Three people at the brink of achieving all they’ve dreamed of since childhood…will the past get in their way?

 Zannia Morrow is blazing a path to stardom as supermodel, Zane. Her million dollar face and body have landed her the most coveted modeling contract in the business, but Zannia has a problem. It’s one that money and success can’t fix.

 Bonita Jones ran away from home at 16 and now she’s Benxi, a hot new R&B singer with the right voice and look to take her right up the charts.  Her future is bright, but she’s done some things she’ll do anything to keep the world from knowing, even if includes sacrificing the success that’s right within her reach.

 Mekhi Johnson’s had success as a music producer. He’s got the talent, connections, and drive to take him all the way to the top.  He just needs the right artist to make it happen.  Will he be able to sign Benxi, or will an old enemy stand between him and his next level?


Chapter 1


Zane

Go Home.

Go Back to Jamaica.

Go Die.

 
Gangsta witches.

I stared at the text messages again, raised my eyes, and scanned the faces of the women in the room. Like me, they were all models in varying stages of getting dressed or undressed.

One of these witches had sent me those text messages. Eight pairs of eyes looked back at me. Some were filled with murderous venom and others were empty…vacant. Those would be filled with hate too if the light in them weren’t dimmed by drugs. I was warned this kind of jealous drama would happen. I expected notes or unfriendly behavior, not people getting access to my personal cell phone number. I returned the phone to my bag, stood, and straightened the bust of my dress.

“I’m going to put some tape along your back to hold the dress so it doesn’t slip. Alyssa, my wardrobe assistant, pushed the tacky surface against my skin.

The girl was a beauty in her own right. Too short to model, but her face, thin frame, and graceful movements would work for her well one day.

“You’re excited, no?” Alyssa asked.

Was she kidding? Photo sessions were not exciting. Maybe the girl was new. “You’re from Italy?” I’d recognized her accent the first time we’d worked together, but I didn’t ask before.

“Yes, Sicily. I’ve been here five months.”

I wondered how easy it was for a girl to get to the U.S. from Italy. She was the right color, so I ventured not as difficult as it had been for me. But still, she’d left her home and probably her family and friends behind. I remembered what that had been like and tried to be nice to her.

“The Donna Karan jacket I wore yesterday…they gave it to me. I watched her eyes turn into saucers. Her bottom lip actually trembled. Was she going to salivate? “You can have it.”

Alyssa clapped her hands together.  “Thank you. I love Donna Karan and I don’t own anything designer yet.” She paused and then, “It’s beautiful. Are you sure?”

“The sleeves are too short.”

She clapped again before dancing to a nearby table, picking up more tape and resuming her work on my dress.

I wished her energy was contagious, but it wasn’t catching. I released a long breath. I was tired. I was trying to be excited. I wanted to be over the moon, but this job – this perfect opportunity – was scary. New York was the first of many trips that included Paris, Italy, London, Japan and at least twenty other countries. Twenty more countries that would separate me from Mekhi. Not that he wanted anything to do with me, but still, I hoped he’d change his mind. I hoped he was missing me.  

“All done?” I twisted my head as if I could see my back. Alyssa held up a mirror. It wasn’t my job to assess her performance, but I could see she’d gotten me properly fixed up.

“We’re ready for you, Zane!”

“Right on time.” Alyssa smiled. “You’re the prettiest Belle ever.”

Her words swirled around in my head. I wondered if she really meant them.

“Let me know if you need anything,” she added.

I nodded. I walked through the opening of the tent transformed fitting room toward the pool. Two of the guys helped me step down into the water. I knew I’d be in here for hours. Jumping, splashing, laughing, throwing my head back, kicking my legs up and smiling...always smiling. The evening gown sank under the weight of the water. It was already heavy when it was dry. It would weigh a ton wet. The set assistant waded toward me, bringing a fur jacket. More weight.

She draped it across my shoulders and I thanked her.  

“Do you need anything before we get started?” she asked. “Water?”

I shook my head. “I better not. I don’t want to have to pee.”

Even though she and I were the only ones that could hear, she raised a hand to whisper, “It’s a pool. You’re the only one in the water.”

I scrunched up my nose. “Peeing in a ten thousand-dollar dress. That won’t be what I’m remembered for.”

She smiled and then gave everyone waiting a thumbs up and made her way out of the water.  A powerful fan began to blow. The long, red wig they’d pinned on my head floated in waves behind me.

“Okay, Zane, let’s get warmed up here.” The photographer was the world renowned Dino Riche. I couldn’t believe I was standing in front of him. “Pose for me.”

I sprang into action.

A smile, iridescent and bright, filled my face. I couldn’t actually see my face, but I knew what I was doing. The magic I’d practiced my entire life. The magic my mother had taught me. Mommy assumed I would be a front desk person in one of the local hotels on the Jamaican coast, like she had been and her mother before her.

We have the gift of beauty in our family. The people at the hotels like to put pretty girls on the desk, even if they haven’t been to university. So you learn to smile, Zannia. You use your smile to get you the job you want.”

I moved with swiftness as I jumped and kicked up my leg. The stage under the water was solid, but in heels it didn’t feel so. I knew my torso and thighs would hurt later. This kind of balance in heels, in water, on a stage required the use of every muscle in my core and below.

Passersby began to stop. People couldn’t help but stare at the beautiful, black goddess in the water. I twirled my neck, threw up my arms and continued to smile. Continued to give everyone the show they wanted to see.

I was the new Belle. The model everyone would want to see for the next year or two or how ever long I lasted. Belles were the world’s most photographic models. They made life look fun no matter what they were doing; sitting in a cafe in Paris, on safari in Kenya or on a freezing cold set in Switzerland. The job was to sell fun and happiness.

Kathy Latimore, the model who was going out, had a reputation for being easy to work with. Good natured, funny, sweet, and extremely gracious were a few of the words thrown in my face about her. I had a lot to live up to. I had to make sure to have the same kind of reputation. Ugliness in modeling was not tolerated on the set, not in public, and certainly not from a black girl from Jamaica.

“Back to me, Zane,” Riche called. I turned on command, making sure not to fall as I moved. “Drop your chin a little and pout.”

A pout was easy. I had a pout in my belly. I wanted to pout all day. Pout about Mekhi. Pout about my broken heart. The broken dream of having found the man I’d wanted to be with. My lip trembled. My pout turned into a frown that I had to fix before Riche noticed.

I needed to stop thinking about Mekhi. But he baffled me. What was it with him? Why didn’t he see having this year’s Belle on his arm at events as a good thing? I already had music artists and athletes sending invitations for dates. Their notes and cards were arriving with flowers and gifts. Men wanted to be with me.  But not Mekhi. And I knew the reason. It was the same reason I hadn’t told him I loved him before that day. He was in love with someone else. He always had been. I’d never fully had his attention. Unfortunately, my silence hadn’t stopped him from seeping into my soul.

“A little less attitude,” Riche said. “Be playful.”

Focus. I told myself. I tried to hear Mommy’s voice. Pay attention, Zannia. Smile.

The memory of her made me fight to keep my jaw open. It was a struggle to keep that million dollar look in my eyes I knew the photographer wanted when I thought of her. I fought to keep from remembering one of the worst days of my life, but like it always did, it came back to me no matter how hard I tried to block it.  

  

We stood outside the house of the Powells, a wealthy family who Mommy worked for when their helper was sick or on vacation. Mommy took work as a domestic from time to time. She enrolled me in ballet lessons. My brother took piano and complained about it every week.  She had to work extra to pay for our lessons. It was also fall which was low season for tourism and the hotels laid people off until holiday. My brother could be trusted to stay home alone, but not supervising me. Not in our neighborhood for the whole day, so I went to work with Mommy. I was good at cleaning. I helped her get through the houses faster.

We entered the house and found Mistress Powell preparing to leave. “I’m going to the supermarket. Let your pickney come with me,” she said, gathering her handbag and shawl.

“Mistress, I can go to the store when I’m done cleaning,” Mommy offered. She didn’t like me to be far from her side.

“I want to go for myself, but I need help with the bags.” Mistress Powell glanced down her nose at me. “You trained her not to run off, didn’t you?”

Mommy nodded, told me to mind my ways and we left.

When we returned, I carried the groceries inside and began to put things away while Mistress Powell went next door to visit a neighbor who had called to her. I wasn’t sure where everything was to go, so I went to find Mommy. 

The house was large and grand, four stories tall with more rooms than I could count. But it was scary. I felt like a monster was going to bust from the door or a snake would come out of the walls. I was only nine, so I blamed it on the darkness of the halls. I checked every room except the master suite, because Mommy told me never to disturb that room. The mister might be home, but I had to find her. It was about more than the food; I wanted to know where she was. I pushed the door open enough to make a crack.  

Mommy was undressed down to her bra and slip. Her helper uniform was on the chair next to where she stood.  

“Mistress Powell is back. I need to get cleaning or she gonna call me lazy and fire me.” Her voice shook with each word.

Mr. Powell came into view. “You’re the best helper she ever had and I’m not just talking about cleaning.” He touched Mommy’s face. I could see her disgust when she turned her head from him. “I wouldn’t let her fire you.”

He was a fat man with more hair on his bang belly than he had on his head. He was wearing boxer underwear and black socks. He reached for Mommy, she moved and he twisted her arm when he got her.

“One more time.” He pushed on her shoulder. She dropped to her knees in front of him.

“You have a pretty mouth,” he said, pulling down his underwear.

A squeak came out of my mouth. I jumped back. The door creaked as it swung open. Mommy jumped to her feet. Mr. Powell grabbed her arm before she could rush to me. He used his free hand to pull his underwear up.

“Get out of here gal or you’ll be next,” he barked.

Mommy smiled, but I could see the pain. Her face looked like the one on the skeleton in the nurse’s room at school. Her eyes scared me worse than the mister’s yelling.

Mommy’s voice cracked when she stuttered, “Gwaan. Dust the library room.”

I swallowed sadness, reached for the knob and pulled the door together. Before I clicked it shut, I saw Mommy drop to her knees again.

 

“Open your mouth and throw your head back!” Riche yelled.

I took several shallow breaths. I felt like I was under water instead of standing in it. It took me a few seconds, but I regained my composure and did as I was told.  

I gave Riche the right amount of teeth, eye drama, and anything else he asked me to do with my million dollar body. I was a supermodel. I would soon have international fame. Unlike my mother, I had control over my future. That was more than enough to smile about. I wasn’t going to let Mekhi Johnson or any other man bring me to my knees.

                                                                              
Chapter 4

Mekhi


This was a whack party.

All these bums and busters in this spot. It was a miracle shots hadn’t rang out. Low rent, like the person throwing it. Columbus Isaiah Graham, known to everyone as Cig, was holding court in the V.I.P. section like he was God.  He wasn’t nothing but a low class, cheap thug from the Old Fourth Ward before gentrification; when it was the biggest drug spot in Georgia.

Cig was not a very important person, but it was his party. It was his night, so he could have it.

I had not been invited up there. I hadn’t been invited at all. Cig and I had too much history, most of it too bad for him or me to ever invite the other into our inner court.  

“Can I get you something?” The sweet voice came from a girl who looked about twelve. Too much weave, too much makeup, too little experience in the world to be working a private party in Miami. Some things never changed. Cig liked his girls young.

They do what you say when they young.

He and I took different stances in this area. I preferred women who did what I suggested because I was right, not because they didn’t know any better. I glanced at my watch. My time at this party was coming to an end soon, so with a shake of my head, I sent the waitress on her way.

Benxi, Cig’s biggest female recording artist made her descent down the steps from V.I.P. She was the person I was waiting to see. She was the reason I was here.

Benxi had everything I was looking for in an artist – real talent, beauty, and presence. She had what it took to go all the way in this business. She took command of the metal steps in what had to be five-inch, platform heels. Old-School, Daisy Dukes showed off muscular legs, a firm behind and a tiny waist. Halfway down, she stopped, pivoted, tossed back her long, blonde hair and gave the photographers face as they hungrily grabbed pictures of her. The yellow spotlight above cast a tan light on her ginger complexion. From where I was standing she almost looked high yellow, when the truth was she could pass for white.

I’d been following Benxi on social media, so I knew she had a plane to catch tonight. To where she hadn’t disclosed, but in order to make that flight, she was going to have to stop posing and get out of here soon.

Benxi wasn’t happy with CoCo Records. That was the buzz. I wasn’t surprised. Cig was incapable of handling a talent like her. He wasn’t focused enough to fast track her to where she needed to be. But she wasn’t talking to record companies. Not yet. She’d be leaving him soon. Just like she was leaving this spot now. With her entourage around and behind her, Benxi moved through the party in the way a star does when they’re making their exit. I knew what that looked like. When they were leaving, the whole gang moved with them. Half completed drinks were put down on tables, conversations and dances ended abruptly. It was a game…follow the leader.

“You want something to drink?”

Rufus, the follower I led also doubled as a driver, gopher, bodyguard, investigator, and friend came up on the left. Ruf was a jack of all trades. Whatever I needed done, he got it done. That’s why I’d kept him around since fifth grade.    

“They got Tigre Blanc.” Rufus raised his glass.

“We need to go.” I nodded in Benxi’s direction. She’d stopped moving, but only momentarily to talk to the choreographer she’d worked with in her last video.

“I’ll get the car.” Rufus placed his half empty glass down and rushed out of the club.

Five minutes later, Benxi made her way out the door and into a waiting limo. Her people piled in behind her. I climbed into the Viper I’d rented for the night.

“You got a plan?” Rufus pushed the button to open the panoramic moon roof.

I didn’t respond. He knew that meant no. I hated that I didn’t have one because it meant I was relying on luck. I wasn’t given to trusting luck. It didn’t serve me well. I was a man who always had a plan or two, but tonight I’d figure it out. I’d see how far I could get in my plan to get Benxi’s attention.

Her limo pulled onto the interstate and we followed them as they followed the signs for Miami International. Rufus had informed me that her flight tonight was to Atlanta. He’d gleaned that much from one of the girls in her group. He’d already checked and confirmed that Delta Airlines was the only one with a flight leaving this late, so when he pulled ahead of her car and exited the highway for the airport ahead of them, I wasn’t surprised. He pulled up to the terminal for the airline, and I climbed out as Benxi and her crew pulled up behind us. I went inside and waited.

Minutes later, she entered. Two of her girls dragged the luggage that should have been for six women behind them. The driver/bodyguard hung back and that was when I knew he wasn’t joining her. Dark sunglasses and hat donned, she obviously thought she could make it back to Atlanta without anyone recognizing her. When she reached the counter with her ticket, I joined her.

“The disguise is good, but it’s still hard not to know who you are.”

She turned, looked at me and squinted behind her shades like it was going to give her a better view. “You look familiar.”

“He was at the party,” one of her girls offered.

Benxi’s bottom lip trembled for a moment. She looked back for her man, but he had already slipped out the door. She needed better help.

“Mekhi Johnson,” I said, hoping to take the fear/hesitancy/regret or whatever she was feeling about being followed from a party out of her.

She removed her shades, looked me up and down now and smiled. “You produced a few songs for DisQuiet.”

“Among others.”

“I love that album.” She handed the waiting attendant her ticket and identification. “Especially your songs.”

That’s what I needed to hear her say. That was what luck couldn’t get you. “I’m glad you’re a fan.”

She smirked playfully. I asked if I could join her on the way back to Atlanta. Benxi did a flirty thing with her eyes that I’d seen hundreds of women do in my lifetime. She’d decided I was good looking enough to pass the time with. I let my confidence do the talking when I purchased a ticket and asked the agent to seat us together. Benxi slid her shades on. She hadn’t said she agreed, but she offered no objection. Silence meant yes.

***

The trip to Atlanta went exactly the way I needed it to. We had lots of conversation about the music business, some about her career, and then finally my record label. She had a few drinks. At twenty-one, she was barely old enough for them. They loosened her up. Halfway through the flight, she was flirting. When she wasn’t flirting with her words, she did so with her eyes. She spent long moments analyzing me.  I hoped it wasn’t just the alcohol, because she’d be sober tomorrow.

The stewardess announced we were preparing for the final descent to Atlanta. I was running out of time, so I asked the question I’d gotten on this airplane to ask. “Can I take you to dinner tomorrow?”

She dropped her head to one side and pursed her lips. “Is that dinner for business or pleasure?”

“It can be both. We’ll make sure to get some good food.” I chuckled. “You’ve already said you’re looking to move on from CoCo Records.”

 “Because they’re small, so how would going with you fix that?”

“I have a better team. More creative. I’ve also been in talks with a distribution company. The largest. We’ll have a deal when I bring an artist that they can get behind.”

Benxi seemed to sober quickly. “Who’s the distributor?”

Resigned to not reveal that, I twisted my lips. “The biggest. You can probably guess. A verbal commitment from the right artist will close the deal.”

She nodded. “Must be UMC.”

“I can’t say.” I smiled. I was glad she’d guessed. “What about that dinner?”

She looked disappointed. “I would if I could, but I’m not going to be in Atlanta. I’m going to Tampico first thing in the morning. It’s my grandmother’s eightieth birthday. I’ll be in South Georgia all weekend.”

I chuckled. “I’ve lived in this state my entire life. I’ve never heard of Tampico.”

Benxi laughed with me. “It’s a really small town. Like two hundred people in the entire high school and that’s two counties joined together.”

“Okay, that’s tiny.”

“Her church is big though. First Baptist of Tampico. People come from three counties to attend.” Benxi paused a minute, taking a sip of her drink. “They’re giving her a luncheon tomorrow.”

“At the church?”

She nodded. “She thinks that’s it, but I’m having a surprise party for her. I booked a hall and hired a caterer and a party planner.”

“That’s cool.”

“I owe her. I missed her last five birthdays. Last year I was in the studio and on the road. The years before that…” Her voice trailed off. Her eyes got a faraway look in them. She took another sip of her drink. “Anyway, this year makes up for it.”

I nodded. “And at eighty, I would think you’re right on time.” I paused for a moment and then said, “Back to the dinner question.”

“We’ll have to make it in a few weeks. I’m going to L.A. next week and from there to Vegas.”

Bad timing. “What are you doing in L.A.?”

“Video shoot. Cig is releasing the single I recorded for the new Spike Keith movie. Then I’m opening for Black Sky in Vegas.”

I said it was cool, but I didn’t really feel that way. Not at all. I pressed on. “So, if you could tomorrow, you would?”

She shot me that flirty smile again. “Yeah, I’d be interested in dinner and maybe talking about your label.”

Our eyes locked for a moment. She blushed and I turned away. I wasn’t trying to get this young woman hot for me.

As soon as the plane landed she picked up her cell and turned it on.

“Let me have your phone,” I said.

She cocked an eyebrow, but did as I asked. I programmed my number into it and returned it to her.

“Now give me yours,” she said. I booted my phone up and did as I was told. She programmed a number into mine and handed it back. “We peoples now.”

I found her name in my contacts and pushed dial. Her phone rang. She was so surprised, she jerked forward and spilled the rest of the drink on her lap. “What the heck!” She giggled. “Not trusting many folks these days?”

“Beautiful women give out fake telephone numbers all the time.”

She kept her eyes trained on me. She pursed her lips again. “That’s true, but I bet you ain’t never got a single bogus one in your life.”

I kept the cockiness out of my smile. She was right. But I wasn’t going to take any chances with my future. Making this deal with her was everything.

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An Excerpt

Chapter 1

I know I hadn’t heard the words that came out of my sister’s mouth correctly. Her statement almost made me drop my brand new seven hundred dollar phone in the toilet. I pulled it away from my ear, set it on the knee wall next to the commode and pushed the speaker button.

“I know you’re probably shocked, but I’m so happy I could cry!”

I closed my eyes to the sound of her voice. She hadn’t said what I thought she’d said. She hadn’t said she was marrying Terrance Wright. She couldn’t have said that.

“Deniece, I know you’re still there. I can hear those stupid wind chimes in your bathroom window.”

I peeked over my shoulder at the noisy ornament that had betrayed me and smirked. Even though she knew I was present, I considered pushing the end button and pretending the call had dropped. But I knew there was no point in doing that. Pesky as she was, she’d only call back until I answered.

I swallowed, lowered the toilet seat lid and plopped my “needed to lose twenty pounds” behind down. “I’m here,” I croaked like I’d sucked in a room full of dry air.

“I know you’re surprised, because who would have thought I’d be interested in your leftovers, but it’s a long story how we got to know each other and although I feel kind of bad that he’s kinda ex-ish for you, I can’t help but be happy because I’ve found the man I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

I shook my head. This was crazy. Way out there for a pre-coffee conversation. Kind of ex-ish? Had my sister lost her mind?

“He proposed last night. I was going to call you when I got home but it was close to midnight and I can never remember if you’re in a different time zone.”

I rolled my eyes. “New York is on the east coast just like you are, Janette, but I was asleep at midnight so I appreciate you holding off on your news,” I refused to say good, “until this morning.”

“I have so much to do. I need your help like yesterday. Do you think we could talk about some wedding stuff?”

I stared at the phone, tempted once again to push the end button and disconnect the call. “No, boo.  I’m not even dressed and I have an appointment to get to, so I most definitely can’t talk about this right now. I’ll call you later.”

“Wait!” Janette shrieked. “There’s one more thing. I need a favor.”

My baby sister was and had always been oblivious to my feelings. It would never occur to her to ask, “Are you okay with me marrying the only guy you have ever loved?”

I swallowed again. This lump nearly choked me going down, because it was a knot full of regrets. My sister didn’t really know that much about my relationship with Terrance. I’d done much too good of a job denying and disguising that fact all those years ago to really hold her accountable for my heartache, but still, the backstabber knew there was a rule most women held fast to…never date your girl’s exes. Surely, she knew the rule applied to sisters as well.

“What’s the favor?” I asked, rolling off a few sheets of toilet paper. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t dare ruin my makeup. I had to be out of the door at a meeting with a new client in fifteen minutes.

“I need you to come home as soon as possible and pull the wedding together for me.”

I popped to my feet like someone had sprung me from a Jack-in-the-box. “Janette Malcolm,” I said, using the sir name we shared. “I know you aren’t asking me to plan a wedding for you and my ex-boyfriend.”

Janette’s spoiled attitude came through on the phone. “Why not? You’re a wedding planner and it’s not like he’s a new ex. There’s a string of exes between him and you.”

I fought to keep my mouth shut, because my temper was rising. My sister continued. “And besides the favor is for me not him. I’m the one who needs the help. All Terrance will do is get a tux and show up.”

Terrance in a tux, the image took me back to high school. Specifically, to prom night, which was the last time, I’d seen Terrance in a tuxedo. He’d been wearing it for me, because he was my date. How crazy that the next time I’d see him in one he’d have my sister on his arm. That wasn’t right. In fact, it was all kinds of wrong.

I picked up the phone, walked into my closet and removed the dress I was planning to wear. “I’m really booked out right now. There’s no way I can fit an out of state wedding in my schedule. Hire a local wedding planner.”

“I don’t have money for a wedding planner,” Janette protested, “and the only one who is the least bit reasonable is booked up for our date.”

“Choose another date. I mean, it’s not like you guys can’t move it. He just asked you to marry him last night.”

“We can’t move the date.” Janette hesitated. There was a nervous pause in the air and then she continued, “The wedding is in a month.”

“A month?” I dropped my dress. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. “Why the rush?”

“We need to have it really soon. Remember, I said I had two things to tell you?” Janette paused again. “I’m six months pregnant.”

***

 Gayle Lincoln, my best friend and personal assistant hovered over my desk. “Are you going to do it?”

I took a deep breath. “I don’t think I have a choice.”

Gayle crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Of course you do. We all have choices.”

“She’s my sister.” I dropped my eyes to the paperwork in front of me. I could sense Gayle rolling hers above me.

“She’s being unfair.” Gayle tapped the end of her pen on the desk as if to get my attention. “If she’s going to marry him, which I suppose she nearly has to at this point, she should at least have the decency to do it in Vegas or something.”

I had considered suggesting that or even a wedding honeymoon combination on a tropical island or cruise ship, but Janette was too pregnant for that kind of travel. Even if she wasn’t, she wouldn’t do it. I raised my eyes to meet Gayle’s. “You don’t know Janette. She’s dreamed of having a big wedding her entire life. Every year, when we were children, she’d get a wedding dress for her Barbie doll. She’s been watching those wedding and Bridezilla shows for years.”

“So, I repeat, she should plan something small if she can’t hire someone to handle it.”

I tightened my grip on the arms of my chair. “I know I sound crazy, but at the end of the day, after the wedding is done and even after she has the baby, she’s still going to be my sister. That’s never going to change. I don’t have much family. I can’t cut her off over a man, even if he was mine.” I rolled my eyes.

Gayle grunted like she always did when she was frustrated with me. “I’m not saying cut her off. I’m saying tell her off. Be angry. Let her know how you feel.”

“What’s getting all worked up on the phone going to solve?”

“You’ll be able to check it off the to-do list before you get to Garrison. You don’t want to blow up there. You’ll be in the same house.”

I picked up my cell phone and pushed the gallery icon for the picture Janette had sent to me just this morning. It was a sideways view of her belly. The corners of my mouth turned up. I shook my head. “Fighting isn’t good for pregnant women.”

“Puleeze, pregnant women don’t get a pass on everything.”

I sighed and threw up my hands. “You’ve met her. She’s fragile.”

Gayle pinned me with a look.

I smirked. “Okay, she’s manipulative, but that’s not changing.”

“And you’re allowing yourself to be manipulated which apparently isn’t changing either.” Gayle took a seat. “What’s up with this Terrance anyway? You’ve never really talked about him before this. How do you feel about him?”

I let out a long breath and closed my eyes. “I don’t know.” I shook my head. “I haven’t seen him in a few years. The last time I was home he was dating some woman from Atlanta, but that didn’t work out.”

“So, you keep up with his comings and goings.”

“No, my sister gossips about everybody in Garrison. I listen.”

“How do you feel when she talks about him?”

I shrugged. “Ambivalent. It’s like I want him to move on, but I don’t.”

Gayle nodded. “I’m not trying to be a shrink here, but have you ever thought about why?”

I gave Gayle the stink eye. Yes, she was trying to play shrink. “Because he’s the only man who has ever asked me to marry him. That’s a big deal. It’s like I want to keep him on a shelf for that.”

Gayle looked confused. “I never wanted to keep anyone on a shelf.”

I smirked again. “Gayle, you’re gorgeous. You get a marriage proposal everyday on the subway.”

“From crazy men,” she retorted.

“Well, you had four from men who weren’t crazy before you finally accepted the fifth. Women like me don’t have men falling all over us.”

Gayle narrowed her glare. “What do you mean women like you?”

I wasn’t sure what I meant. I let my words swirl around in my head before I responded. “Look, I know I’m pretty,” I started. That was true, I wasn’t as slim as I wanted to be, but my smooth mocha brown skin and large dark eyes had always been assets men complimented me on. Plus, I was a little on the tall side, five seven to be exact, my legs went on forever in the four inch heels I hiked around in everyday. Men couldn’t seem to get enough of those either, but that had been in my twenties and early thirties. The catcalls were less frequent now and seemed to come from the mouths of drunks rather than good-looking men who were actually worth my time. The ones who weren’t drunk were five foot five and balding. I sighed and waved my hand. “Let’s move on.”

Gayle slid a folder in front of me. “I did the things you asked. I reserved the banquet hall, the videographer and photographer. Those are the contracts from the vendors and your payment receipts. I’ll email copies so you have digital copies.”

“Fantastic. What would I do without you?”

“Hire two hardworking people to take my place.” She chuckled. “I also have a call in to the D.J. and limousine company.”

I sucked in a cleansing breath and fanned my fingers out across the desk. ‘Great, that’s a big help.”

“Did you want me to get you a list of caterers?”

“Some back ups. I have a small company in town I’d like to use. I’m going to call them myself. They’re family friends.”

Gayle put the pen she’d borrowed back in my pencil holder. “Anything else?”

“Yes,” I replied. “You can book me a flight to Atlanta. I’m headed to Garrison, Georgia, whether I want to or not.”

Chapter 2

I hated flying, which was why I hadn’t seen my sister since Christmas, nearly ten months ago. I stopped at a vending machine next to baggage claim, swiped my credit card and selected the ginger ale. Although I knew it didn’t really have ginger in it, the soft drink had quelled my stomach from the time I was a young girl. A lifetime of bouts with  motion sickness had sent my dad to the store on many occasions to get a bottle, so much so that he’d called me a “ginger-holic”. I smiled at the thought and turned the top on the bottle. I took a long sip and washed down the pain of the memory of my dad. He’d been deceased five years and still the heartache from the loss hit me everyday.

“There you are.” I heard Terrance’s voice before I registered that it was him standing in front of me. Tall, dark and handsome. He was such a cliché.

“Terrance.” That was all I could manage to say without wanting to scream.

He looked down at the floor like he was embarrassed and then raised his eyes to mine. I remembered the last time I’d really looked into his eyes. I wondered if he remembered.

“Sis!” Janette’s shriek came from behind and startled me from my memory. She was quick for a pregnant woman. She closed the space between the ladies restroom and us within seconds. Her petite frame, five foot two in height, and never more than a size four was still as petite and cute as ever. It just had a huge lump protruding from it. The green monster that always reared his head when I thought about the favor my sister had in the figure department jumped on my shoulder. She would never be fat. Not even after having a baby.

Janette’s chestnut brown skin glowed. Her dimples, the other thing I envied about my sister, framed her ridiculously gorgeous smile. A headband pushed her shoulder length strawberry blonde hair, likely a wig, off her face. I don’t think I’d ever seen my sister with a headband on. She was already turning into a caricature of a housewife. She looked like a version of Reese Witherspoon dipped in chocolate for the newly filmed black version of Sweet Home Alabama staring, Beyoncé Knowles.  She extended her arms. “I know I’m big as a house, but you can still get your arms around me.”

I leaned down and squeezed. When I released her she scooted around me, grabbed Terrance’s hand and said, “See honey, I told you she’d come.”

“Was there any doubt?” I asked looking Terrance in the eyes again.

I watched his Adam’s apple move up and down. He nodded. “Well, we all know Nectar hates planes, trains and automobiles.”

Nectar, no he did not. I had to clench my fist to keep from clawing him.

“Darling.” Janette grabbed his tie and gave it a good tug. “That little term of endearment you had for my sister has to go.” She didn’t look like Reese Witherspoon anymore. I’d never seen Reese roll her neck and snap her head back.

I sighed. This was exactly why you didn’t get involved with a man someone you cared about had dated. You wouldn’t have messy situations and messy words and messy emotions. I couldn’t believe he’d just called me Nectar.

Terrance chuckled nervously and removed her hand from his tightly stretched neckwear. “Baby, you are going to choke me before I meet my son.” He continued leaning his six foot towering body over to take Janette in his arms. “Besides, I’ve always called your sister Nectar and it was because she was always eating nectarines at lunch in school. You know that. I’ve been calling her Nectar since the first grade.” He kissed Janette on the neck and continued to plant kisses behind her ear. “You are the only something sweet I’m going to want for the rest of my life.”

Ugh, I wanted to turn around and get back on a plane to New York. They were making my sick stomach even sicker. No wonder she was pregnant. They needed to get a room.

I cleared my throat and put my carry-on down at their feet. “I’m going to find my luggage.” Neither of them heard me. I departed anyway and located the carousel that indicated baggage for my flight from LaGuardia, New York. I pulled my lone bag off the conveyor belt and looked back at them. They were standing face to face, holding hands and chatting like the lovers they were. Nectar. Yes, he’d called me that for years, but it had special meaning when he whispered it in my ear the last time. It was on the night of my father’s funeral. The night he’d discovered how sweet I really was. I groaned. This visit might be more difficult than I’d anticipated.

I removed my cell from my bag and sent a text to Gayle:

Tell me why I’m here again?

Less than sixty seconds passed and my answer came.

Because she’s the only relative you care about. She’s pregnant and she needs you. That’s what you told me.

That was it. Our deceased parents would want me to support her, but they might have to do a visitation from heaven to help me make it through the next twelve days, because it was going to take an act of God to help me stop thinking about how I should have said yes when Terrance Wright proposed to me.

 ***

 Garrison, Georgia was a different world from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. I loved that Manhattan was a city that truly never slept and everything I wanted was within walking distance. Great shopping, cultural activities, a diverse offering of food including all the healthy choices I’d come to enjoy that had replaced soul food in my diet. But even with all that New York had to offer I did enjoy coming home from time to time for the peace and quiet and the occasional slab of sho’ nuff fingerlickin’ good southern barbeque. Licking ones fingers was not a cool thing to do in the city, but I could put my back into a meal in these parts. A girl needed to be able to do that once in a while.

We passed the sign alerting us to reduce our speed and Terrance let up on the accelerator. The road became two lanes, bordered on both sides by Japanese honeysuckles. The sweet scent of the flowers greeted us as we passed the “Welcome to Garrison” sign at the city’s entrance.

Garrison was a small, quaint, town forty minutes outside of Atlanta. The downtown area was a roundabout filled with the city municipal buildings, shops, restaurants and a small cinema that played old movies that were on their last big screen before being packaged on DVD and placed in the Red Box. There were a few homes and rooming houses in town, but the majority of residents lived outside of the circle in the houses and subdivisions that encompassed an eighteen square mile area. Like the rest of Georgia, it was segregated, the whites living on the west half of the circle, blacks living on the east and the growing Latino population fitting in wherever they could. Like many small towns across the United States, it had taken a hit during the recession. A few storefronts were boarded up and some of the buildings needed a fresh coat of paint, including the city municipal building.

“Can you believe they’re holding a fundraiser to buy paint and bricks to resurface the court house?” Terrance asked like he’d been reading my mind. “The city is just that broke.” Those were the first words he’d said since he’d spoken at the airport. I almost welcomed the sound of his voice, because Janette hadn’t stopped yakking since we’d piled into Terrance’s truck.

I was seated in the rear of course, and listened while my sister rattled on and on about what she really wanted to get off her wedding registry and how she hoped her friends would still have money to buy a gift off her baby registry. She also talked about all the things she wanted in the wedding. As far as I could tell, she didn’t have the money or the time for most of it. From the side view, I could see Terrance grimacing every time she mentioned something that sounded the least bit expensive. I wondered if he had funds to help pull this event off or if I was expected to not only suffer through the planning and execution, but also finance it. I sighed. I knew my sister was broke. I sent her money every month.

Terrance stopped the truck in front of our family home. Like many of the houses it had been built to accommodate the warm, humid climate and included a large wrap-around porch that provided shade during the heat of the day. The roof was pitched with dormers and it was white wood that appeared to have recently been painted. I couldn’t help but think of my parents every time I saw it, especially my father. He took such pride in owning this house and was meticulous about its upkeep.

“I put a coat of paint on it back in the spring. I know how your Dad was about touching it up, even when it wasn’t quite necessary,” Terrance said as if he’d been reading my mind again. I didn’t respond. Although I appreciated it, I figured paint was the least Terrance could do for my father, after-all, he’d knocked up his baby daughter.

The door opened to my right and Terrance extended a hand to help me climb down. I felt a jolt of electricity ignite and race through my body when he touched me. He fought to look anywhere but at me and then finally did when both my feet were on the ground.

“This is wrong,” I said. “I shouldn’t be here.”

Terrance swallowed and turned my hand loose. “I’ll get your bags.” He made his escape.

“Niecy, what do you think of my flowers?” Janette had her back to us. She had already traveled along the walkway a bit. She stood there with her hands on her hips. From the rear you couldn’t even tell she was pregnant. Her video girl booty was still sitting just as high as it always had. As I closed the space between us, my thoughts flashed back in time to a memory of my mother sitting on that porch. I had only been five when she was killed in a car accident. I didn’t remember much about her, but I remember her sitting on the porch in a rocking chair braiding my hair and humming hymns from church.

The scent of sweet olive flowers drifted to my nose from the planters on both sides of the porch. This house was my parent’s legacy.  It made me remember why I was actually here. Family. Promises. I was here to be a sister even if I’d been betrayed by my own.

“It’s beautiful,” I replied.

Janette wrapped her arm around mine and leaned her head onto my shoulder like she’d always done when we were kids. “I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so glad I’m not alone in the world,” she said and I thought she had read my mind.

“I’ll stick your luggage on the porch and be going.” Terrance passed us and put my suitcases at the top of the steps. He walked back toward us and leaned in to give Janette a quick peck on the cheek. “Call me later,” was all he said and within moments the truck he’d never turned off was in gear and moving down the road.

Janette released my arm. “Come on. Let’s go in. We have a lot to talk about, but your nephew is sitting on my bladder. I’ve got to pee.”

***

By seven p.m. that evening the living room was filled with women that Janette and I had grown up with. Terrance’s mother, whom I’d affectionately always known as Mother Wright and his sister, Pamela, a girl I’d never liked and now a woman I couldn’t stand, were also present for the planning of the whirlwind nuptials. I didn’t need this many hands. In fact, I didn’t need any of them except on the day of the reception to decorate, but this party had been set prior to my arrival. The good news was it was a potluck meeting so the table was covered with enough casseroles, meat dishes and desserts to keep Janette and I fed until we sat down for the rehearsal dinner.

A few big things had already been done. The wedding invitations had gone out weeks ago. The location of the ceremony was easy…Terrance’s father’s church. Mount Moriah Christian Church had beautiful grounds and a gorgeous gazebo and pond behind it. It was the perfect backdrop for a country wedding and the pictures. If it had been spring or summer, I’d have planned an outside event. But it was mid October and the weather, although arid today, could be unpredictably chilly for outdoors. So we were planning for the inside. Gayle reserved a local banquet hall for the reception.

“How many people are in the wedding party?” I asked. Janette had originally selected twelve women but I’d told her it was way too many. They were only expecting a hundred or so guests. My sister didn’t understand wedding etiquette. You couldn’t have twelve attendants when you only had a hundred people. If I was planning this wedding, she wasn’t going to mess with my sensibilities and break all the wedding rules.

Four women and Pamela raised their hands.

“And then there’s you,” Janette added.

“Janette, I’ve already told you it wasn’t a good idea for me to be in the wedding. I’m coordinating the event.”

“No need for that.” Mother Wright stood to her feet. “We have a coordinator. Sister Marie does it all the time and she’s really very good at it.”

Good compared to whom, I thought, but I merely nodded. The look in Mother Wright’s eyes was one that chastised me. She shook her head as if to say, “You are not going to get out of standing up for your sister.” I got the message.

“Mother is right. Sister Marie can direct everyone in,” Janette said. “You must be my maid of honor. You’re my sister after all. You can’t not be in my wedding.”

A loud harrumph came from Janette’s right. “She can pass if she wants to. I wouldn’t be in no wedding if my sister was marrying my ex-boyfriend,” Pamela said. “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t even be in town that day.”

The room fell silent. All eyes were on me including Mother Wright’s. They were waiting for what I’d have to say about that.

Janette stood to her feet, supported her weight by placing her hand near the small of her back and wobbled her way toward me. I noticed she wobbled a whole lot more since Terrance was gone. She moaned and groaned a bit too. She’d been working hard to look cute in front of her fiancé, which was so typical of my sister. Never let a man see you sweat. That was her motto.

“Now, we’re not going to talk about Niecy’s old relationship with Terrance. That’s been over. They are both over each other. My sister loves me. We have her blessing to get married. Don’t we Niece?”

I swallowed hard and lifted my glass of ice tea and took a sip. I nodded and repeated the lines I could completely agree with. “Terrance and I have been over. I love my sister.”

I wasn’t as convincing as I’d hoped I’d be. A few eyes rolled and some heads shook. You could hear a pin drop until Mother Wright clapped her hands and said, “Let’s get back to what we came here for. Next on the list is the food for the rehearsal dinner, right?” She encouraged me with a close-lipped smile and a nod of her head. I had never been really close to Mother Wright, but I knew the kind of woman she was. She cared about family. It meant everything to her. She was probably the only person in the room who really knew why I was here. No matter what I felt about it all, Janette was my sister. I had to get over the betrayal of the marriage and fight for the relationship that our deceased parents would want us to have, no matter what my sister had chosen to do to splinter it.

“Yes,” I fought to grit my teeth. “Let’s talk about the menu.”

By ten p.m. the house was empty, the food put away and my sister was in bed sleeping with her mouth open like we’d all worn her out. She was still in the bedroom she’d grown up in, refusing to move into the master where my father had taken his last breath during hospice. I understood that. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep in the room either. It was a shrine to our parents and we wordlessly agreed to let it stay that way.

Unlike Janette, I wasn’t tired. Even after the flight and ride from the airport and the fight to keep my emotions in check, I was still a bit wired and unable to sleep. I’d forgotten how quiet it was here. The Upper West side of Manhattan had the undercurrent of city noise twenty-four hours a day. I wasn’t used to this silence. After an unsuccessful effort to watch television and read a novel, I grabbed my sister’s keys, locked the house up and climbed into her car. I didn’t drive very often. I didn’t have a car. I’d purposely chosen to live where I could use other means of transportation. Having a car in the city was a burden. I took taxicabs wherever I had to go from the upper west side to the lower east side. And if I was desperate, the subway system would do.

I took a deep breath to quell the nausea that always kind of engulfed me when I sat behind the wheel of a car, started it and pulled out of the driveway onto the main road. I turned on the radio and listened to music from the Quiet Storm croon through the speakers. This radio station probably wasn’t the right choice as the romantic love songs only served to remind me of what I’d been fighting to forget all day, really, all month…that no one loved me. I was thirty-five years old, hadn’t had a date in over six months and now the only man that had ever really wanted me was marrying my sister. I pulled the car over to the side of the road and burst into tears.

“Durn you, Janette, you could have had anyone. Why Terrance?” I cried and I cried and I cried. I was crying so hard that I hadn’t even noticed a car had stopped behind me until I heard the light rap on the passenger side window. My heart froze with fear. Had I checked all my city slickness with my bags at the airport? What was I doing sitting on the side of the road in a car at eleven p.m. in the country? Waiting for a serial killer? I took the car out of park. I let it leap forward a bit to signal him to get out of the way before he was in the ditch. The only reason I didn’t gun the engine was because I might have dragged him down the road.

“Nectar! Wait! It’s me.”

Nectar, nobody called me that but…I put my foot on the brake and leaned a bit to my right to get a better look at him. Well, there was one other person who called me by that silly nickname. I pushed the button to let the window down. “Ethan Wright?!!”

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