Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
That’s What I Want
Joel sat forward in his chair, massaging the back of his neck in a futile attempt to release the stress tension that had accumulated there over the last several weeks. Gage stood in one corner of the tech room at the Lair with his arms folded while Giorgio stood in another. Mike reclined in a chair. Dez had taken Thandie, Theo, and Josiah to school, so the rest of them were currently staring at images displayed on Julien’s stark white wall of screens.
“So, back in the day, there was a mercenary who went by the name Broydos, which is a play on broyeur d’os—‘bone-crusher’ in French,” Julien explained. “He was known for being insanely twisted. There are even rumors he’s eaten parts of the people he’s killed, and the bone-crusher name was actually given to him because he had a penchant for, well, crushing bones.”
Giorgio made a noise in his throat.
Lavigne’s face came up on each screen, each backdrop different. Some were blurry and, across the panel of images, he’d gone from a youthful, unmarred face to lines, scars, a buzz cut, and pounds of muscle packed onto his frame. There was also a cigarette dangling from his lips in nearly every picture, and Joel prayed his lungs didn’t take the man out before he got the chance.
Julien continued. “Broydos started out as Siriano Lavigne and, some years back, Lavigne disappeared off the map. He was officially declared dead by his only known living relative, a mother who died nine years ago, but facial recognition was able to link him to several high-conflict areas across the globe.”
“You’re thinking he’s Black Ops?” Gage asked, head turning and angling as he studied each image.
“I’m pretty sure he’s part of a ghost unit. Like us.”
Mike frowned. “When you say ‘like us,’ what do you mean exactly?”
“I mean, I think he’s part of a team created by Central,” Julien clarified. “From what I’ve been able to find so far, there are at least three more—Delta, Gamma, and Omega. I’m thinking each name coincides with the inception of the specific team which is why we’re—”
“Alpha,” Gage finished. “If Lavigne’s like us, it would explain how he got around the security you had installed at Ayesha’s, and it would explain how he climbed…”
The muscle in Gage’s jaw pulsed.
The air in the room became gas seeping toward a budding flame. Joel had told them this morning exactly how Lavigne got into the house, and the gas grew closer to the fire with each passing minute.
Giorgio busied his hands with a switchblade.
Mike closed his eyes, fingers flexing into fists and chest pushing high with each breath.
Joel let his head hang and waited for his blood to return to a viable temperature. He’d assumed that knowing, at least from Theo’s explanation, that Lavigne hadn’t hurt Theo in that particular way would have made him want to kill the man in a more humane fashion.
The answer was a clear no.
Theo was his little boy, and Lavigne had fucked with his little boy.
That meant the man’s death was imminent.
“Lattimore,” Gage called. “Are you sure he’s never put his hands on Theo?”
“That’s what Theo said,” Joel reaffirmed. “At this point, though, doesn’t it even matter?”
With the level of torture he was going to put the man through, he wasn’t sure, at the end of this, he wouldn’t lose a little of himself. He wouldn’t find peace until he heard Lavigne scream aimlessly in a place so isolated, not even the heavens would hear his pleas for salvation.
Giorgio unhinged the knife’s blade and sliced it across the tip of his finger, drawing blood. They all knew it had taken a great deal of self-restraint for Giorgio to not kill Lavigne when he saw him, and Joel appreciated it. Maybe he’d ask Giorgio to take part in the torture. It would be a nice “bonding” exercise.
Next, Julien presented an image of Curtis. “I’m not sure if it’s his entire team or Lavigne himself, but I think they might be here in Sweden because they’re tracking Ayesha. And, I think they’re tracking Ayesha because Lavigne’s team might have had something to do with Curtis’ death.”
Mike snapped to attention.
Even Giorgio looked up from his tortured fingers.
“What?” Gage growled. “They what?”
“One of the images I got of Lavigne came from an op we ran years ago. The one that took Curtis. I’ve combed through that footage more times than I can count, looking for answers or explanations about what happened that day, so when Joel sent me Lavigne’s information, I recognized the face.”
The muscles in Gage’s folded arms grew twice their size. Curtis had been his best friend. From what Joel understood, they’d never gotten any clarity or closure on the op that would have taken all of their lives if Curtis hadn’t sacrificed himself. They’d assumed it had to do with something they’d overlooked, but this wasn’t a group of men who easily overlooked things.
“How?” Mike asked. “How is this Lavigne fuck connected to all of this, and can you kill a man more than once because I want a piece of him too.”
Julien stared at the image of Curtis reclining in an easy chair raising a can of beer, and he responded only after a groaning sigh that carried against the choking silence of the room. “I’m not sure, but everything I’ve been able to piece together says Lavigne is unstable. Instability begets tragedy.”
Mike scoffed, head shaking. “Why not tell us more teams exist? I mean, I get it. A lot of shit happens around the world. There are multiple SEAL teams, so there’d be multiple…whatever the fuck we were. Why treat us like some kind of prototype or beta version?”
Gage rubbed his forehead, stopping every so often to squeeze his brow bone with his middle and ring finger. They all appeared to come to the same conclusion, at the same time.
“How long do you think they’ve been trying to take you guys out?” Joel asked. “Because that’s what this is, right? Lavigne’s team was sent with you guys as the main objective. That’s how your location became known and the entire op was compromised.”
Gage released a tight laugh, his eyes like emeralds being crushed under the weight of the world’s pressure. “Each time we were ‘compromised’ it wasn’t because Central had a leaky vault. They were sending teams to execute us while still sending us on ops. We’ve been waiting for what the retaliation would be for going off the grid, but there’s been a target on our backs for a while.”
“Buyer’s remorse,” Joel said.
“Frankenstein,” Mike chimed in, grimacing. “They created the monster, but when they realized they could no longer control it, their primary objective became to destroy it.”
Now, Joel was convinced Ayesha’s run-in with Adrían was no accident. The bastard was part of all this.
Had to be.
But Theo was five now. Why would Adrían still be attached to Ayesha after all this time?
Then he thought about it.
He was attached to Ayesha his-damn-self.
“Eesh’s old fuck-buddy is part of this.” Joel forced away the image of her naked underneath Adrían, looking up into the man’s face the way she looked at him. “It’s no coincidence that him, Larke’s old tech guy, and Lavigne all popped up at the same time, and that Lavigne had a ‘comrade’ with him when Giorgio ran into him. If the teams were all created with the same blueprint, the tech guy’s their Julien and Lavigne’s their Giorgio.”
Giorgio made another, deeper noise, and mumbled something in Russian.
He tossed the knife, lodging it in the ground, and pulled out another, streams of red painting his hand.
Joel shot a text off to Mo.
Joel: Hey, Mo? Pozza’s going through it.
Mo: Which one is it?
Mo: Ok. Omw.
The more stressed Giorgio was, the more his reactions leaned toward him needing to see blood in some form. From Mo, they’d learned the full extent of what he’d had to endure at the hands of his father. The man known as Vater had done a number on Giorgio, even forcing him to bury his own mother without Giorgio knowing it, so it was no surprise that he sometimes “broke.” He was most vulnerable to snapping whenever children being harmed or disadvantaged, in any way, came into play.
Joel tucked his phone away and continued. “By the way, me and Eesh met Theo’s teacher’s husband at that school trip at Vasa Museum. He could be part of all of this too. There was something about the way he called Ayesha ‘Mrs. Savea’ instead of ‘Mrs. Lattimore’ that didn’t sit right with me.”
They looked at him.
“Or ‘Ms.’ Savea,” he quickly added. “I was just using Mrs. Lattimore as an example.”
“I’m surprised you lasted this long,” Gage mumbled, smiling although the expression was empty, trying to shine in hollow eyes. “Unless you two pulled a Dez and Larke and got hitched without telling us.”
Without the divorce in his back pocket, and if his life hadn’t been a “live today, die tomorrow” type of deal, he and Ayesha would have already been married.
At least, he would have already asked.
This time around, he wanted to do things right. He wanted to make sure she had as much information upfront, so she wasn’t blindsided after agreeing to spend her life with him. Plus, he and Syd had had a clean break. They’d had no issues with their assets, finances, and they’d had no children to worry about. Eventually, he wanted to adopt Theo and Josiah, and he didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize being there for them every day of their lives.
“What’s his name?” Julien asked. “Theo’s teacher’s Mrs. Mason, right?”
“Yeah. He went by Trevor.”
Gage’s eyebrows raised. “Trevor Mason?”
Joel nodded. “You know him? He sounded Aussie.”
“I served with a Trevor Mason in Special Forces, but he wouldn’t introduce himself with his actual name if he’s been part of the group watching Ayesha.”
“She wouldn’t be a threat to him,” Mike pointed out. “And, maybe he did that shit on purpose. Maybe he was trying to see if she recognized the name. So if we have Lavigne, Adrían, Trevor, Larke’s tech guy, and the dead guy, there’s a missing Asian. I guaran-fucking-tee you, he’s Asian.” He clasped his hands in front of his face. “Please, let me go find out who this last motherfucker is.”
“How much you willing to put on it?” Julien asked.
“Well, first, who won the other bet?”
“Dez,” they all said at the same time.
“Then, with the exception of Lattimore and Pozza,” Mike went on, “whoever takes out their doppelgänger last gets to tell my wife that we have a trip planned to Cape Town, we’re going rock climbing, and I’m going to do at least one round of it free soloing.”
Gage groaned. “Fuck no. I’m not telling Xara that shit.”
Mike stuck his thumb into his chest. “I’m sure as hell not doing it. Xara will kill me.”
“Want some advice?” Joel asked. “Use ropes like a normal human being. Xara just had your big ass baby. She thought you were dead for three years, and then again with that whole Mosvar shit. She’s just trying not to lose you for real.”
Mike cocked his head to the side. “Fuck. You’re right. I didn’t…I can’t believe I didn’t think about that. My selfish ass.”
“Hello, you handsome lads,” Mo greeted, stepping into the room. Giorgio looked up, and she smiled. “Hey, boo.”
“You are here, why,” he asked, as if one of his hands wasn’t gloved in blood.
“I missed you.”
“Who has called my Bez?”
“Nobody did, Gio. I just missed you.” She crossed the room, over to him, and took his hand. “This is gonna scar, baby. What were you guys talking about?”
Giorgio glanced around the room.
“Theo,” Joel answered.
She nodded, and they watched as she pulled a roll of bandage from her jacket pocket and wrapped it around Giorgio’s hands and fingers.
“Gio, I love you,” she said.
Giorgio’s gaze alternated between the top of her head and the white roll of gauze she wound until no red could be seen through the mesh. The knife was still in his grip in his other hand, dried blood on the tip. As she applied the tape, she kept talking to help bring him all the way back down. Before Mo, Gage was the one who usually took point when it came to taking Pozza from hulking and green back to a semblance of a functioning human being.
“Giorgio, I love who you are,” she continued. “I love the way you take care of us, and I don’t mean only me and Mr. Aleksi, the CEO of the Pozza household. All of us. Remember how you carried Ayesha when she was sick? She does. We talk about it all the time. And Ari, she sees you as a big brother, not a brother-in-law. Think about it—I feel as close to you as I am with my twin sister. Plus, Theo! Theo adores you, and you make him feel safe. You mean the world to us, every last one of us, and for me, you’re my whole world.”
He didn’t respond, simply watched as she finished wrapping his hand and tucked away the bandage like he’d never seen a wound tended to before in his life.
She turned around and secretly sent Joel a wink in thanks. “You guys just about done? I was thinking about taking Aleksi to the park or something. It’s nice out, and the CEO is in need of a break.”
“Me and Tay’ll bring Grey,” Gage said.
The three of them left.
Mike rose and headed for the door. “And I’ll go track this mystery Asian.”
“We don’t know that he’s Asian,” Joel called after him. Once he was certain everyone was back above ground, he turned to Julien. “What’s the damage you’re not telling us about?”
“A kill order’s come in.” Julien’s face went from well-rested to like he hadn’t slept in weeks. “It came in this morning. I’ll say something tomorrow, but I want everybody to have one more normal fucking day.”
Joel’s phone rang, and a picture of Ayesha in the burnt orange bikini popped up on the screen.
“Hey, gorgeous,” he greeted. “We’re just about done here. I’ll be home soon.”
“Oh, I’m not at home,” she replied. “I’m at Theo’s school.”
“Dez is still nearby. Theo forgot his lunch, so I dropped it off. You know he’s got that texture thing, and he’ll give Mrs. Mason hell if she tries to make him eat fish in any capacity. You’d never guess this kid was born on an island.”
“You’re on your way back right now?”
“You know why.”
She laughed. “I’ve got you. I’ll see you in about twenty. I love you.”
“Love you too.”
A few minutes after he hung up the phone, he and Julien silently mulling over the new information, Dez’s face appeared on one of the monitors. From the backdrop, he could tell Dez was still pretty close to the school, but he wouldn’t feel settled until Ayesha was standing in front of him.
“You remember the FBI agent in D.C. me and Larke had to deal with?” Dez asked. “He’s here.”
Joel frowned. “Here…where?”
“At Thandie and Theo’s school, talking to Ayesha.”
Dez flipped his phone screen, and Joel was suddenly reminded of a nature show he and the boys had recently watched where a hyena kept infringing on a lion’s pride. Now that he thought about it, it might have been a little violent for the boys to have been watching with the way the lion had snapped the hyena’s neck.
Ayesha obviously didn’t understand the depth of his recent descent into the realm of fucking insane if she thought talking to her little ex-lover in secret was even close to being a good idea.
“Adrían was never Fed,” he informed them. “I would know.”
“That’s Adrían?” Dez flipped his camera back around. “That’s the ‘FBI agent’ that interrogated Larke in D.C. after the break-in at her office. Said his name was Martin. Ryan Martin.”
Joel stood. “Julien, you want me to get Thandie?”
“I’ve got her,” Julien called from behind him. “Actually, I’ll get Theo and Josiah too. You have more pressing shit to deal with. Call me if you need bail money.”
* * *
“Adrían, what are you talking about?” Ayesha asked. “And why are you here? Are you a father now?”
“No, I’m not a father.” Adrían searched her face, focus lingering on her mouth before their eyes met again. “But, I am serious. You’re being followed.”
“By who? Because you appear to be following me, and I don’t appreciate that. My man will appreciate it even less.”
“It’s about Curtis.”
The blood in her veins stopped flowing. Behind her, she heard the faint noise of children screaming in delight. A cold breeze blew, and she wanted to blame the goosebumps on her arms on the nip in the air, but this wasn’t one of those moments where she could find comfort in suspended disbelief.
This next question she was about to ask him, it was imperative he answered in a certain way. She didn’t have sex with the man who’d killed her husband. She hadn’t found herself caring for the man who’d taken half of her soul. This man, who’d played with, fed, and cuddled Theo as an infant, wasn’t responsible for Theo being fatherless in the first place.
“What about Curtis?” she asked.
“The men following you? One of them is tied to his death.”
She took a step back. “Is it you?”
He kept his dark eyes fixed on hers. “No, I’m not responsible.”
“Adrían, I need to believe you’re telling the truth. Because, if I don’t, I’m going be torn in half. You do understand that, right? You do understand why something like that would…destroy me, right?”
“Let’s go somewhere and talk.” He scanned the full length of her body. “Did you eat? Let me take you to brunch.”
“What about later? We can—”
“No.” She searched the school grounds. “There’s a picnic table over there. I’ll talk to you there. I’m not going anywhere with you. I won’t be going anywhere with you. I can’t, Adrían. I’m with someone, and it’s not okay for you to keep dropping in on me like this.”
“Do you love him?” he asked.
“Does he love you?”
“More than I do?”
“It really doesn’t matter, does it?”
Adrían stepped aside and gestured to the table. “Okay. After you.”
Ayesha’s legs somehow took her across the spongy green, the soles of her low-heeled ankle boots temporarily crushing the blades. Adrían walked close behind her, his hand hovering near her elbow, and she could see his head moving about from the outline of his shadow on the ground.
As the end of the school year drew nearer, while the sun was out, the air was cool. Having come from the tropics, she still had to wear a sweater or light jacket everywhere she went, and she layered Theo until he complained, but in about another year, they would better appreciate weather this agreeable.
Adrían sat across from her, facing the sun, his hair dancing in the wind. There was more of a shadow on his jaw than when she’d last seen him, and a strained element to his expression. He was one of the lucky few who hadn’t so much as freckle, his face unscarred and unblemished while she still wore parts of her teen years on her cheeks.
“What do these ‘people’ want with me?”
Adrían squinted, thick brows lowering and his thumb moving along the tabletop near her fingers. “Curtis used to be part of an elite tactical unit,” he began, and she remained quiet, fine with letting him assume she knew nothing about what Curtis had done. “One of the men you’ve been seen with before, Gage Wolfe, is still part of that unit.”
He blinked slowly, looking at her the same way he had all those years ago, so intense she felt the knots in the rope that kept her gaze tethered to his.
“So am I,” he went on. “The ‘people’ watching you are my men, the men in my unit, and they’ve been watching you for a while now.”
“Because I’m Curtis’ widow.”
“What do they want?”
“To kill you.”
She bristled and let her head briefly fall to rearrange the parts of herself his revelation had knocked out of order.
“But I stopped it, querida. I told them the truth, that you didn’t know anything about what your husband did. And your boys were so young at the time, I wondered how they could even think to harm the three of you.”
“They wanted to kill my babies too?”
Dez sent her a text asking if she was okay, and she quickly responded she was fine and would be done in a minute. There was no point pretending she didn’t know he was watching her. What she truly didn’t know was whether he’d reported her current “situation” back to Joel without knowing the full story of everything she and Joel had been dealing with related to this man.
“Do these men still want to kill me?”
Adrían leaned closer. “Even if they did, I wouldn’t let them.”
“Aren’t they part of your…team or unit or whatever it’s called?”
“Yes, but that won’t stop me from killing them when it comes to you.” He sighed and looked away, and she moved her hand to her lap when she felt his thumb brush her pinky finger. “Ayesha, I didn’t lie to you back then. I fell in love with you. A part of me, I think, is still in love with you.”
“Ah.” He laughed, and the slightest tint of red colored his olive skin. “It’s difficult for me to explain, but I’ll be honest. When we met, it was because my job was to keep tabs on you. Quickly, very quickly, I stopped caring about the job and started to care about you.”
“You still haven’t answered the question, Adrían,” she said. “Why should I believe you right now? You obviously want me to take some kind of comfort in the fact that you’ve got my back, but it’s been years. We haven’t seen each other in all that time.”
“I know, I know.” He shifted in his seat, skin coloring even deeper. “But it just…happened. You remember that day the café in our office complex had that one really bad zucchini?”
She couldn’t stop herself from smiling. “The oily one?”
“Yes. It was one of the times you worked through lunch, and I wanted to make sure you ate, so I didn’t realize what it looked like when I tossed it into the container.”
The smile grew. “It was fine, Adrían.”
“It was bad, Ayesha.” He grinned. “When I opened that container and saw that oil all over your yellow rice and beans, I was so embarrassed.”
Now she was laughing, and she prayed Joel wasn’t anywhere nearby.
“I remember. Your whole face turned red. Even your ears.”
“I loved laughing with you that day, like we’d known each other longer than we did. It was the first time I noticed that the sound of you laughing makes me feel,” he shrugged, “high, almost. Then, I started to notice how much I love looking into your eyes, and I thought about you the minute my eyes opened in the morning. That first time I kissed you, I knew I would never go back to being the man I was before.”
He seemed closer.
She’d been watching him the entire time, and she didn’t see him move, but he seemed closer.
“Then when we made love,” amusement blended with rising desire in his eyes, “I became attached to you. So, to answer your question, I love you, querida. And, because I love you, I’ll never let any harm come to you or the boys. You deserve to have a life, and they deserve to have a life with you in it.”
She broke what she hadn’t realized was a stare they’d held for entirely too long. Joel had accused her of having stronger feelings for Adrían than she’d said or even believed, but that wasn’t true.
It couldn’t be.
Adrían had entered her life at a time when she hadn’t known whether she was coming or going. During the day, she’d kept on a brave face for the boys but at night, she’d cried until her head hurt. She’d cried wrapped in Curtis’ shirts and with the ties he’d sometimes wear in his hair around her wrist.
When Adrían came along, she’d stopped crying, for a little while, and when they decided to end things…did it hurt? How could it have possibly hurt? Had she thought about him afterward? Stared down the hall at where his office had been, hoping to see him one last time?
She’d only been a widow for a little over a year when they met, and she’d loved Curtis with every single bone in her body. She was certain of it. But there was something, some feeling she’d overlooked when it came to Adrían that she wasn’t sure she felt comfortable searching for now.
“You lost your mother when you were young,” she said. “I understand why you’d look out for the boys the way you did, so thank you.”
“I won’t stop protecting you,” he asserted.
“I have someone who—”
“Ayesha, I don’t care.”
Whatever she was about to reply died on her lips when his gaze shifted behind her head and his expression changed. His shoulders tensed, and the muscle in his jaw pulled tight like a man gearing up for the fight in “fight or flight.”
She spun around in her seat and there he was, looking amazing in a black sweater and gray jeans, strolling toward them. Her man was so sexy, even if his face would be the last thing she saw before the white light.
“Don’t get up,” Joel said when he saw her shift. “I’m not here to interrupt.”
She stood anyhow. “Hi, baby. So, um, Adrían—”
“Popped up again. Interesting.”
“Joel, if you’d let me explain—”
“I’ve been following her,” Adrían interrupted, standing as well, and this wasn’t exactly how she’d fantasized being sandwiched between two large, handsome men. “But not in a way to harm her.”
“I’ve got her. She’s good.”
“I think you might be in over your head with this one…Joel.”
Joel smiled. “Oh, aren’t you adorable?”
“You have no idea what you’re dealing with. If you did, you’d understand the privilege of having someone like me watching out for Ayesha. You’d be able to better grasp the advantage of having a man with my expertise protect your woman in ways you’ll never be able to.”
Joel didn’t so much as flinch, but Ayesha pressed herself back against him anyhow, silently professing who she supported and stood with while also allowing her body to be a barrier between them. Adrían squinted, expressionless, and Joel smiled, but it was like the US and the USSR during the Cold War.
“Julien’s getting the boys,” Joel said, eyes never leaving Adrían’s.
She looked around. “How did you get here before him?”
“I had more motivation.” He ticked his head behind him. “Let’s go, Eesh. We, obviously, have some shit to clear up.”
“Do you feel unsafe, Ayesha?” Adrían asked. “Because, if you do, you can come with me.”
“Adrían, don’t do that,” she chided. “I already told you that you can’t do this anymore. I appreciate you looking out for me. You know I do.”
Joel’s gaze flickered in her direction.
“But it can’t be like this.”
“You think this pretty boy can protect you?” Adrían dragged his bottom lip between his teeth. “Better than I can? Better than I will?”
All she saw was Adrían’s shoulder twitch.
Then she blinked, and Adrían was suddenly bent, awkwardly, back against the picnic table. Joel’s forearm was lodged against Adrían’s windpipe, the tip of a blade pressed against Adrían’s skin, and a dot of blood sprouted where the tip met Adrían’s throat. They were about to kill each other in front of her child’s school, and it served her right for messing around with unstable men.
“You can’t kill each other in front of my baby’s school,” she hissed.
Adrían had a knife to his throat, but he didn’t look terrified.
Joel had a knife pressing into another man’s throat, and he looked amused.
She tried again. “Do I have to repeat myself?”
Joel stepped back and tucked away the knife.
Adrían straightened, dragged his fingers across his neck, and stared at the red stain left behind.
Joel turned to her. “Let’s go, Eesh.”
She jogged across the lawn. Once she was inside the car, she locked the doors and waited.
Joel tapped on the driver’s side window. “I’m following you. We’ll talk at home.”
At least he wanted to talk. He wasn’t shutting her out like he’d done after the museum, which meant he was trying.
He tailed her all the way back to the house, disappearing only for a moment before he popped back up in her rearview mirror. When she pulled into the driveway, she’d half-expected him to tell her she’d taken a wrong turn and to head back to her house because he was done with her. Instead, he parked next to her, got out, and held open the garage door for her to walk through.
“Are you hungry?” She tossed her purse on the kitchen counter. “I still have some of those chicken burritos I made the other day in the freezer. There’s enough for when Josiah gets home and needs his second lunch and pre-dinner snack.”
“What about soup?”
“Living room, Ayesha.”
She faced him. “Are you mad?”
“Pissed. Go sit down.”
“Are we breaking up?”
“Never.” He ticked his head. “Go sit down.”
She shuffled to the living room, eased down onto the sofa, and he sat on the coffee table.
“First of all, Eesh, what the fuck…”
“I didn’t know Adrían was going to be there.” She scooted to the edge of the cushion, their knees touching. “He caught me just as I was leaving the school. This wasn’t some planned tryst or anything like that.”
“That’s what you think I’m worried about?” he asked.
“We’ve already had this conversation, and you made it clear who has your heart.” He leaned forward, his elbows on his thighs. “But, the guy you know as Adrían Queiros, Dez and Larke know as Ryan Martin. He might even be a man named Adrían Delgano. In D.C., he impersonated a federal agent and interrogated Larke after a break-in at her office. We think he did it to not only confirm her information, but to find out more information about the guys.”
She hesitated. “I trust him, Joel. He won’t hurt me.”
“You believe that why?”
“He said so.”
“He said he wouldn’t hurt you?”
“In a way.”
Joel searched her face. “He told you he’s in love with you. Is that it?”
“Um…well, something like that. He said he’ll look out for me and the boys whether or not I want him to.”
Joel rubbed his palms on his thighs and leaned back. “We have reason to believe that he’s part of a ghost unit much like, if not identical to, the one me and the guys are part of.”
“He is. He told me that today.”
Surprise softened his features. “He told you that?”
“He said the guys from his team have been following me. It started back in Maui; they wanted to know if I knew what Curtis did for a living. They also wanted to kill me, but Adrían intervened.”
“Because he loves you. Why can’t you say it?”
“I,” she looked down at her fingernails, “don’t know.”
“Tell me the truth about how you feel about him, Eesh.”
As if it were that easy.
Up until a few moments ago, she’d been certain about the feelings she’d had for Adrían back then. They’d spent time together, laughed and talked and made love. But how could it have been more than a passing infatuation when she’d only slept at his place that one time? How could she have missed him when he’d never met her boys, never saw where she kept her coffee so that he could wake her up in the mornings with the smell of hazelnut brew?
They’d had sex on desks and office floors, in hotel rooms. There was that one time, at that conference, where they’d spent four days together. She realized now that her being there for work and him for a business meeting had been him “keeping tabs” on her, but it appeared to have fallen apart for him at some point. The way he’d laughed while she lay in the crook of his arm, eyes bright and glowing and crinkled at the corners, it was obvious he’d forgotten the objective of his mission before they’d even stepped foot in the hotel.
She knew what love felt like. She’d been lucky enough to experience it twice in a way that made her want to be bathed in it forever. Forever hadn’t crossed her mind with Adrían, but if he hadn’t offered to end things, would she have?
“The truth is, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s not exactly love that I felt for him because it’s exactly love that I felt for Curtis. It’s exactly love I feel for you. I love you, Joel, so I know it’s not that.”
“But you care about him.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Enough to care whether he lives or dies.”
Her head bobbed again. “Yes. I’d…prefer the former.”
Joel stood and walked a few feet away, increasing the space between them at the very moment she needed him closer.
“Eesh, I don’t know what’s been going on with me. I’ve been a federal agent, a soldier, and an assassin, but it’s not until I started falling for you that I’ve felt like this.”
“Anything or anyone that touches you, dies. Your little boyfriend would have already been dead, but I saw that he meant something to you.” He shook his head, answering a question only he could hear. “Every time I look at you, in my head it’s like, ‘She’s mine,’ over and over. Sometimes, when you’re asleep, I stare at you, and it’s all I hear. It’s so loud, I feel it. I want to possess you, and that shit…it’s not normal.”
She wasn’t sure how it happened for him the first time that made him unaware of it now, but she knew what was happening to him. Mike, Gage…all of them. It was the same thing. Tayler and Xara could have told this story. Ari, Larke. Mo could tell this story several times over.
“Do you think you might be in love?” she prodded.
“You already know I love you.”
“Falling in love is a different beast. You think you’ve got a handle on it…and then it happens.”
He strode over and crouched in front of her. “I loved Syd and yet…fuck, I’ve never experienced this before. This isn’t love. This is a fucking obsession. I just said I want to possess you. I crave you. How does any of that sound normal? I’d kill for you, Eesh. Anybody who tries to hurt you, I’ll kill them. That’s psychopath-level shit.”
Was it more intense because of the boys?
Right now, it wasn’t about just protecting her. It was also about protecting little people even more vulnerable than she was who depended on him and loved him unconditionally.
That could be why it was so much more intense.
His protection also wasn’t merely physical; it extended to protecting the boys’ self-confidence and self-assurance. They looked up to him as a leader, a father figure, and a role model.
It was driving him crazy because he was in love.
He was in love with all three of them.
But was it too much? Had he thought being in their lives, that being “Dad” and “Daddy” would entail much less than this, so now that he had to deal with the pressure and reality of it, it was overwhelming to the point of instability?
“Joel, I’m just going to be honest here,” she began. “If I were to go based on my feelings alone, right now, I’d say you’re freaking out because me, Theo, and Josiah in your life feels overwhelming for you. You’ve been a husband before, and you’re familiar with that role, but you’ve never had a kid want to call you ‘Daddy’ or ‘Dad,’ and it’s a lot on you which is, admittedly, fair.”
“That’s not it,” he quickly clarified. “You three are not and won’t ever be the problem. Yeah, I’ve never been a father or had a fatherly role, but the fact that the boys want to call me Dad and Daddy makes me want to do everything to never lose that respect in their eyes.”
She cradled both sides of his face, cupping his jaw. “So, are you afraid then that having us this close means something bad’s going to happen? Or that you’ll mess up somehow? Or—”
“I never knew I could love someone this much.”
A rush of emotion snared her throat. For the second time that day, she’d wanted to say something, but the words either didn’t have a chance to leave her lips or it was like now—they didn’t know how to navigate their way out of her mouth.
“Does that make you feel guilty?” she asked. “Joel, none of this changes what you and Sydney had. None of it changes how I felt about Curtis.”
“You’re,” he squinted, “close. I’ve never felt like this before, and you know how gone I was over Syd. This is worse. Much worse.”
“Okay, I think I get it now. You think our relationship will be like yours and Sydney’s, and you could lose me. You could push me away. If your feelings are this intense for me, for us, you’re wondering if you can handle losing us. Am I close?”
A smile tugged at his mouth, an even mix of amusement and sorrow. “You’re hovering around the bullseye.”
“Honestly?” She shrugged and felt the first spill of tears warm the tops of her cheekbones. “Neither one of us knows what the future will bring. We might implode, or we might do just fine. We might be right for each other and would have never guessed it having been right under each other’s noses for so long. There’s got to be a reason we were such good friends first. But I’m not Sydney, just like you’re not Curtis. For me, he was perfect too. He gave me two wonderful boys.”
“But I’m yours,” Joel said, a quiet edge to his voice. “In every way you could imagine. Thinking about not having you is enough to drive me crazy. And, shit, it felt like it crept up on me. It’s been in here,” he hovered a hand over his heart, “for a minute now, hiding. And I knew, you know? I…fuck, I knew it back in Maui, even. I’d fly down, stay for a while, and then when it was time to go back, something would just…” He let his hand rest on his chest. “It was like a hook. I’d be on the plane and it would be…agonizing, I guess, is the best word for it. I wanted to go back. The minute I left you, Eesh, I wanted to be back where you were.”
He blurred in front of her. She wrung her hands, needing to busy them to contain the nervous energy moving through her body.
“You know you’re going to be my wife, right?”
This wasn’t the direction she’d seen the conversation headed when she’d spotted him walking up at the school.
“That’s what I want,” he said, focus shifting to her mouth. “I want you forever, point-blank. I want to wake up next to you and call you Mrs. Lattimore. I want how your body feels when I pull you back against me. Your scent. Your lips. Your voice.” His brows crooked as if he’d suddenly been struck by a jolt of pain. “I want to be your husband and the boys’ father. But I also don’t want to mess things up. I don’t…I can’t live without you, is what I’m saying.”
She nodded, words still lost in the tangle of feelings wound and looped inside her.
“And,” he closed his eyes, “I’m trying. I swear to you I’m trying.”
“Trying to,” she cleared her throat, “what?”
“Not ask you to marry me.” He switched to kneeling and pulled her forward, pressing his lips against her hairline. “Every day since the trip out to Malmö, I’ve wanted to, but I want to take my time. Do this right. I don’t ever want to not be here for you and our boys. This is going to last, Ayesha. That’s what I want.”
A cry sprung from her throat, followed immediately by another, and another, until she was bawling, her eyes pressed into his shoulder.
“Eesh…is that what you want?”
She nodded, the movement shaky. “Yes. And I wanted you to come back too, in Maui. Whenever you left, I’d sit at the airport, wanting you to come back…too.”
They could have stayed downstairs; she would have willingly made love to him on the sofa. But as they hurried upstairs, as he crept over her on the bed they shared and slowly undressed her, eyes never leaving hers, it was perfect this way.
In between undressing her, his mouth ravaged hers. Those large hands of his swept her skin. She knew she was hot, but his palm was hotter, skating across the surface of her stomach, sweeping lower until his fingers were inside her.
While he stroked her with two fingers, his mouth latched onto her nipple, and he rolled the bud along his tongue, tasting her slowly. When he sucked, she arched. When he flicked, she gripped the sheets, his arms, his hair.
As she climbed toward orgasm, he made his way down her body and buried his face between her legs, and she came with him looking up at her…like he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself if he’d missed the moment she tore apart.
“Turn over, Eesh,” he said, tongue darting over his lips.
She rolled onto her belly.
She pushed onto all fours.
He grabbed her hips and entered her, slowly, growing thicker as each ridged inch disappeared inside her body. Then he was moving, their bodies slapping together while she gripped the headboard and cried for an entirely different reason.
Finding another grip, or at least using her palms to keep her upright, would have been possible if he wasn’t pounding her so mercilessly. It would have been probable if it wasn’t for the full length of him sinking deep, pulling out, and sinking deep again, swelling inside and stretching her.
She felt him pull out, heard him groan as he wrapped his fingers around the rigid length and tap it against her lower back before her body swallowed him again, whole.
“Shit.” He’d mumbled it, almost growled it, and stopped again. “Fuck, I’m gonna come.”
Inside her, his dick throbbed.
If he wasn’t going to move, then…
She pushed back against him. He tried to hold her in place, but each crash of their bodies yanked a moan from his throat, the sound vibrating lower and lower until he had no choice but to match her pace.
His fingers created craters in her hips as he came. Filled her.
She wanted to say something, tell him again that she loved him. The certainty was part of the terror—how sure she was that he was the man she wanted to be with even if the world burned and crashed to its fiery end tomorrow.
They collapsed. She lay sprawled across his chest, the heat of his body mingling with hers, and looked at her bare ring finger.
Seeing it bare wasn’t as much of a shock as she’d originally thought it would be, but this was the only man she’d ever dream of removing her ring for. She’d worn it everywhere, needing Curtis’ love and protection in the only form he was capable of providing it in, but now he funneled it through the man underneath her.
“Joel, my ring. It’s my ring.”
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?”
10: The End of an Era
“Ayesha…” Joel reached for her hand, but she pulled it away. “Eesh, stop for a second.”
She didn’t reply, didn’t look at him as she stuck her legs into a pair of jeans and tugged a long-sleeved T-shirt over her head. It was his shirt, so it swallowed her, but she didn’t move to change.
“Ayesha, don’t leave.”
Release Date Schedule
|10: The End of an Era – 04/18|
|11: MoJay vs Das Biest – 04/24|
|12: One Last Thing, Before I Go – 04/25|
|13: From Central to the End – 04/30|