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 f**king 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 f**k 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 f**king 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 f**ked 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 f**king 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 f**k 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 f**k 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 f**king pawnshop if she belonged to him.
“Buy it,” Ash clipped out. “Buy every piece. I don’t care what it costs. And you bring it to me.”
“Yes, sir,” Johnny said.
Ash hung up and then leaned back in his chair, his mind working furiously. Then he rose abruptly, his phone to his ear calling for his driver to meet him in front of the office building.
He nearly ran over Gabe in the hallway.
“Ash, you got a second?” Gabe called when Ash continued down the hall.
“Not now,” Ash ground out. “Got shit to do. I’ll tag you later, okay?”
Ash stopped, impatience simmering as he turned to look at his friend. Gabe’s brows were drawn together in concentration and concern gleamed in his eyes.
Ash nodded. “Yeah, fine. Look, I’ve got to run. I’ll catch up later.”
Gabe nodded, but there was doubt in his eyes. No way Ash was sharing what was on his mind. Gabe had enough to keep him occupied with his wedding. Shit, that was tomorrow. Which meant Gabe probably wanted to talk shit about the wedding and the ceremony.
Ash stopped at the very end of the hall and called back to Gabe.
“Everything okay with the wedding? Mia okay? You need anything?”
Gabe paused at his office door and smiled. “Everything’s fine. Or at least it will be when the f**king ceremony is done and she’s mine. We still on for tonight? Jace is determined to throw me a bachelor party, which is not making Mia happy. I doubt Bethany is any happier, but he swears it’s just drinks at Rick’s and nothing that will piss either woman off.”
Damn it. Ash had forgotten about it all. In his preoccupation with Josie he’d put the wedding and the night out with Gabe and Jace solidly out of his mind.
“Yeah, I’ll be there. Eight, right? I’ll just meet you and Jace there.”
Gabe nodded. “Okay, see you then. Hope everything works out.”
Gabe was fishing again, but Ash ignored him and turned for the elevator. He didn’t have much time if he was going to make it to the art gallery before it closed.
• • •
Ash walked into the small gallery and quickly glanced around. It was apparent that this was a small dealer with not a lot of well-known artists displayed. He probably dealt with independent artists. Those yet to be discovered. Those displaying in hopes of being discovered.
His eyes settled immediately on a painting on the wall, and he knew without confirming that it was one of Josie’s works. It just looked like her. Bright. Vibrant. Carefree. He felt her when he looked at the painting. Saw her, remembered the way she smelled and when she’d smiled, those ocean eyes he could drown in. Yeah, it was definitely hers. He wasn’t wrong about this.
“Can I help you?”
Ash turned to see an older man smiling at him. He was dressed in a worn suit with scuffed shoes and wore glasses that drew attention to the lines in his forehead and around his eyes.
“Josie Carlysle,” Ash said bluntly. “You display her work here?”
The man looked surprised but then smiled again and turned, gesturing toward the wall. “Yes, I do. She’s good. Not focused though. I think it’s why she hasn’t caught on. She’s too all over the place and her style hasn’t emerged yet. One that’s identifiable, if you understand my meaning.”
“No, I don’t,” Ash said impatiently. “I like it. I like her work. Is that all you have, there on the wall?”
The man’s eyebrows went up. “No. Not at all. I have several pieces of hers. I only take a few at a time. I have to utilize the space to display what sells, and I’ve only sold one or two of her pieces, regrettably. I’ve actually cut back on the work of hers I display, just because it isn’t moving well.”
“I want them all.”
The surprise was still evident in the man’s face but he hurried immediately to the wall to take down the painting that had first caught Ash’s attention. It was framed. Not well, and he’d definitely replace the frame with something more worthy of her talent. But first he had to buy up all her work and let the man know that anything else that Josie brought in was his.
After a few minutes, the man had taken down the last painting and started toward the desk in front of the gallery. Then he paused and turned, a thoughtful look on his face.
“I have one more. In the back. She just brought it in two days ago. I didn’t have the space to hang it, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her no. Not when I’d already told her I wouldn’t be able to take anything else until I sold something.”
“I want it too,” Ash clipped out.
Ash nodded. “If she did it, I want it. I want every piece of hers you have.”
The man’s expression brightened. “Well, then. Perfect. She’ll be thrilled! I can’t wait to tell her.”
Ash held up his hand, halting the man before he went to the back to retrieve the painting.
“You tell her whatever you want, but you do not give her my name or any information about me. I want complete anonymity or the deal is off. Understand? Furthermore, I’m going to leave you my card. If she brings in anything else, you call me. I want whatever she brings in. I’ll pay you double for everything you currently have as long as you make sure she gets her cut. And I will find out if you stiffed her, so don’t even think about it. But that extra money also ensures I get first option on whatever else she brings you—and I will buy whatever she brings—so it would be in your best interest to let her bring in whatever the hell she wants.”