Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
“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 tugged her brows downward. “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.”
He sent her a quizzical look.
“If this weighs you down, what if we get into real trouble?” she asked. “I’ll need you at full strength.”
“Or I can share the weight,” Dom suggested.
“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—”
Her stomach lurched, and her nerves went haywire.
She’d known he was alive. Dom had told her he was alive, and they’d known that whenever Mosvar took the ultrasounds, he was likely taking them to Mike. Dom, however, didn’t say anything about bringing him to her.
Mike was in front of her.
Mike was there, right in front of her.
Mike is here.
“I made you a promise, didn’t I?” Dom asked. “And I always keep my promises.”
She couldn’t move, so Mike came to her instead.
He drew her up against his hard, warm, real body. Her arms remained helplessly folded against his chest. Weak cries left her mouth. Gasps of air rattled her chest. Of course, she wanted to know how, when, and how again, but right now, she needed to hold him.
She unfolded her arms, slipped them underneath his, and molded her body to his.
“You look so beautiful, baby.” He kissed her temple, her forehead, and both cheeks. “All glowing and shit. Let me look at you.”
He tried to step back, but she held him in place.
“N-not yet. A l-little bit l-longer.”
There were healing bruises on his face. Whatever Mosvar had done, it looked brutal. Mary had let her know she believed Mosvar was responsible for his brother, Argun’s death, and they’d both agreed Mosvar was probably holding on to Mike to try to “convince” Mike to do his final bidding. She knew Mike, so naturally, he’d refused and that refusal had resulted in these injuries.
The only way a brutal beating like that stopped was if Mike agreed to give Mosvar what he wanted, and the only way Mike would agree to that was if Mosvar guaranteed her and Mikey J’s safety. For them, he would do anything, even take blow after blow until he nearly shattered.
They would have to talk about, at some point, what they’d both gone through while apart, but there was a mountain of hurt behind Mike’s smile. Malice and deep-seated rage. An absolute intent to kill.
“Xar,” he released a soft laugh, “we don’t have too much longer, baby. Isn’t there somebody I need to meet?”
On cue, Mikey J roused.
Mike jerked back. “You can…you mean, we can feel him already?”
“He’s stretching.” Xara placed his hand on her stomach. “I think he might be a little Shadow.”
“What do you mean?”
“Because you’re called The Shadow.”
A smile tugged on the right side of his mouth. “Nobody calls me that.”
She’d worn a long-sleeved, stretchy top and soft leggings in preparation for the trip. Eventually, when they reached a certain point, she’d have to cover her entire body. For now, she was glad she’d chosen this particular outfit as Mike lowered and pushed the top up over her belly.
He stared at her stomach in wonder.
“Hey, Mikey J,” she softly called. “Look who’s here. It’s Daddy. Say ‘Hi, Daddy. Me and Mommy missed you and we love you so much.’”
Mike glanced up at her then let his gaze fall back to her stomach. “My son’s in there,” he said, the words slightly choked. “Hey, little guy. I told you Daddy would be coming, right? You know I can’t live without you or Mommy. I can’t wait to meet you. You and your mother, you’re my world. My everything. I love you.” He kissed her stomach and lowered his forehead. “I love you so much.”
They all remained quiet and let him have a few more moments with Mikey J.
After a swipe of his eyes, he stood. “You still have your phone, Xar?”
She handed it to him. His hand trembled slightly when he took it, but she didn’t get the sense it was due to any of his injuries, including the ones she was afraid to see. He was about to talk to the guys after not seeing them for months. They were about to hear from him after, more than likely, thinking he could possibly be dead.
Mike had, essentially, grown up as an only child even with his aunt, uncle, and cousin in his life. He’d gone from cherished son to orphan in a matter of minutes, and that had forced him to put up wall after wall, even to keep those closest to him at a distance he controlled.
When he arrived in Henry, Kentucky, he’d done so alone.
He’d lived alone.
Although it hadn’t taken long for people—especially girls—to flock to him, and he and Ant eventually became the best of friends, he’d still had a way about him that had made her think solitary. It was half the reason she’d wanted to be in his life, and there were reasons she still couldn’t name that had driven her to his bedroom window in the middle of the night all those years ago.
It seemed like a lifetime ago that they’d been high school friends, pseudo-enemies, and then sweethearts. That mysterious, dark-haired boy who’d dropped into her life was now going to be a father.
“Xar?” He pulled her close. “Baby, you’re crying.”
“Go ahead and call,” she urged. “But don’t let go of me while you do it.”
He would need someone to lean on although he would never ask.
The phone rang three times and stopped.
At first, she heard nothing. Then, Julien’s voice came through tight and thick.
“You are a shady motherfucker for making us worry about you like that. You couldn’t have called sooner?”
Mike pushed out a weak laugh. “I lost my phone, somewhere, but I’m offended you were worried about me. You don’t think I can handle myself?”
“I’m linking you to the comms.”
Gage came through next. “Mate, we had reservations. You were the one who picked the restaurant and then you just don’t show up? What, you had better shit to do?”
Mike continued to laugh, the sound getting stronger by the second.
Dez added, with a laugh that didn’t fully mask the pain in his voice, “All I know is, the next time we all decide to go eat at some expensive ass restaurant, we’re giving you the wrong time. You need to show up. When we make plans, you…you need to show up.”
Xara kissed the hollow of his neck and lightly stroked his back.
“I cried,” Joel cut in. “Gage had to hold me.”
Mike burst out laughing, and Joel’s ability to ease tension was a gift she felt like she’d never truly appreciated until now.
“I’ll take over when I get back,” Mike replied. “I’ll rub your back and everything.”
Their time was running out, but even if they’d only had ten seconds, the guys would have made it count. She was never ignorant of the fact that she was only one part of what kept Mike grounded and centered.
So far, the only person they hadn’t heard from was Mr. Dark and Silent.
“Giorgio, you there?” she called.
“I am here, prinitsa,” he said, his name for her which Mo said he’d created because he saw her as a treasured sister figure. Then he said something further in Russian, ending with the word bratik.
That one she knew.
“I’ll call as soon as we hit Switzerland,” Mike informed them. “Who’s taking my baby and our baby back home?”
“Sydney volunteered,” Gage answered.
“Konechno, my Bez will go,” Giorgio added. “She will kill everything. Ya obeshchayu.”
Konechno, she understood to mean something like, “Of course.” Russian was the easiest language for him to communicate in, so they’d all done their part to start learning.
“Mo could come alone and I wouldn’t worry.” Mike looked up to the ceiling, head bobbing rhythmically. “I’ll see you guys in Zurich then.”
Mike continued to nod.
“Looks like everybody’s celebrating the next Father’s Day,” Gage quickly added.
On the last nod, the connection ended.
Mike had been counting the seconds, Xara realized, and he was more incredible than she could have ever imagined. He was her husband, intelligent, handsome, and fiercely protective with the deadly skill to back it up. It was like seeing him, for the first time, all over again.
He smiled that smile of his she would never, in this lifetime or the next, get tired of seeing, and winked.
“Dom?” She turned around, and Mike kept her close to him by wrapping an arm around her just below her breasts. “What does ya obeshchayu mean?”
Dom’s gaze slowly lowered to meet hers, and he blinked like he was trying to bring the room back into focus. “Um, it means ‘I promise.’”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. I just had something on my mind. But,” he retrieved a map from his jacket, “Mary got us a car that’ll get us to our first destination without arousing suspicion. We’re going to travel up through Mina Rashid and take the Bandar Lengeh ferry to the coast of Iran. Then we’ll have to skirt the edge of the country and make our first stop in Mashhad. After, we’ll go up through Iraq followed by Syria. Russia is still an ally there, so I have a pipeline of contacts that should be able to get us through under the radar. There might be an issue because you’re foreigners with American accents who look—”
“I’ll handle those as they arise,” Mike said, thumb stroking her side.
“Once we’re in Turkey, our trip gets a little easier. And hey,” Dom shrugged, “it’s not like we’re trying to get through North Korea. If that were the case, we’d have a better chance swimming through the Yellow Sea.”
It was entirely too much geography for this time of night, especially with the journey they had ahead. However, what Xara had learned in the last few weeks was that pregnant women weren’t as fragile as she’d once assumed. As long as she could take the necessary steps to keep Mikey J safe, she was fine. Plus, she’d been prepared to make this trip with only Dom. Now that Mike was there, she feared more for anyone who sought to antagonize them on their trip more than she feared for her life.
“Xar, you know what I do and how well I do it. I’ve got you.” Mike leaned near her ear and lowered his voice. “You’re really having my baby.”
She laughed. “I am.”
Dom separated the packs, handed a bag to Mike, and Mary cleared the way for them to make it through the house undetected.
They slipped out the back and to a waiting car. As she helped them inside, Xara took her hand.
“Come with us.”
Mary studied her face. “What now, dear?”
“If Ramzsyn gets back and finds out I’m gone, he’ll know you had something to do with it. You don’t want to be here. I don’t think you ever have. You were just as much a prisoner as I was and yet, you still had the balls to help me. Come with us.”
“I wouldn’t worry about him coming back,” Mike asserted. “But, you should still come.”
“Won’t it be,” Mary’s eyes darted amongst the three of them, “too many of us traveling at once?”
“Please.” Xara squeezed her hand. “You can act as my aunt or chaperone or something. We’ll figure it out. And, once we’re in Switzerland, you can link up with Dr. Keller.”
Mary glanced back at the dark outline of the house. “I’ll come, but only on one condition.”
“I’d like a picture of Mikey J that I can proudly display in my new home, far away from this place.”
If it hadn’t been for Mary, she wouldn’t have survived. She’d send pictures, video clips, and take him to see his honorary grandmother as much as she could.
Xara smiled. “Done.”
THERE WAS SO MUCH DESERT.
Xara had never seen more dry land in her life. She’d sucked down all her water by the time they reached a tiny village named Rostaq, and Mike gave her what was left of his, but she was glad they’d been able to replenish at the village before having to set out again. Because she was pregnant, they were being extremely generous by giving her their water or extra food. She appreciated it, but guilt ate away at her each time.
However, after three days of continuous travel, they were finally at their first resting stop, a place that skirted the city of Baghdad. It wasn’t the spot they’d initially planned as their first location, but Mike and Dom had already let her and Mary know things could, and probably would, change at the drop of a hat, as necessary. The connection Dom had set up, Dom had felt like they could no longer trust the guy, so they’d called an audible.
The apartment was quaint, clean, and had two bathrooms and two decent-sized bedrooms. The street in front wasn’t as busy as if they’d gone more toward the center of the city, but it was busy enough to provide cover. The exterior looked more like a house than a traditional apartment building, and there were eight units split between two adjoining buildings. A small courtyard with a pond separated the buildings.
The interior decor appeared to have been inspired by the Victorian Era and eighties home design. There were entirely too many patterns, plush surfaces, large indoor plants, and ornate wingbacks. Tile floors peeked from underneath large, fluffy area rugs. The bathrooms were probably the most modern, all marbled white tile with Western toilets.
She stirred, opened her eyes, and stretched her arms above her head. She had no recollection of falling asleep. The last thing she remembered was stumbling into the house while the sun blazed outside and falling onto a soft surface. There was also the tiniest memory of Mike giving her a kiss and letting her know he would be back soon.
Now, it was dark out.
A lamp glowed on the table next to the bed.
“Xara, are you up?” Mary poked her head into the bedroom. “Hi, dear. Did you sleep well?”
Xara pushed up, arms and back sore. “How long have I been asleep?”
“A few hours. Come, sweetheart.” Mary walked to the edge of the bed, arms outstretched. “You’ll take a shower, get comfortable, and when Mike and Dom return, you’ll eat and get more rest before we have to move again later tonight.”
She wasn’t sure she’d have the strength to move a week from now never mind a few hours, but she dragged herself out of the bed.
“Where’d they go?”
Mary helped her to her feet. “They left about an hour ago to pick up a car and some food.”
“Food sounds good.”
“You’re still tired?”
“Yes.” Xara covered a yawn with the back of her hand. “Very.”
“I remember those days. When I was pregnant with Argun, Ramzsyn put guards outside my bedroom door to make sure I remained on bed rest.”
They walked to the bathroom, and Mary helped her take a seat on the toilet lid.
“That sounds intense.”
“It wasn’t until we found out I was having a boy. For all he cared, I could have died in childbirth. He was simply overjoyed for a son. Mike, he isn’t like that.”
Xara, eyes closed, leaned against the toilet tank. “No. He isn’t.”
“Neither is Dom.” Mary rummaged through the bathroom cabinets, opening and shutting doors. “He’s a lovely young man, even with his past, but he’s very different from his family. That is why he ran away in his teens to spend some time in the United States with my youngest sister. It’s no surprise that as soon as he returned home, within months, he’s set to be married. When it comes to his family, Dominik will always do what he thinks he’s supposed to.”
From what she understood, the Bratva was a tight brotherhood. Depending on how high up Dom’s family ties were, it would have been nearly impossible for him to stay away for the rest of his life. He’d likely only spent as long as he did abroad because they’d allowed him to.
“That word, betrothed,” Xara pointed out. “He used it too. Is it an arranged marriage kind of deal?”
“He doesn’t seem particularly excited about it.”
“He is not.” A cabinet door shut. “Where is the soap? I’ll be right back, sweetheart.”
Mary’s footsteps retreated and returned less than a minute later.
“Why did Dom go back home if he ran away?”
“Their family is big on tradition and duty. It is impossible to escape it.”
“If that’s the case,” Xara covered another yawn, “I think I know why he’s not happy about getting married.”
A deep voice cut into their conversation. “And why’s that?”
Xara opened her eyes to an empty bathroom and Mike standing in the doorway, watching her. God, her hubby was so damn beautiful. Even with his healing bruises and a deep almost tangible sadness in his eyes, he was the sexiest man in the world for her.
“You feeling okay?” he asked, scanning her from head to toe. “We’re not moving too fast for you, are we?”
“Moving too fast to get back home?” She snorted a laugh. “Nah, don’t think so.”
He turned just as Mary walked up behind him.
“Mary, do you mind if I take over?” he asked.
“Do I mind letting you wash your pregnant wife? Oh no, dear. Not at all.” Mary handed him a washcloth and towel. “I’ll go help Dom with the food.”
When she left, Mike stepped into the bathroom and shut the door behind him. His fingers went to the bottom of his shirt and Xara held her breath, preparing herself for what lay underneath. He noticed and hesitated.
“Maybe you shouldn’t look.”
“For better,” she wiggled her fingers, “or for worse.”
He zoned in on the bare fourth finger on her left hand. “They took your ring?”
“Yep.” Her eyes rolled toward the ceiling. “Sometime between the sessions of force-feeding me.”
“Force-feeding you?” He stalked over to her and crouched. “What else did they do? Dom said Mary took care of you. That doesn’t sound like taking fucking care of you.”
“She wasn’t there when they were doing it, and it was because of her they stopped.”
He pulled her shirt off over her head, tossed it behind him, and did the same with her leggings and panties. Once she was completely naked, he slid his fingers over her skin like they would pick up on something his eyes couldn’t see. Some hidden gash, lump, or bruise not even she could feel.
“Tell me about your appointments. How they went.”
“First,” she tugged on his shirt, “show me.”
She rose with him, pulled the shirt off, and tossed it with her pile of clothes.
The skin covering his midsection, normally smooth and golden-olive, was covered in black, blue, purple, and red. What wasn’t bruised was either scarred, stitched, or both. He was also thinner than she remembered him being the last time they saw each other. His abs were still there but significantly more rib bones showed, and his frame was smaller.
She gave him a hug and, although it was light and brief, he returned the embrace, head turned so she couldn’t see his face.
“Don’t worry about me. I did what I had to do to keep you safe. I’d do it all over again if I had to.”
They’d known each other since she was seventeen, him eighteen, so if he thought she couldn’t tell what was going on in his head by now, without asking, she didn’t know what that said about their relationship.
She raised her hand to his cheek. “Look at me, baby.”
He pushed out a breath. “Why?”
“Because I love you?”
Their eyes finally met, and in those dark eyes were the secrets to a complex network of pain.
He stepped out of the rest of his clothes.
She walked backward, pulling him with her into the shower, and turned on the spray. He placed his body between her and the nozzle until the water ran warm then turned so it streamed against their sides. She started to say something to him, but he cradled her jaw and brought their lips together. His tongue pushed between the seam of her lips and roamed in and out of her mouth, and she kept her grip on him light to avoid exacerbating any of his injuries.
Without words, he told her how much he’d missed her.
Without words, she did the same.
He pulled away and dragged his bottom lip through his teeth. “We picked up rice and shrimp from a little family restaurant, but Mary said no seafood for you, so we got you stew and naan. Have you been checking your glucose?”
“If we need to hunker down another day, we can do that.”
He rubbed soap on the washcloth and swept it over her skin. Warm, soapy water spilled down her shoulder and over her breasts. She tried not to look at the bruising on his abdomen and failed. In addition to those, there was a large cut on his left shoulder and a smattering of discolored skin along his spinal cord.
“The baby and I are okay, Mike. Really. I wouldn’t lie to you about this.”
He spun his finger and she turned.
The perfect temperature of the water and the gentleness of his hand made her feel more like she was receiving a spa treatment than a shower. He was thorough but intimate, and experienced after knowing this body for so long.
After a third pass of the cloth down her left arm, she felt a flutter.
“He’s moving.” She grabbed his free hand. “I swear, it’s like he knows Daddy’s finally here.”
There was no response.
She tried to turn around but he held her firmly in place, drew her into his chest, and lowered his forehead to the back of her head. The hot droplets on her neck that followed didn’t come from the shower. His breathing hadn’t gone erratic because they were close, and he didn’t keep clearing his throat because it tickled.
It made him feel weak when he cried, which he’d told her on more than one occasion. He’d assumed she’d feel less secure in his ability to protect her. Somewhere, there was an unspoken rule that strong men didn’t cry, even when they were going through a world of hurt, but what situation was more appropriate than this for tears? He’d thought she was dead. When he found out she was alive, he also found out she was pregnant with their first child. His first child.
Then, he hadn’t been able to do anything about it.
“Mike.” Her voice was soft, easy. “Let me turn around. Let me hold you. Let me do at least that much.”
He still didn’t respond.
When he spoke again, his voice was unrecognizable. “It’s different losing you. Those three years we spent apart, I at least knew you were alive somewhere. You might have been depressed, angry, and upset, but you were alive. This time…I didn’t…”
She didn’t understand the rest of the sentence.
“Was that Mandarin?” she attempted to joke between her own anguish. “I didn’t get that last part.”
When he didn’t respond a third time, she tried again to ease out of his grasp. He slackened his grip just enough for her to step away and face him. The rims of his eyes were red and jet black hair stuck to his face, the rest spilling down his back. Water droplets clung to his eyelashes. His firm jaw ticked with each bob of his Adam’s apple.
She kissed his lips three times before pulling him into her body, hugging him tight. For all his silence, the way he wrapped her up spoke volumes. Since the start of this journey, on several occasions, he’d randomly dragged her up against him and held her, without words, just like this. Like he needed reminding she was real.
Out there, with the world and Dom and Mary watching, he’d “needed” to keep it all together. However, in here, it was safe to let go. Even if it was just a little, she was more than grateful he found the strength to let go.
“Xara, I’m so fucking sorry for what I put you through when you thought I was dead for those three years. I swear if Mosvar had been telling the truth and you were really dead? I won’t live without you.”
“Mike, please don’t say that.”
“No, I need you to know, here and now, that if you hadn’t made it, I wouldn’t have been able to go on. There is no life for me here on this earth without you.”
“But now we have Mikey,” she reminded. “So we’ll keep going. Together.”
“Maybe it’s because we met so young, but I can’t explain what I feel when I hear your voice or see you. When I know you’re going to be where I am. You’re so beautiful, Xar. I’ve always thought so, ever since that very first time I saw you. Then, at the Sarayev house when I walked in and,” his voice lowered, “saw you all pregnant and glowing and shit…you are having my fucking baby. You’re trodding through deserts and climbing fences and not complaining about any of it while my son is in your fucking body.”
The lower his voice went, the tighter he held her.
“I love you so much, Xar. So fucking much. And, I can’t believe how much you love me.”
She slipped her fingers behind his head.
He moved his head, nose caressing the side of her face until their lips brushed. Their mouths came together, hot and hungry. She moaned against his lips and slipped her tongue along his, teasing it into a duel. Instead of rising to the challenge, he pulled away and dragged his tongue along her jaw up to her ears. His teeth on her earlobe sent a flash of desire up through her body, roaring louder than the rumble of the water.
“Why?” he whispered, swirling his tongue along the outer shell. “Why do you love me?”
He trailed his tongue from her ear down to the erogenous spot at the side of her neck. She let her head rest against his shoulder and reached south to take him in her hand. The water and soap came together like a natural lubricant.
She started slow, slipping her palm, slightly opened, along his length. “Why do I love you? Mike, you are the most amazing person I know.” She increased the speed of her strokes, making sure to span his length from base to the very tip, where she squeezed.“You are the most wonderful husband in the world.”
“You like that?” She planted a kiss on his shoulder and sucked the space just above his collarbone. “You like when I touch you like this, Michael?”
He thrust his hips in time to the motion of her hand.
“You will never be weak to me, my love. You are strong. You are skilled. You’re a fucking warrior. Do you know how lucky I am? If you hadn’t come to Kentucky, I’d probably be married to a bug collector or something right now instead of your sexy ass.”
He tried to laugh, but it was immediately replaced by a long, soft moan when she latched onto his neck and sucked. Mike was a warrior and yet, she was the one bringing him to his knees.
She licked from his shoulder up to his neck, moaned, and sucked at the firm muscle there.
“Xar, can you—”
“Show me how much you love me, Mike. Let me feel you. Let me feel my husband.”
He spun her around and pressed her, with all the gentleness in the world, against the shower wall. The water, now cool, cascaded over her head and down her back. An ache built between her legs that knew only one form of release. When he grabbed her hips, tilted them slightly, and entered her—stretching her wider the deeper he went—relief didn’t come, only more wanting.
“No one else but you,” she said, arms sore and weak, but they both needed this. “No one else but you will ever make me feel like this.”
His ragged, lust-filled breaths spread warmth along her cheeks. Each pivot of his pelvis pushed him deeper inside her until he could manage to only pull out halfway before surging back into her body. Her nipples were hard against the cool tile as raw, hot pleasure shook her from her thighs down to her toes. Her inner muscles clamped down on his thick shaft, tight.
“Do you ever regret it?” he asked.
“Meeting me.” He kept one hand on her hip and the other above their heads on the wall as he drove into her, steady. “Marrying me.”
“No,” she answered, with conviction. “If life brings me back to you, each time, I’ll do it all over again. Michael Huang, I love you.”
A groan tore from the pits of his belly. His pelvis slapped the slippery curves of her ass. He was making love to her like she doubted his feelings and the deeper he went, the further he tried to convince her.
“Liu Wei, you are the love of my life.”
There it was, the emotion he’d been trying to hold back.
“Xara, don’t forgive me.”
The tears on her face mingled with the splashes of cool water.
He turned her around, propped her against the wall, and pushed back inside her, the ecstasy and pain on his face indistinguishable.
“Don’t forgive me for bringing you into all of this. For leaving you, over and over again. For disappointing you when I promised you I could do better. Be better. All of this shit is my fucking fault.”
His strokes grew angrier, and he barely pulled out an inch before ramming back inside her.
“You know that’s…mmm…not true, baby,” she reassured. “Do you know how happy I was when I saw our son for the first time? He’s ours. He’s yours. God, just knowing I’m creating this life with you? No one else can love me like you do. No one else can fuck me like you do.”
“And no one else ever will.” His mouth latched onto hers, and his fingernails dipped into the flesh of her thighs.
His pace increased. The movement of their bodies rubbing and crashing together with each stroke placed the perfect amount of pressure against her extra sensitive and aching clitoris.
She splintered. Goosebumps rushed over her skin. Her sex quivered, milking and taunting him until he released inside her. The water had turned stark cold at some point, but the minute the pellets touched her skin, they warmed.
She hugged him.
They finished up in the shower and dried off in the bedroom. He helped her into a fresh pair of soft tights and another stretchy top. Her hair would be a frizzy mess in a couple of hours, but a frizzy mess seemed par for the course given their current circumstances. When they weren’t inside, her head was covered anyhow. She wore a niqab, and Mary wore a hijab.
After dressing himself, they joined Dom and Mary.
“I’m okay,” Xara said before either had a chance to ask.
Dom’s gaze flicked to Mike.
“You don’t trust my word?” she teased.
“I trust that you’re a strong woman.” He continued to set out the food on a small, wooden four-person dining table. “And strong women often test their limits even when they have support around them.”
“Dom, what’s her name?”
“Okay, how about this?” She quickly searched her mind for a gentler way to skirt what was obviously a subject close to his heart. “Is she what was on your mind back in Dubai?”
“Will you be okay?”
“I…don’t know.” Their eyes met. “Thanks for asking, Xara.”
When he and Mary finished setting out the food, they all sat down to eat.
“We’ll leave right before daylight,” Mike said, digging into his food, and it pained Xara’s heart to think about how long it had probably been since he’d last had a proper meal.
“How much longer do you think we have?” Mary asked.
“Four days, at most,” Dom replied. “We’re still making good time despite the setbacks. I’ll sleep out here in the front room. Mike and Xara, you guys take the room in the back. Mary, you can sleep in the one on the left.”
Xara bit into the naan and stew Mike brought up to her mouth. It was warm, hearty, and delicious with bold hints of spice.
“We ran into some…issues getting the car,” Mike added. “Open up, baby.”
He slipped more food into her mouth before taking a forkful of his own. He’d always been pretty good at pampering her, especially when she really needed it, but expectant-father-Mike doted on a whole different level.
Dom crooked his fingers. “‘Issues.’”
Mike fed Xara another bite. “I wouldn’t worry. Mary, you and Dom saved my wife and son’s lives. Dom can handle himself, but know that whatever protection I have for Xara, it automatically extends to you. I won’t let anything happen to you. I put my life on that.”
Mary’s cheeks pinked.
After dinner, Mary volunteered to clean up. The exhaustion caught back up with Xara, and she collapsed onto the mattress in the relatively bare bedroom that was hers and Mike’s for the night.
He climbed in beside her and pulled the thin sheet up over them both. She snuggled closer to him, her stomach pressing against his midsection so, if she fell asleep before him, he’d still be able to feel Mikey J’s small movements from time to time. Each blip and flutter was like their son reassuring them he was fine in his protective cocoon.
“Tell me about your appointments,” Mike asked again. “Were there any problems? Do we have to be concerned about anything? Any blood pressure issues? What about your blood sugar? Mikey’s health?”
She raised his knuckles to her lips. “My blood sugar is fine. My A1c was still on target last I checked. As long as it remains well-controlled, neither me nor Mikey should have any issues. Dr. Keller said it helped that I’m pretty fit and active and we’d planned ahead for a possible pregnancy, so we were already making sure we were our healthiest. Plus, I’d started taking prenatal vitamins already. Considering I found out about him a bit late and I was underweight at my first appointment—”
His fingers squeezed.
“I’m okay.” She stroked his palm with her thumb. “He’s healthy. The only issue is that he’s getting a little big.”
“I was a big baby.”
“How much did you weigh? Not more than seven pounds, right?”
“Nine pounds, four ounces.”
She glanced downward. “I don’t have enough space down there for a nine-pound baby.”
“I promise I’ll be there for the rest of your appointments.”
She slipped out of bed, rummaged through her things, pulled out all the ultrasound images she’d kept, ever since the first one, and climbed back in next to him. “This is Mikey at each different stage. Look how much he’s grown since this first one.”
Mike flipped onto his back and took one of the photos. “I haven’t seen most of these.”
“This is a 3D one. See his little face?”
“He…kind of looks like me. That’s wild.”
“I think so too! But, that’s the only 3D one I kept. I’ll be honest, I’m a little creeped out by them. I don’t want anymore until maybe thirty-four weeks. Can you imagine a 3D or 4D ultrasound while your baby’s still growing a foot?”
He cast a sideways glance at her. “That is something you’d definitely think about.”
“But, am I wrong?”
“This is so wild.” The side of his head touched hers. “We’re making a person.”
“I’m making a person.” She lay her hands on her stomach. “Your involvement stopped at ‘Xar…Xar…this pussy’s so…I’m gonna…unh.’”
He rolled his eyes, stomach tightening as he laughed. “I’m certain I last longer than that.”
They went through the rest of the pictures, pointing out Mikey’s belly, fingers, and nose. Then, she placed them back with her things and returned to Mike’s arms.
“Sleep, Xar. I’ll keep you safe. I promise.”
On cue, she yawned. “I love you, Mike.”
“And I’m in love with you.”
“MIKE, DO YOU HEAR THAT? Baby, are you up?”
Mike, already awake with his hands behind his head, turned and looked at her in the dark. “Yeah.”
The noise sounded again. A thud.
“What is it?”
“You don’t have to whisper. I don’t care if they know we heard them.”
He slipped out of bed and walked over to the window. “The guys about to come in here in a few seconds, probably to try to rob us. Funny. Pretend you’re asleep for me?”
Her heart didn’t race. Her pulse didn’t spike.
His confidence was having an oddly calming effect on her.
Xara lay her head on the pillow and lowered her eyelids.
Three men came through the window and gingerly dropped, one by one, onto the tile. Two of them had machetes and the last one had a bulge at his hip under his shirt. Their heads craned in the dark, searching the room for any obvious hiding places for valuables. When they spotted her, they whispered something to each other.
One raised his foot to start toward the bed.
He never set the foot back down.
If she’d blinked, she would have missed Mike grabbing him around the neck while shoving his foot into the other man right behind him.
He moved with a deft precision that was…drunkenly erotic.
One man went down. Another, he dipped under the man’s arm and did something to the man’s shoulder, arm, and wrist that caused cracks to echo around the room. His knee then went into the same man’s ribs so hard, she was sure they’d shattered.
The door opened, and Mike kicked a man in the back toward it. Dom immediately gripped the man’s chin, twisted, and snapped.
Between her legs, she felt a morbid, twisted throb.
Dom’s guy fell to the floor. Mike finished off one of his in the same manner.
The last man standing brandished a gun outfitted with a suppressor nozzle. Mike grabbed the gun—as if the man was a child holding a Super Soaker—placed it against the man’s chest, and tugged on the trigger.
When the last guy fell, he ticked his head at the window, and he and Dom worked together to push the guys back out where they’d crawled in through. Anyone who’d entered the room would have never been able to guess anything had just gone down. The two men were silent, efficient, and clean.
“Night,” Dom tossed over his shoulder as he left, closing the door behind him.
Mike crawled back into bed.
Xara pushed up on one elbow and looked down into his face, her entire body humming. “So, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you fight.”
He frowned, thinking. “I don’t think so either. Not since high school anyhow. Maybe a little bit on the helicopter?”
“You’ve, uh, improved.” She scanned the length of his body, running her hand up and down his thigh, moving inward with each pass. “A lot.”
“Xar…are you horny right now?”
“From watching me fight?”
“God, yes.” She nearly swallowed his tongue, her mouth finding his so fast he took a moment to respond.
He tore off her top, pulled her on top of him, and greedily sucked one of her nipples into his mouth.
Why did I ever worry?
This man is…on another level.
I can’t believe I—
His teeth delicately pinching her nipple broke her from her thoughts, and it was like her desire had multiplied because of the pregnancy. She felt everything, everything, and she felt it everywhere.
She almost came from that nip alone, which he soothed with his tongue and the strong pull of his hot mouth. He moved from one to the next, dragging his tongue around her ruched areola and blowing on the nub until it firmed into a hard peak.
And, he moaned.
She shook her head. “Please don’t do that.”
“Moan.” Her hips rocked against him. “Moan like that specifically.”
“I don’t know if I can help it. You are fucking delicious.”
He ran his tongue from one nipple to the next, plucking and tweaking the peak his tongue wasn’t savoring at the moment, back and forth. Sucking, licking, plucking, and tweaking. And then there went those teeth again with that light pressure, that little nip that made her clitoris throb.
“Baby,” his soft laugh warmed her chest, “you’re humping my leg.”
Sure enough, she was rubbing against his thigh and close to orgasm. But one wouldn’t be enough.
Dom could have walked back in and she wouldn’t stir. With the way she tingled, she would probably ask him to grab a tit and go to town.
“Oh…yes.” She rocked faster. “Yes, just like that, baby.”
Mike slipped one of his hands into the leggings, into her panties. Two of his fingers slid inside her and she rode them, flexing the muscles in her thighs. The heel of his palm slipped over the wet, aching nub.
“Damn, you’re wet, Xar.”
After only a few rubs—combined with the sound of his quick, uneven breaths—she was coming.
He tucked his other hand behind her head and pulled her mouth down to his just in time for her to release a cry down his throat.
“More,” she pleaded, chest heaving, sucking on his lips. “I want more. Please.”
He climbed over her, tugged off her soaked panties and leggings, and spread her legs. Cool air from his pursed lips caressed her clit followed by a long, slow lick just to the right of the organ. He trailed his tongue around it to the other side, circling like some kind of wanton vulture, and with each pass, she got wetter from anticipation alone.
He slipped those two fingers back inside her.
“I may pass out,” she warned, with a rush of a laugh. “The minute you…oh.”
He’d kissed it.
It still didn’t prepare her for that first pass, one long drag of his tongue that made her clit pulse.
He drew his tongue to a firm point and flicked while stroking her with his fingers.
“Baby, have I told you, lately, that I love you?” Her back arched and she gripped the sheets. “And the things you do?”
He sucked where she ached so hard, it was almost painful. But it wasn’t the kind of pain she shied away from. It was the one she welcomed, twitching and contorting as he brought her to the very edge of climax before bringing her back down again. Over and over, he teased her with that tongue he wielded as skillfully as he moved his body until she was cascading again. Climaxing again. Trembling and shuddering…and still so empty.
“More, Mike,” she begged, hoarse. “I want you.”
“How do you want me?”
Her head spun watching him strip. “Inside me. I need you.”
He climbed over her and entered her in one swift, fluid, hard motion.
She was expecting sweet and slow, but that notion was tossed out and destroyed after the first strike of his hips. This wasn’t the gentle lovemaking he’d graced her with in the shower. This was passion and torture, them acknowledging how far apart they’d been and how close they needed to be to dissolve that time apart until it no longer existed.
He spread her legs wide. Ecstasy rippled through her with every stroke and withdrawal.
“I think you like watching me fight.”
Xara squeezed her nipples. “I do.”
“Tell me what you like about it.”
“You’re so powerful, Mike.”
“Fuck.” He drew the word out on a long moan. “This pussy is my weakness and you know that shit, don’t you? Tell me what else you like with your sexy, beautiful ass.”
Sex could mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. Mike was hitting every spot, stroking every nerve, and tugging every string her heart possessed. And, she was about to see heaven in a minute.
“I love how you’re so agile, so skill…ah fuck.” He rolled his hips up into hers. “Oh my God, I love the way you fuck me, Mike. Yes, yes, y—”
Not even a semi could have hit her harder.
This orgasm rocked her soul. She couldn’t even cry out. Her throat muscles must have climaxed themselves and were now so spent, they no longer worked.
“Xa-ra, the things you do to me, girl…”
He drove into her with three more strong thrusts and then went still as he came, buried deep inside her, their chests touching and his dick pulsing at her entrance.
Once their breathing settled, he pushed up onto his palms. Sweat dripped from his forehead onto her chest, and his hair brushed his biceps.
“I might take up MMA or something if this is what my fighting does to you.”
“And I’d fully support your decision.”
He eased down next to her and pulled her into his body, holding tight. “Xar, you make forever look so damn easy.”
THE REST OF THE TRIP, although not as smooth as Xara would have liked, was mostly uneventful. It was so uneventful that when they finally made it to Dom’s safe house, it was a little anticlimactic.
At least, until a familiar figure rounded the corner.
“Oh my God.” Xara scrambled from the car and sprinted. “Oh my God, oh my God…”
Mo ran, closing the gap, and they crashed together in a tight hug.
“Hey, little sister,” Mo choked out. “We’ve missed you. We missed you so much. Oh sweetie, we’ve missed you.”
She cried against Mo’s shoulder, struggling to find words through her tears. Had Mo always smelled this good? Felt this soft? The woman was as fit as fit came, but right now, she felt like a pillow and the perfect amount of comfort to ameliorate the effects of a shitty last few months.
When Xara opened her eyes, Julien, Dez, Gage, Joel, and Giorgio watched her from behind Mo.
She released Mo and was immediately scooped up, kissed, and squeezed tight, first by Julien and then the rest of the guys, Giorgio lifting her off her feet.
Sydney rounded out the reunion.
“Guys,” Xara swiped at her eyes and gestured, “this is Mary. She’s Ramzsyn’s wife, yes, but she’s the only reason I’m alive.”
They greeted Mary with hugs, thank-yous, and promises they would safely get her to Dr. Keller.
Dez looked over Xara’s shoulder.
She turned around to watch Mike approach and nudged Mo in the shoulder. “That’s my son’s father.”
“Girl.” Mo sighed. “I know that feeling. I love that feeling.”
“Even though your crazy ass had a baby with Giorgio.”
“And Mike’s any more stable?” Mo scanned her husband. “Never mind. Radioisotopes are more stable than Gio.”
“How long have you been waiting to use that one?”
Mo pulled her into a side hug. “Since before I had Aleksi.”
Mike hugged Sydney first, then Mo, rocking her a little while she giggled between tears. The minute he released her, he was hugged, shoved, and trapped in headlocks. Julien shook his head and let it hang for a few seconds. Giorgio said something about taking Mike to get a haircut the next time he went. Gage and Dez scanned him and a range of emotions passed over their faces. She caught Gage’s eye and silently conveyed that she would tell them later what Mike never would.
When Mike hugged Joel, he soothingly rubbed Joel’s back and Joel burst out laughing.
They bumped fists and joked and carried on like children.
Dom’s shadow fell over Xara, and she threaded her arm through his to bring him closer. “Mo and Sydney, this is Dominik Sokolov. Sokolov means ‘falcon’ in Russian.”
Mo slid a glance Xara’s way and whispered, “Damn.”
Xara widened her eyes and nodded.
Mo glanced back at Giorgio to find him watching her. His eyes flashed something lethal, and his gaze flicked to Dom then to another man walking up. The man had the same dark hair as Dom, but he didn’t wear his hair as long as Dom did. And, instead of Dom’s silver-gray eyes, his were a deep, forest green.
“This is my cousin, Dmitri,” Dom introduced. “He secured the place for us.”
This time, Xara, Sydney, and Mo all exchanged looks.
Again, when Mo looked at Giorgio, he was already watching her.
“Pleasure to meet you all,” Dmitri greeted.
“Dmitri’s not Bratva,” Xara said, winking at Sydney. “He’s the CEO of his own Fortune 500 company and a technology executive. His current schedule affords him the ability to be home every night, and the most dangerous thing in his life is maybe a stomach virus. As you can imagine, I asked a lot of questions and learned a lot on our trip.”
“Are you single?” Mo asked.
Dmitri grinned. “Why, are you int—”
Dmitri took a half step backward, confused as to why everyone except Mary was shouting at him.
“You think my wife is beautiful?” Giorgio asked, eyes blazing and head cocked.
“It’s a trick question,” Mo explained, moving to stand between him and Dmitri. “There’s no correct answer. You say yes, he stabs you. You say no, he stabs you. He literally just wants to stab you.”
“Let him speak, Bez. Cousin of Dominik Sokolov, kak ty dumayesh’ moya zhena krasivaya?”
Dmitri’s face paled. “I…uh…she—”
“You speak Russian, yes?” Giorgio brandished a blade the length of his forearm and extended it in Dmitri’s direction. “You want to fuck him, Bez?”
She frowned. “Of course not. No offense, Dmitri.”
Giorgio cut him off with a glare before resettling his attention on Mo. “You are protecting him, my Bez?”
“Protecting him h—?”
“He will die. This is understood?”
“Oh my gosh, Gio, why are you like this?”
He looked at Dmitri. “I am going to kill you.”
“No, he won’t,” Mo attempted to reassure, but Dmitri didn’t look at all convinced.
“Fuck, I will not. Who will stop me?”
“We were talking him up for Sydney, you crazy…crazy person. Dammit!” She stomped her foot. “I used the radioisotope joke too soon.”
Giorgio’s anger broke for a nanosecond, and Xara swore she caught a smile.
“Bez, go inside.”
“Bez,” he growled, “go.”
“Are you still going to kill Dm—”
He picked her up like a delivery package and headed inside.
Gage turned to the group. “Let’s, um, give them a minute.”
“Is he going to harm her?” Dmitri asked, face still colorless and his chest pushing high with each breath.
Joel scoffed. “Harm Mo? You couldn’t even Jedi-mind-trick Pozza into harming Mo. Now, if you’d asked if he’s going to ‘hurt’ her…”
When they finally went inside, they found Mo stumbling toward the stairs wearing Giorgio’s shirt backward and inside out, gingerly gripping the balcony railing. Giorgio, shirtless, walked up behind her, tossed her over his shoulder, and carried her back down the hallway.
“Pineapples, Gio,” she pleaded. “Dear God, pineapples.”
* * *
Mike held Xara close, rocking and swaying.
They took Mary to Dr. Keller’s office earlier that morning and Dmitri had, reluctantly, stayed the night as long as they’d agreed to protect him from Giorgio. All of them. He spent most of his time hanging out with Sydney in the back of the house around the pool, Mo and Xara expertly finding ways to get them alone together.
Also, while at Dr. Keller’s, Mike was able to hear his son’s heartbeat for the first time.
“You have everything?” he asked, eyes closed and forehead against Xara’s.
“I think so.”
“I’ll see you in a few days, okay?”
She nodded. “Okay.”
“I have something to tell you first.” He kissed her lips, needing a taste of her more often than usual these days. “This might be the last time this happens. The last time we go out.”
She took a half-step backward. “Seriously?”
“Yes.” He pulled her back. “We’re going to have to be on our toes for a few months after. Repercussions are…inevitable. And, admittedly, we’re a little concerned. Except for Giorgio. And Joel.”
“Joel’s not at least nervous?”
“According to the ‘tea’ Gage spilled,” she laughed against his shoulder, “it’s Ayesha related.”
“Walk me out?”
He took her hand. “Of course.”
Dmitri and Dom offered to drive them to the airport where Dmitri’s Gulfstream, which he’d offered up, waited.
“I’ll take the bags to the car,” Dom volunteered. “Dmitri, let’s go before Pozza makes good on his threat.”
Dmitri wasted no time following, but he motioned with his head for Sydney to walk with him.
Giorgio moved to stand in front of Mo.
“I promise I’ll kill him if he tries anything,” she said. “Dom’s going with us too. Then, he’ll track Mosvar. You trust Dom, right?”
“There is dagger in your bag. I put katana, combat knife, blade for throwing—”
She reached up, kissed him, and smiled against his mouth when he pulled her close with one hand on her ass.
“I will see you and little fish at home.” He touched his forehead to hers. “I love you, my Bez. This is why, as you say, I am ‘like this.’”
“I know, and I love your unstable ass for it. With my whole heart.” Mo graced him with another kiss and then turned to Xara, hand out. “Ready to go, little sister?”
Mike explored Xara’s mouth with his tongue, tasting and drinking, his arms wrapped around her. She moaned against his lips, body slowly going pliant. He pressed her against the nearest wall, raised her leg, and sunk his fingers into her thighs. They’d had each other, several times, last night but it never felt like enough. Since their first time together, it was never enough.
Mo’s voice, soft, broke through. “Um, can you two not do anything to possibly turn Gio on? I haven’t recovered yet.”
Mike laughed and released Xara, locking their gazes. “Daddy’ll be home soon.”
Xara cupped his jaw. “Mike, baby?”
“Take them all the fuck out.”
He grinned. “With pleasure, diaochan.”
Xara took Mo’s hand and headed for the car.
“Do not forget, Bez,” Giorgio called after them. “I put garrote. It is with machete.”
When the car pulled off, they shut the door and went to the gym out back to zone out in preparation for the anarchy that lay ahead. No matter how simple the task appeared, each and everyone carried a risk. They couldn’t go into it as husbands or fathers.
They had to become soldiers. Killers. Assassins.
Giorgio linked the surround sound to his phone, turned it on, pushed up on his toes and dropped down into a pushup. Gage pulled himself up on a pull-up bar, pushed up over it, and lowered his chest to the top of the bar. Harsh breaths left Julien’s lungs as he sprinted, mind clear, on the treadmill. Joel went several rounds on the heavy bag. Dez pushed up into a handstand on his forearms.
Mike sat cross-legged, his hands clasped and his head down, any hope for Ramzsyn’s salvation dissolved into nonexistence.
Purple Lamborghini sounded throughout the room.
21: The End
The song selection changed and Joel continued his concert, complete with boy band dance moves.
“There you were, wild and free, reaching out like you needed me…”
Giorgio was actually the first one to start laughing. Julien, shoulders shaking as he cracked up, doubled over. Dez had the audacity to egg him on.
“With a helping hand, to make it right…”
Gage laughed until he could barely breathe.
Mike watched them, happy as hell to be home.