Burn, p.27
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       Burn, p.27

         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks
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  gasped.

  “Okay?” Ash asked in concern.

  “’Kay.”

  He went silent and her eyes fluttered open in panic as she tried to see where he’d gone.

  “I’m right here, darling. Not going anywhere. I promise.”

  “Talk to me,” she said again, woozy and sleepy. But she didn’t want to go to sleep. Not yet.

  He kissed her brow. “Give me just a second, baby. I want to talk to the nurse about you but I’ll be right back. Can you stay awake for me?”

  “Uh-huh.”

  She felt him move away and she was suddenly cold. She hated that feeling. Fear and panic seeped all the way to her bones. Her lips chattered but they were so swollen that it felt weird, like they were ten times their size.

  Or maybe it was just the medication.

  Why did it hurt so bad to breathe? It was then she became aware of the oxygen blowing through her nostrils. Her chest was so tight and her muscles ached from head to toe.

  Had they wanted to kill her? But no, that couldn’t be the case. They’d given her a message to give to Ash. Had she given it to him?

  Panic flared all over again. She had to tell him! Mia and Bethany were in danger, and she’d never forgive herself if they were hurt because she hadn’t warned Gabe and Jace.

  “Ash,” she called out as loudly as she could.

  “Right here, baby. What’s wrong? You need to slow down your breathing. You’re going too fast. Can you do that for me?”

  She sucked in a deep breath and tried to steady herself. The pressure building in her chest was intense. She dragged in another breath, blew it out and then tried again.

  “What is it, Josie? What are you afraid of?”

  “Mia. Bethany,” she croaked out. “He’ll hurt them like he hurt me. Have to tell Gabe and Jace.”

  “Already done,” he soothed. “You told us. Gabe and Jace are making sure that Mia and Bethany are safe. You don’t have to worry about them. I’ve taken care of Britt too. You’ll be happy to know that Kai has her under lock and key.”

  She tried to smile. She may have even managed half of one judging by Ash’s look of delight.

  Then she sobered because the big question remained unanswered. And she was getting groggier and groggier. It was getting harder to stay awake. She wanted nothing more than to drift off into oblivion where there was no pain, no worries. Nothing but a black void of nothing.

  “Why?”

  Ash sighed. Didn’t even try to misunderstand her.

  “They hurt you because of me,” he said, pain thick in his voice. “Because of the business. Me, Gabe and Jace. He’s an asshole who hurt Mia before. I didn’t know it, but he and Gabe have history. He was retaliating because we shut him down and refused to do business with him. It’s not going to happen again, Josie. I swear to you it won’t.”

  The resoluteness of his words worried Josie. It was the same matter of fact way he’d spoken of Michael and the fact that Michael would no longer be an issue.

  “What did you do?” she whispered.

  “Nothing you need to worry about,” he said as he brushed another kiss across her forehead.

  She frowned, her eyes half-closed already. She struggled to remain awake and focused.

  “That’s not an answer,” she slurred out.

  “It is,” he insisted. “I don’t want you to worry about anything but getting better. This doesn’t touch you, Josie. It never will.”

  “Don’t want to lose you,” she whispered.

  He stroked her hair, his eyes soft with love. “You won’t lose me. Never that. I’m always going to be here.”

  “’Kay.”

  “Rest now, baby. You’re about to go under. Go to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

  She fought only as long as it took to whisper the words. Words she’d never given him before.

  “Love you.”

  This time there were tears in his eyes. Turning the green to aqua pools. His breath caught and stuttered over his lips as he stared down at her.

  “I love you too, darling. Now get some rest. I’ll be here watching over you while you sleep.”

  She gave in, closing her eyes, surrendering to the pull of the medication. But she was still aware of the warm hand cupped over her brow. And of the lips against her temple.

  chapter thirty-four

  “How is she?” Mia asked anxiously when Ash walked into the ICU waiting room. “Has she woken up yet?”

  Ash gathered Mia in a hug and then put an arm around Bethany, who wore the same worried, grim expression. He hated that this touched them. That they’d been threatened and now had to live with that knowledge.

  More than that he hated that Mia’s past had been dragged into the present. Shame burned bright in her eyes. She carried guilt she had no business carrying. It wasn’t her goddamn fault that Charles Willis was a fucking coward who preyed on women to get his point across. He was pissed beyond belief that Charles had put that fear in Mia and Bethany’s eyes. More than that, he was enraged that Josie bore the bruises and broken bones from Charles’s attack.

  The man would pay. It was only a matter of time.

  Gabe and Jace also looked expectantly at Ash as they waited for an update on Josie’s condition. None of the men had slept since this all began. They were too worried that Mia or Bethany could be next and so they’d taken steps to ensure neither woman would ever be at risk.

  Mia and Bethany weren’t thrilled, but neither did they object.

  “She woke up for a few minutes,” Ash said.

  “Oh, that’s wonderful,” Bethany breathed. “How was she doing?”

  “She’s in a lot of pain. They gave her pain medication and she slipped back under. She managed to say a few things. She’s confused. She was very worried about Mia and Bethany. She didn’t remember that she’d already warned us so she was frantic to tell Gabe and Jace that he’d threatened Mia and Bethany.”

  “Son of a bitch,” Jace muttered. “What has the doctor said?”

  “When will we be able to see her?” Mia asked anxiously.

  “Maybe the next time she wakes up,” Ash said. “And the doctor said she’s making remarkable progress. They were able to take the chest tube out and she’s breathing on her own with the aid of oxygen. They’ll likely move her to a step-down unit tomorrow if she continues to do well and shows no sign of infection.”

  “That’s wonderful,” Bethany said.

  “I’m so pissed this happened to her,” Mia said tearfully.

  Gabe immediately went to her, wrapping his arm around her waist and pulling her into his side.

  “It’s my fault,” she continued, tears slipping down her cheeks. “It should have been me not her.”

  Ash scowled and Gabe didn’t look any better. Guilt weighed heavily in Gabe’s eyes. He looked haggard and gray, suddenly older than his thirty-nine years.

  “That’s bullshit,” Jace growled. “It’s not your fault, Mia. I won’t have you saying it.”

  “We all know it’s my fault,” Gabe said grimly. “If I’d taken care of the asshole the first time, we wouldn’t be standing here and Josie wouldn’t be lying in a hospital bed.”

  Ash wasn’t going to refute that. If it had been him and the situation with Mia had happened to Josie, Ash would have taken care of the issue then and there. But assigning blame did none of them any good. Gabe was kicking himself enough without Ash and Jace piling more on.

  Jace sent Gabe a dark look that said he still hadn’t forgiven the other man for what had gone down in Paris and then afterward when Charles had tried to blackmail Mia. But Jace remained silent, his lips pressed together in a tight line.

  “It doesn’t matter. It’s been taken care of,” Ash said. “There are other more important things right now.”

  Jace shot a worried look in Ash’s direction but Ash ignored it. He wasn’t about to get into specifics in front of Mia and Bethany. They had enough to deal with as it was.

  “I have
a lot of making up to do with Josie,” Ash continued. “Apart from the fact that she’s lying in a hospital bed in horrific pain, there’s also the issue of the paintings I bought. I hurt her by doing that and keeping it from her. I need your help.”

  “You know we’ll do anything,” Bethany said.

  Ash squeezed her to him, his arm still wrapped around her. “Thanks, sweetheart. That means a lot.”

  “What do you need us to do?” Gabe asked.

  “I want to arrange an art show for her and I want to go all out. I need you to call in every favor owed you to make this huge. We can use the ballroom at the Bentley for the showing. Make sure everyone who is anyone is invited and that the show is hyped as the must-attend event of the year. Politicians, celebrities, the whole nine yards. I want Josie to have a venue where her art will shine and prove to her that she has incredible talent. She just needs the right exposure.”

  “Okay, when?” Jace asked.

  “It will have to be in a couple of months. I want to make sure that Josie is recovered enough to enjoy her big night. The last thing she’d want is to show up to her own event with bruises and a cast. But we need to start working on it now so everything goes off without a hitch.”

  “You got it,” Gabe said.

  “Thanks,” Ash murmured. “Means a lot you always having my back.”

  Mia moved from Gabe’s hold and hugged Ash fiercely. “We love you, Ash. And we love Josie too. We’ll be happy to help. Just let us know if you need anything else.”

  Ash’s lips curved into a half smile. “As a matter of fact there is.”

  “Name it,” Bethany said.

  “Need you to stay here in case Josie wakes up again. I have a ring to buy.”

  Mia’s and Bethany’s delighted smiles warmed his heart. He squeezed both women to him and dropped kisses on their temples.

  And then he went to Tiffany’s to buy Josie’s ring.

  chapter thirty-five

  Josie managed to sit up in bed propped on several pillows, no small feat considering the pain in her ribs. But after several days and a move from ICU to a step-down unit and finally to the floor, she was able to sit up and actually move some. More importantly, she was able to eat!

  Not that they’d busted out the real food or even something remotely palatable, but she’d been so hungry she had fallen on the jello and pudding like it was manna from heaven.

  Ash had gone out to meet Gabe, Jace, Mia, Bethany and even Brittany and he was bringing them all in to visit with her. She was extremely self-conscious about the fact she looked terrible. But she was so anxious to have company she didn’t care. All the makeup in the world wouldn’t hide her face, but hopefully the bruising would heal quickly.

  Already some had faded from the purple, almost black, to green and yellow. She didn’t even want to know what the rest of her body looked like. She’d made it a point not to look when Ash had helped her shower.

  The door opened and she eagerly looked up to see everyone spill through the door. Ash led the way and right behind him were Mia, Bethany and Brittany. They swarmed her bed, giving gentle hugs and exclaiming how much better she looked. They were total liars but she loved them for it.

  To her surprise, Kai Wellington came in with Gabe and Jace. She arched an eyebrow in Brittany’s direction and Brittany blushed like a schoolgirl getting caught making out with the quarterback.

  “He insisted on coming,” Brittany whispered. “He hasn’t left me alone since this happened.”

  “Damn right,” Kai growled. “Not going to let some fucker get to you and hurt you. Bad enough he got to Josie.”

  “He sounds so possessive,” Josie whispered to Brittany. “I take it things are going well?”

  Brittany’s eyes glowed and she nodded vigorously. “Oh yes. Definitely.”

  Josie squeezed her hand with the fingers that weren’t casted. “I’m glad.”

  “How are you feeling?” Mia asked anxiously.

  “Better,” Josie said.

  At Ash’s skeptical look, she flushed. “Okay. Not wonderful, but I am better. I can sit up now without feeling like my chest caught on fire. And I can breathe normally again. They took the oxygen off this morning.”

  “That’s wonderful, Josie!” Bethany exclaimed. “We’ve been so worried about you.”

  “How are you guys?” Josie asked in a low voice. But her question was mainly directed at Mia. Ash had told her about Mia’s history with Charles Willis.

  “We’re okay,” Mia said, but her eyes were haunted. “I still feel like it’s my fault. I mean I’m the one who pissed him off.”

  Josie shook her head and winced at the pain it caused. “He’s an asshole, Mia. You aren’t to blame for his actions.”

  “Got that right,” Ash growled.

  “I hate that I share a last name with him,” Bethany said, pulling a face. “I don’t want anyone thinking we’re related!”

  Mia rolled her eyes. “Like Willis isn’t a common last name?”

  “You won’t have to worry about that much longer, baby,” Jace said, satisfaction written on his face. “Your last name will soon be Crestwell.”

  Bethany’s face flushed with happiness and she automatically stared down at the ring on her left hand. And it was a gorgeous ring. Huge diamond but it didn’t look gawdy at all. It was tastefully expensive and it suited her perfectly.

  “Speaking of, have you set a date yet?” Josie asked.

  Jace looked unhappy and Bethany laughed. “We’re working on it. I wasn’t planning anything until you’re completely recovered and can stand for me at my wedding.”

  Josie’s heart warmed and she smiled big, allowing her pleasure to show.

  “I wouldn’t miss it,” she said. “Even if I’m still in a cast. Don’t wait on me! I don’t want to delay your big day.”

  “It wouldn’t be the same without you,” Bethany said, putting her hand on Josie’s. “I want you all there. Brittany too! All the girls will be there. Caro has promised that she’ll come even if it means flying in from Vegas.”

  Kai cleared his throat. “That won’t be a problem. If Brittany and I are in Vegas by then we’ll fly in on my jet and bring Brandon and Caro with us.”

  Josie’s eyes widened and her gaze went to Brittany. “You’re going to Vegas with him?”

  “Yes,” Kai cut in before Brittany could answer.

  Ash’s eyes narrowed but he kept silent. Josie had no doubt he’d be talking to his sister later. And Kai as well.

  “Thank you,” Bethany said to Kai, ducking her face in shyness. “It means a lot that you’ll make sure they get to come.”

  “Wouldn’t miss it,” Kai said, a smile on his ruggedly handsome face. “Maybe seeing you get married will entice Brittany to take the plunge again. Her last husband was a fool to let her go, but I won’t make that same mistake.”

  Whoa. This guy was moving fast! Josie risked another look at Brittany to see her face drawn in consternation. It seemed as though Kai wanted to move fast and that Brittany wasn’t quite on board yet. Her money was on Kai, though. He struck her as being a very determined man when he wanted something. Just like every other man in this room.

  “I don’t suppose you all brought food with you?” Josie asked hopefully. “I’m starving and all they’ll give me is clear liquids, which means lots of jello and chicken broth.”

  Ash sent her a look of reprimand. “No real food yet, baby. Not until tomorrow, and even then you’ll start out slow.”

  She sighed. “It was worth a try. Maybe the girls will smuggle me in something when you’re not looking.”

  As she said it, she sent a pleading look in the women’s direction that had everyone laughing.

  “We’re on it,” Mia said firmly, shooting Ash a glare.

  Ash shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Just remember you have to get by me.”

  “You have to sleep sometime,” Bethany said lightly. “If the smell of food just happens to wake you up, I’m sure it will be fro
m the next room.”

  They all laughed and Josie felt lightness enter her chest. Things were going to be okay. She’d get through this. The doctor had even said she could go home in the next day or two if everything continued to improve as it was doing currently. After so many days in the hospital she was ready to scream.

  She hadn’t even been able to get out of the bed except to shower and pee. She was dying to get up and stretch. Anything but lying here in this bed all day.

  They talked more, laughing, joking and chatting until Josie began to yawn, fatigue settling over her. Ash noticed and sent a not-so-subtle look in the others’ direction. They immediately took the hint and announced they were leaving.

  They crowded around Josie’s bed, giving her gentle hugs and kisses. Even Kai dropped a kiss on her cheek before stepping back to anchor Brittany to his side.

  “I hate that you all are going so soon,” Josie said mournfully. “It gets boring just lying here all day. I’m about to climb the walls!”

  “We’ll be back soon,” Mia promised. “And we’re bringing food!”

  Mia sent Ash another warning glare as she said the last.

  “I’ll be looking forward to it!” Josie said.

  Ash bent over her bed and kissed her softly on the mouth. “I’m going to walk them out, darling. But I’ll be right back, okay? Want me to bring you something hot to drink? Doctor said you could have coffee or hot chocolate.”

  “Oh, that sounds heavenly,” Josie sighed. “Coffee would be perfect. I don’t suppose you could bring me a latte?”

  Ash grinned. “Anything for you. I’ll see what I can do.”

  “Anything except food you mean,” Josie grumbled.

  He caressed the side of her head and gave her an affectionate pat. “Anything except food.”

  She waved him away and settled back against her pillows, sagging precariously to one side. The visit had exhausted her. Maybe she wasn’t quite as recovered as she wanted to think. But she was glad they’d all come.

  Everyone filed out of the door and Ash turned back, sending her a look so filled with love that her breath caught in her throat. Then he turned, quietly closing the door behind him.

  She sighed and closed her eyes, taking the opportunity for some rest. She’d just drifted off when she heard her door open. Surely she hadn’t slept that long. Ash hadn’t had time to go down with his friends, get her coffee and get back so soon.

  Two men in suits appeared in her doorway and she recognized them as the detectives that had questioned her right after she’d been hospitalized. She didn’t remember a whole lot about the interview. She’d been groggy, in pain and doped up on pain medication. But maybe they’d arrested Charles. This time she’d done what she should have done when Michael assaulted her. She was pressing charges. She wanted Charles to go to jail for what he’d done because she was terrified of what Ash might do to him.

  “Miss Carlysle, we’d like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind. Do you remember my partner, Clinton? I’m Detective Starks. The last time we saw you was right after your attack. I wasn’t sure how much you’d remember.”

 
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