Burn, p.28
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       Burn, p.28

         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks
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  “I remember you, Detective Starks. And no, I don’t mind. Have you made an arrest yet?”

  “That’s what we want to discuss with you,” Starks said in an even tone.

  The looks on their faces put Josie immediately on guard. She glanced between them, trying to gauge what was going on.

  “Charles Willis was found brutally murdered this morning,” Starks said bluntly. “We’d like to know who killed him.”

  chapter thirty-six

  Josie stared at the two policemen in shock. Fear raced through her veins. Oh God. Surely Ash hadn’t . . . He wouldn’t. Would he? Panic clutched her stomach and she had a hard time breathing, pain jolting through her chest with the effort.

  “Are you all right, Miss Carlysle?” Clinton asked with concern.

  “Of course I’m not all right,” she said faintly. “You just told me that the man who assaulted me was murdered.” And then another thought occurred to her. She glanced sharply at both detectives. “You said you want to find out who killed him. Surely you don’t think I’m a suspect. I’m hardly capable of killing a man in my current condition.”

  But Ash would be a suspect. He’d made no secret of his rage over what had happened. And worse, Josie couldn’t immediately discount the notion that he could have done it.

  “You’re not a suspect, now,” Starks in a bland tone. “But Mr. McIntyre is. Can you tell me if you know of his whereabouts last night between seven and ten P.M.?”

  Relief surged, making her light-headed. She gripped the bed rail with her left hand because it felt like she’d pitch right over the side. If that was the time they were asking about then Ash couldn’t have done it because he had been with her.

  “He was here with me,” she said firmly. “You can ask any of the nurses who were on duty. He sat with me the entire night and slept on the couch over there.”

  Clinton was busy scribbling notes on a pocket notebook while Starks continued to stare at her until she shifted uncomfortably.

  “Pretty convenient that the man who attacked you turns up dead wouldn’t you say?”

  “What are you getting at, detective?” she snapped. “If you’d done your job and arrested him, he wouldn’t be dead now, would he? I’ve already told you that Ash was with me. If you don’t believe me, there are plenty of other people who can support his alibi.”

  Starks nodded slowly. “We’ll be checking, absolutely. But what about Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Crestwell. Did you see either of them last night?”

  The blood seeped from her face. “Are you crazy? Why would either of them kill Charles Willis?”

  “You didn’t answer the question,” Clinton interjected.

  “No,” she said. “I didn’t see them, but I’m sure if you ask them they’ll be able to tell you where they were.”

  “Oh, we will,” Starks said grimly.

  The door opened and Ash walked in, abruptly halting when he took in the two police officers. Evidently he saw something on her face he didn’t like because his expression became thunderous.

  “What the fuck is going on here?” he demanded.

  “Mr. McIntyre,” Starks acknowledged with a dip of his head. “We’re questioning Miss Carlysle in the murder of Charles Willis.”

  Ash blinked, no expression betraying his thoughts. “He’s dead?”

  Clinton nodded.

  “Good,” Ash said savagely.

  Josie gasped. He wasn’t helping matters any with his declaration. Now they’d be convinced that Ash had something to do with it.

  “They think you had something to do with it, Ash!”

  Ash arched one brow. “Do they?”

  “You don’t seem too torn up over the fact he’s dead,” Starks commented.

  Ash turned his furious gaze on the detectives. “Take a good look at her. Now you tell me, if that was your woman that he nearly beat to death, would you be upset that someone killed the bastard?”

  Clinton shifted uncomfortably and Starks had the grace to look abashed.

  “Not saying what I think,” Starks replied. “What I think doesn’t matter and it doesn’t change the fact that a crime was committed. I have to investigate it as I would any other murder.”

  “You do that,” Ash said flatly. “But you leave Josie the fuck alone. You aren’t to so much as look at her unless she has a lawyer present. Are we clear? Furthermore, if you want to speak to her again, you’ll call me and set up an appointment and it won’t be when she’s in pain and about to drop from exhaustion. You’ve upset her and that’s the last thing she needs right now.”

  “Then perhaps you wouldn’t mind stepping outside with us to answer a few questions,” Starks said in a clipped tone.

  “I would mind,” Ash bit back. “I’m not leaving Josie. If you want to talk, I’ll give you my lawyer’s number and you can arrange an interview through him.”

  “It doesn’t have to be this difficult,” Clinton broke in. “Just answer a few questions for us and we’ll be on our way.”

  “And I’ve already told you what you need to do if you want to talk to either of us again,” Ash said flatly.

  He fished in his wallet and then pulled out a card, handing it to Starks. Neither detective looked pleased, but they backed off.

  “We’re going to be investigating you, Mr. McIntyre. If you had anything to do with Charles Willis’s death, we’ll find out,” Starks said grimly.

  “My life is an open book,” Ash said in a calm voice. “Though if you look into Charles Willis’s business practices, you’ll find your suspects. There is plenty of motive there. Do yourself a favor and spend your time looking into his dealings and not wasting it by looking into mine. You won’t find what you’re looking for investigating me.”

  Clinton and Starks exchanged sharp glances.

  “We’ll be in touch,” Starks said to both Josie and Ash.

  Then they turned and walked out. Ash followed, closing the door forcefully behind them.

  He turned back, striding toward the bed, his expression fierce.

  “I’m sorry about that, baby. Never thought they would have come in here like that. I’m sorry I left you alone to deal with that. It won’t happen again. If they show up, you aren’t to talk to them without a lawyer present. If for some reason I’m not with you, you call me immediately.”

  Her hand was shaking despite the grip she still had on the bed rail. Ash carefully pried her fingers away and cupped them in his hand, stroking soothingly with his thumb.

  “They asked where you were last night between seven and ten,” she said, her voice quivering. “They think you did it.”

  “I was here with you,” Ash said in a soft voice.

  “I know. I told them that. But they still think . . . and they asked about Gabe and Jace. Ash you have to warn them. They think one of you did this. You didn’t, did you?”

  Her voice had a pleading note she couldn’t control.

  Ash slowly shook his head. “I didn’t do it, baby. I was here with you.”

  “But did you have it done?” she whispered.

  He leaned over and kissed her brow, leaving his lips there a long moment.

  “I didn’t have to. He stole from a lot of people. Fucked over a lot of people—the wrong people—in his business dealings. Once they found that out, his life wasn’t worth a dime.”

  She gave him a perplexed look when he stood back up. “How did they find out?”

  Ash smiled, but it wasn’t a warm smile. She shivered at the darkness in his eyes. This was a man you didn’t fuck with. No matter how he appeared. Laid-back, charming and easygoing, underneath that carefully constructed façade was an intense man with unbreakable determination.

  “They may have had a little help,” he said in a dark tone.

  She sucked in her breath as she stared back at Ash. “So you did have something to do with his murder.”

  Ash shook his head. “No. I didn’t. If you’re asking if I have blood on my hands then yeah, no doubt. I slipped the right infor
mation to the right people. What they did with it was up to them. I didn’t kill him. Didn’t have him killed. But I made it possible with the information I provided. I guess you have to decide if you can live with that. And me.”

  Slowly she nodded, a little numb, but relieved too. She couldn’t face the idea of Ash going to jail because of her. Of it ruining both their lives. Not when she planned a life with him.

  “He deserved to die. He wasn’t a good man. And that goes against everything I’ve ever believed in. It’s not for me to judge. Before I would have been appalled over justice being taken this way.”

  “And now?” he asked quietly.

  “You’ve changed me, Ash. I don’t know if it’s all good. Or all bad. I don’t know that it’s either. It just is. You’ve changed me. Made me better in some ways. Murky in others.”

  “I don’t want you to ever be touched by the gray areas I’m immersed in, baby. I want you clean. I want you to shine, just like you always do. We’ll never talk about this again. Don’t ask and I’m not going to say. You may know things—I will not lie to you—but you will not be confronted with them. Ever. Can you live with that?”

  “Yeah,” she whispered. “I can live with that.”

  “I love you, baby,” Ash said in a tight voice, filled with emotion. “I don’t deserve your love or your shine, but I want it because with you I can feel the sun. I don’t want to go back to those shadows.”

  “You don’t have to,” she said quietly. “Stay in the sun. With me.”

  “Always, darling. Nothing will touch our children, Josie. You have my word. Nothing ever touches you or our kids. Gabe or Jace, Mia and Bethany. You’re my family. I’d die for any one of you and you’ll all stay in the sun where you belong.”

  “You belong there too, Ash. And I want you there with me.”

  She broke off, frowning as she realized what he’d said.

  “Wait, are we having children?”

  He smiled, slow and sexy, his eyes knowing. Arrogance and male confidence radiated in waves. “You’re having my babies, Josie. Bank on that. How many is up to you. I want boys first. And then a little girl. Because she’ll need big brothers who’ll always look out for her. They’ll be different from my brothers. They’ll give a shit. We’ll be a real family.”

  Josie sent him a tender smile, full of her love for him. “Yeah. We’ll be a real family. I want six. Think you can handle that?”

  Ash looked dumbstruck. “Six? Holy shit, woman. That’s a hell of a lot of knocking you up I gotta do.”

  She nodded solemnly. “Don’t you think we should get started?”

  “Hell yeah,” he muttered. “Don’t want to be an old bastard when you have the last one. But you have to get well and out of the hospital before we start working on that first baby.”

  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny box.

  “I wanted to do this at just the perfect moment,” he said gruffly. “But I can’t think of a more perfect time than when we’re talking about our kids and how many we’ll have.”

  He opened the box and Josie gasped as she stared down at a gorgeous diamond ring. It sparkled and caught the sunlight streaming through her window, dazzling her with its brilliance.

  He lowered himself to one knee beside her bed and gently took her left hand in his.

  “Will you marry me, Josie? Have my babies and put up with me for the rest of your life? No one will ever love you more than me and I’m going to spend every day for the rest of my life making sure you know that.”

  The ring wobbled and went blurry in her vision as he slid it onto her finger.

  “Yes. Oh yes, Ash! I’ll marry you. I love you so much. And I want those babies. Lots of babies.”

  He smiled and pushed himself back up so he could lean over, gathering her carefully in his arms. He kissed her tenderly, her heart melting.

  “I love you too, Josie. Never want you to doubt that. I have a lot to make up for and I’m working on that right now. But it’ll wait until you’re out of the hospital and home where I can fuss over you and spoil you rotten.”

  She reached up with her left hand to cup his cheek, her ring sparkling on her finger.

  “I’m looking forward to that, my love.”

  chapter thirty-seven

  “I can’t believe you did this for me,” Josie said in awe as she stared at the very full ballroom of the Bentley Hotel.

  Ash wrapped his arm around her and squeezed her tightly against him. “I didn’t do anything, baby. It’s all you. They love your work. You’re going to sell out in the first half hour. A bidding war has begun over your erotic series of paintings.”

  Josie took in the glittering array of people who were admiring her work while drinking very expensive champagne. Everyone was here. The mayor, oh my God. And there were celebrities everywhere! She was agog at the names of some of the people in attendance. And they were here for her paintings!

  She glanced back up at Ash and leaned further into him. “Do you hate that they’re seeing those paintings of me? I know you didn’t like showing them and wanted to be the only one to see them.”

  He smiled and dropped a kiss on her upturned lips. “I have the real thing. What do I need the paintings for? They only get to imagine what they can’t see in those paintings, but I get to see it and touch it every night. That’s only for me. No one else will ever have that.”

  She smiled back, delighted at his response.

  “Now, if you ever venture into something more revealing, then yeah, I’m going to buy those. I don’t care what you say. Nobody but me gets to see you completely naked.”

  She grinned and elbowed him in the ribs. “Don’t worry. That’s the extent of the bravery I have concerning me in the buff.”

  “Thank fuck,” he muttered. “Don’t want to have to beat the asses of any men who drool over you in a painting.”

  “Oh look, there’re the girls!” Josie exclaimed, breaking away from Ash to go and greet them.

  “Josie!” Brittany cried, engulfing Josie in a huge hug. “You’re famous! Have you seen all the people here going bananas over your paintings?”

  Josie hugged her back and smiled up at Kai who stood indulgently to the side while Brittany attacked Josie.

  Mia and Bethany shoved past Gabe and Jace the minute Brittany let Josie go and hugged her fiercely.

  “Oh my gosh, you guys look gorgeous!” Josie said, surveying the cocktail dresses worn by each. “And your shoes!” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I know what you guys will be doing later!”

  They all laughed and then Mia said, “Hey, where’s the champagne! We need to get our drink on!”

  The men groaned but there wasn’t a single one who didn’t have a smug gleam in his eyes. Yeah, they knew what they were getting later. Josie hoped to have her own after-party romp between the sheets with Ash.

  He’d been exceedingly gentle and patient during her recovery. She’d eventually had to jump him because he’d refused to so much as touch her, much less have sex with her, until he was absolutely certain she was healed. And he still hadn’t done more than make sweet, exquisite love to her, not that she was complaining. But she was eager to resume a normal sexual relationship with her dominant man.

  She could see in his eyes the desire not to remind her of what had happened. He’d been extremely careful, worried that he would somehow be correlated with the assault on her. But she loved that edge, that fine line between too far and not enough. She wanted it back. Wanted him to lose his tightly held control and to unleash his dark hungers on the both of them.

  She shivered just thinking about it. Tonight. Definitely tonight she’d give him no option. She wanted everything he could give her. Wanted to feel the snap of leather against her ass. Wanted him to tie her up and have his wicked way with her. She wanted Ash back!

  “I’m going to steal Josie and take her around the room. I want to introduce her to a few people. Drink up and we’ll be back in a few minutes,” Ash said.

/>   The girls waved and then turned back to their own men who were more than happy to get them back. Ash led her through the crowd, stopping and introducing her to people she could barely stammer hello to.

  She was tongue-tied and had no idea what to say to the people who gushed about her work. She’d never dreamed that anyone would be that excited over her paintings. And she had Ash to thank.

  “Thank you,” she whispered, slipping her arm around his waist as they threaded back through the crowd. “This is the most awesome night of my life!”

  “Glad you’re enjoying yourself, darling. This is your night to shine. But don’t worry because there will be many more. Judging by how fast your paintings have sold, you’re going to be in high demand. I may regret doing this because you’re going to be spending all your time painting and you’ll forget all about me.”

  She laughed and hugged him tighter. “No chance of that. You’ll always come first, Ash.”

  He kissed her, long and lingeringly, uncaring of the people in the crowded ballroom. She sighed, blissfully happy. So much had happened over the last two months. She’d been released from the hospital after having to stay for nearly two weeks. The police had questioned her and Ash, this time with his lawyer present. They’d also questioned Gabe and Jace and had combed through Ash’s life, leaving no stone unturned. But there had been nothing to find.

  Then they’d turned their attention to Charles Willis’s business practices and it was there that they’d struck a gold mine. He’d stolen from numerous people. Embezzled money. Set up fake accounts. He’d billed for work never done, and at least three offshore accounts had been discovered with millions of dollars in stolen money.

  Worse was the people he’d stolen from. They weren’t exactly the legitimate businessmen that Ash and his partners were. They were not the kind of people you steal from because, if discovered, it wasn’t jail time you had to worry about. As Charles had no doubt discovered far too late. He even had ties to the mob, and Josie hadn’t even realized the mob still existed outside of books and movies.

  The police had investigated one man in particular, convinced that he was behind Charles’s murder, but had been frustrated by their inability to pin anything on him. As a result, the case was still open, but Ash was no longer a suspect.

  Josie had breathed much easier when the police backed off. She knew Ash hadn’t been directly behind Charles’s death, but he had been involved to an extent. But as he’d promised that day in the hospital, they never spoke of it again, and she didn’t ask.

  Maybe that made her just as murky and gray as Ash thought he was himself, but she couldn’t spare any real remorse over Charles’s death. He’d hurt a lot of people and she could have died from the beating she’d received. She was ready to move on with her life. With Ash.

  “Have something I want to ask you, baby,” Ash murmured next to her ear.

  She looked up, curious as to why he sounded so serious all of a sudden.

  “Jace and Bethany have asked if we want to get married with them. A double wedding. I told them I’d discuss it with you. It’s something they’d really like. Jace is impatient and wants the wedding to be soon. But I don’t want us to do it with them if you want or need more time. If you want your own big day separate from theirs, I understand. I want it to be special for you.”

  “But what about you?” Josie asked softly. “What do you want?”

  Ash smiled. “All I want out of the deal is you. Nothing else matters. Don’t care where it happens or when, though I’m not a fan of waiting very long. I want you to have my name. For me to know you’re legally mine. How we do it doesn’t matter.”

  “I think it would be really special to share a wedding with Jace and Bethany,” she murmured. “He’s your best friend and I adore Bethany. Let’s do it!”

  “You okay with getting married soon?” Ash asked. “Jace wants it done as soon as possible. He thought about hitting a beach somewhere. Maybe go to Bora-Bora and get married on the sand.”

  “That sounds so romantic,” she sighed. “I don’t care when or where either, Ash. I just want to be married to you. Anything else is just icing on the cake.”

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