Episode 13: From Central To The End

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

From Central To The End

It would be the last time Joel talked to Ayesha before they made landfall. It could be the last time he talked to her ever, but he wouldn’t tell her that. He wouldn’t show her that. He simply continued to parrot what he’d been saying all week leading up to this day—that everything would be fine. That he was certain he’d come home to her, the boys, and the soon-to-be addition to their family. But as Joel stared at her face, he acknowledged the truth for the first time—nothing was guaranteed. 

Central’s headquarters was as isolated from the rest of the world as the clandestine nature of the work each team had performed for them. For the last several years, they’d come under fire for their increasingly unscrupulous tactics, which had resulted in the countries they’d once served becoming Central’s primary antagonists. That political isolation, however, didn’t mean the organization didn’t retain access to the power and resources they’d garnered over the years. 

With Delta and Gamma on board, they had a good team, and they’d also secured skilled backup, but all it would take was one errant bullet…or one well-placed one…and Ayesha’s eyes, he’d never see again. That mouth, he’d never kiss again. Her skin, silky-soft like baby powder, would never grace his callused fingertips.

“You should probably get some sleep,” she said, staring back at him from the screen of his tablet, dabbing at her eyes with one of his T-shirts. Theo and Josiah slept on the bed next to her, swatches of the fabric of their pajamas in the frame.

“I don’t want to let you go,” Joel replied, honest. “I don’t want to stop looking at you.”

Ever.

Even with lines in her skin and silver hair.

Even after looking at her for decades.

For centuries, civilizations claimed deities would come to them in different forms, whether as a lesson or to blind the unsuspected with their deceit. It wouldn’t be hard to convince him it was what had happened to him. The very moment he’d made the decision to give up, an angel had opened the front door.

Ayesha shook her head. “Me, either.”

But he had to.

The words didn’t have to be spoken aloud for them both to hear.

“I love you,” she said, like she always said, each time just as meaningful as the last. His mouth tipped into a smile he hoped looked even fifteen percent convincing. 

“Call me the minute you can,” she added. “Call me even if you think you can’t. I, most likely, won’t be asleep.”

Brain and body misfiring, he reached out and drew his index finger across the screen. In his mind, he felt her skin. Wiped her tears. Love was madness, and he understood why it was the bane of many a man’s existence. It was the only thing he could think of that caused equal parts pleasure and pain, often in the same breath.

“Eesh, I’ll see you, okay?” The minute the words left his mouth, he heard it—the faux reassurance. And, in that instant, he’d let her see his fear. “I love you, Ayesha.”

Reluctantly, they hung up.

He set down the tablet, left his tent, walked to the edge of the forest clearing where they’d set up camp last night, and clenched his teeth, driving back painful emotion. Tears he’d save for later.

Through the foliage, he spotted Adrían standing at the edge of the beach. This island was only slightly larger than the one where Central was located, but it was at least populated on the other side. He and Adrían hadn’t seen eye to eye since the beginning, but the tide had changed significantly over the last several weeks. 

Joel headed over. 

When Adrían heard someone walking up, he glanced back over his shoulder and briefly let his head fall. “You should be asleep,” he said, voice rising above the crash of the waves. “Not out here wasting precious energy your body needs for tonight.”

Joel stopped next to him. “I know.”

“You’ve already talked to Ayesha and the boys? They’re okay?”

“They’re okay.”

Of all the times he had woken up just as early, it was the first time the eerie silence of twilight promised something other than peace.

“You think I would be used to this,” Adrían said, squinting, the sun rising on their left. “In Rio, where I grew up, there was violence all the time. In my favela, we didn’t listen to the government. We didn’t listen to the police. They weren’t the ones we saw patrolling the streets with guns. And, more often than not, those guns had brought more comfort than fear.”

“Favelas are like shantytowns, right?” Joel asked.

“Yes. Poor, but not without love. Not without community. It was only in the times where we didn’t have enough to eat that I felt pain. With my mother, with my friends…I was content. If someone was gunned down in the street,” Adrían shrugged, “we said it was their fault. We championed it, called it ‘law and order.’ Called it justified.”

“Until it was your mother.”

Adrían glanced over. “How did you know?”

“Similar situation with a friend of mine. Before my parents were schoolteachers, we had it rough. I got lucky—they loved one another. They loved me, my sister. When you have love like that, it’s like protection. It’s not until you’re older that you realize the extent of some of the shit you’ve seen.”

Adrían huffed out a laugh. “Exactly.”

“How did she die? Your mother.”

“For saying no. For believing her body was her own.” Adrían’s throat bobbed. “They left her in the streets. When I found her, I covered her up. I don’t remember much of what happened after, didn’t for a while. Everything inside me just…died. If I’d been starving and someone offered me happiness on a diamond-studded plate, I still would not have reached for it.”

A larger wave pushed forward, covering their feet, sinking them into the sand. There were so many clouds in the sky, the sunlight glowed between them like a network of golden neural pathways. 

“And the rumors about you?” Joel asked.

“Some are true. Some are not. I will say, it’s how I was found for all of this.” Adrían circled his hand in the air. “I never truly hated humanity, as has been said about me, but I did pity it enough to stay away from it. Then, for the first time in my life, I saw someone’s heart.”

“Eesh.”

“Mm-hmm.” A broad smile, though it didn’t last long, pushed Adrían’s cheekbones higher on his face. “For her to love you the way she does, it tells me a lot about you. At first, I thought you were some asshole who wouldn’t think twice about leaving her if things got bad. A woman like Ayesha, you die for. So, and I know it might not be what you want to hear, especially coming from me, I’m grateful to you.”

Joel dragged his bottom lip between his teeth, water frothing around his toes and ankles. 

“You had the urge to say ‘thank you’ but then swallowed it, didn’t you?” Adrían asked, chuckling. “I can see you trying not to choke.”

Despite himself, Joel smiled. “Whatever, man. I’m conflicted. You’re talking about the woman carrying my kid. I appreciate your respect, but the primitive male in me still…flexes.”

Adrían swatted the air. “Go back. She’s pregnant?”

“Yep.” Joel pulled out his phone and scrolled to an image of the ultrasound. “It’s still early, but see that little blob right there?”

“Congratulations, my friend.”

“I appreciate it.”

“A baby…won’t that make this harder?”

“Like I could never explain.”

“You’re here because of them.” Adrían tipped his head back at their camp. “Alpha…they’re like brothers to you.”

“They are my brothers,” Joel clarified. 

“Our team was different.”

“You, Hyeok, and Mason seem relatively close.”

“We don’t hate each other. Spettro and Lavigne, I hated. Wesley, it was like he never existed for me. I was abandoned in this world long before I understood this world. Until I met Ayesha, loneliness, for me, was a blanket. A nightlight. Fuck, a padlock.”

Joel reached over and slapped Adrían’s shoulder. “Well, you’re here today. You helped me end my son’s terror. Regardless of your past with my wife, everything you’ve done has accounted for something. Central,” Joel’s head shook, his gaze slightly unfocused toward the edge of the ocean, “made us what we are, but Central didn’t make us who we are. It says a lot about a man who’s able to see the bigger picture despite looking at a blurry image.”

Adrían took a moment to answer, letting the words mix with the spray of each wave’s splash. “Are you talking about me?” he asked. “Or yourself?”

“Everybody back there.” Joel pointed behind them. “Everyone standing out here.”

“Obrigado, my friend.” Adrían held out his hand. “Good talk.”

Their palms came together, and there was no acrimony in this handshake.

Joel started back toward the camp. “Get some rest, Delgano.”

“I will, I will. But this could be my last sunrise, you know?”

Joel nodded. “Yeah. I know.”

* * *

Gage’s voice carried, clear and deep. Joel kept his head down, eyes closed, and gently rocked from side to side. Anxiety and adrenaline created a cocktail in his blood. 

The journey had been the first part of the treacherous undertaking, and they’d toggled between air and sea travel before landing on an island that, had the earth been flat, would have careened off the edge. After leaving their camp, they’d traveled to Central’s island by boat, switching to scuba gear when they were a kilometer away from Central’s sensors. 

Once they’d made landfall, they’d changed into their gear—black instead of camouflage, painted faces, balaclavas pulled up to their eyes. Covered yet, in many places, still vulnerable.

In less than an hour, they would walk into enemy fire.

And Ayesha was pregnant. 

Part of Joel felt like he was dreaming. Four people back home now counted on him, not including the rest of the family, his sister and nephew, and his parents. When he’d told the guys, they’d assaulted him with congratulatory pats and hugs. Silence had then washed over them when the realization of what this day could bring pushed through the celebration to stand front and center. 

The best of each Greek letter unit had all agreed to collaborate so that everyone would have a chance to go home. Joel knew this. Understood this. But it was during each lull, when his brain wandered a little that he saw Josiah, Theo, and Ayesha. He saw the image that, at the moment, was a blip but would soon sprout arms, legs, and a head. He saw Ayesha’s massive, pretty smile and the tears in her eyes when their obstetrician had confirmed that they were, indeed, going to be bringing home a newborn next year. 

It was why, two days before they left, they’d gone to city hall. Since they’d already been planning for the wedding, they’d had all the necessary documents and had already filed paperwork. Ayesha hadn’t wanted to do it because she’d felt like he was tipping the scales in favor of him not returning, but he wasn’t going to leave without her being his wife. When he returned, they could do the whole wedding shebang as planned. No one but the two of them knew anyhow, but he’d already changed her name in his phone.

Gage finished the prayer. 

Joel raised his head. 

Nerves were so high, the smell of tension rose and commingled with the salty pockets of air from the roaring Pacific. Next to him, Adrían mumbled in Spanish, kissed a rosary, and then tucked it inside his flak vest. They’d all done this, in some capacity, at least once in their lives. But this time, they were fighting for themselves. The freedom to simply be.

Inside his own vest, Joel had a picture Theo had drawn of the four of them, including the baby in Ayesha’s belly Theo was convinced was another boy. Considering he’d recently discovered Star Wars, Theo had also suggested that, if it was a boy, they call him Darth Baby.

Joel smiled.

“Lattimore’s got the right attitude,” Gage said. “Keep your eyes open, a smile on your face, and a scope on your six.”

They headed for the structure, which looked more like a medieval fortress than a modern-day compound, the entire thing hidden by boundless trees. Dark clouds converged the closer they came to the stone curtain wall that surrounded it. Soupy fog obscured the main tower, the highest point of the building. A multitude of nations’ flags flapped in the breeze, all at half-mast. 

“They know we’re here,” Yasir, the second Delta recruit alongside Makala, said. He pointed the nose of his rifle at the flags. 

As Central wasn’t its own country with an active military, Julien and Leon hadn’t been able to track their movements to see if Central had mobilized. Their group, in many ways, had entered the entire operation blind.

“The original plan stays,” Dez announced. “First, we take out the guard towers. Stay tight to the curtain wall, small formations.”

“What about friendlies?” Leon asked. “We could have some stragglers inside.”

“Tag ‘em if they give themselves up, but if you have a gun in your face, you take the first shot. Standard rules of engagement don’t apply here. They came for us first. If we don’t deal with them today, they’ll come for our families next.” Dez looked up at the sky. “Air support’s still about a half-hour out, so we do this quiet and clean until we have no other choice.”

They split into groups. 

Joel, Adrían, and Makala headed for the easternmost tower with Makala as their sharpshooter. From what they’d learned, and seen, she was almost as good as Gage at nicking targets from unfathomable distances. 

For all the tropical foliage around them, there were no noises—no birds, crickets, frogs. All that existed was the slap of the water against the rocky shore. The breeze brushing the waves. The crunch of their footsteps. Fourteen people breathing, simultaneously, in Joel’s ear to the rhythm of his very own heartbeat. 

“You see it?” Makala asked.

Joel looked up at the tower and spotted the outline of the first guard. The figure had the advantage of the shadows but had faced north, leaving one of their sides exposed. Through his scope, he spotted a patch on the person’s armband.

“I’ve seen that before,” he pointed out.

“The same black flag group they sent out with us when we were ordered to take out Alpha,” Adrían said. “Looks like Central was building a military.”

Joel tapped his earpiece. “Wolfe, we should anticipate military-grade weaponry. It appears we’re dealing with some kind of militia.”

Gage replied with a quick, “Copy,” and then relayed the message to the rest of the group.

Makala raised her rifle. “I’ve got him.”

She tugged on the trigger.

There was a grunt, then the outline disappeared.

Joel motioned them ahead, bringing up the rear until they came to the guard tower opening. They’d been unable to gather any intel on how many bodies could be inside. Ten, they could manage. One hundred was a suicide mission.

“In position,” Joel said. 

All the lights in the compound died. 

The generators went down. 

For all Central’s firepower and stealth, Julien was their biggest threat. They’d learned from Trevor, Lee Jeong, and Adrían that Ari had been a high-profile target because of her link to Julien. Central could track him, but they couldn’t stop him, and it was like watching someone rob your house blind with your feet stuck in cement.

The red light on the door switched off. 

It swung open, the metal creaking. 

Makala went in first. She’d been the leader of Team Delta, and her sex had been a major point of contention for the six-person squad. It was why they’d only recruited two from that unit. Delta never meshed. Alpha had meshed too well.

Joel clicked his tongue.

Makala dropped back, and Joel raised his rifle, taking out a gun-wielding figure seconds before the shooter would have lodged a bullet in her skull.

“Thanks,” she said, chest pushing high in her gear.

Adrían nodded. “Good ass shot.”

“Don’t worry, ‘Kala.” Joel sent her a wink. “I’ve always got you.”

They continued up the turret, backs to the walls, and found only one other guard inside. Adrían used a silent approach, taking them down with one swipe of a combat knife before they continued on. When they arrived at the top, Joel checked in with Dez. 

“Location secure.” He went to one of the tower openings and peered out. Sheets of rain now poured from those same dark clouds, the earthen smell wafting up from the ground below. “About three clicks east, I spot an outpost of some sort. Be advised.”

Everyone else checked in when their towers were clear. 

“You hear that?” Dez asked. “We’ve got a couple of birds in the sky.”

Just as they started to retreat, bullets pelted the rock at hundreds of rounds per second.

“Apaches?” Ishii, a recruit from Gamma, asked.

“Two,” Trevor answered. “Outfitted with autocannons, so stay sharp. One hit from those things, and we’re in pieces.”

The teams advanced to second position.

It was the oddest moment to think about Ayesha, but Joel could, all of a sudden, see her. He could hear her, smell her:

“Wait!” Ayesha hurried to the front door and held up a brown paper bag. “I packed your lunch.”
Joel laughed. “Eesh, I’m not exactly going to the office.”
“Please? Let me do this for you.”
God, his wife was so beautiful. Knowing their baby was inside her made him want to take her upstairs, reduce her cute ass cotton pajamas to shreds, and make love to her until the guys had to come in and drag him, naked, out of her body. 
“Thanks, Eesh.” He kissed her forehead. “You’re so damn sweet. Did you remember to add a treat? Specifically, one of the dozen cupcakes you made for my birthday that I’ve yet to taste, but there’s somehow only two left?”
The corners of her mouth tugged down and a rush of tears spilled onto her cheeks when she blinked, but she shook her head and continued. 
“It’s…it’s um…well, I threw some chicken on the gr…on the…”
“Eesh.” He dropped his bag and wrapped his arms around her. “I’m so sorry.”
“Damn it! I’m trying to do the whole ‘be strong for you’ thing.”
“You don’t have to do that. I think I’d be more worried if you were, like, tap-dancing and shit as I walked out.”
She laughed. It was a small laugh, wrapped in several layers of grief, but he still tucked it in his pocket for safekeeping. 
“I love you, Ayesha.”
Though she nodded, she still cried.

They entered the building from the side, sending in smoke canisters for cover before crossing the threshold. Central knew they were there, but that didn’t mean going in guns blazing. It was in the quiet that people stumbled, shifted, and breathed. 

There were three floors, one of them a basement that held two munitions rooms. Gage, Trevor, Ishii, Julien, Leon, and Dez headed down while Mike, Lee Jeong, and another recruit from Gamma, Gita, broke off to clear the third floor. Giorgio and Yasir, also from Gamma, joined Joel’s group. Emil, the last person and the youngest of them all, stayed behind to coordinate backup and keep an eye on the helicopters.

They entered the main hall, walking until they came to two massive stone archways in front of a wide staircase. Back in the day, the hall would bustle with junior recruits either in field training or working as analysts, moving between each floor. Some had even had coffee cups in hand, heads down, and faces in their phones. To think that, once upon a time, walking into this place was normal…

Covert and clandestine went out of the window as the sound of gunfire cracked the tense silence until it shattered. Joel and Giorgio’s group took cover behind the archways. They’d gotten Giorgio to carry a gun, and it wasn’t that he didn’t know how to use one. Guns simply didn’t give him the satisfaction of feeling metal pierce flesh.

“We’re taking rifle fire,” Joel said. “I’m going to send him in.”

“Send who in?” Makala asked.

Adrían ticked his head in Giorgio’s direction. 

“He’s going to need cover,” Joel instructed.

They moved to their posts.

“What’s he going to do?” Yasir asked.

Joel and Adrían raised their guns and returned fire. The rest of the team followed.

Giorgio kept to the shadows. Both he and Mike had honed their stealth out of necessity. Mike had remained hidden to protect himself and those he loved. Giorgio had been born in hiding, grew up silent, and had been groomed to be silent. It was only natural that he found comfort in obscurity.

Giorgio made an arc around the room.

One by one, black flags went down. If it wasn’t by a knife to the throat or lung, it was by a bullet while distracted and trying to anticipate Giorgio’s next location. 

The gunfire ceased.

Lee Jeong and Gita reappeared. 

“Third floor’s secure,” Gita said. 

Makala walked up to Giorgio. “Please teach me your ways.”

“We’ve heard about you,” Yasir added. “Good to know you’re on our side.”

Something rolled between them.

Joel looked down, focus catching on the egg-shaped object.

“I can’t believe we just did that,” Ayesha said, staring at her ring finger. 
Joel barely saw the red brick or shiny City Hall floors as he dragged her by the hand through the building and down the stairs.
“Wait, Joel, slow down. I can’t keep up with your long legs.”
He stopped, scooped her up, and burst through the front doors. A five-minute cab ride later, they were in front of the Sheraton Stockholm Hotel. He then swept her back up into his arms, and half her clothes were off by the time he lay her on the 500-thread count percale sheets on the king-sized bed in their suite.
“When I ask you what your name is,” he said, kissing his way down her body, “you better answer correctly.”
Her breath hitched when he planted a kiss in the middle of her panties.
“What’s your name, Eesh?”
“Ayesha.”
“Oh, you’re funny.” He tugged them off, lowered his head, and parted her with his tongue. “What’s your name, Ayesha?”
All she managed was a helpless, “Mrs. Lattimore,” as he spread her legs wide, and his mouth devoured the heat of her flesh.

Joel picked up the grenade and hoisted it down the tunnel hallway. 

They all hit the ground. 

When it exploded, the ground shook, and his heart beat like it was on the outside of his vest. His ears rang, and shrapnel from the explosion had made it far enough to slice him across the cheekbone.

“Everybody okay?” he asked. 

He counted seven responses.

Makala stood.

Joel started to push up, but then he noticed the front double-doors had opened at some point during the explosion. An Apache helicopter with a chain gun hovered in the distance.

“‘Kala, get back!”

Rounds tore from the helicopter. They’d left the last Gamma recruit, Emil, outside for this specific purpose. What the fuck was he doing if not taking out that tail rotor?

“Emil’s down,” Dez said, voice breaking through the chaos. “I’m headed out.”

“Does he need a medic?” Joel asked. Hoped. Prayed.

“No…no medic.”

“The second bird’s handled,” Mike informed them. “Fuck, man. Emil’s just a kid.”

Suddenly, Yasir cried out. 

It was Schrödinger’s cat—as long as Joel didn’t look, Makala was alive. She was still with them, laughing just as much as she was serious, her skin like Tahitian pearls. Those large, inquisitive eyes of hers, as long as he didn’t look, held life. Though the oldest in the group, she didn’t look a day past twenty.

The bullets became more erratic, ricocheting upward instead of bouncing off the stone. The Apache’s rotor, now on fire, sent it into a tailspin. 

Joel tried to avoid letting his gaze snap Yasir’s way but failed, and both sides of his throat came together, glued.

What if he’d called out to her sooner?

How could he not call out to her sooner?

The goal had been to avoid casualties, not minimize them. She’d had plans to go back to Nzumira to find her sisters. She’d wanted to travel the world, spend six months in Spain, and even fall in love if time, and interest, permitted it.

“You guys go,” Yasir said, the words swiping an ax through Joel’s dazed stupor. “I’m not leaving her.”

Again, Joel’s mind went to Ayesha, and thinking of her wasn’t as comforting as he’d expected it to be. It was as though his mind kept bringing her up, image clear as day because his brain knew it might be the final way he had left to see her.

“You okay?” Wide awake himself, Joel studied Ayesha’s silhouette in the dark as she sat up in the bed. “Is it the baby?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s not the baby. Just a dream.”
“About tomorrow?”
“Yeah.” She eased back down onto the mattress and buried herself against him. “I won’t be okay until you come back.”
“I don’t want you stressed in general and,” he drew her closer, “even more so with Darth Baby.”
“I won’t be okay until you come back, Joel,” she reiterated. “I’ll try to keep the stress down for Darth Baby’s sake, but until you’re in my arms again, I won’t be all right. You understand that, right? You know what you mean to me?”
He kissed her forehead. “Yes.”
“If I lose you too—”
Soft taps sounded on the door. 
They let the boys know it was okay to enter. 
Theo peeked in first, his hand up near his face, sleeve rubbing at his nose. The atmosphere in the house had been like this all week. They’d tried to joke and smile, but it had all been hollow.
“Mama?” Theo called, voice raspy and quivering. “Can we sleep with you and Daddy because he’s leaving tomorrow?”
Josiah appeared behind him.
“Jojo made me ask,” Theo added. “But we both want to sleep in here tonight. We’re really sad, and I keep trying to close my eyes and go to sleep, but I can’t stop crying.”
“Of course,” Ayesha answered, her voice taking on the same notes as Theo’s. “Come on up.”
They separated, giving the boys room to lie between them. Josiah lay on his back, quietly looking up at the ceiling. Even though it was dark, the blinds were drawn, so there was enough moonlight to twinkle off the tear running down the side of his face. Theo didn’t need the moonlight. He crawled onto Joel’s chest, his sniffles growing louder until his crying muffled every other sound in the room.
“It’s the last time,” Joel promised, right arm wrapped around Theo. He used his left to reach out and stroke Josiah’s hair, which made Josiah’s tears come faster. 
“We always miss you, you know,” Josiah whispered. “But it’s the hardest now.”
Joel read between the lines. As their father, what had happened to Curtis happening to him felt more salient all of a sudden.
“Can you stay?” Theo asked.
“He can’t stay, Theo,” Josiah replied. “Just like our uncles have his back, he has to have theirs. If all of them go, all of them come home.”
Josiah was right, but it didn’t make it any easier. Joel imagined that some version of this conversation was currently happening or had already happened in all the other households.
“I was gonna wait until Father’s Day to give you your gift,” Theo said, “but I’ll give it to you tomorrow. You can take it with you.”
Joel swallowed a golf-ball-sized knot of emotion. “Thank you, Theo.”
“I have a gift for Daddy too,” Ayesha said. “Can either of you guess what it is?”
Theo played with the sleeve of Joel’s T-shirt. “A hundred dollars.”
“Even more priceless.”
“An expensive watch?” Josiah asked.
“I’ll give you a hint. It’s in my belly.”
Theo’s eyes widened. “Three of Daddy’s birthday cupcakes?”
Joel narrowed his eyes at her, hiding a smile. “Three, you say?”
“A baby,” Ayesha quickly redirected. “Mama’s having a baby. You guys are gonna be big brothers.”
Josiah cheered and flung his arms around her, squeezing tight. Theo crawled over and did the same, then returned to his position in the soul of Joel’s ribcage.
“This is awesome,” Josiah said. “How about we think of names until we fall asleep?”
“It’s gonna be a boy,” Theo contended. “And we shall call him Darth Baby.”

“Lattimore.” Adrían grabbed Joel’s shoulder. “You still with me?”

They were outside and behind the building, but Joel didn’t remember walking. Had someone else gone down? Was it one of his guys? 

“Joel.”

Joel blinked. “Adrían, did anybody from—”

“No.”

“What about Omega?”

“No one there either.”

“But Emil and Makala—”

“Yes.”

Fuck.

“Compound’s secure,” Dez’s voice rang out. “All targets destroyed. Headed to rendezvous.”

“Air cover’s five minutes out,” Julien added. “And backup just landed onshore.”

Joel wanted to breathe, but he couldn’t. While backup meant troops and favors cashed in, they weren’t finished. The most interesting thing about Central was that, despite its name, there was no single head to cut off. Everyone had to be dealt with. Those who didn’t surrender would be neutralized.

“Joel,” Adrían called again. “You’re bleeding.”

It was a knick. Emil and Makala, what had happened to them was much worse. 

“You should head back.”

Joel hacked out a laugh. “And let you go on your own to get yourself killed? Fuck no.”

“Interesting turn of events. Now you care that I live?”

“My wife cares that you live,” Joel corrected. “Me, I don’t want you to die. Not like this. Put your hands on my wife again, and it’s a different story.”

Adrían managed a weak laugh.

All the groups met back up, sullen. Dez gave the next directive, and they headed into the woods, toward the outpost.

Blood trickled down the side of Trevor’s face. Gage grimaced each time he moved his right arm. Julien had a large red spot on the back of his arm that had already started to dry.

Dez held up a fist.

They stopped moving.

“They’ve got an M240,” Dez said, holding up a pair of goggles. “Nothing head-on, and watch for an ambush. Backup’s bringing up the rear. Hold fire until after Hercules makes hell rain from the sky.”

A C-130 Hercules gunship—courtesy of favors and friends in high places, cumulative disdain, and the cliquish nature of military alliances.

Enemy of my enemy.

They broke off into groups, Joel still with Adrían. Giorgio and Gage joined them. Dez, Trevor, Mike, and Ishii formed the second group. Leon, Julien, Gita, and Hyeok formed the last one.

Yasir remained inside with Makala.

“Wait!” Theo sprinted down the stairs, paper flapping in the wind of his speed. “You can’t go yet!”
Joel crouched. “Did I forget to put you in my pack? I think I have some room where you can still fit.”
Theo giggled. “No, I have to give you this.”
It was a drawing of a family of stick people, obviously them, with their house behind them. A golden sun blazed overhead, blue loops of clouds hovered in the sky, dark brown squiggles in the background was the lake around the house, and Theo had even drawn the line of trees around it. On the stick figure of Ayesha, he’d drawn a purple lightsaber on the belly. Orange Lattimore, curled on the yellow-green grass, had Zs above his head to indicate what the kitten did best—sleep.
Aww, hell.
Joel blinked back tears. “This is amazing, Theoceratops.”
“It’s for good luck,” Theo said, pointing to a sticker he’d placed in the upper right-hand corner. “See?”
Joel chuckled at the sticker of a panda holding a four-leaf clover with the words “good luck” in a bubble. He then gently folded the paper, tucked it into his pocket, and wrapped his arms around Theo for their seventh hug of the morning.
“I love you, Theo,” he said. “Never forget it.”
Theo shook his head. “I forget lots of things, but I’ll never ever in the world forget that.”

Engines roared overhead. Dez and Julien coordinated from the ground. Joel heard something about sabot rounds.

And then he was on one knee. 

It wasn’t a knick.

“Joel?” Adrían’s face appeared in front of his. “Fuck, I knew it.”

Pain. Hot licks of pain moved through him, so potent he couldn’t tell where he’d been hit. At least one bullet, or piece of shrapnel, had lodged itself in his back. The way it stung, it felt like hundreds. If he never got shot again, in his life, it would still be too soon.

“Gage…” He knew why he called out for Gage. Why it was Gage. “Gage, I’m hit.”

He saw Gage turn, saw the look in Gage’s eyes as he dashed over and crouched.

“Hit? What’s hit? Where?”

“Don’t know.”

“One to ten.”

“Nine approaching fourteen.”

If Joel wasn’t mistaken, Gage’s voice shook when he spoke. How bad was it if he got the big man’s voice to shake?

Giorgio tried to help Gage get Joel to lie on his stomach, but Adrían shoved them out of the way. Just as the first rounds from the gunship sounded, Adrían covered Joel’s body with his. Gage, on the ground, aimed his gun and pulled the trigger.

It all took a matter of seconds.

Seconds that felt like days.

“Adrían?” Joel tapped Adrían’s shoulder. Adrían, who was still on top of him. “You good, man?”

Tired.

He was so tired.

The weight on his chest disappeared as Hyeok and Gita helped Adrían up. At least, that was what he’d assumed until he saw Mike and Trevor hovering over Adrían, who was now on the ground. 

“Found ‘em,” Gage said, tearing at Joel’s vest with his knife. “One…two…three. One…two…fuck. I’ve got three shots, two exits. One of them’s bad. Fuck, they’re all bad.”

“What happened?” Joel asked.

“Sniper.” Gage’s voice was still uneven. Raspy. Thick. “Delgano saw him, last minute. He took a headshot. It’s why he covered you. If he hadn’t, it would have been you.”

The pressure in Joel’s chest changed, reminding him of the feeling of fullness just before a dive into a large body of water. Gage called his name, and it sounded far off, but Gage was right in front of him. Maybe it was Dez, but Dez was right in front of him too.

Then Theo called his name. 

Josiah.

Ayesha.

Ayesha released Joel’s hand finger by finger, and as the SUV pulled away, he watched her standing with Josiah and Theo on the front porch steps until the early morning darkness devoured the house. 
Already missing them, he leaned back in his seat and released the breath he’d held since he opened his eyes. Ayesha had tried to be strong for him, and he’d done the same. What he couldn’t tell her was that this one terrified him. Every op, every mission had come with its share of uncertainty and anxiety. But this was the one where the odds of coming home didn’t sit in the majority seat. 
“Eesh is pregnant,” he said, staring at the ceiling.
Excitement and rounds of congratulations filled the SUV’s interior cabin. 
Then silence.
“Could it happen again?” he asked. “Eesh deserves a happy ending, right?”
Gage squeezed his shoulder. “We all do. We all will. And we’ll come home, every last one of us. You’ll get married to one of the sweetest people I know, and you’ll have a gorgeous kid. The minute you start catastrophizing, Lattimore, is the minute you start giving up. Even just a little. Trust yourself. Trust us.”
Joel nodded. “You’re right.”
“Right before I left, Grey ran to the door, held out his arms,” Gage demonstrated, “and was like, ‘No. You not go.’ Fuck what Central thinks. I’m seeing my kid grow up. I already lost enough. I’m not losing anybody else and for damn sure no one in this car.”
“Can we talk about how our boy didn’t waste any time, though?” Mike asked, injecting them with some much-needed levity. “You must have that super sperm.”
Joel groaned. “Or, it was hard to keep my hands off my wif—fiancée. Ayesha’s got a little bit of freak in her, you know.”
Giorgio shook his head. “Nyet. I cannot see this with her. If this is true, you have corrupted her, brother.”
“Me? Look, I’m telling you guys. My wif—lady, she’s got a dark side.”
Dez yawned, stretching the muscles in his neck. “You two went and got married, didn’t you? You pulled a Dez and Larke?”
“What?” Joel frowned. “No. I’m just…eager.”
They eyed him.
“Doesn’t matter,” Julien said, eyes on the road. “I’ll just search marriage records, see what I find.”
Joel looked out the window, a grin on his face. “Yeah, you do that.”

“Can you tell Eesh for me?” Joel asked Gage, eyes closed.

“Tell her what, mate?”

“That I love her…and that I’m sorry.”

* * *

“Eesh. Ayesha, sweetie, you’re having a bad dream.”

Ayesha flung her eyes open and bolted upright in the bed. “Where’s Joel?”

“He’s not here,” Sydney said, voice as soft as a whisper. “They left, remember?”

“Where’s Theo and Josiah?”

“Right next to you.”

Ayesha looked over to find both boys wrapped up in the covers, fast asleep. Everything in her screamed to gather them in her arms, but they’d had such a hard time falling asleep, she fought the urge to move and possibly wake them.

“Did they call?”

Sydney shook her head. “Not yet.”

“Something’s not right, Sydney. I need to talk to Joel. Where’s Ari? She has to be able to get in touch with Julien—”

“Eesh, I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“Being a whole bitch to you.” Sydney’s round stomach poked out further as she sat on the bed. “Honestly, I wasn’t ready to accept that I’d been unreasonable, and Joel really was a great husband. I have Dmitri now, and I’m happy with him. I think I’ve belonged with him all along. But I should have never taken my frustration out on you, and I’m so sorry.”

Ayesha took Sydney’s hands in hers. “Sydney, I forgive you, okay? I figured that out a long time ago. I struggled myself with feeling like I had to hide my feelings for him from you, but…you and me, we’re fine. Some of it was probably those two boys throwing off your hormones anyhow.” 

Sydney smiled. “Thank you.”

“No problem.”

“As for Ari,” Sydney continued, “she’s with Mo. They’ve been trying to get in contact with the guys for the last hour, but there’s been nothing so far.”

Ayesha left the bed and paced near the door, hands clasped to stop them from shaking. She needed to calm down. Stress could be detrimental to Darth Baby.

“Sydney, he’s not okay,” she said, in part to herself. “Joel, he’s not okay. I can feel it.”

“Hey.” Tayler knocked on the door frame. “Eesh, how about we get some tea? Come on. We both need it.” 

Although Tayler’s voice was calm, Ayesha still picked up on the worry. 

She let Tayler lead her by the hand downstairs to the kitchen, but the minute Tayler opened the pantry and the smell of cinnamon wafted into her nostrils, she dashed to the nearest bathroom. Pregnancy and extreme anxiety were a worse mix than rum and vodka.

When she was done, she washed up and returned to the kitchen. Tayler, Xara, Larke, Mo, and Ari stood around the quartz-topped island. They looked up when they heard her footsteps, and Ayesha braced herself on the nearest wall.

“What?” she asked. “What is it?”

“I got a short message,” Ari said. “It wasn’t from Julien, but it’s someone who’s part of this whole thing. Someone he already vetted.”

Ayesha’s mind buzzed. It was like someone had released a horde of bees in her skull. 

“Just tell me.”

Each blink rolled a fresh set of tears down the hills of Ari’s cheeks. “It’s Joel and Adrían. And…it’s not good news, Eesh.”

* * *

Ten days.

It had taken ten days for her to get clearance to see Joel at the hospital where he’d been airlifted in Rochester, Minnesota. Even then, it wasn’t until she’d asked about Adrían that they gave her the travel information, and she’d wondered if it was because Joel still had Sydney listed as next-of-kin while Adrían probably had no one.

“What do you mean I still can’t see Joel Lattimore?” Ayesha asked, glaring at the woman in uniform blocking Joel’s room door. “I’m his wife.

“Joel Lattimore’s file doesn’t indicate he remarried, and you have to understand that, at this level of security clearance—”

“Copy of our marriage certificate.” Ayesha opened the folder she’d brought with her, nearly tearing it in half. “Picture of us with the rings. Picture of us with our boys and at the obstetrician for the one we have on the way.” 

“Miss Savea—”

“It’s officially Mrs. Lattimore now. Savea-Lattimore. Look,” she glanced at the golden plate attached just above the woman’s breast pocket, “Claudia, I got a message. A short, choppy message that said Joel was shot. That it was critical. That was almost two weeks ago. Please just let me see my husband.”

The woman stepped away from the door. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Thank you.” 

Ayesha gripped the handle, breaths short. They’d separated the teams, so she had no idea if any of the guys were even at this hospital. Disclosing their locations was prohibited. They’d gotten a little bit of information from Gage, but cell phones had been blocked at each location.

“Before you go in,” the woman added, “Adrían Delgano is also at this hospital.”

Ayesha looked back at her. “In a room or…?”

The morgue.

She couldn’t say it, but her brain finished the sentence.

“A room.”

Thank God.

“Why can I see him and had to jump through hoops for Joel?” 

“He’s cleared you, Mrs. Lattimore,” Claudia replied. “You’re the only person Adrían has ever put down in his file.”

Ayesha shoved the questions that statement had dredged up to the back of her mind and entered Joel’s room. 

She found him sitting on a sofa, turned slightly, looking out of the large hospital window. A pair of crutches lay nearby, propped against the sofa arm. Though he wore a hospital gown, sweatpants covered his legs down to his socks. He didn’t turn as he spoke.

“I’m fine, Claudia. The pain’s not back yet. Feels like fire, so you’ll be the first one I call when it starts creeping in again.”

She set down her purse and struggled to find her voice. 

“How bad is it?”

He turned his head, and his eyes went from matte to shimmering, his skin from paler than its usual olive to flushed red.

“Come here.” 

“Tell me where you were hurt first.”

“Ayesha. Come here.”

She went to the sofa but sat on the cushion farthest from him. Gage had told them about the multiple gunshot wounds, one of them an indirect hit from a helicopter cannon; the shrapnel that had lodged so deep in Joel’s skin, some would remain with him for the rest of his life; the first-degree burns on the right side of his face—the side he didn’t completely turn her way.

“I’m afraid to hurt you.” She scanned his body. “It’s not that I don’t want to touch you.”

“I don’t care. I’ve been without you for too long.”

“Did anyone tell you I was coming?”

“No, and I never got the chance to add your information to my dossier, so trying to get you here was covered in red tape.”

She inched closer.

“I need you, Eesh. Fuck, do I need you. Come here.”

From where she sat, she could finally see the burns. The area was red, blistered in some areas and peeling in others. Healing. Even if he’d burned down to the bone, she’d still love him. Still want him.

As tentatively as she could, she went to him. Gauze prevented the collar of the gown from laying flat, and he grimaced as he stretched, but her arms went around him. His arms went around her. 

“I missed you,” he said, kissing the top of her head. 

“I missed you too, Joel.”

“Are you okay? How are the boys? Darth Baby?”

She shifted, one of her hands brushing a spot on his back, and he groaned, muscles tensing. 

“How about we get in bed?” she asked. 

“Eesh, I—”

“You can put your head in my lap while I play with your hair.”

He agreed.

She helped him to the bed and, once he was situated, climbed in on the other side. Instead of having him come to her, she slid her legs underneath his head, and he draped a long arm across her while her fingers twirled and coiled his hair.

“Eesh, I’m ready to go home, be a father to our boys, love you, and live my life. I did college, the military, the FBI. I’m good. Never, Ayesha. I never want to be without you. I love you. The whole time I was there, all I could think about was you. And then, when I realized I was hit,” he took several shallow breaths, “panic set in. I slipped away, slipped into unconsciousness without knowing if I was going to survive, and the shit I worried about the most was never opening my eyes again and seeing your face.”

She cried.

It was all she did these days, it seemed. 

“This time was different, you know?” Tear droplets warmed the fabric of her leggings. “Makala, babe. You remember her? I saw her die. I saw her. And, I mean, I’ve seen death. I’ve seen it right in front of my own face, but if I’d just called out to her faster…”

Ayesha didn’t have to be there to know that, whatever had happened, most likely hadn’t been his fault, but this was part of the condition. It was part of post-traumatic stress. With her, he’d have a safe space to vent, and she’d support every endeavor it took to help him through it.

“I’m sorry, Joel.”

He squeezed her left thigh. “I can’t believe I’m touching you right now.”

“I’ll always be here.”

He tilted his head up, eyes wide as he looked at her. “Where’s Adrían? Did he make it?”

“As far as I know.” She frowned. “They didn’t tell you anything about him?”

“No, nothing. He saved my life, Eesh. That shot to the head, it was meant for me.”

She went stiff. “What? Why would he do that?”

“You know why.” 

Had Adrían loved her that much?

Joel pushed up her shirt and lay his hand on the lower part of her stomach. There wasn’t a bump yet, but he still loved cradling her there.

“If you know about Adrían being alive before I do, it’s because you asked and someone told you,” he pointed out. “Do you know what that means?”

She wasn’t sure.

She had an idea, but she wasn’t sure.

“He has you down as next-of-kin.”

“Joel, I—”

“It’s okay.” He kissed her stomach. “He doesn’t have anybody, and I’m fine that he at least has you. For what he did, hell, he’s got me too. At first, I thought he was crazy to still be hung up on you after so long, but when I thought about it, really thought about it, I realized that, shit, I’m right there with him.”

She bent, and he raised his head for their lips to briefly meet. Droplets of sweat, his clenching jaw, and a glazed look covering the whites of his eyes let her know his pain had returned. Despite his protests, she called for someone to re-up his medication. 

Eventually, the medication set him to sleep. She watched him a moment, listening to his breathing and hoping no more bullets found their way into her hubby’s body. Then, she kissed his cheek, slipped out of his room, and headed back to the corridor where a different woman waited.

“Adrían Delgano,” Ayesha said. “Can I see him?”

The woman pulled out a tablet, index finger moving over the surface. 

“Mrs. Savea?”

“I mean, it’s Savea-Lattimore now. I’m married to Joel, but Adrían’s an old friend. I think he might have put me down as an emergency contact sort of thing?”

“Oh, it’s more than that. He’s listed you down as his primary beneficiary. Should anything happen to him, you’d get his earnings.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Who knows?” The woman shrugged. “So many of the assets come from broken backgrounds. I’ve seen them leave everything to charities, teachers, childhood friends, ex-girlfriends. But, if you’re looking for Adrían, he’s in 1329. He’s not awake right now, but you’re authorized to see him.”

Ayesha nodded, headed down the hall, and stopped in front of Adrían’s room door. Adrían had, most likely, left her everything in the event of his death because he’d felt responsible for what happened to Curtis. He’d protected Joel and, because of Adrían, she still had the second love of her life. There was no version of “thank you” that sufficed.

She entered his room and went to his bedside. Hearing that he didn’t have anyone had been one thing, but seeing the empty room and knowing that no one was coming, was another.

“Adrían, did you really do what Joel said you did?” she quietly asked, moving his hair out of his face, mindful of the shaved side of his head that bore a fresh set of stitches. “Why would you do that?”

Machines breathed, beeped, and chimed in concert, but there was an absence of the sound of human voices. Human laughter. In a way, despite all the noises, it was still quiet.

“I can’t even thank you. I wouldn’t know how to. Even before Joel, you’d set it up so that me and the boys would have been well taken care of in the event of your passing. You’ve been watching over me for God knows how long. Adrían, I hope you can somehow hear this. I love you.”

It wasn’t the same love he felt for her, nor was it the love she’d felt for Curtis and now felt for Joel, but love didn’t always have to be exceptional. For what he’d done for her, the baby, Josiah, Theo, and the rest of the family…she loved him.

“When you’re better, come to Sweden. If not for the wedding, come see Darth Baby. It’ll need a godfather, and you saving my husband’s life tells me you’d make a great one.”

The room door opened. Ayesha looked back, hopeful, but it was just a doctor.

“I didn’t realize someone was in here,” he said, stopping short. “I’m Dr. Balam, Mr. Delgano’s neurosurgeon.”

She turned back to Adrían. “Will he be okay?”

“I’m optimistic. He’s not out of the woods, but his intracranial pressure,” Dr. Balam tapped his own skull, “has significantly improved. He’s been stable for the last twelve hours. Let’s just say, the wound looked worse than the actual injury.”

“And, right now, who are you updating on his condition?”

“No one right now.”

“Can you start updating me?” she asked. “I’m Ayesha.”

The doctor’s face brightened. “Oh, that’s wonderful. Thank you for coming. I was worried because had no one, so I’ve been checking up on him more than usual. Reminds me of my son, and it broke my heart to see him alone in here.”

Ayesha leaned down, brushed a kiss over Adrían’s cheekbone, and then stepped away from the bed. 

“Thank you, Dr. Balam.”

“Will you come back sometime before you leave? I saw that you’re Mr. Lattimore’s wife, but…patients do better when they have support from friends and loved ones.”

She nodded. “I’ll be by a few times a day until Joel’s cleared to go home. Then, once he’s discharged, I’d like to take him with us.”

Dr. Balam’s face shined even brighter.

Joel was still asleep when she returned to his room, and one of his nurses let her know he would likely be that way for the rest of the night. So she ate, watched TV, and showered in the adjoining bathroom. 

Instead of climbing in next to him, she found that the sofa in the room was a pullout, settled in, and read until she fell asleep. In the middle of the night, warmth wrapped around her from behind and lips met her left ear.

“Joel, you can’t—”

“Don’t argue with me,” he whispered. “I want to hold my wife.”

“It won’t be this way forever, you know? We’ll eventually get to a point where we won’t be all lovey-dovey all the time.”

“Woman, I’ll be holding you in our grave.”

She laughed. 

He groaned.

“Joel, you need to be in bed,” she gently admonished.

“Come with me.”

He wanted to hold her, so she let him hold her. Their lips met, each touch tender with a different kind of longing. Inside each kiss hid the pain of uncertainty when they’d been apart, and the relief that they were together again.

“Joel, how would you feel if Adrían was released into our care after he’s discharged?”

Silence dragged on. Then she realized he’d fallen asleep.

“Joel?”

“Hmm?” He yawned. “I could have sworn I answered. But, of course, Ayesha. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Are you sure?”

“Now, I’m changing my mind.”

She air-swatted him.

“Joking,” he clarified. 

“Thank you, Mr. Lattimore. I love you.”

“And I love you too, Mrs. Lattimore.”

* * *

A few weeks later

Since Ayesha didn’t have a father to dance with, his father had stepped in, and Joel smiled watching Archie Lattimore twirl his bride around the room. Whatever Archie told her made her laugh until she cried, and Joel could only imagine. The man was a story vault having spent so much time in the public school system.

He’d pushed himself through rigorous physical therapy, all to be able to walk her down the aisle. Then, when their first dance as “official” husband and wife ended, she’d forced him to take a break at the table with the rest of the groomsmen. 

After the wedding, they were picking Adrían up from Minnesota. With Sydney now spending all her time at Dmitri’s, they had a vacant house where they figured Adrían would be more comfortable. Tayler had finally finished all her requirements to practice medicine in the country, and she’d volunteered to be his physician for his stay. They’d also hired a couple of live-in nurses, a housekeeper…whatever assistance Adrían would need. Joel and the guys already planned to be by every day to see him. Right now, Adrían thought he didn’t have anyone, but because of what the man had done, he was now family.

Trevor and Lee Jeong had already promised to be by when they were done recuperating from the injuries they’d picked up after having to infiltrate the outpost while Joel had been on a Medevac flying over the Pacific.

“Hey, I have a question,” Ant said, looking around the table. “Y’all ever noticed who your wives are?”

Joel and Mike exchanged glances.

“What do you mean?” Mike asked.

Ant motioned to the other table. “All y’all married sistahs.”

Joel frowned. “What?”

“Yeah. Like…all of y’all.”

Joel shifted his gaze to where Val, Xara, Larke, Ari, Tayler, and Mo sat. 

Gage cocked his head to the side. “Hmm…”

Mike grinned. “Well, shit.”

“You mean, none of you ever noticed before?” Ant asked. “It’s the first thing I picked up on. I mean, I’m for damn sure not knocking it. I get it. Trust me…I do. Y’all see what I’m working with.”

“Well, me and Giorgio married twins,” Julien offered.

“But you didn’t meet Ari and Mo together,” Dez countered. “You two met them separately. And the reason Julien even met Ari didn’t have to do with Mo. It had to do with Gage.”

“Actually, I met Eesh because of Gage,” Joel said. “Damn, Cupid.”

Gage shook his head, laughing. 

Archie twirled and dipped Ayesha, and Joel almost headed over to have a “discussion” with his father. She’d wanted Archie to pick the song, so Archie had chosen Speechless by Dan + Shay. As the lyrics played, Joel basked in the sense of contentment his heart had been searching for, for all its existence.

“So, what now?” Ant asked. “From what I understand, y’all are out of the game, but it can’t be easy to turn that switch off.”

Julien crooked his fingers. “We ‘technically’ have a few dozen ‘companies’ we could ‘run.’”

“I can’t see any of you in a boardroom.”

Joel shrugged. “I don’t know. Me, I’ve got fatherhood to settle into. Maybe I’ll buy a fishing boat. Grow a long-ass beard.”

“I will come with you,” Giorgio chimed in.

Tayler turned around, made a face at Gage, and Gage smiled back, his eyes adding at least a dozen more lights to the venue. 

“I don’t know,” he said. “But, whatever it is, I can’t wait for it if I get to spend that time with that girl right there.”

The song ended.

Archie and Ayesha hugged, then she signaled to the DJ. When the next song came on, she turned to Joel. Goosebumps pricked his skin.

After the first verse, she motioned to him. 

“I don’t want to bore you with my trouble

But there’s somethin’ bout your love

That makes me weak and knocks me off my feet…”

He stood, walked over, and wrapped his arms around her. This close, he could hear as she sang to him, and only him. It was worth all the stiffness or soreness that, at least, got better every day.

“I don’t wanna bore you with it

Oh but I love you, I love you, I love you

I don’t wanna bore you with it

Oh but I love, I love you, I love you…”

And Ayesha was wrong.

Even after their wedding, after they’d settled into their life together, he’d still wanted to hold her. He still kissed her every morning, every night. They lay next to each other, his head on the pillow next to hers, as their child grew and developed.

And Ayesha was so wrong because once their daughter was born and Joel held her for the first time, his love for Ayesha exploded. Someone had attached it to the world’s largest slingshot and flicked it off into space, where it would float in the infinite expanse of the universe. He’d never had someone love him the way she did, and he was fine with spending a lifetime trying to match what she showed him each and every single day.

With Central dismantled, they could all finally breathe. The other teams’ surviving members had disbanded. Adrían had stayed for a few months and then headed out to meet up with Lee Jeong and Trevor, promising to be back. All three promised to come for frequent visits, their first one being the birth of Tiare Lattimore.

Restlessness and weariness had settled in all their bones, but they’d found outlets to cope. Mike now climbed with ropes, and he and Xara had cordoned off and barricaded nearly everything in their house since Mikey had inherited the climbing trait from his father. When Mike wasn’t climbing, he was an aerospace engineering and aviation consultant.

Gage and Dez joined a local hockey league, and the penalty box was like a second home for them. They also coached a youth soccer team, prepping for when Grey and Monroe were old enough. Julien, when he wasn’t developing software, traveled the globe with Ari, Thandie, and Ty.

Giorgio and Joel did get their boat, but to keep giving Josiah MMA lessons, Joel had to compromise and not get the long-ass beard. When they weren’t fishing, Giorgio worked on expanding his car collection. Joel enjoyed his life as a father to an adolescent, a baby, and a hurricane, all who he loved more than life.

Joel, with Tiare in tow, entered the house and found Ayesha in the kitchen. 

“Hey, pretty girl!” Ayesha greeted. 

Tiare smiled, kicking her legs, and Joel completely understood. He had to tamp down a similar urge when it came to his wife.

Everything Tiare did was cause for fanfare, especially for Josiah and Theo. When they came home from school, they played with her before doing homework. These days, since crawling for Tiare was right around the corner, they joined her for tummy time. 

Joel faked a pout. “I’m here too.”

“Hmm?” Ayesha glanced up at him. “Oh, hey J…J…Jonah? What’s your name again?”

“Ha…ha.”

Grinning, she pushed onto her toes at the same time he leaned down, their lips briefly touching. She then planted a loud kiss on their daughter’s cheek and reached up to mess with his hair. 

That.

Ayesha still did that.

Even if it was all she did for the rest of their lives, he would be happy. Funny enough, he’d caught his mother tousling his father’s hair several times, and with the way his father had blushed, Joel had learned where he’d gotten the obsession.

“I told you you’d be a dad one day,” Ayesha said. “You didn’t believe me.” 

“So that’s why you seduced me?” he asked. “For clout?”

“Yes.” She walked past him, headed for the door, and he followed. “I fell in love with you and had your kid just so I could prove you wrong one day.”

Outside was a cacophony of youthful excitement, music, a spirited game of Dominoes, and Theo as he raced over.

“Mama! Daddy! Jojo’s friend, Kye, is here. We’re gonna skate with them!” Theo pointed to his three friends from school who’d come to hang out. “Me and my friends, we’re gonna all skate!”

Ayesha crouched and pulled him into a hug. “That’s wonderful, sweetheart. I’m happy for you.”

“Thank you, Mama.”

She released him, and he sprinted over to where his friends stood enraptured, watching Josiah and Kye demonstrate different tricks on their skateboards.

Joel raised an eyebrow. “Um, Eesh? Did we think this all the way through?”

“You’re right.” Ayesha squeezed her forehead and hurried after Theo. “Theo? Where’d you put your safety gear?”

Joel bounced Tiare. “I think you’ll like it here, sweetheart. It’s a little crazy, and none of your uncles, or your father come to think of it, are exactly stable, but you’ll like it here. We take care of each other.”

Tiare blew a bubble in response.

Later that night, when all the kids were asleep, Joel reclined on the sofa while Ayesha stretched her legs across his lap, the house cozy and quiet. 

It felt exactly like a house should. 

Love and happiness didn’t have to be frenetic or chaotic. Love was knowing his wife’s favorite ice cream and her knowing what to order for him, without him telling her, when neither of them felt like cooking. It was helping his sons with their homework, taking endless pictures of them and their sister, and searching all of Europe for a bow that perfectly matched his daughter’s outfit. It was nights like this, the lights off, and binge-watching Walking Dead reruns with the indisputable love of his fucking life.

“Joel, would you bite through a man’s neck to save me?” Ayesha asked.

“I don’t know.” He switched positions, angling his body over hers. “Bite him where, now?”

She tapped the side of her neck. “Here.”

“Here?” He licked the spot. “Like that?”

“What about his nipple?” She pushed her nightgown straps down off her shoulders, baring her own ebony nipples to him. 

“I’d kill for you, Eesh.”

She grinned. “Come here, hot stuff.”

Her fingers slipped into his nape. 

Their mouths came together, their hands pulling at clothes. 

Joel made love to his wife, losing himself in the eyes he’d loved for much longer than he’d realized and inside the body that would always be home, over and over, until they were a spent knot of limbs and sweaty body parts.

A cry came through the baby monitor, and they looked at each other before they both burst out in laughter.

“At least she waits until we’re done,” Ayesha said. 

He brushed his mouth over hers. “She could have taught her brother a thing or two.”

“I can’t believe Theo’s a big brother.”

“Give me a second, and he can be one all over again.”

Another cry sounded. 

“Let’s go up there before she walks down here and comes looking for us,” he said.

Ayesha eased away from him, fixing her clothes. “If our five-month-old walked down here right now, she could have the house.”

“You keep trying to give away our house.” He pulled his shirt on over his head, adjusted his underwear and pajama bottoms. “You said the same thing about if Gage and Tay bring one of those Huntsman spiders back from their visit to Australia next month.”

“No, I said I’d burn the house down.”

“You don’t trust me to handle it?”

“How quickly we forget the baby spider incident in the laundry room.”

“For the last time, Eesh,” he kissed her forehead, “I screamed because I stepped on a Lego.”

“That then disappeared inside your foot?”

“Exactly.”

She laughed. 

They cleaned up, headed upstairs, and disappeared inside the nursery.


Thank you for reading.

xoxo, 

Alex 



Tomorrow

Prince of the Brotherhood





Thank you, so much, for reading along.

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Episode 12: One Last Thing, Before I Go…

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

One Last Thing, Before I Go…

“I don’t know what I’m doing here.” Joel dropped into a crouch in front of an engraved headstone with the name Curtis Iokua Savea etched across the front. “Actually, that’s not true. I know why I’m here.”

He’d told Ayesha that he was flying back out to the U.S. to tie up loose ends, but he’d needed to come here before he went back to Sweden. He’d felt compelled to come here, and it wasn’t because he felt it necessary to ask for Curtis’ “permission” to marry Ayesha; Curtis was simply the catalyst that had resulted in Ayesha being close to the team. Curtis was the reason amazing kids like Theo and Josiah were now part of his life. 

“I love the boys, and when I say that, I mean that they’re my boys now, too. My sons. I’d do anything for them. With their permission, and Ayesha’s, I’d like to adopt them. It’ll be up to them if they want to take any part of my name. I won’t force anything on them, but I hope it’s okay with you that I call them my sons, and they refer to me as their father now as well.”

A strong gust of wind blew.

“And Ayesha…God, Ayesha.” Joel smiled. “The decision you made to save the guys’ lives knowing that you had someone like her you needed to come home to? I couldn’t do it. Curtis, you are a noble, peaceful soul that I’ll probably revere for a lifetime because I know, in my heart, I couldn’t so valiantly make the decision to leave them. I’m barely okay on this trip, knowing I’d have to be away for a couple of weeks. All I want to do these days is be with them. On top of that, because of you, I have the men who are now my brothers. Thank you, Curtis. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, your family, the guys and their families, and the rest of the world.”

Joel sat on the grass, knees bent with his forearms perched on top, facing the shadowy outline of the West Maui mountains. He smiled as he thought about Theo and Josiah waking him and Ayesha up on weekend mornings. Josiah would lightly knock on the door and then Theo, after they said it was okay to come in, would rush in and launch himself onto the bed.

“I bought a ring, by the way. Xara designed it. You’ve met her, right?” He waited a beat, giving Curtis a chance to “answer,” and a second strong gust of wind blew, prompting a tango among the palm trees overhead. “Me, Eesh, and the boys are taking a trip to Malmö soon. I’m proposing to her there. The boys already know—they helped me plan the whole thing. My angle is to propose to her on the beach on the last night there, but I keep getting this feeling in my gut that I’m not going to be able to wait. What do you think?”

He eased onto his back, on the grass, his hands tucked behind his head.

“I hope I have your blessing to take care of your family, and I’ll take care of them, Curtis. I swear to God, they’ll never want or need anything as long as I’m around, and I plan to stay around. And, I’ll be honest…I’m okay with my marriage falling apart now. Back then?” He flicked his wrist. “I wanted to kill myself. Syd closed a fist around my heart, ripped it from my chest, and dragged it behind her for a while, but she did what she had to do. I see how hard it’s been, and that she had to have done a lot of thinking to come to that conclusion, but fate conspired to break us up because,” his throat drew itself into a knot, “I think it’s only now that I’ve found the love of my life. The girl of my dreams. I loved Syd, yes. I loved her hard, but we were familiar. I was supposed to love her, so I did. Eesh…she’s just perfect for me. I loved her even when I told myself I wasn’t supposed to, and I never want to stop feeling this way about her.”

The air around him went from salty to earthy, the fresh scent of pending rain.

“She’s so damn gorgeous too. Xara said she wants to design Eesh’s wedding dress, but Eesh hasn’t even said yes. She still could say no, that it’s too soon. What do you think?”

The blue sky darkened. 

Gray clouds billowed in.

“You’re right. I just have to bite the bullet and do it. Even if she turns me down, Eesh is so sweet, she’ll do it in a way that it’ll take me a few days to realize the answer was no.” He laughed. “I love her, Curtis. I’ve got big shoes to fill, but I love her. I love her. Like,” he gripped his chest, “she’s just in here. She’s…mine. My woman. Fuck, I love her.”

Thunder sounded from somewhere far off.

“You’re right, you’re right. You probably have shit to do, and I’m here just taking up all your time.” He stood and dusted off his clothes. “Curtis, you know where to find me if I start fucking up. And…find me. Send down your trident and just…chuck it in my spine if I hurt her. I’ll never do it intentionally, and I know how blessed I have to be to have the life I have, live the life I’ve lived, and for fate to be like, ‘Here’s the perfect woman. You deserve her.’ Then, ‘Oh, and what’s that? The perfect kids too?’”

Joel bowed his head and said a quick prayer before taking a step back.

“You can rest easy now, brother. Rest easy.”

* * *

Less than a dozen people were still out that evening, the sun’s bright-orange descent behind the horizon creating a moving backdrop at Stapelbäddsparken Skatepark in Malmö. Joel sat watching the activity from a spectator spot just above the concrete course. Theo was asleep and draped all over him after swearing, as they’d walked and biked from parks to outdoor pools to diners, that he wasn’t sleepy. Theo’s eyelids had started drooping in the middle of the burgers and fries they’d had right before they went to Malmö Reptile Center, and after his excitement over holding a bearded dragon and not holding, at all, an iguana, sleep finally took over. 

Josiah watched from a little closer, having made friends with one of the younger skateboarders in the thirty minutes that they’d been there. They’d left Ayesha back at the vacation penthouse apartment they’d booked for two weeks, giving her time alone since she’d had a lack of it for essentially twelve years. And, with school out, Theo’s energy levels were at maximum level.

“Hey, Dad?” Josiah called, racing over to him. “Do you mind if Kye teaches me some skateboarding basics? I’ll be real careful.”

It would be interesting to watch that change over time, Josiah assuring that an activity was safe to convince either or both parents to let him do it. Most of Ayesha’s concerns with Josiah getting hurt came from her belief that she needed to protect the boys from her “terrible mothering,” but he was helping her through that. Bumps and bruises were part of life, and they didn’t exactly end in childhood. Bumps and bruises in childhood often helped the ones in adulthood hurt less or heal faster.

Joel nodded. “Go for it.”

“It’ll be like,” Josiah scrunched his nose, looked up at the sky, “another half-hour, and then we can go see Mama.”

In the last couple of months, not only had he started calling Ayesha “Mama” again, he corrected Theo whenever Theo said “Josiah” instead of “Jojo.” If Joel had to guess, it was because he no longer had to sustain the role of “man of the house,” and it felt safe to be a kid with a little brother again. 

“You’ve got this, Josiah,” Joel reassured. 

Josiah grinned. “Thanks, Dad.”

It wouldn’t give him chills every single time Josiah referred to him as his father, but he knew it would give him chills, at some point, for the rest of his life.

Kye, who was three months older than Josiah, spent the half-hour teaching Josiah how to push on the board to build momentum and keep his balance. Closer to the end of the session, Josiah learned how to turn using his body weight, and he rejoiced like he’d learned how to do a three-sixty in midair. 

When they were finished, Josiah jogged over, chest heaving and sweat sprinkled on his smiling face. “Do you think we can convince Mama to let me get a skateboard?” he asked. 

Joel stood and groaned when Theo’s sleep-weight dropped onto his chest. “It’ll be a hard sell, especially with the MMA thing.”

“Between your job and me wanting to do all these things, Mama might have a heart attack.”

“She might.” Joel situated Theo to where it would be easier to walk with him and breathe at the same time. Although small for his age, Theo’s weight tripled while sleeping. “But I’ll be there with you every step of the way, so that might help some.”

“Did you skateboard as a kid, Dad?”

Chills.

“A little bit. Wanted to do Vans Park.”

“What happened?”

“I broke my tibia.”

They started on the short walk back to the apartment.

“How about we don’t tell Mama that part?” Josiah asked.

Joel glanced at him. “Tell her what part?”

Grinning, they bumped fists.

* * *

Ayesha looked up from her novel when her three favorite guys walked into the bedroom. Theo was fast asleep, draped all over Joel, and Josiah appeared to be finishing a story. Although the apartment had three bedrooms, Theo slept in the same room as Josiah, and it had warmed her heart to overhear them the other night, Josiah reading to Theo with Theo helping where he could.

“And if I wrote it, I don’t think I’d make him Poseidon’s son,” Josiah said. “I’d stay traditional and keep it as Zeus.”

Joel gently lay Theo on the bed and then flopped down next to him. 

“You thinking about writing a book, sweetie?” Ayesha asked.

Josiah crept onto the king-sized mattress. “I don’t know. Do you think I could?”

“It would mean fewer bruises than if you did MMA.”

“I can do both.”

It was worth a shot.

Every time she thought about Josiah fighting, she saw blood, spit, and broken fingers.

He cuddled up next to her, so she closed the book and drew him close. Josiah hadn’t been a cuddler for a long time. She’d assumed it was because of his age, and that he’d wanted to give Theo space to be loved on since Theo had needed the extra attention never knowing his father. Now, with him calling her Mama and cuddling or wrapping his arms around her all the time, she wondered if it had more to do with Joel. With Joel in their lives, maybe Josiah felt like he could finally be a kid again.

“By the way, Joel?” she called.

“Yeah, babe?” 

His voice sounded off, but she figured he was just tired. He had spent an entire day with Josiah and Theo. Even the most active person would be run ragged having to entertain Theo alone.

“Did Theo hold any of the reptiles?” 

“One.” He chuckled. “A teeny, tiny baby bearded dragon. He wouldn’t go within five feet of the iguana.”

“The same iguana he wanted to bring into our house?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Josiah took one of her hands in his. “What if we got a cat? Nobody in the family has a cat yet, and I feel like you’d like a cat better, Mama, because they’re low maintenance.”

It wasn’t a bad idea, and the pet talk wouldn’t be swept from the table any time soon. She hadn’t grown up with a pet, but she’d played with the strays that lived in her old neighborhood.  

“Me and Joel, we’ll talk about it,” she promised. “But a cat’s not a bad idea.”

Josiah tapped her fingers like piano keys. “I think once Theo sees how fluffy they are anyhow, he’ll be okay with it.”

On cue, Theo let out a gentle snore.

Joel was quiet, so she looked back over her shoulder expecting to find him asleep. Instead, he was on his back, staring at the ceiling. She’d enjoyed the time alone, but she’d missed the hell out of them. It wasn’t something she’d ever confess to them, however, because they’d never let her have alone time ever again.

“You okay, Mr. Lattimore?” 

He turned his head, and his smile made her stomach clench. “I’m okay.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” His blinks slowed. “I’m sure.”

With all the energy he’d let her accumulate staying behind while he went out with the boys, she hoped he knew she’d be wearing him out the minute the boys were in bed. That they had to be quiet—she bit pillows, his shoulders, and he released muffled groans on panty gags—only made their play more erotic and interesting.

“Mama?” 

Josiah might not call her Mama forever, and it wouldn’t give her chills every single time, but she knew it would give her chills, at some point, for the rest of her life.

“Yes, Josiah?”

“We should do this more often, right? And not only take trips but hang out just like this, together.”

“I agree.”

He sighed. “I just wish Theo was awake, you know? I mean, he’s really tired, so I don’t want to wake him up, but it would be nice if he could be awake for it.”

“Awake for what?”

“Joel’s question.”

She felt the shift.

There was no way to explain it, but it was that shift that made her look back at Joel again who, she realized, had been staring at her the entire time. 

Maybe for a while. 

“I had a plan,” Joel said, turning to reach inside the bedside table. “And I’d planned to stick to that plan, but all that went out the window on the way back. This is the perfect time because I’m not only asking for you to be my wife, Eesh. I’m asking for you to be my wife, Josiah and Theo my sons, and a life like this, with us together, forever.”

He presented what he’d removed from the bedside table, and Ayesha knew it was a ring box. Yet, she still held her breath as he opened it to reveal a gorgeous yellow diamond solitaire. A familiar yellow diamond solitaire that happened to look exactly like the ring she’d helped Xara design for a “client.”

Josiah left her arms, opening up space for Joel to walk around and kneel at her side of the bed. Ayesha’s eyes darted from Joel’s to the ring, both more beautiful than she could have ever imagined. 

“Are you serious right now?” she asked. “Do you…you really…Joel, are you serious right now?”

“I love you.” He took her hand. “I love us. All four of us and whatever the future might bring. I’m exactly where I belong when I’m with you. Ayesha…baby, I met you when I was stumbling and afraid to fall because I didn’t think I’d ever find my way back up. But to fall like this? God, baby, to fall like this…”

Tears blurred his eyes, his hair, and the contours of his face. 

“Will you be my wife, Eesh? Will you marry m—”

“Yes!” She nodded, wiping her eyes. “I will, Joel. Yes. I love you.”

He plucked the ring from the box and slipped it onto her finger.

From behind, Josiah squeezed her.

It was all she did for the rest of the evening, stare at the ring and hold back tears, most of the time unsuccessful. Theo had woken up, very briefly, to ask if Joel “asked the question” or “got too scared,” and they’d reassured him that Joel had. He’d then let out a tired cheer before drifting back to sleep. Not long after, Josiah had joined him, both wiped out from their long day.

“Did today really happen?” Ayesha glanced at the bathroom mirror as though expecting her reflection to chime in. “Am I really wearing this right now? And it’s so beautiful! Ah! I’m going to be Joel Lattimore’s wife. I can’t believe—”

“Who are you talking to, Eesh?”

She nearly leaped out of her skin when Joel’s face appeared in the mirror. 

“No one. Well, myself, but…I was just thinking out loud.”

He walked up and wrapped his arms around her from behind. “You really like it?”

“I love it, Joel. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect.”

“You’re beautiful.” He kissed the side of her neck. “You’re perfect.”

“I can’t believe we’re actually…I can’t even say it.”

“I know, right?”

She turned around in his arms and lay her palms on his chest. “I’ve thought about this. I’ve thought about it for a long time. When things started changing between us, it’s where my mind immediately went because the way our relationship developed, all it would have taken was a dash of romance for me to see a future with you. I just never thought it would happen. It’s like when you’re sixteen and dreaming you’ll end up married to your celebrity crush.”

Laughing, he kissed her forehead. “That’s a lot more flattering than I think you realize it is.”

“Are you worried?”

He searched her face. “No.”

“Me, either.” She smiled, head shaking. “I’m not worried at all.”

“I’d marry you tonight if I could.”

“Really?”

He held up his right hand. “Scout’s honor.”

She grabbed the same hand and dragged him into the bedroom, pulling so hard he nearly stumbled. Her whole body had already been hot and tight and aching, but then he had to go and say something like that. It had immediately shifted her focus from the ring to riding him from Sweden all the way to Jakarta.

It didn’t take long for them both to be naked, his back pressed against the headboard while she rode him hard, his pupils obscuring his irises until only a bit of blue peeked. With each roll of her hips, each rise and fall of her body, he let out a curse and gripped her hip until the skin there ached. His thumb on the opposite hand played between her legs, and he let his mouth come close to her breasts without touching them with each connection of their bodies. She was close, so close, and if he so much as—

His mouth covered her left breast.

The heat of his mouth triggered heat to pull in her belly.

Waves upon waves of pleasurable sensations burst, cascading throughout her body, and she leaned forward, biting his shoulder to suppress the cries in her throat. Joel grabbed both of her hips and drove into her from below, and it wasn’t long before he was coming, groaning, also muffled from the panties she’d shoved in his mouth.

After her shaking and pulsing subsided, she leaned back, pulled the panties from his mouth, and wrapped her arms around him again, squeezing tight. 

“I can’t wait to be your wife, Joel.”

She would keep telling him so until he was sick of hearing it, but she got the sense that day would never come.

* * *

“Why did they come all the way out here?” Lavigne asked, staring at the house only a few meters away from where they stood.

“Family trip,” Adrían offered, grimacing. 

“And you think it will be so simple to take the boy?”

“Why the fuck do you think I’m here with you?” Adrían touched his chest. “I don’t trust you, so I’ll take Theo with me once we’re done. Jesus, I can’t wait for this shit to be over so I don’t have to see your fucking face ever again.”

Though Lavigne laughed, there was a sneer on his face as he tossed out his cigarette. “How do we get in?”

“Window.”

There were several windows in the house with the lights still on, but from what Adrían had learned while listening to Ayesha’s conversations was that Theo zoomed so much during the daytime, it was a miracle if he wasn’t asleep by eight.

Lavigne started forward and Adrían followed, their footsteps light through the wooded area, a crescent moon their barely there guide. The house looked like it belonged in the French countryside with its stone exterior, shuttered windows, and pitched roofline. Once upon a time, he’d dreamed about taking Ayesha to France. Specifically, he’d wanted to take her to Provence. It was where he’d bought the only house he now owned, a stone architectural beauty in a medieval village in Tourrette-Levens. After all of this shit was over, he planned to retire there. There wasn’t anything left for him in Rio without his mother. 

As they neared the house, Lavigne’s pace increased. The stench of excitement wafted from the man, and it took everything in Adrían’s power not to reach into his leather jacket, pull out his semiautomatic, and shoot Lavigne in the back of the head. Excited to kidnap a child? And it was a small child at that. Theo was one of the smallest children, if not the smallest, in his entire grade while it was the opposite for his brother.

Lavigne made quick work of breaking the lock and nudging the window open. Before climbing in, he searched the darkness, but Adrían let him know with a shake of the head that there was no danger in sight. At least, not out there.

Once Lavigne was inside, Adrían climbed in after him and shut the window. The lights came on and, standing in the middle of the room, was Joel Lattimore and that inhuman comrade of his with the eyebrow scar.

“W-what is this?” Lavigne looked back at Adrían. “Did they know we were coming?”

“They knew you were coming.” Adrían extended an arm. “One down, one to go. The quicker we do this, the quicker we can get the other thing done. Hyeok should be finishing up on his end shortly.”

Joel nodded. The man next to him, Giorgio Pozza, didn’t so much as blink.

Adrían tipped an imaginary hat. “I bid you adiós, gentlemen.”

With that, he crept back through the window.

Before he checked back in, he had one more stop to make, and he was glad she’d agreed to it. There was something he needed to tell her, and it was time for him to clear his conscience. Now that he knew what he knew, it didn’t surprise him that Ayesha had agreed to have them meet at the actual apartment where she and Joel were staying while in Malmö. He wouldn’t ever hurt her, and even if he lost his mind to grief and loneliness and tried to, he knew Joel would hunt him down and skin him like a hunter taking a blade to a wild animal’s hide. Had the shoe been on the other foot, he would have done the same.

He knocked on the apartment door.

About a minute later, it opened. 

She wore her coiled hair in a frizzy, low ponytail. There was no makeup on her face, and it was how he’d loved her the most. It was one thing for a woman to be dressed up and put together, but it had been another thing entirely to see Ayesha comfortable in his arms. In its own way, it was a level of trust that many women didn’t offer lightly.

“Hi,” she greeted. “Come on in.”

He gingerly stepped inside, and she shut the door behind him.

“You don’t have to be quiet,” she said, laughing a little. “Theo will only wake up for an earthquake high on the Richter scale, and even then, we’d still have to shake him a little.”

Adrían nodded, smiling. “Okay.”

“This way.”

He followed her to the apartment’s living room. The apartment was in a building in the heart of the city where, during the day, the foot traffic below resembled an afternoon in Centro as tourists and locals flocked to some of the best restaurants, museums, and galleries Rio de Janeiro had to offer. He would bet, however, that none of that noise filtered up into this posh space. 

Josiah was on the living room sofa, his face hard as stone. Ayesha sat next to him and gave him a quick squeeze. Adrían extended a hand, which Josiah shook with a tight, firm grip. 

“Good handshake,” he mused, sitting on the loveseat opposite them. “And it’s nice to finally meet you, Josiah. I’ve heard many great things.”

Josiah’s hard expression went full monolith. “What do you want?”

“Only to talk to your mother,” Adrían reassured. “I promise.”

“Mama,” he turned to Ayesha, “I’ll be right in the other room if you need me.”

She nodded. “Okay. Don’t go too far.”

Josiah gave her a kiss on the cheek, pinned Adrían with one last stare-down, and then left. Ayesha repositioned herself on the sofa and clasped her hands in her lap, the gleam from her newest piece of jewelry catching Adrían’s eye.

He tilted his chin. “Congratulations.” 

“Thank you.” She beamed, staring at the ring. “A few days ago was one of the happiest days of my life.”

“Well, I apologize if what I have to tell you changes that any.” He leaned forward, his elbows on his thighs. “Ayesha…I lied to you. I am responsible for Curtis’ death.”

She stiffened.

All traces of joy left her face.

“Explain.”

“We were new to the whole Omega team thing,” he said, head falling so he didn’t have to see the look on her face that said he’d betrayed her in an unforgivable way. “All we knew was that we were supposed to go to a location to eliminate the threat there. There was even a local team who helped, some sort of black flag group.”

The column of her throat quivered, but she nodded for him to continue.

“Lavigne, I haven’t liked him from the beginning. He’s arrogant without the skill. A glorified serial killer. There is no purpose behind most of the shit he does and,” Adrían held up a hand expecting her to protest, “I know that’s saying plenty coming from me, but it made no sense to me why they thought somebody like him could play well on a team.”

Josiah walked to the kitchen, grabbed something from the pantry, and eyed Adrían until the door came between their line of sight to one another. 

“It was this old, old building.” He could still see it, stone he could break with his fingers. “Thing was already close to falling apart, but we were told civilians were being held hostage inside by a pseudo-militant group.”

“Curtis and Gage’s group?” she asked.

“Yes.” He nodded. “I know now that it’s bullshit, but we followed orders. For many of us, it was what we were trained to do, how we were chosen. It was all about how well we executed what was laid out in front of us, and that was something I did well. And, everything was fine right at the beginning. Although old, the building was simple enough to navigate. Trevor, Theo’s teacher’s husband, was First-in-Command.”

Her long brown fingers sunk into the thick sofa fabric. 

“We spotted one of the group members,” Adrían continued. “Trevor did, anyhow. As he was about to give the order about how to approach, Lavigne—who was on sniper duty at the time—released a bullet.”

“Who was it?” she asked, voice soft.

“Gage.” Adrían tapped his shoulder. “The bullet hit his upper shoulder, a clean shot straight through, but it caused him to turn around. That’s when Trevor recognized him. Shit didn’t feel right, so he gave the order to fall back.”

“And Lavigne didn’t listen.”

Adrían shook his head. “No. He pulled himself from sniper duty and headed into the building on the opposite side. Trevor sent me after Lavigne since I was the only one fast enough, and I got there just in time to stop him from firing into the group…but not in time to stop the grenade he unclipped and tossed.”

Tears streamed down her face. Every muscle in his body flexed, stopping him from going to her. He knew what this felt like, losing a close loved one to violence. Violence had taken his mother, so he felt every ache moving through Ayesha’s body. Pain on a tightrope.

She picked up the story. “Curtis threw himself on top of it.”

“That part, I didn’t know until later.”

“What happened after?”

Adrían rubbed the back of his head and found it damp. “The explosion caused the black flags outside to start firing into the building. Eventually, it came down. Virtually everybody inside was injured, but Curtis was the only man who lost his life that day.”

She looked away, those fingers still squeezing and releasing the cushions.

“I couldn’t stop him,” Adrían said. “If I’d stopped him—”

“That’s not your fault.”

“I’ve lived with this shit for close to seven years now, Ayesha. You…I can’t come close to explaining the level of guilt I felt falling for you knowing…” Knowing that he could have been the one to stop the pain from reaching her in the first place. Yes, if there’d been no explosion, there would have been no Ayesha for him, but he would have been better able to live with that. It would have meant not getting brainwashed the rest of the way, conned into thinking the only way out was to do Central’s bidding. If Alpha hadn’t been up for teaming up, he didn’t know what would have become of any of them. 

Warmth covered his kneecap, and her fingers and that ring appearing in his line of sight.

“Adrían, I forgive you.” Her mouth tipped into a shaky smile. “Don’t beat yourself up about this anymore. Lavigne, and only Lavigne, is responsible for what happened that day. Curtis knew that if he hadn’t done what he’d done, none of the guys would have gone home, and that’s just the kind of man he was. That’s the kind of courage running through my sons’ veins. I’ll always have a piece of him because I have them.”

Adrían blinked until she came back into focus. “You forgive me?”

“I forgive you.” She cemented the statement with a nod and then returned to her seat. “It would be ignorant of me to judge you because you have blood on your hands when the man I’m marrying does too. No matter what, you’ve always treated me well. You’ve always been kind. I know who you are and I hope, once all of this is over, you’ll be granted the freedom to find the man inside you I’ve seen all along.”

He stared at her, words slow to form. Hopefully, there was at least one more Ayesha out there, somewhere, in the world. Or, at least, close to her. He’d take close.

“Thank you.” He swallowed, cleared his throat. “Thank you for forgiving me.”

She smiled. “No problem. Now, forgive yourself. You deserve that much and more.”

* * *

Joel had already known to never get on Giorgio’s bad side, but as he watched Giorgio scoot a tub of water beneath Lavigne’s feet, the statement reiterated itself in his head. 

After Adrían had dropped Lavigne off at the house in the woods, they’d tossed him in the back of the van and flown him to this little shack. Joel had then gone back to finish his vacation with his new fiancée. Even thinking the word made his heart beat harder, faster.

He’d considered medieval torture techniques to give “Veeny” a taste of the pain he’d caused Theo, but that would have been too easy. Lavigne expected to be physically tortured and would have only leaned into the pain to gain control over the situation. So he, Julien, and Giorgio had brought Lavigne here, a cabin on an island between the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. It would be Lavigne’s first stop…if he survived. 

Most days, they let him wander the island looking for a way off that would never come. Today, they’d corralled him and tied him to a moving piece of plywood, propping him up in a “standing” position.

“What’s this now?” Joel asked.

Giorgio angled the tub until it was straight. “Irukandji.”

“Yep, that’s what I thought you said.”

A jellyfish documentary he and the boys had watched one afternoon at Pozza’s was the reason behind this latest…trick. The Irukandji was one of the smallest jellyfish in the world, but it happened to be one of the deadliest. Its sting was considered so painful, not even the highest dosage of intravenous pain medication took the edge off the worst of its symptoms. A cobra’s venom paled in comparison.

Leave it to Giorgio…

Lavigne groaned, head bobbing from side to side, the tranquilizer Joel had tagged him with earlier wearing off. Saliva dribbled from the corner of his mouth. When he came to and noticed his current predicament, he tugged on the restraints.

“Morning, Sunshine,” Joel greeted. Lavigne spat in his direction, and he side-stepped the stream. “Now, now, that’s no way to treat your captors. If you didn’t want this shit to happen to you, maybe you should have left my son the fuck alone. It’s pretty damn simple.”

Joel brandished a small blade and sliced a thin opening on the inside of Lavigne’s upper arm. When Lavigne only groaned, he cut another under his chin, and between every finger on both hands. Lavigne locked his jaw, the joint pulsing, to deny Joel the joy of the sound of his screams.

For now, anyhow.

Finally, Lavigne seemed to notice the water his feet dangled in. The jellyfish was so small and translucent, Joel bent to make sure it was in there.

“He is there,” Giorgio informed him, a slight smile on his face. “He will work in one minute.”

“Remind me to never get on your bad side, Pozza.”

Giorgio shrugged. “This will not happen.”

Lavigne seized and cursed, body twitching as the jellyfish’s stingers came in contact with his skin. 

“What the fuck?”

“It’s a jellyfish,” Joel explained.

Lavigne laughed, shoulders rocking. “You think a jellyfish is torture? I have experienced worse. One-hundred times worse.”

They went to the other side of the cabin and leaned against the wall. Giorgio ruffled through his duffel bag and then held out a parchment-wrapped pastry that looked like a doughnut had mated with a pretzel.

Joel took it and sank his teeth in the warm dough. 

“Oh my God…”

“Is firi firi.” Giorgio bit into his piece and leaned back. “Aleksi’s grandmother has made this. Bez, her mama and papa will stay with us for a little, to be with Aleksi.”

“My parents won’t be up until we get back from Central.”

“Is for wedding, da?”

“Yep.” Joel took another bite. “God, these are so damn good. Remind me why I need abs again? I mean, I can let go and get a Dad Bod once I’ve officially locked Eesh down, right?”

Giorgio’s dark chuckle pulsed around the room. “Dad…Bod? You will jump from bridge if this happen, Lattimore.”

Lavigne’s cries began as a low hum, quickly building. His face went from pale to red in an instant, sweat sprouting on his forehead. His mouth was set so firmly, he looked like he had lockjaw. From what Joel had seen in the documentary, the pain from Irukandji Syndrome was both physical and mental and could last weeks. 

“Fuck!” Lavigne’s head tipped back. “What the fuck is this?”

“A jellyfish,” Joel reiterated. “Didn’t you just tell me you’ve experienced worse? Buck the fuck up.”

The front of Lavigne’s pants darkened, and Joel had to force himself to remain where he stood when he thought about Theo’s accident outside the home improvement store. Lavigne had had all the time in the world, every opportunity to confront him when he’d been in Maui with Eesh and the boys. Hell, the man could have even approached Ayesha. But he’d chosen Theo. He’d chosen the most vulnerable, and the one least likely to stand up to him. For all his “Bonecrusher” mythology, Lavigne was nothing but a cowardly piece of shit.

“You want second?” Giorgio asked.

Joel already had his hand out. “Hell yeah. I think I want these at the wedding.”

“I will tell my Bez.”

“Are they spoiling Aleksi?”

Giorgio grunted a laugh. “Da. My son, he is loving it.”

They ate, chatted, and watched as the pain took Lavigne through a series of moans, screams, and cries. If he survived the ordeal, and it was a toss-up whether that would happen, they’d move him on to the next step. Julien had already taken Spettro to the next step. It was the perfect revenge for the tyranny the “Ghost” and Lavigne’s reign had caused.

A brief knock shook the cabin door. Julien poked his head inside. 

“You two about ready to go?” 

Just as he asked, Lavigne gagged.

“That’s our cue,” Joel said, gathering his things. 

“You can’t…just leave…me here,” Lavigne called after them.

“I can’t do what?” Joel pivoted, levity gone. “For your sake, you better hope you don’t survive this shit because you don’t want to end up where ‘The Ghost’ just ended up. You don’t want to end up somewhere you’ll be forced to know how it feels when you invade another person’s space, and they then don’t take that shit lightly. Yes, I could have put a bullet in your skull, but what would that have done except give you a way out? You terrorized my kid. You’re responsible for the death of my best friend’s brother. You were in my family’s house while they slept. Were you thinking about mercy when you showed my then four-year-old your gun? When you climbed in through his bedroom window in the middle of the night? Fuck you.”

Joel didn’t look back as he slammed the door behind him, vibrating with a desire to go back and end things quickly, but Giorgio shook him out of it.

“Mike, he has taught me this,” Giorgio said as they headed for the helicopter. “Do not stop torture. Then—”

“It’s not really torture,” Joel finished. “Yeah, I get it.”

“He will live. This is best part.” 

Giorgio slapped him on the back, and somehow, Joel smiled.

* * *

After a week, they’d returned to find a vestige of the man they’d left behind. While alive, Lavigne had been pounds lighter, and agony had carved wrinkles in his face. 

They’d assigned a member each from teams Delta and Gamma to see to it that Lavigne didn’t die from the pain or wriggle loose. Joel and Giorgio had then tossed Lavigne on the helicopter and brought him to this remote village, bordered by the Mozambique Channel, where Lavigne currently hung upside down from a tree with a rope tied around his ankles. Two dozen women formed a large arc around him.

“Are you familiar with this place?” Joel asked Lavigne, who’d slept during the entire helicopter and jeep ride. “It’s called Nzumira.”

As if the man had no other M.O., he spat in Joel’s direction.

“You know it,” Joel said, watching the stream fall short. “As it turns out, you and your buddy, Spettro, came here with firearms, incendiaries…all sorts of shit. And, after what you two did here, I’m honored to be able to give them this chance at retribution.”

With them, he and Giorgio had brought baseball bats, metal batons…all sorts of things to make weaponry. They’d learned about Spettro’s and Lavigne’s “visit” to the tiny agrarian village from the Gamma soldier who’d stayed behind to watch over Lavigne—Makala DelRey. She’d grown up in Nzumira, so they’d garnered her help with not only entry but getting the residents to take part in retaliation. 

“They say they’re ready,” Makala told them, excitement making her dark skin glimmer even brighter. The night before, the women villagers had thrown a craft party of sorts to use the different materials Joel and Giorgio brought to make their weapons. Now, they looked like Walking Dead characters ready to take down a herd of zombies. 

“Are you staying or coming back with us?” Joel asked Makala.

“Coming back.” She looked around the circle. “They can handle themselves from here. My main enemy is Central. That’s where I need to be.”

Joel and Giorgio nodded, waved goodbye to the group, and the trio headed to the jeep. The last thing they heard was Lavigne go from spitting curses and slurs at the women to pleading for his life.

* * *

“Daddy!” Theo ran over and hugged Joel around the legs within seconds of him stepping through the front door. “Guess what?”

He already knew the “what.” Ayesha had kept him updated about the kitten during his trip, and they’d agreed on a shorthair red tabby with bright eyes and whose hair was about as tame as Aleksi’s had been when he was an infant—not at all.

Joel crouched to Theo’s eye level. “What?”

“We got a kitty!”

“I don’t believe you. Let me see.”

Theo grabbed his hand and dragged him to the back porch where Josiah lay flat on his stomach in the grass, watching the kitten bumble about and paw at the blades. Ayesha reclined in a lounge chair watching them, a mug of mango-ginger tea, courtesy of Mo and Ari’s mother, in one hand.

“Look!” Theo pointed. “We named him Orange.”

Joel laughed. “That’s, uh, pretty clever.” 

Josiah snorted. “No, it’s not. He’s literally orange.”

“Who named him?” 

Josiah’s face turned red. “Me, but I got too excited, and it’s the first name I could come up with!”

“And it’s perfect!” Theo yelled, punching a fist in the air. “I wanna give him some milk, but Mama said cats don’t drink milk, but I see them drinking milk all the time in cartoons.”

“That’s special kitten milk,” Ayesha informed him. 

“But I can’t open those cans by myself!”

“So then you do what?”

He huffed. “Ask for Mama or Daddy’s help.”

Joel headed over to brush his lips over Ayesha’s, several times—the first of many since he’d been away a couple of weeks and would be leaving again soon—and then sat next to where Josiah lay. Josiah hopped up, tossed his arms around Joel in a tight hug,  then returned to his belly.

“What’s up, Orange?” Joel greeted. “Welcome to the family.”

Theo sat cross-legged on the grass, a little less than two inches away from the kitten. “His whole name is Orange Lattimore because, when you and Mama get married, we’ll all have the same name, so he has to have the same name too.” 

That was another thing that had given him chills. They’d, wholeheartedly, accepted that he wanted to adopt them. They’d asked him, before he had a chance to bring it up, if they all could have the same last name. At least, Theo and Josiah had tried to ask him, but Theo had raced through the entire spiel, ending it with a sad face, pleading fists, and hazel puppy eyes.

“I’ll be Theo Iokua Savea Lattimore.” Theo pointed to himself. “And Jojo will be Josiah Nikora Savea Lattimore. We asked Mama if we can have your last name too because we’re your son and Papa’s son.”

Joel glanced up at Ayesha, who already had her eyes on him. She winked as if she’d read his mind, reassuring him that yes, all of this was real, and it would be that way for them for the rest of their lives.

“Mama?” Theo called. “What will your name be? I don’t think I know your middle name.”

Ayesha frowned. “It’s okay, Theo. Mama doesn’t need—”

“Isn’t it Dio-netta or something like that?” Joel asked. 

She glared at him.

He grinned.

“Dionysietta,” she corrected. “And I’m still not convinced my mother named me that before she passed away. My aunt had something to do with it. I mean, she was the one with the whole Greek mythology fetish.”

“Mama, Daddy, what’s a fetish?” Theo asked.

Thankfully, Orange leaped for a butterfly and took a tumble, which distracted Theo and gave them the out they needed to avoid trying to answer his question.

Ayesha tipped her head at the house.

Joel looked up to find his parents standing in the opening to the back deck.

“Mamma?” He stood and slowly walked over, waiting for them to disappear. “Pop? Wait…what? How are you here already?”

He hugged his mother first, lifting her off the ground, and turned to give his father a hug after setting her on her feet. Before he and Ayesha had officially started dating, the boys had talked to his parents on a regular basis. After they started dating, they talked to his parents weekly. Once the engagement was set, they’d started greeting the boys as “It’s Grampa” and “It’s Grammy.”

Curtis’ extended family had distanced themselves from Ayesha after his passing—they hadn’t exactly welcomed her with open arms in the first place—but had recently started getting in contact with her and the boys.

Joel took a step back when he heard the patter of small feet to give Theo the lane he needed for one of his rush-hugs.

“Grammy, Grampa, I missed you!”

Jemma gobbled him up into her arms. “Sweetheart, you just saw us an hour ago.”

“Still, I missed you.”

“We got here yesterday,” Archie Lattimore said. “Eesh let us know you’d be back today, so we told her not to say anything.”

“Archie and I wanted to surprise you,” Jemma added, rocking with Theo, a wide smile on her face. “Are you surprised, honey?”

Joel glanced back at Ayesha. She blew him a kiss.

“Very surprised,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting you guys until the wedding.”

Jemma plucked sprigs of grass from Theo’s hair. “The wedding’s right around the corner, we’re retired, and Chesapeake was getting boring.” She shrugged. “And I’ll never say no to seeing my grandbabies.”

Theo, in full “baby” mode, leaned against Jemma. The spoiling that was about to ensue would be ridiculous. 

“I get a whole Daddy and a Grammy and Grampa,” Theo said. “I never had a Daddy or a Grammy or a Grampa.”

Archie playfully tugged Theo’s cheek. “And we’ve never had a Theo. Might I add, you are the best Theo I have ever met.”

“Have you met a lot of Theos?” Theo asked, eyes wide.

“Dozens,” Archie exaggerated. “At least one hundred.”

“And I’m the best one?”

“The very best one.”

“Daddy,” Theo looked up at Joel, “I might be the best Theo in the world.”

Joel laughed. “You’re certainly the best Theo in my world.”

Jemma took his hand. “Come on, best Theo. Want to help me with dinner?”

Joel had to stop himself from falling to his knees in prayer. 

“Mamma, you’re going to cook?”

“Yes, sweetheart. I made some sauce and meatballs last night, so it’ll be quick. Jojo,” she peered behind Joel, “are you helping again tonight?”

Josiah popped up, picking Orange up with him. “Coming!”

As he walked past, Joel held his hand out for the kitten. Josiah plopped the warm body on Joel’s palm and hurried inside, shutting the door behind him. Joel pivoted on his heel, went back to where Ayesha lay, and eased down next to her. He sat Orange on his stomach, and Orange promptly curled up, eyes closing.

“I missed you,” he said, leaning to kiss her cheek.

She turned onto her side, facing him. “I missed you too.”

“Did you ask my parents to come out?”

“No, sir.” She shook her head and smoothed an index finger over Orange’s fur. “They asked me. Your mother might be more excited about me being her daughter-in-law than I am about being your wife, and that’s saying something, baby.”

“You’re excited about being my wife? Like Christmas excited or twenty-first birthday shot excited?”

“Hmm…” She tapped her chin. “Like…I think I might be pregnant, excited.”

“Oh, that’s…” His brows shot up, and he glanced at her stomach, heart trying to tear through his skin. “Eesh?”

“I thought I had acid reflux,” she explained. “Then, I woke up sick a couple of mornings, and it felt like somebody dropped a bag of bricks on my head. I have a test upstairs, but I wanted to wait until you got home to take it. So, right now, I’m five days late.”

His lips parted, but no words came.

“Do you want to go take it now?” she asked. 

“W-what if you are?” His head grew light. “That would mean w-we’d be having a baby.”

She laughed. “Yes, it would.”

“I mean, you’d be having a baby with me.”

“If you’re the father.”

“Eesh…” He squeezed his eyes shut. “That was low.”

She laughed harder. “You’re so easy.”

“Yes, I’d like to go take it now. Well, for you to go take it now. At least…do you have to pee? I mean, I can wait—”

“Let’s go, Mr. Lattimore.” 

They set Orange down on his bed in his room, which was a cutout underneath the staircase, and snuck upstairs. Joel waited outside the bathroom while Ayesha took the test. Nervousness made his fingertips tingle. If she was pregnant, how far along would it make her? Would she be okay with keeping the wedding when it was? Depending on how far along she’d be, she wouldn’t have to change anything about her dress. But Xara had made her dress, so it wasn’t like Xara couldn’t just—

“Joel?”

He swallowed, gripped the door handle, and opened. She was standing with her back to the door, her head bent as she looked down at the test on the countertop.

On unstable legs, he went to stand next to her. The test wasn’t one of those with the lines. This one had words. One very clear, very bold word:

Pregnant

“Fuck.” Tears flashed to his eyes. “Fuck, Eesh. I shouldn’t get excited, right? I mean, do I have to wait until…fuck.”

At some point, he’d picked up the test and sat on the edge of the tub, staring at it. She crouched in front of him, hands on his thighs. 

“You can be excited,” she said, voice raspy and sparkling droplets on her cheeks. “We’re having a baby, Joel.”

He cradled the back of her head and brought her lips to his. When that wasn’t enough, he dragged her onto his lap, kissed her lips, her cheeks, her tears.

“Baby,” she released a shaky laugh, swiping her thumbs underneath his eyes, “are you happy?”

“Jesus, Eesh. Happy doesn’t fucking cut it.” He kissed her again. “When can I say something?”

“You can tell the guys. I’ll tell everyone else.”

He placed a hand on her stomach. “Are you happy, Eesh?”

“I’m going to be Mrs. Joel Lattimore, and I’m having a baby with the perfect man for me.” She pressed her forehead to his. “I’m ecstatic.”

“I love you.”

“Mama, Daddy, the yummy spaghetti’s ready!”

Ayesha slid from his lap. “‘Spaghetti,’ he doesn’t have any trouble with when ‘ask’ almost gave him a conniption.”

They headed downstairs, hands clasped and smiling.

“So, is Joelita off the table?” Joel asked.

“Joelita didn’t even make it to Sweden,” Ayesha replied, their fingers playing together. “I was thinking a T name. Because there’s Joel and Josiah.”

“What about an A name?”

“I don’t want Theo to feel left out.” She stopped just before they entered the dining room. “Joel…please come back to me. I’m in love with you. Come back to me.”

He cradled her jaw and bent, their lips touching. It was hard to stop kissing her. Touching her. Telling her he loved her like she’d never hear it again if he stopped. 

“Ayesha, I’ll come back to you,” he promised. “I’ll come back when it’s all said and done. I’ll be here when you wake up and go to sleep, and I’ll be here so we can raise our three kids together.”

“For now,” she whispered. “Who knows what the future will bring?”

“Whatever it does, I’m ready to face it with you.”

“Me too, Joel. Me too.”

* * *

“We deploy tomorrow morning,” Gage announced to the room. They’d managed to get the three from Omega, two from Delta, and four from Gamma. Those who hadn’t wanted to join them and had instead wanted to go up against them had been dealt with. Now, as far as they knew, Central didn’t know they were coming, but Gage, Dez, and Trevor were having them go in as though Central was expecting them.

“The goal is no casualties,” Dez added. “Everybody in this room deserves to go home to their friends, families, loved ones. Whoever.”

Agreement rippled through the air.

Julien added, “Once we’re there, me and Leon are going to take down their systems. Comms stay on at all times, and if you’re in trouble, say that shit. Don’t try to force through it and get to a point where it’s too late to help.”

More agreement sounded.

“If you have any last-minute dissension,” Joel tipped his chin in Giorgio and Mike’s direction, “talk to my guys over there. They’ll ‘help’ you out.”

There was no vocal agreement, but the message had been heard.

Trevor scanned the room. “Any questions?”

After establishing that there were no more questions, everyone disbanded to rest up until morning. Those who had families, their families had been taken to a secure location. Giorgio had let Mo know where to find the families should anything happen and they needed help. 

Ari and Mo’s parents, Julien’s mother, Larke’s younger sister, the oldest boy from Giorgio’s school—Thanasis, Ant, Valerie, Sydney, and Dmitri had flown out to Sweden just in case Mo had to leave. Only Sydney and Dmitri knew the real reason Mo might disappear, and why she might take a “team” with her. They’d wanted Dom, but he was tied up at the moment.

Someone grabbed Joel just as he was getting ready to leave the room. When he looked up, Adrían had a hand out. A rather large part of him still wanted to give this man a similar treatment to what he’d given Lavigne, but he had to be fair. Logical. Had it not been for Adrían, they might still be trying to figure out veeny.

“Good luck, brother,” Adrían said. 

Joel nodded. “You too.” 

They slapped palms, shook, and exited the room.



Final Episode – 4/30

13: From Central to The End


Adrían huffed out a laugh. “Exactly.”

“How did she die? Your mother.”

“For saying no. For believing her body was her own.” Adrían’s throat bobbed. “They left her in the streets. When I found her, I covered her up. I don’t remember much of what happened after, didn’t for a while. Everything inside me just…died. If I’d been starving and someone offered me happiness on a diamond-studded plate, I still would not have reached for it.”

A larger wave pushed forward, covering their feet, sinking them into the sand. There were so many clouds in the sky, the sunlight glowed between them like a network of golden neural pathways. 

“And the rumors about you?” Joel asked.

“Some are true. Some are not. I will say, it’s how I was found for all of this.” Adrían circled his hand in the air. “I never truly hated humanity, as has been said about me, but I did pity it enough to stay away from it. Then, for the first time in my life, I saw someone’s heart.”



What do you think will be the plot twist in “Prince of the Brotherhood”?

Episode 11: Mojay v das Biest

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

Mojay v das Biest

Ayesha, Tayler, Xara, and Mo entered the dark warehouse space, parting a crowd of hot, yelling, and gesturing bodies. In the middle of the room, underneath a strip of bright green lighting, sat a cage. Two men circled each other inside. From the way it felt like she was watching them fight on a high-definition TV, Ayesha figured it was where all the money was being spent for electricity. They might as well have lit the rest of the space with glitter.

“How’d you find this place again?” she asked Mo.

“Word of mouth,” Mo said, grinning. “Isn’t it awesome?”

Awesome wasn’t the word she would have chosen, but it was definitely interesting. And watching the two men grapple with each other made her heart pound. 

It hadn’t been as difficult as they’d anticipated sneaking out to the fight club that Mo had, somehow, found. Since the guys had already planned to stay cooped up in the Lair for most of the night, they’d drawn straws. Ari and Larke sat out this round. However, if Giorgio found out where they were, there might not be a next time for any of them.

“Is this turning anyone else on?” Xara asked, staring at the cage where one man had the other in a headlock. Ayesha started to shake her head until she noticed both men were in peak physical condition and glistening with sweat. Each move made their muscles bulge, and every grab came with a groan or a grunt.

“A little,” she confessed. 

They walked close enough to nearly be flicked by the fighters’ sweat through the fencing. There were seats but no one used them—the air was too charged to stay in one place. It was like sitting at a college football game.

“I signed up to fight tonight,” Mo announced.

Ayesha’s eyes bulged. “Giorgio’s going to kill you.”

Mo held up her right index finger. “If he finds out.”

“Mo, he’s been on edge. Ever since the guys went AWOL, he’s been obsessed with making sure you and Aleksi are all right.”

“I know, but I don’t know what else to do. Something’s been off with me lately. Something’s missing. I feel like this might be what I need to fill that void in my life. If it’s not, then it’s not, but in the meantime, can we keep this between us?”

They all agreed to do whatever they could to make sure their little excursion didn’t make it back to Giorgio. It wasn’t only for Mo; the assumption was that Giorgio couldn’t be “hurt,” but his hurt simply looked different from everyone else’s. 

A man bumped into Ayesha’s right side. When she looked up, he smiled down at her. Even in the dark, she could see he was handsome with a head of blond hair, thick brows, and dark-brown eyes. He didn’t have a fighter’s physique, but he was in good shape.

“Sorry about that.” His smile grew wider. “I’m Josh, by the way.” He was about to say more, but then he looked up and spotted Mo. “Hey, it’s you.”

Mo turned her head. “Yes, it’s me. And you are?”

“We met, remember?”

Mo squinted up at him until her eyes lit with recognition. “You were with Oskar. You’re originally from…Oregon, right?”

“Yes! Wow. Great memory.” 

He left Ayesha’s side and went to stand next to Mo, and an unexpected wave of panic curled up Ayesha’s spine. They could only assume Giorgio wasn’t there, and it had always been safer to err on the side of caution when it came to him. While Giorgio knew Mo didn’t want anyone else but him, it didn’t exactly make his response to men crowding her space a sane one.

Josh nudged Mo’s arm. “Is there a reason you remembered me so well?”

“I’m usually pretty good with names,” she said, eyes on the fight.

“And you’re Mo, right?” 

“Yessir.”

“Yeah, I remember. But I remember you because you’re cute.”

“I’m married.” Mo held up her left hand. “And my husband’s crazy.”

“Fuck. I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize.”

He didn’t leave or step away. 

The panic from before settled in the middle of Ayesha’s chest. The crowd noise elevated and one of the men, the smaller one of the two, was now standing over his opponent. The man on the floor stared up at the ceiling, hands at his sides. Each time he tried to turn over in an attempt to stand, he rolled right back onto his back. 

“Eesh, did you see where that Josh guy went?” Mo asked, looking around. He’d been standing right next to them. 

Based on the level of flirting he’d been putting down, it seemed strange for him to walk off without at least trying one last time. Then again, Mo had barely given him eye contact. Maybe he’d finally gotten the hint. 

Ayesha’s thoughts told her something different.

“Hey, Xara,” Tayler called, “you think Mike could take that dude?”

Xara flicked her wrist. “Pfft. Easily. My baby is amazing. I wish y’all had seen him and Dom. Don’t get me started. Gets me going just thinking about it.”

“Rice cakes get you going,” Ayesha teased.

The announcer called the fight. The smaller man thrust his arms in the air and roared, dried bits of blood on his mouth and cheek. He could barely blink, his left eye swollen to the size of a fist, and one of his fingers stuck out in a different direction than the others.

“You sure you want to do this tonight, Mo?” Ayesha asked. “Even though he won, he’s pretty messed up. Plus, Giorgio’s not about to have you come home with a busted eye and broken finger and not kill every able-bodied individual in Stockholm.”

When she didn’t respond, they looked to find her staring down at her phone.

“Guys, my fight just got canceled,” she said, barely louder than a mumble. “My opponent didn’t show up.”

Xara patted Mo’s stomach, which was exposed in a black cropped tank top she’d paired with a gray hoodie and black tights. “Maybe they saw you coming. Saw all these abs, girl.”

Mo laughed, excitement visibly dampened. “Maybe.”

While a small team cleared and cleaned the cage for the next fight, Light ‘Em Up by Fall Out Boy blasted from the speakers. The crowd hopped, yelled, and screamed the lyrics. Fists shot up in the air. Heads rocked and spun.

Fingers tickled Ayesha’s palm. 

“I didn’t follow you this time,” Adrían quickly reassured her. “But what are you doing here? This is the last place I expected you to be.”

She shrugged. “Honestly, I’m not so sure myself.”

“How’d you find out about it?”

“Friend of a friend.” She took in his attire, a pair of shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. “Are you fighting tonight?”

He placed his right hand over his heart. “Yes. I need to let off steam. The love of my life loves another.”

“Oh, stop.”

He stuck out an elbow, nudged her. “Will you stay for my fight? I’m number six.”

After what had happened between him and Joel the last time the three of them were within a stone’s throw of each other, Ayesha knew she should have immediately said she couldn’t. But it was because of that incident that she wanted to stay. Something inside her needed to know how good Adrían was. If he truly was as big of a threat as what had swirled around in her head, daily, after her talk with Joel.

“Sure, I can do that. And be careful up there.”

“Of course, querida.” He tickled her palm again and walked off.

“Oh…my…god.” Tayler gripped Ayesha’s wrist. “Eesh. Ayesha. Who is that up there?”

All three of them looked.

Xara’s jaw dropped. “Oh, my…lanta. Is that Gage?”

The blond hair, those green eyes which were more striking underneath the strip lights, and that tall, muscular physique could belong to no one else. 

Ayesha squinted at the ring. “If Gage is up there, does that mean—”

“I knew it.” Mo’s eyelids disappeared inside their sockets. “The Murderer of Moscow is here. The Slasher of St. Petersburg. The Killer of Krasnodar.”

“How many Russian cities have you aligned him with?” Ayesha asked.

Xara’s head whipped around, eyes searching in the dark. “Do you think they’re all here?” 

“So, uh, my fight’s back on,” Mo announced, looking down at her phone. “Tell Aleksi that his mother loved him, and she didn’t truly want to go out this way.”

All of them, except for Tayler, peered at the screen. Tayler had yet to look away from the cage.

#5 – MoJay v Das Biest

“Don’t worry,” Ayesha said, wrapping an arm around Mo’s waist, chest tight with laughter. “I will tell Aleksi that his mother was a warrior. We will make a statue in your honor. Your story will be told for miles and miles.”

Xara coughed through a giggle. “Years and years.”

Mo glared at them, eyes narrowed. “Are. You. Two. Laughing? I’m about to die tonight by the hands of the Assassin of Astrakhan, and you guys are just all ah-giggling.”

Fully laughing now, Ayesha shook her head. “Seriously, babe, how many of those do you have in your back pocket?”

“Only one more—Slayer of Samara.” Mo groaned, tossed her head back, and covered her face with both hands. “Damn it! I can’t even forfeit. I’m not certain what’ll happen up in the ring isn’t better than what’ll happen if I try to escape now.”

Tayler, as if suddenly aware she was a human being living on planet Earth, turned to the conversation. “Eesh, who was that guy with the accent?” 

All three pairs of eyes were suddenly on her.

Xara’s brows shot up. “Wait…was that fuck-buddy Adrían?”

“Fuck-buddy Adrían?” Both Mo and Tayler asked.

“Y’all know Mike’s a gossip,” Xara added. “But…was it?”

Ayesha’s head bobbed. “Yeah.”

“No offense, Eesh,” Mo began, “but what in life did you do to that man that made him stalk you to Sweden and then an underground fight club? I’ve been going to Xara for advice, but maybe I’ve been going to the wrong person.”

Ayesha’s face burned to the tips of her ears. Adrían had been there for all of a minute, in the middle of all this raucousness, so she didn’t know how Tayler had even heard his accent. 

“We had a,” she searched for a word, “fling back in the day. Way back in the day.”

“When Theo was a baby,” Xara chimed in. “Like I said, Mike’s a gossip. But do go on, Ayesha.”

Ayesha found that she was the one now covering her face. 

When she lowered her hands, she blew out a sigh. They weren’t going to give up. Her back grazed the corner they’d pushed her up against. 

“Adrían and I worked in the same building. We talked, had lunch, and I was vulnerable at the time, so we ended up sleeping together. The agreement was to keep things casual, but he told me he was falling in love with me and I,” it would be her first time admitting it out loud, “did have strong feelings for him. Not love. I didn’t feel for him what I felt for Curtis, and I definitely didn’t feel for him how I feel now about Joel. But…there was something."

She paused.

Xara picked up the story. “And that was the last time they saw each other until Joel and Eesh’s first date. He’s been popping up ever since, and they might have to medicate Joel to stop him from killing Adrían if he shows up one more time.”

Ayesha started to reply, but the announcer yelled that the fight was about to start. 

Gage walked to the edge of the cage, searched the crowd, kissed the air in their direction, and turned back to his opponent. Tayler caressed just below the hollow of her throat and slowly ran the tip of her tongue along her bottom lip.

“So Gage at least knows we’re here,” Xara said. “That was for you, right, Tay?”

“Hmm?” Tayler looked up. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe he has a side chick here or something.”

Mo looked at the list again, burst out laughing, and turned the phone toward Tayler. 

#2 – F. T. Full v Killer Z

Tayler rolled her eyes. “Is that supposed to be ‘faithful’? God, he’s such a clown. Ooh, let’s check the rest!”

#3 – Chandler v Mikki


#4 – Xaras v Skh-ro


#6 – Gano v K. Gristle

Xara clutched her chest. “Xaras? That’s gotta be Mike. Get it? Xaras? Xara’s? Like…he’s mine? Mike’s the sweetest. Isn’t my baby the sweetest, y’all?”

Mo, Tayler, and Ayesha took two steps away.

Xara sneered, grinning. “Haters.”

Mo tucked away her phone, and they gave all their attention to the fight. 

Gage stretched the muscles in his neck, moving it from side to side. His opponent, a man who looked like he had at least twenty pounds on Gage but was a head shorter, hopped on his toes. Both men moved constantly, warming up their muscles. 

The bell rang. 

The two men orbited each other, sizing the other up. It was a full thirty seconds before any of their body parts connected, and it was Killer Z’s gloved fist smashing into Gage’s left shoulder. The crowd reacted as though they were the ones who’d gotten the hit, and Ayesha caught Tayler cringing out of the corner of her eye.

Killer Z locked Gage against the cage and swung twice, but neither swing connected. Gage retaliated with a left hook to Killer Z’s jaw that swung his head around and sent the other man tumbling.

Tayler clapped. “Whoo! Fuck him up, baby!”

Mo stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled.

Killer Z fired two kicks at Gage, but Gage dodged them and ended up behind his opponent. He locked his arms around Killer Z’s middle and upended the shorter man with a suplex move that landed Killer Z on the back of his neck.

Tayler didn’t blink.

Ayesha found it hard to breathe.

The men continued to dance around each other, punching and kicking, slamming and grappling. At one point, Killer Z had Gage in a hold that Ayesha had no idea how he got himself out of. If she’d been wrapped up like that, regardless of everything she’d learned at Book Club, that would have been the end of her. Spines weren’t supposed to bend that way.

Killer Z threw a punch at Gage’s cheekbone. 

Gage dodged it, brought his left hand around, and seconds after his fist connected with the side of Killer Z’s face, Killer Z’s knees buckled and he dropped to the mat. 

Three people from Killer Z’s “entourage” had to help him stand, and Ayesha was pretty sure he had no idea they were even in Europe.

Ayesha’s mind went to Josiah’s bruise.

The announcer yelled that Gage won, and the crowd roared.

Gage left the cage and walked right over to where they stood. “How did Mo convince the three of you to get dragged down here?” he asked.

“How do you know about this place?” Mo countered. 

“A bloke named Oskar.” Gage wiped the sweat from his forehead with a small white towel. “We met him looking for rock-climbing gyms.”

“I met him looking for judo classes.”

Tayler stepped in front of Gage, asked him to bend, and pressed her thumb against a cut over his right eye. He hissed and pulled away as if he hadn’t taken body and headshots just a few minutes prior without complaint.

“That stings, love.”

“Do they have any medical supplies down here?” Tayler stretched onto her toes, searching. “Any water? I can at least flush that for now until we get home. It might need stitches.”

“It’s the first time I’ve taken any hits to the face,” he pointed out. “You could say I was otherwise distracted.”

“I didn’t ask you to look at me.”

“Who wouldn’t, sweetheart? You’re beautiful, and you have the ass of a goddess. I saw your ass before I saw you. It’s how I knew it was you as soon as we walked in.”

Sighing, she headed toward the edge of the crowd, dragging Gage along, his hand swallowing hers. “I’ll be back for Mike’s fight, guys,” she yelled back over her shoulder.

Ayesha rubbed Mo’s arm. “You still doing okay?” 

“No.” The corners of Mo’s mouth dropped into her chin. “I’m nervous.”

“Giorgio won’t actually hit you.”

“He could still take me down without landing a single blow. But, don’t mind me. I’m working out a strategy in my head.”

Aleksi was going to have one hell of an interesting upbringing with these two as parents. 

The next fight, they barely paid attention to. 

Tayler and Gage returned, the cut above Gage’s eye patched up. Xara was the only one not completely dwarfed by his size as he squirted water into his mouth from a blue bottle, Tayler’s fingers still wrapped around his.

“Where’s Mike?” Xara asked. 

Gage pointed with the bottle. “In the back. He likes to meditate before his fights, get in the zone. We actually started fighting down here a few months after we got back from Austria. Idle hands and all that.”

Mo held her phone out toward Gage. “Does Gio really expect me to fight him? And why do I think he’s responsible for my original opponent dropping out?”

“Pozza’s here? He didn’t come with us. If he’s here, he came alone.”

Ayesha thought back to Josh’s sudden disappearance just as arms wrapped around her from behind. 

“Having fun?”

She smiled. “Hey, Joel.”

He kissed her cheek, and she turned around only to be hit, head-on, by a wet, shirtless Joel Lattimore. Water trickled down his chest toward the waistband of his sweatpants, which were low enough to expose a peek of his shorts underneath. His hair was also damp, strands stuck to his forehead, and the fact that his hands were wrapped made her warm all over.

“You’re looking at me like you want to eat me alive,” he said, a wide grin spread on his face.

“Well, to be fair,” she traced the outline of the muscles in his stomach, “there are parts of you I’d like in my mouth.”

“Oh, yeah? And what parts are those?” 

She poked the tip of her tongue against the inside of her cheek. He gripped her chin, bent, and slipped his tongue inside her mouth. The kiss was hard and sloppy. Hungry. He gripped her ass with one hand and pinched her left nipple through her shirt with the other. She wrapped her arms around him, the heels of her palms against his lower back and her fingertips in his waistband.

A thud behind them, along with the realization that they would end up having sex in the middle of all these people without a care in the world, pulled them apart. They turned around, and Joel dragged her back against him, his hand resting on her stomach.

In the cage, Mike was on the floor with his legs wrapped around Skh-ro’s neck. They hadn’t even seen his fight begin, and it wasn’t like she and Joel had been distracted for very long, but it looked near to ending…until Mike released the hold. 

Skh-ro staggered to his feet. 

Mike then spun a roundhouse kick that collided with the side of Skh-ro’s face, and blood-tinged spittle flew through the air. 

Skh-ro gasped, groaned, and fell to his knees, but Mike helped him back up. They embraced, and Skh-ro nodded incessantly at whatever Mike said in his ear. 

After the fight was called, Mike did a quick back handspring, bowed, and left the cage. When he spotted their group, he jogged over, looped his arms around Xara’s thighs, and raised her in the air.

Xara squealed. 

“Mike! You were so good.”

“Really?” His eyes opened wide. “I thought you’d say I was too cocky or something.”

“But I love cocky Mike.” 

He slid her down his body a couple of inches.

“You two stay your asses right here where I can see you,” Gage warned. “I drove, and there will be no fucking in my vehicle.”

Mike let her back down to her feet. “Fine, Dad.”

The crowd went pin-drop silent. Ayesha blew air between her lips to see if it turned white. Giorgio had entered the cage, and not a single drop of warm blood remained in the entire underground arena.

* * *

Mo plastered herself to one side of the cage. Giorgio watched her from the other, sitting cross-legged on the mat. She’d been all for it when Oskar had told her that there were no height, gender, or weight restrictions when signing up for the fights. It had sounded like the perfect scenario to test just how far she’d come. There was no more assassin’s circuit, but she would at least be able to feel the impact of her fist against someone’s stomach, jaw, or collarbone. Sudden death by husband wasn’t what she’d had in mind.

Giorgio wore his hair a little longer these days, and the dark, damp tresses cascaded in easy waves around the sharp lines of his face. His hair should have softened his features but, for the first time since they met, she was afraid of him. In here, she was his opponent, not his wife.

The announcer shuffled to the middle of the cage, knees knocking like he was trying to pick up a family of king cobras from behind with a single hand. When Giorgio stood, the announcer squirmed and stepped back, behind Mo, head tucked just below hers. 

Giorgio flicked a glance his way.

“S-sorry, I forgot,” the announcer squeaked, releasing her. He then did his spiel and scurried from the cage.

Mo adjusted her top and tights. She should have done cornrows. A ponytail he could grab, and Giorgio was a ponytail grabber. Only, in this instance, she was pretty sure she wouldn’t come right after.

The bell rang. 

Neither one of them moved. 

Not even the crowd appeared to be breathing, and it made her wonder what Giorgio had done in front of these people.

“Bez.” He tossed his hair back out of his eyes. “Come.”

“No.”

“Why.”

“I’m scared.”

They crossed the mat toward each other. 

She threw a kick. He pushed her leg aside, picked her up, and dropped her onto her back. Mo, grimacing through the sting, hopped right back up.

He went to grab her for another takedown, but at the last moment, she spun around his body. After lodging her knee against his spine, she hooked her elbow around his neck from behind. But he merely reached back and flipped her over his head, dropping her onto her back, again, on the mat. 

Mo leaped back onto her feet.

“I watch you, my Bez,” he said.

She threw out a punch that he slapped away. He did the same with her second attempt. She rushed him, wrapped him up around the middle, and when she felt his muscles flex to grab her, she swept his leg and they both dropped to the mat this time, her on top of him. Somewhere in the middle of their descent, he’d grabbed her forearms and moved them to his chest so that his weight didn’t fall on her hands or wrists.

A gasp cut through the silent room.

Anyone else, at this point, she would have hit. Elbowed. Struck in some way. It was Gio, so she rolled away and stumbled to her feet. It felt like they were fighting alone with all the cheering and jeering gone. The way Giorgio’s gaze pierced hers, it felt that way.

He sat with his forearms on bent knees. “Do you hate me, my Bez?”

“Never, Gio.”

“You leave when I am sleeping. You,” he gestured to her body, “have bruise when you come back to me and Aleksi.”

Was this why he’d done this? Was this the only way he could get her to talk to him? 

He stood.

They circled each other.

She was there for him whenever he needed her and sometimes before he realized he did, but she hadn’t allowed him to do that for her, for a while. When it came to Aleksi and the physical aspects of their relationship, things were wonderful. Yet, it had been a while since they’d been Giorgio and Mo instead of Mm-ma and Dada-Papa.

She rushed him.

He shifted, looped one arm around her waist from behind, and she braced, but the impact still stung every nerve cell in her body the minute her spine met the floor. 

“Shit, Gio!”

“Does this hurt, my Bez? Do you feel pain, my Bez?”

He stepped back to give her space to get up, and then he raised his hands, going into fighter stance.

“You’ve got to be joking,” Mo mumbled, shaking out her arms and rolling her shoulders.

He came at her, swinging. She narrowly dodged each blow, bobbing and slapping them away, and she wanted Mike’s opponent instead. Him, she could have handled, easily. These guys of theirs? These men? There was something wrong with them, and her husband was the most unique of them all.

She fired a front roundhouse kick.

He used both hands to stop it, forcing her leg back, and she came close to losing her footing for what felt like the hundredth time since the fight began. According to the timer, five minutes hadn’t even passed yet when the fight had already felt longer than her entire pregnancy.

Giorgio came at her again, and she went to strike, but he stepped around her. She prepared for him to toss her down, but he wrapped his elbow around her neck and one of his legs around hers, and fell backward, locking her in a submission hold. 

“I’m sorry, Gio,” she said, straining. “I want to fight again.”

He tightened the hold. “No.”

“You don’t get to,” she took a second to breathe, the hold stealing her oxygen, “tell me no.”

“You can tell me yes, so I can tell you no.”

Tears sprung in her eyes. “This…hold is…intense.”

“Give up.” Somehow, he took the hold even tighter. “Bez, you could not lift Aleksi.”

Which hadn’t been from Book Club, but she had snuck off to an elite boxing gym where she’d had her ass handed to her. The minute she’d stepped through the front door back at home, Aleksi had toddled over to her with his arms raised. She’d been so sore, she hadn’t been able to pick him up until the next day and couldn’t carry him for over a week.

“What if I only fight once in a while?”

He didn’t answer.

“Two fights a year,” she bargained. “And you can train me, directly, for them.”

Stars moved like snowflakes in her line of vision, so she screamed and slapped the mat. He released her, and she turned to the side and coughed until her chest rattled. 

When she could finally breathe, she looked up to find Giorgio’s hand extended. She grabbed it, and he pulled her up against him, then kissed her forehead. To her surprise, the crowd cheered and whistled.

“Why are they cheering?” she asked. 

“You are first to put me on floor, Bez.”

He released her without another word and, as he left the cage, in all the time they’d been together, it was the first time she could say she’d ever, truly, hurt him.

* * *

Joel gave Ayesha a quick kiss against the side of her neck and started off, but she grabbed his hand. “You haven’t fought yet?” she asked.

“I’m flattered you’d think I’d leave the cage this unscathed,” he motioned to his body, “but no. I’m next.”

“Number six?”

“Yes.”

She closed her eyes until an image of the matchup appeared. “You’re K. Grizzle?”

Of course.

If she hadn’t been so worried, she would have laughed. K. Grizzle was short for King Grizzle, a character from one of the Trolls movies. The number of times they’d watched the films, to the point where Josiah had asked to try to hypnotize Theo out of liking them, it should have clicked right away. Leave it to Joel to be cute and nerve-wracking at the same time.

“Do you know who you’re fighting?” she asked. “At least, their name?”

He glanced at the cage. “No, I never look, but I really do have to go. I’ll see you in a minute. Love you.”

His hand slipped from hers.

“Love you too,” she answered, but he was already too far away to hear.

Mike draped an arm around her shoulders. “I spy, with my little eye, someone nervous.”

Amusement and worry blended together, resulting in the puffy laugh that left her throat. “We spend too much time around children.”

“I don’t disagree. But Eesh…even though Joel might be more on the jokester, sarcastic side, he’s a hell of a good fighter.”

“I…” She squeezed her forehead. “Okay.”

Adrían stepped inside the cage and went to one corner, hopping on the balls of his feet and shaking out his arms. His stats were announced in English, Swedish, and Spanish. For all intents and purposes, the matches were close to the real thing. At least, as far as she knew. She didn’t watch MMA fights regularly, and this was underground. Probably illegal. From what she had watched, she’d never seen certain moves used that she’d spotted in the fights that night.

When Joel stepped inside, goosebumps covered her skin when she heard cheers. Whistles. And they weren’t only coming from their group.

Aww, my baby has fans.

Had it not been so dark, she would have scoped out the room to see how many of those fans looked thirsty enough to where she believed they might approach him. Everything—from the blue in his eyes to the half-moon on his pinky finger—was hers. 

“Hold up.” Xara held up a finger. “That’s fuck-buddy up there right now. With Joel.”

Ayesha groaned. “Xara…”

Mike cocked his head to the side. “Shit. That is.”

Adrían and Joel realized at the same moment Xara did, and the air between them changed. The air in the entire warehouse space changed. Adrían looked at Joel like he’d been awaiting this moment for ages, and a look crossed Joel’s face Ayesha had only ever seen once before—in front of Theo and Thandie’s school.

“Hey, Mike?” she called. “Joel said Adrían might be like you guys?”

“Not exactly like us,” Mike snorted, “but we believe his unit came from the same headquarters. The Lavigne asswipe is part of his team, but they don’t operate like we do. The way Joel tells it, Gano wants Lavigne dead almost as badly as he does.”

“And Gano’s short for Delgano, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Mike nodded. “He was never Queirós, by the way.”

She’d figured as much by now.

If Mike and Gage weren’t worried, that meant she had no reason to be. And she wasn’t worried that Adrían could seriously injure Joel. She’d seen Joel hurt, truly hurt, only once after a mission where he’d taken a piece of metal to the leg. He’d had to use crutches for weeks and, considering she’d still been in denial about her feelings for him, she’d convinced herself that she flew to D.C. to help take care of him because the boys wanted a summer away from home. They might have stayed with Julien and Ari, but they’d spent most of their time at Joel’s condo.

Joel and Adrían’s fight started just like the others, both men in planetary orbit. Their jabs and kicks began quicker than the other matches, with Adrían extending his long, muscular leg toward Joel’s midsection and Joel slapping it out of the way.

“You still underestimating your guy, Eesh?” Mike asked.

“I think I’m going to pass out.”

“Don’t worry too much, all right? Plus, the fact that it’s your boyfriend up there he’s fighting will only help Joel beat his ass a little quicker.”

She pinched him. “Call him my boyfriend one more time.”

“Ouch. Xar, make her stop.”

“Don’t look at me,” Xara said, glancing at them. “You deserved that one.”

Adrían rushed Joel, toppled him to the floor on his back, and landed a couple of shots against Joel’s shoulder and neck. Joel maneuvered out of the hold and onto his feet, and he didn’t look the least bit out of breath. Yet, the longer the match went on, the less Ayesha breathed. Next to her, Mike and Gage grinned.

There were a few times where she couldn’t tell who hit who, or who had the upper hand in a hold. 

Adrían trapped Joel against the cage wall and, as he went to shove his knee into Joel’s middle, Joel pushed him off. Adrían then came back, virtually flying through the air, with his left knee.

Mike leaned near Ayesha’s ear. “Problem with that move is, it puts Gano in grappling range. And you don’t want to be in grappling range with Joel.”

Joel evaded the knee, hooked Adrían’s leg, and took him to the mat. He kept the leg locked up, and she could see Adrían trying to pull out of the hold, but it was too tight. His skin complexion, very quickly, went from olive to red all over.

“It’s done,” Mike said.

Ayesha didn’t look away from the fight. “How do you know?”

Just when she thought Adrían’s head would pop from his neck, he tapped.

Joel released.

Adrían’s head fell back to the mat, his chest heaving.

There was no way in hell she was going to encourage Josiah to do this.

Without waiting for a bell, an alarm, a chime…nothing, Joel tugged off his gloves, tossed them at Adrían’s head, and left the octagon without looking back. It didn’t help that TKO Remix started playing. Stockholm wasn’t what she’d been expecting, but she was here for it.

“And that’s the match, ladies and gentlemen,” Mike said. “We out.”

Adrían turned his head and looked in their direction, dazed. Joel walked over and scooped her up without breaking his stride, following the others to the exit. 

“Don’t let me find out you were worried about me going up against your little boyfriend,” he warned.

“Umm—”

“Don’t let it happen again.”

She grinned. “Yes, Mr. Lattimore. Anything you want, Mr. Lattimore.”

* * *

Mo found Giorgio at the hangar wiping down his Bugatti Type 41 Royale Kellner coupe. She knew the name of the car because he’d reiterated, over and over again, that it was important to know he owned the seventh car of which only six were known to have been made.  

Xara, Tayler, and Ayesha had gone home with the guys to give her a chance to follow Giorgio to one of the few places where he went to clear his head.

“Hey, boo,” she called. He didn’t look up, so she tried again. “So, the Bugatti Type 41, also known at the Bugatti Royale, is not only one of the biggest cars in the world, it uses a twelve-liter straight engine…whatever that means.”

Of the many cars they’d made love inside and on top of, several of them were completely off-limits, and that was saying a lot when it came to Giorgio’s appetite. This was one of them.

“Are you giving me the silent treatment?” she asked.

His shoulders dropped. “Nyet.”

“So—”

“Talk, Bez.” He raised his head. “Tell me.”

She folded her arms and leaned against the nearest car approved for leaning against, a red Corvette Stingray convertible. “I think…I think I had the baby blues right after Aleksi, and I’m not entirely certain they’re gone.”

His brows wrinkled. “Baby…blues?”

“Postpartum depression.”

“Depression. Like…sick?”

She nodded. “Mm-hmm. I knew something was off right after I had him, but I just figured that once time passed and my hormones resettled, it would go away.”

“And now?”

“Gio, I don’t know. I’m not unhappy, not really. It’s not you or Aleksi, I swear, but something’s…off?”

He dropped the microfiber towel, strolled over, and pulled her into his embrace. “Prosti, Bez.”

“You don’t have to be sorry. You didn’t do anything.”

“I did not know. This is doing something.”

“You only know what I show you.” She locked her arms around him, her cheek against his chest. “I wanted to fight because I feel really hollow and, the way I saw it, I didn’t feel hollow back when I was working the circuit. But I couldn’t even…I couldn’t even pick up my baby.”

“Bez—”

“It’s not you, Gio, and I’m sorry that I put up walls and blocked you out to the point that you had to fight me to get me to talk to you.”

“Bez, anything you want, you will have it,” he promised. “But remember, you do not have to be strong by yourself. You have family. You have strong, handsome husband who can carry more than you think. My shoulders,” he moved them up and down, “they are light. There are so many things you can give me, Bez. I will hold them all, if this is what you need.”

A laugh bubbled through her tears. “Do you forgive me?” she asked.

“Always.”

She smiled. “I would like to see a doctor before I bring it up with the rest of the fam. Will you come with me?”

“Already, I am there.”

Her smile morphed into a laugh. “You’re so sweet.”

“You are surprised?”

“No. I love you, Giorgio.”

“You will not love me if you look over there.” When she tried to turn, he held her in place. “Bez…you remember fish?”

She wriggled out of his hold and speed-walked toward the office, seeing for the first time the large aquarium she didn’t know how she’d failed to spot when first walking up.

“Do you, at least, only feed them fish food?” she asked.

He hugged her from behind. “I do not understand. What else can I feed them?”

“What I mean is, they don’t have human fingers or ears in their stomachs, right?” When he didn’t respond, she turned around. “Right?”

“Finger?”

“Forget I said anything.”

“Ear?” He looked at the tank. “What else, Bez?”

Groaning, she faced him and brought his mouth down to hers at the same time she reached into her jacket pocket. When they separated, he studied the device she’d placed in his palm.

“It’s a remote control,” she explained.

“For toy?”

“In a way.” She coaxed his other hand into her waistband. “It’s not exactly a toy for our little one. It’s more a toy for me. For us. That remote controls a—hold on, Gio.”

He switched the dial back to off. 

“It controls a,” he flipped it back on, and she jerked, “tiny bullet vibrator…inside the…panties.”

After the explanation, she expected him to turn it off, but he simply watched her, eyelids hooded and irises darker than the sky outside, until she could do nothing but give in to the mercy of orgasm.

Spent, she pressed her forehead against his chest. “I…put them on…to apologize…for earlier.” 

“This will need what kind of battery?”

“Why?”

“I will buy one-hundred.”

She started to laugh, but he turned the vibrator on again, this time switching it on and off until she came with her arms wrapped tightly around his midsection.

“I can fuck you with this, my love?” he asked.

“It might move around too much,” she said, yawning and cozy enough to drift right off to sleep. “Why do you sound so excited, though?”

Even if the answer had been a solid no, it wouldn’t have made a difference as he spun her around and pressed her, face first, against the wall.

He tugged her tights down and made a loop in the string of her panties, hooking the skinny band around his fingers. And it didn’t move, not even an inch as he lost himself inside her, one hand at her hip keeping the panties in place while the other tortured her with varying degrees of intensity between her legs. This had been her idea—she had to remind herself of that with each dizzying climax.

She should have known better than to listen to freaky ass Xara. Then again, Giorgio forgave her easier than she’d expected, so she could have kept the underwear a secret. But, as she crumbled underneath the weight of orgasm number four, she decided to hide the panties until the winter solstice. The next blood moon. Hell, the next passing of Halley’s comet. If she didn’t, she’d have no throat muscles by the end of the year.

She let the third climax wash over her, and after several more deep strokes, Giorgio groaned and released inside her, massaging her spine and hips. 

“Gio, I think we need a new safe word,” she pointed out. “None of the last seven seem to be working.”

“What is safe word?” he asked.

“The word we agreed to use for when I need a minute return to this planet?”

“This is what ‘safe word’ mean?”

“What did you think it meant?”

“Hard. Deep.”

“How, Giorgio? How would pineapples, Stockholm, or Ferrari mean any of those things?”

He placed the controller for the vibrator between his teeth, picked her up, and propped her against one of the hangar walls where he entered her again, pace slow and steady when he knew she wanted fast. Slow was teasing. Torture.

The vibrator wasn’t even on, but as he urged her mouth down to his and slipped the controller between her lips, she cried out, back arching, pulsing from the inside out. It was a new turn-on, him casually putting things in her mouth while he was inside her. Maybe she wouldn’t hide the panties after all.

She removed the controller from her mouth. Using the wall for leverage, he rocked into her until he came a second time. While his chest heaved, he stared at her, slowly blinking, all dark and dangerous and exceptional. 

“Don’t give me those eyes,” she warned.

Those eyes, that face, or that hair. Giorgio as her son’s father instead of being just her Gio was a completely different vibe. Everything she’d wanted and wished for, he’d given her, from this life with him to their family. There was no word for that. Love tried and failed each time.

“I have named fish,” he said, breathing hard. “Just one. Guess.”

“I feel like I’m walking into a tra—”

“It is Mo. You want to know reason I pick this name?”

“N—”

“Because he is gold.”

“Oh, that’s not so—”

“And he will bite everything.”

She sighed. “Walked right into that one.”

“We will be okay?” he asked. “Me and you and Aleksi?”

“Yes.” She wrapped her arms around his neck. “We will be wonderful.”

“I am here, okay?”

“Okay.”

“I love you, my Bez. Always.”

* * *

“Fuck, yeah.” Hyeok’s eyes darted around the room, gauze taped to the wound in his shoulder and his torso bare.

Trevor echoed Hyeok’s agreement, adding, “I didn’t want to go up against those sons of bitches, anyway. What’d they say they wanted when you met with them at the fight?”

Adrían narrowed his eyes at both men. “Lavigne and Spettro.”

Hyeok flicked his wrist. “Take them. Tell them they can do what the fuck ever they want to them.”

Adrían’s brow shot up. “That was surprisingly easy.”

“Alpha’s proposition is that our teams, together, go after Central,” Trevor clarified. “We’re essentially three men down because Lavigne is a ticking time bomb, and Spettro is an arrogant piece of shit who can’t shoot a gun without fracturing a fucking bone. I’d rather do that shit than go up against them as, essentially, a team of three.”

Adrían knew the answer, but he asked anyhow. “So, what about what happened to Wesley?”

“Did you not hear what I just said?” Trevor pointed to his mouth. “I have a wife. I’m trying to be with my wife, have a couple kids. We have a better chance at taking down Central with Alpha than taking down Alpha. When and where do they want Spettro and Lavigne because I’ll gift-wrap the blokes for them if need be, birthday paper and everything. Plus, we couldn’t stop Lavigne that day, which is why their teammate is dead. What happened with Wesley…we deserve that shit.”



Only two episodes left

12: One Last Thing, Before I Go…

Tomorrow


Josiah might not call her Mama forever, and it wouldn’t give her chills every single time, but she knew it would give her chills, at some point, for the rest of her life.

“Yes, Josiah?”

“We should do this more often, right? And not only take trips but hang out just like this, together.”

“I agree.”

He sighed. “I just wish Theo was awake, you know? I mean, he’s really tired, so I don’t want to wake him up, but it would be nice if he could be awake for it.”

“Awake for what?”

“Joel’s question.”


Release Date Schedule
12: One Last Thing, Before I Go – 04/25
13: From Central to the End – 04/30

Episode 10: The End of An Era

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

Note: Flashbacks are in purple and italics.

The End of an Era

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

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

“Ayesha, don’t leave.”

Curtis smiled at Ayesha through her laptop camera. “Look at all those teeth. You must miss me.”

She bolted from the room toward the stairs.

“Of course, I miss you,” she said. “I’m married to the sexiest man on the planet.”

She tripped on the stairs, blinded by tears, saved only by her fingers catching on the banister at the last minute.

“How do you manage without me?” he asked. “And I mean…seriously.”

Joel’s footsteps thundered behind her in the upstairs hallway.

“I’ve been gone a lot more than usual this year, and it’s just you and Jojo down there. I know it’s hard, but how hard is it? Tell me, baby.”

She shrugged and changed positions on the bed, lying on her belly. “I mean, it’s not necessarily easy, but Josiah’s the most wonderful son a mother could ask for. The worst part, honestly, is not having you here. I miss being in your arms, Curtis.”

A soft smile pulled at his mouth, and she got the distinct feeling something was bothering him, but he’d never tell. That was Curtis…Mr. Fix It. He never wanted her to worry about anything he had the power to resolve, so if it was something he didn’t think was worth sharing, she’d trust him.

“Thinking about you down there alone with him, without me,” he sighed, “I don’t sleep sometimes. I mean, neither one of us had a solid family foundation at the start of our lives, so when I started thinking about my future and a wife and children, I always had that worry, you know? Will she be good to them?”

“Eesh!” Joel grabbed her just before she reached the front door, his chest bare and the waistband of his boxer briefs flat against his abdomen. “Wait. Stop.”

A trace of emotion deepened Curtis’ voice. “But I know, as long as you’re his mother, Josiah will be the happiest, smartest, and most wonderful kid in the world.”

She dabbed her fingertips at the corner of her left eye. “What if we end up with another one?”

“Another one? I mean, I did put in some work when I was down there last.” He searched her face as if, on it, he’d be able to read the secret she was holding onto until she was in those arms again. 

She could already hear the happiness that would enter his voice once she told him. Plus, when he came home, the guys would have one of their longest breaks ever. He’d be there for the entire pregnancy and their future little one’s birth. 

It was perfect timing.

“Eesh, if we have a million kids, I trust that you, as my wife, will be the best mother they could ever hope for.”

“A million?” She giggled. “By the hundredth, if I still have a vagina, science will probably want to study me.”

He’d had so much faith in her. He’d believed that as long as she was their children’s mother, their kids would be happy. Smart. Wonderful. But he never said safe. Was it because he knew how much she’d screw it up?

“You asked me not to run away,” Joel said, his grip firm. “That, if there’s something we need to talk about, we talk about it.”

“I might yell at you.”

Scream at him. Lash out because she was in pain, and a big part of her blamed him for it. 

“So what if you yell at me?” He looked down at where his hand curled around her upper arm. “Eesh, you’re shaking.”

Tears dripped from her chin onto the wooden floors. “Joel, I know you. You didn’t tell me about ‘Mr. Veeny’ for a reason. I can’t imagine how much worse this gets, but I know it does.”

He tried to pull her into his chest, but she backed away, tearing her arm from his grasp.

“Don’t comfort me! Just tell me what I did wrong.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Ayesha.”

What had made her think she could manage being a widow and single mother at the age of twenty-five? What had made her think that she would, all of a sudden, know what she was doing when Theo came along? She’d barely known what she was doing with Josiah. In the beginning, she’d even tried to refuse the money the guys had sent her directly after first refusing to access the trust fund Curtis had set up. With a little boy and another one in her belly!

“Joel,” she dropped her voice to a whisper, a warning, “tell me.”

Joel released a long, grating, and obviously reluctant sigh. “Theo told me about Mr. Veeny that night he and I had the sleepover. Adrían was at the museum when we were there, and he gave me info that suggests Mr. Veeny is actually a man who goes by the name of Siriano Lavigne.” 

“And why would Adrían do that?”

“You can answer that yourself.”

“Is that why you were upset that day? Because of your run-in with Adrían?”

“Yes,” he confessed. “He knew about the ‘veeny’ incident, so I thought you’d been talking to him and lying about it.”

She stared at him, nostrils flaring slightly. “You don’t trust me.”

“Trusting you isn’t the point.”

“Don’t do that.” She squeezed her eyelids together and circled her hand in the air. “Answer me directly. Do you trust me?”

“Yes, Ayesha. I trust you. But that doesn’t mean shit like that doesn’t hurt or fuck with my head.” His eyes darted over her face, irises a shocking blue and his brows lowered. “You just realized that you care about the man, but I saw it all over your face when you ran into him at the restaurant. So, I thought you didn’t want to tell me you were talking to him because your feelings were coming back or deeper than would make me comfortable.”

This was honest Joel, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about honest Joel. He was hard to argue with. It wasn’t like she could simply tell him his feelings weren’t valid, and she did have stronger feelings for Adrían than even she’d realized. 

“Is Adrían part of this Mr. Veeny thing?” 

“Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Lavigne is probably his comrade, but he appears to,” Joel stretched the muscles in his neck, scratched at his shoulder nearly hard enough to tear skin, “have more loyalty to you than that piece of shit.”

“There’s more, isn’t there? You’re getting angrier. What else, Joel? How did Mr. Veeny terrorize my Theo? Was he in Maui? At his school? Joel…” She sucked in a painful breath and let it out so quickly, it made her lightheaded. “Was he in my house?”

Joel nodded.

Their breakfast, from all those hours ago, sloshed in her stomach. 

“Was he in the house even we were there? Like…when we were asleep?”

He tried to pull her into him again. 

She continued to resist, but the next thing she knew, she was pressed against his bare chest, and his arms were around her. It felt so good to be wrapped up by him, it made her even sicker to her stomach. Why should she receive comfort when she didn’t deserve it? Why should he hold her close just because, in the next couple of minutes, she was going to lose it?

“I’ll let go if you tell me to.”

She didn’t tell him to.

He continued. “Lavigne climbed in through a window. More specifically, he climbed in through Theo’s window. But Theo swears Lavigne didn’t hurt him, and I believe him.”

She gripped Joel tight, needing the pressure of his chest to dull the ache in hers. “Joel, his behavior matches that of a child who’s been abused.”

“Or heavily traumatized. From what Giorgio and Dez told me, this Lavigne isn’t a small guy. And…he threatened Theo…with a gun.”

The final strand of her sanity frayed, the tip splitting and webbing. “A gun?” She shook her head, tears and snot smearing his chest. “I’m a fucking joke.”

“Ayesha—”

“What kind of mother…” Her head shook again. “No kind of mother. How could I do this? My baby needed me. He’s just a baby, Joel.”

Joel’s hand skimmed the length of her spine. “You know how my shit is that I’m scared to fuck things up for us? Your thing is, you seem to believe you’re a terrible mother. Why?”

“Because…with Theo, I stressed out so much while I was pregnant with him, what if my stressing is what makes life so challenging for him now? He doesn’t,” her voice broke, “have friends. My baby doesn’t have friends, and that kills me inside because I know I’m responsible for that. And what if Josiah’s the way he is because he had Curtis in his life? I was barely twenty when he was born, Joel.”

Joel’s voice was harsh but nonthreatening. “Josiah, first of all, is my ace. He’s the coolest damn kid ever, and you have a hand in that. I see a lot of you in him. As for Theo, baby, he just hasn’t found his tribe yet. So what if he’s a hare in a tortoise world? One of the best fucking things to ever happen to me is him wanting to call me his father. I was on a ledge ready to jump when me and Syd split up, and I walked right into you. Right into all three of you.”

All the energy she’d needed to hold everything together left, all at once. She wanted to see her boys, to hold them, but she was afraid it would only further mess them up. Her job as a mother was her deepest insecurity, and the truth about Theo’s ‘veeny’ dreams was a hammer thrashing what had cracked open long ago.

Time slowed. 

She was supposed to be the Mama Bear, fiercely protective of her cubs. Mr. Veeny…Lavigne…whatever, he’d been right there. Right there.

And who was to say he hadn’t done something and Theo had repressed it to come out later? She didn’t want that kind of life for her baby. That kind of burden could change entire personalities, and no one should be allowed to come in and change them that way. But she’d let them climb right in through the window.

Joel carried her upstairs and sat on the bed with his arms around her. She cried against his chest, and his voice wavered when he spoke.

“Ayesha, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

How could she be mad at him? He’d kept it from her because of this. He’d wanted to prolong this happening for as long as he could. Everything inside her wanted to argue with him that he’d kept it from her, hid it from her, lied by omission…but she wished even now that she didn’t know. She wished he’d kept it from her forever.

“Man, Eesh…” He held her tighter. “Let me fix this. Want me to go get the boys?”

She cried harder.

“I do sometimes feel like I’m screwing him up, if I’m being honest,” Ayesha admitted. “A kid raising a kid, basically. Somewhat.”

“You know the guys think I’m old as hell, right?” Curtis asked. “Don’t tell them how old you are. They’ll think I’m a pervert.”

“Curtis, I’m about to be twenty-five.”

“And I was in the second grade when you were born. I was practically a grown man.”

“Please. You probably still used those fat crayons in second grade.”

“I still use them now.”

Laughing, she buried her face in the mattress.

“Even if we do screw ‘Siah up,” Curtis said, chuckling, “he’s ours to screw up.”

“I don’t want him to have to go through therapy to recover from his childhood.”

“Eesh, he has a father whose job is to kill people undetected.”

“He doesn’t know that!”

“Some shit’s gonna rub off. Like, he’ll accidentally take C4 to show and tell or something, and then I’ll have to tell all his friends it’s Play-Doh while the FBI tackles me to the ground.”

“Oh my God.” She laughed even harder. “You’re perfect, Curtis. Josiah is in great hands.”

“Neither one of us is perfect but, in my opinion, imperfect people make the best parents.”

“So, we do our best?”

“We do our best,” he echoed. “And love each other all the way to the end.”

She smiled, staring at his handsome face and watching the rise and fall of his chest. Each breath meant that his heart still beat, and once he came home, she’d lie on that chest and listen to it every night as they drifted off.

“Curtis, do you think you’d be able to remarry if something happened to me?”

He scoffed. “Yeah.”

“Damn.”

“I’m just kidding, mama!” His laugh crackled through the laptop speaker. “To be honest, I don’t know. With Jojo, and if we ever have any more kids, it would be hard. I’d want her to love them, you know? And it’s not easy to ask someone else to love kids that aren’t theirs.”

“That’s fair.”

“How about you? Same question, Mrs. Savea.”

“Same answer,” she replied. “He’d have to feel like somebody you would have picked for me yourself.”

“Well then, let me think, now. What kind of man would I pick for you? I mean, Gage is single.”

“And, no offense, he’s fine as hell.”

“There you go.”

“Stop it.” She giggled. “For you, I’d pick someone understanding, patient, and who doesn’t care about rubbing your size seventeen feet when they’re sore.”

He roared another laugh. “You’re essentially telling me that you want me to never remarry.”

“Just about.”

“Actually, wait. Let me really think about this.” He tapped his chin, focus just off-screen. 

It was impossible to tell where he was. Everything was dark, and she made out a few silhouettes here and there that looked like everything and nothing at all. Sometimes it was easy, like when he stayed in luxury homes and expensive hotels. Times like now, when he was in the middle of nowhere underneath tents and inside caves, all she could do was pray that, when their call ended, he remained safe until they spoke again.

“The man I’d pick for you…he’d work you like a miner, picking and picking until he breaks down those walls,” he said. “When you’re frustrated, he doesn’t wilt. When you’re angry, he doesn’t rise to match you but helps you calm down. When you’re sad or depressed, he doesn’t let you turn him away. And, I know it’s asking for a lot, but I’d prefer it if he pulled along well with the guys. These are my brothers, and I don’t want some fool coming into your life who doesn’t know what being part of this family is like.”

“Are you still pawning me off on Gage?”

“Or Dez. They’re both single right now.”

“What about Giorgio?”

“Ayesha, I love you, but you’re not the woman for Giorgio. She’s out there, somewhere, but I’d rather you stay single or get ten cats  and a python before you try to tame that beast.”

She nodded. “Noted. And I love you too, Curtis.” 

He grinned. “You love me, baby?”

“I always will.”

“Go ahead and call me ‘Big Daddy’ one good time.”

“Bye.”

“Ayesha, I love you,” Joel said, his lips in her hair. “We’ll get through this. I promise.”

* * *

Joel made his way downstairs, phone pressed to his ear. 

“Hey, bestie,” Larke greeted on the second ring. “Me and Dez have the boys, by the way. It’s been a while since we’ve spent time with them, so I hope you don’t mind them staying for dinner.”

“Of course not.”

“So, tell me what happened now?”

He recounted the scene from only a few hours before. 

“I left Eesh upstairs asleep, and I don’t know what to say to her when she wakes up. I’ve…never seen her like that, Larke. I need to make this right or…”

He didn’t know how to finish.

“Joel, you’re worried that Eesh will, I don’t know, shut down or dish out ultimatums and whatnot, but that’s not Eesh’s style.” 

It hadn’t been Sydney’s either. 

Not until she met him.

“You know there’d be a deathmatch in this house between me and Dez at least once a month if we didn’t feel about each other the way we do. I mean, I wanted to take him out the other day for eating my chocolate bar. Talking about, ‘But Monroe ate most of it’ like my baby just opened the refrigerator and got it herself.”

Joel glanced at the stairs when he heard a noise come from what sounded like the bedroom. “Not the one me, you, and Mike spent nearly two hours trying to find? The one that’s a replica from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?”

“That same damn one.”

“I think Tay and Gage would have had an actual death match. You know she doesn’t play when it comes to her sweets.”

“You’re right.” Larke giggled. “Look, I’d be messed up too if I found out someone dangerous had come that close to Monroe without me knowing, and it doesn’t matter what we do or how strong we get. We won’t be you guys. Ayesha won’t ask you to be, but be there for her. What you don’t know is that, when she was alone in Maui, she was scared. Terrified, sometimes. She’s never said it outright, but me and the girls read through the lines. She doesn’t really have family, so it was just the three of them until you came along.”

Ayesha’s voice rang out from upstairs. “Joel? Can you bring me something to eat, please?”

“I’ve got you.” He returned to his conversation with Larke. “So I should do, what? Make her feel safe?”

“Do what you do best…be you. It’s not some kind of cardinal sin to like being in the arms of the person you love. And look, I’ll never be Dez. Never in a million years. You six are not normal human beings, so when I lie down at night with my husband next to me, I sleep like a rock knowing he’ll do whatever he can to keep me and Monroe safe. Right now, Eesh is scared. Just like your presence is helping Theo and Josiah feel safe again, Eesh needs that too.”

He smiled to himself, heading to the kitchen. Larke was so right, he didn’t need to verbally agree. They’d focused on the boys so much, on him. Ayesha was better at this than he realized, shifting all the attention away from her so that he didn’t feel “obligated” to take care of her. 

It was no obligation. 

It wasn’t even a duty. 

“Thank you, Larke. I could kiss you.”

“You could do what, now?” Dez’s voice boomed. 

Larke faked a gasp. “Oh no, Joel. He’s caught us. Dez, honey, I can explain…”

Joel laughed. “Thanks again, L. Love you, boo.”

“Lattimore, don’t make me put my foot—”

He hung up, reheated a couple of the chicken burritos Ayesha had mentioned earlier, and when he returned to the room, he found her wearing only his shirt. Puffiness made her eyes look swollen, but gone was the heavy mask of grief she’d fallen asleep with. 

She attempted a smile. “Thank you, babe.”

He handed over her plate and took a seat next to her on the bed. They ate, Ayesha sniffling and clearing her throat periodically, and he remained quiet, giving her the space she needed to talk. 

“They’re good boys,” she said, after a long while, when her plate was empty. “Right?”

He nodded. “Good human beings.”

“And I raised them, so that must count for something.”

“We’re going to have to better plan our crises,” he teased. “We can’t have them back to back like this again.”

A smile twitched her cheek, and she edged nearer to him, laying her head on his shoulder. 

Something released in his chest. All she had to do was touch him, and his heart was the entire drumline in a university marching band. All he had to do was touch her… That night in the car after the school fair in Maui, each time his fingertips met her skin, he kept needing hit after hit. Then, touch wasn’t enough—he needed to hold her hand, trap her fingers. When even that stopped being enough, he needed her in his arms, her mouth on his, her heat wrapped around him.

“I don’t want to fail them, Joel.”

“What makes you think you will?”

“It’s a chronic fear of mine. My anxiety goes from baseline to ‘oh, shit’ the minute I realize, really realize how responsible I am for them. I second-guess myself every day—am I spending enough time with Josiah? Am I coddling him? Am I coddling Theo? Do I not cuddle him enough? Was I too harsh that one time? Am I taking my frustrations out on them? Is this the one time I’ll yell at them and turn them into ax murderers? I mean, what was it that made my baby think he couldn’t tell me this was happening? Did I make him not trust me?”

Joel’s very own mother, a woman who he thought had done an amazing job raising him, had often questioned if she knew what she was doing with him and his sister. She never told them that directly, but he’d overhear her on the phone with her friends, his aunts, and his grandmother. She worried whenever she raised her voice, or if the punishment she’d doled out had been too harsh, just like Ayesha did, but that wasn’t, at all, what he remembered. 

He remembered huge Sunday dinners, the way she smelled when she hugged him, and eating chocolate biscotti with her on their back patio. He remembered her hair and her eyes, both of which he got from her, and the way she’d smile at him when he came downstairs in the mornings for breakfast.

All things considered, to him, she was perfect. Jemma Lattimore, for all her worrying, had done an excellent job as his mother. It was even possible that her worrying had helped her do an excellent job. 

“Theo didn’t tell you because he was trying to protect you,” Joel said. “Lavigne said he’d hurt you and Josiah if he did. For a little kid, that’s pretty damn brave. Where do you think he learned that?”

She nudged him with her shoulder. “From you.”

“I have been around for a while, haven’t I?”

“Yes. And, I’d like for you to stay around for a while.”

“How long, you think?”

“You’re mine until I say you’re not, and that won’t happen so…forever?” She wrapped her arms around him, and he tightened his hold on her. 

“You know it’s okay to need me, right?” he asked. “To make you feel safe, I mean. Me being in your life doesn’t mean, on your own, you were doing a bad job. Josiah said you make him feel loved and cared for, and I make him feel safe. This thing we’re doing, it’s a team effort. My job is to protect my family, and I’m going to do that.”

“But if you weren’t around—”

“Does it matter? Because I am around. Lean on me. I’m going to be there for you. I’m going to make things easier for you in any way that I can. You won’t have to do all that alone anymore. I’m not going to sweep the rug out from under you, make you get all cozy, and then sneak off.” He squeezed her against him. “Ayesha, I’ve got you.”

She nodded, her voice again full of tears but without the agony. “Thank you.”

“You don’t have to thank me.”

“I know, but I want to.”

He kissed her forehead. “God, Eesh…Josiah lights up when he talks about you, and you should have seen Theo scrutinize all the flowers at the shop because he had to get you the ‘perfect’ bouquet. Everywhere we went, people kept telling me how my ‘son’ was so ‘adorable’ and ‘kind.’ You know Theo played it up too.”

“He can get extra cute when he wants to.”

“Eesh, you three are mine. When you go to sleep tonight, know that it’s with my love and protection wrapped around you, around this house, and you’ll have it until Joel Lattimore is no more.”

Her shoulders lowered, an obvious boulder of relief having been crushed. 

As a self-proclaimed obsessed madman, he knew that before he and the guys left Sweden to address the kill order, he was going to propose to Ayesha with the ring burning a hole in his pocket every-single-day. The time they’d spent taking care of each other, taking care of the boys, and falling for one another before officially accepting they wanted to be together was like time served.

It wasn’t too soon. And, even if it was, this was about them, not anyone else.

She pressed her lips against his and then tried to leave the bed, but he held her in place.

“I have to start dinner,” she said.

“No, you don’t.” He coaxed her onto her back and raised the shirt, exposing her naked lower half. “The boys are having dinner with Dez and Larke, and we just ate.” 

“Well, I have to go check the sink. It’s doing that gurgling thing again.”

“Didn’t Theo say he lost a race car recently?” 

“I believe he did.”

“I’ve got it. I’ll just do the thing I did last time.”

Her eyes closed. “You mean call a plumber?”

“Exactly.” 

He nudged her legs apart with his knees and lowered his head between them.

* * *

He’d expected Syd, not Syd and Dmitri. 

They’d showed up together at the restaurant, hand in hand, Syd wearing a loose-fitting top that didn’t do as good a job hiding her belly that she’d probably assumed. It was easier to admit than he’d anticipated that they looked good together. If Syd was pregnant, if she was happy, he wanted her to have the fairy-tale, happily ever after ending that hadn’t been his fate to give her.

He’d learned from Larke that Syd had given Ayesha the third degree about his and Ayesha’s relationship that same morning she’d showed up, unexpectedly, at the house. They’d been split up long enough, at least he’d assumed they’d been split up long enough for her to be able to deal with seeing someone else in his bed. Maybe, had it been someone other than Ayesha, it would have been less of an issue. 

The guys had admitted that they’d never questioned the timing of his and Ayesha’s relationship—the stars had simply aligned at the right time for them both.

“So, what do you think?” Sydney asked.

Joel blinked. “What?”

She released a sigh, tossing up a set of straightened bangs that he’d never expected would be a look for her. “Where do you go these days, my friend?”

“My mind was…on steak.”

And Ayesha.

“You were thinking about Ayesha,” she said. “Remember, I used to be married to you.”

“And remember I used to be married to you, so this little pregnancy announcement is old news.”

She and Dmitri shared a look.

“You knew?” she asked.

“I had a hunch ever since that morning you showed up outside me and Eesh’s bedroom door.”

“Theo walked me up.” 

“Theo’s five.”

“Well,” she wrinkled her nose, “I didn’t know you had company. I mean, the last time we spoke, you couldn’t even admit how you felt about her.”

“Because it wasn’t easy. I was falling in love at a time when I didn’t think it was possible, and with a woman who was several levels above taboo. I felt like I was breaking some bro code or something.”

“You didn’t even know Curtis.”

“That’s what I’m saying, but shit was still hard.”

Dmitri jumped in. “Um…we’re trying not to curse around the babies.”

Babies?” Joel leaned back as the server placed a glass of lemonade in front of him. “You’re having twins, Syd? Wow, that’s…amazing.”

“We just found out.” She slouched as if the realization suddenly reminded her she was tired. “One of the babies was blocking the other, and their heartbeats were in sync. It’s two boys.”

Joel felt a tug in his chest, unexpected but still there. He was jealous, but not of Dmitri. Syd hadn’t even known whether she wanted children, and there she was with two.

“Any names yet?” he asked, taking a large gulp of lemonade.

She flicked a thumb at Dmitri. “He wants one of them to be named after his cousin. The other one is still up in the air.”

Dmitri sipped his drink, a small glass of whiskey on ice. “It’s because I’m not a fan of my name. I was supposed to be named Dominik, but my mother changed her mind at the last minute and let my uncle take the name.”

The server returned. “Are we ready to order?”

Joel and Dmitri put in their orders, and Sydney placed an order that had enough food for three people. 

“I better lose this weight after these guys are here,” she said as the server walked off. “I want to eat all the damn time.”

Joel grinned so wide, the corners of his mouth pained him a little. “Eesh said she was like that with Josiah.”

“I keep hearing about this Eesh,” Dmitri said. “How’d you two meet? Syd hasn’t told me.”

“We’re all friends,” Joel answered. “I essentially met the group through Gage. After the divorce, I guess you could say me and Eesh inadvertently leaned on each other.”

“And you fell for her.”

“Yep.”

“How long do you think it took you?”

Joel frowned. “I mean, I wasn’t keeping a calendar or anything. One minute, she was Ayesha. The next, she was Ayesha. After that, it was pretty much a free fall. I mean, we were at the beach. We always went to the beach. But that one day, I don’t know, something changed.”

“Would you say things just kind of clicked?” Dmitri prodded.

Joel nodded, taking a sip of his drink. “Clicked and grew. It got harder and harder to leave her. I’m just now realizing that I used to hold my breath until I saw her at the airport. And, after a while, the hugs felt different. She went from hugging me up under my arms,” he demonstrated, elbows bent, “to hugging me around my neck. Holding on a little longer.”

That very last time he’d flown out, he’d taken a carry-on so he didn’t have to wait for a bag and prolong getting to her. 

When he saw her, he went right over and wrapped his arms around her, lifting her off her feet. In his mind, he was being Joel, being playful, but he held her that day. And God, it was so good. She was soft in all the right places, even the places she hated to be soft. She’d smelled like honey and oranges in her hair, soap on her neck. As they’d released each other, the sides of their faces brushed, and it had taken everything in him not to grab the back of her head and devour her mouth.

The server brought their food, set it on the table, and as Sydney asked for remoulade to put on her French fries, she asked him, “Have you bought the ring yet?”

Joel laughed and let his head briefly hang. “Maybe.”

“Pay up, babe.” Sydney wiggled her fingers at Dmitri. “Told you.”

“You went right in for the kill,” Dmitri argued. “I was buttering him up, first.”

“He’s my ex-husband. Of course, I was going to be right.”

“What about you two?” Joel asked. “Any wedding bells in your future?”

They looked at each other.

“We don’t want to move too fast, you know?” Dmitri said. Then, they both burst out laughing.

Grinning, Joel shook his head, their amusement infectious.

“We’re focused on the babies right now,” Sydney said. “But, I guess he’s all right.”

Dmitri shrugged. “The verdict is still out on this one.”

“It better not be.”

Dmitri kissed the side of her head and whispered something in Russian that made her smile.

“Does everyone else know yet?” he asked. 

Sydney dipped a handful of fries in what was essentially tartar sauce. “Nope. I wanted to tell you first. We’ll be out for a visit for Grey’s birthday. We’ll do it then. But, enough about us. How do you plan to propose?”

He’d told Giorgio that he was thinking about proposing. The next thing he knew, he was at Giorgio’s jeweler in London with Mike and Xara, and he had to admit…Giorgio had a pretty damn good eye for virtually everything luxury. Xara had designed the ring, saying it was for her brand, and asked for input from everyone but only took Ayesha’s.

It was a solitaire ring with a yellow diamond that would look perfect on Ayesha’s finger, but that was about as much as he remembered because he’d started internally panicking as Xara had explained all the features. 

Ayesha could say no. 

She could say she wasn’t ready, that they were rushing things.

He, Mike, and Giorgio had gone to a bar afterward, and only four shots of whiskey had done the trick to calm him down. 

For now, when the ring wasn’t with him, it stayed with Larke and Dez. He did, however, show it to Josiah who’d smiled bigger than he’d ever seen Josiah smile.

“Why is he sweating?” he heard Dmitri ask.

“Joel?” Sydney snapped her fingers. “Come back to us, Joel.”

He exhaled, and it felt like he’d been holding his breath for days. A quick swipe of his forehead with his fingers told him Dmitri hadn’t been exaggerating. Was he really about to do this again? He’d been nervous to ask Syd and look how that turned out. He didn’t want to lose Ayesha. Ever. She was his. They had a family together.

“I…uh, I don’t know yet,” he replied. “We talked about, kind of, me doing it on the beach? But, I don’t know. I want to do it before we leave, though.”

Sydney pulled everything but the tomatoes out of her sandwich and took a bite. “Leave where?”

“Me and the guys.”

“Oh.” She chewed. “Hmm. Maybe don’t do it yet, then. What if you don’t come back?”

“It’s not the same.” He pushed his plate away. “We’re not going out for the same reasons as before.”

“Still.” Sydney shrugged. “Ayesha’s sweet. Even when I was being a complete dick to her, she was still sweet. I can’t imagine the universe wanting to hurt her twice, but I’d be cautious.”

Dmitri jumped in. “You love each other. She’s lost a husband. To me, that means don’t wait. From what I understand, you two have had feelings for each other for a long time even if your relationship is still new. So, it’s like time-served.”

Which was exactly how he saw it.

“If it was me, I’d get engaged and married before I left.” Dmitri stole one of Sydney’s fries. “You two want kids?”

Joel’s phone chimed with a text message.

Ayesha: I love you. Just so you know.

“That must be her,” Sydney teased. “Look at how wide he’s grinning.”

Joel scrubbed his hand down his face. “Shut up, Syd.”

“It’s getting even wider!”

Ayesha: Btw, can you bring me something sweet on the way back?


Joel: So, myself?


Ayesha: Something for me to eat *before* I swallow you whole later tonight.

A picture came through of Theo, fast asleep, in his room. In his very own bed.

Joel: Whaaaat? I am on my way.


Ayesha: 😈

Joel looked up. “So…I have to go. Emergency at home.”

Sydney rolled her eyes, grinning now herself. “Uh, huh.”

“The pipes at the house…burst.”

“I bet.”

He placed a quick order for a slice of Swedish apple pie, and when the server brought the food, Dmitri offered to pay the bill.

“Well, I should’ve gotten something more expensive,” Joel said, rising from the table. 

“I want to make sure you get to those pipes,” Dmitri said. “As soon as possible. That kind of thing, you don’t want to wait on.”

Sydney burst out laughing. “Oh, baby. You’re so adorable. His pipes are fine. It’s Ayesha’s pipes he’s about to go fix.”

Dmitri frowned. When it hit him, he laughed. “Oh! Well…the explanation still stands, I think.”

Sydney stood, and Joel pulled her in for a tight hug, laughing a little when her stomach poked him in his. Years ago, this would have been all he’d ever wanted. He didn’t think life would ever stop ceasing to amaze him in the quietest, yet somehow loudest of ways.

“I’ll talk to you later,” he said, kissing her cheek. “Congratulations, Mama. You’re about to be so huge.”

“Joel, get out of here before I stab you with this fork.”

* * *

He made it home in record time and walked right into another one of life’s little wonderful surprises—Ayesha standing in the middle of their bedroom in red lace, black silk, pumps, and stockings with garters. 

“Jesus.” He set down the pie container. “So I’m guessing you don’t want pie?”

She spun, and the back went up into a pair of G-string panties. Pre-cum dripped from the head of his dick, and he had to adjust himself to relieve the pressure of it pushing against his zipper.

“Oh no, I’m still going to eat that. Just…after.”

He walked over and looped his fingers through the waistband of the panties. “Can I come home to this every night?”

“Absolutely.” She reached up and kissed him. “Just get six more wives.”

“Wives?”

“Girlfriends.” She tapped her forehead. “Girlfriends. Freudian slip.”

Her slip-up definitely took the edge off the proposal. It wasn’t enough that he trusted himself holding the ring over a sink or manhole cover, but he might be able to sleep more than four hours a night again.

“You’re the psychoanalyst. What do they say about Freudian slips, again?” He bent and dragged his teeth along the curve of her neck. “You look amazing, by the way. I see ‘Book Club’s paying off.”

“I know nothing of which you speak.”

He palmed her left breast, his thumb skimming over the nipple, and he couldn’t stop the smile when she shivered from the tip of her head down to her toes. Fuck, he loved that shit. 

“Real quick, Joel?”

He brushed his lips over her jaw. “Hmm?”

“We’ll have to start using condoms soon.”

He leaned back. “Any particular reason why?”

“Are you really giving me the ‘who else are you sleeping with’ face right now? You’re so sexy, who would I sleep with? Unless it’s, like, Charlie Hunnam or something.”

He cocked his head to the side. “Wait, doesn’t Dez resemble—”

“But, we’ll have to use condoms because I’m thinking about getting the IUD removed.”

“Why? Was it causing you problems? Are you okay?”

“No problems, and I’m fine.”

“I don’t mind using condoms,” he said, and part of him believed it. 

Her eyes fell, and she gripped her fingers.

“Eesh, what is it? What’s going on?”

“So, I know you guys are leaving soon,” she began. “Julien told Ari, and she spilled the beans.”

“We were gonna say something, but we wanted everyone to relax a little.” He tipped her chin up. “Ayesha, what’s wrong? Talk to me.”

“I’m just realizing that this might be a really bad idea, and I don’t know if I want to bring it up.”

“Tell me anyhow.”

“Joel…we don’t have to use the condoms.”

“Now, I’m confused.”

“Um…so…what if…never mind. It’s a bad idea, isn’t it?” She shook her head so rapidly, he grabbed her chin to keep it from flying off her neck. “You’d think, by now, I’d learn… It’s just…I think I want this, Joel. I think I’ve wanted this for a while. No, I know I do. Unless we’re moving too fast. I mean, we haven’t even talked about—”

“Kids?” 

“…Yeah.” She released a quivering breath. “It’s just that, we’re both in this for the long haul, and I don’t see myself going anywhere, and I really want this with you, but…am I rushing things? I’m probably rushing things. I think I just got scared because you’re leaving, and it’s a really bad idea because what if something happens and—”

He brought his mouth down to hers, his hand cradling the back of her neck. She grabbed his elbows, head arched back, and pushed onto her toes even though she was wearing sky-high heels. When they pulled apart, he took her hand and held it, his thumb rubbing her knuckles.

Her rambling continued. “This was selfish of me, wasn’t it? I just decided I wanted it removed without telling you, but I wouldn’t, you know, do that to you. Not tell you, I mean. I’m not trying to trap you or anything.”

“You want to have my baby, Eesh?” He ran his fingers over the lace in her bra. “Did you wear this to soften the blow of asking that question? What’d you think I’d say?”

“That it’s a stupid idea since we’re not married.”

“What if,” he nudged her back toward the bed, “we have sex tonight and you get pregnant?”

“The IUD’s pretty effective.”

She was so cute when she was nervous. 

“I mean, hypothetically. You get pregnant. Then what?”

“What do you—” He toppled her backward onto the mattress and slipped off her shoes. “What do you mean?”

He pulled off his shirt, and she whimpered when her gaze fell to his chest and stomach.

“You think I’ll walk out on you or something?” he asked. “No, baby. I wouldn’t do that.”

He stepped out of his jeans and boxer briefs, and her gaze lowered. She reached out and ran her thumb over the fat head of his dick, swirling his pre-cum before she stuck the finger into her mouth. Then, the warmth of her mouth closed around him. 

He hissed, saw flashes of white, and pulled back out of her mouth. Not tonight. Tonight, he would fill her with every last drop. He would fill her until she spilled over, falling asleep only to wake up a sticky, satisfied mess. 

Ayesha wanted to have his baby.

“Why’d you pull away?” She looked up at him, lips already beginning to swell from moving them over the length of his erection. 

He tipped his head at her bra.

She popped out her breasts, the dark tips making his mouth water.

“Back.”

She pushed back on the bed, and when her legs fell open, he smiled. 

“Tell me what you want, Ayesha.” He kissed a trail from her chest down over her belly button, stopping just above her glistening sex which grew wetter and wetter in front of his eyes. “Tell me exactly what you were trying to say earlier.”

“That I wouldn’t mind having your baby.”

He groaned and used two fingers to spread her. “You can do better than that.”

“That I…I want to have your baby.”

He lowered his head, licking first, sucking on her lips before letting his tongue slip between the seam to find her clit. He kept her parted with his thumbs, paying attention to the spot on the organ where she was most sensitive. 

When he looked up, she was wetting her fingers, squeezing her nipples. The muscles in her thighs pulled and, as she got closer to climax, her hips rocked. He latched on tighter, sucking her clit until she gasped and her body went stiff. Until she pulled away when he tried to keep going, shivering in the room which had warmed up considerably since they started.

He climbed over her, nudging her legs as wide as she could take having them. “I’m not going anywhere, Ayesha.”

“So…you want this?”

He pushed into her. 

She swallowed a cry.

“I want this,” he said. “God, I want this. You are fucking amazing, you know that?”

Ayesha was in his head. Between the way she felt, soaking after her climax, and what she wanted with him, his balls were already beginning to tighten. 

“How could you know?” He lowered, pushed into her harder, faster. “How could you know, be so sure that you want this with me?”

She held onto his shoulders. “It’s all I think about.”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t want anybody else.”

“So, will you—“ He stopped himself. He was not going to ask her with half his dick inside her and no ring. “Would you be happy having a baby with me?”

“I want to have your baby, Joel. Let me have your baby.”

The sweet, sweet burn of climax threatened to claim him as her hand slipped between them, working furiously. It took Herculean strength, but he stopped moving and sucked on her pebbled nipples until she cried out.

“Joel, you feel so good.” Her pussy tightened around him, tugging and pulling. “Please come inside me. I want to feel you come inside me.”

It didn’t take long, not with her heat and the deep flush of her skin. 

Thick ropes of semen spurted from the tip of his dick inside her, and he’d never felt anything like it before. This was different. This was definitely different.

When he looked down at her, she had a massive smile on her face.

“What?” he asked, smiling himself.

“Two things.” She played, as best as she could, in his sweaty locks. “One, Theo deserves something for sleeping in his own bed tonight.”

“Of course.”

“And two.” Her smile grew even larger. “I’m glad we found each other.”

Marry me.

“What about mar…shmallows?” he asked. “For Theo.”

Marry me.

“Mar…bles?”

Marry me.

“Mar…garine?”

She laughed. “You’re so weird.”

“But you like weird.”

“Nope.” She raised her head, kissed him. “I love weird.”

* * *

Lee Jeong Hyeok dragged buckets of air into his lungs, his grip tight on the burning pain in his shoulder. Where the fuck had that bullet even come from? One minute he was following Adrían and the next, he was free-falling out of a massive elm tree after taking a shell to the right shoulder from behind.

But it was pitch black outside. Who, the hell, could have possibly made that shot?

It was faint, but footsteps were approaching, so he buried himself deeper into the brush. He’d lost Adrían somewhere inside the wooded area. They’d agreed that he would follow within a certain distance to try to locate Ayesha Savea, but with the turns and twists Adrían had made, it was like his comrade had tried to purposely lose him. 

Adrían had always been strange when it came to Ayesha. Lavigne had suggested that it was because Gano and Savea had hooked up back in Maui, but Adrían wasn’t the kind of man who’d let something as simple as sex get in the way of completing a mission. 

The footsteps stopped, and the person spoke. “You think a little lack of moonlight will keep you hidden?”

Hyeok buried himself even deeper.

The footsteps disappeared, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Then a man was somehow standing over him, a man he hadn’t heard or seen, and that was virtually impossible to do…unless…

“Let me guess, you’re the one everybody calls ‘The Shadow’?”

The man’s head shook. “Nobody calls me that.” 

“What do they call you?”

“Wei.” The man crouched in front of him. “Central is unimaginative as shit. Where are you from?”

“Kaesong.”

“North Korea?” Wei, who definitely had to be the one they called The Shadow, scanned Hyeok from head to toe. “Now that, I’m impressed by.”

“How’d you make that shot? Can’t see shit out here.”

Wei scratched the side of his head with the nozzle of a Beretta. “I made an educated guess.”

“You used a handgun in pitch-black night to make that shot?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you. It’s not my call, but you’ll live to see another day. I don’t know how many more but, then again…that’s your call.”

Hyeok shook his head. “I don’t get it.”

“You will.” The Shadow walked backward, toward the cover of the trees. “Now, don’t go too far, you hear?”

And then, just like that, he was gone.



11: MoJay vs das Biest

04/24/2021


Xara’s jaw dropped. “Oh, my…lanta. Is that Gage?”

The blond hair, those green eyes which were more striking underneath the strip lights, and that tall, muscular physique could belong to no one else. 

Ayesha squinted at the ring. “If Gage is up there, does that mean—”

“I knew it.” Mo’s eyelids disappeared inside their sockets. “The Murderer of Moscow is here. The Slasher of St. Petersburg. The Killer of Krasnodar.”

“How many Russian cities have you aligned him with?” Ayesha asked.

Xara’s head whipped around, eyes searching in the dark. “Do you think they’re all here?” 

Mo looked down at her phone. “So, uh, my fight’s back on. Tell Aleksi that his mother loved him, and she didn’t truly want to go out this way.”

All of them, except for Tayler, peered at the screen. Tayler had yet to look away from the cage.

#5 – MoJay v Das Biest


Release Date Schedule
11: MoJay v Das Biest – 04/24
12: One Last Thing, Before I Go – 04/25
13: From Central to the End – 04/30

Episode 09: That’s What I Want

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

That’s What I Want

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

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

Giorgio made a noise in his throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The muscle in Gage’s jaw pulsed.

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

Giorgio busied his hands with a switchblade. 

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

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

The answer was a clear no.

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

That meant the man’s death was imminent. 

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

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

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

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

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

Mike snapped to attention.

Even Giorgio looked up from his tortured fingers.

“What?” Gage growled. “They what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Buyer’s remorse,” Joel said. 

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

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

Had to be.

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

Then he thought about it.

He was attached to Ayesha his-damn-self.

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

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

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

Joel shot a text off to Mo.

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


Mo: Which one is it?


Joel: Fingers.


Mo: Ok. Omw.

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

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

They looked at him.

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

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

Joel shrugged.

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

At least, he would have already asked. 

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

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

“Yeah. He went by Trevor.”

Gage’s eyebrows raised. “Trevor Mason?”

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

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

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

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

“Well, first, who won the other bet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I missed you.” 

“Who has called my Bez?”

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

Giorgio glanced around the room.

“Theo,” Joel answered. 

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

“Gio, I love you,” she said. 

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

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

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

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

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

The three of them left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alone?”

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

“You’re on your way back right now?” 

“Yes. Why?”

“You know why.”

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

“Love you too.”

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

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

Joel frowned. “Here…where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“It’s about Curtis.”

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

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

“What about Curtis?” she asked.

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

She took a step back. “Is it you?”

“Ayesha—”

“Answer me.”

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

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

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

“No.”

“What about later? We can—”

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

“Do you love him?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Does he love you?”

“Yes.”

“More than I do?”

“It really doesn’t matter, does it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because I’m Curtis’ widow.”

“Yes.”

“What do they want?”

“To kill you.”

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

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

“They wanted to kill my babies too?”

“Yes.”

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

“Do these men still want to kill me?”

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He seemed closer.

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

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

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

It couldn’t be. 

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

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

No.

No.

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

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

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

“I have someone who—”

“Ayesha, I don’t care.”

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

Joel.

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

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

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

“Popped up again. Interesting.”

“Joel, if you’d let me explain—”

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

“I’ve got her. She’s good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joel’s gaze flickered in her direction.

“But it can’t be like this.”

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

All she saw was Adrían’s shoulder twitch.

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

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

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

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

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

Joel stepped back and tucked away the knife. 

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

Joel turned to her. “Let’s go, Eesh.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ayesha…”

“What about soup?”

“Living room, Ayesha.”

She faced him. “Are you mad?”

“Pissed. Go sit down.”

“Are we breaking up?”

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

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

“First of all, Eesh, what the fuck…”

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

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

“It’s not?”

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

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

“You believe that why?”

“He said so.”

“He said he wouldn’t hurt you?”

“In a way.”

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

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

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

“He is. He told me that today.”

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

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

“Why?”

“Because…”

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

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

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

As if it were that easy.

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

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

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

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

“But you care about him.”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“Enough to care whether he lives or dies.”

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

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

“You already know I love you.”

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

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

Was it more intense because of the boys?

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

That could be why it was so much more intense. 

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

It was driving him crazy because he was in love. 

He was in love with all three of them. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eesh…is that what you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She rolled onto her belly.

“Up.”

She pushed onto all fours.

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

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

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

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

Inside her, his dick throbbed.

If he wasn’t going to move, then…

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

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

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

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

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

“Joel, my ring. It’s my ring.”

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

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

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

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



10: The End of an Era

04/18/2021


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

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

“Ayesha, don’t leave.”


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

Episode 08: Back To Life, Back To Reality

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

Back To Life, Back To Reality

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

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

“You want something sharper?” the clerk asked.

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

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

“It can kill not even paper.”

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

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

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

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

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

The clerk scurried off.

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s so awesome.”

“You want to come with me next time?”

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

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

“You see him, Gio?” she asked.

Giorgio ticked his head. “Da.”

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

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

Theo didn’t respond.

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

“Gio?”

He glanced at her.

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

Giorgio started off. “Da.”

* * *

Giorgio brandished a Bowie knife. 

So, this was Mr. Veeny.

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

To not kill him.

To…kill him? 

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

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

Nobody ever got the joke.

The blade was a distraction.

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

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

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

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

Something crackled from behind him. 

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

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

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

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

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

“I said, ‘who are you’?”

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

“You will not shoot? Why?”

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

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

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

“Enculé.”

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

He could not tell Bez this story. 

Maybe he would tell the fish.

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

From behind the mudak, Dez lowered a rifle. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unassuming.

That was the word—unassuming.

Giorgio laughed to himself, head shaking. 

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

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

Theo nodded and squeezed him tight.

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

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

* * *

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

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

“Did you turn your comms off?”

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

“It’s not like I can’t.”

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

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

“Gano, Wesley’s dead.”

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

“Who killed him?” 

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

“How’d it happen?”

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

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

“Well, whoever did this is crazier.”

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

“So, you think it’s Alpha?” he asked.

Hyeok nodded. “Trevor does.”

“Why would they be in Sweden?”

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

Yes.

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

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

Which further complicated things. 

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

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

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

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

They never could trust him.

He worked based on his contract, not allegiances. 

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

“Where’s Ayesha?” Hyeok asked.

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

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

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

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

Hyeok left, shutting the door behind him. 

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

That one sentence was all it took.

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

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

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

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

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

Panting, she wrapped her arms around his neck. 

He kissed her shoulder, breathing hard. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.

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

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

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

“Bend over, Eesh.”

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

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

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

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

She gasped.

Gasped again.

Moaned.

Screamed.

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

“Joel…the…fabric…”

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

She felt so good. 

Amazing. 

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

After several hard jerks and pants, the room cleared.

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

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

“Did it hurt?”

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

Finally, they ate. 

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

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

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

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

“Highly effective,” she said. “Why?”

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

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

“Would you be upset?”

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

Blood rushed to his groin. “Maybe?”

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

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

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

They’d worry about foreplay another day.

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

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

“It’s okay, Joel. I want you.”

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

But she never doubted him.

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

The sweet burn of release built.

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

She cried out, arched, and shook.

Thank God.

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

He kissed her behind her ear and felt her smile.


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

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

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

“Hey, buddy. You okay?”

Theo nodded.

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

Theo shook his head.

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

Theo shrugged.

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

“Hey, Joel. How’s the mini-vacay?”

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

She went silent. 

Something had happened, and it was bad.

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

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

“Awake.”

The muscles in his stomach tightened. 

“Mo, who’d he see?”

“Mr. Veeny.”

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

He’d essentially created his own clusterfuck.

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

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

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

“For me to deal with him.”

“Yes.”

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

What better brothers could a man ask for?

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

“It has to be me, Mo.”

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

“It did.”

“So you know she’s in love with you?”

Ayesha appeared in the bedroom doorway.

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

“Good.”

“We can come home tonight.”

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

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

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

“Say hi to Eesh for me.”

“I will. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mo.”

They hung up.

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

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

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

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

“No, he was awake.”

She scooted over, and he moved next to her.

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

He drew her into his arms. “I know.”

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

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

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

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

She buried her face in his shoulder.

He’d never seen her cry this hard.

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

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

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

“And…you believe him, right?”

“Yes. I do.”

She curled her arms around him and held on tight.

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

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

“Joel?”

“Yeah, Eesh?”

“Thank you.”

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

* * *

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

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

Joel scooped him up as well.

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

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

After the movie, they prepared for bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Break it down for me, then.”

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

Joel cleared his throat. “Really?”

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

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

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

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

“Did you feel safe again?”

“A little bit.”

“Do you feel safe now?”

He grinned. “Yeah. Very.”

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

“When you started coming to Maui more.”

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

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

“Why’d you feel guilty?”

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

“And that felt wrong.”

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

“You felt safe,” Joel finished.

He nodded.

“When did you stop feeling guilty?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Give me their names.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You know, Theo asked me that too.”

“What’d you tell him?”

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

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

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

“Really? That would be so awesome.”

“I’ve got you.”

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

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

They looked at each other and fell out laughing.

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

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

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

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

“How much of it?” 

She smiled. “‘Dad.’”

“You okay with it?”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“I love you too.”



09: That’s What I Want

04/11/2021


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


I’m having fun with this one…

Episode 07: Let It “Snoh”

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

Let it “Snoh”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She woke up in his arms when they hit Lund. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Bathing huts? That sounds—”

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

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

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

It wasn’t like it was his fault. 

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

It would be a crime not to suck them.

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

Half an hour later, they emerged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their next stop was a visit to Malmöhus Castle. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed, this time reminding him of Josiah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she appreciated everything he did. 

Everything. 

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

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

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

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

He wasn’t in love.

Joel Lattimore was gone.

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

Something was in the air.

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

They spotted him and waved.

He waved back.

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

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

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

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

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

“You have children?”

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” Ayesha greeted with a small wave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They took the iPad to the bedroom.

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

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

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

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

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

“You got a what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pripet,” Aleksi greeted.

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

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

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

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

“And then what?”

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

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

“Where are you going to eat?”  

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

“Like karaoke?”

“We’re not sure. Maybe.”

“Are you gonna sing, Ma?”

Joel slid a glance her way. “Sing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joel and Ayesha laughed.

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

“Love you too. Love you, Ma.”

“I love you, Josiah.”

He waved, still smiling.

They waved back until he disconnected.

“Singing voice?” Joel teased.

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

Nope.

She was perfect.

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

It was going to be a long night.

* * *

Leticia’s recommendation was spot on.

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

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

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

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

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

The crowd clapped and whistled.

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

Joel’s head snapped around. “Eesh?”

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

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

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

She nodded. “Okay.”

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

“You might not have this song.”

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

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

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

She faced the audience. 

Lights shined in her face. 

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

By far.

The piano came in first, followed by the drums.

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


“I tell you all my secrets, yeah, yeah

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

Heart to heart  baby, we both love so hard

Emotional start, the feels are beyond…


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

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


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


“Cause I didn’t mean to, baby

I didn’t mean to fall in love

Now that I need you, baby,

Tell me we’ll never be apart…”


“Oh, I didn’t mean to baby

I didn’t mean to fall in love

Now that I need you, baby,

Tell me we’ll never, never part…”

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t mean to baby, no…”

She saw Joel winking at her from the kitchen. 

“I didn’t mean to fall in love…”

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

“Now that I need you, baby…”

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

“Tell me we’ll never, never part…”

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

The audience stood, whistled, and clapped. 

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

Ayesha bowed slightly and handed the microphone back to Zaid. 

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

Heat prickled her face. “Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this her album?” 

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

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

“I googled the lyrics.” 

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

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

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

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

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

Her legs nearly gave out.

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

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

“Yes. Yes, I love you, Joel.”

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

“Joel, I love the way you love me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is perfect.”

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

“Yes. I love everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes rolled back, and her body went stiff. 

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

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

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

They both drew out a long moan.

“More, Joel.” 

He pushed in further, groaned, and stopped again. 

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

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

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

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

Neither moved for a moment.

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

His laugh was cut short when she squeezed her muscles.

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

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

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

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

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

She tightened her hold around him, whimpering. 

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

All around them, music played.

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

“Joel—”

“Give it to me, Eesh.” 

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

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

Ayesha’s heart pounded against her ribcage.

Joel’s breathing mirrored hers.

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

But this?

Ohthis.

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

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



08: Back To Life, Back To Reality

04/04/2021

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

“You see him, Gio?” she asked.

“Da.”

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

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

Theo didn’t respond.

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

“Gio?”

He glanced at her.

“Go fuck him up, baby.”

Giorgio started off. “Da.”


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

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