Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
Xara wondered if Mike felt as nervous as she looked.
She could barely sit for longer than a few seconds before she was up, pacing the living room and cracking her knuckles. She’d been expecting to wait until Ayesha at least went back to Hawaii to speak with her, but they were all there now, Ayesha had said. They were staying for a few more days, so it only made sense for them to go ahead and speak now, Mike had argued.
Why did he look so calm?
He was supposed to be the nervous one.
Then again, he did have more experience remaining cool under pressure.
“Xara,” he reached for her hand, “calm down. She’s our friend.”
“I’m calm,” Xara protested. “I’m just pacing because I need to hit my step goal for the day.”
He eyed her.
She sent him a shaky grin.
Joel walked into the living room. The bags underneath his eyes weren’t as deep as they’d been just a few months ago, his skin had returned to its natural, summer tan, and his eyes once again stood out like sapphires. Joel had some of the most beautiful eyes she’d ever seen, like rare blue marbles with galaxies hidden within. She supposed it was only logical that not every relationship in the guys’ line of work was going to be successful. She and the other women had only talked about surface details of the difficulties. This life they’d all chosen to marry into was like being the spouse of a soldier in the middle of an active World War.
In some ways, quite a few ways, it was crazy.
But love often required a dash of insanity.
“Ayesha’s in Ari’s office,” Joel announced. “She asked me to come check on you guys to make sure you didn’t run off.”
Mike shook his head. “The shipper came and picked up the car earlier to take it back to Texas, and Xara has a thing about paying for flight changes, so we’re pretty much stuck.”
Joel looked her way. “Xara? You’re going to wear a hole in the floor, honey.”
“I know.” She clamped down on her thumbnail with her front teeth. “I can’t stop, though.”
Joel held out his hand. “Come on, let me walk you over. And, you can take my hand. I’m safe territory. None of the guys will hurt me because Gage called dibs on it.”
A small laugh made its way through her system.
All the men had large hands, and Joel’s engulfed hers as they headed toward the office. His palms were rough, just like Mike’s. There were scars on his fingers between sparse sprigs of dark hair. There was still some weariness in his steps, but his shoulders didn’t hang as low. It eased her some to know Ayesha had been able to help him essentially want to live again.
The office door was slightly ajar, and he pressed a large palm against the wood, pushing it open. Ayesha looked up from the computer monitor in front of her with a smile that lit up the caramel notes in her eyes. It appeared that helping Joel had also done her a world of good. From what Xara had seen, Theo and Josiah seemed to enjoy his company as well. It was difficult not to ship them, but they’d both been through so much, romance was probably nowhere on their radar.
“I was prepared to have either Joel or Mike carry you in here,” Ayesha said, standing. She’d dressed for the occasion, wearing a deep green blouse and black pencil skirt. Her hair was covered in a pretty, patterned coordinating scarf with only her smoothed edges showing. Large hoops dangled in her ears.
“How’d you know I’d be nervous?” Xara asked.
“We’re alike. You think things to death.”
“That’s an understatement,” Joel emphasized. “Ayesha thinks things to death and then six feet under.”
She rolled her eyes, still smiling. “Come on, guys. Sit.”
A loveseat that had been in front of Ari’s desk was now pushed back against the wall. Ari’s plush desk chair was across from it.
Xara clumsily lowered next to him.
“Just text me when you’re done,” Joel said.
Ayesha nodded. “Will do. I can’t wait.”
He left, closing the door behind him.
“Joel and I are having lunch after.”
“Lattimore hasn’t been out since the split up,” Mike pointed out. “If you can do that for him, we’re going to be a walk in the park.”
“But it’s not so much our relationship that’s the problem,” Xara quickly cut in. “I’m not leaving Mike anytime soon, and I hope that’s the same for him?”
Mike took her hand and kissed her knuckles. “Of course, Xar.”
Ayesha moved to the chair across from them. “So, what’s the major issue then?”
They both responded at the same time.
Ayesha smiled. “Believe it or not, that’s a good sign. Mike, why don’t you go first?”
Mike leaned forward, elbows on his thighs. “It’s this life we’re in. It’s…I’ve never been the kind of man who shied away from conflict. When I was a kid, yeah, but by the time I was like twelve, thirteen, that had been trained out of me. Now, I feel like I go looking for it, and when shit happens, there’s only one way I can see to fix it.”
“Did something happen recently?”
Xara jumped in. “At Thandie’s party. There was a little girl there, Yaya Sarayev. Her uncle, Mosvar, brought her. Mosvar cornered me in the parking lot and basically propositioned me. Mike overheard it.”
Ayesha reached for a legal pad and scribbled something down. “And Mike, what’d you do?”
He pulled his bottom lip between his teeth.
She looked up. “Mike? Everything okay?”
There was still no response from him.
“Mike,” she leaned forward, “I know I’m helping you guys, but you’re still you and I’m still me. You were one of my husband’s closest friends. I know what you guys did, what you guys do. I won’t ever judge you because of it.”
He released his lip and nodded. “The Sarayevs, from what Julien texted me last night, are major figureheads in the Chechen mafia.”
Xara turned to him, eyelids stretched wide and lips slightly parted. That was what he’d read on his phone last night that had caused his mood to boomerang back to distant and withdrawn.
“Last night, I killed the mafia leader’s son, Argun.”
Each time she gasped when he revealed something major, she still tried not to. When she felt it coming, she tried to hold her breath, stop it from leaving her mouth, but she failed ninety-percent of the time. When it came to his outings it was easy to imagine what he was doing, but it was an entirely different thing to know.
Ayesha didn’t flinch. “Are you worried about retaliation?”
“Not for me.”
“For Xara, then. Why Argun and not Mosvar?”
Mike’s gaze shifted, again off into that space only he could see. “I was going for Mosvar. When I showed up, they were arguing in his room. I hit Argun first and was supposed to hit Mosvar next. The people in their household found out and started shooting. I stayed around just long enough to see Mosvar watch his brother die.”
Ayesha scribbled something else, face still neutral. “How’d you kill him?”
Mike stretched the muscles in his neck. “Slit his throat.”
Xara cursed herself for gasping. Again.
He scraped his fingers through his hair, forward, pulling the strands down over his forehead. “I’m sorry, baby.”
“It’s…” Xara cleared her throat. “Don’t be sorry. It’s an adjustment.”
“Did you hear what she said, Mike?” Ayesha asked.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“What’d you hear?”
“I heard that it’s hard but she’s trying.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Xara chimed in. “I don’t…I’m not judging you, babe.”
He didn’t respond.
“What happened after you killed Argun, Mike?” Ayesha coaxed, and Xara took note of the gentleness in her voice to use, herself, at a later time. “After you left but before you went home.”
“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. The things we do? This shit we,” he made a circle in the air with his index finger, “do? Me and the guys, we go out there knowing we can die. We’re shot at, stabbed at. Buildings fall down on and around us. Shit changed when we lost Curtis.”
It was the first glitch Xara noticed in Ayesha’s cool demeanor.
“When that building started coming down,” Mike went on, “although we always knew we could die, that was the moment shit got real. We’re good at what we do, but we’re not invincible. It’s why we are the way we are. Life is short so we love hard, stay loyal, and we treasure the people who choose to love us.”
Ayesha swallowed. A sheen moved over the whites of her eyes but when she blinked, it disappeared.
“When people mess with our women, we get unhinged. We go off half-cocked. We unleash the monster inside. Thing is, once it’s out, it takes a while to return to where it came from, so…” He looked at Xara. “That’s why I can’t touch you when I get home, baby. I don’t want to hold you as a monster. I want to hold you as your man.”
Ayesha’s gaze darted to Xara’s. The other woman didn’t say anything, but Xara read everything in that gaze. What Mike was saying, Ayesha had heard before, and not from one of the guys.
All of them.
“And Xara, what do you hear?” Ayesha asked.
Xara held Mike’s gaze. “I hear that he loves me but, over time, showing that has changed. It’s no longer just about loving me. It’s about protecting me, at all costs. The world he and the guys live in is dangerous and it feels like their ‘work’ follows them home, so when someone threatens us, their families, their ‘home,’ it’s automatically a death sentence.”
“Dead men can’t seek revenge,” Mike added.
She’d heard that before, from Gage.
Ayesha leaned back. “So now, from both of you, I’d like to know what you want to happen. How you see your relationship progressing. This time, Xara first.”
Xara toyed with her fingers. “It’s not so much what Mike does. It’s what the things he does, do to him. I feel like he’s hurting or suffering inside, and it’s not something I can fix. I just want him to stop hurting.”
“Stop ‘killing’ you mean,” Mike said.
“Hurting,” Xara emphasized. “I know it surprises me when I learn about…things…but it’s not changing how I see you. I don’t see you as a monster. I just don’t want it to destroy you. I want you to see that you’re a good husband, provider, lover, friend, and you’ll be a good father. But, I can’t make you see those things. Only you can do that. Just let me know how to help you get there.”
His voice rose. “You still have a life to live, Xara. A business to run. You can’t spend all your time babysitting me.”
“You’re part of my life, Mike!”
“I don’t feel like a provider. I feel like a fucking weight dragging you down.”
They drew away from each other, having felt it at the same time.
The root issue.
“I didn’t mean to get all loud with you,” he apologized. “I’m sorry, baby.”
Xara shook her head. “I know. It’s okay.”
“Like a,” he looked up, thinking, “year ago? Or somewhere around there, you told me that a lot of black women feel like they’re Atlas. You’re expected to hold everything up and hold it together, but you also want to be able to rely on someone. Be taken care of. Be loved and treasured and desired. I want to be that for you. Xara, I’m your man. The only thing you should be worrying about is opening your eyes in the morning. I’m supposed to have you for all the rest.”
Xara squeezed the bridge of her nose. He couldn’t see it, and she couldn’t make him see it. As she’d already figured out, his work was changing him. He was seeing himself as less of a human and husband and more of a maniac and monster.
She lowered her voice. “You do. You’re there for me. If you weren’t, one, I wouldn’t be able to confide in you that we feel like Atlas, and two, you wouldn’t remember.”
He wrinkled his brows. “Of course, I remember. I listen to everything you say.”
His lids lowered. A smile tugged at his cheek.
“Mike, I can have a shitty day, come home, and tell you about it without feeling like a burden. You rub my feet, hold me, lick my, uh, chin.”
“You do a lot more than you give yourself credit for. You…you killed a man because he tried to slash me across my face. I’m pretty much completely safe with you. When the world gets heavy,” she pretended to remove a globe from her shoulders, “you take it. When it gets heavy for you, I take it. That is all I need. All we need. At least, to get where we both want to be in this relationship.”
When he looked at her again and bit down on his lip, she realized they were going to have to start wrapping up the session.
“This was excellent,” Ayesha said, and it took them a moment to realize she was speaking. “Perfect. You two are very open and honest with each other, and I believe that has a lot to do with how young you were when you met. Do you feel like you understand each other better, even a little bit?”
Xara dragged her eyes away from Mike’s. “Honestly? Yes. I thought I already did, but I feel even closer to Mike than I did before.”
“And you, Mike?”
His gaze moved more slowly over to Ayesha. “I feel like I’m still doing a good job as a husband in my wife’s eyes, and that’s what I needed to hear.”
“Awesome.” Ayesha set aside her legal pad. “I’d like to see you guys again, but not here. In Hawaii. My recommendation—your homework, if you will—is that you two take a much-needed vacation. Kill two birds with one stone by going to paradise and seeing me on the side.”
Xara nodded, discreetly squeezing her thighs together. “We can do that.”
Ayesha grabbed her phone and sent a quick text. Under a minute later, like he’d been waiting just down the hall, Joel poked his head in.
“You rang, m’lady?”
Ayesha, smiling, shook her head. “We’re done. Let me grab my purse, and we can head out.”
“Isn’t she amazing?” Joel asked Mike and Xara, but he didn’t look at them. “Smart, understanding, big-hearted. Just all-around amazing.”
Xara nodded. “More than that.”
She walked over to Ayesha and hugged her, long and tight. Every last one of them, she loved. From Ayesha to Ari. And it was a real, deep kind of love as if they’d grown up together with caring and loving parents who’d taught them the value of sisterhood.
“The ladies are having champagne later,” Ayesha said. “I’ll see you then, Xar?”
Mike made an X over his chest. “I promise to have her off her back before then.”
Xara gently swatted his arm.
They left, walking out slowly until they hit the middle of the hallway. Then, Mike was on Xara’s heels as they hurried back to their guest suite. She barely crossed the threshold before he grabbed her, picked her up, carried her over to the bed, and lay her on the mattress.
“You know the drill.” He licked his lips. “Spread ‘em, girl.”
They didn’t know the Asian man’s name or anything about him other than the fact that he appeared to be good friends with the man called Beast, and he had a wife that would make for an excellent fuck. Ivan knew where the Beast lived but had declined every suggestion Mosvar had made about going there. He’d even threatened to tell Ivan’s wife about the family here in America, which would have more than likely resulted in his wife’s father cutting off his cock, but Ivan had rather take his chances with Svetlana’s father than face the Beast alone.