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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 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.

Episode 20 – The Beginning of the End

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

“I didn’t want to give you too much to carry.” Mary studied the bag she’d packed for Xara filled with food, vitamins, teas, flavored honey, and water. Concern tugged her brows downward. “But you will need food for emergencies on your trip.”

Dom tested the weight of the bag. “It’s fine. I can carry it.”

“Dom,” Xara did the same, “that’s too heavy. We can trade off.”

He sent her a quizzical look.

“If this weighs you down, what if we get into real trouble?” she asked. “I’ll need you at full strength.”

“Or I can share the weight,” Dom suggested.

“Yes. With me. Or, we can split up the bags so that we’re each carrying half.”

A thumping noise sounded behind her, but Xara didn’t turn. She knew it was said houses made creaks when they settled, but this one took the cake. She’d half believed it was haunted.

Dom ticked his head. “He can carry the other half.”

Xara spun. “Who can carry the—”

“Hey, Xar.”

She froze. 

Her stomach lurched, and her nerves went haywire.

She’d known he was alive. Dom had told her he was alive, and they’d known that whenever Mosvar took the ultrasounds, he was likely taking them to Mike. Dom, however, didn’t say anything about bringing him to her. 

Mike was in front of her.

Mike was there, right in front of her.

Mike is here. 

“Xar?”

“I made you a promise, didn’t I?” Dom asked. “And I always keep my promises.”

She couldn’t move, so Mike came to her instead. 

He drew her up against his hard, warm, real body. Her arms remained helplessly folded against his chest. Weak cries left her mouth. Gasps of air rattled her chest. Of course, she wanted to know how, when, and how again, but right now, she needed to hold him.

She unfolded her arms, slipped them underneath his, and molded her body to his.

“You look so beautiful, baby.” He kissed her temple, her forehead, and both cheeks. “All glowing and shit. Let me look at you.”

He tried to step back, but she held him in place. 

“N-not yet. A l-little bit l-longer.”

There were healing bruises on his face. Whatever Mosvar had done, it looked brutal. Mary had let her know she believed Mosvar was responsible for his brother, Argun’s death, and they’d both agreed Mosvar was probably holding on to Mike to try to “convince” Mike to do his final bidding. She knew Mike, so naturally, he’d refused and that refusal had resulted in these injuries. 

The only way a brutal beating like that stopped was if Mike agreed to give Mosvar what he wanted, and the only way Mike would agree to that was if Mosvar guaranteed her and Mikey J’s safety. For them, he would do anything, even take blow after blow until he nearly shattered. 

They would have to talk about, at some point, what they’d both gone through while apart, but there was a mountain of hurt behind Mike’s smile. Malice and deep-seated rage. An absolute intent to kill.

“Xar,” he released a soft laugh, “we don’t have too much longer, baby. Isn’t there somebody I need to meet?”

On cue, Mikey J roused.

Mike jerked back. “You can…you mean, we can feel him already?”

“He’s stretching.” Xara placed his hand on her stomach. “I think he might be a little Shadow.”

“What do you mean?” 

“Because you’re called The Shadow.”

A smile tugged on the right side of his mouth. “Nobody calls me that.”

She’d worn a long-sleeved, stretchy top and soft leggings in preparation for the trip. Eventually, when they reached a certain point, she’d have to cover her entire body. For now, she was glad she’d chosen this particular outfit as Mike lowered and pushed the top up over her belly. 

He stared at her stomach in wonder. 

“Hey, Mikey J,” she softly called. “Look who’s here. It’s Daddy. Say ‘Hi, Daddy. Me and Mommy missed you and we love you so much.’”

Mike glanced up at her then let his gaze fall back to her stomach. “My son’s in there,” he said, the words slightly choked. “Hey, little guy. I told you Daddy would be coming, right? You know I can’t live without you or Mommy. I can’t wait to meet you. You and your mother, you’re my world. My everything. I love you.” He kissed her stomach and lowered his forehead. “I love you so much.”

They all remained quiet and let him have a few more moments with Mikey J. 

After a swipe of his eyes, he stood. “You still have your phone, Xar?” 

She handed it to him. His hand trembled slightly when he took it, but she didn’t get the sense it was due to any of his injuries, including the ones she was afraid to see. He was about to talk to the guys after not seeing them for months. They were about to hear from him after, more than likely, thinking he could possibly be dead. 

Mike had, essentially, grown up as an only child even with his aunt, uncle, and cousin in his life. He’d gone from cherished son to orphan in a matter of minutes, and that had forced him to put up wall after wall, even to keep those closest to him at a distance he controlled.

When he arrived in Henry, Kentucky, he’d done so alone. 

He’d lived alone.

Although it hadn’t taken long for people—especially girls—to flock to him, and he and Ant eventually became the best of friends, he’d still had a way about him that had made her think solitary. It was half the reason she’d wanted to be in his life, and there were reasons she still couldn’t name that had driven her to his bedroom window in the middle of the night all those years ago.

It seemed like a lifetime ago that they’d been high school friends, pseudo-enemies, and then sweethearts. That mysterious, dark-haired boy who’d dropped into her life was now going to be a father. 

“Xar?” He pulled her close. “Baby, you’re crying.”

“Go ahead and call,” she urged. “But don’t let go of me while you do it.”

He would need someone to lean on although he would never ask.

The phone rang three times and stopped.

At first, she heard nothing. Then, Julien’s voice came through tight and thick. 

“You are a shady motherfucker for making us worry about you like that. You couldn’t have called sooner?”

Mike pushed out a weak laugh. “I lost my phone, somewhere, but I’m offended you were worried about me. You don’t think I can handle myself?”

“I’m linking you to the comms.”

Gage came through next. “Mate, we had reservations. You were the one who picked the restaurant and then you just don’t show up? What, you had better shit to do?”

Mike continued to laugh, the sound getting stronger by the second.

Dez added, with a laugh that didn’t fully mask the pain in his voice, “All I know is, the next time we all decide to go eat at some expensive ass restaurant, we’re giving you the wrong time. You need to show up. When we make plans, you…you need to show up.”

Mike swallowed. 

Xara kissed the hollow of his neck and lightly stroked his back.

“I cried,” Joel cut in. “Gage had to hold me.”

Mike burst out laughing, and Joel’s ability to ease tension was a gift she felt like she’d never truly appreciated until now. 

“I’ll take over when I get back,” Mike replied. “I’ll rub your back and everything.”

Their time was running out, but even if they’d only had ten seconds, the guys would have made it count. She was never ignorant of the fact that she was only one part of what kept Mike grounded and centered.

So far, the only person they hadn’t heard from was Mr. Dark and Silent.

“Giorgio, you there?” she called.

“I am here, prinitsa,” he said, his name for her which Mo said he’d created because he saw her as a treasured sister figure. Then he said something further in Russian, ending with the word bratik.

That one she knew.

Brother.

“I’ll call as soon as we hit Switzerland,” Mike informed them. “Who’s taking my baby and our baby back home?”

“Sydney volunteered,” Gage answered. 

Konechno, my Bez will go,” Giorgio added. “She will kill everything. Ya obeshchayu.

Konechno, she understood to mean something like, “Of course.” Russian was the easiest language for him to communicate in, so they’d all done their part to start learning.

“Mo could come alone and I wouldn’t worry.” Mike looked up to the ceiling, head bobbing rhythmically. “I’ll see you guys in Zurich then.”

They agreed.

Mike continued to nod. 

“Looks like everybody’s celebrating the next Father’s Day,” Gage quickly added.

On the last nod, the connection ended.

Mike had been counting the seconds, Xara realized, and he was more incredible than she could have ever imagined. He was her husband, intelligent, handsome, and fiercely protective with the deadly skill to back it up. It was like seeing him, for the first time, all over again.

He smiled that smile of his she would never, in this lifetime or the next, get tired of seeing, and winked.

“Dom?” She turned around, and Mike kept her close to him by wrapping an arm around her just below her breasts. “What does ya obeshchayu mean?”

Dom’s gaze slowly lowered to meet hers, and he blinked like he was trying to bring the room back into focus. “Um, it means ‘I promise.’”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m okay. I just had something on my mind. But,” he retrieved a map from his jacket, “Mary got us a car that’ll get us to our first destination without arousing suspicion. We’re going to travel up through Mina Rashid and take the Bandar Lengeh ferry to the coast of Iran. Then we’ll have to skirt the edge of the country and make our first stop in Mashhad. After, we’ll go up through Iraq followed by Syria. Russia is still an ally there, so I have a pipeline of contacts that should be able to get us through under the radar. There might be an issue because you’re foreigners with American accents who look—”

“I’ll handle those as they arise,” Mike said, thumb stroking her side. 

“Once we’re in Turkey, our trip gets a little easier. And hey,” Dom shrugged, “it’s not like we’re trying to get through North Korea. If that were the case, we’d have a better chance swimming through the Yellow Sea.”

It was entirely too much geography for this time of night, especially with the journey they had ahead. However, what Xara had learned in the last few weeks was that pregnant women weren’t as fragile as she’d once assumed. As long as she could take the necessary steps to keep Mikey J safe, she was fine. Plus, she’d been prepared to make this trip with only Dom. Now that Mike was there, she feared more for anyone who sought to antagonize them on their trip more than she feared for her life.

“Xar, you know what I do and how well I do it. I’ve got you.” Mike leaned near her ear and lowered his voice. “You’re really having my baby.”

She laughed. “I am.”

Dom separated the packs, handed a bag to Mike, and Mary cleared the way for them to make it through the house undetected. 

They slipped out the back and to a waiting car. As she helped them inside, Xara took her hand.

“Come with us.”

Mary studied her face. “What now, dear?”

“If Ramzsyn gets back and finds out I’m gone, he’ll know you had something to do with it. You don’t want to be here. I don’t think you ever have. You were just as much a prisoner as I was and yet, you still had the balls to help me. Come with us.”

“I wouldn’t worry about him coming back,” Mike asserted. “But, you should still come.”

“Won’t it be,” Mary’s eyes darted amongst the three of them, “too many of us traveling at once?”

“Please.” Xara squeezed her hand. “You can act as my aunt or chaperone or something. We’ll figure it out. And, once we’re in Switzerland, you can link up with Dr. Keller.”

Mary glanced back at the dark outline of the house. “I’ll come, but only on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“I’d like a picture of Mikey J that I can proudly display in my new home, far away from this place.”

If it hadn’t been for Mary, she wouldn’t have survived. She’d send pictures, video clips, and take him to see his honorary grandmother as much as she could. 

Xara smiled. “Done.”


THERE WAS SO MUCH DESERT.

Xara had never seen more dry land in her life. She’d sucked down all her water by the time they reached a tiny village named Rostaq, and Mike gave her what was left of his, but she was glad they’d been able to replenish at the village before having to set out again. Because she was pregnant, they were being extremely generous by giving her their water or extra food. She appreciated it, but guilt ate away at her each time. 

However, after three days of continuous travel, they were finally at their first resting stop, a place that skirted the city of Baghdad. It wasn’t the spot they’d initially planned as their first location, but Mike and Dom had already let her and Mary know things could, and probably would, change at the drop of a hat, as necessary. The connection Dom had set up, Dom had felt like they could no longer trust the guy, so they’d called an audible.

The apartment was quaint, clean, and had two bathrooms and two decent-sized bedrooms. The street in front wasn’t as busy as if they’d gone more toward the center of the city, but it was busy enough to provide cover. The exterior looked more like a house than a traditional apartment building, and there were eight units split between two adjoining buildings. A small courtyard with a pond separated the buildings. 

The interior decor appeared to have been inspired by the Victorian Era and eighties home design. There were entirely too many patterns, plush surfaces, large indoor plants, and ornate wingbacks. Tile floors peeked from underneath large, fluffy area rugs. The bathrooms were probably the most modern, all marbled white tile with Western toilets.

“Xara?” 

She stirred, opened her eyes, and stretched her arms above her head. She had no recollection of falling asleep. The last thing she remembered was stumbling into the house while the sun blazed outside and falling onto a soft surface. There was also the tiniest memory of Mike giving her a kiss and letting her know he would be back soon.

Now, it was dark out. 

A lamp glowed on the table next to the bed.

“Xara, are you up?” Mary poked her head into the bedroom. “Hi, dear. Did you sleep well?”

Xara pushed up, arms and back sore. “How long have I been asleep?”

“A few hours. Come, sweetheart.” Mary walked to the edge of the bed, arms outstretched. “You’ll take a shower, get comfortable, and when Mike and Dom return, you’ll eat and get more rest before we have to move again later tonight.”

She wasn’t sure she’d have the strength to move a week from now never mind a few hours, but she dragged herself out of the bed. 

“Where’d they go?”

Mary helped her to her feet. “They left about an hour ago to pick up a car and some food.”

“Food sounds good.”

“You’re still tired?”

“Yes.” Xara covered a yawn with the back of her hand. “Very.”

“I remember those days. When I was pregnant with Argun, Ramzsyn put guards outside my bedroom door to make sure I remained on bed rest.” 

They walked to the bathroom, and Mary helped her take a seat on the toilet lid. 

“That sounds intense.”

“It wasn’t until we found out I was having a boy. For all he cared, I could have died in childbirth. He was simply overjoyed for a son. Mike, he isn’t like that.”

Xara, eyes closed, leaned against the toilet tank. “No. He isn’t.”

“Neither is Dom.” Mary rummaged through the bathroom cabinets, opening and shutting doors. “He’s a lovely young man, even with his past, but he’s very different from his family. That is why he ran away in his teens to spend some time in the United States with my youngest sister. It’s no surprise that as soon as he returned home, within months, he’s set to be married. When it comes to his family, Dominik will always do what he thinks he’s supposed to.”

From what she understood, the Bratva was a tight brotherhood. Depending on how high up Dom’s family ties were, it would have been nearly impossible for him to stay away for the rest of his life. He’d likely only spent as long as he did abroad because they’d allowed him to.

“That word, betrothed,” Xara pointed out. “He used it too. Is it an arranged marriage kind of deal?”

“Yes.”

“He doesn’t seem particularly excited about it.”

“He is not.” A cabinet door shut. “Where is the soap? I’ll be right back, sweetheart.”

Mary’s footsteps retreated and returned less than a minute later.

“Why did Dom go back home if he ran away?”

“Their family is big on tradition and duty. It is impossible to escape it.”

“If that’s the case,” Xara covered another yawn, “I think I know why he’s not happy about getting married.” 

A deep voice cut into their conversation. “And why’s that?”

Xara opened her eyes to an empty bathroom and Mike standing in the doorway, watching her. God, her hubby was so damn beautifulEven with his healing bruises and a deep almost tangible sadness in his eyes, he was the sexiest man in the world for her.

“You feeling okay?” he asked, scanning her from head to toe. “We’re not moving too fast for you, are we?”

“Moving too fast to get back home?” She snorted a laugh. “Nah, don’t think so.”

He turned just as Mary walked up behind him. 

“Mary, do you mind if I take over?” he asked.

“Do I mind letting you wash your pregnant wife? Oh no, dear. Not at all.” Mary handed him a washcloth and towel. “I’ll go help Dom with the food.”

When she left, Mike stepped into the bathroom and shut the door behind him. His fingers went to the bottom of his shirt and Xara held her breath, preparing herself for what lay underneath. He noticed and hesitated. 

“Maybe you shouldn’t look.”

“For better,” she wiggled her fingers, “or for worse.”

He zoned in on the bare fourth finger on her left hand. “They took your ring?”

“Yep.” Her eyes rolled toward the ceiling. “Sometime between the sessions of force-feeding me.”

“Force-feeding you?” He stalked over to her and crouched. “What else did they do? Dom said Mary took care of you. That doesn’t sound like taking fucking care of you.”

“She wasn’t there when they were doing it, and it was because of her they stopped.”

He pulled her shirt off over her head, tossed it behind him, and did the same with her leggings and panties. Once she was completely naked, he slid his fingers over her skin like they would pick up on something his eyes couldn’t see. Some hidden gash, lump, or bruise not even she could feel. 

“Tell me about your appointments. How they went.”

“First,” she tugged on his shirt, “show me.”

He stood. 

She rose with him, pulled the shirt off, and tossed it with her pile of clothes. 

The skin covering his midsection, normally smooth and golden-olive, was covered in black, blue, purple, and red. What wasn’t bruised was either scarred, stitched, or both. He was also thinner than she remembered him being the last time they saw each other. His abs were still there but significantly more rib bones showed, and his frame was smaller.

She gave him a hug and, although it was light and brief, he returned the embrace, head turned so she couldn’t see his face.

“Don’t worry about me. I did what I had to do to keep you safe. I’d do it all over again if I had to.”

They’d known each other since she was seventeen, him eighteen, so if he thought she couldn’t tell what was going on in his head by now, without asking, she didn’t know what that said about their relationship. 

She raised her hand to his cheek. “Look at me, baby.”

He pushed out a breath. “Why?”

“Because I love you?”

Their eyes finally met, and in those dark eyes were the secrets to a complex network of pain. 

He stepped out of the rest of his clothes.

She walked backward, pulling him with her into the shower, and turned on the spray. He placed his body between her and the nozzle until the water ran warm then turned so it streamed against their sides. She started to say something to him, but he cradled her jaw and brought their lips together. His tongue pushed between the seam of her lips and roamed in and out of her mouth, and she kept her grip on him light to avoid exacerbating any of his injuries.

Without words, he told her how much he’d missed her. 

Without words, she did the same.

He pulled away and dragged his bottom lip through his teeth. “We picked up rice and shrimp from a little family restaurant, but Mary said no seafood for you, so we got you stew and naan. Have you been checking your glucose?” 

“Of course.”

“If we need to hunker down another day, we can do that.”

He rubbed soap on the washcloth and swept it over her skin. Warm, soapy water spilled down her shoulder and over her breasts. She tried not to look at the bruising on his abdomen and failed. In addition to those, there was a large cut on his left shoulder and a smattering of discolored skin along his spinal cord.

“The baby and I are okay, Mike. Really. I wouldn’t lie to you about this.”

He spun his finger and she turned. 

The perfect temperature of the water and the gentleness of his hand made her feel more like she was receiving a spa treatment than a shower. He was thorough but intimate, and experienced after knowing this body for so long. 

After a third pass of the cloth down her left arm, she felt a flutter. 

“He’s moving.” She grabbed his free hand. “I swear, it’s like he knows Daddy’s finally here.”

There was no response.

“Mike?”

She tried to turn around but he held her firmly in place, drew her into his chest, and lowered his forehead to the back of her head. The hot droplets on her neck that followed didn’t come from the shower. His breathing hadn’t gone erratic because they were close, and he didn’t keep clearing his throat because it tickled.

It made him feel weak when he cried, which he’d told her on more than one occasion. He’d assumed she’d feel less secure in his ability to protect her. Somewhere, there was an unspoken rule that strong men didn’t cry, even when they were going through a world of hurt, but what situation was more appropriate than this for tears? He’d thought she was dead. When he found out she was alive, he also found out she was pregnant with their first child. His first child. 

Then, he hadn’t been able to do anything about it. 

“Mike.” Her voice was soft, easy. “Let me turn around. Let me hold you. Let me do at least that much.”

He still didn’t respond.

“Please.”

When he spoke again, his voice was unrecognizable. “It’s different losing you. Those three years we spent apart, I at least knew you were alive somewhere. You might have been depressed, angry, and upset, but you were alive. This time…I didn’t…”

She didn’t understand the rest of the sentence.

“Was that Mandarin?” she attempted to joke between her own anguish. “I didn’t get that last part.”

When he didn’t respond a third time, she tried again to ease out of his grasp. He slackened his grip just enough for her to step away and face him. The rims of his eyes were red and jet black hair stuck to his face, the rest spilling down his back. Water droplets clung to his eyelashes. His firm jaw ticked with each bob of his Adam’s apple. 

She kissed his lips three times before pulling him into her body, hugging him tight. For all his silence, the way he wrapped her up spoke volumes. Since the start of this journey, on several occasions, he’d randomly dragged her up against him and held her, without words, just like this. Like he needed reminding she was real. 

Out there, with the world and Dom and Mary watching, he’d “needed” to keep it all together. However, in here, it was safe to let go. Even if it was just a little, she was more than grateful he found the strength to let go.

“Xara, I’m so fucking sorry for what I put you through when you thought I was dead for those three years. I swear if Mosvar had been telling the truth and you were really dead? I won’t live without you.”

“Mike, please don’t say that.”

“No, I need you to know, here and now, that if you hadn’t made it, I wouldn’t have been able to go on. There is no life for me here on this earth without you.”

“But now we have Mikey,” she reminded. “So we’ll keep going. Together.”

“Maybe it’s because we met so young, but I can’t explain what I feel when I hear your voice or see you. When I know you’re going to be where I am. You’re so beautiful, Xar. I’ve always thought so, ever since that very first time I saw you. Then, at the Sarayev house when I walked in and,” his voice lowered, “saw you all pregnant and glowing and shit…you are having my fucking baby. You’re trodding through deserts and climbing fences and not complaining about any of it while my son is in your fucking body.”

The lower his voice went, the tighter he held her.

“I love you so much, Xar. So fucking much. And, I can’t believe how much you love me.”

She slipped her fingers behind his head. 

He moved his head, nose caressing the side of her face until their lips brushed. Their mouths came together, hot and hungry. She moaned against his lips and slipped her tongue along his, teasing it into a duel. Instead of rising to the challenge, he pulled away and dragged his tongue along her jaw up to her ears. His teeth on her earlobe sent a flash of desire up through her body, roaring louder than the rumble of the water.

“Why?” he whispered, swirling his tongue along the outer shell. “Why do you love me?”

He trailed his tongue from her ear down to the erogenous spot at the side of her neck. She let her head rest against his shoulder and reached south to take him in her hand. The water and soap came together like a natural lubricant.

She started slow, slipping her palm, slightly opened, along his length. “Why do I love you? Mike, you are the most amazing person I know.” She increased the speed of her strokes, making sure to span his length from base to the very tip, where she squeezed.“You are the most wonderful husband in the world.”

“Xar…”

“You like that?” She planted a kiss on his shoulder and sucked the space just above his collarbone. “You like when I touch you like this, Michael?”

He thrust his hips in time to the motion of her hand.

“You will never be weak to me, my love. You are strong. You are skilled. You’re a fucking warrior. Do you know how lucky I am? If you hadn’t come to Kentucky, I’d probably be married to a bug collector or something right now instead of your sexy ass.”

He tried to laugh, but it was immediately replaced by a long, soft moan when she latched onto his neck and sucked. Mike was a warrior and yet, she was the one bringing him to his knees. 

She licked from his shoulder up to his neck, moaned, and sucked at the firm muscle there.

“Xar, can you—”

“Yes.”

“What about—”

“Show me how much you love me, Mike. Let me feel you. Let me feel my husband.”

He spun her around and pressed her, with all the gentleness in the world, against the shower wall. The water, now cool, cascaded over her head and down her back. An ache built between her legs that knew only one form of release. When he grabbed her hips, tilted them slightly, and entered her—stretching her wider the deeper he went—relief didn’t come, only more wanting.

“No one else but you,” she said, arms sore and weak, but they both needed this. “No one else but you will ever make me feel like this.”

His ragged, lust-filled breaths spread warmth along her cheeks. Each pivot of his pelvis pushed him deeper  inside her until he could manage to only pull out halfway before surging back into her body. Her nipples were hard against the cool tile as raw, hot pleasure shook her from her thighs down to her toes. Her inner muscles clamped down on his thick shaft, tight. 

“Do you ever regret it?” he asked.

“Regret what?”

“Meeting me.” He kept one hand on her hip and the other above their heads on the wall as he drove into her, steady. “Marrying me.”

“No,” she answered, with conviction. “If life brings me back to you, each time, I’ll do it all over again. Michael Huang, I love you.”

A groan tore from the pits of his belly. His pelvis slapped the slippery curves of her ass. He was making love to her like she doubted his feelings and the deeper he went, the further he tried to convince her.

“Liu Wei, you are the love of my life.”

“Xara…” 

There it was, the emotion he’d been trying to hold back.

“Xara, don’t forgive me.”

The tears on her face mingled with the splashes of cool water.

He turned her around, propped her against the wall, and pushed back inside her, the ecstasy and pain on his face indistinguishable.

“Don’t forgive me for bringing you into all of this. For leaving you, over and over again. For disappointing you when I promised you I could do better. Be better. All of this shit is my fucking fault.”

His strokes grew angrier, and he barely pulled out an inch before ramming back inside her.

“You know that’s…mmm…not true, baby,” she reassured. “Do you know how happy I was when I saw our son for the first time? He’s ours. He’s yours. God, just knowing I’m creating this life with you? No one else can love me like you do. No one else can fuck me like you do.”

“And no one else ever will.” His mouth latched onto hers, and his fingernails dipped into the flesh of her thighs. 

His pace increased. The movement of their bodies rubbing and crashing together with each stroke placed the perfect amount of pressure against her extra sensitive and aching clitoris.

Oh-my-God, Mi-chael…”

She splintered. Goosebumps rushed over her skin. Her sex quivered, milking and taunting him until he released inside her. The water had turned stark cold at some point, but the minute the pellets touched her skin, they warmed.

“Mike?”

“Yeah, baby?”

She hugged him.

They finished up in the shower and dried off in the bedroom. He helped her into a fresh pair of soft tights and another stretchy top. Her hair would be a frizzy mess in a couple of hours, but a frizzy mess seemed par for the course given their current circumstances. When they weren’t inside, her head was covered anyhow. She wore a niqab, and Mary wore a hijab.

After dressing himself, they joined Dom and Mary.

“I’m okay,” Xara said before either had a chance to ask. 

Dom’s gaze flicked to Mike. 

“You don’t trust my word?” she teased.

“I trust that you’re a strong woman.” He continued to set out the food on a small, wooden four-person dining table. “And strong women often test their limits even when they have support around them.”

“Dom, what’s her name?” 

He froze.

“Okay, how about this?” She quickly searched her mind for a gentler way to skirt what was obviously a subject close to his heart. “Is she what was on your mind back in Dubai?”

“Yes.”

“Will you be okay?”

“I…don’t know.” Their eyes met. “Thanks for asking, Xara.”

“Anytime.”

When he and Mary finished setting out the food, they all sat down to eat. 

“We’ll leave right before daylight,” Mike said, digging into his food, and it pained Xara’s heart to think about how long it had probably been since he’d last had a proper meal.

“How much longer do you think we have?” Mary asked.

“Four days, at most,” Dom replied. “We’re still making good time despite the setbacks. I’ll sleep out here in the front room. Mike and Xara, you guys take the room in the back. Mary, you can sleep in the one on the left.”

Xara bit into the naan and stew Mike brought up to her mouth. It was warm, hearty, and delicious with bold hints of spice. 

“We ran into some…issues getting the car,” Mike added. “Open up, baby.”

He slipped more food into her mouth before taking a forkful of his own. He’d always been pretty good at pampering her, especially when she really needed it, but expectant-father-Mike doted on a whole different level. 

Dom crooked his fingers. “‘Issues.’”

Mike fed Xara another bite. “I wouldn’t worry. Mary, you and Dom saved my wife and son’s lives. Dom can handle himself, but know that whatever protection I have for Xara, it automatically extends to you. I won’t let anything happen to you. I put my life on that.”

Mary’s cheeks pinked. 

After dinner, Mary volunteered to clean up. The exhaustion caught back up with Xara, and she collapsed onto the mattress in the relatively bare bedroom that was hers and Mike’s for the night. 

He climbed in beside her and pulled the thin sheet up over them both. She snuggled closer to him, her stomach pressing against his midsection so, if she fell asleep before him, he’d still be able to feel Mikey J’s small movements from time to time. Each blip and flutter was like their son reassuring them he was fine in his protective cocoon.

“Tell me about your appointments,” Mike asked again. “Were there any problems? Do we have to be concerned about anything? Any blood pressure issues? What about your blood sugar? Mikey’s health?”

She raised his knuckles to her lips. “My blood sugar is fine. My A1c was still on target last I checked. As long as it remains well-controlled, neither me nor Mikey should have any issues. Dr. Keller said it helped that I’m pretty fit and active and we’d planned ahead for a possible pregnancy, so we were already making sure we were our healthiest. Plus, I’d started taking prenatal vitamins already. Considering I found out about him a bit late and I was underweight at my first appointment—”

His fingers squeezed.

“I’m okay.” She stroked his palm with her thumb. “He’s healthy. The only issue is that he’s getting a little big.”

“I was a big baby.”

“How much did you weigh? Not more than seven pounds, right?”

“Nine pounds, four ounces.”

She glanced downward. “I don’t have enough space down there for a nine-pound baby.”

“I promise I’ll be there for the rest of your appointments.”

She slipped out of bed, rummaged through her things, pulled out all the ultrasound images she’d kept, ever since the first one, and climbed back in next to him. “This is Mikey at each different stage. Look how much he’s grown since this first one.”

Mike flipped onto his back and took one of the photos. “I haven’t seen most of these.”

“This is a 3D one. See his little face?”

“He…kind of looks like me. That’s wild.”

“I think so too! But, that’s the only 3D one I kept. I’ll be honest, I’m a little creeped out by them. I don’t want anymore until maybe thirty-four weeks. Can you imagine a 3D or 4D ultrasound while your baby’s still growing a foot?”

He cast a sideways glance at her. “That is something you’d definitely think about.”

“But, am I wrong?”

“This is so wild.” The side of his head touched hers. “We’re making a person.”

I’m making a person.” She lay her hands on her stomach. “Your involvement stopped at ‘Xar…Xar…this pussy’s so…I’m gonna…unh.’”

He rolled his eyes, stomach tightening as he laughed. “I’m certain I last longer than that.”

They went through the rest of the pictures, pointing out Mikey’s belly, fingers, and nose. Then, she placed them back with her things and returned to Mike’s arms.

“Sleep, Xar. I’ll keep you safe. I promise.”

On cue, she yawned. “I love you, Mike.”

“And I’m in love with you.”


“MIKE, DO YOU HEAR THAT? Baby, are you up?”

Mike, already awake with his hands behind his head, turned and looked at her in the dark. “Yeah.”

The noise sounded again. A thud.

“What is it?” 

“You don’t have to whisper. I don’t care if they know we heard them.”

“Who’s they?”

He slipped out of bed and walked over to the window. “The guys about to come in here in a few seconds, probably to try to rob us. Funny. Pretend you’re asleep for me?”

Her heart didn’t race. Her pulse didn’t spike. 

His confidence was having an oddly calming effect on her.

Xara lay her head on the pillow and lowered her eyelids.

Three men came through the window and gingerly dropped, one by one, onto the tile. Two of them had machetes and the last one had a bulge at his hip under his shirt. Their heads craned in the dark, searching the room for any obvious hiding places for valuables. When they spotted her, they whispered something to each other. 

One raised his foot to start toward the bed.

He never set the foot back down. 

If she’d blinked, she would have missed Mike grabbing him around the neck while shoving his foot into the other man right behind him.

Oh…

He moved with a deft precision that was…drunkenly erotic.

Oh…oh, my.

One man went down. Another, he dipped under the man’s arm and did something to the man’s shoulder, arm, and wrist that caused cracks to echo around the room. His knee then went into the same man’s ribs so hard, she was sure they’d shattered. 

The door opened, and Mike kicked a man in the back toward it. Dom immediately gripped the man’s chin, twisted, and snapped.

Oh…oh, damn.

Between her legs, she felt a morbid, twisted throb. 

Dom’s guy fell to the floor. Mike finished off one of his in the same manner. 

The last man standing brandished a gun outfitted with a suppressor nozzle. Mike grabbed the gun—as if the man was a child holding a Super Soaker—placed it against the man’s chest, and tugged on the trigger.

When the last guy fell, he ticked his head at the window, and he and Dom worked together to push the guys back out where they’d crawled in through. Anyone who’d entered the room would have never been able to guess anything had just gone down. The two men were silent, efficient, and clean.

“Night,” Dom tossed over his shoulder as he left, closing the door behind him.

Mike crawled back into bed. 

Xara pushed up on one elbow and looked down into his face, her entire body humming. “So, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you fight.”

He frowned, thinking. “I don’t think so either. Not since high school anyhow. Maybe a little bit on the helicopter?”

“You’ve, uh, improved.” She scanned the length of his body, running her hand up and down his thigh, moving inward with each pass. “A lot.”

“Xar…are you horny right now?”

“Yes.”

“From watching me fight?”

“God, yes.” She nearly swallowed his tongue, her mouth finding his so fast he took a moment to respond. 

He tore off her top, pulled her on top of him, and greedily sucked one of her nipples into his mouth. 

Why did I ever worry?

This man is…on another level.

I can’t believe I—

His teeth delicately pinching her nipple broke her from her thoughts, and it was like her desire had multiplied because of the pregnancy. She felt everything, everything, and she felt it everywhere.

Every-freakin-where.

She almost came from that nip alone, which he soothed with his tongue and the strong pull of his hot mouth. He moved from one to the next, dragging his tongue around her ruched areola and blowing on the nub until it firmed into a hard peak.

And, he moaned.

She shook her head. “Please don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Moan.” Her hips rocked against him. “Moan like that specifically.”

“I don’t know if I can help it. You are fucking delicious.”

He ran his tongue from one nipple to the next, plucking and tweaking the peak his tongue wasn’t savoring at the moment, back and forth. Sucking, licking, plucking, and tweaking. And then there went those teeth again with that light pressure, that little nip that made her clitoris throb.

“Baby,” his soft laugh warmed her chest, “you’re humping my leg.”

Sure enough, she was rubbing against his thigh and close to orgasm. But one wouldn’t be enough. 

Dom could have walked back in and she wouldn’t stir. With the way she tingled, she would probably ask him to grab a tit and go to town.

“Oh…yes.” She rocked faster. “Yes, just like that, baby.”

Mike slipped one of his hands into the leggings, into her panties. Two of his fingers slid inside her and she rode them, flexing the muscles in her thighs. The heel of his palm slipped over the wet, aching nub. 

“Damn, you’re wet, Xar.”

After only a few rubs—combined with the sound of his quick, uneven breaths—she was coming.

He tucked his other hand behind her head and pulled her mouth down to his just in time for her to release a cry down his throat. 

“More,” she pleaded, chest heaving, sucking on his lips. “I want more. Please.”

He climbed over her, tugged off her soaked panties and leggings, and spread her legs. Cool air from his pursed lips caressed her clit followed by a long, slow lick just to the right of the organ. He trailed his tongue around it to the other side, circling like some kind of wanton vulture, and with each pass, she got wetter from anticipation alone.

He slipped those two fingers back inside her.

“I may pass out,” she warned, with a rush of a laugh. “The minute you…oh.” 

He’d kissed it.

Kissed it.

It still didn’t prepare her for that first pass, one long drag of his tongue that made her clit pulse.

“Baby…”

He drew his tongue to a firm point and flicked while stroking her with his fingers.

“Baby, have I told you, lately, that I love you?” Her back arched and she gripped the sheets. “And the things you do?”

He laughed. 

Then sucked. 

He sucked where she ached so hard, it was almost painful. But it wasn’t the kind of pain she shied away from. It was the one she welcomed, twitching and contorting as he brought her to the very edge of climax before bringing her back down again. Over and over, he teased her with that tongue he wielded as skillfully as he moved his body until she was cascading again. Climaxing again. Trembling and shuddering…and still so empty.

“More, Mike,” she begged, hoarse. “I want you.”

“How do you want me?”

Her head spun watching him strip. “Inside me. I need you.”

He climbed over her and entered her in one swift, fluid, hard motion. 

She was expecting sweet and slow, but that notion was tossed out and destroyed after the first strike of his hips. This wasn’t the gentle lovemaking he’d graced her with in the shower. This was passion and torture, them acknowledging how far apart they’d been and how close they needed to be to dissolve that time apart until it no longer existed.

He spread her legs wide. Ecstasy rippled through her with every stroke and withdrawal.

“I think you like watching me fight.”

Xara squeezed her nipples. “I do.”

“Tell me what you like about it.”

“You’re so powerful, Mike.” 

Fuck.” He drew the word out on a long moan. “This pussy is my weakness and you know that shit, don’t you? Tell me what else you like with your sexy, beautiful ass.” 

Sex could mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. Mike was hitting every spot, stroking every nerve, and tugging every string her heart possessed. And, she was about to see heaven in a minute.

“I love how you’re so agile, so skill…ah fuck.” He rolled his hips up into hers. “Oh my God, I love the way you fuck me, Mike. Yes, yes, y—”

Not even a semi could have hit her harder. 

This orgasm rocked her soul. She couldn’t even cry out. Her throat muscles must have climaxed themselves and were now so spent, they no longer worked.

Xa-ra, the things you do to me, girl…” 

He drove into her with three more strong thrusts and then went still as he came, buried deep inside her, their chests touching and his dick pulsing at her entrance.

Once their breathing settled, he pushed up onto his palms. Sweat dripped from his forehead onto her chest, and his hair brushed his biceps. 

“I might take up MMA or something if this is what my fighting does to you.”

“And I’d fully support your decision.”

He eased down next to her and pulled her into his body, holding tight. “Xar, you make forever look so damn easy.”


THE REST OF THE TRIP, although not as smooth as Xara would have liked, was mostly uneventful. It was so uneventful that when they finally made it to Dom’s safe house, it was a little anticlimactic.

At least, until a familiar figure rounded the corner.

“Oh my God.” Xara scrambled from the car and sprinted. “Oh my God, oh my God…”

Mo ran, closing the gap, and they crashed together in a tight hug.

“Hey, little sister,” Mo choked out. “We’ve missed you. We missed you so much. Oh sweetie, we’ve missed you.”

She cried against Mo’s shoulder, struggling to find words through her tears. Had Mo always smelled this good? Felt this soft? The woman was as fit as fit came, but right now, she felt like a pillow and the perfect amount of comfort to ameliorate the effects of a shitty last few months.

When Xara opened her eyes, Julien, Dez, Gage, Joel, and Giorgio watched her from behind Mo.

She released Mo and was immediately scooped up, kissed, and squeezed tight, first by Julien and then the rest of the guys, Giorgio lifting her off her feet. 

Sydney rounded out the reunion.

“Guys,” Xara swiped at her eyes and gestured, “this is Mary. She’s Ramzsyn’s wife, yes, but she’s the only reason I’m alive.”

They greeted Mary with hugs, thank-yous, and promises they would safely get her to Dr. Keller. 

Dez looked over Xara’s shoulder. 

She turned around to watch Mike approach and nudged Mo in the shoulder. “That’s my son’s father.”

“Girl.” Mo sighed. “I know that feeling. I love that feeling.”

“Even though your crazy ass had a baby with Giorgio.”

“And Mike’s any more stable?” Mo scanned her husband. “Never mind. Radioisotopes are more stable than Gio.”

“How long have you been waiting to use that one?”

Mo pulled her into a side hug. “Since before I had Aleksi.”

Mike hugged Sydney first, then Mo, rocking her a little while she giggled between tears. The minute he released her, he was hugged, shoved, and trapped in headlocks. Julien shook his head and let it hang for a few seconds. Giorgio said something about taking Mike to get a haircut the next time he went. Gage and Dez scanned him and a range of emotions passed over their faces. She caught Gage’s eye and silently conveyed that she would tell them later what Mike never would. 

When Mike hugged Joel, he soothingly rubbed Joel’s back and Joel burst out laughing. 

They bumped fists and joked and carried on like children. 

Dom’s shadow fell over Xara, and she threaded her arm through his to bring him closer. “Mo and Sydney, this is Dominik Sokolov. Sokolov means ‘falcon’ in Russian.”

Mo slid a glance Xara’s way and whispered, “Damn.

Xara widened her eyes and nodded.

Mo glanced back at Giorgio to find him watching her. His eyes flashed something lethal, and his gaze flicked to Dom then to another man walking up. The man had the same dark hair as Dom, but he didn’t wear his hair as long as Dom did. And, instead of Dom’s silver-gray eyes, his were a deep, forest green. 

“This is my cousin, Dmitri,” Dom introduced. “He secured the place for us.”

This time, Xara, Sydney, and Mo all exchanged looks.

Again, when Mo looked at Giorgio, he was already watching her. 

“Pleasure to meet you all,” Dmitri greeted.

“Dmitri’s not Bratva,” Xara said, winking at Sydney. “He’s the CEO of his own Fortune 500 company and a technology executive. His current schedule affords him the ability to be home every night, and the most dangerous thing in his life is maybe a stomach virus. As you can imagine, I asked a lot of questions and learned a lot on our trip.”

“Are you single?” Mo asked.

Dmitri grinned. “Why, are you int—”

No!

Dmitri took a half step backward, confused as to why everyone except Mary was shouting at him.

“You think my wife is beautiful?” Giorgio asked, eyes blazing and head cocked.

“It’s a trick question,” Mo explained, moving to stand between him and Dmitri. “There’s no correct answer. You say yes, he stabs you. You say no, he stabs you. He literally just wants to stab you.”

“Let him speak, Bez. Cousin of Dominik Sokolov, kak ty dumayesh’ moya zhena krasivaya?”

Dmitri’s face paled. “I…uh…she—”

“You speak Russian, yes?” Giorgio brandished a blade the length of his forearm and extended it in Dmitri’s direction. “You want to fuck him, Bez?”

She frowned. “Of course not. No offense, Dmitri.”

“None tak—”

Giorgio cut him off with a glare before resettling his attention on Mo. “You are protecting him, my Bez?”

“Protecting him h—?”

“He will die. This is understood?”

Oh my gosh, Gio, why are you like this?”

He looked at Dmitri. “I am going to kill you.”

“No, he won’t,” Mo attempted to reassure, but Dmitri didn’t look at all convinced.

“Fuck, I will not. Who will stop me?”

“We were talking him up for Sydney, you crazy…crazy person. Dammit!” She stomped her foot. “I used the radioisotope joke too soon.”

Giorgio’s anger broke for a nanosecond, and Xara swore she caught a smile. 

“Bez, go inside.”

“Why?”

“Bez,” he growled, “go.”

“Are you still going to kill Dm—”

He picked her up like a delivery package and headed inside.

Gage turned to the group. “Let’s, um, give them a minute.”

“Is he going to harm her?” Dmitri asked, face still colorless and his chest pushing high with each breath.

Joel scoffed. “Harm Mo? You couldn’t even Jedi-mind-trick Pozza into harming Mo. Now, if you’d asked if he’s going to ‘hurt’ her…”

When they finally went inside, they found Mo stumbling toward the stairs wearing Giorgio’s shirt backward and inside out, gingerly gripping the balcony railing. Giorgio, shirtless, walked up behind her, tossed her over his shoulder, and carried her back down the hallway.

“Pineapples, Gio,” she pleaded. “Dear God, pineapples.”

* * *

Mike held Xara close, rocking and swaying. 

They took Mary to Dr. Keller’s office earlier that morning and Dmitri had, reluctantly, stayed the night as long as they’d agreed to protect him from Giorgio. All of them. He spent most of his time hanging out with Sydney in the back of the house around the pool, Mo and Xara expertly finding ways to get them alone together.

Also, while at Dr. Keller’s, Mike was able to hear his son’s heartbeat for the first time.

“You have everything?” he asked, eyes closed and forehead against Xara’s.

“I think so.”

“I’ll see you in a few days, okay?”

She nodded. “Okay.”

“I have something to tell you first.” He kissed her lips, needing a taste of her more often than usual these days. “This might be the last time this happens. The last time we go out.”

She took a half-step backward. “Seriously?”

“Yes.” He pulled her back. “We’re going to have to be on our toes for a few months after. Repercussions are…inevitable. And, admittedly, we’re a little concerned. Except for Giorgio. And Joel.”

Joel’s not at least nervous?”

“According to the ‘tea’ Gage spilled,” she laughed against his shoulder, “it’s Ayesha related.”

“Walk me out?”

He took her hand. “Of course.”

Dmitri and Dom offered to drive them to the airport where Dmitri’s Gulfstream, which he’d offered up, waited.

“I’ll take the bags to the car,” Dom volunteered. “Dmitri, let’s go before Pozza makes good on his threat.”

Dmitri wasted no time following, but he motioned with his head for Sydney to walk with him.

Giorgio moved to stand in front of Mo. 

“I promise I’ll kill him if he tries anything,” she said. “Dom’s going with us too. Then, he’ll track Mosvar. You trust Dom, right?”

“There is dagger in your bag. I put katana, combat knife, blade for throwing—”

She reached up, kissed him, and smiled against his mouth when he pulled her close with one hand on her ass.

“I will see you and little fish at home.” He touched his forehead to hers. “I love you, my Bez. This is why, as you say, I am ‘like this.’”

“I know, and I love your unstable ass for it. With my whole heart.” Mo graced him with another kiss and then turned to Xara, hand out. “Ready to go, little sister?”

Mike explored Xara’s mouth with his tongue, tasting and drinking, his arms wrapped around her. She moaned against his lips, body slowly going pliant. He pressed her against the nearest wall, raised her leg, and sunk his fingers into her thighs. They’d had each other, several times, last night but it never felt like enough. Since their first time together, it was never enough.

Mo’s voice, soft, broke through. “Um, can you two not do anything to possibly turn Gio on? I haven’t recovered yet.”

Mike laughed and released Xara, locking their gazes. “Daddy’ll be home soon.”

Xara cupped his jaw. “Mike, baby?”

“Hmm?”

“Take them all the fuck out.”

He grinned. “With pleasure, diaochan.”

Xara took Mo’s hand and headed for the car.

“Do not forget, Bez,” Giorgio called after them. “I put garrote. It is with machete.”

When the car pulled off, they shut the door and went to the gym out back to zone out in preparation for the anarchy that lay ahead. No matter how simple the task appeared, each and everyone carried a risk. They couldn’t go into it as husbands or fathers.

They had to become soldiers. Killers. Assassins.

Giorgio linked the surround sound to his phone, turned it on, pushed up on his toes and dropped down into a pushup. Gage pulled himself up on a pull-up bar, pushed up over it, and lowered his chest to the top of the bar. Harsh breaths left Julien’s lungs as he sprinted, mind clear, on the treadmill. Joel went several rounds on the heavy bag. Dez pushed up into a handstand on his forearms.

Mike sat cross-legged, his hands clasped and his head down, any hope for Ramzsyn’s salvation dissolved into nonexistence.

Purple Lamborghini sounded throughout the room.



21: The End

11/26/2020

The song selection changed and Joel continued his 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. Julien, shoulders shaking as he cracked up, doubled over. Dez had the audacity to egg him on. 

“With a helping hand, to make it right…”

Gage laughed until he could barely breathe.

Mike watched them, happy as hell to be home.

Book Discussion – Updated to November 20th at 7pm

K Alex Walker is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: Ladies’ Night Book Discussion – Elias the Wicked & More

Time: Nov 20, 2020 07:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

We’re going to be talking about Elias the Wicked and more so, bring your questions. The theme is classy, black and white, and I want everyone to feel welcomed and comfortable, so bring your wine, your snacks and yourselves and let’s just relax.


Join Zoom Meeting

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89257047791?pwd=ZFB4NGZKN3VPK1A1dVJucGZRb0dTdz09

Meeting ID: 892 5704 7791

Passcode: mx3pHu


Episode 19 – There You Are

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


“They’re not dead.” Larke shook her head and backed away from her husband. “They’re not, Dez. Tell me they’re not. Promise me.”

Dez reached for her. “I never said—”

“We were expecting you guys to come back with them.”

“I know. I’m so sorry.”

“Where are they?” She swiped at her eyes. “It’s been months. Where could they be for this long?”

“We’ll find them.” He cradled her against his chest. “I promise, Larke. We’ll find them.”

Joel backed away from the open glass doors, deciding he’d check in with Dez later. Dez and Larke’s “fight” was pretty much the standard fare—Mike and Xara were missing. They weren’t dead, they were missing. The minute any of them began to so much as assume the worst, someone would immediately snap them out of it.

The first couple of weeks after the incident at the villa, Ari had contacted Julien to let them know all the families had gotten together and decided no one wanted to stay in the U.S. with everything that had been going on. However, they wanted to keep everyone together, and it was something they’d wanted for a while. As the families grew, staying on opposite coasts felt…odd. 

So, everyone packed up and left the country.

A few years back, he and the guys had pooled their resources and bought a couple thousand hectares of land in Sweden where they’d each had homes built, seven in total.

Family land.

While the homes weren’t within walking distance of each other, they were a short enough drive away to make regular get-togethers possible. And with them all on the same land, large as it might be, there was no sense of disconnect. Everyone had their own space, but they were still together. 

Julien had tapped into whispers that suggested their families had grown too close and them too powerful. They’d become mafia-like, the intercepted communication had suggested, which could become a problem.

 This new venture certainly didn’t help things.

Joel hopped in his car and headed to his house. 

The construction had started before the divorce, built with him, Sydney, and their nonexistent family in mind. She was there now and had been for the last three weeks, flying out after everyone else due to some business she’d had in Vegas. It would be only his second time seeing the completed house. Ironically, the person he’d expected to be there, from the beginning, currently was. However, there was someone else he wanted there, right now, much more.

Ayesha and Theo had spent one more week ill, and Sydney had stayed with them the entire time, taking care of them like she’d promised. 

The boys had private tutors for the time being. Theo’s was having a “challenging time” keeping up with him, but the woman appeared to be improving after doing some research about how to teach around his attention span. Theo wasn’t old enough yet to go to public school, and the families weren’t sure yet if they were staying which would determine whether they enrolled Josiah and Thandie in a public or international school.

Speaking to everyone else was the only reason he knew what was going on with Ayesha. She wouldn’t talk to him, so he hadn’t so much as seen her face. 

In months.

And he wanted to see her face.

He pulled into the driveway in front of the large, modern farmhouse with its tall windows and a porch that wrapped around the entire structure. The patio had water views that stretched for miles on one side and a massive yard on the other. When the time had come for him to design the interior, he and Sydney had already split up, and he’d been grieving and uninterested in interior design, so Xara volunteered to help. Her eye for design had resulted in blue-gray stone on the porch floors around the entry, gorgeous hardwood inside, metal fixtures, rustic chandeliers, and an inviting palette of colors and textures. The things she was able to come up with in her mind’s eye were outstanding.

He walked all the way through the house and found Sydney on the back porch sitting around a wooden patio table with a glass of wine and a book in her hand, feet propped up.

When she spotted him, she set the book down and walked over. Her arms went around his neck and his around her waist.

“Welcome back,” she greeted. “I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”

They released, went to the table, and sat looking out at the water. 

“We got in a little earlier than we initially thought,” he said.

Compared to the stress and disorder he’d just left behind, this serenity was exactly what he needed, and it didn’t feel wrong to be there taking it in with Sydney. Regardless of the things that had happened between them, she belonged in his life. 

He’d talked to her several times and the boys at least twice a week while away. She’d update him on how everyone was really doing, and the boys would update him on their lives, how much they loved and missed him, and how Ayesha was doing. He’d then use their information to fill in the blanks not seeing or speaking to Ayesha had left.

Had he been home, they likely would have still been deriving “comfort” from one another, but being away from her, completely away from her, had shown him the truth he felt just about ready to acknowledge.

She’d been right to avoid him. 

He didn’t like it, but it had been the right thing to do. 

If they’d spoken to each other these few months apart, especially since they’d gotten so used to being together it had felt odd not starting the day with her smile or laugh, they would have said things they wouldn’t have been able to take back. Words they’d never spoken out loud but he knew they both felt. 

He hadn’t wanted to do it over a long-distance connection, anyhow. He wanted to be there with her, close enough to hold. Close enough to kiss. Close enough to feel her heartbeat and her pulse. 

So, she’d been right to avoid him.

But, he was home now.

“It’s not so bad out here.” Sydney propped up her legs again. “Did you know Sweden’s the best country to raise a family in? Plus, it’s got a low infant mortality rate, low homicide rate, and some of the world’s best childcare.”

It was one of the reasons they’d chosen it. 

“You sound like you want to stay,” he pointed out.

She shrugged. “Maybe.” 

“Things still okay with you and Ruben’s dad?”

“We broke up. He was looking for a mother for Ruben, but I’m not ready for that level of responsibility.”

She traced the slats in the tabletop, fingers slipping over the flat surface.

“Syd?”

“You can ask.” She briefly closed her eyes, pulled in a deep breath, and let it out long and slow. “You’re going to ask me if I regret not waiting for you, and I’ve been thinking about that considering everything that’s happened. I will say this…I regret blaming you. For me, everything was your fault. You wouldn’t bend, you wouldn’t compromise. Even when I talked about it with friends outside of this group, they would always agree that you were the one being unreasonable without considering any fault or blame on my part. Joel, you’ve always done what I wanted.”

Because he’d loved her. 

No matter what Sydney asked for, he’d found a way to get it for her. Give it to her.  

She’d said it herself—he fell in love through his actions. He saw himself as a provider and a protector. It was why being a father and having a family was so important to him. What was the point of all this without love? Without family? 

Now that nearly all of them had children, he saw how it changed them. He saw how having Theo and Josiah in his life had changed even him. They worked and fought smarter, harder. The world was no longer a place to protect for the general population alone; they wanted to make it as safe as possible for the people they loved back home.

“Why didn’t you do what I wanted?” she asked. “Why’d you choose that time to, I guess, stop?”

He settled in his chair. “Remember that time I came home with all those injuries?” 

“Yes.”

“We’d been collaborating with Angolan Armed Forces, Interpol, the UN, and Recces, South African Special Forces, in Angola.” They’d only been there three weeks, but it was one of the hardest three week periods of their lives. “There were rising instances of forced recruitment in Luanda and the smaller areas surrounding the city. Numbers that hadn’t been seen since the Angolan Civil War. Since these kinds of tasks are special to Giorgio, they’re a higher priority for us over neutralizing insurgents, bomb diffusing, dismantling regimes, preventing coups…and what have you. We’re focused on saving innocent civilians, especially vulnerable populations, ninety-percent of the time.” 

She looked away. “I see. So…what happened?”

“We were to assist the troops and extract the children. We ‘play’ under the radar so there’s less red tape for us if we have to ‘clear-out’ an entire compound. And, we anticipated conflict,” a breeze blew, sending a ripple over the water’s steady surface, “but it was more than expected. Somehow, they learned we were coming.”

His eyes wanted to close but, if they did, he would see it. 

It was a moment he’d had to work to erase from his memories.

“As Giorgio was getting ready to carry out a little boy who was like nine but the same size as Theo, there was movement among the bodies. A man had been hiding underneath them, using them for cover. Giorgio didn’t see him since he’d been preoccupied with getting the boy out, but I saw the man. At the very last second. 

Realization, understanding, and guilt washed over her face. What hadn’t been clear to her before was now like polished glass.

“Syd, if I hadn’t been there, Giorgio would have taken a hollow point to the back of his skull.” Joel cleared his throat and swallowed, the stress of the moment surfacing like it was happening as they spoke. “On the flight back, all I could think about was what if I hadn’t been there? Then, I thought about Mo and what would have happened to her when she found out. We all love, but their love is—”

“Intense,” Sydney supplied. “She would have been devastated.”

“Destroyed.” He blinked until his view of the water was no longer clouded. “Teams like ours aren’t built overnight. We’re more than a group of guys saving people. The strength of our unit, our brotherhood and our camaraderie, that’s what makes us see the hidden enemies, the hiding targets. That’s why I won’t leave them, and this was one of the few things I’ve ever been solid about during our relationship.”

“Joel, I didn’t know it was all that. If you’d told me—”

“How many times did I try, Sydney?”

She nibbled on the inside of her lip. “You…you did. And I didn’t want to hear it.”

“Just because I never told you that specific story doesn’t mean I didn’t tell you others,” he reminded. “And, each time, you’d say you understood, but you kept taking things off the table if I didn’t do x, y, or z.”

“But you went along with each one.”

“Because I would have done anything for you. For us. For family. For love. Our lives are filled with depravity and anarchy. I’ve had to look into the eyes of some of the most reprehensible fuckers on the planet. While we’re out there in the muck, in the shit, it’s not hard to feel like there’s little to nothing worth living for. That’s why our families, our…kids,” Theo, Josiah, and Ayesha came to mind, “are our foundation. We’ve asked so much of our families that the least we can do is be good to them. Be devoted to them.”

“And I took advantage of that, didn’t I?” she asked. “I blamed you for everything.”

“Some of it was warranted, Syd. I never said either one of us was perfect.”

She held up a finger. “Don’t do that. Don’t make excuses for me. Because of my screwed up last relationship, I’d needed control in my life. Then, when I saw how much you’d do if I just asked, I kept piling things on, craving that control. My requests turned into demands. I gave you an ultimatum. The divorce papers were my final play. I figured, when you saw them, you would give in. It was like, how dare you not give up the team for me, you know? But…Joel, you weren’t a bad husband.”

“And you weren’t a bad wife.”

She laughed and shook her head. “If I’d gotten you to leave the guys, I wouldn’t have stopped, and we both know it. The real question is, do you think, if I’d compromised, we would still be married?”

“I really don’t know, Syd.”

“I don’t think so.”

That, admittedly, surprised him. He’d assumed he’d been alone in his line of thinking. If it wasn’t the guys, it would have been something else. At the end of the day, they would have still ended up here.

“We were riding the high from our pasts,” she said.” Our reunion. Love was all around us. We got hypnotized by it.”

“Then, reality set in.”

She took his hand. “I think you’re exactly where you need to be. You light up when you talk about them. About her. You’re happier than you’ve ever been, but if we hadn’t gone through what we did, I don’t think you would have opened up enough to let her in.”

It was funny, he realized, how much differently this felt from the first time around. With Sydney, it was something reawakened. With Ayesha, it was something they’d built. Every restaurant dinner with the boys, every beach picnic, movie night, bonfire, park outing and school event, they’d tried to pretend that because there’d been no kissing or holding, it wasn’t what it had been all along. 

Sydney pressed her fingers against his wrist. “Have you talked to Ayesha yet?”

“No.” He looked down. “Are you giving me a poor man’s lie detector test?”

“Hush.” She moved her fingers around until she found his pulse. “So, you and Ayesha haven’t spoken in months. You’re okay with that?”

“No, not really.” 

“Okay, that’s true.” She tilted her head to the side. “You’re not okay with it because you love her.”

He studied the treeline in the distance. 

“Joel,” she tapped his wrist, “you’re in love with Ayesha.”

His heart was like an eager child, jumping up and down, hands waving.

“You love her,” Sydney repeated, fingers pressing harder. “This is kind of fun.”

“All right, that’s enough.” Grinning, he pulled his wrist away. “I’m glad you’re having a great time with my agony.”

“Why didn’t you go there first?”

Because he needed to breathe. Collect his head. Have this conversation with Sydney so that, when he did step over that line with Ayesha, it wasn’t with loose ends dangling behind him.

“I’ll go there after I leave here.”

“By the way, Xara’s friends, Val and Ant, are finally here. They’re staying at Dez and Larke’s.”

“How are they?”

“Doing about as well as the rest of us.” She went back to tracing. “Val said, right before everything happened, Xara texted her that she was taking a pregnancy test she believed would be positive and then…nothing.”

“Jesus.” He dragged his fingers through his hair. “Not even Julien can get close to the Sarayevs. Everything’s locked down, and Mosvar hasn’t been seen since the incident in Maui.”

They sat in silent contemplation.

“Joel, if I wanted to stay a little while longer—”

“You can stay as long as you want, Syd. We were married. Just because we’re not anymore doesn’t mean I’ll just hang you out to dry. I’ll always love you. You know that. So, if you like it here, stay.”

She turned her chair, facing him. “If I’m being honest, I prefer things the way they are now. I like this kind of love between us. The other one…it was nice, yes, but I want to build something with someone stable, no offense. Someone outside of this,” she waved her hand around, “life. I grew up into a boxer. I grew up in chaos. Then, I married chaos. I’m about sick of it.”

“None taken,” he reassured her. “But, what I hear you saying is, you don’t want me anymore.”

“Joel—”

“I’m ugly to you now.”

She giggled and lowered her forehead to her wrist. 

“It’s okay.” He feigned hurt. “I mean, I’m a big guy. I can take it. It’s nothing a little bit of plastic surgery can’t fix.”

She laughed harder, and her laugh pulled a smile out of him.

“Me too, Syd,” he said. “I like us, just like this, too.”

“I don’t think I could ever be happy without you being a part of my life. That’s where we messed up. We tried to leave each other behind.”

“I agree.”

“And you’re in love with Ayesha.”

He sighed. “It’s so much more than that.”

“She’s obviously    fighting it, but she loves you too.”

His phone rang with a video request. When he accepted it, all he saw was wood floors.

“Joel?” Theo’s face came into view. “Joel? Josiah, Mama, I got him. It’s Joel. Hi, Joel! It’s me! It’s Theo! Are you at our house? Are you coming to see us? Come see us, please? I miss you. Do you miss me?”

Theo’s front teeth had finally come in all the way, and he’d gotten a haircut similar to Josiah’s. It had to have been this morning because he’d still had the curly mop of hair last night when they spoke.

“Of course I miss you, Theo,” Joel said, hit with a rush of emotion simply from seeing Theo’s little face. “I’m coming to see you right now.”

“We’re at Uncle Julien’s house. Can you come now? Please, come now. Mama!” Theo took off running, the phone camera shaking like a nineties horror film. “Mama, Joel’s home!”

He heard mumbling, Josiah’s voice, and then Ayesha’s. He waited, holding his breath. A glimpse of her. All he needed was a glimpse of her. 

Theo’s face reappeared. “Everybody’s at Uncle Julien’s house and…wait. Uncle Julien wants to talk to you. Here, Uncle Julien. Catch!”

“Theo, wait, don’t throw—” The phone clattered on the ground. When it was picked up, Julien appeared. “I got something, Lattimore.”

Joel pushed up out of his seat.

“They’re alive.” 


EVERYONE SAT IN JULIEN’S LIVING ROOM watching a video of Dom walking through the villa. They’d had eyes on the house for several weeks and had only recently let up on surveillance, resigned to the fact that Mike and Xara wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon. Julien had turned all the cameras back on, just in case. It didn’t surprise him that now was when Dom had shown up. The man had, obviously, watched and waited.

Dom entered the structure, gun raised. When he was certain no one was inside, he lowered the weapon and headed upstairs to the main bedroom. There, he searched under the bed, in the drawers in the nightstand, and in the bathroom. When he searched the tangled sheets, he found what he was looking for.

A phone.

Then, he continued his search of the house, stopped in the kitchen, and fished a marker out of one of the drawers. 

He walked around, staring at all the paintings until he found the one it was obvious he felt most confident had a hidden camera inside. All of them did, but the one he chose gave them the largest view of the room.

He went to a bare wall and began to write.

After he stepped away from the wall, Val screamed. Ayesha stared. Ari’s jaw dropped, Mo’s head fell into her hands, and Tayler and Larke wrapped their arms around each other. Dez and Giorgio sat in stunned silence, and Gage had to leave the room.

MIKE IS ALIVE.

XARA IS ALIVE.

BABY IS DOING WELL.

IT’S A BOY.

WAIT FOR CALL.

DO NOT CALL FIRST. NOT SAFE.

Joel entered the room and froze, Sydney behind him. 

“A boy?” Relief nearly emptied his lungs. “She really is pregnant? They’re okay?”

Everyone turned. Theo’s eyes grew big, his mouth arched downward with a sorrowful tug, and he hopped up and dashed, so fast he nearly tripped, over to Joel. 

Joel caught him and hoisted him up into his arms in one motion. Without words, Theo squeezed him around his neck, face buried in his shoulder. Warm moisture spread where his eyes pressed, and it made their reunion mean much more than it already did. Every time they spoke on video, Theo would yell into the tablet or webcam that he missed him. Now, he knew exactly how much.

Before Joel knew it, Josiah was hugging him too, and then he couldn’t talk. 

He drew them close, taking in their warmth and smells and the reality of just how much he’d hated being away from them. How much he’d longed to see them. 

Across the room, his gaze met Ayesha’s.

There you are.

He’d assumed his life was supposed to fall in a certain order; he and Sydney had history, so they’d belonged together. Of course, they’d belonged together. It was what the group expected, what everyone expected—his family, her family—but things didn’t always go according to plan. However, he now knew plan B could make just as much sense, if not more than, plan A.

Ayesha rose and left the room.

He set Theo down, told them he’d be right back, and followed her.

When he stepped into the hallway, she was pacing. 

He reached for her hand, dragged her up against his body, lifted her slightly off her feet, and braced her against the wall, legs wrapped around him.

“You avoided me. Why?” 

He searched her face to make up for the months of it he’d missed. If he wasn’t mistaken, she was doing the same.

“I think you know why, Joel.”

“Don’t do it again.”

Her breasts were pressed against his chest. They were breathing too fast, hearts beating too wildly, and his already racing heart sped up further as if there was suddenly a finish line in sight.

“Eesh,” he stroked her cheek with his thumb, “please don’t do it again.”

She breathed out an unintelligible response.

He smiled. “Hey, beautiful.”

“Welcome back, Mr. Lattimore.” She returned the smile, lips quivering. “I’m so happy to see you.”

“I’m happy to see you too. Did you miss me?”

Their voices dropped to whispers. 

“I missed you.” Tears leached from her eyes and slipped over the hills of her cheeks. “So much.”

“I missed you too, babe.”

Their breaths mingled. He could already feel her lips, smooth and pillow-soft. Taste them. They’d left at “comfort,” but he’d tossed that out after the first week he’d gone without seeing her face or hearing her voice, forcing him to admit what this truly was.

“Eesh…” He kissed her forehead. “Ayesha…” His lips grazed her cheeks, interrupting the flow of her tears. “You’re so beautiful to me…” They brushed the corners of her mouth. “I thought about you every second I was gone. Every fucking second.”

“Joel…please…”

“Please, what? Tell me.”

“I want…” She closed her eyes and licked her lips. 

He leaned forward. “Tell me. Say it.”

“Mama, where’d you go?”

They jerked apart, he let her down to her feet, and she left to find Theo just as Gage started down the hallway.

“You okay there, big man?” Joel asked, breathing deep to settle his pulse. 

“More than okay, mate.” Gage smiled. “I’m ready to fuck some shit up. I don’t give a fuck about any mafia, any Mosvar or Ramzsyn. They took my boy. I want their skulls on my fucking mantel.”

They bumped fists.

Joel leaned against the wall, needing something solid to counteract all the emotions racing through him—relief, joy, love—and a trill rushed up his spine. “Whoo. Our boy is alive. They’re alive. Thank you, God. I needed this shit.”

 Gage glanced in the direction where Ayesha had retreated. “Been dealing with something?”

“Somewhat.”

“Mate, you’re sweet on Ayesha.”

He sighed. “Yeah.”

“I mean, you’ve got it bad,” Gage said. “And everybody knows.”

“They can see it?” 

“No. I told them.”

Joel, smiling, gripped his chest. “My heart’s all…I don’t know. And just looking at her…it’s like, I wasn’t home until I saw the boys. Until I saw her and that face, those eyes. I can barely,” he tilted his head back, pressing it into the wall, “breathe. When she touches me…Jesus. In my head, I keep hearing mine, mine, mine. I want to…” He gripped his chest tighter and closed his eyes. 

Gage folded his arms. “But you’re avoiding it. Why?”

“Because of Curtis.” He raised his head. “I mean, how would you feel if something happened to you and one of us fell for Tayler?”

Gage considered a moment. “I’d probably come back from the dead and tear you a second asshole.”

“My point exactly.”

“Lattimore, Curtis was one of my closest friends, yeah. I, literally, owe him my life. But you didn’t have the relationship with him that you do with us. You never knew Ayesha as his wife, and I know he’d prefer Ayesha with someone connected to his brothers. I mean, how do you feel about Tayler, Mo, Ari, Xara, and Larke?”

“I love them like sisters. Except, I do still think Tay has a lovely a—” Gage’s hand closed around his neck. “Gage…I’m joking.”

“Reflex.” Gage released. “Why do you always pick my wife’s ass to reference, by the way?” His gaze disconnected for a moment, and he tilted his head to the side. “My wife’s round, perfect, lovely ass and the way it just…when I’m…and she’s…”

Joel snapped his fingers.

Gage blinked. “Sorry, mate. You were saying something?”

“I was saying,” Joel rolled his shoulders and stretched the muscles in his neck, “it’s because Tay is the first one I met. Me and you, we saved her life together. It’s what started us out as friends and now look at us. We’re besties. I’ve even already ordered our friendship bracelets—BB4L. Bad Blokes For Life.”

Gage held back for all of two seconds before he burst out laughing, head shaking. “I’m glad you’re getting back, mate. This is the you we want. The you we need. We didn’t want to do this, any of this, without you. You’re family, and not just because I want to choke you out from time to time.”

Joel laughed, equally as glad he was getting back to feeling like his old self. For a while, it hadn’t felt possible.

“As for Ayesha,” Gage continued, “see what would happen if you, the both of you, agreed to spend a few hours together where you do want you want to, not what’s expected of you. Trust me, the rest of the team? The family? We have no issues with it. Whatsoever.”

He nodded. “Syd says I’m in love.”

“Tay knows me better than I know myself.” Gage started off, toward the front room. “Just because you’re not married anymore doesn’t mean Syd wasn’t your wife. You loved her, so she’s the main person who’ll know what it looks like when you fall in love. Even if it’s with somebody else.”

 * * *

Xara paced the room, periodically rubbing her stomach. Dom should have gotten the phone by now. That was, unless he’d gone to the villa when things were still bad, run into Giorgio, and Giorgio sliced first. The last time he’d checked in was about a week ago.

A tiny flutter moved through her stomach. The first ones had been so light, she’d assumed they were gas until the midwife Mary hired let her know what they were. Her son was moving and stretching. Doing little roundhouse kicks like his daddy.

“Hi, Mikey J.” She smiled. “You’re up late.”

She couldn’t wait to tell Mike he was having a son.

The door pushed in and Dom entered the room. When he saw her, he smiled. “How are you feeling?”

Each and every time, he asked. 

“I’m good. Mikey J’s moving again. Here,” she took his hand, “feel.”

When he felt the small flutter, his grin grew. “That’s…crazy.”

“Do you have kids?” 

“None that I know of.” He laughed. “Kidding. No, not yet.”

There was something about the way he said it that made her want to ask him more, but they didn’t exactly have that extensive of a relationship. Their meetups were usually brief and strategic. It wasn’t like they’d spent time braiding each other’s hair or talking about old high school crushes.

He held up the phone. “A gift for the lady.”

Xara clamped her hands over her mouth to hold back a squeal. 

“I couldn’t figure it out.” He handed it to her. “Julien locked that thing up tight.”

“Just in case it’s ever lost.” She entered the code Julien had created for her. “Can you watch the door?”

“No problem.”

The phone rang. She held her breath. Then, Julien’s voice came through.

“Xara…”

Tears spilled down her cheeks. “Hey, Julien.”

“Sweetheart, we were so worried about you. How are you feeling? Are you okay? Are you hurt? How’s the baby?”

“How do you know about the baby?”

“Dom left us a message at the villa.”

“It’s a boy,” she said, between tears. “I call him Mikey J.”

“We can’t wait to meet him.”

“Dom’s here with me. How much more time do we have?”

“Ninety-seconds.”

“Dom,” she called.

He came back over and took the phone. “No, the family actually lives in Dubai,” he said. “Because of all the shit that happens in the area…yeah, I can get us to Switzerland, but it’ll take a few days. I have a route set up. It’s not completely safe, but I can manage it…Thursday night.” He rattled off coordinates. “Zurich. A week, tops.” He rattled off another series of numbers. “No problem…with my life.”

He handed the phone back to Xara.

“If, at any point, things get to be too much for you, let Dom know,” Julien instructed. “It’ll be rough getting you through, but outside of us, he’s the only one I trust to do it.”

She hooked her finger and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Got it.”

“We’re coming to get you, Xara. We’re going to bring you home. And then, we’re going to find Mike and wipe the entire fucking Sarayev family off the map. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“Everyone, we have three seconds.”

In the background, a chorus of, “We love you, Xara!” lifted, and then the connection died. Any longer and they would have been discovered, and all of this would have been for naught. 

“We’ve got this.” Dom welcomed her into an embrace and rubbed her back. “But I know you have to cry, being pregnant and all. I won’t stop you.”

She sputtered a laugh against his chest. He was so kind. Thank God, he was so kind. It was how she knew, most likely, this was an otherwise very deadly man.

“We have ninety-six hours,” he said. “Mosvar contacted me, so he’s resurfaced. Based on his behavior and the fact that he’s not leaving the area, I’m pretty certain Mike is close by. Mary has a plan, so I’m going to use the next four days to track Mosvar and try to find Mike.” 

He stepped back and looked down into her face. 

She nodded. “I’ll be ready.”

“Okay. I’ll see you Thursday.”

“See you Thursday, Dom.”

As quietly as he slipped in, he left.

* * *

“She calls him Mikey J.”

“A boy?” Mike stared at the image. “My boy.”

“As scheduled, my father will be in Austria when it’s time,” Mosvar said. “We have already set up points where his car will be stopped on the way to a meeting in Vienna. Everything else is up to you. I saw the way you moved when you killed Argun. You can handle this, just fine.”

Mike traced the little head on the picture. He’d been a relatively big baby at nine pounds, four ounces. If this was Mikey J at—he checked the top of the photo—nineteen weeks, it looked like Xara had her work cut out for her. He’d make sure to be there, however. He was going to help bring his son into the world.

“You look like a proud father.”

That’s not the only reason I’m smiling, motherfucker.

“I’ll be ready,” Mike said. 

“I cannot believe it. In a short time, the entire tiep will answer to me.”

“What was that? For a short time, the tiep will answer to you?”

A short time because your days are numbered.

“Nothing.” Mosvar shook his head. “Tomorrow then.”

Mike tipped his head. 

Mosvar left. 

Now that he was cooperating, no gas was pumped into the chamber. Still, no less than seven armed men were around when that door opened, and Mosvar continued to keep his distance from the bars. 

He flipped through the pictures. Some were ultrasound images and others were different shots of Xara. From what he’d learned, the Sarayev wife was taking care of her. It wouldn’t stop him from killing the woman when the time came but he’d, at least, let the bitch die quickly. Xara was still their hostage.

His wife was so beautiful and knowing she was carrying his child? 

His heart swelled. 

At the very least, they were keeping her clothed and fed well. Her tops draped in a way that showed off her belly, but his favorite picture was one of her in a light blue dress with a seam that sat just above her cute ass stomach. She wore medium heels and her hair was pinned up, but the style allowed for a few curls to frame her face. They were at some event, likely closed to the public since she stood out enough for questions to arise.

Mosvar was keeping some of the pictures for himself, he knew, which was fine. The man could look. It was only fair, him having pictures of Xara to look at just days before his death.

“Whoever you are, just show yourself,” Mike said, without looking up. “It’s not like I can do much from behind these bars.”

“It’s me.”

He raised his head. “You bitch ass mother—”

“I’ve been taking care of Xara,” Dom quickly said, hands raised and palms out. “Look, I didn’t know of any other way to get you and Xara out without raising suspicion. Ramzsyn’s men converged on the villa too fast. I let Mosvar’s men take you because I knew he needed you alive. I took Xara to Ramzsyn’s wife because Mosvar is a nasty son of a bitch, and I didn’t trust her with him.”

Mike studied him. “You’ve seen her?”

“Several times.” Dom smiled. “She misses you.”

He held up one of the photos. “So…this is what she really looks like? She’s healthy and the baby’s healthy and—”

“Yeah.” Dom stepped closer to the bars. It was close enough for him to be grabbed, so maybe he was telling the truth. “Look, Mosvar hasn’t seen her. He’s getting those photos from his mother. He doesn’t have her, but Ramzsyn’s wife does. She’s been taking care of Xara. She’s the only reason Xara’s alive.”

Maybe he wouldn’t kill the wife.

Maybe.

“Xara had me go back to the villa to get her phone. I was able to get it, and she talked to Julien.”

Relief spread through his bones. “The guys know she’s alive.”

“I left them a message at the villa. They know about you, Xara, and the baby. Thursday, I’ll be taking her to a safe place in Switzerland. Julien and the rest of the group are meeting up with me to take her home. My cousin is already on his way out to make sure everything’s secure.”

“Your cousin Bratva too?”

“No.” Dom pushed out a laugh. “He prefers board rooms to blood. We grew up in chaos. He married chaos and had a nasty divorce, so he doesn’t want it anymore. Me, I’m like a junkie. I say I can’t live without it, but I end up right back in the shit.”

Mike streaked his fingers through his hair. It had grown out these last couple of months, past his shoulders. He’d have to make sure he got it cut when he got home. Giorgio always had the hook up on places to get overpriced but excellent haircuts. 

“I’m going to kill Ramzsyn in Austria,” he said. 

“Mosvar hired me to kill you after.”

Mike’s mouth twitched with a smile. 

“But…Austria’s not too far from Switzerland.” Dom pulled a key from his jacket. “And Mary Sarayev’s got a few tricks up her sleeve. Helps that her son is naive as fuck, though. This is her property he’s using.”

Mike’s eyes widened. “You have got to be shitting me.”

“You feel like traveling with me and your wife?” Dom stepped forward and fiddled with the lock. “It’ll give you enough time to meet up with your guys and go after Ramzsyn. I’ll keep an eye on Mosvar until you’re ready for him.”

This time, tears did come. They didn’t fall but they still burned. “Traveling with my wife sounds…”

He couldn’t finish.

Dom swung the door open and stepped to the side. “Then let’s go get her.”

* * *

No. No, no, no.

Mosvar’s stomach dropped. Sweat dotted his upper lip. The smell of smoke filled his nostrils although nothing in the room burned. 

The cell was empty. Mike had escaped. And, on the wall, was a crudely drawn skull and crossbones. 

In blood.

“What the fuck happened?”

His men silently looked at each other.

Mike would still kill his father. That was a given. The look on the man’s face promised the future extermination of the entire Sarayev clan. However, if he didn’t go get Xara right that fucking minute, he would undoubtedly be included in that massacre.

“Let’s go.” He stormed out of the cellar. “And, if we have any issues taking Xara, your families will all be executed.”


20: The Beginning of The End

11/23/2020

“I didn’t want to give you too much to carry.” Mary studied the bag she’d packed for Xara filled with food, vitamins, teas, flavored honey, and water, concern tugging down her brows. “But you will need food for emergencies on your trip.”

Dom tested the weight of the bag. “It’s fine. I can carry it.”

“Dom,” Xara did the same, “that’s too heavy. We can trade off.”

Both he and Mary sent her a look.

“If this weighs him down, what if we get into real trouble?” she asked. “I’ll need him at full strength.”

“Or I can share the weight,” Dom said.

“Yes. With me. Or, we can split up the bags so that we’re each carrying half.”

A thumping noise sounded behind her, but Xara didn’t turn. She knew it was said houses made creaks when they settled, but this one took the cake. She’d half believed it was haunted.

Dom ticked his head. “He can carry the other half.”

Xara spun. “Who can carry the…”

“Hey, Xar.”

Two episodes left!

Update: Book Chat and Tropical Storm/Hurricane Eta

I’m down here in Tampa, Florida and we were just officially placed under storm warning this morning. And now, I’ve been in hurricanes before growing up in the Caribbean (Cat 4, Cat 3, and Cat 2), but I’ve never been in a storm stronger than what I like to call our schizo-tempest Florida normal ever since moving here. Tampa’s last direct hit from a major storm system was in 1921, and I wasn’t born until ’25 🤫. I just look good for my age. #blackdontcrack

But on a serious note, in light of this, I’m going to have to postpone the book chat because of the uncertainty of any flooding or power outages we might have. TECO has always been excellent in restoring power; however, there are two things we do well here during storms—flood and lose electricity. What I will do is make sure I’ve prescheduled the next installments of Hidden in the Shadows both here and via Patreon to avoid any interruptions. 

Hopefully, the storm passes without any significant damage though Tampa infrastructure isn’t really built for any kind of major storm system. Our average rainy season floods Downtown and South Tampa on a regular basis. I could cry on Kennedy Blvd and cause flooding, and Bayshore Blvd has multimillion-dollar houses in prime position for floating on the bay’s surface. Actually, when Irma was poised to come here, because her winds were so powerful and hurricanes on this side of the globe rotate counter-clockwise, she pulled the water out of the bay surrounding Bayshore Blvd. 

When Mother Nature and science come together, I tell you.

Look at all that water and then poof! Just gone.
Bayshore Blvd before Hurricane Irma (Cat 5)

As I am a starving artist dedicated to my craft with faith all of this will bear ripe fruit one day, and my sister works full-time and is in the last semester of her MBA program (so…stressed), we dropped the ball on preparation. I learned about the storm ~2 days ago as I haven’t watched the news since 2016. The upside is, when you don’t have any food in your fridge, nothing can spoil if the power goes out.

But, I love you guys, and I’ll check in once Eta passes.

xoxo,

Alex

Book Discussion – Updated to November 20th at 7pm

K Alex Walker is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: Ladies’ Night Book Discussion – Elias the Wicked & More

Time: Nov 13, 2020 07:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

We’re going to be talking about Elias the Wicked and more so, bring your questions. The theme is classy, black and white, and I want everyone to feel welcomed and comfortable, so bring your wine, your snacks and let’s just relax.


Join Zoom Meeting

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89257047791?pwd=ZFB4NGZKN3VPK1A1dVJucGZRb0dTdz09

Meeting ID: 892 5704 7791

Passcode: mx3pHu


Leave any questions/topics you already have in the comments!

Episode 18 – Bàba hé Érzi

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


Mosvar burst through the front door of his family home. The servants at the front looked up, saw it was him, rolled their eyes, and returned to their tasks. 

“Where is Father?”

“Mos?” His mother entered the room. “Dear, what are you doing here? Your father said you were in Hawaii.”

He gave her a kiss on each cheek. “I was. Where is Father?”

“Away. Business.”

“Is someone here, Mama?”

She licked her thumb and rubbed something from his jaw. “Like who?”

“Mama, you know who I’m talking about.” He pulled away and brushed past her. “Where is she staying? What room is she in? I know she’s here.”

He started toward the stairs, but two guards in uniform blocked his path. That told him everything he needed to know. Somehow, someway, Xara had been snatched right from under his nose. What his parents wanted with her, he didn’t know, but he would get her back. And, when he found Dom, he would get the other side of the story. Maybe old Ramzsyn had offered Dom money for the abduction. 

He would find a way to offer twice the sum.

“What is this?” He swung around and headed back to where his mother stood. “You release your hounds on your own son?”

“I don’t want you bothering her,” she said. “Her first few weeks here weren’t the easiest.”

“What did Father do?”

“He was his normal self.”

He scoffed. “And you think she’s better off with you two here than with me?”

“Yes.” She held his gaze. “I do. You are my son, Mos, and I love you dearly, but your lifestyle is not at all suited to a woman who is expecting.”

His face was hit with a blast of cold. “Expecting what?”

“A package.” She smacked his chest. “A child, son. A baby.”

Leverage.

That was the leverage he needed. The minute Mike found out he was going to be a father, the crazy assassin would have no choice but to carry out the request to kill Ramzsyn.

“May I see her, Mama?” 

“You may not.”

“How do you know she is truly expecting, then?”

With an exasperated groan, his mother walked to a drawer just off the entryway and pulled out an envelope. “Look for yourself since you think I am a fool.”

“Mama, I never said—”

She stormed off, waving away his protest.

He opened the envelope and pulled out the first document, an ultrasound image, and pocketed it. There were a few more of Xara in what he recognized as one of the bathrooms upstairs, in her underwear. The lens had zoomed in on the tiny rise in her stomach. His father’s work, no doubt.

He pocketed them all, making a note to keep a few copies for himself to stroke his cock to. He didn’t know what it said about him that knowing she was pregnant made him even harder than before. 

After Mike killed his father, he would have Dom kill Mike, truly this time, and keep her for himself. Keep them both. An uncontrollable woman was easily manipulated once her child became involved.

In a few weeks, he would have her bouncing on his cock, her husband a distant memory, and it would be like there’d never been a moment she’d so much as considered rejecting him.

He turned and left the way he came in.


MARY STUDIED THE expression on her son’s face. 

A mother knew her son. 

After Argun’s death, he’d started acting strangely. Also, based on the coroner’s report, there should have been enough time between the incident and Argun’s last breath for Mosvar to get help for his brother. Then, after Dominik let her know Xara’s husband was still alive on account of Mosvar, she’d pieced everything else together—Mosvar wanted something from Xara’s husband, and it was something he felt only that particular man could deliver. 

Xara’s husband had effortlessly and stealthily sliced Argun’s throat. That meant Mosvar wanted him to kill Ramzsyn.

If Xara’s husband could remove all three from her life, maybe she’d finally be a free woman. She’d no longer be wife and mother to abductors. Men who beat their wives to within an inch of her life. 

Sadists. 

Rapists.

Now that she was certain, she’d let him take more pictures to Xara’s husband, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs behind.

Mosvar assumed he was duping them all.

But mothers knew their sons.

And hers, was a fool.

* * *

Mike no longer flinched whenever one of the goons Mosvar sent to try to “convince” him to agree to kill Ramzsyn landed a shot to his ribs. He could barely feel the punches, and he definitely couldn’t feel the iron around his wrists and ankles that kept him propped on a wall in his cell. If Xara was dead, he wouldn’t talk. If they couldn’t prove she was alive, he wouldn’t talk. 

“Enough.” Mosvar’s flowery accent flitted into the room. “You are done for right now.”

The men, sweaty and knuckles sore, backed out of the cell and left the dank room. 

Mike let his head hang forward. Every muscle and bone in his midsection hurt, but what the fuck did he care? 

“Have you changed your mind yet?” Mosvar asked.

He raised his head.

“I did not think so.” Mosvar’s shoulders lifted and fell with an elaborate sigh. “You will change your mind, my friend. Do you want to know why?” He reached into his jacket and pulled out an envelope. “Guess what I have inside?”

Mike studied the man’s jaw, the bones in his nose. There were fourteen bones in the human face. The mandible had spots that were easy to fracture, and a skull was pretty hard. A hit from his head, at the right angle, could collapse one of Mosvar’s cheeks. Hard enough, maybe an eye socket.

Mosvar pulled out a long strip of white paper, came closer—not close enough to head butt—and turned the paper around. 

Ultrasound images. 

Three of them.

“Know what I am looking at?”

Mike shrugged. “You think I care that you have a kid on the way?”

He tapped the top region of one of the images. “Look closer. What does it say there?”

Mike squinted.

Xara Liu was printed at the top. 

They still didn’t know what name he went by.

The image was dated for that year. He had no idea what day it was or what month he was in, but it was dated for that year. He recognized Xara’s birthday, the name of a hospital, measurements, and some other numbers he couldn’t figure out. 

GA 16wk4d

GA?

Gestational age, maybe?

So then it would be “gestational age sixteen weeks, four days.”

His heart stopped. “When was this? How long ago?”

Mosvar briefly flipped the image around. “Three days ago, which means she is seventeen weeks now, does it not? From what I understand, the next ones will be the newer kind. What is it? 3D? 4D? Either way, you will be able to see the baby’s face a little bit.”

There was the head, arms, legs. A belly. A mouth that looked like Xara’s. If it hadn’t been for the piece of shit human in front of him, he would have cried. He’d been nervous, uncertain, unsure and now…it all dissolved.

He was going to be a father.

“Is she okay?” He tugged at the restraints. “Is she healthy? Is she eating? Is she okay?”

“She’s healthy,” Mosvar said. “She’s eating. I think the other date on the image is the time she is estimated to deliver. January.”

His mother’s birthday was in January.

“Is she…is she happy about the baby? Is she scared?”

Oh, baby. You’re all alone. I’m so sorry.

“Overjoyed.” Mosvar presented a second picture. “You can see a little bit of her stomach in this one.”

There it was, a small protrusion below her bellybutton. He wanted to kiss it. Whether or not she was happy, he wasn’t there, and nothing would be right until she was in his arms again.

He noticed the other details—the extravagant bathroom where she stood, the angle the image had been taken from, the way it appeared she didn’t know the image had been taken.

“Who has her under surveillance?”

“That would be my father.” Mosvar pocketed the photo of Xara’s stomach, pulled something blue from his jacket, pressed it against the back of the ultrasound, and stuck it on the wall next to Mike’s head. “She is with him and my mother.”

“What does he want with her?”

“I do not know, but he is my father, after all, and she is beautiful.”

“How’d she get there?”

“Will you agree to kill my father now?” Mosvar glanced at the image next to Mike’s head. “If you kill my father, I will have your wife and your child returned to you.”

Dom had taken Xara and Mosvar didn’t know, until now, where Xara had gone. That meant Dom had to have stepped outside of Mosvar’s plans. 

Why? 

“Fine.” Mike turned his head so he could see his baby again, even if it was from the corner of his eye. He didn’t want to stop looking. “I will kill your father if you promise to keep an eye on Xara. Make sure nothing happens to her. You say you like her, and it appears you and your father aren’t exactly close, so you can do that for me. You can make sure no harm comes to her.”

Mosvar nodded, the elation evident in his eyes. “I can do that.”

“Tell her I’m alive.”

Mosvar opened his mouth in protest.

“You have no bargaining chips here, Sarayev. Tell her I’m alive. That way, she’ll eat. I know she’s already taking care of herself because of the baby, but I need her to do more.”

Another nod.

“Check in on her. Make sure she is being taken care of.”

Nod.

“Only then will we have an agreement.”

Mosvar backed up to the opening of the enclosure. “Tell me what you will need.”

“A flight, climbing equipment, and his schedule. How do you want it done?”

“It does not matter.” So much joy vibrated through the man, he bounced on his toes. “So long as he suffers.”

Mike nodded. “Okay. Just don’t forget my terms.”

“I will protect Xara.”

“Thank you.”

“When it is time to leave, I will have men come for you. If you try anything, I will have her killed.”

“I won’t try anything,” Mike promised. “I won’t risk their lives. You have my word on that.”

“Good.”

He left. 

A few minutes later, seven large men entered. Four held guns on him while three removed his restraints. Once the iron clasps were undone, they hurried out of the enclosure and slammed the door shut. Mike ignored them, plucked the ultrasound image from the wall, and sank, cross-legged, onto the cot. 

“Daddy’s coming. Take care of your mother until I get there. I love you. I love you both.”


19: There You Are

11/16/2020

He drew them close, taking in their warmth and smells and the reality of just how much he’d hated being away from them. How much he’d longed to see them. 

Across the room, his gaze met Ayesha’s.

There you are.

We’re coming up on the final 3 episodes!

Episode 17: Brother, Where Art Thou?

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


Mike opened his eyes. His body hurt, he had a headache the size of a California Redwood, and his surroundings weren’t at all familiar—concrete floors, a cot that belonged in a dorm, iron bars, and a light bulb fitted into an aluminum, triangle fixture that wasn’t nearly enough to illuminate the basement or cellar he appeared to be imprisoned inside. For now.

Someone cleared their throat. “I understand you are called Mike?”

He raised his head. “Where’s Xara?” 

“How did I know that would be your first question?” Mosvar asked.

“Where’s Xara?” 

“Do you not want to know how you are still alive?”

Mike rushed the bars and gripped the cold rods until his fingers went white and numb. “Where the fuck is my wife?”

“She did not make it, my friend.”

A mallet struck his chest, but he pushed back at it. Xara wasn’t dead. He’d know it. Feel it, somehow. He’d seen her taken by that two-faced asshole instead of harmed, so until he saw a body, Xara was alive. Xara was fucking alive. He didn’t lose her. 

He’d promised her. 

He’d promised her.

“You expect me to believe you?” he asked. “You lying, pussy ass motherfucker? You really expect to believe a fucking thing you say?” 

Mosvar stepped closer to the bars, but not close enough. “What choice do you have, friend?”

“If she’s dead, then you might as well kill me. Whatever torture you have planned, go ahead and do what the fuck ever. I don’t have shit to say to you if my wife’s not walking around on this earth somewhere. But, and listen to me good, Sarayev. If you open that door, at any point, make sure I’m dead first. Because if I have even five percent consciousness, I’m going to do some fucking damage. If you killed my wife…” Mike shook his head, a grimace on his face. “I am going to fucking murder you.”

Mosvar studied him, hands behind his back. 

Still, Mike saw them shake.

“I hired Dom,” Mosvar said. “My father sent an entire army to kill you, and I hired Dom to make it look like you have died. Then, I had your body brought here. Dom was supposed to bring our Xara to me—” 

Our who, motherfucker?” Mike reached through the bars but Mosvar jerked backward, throat quivering. “Don’t let that shit come out of your mouth again. Xara is mine. My woman. In no universe will that ever be any different. Until I have no breath left in this goddamn body, she is mine. In this life and the next, she is mine. So drop that ‘our’ shit.”

Mosvar scanned Mike from head to toe. “You had five bullets in your body when we took you. You nearly died on an operating table. How is it that you do not feel any of that?”

Mike stared at him, unblinking. Maybe he wouldn’t murder Mosvar, not immediately. Maybe he’d stick a blade behind his eyeball, pop it out of its socket, turn it around, and show it to him. Or break his bones so they punctured skin then leave him to die of infection. Crack his femur with a cinderblock. Rupture his spleen. Or maybe he would murder him, quick and simple. Wrap his hands around the asshole’s neck and bash the back of his head against something solid. 

He glanced down.

Against the solid concrete floors.

“Dom orchestrated the whole thing,” Mosvar continued. “I need you alive.”

Mike mentally calculated the length of his arm and Mosvar’s distance from the bars. Even if Mosvar was his only way out, he’d still kill him if he got his hands on him. Why the fuck did he need a way out if he could break open this fucker’s skull? And, if Xara truly was…gone…he’d willingly starve to death in this fucking cell because he’d have nothing else to live for.

Mike, you have been my prisoner for over a week now.”

Mike pushed off the bars and went to the cot.

“Look, do not blame me. You know I would not have killed Xara.”

He sat, leaned his head back against the wall, and closed his eyes.

“I can get her body to you.” For some reason, Mosvar’s mouth was still moving. “If you do something for me.”

“Fuck off.”

“You will not get out of here without my say so.”

“Fuck…off.”

“Without my help, you could die in her—”

In a blink, Mike was back on the bars. 

Mosvar sucked in a breath and stepped backward, this time stumbling over his feet. 

Mike smiled, broad and unhinged like a clown in a sewer drain. “Is my wife dead?”

Mosvar lowered his eyes. “I am s—”

“Is. My. Wife. Dead?”

“I am sorry for your loss.”

“Fuck off.”

“Have it your way, then. But, until you agree to my request, this will be your new home.”

Mike’s smile stretched. “She’s still alive. You need leverage. You might not know where the fuck she is, but she’s still alive. You wouldn’t be that stupid. Dom took her, but if that two-faced motherfucker could betray me the way he did, knowing what’s coming to him, then he played your ass too. My wife is alive, and I’m going to get to her even if I have to sail to where she is on a river of your blood.”

Mosvar snapped his fingers and backed out of the cellar.

Gas poured in from below, but Mike didn’t care. If it killed him, it killed him. If Xara was dead, he might as well die too. He would have found a way to do it himself, but there was still a small possibility she was alive and looking for him. Waiting for him. That hope alone was the only thing that kept him breathing.

If she wasn’t…nothing could stop him. Not the guys, their wives, their kids. No one. He would not exist in a world where Xara didn’t, and especially not a world where she didn’t because of him. 

The gas filled the chamber. 

His limbs loosened, his lungs filled, and he collapsed onto the cold floor. 

* * *

Mary Sarayev, Ramzsyn’s wife, stood over Xara’s bedside, a wide and almost proud smile on the woman’s face. Xara didn’t know how long they’d had her. Some time ago, maybe a month, maybe longer, she woke up on a private jet handcuffed and with ties around her ankles. Ramzsyn brought her to the home he shared with his wife and their shitload of servants. The “home” was an ornate, Mediterranean-style mansion that sat on a section of land the size of Denmark, and it was located in Dubai instead of the Sarayev’s stomping grounds in Chechnya. 

He “loved his country,” Ramzsyn had said. But he “could never truly live there.”

They kept her in a small studio off the kitchen as a form of torture, she supposed, but it was virtually the same size of the first apartment she and Mike ever shared after running away from Kentucky. 

They brought her five meals a day, but she refused to eat until she passed out. Then, they force-fed her. Once they learned about her diabetes, they tried to use that against her: “You could die, dear.” 

It didn’t stop her from refusing to eat, and it didn’t stop them from shoving food down her throat. What they couldn’t feed her, they gave her via an IV she’d ripped out twice before Ramzsyn threatened to cut off her fingers. Then, the threats evolved into if she didn’t behave, her baby would suffer. No prenatal care, no appointments, and no vitamins or ultrasounds until she cooperated. 

The joke was on them. 

There was no baby.

The “baby” was the only thing keeping her alive, she knew, but there was no longer any reason to live. She’d seen her husband take a bullet to the forehead, and she didn’t understand why they didn’t just do the same for her.

Late last night, Ramzsyn’s wife returned from a trip she’d been on for the last few months, from what the woman had told her. When Mary arrived and found out about what was going on, she’d demanded Xara be moved to a proper room, yelling that she would not be responsible for the mutilation of a woman and her unborn child. 

The next morning, this morning, Mary guided her onto a private jet. 

They were now at a specialty clinic in Zurich.

Mary had come expecting to see a baby, but today was the day they would find out about Mike’s lie.

The problem was…

“Can you hear that?” the obstetrician asked. “That’s your baby’s heartbeat. I can’t believe this is your first time hearing it.”

“She’s had a rough go of it, Dr. Keller,” Mary explained, giving Xara’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Xara has been through a lot. She recently lost her husband in an unfortunate accident. I was friends with her mother, and I’m here make sure she’s well taken care of henceforth.”

Dr. Keller took her hand. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”

Xara couldn’t look away from the screen. “That’s a baby.”

“Yes, dear.” Dr. Keller’s brows softened. “How sweet you have this piece of your husband with you.”

Mary gave her shoulder another squeeze. “Listen to that heartbeat!”

“Xara, I put you at around sixteen weeks and four days gestation.” Dr. Keller moved the device around on Xara’s stomach. “You are a little malnourished, but that could be due to depression and grief. I’d like to see you get your weight up to at least fifty-six, fifty-seven kilograms before our next appointment. We should be able to see a little bit more belly than this, at this point, even for someone as fit as you are, dear.”

“She will,” Mary promised. “I’ll make sure of it. She’ll have nurses and maids at her disposal.”

This changed everything, Xara realized. Whatever they wanted, she would give it to them. She’d even eat their food. She’d been prepared to die knowing Mike was no longer alive, but now that she had this part of him growing inside her, she had to live. 

At all costs.

“W-when am I due?” she asked, her heartbeat speeding up and slowing as though attempting to sync with the other one echoing around the room.

“January. A wonderful blessing for the new year.” Dr. Keller looked up at her. “Excited?”

“Very.”

“Look at you.” Mary hugged her from the side, the woman exuding a warmth that had felt confusingly genuine since the beginning. “You must be so proud. A baby is always joyous news. Hopefully, now that you are with us, we can make up for the time you have lost. Get you and the babe healthy.”

She hoped her stubbornness hadn’t done irrevocable damage. 

“Mosvar said I wasn’t.” Xara kept her voice low to hide the tears. Ramzsyn’s “people” had already punished her for crying. For mourning the loss of her husband. “He said he saw the test.”

Mary flicked her wrist. “Almost no one can read those things, least of all my son.”

Hopefully, they would at least let her hold her baby after she delivered. Oh gosh, she couldn’t wait to hold her baby. Their baby. 

“More good news.” Dr. Keller studied the monitor. “I’m actually already able tell you what you’re having. If you’d like to know.”

Mary looked at Xara expectantly.

“I do,” she said.

“This January, you’ll be mother to a beautiful little baby boy.”

A boy.

Michael Jr. and Mikey J for short. They’d talked about using his uncle’s name as one of the middle names, and she’d wanted a second middle name. One that began with an X like her and her brother’s names.

Michael Xavier Jian Huang Jr.

It was a mouthful, but she could already tell it suited him.

“I will take care of you like a daughter,” Mary promised. She lowered her voice. “My husband will not harm you.”

Xara glanced up at her. The woman lowered her chin in a quick nod.

It was real. This was real. This wasn’t how she’d wanted it. Mike was supposed to be the one standing over her head right now. She could even see him, eyes lit up and that gorgeous smile on his face as he cradled her belly. He’d make some joke to hide how nervous he was about being a father, and she’d laugh to hide how nervous she was about becoming a mother. This baby…she had to have this baby. She had to have this baby. There could be no complications. No threats to a full-term pregnancy. This was the last thing she had of the love of her life.

Their son was going to be so beautiful.

“Oh, don’t cry.” Dr. Keller pulled tissues from a box and handed them to her. “Then you will make me cry. Xara, I will do everything in my power to give you a healthy and safe pregnancy and delivery. I swear it. On my life.”

“It’s why I brought her here,” Mary said. “Because I know you will.”

The women exchanged glances.

“I’ll be right back.” Dr. Keller rose. “Take your time, and congratulations.”

She left.

Mary placed her hand on Xara’s lower back to help her up. “Before we get back, how would you like to get some things for the baby?” 

“Why are you doing this? You know who I am. You know what my husband did.” Xara wiped the ultrasound gel from her stomach then stepped back into her clothes. 

“I know my boys,” Mary said, taking her hand. “I know my husband. Your doctor, we know each other from before. She’s been in your situation, but it was Argun’s baby. I helped her get out, and she terminated the pregnancy. Your intuition will tell you why. Ramzsyn has been watching me closely, but even if I can’t get you out, he will not hurt you.”

Xara placed her hand on her stomach. “Mary, you are a blessing.”

“Just a woman, sweetheart. I’m just a woman.”


THE ROOM THEY MOVED HER to was the size of an average home back in the U.S., almost. The wallpaper was hideous, and a large, four-poster bed that looked fastened to the floor sat in the middle of the room, covered in frilly drapery. There was entirely too much gold—it covered all the trim, around the windows, along the ceiling—and even more marble than gold, but at least the chandelier over the bed was modern and actually kind of pretty.

Mary, arm around Xara’s waist, directed her into the room. Behind them, four servants carried bags filled with maternity clothes, vitamins, organic health tonics, and baby things. When the guys found her, she would make sure they knew to spare Mary’s life. In some ways, it was like the woman was a prisoner in her own marriage.

“You rest.” Mary walked her over to the bed. “The first part of pregnancy is the most annoying, the middle is the most joyful, and the end brings the most suffering.”

The servants moved about the room, removing the items from the bags. 

“I have to tell you something,” Mary said. “Mosvar hired a man to bring you to him, from what I understand, but the man brought you here instead, for which I am grateful. Mosvar would have taken care of you, yes, but he would have taken other things as well. Sons are often not much different from their fathers. Lie down, dear.”

Xara did as she was told. “Mary, are you the reason I’m alive?”

“Yes.”

“Did you know what they were doing to me?”

Mary’s jaw pulsed. “No, and I would not let Ramzsyn rest if he allowed a young woman with child to die in our home. Usually, he does not do much what I say but…” She fussed with the covers. “Now, what would you like to eat?”

“I don’t know.” Xara turned onto her side, falling into the plushness of the mattress. “I don’t have much of an appetite.”

“I will have some dolmnash made. It is like a roll of cabbage with rice, mutton. Do you have allergies, dear?”

“No allergies. Just the diabetes I was born with.”

Mary’s jaw dropped. 

“You didn’t know.”

“Not at all.” She looked at her the way a mother might look at her ailing child. “I will review your papers from Dr. Keller. The dolmnash, you can eat. It will be okay for you. There might be a few things to adjust, but it can be done. Settle, dear.”

Xara eased further down into the pillow underneath her head.

The servants continued to bustle about, filling drawers with baby clothing, an assortment of maternity outfits, and whatever else Mary had picked up. Xara hadn’t noticed. She’d been in an entirely different world inside her head as they’d gone from Swiss shoppe to shoppe, and in that world, the only thing she’d heard was that heartbeat. So fast, so steady.

My baby boy.

“While you rest, I will have your lunch prepared. Should you need anything, the phone on your nightstand,” Mary pointed, “pick it up, someone will answer, and I will come.”

Xara nodded. “Okay.”

Mary ushered the servants out of the room and followed. Once the double doors closed, she rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling. She knew what she’d seen, but just like when she’d “lost” Mike the first time, she wasn’t convinced he was gone. She still felt him somewhere. 

He was alive. 

He had to be. 

One of the curtains near the window twitched, and Dom stepped out from behind the satiny fabric.

She pushed up in the bed, back pressed against the soft headboard. “Ramzsyn sent you to kill me?”

“No, Xara.” He walked over and took a seat at the bottom of the mattress. “Mike’s alive.”

She, momentarily, stopped breathing. “What?”

“In Maui, he came to me about taking out Mosvar’s last hit. I told him I was the last ‘assassin’ Mosvar hired, so he gave me his watch and told me, once the plan with Mosvar was set, to trigger a distress notification.” Dom tilted his head back, his eyes searching the gold-plated ceiling tiles. “The plan was to extract you while Mike dealt with Mosvar, but Ramzsyn’s men stormed the villa earlier than anticipated. That’s when I changed the plan. I couldn’t turn you over to Mosvar. God only knows what he’d do to you, and Ramzsyn’s men would have killed Mike. If your guys had shown up a fraction of a second earlier, we wouldn’t even be here right now.”

Xara, shivering, pushed onto her hands and knees and crawled closer to Dom. “Mike’s alive?”

“Yes. Mosvar kept him alive because he thinks Mike will do what he wants, and what he wants is for Mike to kill Ramzsyn.”

“B-but I saw you shot him.”

“None of it was real.” Dom turned his head and his eyes, like two drops of liquid mercury, locked onto hers. “That part, Mike didn’t know about so, as it stands, I betrayed him. But I did what I had to. I shot Mike with a tranq, which is what made him turn around. Then, I ‘shot’ him in the forehead. Mosvar’s men took Mike, and I took you. I didn’t know, at the time, he’d been shot already. Five times.”

“When?” she asked. “Ramzsyn’s men didn’t shoot him in the hallway.”

“It wasn’t me.”

She cradled her stomach. “He got shot in the bedroom and on the balcony? He…why didn’t he… 

Jesus, Mike. You’re a lot stronger than I realized.

Dom nodded toward the door. “I know Mary. Her family is Italian. I’m…betrothed…you could say, to her great niece. It’s why I brought you here, but I didn’t know at the time she was out of town. I’m really sorry about that.”

“You couldn’t have known.”

“Still…” He swiped a large hand over his face. “I need to get in contact with the rest of Mike’s team.”

She could tell him where to find them, but she wasn’t sure she trusted him yet. Not completely. This could be his roundabout way of finding out where to locate the rest of the guys to execute them.

“I know where Giorgio Pozza liv—”

“Any-fucking-body but him.” Dom lifted his chin to show off a hell of a scar across his neck. “This is his handiwork and, by now, either word or speculation’s gotten out I had something to do with Mike’s disappearance. Pozza doesn’t ask questions first and shoot later. He doesn’t ask questions at all.”

“You’re right.” She eyed him. “I don’t know if I can trust you.”

“Which is fair.”

“If you can get back into the villa, find my phone and bring it to me.”

He thought for a moment. “The plan is to get you out of here, as soon as I can. I can get us all the way to Switzerland, but I’m working under the radar at the moment, without the full backing of my family, so,” he blew out a breath, “it’s going to be…tricky.” 

“You mean your ‘family’ the Russian mafia? Why are you working without them?”

“I’m the prodigal son.” He searched her face. “By the way, how are you? At least, it appears, they’re treating you well?”

“Now that Mary’s here, yes.” She sat back on her legs. “Not so much before.”

Something flashed across his face. “Noted.”

“If you can get my phone, I can help you. However, know that betraying me would be a stupid decision.”

“I won’t.” He flipped his hand, revealing a tattoo of a cross on his wrist. “I promise. My only request is that you be the one to explain why I did what I did to your guys. And Mike, when you see him. Because you will see him.”

Xara closed her hand over the tattoo. “Thank you, Dom.”

Relief brightened his dark features. “You’re welcome, Xara.”


18: Bàba hé Érzi (Papa & Son)

11/09/2020

“Fine.” Mike turned his head so he could see his baby again, even if it was from the corner of his eye. He didn’t want to stop looking. “I will kill your father if you promise to keep an eye on Xara. Make sure nothing happens to her. You say you like her, and it appears you and your father aren’t exactly close, so you can do that for me. You can make sure no harm comes to her.”

Four episodes left!

Kerah vs. Eric vs. Kennedy

As we get closer to the Ladies’ Night Book Discussion, I’ll be popping in with some questions/topics. If you have any questions before the event, leave them in the comments and I’ll add them to our “itinerary.”


I started back toward the bar but he reached out and grabbed my wrist. 

“Look, Eric, if you’re going to give me another sermon on my date—”

“I’m not. I actually wanted to ask you about,” his gaze darted to the bar’s open back doorway, “Kennedy. If you don’t mind.”

I smiled so bright, I almost blinded the man on the bicycle who swerved around me and Eric at the last moment. At least, that was the story I told myself.

“I don’t mind at all. What do you want to know?”

He was still holding my wrist. 

“Do you think she’s feeling me?”

My mouth fell open. “Are you serious? She’s hanging all over you.”

“I know, I know.” He released my wrist and scrubbed a hand over his short haircut. “Why is she single, though?”

“You mean why is one of the world’s most beautiful women unattached?”

He stared at me, blinked slowly, and nodded. “Yeah.”

“Kennedy’s careful,” I explained. “Cautious. I know I’m a little biased, being her sister and all, but she’s a prize. A gem. And the best gems aren’t the ones you find on the surface. You have to do some digging.”

His gaze lifted over my head. “She seems distant with me one time and then into me the next. I guess that’s just her being cautious? Feeling me out?”

“Exactly.”

“And what about you?” His hand swung forward, lightly tapping my wrist. “Notwithstanding your date with the asshole. Are you cautious too?”

“He’s not an . . . okay, so there’s more to Elias than what he shows.” There I was again, defending Elias like my name was Tammy Wynette. “He’s been going through some stuff. His father just died.”

Eric’s expression crumpled into one more apologetic. “Oh man, that’s right. He’s Elena’s uncle. She said her grandfather was sick for a while.”

“Yeah. Plus, he apologized.”

“You like him, you think?”

“I haven’t gotten that far.” 

I liked the version I was getting to know. That version was the one who made me reach for my phone with every notification or phantom vibration. That Elias was the one I couldn’t wait to see tomorrow. I even had my outfit already picked out, but I would have to go back and reevaluate. After all this alcohol and cheese, I might still be bloated hours from now which meant no form-fitting tops unless I was trying to get us an Expectant Mother parking spot.

“Kerah Moss, too good for us black dudes.” He poked me in the ribs. “She went and got her a Puerto Rican cat.”

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. He’s Cuban.”

“Isn’t Will Cuban?”

My heart stopped beating. “What?”

“Bardem. Where’s he from again?”

No one in the office knew about my past with William. At least, no one was supposed to know. The level of embarrassment I would have to deal with if they found out I was only in the position I was because I’d, essentially, slept my way there? I wouldn’t be able to deal with it.

“No, no he’s from Spain,” Eric said, correcting himself. “I’m on a whole different continent.”

Thankfully, he didn’t notice my near-death experience.

I headed toward the bar. “Let’s go back before Kennedy thinks I’m trying to put the moves on you.”

He mumbled a response.

“What was that?” I grinned up at him and cupped my ear. “I didn’t hear you.”

He rose his voice, smile dimpling his cheek. “I said, Kennedy has nothing to worry about.”

“Good.”

“Apparently.”

Do you think Kennedy should have been upset about Eric’s confession?

Quick Note: I watched this, easily, at least fifty times to get inspiration to write Kennedy’s scenes at the bachelorette party and the fight at the end.