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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!

How To Be The Perfect Black Woman

Do you think that there is any added pressure on Black women in genre fiction to be “a certain way”? For instance, do you think it’s more difficult/less acceptable for Black women to be portrayed as:

  • Uncertain
  • Insecure
  • Vulnerable
  • Quiet
  • Submissive
  • Add your own adjective

There are some books, specifically those in which the female lead isn’t Black/African American, where I see those types of personalities. These books do extremely well. As a matter of fact, it’s more than “some” books. Whereas, I’ve read critiques or have had feedback shared from other authors/readers that it is a little bit like a field of landmines trying to navigate the intricacies of a non-self-assured Black woman in a way readers will enjoy.

Taraji P. Henson recently released a mental health video where she poses the question of whether the “Strong Black Woman” identity is far more damaging than we realize. Personally, I’m someone who has questioned whether or not I “fit in” in certain circles because of my reticence. It often feels impossible to be strong and shy at the same time; to stand up for myself some days and remain quiet others; to not constantly worry about whether I’m portraying myself in the “right” way. To not hide certain things about myself in order to fit in lest I be exiled to the island of Elba.

As a child, I was a fighter. I used my fists, my feet. I had no concept of “lady.” I had an intense thing about people messing with my friends or anyone shorter than me, and words were not my first choice in the heat of battle. Anyone who had a problem with it could suck lemons.

It was then drilled, hammered, and sewn into me that “ladies are to be seen and never heard.” There was to be no more hanging upside down on monkey bars, no more dirt under my collar, and no more competitiveness with boys because it made no sense to me how “being a boy” somehow meant they were automatically better at anything. If I was sitting and my thighs started to sweat, I dare not part them, even a smidge, unless I wanted to be welcomed immediately into the Kingdom of Whores. 

This was what it meant to be a holy girl. A “clean” girl. A good little Black girl. 

On the flip side, once I entered my late teens, I was informed shy and insecure isn’t what it’s meant to be a Black girl. This escalated to: never let them see you cry. Never let them know you struggle. Hide your anxiety, your depressionYour eating disorder, your self-harm. Speak up for yourself all the time, every time. Never “need” anyone. Forget what Bill Withers said…lean on no one but Jesus. Maybe your mother if she thinks the reason is valid. 

Black girls simply do not…

Which way is the right way? The reformed child pugilist or the child prizefighter?

How can she be strong…if she’s shy? If she’s quiet? If she’s afraid of confrontation? If she cries in the shower? If she wants to feel safe in a man’s arms? If she wants a man to tell her she’s beautiful? If she truly doesn’t want to do all of this, in life, alone? If she has anxiety? If she struggles? If she’s awkward? If she sometimes needs? If she doesn’t like the way she looks? If she hurts herself? If she second-guesses her role as a mother or partner? If she admits she’s wrong? If even one of those resonates with her?

How does she know the version of her that feels truest isn’t an embarrassment among the population of other brown-skinned ladies? 

So, are we expecting a certain image when we think of what it means to be a “strong black woman” in our literary choices? Can we accept characters who don’t automatically fall for the hero’s advances, who second guess themselves, who cry, whose character arc may need to start at meek & insecure…etcetera, etcetera?

This is what I was told as an author: Write characters the way they need to be written. No one is going to enjoy everything you’ve written, so it’s impossible to write to please everyone. Write to be authentic to your story, and to reflect the nuances of the human experience.

It sounds lovely in theory, but it gets a little tricky on paper.

xoxo,

Alex

Note: At the end of the day, I’ll keep writing my characters as they are, so you guys don’t have to worry about a major shift. I’m proud of every one of them, especially my fighters like Mo & Sam. My nerds like Tia & Kerah. My strugglers like Larke. And my unique ones like Roux.

An Assassin Guide

Hi,

I was asked about releasing some sort of guide/folio/compendium to keep up with the Angels and Assassins characters. I've actually never done one of these. Also, since I created them, it's easier for me to keep them all in my head about who's who and what child goes where. 

So, what would be most helpful for you guys to add to the guide? 

Let me know what you need!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!


Coming February 14th 2021

Theo continued. “When we lived with Joel, I didn’t see the man. I never did, Mama.”

“We never actually lived with…wait, is that why you had the accident tonight? You dreamed about the scary man again?”

“Yes. Joel can protect us from him.”

Joel stepped into the room. 

“Joel!” Theo hopped out of bed and launched himself into Joel’s arms. “I thought you left.”

“Not without saying good night to my favorite guy.”

“Can you stay until I fall asleep?” Theo asked. “That way, I won’t see the man.”

“Is this the same man every time?”

“Yes.” Theo nodded emphatically. “He’s scary.”

An uneasy feeling swept over Joel. “Like monster scary?” he asked.

“No. Like Uncle Gio scary.”

If you’re already subscribed to my mailing list, you’ll get story updates delivered directly to your inbox.

O.B. Daniels

He didn’t say anything. He never had to. He had that practiced look. That “you’re always on my mind” look, and it was hard not to buy-in. 

Orylin Brian: We’re about to cast a shadow over Scotland with our black asses. Carson doesn’t have enough family to balance us out.

She bit down on her bottom lip so she didn’t laugh out loud and call extra attention to their table.

Orylin Brian: By the way, I know you won’t believe me, but when you got out of the car, a brother got some old school butterflies.


I always get so frustrated (and confused) when I hear, over and over, “He doesn’t like black girls.” I don’t hear that nearly as much for any other demographic when I’m over here drooling over all types of men. Fine is fine is gorgeous is gorgeous is beautiful.

No Feelings Allowed – A Contemporary Romance

I have a full-length holiday release planned for the 21st of December called No Feelings Allowed. The main characters, OB Daniels and Samantha Norwood, are minor characters from Seducing the Boss, and it’s an African American contemporary romance.

And yes to all who asked. The next After the End series will be Joel and Ayesha.

Quick excerpt from “No Feelings Allowed.”

 

* * * * *

 

This is scandalous.

Fingertips skimmed the inside of Samantha Norwood’s thigh. Warm breaths traveled over the lower portion of her stomach, reaching her navel.

This is madness.

Strong fingers traced her jawline, her temple. An even stronger tongue stroked hers, probing her mouth. This was, apparently, a kiss, but she’d never been kissed like this. This was an entire exploration. He wasn’t kissing her for pleasure. He was kissing her so she forgot every other man in her nearly four decades of life who’d ever attempted anything remotely resembling a lip-to-lip exchange.

“O.B., I—”

“Shh.” He smiled against her mouth. “It’s okay. I’ve got you.”

Both men were drunk.

So drunk.

They had to be.

It was the only way to explain why two friends, who’d sworn up and down this would never happen, were both there with her, one of them between her legs and the other’s mouth treating her to something that should never again, in life, be classified as a kiss.

And why this wasn’t their first time doing it.

She’d been joking, mostly, when she’d told her best friend, Tamika Boone, that a threesome with two men was one of the goals on the bucket list she’d created after receiving her diagnosis.

She was a preacher’s daughter.

Their church had thrown a virginity pledge dance when she was sixteen, and she’d solemnly sworn to her father she wouldn’t “give it up” unless she had a ring on her finger. And, she’d kept that promise. It was just too bad the ring went from shiny and polished to bloody and tarnished in what seemed like the blink of an eye.

O.B. Daniels and Miguel Reyes. They were friends of Carson Hollister’s, Tamika’s fiancé. The three of them met at a Christmas Eve Celebration Party several months back O.B. threw for Carson for landing a multi-million dollar book deal.

She’d watched them toss back drinks until, eventually, they became tangled in a silent competition about which one would be better for her. Miguel was the crooner type, promising her days filled with romance and pampering in a way that made her think of Shakespeare and sonnets.

O.B. was…not like that.

Episode 21 – The End

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

Mosvar paced from wall to wall in his father’s large office space, hands wringing. It was a mistake to come here. He didn’t know what he’d been thinking not only telling his father that Mike was on his way to kill him, but then coming to that very location assuming it would offer enough protection to stop the madman. However, Dom had tracked him down and accused him of moving Mike to avoid paying money for the job. He’d let Dom know that he’d had nothing to do with Mike getting out, which Dom hadn’t believed, so staying in Dubai or going back to their home country hadn’t really been an option. 

Then there was the other issue he hadn’t considered the entire time he’d unfurled his fuck-up of a plan—the men at the birthday party that had been with Mike, Giorgio Pozza being one of them. He hadn’t thought to check them out and, from what he’d understood, they’d annihilated a good portion of the crew his father had brought to the villa in Maui. If even one of them had the level of skill Mike possessed—Mosvar looked around the room at the half-dozen armed men surrounding him and his father—then this wasn’t nearly enough protection.

“Father, I don’t think we should stay here,” he suggested. 

Ramzsyn didn’t so much as grace him with a glance.

“Father…”

He realized his father was on the phone.

“And still no sign of her,” Ramzsyn said into the phone receiver. “Did anybody see her leave? And the pregnant woman is gone as well?” 

The older man cursed, hung up the phone, and slapped another curse against the walls. 

“Mosvar, your mother is missing.”

Mosvar felt the air leave his body. “Mama?”

“She and the pregnant woman went missing at the same time.”

“Do you think…do you think she helped her?”

“Mary Sarayev?” Ramzsyn scoffed. “Your mother is beautiful, but intelligence, bravery, and stealth are not traits she otherwise possesses.”

“But, she went to the best schools in Europe.”

And, she married you.

“She is a woman. The only thing more inane than a woman who thinks she is educated is a man who thinks he can love another man. I will never approve for it to be legal in our country. We are, in fact, in need of another purge.”

Argun had definitely indulged. He only knew because he’d caught his brother with one of their guards, and Argun had threatened his life if he told their father. He’d had no intention of doing so as he, himself, had an unhealthy addiction to placing his mouth on and inside pussy that often clouded his discernment. Unfortunately, looking back, he realized he could have used that information to his advantage. Argun would have likely given him the Sarayev clan power, and all of this could have been avoided.

Even if his father didn’t know, he did.

This was their last day alive.

“I would not be surprised if your mother and the woman are dead,” Ramzsyn added.

Ice replaced the blood in Mosvar’s veins. “The pregnant woman cannot be dead.”

“What is with your predilection with this woman?”

“I don’t know, Father, but that’s not what I mean. Her husband, Mike, is not…normal.”

Beauty was one thing, which the dragon tattoo woman had, but she also had a survival instinct that made his cock hard. And he could tell that any man who had her love was a lucky man indeed. During his survey of the villa, he’d seen her on her knees on the balcony. Afterward, he’d proceeded to fuck every woman that welcomed him on the island. 

He wasn’t particularly proud of what he’d done with the ones who hadn’t.

Looking at his father, he did have the fleeting thought of what his life might have been like with a different man having raised him. At least, somewhat raised him. 

Ramzsyn flicked his wrist. “Who is Mike?”

“It’s what Liu Wei calls himself.”

One of the guards on the wall lowered his head and touched his ear. In addition to his cold blood, Mosvar nearly lost control of his faculties. 

“Sir, there’s a situation at the gate.” 

Ramzsyn pushed onto his feet. “Which gate?”

The man looked up. “All of them, sir.”

* * *

Julien surveyed the four uniformed men at the west gate at the Austrian compound where Ramzsyn was holed up. It was funny how calm they were, laughing and joking, as he headed up the dirt path. As a challenge, he loaded only four rounds into his Mark XIX. As he walked, he calculated the distance between the men, their approximate distance from the security wall bordering the property, and at what trajectory and speed he would have to fire in order to take them down in under five seconds. Whoever took out their gate the slowest, the first two rounds of beer were on them once they were done.

Julien stopped and whistled.

The first man barely raised his head before he went down, and the other three didn’t get a chance to draw their weapons. 

Julien checked his watch. “Fuck. Four-point-five seconds.”

“You need to stop playing with your food before you eat it,” Joel chastised. “I had five, and I put them down in three-point-four.”

Julien scratched the beard at his jaw. “All right, Mike. Let’s see which one of us is buying beers.”

* * *

Mike crouched in the shadows. 

His target looked out into the expanse of the darkness, gun raised. 

“Aslan?” the man called, his voice a harsh whisper. He then whispered something in his native tongue which Mike interpreted as him trying to get Aslan to respond and reassure him everything was copacetic.

Too bad Aslan had accidentally rolled down the side of the hill the residence sat on. It wouldn’t have happened if his throat hadn’t been slashed, but that was neither here nor there.

Another man appeared from around the side of the residence’s secured exterior and relayed a message, none of them privy to the fact that something or someone could be lurking. That something could be hidden in the shadows. It was almost poetic.

It was also funny, in a way. The only reason they were even at the compound was because Mosvar had blabbed to his father that trouble was coming, which Dom had relayed to them. Then, Mosvar, for whatever reason, had come here. 

Hopefully, their arrogance kept them entertained in death.

Mike maneuvered in the darkness, a blade in each hand. Before the men had a chance to turn around, he stuck a blade into the second man’s lung and the other into his neck. He spun and the first man received a similar gift. They both collapsed to the dirt, one right after the other.

He checked his watch. “One-point-five.”

Julien groaned. 

“Beers are on Julien,” Joel announced. “We’re done here, gentlemen.”

Mike peered up at the wall, prepared to scale it. “I’ll head straight for Ramzsyn. You guys have fun.”

In the silence, they heard Giorgio smile.

* * *

Gage and Dez breached the front entrance to the compound, stepping over the bodies in front of the gate. Now that all the other entryways had been secured, there was no longer a need for discretion.

Dez set a charge at the gate, and the following explosion curled metal and sent splintered wood flying through the air. 

A group of men carrying weapons emerged from the residence’s main structure and, using the smoke from the explosion as cover, Gage and Dez proceeded to clear out the courtyard. While they drew the soldiers’ gunfire, Julien and Joel picked them off from the sides, splitting the men’s attention.

Dez pulled on the trigger of his weapon, heard a click, and cursed. “Damn it to hell. Gage, pretty please can I have another gun?”

Gage laughed and tossed another one across to him. 

Dez caught it in his left hand and released a slug into the man nearest him in one motion. Usually, during times like these, his mind was clear, but considering how fun this had turned out to be, his mind allowed him to remember that he forgot to order the gift Larke wanted for Monroe, and it was something she’d warned him would be sold out if he waited too long. He’d assured her he wouldn’t forget, and he’d dropped the damn ball.

“Fuck, she’s going to kill me.” He grabbed a man around the neck from behind with his left arm to use as a temporary shield, and he fired a shot over the man’s right shoulder before putting one in him.

“You okay there, mate?” Gage asked, showing off with his two pistols at once, even firing with his arms crossed.

“That one gift for Monroe.”

Joel laughed. “You keep giving poor Larke reasons to end your life.”

“You really think she’ll mind?”

“Yes.” Gage stepped around a man, brought his knee up into the man’s midsection, swept the butt of the gun across the man’s cheekbone, and finished the man off when he fell to the ground. “Tayler still hasn’t let me live down that whole Baby Einstein thing I forgot to get for Grey for his first birthday.”

The courtyard went silent. 

The remaining guards had retreated inside.

“Has the old man moved?” Gage asked.

Julien shook his head. “Nope. Same room. The retreating guards are headed to, conveniently, surround Ramzsyn’s office.”

Skol’ko?” Giorgio asked.

“Outside the door?” Julien counted the heat signatures. “Fifteen. There are six inside the room with ‘Ramzsyn and Son.’ We’ll double-check the rest of the house to make sure everything’s clear.”

Giorgio walked up behind them and headed for the front door. Before he crossed the threshold, he stopped and turned.

“Tell Bez it is four. Pyatnadtsat’ – eto slishkom mnogo.

“Fifteen isn’t that much,” Gage justified, looking up and fingertips touching as he counted. “We’ll say there were like twelve in total. Two kills each. We’ll just have to make sure we have our stories straight before we get back.”

Giorgio nodded. “Da.”

He disappeared inside the house. Twelve wasn’t anywhere near a believable number, but nothing could be proven otherwise if they all told the same story.

“Huang,” Gage called. “Pozza’s on his way up.”

* * *

Mosvar hugged the wall furthest from the front door. His father’s eyes were peeled to the monitor in front of him that gave them a clear view of the cameras around the residence. One part of him was scared shitless, but the other was morbidly impressed. He’d been a verifiable idiot to think that the men who’d been at that party weren’t dangerous. Any man who could sit at a picnic table with Mike and the Beast while the Beast held its baby? And what kind of woman was that child’s mother?

“Who are these men?” Ramzsyn asked, the first time he’d ever seen his father’s face so ashen. “Mosvar, who the fuck are these men?”

“Father—”

“You are the worst fucking mistake I have ever made in my life.” Ramzsyn walked over, and a dollop of his father’s saliva went flying onto his cheek. “Piece of shit. Fucking piece of shit. Do you see the chaos you have brought to our doorstep?”

You wanted to avenge Argun’s death!” 

“There would be no death to avenge if you hadn’t been the catalyst.” Ramzsyn ticked his head at one of the guards. “There is a passageway. One of you come with me.”

Mosvar glanced at the door. “You can’t mean to leave me here.”

Ramzsyn slapped his hand against the wall, and a section of the wall popped open. “You were supposed to die in your brother’s place. I am simply resetting fate.”

“Father—”

A guard hooked Mosvar around the neck. Hard metal pressed against his back, between his shoulder blades, to keep him in place. Another guard, who was still watching the monitors, cried out.

“Jesus!” He raised his head. “What the fuck did you do? Mos, do you know who this is?”

They all watched as the men outside the door went down one by one, not a bullet in sight. He’d heard rumors that the Beast used blades because he liked to feel them going into skin. He liked to feel them cascading off bone. He had some he used for distance kills, but he preferred to annihilate his prey from up close. 

The man was barely human.

Plus, the men with him almost came off as his…friends. Brothers, even. What kind of men were these that they had no fear of the Beast?

And who, the fuck, had his kid?

Then there was Mike. He’d kidnapped Mike’s wife. Mike’s unborn son, he’d used as leverage. He’d threatened their lives. If he hadn’t been such a damn coward, he would have offed himself right there.

Ramzsyn disappeared through the passageway but then a shot sounded, followed by a thud. His father then reappeared, walking backward, pure terror making his face the oldest Mosvar had ever seen it. Mike appeared next.

Mosvar turned to the guard who held him. “Kill me.”

“No.” Mike wagged his index finger. “Spare him, and I’ll spare your life.”

The guard’s eyes darted between the three men.

“Do any of you have families?” Mike asked. “Children and spouses? Those of you in this room, I will let you go if you leave me here with these two.”

“Their loyalty is with me!” Ramzsyn spat.

“My offer has a shelf-life of four seconds.”

The room fell to an eerie silence when the last man on the other side of the door cried out as he went down.

The remaining guards dropped their weapons.

The door opened and, covered in red streaks, Pozza appeared. He rolled his neck, hair obscuring parts of his face. If Mosvar wasn’t mistaken, Pozza almost looked…happy.

He started forward.

Mike held up a hand, and Pozza. Fucking. Stopped.

“I’m giving these men a chance.” Mike tipped his head in an arbitrary direction. “They’ve agreed to lay down arms in exchange for the Sarayev boys.”

Pozza’s gaze, blank, danced around the room. 

The remaining guards cleared out, leaving just the four of them. Mike then cursed, said, “I forgot to tell you guys I gave them an out,” and pointed to his ear. “I didn’t have my comms on when I made the deal so, not everyone made it out. Sorry?”

Mosvar inhaled. By the time the breath released, searing pain engulfed his thigh where the handle of what felt like a long, thick blade jutted from his skin.

Across the room, Ramzsyn’s body lay lifeless on the floor. Blood pooled beneath him, his eyes wide and mouth frozen in an expression of shock. Pozza knelt over him and recited something in Latin. 

“Fuck.” Mosvar collapsed to the floor and reached toward the knife.

“I wouldn’t pull that out if I was you,” Mike warned. “That’s in your femoral artery. It’s the only thing stopping you from bleeding out.”

He shouldn’t have crossed this man.

He shouldn’t have messed with his wife, his child.

But the Sarayev clan was powerful. How was he supposed to know that a group of six men existed somewhere in the world even more powerful than his family’s legacy?

Mike then sat, crosslegged, next to him on the floor and pushed a second blade through the space where his arm connected to his shoulder.

Mosvar cried out, gagging on his tears.

“I think I warned you.” Mike tapped his chin. “Do you recall, Mosvar? Did I warn you?”

Mosvar swallowed.

“You don’t understand English all of a sudden?” Mike looked behind him. “Pozza, help me out. Tell him I warned him.”

Pozza studied Mosvar, head cocked. “If he doesn’t kill you in the next five minutes, I will.”

Mike frowned. “He didn’t translate verbatim, did he?”

Another blade appeared, and Mike sent that one through the middle of Mosvar’s palm and into the floor.

“Shit!” Mosvar’s breaths drew short. “Please. Have mercy.”

The playful attitude disappeared, and Mike sent a knife through the skin on his neck, anchoring him the rest of the way.

“Mercy?” Mike swatted a fist across his jaw, repeatedly, until the joint collapsed. “You ask me for fucking mercy and you were the one who tried to slash my wife’s beautiful fucking face? You ask me for mercy when you orchestrated my wife’s abduction? You ask me for mercy and you put her and my child at risk? In what fucking world did you not think this would happen? Even if Dom hadn’t released me from your lazy ass prison, the minute you put me in that cell, your days were fucking numbered.”

Tears drained from the corners of Mosvar’s eyes.

Dom. Fucking Dom. 

His father had warned him to never trust a Russian.

“I’ve thought of the different ways I could do this, make you suffer and shit.” Mike stood. “But sometimes, simple is best.”

Mike pulled the knife from his thigh. Warm liquid spurted and collected on the leg of his pants.

“You will leave him?” Pozza asked, like someone throwing away good food in front of a starving man. “To kill him, it is better.”

“I know, but,” Mike shrugged, “there’s that whole suffering aspect, you know? I wanted to try it out.”

“This is waste, bratik.”

Mike slapped Pozza on the back, and they headed for the door. “Let’s go. Honestly, I’m hungry as fuck. Why didn’t we eat before we got here? Didn’t you say Vienna has some good ass restaurants?”

“Is good for place that speak German…”

They left. 

Talking about food.

Mosvar looked toward the ceiling and, despite himself, he smiled as the world around him faded to black.

* * *

“He’s down,” Julien said, eyes on his tablet. “The knife in his neck says there’s no more pulse.”

Mike reclined in his seat. “Okay. We can get out of here.”

Joel turned the SUV around and headed back toward Vienna.

“Where are we trying to eat, fellas?” Dez asked. “Me, I’m kind of in the mood for a beer and steak.”

Julien’s fingers moved over the tablet screen. “The main restaurant at the hotel has a shitload of stars. And, there’s steak if ‘steak’ is German for steak.”

“Do we have to get fancy and shit?” Mike asked.

“I’m assuming so since the hotel’s fancy and shit, thanks to Giorgio and his expensive ass taste.”

They grumbled but agreed to eat at the hotel restaurant.

About a half-hour into the drive, Gage slid a glance in Dez’s direction. Dez kept his eyes closed and leaned back in his seat, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone else in the vehicle. 

“I blame your wife for this, mate.”

Dez tried not to smile. “How is this Larke’s fault?”

“Larke made the playlist,” Mike said. “For real, is there any genre of music she doesn’t listen to?”

“She’s eclectic and cultured. Leave my lady out of this.”

“Know what the worst part is?” Gage looked toward the driver’s seat where Joel, one hand on the steering wheel, sang at the top of his lungs and had been singing at the top of his lungs for the last twenty minutes. “The bloke can actually sing.”

Giorgio tossed his forearm over his eyes.

I’m a peasant by some standards, but in your eyes I’m a queeeen…” Joel extended his arm as if singing to a room full of concertgoers. “You see potential in all my flaws, and that’s exactly what I meeeann. I don’t why you loooooove meeee, and that’s why I loooove youuuuu…

Julien, in the front passenger seat, stared at the tablet. Considering he’d been looking at the same screen for several minutes, Mike knew he wasn’t doing anything else but trying to tune Joel out.

Dez, feeling the guilt since Larke did create the playlist right before they left for Joel to “deal with his Ayesha feelings,” opened his eyes. 

“Look, don’t knock my baby for being cultured,” he argued. “That’s why I—”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Mike warned.

Loooove her,” Dez finished.

Joel glanced in the rearview mirror. “That’s what I’m talking about. You guys have me out here like Gladys Knight without the Pips. Where’s my backup?”

Kak daleko?”

Gage glanced at his watch. “We’re still thirty goddamn minutes away.”

The song selection changed and Joel continued his solo concert, complete with boy band dance moves. “There you were, wild and free, reaching out like you needed me…”

Giorgio was actually the first one to start laughing, a sound they were  all still getting used to, even Mo.

Julien, shoulders shaking as he cracked up, doubled over.

Dez, voguing and head bobbing, joined Joel. “With a helping hand, to make it right, I’ll be holding you all through the night…

Gage laughed until he could barely breathe.

Mike watched them, happy as hell to be home.

 

Several weeks later

Theo squinted at a gift he held in his hand while a massive Christmas tree loomed over his head. 

“Um…this one is for…”

“You can do this, big guy,” Joel encouraged. “Remember how we worked on sounding out each part of the word?”

“Uncle Gio!” He hopped up and dashed over to give the gift-wrapped box to Giorgio. “Did I get it right?”

“Da.” Giorgio accepted the box. “Of course, you are right. You are genius.”

Theo beamed and went back to the assortment of gifts where Josiah, Ari, and Thandie helped him pass out the rest.

They’d decided to celebrate Christmas, still in Sweden, at Mike and Xara’s this year. Joel was in the kitchen with Ayesha finishing up breakfast. Xara lay on one part of the sectional with her head on Mike’s thigh. All morning, she’d asked everyone not to make a fuss over her, but they did anyhow.

She was only a few weeks away from her due date so she was tired, anxious, and excited. She was also the last one there to have their first child as Sydney was celebrating with her parents in the DMV and then flying out to spend a few weeks with Dmitri in the Caribbean.

Once all the gifts were allocated, the kids tore into theirs.

Mike handed Xara a small box with a bow on top. “Merry Christmas, baby.”

She pushed up to sit, smiled at him, and popped it open.

“I went back to Dubai to look for your ring because I know you really loved it,” he explained. “When I couldn’t find it, I got this one. I hope you like it.”

“Oh…Mike.” She slipped it out of the box. “It’s beautiful. I can’t wait to wear it once my fingers go back down to their normal size.”

He laughed, shaking his head. “Way back when, I remember going through your sketchbook and seeing a couple pink diamond concepts. Your man obviously didn’t have the change for it back then, but I figured if you can give me a baby, I can get you an expensive ass ring.”

He shrugged and looked across at Giorgio, who nodded.

Due to his less than impoverished upbringing, Giorgio liked to indulge, from time to time, in the finer things in life. Once upon a time, one of those “finer things” had been something as simple as indoor plumbing. 

When Mike brought up wanting to get Xara a new ring, Giorgio had taken him to London where he’d gotten Mo’s ring. Mo still didn’t know, to this day, that he’d bought it way before a trip they’d taken to Las Vegas, about a year before they’d met again at Gage’s. He’d promised death to anyone who told her because she would want to know just how much it had truly cost. 

Also, they were sworn to secrecy about the couple men she’d dated in that two year period she and Giorgio weren’t together as they were currently missing.

Xara pressed her lips against Mike’s. “I love it. Thank you, Mike.”

“Merry Christmas, Xar.”

“Merry Christmas, my love.” She beamed. “Now, open yours.”

He gave her another kiss and pulled the wrapping off the rectangular box. Then, he lifted the lid and froze.

“I had to get everyone’s help for this,” Xara said. “Larke found a museum in China that had artifacts recovered from the house where you grew up since your dad was such a big deal. I mean, people talk about you over there like Anastasia Romanov.”

“Do they know I’m still alive?”

“Not definitively, no, but I know that’s how you like it.”

He affirmed with a nod.

“I didn’t want to travel while heavily pregnant, so she, Ayesha, and Tayler flew out to check out the museum where they ended up meeting the owner. Larke chatted him up and he said he knew someone who had a photo, this photo. Because of the whole Fang Jinhai business, Giorgio accompanied them when they met with the person. Turns out, he’s an old friend of your uncle’s.”

Mike lifted the photo frame from the box. 

“They used to play chess together and Jian introduced him to your father, something he said he was forever grateful for. Then, one day, Jian stopped by with this picture and asked him to hold onto it. When he asked Jian for how long, Jian said until it was time to let it go.”

Mike’s throat grew tight. It hadn’t been rare for him to see his father smile, but he hadn’t done it much in public. This photo of his father’s proud grin while looking at his mother holding him, as a baby, above her head was even more rare than a precious stone.

“Xar…” He lowered his voice so the children wouldn’t hear. “I fucking love you. I fucking love you so goddamn much. Jesus, I love you so much.”

Tears filled her beautiful eyes. “I take it you like it?”

“Do I like it? Xar,” he cleared his throat, “you don’t know what you just gave me. I can show our son who his grandparents were now.”

“I thought about holding onto it until we were about sixty since I’ll never be able to top this gift.”

He glanced at her stomach. “I don’t know about that.”

Theo’s yelling broke through the low buzz of chatter as he raced to the kitchen and gave Joel a hug around the waist.

“You are the best ever, Joel,” he said, looking up, eyes wide. “Will you help me take it out to the lake behind your house later?”

Joel crouched. “Of course. I mean, it is a real remote-controlled warship. We pretty much have to.”

Theo gave him one last squeeze before heading back over to the presents.

“We’re all done!” Ayesha yelled, carrying a stack of steaming pancakes to the dining room. 

The kids rushed off. Josiah stayed back to help Ari and Julien clean up the papers in the living room while Theo and Thandie each held one of Xara’s hands to “help” her to the table.

Once everyone was settled, Josiah said a quick prayer, and platters of pancakes, bacon, sausages, hash browns, and eggs were passed around. Dez asked for an extra helping of pancakes when Monroe—who Giorgio affectionally called la boquita since she assumed all food was hers to share—asked to be set on her father’s lap. Tayler blew on a piece of pancake before handing it to Grey to munch on. Thandie, Theo, and Josiah talked about their gifts and who’d been able to guess what they were getting before unwrapping the present. Ari had to keep pulling back Ty’s quick little hands each time he tried to grab for a whole pancake despite the piece he was already chewing. Mo and Giorgio took turns feeding Aleksi who’d dropped his bottle onto the floor in favor of real food.

Mike looked at Xara who was already watching him.

“Perfect,” she mouthed.

He winked at her and cut into his stack.

Julien looked up, and his gaze landed on all the guys to let them know an alert had come in. 

They all nodded. 

He silenced it and went back to his meal.

 

Epilogue

“He’s so cute, Mommy!” Thandie glanced up at Ari. “He’s bigger than Ty was when he was this little.”

“He was eight pounds, nine ounces when he was born,” Ari explained. “Ty was only six pounds.”

“Can you have another baby?”

Ari gestured around. “But there are so many babies here already. You have Grey, Monroe, Adrian Anthony, Aleksi, and Ty’s still a baby himself.”

“Is making a baby hard?”

Julien, who overheard the question, glanced over at her with a sly smile on his face.

“Well, no,” she answered. “But having one is…a big deal. Mikey’s still so little, it’ll be a while before there won’t be any babies. We’ll have plenty of years to love on them all.”

“Can I hold him next?” Theo asked, bent over the chair arm and staring down into Michael Jian Xavier Huang Jr.’s face. “Why does Thandie get to hold Mikey and I don’t? She’s not even that much bigger’n me.”

“I’ll help you hold him after Thandie, sweetie.” 

He pumped his fist. “Yes!”

Mike and Xara were in one of the guest rooms at Joel’s asleep from being dead on their feet just about every day, thankful for the extra hands to dote on Mikey so they could get more than two hours’ rest.

In the middle of the room, a spirited game of Pictionary carried on.

Since Xara was currently asleep, Gage took the title of the best artist in the room, but they’d made him and Tayler switch teams after the first round. They knew each other too well, to the point that when Gage drew a bed with two pillows, she’d correctly guessed the word “pipe” on the first try.

Giorgio was, without a doubt, a terrible Pictionary artist, but he wasn’t as bad as his wife. However, his team still frantically tossed out guesses out of terror and respect. 

Mostly terror. 

“Baby, nobody knows what the hell that is,” Mo said, gesturing to the artwork on the easel next to Giorgio. “You’re horrible at this.”

Giorgio shot her a look. “I am terrible, my Bez?”

He mumbled something in Russian that made Gage laugh but then stop short when Mo glared at him. It was still amazing to Val and Ant, who’d flown in for Mikey’s birth and decided to stay awhile, that Mo talked to Giorgio any way she wanted to when Giorgio’s pores practically oozed assassin, killer, and harbinger of death.

Prosti, Bez,” he said, a sarcastic apology. “We cannot all be famous artist like you, moya lyubov. Is Da Vinci, my wife.”

“Mine wasn’t a bike! They were glasses!”

No one had guessed anything close to glasses. Giorgio had even tried guessing bicycle in Russian, Spanish, and Italian, and she’d tossed the marker at him.

“Actually,” Larke studied the picture, tilting her head, “Giorgio, is that Big Ben? Is your word London?”

“Da. You see, Bez?” He placed the cap on the marker. “Is London. Nobody has guessed your bicycle.”

The timer buzzed, and he returned to his seat next to her.

Mo swatted his arm. “They were glasses you Russian behemoth.”

Aleksi toddled over, wrapped his arms around Giorgio’s leg, and looked up at Mo. 

Dobr, Mm-ma. Dobr.”

“Listen to our son. Be kind, Bez.” Giorgio picked him up. “Is okay, rybka. You will protect Papa, yes?”

Mo kissed Giorgio’s cheek. “I’m sorry, Aleksi. I’ll do better, especially since your daddy is so not dangerous.”

Joel grabbed the empty platter and went to the kitchen for a nacho refill. As he shook more corn tortilla triangles onto the surface, a pair of arms wrapped around him from behind. 

He covered Ayesha’s hands with one of his. “Are you excited?”

“I am.” She nodded against his back. “And nervous.”

“Don’t be. All you have to do is tell me what you want, where you want it, and how you want it. When I’m done, you’ll be happy. Trust me.”

“Mama, look!” Theo yelled. “I’m holding Mikey! And I’m so good at it! Come look at me!”

She pressed her forehead into the taut muscles of his back. “I…kind of wish we weren’t talking about furniture.”

Joel raised her fingers to his lips. “What do you wish we were talking about then?”



Thank you for following along on this journey. These “After The End” stories have been one of the most joyous things I’ve had the pleasure of doing recently. You guys took me way back to my fanfic days, and I love being able to chat with you and read the comments as everything unfolds. I’ll never be able to fully express how happy all of this makes me, but know I appreciate all of you.

Have a wonderful holiday season and, if you would like more “After The End” stories, let me know.

Sending love to you all.

xoxo,

Alex

PS – I am working on a holiday release, so stay tuned.