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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.