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         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  twenty years in remission and then it came back. Much more pervasive this time. She didn’t respond to treatment like she did before.”

  She shook her head. “Sorry. There I go again.”

  He reached across the table and slid his hand over hers. “We’re having a conversation, Josie. It’s what two people do when they go out on a date. Stop apologizing. If I wasn’t interested, I wouldn’t have asked. However, if it’s too painful a subject, we can certainly talk about other things. But I’m interested in every part of you. I very much want to hear about you, your life, your family, whatever makes you tick.”

  She smiled and didn’t pull her hand away from his. A fact he was absurdly triumphant over.

  “Now, you said parents. Did your father pass away as well?”

  Her lips tightened and coldness crept into her gaze, turning the aqua color more to blue. It was like looking at a frost-covered windowpane.

  “He left her—us—the first time she had cancer. Not right away. He waited until she was well enough to make it on her own and then he split. His reason? He couldn’t stand the heartache of losing her to cancer. He didn’t want to have to watch her die and so he left instead. Isn’t that the biggest bullshit you’ve ever heard? It makes no sense to me. It’s never made any sense that he’d walk away from his wife and child, all because he worried she’d die. He lost her either way, but he lost me too. I never forgave him for that. For leaving us both when we desperately needed him. Especially my mother. Who after undergoing extensive treatment then had to find a job so she could support me and pay the bills.”

  “Yeah, it is bullshit,” Ash said darkly. “So you haven’t seen him since? How many years ago was this?”

  “Eighteen,” she replied, her voice tight. No matter her anger—and he didn’t blame her for being angry—there was also hurt in her voice. Betrayal. He rubbed his thumb over the tops of her knuckles in a soothing motion, silently urging her to go on.

  He had her talking now and hopefully she’d relax and open up further.

  “I was ten years old when he left. For a long time he didn’t even try to contact her or me. Then when I graduated high school, he called me. He wanted to send me a graduation gift. I told him where to stick his graduation present.”

  The more she spoke, the cloudier her eyes got and her lips formed a grimace.

  “He didn’t contact me again until Mom died.”

  Tears glittered brightly in her eyes and she used her free hand to rub her thumb along the corner of her eye where a damp trail had formed.

  “Sorry,” she muttered again. “I don’t talk about it at all. I mean I never shared this. It’s just sort of all coming out and I didn’t realize how angry I still am about it all.”

  “That’s understandable,” he said. “That’s a long time to keep that shit bottled up.”

  She nodded her agreement.

  “So he contacted you when your mom passed away? Did he know she was sick again?”

  “He knew,” Josie bit out. “He never came to see her. Never called. Never spoke to her. After she passed away, he called wanting to see me. He said he was sorry about Mom but that he wanted us to be a family. I told him that family doesn’t do the kind of shit he pulled and that my family was dead. That was two years ago. He’s never tried to contact me again. I don’t even know where he lives. He moved a lot after he and Mom divorced. His job takes him away quite a bit.”

  “Do you ever regret not seeing him?”

  She looked startled by the question. “No. Not at all. I don’t think I could see him without flying into a rage. Especially right after Mom died. If he’d been there, I think I would have just gone off on him. I was furious and heartbroken. And I was pissed. Pissed that he’d been such a coward and that he hadn’t been there for my mom when she needed him most.”

  “I get it. Believe me I do. I don’t see my family. Well, most of them. Recently my sister came to see me but until then I’ve had nothing to do with any of them.”

  She cocked her head to the side, studying him. Their hands were still joined and he traced several patterns on her skin, from her knuckles to the top of her wrist and back. He liked touching her. Could touch her all night. And it wasn’t sexual. He simply enjoyed the satiny softness of her hands. Fingers that were stained with paint, a different color on each tip.

  “What did your family do?” she asked softly.

  “Long story. I’ll tell you about it sometime. Right now, though, I’m much more interested in hearing about you.”

  She frowned. “That isn’t fair. I’ve told you about my family. I won’t say another word unless you reciprocate.”

  He chuckled and his hand tightened around hers. Her eyes widened and she glanced down at their joined fingers. Yes, she felt it just as much as he did. But she was fighting it and he wasn’t.

  “Very well then. I’ll give you a tidbit and then it’s your turn again.”

  Her gaze narrowed. “That depends on how worthy I feel your information is. You must give a piece of equal value to the one I gave to you.”

  “Now that’s impossible,” he murmured. He looked intently into her eyes, that drowning sensation washing over him. “No information I can give you will be as valuable as you sharing yourself with me.”

  Her cheeks grew pink and she dropped her gaze. Her hand twitched beneath his, but he held it firmly so she wasn’t able to draw it away.

  “Maybe you think so,” she said in a husky voice. “But perhaps I find information about you to be much more valuable. You see, you have me at a disadvantage. You’ve checked up on me, had me followed. I have no doubt that you know far more about me than I’m comfortable with. So it’s only fair that you even the odds by telling me all your deep, dark secrets.”

  She was flirting with him. In a shy, adorable way, as if she were uncertain of how to do so. He’d never experienced such an intense surge of . . . excitement. There was lust, absolutely. He wanted her like he hadn’t ever wanted a woman before. But there was more. He was interested in her. What made her tick. He wanted inside her head every bit as much as he wanted inside her body. Most of all, he wanted her trust, even if nothing he’d done so far deserved such a gift.

  Given time he’d prove himself to her. If she only gave him a chance.

  “Deep, dark secrets, huh. I fear you’re in for disappointment. I’m frightfully boring. I’m married to my business, and I despise my family almost as much as they despise me. My real family are my business partners and their women.”

  “Except that your sister came to see you recently. Have you reconciled?”

  This time he pulled his hand away, leaning back in his chair. His gaze went beyond Josie for a moment before he allowed it to drift back to her face.

  “I suppose you could say that. I’m not completely convinced of her sincerity as of yet. I’d like to think she’s finally making a break from the wolf pack, but only time will tell.”

  “What did they do? To you both?”

  Ash sighed. “Gave birth to us? Hell if I know. My mother has zero maternal instinct, and yet she had four of us. It baffles me that a woman that self-serving would continue to have children she considered a burden.”

  Josie’s nose wrinkled and her eyes flashed with sympathy.

  “Have you never gotten along with them? Even when you were a child?”

  “I rarely saw them when I was a child,” he said dryly. “We were packed off to school and only came home during the holidays and even then we had a nanny. More often than not, my mom and dad were off doing their thing. Traveling. Involved in the social scene. My grandfather made a lot of money in his lifetime, but we don’t come from old money. We would be considered nouveau riche, a fact my mother has never been able to get over.”

  “Forgive my assumption, but she sounds horrible.”

  “It’s no assumption. She and my father are both lousy people. Not just lousy parents, but lousy in every aspect. I firmly believe the only reason she had so many children
is because my grandfather came from a large family with several siblings, and he wanted my mother to give him several grandchildren. And if nothing else, my mother will not piss off the old man because she depends on him too much for support. So she had us, but he paid for our upbringing, such as it was. The only times she or Dad ever had time for us was if the old man was present. I don’t know what was worse. Them being lousy parents or them acting like caring parents around others.”

  “That sucks,” Josie said. “I adored my mother. And my grandmother. They were wonderful women. So what happened with your sister? And how old is she?”

  “Brittany is the youngest. She’s thirty now. My mom married her off right out of college to a much older man who had the right pedigree. The marriage lasted two years and Brittany bailed, getting nothing in the divorce settlement. That pissed my mother off even more because in her words, she’d worked damn hard to land a husband for Brittany and the least she could do was suck it up and remain a dutiful wife until her husband died, leaving her a rich widow and the means to funnel money to her parents.”

  “Wow,” Josie whispered. “That’s insane. I mean that’s stuff from some historical saga. I didn’t think there were really people like that in this day and age.”

  He smiled. “Sorry to burst your bubble.”

  “So what prompted Brittany’s visit?”

  “She wants out,” he said quietly. “As I said, she got nothing in the divorce and she’s been living with my parents ever since. She has a college degree but has never had a job. She came to ask me for help. Primarily financial help, but I think she was looking for an ally. Emotional support as well.”

  “And did you help her?”

  “Of course. I set her up in an apartment, got a bank account opened for her with enough cash to last until she starts work. In a few days she’ll take a position in one of my hotels. The rest is up to her. I gave her the means to start a new life, but it’ll be up to her to make it successful. My mother is going to give her shit. She’ll want Brittany back under her thumb where she pulls all the strings. I just hope Brittany has the balls to stand up to her.”

  “I think it’s wonderful that you did so much for her. She must have felt like she had no one to turn to.”

  Ash shook his head. “She didn’t. And regardless of how shitty she may have treated me in the past, I do realize that she didn’t really have a choice. Mom wouldn’t have allowed anything else. She seems sincere now, and if she is, then I’ll do whatever I can to help her. I don’t care what my parents and other siblings think of me. Brittany hasn’t gotten to that point yet, but she will.”

  “Other siblings? How many do you have?”

  “Three including Brittany. I have two older brothers who are both in their forties and neither one of them can support their families without help from my parents and the old man.”

  “That’s sad. So if you don’t have anything to do with them, how did you make it? I mean you’re obviously successful.”

  “I think it’s your turn,” he pointed out. “I’ve spilled my guts and so far all I know about you is that your dad is an asshole and your mother passed away after a long battle with cancer.”

  “I’ll let you ask a question as soon as you answer my last one.”

  He arched an eyebrow at her. “Then I get two because you’re already over quota.”

  Her lips twitched in amusement. “Do you have any idea how sterile this conversation is with all the talk of keeping score?”

  “It doesn’t have to be. And okay, I’ll answer, but this is the last one until you catch up.”

  “Deal,” she said with a smile.

  “I became friends with Gabe Hamilton and Jace Crestwell in college. Jace’s parents were killed in an accident when he was twenty and he had to take over caring for his much younger sister. Our focus changed after that. Before we had a fuck-it attitude and while we made the grades, we were more concerned with beer and women. We formed our business as soon as we were out of college. We started with a single hotel. Poured our heart and soul into it, and every penny we could scrape up or borrow. We waited a year before we expanded. Using the first hotel as collateral, we were able to secure financing for another property. From there, using the early hotels and their success, we expanded rapidly and began to have an easier time finding investors.”

  “So your family had nothing to do with your success, then.”

  “None whatsoever,” he bit out. “I wouldn’t take a dime from them. Didn’t want the strings attached. And I wanted them to have no part of my business.”

  “Guess they didn’t take that very well,” she murmured.

  He grinned. “Nope. They were pissed that A: I made it without them and B: I don’t give them money. It’s kind of like if your dad showed up tomorrow and wanted you to be one big happy family.”

  Her eyes grew stormy and her lips tightened at the mention of her father.

  He leaned forward, sliding his hand across the table to cover hers once more. A muscle jumped in her arm and she shivered, chill bumps forming and racing across her skin.

  “Now it’s my turn to ask you twenty questions.”

  “Hey, I didn’t ask you twenty.”

  “Close enough,” he muttered.

  She sighed. “Okay, okay. Ask away.”

  His gaze immediately went to her neck. To that pale ring where the collar had rested. It had been the first thing he’d noticed when she’d walked out of the pawnshop, and he hadn’t dared to get his hopes up. But the fact that she’d accepted his dinner invitation, even if he’d blackmailed her, and that she didn’t wear the collar tonight as a barrier between them, told him that she was at least intrigued by this thing between them. Whatever the hell it was.

  “Why aren’t you wearing the collar?” he asked softly.

  Her free hand went immediately to her neck, and consternation shone brightly in her eyes. But she remained quiet, lips firmly pressed together.

  “Josie? Why aren’t you wearing the collar?”

  She sighed. “I’m not seeing him anymore.”

  He had to work hard not to react to that piece of news. He’d suspected as much, but he hadn’t wanted to jump to any conclusions.

  “What happened?”

  She pulled her hand away from his, dropping it into her lap. She looked down, refusing to meet his gaze. He waited, not letting her off the hook. This was too important. He wanted to know everything.

  “Did you break it off or did he?” he finally asked.

  “I did.”

  “Want to tell me why? What happened, Josie?”

  Her head popped up, her eyes flashing. “You’re what happened, Ash. You.”

  chapter seven

  There was no faking Ash’s surprise. She’d definitely caught him off guard with her outburst. His eyes narrowed and he leaned farther over the table. He was still holding one hand, and he covered her free one, his palm sliding over the tops of her knuckles.

  The man was lethal. With every touch, he seduced her, and she doubted he even knew it. Or maybe he did. Maybe he knew exactly what he was doing.

  “I didn’t happen,” he said in a low voice. “Because if I did, you’d be in my bed right now.”

  His voice was a husky growl, sliding over her skin until the hairs at her nape stood on end.

  She tried to pull her hands away, but he held firm, not allowing her to escape.

  “You happened,” she refuted. “That day in the park. You made me question everything. And I didn’t like what I discovered as a result.”

  “And that being?”

  She shifted, uncomfortable with his close scrutiny. She didn’t want to be having this conversation. It was too intimate. It was too . . . revealing. Ash was a man that if you gave him an inch, he’d take a mile.

  “What did I make you question, Josie?”

  It was equally clear that he wasn’t going to back down.

  “What that collar signified,” she said, finally relenting.

sp; “What do you mean by that?” he prompted gently.

  She blew out a deep breath. “The things you said, what the collar meant to you and what it should mean to me. I realized that. After. I thought about it a lot. And when I went to see Michael to find out what that collar meant to him, he didn’t even notice I wasn’t wearing it. Now, maybe I’m wrong, but I’d think a man wouldn’t like the fact that a woman took the collar off. I mean if it’s supposed to mean everything you implied.”

  “You’re not wrong,” Ash said.

  “It’s a game for him. Maybe it was for me too,” she whispered. “He told me I was taking things too seriously. That the collar was fun, but meaningless. It’s like he was role-playing and none of it was real. And when I realized that, I also recognized that I didn’t want a game. But at the same time, I don’t know if I want it to be real. I think . . . with you . . . that it would be very different. With a man like you, I mean.”

  “It’s not meaningless,” Ash growled, his face drawn into a scowl. “And hell yes it would be different with me. But you know what? It would be real. And it would mean something.”

  “What would it mean?” she asked, her lips trembling as she stared back at the intensity in his eyes.

  “It would mean you belong to me. Only to me. That you would submit to me. That I’d take care of you, provide for you, make love to you.”

  He could have no idea the effect his words had. That they reached deep inside her and called to a part of her she hadn’t known existed. With Michael, it had been a game. She could see that now. Two people playacting. Going through the motions for a thrill. There was nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t what she wanted.

  But the thought of being with Ash, of belonging to him in the sense he was talking about, scared her. He was overwhelming in every sense of the word.

  “I think you know I want you, Josie. I certainly haven’t made it a secret. The question is whether or not you want me and what I can give you. But you also need to think about all I would take. Because I take a lot. I give more, but I take everything.”

  She swallowed, her hands trembling beneath his. He curled his fingers tighter around her hands and squeezed gently.

  “I don’t know what to say.”

  “Say you’ll think about it,” he murmured. “At least give me that.”

  She licked her lips, her chest rising and falling with her rapid breaths. Saying she’d think about it wasn’t a commitment. There was nothing to say that she had to go through with anything. And she did need time to consider what she was getting herself into.

  “I’ll think about it,” she finally conceded.

  Satisfaction, no, triumph gleamed brightly in his eyes. He acted as though she’d already agreed. Maybe he thought she had by saying she’d think about it. Or maybe he just didn’t like taking no for an answer.

  The waiter returned bearing their entrees. Ash quieted until the plates had been served and the waiter retreated.

  “Now, tell me more about you. You’re an artist, obviously.”

  She nodded, not even tasting the food she put in her mouth. The steak smelled delicious and was so tender she could cut it with her fork. But the moment she put it on her tongue, the taste didn’t register. She was too preoccupied with Ash, and the proposition he’d put before her.

  “Are you able to make a living at it?” he asked.

  It was a personal question, but then Ash didn’t seem the sort of man who worried too much about propriety or boundaries.

  “More so now,” she said ruefully. “I’ve been able to make it. It’s not always easy. But I’ve tried regular nine-to-five jobs. I don’t have a passion for it. Not like I do for my art. I’ve sold a few pieces here and there and I design jewelry and sell it over the Internet. I make enough to pay my rent. Most times,” she added with a grimace. “This month was lean for me. Internet orders, which are usually steady, were down and I hadn’t sold any of the art I display in a gallery in the last six weeks. That’s why I went to the pawnshop to sell my mother’s jewelry. I hated it, but I didn’t see another way of paying my bills. I could have gotten a loan, but that doesn’t do me any good if I don’t have the money to pay it and the interest off.”

  “Where the hell was Michael in all of this?” Ash demanded.

  She blinked at the ferocity in his gaze, the anger she saw brimming in his eyes.

  “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

  Ash’s lips twitched in annoyance. “You were having financial trouble, which forced you to choose between selling your mother’s jewelry, something that obviously means a lot to you, or not being able to pay your rent and ending up without a place to live. Michael should have helped you.”

  She shook her head. “No. It’s not like that. I don’t want him to support me. He makes good money, but our relationship wasn’t about that. I couldn’t take money from him. It would be too much like he was paying me for sex.”

  Ash looked even more annoyed. “You have some fucked-up reasoning, Josie. If it was a choice between you being on the streets or taking money from a man who
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