RELEASING NOVEMBER 24TH, 2020

Rosalie Carmichael has spent most of her life doing as she's told. She is the perfect wife, a loving mother, and the aunt everyone calls on when they need a favor.

Her life is peaceful until her happy family is torn apart and she finds herself at the mercy of the Coalition once again.

Scared and alone for the first time since she was sixteen, Rosalie seeks comfort in the arms of her much younger bodyguard. Together they dream of a future where they’re free to love each other out in the open without fear of recriminations or bloody repercussions.

And for six short months it seems as if escape might be possible.

Then the Coalition requests an urgent meeting, and Rosalie is left with an impossible choice.

Choose the bloodless—and loveless—option or follow her heart down the violent path to freedom?

The Optional Aunt is a dark and erotic romantic suspense novel set in a world where deception is the norm and the truth can’t be trusted. It is the second book in The Coalition Collection, a series of interconnected standalones featuring the Ingram-Greaves, Averell, Zidane, and Du Croix crime families.

THE OPTIONAL AUNT WILL BE AVAILABLE IN eBOOK AND PAPERBACK ON RELEASE DAY

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PROLOGUE

“Promises are only as strong as the person who gives them.” ~Stephen Richards~

ROSALIE

Thirty-three years earlier

“It’s done.”

My shoulders droop as the words I’ve spent three months waiting to hear finally ring in my ears. I should be sad that my father is now dead, but I’m filled with nothing but relief. My dad’s passing brings me another step closer to freedom.

After one last look out of the second-floor window at the silent street below, I let the drapes fall back into place. The room is plunged back into darkness, broken only by the artificial light streaming into my bedroom from the hallway.

Turning to face my brother, I force myself to verbalize the question that’s hanging between us. “And Aaron… is he coming?”

When the lines that bracket my brother’s eyes deepen, I drop my hands to my tummy and cradle the swell of my unborn child. I stroke the roundness like it’s a talisman that will change the news my brother is about to deliver from bad to good.

“Lee-Lee,” Zoran reaches out and tugs one of my hands free. Holding my fingers in his, he runs his thumb over my knuckles. “The fact that I’ve killed our father doesn’t magically free Aaron from his duties. Think about it—if he disappears now, they’ll know he’s involved. For your safety, and the baby’s, it’s better if you stay here with Sophia.”

“But I need him here… with me and the baby. I’m nearly six months pregnant. I can’t do this by myself.”

“If he gives into your theatrics and comes for you before it’s safe, you’ll be alone forever.”

This forthright response is typical of my brother. Outside of his over-protectiveness toward his new wife, Zoran rarely allows emotions to dictate his moves in the war we’re covertly waging against the Coalition. My half-brother is fifteen years older than me, and it shows. Where I am passionate and sentimental, he is cold and calculating. Our differences are stark, yet they also bond us.

“Do you trust me?” Zoran’s tone is harsh, although I hear a note of despair bobbing beneath the surface.

I swallow down the misgivings that his question sends surging through me while my mind rages at his audacity. How can he ask me that after everything we’ve been through in the past three months? I ran from the only home I know to save my best friend—his new wife—from a lifetime of pain and heartache at the hands of our other brother, Harrison. I’ve spent three months living my life in limbo while I wait for Zoran to tell me my next move.

I’m sixteen. Pregnant. And in love with my now-deceased father’s, twenty-eight-year-old, Head of Security.

If I didn’t trust Zoran, I wouldn’t be here.

After letting go of my hand, Zoran pinches my chin between his thumb and forefinger. He lifts my head until I’m forced to look him in the eye. In his dark gaze I see sincerity and censure. It’s clear that my silence is grating on my brother’s last nerve, yet I can’t find my voice to answer his loaded question.

“Do you trust me?” he repeats, curtly.

Forcing down the lump of resentment that’s lodged in my throat, I reply, “Yes.”

“Good. Because I promise you that everything I do is to keep you and Sophia safe and happy. And as much as I don’t like Aaron, I understand that he is an integral part of your happiness so I’m doing everything I can to bring him to you safely.” My brother lets go of my chin, then points across my suite to the bedroom. “Now go and get some sleep. All of this worrying can’t be good for my nephew.”

Hearing Zoran speak openly about my happiness forces me to lay my petty objections to rest—for now. By hiding in this house in Las Vegas, we’re all making sacrifices. I need to do my best to remember that. Infusing my tone with lightness, I tease, “Nephew Smephew. You’re in for a rude shock when your niece is born.”

“Would you care to wager on that?” His gaze twinkles as he issues his dare. I purse my lips, scanning his face for clues to explain his cockiness. At the same time as the idea hits me, Zoran smirks, then quips, “And before you pout, I did not bribe the doctor to tell me the gender.”

I arch an eyebrow and tilt my head to the side. “Why don’t I believe you?”

He throws his hands in the air in mock submission. “Go to bed, Lee-Lee. I’m leaving before this turns into another argument.”

Genuine happiness bubbles in my chest in the wake of his antics and I find myself laughing as he retreats toward the main doors. I snatch a cushion off the closest settee and launch it at his back. Of course, he somehow manages to know that its coming, so he turns around and catches it before it hits him.

Zoran tucks the pillow beneath his arm, then shakes his head. “Get some sleep. I have a feeling you have some busy days ahead of you.”

Before I can reply, Zoran tosses the cushion back onto the settee, then pulls the double doors closed. Rolling my eyes at his cryptic ways, I take one last look out of the window to the deserted street, noting the armed guards that patrol the electric gates, before I ready myself for bed.

Laying on my back in the oversized bed, I push the covers down and hike my nightdress up to expose my belly. The baby is active, kicking and turning, their little feet and hands pushing against my skin. I touch the bulges and promise my baby that her brave dad will be here soon. All the while I try my hardest to concentrate on the miracle growing inside me rather than the bone-weary loneliness that’s making my heart ache in my chest.

After the baby settles down, I roll over onto my side and bring the covers up to my chin. Tears burn behind my eyes, but I refuse to allow them to fall. Crying will solve nothing. All it will do is upset the baby and make me feel worse. The only thing that I can do is wait for Aaron to come back to us. I keep that thought in my head, repeating it over and over again until I drift off to sleep with my hands holding my swollen tummy.

“Rosalie. Rose,” a voice calls out to me some hours later. My eyelids fly open and I roll onto my back. Squinting in the dark room, I blink fast when I find a large man looming over me. “Petal. Wake up.”

While I should be screaming in terror to find a stranger leering over me in the middle of the night, my brain refuses to cooperate. Instead I find myself smiling as my body recognizes the intruder before my sleepy mind does. The tears I fell asleep suppressing spring free—albeit for a different reason this time. They tumble down my cheeks and over my chin as I push myself upright and throw my arms around the shoulders of the giant man who’s awoken me.

“Oh, my God,” I exclaim. Tightening my hold, I scramble into his lap with as much grace as I can manage in my current state. “You came. You’re here.”

Aaron’s deep voice rumbles through his wide chest as he clutches me to him. “I am.”

I lift my head to look at his handsome face. There’s a bruise on his cheek. His bottom lip is split. The ocean blue of his eyes is murky, with lines that telegraph the strain he’s under feathering out from the sides. Even his blond hair—with a hue that trends to strawberry-blond in the right light—seems darker than usual. While he looks down at me with love painted all over his face, I can see the deeds he’s done over the past three months hiding just below the surface.

With my heart lodged in my throat, I cup his unshaven cheek with one hand. “Are you okay?”

“I am.” He repeats the only two words he’s uttered since I embraced him. Despite his assurance otherwise, I can tell that he’s anything but okay. Stretching upward, I press my lips against his. My kiss pulls him free of the torment that’s haunting him, and the gregarious, caring man that I love breaks free.

“Fuck, Petal. You have no clue how much I’ve missed you,” Aaron breathes his words over my mouth after he’s taken his fill of my miss. His strong hands take hold of my waist and he sets me on my feet. I watch as his gaze roams my body, cataloging the changes since he saw me last. His touch is tentative when he trails his fingertips over my round belly. “Look at you. Somehow, being swollen with my baby has made you more beautiful than ever.”

My hands shake as I take hold of his hands and press them against our baby. “Do you feel that? She’s happy that you’re here.”

“She?” Aaron questions with a raised eyebrow.

I laugh. “It’s just a hunch. I didn’t want to find out without you.”

“Good,” he retorts. “Because I have a hunch that we’re having a boy.”

Rolling my eyes, I pat his cheek. “Keep dreaming. This family needs more girls… we have enough soldiers already.”

Aaron snorts, although he doesn’t dispute my allegation. Being born a male in the Coalition means death and destruction will stalk you every second of your life until the day the Grim Reaper finally comes to claim your soul. If we have a daughter, we have a better chance of protecting her since the Coalition looks at girls as nothing more than chattel to be bartered for more power.

It’ll be easier to marry her off to a good man.

The boys are simply soldiers. Fodder for the Coalition’s ongoing war machine.

“Stop overthinking,” Aaron cautions. “We have time to fix the organization before our child is old enough to be affected.”

Even though I can see my own worries reflected in his expression, I mumble my begrudging agreement, “I know.”

Despite our mutual misgivings about bringing a baby into this world weighing heavily, desire starts to mingle with the love and worry flooding Aaron’s expression. He stands, then scoops me up into his arms. While he holds me against his heart, we take a moment to simply stare at each other. Every ounce of worry that had plagued me for the past three months disappears in an instant. All is well in my life now that I have him back and anything that isn’t perfect right now will be fixed by his strong, capable hands.

“I need to touch you.” Aaron’s voice is raspy. He lays me back down on the bed and strips my nightdress from my body. Making quick work of removing his own clothing, he climbs onto the mattress with me and pushes me flat. In this position, my belly swells higher than my breasts. Aaron runs his hands over my new curves, then down between my legs. A delicate shiver runs through me and my skin is overtaken with a trail of goosebumps that follow his touch.

Moving onto his side, he props himself upright on his elbow. With his head resting in his hand, Aaron peers down at me. “I want you to become Mrs. Rosalie Carmichael tomorrow.”

My brother’s words from earlier this evening pop back into my head. His parting riddle finally makes sense. He must have known Aaron was coming back to me and they decided to surprise me with his return—and a shotgun wedding.

“Do you just?” I quip in a mocking voice. Lust builds in me as I set the game we like to play into motion. I toy with him. Deny him what he wants until he pins me down and takes it. Aaron loves a good chase, and I’m happy to provide it. “Maybe I prefer being Miss Rosalie Greaves.”

Aaron’s gaze flashes with delight a second before I find myself pinned to the bed with my arms above my head. He pushes his hips between my thighs and presses his erection against my heat. Flexing against me, he rubs the head of his cock over my clit. I moan and my body arches beneath his.

“Zoran’s made the arrangements,” Aaron growls. He pulls back from me, then pushes the tip of his dick inside my trembling body. “The priest will be here at midday. Sophia has organized a dress and flowers. My new suit has been tailored—my pocket square even matches the fucking bouquets.”

“Really,” I reply in a breathy whisper. “Sounds like you’ve thought of everything.”

“There’s only one thing left to arrange,” Aaron proclaims, letting go of my wrists to run a fingertip down the side of my face.

“What’s that?”

“You,” he declares. The possessive passion that flares in his eyes as he continues makes my pulse race. “I need you to walk your beautiful self and our baby down the aisle to me before you promise to become my wife, thus making me the happiest man in the entire universe.”

When he pushes a little further inside me, I whimper as I stutter my reply, “I’ll have to check my schedule.”

“I’m sorry. Did I make that sound like a request?” Rocking against my heat, Aaron slowly invades me, inch by agonizing inch. Once he’s fully seated inside my body, he holds his hips still and wraps my arms around his neck. Adoration in his gaze, he drops his mouth to my ear and hisses, “You’re the one for me, Petal. And I know I’m the man for you. I love you and I know you love me. I choose you and I know that’s returned. And that choice means that I will dedicate my life to protecting you and our baby.”

“Everything you just said sounds good… let me think about it for a while.” Digging my fingernails into his shoulders, I move beneath him, riding his length until my body is a trembling mess and Aaron is groaning my name. Lifting my mouth to his ear, I murmur, “I’m only sixteen. And you’re an old man. Maybe I can do better?”

With a growl, Aaron pulls out then thrusts all the way back inside my body. His girth fills me completely, making my channel burn and stretch from his invasion. My eyes roll back in my head when he begins to pump his hips in a punishing rhythm. I tighten my arms around his neck and match his thrusts with my own sharp movements.

“I might be old, brat, but no other man will ever touch you like this. No man will know how you taste. They’ll never hear your whimpers when you reach the edge of your climax. Their name will never fall from your lips as you come. No fucking man will ever see you like this but me. Do you hear me?”

“No,” I retort, whimpering when he brings me to cusp then slows down. A plea invades my voice as I add. “Please, Aaron. Don’t stop.”

“Then say it,” he demands. Setting a languid pace, Aaron stokes my desire to breaking point again. Careful not to squash my stomach, he curls his body over mine, leaning on his elbows so he can take hold of my face and look me dead in the eyes. “Say you’ll marry me. Say you’ll be mine, for forever and a day. Say it, Petal.”

The first waves of my orgasm ripple through me, but Aaron is the master of my body. He knows how to keep me on the edge for as long as it takes to get what he wants. Even as I arch my back, wriggling beneath him as desperation invades me, he expertly balances me on the cusp.

“No.” Although I know I’ve already lost, I keep trying to play our game.

Teasing him.

Goading him.

Making him work to have me.

Just the way he likes it.

“Say it,” Aaron commands once more. He presses his lips against mine, invading my mouth with his tongue, drawing the breath from my lungs with his passion, while he uses my body against me. Lifting his head, he growls, “Say you’ll marry me, Petal.”

“No.”

Snarling, he pushes a hand down between our heaving bodies and presses his thumb against my clit. Immediately, my desire bursts like exploding stars behind my eyes. “Say it now or I’ll stop.”

“Jesus. Okay. Yes.” He chuckles when I capitulate. It’s a devilish sound that pushes me over the edge. I moan, thrashing beneath him as he fucks me harder. His name tumbles from my lips. It’s a benediction. A plea. A promise. “Yes, Aaron. Aaron. Aaron.”

The waves of my climax flow through me like lava. Every atom of my body is focused where our bodies are joined as Aaron sends me tumbling over the abyss and into ecstasy. As I detonate around him, he freezes above me, then tumbles over the edge into his release.

With my arms still around his neck, I hold him tight, and when the waves of ecstasy start to recede to a manageable level, I lift my mouth to his ear and whisper, “You know you’re the only man for me. Of course, I’ll marry you tomorrow.”

Satisfaction filling his eyes, Aaron falls onto his back and gathers me into his embrace. He slides his hand around the swell of my belly and holds me tight by pressing his other hand against the small of my back.

“I’ll never leave you again, Petal.” Chest heaving as he comes down from his orgasm, Aaron strokes my hair, then kisses the end of my nose. “Not even wild horses could drag me away from you.” He returns his hand to my baby bump. “Either of you.”

I press my lips against the Celtic tattoo on his left pec. “I know you won’t leave me again.”

“Good because that’s a cast-iron promise. For as long as there is breath in these lungs and a beat in my heart, I choose you. You’re never going to be alone again.”

And, despite knowing that the world we live in will make it next to impossible for him to keep his promise, I believe him because he is the strongest man I know.


ONE 

“Bad news should always come after lunch…” ~Stephen King~

ROSALIE

Present day

“Good morning, Mrs. Carmichael.” The maid bustles into my room and sets my pot of tea down on the small table near the window. After wrenching open the heavy curtains, she heads back toward the door, slowing only to throw one last comment over her shoulder on her way out. “Mauve said to tell you she’ll be in shortly to help you prepare for the day.”

Since I’ve spent the last hour lying in bed, worrying about my husband’s uncustomary radio silence, it doesn’t take me more than ten minutes to drink my tea then shower in the adjoining bathroom. I’m making my way into my dressing room wearing nothing but lace underwear with a silk robe thrown over it when Mauve rushes in behind me.

“Take a seat,” my assistant turned closest confidante orders. Ignoring the dead weight that’s invaded my limbs, I do as I’m told and take a seat on the stool in front of my vanity table. Mauve runs her fingers through my damp locks, and I watch her in the mirror as she tuts to herself when my hair knots around her fingers. “What do you call this, Rose? You couldn’t spare two minutes on some leave-in conditioner?”

“I-uh…” Trailing off when my voice breaks, I close my eyes to block out her sympathetic face staring back at me in the mirror.

“Still nothing?”

Her sympathetic tone makes my chest pulse with pain. I clench my fingers into fists and count to ten. Once I’ve reached that magic number, I force my eyelids to lift. From over the top of my head, Mauve locks her gaze on my reflection.

Shaking my head, I reply, “No. Now, when I call him, it says that the number is no longer in service. I’ve asked Zoran and he said he’s looking. Andreas has reached out to Spenser and… nothing. Nobody will tell me why my husband hasn’t been in contact with me for three days.”

“I’m so sorry.” Mauve puts her hands on my shoulders and gently massages. “If there’s anything I can do—”

Her offer—futile as it is in the world we inhabit—is cut off by the main doors to my suite opening. The heavy wood crashes into the wall before being slammed shut. The sound of heavy footsteps invades my room.

“Mom,” my son calls out a moment later. “Momma. Where are you?”

His voice is filled with anger and despair. Loss and grief thread each syllable. It’s a sound I feel in my soul.

Scrambling off the stool, I tighten the belt of my robe as I rush out into the main room. One look at Andreas’ face and I know he’s come bearing bad news. My head spins. My limbs turn to jelly. My heart shatters. My knees buckle. With my mind screaming for my husband, I fall to the floor. “No. Please. God. Not Aaron.”

“Momma,” Andreas cries. My son drops to his knees in front of me. He takes my hands and pulls me into a sitting position. “I’m so sorry. We discovered who had him a few hours ago, but we were too late. He was, um, Dad was gone when we got there.”

“No. It’s not true.” Scanning my son’s face, I catalog all the features he shares with his father. The wavy hair that can’t be tamed. The sea-blue eyes that shine with kindness. The comforting strength in his wide shoulders. The protectiveness in the gaze that meets mine. The need for vengeance that tightens his generous lips into a tense line. He might have my hair color and pale skin, but everything else is identical to Aaron. “No. Please. Andreas. You must be mistaken.”

Before Andreas can reply, two more men kneel in front of me. Taking a position on either side of my son, my eldest nephew, Stirling, does his best to hold their cousin upright while his twin, Spenser, scoots closer to explain to me what happened to Aaron.

“Uncle Aaron was killed yesterday.” Spenser’s tone is matter of fact and I notice that his expression is black-eyed and blank when our eyes meet. Without dropping his gaze, I note the changes and decide that I’m actually dealing with his second personality, Trigger. Understanding that he’s struggling to keep himself together, I do my best to push down my sorrow so I don’t startle him. “It was ordered by Roman. We don’t know why yet.”

Cognizant that Spenser cannot bear to be touched, I lace my fingers together to stop myself from smoothing out the frown line that’s creased the skin between his eyebrows or seizing him by the front of the shirt and shaking the answers I need out of him. I manage to keep my voice steady when I begin to question him. Unfortunately, my control only lasts for a few words before I’m screaming at my nephew for answers. “Was it you? Did Roman order you to take the job? Did you kill my husband? It was you, wasn’t it. Tell me the truth, I need to know—”

“No! It wasn’t me!” Spenser yells. His gaze lightens as the Trigger’s black hue fades from his normally green eyes. I don’t realize that tears are streaming down my face until my son pushes Stirling away from him and slides closer to me on his knees. He wipes my face with his thumbs, then pulls me into his embrace. With Andreas’ arms wrapped tightly around me, I crumble as my nephew pleads with me, “I promise, Aunt Rose. I would never do that to you.”

“I know. I’m sorry I said it,” I wail against my son’s shoulder. When Spenser wordlessly strides out of the room, I push Andreas away. Holding out my hand to stop him, I shout, “Please, Spenser. I’m sorry. Stay.”

I slump back into my son’s embrace when Spenser slams the door shut behind him. Stirling leans close enough to pat my shoulder, and with his expression fill with compassion, he vows, “He knows you didn’t mean it.”

“Please make sure he understands how sorry I am. My misplaced anger is the last thing he needs.”

Stirling offers me a tight smile that says more than words ever will. Spenser may be a broken man who kills people at the behest of the Coalition, but he loves his Uncle Aaron fiercely. It will take him some time to get over the accusations I mindlessly threw at him in my grief.

My eldest nephew brushes my hair off my forehead, then presses a kiss against my cheek. “I know this is horrible, and I’m sorry we don’t have any answers for you right now, but I promise that Spenser will find out what happened. You know he won’t stop until he learns the truth for you. Dad will help and so will our other allies.”

“Thank you,” I whisper. Stirling’s words are cold comfort since I’ve heard assurances like this all my life, yet people keep hiding the truth from me. Biting down on my bottom lip when it begins to shake, I take a second to compose myself before adding, “Go and find your brother. He needs you right now.”

“I love you,” Stirling offers in a tone that exposes every ounce of his own anguish.

“I love you, too.”

Once he’s left, I allow myself thirty seconds of comfort in Andreas’ arms before I shake off my sorrow. Rallying my strength, I force myself to sit up straight and pull down my ‘Mom’ mask to hide my grief.

“How much did you see?” My son’s chin wobbles. His gaze gleams with unshed tears and he blinks fast. Taking hold of his hand, I pretend that I don’t see the red ring that’s turning his eyes bloodshot. I touch his face, cupping his cheek like I would his father whenever he allowed me a glimpse of how badly this life was affecting him. “A burden shared is a burden halved. The only way through this is together.”

“Oh, Momma, it was so bad.” A sob is torn from Andreas’ lips. “I can’t get the sight of D-dad out of my head.”

He falls forward, pressing his face into the crook of my neck. I place my hand on his nape, patting his back with the other, while his entire body shakes. His tears dampen my shoulder, and my broken heart manages to shatter a little more. Reminiscent of how I would soothe him as a boy, my thirty-two-year-old son clutches me to him while I rub his back and croon in his ear, over and over, “It’s going to be all right.”

My words hang between us. We both know that they’re untrue, yet we need to hear them. More importantly, we need to believe them. Saying that it’s going to be all right is the worst kind of lie. It’s the necessary kind. A falsehood that we’re required to absorb within our soul if we’re to have any hope of getting through a loss of this magnitude. Rocking together on the floor, we hold each other tight. Our cries are indistinguishable as we purge the initial shock and numbness begins to set in. I lose track of time as I do my best to support my only child through a tragedy he shouldn’t have been dealt at his age.

Aaron was barely sixty. Fit and healthy. Full of hope and happiness. He should have lived a long life filled with surrounded by the love he deserved. Instead he has been robbed. We have all been robbed. He’s going to miss witnessing his son fall in love for the first time. Any grandchildren we’re lucky enough to be blessed with will never feel his bear-like hugs. His booming laugh—the one that comes from deep in his chest—will never be heard again. And his love. That bright spotlight of affection that he beamed down on his chosen people, warming them, protecting them, saving them, is gone.

I choke back another sob.

“I’m gonna kill whoever did this, Momma.” Andreas hiccups. He lifts his head from my shoulder and swipes away the residual dampness from his cheeks. “The second Spenser confirms who it was, they’re dead.”

If I lived in a normal world, where death and revenge was rare and not the norm, I would tell Andreas to leave the matter for the police. Unfortunately, I live in this world. The Coalition’s world. I’ve lost more people I love to death than I can count. I’ve lost even more of them to the dark side of vengeance. I know the repercussions. I have felt the reverberations that shake the foundation of the organization whenever someone steps outside Roman Averell’s carefully etched boundaries.

Yet I still want my son to sully his hands with the blood of his father’s killer. Maybe I’m as broken by this life as Spenser?

“Promise me one thing,” I command in the tone that Andreas knows brooks no argument.

His eyes are fierce when he nods and says, “Anything.”

“Promise that you won’t make a move until Uncle Zee confirms anything Spenser tells you and he tells you how to proceed.” When his nostrils flare and he refuses to meet my eyes, I know that Andreas is going to argue against my limitation. Undeterred, I place a finger beneath his chin to lift his head until he has no option but to meet my gaze. It’s a move I learnt from my brother that’s held me in good stead as a mother. “Listen to me carefully, Andreas. I want your father’s death avenged as much as you do but I refuse to lose you in the process. Do you promise to listen to your uncle?”

My son attempts to tug his hand free. I tighten my grip on his fingers and pinch his chin between my fingertips. I widen my gaze and stare him down until the wildness starts to recede from his eyes.

“I promise.”

“Good.” Letting his face go, I lean forward and plant a kiss on his forehead. “Your father would want you to approach this carefully—like he would if the situation was reversed. Don’t let me down or tarnish your dad’s legacy by making an impulsive decision that blows up in your face.”

My warning has the desired effect. I see steely resolve replace the unbridled need for revenge that was swirling over Andreas’ face. The muscle in his jaw works as he pulls himself together. As a determined kind of calculation narrows his eyes, I’m struck once again by how much he resembles Aaron.

The similarities are comforting, yet they feel like an arrow straight to the heart at the same time. It’s been a little over three days since I last laid eyes on my husband. It feels like a lifetime already.

I miss him.

There’s a hole in my heart that gapes wider when Andreas retakes his feet and dusts off his suit pants. He moves with the same languid grace of his father. After straightening his tie, he fiddles with his cufflinks. The solid gold, ornate ‘AAC’ initials—for his full name Andreas Aaron Carmichael—gleam in the morning light. They are one of two sets I gave to the main men in my life Christmas about five years ago.

At the time, I thought it was cute. Now, the matching gifts mock me.

AAC. Aaron Alistair Carmichael.

It’s hit me once more. Like a ton of bricks. My husband is never coming home.

“I’m needed at the firm,” my son offers in a subdued tenor. “I’ll be back for dinner.”

“Okay.” I nod. Suddenly unable to meet his eyes because all I can see is Aaron, I flutter my hand toward the door, and mumble, “Be safe. I’ll see you at dinner.”

“Mom-ma,” Andreas’ voice cracks. “I love you.”

Biting the inside of my cheek, I raise my head and attempt to smile. It’s a half-hearted effort that wobbles off my face when shaking wracks my entire frame. “I love you more.”

Panic flares in my son’s eyes when he directs his attention to the exit. Spying his struggle, I wave him off with a limp flick of my wrist. With obvious effort, Andreas tamps his emotions down. His expression is blank when he spins on his heel and strides out of my suite. The door closes behind him with a snick that makes me jerk as if it was a bullet being shot.

I drag in a deep breath that I hold in my lungs until my chest is burning. Once the shaking that’s taken hold subsides a little, I exhale, then hold out a hand to Mauve. A silent observer. She’s remained silent while my life crumbled around my ears, although once we’re alone she explodes into action.

“Tell me what you need,” she orders, reaching down to me. Once she’s heaved me up off the floor, she smooths down my silk robe and tightens the belt around my waist. Her hand trembles when she tucks a lock of hair behind my ear. “I’ll cancel your day and bring you some tea.”

“No.” My voice is harsher than necessary. “Leave my schedule as it is, except for my first appointment. Postpone that meeting, then phone Zoran and tell him that I need him to come here immediately. He can bring Sophia if she wants to come—but no one else. No other members of the Coalition or their lackeys are allowed to step foot in my home until my brother clears their name.”

For only the second time in the fifteen years I’ve known her, Mauve’s obnoxiously efficient manner disappears, and a solitary tear rolls down her left cheek. She pulls me to her, enfolding me in her embrace for less than three seconds, before she curtly nods and runs out of my suite to attend to my requests.

By myself for the first time since I learned that Aaron is never coming back, I collapse on the bed. Wrapping myself in the covers, I take hold of his pillow and press it to my face. With deep breaths, I inhale and exhale as slowly as possible until the scent of my husband’s shampoo infiltrates every alveolus in my lungs. I hold the air in my lungs as I hug his pillow to my chest and allow myself to pretend this was all a bad dream that I’ll wake up from in a moment.

In my alternate reality, I’m not alone.

Aaron is still here with me.

Holding me.

Teasing me.

Loving me.

Just like he promised.