Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
One Last Thing, Before I Go…
“I don’t know what I’m doing here.” Joel dropped into a crouch in front of an engraved headstone with the name Curtis Iokua Savea etched across the front. “Actually, that’s not true. I know why I’m here.”
He’d told Ayesha that he was flying back out to the U.S. to tie up loose ends, but he’d needed to come here before he went back to Sweden. He’d felt compelled to come here, and it wasn’t because he felt it necessary to ask for Curtis’ “permission” to marry Ayesha; Curtis was simply the catalyst that had resulted in Ayesha being close to the team. Curtis was the reason amazing kids like Theo and Josiah were now part of his life.
“I love the boys, and when I say that, I mean that they’re my boys now, too. My sons. I’d do anything for them. With their permission, and Ayesha’s, I’d like to adopt them. It’ll be up to them if they want to take any part of my name. I won’t force anything on them, but I hope it’s okay with you that I call them my sons, and they refer to me as their father now as well.”
A strong gust of wind blew.
“And Ayesha…God, Ayesha.” Joel smiled. “The decision you made to save the guys’ lives knowing that you had someone like her you needed to come home to? I couldn’t do it. Curtis, you are a noble, peaceful soul that I’ll probably revere for a lifetime because I know, in my heart, I couldn’t so valiantly make the decision to leave them. I’m barely okay on this trip, knowing I’d have to be away for a couple of weeks. All I want to do these days is be with them. On top of that, because of you, I have the men who are now my brothers. Thank you, Curtis. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, your family, the guys and their families, and the rest of the world.”
Joel sat on the grass, knees bent with his forearms perched on top, facing the shadowy outline of the West Maui mountains. He smiled as he thought about Theo and Josiah waking him and Ayesha up on weekend mornings. Josiah would lightly knock on the door and then Theo, after they said it was okay to come in, would rush in and launch himself onto the bed.
“I bought a ring, by the way. Xara designed it. You’ve met her, right?” He waited a beat, giving Curtis a chance to “answer,” and a second strong gust of wind blew, prompting a tango among the palm trees overhead. “Me, Eesh, and the boys are taking a trip to Malmö soon. I’m proposing to her there. The boys already know—they helped me plan the whole thing. My angle is to propose to her on the beach on the last night there, but I keep getting this feeling in my gut that I’m not going to be able to wait. What do you think?”
He eased onto his back, on the grass, his hands tucked behind his head.
“I hope I have your blessing to take care of your family, and I’ll take care of them, Curtis. I swear to God, they’ll never want or need anything as long as I’m around, and I plan to stay around. And, I’ll be honest…I’m okay with my marriage falling apart now. Back then?” He flicked his wrist. “I wanted to kill myself. Syd closed a fist around my heart, ripped it from my chest, and dragged it behind her for a while, but she did what she had to do. I see how hard it’s been, and that she had to have done a lot of thinking to come to that conclusion, but fate conspired to break us up because,” his throat drew itself into a knot, “I think it’s only now that I’ve found the love of my life. The girl of my dreams. I loved Syd, yes. I loved her hard, but we were familiar. I was supposed to love her, so I did. Eesh…she’s just perfect for me. I loved her even when I told myself I wasn’t supposed to, and I never want to stop feeling this way about her.”
The air around him went from salty to earthy, the fresh scent of pending rain.
“She’s so damn gorgeous too. Xara said she wants to design Eesh’s wedding dress, but Eesh hasn’t even said yes. She still could say no, that it’s too soon. What do you think?”
The blue sky darkened.
Gray clouds billowed in.
“You’re right. I just have to bite the bullet and do it. Even if she turns me down, Eesh is so sweet, she’ll do it in a way that it’ll take me a few days to realize the answer was no.” He laughed. “I love her, Curtis. I’ve got big shoes to fill, but I love her. I love her. Like,” he gripped his chest, “she’s just in here. She’s…mine. My woman. Fuck, I love her.”
Thunder sounded from somewhere far off.
“You’re right, you’re right. You probably have shit to do, and I’m here just taking up all your time.” He stood and dusted off his clothes. “Curtis, you know where to find me if I start fucking up. And…find me. Send down your trident and just…chuck it in my spine if I hurt her. I’ll never do it intentionally, and I know how blessed I have to be to have the life I have, live the life I’ve lived, and for fate to be like, ‘Here’s the perfect woman. You deserve her.’ Then, ‘Oh, and what’s that? The perfect kids too?’”
Joel bowed his head and said a quick prayer before taking a step back.
“You can rest easy now, brother. Rest easy.”
* * *
Less than a dozen people were still out that evening, the sun’s bright-orange descent behind the horizon creating a moving backdrop at Stapelbäddsparken Skatepark in Malmö. Joel sat watching the activity from a spectator spot just above the concrete course. Theo was asleep and draped all over him after swearing, as they’d walked and biked from parks to outdoor pools to diners, that he wasn’t sleepy. Theo’s eyelids had started drooping in the middle of the burgers and fries they’d had right before they went to Malmö Reptile Center, and after his excitement over holding a bearded dragon and not holding, at all, an iguana, sleep finally took over.
Josiah watched from a little closer, having made friends with one of the younger skateboarders in the thirty minutes that they’d been there. They’d left Ayesha back at the vacation penthouse apartment they’d booked for two weeks, giving her time alone since she’d had a lack of it for essentially twelve years. And, with school out, Theo’s energy levels were at maximum level.
“Hey, Dad?” Josiah called, racing over to him. “Do you mind if Kye teaches me some skateboarding basics? I’ll be real careful.”
It would be interesting to watch that change over time, Josiah assuring that an activity was safe to convince either or both parents to let him do it. Most of Ayesha’s concerns with Josiah getting hurt came from her belief that she needed to protect the boys from her “terrible mothering,” but he was helping her through that. Bumps and bruises were part of life, and they didn’t exactly end in childhood. Bumps and bruises in childhood often helped the ones in adulthood hurt less or heal faster.
Joel nodded. “Go for it.”
“It’ll be like,” Josiah scrunched his nose, looked up at the sky, “another half-hour, and then we can go see Mama.”
In the last couple of months, not only had he started calling Ayesha “Mama” again, he corrected Theo whenever Theo said “Josiah” instead of “Jojo.” If Joel had to guess, it was because he no longer had to sustain the role of “man of the house,” and it felt safe to be a kid with a little brother again.
“You’ve got this, Josiah,” Joel reassured.
Josiah grinned. “Thanks, Dad.”
It wouldn’t give him chills every single time Josiah referred to him as his father, but he knew it would give him chills, at some point, for the rest of his life.
Kye, who was three months older than Josiah, spent the half-hour teaching Josiah how to push on the board to build momentum and keep his balance. Closer to the end of the session, Josiah learned how to turn using his body weight, and he rejoiced like he’d learned how to do a three-sixty in midair.
When they were finished, Josiah jogged over, chest heaving and sweat sprinkled on his smiling face. “Do you think we can convince Mama to let me get a skateboard?” he asked.
Joel stood and groaned when Theo’s sleep-weight dropped onto his chest. “It’ll be a hard sell, especially with the MMA thing.”
“Between your job and me wanting to do all these things, Mama might have a heart attack.”
“She might.” Joel situated Theo to where it would be easier to walk with him and breathe at the same time. Although small for his age, Theo’s weight tripled while sleeping. “But I’ll be there with you every step of the way, so that might help some.”
“Did you skateboard as a kid, Dad?”
“A little bit. Wanted to do Vans Park.”
“I broke my tibia.”
They started on the short walk back to the apartment.
“How about we don’t tell Mama that part?” Josiah asked.
Joel glanced at him. “Tell her what part?”
Grinning, they bumped fists.
* * *
Ayesha looked up from her novel when her three favorite guys walked into the bedroom. Theo was fast asleep, draped all over Joel, and Josiah appeared to be finishing a story. Although the apartment had three bedrooms, Theo slept in the same room as Josiah, and it had warmed her heart to overhear them the other night, Josiah reading to Theo with Theo helping where he could.
“And if I wrote it, I don’t think I’d make him Poseidon’s son,” Josiah said. “I’d stay traditional and keep it as Zeus.”
Joel gently lay Theo on the bed and then flopped down next to him.
“You thinking about writing a book, sweetie?” Ayesha asked.
Josiah crept onto the king-sized mattress. “I don’t know. Do you think I could?”
“It would mean fewer bruises than if you did MMA.”
“I can do both.”
It was worth a shot.
Every time she thought about Josiah fighting, she saw blood, spit, and broken fingers.
He cuddled up next to her, so she closed the book and drew him close. Josiah hadn’t been a cuddler for a long time. She’d assumed it was because of his age, and that he’d wanted to give Theo space to be loved on since Theo had needed the extra attention never knowing his father. Now, with him calling her Mama and cuddling or wrapping his arms around her all the time, she wondered if it had more to do with Joel. With Joel in their lives, maybe Josiah felt like he could finally be a kid again.
“By the way, Joel?” she called.
His voice sounded off, but she figured he was just tired. He had spent an entire day with Josiah and Theo. Even the most active person would be run ragged having to entertain Theo alone.
“Did Theo hold any of the reptiles?”
“One.” He chuckled. “A teeny, tiny baby bearded dragon. He wouldn’t go within five feet of the iguana.”
“The same iguana he wanted to bring into our house?”
Josiah took one of her hands in his. “What if we got a cat? Nobody in the family has a cat yet, and I feel like you’d like a cat better, Mama, because they’re low maintenance.”
It wasn’t a bad idea, and the pet talk wouldn’t be swept from the table any time soon. She hadn’t grown up with a pet, but she’d played with the strays that lived in her old neighborhood.
“Me and Joel, we’ll talk about it,” she promised. “But a cat’s not a bad idea.”
Josiah tapped her fingers like piano keys. “I think once Theo sees how fluffy they are anyhow, he’ll be okay with it.”
On cue, Theo let out a gentle snore.
Joel was quiet, so she looked back over her shoulder expecting to find him asleep. Instead, he was on his back, staring at the ceiling. She’d enjoyed the time alone, but she’d missed the hell out of them. It wasn’t something she’d ever confess to them, however, because they’d never let her have alone time ever again.
“You okay, Mr. Lattimore?”
He turned his head, and his smile made her stomach clench. “I’m okay.”
“Yeah.” His blinks slowed. “I’m sure.”
With all the energy he’d let her accumulate staying behind while he went out with the boys, she hoped he knew she’d be wearing him out the minute the boys were in bed. That they had to be quiet—she bit pillows, his shoulders, and he released muffled groans on panty gags—only made their play more erotic and interesting.
Josiah might not call her Mama forever, and it wouldn’t give her chills every single time, but she knew it would give her chills, at some point, for the rest of her life.
“We should do this more often, right? And not only take trips but hang out just like this, together.”
He sighed. “I just wish Theo was awake, you know? I mean, he’s really tired, so I don’t want to wake him up, but it would be nice if he could be awake for it.”
“Awake for what?”
She felt the shift.
There was no way to explain it, but it was that shift that made her look back at Joel again who, she realized, had been staring at her the entire time.
Maybe for a while.
“I had a plan,” Joel said, turning to reach inside the bedside table. “And I’d planned to stick to that plan, but all that went out the window on the way back. This is the perfect time because I’m not only asking for you to be my wife, Eesh. I’m asking for you to be my wife, Josiah and Theo my sons, and a life like this, with us together, forever.”
He presented what he’d removed from the bedside table, and Ayesha knew it was a ring box. Yet, she still held her breath as he opened it to reveal a gorgeous yellow diamond solitaire. A familiar yellow diamond solitaire that happened to look exactly like the ring she’d helped Xara design for a “client.”
Josiah left her arms, opening up space for Joel to walk around and kneel at her side of the bed. Ayesha’s eyes darted from Joel’s to the ring, both more beautiful than she could have ever imagined.
“Are you serious right now?” she asked. “Do you…you really…Joel, are you serious right now?”
“I love you.” He took her hand. “I love us. All four of us and whatever the future might bring. I’m exactly where I belong when I’m with you. Ayesha…baby, I met you when I was stumbling and afraid to fall because I didn’t think I’d ever find my way back up. But to fall like this? God, baby, to fall like this…”
Tears blurred his eyes, his hair, and the contours of his face.
“Will you be my wife, Eesh? Will you marry m—”
“Yes!” She nodded, wiping her eyes. “I will, Joel. Yes. I love you.”
He plucked the ring from the box and slipped it onto her finger.
From behind, Josiah squeezed her.
It was all she did for the rest of the evening, stare at the ring and hold back tears, most of the time unsuccessful. Theo had woken up, very briefly, to ask if Joel “asked the question” or “got too scared,” and they’d reassured him that Joel had. He’d then let out a tired cheer before drifting back to sleep. Not long after, Josiah had joined him, both wiped out from their long day.
“Did today really happen?” Ayesha glanced at the bathroom mirror as though expecting her reflection to chime in. “Am I really wearing this right now? And it’s so beautiful! Ah! I’m going to be Joel Lattimore’s wife. I can’t believe—”
“Who are you talking to, Eesh?”
She nearly leaped out of her skin when Joel’s face appeared in the mirror.
“No one. Well, myself, but…I was just thinking out loud.”
He walked up and wrapped his arms around her from behind. “You really like it?”
“I love it, Joel. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect.”
“You’re beautiful.” He kissed the side of her neck. “You’re perfect.”
“I can’t believe we’re actually…I can’t even say it.”
“I know, right?”
She turned around in his arms and lay her palms on his chest. “I’ve thought about this. I’ve thought about it for a long time. When things started changing between us, it’s where my mind immediately went because the way our relationship developed, all it would have taken was a dash of romance for me to see a future with you. I just never thought it would happen. It’s like when you’re sixteen and dreaming you’ll end up married to your celebrity crush.”
Laughing, he kissed her forehead. “That’s a lot more flattering than I think you realize it is.”
“Are you worried?”
He searched her face. “No.”
“Me, either.” She smiled, head shaking. “I’m not worried at all.”
“I’d marry you tonight if I could.”
He held up his right hand. “Scout’s honor.”
She grabbed the same hand and dragged him into the bedroom, pulling so hard he nearly stumbled. Her whole body had already been hot and tight and aching, but then he had to go and say something like that. It had immediately shifted her focus from the ring to riding him from Sweden all the way to Jakarta.
It didn’t take long for them both to be naked, his back pressed against the headboard while she rode him hard, his pupils obscuring his irises until only a bit of blue peeked. With each roll of her hips, each rise and fall of her body, he let out a curse and gripped her hip until the skin there ached. His thumb on the opposite hand played between her legs, and he let his mouth come close to her breasts without touching them with each connection of their bodies. She was close, so close, and if he so much as—
His mouth covered her left breast.
The heat of his mouth triggered heat to pull in her belly.
Waves upon waves of pleasurable sensations burst, cascading throughout her body, and she leaned forward, biting his shoulder to suppress the cries in her throat. Joel grabbed both of her hips and drove into her from below, and it wasn’t long before he was coming, groaning, also muffled from the panties she’d shoved in his mouth.
After her shaking and pulsing subsided, she leaned back, pulled the panties from his mouth, and wrapped her arms around him again, squeezing tight.
“I can’t wait to be your wife, Joel.”
She would keep telling him so until he was sick of hearing it, but she got the sense that day would never come.
* * *
“Why did they come all the way out here?” Lavigne asked, staring at the house only a few meters away from where they stood.
“Family trip,” Adrían offered, grimacing.
“And you think it will be so simple to take the boy?”
“Why the fuck do you think I’m here with you?” Adrían touched his chest. “I don’t trust you, so I’ll take Theo with me once we’re done. Jesus, I can’t wait for this shit to be over so I don’t have to see your fucking face ever again.”
Though Lavigne laughed, there was a sneer on his face as he tossed out his cigarette. “How do we get in?”
There were several windows in the house with the lights still on, but from what Adrían had learned while listening to Ayesha’s conversations was that Theo zoomed so much during the daytime, it was a miracle if he wasn’t asleep by eight.
Lavigne started forward and Adrían followed, their footsteps light through the wooded area, a crescent moon their barely there guide. The house looked like it belonged in the French countryside with its stone exterior, shuttered windows, and pitched roofline. Once upon a time, he’d dreamed about taking Ayesha to France. Specifically, he’d wanted to take her to Provence. It was where he’d bought the only house he now owned, a stone architectural beauty in a medieval village in Tourrette-Levens. After all of this shit was over, he planned to retire there. There wasn’t anything left for him in Rio without his mother.
As they neared the house, Lavigne’s pace increased. The stench of excitement wafted from the man, and it took everything in Adrían’s power not to reach into his leather jacket, pull out his semiautomatic, and shoot Lavigne in the back of the head. Excited to kidnap a child? And it was a small child at that. Theo was one of the smallest children, if not the smallest, in his entire grade while it was the opposite for his brother.
Lavigne made quick work of breaking the lock and nudging the window open. Before climbing in, he searched the darkness, but Adrían let him know with a shake of the head that there was no danger in sight. At least, not out there.
Once Lavigne was inside, Adrían climbed in after him and shut the window. The lights came on and, standing in the middle of the room, was Joel Lattimore and that inhuman comrade of his with the eyebrow scar.
“W-what is this?” Lavigne looked back at Adrían. “Did they know we were coming?”
“They knew you were coming.” Adrían extended an arm. “One down, one to go. The quicker we do this, the quicker we can get the other thing done. Hyeok should be finishing up on his end shortly.”
Joel nodded. The man next to him, Giorgio Pozza, didn’t so much as blink.
Adrían tipped an imaginary hat. “I bid you adiós, gentlemen.”
With that, he crept back through the window.
Before he checked back in, he had one more stop to make, and he was glad she’d agreed to it. There was something he needed to tell her, and it was time for him to clear his conscience. Now that he knew what he knew, it didn’t surprise him that Ayesha had agreed to have them meet at the actual apartment where she and Joel were staying while in Malmö. He wouldn’t ever hurt her, and even if he lost his mind to grief and loneliness and tried to, he knew Joel would hunt him down and skin him like a hunter taking a blade to a wild animal’s hide. Had the shoe been on the other foot, he would have done the same.
He knocked on the apartment door.
About a minute later, it opened.
She wore her coiled hair in a frizzy, low ponytail. There was no makeup on her face, and it was how he’d loved her the most. It was one thing for a woman to be dressed up and put together, but it had been another thing entirely to see Ayesha comfortable in his arms. In its own way, it was a level of trust that many women didn’t offer lightly.
“Hi,” she greeted. “Come on in.”
He gingerly stepped inside, and she shut the door behind him.
“You don’t have to be quiet,” she said, laughing a little. “Theo will only wake up for an earthquake high on the Richter scale, and even then, we’d still have to shake him a little.”
Adrían nodded, smiling. “Okay.”
He followed her to the apartment’s living room. The apartment was in a building in the heart of the city where, during the day, the foot traffic below resembled an afternoon in Centro as tourists and locals flocked to some of the best restaurants, museums, and galleries Rio de Janeiro had to offer. He would bet, however, that none of that noise filtered up into this posh space.
Josiah was on the living room sofa, his face hard as stone. Ayesha sat next to him and gave him a quick squeeze. Adrían extended a hand, which Josiah shook with a tight, firm grip.
“Good handshake,” he mused, sitting on the loveseat opposite them. “And it’s nice to finally meet you, Josiah. I’ve heard many great things.”
Josiah’s hard expression went full monolith. “What do you want?”
“Only to talk to your mother,” Adrían reassured. “I promise.”
“Mama,” he turned to Ayesha, “I’ll be right in the other room if you need me.”
She nodded. “Okay. Don’t go too far.”
Josiah gave her a kiss on the cheek, pinned Adrían with one last stare-down, and then left. Ayesha repositioned herself on the sofa and clasped her hands in her lap, the gleam from her newest piece of jewelry catching Adrían’s eye.
He tilted his chin. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” She beamed, staring at the ring. “A few days ago was one of the happiest days of my life.”
“Well, I apologize if what I have to tell you changes that any.” He leaned forward, his elbows on his thighs. “Ayesha…I lied to you. I am responsible for Curtis’ death.”
All traces of joy left her face.
“We were new to the whole Omega team thing,” he said, head falling so he didn’t have to see the look on her face that said he’d betrayed her in an unforgivable way. “All we knew was that we were supposed to go to a location to eliminate the threat there. There was even a local team who helped, some sort of black flag group.”
The column of her throat quivered, but she nodded for him to continue.
“Lavigne, I haven’t liked him from the beginning. He’s arrogant without the skill. A glorified serial killer. There is no purpose behind most of the shit he does and,” Adrían held up a hand expecting her to protest, “I know that’s saying plenty coming from me, but it made no sense to me why they thought somebody like him could play well on a team.”
Josiah walked to the kitchen, grabbed something from the pantry, and eyed Adrían until the door came between their line of sight to one another.
“It was this old, old building.” He could still see it, stone he could break with his fingers. “Thing was already close to falling apart, but we were told civilians were being held hostage inside by a pseudo-militant group.”
“Curtis and Gage’s group?” she asked.
“Yes.” He nodded. “I know now that it’s bullshit, but we followed orders. For many of us, it was what we were trained to do, how we were chosen. It was all about how well we executed what was laid out in front of us, and that was something I did well. And, everything was fine right at the beginning. Although old, the building was simple enough to navigate. Trevor, Theo’s teacher’s husband, was First-in-Command.”
Her long brown fingers sunk into the thick sofa fabric.
“We spotted one of the group members,” Adrían continued. “Trevor did, anyhow. As he was about to give the order about how to approach, Lavigne—who was on sniper duty at the time—released a bullet.”
“Who was it?” she asked, voice soft.
“Gage.” Adrían tapped his shoulder. “The bullet hit his upper shoulder, a clean shot straight through, but it caused him to turn around. That’s when Trevor recognized him. Shit didn’t feel right, so he gave the order to fall back.”
“And Lavigne didn’t listen.”
Adrían shook his head. “No. He pulled himself from sniper duty and headed into the building on the opposite side. Trevor sent me after Lavigne since I was the only one fast enough, and I got there just in time to stop him from firing into the group…but not in time to stop the grenade he unclipped and tossed.”
Tears streamed down her face. Every muscle in his body flexed, stopping him from going to her. He knew what this felt like, losing a close loved one to violence. Violence had taken his mother, so he felt every ache moving through Ayesha’s body. Pain on a tightrope.
She picked up the story. “Curtis threw himself on top of it.”
“That part, I didn’t know until later.”
“What happened after?”
Adrían rubbed the back of his head and found it damp. “The explosion caused the black flags outside to start firing into the building. Eventually, it came down. Virtually everybody inside was injured, but Curtis was the only man who lost his life that day.”
She looked away, those fingers still squeezing and releasing the cushions.
“I couldn’t stop him,” Adrían said. “If I’d stopped him—”
“That’s not your fault.”
“I’ve lived with this shit for close to seven years now, Ayesha. You…I can’t come close to explaining the level of guilt I felt falling for you knowing…” Knowing that he could have been the one to stop the pain from reaching her in the first place. Yes, if there’d been no explosion, there would have been no Ayesha for him, but he would have been better able to live with that. It would have meant not getting brainwashed the rest of the way, conned into thinking the only way out was to do Central’s bidding. If Alpha hadn’t been up for teaming up, he didn’t know what would have become of any of them.
Warmth covered his kneecap, and her fingers and that ring appearing in his line of sight.
“Adrían, I forgive you.” Her mouth tipped into a shaky smile. “Don’t beat yourself up about this anymore. Lavigne, and only Lavigne, is responsible for what happened that day. Curtis knew that if he hadn’t done what he’d done, none of the guys would have gone home, and that’s just the kind of man he was. That’s the kind of courage running through my sons’ veins. I’ll always have a piece of him because I have them.”
Adrían blinked until she came back into focus. “You forgive me?”
“I forgive you.” She cemented the statement with a nod and then returned to her seat. “It would be ignorant of me to judge you because you have blood on your hands when the man I’m marrying does too. No matter what, you’ve always treated me well. You’ve always been kind. I know who you are and I hope, once all of this is over, you’ll be granted the freedom to find the man inside you I’ve seen all along.”
He stared at her, words slow to form. Hopefully, there was at least one more Ayesha out there, somewhere, in the world. Or, at least, close to her. He’d take close.
“Thank you.” He swallowed, cleared his throat. “Thank you for forgiving me.”
She smiled. “No problem. Now, forgive yourself. You deserve that much and more.”
* * *
Joel had already known to never get on Giorgio’s bad side, but as he watched Giorgio scoot a tub of water beneath Lavigne’s feet, the statement reiterated itself in his head.
After Adrían had dropped Lavigne off at the house in the woods, they’d tossed him in the back of the van and flown him to this little shack. Joel had then gone back to finish his vacation with his new fiancée. Even thinking the word made his heart beat harder, faster.
He’d considered medieval torture techniques to give “Veeny” a taste of the pain he’d caused Theo, but that would have been too easy. Lavigne expected to be physically tortured and would have only leaned into the pain to gain control over the situation. So he, Julien, and Giorgio had brought Lavigne here, a cabin on an island between the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. It would be Lavigne’s first stop…if he survived.
Most days, they let him wander the island looking for a way off that would never come. Today, they’d corralled him and tied him to a moving piece of plywood, propping him up in a “standing” position.
“What’s this now?” Joel asked.
Giorgio angled the tub until it was straight. “Irukandji.”
“Yep, that’s what I thought you said.”
A jellyfish documentary he and the boys had watched one afternoon at Pozza’s was the reason behind this latest…trick. The Irukandji was one of the smallest jellyfish in the world, but it happened to be one of the deadliest. Its sting was considered so painful, not even the highest dosage of intravenous pain medication took the edge off the worst of its symptoms. A cobra’s venom paled in comparison.
Leave it to Giorgio…
Lavigne groaned, head bobbing from side to side, the tranquilizer Joel had tagged him with earlier wearing off. Saliva dribbled from the corner of his mouth. When he came to and noticed his current predicament, he tugged on the restraints.
“Morning, Sunshine,” Joel greeted. Lavigne spat in his direction, and he side-stepped the stream. “Now, now, that’s no way to treat your captors. If you didn’t want this shit to happen to you, maybe you should have left my son the fuck alone. It’s pretty damn simple.”
Joel brandished a small blade and sliced a thin opening on the inside of Lavigne’s upper arm. When Lavigne only groaned, he cut another under his chin, and between every finger on both hands. Lavigne locked his jaw, the joint pulsing, to deny Joel the joy of the sound of his screams.
For now, anyhow.
Finally, Lavigne seemed to notice the water his feet dangled in. The jellyfish was so small and translucent, Joel bent to make sure it was in there.
“He is there,” Giorgio informed him, a slight smile on his face. “He will work in one minute.”
“Remind me to never get on your bad side, Pozza.”
Giorgio shrugged. “This will not happen.”
Lavigne seized and cursed, body twitching as the jellyfish’s stingers came in contact with his skin.
“What the fuck?”
“It’s a jellyfish,” Joel explained.
Lavigne laughed, shoulders rocking. “You think a jellyfish is torture? I have experienced worse. One-hundred times worse.”
They went to the other side of the cabin and leaned against the wall. Giorgio ruffled through his duffel bag and then held out a parchment-wrapped pastry that looked like a doughnut had mated with a pretzel.
Joel took it and sank his teeth in the warm dough.
“Oh my God…”
“Is firi firi.” Giorgio bit into his piece and leaned back. “Aleksi’s grandmother has made this. Bez, her mama and papa will stay with us for a little, to be with Aleksi.”
“My parents won’t be up until we get back from Central.”
“Is for wedding, da?”
“Yep.” Joel took another bite. “God, these are so damn good. Remind me why I need abs again? I mean, I can let go and get a Dad Bod once I’ve officially locked Eesh down, right?”
Giorgio’s dark chuckle pulsed around the room. “Dad…Bod? You will jump from bridge if this happen, Lattimore.”
Lavigne’s cries began as a low hum, quickly building. His face went from pale to red in an instant, sweat sprouting on his forehead. His mouth was set so firmly, he looked like he had lockjaw. From what Joel had seen in the documentary, the pain from Irukandji Syndrome was both physical and mental and could last weeks.
“Fuck!” Lavigne’s head tipped back. “What the fuck is this?”
“A jellyfish,” Joel reiterated. “Didn’t you just tell me you’ve experienced worse? Buck the fuck up.”
The front of Lavigne’s pants darkened, and Joel had to force himself to remain where he stood when he thought about Theo’s accident outside the home improvement store. Lavigne had had all the time in the world, every opportunity to confront him when he’d been in Maui with Eesh and the boys. Hell, the man could have even approached Ayesha. But he’d chosen Theo. He’d chosen the most vulnerable, and the one least likely to stand up to him. For all his “Bonecrusher” mythology, Lavigne was nothing but a cowardly piece of shit.
“You want second?” Giorgio asked.
Joel already had his hand out. “Hell yeah. I think I want these at the wedding.”
“I will tell my Bez.”
“Are they spoiling Aleksi?”
Giorgio grunted a laugh. “Da. My son, he is loving it.”
They ate, chatted, and watched as the pain took Lavigne through a series of moans, screams, and cries. If he survived the ordeal, and it was a toss-up whether that would happen, they’d move him on to the next step. Julien had already taken Spettro to the next step. It was the perfect revenge for the tyranny the “Ghost” and Lavigne’s reign had caused.
A brief knock shook the cabin door. Julien poked his head inside.
“You two about ready to go?”
Just as he asked, Lavigne gagged.
“That’s our cue,” Joel said, gathering his things.
“You can’t…just leave…me here,” Lavigne called after them.
“I can’t do what?” Joel pivoted, levity gone. “For your sake, you better hope you don’t survive this shit because you don’t want to end up where ‘The Ghost’ just ended up. You don’t want to end up somewhere you’ll be forced to know how it feels when you invade another person’s space, and they then don’t take that shit lightly. Yes, I could have put a bullet in your skull, but what would that have done except give you a way out? You terrorized my kid. You’re responsible for the death of my best friend’s brother. You were in my family’s house while they slept. Were you thinking about mercy when you showed my then four-year-old your gun? When you climbed in through his bedroom window in the middle of the night? Fuck you.”
Joel didn’t look back as he slammed the door behind him, vibrating with a desire to go back and end things quickly, but Giorgio shook him out of it.
“Mike, he has taught me this,” Giorgio said as they headed for the helicopter. “Do not stop torture. Then—”
“It’s not really torture,” Joel finished. “Yeah, I get it.”
“He will live. This is best part.”
Giorgio slapped him on the back, and somehow, Joel smiled.
* * *
After a week, they’d returned to find a vestige of the man they’d left behind. While alive, Lavigne had been pounds lighter, and agony had carved wrinkles in his face.
They’d assigned a member each from teams Delta and Gamma to see to it that Lavigne didn’t die from the pain or wriggle loose. Joel and Giorgio had then tossed Lavigne on the helicopter and brought him to this remote village, bordered by the Mozambique Channel, where Lavigne currently hung upside down from a tree with a rope tied around his ankles. Two dozen women formed a large arc around him.
“Are you familiar with this place?” Joel asked Lavigne, who’d slept during the entire helicopter and jeep ride. “It’s called Nzumira.”
As if the man had no other M.O., he spat in Joel’s direction.
“You know it,” Joel said, watching the stream fall short. “As it turns out, you and your buddy, Spettro, came here with firearms, incendiaries…all sorts of shit. And, after what you two did here, I’m honored to be able to give them this chance at retribution.”
With them, he and Giorgio had brought baseball bats, metal batons…all sorts of things to make weaponry. They’d learned about Spettro’s and Lavigne’s “visit” to the tiny agrarian village from the Gamma soldier who’d stayed behind to watch over Lavigne—Makala DelRey. She’d grown up in Nzumira, so they’d garnered her help with not only entry but getting the residents to take part in retaliation.
“They say they’re ready,” Makala told them, excitement making her dark skin glimmer even brighter. The night before, the women villagers had thrown a craft party of sorts to use the different materials Joel and Giorgio brought to make their weapons. Now, they looked like Walking Dead characters ready to take down a herd of zombies.
“Are you staying or coming back with us?” Joel asked Makala.
“Coming back.” She looked around the circle. “They can handle themselves from here. My main enemy is Central. That’s where I need to be.”
Joel and Giorgio nodded, waved goodbye to the group, and the trio headed to the jeep. The last thing they heard was Lavigne go from spitting curses and slurs at the women to pleading for his life.
* * *
“Daddy!” Theo ran over and hugged Joel around the legs within seconds of him stepping through the front door. “Guess what?”
He already knew the “what.” Ayesha had kept him updated about the kitten during his trip, and they’d agreed on a shorthair red tabby with bright eyes and whose hair was about as tame as Aleksi’s had been when he was an infant—not at all.
Joel crouched to Theo’s eye level. “What?”
“We got a kitty!”
“I don’t believe you. Let me see.”
Theo grabbed his hand and dragged him to the back porch where Josiah lay flat on his stomach in the grass, watching the kitten bumble about and paw at the blades. Ayesha reclined in a lounge chair watching them, a mug of mango-ginger tea, courtesy of Mo and Ari’s mother, in one hand.
“Look!” Theo pointed. “We named him Orange.”
Joel laughed. “That’s, uh, pretty clever.”
Josiah snorted. “No, it’s not. He’s literally orange.”
“Who named him?”
Josiah’s face turned red. “Me, but I got too excited, and it’s the first name I could come up with!”
“And it’s perfect!” Theo yelled, punching a fist in the air. “I wanna give him some milk, but Mama said cats don’t drink milk, but I see them drinking milk all the time in cartoons.”
“That’s special kitten milk,” Ayesha informed him.
“But I can’t open those cans by myself!”
“So then you do what?”
He huffed. “Ask for Mama or Daddy’s help.”
Joel headed over to brush his lips over Ayesha’s, several times—the first of many since he’d been away a couple of weeks and would be leaving again soon—and then sat next to where Josiah lay. Josiah hopped up, tossed his arms around Joel in a tight hug, then returned to his belly.
“What’s up, Orange?” Joel greeted. “Welcome to the family.”
Theo sat cross-legged on the grass, a little less than two inches away from the kitten. “His whole name is Orange Lattimore because, when you and Mama get married, we’ll all have the same name, so he has to have the same name too.”
That was another thing that had given him chills. They’d, wholeheartedly, accepted that he wanted to adopt them. They’d asked him, before he had a chance to bring it up, if they all could have the same last name. At least, Theo and Josiah had tried to ask him, but Theo had raced through the entire spiel, ending it with a sad face, pleading fists, and hazel puppy eyes.
“I’ll be Theo Iokua Savea Lattimore.” Theo pointed to himself. “And Jojo will be Josiah Nikora Savea Lattimore. We asked Mama if we can have your last name too because we’re your son and Papa’s son.”
Joel glanced up at Ayesha, who already had her eyes on him. She winked as if she’d read his mind, reassuring him that yes, all of this was real, and it would be that way for them for the rest of their lives.
“Mama?” Theo called. “What will your name be? I don’t think I know your middle name.”
Ayesha frowned. “It’s okay, Theo. Mama doesn’t need—”
“Isn’t it Dio-netta or something like that?” Joel asked.
She glared at him.
“Dionysietta,” she corrected. “And I’m still not convinced my mother named me that before she passed away. My aunt had something to do with it. I mean, she was the one with the whole Greek mythology fetish.”
“Mama, Daddy, what’s a fetish?” Theo asked.
Thankfully, Orange leaped for a butterfly and took a tumble, which distracted Theo and gave them the out they needed to avoid trying to answer his question.
Ayesha tipped her head at the house.
Joel looked up to find his parents standing in the opening to the back deck.
“Mamma?” He stood and slowly walked over, waiting for them to disappear. “Pop? Wait…what? How are you here already?”
He hugged his mother first, lifting her off the ground, and turned to give his father a hug after setting her on her feet. Before he and Ayesha had officially started dating, the boys had talked to his parents on a regular basis. After they started dating, they talked to his parents weekly. Once the engagement was set, they’d started greeting the boys as “It’s Grampa” and “It’s Grammy.”
Curtis’ extended family had distanced themselves from Ayesha after his passing—they hadn’t exactly welcomed her with open arms in the first place—but had recently started getting in contact with her and the boys.
Joel took a step back when he heard the patter of small feet to give Theo the lane he needed for one of his rush-hugs.
“Grammy, Grampa, I missed you!”
Jemma gobbled him up into her arms. “Sweetheart, you just saw us an hour ago.”
“Still, I missed you.”
“We got here yesterday,” Archie Lattimore said. “Eesh let us know you’d be back today, so we told her not to say anything.”
“Archie and I wanted to surprise you,” Jemma added, rocking with Theo, a wide smile on her face. “Are you surprised, honey?”
Joel glanced back at Ayesha. She blew him a kiss.
“Very surprised,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting you guys until the wedding.”
Jemma plucked sprigs of grass from Theo’s hair. “The wedding’s right around the corner, we’re retired, and Chesapeake was getting boring.” She shrugged. “And I’ll never say no to seeing my grandbabies.”
Theo, in full “baby” mode, leaned against Jemma. The spoiling that was about to ensue would be ridiculous.
“I get a whole Daddy and a Grammy and Grampa,” Theo said. “I never had a Daddy or a Grammy or a Grampa.”
Archie playfully tugged Theo’s cheek. “And we’ve never had a Theo. Might I add, you are the best Theo I have ever met.”
“Have you met a lot of Theos?” Theo asked, eyes wide.
“Dozens,” Archie exaggerated. “At least one hundred.”
“And I’m the best one?”
“The very best one.”
“Daddy,” Theo looked up at Joel, “I might be the best Theo in the world.”
Joel laughed. “You’re certainly the best Theo in my world.”
Jemma took his hand. “Come on, best Theo. Want to help me with dinner?”
Joel had to stop himself from falling to his knees in prayer.
“Mamma, you’re going to cook?”
“Yes, sweetheart. I made some sauce and meatballs last night, so it’ll be quick. Jojo,” she peered behind Joel, “are you helping again tonight?”
Josiah popped up, picking Orange up with him. “Coming!”
As he walked past, Joel held his hand out for the kitten. Josiah plopped the warm body on Joel’s palm and hurried inside, shutting the door behind him. Joel pivoted on his heel, went back to where Ayesha lay, and eased down next to her. He sat Orange on his stomach, and Orange promptly curled up, eyes closing.
“I missed you,” he said, leaning to kiss her cheek.
She turned onto her side, facing him. “I missed you too.”
“Did you ask my parents to come out?”
“No, sir.” She shook her head and smoothed an index finger over Orange’s fur. “They asked me. Your mother might be more excited about me being her daughter-in-law than I am about being your wife, and that’s saying something, baby.”
“You’re excited about being my wife? Like Christmas excited or twenty-first birthday shot excited?”
“Hmm…” She tapped her chin. “Like…I think I might be pregnant, excited.”
“Oh, that’s…” His brows shot up, and he glanced at her stomach, heart trying to tear through his skin. “Eesh?”
“I thought I had acid reflux,” she explained. “Then, I woke up sick a couple of mornings, and it felt like somebody dropped a bag of bricks on my head. I have a test upstairs, but I wanted to wait until you got home to take it. So, right now, I’m five days late.”
His lips parted, but no words came.
“Do you want to go take it now?” she asked.
“W-what if you are?” His head grew light. “That would mean w-we’d be having a baby.”
She laughed. “Yes, it would.”
“I mean, you’d be having a baby with me.”
“If you’re the father.”
“Eesh…” He squeezed his eyes shut. “That was low.”
She laughed harder. “You’re so easy.”
“Yes, I’d like to go take it now. Well, for you to go take it now. At least…do you have to pee? I mean, I can wait—”
“Let’s go, Mr. Lattimore.”
They set Orange down on his bed in his room, which was a cutout underneath the staircase, and snuck upstairs. Joel waited outside the bathroom while Ayesha took the test. Nervousness made his fingertips tingle. If she was pregnant, how far along would it make her? Would she be okay with keeping the wedding when it was? Depending on how far along she’d be, she wouldn’t have to change anything about her dress. But Xara had made her dress, so it wasn’t like Xara couldn’t just—
He swallowed, gripped the door handle, and opened. She was standing with her back to the door, her head bent as she looked down at the test on the countertop.
On unstable legs, he went to stand next to her. The test wasn’t one of those with the lines. This one had words. One very clear, very bold word:
“Fuck.” Tears flashed to his eyes. “Fuck, Eesh. I shouldn’t get excited, right? I mean, do I have to wait until…fuck.”
At some point, he’d picked up the test and sat on the edge of the tub, staring at it. She crouched in front of him, hands on his thighs.
“You can be excited,” she said, voice raspy and sparkling droplets on her cheeks. “We’re having a baby, Joel.”
He cradled the back of her head and brought her lips to his. When that wasn’t enough, he dragged her onto his lap, kissed her lips, her cheeks, her tears.
“Baby,” she released a shaky laugh, swiping her thumbs underneath his eyes, “are you happy?”
“Jesus, Eesh. Happy doesn’t fucking cut it.” He kissed her again. “When can I say something?”
“You can tell the guys. I’ll tell everyone else.”
He placed a hand on her stomach. “Are you happy, Eesh?”
“I’m going to be Mrs. Joel Lattimore, and I’m having a baby with the perfect man for me.” She pressed her forehead to his. “I’m ecstatic.”
“I love you.”
“Mama, Daddy, the yummy spaghetti’s ready!”
Ayesha slid from his lap. “‘Spaghetti,’ he doesn’t have any trouble with when ‘ask’ almost gave him a conniption.”
They headed downstairs, hands clasped and smiling.
“So, is Joelita off the table?” Joel asked.
“Joelita didn’t even make it to Sweden,” Ayesha replied, their fingers playing together. “I was thinking a T name. Because there’s Joel and Josiah.”
“What about an A name?”
“I don’t want Theo to feel left out.” She stopped just before they entered the dining room. “Joel…please come back to me. I’m in love with you. Come back to me.”
He cradled her jaw and bent, their lips touching. It was hard to stop kissing her. Touching her. Telling her he loved her like she’d never hear it again if he stopped.
“Ayesha, I’ll come back to you,” he promised. “I’ll come back when it’s all said and done. I’ll be here when you wake up and go to sleep, and I’ll be here so we can raise our three kids together.”
“For now,” she whispered. “Who knows what the future will bring?”
“Whatever it does, I’m ready to face it with you.”
“Me too, Joel. Me too.”
* * *
“We deploy tomorrow morning,” Gage announced to the room. They’d managed to get the three from Omega, two from Delta, and four from Gamma. Those who hadn’t wanted to join them and had instead wanted to go up against them had been dealt with. Now, as far as they knew, Central didn’t know they were coming, but Gage, Dez, and Trevor were having them go in as though Central was expecting them.
“The goal is no casualties,” Dez added. “Everybody in this room deserves to go home to their friends, families, loved ones. Whoever.”
Agreement rippled through the air.
Julien added, “Once we’re there, me and Leon are going to take down their systems. Comms stay on at all times, and if you’re in trouble, say that shit. Don’t try to force through it and get to a point where it’s too late to help.”
More agreement sounded.
“If you have any last-minute dissension,” Joel tipped his chin in Giorgio and Mike’s direction, “talk to my guys over there. They’ll ‘help’ you out.”
There was no vocal agreement, but the message had been heard.
Trevor scanned the room. “Any questions?”
After establishing that there were no more questions, everyone disbanded to rest up until morning. Those who had families, their families had been taken to a secure location. Giorgio had let Mo know where to find the families should anything happen and they needed help.
Ari and Mo’s parents, Julien’s mother, Larke’s younger sister, the oldest boy from Giorgio’s school—Thanasis, Ant, Valerie, Sydney, and Dmitri had flown out to Sweden just in case Mo had to leave. Only Sydney and Dmitri knew the real reason Mo might disappear, and why she might take a “team” with her. They’d wanted Dom, but he was tied up at the moment.
Someone grabbed Joel just as he was getting ready to leave the room. When he looked up, Adrían had a hand out. A rather large part of him still wanted to give this man a similar treatment to what he’d given Lavigne, but he had to be fair. Logical. Had it not been for Adrían, they might still be trying to figure out veeny.
“Good luck, brother,” Adrían said.
Joel nodded. “You too.”
They slapped palms, shook, and exited the room.
Final Episode – 4/30
13: From Central to The End
Adrían huffed out a laugh. “Exactly.”
“How did she die? Your mother.”
“For saying no. For believing her body was her own.” Adrían’s throat bobbed. “They left her in the streets. When I found her, I covered her up. I don’t remember much of what happened after, didn’t for a while. Everything inside me just…died. If I’d been starving and someone offered me happiness on a diamond-studded plate, I still would not have reached for it.”
A larger wave pushed forward, covering their feet, sinking them into the sand. There were so many clouds in the sky, the sunlight glowed between them like a network of golden neural pathways.
“And the rumors about you?” Joel asked.
“Some are true. Some are not. I will say, it’s how I was found for all of this.” Adrían circled his hand in the air. “I never truly hated humanity, as has been said about me, but I did pity it enough to stay away from it. Then, for the first time in my life, I saw someone’s heart.”