Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
Xara searched the carnival grounds for any sight of Ayesha, Theo, or Josiah. There were so many beautiful families around, beautiful children. And the babies! There were so many babies! She’d come close to asking several people to hold their baby to sniff and rock them. Rub their little backs to soothe them.
She even had dreams about being a mother. About doing things the right way. Yes, her relationship with her mother was a lot better than it used to be, but it was never going to be what it could have been. She wanted what could have been. She wanted her son or daughter to have the life she never did, and she wanted to make sure any generational trauma that tried to carry on its effects through her bloodline ended with her.
Her X. Merritt brand didn’t need her as much, and she was at a point in her life where all the things she did for nonprofits and community organizations had yielded just enough for her to balance being a wife, mother, and successful businesswoman. It wasn’t going to be all ribbons and rainbows, but she’d sacrificed more for less.
“Xar?” Mike stepped in front of her. “Baby, why are you crying?”
“I am?” She shook her head. “I don’t know. There’s just so many babies.”
He pulled her into his chest and held her a while, kissing the top of her head and offering reassuring words. Parting with Val and Ant had been bittersweet as well, considering they’d wished they could stay the entire time, but it was obvious they also wanted to get back to their little one.
“Is that…” She wiped her eyes and slipped out of his embrace, attention over his shoulder. “Baby.” She swatted his arm, several times, bouncing on her toes. “Baby, I think that’s Joel. Baby, Joel’s in Hawaii and that’s Josiah with him and Ayesha didn’t say anything.”
Mike turned around. “He didn’t say anything to me either, and I could’ve used his fucking help.”
She nudged him.
They turned to each other, realizing at the same time that Theo had likely invited them to an event Ayesha hadn’t planned on telling them about, and Josiah gave them the address. None of it had come from Ayesha.
“What do we do?” she asked. “Do we leave before they see—”
“Auntie Xara!” Theo ran toward them at full speed and crashed into Xara, arms wrapping tight around her middle. “You came! You came! I mithed you.” He squeezed her then turned to Mike. “Uncle Mike!”
Mike crouched for his hug and fist bump. “Hey, big man. We missed you too.”
Xara smiled at the display. They’d just seen each other not even three days ago, but that was the thing with children. All they needed was seconds apart, really.
Theo spun around and jumped, waving his hand. “Mama! Mama! Look who I found!”
Ayesha’s head lifted from reading instructions at one of the game activity booths. When she noticed Theo was gone, panic washed over her face until she spotted him. When she looked up and noticed who he was with, the panic returned, and she started to look Joel’s way but stopped mid-head turn.
“Yeah, she didn’t know we were going to be here,” Xara whispered out of the side of her mouth.
“Come on.” Theo took a hand each and dragged them over. “Oh, and Joel ith here too. He’th with Jojo. They’re doing the father-thon potato-thack rathe.”
Xara took a moment to decipher the words. “Oh, father-son potato sack race. Wait…father and son?”
“Yeah. Joel ith our Daddy for the day. Jojo akthed him and he thaid yeth.”
“Josiah asked him and he said yes?” She couldn’t wait for those teeth to come in. “That’s so sweet.”
Mike greeted Ayesha with a hug and then kissed Xara’s temple, whispering, “I’m gonna go grill Joel,” in her ear before walking off. She tried not to nod or smile to reveal their mischievous conspiring.
She pulled Ayesha in for a long, warm hug, hoping Ayesha knew there was no reason to be embarrassed or uncomfortable. She and Joel had grown close and Joel loved the boys. It actually wasn’t that unusual he was there.
“Mama, I’m going over by Jojo,” Theo said.
He dashed off.
“Walking feet, Theo!” Ayesha shook her head. “That child of mine. When did he invite you?”
“At the beach.” Xara took her hand. “I’m so sorry. We should’ve probably checked with you first.”
“No, no. It’s okay. It’s not that I didn’t want you and Mike here. I’m just,” she shrugged, “self-conscious?”
“Don’t be.” Xara squeezed the hand she held. “And it’s cute Joel’s being their ‘Daddy’ for the day. I’m sure he’s over the moon, considering everything that’s happened. I think he might even want kids more than I do, to be honest. And that’s saying a lot.”
Ayesha’s eyes widened. “Their…what?”
“Theo said Josiah asked Joel if he could be their ‘Daddy for the day,’ I’m assuming for this event, and he agreed.”
Ayesha finally let herself look over to where the boys were setting up. Xara looked with her, bumped gazes with Mike, and she loved that they could communicate without words. Plus, she was always up for some juicy husband and wife pillow talk. Those late-night talks were a gift from her marriage she hadn’t expected.
“I didn’t know that,” Ayesha said. “And he said Josiah asked?”
They headed over to where the crowd gathered for the race. Xara noticed Joel and Josiah were both wearing black, athletic shorts and gray T-shirts, and she wondered if they’d coordinated on purpose.
She understood Ayesha’s reluctance. For three years, she’d thought she lost Mike and had only begun toying with the idea of another serious relationship when he, literally, dropped back into her life. Ayesha had confided in her that people had asked her if she thought Curtis was still alive somewhere, and she’d then ask them if they thought Curtis was the type of person to leave his young son and pregnant wife behind. There was no way in hell Mike would have and, from what she knew of Curtis, she was pretty certain it would have been the same for him.
“They’re dressed alike.” Ayesha studied Josiah with her head cocked to the side. “And, a few days ago, I learned Josiah started carrying a wallet.”
“You think it has to do with Joel?”
“I wasn’t sure, but now…I didn’t realize how much they care for him.” Her tone didn’t hold as much fondness as the words that left her mouth.
“Is that scary for you?” Xara prodded, hoping she wasn’t overstepping any boundaries.
“Terrifying, if I’m being honest.” Ayesha turned, uncertainty covering her face like she’d applied it with a foundation brush. “Do you think I made a mistake by allowing him to spend so much time with us? With them? I mean, he still talks to Sydney. He still loves Sydney. If they get back together, he won’t have the time like he does now and…that’ll hurt them.”
They made their way to the spectator spot, a set of bleachers already nearly filled, and sat. Xara would never stop appreciating that, no matter what she and Mike worked on with Ayesha, Ayesha still treated her like a dear friend. There was no pretense. They shared and confided.
She’d never been part of a circle of women so open, caring, affectionate, and loving to one another, every single one of them beautiful and the loveliest shades of brown, working together and uplifting. All in love with the men in their lives, but they never lost their very own identities. Even the first time Val met them, Larke installed box braids in her hair after them only knowing each other for four hours, and Val cried when she had to leave everyone at the airport. Adrian made fast friends with the other babies, and Ant worked out with the guys, the first time he’d ever worked out and the “muscles in his fingers got sore.”
“Joel still talks to Sydney?”
Ayesha’s head bobbed. “I didn’t suggest he cut ties completely or anything like that, but I did encourage him to create the space they both need to heal. Sydney has a hold over him that has more to do with his insecurities than Sydney herself. Like, the other day, I was going to the guest house to talk to him and, when I walked in, he looked…” She stared out at the festivities, eyes wavering between blank, hollow, and full of life. “He was devastated, Xara. It’s his eyes. When he’s happy, they look like the beaches here, clear, deep blue, and all shimmery-like. When he’s hurting, they’re empty. Dull. Almost matte.”
Xara rubbed her arm. “Syd wants kids, doesn’t she? That’s what happened recently. He found out.”
Ayesha’s head whipped around. “She told you?”
“No, but the way she talked about it…I mean, she and Joel had the discussion about children before they got married. She was onboard. You don’t go from onboard to taking it off the table completely. In my opinion, in some way or form, she’ll end up being a mother. That wasn’t the problem she had. It’s the job. Even Mo, of all people, is struggling with it. That’s why I think, if Syd finds out they’re looking at a ‘retirement’ of sorts—”
“She’ll want him back.”
Xara nodded. “Yeah.”
“And he’ll go.” Ayesha’s blink rate tripled, and the column of her throat snaked as she swallowed. “Which is where I think I messed up. I let him get too close. To the kids. I knew they loved having him around, but if Josiah’s emulating him and asking him to be his dad…Xara, I think they might be falling for him. And for Josiah to have someone ripped like that from him again…” She massaged her forehead. “But Joel, he’s just so…since he’s been in our, their lives, I haven’t had to fake having everything together. When I’m too exhausted to constantly be on my toes with Theo, he’s there. When Josiah needed someone other than me to talk to because, as he put it, ‘you wouldn’t get it, Ma,’ Joel was there. Girl, you don’t know how much I cried when Theo first started preschool and they wanted to kick him out because of his lack of impulse control, his biting, and that mouth of his.”
“Oh, Eesh.” Xara pressed her cheek against Ayesha’s. “I’m so sorry. I wish I’d known.”
“I didn’t say much about it because I was ashamed. Mothers, there’s this expectation that we’re supposed to always have it together. It’s even worse when you’re a widow. It’s like, I better not ever stop grieving Curtis while, at the same time, I better not let my grief make it so the boys grow up without a father figure. And I know there’s the guys, but Joel…”
“Now that Joel’s here, he makes it easier to breathe,” Xara offered. “You had this whole life where, in your mind, you had to control everything. Fix everything. Then, someone comes along and has the audacity to carry you when you can’t walk anymore, without a complaint.”
Ayesha bubbled with a laugh. “Exactly. Then, you lose him.”
“But then he comes back. In my case, literally. In your case,” Xara glanced at Mike and Theo heading over, “figuratively.”
“Xara,” their eyes met, “I don’t want this. It can’t…I…Xara, I don’t want this.”
“Eesh, are the boys the only ones falling for Joel?”
The roar of the crowd noise interrupted their conversation. As the teams made their way to the starting line, Xara waved to signal Mike where they were sitting, and he flanked Theo up the stands, looking over his shoulders in that way she realized he habitually did now. Theo edged up next to his mother and Mike lowered on her right, kissing her cheek before he settled.
Josiah looked overjoyed down on the field with Joel, a single leg each strapped inside a burlap sack.
Theo stood and cupped his mouth. “Whoo! Go Team J!”
She leaned closed to Mike’s ear and used the crowd noise to cover her question. “Baby, do you think Curtis would have liked Joel?”
Confusion moved over his face, but then he glanced at Ayesha. “Definitely. Curtis was the comedian of the group. He kept things light even in shitty situations. We lost that when we lost him but got it back with Lattimore. Why?”
“I’m wondering if she and Joel are—”
“I’m wondering the same thing,” he said.
“Do you think the guys would be upset if—”
“No.” He gave her another kiss on the cheek. “We wouldn’t. It’s complicated, but we’ve had to discuss some difficult shit lately, and that was one of those things.”
“But, at the villa, you said you wouldn’t have been able to accept me moving on.”
“Because I was alive somewhere,” he clarified. “What kind of a selfish fuck would you take me for if I was nothing but bones and maggots and shit and still wanted you to be alone for the rest of your life? Fuck that, Xara. I don’t want you to, but I’d hate you unhappy for the rest of your life even more.”
She shook her head. “Let’s talk about something else.”
A woman in front of them spun around, her head of springy curls shifting and her skin in a struggle between a natural tan and the paleness she was likely born with, especially as a ginger. There were a lot of people who’d traded the contiguous states for the retreat of Hawaii, Xara realized. Even with the real estate prices and the high cost of living, there were still more people from the “mainland” than she would have guessed.
“Ayesha Savea.” The woman’s tone was teasing, and there was a southern lilt to her words. She tapped Ayesha’s ring finger where a wedding band still sparkled. “You didn’t say anything.”
“What are you talking about, Tracy?” Ayesha asked.
“That fine piece of work with Josiah.” Tracy turned and all but inhaled Joel, penis-first, from the distance. “He’s got a ring on too. You got remarried?”
“What makes you think that?”
“A few reasons. One, the rings.” Tracy wiggled the fingers on her left hand. “Two, he signed up as Josiah’s father. Three, the little ways he’s been looking out for you like touching the small of your back or your side to move you out of harm’s way, buying treats for Theo, walking almost perfectly in step with you. But, if he’s just a friend and he’s maybe wearing a ring because he’s separated, let me know right now, honey. I’ll be jumping on that man before the next week is out.”
“Why do you want to jump on Joel?” Theo asked. “He’th throng, you know. He picked me up, and I’m heavier than a Komodo Dragon.”
“Look, Theo, Josiah’s getting ready to start!” Mike, Xara, and Ayesha all shouted, at the same time.
Tracy tapped her mouth. “Sorry.”
The announcer’s voice broke through the excited chatter around them. “On your mark!”
“So?” Tracy pushed.
“He’s not available,” Ayesha said. “We’re not married, but he’s recently divorced and it’s complicated.”
The runners took off.
Xara cheered with Theo, joining his “Team J” chant. Josiah and Joel ran like they’d been rehearsing for the race for months, feet falling and knees lifting in sync. They were several paces ahead by the midpoint of the race and flawlessly made the turn to head back to the finish line. It almost didn’t look fair, Josiah’s long legs and Joel’s powerful strides moving together.
Mike bumped her thigh. “I want to do this.”
“Do what?” she asked. “Potato sack racing?”
“Yeah. One day. With our kid.” Smiling, he kissed her temple. “You’re crying again.”
They cheered louder when Joel and Josiah were declared the winners. Joel, a broad smile on his face, ruffled Josiah’s curls and went with him to pick up their prize—a gift certificate to a seafood restaurant, a fifty-dollar cash prize, a container of colorful gumballs, and a small, golden trophy.
Theo was off before they barely had a chance to stand, and he rush-hugged his brother much like he’d done Xara. Then, he asked Joel a question to which Joel agreed, crouched, and let Theo climb onto his shoulders.
“The victorth!” Theo yelled, pumping a fist in the air. “The championth!”
The three of them went down to meet up with the boys.
“Your shoulders are about to be so sore tomorrow,” Ayesha teased.
Joel grinned. “It’s okay. He said he wanted a shoulder ride before his legs got long like Josiah’s and he couldn’t do them anymore.”
“Ma?” Josiah hugged his mother from the side, letting his hand rest on her shoulder. “Did you have fun? Are you happy?”
“I had loads of fun, sweetheart, and I’m so happy.” Ayesha squeezed him. “Thank you so much for asking.”
“Did you see how well Joel and I did?” A grin nearly tore the corners of his mouth. “That was awesome. Literally one of the top ten best days of my life.”
“Really? That makes me even happier.”
His smile still hadn’t fallen, and Xara noticed him glance at Joel every once in a while, smile widening each time. As if that were possible.
“Uncle Mike, do you think Dad would be happy too?” he asked. “Like if he’s,” he glanced up at the sky, “watching us, right now, do you think he was cheering for me and Joel to win?”
“Oh, I know he was.” Mike slipped his fingers between Xara’s. “Knowing Curtis, he’s ecstatic to see you guys doing so well. It’s all he ever wanted.”
Josiah nodded. “I think so too.”
“Hey, Xar?” Mike tugged her hand.
The rest of the group kept walking while she faced him. “What’s up?”
“About the last hit. A ‘friend’ was still in town, so he handled it for me.”
“Is this the same friend you met at Ayesha’s?”
“What’s his name?”
“Dom. He’s Bratva.”
She was getting better at hiding her shock, but that didn’t mean she felt it any less intensely. “Bratva. Like…the Russian mafia.”
“The main point is,” he squeezed her hand, “for the rest of the trip, I’m not taking any calls or checking any notifications. This,” he held up his wrist, “is an actual watch. My part in this whole process has been trying to reduce the amount of stress and tension in our lives, and I’ve been failing.”
“No, let me do this.” He pulled her into his body. “You are my rib, baby, and I don’t want you to leave me. Fuck everything else. You are the most important part of my life.”
She choked on a gasp. “Leave you?”
“The separate sleeping arrangements. That’s how it starts.”
Joel had confided in the team about his fallout with Sydney when it first happened. No one thought they would actually split up, but when it happened, Mike filled their house with flowers and took her to Paris. Gage took Tayler to Provence. Giorgio bought Mo a Panamera Turbo Executive and six weeks in Fiji with Ari. Julien bought Ari the villa in Fiji they stayed in, and Dez organized a vow renewal for him and Larke that was, essentially, their third wedding.
“Mike,” she cupped his jaw, “no. That’s nowhere on the radar. So toss, bury, or burn that notion, all three if you have to because it’s not like I have walking away from everything we’ve built for over a decade as an option. At any point. Unless you cheat on me. Then, I’ll drop your ass.”
He laughed and brushed his mouth over hers. “Noted.”
Theo, forever running, dashed up to them. “Auntie Xara? Uncle Mike?”
Xara pulled away from Mike and lowered. “Yeah, baby?”
“Me and Jojo are going to thpend the night at our friendth houthe. Do you want to go eat dinner food with Joel and Mama at our houthe?”
“We’d love to.”
“Okay.” He glanced between them. “Can you help me with thomething, pleath?”
“Sure,” Mike agreed.
“Can you get Joel to kith Mama?”
Mike crouched. “You want Joel to kiss your mom?”
“I know I have a dad in heaven,” he explained. “And I love him, but…I love Joel too, and today wath like, the beth day ever. Maybe if Joel kithes Mama, he’ll thtay in Hawaii and be our real dad.”
Xara clutched her chest. He was so freakin’ cute with that little face and those big eyes.
I wish I could make the world a perfect place for you, baby boy, but it’s not that simple.
“Mama mithes our Daddy.” His small face crumpled. “I don’t want her to be thad anymore, and she’th happy when Joel ith here. You love Uncle Mike, right?”
She nodded. “I do.”
“And you kith Uncle Mike. When people love each other, they kith them. I want Mama to love Joel, and I want Joel to love Mama. I wished for it on my birthday, and ith the number two thing on my Chrithmath lith.”
“What’s number one?” she asked, remembering when she’d asked her mother for a baby sister for Christmas and nearly got slapped across the room.
Theo’s right shoulder lifted in a lazy shrug. “I really want a turtle.”
Mike opened his arms, and Theo stepped into them. Based on every interaction she’d had with Theo, she would have never guessed he had a sorrowful bone in his body. The boys loved their mother so much and knowing she was hurting in any way? It hurt them just the same.
She rubbed his back. “We can’t promise that we can get Joel to kiss your mama, but I can promise to spend more time with you. All of us need to get together more, and I miss you so much when I don’t get to see you. I might even be able to do something about the turtle.”
Theo stepped back, smile slowly returning. “But you’ll try?”
She and Mike exchanged glances. “Um—”
“Hey, Theo-dactyl,” Joel called. “Mrs. Nichols is getting ready to head out. You all set, bud?”
He gave Mike and Xara one last squeeze before running over to join Josiah.
Mike and Xara arrived at a more average pace.
“I’d like to check first that we’re heading to your place, Eesh,” Xara said. “You know Theo and his invitations.”
Ayesha nodded, laughing. “Yeah. I feel like hanging tonight if that’s okay.”
“That’s more than okay,” Mike said.
“By the way, what did Theo ask you? He said he had a ‘very important question’ for Uncle Mike and Auntie Xara.”
Mike got stuck scratching his head, so Xara jumped in.
“He wants everybody to get together more. Like…everybody. He misses us, and we miss you guys too.”
Joel headed back over to them after making sure the boys were safely tucked in Mrs. Nichols’ minivan, tossing keys in the air with each stride. As he walked toward them, Xara got it. She understood. The royal blue eyes, all that dark hair, the beard, the shoulders, the lashes. Maybe, if presented with a man like that—
“Stop eye-fucking my brother,” Mike growled in her ear, hand discreetly gripping her ass and releasing. “That’ll sign you up for a jealous fuck later.”
“Really, now? A jealous fuck?” She cleared her throat. “Hey, Joel?”
He tossed her over his shoulder, headed to the car, and let Joel and Ayesha knew they were right behind them.
With a slight delay.
* * *
It was the first time Mosvar ever realized he might hate his father. He’d known he hated Argun, even while still loving him as a brother, but it had felt forbidden to step past that final line of pure malice. As where his father’s ring had connected with his jaw began to swell, the line went from light and dashed to drawn in thick spurts of blood.
And, over it he stepped.
“Fucking disgrace,” Ramzsyn spat, twisting the ring on his finger. “I hope you have learned your lesson, Mosvar. I hope you see, now, why I put your brother in charge of all of this.” He spread his arms wide. “What am I supposed to do now? Leave it to you when I die? Fuck no. I’d rather give all this to your sixteen-year-old cousin, Ava. A woman could run this tiep better than you. A fucking cunt, Mosvar.”
Mosvar rubbed his jaw, wordless, and used his tongue to push around the tooth that had come loose.
A man in uniform entered the large office.
“How many?” Ramzsyn asked.
“Fifty men, sir.”
He flicked his wrist. “Get it done.”
The man left.
“Out of my sight.” Ramzsyn lowered behind his desk. “Go find a dozen whores to fuck for all I care, thinking you’ll satisfy your taste for Xara Merritt. I do not want to see your face again until we are back on our home soil. And I swear if I find out you had anything to do with my son’s death, I’ll chop your head off myself. Have I been clearly understood?”
Mosvar nodded. “Yes. Yes, sir.”
He left the room.
When he was only a few paces down from the office, he lifted his phone to his ear and called in a few more of those favors owed to him.
Mosvar tugged the cap down further over his face, jumping each time he heard footsteps. He was in an alley. What the hell was he doing in an alley? This wasn’t his territory, but this was the only way his favor was going to be executed; he had to come in person.
A man approached and his back stiffened.
“Easy.” The man held out two hands. “It’s me.”