Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
Back To Life, Back To Reality
“Sir, I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
The store clerk looked at Giorgio and Mo, Aleksi asleep in a baby wrap against Mo’s chest with Theo’s hand in hers, and Josiah reading on his tablet next to them. For the most part, they looked like a normal, everyday family. At least, if they didn’t take Giorgio’s size, voice, or menacing presence into consideration.
“You want something sharper?” the clerk asked.
“Bez.” Giorgio held out a pair of hedge trimming shears. “Feel.”
She pressed her finger on the tip of each blade. “It didn’t even draw blood.”
“It can kill not even paper.”
The clerk swallowed and clasped his hands beneath his chin. “So…what are you trying to do with them, now?”
“Nichego,” Giorgio said, frustrated. “Nothing. I can do nothing.”
“Well, what were you trying to do with them?”
“Not kill.” Giorgio handed over the shears. “Where is…Bez, how do you say word, ‘nozh dlya derevo’?”
“Knife for tree?” Mo thought for a moment and then shook her head. “Thank you for your help, sir. We don’t need a chainsaw.”
The clerk scurried off.
“Did you get the barackets, Uncle Gio?” Theo asked.
“Da, Little Theo. I get bracket. We can go. Nothing is here for me.”
On the way to the SUV in the car park, Theo regaled Mo with the facts he’d learned from his museum trip. Josiah walked next to Giorgio, his attention not so much as budging from his tablet.
“How’d they fit a ship that big inside a building?” Mo asked Theo, his small hand lodged in hers.
“This is the best part, Auntie Mo.” His eyes opened wide. “They built it around the ship. The lady at the museum told us that.”
“That’s so awesome.”
“You want to come with me next time?”
She squeezed his hand. “I’d love to, baby.”
A figure in the distance, partially hidden behind the building, caught her eye. Underneath the outdoor lights, she made out the shadow of a large, male frame.
“You see him, Gio?” she asked.
Giorgio ticked his head. “Da.”
Theo sniffled, and the front of his little jeans was suddenly darker than they’d been seconds ago.
“Sweetheart,” she crouched in front of him, “what’s wrong?”
Theo didn’t respond.
She looked up at Giorgio, whose attention was fixed toward where she’d seen the man, and made sure Josiah was still engrossed in his book.
He glanced at her.
She covered Theo’s ears. “Go fuck him up, baby.”
Giorgio started off. “Da.”
* * *
Giorgio brandished a Bowie knife.
So, this was Mr. Veeny.
The guys had let him know that if he ever encountered the piece of shit, for whatever reason, the agreement was to not kill him.
To not kill him.
He remembered Gage’s voice saying something, but the words were so soft now, like a field mouse’s footsteps, Aleksi’s tiny snores, or a leaf falling onto cotton.
Lavigne opened his mouth as if to say something, but Giorgio shoved a fist into the other man’s face, forcing him to stumble backward.
Nobody ever got the joke.
The blade was a distraction.
Lavigne whipped out a blade of his own, but Giorgio rushed forward and lodged the Bowie through his shoulder, narrowly “missing” Lavigne’s neck.
Long streams of French spurted from Lavigne’s mouth. Sweat sprung on his pale skin, darkened by smudges of what looked like dirt and blood. The mudak squinted and reached for the knife, but Giorgio pulled it out and stepped back.
Blood dripped from the blade’s tip onto the asphalt. Hopefully, if someone discovered it, it would force the store to carry more substantial blades. What was the point of a knife if it couldn’t pierce flesh? Skin, at least.
Giorgio flicked his wrist to discard the droplets, regretting that he hadn’t grabbed his KA-BAR knife from the trunk of the Cayenne. Nobody knew how he got his hands on it, and it was a funny story.
Something crackled from behind him.
Giorgio used the sound to time this second person’s movement.
When they were close, he ducked away from a chokehold, turned, and lodged the knife’s tip into the person’s abdomen. He brandished another blade, a spear point, and pierced the person’s jugular.
Now that he faced them, he made out a man’s face.
The man gasped, grabbed his neck, and fell to his knees. Giorgio stared as the gasping assailant, if he could even call them that, went from his knees to the asphalt. This man looked…what was the word? Unimpressionable? Uneventful? Where was Bez when he needed her?
Whatever the word was, this man with his dark hair and regular brown eyes didn’t look like any sort of killer. Then again, Giorgio supposed that was the point. People said he looked like a killer, but what did that even mean? Was it his scars? How did they know he hadn’t gotten them from playing too roughly on a playground as a chil—
“I said, ‘who are you’?”
Giorgio looked up, directly into the barrel of a gun, and cocked his head to the side.
“You will not shoot? Why?”
“Don’t stare down men or women holding guns, Gio,” Bez had said, over and over, and he hadn’t. For a long time. How was he supposed to know he still did it? Where was he supposed to find somebody with a gun to see what would happen?
Lavigne’s hand trembled. “Nique ta mère! Fuck you. If I shoot you, I am dead.”
“You are dead already, yes?” Giorgio asked. “And why do you shake? Is this because I am not five-year-old boy?”
“I am asshole? Mudak, if you do not kill me now, I will kill you later. Pull the fucking trigger.”
He could not tell Bez this story.
Maybe he would tell the fish.
“Tell your guy to stand down,” Lavigne requested. “I have to get my man some help. If not, we are all going to die today.”
From behind the mudak, Dez lowered a rifle.
“I will find you,” Lavigne spat, inching toward his comrade.
“You want my number?” Giorgio watched Lavigne’s every movement, Gage’s request echoing in his head. “I will come if you call.”
Lavigne grabbed his dying—well, dead—friend and backed up toward the shadows. Giorgio turned and headed back to Bez and the boys.
“Pozza,” Dez called, following him. “You can’t just turn your back on somebody holding a gun. We talked about this.”
When he and Dez reached the Cayenne, Giorgio picked Theo up, opened the back of the SUV, and set Theo down in the trunk. He then took off his shirt and draped it over Theo’s body.
Theo’s lips trembled. “I’m sorry I had an accident, Uncle Gio.”
Giorgio gently bumped their foreheads together. “Is okay, Little Theo. This will happen. But Mr. Veeny, he will not harm you. If he try, I will take knif—”
“Notice,” Mo cut in. “He’ll take notice and handle it.”
“Bez, this is not what I was going to say.”
She kissed the ball of his shoulder, and he liked when she kissed odd places. He also liked watching her, especially like this when she had Aleksi in one of those things she wrapped around her like bedsheets. She was happy; she told him so all the time. And knowing she was happy even though she was with him was a gift he could have never bought. It was better than all of his cars, even the Ferraris.
That was the word—unassuming.
Giorgio laughed to himself, head shaking.
He changed Theo out of his soiled clothes. When Theo’s tears returned, he held him close.
“Is okay, Little Theo. Remember this always—we will forever protect you. If I have to,” he glanced at Bez, “harm Mr. Veeny, I will do this. You trust your Uncle Giorgio, yes?”
Theo nodded and squeezed him tight.
Bez, her beautiful eyes shining, smiled. “I love you, Gio. Please don’t ever change.”
Theo echoed her, voice teary. “I love you too, Uncle Giorgio. Thanks for being my scary uncle.”
* * *
Adrían studied the frozen blip on the screen in front of him. It hadn’t moved in the last day or so, and even if all Ayesha did was walk around the house, he would have still been able to track that, at least. No audio or any change in position meant she’d taken off her ring, and she’d worn that ring every single day they were together, removing it only to shower or have it cleaned.
He tilted back in his chair, locked his fingers behind his head, and stared at the dot. Was it crazy that he was happy that she’d found someone worth that kind of leap? As far as he was concerned, his soul had a pre-booked slot in hell. The least he could do was seek atonement through the genuine wish for her to have the best life possible.
“Did you turn your comms off?”
Adrían spun around in his chair to face the now open and unlocked doorway. Hyeok, the fucking light-foot, stood in the light streaming in from the corridor.
“It’s not like I can’t.”
“Well, we’ve been trying to reach you,” Hyeok said. “It’s Wesley. Lavigne disappeared on us again, so Wesley followed him. They ran into somebody outside of a, of all places, home improvement store.”
Adrían circled his hand. The slow pacing of the story was getting on his last nerve.
“Gano, Wesley’s dead.”
That was…unexpected. Not that he felt anything—remorse, sadness, a twitch of grief—but he hadn’t expected for them to be a five-man team before going up against Alpha.
“Who killed him?”
Hyeok folded his arms, leaned against the doorframe, and shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“How’d it happen?”
“Two blades. One to the neck, the other to the midsection.” Hyeok glanced at the laptop screen. “Lavigne got a little sliced up too. Said it all happened in less than two minutes.”
“Lavigne uses blades,” Adrían pointed out, shutting the laptop’s lid. “Sure it’s not him? The man does some crazy shit.”
“Well, whoever did this is crazier.”
Adrían read between the lines. For a long time, they’d had no idea Central had formed other teams from the grueling training exercises that had brought Omega together. Each team had been treated like they were the only ones, none of them ever crossing paths until the Curtis Savea incident.
“So, you think it’s Alpha?” he asked.
Hyeok nodded. “Trevor does.”
“Why would they be in Sweden?”
“Ayesha Savea, does she still have any contact with anyone from Alpha?”
“Not that I’ve been able to glean. Why?”
“She’s in Sweden, and we now believe at least one of Alpha’s in Sweden. Can’t be a coincidence. Plus, that team didn’t develop like the rest. They were the first, the elite, and we’ve been hearing rumor after rumor that they’ve grown too close. If Ayesha’s here and the guy who did this to Wesley and Lavigne might be Alpha, it gives us reason to believe Alpha’s here as well.”
Which further complicated things.
When they’d known each other, Ayesha had told him she’d cut all ties with “friends of Curtis’ from the military.” Their surveillance had revealed that she’d kept in touch with one, Gage Wolfe—one of only two names they knew of Alpha. The other was Curtis Savea.
Trevor and Gage served in the same military unit in Australia, so when Trevor spotted Gage that fateful day of Curtis’ demise, he’d recognized him. Central had created the teams all in a similar fashion, so this blade-wielder was likely Lavigne’s equivalent. Dez, the man who’d been with Larke Tapley in D.C., could be another one, especially since they’d linked Larke to Gage.
“So what do we do now?” Adrían asked. “Where’s Wesley?”
“His body’s already been taken care of. And, I don’t know what we do now but,” Hyeok pointed at the laptop with his chin, “I suggest you find us something useful from or about Ayesha Savea, who I know you’ve been watching, that can lead us to Alpha before I start believing we can no longer trust you.”
They never could trust him.
He worked based on his contract, not allegiances.
If the contract had been to kill his team members in exchange for his freedom, they would already all be dead. Omega was not Alpha. They were not close, they were not friends, and they for damn sure weren’t family. The sick fuck Lavigne should have been the dead one. And why would anybody who possessed that much skill leave Lavigne alive if Lavigne wasn’t in on the whole charade?
“Where’s Ayesha?” Hyeok asked.
Adrían knew exactly where to find her. At least, where she’d been located for most of her time in Europe.
“I don’t know. That’s what I’ve been trying to find out all this time, but she takes off the ring now.”
“Take me with you next time.” Hyeok pushed up off the doorframe. “I’ll tail her back to wherever it is she’s staying. Nobody’ll see me.”
“Sure,” Adrían lied. “It’ll give me one less thing to do.”
Hyeok left, shutting the door behind him.
Adrían turned back to his laptop. He’d already planned to go see Ayesha—he wasn’t at all concerned about her new man—just to let her know he was watching over her. But, if she was still connected to Alpha, getting to her at home would be tricky. Luckily, he knew where the boys went to school.
* * *
Joel opened his mouth for Ayesha to pop a grape inside. “The guys would gag right now if they saw us,” he said. “Sick for days.”
They’d made love twice more last night and once this morning. She’d brought them breakfast in bed. After, he’d pulled her onto his lap for them to finish their fruit, Ayesha naked with the sheets pooled around her as she popped grapes and chunks of melon and pineapple into his mouth.
“We’ll have to tone down our disgustingness before we get back,” she joked.
“I don’t know.” He gripped her hips. “Seems kind of hard.”
That one sentence was all it took.
While she gripped the headboard behind his head, he held her hips to guide her down onto him.
She rode him, and he sucked on those sensitive nipples, her moans resonating like the Boston Philharmonic. Each time a shock of pleasure moved through his body, he had to toss his head back, her breast involuntarily falling from his mouth. But then her nipples called to him…and he went.
He’d learned how she liked to be touched, so he slipped one hand between them to soothe the tight ache he knew was building in her clit.
Between the strokes from his fingers and his teeth gently tugging her nipples, she cried out as she came, gasping and shuddering. And the fact that she trembled when she climaxed made him release his load way before he was ready.
Casual sex was what it was, but this shit was on an entirely different level. This was what he’d wanted, what he’d been afraid he would never have again.
Panting, she wrapped her arms around his neck.
He kissed her shoulder, breathing hard.
“Want to check out the private beach?” he asked, barely getting the words out.
She nodded. “Sure. We should probably get some sort of sunlight today.”
In agreement, they cleaned up and went to the beach.
Leticia and her husband hadn’t surfaced for a few days, so he and Ayesha weren’t sure if they were definitely alone, but the beachfront was empty. The coast stretched further than they could see, and small hills covered in lush greenery created an exclusive oasis.
For a moment, he’d forgotten people wore bikinis and swimsuits to the beach. And, to be fair, Ayesha had worn a cover-up. It wasn’t until she took off the cover-up to reveal the burnt orange, halter-top bikini underneath that he remembered.
So the minute she was in his arms, he fucked her, slowly, in the Baltic Sea.
Without stopping to catch a full second wind, he then wore her out among the trees hugging the coast, her fingernails skating the tree bark while he sunk into her from behind, over and over, until her shudders made him come.
It was clearer now why Mike and Xara hadn’t left their room much on their trip out to Malmö.
Exhausted, they staggered back to the cottage, ate lunch, and fell asleep. When they woke up, they went out for dinner. They’d even dressed for dinner. But Ayesha couldn’t stop staring at him in his collared shirt and blazer, biting her lip and squirming, so he took their food to go. He’d planned to wait until they were inside the cottage, but most of her clothes were off by the time they reached the front steps.
He hoisted her into the air, stepped inside, and placed her back against the entryway wall. Her gaze held his, and when the head of his dick breached the gateway to her heaven, her eyes rolled back and she held her breath. She didn’t release the breath until he was in, as deep as he could go.
“I love that,” he said, searching her eyes. “That little gasp.”
He rocked his hips into hers. The console table in the entryway rattled, his knee banging against it, but he felt no pain. Her fingernails sunk into his skin but that, he liked. He liked it even more when, to muffle her screams, she bit his shoulder.
“You can scream, baby,” he told her, their bodies slick and sliding against each other. “Don’t hold it in.”
She shook her head.
“You don’t want to scream, Eesh?” He slowed his pace. “You sure?”
The console table crashed to the floor. He plucked her from the wall, and her fingers somehow tugged down a set of drapes.
He stopped in front of the sofa, set her down, and used her hip to spin her around.
“Bend over, Eesh.”
From above, he could see how fast her chest moved, how hard her nipples were.
“Ayesha,” he grabbed her neck and bent her body in half, over the back of the couch, “don’t scream.”
When he filled her, she was even wetter than before.
“Oh, you liked that, did you?” He snapped his hips. “Fuck, you’re so wet.”
“I said no screaming.” His open palm met the lovely swell of her ass, and his dick was suddenly even wetter.
The room blurred. The sounds of their bodies coming together intensified as his vision clouded.
She felt so good.
The burn of release and the sensation of it shooting from his tip hit him at the same time her inner muscles quivered around his cock.
After several hard jerks and pants, the room cleared.
“What were you saying about fabric?” he asked.
“The sofa.” She ran her palm over one of the back cushions. “My nipples were rubbing against the fabric.”
“Did it hurt?”
She looked back at him, smiling. “No.”
Finally, they ate.
Only crazy people who were otherwise starving found time to screw each other before tending to their stomachs.
“You done?” Joel asked, pointing to Ayesha’s food container.
She took one last bite of her spinach and mushroom lasagna and shoved the container in his direction. He tossed them in the trash and returned to bed. They went home tomorrow, so tonight, he would indulge in holding her while they were both naked and warm and boneless.
“Question.” He wrapped his arms around her from behind and nuzzled her neck. “How effective is that IUD again?”
“Highly effective,” she said. “Why?”
“All the times I’ve come inside you? We’d end up with a Joel Jr. or a little Joelita before the end of next year. Guaranteed.”
She laughed. “Well, IUDs are more popular on this side of the globe, and the doctor assured me it’s highly effective. In any case, if we end up with a Joel Jr. or a little ‘Joelita,’ we can’t say we didn’t take some precautions.”
“Would you be upset?”
“To have your baby?” She looked back at him over her shoulder. “Not at all. Why, did you think I’d be?”
Blood rushed to his groin. “Maybe?”
“Joel, I’d have kids with you in a heartbeat. To be honest, I’d like to one day.”
He slid his hand down her body and lodged his fingers between her legs.
“If we sit around waiting to tell someone that we love them or we’re…having their baby,” she went on, “we could lose them before we ever get that chance. That’s not saying you and I are going to rush into things and not consider all the variables at play here, but Joel, you make me so happy, I don’t think I could stand not having you in my life.”
They’d worry about foreplay another day.
He pushed his way inside her, and as her pussy tightened around him, she grabbed his wrist. The sigh that left her lips whenever he entered her to the hilt, he hadn’t yet found a way to prepare for. It almost always made him come too soon.
“I’m sorry if you’re sore.” He kissed her neck. “I promise we’ll slow down after this.”
“It’s okay, Joel. I want you.”
Groaning, he cupped her breast, closed his eyes, and pressed his forehead against the back of her head. The head of his dick was already tingling, and he had to concentrate. It was so clear now, he didn’t know why he hadn’t seen it before. They’d both seen a possible relationship between them as being problematic. They’d both assumed it would have caused chaos, and she would have been accused of having tried to seduce him when he was still married. He would have been accused of taking advantage of her vulnerability and her desire to be with someone who truly loved her boys.
But she never doubted him.
It was never, “I don’t know if I want you, Joel.”
It was always, “I want you, Joel, but I’m afraid being with you might cause problems.”
He sucked her neck, rolling the pad of his thumb over her nipple.
“Play with your pussy for me, Eesh.” A tinge of pleasure ran the full length of his shaft. “Please.”
She parted her legs to fulfill his request, which he’d asked her to do because he was currently too emotionally involved to last as long as he’d like, but parting her legs made her take him deeper. Then, even though his eyes were closed, he could hear her wet fingers as she teased herself. And, as she did, she moaned and rolled her hips.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
The sweet burn of release built.
Each cry of his name from her lips made the burn deeper. Hotter. He was nearing the point of no return, the head of his dick tightening and preparing for the ecstasy of coming deep inside her.
She cried out, arched, and shook.
His orgasm tore from him, spilling hot out of his swollen tip in steady jerks. He came when he was at his deepest, needing to fulfill the primal urge to deposit his seed into her womb. It was a miracle of nature he had anything left. Each time he found himself inside her, his balls sighed. They hadn’t worked this hard in a long time.
He kissed her behind her ear and felt her smile.
The next morning, they checked in with the boys. More disgusting cuteness between them came in the form of her wearing the pajama top of the set of which he wore the bottoms.
Ayesha sat on the bed while he rested his head on her lap, and it was funny the difference a day made even in the intimacy of their positioning.
Theo greeted them this time, and he wasn’t smiling. Joel looked around behind him to make sure he was still at Mo and Giorgio’s.
“Hey, buddy. You okay?”
“Baby, did something happen?” Ayesha asked. “You seem sad.”
Theo shook his head.
“Where’s Josiah?” they both asked at the same time.
Joel got out of bed, grabbed his phone, and called Mo. When she picked up, she didn’t sound like herself either.
“Hey, Joel. How’s the mini-vacay?”
“Good. Great. Hey, did something happen?”
She went silent.
Something had happened, and it was bad.
“We didn’t want to say anything until we got back,” Mo began. “But when me and Giorgio took the boys with us to pick up brackets for the swing set, Theo had an accident in the parking lot, and it really embarrassed him.”
Joel headed to the living room and sat on the sofa arm. “Was he sleeping or awake?”
The muscles in his stomach tightened.
“Mo, who’d he see?”
Joel glanced at the open bedroom door. It was the same Mr. Veeny he realized he still hadn’t told Ayesha about yet. She didn’t even know he’d found out the “veeny” from Theo’s dream was an actual person, and that he’d gotten the information from the man she used to have casual sex with.
He’d essentially created his own clusterfuck.
“Gio said Eesh doesn’t know about ‘Mr. Veeny,’ so I didn’t want to say anything,” Mo added. “And, trust me, Theo’s more sad about his accident. He said not to tell ‘Mama or Joel’ about what happened because he didn’t want them sad on their ‘happy trip.’ I’m sorry you had to call to find out.”
“No, no, I understand,” Joel reassured. “You didn’t want him to feel betrayed by going against his wishes. I get it.”
“Gio saw Lavigne. He said there were two men, but one of them he definitely killed. Dez was with us, and they let Lavigne go.”
“For me to deal with him.”
They’d saved him the last bite of a good ass dinner.
What better brothers could a man ask for?
“Do you want us to tell Ayesha?” Mo asked. “Gio said Lavigne was in their house in Maui. When Ayesha finds out, she won’t take that well. We can do a girls’ night or something and break the news that way.”
“It has to be me, Mo.”
She sighed. “I know. Just…don’t do it out there. Wait until you get back. You two deserve this, and I hope it gave you the opportunity you needed to figure things out.”
“So you know she’s in love with you?”
Ayesha appeared in the bedroom doorway.
“I do. And she knows I’m in love with her.”
“We can come home tonight.”
In the background, Aleksi cried out, the cry followed by Giorgio’s voice.
“Joel, you know we love the boys,” Mo said. “We’ve got this until you get back. Take your joy when you can because, as usual, there’ll be times we won’t get to have any of it.”
He locked gazes with Ayesha. “You’re right.”
“Say hi to Eesh for me.”
“I will. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mo.”
They hung up.
“Did you get Theo to talk?” he asked Ayesha.
She shook her head. “No. Josiah didn’t want to talk either, but it was because Theo told him, ‘don’t tell her, Jojo,’ when he started to explain.”
“He had an accident yesterday when they were at the home improvement store, and he’s embarrassed.”
“Oh, no.” She walked over and sat on the sofa. “But how? Did he fall asleep in the car?”
“No, he was awake.”
She scooted over, and he moved next to her.
“Joel, I can’t help but think this ‘veeny’ is a name. An actual person terrorized my baby at school, and he must have repressed it until recently. Theo’s behaviors are similar to a child being abused. A dream wouldn’t terrify him this badly.”
He drew her into his arms. “I know.”
“Joel, I don’t know what to do here.” A sudden flood of tears wracked her body. “What if this ‘veeny’ is a person and he…he hurt my baby, and I didn’t know? What kind of mother would that make me not to know someone hurt my little boy?”
His heart tugged, but he knew this was a mild reaction compared to what would happen if he broke the news to her right then.
“We’ll fix this.” He kissed her temple. “You’re not alone, Eesh.”
“I keep trying to tell myself, ‘You’re doing your best, you’re doing your best,’ but the fear that I’m failing never seems to go away completely. And now,” she choked out a cry, “what if…Joel, you know I was young when my mother died. There was a time before I went to live with family that I was in foster care. I saw things.”
She buried her face in his shoulder.
He’d never seen her cry this hard.
“Not my baby. I love them so much, and I just want the best for them. Joel, what if Theo…and then he’d feel…Joel, my little boy…and then what if Josiah…”
He pressed kisses in her hair. Would telling her now make this better or worse? How could he reassure her without making her feel even more like a failure because she hadn’t known Lavigne was in their home? The man wasn’t some average prick and likely specialized in getting into locations undetected. But how much of that would matter to Ayesha?
Joel barely got the next words out. “I asked Theo if anybody hurt him or touched him. He said no.”
“And…you believe him, right?”
“Yes. I do.”
She curled her arms around him and held on tight.
“Ayesha, you’re not a failure as a mother,” he reassured. “The boys are smart, thoughtful, kind, and sweet. This is just an obstacle we have to figure out in order to help Theo over or through it. You’re an amazing mama.”
She’d kept it bottled up. This wasn’t all because of tonight. The stress of it all had affected her more than she’d claimed, but having to do everything on her own for so long, she’d never quite relearned how to lean on others.
“You don’t have to thank me, babe.” He leaned back and swiped his thumbs underneath her eyes to flick away the droplets of tears that straggled. “But I need you to hear me when I say this, okay? Ayesha, you’re not a single parent anymore. I’m here. And, I’m not going anywhere.”
* * *
Joel crouched and scooped Theo, who came running at full speed, up into his arms, rocking him and holding him tight. Even Josiah ran to them, locking his arms around Ayesha as if he never wanted to let go. They’d talked to the boys before they left for the train that morning, and it had eased Ayesha’s worry some that they’d been in better spirits.
Aleksi, who didn’t want to be left out, toddled over and held up his arms.
Joel scooped him up as well.
They thanked Mo and Giorgio, endlessly, and said their goodbyes. When Aleksi realized he wasn’t leaving with them, he bawled and squirmed in Giorgio’s hands as they walked out the front door.
Joel had initially planned to meet the guys over at Julien’s, but he didn’t want to leave the boys when they just got back. So, the four of them made a pizza together and watched The Good Dinosaur, Theo’s latest obsession. Even Josiah was more affectionate than usual, snuggling up against Ayesha for the entire movie without a book, tablet, or e-reader in sight.
After the movie, they prepared for bed.
Behind the closed bathroom door, Joel overheard Theo telling Ayesha about how much he helped on the swing set and how much Aleksi loved it. A chatty Theo was a happy Theo.
He went to Josiah’s room and found Josiah sitting on his bed, looking around.
“Hey, ‘Siah,” Joel called. “Everything okay?”
Josiah nodded. “Yeah. Everything’s great. You got a minute?”
“For you? Always.” Joel sat next to him. “What’s up?”
“Don’t feel bad about spending so much time with Theo. He’s going through a lot right now, and he’s never had a dad, so he’s still learning what it’s like. Me, I have a little more experience in that area.”
Joel smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Do you, now?”
“Well, yeah,” Josiah emphasized, smiling himself. “I’m practically an expert.”
“Break it down for me, then.”
“Well, I was talking about it with one of my friends at school. She asked me if the guy who drops me off sometimes is my father. I said no, he’s my dad.”
Joel cleared his throat. “Really?”
“Yeah. Like, when Papa was still alive, I remember laughing a lot. I remember being excited to come home so we could talk or play games together. Papa was different from Ma, but in a good way. Ma makes you feel loved. Papa made me feel safe. When you put those two together, you get this feeling like you can do something you thought you never could because they’ll have your back.” Josiah’s head fell, and he studied the striped pattern on his comforter. “When Papa died, and this isn’t saying I don’t feel safe with Ma or anything, things felt different. Ma cried a lot. She tried to hide it, but I still heard her.”
The bathroom door down the hall opened and closed, and Theo’s chatter echoed until it was muffled by the door to the owner’s suite.
“Do you think she was sad a lot?” Joel asked.
Josiah raised one shoulder in a quick shrug. “Yeah. I was sad too. But, I think she cried a lot because she was scared and alone and needed more people who loved her around. So, when she made up with my uncles, I was so happy for her.”
“Did you feel safe again?”
“A little bit.”
“Do you feel safe now?”
He grinned. “Yeah. Very.”
Joel matched his grin. “When did that change?”
“When you started coming to Maui more.”
It had started out as every once in a while. Then he was in Maui every month. Eventually, he stayed until the guys needed him.
“I felt really guilty at first,” Josiah went on. “Ma didn’t tell me too much, but I heard stuff, so I knew something happened with you and Aunt Syd.”
“Why’d you feel guilty?”
“Because when you started coming to Maui more, I started…wanting you to fall in love with Ma.”
“And that felt wrong.”
“I didn’t want Aunt Syd to be alone, but when you started coming to Maui more…”
“You felt safe,” Joel finished.
“When did you stop feeling guilty?”
Josiah shrugged again, with the other shoulder. “It just kind of went away the more time you spent with us. Then, I saw you look at Ma.”
Joel, so damn proud of his boy, grinned wider. “You saw me look at Eesh? Like how?”
“You started looking at her a lot. Like…staring. I knew that meant you liked her. Plus, you started mean-mugging the guys who tried to look at her body and stuff.”
“That in itself was a full-time job. Your mother’s really pretty.”
Josiah’s face tinted. “Some of my friends think so, too. It’s weird.”
“Give me their names.”
Josiah burst out laughing, eyes lighting up. He and Theo technically had the same color eyes, but Theo had more brown and gold whereas Josiah had more brown and green.
Josiah continued. “Joel, you’ve felt like my dad for a really long time. Spending time with you makes me remember my Papa, and that’s how I know you’re supposed to be part of our family. And I don’t mean this in a bad way about Aunt Syd or anything, but I think you were supposed to be part of our family all along.”
Joel could admit that he’d felt the same thing recently. If Sydney truly was pregnant after knowing Dmitri for only a short while, then he knew she was happy. And he was happy for her. Happy as hell. Heartbroken Joel would have never dreamed of being happy about Sydney’s pregnancy with another man. Heartbroken Joel would have jumped off the Woodrow Wilson.
He draped an arm around Josiah’s shoulders. “I think so too.”
“Joel, when it’s just us, do you think I could call you Dad, or would that be too weird?”
“You know, Theo asked me that too.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“Same thing. Yes, that’s fine. It’s not weird at all.”
“Cool. I mean, I don’t want Ma to feel weird about it like I don’t love Papa anymore.”
“I understand.” He squeezed Josiah and planted a kiss on top of Josiah’s head. “The three of us will do something together soon. And now that I’m back, I can take over your MMA lessons.”
“Really? That would be so awesome.”
“I’ve got you.”
“Oh, and if you want to marry Ma or anything, you have my blessing.”
“So now, I just need Theo’s, which won’t be easy to get.”
They looked at each other and fell out laughing.
It was an hour past Josiah’s bedtime before Joel said good night.
When he entered the bedroom, Theo was asleep and tucked up against Ayesha. She was awake, but her eyelids drooped.
“You can go to sleep, you know,” he teased, going to her side of the bed. “You don’t have to stay up for me.”
She covered a yawn with the back of her hand. “I wanted to make sure I said good night. Plus, I overheard some of you and Josiah’s little convo.”
“How much of it?”
She smiled. “‘Dad.’”
“You okay with it?”
“I told you, I left that up to the boys. They’ve bestowed upon you the title.” She used her arm to “knight” him. “And if they feel like you deserve it, you deserve it.”
“Do you feel like I deserve it?” he asked.
He kissed her, needing her lips against his even if just for a moment.
“Go to sleep, Eesh. You know we haven’t slept much in the last couple of days. I’m gonna take a shower and join you two in a minute.”
She nodded and turned onto her side, pulling Theo closer. “Good night, babe. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
09: That’s What I Want
He looked down at her through sleepy eyelids. “Hmm?”
“My ring, baby. I wore it everywhere. You think Adrían did something to it?”
It took a moment for it to sink in, his post-coitus fatigue strong. “It would make sense that that’s how he knew about Mr. Veeny.”
“Joel?” She raised up, palms on his chest, dread burning through the last vestiges of her orgasm. “Who’s Mr. Veeny?”
I’ll be prepping for IRAE and the release of The Prince of The Brotherhood, so here’s the set up for the rest of the series.
|Release Date Schedule|
|9: That’s What I Want – 04/11|
|10: The End of an Era – 04/18|
|11: MoJay v Das Biest – 04/24|
|12: One Last Thing, Before I Go – 04/25|
|13: From Central to the End – 04/30|