Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.
From Central To The End
It would be the last time Joel talked to Ayesha before they made landfall. It could be the last time he talked to her ever, but he wouldn’t tell her that. He wouldn’t show her that. He simply continued to parrot what he’d been saying all week leading up to this day—that everything would be fine. That he was certain he’d come home to her, the boys, and the soon-to-be addition to their family. But as Joel stared at her face, he acknowledged the truth for the first time—nothing was guaranteed.
Central’s headquarters was as isolated from the rest of the world as the clandestine nature of the work each team had performed for them. For the last several years, they’d come under fire for their increasingly unscrupulous tactics, which had resulted in the countries they’d once served becoming Central’s primary antagonists. That political isolation, however, didn’t mean the organization didn’t retain access to the power and resources they’d garnered over the years.
With Delta and Gamma on board, they had a good team, and they’d also secured skilled backup, but all it would take was one errant bullet…or one well-placed one…and Ayesha’s eyes, he’d never see again. That mouth, he’d never kiss again. Her skin, silky-soft like baby powder, would never grace his callused fingertips.
“You should probably get some sleep,” she said, staring back at him from the screen of his tablet, dabbing at her eyes with one of his T-shirts. Theo and Josiah slept on the bed next to her, swatches of the fabric of their pajamas in the frame.
“I don’t want to let you go,” Joel replied, honest. “I don’t want to stop looking at you.”
Even with lines in her skin and silver hair.
Even after looking at her for decades.
For centuries, civilizations claimed deities would come to them in different forms, whether as a lesson or to blind the unsuspected with their deceit. It wouldn’t be hard to convince him it was what had happened to him. The very moment he’d made the decision to give up, an angel had opened the front door.
Ayesha shook her head. “Me, either.”
But he had to.
The words didn’t have to be spoken aloud for them both to hear.
“I love you,” she said, like she always said, each time just as meaningful as the last. His mouth tipped into a smile he hoped looked even fifteen percent convincing.
“Call me the minute you can,” she added. “Call me even if you think you can’t. I, most likely, won’t be asleep.”
Brain and body misfiring, he reached out and drew his index finger across the screen. In his mind, he felt her skin. Wiped her tears. Love was madness, and he understood why it was the bane of many a man’s existence. It was the only thing he could think of that caused equal parts pleasure and pain, often in the same breath.
“Eesh, I’ll see you, okay?” The minute the words left his mouth, he heard it—the faux reassurance. And, in that instant, he’d let her see his fear. “I love you, Ayesha.”
Reluctantly, they hung up.
He set down the tablet, left his tent, walked to the edge of the forest clearing where they’d set up camp last night, and clenched his teeth, driving back painful emotion. Tears he’d save for later.
Through the foliage, he spotted Adrían standing at the edge of the beach. This island was only slightly larger than the one where Central was located, but it was at least populated on the other side. He and Adrían hadn’t seen eye to eye since the beginning, but the tide had changed significantly over the last several weeks.
Joel headed over.
When Adrían heard someone walking up, he glanced back over his shoulder and briefly let his head fall. “You should be asleep,” he said, voice rising above the crash of the waves. “Not out here wasting precious energy your body needs for tonight.”
Joel stopped next to him. “I know.”
“You’ve already talked to Ayesha and the boys? They’re okay?”
Of all the times he had woken up just as early, it was the first time the eerie silence of twilight promised something other than peace.
“You think I would be used to this,” Adrían said, squinting, the sun rising on their left. “In Rio, where I grew up, there was violence all the time. In my favela, we didn’t listen to the government. We didn’t listen to the police. They weren’t the ones we saw patrolling the streets with guns. And, more often than not, those guns had brought more comfort than fear.”
“Favelas are like shantytowns, right?” Joel asked.
“Yes. Poor, but not without love. Not without community. It was only in the times where we didn’t have enough to eat that I felt pain. With my mother, with my friends…I was content. If someone was gunned down in the street,” Adrían shrugged, “we said it was their fault. We championed it, called it ‘law and order.’ Called it justified.”
“Until it was your mother.”
Adrían glanced over. “How did you know?”
“Similar situation with a friend of mine. Before my parents were schoolteachers, we had it rough. I got lucky—they loved one another. They loved me, my sister. When you have love like that, it’s like protection. It’s not until you’re older that you realize the extent of some of the shit you’ve seen.”
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.”
“Mm-hmm.” A broad smile, though it didn’t last long, pushed Adrían’s cheekbones higher on his face. “For her to love you the way she does, it tells me a lot about you. At first, I thought you were some asshole who wouldn’t think twice about leaving her if things got bad. A woman like Ayesha, you die for. So, and I know it might not be what you want to hear, especially coming from me, I’m grateful to you.”
Joel dragged his bottom lip between his teeth, water frothing around his toes and ankles.
“You had the urge to say ‘thank you’ but then swallowed it, didn’t you?” Adrían asked, chuckling. “I can see you trying not to choke.”
Despite himself, Joel smiled. “Whatever, man. I’m conflicted. You’re talking about the woman carrying my kid. I appreciate your respect, but the primitive male in me still…flexes.”
Adrían swatted the air. “Go back. She’s pregnant?”
“Yep.” Joel pulled out his phone and scrolled to an image of the ultrasound. “It’s still early, but see that little blob right there?”
“Congratulations, my friend.”
“I appreciate it.”
“A baby…won’t that make this harder?”
“Like I could never explain.”
“You’re here because of them.” Adrían tipped his head back at their camp. “Alpha…they’re like brothers to you.”
“They are my brothers,” Joel clarified.
“Our team was different.”
“You, Hyeok, and Mason seem relatively close.”
“We don’t hate each other. Spettro and Lavigne, I hated. Wesley, it was like he never existed for me. I was abandoned in this world long before I understood this world. Until I met Ayesha, loneliness, for me, was a blanket. A nightlight. Fuck, a padlock.”
Joel reached over and slapped Adrían’s shoulder. “Well, you’re here today. You helped me end my son’s terror. Regardless of your past with my wife, everything you’ve done has accounted for something. Central,” Joel’s head shook, his gaze slightly unfocused toward the edge of the ocean, “made us what we are, but Central didn’t make us who we are. It says a lot about a man who’s able to see the bigger picture despite looking at a blurry image.”
Adrían took a moment to answer, letting the words mix with the spray of each wave’s splash. “Are you talking about me?” he asked. “Or yourself?”
“Everybody back there.” Joel pointed behind them. “Everyone standing out here.”
“Obrigado, my friend.” Adrían held out his hand. “Good talk.”
Their palms came together, and there was no acrimony in this handshake.
Joel started back toward the camp. “Get some rest, Delgano.”
“I will, I will. But this could be my last sunrise, you know?”
Joel nodded. “Yeah. I know.”
* * *
Gage’s voice carried, clear and deep. Joel kept his head down, eyes closed, and gently rocked from side to side. Anxiety and adrenaline created a cocktail in his blood.
The journey had been the first part of the treacherous undertaking, and they’d toggled between air and sea travel before landing on an island that, had the earth been flat, would have careened off the edge. After leaving their camp, they’d traveled to Central’s island by boat, switching to scuba gear when they were a kilometer away from Central’s sensors.
Once they’d made landfall, they’d changed into their gear—black instead of camouflage, painted faces, balaclavas pulled up to their eyes. Covered yet, in many places, still vulnerable.
In less than an hour, they would walk into enemy fire.
And Ayesha was pregnant.
Part of Joel felt like he was dreaming. Four people back home now counted on him, not including the rest of the family, his sister and nephew, and his parents. When he’d told the guys, they’d assaulted him with congratulatory pats and hugs. Silence had then washed over them when the realization of what this day could bring pushed through the celebration to stand front and center.
The best of each Greek letter unit had all agreed to collaborate so that everyone would have a chance to go home. Joel knew this. Understood this. But it was during each lull, when his brain wandered a little that he saw Josiah, Theo, and Ayesha. He saw the image that, at the moment, was a blip but would soon sprout arms, legs, and a head. He saw Ayesha’s massive, pretty smile and the tears in her eyes when their obstetrician had confirmed that they were, indeed, going to be bringing home a newborn next year.
It was why, two days before they left, they’d gone to city hall. Since they’d already been planning for the wedding, they’d had all the necessary documents and had already filed paperwork. Ayesha hadn’t wanted to do it because she’d felt like he was tipping the scales in favor of him not returning, but he wasn’t going to leave without her being his wife. When he returned, they could do the whole wedding shebang as planned. No one but the two of them knew anyhow, but he’d already changed her name in his phone.
Gage finished the prayer.
Joel raised his head.
Nerves were so high, the smell of tension rose and commingled with the salty pockets of air from the roaring Pacific. Next to him, Adrían mumbled in Spanish, kissed a rosary, and then tucked it inside his flak vest. They’d all done this, in some capacity, at least once in their lives. But this time, they were fighting for themselves. The freedom to simply be.
Inside his own vest, Joel had a picture Theo had drawn of the four of them, including the baby in Ayesha’s belly Theo was convinced was another boy. Considering he’d recently discovered Star Wars, Theo had also suggested that, if it was a boy, they call him Darth Baby.
“Lattimore’s got the right attitude,” Gage said. “Keep your eyes open, a smile on your face, and a scope on your six.”
They headed for the structure, which looked more like a medieval fortress than a modern-day compound, the entire thing hidden by boundless trees. Dark clouds converged the closer they came to the stone curtain wall that surrounded it. Soupy fog obscured the main tower, the highest point of the building. A multitude of nations’ flags flapped in the breeze, all at half-mast.
“They know we’re here,” Yasir, the second Delta recruit alongside Makala, said. He pointed the nose of his rifle at the flags.
As Central wasn’t its own country with an active military, Julien and Leon hadn’t been able to track their movements to see if Central had mobilized. Their group, in many ways, had entered the entire operation blind.
“The original plan stays,” Dez announced. “First, we take out the guard towers. Stay tight to the curtain wall, small formations.”
“What about friendlies?” Leon asked. “We could have some stragglers inside.”
“Tag ‘em if they give themselves up, but if you have a gun in your face, you take the first shot. Standard rules of engagement don’t apply here. They came for us first. If we don’t deal with them today, they’ll come for our families next.” Dez looked up at the sky. “Air support’s still about a half-hour out, so we do this quiet and clean until we have no other choice.”
They split into groups.
Joel, Adrían, and Makala headed for the easternmost tower with Makala as their sharpshooter. From what they’d learned, and seen, she was almost as good as Gage at nicking targets from unfathomable distances.
For all the tropical foliage around them, there were no noises—no birds, crickets, frogs. All that existed was the slap of the water against the rocky shore. The breeze brushing the waves. The crunch of their footsteps. Fourteen people breathing, simultaneously, in Joel’s ear to the rhythm of his very own heartbeat.
“You see it?” Makala asked.
Joel looked up at the tower and spotted the outline of the first guard. The figure had the advantage of the shadows but had faced north, leaving one of their sides exposed. Through his scope, he spotted a patch on the person’s armband.
“I’ve seen that before,” he pointed out.
“The same black flag group they sent out with us when we were ordered to take out Alpha,” Adrían said. “Looks like Central was building a military.”
Joel tapped his earpiece. “Wolfe, we should anticipate military-grade weaponry. It appears we’re dealing with some kind of militia.”
Gage replied with a quick, “Copy,” and then relayed the message to the rest of the group.
Makala raised her rifle. “I’ve got him.”
She tugged on the trigger.
There was a grunt, then the outline disappeared.
Joel motioned them ahead, bringing up the rear until they came to the guard tower opening. They’d been unable to gather any intel on how many bodies could be inside. Ten, they could manage. One hundred was a suicide mission.
“In position,” Joel said.
All the lights in the compound died.
The generators went down.
For all Central’s firepower and stealth, Julien was their biggest threat. They’d learned from Trevor, Lee Jeong, and Adrían that Ari had been a high-profile target because of her link to Julien. Central could track him, but they couldn’t stop him, and it was like watching someone rob your house blind with your feet stuck in cement.
The red light on the door switched off.
It swung open, the metal creaking.
Makala went in first. She’d been the leader of Team Delta, and her sex had been a major point of contention for the six-person squad. It was why they’d only recruited two from that unit. Delta never meshed. Alpha had meshed too well.
Joel clicked his tongue.
Makala dropped back, and Joel raised his rifle, taking out a gun-wielding figure seconds before the shooter would have lodged a bullet in her skull.
“Thanks,” she said, chest pushing high in her gear.
Adrían nodded. “Good ass shot.”
“Don’t worry, ‘Kala.” Joel sent her a wink. “I’ve always got you.”
They continued up the turret, backs to the walls, and found only one other guard inside. Adrían used a silent approach, taking them down with one swipe of a combat knife before they continued on. When they arrived at the top, Joel checked in with Dez.
“Location secure.” He went to one of the tower openings and peered out. Sheets of rain now poured from those same dark clouds, the earthen smell wafting up from the ground below. “About three clicks east, I spot an outpost of some sort. Be advised.”
Everyone else checked in when their towers were clear.
“You hear that?” Dez asked. “We’ve got a couple of birds in the sky.”
Just as they started to retreat, bullets pelted the rock at hundreds of rounds per second.
“Apaches?” Ishii, a recruit from Gamma, asked.
“Two,” Trevor answered. “Outfitted with autocannons, so stay sharp. One hit from those things, and we’re in pieces.”
The teams advanced to second position.
It was the oddest moment to think about Ayesha, but Joel could, all of a sudden, see her. He could hear her, smell her:
“Wait!” Ayesha hurried to the front door and held up a brown paper bag. “I packed your lunch.”
Joel laughed. “Eesh, I’m not exactly going to the office.”
“Please? Let me do this for you.”
God, his wife was so beautiful. Knowing their baby was inside her made him want to take her upstairs, reduce her cute ass cotton pajamas to shreds, and make love to her until the guys had to come in and drag him, naked, out of her body.
“Thanks, Eesh.” He kissed her forehead. “You’re so damn sweet. Did you remember to add a treat? Specifically, one of the dozen cupcakes you made for my birthday that I’ve yet to taste, but there’s somehow only two left?”
The corners of her mouth tugged down and a rush of tears spilled onto her cheeks when she blinked, but she shook her head and continued.
“It’s…it’s um…well, I threw some chicken on the gr…on the…”
“Eesh.” He dropped his bag and wrapped his arms around her. “I’m so sorry.”
“Damn it! I’m trying to do the whole ‘be strong for you’ thing.”
“You don’t have to do that. I think I’d be more worried if you were, like, tap-dancing and shit as I walked out.”
She laughed. It was a small laugh, wrapped in several layers of grief, but he still tucked it in his pocket for safekeeping.
“I love you, Ayesha.”
Though she nodded, she still cried.
They entered the building from the side, sending in smoke canisters for cover before crossing the threshold. Central knew they were there, but that didn’t mean going in guns blazing. It was in the quiet that people stumbled, shifted, and breathed.
There were three floors, one of them a basement that held two munitions rooms. Gage, Trevor, Ishii, Julien, Leon, and Dez headed down while Mike, Lee Jeong, and another recruit from Gamma, Gita, broke off to clear the third floor. Giorgio and Yasir, also from Gamma, joined Joel’s group. Emil, the last person and the youngest of them all, stayed behind to coordinate backup and keep an eye on the helicopters.
They entered the main hall, walking until they came to two massive stone archways in front of a wide staircase. Back in the day, the hall would bustle with junior recruits either in field training or working as analysts, moving between each floor. Some had even had coffee cups in hand, heads down, and faces in their phones. To think that, once upon a time, walking into this place was normal…
Covert and clandestine went out of the window as the sound of gunfire cracked the tense silence until it shattered. Joel and Giorgio’s group took cover behind the archways. They’d gotten Giorgio to carry a gun, and it wasn’t that he didn’t know how to use one. Guns simply didn’t give him the satisfaction of feeling metal pierce flesh.
“We’re taking rifle fire,” Joel said. “I’m going to send him in.”
“Send who in?” Makala asked.
Adrían ticked his head in Giorgio’s direction.
“He’s going to need cover,” Joel instructed.
They moved to their posts.
“What’s he going to do?” Yasir asked.
Joel and Adrían raised their guns and returned fire. The rest of the team followed.
Giorgio kept to the shadows. Both he and Mike had honed their stealth out of necessity. Mike had remained hidden to protect himself and those he loved. Giorgio had been born in hiding, grew up silent, and had been groomed to be silent. It was only natural that he found comfort in obscurity.
Giorgio made an arc around the room.
One by one, black flags went down. If it wasn’t by a knife to the throat or lung, it was by a bullet while distracted and trying to anticipate Giorgio’s next location.
The gunfire ceased.
Lee Jeong and Gita reappeared.
“Third floor’s secure,” Gita said.
Makala walked up to Giorgio. “Please teach me your ways.”
“We’ve heard about you,” Yasir added. “Good to know you’re on our side.”
Something rolled between them.
Joel looked down, focus catching on the egg-shaped object.
“I can’t believe we just did that,” Ayesha said, staring at her ring finger.
Joel barely saw the red brick or shiny City Hall floors as he dragged her by the hand through the building and down the stairs.
“Wait, Joel, slow down. I can’t keep up with your long legs.”
He stopped, scooped her up, and burst through the front doors. A five-minute cab ride later, they were in front of the Sheraton Stockholm Hotel. He then swept her back up into his arms, and half her clothes were off by the time he lay her on the 500-thread count percale sheets on the king-sized bed in their suite.
“When I ask you what your name is,” he said, kissing his way down her body, “you better answer correctly.”
Her breath hitched when he planted a kiss in the middle of her panties.
“What’s your name, Eesh?”
“Oh, you’re funny.” He tugged them off, lowered his head, and parted her with his tongue. “What’s your name, Ayesha?”
All she managed was a helpless, “Mrs. Lattimore,” as he spread her legs wide, and his mouth devoured the heat of her flesh.
Joel picked up the grenade and hoisted it down the tunnel hallway.
They all hit the ground.
When it exploded, the ground shook, and his heart beat like it was on the outside of his vest. His ears rang, and shrapnel from the explosion had made it far enough to slice him across the cheekbone.
“Everybody okay?” he asked.
He counted seven responses.
Joel started to push up, but then he noticed the front double-doors had opened at some point during the explosion. An Apache helicopter with a chain gun hovered in the distance.
“‘Kala, get back!”
Rounds tore from the helicopter. They’d left the last Gamma recruit, Emil, outside for this specific purpose. What the fuck was he doing if not taking out that tail rotor?
“Emil’s down,” Dez said, voice breaking through the chaos. “I’m headed out.”
“Does he need a medic?” Joel asked. Hoped. Prayed.
“The second bird’s handled,” Mike informed them. “Fuck, man. Emil’s just a kid.”
Suddenly, Yasir cried out.
It was Schrödinger’s cat—as long as Joel didn’t look, Makala was alive. She was still with them, laughing just as much as she was serious, her skin like Tahitian pearls. Those large, inquisitive eyes of hers, as long as he didn’t look, held life. Though the oldest in the group, she didn’t look a day past twenty.
The bullets became more erratic, ricocheting upward instead of bouncing off the stone. The Apache’s rotor, now on fire, sent it into a tailspin.
Joel tried to avoid letting his gaze snap Yasir’s way but failed, and both sides of his throat came together, glued.
What if he’d called out to her sooner?
How could he not call out to her sooner?
The goal had been to avoid casualties, not minimize them. She’d had plans to go back to Nzumira to find her sisters. She’d wanted to travel the world, spend six months in Spain, and even fall in love if time, and interest, permitted it.
“You guys go,” Yasir said, the words swiping an ax through Joel’s dazed stupor. “I’m not leaving her.”
Again, Joel’s mind went to Ayesha, and thinking of her wasn’t as comforting as he’d expected it to be. It was as though his mind kept bringing her up, image clear as day because his brain knew it might be the final way he had left to see her.
“You okay?” Wide awake himself, Joel studied Ayesha’s silhouette in the dark as she sat up in the bed. “Is it the baby?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s not the baby. Just a dream.”
“Yeah.” She eased back down onto the mattress and buried herself against him. “I won’t be okay until you come back.”
“I don’t want you stressed in general and,” he drew her closer, “even more so with Darth Baby.”
“I won’t be okay until you come back, Joel,” she reiterated. “I’ll try to keep the stress down for Darth Baby’s sake, but until you’re in my arms again, I won’t be all right. You understand that, right? You know what you mean to me?”
He kissed her forehead. “Yes.”
“If I lose you too—”
Soft taps sounded on the door.
They let the boys know it was okay to enter.
Theo peeked in first, his hand up near his face, sleeve rubbing at his nose. The atmosphere in the house had been like this all week. They’d tried to joke and smile, but it had all been hollow.
“Mama?” Theo called, voice raspy and quivering. “Can we sleep with you and Daddy because he’s leaving tomorrow?”
Josiah appeared behind him.
“Jojo made me ask,” Theo added. “But we both want to sleep in here tonight. We’re really sad, and I keep trying to close my eyes and go to sleep, but I can’t stop crying.”
“Of course,” Ayesha answered, her voice taking on the same notes as Theo’s. “Come on up.”
They separated, giving the boys room to lie between them. Josiah lay on his back, quietly looking up at the ceiling. Even though it was dark, the blinds were drawn, so there was enough moonlight to twinkle off the tear running down the side of his face. Theo didn’t need the moonlight. He crawled onto Joel’s chest, his sniffles growing louder until his crying muffled every other sound in the room.
“It’s the last time,” Joel promised, right arm wrapped around Theo. He used his left to reach out and stroke Josiah’s hair, which made Josiah’s tears come faster.
“We always miss you, you know,” Josiah whispered. “But it’s the hardest now.”
Joel read between the lines. As their father, what had happened to Curtis happening to him felt more salient all of a sudden.
“Can you stay?” Theo asked.
“He can’t stay, Theo,” Josiah replied. “Just like our uncles have his back, he has to have theirs. If all of them go, all of them come home.”
Josiah was right, but it didn’t make it any easier. Joel imagined that some version of this conversation was currently happening or had already happened in all the other households.
“I was gonna wait until Father’s Day to give you your gift,” Theo said, “but I’ll give it to you tomorrow. You can take it with you.”
Joel swallowed a golf-ball-sized knot of emotion. “Thank you, Theo.”
“I have a gift for Daddy too,” Ayesha said. “Can either of you guess what it is?”
Theo played with the sleeve of Joel’s T-shirt. “A hundred dollars.”
“Even more priceless.”
“An expensive watch?” Josiah asked.
“I’ll give you a hint. It’s in my belly.”
Theo’s eyes widened. “Three of Daddy’s birthday cupcakes?”
Joel narrowed his eyes at her, hiding a smile. “Three, you say?”
“A baby,” Ayesha quickly redirected. “Mama’s having a baby. You guys are gonna be big brothers.”
Josiah cheered and flung his arms around her, squeezing tight. Theo crawled over and did the same, then returned to his position in the soul of Joel’s ribcage.
“This is awesome,” Josiah said. “How about we think of names until we fall asleep?”
“It’s gonna be a boy,” Theo contended. “And we shall call him Darth Baby.”
“Lattimore.” Adrían grabbed Joel’s shoulder. “You still with me?”
They were outside and behind the building, but Joel didn’t remember walking. Had someone else gone down? Was it one of his guys?
Joel blinked. “Adrían, did anybody from—”
“What about Omega?”
“No one there either.”
“But Emil and Makala—”
“Compound’s secure,” Dez’s voice rang out. “All targets destroyed. Headed to rendezvous.”
“Air cover’s five minutes out,” Julien added. “And backup just landed onshore.”
Joel wanted to breathe, but he couldn’t. While backup meant troops and favors cashed in, they weren’t finished. The most interesting thing about Central was that, despite its name, there was no single head to cut off. Everyone had to be dealt with. Those who didn’t surrender would be neutralized.
“Joel,” Adrían called again. “You’re bleeding.”
It was a knick. Emil and Makala, what had happened to them was much worse.
“You should head back.”
Joel hacked out a laugh. “And let you go on your own to get yourself killed? Fuck no.”
“Interesting turn of events. Now you care that I live?”
“My wife cares that you live,” Joel corrected. “Me, I don’t want you to die. Not like this. Put your hands on my wife again, and it’s a different story.”
Adrían managed a weak laugh.
All the groups met back up, sullen. Dez gave the next directive, and they headed into the woods, toward the outpost.
Blood trickled down the side of Trevor’s face. Gage grimaced each time he moved his right arm. Julien had a large red spot on the back of his arm that had already started to dry.
Dez held up a fist.
They stopped moving.
“They’ve got an M240,” Dez said, holding up a pair of goggles. “Nothing head-on, and watch for an ambush. Backup’s bringing up the rear. Hold fire until after Hercules makes hell rain from the sky.”
A C-130 Hercules gunship—courtesy of favors and friends in high places, cumulative disdain, and the cliquish nature of military alliances.
Enemy of my enemy.
They broke off into groups, Joel still with Adrían. Giorgio and Gage joined them. Dez, Trevor, Mike, and Ishii formed the second group. Leon, Julien, Gita, and Hyeok formed the last one.
Yasir remained inside with Makala.
“Wait!” Theo sprinted down the stairs, paper flapping in the wind of his speed. “You can’t go yet!”
Joel crouched. “Did I forget to put you in my pack? I think I have some room where you can still fit.”
Theo giggled. “No, I have to give you this.”
It was a drawing of a family of stick people, obviously them, with their house behind them. A golden sun blazed overhead, blue loops of clouds hovered in the sky, dark brown squiggles in the background was the lake around the house, and Theo had even drawn the line of trees around it. On the stick figure of Ayesha, he’d drawn a purple lightsaber on the belly. Orange Lattimore, curled on the yellow-green grass, had Zs above his head to indicate what the kitten did best—sleep.
Joel blinked back tears. “This is amazing, Theoceratops.”
“It’s for good luck,” Theo said, pointing to a sticker he’d placed in the upper right-hand corner. “See?”
Joel chuckled at the sticker of a panda holding a four-leaf clover with the words “good luck” in a bubble. He then gently folded the paper, tucked it into his pocket, and wrapped his arms around Theo for their seventh hug of the morning.
“I love you, Theo,” he said. “Never forget it.”
Theo shook his head. “I forget lots of things, but I’ll never ever in the world forget that.”
Engines roared overhead. Dez and Julien coordinated from the ground. Joel heard something about sabot rounds.
And then he was on one knee.
It wasn’t a knick.
“Joel?” Adrían’s face appeared in front of his. “Fuck, I knew it.”
Pain. Hot licks of pain moved through him, so potent he couldn’t tell where he’d been hit. At least one bullet, or piece of shrapnel, had lodged itself in his back. The way it stung, it felt like hundreds. If he never got shot again, in his life, it would still be too soon.
“Gage…” He knew why he called out for Gage. Why it was Gage. “Gage, I’m hit.”
He saw Gage turn, saw the look in Gage’s eyes as he dashed over and crouched.
“Hit? What’s hit? Where?”
“One to ten.”
“Nine approaching fourteen.”
If Joel wasn’t mistaken, Gage’s voice shook when he spoke. How bad was it if he got the big man’s voice to shake?
Giorgio tried to help Gage get Joel to lie on his stomach, but Adrían shoved them out of the way. Just as the first rounds from the gunship sounded, Adrían covered Joel’s body with his. Gage, on the ground, aimed his gun and pulled the trigger.
It all took a matter of seconds.
Seconds that felt like days.
“Adrían?” Joel tapped Adrían’s shoulder. Adrían, who was still on top of him. “You good, man?”
He was so tired.
The weight on his chest disappeared as Hyeok and Gita helped Adrían up. At least, that was what he’d assumed until he saw Mike and Trevor hovering over Adrían, who was now on the ground.
“Found ‘em,” Gage said, tearing at Joel’s vest with his knife. “One…two…three. One…two…fuck. I’ve got three shots, two exits. One of them’s bad. Fuck, they’re all bad.”
“What happened?” Joel asked.
“Sniper.” Gage’s voice was still uneven. Raspy. Thick. “Delgano saw him, last minute. He took a headshot. It’s why he covered you. If he hadn’t, it would have been you.”
The pressure in Joel’s chest changed, reminding him of the feeling of fullness just before a dive into a large body of water. Gage called his name, and it sounded far off, but Gage was right in front of him. Maybe it was Dez, but Dez was right in front of him too.
Then Theo called his name.
Ayesha released Joel’s hand finger by finger, and as the SUV pulled away, he watched her standing with Josiah and Theo on the front porch steps until the early morning darkness devoured the house.
Already missing them, he leaned back in his seat and released the breath he’d held since he opened his eyes. Ayesha had tried to be strong for him, and he’d done the same. What he couldn’t tell her was that this one terrified him. Every op, every mission had come with its share of uncertainty and anxiety. But this was the one where the odds of coming home didn’t sit in the majority seat.
“Eesh is pregnant,” he said, staring at the ceiling.
Excitement and rounds of congratulations filled the SUV’s interior cabin.
“Could it happen again?” he asked. “Eesh deserves a happy ending, right?”
Gage squeezed his shoulder. “We all do. We all will. And we’ll come home, every last one of us. You’ll get married to one of the sweetest people I know, and you’ll have a gorgeous kid. The minute you start catastrophizing, Lattimore, is the minute you start giving up. Even just a little. Trust yourself. Trust us.”
Joel nodded. “You’re right.”
“Right before I left, Grey ran to the door, held out his arms,” Gage demonstrated, “and was like, ‘No. You not go.’ Fuck what Central thinks. I’m seeing my kid grow up. I already lost enough. I’m not losing anybody else and for damn sure no one in this car.”
“Can we talk about how our boy didn’t waste any time, though?” Mike asked, injecting them with some much-needed levity. “You must have that super sperm.”
Joel groaned. “Or, it was hard to keep my hands off my wif—fiancée. Ayesha’s got a little bit of freak in her, you know.”
Giorgio shook his head. “Nyet. I cannot see this with her. If this is true, you have corrupted her, brother.”
“Me? Look, I’m telling you guys. My wif—lady, she’s got a dark side.”
Dez yawned, stretching the muscles in his neck. “You two went and got married, didn’t you? You pulled a Dez and Larke?”
“What?” Joel frowned. “No. I’m just…eager.”
They eyed him.
“Doesn’t matter,” Julien said, eyes on the road. “I’ll just search marriage records, see what I find.”
Joel looked out the window, a grin on his face. “Yeah, you do that.”
“Can you tell Eesh for me?” Joel asked Gage, eyes closed.
“Tell her what, mate?”
“That I love her…and that I’m sorry.”
* * *
“Eesh. Ayesha, sweetie, you’re having a bad dream.”
Ayesha flung her eyes open and bolted upright in the bed. “Where’s Joel?”
“He’s not here,” Sydney said, voice as soft as a whisper. “They left, remember?”
“Where’s Theo and Josiah?”
“Right next to you.”
Ayesha looked over to find both boys wrapped up in the covers, fast asleep. Everything in her screamed to gather them in her arms, but they’d had such a hard time falling asleep, she fought the urge to move and possibly wake them.
“Did they call?”
Sydney shook her head. “Not yet.”
“Something’s not right, Sydney. I need to talk to Joel. Where’s Ari? She has to be able to get in touch with Julien—”
“Eesh, I’m sorry.”
“Being a whole bitch to you.” Sydney’s round stomach poked out further as she sat on the bed. “Honestly, I wasn’t ready to accept that I’d been unreasonable, and Joel really was a great husband. I have Dmitri now, and I’m happy with him. I think I’ve belonged with him all along. But I should have never taken my frustration out on you, and I’m so sorry.”
Ayesha took Sydney’s hands in hers. “Sydney, I forgive you, okay? I figured that out a long time ago. I struggled myself with feeling like I had to hide my feelings for him from you, but…you and me, we’re fine. Some of it was probably those two boys throwing off your hormones anyhow.”
Sydney smiled. “Thank you.”
“As for Ari,” Sydney continued, “she’s with Mo. They’ve been trying to get in contact with the guys for the last hour, but there’s been nothing so far.”
Ayesha left the bed and paced near the door, hands clasped to stop them from shaking. She needed to calm down. Stress could be detrimental to Darth Baby.
“Sydney, he’s not okay,” she said, in part to herself. “Joel, he’s not okay. I can feel it.”
“Hey.” Tayler knocked on the door frame. “Eesh, how about we get some tea? Come on. We both need it.”
Although Tayler’s voice was calm, Ayesha still picked up on the worry.
She let Tayler lead her by the hand downstairs to the kitchen, but the minute Tayler opened the pantry and the smell of cinnamon wafted into her nostrils, she dashed to the nearest bathroom. Pregnancy and extreme anxiety were a worse mix than rum and vodka.
When she was done, she washed up and returned to the kitchen. Tayler, Xara, Larke, Mo, and Ari stood around the quartz-topped island. They looked up when they heard her footsteps, and Ayesha braced herself on the nearest wall.
“What?” she asked. “What is it?”
“I got a short message,” Ari said. “It wasn’t from Julien, but it’s someone who’s part of this whole thing. Someone he already vetted.”
Ayesha’s mind buzzed. It was like someone had released a horde of bees in her skull.
“Just tell me.”
Each blink rolled a fresh set of tears down the hills of Ari’s cheeks. “It’s Joel and Adrían. And…it’s not good news, Eesh.”
* * *
It had taken ten days for her to get clearance to see Joel at the hospital where he’d been airlifted in Rochester, Minnesota. Even then, it wasn’t until she’d asked about Adrían that they gave her the travel information, and she’d wondered if it was because Joel still had Sydney listed as next-of-kin while Adrían probably had no one.
“What do you mean I still can’t see Joel Lattimore?” Ayesha asked, glaring at the woman in uniform blocking Joel’s room door. “I’m his wife.”
“Joel Lattimore’s file doesn’t indicate he remarried, and you have to understand that, at this level of security clearance—”
“Copy of our marriage certificate.” Ayesha opened the folder she’d brought with her, nearly tearing it in half. “Picture of us with the rings. Picture of us with our boys and at the obstetrician for the one we have on the way.”
“It’s officially Mrs. Lattimore now. Savea-Lattimore. Look,” she glanced at the golden plate attached just above the woman’s breast pocket, “Claudia, I got a message. A short, choppy message that said Joel was shot. That it was critical. That was almost two weeks ago. Please just let me see my husband.”
The woman stepped away from the door. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
Ayesha gripped the handle, breaths short. They’d separated the teams, so she had no idea if any of the guys were even at this hospital. Disclosing their locations was prohibited. They’d gotten a little bit of information from Gage, but cell phones had been blocked at each location.
“Before you go in,” the woman added, “Adrían Delgano is also at this hospital.”
Ayesha looked back at her. “In a room or…?”
She couldn’t say it, but her brain finished the sentence.
“Why can I see him and had to jump through hoops for Joel?”
“He’s cleared you, Mrs. Lattimore,” Claudia replied. “You’re the only person Adrían has ever put down in his file.”
Ayesha shoved the questions that statement had dredged up to the back of her mind and entered Joel’s room.
She found him sitting on a sofa, turned slightly, looking out of the large hospital window. A pair of crutches lay nearby, propped against the sofa arm. Though he wore a hospital gown, sweatpants covered his legs down to his socks. He didn’t turn as he spoke.
“I’m fine, Claudia. The pain’s not back yet. Feels like fire, so you’ll be the first one I call when it starts creeping in again.”
She set down her purse and struggled to find her voice.
“How bad is it?”
He turned his head, and his eyes went from matte to shimmering, his skin from paler than its usual olive to flushed red.
“Tell me where you were hurt first.”
“Ayesha. Come here.”
She went to the sofa but sat on the cushion farthest from him. Gage had told them about the multiple gunshot wounds, one of them an indirect hit from a helicopter cannon; the shrapnel that had lodged so deep in Joel’s skin, some would remain with him for the rest of his life; the first-degree burns on the right side of his face—the side he didn’t completely turn her way.
“I’m afraid to hurt you.” She scanned his body. “It’s not that I don’t want to touch you.”
“I don’t care. I’ve been without you for too long.”
“Did anyone tell you I was coming?”
“No, and I never got the chance to add your information to my dossier, so trying to get you here was covered in red tape.”
She inched closer.
“I need you, Eesh. Fuck, do I need you. Come here.”
From where she sat, she could finally see the burns. The area was red, blistered in some areas and peeling in others. Healing. Even if he’d burned down to the bone, she’d still love him. Still want him.
As tentatively as she could, she went to him. Gauze prevented the collar of the gown from laying flat, and he grimaced as he stretched, but her arms went around him. His arms went around her.
“I missed you,” he said, kissing the top of her head.
“I missed you too, Joel.”
“Are you okay? How are the boys? Darth Baby?”
She shifted, one of her hands brushing a spot on his back, and he groaned, muscles tensing.
“How about we get in bed?” she asked.
“You can put your head in my lap while I play with your hair.”
She helped him to the bed and, once he was situated, climbed in on the other side. Instead of having him come to her, she slid her legs underneath his head, and he draped a long arm across her while her fingers twirled and coiled his hair.
“Eesh, I’m ready to go home, be a father to our boys, love you, and live my life. I did college, the military, the FBI. I’m good. Never, Ayesha. I never want to be without you. I love you. The whole time I was there, all I could think about was you. And then, when I realized I was hit,” he took several shallow breaths, “panic set in. I slipped away, slipped into unconsciousness without knowing if I was going to survive, and the shit I worried about the most was never opening my eyes again and seeing your face.”
It was all she did these days, it seemed.
“This time was different, you know?” Tear droplets warmed the fabric of her leggings. “Makala, babe. You remember her? I saw her die. I saw her. And, I mean, I’ve seen death. I’ve seen it right in front of my own face, but if I’d just called out to her faster…”
Ayesha didn’t have to be there to know that, whatever had happened, most likely hadn’t been his fault, but this was part of the condition. It was part of post-traumatic stress. With her, he’d have a safe space to vent, and she’d support every endeavor it took to help him through it.
“I’m sorry, Joel.”
He squeezed her left thigh. “I can’t believe I’m touching you right now.”
“I’ll always be here.”
He tilted his head up, eyes wide as he looked at her. “Where’s Adrían? Did he make it?”
“As far as I know.” She frowned. “They didn’t tell you anything about him?”
“No, nothing. He saved my life, Eesh. That shot to the head, it was meant for me.”
She went stiff. “What? Why would he do that?”
“You know why.”
Had Adrían loved her that much?
Joel pushed up her shirt and lay his hand on the lower part of her stomach. There wasn’t a bump yet, but he still loved cradling her there.
“If you know about Adrían being alive before I do, it’s because you asked and someone told you,” he pointed out. “Do you know what that means?”
She wasn’t sure.
She had an idea, but she wasn’t sure.
“He has you down as next-of-kin.”
“It’s okay.” He kissed her stomach. “He doesn’t have anybody, and I’m fine that he at least has you. For what he did, hell, he’s got me too. At first, I thought he was crazy to still be hung up on you after so long, but when I thought about it, really thought about it, I realized that, shit, I’m right there with him.”
She bent, and he raised his head for their lips to briefly meet. Droplets of sweat, his clenching jaw, and a glazed look covering the whites of his eyes let her know his pain had returned. Despite his protests, she called for someone to re-up his medication.
Eventually, the medication set him to sleep. She watched him a moment, listening to his breathing and hoping no more bullets found their way into her hubby’s body. Then, she kissed his cheek, slipped out of his room, and headed back to the corridor where a different woman waited.
“Adrían Delgano,” Ayesha said. “Can I see him?”
The woman pulled out a tablet, index finger moving over the surface.
“I mean, it’s Savea-Lattimore now. I’m married to Joel, but Adrían’s an old friend. I think he might have put me down as an emergency contact sort of thing?”
“Oh, it’s more than that. He’s listed you down as his primary beneficiary. Should anything happen to him, you’d get his earnings.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Who knows?” The woman shrugged. “So many of the assets come from broken backgrounds. I’ve seen them leave everything to charities, teachers, childhood friends, ex-girlfriends. But, if you’re looking for Adrían, he’s in 1329. He’s not awake right now, but you’re authorized to see him.”
Ayesha nodded, headed down the hall, and stopped in front of Adrían’s room door. Adrían had, most likely, left her everything in the event of his death because he’d felt responsible for what happened to Curtis. He’d protected Joel and, because of Adrían, she still had the second love of her life. There was no version of “thank you” that sufficed.
She entered his room and went to his bedside. Hearing that he didn’t have anyone had been one thing, but seeing the empty room and knowing that no one was coming, was another.
“Adrían, did you really do what Joel said you did?” she quietly asked, moving his hair out of his face, mindful of the shaved side of his head that bore a fresh set of stitches. “Why would you do that?”
Machines breathed, beeped, and chimed in concert, but there was an absence of the sound of human voices. Human laughter. In a way, despite all the noises, it was still quiet.
“I can’t even thank you. I wouldn’t know how to. Even before Joel, you’d set it up so that me and the boys would have been well taken care of in the event of your passing. You’ve been watching over me for God knows how long. Adrían, I hope you can somehow hear this. I love you.”
It wasn’t the same love he felt for her, nor was it the love she’d felt for Curtis and now felt for Joel, but love didn’t always have to be exceptional. For what he’d done for her, the baby, Josiah, Theo, and the rest of the family…she loved him.
“When you’re better, come to Sweden. If not for the wedding, come see Darth Baby. It’ll need a godfather, and you saving my husband’s life tells me you’d make a great one.”
The room door opened. Ayesha looked back, hopeful, but it was just a doctor.
“I didn’t realize someone was in here,” he said, stopping short. “I’m Dr. Balam, Mr. Delgano’s neurosurgeon.”
She turned back to Adrían. “Will he be okay?”
“I’m optimistic. He’s not out of the woods, but his intracranial pressure,” Dr. Balam tapped his own skull, “has significantly improved. He’s been stable for the last twelve hours. Let’s just say, the wound looked worse than the actual injury.”
“And, right now, who are you updating on his condition?”
“No one right now.”
“Can you start updating me?” she asked. “I’m Ayesha.”
The doctor’s face brightened. “Oh, that’s wonderful. Thank you for coming. I was worried because had no one, so I’ve been checking up on him more than usual. Reminds me of my son, and it broke my heart to see him alone in here.”
Ayesha leaned down, brushed a kiss over Adrían’s cheekbone, and then stepped away from the bed.
“Thank you, Dr. Balam.”
“Will you come back sometime before you leave? I saw that you’re Mr. Lattimore’s wife, but…patients do better when they have support from friends and loved ones.”
She nodded. “I’ll be by a few times a day until Joel’s cleared to go home. Then, once he’s discharged, I’d like to take him with us.”
Dr. Balam’s face shined even brighter.
Joel was still asleep when she returned to his room, and one of his nurses let her know he would likely be that way for the rest of the night. So she ate, watched TV, and showered in the adjoining bathroom.
Instead of climbing in next to him, she found that the sofa in the room was a pullout, settled in, and read until she fell asleep. In the middle of the night, warmth wrapped around her from behind and lips met her left ear.
“Joel, you can’t—”
“Don’t argue with me,” he whispered. “I want to hold my wife.”
“It won’t be this way forever, you know? We’ll eventually get to a point where we won’t be all lovey-dovey all the time.”
“Woman, I’ll be holding you in our grave.”
“Joel, you need to be in bed,” she gently admonished.
“Come with me.”
He wanted to hold her, so she let him hold her. Their lips met, each touch tender with a different kind of longing. Inside each kiss hid the pain of uncertainty when they’d been apart, and the relief that they were together again.
“Joel, how would you feel if Adrían was released into our care after he’s discharged?”
Silence dragged on. Then she realized he’d fallen asleep.
“Hmm?” He yawned. “I could have sworn I answered. But, of course, Ayesha. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Are you sure?”
“Now, I’m changing my mind.”
She air-swatted him.
“Joking,” he clarified.
“Thank you, Mr. Lattimore. I love you.”
“And I love you too, Mrs. Lattimore.”
* * *
A few weeks later
Since Ayesha didn’t have a father to dance with, his father had stepped in, and Joel smiled watching Archie Lattimore twirl his bride around the room. Whatever Archie told her made her laugh until she cried, and Joel could only imagine. The man was a story vault having spent so much time in the public school system.
He’d pushed himself through rigorous physical therapy, all to be able to walk her down the aisle. Then, when their first dance as “official” husband and wife ended, she’d forced him to take a break at the table with the rest of the groomsmen.
After the wedding, they were picking Adrían up from Minnesota. With Sydney now spending all her time at Dmitri’s, they had a vacant house where they figured Adrían would be more comfortable. Tayler had finally finished all her requirements to practice medicine in the country, and she’d volunteered to be his physician for his stay. They’d also hired a couple of live-in nurses, a housekeeper…whatever assistance Adrían would need. Joel and the guys already planned to be by every day to see him. Right now, Adrían thought he didn’t have anyone, but because of what the man had done, he was now family.
Trevor and Lee Jeong had already promised to be by when they were done recuperating from the injuries they’d picked up after having to infiltrate the outpost while Joel had been on a Medevac flying over the Pacific.
“Hey, I have a question,” Ant said, looking around the table. “Y’all ever noticed who your wives are?”
Joel and Mike exchanged glances.
“What do you mean?” Mike asked.
Ant motioned to the other table. “All y’all married sistahs.”
Joel frowned. “What?”
“Yeah. Like…all of y’all.”
Joel shifted his gaze to where Val, Xara, Larke, Ari, Tayler, and Mo sat.
Gage cocked his head to the side. “Hmm…”
Mike grinned. “Well, shit.”
“You mean, none of you ever noticed before?” Ant asked. “It’s the first thing I picked up on. I mean, I’m for damn sure not knocking it. I get it. Trust me…I do. Y’all see what I’m working with.”
“Well, me and Giorgio married twins,” Julien offered.
“But you didn’t meet Ari and Mo together,” Dez countered. “You two met them separately. And the reason Julien even met Ari didn’t have to do with Mo. It had to do with Gage.”
“Actually, I met Eesh because of Gage,” Joel said. “Damn, Cupid.”
Gage shook his head, laughing.
Archie twirled and dipped Ayesha, and Joel almost headed over to have a “discussion” with his father. She’d wanted Archie to pick the song, so Archie had chosen Speechless by Dan + Shay. As the lyrics played, Joel basked in the sense of contentment his heart had been searching for, for all its existence.
“So, what now?” Ant asked. “From what I understand, y’all are out of the game, but it can’t be easy to turn that switch off.”
Julien crooked his fingers. “We ‘technically’ have a few dozen ‘companies’ we could ‘run.’”
“I can’t see any of you in a boardroom.”
Joel shrugged. “I don’t know. Me, I’ve got fatherhood to settle into. Maybe I’ll buy a fishing boat. Grow a long-ass beard.”
“I will come with you,” Giorgio chimed in.
Tayler turned around, made a face at Gage, and Gage smiled back, his eyes adding at least a dozen more lights to the venue.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But, whatever it is, I can’t wait for it if I get to spend that time with that girl right there.”
The song ended.
Archie and Ayesha hugged, then she signaled to the DJ. When the next song came on, she turned to Joel. Goosebumps pricked his skin.
After the first verse, she motioned to him.
“I don’t want to bore you with my trouble
But there’s somethin’ bout your love
That makes me weak and knocks me off my feet…”
He stood, walked over, and wrapped his arms around her. This close, he could hear as she sang to him, and only him. It was worth all the stiffness or soreness that, at least, got better every day.
“I don’t wanna bore you with it
Oh but I love you, I love you, I love you
I don’t wanna bore you with it
Oh but I love, I love you, I love you…”
And Ayesha was wrong.
Even after their wedding, after they’d settled into their life together, he’d still wanted to hold her. He still kissed her every morning, every night. They lay next to each other, his head on the pillow next to hers, as their child grew and developed.
And Ayesha was so wrong because once their daughter was born and Joel held her for the first time, his love for Ayesha exploded. Someone had attached it to the world’s largest slingshot and flicked it off into space, where it would float in the infinite expanse of the universe. He’d never had someone love him the way she did, and he was fine with spending a lifetime trying to match what she showed him each and every single day.
With Central dismantled, they could all finally breathe. The other teams’ surviving members had disbanded. Adrían had stayed for a few months and then headed out to meet up with Lee Jeong and Trevor, promising to be back. All three promised to come for frequent visits, their first one being the birth of Tiare Lattimore.
Restlessness and weariness had settled in all their bones, but they’d found outlets to cope. Mike now climbed with ropes, and he and Xara had cordoned off and barricaded nearly everything in their house since Mikey had inherited the climbing trait from his father. When Mike wasn’t climbing, he was an aerospace engineering and aviation consultant.
Gage and Dez joined a local hockey league, and the penalty box was like a second home for them. They also coached a youth soccer team, prepping for when Grey and Monroe were old enough. Julien, when he wasn’t developing software, traveled the globe with Ari, Thandie, and Ty.
Giorgio and Joel did get their boat, but to keep giving Josiah MMA lessons, Joel had to compromise and not get the long-ass beard. When they weren’t fishing, Giorgio worked on expanding his car collection. Joel enjoyed his life as a father to an adolescent, a baby, and a hurricane, all who he loved more than life.
Joel, with Tiare in tow, entered the house and found Ayesha in the kitchen.
“Hey, pretty girl!” Ayesha greeted.
Tiare smiled, kicking her legs, and Joel completely understood. He had to tamp down a similar urge when it came to his wife.
Everything Tiare did was cause for fanfare, especially for Josiah and Theo. When they came home from school, they played with her before doing homework. These days, since crawling for Tiare was right around the corner, they joined her for tummy time.
Joel faked a pout. “I’m here too.”
“Hmm?” Ayesha glanced up at him. “Oh, hey J…J…Jonah? What’s your name again?”
Grinning, she pushed onto her toes at the same time he leaned down, their lips briefly touching. She then planted a loud kiss on their daughter’s cheek and reached up to mess with his hair.
Ayesha still did that.
Even if it was all she did for the rest of their lives, he would be happy. Funny enough, he’d caught his mother tousling his father’s hair several times, and with the way his father had blushed, Joel had learned where he’d gotten the obsession.
“I told you you’d be a dad one day,” Ayesha said. “You didn’t believe me.”
“So that’s why you seduced me?” he asked. “For clout?”
“Yes.” She walked past him, headed for the door, and he followed. “I fell in love with you and had your kid just so I could prove you wrong one day.”
Outside was a cacophony of youthful excitement, music, a spirited game of Dominoes, and Theo as he raced over.
“Mama! Daddy! Jojo’s friend, Kye, is here. We’re gonna skate with them!” Theo pointed to his three friends from school who’d come to hang out. “Me and my friends, we’re gonna all skate!”
Ayesha crouched and pulled him into a hug. “That’s wonderful, sweetheart. I’m happy for you.”
“Thank you, Mama.”
She released him, and he sprinted over to where his friends stood enraptured, watching Josiah and Kye demonstrate different tricks on their skateboards.
Joel raised an eyebrow. “Um, Eesh? Did we think this all the way through?”
“You’re right.” Ayesha squeezed her forehead and hurried after Theo. “Theo? Where’d you put your safety gear?”
Joel bounced Tiare. “I think you’ll like it here, sweetheart. It’s a little crazy, and none of your uncles, or your father come to think of it, are exactly stable, but you’ll like it here. We take care of each other.”
Tiare blew a bubble in response.
Later that night, when all the kids were asleep, Joel reclined on the sofa while Ayesha stretched her legs across his lap, the house cozy and quiet.
It felt exactly like a house should.
Love and happiness didn’t have to be frenetic or chaotic. Love was knowing his wife’s favorite ice cream and her knowing what to order for him, without him telling her, when neither of them felt like cooking. It was helping his sons with their homework, taking endless pictures of them and their sister, and searching all of Europe for a bow that perfectly matched his daughter’s outfit. It was nights like this, the lights off, and binge-watching Walking Dead reruns with the indisputable love of his fucking life.
“Joel, would you bite through a man’s neck to save me?” Ayesha asked.
“I don’t know.” He switched positions, angling his body over hers. “Bite him where, now?”
She tapped the side of her neck. “Here.”
“Here?” He licked the spot. “Like that?”
“What about his nipple?” She pushed her nightgown straps down off her shoulders, baring her own ebony nipples to him.
“I’d kill for you, Eesh.”
She grinned. “Come here, hot stuff.”
Her fingers slipped into his nape.
Their mouths came together, their hands pulling at clothes.
Joel made love to his wife, losing himself in the eyes he’d loved for much longer than he’d realized and inside the body that would always be home, over and over, until they were a spent knot of limbs and sweaty body parts.
A cry came through the baby monitor, and they looked at each other before they both burst out in laughter.
“At least she waits until we’re done,” Ayesha said.
He brushed his mouth over hers. “She could have taught her brother a thing or two.”
“I can’t believe Theo’s a big brother.”
“Give me a second, and he can be one all over again.”
Another cry sounded.
“Let’s go up there before she walks down here and comes looking for us,” he said.
Ayesha eased away from him, fixing her clothes. “If our five-month-old walked down here right now, she could have the house.”
“You keep trying to give away our house.” He pulled his shirt on over his head, adjusted his underwear and pajama bottoms. “You said the same thing about if Gage and Tay bring one of those Huntsman spiders back from their visit to Australia next month.”
“No, I said I’d burn the house down.”
“You don’t trust me to handle it?”
“How quickly we forget the baby spider incident in the laundry room.”
“For the last time, Eesh,” he kissed her forehead, “I screamed because I stepped on a Lego.”
“That then disappeared inside your foot?”
They cleaned up, headed upstairs, and disappeared inside the nursery.
Thank you for reading.
Prince of the Brotherhood
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