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It was weird. Everything about it. This country, this house, this life. It wasn’t normal. It wasn’t his.
Alex was sitting at a kitchen table in Saint Petersburg, watching his father pour a second cup of coffee as he spoke to Yassen in an animated, lengthy ramble.
Yassen leaned against the counter and sipped his coffee, listening meditatively, smiling when it sounded like John was telling a joke, answering back in Russian. It was impossible to know who was the native speaker.
Alex wrapped his hands around his mug of Earl Grey as if it were a throat. He hated it when they did this, launched into a conversation that completely excluded him, especially when he was in the same room. It made him feel stupid and superfluous—a fifth wheel, a third shoe. He wondered if they had any idea how badly they were hurting his feelings when they talked over his head like this. They probably didn’t. It was all about them now, Hunter and Cossack, reunited after fifteen years apart and finally working as partners again. They only had eyes for each other.
Alex watched his father reach out and place his hand on the back of Yassen’s neck, grinning as Yassen gave him a demure smirk. John’s voice had fallen to a murmur, his words becoming warm and intimate, and Yassen stared into his eyes with nothing less that complete adoration.
It was bizarre. Alex had never seen the Russian behave this way, smiling, laughing, acting happy and energetic. The Yassen Alex knew was a cold-blooded killer who rarely smiled, never, ever laughed, was indifferent to the feelings of others, and seemed to be stuck in a permanent state of annoyance.
John’s words melted into a whisper and he leaned his forehead against Yassen’s. Yassen smiled tenderly, affectionately, and whispered something back. The sight made Alex physically ill.
The two men were startled out of their pleasant trance by the sound of a chair screeching across the floor. Alex slapped his hands on the table and stood, scowling venomously at his father and Yassen before storming out of the kitchen.
John pulled away worriedly and set down his coffee. “Alex!” he called. “Hey, come back! What’s—”
“Let him go, John.”
There came the sound of the front door slamming, presumably behind Alex as he left the house.
Yassen grasped John’s arm before he could take off after him. “Don’t,” he said gently. “Just let him go. He is having trouble adjusting, that’s all. He needs time alone.”
John stared at Alex’s empty chair, his brow creased with paternal worry. At forty-five, the former soldier and MI6 agent still possessed the handsome features and vitality of his younger years. Even though his sandy blond hair was beginning to turn gray at the temples and fine lines were starting to show more prominently around his eyes and mouth, his athletic, military-toned physique had yet to begin to waiver.
“I thought he’d be happy here,” he said quietly. “I convinced Alan to discharge him. We’ve got this beautiful home right outside the city, he’s enrolled in the best private school in the country, and I’ve taken him out touring every weekend for the past month.” He sighed and crossed his arms over his stomach. “I guess you only get one shot at being a father.” He turned to Yassen. “Do you suppose he hates me?”
“I know for a fact that he does not.”
“That doesn’t mean he loves me, either.”
Yassen arched his eyebrows and shrugged one shoulder. “Well, with the exception of the past two months, you have been absent his entire life. He is still getting to know you. Just give him time. He will come around.”
John gave a dubious half-grin. “You sound strangely optimistic.”
“Me? Never. I am a realist. And realistically, most teenagers are moody and stubborn. He will outgrow it.”
“Sounds like you would have made the better father. You know Alex better than I do.”
Yassen’s eyes seemed to take on a remorseful appearance. “Yes, that is truly a shame.”
John sighed again and glanced toward the kitchen door. “Are you sure he’ll be alright?”
“John, if there is anything I have learned from Alex, it is that he can take care of himself.”
“Maybe if I’d been there for him, he wouldn’t have to.”
John was so depressed, so deflated, that it hurt Yassen to look at him. Before Alex was born, before the whole mess with MI6 and SCORPIA had torn apart the entire Rider family, John had been a very tough man, inside and out. It was he who had taught Yassen how to control his emotions, to be observant of how he broadcasted his feelings through body language and facial expressions. Nobody could hurt John or make him cry. The man was a rock.
Now it appeared he’d gone soft after fifteen years in hiding. When he’d finally been reunited with his son, John had burst into tears and refused to let go of him for ten full minutes. It had alarmed Yassen, who’d never seen his partner break down before. In a way, he was envious; Alex had brought John out of his shell when no one else could, had made him display emotions which before that day he’d always been able to control. Alex meant the world to John. No, more than that—Alex was John’s world.
All of this was a bitter pill to swallow, but Yassen had rationalized it until it ceased to bother him. After all, Alex was John’s son, his flesh and blood. He couldn’t compete with a parent’s love for his child. That kind of love would always be stronger than whatever they’d had back in 1986.
Nevertheless, Yassen was glad that John still had feelings for him, that Alex’s presence hadn’t made him completely forget about the love they’d once shared—a love which they’d begun to rekindle. To have back what he thought he’d lost forever . . . it was priceless. John must be feeling the same way about Alex, and Alex must be feeling the same way about Yassen, who had just barely survived being shot by Damian Cray a little over one year ago.
How similar they were to one another, how fortunate to have come so close to death and escaped to live another day. And yet something still wasn’t right in this happy new world of theirs. Alex was withdrawn and moody. John was constantly questioning his parenting, worrying about everything. Yassen had the habit of disappearing when things got awkward, choosing to avoid rather than cope. They had three hundred problems between them, and none of them knew how to talk to one another.
Yassen reached out and put his hand on John’s shoulder. “Stop blaming yourself. If you are looking for abuse, I would be happy to hit you a few times.”
John had to smile. Yassen’s jokes were rare, which was what made them so precious. “Fine, you win. I probably wouldn’t survive one of your Lotus Blossom Punches at my age anyway.”
“I have learned much more painful strikes than that one, John.”
“Oh, really? That’s brilliant. All the more incentive for me to never make you angry.”
They shared a smile, a chuckle, a contented peace, and John leaned forward and pressed a slow, warm kiss to Yassen’s lips. “Love you,” he murmured, brushing his fingers against the Russian’s smooth cheek. Then he slowly pulled away and walked toward the door. “I’ll be right back.”
“John!” Yassen called, but he was already out of the kitchen. A few seconds later he was out of the house, calling out Alex’s name as he began the search for him.
These were the times when Yassen felt most like giving up, like he should just leave John and Alex alone and go make a life for himself somewhere else. He didn’t belong with them anyway, and they certainly didn’t need him around. But the fact was that he loved John too much to leave him. Though he’d lived without him for fifteen years, had accepted John’s death and moved on, not a day had gone by when he hadn’t thought of him. You don’t walk out on a person who’s saved your life in so many ways, a person who’s the only real family you have left.
And, of course, there was Alex, whom Yassen also cared about. The thought of never seeing the boy again inspired such sadness that Yassen wondered if he wasn’t becoming as attached to Alex as Alex was to him . . .
It took a moment or two, but the truth finally dawned on Yassen as he stood staring out the kitchen windows into the sunny yard beyond. Clouds seemed to converge in his mind’s eyes, draining all light and colors and casting the world into a dim gray realm of shock.
Yassen gripped the edge of the counter until his knuckles were bloodless, his heart thudding in his chest and his mind racing.
So that was it. It explained everything: the rotten moods, the sour looks, the unwarranted bouts of anger. In a normal situation this behavior might have been considered cute, silly, just the typical drama of a typical teenager. But Alex wasn’t a typical teenager, and this wasn’t a normal situation.
Yassen sank down into a chair and leaned his elbows on the table, massaging his forehead.
How in the hell was he going to explain to John that his son was competing with him for the affection of his 36-year-old lover?