Maya Banks (2013)
To my “family.” Not of blood, but family all the same.
Ash McIntyre stood on the concrete walkway of Bryant Park, hands stuffed into his slacks pockets as he breathed in the spring air. There was still a nip in the wind, carrying with it hints of winter fading to spring. Around him, people sat on benches and in chairs at the small tables where they drank coffee, worked on laptops or were listening to iPods.
It was an absolutely gorgeous day, not that he usually indulged in things like a walk in the park or even being in a park, especially during business hours when he was usually entrenched in his office, on the phone or typing emails or making plans to travel. He wasn’t a “stop and smell the roses” kind of guy. But today he was restless and cagey, he had a lot on his mind, and he’d found himself here without really realizing that he’d planned to end up in the park.
Mia and Gabe’s wedding was a few short days away, and his business partner was up to his eyeballs in wedding preparations as he sought to ensure Mia had the wedding of her dreams. And Jace? His other best friend and business partner was in a very permanent relationship with his fiancée, Bethany, which meant that his two friends were otherwise occupied.
When they weren’t working, they were with their women, and it meant that Ash didn’t see them except at the office and on the occasions they all got together outside of work. They were still close, and Gabe and Jace ensured they’d stayed solid, including him in their changing lives. But it wasn’t the same. And while it was good for his friends, Ash still hadn’t quite come to terms with how rapidly all their lives had altered over the last eight months.
It was weird and life-changing, even though it wasn’t his life being impacted. It wasn’t that he wasn’t happy for his friends. They were happy. That made him happy. But for the first time since the beginning of their friendship, he was on the outside looking in.
His friends would vehemently dispute that. They were his family. Much more so than his own batshit crazy family whom he spent most of his time avoiding. Gabe, Mia, Jace and Bethany, but especially Gabe and Jace, would deny that Ash was on the periphery now. They were his brothers in all the ways that counted. More than blood. Their bond was unbreakable. But it had changed. So in fact he was on the periphery. Still a part, but in a much different, smaller way.
For years their motto had been play hard and live free. Being in a relationship changed a man. It changed his priorities. Ash got that. He understood it. He’d think less of Gabe and Jace if their women weren’t their priority. But it left Ash out of the loop. The third wheel. And it wasn’t a comfortable place to be.
It was especially hard because, until Bethany, Ash and Jace had shared most of their women. More often than not, they fucked the same women. It sounded asinine that Ash wouldn’t know how to function outside a threesome relationship, but there it was.
He was restless and edgy, in search of something, he had no idea what. It wasn’t that he wanted what Gabe and Jace had—or maybe he did and refused to acknowledge it. He just knew he wasn’t himself, and he didn’t like that fact.
He was focused. Knew exactly what he wanted at all times and had the wealth and power to make it happen. There were no shortage of women who’d be more than willing to give Ash what he needed or wanted. But what was the point when he himself had no clue what it was he wanted or needed at present?
He scanned the park, taking in the baby strollers being pushed by mothers and nannies. He tried to picture himself with children and nearly shuddered at the thought. He was thirty-eight, almost thirty-nine, a time when most men had already settled down and produced offspring. But he’d spent all of his twenties and a good chunk of his thirties busting his ass with his partners to make their business the success it was now. Without using his family’s money, their connections, and especially without their help.
Maybe that was why they hated him so much now. Because he’d thumbed his nose at them and basically told them to fuck off. But the biggest sin he’d committed was in making more of a success of himself without them. He had more wealth and power than even the old man did. His grandfather. For that matter, what had the rest of his family ever done but live off the old man’s largess? His grandfather had sold his successful business when Ash was still a boy. None of his family had worked a day in their lives.
He shook his head. Fucking leeches, the lot of them. He didn’t need them. Damn sure didn’t want them. And now that he had surpassed them—and his grandfather—he sure as hell wasn’t going to allow them back into his life to reap the benefits of riding his star.
He turned to go because he had shit to do that didn’t include standing around in a damn park self-reflecting like he was in need of a shrink. He had to get his act together and start focusing on the one thing that hadn’t changed. Business. HCM Global Resorts had projects in various stages of work. The Paris hotel was a done deal after their having to work fast to replace investors that had backed out. Things were moving along and progressing well. This wasn’t the time for him to drop the ball, especially when Gabe and Jace couldn’t give work the time they had in the past. Ash was the only one not distracted by his personal life, so he had to step up. Take some of the slack for his friends so they could enjoy having a life outside of work.
As he started to stride back in the direction he’d come, he saw a young woman sitting alone at one of the tables outside of the primary traffic area. He stopped mid-step and let his gaze settle more fully on her, taking in her appearance. Long blond hair that drifted just so with the breeze, revealing a startlingly beautiful face with striking eyes that he could see even from the distance at which he stood.
She was wearing a funky long skirt that swirled with the wind, baring the long expanse of one leg. Blingy flip-flops adorned her feet and he could see the bright pink polish on her toes and a toe ring that sparkled when she moved her foot to shift position. The sun caught on a silvery ankle bracelet, drawing even more attention to her slender leg.
She was busy sketching, her brow furrowed in concentration as her pencil flew over the page, and beside her was a huge bag stuffed full, with rolled-up papers extending from the top.
But what most caught his attention was the choker she wore around her neck. It didn’t fit her. He made that instant assessment. It was tight around her neck, resting just at the hollow of her delicate throat. But it didn’t fit her. It didn’t reflect her at all.
It was gaudy on her. A diamond choker, obviously expensive and probably not fake, but it didn’t go with the rest of her. It stood out, out of place. His curiosity was piqued because when he saw a piece of jewelry like that on a woman, it meant something far different than it did to most people and he was seized with interest to know if it was indeed a collar, or if it was just an ornament, chosen by her. And if it was a collar, the man who’d chosen it for her had done a piss-poor job. The man didn’t know her, or maybe he didn’t care to ensure that such an important adornment suited the woman he called his own.
If Ash could make that judgment after mere moments of studying her, then how the hell could the man making love to her not see the same? Maybe the collar was more a reflection of her dominant, which was arrogant and idiotic. A collar should represent his care of his submissive, how in touch with her he was, and it should fit the woman wearing it.
He was making a hell of a lot of assumptions. It could just be a simple necklace the woman had chosen herself. But to a man like Ash, that piece of jewelry meant something more than just an accessory.
How long he stood watching her, he didn’t know, but, as if sensing his gaze, hers lifted to meet his and her eyes widened and something like panic entered her expression. Then she hastily slammed her sketch pad closed and began to shove it into her bag. She half rose, still stuffing things into that huge bag, and he realized she was leaving.
Before he was even aware of it, he hurried forward, intrigued. Adrenaline rushed through his veins. The hunt. Discovery. Challenge. Interest. He wanted to know who this woman was, and what that collar she wore meant.
And even as he strode toward her, he knew that if it did mean what he thought it did, he was trespassing on another man’s territory, and furthermore, he didn’t give one fuck.
Poaching another dominant’s submissive was one of those unwritten no-nos, but then Ash had never been one for rules. At least the ones he himself didn’t make. And this woman was beautiful. Intriguing. And perhaps exactly what he was looking for. How would he know unless he got to her before she bailed?
He was nearly to her when she whirled around, bag in hand, obviously preparing to walk away, and she nearly bumped headlong into him. Yeah, he was absolutely invading her space, and he’d be lucky if she didn’t scream the park down. He probably looked like some stalker about to attack.
He heard her quick intake of breath as she took a step back, banging the bag into the chair she’d vacated. The bag tipped over, coming loose from her grip, and the contents spilled, pencils, brushes and papers flying everywhere.
“Damn it!” she muttered.
She bent immediately, grabbing for the papers, and he chased after one that had been caught by the wind, taking it several feet away.
“I’ll get them,” she called. “Please don’t trouble yourself.”
He captured the drawing and picked it up, turning back to her.
“It’s no trouble at all. I’m sorry if I startled you.”
She let out a shaky laugh as she extended her hand for the paper. “You did that for sure.”
He glanced down, taking in the drawing as he started to hand it over to her and then blinked in surprise when he saw himself on the paper.
“What the hell?” he murmured, ignoring her hasty grab for the drawing.
“Please just give it back,” she said, her voice soft and urgent.
She sounded scared, like he was going to freak out, but he was more mesmerized by the small expanse of her side that had been bared by the loose-fitting top when she’d reached for the paper.
On her right side he’d glimpsed a tattoo that was vibrant and colorful. Like her. The brief glimpse he’d gotten told him it was flowery, almost like a vine, and that it likely extended a hell of a lot farther up or down her body. Maybe both. He wished like hell he could see more of it, but she let her arm drop and the hem of her shirt settled back to the waistband of that full skirt, depriving him of further view.
“Why were you drawing me?” he asked curiously.
Color invaded her cheeks, making her skin rosy. She had fair skin, just barely kissed by the sun, but with her hair and those gorgeous aquamarine eyes, it looked beautiful. She was beautiful. And evidently very talented.
She’d drawn him perfectly. He’d had no difficulty in recognizing himself in the pencil drawing. His thoughtful expression, the distant look in his eyes. She’d drawn him as he’d stood there, hands shoved into his pockets. That moment of self-reflection, and clearly that was evident in the drawing. It made him feel awkwardly vulnerable that a complete stranger had been able to capture his mood in just a few moments. That she’d seen him in that vulnerable moment and had picked up on what he hid from everyone else in the world.
“It was just an impulse,” she defended. “I draw a lot of people. Things. Whatever captures my attention.”
He smiled, never dropping his gaze from hers. Her eyes were so expressive, capable of swallowing a man whole. And that damn choker stared back at him, taunting him with the possibilities.
“So you’re saying I caught your attention.”
She flushed again. It was a guilty flush, but also one that was telling. She was checking him out every bit as much as he was checking her out. Perhaps more subtly, but then subtlety had never been one of his strong points.
“You seemed out of place,” she blurted. “You have very strong features. I was itching to get them down on paper. You have an interesting face and it was obvious you had a lot on your mind. I find people are a lot more open when they think no one is watching them. If you’d been posing, the picture wouldn’t have been the same.”
“It’s very good,” he said slowly as he dropped his gaze to once more take in the drawing. “You have a lot of talent.”
“Can I have it back now?” she asked. “I’m late.”
He looked back up, lifting his eyebrow in question. “You didn’t appear to be leaving until you saw me coming toward you.”
“That was several minutes ago, and I wasn’t late then. Now I am.”
“What are you late for?”
Her brows drew together in consternation and then her eyes flashed in annoyance. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
“Ash,” he said at her pause at the end. “My name is Ash.”
She nodded but didn’t say his name. And right then he’d have given anything to hear his name on her lips.
He reached forward, brushing his fingers over the collar at her throat. “This have anything to do with what you’re late for?”
She took a step back, her frown deepening.
“Your Dom waiting for you?”
Her eyes widened and her fingers automatically went to the collar where his fingers had been just seconds before.
“What’s your name?” he asked, when she remained silent. “I gave you mine. The polite thing to do is return the favor.”
“Josie,” she said barely above a whisper. “Josie Carlysle.”
“And who owns you, Josie?”
Her eyes narrowed then and she clutched her bag, shoving the remainder of her pencils into it. “Nobody owns me.”
“Then did I misunderstand the significance of that collar you’re wearing?”
Her fingers brushed over it again, and it made him itchy. He wanted to remove it. It wasn’t right for her. A collar should be carefully chosen for a submissive. Something that matched her personality. Something made especially for her. And not just any woman.
“You didn’t misunderstand,” she said in a husky voice that sent shivers down his spine. Her voice alone would seduce a man in a matter of seconds. “But nobody owns me, Ash.”
And there it was. His name on her lips. It hit him deep, filling him with inexplicable satisfaction. He wanted to hear it again. When he was pleasuring her. When he had his hands and mouth on her body, drawing whispery sighs of contentment from her.
He lifted one eyebrow. “Then do you misunderstand the significance of that collar?”
She laughed. “No, but he doesn’t own me. Nobody owns me. It was a gift. One I choose to wear. Nothing more.”
He leaned in, and this time she didn’t back away. Her gaze fixed on him, curiosity gleaming, and even anticipation. She felt it too. That magnetic pull between them. She’d have to be blind and in denial not to feel it.
“If you wore my collar, you’d damn well know you belonged to me,” he growled. “Furthermore, you wouldn’t regret for a moment that you gave yourself wholly to me. If you were in my care, you’d definitely belong to me. There’d be no question. And you wouldn’t hesitate when asked who your dominant was. Nor would you say it was a gift like it was nothing more than a piece of jewelry thoughtlessly chosen on a whim. It would mean something, Josie. It would mean fucking everything, and you’d know that.”
Her eyes widened and then she laughed again, her eyes twinkling. “Then it’s too bad I don’t belong to you.”
With that she turned and hurried away, bag over her shoulder and him still standing there holding the drawing she’d done of him.
He watched as she walked away from him, hair sliding down her back and lifting in the wind, a glimpse of the flip-flops and the ankle bracelet that tinkled softly when she moved. Then he glanced down at the drawing in his hand.
“Too bad indeed,” he murmured.
Ash sat in his office, door closed, brooding over the report in front of him. It wasn’t a business file. No financial chart. No email he had to respond to. It was a file on one Josie Carlysle.
He’d acted quickly, calling in a favor from the same agency he’d used to do a background check on Bethany, which had solidly pissed Jace off at the time. They were good, and, more importantly, they were fast.
After his meeting with Josie in the park, he hadn’t been able to shake her from his mind. Hadn’t been able to shake his fixation with her, and he wasn’t even sure what he’d call it, other than he was acting a lot like Jace had when he’d first met Bethany, and Ash had been quick to call his friend on the stupidity and rashness of his actions then. What would Jace think if he knew that Ash was basically stalking Josie?
Jace would think he’d lost his damn mind. Just as Ash had thought Jace had lost his—and well, he had—over Bethany.
According to his report, Josie was twenty-eight. An art grad who lived in a basement studio apartment in a brownstone on the Upper East Side. The apartment was leased to her. Not another man. In fact there was little evidence in the report of this other man’s presence, other than him arriving to pick her up at different intervals. The report only spanned a few days, since it had only been since then that Ash had met Josie and immediately requested the information.
More often than not, she spent time in the park, drawing or painting. Some of her work was displayed in a small art gallery on Madison, but nothing had sold, at least in the amount of time since Ash had someone keeping an eye on her. She also designed funky jewelry and had a website and an online shop where she took orders for some of her handmade stuff.
From all appearances, she was a free spirit. No regular work hours. No regular schedule at all. She came and went seemingly on a whim. Though it had only been a few days, it seemed that she was also a loner. His guy hadn’t spotted her with anyone other than the man Ash assumed was her Dom.
It didn’t make sense to him. If Josie was his, he damn sure wouldn’t spend so little time with her, nor would she be alone so much. It appeared to him that Josie was an itch this guy was scratching and that either he, or she, didn’t take the relationship that seriously.
Was it all a game?
Not that Ash had anything against people doing whatever the fuck they wanted, but in his world, submission wasn’t a game. It was everything. He didn’t play games. Didn’t have time for them, and they just pissed him off. If a woman wasn’t into it with him, then he was out. If she wanted a fucking game where she played at being submissive, complete with cute role-playing and yanking his chain to earn a punishment, he cut her loose quick.
But then most of the women he’d fucked, he’d fucked with Jace. They had their rules. The women were clued in from the start. Bethany had been a complete game changer, and a complete rule breaker. Jace hadn’t wanted to share, and Ash got that. He hadn’t at first, but he got it now. But it didn’t mean that he didn’t miss that connection with his best friend.
On the other hand, with Jace out of the way, Ash was solely in control. He didn’t have to worry about tripping over his best friend, pissing him off, or playing by anyone else’s rules but his own.
That appealed to him. It appealed a damn lot. He’d always known that people misunderstood his personality. Looking at the three of them, Gabe, Jace and Ash, people assumed Ash was the easygoing one. The “I don’t give a fuck” kind. Laid-back. Maybe even a pushover.
They were all wrong.
Of any of them, he was the most intense, and he knew that about himself. He’d held back when he and Jace were with the same woman, because he knew he’d take it a hell of a lot further than Jace ever would. So he played it Jace’s way and held that part of himself in check. The part that would take over completely. And, well, there hadn’t ever been a woman who tempted him to let that part of himself go.
And it was stupid. He didn’t know Josie. He knew about her, yeah. The report was detailed. But he didn’t know her. Didn’t know if she’d even respond to what Ash would give her. What he would take.
That was the biggie. What he would take. Because he’d take a lot. He’d give a lot, but his demands would seem extreme even to someone well-versed in the lifestyle he lived.
He glanced down at the report again, pondering his next move. He already had a man on her. The idea of her being alone so much bothered him. Not that he didn’t think it was perfectly okay for a woman to do whatever the hell she wanted in the city. But it bothered him for Josie. A lot. Would her supposed Dom even have a fucking clue where she was during the day? Did he give her protection? Or did he just hook up with her when he wanted someone to fuck?
A low growl rumbled in his throat and he swallowed it back. He needed to calm the fuck down and get his shit together. This woman was nothing to him. But even as he thought it, he knew he was a damn liar. She was something. He just wasn’t sure what yet.
His cell phone rang, and he looked down, frowning when he saw the contact. It was the man he had watching Josie.
“Ash,” he answered shortly.
“Mr. McIntyre, this is Johnny. Just wanted to let you know what I just observed. With what you told me, I figured you’d want to know what’s going down.”
Ash sat up in his chair, his frown deepening. “What’s wrong? Is she hurt?”
“No, sir. She just came out of a pawnshop. She sold some jewelry. I was in the shop, heard her talking to the pawnbroker. Said she needed the cash to make rent. He asked her if she wanted to sell it or pawn it and she said sell because she doubted she’d have the money to get it back unless something changed. Didn’t say what that change would be, but thought you’d want to know what she did.”
Anger splintered his mind. What the fuck was Josie doing hocking jewelry in a goddamn pawnshop? If she needed cash, then why the hell wasn’t her Dom providing for her? Why wasn’t he protecting her better? The hell she’d be in a fucking pawnshop if she belonged to him.