Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
Note: Flashbacks are in purple and italics.
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.”
Curtis smiled at Ayesha through her laptop camera. “Look at all those teeth. You must miss me.”
She bolted from the room toward the stairs.
“Of course, I miss you,” she said. “I’m married to the sexiest man on the planet.”
She tripped on the stairs, blinded by tears, saved only by her fingers catching on the banister at the last minute.
“How do you manage without me?” he asked. “And I mean…seriously.”
Joel’s footsteps thundered behind her in the upstairs hallway.
“I’ve been gone a lot more than usual this year, and it’s just you and Jojo down there. I know it’s hard, but how hard is it? Tell me, baby.”
She shrugged and changed positions on the bed, lying on her belly. “I mean, it’s not necessarily easy, but Josiah’s the most wonderful son a mother could ask for. The worst part, honestly, is not having you here. I miss being in your arms, Curtis.”
A soft smile pulled at his mouth, and she got the distinct feeling something was bothering him, but he’d never tell. That was Curtis…Mr. Fix It. He never wanted her to worry about anything he had the power to resolve, so if it was something he didn’t think was worth sharing, she’d trust him.
“Thinking about you down there alone with him, without me,” he sighed, “I don’t sleep sometimes. I mean, neither one of us had a solid family foundation at the start of our lives, so when I started thinking about my future and a wife and children, I always had that worry, you know? Will she be good to them?”
“Eesh!” Joel grabbed her just before she reached the front door, his chest bare and the waistband of his boxer briefs flat against his abdomen. “Wait. Stop.”
A trace of emotion deepened Curtis’ voice. “But I know, as long as you’re his mother, Josiah will be the happiest, smartest, and most wonderful kid in the world.”
She dabbed her fingertips at the corner of her left eye. “What if we end up with another one?”
“Another one? I mean, I did put in some work when I was down there last.” He searched her face as if, on it, he’d be able to read the secret she was holding onto until she was in those arms again.
She could already hear the happiness that would enter his voice once she told him. Plus, when he came home, the guys would have one of their longest breaks ever. He’d be there for the entire pregnancy and their future little one’s birth.
It was perfect timing.
“Eesh, if we have a million kids, I trust that you, as my wife, will be the best mother they could ever hope for.”
“A million?” She giggled. “By the hundredth, if I still have a vagina, science will probably want to study me.”
He’d had so much faith in her. He’d believed that as long as she was their children’s mother, their kids would be happy. Smart. Wonderful. But he never said safe. Was it because he knew how much she’d screw it up?
“You asked me not to run away,” Joel said, his grip firm. “That, if there’s something we need to talk about, we talk about it.”
“I might yell at you.”
Scream at him. Lash out because she was in pain, and a big part of her blamed him for it.
“So what if you yell at me?” He looked down at where his hand curled around her upper arm. “Eesh, you’re shaking.”
Tears dripped from her chin onto the wooden floors. “Joel, I know you. You didn’t tell me about ‘Mr. Veeny’ for a reason. I can’t imagine how much worse this gets, but I know it does.”
He tried to pull her into his chest, but she backed away, tearing her arm from his grasp.
“Don’t comfort me! Just tell me what I did wrong.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong, Ayesha.”
What had made her think she could manage being a widow and single mother at the age of twenty-five? What had made her think that she would, all of a sudden, know what she was doing when Theo came along? She’d barely known what she was doing with Josiah. In the beginning, she’d even tried to refuse the money the guys had sent her directly after first refusing to access the trust fund Curtis had set up. With a little boy and another one in her belly!
“Joel,” she dropped her voice to a whisper, a warning, “tell me.”
Joel released a long, grating, and obviously reluctant sigh. “Theo told me about Mr. Veeny that night he and I had the sleepover. Adrían was at the museum when we were there, and he gave me info that suggests Mr. Veeny is actually a man who goes by the name of Siriano Lavigne.”
“And why would Adrían do that?”
“You can answer that yourself.”
“Is that why you were upset that day? Because of your run-in with Adrían?”
“Yes,” he confessed. “He knew about the ‘veeny’ incident, so I thought you’d been talking to him and lying about it.”
She stared at him, nostrils flaring slightly. “You don’t trust me.”
“Trusting you isn’t the point.”
“Don’t do that.” She squeezed her eyelids together and circled her hand in the air. “Answer me directly. Do you trust me?”
“Yes, Ayesha. I trust you. But that doesn’t mean shit like that doesn’t hurt or fuck with my head.” His eyes darted over her face, irises a shocking blue and his brows lowered. “You just realized that you care about the man, but I saw it all over your face when you ran into him at the restaurant. So, I thought you didn’t want to tell me you were talking to him because your feelings were coming back or deeper than would make me comfortable.”
This was honest Joel, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about honest Joel. He was hard to argue with. It wasn’t like she could simply tell him his feelings weren’t valid, and she did have stronger feelings for Adrían than even she’d realized.
“Is Adrían part of this Mr. Veeny thing?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Lavigne is probably his comrade, but he appears to,” Joel stretched the muscles in his neck, scratched at his shoulder nearly hard enough to tear skin, “have more loyalty to you than that piece of shit.”
“There’s more, isn’t there? You’re getting angrier. What else, Joel? How did Mr. Veeny terrorize my Theo? Was he in Maui? At his school? Joel…” She sucked in a painful breath and let it out so quickly, it made her lightheaded. “Was he in my house?”
Their breakfast, from all those hours ago, sloshed in her stomach.
“Was he in the house even we were there? Like…when we were asleep?”
He tried to pull her into him again.
She continued to resist, but the next thing she knew, she was pressed against his bare chest, and his arms were around her. It felt so good to be wrapped up by him, it made her even sicker to her stomach. Why should she receive comfort when she didn’t deserve it? Why should he hold her close just because, in the next couple of minutes, she was going to lose it?
“I’ll let go if you tell me to.”
She didn’t tell him to.
He continued. “Lavigne climbed in through a window. More specifically, he climbed in through Theo’s window. But Theo swears Lavigne didn’t hurt him, and I believe him.”
She gripped Joel tight, needing the pressure of his chest to dull the ache in hers. “Joel, his behavior matches that of a child who’s been abused.”
“Or heavily traumatized. From what Giorgio and Dez told me, this Lavigne isn’t a small guy. And…he threatened Theo…with a gun.”
The final strand of her sanity frayed, the tip splitting and webbing. “A gun?” She shook her head, tears and snot smearing his chest. “I’m a fucking joke.”
“What kind of mother…” Her head shook again. “No kind of mother. How could I do this? My baby needed me. He’s just a baby, Joel.”
Joel’s hand skimmed the length of her spine. “You know how my shit is that I’m scared to fuck things up for us? Your thing is, you seem to believe you’re a terrible mother. Why?”
“Because…with Theo, I stressed out so much while I was pregnant with him, what if my stressing is what makes life so challenging for him now? He doesn’t,” her voice broke, “have friends. My baby doesn’t have friends, and that kills me inside because I know I’m responsible for that. And what if Josiah’s the way he is because he had Curtis in his life? I was barely twenty when he was born, Joel.”
Joel’s voice was harsh but nonthreatening. “Josiah, first of all, is my ace. He’s the coolest damn kid ever, and you have a hand in that. I see a lot of you in him. As for Theo, baby, he just hasn’t found his tribe yet. So what if he’s a hare in a tortoise world? One of the best fucking things to ever happen to me is him wanting to call me his father. I was on a ledge ready to jump when me and Syd split up, and I walked right into you. Right into all three of you.”
All the energy she’d needed to hold everything together left, all at once. She wanted to see her boys, to hold them, but she was afraid it would only further mess them up. Her job as a mother was her deepest insecurity, and the truth about Theo’s ‘veeny’ dreams was a hammer thrashing what had cracked open long ago.
She was supposed to be the Mama Bear, fiercely protective of her cubs. Mr. Veeny…Lavigne…whatever, he’d been right there. Right there.
And who was to say he hadn’t done something and Theo had repressed it to come out later? She didn’t want that kind of life for her baby. That kind of burden could change entire personalities, and no one should be allowed to come in and change them that way. But she’d let them climb right in through the window.
Joel carried her upstairs and sat on the bed with his arms around her. She cried against his chest, and his voice wavered when he spoke.
“Ayesha, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
How could she be mad at him? He’d kept it from her because of this. He’d wanted to prolong this happening for as long as he could. Everything inside her wanted to argue with him that he’d kept it from her, hid it from her, lied by omission…but she wished even now that she didn’t know. She wished he’d kept it from her forever.
“Man, Eesh…” He held her tighter. “Let me fix this. Want me to go get the boys?”
She cried harder.
“I do sometimes feel like I’m screwing him up, if I’m being honest,” Ayesha admitted. “A kid raising a kid, basically. Somewhat.”
“You know the guys think I’m old as hell, right?” Curtis asked. “Don’t tell them how old you are. They’ll think I’m a pervert.”
“Curtis, I’m about to be twenty-five.”
“And I was in the second grade when you were born. I was practically a grown man.”
“Please. You probably still used those fat crayons in second grade.”
“I still use them now.”
Laughing, she buried her face in the mattress.
“Even if we do screw ‘Siah up,” Curtis said, chuckling, “he’s ours to screw up.”
“I don’t want him to have to go through therapy to recover from his childhood.”
“Eesh, he has a father whose job is to kill people undetected.”
“He doesn’t know that!”
“Some shit’s gonna rub off. Like, he’ll accidentally take C4 to show and tell or something, and then I’ll have to tell all his friends it’s Play-Doh while the FBI tackles me to the ground.”
“Oh my God.” She laughed even harder. “You’re perfect, Curtis. Josiah is in great hands.”
“Neither one of us is perfect but, in my opinion, imperfect people make the best parents.”
“So, we do our best?”
“We do our best,” he echoed. “And love each other all the way to the end.”
She smiled, staring at his handsome face and watching the rise and fall of his chest. Each breath meant that his heart still beat, and once he came home, she’d lie on that chest and listen to it every night as they drifted off.
“Curtis, do you think you’d be able to remarry if something happened to me?”
He scoffed. “Yeah.”
“I’m just kidding, mama!” His laugh crackled through the laptop speaker. “To be honest, I don’t know. With Jojo, and if we ever have any more kids, it would be hard. I’d want her to love them, you know? And it’s not easy to ask someone else to love kids that aren’t theirs.”
“How about you? Same question, Mrs. Savea.”
“Same answer,” she replied. “He’d have to feel like somebody you would have picked for me yourself.”
“Well then, let me think, now. What kind of man would I pick for you? I mean, Gage is single.”
“And, no offense, he’s fine as hell.”
“There you go.”
“Stop it.” She giggled. “For you, I’d pick someone understanding, patient, and who doesn’t care about rubbing your size seventeen feet when they’re sore.”
He roared another laugh. “You’re essentially telling me that you want me to never remarry.”
“Actually, wait. Let me really think about this.” He tapped his chin, focus just off-screen.
It was impossible to tell where he was. Everything was dark, and she made out a few silhouettes here and there that looked like everything and nothing at all. Sometimes it was easy, like when he stayed in luxury homes and expensive hotels. Times like now, when he was in the middle of nowhere underneath tents and inside caves, all she could do was pray that, when their call ended, he remained safe until they spoke again.
“The man I’d pick for you…he’d work you like a miner, picking and picking until he breaks down those walls,” he said. “When you’re frustrated, he doesn’t wilt. When you’re angry, he doesn’t rise to match you but helps you calm down. When you’re sad or depressed, he doesn’t let you turn him away. And, I know it’s asking for a lot, but I’d prefer it if he pulled along well with the guys. These are my brothers, and I don’t want some fool coming into your life who doesn’t know what being part of this family is like.”
“Are you still pawning me off on Gage?”
“Or Dez. They’re both single right now.”
“What about Giorgio?”
“Ayesha, I love you, but you’re not the woman for Giorgio. She’s out there, somewhere, but I’d rather you stay single or get ten cats and a python before you try to tame that beast.”
She nodded. “Noted. And I love you too, Curtis.”
He grinned. “You love me, baby?”
“I always will.”
“Go ahead and call me ‘Big Daddy’ one good time.”
“Ayesha, I love you,” Joel said, his lips in her hair. “We’ll get through this. I promise.”
* * *
Joel made his way downstairs, phone pressed to his ear.
“Hey, bestie,” Larke greeted on the second ring. “Me and Dez have the boys, by the way. It’s been a while since we’ve spent time with them, so I hope you don’t mind them staying for dinner.”
“Of course not.”
“So, tell me what happened now?”
He recounted the scene from only a few hours before.
“I left Eesh upstairs asleep, and I don’t know what to say to her when she wakes up. I’ve…never seen her like that, Larke. I need to make this right or…”
He didn’t know how to finish.
“Joel, you’re worried that Eesh will, I don’t know, shut down or dish out ultimatums and whatnot, but that’s not Eesh’s style.”
It hadn’t been Sydney’s either.
Not until she met him.
“You know there’d be a deathmatch in this house between me and Dez at least once a month if we didn’t feel about each other the way we do. I mean, I wanted to take him out the other day for eating my chocolate bar. Talking about, ‘But Monroe ate most of it’ like my baby just opened the refrigerator and got it herself.”
Joel glanced at the stairs when he heard a noise come from what sounded like the bedroom. “Not the one me, you, and Mike spent nearly two hours trying to find? The one that’s a replica from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?”
“That same damn one.”
“I think Tay and Gage would have had an actual death match. You know she doesn’t play when it comes to her sweets.”
“You’re right.” Larke giggled. “Look, I’d be messed up too if I found out someone dangerous had come that close to Monroe without me knowing, and it doesn’t matter what we do or how strong we get. We won’t be you guys. Ayesha won’t ask you to be, but be there for her. What you don’t know is that, when she was alone in Maui, she was scared. Terrified, sometimes. She’s never said it outright, but me and the girls read through the lines. She doesn’t really have family, so it was just the three of them until you came along.”
Ayesha’s voice rang out from upstairs. “Joel? Can you bring me something to eat, please?”
“I’ve got you.” He returned to his conversation with Larke. “So I should do, what? Make her feel safe?”
“Do what you do best…be you. It’s not some kind of cardinal sin to like being in the arms of the person you love. And look, I’ll never be Dez. Never in a million years. You six are not normal human beings, so when I lie down at night with my husband next to me, I sleep like a rock knowing he’ll do whatever he can to keep me and Monroe safe. Right now, Eesh is scared. Just like your presence is helping Theo and Josiah feel safe again, Eesh needs that too.”
He smiled to himself, heading to the kitchen. Larke was so right, he didn’t need to verbally agree. They’d focused on the boys so much, on him. Ayesha was better at this than he realized, shifting all the attention away from her so that he didn’t feel “obligated” to take care of her.
It was no obligation.
It wasn’t even a duty.
“Thank you, Larke. I could kiss you.”
“You could do what, now?” Dez’s voice boomed.
Larke faked a gasp. “Oh no, Joel. He’s caught us. Dez, honey, I can explain…”
Joel laughed. “Thanks again, L. Love you, boo.”
“Lattimore, don’t make me put my foot—”
He hung up, reheated a couple of the chicken burritos Ayesha had mentioned earlier, and when he returned to the room, he found her wearing only his shirt. Puffiness made her eyes look swollen, but gone was the heavy mask of grief she’d fallen asleep with.
She attempted a smile. “Thank you, babe.”
He handed over her plate and took a seat next to her on the bed. They ate, Ayesha sniffling and clearing her throat periodically, and he remained quiet, giving her the space she needed to talk.
“They’re good boys,” she said, after a long while, when her plate was empty. “Right?”
He nodded. “Good human beings.”
“And I raised them, so that must count for something.”
“We’re going to have to better plan our crises,” he teased. “We can’t have them back to back like this again.”
A smile twitched her cheek, and she edged nearer to him, laying her head on his shoulder.
Something released in his chest. All she had to do was touch him, and his heart was the entire drumline in a university marching band. All he had to do was touch her… That night in the car after the school fair in Maui, each time his fingertips met her skin, he kept needing hit after hit. Then, touch wasn’t enough—he needed to hold her hand, trap her fingers. When even that stopped being enough, he needed her in his arms, her mouth on his, her heat wrapped around him.
“I don’t want to fail them, Joel.”
“What makes you think you will?”
“It’s a chronic fear of mine. My anxiety goes from baseline to ‘oh, shit’ the minute I realize, really realize how responsible I am for them. I second-guess myself every day—am I spending enough time with Josiah? Am I coddling him? Am I coddling Theo? Do I not cuddle him enough? Was I too harsh that one time? Am I taking my frustrations out on them? Is this the one time I’ll yell at them and turn them into ax murderers? I mean, what was it that made my baby think he couldn’t tell me this was happening? Did I make him not trust me?”
Joel’s very own mother, a woman who he thought had done an amazing job raising him, had often questioned if she knew what she was doing with him and his sister. She never told them that directly, but he’d overhear her on the phone with her friends, his aunts, and his grandmother. She worried whenever she raised her voice, or if the punishment she’d doled out had been too harsh, just like Ayesha did, but that wasn’t, at all, what he remembered.
He remembered huge Sunday dinners, the way she smelled when she hugged him, and eating chocolate biscotti with her on their back patio. He remembered her hair and her eyes, both of which he got from her, and the way she’d smile at him when he came downstairs in the mornings for breakfast.
All things considered, to him, she was perfect. Jemma Lattimore, for all her worrying, had done an excellent job as his mother. It was even possible that her worrying had helped her do an excellent job.
“Theo didn’t tell you because he was trying to protect you,” Joel said. “Lavigne said he’d hurt you and Josiah if he did. For a little kid, that’s pretty damn brave. Where do you think he learned that?”
She nudged him with her shoulder. “From you.”
“I have been around for a while, haven’t I?”
“Yes. And, I’d like for you to stay around for a while.”
“How long, you think?”
“You’re mine until I say you’re not, and that won’t happen so…forever?” She wrapped her arms around him, and he tightened his hold on her.
“You know it’s okay to need me, right?” he asked. “To make you feel safe, I mean. Me being in your life doesn’t mean, on your own, you were doing a bad job. Josiah said you make him feel loved and cared for, and I make him feel safe. This thing we’re doing, it’s a team effort. My job is to protect my family, and I’m going to do that.”
“But if you weren’t around—”
“Does it matter? Because I am around. Lean on me. I’m going to be there for you. I’m going to make things easier for you in any way that I can. You won’t have to do all that alone anymore. I’m not going to sweep the rug out from under you, make you get all cozy, and then sneak off.” He squeezed her against him. “Ayesha, I’ve got you.”
She nodded, her voice again full of tears but without the agony. “Thank you.”
“You don’t have to thank me.”
“I know, but I want to.”
He kissed her forehead. “God, Eesh…Josiah lights up when he talks about you, and you should have seen Theo scrutinize all the flowers at the shop because he had to get you the ‘perfect’ bouquet. Everywhere we went, people kept telling me how my ‘son’ was so ‘adorable’ and ‘kind.’ You know Theo played it up too.”
“He can get extra cute when he wants to.”
“Eesh, you three are mine. When you go to sleep tonight, know that it’s with my love and protection wrapped around you, around this house, and you’ll have it until Joel Lattimore is no more.”
Her shoulders lowered, an obvious boulder of relief having been crushed.
As a self-proclaimed obsessed madman, he knew that before he and the guys left Sweden to address the kill order, he was going to propose to Ayesha with the ring burning a hole in his pocket every-single-day. The time they’d spent taking care of each other, taking care of the boys, and falling for one another before officially accepting they wanted to be together was like time served.
It wasn’t too soon. And, even if it was, this was about them, not anyone else.
She pressed her lips against his and then tried to leave the bed, but he held her in place.
“I have to start dinner,” she said.
“No, you don’t.” He coaxed her onto her back and raised the shirt, exposing her naked lower half. “The boys are having dinner with Dez and Larke, and we just ate.”
“Well, I have to go check the sink. It’s doing that gurgling thing again.”
“Didn’t Theo say he lost a race car recently?”
“I believe he did.”
“I’ve got it. I’ll just do the thing I did last time.”
Her eyes closed. “You mean call a plumber?”
He nudged her legs apart with his knees and lowered his head between them.
* * *
He’d expected Syd, not Syd and Dmitri.
They’d showed up together at the restaurant, hand in hand, Syd wearing a loose-fitting top that didn’t do as good a job hiding her belly that she’d probably assumed. It was easier to admit than he’d anticipated that they looked good together. If Syd was pregnant, if she was happy, he wanted her to have the fairy-tale, happily ever after ending that hadn’t been his fate to give her.
He’d learned from Larke that Syd had given Ayesha the third degree about his and Ayesha’s relationship that same morning she’d showed up, unexpectedly, at the house. They’d been split up long enough, at least he’d assumed they’d been split up long enough for her to be able to deal with seeing someone else in his bed. Maybe, had it been someone other than Ayesha, it would have been less of an issue.
The guys had admitted that they’d never questioned the timing of his and Ayesha’s relationship—the stars had simply aligned at the right time for them both.
“So, what do you think?” Sydney asked.
Joel blinked. “What?”
She released a sigh, tossing up a set of straightened bangs that he’d never expected would be a look for her. “Where do you go these days, my friend?”
“My mind was…on steak.”
“You were thinking about Ayesha,” she said. “Remember, I used to be married to you.”
“And remember I used to be married to you, so this little pregnancy announcement is old news.”
She and Dmitri shared a look.
“You knew?” she asked.
“I had a hunch ever since that morning you showed up outside me and Eesh’s bedroom door.”
“Theo walked me up.”
“Well,” she wrinkled her nose, “I didn’t know you had company. I mean, the last time we spoke, you couldn’t even admit how you felt about her.”
“Because it wasn’t easy. I was falling in love at a time when I didn’t think it was possible, and with a woman who was several levels above taboo. I felt like I was breaking some bro code or something.”
“You didn’t even know Curtis.”
“That’s what I’m saying, but shit was still hard.”
Dmitri jumped in. “Um…we’re trying not to curse around the babies.”
“Babies?” Joel leaned back as the server placed a glass of lemonade in front of him. “You’re having twins, Syd? Wow, that’s…amazing.”
“We just found out.” She slouched as if the realization suddenly reminded her she was tired. “One of the babies was blocking the other, and their heartbeats were in sync. It’s two boys.”
Joel felt a tug in his chest, unexpected but still there. He was jealous, but not of Dmitri. Syd hadn’t even known whether she wanted children, and there she was with two.
“Any names yet?” he asked, taking a large gulp of lemonade.
She flicked a thumb at Dmitri. “He wants one of them to be named after his cousin. The other one is still up in the air.”
Dmitri sipped his drink, a small glass of whiskey on ice. “It’s because I’m not a fan of my name. I was supposed to be named Dominik, but my mother changed her mind at the last minute and let my uncle take the name.”
The server returned. “Are we ready to order?”
Joel and Dmitri put in their orders, and Sydney placed an order that had enough food for three people.
“I better lose this weight after these guys are here,” she said as the server walked off. “I want to eat all the damn time.”
Joel grinned so wide, the corners of his mouth pained him a little. “Eesh said she was like that with Josiah.”
“I keep hearing about this Eesh,” Dmitri said. “How’d you two meet? Syd hasn’t told me.”
“We’re all friends,” Joel answered. “I essentially met the group through Gage. After the divorce, I guess you could say me and Eesh inadvertently leaned on each other.”
“And you fell for her.”
“How long do you think it took you?”
Joel frowned. “I mean, I wasn’t keeping a calendar or anything. One minute, she was Ayesha. The next, she was Ayesha. After that, it was pretty much a free fall. I mean, we were at the beach. We always went to the beach. But that one day, I don’t know, something changed.”
“Would you say things just kind of clicked?” Dmitri prodded.
Joel nodded, taking a sip of his drink. “Clicked and grew. It got harder and harder to leave her. I’m just now realizing that I used to hold my breath until I saw her at the airport. And, after a while, the hugs felt different. She went from hugging me up under my arms,” he demonstrated, elbows bent, “to hugging me around my neck. Holding on a little longer.”
That very last time he’d flown out, he’d taken a carry-on so he didn’t have to wait for a bag and prolong getting to her.
When he saw her, he went right over and wrapped his arms around her, lifting her off her feet. In his mind, he was being Joel, being playful, but he held her that day. And God, it was so good. She was soft in all the right places, even the places she hated to be soft. She’d smelled like honey and oranges in her hair, soap on her neck. As they’d released each other, the sides of their faces brushed, and it had taken everything in him not to grab the back of her head and devour her mouth.
The server brought their food, set it on the table, and as Sydney asked for remoulade to put on her French fries, she asked him, “Have you bought the ring yet?”
Joel laughed and let his head briefly hang. “Maybe.”
“Pay up, babe.” Sydney wiggled her fingers at Dmitri. “Told you.”
“You went right in for the kill,” Dmitri argued. “I was buttering him up, first.”
“He’s my ex-husband. Of course, I was going to be right.”
“What about you two?” Joel asked. “Any wedding bells in your future?”
They looked at each other.
“We don’t want to move too fast, you know?” Dmitri said. Then, they both burst out laughing.
Grinning, Joel shook his head, their amusement infectious.
“We’re focused on the babies right now,” Sydney said. “But, I guess he’s all right.”
Dmitri shrugged. “The verdict is still out on this one.”
“It better not be.”
Dmitri kissed the side of her head and whispered something in Russian that made her smile.
“Does everyone else know yet?” he asked.
Sydney dipped a handful of fries in what was essentially tartar sauce. “Nope. I wanted to tell you first. We’ll be out for a visit for Grey’s birthday. We’ll do it then. But, enough about us. How do you plan to propose?”
He’d told Giorgio that he was thinking about proposing. The next thing he knew, he was at Giorgio’s jeweler in London with Mike and Xara, and he had to admit…Giorgio had a pretty damn good eye for virtually everything luxury. Xara had designed the ring, saying it was for her brand, and asked for input from everyone but only took Ayesha’s.
It was a solitaire ring with a yellow diamond that would look perfect on Ayesha’s finger, but that was about as much as he remembered because he’d started internally panicking as Xara had explained all the features.
Ayesha could say no.
She could say she wasn’t ready, that they were rushing things.
He, Mike, and Giorgio had gone to a bar afterward, and only four shots of whiskey had done the trick to calm him down.
For now, when the ring wasn’t with him, it stayed with Larke and Dez. He did, however, show it to Josiah who’d smiled bigger than he’d ever seen Josiah smile.
“Why is he sweating?” he heard Dmitri ask.
“Joel?” Sydney snapped her fingers. “Come back to us, Joel.”
He exhaled, and it felt like he’d been holding his breath for days. A quick swipe of his forehead with his fingers told him Dmitri hadn’t been exaggerating. Was he really about to do this again? He’d been nervous to ask Syd and look how that turned out. He didn’t want to lose Ayesha. Ever. She was his. They had a family together.
“I…uh, I don’t know yet,” he replied. “We talked about, kind of, me doing it on the beach? But, I don’t know. I want to do it before we leave, though.”
Sydney pulled everything but the tomatoes out of her sandwich and took a bite. “Leave where?”
“Me and the guys.”
“Oh.” She chewed. “Hmm. Maybe don’t do it yet, then. What if you don’t come back?”
“It’s not the same.” He pushed his plate away. “We’re not going out for the same reasons as before.”
“Still.” Sydney shrugged. “Ayesha’s sweet. Even when I was being a complete dick to her, she was still sweet. I can’t imagine the universe wanting to hurt her twice, but I’d be cautious.”
Dmitri jumped in. “You love each other. She’s lost a husband. To me, that means don’t wait. From what I understand, you two have had feelings for each other for a long time even if your relationship is still new. So, it’s like time-served.”
Which was exactly how he saw it.
“If it was me, I’d get engaged and married before I left.” Dmitri stole one of Sydney’s fries. “You two want kids?”
Joel’s phone chimed with a text message.
Ayesha: I love you. Just so you know.
“That must be her,” Sydney teased. “Look at how wide he’s grinning.”
Joel scrubbed his hand down his face. “Shut up, Syd.”
“It’s getting even wider!”
Ayesha: Btw, can you bring me something sweet on the way back?
Joel: So, myself?
Ayesha: Something for me to eat *before* I swallow you whole later tonight.
A picture came through of Theo, fast asleep, in his room. In his very own bed.
Joel: Whaaaat? I am on my way.
Joel looked up. “So…I have to go. Emergency at home.”
Sydney rolled her eyes, grinning now herself. “Uh, huh.”
“The pipes at the house…burst.”
He placed a quick order for a slice of Swedish apple pie, and when the server brought the food, Dmitri offered to pay the bill.
“Well, I should’ve gotten something more expensive,” Joel said, rising from the table.
“I want to make sure you get to those pipes,” Dmitri said. “As soon as possible. That kind of thing, you don’t want to wait on.”
Sydney burst out laughing. “Oh, baby. You’re so adorable. His pipes are fine. It’s Ayesha’s pipes he’s about to go fix.”
Dmitri frowned. When it hit him, he laughed. “Oh! Well…the explanation still stands, I think.”
Sydney stood, and Joel pulled her in for a tight hug, laughing a little when her stomach poked him in his. Years ago, this would have been all he’d ever wanted. He didn’t think life would ever stop ceasing to amaze him in the quietest, yet somehow loudest of ways.
“I’ll talk to you later,” he said, kissing her cheek. “Congratulations, Mama. You’re about to be so huge.”
“Joel, get out of here before I stab you with this fork.”
* * *
He made it home in record time and walked right into another one of life’s little wonderful surprises—Ayesha standing in the middle of their bedroom in red lace, black silk, pumps, and stockings with garters.
“Jesus.” He set down the pie container. “So I’m guessing you don’t want pie?”
She spun, and the back went up into a pair of G-string panties. Pre-cum dripped from the head of his dick, and he had to adjust himself to relieve the pressure of it pushing against his zipper.
“Oh no, I’m still going to eat that. Just…after.”
He walked over and looped his fingers through the waistband of the panties. “Can I come home to this every night?”
“Absolutely.” She reached up and kissed him. “Just get six more wives.”
“Girlfriends.” She tapped her forehead. “Girlfriends. Freudian slip.”
Her slip-up definitely took the edge off the proposal. It wasn’t enough that he trusted himself holding the ring over a sink or manhole cover, but he might be able to sleep more than four hours a night again.
“You’re the psychoanalyst. What do they say about Freudian slips, again?” He bent and dragged his teeth along the curve of her neck. “You look amazing, by the way. I see ‘Book Club’s paying off.”
“I know nothing of which you speak.”
He palmed her left breast, his thumb skimming over the nipple, and he couldn’t stop the smile when she shivered from the tip of her head down to her toes. Fuck, he loved that shit.
“Real quick, Joel?”
He brushed his lips over her jaw. “Hmm?”
“We’ll have to start using condoms soon.”
He leaned back. “Any particular reason why?”
“Are you really giving me the ‘who else are you sleeping with’ face right now? You’re so sexy, who would I sleep with? Unless it’s, like, Charlie Hunnam or something.”
He cocked his head to the side. “Wait, doesn’t Dez resemble—”
“But, we’ll have to use condoms because I’m thinking about getting the IUD removed.”
“Why? Was it causing you problems? Are you okay?”
“No problems, and I’m fine.”
“I don’t mind using condoms,” he said, and part of him believed it.
Her eyes fell, and she gripped her fingers.
“Eesh, what is it? What’s going on?”
“So, I know you guys are leaving soon,” she began. “Julien told Ari, and she spilled the beans.”
“We were gonna say something, but we wanted everyone to relax a little.” He tipped her chin up. “Ayesha, what’s wrong? Talk to me.”
“I’m just realizing that this might be a really bad idea, and I don’t know if I want to bring it up.”
“Tell me anyhow.”
“Joel…we don’t have to use the condoms.”
“Now, I’m confused.”
“Um…so…what if…never mind. It’s a bad idea, isn’t it?” She shook her head so rapidly, he grabbed her chin to keep it from flying off her neck. “You’d think, by now, I’d learn… It’s just…I think I want this, Joel. I think I’ve wanted this for a while. No, I know I do. Unless we’re moving too fast. I mean, we haven’t even talked about—”
“…Yeah.” She released a quivering breath. “It’s just that, we’re both in this for the long haul, and I don’t see myself going anywhere, and I really want this with you, but…am I rushing things? I’m probably rushing things. I think I just got scared because you’re leaving, and it’s a really bad idea because what if something happens and—”
He brought his mouth down to hers, his hand cradling the back of her neck. She grabbed his elbows, head arched back, and pushed onto her toes even though she was wearing sky-high heels. When they pulled apart, he took her hand and held it, his thumb rubbing her knuckles.
Her rambling continued. “This was selfish of me, wasn’t it? I just decided I wanted it removed without telling you, but I wouldn’t, you know, do that to you. Not tell you, I mean. I’m not trying to trap you or anything.”
“You want to have my baby, Eesh?” He ran his fingers over the lace in her bra. “Did you wear this to soften the blow of asking that question? What’d you think I’d say?”
“That it’s a stupid idea since we’re not married.”
“What if,” he nudged her back toward the bed, “we have sex tonight and you get pregnant?”
“The IUD’s pretty effective.”
She was so cute when she was nervous.
“I mean, hypothetically. You get pregnant. Then what?”
“What do you—” He toppled her backward onto the mattress and slipped off her shoes. “What do you mean?”
He pulled off his shirt, and she whimpered when her gaze fell to his chest and stomach.
“You think I’ll walk out on you or something?” he asked. “No, baby. I wouldn’t do that.”
He stepped out of his jeans and boxer briefs, and her gaze lowered. She reached out and ran her thumb over the fat head of his dick, swirling his pre-cum before she stuck the finger into her mouth. Then, the warmth of her mouth closed around him.
He hissed, saw flashes of white, and pulled back out of her mouth. Not tonight. Tonight, he would fill her with every last drop. He would fill her until she spilled over, falling asleep only to wake up a sticky, satisfied mess.
Ayesha wanted to have his baby.
“Why’d you pull away?” She looked up at him, lips already beginning to swell from moving them over the length of his erection.
He tipped his head at her bra.
She popped out her breasts, the dark tips making his mouth water.
She pushed back on the bed, and when her legs fell open, he smiled.
“Tell me what you want, Ayesha.” He kissed a trail from her chest down over her belly button, stopping just above her glistening sex which grew wetter and wetter in front of his eyes. “Tell me exactly what you were trying to say earlier.”
“That I wouldn’t mind having your baby.”
He groaned and used two fingers to spread her. “You can do better than that.”
“That I…I want to have your baby.”
He lowered his head, licking first, sucking on her lips before letting his tongue slip between the seam to find her clit. He kept her parted with his thumbs, paying attention to the spot on the organ where she was most sensitive.
When he looked up, she was wetting her fingers, squeezing her nipples. The muscles in her thighs pulled and, as she got closer to climax, her hips rocked. He latched on tighter, sucking her clit until she gasped and her body went stiff. Until she pulled away when he tried to keep going, shivering in the room which had warmed up considerably since they started.
He climbed over her, nudging her legs as wide as she could take having them. “I’m not going anywhere, Ayesha.”
“So…you want this?”
He pushed into her.
She swallowed a cry.
“I want this,” he said. “God, I want this. You are fucking amazing, you know that?”
Ayesha was in his head. Between the way she felt, soaking after her climax, and what she wanted with him, his balls were already beginning to tighten.
“How could you know?” He lowered, pushed into her harder, faster. “How could you know, be so sure that you want this with me?”
She held onto his shoulders. “It’s all I think about.”
“I don’t want anybody else.”
“So, will you—“ He stopped himself. He was not going to ask her with half his dick inside her and no ring. “Would you be happy having a baby with me?”
“I want to have your baby, Joel. Let me have your baby.”
The sweet, sweet burn of climax threatened to claim him as her hand slipped between them, working furiously. It took Herculean strength, but he stopped moving and sucked on her pebbled nipples until she cried out.
“Joel, you feel so good.” Her pussy tightened around him, tugging and pulling. “Please come inside me. I want to feel you come inside me.”
It didn’t take long, not with her heat and the deep flush of her skin.
Thick ropes of semen spurted from the tip of his dick inside her, and he’d never felt anything like it before. This was different. This was definitely different.
When he looked down at her, she had a massive smile on her face.
“What?” he asked, smiling himself.
“Two things.” She played, as best as she could, in his sweaty locks. “One, Theo deserves something for sleeping in his own bed tonight.”
“And two.” Her smile grew even larger. “I’m glad we found each other.”
“What about mar…shmallows?” he asked. “For Theo.”
She laughed. “You’re so weird.”
“But you like weird.”
“Nope.” She raised her head, kissed him. “I love weird.”
* * *
Lee Jeong Hyeok dragged buckets of air into his lungs, his grip tight on the burning pain in his shoulder. Where the fuck had that bullet even come from? One minute he was following Adrían and the next, he was free-falling out of a massive elm tree after taking a shell to the right shoulder from behind.
But it was pitch black outside. Who, the hell, could have possibly made that shot?
It was faint, but footsteps were approaching, so he buried himself deeper into the brush. He’d lost Adrían somewhere inside the wooded area. They’d agreed that he would follow within a certain distance to try to locate Ayesha Savea, but with the turns and twists Adrían had made, it was like his comrade had tried to purposely lose him.
Adrían had always been strange when it came to Ayesha. Lavigne had suggested that it was because Gano and Savea had hooked up back in Maui, but Adrían wasn’t the kind of man who’d let something as simple as sex get in the way of completing a mission.
The footsteps stopped, and the person spoke. “You think a little lack of moonlight will keep you hidden?”
Hyeok buried himself even deeper.
The footsteps disappeared, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Then a man was somehow standing over him, a man he hadn’t heard or seen, and that was virtually impossible to do…unless…
“Let me guess, you’re the one everybody calls ‘The Shadow’?”
The man’s head shook. “Nobody calls me that.”
“What do they call you?”
“Wei.” The man crouched in front of him. “Central is unimaginative as shit. Where are you from?”
“North Korea?” Wei, who definitely had to be the one they called The Shadow, scanned Hyeok from head to toe. “Now that, I’m impressed by.”
“How’d you make that shot? Can’t see shit out here.”
Wei scratched the side of his head with the nozzle of a Beretta. “I made an educated guess.”
“You used a handgun in pitch-black night to make that shot?”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you. It’s not my call, but you’ll live to see another day. I don’t know how many more but, then again…that’s your call.”
Hyeok shook his head. “I don’t get it.”
“You will.” The Shadow walked backward, toward the cover of the trees. “Now, don’t go too far, you hear?”
And then, just like that, he was gone.
11: MoJay vs das Biest
Xara’s jaw dropped. “Oh, my…lanta. Is that Gage?”
The blond hair, those green eyes which were more striking underneath the strip lights, and that tall, muscular physique could belong to no one else.
Ayesha squinted at the ring. “If Gage is up there, does that mean—”
“I knew it.” Mo’s eyelids disappeared inside their sockets. “The Murderer of Moscow is here. The Slasher of St. Petersburg. The Killer of Krasnodar.”
“How many Russian cities have you aligned him with?” Ayesha asked.
Xara’s head whipped around, eyes searching in the dark. “Do you think they’re all here?”
Mo looked down at her phone. “So, uh, my fight’s back on. Tell Aleksi that his mother loved him, and she didn’t truly want to go out this way.”
All of them, except for Tayler, peered at the screen. Tayler had yet to look away from the cage.
#5 – MoJay v Das Biest
|Release Date Schedule|
|11: MoJay v Das Biest – 04/24|
|12: One Last Thing, Before I Go – 04/25|
|13: From Central to the End – 04/30|