December 25, 1623
It has been two years since our journey of survival began in Africa. Two years since I have written anything down in my diary, the only book I was able to save on that hopeless night of September 29, 1621.
But before I capture those terrible events, I want to pen down my love’s reaction to the estate we will be living in for the rest of our lives.
In the end it became possible for us to be together. The price was high, but we have survived and I know with Cisco at my side I can face anything else.
As a Christmas gift I gave him full ownership of my estate. It has been handed down from generation to generation of Artiagas. I knew he would be the perfect landowner to continue the legacy my family started, and that my inheritance was safe.
When Rosa-Lee climbed on his lap to give him a big wet kiss he smiled down at her and gave her a bear hug. The last few days he had been extremely emotional. We both felt a deep compassion for him. I feel proud to know this man, my husband, Cisco Almaida. When I handed him the papers he was shocked. Disbelief shone clear in the blue depths of his eyes. He had the same expression when we first arrived two days ago.
He could not believe the large estate or the castle, built by my great-great grandfather all those years ago.
When we arrived Cisco only stared at the estate, the manicured gardens and lawns only yellow due to the cold weather, and I had to encourage him to step into the castle as man of the house. This was more than he ever dreamed of. His mind was stunned and dumbfounded at the magnitude of the riches he faced.
Gathering the cream fabric of her skirt in her hands she ran down the road to the harbour to meet the captain of the ship she recognized. She was hoping that it would be good news about her brother but the sense of dread did not leave her small body as her chestnut hair streamed behind her, her small oval face wary and troubled.
The months of waiting in anticipation of Pedro had been too long. They stayed a close-knit family, especially Mother, Father and herself, but the two boys who had not yet had adventures did not understand the dangerous side of sailing ships. It sounded foreign and distant to them, just stories they had heard all their lives. But Rosa-Lee and her parents knew how quickly things could change on the sea. They had lived on it and had survived its worst.
Pedro was still very young, inexperienced about life.
Rosa-Lee’s dress whipped against her legs as she ran down the shoreline into the town, her lungs burning with the unusual exercise. Today she did not see the splendour of the sea or land, the birds flying just over the top of her head. She did not notice the familiar faces, townspeople who waved at her and flashed toothy smiles. She just wanted to find out any news. With only the Contra O Vento coming in she was worried.
“Cisco, you have called for me. Where’s the patient?”
Cisco Almaida visibly shook for the first time in his life. His whole family was endangered by one man’s insanity. Wrapping his arms around his wife, he caressed her back and in return, tiny hands held his broad back, caressing him.
Watching his daughter over on the settee, he could see raw emotions running over the youthful face. Then at last he followed the familiar voice to his friend and family doctor. He swallowed at the bile in his throat, got his voice back, and said,
“Doctor Vasco, please come in. It is Jean. He was wounded.” Cisco turned to Captain Jean, still holding his wife around the shoulders. The captain was still sitting on the chair, as white as a sheet, miserably in pain.
“Is there somewhere we could lie him down so that he can be more comfortable?”
“Yes, Doctor, please follow me,” said Rosa-Lee, who had come to her senses, lifting her eyes and wiping the tears away. Her mother was still distracted. She did not hear anything else around her. Tears streamed down her face but she made no sound.
Straightening herself, Rosa-Lee walked to the injured Captain Jean, helping him to his feet. With the aid of the doctor, supporting him between them, she got him to the nearest bedroom, where they laid him down. Rosa-Lee helped to remove his jacket. They saw the gaping sword-wound clearly, his shirt and trousers on the right side drenched with blood.
Ochre eyes roamed over the enticing body wrapped in green taffeta. The dark braided hair lay over a creamy shoulder. Her bodice clung to the small frame in the latest fashion. Her perky breasts looked ripe for the plucking. He grinned at the picture he knew he will enjoy.
She stepped away from her parents with anger still visible on her face. She gathered her dress in her hands and walked up the plank with a steady gait and a rigid back, small shoulders straight, showing no fear, to where the pirate waited. She looked at him, eyes locking his with defiance. His guffaw rumbled up his throat, mocking her. She pulled her chin up. Without a word, she turned to wave to her parents.
Rosa-Lee Almaida definitely has some backbone, Roberto smiled. Backbone I would like to break and bend to my will. Yes, I am definitely going to enjoy this voyage.
He turned his attention back to the ship and barked orders still aware of Rosa-Lee at the railing.
She stood there until the white sails were set high above her, the breeze filling them with snapping sounds. Wood creaking, the ship started to sail away from the harbour. They moved far high, and farther over the blue depths, small waves tossing against the hull, until she could not see her parents anymore.
Walking to the bow, a man busy with ropes looked at her with interest. She ignored him, touching the taffrail to keep her balance. She could look far around her, the west coast of Africa noticeable on the horizon. The ship clove the clear waters. A light sea spray met her that was welcoming in the heat. It was her first time taking a voyage again.
Her mind wandered very far from her immediate surroundings, thinking about a similar voyage twenty years ago when she was only four years old. Memories flooded back; of how they had met the giant they now knew as Cisco Almaida. She remembered how she ran up to him, telling him that she would be his daughter because he didn’t have one and looked sad. From that day forward there was a bond between that sailor, now her father, and herself.
She remembered hugging his thick leg, feeling safe. His hug in return was hesitant because the captain did not allow any contact between the passengers and the crew. In her young mind she did not know of the trouble she had caused him, only that she had a longing for a father figure. Her father was never interested in her, never around, or when he was he was always drunk. She had always been afraid of her biological father and had never had the liberty to run up to him and hug him as she could with the giant.
When Rosa-Lee finally stood up to leave the cabin Roberto also stood up and asked, “Would you care to go up and walk with me on the deck?”
Hazelnut eyes met ochre ones and for a few seconds they just locked before she answered, her eyes revealing her shock at the invitation.
“Yes, I would like that.” It was still early and she was not in the mood to confine herself in her cabin. After three days of self-imposed lock-up, she wanted to feel the wind in her hair and the sea spray on her face. The fact that he asked her to walk with him shocked her the most.
Be alert Rosa-Lee. He cannot be trusted!
Darkness filled the starry night sky. The quarter moon made it even darker. Lit lanterns on the upper deck added a romantic feeling, she thought, not a scene she was comfortable sharing with the pirate.
You could barely see anything out on the sea as they walked along the taffrail on the deck. Only the sound of the ship breaking through the waters interrupted the silence. The few men that were on duty were quiet, nodding when they passed. If she did not know better, she would have thought that they were alone.
“Your brother has told me a lot of stories about what you endured during your adventures into Africa. Don’t you want to tell me a story?”
Suddenly her cell phone rang, disturbing the stillness, but she smiled. The Caller ID showed it was her best friend, Monica. Of all her friends, she was closest to her, and was the heart of the group with her sparkling personality; always busy arranging parties or schemes, especially where boys were concerned.
Anabella trusted her as she was the only one who knew what was really going on at her house. Not that she ever allowed her to come over. For that, she was too ashamed, but she knew enough and was always close. When things got bad, she could always turn to her. Although Monica was a cheerful person and looked like a ‘dumb blond’, she had shown maturity in a lot of things over the years, something that was not well known in their group.
“Hi, Bell! You in the mood for a party at my house tonight?”
She could hear Monica was excited - almost out of breath because of it - and she could see her, as if she was standing right in front of her. However, Anabella did need to rest. Her muscles were still stiff after the practice.
“Not tonight, Moni, I really need to rest. Tomorrow is a big day and I must be in top form,” she said with a sigh, smiling because of her friend’s anxiousness.
“Please, Bell, do come, please, even if it is only for an hour or so.” Monica sounded very eager, almost desperate.
What was she up to again? “Moni, I can’t come, please understand.”
Once outside, he led her to an unoccupied chair where she sat down, bending shapely legs under her. He sat directly in front of her, his eyes never wavering, even though it seemed she was not aware of him.
Anabella was aware; the butterflies in her tummy told her he was watching her every move. Even when Mr. Richter and Tim spoke to him, she could still feel his gaze on her, sipping away at his drink. His posture was relaxed and at ease. He knew the family well she realized as she watched him listen to Mr. Richter with keen interest.
Sometimes, she turned to Monica and her other friends to talk to them, only to look back at him. Each time she found his eyes on her and a smile playing on his lips. She wasn’t uncomfortable under his stare; she rather enjoyed his blunt way of looking at her.
Anabella wished she was a bit more outgoing in order to speak to him, but she didn’t know what to say. She knew he was a lawyer at a successful firm, but other than that she knew nothing about him. This was something she wanted to change, but her shyness prevented her from speaking freely, and then there was the age difference.
He was out of her league; no way would he find her fascinating. She couldn’t understand why she felt so uneasy about it. There were many couples whose age difference wasn’t a problem. Her parents were an example. Her mother and father differed in age by fifteen years and they had a ‘happy’ marriage. If you could call what they had a marriage―it worked for them.
He smiled as he brushed his fingers against her arm, the feeling sending shivers down her spine. They chatted and she told him more about the practices and a competition she would participate in at the end of the week; just a friendly race at the club.
The air hummed with electric currents and her heart raced. He leaned in closer and semi-whispered, “I have missed you.” This was followed by a kiss, which made all the others feel like child’s play. They couldn’t get enough of each other, her body responding under his touch, his warm hand caressing it gently.
“I’ve missed you, too,” she finally said as his eyes moved over her black bikini appraisingly, smiling at her blush. She felt his warm hand on her ribs, a thumb stroking her skin. She was aware of every touch, so much so her skin was covered in goose bumps. Breathless, she said, “Badly, I can’t stop thinking about you.”
“You have done something to me, something I’ve never felt before. You occupy my thoughts every day. I am acting like a lovesick teenager.”
“I know how you feel, and I am a love sick teenager.”
He chuckled at her innocence.
After the championships the previous year, and the three gold medals she brought home, she received a letter from the Olympic Committee informing her she’d been invited to compete in the next Olympics, which would take place in four years. She also swam for the university team. Mr. Clark―her new coach―was very strict, which she didn’t mind at all. She had a lot of support from the university, her classmates, friends, and Aldrich. His constant encouragement with either a phone call or text message uplifted her, and gave her the assurance to excel. She received a beautiful bouquet of flowers from his firm after her last championship in March, and in return thanked the partners with a handwritten note.
The last year of student life would be a very busy one, filled with studies and the Olympics simultaneously, the same year she would turn twenty-one. Time was of the essence, and the last thing she needed was her personal life interfering with her future.
How she and Aldrich would come together, she didn’t know, but she knew that she missed the teddy bear, his warm arms and those gorgeous lips; dreamy. The void when she’d left his arms the night of the dance was still incredibly real to her.
Once outside her room, she noticed that the hallway was thankfully empty, although she could hear the two couples in her parents’ room. The door was closed. At least some of them have modesty.
When she walked downstairs, a big, hairy man who was only wearing a shirt, stood at the bottom of the staircase in full view, rubbing himself. His eyes focused on someone in the living room.
She had to get past him, as well as make her away around him, but knew it would be futile since he left no room for her to do just that. She clutched her bag tightly against her body, her clothes draped over her arm, holding it all between them in order to obscure her view. She really didn’t want to see.
The moment he noticed her, he grabbed her arm with his free hand and pulled her to him with a grin. His breath reeked of smoke and brandy, and his voice was husky with lust. “Come here, doll,” he drawled.
Anabella wanted to shrink in total horror. With her bag, she pushed him away to set herself free, but he managed to grab her breast, ripping two buttons from her shirt. Desperately, she fought hard, not letting go of the bag in her hands. But her clothes fell around her feet, almost tripping her in her haste to get away. By now, she knew she was in trouble. She dug her car keys into his hand, and he released immediately. She managed to pull herself free, running to the front door; her only hope of escape and safety, the bag still clutched in her hand.
Tanya knew that in her mom’s mind she still hoped that the man would come back, even after all those years. Looking at her half-brother she could recognize the fear of want in him – maybe he had been the reason she took the time to talk some sense into her mother. He seemed like a bright youngster, but schooling wasn’t in his future now and she doubted it ever would be if things continued the way they were going. When she rode away from the informal settlement that day she knew she would never see her mother again. That was four years ago.
At the age of sixteen Tanya took over the position of mother to the youngest children and had taken the responsibility of running the farm. Her father would disappear for days, just to be found somewhere he had fallen asleep again after another drunken binge. Sometime later, he too left the farm and became a bum. Her father died a broken man who couldn’t accept the changes or face the neglect. The sheer powerlessness of the problems that he had to face continued to mount, and it eventually drained his will to fight.
Now, on days like this, she could understand his despair that she felt most days. Powerless.
Unlike her father, she had the will to confront things, but nowadays even her will was starting to slip. She knew it. She didn’t see what he had seen in his time, so she was in no position to judge him.
The death of his own father broke him. The death of his land and dwindling account left him bankrupt in both body and soul. She could only tap into the strength of the love for her son and the country she still had after all this time. She owed it to her son to give him something better.
What? She had no idea.
How? She had no plan.
However, the fact remained that she had to keep going, even if it took all her willpower to get ahead.
The acid water seeping through the pores of the earth poisoned everything it touched. Because they had nowhere to go, they stayed.
There was no money to rectify the previous government’s mistakes. All the resources were stolen and moved out of the country. Many of the former leaders lived exotic somewhere else in the world with money that was never theirs in the first place. The last Tanya had heard was that two prominent groups worked together sending a petition to the International Criminal Tribunal: They felt that these former leaders should be prosecuted for their crimes against the citizens of South Africa. If they would stand trial or not was still a hotly-discussed subject debated around many kitchen tables. That would not help the country or its people. The damage was worse than anybody could imagine.
Nevertheless, anarchy ruled in the country that had once been peaceful and undisturbed by human intervention. Now it wasn’t strange to see young children walking around with AK47’s, handguns or machetes in their hands which they hardly knew how to use.
Arrogant, cocky and self-assured these small bandits roamed the country, intimidating the people and small towns as far as they went. Nobody was safe where they walked. On ground level skin colour wasn’t a problem, people simply worked together to survive. In the previous regime Black Economic Empowerment or BEE ─ the abbreviation more commonly used, broke the people’s spirit and was diligently enforced so that they had no income.
Yes,” Edna replied, we have a good doctor that helps us now and then when we need it and honey, you needed it.”
“No need to worry, dear, we are here to help each other, and you came just in time, if Etienne hadn’t discovered you the next day, you wouldn’t have survived.”
“They killed Brutus, Ma.” Steve choked out. “Why did they kill my dog?”
Tanya could hear the bitter anguish in his voice. She leant forward to touch him and for a brief moment they touched hands before he pulled away again.
“I am so sorry honey, Brutus was a good friend. We will miss him.”
“Yes,” he whispered and quickly left the room, leaving her alone with the strangers.
“How is he doing?” Tanya asked as her eyes followed him out the room.
“He is doing better,” Edna remarked. “He is a strong young man, same as his mother. You raised a fine boy.”
“Thanks,” she replied, choking back the tears that threatened to overwhelm her.
“Now, now, you can be proud of what you have done so far. We have watched you for several years now. The fact that you have survived all this time while raising that young man is impressive and we would like you to join us.”
“What do you mean, join you. Who are you?” her eyes darted from the man - who, until now had not said a word - to the older woman who just stared at her.
“More about that later, dear; for now you need to get better.”
“I need to go home.” Tanya insisted, suddenly very much in a hurry. Whoever these people were she had a bad feeling about them. She tried to throw off the sheet but flinched as pain shot through her body.
“Tanya you are not strong enough to be alone, besides, you have no food at home.” Patrick spoke for the first time directly to her. He had a deep authoritative voice that she was sure not many undermined.
“No, I need to get home. I will find food.”
“Tanya, sweetie, we cannot let you go in this condition. You are not fit to care for yourself or your son. These people will return, and I am afraid they won’t leave you until you’re dead and your place burnt to the ground. Is that what you want?” Edna persisted.
“No, but I cannot stay here.” Tanya said, her body shaking from the quick movements. Sweat pearled on her face and one slipped right passed her left eye.
“Good afternoon sweetie, did you sleep well?” Edna opened the curtains all the way and the late midday sun streamed into the room.
Tanya untangled herself from the sheets that felt as it suffocated her. No wonder she thought as she finally woke sufficiently to realize she had slept in sweat.
“Wait, let me help you, how do you feel today?” After Tanya blinked her eyes a few times she could see Edna clearly, she touched her one eye and felt the swelling had gone down a bit which pleased her.
“I am good, thanks,” flinching she tried to pull herself up. The sudden effort made her head spin and she knew she had to get up and move again. She couldn’t recall a time that she was in bed for so long, but yet, her body slumped back against the pillow.
“Do you want me to help you to the bathroom?” Edna handed her a glass of cold water and greedily she swallowed the contents; allowing the coldness to cool her down. This was pointless. She held out her glass, “Could I have more, please?”
“Of course, sweetie,” and Edna poured more water into the glass from a chilled jug. This time she took it slower, savouring each sip as it rolled down her throat.
“I must look a mess?”
“You look like someone who had survived an ordeal; don’t worry about anything else. You look good for where you have been.”
“Thanks Edna, you always know how to make me feel better.” And she smiled appreciatively at her.
“Come let me help you up and then you can take a refreshing shower. Patrick would like to speak with you when you are done.”
“About?” she looked at the woman sceptically. The night’s events flooded her mind and again she was confronted with the same questions.
“You know I said I am going home tomorrow.”
“That you did, dear. Come let me help you.” With that she lifted the sheets all the way from her legs and they managed to get her body to turn and then to rise, slowly. The previous night’s events had caused her body to stiffen up, and she knew she would have to walk today or it would become worse.
Well, in that case let’s finish and I will show you our vegetable garden. After that we need to look at the computer and the secrets it holds. So far no one could decipher any of it.” She smirked incredulously at him, and he slapped her on the bum with a smirk of his own.
“That sounds like a challenge. You are so on, mister,” she replied, walking to the cupboard where Edna had placed more items of clothing for her.
When they finally emerged from the bedroom, Edna waited for them with breakfast in the kitchen.
“Good morning you two,” she greeted them with a wink, “I guess you both had a good night’s sleep.”
Tanya blushed and sat down. Dirk just wiggled his eyebrows at her but remained silent. Steve looked at them both wearily, but a smile did hover over his lips. Patrick’s glare could be felt right across the table, but she greeted the few that were around the table while effectively ignoring Patrick. Dirk took a seat right next to her, holding her hand throughout breakfast.
“What was that scream all about?” Patrick finally asked. Dirk looked at her first, they had talked about it while getting ready. He knew how she felt about this - it wasn’t something she wanted everyone to know, and frankly it was none of their business - then he replied, “Spider.” Everyone laughed and nodded; Thabazimbi was known for its large spider and lizard species.
“I have heard there are these huge spiders running around in Pyrite City.” Roland spoke for the first time; his voice gruff from years of smoking. “Some say there are more lurking in the water than just death.”
Christian Military Romance
CURT WALKED TO THE FURTHEST end of the camp. How could she? Sand drifted into the warm air. And with that person? More sand floated upwards. Out of breath he glanced around, his throat parched.
A jeep pulled up and he waved the soldier closer. The private saluted, but he demanded the keys with a careless gesture. He jumped in and stepped on the accelerator. The engine roared into action as it left the camp in a dust trail.
"That bitch!" he groaned, banging the steering wheel, with tears evaporating in the drive.
Fifteen minutes later Curt stopped at the local tearoom, the owner a well-known patron of the town. Usually Curt refused his subtle offerings, but today he wanted to forget.
Once inside he removed his shades. It took a few seconds to adjust to the dimness.
Elaborated carpets, curtains and cushions divided the room into sections. The cosy place was a favourite amongst the military staff. Satisfied that he had the place to himself, he relaxed. The owner manned the battered counter to the right of him.
As they sped away, a boy waved at them in his run. Up ahead his donkey's gait a two-step as the cans jiggled from side to side.
Each trip to the refugee camps met her with humbleness, the children's toothy grins a personal highlight. What she valued most was their carefree attitude. They cherished life in every moment. With only the bare minimum, they seemed unworried about the future.
For the medical staff it was crucial to venture out to lift the tremendous burden. The influx of exiles gave them no rest while they suffered. She could leave, but the South Sudanese people had no choice. To help them, remained the closest she could come to excellence.
At the hospital they filed out - a tired but satisfied group. Sonia unpacked the van like a robot.
"We will help you."
"They shot a doctor today," David informed them when he returned.
"Where?" The weight of their predicament oppressive.
"Khartoum - trapped with protesters inside a house in Buri. They shot him without reason," David said.
"I don't understand this wave of murders. We are here to help them," Sonia said.
"These people have no consciousness," Alice replied.
"We have to be watchful," David agreed.
Reluctant and uneasy Sonia removed the bags with filthy linen. "Take this and I will take those bags inside."
"Thanks, Alice." Sonia placed the clean linen inside the marked crate and closed the lid.
"Good night, Sonia."
"Goodnight, Alice. See you tomorrow."
In the compact kitchen Sonia drank a supplement she always had at hand, showered and went straight to bed. Lathered with enough Tabard, she added a flimsy sheet as a shield against unwanted night crawlers.
It was well after eleven when she flicked off the light. A thick blanket of darkness wrapped around her. A miserable sense which devoured you if you were not careful. Restless she stared out the small window, her thoughts far away. The moment she fell asleep, the woman's face intertwined with her own. It haunted her till she woke. Drenched in sweat she reached for the water. Once her thirst was quenched, she laid back.
"AS-SALAM ALAYKUM, SONIA. What a fine day to do what we love."
"As-Salam Alaykum, Alice."
Alice Abiodun was a local nurse and a dear friend. Her animated nature boosted her energy.
"Here comes David." She waved as he parked. David was the driver, interpreter, their only bodyguard, and liaison.
"As-Salam Alaykum, Dr Wek." He greeted them all. He joined them two months ago and proved to be an asset to the area. His volunteer work gave him the opportunity to serve his country and he did his work with no complaints.
The stoic face of the porter appeared; a set of yellow teeth exposed. "Nurse Main, the matron wants to see you right away."
"What's up?" Alice said.
"Hurry, we have a distance to drive today," David said.
At a quick pace she entered the hospital entrance, shivers ran along her spine. With a brief prayer she followed the white corridor. Time and age stained the painted walls. The morning shift rushed around. Lively sounds stemmed from the hospital's walls. The smells and sights were familiar.
At the connected building, a replica of the other, Sonia knocked on Matron Nyanath Haleema's office door at the end of a long corridor.
"Get away from me."
With a dismissive look she picked up her pace to the entrance. Her team waited outside the double glass doors. Alice's gaze turned to the entrance before she looked at her watch. Time was important, by six they must be on the road.
In search of the water, she sighed. She had left her water behind.
"Do you have an extra bottle of water?"
"Yes." Alice handed her a spare. Her gaze focused on Brady. Half-heartedly she made the introductions.
"Major Brady Scott will join us for the next few days. We should cooperate with him."
David moved first and greeted Brady with a cheerful handshake. The rest followed while she got in the packed van. Once seated, she took a long swig.
"Are you okay?" Alice asked, then peered at Brady.
She brushed through the curly hair. "Yes, thanks Alice," and arranged her hair in a scrunchy she had nearby. From her worn bag, the only possession she had left from her parents, she removed sun block.
"You sure? You don't look well?"
"Don't worry, I am fine," she clipped. Her aggravation was palpable.
"Do you know the man?"
THE TOWN BUZZED with people. Their wares balanced on their heads, ready to barter in Bentiu.
Scattered trees lined the gravel road. The rest of the countryside was dry, black and barren. A slight breeze caused toll bushes to cross the veld in a flurry. The rising sun held no promise of rain.
Once they left the busyness behind, the road snaked to the north; dust trailed behind them. The potholes caused uncomfortable moments inside the cabin.
Yet the conversations were amicable. Brady's voice broke the monotone trip. He peppered Dr Wek with questions which the doctor answered in a cool tone.
A heavily pregnant woman hustled towards town, four children behind her. Each balanced a can on their heads, waving at them.
She had to admit Brady looked good. The white shirt which spread over a broad chest, the muscular hands in a flurry as it talked with him. It brought back many memories. The shades concealed the bluest eyes she could drown in.
But time left its mark. His laugh lines were deeper, his skin battered from exposure. The crew cut which framed his face gave him a sharp square appearance that was coated with grey. He was still good looking. Back then, his hair had a natural blond wave.
I hope he jotted security as of the utmost importance. Today we were lucky. It could have been worse, Sonia thought.
She relished the updated version, then stopped with the comparisons. He was part of her former life. No reason to go there.
Terrified and tired people arrived at the camp later in the day. "What happened, David?"
"New arrivals. It seemed they had fled from a village a few kilometres from here. They are in a bewildered state."
"Should I come?"
"No, Ibrahim will call if they need help."
Alice bumped against her. "Look!" On the outskirts of the camp more UN military vehicles arrived.
"Sonia, Alice, they need help with the supplies," Brady called and rolled his sleeves on his way. A lengthy line extended between the trucks and tables. Lines of refugees formed behind the table.
The flurry of movement added more people to the existing masses. Experience caused them to evaluate and give what was needed. They promptly sent those with medical needs to the medic tent. The teams worked in harmony till late.
There were no deaths that day.
"Get this behind you. Whatever troubles you, you must get through it."
It was true. She had to deal with Brady and rethink her life. The baby's death would not be in vain.
"Thank you, Matron. I can make my own arrangements."
"No dear, let me. You have worked hard these last couple of months. Every person on the team enjoyed a restful time away. And yes, I have checked. Since you came to us, you never took a holiday or a weekend." Sonia smiled. She could not argue with that.
Voices reached them and Haleema cut the conversation short: "When last did you eat?" Sonia could not remember.
"Get food in you. You are no good to me sick." She touched her arm in encouragement.
"Sure," she replied.
"I have to run."
"Make it quick!" David said.
While washing hands she realised what a mess she looked. Her normal tan was pale, even with the makeup. From her pocket she removed a lipstick, applied it and left.
Once she turned the corner, she walked into an unmovable wall. She yelped in surprise as firm hands grabbed her and pinned her against the wall in one quick movement. She gasped at the sudden intrusion. Brady Scott's warm breath tickled her cheek.
"SERGEANT CLARK, WHERE is the vehicle report? Ralph put it on my table. I'm sure of it."
After a quick search, Doug handed it to the colonel. "Here it is, Sir."
Curt snapped it away. "Get me, Saunders!" he ordered.
Curt peered out the window. The phone conversation he had with his daughter disturbed him.
Jillian never cried. The truth disclosed through tears shocked him to the core. It was not fabricated from a young, deranged woman looking for attention. No, rather from a much abused one. Why didn't they tell him any of this earlier?
How could Vivian do this?
Her lover seduced Jillian, and she did not stop it. Even his son, Mark, two years younger than Jillian, suffered abuse under the man.
He was still motionless when Clark and Saunders returned.
"Sir?" the sergeant said.
Startled Curt looked at both and barked: "At ease!"
"Take a seat."
With the temperature at 47°C, their clothes were saturated with sweat. A slight breeze filtered through the flaps, but it made no difference. The fan did not disturb the air either.
Curt offered them water and returned to the report, the shortages of parts for the vehicles, serious.
CURT HAD CHECKED THE WEBSITE. If it resembled the pictures, he should enjoy the stay.
At 20h00 he rushed to his quarters and changed into civvies. From the shelf he grabbed an overnight bag, throwing in the necessities. At the last moment, he packed a dress shirt and pants. Maybe…
The mirror showed a person of confidence—a faint grin enhanced the attractive face. He still had it and stretched. The broad shoulders looked great under the shirt and the denim gloved his narrow hips sporting well-toned legs underneath.
The moment he sat in the chopper he relaxed.
All the worries would be Monday's problem.
The younger man was kind enough to offer it to him, and he will not disappoint him.
He laid back and listened as the pilot went through the checklist, and then lifted. The swooping blades overpowered every other sound. God, he loved it, shutting his eyes with appreciation.
Once in the air his thoughts drifted to the children. Guilt: a strong emotion he had to deal with. Vivian's lover left emotional scars on his boy. Mark did not know where he belonged. He always believed his children should find their own path, but he will let go of that resolution if he had too. The military a good straightener.
Curt placed his bag at the back. Inside the cab the guide introduced himself: "My name is Armanno," and proffered a chubby hand.
"Please to meet you, Armanno. Call me Curt." As he pulled into the traffic Armanno pointed out distinctive landmarks, his enthusiasm tangible.
"Where did it all start?" Curt's curiosity peaked.
"It goes back to the 16th Century. During the crusade period."
"That long back?"
"Malta has a proud history. We are the smallest capital city in the European Union. In 1813 we became a British colony and served as a way station for ships. We were an important Allied base for the North Africa and Mediterranean operations. We received our independence in 1964 and became a Republic in 1974. Our history includes the Ottoman invasion. You will find noteworthy museums here. They showcase the relics of each period."
"I never knew it's importance and the vital role it played in history. The museums are on my itinerary for the weekend," Curt promised.
"You will not be disappointed. There is always something new to discover."
They followed Route 6. The landscape changed from city to country. At a circle Armanno turned left. They continued with Triq Vincenzo Dimech road. Minutes later they entered another dense region. The imposing wall of the fortified city in view declared a World Heritage centre. It attracted visitors across the globe.
She whimpered, a quiet sound which echoed his own loss.
He struggled with Vivian's betrayal. Still did. To be this possessive was unlike him. Since his undivided attention he discarded his bitter emotions. What mattered was the present.
Once again, he connected with her and took the smaller hand in his own, the tan covered righthand sported a faint beauty spot on the side. She was not a child anymore—a working woman that enjoys the outdoors. Long delicate fingers enfolded his own, nails short and neat. All of this he took in as he watched her.
"Is this your first visit to the island?" he inquired when their wine arrived.
"Yes, but not my last. It’s a magnificent place."
"Yours?" She inquired…,
"Also my first. How do you know this place?"
"A friend planned the trip," she explained. "The pressure of work kept me busy. I am grateful she did."
He planted a kiss on the knuckle. "I'm so glad I met you, Sonia. The meeting is unusual for me, but I feel at peace with you."
"Me too. As if it was always this way."
Both sipped their wine quietly. Their thoughts an open book for each other. When he squeezed her hand, she blushed.
"Saturday morning, we stopped at St. Andrews Bastion. They use the fortress as a wedding venue, built with limestone back in the day. It has this vintage look, submerged in a spell of historical beauty. While we were there, a marriage was in progress. They decorated the hall with an elegant style fitting to the place. I wish you could see it. The photos don't do justice to the place. The city's rich history complimented each structure, the museums informative and well preserved." He enjoyed the trip.
"At the Sliema Ferry a water polo game created a buzz. The skill they displayed was a marvel to watch. Our next stop was the Grandmaster Palace. Built between the 16th and 18th centuries, it seems you are stepping back into time." Curt loved the construction of the building, and the weapons crammed on the walls gathered over centuries. But mostly, I liked it when he kissed me. She blushed at the thought and cleared her throat.
"A trip to the Upper Barrakka Gardens granted us a spectacular view over the Grand Harbour. Pictures won't do justice, Haleema, come and experience it yourself."
I wish I could introduce you to Curt. We experienced something unexpected.
"I like you, Sonia," he had admitted during the tour. His hands ignited my skin and we virtually made love in an alcove if not for the guide who stopped us.
Self-conscious she scanned the terminal. Certain she was alone at the bar, she continued with her telling.
"At Grand Harbour we boarded a boat which took us to the Valletta waterfront. The shoreline was exactly as the photos showed. A glimmering city ensconced in history. Palm trees dotted the waterline, added splashes of green against the age-old sandstone." He surprised me with the sail. Every moment was precious.
When she heard her name, she glanced sideways. A man bumped into her followed by a prick on her arm. It went dark as she wilted on the concrete.
Muscular arms lifted her in the back of a decrepit van with no effort. He placed her gear next to her sedated body. A door closed and they drove in a northern direction without her knowing any of it.
Another unmarked car followed; the men glared at him. They knew his intent and they were furious.
If Tau Gbadamosi had a choice he would end his life here, but the leader's explicit orders stopped him.
He would not allow him to hurt her. She was precious cargo and valuable to his people. He would stay on them like a tick on a dog.
Determined he called.
AT 05H00 MONDAY MORNING CURT strode into his office, tired and not in a great mood.
The drive was one lengthy argument with himself. The last day on a loop. The memories pounding waves into his core which crashed against a rock wall.
He was stupid. He had caved. All he wanted now was her. His consciousness berated him with each passing kilometre. He was an old bastard. Why did he promise her?
This weekend he discovered a jewel in Sonia Main. He learned her surname when he booked the same rooms … in six months' time.
He believed in second chances.
He stretched as a roughened hand traced her leg. She squealed under the touch and kicked. A chilling laugh emanated from him; fixated on her breasts. He leaned forward and pinched a nipple through her clothing. She shrieked and tried to kick, but it was no use. He grinned with triumph as he pinched again.
Sonia forced herself to become still, her fear was his fuel. Though difficult, she relaxed. When he spoke in his language, Sonia detected the meaning behind his intentions. His gaze unwavering on her, and she forced herself to be quiet. The smirk disappeared as he pinched her again. Lifeless she met his gaze.
She did not care about his disappointment.
"I will enjoy you. No one will hear your screams. It is just you and me," his threadbare English's message clear enough.
His hands ever-present on her as he continued to touch her. He fiddled with the zipper, but it stuck in his haste.
The small reprieve a welcomed moment, but for how long?
Sonia tried to withdraw herself not to be an easy reach, but he snickered. He held her limbs still, his eyes glazed over as it travelled over her private parts, her insides in turmoil; helpless to protect herself. Lust palpable on his face.
She was in trouble and alone. Her mind in a jumble.
"PLEASE LORD," she whispered, never leaving his face.
He allowed his thoughts to wander. He never showed genuine interest in any girl. Women came to his bed when they needed help. He caved and enjoyed the platter provided. His wife lived with her family. He did not visit her often, as he had no feelings for her. So far she could not give him sons; everyone thought she was cursed and he avoided her.
This woman stirred feelings in him he would not admit to Kwame. He wanted to protect her and claim her. Her eyes pleased him; even her smell turned him on. She was perfect for him. He never considered taking a second wife, but she did things to him. Good things.
Kwame was smart. Maybe he was right. He should ask Roger for her hand; she would make him happy. But, if Roger found her appealing, he would take her into his hut. It would put a stop to his dreams.
He folded his arms and made himself comfortable. With eyes closed he indulged in the fantasy he had concocted of them together. A fantasy so wild that it could not be true.
FOR TWO DAYS THEY drove in an eastern direction. The White Nile ever-present as the landscape changed from region to region. Fangak's lifestyle differs from the rest of the country. It was harsher, slower and infested with unknown critters. People were fearful of the place and stayed away, her destination a prison she could not escape from.
They never stopped unless it was for food or to relieve themselves. They drove in silence. Tau never touched her again but took care of her. The driver, Kwame Okiro, took deep puffs from the thin cigar he cradled between yellow teeth.
Each time Sonia woke she watched her abductors, and though they seldom looked at her she knew they were attentive. Their shoulders taught; eyes awake—always scanning the area for any trouble.
"Lift your legs." The action caused discomfort and Sonia helped her. She shrieked in pain.
Tau arrived with more light and the supplies she had asked. From his shoulder a medical bag dangled.
"Where did that come from?" Astounded, she studied him. He just shrugged his shoulders and dozed the fire.
Sonia worked nonstop through the night. The birth was difficult. The woman's tiredness did not help. Fatigued after her own ordeal, Sonia pinched her eyes but kept her vigilance. At dawn she stepped out of the hut with a healthy baby boy. The man's grin faltered as he marched up to her, taking his slumbering son with pride.
"Is Baaka all right?" he asked.
"Yes, she is sleeping," Sonia replied and brushed sweaty hair away. Taking deep breaths, she enjoyed the crispness of the new day. It helped her burning eyes and aching back. People clustered about all watching her from listless eyes.
Her view of the unknown place offered her peacefulness, and she inhaled it. The early morning sunbathed the reeds in golden hues and early birds fluttered in the tops.
The camp's layout was like most camps she had seen, except for the swamp… less dust and bareness. The water stretched all around them, so far back that she lost view. She was in a floating prison, detached from the outside world. Discouraged Sonia realized escape was impossible.
Sonia observed Roger Gisemba, her jailer, inches taller than her for the first time. His gaze fixed on the child he cradled. Pock marks covered his face which gave him a foreboding presence. Like Tau Gbadamosi, he was bald and clean-shaven. The old faded brown chino pants and white shirt, a sharp contrast against his dark skin. A pistol at the belt brought her predicament to the fore front.
There were luxuries she craved, a long soaking bubble bath, for one. Her hair required a wash, shaving would be wonderful and decent food and coffee.
Her overnighter held the essentials which she used sparingly. Baaka gifted her two dresses after her recovery and a headscarf; the gesture moved her. So far from civilization supplies were scarce.
The only other clothing she had was the yellow dress, inappropriate to wear. Happy memories clung to it. Smells, sounds and acceptance hidden within the folds. A weekend cloaked with mysterious freedom. Time gifted her hours of a connection she would love to experience once more. For now, it remained a dream.
Does he remember me? She curt-tailed her thoughts once more.
It will not help you think about it, Sonia. Stay in the present. The past's dreams can do nothing to change your reality.
She scanned the area with a mixture of trepidation and uncertainty, her peace thinly sliced.
"Lord, I have accepted your path though it came at a cost. You gave me hope in the folds of a yellow dress. It holds my future, a future I would love to have. That is my hope. You are my hope. Thank you for the small favours and provision."
This morning the swamp's quietness touched her. Within a week she had found her way and worked in silence. Conditions were not perfect, but she managed.
CURT WOKE WITH ANTISEPTICS which stung his nostrils and gasped. The oxygen tube was uncomfortable, he tried to remove it. His attempt thwarted by a gentle hand.
"Daddy," Jillian's voice broke through the cobwebs.
"Jillian, Pumpkin," he whispered. The youthful face filled with concern. She looked tired.
"Don't talk, Dad, just be still. The nurse will come to help you."
"Thirsty." A glass with a straw appeared before him. Gladly he took the soothing icy water. Tiresome he laid back on the cushions. The worried expression on his daughter's face reminded him where he was.
"Don't you remember?" Her voice broke. Now he noticed her red swollen eyes, her pale face.
"Mum is dead."
He gasped in shock. "Mark?"
"He is still alive, but they are not sure if he will make it."
"No," and he tried to get up, but his right leg was heavy, his body tight. Only then did he notice the cast on his leg. Bandages covered his chest and right arm.
"I am so happy you are awake. For a moment I thought I have lost you, Dad."
"I am not planning to go anywhere soon, Pumpkin," he consoled. He reached for her, their hands meeting in a tight hold. Vivian was dead, Mark fighting for his life.
The accident hurried back, brakes screeched, then an overpowering BOOM, the smell of gasoline and then nothing. He closed his eyes and swallowed.
"The court has taken all the evidence in consideration. Each testimony showed Staff Sergeant Castledale brutal obsession towards women." Colonel McGee stated—Major Burger and Sergeant First Class Ralph represented the panel.
"From a psychiatry perspective Dr Rogers had shared his knowledge with this court. Staff Sergeant Castledale had a traumatic childhood."
"We included Nurse Anna Stalin's medical report and statement. It showed the mindset of the staff sergeant at the time." He took a sip from the glass.
"The defendant could not prove maliciousness at the night in question. Sam Gerber protected Captain Main from his brutality. We find the accused, Sam Gerber, innocent of manslaughter." Applause shattered the silence, Turmel's disgust clear as he watched Sam.
"Thanks, Colonel. I knew I could count on you," Sam said. Curt nodded. Lee Ann kissed him, a public announcement that they were together.
"Please have a seat."
Everyone became quiet. Curt cleared his throat and took another sip before he continued.
"I have a few words to say about violence against women." He found Sonia across from him. She smiled. This case gave him the opportunity to address the matter.
"Violence against women are an abomination. In camp their tenacity and strong will cannot be faltered. They are true soldiers. They protect others with their lives therefore need our respect and protection. This is not the opportunity to violate her and think you will get away with it.
THE FLIGHT WAS LONG and difficult on Sonia. Morning sickness was an all-day experience for the last two days. Dr Jourdain assured her it would be over soon. At eighteen weeks she really hoped so.
It was already late the afternoon, the winter sun basked the earth in pale pinks against the backdrop of grey hangers.
Feeling sleepy he almost carried her from the plane. "Mrs McGee, your new home awaits," and she smiled up at him.
Suddenly two bodies shuffled her away with excited shouts, and she stepped away.
He showed her photos of the children and she recognised them. Watching the trio the similarities were noticeable. The daughter was a petite version of Curt with a belly ready to deliver any day now. His son was bulkier than him, but with the same piercing eyes she loved.
When he finally broke their hold, she broke the awkwardness.
"Hello Jillian and Mark."
"Ma'am," both said.
"Please call me Sonia." They had spoken over Skype the day after their marriage, but reality was different, the situation difficult. As she told him once, they were part of him and she would love them as such.
"This is my wife, Sonia McGee." He said looking at her as she smiled, "and these two are my joy, Jillian and Mark McGee." Their greeting was polite, but reserved. Curt drew her in and reluctantly they placed an arm around her waist.
Billionaire Contemporary Romance
My laptop was sitting on my coffee table, staring at me, as if daring me to pick it up. I refused to do so. I knew, the moment I did, I would check my email, and I didn’t want to stalk my own messages because it was bad enough that I was constantly thinking about what might be there. It would be worse if I was obsessively checking my inbox like I was dying to.
“Laurel, can you forward me that coupon you have for those boots?” my roommate Jane Banner asked as she came into the living room of our shared apartment. “I want to order them before they run out of my size.”
“Sure,” I said, trying not to show my disdain. My roommate, Jane, is so sweet, it’s hard not to do what she asks despite how I felt about my laptop at the moment. It was the last day that applicants for the prestigious MBA program at Cambridge University could expect to be notified of whether or not they had been accepted into the program, so I hadn’t even picked up an electronic device in the last three hours. Normally on a Saturday, my phone would be glued to my hand. Not today. While I really wanted to know if I got in, part of me also knew if I never checked, I couldn’t be disappointed.
“What’s that face?” Jane asked, standing in front of me with one hand on her slender hip. “I thought you weren’t going to use it.”
“No, I’m not. The coupon is yours. I just don’t want to check my email.”
“Oh! Laurel, please!” Jane said, bouncing over to me as she rolled her eyes. “You’ve got this. There is no doubt in my mind that you got in.”
I made a face at her and opened my email, deciding to search for the email she wanted from the swanky boutique I just happened to have a coupon for first. I found it and forwarded it to her and then quickly scanned my inbox.
The door opened, and he got out, offering me his hand. We weren’t at the front of the hotel, though. We’d pulled into a private garage I didn’t know existed. AJ tugged me along behind him, and we entered the building, going straight to an elevator that was near the entrance. He pushed a button, and the door closed.
Immediately, he backed me into the corner, and I was lost in his blue eyes. His lips were warm and soft when they came crashing down on my neck. His hands settled on my waist, my arms wrapping around his neck. I hoped no one else entered this elevator and imagined we were giving the security guards watching the cameras a show.
His hands travelled up from my waist, higher and higher until they were so close to cupping my breasts, I gasped with anticipation. His kisses became deeper as he sucked and nipped at the flesh between my neck and shoulder. I lowered my head and found his ear, dragging his lobe between my teeth and closing my teeth gently until he moaned.
The elevator chimed, and without letting go of me, he pulled me along through a short hallway and into what had to have been the penthouse suite. His lips found mine as we entered a bedroom with a massive bed and a spectacular view that I only got a few glimpses of. When he began to unbutton his shirt, there was nothing else in the world that could’ve kept my attention more than the lean physique I was staring at. His chiselled abs were rock solid and disappeared into his pants in an intoxicating V that drew my fingers to trace along the edge.
I quickly took the cash and my phone out of my secret hiding spot and kicked off my shoes as he discarded his shoes and socks and took off his watch. Whatever it was he’d been messing with earlier, he set on the nightstand along with his wallet and the room key. I wondered if he had a condom, but I wasn’t about to ask. At this point, I wasn’t going to ruin the moment to ask about protection when I wanted him so badly, foolish as it was.
His eyes were dark and smoky as we met each other near the bed. He tugged my dress down and out of the way, leaving me in only my thong and demi bra. My hands rested on his belt, and his mouth came down on my neck again. This time, his hands found my breasts easily enough, and through the thin lacy fabric, my n*pples hardened instantly at his touch, leaning into him as he pinched and kneaded my sensitive flesh. I unhooked his belt, but I struggled with his zipper when his mouth kissed a trail down my neck to my breasts, and he began to suck me through my bra.
I thought I saw a shadow cross over his eyes then, something akin to recognition, as if that hazy notion that perhaps we’d met before was playing in the back of his mind as well.
But then it faded. He blinked. “Good, good. New Yorkers are tough and hard-working.”
“Sir, I have the notes from the reports you were asking for on my desk,” Mr. Sanders inserted as if he felt the need to let the business owner know he was still there.
“Yes, just a moment, Sanders,” Mr. Grant said with a nod. “Since Ms. Rockwell will be heading such an important project for us, I’d like to ask her a few more questions to make sure she’s fully prepared to handle the matter at hand.” He stared at me, but I didn’t waver. “Something tells me she is.”
For the next several minutes, Mr. Grant asked me many questions about the company. Some of them were pertinent to the project I’d be working on, and some of them were general, posed simply to see if I’d done my research. Of course, I had. By the time the inquisition was done, Mr. Sanders was irritated, but it was clear that Mr. Grant and I had a good rapport and we could converse well with one another.
“Well, Ms. Rockwell, it’s been nice speaking with you,” Mr. Grant said as he took a few steps toward Mr. Sanders’s office. “Welcome to the company. I’ll be expecting a lot from you.”
“Thank you, sir. It was a pleasure meeting you. I am certain I will deliver.” I gave him a confident smile and started to step back into my office—but before I did, I thought I saw that strange look cross his face again as if he was trying to place me.
I went back to my desk and took a few deep breaths, glad to have that over with. The other women in the office were right; the boss was hot. But I wasn’t going to let that serve as a distraction. That wasn’t what I was there for.
Out of nowhere, Valerie, his secretary, whooshed in, closing his office door in my face. “He’s on an important call at the moment, Ms. Rockwell,” Valerie said, folding her arms beneath her bosom and jutting out her jaw.
I knew it wouldn’t do her any good to make Valerie angry since she was the gatekeeper, and it seemed that the secretary didn’t like me already, though I wasn’t sure why. “Thank you, Valerie. Would you mind letting me know when he’s free?” I asked, smiling sweetly and channeling my inner Jane.
She rolled her eyes and blew out a sigh. “Fine. I’ll let you know.”
Something told me I would be waiting a long time.
Frustrated, I looked over the list again, wondering if I would be better off just trying to fix the problems Myself. Mr. Sanders was my boss, so I felt that I should have his input when it came to solving the issues, but the project was mine to run.
I was on her way back over to talk to the key players involved in the project to check on their progress when I noticed Jeanine, one of the women I had gotten to know from working on the project. I had and realized fairly quickly that she was a straight shooter. She was beckoning me to come toward my office.
Something about the way Jeanine was acting made me think she was being secretive, so I fought the urge to tiptoe in that direction, like I was in a cartoon, but headed in that direction. “What’s going on, Jeanine?” I asked her in a low voice.
She pointed inside of my office, and I followed her inside and closed the door.
“Mr. Sanders won’t talk to you, will he?” she whispered.
“No, not really. Why? Do you have any idea what’s happening?”
She nodded. “Look, I didn’t want to say anything, but I really like you, Laurel. The thing is, he keeps doing this. He’ll hire a new project manager. The work doesn’t get done. It falls further behind, and he doesn’t care. It’s understaffed and doesn’t have the budget for such an extensive project. Rather than fixing those two problems, Mr. Sanders keeps blaming project managers and running through those. So… I am guessing his plan is to give you a month or two, wait until you fail, and then blame you, fire you, and hire someone else.”
I think they were wrong then, and it seemed like I was wrong now.
At least the project was still moving along. The team might’ve lost their faith in me as a person, but they were still doing their jobs. Jeanine knew that my sons were triplets, and while she didn’t know the truth about their father—that they were the product of a one-night stand that I had never seen again—she did know that there was a complicated story behind it.
The truth of the matter was, I hadn’t even been on a date since the boys were born, let alone slept around. I had told Jeanine I didn’t date much, and she believed me.
We spent a lot of our time together. Almost every day, we went out for lunch together, which kept me from having to go into the break room.
One day, Jeanine had a dentist’s appointment during lunch, so I went into the break room to purchase a sandwich out of the vending machine to take back to my desk.
“There she is, the office sl*t.”
That was Valerie’s voice. I’d know it anywhere because she’d hated me from the moment I stepped foot in the office, even before the rumors began.
I kept my eyes straight ahead and looked at the choices in the machine.
“I bet she chooses tuna,” someone else said. I wasn’t quite sure I understood the reference, but I knew it wasn’t nice.
“Well, she practically begged Calvin to take her home with him, and when he wouldn’t, she ran out of the bar crying,” Brad told them.
“Guess she just wants more kids to add to her collection.”
I didn’t know who that was, but it stung. A lot. I loved my children, but they were certainly not a collection.
“You know what I heard?” That was Wanda. “I heard that she slept with Mr. Sanders just to get that job to begin with.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Valerie said. “I don’t think that Mr. Sanders would sleep with someone like her. He has higher standards than that.”
Everyone at the table laughed.
I must’ve been tired and imagining things; there was no way that Mr. Grant was interested in me outside of work. Who would want to take on a mother and her three wild men?
Not that the boys weren’t behaving. They definitely were.
“I can definitely read through the articles before Monday. Thank you,” I said.
“Be sure to bring your laptop, too,” he said. “I’d also recommend getting there a little early. The room tends to fill up quickly, and if you want a good seat, you should get there early. Oh, and I’m told it tends to get a little chilly in the building, so maybe bring a jacket.”
I tried to mentally take note of all he was saying, but without something to write it down, and the fact that my children were winding in and out of pedestrian traffic, I wasn’t sure if I would remember all of that on Monday. Not to mention they often dictate what time I can leave the apartment.
“Thanks again for coming to meet me here,” I told him. “I know it’s sort of unorthodox having a business meeting in a zoo amidst the animals and with my children tugging you all over the place.”
“No, it was fine. It was interesting to see you outside of the office. I had a feeling you were good at multitasking. Now I know for sure.”
“Thank you,” I told him. I prided myself in my ability to handle multiple tasks at the same time. I was glad I had the chance to show him that.
“It’s important for me to get to know the people I work with inside and out, Laurel. I like to know what makes them tick, what motivates them, that sort of thing. You understand?”
His eyes seemed to be looking into my soul, and even though I knew he meant in a clearly professional manner, the intimate choice of words he used made my cheeks flush.
It was Saturday morning, and the boys were in rare form.
During the three weeks of the conference, I had spent so many late nights and early mornings at the office, I don’t know if I ever qualified as having slept. It was more like a late night power nap before leaving early to do it all again.
Nancy had been my silent partner in crime, and was about one toothbrush short of living with us. I owed her fortune in overtime, but the leaps and bounds it had for my career were worth it—at least, I hoped so, anyway. Now, Nancy wasn't coming in on the weekend, and the boys were feeling the power shift and testing their boundaries.
While my circadian rhythms might have been all over the map, theirs were perfectly on target, kept in sync by the trusty nanny and a regular school schedule.
They woke up at around 7 am., and saw that I was still sleeping and, well, let’s be honest, suffering from the teensiest case of the wine flu. Being the little angels that I bore in my womb, painfully delivered, and tediously raised for the last five years, they decided to let mommy sleep and make their own breakfasts.
From the investigation that followed, I concluded that they snuck into the kitchen, and from what I could feel on the floor, got spoons and ate raw sugar straight out of the glass canister, which, miraculously, did not break. Then, they dragged a chair to the freezer and helped themselves to not a bowl, but an entire gallon of ice cream, much of which now covered the floor and had been turned into a Haagen Dazs-brand slip and slide.
It was then that Luke, who had missed the majority of the action on account of still being asleep, arrived at the scene. He realized that all hell was going to break loose once I awoke. He, oh-so-rationally, explained to his brothers that I needed to be informed of said activities before the shenanigans, and by extension, subsequent punishments, got any worse. This was not met with enthusiasm, and so Linus masterminded a plan with Liam to lock Luke in the bathroom.
The math added up. The boys looked enough like me. Why would she want to keep them from me? Why would she deliberately choose to raise them alone? To make a point? Out of pride? Out of spite?
The longer I thought about it, the more questions I had. I could provide for her, for my sons. For a family. She was living in an apartment in Queens, spending almost no time with her children in favor of climbing the corporate ladder.
That wasn’t fair, though. She was doing a phenomenal job raising those boys without me, even if she was barely scraping by. They obviously adored her. She seemed to be balancing her work life with her home life. The boys didn’t have any complaints; they were clothed and fed and cared for, they went to school, they had toys and games. Their needs were being met, at least physically.
But what about emotionally? Was Laurel home enough to truly be involved in their lives?
It was so d*mn complicated. More so than it needed to be. I could barely wrap my head around it.
I needed a new plan. Something that might convince Laurel that this was for the best, that I deserved a place in both her life and those of our children.
Our children. Ours. It felt surreal to even think the word.
It was clear, though, that Laurel needed space first. Time to cool off, to distance herself from tonight, and everything we’d said to each other.
It was only fair, then, that I take some time to distance myself. Maybe even to talk to someone else, to get their advice on this.
Mike was a great friend, and dead useful as a personal assistant, but in the end, he was wasted on anything romantic. I was fairly certain all of his romantic experience added up to a high school sweetheart and a secret passion for romantic manga—not that I’d ever tell him I knew about the latter.
My parents were right out. I couldn’t imagine their faces if I told them I had not one illegitimate child, but three. My mother would faint. My father might very well shout his way into having a stroke. That definitely wasn’t how I wanted to end up inheriting the company and all of its assets.
I sighed and started the long trek down the rest of the path. The walking helped me think, just like running did in the mornings.
I stopped suddenly.
Was it really them? Two of them, anyway? Were Linus and Liam over on the other side of the fountain?
No, it couldn’t be.
My hand instinctively reached for Liam—it was definitely Liam, after all—as he teetered on the edge of the fountain. He almost fell into the water.
The man they were with grabbed him by the shirt and set him back on the ground. He seemed okay; they were all laughing.
I jumped behind a tree so they wouldn’t see me as they passed.
Who was this man with my kids? Why was he with them? Did Laurel have a boyfriend she hadn’t told me about?
I watched them wander aimlessly, joking casually with each other. He swiped Linus’ nose with an ice cream cone. I wanted to punch that guy in the nose.
Jealousy didn’t suit me, and yet, here I was. The idiot, skulking behind a tree.
"Hey, Boss." Mike stepped up behind me. "What are you doing? Is this part of the paleo diet? There are some clubs that re-enact the caveman movement, to really get into the paleo lifestyle. In fact, I think they meet in the park."
Getting back onto the path, I purposefully walked a steady gait. "What do you have for me, Mike?"
"Still looking into the particulars, but it appears your father has never really retired. He merely took himself out of the spotlight."
"So he still has a hand in the business?"
"That would be correct, sir." Mike flipped through pages in his notebook, keeping a steady gait, matching me stride for stride. "He has several people on the payroll reporting back to him on how you’re doing."
I should have known. "Okay, that’s expected. Do we know who they are?"
"Not yet, but we’ll find them."