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         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  Jace laughed. “Yeah, man, it was last night. You didn’t show. Not that you have to do anything but stand there with Gabe. Mia’s going to give you shit about ducking out. I covered for you and said you had shit with work and that you stayed so Gabe could make the rehearsal. That appeased her.”

  “Christ,” Ash said. “I feel like an ass now. I swear I didn’t remember. I wouldn’t have remembered the wedding was tomorrow if I hadn’t seen Gabe at the office earlier.”

  “You haven’t been around much lately,” Jace said, curiosity in his voice. “Everything okay with you? Work hasn’t been that bad, unless there’s something you’re not telling me. Things have been pretty damn quiet since Gabe went on a tear trying to get everything worked out before he left for his honeymoon.”

  “Just been preoccupied, man. No big deal.”

  Jace leaned forward before Ash could close the door. “Look, I know things have been . . . different. Ever since me and Bethany. I get that. But I don’t want things to change, Ash. You’re family.”

  “Things did change,” Ash said softly. “Nothing to be done about it. I’m dealing. Don’t make it an issue that it isn’t, Jace. Be happy and make Bethany happy.”

  “Are we cool?” Jace asked. “Because you’ve been off lately. And it’s not just me noticing.”

  Ash cracked a smile. “Yeah, man, we’re cool. Stop acting like a goddamn nanny. Go home to your woman. I’ll see you tomorrow in my goddamn tuxedo. Only for Mia would I do this shit.”

  Jace laughed. “Yeah, tell me about it. Bethany and I are so eloping.”

  “Set a date yet?”

  While Jace and Bethany had become engaged at Bethany’s twenty-fourth birthday party, they hadn’t set a date, at least not to Ash’s knowledge. But then, he’d been so far out of the loop lately that it was possible he just didn’t know about it.

  “Not yet,” Jace said. “Was waiting until this shit with Jack blew over. I don’t want that hanging over her head when we get married. After he gets out of rehab and gets his shit sorted, I’ll plan a trip somewhere and we’ll get married on a beach.”

  “Sounds great. See you tomorrow, okay?”

  Ash closed the door and slapped the side to signal the driver to pull away before he turned and walked into his apartment building.

  Once inside his apartment, he walked into his bedroom and his gaze fell on the painting the art dealer had pulled from the back. The one that was still wrapped and not on display.

  The others he’d put against the wall in the living room, but he’d put this one in his bedroom, intending to look at it when he got home. Now curiosity was eating at him, so he carefully pulled away the wrapping and turned it over.

  “Holy shit,” he breathed.

  It was . . . stunning. Provocative and sexy as hell.

  It was her.

  Or rather her tattoo, or what he imagined had to be her tattoo. Granted he’d only gotten a glimpse when she’d bared a thin strip of her waist, but this was in the right place and it resembled the flowery vine.

  The painting was of a nude woman’s profile. One hip was presented, arms covering her breasts, but the barest hint of one soft mound peeked tantalizingly from underneath her upper arm. And down her entire side was a colorful, flowery tattoo. It curved over her hip and disappeared between her legs.

  It had to be on the inside of one thigh and now he was dying to know if this was an exact replica of her tattoo. The one he’d seen on her body. Jesus, but he was dying to know. Dying to trace the lines with his fingers and his tongue.

  He stared at the painting, absorbing every detail. The art dealer had been a fool not to display this one. Had he even looked at it? It was erotic as hell and yet still tasteful.

  Long blond hair flowed down her back, the ends lifted as if she was caught in a breeze. Her arms were hugged to her body, her fingertips splayed over the arm pressing down over her breast. Delicate. Utterly feminine. And so damn beautiful it made his balls ache.

  Holy fuck but he was obsessed with a woman he’d only met in person one time. And this painting wasn’t helping a damn bit.

  Tomorrow this was getting framed and it was going over his bed so he’d see it every time he entered his bedroom. Or, even better, he’d put it on the wall opposite his bed so it would be the first thing he saw when he woke up in the morning and the last thing he saw before he went to sleep at night.

  Yeah, he wasn’t just obsessed. He was all sorts of fucked up over this woman. He had to get a grip.

  Johnny was bringing her jewelry by the office day after tomorrow since the entire business would be shut down for Gabe’s wedding tomorrow. Ash then had to figure out how he was going to get it back to her. He could just mail it to her, but then he wouldn’t see her. And he definitely planned on seeing her again. Soon.

  chapter four

  Ash sat in his office the day after Gabe’s wedding and studied the small box containing the jewelry that Josie had pawned. He examined each piece before carefully returning it to the tissue so it wouldn’t get damaged.

  It was quality. He wasn’t an expert but it looked vintage and real. Definitely not fake. It was worth far more than Josie had pawned it for, and the pawnbroker knew it, judging by the price it had cost Ash to get it back.

  He didn’t like the desperation in that single act. Of pawning jewelry for a fast buck and taking far less than it was worth because she had no other choice. He was going to give that choice back to her. But other choices? Not so much. Not if he had anything to say about it.

  It made him arrogant and demanding, but he knew himself to be both, so it didn’t bother him. It was who he was. He knew what he wanted, and he wanted Josie. Now he just had to put the ball in motion.

  His intercom buzzed and he jerked his head up in irritation.

  “Mr. McIntyre, your sister is here to see you,” Eleanor, his receptionist, said in a crisp voice that sounded pissed off.

  But then it wasn’t a secret how Ash—and Gabe and Jace—felt about his family. Eleanor had been with them for years and it likely hadn’t pleased her to buzz him with this kind of information.

  What the fuck was Brittany doing here? Had his mother resorted to having his sister do her dirty work for her? He could feel his blood pressure rise, even knowing he had to stop allowing them this kind of power over him.

  “Send her in,” Ash said grimly.

  No way he was going to air family shit outside the privacy of his office. Whatever it was Brittany wanted, Ash would give her a few minutes and then let her know she wasn’t welcome at his office. None of his family was, and for that matter, none of them had ever stepped inside the HCM offices. They saved their venom for holidays and family get-togethers.

  If they ever set foot inside the HCM offices, they’d be forced to acknowledge his success instead of treating it like a dirty secret no one talked about. They’d be forced to see firsthand that he didn’t need them and he’d succeeded without their help or influence. No way they were going to do either.

  A soft knock sounded at his door and he voiced a “come in.”

  The door slowly opened and his sister walked in, apprehension written all over her features. She looked more than nervous. She looked terrified.

  “Ash?” she asked softly. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

  Brittany was a replica of his mother. Not that his mother wasn’t a beautiful woman. She was. And Brittany was every bit as beautiful, if not more so, than their mother. The only problem was his mother was ugly on the inside and it forever marred his perception of her looks. Because he knew what resided behind that pretty face. It was a cold and calculating mind. He firmly believed she was incapable of loving anyone but herself. It was a mystery to him why she’d ever had children. And not just one, but four.

  Besides Brittany, Ash had two older siblings. Both brothers and both firmly under the grasp of their mother and father. Though younger, Brittany was approaching thirty. Or maybe she’d turned thirty already? He couldn’t rememb
er and he didn’t spare an ounce of sadness over that fact. And she was as solidly under the family thumb as their brothers. Perhaps even more so.

  Their mother had handpicked Brittany’s husband. An older guy she’d married Brittany off to when she was barely out of college. Wealthy. Influential. All the right connections. The marriage had barely lasted two years and Ash’s mother blamed that squarely on Brittany. Never mind that in Ash’s digging, he’d found a hell of a lot of skeletons in Robert Hanover’s closet.

  He was not a man he’d want his sister—or any woman—married to. But Brittany had meekly submitted to her mother’s desires despite Ash’s warning to her that Robert was not the man he seemed.

  At least she’d had the balls to get out of the marriage. That had surprised him.

  “What’s up?” Ash asked in an even tone.

  He gestured for her to sit in the chair facing his desk. She eased into it, perched gingerly on the edge, nervousness and uncertainty evident in her body language.

  “I need your help,” she breathed out.

  He cocked one eyebrow upward. “What’s wrong? Get into an argument with mommy dearest?”

  Anger flashed in Brittany’s eyes as she stared back at Ash.

  “Please don’t, Ash. I know I deserve your mockery and scorn. I deserve a lot of things. But I want out. And I need your help to do that. It shames me to have to come and beg for help from you, but I don’t know where else to go or who else to turn to. If I go to Grandpa, he’d just tell Mom and he probably wouldn’t help me anyway. You’re his favorite. He can’t stand the rest of us.”

  Surprise gripped him at the earnestness—and urgency—in her tone. He leaned forward, his gaze narrowing at her.

  “You want out. What does that mean exactly, Brittany?”

  “I want away from them,” she said shakily. “All of them.”

  “What the hell did they do to you?” Ash demanded.

  She shook her head. “Nothing. I mean nothing more than usual. You know how they are, Ash. I’ve always envied you so much. You tell them to fuck off and you’ve made your own way. All I’ve done is marry a man my mother wanted me to, try to make the best of a bad situation and fail miserably. I got nothing in the divorce and I was okay with that. I just wanted out. But I have nothing without Mom and Dad’s help. And I don’t want it anymore. Because their help comes with strings. I’m thirty years old and what do I have to show for my life? No life, no money. Nothing.”

  The desolation in her voice hit Ash deep. He knew exactly what she meant. It could have easily been him in this same situation. His brothers certainly were. He didn’t like the shadows in her eyes and the beaten down look she currently wore. As much as she’d been a bitch before, mimicking their mother, he’d take that over this whipped-puppy look she now had.

  “What do you want to do?” he asked quietly.

  “Is it pathetic that I don’t know? I don’t even know where to start. I came to you because I had no one else to go to. My friends aren’t friends when the chips are down. They’re more than willing to support me when things are good, but I can’t count on them for real support.”

  “I’ll help you,” he said in an even tone. “Jace owns an apartment that Mia used to live in, and more recently his fiancée lived there. But it’s empty again and just sitting there. I can probably buy it from him or at least use it until we get you situated somewhere else.”

  Her eyes widened in shock.

  “Do you have a job?” he asked.

  She flushed and dropped her gaze.

  “I’m not criticizing, Brittany,” he said softly. “I’m asking so I know what kind of help you need.”

  She shook her head. “No. I’ve been living with Mom and Dad. It’s not that I don’t want to work, but what am I good at?”

  “You could be good at a lot of things,” Ash said. “You’re smart. You have a degree. You’re just afraid to try and get out there in the real world.”

  She nodded slowly.

  “I can get you a position in one of the hotels, but Brittany, you need to know. It would be a real job with real responsibilities. I can pull strings to get you hired, but if you aren’t doing the job, you don’t get to keep it. Understand?”

  “I understand and thank you, Ash. I don’t know what to say. We—I—have been horrible to you.” Tears filled her eyes as she stared earnestly back at Ash. “They hate you because they can’t control you. And I’ve let them control me. Now that I’m not going to do that anymore, they’re going to hate me too.”

  Ash reached across the desk and curled his hand around hers, squeezing reassuringly.

  “You don’t need them, Brittany. You’re young and smart. You can make it on your own. You just need a little help to do that. But be prepared. You’re going to have to be strong. Our mother is a bitch, and she won’t hesitate to use every weapon in her arsenal on you as soon as she figures out what you’re doing.”

  “Thanks,” she whispered. “I’ll pay you back somehow, Ash. I swear it.”

  He squeezed her hand again. “The best thing you can do for me is to live your own life and don’t let them beat you down again. I’ll help. I’ll do what I can to shield you from that shit. But it’s going to take a lot of strength on your part as well. I’d like to think we could actually be family again.”

  She curled both her hands around his, her eyes shining as she locked gazes with him. “I’d like that too, Ash.”

  “Let me call Jace and see where he stands with the apartment. If we can’t get you into that one, we’ll have to take a look at what else is out there. Do you need me to go with you to get your stuff from Mom and Dad’s?”

  She shook her head. “I packed everything. My clothes and stuff I mean. Nothing else to pack. I brought it with me. My suitcases are in the reception area here. I took a cab to your office. Wasn’t sure what I was going to do if you refused to see me.”

  “Okay, then let me call Jace and we’ll get your bags. For tonight I’ll put you up in our hotel. I’m sure the apartment will need restocking. I’ll work on that today and also set up an account for you and deposit enough cash to get you through to your first paycheck. Take a few days to settle in and then come back to see me about that job. By then I’ll have something lined up for you.”

  She rose and then was suddenly around the desk, throwing her arms around his neck. He caught her, rising from his chair, still holding on to her so she didn’t fall, and he returned her hug.

  “You’re the best, Ash. God I’ve missed you. I’m so sorry for the way I’ve treated you. You have every right to kick me out and never see me again. I’ll never forget what you’re doing for me. Never.”

  The fervency in her voice made Ash smile as he patiently waited for the hugfest to be over. Who would have thought today would bring his sister into his office for a family reunion of sorts. Gabe and Jace weren’t going to believe this one. Although it would be two weeks before Gabe knew anything.

  Jace would likely think he’d lost his mind for helping his sister out. But Ash couldn’t just turn his back on her. Even if it was what his family had done to him. Brittany was still his little sister and perhaps this would be a new page for them. Ash didn’t like the estrangement between him and his family. But they’d given him no choice. He wanted what everyone else took for granted. A solid family unit. People who had his back. People who loved and supported him unconditionally.

  He had that with Gabe and Jace and now Mia and Bethany. But he’d never had it with his own blood. Maybe Brittany would change all of that. Even if they’d never be one big happy family, he and his sister could at least have a relationship.

  “I’ll have my driver take you to the hotel. I’ll ask Eleanor to have him come up and get your bags. She’ll also call over to make sure they have a room ready for you when you get there. You’ll need to go to the bank to set up your account. I’ll have Eleanor help you out with that too. But for now take it easy, try to get some rest and tomorrow we’ll move you into an
apartment.”

  He smiled indulgently when she hugged him again. She hastily wiped at a tear as she turned away.

  “This means a lot, Ash. It means everything. And I swear I’ll make this up to you.”

  “Just be happy and don’t let them take you back down,” Ash said in a serious tone. “She won’t let go that easy, Brittany. You have to know that and you have to be prepared for it. If she pulls any shit, you come to me and I’ll sort it out.”

  Brittany smiled wanly and then started for the door. She paused, her hand gripping the doorknob.

  “I’ve always admired you, Ash. And if I’m honest, I’ve always been jealous. But you’re not what they say you are. I hate them for what they did to you. To me. And I hate myself for letting them.”

  “They aren’t worth your hatred,” Ash said quietly. “Don’t give them that kind of power over you. Not saying it’s going to be easy. But you can’t let them knock you down and keep you down.”

  She nodded and then smiled faintly. “I’ll see you soon. I’d like that, I mean. Maybe dinner. Or I can cook something at the apartment for just the two of us.”

  “I’d like that too,” he said sincerely. “Take care of yourself, Brittany. And if you need anything, call me.”

  As soon as she walked out of his door, he buzzed Eleanor and gave her the rundown on what he needed. After instructing her to assist Brittany in opening a bank account, he told her to give him the account number as soon as Brittany had it so he could wire funds.

  What a day. So Brittany had a backbone after all. It had taken her long enough, but better late than never. Their two older brothers had never had the balls or the desire to stand up to their parents and the old man. Ash had no use for them. Both in their forties and neither one able to support himself or his own family. Hell, Ash had nieces and nephews he’d rarely ever seen. He knew nothing about his sisters-in-law other than they were married to weak men still firmly under the thumb of his parents.

  That wasn’t going to be him. It would never be him. And now, if he had anything to say about it, neither would it be Brittany.

  It remained to be seen if she’d really have the fortitude to make a clean break and slip out from under the control of their parents. But he was more than happy to help her if that was truly her goal. She was young and beautiful. She was smart even if she’d made some spectacularly bad choices. She had more than enough time to turn it around and get her life on the right path.

  Everyone made mistakes, and everyone deserved the chance to make up for them. He just hoped to hell Brittany would turn it around now and get her head on straight.

  He opened his drawer to look at the box of jewelry he’d hastily shoved inside when Eleanor had buzzed him about Brittany’s arrival. He brushed one finger over the edge as he thoughtfully stared down at it.

  Brittany was squared away, and now it was time to focus on his primary preoccupation.

  Josie.

  chapter five

  “What do you mean you sold them already?” Josie asked, her voice rising as she stared at the pawnbroker she’d visited several days earlier to sell her mother’s jewelry.

  He surveyed her calmly. “I sold them. Had a customer who liked the stuff.”

  Josie twisted her hands in agitation. “Can you give me an address? A name? Phone number, anything? I’d like to buy it back.”

  “You had the option to pawn it, Miss Carlysle,” the man said patiently. “I specifically asked if you preferred a loan with the option of getting your items back.”

  “But the loan wouldn’t have been enough,” she argued. “I needed the money then. I couldn’t wait. But it’s different now. I have the money and I have to get my mother’s jewelry back! It’s all I have left from her. It was my grandmother’s. Oh God, I can’t believe you sold it so quickly.”

  The man shot her a look of sympathy but remained silent. Josie was sure he thought he was dealing with a crazy woman.

  “Can you give me the information of the person you sold it to?” she asked again in desperation.

  “I think you know I can’t do that,” the man said.

  She wiped a hand over her face in agitation. If only she’d waited another day. But how on earth could she have predicted that someone would walk into the art gallery and fall in love with her work—all if it—and buy it for more than the dealer was asking for? It was all so crazy. Not that she wasn’t extremely grateful for her good fortune, but if only she’d waited one more day she wouldn’t have pawned her mother’s jewelry and she wouldn’t be standing in a pawnshop desperate to get it back.

  “Will you at least contact the person for me and give them my phone number? You could ask them to call me. Tell them I’ll pay double what they paid for it. I have to get it back.”

  He sighed and then shoved a piece of paper with a pen across the counter toward her. “I can’t promise anything, but write down your info and I’ll pass it along. I don’t normally do this kind of thing. Once it’s sold, it’s out of my hands. You relinquished any claim when you sold the jewelry to me.”

  “I know, I know,” Josie said as she hurriedly jotted down her name and number. “I’m not saying it’s your fault or that you’re to blame. I have only
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