Happy Valentine’s Day!
Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
Joel pressed his knuckles against his chest, but it wouldn’t do a thing to soothe the burning ache. Sydney was dating. He hadn’t been able to so much as take another woman seriously and there she was, at one of their favorite restaurants, laughing and smiling with some handsome, bald-headed motherfucker.
He’d gone to pick up takeout to go back home and eat alone, but after spotting her moving on with her life so effortlessly, he hadn’t the stomach for it. Now, he was here at Dez and Larke’s, and he was pretty sure the last thing the newlyweds wanted was his melancholy ass in their den.
The door behind him opened.
“Actually, Dez,” he turned, “I probably shouldn’t even be her—Ayesha. Hey.”
Ayesha stared at him from Dez and Larke’s foyer, her eyes filled with pity. It was how they all looked at him, how they’d started looking at him ever since he and Syd announced their split. Everyone else’s relationships were going strong despite their careers, but Joel Lattimore hadn’t been enough for Sydney Donovan. Couldn’t keep her happy. Hell, who knew? Maybe she’d been faking her orgasms.
“Hey, Joel.” A soft smile touched Ayesha’s lips. “Dez and Larke aren’t back yet, but you can come on in.”
“I, uh, didn’t know you were in town.”
“For a little while. Sometimes, being on an island feels…well, like being on an island.” She stepped back. “Come on in. Watch out for Theo.”
Ayesha’s son, Theo, was attached to her left calf, tears on the toddler’s round cheeks, hazel eyes assessing him. As if they weren’t already the best of friends. He and Theo had become best friends when they first met. He’d fed him a piece of fresh pineapple, and that had sealed their bond.
Joel crouched. “Hey, little guy. You okay?”
Theo stared, lips trembling, his face flushed.
Ayesha looked down. “I left the room. He didn’t see me and had a small heart attack. Or something. He’s going through a clingy stage.”
Joel stepped inside, closed the door, and set the food on the nearby entryway table. He then turned to give Ayesha a hug, and she held on longer than usual.
They all did these days.
“Mama? Mama, I lost Theo.” Josiah peered into the entryway. “Oh, never mind. Hey, Joel!”
Josiah dashed over, and Joel folded him into a hug. Every time he saw Josiah, the kid was taller. He’d started out a lot like Theo, small for his age. Now, he towered over all his friends and classmates.
“You wanna watch movies with me, Mama, and Theo?” Josiah asked.
It was a better option than the nothing he’d had planned.
“I’d love to.”
Theo released his mother’s leg, walked over, and raised his arms. Joel picked him up, gave him a squeeze, and pressed a kiss into the curls on his head.
“Are you still my friend?”
Theo sniffed and nodded. “I Jo fwen.”
Ayesha grabbed the takeout bag. “And I guess I’ll carry this.”
They headed to the TV room where an animated movie was paused on the giant screen television. The restaurant had loaded him up with food, so he shared his rice, noodles, egg rolls, and sweet and sour chicken with Ayesha and the boys.
Two and a half movies in, Josiah fell asleep, and Joel had replaced Ayesha as Theo’s surrogate comfort. Theo stayed glued to his side, eyelids drooping, fighting sleep. He smelled like Pampers and baby powder, and it was hard to admit how refreshing it was to feel needed with the way Theo clung to him. For the last several weeks, he’d barely felt seen.
Ayesha stared, her smile wistful. Proud. Full of love. He’d hoped to know that feeling one day. Of looking at his son or daughter and feeling what he could see on Ayesha’s face. Now, he wasn’t sure what the future held.
“He’s barely holding on,” she whispered.
“I can set him to sleep, if you’d like.” He raised his arm. Theo crawled underneath it and onto his lap, his cheek against Joel’s chest.
Theo then closed his eyes, and his middle and ring fingers went into his mouth. Ayesha cringed.
“We’re still working on that.”
As a mother, Ayesha was a thing of beauty to watch. How she managed, alone, with two small boys, he’d never know. Once he got his life together, he would be around more for her. Everyone else felt guilty about not being able to due to building relationships or trying to start families, but he’d be able to step in. It wasn’t like he was doing either.
“He’ll grow out of it.” Joel burrowed further into the sofa cushions and patted Theo’s back. “It’s a comfort thing. My mother said I used to play with the fuzzies on her nightie.”
It took Theo only a few minutes to fall asleep, and Joel was hit with an unexpected rush of emotion when he looked down into the little guy’s face. They were such cute freakin’ kids. He’d only seen pictures of Curtis, but he’d been a good-looking guy. Their mother was gorgeous.
He wanted a wife to treasure. Kids for his parents to spoil. At no point in his life before this would he have ever anticipated wanting a family this much. Weren’t men supposed to want huge tits in their faces, a rotation of women in their beds, and all sorts of sinful debauchery? Then settle down at fifty-five with a twenty-five-year-old?
Whenever he slipped on a tie, he looked for graceful fingers to adjust it. At night, he wanted warm and familiar to hold and slip inside of, over and over. The house wasn’t the same with only his clothes, his scent, and his shoes on the bench by the front door. He’d already closed on a condo in Penn Quarter, but he hoped the house sold in less than a month to be done with it for good.
His eyelids fluttered. On the TV, credits rolled. On his belly, Theo snored, rising and falling in time to his breaths. At some point, Ayesha had tossed a blanket over them.
“I can take him.” She sat next to them. “Thank you. It’s been a while since he’s fallen asleep on something other than Mama’s chest. Not since he was like four months old, I believe.”
Joel rubbed Theo’s back. “Who was it, Gage?”
“Gage and his Superman pecs.” He yawned. “I almost bench-pressed myself into a stroke trying to measure up.”
Ayesha laughed. “You look fine. All of you look amazing.”
She kissed the top of Theo’s head and lifted him into her arms. Joel walked Josiah to bed, steering him by his sleepy shoulders.
Once they were tucked in, he asked Ayesha to join him on the back patio, not ready to be alone. It was selfish of him, but he couldn’t be alone. Not tonight. With the way he felt, he didn’t trust what he’d do without supervision.
“A date?” She turned to face him on the outdoor sectional. “I’m sorry, Joel. That’s…I’m sorry.”
He tried his best attempt at a smile. “It’s not like it’s your fault. I mean, I want her to move on. It’s just—”
“Joel,” she covered his hand with hers, “it’s okay.”
“I don’t even know where exactly I messed up.” He cleared his throat and shifted, eyes wet and burning. “It’s twice now that Syd, essentially, said she doesn’t want me in her life, and I fucking love her, Eesh.”
Ayesha edged closer, as though she sensed the breakdown he felt coming.
“Fuck.” He swiped his hand down his face. “My bad. I didn’t come here to do this.”
“It’s fine to hurt. You went through something painful.”
“I know it makes no sense, but I have this feeling like this is it for me. Like…I’ll never have a Tayler or a Theo.”
“And you didn’t realize that until now, and it feels too late to start over.”
He met her eyes. “Exactly.”
“You’re also pretty certain there’s no getting over this. No moving past this.”
“Fuck, I’m being insensitive. It’s not like Syd’s no longer walking around, you know?”
“This isn’t a grief competition.” She inched even closer. “I just…I understand. I had more kids with Curtis in my version of the future. I wanted a baby girl with him. I’ve never loved anyone the way I love Curtis, and it feels impossible to do it again.”
It reminded him of pain thresholds. Once he felt his first knife wound, he welcomed paper cuts and the scratches he’d gotten both from playing basketball after work with other agents at the Bureau and underground fight clubs.
“Tonight was hard,” she said. “And that’s okay.”
She opened her arms. He lowered his forehead to her shoulder and wrapped his arms around her. They were all so supportive. So…there. Ayesha, who lived in Hawaii, was there. Her arms were there. There had to be something about him that made his friends and brothers want to keep him in their lives. Something that made him worthy of that kind of dedication.
“Joel, I’ll be here. If you need me, when you need me. We all will. We love you.”
That, somehow, made the ache better and worse.
After an indeterminate amount of time—too long for his heavy ass head to be weighing down her small shoulder—the ache abated. He started to move away until he felt Ayesha’s fingers in his hair, and he’d needed that specific comfort for much too long, but it wasn’t like he could ask for it. Gage would gut him if he ever asked Tayler to play with his hair. Mo and Giorgio’s relationship was still unclear, but it was obvious she was off-limits and any requests of that nature were punishable by death and dismemberment.
And not necessarily in that order.
Syd used to start off playing with his hair. Then, she’d end up on her back, flushed and thoroughly fucked. At least, he assumed. Fake orgasms and all.
Would he really never get to touch her again?
“Can I ask you something personal, Ayesha?”
She nodded. “Sure.”
“Do you ever see yourself moving on? I mean, Curtis was the love of your life. Doesn’t it say somewhere that we can’t have two of those?”
He made a sound. In the past, it would have been a laugh. In the past, it wouldn’t have hurt.
“I haven’t thought about it that much,” she said. “I mean, Theo’s still in diapers. While I do get lonely, I’ve never envisioned myself moving on. For the right man, it’s possible but not likely.”
“How would you know he’s right?”
As it stood, right now, there was no one else for him but Sydney. There never would be.
Ayesha twirled a lock of his hair, and he got a distinct feeling she had no idea she was doing it, but at no point did he want her to stop. It was selfish of him, but he needed this. When he spotted Sydney at that restaurant earlier, his mind had immediately gone to finding a way to no longer exist. Tonight, talking to Ayesha and holding Theo and being part of something reminded him, although it was slight, that he still meant something to someone.
“I’d know he’s right if it feels like Curtis himself handpicked him from heaven. If he feels like a father to my boys. If they love him.”
It would have been harder if Sydney had died. He couldn’t imagine the pain Ayesha had dealt with after getting Curtis’ death notification, while pregnant.
From what he understood, she’d pulled away from the guys in her grief and went through the rest of the pregnancy alone while raising a very young Josiah. The guys showed up right before she went into labor, having promised Curtis that if anything happened to him, they would take care of his family. It gave them a chance to rekindle a relationship that grew closer each day.
With enough time, logically, he could move on from his divorce. It was harder to imagine what would have happened if Sydney had died.
Ayesha smoothed his hair. “Don’t think about that right now. You’re not anywhere near the mindset of moving on. Get through this part first.”
He was a man in his early thirties who wanted a family but lived a life not conducive to them. For him to move on, the woman would have to be unique. Special. And, in his opinion, a man didn’t go looking for a woman like that. She found him, someway, somehow, and she was a woman that, no matter how much he tried, he would never see coming.
In short, she was a fairy tale.
* * *
Ayesha, have dinner with me?
It was one sentence. One sentence Joel had tried to ask every day since they got back from Austria, but whenever he and Ayesha were alone, his heart pounded hard enough to rupture a valve. Every thought he managed to form eventually derailed. He became fixated on her mouth, her eyes, and the thought of kissing her until her lips bruised.
So, he hadn’t asked yet.
He had dreams of making her moan, making her scream and writhe and twist.
Several of them.
He also dreamed of having dinner with her and the boys. Making her breakfast and coffee. Being the man in her life who made her smile and took care of all her needs, and being an actual father to Josiah and Theo, if they were okay with that.
He wanted to come home to that smile.
But, what if things got serious and she decided she couldn’t deal with him possibly getting hurt either? Syd had been damn near perfect in his eyes, and she stopped wanting him the way he wanted her.
Ayesha, he wanted.
And he wasn’t sure he could handle her not wanting him.
Gage, beer in hand, joined him in the corner where he stood, staring at Ayesha, like a creep.
“Joel, you’re starting to scare the kids, mate.”
It was hard not to stare at her. She looked so cute in her skirt and sweater and tights. Curly bangs graced her forehead as she held Mikey J against her chest, her glossed lips stretched into a smile and her beautiful eyes like fireworks. It was winter, and even his normally olive skin had paled some, but she was still smooth and sexy and the color of the burnt sienna his nonna had used for her paintings.
They’d just come back from Mikey J’s Christening, which had taken longer than anticipated to plan since they had to be more cautious than they’d been in the past. Now, they were at Mike and Xara’s fawning over Mikey all over again like the night he was born.
It was the first word that had popped into Joel’s head when he saw the teeny pink baby with the head full of straight black hair. Xara had complained that he looked too much like Mike when Mike hadn’t been the one up late with heartburn and peeing six and seven times a night. Mike had smiled, the rims of his eyes still red from laying his eyes on his son for the first time.
“Is there any recorded history of dying by heart attack due to extreme infatuation?” Joel asked. “How would that even work? Like, does the heart explode or shrivel up or what?”
“That’s a question for my lady.” Gage tipped back his imported Lager. “But if it didn’t happen to me, you’ll be fine.”
“I haven’t even kissed her. I’ve never felt like this.”
“You’re trying to anticipate your issues to avoid what happened with Syd, trying to be the perfect mate,” Gage explained. “So, you’re nervous and second-guessing yourself. But Ayesha isn’t Syd. You’ll still fuck up from time to time, in different ways. Eesh and Syd won’t want the same things from you.”
“Sometimes, I feel like she’s shocked I’m interested in her.”
“I see that too. I don’t get it. Eesh is lovely.”
“Lovely isn’t the word. Damn.”
Ayesha glanced at him for all of two seconds, and he had another one of those sensations he was pretty certain were small heart attacks. Petit mal seizures existed. There had to be something for the heart. Petit mal infarctions.
“I want to make her happy. What do you do? How do you keep Tayler happy?”
A slow smile spread across Gage’s face.
“Joel, as you already know, marriage comes with its share of good times and not-as-good times. Tay and I don’t have all perfect days, especially after I inadvertently taught our son to whisper ‘fuck, mate’ whenever he spills or drops something.”
Joel shook his head, chuckling.
“But, Tay…she has my whole heart. My whole fucking heart. I’m asking her to put up with my shit as a husband, trust me when I say I’m coming home in one piece, and be understanding when I come back more messed up than I left. She gave me my son.” Gage’s mouth tipped into a smile as he watched Tayler pretend to munch on Grey’s stomach. With each fake bite, Grey shrieked with laughter. “The least I can do is be supportive, be faithful, be a good father, and protect my family.”
Ayesha glanced up again. Their gazes held until Theo and Thandie ran into the living room, Thandie crying and Theo sputtering through his defense opening statement. To Joel’s surprise, Thandie ran over to him instead of Ayesha. The way Ayesha’s head cocked to the side, she was surprised too.
“Uncle Joel,” Thandie wrapped her arms around him, “Theo’s being mean.”
Theo flicked away the accusation. “I do not have a mean bone in my body.”
Joel begged to differ.
“What’d he do?” he asked, smoothing Thandie’s hair.
“It was an accident!”
Which meant Theo was guilty. If he was culpable for his crime, he objected whenever the prosecution tried to present their side of the argument.
Thandie tilted her face up. “He did this.”
An angry, red scratch started at the corner of her left eye, stretched to her ear, and ended at the base of her neck.
“Oh, no.” Joel waved Ayesha over. “That’s not acceptable, Theo.”
Theo rolled his eyes.
Joel and Gage said, at the same time, “Go ahead and try that again.”
“Sorry, Joel.” His bottom lip quivered. “Sorry, Uncle Gage.”
Something had been going on with him lately. Theo, usually carefree and kind, had started showing out through loud tantrums, defiance, and now this. He’d also been having nightmares and struggled to sleep through the night.
Ayesha walked up. “What happened?”
Joel motioned to Thandie’s face.
“Theo did that, Thandie?” Her glare tore a hole through Theo’s shirt. “Theo, did you hurt Thandie?”
“Auntie, I think it was an accident,” Thandie defended. “I don’t want him to get in trouble.”
“Don’t come to his defense.” Ayesha grabbed Theo’s arm. “Let’s go.”
Joel hung back until she reached the opening to the hallway, glanced back, and nodded to indicate it was okay for him to follow. Theo did have a tendency to listen to him. According to her, it was the bass in his voice. The rest of the guys called it “Dad voice,” and claimed it was “a power” most men didn’t even realize they had whether they had children.
She sat on the ottoman in front of the glider in Mikey J’s nursery and stood Theo between her legs. “Explain what happened.”
“We were playing.” Theo looked away from his mother’s face. “And she made me mad.”
Ayesha cupped his chin and turned his face back to hers. “Look at me when I’m speaking to you, please.”
Joel leaned against the changing table, arms folded.
“I didn’t want to play her game. Just because she’s older’n me, everybody acts like I haff to listen to her, but she’s only a little bit older. It’s not like she’s bigger’n me too. Like Jojo.”
“Even if you don’t want to ‘listen’ to her,” Ayesha prefaced, “you don’t put your hands on other people.”
Theo reached into his bag of audacity and pulled out a handful of back-talk along with another eye roll. “It wasn’t my hands, Mama. It was my fingers.”
Ayesha stretched the muscles in her neck and muttered something under her breath. To Joel, it sounded like she was praying, counting, or both.
“Hey,” Joel called.
Tears leaked from Theo’s eyes. Ayesha looked at Joel as if to say, see? Dad voice, and edged Theo closer.
“You want to tell me what’s been going on with you? Since when do we hurt our family?”
“N-never.” Theo’s head bobbed with each hard sniff. “W-we don’t hurt the p-people we l-love.”
Joel crouched next to them. “Has something been making you upset?”
“So what made you so mad that your first thought was to scratch your cousin?”
“I d-don’t know.” With each word Joel spoke, more tears came and Theo’s face flushed deeper. “C-can I go pologize to Thandie? I’m really s-sorry, and I didn’t mean to h-hurt her.”
Ayesha nodded. “Yes. We’ll talk more when we get home.”
“Can I have a hug, Mama? Or are you too mad at me?”
She pulled him into her arms. “I’ll never be too upset to hold you, baby, but you know how we treat each other in this family. You know that when there’s a problem you can’t work out, you come to get an adult to help. I’m very disappointed that you did that.”
The sniffles gave way to tears. “I’m sorry. Please…don’t be…dispointed. I can still be a…good kid.”
Joel added, “We know you are, and you are a good kid. We know you didn’t mean it, but sometimes, even when we don’t mean to hurt the people we love, we still can end up hurting them really badly. And wouldn’t you feel terrible if you really hurt Thandie?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“So you see why we have that rule about how we love each other?” Ayesha asked.
She released him. “Okay. Go apologize to Thandie.”
He turned to Joel and tossed his arms around his neck, squeezing. Joel held him close.
“Do you still love me even though I did something bad?”
“Always,” Joel said. “We’ll love you forever.”
Theo stepped back and wiped his eyes. “Okay. I’ll go pologize now.”
He headed out of the room and down the hall, swiping at his eyes. Joel pushed up out of his crouch and sat next to Ayesha on the ottoman, the sides of their arms and thighs touching. He used the opportunity to wrap his arm around her waist, and she lay her head on his shoulder.
“Think it’s us making him more aggressive?” he asked. “Me and the guys, I mean. Because of what we do?”
She brushed something from his shirt and fixed his collar, and she might as well have kissed him.
“He doesn’t know exactly what you guys do. Plus, he thinks of you as some kind of superhero who defeats bad guys. Something’s going on with him. He says he keeps dreaming about a scary man. I tried spraying ‘monster spray’ under his bed, but it hasn’t helped so far. Damn internet.”
He laughed, kissed the top of her head, and wished it was her mouth. “You’ll get to the bottom of it.”
“I don’t mind if you want to talk to him too. He respects you. Plus, I haven’t been able to get that ‘Dad voice’ thing down.” She looked up into his face. “If you’re okay with that.”
He stared at her mouth. “I think I am.”
“You look really good today. I’ve always loved the way you dress, and this sweater and collared shirt combo is beautiful on you.”
His face and ears warmed. “Th-thanks.”
“Now you sound like Theo.” She stood and headed for the door. “I’ll see you back out in the living room.”
His ears stayed warm for the rest of the afternoon.
Once the festivities were over, he followed Ayesha back to her place. Theo fell asleep on the short drive back, so he carried him inside and helped Ayesha tuck him in. Josiah gave him a tight hug, told him he loved him, and went to bed. Joel let them know he would always be there for them. His boys, as Sydney had put it.
He and Ayesha now stood a few feet apart from each other in the middle of the living room. His heart thrashed like a wild horse, and the speed of her chest rising and falling meant she was as keyed up as he was. They looked at each other, through each other. He knew he needed to ask her to dinner, but there was something else he wanted to do first.
He closed the gap between them, pulled her up against him, and—
The kid’s timing was impeccable.
“Ayesha?” He intended to ask her the dinner question, but what came out of his mouth was, “Move in with me.”
Ayesha’s eyes opened wide. “Wait, what?”
“Mama?” Theo appeared in the hallway opening. “Mama, I…had an accident.”
Theo hadn’t had an accident in at least two years.
He and Ayesha—well, Ayesha—had still kept him in Pull-Ups and nighttime underwear until he was four, convinced each time he woke up dry, it was a fluke. They—she—had kept the covering on the mattress underneath the sheets as well.
Theo’s head fell. “I’m sorry.”
Ayesha stepped around Joel and crouched in front of Theo. “Oh, baby. It’s okay. You don’t have anything to be sorry about. It happens. I’ll help you change, and we’ll get you some new sheets.”
“I’ll do the sheets,” Joel volunteered. “And set out some new pajamas.”
Ayesha glanced back at him, nodded, and walked off with Theo.
Joel replaced the sheets, took the old ones to the laundry room, sprayed them with Ayesha’s fancy, organic stain remover, and tossed them in the washer. He’d come back in the morning to finish up. He couldn’t find the nerve to ask her out, but his ass was always over here doing laundry, making dinner, watching movies with them, and helping the boys with their homework. It was like he wanted to be part of this family so much, he’d slit his wrists to bleed his intentions.
He finished up and stopped outside Theo’s door when he heard them fussing.
“It’s not that simple,” Ayesha said.
“It’s really easy,” Theo countered. “When we were still in Maui, I called Joel ‘Daddy,’ and he didn’t even get mad.”
“It’s not fair! Jojo got to have a daddy!”
“Theodore Savea, lower your voice.”
Ayesha might not have the Dad voice, but she could inject a quiet firmness in her tone that made even Joel snap to attention.
“Remember what we said about respect?”
“Yes, Mama. I’m sorry. But, I miss Joel being at our house. I love him a lot, Mama. A whole lot. I just really wish he was my daddy. Like, that was gonna be my wish for my next birthday. Will it still come true even if I told you?”
Joel’s throat drew tight.
“I know you do, baby,” Ayesha said. “I…love him too.”
If she loved him, they loved each other. They’d, although woven within the confines of a fantastical story, confessed it. His reluctance to ask that one, damn simple question confused the hell out of him. Was that the problem? People usually dated and then fell in love. They appeared to be doing it the other way around. He didn’t want them to start too hot only to fizzle out later. He never wanted them to fizzle out.
Theo continued. “When we liveded with Joel, I didn’t see the man. I never did, Mama.”
“Baby, we never actually lived with…wait, is that why you had the accident tonight? You dreamed about the scary man again?”
“Yes. Joel can protect us from him.”
Joel stepped into the room.
“Joel!” Theo hopped out of bed and launched himself into Joel’s arms. “I thought you went home.”
“Not without saying good night to my favorite guy.”
“Can you stay until I fall asleep?” Theo asked. “That way, I won’t see the man.”
“Is this the same man every time?”
“Yes.” Theo’s head bobbed with a resounding nod. “He’s scary.”
“Like monster scary?” Joel asked, an uneasy feeling sweeping over him.
“No. Like Uncle Gio scary.”
He carried Theo back over to the bed. “I’ll stay until you fall asleep.”
Ayesha sat on one side of the bed while he sat on the other. Like all those years ago at Dez and Larke’s when he was still a toddler, Theo fell asleep on his chest with his ring and middle finger in his mouth.
“What’s happening?” Ayesha’s gaze moved back and forth over Theo’s small body. “Did something happen to my baby?”
“Can you do me a favor, Eesh, and let me know if Theo ever mentions the man outside of a nightmare scenario?”
Her gaze shot up to his. “Do you think it might be something real? A real man?”
“He did see Dom when we were in Maui, and Dom could have set him off.” Joel ran his hand over Theo’s hair. “Still, I’d like to keep an eye on it. Something’s freaking him out enough that’s he’s regressing, and that doesn’t sit well with me.”
She stared at him, eyes searching his.
“The answer is yes,” he said.
“To the question in your eyes. I’ll stay.”
She relaxed. “Thank you.”
“Anything for you and the boys. Now, for my question.” It took him a few seconds to unscramble his brain. It was hard to think when those eyes were set on him. “Have dinner with me? Eesh, when I was gone, I missed you like crazy. It’s why I’ve been staring at you—I went those months without seeing your face. Those eyes. Have dinner w—”
“Yes. God, yes. I’ve been waiting…I was starting to think…never mind. I’d love to have dinner with you.”
She sent a beautiful one right back.
After they were certain Theo was asleep, they tucked him in and left the room.
Joel started for the guest room, but Ayesha grabbed his hand and motioned, with her head, toward the master bedroom. Nothing would happen tonight, he knew, and he hoped his entire body was on board with that. Understood that. Every last appendage.
While she finished up her nightly routine in the bathroom, he sat waiting on the bed. To settle his nerves about sleeping next to her for the first time, holding her for a whole night, he turned on the TV. Some kind of romantic movie popped up on the screen, and the two main characters were going at it so intensely, he checked to make sure he hadn’t stumbled upon softcore porn.
That would definitely go over well.
He changed the channel.
To another sexy movie.
She laughed and took the remote. “We can watch Grimm. Josiah loves that show. He got me into it.”
“Does it have any passionate love scenes?”
“It’s monsters and witches and stuff like that.”
“Sounds like my kind of show.” He walked past her but then stopped, reached for her hand, and kissed her palm. “It’s good to be home.”
“It’s good to have you back,” she said. “I’m glad to have you back.”
“About earlier and the whole moving in thing—”
He nodded and stepped into the bathroom.
When he finished, and after spending too long fussing with his hair only to go to sleep, he stepped back into the bedroom.
Ayesha Savea was in his bed. Well, her bed. She wasn’t even dolled up—she wore a simple pink nightgown with straps and that fell about mid-thigh—but She. Was. In. His. Bed.
Still, it was the stuff of fantasies.
He removed his wallet and keys, set them on the nightstand, and undressed down to his tank undershirt, keeping his pants on. The entire time he undressed, she watched him.
“I still have some of your stuff.” She pointed to her dresser. “Those times I did your laundry as a thank you for being there for me and the boys, I ended up mixing up some of our stuff. I should have a pair of shorts of yours. And a few boxers.”
The last thing he needed was anything with a hole in the crotch to sleep next to this woman. It was a guarantee she’d get poked, and he didn’t want to “extend” over that line with her just yet.
She went to the dresser, and she didn’t have to search for them, as if she’d placed them somewhere specific because they were his.
He stepped out of his pants, was grateful his dick remained asleep, and pulled on the shorts.
She scooted over on the mattress.
He climbed in next to her.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he reassured, “but I’ll stay until you guys feel safe. I’ll make sure the boys don’t see me, you know, in here. I’ll leave before they wake up, change, and come back.”
Her gaze lowered to his mouth. “Until we feel safe again.”
“I’ll protect you and the boys. You know that, right? With my life, if need be.”
“I’m hoping it doesn’t have to come to that. It’s very important to me that you have a life and that the boys are in it.”
“And you.” He grabbed her waist and dragged her close. “I want you in it too.”
“Mama, can I sleep in your room?”
Ayesha hurried off the bed, intercepted Theo before he got to her doorway, and crouched to his eye level. “How about I sleep in your room instead?”
“Is Joel still here?”
“Yes. He’s…taking a shower.”
Theo seemed to consider the answer for a moment. “Where’s Joel gonna sleep?”
“I’ll let him have my room for the night if I’ll be with you.”
“I wanna sleep in your room, then. With you and Joel. Is that okay? Can I do that even if he’s not my daddy?”
She rubbed his arms. “Hmm…sure. Let’s go.”
When they entered the room, Joel emerged from the bathroom rubbing a towel over his head. He’d even gone so far as to wet his hair, and she loved the way he accommodated them without a fuss. She would have to make it up to him. He deserved whatever world she could piece together to give him.
Theo crawled into bed and settled in the middle. Ayesha shut off the TV right before a werewolf looking creature appeared on the screen. More scares was the last thing they needed tonight.
She climbed in on one side and Joel sandwiched Theo on the other. Theo gravitated to him, his head on Joel’s chest. It had been that way with them for years. Many times when they visited, Josiah and Theo stayed days with Joel and Sydney. That hadn’t changed with their split. Her babies loved him, and it was easy to see why. Easy to see how.
Theo yawned. “Good night, Papa. And good night, Joel. I love you.”
Tears welled in Ayesha’s eyes. She had no clue he said “good night” to Curtis. She had no clue he even spoke to him.
Joel kissed the top of his head. “I love you too, Theo.”
“Good night, Mama. I love you to infinity.”
She peppered the side of his face with kisses, and he giggled with his eyes closed. “I love you too, sweetie. Even more than that.”
He plopped his ring finger and middle finger into his mouth and drifted off.
* * *
Trevor Mason ducked a punch and brought his fist up into the stomach of the man across from him. His group mate’s stomach.
“Damn it, Trevor.” Wesley Barnes grabbed his midsection. “Isn’t that supposed to be the arm where you got shot?”
Their phones buzzed.
Four more men entered the training room—Adrían Delgano, Lee Jeong-Hyeok, Siriano Lavigne, and Nicholas Spettro.
“This is one for you, Adrían.” Trevor jutted out his chin. “Recon on Ayesha Savea.”
“Shouldn’t I be doing that?” Nicholas raised his hand. “We don’t have to send Adrían—”
“I’ll go.” Adrían looked up from the apple he peeled. “Lavigne got spotted by the kid the last time. I won’t make the same mistake.”
02: Seven Kisses
She looked up. “Adrían?”
“You look beautiful.” He drew her close. “It’s so good seeing you.”
She returned the hug and spotted Joel watching them over Adrían’s shoulder. “You too.”
“Nice seeing you too, I mean.”
“I know. I’m joking.” He tightened the arms he still had around her. “Are you out here alone?”
He looked good, still had that slight Brazilian accent that used to make her panties wet. Back then, he was slimmer and more toned. Over the years, he’d packed on a good deal of muscle but still had that whole rugged Jon Kortajarena thing going on.
“No, I’m with someone.”
He released her, and his disappointment looked authentic. “That’s too bad. For me, not for him. How are the boys?”
“Good. Actually, I have to get back to my—”
“Of course. Of course. Say hi to Theo and Josiah for me.”