Burn, p.24
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       Burn, p.24

         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks
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  He couldn’t even control his reaction. Of the hundred different things she could have said, he would have never imagined her saying this. What the ever-loving fuck?

  “The hell we’re over,” he bit out. “What the fuck is going on, Josie?”

  “I saw the paintings,” she said hoarsely. “All of them.”


  He blew out his breath and ran a hand raggedly through his hair. “Not the way I wanted you to find out, baby.”

  “No, I guess it wasn’t,” she said scornfully. “I don’t imagine you wanted me to find out at all.”

  “You’re not moving out and calling it quits just because I didn’t tell you I was the one who bought your paintings.”

  “Watch me,” she said in an icy tone that was just not her.

  “Baby, you need to calm down and let me explain. We’ll talk this out and then we’ll move on. But I’m not having this goddamn conversation in my fucking office and I’m damn sure not having it with you four feet away from me and you building a fucking wall between us.”

  “Calm down?” she demanded. “You lied to me, Ash. You lied. And I’m supposed to discuss and move on?”

  “I never lied to you,” he bit out.

  “Don’t give me that crap. You did lie and you know it. Moreover you made a gigantic fool out of me. All those times when I was so excited over selling those paintings. You let me talk about it with your friends. You let me feel like I’d done something great. That I was able to support myself. That I had money. Options. A future. God, you really did a number on me, Ash. And every single part of it is and was a lie.”

  “Jesus,” he swore. “Josie that is not what I intended at all.”

  She held up her hand. “Do you know why I didn’t argue with you about moving in? Why I let you talk me into it so easily? Because I felt like I could. Because I had options. Because I didn’t need you. But I wanted you. I thought I was self-sufficient. Able to be somewhat equal, although I’ll never have all the money you do. But it was important to me to be able to contribute something to our relationship. Even if it was just a sense of self. Me having confidence. I was on top of the world, Ash. Because I felt like for once I had everything. A career. You. Really great friends. And none of it, none of it was real!”

  Every single one of her words sliced through him like a knife. Her face had grown even paler, her eyes more stricken. He hadn’t thought about her sense of value, of self-worth. Of her feeling like she had options. Of her not having to depend solely on him, even if that’s what he wanted. But damn it, neither had he ever wanted to hurt her. That wasn’t why he’d done it at all.

  “You manipulated every aspect of our relationship,” she said painfully. “You orchestrated every point. Every move was calculated and thought out. You played me like an instrument and I fell right into your lap. I should have known better when you blackmailed me into dinner. Hell, the fact that you had me followed, that you knew about me pawning my mother’s jewelry. But I didn’t pay attention. I didn’t think those were huge warning signs, though it makes me a complete idiot for not recognizing them for what they were. You are so used to being God in your world that you thought nothing of playing God in mine.”

  “Josie, stop,” he ordered. “That’s enough. I’m sorry I hurt you. For God’s sake, that’s the last thing I ever wanted to do! We can work this out, baby.”

  She was already shaking her head, and fear curled in his belly, spreading to his chest and into his throat, grabbing him, squeezing until he could barely breathe.

  “Goddamn it, Josie, I love you.”

  She closed her eyes and a tear slipped down her cheek. When she reopened them, both were shiny with moisture and there was such hopelessness reflected that his stomach bottomed out.

  “I would have given anything for those words,” she said softly. “I’d even convinced myself that you did love me but just hadn’t said the words yet. You have no idea how much I wanted to hear them from you. But now? How can I even believe you? You’ve proven what lengths you’ll go to in order to manipulate the circumstances so you get your desired outcome. So how can I believe that’s not what you’re doing now, trying to play on my emotions?”

  He was speechless. Completely and utterly speechless. He’d never given those words to another damn woman in his life. And she thought he said them to manipulate her emotions?

  Anger burned in his veins, sizzling until he was certain he’d lose his grip. He turned to the side, panicked and frustrated because he had no idea what to say, what to do. She was breaking up with him and he’d been planning forever with her.

  Her hand shook as she lifted it to the collar she wore around her neck.

  “No!” he said hoarsely, turning fully back to her as she unfastened the clasp.

  She let it fall into her hand and then she held it out to him, pressing it into his palm.

  “I moved everything out of your apartment,” she said in a low voice. “I left the keys on your bar. Good-bye, Ash. You were the best—and worst—thing that ever happened to me.”

  He held up his hand, trying to stop her because no way in hell was he going to let her just walk out that door.

  “Wait just a goddamn minute, Josie. We’re not finished. No way in fuck I’m giving up that easy. We’re worth fighting for. You’re worth fighting for and I hope to fuck you think I’m worth it no matter how upset you may be right now.”

  “Please, Ash. I can’t do this right now,” she begged. Her eyes were filled with tears and more slipped rapidly down her cheeks. “Just let me go. I’m too upset to form a coherent argument and the last thing I want is to say things I’ll regret.”

  He closed the short distance between them, pulling her against his chest. He tilted her chin up with his fingers and stared down into her eyes.

  “I love you, Josie. That’s a fact. No manipulation. No hidden agenda. I. Love. You. Period.”

  She closed her eyes and turned her face to the side. He cupped her cheek and thumbed away one of the silver trails.

  “Just tell me why?” she whispered. “Why did you do it? Why didn’t you tell me? Why hide it from me?”

  He sighed. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Maybe I thought you’d react just like you have and I didn’t want that. I loved the paintings, Josie. It pisses me off that because you found out I bought them you think you have no talent and that no one wants your work. That’s bullshit.”

  She tugged herself away from him and presented her back, her shoulders shaking.

  “I’m too upset to have this conversation with you, Ash. Please, just let it go.”

  “I’m not fucking letting it go when you just told me you moved your shit out of our apartment. You honestly expect me to just say okay, have a nice life? Fuck that. The only nice life I want to have is with you.”

  She curled her arms around her waist, hugging herself. “I’m going back to my apartment. My stuff has already been moved. I can’t stay. I promised the movers I’d meet them there.”

  Panic clawed at his throat. Helplessness gripped him. She was actually walking away. Over those goddamn paintings. He knew it was more than that. He understood why she was pissed. He’d never looked beyond the fact that he’d bought them to see how it would make her feel once she discovered it was all a lie. He got that. But how the fuck was he supposed to make it up to her, to make her realize how much she had to offer, if she was sleeping in another bed in another part of the city?

  She started toward the door, him staring after her, utterly paralyzed, his heart in his stomach.

  “Josie, stop. Please.”

  At the “please” she stopped but didn’t turn around.

  “Look at me, please,” he said softly.

  Slowly she turned, her eyes awash with fresh tears. He cursed softly because he never wanted to be the reason for those tears.

  “Swear to me you’ll think about it. And us,” he said in a choked voice. “I’ll give you tonight, baby. But if you think I’m going to give
up and let you walk away then you don’t know me very well.”

  She closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath. “I’ll think about it, Ash. That’s all I can promise. I have a lot to sort out in my head. You pulled the rug out from under me. I have to figure out what I’m going to do from here. I knew when I entered this relationship with you that you promised to take care of me, to protect me, to provide for me. And I was okay with that because I didn’t need you to. Can you possibly understand the difference? I didn’t have to be with you. I wanted to be. If I’d had no other choice, no place to live, no money, then how could you ever be certain I wasn’t with you for your money? I never want that between us. It’s important to me to be independent and able to provide for myself even if that’s not what I end up doing. But I want that choice. I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know that I have value. That I can support myself and make my own choices.”

  He closed his eyes because so much of what she said made sense. It’s how he’d feel in her situation too. And he’d looked right past that. Never considered how it would make her feel for him to buy the paintings and hide that from her. He fucked up. And now he could lose her because of that fuck-up.

  “I get it,” he said hoarsely. “I do, baby. I’ll give you tonight. But I don’t have to fucking like it. And I’m not giving up on us, so prepare yourself for that. No way in hell I’m giving you up.”

  She swallowed, her face still pale, her eyes still wounded. Then she turned and walked away, taking his heart and soul with her, leaving him standing there holding the collar she’d taken from around her neck.

  chapter thirty

  Josie spent a miserable night tossing and turning before she finally gave up and immersed herself in her painting. For the first time, the vibrant colors didn’t come. There was nothing vivid about the scene she painted. It was dark, gray. There was a sadness to it that seeped onto the canvas without her realizing it was there.

  At dawn, her shoulders sagged, stiff and sore from the hours she’d spent on the painting. When she took it in, she winced. It was a clear image of her mood. Miserable.

  She nearly splattered paint on it to ruin it but held back, her hands trembling before she finally affixed her trademark J in the lower right-hand corner.

  It was honest. It was also very good. It was just different from any of her other work. Perhaps this would be something more along the lines of what others wanted. Maybe people didn’t want bright, cheerful, sexy fun.

  As she stared at the painting, the title came to her. Rain in Manhattan. Not particularly original, but it suited her mood, even if it was a perfect spring morning outside. The buildings in her painting were tall and gloomy, outlined by rain and overcast skies. She also realized that the building on the canvas was Ash’s.

  She sighed and rose, stretching her stiff muscles. She stumbled into the kitchen to make herself coffee, thankful that she still had an old canister in the cabinet. She would have to restock her apartment. All of the perishables had been thrown out when she’d moved and only a few items remained. One of them being the coffee. She needed to bypass a mug and go straight for an IV infusion of caffeine.

  Holding the steaming cup in her hand, she went back into the living room and opened her blinds to let the early morning light in. Outside, the streets were quiet, only just now starting to come alive with the traffic of the day.

  She’d always loved her apartment. The rent for the brownstone was costing her a mint, though, and the realization hit her that she would have to move somewhere cheaper. There had been no unexpected windfall. No customer who loved her work and would buy whatever she brought in.

  She needed to make a trip to the art gallery and speak to Mr. Downing. Make it clear that if she were to continue displaying her work there that he couldn’t sell it to Ash. He probably wouldn’t allow her to bring in anything else since she was refusing what had to be his best customer. How could she trust that Ash wouldn’t simply buy it under a different name, one she’d never be able to trace back to him?

  Yes, she would have to move, reorder her priorities and think about her options. She needed to create more jewelry and put it up for sale on her site. The site had languished since she’d moved in with Ash, all her focus going into her art. But she needed the money from the sale of her jewelry. When she produced regularly, she sold regularly. Her art would have to take a temporary backseat until she built up enough reserves to give her time to think about a new direction in her artwork.

  Mr. Downing had said she lacked vision and focus. That she was too scattered and all over the board. Evidently he was right. But what would her new focus be? If people didn’t like the cheerful, colorful works she created then she had to rethink her vision.

  It shouldn’t be too hard to come up with more of the depressing, gloomy paintings that she’d done this morning. She wouldn’t get over Ash in a day, a week or even a month. She loved him. She’d fallen hard and fast without a safety net. The old adage about playing with fire came to mind. She’d definitely played, throwing caution to the wind, and as a result she’d been burnt.

  Shaking her head, she finished off her coffee and set the mug on the coffee table. She needed to get back to work, perhaps draw a companion piece for the Rain in Manhattan painting. She could then take both to Mr. Downing and see if he thought they’d sell better than her previous offerings. If not? Plan B. Whatever that was.

  She eyed her cell phone, which she’d put on silent, debated whether she should check for calls or messages. Then she sighed. No one would be calling her. Except maybe Ash, and she didn’t want to think about him right now. Resisting the temptation to look at her messages—if there were any—she went back to work, driven to complete another piece.

  Her paintings usually took days. She tweaked endlessly, frowning over every little detail. But today she put paint to canvas and didn’t stop until it was done. So what if it was imperfect? It wasn’t like all that attention to detail had gotten her very far before.

  She shook her head. God, she sounded like a whiny, feeling-sorry-for-herself nitwit. This wasn’t her and she wasn’t going to let it be her. She wasn’t one to give up. She’d never given up her dream. Her mother had made her swear that she wouldn’t. No way in hell she was going to let herself or her mother down.

  For hours she worked steadily, the sun rising higher and more sunlight shining through her window. At one point she closed her blinds because she felt too exposed to the passersby on the sidewalk. She’d noticed a couple of guys walking back and forth on the street outside, seeming like they were trying to get a glimpse of her painting. Painting was private. Even moreso now that she was spilling her heart and her devastation onto the canvas.

  She’d just put the last touches on the painting when a knock sounded at her door. She froze, dismay coursing through her veins. Was Ash here? He’d been blunt about the fact that he’d give her last night but that he wasn’t giving up on her or them. He’d wanted her to think about it but she’d shoved the whole issue solidly from her mind and immersed herself in work.

  She rose, hands shaking. She could ignore the door, but she wasn’t a coward. And if Ash had come all this way, the least she could do was tell him that she needed more time. Space.

  Her heart beating a mile a minute, she wiped her hands and went to the door. Taking a deep breath, she opened it. Blinking in surprise, she took in the fact that it was not Ash at her door. Was it disappointment she felt? She shook that idea off and stared wordlessly at Mia and Bethany who wore determined expressions on their faces.

  “You look awful,” Mia said bluntly. “Have you slept at all?”

  “Stupid question, Mia. It’s obvious she hasn’t,” Bethany said.

  “What are you doing here?” Josie asked faintly.

  “To answer what will likely be your next question, no, Ash didn’t send us,” Mia said firmly. “To answer your first question, we’re here because we’re dragging you to lunch with us and don’t even think about
telling us no.”

  Josie’s mouth fell open. Bethany laughed.

  “You may as well give in gracefully, Josie,” Bethany said, laughter still in her voice. “Mia is very determined and she’s kind of scary when she sets her mind to something. I’m sure Gabe will attest to that fact.”

  Mia elbowed Bethany and scowled. Despite herself, Josie smiled, relief settling over her shoulders.

  “Can you give me just a minute to clean up? I’ve, uh, been working,” she finished lamely.

  “Sure,” Mia chirped.

  “Come in,” Josie said hastily. “Have a seat. It’s kind of a mess. I haven’t unpacked or anything and as I said, I’ve been working.”

  “Is this your new stuff?” Bethany asked softly when they entered the living room.

  Mia and Bethany were staring at the two paintings she’d just finished. Josie rubbed her hands down her pants legs and nodded.

  “They’re really good,” Mia said. “So much emotion in them.” She turned sympathetic eyes toward Josie. “And it’s obvious you’re very upset.”

  Josie didn’t know how to respond to that.

  “I’ll, uh, just be a minute, okay?”

  Mia and Bethany nodded and Josie hurried into her bathroom to make herself more presentable. When she got a look at herself in the mirror she winced. No wonder they’d told her she looked awful. She did.

  She splashed water on her face and hastily applied foundation and powder. She brushed her lashes with light mascara and then swiped on lip gloss. She wouldn’t win any beauty pageants but at least she didn’t look quite so washed-out and hollow. No amount of makeup in the world was going to fix the dark shadows under her eyes.

  When she returned to the living room, Mia and Bethany were waiting and quickly hustled her outside and toward the car parked just down the street.

  The two guys Josie had noticed earlier caught her attention once more and she frowned. No doubt, they were Ash’s men. Watching her. Even though he’d sworn to give her at least last night. She shook her head. Trust Ash to do things his own way. Just as he’d always done. In the back of her mind she supposed it was good that he was still protecting her, but her trust in him had been shattered. Now what should seem like protection was just one more sign of how controlling Ash was.

  “We would have invited Brittany too but we worried it might be a little awkward since she’s Ash’s sister,” Mia said in a low voice once they were inside the car.

  Josie winced. Okay, obviously they did know about her breakup with Ash and they weren’t just inviting her to lunch as if everything was normal.

  Bethany slid her hand over Josie’s and squeezed. “Don’t look like that, Josie. Everything will be fine. You’ll see.”

  Tears burned her eyelids and she battled fiercely to keep from breaking down. “I’m not sure anything will ever be okay again.”

  “It will,” Mia said fiercely. “You can tell us all about it at lunch. Then we’ll figure out how to kick Ash’s ass.”

  Bethany laughed and Josie just looked at her in bewilderment.

  “But Ash is your friend,” Josie said. “Aren’t you mad at me for breaking up with him?”

  “You’re our friend,” Mia said. “Ash isn’t our only connection to you, Josie. And women have to close ranks and stick together! I’m sure whatever the problem is that it’s Ash’s fault.”

  “Absolutely,” Bethany said loyally. “Gabe and Jace messed up plenty of times so it’s certainly par for the course that Ash would too. He is a man after all.”

  Josie laughed even as tears welled in her eyes.” Oh God, I love you guys.”

  “We love you too,” Mia said. “Now let’s get something yummy and fattening to eat and bitch about men.”

  Ten minutes later, they were seated at a small pub not far from Josie’s apartment. They placed their orders and then Mia all but pounced on Josie.

  “Okay, give us the dirt. All Gabe and Jace have said was that you broke up with Ash and moved out and that Ash got shitfaced drunk last night.”

  Josie winced and put her face in her hands. “Oh God. I don’t know what to do. On one hand I’m pissed and hurt and a whole host of things. And on the other, I wonder if I’ve overreacted.”

  “What happened?” Bethany asked softly.

  Josie sighed and then recounted the entire story from beginning to end, leaving nothing out. Not the fact that Ash had her followed, him buying her mother’s jewelry and him insisting on her moving in with him after what happened with Michael, and then her discovery that he was the one who bought all her paintings.

  “Wow,” Mia said, sitting back in her seat. “I would say I was surprised but that so sounds like something Ash would do.”

  “Gabe and Jace too,” Bethany pointed out. “They’re very determined when they want something.”

  “True,” Mia admitted. “They’re persistent if nothing else.”

  Bethany nodded her agreement.

  “Did I overreact?” Josie asked. “Part of me says yes while the other part of me is hurt. I mean I’m pissed too, but more than that I’m devastated.”

  “You didn’t overreact, Josie,” Bethany said.

  Mia sat forward again, her gaze earnest as she stared at Josie. “I understand why you’re upset. But listen to me, Josie, and I don’t say this to hurt you. I’m saying it to make a point. Ash could have any woman he wanted. There are literally thousands of women who’d line up to have a chance with him. But he wants you.”

  Bethany nodded rapidly.

  “I absolutely get what you’re saying about taking away your independence and
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