. But nothing worked.

  She loved him. She’d thought he loved her.

  She rubbed at her temples, weariness assailing her. What was she supposed to do?

  She glanced toward the boxes, anger replacing some of her devastation. The hell she’d just stay here and pretend that she didn’t know what he’d done. How could she? She was living a complete lie. And now she was faced with the knowledge that she wasn’t successful. There was no demand for her work. And she’d been lax with her jewelry design business ever since she’d moved in with Ash. She’d been too caught up in other things to design new pieces and put them up for sale. She’d been comforted by the knowledge that she was selling her artwork as fast as she could get it to the gallery and those pieces made her far more money than her jewelry did. Or at least they had.

  Sucking in a deep breath, she forced herself to her feet. To action. It wouldn’t take long to repack her belongings. And really all she wanted was her art supplies and the clothing she’d brought with her. Everything else belonged to Ash. They were things he bought for her and she wouldn’t bring them with her.

  Mechanically, she stuffed everything in the boxes, not taking the care she had when they’d been packed before. After thirty minutes, they were full, her overnight bag filled with her toiletries and her clothing. She stood surveying the room, knowing it would take several trips to get all the stuff to her apartment. Thank God she hadn’t terminated the lease and still had a place to live.

  Squaring her shoulders, she pulled out her phone and Googled a local mover. After a phone call, and a hefty bill for a last-minute job, all she had to do was wait. Wait for the people who’d remove all traces of her presence in Ash’s apartment.

  It hurt. She hurt. There wasn’t a part of her heart or soul that wasn’t sick. But how could she stay with a man who’d so blith
ely manipulate her? He might not have ever physically hurt her as Michael had, but right now Josie would take that kind of pain over the gut-wrenching agony she was experiencing over his deception.

  An hour later, the movers arrived and began taking the boxes down in the elevator to the waiting truck. Josie remained in the apartment until the last box went down. She silently urged them to hurry. She wanted no chance of Ash coming home from work while she was still moving out. He hadn’t called yet, so she should have plenty of time.

  By the time he made it home, she’d be back in her apartment. And this time, she wouldn’t be swayed by pretty words and hollow promises.

  Damn him for making her love him. And damn him for pulling her into his world. She liked his friends. Loved Bethany and Mia and Brittany and all the others. But they were his friends. Loyal to him. She was accepted because of him. And now she’d have nothing at all.

  It was on her way down that she realized two things. One, she didn’t have a ride to her apartment and Ash’s apartment wasn’t convenient to public transportation. She could take a cab, but she’d have to have the doorman call for one and it could take a while. Especially at this time of day when all the taxi drivers went off duty.

  The other thing she realized was that she needed to confront Ash. She couldn’t just move out and hide in her apartment. Not that she owed him anything, but she didn’t want to go home, dreading the moment when he realized she was gone and the inevitable confrontation that would ensue. It would be better if she went to his office, said her piece and made it clear they were over. That way she wouldn’t have to worry about him showing up at her apartment.

  For that, she would use Ash’s driver. After all, he’d have to pick up Ash from work anyway. A quick check of her watch told her the driver would likely still be here. If he wasn’t, she’d just take a cab to Ash’s building, even if it meant waiting. From his office, she’d just take the subway.

  She rummaged for her phone in the big bag she’d thrown over her shoulder. After waving off the movers and providing the keys to her apartment so they could start unloading, she called Ash’s driver, who as luck would have it, was just a block away.

  A few minutes later, she was on her way to Ash’s office building, silent tears trailing down her cheeks.

  chapter twenty-nine

  Ash leaned his head back against his chair, still holding the phone to his ear as the conference call droned on and on and on.

  Christ, all he wanted was to get the fuck off the phone so he could head home to Josie. She’d had lunch with the girls today and he was looking forward to hearing about her day. Afterward he’d take her to dinner. Somewhere quiet and intimate. They’d talk some more and then he’d take her home and make love to her until they both dropped from exhaustion.

  A knock sounded at his door and Eleanor stuck her head in. Ash frowned over the interruption, but then, if she’d poked her head in, it must be important. She was too efficient not to know he was on an important call.

  Temporarily muting the call, he lowered the receiver and looked questioningly in Eleanor’s direction.

  “Sorry, sir, I know you’re busy but Miss Carlysle is here to see you.”

  It took him a moment to realize Miss Carlysle was in fact Josie. He straightened, ending the call without hesitation.

  “Josie’s here?” he asked sharply. “Send her in immediately.”

  Eleanor disappeared and Ash was already on his feet striding toward the door to meet Josie when she came in. Josie hadn’t been to his office before. Hell, he didn’t even remember if he’d told her where he worked.

  A moment later, the door pushed open and Josie walked slowly in, her face pale, eyes swollen. Like she’d been fucking crying.

  He was in front of her in seconds, pulling her into his arms. She went stiff and rigid and utterly unyielding.

  “What’s wrong?” he demanded. “What’s upset you, Josie?”

  She pried herself away from him and walked by, toward the middle of his office where she just stood, back turned, her spine stiff.

  His gaze narrowed. “Josie?”

  When she didn’t respond he reached for her, turning her to face him. What he saw in her face he didn’t like one bit. Dread gripped him by the balls as he took in her lifeless eyes.

  Josie always shined. That was just her. She could light up a room just by walking into it. She sparkled, had a gorgeous smile and her eyes were always bright and sunny. Like every other part of her.

  But not today. She looked worn. Sad. She looked devastated.

  When she pulled away from him again, his lips came together in a tight line.

  “Remember what I said, Josie. When you and I are talking and especially if you’re upset about something, we do not discuss it with a room between us. You’re pushing me away, and that is not an option.”

  When he would have pulled her to him, she put both arms out, effectively blocking him.

  “You don’t get an option,” she said tightly. “We’re over, Ash. I’ve moved my stuff back to my apartment.”

 
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