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         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  how what he did negated a lot of what you’d worked very hard to achieve. But here’s the thing. Men are thick. Thick as a brick! Ash wanted to help you. Men like Ash only know one way. Their way. But, Josie, he was so proud of you. He bragged to Jace and Gabe and even to me and Bethany about how talented you are. I don’t think he ever in a million years meant to hurt you the way he has. He saw a way to help you, to provide for you and to give you a sense of accomplishment. He may not have done it in the best way, but his intentions were good. I absolutely believe that. Ash is just so intense. But he has a huge heart, evidenced by the fact that he helped his sister who was a bitch to him for years. And despite the fact that his family are huge assholes, he still can’t quite turn his back on them.”

  “I had a lot of issues with the fact that Jace wanted me,” Bethany said quietly. “It baffled me that he turned the city over looking for me after that first night and that he went to such lengths to help me, to provide for me. He, like Ash, could have any woman he wanted. But he wanted me. Just like Ash wants you. We can sit here and analyze it and try to understand it, but at the end of the day, they want who they want and that happens to be us. And Jace made plenty of mistakes along the way, but we worked past those issues and I’m so glad we did because he makes me so happy. I’d never have this with another man. I wouldn’t want to.”

  “So you think I’m making too big of a deal out of this,” Josie said ruefully.

  Mia shook her head. “No, honey, I don’t. I think it’s obviously important to you and I absolutely think Ash should know that and recognize what he did was wrong. But at the same time, is it something you can’t forgive him for? Because really, what did he do that was so bad? His heart was in the right place even if he went about it all wrong.”

  And there it was. In a nutshell. Was it really so unforgivable? Sure, she had a right to be angry, but moving out? Breaking up? That was so . . . permanent.

  She dropped her face into her hands. “Oh God. I did overreact.”

  Bethany slid her hand over Josie’s back.

  “I should have confronted him, absolutely, but I completely overreacted. I shouldn’t have done what I did. Now he’s going to be so pissed at me, and I don’t blame him!”

  “He won’t be pissed, Josie,” Mia said softly. “He’ll just be glad to have you back.”

  She shook her head miserably. “It’s worse than what you think. He said . . .” She sighed. “He said he loved me and I threw it back at him. I said some pretty horrible things. Like that I couldn’t trust that he wasn’t saying it to manipulate me.”

  “Was it the first time he told you?” Bethany asked gently.

  Josie nodded.

  “Then it’s understandable that you would have reacted the way you did,” Mia said. “Do you love him?”

  “Oh yeah,” Josie breathed. “Completely and utterly in love with him.”

  Bethany beamed. “There. You love each other. You can work this out. He’ll forgive you and you’ll forgive him.”

  “You make it sound so easy,” Josie muttered. “I was such a hysterical twit. I can’t believe I marched into his office and said the things I said. I wish there was a Rewind button and I had it to do all over again.”

  “Love isn’t perfect,” Mia said. “We’ve all made mistakes. Gabe, Jace, me, Bethany. And now you and Ash. It’s not supposed to be perfect. It’s what you make it. And you can make it really special, Josie. Go and talk to him. Or call him. Make things right and give him the chance to make things right.”

  Some of the heavy weight lifted off Josie’s shoulders. Hope crept in and with it the realization that this wasn’t the end. Nothing Ash had done was unforgiveable. She’d make mistakes. There was no doubt she would. But she absolutely believed that Ash would be a lot more forgiving of her mistakes than she’d been of his.

  “Thanks, you guys,” she said, smiling with relief. “I’m going to go home, take a shower and call Ash and hope he’s not too pissed to listen to me apologize.”

  Mia smiled back. “Oh, he’ll listen. Come on. Let’s go. We’ll drop you back by your apartment.”

  Josie shook her head. “Thanks, but I’ll walk. I need some time to get my thoughts together. I want to get this just right.”

  “You sure?” Bethany asked.

  “Yeah, I’m sure. It’s not that far and it will give me the chance to work up my nerve to call him.”

  “Okay, but you have to swear to text me and Bethany and let us know how it goes!” Mia demanded.

  “I will. Promise! And thanks again. This means a lot to me. That you’d be willing to kick his ass when we’ve only known each other a short time.”

  Mia grinned. “What are friends for?”

  Josie rose, hugged both of the women fiercely and promised again to text them the minute she got things worked out with Ash. Then she walked out with them and waited while they got into the car and waved as they pulled away.

  Slinging her purse over her shoulder, she started walking in the direction of her apartment. Her thoughts were a whirlwind, but excitement and relief replaced her earlier gloom.

  Now she just had to hope that Ash would forgive her and that he really did love her.

  The walk took longer than she’d thought and by the time she reached her apartment she was tired from not having slept the night before and she was impatient to get inside, take a shower and call Ash.

  She cursed the fact that she’d left her cell phone in her living room. She could have already read her texts and listened to her voice mails. They would give her a good idea of Ash’s mood and whether it would be a simple matter of apologizing to him.

  She put her key in the lock, frowning when she realized she must have forgotten to lock it on her way out. But then the last thing on her mind hadn’t been whether she locked up or not. She really needed to be more careful. Of course if she and Ash reconciled, she wouldn’t have to worry about that because he always made certain she was protected. For that matter he had still made sure she was protected, even though she’d left him. But then she hadn’t noticed her two shadows when she returned to her apartment. Had they given up? Had Ash given up?

  A frown tugged at her lips as she pushed inside, closing and locking the door behind her. The minute she stepped inside her living room she realized she wasn’t alone.

  Her breath caught when she saw three men standing, waiting, grim expressions on their faces. She recognized two of them from before. What she’d assumed were Ash’s men. For her protection. In that instant, she knew she was terribly wrong. These men weren’t here to protect her at all.

  Before she could react, one moved in quickly behind her, barring her pathway to the door. Not that she would have had time to escape anyway since she’d locked her door on the way in.

  “Miss Carlysle,” one of the men said in a tone that sent shivers down her skin. “There’s a message I want you to deliver to Gabe Hamilton, Jace Crestwell and Ash McIntyre.”

  Before she could demand to know what he was talking about and that they get the hell out of her apartment, pain exploded through her body. She lay sprawled on the floor, utterly bewildered.

  And then pain. More pain, agonizing, splintering through her body as they meted out violence. Blood smeared her nose. She could taste it in her mouth. She couldn’t breathe right. It hurt too much. She couldn’t even scream.

  She was going to die.

  That thought hit her and, oddly, she didn’t fight it because it meant escape from the horrific agony she was enduring.

  Then it went silent. A hand dug into her hair and yanked her head painfully upward. A man leaned into her face, his nose just inches from her own.

  “You tell them that nothing they hold dear is safe from me. I’m coming after them. They will regret the day they ever fucked with me. They ruined me. And by God, I’ll ruin them before I’m done.”

  He shoved something into her hand and then dropped her head back onto the floor. Pain shot down her spine. She heard footsteps
and then her door opening. And then it closing.

  A low whimper stuttered past stiff, swollen lips. Ash. She had to get to her cell phone and call him. Had to warn him. He’d come for her. Everything would be all right if she could just get to her phone.

  She tried to push herself up and shrieked in agony when she put weight on her right hand. She stared down at it, her vision fuzzy, one eye nearly swollen shut. What was wrong with her hand?

  Using her elbow to prop herself up, she dragged herself toward the coffee table where she’d left her phone. She reached up for it, knocking it onto the floor and then praying she hadn’t broken it.

  With her left hand she fumbled to push the right button to bring up her contacts. Then she changed her mind and hit recent calls because his would have been the last. She hit his name and with a whispered prayer as she waited for him to answer.

  chapter thirty-one

  Ash sat in on the staff meeting with Gabe and their executives, but his mind was anywhere but here in this room. He had a hangover from hell after getting roaring drunk the night before. Gabe and Jace had poured him into a car and then brought him home and tossed him on his bed. He’d woken up the next morning feeling like he’d been run over by a truck, but the pain of the headache was nothing compared to the pain of losing Josie.

  No, he hadn’t lost her. Not yet. He wouldn’t let himself go there. She was upset—rightfully so—and he’d given her last night. Time to spend apart from him and hopefully decide when she got over her initial anger that this was something they could work through.

  At any rate, he’d given her all the time he was going to. As soon as this fucking meeting ended, he was out of here. He was going to Josie’s apartment and would get on his knees if he had to. Whatever it took to get her back home. To their apartment. In his arms and in his bed. And then he was never going to let her go again.

  His phone vibrated and he glanced down, his heart clenching when he saw it was Josie calling. Without saying a word, he abruptly got up and walked out of the meeting, the phone already to his ear.

  “Josie? Baby?” he cut in before she could even say anything.

  There was a long silence and at first he thought she’d hung up. But then he heard it and the sound froze his blood. A low whimper. Of pain. His heart dropped into his stomach.

  “Josie, talk to me,” he demanded. “What’s wrong? Where are you?”

  “Ash . . .”

  His name came out barely a whisper and it was obvious that she was in a lot of pain.

  “I’m here, baby. Tell me what’s happened. Where are you?”

  “Need you,” she whispered. “Hurt. It’s bad.”

  Panic froze him in place. He couldn’t think, couldn’t act, couldn’t process anything but the agony in her voice.

  “Where are you?” he demanded.

  “Apartment.”

  “I’m on my way, baby. Hold tight, okay? I’ll be there in just a minute.”

  He turned in the hallway, having gotten no farther than the door where the meeting was being held and ran solidly into Gabe.

  “What’s wrong?” Gabe demanded. “I heard you on the phone with Josie. What’s happened?”

  “I don’t know,” Ash choked out. “She’s hurt. I have to go. She’s at her apartment.”

  “Come on. I’ll go with you,” Gabe said grimly, even as he started striding down the hall toward the elevators.

  Not arguing, Ash ran after him, his heart beating like a hammer.

  “Did she say what happened?” Gabe asked when they’d gotten into the car.

  “No,” Ash clipped out. “Fuck!”

  “It’s okay, man. We’ll get to her. She’ll be okay. You have to believe that.”

  “You said Mia and Bethany had lunch with her. Have you heard from Mia? What could possibly have happened? They can’t have finished that long ago.”

  Gabe paled and then immediately dialed Mia’s number.

  “Are you okay?” Gabe asked bluntly.

  Then his shoulders sagged in relief. Mia must be fine. But Josie wasn’t. What the fuck could have happened?

  “When did you and Bethany leave Josie?” Gabe asked.

  He listened a moment and then said good-bye without telling Mia anything about Josie.

  “Well?” Ash demanded, silently urging the driver to go faster. They were already driving recklessly.

  “She said Josie walked back to her apartment after they had lunch. That was an hour ago.”

  Ash closed his eyes. He should have kept a man on her. What if Michael had gotten to her? He’d refused to put anyone on her, not wanting to upset her even more than she already was. He’d promised her space and now that space had cost her.

  A few minutes later the car squealed to a stop in front of Josie’s brownstone and Ash jumped out, Gabe close on his heels. The first thing he registered when he burst through her door was the smell of blood. His own went cold, freezing in his veins. He tore into the living room, his heart seizing as he took in the sight before him.

  “Sweet mother of God,” he choked out.

  Josie lay in a bloody heap in front of the coffee table. Blood was smeared on the floor where she’d evidently dragged herself to the phone.

  “Call an ambulance,” Ash barked to Gabe.

  God, he should have already called one but he hadn’t been thinking. His only thought had been to get to her as fast as he could. And maybe he’d denied that it would be this bad.

  He ran over, dropping to his knees beside her, afraid to touch her because oh God, the blood. Her face was a mess, eyes swollen, lips split and bleeding.

  “Josie. Josie, darling, I’m here. It’s me, Ash. Talk to me, baby. Please. Open your eyes and talk to me.”

  He was pleading with her even as he put a shaky finger to her neck to feel for a pulse.

  She stirred, emitting a soft moan that seared his heart and cut straight to his soul.

  “A-ash?”

  Her words were slurred, distorted by her swollen lips. He smoothed a hand over her forehead because it was the only place she wasn’t bruised or bleeding.

  “Yes, baby, it’s me. I’m here. Tell me what happened, Josie. Who did this to you?”

  “H-hurts to b-breathe,” she said and then she stopped, coughing and choking as a stream of blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.

  Oh God. Oh God. She was hurt badly. Someone had beat the ever-loving hell out of her. Rage exploded through his chest until he couldn’t breathe either. His vision went dim, his pulse about to beat out of his head. He was coming apart. Unraveling at the seams. His hands shook so badly that he had to pull them away from her skin so he didn’t risk hurting her.

  She tried to lift her left hand and he saw she was holding something. He gently pulled it away, frowning when he saw it was a picture. Bile rose in his throat as he stared in disbelief. It was a picture of Mia. Dear God. She was naked, tied up and spread out on what looked like a coffee table. The man in the picture was Charles Willis and he was trying to shove his dick inside her mouth.

  He quickly stuffed the picture into his pocket before Gabe could see it. Gabe would lose his fucking mind, and right now the only thing Ash was worried about was Josie and getting her to a hospital. They’d deal with the picture later.

  “Is she okay?” Gabe asked as he dropped down beside Ash. “Jesus. She’s obviously not okay. Ambulance is on the way. ETA is five minutes. What the fuck happened?”

  “I don’t know,” Ash said, his voice still shaking with fury.

  He leaned down and pressed a kiss to Josie’s forehead, too afraid to do what he most wanted and gather her in his arms. She obviously had internal injuries and he didn’t want to cause her further injury.

  “Who did this to you, baby? Can you tell me?” he asked her gently.

  Tears gathered in her eyes and slid silently down her cheeks. Each one broke his heart. He wanted to cry with her, but he refused to break down. She needed him to be strong. He would be strong. No way he was g
oing to let her down again.

  “He had a message,” Josie whispered. “For you. And Gabe and Jace.”

  Gabe and Ash exchanged quick what the fuck looks.

  “What was the message, Josie? Don’t try to talk if it hurts you, though. We have plenty of time to talk later when you’re not in pain.”

  She licked her lips, her tongue bright red with blood. Ash was shaking from head to toe now as his reaction set in. This was bad. If she was coughing up blood it meant she was fucked up on the inside. People died from internal injuries!

  “Said nothing . . .” She broke off and choked, more blood seeping from her lips. Ash was panicking now. Where was the goddamn ambulance?

  She took a long moment and for a second Ash thought she’d slipped into unconsciousness.

  “Josie. Josie! Stay with me, baby. Fight it. Stay awake. Can you do that for me? Open your eyes, baby. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere. The ambulance is on its way. They’ll be here soon and they’ll take care of you. I’ll take care of you,” he choked out, tears knotting his throat.

  Her eyelids fluttered and she trained her unfocused eyes on him, pain glittering brightly in their depths.

  “Said nothing you hold dear . . . is safe. S-s-said you r-ruined him . . . and now he’s going to ruin y-you.”

  Gabe went white even as he grabbed his phone. He stepped back and away from Josie and Ash, but Ash could hear him talking to Jace, telling him to make sure Mia and Bethany were safe. Then he told Jace to meet him and Ash at the hospital.

  The sound of a siren sent relief coursing through Ash’s veins. He jumped to his feet but Gabe stopped him.

  “I’ll get them in. You stay with Josie,” Gabe bit out.

  Ash dropped back down, bending over Josie so she’d know he was here.

  “The ambulance is here, baby,” he soothed. “They’ll get you to the hospital and I’ll be with you every step of the way. You’ll be okay, darling. I won’t let you be anything else. Stay with me. I love you. I love you so much.”

  She tried to lift her right hand and then whimpered in pain. “H-hand h-hurts. What’s wrong with it?”

  He stared in horror at the obviously broken fingers. Son of a bitch! They’d broken her fingers! He was precariously close to losing his composure. He wanted to get his hands on the sons of bitches who did this to her. He’d kill the bastards with his own hands.

  Forcing himself to focus on her and pushing everything else from his mind, he captured her wrist, holding it gently so she wouldn’t let it fall back to the floor and hurt herself even more. Then he kissed the swollen fingers ever so gently as tears gathered in his eyes.

  “Just some broken fingers,” he said shakily. “Nothing the doctor won’t fix right up.”

  “My painting hand,” she said as more tears squeezed from her swollen eyes.

  “Shhh, it’s okay, baby. You’ll be back to painting before you know it.”

  Even as he spoke, his gaze caught on the two paintings propped against the wall. Dark. Full of turmoil. He’d done that to her. He’d taken her vibrancy away. The essence of her work. These weren’t the Josie he knew and loved. This was Josie hurting and expressing her emotions in the only way she knew how.

  The EMTs burst through the door and into the living room, immediately assessing Josie’s condition. Ash moved back so he didn’t interfere, but he stayed close, hovering anxiously as they went through the assessment.

  “Decreased breath sounds on the left side,” the paramedic said grimly as he pulled his stethoscope away. “Get the O2,” he barked at his partner.

  “How bad is it?” Ash demanded.

  The paramedic shook his head. “No way to know without x-rays. I’m guessing she has several broken ribs. Probably punctured a lung.”

  “Be careful with her hand,” Ash said. “It’s broken.”

  “She’s a mess,” the medic said bluntly. “We need to load and go. I’ll get a c-collar on her and bag her on the way.”

  Ash went pale. The words sounded so grim and utterly serious.

  “Will she live?” Ash whispered, voicing his darkest fear.

  “Not my call, but she sure as hell isn’t going to die on my watch.”

  A stretcher was brought in and the medics worked quickly, securing the
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