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         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  damn well should have protected you better then there’s no question that he should have provided for you. You shouldn’t have had to ask. If he was involved with you, if he was your Dom and he knew what he should about you then he would have known that you were in trouble. He should have known you were in a fucking pawnshop hocking jewelry to make ends meet. And he damn sure should have stepped in and taken care of you. If he treated you like he was supposed to, you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with him helping you. You should have complete trust in the man you’ve given yourself to. And he should cherish that gift by making sure you have no worries, financial or otherwise.”

  “Guess I never looked at it that way,” she murmured.

  “You will,” he said.

  The determination in his voice made her go still. He was so sure of himself. Of her. Of there being an eventual “us.”

  “How is your food?” he asked, shifting the conversation in a completely different direction.

  She stared down at her plate, realizing the steak was halffinished and she had no memory of eating what was gone.

  “It’s good,” she said quickly. “Excellent actually. I’ve never eaten here before. It’s too rich for my blood. What made you choose it?”

  The corner of his mouth lifted. “I own the hotel, so it’s only natural that I’d have a restaurant in it that I love to eat at. I’m glad the steak was to your liking.”

  Her jaw went slack. “You own this hotel?”

  His eyebrow went up. “You sound surprised. I told you that my partners and I own several hotels.”

  “I guess I thought you meant like a hotel chain or something small. This hotel is . . .” She grasped for the right word to keep from sounding like a complete moron.

  “It’s what?” he asked.

  “It’s so glitzy and obviously caters to the wealthy. I guess I thought you owned something on a much smaller scale,” she murmured.

  “Does that bother you?”

  She shook her head. “No. It just took me by surprise. I mean you look like you’re wealthy, but maybe I wasn’t thinking you were this successful.”

  “And you think that if you agree to what I’ve proposed that it makes you a gold digger?”

  He nailed it with one shot. The man was far too adept at reading her mind.

  “Let’s just say that I’m not in your league. Anyone looking at the two of us would immediately label me an opportunist. No one would ever believe that I wasn’t with you for the money.”

  “And would you be?” he asked bluntly.

  She couldn’t suppress her reaction. Her lips thinned and the corners dropped down in a frown.

  “Of course not! I don’t want or need you to support me, Ash. I don’t want your money. I want . . .”

  She broke off in horror at what she’d almost said. But Ash didn’t miss it and his gaze became all the more intense.

  “What do you want?”

  “You,” she whispered. “Just you.”

  Satisfaction gleamed in his eyes and a slow smile worked over his mouth.

  “Then you need to deal, Josie. Because with me comes all that I can give you, and it will not make me happy if you refuse anything I choose to give you or do for you. As long as you and I know the score, I don’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks and neither should you.”

  She licked her lips, his earlier words coming back to her. She had wanted to question him then, but the moment hadn’t seemed right and then the food arrived. But the question was burning on her lips, and she had to know.

  “You said earlier . . . I mean, when you said you’d give but that you’d take. A lot. What did you mean by that?”

  “Everything,” he said bluntly. “You in my bed. You in my space. You under my protection. I’d take everything, Josie, and you’d give it.”

  “That doesn’t seem very equal,” she murmured.

  “Nothing I can ever give you could compare to your gift of submission. The gift of your trust. Nothing is more valuable than that, and you can’t put a price tag on that kind of gift. I’d spend all my time catching up, because hell no it’s not equal. What you’d give me far surpasses anything I could give you.”

  “Wouldn’t you also be giving me yourself? I mean you said I’d give myself to you, but you’d give me you in return, right?”

  He paused a moment, still staring intently into her eyes. “You get me. All of me. What I choose to give you. Nothing more. And you have to understand that. If that bothers you, then you have to deal or make a decision because I can’t give you more.”

  She digested his words for a long moment and then glanced back up at him, her brow creased as she plunged ahead with her next question, or rather, condition. He might not take it very well, but she couldn’t even consider this if he refused.

  “I won’t share you with another woman,” she said. “I mean if we do this, I won’t tolerate you being with another woman. I don’t know how this works. If you have other women like me. But I don’t want to ever worry that you’re with someone else. Because if I give you everything you’re demanding, especially my trust, then I’d expect you to be faithful to me for however long this lasts.”

  “I have no intention of sleeping with another woman or even being with another woman if I have you. Why would I need someone else if you’ve submitted to me and are in my bed? I’d never give you that kind of disrespect, Josie. Of everything else I give you, respect would be the uppermost. I’d care for you, protect you and cherish you. No other woman would get those things from me.”

  She wasn’t at all sure what to say to that. He sounded so . . . decisive. As if their relationship were already a fait accompli.

  He leaned forward, his gaze growing more intense, his tone . . . persuasive. As if he wanted very much for her to render her decision now instead of taking time to think it over.

  “One thing you need to realize. I’m not more than you, Josie. I get that there is an inequality in power in the relationship. The scales are tipped in my direction. But that doesn’t mean I’m more. Never more. You are everything in this equation. You don’t lower your gaze. You don’t ever feel like you’re less, because that’s going to piss me off. You don’t kneel unless that’s what I want when you’re sucking my dick. I make the decisions. You submit to me. But that doesn’t make me more and you less. It makes you everything. And your power over me is far greater than any perceived power I have over you. You talk about what I give you and what you give me. Without me, you’ll be fine. You can make it on your own. You’ve proven that. But without you, I have nothing because money, wealth, power, it doesn’t mean anything without someone to share it with. So maybe my need of you is greater than your need of me. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do everything in my power to make you need me every bit as much as I need you.”

  Her eyes widened at his impassioned speech. Holy crap, did he mean that? All of it? “You need me?” she whispered.

  He released her hand and leaned back, dragging his own hand through his hair in agitation. “I can’t explain it. This thing, whatever it is between us. But yeah, I need you. I’m not even sure need is the right word because it’s such an inadequate word for the insane urge I have to be with you. To have you. To have your submission. It’s never been like that with another woman. It’s something I want. It’s something I desire. It’s something I enjoy. But with you I need it and if I don’t have it, I’m going to lose my fucking mind. So yeah, I need you, Josie. And that’s putting it mildly. And if that scares you, I’m sorry, but I can’t be any other way with you. I’m shooting you straight. I’ll try not to overwhelm you, but I only know one way with you. Full-on, no holding back.”

  She was speechless. She had no idea how to even respond. This was crazy. All of it. They’d only seen each other twice before tonight. How could he possibly have determined that she was someone he needed when they knew next to nothing about each other? For that matter, how could she feel like she needed him?

her thing you need to know,” he said before she could respond. “I don’t deal in fantasies, Josie. I deal with reality. And maybe your fantasy is my reality and that’s okay as long as you realize at the end of the day the fantasy becomes reality. What we do is real. It’s here. Solid. It’s not going away tomorrow or the next day. You need to be sure you can deal with that because yeah, I’ll give you the fantasy but it’s going to be real. No made-up shit you only dream about in your head. Are you prepared for that? Can you deal with this being real and permanent?”

  “But how? I mean I understand where you’re coming from about the line between fantasy and reality. I get that Michael obviously wanted a game. It wasn’t real with him, and I realized I didn’t want to play a game. But if I’m not even sure of what I want, how can you be expected to know?”

  He smiled and reached over to slide his palm over her hand again. “That’s my job. Yours is to submit, to give freely of yourself. My job is to be in tune with your needs and desires, to know them better than my own.”

  “It sounds too good to be true,” she admitted. “You say this isn’t fantasy. That it would be real with you, but it sounds like fantasy.”

  “You won’t know unless you take the plunge. But believe me when I say this is no game. If you submit to me, you’ll know it’s real. No playacting. No silly games. You’ll feel that to your bones. I guarantee it.”

  It was on the tip of her tongue to say yes. To take the plunge as he labeled it. But it would be stupid of her not to take time to think about it, preferably when he wasn’t sitting across from her seducing her with every look, every touch and every word that came out of his mouth.

  There was no doubt that he called to a part of her soul that had never been stirred. He made her want things she’d never considered. She knew without a doubt that a relationship with him would be far different than what she’d had with Michael. And she wasn’t entirely certain she could handle that. Ash was an overwhelming presence. He in turns frightened her and intrigued her.

  “I’ll think about it,” she said in a quiet voice. “I need time, Ash. This is . . . heavy. It’s a huge decision and one I can’t make lightly. I wouldn’t want to disrespect you by agreeing and then immediately balking at the terms of our relationship. If I agree then I have to know that I’m capable of giving you all the things you want.”

  “I’ll give you time,” he said. “I hope that you won’t take too long, but also know there is no time limit on your decision. I’m not going to take up with another woman in a week because you haven’t given me your decision. You need to know there is no other woman. No one I’m considering. The other thing you need to know is that I don’t make this offer lightly. In fact, I’ve never asked another woman for this kind of relationship.”

  Her brow furrowed. “But you said this is who you are. What you are. How can you never have asked another woman for these things? I doubt you’ve been celibate forever.”

  He laughed. “No, indeed not. The women I’ve been with all knew the score. What I expected and what I’d take. But I never considered those actual relationships, because going in, she and I both knew it was very temporary. Hardly what I’d call an actual relationship.”

  “So I wouldn’t be temporary?” she asked, voicing perhaps her biggest fear. That he’d grow tired of her in a week’s time and simply move on to someone else.

  But then what was she expecting? What was she even asking for? Something long-term? How could she ask that of him when she wasn’t sure she wanted something more permanent? It was a huge leap to be making. It was possible that she wouldn’t be able to handle the demands he made. And yet, the idea of him only wanting a temporary fling unsettled her.

  “I can’t say with any authority what you’ll be, Josie,” he said in a quiet voice. “But what I can say is that no, you most certainly will not be temporary. I intend to keep you for a very long time. And if it makes you feel better, I’ve never asked a woman for anything longer than a few weeks, and none of those women had the hold on me that you already have.”

  Warmth traveled through her veins, sending pleasure into her chest. It was silly. This giddy feeling that she was somehow more to him than any other woman. But what woman didn’t like to feel that way about the man she was with?

  No matter what the future had in store for them and any relationship they entered, she was comforted by the thought that for whatever reason, he felt for her what he hadn’t felt for another woman.

  “I won’t take long,” she said. “Just give me a few days to sort it all out in my head.”

  He nodded. “That’s fine. I’ll give you my cell number. When you’ve had time to consider everything I’ve said, call me and we’ll have dinner in my apartment. Then, if you’ve agreed, we’ll go over the terms, or rather my expectations.”

  She frowned. “Shouldn’t we do that before I make my decision?”

  He smiled. “That’s where trust has to enter, Josie. Consider what I’ve told you, how it will be, and then when you say yes, we’ll go over the more intimate details of our arrangement.”

  chapter eight

  Ash wasn’t someone who liked waiting around. Especially for something he wanted. He was too used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted. No wasn’t a word in his vocabulary and the more time that passed since his dinner with Josie, the more on edge he felt.

  Not even the situation with Brittany had been able to distract him from his preoccupation with Josie.

  His sister had settled into her apartment and had reported to work at the Bentley in their administration. So far she seemed to be doing well. He received regular reports about Brittany from the manager, who was satisfied with her performance so far. He’d commented that she was punctual, a hard worker and seemed eager to make her job a success.

  Tonight he had dinner plans with Brittany, and he would have looked forward to it were it not for the fact he had yet to hear from Josie. It had been a week since their dinner, and he’d been very confident that he’d hear from her in a matter of days. He’d seen the look in her eyes. She was intrigued. She was obviously attracted to him. And the things he’d offered seemed to appeal to her.

  So why was it taking so damn long for her to respond? Or did she even plan to? Maybe she’d gotten home and immediately talked herself out of a relationship with him.

  He knew he should have pressed for an answer the night they’d gone to dinner. She’d been precariously close to consent. He’d seen it in her eyes and in her body language. Whether she consciously realized it or not, she wanted him and she wanted the kind of relationship he proposed.

  This was new territory for him. Never had he been in a position where he had to wait for a woman to make up her mind whether she wanted to be with him. The women he’d been with in the past hadn’t hesitated even a minute. They’d been all too eager to hook up with him, no matter how long things lasted.

  And in fact, there had been several who hadn’t gotten the message that they were over. The last woman he and Jace had been together with—not counting Bethany—had not taken the end of her fling with him and Jace well at all. She’d been pissed and acted very much the woman scorned even though he and Jace had made it abundantly clear that it was a temporary arrangement.

  He replayed the evening Josie and he had dinner. Yes, he’d definitely been blunt and straightforward. Maybe that scared her. Maybe he’d come on too strong too quickly. But he didn’t want to mislead her. He wanted her to know exactly what she was getting into with a relationship with him.

  “Hey, man.”

  Ash looked up to see Jace standing in the doorway of his office. Ash motioned him in and Jace sauntered toward the desk, closing the door behind him.

  “You’ve been quiet lately. Anything wrong? How has the fallout over Brittany’s defection been?”

  Ash rolled his eyes. “Predictable.”

  “Meaning what?”

  Jace took a seat across from Ash and pinned him with an inquisitive stare.

sp; “Oh, you know my dear old mother and father. Dad is too much of a spineless wimp to do or say much of anything. He just toes the line with Mom and whatever she says goes.”

  “They been giving her shit?” Jace asked with a scowl.

  “Well, they showed up at the apartment you’re letting her use. Ordered her home and told her to quit being a child. This is a thirty-year-old woman my mother was dressing down, mind you. When Brittany refused, Mom wanted to know how she afforded the apartment she was living in and how she was making it on her own. Brittany told her it was none of her business how she got the apartment and that she was making it like most people made it. By working.”

  Jace chuckled. “Good for her. Wouldn’t have thought she had it in her to stand up to the wicked bitch of the east.”

  “Me either to be honest,” Ash admitted. “But she seems determined to make a break from the family. I’m proud of her. Mom can be intimidating and you have to understand until recently Brittany has always done what Mom wanted her to. No questions asked.”

  “Must be a hard adjustment for her,” Jace said in sympathy.

  “I’m having dinner with her tonight. You and Bethany want to join us? I’d like Brittany to meet Bethany. Brittany hasn’t associated with the best female friends. They were never her real friends and Brittany knows that. When the chips are down, they aren’t riding to her rescue. They dropped her like a hot brick.”

  “Sure. I’ll call Bethany and make sure we don’t have other plans.”

  “Thanks. Will be nice to take my mind off other things.”

  Too late he realized how telling that statement would be, and the last thing he wanted was to discuss it with Jace, who would most definitely latch on to it and wouldn’t let it go.

  “Anything you need help with?” Jace asked, his brow wrinkled with concern.

  “Nah. Not unless you have a way of making a woman acquiesce to your demands.”

  At that Jace’s eyebrow lifted. “A woman? Do tell. This has to be worth the price of admission.”

  “It’s complicated,” Ash muttered. “She’s being difficult.”

  Jace laughed. “Show me one woman who isn’t!”

  “Bethany,” Ash pointed out. “You’re a lucky son of a bitch to have her. She’d give you the moon and you know it.”

  “So what’s the problem with your woman du jour?”

  Ash scowled. “That’s just it. She’s not just any woman. I don’t know, man. She hits buttons that a woman has never pushed for me.”

  “Oh shit. It’s happened,” Jace crowed. “The smug son of a bitch who gave me and Gabe so much grief has finally fallen hard and from the sounds of it she isn’t exactly reciprocating.”

  Ash flipped up his middle finger. “It’s too early for that. She just intrigues me. I want her,” he said bluntly. “And I’ll do whatever it takes to get her in my bed. The problem is, she isn’t exactly tripping over herself to get there.”

  “Now this is hilarious. Women kill themselves to get next to you. You’re the charming one. Not as hard-ass as Gabe and I are.”

  Ash barely held back the snort. His friends were sadly mistaken on that score. He might give the appearance of being the easygoing, laid-back one, but when it came to women, what he wanted, what he needed? There was no charm, no being laid-back. It had been years since he’d let that part of himself go with a woman. He still remembered her fondly. He’d just turned thirty. She was a few years younger than him. They both wanted and enjoyed the same things and when he’d actually let her see him for what he was, she hadn’t balked.

  He still thought of Cammie from time to time. Wondered where she was. If she was married with children. And wondered if she’d found a man to satisfy her submissive streak.

  She and Ash had parted as friends. She’d wanted more than he could give her. At the time he was solidly married to his career, trying to make HCM into what it was today. She wanted to settle down, have a family, live the American dream. And Ash hadn’t been prepared to do that.

  It wasn’t that he minded the idea of marriage to her. She was a beautiful woman, fun to be with. He could have grown to love her. He knew that. But he’d wanted to wait. He hadn’t wanted to marry her when he wasn’t absolutely certain he could provide for her every need.

  Now? Marriage and commitment seemed to be the next logical step. Gabe and Jace had taken the plunge. They were all at a point in their careers where they could step back, relax, focus on things other than business.

  But while Gabe and Jace had found that perfect woman, someone who embraced and accepted the kind of men they were and loved them in spite of their imperfections, Ash hadn’t yet met a woman who fulfilled the parts of his heart that weren’t satisfied by his career and good friends.

  “She wants me,” Ash said. “She wants what I can give her, but as much as I can see that she wants it, she’s hesitant.”

  “I know patience isn’t one of your virtues, but perhaps this is one time you need to get acquainted with the concept.”

  The heavy amusement in Jace’s voice just made Ash grumpy. Patience? Definitely not one of his virtues. And he definitely wasn’t going to start getting up-close and personal with the idea now of all times. Not when he wanted something as badly as he wanted Josie.

  And he still couldn’t explain it. Obsession. It was a word he’d associated with Jace when it came to Bethany, and Ash had come down hard on Jace for it. He hadn’t understood it. He’d even tried to talk Jace down, going as far as doing a background check on Bethany and then warning Jace off.

  It wasn’t one of his better moves, because Bethany had been the best thing that had ever happened to Jace. It was a good thing his friend hadn’t listened to Ash’s advice, and now that Ash found himself in a similar predicament, he could well understand Jace’s uncharacteristic reaction to Bethany.

  “Let me ask you something,” Ash said, his tone serious. “In the beginning with Bethany. Did you sit back and wait or did you move in, take charge and take over?”

  Jace winced, his face contorting with a grimace.

  “I tried at first to be patient, take things slow. But that lasted a very short period of time. I wanted to give her time to adjust. I mean, her
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