The great thing about being in a wedding party was that a guy didn’t have to worry about asking a girl to dance. It was expected.
After the bride and groom had their obligatory first dance, Nick led Adele onto the floor and confidently pulled her into his arms. She didn’t resist.
This was the first time Nick had ever held her that firmly. While in their youth, they held hands and kissed a few times, but never with any passion. Theirs had been an innocent young love affair complete with constant chaperones and strict warnings about right and wrong.
Nick had never been the kind of man to covet a woman’s body or be motivated by physical attraction, but the magnetic force holding Adele’s body close to his was powerful.
The people and tables and elegance around them faded into a distant space beyond his mind. The music was the pulsing beat of his heart.
Adele’s strawberry blonde hair fell in wisps from the clips and flowers that had hours ago failed to hold it in place. Her crystal blue eyes held his as if he were the only person in the room. The only person in the world.
He released his hands from her waist and reached to caress her face, allowing one hand to follow the line of her jaw, the other to brush his thumb across her lips, which she parted with a sigh of invitation.
Nick raised Adele’s chin gently and lowered his face to hers. She lifted onto her toes to meet him halfway, closing the distance and sealing the kiss he’d longed for since the day he’d chanced to meet her in the hospital emergency room a few months before.
How lucky that his brothers had dragged him to go skydiving.
How unfortunate that Liam and Rachel stumbled onto the dancefloor, waking Nick and Adele from their trance.
The couples on the dancefloor stopped and took a step back as Liam pulled Rachel close, dancing provocatively. His bowtie was hanging around his neck and his shirt was untucked. Rachel’s dress was askew, and her hair had been completely pulled from the clips that had once held it in place.
Within thirty seconds of them entering the dancefloor, Nick had Liam by one arm and Sam held the other in an attempt to escort him from the room.
“Let go of me,” Liam slurred, trying to twist his way out of his brothers’ captivity. “I was dancing with my date.”
“I think you’ve had enough for one night,” Nick growled.
“Come on, man,” Sam said. “This is not cool. You need to sober up.”
“I am plenty sober,” Liam said, finally breaking free. “I am going to dance with my Rachel.”
Suddenly Levi stood in his way and demanded that Liam leave immediately and stop disrupting his brother’s wedding reception. Liam could fight with his brothers, but he would not directly disobey his father, at least not to his face.
Nick and Sam took the advantage of the distraction to escort their oldest brother from the grand hall. Liam cursed and argued and stumbled all the way up the elevator to his suite, insisting he was fine. It took them hours to get him calmed, and he finally passed out.
By the time Nick made his way back down to the grand hall, the reception had ended and only an empty dancefloor remained of the magic he’d shared with Adele.
Miriam floated down the aisle, a vision of elegance, and not a sign to indicate there was any reason to question the sanctity of her white dress. Lyle stood beside his brothers, with a gleam in his eye. He was either a very good actor or was truly excited to have Miriam for his wife.
Nick hoped it was the latter.
He glanced across at where Adele stood beside her older sisters. Ruth, the maid of honor, had walked alone ahead of Miriam. Liam had escorted Rachel, Sam had escorted Leanne, and Nick had the good fortune to escort his former sweetheart and the woman he wished could become his bride.
As if sensing his gaze, Adele lifted her eyes, and a tiny smile pulled at her mouth before she forced it away and looked back to her sister.
Warmth spread in Nick’s heart, together with hope. He would be patient. There was no one else but her, and she had admitted there was no one else but him.
Lyle and Miriam committed their life to one another and seemed genuinely happy to have been forced into this union. They exchanged rings, and vows, and a kiss that made the old ladies in the room blush crimson.
Nick had to look away and chuckled to meet Adele’s gaze across the aisle again. He raised his eyebrows at her provocatively and smirked.
Adele’s jaw dropped, and she looked away but not before she bit her lower lip to force away a smile.
After a million photographs, the wedding party was led into a grand reception hall where they were welcomed with applause as the DJ introduced Mr. and Mrs. Lyle and Miriam Cohen.
They were expected to interact with the guests as they made their way across the large room full of tables before reaching the wedding party’s table where they would be seated and treated to a dinner befitting a king, or a billionaire in this case.
Liam managed to find champagne, within seconds of walking into the hall, but dinner wasn’t for another forty-five minutes. By the time they reached their table, he was stumbling and hanging on his date. Rachel didn’t seem to mind and had already drank a few too many as well.
“They need food,” Nick said to Adele. “Now.”
“Follow me.” Adele didn’t wait for Nick to answer, just held his hand as she led him over to a man in a suit who seemed in charge. She didn’t bother with pleasantries. “Get the bridal party plates of food immediately.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The man turned and stepped through a door. By the time Nick and Adele had corralled their brothers and sisters into the waiting chairs, servers were delivering elegant platters to their table.
Thankfully, Liam dug in with gusto, and Nick breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing he needed was for Liam to make a fool of himself at their brother’s wedding.
Nick stood in the dark near the entrance to the garden at the back of the resort. Filled with winding stone paths, flowers, shrubs, trees, and little settees, the garden was meant to be a haven from the stress of life in the busy city of Dubai.
There was no haven from the stress of losing Adele, again. Why did he keep offending her? She slipped through his fingers like the sand of the desert.
Nick was drawn forward, down the stone path, holding on to the railing that served as a barrier between the garden and the brackish river flowing beside the path. He contemplated where his life was heading.
Three months ago, he’d been happily working for his father’s empire, helping build their family’s fortune. Now he was pining after his high school sweetheart, who was barely speaking to him. His brother was getting married and having a baby. His mother was having another baby and he’d be gaining another little brother. He’d been uprooted from his home in Jerusalem and was in hiding in Dubai.
Oh, and he’d committed murder.
Nick collapsed onto one of the little stone benches near a beautiful tree at the back of the garden and put his head in his hands.
Normally when he needed to vent, he just wrote a blog post and sent it out into the world. He couldn’t write about this. The only people he could talk to were his family and they were no help. They all wanted him to wait and see if anyone came after him.
He considered going back to Jerusalem and turning himself in, but that wouldn’t help anything either. No one seemed to have missed Landon. No one seemed to be searching for his killer. His death never even made the news. Maybe people just thought he drank himself into a stupor and fell down to die in the streets.
Landon was an arrogant jerk, and no one liked him. But he didn’t deserve to die. Self-defense. Nick couldn’t wrap his brain around that. That wasn’t really self-defense. It was defending his brother. Was that a good enough reason to kill someone?
“Is that a good enough reason to kill someone?” Nick called into the night sky.
“Nick?” Adelle spoke from ten feet down the path. Nick jumped.
“You startled me,” he said, breathing hard. He moved over to make room on the bench. “You can’t just sneak up on a guy like that.”
“Sorry, you walk faster than me, so I couldn’t keep up.”
“You followed me all the way out here?”
“I felt bad about the way I ended things earlier and I wanted to apologize. But now I’m a little bit worried about you.” Nick suspected she was no longer talking about following him to the back of the garden.
He knew why she was worried, and he turned away not wanting her to see the guilt in his eyes.
“So… was that a rhetorical question?” Adele asked, her brow creased. “About killing someone?”
Nick leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands together as if in prayer and lowering his forehead. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Adele’s hand rested on his back and rubbed circles there. An hour ago, that would have been his undoing. Now, he was too consumed with his own guilt to get distracted by a pretty girl.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I killed Landon Phillips.” There, he’d said it. He’d admitted out loud to someone outside his immediate family. Her hand stilled for a moment, and then she resumed rubbing circles on his back.
“And you want to know if that was justified?” She didn’t wait for him to answer before she added. “If I know you as well as I think I do, I can’t imagine you doing anything to hurt another human unless there was a darn good reason.”
“He was trying to kill my brother, Liam. Is that a good enough reason?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Did you have another choice?”
“I hit him over the head with a beer bottle. I just needed him to stop choking my brother. I didn’t mean to kill him.”
“Is that why you left home?”
Nick nodded, without looking up.
“No one’s searching for you, Nick,” Adele said.
“You don’t know that.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You weren’t exactly taking my phone calls.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her voice trembling.
“Me too,” Nick answered. He didn’t know what else to say.
“Could I ask what Liam did to anger Landon so much that he was choking him?”
“Liam was spouting off at the mouth like he always does. Landon was drunk. They got into a fight. It ended in me hitting Landon over the head with a beer bottle.”
“Wait… does this have any correlation to Zach hanging around your father?” Adele asked. “Weren’t they business partners?”
“Zach came with us when we left Jerusalem,” Nick said. “If the police determined Landon had been murdered, Zach would have been implicated. He had the most to gain from Landon’s death.”
“I guess it’s better this way,” Adele said. “Keep your enemies close.”
“Zach isn’t our enemy. He’s a shrewd businessman, but he’s a decent guy. He sees our vision.”
“What vision?” Adele asked.
“Our path forward, our principles, our company’s mission and business plan. He understands that it’s better to grasp on to the success we’ve proven than to dwindle with Landon and all his darkness. Staying with us will lead him to the life he’s always wanted.”
“You really are full of yourself, aren’t you?” Adele asked.
“What do you mean by that?” Nick lifted his chin, offended by her words.
“You think your father’s company is the best in the world and others will only succeed if they follow your example.”
“I think our success proves the validity.”
“Your pride is going to be your undoing, Nick.” Adele stood and started down the path back toward the resort.
“Wait, don’t go.” Nick reached for her hand, and she stopped.
“Nick, look around you. We live in separate worlds. I’m just a simple girl from Jerusalem and you’re a world-traveled billionaire.”
“Son of a billionaire,” Nick corrected her.
“Same thing.” Adele stepped closer and raised onto her toes, kissing Nick’s cheek softly. “I love you, Nick. But it would never work.”
Adele walked away and Nick once again sat on the stone bench alone.
Nick attended more parties that week than ever in his life. Each time more dignitaries arrived, the champagne flowed, and Nick relished the opportunity to have Adele by his side. He was almost distracted enough to forget about Landon’s murder. Almost.
Thankfully, Prince Marcos was often pulled away for diplomatic appearances and side meetings. That meant he didn’t have time to flirt with Adele. At the moment he was surrounded by two businessmen and one of the Saudi princes. Neither of them wore any adornments setting them apart as royalty and yet even at a party as large as this gathering, they stood out.
“I don’t envy him.” Adele spoke so casually that Nick was taken aback. They’d been standing together all week, and she’d barely acknowledged him, yet she now commented on Nick’s old friend as if Nick were her confidant.
He hadn’t realized they’d both been observing the young prince from across the room until that moment. Nick didn’t want to question her sudden change, so he just as casually responded. “Why’s that?”
“His life is not his own. He doesn’t get to choose who to talk to, where to stand, what to do. He goes and does what he’s told.”
“What? Not interested in accompanying him?” Nick shifted his gaze to the beautiful woman by his side. “I’m sure you could liven up the party for him if he had you on his arm.”
“Please.” Adele rolled her eyes. “I was only flirting with him to make you jealous.”
“Really?” Hope swelled in Nick’s chest.
“Did it work?”
Nick guffawed. “Uh, yeah.”
“Don’t you know?” Adele asked in a low voice. “There’s never been anyone but you.”
“There’s never been anyone but you either,” Nick whispered.
“I wish we could go back in time and pretend the past four years never happened.” Adele met Nick’s gaze, with longing.
“We could start over.” Nick turned to face her and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.
“No, I’m afraid we can’t,” Adele said. “You ignored me for four years, then insulted and offended me. I’m only here because my parents forced me to come.”
“I’m truly sorry about everything. Please, let me make it up to you.”
“It’s too late, Nick. But thank you.” She turned but stopped before walking away. “I’ll see you at the wedding tomorrow.”
Planning a wedding, even on short notice, isn’t difficult when funds are unlimited. Dubai was an elegant location, and Levi spared no expense. He lavished gifts and praise and affection on Daniel’s daughters as if they were his own.
Miriam was elegant, and Lyle was the perfect gentleman, and everyone pretended there wasn’t a proverbial shotgun to his head.
To Nick, the fortunate benefit of having his brother marry Adele’s sister was that they were forced to spend time together. There were formal brunches, photo shoots, and receptions as Levi’s newly acquired resort welcomed dignitaries from across the globe. Nick was surprised how quickly Daniel and Levi were able to gather friends.
The person Nick was most excited to see was the young Prince Marcos from the tiny kingdom of Madain Saleh. He arrived amid much fanfare, in place of the Crown Prince, Jared, whose absence was as much a snub to Daniel’s family as it was a recognition of Ruth’s refusal from the previous year.
Nick confidently approached the third prince in line for the throne in his tiny kingdom, with whom he’d spent many days causing trouble during prep school in their early teens.
“Your Highness,” Nick acknowledged Prince Marcos with a slight bow of his head and a smirk.
“Don’t insult me by throwing around my title, Nick. We’ve known each other since we were in primary school.”
“Only in public, Marcos.” Nick kept his voice low. “I love how you’re trying to disguise your accent.”
“I’m planning a holiday to the States in a few months and desire to assimilate.”
“Good luck with that.” Nick chuckled. “You are royalty, through and through.”
“For now,” Marcos grumbled under his breath.
“What do you mean by that?” Nick was genuinely concerned.
“My country is in turmoil,” Marcos said. “A civil war is brewing. My brother and I are concerned.”
“I’m truly sorry to hear that,” Nick said. “If there’s anything I can do to help, allow me to offer my service.”
“Possibly asylum,” Marcos murmured.
“Looking for that myself,” Nick replied just as discretely as Marcos had. “I may or may not be running from the law because I may or may not have murdered someone, but you didn’t hear that from me.”
Marcos stopped short when Adele and Ruth came around the corner to the lobby. Adele narrowed her eyes at Nick, and Ruth halted and folded her arms across her chest.
Nick lifted his hand as if presenting a prize on a game show. “Adele, Ruth, may I present Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh.”
“We’ve met,” Ruth said, not releasing her arms from their closed position.
“Your Highness.” Adele offered a slight bow of her head and hint of a smile. Was she flirting with him? Great. Just what Nick needed.
“A pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Adele.” Marcos reached out his hand, inviting Adele to offer hers.
“Likewise, Your Highness.” Adele slipped her hand into his as Marcos leaned down to place a kiss on the back of her hand.
Marcos turned to Ruth. “Lovely to see you again, Ruth.”
“Whatever.” Ruth turned on her heel and walked back the way she’d come.
“What did your brother do to offend her so thoroughly?” Nick asked.
“Assumed a betrothal without proper courtship,” Marcos said.
“Gee, I can’t imagine anyone doing such a thing,” Adele said, turning to Nick. “Can you, Nick?”
“Thank you, Adele, for pointing out my errors in judgement,” Nick said.
“Were you intended?” Marcos glanced sidelong at Nick but kept Adele’s hand in his.
“No,” Adele said. At the same time, Nick mumbled, “I wish.”
“I’m famished from my journey,” Marcos said, speaking directly to Adele. “Would you kindly show me the way to the dining quarters?” He lifted his arm in invitation to Adele.
“I’d be honored, Your Highness.”
“Please, Adele, call me Marcos.” He took her arm in his. “Tell me, how does a beautiful woman such as yourself occupy her time?”
“I’m an ER nurse, and working my way through graduate school,” she said as they started down the hall. “How about you?”
“Well, since I’m third in line to the throne, I basically have zero purpose in this life.”
“You’re so funny, Marcos.” Adele tucked her hand more firmly into the crook of Marcos’s arm as they walked toward the private dining room.
Nick followed quickly behind, not willing to let the two of them out of his sight.
“Which daughter?” Liam asked. He gulped and glanced at Lyle.
“How many of them are you concerned about… Liam?” Levi’s menacing whisper was fiercer than his shout.
“Uh… well, uh.”
“I’ll put you out of your misery, son,” Levi said. “Miriam’s eight weeks pregnant.”
Lyle whimpered and lowered his head into his hands. All eyes shifted to the second oldest.
Nick couldn’t fathom how his brother must be feeling right now. He would never put himself in that position. He would never put a lady in that position. He would never put his mother and father in that position.
He glanced at his mother, whose head was held high despite the tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. Her hand rested on her baby, due to be born in four months.
“I guess we’ll go tomorrow to get you fitted for a tux.” Levi glared at Lyle as he stabbed his fork into the filet on the plate in front of him. He picked up his steak knife and calmly sliced a thin piece and lifted the fork to his mouth. He hesitated as Lyle spoke.
“A tux?” Lyle sounded as if he was choking or fighting tears maybe.
“Daniel and I always hoped one of my sons would marry one of his daughters. Kinda thought it would be Nick and Adele for a while there.” Levi glanced at Nick, with a pointed expression. “This wasn’t exactly what we had envisioned, but Daniel and his family will be here by the end of the week.”
“The end of the week?” Lyle’s voice squeaked.
“Do you have a problem with that, son?” They didn’t exactly live in a society of arranged marriages, but sometimes when two patriarchs insisted on certain standards, their adult children were expected to follow them.
“No, sir.” Lyle stood and pushed back his chair. “If you’ll excuse me. I need a moment.” Before leaving the room, Lyle stopped at the beverage cart and lifted a decanter of bourbon. He didn’t bother with a glass.
Nick didn’t see him again for two days.
“You shouldn’t be taking a phone call at the dinner table,” Sarah mumbled under her breath. Not that Levi could hear her since he was already having an animated conversation with whoever was on the phone.
“Mom, maybe this is an important call.” Nick gulped and awaited his fate. After eight weeks of hiding in Dubai they still had not heard anything. The threat of a murder accusation loomed over everything he did. From his dad’s angry expression, he was sure this was the call.
“How am I supposed to raise my boys up right when their father isn’t setting a good example?” Sarah asked
“We’re all adults, mother.” Liam lifted his glass of wine in a solemn toast. No one else returned the sentiment.
“Not Jacob,” Sarah said, turning to their younger brother. At seventeen, he definitely looked like a boy. “And not little Joseph.” She rested her hand on top of her growing belly. At five months gestation, she was just starting to pop out.
“And how is this my problem?” Levi asked into the phone, anger creeping into his voice. “I see.”
Levi raised his head and narrowed his eyes, glancing around at each of his sons.
“What do you suggest we do about this?” Levi paused with a scowl as he listened to whomever was on the other end of the phone. Everyone at the dinner table waited silently, and Nick felt his heart pound. “I agree. Uh huh. Yep. I’ll get right on that. You’ll be hearing from me soon.”
Levi tapped the screen of his phone to end the call and took a long, calculated breath before raising his gaze and looking around at each of his sons in turn.
“Which one of you got Daniel’s daughter pregnant?”
“Nick killed Landon,” Lyle blurted as soon as he stumbled into their father’s home office.
“As in… killed, killed?” Levi sat back in his fine leather chair and folded his arms across his middle.
“Knocked him over the head with a beer bottle,” Sam confirmed. His eyes had cleared; a testament that he hadn’t drunk nearly as much as the other two.
“He was trying to kill Liam,” Nick said, his heart in panic mode. “What was I supposed to do?”
“Why were you drinking beer, Nick?” Levi asked. He creased his brow.
“Dad, you know me better than that. Do you honestly think I would drink beer?”
“It was my beer.” Zach stepped forward.
“Zach”—Levi nodded regally— “How’s the resort?”
“Much better now that we’re not in bankruptcy, sir. Thank you again for the bailout.”
“I’m not sure that’s how Landon saw the buyout,” Levi said.
“Yeah… he still pretty much hates you.”
“Not anymore.” Lyle snickered, and Liam joined him. “Because he’s dead.”
“They’re going to regret this conversation when they’ve sobered up,” Nick said.
“They probably won’t remember this conversation when they’ve sobered up.” Levi shook his head.
“Dad, what do I do?” Nick lowered his voice and pleaded with his eyes. Somehow asking his dad to help with this made him feel like a little boy. “I don’t want to go to jail.”
“How about you go back to Dubai?” Levi rubbed his chin in contemplation. “I need you there, anyway. I’ll see what I can do to make this incident disappear. After all, you were only defending your brother.”
“Yeah,” Liam said, wrapping his arm around Nick’s shoulders and breathing stale beer in his face. “It’s better that one horrible man should perish than your loving brother.”
“How about if you go sleep it off, Liam?” Nick ducked out from under Liam’s arm.
“You can sleep on the plane.” Levi stood and picked up his cell phone. “I’ll have Petrus bring the helicopter around and tell Gregory to have the jet ready within the hour.”
“Just like that?” Zach asked. “You just snap your fingers and a helicopter and private jet appear out of thin air?”
“No.” Levi held up his cell phone. “It requires my fingers to text, not snap.”
All three of Nick’s brothers snickered and even Zach chuckled. Nick just shook his head and started to walk from the room. “I’m going to pack an overnight bag.”
“You might want to pack for more than just overnight,” Levi called after him. “You’re going to be there awhile.”
“This is what I get for saving someone’s life.” Nick dragged his feet up the stairs, planning to head back to Dubai for the second time that day.
As he was walking up the stairs, Nick sent a quick text to Adele. I’m flying back to Dubai tonight.
She never returned his text.
They walked toward the door of the nightclub.
“Well, if it isn’t Jerusalem’s royal family,” a booming voice slurred from the shadows near where they parked the SUV. No one was around to hear their arch nemesis hurl the mocking salutation. “What’chu doin’ slummin’ it with us common folk?”
“Greetings to you as well, Landon,” Liam said, sauntering toward him. “How’s the upgrade to your resort?”
“You mean yer daddy’s resort?” Landon stepped right up to Liam, toe to toe.
“He bought you out fair and square,” Liam said, not flinching.
“For pennies.” Landon spit the words at Liam, who finally flinched and wiped his face with his sleeve.
“He saved you from financial ruin, and you know it,” Liam said. “How about if I buy you a conciliatory drink?” Liam reached out to drape his arm around Landon’s shoulder, but Landon sucker punched Liam in the ribs.
While he doubled over in pain, Lyle caught Landon’s jaw with a right hook.
Nick watched from a distance as Landon returned Lyle’s punch before shoving Sam out of the way. Nick was determined not to get involved.
“I’m tired of you spoiled kids getting whatever you want,” Landon growled.
“We’re hardly kids,” Sam said.
“Dude, what’s going on?” Zach, Landon’s friend and business partner stepped over to the group, with two beers in his hands. “Well… if it isn’t the golden boys.”
“We are not boys,” Sam insisted again. “We’re grown men.”
“Shut up, kid,” Landon said. “You don’t know nothin’ about bein’ a grown man. Grown men don’t let their daddy take care of them.”
“He took care of you,” Liam said, still holding his side.
“I’ll show you who takes care of me,” Landon grabbed Liam from behind and wrapped his arm around their older brother’s neck. Suddenly everyone was involved. Zach tried to reason with Landon. Sam clawed at Landon’s arms, trying to free Liam. Lyle punched Landon, to get him to let go, and Liam gagged and choked as he worked at freeing himself.
Nick didn’t think. He grabbed one of the beer bottles from Zach’s hand and broke the bottle over Landon’s head. He dropped to the pavement, releasing Liam, who gasped for air and stepped away. Everyone gathered around Landon, who wasn’t moving.
“Nick, what did you do?” Zach asked.
“I had to do something.” Nick took a step back and laced his hands into his thick hair, pulling in frustration. “He was trying to kill my brother!”
“Well, I think you killed him.”
“I doubt it,” Sam said, poking Landon with the toe of his loafer. “He’s probably just knocked out.”
Zach crouched beside his business partner, held up his wrist, and then shook his head. “He’s got no pulse.”
“Are you sure you’re doin’ it right?” Sam said, pushing Zach out of the way. Sam poked around at the large man. “He’s not breathin’.”
“We’ve got to get out of here.” Lyle looked around frantically, his inebriated state exasperating his panic.
“No one saw what happened,” Liam said, still breathing heavy. “There’s no way anyone could pin this on one of us.”
“All anyone else knows is that there’s a man on the ground and five of his friends are standing over him,” Sam said.
“None of us are his friends,” Nick said, shuddering at the thought. Then he looked up at Zach. “Except you.”
“I’d hardly call him my friend.” Zach snorted. “More like partners in crime, I mean, business.”
“You have to come with us,” Liam insisted. “At least until we learn whether or not anyone saw what happened.”
“Shouldn’t we be calling an ambulance?” Zach asked, his words slurring almost as much as Nick’s brothers’.
“Someone else can call an ambulance,” Lyle said. “We gotta get out of here.”
“I feel bad just leaving him here,” Sam said. “Does he have any family?”
“Nope,” Zach said. “As his business partner, I’m pretty much all he’s got.”
All four brothers stared at Zach, and Nick gulped.
“That’s motive…” Liam let his statement hang in the air.
“I didn’t kill him!” Zach cried and then pointed. “Nick did!”
“I didn’t kill him. It was an accident.” Nick was shaking.
“It’s your word against ours,” Liam said.
“And there are four of us.” Lyle raised his eyebrows.
Liam repeated his earlier statement. “You have to come with us.”
“Maybe Father can give us some advice on what to do,” Nick said. He held up the keys to Liam’s Mercedes. “Let’s go.”
“You just gonna let daddy take care of everything?” Zach asked.
“You got a better idea?” Nick asked.
“Fine, I’ll come with you.” Zach started to set his unopened beer bottle on the ground next to Landon’s body.
“Dude, that’s got your fingerprints all over it,” Sam said. “Don’t leave it here.”
“Here, I’ll take care of that for you,” Liam said, reaching for the bottle and twisting off the cap.
“You’re such a class act, Liam.” Lyle teased. “Takin’ beer from a dead guy.”
“You know, this could have all been avoided if we’d have just stayed home and hung out at the pool.”
“Shut up, Nick,” all three or his brothers said at once. It was a somber drive back to the estate.
“I think I’m gonna be sick,” Leanne groaned from the middle seat of the luxury SUV. Nick slammed on the brakes so she could let herself out of the car.
Sam climbed down from the passenger seat to help her. Liam and Rachel barely paused making out, and Nick didn’t even want to think about what Lyle and Miriam were doing in the third-row seat.
Getting roped into being the designated driver made Nick wish he’d taken just a sip of something that involved alcohol, so they’d have an excuse to pay a driver to get them downtown and back.
There was always the likelihood that his brothers would ignore the need for a driver and get behind the wheel themselves. That alone was motivation to maintain his sobriety in hopes of keeping his brothers out of jail, or worse. Not that their dad didn’t have enough money to bail them out of whatever scrape necessary. Still, better to avoid the need.
“Can we take a detour and drop Leanne off at home?” Sam poked his head in the open window of the car.
“Uh… yeah. I think that was decided about the time she puked on the side of the road,” Nick said.
“I’m feeling a little better now,” Leanne said, taking a water bottle and swishing out her mouth.
“Too bad,” Nick grumbled. “I’m taking you home.”
Nick pulled out his cell phone and composed a text to Adele. Your sisters are drunk. I’m bringing them home.
You let my sisters get drunk?!? Adele’s text came back almost immediately.
I was upstairs nursing a broken heart. You’re the one who left them here.
Whatever. Just bring them home, and I’ll deal with it. I’m better at nursing drunk people than nursing broken hearts.
Both scenarios are unfortunate. I’ll see you in a few minutes.
Nick tucked his phone into his jacket pocket and waited while Sam and Leanne got situated. He handed her a trash can just in case.
Daniel’s estate was only ten minutes further and none too soon. Leanne threw up again as soon as she stumbled away from the vehicle.
Liam and Rachel helped Leanne up to the house and handed her off to Adele.
“Why are we stopping again?” Miriam asked from the backseat, her voice slurred and sleepy.
“We’re home,” Nick said. “Time to come up for air.”
“When will I see you again?” Miriam whispered to Lyle.
“Dunno,” Lyle said. “I’ll call you.”
“What a load of crap,” Nick mumbled low enough so they wouldn’t hear from the backseat. Never had Lyle called a woman. It would be against his modus operando.
Nick kept his eyes trained away from the rearview mirror to avoid seeing any body parts as clothing was returned to the proper positions.
Miriam gave Lyle one last, lingering kiss before slipping out of the backseat. Lyle pulled himself over the seatback into the middle seat just as Liam returned to the car.
Liam opened the passenger door and demanded that Sam let him have the front. Sam reluctantly moved to the middle seat to sit next to Lyle.
“All right,” Liam said with a grin. “Let’s get downtown.”
“We’re still going to Pergamon?” Nick asked as he shifted into drive. “I thought we were only going there because Rachel wanted vegetarian food.”
“They also have the best beer selection,” Liam said.
“I am not interested in drinking beer.”
“You’re the designated driver, so it doesn’t matter what you want.” Liam punched Nick’s arm. “Now drive.”
Nick sat on the balcony overlooking the pool party, which had shifted gradually into his brothers and Adele’s sisters getting plastered drunk together. Most of them anyway.
While Nick excused himself to remove his soaked business suit, Ruth had driven Adele home, leaving Rachel, Miriam, and Leanne with Liam, Lyle, and Sam.
Hmm… well, Lyle and Miriam seemed to be missing, Liam and Rachel were making out on one of the lounge chairs, and Leanne was drinking a wine cooler way too fast and laughing at everything Sam said.
Nick didn’t want to watch anymore. He stepped through the sliding glass door and flopped onto the leather sofa in his spacious office. There was nothing he wanted to work on, nothing he wanted to watch on television, no business or political websites he wanted to peruse.
He missed Adele immensely. This had been his one chance to reunite with her, and he’d blown it. How could he miss someone he hadn’t seen in four years anyway?
Maybe he’d been so excited to see her this morning that the letdown of having her leave so suddenly was a jolt to his system.
She’d seen right through him, seen his jealousy and root of his anger. He was the jerk in the equation. What was he thinking, asking her to marry him? As if she’d ever agree to that. What an idiot he was.
“We need a designated driver, little brother,” Liam said, barging into Nick’s office.
“Where are you going?” Nick mumbled without looking at his brother.
“We,” Liam corrected. “We are going underground, and we need you to drive.”
“Rachel wants good vegetarian food.” Liam turned to Rachel. “Right?”
“Pergamon’s the best place in town for vegetarian food,” Rachel said.
“You heard the lady,” Liam said. “Pergamon it is.”
Sam stood beside Liam, holding Leanne in a standing position, barely. They all seemed to be holding in laughter.
“Where are Lyle and Miriam?” Nick wanted to refuse Liam’s demand but didn’t want any of his brothers driving themselves in their condition, so he hoisted himself off the sofa and reached for his wallet, which was still soaking wet from taking a dip in the pool.
“My keys are… somewhere.” Liam reached for Rachel’s hand and headed down the hall to the grand staircase, laughing at some private joke. They didn’t even look back to see if everyone else was following them.
Sam helped Leanne stumble down the hallway, where she sat on the top step and leaned against the railing.
“Don’t you have an elevator somewhere in this mansion?” Leanne slurred.
“Somewhere, I think,” Sam said. “Come downstairs, and I’ll show you our library.”
“I like libraries.” Leanne allowed Sam to help her to a somewhat standing position.
Nick didn’t wait to see if she got down the stairs safely. He traipsed over to Liam’s immaculate bedroom suite and reached above the vanity in his bathroom where he knew the housekeepers kept a spare key to Liam’s Mercedes. On nights like this his key could be anywhere on the grounds of the estate.
As he passed by Lyle’s suite, he heard voices inside the closed door. Typical that Lyle had a woman in his suite. Frustrating that the woman was Adele’s sister. Nick rapped his knuckles on the mahogany and called through the door. “Let’s go, guys. We’re heading downtown to Pergamon.”
“Excellent,” Lyle said as he opened the door. He tucked in his shirt with one hand and slipped his wallet into his designer jeans with the other. “I’m starving.”
“Me too,” Miriam called from where she sat on the settee buckling a pair of strappy heels. Nick had to turn away to avoid seeing up her short skirt.
“What is it with Daniel’s daughters not wearing enough clothing,” Nick mumbled as he turned away.
“It’s a beautiful thing, little brother,” Lyle whispered as he draped his arm around Nick’s shoulders. “Embrace the beauty of a woman’s body.”
“The perfume you’re wearing tells me you’ve embraced a little too much of a woman’s body this evening.” Nick ducked out from under his brother’s arm. “Let’s go. Everyone else is in the car already.”
“Sorry we kept you waiting.” Miriam giggled as she snuck out the door to Lyle’s suite.
“Not sorry,” Lyle said, then pressed her up against the wall and captured her mouth in a passionate kiss.
“Gross,” Nick mumbled, quickly excusing himself. “I’ll meet you downstairs.”
“I see you started partying without me,” Nick said, setting down his overnight bag just inside the sliding glass door and sauntering over to the patio. Adele’s sisters were in or near the pool with Nick’s brothers. Adele and her oldest sister, Ruth, were lying facedown on lounge chairs wearing skimpy bikini swimsuits.
Nick did a double take and quickly averted his eyes. Ruth’s bikini top was untied, presumably to avoid tan lines. She was at least thirty by now, not exactly a temptation for a twenty-two-year-old guy, but still. Awkward.
Thankfully, Adele was mostly covered when she raised her head and glanced at him through her dark sunglasses. “Hey there, handsome.”
He pulled up a lounge chair and kicked off his dress shoes. Before leaning back to be closer to Adele, Nick pulled his socks off and rolled up his slacks.
“Feeling better?” Adele asked in a playful tone.
“Not exactly,” Nick admitted. “I may have to go change.”
“How was your flight?” Adele’s asked.
“Not long enough for the nap I need.”
“Wow, you’re in a great mood this afternoon.” Adele sat up and swung her legs over the side of her lounge chair to face him.
“Oh… my… gosh.” Nick turned completely away from Adele, overwhelmed by the lack of fabric covering the woman who had replaced the girl he once loved.
“What’s the matter?” She reached her hand out and touched his arm. “Are you okay?”
“Nope.” He kept his eyes squeezed shut and shook his head. “Not even a little bit.”
“Did something go wrong with your business deal in Dubai?” Her voice was laced with concern.
“Dubai was fine. We destroyed my friend’s life with the stroke of a pen.”
“Babe, I’m gonna need you to put on a cover-up or sweatshirt or something in order for me to concentrate.”
“You’re such a prude, Nick.” Adele chuckled but rummaged through her bag. He sensed rather than saw her wrap a chemise around her shoulders. “Better?”
He peeked open one eye and breathed a sigh of relief to see her fully covered. “Much better.”
“Now, what were we talking about?” Adele asked. “Something happened in Dubai?”
“We’re just a little bit wealthier than we were yesterday, that’s all.”
“Oh, is that all?” She leaned her head back and laughed playfully.
“Will you marry me?” Nick asked.
“My dad wants me to get married, and you’re the only girl I’ve ever loved, so I figured, why not you?”
“Why not me?” Adele’s jaw dropped, and she lowered her sunglasses. “You run into me out of the blue after not calling me for four years and suddenly think we should get married?”
“It’s only logical,” Nick said.
“Logical? You think marriage is logical? Is this just because you saw me in a swimsuit?”
“I’ve seen you in a swimsuit,” he said. “Not quite as filled out as you are now.”
“How dare you!” Adele stood suddenly. All conversation stopped around them. “Four years, Nick. You haven’t spoken to me in four years!”
“You’re the one who ran off to college, not me.” Nick rose to meet her heated gaze. “The phone works both ways, darling.”
“You’re still jealous that I got to go to college, aren’t you?” She balled her hands into fists.
“Why would I be jealous? You were crammed into a dormitory the size of my walk-in closet while I flew around the world in my private jet, getting real-world experience that can’t be duplicated in your ivory towers.”
“You pompous, self-righteous jerk!” Adele pushed him backward, and he waved his arms in a circle to right himself. “This is about my graduation speech still, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nick lied.
Adele laughed heartily. “You’re jealous that my college entrance exams were higher—”
“Barely,” he coughed into his hand.
“—and I got to give the graduation commencement address.”
“Five points, Adele. Five. That’s it. Yours were five points higher than mine.”
“And you couldn’t have just been proud of me?” She pushed him again.
“I was proud of you.” Nick scrambled to maintain balance. “I’m still proud of you.”
“Proud?” She stepped closer.
“Yes.” He relaxed his shoulders,
“And jealous?” she asked.
“You’re an idiot, Nick.” With one little nudge, Adele pushed Nick backward into the pool.
“Come to Dubai with me, son!” Levi swept into Nick’s office with an air of excitement. He couldn’t help laughing and smiling along with his dad.
“Good morning to you as well, father,” Nick said, sauntering around the side of his desk to give his dad a hug. Then he gestured to one of the executive leather chairs placed in front of his desk where he could sit across from a guest or business partner and offer them a brandy or cup of coffee.
At only twenty-two years of age and having seen his older brothers make fools of themselves while drinking, Nick had no use for the fowl smelling liquor. He knew his father never drank alcohol either and he certainly didn’t need any caffeine this morning.
“What is all this talk about going to Dubai?” Nick asked, lowering himself into the chair beside his father. He purposely leaned forward so that his head and gaze were lower than his dad’s. He was sure his father wouldn’t understand the gesture but might feel just a little more in control of the situation than he would feel otherwise if Nick were even in height. “What’s in Dubai?”
“Possibility,” Levi drawled.
“Whose failing business are you snatching up for pennies on the dollar?”
“Natan Netanel,” he spoke low as if saying the name loud would enable someone else to swoop in and purchase the property before they had the chance.
“Aw man, dad.” Nick sat back and crossed his leg. “I know Nathan, he’s a great guy.” He also knew that Nathan preferred the more westernized version of his given name.
“But a terrible businessman,” Levi said. “His yacht manufacturing company is failing.”
“You’re a real estate developer. What on earth are you going to do with yacht manufacturing company?”
“I plan to put your design skills to good use, my son.” Levi patted Nick on the knee.
“M-my design skills?” Nick pulled back from his father. “I’ve never built a ship.”
“You don’t need to know how to build a ship. You just need to have an eye for detail. And you have that. You can work together with Natan and pull his company out of bankruptcy. All he needs is a mentor.”
“Dad, he’s like, ten years older than me,” Nick said. “And he prefers to be called Nathan.”
“Perfect,” Levi said. “You’re already on a first-name basis.”
Nick sighed. “I’m not going to be able to talk you out of this, am I?”
“Not likely.” Levi stood and patted Nick on the shoulder. “Wheels up in an hour. I have Gregory preparing our private jet as we speak.”
“Wait, you want to leave today?” Nick sprang to his feet. “I have a date tomorrow afternoon.”
“We should be home by then.” Levi shrugged. “If all goes well.”
“Fine, have Pierre pack me an overnight bag. I know how you get when you attend these mergers and acquisitions meetings.”
“Glad to have you on board, son. You’ll be just what we need to soften up this Nathan kid.”
“He’s hardly a kid,” Nick grumbled.
“When you get to be as old as me, you’ll understand.” Levi headed toward the door but turned back around as if just remembering one more thing he needed to tell his son. “Oh, and your mother’s pregnant again.”
“What?” Nick’s jaw dropped. “She’s, what? Forty-five years old?”
“Forty-six, actually,” Levi said then stepped back to pat Nick on the shoulder again. “You forget, we married very young. Your old man’s still got it in me.”
“Oh my gosh, Dad, that’s gross.”
“Nah, being as old as you are and not married yet, that’s gross.”
“Exactly,” Levi said, opening the door to Nick’s office. “Get on it, son.”
“Hard to accomplish when my date is in Jerusalem and I am in Dubai,” Nick grumbled.
“You’ll work it out,” Levi called from down the hall. “I have faith in you, my son.”
“Glad one of us does,” Nick said under his breath. He pulled out his cell phone and sent a quick text to Adele.
Might be a little late for our pool party tomorrow afternoon. I’m flying to Dubai
“We’re coming, and you’re going to insist she bring her older sisters.” Liam’s statement was so matter-of-fact Nick couldn’t help chuckle.
“You probably don’t even remember their names.” Nick cautiously climbed into the backseat, trying not to jostle his arm too much.
“Miriam,” Lyle said.
“Leanne,” Sam added.
“I don’t remember what the older girl’s name is, but the one who’s my age is Rachel, and she’s smokin’ hot, so you’re inviting her.” Liam shifted the SUV into reverse and backed out of the relatively normal parking spot he’d chosen in the hospital parking lot.
“They’re probably all married by now,” Nick said.
“No way. We would have received invitations. Our dads have been best friends since before any of us were born,” Liam said.
“Besides, you owe us for having to sit in that horrible waiting room for an hour while you were flirting with Adele,” Lyle added.
“Whose idea was it to go skydiving again?” Nick sighed and rested his head against the window and closed his eyes.
“It was your idea, Nick, don’t you remember?” Liam asked.
“No, definitely not my idea.” Why could he be so confident and mature in front of Adele and then let his brothers walk all over him. He’d have to think about that. For now, he had a date to plan. And a throbbing arm. He moaned. He wasn’t sure if the words he murmured were loud enough for anyone to hear. “How about a pool party? Would it be too forward to invite them out to the estate?”
“See, you do come up with good ideas.” Lyle reached behind and smacked Nick on his leg.
They were quiet for most of the ride home and his brothers scattered to their various suites when they got into the compound.
Nick trudged up the grand staircase toward his suite, wishing he’d taken the elevator when feeling the weight of the day’s events; barreling through the open sky strapped to an instructor, crashing to the ground and having his arm torn up, then being tortured by the most beautiful nurse in the greater Jerusalem area.
After he kicked off his shoes and slid into the middle of his king-sized bed, Nick pulled out his phone and sent Adele a quick text.
Meds wore off. What did you do to me? I’m dizzy and throbbing in pain.
Sorry about that, her text came back right away. It was just a few stitches.
Stiches?? He looked down at his arm that was still wrapped in gauze. When did you give me stiches?
While you were bragging about how you’d soon be a billionaire and best-selling novelist. It’s amazing what a girl can get away with when she’s distracting a hot guy by making him feel like a peacock.
My brothers want you and your sisters to come over for a pool party this weekend…
You’re not supposed to be getting your arm wet.
I’ll sit on a lounge chair and watch the rest of you play in the pool.
I’d rather sit with you if that’s okay, her text read.
I would love that. Would he ever.
Then it’s a date.
My arm hurts, he typed. Can you come nurse me back to health?
“I can’t believe I let them talk me into that,” Nick mumbled to himself while he sat on the raised bed in the partitioned emergency room, with blood dripping from the gash on his left arm, waiting to find out if he’d need stitches or an amputation. He chuckled at his own joke and waited for someone to come check on his arm.
“Well, look who dropped by to mingle with us commoners.” A beautiful, freckled nurse with long, strawberry blonde curls walked up, with a clipboard in her hands and a barely contained smirk on her lips.
“Adele?” Nick gaped. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ll be your nurse this afternoon.” She chuckled and then leaned closer and stage whispered. “I get to be the one to torture you.”
“You’ve been torturing me since we were in diapers.” Nick cringed as she lifted his arm to assess the damage.
“Does that hurt?”
“Do you seriously have to ask?” Nick raised his eyebrows.
“Let’s get you a shot of painkiller and get that wound cleared of gravel,” Adele said in a cheerful voice.
After multiple pokes and prods and blood draws and papers to be signed, they were finally alone again, with a basin of some sort of foul-smelling liquid antiseptic and a variety of tools designed to frighten patients.
“So… whatch’u been up to, Nick?” Adele asked as she more closely evaluated the gash he’d received while landing with his tandem instructor.
The last time Nick had seen Adele in person was when they graduated from prep school, number one and number two in their class, sitting side by side, always competing for the top spot. He still resented her giving that valedictorian speech even though his college entrance exams had only been five points lower than hers.
“I went skydiving. You?”
“I got accepted in the master’s program here at Hadassah University Hospital.”
“Wow, in what?”
“Nurse practitioner.” She included an underlying duh with her declaration.
“Congratulations,” Nick said, in awe of her accomplishments. He’d lost touch with her since they’d separated for college.
“What about you?” She dipped his whole elbow and wrist into the basin the triage nurse had provided. The shot of painkiller they’d injected into him was finally working. He barely felt a thing.
“Still helping run my dad’s companies,” Nick answered.
“You a billionaire yet?”
“Not yet, but I’m working on it.” He was vaguely aware of her picking little pieces of gravel from his arm.
“You’ll get there.”
“I’m glad you have faith in me.” Did his voice get husky? How embarrassing.
“How are your mom and dad?” she asked, pausing her work.
“Fine, I guess. I see my dad more than my mom since we work together.”
“You need to spend more time with your mother, Nick.” She looked sternly into his eyes.
“How about if you come with me,” he asked.
“If I did that, she’d get the wrong idea and think we’d gotten back together.” Her voice was lowered, and she resumed picking gravel out of his arm.
“Would that be such a bad thing?” Nick boldly raised his free hand and lifted her chin gently.
“You don’t even know me anymore,” Adele said, not distracted by his gesture. “How do you know I’m not dating someone else?”
“Are you?” Nick asked. She didn’t answer, just kept her tweezers moving. “That’s what I thought.”
“I follow your blog.” Interesting change of subject.
“You do?” He couldn’t hide his smile.
“You have interesting philosophical insights into the world.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I’m flattered.”
“You should quit working for your dad and be a writer,” she said.
“I was thinking about writing a novel, actually.”
“Really?” Adele’s smile lit her face.
“Ah, dang, you keep smiling at me like that and I’m for sure going to write a novel.”
“You know how much I love your stories.” She set down the tweezers and reached for some other torture instrument. He decided not to watch. “Which one are you going to write first? The dystopian one? Or the spiritual one?”
“Probably dystopian,” he said. Was he really considering his youthful dreams? This was crazy. He runs into his childhood sweetheart and he’s suddenly contemplating a career change? “Spiritual crap doesn’t sell all that well.”
“You’d be surprised.” She finished by taping some gauze in place with sterile strips. “Do you promise to keep that clean and dry?”
“If you’ll promise to come check on me in a day or two, like, say, at dinnertime tomorrow.” Nick raised his eyebrows.
“I don’t date my patients.” The gleam in her eyes told him he wasn’t her usual patient. He’d held her in his arms on the dance floor under twinkling lights in the gymnasium. He’d been her first kiss, and she’d been his only kiss.
“Do you ever wonder what might have happened if we’d stayed together?”
“We’ve moved on, Nick.” Adele stepped over to the nearby counter and jotted something on the paperwork there. “The nursing assistant will bring you some discharge papers. Here are some additional instructions.”
As she handed Nick the sheet of paper she’d removed from her clipboard, she finally looked him in the eye.
“It was really nice to see you again, Nick.” She quickly walked away. He looked down at the slip of paper.
Clean and wrap your arm daily, no more skydiving, and call me if you need anything. She’d included her personal cell phone number.
“You’re seriously going skydiving?” Nick asked.
“Yes, and you are coming with us, little brother.” Liam laid his hand on Nick’s shoulder, with a smirk. At six foot one, and twenty-two years old, Nick was hardly little. But his older brothers were similar in height and bossed him around as if they were still in their teens.
“Have you forgotten that we all have jobs? We have responsibilities. We can’t just take off a whole day to do something reckless and dangerous.”
“When your daddy is your boss, you can get away with just about anything,” Liam said. His job was more public relations anyway. Liam was little more than a figurehead at their father’s business. The oldest son in the Cohen Empire, he was the guy who attended the black-tie social events, writing checks to whatever charitable organizations their father, Levi, believed in that month.
They were the richest family in the greater Jerusalem area, controlled a dozen of the finest resort hotels in Israel—holdings in every natural resource in the Arab region—and owned more land than God. Everyone either loved the Cohens or hated them, depending on whether their father had bought out their company at a fair price or held out as his toughest competition.
Nothing seemed to faze Levi Cohen. He expected great things from his sons but left them on too long a leash. Nick’s older brothers often took advantage of their father’s generosity and trust.
“Besides, you’re not going to rat us out, are you?” Lyle, the second oldest brother, stepped just a little bit closer, almost towering over him. The effect was mildly threatening, but Nick held his chin high. Always in their oldest brother’s shadow, Lyle wasn’t good for much in the way of business and usually just schmoozed the daughters and wives of whatever dignitary Liam needed distracted.
“There’s nothing you can do to talk us out of it,” Sam said. As the third oldest brother, he usually sided with Liam and Lyle. More responsible than the other two, he was actually quite intelligent with regards to their natural resource holdings, like petroleum and potash.
“I could encourage father to disown you and cut you out of his will,” Nick replied. They all started laughing at his matter-of-fact statement, which was an empty threat. Nick had very little control over what their father did, even though increasing responsibility seemed to fall on his shoulders as far as the acquisitions side of the business.
Nick was usually the responsible son. Why he was letting his brothers talk him into this was beyond him. Skydiving. The thought sent a little thrill up his spine. This was so unlike him.
The speed Liam drove down Route Six was almost as dangerous as jumping out of the plane. He thought he was invincible and lived his life as such. They weaved in and out of traffic in Liam’s custom-built Mercedes G-63.
In this beast, Nick didn’t fear for his own life; more for the innocent drivers all around them. He ground his teeth and clung to the grab handle as his brothers whooped out the open windows.
Liam slammed on the brakes and cranked the wheel before they could fly past SkyDef and slid into his own self-proclaimed parking spot in a cloud of dust.
Nick wanted to kiss the ground after he stumbled from the backseat but then realized the air around the vehicle was so full of sand he needn’t bother. He reached back inside for his water bottle and rinsed his mouth, spitting into the dirt beside the car.
“Liam, I’m pretty sure this is not an actual parking lot,” Nick said.
“I tip well,” Liam said. “They won’t care. Here, keep track of these.” He tossed Nick the keys to the car.
“Gladly.” Nick caught the little key fob and tucked it in his pocket. Maybe Liam would let him drive home. He watched as Liam slipped a silver flask from his jacket pocket and took a long pull and then handed it to Lyle. Nick grumbled under his breath. “Yep, I’m definitely driving home.”
“Let’s do this!” Lyle called into the air and then took another swig and blew a misty fountain of Bourbon that rained down, drenching them in alcohol.
“Cut it out,” Sam said, brushing off his arms and face. He’d gotten the brunt of mist because he stood beside Lyle. “They’re not gonna let us get on that plane if we reek of alcohol.”
“I told you, little brother”—Liam leaned closer to Sam— “I tip well. They let me do pretty much anything I want.”
The owner of SkyDef, a guy not much older than Liam, met them in the makeshift parking lot and welcomed them.
“Aharon, my man.” Liam clasped the guy’s hand in a half hug, patting him on the back.
“You finally made it down to my fine establishment,” Aharon said.
“I promised I would take my little brothers skydiving.” Liam wrapped his arm around his friend’s shoulder and turned him to face them. “This is Lyle, Sam, and our younger brother, Nick.”
“I thought you had four brothers.” Aharon crinkled his brow.
“Jacob’s only seventeen, we’ll bring him in a few years, if we still live around here.”
Huh? What did he mean by that?
“Planning a move anytime soon?” Aharon asked.
“Oh, ya know, nothing set in stone or anything.”
“What’s he talking about?” Nick asked Sam.
“No idea, bro.”
“Lyle, do you know?” Nick pulled on his brother’s sleeve.
“Not really.” Lyle shrugged. “Dad’s talking about some industry down in Dubai that he’s trying to take over.”
“Take over?” Nick raised his eyebrows. “You mean swoop in when the guy is at rock bottom and about to file bankruptcy so dad can buy the business below market?”
“Is there any other way to do business, little brother?” Lyle smirked and patted Nick on the shoulder. “Relax, Dad knows what he’s doing.”
Nick stopped short, and his two oldest brothers kept walking. “Yeah, but I usually know what Dad’s doing also.”
Sam paused and turned around. “I’m sure he’ll tell you about it when he’s ready.”
“This makes me nervous.” Nick resumed walking toward the building.
“What makes you nervous?” Sam asked, falling into step. “Skydiving? Or Dad not keeping you in the loop?”
“Both,” Nick admitted.
“Relax,” Sam said. “Dad’s a visionary man. He always seems to know where the market is heading.”
“True.” Nick paused to open the door to the comfortably air-conditioned building. “He knows I’ll go where he wants me to go and do what he wants me to do.”
“Your blind faith is noble, my little brother,” Sam said. “Now, let’s strap you onto a tandem instructor and hurl you out of a moving airplane and see if you come out unscathed.”
“Who in their right mind wants to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” Nick grumbled.
“Let’s go find out.” Sam hurried ahead to join their brothers.
“What have I gotten myself into?”
“Oh my gosh! What are you doing here?” Leanne stood from where she was perched in the front row of a very full lecture hall. Good. Lots of people would witness her rejection… again. “How many times do I have to break up with you?”
“You’ve never actually broken up with me,” Sam said, barely glancing at the confused and startled professor with his gaping mouth and wide eyes. “You’ve just delayed the inevitable.”
She huffed and folded her arms across her chest, looking off into the corner over his shoulder. He didn’t mean to cut his timing so close to the start of her class period, but he had to find the perfect ring.
“I’m never going away,” Sam said, stepping closer to her. She didn’t back up, but she didn’t lesson her defensive stance. “Now that I know how good it feels to sleep in your arms.”
Some guy a few rows back whistled seductively. Sam ignored him.
“Do you see what this says?” Sam held up his cell phone with the contacts list open, her name listed first and paired with his. “It says Leanne Cohen. The love of my life. The woman who will grow old with me. The woman who will someday gift me the opportunity to become a dad.”
That brought a tiny sliver of a smile to Leanne’s lips, but she firmed her expression. “I’m not leaving school and moving to Dubai.”
“I’m not asking you to move to Dubai.”
“Oh, I know. You want me to follow you and Nicholas and Adele off to who knows where.”
“Hear me out, okay?” Sam hurried on with his impassioned speech. “We’ll get married now, finish your master’s program here, figure out where Nicholas is leading us, and go there for your PhD.”
“But that’s so uncertain,” she pleaded.
“That’s what makes it real. That’s why I trust it. That’s why I’m asking you to give up all that you have to follow a compass that may or may not be pointing north. And if it’s not, who cares.” He paused and lowered his voice. “As long as I get to sleep next to you every night from now until eternity—with fewer layers of clothing between us—I will treasure every moment of my life with you.”
“You only want to marry me because my sisters are married to your brothers and our parents for some reason think all of their children are supposed to marry each other.”
“No, that’s not the reason I want to marry you,” Sam said. “I love you. I love you because of your intelligence and strength and tenacity.”
“Sam, why are you doing this to me?” Frustration gave way to exasperation.
“Because you’ve already said yes to me a million times in your dreams. But maybe this will persuade you to say yes while you’re still awake.” Sam lowered himself to his knee in front of her whole lecture hall full of classmates, and one very annoyed professor. With a ring box open that contained an enormous diamond ring, Sam whispered passionately. “Please, my love, for the billionth time, will you marry me?”
He waited for what felt like hours but was probably only seconds for her to say no.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Yes?” Dare he hope that he’d heard her correctly.
“Yes! Yes, I’ll marry you and sleep next to you, and follow wherever you lead me.”
“Wherever Nicholas leads us,” Sam corrected her, hopping to his feet.
“What?” Exasperation filled her voice again.
“Never mind,” Sam said. “You follow me, and I’ll follow him, and we’ll all be going in the correct direction.”
“Whatever. Just get over here and kiss me,” Leanne demanded.
“Do you want the ring on your hand first?” Sam asked, holding up the little velvet box.
“Yes.” She jumped on her toes like a little girl. “Yes, yes, give me that ring.”
Sam slipped the ring from the box and onto Leanne’s finger. As they finally kissed one another the lecture hall erupted in applause.
Six weeks later…
“I just got a text from my sister, Rachel.” Leanne set her laptop on the king-sized bed and shoved aside three textbooks and a spiral notebook. Their bed had gradually become a great place to study since they didn’t want to get out from under the covers. Instead, they propped themselves up with lots of pillows.
“Hmm?” Sam didn’t glance up from the abstract he was reading on geological assessments in mineral deposit variations. Not a topic his bride was likely to encounter in entry level natural resources management, but he’d gotten distracted on the second floor of the library. Sam’s attention was suddenly pulled away by an incoming text of his own. “Ooh, I just got one from Liam. Do you think they’re all still mad at us for eloping?”
“Don’t know, don’t care.” Leanne said holding up her phone. “Oh… my… gosh.”
“What?” Sam swiped open his phone and glanced at the text from his brother. “Uh oh…”
“I’m pregnant,” Leanne read Rachel’s text out loud. “She added lots of exclamation points and several hearts. One, two, three, four, five hearts. I guess she’s excited.”
“Liam’s text says, uh, almost the same thing.” Sam gulped and read out loud. “Rachel’s pregnant! With only one exclamation point. What the heck am I supposed to do now? Am I going to have to marry her?”
Sam and Leanne looked at each other and neither could contain a snicker.
“Stairwell?” Sam asked, raising his eyebrows seductively.
“Probably,” Leanne said. “What dorks.”
“Should we answer their text?” Sam asked playfully. “Or make them wait?”
Leanne pulled Sam’s cell phone from his hand and tossed it onto the floor along with hers and several textbooks. She closed her laptop and set it carefully on the bedside table then climbed into Sam’s lap “Nah, make ’em wait. They need to learn some patience.”
Sam rolled Leanne onto the bed and looked down into her deep blue eyes. “I’m glad we waited.” He loved the weight of the thick gold band on his left hand reminding him frequently that they no longer needed to wait.
“Me too.” Leanne’s peaceful smile invited Sam’s kiss. They didn’t get any more studying done that night.
“You’re a hard girl to find,” Sam whispered, pulling up a chair beside Leanne.
“How did you find me then?” She set down her yellow highlighter and turned to him with annoyance at being interrupted, scraping her chair on the wooden floor. She likely thought the third floor of the library tucked into a back corner was probably a safe bet to have privacy and a quiet escape from the busy university and the bustling city of Jerusalem.
“I have connections,” he said, tucking a lock of her hair behind her ear.
“Do any of those connections happen to be married to any of my sisters?” she asked.
“Maybe.” Sam bit his lower lip, gaging her level of annoyance.
“What do you want, Sam? I’m a little busy right now.”
“You mentioned a few days ago that you were looking for a new study partner.”
“That class is next semester,” she reminded him.
“That gives me plenty of time to read up on the class materials, so I’ll be able to provide the required level of tutelage.”
“I’m pretty sure the earth sciences section of the library is on the second floor,” Leanne said. “Knock yourself out. I need to study for my anthropology midterm. Go away.” She turned back to her book and picked up her yellow highlighter.
“I don’t want to move back to Jerusalem,” Sam said.
“I don’t really care where you live,” she answered. “Your residency status doesn’t affect me.”
“It does if we’re married.”
“Well, we’re not.”
“But we’re going to be.”
“You’re being presumptuous again.”
“I’m being realistic.”
“You’re being stupid.” Leanne finally turned again to look at him. “You just said you didn’t want to live in Jerusalem, so there’s no reason we should be having this conversation.”
“I feel very strongly that we need to be together.”
“Then move to Jerusalem, you idiot.” She turned back to her book.
“We need to follow Nicholas and Adele,” Sam told her.
“What?” She turned to him with a gaping mouth. “Follow them where? To Dubai? I told you; I don’t want to live in Dubai.”
“Not to Dubai. Somewhere else.”
“You’re not making any sense, Sam. Go away.”
“I’m here to be your study partner, remember?”
“I don’t need you as my study partner until next semester, remember?” She spoke through gritted teeth.
“That’s okay. I’ll just be your husband between now and then.”
“We’re not getting married, Sam,” Leanne said much louder than is acceptable in a library. That got the attention of students three tables over. “And I’m not moving to Dubai. And I’m not following my sister or your brother or anyone else. I’m finishing my master’s degree and then I’m getting a PhD. Deal with it.”
Leanne stood and gathered her books, shoving them into a designer backpack.
“I’ll see you after I graduate.” With a flip of her hair over her shoulder, she slung the strap of her backpack over one shoulder and stormed away.
A guy at the next table made a noise like a plane crashing and exploding then laughed with his buddy.
“Thanks, dude. That really helps.” Sam took a deep breath and leaned back in the hard, wooden chair.
The girl sitting across from the guys at the next table gave Sam a sympathetic look then a bit of advice. “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Just sayin’.”
“Diamonds?” Sam whispered, then gazed into space. That’s it. That’s what he needed. He hopped up from the chair and glanced over at the girl almost as an afterthought. “Thanks. That really does help.”
Sam hurried from the library, scrolling on his phone to find the nearest jeweler.
The waiting room had cleared out by the time Sam returned from seeing little Joseph, and then down the hall to the NICU to see Baby Ishy through the glass walls. Uncles weren’t authorized visitors and that was okay. Sam was exhausted.
He decided to wait to contact Leanne until he’d gotten cleaned up, fed, and possibly after a nap. He almost fell asleep in the limo on the ride back to the resort. A quick conversation with the concierge on the way into the lobby and breakfast was ordered to be delivered to his suite as soon as possible.
A steamy hot shower washed off the grime of spending the night perched on a plastic waiting room chair in the hospital. But the steam and heat also doubled his fatigue. Just as Sam wondered if he’d be able to keep his eyes open long enough to wait for the room service, there was a knock at his door.
Not room service.
“Leanne?” Sam held the door open for his on-again-off-again girlfriend who took him on a roller coaster ride only to crash the cars at the bottom of each hill.
As Leanne tucked herself into Sam’s arms, he breathed in the heady scent of her freshly washed hair and savored the soft, thin flannel jersey shirt and pants combination that looked like regular clothes but screamed pajamas. Leanne was probably just as tired as he was.
“Have you eaten?” Sam asked as he rubbed his hands up and down her back, suddenly much more awake than he’d been three minutes prior.
“Not yet,” she whispered, holding him in her arms as he held her.
“I have room service on the way up.”
“Good.” Leanne pulled herself away and strode over to his bed. She didn’t bother getting under the covers, just climbed on top of the downy comforter near the end of the bed and curled up in the fetal position. “I’ll just wait here.”
Sam chuckled, missing her presence in his arms but liking the direction this morning was heading. He knew he would never take advantage of her, and he knew she would never encourage him. But snuggling? Yeah, that could be cool.
There was another knock at the door and Sam ushered in the wait staff, who moved a large cart over by the table. The young man lifted lids on several large platters of food containing a selection of breakfast foods, fruits, eggs, meats, pastries. Sam slipped the kid a hundred dirham note and he ducked from the room, never even glancing at the half-asleep girl on Sam’s bed.
“Come on, Sleeping Beauty.” Sam offered his hand. “You need food just as badly as I do.”
Leanne allowed Sam to lead her to the table where they ate heartily in companionable silence, both of their eyes growing heavy.
Almost simultaneously they were full and stopped eating as quickly as they’d started.
Sam stood and offered Leanne his hand then led her back over to his bed, this time pulling back the covers and tucking her in. He rounded the bed and climbed in next to her then scooted to the middle. She willingly rolled into his arms and they both sighed in contentment, causing each other to chuckle.
He pulled back slightly and brushed her still damp hair away from her face.
“This is what it will be like to be married,” Sam whispered, loving the soft smile in her eyes.
“Not even close,” she mumbled, her lids half closed.
“What do you mean by that?” His hopes fell. Maybe he was reading her wrong.
“We wouldn’t have this many layers of clothing on.” This time her mumbling was so garbled it was nearly unrecognizable. Her eyes closed and her breathing evened out.
“Dang, you’re beautiful,” Sam whispered, not sure she would hear him.
Her answering mumble didn’t sound like a word. But she rolled over and tucked herself up against him, snuggling into his arms.
As Sam wrapped himself completely around Leanne, he whispered one more request. “Marry me, my love.”
“Mmm-kay,” she mumbled and sighed, settling into the cocoon of his arms.
When Sam awoke the shadows were low in the late afternoon, and Leanne was gone.
“Sam?” Through a fog of restless sleep on a hard, waiting room chair, Sam startled awake. His father jostled his shoulder gently.
“Dad?” Suddenly more alert, Sam sat up quickly. “Is mom okay? Baby Joseph?” He shifted in his crumpled business suit, wishing he’d had the chance to go home and change into something less formal.
“They’re both fine,” Levi Cohen said with a smile. “Would you like to come meet your baby brother?”
Sam looked around the waiting room. Other people were leaning on their elbows, propped up, barely awake or snoring. Eighteen-year-old Jacob was sprawled out across three chairs, his lanky teenage body taking up more space than should be physically possible.
Liam and Rachel were together in the far corner, her arms wrapped around him and using his chest as a pillow. Guess she forgave him.
Nicholas and Adele were leaning toward one another, heads touching, propping each other up. Both of their eyes were closed but Sam got the impression neither of them were truly asleep.
Leanne’s head was in Adele’s lap and Adele’s hand rested on her sister’s upper back in a way that indicated to Sam that she’d been comforting Leanne. Almost as if she’d been petting her sister’s hair. Man, he wished he could have been the one to comfort Leanne. Someday, maybe.
Daniel and Cassandra Ashish had their shoulders and heads together in much the same way Adele and Nicholas did. They were both awake and yawning.
Lyle was nowhere to be seen and Sam assumed he was back with his wife, Mirium, and their new baby, Ishy.
Somewhere nearby a coffee pot sat with a few inches of burnt coffee available should anyone be that desperate for caffeine. Sam wrinkled his nose at the metallic, bitter smell.
He realized his father had his hand out ready to lift Sam from his chair and Sam reached up and clasped his hand, thankful for the help as well as the human connection. His dad was such a good man.
As much as Sam wanted to pretend he’d return to Jerusalem to be with Leanne, he knew the truth. He’d follow his father to the ends of the earth. His trust in him was that strong.
Maybe Leanne wasn’t the right woman for him if Sam knew in his gut that his place was with his father. And Nicholas. Weird thought to pop into his head. Nicholas was his younger brother but somehow Sam inherently knew that Nicholas would one day lead their family.
But Leanne. Sam also knew that he was supposed to be with Leanne. How could he do both? Follow his father and brother but remain with her? There was only one solution and it had been staring at him in the face for months. He just hadn’t worded the invitation correctly. She needed to come with him. Period. End of story. No, beginning of story.
Sam didn’t need to live in Jerusalem with Leanne. Leanne needed to come with him. To Dubai? No, he realized, there was someplace else they would go. He just didn’t know where yet. Maybe his father knew. Or Nicholas? Wherever they went, Leanne needed to come with him. There was no doubt in his mind.
“Penny for your thoughts, son,” His father asked quietly as they walked toward the door that led to the maternity wing. He pushed a button and the door opened with a soft whoosh, then closed automatically behind them.
“Thinking about the future, dad. Not sure my place,” Sam admitted.
Levi stopped him and turned Sam’s shoulder, so they were facing one another. No one was nearby. The hallway in this section had low lighting, as if they’d been dimmed to allow patients a chance to rest. The rooms around them seemed empty, so Sam felt all alone with his father. A rare occurrence.
“What is your heart telling you?” his dad asked.
“I will go where you lead me, father.”
His dad glanced back the way they had just come, back toward the door to the quiet waiting room.
“And she needs to come with me.” Sam anticipated his father’s question before he asked.
“How do you plan to make that happen?” his dad asked.
“I don’t know yet.”
“I never have to worry about you, Sam.”
“You don’t?” Why, at the age of twenty-five, did Sam feel vulnerable in the presence of his father. He wanted his approval. He had it. He wanted his love. He had it. So, why?
“You have already chosen the right path,” His father said.
“You know you have. You, and your younger brothers, and your mother.” His dad took a deep breath and glanced back toward the waiting room. “But I worry about Liam and Lyle.”
His father continued as if Sam hadn’t interrupted. “I fear they’re already too far gone. They see the right path. They see me inviting them to join us and be happy as a family. But they turn from me and choose to walk away.”
“Insightful words, father,” Sam said. “Almost prophetic.”
“I’ll never claim to be perfect, my son,” His father said. “But I see the writing on the walls, and I’m able to read between the lines.” He reached up and patted Sam on the cheek.
Sam stepped forward and wrapped his arms around his father, a rare show of emotions between the two of them. As the middle child, Sam had always been a little bit forgotten, a little bit invisible. But he was quietly learning and growing and carving out his own little place in their family.
He would probably never take a stand or be a leader, but he would be here in whatever way the family needed him. He was Sam. And that was just who he needed to be.
“You ready to go meet your baby brother?” his father asked.
They stepped apart and Sam nodded, excitement filling his heart. They walked down the hall in silence until they came to an unassuming door that was open with a curtain pulled between the door and the bed.
“Knock, knock,” His father said in a quiet, respectful voice. “Are you awake, sweetheart.”
“Sort of,” His mother’s tired voice answered.
As he and his father came around the curtain, Sam smiled peacefully. “Hi, Mom. How you feeling?”
“Oh, my Sam.” His mother held out her hand, inviting him forward. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“I heard you brought me another little brother to spoil,” Sam said. “I just had to get started right away.”
“He’s right over here.” His mother indicated toward a little rolling bassinet that was just high enough that his mom could see him from the bed.
“Oh, Mom, he’s beautiful.” Sam gazed down at the most adorable little bundle of swaddled baby boy he’d ever seen. “May I?” Sam looked up at his father and then mother with raised eyebrows, asking permission to hold Baby Joseph.
“Of course.” His father stepped back to allow Sam to get close.
With careful but sure hands, Sam lifted the tiny bundle from where he rested in the bassinet. Sam had been a young teenager when Jacob had been born. Being an adult and welcoming a baby brother was a different experience. He was old enough to become a father himself. His parents were nearly too old to be having another baby. Yet here he was. Evidence of their love.
Tears sprang to Sam’s eyes. This was what he wanted. With Leanne. Now he just needed to convince her. Maybe he could bring her down to meet his little brother and show her the emotional connection of holding a baby.
“Another son,” Sam wondered. “Why didn’t you choose to have any daughters?”
His mom and dad chuckled. As if they had any control. His father reached out to hold His mother’s hand. “Daniel had all the daughters. I had all the sons. That’s how we planned it.”
“Who had all the daughters and sons?” His mother asked playfully.
“Cassandra had all the daughters,” His father admitted. “And my incredible bride gave me all these amazing sons.” His parents held each other’s gaze as if Sam wasn’t in the room and he almost felt like he was intruding on their private moment.
Sam cradled his baby brother in his arms and stepped toward the window, gazing down at the perfect little miracle. Someday he would be holding a son.
After what felt like an eternity, Sam made his way back to the hospital waiting room. He had no reason to go back there and several reasons to stay away. Avoiding his brother and Leanne being the two biggest reasons.
Sam took inventory of his extended family as he approached the open waiting area. His mother looked sick. He wondered if she was heading into labor soon. He met his father’s eyes and saw worry there. Sam knew he needed to do a better job of smoothing things over with his brothers if only for the sake of their mother’s health.
The two sources of contention, Liam and Lyle, sat beside one another in the chairs closest to the door of the maternity wing. Neither of them glanced his way when Sam walked in the room but the scowl on Liam’s face spoke volumes.
Leanne huddled in the corner with her sisters Adele and Rachel whispering in angry but hushed tones.
Sam didn’t even try to listen. He made a beeline for his brothers Nicholas and Jacob and the three of them sat together in companionable silence.
Cassandra Ashish paced near the doors to the maternity wing, chewing nervously on a thumbnail to the point where Sam wished he had nail clippers to offer her. She glanced frequently at the door as if her willing it to open would miraculously help her daughter get through this frightening time.
Finally, the door opened, and a disheveled doctor emerged with a hopeful, albeit tired, expression. Every family member in the room rose to their feet in anticipation, or maybe just the need to stand and stretch.
Lyle hurried to stand before the doctor, remorse and worry evident in his creased brow. “Is my baby…”
“You have a little boy,” the doctor said, placing his hand on Lyle’s shoulder. “He’s very little, and he’s going to need a few weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit, but I think he’s going to be fine.”
“Oh, thank goodness.” Lyle’s shoulders slumped with relief. “And Mirium?”
“She was alert during the surgery and is resting in recovery. There’s not much you can do for her right now so you might as well get scrubbed up and we’ll take you back to meet your new son. Have the two of you named him yet?”
Sam had to give the patient older man credit. He was probably used to dealing with scared, young fathers and spoke more kindly to Lyle than he probably wanted to after what Lyle had said earlier in the delivery room.
A woman blaming her husband for the pain she was in during delivery was common. Turning that blame around and putting it back on the wife rarely happened. Probably not the first time. The doctor had likely heard it all in his years of service.
“Ishy,” Lyle said with breathy reverence,
“Ish…Ish-ee?” The doctor raised his eyebrows.
“Ishmael,” Lyle clarified, raising his chin with mature confidence. “Our son’s name is Ishmael Daniel Cohen.”
“That’s a fine name,” the doctor said. “Now let’s take you back there and meet your son. Woah…”
The doctor looked over Lyle’s shoulder to the side of the room near where their mother was cringing and breathing heavy, having just stood from the waiting room chair. Her eyes were closed, and her hand rested on top of her very pregnant belly. The doctor pushed past Lyle.
“How long have you been having contractions?”
“A few…” Sarah breathed several times then continued. “A few hours.”
“A few hours?” Their dad hurried to her side. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Oh, phooey, we had enough to worry about than little ole’ me.”
“Yeah, well, you’re done worrying about everyone else,” the doctor said. “Time for you to worry about you.”
A woman rushed forward with a wheelchair and Sarah was helped into the seat. Before the whole gravity of the situation could register, their mom was whisked away to go deliver baby Joseph.
“Good luck, Mom,” Sam called. His brothers and the Ashish family all called out similar well wishes. The mood in the room relaxed into subdued excitement after the doors closed, taking their father and Lyle with them.
The sisters all gave each other hugs, then Adele stepped over to Nicholas and they kissed then gazed into each other’s eyes. Sam wondered if they’d be celebrating the arrival of another baby sometime in the near future.
He hugged his youngest brother, Jacob, then rubbed the top of his head. “Not going to be the baby of the family anymore.”
“He’ll always be the baby of the family,” Liam said with a good-natured chuckle, approaching Sam and Jacob, his face a mask of remorse. “He’ll just gain the title of Big Brother, like the rest of us did. And being a big brother is usually pretty cool.”
“Usually,” Sam mumbled. “Unless your younger brother rats you out.”
“I had it coming,” Liam admitted with a shrug. “Rachel will forgive me… eventually.”
Sam glanced in the direction where the sisters were huddled together and wondered at the likelihood of Rachel forgiving Liam.
Nicholas noticed Sam and turned from his wife to join his brothers. He smiled as he approached. “Looks like we’re all going to be big brothers now, eh?”
“We were just discussing that, actually,” Sam said. “We told Jacob he’s still the baby in the family even if there’s another baby in the family.”
“Nah, he’s all grown up now, aren’t you, buddy?” Nicholas wrapped his arm around Jacob’s shoulders and then reached his other arm around Sam’s. “Come on, guys. Group hug.”
Sam took a deep breath then reluctantly wrapped his arm around Liam’s shoulders as Liam wrapped his other arm around Jacob’s.
“There is one thing we all have in common besides gaining a brother,” Liam said. “We all became uncles today too.”
“That’s right.” Nicholas nodded in recognition.
“Pretty cool that I got to become an uncle and a big brother in the same day,” Jacob said with a grin. “I’m the only one who can say that.”
“And Lyle became a dad,” Sam added. “He’s the only one who can say that.”
“I love you guys,” Nicholas said. “I’m proud to call you my brothers.”
“Me too!” Jacob said with enthusiasm.
Sam and Liam glanced at one another and offered half-hearted smiles. Sam fought the desire to roll his eyes or to glare at Liam. Love. Pride. Not sure about that, but family was family and Liam was part of their family. For that reason alone, Sam would choose to be nice to Liam. For now.
“How could you?” Rachel shoved Liam and he stumbled backward. “An affair with your secretary? Don’t I mean anything to you?” She stormed away, around the corner and down the hall.
“Rachel, stop. It’s not what you think.” Liam hurried after her.
“It’s exactly what she thinks,” Sam grumbled, remembering the way Liam had flirted with Mrs. Shaw, his secretary. Before they’d left the office, he’d called her babe and whispered something in her ear, making her giggle. The whole scene had been disgusting. And not an hour late he was with Rachel as if nothing was wrong.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Leanne asked, vitriol in her words. “All that talk about my sister marrying your brother and you didn’t think to mention that he was having an affair with another woman? A married woman? Don’t you think that’s something my sister should know about?”
“I did consider telling you,” Sam said, backpedaling. “I just didn’t think that was the right time.”
“When would be the right time? When she’s walking down the aisle in a white dress?”
“After what they were doing in the stairwell, I don’t think she should be wearing a white dress.” Sam’s snide comment set Leanne off again.
“You judgmental, hypocritical jerk.” Leanne stepped closer and sneered at Sam. “That’s my sister you’re talking about.”
“Who you were just criticizing for doing inappropriate things in the stairwell at a hospital.” Sam pointed at the door to the stairs as if Leanne needed a reminder.
“Just because I disagree with my sister’s actions doesn’t mean I think she should be judged about wearing a white dress to her wedding.”
“Whatever color her dress, she shouldn’t marry my brother,” Sam said.
“Maybe I shouldn’t marry you, either. What is it with you Cohen boys? You’re all a bunch of jerks.”
“Your sister, Adele, sure would disagree with you.”
“You didn’t see her the past five years since high school.” Leanne shook her head. “She never got over Nick’s betrayal.”
“And yet now they’re married,” Sam said. “Things worked out for them. They can work out for us too.”
“I don’t think so, Sam. But good try.” Leanne started to leave but Sam reached for her arm.
“Leanne, don’t walk away from me again.”
“Let go of my arm,” Leanne said through a growl.
Sam released her arm and shoved his hands in the pockets of his slacks, not wanting her to feel threatened in any way. How did they go from making out to arguing again in the space of five minutes?
If only he could reverse time and not call out his brother about having an affair. No one would be the wiser. Liam and Rachel would still be riding the high of having snuck off to do things Sam could only dream about with Leanne, and he and Leanne could be planning their future together. If only. Ugh.
As Sam watched Leanne walk around the corner and hurry off in a huff, he leaned against the wall where he’d just been kissing her. She was finally his girlfriend again for one brief moment and then he lost her. Again.
“You want to take a walk?” Sam asked Leanne.
She still had her arms folded across her chest and a scowl on her face directed at his brother, Lyle. Getting her out of the room and away from the source of her anger might be just what she needed.
Sam knew going for a walk would help him. He wanted to be alone with Leanne, to talk things over, see if they could resolve her anger toward him for offending her the day after Nicholas and Adele’s wedding.
“I guess.” After standing, she kept her arms crossed as if to imply that he’d better not try to hold her hand. If she wasn’t ready for that, he would respect her boundaries.
They walked in companionable silence down the hall past doctors’ offices, most of which still had patients coming and going. There were no patient rooms in this direction and that was more comfortable then walking past people in beds with blinking and beeping monitors, a variety of unpleasant smells, and the risk of infection.
Sam tucked his hands into the pockets of his slacks, still in his business suit, having left his office in the middle of the afternoon.
“How did you girls get down here from Jerusalem so quickly?” Sam asked.
“Mirium called this morning, crying that she was scared and heading to the hospital. Your dad called in some favors and chartered us a private jet to get down here.”
“I’m sure Mirium’s glad you’re here,” Sam said, not wanting to come right out and say that he was glad also. Leanne beat him to it.
“You’re not disappointed either, are you?” Leanne bumped her shoulder against his and he took the opportunity to wrap his arm around her back, not pressuring her to offer her hand but wanting to be close.
“I’ve missed you,” Sam said.
“I’ve missed you too.” Leanne sighed. “I didn’t want to admit that I missed you, but you and I used to text back and forth all day long. I’ve watched Rachel text Liam these past few weeks and laugh with him and flirt with him and everyday I just wanted to ask her if she could ask Liam how you were doing.”
“Same here. Liam’s insufferable.”
“I have a feeling they’ll be the next in our families to tie the knot,” Leanne said.
“You think?” Sam considered whether to mention Liam’s tendency to sleep around, and how he was probably having an affair with his secretary but chose to wait. Nothing good ever comes from gossiping about someone else.
Still, he would have to address the situation eventually in order to prevent Rachel from stepping blindly into a marriage with a jerk like Liam. Dang, was he really thinking that way about his own brother? Yep. And Liam deserved the designation. He was a jerk.
“They sure spend a lot of time texting back and forth.” Sam avoided the admission for now.
“What about you and me?” Leanne asked with quiet apprehension. “Do you think we’ll ever get married?”
They had rounded the corner at the end of the hallway and found themselves completely alone at the doorway to a stairwell with a red Exit sign above the door. With nowhere else to go, Sam took the opportunity to lean against the wall and pull Leanne close. “I’d marry you today if you’d let me.”
“Even if that meant moving back to Jerusalem?” She avoided eye contact but allowed herself to be pulled into his arms.
Sam lifted his hand and raised her chin, leaving his hand cradling her cheek. “At this point I’m ready to ignore everyone else’s expectations and follow you anywhere.”
“Even if that means defying your father’s wishes?” she asked.
“Yeah.” Sam didn’t even hesitate. “He raised me to become a responsible adult and plan for my future. You’re my future.”
“What if he disowns you or something?”
“One, he wouldn’t. My father knows we’ll all go our separate ways eventually. That’s the nature of raising sons. Two, I’m already a millionaire on my own merits so I don’t need his money. And three, I really don’t care about the money. I’d rather live in a one room apartment and sleep next to you each night than live in a mansion without you.”
“I feel the same way about you,” Leanne said. She finally met his eyes.
Dare he hope she would have him to be her husband, even though she hadn’t spoken to him for over a month? That’s how he perceived this conversation was heading. He didn’t want to ruin the moment by forcing her into a commitment. Instead, he gazed into her eyes and glanced down at her lips, considering how this kiss would be different than any others prior.
They’d been kids goofing off, getting drunk together, playing at being adults without actually stepping into a position of responsibility. This was serious all of a sudden. They were ready to make a forever commitment.
Sam grazed his thumb across Leanne’s cheek then moved his hand down so that his thumb grazed her lips. She parted them with a sigh and relaxed into his arms. He didn’t hesitate or waste any more time, just pressed his lips to hers with a soft hunger and passionate desire.
Without registering his actions, Sam turned Leanne around and pushed her gently against the wall, his lips never leaving hers, his hunger for her growing stronger, wishing they could be truly alone and not stuck in the hallway of a hospital. He wished they were already married, and this kiss could lead to far more physical connections. The removal of clothing being one of many desires.
Leanne gripped her hands into Sam’s hair, pulling him even closer. His lips left hers and lowered to her neck, taking a play from Prince Marcos’ playbook. She moaned audibly as he trailed kisses along her neck and up under her earlobes. Yeah, this was working as well on her and it had on Lyla.
They were interrupted by the door to the stairwell opening. Liam and Rachel emerged and stopped short. Liam chuckled. “Dang, guess we weren’t the only ones who needed to hook up while we had the opportunity.”
As Sam pulled away from Leanne, he realized Liam and Rachel were both tucking in their shirts and straightening their clothes. Yeah, they hadn’t been just making out.
“Really, Rachel?” Leanne sneered at her sister. “In the stairwell? Gross.”
“Where were you gonna do it? In the hallway? Where anyone can walk in on you?”
“Like we just did?” Liam chuckled so hard he snorted.
“We weren’t going to do anything at all,” Sam said, disgusted at his brother.
“Oh, you were heading in that direction from that passionate kiss we just witnessed,” Liam said.
“That’s so uncouth, man,” Sam said to his brother. “We’re here to support Lyle and Mirium not sneak off to do whatever it was you were doing in the stairwell.”
“You’re one to talk, you hypocrite.” Liam stepped closer and got right up in Sam’s face. “You were already going almost as far as we did.”
“Not even close.” Sam stood toe-to-toe with his older brother. “Having sex in the stairwell at a hospital is almost as disgusting as having an affair with your married secretary.”
“What?” Rachel and Leanne said at the same time.
Sam and his brother stepped apart and looked over at the girls, both of whom stood with their arms folded across their chests and scowls on their faces. Oops.
“Lyle, what happened?” Sam rushed forward and dropped to his knees in front of his older brother, trying to pull his hands from his face. “Is Mirium okay? Baby Ishy?”
“I don’t know,” Lyle said, raising his tear-streaked face. “They kicked me out because I was having a breakdown.”
“Why were you having a breakdown?” Sam sat back on his heels, relieved Lyle hadn’t said Mirium or Baby Ishy was dying or something. He brushed his hands across the pantlegs of his business suit, having just come from the office. The floor where he’d been crouched was much dirtier than he’d prefer for a hospital waiting room. The stench of antiseptic cleanser seemed to imply the floors had been cleaned recently, but the grime and debris indicated otherwise.
“Because of all the beeping monitors and rising and falling numbers and Mirium’s blood pressure is really high and they’re concerned that the baby’s heartrate is too low, and no one will tell me what’s going on and so I got angry and…”
“Please don’t tell me you yelled at a nurse or something…”
“Worse,” Lyle admitted. His face showed a combination of shame and apprehension, and he cringed like he was expecting everyone in the room to hate him for what he was about to tell them.
“What did you do, son?” Their father, Levi, stepped forward with a commanding voice.
“I may or may not have yelled at Mirium.”
“What?” Ruth cried out. “How could you yell at our sister?” That set the rest of her sisters in a frenzy.
“She’s in labor, for heaven’s sake,” Leanne said. “You should be supportive.”
“What could she possibly have done to warrant being yelled at?” Adele asked.
“Whatever you think she did wrong was probably your fault, not hers.” Rachel said.
“That’s what she said too. She growled at me and said I did this to her, as if she wasn’t partially at fault for getting pregnant.”
“You think it was her fault that she got pregnant?” Sam asked, incredulous.
“She should have been on the pill or something,” Lyle said. “She should have made sure she was protected before sleeping with me.”
“She didn’t even have a boyfriend! Why would she have been on the pill?” Leanne balled her fists and leaned closer to him. Sam considered pulling her back but decided that would make things worse between him and Leanne. Plus, if Leanne decked Lyle, he deserved it. Sam would just get Leanne some ice for her wrist afterward.
“You should have been the one using protection,” Ruth said.
“You shouldn’t have even been sleeping with her before marriage,” Adele grumbled.
“I don’t think there was any sleeping going on that night.” Liam chuckled and smirked but cringed and held up his hands in defense when Rachel smacked his arm. “Ah, come on, babe, I was just teasing.”
Sam cocked his head at Liam, who was distracted wrapping his arms around Rachel, placating her and whispering something in her ear. Liam called Rachel babe, just like he’d called his secretary babe. Sam wondered if Liam called all this conquests babe so he wouldn’t mistakenly call them the wrong name. What a cockroach. Sam pulled his attention back to Lyle, the other cockroach in his family. “What exactly did you say to Mirium?”
“I told her she got pregnant on purpose to trap me into marrying her,” Lyle admitted. That caused another uproar and every sister and brother and father and mother in the room fired retorts at Lyle so fast Sam had a hard time separating who said what.
“She was drunk. How could she have gotten pregnant on purpose?”
“You got her drunk and took her upstairs to your room. Maybe it was you who got her pregnant on purpose.”
“No one gets pregnant on purpose.”
“Why would she want to marry you? She only married you because she was pregnant.”
“You’re such an idiot.”
“No wonder they kicked you out of the delivery room.”
“I’m disappointed in you, son.”
“How could you have said that to my daughter?”
“Do you realize I have a shotgun in my closet back home with your name written on it?”
“I… can’t… believe… you would say that,” their mom called out between sobs, holding one hand to her very pregnant belly and with the other, held a tissue to her eyes.
Just then a nurse came into the room and called out, “Is there a woman in here named Ruth?”
“Yes, I’m Ruth.” Their oldest sister stepped forward and lifted her chin with hope in her eyes.
“Mirium is asking for you,” the nurse said. “She wants you in the delivery room with her and we’re just about ready to head in there.” As Ruth followed the nurse, others in the family called out questions.
“Is Mirium okay?”
“Is she having a c-section?”
“Is Baby Ishy in distress?”
“Someone will be out in a little while to give you an update,” the nurse said, then closed the door between the waiting room and the delivery wing.
The room quieted and everyone relaxed into a tense but resolved calm. People were breathing heavy and scowling at Lyle and turning away and crossing arms.
“Jerk,” Rachel grumbled.
“Come on, babe, let’s go for a walk.” Liam led Rachel down the hall away from the waiting room and all its tension.
Leanne huffed away from Lyle and sat in the opposite side of the waiting room, glaring across the room at Lyle. Sam joined her and sat beside her but didn’t try to reach out. She had her arms folded across her chest and Sam wasn’t about to unfold them. He leaned his elbows on his knees.
Adele sat on the other side of Leanne and Nicholas settled beside her, holding her hand in his.
Their parents gathered around the boys’ mom, Sarah, fussing over her to calm her down lest they had another woman in labor, which wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Only their youngest brother, Jacob stayed anywhere close to Lyle, and even he sat two seats away.
Lyle lowered his head into his hands, elbows on his knees, and that’s how they all stayed for countless minutes.
“Hi,” Sam whispered to Leanne, just barely close enough for her to hear him.
“Hey, what’s up?” Leanne took a deep sigh and slouched her shoulders. “Sorry I haven’t returned your calls.” She scuffed the toe of her sneaker against the white tiled floor of the maternity ward in the hall outside the elevators.
“You’re not finished with your PhD, are you?” Sam offered an olive branch. “I wasn’t really expecting to hear from you.”
“Yeah, that’s why you had all of your brothers tell all of my sisters that you were crying into your pillow every night in misery because I dumped you.”
“Not all of your sisters,” Sam corrected her. “None of my brothers are dating or married to your oldest sister, Ruth.”
“How is school?” Sam wasn’t sure what to say to her. The last time they’d seen each other he’d offended her and promised he wouldn’t bother her until after graduation. Dare he hope she chooses to leave college after her master’s degree and not continue on for a PhD?
“Honestly? Not the same without Adele at home,” Leanne said. “She was my study partner. I keep thinking everything will go back to normal when she comes home from her honeymoon but then I remember that she’ll be living down here with you guys. She’s never coming home.”
Sam wasn’t sure how to empathize. Leanne was right. Adele was never coming home. He wondered how he might be able to alleviate some of Leanne’s stress without invalidating her concerns. “That’s tough.”
“Anyway, classes are fine, I guess.” Her face brightened. “Hey, you’d get a kick out of one of the classes I’m taking next semester. Natural Resources Management.”
“Now that’s something I could help you with,” Sam said. “I’ll be your study partner for that class.”
“I’m gonna hold you to that.” Leanne pushed his shoulder playfully.
Sam took advantage of her closeness. “I’m gonna hold your hand.” He slipped his fingers in between hers and held on. She didn’t pull away.
Leanne rested her head on Sam’s shoulder and he pulled her close. “How is my sister?”
“They’re probably going to do a cesarean delivery this afternoon,” he told her. “They’re trying to keep Baby Ishy cooking as long as possible, but if he goes into distress, they’re getting him out of there.”
“I wish I could see Mirium,” Leanne said. “I doubt they’ll let me back to her room.”
As they stood in the hallway holding one another, the door to the elevator opened revealing a surprise. Nick and Adele, back from their honeymoon.
Leanne and Adele squealed and pulled each other close as only sisters can. Nick and Sam clasped each other’s hands and pulled together for a hug.
Others in the family hurried over to give them hugs and welcome them, everyone’s worry about Mirium’s pregnancy momentarily set on the back burner.
A minute later the elevator opened again, and the girls’ parents arrived. There were more hugs around the group and more smiles and more tears.
Tears shifted to panic when Lyle came stumbling out the door of the maternity ward, collapsed into a chair, and lowered his face to his hands, sobbing.