Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
Ayesha drummed her fingers on the console. Joel tapped his a few inches away. The only sound inside the SUV was the quiet, almost inaudible hum of the engine, and the soft music filtering through the speakers from the playlist on Ayesha’s phone. The only light was the illumination from the touchscreen.
He extended his pinky.
She hooked hers around it.
They pulled away.
“Did Mrs. Nichols say they needed toothbrushes?” she asked.
He cleared his throat. “I think she said she had spares?”
“Oh, right.” She shifted in her seat. “They’re going to have a lot of fun. Like four or five of their friends are going to be there. Theo said he’s going to teach them how to play soccer.”
They stopped at a light, and he glanced over at her. She kept her head lowered, gaze flicking his way and back to her purse sitting on her lap.
A car behind them honked.
He faced the road and pulled off.
“Are you sure you’re okay with driving?” she asked.
“It’s fine, Eesh. I swear. Relax. You’re good.”
He was taking the long way back to the house. She knew and didn’t say anything. Mike and Xara weren’t going to be on time anyhow, not with the way Mike had carried her out of the venue. The amount of sex those two had couldn’t be normal. Whenever all the guys were away, they always gave Mike the room the farthest away from everyone else’s because, even on video chat, he and Xara almost always needed the extra privacy.
Ayesha spoke up. “So, how are you doing with…”
“The Syd situation?” He made a right turn. “You were right about the level of communication I’ve maintained with her muddying my ability to deal with our divorce. I’m, obviously, still working through certain things.”
“Is it something you want to talk about?”
“I’m afraid to move on,” he admitted. “I’m afraid to deal with things never again being the way they were, but I’m also afraid of making the same mistakes I made with Syd. I mean, if I can push her away, I can push…anyone…away.”
She shifted again, the movement pushing her hand into his. Their fingers slipped together and squeezed, briefly, before pulling apart. He did the same fake shift and joined their hands with his palm against the back of her hand. She went to pull away, but he held her hand in place.
“Why didn’t you do what Syd asked?” she asked. “You chose the guys over your marriage. If it was important to you, it might have been a difficult decision, but why not leave?”
It was difficult to explain, and he didn’t know where to begin.
“Do you think they would do it?” he asked. “Like, if Mo asked Giorgio to leave the team.”
They glanced at each other and said, at the same time, “Mo wouldn’t ask.”
“Julien, then,” he urged. “Curtis.”
She was silent for a moment.
“I don’t think either of them would. Julien is a hunch just because of who he is. Curtis, I’m pretty sure about. Did they ever tell you how he died?”
They stopped at another light.
“A building came down,” Joel said.
“Yes,” she nodded, “but his actions directly saved the guys’ lives. Every last one of them. He died so they could live, and they’re honoring him by opening up themselves to love and families despite the crap that goes on around us.”
He drove off again, fingers stroking gentle paths on her skin.
“Curtis used to say I was his heart, Dez his left hand, Huang his right, Gage and Giorgio his lungs, and Julien his brain. He was the only one married for a while, so he told the guys that if anything ever happened to him, he wanted them to take care of me. I turned them away in the beginning, hurt and mad and looking for someone to blame, but they were there when Theo was born, Joel. All of them. Giorgio, big and dangerous Giorgio, stayed up with Theo numerous nights so I could get some rest. When he couldn’t, Gage did. Josiah spent entire summers with Ari and Julien, and he idolizes Mike. Dez taught Theo how to walk.”
Her hand went from stiff to relaxed, and she no longer flinched every time the pads of his fingers made contact with her skin.
“Curtis saved men like that.” She breathed through a quick, shaky laugh. “I miss him, but I’m proud to say I was married to him and we had two kids together. For the guys to want to bring you into this says a lot about who they think you are. I love you guys, every last one of you, for who you are and what you do.” She paused. “What were we talking about?”
He laughed. “I don’t remember, but we love you too, Eesh.”
He loved her even when she was honest in ways he didn’t enjoy. When she didn’t coddle his emotions whether raw or healed. Looking back, he could see it was what he’d needed, and that honesty was still woven within the foundation of their friendship.
“Just because Syd’s dating already doesn’t mean she didn’t or doesn’t still love you. Sometimes, you have to force yourself to move on because, if you wait for your heart, you’ll never get anywhere. You also have to look at it from both sides, Joel. You couldn’t give her what she wanted, and don’t you think she deserves to find out if someone else can? Maybe happiness, for her, isn’t with you. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, and it doesn’t mean she’s doing something wrong.”
Joel turned his attention to the floor-to-ceiling windows around his condo. The empty house had become too much to deal with, so he sold it and bought this penthouse space which made him feel like his life was going backward. He would have appreciated this penthouse in his early-to-mid twenties, before the thought of having a family was ever a priority. This was not a place for a child, and it was interesting how that was a negative thing at this juncture in his life.
“That was…brutally honest,” he said.
Ayesha shrugged. “Don’t expect me to lie to you, and I wouldn’t tell you this if I didn’t love you guys.”
He glanced at her.“But how can you say that when you still hold on to Curtis?”
She bristled. It was slight, but he noticed.
“That doesn’t mean my bed doesn’t get lonely.”
There was no edge to her words. He was being an asshole, and it was like she saw through the harshness directly to the pain, in a matter of seconds, and simply brushed it aside.
“I daydream about falling in love again. I even want more kids. I hold onto Curtis because he’s the standard. He wasn’t perfect, but he was true to himself. He didn’t boast or put on airs. He loved life and he made me feel loved. When I compare the men I’ve met to him, they don’t even come up past his knees. Someone, someday will come along and measure up. And he’ll be the right one.”
Joel pushed up off the sofa and went to stand in front of the windows. “And it’ll just happen, won’t it? You won’t be able to plan it or control it.”
“That’s fucking terrifying.”
She laughed. “Yes. Yes it is. Humans, we like control, but here’s a secret; you can’t truly control another person. Even kids one day grow up and move on.”
“So what you’re saying is—”
“That’s exactly right.” Their gazes connected across the room. “You can’t control what Sydney does, and you’re going to have to start accepting that, today, if you envision you two being so much as friends later. I’m not telling you to get over her. I’m telling you to get over yourself.”
“Do you think Syd was wrong for leaving?” he asked. “Was she right?”
Ayesha shrugged. The movement pulled her hand away from his, slightly, and before he had a chance to reach out, she slipped it back under his palm.
“Sydney did what was right for her, I think,” she said.
He didn’t have anything to say to that. There was no arguing with that response, that logic. At the end of the day, he’d learned that despite the pain he’d felt in the beginning, a hidden part of him had wanted Sydney to be happy. Now, that part was no longer hidden.
“Can I ask you something now, Mr. Lattimore?”
He made a turn that added another few minutes to their drive. “Sure.”
“When did Josiah ask you to be his ‘Dad’?”
His heart stumbled through a series of anxious beats. “Earlier this week.”
“That same morning I learned about his wallet?”
“Yeah, but just for the day. He didn’t mean it as a permanent thing.”
“I know.” Her thumb, cautiously, slid along the side of his. “I’m just wondering why he didn’t tell me.”
“Maybe he thought you’d be offended.” He stole a glance at her. “Are you? I don’t want to overstep—”
“I’m not offended. Did he ask to dress like you too?”
“He asked me what colors we should wear.”
“Were you offended?”
“By his question? No. Not at all.”
“Joel, if you make one more turn, we’re going to end up going in a full circle.”
He smiled. “I got the sense that we needed to talk about some things, so I was giving us time to do that before we got to the house.”
She looked down at their clasped hands. “Is this one of the things we’re supposed to talk about?”
“Depends. Is this something you want to talk about?”
He turned onto the road leading up to the house. Xara and Mike were just turning off the engine to their rental when they pulled up.
Joel waved, pulled into the garage, and shut off the car.
“What about after I get back from my psychology conference in California next week?” Ayesha asked. “We can talk then, about this. Joel, I can’t hold your hand. I didn’t know Sydney as well as I know Mo and Larke and everyone else, but I knew her well enough. There has to be some rule against this. This can’t be right.”
“I agree.” He slipped their fingers together. “How does something like this even happen?”
“Nothing’s happening.” She moistened her lips with her tongue, and he could almost feel her nerves firing in the small cabin space. “You agree…right? We’re just…it’s the boys. We’re getting our ‘situation’ muddled because we spend so much time together with the boys. I’ve always wanted to meet someone like you, and you’ve always wanted to feel like what you mean to me and Josiah and Theo.”
“Could be.” He shrugged and pretended that neither of their hands shook. “But, you’re right. I mean, there’s no way everyone else would ever be okay with this thing that’s obviously not happening between us.”
She laughed. “What do we do, then?”
“Ayesha, do you want to let go?”
“I have to.”
“Do you want to?”
“Eesh.” He leaned across the console toward her. “It’s okay. This,” he slid his index finger along the side of hers, “is just what it is right now. Comfort. Nothing more, nothing less. Considering what we’ve both gone through, wanting a little bit of closeness makes sense, right? And, in the past year, you, Theo, and Josiah have become important, if not the most important parts of my life. I can’t think of anybody else I’d rather do this with.”
“Comfort,” she echoed. “It’s been a while since I’ve had comfort.”
“And if you want me to stop, I’ll stop.”
Her attention went back to their joined hands and tangled fingers.
“Do you want me to stop?”
“No, but do you want to stop?” she asked. “Because you can. If you want to.”
Now that the car was off, he wondered if she could hear the way his heart vibrated, almost through his ribcage. It was a wonder he was able to hear her talking at all. She was right—they needed to talk. It was just, for the life of him, he didn’t know what they would say when they finally did.
“Comfort,” his thumb stroked her palm, “is holding hands.”
She closed her eyes. “And having someone make you coffee in the morning. You never realize that those are the things you’ll end up missing the most.”
“What else do you think you need, Eesh? If you need me to talk to you until three in the morning, I’ll do it. If you need me to hold you, I’ll hold you all night.”
She eased back, slipped her hand from his, and hopped out of the SUV so quickly, it took him a few seconds to realize her skin was no longer against his fingers.
This would have been so much easier if it was someone else, anybody else, and it was simply him needing a warm body to slide into.
He’d had sex since the divorce, but it wasn’t actually good sex. All the sex after Sydney was rebound sex, with two women, one of them whose voice he had no recollection of because he literally never listened to her. Longing was the only reason his dick had worked in those situations, but his mind had checked out. There’d been no foreplay on his part, nothing about their lips wrapped around him had been remotely intriguing, and he hadn’t cared whether or not they were satisfied after. It had only been a way to temporarily remove himself from his misery.
This wasn’t that.
It wasn’t a complete lie, him telling Ayesha this was just comfort. He’d give her all he could, all she needed—touches, caresses, coffee in the mornings. It was, after all, the only thing they could give each other. All the talks they’d had about releasing the need to control and here they were, holding onto it for dear life because the consequences of letting go would be major.
He waited until she disappeared inside the house before following.
THE REST OF THE EVENING reminded him of why he enjoyed the way his life had gone in the years since he joined the team. They played spades with Mike and Xara, talked on the patio, and it was one of the best nights he’d had in over a year.
He’d bled with these men. He had an older sister, loving and retired parents, but that was completely different compared to saving a man’s life and having him save yours. These were his brothers. They all had the same level of importance and responsibility when it came to making sure everyone returned home.
He understood Sydney’s fears. Tayler, Larke, Ari, Mo, Xara…they all felt the same things. For Ayesha, her fear had become a reality. Yet, in many regards, he harbored the same risks as someone who was active duty military. Roofers, pilots, loggers and, hell, fishermen all had dangerous jobs. He’d asked, begged Sydney to hold on because he wasn’t going to do it forever, but then she’d dropped the ultimatum on him—their marriage or the guys:
“I didn’t know, when I agreed, it would entail this much.” Sydney slipped her legs through the holes of a pair of shorts, tears sparkling on her cheekbones. “Joel, the last time you left, I didn’t hear from you for months and then you came back with bruises over twenty-five percent of your body. I didn’t go into this marriage alone, and I’m not going to spend my time in it alone, worrying about you until I’m sick. If you keep this up, you’re going to leave me a widow. Is that you want?”
“Syd, just give me time.” He tried to get nearer, but she stepped backward. “This isn’t a forever, thing.”
“This,” she pointed between them, “was supposed to be.”
“What would it take for us to reach a compromise?”
“You telling me you’re done as of tonight.”
“And what, go back to the Bureau?”
“You don’t have to go back to the FBI. You’re free to do something different.”
“With your permission,” he groused. “I can have any career as long as you clear it.”
“Please try to understand.”
“Syd, how can Tayler, Larke, Ari—”
“I’m not them!” Her fists clenched at her sides, chest rising and falling in her cotton top. “Joel, I’m not them so don’t compare me to them.”
“You’re right.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “That wasn’t fair.”
“No offense to them, but Tayler let Gage leave her pregnant with their first kid and no guarantee he’d be coming back. With Dez and Larke, it was the same thing. Julien and Ari’s daughter was abducted, and then they had the nerve to have a second kid. Giorgio’s past has Mo always mixed up in something that even threatened their baby, and Xara thought Mike was dead for three whole years then just took him back? I’m not them, so don’t expect me to be. I’m not going to accept you doing that to me. I don’t love you like they love theirs. I want you home and safe, not out somewhere chasing death, regardless of who or what you’re saving.”
That was fair. It wasn’t like she was being unreasonable. He just wanted her to love him enough to get past this. Needed it. Understanding the problem wasn’t the issue. The issue was that they were at an impasse it appeared couldn’t be fixed.
He leaned against the wall. “How long would you wait? What if me and the guys do want less ‘intense’ lives but we have to be strategic about it, which will take time? How long would you wait for me?”
She walked over to their bed and climbed under the covers. “You could get called out tomorrow and never come back.”
“And if I can’t give you what you want just yet?”
“Then I don’t know how much longer this will work.” She turned, back facing him, but he could still see the tears. “Maybe, tonight, sleep in one of the guest rooms. We both need the space right now.”
“Syd, what if I can give you what you want in a few years?”
She didn’t respond.
It was the first of many nights sleeping apart, the first of many circular arguments. Then, he’d come back from an assignment to an empty house and a stack of papers needing his signature.
The worst fucking day of his life.
Xara and Mike decided to spend the night and, exhausted, they collapsed in one of the guest bedrooms farthest from the other main rooms. He and Ayesha stayed up a while longer, talking while staring out at the mountains and the ocean, his fingers moving over hers and hers over his to the rhythm of the swells and crests of the waves.
* * *
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.
“Steady,” the man said. “It’s me.”
Mosvar bent over, breathing hard, his hands on his knees. “Christ, Dominik. Men like you, they should not walk in dark places.”
Dominik leaned against the alley’s brick wall, arms folded. “I’m surprised you showed up. Thought your little mafia family was afraid of men like me?”
“They are.” Mosvar pointed like his father stood right behind him. “Now, are you prepared to do what I asked?”
Dominik raised a brow.
“What I mean is,” Mosvar backpedaled, “is everyone ready to go?”
Dominik nodded. “I’m ready.”
“Your plan will go off without any issues, Sarayev.”
“And you are certain you can do it?” Mosvar asked. “This man, he’s not normal. He’s somehow associated with The Beast, and I recently lost a few men to that…psychopath.”
“You sent men after Pozza?” Dominik laughed. “What could those men have possibly done for you to send them to their deaths so carelessly?”
“I thought they’d be able to take care of things.”
“Don’t force me to take you for more of a fool than you already are.”
Mosvar started a rebuttal, the muscles in his cheeks already in motion, but he took in the large, scarred frame in front of him. The Beast had given Dominik those scars. It had been foolish to send anyone after it.
There’d been no third man. He’d lied to his father. Dominik had come to him and named a price. Based on Dominik’s background, the sum had been almost an insult; he would have agreed to twice that amount, but he didn’t push his luck. If anyone could get this done, it was the prodigal Son of the Bratva.
“Do you have the address?” he asked.
Dominik nodded. “I do.”
“And the address for the other place?”
Dominik turned, ready to walk off. “Anything else?”
“Uh…no. I appreciate this.”
The larger man left without a response.
Does this episode change your perception of Dominik or did you already think he was a snake?
“Mike, please, dear God, Almighty, for all that is holy. How are you this calm right now?”
“Calm means a clear head.” He tapped his temple—with the nozzle of the fucking gun—and she knew then all traces of her husband had left. “And I need a clear head right now, Xar.”