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         Part #3 of Breathless series by Maya Banks

  Ash wasn’t a stupid man. He knew he’d pressured Josie, given her no time to breathe, analyze or react to his arrogant demand. And it had been the height of arrogance to sweep into her apartment and order her to move into his.

  So it was with brisk efficiency that he hurried about his task, because the longer she sat on that bed looking overwhelmed and befuddled, the more time she’d have to reconsider her quiet agreement. Which meant he risked her not coming home with him.

  And that was not an option.

  He packed an overnight bag, called his driver to make sure he’d be waiting outside Josie’s apartment, and then he hustled her toward the door, not giving her any further time to process the whirlwind event.

  After urging Josie into the car, he closed her door and paused only a moment to call his doorman and ask him to go up to Ash’s apartment and take down the painting of Josie from his bedroom and store it, along with the others in his living room, until Ash retrieved them. He didn’t want Josie to know he was the one who’d bought her work. Not yet.

  When he got into the car next to her, he relaxed and then glanced sideways, taking in her pale, shaken face. The bruises pissed him off. Enraged him. The split at the corner of her mouth stood out, a reminder that another man had put his hands on what Ash already considered his. That the man would have put his hands on any woman in such a manner. Not just Ash’s woman, but any woman. But most especially his woman.

  “I don’t know if this is a good idea, Ash,” she said quietly, speaking for the first time since she’d given him hesitant instructions on what to pack for her.

  “It’s a very good idea,” he said firmly. “You would have already come to me if it weren’t for that asshole. You know it and I know it. Now, we still have to address the matter of Michael, and we’ll do it when we’re in a place you feel safe and secure, and you’ll do it in my arms, where you know nothing bad is going to touch you. But know this. What he did doesn’t change one thing about you and me. We’re inevitable, Josie. From that first day in the park, we were inevitable. Fighting is a waste of time and mental energy. I’m not fighting it and I don’t want you fighting it either.”

  Her mouth parted in surprise. Her eyes flashed, not in anger, but in recognition. Good. They were getting somewhere because she was starting to see what he saw. What he knew.

  “Not happy that you kept this from me,” he continued. “That you didn’t come to me the minute this happened. But we’ll work on that. You weren’t mine yet even if I knew you were. But you are now. And you’ll come to me any time you have a problem.”

  Slowly she nodded, and satisfaction—triumph—gripped him.

  He held out his arm, not liking the distance between them, but not wanting to push her too hard. Not yet. He’d already pushed enough. He wanted her next move to be of her own doing, and so he waited, arm outstretched toward her.

  She came readily, with no hesitation, and he liked that. She slid next to him, burrowing into his side so he could wrap his arm around her. And he did. Anchoring her against him. She laid her head against his chest, the top resting just underneath his chin. He liked her tucked there.

  She gave a soft sigh and then seemed to melt into him, her body sagging as if a great weight had been lifted off. Relief.

  The scent of her hair tantalized him. Soft and sweet, like her. He ran his hand up the length of her arm, enjoying the feel of her skin and knowing that soon, he’d discover all of her flesh. But for now she needed comfort. Safety. A sense of security. She needed to know that he would never hurt her. Never raise his hand to her as Michael had done.

  He pressed his lips to her hair and inhaled even as he pressed the kiss to her head.

  Deep. Yeah, he was in deep. He didn’t even have a fully thought-out plan. He’d acted on instinct. Knew he had to have her. Knew he had to have her in his space. And he knew if he didn’t press now, that he’d likely lose her.

  Overwhelming her seemed the best idea, even if it made him a total bastard. But he wouldn’t compare himself to Michael. He wasn’t that man. He might not be the most understanding, patient and considerate person. And he definitely did not back down when he wanted something. But he’d never, ever raise his hand to a woman. The idea appalled him.

  But he absolutely had no such problem meting violence out on the bastard who’d hurt Josie.

  He shoved that thought aside, because he knew it had to be dealt with later—and it would be dealt with. But Josie came first. Her needs. Her comfort. Starting right now.

  The drive was silent, and Ash did nothing to disturb it. He knew Josie was processing the evening’s events. Knew she was probably having second and third and fourth thoughts. But she was here in his arms, and as long as she was here and not in her apartment, he could fight dirty.

  Instead he simply stroked her skin, sliding his palms up and down her arms, offering her comfort the best way he knew how.

  “I’m sorry, Ash,” she said quietly, her words nearly lost against his chest.

  His hands stopped their upward progress and he tilted his head downward so he could better hear her.

  “Why are you sorry?”

  “For not calling you. For not responding when I said I would. I was just so freaked out.”

  He slid his fingers underneath her chin and turned her face, tipping it upward so her gaze met his. Then he put a finger over her lips.

  “Not now. And you won’t apologize to me. There’s nothing to apologize for. We’ll talk this out, Josie. I want to hear every word. But not here. For now just sit here with me, and let me hold you. When we get to my apartment, we’ll talk. But even then you won’t apologize for something that was not your doing. I may not have liked that you didn’t reach out to me when you needed someone, but I understand.”

  Her smile was tremulous and warmth entered her eyes, removing some of the uncertainty and anxiety that had taken residence in the aquamarine pools.

  “There, that’s better,” he said. “You have such a beautiful smile. I’m going to ensure that you do it more often, Josie. I’m going to make you happy. That’s a guarantee.”

  She cocked her head, a baffled expression crossing her face. “I’m at a loss, Ash. Things like this just don’t happen. They don’t. A part of me thinks I’ve entered the Twilight Zone. It’s all . . . crazy.”

  He smiled indulgently. “In my world, they do. Or at least they do now. Can’t say this has ever happened to me either, so we’re both entering new territory. But it’s your world too, Josie. There are no rules but the ones we make ourselves. Can’t say I’ve ever been much of a traditionalist anyway. I’m too much of a ‘do it my own way and fuck the rest of the world’ kind of guy.”

  Her smile broadened, her teeth flashing and an adorable dimple forming in her cheek. It fascinated him. Made him want to trace the indention and then follow it with his tongue.

  “I’m kind of getting that about you. I pity the person that ever tells you that you can’t do something.”

  “Yeah, that doesn’t go over too well,” he admitted.

  “I’ll try not to be the person who pisses you off by telling you no, then.”

  His smile faded and he stared intently into her eyes. “I hope to hell I never give you reason to tell me no. But if you do, Josie, understand. I won’t ignore that word. Unless it has something to do with your safety or well-being. Or if it means you walking away from me. No is a deal breaker. It means I stop whatever I’m doing. So use it wisely and only if you mean it. Because I take that word very seriously.”

  Her eyes went soft and she leaned further into him, her body molding so very temptingly to his. His balls ached, his dick was stiff as a board and his teeth were clenched tight as he sought to control his physical reaction to her nearness.

  This woman did it for him. He had no explanation for why. He barely knew her, but he knew he had to have her. Knew he would have her. Knew they were going to be tangled up and that he had no desire to extricate himself. He also knew that this woman
was different from all the women who’d come before her.

  That part scared the shit out of him and excited him all at the same time.

  What if she was the one? That woman who, when a man saw her, he was instantly struck with the knowledge that he was done for. Like Mia was for Gabe. Like Bethany was for Jace. The one.

  He couldn’t even wrap his mind around it. Wasn’t even going there. It was too soon. The entire situation was crazy. He was moving her into his apartment. He was taking over her life. He hadn’t thought beyond that to “what next?”

  Because what the hell was next?

  Other than getting Josie in his bed, under his hand, submissive, fully submissive to his every need and desire. Just as he would see to her every need and desire. Wasn’t that enough? It had to be because he wouldn’t let himself think beyond that.

  His driver pulled to a stop on the side street to his apartment building and then got out to open the door for Ash.

  Ash stepped out first, sliding away from Josie and then extending his hand to help her from the backseat. He tucked her into his side and then collected her overnight bag from the driver before hurrying toward the entrance.

  “You live by the Hudson,” Josie said faintly, staring in the direction of the river.

  “Yeah. Nice view from the top. Come on up. Let’s get you inside.”

  They rode the elevator to the top floor and he carried her bag inside, guiding her toward the bedroom. She stiffened slightly when they entered the master suite, and she glanced sideways, caution reflected in her eyes.

  He tossed her bag onto the bed and then pointed toward the bathroom.

  “I’ll give you time to get changed into what you’re sleeping in. I’ll be in the kitchen fixing you a glass of wine. Take your time.”

  “Where am I sleeping?” she murmured.

  He put his hands to her shoulders and let his palms glide down her shoulders. “In my bed, Josie. With me.”

  Anxiety crept into her gaze.

  He leaned forward and pressed his lips to her forehead, feeling particularly tender toward her. Perhaps it was the vulnerability. The worry and fear he could see in her eyes.

  “When we talk, Josie. It will be in my bed. You in my arms. You safe. And you’ll know that. But you’re only sleeping. It’s why you’re changing into your nightclothes. You won’t wear them again, but tonight, you need that barrier because you’re still not sure of me. After tonight, you will be.”

  He kissed her one last time and then he turned, leaving her in his bedroom alone to change.

  He went into the kitchen, taking his time as he took down two glasses and opened a bottle of wine. He remembered that she didn’t drink much in the way of alcohol, but she had mentioned she liked an occasional glass of wine, and it would most certainly help her relax tonight. He didn’t know for certain, but he imagined her to prefer red wine. She’d want something with color. Vibrant and flavorful. Nothing devoid of warmth like white wine.

  He frowned when he realized his own dinner had been interrupted, and since he’d gone straight to Josie’s and met her upon her arrival, it was likely she hadn’t eaten either.

  He rummaged in the fridge for fruit salad and several wedges of gourmet cheese. He arranged a tray, pulling bread and crackers from the pantry to accompany the cheese and fruit. And something sweet. Didn’t all women enjoy chocolate?

  His housekeeper often left him delectable homemade treats, and this week’s offering was chocolate mousse with a cream cheese topping. There were five individual dessert dishes on the top shelf of the fridge, so he pulled two of the single-serving containers out, added them to the tray and then yanked spoons from the drawer.

  Satisfied that he had all the bases covered, and that he’d given Josie enough time to prepare for bed and to get over any nerves she was feeling, he headed back toward the bedroom.

  When he walked in, she was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed, and he was absurdly taken by the image of her in his bed. Comfortable, bare feet, like she belonged.

  She was wearing silky, hot pink pajamas. Long-legged and long-sleeved, covering her entire body. Buttoned to the neck.

  He’d give her this tonight. That barrier. But after this, she would come to their bed with nothing. She’d sleep next to him, her skin against his.

  Her eyes widened when she saw the tray he carried and she scrambled up, scooting back off the bed so he could set the tray down.

  “Pull back the covers,” he directed. “We’ll get into bed and I’ll put the tray on the nightstand. You can eat in bed next to me.”

  She hastily pulled back the comforter and the sheet and even plumped the pillows before crawling back onto the mattress.

  As he said, he set the tray down on his side of the bed and then strode toward his closet to strip out of his clothing.

  He faced a dilemma, because he never wore anything but boxers to bed. Then he shrugged. It wasn’t as if he was completely nude, and he’d promised her that she’d only rest in his arms. He wasn’t putting the moves on her, so his boxers would do.

  When he walked back out, he felt her gaze on him even as she tried to hide the fact that she was watching him. It was adorable the way she peeked from underneath her lashes and the color heightened in her cheeks when he crawled onto the bed beside her.

  He offered her the fruit and cheese first and then slipped a glass of wine in her free hand. He offered her bites, enjoying the slight brush of her lips over his fingertips. And she seemed to derive as much pleasure from eating from his hand as he did in feeding her this way.

  A dreamy, contented look entered her eyes, some of the earlier shadows chased away as she relaxed. Tension drifted from her shoulders, and they settled, her entire body going slack.

  “Hungry?” he asked huskily, entranced by the provocative image she presented.

  Finally. In his bed. Just inches away. His body screamed at him to take her, to take what was his even as he mentally chastised it for being an impatient asshole.

  “Starved,” she admitted. “I haven’t eaten well over the past few days.”

  His expression darkened and anger vibrated once more from his body. “You’ll take better care of yourself from now on. I’ll take better care of you,” he amended.

  She smiled. “It’s not solely because of . . . Michael . . . and what happened. I’ve been busy with work.”

  He knew well why, but he asked anyway, because it would seem odd not to, and she was offering information, relaxing around him, and he wanted that. Wanted easy communication. No hesitancy or reserve on her part.

  “What have you been working on?”

  Color tinged her cheeks and he glanced curiously at her.

  “I’ve been working on an erotic series of paintings. Not too over the top. Tasteful. Sexy but still classy.”

  Excitement gleamed in her eyes as she sat back a moment, refusing further food from his hand.

  “I sold all my work that was exhibited in the art gallery where I sell on consignment! It was the most incredible thing. Mr. Downing had told me he couldn’t take anything else of mine because nothing had sold and I had already brought him the first painting in the series I’m working on. Then he called to tell me the news that not only had he sold everything but that he wanted more! And that a buyer was interested in whatever I brought in. I’ve spent the week working on the rest of that series.”

  She ducked her head self-consciously and then peeked back up at him from underneath her lashes.

  “They’re self-portraits. I mean, not that you can tell who it is, but I used my likeness in a series of nude poses. I have a . . . tattoo, one I designed myself, and it features prominently in the paintings. I . . . I like them. I think they’re good. I hope the buyer will like them too.”

  There was a note of anxiety at the end of her statement that made his heart clench. Hell yes he’d like them, and he’d be damned if anyone else even got to see them. They would be his. Only his. And only he would see her without h
er clothing. That was for him and him alone.

  No doubt, Josie was a beautiful woman, and there was also little doubt that men and women alike would be drawn to the paintings. She had talent, no matter what the moron gallery manager had said about her style. It was only a matter of time before others discovered that talent. Ash was just glad he got to those paintings before someone else did. The idea of anyone else having something so intimate of Josie’s made his teeth clench.

  “I’m sure your buyer will love them,” he said. Even as he spoke, he made a mental note to call Mr. Downing first thing Monday morning and make damn sure he wrapped and delivered the paintings to Ash’s office. “I’d love to have seen them myself.”

  She blushed but smiled and then said, “Perhaps I can take you down to the gallery to see them. I only just dropped them off. Maybe the buyer won’t have bought them yet. They may sit there for days.”

  He leaned in, touching her cheek and letting his fingers travel down her jaw to her neck where he pushed back the long blond strands of her hair. “I’d rather you draw me something new. Something no one but me will see. Perhaps even something a bit more erotic than your other paintings?”

  Her eyes widened and then her brow furrowed as if she were visualizing the painting already. Her lips parted and her breath escaped in an excited rush. He could literally see her painting it in her mind.

  “I have ideas,” she said. “I’d love to do something more personal. I mean, as long as you never displayed it.”

  He shook his head solemnly. “No one but me will ever see it. I’ll treasure whatever you paint for me, Josie. But if you give me you, the sexy you, you can be damn certain it will only be for me and nobody else.”

  “Okay,” she murmured, her face flushed with color and . . . arousal.

  “Have you had enough to eat?”

  She nodded and handed him the half-empty glass of wine. He set it aside and then took the tray to his dresser and left it before returning to the bed. And Josie.

  He climbed in, holding his arm out so she could nestle beside him. They were leaned up against his mound of pillows, her body anchored against his.

  “Now tell me about Michael,” Ash said in an even tone.

  She stiffened against him and for a long moment she was silent. Then she sagged and blew out her breath.

  “I was so wrong about him,” she whispered. “I never imagined him capable of something like this. Even during our relationship, when he exerted his . . . dominance . . . it was always done in a restrained, careful manner. He always treated me very carefully. Like he was determined never to hurt me.”

  “Where were you when this occurred?” Ash demanded. “Did you go see him?”

  She shook her head. “No. He came to me.”

  Ash swore. “You let him into your apartment?”

  She pushed up and off him, turning so she could look him in the eye. “Why wouldn’t I have? Ash, we were lovers. He never gave me any reason to believe he’d hurt me. He never lost his temper. Not once. I never even saw him angry. He’s always been very calm and restrained. He came to see me because he didn’t believe I was serious about ending our relationship. He brought the collar back, apologizing, saying that it evidently meant something to me and that he would be aware of that going forward.”

  Ash frowned but didn’t interrupt her.

  “When I told him it was over, he demanded to know why.”

  She broke off, glancing away, folding her hands in her lap as she presented her profile to him. He pulled her tighter against him, molding her to his body. He could feel her pulse, how agitated she’d become.

  “What happened then?” he asked softly.

  “I told him that he couldn’t give me the things another man had promised me,” she whispered.

  Ash’s hold tightened further. “Go on.”

  “He freaked. I mean completely lost it. The words were barely out of my mouth when he slapped me. I was so shocked that I didn’t even know what to do. And then he was standing over me, where I’d fallen, and he hit me again. He wrapped his hands in my hair and accused me of cheating on him. Told me that he’d handled me far too gently. That if he’d been the way he should have with me this would have never happened, that I would have never cheated.”

  “Son of a bitch,” Ash ground out. “I’ll kill him for this.”

  She shook her head violently. “No! Ash, leave it alone. It’s done with. It’s over.”

  “The hell it is!”

  He calmed his breathing and forced the rage from his mind and eased his grip on her arm where his fingers had dug into her skin. She would wear no marks from him. None that weren’t given in passion and tenderness. None that she wouldn’t want to wear.

  “I should have gone to the police,” she said in a low voice. “I should have pressed charges. Had him arrested. But God, I was just in shock. And then I felt so . . . stupid. How could I not have seen this in him? That capacity for violence? How could I have had sex with him and never known what lay underneath his façade? When I think of what could have happened. I trusted him. Implicitly. I gave him full access to my body. He could have done anything to me. It’s why . . .”

  She broke off, going silent against him. He pushed her hair from her battered cheek and then pressed a kiss to the bruised flesh.

  “Why what?” he asked gently.

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