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         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  myself to blame for acting so rashly. But I’d really appreciate it if you could just give the person a call and let them know how desperate I am to get the pieces back.”

  He shrugged as she shoved the paper back to him. “I’ll do what I can.”

  “Thank you,” she whispered.

  She turned to walk out, her heart heavy. She should have been elated. Her artwork had sold. All of it! And Mr. Downing had told her to bring more, whatever she wanted. He had an interested buyer, and though he hadn’t divulged any information about the buyer, he’d told her that the party was interested in whatever else she brought in.

  The only thing marring the entire day was the fact that her mother’s jewelry was gone. She had no idea where or who had bought it or if she’d ever get it back. She’d been so happy when Mr. Downing had given her that check. Far more than she’d ever hoped for. It was enough to pay her rent and buy groceries for a few months. Plenty of time for her to get other pieces to the gallery. And most importantly, it had been enough money to buy back the jewelry she’d sold, even though she knew it would cost her more than she’d gotten from the sale.

  The pawnshop had been the very first place she’d gone after depositing the check into her bank account. And she’d sworn to herself that no matter what, she’d never part with the jewelry again.

  Only now it was gone, and so was the last link to her mother.

  She left the shop, stepping onto the busy street, uncertain of where exactly she was going next. As she turned to the right, she was stopped by a familiar face. She blinked as she stared back at the man she’d met in the park several days earlier. He was standing there, not looking surprised. In fact, he looked as though he’d been waiting for her. Crazy thought, but she didn’t get the impression he was startled at all by the unexpected meeting.

  “Josie,” he murmured.

  “H-hello,” she stammered out.

  “I believe I have something that belonged to you.”

  He held out an opened box and as soon as she saw inside, her breath caught and stilled in her chest.

  She raised her gaze back to him in confusion.

  “How did you get this? I don’t understand. How could you have possibly gotten it? How did you know?”

  He smiled, but his eyes were steely. No hint of a smile in those green eyes.

  “I bought it after you sold it to the pawnshop. I’m guessing since you just came out of there that you want it back.”

  “Yes, of course I want it back. But that doesn’t answer the question as to how you got it.”

  He lifted an eyebrow. “I just told you. I bought it after you sold it.”

  She shook her head impatiently and it was then his gaze came to rest at her throat. Her bare throat. His eyes glittered with instant interest. She lifted a hand automatically to where the collar had once rested.

  He’d know that she’d worn it awhile. There was a thin band of paler skin from where the necklace had been.

  “It doesn’t explain how you knew about it,” she said huskily.

  “Does it matter?” he asked mildly.

  “Yes, it does! Have you been following me?”

  “Me personally? No.”

  “It’s supposed to make me feel better that you had someone else following me?” she demanded. “That’s just . . . creepy!”

  “Do you want the jewelry back?” he asked bluntly.

  “Of course I do,” she said in irritation. “How much do you want for it?”

  “I don’t want money.”

  She took a step back, looking warily up at him. They were on a public street and there were people all around them, but that didn’t mean a whole lot if he was some deranged lunatic out to do her harm.

  “Then what do you want?”

  “Dinner. Tonight. I’ll bring the jewelry and you can have it. All I want in return is your company for the evening.”

  She shook her head. “No way. I don’t know you. I know nothing about you.”

  He smiled patiently. “That’s what dinner is for. So you get to know me better. And I can get to know you better.”

  “You obviously know a hell of a lot about me,” she snapped. “Including where to find me and where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing.”

  “Why aren’t you wearing the collar?” he asked, his gaze once more raking across her throat.

  His stare made her feel vulnerable. Like she was completely undressed in front of him.

  This time she laid her splayed hand over her throat as if trying to hide the bare expanse of her skin from his gaze.

  “I don’t think that’s any of your business,” she said in a low voice.

  “I intend to make it my business.”

  Her eyes widened. “Do you honestly think I’m going to agree to go to dinner with you? You’ve been stalking me, or rather you’ve had me stalked. You’re asking personal questions and you’re basically blackmailing me for the return of my mother’s jewelry.”

  “So it belonged to your mother,” he said softly. “It must be important to you.”

  Pain stabbed into her chest and she had to suck in a breath to steady herself.

  “Yes. Yes, it does,” she said in a quiet voice. “I hated having to sell it. If only I’d waited a day. I have to get it back. It’s the only thing I have left of her. Tell me what you paid and I’ll give you the money. Please.”

  “I don’t want your money, Josie. I want your time. Dinner tonight. Public place. No strings. I bring the jewelry. You just bring yourself.”

  “And after? Will you leave me alone?”

  “Can’t promise that,” he said mildly. “I go after what I want. If I gave up every time an obstacle was thrown into my path, I wouldn’t be very successful now would I?”

  “You don’t know me,” she said in frustration. “You don’t want me. How could you? You know nothing about me.”

  “Which is why I want to have dinner with you tonight,” he said patiently.

  But she could tell he was fast losing his patience. His eyes simmered with impatience even as his tone remained even. He was clearly a man used to getting his own way. She could tell that just by looking at him. Why the hell would he want her, though? What could she possibly have that he’d want?

  He was a man who wouldn’t have to look far for any woman. They probably lined up outside his door at any given time. He was obviously wealthy. He had that polished GQ look that screamed wealth and privilege. And he had a quiet confidence—arrogance—about him that told her he not only got what he wanted, but that he knew it too.

  Arrogance wasn’t a quality she was particularly attracted to. But on him, it looked good. It fit him. Just like his clothing and his entire demeanor. And there was something about that gaze that turned her inside out. It had the very first time they’d met. Her stomach had performed somersaults, and he’d made her consider things she’d never considered before. He’d made her want things she’d never wanted or realized she wanted before.

  And she hated him for that. For overturning her carefully ordered existence. No, it wasn’t that well ordered. She didn’t have a routine and she liked it that way. But she was comfortable in her life, knew who and what she was. Until him. Until that meeting in the park that had made her question everything about herself.

  He was not a man who would be quiet. He’d turn her entire world upside down the minute she allowed him access. She knew that as solidly as she knew anything else in her life. He was someone who liked—demanded—control. It was evident in the way he spoke, the way he carried himself. He’d latched onto the significance of that collar. He’d known what it meant and he spoke as though he had vast experience in the kind of lifestyle that collar signified.

  But he wouldn’t be like Michael. Nothing like him at all. And that scared her even as it intrigued her at the same time. She was curious—she wouldn’t deny that. She wouldn’t even deny that he’d made her question everything about herself—and her relationship with Michael. That he was the r
eason why she wasn’t wearing that collar any longer.

  And now he was standing in front of her, holding her mother’s jewelry, demanding dinner with her in return for the jewelry. But his gaze promised a whole lot more. She’d be a fool to think he’d be satisfied with only dinner.

  She wasn’t an idiot. She’d felt the attraction—that spark—between them. Knew he’d felt it too. As inexplicable as it was that he’d find anything about her interesting, she knew that he was absolutely interested. But for how long? Women like her didn’t hold the attention of men like him long term. And she had no desire to be his temporary plaything. A challenge he felt compelled to overcome.

  “Josie?” he prompted. “Dinner? Tonight?”

  She sighed, dropping her gaze in agitation to the box he still held in his hand. She wanted the jewelry back. It was priceless to her. She should be relieved he didn’t want money from her. The money she’d received from the sale of her art would go a long way in helping her over the next months. But instead she found herself wishing that he’d just take the money, give her the jewelry and walk away. Out of her life. Because this was a man who would shake everything up. No doubt about it.

  All he wanted was dinner. A simple date. She’d had dates. A night out. Food. A little conversation. She could walk away then and make it clear she didn’t want to see him again.

  “All right,” she finally conceded. “Where and what time?”

  “I’ll pick you up at seven.”

  She shook her head. “No. I’ll meet you there. Just tell me the place and time.”

  He chuckled. “So difficult. I’ll concede on this point, but I warn you now. It’s likely the last concession I’ll make where you’re concerned.”

  Her eyes narrowed. “You aren’t making a very good case for me to go to dinner with you.”

  The corner of his mouth lifted. “Just shooting you straight, Josie.”

  “Time? Place?” she prompted.

  “Seven thirty,” he answered softly. “Bentley Hotel. I’ll meet you in the lobby.”

  “And you’ll bring the jewelry with you?”

  He glanced down at the box in his hands and then back up to her, amusement twinkling in his eyes. “If I weren’t sure you’d bail on tonight, I’d give you the jewelry now. I have no interest in keeping something that evidently means so much to you. But if it gets you to dinner tonight then I’ll keep it as collateral. And yes, I’ll bring it. I don’t break my promises, Josie. Dinner with me, you get the jewelry. No matter what else happens.”

  She breathed out, her shoulders sagging in relief. “Okay then. I’ll see you at seven thirty.”

  He reached out to touch her cheek, his fingers just grazing her jaw. “I’m looking forward to it. We have a lot to discuss.”

  As he said the last, he let his hand drift downward until it touched the hollow of her throat where the collar had once rested. There was no mistaking his meaning. He wanted to know her status. What had happened to the collar. And why she was no longer wearing it.

  She sighed and then turned to walk away. How could she possibly explain that he was what had happened?

  chapter six

  Ash checked his watch as he stood in the lobby of the Bentley Hotel, one of the many hotels owned by HCM. He let out his breath in irritation as his gaze tracked toward the entrance once again.

  She was late.

  Or perhaps she wasn’t coming.

  He would have bet any amount of money on her showing up. Her mother’s jewelry obviously meant a great deal to her, and while he’d been a complete bastard to blackmail her into having dinner with him, he couldn’t muster any real regret. Not if it got him what he wanted.

  A few hours in Josie’s company.

  He had a dozen questions simmering on his lips. He wanted to know why she wasn’t wearing the collar anymore. He wanted to know if the guy who’d given it to her was out of the picture now. While it wouldn’t change his plans if she hadn’t cut the other guy loose, it would certainly make things a hell of a lot easier for him if she weren’t in a relationship.

  At a quarter to eight, Ash straightened, realization slowly creeping in that she wasn’t coming. Disappointment surged in his veins. Not a common sensation for him. But if she thought he would be deterred by being stood up, she was wrong. It only hardened his resolve.

  He was about to pick up the phone to call for his driver when Josie burst through the front entrance to the hotel. Her cheeks were red and her hair was askew, as if she’d been hurrying and the wind had played havoc with the long tresses.

  When her gaze lighted on him, she paused, standing several feet away as they locked eyes. He found himself walking toward her when, normally, he wouldn’t be the first to make a move. People came to him. Not the other way around. And yet, he wanted to close in before she changed her mind and bolted back out the door.

  “Josie,” he greeted smoothly.

  “Sorry I’m late,” she said breathlessly. “I was painting. Got caught up in what I was doing and completely forgot the time.”

  He glanced at the oversized bag hanging from her shoulder and the paint smudges on her fingertips. Then he took in the rest of her, memorizing every detail, right down to her toes.

  “That’s quite all right. They’ll hold our table,” he said. “Would you like to eat now or have a drink first?”

  She pulled a face. “I’m not much of a drinker. I mean, I don’t have anything against it, and I do drink on occasion, but I’m rather finicky and I drink frou-frou girly drinks. But I love an occasional glass of wine.”

  He chuckled. “You’d fit right in with Mia and Bethany and their girls.”

  She cocked her head to the side. “Who are Mia and Bethany?”

  He reached to take her arm, tucking it over his as he guided her toward the restaurant.

  “Mia is the wife of one of my business partners, Gabe, and she’s the sister of my other business partner, Jace. Bethany is engaged to Jace.”

  “Sounds like one big happy family,” she murmured.

  “Of sorts.”

  They arrived at the restaurant and the maître d’ immediately ushered them to the table always reserved for himself or Gabe or Jace when they chose to eat here.

  Josie sat across from Ash, but she didn’t fully relax. She was perched on the edge of her seat and her gaze kept darting left and right and beyond Ash. She looked ill at ease and like she’d rather be anywhere but here with him. His ego was taking one hell of a beating. Women didn’t normally have to be blackmailed in order to agree to a date with him.

  “Would you like wine?” he asked when a waiter immediately appeared.

  She shook her head. “No. Water will be fine. Thank you.”

  “Make that two,” Ash murmured to the waiter.

  “Don’t let me keep you from enjoying wine if that’s what you prefer,” she said. “I just don’t want to drink and then have to get back home. Alcohol makes me pretty fuzzy. Last thing I need to do is be stumbling around Manhattan after dark.”

  “So you can’t hold your liquor and when you do imbibe, you drink girly drinks. I’ll have to remember that.”

  Her lips twitched and her eyes flashed. He’d almost gotten a smile out of her. Was he such an ogre? He was used to women falling for his charm, although in Josie’s defense he hadn’t exactly been charming in her presence. Something about her brought his caveman instincts roaring to the surface. He was lucky he could form coherent sentences without growling, beating his chest and dragging her back to his cave by her hair.

  That would go over well . . .

  Not only would she have his balls, he’d never see her again.

  The waiter took their orders and then quickly disappeared. Josie glanced up, a question in her eyes as soon as they were alone.

  “Did you bring the jewelry?” she asked softly.

  He reached into the breast pocket of his dinner jacket and pulled out a small velvet drawstring bag. Placing it on the table, he slid it across to her,
but held on when she would have retrieved it.

  “The deal was dinner,” he said. “I’ll give you the jewelry now and hope you don’t make a break for it the minute it’s in your possession.”

  She flushed, whether from embarrassment or guilt he wasn’t sure. Maybe she had considered it.

  “My ego is taking one hell of a beating,” he said, voicing his earlier thought. “Am I that unattractive, Josie? I didn’t imagine your response to me in the park. You were as aware of our chemistry as I was. But you act like I’m carrying the plague and you don’t want to breathe the same air as I am.”

  Her fingers curled over the bag, brushing against his. Instant warmth traveled up his arm to his shoulder. At just her touch. Such a simple thing. Nothing behind it. It was incidental and yet the air was instantly charged with awareness. No, he wasn’t the only one who felt it, but he was the only one embracing it.

  “I think you know you aren’t unattractive,” she said lightly. “I doubt you need me to tell you that. I’m sure you hear it all the time. Women probably fall over themselves to compliment you.”

  “I don’t give a damn what other women are thinking,” he said bluntly. “I’m more concerned with what you think.”

  She carefully drew her hand back, the bag with the jewelry tightly fisted in her grasp, as if she were afraid he’d prevent her from taking it. When he made no move to intercept it, she quickly opened the bag a nd gently pulled out the two rings, a necklace and a bracelet.

  Relief was evident in her eyes. The aqua pools lit up as she lovingly traced the lines of the jewelry. A faraway look entered her eyes and when she raised her gaze back to Ash, moisture glistened around the edges.

  “Thank you for giving my mother back to me,” she whispered. “This is all I have of her. My grandmother too. One day I want to pass it down to my daughter. My grandmother and mother were exceptional women. I want my daughter to have this legacy. Though my daughter will never know them, I want her to know about them. Who they were and how important they were to me.”

  “What happened to her?” Ash asked gently.

  Her lips trembled, but she held herself together, her gaze never faltering, though it grew suspiciously brighter with the evidence of tears.

  “Cancer,” she said, her voice aching with sorrow.

  “Recent?” he asked in a quieter tone.

  The last thing he wanted was to upset her, but it gave him absurd pleasure that she’d open up to him. Communicate. It was a start. The start of something more permanent if he had his way. And he had every intention of getting his way. It was just going to require a great deal more patience than he was used to having to employ.

  Adrenaline spiked, burning through his veins. She was a challenge. One he looked forward to conquering. It had been a long time since he’d been excited about anything. And Josie definitely excited him.

  “Two years ago,” Josie said, sadness creeping into those beautiful eyes. “But she was ill for a lot longer. In the end . . .” She broke off, her voice cracking at the very last.

  “In the end what?” he prompted gently.

  “In the end it was a relief even though I was devastated over having to let go and say good-bye. She was in so much pain. It hurt to see her like that. It hurt her. She hated for me to see her that way, to have to take care of her. She worried for so long that she was taking up too much of my life, that she was holding me back and saddling me with the responsibility of taking care of her. But God, she was my mother. I would have done anything for her. I never regretted a single moment of our time together. And in the end, she was ready to go. She’d fought for so long and so hard. She was exhausted and no longer had the strength to fight. That was the hardest for me. To watch my kick-ass mom slowly fade. I just wanted her pain to be over and for her to have peace. So when she passed away, there was relief. And I know that sounds horrible.”

  He shook his head. “Not horrible, Josie. Human. She was your mother and you loved her. No one likes to see their loved ones endure pain and heartache.”

  Josie nodded and wiped at her eye with the back of her hand. Her fingers were shaking when she lowered her hand back to the table.

  “Wow, not great dinner conversation, right? Sorry to babble on like that.”

  “I asked,” he said simply. “What about your father? Do you have any siblings or are you an only child?”

  She blew out an unhappy sigh. “I’m an only child. My parents wanted more, but my mother couldn’t have any more after me. She had cancer once before and with all the treatments, not only could she not bear another child, but she was too weakened by the whole process. I—we—thought she’d kicked it, you know? She went
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