Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
Joel pulled his attention away from the guest house’s tray ceilings when the screen on his phone lit up. Because of how late it was, as well as the fact that he was feeling vulnerable and she always seemed to sense it, he already knew who’d texted him.
Syd – Hey, you up?
Joel – Yeah.
Syd – Feel like talking?
Joel – Of course.
Still, to this day, he would do anything for her. He didn’t tell Ayesha they still communicated as he was pretty certain she’d told him communicating while wounded would only prolong his misery over their divorce, but he couldn’t say no to Sydney.
Lately, however, he found that he didn’t want to say no to Ayesha, either. He had absolutely no desire to. He actually wanted her to ask him more things he’d be able to say yes to:
“Hey Joel, Josiah needs some advice for his first date.”
“I’d be happy to talk to him.”
“Hey Joel, Theo’s getting married—”
“Say no more.”
“Hey, Joel, do you have a spare organ I can have?”
“Sure, Eesh. What do you need, a ventricle? An atrium?”
On one hand, he didn’t want her to know he was essentially feeding his addiction by refusing to break the spider web that was his and Syd’s lingering non-relationship. On the other hand, he simply didn’t want Ayesha to know. If she knew he was still talking to Syd, then it would ruin…
He shook his head.
It wouldn’t ruin what didn’t exist.
When the phone rang, he let it go for three rings before answering.
“Hi, bab—Joel. Were you trying to sleep or…?”
He hated when she slipped up like that. It made hope dance in his chest, twisting like a wisp of smoke. Whenever he felt like he was moving on, all it took was that one mistake and he was once again hanging between two ledges, his fingers losing their grip on the side of healing.
“No, you’re good. We can talk.” He reached for a stress ball he kept on the nightstand, tossed it in the air, and let it sail back down into his palm. “How was your day?”
“Pretty good. The foundation just got another major donor, and the new kids I’m training, they’ve got hands. They pick up maneuvers so quickly.”
“You still training that one kid?” He tossed the ball back into the air and the small, egg-shaped mass landed in his hand with a smack. “What’s his name…Ruben?”
“He’s still my star. He’s got Golden Gloves potential. I was actually discussing it with his father when we had dinner the…uh, the other day.”
“Dinner?” His heart twisted, but he kept the pain from his voice. “Like a romantic thing or…?”
“A strategic dinner.” Her voice wavered. “At least, in the beginning. I…we’re…I thought you should know.”
Well, wasn’t that just fucking glorious.
While it did hurt, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as the first date she’d gone on, only a few weeks after the divorce was finalized. He’d stopped in to pick up a carry-out order from one of their favorite restaurants and spotted her, beautiful in a yellow dress that hugged and flared the places he used to hold, with some handsome, bald-headed asshole.
He hadn’t been in the right headspace to go home alone, so he’d hit up Dez and Larke to see if he could crash at their place. Whatever he’d sounded like, it made Larke agree without hesitation.
He didn’t know at the time that Ayesha was in town, and they hadn’t really known each other as well as they did now, but he ended up watching movies with her and the boys. Theo was even smaller then, cheeks rounder and fingers chubbier, and having the adorable little troublemaker fall asleep snuggled against his side had done wonders for the pain in his chest.
After the boys went to bed, he and Ayesha stayed up until nearly three in the morning talking on Dez and Larke’s back patio, and he still had no clue what it was they’d talked about. The next day, to repay them for putting up with him, he took the boys to Clemyjontri Park in McLean.
That was where their friendship started.
“…and he said he’d consider it.”
He placed the ball on the nightstand. “I’m sorry, Syd. My mind was…I didn’t catch that last part.”
“It wasn’t important anyhow,” she said. “So, what’d you do today? This weather is bananas right now, isn’t it?”
“I’m actually not at home.”
Instead of the curiosity he’d been expecting, hesitation filled her voice. “Are you out in some obscure country with the guys?”
“No. I’m in Hawaii.”
He left the bedroom and walked to the front living area. Through the large windows that wrapped around the room, he could clearly see the windows of Ayesha’s bedroom. Her light was still on, but he didn’t spot her silhouette. Maybe she was reading one of those “spicy” novels she loved so much.
“Hawaii?” Sydney paused. “Like…with Ayesha? Again?”
“I’m staying in her guest house. Mike and Xara are out here too.” She didn’t have to know they were doing their own thing and had no idea he was on the island. If she believed he was there, alone, with Ayesha, Ayesha would become a target for her frustration, and he didn’t want that to happen.
“Oh. When did they find time to take a vacation?”
“They made time.” Ayesha’s shadowy figure walked by her window. “We can do that, you know.”
“I’m sorry.” He took a seat on the coffee table. “I didn’t mean to say it that way. Well, let me take that back. I meant to, but I am sorry I did.”
“You still aren’t trying to understand how hard it was for me to be married to you.”
He knew what she was talking about, specifically what she was talking about, but fuck did it hurt like hell to hear that sentence. It didn’t feel like she was talking about why they’d failed. It felt like she was telling him why no one would ever want to be married to him or have children with him. Like an eternity with him would be a risk, but that risk had nothing to do with his career. Plain and simple, he was the problem.
“I’m sorry, Syd,” he said, again. “You’re right.”
The minute the words left his mouth, he heard Ayesha’s voice: “Only apologize when you’ve done something wrong, not because you need to keep the peace. You have to be purposeful not placating. When you love people, they expect you to be genuine with them even when genuine isn’t pretty.”
It was an easy notion to grasp, but a difficult action to execute. He’d let Sydney down so much, he was afraid to do anything that might make her any further upset with him.
“Let me rephrase.” She released a long breath. “One day, that job is going to kill you, and it’s easier to live with the pain of not having you than stay with you knowing you’re going to die. This,” he imagined her tapping her chest, “is a hurt I can get over. A hurt I can get past.”
Ayesha’s figure moved to the center of the window.
“Look, Syd, I get it. Trust me, I do. I’m sorry I never figured out how to give you what you wanted but, sometimes, when I talk to you, it’s like you didn’t hurt at all when we split up.”
“Now, you know that’s bull,” she countered. “I’m a woman in my thirties. What am I supposed to do, hang around and lament about being single and lose out on all my reproductive…never mind.”
“What were you going to say just now?” He sprung to his feet. “I know you weren’t about to say anything about reproductive years. Why the fuck does a woman who doesn’t want children care about how much longer she has to make one?”
“You’re getting belligerent, and it’s impossible to talk to you when you’re like this.”
The curtains drew and Ayesha stepped out onto her balcony. She was dressed for bed in a silky-looking, strappy top, drawstring pajama bottoms, and her hair was covered. Her balcony wrapped around a good portion of the house, so it would have made more sense for her to stand on the other side where she could see the water and the mountains. From this side, she could only see the guest house.
“Are you still there, Joel?”
He stretched the muscles in his neck. “Yeah. I was just…I was calming down so we could talk.”
“All I meant was that it’s still possible I’ll hit forty and decide I want to be a mother. That happens.”
But not a mother to a child with me.
“When we were still married, you seemed so sure.” His mind replayed every argument, every night spent sleeping apart, in the span of five seconds. “It was the main thing we disagreed on.”
“If that’s what you think, you weren’t listening. Remember what the marriage counselor said? We argued about kids and your ‘career.’ Your ‘career’ held more weight.”
“Why do you keep saying it like that?”
“Because it’s not a real career if it’s going to kill you.”
“I could’ve died in the FBI,” he pointed out. “If I’d been a police officer, firefighter…all of those are high-risk jobs. All of those are real careers. Syd, these men are like my brothers. Hell, they pretty much are my brothers. I’m going to have their back until we’re out of this thing.”
It was her turn to get “belligerent.”
“What do you mean ‘out of this thing’?” Her dry laugh sounded through the speaker. “You’re accusing me of not being completely upfront on my baby plans, but the one thing I asked of you, you just knew you couldn’t do.”
“I never said I couldn’t. I said I needed more time. I needed you to hang on just a little while longer.”
“Waiting for you to die!” Her voice cracked. “Don’t you get that? I’m not going to sit around praying I don’t get your death notification and have to raise my kids alone like…”
His face warmed. “Like who? Eesh?”
“You really think she’s happy? Come on, Joel. Do you know how painful that must have been? All these years later, and she’s still chained to Curtis’ ghost.”
“I think it hurt when she lost Curtis and she would prefer to still have him around,” he replied. “And yeah, that had to hurt. I mean, she was pregnant and alone, but I don’t think she would have left him to avoid it. Matter of fact, I could still die, Syd. What, my death means less because we’re not together?”
She released another long, frustrating breath. “Look, I didn’t call to argue.”
“You never do. Doesn’t stop us from ending up here. Funny how that works. You can love somebody with everything in you, your whole damn soul, only to one day not be able to even have a fucking conversation with them.”
“Joel, damn! Be reasonable!” She lowered her voice, the pitch trembling in that way it did when she was trying to hold back emotion. “All I’m saying is, our entire argument was one-sided. All you could see was that I wanted to end our marriage, but you’re wrong here too. You told me you weren’t leaving the team.”
“I told you I needed time.” His jaw slackened with defeat. “I begged you to hold on.”
He’d literally begged. They’d worked so hard to get where they were, he would have done anything to keep her. Anything…except leave Gage, Giorgio, Mike, Dez, and Julien out there alone when they’d saved his life more than once. In the beginning, he and Gage couldn’t even see eye to eye and now, the man was like his blood relative. Their wives were his sisters-in-law, their children his nieces and nephews.
They saved children and people who had no stake in the war their country was engaged in but had to live with its repercussions. They rescued captured civilians. He was happiest having bullets whizzing by his ears because his brothers had his back, and their missions gave his life meaning. Every act he carried out helped make a safer world for people who deserved it. A safer world for her.
“Did you agree to ‘retire’ because of Ayesha?” she asked.
“Syd, this is between me and you.” They could argue with and about each other all day and he’d accept it, no problem. He wouldn’t accept tossing Ayesha, or anyone else, in the middle. “Whatever you think you’re accusing me of, keep in mind that Eesh has been someone I could talk to and hang with because she actually did lose somebody to this life. We both lost people.”
“Joel, there’s something…never mind.”
Their topic of conversation left her balcony and went back inside.
“Talk to me, Syd. What were you going to say?”
“You like her.”
“I mean, yeah.” He shrugged. “We’re really good friends and her boys…I always thought kids, once they got to a certain age, turned into assholes. Theo and Josiah are the coolest damn kids I know. I could spend all day with them.”
Sydney laughed, sniffling. “That’s true, but I think you like her more than you say.”
“Like, to make you jealous?” he asked. “No, Syd. I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that to either of you.”
“I don’t think even you know it. Not yet.” Another laugh came through, tighter than the last. “I know a lot of things about you, Joel. More than you might even know about yourself. I know how you love. I know how you show your love. You’re a protector, a caregiver, a provider. You fall with your actions before you fall with your heart, and I don’t think I’m the only person in there anymore.”
“I don’t know how Ayesha feels, but her most admirable trait is her loyalty. Her love for Curtis, even after all this time. I can only imagine how terrifying it would be for me to lose you and four, five years later realize I was falling for someone else. Even now, with Ruben’s father…I really enjoyed my time with him, and I can’t explain how guilty that makes me feel.”
“Syd,” he dragged out a breath, “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to feel guilty about that. I want you to be happy. I do. Plus, me and Ayesha, we’re not—”
“Death is a different beast from divorce,” she went on, the emotion in her voice no longer hidden. “Divorce, you can get over since split-ups usually happen when love stops being enough. Death can take the person of your dreams out of your life two seconds after you meet them.”
“It didn’t feel that way in the beginning.” So many things wove and bent through him, he knew he was slowly losing his grip. “In the beginning, I would have preferred to die before I lost you. I fucking loved you, Syd. Like…I can’t even explain how fucking much. Now, you get on the phone and call me babe then tell me about your dates and it shouldn’t matter. It’s not like we just split up. As for Ayesha…I like her, yeah. We’ve become really good friends, and she was the only thing that stood between me and a bullet in my brain.”
Sydney sucked in a sharp breath.
He wasn’t supposed to tell her that. Ever.
His throat was getting tight, so he was going to hang up soon before he ended up the man who cried about his problems to his ex-wife.
“Syd, I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
She was quiet for a moment. “Okay.”
He ended the call and tossed the phone over onto the sofa. About a minute later, it chimed with a text he still ended up checking.
Syd – I’m sorry.
Joel – Yeah. Me too.
He headed back to the bedroom but stopped when the doorbell rang.
It could only be one person.
She’d tossed on a light sleep robe, and he knew she was all kinds of tired from the dark circles under her eyes and the drooping flutter of each blink.
Ayesha waved. “Hey.”
“I just wanted to stop by and…Joel, what’s wrong?”
He shook his head and dragged his teeth across his bottom lip. He turned away and tilted his face to the ceiling. Still, he said, “Apparently, she does want kids. I…I think I’m even more fucked up than I realized. Eesh, I come from a two-parent household. My folks are still happily married. My sister’s divorced, but it was amicable. I shouldn’t feel like this.”
“Like,” he swallowed, shrugged, “nobody wants me. Like I can’t do shit right. I mean, I even screwed up…never mind.”
She stepped inside and shut the door. “First off, who wants kids, Joel?”
“How do you…” She noticed the phone. “Oh, Joel.”
Either she pulled him into her arms or he pulled her into him; he didn’t know and it didn’t matter. It simply felt good to be there, with someone who cared and understood.
He didn’t know how long they stood there together, but it was a while.
THE NEXT MORNING, he entered the main house and headed to the kitchen, pushing his fingers through his hair, barefoot in a white T-shirt and jeans. Through the glass doors, the tip of the sun barely broke the horizon, outside still soft with the blue-gray of an approaching dawn.
It was only four hours ago that Ayesha had left the guest house, and he felt like an ass for keeping her there that long like she didn’t have her own life, and two young sons, to attend to. He’d just told her he would help take care of her because she was the buoy keeping their team afloat, and then, hours later, he’d had an entire breakdown in the foyer.
It was hard to let go of the past. The way it went, if he kept talking to Sydney, he’d be able to “keep tabs” on her, in a sense. Determine just where she was on the “moving on” spectrum. Considering she’d already been dating for months when a single misspoken word from her was enough for him to question his emotional sanity, she was further ahead than he was.
Then there was the other thing.
The hard heart-pounding, stomach-twisting, palm-sweating, I want to take care of her thing he felt, from time to time, for Ayesha.
The thing Sydney had suggested was more than loving Ayesha for who she was, as a friend.
Ayesha was kind, funny, sweet, and beautiful, and she made him consider things he hadn’t before and feel things he would have normally tried to suppress. She seemed like the type who’d want to snuggle in the mornings, her body and skin soft and her scent light. She was probably the type who stroked beards, pushed hair off foreheads, kissed eyelids, and whispered her love in a way that spoke to a man’s soul.
Even thinking about waking up with somebody else put him on edge because he hadn’t seen the end of things with Sydney coming. It wasn’t until he’d thought back on it that he’d started remembering the missing things—she stopped kissing him before he left and when he came home, her body would go stiff when he pulled her close, they didn’t just talk anymore, and she stopped looking into his eyes. Before, she’d gaze into them and, without words, tell him how she felt.
In terms of personalities, Sydney was straw where Ayesha was velvet. Sydney’s strength was external; Ayesha quietly propped up foundations with her mind and heart. For Sydney to stop doing the things he’d loved, it was difficult, but he couldn’t imagine how much of a terrible partner it would mean if someone as naturally gentle as Ayesha could no longer be tender because of his mistakes.
“Morning, Joel.” Josiah, yawning and tousling the curls on top of his head, entered the kitchen.
“You’re up early.” He fished a package of ground coffee from the pantry. “Is this book-related? Couldn’t sleep because you have a chapter to get to?”
Josiah smiled and leaned against the kitchen counter. This kid would definitely be his height in a few years.
“No, I was up and then I heard you.” He momentarily lowered his eyes. “Actually, I have a question I want to ask you, but I want to ask you directly instead of through Ma.”
Joel paused in the middle of his coffee prep. “I’m all ears. What’s up?”
“There’s this school thing coming up. Like…real soon.” He scratched the back of his head. “It’s like a…carnival, but there’s like, father and son type of events. I don’t know, this might be stupid of me to ask, and I don’t even know how long—”
“Are you asking me to go with you?”
“Yeah. I mean, everyone already knows my Dad’s…you know…but I figured, since you’re here and, if I’m being honest, I think you’d make a great Dad…” He swallowed. “I was wondering if you’d be my ‘Dad’ for the day.”
Joel gripped the bag of coffee grounds so it would be less obvious his hand was shaking. He didn’t expect the amount of emotion that washed over him. A kid who’d had what he’d learned was a near-perfect father thought he would make a great one. An amazing kid like Josiah wanted to be his son for a day.
“Um,” he cleared his throat, “yeah. Of course. I’m honored you’d consider me, Josiah.”
Josiah pushed up off the kitchen island. “Cool. I’ll tell Ma you’re coming. That way, we can all go together. It’ll be easier that way, really. But I’m not making you stay past the time you planned, am I?”
“Josiah, even if I was supposed to leave tonight, I’d stay for this.”
Josiah smiled, about as wide as his brother would, but then tamped down his excitement to a more “adolescent-approved” level and disappeared down the hall.
Joel finished making the coffee and soon, the aroma filled the kitchen and living area. After the difficult night he’d had, he was surprised he could feel this damn giddy the next morning, all from a single question.
He was pretty sure he knew why Josiah didn’t want to ask Ayesha to ask him, and he didn’t think she’d say no, but to know that Josiah had come straight to him made an already special moment even more than.
“That smells so good.” Ayesha, fuzzy slippers slapping against the wood floor, walked right over to the coffee pot. “Is this that macadamia and vanilla roast we found at that street vendor what, two or three months ago?”
It was like the other night never happened, and he was thankful for that.
“I went back and got like ten bags.” He poured her a cup. “Brought a few back with me on the trip.”
“The stuff’s addictive.” She took a sip and moaned, eyes fluttering. “Mmm. Good morning, Joel.”
He laughed. “Good morning, Ayesha.”
Her eyes were browner in the morning, he noticed. They were the same color as the boys’ so there was obviously some brown, green, gold…but they were definitely browner in the morning, more golden in sunlight, and greener at night underneath yellow or white bulbs. No matter what color they were, against her rich brown skin, they were lovely. He was sure, set against skin like that, they could have been an odd pewter shade and still be breathtaking.
They both jumped.
Coffee spilled from her cup.
“Mama.” Theo sprinted into the room. “I can’t find my panths.”
“I’ll clean this up.” Joel reached for a paper towel. “You can go help him find his panths.”
They both were aware that they’d been staring just moments before, and there was still a tense discomfort, but her laugh broke through the uneasiness.
“Which pants?” she asked.
Theo hurried ahead of her. “The blue oneths!”
An hour later, they were scrambling around the house. A little after finding the pants, Theo revealed he forgot to do a homework assignment due that morning, so while Ayesha had helped him quickly finish it, Joel volunteered to toss together breakfast sandwiches they could take on the ride to school. He’d been prepared to make breakfast considering he came up most mornings to make coffee and always got caught up in the early morning rush, usually because of Theo.
Theo grabbed a sandwich, a small container of dairy-free milk, and stared at his mother. “Lunch, Mama?”
She paused in the middle of zipping up a hoodie over her sleepwear. “I completely forgot.”
“You can buy lunch, right?” Joel reached into his pocket and pulled two bills from his wallet. “Here. Lunch is on me today.”
Theo took one of the bills, wide-eyed. “Mama, thith ith a whole ten-dollar bill! Thith can buy whatever I want.”
He waved away her words. She was about to tell him it wasn’t necessary, but it didn’t have to be necessary for him to do it. Not when it came to these two.
Josiah took the other bill, pulled a wallet from his jeans, stuffed it inside, and returned the wallet to his pocket. “Thanks, Joel.”
“I didn’t know you carried a wallet now,” Ayesha commented, impressed. “Makes you look even more sophisticated and debonair.”
“Ma, stop.” Josiah’s ears flamed. “And I got it not too long ago.”
She ushered both boys toward the front door.
“You’re not coming, Joel?” Theo asked.
“To drop you off at school?” He’d never gone before. Between Josiah’s question and now, Theo wanting him to join their little unit, he wasn’t sure it was safe to feel this welcomed. Joining the guys’ team had given him so much already, and he didn’t want to lean so far into feeling like he was part of this family, it was hard to let go when the time came.
And the time would come.
“Yeah, are you?” Josiah added.
If he wasn’t mistaken, even Ayesha looked at him like she expected him to tag along. Or, at least, wouldn’t mind it.
“I think I’ll stay here and make breakfast so your mom can have something to eat when she gets back.”
She smiled, a soft, barely there curve of her mouth, her thumb fiddling with the strap on Theo’s backpack.
“That’s a good idea.” Josiah nodded, brows lowered like he was considering something. “Yeah, that’s a really good idea. Okay. Next time, then.”
“Next time,” he promised.
They headed out the door.
She doubled back and peered around the entryway wall. “Yeah?”
“Coffee to-go.” He held up a stainless steel tumbler. “Something tells me you’ll need this.”
“You are a freakin’ saint, Mr. Lattimore.” She hurried forward, grabbed the mug, and raised onto her toes, chin tipped up.
He leaned down.
At the last moment, wits gathered, they stepped back.
“Habit,” Joel offered. “I’m…I’m so sorry.”
“No, it’s okay. I understand. It’s the same with me. I’m just surprised, even after all this time…never mind.” She walked backward, to the entryway, nibbling her top lip. “Don’t worry about it. See you in a few.”
“Mama, we are going to be late becauth of you!”
She sighed and yelled as the door closed behind her, “Theo, don’t start with me this morning!”
Joel shook his head and smiled, hand rubbing his chin.
“You fall with your actions before you fall with your heart, and I don’t think I’m the only person in there anymore.”
Don’t forget to leave comments! You guys really do give good discourse on the topics in these pieces even though it’s fiction.
13: Ramzsyn Is Now In Charge
A man in uniform entered the large office.
“How many?” Ramzsyn asked.
“Fifty men, sir.”
He flicked his wrist. “Get it done.”