Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
Read Episode 003 here.
Xara didn’t lift her head, not when the door opened and Mike’s familiar footfalls landed on the wooden floors of their guest suite at Julien and Ari’s. She squeezed her eyes shut so she wouldn’t see him walk to the bathroom, and she lay awake with her face to the ceiling as she listened to the shower spray for much longer than usual.
They’d taken a bloody shower together once before at a hotel in Texas. The crimson fluid mixing with the warm water, lightening as it maneuvered down the drain, still came to her in her dreams from time to time. It was why she could see it now, Mike letting his head hang, dark hair falling in front of his face, and blood spattering the shower floor. Between the six men, she wondered how much blood these pipes had seen, both here and at their own houses.
According to Ari, Julien was showing signs of major PTSD both from missions and nearly having lost their daughter. Tayler said Gage often got caught up in the telling “thousand-yard stare,” sometimes in the middle of a conversation. After missions, Dez didn’t speak for over a week, going almost completely nonverbal. Ayesha had only just begun to stabilize Joel, who’d relied a lot on his relationship to center him when he returned home, so it crushed him when it was no longer something he could turn to.
Mike fought a war within himself each day. The moments where he was her happy Mike, her smiling and playful and lovable Mike were being eclipsed by the one who took hour-long showers, and the one who, after those showers, climbed into bed and made no move to touch her. She would have to go to him, and he would flinch with the first contact. It would take a few moments for him to relax and for his muscles to calm long enough for her to be allowed to hold him.
This career was taking its toll.
That toll was now accelerated because they had people they loved who could die because of it.
The shower turned off. She rolled onto her side, making sure to continue to avoid looking at him as he emerged from the bathroom. He padded naked to the dresser, pulled out a pair of boxers, slipped them on, and climbed into bed.
An ocean lay between them.
“Mike.” She pretended to yawn. “I’m so glad you’re back, baby.”
He turned his head to look at her. “You weren’t sleeping.”
In her head it was automatic, counting down how long it had been since he slipped into bed. Timing when it should be okay to reach out to him. His body tipped the edge of the mattress and, from the outside looking in, it was like they were having an argument. For her, it was like he was afraid even accidentally brushing her skin would dirty her somehow.
“Are you okay, babe?” she asked.
He searched her face, blinking slowly. “I don’t know anymore.”
“You didn’t have to—“
“I had no other choice.”
She begged to differ. He’d had the choice to leave the situation alone, but there was something in his tone. It was like he knew, logically, he did have that choice, but his mind had left him no other options. The solution to every affront, every infringement, every time he felt like a boundary had been crossed too close to home, was death.
Was it naive of her to think it wouldn’t have come to this?
She’d considered what this lifestyle could do to his physical, mental, and emotional state, but she’d stopped at could, too afraid to cross over into would.
“I don’t know how they do it,” he said. “The kids, the birthday parties, the birthday cake. Normal shit. What do I say if my kid asks me to come to career day at school? Do I show up to their first-grade class like, ‘Hi, I’m Mike, Jia’s dad, and I’m a killer’?”
She smiled. “Jia? You’ve thought about names?”
“I, uh,” he looked away, “think about some. From time to time. I figured Jia’s a name that could be both American and Chinese.”
She hadn’t put much thought into naming their future children, primarily because it would only worsen the disappointment with each negative pregnancy test she took. She wasn’t ready to put a name to a face she might never see.
“Have you ever asked the guys how they do it?” she prodded.
Let their wives tell it, the guys were barely holding on.
“We don’t really talk about it,” he said. “There are times where it’s obvious we’re just over all this shit, but…that’s about it.”
She dared tracing the lines in his palm with her index finger. He flinched, but he didn’t pull away, so she crossed the seas that parted them.
He wrapped her up in his arms, and she felt like a helium balloon he’d just learned letting go could cause it to float away.
“I love you, Xar, but I don’t know if I…” He sighed. “I know I keep going back and forth with this, and I want a family, I just—“
“Don’t want this and a family,” she finished. “I understand.”
He pressed his forehead into her hair. “That doesn’t mean I don’t want our family. It means I’m finding a way out of this. We are. Our contracted period’s been up for a while and we’re supposed to be privatized, but it doesn’t feel like it. If I have to choose between you and this life, I’m choosing you every single time, Xara.”
He tilted her head up for their eyes to connect and then let his fingers linger, dragging his thumb along the scar that would have been made had Mosvar’s man carried out his task. Tayler had taken a look at her palm, and she’d only needed ointment, bandaging, and ice to help with the swelling.
“What did you do tonight, Mike?” She knew he wouldn’t tell her, but it didn’t hurt to ask.
He kept his gaze trained on the path his thumb drew. “Why go for your face?”
“To make it personal.” Mosvar had felt emasculated after she rebuffed him, so scarring her had been his choice of revenge. “If it had happened, every time I looked in the mirror and saw the scar, I’d think of him. He wanted a legacy, I guess.”
Mike’s pupils shrunk so small, his irises looked like smooth onyx.
Something bright caught her gaze, and she made the mistake of looking at it. She made the mistake of looking away from him, even when it looked like he wasn’t looking at her, to see what it was that had popped into her line of sight.
There, just behind the arc of the tip of his ear, was a spot of red.
The gasp was stolen from between her lips before she had a chance to tamp it down.
“What?” He seemed to find her again, gaze coming back into focus. “What’s wrong?”
He pushed up out of the bed, walked over to a large mirror on the wall, and tilted his head to get a better view of his ear. When he saw the spot, he drew his finger over it, looked down at the digit, and froze.
“Mike, it’s okay.”
His head fell, damp strands tumbling in clumps. “It’s not okay.”
“Really, it’s f—”
“It’s not fucking okay, Xara.”
Instinctively, she looked at the art on the walls, expecting to see them resettling after shaking from the level of anger and frustration in his voice.
He started pacing, fists clenching. “Shit. Shit…shit…shit.”
“Mike?” She slipped off the side of the bed and stood, but she didn’t move toward him. Not yet. “Mike, talk to me.”
He stopped pacing, but his fingers didn’t stop flexing. His chest pushed out too hard, too high. Even the powerful muscles in his thighs were tensed, creating deep paths in his golden skin. She didn’t know what was happening, but the wild look in his eyes made her stomach turn. It was like, all of a sudden, he had no idea where he was.
“I can’t forgive myself, Xara.” He closed his eyes, shook his head. “I tore you away from your family.”
“You saved me,” she corrected. “You helped me walk away. Things are better now.”
None of it penetrated.
“I married you under false pretenses. I nearly got you killed. What fucking audacity do I have to ask you to carry my child?”
She walked to the side of the bed closest to him.
“So, I was reading this book,” he said. “It was about all the things women go through when they’re pregnant. I don’t…I don’t really know much about pregnancy, so I got a book. Some books. I wanted to make sure that I could somewhat understand what you’d go through and know what I found? Women’s bodies change, Xara. Their brains can change, even their shoe size. Cesarians can be necessary and still fucking dangerous. They cut your shit to make more space for the baby to come out vaginally. And black women, Xar.” He looked up, but he still wasn’t looking at her. “Black mothers die. I’m asking you to risk dying to bring my child into this world, and what the fuck do I give you in return?”
He swatted at his ear, where the small drop of blood had been, like a bug had landed there.
She took a few steps closer to him, across the room. “I want a baby too, Mike,” she reminded him. “And yeah, there are a lot of risks involved, but there’s a big reward. Carrying a baby isn’t for everybody, and there are other ways to be a mother, but I want to have a child. With you. I’m in love with you, and I’ve been in love with you since I was seventeen years old.”
His eyes misted over. “Why?”
“How could you…” He swallowed. “Tell me what I’ve done to deserve all the love and forgiveness and…and, shit, grace you’ve given and shown me over the years.”
She walked until she reached him, wrapped her arms around him, and kissed his collarbone before pressing her cheek against it. “It’s simple, handsome,” she said. “You loved me even when I didn’t think there was anything about me worth loving.”
He kissed her forehead. “I don’t deserve you.”
A laugh caused his stomach to clench, and he wrapped her up for the second time that night, holding her close.
“You love a killer, Xara.”
“I know, but so do Tayler, Larke, Mo, and Ari. Plus, the other guys may not be taking this quite as well as you assume. You’re all only human. Most of you, anyhow.”
He lifted his head, hooked his finger beneath her chin, and brushed his lips over hers.
“Maybe,” she laced their fingers together, “we should take a vacation. Stop planning for this pregnancy to happen and just…let it. Easing the tension of all this stress could be helpful.”
“Before we do that, you think we should take Ayesha up on her offer?”
After spending years running a retail business, Ayesha had returned to using her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, specializing in grief and trauma. She’d extended an invitation to have them sit with her after they’d shared how the stress of everything was affecting their relationship. Considering what Ayesha had gone through with losing Curtis to this very same clandestine “lifestyle,” no one else would understand better.
“We can do that,” she said.
His private phone on the nightstand chirped. He released her, reluctantly, and walked over to check it. Whatever he read on the screen made his expression change, eyebrows lowering and jaw going hard.
“Is that Julien?” Xara asked.
He blacked out the screen and set the phone down. “Let’s talk about it later. We need to get some sleep.”
They climbed back into bed.
She lay on her side, studying his profile.
He avoided eye contact, full attention on the ceiling, brows still drawn.
An ocean lay between them.
I wanted to go back in,” he said. “Kill Mosvar, their father…anyone associated with the piece of shit Sarayev clan. That motherfucker tried to slash my baby’s face. My fucking wife. I’d give my damn life for Xara. That’s my…she’s my rib, ‘Esha. I’m not one of those motherfuckers who takes this husband shit lightly.
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