“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 fucking 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.”
“O-of c-course,” the man stammered out. “I’ll arrange it however you like. She won’t know anything other than someone took a liking to her work and wanted everything I had. She’ll be thrilled. I, of course, will tell her she is free to bring in anything else she has.”
Ash nodded. “Good. Then we understand one another.”
“Absolutely. Let me just get the painting in the back and bring it out. Would you like to take them all today or have me deliver them?”
“I’ll take the one with me,” Ash murmured, gesturing toward the first painting he’d seen on the wall. “The others you can have delivered to my apartment.”
The man nodded and then hurried to the back, returning a moment later with an unframed painting wrapped in a protective covering.
A moment later, Ash handed the dealer his credit card and watched as the purchases were totaled. He wasn’t sure what the breakdown on the commission was, but with what he paid, Josie should have enough to solve any money issues for the short term.
The long term? He wasn’t that worried about the long term, because while Josie had no clue of Ash’s intentions—yet—he very much intended that the long term would include him.
At ten minutes past eight, Ash walked into the private box where Gabe and Jace were already sitting, enjoying a drink. They looked up when he entered and Jace waved a greeting.
“What’s your poison tonight? Your usual?” Jace asked when Ash took a seat next to him.
A woman appeared wearing a sexy smile and propped her arm on Gabe’s shoulder.
“So sorry to hear you’re off the market,” she said in a flirty voice.
Gabe looked pointedly at her arm and when he didn’t say anything, she swiftly took it away and then turned to Ash.
“What can I get you?”
He wasn’t in a drinking mood, but he didn’t want to be a damper on his friend’s evening. And it was in fact their last evening as bachelors. Well, it wasn’t as if Jace and Ash were married, but Jace would be. It was the last evening with the three of them still single, and it signaled an end to nearly twenty years of living free and playing hard.
His friends would argue that they weren’t free or playing hard. He was sure they were doing both just fine. Mia and Bethany weren’t any hardship for the men, and they certainly had no hesitations about embracing a permanent relationship.
“Scotch,” Ash finally said.
“Was it that hard of a decision?” Jace drawled.
Ash grinned, though it felt more like a grimace. A few moments later, the waitress returned with Ash’s drink and he held it up to his two friends.
“Here’s to Gabe, the first to take the plunge. Well, the first and the second,” Ash amended, referring to the fact that Gabe had been married once before. He tended to forget that and he was sure Gabe would prefer it that way as well. The marriage hadn’t lasted that long and it hadn’t ended well.
Predictably, Gabe scowled, though he did raise his glass.
“Mia is the only one that counts,” Gabe said.
Jace nodded. “Definite upgrade from Lisa. You did good.”
“Says the woman’s brother,” Ash snorted.
Jace lifted an eyebrow in Ash’s direction. “You saying Mia’s not a good choice?”
“As if. Don’t give Gabe any reason to want to kick my ass. Don’t want the man wearing a black eye for his big day tomorrow.”
Gabe snorted. “Who the hell says it’ll be me wearing the black eye? I’ll wipe the floor with you, asshole.”
Ash rolled his eyes and sank back into the comfortable chair. “So is this what it’s come down to for us? Sitting around like old farts the night before the wedding?”
“Yeah, well, you don’t have a woman to go home to and explain anything wilder,” Jace said dryly. “Mia and Bethany would both have our asses if we had anything resembling a true bachelor party. So yeah, this is as good as it gets. Sorry.”
“We’re getting too old for that shit anyway,” Gabe muttered. “Acting like a bunch of frat boys with their first piece of ass isn’t my idea of a good time anymore.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Jace said.
“Well, when you put it that way so will I,” Ash added. “Damn, were we ever that bad?”
Gabe laughed. “We were a bit more discerning, but yeah, you can’t tell me you don’t remember our days in college. Lots of drinking and sex. Not necessarily in that order.”
“At least I remember all the women I slept with,” Jace said.
“That’s because you have Ash to remind you,” Gabe shot back. “I don’t tag team so I don’t have someone to remind me of everyone I fucked because I wasn’t fucking them with best friends.”
“Now there’s an image,” Ash drawled. “That’s probably the only thing we never tried. A foursome.”
Jace laughed. Even Gabe joined in as they continued to give each other shit.
Several drinks later, Gabe kept checking his watch and it amused Ash. The man couldn’t wait to get home to Mia. Forgoing any of the traditions of not seeing the bride the night before or day of, Gabe would be going to bed with Mia, waking up with her in the morning and probably make her late for the ceremony by getting a head start on the honeymoon.
“Don’t let us keep you,” Ash said dryly.
Gabe’s head yanked up, guilt flashing in his eyes as Jace laughed.
“How long you and Mia going to be gone on your honeymoon?” Jace asked. “You never said and I didn’t see that you’d cleared your calendar at work.”
Gabe’s expression darkened. “Not working for two weeks. Not even bringing my phone or laptop with me. So if the company goes to shit in my absence, I’m not going to be pleased.”
“Fuck you,” Ash muttered. “Jace and I do all the work anyway. You just sit back and obsess.”
“Surprised you’re only going to be gone for two weeks,” Jace said. “I figured you’d go off and we wouldn’t see you for a month at least.”
“Can’t say I’m not tempted. But for now, two weeks will do. I plan to be taking a lot more vacation from now on, though. There’s a lot of places Mia wants to see and I’m going to make that happen for her.”
“You deserve it, man,” Ash said sincerely. “You’ve worked your ass off. Already had one bad marriage. You’ve got a good woman now and more money than you’ll ever spend. Time to go out and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Make sure you don’t fuck it up with Mia. She’ll love you forever, which is more than I can say for your bitch of an ex.”
“Let’s not ruin my night by discussing my ex,” Gabe growled.
“Any plans for babies yet?” Jace asked. “Has she talked you around on that?”
“She doesn’t have to persuade me,” Gabe said with a shrug. “I’m not getting any younger. My only concern was whether she was ready for children yet. She’s still young. Lot of years ahead of her. I’d wait if that’s what would make her happy, but she insists she wants a big family, the sooner the better.”
“In other words, you’re doing your best to knock her up as soon as possible,” Ash drawled.
Gabe tipped his glass in Ash’s direction and Jace winced. He visibly shuddered and then took a long swallow of his drink.
“We need to stop now. This is my sister we’re talking about. Now I’m going to have to go home and bleach my eyeballs over the images you’re invoking.”
Gabe rolled his eyes and Ash chuckled. Then Gabe sobered and stared between Jace and Ash.
“Glad to have you both at my back. Means a lot to Mia that you’ll be there tomorrow, but it means even more to me. We’ve been friends a hell of a lot of years. There’s no one else I care about having there. Wouldn’t give a shit if no one but you and Mia were there. And Bethany, of course.”
“Very eloquent speech there, man,” Jace said, amusement thick in his voice.
“Meant it,” Gabe said simply.
Ash extended his arm with a closed fist to bump Gabe’s. “Congrats, man. I’m happy for you. Take care of Mia and you’ll never have to worry about Jace and I having your back.”
“So what was up your ass earlier?” Gabe asked.
Ash blinked, realizing Gabe was talking to him. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair as Jace turned his attention to Ash as well.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just had shit to do.”
“You looked pretty intense when you damn near knocked me over coming out of your office,” Gabe said. “Anything I should know about before I make myself unavailable for two weeks?”
“It had nothing to do with business,” Ash said in an even tone. “And that’s all you need to worry about.”
“Fuck,” Jace muttered. “Is it your goddamn family again? Are they still jacking you around? Thought you told them to fuck off for good after the dinner with the old man.”
Ash shook his head. “Haven’t spoken to any of them in weeks. I saw the old man. Did my good deed. Played the dutiful grandson. Then told my parents to fuck off.”
Gabe chuckled. “Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that.”
Jace was still scowling. Ash appreciated the fact that his friends got so pissed off on his behalf when his family started their crap. Gabe and Jace had always had his back when it came to his family, but more recently, he’d not wanted them involved. He didn’t want Mia or Bethany exposed to his family’s venom. Especially Bethany, who was a hell of a lot more vulnerable and would have been an instant target for their vitriol.
“You sure they’re not giving you shit?” Jace demanded. “Gabe will be out of town on his honeymoon, but Bethany and I are here. You know we’ll stand with you.”
“I’m a grown boy now,” Ash drawled. “I can stand up to mommy and daddy without help. But I appreciate it. And no, they aren’t giving me shit. They’ve been suspiciously quiet. I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“Well, if everything’s okay, and you two are going to be okay running the ship without me for the next two weeks, I’m heading home to Mia. Sooner this night is over with, the sooner she’s my wife and the sooner we take off on that honeymoon,” Gabe said.
“Speaking of running the ship,” Ash cut in before everyone rose to go their separate ways. “You never did say why we dropped Charles Willis like a hot potato. With him out and losing the other two investors, we barely managed to salvage the Paris deal. Anything you haven’t shared with us?”
Gabe’s expression became shuttered, his lips drawn into a tight line. Jace looked questioningly at Gabe as well. All Gabe had shared at the time was that Willis was out and then the other two dropped without explanation as well, one of whom was a wealthy Texan who they couldn’t afford to lose. But with the scramble to replace those investors, neither Jace nor Ash had asked questions. They’d knuckled down, did what had to be done to get back on track.
“He wasn’t right for the job,” Gabe said darkly. “I knew it in Paris when we met. Knew I wouldn’t work with him, no matter his bid. Business decision. It was what was best for the company. My call. I know you’re my partners, but we didn’t have time to get into the whys and wherefores. We needed to move to get the situation in hand and the plans back on track.”
Jace frowned. It was evident he didn’t quite swallow Gabe’s explanation. It didn’t wash with Ash either, but Gabe’s face was implacable. And him saying it was a business decision was bullshit. It was personal. Ash didn’t know what the hell had gone on in Paris, but whatever it was had turned Gabe solidly against Charles Willis. The man had dropped off the face of the earth after being cut loose from HCM’s operations.
Ash shrugged. All he cared was that they’d salvaged the whole bloody mess. He wasn’t going to get into what had gotten Gabe’s underwear in a knot over the whole thing. It was behind them. No harm, no foul.
“Now if we’re done, I’d really like to get home to my future wife,” Gabe drawled.
Gabe rose and Jace followed suit. Christ, they really were getting old. It wasn’t even ten yet, and they were already folding up the tent for the night and schlepping home. But then, they had women to go home to. In their position, he wouldn’t be so eager to spend a night out with friends either.
He walked out with them and watched as Gabe got into his car. Jace turned to Ash. “Want a ride back to your place or is your driver on standby?”
Ash hesitated. He wasn’t in the mood to talk, and, no doubt, after Gabe’s questions, Jace’s curiosity would be piqued. But if he refused the ride, Jace would be even more convinced that something was bugging him. It would be better if Ash just sucked it up and took the ride.
“How’s Bethany doing?” Ash asked, when they’d gotten in. He figured if he got Jace talking about Bethany, he wouldn’t pry into Ash’s business.
Jace’s expression eased into a smile. “She’s doing good. Excited about going to school.”
“What’s the latest on Kingston? He still being a dumbass?”
Jack Kingston was Bethany’s foster brother. He was also the man who damn near killed Bethany and was currently in rehab. Personally Ash thought Jace had gone far too easy on the other man. Ash would have beat the shit out of him and then nailed his ass to the wall, but in an effort not to hurt Bethany any more than she already had been, Jace had helped Jack get a plea bargain that included rehab and probation.
“We don’t hear from him, and I’m good with that,” Jace said.
Ash arched an eyebrow. “But is Bethany good with it?”
Jace sighed. “She has good days and bad. When I can keep her focused on me and us, things are good. When she has time to think, she worries. She knows he fucked up, and she hasn’t gotten over that. I doubt she ever will. But she still loves him and is sick over what he’s done.”
“That sucks,” Ash murmured.
They pulled up to Ash’s building, and Ash was relieved that Jace hadn’t had time to pry into his head. Because he would. Just like Ash would do to him if he sensed something off about Jace. But knowing he’d do the same didn’t mean he was lining up to have Jace do it to him. It made him a flaming hypocrite, but oh well.
“See you tomorrow, then?” Jace asked as Ash started out of the car.
“Yeah, wouldn’t miss it. You walking Mia down the aisle?”
Jace’s face softened. “Yeah.”
“Shouldn’t we have had a rehearsal or some shit like that?” Ash asked.
Granted, his experiences with weddings had been confined to Gabe’s first, but rehearsals were normal for weddings the scale of Gabe’s and Mia’s, surely.