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I’d never been to a church service. My family was of Islamic faith, though my father hadn’t been the best steward of it due to his addiction. My mother’s practice of it had been mild and almost neglectful as she tried keeping up with my father. I had faint memories of being in a mosque as a child, but I was certain there was no display of emotion of this kind there. These people were going crazy in here. The music matched their zest, if not incited it.

I glanced to my right at Tasche again, where she mouthed, “See. I told you!

So this was her friend’s husband. I couldn’t lie; he was a particularly handsome man. The raspy voice and composed demeanor in an animated and lively environment didn’t hurt either. Even now, I was able to see him in between two dancing bodies and his intense gazing out into the room, his eyes were thin to the point of touching lashes, his mouth between the wiry hairs of his face moving rapidly as though he were speaking Spanish or something.

A short guy took the mic and began singing a slow song, somehow not breaking the energy of the room. In between belting out impressive notes, he encouraged everyone to praise God as if He was in the room with us in that moment. The minister began pointing people out in the audience and inviting them up to the stage. I didn’t understand why. From what I could see, he spoke to them, clearly using words that struck them emotionally because most cried, some shouted in praise, and two actually passed out. I shook my head, unable to believe people were fainting when this man laid hands on them. One guy was bigger in build than the preacher!

As fascinating as this all was, it came to an end at some point. Another man, this one wearing a priest collar, took over the podium and began giving final words. He thanked the preacher, whose name apparently was Pastor Carmichael, for his service here tonight. He also thanked his minister of music. As this new guy spoke, I felt my eyes instinctively shift to the right of him, my gaze slamming into the preacher. His regard was blank but he was definitely staring, and so hard I began to feel uneasy. I shifted in my seat, clearing my throat before going back to the reverend on the mic.

Two minutes later, the same thing happened. My gaze found the preacher man gaping at me. He swiped down his full beard this time as he gawked. That’s when panic struck in my chest. Was he checking me out?

Not when his wife is here, where he’s supposed to be sharing the word of God!

That thought annoyed me to the point that I decided not to look his way again, no matter the pull into that direction. If that didn’t work, Tasche tapping and motioning for me to go did. I turned to my left where the aisle was and saw a different woman in an all-white nurse’s uniform wave us on. Once out into the aisle, I let Tasche get in front of me because I had no idea where we were going. I followed the pair to a side door off the stage and down a hall. We traveled to a room where a dark-skinned woman with a wild mane was with a toddler, feeding her crackers.

“Hey, Tasch!” Her smile was luminous, and her eyes danced at the sight of Tasche.

“Whaddup, Lex Dawg.” Tasche was lower in volume, but just as familiar. She crossed the room for the little girl at the table, chomping away, watching the screen above on the wall of the auditorium we’d just left. “Hey, Lisa-Mare! I miss you, lil’ buggy,” she singsonged.

The little girl giggled, turning toward Tasche.

“Hi.” Her voice tore my attention from witnessing the softest side of Tasche I’d ever seen. The woman neared me with her hand extended. “I’m Lex. You’re Tasche’s friend?”

“Oh, hey!” I took her hand. “Yes.” I smiled to match hers. “My name is Bilan.”

“Yeah. This my baker-student friend I told you about, Lex. She came through tonight.”

“I appreciate that.” I caught the New York accent in Lex’s voice.

“That was your husband. Right?” I asked.

“Yeah. That was my Ezra. I hope he didn’t go too hard for you.”

Too hard, as in strange? Pretty much

“Oh, here he go,” Tasche murmured, and both ladies’ attention went behind me.

Lex moved in the same direction. By the time I turned, the bearded pastor was in her arms and I could hear her mumble something in his ear. His eyes were closed as he listened.

“Amen,” he rasped. “Thank you, beloved.”

When his eyes flashed open directly on me, my heart plummeted to the floor. She released him, backing away as his gaze was on me. My neck whipped over to Tasche, who was now holding the little girl’s hand next to her.

“Hey, Ez. You did good out there, as usual,” Tasche complimented. “I keep telling you, you gone have to teach me a few of them fancy words.” Her chuckle was nervously delivered.

The guy wouldn’t stop staring at me! Thank goodness his wife noticed. But Lex didn’t appear alarmed, as I would have thought.

“Carmichael, this is Bilan, Tasche’s friend over here.” Lex made the introduction.

For a while, he didn’t speak; only his eyes bore into me. My skin began to feel like it was crawling, forcing me to look away.

“I hate to be outré with my presentation to you, and I assure you it isn’t indecent.” That got my attention, returning my gaze to him. I could see Tasche and his wife’s regards were on him, too. “It’s just, strangely enough, while in the sanctuary, the Holy Spirit began to speak to me concerning you. Do you have siblings—a brother, perhaps?”

My eyes whipped to Tasche, Lex, then back to him before I bit my lip nervously and nodded.

“Your parents deceased?” I nodded again, mouth secreting excessively. That’s when Pastor Carmichael nodded, too, his eyes sweeping the floor. “As my regard was on you, my attention was on the story of Joseph. Are you familiar with that biblical account?” I shook my head, insecure in the moment.

Ezra’s eyes narrowed and he switched weight on his hips as his gaze deepened. “Where are you from?”

“Here—”

“No.” The speed of his retort was record-breaking. “Your bloodline…heritage. Where are you from?”

I sucked in my lips again, eyes falling. “Somalia. My parents were brought over as young babies—one still in the womb.”

Again, he nodded as though I’d confirmed something. “Other relatives around?”

“Kinda. Not really.”

“Yes. Lorn.”

“I wouldn’t say all that.” I hated the defense in my voice.

“You wouldn’t say you’re afraid each day, at a specific part of it either. You also wouldn’t share your deepest yearning with those closest to you,” he rasped, thick curly beard lifting in the air as he challenged me.

My eyes shot over to Tasche again, who looked just as spooked as I felt.

“I’m not afraid of anything. I’ve been on my own for so long now, I know how to protect and look out for myself.” If that didn’t come out just as weak and uncompelling as the worst acting attempt, I wouldn’t be ready to cry. “I don’t know what you think you know about me, but I’m just fine.”

Scoffed. He actually pushed the air from his nostrils that screamed, “Bullshit!” But why?

“You’re not,” he rasped. “But you will be. You do, however, have a turbulent voyage ahead of you, similar to Joseph. You see, people focus on the betrayal, then the ultimate overdog nature of his story, when I’m always reminded of the journey of his faith. Yes, Joseph was deceived by his siblings, and sold into slavery. He was lied on by his boss’ wife, accused of attacking her with sexual intent. But Genesis, chapter thirty-nine, verse two tells us, ‘The Lord was with Joseph.’ Joseph was then imprisoned for, some say, thirteen years.

“It was those years of despair, confusion, and imprisonment that impress me the most about Joseph. He was alone and in captivity. And once again, in verse twenty-one, we’re reminded, ‘But the Lord was with Joseph.’” His smile was handsome, unexpected, and alarming. “We learn in chapter forty-eight how Joseph may have appeared to have been removed from his birthright, but his birthright remained in him each moment of what turned out to be twenty years of separation from his family. In the end, God not only released him from that prison, but He made him ruler of Egypt under the pharaoh of the time: the second most powerful man of Egypt,” he made clear.

“Joseph became what’s called a vizier and decided…” He considered his thoughts for a few moments. “What you millennials refer to as ‘who got to eat, and eat well.’ He went from a slave to a prisoner to a high-ranking official, ruling over the brothers who betrayed him.”

My eyes blinked and I shook my head. “I don’t get what you’re saying. Why are you telling me all of this?”

His face lifted again, and in a disarming and cheeky grin. “The Holy Spirit revealed to me a similar path you’re about to take. You’ve been in a valley and have more time in it, but the amazing thing about God is no matter your Islamic roots, He covers you. Your upbringing, culture, current lack of knowledge of Him is inconsequential to His covering and will for your life. He still wants to be in a relationship with you.”

“Why?” Another defensive clap of my lungs.

Why would a stranger want to be in relationship with me? How would anybody’s god know me?

“Pastor?” a woman stepping into the room called out. Pastor Carmichael peered over his shoulder at her. “Bishop Peterson wants to take pictures with you and your daughters.” He nodded in answer before turning back to me.

After a long and decided period of quiet, Pastor Carmichael spoke again.

“In the vision, some of your nights were long. You witnessed things only seen in cinema or between the pages of a novel and/or pamphlet. You were thrust into a world never known to you. You will feel pain, joy, betrayal, bliss, deeper loneliness, and contentment like no other period in your life. There will come a time where you will flee—run in fear.” That made absolutely no sense to me. “But the Lord will be with you.” My heart thundered in my chest at the grave dipping of his voice. “The Stranger you’ve never known knows each strand of hair on your body, has covered you since your conception, and will continue to during this next phase of your life.”

“What phase?”

“The one you would do better in if you remembered He’s protecting you every step of the way.” His gaze shifted behind me. “Ms. Remah, can I have her?” I didn’t know there was not just another woman in the room—an older one—but a baby, too. “Now, I need to go, but before I do, would you mind if my wife and I prayed for you? I’d like to speak protection over you before we part ways.”

I sucked in a breath, eyes sweeping below while my brain whirred with confusion. I shrugged, not knowing what he was asking or what my response should have been. Before I knew it, Lex was in front of me with her soft hands clasped over mine. Her tall and thick husband stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders as he rasped words of praise to his god. Then, I realized he moved on to commands for my health, safety, journey, birthright, purpose, and family.

“I declare right now, Satan, you may tempt, but cannot destroy. You may come near, but cannot touch. You may plot, but you will not conquer. In case you did not know, this soul belongs to The God Who Sees. El Roi has already seen into her future, has already lain the trap of her faith…” As he spoke powerfully about events unknown to me, in between uttering words of another language, Lex mumbled words I could not make out.

His pitch rose and fell depending on his words, and Lex’s right hand slipped from my left and pressed into my chest, over my heart. It then pushed into my belly, then swiped over my forehead as she muttered words I couldn’t hear coherently.

When Pastor Carmichael’s theatrical prayer came to a close, Lex’s long arms immediately encased me, pulling me into her warm bosom. When my eyes opened, I could see Pastor Carmichael’s frame brushing past us as he held a baby in his one arm and the tiny hand of the toddler in the other hand. The older woman followed them with a car seat in one hand and a mountain of their family’s coats in her other arm.

“Damn! That nigga stay on ‘I’ for intense as fuck,” Tasche breathed.

“Are you okay?” Lex asked as gentle as her New York accent would allow.

My mind was utterly blown. I had so many questions. My brain wanted to believe he was insane or fanatical with religion, but standing here with these two women, who hadn’t been shouting those accusations, caused my disinclination on that call. And the way he’d just left… It was as though he hadn’t just dropped a bomb in my already stressful world before skipping out with his children for a photoshoot. For a while, I couldn’t breathe; forget speaking.

“This…vision,” I hesitated. “Does he have more details?”

There was a decided pause before Lex spoke. “He usually knows more than he reveals. He only shares what he’s told to part with.”

Panic struck my chest. “What does he know?”

Her head shook softly as she peered deeply into my eyes with what looked like concern. “I don’t know. I may never know until you do and decide to share it with me. My husband is rigid about his gift. But in the event you need me…” She went into her pocket and pulled out a business card. “Here’s all of my information. We have a safe house where women in need can come and…disappear.”

I sucked in a wop of air and my eyes ballooned. “Disappear to where?”

“From the sight of trouble. I can’t give more details than that, but I can say since we’ve opened, no one has been located until they’re out of hiding. Call and give them your name. We’ll take it from there.”

“Beloved,” a deep rasp sounded from behind me. “The call has been placed to DiFillippo’s. Time is of the essence at this point.”

I turned to find Pastor Carmichael waiting with pinched brows, holding their baby. He was ready to go.

My head swung back to Lex “I—”

“I have to go.” She cupped my hand and squeezed. “Call anytime you need,” she whispered, taking off.

Lex quickly hugged Tasche and exchanged a few words of mumble before gaiting off to her waiting husband. Tasche then turned to me, standing nearly as stiff as I was with shifting eyes.

“C’mon, baker girl.” She took me at the arm. “Let’s get you back to work.”

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I flushed the toilet and moved to the fancy vanity in the bathroom, turning on the faucets to wash my hands. As I paid myself close inspection in the mirror, I could see my eyeliner running a bit. I was tired. Nothing more would satisfy me than to snap my fingers and be showered and in the bed with Sadik. I decided on my way in here to have a slice of pie packaged to go before leaving tonight.

I dried my hands, then adjusted my clothes. This dress was casual cute, but could be formal chic without the denim jacket. I wore it to camouflage the swelling of my midsection. The timing had truly been perfect. I’d been growing by the day, it seemed, in the waist. My belly was still but a pouch, yet at a size only pregnancy could explain in relation to my body build. The high heeled red bottoms helped façade my secret as well. Man, did it feel good not having to hide my truth anymore. Now, everyone most crucial to the knowledge of this pregnancy knew. That was a huge weight off.

A deep sigh left my lungs as I flipped off the lights to the bathroom and opened the door. Just as I turned in the hall to begin the trek through this mammoth place, a leggy figure leaning against a column across the gallery startled me. I jumped in the air, grabbing my beating chest.

“There are better ways to get my attention than to wait on me in the hallway,” I panted out.

This felt like déjà vu.

Panic loomed over me, threatening. But immediately, I decided to reject it. I had to start somewhere. Iban had decided poking season would continue so soon. I had to fight back.

His leer was carved out by Lucifer himself, convincingly evil.  

“I ain’t think bitches like you get scared.”

“I’m human.” How else would I respond to that?

“A hoe?”

“Excuse me?”

He pushed off the column and paced toward me, shrinking me by an inch with each step. His tongue wet his lips, eyes narrowed in seduction.

“I know what you like. Know what you need, too,” he informed.

I swallowed hard, then cocked a brow. “I could use a laugh. Haven’t had one since you and your father killed my brother.”

“That’s the thing.” His index finger stabbed the air repetitively as he chuckled. It was still shocking—baffling—how these Ellis men could look so debonair while terrorizing people. Iban’s navy blue suit fit his frame perfectly; the jacket’s sleeves pushed up his arms. The V-neck white t-shirt exposed the top of a tattoo at his carved chest. His light brown irises were lit wickedly, his orange hair low and tapered with precision. “I’mma give you more options than he had.” He stopped inches away. “I can get you a bag to get the fuck lost forever. Or I can put you in a box and lay you next to ya whole family in the ground.” He gave a dramatic pause that worked.

He just threatened to kill me and, for the first time in my life, I was being threatened by a known murderer. He’d killed before.

He kills!      

Life wasn’t viewed in high regard to people like him. Iban knew violence, not compromise.

I switched postures, engaging in the best acting of my life. The muscles on one side of my face lifted. “Cut it out. No harm will come to me without your brother’s consent, and you know it.”

He snorted. “Why you think? ‘Cause you pregnant?”

“Even if I wasn’t carrying his baby, you’d never lay a hand on me. And you know why, Iban. It’s because your brother for real, for real loves me. You know just like the rest of your family, Sadik has never been into a woman like he is with me.” God, let that be true… It’s what I’d gathered from my first visit here to Elliswoods Palace. “The baby only furthers my security. You need to get over whatever issues you have with me. I’ve accepted the sick, villainous ways of your complicated family. Surely, you can figure out a way to get along with my simple ass. No one else is holding back on rolling out the welcome carpet but you.” I gritted my teeth, feeling a surge of anger out of nowhere. “If I can sleep with a man every night whose family killed mine, you can figure out how to stop trying to intimidate me!”

Iban laughed, unaffected. “You wanna kitty.”

My face folded. “A what?”

He scoffed. “A kitty. It’s what we call it in the pen. When a new inmate come in, he ain’t got no commissary. Depending on the day of the week, he may not have no good shit to eat for days. So the set he rep put together what we call a kitty. Food, snacks, deodorant, toothpaste, drinks…shit like that.” He nodded. “Guess you could call it a welcome package to help him start his bid. That’s what you looking for from me.” A nasty guffaw pushed from his belly, it seemed.

Iban expressed his guileful humor in my face. “Sorry, young bird. I was that nigga that plotted on a nigga’s exit, not his coming. I’m the enforcer, remember?” His face morphed into an ugly glare in less than a second. “When it comes down to the Ellis name, I’m murkin’ niggas to keep the legacy.” Those were the same words he used during my “orientation” here the first night I stayed over.

“Why do you think the legacy’s in danger, Iban?” I lowered my chin. “Because you know he wants to marry me?” I nodded. “He does. I just don’t get what that has to do with you. Why do I pose a threat to you? And now, I’m carrying his baby, and you threaten me? It’s your nephew, Iban. Your flesh and blood. Your legacy—”

“That shit ain’t my fuckin’ legacy!” he bit out.

His adamancy dazed me. The Ellises believed in family, from what I’d been told and had seen. They were an insulated unit, believing to be exclusive and above the rest. The Ellises were aristocratic and had convinced me of it.

“My child won’t be Earl’s legacy?”

“Nah.” He shook his head. “Hell no.”

“But Lia’s baby is?”

My chin lifted at the same pace as Iban’s eyes. They darkened to a new hue of evil.

“Bitch, don’t speak about my kids. You ‘on’t know shit about me or my kid’s mother, my wife, or my brother, if you wanna keep it a buck. You just new pussy to Deek. That’s it. You ain’t built to be in this family. You think I ‘on’t see who you is, staying around knowing what we did to ya peoples? You wanna get some information to go to the law with? Huhn?” He entered my personal space. “Ain’t shit you can tell them that’ll hurt my family. Deek nose may be wide ass open, but the man know what to keep to the chest. Fuck what you think. He a Ellis soldier. Don’t let his dick game make you forget that shit.”

“He’s an Ellis soldier,” I echoed, blood rushing in my ears.

“You damn right!”

“The regulator in this family.”

“You better fuckin’ know it,” he gritted.

I swallowed, turning away from him to leave. “Then you should know I’ve got the power.”

I watched recognition wash over Iban. “What the fuck you just say?”

I began to walk backwards as I nodded. “Yup. I have his heart and his baby. I’ve got the power, big brother.” My words were delivered with confidence, and the wink I implemented was the icing on the cake.

Iban started toward me. In a panic, I picked up the pace. God, I’d crossed the line… Before turning to run, I noticed Iban’s eyes flash, and his stride suspend. Then I slammed into fleshy steel, startling me again. Stars lit behind my lids and when I was able to open my eyes, I saw a glaring Sadik. Orange irises shooting between Iban and me.

His frame was hot and hard, and the chords in his neck protruded.

The lion contemplated the jaguar.

“Let’s go,” I whispered, pleading with him. Sadik didn’t respond. He remained immobile as I glanced back to his older brother frozen, too. Only Iban’s expression was somewhat of guilt. “Baby,” I rubbed his arm. “I’m tired. Let’s go home.” After a parting gaze at Iban, I shifted past Sadik, pulling him down the hall to leave.

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When I entered my mother’s dining room, my search of her began. She was seated toward the head of the table, slouched in her seat with a tray of tea in front of her. Her tapered cut looked fingered through at the top too many times, curls in disarray. All eyes were on me…except for Bilan’s. Even still, I shouldered through, mentally preparing to address my family and its staff.

Rory pulled out the chair at the head of the table, and I took a seat. My eyes swept the room for the attendees.

Taaliba had just lowered into a chair with a swollen face and reddened wet eyes when I asked, “Where’s queen?”

Taaliba froze for a second, appearing discombobulated by the question. Her eyes squeezed. “She’s on her way home.”

“From where?”

“Tom took her away for his birthday.”

Angered by the answer, I flexed my jaw. “Where?”

She shrugged. “Somewhere in Pennsylvania. But I spoke to her a little over an hour ago and told her you called the meeting. She said they were packing up to leave right away, but wouldn’t be here in time.”

Why in the hell was she out of town when her fucking husband was recovering from a damn heart attack? This didn’t seem like my mother at all. She’d always been the gatherer, the most present.

“Tom insisted,” Taaliba murmured, seemingly reading my mood.

I took a deep breath and began. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re congregated in this room, I can speak with a loose sense of candidness. You all have an idea of the line of work my father’s in, even if you don’t know the specifics. I will not palliate the seriousness of the current calamity. It’s my job to provide information on its status and present strategy which will change our modus operandi until the threat has been cleared. With that being said, as you all are aware, a series of events occurred today that my father believes to be an attack.”

I ignored the hiked breaths and uncomfortable squirms in chairs.

“Can we ask what they were?” Joan, the head of housekeeping, had her hand raised toward the front of the room.

“Sure,” I answered. “Late this morning, an intruder entered my nieces’ school and attempted to abduct Iesha. Then a few hours later, this afternoon, Energy, one of Tiffany’s clubs, was shot up. I’ve spoken to the lead detective and learned a few other stores near her suffered the same vandalism, but choose to not ignore the timing of it all. The last thing I can share is this evening,” My regard glided over to Bilan, whose eyes were straight ahead and not on me. “Bilan visited my father and was given a tray of food from an unsuspected perpetrator. On the tray was a letter stating with specificity that my father’s security had been breached by an enemy.”

I gave pause for another moment of reaction from the room. “Upon discovery, my father was immediately packed up and transported to the compound by way of an aircraft. I’m sure you’re all aware he has returned home. He’s still under the watchful care of several physicians and specialty nurses, many of whom will be lodging here at Elliswoods Palace. You are to be at their complete disposal. Should any need arise, I expect you to go through the proper channels to have it met.”

“How many people will be here with him?” Joan asked with the lifting of her hand again.

“Stacy will have an exact number for you soon.” Stacy nodded at the table. “Also, please be advised, until further notice, Monica and the girls will be on the grounds. The same goes for Taaliba.”

“Huhn?” Taaliba’s face was etched in shock.

Expecting this from her, my head bobbed. “Elliswoods Palace was designed and built to be a secure compound in the event our family is in danger. This isn’t news. Until I’ve had all incidents investigated and see no threat, the safest place for the family is here.”

“And what about work?” Monica asked, uncharacteristically apprehensive. “I have inventory at the liquor stores. We have several being remodeled as we speak. It’ll be an ongoing project until all eight are done. We have grand openings for two this summer. I can’t quarterback all of that from Elliswoods.”

“You’re going to have to figure out who to delegate pertinent responsibilities to,” I advised firmly. “This isn’t the first shutdown of this nature.”

“But I had Iban here to shoulder the responsibility with,” she argued.

“And now you have a staff, all of whom should be competent enough to carry out your wishes with you being remote to their respective locales.”

Taaliba’s eyes closed as she shook her head. That highlighted her appearance all of a sudden. She’d been in distress of sorts.

“What’s wrong, baby girl?”

Her head shook again, this time more rigorously as tears fell down her face. “La Cocina, one of Danny’s father’s restaurants, was burned beyond repair this morning. It was arson,” she barely got the last words out.

“He’s fine, though.” Monica asked, grabbing her hand. “Right?”

Taaliba nodded, worried eyes stapled to my wife. “Yes, but only because he was delayed getting there for a standing meeting he usually has there three days a week with his staff.”

Something passed between the two women. It was clear Taaliba was the cause of his delay.

Fucking disgusting… 

“I’m sure Danny is handling it,” I offered with wavering confidence.

“But you can’t see why I can’t revert to being a teenager and be confined to my wing in the palace like I’m fucking Rapunzel,” she hissed.

I cracked a cheeky grin. “You don’t have enough hair to be Rapunzel, baby girl.”

“You can remind me of that while we’re stuck here together—” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re staying here, too, right?” Taaliba’s eyes bounced between Bilan and me.

“No—”

“Yes!” Bilan answered emphatically.

My regard slammed into hers. Those high cheekbones were piercing, lips in a tight ball.

“We’ll be with the family until the threat is over.”

“We will not,” I countered, then addressed the room. “My family is in the process of securing land and a property designer so we can settle permanently. We currently have our things between two residences as it is.”

Bilan repeated, “We will be staying with the family.”

She’d lost her fucking mind. “I’m sorry for the lack of comprehension on your part, but we will unequivocally not be staying here.”

Bilan turned to me in her seat, her head falling to the side, puffy eyes squinting. “Am I to be an Ellis just on paper or should I teach your parents’ staff how to spell and pronounce Asad-Yasin?” She grated, “Either we stay here as a family or my child and I will get ghost so quick, no enemy of an Ellis—or ally—will find us.”

My chest tightened and head spun, never had I been spoken to like that at the head of a table. It wasn’t a tone I was accustomed to in any facet of my life. She was fucking threatening me. I’d disassembled lives for less infractions.

“It’s close to eleven at night,” I reminded her. “We have nothing here. We can discuss this tomorrow.”

“Kimmy’s at the apartment,” Bilan replied, gaze searing into me. “She can pack us a suitcase for pickup before she leaves. Sadik has more than enough to begin his stay tonight.”

I understood right away what she was doing. Bilan was regurgitating the same logic I’d given her when trying to push her hand at my agenda for the impromptu St. Justin getaway.

“I think we should stick together, Deek.” Taaliba’s eyes were wider, expression now nervous. “She’s right. It won’t be forever. Just until you and Daddy can figure this out.”

“No matter the length of time Earl needs,” Bilan stated firmly. “we’ll be here supporting him along the way.” Then she righted herself in her seat and grabbed her teacup.

Before I uttered a word I’d possibly regret, I addressed Joan, Stacy, and Candy. “The rooms, food, and communication details for our guests will be ready shortly?”

“Yes,” they spoke in unison.

“Fine.” It was time to close this meeting. I felt like the fucking White House press secretary. “If anyone has questions, now is the time to ask. Otherwise, go through Rory.”

Over the mumbles of the room, I heard a clear query. “So, what do you want me to do?” Tiffany asked. “Do I have my things brought here?”

“I don’t see why that’s necessary.” Bilan’s assertion was not a friendly one.

That comment jarred me momentarily speechless.

“Excuse me?” Tiffany asked her.

Bilan took a sip from her mug before speaking again. “We don’t know that you’re in danger for sure.”

Tiff’s face screwed with agitation. “How do you figure?”

“Earl said you told him the incident with your club happened this morning before Iesha’s near-tragedy. Sadik is now saying it happened this afternoon, after the attempt at the girls’ school. They’ve both said the stores aside your club were shot at, too. There’s no reason to believe the threat involves you.”

Someone in the room made a sound of scandal in reaction, inciting drama.

“I don’t owe you shit in details,” Tiffany began. “And I damn sure ain’t asking you if I can stay at my godfather’s place while I’m in danger just like the rest of our family.”

“Danger, wanger. Wooh!” Bilan fanned her fingers in the air.

Several uncontrolled snickers sliced the thick air of the room.

The woman was in rare form. It was one thing to behave with jealousy, but to undermine me in the same setting wasn’t Bilan’s typical persona. That’s when it dawned on me: her state of mind.

Tiffany’s head whipped over to me. “So you gone let her talk to me like this?”

“Bilan, sweethe—” I recognized the error in my words before her eyes cut over to me.

“Make the fuckin’ call, Sadik!” Bilan demanded through clenched teeth, nose red and chest rising as she was prepared to burst into tears. “Now!”

I took a deep breath. “Tiffany, Rory will arrange a hotel suite for you until we have definitive answers.” Ignoring her gasp, I addressed the room. “That concludes this meeting. I’ll keep you all abreast as our status improves.” I stood, dismissing the room.

Quickly, the room began to clear out. Only a few lingered. The table had emptied but for Bilan, who sat with her head bowed over the tea cup setting, face contorted, fists balled. Her shoulders heaved. Commotion near the door shifted my attention there. At least a half a dozen people had descended upon Rory, likely with questions and concerns they were afraid to ask during the meeting.

Taaliba ambled toward me, her hands expressive already. She, too, was visibly upset by the events of the day. I couldn’t deal with her and my uncontrolled erection at the same damn time.

“Not right now, Leeb,” I warned her while en route.

“Wait, Deek,” she squealed, face still distorted. “Don’t you think we need to go over—”

In my peripheral, Bilan rose from the table, hands still clenched tight. My fucking belly rolled in somersaults, dick fucking pulsing.

RORY, CLEAR THE FUCKIN’ ROOM NOW!” I shouted so loud, Taaliba stumbled backward and the room silenced.

Rory glanced back at me. My regard shifted to Bilan, who stood curled over the table, body trembling.

“A’ight!” Rory barked, forcefully nudging people back with urgency. She reversed in her journey, and grabbed Taaliba by the arm, pulling her toward the door. “Everybody, outside now! I can talk out there!”

They were just at the door when Bilan lifted her head exposing her glossed face and belted, “Sadik!”

The door closed as Bilan charged my way. I met her in the middle within three large strides.

 

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* All photography with models representing Sadik and Bilan taken by Brooklyn Hughes

Makeup artist: Kaydene Hughes

Male Model: Quinton Williams

Female Model: Brittany April

**Release date subject to change without notice.