Episode 16: In Another Life

Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.

The next two episodes will be released on the 8th and 9th, both to keep pace and to give everyone an escape.


Joel set down his phone and made a mental note to call Mike back later that evening to see if he and Xara wanted to get together again. He’d caught them in the middle of a lazy day fishing out at Lahaina Harbor.

Ayesha was exhausted and had slept, in and out, all day, so he’d volunteered to pick up the boys from school. Theo wasn’t acting like his normal self—for one, he walked out of his classroom and to the SUV and hadn’t needed either a vest or crayons or conversation to keep him entertained on the ride home.

It wasn’t until they pulled into the garage that Joel realized why.

“Joel?” Theo called. “Can you help me get out? I hurt everyplathe.”

“What do you mean you hurt everyplace?” Joel walked around to the back passenger door, reached for him, and was met with a wave of heat. “Baby boy, you are burning up.”

“I think he’s getting the flu.” Josiah, on the other side, grabbed Theo’s backpack. “The nurse gave him some Tylenol. I told her to call you and Ma, but she said it broke his fever.”

“Do you know about how long ago?” Joel asked.

“This morning.”

“This morning? And she didn’t call?” 

He lifted Theo out of the car, his weight awake much easier to manage than when he was asleep—he’d also played up Theo’s heaviness a little to get Josiah and Ayesha to laugh—and carried him inside all the way to his bed. On the way, Ayesha popped out of her bedroom, and it was amazing how mothers could sense something was wrong with their child before even seeing them.

“What happened?” She followed them into the room. “Did he get hurt? Baby, are you hurt? Talk to Mommy. What happened?”

“I hurting, Mama,” Theo said, in full baby mode. 

“And he’s running a fever.” Joel went to the kitchen, returned with a forehead thermometer, and aimed it at Theo’s head. “One-hundred and three. Jeez, buddy.”

Ayesha sat at the edge of the bed, and Theo crawled into her lap. “I’ve got children’s Tylenol in my bathroom,” she said.

“Josiah said the school nurse gave him some earlier today.” 

“Why didn’t she call one of us? Even if I’m not feeling too hot today, you’re cleared to pick him up.”

Joel went to retrieve the medicine and, as he reentered the room, Theo looked at him like he was about to administer an enema. 

“Come on, Theo. You have to take it. Did you give the nurse a hard time?”

“No, but Nurth Anna ithn’t you or Mama. I can be mythelf with you and Mama.” Theo raised his head. “Mama, you’re hot too.”

Joel poured the medicine. “Open up.”

Theo, with a groan longer than Les Miserables, lowered his chin barely enough for air to get in. Joel pressed the cup against his lips, tipped it back, and waited to make sure he swallowed instead of letting it dribble down the sides of his mouth, as was his M.O.

He and Ayesha checked to make sure Theo’s mouth was clear, then he set the cup down and pressed the back of his hand against Ayesha’s forehead. “He’s right, Eesh. You do feel warm.”

She ran her fingers through Theo’s curls. “I’m ok—”

Before she had the full sentence out, he already had the thermometer hovering over her forehead.

“One-oh-two-point-nine. You have a fever, babe.”

“I can’t be sick. I have the conference and the boys and—”

“You’re going to have to miss the conference.” Joel sat across from her on the mattress. Theo reached for his shirt and rubbed the hem between his thumb and index finger. “I’ll stay up here in the main house until you guys are better.”

“I’ll be fine by tomorrow,” she argued. “I feel bad asking you to—”

“You didn’t ask.” He stood. “Come on.”

Now, it was her turn to groan.

“I see where Theo gets it from. Theo, I’m gonna help your mama get settled in bed and be right back.”

Josiah appeared in the doorway. “Joel, you can help Ma, and I’ll help Theo. Want to watch me play Final Fantasy, Theo?”

Theo’s eyes lit up. “Yeth! I pick Jojo.”

Joel pressed his hand against his chest. “Ouch. I’m hurt.”

“Thorry, Joel. Maybe you and Jojo can thwitch later.”

Josiah took Ayesha’s hand and placed it in Joel’s. “Don’t be stubborn, Ma. That’s what you always used to tell me whenever I got sick and didn’t want to cooperate. Let me and Joel take care of you and Theo. He’s a good guy, and I can do this.”

Ayesha studied her son’s face. “Okay, baby.”

Joel closed his hand over Ayesha’s and they headed for her room, Josiah’s words repeating in his head. There was more meaning behind those words. He’d realized it a few times, the fact that Josiah’s messages as of late seemed to contain multiple meanings. The fact that Josiah had emphasized he was “a good guy” made him wonder if, when he wasn’t around, Ayesha thought differently. 

“I’ll make you and Theo some soup.” He pulled back her covers, helped her into bed, and pulled the covers over her body. “And I’ll get you some Tylenol too. Anything else you need?”

She stared at him, wordless for a moment. “Do you mind calling and canceling my conference reservation?”

“Got it. Anything else?”

“Calling the school?”

“Already planned to.” He sat along the edge of the bed. “Anything…else?”

“Why do you ask like that?”

“Because I have to. If I don’t, you’ll try to do everything on your own. You still, for whatever reason, think I mind taking care of you and the boys. Eesh,” he leaned toward her, “I don’t mind at all. Matter of fact, I feel like I’m part of a family, and I plan on riding that feeling for as long as I can.”

“You’ll have a family one day, Joel.”

“Yes, but right now, my family is you and the boys. Think of it as practice for me for these Dad years you think still lay ahead. At this rate, I’ll be the seventy-year-old guy at my son’s preschool graduation.”

She laughed, then moaned. “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts.”

“I’m sorry.” He grinned. “But do we have an understanding?”

“Yes, sir.” She saluted. “And…thank you. So much. With everything that I am…thank you, Joel. Without you here right now, this would be ten times harder. When you leave, I’m going to have such a hard time adjusting back. Please, please keep a close eye on my little Theo-potamus.”

Leaving wasn’t something he wanted to think about at the moment. She was running a pretty high fever and if Theo’s raised so much as a notch, he could start seizing. Those were his main concerns.

“Of course.” His grin grew wider. “And he’ll love that one. Maybe even more than my Theo-dactyl.” 

“Can you at least wear a mask?” she asked. “I have some in the guest bathroom for when I’m cleaning and dusting and stuff. It’ll be a disaster if all four of us get sick. And have Josiah wear one too. He got his flu shot, but still…so did Theo.”

He raised his shirt. “Do you see these abs? This isn’t genetics. This is hard work and balanced nutrition. I have the immune system equivalent of a universal vaccine.”

She sighed. “Joel…”

“Fine.”

“And gloves.”

He shook his head, smiling. “Of course.”

“Thank you.”

“One day, I’ll grow immune to your charms.”

She laughed, groaned again. 

“Anything else you need before I go check on Theo and make the soup?” 

“One thing.” She snuggled further into the covers. “Let me know how my baby’s doing. As much as possible.”

He ticked his head to the side. “Already planned to.”

* * * 

Three days later and Ayesha and Theo weren’t better. 

Theo’s fever had lowered and though by only two degrees, it was at least a step in the right direction. Ayesha’s remained in the one-hundred-two region, falling only after a dose of medicine only to return a few hours later.

“Joel?”

His head popped up. He’d fallen asleep on the sofa after making breakfast, dropping Josiah off at school, and reassuring Theo’s soft-spoken teacher he would be okay. 

Then, he’d been up half the night helping Theo through several vomiting episodes, and he’d also spent a good portion of that time keeping Ayesha in bed because she “heard her baby throwing up.” He was exhausted, and it was almost twisted how much he loved this reason for being exhausted. He didn’t mind getting only a few hours’ sleep per day until they were better.

“Joel, are you thill here?”

He pushed up off the sofa, yawned, and headed to Theo’s room. Theo was on his bed, trying to sit up but struggling. The poor kid. He was trying to remain his happy-go-lucky self, but he was miserable, in pain, and his skin was tinted by the burn of fever. 

And, he was crying. 

Theo almost never cried.

It was easy to forget that he was essentially still a baby, and especially so when it came to handling moments like this. He’d seen Theo handle stomachaches, allergies, and colds, but never the flu. 

“Hey, bud.” He sat on the bed. “What’s wrong?”

“I hurt, Joel. A lot.”

“It might not feel like it, but you are getting better.” He checked his watch. “You’re due for another round of medicine in a bit, and that’ll help with some of that achey-ness.”

He pulled Theo into his arms and held him close. The middle-of-the-night stomachache, the body aches, and fever were his only symptoms. Ayesha had all three plus a sore throat, chills, absolutely no appetite, and she could barely stay awake for more than a couple hours.

He gave Theo a gentle hug and rocked him a bit. “I’m sorry, bud. I know this sucks. I wish I could make it all go away for you.”

“Joel, when you go hurt bad guyth to keep the whole wide world thafe, can you come back here after?” Theo asked. “Here with me and Jojo and Mama.”

A mix of sorrow and joy snared him by the throat and chest. 

This kid…

“You like when I’m here?” 

Theo nodded. “I like when we play thoccer and go to the beach and eat together. And watch Trollth. I never met my Daddy. Mama talkth about him, and she tellth me thories, but I can only draw him and pretend about him. When we do thuff together, me and you and Jojo and Mama, I feel like I have a Daddy. And I think I like having a Daddy.”

Jesus, Theo.

“Well,” he blinked a few times, cleared his throat, and took a deep breath, “I’m happy that I can make you happy by just being here.”

“Jojo liketh it too.”

“Does he?”

“Mhm. He told me. He said Mama liketh when you’re here too, but she’th too thcared.”

“Why does he think your mama’s scared?”

Somehow, his little body snuggled even closer. “Becauth Mama loveth my Daddy.”

“Yes, she does. Very much.”

“But I love you and Mama and Jojo. Thath three people. If Mama can love Daddy, she can thill love you too, right?”

This was a more complicated talk than Theo asking how babies were made. 

If only things were that simple. Then, he would have had a perfectly fine and amicable split with Sydney, have no qualms about opening his heart, and Ayesha would sail right in. However, not before Curtis came down from heaven to tell her it was okay to sail into his heart. 

They would have no fears about whether loneliness was driving them together or if something simpler was trying to coax them into a situation that would be anathema; a situation that could destroy the whole group. 

He would know, without a shred of doubt, that what he felt when he was with her had nothing to do with wanting to replace what he lost as soon as possible because losing Sydney hurt. She would know, without a shred of doubt, that being with him didn’t mean she’d lose the love or memory of her late husband.

He wanted to be here, there, and everywhere she was. Yet, each time he realized that, a small voice in the back of his head said, “But…Syd.”

“I don’t know, Theo,” he replied, and it was an honest answer. “But, I love you. I love you and Josiah—”

“And Mama?”

“Yes.” He did love Ayesha, but it wouldn’t serve any of them any good right now to try to decipher in what ways or how much. “I love all of you, and as long as you’ll have me, I’ll be here for you. I was…really sad before I met you guys. And it was the kind of sad where I didn’t know how to be happy again.”

Theo nodded. “I’ve been there.”

“Is that right?” Joel laughed. “Well, since meeting you guys, I’ve learned how to be happy again. I’ve even learned how to be happier than I’ve ever been before. You and Josiah are some of the most awesome kids I’ve ever met. And your mother…she’s a force of nature.”

“What doeth a forth of nature mean?”

“It means,” he unscrambled the words in his head in a way Theo would understand, “she’s…you know how you love grilled cheese sandwiches?”

Theo giggled. “Mama’th a grilled cheethe thandwich. I’m telling.”

“Hear me out, hear me out. Remember that time you didn’t have one for a long time, and then I packed one for you for that beach picnic we went on for your mama’s birthday? Your mama’s like opening up that picnic basket and expecting Brussels sprouts, but what you get is, well, your favorite. A grilled cheese sandwich.”

Theo remained silent for so long, Joel thought he’d fallen asleep.

“Okay,” he finally said. 

“You still going to tell on me?”

He giggled. “No.”

“Thanks, bud.”

“Joel?”

“Hmm?”

“I’m hungry now.”

* * *

Earlier, when Joel was asleep in the living room, Ayesha had mustered enough energy to pull out Theo’s old baby monitor, place it in his room, crawl back to hers, and collapse on her bed. Even if she couldn’t help, she still wanted to hear her baby. Listen to his breathing. Joel was doing a great job, but that didn’t mean Theo couldn’t call out for his mama at some point.

“I don’t know, Theo, but I love you too. I love you and Josiah—”

“And Mama?”

“Yes. I love all of you, and as long as you’ll have me, I’ll be here for you. I was…really sad, you could say, before I met you guys. And it was the kind of sad where I didn’t know how to be happy again.”

Maybe she should have helped Joel more as a professional than a friend. Yes, she had the training and expertise to help him through loss, but he, Mike, and Xara weren’t exactly clients. They were loved ones going through a tough time who she’d wanted to be there for. She loved them, and they would do the same for her if the tables were turned.

“Hear me out, hear me out. Remember that time you didn’t have one for a long time, and then I packed one for you for that beach picnic we went on for your mama’s birthday? Your mama’s like opening up that picnic basket and expecting Brussels sprouts, but what you get is, well, your favorite. A grilled cheese sandwich.”

If she’d at least treated Joel like a client, made their entire transaction more formal, she could have chalked this thing building between them up to transference and countertransference. He was attaching to her in his grief. She was attaching to him because no one, not a single person since Curtis died, had ever come into her life and made her feel like this. 

Joel fit. And she hated how well he did because, once he left, what would happen to the boys?

“Eesh?” He poked his head in the room. “You up?” 

She pushed the monitor receiver under her pillow. “Yeah.”

“I’m about to make Theo something to eat. You want to try some food today?”

Illness was interesting. How was it possible that it erased the need for the single most important thing that fueled the human body?

“I’m not really hungry.”

“Will you at least try to eat something?” 

He pushed the door in all the way and stood in the opening. Making him wear a mask was a mistake. Now, the focal point on his face was just his eyes. Those damn beautiful eyes. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the way his hair fell, it was like the strands framed them. It was impossible to look elsewhere.

“I’ll try,” she promised.

“It’s all I ask.”

She listened as he stopped first at Theo’s room, sat with him while they ate grilled cheese sandwiches, and stayed until he fell asleep. She wasn’t expecting grilled cheese, but she’d assumed he’d bring her something more appealing than the bowl of orange, weird-smelling liquid he carried as he entered her room. She had a sore throat, upset stomach, headache, and fever. The works. But, of course, she didn’t lose her sense of smell.

“Ugh, what is that?”

He set the bowl on the nightstand. “Bone broth.”

“I don’t want it.”

“I know you don’t ‘want’ it, but you need it. It’s got like nine grams of protein per serving, Ayesha.”

She peered into the bowl. “It looks like it needs salt.”

“You saying because I’m white I don’t salt my food?”

It hurt to laugh, but she couldn’t help it.

“I’m not leaving until at least half of that bowl is empty.” He emphasized his point by going around to the other side of the bed, climbing on top of the sheets, and folding his arms.

Ayesha grabbed the bowl, lifted the spoon to her nose, and gagged. Eyes closed, she brought the spoon up to her mouth, let some of the liquid slip in, and swallowed.

“Hmm.” Her eyelids popped open. “Okay, so it’s not that bad.”

“By itself, it’s awful,” he said. “But I zhuzhed it up a little. Italian grandmother and all.”

Instead of finishing half the bowl, she finished the entire thing and placed the bowl and utensils back on the nightstand. Now that she was no longer preoccupied with food, sitting up was starting to hurt, so she carefully lay next to where he sat. Less than a second later, his fingers moved soft and light near her temple. 

It was tragic now to think that she’d gotten used to living without this level of human comfort. No one should have to live their life without a gentle touch every once in a while. 

“What would you say makes Sydney special?” she asked.

He made a low noise in his throat. “Will this be homework later?”

“No, but there’s a method to my madness.”

“As usual.” His fingers passed over the shell of her ear. “She was my best friend. We went through difficult things together, and she was my confidante. To be honest, I’ve never loved anyone but Sydney and, when life’s like that, you get this idea that you can’t love anybody else. It’s like you start to believe you’re born with all the love you’ll ever be able to experience. So, when someone comes along and drains it, every last ounce, it feels like what they leave behind will never be enough for how much you want to give to someone else.” He pressed the back of his hand against her cheek. “You’re still so warm, Ayesha.”

“Is Theo still getting better?” 

“Slowly, but yes.”

“Then I’m fine.”

His strokes became more deliberate—over her cheekbone, along her jaw, her hairline. 

She almost purred. 

So long. It had been so long. 

“You, same question,” he said. 

“Curtis was my first and only love. I actually never thought someone like him would be interested in me. He was good looking, popular, kind. Strong and gentle at the same time. I spent a good portion of my life feeling awkward and out of place. With him was the first time I felt like I belonged. Being with him was home. Happiness. I didn’t think I’d ever feel anything close to that ever again.”

“You don’t or you didn’t?” he asked.

“Didn’t.”

His knuckles passed over the sensitive skin on the back of her neck. “If I would have noticed you, it’s not surprising Curtis did.”

“How’s that?”

“Ayesha, you are…” He pushed out a short, nervous laugh. “Eesh, you’re so…so beautiful. You’re strong, you’re sweet. Smart. Funny. Kind. And you have this calm way about you. Like your presence alone could bring order to a room of chaos. You’re, hands-down, one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met. If I can see it, it was probably like spotting an elephant on an airplane for Curtis.”

The rise and fall of his chest gave away the speed of his heartbeat.

“Joel, we can’t do this.”

He nodded. “I know.” 

“Maybe we shouldn’t be each other’s…comfort.”

“You’re right.”

His hands and fingers kept stroking, grazing. 

She didn’t reach to try to stop them.

“I guess it’s safe to tell you that I think you’re beautiful too,” she said. “And not just your face, those eyes. Your heart, Joel. You have such a big heart and you’re selfless. You care about me and the boys in ways I never expected, and when you’re around, everything disappears—stress, loneliness, fear. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’ll never, in a million years, be someone no one wants. You just…you’ve gone through life. You’ve loved and lost, as have I. We’re still deserving people. In another world, maybe we’d deserve each other.”

“In another world,” his fingers slid over the rounded tip of her nose, “we’d be a family. Me, you, the boys.”

“Maybe even more than the four of us.”

There was a hitch in his voice. “You have kids with me in this alternate universe?”

“I do. A little girl.”

He blinked, eyes going from misted to normal and back. “What else?”

“We’re in love. We date for a while, but not that long since we’ve had feelings for each other for a while. We get married, but it’s a small ceremony with our closest friends and family.”

“I proposed to you on the beach,” he said, adding to their fairy tale. “We’re afraid because we’ve both done this before—”

“But then we realize it’ll make us no different than the family we are now. Just official.”

She could count on one hand the number of times he blinked while staring at her.

“You stay with me,” he half-said, half-asked. 

“It’s scary, considering I’ve already lost a husband, but I love you—”

“And I love you too—”

“So, I stay with you.”

The pad of his index finger lightly brushed her eyelashes. “I come back to you, just like I’ve promised you over and over. I come back to you when it’s all said and done. I’m there when you wake up and go to sleep. I’m there to help you raise our three kids—”

“Four.” She laughed, chest and throat tight. “You come back, and we get a little carried away, but I’m ecstatic to have another baby with you.”

He closed his eyes and tipped his head back against the headboard. 

“And you’re an amazing father.” Her voice broke as she took his hand in hers. “But I already know you will be because of how good you are with the boys. Our favorite thing to do is watch movies after dinner, the six of us. Our kids, they love you. They love their father so much. You take care of us, you protect us, and we don’t know what we’d do without you.”

His Adam’s apple bobbed. His voice shook. “In another life.”

“In another life.”

The doorbell rang and he tipped his head forward, searching for his phone to check the camera. Once he pulled up the feed, he froze and his eyes met hers. 

“It’s the guys.”

She raised her head. “The guys?”

“Yeah. All of them.”

He gently squeezed her hand, eased off the bed, and headed to the front door. The minute the door opened, he knew something worse than terrible had happened. He’d been trying to get in contact with Mike and Xara for a few days, but he hadn’t thought much of not being able to reach them. Knowing them, he’d assumed they’d gone on some kind of sex binge and wanted to be left alone until it was over.

He stepped aside so the men could enter. Dez wasn’t with them.

“We lost Mike and Xara,” Gage said.

What?” Joel tore the mask off his face. “Lost how? Like—”

“Missing, as of right now.” Julien sat at the edge of the coffee table. “Mike turned everything off. Cameras, communication devices, and even his watch. We were thinking that maybe he just wanted some privacy. You know how he and Xara get.”

They all nodded.

“But then, we got a distress signal. Within an hour, we were all on a jet. Gage and Giorgio got here first since they’re in Cali. When they got to the villa, everything was shot up.”

The hairs on Joel’s arm stood on end. “That fucking Chechen family involved?”

Gage leaned against the entryway wall, arms folded. “We got most of them. The head, Ramzsyn or whatever the fuck he calls himself, missed my bullet by a couple millimeters, and his guys got him out just before I unleashed Giorgio.”

Which would explain why Giorgio was covered in red streaks.

“We swept the whole villa. We didn’t find either one of them, so when Julien and Dez showed up, we did a quick sweep of the island. All Mike’s shit is still at the villa, Lattimore. Guns and everything. Xara’s stuff too. They wouldn’t leave all that behind. We found blood upstairs, but there weren’t any marks to say he was dragged or crawled somewhere. I don’t like what my gut’s telling me.”

Joel crouched and pushed his hands through his hair. “I was here the whole damn time and didn’t know?”

“This isn’t on you, mate.”

“There’s more.” Julien held up Mike’s watch. “We found it behind a restaurant, next to a dumpster. Somebody, other than Mike, triggered the distress signal.”

“But nobody knows how to do that but us.”

“Unless Mike told them how to do it.” Julien eyed the watch face. “I’ve lifted prints, but I don’t know if it’ll serve us any good. It’s not like we’re dealing with petty criminals here.”

“If we took that angle, who would Mike show how to use the distress signal?” Joel asked. 

The muscle in Julien’s jaw ticked. “Dom was here on the island.”

Their silence reflected their shared uncertainty. Dom owed them no allegiances, but they’d successfully worked with him in the past. They’d trusted him, and he was one of the multitudes of alliances they’d created with people in low, nearly subterranean places as an insurance policy, of sorts. A way to make it easier to cut ties with the world that currently dominated their lives.

“Lattimore, you are here, why?” Giorgio asked. 

Julien and Gage groaned.

“Wolfe and Hunter say not to ask,” Giorgio carried on, unconcerned with tact, “but Bez want this information, so I ask.”

Daddy?

All four heads turned in the direction of Theo’s bedroom.

“He’s sick,” Joel quickly explained, rising. “High fever, aches. Delirium. He’s…I’ll be right back.” 

“I juth wanted to try it out,” Theo said as soon as Joel walked into the room. “Are you mad?”

Joel shook his head. “No, I’m not mad.”

“I hear Uncle Gage.”

“He’s here. They’re all here.”

“That meanth you have to go?”

Gage walked in. “Aww, man! Mate, I heard you were sick, but I didn’t want to believe it. Not my SuperTheo. Show me the bloke who did this to you, and I’ll pound him into dust while you blast him with your laser vision.”

Theo smiled. “Uncle Gage! I mithed you!”

Gage lifted him out of the bed and into his arms. “I missed you too, big guy. Where’s your mama?”

“Thleeping. She’th thick too. Joel’th taking care of uth. He made me a grilled cheese thandwich.”

“Is that right?” Gage eyed Joel, an expression twitching at the corner of his mouth Joel couldn’t decode. “Is Josiah okay?”

“Yeah, he’th okay.” Theo rested his head on Gage’s shoulder. “Uncle Gage, if you’re here, doeth that meanth you and Joel have to go?”

Gage nodded. “Yeah. Something urgent came up. You know what urgent means? Like…important.”

“Ith thomebody hurt?”

“I hope not, mate.”

“Can we take them with us? I can’t just…” Joel ran through the different scenarios in his head about how everything would play out if he left them there alone. With Ayesha still as sick as she was, he didn’t want to put the burden of responsibility on Josiah to take care of them. 

“I can’t…I can’t just leave them, Gage. Not like this.”

Gage eyed him again. This time, it was obvious he was searching for something. “I know.”

“You do? How?”

“Because I ‘can’t just leave’ Grey and Tayler, either. Not without my heart ripping out. So, you don’t have to say much of anything else, mate. I know. But we’ve got it covered. We didn’t know they were sick, but the island’s hot, so we weren’t going to leave them here alone. We’ve got a jet waiting, Dez is headed back with Josiah, and Tayler’s handling everything when they land.”

Ayesha appeared in the doorway, using the paneling along the sides to keep herself upright. Just before her fingers slipped, Giorgio grabbed her, lifted her into his arms, and walked to the front room despite her protests that she had to check on her baby.

“I don’t want Tay or Grey to get sick.” Joel studied the way Theo clutched and released Gage’s shirt. It hurt to know that he couldn’t simply snap his fingers and either stop Theo’s pain or take it for himself. “Grey’s little and this is a bad flu—“

“She’s a doctor, mate.” Gage gripped his shoulder and squeezed. “And an amazing one at that. The best in the country, probably. Maybe the world. Prettiest one too. She’s got it covered.”

Somehow, he found a smile. Gage took any chance he got to brag about Tayler and, normally, he would make a playful jab about it—he’d been teasing Gage about Tayler since the couple met—but he didn’t have it in him. They couldn’t find Xara or Mike and, based on the way the guys were talking, it could be a situation more grave than any of them were prepared to handle. It was also dawning on him he would be leaving Ayesha, Theo, and Josiah, and there was a possibility it would be weeks before he’d be able to check in on them.

“Thanks, Gage.”

They headed to the front room where they found Sydney, of all people, standing next to Dez and Josiah. 

“Syd was already on her way,” Julien quickly explained, his way of letting Joel know none of them had known. “We told her the situation, so she’ll head back out with Ayesha, Josiah, and Theo.”

She stared at him as if there were secrets printed on his skin she was slightly too far away to read.

“Hey, Syd,” he greeted.

She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him. “Hi, Joel. You doing okay?”

“Yeah.” He returned the hug and glanced at Ayesha. “I’m okay. It’s good to see you.”

Ayesha kept her face tucked against Giorgio’s neck. The fairy tale was over. The bubble they’d lived in these past several weeks burst. He’d have to go back to being just Joel for a while, without the woman he loved being around more than he could have ever anticipated and the boys who couldn’t be any closer to him than if they were his sons. 

Dreaming was nice—of second chances, friendships blossoming into something more, love, kids. 

A daughter. 

But a dream was all it would ever be. 

Sydney leaned near his ear, her palm flat against his chest, over his heart. “I’ll take good care of her until you get back,” she whispered. “I’ll make sure they’re okay.”

When she stepped back, she tapped his chest to indicate she felt the way his heartbeat sped up at the mention of her, and searched his face, waiting.

“Thank you, Syd,” he mouthed.

They helped Ayesha, Theo, and Josiah pack and arrived at the jet in under an hour. 

They didn’t know where to start searching for Xara and Mike, but they didn’t want to leave the island until they were completely certain the couple had somehow made it off. The blood Gage had mentioned shook them, but there was no way they’d entertain the possibility of Mike or Xara no longer living, especially when the man could wiggle his way out of nearly any situation.

However, Mike would give his life to make sure his wife was safe, and that was what they were afraid of most. That it had come to that.

Theo gave Joel a tight hug around the neck, and they had to pry his fingers away so Sydney could carry his small, aching body onto the jet. Theo surprised them all by bursting into loud tears and burying his face against Sydney’s shoulder. 

Josiah’s hug was even tighter, his voice quiet and shaky. “Be safe, Joel. Please don’t die, okay? Come back. Come back to make dinner and play soccer and even watch Trolls for the billionth time. We’re going to miss you until we see you again. We love you.”

Joel swallowed a knot of pain. “I love you guys too.”

He couldn’t promise he’d come back; he wouldn’t do that to them knowing the possibilities. But the confidence he garnered from the men around him kept the promise alive and dancing, deep inside his chest.

Josiah released him, let his head hang, and headed onto the jet.

Giorgio helped Ayesha from the car and easily hoisted her up into his arms. Joel wanted to be the one to help her, carry her when she was too sick to walk, but he left it up to Giorgio. It was less awkward this way. 

They didn’t exchange any hugs, any words. They didn’t have to. They’d said plenty earlier. Maybe too much. 

He wondered, briefly, what would have happened if the guys hadn’t shown up. If history was any indication, she would have pulled away and put up the walls they both needed. 

Then, they would have immediately knocked them down. 

They wouldn’t have declared love for one another or anything like that—they shouldn’t and couldn’t—but he would have still been there right now, in her bed, fingers on her skin. Then, when she was better, he would be there with his arms wrapped around her, hers around him.

Comfort.

That was all it was.

Once everyone was secured, they stepped back. 

Sydney waved from the window, and Ayesha’s gaze met his and held. Then, he saw her mouth move. 

“Be safe, Joel.”

He smiled, winked, and nodded. 

She returned the smile.

The jet taxied down the runway, and they didn’t turn away until the Gulfstream was nothing but a dot in the sky. Afterward, they headed to a black SUV parked nearby. Dez drove, Julien sat up front, and Joel, Gage, and Giorgio sat in the back. As they headed to the location where Mike’s watch was found to begin their search, they armored up, installed clips, and oiled blades.


17: Brother, Where Art Thou?

11/08/2020

Someone cleared their throat. “I understand you are called Mike?”

He raised his head. “Where’s Xara?” 

“How did I know that would be your first question?” Mosvar asked.

“Where’s Xara?” 

“Do you not want to know how you are still alive?”

Five episodes left!

Published by K. Alex Walker

I'm a romance-loving writing junkie whose primary aspiration is to craft stories full-time on my laptop while people-watching at Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, and the beach.

8 thoughts on “Episode 16: In Another Life

  1. Joel and Ayesha are just to good together for them to not end up together.

    Thank goodness Mike is still alive. I have been holding a breathe ever since the last episode.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is my favorite episode so far. 💖💕 Love, love, love Joel and Ayesha! I still need to know what happened with Mike and Xara though! I’m so invested in these characters!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love it! Can’t get enough! Joel and Ayesha need to be together. Xara needs to get pregnant. Mike needs to whip everyone butt that has something to do with their kidnapping. And I’m glad the team is about to be together again. Need more stories with all the couples. Love the interracial coupling.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Whew… Alex, I understand and respect that you have total and complete artistic license, but the way you are playing with my feelings is not right, lol.

    There is a lot to unpack with this chapter, but first takeaway is that it seems like Sydney is aware and at least seemingly okay(?) with Joel and Ayesha. But to be fair, there was a lot happening, and she and Joel didn’t actually get a chance to have a conversation that they probably need to have.

    Secondly, I love this team so much. I appreciate how quickly they mobilized at even a hint of something astray. (Also, can we just love on the moment where the Das Beast carefully cradles his sick friend? ❤ )

    Lastly, Mosvar really just stays stupid. He shouldn't have fake killed Mike, cause he probably won't get the chance to try again.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This was truly a beautiful episode. OMG … Theo, I just love him — a lot! Everything the kid said touched my heart and when he said he was testing the “D” word, he stole my heart–again! The kids! Ayesha! Joel! Love the vision (I’m claiming it!) of their future.

    Liked by 1 person

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