Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
“They’re not dead.” Larke shook her head and backed away from her husband. “They’re not, Dez. Tell me they’re not. Promise me.”
Dez reached for her. “I never said—”
“We were expecting you guys to come back with them.”
“I know. I’m so sorry.”
“Where are they?” She swiped at her eyes. “It’s been months. Where could they be for this long?”
“We’ll find them.” He cradled her against his chest. “I promise, Larke. We’ll find them.”
Joel backed away from the open glass doors, deciding he’d check in with Dez later. Dez and Larke’s “fight” was pretty much the standard fare—Mike and Xara were missing. They weren’t dead, they were missing. The minute any of them began to so much as assume the worst, someone would immediately snap them out of it.
The first couple of weeks after the incident at the villa, Ari had contacted Julien to let them know all the families had gotten together and decided no one wanted to stay in the U.S. with everything that had been going on. However, they wanted to keep everyone together, and it was something they’d wanted for a while. As the families grew, staying on opposite coasts felt…odd.
So, everyone packed up and left the country.
A few years back, he and the guys had pooled their resources and bought a couple thousand hectares of land in Sweden where they’d each had homes built, seven in total.
While the homes weren’t within walking distance of each other, they were a short enough drive away to make regular get-togethers possible. And with them all on the same land, large as it might be, there was no sense of disconnect. Everyone had their own space, but they were still together.
Julien had tapped into whispers that suggested their families had grown too close and them too powerful. They’d become mafia-like, the intercepted communication had suggested, which could become a problem.
This new venture certainly didn’t help things.
Joel hopped in his car and headed to his house.
The construction had started before the divorce, built with him, Sydney, and their nonexistent family in mind. She was there now and had been for the last three weeks, flying out after everyone else due to some business she’d had in Vegas. It would be only his second time seeing the completed house. Ironically, the person he’d expected to be there, from the beginning, currently was. However, there was someone else he wanted there, right now, much more.
Ayesha and Theo had spent one more week ill, and Sydney had stayed with them the entire time, taking care of them like she’d promised.
The boys had private tutors for the time being. Theo’s was having a “challenging time” keeping up with him, but the woman appeared to be improving after doing some research about how to teach around his attention span. Theo wasn’t old enough yet to go to public school, and the families weren’t sure yet if they were staying which would determine whether they enrolled Josiah and Thandie in a public or international school.
Speaking to everyone else was the only reason he knew what was going on with Ayesha. She wouldn’t talk to him, so he hadn’t so much as seen her face.
And he wanted to see her face.
He pulled into the driveway in front of the large, modern farmhouse with its tall windows and a porch that wrapped around the entire structure. The patio had water views that stretched for miles on one side and a massive yard on the other. When the time had come for him to design the interior, he and Sydney had already split up, and he’d been grieving and uninterested in interior design, so Xara volunteered to help. Her eye for design had resulted in blue-gray stone on the porch floors around the entry, gorgeous hardwood inside, metal fixtures, rustic chandeliers, and an inviting palette of colors and textures. The things she was able to come up with in her mind’s eye were outstanding.
He walked all the way through the house and found Sydney on the back porch sitting around a wooden patio table with a glass of wine and a book in her hand, feet propped up.
When she spotted him, she set the book down and walked over. Her arms went around his neck and his around her waist.
“Welcome back,” she greeted. “I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”
They released, went to the table, and sat looking out at the water.
“We got in a little earlier than we initially thought,” he said.
Compared to the stress and disorder he’d just left behind, this serenity was exactly what he needed, and it didn’t feel wrong to be there taking it in with Sydney. Regardless of the things that had happened between them, she belonged in his life.
He’d talked to her several times and the boys at least twice a week while away. She’d update him on how everyone was really doing, and the boys would update him on their lives, how much they loved and missed him, and how Ayesha was doing. He’d then use their information to fill in the blanks not seeing or speaking to Ayesha had left.
Had he been home, they likely would have still been deriving “comfort” from one another, but being away from her, completely away from her, had shown him the truth he felt just about ready to acknowledge.
She’d been right to avoid him.
He didn’t like it, but it had been the right thing to do.
If they’d spoken to each other these few months apart, especially since they’d gotten so used to being together it had felt odd not starting the day with her smile or laugh, they would have said things they wouldn’t have been able to take back. Words they’d never spoken out loud but he knew they both felt.
He hadn’t wanted to do it over a long-distance connection, anyhow. He wanted to be there with her, close enough to hold. Close enough to kiss. Close enough to feel her heartbeat and her pulse.
So, she’d been right to avoid him.
But, he was home now.
“It’s not so bad out here.” Sydney propped up her legs again. “Did you know Sweden’s the best country to raise a family in? Plus, it’s got a low infant mortality rate, low homicide rate, and some of the world’s best childcare.”
It was one of the reasons they’d chosen it.
“You sound like you want to stay,” he pointed out.
She shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Things still okay with you and Ruben’s dad?”
“We broke up. He was looking for a mother for Ruben, but I’m not ready for that level of responsibility.”
She traced the slats in the tabletop, fingers slipping over the flat surface.
“You can ask.” She briefly closed her eyes, pulled in a deep breath, and let it out long and slow. “You’re going to ask me if I regret not waiting for you, and I’ve been thinking about that considering everything that’s happened. I will say this…I regret blaming you. For me, everything was your fault. You wouldn’t bend, you wouldn’t compromise. Even when I talked about it with friends outside of this group, they would always agree that you were the one being unreasonable without considering any fault or blame on my part. Joel, you’ve always done what I wanted.”
Because he’d loved her.
No matter what Sydney asked for, he’d found a way to get it for her. Give it to her.
She’d said it herself—he fell in love through his actions. He saw himself as a provider and a protector. It was why being a father and having a family was so important to him. What was the point of all this without love? Without family?
Now that nearly all of them had children, he saw how it changed them. He saw how having Theo and Josiah in his life had changed even him. They worked and fought smarter, harder. The world was no longer a place to protect for the general population alone; they wanted to make it as safe as possible for the people they loved back home.
“Why didn’t you do what I wanted?” she asked. “Why’d you choose that time to, I guess, stop?”
He settled in his chair. “Remember that time I came home with all those injuries?”
“We’d been collaborating with Angolan Armed Forces, Interpol, the UN, and Recces, South African Special Forces, in Angola.” They’d only been there three weeks, but it was one of the hardest three week periods of their lives. “There were rising instances of forced recruitment in Luanda and the smaller areas surrounding the city. Numbers that hadn’t been seen since the Angolan Civil War. Since these kinds of tasks are special to Giorgio, they’re a higher priority for us over neutralizing insurgents, bomb diffusing, dismantling regimes, preventing coups…and what have you. We’re focused on saving innocent civilians, especially vulnerable populations, ninety-percent of the time.”
She looked away. “I see. So…what happened?”
“We were to assist the troops and extract the children. We ‘play’ under the radar so there’s less red tape for us if we have to ‘clear-out’ an entire compound. And, we anticipated conflict,” a breeze blew, sending a ripple over the water’s steady surface, “but it was more than expected. Somehow, they learned we were coming.”
His eyes wanted to close but, if they did, he would see it.
It was a moment he’d had to work to erase from his memories.
“As Giorgio was getting ready to carry out a little boy who was like nine but the same size as Theo, there was movement among the bodies. A man had been hiding underneath them, using them for cover. Giorgio didn’t see him since he’d been preoccupied with getting the boy out, but I saw the man. At the very last second.”
Realization, understanding, and guilt washed over her face. What hadn’t been clear to her before was now like polished glass.
“Syd, if I hadn’t been there, Giorgio would have taken a hollow point to the back of his skull.” Joel cleared his throat and swallowed, the stress of the moment surfacing like it was happening as they spoke. “On the flight back, all I could think about was what if I hadn’t been there? Then, I thought about Mo and what would have happened to her when she found out. We all love, but their love is—”
“Intense,” Sydney supplied. “She would have been devastated.”
“Destroyed.” He blinked until his view of the water was no longer clouded. “Teams like ours aren’t built overnight. We’re more than a group of guys saving people. The strength of our unit, our brotherhood and our camaraderie, that’s what makes us see the hidden enemies, the hiding targets. That’s why I won’t leave them, and this was one of the few things I’ve ever been solid about during our relationship.”
“Joel, I didn’t know it was all that. If you’d told me—”
“How many times did I try, Sydney?”
She nibbled on the inside of her lip. “You…you did. And I didn’t want to hear it.”
“Just because I never told you that specific story doesn’t mean I didn’t tell you others,” he reminded. “And, each time, you’d say you understood, but you kept taking things off the table if I didn’t do x, y, or z.”
“But you went along with each one.”
“Because I would have done anything for you. For us. For family. For love. Our lives are filled with depravity and anarchy. I’ve had to look into the eyes of some of the most reprehensible fuckers on the planet. While we’re out there in the muck, in the shit, it’s not hard to feel like there’s little to nothing worth living for. That’s why our families, our…kids,” Theo, Josiah, and Ayesha came to mind, “are our foundation. We’ve asked so much of our families that the least we can do is be good to them. Be devoted to them.”
“And I took advantage of that, didn’t I?” she asked. “I blamed you for everything.”
“Some of it was warranted, Syd. I never said either one of us was perfect.”
She held up a finger. “Don’t do that. Don’t make excuses for me. Because of my screwed up last relationship, I’d needed control in my life. Then, when I saw how much you’d do if I just asked, I kept piling things on, craving that control. My requests turned into demands. I gave you an ultimatum. The divorce papers were my final play. I figured, when you saw them, you would give in. It was like, how dare you not give up the team for me, you know? But…Joel, you weren’t a bad husband.”
“And you weren’t a bad wife.”
She laughed and shook her head. “If I’d gotten you to leave the guys, I wouldn’t have stopped, and we both know it. The real question is, do you think, if I’d compromised, we would still be married?”
“I really don’t know, Syd.”
“I don’t think so.”
That, admittedly, surprised him. He’d assumed he’d been alone in his line of thinking. If it wasn’t the guys, it would have been something else. At the end of the day, they would have still ended up here.
“We were riding the high from our pasts,” she said.” Our reunion. Love was all around us. We got hypnotized by it.”
“Then, reality set in.”
She took his hand. “I think you’re exactly where you need to be. You light up when you talk about them. About her. You’re happier than you’ve ever been, but if we hadn’t gone through what we did, I don’t think you would have opened up enough to let her in.”
It was funny, he realized, how much differently this felt from the first time around. With Sydney, it was something reawakened. With Ayesha, it was something they’d built. Every restaurant dinner with the boys, every beach picnic, movie night, bonfire, park outing and school event, they’d tried to pretend that because there’d been no kissing or holding, it wasn’t what it had been all along.
Sydney pressed her fingers against his wrist. “Have you talked to Ayesha yet?”
“No.” He looked down. “Are you giving me a poor man’s lie detector test?”
“Hush.” She moved her fingers around until she found his pulse. “So, you and Ayesha haven’t spoken in months. You’re okay with that?”
“No, not really.”
“Okay, that’s true.” She tilted her head to the side. “You’re not okay with it because you love her.”
He studied the treeline in the distance.
“Joel,” she tapped his wrist, “you’re in love with Ayesha.”
His heart was like an eager child, jumping up and down, hands waving.
“You love her,” Sydney repeated, fingers pressing harder. “This is kind of fun.”
“All right, that’s enough.” Grinning, he pulled his wrist away. “I’m glad you’re having a great time with my agony.”
“Why didn’t you go there first?”
Because he needed to breathe. Collect his head. Have this conversation with Sydney so that, when he did step over that line with Ayesha, it wasn’t with loose ends dangling behind him.
“I’ll go there after I leave here.”
“By the way, Xara’s friends, Val and Ant, are finally here. They’re staying at Dez and Larke’s.”
“How are they?”
“Doing about as well as the rest of us.” She went back to tracing. “Val said, right before everything happened, Xara texted her that she was taking a pregnancy test she believed would be positive and then…nothing.”
“Jesus.” He dragged his fingers through his hair. “Not even Julien can get close to the Sarayevs. Everything’s locked down, and Mosvar hasn’t been seen since the incident in Maui.”
They sat in silent contemplation.
“Joel, if I wanted to stay a little while longer—”
“You can stay as long as you want, Syd. We were married. Just because we’re not anymore doesn’t mean I’ll just hang you out to dry. I’ll always love you. You know that. So, if you like it here, stay.”
She turned her chair, facing him. “If I’m being honest, I prefer things the way they are now. I like this kind of love between us. The other one…it was nice, yes, but I want to build something with someone stable, no offense. Someone outside of this,” she waved her hand around, “life. I grew up into a boxer. I grew up in chaos. Then, I married chaos. I’m about sick of it.”
“None taken,” he reassured her. “But, what I hear you saying is, you don’t want me anymore.”
“I’m ugly to you now.”
She giggled and lowered her forehead to her wrist.
“It’s okay.” He feigned hurt. “I mean, I’m a big guy. I can take it. It’s nothing a little bit of plastic surgery can’t fix.”
She laughed harder, and her laugh pulled a smile out of him.
“Me too, Syd,” he said. “I like us, just like this, too.”
“I don’t think I could ever be happy without you being a part of my life. That’s where we messed up. We tried to leave each other behind.”
“And you’re in love with Ayesha.”
He sighed. “It’s so much more than that.”
“She’s obviously fighting it, but she loves you too.”
His phone rang with a video request. When he accepted it, all he saw was wood floors.
“Joel?” Theo’s face came into view. “Joel? Josiah, Mama, I got him. It’s Joel. Hi, Joel! It’s me! It’s Theo! Are you at our house? Are you coming to see us? Come see us, please? I miss you. Do you miss me?”
Theo’s front teeth had finally come in all the way, and he’d gotten a haircut similar to Josiah’s. It had to have been this morning because he’d still had the curly mop of hair last night when they spoke.
“Of course I miss you, Theo,” Joel said, hit with a rush of emotion simply from seeing Theo’s little face. “I’m coming to see you right now.”
“We’re at Uncle Julien’s house. Can you come now? Please, come now. Mama!” Theo took off running, the phone camera shaking like a nineties horror film. “Mama, Joel’s home!”
He heard mumbling, Josiah’s voice, and then Ayesha’s. He waited, holding his breath. A glimpse of her. All he needed was a glimpse of her.
Theo’s face reappeared. “Everybody’s at Uncle Julien’s house and…wait. Uncle Julien wants to talk to you. Here, Uncle Julien. Catch!”
“Theo, wait, don’t throw—” The phone clattered on the ground. When it was picked up, Julien appeared. “I got something, Lattimore.”
Joel pushed up out of his seat.
EVERYONE SAT IN JULIEN’S LIVING ROOM watching a video of Dom walking through the villa. They’d had eyes on the house for several weeks and had only recently let up on surveillance, resigned to the fact that Mike and Xara wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon. Julien had turned all the cameras back on, just in case. It didn’t surprise him that now was when Dom had shown up. The man had, obviously, watched and waited.
Dom entered the structure, gun raised. When he was certain no one was inside, he lowered the weapon and headed upstairs to the main bedroom. There, he searched under the bed, in the drawers in the nightstand, and in the bathroom. When he searched the tangled sheets, he found what he was looking for.
Then, he continued his search of the house, stopped in the kitchen, and fished a marker out of one of the drawers.
He walked around, staring at all the paintings until he found the one it was obvious he felt most confident had a hidden camera inside. All of them did, but the one he chose gave them the largest view of the room.
He went to a bare wall and began to write.
After he stepped away from the wall, Val screamed. Ayesha stared. Ari’s jaw dropped, Mo’s head fell into her hands, and Tayler and Larke wrapped their arms around each other. Dez and Giorgio sat in stunned silence, and Gage had to leave the room.
MIKE IS ALIVE.
XARA IS ALIVE.
BABY IS DOING WELL.
IT’S A BOY.
WAIT FOR CALL.
DO NOT CALL FIRST. NOT SAFE.
Joel entered the room and froze, Sydney behind him.
“A boy?” Relief nearly emptied his lungs. “She really is pregnant? They’re okay?”
Everyone turned. Theo’s eyes grew big, his mouth arched downward with a sorrowful tug, and he hopped up and dashed, so fast he nearly tripped, over to Joel.
Joel caught him and hoisted him up into his arms in one motion. Without words, Theo squeezed him around his neck, face buried in his shoulder. Warm moisture spread where his eyes pressed, and it made their reunion mean much more than it already did. Every time they spoke on video, Theo would yell into the tablet or webcam that he missed him. Now, he knew exactly how much.
Before Joel knew it, Josiah was hugging him too, and then he couldn’t talk.
He drew them close, taking in their warmth and smells and the reality of just how much he’d hated being away from them. How much he’d longed to see them.
Across the room, his gaze met Ayesha’s.
There you are.
He’d assumed his life was supposed to fall in a certain order; he and Sydney had history, so they’d belonged together. Of course, they’d belonged together. It was what the group expected, what everyone expected—his family, her family—but things didn’t always go according to plan. However, he now knew plan B could make just as much sense, if not more than, plan A.
Ayesha rose and left the room.
He set Theo down, told them he’d be right back, and followed her.
When he stepped into the hallway, she was pacing.
He reached for her hand, dragged her up against his body, lifted her slightly off her feet, and braced her against the wall, legs wrapped around him.
“You avoided me. Why?”
He searched her face to make up for the months of it he’d missed. If he wasn’t mistaken, she was doing the same.
“I think you know why, Joel.”
“Don’t do it again.”
Her breasts were pressed against his chest. They were breathing too fast, hearts beating too wildly, and his already racing heart sped up further as if there was suddenly a finish line in sight.
“Eesh,” he stroked her cheek with his thumb, “please don’t do it again.”
She breathed out an unintelligible response.
He smiled. “Hey, beautiful.”
“Welcome back, Mr. Lattimore.” She returned the smile, lips quivering. “I’m so happy to see you.”
“I’m happy to see you too. Did you miss me?”
Their voices dropped to whispers.
“I missed you.” Tears leached from her eyes and slipped over the hills of her cheeks. “So much.”
“I missed you too, babe.”
Their breaths mingled. He could already feel her lips, smooth and pillow-soft. Taste them. They’d left at “comfort,” but he’d tossed that out after the first week he’d gone without seeing her face or hearing her voice, forcing him to admit what this truly was.
“Eesh…” He kissed her forehead. “Ayesha…” His lips grazed her cheeks, interrupting the flow of her tears. “You’re so beautiful to me…” They brushed the corners of her mouth. “I thought about you every second I was gone. Every fucking second.”
“Please, what? Tell me.”
“I want…” She closed her eyes and licked her lips.
He leaned forward. “Tell me. Say it.”
“Mama, where’d you go?”
They jerked apart, he let her down to her feet, and she left to find Theo just as Gage started down the hallway.
“You okay there, big man?” Joel asked, breathing deep to settle his pulse.
“More than okay, mate.” Gage smiled. “I’m ready to fuck some shit up. I don’t give a fuck about any mafia, any Mosvar or Ramzsyn. They took my boy. I want their skulls on my fucking mantel.”
They bumped fists.
Joel leaned against the wall, needing something solid to counteract all the emotions racing through him—relief, joy, love—and a trill rushed up his spine. “Whoo. Our boy is alive. They’re alive. Thank you, God. I needed this shit.”
Gage glanced in the direction where Ayesha had retreated. “Been dealing with something?”
“Mate, you’re sweet on Ayesha.”
He sighed. “Yeah.”
“I mean, you’ve got it bad,” Gage said. “And everybody knows.”
“They can see it?”
“No. I told them.”
Joel, smiling, gripped his chest. “My heart’s all…I don’t know. And just looking at her…it’s like, I wasn’t home until I saw the boys. Until I saw her and that face, those eyes. I can barely,” he tilted his head back, pressing it into the wall, “breathe. When she touches me…Jesus. In my head, I keep hearing mine, mine, mine. I want to…” He gripped his chest tighter and closed his eyes.
Gage folded his arms. “But you’re avoiding it. Why?”
“Because of Curtis.” He raised his head. “I mean, how would you feel if something happened to you and one of us fell for Tayler?”
Gage considered a moment. “I’d probably come back from the dead and tear you a second asshole.”
“My point exactly.”
“Lattimore, Curtis was one of my closest friends, yeah. I, literally, owe him my life. But you didn’t have the relationship with him that you do with us. You never knew Ayesha as his wife, and I know he’d prefer Ayesha with someone connected to his brothers. I mean, how do you feel about Tayler, Mo, Ari, Xara, and Larke?”
“I love them like sisters. Except, I do still think Tay has a lovely a—” Gage’s hand closed around his neck. “Gage…I’m joking.”
“Reflex.” Gage released. “Why do you always pick my wife’s ass to reference, by the way?” His gaze disconnected for a moment, and he tilted his head to the side. “My wife’s round, perfect, lovely ass and the way it just…when I’m…and she’s…”
Joel snapped his fingers.
Gage blinked. “Sorry, mate. You were saying something?”
“I was saying,” Joel rolled his shoulders and stretched the muscles in his neck, “it’s because Tay is the first one I met. Me and you, we saved her life together. It’s what started us out as friends and now look at us. We’re besties. I’ve even already ordered our friendship bracelets—BB4L. Bad Blokes For Life.”
Gage held back for all of two seconds before he burst out laughing, head shaking. “I’m glad you’re getting back, mate. This is the you we want. The you we need. We didn’t want to do this, any of this, without you. You’re family, and not just because I want to choke you out from time to time.”
Joel laughed, equally as glad he was getting back to feeling like his old self. For a while, it hadn’t felt possible.
“As for Ayesha,” Gage continued, “see what would happen if you, the both of you, agreed to spend a few hours together where you do want you want to, not what’s expected of you. Trust me, the rest of the team? The family? We have no issues with it. Whatsoever.”
He nodded. “Syd says I’m in love.”
“Tay knows me better than I know myself.” Gage started off, toward the front room. “Just because you’re not married anymore doesn’t mean Syd wasn’t your wife. You loved her, so she’s the main person who’ll know what it looks like when you fall in love. Even if it’s with somebody else.”
* * *
Xara paced the room, periodically rubbing her stomach. Dom should have gotten the phone by now. That was, unless he’d gone to the villa when things were still bad, run into Giorgio, and Giorgio sliced first. The last time he’d checked in was about a week ago.
A tiny flutter moved through her stomach. The first ones had been so light, she’d assumed they were gas until the midwife Mary hired let her know what they were. Her son was moving and stretching. Doing little roundhouse kicks like his daddy.
“Hi, Mikey J.” She smiled. “You’re up late.”
She couldn’t wait to tell Mike he was having a son.
The door pushed in and Dom entered the room. When he saw her, he smiled. “How are you feeling?”
Each and every time, he asked.
“I’m good. Mikey J’s moving again. Here,” she took his hand, “feel.”
When he felt the small flutter, his grin grew. “That’s…crazy.”
“Do you have kids?”
“None that I know of.” He laughed. “Kidding. No, not yet.”
There was something about the way he said it that made her want to ask him more, but they didn’t exactly have that extensive of a relationship. Their meetups were usually brief and strategic. It wasn’t like they’d spent time braiding each other’s hair or talking about old high school crushes.
He held up the phone. “A gift for the lady.”
Xara clamped her hands over her mouth to hold back a squeal.
“I couldn’t figure it out.” He handed it to her. “Julien locked that thing up tight.”
“Just in case it’s ever lost.” She entered the code Julien had created for her. “Can you watch the door?”
The phone rang. She held her breath. Then, Julien’s voice came through.
Tears spilled down her cheeks. “Hey, Julien.”
“Sweetheart, we were so worried about you. How are you feeling? Are you okay? Are you hurt? How’s the baby?”
“How do you know about the baby?”
“Dom left us a message at the villa.”
“It’s a boy,” she said, between tears. “I call him Mikey J.”
“We can’t wait to meet him.”
“Dom’s here with me. How much more time do we have?”
“Dom,” she called.
He came back over and took the phone. “No, the family actually lives in Dubai,” he said. “Because of all the shit that happens in the area…yeah, I can get us to Switzerland, but it’ll take a few days. I have a route set up. It’s not completely safe, but I can manage it…Thursday night.” He rattled off coordinates. “Zurich. A week, tops.” He rattled off another series of numbers. “No problem…with my life.”
He handed the phone back to Xara.
“If, at any point, things get to be too much for you, let Dom know,” Julien instructed. “It’ll be rough getting you through, but outside of us, he’s the only one I trust to do it.”
She hooked her finger and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Got it.”
“We’re coming to get you, Xara. We’re going to bring you home. And then, we’re going to find Mike and wipe the entire fucking Sarayev family off the map. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“Everyone, we have three seconds.”
In the background, a chorus of, “We love you, Xara!” lifted, and then the connection died. Any longer and they would have been discovered, and all of this would have been for naught.
“We’ve got this.” Dom welcomed her into an embrace and rubbed her back. “But I know you have to cry, being pregnant and all. I won’t stop you.”
She sputtered a laugh against his chest. He was so kind. Thank God, he was so kind. It was how she knew, most likely, this was an otherwise very deadly man.
“We have ninety-six hours,” he said. “Mosvar contacted me, so he’s resurfaced. Based on his behavior and the fact that he’s not leaving the area, I’m pretty certain Mike is close by. Mary has a plan, so I’m going to use the next four days to track Mosvar and try to find Mike.”
He stepped back and looked down into her face.
She nodded. “I’ll be ready.”
“Okay. I’ll see you Thursday.”
“See you Thursday, Dom.”
As quietly as he slipped in, he left.
* * *
“She calls him Mikey J.”
“A boy?” Mike stared at the image. “My boy.”
“As scheduled, my father will be in Austria when it’s time,” Mosvar said. “We have already set up points where his car will be stopped on the way to a meeting in Vienna. Everything else is up to you. I saw the way you moved when you killed Argun. You can handle this, just fine.”
Mike traced the little head on the picture. He’d been a relatively big baby at nine pounds, four ounces. If this was Mikey J at—he checked the top of the photo—nineteen weeks, it looked like Xara had her work cut out for her. He’d make sure to be there, however. He was going to help bring his son into the world.
“You look like a proud father.”
That’s not the only reason I’m smiling, motherfucker.
“I’ll be ready,” Mike said.
“I cannot believe it. In a short time, the entire tiep will answer to me.”
“What was that? For a short time, the tiep will answer to you?”
A short time because your days are numbered.
“Nothing.” Mosvar shook his head. “Tomorrow then.”
Mike tipped his head.
Now that he was cooperating, no gas was pumped into the chamber. Still, no less than seven armed men were around when that door opened, and Mosvar continued to keep his distance from the bars.
He flipped through the pictures. Some were ultrasound images and others were different shots of Xara. From what he’d learned, the Sarayev wife was taking care of her. It wouldn’t stop him from killing the woman when the time came but he’d, at least, let the bitch die quickly. Xara was still their hostage.
His wife was so beautiful and knowing she was carrying his child?
His heart swelled.
At the very least, they were keeping her clothed and fed well. Her tops draped in a way that showed off her belly, but his favorite picture was one of her in a light blue dress with a seam that sat just above her cute ass stomach. She wore medium heels and her hair was pinned up, but the style allowed for a few curls to frame her face. They were at some event, likely closed to the public since she stood out enough for questions to arise.
Mosvar was keeping some of the pictures for himself, he knew, which was fine. The man could look. It was only fair, him having pictures of Xara to look at just days before his death.
“Whoever you are, just show yourself,” Mike said, without looking up. “It’s not like I can do much from behind these bars.”
He raised his head. “You bitch ass mother—”
“I’ve been taking care of Xara,” Dom quickly said, hands raised and palms out. “Look, I didn’t know of any other way to get you and Xara out without raising suspicion. Ramzsyn’s men converged on the villa too fast. I let Mosvar’s men take you because I knew he needed you alive. I took Xara to Ramzsyn’s wife because Mosvar is a nasty son of a bitch, and I didn’t trust her with him.”
Mike studied him. “You’ve seen her?”
“Several times.” Dom smiled. “She misses you.”
He held up one of the photos. “So…this is what she really looks like? She’s healthy and the baby’s healthy and—”
“Yeah.” Dom stepped closer to the bars. It was close enough for him to be grabbed, so maybe he was telling the truth. “Look, Mosvar hasn’t seen her. He’s getting those photos from his mother. He doesn’t have her, but Ramzsyn’s wife does. She’s been taking care of Xara. She’s the only reason Xara’s alive.”
Maybe he wouldn’t kill the wife.
“Xara had me go back to the villa to get her phone. I was able to get it, and she talked to Julien.”
Relief spread through his bones. “The guys know she’s alive.”
“I left them a message at the villa. They know about you, Xara, and the baby. Thursday, I’ll be taking her to a safe place in Switzerland. Julien and the rest of the group are meeting up with me to take her home. My cousin is already on his way out to make sure everything’s secure.”
“Your cousin Bratva too?”
“No.” Dom pushed out a laugh. “He prefers board rooms to blood. We grew up in chaos. He married chaos and had a nasty divorce, so he doesn’t want it anymore. Me, I’m like a junkie. I say I can’t live without it, but I end up right back in the shit.”
Mike streaked his fingers through his hair. It had grown out these last couple of months, past his shoulders. He’d have to make sure he got it cut when he got home. Giorgio always had the hook up on places to get overpriced but excellent haircuts.
“I’m going to kill Ramzsyn in Austria,” he said.
“Mosvar hired me to kill you after.”
Mike’s mouth twitched with a smile.
“But…Austria’s not too far from Switzerland.” Dom pulled a key from his jacket. “And Mary Sarayev’s got a few tricks up her sleeve. Helps that her son is naive as fuck, though. This is her property he’s using.”
Mike’s eyes widened. “You have got to be shitting me.”
“You feel like traveling with me and your wife?” Dom stepped forward and fiddled with the lock. “It’ll give you enough time to meet up with your guys and go after Ramzsyn. I’ll keep an eye on Mosvar until you’re ready for him.”
This time, tears did come. They didn’t fall but they still burned. “Traveling with my wife sounds…”
He couldn’t finish.
Dom swung the door open and stepped to the side. “Then let’s go get her.”
* * *
No. No, no, no.
Mosvar’s stomach dropped. Sweat dotted his upper lip. The smell of smoke filled his nostrils although nothing in the room burned.
The cell was empty. Mike had escaped. And, on the wall, was a crudely drawn skull and crossbones.
“What the fuck happened?”
His men silently looked at each other.
Mike would still kill his father. That was a given. The look on the man’s face promised the future extermination of the entire Sarayev clan. However, if he didn’t go get Xara right that fucking minute, he would undoubtedly be included in that massacre.
“Let’s go.” He stormed out of the cellar. “And, if we have any issues taking Xara, your families will all be executed.”
20: The Beginning of The End
“I didn’t want to give you too much to carry.” Mary studied the bag she’d packed for Xara filled with food, vitamins, teas, flavored honey, and water, concern tugging down her brows. “But you will need food for emergencies on your trip.”
Dom tested the weight of the bag. “It’s fine. I can carry it.”
“Dom,” Xara did the same, “that’s too heavy. We can trade off.”
Both he and Mary sent her a look.
“If this weighs him down, what if we get into real trouble?” she asked. “I’ll need him at full strength.”
“Or I can share the weight,” Dom said.
“Yes. With me. Or, we can split up the bags so that we’re each carrying half.”
A thumping noise sounded behind her, but Xara didn’t turn. She knew it was said houses made creaks when they settled, but this one took the cake. She’d half believed it was haunted.
Dom ticked his head. “He can carry the other half.”
Xara spun. “Who can carry the…”
Two episodes left!
OMG! Love it! About time! Am I crazy because I love the killing in these short stories?
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Bravo!!! Ms. K, I can’t say enough about your extraordinary writing/story telling skills..I loved how maturely you wrapped up Joel and Syd’s relationship..and felt all the feels of Ayesha, the boys and Joel’s reunion..And hollered out loud reading Dez’s and Joel’s bromance/foolishness..lol..Can’t wait 4 the last ep!
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KAW … Another great episode. Thank you! I hope Dom gets a story, even if it’s a novella. That moment between Joel and Ayesha was seriously and subtlety hot! ♥
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From Joel tying up loose ends with Sydney to Dom redeeming himself and reuniting Mike and Xara, this penultimate episode is wrapping up the story nicely.
Still, my favorite part was Theo being Theo and THROWING the cellphone to Julien! LOL
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You skyrocketed to the top of my favorite author list from the very first book I have the utmost pleasure of reading!!! Your style of writing is one of the reasons why I’m such an avid reader! Anxiously awaiting the final 2 episodes.
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I agree! This was a great conclusion to Joel and Sydney’s story. I remember in a previous episode, Joel mentioned that he and Sydney were best friends. I’m glad it looks like they can retain that friendship!
Now that the touching moments have happened, I’m ready for the all the ass-whooping that’s coming to the Sarayevs, lol
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OH MY GOSH!!! You are an amazing storyteller. I’m on pins and needles reading this. I can’t wait for Mosvar to get his. And I hope things work out well for Dom. I wouldn’t be mad if he got a story or even joined the team too.
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Wow…I love you tied up Joel & Sydney because I honestly feel he and Ayesha are a better fit. I was sooo ready to completely hate Dom and have the boys fuck him up…BUT he may have redeemed himself. We’ll see!
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Gurl, what will I do with you! Okay, I am so glad Syd and Joel had the talk. I didn’t want to dislike her, but was right on the edge. Remaining friends but separate suits me just fine. Ayesha and Family need Joel and I’m so glad they are on the right track. Thank goodness Dom is working it out! I can’t wait for Mosavar to get what he deserves. Xar, Mike and lil’Mike will make it safely. I feel it in my soul… Suggestion… Give Syd the chance to meet Dom’s cousin…😁
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