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WIP Update – Cover Reveal

She’s a spy.

He’s her target.

The day former intelligence operative, Eija Barrett, stepped foot inside Interpol headquarters, she’s had one main objective—infiltrate and dismantle the largest sect of the Russian Mafia, run by the renowned Yuri Sokolov, based in Moscow.

Each attempt by the agency, so far, has failed. Nearly all the agents Interpol sends are uncovered and assassinated.

But when Eija is appointed as lead on the undercover Bratva operation, she discovers that the mafia leader has been hiding something she can use to her advantage—a son who Yuri has kept secret since birth, and who is next in line to head the crime syndicate.

Dominik Sokolov.

Eija knows if she can get to Dominik, she can get to Yuri and, as far as she’s concerned, there’s nothing that can stand in the way of that happening…

 

Only a handful of people know what Dominik Sokolov truly looks like, and even fewer know who he really is. He prefers an isolated mercenary’s life, distancing himself from the brotherhood by moving to California to live with his aunt as a teen and then spending his adulthood just outside of the Bratva’s reach.

However, as the mysterious Prince of the Brotherhood and the only son of mafia leader, Yuri Sokolov, it’s Dom’s birthright to lead the organization. His duty. If not out of obligation to his country, it’s what he owes Yuri for the sacrifice his father made for him when Dom was just six years old.

Dom is able to spend three months on the island of Grenada, off-the-grid and away from the family’s watchful eye, but when Yuri finds him there, he decides it’s time to head home. 

Before he has a chance to leave, he meets a beautiful woman whose name he learns by accident—Eija.

He tells her his name is Andrei…not that it matters. Not that it will make a difference, to her, who he is. After all, once they’ve had a few nights of fun on the island, the two of them will never see each other again.


Chapter One Excerpt

“Your eyes are poisonous.”

Dominik Sokolov tore his attention away from the reflection in the stacked glasses on the bar’s tile countertop to find the woman behind it staring at him.

“Excuse me?”

“Your eyes.” She swirled a rag inside a stem glass with a deep bowl. “They remind me of mercury, which is poisonous.”

He’d been on the island of Grenada for the last three months, and he didn’t think he would ever get used to that accent. Everyone who spoke, it was like a melody as opposed to the rougher, more abrasive Russian spoken in his home country.

“Oh.” 

His attention returned to the glasses. 

His father, at least, hadn’t deviated from the type of goons he kept around. The minute he’d walked into the small beach hut overlooking the Atlantic, he’d known these two men were there for him. While he’d spent most of his childhood in Moscow, he left to live with his aunt in the United States when he was sixteen. That didn’t mean he didn’t know his people, and he especially knew his father’s people.

When he was ready to go back, he would go. It wasn’t like he could stay away forever. He was the son of the head of the Bratva. Russia would always find him and bring him home.

“You are on a tropical paradise,” the bartender continued, leaning over the bar counter, her already decent-sized breasts swelling larger in the bikini top. “Maybe try to look like you’re having a good time? You’re too handsome to be sulking, friend.”

Dom studied her. Really studied her. She worked at the resort. He’d seen her before, on multiple occasions. She was the one who’d come in to make sure his room was to his liking his first day there, and when she wasn’t tending bar, she walked around in crisp white collared shirts, black pencil skirts, and low-heels to ensure all the guests were satisfied with their accommodations. 

The one thing that had remained constant between both roles was the bright red lipstick that stretched and accentuated her pretty white teeth when she smiled. 

“Look, I appreciate the compliment,” he began, “but I’m not really up for…you know.”

She cocked her head to the side. “Up for what?”

“I mean, you’re a beautiful woman.” Very beautiful in fact. “But, I’m just here to relax.”

“Hmm.” She leaned back and folded her arms across those plump breasts. “Well, no offense, but I work here and you’ve only ordered one drink since you sat down. It’s either I flirt with you to get you to order more, or I boot you from my bar so a paying customer can have a seat.”

A smile played at the corner of his mouth. “Fine. I’ll order something else. What do you recommend?”

“Do you like fruity drinks?” she asked.

He tipped up his left brow. “Do I look like a man who likes fruity drinks?”

“You look like a man with poisonous eyes.”

“Rum.” He tapped the bottom of his empty glass on the bar top. “Give me something with lots of rum.”

She nodded, turned around, and her taut arms flailed as she mixed. For someone who worked in administration and barkeeping, she had an excellent back. Then again, since he’d been here, he’d walked most places. Every once in a while, he took a taxi or a minibus, but most of what he needed had been within walking distance of his resort. It was easy to look like that if the lifestyle called for it.

When she worked inside, she kept her hair back in a tight bun. 

Today, it was out. 

Free. 

Wild.

Curls and coils sprung from her scalp with splashes of chocolate and golden highlights spread throughout. The curls and coils framed her face, a springy set of bangs falling slightly over her forehead, and the colors popped against her complexion.

“One of sour,” she turned around and placed the drink in front of him, “two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak.”

He stared at the pink-orange concoction. “What is it?”

“Rum punch, Grenada-style. Try it.”

He took a sip, and the alcohol slapped him across the face. 

“Damn. That’s… is it always this strong?”

“You said lots of rum.”

“Caribbean rum isn’t normal rum.”

She smiled and looked behind his head at the water. Since she was distracted, he followed her brown skin like a nature trail down to those full breasts, her stomach with its enticing sprinkle of sweat that created a sheen across the flat pane, and the colorful wrap that she’d tied at the hip. 

“You have a beautiful accent, by the way,” he said, taking another sip of the drink. 

“Don’t get me wrong,” she began, meeting his eyes. “I mean, you’re a good looking man, but—”

“All right. I deserved that.” Laughing, he held out his hand. “Andrei.”

She shook his hand, studying him through narrowed eyes. “You don’t look like an Andrei.”

“Well, what’s your name?”

“Emerald.”

He studied her the same way. “You don’t look like an Emerald.”

“Maybe it’s not my name, but a girl can never be too careful.”

It wasn’t that he believed anybody on the island knew what the name Dominik Sokolov meant, and those who had been sent to collect him thought he was someone who’d betrayed Yuri. Why make things easier on the Bratva, the CIA, Interpol, or any other organization that either wanted to abduct him or had a red dot on the back of his skull?

She tipped her chin at the drink. “You like it?”

“It’s…pretty good.”

“Well, I didn’t get this job because I know how to tie my shoelaces.”

He drew a longer sip, eyes never leaving hers. “You’ve got a mouth on you.”

He took a glance at it for reference. That complexion was heavenly, her lips were full, her eyes were dark and slightly slanted, and there was a dimple high on her chin, to the left of her mouth, when she smiled. 

The number of beautiful women he’d seen or come across meant he should have been fucking his entire time on the island, but knowing his father was looking for him, it was hard to trust anyone. The more beautiful they were, the more dangerous they could be.

A customer walked up, and she left him to take their order. Dom looked over, and it was the man he’d been watching. The one with all the scars. He had his fair share, but they looked like they could have come from fighting, childhood, or the military. This man, with his head tattoos and marked up face, screamed organized crime.

“You’ve got a set of tits on you,” the man said, his accent so pronounced, Dom had to check to make sure he hadn’t spoken Russian instead of English. “What are you doing later? Me, I hope.”

Emerald turned away from the man without a response.

“Hey,” the man rapped his knuckles on the countertop, “I’m talking to you.”

“Leave her alone,” Dom warned. “There are beautiful women everywhere, and you’re on the beach. Find somebody else to fuck with.”

Their eyes met. When they did, a message was silently exchanged: “Make this easy so no one dies.”

Someone would die, but it wouldn’t be him. 

Emerald finished preparing the drink and slid it toward the scarred fellow Russian. The man tipped the glass at her, shot him one last look, and left.

She scanned the beachfront and, spotting no new customer requests, returned to stand in front of him. 

“Thanks, Andrei.”

“No problem.”

“Feel like another drink?”

“Yes, but not here.”

The confident smile she’d worn since he noticed her faltered. 

“Where, then?” she asked. 

“Out.” He finished the second rum punch. “Just the two of us.”

“What did I put in that drink that made you go from not being interested in anything to wanting to go out, just the two of us. Are you a killer?”

Now that made him smile. 

“Do I look like a killer?”

“No, but you don’t look like an Andrei either. The name, is it American?”

“I have no idea. My mother was one of those eccentric types. If the mood struck her, she would have given me a Korean name.”

She laughed. 

Like her accent, it carried a melody.

“Now,” he leaned toward her, “how do you pronounce your name?”

She did the same, folding her arms on the bar top, dropping her voice to a whisper. 

“What do you mean?”

“I’m staying at this resort. I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve seen me? It’s not the first time I’ve seen you.”

Her eyes made slight movements, scanning his face. “No. It’s not. I make it a point to know all our guests.”

“I’ve been wanting to know how it’s pronounced since I got here.”

“Where did you see my name?”

“You wrote it on a napkin for a man I’ve been jealous of ever since.”

Red hair, beard, tall. The kind of man she didn’t need to waste her time fucking. 

“And you have been with us for how long now?” she asked.

“Three months, but I didn’t want to ask at the time and make you think I’m hitting on you.”

One thing was evident—the woman had no issues with eye contact. She stared directly into his eyes, and if she hadn’t gone into resort management, she would have made a hell of a police detective. 

Her voice lowered even further. “And now?” 

“Oh, I’m definitely hitting on you now.” He grinned. “So…dinner?”

“I thought it was drinks.”

“The more you talk, the more I like you.”


Featured

It’s not the story you think it is….


“…everybody needs at least one person to fight for them. I’m not going to leave you alone in this world for the next thing to come along, and maybe Mika can’t be there for you because of Carson’s needs or if they have a child. So, although I know you can fight your own battles, now that I’m your man, expect me to fight some of them for you.”


Honorable mention from the NFA Playlist…


This is a story that drained me a little lot, and I don’t know the next time I’ll write something like this, but mama’s tired, so she’s taking a small break. I’ll be back soon with Joel and Ayesha, and let’s hope they don’t take me for such an emotional (Chapter 15) ride.

Featured

Ready?

Xara jerked away from the person’s hold. They spoke with an accent that sounded distinctively Russian. A gentle Russian. Like if the language was hit with a cloud of setting powder.

A man, tall with blond hair past his shoulders and icy blue eyes, waved. “Hallo.”

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“No, no.” He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his dark brown slacks. “Well, maybe. Your name, what is it?”

“None of your business.”

He grinned. “Earlier, at the little, uh,” he drew a circle in the air with his index finger, “fashion show, you leaned and your shirt came up. You have a dragon on your side.”

Xara self-consciously tugged at her shirt. “And?”

“I like it. That and your ring in your nose. And your hair.” He dragged his gaze over her body. “And everything else.”

Episode 001: A Mafia Carnival starts August 24th!

Episode 09: That’s What I Want

Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.

That’s What I Want

Joel sat forward in his chair, massaging the back of his neck in a futile attempt to release the stress tension that had accumulated there over the last several weeks. Gage stood in one corner of the tech room at the Lair with his arms folded while Giorgio stood in another. Mike reclined in a chair. Dez had taken Thandie, Theo, and Josiah to school, so the rest of them were currently staring at images displayed on Julien’s stark white wall of screens.

“So, back in the day, there was a mercenary who went by the name Broydos, which is a play on broyeur d’os—‘bone-crusher’ in French,” Julien explained. “He was known for being insanely twisted. There are even rumors he’s eaten parts of the people he’s killed, and the bone-crusher name was actually given to him because he had a penchant for, well, crushing bones.”

Giorgio made a noise in his throat.

Lavigne’s face came up on each screen, each backdrop different. Some were blurry and, across the panel of images, he’d gone from a youthful, unmarred face to lines, scars, a buzz cut, and pounds of muscle packed onto his frame. There was also a cigarette dangling from his lips in nearly every picture, and Joel prayed his lungs didn’t take the man out before he got the chance.

Julien continued. “Broydos started out as Siriano Lavigne and, some years back, Lavigne disappeared off the map. He was officially declared dead by his only known living relative, a mother who died nine years ago, but facial recognition was able to link him to several high-conflict areas across the globe.”

“You’re thinking he’s Black Ops?” Gage asked, head turning and angling as he studied each image.

“I’m pretty sure he’s part of a ghost unit. Like us.”

Mike frowned. “When you say ‘like us,’ what do you mean exactly?”

“I mean, I think he’s part of a team created by Central,” Julien clarified. “From what I’ve been able to find so far, there are at least three more—Delta, Gamma, and Omega. I’m thinking each name coincides with the inception of the specific team which is why we’re—”

“Alpha,” Gage finished. “If Lavigne’s like us, it would explain how he got around the security you had installed at Ayesha’s, and it would explain how he climbed…”

The muscle in Gage’s jaw pulsed.

The air in the room became gas seeping toward a budding flame. Joel had told them this morning exactly how Lavigne got into the house, and the gas grew closer to the fire with each passing minute.

Giorgio busied his hands with a switchblade. 

Mike closed his eyes, fingers flexing into fists and chest pushing high with each breath. 

Joel let his head hang and waited for his blood to return to a viable temperature. He’d assumed that knowing, at least from Theo’s explanation, that Lavigne hadn’t hurt Theo in that particular way would have made him want to kill the man in a more humane fashion. 

The answer was a clear no.

Theo was his little boy, and Lavigne had fucked with his little boy.

That meant the man’s death was imminent. 

“Lattimore,” Gage called. “Are you sure he’s never put his hands on Theo?”

“That’s what Theo said,” Joel reaffirmed. “At this point, though, doesn’t it even matter?”

With the level of torture he was going to put the man through, he wasn’t sure, at the end of this, he wouldn’t lose a little of himself. He wouldn’t find peace until he heard Lavigne scream aimlessly in a place so isolated, not even the heavens would hear his pleas for salvation.

Giorgio unhinged the knife’s blade and sliced it across the tip of his finger, drawing blood. They all knew it had taken a great deal of self-restraint for Giorgio to not kill Lavigne when he saw him, and Joel appreciated it. Maybe he’d ask Giorgio to take part in the torture. It would be a nice “bonding” exercise. 

Next, Julien presented an image of Curtis. “I’m not sure if it’s his entire team or Lavigne himself, but I think they might be here in Sweden because they’re tracking Ayesha. And, I think they’re tracking Ayesha because Lavigne’s team might have had something to do with Curtis’ death.”

Mike snapped to attention.

Even Giorgio looked up from his tortured fingers.

“What?” Gage growled. “They what?”

One of the images I got of Lavigne came from an op we ran years ago. The one that took Curtis. I’ve combed through that footage more times than I can count, looking for answers or explanations about what happened that day, so when Joel sent me Lavigne’s information, I recognized the face.”

The muscles in Gage’s folded arms grew twice their size. Curtis had been his best friend. From what Joel understood, they’d never gotten any clarity or closure on the op that would have taken all of their lives if Curtis hadn’t sacrificed himself. They’d assumed it had to do with something they’d overlooked, but this wasn’t a group of men who easily overlooked things. 

“How?” Mike asked. “How is this Lavigne fuck connected to all of this, and can you kill a man more than once because I want a piece of him too.”

Julien stared at the image of Curtis reclining in an easy chair raising a can of beer, and he responded only after a groaning sigh that carried against the choking silence of the room. “I’m not sure, but everything I’ve been able to piece together says Lavigne is unstable. Instability begets tragedy.”

Mike scoffed, head shaking. “Why not tell us more teams exist? I mean, I get it. A lot of shit happens around the world. There are multiple SEAL teams, so there’d be multiple…whatever the fuck we were. Why treat us like some kind of prototype or beta version?”

Gage rubbed his forehead, stopping every so often to squeeze his brow bone with his middle and ring finger. They all appeared to come to the same conclusion, at the same time.

“How long do you think they’ve been trying to take you guys out?” Joel asked. “Because that’s what this is, right? Lavigne’s team was sent with you guys as the main objective. That’s how your location became known and the entire op was compromised.”

Gage released a tight laugh, his eyes like emeralds being crushed under the weight of the world’s pressure. “Each time we were ‘compromised’ it wasn’t because Central had a leaky vault. They were sending teams to execute us while still sending us on ops. We’ve been waiting for what the retaliation would be for going off the grid, but there’s been a target on our backs for a while.”

“Buyer’s remorse,” Joel said. 

“Frankenstein,” Mike chimed in, grimacing. “They created the monster, but when they realized they could no longer control it, their primary objective became to destroy it.”

Now, Joel was convinced Ayesha’s run-in with Adrían was no accident. The bastard was part of all this. 

Had to be.

But Theo was five now. Why would Adrían still be attached to Ayesha after all this time?

Then he thought about it.

He was attached to Ayesha his-damn-self.

“Eesh’s old fuck-buddy is part of this.” Joel forced away the image of her naked underneath Adrían, looking up into the man’s face the way she looked at him. “It’s no coincidence that him, Larke’s old tech guy, and Lavigne all popped up at the same time, and that Lavigne had a ‘comrade’ with him when Giorgio ran into him. If the teams were all created with the same blueprint, the tech guy’s their Julien and Lavigne’s their Giorgio.”

Giorgio made another, deeper noise, and mumbled something in Russian. 

He tossed the knife, lodging it in the ground, and pulled out another, streams of red painting his hand. 

Joel shot a text off to Mo.

Joel: Hey, Mo? Pozza’s going through it.


Mo: Which one is it?


Joel: Fingers.


Mo: Ok. Omw.

The more stressed Giorgio was, the more his reactions leaned toward him needing to see blood in some form. From Mo, they’d learned the full extent of what he’d had to endure at the hands of his father. The man known as Vater had done a number on Giorgio, even forcing him to bury his own mother without Giorgio knowing it, so it was no surprise that he sometimes “broke.” He was most vulnerable to snapping whenever children being harmed or disadvantaged, in any way, came into play.

Joel tucked his phone away and continued. “By the way, me and Eesh met Theo’s teacher’s husband at that school trip at Vasa Museum. He could be part of all of this too. There was something about the way he called Ayesha ‘Mrs. Savea’ instead of ‘Mrs. Lattimore’ that didn’t sit right with me.”

They looked at him.

“Or ‘Ms.’ Savea,” he quickly added. “I was just using Mrs. Lattimore as an example.”

“I’m surprised you lasted this long,” Gage mumbled, smiling although the expression was empty, trying to shine in hollow eyes. “Unless you two pulled a Dez and Larke and got hitched without telling us.”

Joel shrugged.

Without the divorce in his back pocket, and if his life hadn’t been a “live today, die tomorrow” type of deal, he and Ayesha would have already been married. 

At least, he would have already asked. 

This time around, he wanted to do things right. He wanted to make sure she had as much information upfront, so she wasn’t blindsided after agreeing to spend her life with him. Plus, he and Syd had had a clean break. They’d had no issues with their assets, finances, and they’d had no children to worry about. Eventually, he wanted to adopt Theo and Josiah, and he didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize being there for them every day of their lives.

“What’s his name?” Julien asked. “Theo’s teacher’s Mrs. Mason, right?”

“Yeah. He went by Trevor.”

Gage’s eyebrows raised. “Trevor Mason?”

Joel nodded. “You know him? He sounded Aussie.”

“I served with a Trevor Mason in Special Forces, but he wouldn’t introduce himself with his actual name if he’s been part of the group watching Ayesha.”

“She wouldn’t be a threat to him,” Mike pointed out. “And, maybe he did that shit on purpose. Maybe he was trying to see if she recognized the name. So if we have Lavigne, Adrían, Trevor, Larke’s tech guy, and the dead guy, there’s a missing Asian. I guaran-fucking-tee you, he’s Asian.” He clasped his hands in front of his face. “Please, let me go find out who this last motherfucker is.”

“How much you willing to put on it?” Julien asked.

“Well, first, who won the other bet?”

“Dez,” they all said at the same time.

“Then, with the exception of Lattimore and Pozza,” Mike went on, “whoever takes out their doppelgänger last gets to tell my wife that we have a trip planned to Cape Town, we’re going rock climbing, and I’m going to do at least one round of it free soloing.”

Gage groaned. “Fuck no. I’m not telling Xara that shit.”

Mike stuck his thumb into his chest. “I’m sure as hell not doing it. Xara will kill me.”

“Want some advice?” Joel asked. “Use ropes like a normal human being. Xara just had your big ass baby. She thought you were dead for three years, and then again with that whole Mosvar shit. She’s just trying not to lose you for real.”

Mike cocked his head to the side. “Fuck. You’re right. I didn’t…I can’t believe I didn’t think about that. My selfish ass.”

“Hello, you handsome lads,” Mo greeted, stepping into the room. Giorgio looked up, and she smiled. “Hey, boo.”

“You are here, why,” he asked, as if one of his hands wasn’t gloved in blood.

“I missed you.” 

“Who has called my Bez?”

“Nobody did, Gio. I just missed you.” She crossed the room, over to him, and took his hand. “This is gonna scar, baby. What were you guys talking about?”

Giorgio glanced around the room.

“Theo,” Joel answered. 

She nodded, and they watched as she pulled a roll of bandage from her jacket pocket and wrapped it around Giorgio’s hands and fingers. 

“Gio, I love you,” she said. 

Giorgio’s gaze alternated between the top of her head and the white roll of gauze she wound until no red could be seen through the mesh. The knife was still in his grip in his other hand, dried blood on the tip. As she applied the tape, she kept talking to help bring him all the way back down. Before Mo, Gage was the one who usually took point when it came to taking Pozza from hulking and green back to a semblance of a functioning human being.

“Giorgio, I love who you are,” she continued. “I love the way you take care of us, and I don’t mean only me and Mr. Aleksi, the CEO of the Pozza household. All of us. Remember how you carried Ayesha when she was sick? She does. We talk about it all the time. And Ari, she sees you as a big brother, not a brother-in-law. Think about it—I feel as close to you as I am with my twin sister. Plus, Theo! Theo adores you, and you make him feel safe. You mean the world to us, every last one of us, and for me, you’re my whole world.”

He didn’t respond, simply watched as she finished wrapping his hand and tucked away the bandage like he’d never seen a wound tended to before in his life.

She turned around and secretly sent Joel a wink in thanks. “You guys just about done? I was thinking about taking Aleksi to the park or something. It’s nice out, and the CEO is in need of a break.”

“Me and Tay’ll bring Grey,” Gage said. 

The three of them left.

Mike rose and headed for the door. “And I’ll go track this mystery Asian.”

“We don’t know that he’s Asian,” Joel called after him. Once he was certain everyone was back above ground, he turned to Julien. “What’s the damage you’re not telling us about?”

“A kill order’s come in.” Julien’s face went from well-rested to like he hadn’t slept in weeks. “It came in this morning. I’ll say something tomorrow, but I want everybody to have one more normal fucking day.”

Joel’s phone rang, and a picture of Ayesha in the burnt orange bikini popped up on the screen. 

“Hey, gorgeous,” he greeted. “We’re just about done here. I’ll be home soon.”

“Oh, I’m not at home,” she replied. “I’m at Theo’s school.”

“Alone?”

“Dez is still nearby. Theo forgot his lunch, so I dropped it off. You know he’s got that texture thing, and he’ll give Mrs. Mason hell if she tries to make him eat fish in any capacity. You’d never guess this kid was born on an island.”

“You’re on your way back right now?” 

“Yes. Why?”

“You know why.”

She laughed. “I’ve got you. I’ll see you in about twenty. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

A few minutes after he hung up the phone, he and Julien silently mulling over the new information, Dez’s face appeared on one of the monitors. From the backdrop, he could tell Dez was still pretty close to the school, but he wouldn’t feel settled until Ayesha was standing in front of him.

“You remember the FBI agent in D.C. me and Larke had to deal with?” Dez asked. “He’s here.”

Joel frowned. “Here…where?”

“At Thandie and Theo’s school, talking to Ayesha.”

Dez flipped his phone screen, and Joel was suddenly reminded of a nature show he and the boys had recently watched where a hyena kept infringing on a lion’s pride. Now that he thought about it, it might have been a little violent for the boys to have been watching with the way the lion had snapped the hyena’s neck. 

Ayesha obviously didn’t understand the depth of his recent descent into the realm of fucking insane if she thought talking to her little ex-lover in secret was even close to being a good idea.

“Adrían was never Fed,” he informed them. “I would know.”

“That’s Adrían?” Dez flipped his camera back around. “That’s the ‘FBI agent’ that interrogated Larke in D.C. after the break-in at her office. Said his name was Martin. Ryan Martin.”

Joel stood. “Julien, you want me to get Thandie?”

“I’ve got her,” Julien called from behind him. “Actually, I’ll get Theo and Josiah too. You have more pressing shit to deal with. Call me if you need bail money.”

* * *

“Adrían, what are you talking about?” Ayesha asked. “And why are you here? Are you a father now?”

“No, I’m not a father.” Adrían searched her face, focus lingering on her mouth before their eyes met again. “But, I am serious. You’re being followed.”

“By who? Because you appear to be following me, and I don’t appreciate that. My man will appreciate it even less.”

“It’s about Curtis.”

The blood in her veins stopped flowing. Behind her, she heard the faint noise of children screaming in delight. A cold breeze blew, and she wanted to blame the goosebumps on her arms on the nip in the air, but this wasn’t one of those moments where she could find comfort in suspended disbelief. 

This next question she was about to ask him, it was imperative he answered in a certain way. She didn’t have sex with the man who’d killed her husband. She hadn’t found herself caring for the man who’d taken half of her soul. This man, who’d played with, fed, and cuddled Theo as an infant, wasn’t responsible for Theo being fatherless in the first place.

“What about Curtis?” she asked.

“The men following you? One of them is tied to his death.”

She took a step back. “Is it you?”

“Ayesha—”

“Answer me.”

He kept his dark eyes fixed on hers. “No, I’m not responsible.”

“Adrían, I need to believe you’re telling the truth. Because, if I don’t, I’m going be torn in half. You do understand that, right? You do understand why something like that would…destroy me, right?”

“Let’s go somewhere and talk.” He scanned the full length of her body. “Did you eat? Let me take you to brunch.”

“No.”

“What about later? We can—”

“No.” She searched the school grounds. “There’s a picnic table over there. I’ll talk to you there. I’m not going anywhere with you. I won’t be going anywhere with you. I can’t, Adrían. I’m with someone, and it’s not okay for you to keep dropping in on me like this.”

“Do you love him?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Does he love you?”

“Yes.”

“More than I do?”

“It really doesn’t matter, does it?”

Adrían stepped aside and gestured to the table. “Okay. After you.”

Ayesha’s legs somehow took her across the spongy green, the soles of her low-heeled ankle boots temporarily crushing the blades. Adrían walked close behind her, his hand hovering near her elbow, and she could see his head moving about from the outline of his shadow on the ground.

As the end of the school year drew nearer, while the sun was out, the air was cool. Having come from the tropics, she still had to wear a sweater or light jacket everywhere she went, and she layered Theo until he complained, but in about another year, they would better appreciate weather this agreeable. 

Adrían sat across from her, facing the sun, his hair dancing in the wind. There was more of a shadow on his jaw than when she’d last seen him, and a strained element to his expression. He was one of the lucky few who hadn’t so much as freckle, his face unscarred and unblemished while she still wore parts of her teen years on her cheeks.

“What do these ‘people’ want with me?” 

Adrían squinted, thick brows lowering and his thumb moving along the tabletop near her fingers. “Curtis used to be part of an elite tactical unit,” he began, and she remained quiet, fine with letting him assume she knew nothing about what Curtis had done. “One of the men you’ve been seen with before, Gage Wolfe, is still part of that unit.”

He blinked slowly, looking at her the same way he had all those years ago, so intense she felt the knots in the rope that kept her gaze tethered to his. 

“So am I,” he went on. “The ‘people’ watching you are my men, the men in my unit, and they’ve been watching you for a while now.”

“Because I’m Curtis’ widow.”

“Yes.”

“What do they want?”

“To kill you.”

She bristled and let her head briefly fall to rearrange the parts of herself his revelation had knocked out of order. 

“But I stopped it, querida. I told them the truth, that you didn’t know anything about what your husband did. And your boys were so young at the time, I wondered how they could even think to harm the three of you.”

“They wanted to kill my babies too?”

“Yes.”

Dez sent her a text asking if she was okay, and she quickly responded she was fine and would be done in a minute. There was no point pretending she didn’t know he was watching her. What she truly didn’t know was whether he’d reported her current “situation” back to Joel without knowing the full story of everything she and Joel had been dealing with related to this man. 

“Do these men still want to kill me?”

Adrían leaned closer. “Even if they did, I wouldn’t let them.”

“Aren’t they part of your…team or unit or whatever it’s called?”

“Yes, but that won’t stop me from killing them when it comes to you.” He sighed and looked away, and she moved her hand to her lap when she felt his thumb brush her pinky finger. “Ayesha, I didn’t lie to you back then. I fell in love with you. A part of me, I think, is still in love with you.”

“Why?”

“Ah.” He laughed, and the slightest tint of red colored his olive skin. “It’s difficult for me to explain, but I’ll be honest. When we met, it was because my job was to keep tabs on you. Quickly, very quickly, I stopped caring about the job and started to care about you.”

“You still haven’t answered the question, Adrían,” she said. “Why should I believe you right now? You obviously want me to take some kind of comfort in the fact that you’ve got my back, but it’s been years. We haven’t seen each other in all that time.”

“I know, I know.” He shifted in his seat, skin coloring even deeper. “But it just…happened. You remember that day the café in our office complex had that one really bad zucchini?”

She couldn’t stop herself from smiling. “The oily one?”

“Yes. It was one of the times you worked through lunch, and I wanted to make sure you ate, so I didn’t realize what it looked like when I tossed it into the container.”

The smile grew. “It was fine, Adrían.”

“It was bad, Ayesha.” He grinned. “When I opened that container and saw that oil all over your yellow rice and beans, I was so embarrassed.”

Now she was laughing, and she prayed Joel wasn’t anywhere nearby. 

“I remember. Your whole face turned red. Even your ears.”

“I loved laughing with you that day, like we’d known each other longer than we did. It was the first time I noticed that the sound of you laughing makes me feel,” he shrugged, “high, almost. Then, I started to notice how much I love looking into your eyes, and I thought about you the minute my eyes opened in the morning. That first time I kissed you, I knew I would never go back to being the man I was before.”

He seemed closer.

She’d been watching him the entire time, and she didn’t see him move, but he seemed closer. 

“Then when we made love,” amusement blended with rising desire in his eyes, “I became attached to you. So, to answer your question, I love you, querida. And, because I love you, I’ll never let any harm come to you or the boys. You deserve to have a life, and they deserve to have a life with you in it.”

She broke what she hadn’t realized was a stare they’d held for entirely too long. Joel had accused her of having stronger feelings for Adrían than she’d said or even believed, but that wasn’t true. 

It couldn’t be. 

Adrían had entered her life at a time when she hadn’t known whether she was coming or going. During the day, she’d kept on a brave face for the boys but at night, she’d cried until her head hurt. She’d cried wrapped in Curtis’ shirts and with the ties he’d sometimes wear in his hair around her wrist.

When Adrían came along, she’d stopped crying, for a little while, and when they decided to end things…did it hurt? How could it have possibly hurt? Had she thought about him afterward? Stared down the hall at where his office had been, hoping to see him one last time?

No.

No.

She’d only been a widow for a little over a year when they met, and she’d loved Curtis with every single bone in her body. She was certain of it. But there was something, some feeling she’d overlooked when it came to Adrían that she wasn’t sure she felt comfortable searching for now.

“You lost your mother when you were young,” she said. “I understand why you’d look out for the boys the way you did, so thank you.”

“I won’t stop protecting you,” he asserted.

“I have someone who—”

“Ayesha, I don’t care.”

Whatever she was about to reply died on her lips when his gaze shifted behind her head and his expression changed. His shoulders tensed, and the muscle in his jaw pulled tight like a man gearing up for the fight in “fight or flight.”

Joel.

She spun around in her seat and there he was, looking amazing in a black sweater and gray jeans, strolling toward them. Her man was so sexy, even if his face would be the last thing she saw before the white light.

“Don’t get up,” Joel said when he saw her shift. “I’m not here to interrupt.”

She stood anyhow. “Hi, baby. So, um, Adrían—”

“Popped up again. Interesting.”

“Joel, if you’d let me explain—”

“I’ve been following her,” Adrían interrupted, standing as well, and this wasn’t exactly how she’d fantasized being sandwiched between two large, handsome men. “But not in a way to harm her.”

“I’ve got her. She’s good.”

“I think you might be in over your head with this one…Joel.”

Joel smiled. “Oh, aren’t you adorable?”

“You have no idea what you’re dealing with. If you did, you’d understand the privilege of having someone like me watching out for Ayesha. You’d be able to better grasp the advantage of having a man with my expertise protect your woman in ways you’ll never be able to.”

Joel didn’t so much as flinch, but Ayesha pressed herself back against him anyhow, silently professing who she supported and stood with while also allowing her body to be a barrier between them. Adrían squinted, expressionless, and Joel smiled, but it was like the US and the USSR during the Cold War.

“Julien’s getting the boys,” Joel said, eyes never leaving Adrían’s.

She looked around. “How did you get here before him?”

“I had more motivation.” He ticked his head behind him. “Let’s go, Eesh. We, obviously, have some shit to clear up.”

“Do you feel unsafe, Ayesha?” Adrían asked. “Because, if you do, you can come with me.”

“Adrían, don’t do that,” she chided. “I already told you that you can’t do this anymore. I appreciate you looking out for me. You know I do.”

Joel’s gaze flickered in her direction.

“But it can’t be like this.”

“You think this pretty boy can protect you?” Adrían dragged his bottom lip between his teeth. “Better than I can? Better than I will?”

All she saw was Adrían’s shoulder twitch.

Then she blinked, and Adrían was suddenly bent, awkwardly, back against the picnic table. Joel’s forearm was lodged against Adrían’s windpipe, the tip of a blade pressed against Adrían’s skin, and a dot of blood sprouted where the tip met Adrían’s throat. They were about to kill each other in front of her child’s school, and it served her right for messing around with unstable men.

“You can’t kill each other in front of my baby’s school,” she hissed.

Adrían had a knife to his throat, but he didn’t look terrified.

Joel had a knife pressing into another man’s throat, and he looked amused. 

She tried again. “Do I have to repeat myself?”

Joel stepped back and tucked away the knife. 

Adrían straightened, dragged his fingers across his neck, and stared at the red stain left behind.

Joel turned to her. “Let’s go, Eesh.”

She jogged across the lawn. Once she was inside the car, she locked the doors and waited. 

Joel tapped on the driver’s side window. “I’m following you. We’ll talk at home.”

At least he wanted to talk. He wasn’t shutting her out like he’d done after the museum, which meant he was trying. 

He tailed her all the way back to the house, disappearing only for a moment before he popped back up in her rearview mirror. When she pulled into the driveway, she’d half-expected him to tell her she’d taken a wrong turn and to head back to her house because he was done with her. Instead, he parked next to her, got out, and held open the garage door for her to walk through.

“Are you hungry?” She tossed her purse on the kitchen counter. “I still have some of those chicken burritos I made the other day in the freezer. There’s enough for when Josiah gets home and needs his second lunch and pre-dinner snack.”

“Ayesha…”

“What about soup?”

“Living room, Ayesha.”

She faced him. “Are you mad?”

“Pissed. Go sit down.”

“Are we breaking up?”

“Never.” He ticked his head. “Go sit down.”

She shuffled to the living room, eased down onto the sofa, and he sat on the coffee table.

“First of all, Eesh, what the fuck…”

“I didn’t know Adrían was going to be there.” She scooted to the edge of the cushion, their knees touching. “He caught me just as I was leaving the school. This wasn’t some planned tryst or anything like that.”

“That’s what you think I’m worried about?” he asked.

“It’s not?”

“We’ve already had this conversation, and you made it clear who has your heart.” He leaned forward, his elbows on his thighs. “But, the guy you know as Adrían Queiros, Dez and Larke know as Ryan Martin. He might even be a man named Adrían Delgano. In D.C., he impersonated a federal agent and interrogated Larke after a break-in at her office. We think he did it to not only confirm her information, but to find out more information about the guys.”

She hesitated. “I trust him, Joel. He won’t hurt me.”

“You believe that why?”

“He said so.”

“He said he wouldn’t hurt you?”

“In a way.”

Joel searched her face. “He told you he’s in love with you. Is that it?”

“Um…well, something like that. He said he’ll look out for me and the boys whether or not I want him to.”

Joel rubbed his palms on his thighs and leaned back. “We have reason to believe that he’s part of a ghost unit much like, if not identical to, the one me and the guys are part of.”

“He is. He told me that today.”

Surprise softened his features. “He told you that?”

“He said the guys from his team have been following me. It started back in Maui; they wanted to know if I knew what Curtis did for a living. They also wanted to kill me, but Adrían intervened.”

“Why?”

“Because…”

“Because he loves you. Why can’t you say it?”

“I,” she looked down at her fingernails, “don’t know.”

“Tell me the truth about how you feel about him, Eesh.”

As if it were that easy.

Up until a few moments ago, she’d been certain about the feelings she’d had for Adrían back then. They’d spent time together, laughed and talked and made love. But how could it have been more than a passing infatuation when she’d only slept at his place that one time? How could she have missed him when he’d never met her boys, never saw where she kept her coffee so that he could wake her up in the mornings with the smell of hazelnut brew? 

They’d had sex on desks and office floors, in hotel rooms. There was that one time, at that conference, where they’d spent four days together. She realized now that her being there for work and him for a business meeting had been him “keeping tabs” on her, but it appeared to have fallen apart for him at some point. The way he’d laughed while she lay in the crook of his arm, eyes bright and glowing and crinkled at the corners, it was obvious he’d forgotten the objective of his mission before they’d even stepped foot in the hotel.

She knew what love felt like. She’d been lucky enough to experience it twice in a way that made her want to be bathed in it forever. Forever hadn’t crossed her mind with Adrían, but if he hadn’t offered to end things, would she have? 

“The truth is, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s not exactly love that I felt for him because it’s exactly love that I felt for Curtis. It’s exactly love I feel for you. I love you, Joel, so I know it’s not that.”

“But you care about him.”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“Enough to care whether he lives or dies.”

Her head bobbed again. “Yes. I’d…prefer the former.”

Joel stood and walked a few feet away, increasing the space between them at the very moment she needed him closer.

“Eesh, I don’t know what’s been going on with me. I’ve been a federal agent, a soldier, and an assassin, but it’s not until I started falling for you that I’ve felt like this.”

“Like what?”

“Anything or anyone that touches you, dies. Your little boyfriend would have already been dead, but I saw that he meant something to you.” He shook his head, answering a question only he could hear. “Every time I look at you, in my head it’s like, ‘She’s mine,’ over and over. Sometimes, when you’re asleep, I stare at you, and it’s all I hear. It’s so loud, I feel it. I want to possess you, and that shit…it’s not normal.”

She wasn’t sure how it happened for him the first time that made him unaware of it now, but she knew what was happening to him. Mike, Gage…all of them. It was the same thing. Tayler and Xara could have told this story. Ari, Larke. Mo could tell this story several times over. 

“Do you think you might be in love?” she prodded.

“You already know I love you.”

“Falling in love is a different beast. You think you’ve got a handle on it…and then it happens.”

He strode over and crouched in front of her. “I loved Syd and yet…fuck, I’ve never experienced this before. This isn’t love. This is a fucking obsession. I just said I want to possess you. I crave you. How does any of that sound normal? I’d kill for you, Eesh. Anybody who tries to hurt you, I’ll kill them. That’s psychopath-level shit.”

Was it more intense because of the boys?

Right now, it wasn’t about just protecting her. It was also about protecting little people even more vulnerable than she was who depended on him and loved him unconditionally. 

That could be why it was so much more intense. 

His protection also wasn’t merely physical; it extended to protecting the boys’ self-confidence and self-assurance. They looked up to him as a leader, a father figure, and a role model. 

It was driving him crazy because he was in love. 

He was in love with all three of them. 

But was it too much? Had he thought being in their lives, that being “Dad” and “Daddy” would entail much less than this, so now that he had to deal with the pressure and reality of it, it was overwhelming to the point of instability?

“Joel, I’m just going to be honest here,” she began. “If I were to go based on my feelings alone, right now, I’d say you’re freaking out because me, Theo, and Josiah in your life feels overwhelming for you. You’ve been a husband before, and you’re familiar with that role, but you’ve never had a kid want to call you ‘Daddy’ or ‘Dad,’ and it’s a lot on you which is, admittedly, fair.”

“That’s not it,” he quickly clarified. “You three are not and won’t ever be the problem. Yeah, I’ve never been a father or had a fatherly role, but the fact that the boys want to call me Dad and Daddy makes me want to do everything to never lose that respect in their eyes.”

She cradled both sides of his face, cupping his jaw. “So, are you afraid then that having us this close means something bad’s going to happen? Or that you’ll mess up somehow? Or—”

“I never knew I could love someone this much.”

A rush of emotion snared her throat. For the second time that day, she’d wanted to say something, but the words either didn’t have a chance to leave her lips or it was like now—they didn’t know how to navigate their way out of her mouth.

“Does that make you feel guilty?” she asked. “Joel, none of this changes what you and Sydney had. None of it changes how I felt about Curtis.”

“You’re,” he squinted, “close. I’ve never felt like this before, and you know how gone I was over Syd. This is worse. Much worse.”

“Okay, I think I get it now. You think our relationship will be like yours and Sydney’s, and you could lose me. You could push me away. If your feelings are this intense for me, for us, you’re wondering if you can handle losing us. Am I close?”

A smile tugged at his mouth, an even mix of amusement and sorrow. “You’re hovering around the bullseye.”

“Honestly?” She shrugged and felt the first spill of tears warm the tops of her cheekbones. “Neither one of us knows what the future will bring. We might implode, or we might do just fine. We might be right for each other and would have never guessed it having been right under each other’s noses for so long. There’s got to be a reason we were such good friends first. But I’m not Sydney, just like you’re not Curtis. For me, he was perfect too. He gave me two wonderful boys.”

“But I’m yours,” Joel said, a quiet edge to his voice. “In every way you could imagine. Thinking about not having you is enough to drive me crazy. And, shit, it felt like it crept up on me. It’s been in here,” he hovered a hand over his heart, “for a minute now, hiding. And I knew, you know? I…fuck, I knew it back in Maui, even. I’d fly down, stay for a while, and then when it was time to go back, something would just…” He let his hand rest on his chest. “It was like a hook. I’d be on the plane and it would be…agonizing, I guess, is the best word for it. I wanted to go back. The minute I left you, Eesh, I wanted to be back where you were.”

He blurred in front of her. She wrung her hands, needing to busy them to contain the nervous energy moving through her body.

“You know you’re going to be my wife, right?”

This wasn’t the direction she’d seen the conversation headed when she’d spotted him walking up at the school. 

“That’s what I want,” he said, focus shifting to her mouth. “I want you forever, point-blank. I want to wake up next to you and call you Mrs. Lattimore. I want how your body feels when I pull you back against me. Your scent. Your lips. Your voice.” His brows crooked as if he’d suddenly been struck by a jolt of pain. “I want to be your husband and the boys’ father. But I also don’t want to mess things up. I don’t…I can’t live without you, is what I’m saying.”

She nodded, words still lost in the tangle of feelings wound and looped inside her.

“And,” he closed his eyes, “I’m trying. I swear to you I’m trying.”

“Trying to,” she cleared her throat, “what?”

“Not ask you to marry me.” He switched to kneeling and pulled her forward, pressing his lips against her hairline. “Every day since the trip out to Malmö, I’ve wanted to, but I want to take my time. Do this right. I don’t ever want to not be here for you and our boys. This is going to last, Ayesha. That’s what I want.”

A cry sprung from her throat, followed immediately by another, and another, until she was bawling, her eyes pressed into his shoulder.

“Eesh…is that what you want?”

She nodded, the movement shaky. “Yes. And I wanted you to come back too, in Maui. Whenever you left, I’d sit at the airport, wanting you to come back…too.”

They could have stayed downstairs; she would have willingly made love to him on the sofa. But as they hurried upstairs, as he crept over her on the bed they shared and slowly undressed her, eyes never leaving hers, it was perfect this way.

In between undressing her, his mouth ravaged hers. Those large hands of his swept her skin. She knew she was hot, but his palm was hotter, skating across the surface of her stomach, sweeping lower until his fingers were inside her.

While he stroked her with two fingers, his mouth latched onto her nipple, and he rolled the bud along his tongue, tasting her slowly. When he sucked, she arched. When he flicked, she gripped the sheets, his arms, his hair. 

As she climbed toward orgasm, he made his way down her body and buried his face between her legs, and she came with him looking up at her…like he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself if he’d missed the moment she tore apart.

“Turn over, Eesh,” he said, tongue darting over his lips.

She rolled onto her belly.

“Up.”

She pushed onto all fours.

He grabbed her hips and entered her, slowly, growing thicker as each ridged inch disappeared inside her body. Then he was moving, their bodies slapping together while she gripped the headboard and cried for an entirely different reason. 

Finding another grip, or at least using her palms to keep her upright, would have been possible if he wasn’t pounding her so mercilessly. It would have been probable if it wasn’t for the full length of him sinking deep, pulling out, and sinking deep again, swelling inside and stretching her.

She felt him pull out, heard him groan as he wrapped his fingers around the rigid length and tap it against her lower back before her body swallowed him again, whole.

“Shit.” He’d mumbled it, almost growled it, and stopped again. “Fuck, I’m gonna come.”

Inside her, his dick throbbed.

If he wasn’t going to move, then…

She pushed back against him. He tried to hold her in place, but each crash of their bodies yanked a moan from his throat, the sound vibrating lower and lower until he had no choice but to match her pace. 

His fingers created craters in her hips as he came. Filled her.

She wanted to say something, tell him again that she loved him. The certainty was part of the terror—how sure she was that he was the man she wanted to be with even if the world burned and crashed to its fiery end tomorrow.

They collapsed. She lay sprawled across his chest, the heat of his body mingling with hers, and looked at her bare ring finger. 

Seeing it bare wasn’t as much of a shock as she’d originally thought it would be, but this was the only man she’d ever dream of removing her ring for. She’d worn it everywhere, needing Curtis’ love and protection in the only form he was capable of providing it in, but now he funneled it through the man underneath her.

“Joel, my ring. It’s my ring.”

He looked down at her through sleepy eyelids. “Hmm?”

“My ring, baby. I wore it everywhere. You think Adrían did something to it?”

It took a moment for it to sink in, his post-coitus fatigue strong. “It would make sense that that’s how he knew about Mr. Veeny.”

“Joel?” She raised up, palms on his chest, dread burning through the last vestiges of her orgasm. “Who’s Mr. Veeny?”



10: The End of an Era

04/18/2021


“Ayesha…” Joel reached for her hand, but she pulled it away. “Eesh, stop for a second.”

She didn’t reply, didn’t look at him as she stuck her legs into a pair of jeans and tugged a long-sleeved T-shirt over her head. It was his shirt, so it swallowed her, but she didn’t move to change. 

“Ayesha, don’t leave.”


Release Date Schedule
10: The End of an Era – 04/18
11: MoJay vs Das Biest – 04/24
12: One Last Thing, Before I Go – 04/25
13: From Central to the End – 04/30

Episode 08: Back To Life, Back To Reality

Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.

Back To Life, Back To Reality

“Sir, I’m afraid I don’t understand.” 

The store clerk looked at Giorgio and Mo, Aleksi asleep in a baby wrap against Mo’s chest with Theo’s hand in hers, and Josiah reading on his tablet next to them. For the most part, they looked like a normal, everyday family. At least, if they didn’t take Giorgio’s size, voice, or menacing presence into consideration.

“You want something sharper?” the clerk asked.

“Bez.” Giorgio held out a pair of hedge trimming shears. “Feel.”

She pressed her finger on the tip of each blade. “It didn’t even draw blood.”

“It can kill not even paper.”

The clerk swallowed and clasped his hands beneath his chin. “So…what are you trying to do with them, now?”

Nichego,” Giorgio said, frustrated. “Nothing. I can do nothing.”

“Well, what were you trying to do with them?”

“Not kill.” Giorgio handed over the shears. “Where is…Bez, how do you say word, ‘nozh dlya derevo’?

“Knife for tree?” Mo thought for a moment and then shook her head. “Thank you for your help, sir. We don’t need a chainsaw.”

The clerk scurried off.

“Did you get the barackets, Uncle Gio?” Theo asked.

“Da, Little Theo. I get bracket. We can go. Nothing is here for me.”

On the way to the SUV in the car park, Theo regaled Mo with the facts he’d learned from his museum trip. Josiah walked next to Giorgio, his attention not so much as budging from his tablet. 

“How’d they fit a ship that big inside a building?” Mo asked Theo, his small hand lodged in hers.

“This is the best part, Auntie Mo.” His eyes opened wide. “They built it around the ship. The lady at the museum told us that.”

“That’s so awesome.”

“You want to come with me next time?”

She squeezed his hand. “I’d love to, baby.”

A figure in the distance, partially hidden behind the building, caught her eye. Underneath the outdoor lights, she made out the shadow of a large, male frame.

“You see him, Gio?” she asked.

Giorgio ticked his head. “Da.”

Theo sniffled, and the front of his little jeans was suddenly darker than they’d been seconds ago. 

“Sweetheart,” she crouched in front of him, “what’s wrong?”

Theo didn’t respond.

She looked up at Giorgio, whose attention was fixed toward where she’d seen the man, and made sure Josiah was still engrossed in his book.

“Gio?”

He glanced at her.

She covered Theo’s ears. “Go fuck him up, baby.”

Giorgio started off. “Da.”

* * *

Giorgio brandished a Bowie knife. 

So, this was Mr. Veeny.

The guys had let him know that if he ever encountered the piece of shit, for whatever reason, the agreement was to not kill him. 

To not kill him.

To…kill him? 

He remembered Gage’s voice saying something, but the words were so soft now, like a field mouse’s footsteps, Aleksi’s tiny snores, or a leaf falling onto cotton. 

Lavigne opened his mouth as if to say something, but Giorgio shoved a fist into the other man’s face, forcing him to stumble backward. 

Nobody ever got the joke.

The blade was a distraction.

Lavigne whipped out a blade of his own, but Giorgio rushed forward and lodged the Bowie through his shoulder, narrowly “missing” Lavigne’s neck. 

Long streams of French spurted from Lavigne’s mouth. Sweat sprung on his pale skin, darkened by smudges of what looked like dirt and blood. The mudak squinted and reached for the knife, but Giorgio pulled it out and stepped back.

Blood dripped from the blade’s tip onto the asphalt. Hopefully, if someone discovered it, it would force the store to carry more substantial blades. What was the point of a knife if it couldn’t pierce flesh? Skin, at least.

Giorgio flicked his wrist to discard the droplets, regretting that he hadn’t grabbed his KA-BAR knife from the trunk of the Cayenne. Nobody knew how he got his hands on it, and it was a funny story. 

Something crackled from behind him. 

Giorgio used the sound to time this second person’s movement. 

When they were close, he ducked away from a chokehold, turned, and lodged the knife’s tip into the person’s abdomen. He brandished another blade, a spear point, and pierced the person’s jugular.

Now that he faced them, he made out a man’s face. 

The man gasped, grabbed his neck, and fell to his knees. Giorgio stared as the gasping assailant, if he could even call them that, went from his knees to the asphalt. This man looked…what was the word? Unimpressionable? Uneventful? Where was Bez when he needed her? 

Whatever the word was, this man with his dark hair and regular brown eyes didn’t look like any sort of killer. Then again, Giorgio supposed that was the point. People said he looked like a killer, but what did that even mean? Was it his scars? How did they know he hadn’t gotten them from playing too roughly on a playground as a chil—

“I said, ‘who are you’?”

Giorgio looked up, directly into the barrel of a gun, and cocked his head to the side. 

“You will not shoot? Why?”

“Don’t stare down men or women holding guns, Gio,” Bez had said, over and over, and he hadn’t. For a long time. How was he supposed to know he still did it? Where was he supposed to find somebody with a gun to see what would happen?

Lavigne’s hand trembled. “Nique ta mère! Fuck you. If I shoot you, I am dead.”

“You are dead already, yes?” Giorgio asked. “And why do you shake? Is this because I am not five-year-old boy?”

“Enculé.”

“I am asshole? Mudak, if you do not kill me now, I will kill you later. Pull the fucking trigger.”

He could not tell Bez this story. 

Maybe he would tell the fish.

“Tell your guy to stand down,” Lavigne requested. “I have to get my man some help. If not, we are all going to die today.”

From behind the mudak, Dez lowered a rifle. 

“I will find you,” Lavigne spat, inching toward his comrade.

“You want my number?” Giorgio watched Lavigne’s every movement, Gage’s request echoing in his head. “I will come if you call.”

Lavigne grabbed his dying—well, dead—friend and backed up toward the shadows. Giorgio turned and headed back to Bez and the boys. 

“Pozza,” Dez called, following him. “You can’t just turn your back on somebody holding a gun. We talked about this.”

When he and Dez reached the Cayenne, Giorgio picked Theo up, opened the back of the SUV, and set Theo down in the trunk. He then took off his shirt and draped it over Theo’s body.

Theo’s lips trembled. “I’m sorry I had an accident, Uncle Gio.”

Giorgio gently bumped their foreheads together. “Is okay, Little Theo. This will happen. But Mr. Veeny, he will not harm you. If he try, I will take knif—”

“Notice,” Mo cut in. “He’ll take notice and handle it.”

“Bez, this is not what I was going to say.”

She kissed the ball of his shoulder, and he liked when she kissed odd places. He also liked watching her, especially like this when she had Aleksi in one of those things she wrapped around her like bedsheets. She was happy; she told him so all the time. And knowing she was happy even though she was with him was a gift he could have never bought. It was better than all of his cars, even the Ferraris.

Unassuming.

That was the word—unassuming.

Giorgio laughed to himself, head shaking. 

He changed Theo out of his soiled clothes. When Theo’s tears returned, he held him close. 

“Is okay, Little Theo. Remember this always—we will forever protect you. If I have to,” he glanced at Bez, “harm Mr. Veeny, I will do this. You trust your Uncle Giorgio, yes?”

Theo nodded and squeezed him tight.

Bez, her beautiful eyes shining, smiled. “I love you, Gio. Please don’t ever change.”

Theo echoed her, voice teary. “I love you too, Uncle Giorgio. Thanks for being my scary uncle.”

* * *

Adrían studied the frozen blip on the screen in front of him. It hadn’t moved in the last day or so, and even if all Ayesha did was walk around the house, he would have still been able to track that, at least. No audio or any change in position meant she’d taken off her ring, and she’d worn that ring every single day they were together, removing it only to shower or have it cleaned. 

He tilted back in his chair, locked his fingers behind his head, and stared at the dot. Was it crazy that he was happy that she’d found someone worth that kind of leap? As far as he was concerned, his soul had a pre-booked slot in hell. The least he could do was seek atonement through the genuine wish for her to have the best life possible.

“Did you turn your comms off?”

Adrían spun around in his chair to face the now open and unlocked doorway. Hyeok, the fucking light-foot, stood in the light streaming in from the corridor.

“It’s not like I can’t.”

“Well, we’ve been trying to reach you,” Hyeok said. “It’s Wesley. Lavigne disappeared on us again, so Wesley followed him. They ran into somebody outside of a, of all places, home improvement store.”

Adrían circled his hand. The slow pacing of the story was getting on his last nerve. 

“Gano, Wesley’s dead.”

That was…unexpected. Not that he felt anything—remorse, sadness, a twitch of grief—but he hadn’t expected for them to be a five-man team before going up against Alpha. 

“Who killed him?” 

Hyeok folded his arms, leaned against the doorframe, and shrugged. “Don’t know.”

“How’d it happen?”

“Two blades. One to the neck, the other to the midsection.” Hyeok glanced at the laptop screen. “Lavigne got a little sliced up too. Said it all happened in less than two minutes.”

“Lavigne uses blades,” Adrían pointed out, shutting the laptop’s lid. “Sure it’s not him? The man does some crazy shit.”

“Well, whoever did this is crazier.”

Adrían read between the lines. For a long time, they’d had no idea Central had formed other teams from the grueling training exercises that had brought Omega together. Each team had been treated like they were the only ones, none of them ever crossing paths until the Curtis Savea incident. 

“So, you think it’s Alpha?” he asked.

Hyeok nodded. “Trevor does.”

“Why would they be in Sweden?”

“Ayesha Savea, does she still have any contact with anyone from Alpha?”

Yes.

“Not that I’ve been able to glean. Why?”

“She’s in Sweden, and we now believe at least one of Alpha’s in Sweden. Can’t be a coincidence. Plus, that team didn’t develop like the rest. They were the first, the elite, and we’ve been hearing rumor after rumor that they’ve grown too close. If Ayesha’s here and the guy who did this to Wesley and Lavigne might be Alpha, it gives us reason to believe Alpha’s here as well.”

Which further complicated things. 

When they’d known each other, Ayesha had told him she’d cut all ties with “friends of Curtis’ from the military.” Their surveillance had revealed that she’d kept in touch with one, Gage Wolfe—one of only two names they knew of Alpha. The other was Curtis Savea. 

Trevor and Gage served in the same military unit in Australia, so when Trevor spotted Gage that fateful day of Curtis’ demise, he’d recognized him. Central had created the teams all in a similar fashion, so this blade-wielder was likely Lavigne’s equivalent. Dez, the man who’d been with Larke Tapley in D.C., could be another one, especially since they’d linked Larke to Gage.

“So what do we do now?” Adrían asked. “Where’s Wesley?”

“His body’s already been taken care of. And, I don’t know what we do now but,” Hyeok pointed at the laptop with his chin, “I suggest you find us something useful from or about Ayesha Savea, who I know you’ve been watching, that can lead us to Alpha before I start believing we can no longer trust you.”

They never could trust him.

He worked based on his contract, not allegiances. 

If the contract had been to kill his team members in exchange for his freedom, they would already all be dead. Omega was not Alpha. They were not close, they were not friends, and they for damn sure weren’t family. The sick fuck Lavigne should have been the dead one. And why would anybody who possessed that much skill leave Lavigne alive if Lavigne wasn’t in on the whole charade?

“Where’s Ayesha?” Hyeok asked.

Adrían knew exactly where to find her. At least, where she’d been located for most of her time in Europe.

“I don’t know. That’s what I’ve been trying to find out all this time, but she takes off the ring now.”

“Take me with you next time.” Hyeok pushed up off the doorframe. “I’ll tail her back to wherever it is she’s staying. Nobody’ll see me.”

“Sure,” Adrían lied. “It’ll give me one less thing to do.”

Hyeok left, shutting the door behind him. 

Adrían turned back to his laptop. He’d already planned to go see Ayesha—he wasn’t at all concerned about her new man—just to let her know he was watching over her. But, if she was still connected to Alpha, getting to her at home would be tricky. Luckily, he knew where the boys went to school.

* * *

Joel opened his mouth for Ayesha to pop a grape inside. “The guys would gag right now if they saw us,” he said. “Sick for days.”

They’d made love twice more last night and once this morning. She’d brought them breakfast in bed. After, he’d pulled her onto his lap for them to finish their fruit, Ayesha naked with the sheets pooled around her as she popped grapes and chunks of melon and pineapple into his mouth.

“We’ll have to tone down our disgustingness before we get back,” she joked.

“I don’t know.” He gripped her hips. “Seems kind of hard.”

That one sentence was all it took.

While she gripped the headboard behind his head, he held her hips to guide her down onto him. 

She rode him, and he sucked on those sensitive nipples, her moans resonating like the Boston Philharmonic. Each time a shock of pleasure moved through his body, he had to toss his head back, her breast involuntarily falling from his mouth. But then her nipples called to him…and he went.

He’d learned how she liked to be touched, so he slipped one hand between them to soothe the tight ache he knew was building in her clit. 

Between the strokes from his fingers and his teeth gently tugging her nipples, she cried out as she came, gasping and shuddering. And the fact that she trembled when she climaxed made him release his load way before he was ready. 

Casual sex was what it was, but this shit was on an entirely different level. This was what he’d wanted, what he’d been afraid he would never have again.

Panting, she wrapped her arms around his neck. 

He kissed her shoulder, breathing hard. 

“Want to check out the private beach?” he asked, barely getting the words out.

She nodded. “Sure. We should probably get some sort of sunlight today.”

In agreement, they cleaned up and went to the beach.

Leticia and her husband hadn’t surfaced for a few days, so he and Ayesha weren’t sure if they were definitely alone, but the beachfront was empty. The coast stretched further than they could see, and small hills covered in lush greenery created an exclusive oasis.

For a moment, he’d forgotten people wore bikinis and swimsuits to the beach. And, to be fair, Ayesha had worn a cover-up. It wasn’t until she took off the cover-up to reveal the burnt orange, halter-top bikini underneath that he remembered. 

So the minute she was in his arms, he fucked her, slowly, in the Baltic Sea.

Without stopping to catch a full second wind, he then wore her out among the trees hugging the coast, her fingernails skating the tree bark while he sunk into her from behind, over and over, until her shudders made him come.

It was clearer now why Mike and Xara hadn’t left their room much on their trip out to Malmö.

Exhausted, they staggered back to the cottage, ate lunch, and fell asleep. When they woke up, they went out for dinner. They’d even dressed for dinner. But Ayesha couldn’t stop staring at him in his collared shirt and blazer, biting her lip and squirming, so he took their food to go. He’d planned to wait until they were inside the cottage, but most of her clothes were off by the time they reached the front steps.

He hoisted her into the air, stepped inside, and placed her back against the entryway wall. Her gaze held his, and when the head of his dick breached the gateway to her heaven, her eyes rolled back and she held her breath. She didn’t release the breath until he was in, as deep as he could go.

“I love that,” he said, searching her eyes. “That little gasp.”

He rocked his hips into hers. The console table in the entryway rattled, his knee banging against it, but he felt no pain. Her fingernails sunk into his skin but that, he liked. He liked it even more when, to muffle her screams, she bit his shoulder.

“You can scream, baby,” he told her, their bodies slick and sliding against each other. “Don’t hold it in.”

She shook her head.

“You don’t want to scream, Eesh?” He slowed his pace. “You sure?”

The console table crashed to the floor. He plucked her from the wall, and her fingers somehow tugged down a set of drapes. 

He stopped in front of the sofa, set her down, and used her hip to spin her around.

“Bend over, Eesh.”

From above, he could see how fast her chest moved, how hard her nipples were. 

“Ayesha,” he grabbed her neck and bent her body in half, over the back of the couch, “don’t scream.”

When he filled her, she was even wetter than before.

“Oh, you liked that, did you?” He snapped his hips. “Fuck, you’re so wet.”

She gasped.

Gasped again.

Moaned.

Screamed.

“I said no screaming.” His open palm met the lovely swell of her ass, and his dick was suddenly even wetter.

“Joel…the…fabric…”

The room blurred. The sounds of their bodies coming together intensified as his vision clouded. 

She felt so good. 

Amazing. 

The burn of release and the sensation of it shooting from his tip hit him at the same time her inner muscles quivered around his cock.

After several hard jerks and pants, the room cleared.

“What were you saying about fabric?” he asked.

“The sofa.” She ran her palm over one of the back cushions. “My nipples were rubbing against the fabric.”

“Did it hurt?”

She looked back at him, smiling. “No.”

Finally, they ate. 

Only crazy people who were otherwise starving found time to screw each other before tending to their stomachs. 

“You done?” Joel asked, pointing to Ayesha’s food container.

She took one last bite of her spinach and mushroom lasagna and shoved the container in his direction. He tossed them in the trash and returned to bed. They went home tomorrow, so tonight, he would indulge in holding her while they were both naked and warm and boneless.

“Question.” He wrapped his arms around her from behind and nuzzled her neck. “How effective is that IUD again?”

“Highly effective,” she said. “Why?”

“All the times I’ve come inside you? We’d end up with a Joel Jr. or a little Joelita before the end of next year. Guaranteed.”

She laughed. “Well, IUDs are more popular on this side of the globe, and the doctor assured me it’s highly effective. In any case, if we end up with a Joel Jr. or a little ‘Joelita,’ we can’t say we didn’t take some precautions.”

“Would you be upset?”

“To have your baby?” She looked back at him over her shoulder. “Not at all. Why, did you think I’d be?”

Blood rushed to his groin. “Maybe?”

“Joel, I’d have kids with you in a heartbeat. To be honest, I’d like to one day.”

He slid his hand down her body and lodged his fingers between her legs. 

“If we sit around waiting to tell someone that we love them or we’re…having their baby,” she went on, “we could lose them before we ever get that chance. That’s not saying you and I are going to rush into things and not consider all the variables at play here, but Joel, you make me so happy, I don’t think I could stand not having you in my life.”

They’d worry about foreplay another day.

He pushed his way inside her, and as her pussy tightened around him, she grabbed his wrist. The sigh that left her lips whenever he entered her to the hilt, he hadn’t yet found a way to prepare for. It almost always made him come too soon. 

“I’m sorry if you’re sore.” He kissed her neck. “I promise we’ll slow down after this.”

“It’s okay, Joel. I want you.”

Groaning, he cupped her breast, closed his eyes, and pressed his forehead against the back of her head. The head of his dick was already tingling, and he had to concentrate. It was so clear now, he didn’t know why he hadn’t seen it before. They’d both seen a possible relationship between them as being problematic. They’d both assumed it would have caused chaos, and she would have been accused of having tried to seduce him when he was still married. He would have been accused of taking advantage of her vulnerability and her desire to be with someone who truly loved her boys.

But she never doubted him.

It was never, “I don’t know if I want you, Joel.”

It was always, “I want you, Joel, but I’m afraid being with you might cause problems.”

He sucked her neck, rolling the pad of his thumb over her nipple. 

“Play with your pussy for me, Eesh.” A tinge of pleasure ran the full length of his shaft. “Please.”

She parted her legs to fulfill his request, which he’d asked her to do because he was currently too emotionally involved to last as long as he’d like, but parting her legs made her take him deeper. Then, even though his eyes were closed, he could hear her wet fingers as she teased herself. And, as she did, she moaned and rolled her hips.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

The sweet burn of release built.

Each cry of his name from her lips made the burn deeper. Hotter. He was nearing the point of no return, the head of his dick tightening and preparing for the ecstasy of coming deep inside her.

She cried out, arched, and shook.

Thank God.

His orgasm tore from him, spilling hot out of his swollen tip in steady jerks. He came when he was at his deepest, needing to fulfill the primal urge to deposit his seed into her womb. It was a miracle of nature he had anything left. Each time he found himself inside her, his balls sighed. They hadn’t worked this hard in a long time.

He kissed her behind her ear and felt her smile.


The next morning, they checked in with the boys. More disgusting cuteness between them came in the form of her wearing the pajama top of the set of which he wore the bottoms.

Ayesha sat on the bed while he rested his head on her lap, and it was funny the difference a day made even in the intimacy of their positioning.

Theo greeted them this time, and he wasn’t smiling. Joel looked around behind him to make sure he was still at Mo and Giorgio’s. 

“Hey, buddy. You okay?”

Theo nodded.

“Baby, did something happen?” Ayesha asked. “You seem sad.”

Theo shook his head.

“Where’s Josiah?” they both asked at the same time.

Theo shrugged.

Joel got out of bed, grabbed his phone, and called Mo. When she picked up, she didn’t sound like herself either. 

“Hey, Joel. How’s the mini-vacay?”

“Good. Great. Hey, did something happen?”

She went silent. 

Something had happened, and it was bad.

“We didn’t want to say anything until we got back,” Mo began. “But when me and Giorgio took the boys with us to pick up brackets for the swing set, Theo had an accident in the parking lot, and it really embarrassed him.”

Joel headed to the living room and sat on the sofa arm. “Was he sleeping or awake?”

“Awake.”

The muscles in his stomach tightened. 

“Mo, who’d he see?”

“Mr. Veeny.”

Joel glanced at the open bedroom door. It was the same Mr. Veeny he realized he still hadn’t told Ayesha about yet. She didn’t even know he’d found out the “veeny” from Theo’s dream was an actual person, and that he’d gotten the information from the man she used to have casual sex with.

He’d essentially created his own clusterfuck.

“Gio said Eesh doesn’t know about ‘Mr. Veeny,’ so I didn’t want to say anything,” Mo added. “And, trust me, Theo’s more sad about his accident. He said not to tell ‘Mama or Joel’ about what happened because he didn’t want them sad on their ‘happy trip.’ I’m sorry you had to call to find out.”

“No, no, I understand,” Joel reassured. “You didn’t want him to feel betrayed by going against his wishes. I get it.”

“Gio saw Lavigne. He said there were two men, but one of them he definitely killed. Dez was with us, and they let Lavigne go.”

“For me to deal with him.”

“Yes.”

They’d saved him the last bite of a good ass dinner. 

What better brothers could a man ask for?

“Do you want us to tell Ayesha?” Mo asked. “Gio said Lavigne was in their house in Maui. When Ayesha finds out, she won’t take that well. We can do a girls’ night or something and break the news that way.”

“It has to be me, Mo.”

She sighed. “I know. Just…don’t do it out there. Wait until you get back. You two deserve this, and I hope it gave you the opportunity you needed to figure things out.”

“It did.”

“So you know she’s in love with you?”

Ayesha appeared in the bedroom doorway.

“I do. And she knows I’m in love with her.”

“Good.”

“We can come home tonight.”

In the background, Aleksi cried out, the cry followed by Giorgio’s voice. 

“Joel, you know we love the boys,” Mo said. “We’ve got this until you get back. Take your joy when you can because, as usual, there’ll be times we won’t get to have any of it.”

He locked gazes with Ayesha. “You’re right.”

“Say hi to Eesh for me.”

“I will. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mo.”

They hung up.

“Did you get Theo to talk?” he asked Ayesha.

She shook her head. “No. Josiah didn’t want to talk either, but it was because Theo told him, ‘don’t tell her, Jojo,’ when he started to explain.”

“He had an accident yesterday when they were at the home improvement store, and he’s embarrassed.”

“Oh, no.” She walked over and sat on the sofa. “But how? Did he fall asleep in the car?”

“No, he was awake.”

She scooted over, and he moved next to her.

“Joel, I can’t help but think this ‘veeny’ is a name. An actual person terrorized my baby at school, and he must have repressed it until recently. Theo’s behaviors are similar to a child being abused. A dream wouldn’t terrify him this badly.”

He drew her into his arms. “I know.”

“Joel, I don’t know what to do here.” A sudden flood of tears wracked her body. “What if this ‘veeny’ is a person and he…he hurt my baby, and I didn’t know? What kind of mother would that make me not to know someone hurt my little boy?”

His heart tugged, but he knew this was a mild reaction compared to what would happen if he broke the news to her right then.

We’ll fix this.” He kissed her temple. “You’re not alone, Eesh.”

“I keep trying to tell myself, ‘You’re doing your best, you’re doing your best,’ but the fear that I’m failing never seems to go away completely. And now,” she choked out a cry, “what if…Joel, you know I was young when my mother died. There was a time before I went to live with family that I was in foster care. I saw things.”

She buried her face in his shoulder.

He’d never seen her cry this hard.

“Not my baby. I love them so much, and I just want the best for them. Joel, what if Theo…and then he’d feel…Joel, my little boy…and then what if Josiah…”

He pressed kisses in her hair. Would telling her now make this better or worse? How could he reassure her without making her feel even more like a failure because she hadn’t known Lavigne was in their home? The man wasn’t some average prick and likely specialized in getting into locations undetected. But how much of that would matter to Ayesha?

Joel barely got the next words out. “I asked Theo if anybody hurt him or touched him. He said no.”

“And…you believe him, right?”

“Yes. I do.”

She curled her arms around him and held on tight.

“Ayesha, you’re not a failure as a mother,” he reassured. “The boys are smart, thoughtful, kind, and sweet. This is just an obstacle we have to figure out in order to help Theo over or through it. You’re an amazing mama.”

She’d kept it bottled up. This wasn’t all because of tonight. The stress of it all had affected her more than she’d claimed, but having to do everything on her own for so long, she’d never quite relearned how to lean on others.

“Joel?”

“Yeah, Eesh?”

“Thank you.”

“You don’t have to thank me, babe.” He leaned back and swiped his thumbs underneath her eyes to flick away the droplets of tears that straggled. “But I need you to hear me when I say this, okay? Ayesha, you’re not a single parent anymore. I’m here. And, I’m not going anywhere.”

* * *

Joel crouched and scooped Theo, who came running at full speed, up into his arms, rocking him and holding him tight. Even Josiah ran to them, locking his arms around Ayesha as if he never wanted to let go. They’d talked to the boys before they left for the train that morning, and it had eased Ayesha’s worry some that they’d been in better spirits.

Aleksi, who didn’t want to be left out, toddled over and held up his arms.

Joel scooped him up as well.

They thanked Mo and Giorgio, endlessly, and said their goodbyes. When Aleksi realized he wasn’t leaving with them, he bawled and squirmed in Giorgio’s hands as they walked out the front door.

Joel had initially planned to meet the guys over at Julien’s, but he didn’t want to leave the boys when they just got back. So, the four of them made a pizza together and watched The Good Dinosaur, Theo’s latest obsession. Even Josiah was more affectionate than usual, snuggling up against Ayesha for the entire movie without a book, tablet, or e-reader in sight.

After the movie, they prepared for bed.

Behind the closed bathroom door, Joel overheard Theo telling Ayesha about how much he helped on the swing set and how much Aleksi loved it. A chatty Theo was a happy Theo.

He went to Josiah’s room and found Josiah sitting on his bed, looking around. 

“Hey, ‘Siah,” Joel called. “Everything okay?” 

Josiah nodded. “Yeah. Everything’s great. You got a minute?”

“For you? Always.” Joel sat next to him. “What’s up?”

“Don’t feel bad about spending so much time with Theo. He’s going through a lot right now, and he’s never had a dad, so he’s still learning what it’s like. Me, I have a little more experience in that area.”

Joel smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Do you, now?”

“Well, yeah,” Josiah emphasized, smiling himself. “I’m practically an expert.”

“Break it down for me, then.”

“Well, I was talking about it with one of my friends at school. She asked me if the guy who drops me off sometimes is my father. I said no, he’s my dad.”

Joel cleared his throat. “Really?”

“Yeah. Like, when Papa was still alive, I remember laughing a lot. I remember being excited to come home so we could talk or play games together. Papa was different from Ma, but in a good way. Ma makes you feel loved. Papa made me feel safe. When you put those two together, you get this feeling like you can do something you thought you never could because they’ll have your back.” Josiah’s head fell, and he studied the striped pattern on his comforter. “When Papa died, and this isn’t saying I don’t feel safe with Ma or anything, things felt different. Ma cried a lot. She tried to hide it, but I still heard her.”

The bathroom door down the hall opened and closed, and Theo’s chatter echoed until it was muffled by the door to the owner’s suite.

“Do you think she was sad a lot?” Joel asked.

Josiah raised one shoulder in a quick shrug. “Yeah. I was sad too. But, I think she cried a lot because she was scared and alone and needed more people who loved her around. So, when she made up with my uncles, I was so happy for her.”

“Did you feel safe again?”

“A little bit.”

“Do you feel safe now?”

He grinned. “Yeah. Very.”

Joel matched his grin. “When did that change?”

“When you started coming to Maui more.”

It had started out as every once in a while. Then he was in Maui every month. Eventually, he stayed until the guys needed him.

“I felt really guilty at first,” Josiah went on. “Ma didn’t tell me too much, but I heard stuff, so I knew something happened with you and Aunt Syd.”

“Why’d you feel guilty?”

“Because when you started coming to Maui more, I started…wanting you to fall in love with Ma.”

“And that felt wrong.”

“I didn’t want Aunt Syd to be alone, but when you started coming to Maui more…”

“You felt safe,” Joel finished.

He nodded.

“When did you stop feeling guilty?”

Josiah shrugged again, with the other shoulder. “It just kind of went away the more time you spent with us. Then, I saw you look at Ma.”

Joel, so damn proud of his boy, grinned wider. “You saw me look at Eesh? Like how?”

“You started looking at her a lot. Like…staring. I knew that meant you liked her. Plus, you started mean-mugging the guys who tried to look at her body and stuff.”

“That in itself was a full-time job. Your mother’s really pretty.”

Josiah’s face tinted. “Some of my friends think so, too. It’s weird.”

“Give me their names.”

Josiah burst out laughing, eyes lighting up. He and Theo technically had the same color eyes, but Theo had more brown and gold whereas Josiah had more brown and green. 

Josiah continued. “Joel, you’ve felt like my dad for a really long time. Spending time with you makes me remember my Papa, and that’s how I know you’re supposed to be part of our family. And I don’t mean this in a bad way about Aunt Syd or anything, but I think you were supposed to be part of our family all along.”

Joel could admit that he’d felt the same thing recently. If Sydney truly was pregnant after knowing Dmitri for only a short while, then he knew she was happy. And he was happy for her. Happy as hell. Heartbroken Joel would have never dreamed of being happy about Sydney’s pregnancy with another man. Heartbroken Joel would have jumped off the Woodrow Wilson.

He draped an arm around Josiah’s shoulders. “I think so too.”

“Joel, when it’s just us, do you think I could call you Dad, or would that be too weird?”

“You know, Theo asked me that too.”

“What’d you tell him?”

“Same thing. Yes, that’s fine. It’s not weird at all.”

“Cool. I mean, I don’t want Ma to feel weird about it like I don’t love Papa anymore.”

“I understand.” He squeezed Josiah and planted a kiss on top of Josiah’s head. “The three of us will do something together soon. And now that I’m back, I can take over your MMA lessons.”

“Really? That would be so awesome.”

“I’ve got you.”

“Oh, and if you want to marry Ma or anything, you have my blessing.”

“So now, I just need Theo’s, which won’t be easy to get.”

They looked at each other and fell out laughing.

It was an hour past Josiah’s bedtime before Joel said good night. 

When he entered the bedroom, Theo was asleep and tucked up against Ayesha. She was awake, but her eyelids drooped. 

“You can go to sleep, you know,” he teased, going to her side of the bed. “You don’t have to stay up for me.”

She covered a yawn with the back of her hand. “I wanted to make sure I said good night. Plus, I overheard some of you and Josiah’s little convo.”

“How much of it?” 

She smiled. “‘Dad.’”

“You okay with it?”

“I told you, I left that up to the boys. They’ve bestowed upon you the title.” She used her arm to “knight” him. “And if they feel like you deserve it, you deserve it.”

“Do you feel like I deserve it?” he asked.

“Yes.”

He kissed her, needing her lips against his even if just for a moment. 

“Go to sleep, Eesh. You know we haven’t slept much in the last couple of days. I’m gonna take a shower and join you two in a minute.”

She nodded and turned onto her side, pulling Theo closer. “Good night, babe. I love you.”

“I love you too.”



09: That’s What I Want

04/11/2021


He looked down at her through sleepy eyelids. “Hmm?”

“My ring, baby. I wore it everywhere. You think Adrían did something to it?”

It took a moment for it to sink in, his post-coitus fatigue strong. “It would make sense that that’s how he knew about Mr. Veeny.”

“Joel?” She raised up, palms on his chest, dread burning through the last vestiges of her orgasm. “Who’s Mr. Veeny?”


I’ll be prepping for IRAE and the release of The Prince of The Brotherhood, so here’s the set up for the rest of the series.
xoxo, Alex
Release Date Schedule
9: That’s What I Want – 04/11
10: The End of an Era – 04/18
11: MoJay v Das Biest – 04/24
12: One Last Thing, Before I Go – 04/25
13: From Central to the End – 04/30

Eija can take care of herself…don’t worry.


Dom glanced back. Suddenly, he was fumbling the cigar. It nearly fell to the floor, and it would have burned a hole through the massive, fifteen-thousand dollar area rug.

“Are you all right, Dom?” Yuri asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

He squashed the end of the cigar against the platter on his father’s desk, set it down, and stepped out into the hallway. Her back was turned to him, and although she wore a silky, high-necked, long-sleeved blouse and wide-leg black pants—on account of his father’s wife—he knew that body. Her hair was tucked into a bun, but he knew that hair. That scent, that jawline, those fingers…he’d dreamed about them.

He walked up behind her, wrapped his fingers around her neck, and pushed her face-first against the wall. 


I’m having fun with this one…

Episode 07: Let It “Snoh”

Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.

Let it “Snoh”

Theo cried when they dropped him and Josiah off at Mo and Giorgio’s. 

Ayesha told him they could stay if it would make him feel better.

Joel needed this weekend alone with her, but even he’d felt the pull to change their plans watching their little guy’s face twist and his lips quiver.

So, Giorgio told Theo he wouldn’t know how to put the swing set together without Theo’s help. Aleksi rubbed Theo’s back and offered him a soggy cookie Mo gave him when Giorgio had already said it was too early for one. Josiah said he needed help with a soccer move that Theo was “the best at.” 

It worked to calm Theo down, and they left after watching him, Josiah, and Aleksi kick—and try to kick—around a soccer ball on Mo and Giorgio’s patio for a few minutes. Giorgio promised them that he’d play with them in the backyard once the sun came up, and Theo didn’t cry as they walked out behind Mo, who was dropping them off at Stockholm Central.

They walked around the station a little before boarding, checking out the different vendors and the architecture. Since they’d spent the morning getting the boys ready, they got a quick bite to eat and ended up having to sprint to the train.  

The train wasn’t packed, but it was still quite early in the morning. 

Ayesha took a nap leaned against Joel, and holding her while doing something as simple as taking a train for a weekend away from the kids was something he could get used to.

She woke up in his arms when they hit Lund. 

They chatted with other couples and families and mutually agreed to come back on another trip with the boys. Josiah and Theo would enjoy the greenery, the towns. The allure of the train itself. For now, it was perfect for just the two of them. 

Xara and Mike had planned the weekend based on a similar trip they’d taken not too long ago, except Joel and Ayesha would be leaving their bedroom from time to time. As Mike had put it, modern medicine was the only way Xara hadn’t ended up pregnant all over again during the trip.

The first activity the other couple had scheduled was biking, and the Sydkustleden biking path would take them to their second destination—the beach. The bike paths on the coast could get upwards of hundreds of miles long, and Joel didn’t want Ayesha exhausted unless he was the one doing the wearing out. That fact had, apparently, been factored into their trip with a special note from Mike that said, “You have me to thank because Xar didn’t consider the implications of this,” and Joel laughed when he read it. 

“What’s first now?” Ayesha asked, her hair whipping in the wind billowing throughout Malmö Central Station. Larke, for their trip, had installed faux locs in her hair, and she was so damn cute standing in front of him, the sun at her backRight now, she wore most of the strands in a large bun on top of her head, which he appreciated because that meant they didn’t obscure her face.

“Biking to the beach,” he answered. “Mike said we’re in the right place when we see multicolored ‘bathing huts.’”

“Bathing huts? That sounds—”

“Kinky? Yes, I agree. Remember who we’re dealing with. Lovebugs separate more than Xara and Mike do.”

She tossed her head back as she laughed, he kissed her because of how she looked when she laughed, and then they went to pick up their bikes.

They found the bathing huts lining the beach, tiny cottage-like homes all facing the water’s edge. He and Ayesha chose a yellow wooden shack with a purple door, and he almost didn’t let her leave. It was one of the smallest spaces they’d ever shared. Each time she tried to hook her bikini top, he unhooked it. Once she got it hooked, each time she tried to adjust her breasts, he popped one out, bent, and sucked on her nipple until she all but left claw marks on the wooden walls. 

It wasn’t like it was his fault. 

He loved her breasts, no matter how self-conscious she said she was about them because she’d had two children. They were beautiful and the perfect size for his hands. Plus, she had sensitive nipples. Extremely sensitive nipples. Simply knowing that made him hard. 

It would be a crime not to suck them.

But their first time making love wasn’t going to be against a wall in a beach hut, so he used his fingers to make her come and covered her mouth with his to muffle her screams.

Half an hour later, they emerged.

Dozens of people lay spaced out on the sand. Only a few were covered by umbrellas since it was a lovely day out. Some read. Others slept. Everyone else swam. The beaches didn’t have the sparkling royal blue waters of the Pacific, but they still had that emerald green of the Atlantic he’d come across several times while on vacation in the Caribbean.

Ayesha found them a spot while he headed for the water, and there was a specific reason he’d asked her to get their area set up. 

It was because of this—her walking toward him in a red bikini looking more toned than he’d ever seen her, a splash of light on the gray canvas his life had been for what had felt like an eternity. 

Everyone else disappeared among the greenery, the sand, and the waters. 

Today, he didn’t care if anyone stared. He didn’t care about the two, three—twelve? What the fuck?—pairs of eyes on her. As a matter of fact, he only made eye contact with three of them, and he didn’t even promise death in his gaze. Only blood and broken bones.

She came right into his arms. He picked her up, and she wrapped her legs around his waist. They were in Europe, so this level of PDA was like holding hands back in the United States.

“Eesh, you’re the woman of my dreams, I swear.”

The way she looked at him made him feel like he was the sole possessor of all the world’s riches. 

“Sorry,” she said, holding his gaze. “I was just admiring the way you look right now. I never want to forget how you look right now.”

He kissed her and fell backward, toppling them with Ayesha screaming, into the water.

Their next stop was a visit to Malmöhus Castle. 

Ten minutes in, they found it creepy as shit, checked out early, and went for lunch and ice cream nearby. 

“So, we’re not castle people, apparently,” Joel said, watching Ayesha lick her ice cream cone. “I mean, what the fuck?”

Her eyes widened. “Yo, that one lady statue?”

“You almost knocked her the hell out when you came around the corner and saw her just standing there.”

“Mrs. Malmöhus was about to catch these hands.” She held her stomach and giggled, and it reminded him of Theo. “What about those black and white pictures everywhere?” 

“You know those people’s ghosts were still in there watching us go through their shit pissed as hell they couldn’t throat-punch us.” He held out his cone. “Want to try mine?”

Ayesha had stuck to a traditional vanilla ice cream cone while he’d branched out a little and ordered the Black Licorice flavor. She hooked her tongue and took a long lick. If she said anything after that, he didn’t hear it. 

“Do that one more time for me?” he asked.

She laughed, this time reminding him of Josiah.

The rest of their afternoon was spent biking through and around the city. The people were friendly, the landscape was beautiful, and they found two additional beaches, these more private, where they made out like teenagers.

Ayesha picked up a few local pieces to take back for Xara. Xara was looking to expand her brand, and one of her favorite things to do was showcase local artists from different places around the world. 

Afterward, they ditched the bikes and decided to walk, hand in hand, taking in the city’s Art déco palette. People whizzed by on skateboards, bikes. The boys would love this. When they came back with them, they would spend an entire week, especially since they stumbled on the Malmö Reptile Center.

“By the way,” Joel said, “Theo wants to know if we can get a pet iguana.”

Ayesha’s head snapped around. “No. Hell no.”

He burst out laughing. “Aww man, are you sure?”

“Joel.” She clutched her chest and shuddered. “I think I’d about die if I woke up and found an iguana on my bed. We can bring him here to see these reptiles to get it out of his system and then think about getting a dog or cat or something.”

Dinner plans were up to them, so they went back to kill time, relax, and freshen up at a small cottage on a private beachfront also arranged by Mike and Xara.

Joel appreciated the cottage’s simple, homey charm. It had only one bedroom, which was all they’d need, a cozy living area with an attached L-shaped kitchen, and a bathroom with a massive tub. Wooden double-doors opened up to the porch which overlooked the ocean, and even when closed the doors’ six windows brought in a great deal of light. There was also a four-person dining room table that was currently home to everything they’d picked up on their self-guided tour—chocolates, local pottery, gifts for all the kids, a comic book for Josiah, and a stuffed iguana for Theo as recompense for their upcoming news about the real one.

This wasn’t a weekend for being wrapped up in the lap of luxury. It was about him making his girl feel the way he felt about her. Sometimes, words weren’t enough.

While Ayesha showered, he made arrangements for later that night. Like he’d told her, he was a romantic kind of guy. Anything he could do to make her feel special, tonight and thereafter, he would do. 

And she appreciated everything he did. 

Everything. 

He could feel that she was as caught up in this whirlwind as he was. They walked side by side in this relationship, neither one lagging. Doing things for her didn’t drain him or leave him feeling resentful, and he literally had enough energy and gumption to keep this up for the rest of her life.

He’d changed the way he loved, the way he appreciated. He and the guys had seen the highest points of kindness and the lowest forms of depravity the world had to offer. It helped to give them a different perspective on family than a man who got all his thrills from how many ways he could hurt the woman he claimed to love. That perspective reminded them that, in this life, the love of someone else was often one of the greatest treasures a person could ever have the hope of receiving. 

Each day that he woke up was another day he got to spend with Ayesha, with Theo and Josiah, with his brothers, his sisters-in-law, and his nieces and nephews. He wanted this for a long time. Fuck, he wanted this forever. He wanted to be there when Mikey took his first steps, to Josiah’s wedding, he and the guys giving him “sage” wisdom about his future as someone else’s rock. Someone else’s protector. A lover and provider. 

If he’d had a say or choice, at all, he wouldn’t have chosen Ayesha. The entire thing had looked suspicious, and it could have been a messy situation. But it was decided for him that the best person for him would take his heart, hold it, keep it, and cherish it. 

He wasn’t in love.

Joel Lattimore was gone.

He stepped out onto the porch, leaned on the railing, and looked out onto the water. There was another similar cottage not too far from theirs where a couple stood, holding each other, smiling and gazing into each other’s eyes. 

Something was in the air.

From a distance, they looked like Lupita Nyong’o and James McAvoy in a secret relationship, spending time together away from the public eye.

They spotted him and waved.

He waved back.

The woman said something to the man who nodded, and she hurried down the steps and came over. 

“Hi, there,” she greeted, shading her eyes as she walked up. “My name’s Leticia. My husband, Lars, and I overheard you speaking with your wife. You’re American, right?”

Joel nodded. “Yes, but we live in Sweden now.”

“Same! I met my Lars back home in Detroit, and we moved here to be closer to his family. How do you like it so far?”

“We love it. We love the weather, the people, and the schools.”

“You have children?”

“Two boys.” Joel smiled. “We have one in förskola, and our older boy’s mellanstadiet.”

Förskola was also known as preschool, and although it was different from the American version since Theo would be in preschool and preschool class until he was seven, he hadn’t taken it well that he’d have to “do preschool all over again.”

Leticia clapped her hands, hopping slightly on the sand. “I wish we still had one that little! We have a sixteen-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy, and we definitely miss the snuggles. However, I don’t mean to take up too much of your time, but if you have no plans for dinner tonight, there’s a restaurant here that a lot of foreigners go to. It’s got live music, local performances, and some of the best food in the area.”

The woman’s eyes darted behind him, and she somehow beamed even brighter. 

“Hello,” Ayesha greeted with a small wave.

Leticia looked between them. “Hello. My goodness, you two are beautiful.”

“Crap, where are my manners?” Joel motioned to Ayesha. “Leticia, this is Ayesha, and I’m Joel. Eesh, this is Leticia and over there’s her husband, Lars. She’s from Detroit. They’ve got two kids, a boy and a girl.”

Leticia clasped her hands underneath her chin. “And your hubby was just telling me that you have a little one!”

Grinning, Ayesha leaned against his right arm. “We do.”

“It must be hard on him with you two being away.”

“We’ve got family in the area. He did cry before we left, though.”

“Our daughter was like that when she was little.” Leticia glanced over at her husband, and the way he looked at her was the very definition of smoldering. “Anyhow, Ayesha, I was just telling Joel about a restaurant where a lot of people from outside of Sweden, primarily U.K. and U.S. folk, go. It’s got live music, performances, and ah-mazing food.”

“What do you think, baby?” Joel asked.

Ayesha nodded. “I think it sounds exactly like what we were looking for.”

She gave them the restaurant’s website and address and waved as she headed back to her cottage. She and her husband disappeared inside with a look on their faces Joel knew all too well.

“She was nice,” he pointed out. “And we do like live music.”

Ayesha traced the outline of his triceps muscle. “Want to go check in with ‘our boys’ now before we head out? We might be busy later.”

He hooked his fingers beneath her chin, tipped her head up, and brushed his lips across hers. “Yes.”

They took the iPad to the bedroom.

Ayesha leaned back against the headboard, and Joel leaned next to her, one hand tucked behind his head while they waited for the boys’ faces to pop up on the screen.

“Ma! Joel!” Josiah grinned. “How’s your vacation? We miss you!”

A certain kind of pride Joel had never felt, or maybe noticed, before moved through him, seeing Josiah’s face. He would get to watch Josiah grow, and no longer from a distance. He would even have a hand in his growth, coaching him through his first dance and, as long as Ayesha didn’t find out, his first MMA tournament.

“We miss you too, baby,” Ayesha said. “And the vacation is wonderful. How are things at Mo and Giorgio’s?”

Josiah held up his elbow. “I got a bruise, Ma!

“You got a what?

“That’s amazing, Josiah,” Joel cut in. “It’s a fighter’s badge, babe. If he’s learning mixed martial arts, he’ll get a few bumps and bruises, unlike his mother who, apparently, just ‘runs into’ things.”

It was funny how Ayesha thought he didn’t know the real reason behind her extremely toned body and shoulder bruise. He and the guys just didn’t know where they were holding this mysterious book-slash-fight club.

“Uncle Gio says I’m a natural.” Josiah grinned wider, his eyes like amber stones. “And we got halfway through the swing set, but Auntie Mo says we’re missing a piece. We’re going later to pick up what we need from the home improvement store.”

“How’s Theo?” she asked. “Is he okay?”

“He’s taking a nap right now.” A mop of curls appeared at the bottom of the screen, and Josiah lifted Aleksi onto his lap. “Say hi, Aleksi. Privet.”

Aleksi’s once haphazard head of blondish-brown hair had turned into a mountain of dark, nearly jet-black curls. He even had some of his father’s expressions down, but his side-eye he’d definitely inherited from his mother.

Pripet,” Aleksi greeted.

They talked for a while longer, Josiah filling them in on what they had for breakfast—chocolate chip pancakes. Lunch was sandwiches with Giorgio and Aleksi in the backyard, and for dinner, they were having pizza. A day like that was paradise for Theo, and it was likely why Mo and Giorgio had orchestrated it that way.

Joel and Ayesha filled him in on their bike ride and tour around the city with a promise to look at pictures with him when they got back.

“What about you guys?” Josiah asked. “What are you doing later?”

Ayesha bit down on the inside of her bottom lip, squinted, and tipped her head to the side. “We’re . . . getting something to eat.”

“And then what?”

“Um,” Joel rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, “maybe some dessert or something. We had a long day, so we’ll probably fall asleep as soon as we get back from dinner.”

Aleksi wiggled so much, Josiah had to set him down to the floor. 

“Where are you going to eat?”  

“Actually, we found out about a really cool restaurant,” Joel answered. “It’s got live music.”

“Like karaoke?”

“We’re not sure. Maybe.”

“Are you gonna sing, Ma?”

Joel slid a glance her way. “Sing?”

Ayesha shook her head. “I don’t think so, baby.”

“Why, Ma? You have a really pretty singing voice. You only sing for me and Theo. You should sing for Joel.”

“Yeah, you should,” Joel co-signed. “I want to hear this pretty singing voice.”

Goosebumps prickled Joel’s arm from Ayesha’s where their skin touched. He had no idea she sang. He’d never even heard her sing for the boys. 

“They have skateboard parks out here too, Josiah,” Joel added. “We’ll come back with you and Theo. You’ll love it.”

“That would be awesome.” Josiah stared at them, smile not so much as wavering. “Well, let me let you kids go have fun.”

Joel and Ayesha laughed.

“We will,” Joel said. “Love you. Let Theo know we called.”

“Love you too. Love you, Ma.”

“I love you, Josiah.”

He waved, still smiling.

They waved back until he disconnected.

“Singing voice?” Joel teased.

Ayesha walked to the closet and pulled out her outfit for the night—a top with the back cut out and skin-fucking-tight leggings he knew she’d wear with heels to show off every curve of those legs and that ass she claimed she needed more of. 

Nope.

She was perfect.

Underneath, she wore a red lace bra and panty set.

It was going to be a long night.

* * *

Leticia’s recommendation was spot on.

The restaurant wasn’t packed, the atmosphere was comfortable, the lights were low, and the food was delicious. The performers, so far, were all insanely talented. Some had entire bands and had been performing for a while. Others were amateurs who’d wanted to face their fears and sing in front of a crowd for the first time.

Ayesha was surprised to find most of the music had more of a soul vibe. There were Spanish songs, Swedish songs, German songs, and English songs. Even the ones she couldn’t understand, she still felt the depth behind them. The pain of losing a love, missing one, or needing one.

She glanced across at Joel, whose gaze was fixed on the stage. For dinner, they’d had the infamous Swedish meatballs. Joel took his with a side of veggies and mashed potatoes. She went for egg noodles. After dinner, they shared a slice of kladdkaka, a dense chocolate cake that ate more like a brownie. Then they relaxed and enjoyed the show.

He felt her looking, turned, and smiled. Her heart flopped like a fish pulled from the ocean. How he could have ever thought she’d want anyone else but him was beyond her. It didn’t matter what she said in her dreams. He was her dreams. He was her thoughts, wishes, and hopes. Joel was the only man who could ever come close to filling Curtis’ shoes, and she couldn’t believe she’d found him.

A round of applause broke her stare, and the host for the night, a man from Iran who’d moved to Sweden a decade ago, hopped up on the stage. “She was amazing, wasn’t she?” he asked the audience, his accent slight. “Can we have a hand for Dahlia one more time, please?” 

The crowd clapped and whistled.

“Now, I had someone pull me aside and ask if she could perform tonight, even though she is terrified. She’s never sung in front of even her closest friends. The lovely Miss Ayesha, are you ready?”

Joel’s head snapped around. “Eesh?”

Ayesha bowed her head, said a quick prayer, and headed toward the stage. “Yes. I’m ready.”

The man held out a hand to help her onto the platform and, to her surprise, gave her a tight hug. 

“You are with family, okay?” He stepped back and stared into her eyes. “You don’t have to be afraid here.”

She nodded. “Okay.”

The man, who introduced himself as Zaid, walked her over to the band, and she greeted them while simultaneously giving herself a mental pep talk. Once introductions were done, the band asked her what song she wanted to sing.

“You might not have this song.”

“You might be surprised.” The drummer smiled. “What’s the song?”

“It’s called, ‘I Didn’t Mean to Fall In Love’ by Snoh Aalegra.”

His smile grew. “You mean one of our very own Swedish sisters? You sing, Ayesha, and let us handle the rest.”

She faced the audience. 

Lights shined in her face. 

Joel had come closer to the stage, and she could see him watching her, the long fingers on his right hand tapping those on his left. All he’d worn was a simple navy-blue shirt, a blazer, jeans, and brogue boots, and he was the best-looking and best-dressed man in the room. 

By far.

The piano came in first, followed by the drums.

Ayesha took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and sang:


“I tell you all my secrets, yeah, yeah

I’m loving you more each day oh, yes, yeah, yes

Heart to heart  baby, we both love so hard

Emotional start, the feels are beyond…


Cause here I am, I don’t understand, no

How you just came around and you stole my heart…”


A smile spread across her face as, behind her closed eyelids, she saw Joel’s face. 


“Cause I didn’t mean to, baby

I didn’t mean to fall in love

Now that I need you, baby,

Tell me we’ll never be apart…”


“Oh, I didn’t mean to baby

I didn’t mean to fall in love

Now that I need you, baby,

Tell me we’ll never, never part…”

She saw his smile and his eyes, his disheveled hair in the mornings.

She saw him a few years ago, when he didn’t know she was watching, in the kitchen at his condo. He’d spent the day with Theo, and he’d given her a key to his place, so she’d let herself in. Earlier that day, he’d called her to let her know Theo seemed to be coming down with something, but she hadn’t expected to walk in and see him rocking her baby in the kitchen and singing to him while passing a cool cloth over Theo’s feverish forehead.

She saw him sitting with her on the sofa, the boys doubled over laughing at something he said, teasing her as usual, and her rolling her eyes, trying not to smile. He’d looked up at her, those eyes of his looking through her, his head pressed against the back of the sofa. It had been a rough day and he’d been there, as he always seemed to be.

She saw him in the middle of a dance party with the boys that she’d been too tired to join in on until he held his hand out to her and twirled her into her arms, rocking with her until he’d coaxed her to dance.

She saw him and Josiah at the three-legged race and the look on Josiah’s face, the love and pride, when he and Joel won. She saw the ceiling in her bedroom in Maui as she listened to him and Theo talk through the baby monitor.

“I didn’t mean to baby, no…”

She saw Joel winking at her from the kitchen. 

“I didn’t mean to fall in love…”

She saw Joel asleep in her living room as the sunset bathed him through the glass doors; him holding her hand in the car the night after the school fair; him last week, in bed asleep with Theo on his chest, his hand linked with hers as he told her he loved her.

“Now that I need you, baby…”

Ayesha opened her eyes, tears on her cheeks, and looked directly at him.

“Tell me we’ll never, never part…”

She drew out the last note as the piano finished the outro. 

The audience stood, whistled, and clapped. 

Joel stood, but he didn’t clap or whistle. In fact, he stood so still, it looked like he barely breathed. He didn’t look away from her, didn’t blink, and his pupils were so large, they’d turned his otherwise sapphire irises black.

Ayesha bowed slightly and handed the microphone back to Zaid. 

“You were amazing,” Zaid whispered in her ear.

Heat prickled her face. “Thank you.”

Joel, no longer a statue, stepped forward to help her down the steps, slipped their fingers together, and walked them straight out of the restaurant.

They took the public bus back, and even though he didn’t say a single word to her on the entire ride, he wrapped his arm around her when she leaned against his side. He kissed the top of her head and pressed his cheek against her hair.

“Everything okay?” she asked as they silently walked up the beach cottage’s front steps. 

He looked at her, and every nerve cell in her body awakened, the intensity hitting her like a wave.

They stepped into the cottage, and she stopped abruptly in the entryway. “Joel, how do you do these things without me finding out?”

She heard the door shut, and the sound was followed by his warmth behind her. Snoh Aalegra’s voice lifted around the room, her raspy yet gentle crooning, and he set down his phone.

“Is this her album?” 

His tongue was hot as it flicked her neck. “Mm-hmm.”

“How,” her eyelids fluttered, “did you find it?”

“I googled the lyrics.” 

He gripped the hem of her top and tugged it upward. 

Ayesha raised her arms, he pulled it off over her head, and then his tongue went back to her neck. He licked and sucked, running his palms up and down the sides of her arms. She reached back and curled her fingers around his neck.

“Did you like it?” she asked. “The song, I mean. I sang it for you.”

He grunted and cupped her breasts, his forefinger and thumb tweaking her nipples. Each tug of his fingers sent a current of desire between her legs, and each suck against her neck sent a jolt to her nipples in a never-ending circle of pleasure.

“Eesh…” He moved her hair aside, trailed a path of kisses up the back of her neck, and brought his lips near her ear. “I love you.”

Her legs nearly gave out.

“What was that?” She’d heard. She just wanted to hear it again.

“I love you,” he repeated. “Do you love me?”

“Yes. Yes, I love you, Joel.”

He lowered the zipper at the back of her leggings and trailed a line of kisses down her neck and spine. As he pulled the leggings down, he crouched, kissing her skin with each inch that was revealed. When the pants pooled at her feet, he helped her slip off her shoes and step out of them. She then felt his tongue on her calves, the backs of her knees, thighs, and the curve of her ass.

“Joel, I love the way you love me.”

He stood, spun her around, and pressed their lips together, Ayesha swallowed in his embrace. His tongue roved her mouth in that same slow, torturous rhythm he liked to kiss her with, and the heady, sensual music around them made her no longer feel her feet on the floor. She was already soaked through the lacy underwear, pulsing with need. 

“Eesh…” He licked the inside of her lips, the corners of her mouth, her teeth. “Fuck, baby. I’ve wanted you for so long.”

There was no part of her mouth his tongue didn’t explore. 

He fed on her lips until they were tender and plump and lifted her. She wrapped her legs around him, and he made his way to the bedroom where the soft candles and passionate lyrics carried over. 

Smooth sheets, first cool and then warm, grazed her back as he lay her down and climbed over her, their lips separating only for a second before they were devouring each other again. 

Her fingers wrapped around the lapels of his blazer, the bottom of his shirt. He leaned back, shrugged off the blazer, and helped her pull the shirt off over his head. She stared at him in the candlelight, the track currently playing the song she’d sung to him, and her eyes watered. 

“This is perfect.”

The right side of his mouth tugged. “You like it?”

“Yes. I love everything.”

He unbuttoned his pants, pushed them down along with his boxer briefs, and stepped out of them. She motioned for him to join her again, and his large body eclipsed hers. Their lips reattached like magnets. He nudged her legs wide with his knees, and his hard length teased her slit with each movement.

“You’re wearing too many clothes.” His voice was hoarse, ragged. “I want you naked.”

He unhooked her bra, pulled it off, tossed it, and dove for her breasts. With his lips attached to her nipples, sucking and rolling the hard buds around his mouth, from one to the other, he yanked at her panties. She raised her hips so he could slide them off, and he tossed them in the same direction as her bra. 

While he sucked on her left nipple, his fingers teased the right. He gently bit down and her back arched, pushing her body up against him, her sex against the crown of his dick.

“So beautiful,” he mumbled, kissing a trail down the middle of her body. He dipped his tongue in her bellybutton. “So damn beautiful.”

Ayesha’s mind went blank when he trailed his kisses up her inner thighs, sucking and licking her skin hard enough to leave a bruise. As he moved from one thigh to the other, he kissed the cleft of her sex before licking a path back up the other leg, over and over. In the middle of a pass, he slipped his tongue between her slit. She cried out, and he didn’t give her a chance to catch her breath as he made a second pass, then a third, until he was tugging and flicking at her until she vibrated. 

“Oh, God.” Tears leaked from the sides of her eyes. “Joel, that feels amazing.”

He guided two fingers inside her. She tangled her fingers in his hair and rocked her hips into his mouth. And he speared her, licked and flicked and sucked her, until she came, hard, against his mouth.

Her eyes rolled back, and her body went stiff. 

“Mm-hmm.” Joel, smiling, dragged his tongue the full length of her sex. “Just what I needed.”

Trembling, she felt for his face and pulled at his head, dragging his face back to hers and his lips back to her lips. 

He positioned himself over her and slid the crown of his dick inside her.

They both drew out a long moan.

“More, Joel.” 

He pushed in further, groaned, and stopped again. 

She was tight and he was large, but he took his time, stretching and spreading her, inch by thick inch. It did help that she was soaking wet and had been wet since watching him get dressed earlier before dinner.

He pushed in a bit more. “Am I hurting you?”

Ayesha waited for her lungs to fill. “Not in a way I don’t like.”

As he withdrew, his teeth gently clamped onto her bottom lip. She tilted her hips and locked her heels at the base of his spine, and he entered her until he was as deep as he could go. 

Neither moved for a moment.

“Finally,” she said, struggling through a laugh.

His laugh was cut short when she squeezed her muscles.

“Is it better now?” He surged inside her, ripping a tortured cry from her throat. “You like how I feel, baby?” He pulled out, surged again. “You like the way I fuck you, Ayesha?”

This was even better than she could have ever imagined. The entire night had been perfect. Why had they waited so long to do this? Now that they’d crossed that hurdle, he was going to have a hell of a time keeping her off of him.

“I can’t…go slow…” He grunted. “I need to…fuck, fuck, fuck…”

He increased the pace of his strokes, steadily crashing into her, their moving bodies putting pressure against her swollen clit. And he was deep. So deep. It was exactly how she’d wanted him, how she’d needed him. 

He pulled out, shoved hard. “I love you, Ayesha.” He repeated the motion, and her body devoured every thrust. “I fucking love you. Don’t forget that. Ever.”

She tightened her hold around him, whimpering. 

He growled, drilled into her until she screamed and slid away from him, gripping sheets. But he simply dragged her back and pummeled her again.

All around them, music played.

Unsteady and weak with the buzz of orgasm, her legs fell apart. Joel’s strokes grew fervent. Sweat covered their bodies, and she loved the messy eroticism of it. The rawness of it.

“Joel—”

“Give it to me, Eesh.” 

The dam broke. Her back arched. Air got caught in her throat, snared by a steady rush of pure ecstasy.

He pumped into her with a few more hard strokes before going rigid, his hot semen spilling and spurting inside her.

Ayesha’s heart pounded against her ribcage.

Joel’s breathing mirrored hers.

When she lost Curtis, she’d assumed everything she would have ever been, everything that had made her who she was, would remain stripped from her. If she’d dared try to love again, there would be no longing, passion, or the kind of recklessness that came with the fall.

But this?

Ohthis.

He held her against him, so tight it hurt, and whispered, “I promise I’ll do everything I can to make you happy.”

“Just stay,” she whispered back. “Stay with me, and I’ll be the happiest woman in the world. That’s my promise.”



08: Back To Life, Back To Reality

04/04/2021

A figure in the distance, partially hidden behind the building, caught her eye. Underneath the outdoor lights, she made out the shadow of a large, male frame.

“You see him, Gio?” she asked.

“Da.”

Theo sniffled, and the front of his little jeans was suddenly darker than they’d been seconds ago. 

“Sweetheart,” she crouched in front of him, “what’s wrong?”

Theo didn’t respond.

She looked up at Giorgio, who was looking in the direction of where she’d seen the man, made sure Josiah was still engrossed in his book, and then she covered Theo’s ears.

“Gio?”

He glanced at her.

“Go fuck him up, baby.”

Giorgio started off. “Da.”


Please give her a listen if you haven’t…LOVE her album.

Fun fact: Before I went with Snoh, Ayesha’s song was going to be “Dreaming of You” by Selena.

Episode 06: Deception

Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.

Deception

“I mean this in the most respectful way, sweetheart, but why do you think we need your ex-husband’s approval?”

Sydney looked back over her shoulder at Dmitri, tapping her chin with a ballpoint pen, the list in front of her longer than it had been just a few minutes ago. 

“It’s not approval, per se,” she clarified. “I just want to tell him before we make the announcement. Joel and I are still friends.”

Dmitri kissed her bare shoulder, the sheets draped haphazardly around them. The Mediterranean Coast served as a picturesque backdrop, but she was the most beautiful thing in all of Greece. She and Joel might still be friends, but he was grateful to the man for letting her go. Sydney Donovan was everything he’d ever wanted in a woman—strong and intelligent with a mind for business—and, while he hadn’t planned on things moving this fast, he knew he didn’t want her going anywhere unless he was included.

Correction . . . he didn’t want her or their little one going anywhere unless he was included.

“I just don’t want him to be blindsided, you know?” 

“Then why do you keep putting off your dinner with him?” Dmitri gently pulled at the sheets, leaned over her body, and kissed just below her navel. “Sooner or later, he’ll find out.”

Sydney lay her hand on the slight rise in her stomach. “I still have time.”

“Just tell him, sweetheart.”

“You don’t understand, Dmitri.” She rolled onto her back and flicked the pen between her fingers. “Joel and I fought about this. Like, it was a big issue for us. Half the reason we couldn’t work things out was because I wasn’t sure about motherhood the way he was sure about being a father. You and I haven’t even been together six months yet, and I’m three months pregnant.”

“The Caribbean certainly was,” he kissed her hip, “intoxicating.”

She laughed. “The Caribbean and all of its rum.”

“That too.” He pressed another kiss to her stomach. “Syd, are you happy with me? I’m happy with you. I don’t regret the way we’ve done things.”

Tears sprung in her eyes. “I’m happy with you, Dmitri.” After his fourth kiss, he tried to sneak lower, but she grabbed his head and pulled his face up to hers. “List first. What am I missing?”

She turned back onto her side.

He positioned himself behind her, one long arm draped over her, his hand on her stomach. “First of all, my love,” he scanned the list, “there’s no crib.”

* * *

“Oh my goodness, he’s so beautiful.”

“He’s American? They do have good-looking men there.”

“I could stare at him all day.”


Ayesha rolled her eyes. Josiah’s school had thrown a family night at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, and close to all the kids in his grade segment, mellanstadiet, were in attendance. Virtually every teacher had also shown up in addition to the normal crowd that flooded the site on the weekends.  

Most of the crowd didn’t bother her. She smiled at families walking with their children, young couples, groups of friends . . . but those damn single women. They were the ones she wanted to dropkick,  whispering and staring, fawning over Joel like they didn’t see her standing right next to him. 

Hell, not all of them were single, either. 

Some of them even had handsome men on their arms. The men weren’t Joel, but nobody was.

Was she not being possessive enough with him? 

She held his hand, rubbed his back, kissed and hugged him. At one point, Theo walked between them, holding both their hands. Joel didn’t wear a ring, but she did. Was it too difficult for them to conceive that someone who looked like him could be there with anyone but Rihanna or Scarlett Johansson? Or did they see her and just not care because Joel was that damn good-looking?

“Excuse me?” A young blonde walked up to them, so shy she couldn’t meet Joel’s gaze. “You have beautiful eyes.”

Joel smiled. “Thanks.”

Ayesha darted a look at him. 

Thanks? 

The woman released a breath and scurried off.

Josiah and Theo were in front of them in the middle of the crowd, looking over a metal railing separating the visitors from the platform where the ship rested. A tour of the museum was about to start, and it would end with them viewing the massive warship that hung in the middle of the room. Theo, sucking on those fingers, leaned against Josiah. Josiah stroked his little brother’s head, and she hoped it was always this way between them, even when they fought or disagreed.

Another woman started in their direction, so Ayesha slipped her fingers through Joel’s. He brought their joined hands up to his mouth and kissed the back of her hand. She tilted her chin, and he leaned down to kiss her mouth, letting the kiss linger for a moment. 

See? He’s mine. Stay in your lanes.

“Look at you being all possessive,” he teased.

“‘Thanks,’ though?” She frowned. “Thanks? That’s it?”

“What else was I supposed to say?”

“How about ‘my girl tells me that all the time’ or something along those lines?”

Oh. I get it now.” He gave the back of her hand another kiss, puffed up his chest, and raised his voice. “Excuse me, everyo—”

Ayesha cut him off with a hand on his mouth. She’d had to grab the back of his neck and drag him down to even accomplish the maneuver.

“What are you doing?” 

He pointed at his covered mouth. 

She removed her hand.

“Telling the world that you’re my woman,” he said, a sly grin on his face. “At least, telling this room. I thought that’s what you wanted?”

They’d explained to the boys about their official change in relationship status and exactly what that meant. She hadn’t seen them happier, even on Christmas morning. Josiah said he “knew it,” and Theo had then chimed in with, “I knew it too,” even though he had no idea what the “it” was.

“Whatever.” She shoved him in the side, a grin stuck to her face.

The tour began with a brief history of the vessel which revealed that the museum had been built around it, a ship with an even shorter run than the Titanic; it sank only a half-hour after it launched. Over three hundred years later, the massive ship’s parts were salvaged. 

As the museum orator spoke, Theo loudly asked the woman, “Why do old ships always sink?” and “Did they make them too heavy?” followed by, “I’m five and even I know that was gonna sink.” They were poignant questions and observations, but Ayesha gave him a stick of gum to give his mouth something else to do.

The boys’ eyes grew wider and wider looking up at the ship’s black and dark brown body. Josiah introduced Theo to a few of his school friends, and all of them were kind to him. A couple of the girls who thought Theo was så söt, so cute, were able to get Theo to hold their hands for a minute, but he eventually gravitated back to his brother. Josiah’s personality often meant people with good hearts flocked to him, and the friends of his Ayesha and Joel met seemed to fit the bill.

It had been a few weeks since they moved in with Joel, and Theo still slept between them, but he didn’t appear to have any more nightmares.

As much as she wanted to jump on Joel, she found she didn’t have the heart to encourage Theo to sleep by himself again just yet. She’d gotten used to waking up with his little hands on her face and his feet in Joel’s ribs. Sometimes, he woke her up with kisses. Others, she woke up to find him and Joel still asleep, Joel’s arm around him while Theo lay on his chest or across his body. She wanted to hold on to those moments for as long as she could. Her little guy wouldn’t be little forever, and if he shot up as Josiah had, he wouldn’t be little for much longer.

“Miss Savea?”

Ayesha turned to the voice, and Theo’s teacher cut through the crowd to make her way over to them, dragging her husband along. 

“So glad you could make it, Miss Savea,” Lilly Mason said, shaking Ayesha’s hand. “This is my husband, Trevor.”

The man tipped his head in greeting. “Hello, there. Nice to meet you.”

For some reason, the fact that an Australian accent left his mouth made the fine hairs on Ayesha’s arm stand up. It wasn’t exactly unusual for Theo’s Swedish teacher to have an Australian husband, but it was . . . something.

“Is Theo having a good time?” Lilly asked.

Ayesha gestured. “See for yourself.”

Whenever Theo was enraptured enough by something, he didn’t jump or run or fidget. This afternoon, notwithstanding him giving the orator the third degree, he’d remained so captivated, there’d been little to no desire to wiggle, sprint, or do cartwheels.

“He’s such a wonderful boy,” Lilly gushed. “I love having him in my class. I’m glad he had a chance to be here today. He is so good with facts!”

Ayesha beamed. 

Lilly held out her hand to Joel. “Hello, Mr. Lattimore. Good to see you as well. Theo tells me he loved the book you read together.”

They shook hands. 

“So did I,” Joel said.

Ayesha noticed Trevor didn’t offer to shake Joel’s hand as he was too busy studying her like he recognized her from somewhere. He reminded her of Simon Baker, but with at least fifty pounds more muscle. The man was about as big as Gage.

“How has Theo’s sleep been?” Lilly continued to question. “Good, I hope.”

“Great,” Joel answered. “No issues.”

“Well, you still have the number if you need it.”

Ayesha and Joel nodded.

“Sweetheart, you’re crowding them.” Trevor tugged on his wife’s arm. “You two enjoy the rest of your time here. Mr. Lattimore, Mrs. Savea . . . nice to meet you.”

The two men still didn’t shake hands.

The couple weaved their way back through the crowd.

“Hey, boys?” Joel called, and he tipped his head to let Theo and Josiah know he wanted them closer. “Eesh, he called you Mrs. Savea. Not Ms. Savea, not even Mrs. Lattimore, but Mrs. Savea.”

“Maybe Lilly told him I’m a widow?” Ayesha asked, but even she’d felt the odd chill the man left behind. “And why would they call me Mrs. Lattimore?”

He lowered his brows. “You’d have a problem with that? You’d have a problem being Mrs. Lattimore? You hurt me with your words, Ayesha.”

She laughed. “Aww, I’m sorry, baby.”

Joel leaned down and gave her a quick kiss. “Stay here with the boys? Right here. I’ll be right back.”

Before she had a chance to ask him where he was going, he was off.

“Ma, did something happen?” Josiah asked. “Because there was a man watching us.”

She looked at him, only needing to slightly lower her head. “What man?”

“He’s gone now.”

“Where was he watching you from?”

Josiah pointed. “Right where Joel’s headed.”

* * *

“You want to tell me why you keep popping up in places where my woman is?”

The man turned around.

“It’s Adrían, right?” Joel asked. “You’re not a teacher, and you don’t have any kids. You show up at the restaurant, call her phone, and now you’re here. I’m going to need you to explain how that works.”

He’d spotted Adrían shortly after Lilly and her husband walked up, the man trying to blend in with the sea of people around them. It probably would have worked had he been six inches shorter and watching someone else’s woman and children.

Adrían extended his hand. “We finally meet.”

Joel shook it, and they drew back at the same time before they ended up with permanently set jaws, bent fingers, and fractured wrists.

“To answer your question, I’m not following Ayesha,” Adrían said. “I’m following Theo.”

“And why the fuck are you following my son?” Even though they were in a more secluded part of the museum, Joel knew the staff wouldn’t appreciate having to clean up a man’s blood, so he forced himself to think about Ayesha, Theo, and Josiah needing him in their lives to stop him from taking the life of the man in front of him.

A smirk played along Adrían’s mouth. “I thought his father was dead.”

“Look, I already know you and Eesh have a past, but this shit has got to stop. You’ll get yourself killed fucking with the wrong man’s family.”

The smirk widened, and Adrían’s veil of civility slipped, briefly. “I’m following him because of Ayesha. I understand Theo’s been having nightmares. He’s been talking about a ‘veeny,’ but she doesn’t know what it means. She asked me if it was Portuguese, and it’s not, but I did some research, and I think I know what it is.”

Joel told himself the man was lying. Ayesha wasn’t still talking to him; she would have said something. Then again, he’d agreed to dinner with Syd without telling her, but nothing was going to happen between him and Syd. She simply said they needed to talk, and he had an idea about what it was if her fuller breasts and rounder face were any indication. 

This motherfucker, he didn’t trust.

Yet, something sparked in his chest that felt a lot like betrayal. Ayesha’s explanation of who “Adrían” was at the restaurant hadn’t been complete. She might have said they hadn’t been anything serious, but her face told him she’d had feelings for this man. That didn’t mean she still did, and he was certain she didn’t, but the omission of information was the issue. 

“What does veeny mean?” Joel asked.

“It’s a name. I used to do consultant work in Maui. Some of the work took me to the schools in the area. My company did a lot of data analysis, reporting . . . things like that. There was a janitor who used to work at Theo’s school.”

It was a lie.

Joel noticed the slight flicker of Adrían’s right eyelid. 

Still, he listened.

“The man’s name was Lavigne.” The veil slipped again, revealing hatred this time before Adrían set it back into place. “He was fired for inappropriate behavior around the students.”

Everything the man said was a lie except for the name.

Joel folded his arms. “So you think it might be this guy? Did you ever see him interacting with Theo?”

“I didn’t have to. I’ve met him. He’s a sick fuck. Abnormal. Thinks his shit doesn’t stink. I’d like to think he’s gotten or he’ll get what’s coming to him.”

“And you’re telling me this because?”

“Because I love her.”

Joel’s shoulder twitched. “You don’t say.”

“It’s not what you think. I would never, in a million years, hurt Ayesha or the boys. That’s the God’s honest truth, and I’m Catholic. I really, truly just want her to be happy, and she is that. With you.”

Joel glanced to make sure he could still see them, and they’d moved slightly off to the left to sit on a bench along the wall. Theo stood between Ayesha’s knees and Josiah sat next to her. 

“Look, man, I get it.” He sighed. “I’m with Ayesha now so . . . I get it. But you’re going to have to back the fuck off. I’ve got this. I can take care of my family.”

Adrían cocked a brow. “At least let her know I hope Theo’s night scares go away.”

Another pang hit Joel’s chest. “How do you know about those?”

“Like I said, she told me.”

“She doesn’t talk to you.”

“She does.”

“Why would she talk to you and not tell me?”

Adrían shrugged. “I don’t know.”

They stared, sizing each other up. This man wasn’t who he claimed to be. There was more to him, something that reminded Joel of Dez. Trevor, from earlier, had reminded him of Gage.

“Well, I’ll see what I can do with the information.”

Adrían offered his hand again. They shook, this time without the threat of broken limbs.

“There’s more to you than you show,” Adrían acknowledged.

Joel ticked his head to the side. “Time will tell.”

He walked off and rejoined Ayesha and the boys.

They finished the tour, grabbed a bite to eat, and headed home.

He avoided Ayesha’s gaze for the rest of the afternoon. He didn’t hold her hand, didn’t kiss her, and discreetly pulled away when she tried. Each rebuff made her even more confused and hurt, and it hurt him to hurt her, but Adrían knew too much shit. She had to be talking to him, and she definitely dreamed about him. Passionately. He never heard his or even Curtis’ name trickle from her pretty lips at night, but he’d surely heard that fucker’s.

On the way home, he sent the Lavigne information to Julien.

When they got to the house, she asked if they wanted to help her with dinner, but he took the boys out back to kick around a soccer ball. Hopefully, with some time to herself after all the buzz of their day, it would wear her down and she’d have no choice but to confess.

She didn’t.

Theo and Josiah carried the dinner conversation, and Joel caught each time she looked at him, her eyes a mix of that same confusion and pain. He held her gaze, each and every time, but he didn’t offer comfort or an explanation. After dinner, he cleaned the kitchen and declined her help when she offered. 

Raising Theo and Josiah had to be the only reason she put up with him like this; she had experience dealing with extended periods of immaturity. One of his bigger flaws was the way he shut down when he was hurt. There could be a simple explanation for everything, and he was more sure there was than he believed there wasn’t, but he didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t want to hear she was still, in addition to dreaming about him, talking to some man who’d fucking seen her naked.

On her way to give Theo a bath, she stopped at the bottom of the stairs and called out to him as he set a stack of plates in one of the high cabinets.

“Joel, what’s going on?”

He didn’t glance back. “Nothing.”

“That’s a lie.”

“Okay, so maybe there is something, and I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“When do you want to talk about it?”

“Never.”

Her palm suddenly graced the middle of his back. It was amazing how much that simple touch soothed him, made him want to hold her and bury his nose in her scent. But he closed the cabinet and went to search the pantry for absolutely nothing.

She sighed, said a low, “Okay, then,” and headed upstairs. 

While she bathed Theo, he helped Josiah with his homework, and then he stayed up talking with the boys until Theo’s eyes crossed and his eyelids drooped. They said good night to Josiah, and he took Theo to the master suite. 

The door opened, and she looked up from her book, smiling. “Hey.”

He set Theo down on the mattress without meeting her eyes. “I’m going downstairs for a little bit to watch TV.”

“There’s a TV in here.”

“I don’t want to wake Theo.”

Theo cuddled up to Ayesha, going right to sleep against his mother’s warm body. 

Joel left the room without saying anything further, went downstairs to lie on the sofa, and turned on the TV. Ayesha and Josiah had gotten him hooked on that Grimm show, and he was already three seasons deep. 

At some point, he fell asleep.

“Joel, wake up.”

“Hmm?” He rolled onto his back. “What’s up?”

“Why are you still down here?”

He sleepily motioned to the TV. “I was watching Grimm.”

“It’s past midnight, and the TV was watching you. Did you plan to sleep down here?” 

He yawned. “Maybe.”

Her eyes watered and fuck, did it hurt to see. 

“You’ve been ignoring me since we left the museum. Why? I thought the four of us had a good time.”

He stared at her face but offered nothing by way of explanation.

She sat on the edge of the seat cushion near his chest. Had he treated her better at any point that afternoon, it would have been the perfect position for her to play with his hair while he looked up at her with a million ways going through his mind about how to make their relationship last. This particular stint of difficult, closed-off behavior didn’t exactly make the cut.

“Okay, fine.” She smacked her palms on her thighs. “Don’t tell me. Don’t talk to me, if that’s what you need right now.” 

Her hair wasn’t wrapped up in a scarf, which meant she’d had no intention of going to sleep. Not without him. 

“But don’t do this.” She motioned to his frame. “I want to sleep next to you, even if I’m pissed at you or you’re pissed at me. Joel, if we argue, come to bed. If we disagree on something, come to bed. Rest your head on the pillow next to mine at the end of the night if things are still okay, whether or not they’re perfect. I want you there, I need you there, and I love having you there. But, if you feel differently, say so now.”

It was the quickest someone had ever made him feel like an ass, and he’d had a talent for being a major one when he was a teenager. His father and friends had never failed to tell him so.

“Joel, what did I do? You’re ignoring me, turning away from me. This is about me, not something else. At least tell me what I did. Maybe I can make it up to you.”

He changed to a seated position and gave her enough space to kneel on the cushions, facing him. “I’m sorry, Ayesha. When something’s off with me, I tend to do this. I shut down. Pull away. Turn into a jackass. It’s not one of my best traits.”

“How did I trigger it?” she asked. “Because I know it was me. You’re trying to stay away from me, specifically.”

“I know.”

Her eyes softened. “I won’t lie. It hurts.”

“And I’m a piece of shit for hurting you.”

“Talk to me, then.”

He couldn’t tell her it was Adrían. If she still had feelings for Adrían and that was the reason she’d kept their conversations a secret, he didn’t want to have to bear the pain of the truth or the pain of watching her lie to him.

Regardless, they were still going to be together. Her pretty ass was stuck with his petty ass. She was his—his girl, his woman, his future. His second chance. And it was a hell of a second chance. The universe had to love him to send him Ayesha after everything he’d already had to deal with. He’d been so sure he could never love again, and then not only did he love again, he loved even harder than before.

He drew her over to him, her bent knees on either side of his waist, and tried to pull her mouth down to his. She resisted, and he felt then what he’d done to her all afternoon. 

“Tell me the truth about your feelings for Adrían,” he said, his voice lower than he’d intended for it to be. “You loved him. He wasn’t some fuck-buddy. It hurt when you two broke things off. I saw it all over your face. If I wasn’t in the picture and he’d popped back up into your life like he did at the restaurant, would you be with him right now the way you’re with me?”

She eased away from his face, but his hands kept her in place on top of him. 

“Where’s all this coming from? No, Adrían’s what I said he was. I lost Curtis a year before I met Adrían. Curtis, Joel. There was no way I loved him.”

“That’s not what your face says, Eesh.”

“Then stop reading my face and listen to my voice. Adrían wasn’t exactly a blight in my life. Yes, I loved being with him and the sex was amaz…” She closed her eyes and sighed so hard, she shuddered.

“Was it?” Joel goaded. “So you’ve been thinking about it?”

“Look,” her tongue darted across her bottom lip, “you’re acting like this happened last year. This was years ago. Theo wasn’t even walking yet when I met Adrían.”

“The man popped up at the restaurant—” 

“I had nothing to do with that!”

“—and you’ve been moaning his name in your sleep ever since.”

Her face fell. “I . . . have? More than that one time?”

“You don’t moan my name. Not even Curtis’ name. Your feelings ran a lot deeper for this guy, and for some reason, that makes me feel like I’m on fire and being burned from the inside out.”

She looked off to the side. 

“And every time I touch you or kiss you or even see that fucker’s face, I think about it. I see you in bed next to me squeezing your thighs together with that . . . with another man’s name on your lips. Ayesha, will I ever be good enough for you?”

He’d known the insecurities he’d developed about himself after the divorce, as well as the raw intensity of his and Ayesha’s relationship, were at play. Saying it out loud added an unexpected, complicated layer. 

“Is that what this is about?” She raised her hands as though getting ready to touch his hair but lowered them back to her sides. “You feel like I’ll leave you for him?”

“Or someone else.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t know how to make you happy!”

“I am happy, Joel!”

“For now!”

She closed her eyes and clasped her hands in front of her face. “I don’t know what to say to make you feel better. Throw me a lifeline or something.”

“Ayesha, I,” love you, “really want this. But, the more I realize that, the more it makes me think I’ll do something to fuck it all up. The way I feel about you,” terrifies me, “makes me feel like I’ll hold on to ‘us’ so hard, I’ll end up crushing ‘us.’”

She reached out and thrust her fingers through his hair, and it stole a groan from his throat. This. He wanted exactly this. 

“Eesh, I think Syd’s pregnant.”

Ayesha tugged her hands out of his hair. “Pregnant? Like, with a baby? Of course, it’s a baby. What I mean is, is it…did you…are you two…is it your baby?”

It never dawned on him that she would think it was his baby, especially with the way he’d dropped the news. 

“Dmitri’s,” he clarified. “At least, I’m assuming.”

Her shoulders sagged. “Is that what she came to tell you?”

“All she said was that she wanted to have dinner so we could talk. She framed it like she was going to tell me she and Dmitri were moving in together or something, but Syd must have forgotten how long I’ve known her. She’s pregnant. I don’t know how far along, but that’s what it is.”

Pregnant by a man she’d known less than six months. A man she wasn’t married to yet. She could barely stomach having a kid with him, her ex-husband. At least, that was how it felt. How did he know he wouldn’t fall for Ayesha, settle into this life he loved with her and their boys, only for it to be ripped from him? God, he couldn’t survive if they were taken from him.

Ayesha kissed his forehead. “I get it.”

“Do you?”

“Yes.”

“I want you, Eesh.” He squeezed where his hands rested at her hips. “Bad. I’m dealing with shit with you that I’ve never felt or experienced, and it’s making me crazy, possessive, and territorial. This is new territory for me. It’s not that I ‘don’t’ want to lose you. It’s that I ‘can’t.’”

She pressed another kiss against his forehead and then one lower, between his eyebrows, her hand still playing in his hair. 

“Honestly, Joel, I’ve never thought much about my feelings for Adrían,” she admitted. “I was lonely when I met him. So lonely. To be held again, kissed again . . . it felt more than wonderful, but it didn’t stop me from feeling lonely. I didn’t love him. I’d say I cared deeply for him, but that’s not what this is.”

He came as close to the question as possible without asking. “If you’d picked up instead of me that day, would you have talked to him?”

“Probably.” She kissed the corner of his mouth. “Like I said, I don’t hate him. I cared about him. Maybe I still do. He never had a bad word to say about me, and he always treated me with kindness and respect. I would have talked to him, but baby, he ain’t you.”

She moved lower, warm tongue flicking and soft mouth sucking his neck. His grip tensed and relaxed, and he gently eased her forward so he could feel where she was hottest. Where she was probably already soaking wet like the night in the dining room. Had Theo not come barging in, he would have ended up balls deep inside her, her tight flesh wrapped around him while he fucked her through the wall.

“Eesh, we can’t keep going like this.” He groaned as she dragged her tongue up the column of his neck. “We might end up married.”

Sarcasm dripped in her response. “Oh, no. Whatever would I do if I ended up married to Joel Lattimore? How would I live?”

He laughed.

“Remember our fantasy?” she asked. “How, in our alternate world, it didn’t take us long to get married because of how long we’ve known each other? How long we’ve had feelings for each other?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s how it is. I feel like we’re moving at a good pace for us, to be honest.”

“A good pace when Theo’s already calling me ‘Daddy,’ I’m telling people he’s my son, and we’ve had our first argument?”

“Who are you telling that Theo’s your son?”

She’d put on one of his shirts which hung too large on her, so he pulled the left sleeve down her shoulder. A creamy, brown breast with its luscious, dark nipple popped out. 

He leaned forward and flicked her nipple with his tongue, and she went rigid. When he flicked again, this time faster, and sucked the nipple and areola into his mouth, her fingernails descended into his shoulders. 

“I didn’t get a chance to mention that my nipples are very sensitive.” Her words were woven between gasps. “Extremely sensitive.”

He sucked again. 

Her fingernails sunk deeper.

“Like nipple orgasm sensitive?” he asked, lips brushing her skin.

“Close to it.” She spread her legs and rocked against his erection. “Very close.”

“I’m sorry for how I treated you, Ayesha.” He pulled down the other sleeve and swirled his tongue around the right nipple. “I’m so sorry.” He sucked the orb into his mouth and rolled the taut bud against the ridged surface just behind his teeth. “Forgive me?”

She reached between her legs.

“Show me, baby.” He covered her hand with his. “Show me how to touch you.”

She nodded, took his hand, and slipped it into her panties. Then she singled out his thumb and moved it along her clit. After a few motions, he picked up how she wanted to be touched, and he fingered her while moving between her left and right breast, sucking in time to his play between her legs, blowing and licking until her nipples were tight and firm. 

“I forgive you,” she managed, voice light and airy.

He moved his fingers in a circular motion, applying pressure to the sides of the swollen nubbin.

“I’m gonna come. Joel,” she grabbed onto his shoulders and increased the rocking speed of her hips, “I’m gonna come for you, baby.”

He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against her chest when he felt her cream on his fingers. 

Lucky ass fingers.

Now his mouth and dick were jealous.

At some point, she’d unlaced the drawstring on his pajama bottoms, so by the time he noticed where her hands had gone, she’d already pulled him out.

“Eesh, I’ll do better communicating next time. I didn’t mean to shut you out and hurt you. I can do better if you give me a chance to.”

“Of course, I will.” She raised and rubbed the tip of his dick along her slit, back and forth. “I don’t want anyone else but you.”

She lined him up with her opening, he angled her hips, and she lowered.

Slowly.

“Ah . . . fuck.” He thrust his hips up, meeting her the rest of the way. “Damn it, Ayesha.”

“Mama? Joel? Where are you?”

She tossed her head back. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I left him in a dead sleep.”

Despite the interruption, Joel stroked again, and her moans reminded him of watching a breeze move over the surface of the lake out back.

“It’s what kids do.” He slid his thumb over her right nipple, pumping his hips, sac tightening the deeper he went into her pussy. “They cock-block their parents. It’s in their genes.”

“Mama? Joel? I’m scared. Where are you?”

“Stay right there, Theo,” she called. “Mama’s coming up.”

He drew Ayesha down and kissed her forehead. “It’ll happen when it’s supposed to. Right now, we just have to hold back the urges until he’s okay again.”

She pressed her lips against his and kissed him in such a way that he pushed into her four more times before they, begrudgingly, separated.

“Are you coming to bed?” she asked.

“Yes.” He looked at his dick, firm and glistening. “In a . . . minute.”

“I wish I could help you.”

“Oh, me too.”

She fixed her clothes, headed for the stairs, and then called down to him that Theo had already gone back to sleep before she even walked into the room. 

“Come on up,” she added. “Let me help you.”

He turned off the TV, went upstairs to their room, and she took his hands, pulling him to the bathroom. They wanted to make love. They desperately wanted to make love. But he didn’t have the heart to help Theo sleep in his own room yet. Once he did, he wouldn’t be able to walk in and see Theo cuddled up with Ayesha, them wrapped around each other, or wake up with Theo’s feet in his rib cage. 

“Lock the door,” she whispered, but their voices couldn’t be heard above the exhaust fan.

He did as he was told.

She sat on the edge of the large tub, dragged his pajama pants back down, and had him in her mouth before he had a chance to blink. 

“Shit, Eesh. Fuck. That’s good, baby. Just like . . .

The way she worked him with her lips, tongue, and even slight grazes with her teeth—and with how much he wanted her—it didn’t take long before he was spilling down the back of her throat, teeth clenched to suppress a groan, her eyes locked with his the entire time. That eye-contact fucked with his head in ways he’d never be able to explain.

“Now that the edge is off,” she licked away a bit of moisture beaded at his tip, “how about we clean up and get ready for bed all over again?”

A little under an hour later, they were in bed, Theo between them. When his body registered their weight on the mattress, he woke up slightly and scooted over to Ayesha. Joel watched them, heart tugging. 

“Mama, can I stay with Uncle Gio and Auntie Mo on the weekend?”

Ayesha’s eyes connected with Joel’s above Theo’s head. “Why’s that?” she asked.

“Uncle Gio’s building a swing set for Aleksi, and Auntie Mo said they need my help. And Josiah wants Uncle Gio to teach him M-M-A.”

“I could do that,” Joel offered. “I fight t—”

“But,” Ayesha cut in, “Giorgio can teach Josiah ‘on the weekend,’ and then Joel can teach him when we get back. Auntie Xara and Uncle Mike planned a special trip for your mama and Joel, but I wasn’t sure we’d be able to go.”

“Because of me?” Theo asked.

“No, baby. Something else.”

Theo yawned, twisted, and scooted over to Joel.

Joel wrapped him up and kissed his forehead. “Theo, are you sure you’re okay to spend the weekend with Uncle Gio and Auntie Mo?” 

“Uncle Gio’s scary, so the man won’t hurt me. I perfer to be with you, but he needs my help. Aleksi’s too little to help.”

Joel gave Theo’s forehead another kiss. “You’re right. You are pretty helpful.”

Theo giggled, gripped Joel’s shirt with one hand, and drifted off to sleep without his fingers in his mouth.

“Are we really going somewhere?” Joel whispered.

Ayesha nodded. “Check your email.”

He grabbed his phone and opened an email from Xara that read, “Kiss and Make Up in Malmö.”

“I called Xara while I was cooking for advice because I didn’t know how I’d hurt you,” Ayesha confessed. “So, she and Mike did this.”

With Theo attached to him like a baby sloth, he couldn’t go to her, so he motioned for her to come closer. When she did, he interlocked their fingers.

“My shutting down wasn’t helpful in my first marriage, and it won’t be helpful for us going forward,” he said. “I’m not in the business of hurting you, Eesh. I don’t want to hurt you.”

She smiled. “We’ll make up in Malmö.”

“We’ll more than make up.” He kissed her fingers, the back of her hand. “I promise.”

* * *

Ayesha twisted her wedding band around her finger and stared at Theo sleeping almost on Joel’s chest, the two of them precious together. She and Joel would make love on this trip. No kids and a romantic getaway was a recipe for him being deep inside her all night—finally. But she didn’t want to make love to him with Curtis’ ring on her finger.

It had been years since she’d last taken it off, only to shower and have it cleaned. Joel had confessed something painful to her by telling her he was pretty certain Sydney was having the same baby he felt like she hadn’t wanted to have with him. It was only fair she did something painful as well if she wanted her relationship with Joel to progress.

She would have to move ahead. 

Look to the future.

Take off her wedding ring.

She sighed, flipped onto her stomach, and reached across to slip her fingers between his. He squeezed her hand and mumbled, “Love you, Eesh,” without ever opening his eyes.

And the way her heart danced . . .



07: Let it “Snoh”

03/28/2021

She nodded and faced the audience. 

Lights were in her face. 

Joel had come closer to the stage, and she could see him watching her, the long fingers on his right hand tapping those on his left. All he’d worn was a simple navy-blue shirt, a blazer, jeans, and brogue boots, and he was the best-looking and best-dressed man in the room. 

By far.

The piano came in first, followed by the drums.

Ayesha took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and sang.


My aim is to have Dom’s book out before IRAE in April…

Episode 05: The Man of My Dreams, The Man From My Dreams

Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.

The Man of My Dreams, The Man from My Dreams

“Ayesha, I have to kiss you right now.” 
“Adrían, I’m not looking for anything serious.”
“I know.” Adrían pushed her back against the car, her face between his hands. “But I’m going to kiss you, anyway.”
As he moved in, she spotted something over his shoulder, in the distance, tucked into a dark corner of the parking garage adjacent to the office building. It was in the shape of a large man, but by the time she blinked, it was gone…and Adrían’s lips were on hers.
She immediately saw Curtis behind her closed eyelids, big and solid yet playful, and she missed the way he felt on top of her. She missed the way he held her, kissed her. Each flick of Adrían’s tongue yanked a memory of Curtis from her heart and, with a sigh, she opened up.
Adrían moaned.
The kiss deepened.
She was lonely. She missed her baby. She missed her sons’ father. She wanted him back. How could Curtis just leave like that? Didn’t he know she needed him? That she loved him?
Adrían took her arms, wrapped them around his neck, and caressed them from wrist to elbow. Tears flowed from her eyes, and she kissed him until the pain in her chest returned to something bearable.
“Just like that,” she whispered against his mouth. “God, Adrían. Just like that.”

Ayesha opened her eyes and blinked a few times, the room unfamiliar until remembered she was at Joel’s. When she turned, she was delighted to find he was still in bed with her, but he wasn’t sleeping. He was staring, and he stared at her in a way that made her hope she got the chance to wake up to him on many more occasions. 

He smoothed her brow with his thumb. “Morning, gorgeous.”

“Good morning.” She stretched her arms above her head. Sleeping in Joel’s bed had made for a better night’s rest than sleeping on her cold, lonely mattress. “Where’s Theo?”

Joel’s gaze dropped to her mouth. “He and Josiah are, apparently, making us breakfast in bed.”

He was sexy in that way men were, first thing in the morning, his hair disheveled as though he’d woken up with bedhead and combed it with his fingers. His irises were darker than normal, and the way he helplessly focused on her mouth when he wanted to kiss or had just kissed her was a massive turn-on. 

“Joel…no.”

He didn’t look up. “Why not?”

“I haven’t brushed my teeth yet.”

“Your point?”

“You can’t kiss me with morning breath.”

“You’d be surprised the things I would do if you let me.” 

She slapped her hands over her mouth. He rolled his eyes with a grin, her wrists no match for his strong hands and forearms, and he proved it by straddling her and closing his grip around them. 

While she struggled, he pulled. Even if she had been stronger than he was, the veins in his arms would have distracted her. The way his sleeves wrapped around his biceps made her body throb. She’d seen him shirtless countless times, so she knew what was underneath, but it wasn’t until now that she clearly remembered the fullness of his chest, the flat planes of his stomach, and the ridged Adonis belt that called out for her tongue, teeth, and lips. 

He pried her hands away from her mouth and spread them on either side of her, fastening her to the bed. Tightness pulled at her nipples, and there were enough sparks between her legs to power the entire house. 

“So you didn’t kiss Curtis in the mornings?” he asked.

“Yeah, but not in the beginning.”

“Are we ‘in the beginning’ still?”

“Well, this is technically our first night together, and we’ve only been on one date. Well, a half of a date.”

He bent.

She didn’t fight.

Instead of pressing his lips to hers or slipping his tongue between them, he sucked her top lip into his mouth. There’d been no need for her to be on birth control for the last few years, and she owned no condoms for the same reason. But as Joel moved to her bottom lip, sucking and sliding his tongue along the lobe of flesh, she swore her body released an egg. Current circumstances had proven she’d been fertile at least twice. 

Her nipples went from tight to aching. 

He shoved his tongue between her lips, and she opened all the way up. He kept her pinned, knees on either side of her, those powerful thighs flexing to keep him from sitting his weight on her. And he kissed her slowly, his tongue deliberate as if committing the inner workings of her mouth to memory. 

He smiled against her mouth and released his grip. 

She flung her arms around his neck and slid her fingers into his hair. The pads of her fingertips met his scalp, and he let out a long, rumbling groan.

“I love when you do that,” he whispered.

She dragged her fingers along his scalp a second time. “And I love it when you moan when I do that.”

“You are so damn sexy.” He kissed the base of her throat. “So fucking sweet.”

She drew his lips to hers, never wanting to stop tasting him, but then he rolled so that she was on top of him, those massive hands caressing her bare thighs. Underneath her, he was hot and hard and pressed against where she desperately needed him.

“Just like that. God, Joel. Just like that.”

She sucked on his tongue. His hips shot up, pressing the thick bulge against her, and she rocked against it. He matched her movements, and she kissed him to the rhythm of their bodies. 

“Mama and Daddy are still asleep.”

“Mama and…Daddy?” 

Joel broke the kiss.

“Five more seconds,” Ayesha whispered, chest heaving. Even if it was five seconds, she wanted to spend them with his mouth on hers. “And the boys always knock.”

“Joel’s not really my Daddy. It’s just his secret name that I call him.” Small hands tapped on the door. “Mama? Joel? Auntie Sydney’s here.”

Joel hesitated, gently moved her aside, and slid off the bed. He didn’t say a word as he walked into the bathroom, tousling his hair with his fingers. 

Ayesha stared at the closed bathroom door. This was a new development. 

“One second!” she called, tossing her legs over the side of the bed.

She thought about going to Joel’s closet to find something of his to wear over her nightshirt, but after a reaction like that, she wasn’t sure he wouldn’t come out and rip it off her for wearing it in front of Sydney. Instead, she made sure none of the buttons had popped open, let it fall back to just above her knees, and opened the door.

Theo wrapped his arms around her legs. “Good morning, Mama. Did you sleep good?”

“I slept very good, my love.” She played with his curls, kissed the top of his head, and straightened. “Good morning, Sydney.”

Sydney scanned her face, a woman who was an expert in what just finished making out with Joel Lattimore looked like. 

“I didn’t expect to find you and the boys here,” Sydney said. “I’m sorry about barging in like this.”

“We live here now,” Theo said, beaming. 

Sydney glanced over Ayesha’s shoulder. “Oh. And Joel’s in there?”

“He’s in the bathroom.” Ayesha held Theo’s hands while he positioned his feet on top of hers, and she carefully stepped forward, Theo’s weight shortening her strides. “We’ll go down while you talk to him. Theo, is that okay? Instead of breakfast in bed this time, can we eat downstairs?”

He nodded. “It’s okay, Mama.”

Ayesha headed toward the stairs, thoughts racing. Why did Sydney need to see Joel? Was her and Joel’s relationship at a place yet where she could question him about it? Did Sydney want him back? Something could have happened between them while Sydney was staying at his house. Anything, really.

She internally gasped.

Was Sydney pregnant with Joel’s baby?

By the time she made it to the breakfast table, she felt like she’d had several small heart attacks. There was a name for small seizures. She couldn’t believe there wasn’t something for the heart. Maybe petit mal infarctions.

Josiah brought a tray of French toast, hard-boiled eggs, grapes, cubed cheese, breakfast sausage, and her and Joel’s favorite coffee to the table.

“Here you go, Ma.” He hugged her and kissed her cheek. “Bon appétit.”

Ayesha smiled up at him. “What did I do to deserve such a beautiful gesture?”

“We just wanted to do something nice for you and Joel.” He looked at the stairs. “Where is he, anyway? Uncle Julien’s gonna be here soon to take me to school, and I want to make sure I see him before I leave.”

Joel and Sydney made their way down the stairs, laughing together.

Laughing. 

Ayesha bit off a piece of French toast the way a rabid dog might bite a finger. The laughing wouldn’t have been an issue if, earlier, Joel hadn’t acted as though he’d nearly been caught cheating on his wife. 

Sydney headed for the front door, and it was how Ayesha knew she was upset. There was no “Goodbye,” or “See you later.” 

Nothing.

Josiah and Joel talked for a minute and then embraced. Afterward, Josiah gave her one last kiss and grabbed his things to meet Julien in the driveway. Theo, who’d been doing cartwheels in the living room, reentered the kitchen.

“Mama, do you like it?” He stood next to her chair. “I did the grapes and the cheese.”

“It’s very delicious, Theo.” And it truly was. This wasn’t their first time making her a meal, but it was the first time where it appeared everything was edible. “It looks so filling. Thank you for an amazing breakfast.”

“What does ‘filling’ mean, Mama?”

“It means, once I’m done eating all of this, my belly will be happy.”

Theo nodded and went back to his cartwheels in the living room. 

Joel headed over, tucked his fingers underneath her chin, and gave her a kiss sweet enough to almost erase all of her anxiety. “Don’t eat without me, Eesh. I’ll be right back.”

He kissed her again, even sweeter, and went to see Sydney out.

All of this was probably awkward for him, for them both, and she understood that. Her fling with Adrían had felt like cheating on Curtis, and there’d been zero chance of Curtis showing up one morning outside her bedroom door. Yet, understanding didn’t stop it from hurting.

Theo raced back to the kitchen and stood behind her chair. “Mama, since me and Jojo ate already, can I play on my tablet?”

“You have to do ABC Mouse for an hour,” she said. “After that, you can play whatever you want.”

Mama.” He dropped down into a squat, hands gripping the crossed bars at the back of the chair, and sprung back up. “I don’t wanna do ABC Mouse.”

“It’s either ABC Mouse for an hour and then your games or no games at all.” She motioned for him to stand in front of her, gently cupped his chin, and looked directly into his eyes. “That’s the deal. You should feel happy you get to play games at all, baby.”

“Because of what I did to Thandie?”

“Yes.”

He tossed back his head with more drama than a stage actor. “Okay.

“That’s my smart, sweet little boy.”

Theo giggled and headed for his tablet in the downstairs office. Just as he left, Joel returned and sat in the chair directly across from her. He poured coffee into his mug and brought it up to his lips, eyes on her. 

She popped a couple of grapes and cubes of cheese into her mouth. 

They remained that way, eating in silence and staring, waiting for the other to ask whatever question was causing the tense fog between them.

When their plates were empty, she geared up to ask about Sydney’s visit, but he had a more pressing question of his own.

“Did you dream about that Adrían last night?”

Joel was the type of man who almost always had a grin on his face. It was how everyone had known the divorce caused him a lot more pain than he’d let on; he didn’t smile, tease, or try to crack a joke. For months. Right now, he looked hurt, and she knew then that she’d read the earlier situation all wrong. 

“Yes, I did,” she confessed. “I dreamt about the first time I…kissed him.”

Joel dragged his tongue over his bottom lip. “Was it more than that?”

“Wait, is that what happened this morning?” She pointed to the ceiling in the general direction of the bedroom. “I thought you might have felt some type of way to be kissing me while Sydney was right outside our door.”

“When you said, ‘God, Joel. Just like that,’ you said exactly the same thing, using his name, in your sleep.” 

Why was this happening now? She’d had years to get these dreams and unresolved feelings out of her system, and now was when all this crap wanted to rear its head? Fate had the fight of its life ahead of it if it thought she’d give Joel up over something this ridiculous.

“So, I feel like crap,” she said, throat tightening. “I’m sorry doesn’t even begin to cut it.”

“Do you still have feelings for—”

“No.”

I don’t have feelings for him. I have feelings for you. Every feeling, all of them, they’re for you.  I love you. Do you love me?

“What about you?” she countered, shifting in her chair. “Did you push me off because of Sydney?”

His neck reared back. “I pushed you off?”

“It was a gentle push.”

“I’ll admit I did feel some type of way when I left the bathroom and found her standing in our bedroom staring at the messed up sheets.” He frowned. “Eesh, I pushed you? Damn it, baby. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“It was a gentle push,” she reiterated. “Just a tiny one. You more like ‘moved’ me aside, really.”

He left his chair and crouched next to hers. “I don’t know if you ever feel this way, but sometimes I wonder if everyone thinks we were fooling around before Syd and I split up.”

“I have. I mean, this is a weird situation. Sydney was just in your house.”

“You live here too.”

Her pulse quickened. “I mean, Theo walked her right up to the bedroom.”

“Our bedroom, and I need to talk to him about that.”

“I don’t think Sydney would have come up if she knew I was sleeping all up in your bed these days.” She faced him and pushed his hair off his forehead the way he liked. “Joel, I don’t have any second thoughts about us.”

“And I have zero.” He stood and pulled her into his arms. “None.”

When he looked at her the way he was now, like war could be raging outside and he wouldn’t so much as glance at the chaos, how could she not be in love with this man?

“What do you have planned for today?” he asked. “I’m taking Theo with me to pick up some stuff. If we’re still out later, I’ll get Josiah from school. We can spend the afternoon together, the four of us.”

Had it been any other day, she and her aching heart would have already been brushed, showered, changed, and standing at the garage door. 

“I can’t today. The ladies and I have Book Club.”

“You guys never miss a book club.”

“Mo’s very passionate about it.” She pushed onto her toes, and he leaned down so she could brush a quick kiss over his lips. “I’m going upstairs to get ready.”

“If we’re not going out, I’ll make dinner tonight. Any requests?”

“I’ll eat whatever you put in front of me.”

He grinned. “Ditto.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

After another kiss, he released her, and she hurried up the stairs.

* * *

Ayesha coughed into her elbow. Sweat dripped from her forehead onto the boxing ring’s non-slip canvas floor. Her shirt and tights, at this point, could be wrung out, and her shoulder hurt like hell. 

“Is it painful?” Mo asked, examining a bright, purplish-red spot on Ayesha’s upper arm, fingers light. “Giorgio saw a bruise on my side the other night and asked me who I’d been fighting. I had to tell him I fell in the garden before innocent lives were lost.”

Ayesha laughed and smothered another cough. “You guys don’t have a garden, and you like that he’s crazy.”

“I do. My name is Mo Pozza, and I’m in love with a psycho.”

Behind them, Tayler grunted with each fist she slammed against a heavy bag. They’d started “Book Club” shortly after a woman showed up at Mo and Giorgio’s looking for a then four-month-old Aleksi. Tayler worked on marksmanship, Sydney focused on boxing, and Mo trained them in everything else. The last thing they wanted was to be sitting ducks, waiting for the guys to come in and “save” them or rely too heavily on Tayler’s deadeye or Mo’s lethal skill. 

“Take five,” Sydney said to Tayler. 

“Five minutes?” Tayler asked.

Sydney shook her head. “Nope. Seconds. Let’s go.”

Tayler groaned and restarted her set. 

Ayesha switched with Ari as Mo’s sparring partner and joined Xara and Larke in the weight room. Just like the men had their Lair, Mo had a spot not too far from what Joel jokingly called their “commune.” Her hope was to train local women, much like she’d done at her self-defense center in California. 

None of the guys knew about it yet. Ayesha figured Giorgio would find out about it when Mo found out about his secret piranhas. Joel had let it slip that Giorgio kept the exotic fish in a massive aquarium in the back office of the hangar where he kept his vehicles. 

Their “training complex” was equipped with the boxing ring, rows of heavy bags and other boxing equipment, weight, cardio, and stretch areas—Mo turned into a drill sergeant during pilates, calisthenics, and yoga—and a glass play area for the kids more secure than the Oval Office. Ayesha’s favorite room, however, was at the furthest end of the structure—an obstacle course where they used either paintball guns or lasers for tactical training. 

“Hey, Ayesha?” Sydney called. “Switch with Tayler.”

Tayler didn’t wait for Ayesha to answer; she stripped off her gloves and unraveled her hand wraps, her cami soaked. Ayesha playfully swatted Tayler’s shoulder as she walked past.

She wrapped her hands and pulled on a set of gloves. Sydney braced herself on the other side of the heavy bag. 

Ayesha hit the bag with two quick blows at Sydney’s instruction, drowned out the noise around them, and focused on Sydney’s voice, striking with jabs, crosses, hooks, or kicks each time Sydney yelled out a command. 

“Now give me five knee strikes,” Sydney instructed. 

Ayesha raised her knee.

“Are you sleeping with Joel?”

Ayesha lost her balance and steadied herself by gripping the bag. “What?”

“You and Joel,” Sydney reiterated. “Are you two sleeping together?”

“Not exactly.”

“What does that mean?”

“We’re not having sex, but we’ve slept in the same bed, and I believe we’ll keep sleeping in the same bed.” She decided to freestyle the rest of her heavy bag session. “Why do you want to know?”

“You were in his bedroom. Theo called Joel ‘Daddy’ this morning. The boys were making you guys breakfast in bed.”

“Theo knows Joel’s not his biological father, but Joel is theoretically the only ‘father’ he’s ever known.”

“What if you two don’t work out?” Sydney prodded. “Won’t that be confusing and traumatizing for him?”

She didn’t want to think about her and Joel not working out, not with how she felt about him. And she believed he felt the same way about her.

Joel’s and Theo’s relationship dynamic was unique, even more so than his relationship with Josiah since Curtis had been part of Josiah’s life for close to half of it. And yes, she thought often about the whole “Daddy” thing and if she was screwing her child up to the point where he’d need therapy to recover from her shit job at being both Mama and Papa.

God, she wished she could strangle her anxiety sometimes. 

“Ayesha?”

“I don’t know, Sydney,” she answered. “I don’t want us to not work out, so I don’t think about it.”

“I didn’t want me and Joel to not work out either.” Sydney stepped back from the bag. “Did you find him attractive while we were still married?”

Ayesha slammed her fist so hard against the bag, the reverb created a wave of pain down her already injured shoulder. “All the guys are attractive.”

“What I mean is, did you look at him in any way other than a friend while we were still married?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Did you guys have sex or fool around while me and Joel were still married? Kiss?”

Ayesha frowned. “No. And I told you we haven’t even slept together yet.”

“Yet?”

“What I meant was—”

“You in love with him?”

Ayesha stopped punching and grabbed the bag to hold it steady. The rest of the women weren’t listening, but she dropped her voice anyhow. “Look, Joel said you were okay with this. You said you were okay with this. This doesn’t seem like ‘okay,’ Sydney.”

Sydney sighed, her eyes misting over. “Most days, I am. Some days, like today, it’s a little more difficult. You were in his bedroom, Ayesha. The sheets were all messed up. It didn’t feel good.”

And she was sorry.

She was sorry one million times over.

She’d tried to avoid this happening, and it would have worked if Joel hadn’t felt the same way. Plus, the feelings were strong. Joel made her jealous and stupid and happy and weak-kneed. He made her smile in the shower and spend extra time in the mirror each day because she now had someone in her life who made her feel beautiful. Yes, she was in love with him. She couldn’t stop loving him, and she wasn’t going to try.

“I asked him to have dinner with me earlier,” Sydney said. “Did he say anything to you?”

Ayesha, done with the bag, pulled off her gloves. “No. Why’d you ask him to dinner?”

“I need to talk to him.”

“Did something happen between you and Joel,” she glanced at Sydney’s midsection, “while you were at his place?”

“If something had, wouldn’t we have been well within our rights?”

“Know what?” Ayesha tossed up her hands. “I’m not doing this, Sydney. Not with you. I love you, admire you, and respect you, so I’m not going to do this. Not today, not ever.”

She didn’t understand what it was, exactly, that she felt. With Curtis, no matter how long he was gone, she never wondered if there was some woman laid up under him in Kazakhstan or Budapest or wherever because she wasn’t around.

Before Joel, Curtis had been her only serious relationship. Since Curtis had done nothing to color her perception of relationships, she didn’t know if she was jealous of Sydney, suspicious of Joel, or if she had such intense feelings for Joel, she just really didn’t want to lose him.

“I’m not trying to be catty,” Sydney quickly asserted, reaching out to squeeze her hand. “I haven’t been feeling like myself lately.”

Ayesha dropped the gloves and unraveled her hand wraps. “It wasn’t something we planned, and I’m pretty sure he fought it as hard as I did. But, I like him Sydney. When I see him, I get butterflies so intense, I feel happy and sick at the same time. My heart goes all crazy when he calls or texts that he’s on his way over. I love his laugh, his smile, his beautiful eyes, his dark hair.” She smiled when his face popped up in her mind. “Honestly, we were just friends for a long time. Then, something changed. I caught myself needing him to get through the day. Missing him when he was gone. Sniffing his shirts.”

Sydney smiled, but there was a hint of sorrow on her face. 

“But I didn’t betray your friendship.” Ayesha wiped a trickle of sweat before it dropped into her eye. “There was nothing between us before, and not even right after.”

Sydney swatted the air. “I know Joel would never cheat on me, and I know you would never do that.”

“So then what—”

“We’re done here!” Mo’s voice raised above the noise. “Wrap up! We’re heading to the obstacle course!”

Ayesha returned the gloves to a peg on the wall while Sydney followed. 

“I think I’m just starting to realize how much better you are for him because of my relationship with Dmitri,” Sydney added. “He’s deliriously happy with you.”

“And you?” Ayesha asked. “With Dmitri, I mean.”

She smiled. “I’m over the moon.”

“Let’s go, ladies,” Mo called. “You can pow-wow later.”

Ari walked several paces behind her twin, far enough to whisper, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by Mo Pozza,” without Mo hearing. 

Like last time.

Sydney fell in step with Ari, Larke, and Tayler.

Ayesha stared at the back of their heads until Xara hooked their elbows and pulled her along.

By the end of Book Club, she was exhausted, and she nearly fell to her knees when she came home to an empty house. She used every bit of the solace to draw a bath for a long soak. 

After her bath, she took a long, much-needed nap.

“Hey, Eesh.” A finger caressed her jaw. “We’re back.” 

She opened her eyes to Joel crouched next to the bed. 

“I’ve been trying to call you for a while.” He smiled. “You must have had a good ass nap.”

She stretched. The man’s bed was amazing. She never wanted to leave.

“Eesh?” He leaned close to her injured arm. “Did I do that this morning when I held you down?”

“This? No.” She tugged at her sleeve. “I…fell in Mo’s garden.”

“Mo and Pozza don’t have a garden.”

“It’s an inside joke. I just bumped into something. It’s fine. I don’t even know why it bruised.”

She might as well have said nothing.

He sat next to her on the bed and raised her sleeve. It wasn’t until after her bath that she’d realized the bruise had only started at her upper arm. She’d stumbled and fallen on the shoulder while blocking one of Mo’s kicks. The impact had hurt, but Tayler had assured her nothing felt out of place. 

“Jesus, Eesh.” He continued to examine her arm, and with each caress of his fingers, she slowly forgot there was a bruise present. “What’d you bump into this hard?”

She shrugged. “I’m not sure.”

“I’ll put some ice on it for you later tonight.” 

He kissed her shoulder, her jaw, her cheek, and she turned her head for him to drop one on her mouth. Then, he was on top of her, cradling the back of her head. Her legs went around his waist as she sucked on his tongue and licked the arch of his neck, their hands clasped.

“Eesh,” he pulled back, hoarse, and she craned her neck to try to reach his mouth, “come on. I have a surprise for you downstairs.”

“Now?”

“Yeah.”

She nodded.

They passed Josiah’s room, and he was doing his homework at a desk that hadn’t been there before. He looked up, grinned, pointed to his new desk, and went back to his work. 

The empty room she hoped Theo would eventually sleep in now had a wooden platform bed in the middle. A mattress, still in its plastic, sat on the slats. There were sealed boxes and several bags in the corner that she wanted to investigate, but Joel pulled her along, down the stairs.

“What all did you do today?” she asked.

“Picked up a few things.” He kissed the back of her hand. “I hope you don’t mind. I wasn’t sure if you’d want more input, but I wanted to surprise you.”

“I’ve had unilateral input for a while now. I’m good. Where’s Theo?”

The answer to her question stood in the dining room with his hands behind his back, trying to hide a bouquet of roses that was almost as big as he was. Joel had even gotten him a little tuxedo and bow tie, and he was so excited and adorable, it took everything in her not to squeal. 

He presented the flowers. “The prettiest flowers for the prettiest mama!”

She stooped to his eye level, took them, and held them close to her chest. “Oh, Theo. These are beautiful. And you look so handsome!”

“I picked them out. You like them, Mama?”

“I love them, baby.”

He stepped aside and opened his arms. “Ta-da!”

Rose petals had been scattered on the dining tabletop between glowing tapered candles, wine glasses, and a bottle of wine on ice in a stainless steel bucket. Tea light candles flickered in glass dishes, and a steaming, covered dish held what she guessed was their dinner.

“Wow.”

“Joel did it, Mama,” Theo announced. “He’s trying to empress you, so I told him to give you flowers and lemonade.” Theo dropped his voice to something that wasn’t even remotely close to a whisper. “And kisses.”

Ayesha, smiling, pointed to the “wine” bottle. “That’s lemonade?”

Joel nodded. “Yes, ma’am. My guy gives good advice. I didn’t want to stray from a single detail.”

Theo beamed up at Joel, and it melted her heart. 

“Joel, did I do good?” Theo asked.

“You did amazing.”

They bumped fists.

Theo cheered, dashed up the stairs, and ran down the hallway calling for his brother.

Joel pulled out Ayesha’s chair and gestured for her to have a seat. 

“Do you do stuff like this often?” She sat, and he took the roses from her hand. “Is it safe to feel spoiled?”

He pushed in her chair, placed the roses in a vase already prepped on the tabletop, and took the seat next to her. “Very safe. I’m a romantic kind of guy, Eesh. I’ll do it until you tell me to stop.”

“Then…please, don’t stop.”

His irises darkened. “Don’t stop?” 

“No.” She licked her lips, and his focus dropped to them. “Never stop.”

For dinner, they had ribollita, which was delicious, but Joel claimed it wasn’t as close as he’d like to his grandmother’s version.

He poured her “wine” and leaned over to kiss her whenever the mood struck him. His smile and laugh made her hot and wet, and she wondered if a couple’s first time together being a quickie was considered bad luck. As their kisses got deeper and longer over the course of the evening, she wondered if he was considering the same thing. But if he’d done all this, there was no way he’d settle for a laundry room romp before he had a chance to make it special for them both.

“Joel,” she pushed at his chest, pushed his lips away from hers before she turned into a puddle, “I need to go upstairs real quick.”

He looked at her from beneath hooded eyelids. “Why?”

“To change my panties.”

“You know I can take care of that problem for you.”

She got up, leaned down for another kiss that only made her situation worse, and hurried to the stairs. When her foot landed on the first step, her phone rang.

“You can answer it!” 

It took her only a couple of minutes to change. In that couple of minutes, Joel had gone from highly aroused to a malevolent intensity she heard before she saw him.

“I asked how you got this number, and why the hell you’re calling my woman’s phone.”

She entered the dining area.

“Yes, she is,” he continued. “You don’t have to know my name. I know how lucky I am, and I don’t plan on that changing.”

Then he hung up.

“Who was that?” 

“Did you give that Adrían fucker your number?”

She frowned. “No. That was him?”

“Yep.”

“I didn’t give him my number, Joel.”

“See, that’s the thing.” He walked over and stopped directly in front of her. “None of our numbers are listed anywhere. The only people who have these numbers,” he held up the phone, “are the kids’ teachers. Interestingly enough, Larke ran into an old tech friend of hers recently who Julien thinks tried to hack into her computer.” He stepped around her. “I’ll be right back.”

“Wait.” She grabbed his hand. “Where are you going? Julien’s?”

“Yeah.”

“Not tonight. Please? We just,” she motioned to the table, “had a lovely dinner together, and it’s been the perfect day. Plus, you look really good in that shirt and those joggers, and I’d like to kiss you for as long as I can because you know Theo’s already planning his return.” 

“Damn, Eesh.” He set her phone down. “I’m not even pissed anymore.”

He grabbed her ass, picked her up, and latched onto her mouth. Any reply she had disappeared down his throat. 

Joel had a way of kissing her that made her lose all sense of time. It made her bones melt, her head light, and her skin warm all over. His tongue moved slowly, boldly, tasting and licking the corners and caverns of her mouth. He’d propped her against one of the dining room walls, and she failed to rein in the whimper that had started as a tickle at the back of her throat the minute she’d seen what he’d done for her.

“Don’t do that to me, baby.” He flicked his tongue in and out of her mouth, licking from inside her top lip to the bow that dipped in its middle. “Don’t let me hear how much you like what I’m doing to you.”

He latched back onto her mouth, his fingers slipping over the soaked middle of her panties and stroking her through the fabric. She nodded, and he pulled them to the side.

They had to stop.

Or something.

Why was it that they had to stop again?

She reached into his joggers, and as she went to wrap her hand around the base of his thick, rigid length to navigate it inside her, running footsteps sounded throughout the house and down the stairs. 

Joel sighed through a laugh, gave her one last kiss, and let her down to the floor. She blocked his lower half from Theo’s view with her body. 

“How was the lemonade, Mama?” Theo asked, crashing into her legs.

“It was,” she cleared her throat, “delicious, baby.”

“I forgot to tell you I helped Joel with the stirring part.” He demonstrated a stirring motion. “I stirred it real good.”

“Yes, you sure did.”

Theo peered around her. “Joel, did you like the lemonade?”

Ayesha turned him around by the shoulder. “Come on, Theo. Bath time.”

“Mama…”

“Let’s go, sweetie. Mama had such a good time, she wants to tell you all about it, and you know bath time is when we catch up. I’ve been dying to talk to you all day.”

Not even a pair of thick jeans could have hidden that monster in Joel’s pants.

“Thanks for dinner, Joel,” she said, glancing back at him. “And thank you…for everything else.”

That night, Theo slept between them, and there were no nightmares.

* * *

Adrían didn’t spare Siriano a glance and continued to look out at Stockholm from where he sat on the balcony ledge. He’d been in a house, though large, with five other men for close to six months now. Somebody would end up dead before the year was out.

“I’ve known your secret since our Maui reconnaissance,” Siriano taunted, blowing a puff of smoke in the air. “I followed you. I saw you kiss her.”

“I knew you were following me, and I don’t care that you saw me kiss her.”

Alors, tu sais ce que j’ai fait au garçon.”

Adrían went from sitting to his hand wrapped around Siriano’s throat in seconds. 

The cigarette dropped from Siriano’s fingers and, as Siriano’s eyes turned red, the sick fuck smiled.

“You did what to what boy?”

Siriano gasped. 

Trevor stepped onto the terrace. “What the fuck is going on? Let him go, Delgano.”

Adrían squeezed tighter.

“Gano.”

He released. 

Siriano stumbled backward, coughing.

Trevor looked between them. “You two can’t play nice? I’m upstairs trying to sleep, but you’re out here trying to kill each other.”

“Lavigne, I already told you, several times before, that I’d kill you if I found out you were doing some underhanded shit,” Adrían warned. “I’m a man of my word. Let me find out you did anything to either one of those boys, and you’ll wish you were dead by the time I’m finished with you.”

Siriano swatted at him. “I didn’t touch the little boy. I scared him.”

Adrían went back to the view. “Anyhow, Ayesha’s not on our radar anymore, so I don’t know why we’re still talking about her. She left Maui. The intel that said she might have headed this way is wrong. I don’t think she’d leave warm, tropical Hawaii and move to cold-ass Sweden.”

Even though she had.

He suspected her new man had something to do with that.

“Ayesha?” Siriano made a sound in his throat. “Look at you sounding familiar.”

“You two play nice,” Trevor warned. “I don’t want us to be all messed up when we get the call. Don’t forget that out of us, Gamma, and Delta, whoever eliminates Alpha gets to walk away with their lives. So, stop this shit, understand?”

Siriano picked up his cigarette. “Oui.”

Adrían didn’t respond.



06: Deception

03/21/2021

“I mean this in the most respectful way, sweetheart, but why do you think we need your ex-husband’s approval?”

Sydney looked back over her shoulder at Dmitri, tapping her chin with a ballpoint pen, the list in front of her longer than it had been just a few minutes ago. 

“It’s not approval, per se,” she clarified. “I just want to tell him before we make the announcement. Joel and I are still friends.”

Dmitri kissed her bare shoulder, the sheets draped haphazardly around them. The Mediterranean Coast served as a picturesque backdrop, but she was the most beautiful thing in all of Greece. She and Joel might still be friends, but he was grateful to the man for letting her go. Sydney Donovan was everything he’d ever wanted in a woman—strong and intelligent with a mind for business—and, while he hadn’t planned on things moving this fast, he knew he didn’t want her going anywhere unless he was included.

Correction . . . he didn’t want her or their little one going anywhere unless he was included.

Episode 04: The “Bestest” Time Ever

Mature (18+) Audiences. Contains bad words and sex-y scenarios.

The Bestest Time Ever

Dinner with everyone laughing and chatting together did wonders to help Theo wind down for the night, and Ayesha agreed to let him stay with Joel for the rest of the week while she and Josiah finished moving. Theo had his bag packed in under a minute, but Joel had to repack it so they brought actual essentials instead of dinosaur toys, race cars, and juice boxes.

They asked Theo’s teacher if he could complete his work for the rest of the week virtually, and she told them Theo had been so anxious and withdrawn at school, she wanted them to treat his time out like any other illness. She also gave them a recommendation for someone they could speak to about his night terrors.

After dinner, Ayesha and Josiah tried to entice Theo with the promise of watching Trolls at home—they knew he wouldn’t agree, but they wanted him to feel even more missed—but he grinned and said he and Joel were going camping. As it was cold outside, Joel had set up a tent in the front room and pulled up the blinds so they could see the stars through the windowpanes. 

He’d had a night of activities planned, but Theo wasn’t interested in anything other than lying on sleeping bags, tucked against him while they read stories together.

“Are you sure you want me to read this one, Theo?” Joel asked, flipping through the book which was a story about a baby bird who’d hatched while its mother was away getting food for it to eat. “Have you ever read it before?”

“My teacher at my old school in Maui readed it to our class. It’s about a baby bird looking for its mama.”

Theo had wanted them to wear matching pajamas, but Joel didn’t have anything blue with gray spaceships, so he improvised with a blue Quantico T-shirt and gray pajama pants. The fabrics rustled against each other as Theo snuggled closer.

“She read it to your class?” He turned to the first page. “You must really like this story if you want to read it again.”

As Joel began the story, he understood why it had resonated with Theo. The baby bird was in an egg that the mother had been sitting on. When she felt the egg move, she realized that it was getting ready to hatch and flew to find food for it to eat. While she was away, the bird hatched from the egg and then went on an adventure trying to find its mother.

Due to his age, Theo often didn’t get enough credit for the times he was most astute, like now. He’d essentially “hatched” when his father wasn’t around, and he’d been looking for one ever since. 

When they reached the part where the baby bird proclaimed that it had to have a mother, it just hadn’t found her yet, Theo squirmed next to him.

“Is this how you feel, Theo?” Joel asked. “Do you feel like you don’t have a,” he decided to play coy to give Theo more independence, “mother?”

Theo pulled wrinkled fingers from his mouth. “But I have a mama, Joel!”

“Do you feel like you don’t have a daddy, then?”

“Josiah had a daddy. I never had a daddy.”

“And how does that make you feel? Do you feel sad that you never got to meet your papa?”

“I asked Mama if we could go to where they put Papa in the dirt after he went to heaven, just me and her this time, and she said yes,” he explained. “And, I know I have a papa. Mama showed me pictures and stuff. I watched him on her phone and the TV.”

“But…it’s not the same.”

“It’s not the same thing,” Theo echoed.

Joel read more of the story and stopped again when Theo squirmed as the baby bird asked a giant piece of machinery if it was its mother.

“What’d you do when you went to see your papa?” 

“I aksed him a secret. I aks…aks,” Theo huffed out a sigh, “asked him if he would be mad if I got another daddy.” 

“Did you have someone in mind?”

Theo readjusted so their heads touched. “I want you to be my daddy, Joel. I love my uncles, but I want them to be my uncles.”

“I must be a special guy if I’m the one you want.” 

He’d framed it teasingly, but he did feel amazing knowing how much love Theo had for him. 

“You’re really funny, your eggs don’t have any juice like when Mama makes them, and you’re really good at soccer even though I think Mama’s better now.”

“Hey!”

Theo giggled. 

“I’m working on my game,” Joel said, faking hurt. “But she is pretty good, isn’t she?”

“Mama said when you love somebody, you don’t want bad things to happen to them,” Theo added. “I love you, Joel, the same like I love Mama. I don’t want bad things to happen to you. When I get to hang out with you and we do stuff together, just me and you, or with Jojo, I feel like you’re my daddy. I like when you pick me up from school and read me stories. You have to be my daddy. Can you stay with me forever? Please don’t go away.”

Joel closed the book. “Do you think I’ll go away if I’m not your daddy?”

“Do you want to?”

“Theo, I’ll always be here for you, whether I’m your daddy or not.” He wouldn’t mind the role, however. “And no, I don’t want to go far away from you.”

Theo beamed. “Don’t tell Mama, but you’re my second best friend.”

“Who’s your first?”

“Jojo.”

Joel smiled. “Good choice.”

“Mama is the bestest because she’s Mama, Jojo is my first best friend, you’re my second best friend, and Thandie is my third best friend. I don’t have any other friends at school.”

A pang hit Joel in the center of his chest when he recalled what Ayesha had told him at dinner. Back in Maui, most of Theo’s friends had been extensions of Josiah’s. Theo also wasn’t the biggest fan of school, and he and Ayesha had assumed it had to do with having to “sit still and listen” for a time period longer than fifteen minutes. Part of that, now that Joel thought about it, was likely attributed to his friendlessness. Kids could tell when people didn’t like them or merely tolerated them, but what was there not to like about Theo?

“Are kids mean to you at school, Theo?”

Theo split his fingers into “legs” and walked them across Joel’s forehead. “They get mad because sometimes I kick the ball too hard, but I never mean it when it hurts somebody. That’s when they say I can’t play anymore.”

“What do you do then?”

“Play catch by myself.”

Behind Joel’s eyes felt like a fire had been lit. He was torn between wanting to fight kindergarten-age children for hurting his boy and wanting to beg them to please play with Theo. If they gave him a shot, if they learned who he really was, they would love him.

“Whenever we go to recess at the same time, Thandie plays with me even though she’s bigger’n me.” Theo crawled on top of Joel and stared down into his eyes, their noses almost touching. 

Joel had to move the book to the side to avoid it being crushed beneath Theo’s thirty-eight pounds. Theo continued to lag behind on the growth chart, but then again, so had Josiah. They’d already taken him for two check-ups since moving and, according to his doctor, he was perfectly healthy…just small.

“Joel, I didn’t mean to scratch Thandie.”

“I know you didn’t, buddy,” Joel reassured. “Me and your mama know you didn’t mean it, but we have to make sure you understand it’s dangerous and remind you of the rules.”

Theo agreed, quieted, and resettled, and Joel finished the rest of the book. Afterward, they read one about a little boy who lost his dinosaur. 

When Joel thought they were finished and Theo was ready to “roast marshmallows,” Theo went to his bag and pulled out one last book. Joel scanned the cover and came dangerously close to bursting into a level of tears he hadn’t shed since elementary school.

“My teacher gived me this book.” Theo climbed back on top of him. “I aksed her if she had a book that I could read to you when I’m a gooder reader, and she said I can take this one home and read it with you so I learn the words.”

Joel swallowed twice before reading the title out loud. “You asked her for a book called ‘I Love You, Daddy’ to read with me?”

“When I go back to school, I’ll ask her for the mama one.”

When did this happen, Theo? 

When did you become my boy?

Joel sat up. Theo plopped his fingers in his mouth and threaded himself through Joel’s arms so he could see the pictures in the book while Joel read.  

Joel didn’t know how he got through the book, which was about a baby bear who felt like he could do things he’d never thought he could before because of his father, without flooding the living room with tears. He had to stop a few times and pretend to clear something from his throat to gather his composure. He didn’t know what he’d ever done to deserve this, but just like Theo didn’t want him going anywhere, he didn’t want to go anywhere himself. 

He loved Theo.

He loved Josiah.

And he loved Ayesha.

At this point, where could he go except straight into a den of misery and unhappiness if they weren’t part of his life?

After the story, they roasted marshmallows in the wood-burning fireplace. Joel used the opportunity to reiterate fire safety to Theo four times to make sure he heard it once. When they were done, he expected the sugar to have Theo bouncing off the walls, but all Theo wanted to do was sit with him in the tent and look at the stars through the windows. 

He learned that dinosaurs were the “biggest animals to ever have lived,” Komodo dragons had “poisin spit,” and a “boxed jellyfish” was “the most poisinous thing in the world.” As Theo spewed out fact after fact, Joel made a mental note to get some sort of National Geographic Kids subscription sent to the house. 

Theo had also wanted to know, if he was “really good,” whether he could get a pet iguana. Gage and Tayler had Ares, Mo had a puppy named Ginger, and Giorgio had secret piranhas, but there was no way in hell Ayesha would agree to having a big ass lizard in the house. A hamster or guinea pig might be an easier sell.

“Joel, are you gonna marry Mama?” Theo suddenly asked in the middle of explaining why a Komodo dragon wasn’t the same thing as a Water Monitor lizard.

“Well, I…uh…” He scratched his head. “I’m still trying to impress your mama.”

“What does ‘impress’ mean?”

“I’m…trying to get her to like me.”

“But she loves you!”

His heart raced, and his mouth stretched into a wide smile. Not even a gun to the head would have stopped him from smiling right then. 

“And how do you know your mama loves me?”

“She told me.” Theo tossed up both hands for emphasis. “But, I can help you make Mama love you like me and Jojo love you.”

The smile grew. “I’m all ears.”

“Mama likes food.”

“Good. I took her to a fancy restaurant, and she really liked it.”

“Did they have yummy lemonade?” Theo smacked his lips. “Mama likes yummy lemonade.”

“We didn’t have lemonade that time, but if we go back, I’ll make sure we order some.”

Theo stood in front of Joel and tapped his chin, their faces again close to touching. “What about pretty flowers?”

“Will you help me pick some out?” 

“We’ll get the prettiest flowers for the prettiest mama!” Theo pumped his fist and then tapped again. “Oh! Mama loves kisses too!”

And he loved that Theo’s mama loved kisses.

“I’ll…try to remember that.”

“Okay.” Theo yawned and curled himself into Joel’s chest. “Joel, when it’s just me and you and nobody else, can I call you Daddy? Or would that make you mad?”

Joel’s racing heart swelled. “It wouldn’t make me mad, but are you sure you want to do that?”

“Jojo said if you get to be our daddy, I can call you Daddy and he can call you Dad. Then, when I get bigger, I can call you Dad too, but I don’t want to right now.”

Joel smoothed a hand over Theo’s hair. “Well, when it’s just the two of us and nobody else, you can call me whatever you want.”

“Daddy. I want to call you my daddy.”

If he could help it, Theo would never feel unsafe again. Poor Ayesha had no idea she was moving in for good, but it wouldn’t take her long to figure it out. If she needed convincing, he could do that too.

“If I fall asleep, will you leave me?” Theo asked.

“Nope.” He pressed a couple of kisses on top of Theo’s head. “I’ll be right here when you wake up. No one will hurt you as long as you’re with me.”

Joel held up his pinky. Theo wrapped his smaller one around it in a silent promise and closed his eyes.

“I’m happy you’re my daddy for right now.”

Joel’s eyes misted over. 

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Theo?”

“This is the bestest time ever.”

Joel held him close. “For me too.”


WHEN HE DIDN'T FEEL the movements or stirrings of a small, warm body next to him, Joel’s eyelids flipped open. He was in the tent, but Theo wasn’t next to him. He’d told Theo to wake him if he had to go to the bathroom, even though he wore the night underwear, to make sure he didn’t walk in the dark alone. If Theo wasn’t next to him, where the hell was he?

“Theo?” Joel moved aside a picture on the wall, grabbed the Glock hidden behind it, and searched through the dark house, pulse pounding in his ears. “Theo, where are you? Talk to me, buddy.”

A shriek that made Joel’s blood curdle echoed throughout the house, and he took a moment to focus on where the noise had come from, keeping as cool a head as possible. Panic wouldn’t help him find Theo, but he was seconds away from his heart giving out. 

Theo’s voice rang out a second time from the direction of the kitchen. “Please don’t let him get me!”

Joel dashed to the kitchen and followed crying and whimpering noises to the pantry where he found Theo curled into a ball on the floor, eyes shut. 

His fingers grazed Theo’s skin. “Theo, it’s me. I’m here.”

Theo startled out of his sleep and plastered himself up against a pile of cans. When he recognized Joel, he scrambled forward and wrapped his arms around Joel’s neck, tight. His little heart beat out of his chest, tears stained his face as he coughed between cries, and his entire body shook.

Joel tucked away the pistol. “Theo, I’m here. I’m here. Can you feel my breathing? Try to breathe like me. In…out. In…out. I’m here. I’m here.”

While they breathed together, he walked around the house, patting Theo’s back and rocking him like he used to do when Theo was younger. He made sure to keep his tone level and calm, no matter how much he freaked out on the inside. What if he’d lost him? What would he have done? What would he have told Ayesha? 

“I’m right here, Theo.” He sent a quick apology heavenward before the next words left his mouth. “Daddy’s here. Daddy’s right here. I’m not going anywhere, baby boy. You’re safe.”

It took several minutes before Theo was able to speak again.

“Tell me what happened,” Joel said. “Did you have a bad dream?”

Theo’s stomach quivered with each shaky breath. “Mr. Veeny was at the Maui house.”

All fear left and was replaced by rage potent enough to coagulate Joel’s blood. 

“Theo, is Mr. Veeny real or fake?” 

“I can’t tell you.”

He sat Theo on the living room sectional and crouched in front of him. “Theo, you can tell me anything. Anything in the world. I love you,” his voice shook, “so if Mr. Veeny hurt you in Maui and told you not to tell me, tell me anyhow. Anybody who hurts my baby boy has to deal with me, and I won’t be nice about it. It’s okay to tell me, no matter what he said to you.”

Theo’s lips trembled. “Mr. Veeny told me not to tell Mama that he was at my school.”

“So, it wasn’t a dream?”

“No.”

“Did he tell you his name was Mr. Veeny?”

“His name sounded like Veen…something.”

“What else did,” this motherfucker, “Mr. Veeny tell you?”

“He said that if I’m not good, he’ll hurt Mama and Jojo. I told him my daddy was stronger than him, and he said my daddy’s dead.”

“And…” Joel took several deep breaths, “how did Mr. Veeny get inside the Maui house?”

“He climbeded in through my bedroom window.”

Joel swallowed a litany of curse words and used divine strength to keep his expression neutral. 

Please, God, let him say no when I ask him this.

“Theo, did Mr. Veeny ever touch you? And I mean anywhere like on your arm, your leg, or,” his voice shook again, “in your underwear?”

“No, he didn’t touch me. But he showed me his gun.”

Joel’s rage grew until tremors moved inside him. “Theo, when was the last time you saw Mr. Veeny?”

“When you stayed with me, Mama, and Jojo. I forgot about him for a little while, but then I had a dream that he was here in our Sweden house, and then I remembered.”

“And Mr. Veeny,” who’s a dead motherfucker, “said he knows about your heaven daddy?”

“Uh, huh. He said he killed my papa, but I don’t believe him. Mama said my papa was a hero, and he protected my uncles and that’s how come he went to heaven.”

“And your mama’s right.”

“Joel,” the tears returned, “are you still not gonna get mad if I call you my daddy? I don’t want you to be mad.”

“I won’t get mad at all. It makes me happy that you want me to be your daddy, and daddies protect the people they love. Mr. Veeny won’t lay a,” fucking, “hand on you. I promise.” It was something he felt now more than ever, and he didn’t give a shit about anybody who had a fucking problem with it. “I’m going to take care of you, Jojo, and your mama. Come on. Hop on up.”

Joel turned around and patted his shoulders. 

Theo climbed onto his back.

“Hold on tight.”

Theo’s chin moved against his shoulder with a nod. 

Joel went around the room, closing all the blinds, and he double-checked the locks on the doors for Theo’s peace of mind. After, he put out the fireplace and headed upstairs to his room. Camping was fun, but also for Theo’s peace of mind, they needed to sleep somewhere not as open or vulnerable.

He set Theo down and had barely climbed into bed before Theo scrambled over to him and latched onto his left arm. Joel gently pried him off so he could wrap an arm around him, locking him in to help him feel safe. Then, when he was certain Theo was asleep, he texted Ayesha.

Joel: Eesh you up?
Ayesha: Hey 😍. How’s boys’ night?
Joel: How do you feel about you and Josiah coming tonight?

His phone rang, and he cursed. He’d texted to avoid talking to her because he had no idea how he sounded. Inside, he felt ready to commit murder. 

“Eesh—”

“What happened? Is Theo okay?”

He wasn’t ready to tell her what he knew. If he did, she’d have to live with the knowledge that this man had been in her home. She’d realize this Mr. Veeny had been in her baby’s room and had managed to bypass Julien’s security system, which meant he wasn’t some average fuck, not that it mattered in the grand scheme of things. Mr. Veeny was a dead motherfucker.

He couldn’t do that to her, not when she’d been so happy since they moved here. She was always laughing and smiling now, and she loved being within driving distance of everyone else. As her man, which he would affirm tonight, it was his duty to keep that smile on her face. 

So, he would keep this from her for as long as he feasibly could. 

“He had another nightmare,” Joel said. “I found him in the pantry.”

“Oh my God.”

“I’d really like it if you and Josiah came tonight. I’d feel better if you guys came now before it gets too late, and that when Theo wakes up, you’re here.”

Her sheets ruffled, and her bed creaked. “Okay. We’re coming. I’ll go wake Josiah, and I’ll see you in—”

“Don’t hang up.”

He kept her on the phone and listened to them pack their things, Josiah’s maturing, sleepy voice asking if everything was okay with Theo. He heard Ayesha reassure him, but there was no way Josiah believed it with the way she sounded.

They drove to his house, and he didn’t allow her to disconnect until he heard the garage door close. When she appeared in the bedroom doorway, his anger cooled.

“Where’s Josiah?” he asked.

“He’s half asleep, so he went to his room.” 

She dropped her things, kicked off her shoes, slipped off the pair of leggings she’d tossed on under her sleep shirt, and climbed into bed, giving him a quick kiss that eased the remainder of his need for violence. 

He gave her a redacted rundown of his and Theo’s eventful night. While he spoke, she stroked Theo’s cheek.

“And Giorgio doesn’t know anything about this ‘veeny’ thing, right?” she asked.

“No, and we still don’t know what it means, but he says he thinks it’s, at least, not a word.” 

She stared at Theo, eyes glistening. 

“Ayesha, I don’t want you to be here solely for the purpose of me and you sharing a roof for safety. I want you here because we’re together. Because you’re mine. But, before you answer, I have something to tell you, and I don’t know if you’ll like it.”

Her gaze flicked to him and then back to Theo. “Theo asked to call you Daddy, didn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“And you didn’t tell him he couldn’t.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I mean, I guess it’s because I don’t hate it? I know how that sounds, and I’m sorry for doing that without consulting with you first, but he had me read this ‘I Love You, Daddy’ book, and I got caught up in all the feels.”

“An ‘I Love You, Daddy,’ book?” Her brows shot up. “And he brought that to you out of the blue?”

“He asked his teacher for a book he could read with me.”

She kissed Theo’s cheek, temple, and forehead. “I wish more people could see how sweet my baby really is. And while I do think, under different circumstances, it would be soon for him to be calling his mother’s boyfriend ‘Daddy,’ you’ve been an active part of Theo’s life for…almost as long as I have, actually.”

“So you don’t think Curtis’ll lodge a trident in my spine?”

She burst out in quiet laughter. “Why a trident?”

“I…” He breathed through a laugh. “I don’t even know.”

“Joel, if Curtis and I had divorced, then yes, things would be different. Theo would still have his daddy around, and I’d make sure to keep those boundaries tight. But,” she sighed, “the truth is, no matter how much I try to avoid thinking this, Theo never knew his father. He never knew what it’s like to have a father, and my words and videos and photos can only do so much. You came into his life and made him feel loved, protected, and appreciated. I don’t think he sees you as a father figure because of our relationship. I think it’s more your relationship with him.”

He loved them more than even he understood. 

His sister had warned him that he might never come to love Josiah and Theo the way she loved her children. From what she’d told him and showed him, there were a lot of stepparents who didn’t feel “love” for their stepchildren. In fact, it was the majority. If he and Ayesha had met when the boys were older or Curtis had been given more time in their lives, he could see how things might be different compared to what they were now.

But, if he and Ayesha were to have a child right then, it wouldn’t be that Theo and Josiah were his stepsons and that child was his real son or daughter. 

They would all be his.

“Josiah told me that because of you, he remembers his father more,” she added. “Until he pointed it out, I didn’t realize the similarities you and Curtis have. If Theo wants to call you his daddy, that’s his choice. In his eyes, you’ve earned the role, and I think he needs that right now.”

Theo squeezed him and then squeezed again as if the first was for reassurance he was still there.

Even after the divorce papers were signed and time had passed, he’d held onto the belief that he’d used up all the love he would ever have. Sydney had been more than his wife. The reason he used “split” more often than “divorce” was because it was exactly what his heart had done that day he walked out of a lawyer’s office as a single man, again, all of a sudden.

But these three?

Love might be a barrel filled with water that could be drained, but rain would always come again.  

“Wait…” He eyed Ayesha. “Did you say ‘mother’s boyfriend’?”

She slipped her fingers through his. “Took you long enough.”

“So, you’re with me?”

“I’m with you, Joel.”

This wasn’t easy for her. Opening up to love was treacherous territory, especially since her marriage had ended the way it had and their relationship still felt taboo. On the outside, it looked like he and Ayesha had been harboring feelings for each other while he was still married, but the thought had never crossed his mind. He’d noticed she was beautiful, but Larke, Tayler, Xara, and Ari were also all beautiful as hell. 

He couldn’t bring himself to even think about Mo’s looks and have Giorgio lurking in his dreams like Freddy Krueger.

Ayesha Savea had been nothing but a great friend, in his mind, until a fateful Friday at Lahaina Beach on the west coast of Maui. All of a sudden, his ears started flaming whenever she looked at him. Her laugh made his skin tingle. He became self-conscious whenever he touched her, and he started having dreams about holding and kissing her and sent looks that promised death to the men checking her out:

“You okay, Joel?”
“Hmm?” Joel looked away from Ayesha’s dripping wet body walking toward him. “Yeah.”
He didn’t know what was happening. The minute she’d emerged from the water, his groin had tightened. Now, his breaths were coming up short and his pulse no longer moved in time to the gentle back and forth of the waves. He’d always thought she was pretty, but damn. Ayesha was fucking gorgeous.
She eased down onto the towel next to him and propped up on her elbows. “You’re quiet. You must be hungry.”
“Maybe.”
“You sure you’re okay?” She turned her head, and he could feel her looking at the side of his face. “You can head back if you want. I don’t mind being alone out here.”
He saw himself reaching out, pulling her up against him, and sucking her lips into his mouth. His brain was already mapping her shape for the best place to put his hands, and he could tell her body would be the perfect temperature hitched up against his. His skin wanted her close, her limbs wrapped around him. He wanted her head on his chest, her fingers in his hair, and his lips on her forehead.
“I think I’m ready to get back in, that’s all.” He stood and headed to the water, disappearing under the surface just in time to hide his erection. 
He was hard…for Ayesha Savea. 
Fuck. 
He was really messed up and lonely if he wanted the one woman who was most off-limits to him. 
How did something like this even happen? How could he go from laughing and chatting with her as they walked down to the sand to wanting to ask her if she had feelings for him because he needed to know if they felt the same way about each other? Why was his chest hurting like this all of a sudden, and why did the sensation grow whenever she looked at him? 
When he turned around, she was at the water’s edge and headed toward him. Her red bikini showcased her perked up nipples from the cool water, her kissable brown stomach, the gentle flare of her hips, and her—
He dragged his eyes back up to her face.
This made zero sense. He’d seen her in the same bikini dozens of times. Was this happening because the boys were at a school friend’s house for the weekend? Had his horniness reached new heights? Shit, now that he thought about it, was it making love to her he’d actually pictured when he’d jerked off the other day?
This was bad.
This…could not…happen.
“Want to race?” She adjusted her bikini top, and the movement made her breasts bounce. “Josiah said I have to beat you at something because, as it stands, they think you’re Superman.”
If a shark swam up and chomped off his dick, he would deserve it. But, if it really wanted to make a difference, it would have to take his heart too.
“A race?” He rolled his shoulders. If he didn’t, he would reach out, hold her close, and never let her go. Ever. She was his. His, his, his. “Yeah. We can do that.”
Lust was easy enough to handle. Sex these days wasn’t like it had been with Sydney, but it served its purpose. However, it wasn’t lust that made a man want to smooth a woman’s eyebrows or trace the fullness of her lips. Lust didn’t make him want to hold her hand, make her dinner, show her off, and never leave her side. This was insane, and love often danced around the same campfire as insanity.
But this wasn’t love.
Jesus, this couldn’t be love.
The sheer amount of time he’d spent with this woman, doted on this woman, needed this woman, and the way he loved the boys until it hurt meant this could not, in any way, be love. 
Because, if it was, heaven help her.
“Ready?” she asked.

Ayesha made him feel wanted in a way he hadn’t experienced even with Syd, and he’d been borderline obsessed with Sydney. She made him feel needed and strong and capable. He was a giver—according to Larke, his love language was Acts of Service—and he wanted to give Ayesha everything. Mind, body, and soul.

He indicated for her to come closer with a tilt of his head.

Their lips touched, and what he felt wasn’t another petit mal infarction. His blood vessels dilated. His breathing slowed. He dipped his tongue inside her mouth and cradled the back of her head to take as much of her as he could. Later, when they were alone, he would possess this mouth. Own this mouth. 

Right now, her son, his boy, lay between them.

So, they pulled apart.

He wanted to see nothing but want, desire, and the bloom of something unspoken when she looked at him. 

At least for the next several weeks. 

While he wooed her and made her his in every way imaginable, behind the scenes, he would track this fucking Mr. Veeny and make sure the piece of shit understood that his biggest mistake was messing with the people Joel Lattimore loved more than his own life.

* * *

“Gage?” Tayler descended the steps down into what the guys referred to as the Lair, a massive underground space that would put American basements to shame. “Baby, are you down here?”

“I’m back here, love.”

She found him cleaning guns. It was three o’clock in the morning, and he was cleaning guns. If it wasn’t for the fact that he did so whenever there was a lot on his mind, she would have blamed it on the celibacy bet they’d made with Joel. So far, Gage, Dez, and Julien were still in the running. 

Giorgio had made it four hours. 

Mike, ten minutes.

She wrapped her arms around her hubby and set her chin on top of his head. “What’s keeping you up, Mr. Wolfe?”

He set down the gun and rag and dragged her around his body onto his lap. Then, he buried his face in her breasts, his nose playing between the deep V of her nightgown. 

“Tay, what would you do if something happened to me?”

“Like what?”

“If I died, love.”

A rush of cold covered her skin. “Gage, don’t.”

“Tayler—”

“Gage, I literally try to never think about that, even when you’re gone.” She held him close. “Baby, you and Grey are my everything. I can’t imagine not having you or him growing up without his father and—”

He quieted her with a caress up her spine. 

“I didn’t mean to get you all worked up, love. I only asked because of the Joel and Ayesha situation. I never thought about Ayesha’s end of it. All I thought about was, if anything ever happened to me, I’d find a way to come back from the dead and kill any bloke who even thought he was going to put his dick in my wife.” 

“You went from zero to ‘sex with wife’ pretty quickly.”

He squeezed her ass and nipped the inside of her right breast. 

“But, look how much happier Ayesha’s been,” he added.

Ayesha was so happy, they realized that before, she’d been depressed. With them all now within driving distance of one another, and with Joel becoming a bigger part of her life, Ayesha couldn’t stop smiling.

“Joel’s not normal,” Tayler said. “He’s not an everyday kind of guy. There are no more Joels, so if anything ever happens to you, I’m done.”

He eased back and moved a loc out of her face with his index finger. “You don’t mean that.”

“The way we met, it was kismet. I don’t want anyone else. I don’t want anyone else as my husband or the father of my children.”

“Children?”

“I mean, it wasn’t like we had to try hard for Grey.” She switched to a deep Australian accent. “‘Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’ll pull out. I promise. I…ah, fuck. Sorry, love.’”  

Gage tipped back his head and laughed. “Hey, I tried. It’s warm and cozy in there.”

“I’m sure it was so difficult to come up all inside me.”

He gripped the back of her head, dragged her toward him, and angled his mouth, tongue pushing against her lips until she opened up for him. While she repositioned on his lap and fiddled with his belt, he probed her mouth, licking the soft flesh inside, and sucked her lips.

“Gage?”

He flicked his tongue at the corners of her mouth and then trailed kisses down her neck to the pulsing center of her collarbone. “Yeah, love?”

“Your bet’s off.”

She raised up and lowered onto his cock.

“Fuck. Fuck.” He hissed and pivoted his hips, pushing up into her. “You’re so wet, sweetheart. You’ve been fantasizing about fucking your husband?”

Tayler had to forcibly prevent her eyes from rolling back in her head. “Why do you think I came down here without panties on?”

He pulled down the straps of her nightgown, exposing her naked breasts, and covered a mound with his mouth. Her nipples pebbled, and she looked down to watch his cheeks hollow as he sucked and his pink tongue as it flicked against the dusky bud. He was harder than stone, and each tilt of his hips rewarded her with the deep penetration she craved. 

He released her nipple, kissed the center of her chest, and filled his mouth with the other soft breast. 

“Never leave me, Gage.”

“Never, love.” He flicked her nipple, kissed it. “You’re stuck with me forever.”

A quick shock of pleasure tugged on her clit. Her breast popped from his mouth, and he released a low grunt and grabbed her hips. She tried to match his fervent strokes but gave up and steadied herself with her arms around his neck. 

“I love you, Gage.”

He slipped his fingers into her locs and tilted her head so their eyes connected. “I love you too, Mrs. Wolfe. Mother of my beautiful son. Fuck, do I love you.”

She cried out his name and broke apart. 

Seconds after she exploded, he fused their mouths together and released inside her. She shuddered against him, lips tingling and basking in his pleasure as well as her own. 

“I think we just made a busload of siblings for Grey,” he said, breathing hard.

She laughed and held him tight.



05: The Man of My Dreams, The Man from My Dreams

03/14/2021

She sucked on his tongue. His hips shot up, pressing the thick bulge against her clit, and she rocked against it. He matched her movements, and she kissed him to the rhythm of their bodies. 

“Mama and Daddy are still asleep.”

“Mama and…Daddy?” 

Joel broke the kiss.

“Five more seconds,” Ayesha whispered, chest heaving. Even if it was five seconds, she wanted to spend them with his mouth on hers. “And the boys always knock.”

“Joel’s not really my daddy. It’s just his secret name that I call him.” Small hands tapped on the door. “Mama? Joel? Auntie Sydney’s here.”


The Answers

Sutherngurl was the first to get them all 🙂

Email me where to send your gift card, love!

  1. Thandie
  2. Monroe
  3. Aleksi
  4. Mikey
  5. Theo
  6. Grey
  7. Josiah
  8. Ty

Some Angels and Assassins Fun

Can you guess who’s who?

This is difficult.

I know it is since it was not very easy finding pictures close to the muse(s) in my head. I came as close as I possibly could.

However, I’m curious as to whether anyone can get/guess these in the right order. If you can, I’ve got a $25 Amazon gift card for you…because this is difficult (at least, if you don’t know all of the names).