Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
Joel was happy.
Ayesha could see that from the sparkle in his eyes—eyes that were about as blue as the water that surrounded them—and the smile he wore like a child wielding a proud scar. The Joel from before had been the complete opposite, but it was that pain that had drawn her to him. None of the other families knew what it was like to lose something because of this life. They all had their own burdens to bear, and she understood that, but their relationships were solid. In addition to those solid relationships, luck was on their side.
When Gage and Tayler first met, he’d nearly died after suffering a knife wound. Dez, riddled with bullets, trudged across Central America to find Larke who he’d married on the beach in a private ceremony. A building had collapsed with every last one of them, except Joel, inside. It was the moment that took Curtis. And then a building had nearly come down when Joel was with them.
Hell, Ari and Julien nearly went over a cliff.
But all of them were still here.
Joel blamed his and Sydney’s split on the fact that they couldn’t agree on children, but she knew better. Sydney was only human. She wanted to sleep. She wanted to eat. She wanted to live without having a prescription for anxiety medication at the ready just in case weeks and months went by without her knowing whether her husband was dead or alive. That had been her very own life before Curtis died and several years after.
One day, she was planning her future with the man she’d loved for years. The next, his comrades were on her doorstep.
She’d grabbed Theo’s sonogram thinking he was with them. It was going to be the biggest surprise of his life, she remembered thinking. It was strange, at first, because he usually called before he came home, but it never crossed her mind he hadn’t because he couldn’t.
Curtis had died without knowing she’d picked his name choice for their second child after they’d agreed on hers for Josiah.
Joel looked her way and waved. No one but the four of them—her, him, the boys—knew he’d flown out. They didn’t want the rest of the group thinking there was anything between them but a friendship neither her nor Joel realized they’d needed.
And yes, he was attractive.
Watching him like now, playing soccer with her boys in their yard while she stood on the porch, she did have a fleeting moment where it felt like he was somewhere he belonged. Somewhere he was wanted.
But they both still wore their rings, and the more romantic a relationship was, the greater chance it had to combust when it failed. Friendships didn’t fail as often, and even when they did, the fallout usually wasn’t as cataclysmic. With a friendship, she might even be able to keep him in their lives forever. Or, at least until Theo left for college.
God bless his soul—she hoped her youngest son made it that far. He was far more creative than logical. He wanted to fly when circumstances warranted walking. He had his father’s mouth and took shit from no one, not even his teachers. The problem was, he was too young to understand the difference between “shit” and “you need to do as your teacher says to stay safe.”
Josiah, tall and handsome and kind-hearted as he was, she worried more about him getting his heart broken one day. He loved openly. Deeply. Stories weren’t “just stories.” They were intricately woven tales he could see as clear as he watched a film. Having that much heart opened up the possibility for a great deal of pain. Curtis had dealt with bouts of depression throughout his life because of that very same trait, and she hoped the same wouldn’t be said for her boy.
“Mama, you want to play?” Theo called up to her.
Ayesha pressed her fingers against her sternum. “Me? Play soccer with you guys?”
“Yeah.” He answered like it was the most commonplace thing in the world. “You can be good. Joel ith a good teacher. I didn’t know how to play and he teached me. You can be on Jojo’th team.”
“Taught,” both she and Joel quickly corrected.
She knew he played up his little no-tooth lisp from time to time to appear extra cute. As if he wasn’t cute enough already with his mop of curly hair, blemish-free copper skin, and large, expressive hazel eyes. He was starting to lose the softness in his features from his toddler days, but as long as he had those dimples in his cheeks and in his little fingers, just below the knuckle, he was still her baby.
Josiah had asked for a haircut when he was ten, and now he wore his hair in a tapered cut that was curly on top and shorn at the sides. He was also starting to, after every haircut, check to make sure his edge was perfectly straight. Considering how young she’d been when he was born, and how afraid she’d been about having no clue how to be a mother, he seemed to be turning out pretty well-adjusted and level-headed.
High school was essentially just around the corner, and that hair with those eyes they’d both gotten from her, those glasses that gave him that nerdy-but-cool vibe, and his height…they would have to have “the talk” sooner than she was ready for.
“Okay, okay.” Theo flicked his wrist, the other arm cradling the ball. “He taughted me.”
Joel let his head hang, laughing, and the dark strands not stuck to his forehead by sweat fluttered in the wind.
“It’s okay, Ma,” Josiah jumped in. “It’s okay for Joel to teach you to play.”
Then, he stared at her.
He was trying to tell her something, but she didn’t quite pick up on it.
Realizing she was outnumbered, she went inside, slipped on a pair of sneakers to go with the shorts and tank she was already wearing, and joined them down on the soft, green lawn.
“Catch, Mama!” Theo yelled, and she barely had a chance to blink before she noticed the ball coming her way.
Joel stepped in front of her and caught it with one hand right before it collided with the side of her face. “You have to tell her it’s coming first, Theo,” he gently chided.
“I wath trying to trick her…if she catched it,” Theo admitted. “No handth, Mama.”
He tucked his hands behind his back to demonstrate.
She smiled at him, head shaking, and whispered to Joel, “Boy, I can’t wait until those teeth come in.”
“Right?” Joel bounced the ball from one hand to the other. “I don’t understand at least half of what he says, and he’s starting to realize it.”
Josiah stood closer to his brother. “That’s ‘caught,’ Theo. If she ‘caught’ it.”
“Like taught, you don’t have to add the -ed at the end. It’s already past-tense.”
Theo slapped his forehead. “English ith too frust-erating.”
“Now, you’re doing it on purpose.
Theo bent over, laughing and holding his stomach.
“Since we’re playing backyard ball,” Joel lowered the ball to the ground, “there’s really not much to learn. Theo already gave us the first and most important rule of soccer. No hands.”
Theo bowed with dramatic flair.
“You move the ball completely with your feet,” Joel added. “Goalies can use their hands, but only to block passes from going into the net and tossing the ball back into play.”
Ayesha studied the black and white sphere in front of her, stuck the toe of her shoe underneath, and tipped it into the air. When the ball descended, she bounced it from her knee to the top of her head, back to her knee, and then let it back down to the grass, stopping it from rolling with her foot.
“Whoa.” Theo’s eyes grew big. “I change my mind. Mama’th on my team!”
“You know how to play soccer, Ma?” Josiah asked. “Why didn’t you ever tell us? That’s so cool.”
She picked up the ball. “I wasn’t sure I remembered. I was really young the last time I played. I mean, I was good back then, but still.”
When she realized Joel hadn’t commented on her hidden talent, she glanced over at him. He was watching her, the sapphire in his eyes exploding and a nearly invisible smile playing at the corner of his mouth.
“Jealous?” she teased.
His gaze lowered.
Theo begged until she had no choice but to be on his team, and they spent the next hour getting creamed by Joel and Josiah.
As they went back into the house, ball tucked under his arm, Theo complained that Joel and Josiah had to have cheated because, “Mama’th too good for uth to lothe to you two.” Josiah had then accused him of being the reason they lost to which he shrugged and replied, “Maybe you’re right.”
She wished Curtis had gotten the chance to meet him.
“Guys, you go wash up,” Joel called, holding the door for them to walk into the house. “Twenty-minutes 'til dinner.”
The boys rushed off.
She eyed him. “Smells good in here. You’re really an Instant Pot king.”
Joel set the ball in the hallway closet, washed his hands in the half bath, and then returned to the kitchen. While he cleaned up, she dipped into her own bathroom to do the same before rejoining him.
“It’s from working at the Bureau.” He lifted the lid on the pot. “Back then, it was a crockpot. I didn’t like eating out much. I mean, a burger every once in a while is cool, but burgers and fries don’t stick to your stomach like a home-cooked meal, even if you make it yourself.”
She perched on a chair on the other side of the kitchen island. “I feel you on that. But I could have cooked for us. It’s fine.”
He glanced up at her and, in that brief moment, she felt her heart beat at least twelve times.
Why does that keep happening?
“You’ve done so much for me, Eesh. Cooking’s no big deal. I’ll cook every night I’m here if I have to. You’ve got your hands full with the boys.”
She distracted herself by looking at the pot. “You help with them too.”
“That, I don’t mind at all.” He went to the cabinets. “I mean, being an uncle might be the closest I come to being a ‘Dad,’ so I enjoy my moments with them.
“Joel…don’t say that.” She left her seat to grab glasses. “You don’t know what the future holds.”
He shrugged. “You’re right, but I don’t lament over it as much as I did. It’s funny how I’ve never met Curtis, but I feel like he’s given me so much.”
Their gazes met, again briefly.
“He would have liked you. And I’m sure he appreciates everything you’re doing for us.”
Another smile, this one a little bit more noticeable, twitched his jaw. When he left the FBI, he also left the clean-shaven look behind. Now, he was unrefined and raw, and his eyes were the spark behind all that rugged, unshaven glory.
While he ladled pot roast, potatoes, and carrots onto dishes, she filled the glasses.
“Are you really going to drink milk with pot roast?” She stuck a pitcher of strawberry lemonade back into the refrigerator.
Joel motioned to his frame. “Behind this nice tan and underneath all this dark, Italian hair is a white boy, Ayesha. I drink milk with spaghetti, soup, and pizza.”
She burst out laughing. “I guess it’s done you good.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know like how they say milk does a body…” Her voice trailed off. “Nothing.”
He didn’t push her.
He set the plates on the table while she placed the glasses of lemonade, a cup of lemonade with a straw and tight lid for Theo, and Joel's glass of milk, them walking and stretching around each other like touch was forbidden. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a nice body. He had an amazing body. She just wasn’t supposed to actually tell him that. Or notice.
Josiah appeared first.
“Where’s your brother?” she asked.
He flicked his thumb behind him. “Watching TV. I tried getting him, but you know once he’s locked on, he’s locked on.”
She went to Theo’s room to rouse her son, and he followed her, neck stretching back to catch glimpses of the TV until it was out of sight. During dinner, because he had food to focus on and keep him preoccupied—and Theo loved him some food—he usually didn’t need any fidget toys or cubes or his vest.
As they approached the table, she realized the seating arrangements had been changed. Before, she and Josiah sat across from Joel and Theo. Now, she and Joel faced the boys.
She cast a questioning glance in Joel’s direction. He answered with a head tilt toward Josiah. While she knew boys pulled away from their mothers, at least temporarily, as they transitioned into their teen years, she wasn’t ready. For any of it.
Joel took his seat, and she lowered next to him.
Josiah bowed his head, and she could have sworn she saw him smile.
He led the prayer. After an “amen,” they lifted their heads and ate.
AFTER DINNER, it was Theo’s turn to pick a movie, and they all suppressed groans when he picked Trolls for the millionth time. As usual, he only made it through half the movie before he was slobbering on her thigh, but by that time, they were too invested in the plot to change it.
“I’ll carry him to bed,” Joel volunteered.
Ayesha eyed him. “You sure?”
“Yeah, Joel, Theo’s heavy,” Josiah cosigned, e-reader propped on his legs.
Joel stood, yawned, and stretched the muscles in his shoulders and biceps. “He can’t be that heavy,” he argued. He bent, tucked his arms under Theo’s body, and lifted. “Jesus.”
Josiah doubled over, laughing. “I told you.”
“This kid was a baby like a second ago.” With a groan, he hoisted Theo into his arms. Theo didn’t so much as stir. “Holy sh…ite, he’s got some weight on him.”
“It’s their father.” Ayesha stared at her son, longing for the days when she’d been able to sleep that unbothered. “You see Jojo’s already taller than I am. Curtis was a beast of a man.”
“Really tall and big, like The Rock,” Josiah added.
“Not that big.” She shook her head. “I couldn’t handle that much man, now.”
“What does that mean, Ma?”
She searched for the remote and paused the movie. “Nothing. You should probably be getting to bed too.”
Josiah nodded, touched a kiss to her cheek, and disappeared down the hallway. He’d go to bed now, but she hoped he at least went to sleep before midnight. She loved that he loved to read, but she needed him to love getting a good night’s rest as a kid. It became a luxury in adulthood.
Before Joel walked off with Theo, she kissed Theo’s forehead and ran her fingers through his curls. “Let me let you go put him down before you mess up your back,” she teased.
“Thank you.” Joel started off. “I was afraid you’d want to sing him a song next or something. Snap my vertebrae in two.”
While he was gone, she went around tidying up what didn’t need to be tidied. Joel had already put away the dishes, stacked and turned on the dishwasher. Cleaned up the dining area and mopped around Theo’s chair. Wiped down the counters and swept.
“Now that the kids are in bed,” he said, walking back, “want to do something naughty?”
Her heart did that confusing multiple-beat thing again. “What do you have in mind?”
He pulled the freezer open, dug around, and brandished two pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. “Cherry Garcia for you, your favorite, and Vanilla Caramel Fudge for me. All we need are spoons, mountain views, and the resplendent quiet of a sleeping Theo-noceros.”
He was even getting his sense of humor back.
“You mean, Theo-nado.”
He tipped one of the pints in her direction. “Nice.”
She grabbed two spoons and he led the way onto the patio. They sat at the patio table, next to each other. That was the best way to look out at the ocean and mountains.
Ayesha sank her spoon into the ice cream, brought the spoon to her mouth, and moaned, her eyelids fluttering.
“Mmmm. That’s so good.”
“Now that’s what I like to hear. Relax, Eesh. You’re out here taking care of me, the boys, Xara, Mike. Everyone, really.”
She swallowed another scoop. “I don’t mind it. For a long time, it was just me and the boys. I actually like taking care of everybody. It feels…good.”
“But who takes care of Ayesha?”
She held up her pint. “Apparently, someone named Ben and someone named Jerry.”
He ticked his head to the side in agreement.
They ate until they finished most of their tubs, leaving a small portion at the bottom to stave off the guilt of gluttony.
Joel rose. “Here, I’ll go put these back in their hiding spots in the freezer. I’ll take your spoon.”
She handed it to him. Their fingers grazed. It wasn’t the first time it happened. It wasn’t the first time they’d ever touched. This time, however, she felt a sting. If he felt it, he didn’t show any sign that was the case.
When he went inside, she followed. “Joel—”
“I’m sorry about that.” He pulled the bottom-freezer drawer open. “You know I drag my feet sometimes when I walk and build up static electricity like I’m about to power a small village or something.”
“I was just going to tell you that you don’t have to stay in the guest house, if you don’t want to,” she said. “You’re welcome to stay in the guest room here in the house. I…you’re so close with the boys and everything, it feels wrong to have you out there by yourself.”
He searched her face, those sapphires still bursting. “I have to stay in the guest house, Eesh.”
He turned to leave.
She called out to him and he stopped, but he didn’t face her.
“Joel, I…” Her gaze darted to the wall to a framed black and white wedding photo of her and Curtis.
Automatically, her fingers went to her ring, twisting the band. Joel’s left thumb caressed his. She’d told him it was perfectly healthy for him to wear his ring until he was ready to take it off, but it had to be harder for him. If Curtis had still been alive, they would have been together. Without a doubt. Sydney was walking around somewhere without Joel and very little would change that. While the split had been agonizing for Sydney as well, Sydney’s decision was firm. Joel had tried, begged, and pleaded, and nothing had changed. He didn’t want to leave the group, his family, and she couldn’t stay with him or consider having a child if he didn’t.
“Good night, Eesh.” He continued toward the front door. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
The door closed, the sound a prefix to the deafening silence that followed.
Not even the refrigerator hummed.
She walked to the picture and looked up at Curtis. He’d had a beautiful smile, beautiful eyes. It had been a running joke between them, how many ethnicities he’d been mistaken for. His favorite was Puerto Rican because it almost always came with an offer of Mofongo. One of his foster parents had made him Mofongo exactly one time, but it was all it had taken to leave him hooked.
When he’d first let her know he had feelings for her, she didn’t believe him. No one who looked like him could have possibly noticed her, and not to the point where they’d developed feelings. She had a more slender, athletic body. While the children had definitely dropped some hips on her frame, she wasn’t stacked like Tayler or Larke. A man Curtis’ size needed curves like that for his large hands to fit into. It was what she’d assumed, but he’d showed her, in multiple ways, how much he’d loved her just the way she was.
“Baby…” Tears stung her eyes and each word pained her throat. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Nothing’s going to happen. I promise.”
A door eased shut.
She wiped her eyes and went to the hallway.
From underneath the door, she saw the light flick off in Josiah’s room.
“He won’t. You are obviously too foolish to understand, so I’ll say it plainly.” Ramzsyn pivoted on his heel and tossed the next words over his shoulder. “The only way to take this man down is by sending an army. I was able to get information on him from a source. A man by the name of Fang, who is now dead, put the information up for sale before his death. Argun’s killer is called ‘Liu Wei’ but, as it stands, Liu Wei is dead as well. You and I know he’s not, but a dead man walking around in the shadows is a dangerous man. Liu Wei ‘was’ married to an award-winning designer named Xara Merritt, who is still living. If a man who doesn’t appear to have a weakness has a family, it’s because he’s funneled all his vulnerabilities into one location. In this case, one person.”