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“Are you trying to kill me?” Red shouted at Ace as his friend came careening around the bend, burning rubber, a Cheshire cat grin on his face. Whoever had decided it was a good idea to give Anston Sharpe a driver’s license needed to rethink their life choices. The man was a menace behind the wheel, and years of defensive driving certainly didn’t help his proclivity for challenging the laws of physics while in a moving vehicle.
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Ace laughed as his vehicle flew up a ramp and soared through the air.
“I left it back on that bridge you tried to drive me off of!” Red jerked his steering wheel and almost jumped out of his seat when Ace’s car landed mere inches away. “You almost fell on me, you jackass!”
Ace’s cackle was evil, and Red shook his head. He hit the accelerator, trying to outmaneuver Ace, who wasn’t the only one experienced in defensive driving. At least Lucky wasn’t here, or Red would be sharing the road with two overly competitive daredevils who reckoned themselves invincible. The cousins shared a knack for attracting trouble and approached high-risk situations like they were personal challenges. It drove their boss and best friend nuts. Red felt for King. They might all be equal owners of Four Kings Security, but King gave the orders, same as he always had. During their Special Forces years when they’d been part of the same ODA—Operational Detachment Alpha—they’d followed him to hell and back. They’d follow him there now.
“Did you see that?” Ace whooped loud, his car having taken out two other vehicles.
“Show off,” Red muttered, skidding across the asphalt as he rounded one particularly harrowing bend, his teeth gritting and both hands on the wheel. He was so close. They were neck and neck. Red leaned forward, his grip fierce as he gained the few feet he needed to cut off Ace, the finish line coming up fast. Come on. He could do this.
The scenery whipped by in a blur, the noise around him nothing but muffled sounds. An object hurled toward him from out of nowhere, striking his car, and he cursed as his vehicle spiraled out of control toward the cliff’s edge, Ace’s laughter in his ears.
“You bastard! I can’t believe you triple red-shelled me!”
Ace cackled as he sped past him. “Sorry, bro. It’s every plumber for himself.”
“I thought we were on the same team!” No way he was catching up now. As Ace was about to cross the finish line, the screen went black, and they both gasped.
“What the—damn it!” Ace jumped to his feet and whirled around to glare at King, who stood behind the couch, arms folded over his chest. “I was about to beat my personal best!”
“And I was about to beat your person. Period.” King narrowed his eyes at Ace. “You have a very large, fully equipped game room at home. Why aren’t you playing Mario Kart there?”
Red bit down on his bottom lip to keep from laughing as Ace mirrored King’s stance. He lifted his chin and sniffed.
“Colton’s getting ready for a two-week business trip in New York. He’s flying out tomorrow, so he’s working from home today. Being the loving, considerate boyfriend that I am, I didn’t want to disturb him.”
King arched a blond brow, turning to Red, who grinned wide.
“Someone thought it would be a great idea to upload his music library to the house’s security system interface without figuring out volume control. Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ blasted through the house so loud it rattled Colton’s bookshelves and everything fell off. Jack had to come out to fix it, and Colton told him to take Ace with him when he left.”
The corner of King’s lips twitched. “So what you’re saying is his own boyfriend kicked him out of the house for being a pain in the ass.”
Red shrugged. He was trying exceptionally hard not to laugh at Ace’s unimpressed expression, but really, Ace had brought it on himself. Poor Colton. The sudden blast of drums, guitar, and Robert Plant’s howling had scared him out of his office chair.
King turned back to Ace. “You know, when we stopped Colton from getting smuggled to another country, I assumed the threat to his life was over. Clearly I was mistaken. Do you always try to give your boyfriend a heart attack first thing in the morning?”
“You’re hilarious. And for your information, he did not kick me out. I can go home anytime I want.”
“Providing it’s after five o’clock,” Red pitched in cheerfully.
Ace gaped at him. “Whose side are you on?”
With no hesitation, Red pointed to King. “His.”
“Wow, that quick, huh? Didn’t even think about it. It’s like I don’t even know you anymore.”
Red chuckled at Ace’s mock disgust before they turned their attention back to King as he leaned his arms on the back of the couch, his expression stoic as usual.
“I love you both, you know that, right?”
“Good. Get the fuck out of my house.”
“That’s harsh, man. Red is injured.”
Red opened his mouth to say he was fine—it’d been months since he was released from the hospital—but Ace held up a finger, cutting him off.
“You’re kicking out poor, sweet, vulnerable Red?” Ace grabbed Red’s chin and squeezed his cheeks. Red was not amused. “Look at this face. How can you kick him out?”
“I’m not. I’m kicking you out, and he’s keeping you company. Unlike certain individuals whose life goal seems to be driving my blood pressure through the roof, Red actually listens.”
“Aw, don’t be so hard on Lucky. He tries. Sometimes. Not really. That is who you’re talking about, right?”
Red snickered, and King let out an exasperated sigh. The four of them were family. Brothers. Ace and King were best friends, and few people outside their circle understood why. Anyone who didn’t know them and witnessed the two interacting, assumed King couldn’t tolerate Ace, but King’s gruffness with Ace was all the proof of how much he loved the guy. King never lost it with someone he didn’t care about. The man was an unmovable mountain, a fortress, his stone walls impenetrable. He’d held the rest of them up when they’d been on the verge of crumbling. King had a habit of carrying the world, and everyone in it, on his shoulders. Ace made sure King didn’t get lost in the shadows of his own making. They were opposites in every way, and so they balanced each other out perfectly.
“Come on,” Red told Ace, standing. He patted Ace’s arm. “I’m hungry. Let’s go get some breakfast at Bibi’s.”
At the mention of food, Ace was out the door before Red even rounded the couch.
“Keep him out of trouble, will you?”
Red congratulated himself on not laughing in King’s face. Instead he blinked at him. “But I’m injured. The doctor recommended I take it easy for a while, remember?”
“Really?” King arched an eyebrow at him. “You’re going to play the injured card?”
Oh hell yes. Red nodded, even went for the big guns. He jutted his bottom lip out a little.
“Fine. You know the drill. Call me if it looks like he’s about to get arrested or cause more than ten thousand dollars’ worth of property damage.”
Red saluted him. “You got it.” Technically he’d been given the all clear from his doctor weeks ago, but King had insisted he take some extra time off. A horn honked, and he shook his head in amusement as he grabbed his baseball cap off the couch before heading for the front door. He stopped by the polished wood side table to pick up his wallet and keys. After closing the ornate glass door behind him, he followed the pristine redbrick path to the impeccable driveway. Outside of a Better Homes & Gardens magazine, Red had never seen such a picture-perfect house, but then King never did anything by halves. His life and everything in it was as structured and organized as he could make it. Preparedness was as essential to Ward Kingston as oxygen.
Ace sat behind the wheel of his Chevy Camaro L1 convertible, wearing his favorite mirrored aviators, a big grin splitting his face. The top of the convertible was down, and alternative rock pounded through the car’s state-of-the-art sound system. One thing Red could say for certain—there was never a dull moment around his brothers-in-arms.
Despite the early morning hour, the sun was glaringly bright. The weather was in the low nineties but felt like high nineties thanks to the humidity. Come August, the heat was going to be unbearable. Florida was a triple h threat: heat, humidity, and hurricanes. He couldn’t complain, though. The rest of the year, the weather was spectacular, and he was never far from a beach, great food, or attractions.
Having been prepared for King to kick them out of the house—King could only take so much chaos before lunch—Red had dressed in a lightweight, soft gray henley T-shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and his comfy gray Vans. Once Red was in the passenger seat and buckled up, Ace pulled out onto Cypress Lake Court and headed for Colonial Drive, where he made a left. Since most of the roads around King’s property were dead ends—thanks to King’s neighborhood being pretty much in the middle of a forest—they had to loop around to get to State Road 206. Red loved the location of King’s house, how quiet and peaceful it was.
When the Kings, Jack, and Joker had returned home for good, it was King who’d taken them into his huge family home. Their brother had been grieving himself, not to mention still recovering from his own injuries, but he’d kept them close, like he always did, protecting them, guiding them. Without King, Red doubted he would have survived. Not a day went by when he didn’t think about their fallen brothers, or how close they’d come to losing King. How close he’d come to losing King, and himself. When enough time passed where it seemed like he might be leaving it all behind him, his head never failed to remind him of what he’d lost.
“Hey, bud. We’re here.”
Red blinked up at Ace, who stood on the other side of the closed driver’s side door, his brows furrowed. Shit, how long had he been out of it?
“Sorry.” Red got out and closed the door behind him.
Ace set the car’s alarm but didn’t move. “You want to talk about it?”
“It’s nothing,” Red promised. Years ago, Red had been in a very dark place, but he and his brothers had learned how important it was to communicate with one another. They trusted each other with their lives. Keeping everything bottled up wouldn’t do them any good. Thanks to King, they understood the importance of talking things out, how asking for help didn’t make them weak, didn’t make him weak.
Red headed for the front door of Bibi’s Café and opened one side for Ace, the little bell announcing their arrival. “No more than usual.”
He was glad Ace accepted his word for it, but then Ace knew Red would say if he was having trouble. Like most of his brothers, sleep never came easy, but after being shot recently, his night terrors had returned. They weren’t as frequent as they’d once been, which he was grateful for, but were still bad enough to have him waking up screaming and sobbing. Although he’d been eased off his medication years ago, he continued to check in with his psychologist once a month.
Pushing those thoughts aside, he smiled when Bibi came out from behind the counter, her blue eyes sparkling with mischief. “My brother kicked you out already? This must be a new record.”
Ace kissed her cheek before shaking his head in shame. “You know, you could have left him with some sense of humor. You didn’t have to go and steal it all for yourself.”
Bibi laughed before turning to hug Red. He kissed her cheek. “Hey, hon.” She pulled back and looked him over, her warm gaze becoming concerned. “How are you feeling?”
“Better. Thanks.” He used to get so angry when people asked him how he was feeling, believing they were doing so out of pity or because they thought he was weak. It took some time to understand they asked because they loved him.
“Is that Ace?”
“No,” Bibi called out behind her, cringing. “I was talking to myself.”
“Lies!” Bibi’s husband, Nash, burst through the swinging doors of the kitchen with flourish, all six-foot-three of muscular black man dancing a victory jig on his way over, his smile huge. “Yes! That’s right, baby. Whoop!”
“Damn it.” Bibi crossed her arms over her chest, her narrowed eyes on Red. “Thanks a lot.”
“What did I do?”
Ace laughed at her pout. “Oh my God, you lost another bet? Seriously, Bibi, you need to stop betting against your man. You especially need to stop betting on the Kings. What was it this time?”
Nash waggled his eyebrows. “Bibi said King wouldn’t kick you out until after lunch. I told her he wouldn’t make it to breakfast.”
Bibi planted her hands on her hips with a huff. “I figured Red would provide enough of a buffer.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t take into account that by Red staying with King while he recovered, Ace would be there more than usual and slowly the pressure would build until kaboom! Quite frankly, I’m surprised your brother lasted this long. I figured he’d be done after a week.” Nash did another little victory dance.
Bibi and Nash were part of their little family. They were also proof that true love and happy ever after did exist. It hadn’t been an easy road for them by any means. Bibiana Kingston and Nash Sherwood met in high school, and when they fell in love, the two faced a world of prejudice and hate, because not only was Nash black, but a Cuban immigrant.
Their families might have been accepting, but society had not been. Thankfully, Bibi was not a woman to be trifled with. She also had her little brother, her man, and his siblings to make sure no one messed with them. As of several years back, they also had all the Kings.
Bibi and Nash showed the world what it could do with its ignorance, and after successful law careers, both retired in their mid-forties and opened a café near the beach. The two had been married twenty-seven years and looked at each other like they’d just fallen in love. Except now. Now Bibi was glaring at her husband like she was plotting his demise.
“What did you win?” Red asked, amused.
“I get to pick our next vacation. Someone wanted to do hiking and a bunch of other exhausting ‘not my idea of a relaxing vacation’ stuff, and I wanted to do something chill. Bora-Bora, we are going to be on you!”
“Enjoy your victory, because next time, I will crush you.”
Nash let out a hearty laugh. “Baby, I do love your optimism. I shall now direct your attention to the board.” He swept an arm dramatically to the blackboard behind the counter that kept tabs on their monthly bets. Red winced.
“I can still catch up,” Bibi muttered.
Ace shook his head. “Nooo, you cannot.”
With what sounded like a growl, Bib jabbed a finger toward the nearest chair. “Park it, pretty boy.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ace quickly took a seat and grinned up at Nash. “Did you hear that? Your wife thinks I’m pretty.”
Nash pursed his lips in thought, then shook his head. “Nope. Lucky’s prettier.”
Red laughed at Ace’s scandalized expression and took a seat opposite Ace. It was always a battle of wits between these two, and a highly entertaining battle at that, especially since Nash usually ended up the winner. Red had to give it to Nash. Anyone who could beat Ace at his own game had major skills.
“What? Are you kidding me? I am way prettier.” Ace motioned to his face. “This here is irresistible.”
“And I’m sure when Colton says it, he means every word,” Nash said, laughing when Ace flipped him off.
They put in their order, and with a kiss to his wife’s cheek, Nash disappeared into the kitchen, whistling happily. Bibi brought them their usual drinks—a latte for Ace and a protein smoothie for Red.
Ace smiled brightly at her. “You are terrible at placing bets. You should really stay away from Vegas.”
“Shut it, mister.” She went off to check on the other customers in the café, leaving Ace to focus his attention on Red. His sudden innocent expression was fooling no one, least of all Red.