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         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  circumstances were different than most. It made me crazy to think of her not having a place to sleep, and when I moved her into Mia’s old apartment it made me crazy because she wasn’t with me all the time even though we were together every day. But I wanted her in my apartment. As long as she was living somewhere else, I didn’t feel like she was completely mine. It sounds nuts but I wanted to know where she was every minute. It makes me sound like a fucking stalker, and maybe that’s what I was. Hell if I know. I just knew that I wanted her with me. Every day. In my apartment when I got home. In my bed every night. Not in another apartment where she could bolt at any time even though I had men on her.”

  “Yeah, that didn’t work out too well if I remember right,” Ash said dryly. “Didn’t she bail on them and disappear for a few hours?”

  “An entire day,” Jace muttered. “Hell, I thought she’d left me or walked out, but all she did was go find Jack, and I still get tense just thinking of all that could have happened to her in those few hours.”

  “I didn’t get it then,” Ash admitted. “I thought you’d lost your mind. But I get it now, because I feel the same way about Josie. And it’s crazy. We’ve only seen each other a few times and had only one date where we actually spent more than a few minutes in each other’s company. I’m still kicking myself for not pressing her harder at dinner. She was so close to agreeing, but the dumbass that I am, I backed off because I didn’t want to overwhelm her, so I granted her wish for time to think. Well, that was a fucking week ago and I haven’t heard shit since our dinner.”

  Jace’s face crinkled in sympathy. “So what are you going to do?”

  “Well, I have plans tonight with Brittany, and you and Bethany if you can make it, but tomorrow I’m employing a full-court press. I’m done sitting back and being patient. If she’s going to tell me no, I at least want to hear it from her lips instead of enduring this prolonged silence.”

  “Good luck man. I hope it works out for you. And at the risk of being a total hypocrite since I got in your face for checking up on Bethany, have you checked Josie out?”

  Ash nodded. “Yeah, I did. After our first meeting in the park. No skeletons in her closet that I uncovered anyway.”

  “Okay, well, if there’s anything I can do, you know you only have to ask. If you get her to agree, we’ll have to hook up, and when Gabe and Mia get back from their honeymoon, we can all get together. You can introduce Josie to Mia and Bethany. They have a good group of girlfriends, and I’ll tell you from experience, when they have their girls’ nights out?” He broke off and a shit-eating grin attacked his face.

  Ash held up his hand with a groan. “I know, I know. You’ve already regaled me with the details of drunk, sexy women in fuck-me shoes wanting to be fucked in those fuck-me shoes. No need to torture me further.”

  Jace laughed and then rose. “Let me go call Bethany. I’ll let you know about tonight. Where we eating and what time? I just need to give her a heads-up so she can be ready.”

  “How about the Bryant Park Grill right after work?”

  Jace nodded. “Sounds good. We’ll see you there.”

  chapter nine

  Brittany was noticeably nervous at dinner, though Bethany was a complete doll, easing the awkwardness and treating Brittany like a long-lost friend.

  The Bryant Park Grill was hopping, as it was every day right after work hours. It was filled with suits, businessmen and women enjoying cocktails after a day at work. It was a popular after-work haunt, but that wasn’t why Ash chose it.

  He’d chosen it because he thought he might see Josie there. But according to the man Ash had assigned to keep tabs on Josie, she hadn’t been out of her apartment at all for several days.

  Maybe she was working furiously to finish a new piece of art for the gallery. Maybe she wasn’t giving his proposition a moment’s thought. He’d told Jace he’d give her until tomorrow, but he was only half paying attention to the dinner conversation because he was tempted to go to Josie’s apartment unannounced.

  Patience. Jace had said to have patience. Ash nearly snorted over the hypocrisy of that statement, even if Jace had admitted it.

  Their food was served, and Brittany had finally relaxed, even smiling in Ash’s direction. At one point she leaned toward him so only he would hear and said, “Thank you, Ash. You can’t know what this means to me. You’re the only family I have now. The others have cut all ties. They treat me like I’m some sort of traitor for wanting to have my own life. You understood what I wanted and needed and you didn’t judge me for it.”

  Ash smiled. “Join the outcast club. It’s not so bad really. The longer you remain away from them, the more perspective you’ll gain and you’ll realize that this is something you would have been happier doing a lot sooner. But you’ve done it, and that’s all that counts. It’ll get easier. I promise.”

  “Does it bother you?” she asked in an earnest voice. “I mean does it bother you that they treat you like an outsider? That they have such disdain for you and your success?”

  Ash shrugged. “It did in the beginning I suppose. I haven’t given it much thought over the last few years. I have good friends and they’re my family. And now you.”

  Her face lit up, the shadows chased from her eyes in a flash. “I’m glad we can be family, Ash. I really mean that. I’m not going to let you down. I know I didn’t get the job on my own, but I’m not going to make you regret giving it to me.”

  They were interrupted by the ringing of Ash’s cell phone. He reached automatically for it, holding his breath without realizing at first that he was doing so. It could be Josie. He’d waited a damn week for something, anything from her.

  But when he looked at the incoming name, he frowned. It wasn’t Josie. It was the man assigned to Josie.

  “Excuse me, I have to take this,” Ash said as he rose, already pushing the button to accept the call.

  He walked away from the table to a quieter area near the restrooms.

  “Ash,” he said shortly.

  “Mr. McIntyre, I know my reports have been much the same all week. Miss Carlysle hasn’t left her apartment until now and I knew you’d want to know what I saw.”

  “What?” Ash demanded.

  “She’s sporting one hell of a black eye. Split lip. Looks like someone took a shot at her. I could be wrong. It could have been an accident, but I doubt it. And it could be why she hasn’t left her apartment.”

  Ash swore. “Where is she headed now? Are you on her?”

  “Yeah, I’m following her now. Looks like she’s headed to the gallery. She had several canvases when she got into a cab. I’ll keep you posted.”

  “Do that,” Ash murmured as he hung up.

  He stood for a moment, his mind filled with rage at the idea that someone had abused Josie in some way. And then he cursed the fact that he hadn’t asked his man if Josie had been anywhere or if she’d had visitors. Surely he would have reported it if she had. But then he hadn’t had her shadow back on the job until two days after their dinner. He’d thought she would have contacted him by then and when she hadn’t, he’d put his man back on her to monitor her activities.

  Obsessed? Yeah, that was one word for it. Demented was another. He was acting like a crazed stalker, the kind most women would do well to steer clear of. Only he wasn’t going to harm Josie. But he was kicking himself for not keeping his man on her, because someone had hurt her, or at the very least she’d been injured in some way.

  Why hadn’t she called him? Why hadn’t she come to him for help? She had to know after their conversation that he would take care of her.

  With a muttered curse he returned to the table where Brittany, Jace and Bethany all looked up at him. Concern immediately flashed in their eyes. His expression must have been grim for them to have picked up on his mood so quickly.

  “I’m sorry to cut this short, but I have to go. Brittany, I’ll make it up to you soon. Promise. Jace and Bethany, thank you both for coming, and please,
all of you finish your dinner. I’ll see you all later.”

  As he turned to walk away, Jace called out to him.

  “Ash? Everything okay?”

  Ash sent him a look he knew Jace would pick up on. He’d know it had to do with Josie, and he’d understand. Jace nodded once and then turned back to the women, smiling and engaging them both in conversation.

  Breathing a sigh of relief and knowing he owed Jace for taking over, he picked up the phone to call for his driver. If Josie was going to the gallery, she’d probably go right back home since she hadn’t been anywhere else in the last several days. He’d take care of buying the art she’d taken in later, but right now he was going to be at her apartment waiting for her to return and then they were going to have a serious come-to-Jesus moment.

  chapter ten

  Josie breathed a sigh of relief as the cab pulled to a stop at the corner of the cross street her apartment was on. She hadn’t wanted to venture out at all, but she’d wanted to get more of her artwork to Mr. Downing. While the money from the sale of her previous works would tide her over for the next few months, she’d wanted to get more to him so the buyer wouldn’t lose interest or think she didn’t have anything else to offer.

  As she paid her fare and stepped out of the cab, she self-consciously put a hand to her bruised cheek and winced when her fingers brushed over the corner of her mouth where her lip had been split. Head down, she hurried down the sidewalk toward her apartment, only wanting to be back inside and out of view of anyone.

  Though she had nothing to be ashamed of, she still felt embarrassed over what had happened. Shocked. Completely and utterly shocked that Michael had come to her apartment and lost his temper, something that had never happened before. She was still in disbelief over it all. She should have pressed charges. She should have done a lot of things, but she’d been too numb to take it all in. So instead she’d sequestered herself in her studio apartment and worked feverishly to take her mind off the events of the last week.

  She knew she owed Ash a response. An explanation. Something! She’d told him she wouldn’t take long, but how could she go to him with bruises inflicted by a man who’d been her dominant?

  Of course, it was laughable now. He wasn’t a true dominant. He’d been playing at it. It was an ego trip for him. He’d become someone completely different the moment he realized she was serious about ending their relationship. Her mistake had been mentioning Ash at all, not that she’d called him by name, but she’d told Michael that he couldn’t give her the things another man had promised her.

  Now she wasn’t so certain. What if Ash was no better? She knew next to nothing about him. She’d been ready to commit, had actually made up her mind to call him the same day Michael had come to her apartment. After that fiasco, she’d harbored doubts and self-preservation had kicked in.

  If Ash was more intense than Michael—and it was evident he definitely was—then could she expect the same kind of treatment at his hands? Or even worse?

  Her head spun with the possibilities and she knew she was in no emotional state to be making such a huge decision. To place her trust, her well-being, her entire self into the hands of a man like Ash. And so she’d remained silent, mulling over her decision, going back and forth.

  The fact was, she was afraid. And that fear had prevented her from either accepting or declining his proposition. And she hated that fear. It wasn’t how she wanted to live her life or make her decisions. She needed a clear head before taking that huge step in trusting another man who could very well turn out just like Michael.

  She heaved an unhappy sigh and reached into her pocket to retrieve the keys to her apartment. Her head was still down when she reached the steps and she saw an expensive pair of shoes directly above the first step leading down to her door.

  Startled, she glanced up to see Ash standing there. As he looked her over, fury blazed in his eyes and she took an instinctive step backward.

  “What the hell happened to you?” he demanded.

  He was seething, anger bristling from him in waves. Gone was any semblance of charm or laid-back calm. He was one huge ball of pissed-off alpha male.

  “Please, not here,” she whispered. “I just want to go inside. Let me by and then leave.”

  His expression of complete what the fuck made her pause as she attempted to push by him. He grasped her shoulders, his grip firm but extremely gentle, his fingers against her skin, but not pressing into her flesh.

  “I want to know who the fuck did this to you,” he growled.

  Her shoulders sagged and she nearly dropped the keys that dangled precariously from her fingers. She tightened her grip and then pushed her chin upward.

  “Let me by,” she said through clenched teeth.

  To her surprise, he dropped his hands and let her go down the steps, but he followed closely behind, giving her no option to go in and shut the door to prevent his entry.

  She sighed as she unlocked her door and pushed it open. She felt better the moment she was inside. Her own space. It was laughable that she felt safe here after what had happened with Michael. But now that she knew just what he was capable of, she’d never make the mistake of letting him within a mile of her.

  She dropped her purse by the door and walked into her tiny living area. Ash closed the door, sliding the deadbolt into place, and then he too entered her living room. A room that suddenly seemed way smaller with him in it. He stood there, staring at her, his gaze relentless as he did a thorough up-and-down of her body, stopping once again on the bruise on her cheek.

  His eyes grew cold and she shivered.

  “I haven’t heard from you,” he began.

  She flushed guiltily and lowered her gaze, not wanting him to see all she wanted to hide.

  “And now I’m thinking there was a reason you haven’t called me.”

  Slowly she nodded, still not meeting his gaze.

  “Josie, look at me.”

  His voice was soft. Gentle even. But it was definitely not a request. It was a command. One she felt compelled to obey.

  Slowly she lifted her head so their eyes met.

  “Who did this to you?”

  Gone was the gentleness, replaced by an edge of steel to his tone. His entire body vibrated with fury and it made her hesitant to tell him what had happened. How she’d ever thought him not dangerous or perhaps charming or affable she had no clue. Because the man standing in front of her right here, right now, looked capable of terrible things.

  And it wasn’t that she was afraid of him. No, she knew instinctively, even as she was shrouded in fear over what had already happened to her, that this man would not hurt her. But he was angry. Angry didn’t even begin to describe what she saw in his eyes. And he absolutely looked capable of killing someone. She found herself not wanting to tell him, because she feared not him, but what he’d do.

  “Josie, answer me,” he said through his teeth. “Who. Did. This. To. You.”

  He wasn’t going to allow her not to tell him. And though she didn’t fear reprisal, she knew she absolutely had to obey him. He wouldn’t allow her to duck the question. She firmly believed he’d stand here all night, do whatever it took to get what he wanted.

  She closed her eyes and exhaled in a long, weary sigh, her shoulders sagging in defeat.

  “Michael,” she whispered, her voice so low she could barely hear it herself. Maybe she hadn’t even really voiced it.

  “Say that again?”

  The words whipped from his lips, snapping through the air with enough force that she felt them. She chanced a glance up and immediately flinched at the look on his face. It was . . . terrifying.

  “You heard,” she whispered in only a slightly louder voice.

  “You’re telling me that motherfucker put those bruises on your face? That he split your lip?”

  He advanced and she rapidly took a step backward, which only seemed to piss him off even more.

  “Goddamn it, Josie, I’m not going to hu
rt you! I’ll never fucking hurt you.”

  The words were explosive. Not exactly soothing and yet she took comfort in the vehemence with which he made the vow. So much so that she took a step back toward him so they now only stood a foot apart.

  His entire body still vibrated with rage. His green eyes were nearly black, the green just a thin ring around the dilated pupils. And then he raised his hands, slowly, as if he feared frightening her. He cupped her face in his palms, his touch infinitely gentle, and she didn’t know how he could possibly pull that off when the rest of his body was taut with fury and his expression was so black.

  But that touch was so exquisitely tender that she literally melted into his hands. She felt no pain even though her face was still painful to touch several days after the incident. He brushed his fingers over the bruise and then traced the split at her lip, so lightly that she nearly didn’t feel it.

  “I’ll kill him.”

  Ash’s voice was absolute. The resolution in his voice made her blood chill in her veins because she believed him. In this moment, she believed him absolutely capable of killing the man who’d hurt her. Her pulse leapt and her breathing accelerated as panic shot down into her belly.

  “No! Ash, please. Just let it go. This is why I didn’t want to tell you. Why I haven’t called.”

  She would have said more, but he put his finger over the uninjured part of her mouth to silence her.

  “Let it go?”

  His tone was deadly.

  “You want me to fucking let it go when that motherfucker put his hands on you? What the fuck happened, Josie, and I want every goddamn detail. Nothing left out. I want to know when this happened. I want to know how many times he hit you. And above all, I want to know why the hell you didn’t immediately come to me or call me, the instant this happened.”

  Her mouth went slack against his finger. And then, as if he changed his mind entirely, he pulled away, turning to survey her living room, glancing toward the open archway to her bedroom.

  “I’m taking you to my apartment,” he said firmly. “You’re moving in with me.”

  “Wait. What? Ash, I can’t—”

  “This isn’t negotiable, Josie.” His eye glittered with purpose and his stance was rigid, brooking no compromise. “You’re coming with me. Now let’s go into your bedroom. You’re going to sit on the bed and tell me what you need packed for tonight. Tomorrow we can go over what you have to have or want moved to my place and I’ll arrange for someone to come in and have everything brought over. But when we have this conversation about that son of a bitch—and we are having that conversation—it’s going to be in a place where you feel absolutely safe. A place where you know no harm will come to you. That’s in stone.”

  Her mouth dropped open even farther, but even amid the utter shock of his proclamation came . . . relief. Comfort. But mostly overwhelming relief. The decision had been wrested from her hands, and at the moment she embraced that. Her worries—fears—surrounding Ash seemed silly now. That she’d even entertained that he might be like Michael or that she would be entering an even worse situation than the one she’d just come from seemed absurd.

  “I can pack my own things,” she whispered.

  There was a sudden fire in his eyes. Satisfaction over her capitulation. Maybe he’d expected her to fight it more or even to outright refuse, though she could see he had no intention of backing down.

  “Didn’t say you couldn’t pack. What I said was that you’re going to sit on your bed while I do this for you. All I need from you is to tell me what you want for tonight and maybe tomorrow. The rest will be taken care of after you and I have talked later tonight.”

  Wow. Okay. This was moving at supersonic speed. She felt like she’d just gotten off an insane roller-coaster ride and was still trying to gain her bearings.

  He held out his hand to her, not moving to her or taking it on his own. He simply held it out, waiting. Waiting for her to accept. To take his hand and to enter his world.

  Taking a deep breath, she reached out, sliding her palm over his upturned one. He gathered her fingers gently in his hand and then squeezed, holding firmly. Like he was forging an unbreakable bond between them.

  Then he pulled her gently toward her bedroom, and she followed, allowing him to lead her inside where he sat her on the edge of the bed as if she were incredibly fragile. Something precious and breakable.

  He backed away and did a quick survey.

  “Do you have an overnight bag?”

  “In the closet,” she said huskily.

  She watched in stupefaction as he briskly began to pack under her quiet direction. Didn’t they have it all turned around? He was doing everything for her. What had she done for him? But then, he had said he’d give a lot. But he’d take everything.

  She shivered lightly, wondering just how much he’d take, and if she’d have anything left when he’d taken his fill.

  chapter eleven

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