Since being signed in the summer of 2020, Michelle Elaine has released four books; a book for each month since signing with Cole Hart Signature. After concluding her series, A Good Girl & A Down South Millionaire, she kicked off another series with Zo & Alana. Part one of Zo & Alana released earlier this month. If you missed the initial release, be sure to click the link below. Also, text ColeHartSig to (470)500-0988 to never miss another. Author Michelle Elaine is currently working on the sequel, Zo & Alana 2; which, will be coming in the month of October. In the meantime, here’s a two chapter sneak preview of part one.

Chapter One

“Uh uh, girl … I know he didn’t say that to you,” my best friend, Porsha James, said while I held my cell phone up to my ear.

“Yeah.  He did.  I’m straight on the disrespect,” I said, shaking my head.  “As long as I’ve known him … as much as we’ve been through together … he’s out his damn mind talking to me like that.”

I sat on the edge of my tub while it filled with hot water.  I dropped a bath bomb in and watched it fizz while Porsha and I continued to talk about my latest argument with my boyfriend.  I heard the phone beep and looked down at the screen to see that he was calling me again, but I had nothing to say to him.  Even if I did have something I wanted to say, it was way too late, and I was much too tired for our conversation.  I looked at the screen until his name disappeared, and then I put the phone back up to my ear.

“Girl, he just tried to call me again,” I said, rolling my eyes.

Porsha sighed.  “La, maybe you just need to answer him.  You know he’s not going to stop,” she said.  “Also, it’s late, and I have to work in the morning.  Call me tomorrow.”

We ended the call right as the phone started to vibrate in my hand.

Again.

I let it go to voicemail.

Again. 

I rolled my eyes and shut off the running water.  Standing up, I sat my phone down on the edge of the huger soaker tub before taking off my robe and slipping into the inviting bath.  Porsha was right.  It was late – well after one o’clock in the morning, and I had to work the next morning as well.  However, it had been a long day, and I needed to unwind before climbing into my California King.  I rested my head against my bath pillow and shut my eyes.  A few moments later, I heard the short buzzing sound of my phone vibrating from a voicemail.  That brought the grand total up to fifteen missed calls, eight text messages, and five voicemails – in the last hour.  I was beyond annoyed.  I knew the next time the phone rang one of three things was going to happen.  I was either going to shut the phone off completely, throw it across the room, or …  

“What?” I yelled as I angrily answered the ringing phone.

He didn’t say anything.  I only heard him sigh heavily … and then nothing but the sound of the steadily falling rain outside in the background.  I was not in the mood for his shit.  

“Dammit, you’ve been calling me all night long.  You’ve got another three seconds to say something before I hang up and turn off this phone.”

“Lala, I’m outside.”

“What?”

“I’m outside the door,” he said.  He sighed again.  “I ain’t know you had the locks changed.  Look … I know you’re mad, baby … and I don’t blame you.  Just let me in for a minute.  I promise I ain’t even trying to stay.  For real, babe … I’m standing out here getting rained on and shit … rain coming down all sideways … La, please.  Just let me in.”

I hung up.  For a moment, I just sat in the tub with the phone in my hand.  I didn’t tell him to drive thirty minutes across town in the middle of a storm.  Like he said, he knew I had good reason to be upset with him.  We had been having the same argument for weeks … months even.  There were no signs of things getting better.  In fact, they were getting worse, and I was tired.  I didn’t want to argue.  I didn’t want to fight.  I didn’t want to talk to him, see him, or listen to any more excuses.  My better judgement was urging me to settle back into my bath and close my eyes.  The voice in my head was telling me to turn the phone off and ignore him, but I knew he would kick the door in if he really wanted to get inside my home.

Besides, my heart was telling me to do something totally different.

I pushed myself up to my feet and stepped onto my bath rug.  I grabbed my towel and quickly dried myself off.  Grabbing a short nightgown from my dresser, I slipped it over my head and rushed to my window.  Looking down at the driveway, I saw his Range Rover.  He was actually on my damn porch.  I raced down the steps and swung the front door open before I even had a chance to think clearly.  We stood facing each other in silence for a few seconds before he spoke.

“Damn, babe.  You gonna let me in or what?”

“What the hell did you come over here for?” I snapped.  “You know that I have to work in the morning.”

He shook his head and released a frustrated sigh.  “Come on, La.  Let me in.”

I only hesitated briefly before stepping to the side and letting him into the house.  He walked past me into the foyer, leaving me to close and lock the door.  He was soaking wet – dripping water all over my hardwood floors.

“You’re getting my floors wet,” I said, evenly as I leaned against the front door.

“Floors that I paid for,” he responded quickly.  “Floors you know I can pay to replace with no issue.”

I shook my head and laughed.  “That’s not the point.”

With a hint of attitude, he asked, “Then what is your point?”

I hesitated for a moment but ultimately chose to ignore his tone of voice.  I was trying to learn how to choose my battles when it came to him.  So, I purposely ignored the way he was speaking to me in my house.

“What do you want?” I calmly asked instead.

“What do you mean what do I want?” he asked, slipping out of his jacket and hanging it on the doorknob of the coat closet.

I wondered why he was taking his jacket off and getting comfortable if he supposedly wasn’t trying and stay.  However, I was also distracted by the tattoo-covered, well-defined muscles in his arms that were exposed by the short-sleeved T-shirt he wore.

“Why are you here right now?”

“Because I wanted to see you.  I wanted to apologize about earlier.”

“You said you were sorry in one of the many text messages you sent.  I get it … you’re sorry – sorry as hell,” I said.  “That still doesn’t answer why you came all the way over here … or how you even got out of the house?”

His face twisted into a frown.

“What?”   

“I mean … how did you slip out unnoticed?  What did your wife have to say about you creeping out of the house in the middle of the night?” I asked, folding my arms across my chest.

He hated when I mentioned his wife, but we had been tiptoeing around the elephant in the room for far too long.  Given our circumstances, there was no way for me to avoid mentioning her.  With his fists clenched and jaw tight, he crossed the foyer until he was standing right in front of me.

“I think you forgot how shit runs over there.  I pay the bills in that damn house,” he said.  “She doesn’t tell me what to do, and she sure as hell doesn’t tell me when I can come and go.”

He intimidated a lot of people, but I wasn’t one of them.  Not anymore anyway.  We were way past that.  He was a good six feet three inches tall and about two hundred and forty solid pounds of cinnamon brown perfection.  He towered over my five-foot three-inch, hundred and fifty-pound frame.  I rolled my eyes and shoved past him, heading into my kitchen.  Since I was still awake and dealing with his bullshit, I figured I might as well have a drink. I grabbed a wine glass out of a nearby cabinet and poured half a glass of merlot.  He followed me into the kitchen and leaned against the dishwasher.

“No.  I’m fine.  Don’t bother getting me anything to drink,” he said with sarcasm.

I slammed my hand down on the granite countertop and turned around to face him.  “Dammit, Zo!  If you came here to be an asshole, you can get back in your car and go home.”

He covered his face with his hands and let out a deep sigh while I guzzled down half of my wine.  Dropping his hands by his side, he looked into my face while I sat the glass back down on the counter.

“Alana, I don’t know what to say,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Okay … I don’t know what you should say either,” I said.  “So why don’t you leave me alone, and go home to your wife?”

“Because I’m where I want to be!” he shouted.  I raised an eyebrow at him, silently questioning if he had lost his mind.  He lowered his tone of voice before speaking to me again.  “If I wanted to be with her, don’t you think I would be over there right now instead of standing here arguing with you?  Babe, just give me some more time … I’m going to handle all of that.  I swear.”

I shook my head as I stared into his eyes.

“You’re going to handle all of that?  Yeah okay,” I said sarcastically.  “You’ve had plenty of time to do something if you really wanted.  How much longer do you think I can go on like this?”

“I know at this point everything I say probably sounds like an excuse, but … you know where my heart is,” he said.  “You know that I love you.  If you don’t believe anything else that I say, you need to believe that.”

I just looked at him.  I knew that he loved me.  We loved each other.  However, I was starting to feel like love wasn’t enough.  

“Alana, if I could do it all over again, I never would have chosen her.  You know you’re the one, La,” he said, as he walked back over to me.  He slid his arms around my waist, pulling my body against his.  “Baby, I told you that I’m going to make things right for us.  You just gotta be patient.  I’m just asking you to give me a little bit more time.  You know that you’re the one I want to come home to every night.”

“Stop it!” I shouted as I tried to push him away.  He barely moved.  “Stop trying to tell me that I’m the one you want to be with.  Stop coming over here trying to fill my head up with your bullshit.  Quit trying to sell me dreams.  You’re a grown ass man, Lorenzo.  You’ve made it quite clear that you do what you want.  If you wanted to leave her, you would have done it already.  You’ve had plenty of time to do it.”

Zo sighed, and I pulled away from him.

“Wait a minute,” he said, reaching for me in an attempt to calm me down.

I slapped his hands away and shoved him hard in his rock-solid chest – pushing him less than six inches away from me.

“No,” I refused.  “You stand here and tell me that I’m the one you want to come home to, but the fact of the matter is that I’m not.  Courtney’s probably sound asleep in your bed while I’m fighting with you at two o’clock in the morning.  I swear sometimes I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore.”

“Don’t say that, La.  You know what we’re doing,” he said, as he reached for me again.  

“Come here.”

I shook my head and pushed him away.

“Come … here,” he repeated more forcefully, grabbing my arm.

I didn’t resist.  I probably should have stopped him when he grabbed the back of my neck and pressed his lips against mine, but I didn’t.  Zo was naturally charismatic and downright sexy as hell.  It didn’t take much for me to cave.  Even when he made me mad as hell, my body still responded to him.  It was like he cast some sort of spell on me.  I tried to pick and choose my battles with him, but this wasn’t something I could fight.  I knew it was wrong.  Our entire relationship was wrong, but that didn’t stop me.  The reality of our situation didn’t make me resist his firm grip on my waist when he lifted me onto the kitchen island.  I should have stopped him when his hands traveled up my legs, rubbing my thighs.  I should have stopped him when he started to kiss on my neck and undo his jeans.

But I didn’t.

Zo pressed his full lips into the crook of my neck – licking and sucking – while he pushed my nightgown up around my waist, my bare ass sitting on the cold granite of the kitchen island.  I pulled his shirt over his head and placed my hands on his shoulders to steady myself as he lowered his jeans and underwear down around his knees.  With one hand, he pushed my knee to spread my legs wider.  With the other hand, he stroked himself before sliding his way inside of me.  I gasped before releasing a deep, throaty moan.  I had never gotten used to his size.  He grabbed my waist, pulling me closer to the edge of the counter while he forcefully delivered slow and steady strokes.

The kitchen island provided balance, but I still leaned into him.  I wrapped my legs around his waist and my arms around his torso. I pressed my forehead against his chest, closing my eyes and biting my bottom lip. 

“You still mad at me?” he asked.

“Yes.”

He shook his head at me.  “For real, La?” 

I didn’t respond.  Zo gripped my waist tighter and increased his pace, driving into me much faster than he had moments earlier.  Grabbing my ponytail, Zo pulled my head back and kissed me so deeply he took away what little breath I had.

“You sure you mad?”

“Yes,” I cried.

Zo lifted me from the island.  He turned around and pinned my back against the stainless-steel refrigerator, all while moving inside of me faster and harder.  He kissed my neck again.

“You really mad at me, babe?”

Barely able to breathe, I didn’t even try to open my mouth to speak.  I wrapped my arms around his neck and shook my head no.  

“That’s what I thought.”

Gripping my thighs, Zo penetrated me deeper and deeper with each mind-numbing stroke.  Panting breathlessly, I clawed at his back unconsciously digging my long-manicured nails into his skin.  Minutes later, I felt his body stiffen while he started to throb and release inside of me.  He held onto me tightly when his body slumped forward, and his forehead rested against the refrigerator.  We were both trying to catch our breath.  After a few moments, Zo stood up straight, lifted me off him, and placed me on my feet.  I pulled my nightgown back down while he pulled his pants up.

“You still want me to leave?” he asked, zipping his jeans.

I shook my head and ran my hands over my hair, smoothing down my ponytail.

“Good,” Zo laughed as he grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator.  “I wasn’t going anywhere anyway.”

I rolled my eyes and shook my head while I placed my empty wine glass in the sink.  Still laughing, Zo grabbed my arm and pulled me towards him.

“All bullshit aside you know I love you, Lala,” he said in a serious tone.

“I know.  I love you too.”

With his hand under my chin, he raised my lips to meet his.  He kissed me deeply and passionately before pulling away.

“Come on.  Let’s go upstairs.”

Nick

“Here go your wings,” the attractive waitress said after sitting the basket of hot wings and fries in front of me.  She had to lean in so I could hear her clearly over the loud club music.  She tucked her hair behind her ear and smiled at me seductively.  “Can I get you anything else?”

I sat my beer down and returned her smile.  “Yeah,” I said, eyeing the curves of her body.  “Your name and phone number.”

With a shy laugh she picked up my cell phone and input her contact information.  She mouthed ‘call me’ before walking off.  I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see JB sitting down next to me.

“Man, I can’t take your ass nowhere,” JB laughed.  “Now I see why you didn’t bring Kayla out tonight.”

I laughed and shook my head.  “Nah.  Kayla’s out of town.  If she was here, she wouldn’t have a problem with me getting a few numbers,” I said.  “Hell, that waitress was Kayla’s type too.  We could have all had some fun tonight.”

JB shook his head and reached for the nearest bottle of brown liquor.  It was the end of a long week.  It had been a very lucrative week, but man, did we have to work for it.  Since taking over the trap that used to belong to Prime, I was working closely with JB.  He was in charge of the muscle and making sure that things stayed safe and sound during the change of leadership.  The last thing we needed was any problems that would make our business the lead story on the eleven o’clock news.  

My big brother, Zo, had gone out on a limb for me by giving me my own spot.  We had been working with PO for years, but this was the first time I was given a position of leadership.  Ordinarily managing anything or anyone other than myself was not my thing, but a bigger role meant more money in my pockets.  If anyone knew anything about me, they knew I loved money.  I wasn’t going to ruin the opportunity.  My brother had trusted me with something important for once.  I didn’t want to make him regret it.  In addition to the faith Zo had in me, PO made certain promises to the mayor.  I didn’t want to let him down either.

Without PO, Zo and I never would have gotten our start in the streets.  Zo and I went to school with Alana Woods and her older brother, Marcus.  Their uncle Darrell, who was best friends with PO and worked for Julian Reid’s organization for years, raised them.  When Marcus and Alana both showed interest in making some money Darrell got PO to ask Julian for approval.  Julian initially had reservations about it, because they were young.  However, at PO’s urging, he relented.  Once Marcus and Alana got on, they got Zo and me in as well.  Throughout the years, we had all remained close.  Even with Marcus locked up for the past few years, he and Zo were still best friends.

My phone buzzed while I enjoyed my hot wings.  I glanced at the screen and saw that my sister in law, Courtney, was calling me.  I sighed and shook my head.  I quickly decided to let her call go to voicemail.  If she was calling me this late at night, it probably had something to do with my brother, and I was in too good of a mood to be in the middle of their mess.  I was dipping a second flat in ranch when Courtney called me again.  I sighed even heavier.  She was relentless.  If she was really trying to get ahold of me, I knew she wouldn’t give up without trying at least twenty times.

I sat my wing down and wiped my hands before picking up the phone.

“Hold on Court … let me get somewhere I can hear you.”

I asked JB to watch my stuff while I walked towards the hallway leading to the men’s room.  The music was obscenely loud, so I stepped inside the bathroom and pressed the phone back up to my ear.

“What’s going on?”

“Where the hell is your brother?” she demanded.  “I’ve been trying to reach him for over an hour.”

I shook my head.  I was annoyed that once again, I was being pulled into the middle of their drama.  

“I don’t know, Court.  If he ain’t answering his phone, he’s probably busy.”

“Don’t bullshit me, Nick.  You two have been joined at the hip lately, but now all of a sudden you want me to believe that you don’t know where he is?”

I hesitated before lying to her again.  The truth was that even though I hadn’t spoken to my brother in hours, I had a pretty good idea of where he was.  To the best of my knowledge, he didn’t have anything work-related going on that night.  So, if it was after two in the morning and his wife couldn’t find him, he was probably with his other woman, Alana Woods.  We had all been close friends since middle and high school.  Alana and Zo engaged in harmless flirting for years before becoming romantically involved three years prior – right after Marcus went to prison.  A number of people were aware of their involvement, but Courtney obviously wasn’t one of them.

“Look Court, I don’t know what he’s got going on, but I’ll try to get ahold of him,” I answered.  “If he –”  

“When you talk to him, tell him that Bryson has a high-grade fever, and he’s been throwing up all night,” she said, cutting me off.  “We’re at Children’s Healthcare if he gives a shit.”

Before I could ask any questions, Courtney hung up the phone.  I typically tried to stay out of Zo’s shit when it came to his messy ass love life.  However, I knew that regardless of his drama with his wife, he loved his kids.  Whether he was laid up with Alana or just ignoring Courtney’s calls as he often did, I knew he would want to know that one of his six-year-old twin boys was at the hospital.  I dialed his phone number, but he didn’t answer for me either.  I sent him a text to inform him of the situation and put my phone in my pocket.  I left the bathroom and headed back to my wings. 

I had done my due diligence.  Zo could handle everything else whenever he decided to answer his phone.

Chapter Two

When my eyes opened, I picked my watch up from Alana’s bedside table and saw that it was a little after seven in the morning.  I didn’t get nearly enough sleep.  However, Alana had to be at work soon, and I figured I would leave the house when she did.  I sat my watch back down and reached for my phone, but it wasn’t there.  Pushing the covers back on the bed, I sat up and felt around in the sheets.  It wasn’t in the bed either.  Hearing the running water of the shower, I walked over to the cracked door of the master bathroom.  I pushed it all the way open.

“Babe, you seen my phone?”

“No,” Alana answered.  “You didn’t bring it upstairs.  It’s probably in your jacket.”

I left the bathroom and jogged down the steps to the coat closet, where my jacket was hanging on the doorknob.  I felt around in the pockets before retrieving my phone. It was rare that my phone was not within arm’s reach.  When I looked at my notifications, it was obvious why I always kept it so close.  I had several missed calls and texts.  I had the most missed calls from Courtney, but I there were also missed notifications from Nick, PO, and a few other business associates.  My eyes landed on a text message from my brother, informing me that Courtney was at the hospital with one of our sons.

I tried to call him back, but he didn’t answer.  I hung up and dialed my wife’s number.  She picked up on the first ring.

“Where the fuck are you?”

I ignored her question and asked one of my own.  “Is Bryson okay?”

“We’re back at home if that’s what you’re wondering,” she responded.  “Doctor said they think it was just a 24-hour bug.  He’s sleeping now, and I’ve got Brandon in another room, so he doesn’t get sick too.”

“Alright.  I’m on my way home.”

“For what?”

“What you mean?”

“What you coming home for now, Zo?”  Courtney asked.  “I took care of everything like I always do.”

“Because that’s my damn house and those are my kids.”

I hung up the phone and started back up the stairs.  When I re-entered the bedroom, Alana was fresh out of the shower with a towel wrapped around her curvaceous body.  I paused for a moment to admire her appearance.  Alana had a flawlessly smooth complexion the color of milk chocolate and thick black hair pulled into a ponytail on top of her head.  Her round face captured the attention of many men with her round cheeks, almond-shaped up-turned eyes, and full pouty lips.  She was petite in height only.  The shape of her body was what most people would call thick.  Her curves were one of my favorite things about her physical appearance.  She did a good job of keeping her body toned and her waist tight, but she still had big breasts, thick thighs, and a fat ass.  I subconsciously grabbed my crotch, readjusting myself.  Neither one of us had time for the things I wanted to do.

“You got a long day at work?”

Alana shook her head.  “Just an early start.  I should probably be done around three.”

Alana pulled her ponytail loose allowing her hair to flow down her back before she snatched her towel off and tossed it onto her bed.  Again, she had my full attention.  I watched her naked body move across the room to her dresser, where she pulled on her bra and underwear.  She was rubbing on lotion before I spoke again.

“I have to head out, but I’ll hit you up later,” I said, picking my jeans up from the floor.

“Okay.”

Alana rubbed the last of her lotion into her skin and walked over to me.  I finished pulling my shirt on, and she wrapped her arms around my waist to hug me tightly.  I kissed her lips and softly grabbed her behind before we pulled away from our embrace.

“I’m not leaving for another thirty minutes so lock up for me on your way out,” she said, returning to her dresser to grab clothes for the day.

I nodded.  “Speaking of locking up,” I said, stepping into my shoes.  “You gonna give me a new key?”

Alana paused at her open drawer and looked at me over her shoulder.  “Do you think that I should?”

“My name is on the deed to this house just like yours,” I answered.  “I’ve had a key since you got keys, but you got mad and changed the locks on a house that I paid for.  Come on, La.  You tell me.”

Alana pulled on a shirt and slammed her drawer closed.  She turned around to face me.  “For real, Zo?  You also paid for my car.  Do you want the spare key to that too?  I never would have agreed to any of this if I knew you were going to throw it in my face.  You said you were just making sure I was straight while Marcus was away.  I should’ve known better.”

Alana shook her head and walked away from me in the direction of her closet.  I sighed heavily.  I needed to get home to check on my son and check in with Courtney, but I didn’t want to leave with Alana still mad at me.  I came over the night before to stop the arguing and petty drama that had gone on between us for a few days.  I followed her into the closet to find her opening and closing drawers in her jewelry organizer.  She threw a key at me that hit me in the chest before falling to the ground.

“Here’s your damn key.”

She turned her back towards me and grabbed a pair of jeans off a hanger.  I picked the key off the floor, sliding it in my pocket while she tugged on her pants.  I walked over to her and tried to pull her into my arms.  She pushed me away.

“Bye Lorenzo.”

I smirked and shook my head at her attitude.  She only called me by my full name when she was mad.  By this point, I was familiar with her behavior.  Since her brother was one of my best friends, I had always been close with Alana.  However, our relationship had really grown over the last couple of years.

“Alright, Lala.  I’ll call you later.” 

I kissed her on the forehead and left her alone in her closet.  I grabbed my jacket on the way out and was in my truck in a matter of moments.  I pulled out of Alana’s driveway and started the drive over to the house I shared with Courtney.  

I didn’t think it was possible for the two women in my life to be any more different.

Several years prior, I met Courtney at a gas station.  Her face caught my attention while I was trying to fill up my car.  We exchanged numbers and started a whirlwind relationship that quickly led to marriage and kids.  Without ever discussing it directly, her parents always had an idea of what I did for a living, which was why they never supported us.  Their lack of support led to a quickie courthouse wedding and the absence of her parents at the hospital when our twins were born.  As someone who was always close with their parents, I felt sorry for her.  That was until I realized that she cared more about the things I could give her than she actually cared about me.  Courtney accused me of being unfaithful long before I ever became involved with Alana.  Our relationship had been rocky for almost five years.  I assumed that the main reason she stayed was because she had grown too accustomed to the lifestyle I provided her.  Courtney didn’t give a shit about me.  She didn’t want to lose the house, clothes, and cars.

I had known Alana since I was a fifteen-year-old freshman in high school.  At the time, I only knew her as the younger sister of the guy who eventually became my best friend.  Through the years, we all got closer due to the time we spent working for Julian Reid – the number one drug distributor in Atlanta, and his right-hand man, PO.  Several years later, when her cosmetology career was close to taking off and she considered leaving the streets behind, I started to see her in a different light.  A light that I wasn’t sure her older brother, my best friend Marcus, would approve.  After a while of flirting back and forth, we crossed the line to something more than friendship the night she celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday – shortly after Marcus went to prison.  Despite my marital status, it didn’t take long for Alana to capture my heart.  We had our ups and downs, but I would move heaven and earth for her.  The words I told her were true.  If I could do it all over again, I would have chosen her.  

I just had to figure out the best way to handle Courtney.

I pulled into the garage and shut the engine off.  I sat in the truck for a few moments to get my mind right before I entered the house.  I knew I was going to have to deal with drama from Courtney.  There was always drama with Courtney, even before things became physical with Alana.  Courtney wasn’t familiar with the streets like the rest of us.  In all the time we had been together, she still didn’t seem to understand.  She didn’t understand that all the material things she loved so much came at a price.  I was never going to be the PTA dad that had a nine to five and was home for dinner every night.  That would never be me.

I exited my truck and entered my house.  Courtney was sitting at the kitchen island with a cup of coffee and her cell phone.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” she said without looking up at me.

“Are the boys sleep?”

“Yeah.  They were up most of the night.”

Courtney took a sip of her coffee and continued to look down at her phone.  I paused for a moment.  I was expecting a full-on rant from Courtney or a shouting match about how I didn’t come home the night before.  That’s what I was used to.  The cold shoulder she was giving me was new.  I wasn’t sure what was the reason behind her change in demeanor, but I was grateful to avoid an argument.  I turned to leave the kitchen. 

“So that’s it?”

I was halfway across the room but paused when I heard Courtney’s voice.  I sighed heavily and turned around to face my wife.

“What?”

Courtney stood up from her stool with her arms folded across her chest. 

“You don’t have anything to say about last night?” 

“What do you want me to say, Court?”

“Something.  You didn’t respond to any of my texts or calls last night.  I had to have your brother reach out to you, and you still didn’t call me back until this morning. What the hell, Zo?  I had to take our child to the emergency room last night, and you were nowhere to be found.”

I shrugged my shoulders.  “Look, I’m sorry about that.  I didn’t have my phone on me, but I’m here now.”

“For how long?” Courtney asked.  “You’re so damn predictable.  You’re probably about to head upstairs and check on the boys, take a shower, and head right back out.  You’ll tell me you’ve got work to do, but you’re probably going to end up with whatever bitch you spent the night with.”

There it was.  Courtney always went there.  During the course of any argument, she would always bring up infidelity or complain about me working all the time.  Most of the time, she would complain about both.  I just stared at her and shook my head.  She was the predictable one.  

“Alright Court,” I said, turning back towards the stairs.

Courtney rushed in front of me, standing in my way while I tried to climb the steps.

“What?” I asked in a frustrated tone.

“I don’t want you to disturb the boys.  They were up all night, and they need to rest,” she said.

I shrugged my shoulders.  

“Okay.  I’ll see them later.”

“Actually, we’re going to Charlotte to visit my sister for fall break.  We’ll be leaving this afternoon.”

“Alright,” I responded nonchalantly. 

I gently moved Courtney to the side and continued up the stairs.  Regardless of her request, I went to check on my sons.  After spending a few minutes with them, I laid down for a quick nap heading back out for work.  I hated that the boys were leaving town, but I was relieved to get a break from Courtney.  

PO

“Looks like another good week is almost in the books,” Aaron Mercer said.

“Pretty much,” I said, holding my cell phone up to my ear.  “Some of the guys have already dropped off their split.  I’m about to ride over to Nick’s trap in a minute to check things out over there before we collect the rest of the money tonight.”

“How’s everything working out with Nick?”

I looked out the window of the office at the car wash I owned.  Zo and JB were out front shooting the shit and cleaning their cars.  To be completely honest, Zo’s younger brother had far exceeded my expectations.  I had known the men since they were young boys.  One of my best friends, Darrell Woods, and I spent years working for Julian Reid.  Darrell raised his sister’s kids, Alana and Marcus Woods, due to their mother’s drug addiction and instability.  Darrell never hid his involvement in the business from the kids, so it was no surprise that they eventually showed interest in working with Julian’s team to make money for themselves.  Marcus and Alana were friends with Zo and Nick and eventually brought them into the fold as well.  After Darrell was killed ten years ago, I made it my business to personally look out for all of them.

Zo, Nick, and Marcus all started out as corner boys but ended up taking different paths.  While Zo’s intellect and ruthlessness propelled him to be my right hand, Nick was comfortable as a street level dealer for a long time.  I was surprised by both his performance over the last couple of months and the fact that he even wanted to be in a position that required more responsibility.  I was looking forward to seeing him develop.  Marcus was currently locked up on drugs and weapon charges.  He had always been a troublemaker and a hot head.  Prior to his incarceration, he was an enforcer on the streets.  If he was a free man, he would have been in charge of the muscle – instead of JB.  Marcus’s younger sister, Alana, worked for the team for a few years as well.  A few years back, she realized that she wanted to do something different with her life, and Marcus paid to send her to cosmetology school.  Even though she wasn’t connected to the business anymore, she was still pretty close with my family.

I brought my thoughts back to my conversation with Aaron, who had recently taken over as the head of the Ramirez Cartel due to his father’s failing health.

“Nick has really stepped it up.  I never thought he would want to run anything, but he’s exceeded my expectations for sure,” I said.  

“Turns out Zo knew what he was talking about, huh?” Aaron asked.

“He typically does.”

Zo had always had an eye for the business, and he rarely let personal feelings or relationships interfere.  When he said Nick was ready for a bigger role, I trusted that his decision was based on Nick’s desire and capabilities – not his familial relationship.

“That’s what’s up,” Aaron said.  “Man, you don’t know how relieved I am to hear that things are going so smoothly up there.  I ain’t trying to be in Atlanta any time soon.”

We both laughed.  After facing a number of threats to our business, Aaron ended up spending a considerable amount of time in Atlanta.  That was how he met and married his wife, Jada, the younger daughter of the late Julian Reid.  Aaron was born and raised in Miami, and Jada had recently relocated there to have their family all under the same roof.

“Shit, I’m relieved too,” I said.  “My plan is to keep things going like this, so you don’t have to be back up here anytime soon.”

“Sounds good to me, man.  I’mma let you go on and finish handling your business.  I’ve got something to do with Jada and the kids, but if you need anything just let me or Luke know,” he said, referring to his best friend, Lucas Malone.

“Bet.”

I ended the call and looked back out the window to see the men were finishing up with their vehicles.  I exited the building and approached them while looking at my watch.  

“Hey, I’m trying to roll over to Nick’s spot, grab something to eat, and be back here before five,” I said.  “Y’all ready to ride?”

They nodded and climbed into my truck before I took off towards Nick’s location.  Soon we made it to our destination to check in on his set-up.  As expected, everything was running smoothly.  After spending a little over an hour there, Zo and I decided to grab lunch while JB hung back with Nick’s crew.  Nick walked outside with us, following us to my truck.

“What y’all got going on tonight?” Nick asked.

“After we wrap up business for the day, I’m headed home,” I answered.  “We’re going to see Aisha at school tomorrow.”

My oldest daughter was a freshman at Georgia Southern University.

“What about you?” Nick asked his brother.

Zo shrugged his shoulders.  “Not sure.  Court’s taking the boys to visit her sister, but I might have some other plans.”

I quietly smirked at Zo’s response.  I knew that his “other plans” probably included Alana.  He and I rarely spoke about it directly, but their relationship was a poorly kept secret around our circle.  It seemed like the only people who didn’t know about their relationship was his wife and her brother.  I knew Zo had genuine feelings for Alana.  I just wished he would end things with his wife if he no longer wanted to be in the marriage.  Alana deserved much more than being some man’s other woman.

“Yeah alright,” Nick laughed.  “If your other plans fall through, let me know.  We’re probably going to Blaze.”

“Alright,” Zo laughed. 

A car pulled up to the house, stopping at the bottom of the driveway.  People came and went all the time, so I wasn’t too concerned.  I continued my conversation with Nick and Zo, figuring that the man walking up the driveway was headed into the house.  That was until he stopped a few yards away from where we stood.

“Aye man … you’re PO, right?” 

Nick and Zo frowned at him.  

I hesitated before responding.  “Who’s asking?”

The man smirked before reaching behind him and quickly pulling a gun from his waistband.  Nick, Zo, and I all pulled our weapons, but the other man started shooting first.  One of us struck him in the arm as he ran back to the waiting vehicle.  Nick chased after the car, shooting at them until they were out of range.  I looked over towards Zo, who was grabbing at his left arm.

“Fuck!” he shouted.  Blood was seeping through his fingers.  “What the fuck was that?”

Zo turned to look at me, and I watched as his eyes quickly widened.  

“PO!” he called my name.  “You’re hit, man.”

I frowned in confusion, but then I felt the pain.  I felt a pain so breathtaking and overwhelming that it brought me to my knees.  I looked down to see blood leaking from my wounds, slowly but surely soaking my shirt.  

I started to feel lightheaded.

Zo and Nick rushed over to me, and I heard sounds that sounded like them speaking to me.  However, their voices were muffled.  The voices sounded further away than they should have been.  I blinked hard, and my vision was starting to blur.  Then I felt my body fall face forward towards the pavement right as my eyes closed.

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