Burn, p.26
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       Burn, p.26

         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks
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  c-collar and then giving her oxygen. She was just as quickly wheeled out and loaded into the ambulance. Ash barely had time to jump into the back before they roared away in a rush of sirens and lights.

  He slid his hand into his pocket, feeling for the photo Josie had had in her hand. Gabe had a hell of a lot to answer for, and then Ash was going after the son of a bitch who’d put his hands on Josie.

  chapter thirty-two

  “What the fuck is going on?” Jace demanded as he strode into the ER waiting room.

  Ash turned and then motioned Gabe and Jace into one of the smaller private rooms where doctors met with families.

  “We have a serious problem,” Ash said grimly.

  “What the hell happened to Josie?” Jace asked. “Gabe called worried about Mia and Bethany, told me to lock them both down and make sure they were safe. I called Kaden Ginsberg and now I have two very pissed-off women because I made Kaden sit on them both and they’re scared and want to know what the fuck is going on, which I couldn’t tell them because I don’t know myself!”

  Ash held up his hand and then reached into his pocket with the other. He pulled out the photo that was in Josie’s hand and held it out to Gabe.

  Gabe’s face was a mixture of shock and rage. And then, oddly, guilt. He went gray and then staggered back to sit in one of the chairs. He buried his face in his hands, the photo crumpled in his fist.

  Jace snatched the photo from Gabe and then he went pale as he stared at his sister naked, tied up, another man trying to force himself on her.

  “What the fuck is this?”

  Jace’s explosive demand echoed through the room.

  “Josie was holding that when I got to her,” Ash said quietly. “And then she told me the man who beat the crap out of her had a message for me, you and Gabe.”

  “What?” Jace said in disbelief.

  “He told her that nothing we held dear was safe from him. That we ruined him and now he was going to ruin us. I’d say Josie was probably the first target because she was the easiest. She was alone and vulnerable. It would be a lot harder to get to Mia or Bethany.”

  “I want to know what the fuck that picture is about,” Jace said in a furious tone. “That was Charles Willis in that photo. Is he the one who hurt Josie and is threatening us now?”

  “Yes,” Gabe said bleakly.

  “What do you know that you haven’t told us,” Ash asked in a dangerously low tone. It was obvious by the look on Gabe’s face that there was a lot that Ash and Jace evidently didn’t know.

  Gabe rubbed a hand wearily over his face, his eyes sick.

  “What I have to say is going to piss you both off. I thought it was behind me and Mia. I was wrong, apparently.”

  “Yeah, I’d say so,” Jace bit out. “What the fuck did you do, Gabe?”

  “When Mia and I were together, before, when we were keeping it a secret from you, right before we went to Paris on business, my ex-wife came into my office saying all sorts of crazy shit. Then she accused me of being in love with Mia. Accused me of being in love with her when I was still married to Lisa. It hit me all wrong. I wasn’t ready to admit my feelings for Mia. And in an effort to distance us, to prove to myself that she was just sex, I set up a thing in Paris.”

  “What kind of thing,” Ash growled.

  Gabe blew out his breath. “Mia and I had discussed, before, her interest in being with another man. With me, I mean. I guess kind of like you and Jace sharing women. So I set it up that Charles Willis and two other men were in our hotel room. Jesus, this is complicated.”

  Jace stared stonily at Gabe, his eyes glittering with anger.

  “Things got out of hand. I was going to let them touch her, nothing else. I made it clear they weren’t to do anything but touch, which meant keeping their dicks in their pants. But as soon as it began, I knew it was wrong. I realized what I was doing, but before I could put a stop to it, Charles got rough with Mia. He was trying to shove his dick down her throat and then he hit her when she protested.”

  “Son of a bitch!” Jace swore. “What the fuck, man? How could you do that to her? What were you thinking?”

  Gabe held up his hand. “There’s more. It gets worse.”

  “Jesus,” Ash muttered.

  “When we got back, Charles confronted Mia outside the office building when she went out to get us something to eat. He tried to blackmail her into giving him information on the bids. He knew I had no intention of doing business with him, but he figured if he bid low enough we wouldn’t have a choice. He showed her that picture and said that if she didn’t give him what he wanted that he’d go public with it.”

  “Un-fucking-real,” Jace growled.

  “Mia came to me instead of caving in, and I took care of the matter. Or at least I thought I had,” Gabe said wearily.

  Ash’s jaw bulged. Rage smoldered through him like a wildfire.

  “I’ll handle it,” Gabe said quietly. “I fucked up. I’ll make sure that son of a bitch doesn’t get his hands on Mia or Bethany and I’ll make sure he pays for what he did to Josie.”

  “No,” Ash said, the word whipping through the room like a gunshot.

  Gabe and Jace both looked at Ash with narrowed eyes.

  “You had your chance,” Ash said in an even tone. “I’ll take care of the little bastard.”

  Jace’s face flashed with alarm. “Don’t think that’s a good idea, man. Your emotions are running high. Let me and Gabe take care of this.”

  “I said no,” Ash snapped. “This is mine. Gabe had his chance. He fucked up. I’m not leaving this to him.”

  “Ash,” Gabe began but Ash silenced him with a look.

  “If it were Mia or Bethany lying in a hospital bed, bruises, broken bones, punctured lung and God only knows what else, would you just sit back and let someone else take care of the asshole who did that to her?”

  Jace’s lips twisted and then he sighed. “No. I wouldn’t. But Jesus, man. After what went down with Michael, this is too risky. You got away with the first. You won’t get away with this. Charles Willis has nothing to lose. He’s not going to sway under threats. You touch him and he’ll have your ass in a sling.”

  “Who said anything about threats?” Ash asked calmly. “In my world, threats are meaningless unless you do something to back them up. I have no intention of threatening Charles Willis. But I have every intention of taking him down.”

  Gabe and Jace exchanged worried looks but Ash ignored them. They’d try to talk him down but in this he would not be dissuaded.

  “This won’t touch you. It damn sure won’t touch Mia, Bethany or Josie. Not ever again. You don’t have to worry. You won’t be remotely tied to this.”

  “Oh fuck you,” Jace said rudely. “The hell I’m letting you take this shit on by yourself. We’ve already been over this. You never have to ask. We’ll always have your back.”

  “Means a lot,” Ash said quietly. “But I’m not pulling my family down. You and the girls mean far too much to me. I’m not going down either. You can take that to the bank. No way in hell I’m leaving Josie to survive on her own. I’m going to be there for her every step of the way and she will never have to worry about some asshole with a grudge against us using her to get to us. That will not happen again.”

  “What are you going to do?” Gabe asked quietly.

  “You’re better off not knowing,” Ash replied.

  Gabe ran a hand through his hair. “Jesus, man. This is on me.”

  “You had your shot,” Ash said carefully. “Not saying you did wrong, but whatever you did was not enough. I’m going to make sure that this time it is. He didn’t beat your woman half to death, even if she was the intended mark. He fucked Josie over, and I’m going to make damn sure that never happens again.”

  “Why the fuck didn’t you tell us this before?” Jace said to Gabe. “Can’t believe you kept this from us. Especially if you didn’t make damn sure Charles wouldn’t be a threat in the future.”
r />   “I couldn’t tell you when it happened,” Gabe said between his teeth. “Mia was freaking because she didn’t want her brother to know what kind of relationship we had or that we even had a relationship. And then after, it didn’t seem so important. He went away. Months passed and he seemed to disappear off the face of the planet. I thought he wasn’t going to be a problem any longer.”

  “What you did was piss him off to the point that he beat the shit out of Josie and now he’s gunning for Mia and Bethany,” Jace said in a furious tone.

  “You need to close ranks around the girls,” Ash said, veering the subject away from Jace’s fury. He had a right. Mia was his sister. But that wasn’t what was important right now. The women’s safety was all that mattered.

  “Hell yes,” Gabe growled. “They’ll go nowhere until he’s taken care of.”

  Ash nodded. “And I’ll let you know when the issue has been resolved.”

  Jace’s expression was still uneasy but he kept silent, though it was obvious that he and Gabe weren’t finished with their conversation.

  “Mr. McIntyre?”

  Ash whirled around to see a nurse standing in the doorway. He rushed forward.

  “How is Josie?” he demanded. “Can I see her yet?”

  The nurse smiled. “The doctor will see you now. She’ll update you on Josie’s condition and then you can ask her if you can go back. Stay right here while I let her know where you are.”

  Ash fidgeted with impatience. It had been too long with no word and he was slowly losing his mind. He didn’t like that Josie was alone. Or at least surrounded by strangers. She’d wonder where he was. He’d sworn to her that he wasn’t leaving her, that he would be with her every step of the way. How could he keep that promise when he’d been barred from her room while they gave her treatment?

  A moment later a woman dressed in scrubs walked in the door. She looked young, the ponytail her hair was pulled back in contributing to her youthful appearance.

  “Mr. McIntyre?”

  “Yes, that’s me,” Ash said, stepping forward.

  She extended her hand and firmly shook his. “Dr. Newton. I’m the ER doctor handling Miss Carlysle’s care.”

  “How is she?” Ash asked anxiously. “When can I see her?”

  The doctor’s expression softened. “She’s pretty banged up. Of most concern is the traumatic pneumothorax. I’ve inserted a chest tube to help suck out the air trapped between the lung and the chest cavity and it will also help the lung reinflate. We’re going to be closely monitoring her for infection as well as seeing how the lung heals. Right now I don’t think she requires surgery, but a surgeon will be consulted and he’ll make the final determination.

  “She has several broken ribs, a concussion and broken fingers on her right hand. She also has a hairline fracture of her right wrist. Numerous contusions and other more minor injuries. She was badly beaten, Mr. McIntyre. She’s lucky to be alive.”

  Ash blew out his breath while Gabe and Jace swore softly behind him.

  “Can I see her?”

  “You can go in. She’s back from x-ray and she’ll be moved to ICU as soon as the paperwork gets done on her admission. I can’t say with any authority how long she’ll remain in ICU. That will be up to the internal medicine physician assigned to her care. But you can stay with her until they move her up to the unit. They’re usually pretty lenient about letting family members back even when it’s not the scheduled hours.”

  “I’m not leaving her,” Ash bit out.

  The doctor’s expression was sympathetic. “I understand. And as I said, they’re usually pretty lenient. Unfortunately when she’s first moved, you’ll have to wait until they get her settled, but they’ll let you know when you can go back.”

  “Thank you,” Ash said in a low voice. “I appreciate all you’ve done for her.”

  “That’s my job, Mr. McIntyre,” she said in a cheerful voice. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other patients to attend. If you like I’ll walk you back and show you which room she’s in.”

  Ash turned to Gabe and Jace. “Are you going to let Mia and Bethany know what happened? They’ll be worried about Josie.”

  “We’ll let them know,” Jace said. “I’ll have Kaden drive them here and they’ll stay with us until we leave.”

  Ash nodded and then turned back to follow the doctor to Josie’s room.

  When he walked into the small cubicle where Josie was, he sucked in his breath and tears burned the corners of his eyes. It hurt to breathe. His chest was so tight that his hand automatically came up to rub it, trying to rid himself of the discomfort.

  “Jesus,” he whispered.

  It gutted him that she was lying in a hospital bed all because some asshole had an ax to grind with him and Gabe and Jace. He went to her bedside and tentatively reached out a hand to stroke her forehead. He smoothed her hair back and then leaned down to brush his lips across her brow.

  “I love you,” he murmured. “I’m here. With you, just like I said I’d be. I’ll always be here, Josie. You and me are forever, baby. Not letting go of that.”

  She lay perfectly still, the only sound the low hum of the machine that made oxygen flow through the mask over her face and the steady beeping of the heart monitor. She looked so fragile, bruised and swollen. The blood had been cleaned away, but the dark purpling of the bruises was already vivid against her pale skin.

  He touched her neck where the collar he’d given her had rested. It looked bare. He wanted that collar back around her neck. Wanted his ring on her finger and her promise to marry him. He wanted to tie her to him in ways she’d never escape. But they’d be the most loving, silken ties in the world.

  He’d pamper her, cherish her, adore her every single day of his life.

  He stood at her bedside for two hours, only moving when one of the nurses came in to check on her. And then finally, they came to move her to ICU.

  To his frustration they told him it would be a while before he was allowed back to see her. But that was okay because he had the problem of Charles Willis to take care of. The sooner he was out of the picture, the sooner they could all relax and not worry that Mia or Bethany would be next.

  After updating Gabe, Jace, Mia and Bethany on Josie’s condition and exacting a promise from them to stay with Josie until he returned, he strode out of the hospital, determined to seek vengeance on the bastard who’d put Josie there.

  chapter thirty-three

  Pain. It came to her piercing like a nail being driven into her head by a hammer. She hurt everywhere. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to open her eyes.

  There were voices, or at least one voice. It was hard to tell because there was a roaring in her ears she couldn’t make go away.

  And then a warm, gentle hand on her forehead. A kiss. Sweet, soft words whispered over her skin. She gave a little sigh and promptly regretted it because pain speared through her chest.

  “H-hurts,” she said in a pitiful voice that she wasn’t even sure was actually audible.

  “I know it does, baby. The nurse is coming to give you something for pain.”

  “Ash?” she whispered.

  “Yes, darling, it’s me. Open those pretty eyes and you’ll see me right here.”

  She tried. She really did. But her eyes wouldn’t cooperate and it hurt to try and force the issue.

  “Can’t,” she managed to get past stiff, swollen lips.

  Again he pressed his lips to her brow and she felt his hand in her hair. That felt nice. The only part of her that wasn’t hurting.

  “It’s okay,” he soothed. “Don’t try too hard. Just know that I’m with you and you’re going to be all right.”

  But still, she wanted to see him. Wanted to make sure her imagination wasn’t playing nasty tricks on her. So she braced herself against the pain and tried harder. A small sliver of light seared her eyeballs and she promptly shut her eyes again. She lay there, nearly panting with exertion and the agony such a small movement had ca
used. Then she tried again, this time prepared for the light.

  At first all she saw was a blurry haze. And then he moved into her line of vision.

  “Hey, gorgeous,” he said softly.

  She tried to smile, but that hurt too, so she just lay there slowly blinking to bring him into sharper focus.

  “Hi,” she returned just as quietly.

  To her utter shock, his eyes were glossy with moisture and he looked like hell. He hadn’t shaved, his hair was rumpled and his clothes looked like he’d slept in them.

  She licked her lips and moaned softly. “W-what happened to me?”

  Ash frowned, his eyes going dark. “You don’t remember?”

  She concentrated hard but it was all a blur. “How long?”

  He touched her hair, his expression worried. “How long what, love?”

  “Have I been here.”

  “Two days,” he said.

  Her eyes widened in surprise despite the discomfort it caused her. “Two days?”

  “Yes, baby. You’ve been in ICU for two days. Gave us quite a scare.”

  “Am I going to be okay?”

  It was a question she was afraid to ask but she had to know. She wouldn’t hurt this much if it wasn’t bad.

  His face softened, his eyes going warm and loving. “You’re going to be fine. I won’t allow any other possibility.”

  “Sorry,” she said with a sigh.

  His head came back in surprise. “What the hell are you sorry for?”

  “I overreacted,” she said. “I shouldn’t have done it. I’m sorry. I was going to call you but then . . .”

  And it was then she remembered everything that had happened. She sucked in her breath at the impact the memories had. Her terror, her pain, the worry that she was going to die. Tears welled, burning her eyes.

  “Oh, baby,” he said in an aching voice. “Don’t cry. And don’t apologize. You have nothing to be sorry for. Nothing at all.”

  “Who were they?” she whispered. “Why did they do this? Why do they hate you and Gabe and Jace?”

  He closed his eyes and then leaned down, touching his forehead to hers. “Let’s not talk about this right now, darling. I don’t want to upset you. I’d rather talk about how much I love you and what I’m going to do to pamper you and spoil you while you recover.”

  She had to ask another question, had to know where they stood and if she’d screwed up any chance of them being together.

  “Are we back together?”

  He smiled. So sweet and tender it warmed her to her toes and took away some of the overwhelming pain. Relief shone in his eyes.

  “Bet your ass we are.”

  Her own shoulders sagged in relief. “I’m glad,” she said softly.

  “God, baby, it’s torture being so close to you and unable to hold you and kiss you the way I want.”

  “I’m just glad you’re here.”

  “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

  She closed her eyes as fatigue and the pain grew stronger. It was becoming overwhelming and she had so many questions. She needed answers. She needed to know exactly how serious her injuries were. For that matter she didn’t even know exactly what they were.

  “The nurse is here, darling. Bear with me a few more seconds and the pain will be gone.”

  “Talk to me,” she begged. “I just want to hear your voice. Stay here and tell me what happened and how bad it is. I need to know.”

  He wiped a hand over her forehead as the nurse injected pain medication into her IV. She felt the slight burn travel up her arm and then, right on its heels, blessed relief. A feeling of euphoria enveloped her. She felt light and floaty like she was on a cloud. The ceiling suddenly seemed right on top of her and she
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