A Sweeter Sun
He cringed when he heard his mother’s heels, clack-clack-clacking against the marble floors in the foyer. She’d find him, hiding out like an eight-year-old in the darkened first floor library any minute now. The door creaked open. Yeah. He was found.
“Asher George Ilyasov, you know how I do not like to repeat myself. Interesting that I should find I am doing it anyway. Dinner is in one hour and look at you, still not dressed.”
“What?” Asher stood to his full six feet, three inches of height and looked down at himself. He was dressed. He even did The Check to be sure. Pants. Shirt. Shoes. Yeah. Dressed. “Mother, please. Don’t do this tonight,” he said, with a roll of his neck. “Don’t pick at every little thing—”
Elizavetha pursed her lips in disappointment. “Don’t pick at every little thing? Like I am such a nepriyatnost’ to you, my youngest son who never has time to visit his mother.” Oh, no. Here came the dramatics. Her Russian accent got syrupy thick every time she went on one of these ranting tirades about him—or anything, really. Liz was a ranter. “You cannot continue on this way, Asher. I need—your father and I need for you to step up and take—”
“Control of Ilyasov Enterprises. I know, Mother. And I’ve said I’ll give it some serious thought. And I will. But what does my attire have to do with that?”
His mother sighed, seemingly weighed down by all the things Asher wasn’t doing as the youngest Ilyasov son in the family. He was the best equipped to take over the family business. He was unattached, had the necessary higher education degrees and he was the only son not doing “something else.”
Not to mention his father’s declining health was no secret to the general public. There’d been an article in the paper about Alexei’s 7-day stay in the hospital recently. Alexei Ilyasov would need a subsidiary and it was Asher he’d chosen for the role. Asher—whose favorite place was the beach, whose favorite recreational hobby was bar fighting, whose beverage of choice was “whatever gets the job done quickest.”
In many ways, Asher was not the ideal candidate to take over Ilyasov Enterprises. He was serious about nothing in particular and had no intentions to get serious any time soon. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about anything. He just cared about nothing very much.
Earlier that week he’d ditched a meeting he was supposed to sit in on with his father in order to get drunk on the beach with a very busty blonde. Liz had found out about that little fiasco pretty damn quickly and ripped him a new one for it.
“I would prefer you in a suit and tie. You know how important this is to your father. The Prado’s coming for the first time since we moved here means a lot. They are old family friends, you know this.”
Not that Asher cared. The fucking president of America could be sitting down for Whiskey and a cigar with his parents and Asher still wouldn’t care. “Yeah, Mom, I get that but—”
Elizavetha, having taken his face between her hands, tapped him twice on the cheek—and not gently. “Ne govorya ni slova. Promise me.”
He exhaled, sighed. “I promise.”
She gave him a stern look, said, “Net.” Asher knew what she wanted. He didn’t know why she insisted they sometimes use Russian words to solidify things like promises. But it was her preference.
“Jesus, Mother. Yes. YA obeshchayu.”
“Good.” Then, as though she could slip it in without his notice she said, “I’ve placed you on the board for the next charity auction.” She stood up on tip-toe, kissed him on the forehead and walked briskly away toward the kitchen as though the discussion had never happened and all was right in the world again.
* * *
Nothing in the world was the way it should’ve been. The weather should have been perfect, but when you’ve lived in what is essentially a dessert for the better half of the past six years with little rain and no humidity to speak of, the arid, windy night temperatures of Toluca Lake did nothing to improve your moods. Because it was different from her usual. And Mireli Prado hated different. She didn’t do well with change. Rel hadn’t known anything outside of that small village for so long—she realized now just how much she’d taken it for granted. Rel stepped out of her car, her boots hitting the cobble stones, to the shocking view of what was nothing less than a mansion. Seriously. She didn’t know what else to call it.
“Rel, you coming or what?” Mireli’s younger sister, Samaidy, grabbed her by the hand, leading her behind their parents, into the lush house.
“Wow, these cake-eaters are doing the most, aren’t they?” Samaidy said.
“Yeah,” was all Mireli could mumble as she stared at the Tuscan style home.
A lanky blonde woman ushered Rel, Samaidy and their parents, Flor and Hulices, into the home and then deeper into a sitting room with lush couches in soft, rustic oranges, reds and golds. A large bronze table sat in the middle of the room on Victorian-looking rugs. Portraits of the Ilyasov family adorned the walls and there was a fire place off in the corner with no heat or flames burning inside it.
“Rel,” Samaidy hissed. “Come on!”
Mireli snapped out of her trans. You’ve seen this all before. Just because it’s not what you’re used to doesn’t mean you can gawk and pass judgment.
“Welcome,” Liz Ilyasov said. “Welcome to our home.” The woman of the house hugged each of them in turn. Until she got to Mireli. She held Rel in place, at arm’s length, looking over her pixie-cut ginger hair, the smattering of freckles across her nose and the eight earrings in each of her ears.
“Wow. Mireli Prado, you have grown,” Liz Ilyasov said reverently. “Such a beautiful dove, you are.” She hugged Rel close. “How long have you been back?”
Catching up with the conversation in slow motion, Rel cleared her throat and said, “Just about a week or so.”
“Wonderful, my dear. This is wonderful. And you were gone how long?”
Rel was quiet a moment, but before she could answer, she was interrupted by a deep voice.
“Six years, isn’t it?” the deep voice said.
Mireli blinked and met the eyes of Alexei Ilyasov. “Yes.”
“Alex!” Rel’s father, Hulices, said.
“Hulices Prado,” Alexei said on a laugh. “Come here, you dapper old fool.” The two men hugged and slapped each other’s backs the way heterosexual American men typically do—though neither of them had been born in the land of freedom and gold.
“Been too long, my friend—”
“Indeed, brother. Come. Bring the family. We’ll have drinks first.”
And that was how Rel found herself smiling so hard her face was beginning to hurt, sandwiched in between her sister Sam and their mother, Flor Prado.
Sam leaned over and whispered to her like the co-conspirator that she was. “You look like you’re constipated.”
Rel elbowed her sharply in the rib cage. “Shuttup, Samaidy.”
“I’m just saying, you have this”—she made the face—“face going on right now.”
“You’re a horrible human, Sam.”
All her sister did was shrug. You could call Samaidy every name in the book and she’d still keep on trucking. Rel couldn’t decide if that was a gift or a curse. Sam took to insults the way Rel took to dares and bets—enthused and whole-heartedly.
“Why should I even care?” Rel asked.
“Because,” Sam intoned, “a certain Ilyasov son is sitting right across the—”
“All the Ilyasov sons are sitting across the room, Samzies.”
Sam laughed a little, shook her head. “Yeah, but the Ilyasov son is sitting across the room, looking bored as ever, like he needs someone to come save him, like he’ll die if someone doesn’t rescue him from this debilitating evening filled with stories about Papi and Alexei from back in the day.”
“You’re talking about Asher.”
Sam nodded in response.
Rel glanced in his direction. She was trying not to be so obvious in the way she looked but once her eyes fastened on him, all intentions to glance, and not gawk, flew out the window.
He was long and lean and sculpted the way a street fighter might be, but from the way he sat and held himself, posture relaxed, one ankle thrown over the other knee, his foot bobbing up and down to the tune of the non-existent music that, apparently, only he could hear as he nursed a glass of Whiskey, which dangled from his right hand. His blond hair was contained to a disciplined style, combed back from his face and his fringe was swooped over, Superman chic. His ice-blue eyes were hooded by thick, dark lashes and seemed rimmed in kohl, though Rel doubted they truly were. He seemed the type of man who didn’t try very hard to impress anyone for any reason.
He wore his black suit without a tie, leaving the very top of his charcoal grey button down undone.
Damn. She wanted him. Rel could be honest with herself and say that, after all this time, she still wanted him.
Rel cleared her throat and averted her gaze. “Sorry—but no. Don’t care. And let me stop you before you do something dumb, like calling his attention over here. I’m going to tell Mima I’m not feeling well. Catch a ride back with she and Papi, okay?”
Sam switched her grip from the couch to Rel’s arm. For a twenty-year-old, Sam sure did have a mean grip on her. “Oh, my God. You are not leaving me here. Tell her you need me to help you home.”
Yeah, right. Their mother was docile—not stupid. “She’ll never believe that.”
“Then tell her you don’t remember the way back!” Sam hissed.
Hm. That, unfortunately, was believable. Still … “Nope. This is payback for last night when you told tia Rose I wanted go to Mass with her next week.”
Sam groaned. It was a cross, Rel knew, between remnants of laughter from the incident last night and regret at having played the prank in the first place. Payback was a bitch.
Rel waggled her fingers over Sam’s clenched grip on her forearm in a sort of, You-should-definitely-let-go-now.
Most everyone else was engaged in conversation with one another, except for Asher Ilyasov, who looked like he really did need saving. So Rel really hadn’t been expecting Sam to jump up, turn to Elizavetha Ilyasov and say, “Excuse me, Mrs. Ilyasov?”
The woman turned to Sam, pinching her cheeks before answering. “Look at you, all grown up now.”
“Yes,” Sam laughed awkwardly.
“Twenty, ma’am. I’ve just turned twenty.”
“Twenty is a good age. And school—college?”
“Yes, still doing that. I’m a sophomore, Mrs. Ilyasov.”
“Moi dorogiye, vy dolzhny nazyvat’ menya Elizavetha.”
Sam, apparently not expecting the abrupt switch to Russian, looked up for the translation. Xander Ilyasov assisted, adding, “She insists you call her ‘Elizavetha.’ I must agree. All this formality is draining.”
Sam nodded. “Elizavetha, I’m sorry—so, Mireli was just mentioning, quite wisely, to me that she would love a tour of the grounds.”
Rel squeaked in response. What the hell was Sam doing? Didn’t she know that Rel played to win? This would mean payback worse than any she’d ever dreamed. And double payback, at that, since Rel obviously wouldn’t get to make good on her promise to leave Sam to deal with this dinner party alone.
Sam continued. “It’s just, your home is quite lovely and I know that Rel is quite used to stretching her legs with the work she’s been doing.”
Rel almost barfed. Sam was laying on the “quites” quite a freaking lot.
Elizavetha looked shocked she hadn’t come up with the idea herself. “Yes! Oh, you must see my gardens. They are like a dream.”
Well, great. Maybe Rel would not, in fact, be leaving, but she would at least get to do something other than force a smile while their fathers discussed mergers and their old collegiate antics.
The second unexpected thing to happen was that Rosser, the eldest of the three Ilyasov brothers, offered to show Rel and Sam the space in question. That wouldn’t, Rel found herself thinking, be so horrible. Not with the way Rosser looked. He was the photo Webster had pasted in the dictionary next to the phrase “Man Candy.” With a deep, thoughtful brow, grey-green eyes and a strong jaw, the man was edible!
So no, Rel would not protest this particular form of punishment. But Sam wasn’t done. Not by a long shot.
“I know Rel is eager to catch up with Asher, actually. So perhaps the three of them could even stroll out near the gardens,” she said.
And in that precise moment, Rel wanted to smack her dearest younger sister.
* * *
Because this was typically the way of his life, Asher ended up playing babysitter to Mireli Prado. She was, after all, seven years younger than him, so it stood to reason that he was, essentially, babysitting. Rosser, being Rosser, could have taken the job on—and Asher’s older brother, Dr. Rosser Ilyasov MD himself, started to do just that, actually. But—and Asher thought this all somewhat sus—the younger Prado of the two, Samaidy, had mentioned Mireli wanting to play catch up. Which was bullshit, actually. Asher didn’t even know this kid. What kind of catch up could they play?
Well, he had a few ideas, now that he thought about it. She wasn’t rough on the eyes at all. Vivid ginger hair, highlighted with gold tints and undertones, sat cropped close to her head, extending a little past her heavily pierced ears on either side and sloping nicely over her forehead toward a delicate brow. Her skin was naturally bronzed, not fake-baked or pan-tanned the way so many of his recent girlfriends had been. This complexion of hers spoke of countless hours in the sun, which was interesting, given her parents’ fair complexioned skin tones and her red hair. Grey eyes, dark as storm clouds, took center stage on her face. A faint smattering of freckles adorned the mid-section of her face, streaking themselves across her high cheekbones, the bridge of her nose. There were one or two outliers. One mark stood out sharply against her pink, Cupid’s bow upper lip and another sat, like it had as much right to be there as any of the others, on the right side of her jaw. He had a not-entirely-strange urge to kiss them all in turn. Not-entirely-strange because the woman was gorgeous.
Not a kid at all, he admitted to himself. And any red blooded male, including Rosser, could see that. And Asher had not, in truth, wanted his eldest brother to ruin her as he knew Rosser would. What neither of Asher’s parents had known—what Asher had not quite known until about five minutes before the Prado’s arrived—was that Rosser was a free agent again. His girlfriend of six years, fiancé of five, had lost their third attempted child. According to Rosser, “it was the stress.” Those were the man’s words, verbatim.
And so Asher stepped up and saved the girl from herself—and from Ross. Because he’d seen the way she eyed his brother up and down and vice versa. Rosser had ten years on her—Asher’s seven were bad enough. Not that he had any of the same intentions as Rosser with Mireli. Not that he couldn’t have those same intentions either, though.
“We don’t have to…” she said, breaking into his thoughts. “We don’t need to tour the gardens or whatever it is your mother’s expecting.”
“Don’t we? You wanted this. This was your ide—”
She stopped in her tracks. “This was not my idea.”
“Right. Then this was your sister’s idea.”
“Why? Why pull me into your game?”
“No one’s playing a game here, except for Sam. And I’m sorry you got dragged in. I’m not thirteen anymore. This isn’t like back then when you had to make nice with Mireli Prado just because my dad and your dad told you to.”
“That’s right,” Asher said, slowly. Like pieces were starting to click into place. “Our parents did force me to cart you everywhere.”
Mireli flinched a little. Asher might have missed it had he not been standing right next to her. Had he not been keeping her in his peripheral vision. “You’d forgotten?” she said. And didn’t that make Asher feel like an asshole.
He played it off, shrugged, kept walking. “You look different. You… cut your hair?” he asked, guessing.
“Yeah. During my senior year of high school when I was seventeen.”
That wasn’t the only difference. Back then she’d been a kid, just another punk. Now she was a woman.
“And you’ve been where all this time? I’ve seen your parents at fundraisers, seen your sister around town. You’re pretty much the Prado that got away.” And that was saying something. Because the Prado’s were just like the Ilyasovs. You never really got away. Nothing short of death could get you out of this world.
Mireli walked a little further, forcing Asher to follow. But he was a patient enough man that he didn’t mind doing so. Nor did he mind waiting patiently for the answer she had yet to give him.
She shoved her hands into the pockets of the cardigan draped along her shoulders. “I just had to get away for a while.”
Not only was he patient, but he understood and recognized an evasion tactic for what it was. That didn’t mean he was going to let it stand, though. He met and held her gaze. “To where?”
“Third world Caribbean islands.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Good. It wasn’t a joke.”
“You were in the Caribbean for six years by yourself?”
“I wasn’t by myself.”
“Did you go there with anyone you knew?”
“Did you know anyone there when you first arrived?”
“Then you went by yourself.”
She scoffed. “Why do you care?”
“Why don’t you?”
“Who says I don’t?”
“Who says I do? But if it were me, there’s no way I’d allow my eighteen year old daughter to traipse off to a predominantly impoverished country for six years by herself.”
“I was nineteen when I left. And it’s a good thing I’m not your daughter then, isn’t it.”
Hell yes. Because then he’d be getting into all kinds of troublesome areas, attracted to her as he was.
When he didn’t respond, she rolled her eyes, turned on her boot heel and started back toward the house. Shit. With that roll of her eyes it all came rushing back to him. Like having a glass of ice water thrown in your face to wake you out of a very long, very drunken fit of sleep. Suddenly Asher remembered the little spit fire that was Mireli Prado. But then, Asher was the only soul who knew her as anything more than a mouse. And he’d practically washed his hands of her when they’d been kids. Well… she was a kid—thirteen, actually. Asher had been twenty, going on twenty-one.
But she wasn’t his responsibility back then! And she wasn’t his responsibility now. She was just another thirteen year old with a dumb crush. That’s it. He’d been an asshole back then. All gassed up at the tender age of twenty, thinking he was God’s gift to the masses and all that. And now he’d messed up things again. His mother would know he’d put the girl in a black mood. And then he’d have to deal with Elizavetha’s black mood and her claims that he’d ruined this dinner for the families.
Why had he done it? He had no good reason to press her like that—except maybe for the fact that it fucking turned him on. Arguing with her like that? Hot. For those few minutes she was all fire and rebellion and heat. She didn’t owe him those answers but she had given them to him. Asher was just curious enough to see what else he could demand and receive from her. Like her time. He could ask her to hear him out, and he could speak his peace. He shouldn’t. He knew he shouldn’t. But maybe he could explain things … just maybe. Asher followed after her before she reached the house, one of his long-legged strides eating up two of hers.
“Rel.” On impulse, Asher grabbed her by the wrist, pulled her to him and pressed his lips hard to hers. It wasn’t his intention but it served in getting her attention and for now that was enough. And the most beautiful thing about impulse is that it gives all parties involved little to no time to act in the name of prevention or evasion. Of course, that’s also the downside. Because then tempers run high and reactions born of spontaneity hunt you down and strike you roughly in the back.