Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
There were at least six instances where Ayesha wanted to kiss Joel.
The first was when he came to pick her up at the house in his dark jeans, scarf, sweater, and wool coat. She’d leaned forward to taste his lips, but then the boys rushed forward with their overnight bags, nearly pushing her face-first into the door to hug him. So, she’d tamped down the urge, and they dropped the boys off at Julien and Ari’s before heading out.
She wanted to kiss him at least three times on the drive as he caressed the back of her hand with his thumb. Even his side profile was sexy.
When they entered the restaurant, he’d taken off her coat and gawked at her in her very simple skin-tight black leggings, heeled boots, sweater, and scarf. She’d stepped forward, eyes locked on his mouth, but a large, loud party entered and interrupted them.
It was chilly outside, the country on a tightrope between winter and spring. The restaurant sat on a majestic frozen-over lake. She’d marveled over it for a few seconds through the floor-to-ceiling rectangular windows next to their table. They would have to come back at another time, in the summer, when she’d consumed enough of Joel to enjoy staring at something other than him for any length of time. For now, Mother Nature and the wonders of the world would have to take a backseat.
There were miniature flecks of green she’d never noticed before in his irises. It reminded her of the beaches in Hawaii where tropical trees bordered the water’s deep blue edges, blending into a single palette. She was glad he kept the facial hair; she wanted to scrape her fingers through it while sucking on his bottom lip and thrust her hands into his hair, grazing his scalp with her fingertips. She wanted to make him moan, and red wine wasn’t the best choice tonight if the agreement was to take things slow.
He was beautiful.
Even after his and Sydney’s split, falling for Joel had been the furthest thing from her mind. Her expectation had been to live out the rest of her days as Josiah and Theo’s mother. Once they were old enough, she’d become Ayesha again instead of “Ma” or “Mama.”
Now, she was thinking about being an “us” again, and it was exhilarating.
It also left her saddled with guilt.
Her heart said, “You’re in love, girl,” while her mind added, “with Sydney’s husband.”
“You okay, Ayesha?”
She blinked, lashes fluttering several times before the restaurant’s romantic glow beneath the chandeliers came back into focus. It had all blurred somehow. Everything behind his head had blurred.
“Yes, everything’s amazing,” she answered. “Why?”
“You’re checked out.”
“Oh. I was thinking about kissing you.”
She picked up a cabbage roll and bit down into it. When she looked up, Joel’s irises were black.
“Um…uh,” he shifted in his chair, “how…what was I…oh yeah. This dream of Theo’s. What’s it about? Do you know?”
Ayesha swallowed another bite and chased it with a sip of wine. “The dream starts with him at school on the playground. Since it’s his first day, he’s alone. You know it’s not easy for my baby to make friends, even though he’s so sweet.”
Joel’s mouth turned down in a slight curve, and he rubbed his knuckles over his sternum. “I…didn’t know that.”
She’d assumed leaving Theo at school for his very first day would have been one of the hardest things she’d ever done, but when he came home sad and didn’t want to tell her why, only to later find out it was because he was lonely? It shattered her heart.
“It’s my fault. I kept him with me right up until he started school instead of socializing him more.”
“It’s not on your fault or Theo’s.” Joel reached across the table and took her hand. “Once all this mess lets up, we’ll put him on a soccer team or something. He’ll make friends. He’s too amazing not to make friends.”
She shook off memories of Theo alone in their yard with his soccer ball whenever Josiah was busy or out with friends, or she couldn’t play with him. Joel had been more of a blessing in Theo’s life than she’d realized. Whenever Joel visited, they played together.
“In the dream, when Theo looks up, he sees a scary man looking at him from outside the school gate,” she continued. “He knows, somehow, that the man is looking for him, and he’s afraid the man’s there to kill me, him, and Josiah.”
Anger twitched across Joel’s face, and it had been a long time since she last felt the comfort and protectiveness he’d brought back into her life.
“Joel, do you think he really saw someone?”
He looked down at his empty plate. “I’ve been trying to figure that out. Things have been quiet, which I assumed would have been a good thing, but it’s…unsettling.”
Now that Theo, Thandie, and Josiah were enrolled in school, only the guys were allowed to drop them off unless she or Ari had to be there. They wouldn’t even risk Mo. The situation was too delicate to trust anyone else, even people in the area the guys had trusted for years.
“Do you think he’d mind spending some time with me?” Joel asked. “Just me and him?”
She felt her eyes light up. “Oh, he would love that.”
“That hurts, man. Down to the bone. I didn’t know my little guy was so lonely.”
Their joined hands moved in sync, fingers brushing and stroking. She raised her wine glass with the other and tipped it back, draining the bowl. Everything had been moving fast lately, and she’d had Joel, Xara, and Mike to focus on, so it had been a while since she’d last sat with the knowledge that there were people who didn’t like her baby.
It wasn’t like he could help some of his traits. All they saw when they looked at him was the mark of “trouble,” and notwithstanding his recent difficulties, Theo melted hearts with his little face, his eyes, and that giggle of his.
Joel’s gaze moved over her shoulder, out the window. With the sun set, the lights inside cascaded off the windows. The city shined, golden, in the distance.
The days were cold but lovely, and the nights were frigid. Once things got warmer, they planned to do more with the boys. Josiah and Theo had spent their entire lives in Maui. Each time they’d had to endure weather close to this, it had been on trips to DC where they knew they’d be going home at some point. Neither complained, but it couldn’t be easy for them to be cooped up after knowing so much sunshine.
A lump of emotion too large to swallow got stuck in Ayesha’s windpipe, and she pushed up out of her chair.
“I’ll be right back.”
Joel nodded and brushed his fingers through hers as she passed the table.
Thankfully, the bathroom was empty.
She locked herself in a stall, sat, and reeled off tissue paper, dabbing at her eyes until they stung. After the Thandie incident, she’d spent the rest of the day feeling guilty she’d been too harsh with Theo. He’d asked if he was still loved. If he could have a hug. He wouldn’t have asked those things if he felt loved.
If his loneliness bothered him, it didn’t show, but it turned her heart into precious glass held by greasy fingers. No five-year-old in the world should have to deal with the knowledge that there was something about him people didn’t like, and she wondered if it had manifested in his dreams. He was too young to articulate his frustration. The man could be some sort of symbol. If he saw himself as a danger or nuisance, the man could represent him fearing he was hurting her and Josiah.
Theo also wanted Joel to be his father. Perhaps he figured that if he had a living father, a lot of his problems would go away.
She blew her nose, left the stall, washed her hands at the sink, and checked to make sure her eyes weren’t swollen. Joel knew what she’d come in here to do, but she didn’t want to look it. The way he’d rubbed his chest, he felt a similar pain she did, and she was grateful for his love for her sons. It was a kind of love she’d feared they’d never again experience. At least, Josiah. Theo never had the privilege of being wrapped in Curtis’ light.
She wiped her hands, tossed the paper towel, pushed through the bathroom door, and ran into a hard chest. The person wrapped their arms around her waist to steady her…and didn’t let go.
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.”
They wouldn’t have a clue who he was. He never met Josiah, and he left when Theo was a wobbly toddler.
He squeezed her wrist, and she stepped around him.
Joel stood and all but caught her when she reached their table. He held her against his body and stared in the direction of the restrooms.
“Somebody you know?”
She slipped her fingers through his. “Used to.”
When she’d still worked out of a private office, Adrían Queirós had worked out of a massive office space down the hall from hers. She never quite understood what it was he did, but from the looks of things, he’d been successful at it.
Theo had only been a few months old at the time, so she took him with her to work more often than not. She’d set up a large, colorful, and partitioned off play area in the office, and it was funny how having a baby in the office had gotten clients who were less talkative to open up. She’d assumed she would have lost several because of him, but she’d lost none.
Adrían stopped in to introduce himself one afternoon because he was new to the building, and he’d ended up staying and chatting and playing with Theo for close to an hour. She’d thought nothing of it or about him. He was attractive, and she’d noticed, but that was it.
They ran into each other again in the building’s café during lunch. A few days later, when he didn’t spot her in the café, he brought up a container of food, which she’d appreciated because she’d worked through lunch and had still been breastfeeding at the time.
After that, they regularly spent lunch together. She let him know she was a recent widow not looking for anything serious. He’d recently ended a long-term relationship himself.
A month later, he kissed her in the parking lot.
She’d craved human touch, human comfort…so she kissed him back.
It kept happening, going from lips lightly brushing in the space between pleasure and guilt to open-mouthed and desperate within a matter of weeks.
One month, Gage flew in and took Josiah and Theo back to California to spend time with him for a few weeks, so she and Adrían decided to meet up outside the building for a late afternoon lunch. That somewhere turned out to be a restaurant in a luxury hotel near the office complex.
After they ate, they kissed.
Adrían booked a room, and they had sex for the first time.
When Theo was asleep, she was with Adrían in her office. The days she didn’t have Theo in the office because either family or friends were in town, she’d go to Adrían’s office. She’d made the mistake of spending the night at his place at his request, and she woke up the next morning in his arms. She found him staring down at her, and after a soft smile, he’d told her, “Ayesha, I’m afraid I might be falling in love.”
They agreed to break things off, he shut down his office, and she didn’t see him again after that.
“Me and Adrían, we had a thing. It wasn’t serious.”
Joel didn’t look her way. “Does he know that?”
“We both agreed to break it off.”
She bit down on her bottom lip. “He…well, he said he thought he might be falling in love. Even if we hadn’t both agreed to stop, I would have ended things anyhow.”
“Hmm. Love.” Joel licked his lips. “How long did it last?”
“Joel, everything I want, I’m looking at.”
He took her hand, walked them to the heated outdoor space attached to the restaurant, and drew her back into his body while they stood near the railing. She sighed when he lowered his head to nuzzle her neck.
“I don’t feel threatened by the man,” he said, breath warming the shell of her right ear. “And yet, I still want to hang his spine on my wall.”
Joel had nothing to worry about. She’d never craved Adrían like this. The sex had been amazing, and it had felt nice to kiss, touch, and be held since the pain from losing Curtis had still been raw, but it didn’t matter how wide Adrían had opened his arms. She never desired to run into them.
She wanted to make love to Joel, experience life and continue a family with him.
“I feel like the moment I try to kiss you,” Joel’s lips brushed the other side of her neck, “Theo’ll show up at our table.”
“He does have amazing timing.”
His tongue, hot, flicked against her skin as he made his way toward her jaw. Each inch closer to her mouth made her heart beat faster.
“What would qualify as us moving too fast?” she asked, tilting her head.
“Eloping.” He grabbed her hip and spun her around. “Why? What’s on your mind?”
“Excuse me, I’m looking for Joel and…Ayehsh…Ayuh—”
“It’s Ayesha.” Joel turned toward the voice, a server waving a piece of paper. “How can we help you?”
“Your family couldn’t reach you by phone,” the server said. “There has been an emergency. It’s your son.”
Joel gathered their things from the table and paid their bill, and she called Ari. The call didn’t connect until they reached the car, and the first thing they heard was crying in the background at a level Ayesha hadn’t heard since Theo was a newborn.
“Theo’s having a hard time tonight,” Ari said. “He—oh, baby, it’s okay. It’s okay, sweetie. Auntie won’t leave you—woke up screaming. Like, it’s so bad, he’s throwing up.”
Theo coughed, gagged, and retched.
“I’m here, baby,” Ari cooed.
Joel sped to the main road. “What’s going on, big guy? Think you can talk to us?”
All they got was more retching.
“Did he say anything?” Ayesha asked.
“He woke up screaming and asked me to ask Julien if he could make sure ‘the man’ didn’t get him. When I told him Julien wasn’t home, that’s when this started.”
Ayesha’s eyes stung with fresh tears. “Theo, we’re on our way, baby.”
“Julien’s heading back.” Ari said a few more reassuring words to Theo. “I hate seeing him like this. I’ll hold him until you guys get here, see if I can rock him to sleep.”
When they hung up, Ayesha folded herself into the seat. She wouldn’t be able to distance herself from the problem to treat Theo in an effective way, but he needed to talk to someone. Someone who could give them a little more clarity on this whole “man” issue.
“Joel?” She looked over at him, vision watery. “What happened to my baby?”
WHEN THEY ARRIVED at the house, Theo was in a fresh pair of pajamas and asleep in Julien’s arms. Those two fingers were in his mouth, and Julien swiveled his chair from side to side, rocking him, while he stared at his computer screen.
“Hey, Julien,” Ayesha called.
Julien turned. “Hey. How was the date?”
“Amazing,” she said. “Has he been asleep long?”
“About fifteen minutes.” Julien pressed his cheek against the top of Theo’s head and rubbed his back. “I’ve never seen him like this. I mean, Theo didn’t stop crying until I walked in. Ari had just finished cleaning him up, and he came right over to me and asked me to pick him up. I can’t tell you the last time he’s done that.”
Joel lifted Theo from Julien’s arms. Ayesha pulled his fingers from his mouth, which caused Theo’s head to pop up.
“It’s us,” Joel whispered.
Theo hugged him tight. “Where’s Mama?”
“Right here, baby.”
“Mama, can you and Joel never leave again?”
They glanced at each other.
“Theo, did the man from your nightmare do something?” Joel asked. “Does he hurt you? Does he touch you anywhere?”
“He says he’s coming for Mama and Jojo.”
His fingers went back into his mouth, and he sucked on them like back when he’d nursed. Each tug opened a fresh crack in Ayesha’s heart.
“What does he want to do to your mama and Josiah?” Joel prodded.
“This.” Theo, tears rolling down his cheek, dragged his index finger across his neck. “Just like that. He wants to cut Mama on her throat and kill her. Jojo’s not big enough to stop him, and he’s bigger’n Auntie Ari. Only you can stop him, Joel. You and Uncle Julien, Uncle Dez, Uncle Gage, Uncle Mike, and Uncle Gio.”
Joel and Julien exchanged a look.
Ayesha retrieved a tissue from her purse and dabbed at Theo’s tears. “Does the man have a name?”
“I don’t know, Mama.”
“Okay.” She tipped up and kissed his cheek. “Julien, is it okay if Josiah stays until the morning?”
Julien stood. “Of course. He can stay for as long as he likes.”
They let Julien know Josiah could come home tomorrow if he wanted to, and Theo fell back to sleep as soon as Joel secured him in the car. He didn’t wake on the ride back or as they walked into the house, but the minute they set him on his bed, he grabbed Joel’s shirt.
“I don’t wanna sleep by myself, Joel. Mama, please don’t make me sleep by myself.”
So, they took him to Ayesha’s bedroom where he fell right back to sleep.
Ayesha went to change him into his nighttime undies, saw he was already wearing a pair, and prayed it wasn’t because he’d had an accident at Ari’s. Ari wouldn’t mind, but the latent “you’re a terrible mother” merged with the “you’re failing as a single mother,” and she wouldn’t be able to weather that with everything else they had going on.
She went to the bathroom to change, and Joel changed in one of the guest rooms. She let him know that she “thought” she had more clothes of his when she knew she had more than “some.” There were the ones that had gotten mixed up in their laundry and the ones she’d bought on a whim while pretending it hadn’t meant she had feelings for him.
When Joel returned to the room, he took her wrist and pulled her into the corner.
“So, I was overzealous before, but I’m serious now,” he said. “Move in with me. Theo says he feels safe with either me or the guys. The most logical choice, and the one I selfishly want for myself, is for you to move in with me. That way, he knows I’ll always come home. He can count on me coming home.”
How did one word sound so good coming from his mouth?
“Let me talk to Josiah first,” she said.
A coy smile appeared on his face. Talking to Josiah was a formality. He had his room at Joel’s already picked out.
She glanced at their—her little boy. “I’m thinking about taking him to see someone.”
“That’s a good idea.” He kissed the top of her head. “And after today, I want to do more stuff with him…why are you smiling?”
She didn’t realize she was. “I love the way you care about them.”
“Do you think,” he looked over her head at Theo, “I’m overstepping?”
“Because of Curtis.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Let me explain it better.” He shook his head. “Never mind. We’ll talk about that later.”
She knew what he wasn’t saying. He wanted to know, if things worked out between them the way they’d fantasized, what they would call him. What would be acceptable. She’d tossed the question around several times in her mind. In the end, she decided to cross that bridge if they came to it. Virtually every article and message board post suggested leaving it up to Theo and Josiah anyhow.
“Will you sleep in here with me and Theo tonight?” she asked.
She started for the bed, but he grabbed her hand and pulled her back.
Then, his mouth was on hers.
The kiss was gentle, but she still had to brace herself with two hands against his chest. She’d been waiting for this for so long, wanting this for so long, the sweet heat of it jarred her.
Their mouths separated, but he didn’t release her.
She opened her eyes to him staring down at her, eyes hooded and glazed-over, his hands slowly wrapping around her waist. Two kids had dropped a few hills and valleys on her sporty frame, but there were areas she wished she had more “body” to fill his enormous hands.
“What are you smiling about now?” she asked, pushing her fingers through his hair, up off his forehead.
“Nothing.” He closed his eyes. “Well, what would you say if I told you I feel amazing when I’m with you? Happy when I’m with you? I love being with you, Eesh.”
“I’d say, I love being with you too, Joel. I always have.”
I always will.
His smile grew. “And that, what you’re doing right now with my hair, I love that.”
“I can’t guarantee that if we come stay with you, I’ll be able to leave.”
“Then don’t.” He opened his eyes and leaned down, focus glued to her lips. “There are things I can do to get you to stay. So many things…”
He cradled the back of her head and brought her mouth to his. When their lips made contact, she felt the shock move through her entire system. The fingers on her left hand slipped into the hair at his nape, and the fingers on her right hand gripped his bicep. He tightened his hold around her and breathed out a moan quieter than a whisper.
“I won’t let you hurt my Mama, Veeny.”
They pulled apart, untangled, and walked over to the bed.
“Do you know if veeny’s a word or a name?” Ayesha asked, licking her lips.
Joel didn’t look at Theo like the man they’d called a friend for all these years. He looked at Theo like she would. Like Curtis used to look at Josiah.
“I’m not sure. I’ll ask Giorgio, see if he’s ever heard it.”
“Mama and Joel are going to find out what’s hurting you and fix this, baby.” She lay on her side and tucked Theo against her chest and stomach. Before the end of the week, the four of them would be under one roof, and with the way Theo trembled against her, it wasn’t a moment too soon.
Hmm…Adrian Queirós? Adrian Delgano?
03: Coincidence and Fate
“Delgano.” Nicholas didn’t look up from his computer monitor. “Did you see her?”
Adrían scrubbed his face. “See who?”
Of course, he’d seen Ayesha Savea. He couldn’t unsee Ayesha Savea. None of the guys knew how he felt about her, and he would take that information to his grave. Up until he’d met her, he’d done most things on autopilot. Whatever was expected of him, he executed to the fullest of his abilities.
As the story often went, she should have never been more than a job.