Where I Belong
Love in Philly series
Leon Lira has fought hard to build a life for himself, one with friendships, safety, and stability, a far cry from his youth. He works with his best friend at a job he loves in the city he loves even more, but he’s still missing the one thing he longs for… A family of his own. Determined to move on from a relationship that ended in heartbreak, he meets the sexy Maalik at a Halloween charity event. After a night of dancing, flirting, and sparks, Leon thinks he may be ready to jump back into the dating pool. But Maalik is a mystery and the night ends leaving Leon with more questions than answers.
Veterinarian, Maalik Reza, adores Philadelphia. Free to be himself in the city he calls home, he still can’t escape the weight of family expectations, or tell them the truth about himself. When the wickedly gorgeous Leon shows up at his clinic with a newborn kitten in tow, Maalik sees, for the first time, a life he wants but one he’s never dared dream. Their sizzling connection tempts him to take a chance.
They fit each other perfectly. Even their pets get along. But Leon needs a man who will make him a priority and not keep him hidden in the shadows. And Maalik is torn between being true to himself and having a life with Leon or being the version his family expects him to be. Can they find family in each other or will insecurities and uncertainties break them apart?
Read an Excerpt
from Chapter One
The thump of the bass vibrates up my spine to the bottom of my skull, making my teeth ache. The red, orange, green, and blue of the strobing lights penetrate my eyes, my head thunking with each pounding sound of the club music. The yards of tulle under my pink satin skirt poke my legs like bothersome beetles. And the pink, four-inch platform heels pinch my toes harder than the sneakers I wore in third grade that were two sizes too small.
I should have stayed home. I don’t have the energy to be Party Leon tonight. Hell, I have barely had the energy to be Depressed Leon for the last six months, since Charles—perfect, loving, lying asshole Charles—left. Yes, folks, Charles—the man I thought I’d spend the rest of my life with; the man who pledged his undying love; the man with whom I spent two years of my life loving—left the home we created, leaving me nothing more than a note.
And a sticky note at that. He didn’t have the courtesy to use the beautiful stationary I bought him for our two-year anniversary, or even a piece of notebook paper. Nope, he jotted a few words on a yellow three-by-three square.
“Why am I Toto again?” Thad scans the room as if he’s hoping to find a costume exchange counter.
Julia straightens the red dog collar on her husband like she’s straightening his tie. “Because you’re too big to be the Scarecrow or the Tin Man.”
“And I couldn’t be the Lion?” Thad adjusts the brown knit hat with ears sown to the top.
“This works better. We’d look weird if we had a Lion but no Scarecrow and Tin Man.”
With one brow raised, Thad peers over Julia’s head to me. “And this…” He gestures between the two of us. “This isn’t weird?”
Despite my funk I can’t help but chuckle. Seeing Julia’s gorgeous hunk-of-love dressed as a yippy dog to Julia’s Dorothy is a testament to not only how much the man loves my friend, but also to what a good guy he is. Many straight guys wouldn’t be caught dead coming to a costume party that would be predominately LBGTQ+, but Thad’s only complaint is dressing as Toto.
“Okay boys, what’s first? Drinks? Food? Dancing?” Julia surveys the Aussie-themed, prison-themed, Wizard of Oz-themed, mishmash of costumes.
“Knowing you, I’m going with food.” I yank on the end of one of her braids because we all know that little five-foot nothing Julia is always hungry.
Thad huffs a laugh. “We might as well camp out at the buffet.”
Julia swats her husband on the chest before threading her arm through his. She then winds her free arm through mine and leads us to the yellow-brick-looking flooring toward the food. “C’mon, Glenda, let’s see if they have any of those stuffed mushrooms they had last year. I’d dump Thad for whoever made those.”
Never taking his eyes from the crowd Thad deadpans, “I thought you liked how I stuff things.”
A snort-choke-laugh bursts from Julia. “Thaaad! Not in front of Leon.”
The big guy’s dark eyes twinkle and crinkle. “He’s not four, Jules.” Looking to me with lips twisting in amusement, he asks, “Did I offend your delicate sensibilities, Glenda?”
These two, with their adorableness ensnares me. A burn rolls down my throat and to my chest. I want what they have. I thought I had forever with he-who-shall-not-be-named. Now, I don’t know if I’ll ever find the kind of love, respect, and mutual admiration Julia and Thad have. I’m thirty…ish (No need for specifics. That’s right, keep walking.) and have yet to find my one and only. Is it too much to ask for someone to grow old with? Someone to call family?
I wince. I sound like a freaking Hallmark Christmas movie, if Hallmark Christmas movies had Latinos and same-sex couples.
“Shit. Did I really offend you, Leon? I’m sorry, man.” Thad places his hand on my shoulder and squeezes.
“What?” I look around. One of the tables is flanked by eucalyptus trees with stuffed koala bears in them; another mirrors a prison cafeteria—angry looking cafeteria worker included; and the final is lined with yellow bricks leading from one dish to another.
Thad shakes his head. “Dude, you have got to get over that asshole. He wasn’t good enough for you.”
“I’m over him.” I straighten my sparkly tiara as if doing so somehow proves my point.
“Riiight, and I’m the founding member of the Lollipop Guild.” Thad nods hello at a kangaroo and a prison guard as they walk by.
Julia releases her husband’s arm and pulls me into one of her constricting, full body hugs.
Automatically, my arms wrap around her. “You’re going to wrinkle my dress.”
“Tough.” The one word is said into my pink sequenced bustier with the force of a woman who is used to fighting for what she believes in. Keeping her arms around my waist, she pulls back enough to tilt her head to view me.
Not liking the Julia-is-concerned look she’s drilling me with, I attempt to remove myself from her grip, but her hold keeps me immobilized. We’ve been friends since our freshman year in college, and we’ve worked together at the same law firm for years, so I should be used to this, but damn the woman is strong. Especially for someone who can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds.“Stop looking up my nose.”
Shaking her head, clearly not amused, she doesn’t budge. “Tonight is for fun. We are not talking about, thinking about, or longing for Charles.”
“You long for Charles?” I raise one of my brows then look at Thad with a did you know this look.
Julia’s scrunched lips smooth into an upturn. “I long for his chocolate chip cookies.”
“He did make good cookies.”
She releases me from her death-hold but keeps one arm around my waist. “We should have known something was off with him when he wouldn’t share the recipe.”
“I love your cookies, Jules.” The low rumble of Thad’s words penetrate the music, conversations, and tension.
Julia’s tawny eyes widen as she and I both bust into a laughing fit.
“What?” Thad holds his paws up toward the ceiling with a satisfied smirk on his gorgeous face. “I had some after dinner last nigh—”
Ivory skin immediately pinks, Julia releases me and pushes Thad, screeching, “Oh my god! Stop. Just stop!”
I’m doubled over. Only Thad can fluster and flummox the most sought after and unflappable divorce attorney in Philadelphia.
“And for breakfast this—”
Julia launches her tiny self at her hulking husband, like tackling him to the ground will keep him from speaking. “What is wrong with you?”
Having caught her, Thad plants a not-for-the-Hallmark-Channel kiss on my sista-from-another-mista’s lips.
My laughter subsides and I watch Dorothy dissolve into Toto as their kiss turns into a scorching inferno. The scene should be disturbing, but it’s…
“Damn, that’s hot.”
I whip my head in the direction of the voice smoother than the finest brandy. To my right, in khaki cargo pants and a brown leather vest with nothing but beautiful brown skin and rippling muscles, stands some guy—okay, a mouthwatering sexy kind of guy—sipping the drink in his hand and gawking at my friends like he was watching a live production of 9 1/2 Weeks.
Spinning fully around, my skirt swishing from the swiftness of my movement, I glare at the bespectacled intruder and his close-cropped dark beard. Pointing my silver-star wand and flicking a curl from my blond wig over my shoulder, I open my mouth ready to flagellate the dazzling man with the inappropriateness of staring at two people in the throes of passion. Before I can utter a word, Julia—flushed and smudged—disentangles herself from her six-foot-four Toto. Her eyes immediately pin the Crocodile Dundee-looking dude next to me. “Maalik?”
Crocodile-man lifts his drink. “Hey, Julia.” Then he nods to Thad. “I see you continue to manhandle my poker buddy.”
“Maybe she’s manhandling me.” Thad grins with what could only be described as smug satisfaction.
Sexy crocodile slayer raises his glass to his lips—exhibiting biceps that I’d like to bite—and mumbles, “I’d like to manhandle you,” before glancing at me with a sheepish smirk.
I huff and whisper, “Get in line,” as Julia pulls the hottie into a hug.
When Julia pushes away, she does introductions. “Maalik, this is one of my dearest friends, Leon. Leon, Maalik is part of the monthly poker group I keep trying to get you to come to.”
“Nice to finally meet you, Leon.” Maalik’s big hand grasps mine, callouses brush against my palm, shooting a shiver through me. “Maybe you’ll come to our next game?”
Julia and Thad have been hounding me to join the poker night they started the same month Charles and I broke up. I had been looking forward to going but once Charles left, I didn’t feel like leaving the house, let alone being around a group of people while pretending to have fun. But if Crocodile Duncutie is going to be there well… “Maybe I will.”
His lips, which are full and masculine and glistening from his beverage, tip up, making me tipsy, though we just arrived and I haven’t had anything to drink.
“C’mon, boys. Let’s get some food.” Julia’s voice yanks me from the force of Maalik’s gravitational pull, and I realize that my hand is still in his.
“Um…” I look at our hands and back at him.
“Guess you’ll need this back.” He gives my hand a quick squeeze before releasing it.
“Yeah. Thanks.” My arm tingles from my elbow to the tips of my fingers, and I clench and unclench it twice before following Dorothy and Toto to the buffet lines.
The four of us fill our plates with a variety of deliciousness and luckily find a corner table. The club is packed with people in varying costumes playing on the Oz theme. This year’s benefit to raise money for LGBTQ+ teens looks like it will be a success. Julia and I have been attending the event since we were students at Temple University. Now, the firm we both work for, and of which Julia is a partner, contributes a substantial amount to the cause.
Julia and I may or may not have been a part of that. Wink, wink.
Standing at the bar-height table next to Maalik, I am hypersensitive to every movement, every breath, every glance he makes. I don’t want to be aware because I can’t trust my own judgment. But I’m aware nonetheless. His arm brushes mine as he leans closer. “Want to brave the bar with me?”
I glance to Julia for help, but she’s useless, caught up in a conversation with one of the partners from our firm and his wife. I lift my shoulder. “Sure.”
His white teeth gleam and his smile beckons me to follow him through the throngs of people, making me forget stupid Charles. Julia’s right. Tonight is for fun. So, why not have fun with the smokin’ hot crocodile hunter?