Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
“Hi, excuse me?”
Xara looked back over her shoulder to find a man standing several paces behind her in line, both his hands shoved inside his pockets.
“Are you a new parent here at this school?” he asked. “I haven’t seen your face before.”
His hair, which he’d pulled back into a ponytail, gleamed reddish-gold in the afternoon sun. The frigid afternoon air created a faint crimson blush that stretched from one of his cheekbones to the other, both cheeks lightly brushed with coarse facial hair. He had a Slavic, Eastern European accent, but it was nowhere near as pronounced as Giorgio’s.
“No, I’m not a parent,” she said. And with how much “trying” she and Mike had been doing lately, on top of all the sex they already had, the fact that she wasn’t pregnant yet was a miracle.
Although the man’s focus was aimed in her direction, he wasn’t looking at her directly; he seemed to be eyeing the jeweled stud in her nose. A designer wool coat fell past his knees, a brand she easily recognized, having worked inside the fashion industry since she was nineteen. That particular label retailed at close to eight grand, which made sense. After Thandie’s abduction, Ari and Julien built a new house in Arlington, Virginia. Before the paint on the house dried, they’d moved Thandie to a different, more exclusive school. A different, more exclusive, more expensive school—the Buckingham Academy of Discovery.
The blond-haired stranger didn’t spare a glance at the modern, red-brick building as he passed several people in line to stand next to her. No one complained, and these looked like people who otherwise complained.
Several yards away, a couple of men wearing sunglasses and suits stared in their direction, but they weren’t the men from Thandie’s protective detail. Ari had left her to keep their place in line to do a quick check-in with Thandie’s protective detail.
The stranger tore his gaze from her nose ring and looked into her eyes, his so pale blue she could see her reflection in his irises. He pulled in a deep breath, as though gearing up to ask another question, but stopped short when Ari walked up.
“Ari,” he said, smile wrinkling the corners of his eyes. “It’s nice to see you.”
Ari returned the greeting with a smile of her own. “Hey, Mos. How’s it going?”
“As you can see, I’m still here.”
Ari extended a hand in his direction. “Xar, this is Mosvar, Thandie’s friend’s uncle. Mos, this is one of my best friends, Xara.”
They exchanged a quick handshake, their leather gloves sticking together and then tearing apart like velcro.
“He’s still here because of his niece,” Ari explained.
“Three times.” He held up three gloved fingers. “Three times, I was ready to go home, but Yaya, she asks me to stay. Now, I’ve been here so long that it’s her birthday, and I can’t leave before her birthday.”
Xara laughed. “They’re good at that, aren’t they?”
He raised both brows, which were only slightly darker than the hair on his head, and a tiny smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
“So, where’s home?”
“Chechnya,” he said. “The Chechen Republic, if you would like me to be specific.”
“And how have you been liking it here? I mean, aside from ‘prisoner-by-niece.’”
The smile grew, and he huffed out a quiet laugh. “Prisoner by niece? That is very funny. And…it’s been all right. It’s been mostly business. My brother, he is a diplomat.”
Which would explain the Secret Service-looking bodyguards and the eight-thousand-dollar coat.
“If your brother’s a diplomat,” she tipped her chin at him, “that must make you a, what? A prince?”
A deep laugh rumbled from his chest. “A prince?”
“You’ve got that whole,” she motioned to his face, “fairy-tale prince thing going on.”
“I told him the same thing when we first met,” Ari chimed in. “He pretends not to see it, though.”
The crimson on his face deepened. “This is the most fun I’ve had with Americans, I think.”
Ari raised an index finger. “Technically, I’m Aussie.”
He rolled his eyes. “Yes, how could I forget? You have never mentioned it.”
Ari, grinning, laid her fingers on Xara’s forearm. “They’re releasing the first graders. I’ll be right back.”
“Not a prince,” Mosvar went on, staring at Ari’s back, brows slightly narrowed. “Is there a name in America for ‘the shame of the family’?”
“Disgrace,” Xara offered.
“Then that is my job.”
Mike had accused her, plenty of times, of being too friendly with strangers, but she was from Kentucky. They now lived in Texas. Southern hospitality dwelled inside her, seated up next to her DNA molecules. Plus, she knew the feeling of not being good enough.
“Don’t say that,” she gently scolded. “My mother had little to no faith in me for most of my life. And, to be honest, it’s only recently that we’ve been able to have some semblance of a healthy relationship. She was convinced I wouldn’t make anything of myself, but I proved her wrong. She also said my high school boyfriend would use me up and leave me on my ass, but we’re still together.”
“Married?” he asked.
“Yes. Happily, too. So, you see, our families can project, but they can’t predict.”
He snapped his fingers, and one of the suited men materialized next to him. They exchanged a couple of words, and after a heavy, shoulder-sagging sigh, the man headed toward the school.
“You’ll be here the rest of the week, Xara?”
She started to respond, but her name resounded across the school grounds. Had there been birds around, the entire flock would have risen and flown away like an omen in a sci-fi thriller.
She barely had the chance to crouch before Thandie threw herself into her arms, knocking her flat on her behind on the cold concrete. Thandie then leaned back and planted a loud kiss on her cheek.
Xara laughed and slid her thumb over Thandie’s quickly reddening nose. “Hi, sweetheart.”
“I didn’t know you were coming, Auntie,” Thandie said, voice marginally quieter than her shriek only moments ago. “Are you staying for my birthday?”
“For your birthday and a little longer after that. I’m very happy to see you, sweetheart. I’ve missed you so much.”
“I missed you too.”
Mosvar moved to stand in front of her and held out a hand. She grabbed it and pulled herself up. The bodyguard he’d sent ahead had returned, and a little blonde girl thrashed in the bodyguard’s grasp.
“We’ll be seeing you tomorrow, Mos?” Ari asked, taking one of Thandie’s hands in hers. Thandie reached out, and Xara took the other.
Xara noticed him glance at her nose ring before lifting his gaze to meet hers. Although he responded to Ari, he didn’t look away from her, and she could admit that in another life, she would give a man like this a chance. He was attractive and seemed easy to talk to. In fact, he was so easy to talk to it made her wonder whether his family was accurate, and he hid a dark side that had warranted labeling him as a disgrace.
“I will be here until after Thandie’s party as I will be escorting Yaya,” he said. “Hopefully, after that, I will be able to go back home.”
She and Ari said their goodbyes and headed to Ari’s SUV. Mosvar and the bodyguard, and a kicking and screaming Yaya, walked in the opposite direction.
Xara finished the last strap on Thandie’s booster seat, which Thandie had requested she strap her into, and then took a step back. “Ari, how long did it take you and Julien to…learn how to set up a car seat?”
“Honestly?” Ari let out a small laugh. “We weren’t even trying when we…learned how to attach a car seat.”
Thandie, head down, rummaged through her backpack. “Mommy, you don’t have to do the secret-talking thing,” she said. “I know you and Auntie are talking about babies.”
Xara covered a giggle with her palm.
Shaking her head, Ari reached into her purse and pulled out a snack container filled with pretzels, grapes, and cubes of cheese. She loosened the cover and handed it to Thandie, who dropped her backpack to the floor and wasted no time biting down on a pretzel.
They entered the car and joined the line of other luxury vehicles waiting to be cleared to exit the property.
“See that black SUV?” Ari pointed to a shiny Escalade two cars ahead of them. “That’s Mosvar and Yaya. I swear, that family has at least seven different cars they’ve rotated to pick Yaya up since the start of the school year.”
“Seven? But it’s only been like two months. I’m guessing then that Mosvar’s brother really is a diplomat of some sort?”
“Technically, but because I’m married to Julien Hunter, I know the Sarayev name carries weight on their side of the globe in areas outside of politics.”
“Are they D-A-N-G-E—”
“I can spell too, Auntie!” Thandie cut in. “You’re spelling dangerous.”
“As far as he’s found, they’re not a threat to us,” Ari added. “But you know how things have been with all the guys.”
They’d been more on edge.
In Mike, the change had been happening for the last couple of years. Before, he’d been mostly plagued by post-traumatic stress. The nights when he could sleep, it was fitful rest on account of him repeatedly reliving their assignments, giving them more somber endings when the real outcomes were dark enough themselves.
Over time, the stress changed. He went from enduring the suffering to wanting to cause suffering. The pain in his eyes remained, but it had morphed into something that, on occasion, she feared. Mike hurting her wasn’t something she ever worried about, but she was afraid of what that kind of pain did to him on the inside.
“Mommy, do I really have to go to Yaya’s party?” Thandie asked, voice distorted by a cheek full of cheese.
“You want her to come to yours, right?” Ari asked.
“But she only invited me from school and nobody else. That’s weird.”
“What if I come with you?” Xara offered.
Julien and Ari had been so busy organizing Thandie’s party, which was planned for the week after Yaya’s, that Ari had expressed being concerned they wouldn’t get it all done. Anything she could do to help while she was there, she was willing to do. Officially, she’d told her assistant only to contact her for emergencies. As the owner and CEO of her own corporation, it wasn’t like she couldn’t take time off whenever she wanted to.
“That makes me feel better, Auntie. Sometimes, Yaya is mean.”
Ari glanced in the rearview mirror. “Mean? Mean how, baby?”
Thandie, mouth working as she chewed, shook her head and stared out of the window.