Chapter 1

“Jesus is the reason for the season.” The D.J. from Love 101 FM’s smooth voice crooned from the stereo speakers on the table next to her. Brooke Jordan flipped the power button to off before he could say another word. Even though Jesus was the reason for the season, her Christmas was going to be stank with a capital S. There was no getting around that fact.

Brooke pushed the plantation shutters on the windows open to let in the sounds of the reggae influenced Christmas music rising up from below. She couldn’t believe she was spending Christmas week in Montego Bay, Jamaica. It would have been perfect if she wanted to be here, but she didn’t. She wasn’t on vacation. This wasn’t a pleasure trip. Brooke had drawn the short straw in a staff meeting, so she was stuck working. Stank, she thought, stank on steroids.

She leaned against the windowsill, closed her eyes and inhaled a long, intoxicating breath of ocean air. Every aspect of the island was paradise: the weather, the ocean views and the food. There was no doubt about it. But no place was really paradise when you wanted to be somewhere else. Brooke opened her eyes and squinted to see a couple further down the beach. They lay in the sand, making out or maybe even making love. Honeymooners, she knew. She’d seen them arrive a few days ago. Brooke watched as they arrived and others left. She remembered how it was for her when she had honeymooned on an island. She’d been in love like that. She had made love on the beach and then less than two years later, she was signing divorce papers. She tried not to hold it against the entire Caribbean, but there were too many reminders of her loss. She wanted to go home. Today!

Brooke’s cell phone vibrated in her pocket and then she heard a chirp. She recognized the familiar beeping ringtone she’d assigned to her parents. She answered. “Hello. You’re early.” Brooke noted it was seven a.m., which meant it was six o’clock in Charlotte.

“I wanted to get you before you left for work.”

Resting an arm on the windowsill, she said, “You made me nervous for a moment. I thought there might have been some kind of emergency.”

“There is an emergency,” Evelyn Jordan replied. “My daughter isn’t going to be home for Christmas Eve dinner.”

Brooke sighed. No one was more disappointed than she that on the only holiday her family emphatically made sure not to miss being together, she was four hours by plane away. There was just no way to get to Charlotte, actually have dinner with the family, and get back to the island on the same day. She had to work on Christmas Day.

“I’ll be home for New Year’s Eve,” Brooke offered, knowing it was no consolation prize for the annual dinner with her grandmother, parents, six siblings, in-laws and nieces and nephews. She would be the only one missing this year. Her brother, Gage, had returned from a tour in Afghanistan and would be with the family for the first time in two years. Her heart ached and she knew it wasn’t just about the family dinner. She’d been away from her family and friends for far too long. With the ridiculous hours she had to put in on the project, she hadn’t had much time to even socialize and meet other people. Not that she probably would have taken the time to do that either. Brooke was on the verge of sliding into a state of depression and she knew it.

“Is the company sponsoring a dinner for the staff?”

Brooke moved through the large living room of the corporate apartment and entered the kitchen to start the coffeemaker.

“No. Everyone is gone. I mean the people who are still here live on the island. The ex-pats are home. There are two analysts and me. We don’t need more. We babysit the system.”

“Well, maybe you can make dinner. You could invite the analysts. Is one of them nice looking?”

Brooke shook her head. Not more matchmaking. “Mother.” Using “mother” was a sign that she was getting annoyed.

“I’m sorry. I was wondering if a change in environment might…” her mother stopped herself. “Never mind that. You could invite them anyway. People get lonely during the holidays.”

Brooke didn’t respond. People get lonely at Christmas. Forget people. She was lonely. Last year, she was married. Now, she was divorced. Last year, she was with her family. This year, she would be alone. Last year, she was pregnant. This year, she had no child. She didn’t care about what other people needed. She had needs of her own.

“Sweetheart, don’t they kind of work for you?” her mother’s voice broke through her thoughts.

“Not technically. I’m the team leader. It’s not the same as being the boss.” Brooke fought to keep a sigh inside. She had explained the nature of her work to her mother several times, but for some reason the details weren’t processing. “Anyway, we can’t eat together. First off, one has a girlfriend he’s spending time with and the other guy is, I don’t know, anti-social. I hardly know him. Secondly, if I’m home, they’re managing the system. We have to be there for the eighteen hours of the day that we’re up.”

“It seems such a waste not to be able to entertain. You have that big place and the kitchen is lovely.”

Brooke did a visual sweep of the space. Her mother was right. She was in a two-bedroom apartment that actually slept six adults comfortably. The kitchen was fully equipped with every modern convenience a person could use. The community had three swimming pools, a hot tub, sauna, a fitness center and it had the added bonus of being directly on the beach with gulf views from nearly every window she’d seen. The company had spared no expense and Brooke was glad. The hotel she had lived in for the first few weeks had gotten old fast.

“I’m not interested in cooking for myself. Freeze a plate for me. I’ll eat it when I get home. There are more than enough restaurants for me to stop in at. You know I love the local food.”

Her mother conceded. “Okay, sweetie, I know you have to get to the office, so I’ll let you go. What time will you be home this evening?”

“Same as always. Around eight.”

“You’ve been working too hard.”

“I make good money and I like my job. I can Skype with you guys during dinner. It’ll be like I’m there.”

Brooke heard the smile in her mother’s voice. “It will. I’ll take that. Your grandmother reminded me that I need not complain. I have living children. That’s a blessing.”

She smiled at her grandmother’s wisdom and the not so subtle message behind it. “Stop complaining when you’re blessed.” That’s what she always said when Brooke moaned about something.

The coffee maker beeped and she received a text message from her driver that he was outside. “Gotta go. Love you, Mama and tell Daddy I love him too.”

“Oh, Brooke, there’s one more thing.”

She knew it. Her mother never called this early in the morning unless something was up. “Sam called.”

Brooke rolled her eyes.

“I didn’t want to bring it up. It’s not the first time.” Her mother paused. “I thought you should know.”

Brooke swallowed her contempt and tried to keep her voice even. “Thanks, Mama. I received an email. I’ll go ahead and see what it says.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” her mother said. “Have a good day, baby.”

Brooke forced a smile into her voice. “I will.”

They ended the call. She’d lied to her mother. Brooke had already deleted the email without opening it, and she’d deleted the others that came before that one. She pushed thoughts of Sam Riley from her mind the same way she pushed the delete button. She was not going to let rancid memories ruin her day.

She poured her coffee, popped the lid on her travel mug, grabbed her bags and left the apartment.

“Good mornin’, Ms. Brooke.” Desmond, the company’s full-time driver, opened the door to the company van and helped her into the back row.

“You’re cheery this morning,” Brooke replied, getting settled into her seat.

He closed the door and went around to the front and climbed inside. “It’s almost Christmas,” Desmond shrieked happily. “Can you believe it’ll be here in less than two days?”

Brooke took a long sip of her coffee and bit her lip after she felt the sting of the burn. It was still too hot. “I’ve never been away from home for Christmas, so it doesn’t really feel like it to me.”

Desmond shrugged like her woes meant nothing. “Christmas is wherever you are. You get a tree and play some Christmas music and make a little holiday for yourself.”

Brooke chuckled. “A tree?”

“They have plenty in the market. If you want, I can pick one out and set it up for you when you come home this evening. It’s no trouble.”

Brooke smiled. Desmond very respectful and professional, but he had been trying to get in her apartment for some reason or another ever since she arrived on the island.

“There’s a nice tree in the lobby and another out on the beach. We have one at work that I can enjoy too. It’s not a big deal.” She pressed her coffee cup against her lips and her lie and looked out the window for the remainder of the drive from her apartment to the office building. The trip was less than three miles, but it took thirty minutes because Montego Bay’s traffic was gridlocked. Just like it was at home in Charlotte. Where there was work, there was congestion. She surmised you couldn’t escape it.

They turned off of Sunset Boulevard onto Southern Cross Boulevard. Desmond pulled in front of the tall, 55,000 square foot complex that was the home for Global Computer Systems. GCS provides business process outsourcing and information technology solutions for commercial and government clients. Brooke’s position as business analyst was to maintain the servers that processed electronic benefit card transactions for a government nutrition program. The client’s customers had access to the benefits on their cards 24 hours a day, so the system had to be online 24-7 or it was a customer service nightmare. They’d had those nightmares in the past. In order to ensure that the company didn’t lose the government contract, GCS went through a massive technological upgrade in all the offices where they outsourced, which included this location.

Desmond opened the door on her side. Brooke stepped out and reached in for her bags.

“Would you like me to come get you for lunch?”

“No, thanks. I’ll get something up the street,” she replied, referring to the multitude of area restaurants she had to choose from.

“You text me if you change your mind about that tree.”

She smiled. “Not likely. Even if I were inclined, I don’t have time.”

“You do keep long hours, but at least you have some more help today.”

Brooke wasn’t sure what he meant by that. She tilted her head forward. “More help?”

“I picked a gentleman up at the airport last night.”

Brooke wasn’t aware of anyone else joining them. She wondered who had been given the daunting task of showing up the day before Christmas Eve. She knew she was being replaced in a few days so she could go home for a week, possibly for good. But she’d assumed the coworker that was replacing her wouldn’t arrive until after Christmas. She also knew it was a woman, not a man.

She was way too curious to wait to find out who the mystery person was. She took a few steps toward Desmond and asked, “Do you remember his name?”

“I don’t. I was told to meet him and hold up the company card,” Desmond said. “It was late and he had to take a connection in from Kingston, so he was tired. He fell asleep in the car on the way from the airport.”

Brooke nodded. If he’d flown to Kingston, he hadn’t come from the Charlotte office.

Desmond continued. “He was here before, I think. But he either walked to work or rented a car. I didn’t drive him.”

Brooke shrugged. “I guess I’ll find out today.”

“In a few minutes,” Desmond added. “He asked for an even earlier call than you, so he’s already here.”

Brooke nodded again. “Thanks for the heads up. I’ll see you later.”

Desmond smiled. As was his habit, he climbed in and waited for her to clear the entrance of the building. As she was coming in, Brooke caught sight of a woman that she’d seen many times in the square near the restaurants and shopping areas. She appeared to be homeless on most days, choosing to sit on the ground or lie on the waist high concrete walls that enclosed the main walking areas. Two of the security guards had her, one under each arm and were escorting her out of the building.

One of them tipped his hat and the other greeted her, “Good morning, Ms. Jordan. I already turned the key in the elevator, so you can go right up.”

“What’s going on?” Brooke felt sorry for the woman. She looked like they were manhandling her a bit.

“She knows there’s no trespassing,” the other guard replied.

“Wait.” Brooke stopped in front of them. She reached into her handbag and took out some Jamaican dollars she’d had converted from U.S. currency. It was more than enough to feed the woman for several days.

“Ma’am, no need,” the guard stated.

“I know you’re doing your job, but please turn her loose,” Brooke insisted. They did as they were instructed. Brooke took the woman’s hand and pressed the money into it. “Get something to eat okay.”

The woman looked down at the bills and cackled. “I thank you, Ms. Brooke, but I’m not hungry.”

Brooke was taken back. Her first name. “How do you know---?”

“I heard the people you work with call you that,” she said. “You’ve got a good heart. God is going to bless you with love.”

Brooke opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it when she realized she didn’t really have anything to say. Brooke was a bit uncomfortable with the lady’s words, especially since she was a stranger that appeared to need someone to speak into her own disheveled life. But she wasn’t going to assume that God wasn’t using her. What was that scripture her grandmother quoted about “entertaining angels unaware”? So even though she’d simply wanted to make sure the woman ate and wasn’t thrown out like trash by the security guards, Brooke paused to consider the stranger’s words.

“Any idea where I’m going to find this love?” Brooke fought to hide the hint of sarcasm that threatened to coat her tone.

“You’ve already found it,” the woman replied. “Just give a little and life will give back.”

Brooke had no idea what she could be talking about. Other than giving out of her wallet as she just had, there wasn’t any other opportunity for her to share with anyone. Brooke nodded her understanding and watched the woman push through the revolving door and exit onto the street.

One of the guards escorted her to the waiting elevator and continued to hold the doors open while she stepped in.

“She’s a crazy lady. Been cuckoo since I was a kid. Keep your money the next time.”

Brooke supposed the guards were right. They would certainly know better than she. But her grandmother had taught her that if we have the time of day for a dog, we have it for each other. Besides, the money was nothing. She made plenty.

The elevator doors closed. She pushed the button for the fourth floor of the building where the offices for I.T. were housed. The main server was on the basement level. The three intervening floors comprised a call center. Those spaces were empty today, because it was Sunday. Very few call center staff worked on Sunday and those that did were in the United States offices.

Brooke heard her cell phone beep. She reached into her purse to remove it and felt a sharp bump against the bottom of the elevator car right before it paused. The elevator seemed to reboot and start again. She made a mental note to tell security to contact building maintenance and a second note to remind herself to use the other elevator until they fixed the problem. She looked down at her phone, opened the text message and read the words:

Aren’t you usually at your desk by now?

Her heart started racing. She cleared the screen and dropped the phone back into her purse. The elevator doors opened. The late night arrival Desmond had spoken of…

“Good morning, Brooke. I’ve missed you.”

Brooke let out a long breath. Christmas just got upgraded to ratchet.

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Chapter 1

Raine Still wanted to die. Literally. She wanted her life to be over. This was a strange revelation to come to at this moment, but her monotonous life was just as it had been the past thirty-five Friday nights. Maybe if she broke her routine, stopped coming to the supermarket, picking up salmon or steak to take home and cook and eat alone, she would feel differently. Maybe if she agreed to join her coworkers at happy hour she would have had some fun and she’d feel differently. Maybe if it hadn’t been so long since she’d had someone, anyone in her life that wanted to be with her, she would feel differently. But Raine didn’t have anyone in her life. She didn’t really like her coworkers all that much and she was already here at the store, so it was too late for maybes.

“Ms. Still, are you ready?”

Raine drew her eyes to the cashier’s. As large as this city was, the cashier knew her name. Raine knew she was Amanda, because the nametag said so, but she found it sad that Amanda knew hers. Every Friday night, they met, and exchanged greetings over food and money. Habit and routine were supposed to be good, but Raine had long since believed them to be evil.

“Paper or plastic,” Amanda asked. Amanda knew she wanted paper, but Raine had learned many Fridays ago that the woman was required to ask, lest her listening manager scold her for not doing so.

“Paper,” Raine responded. Amanda promptly retrieved a bag and began to check her groceries. The total came quickly. Raine slid her card to pay for her items, picked up her bag and left the store. She usually made more polite conversation. After all it would be the only conversation she’d have with a human being until she began work again on Monday morning. But tonight, Raine wanted Amanda to remember that she was solemn, because if the story made the news about the young woman found dead in her Southpark residence from a suicide, Raine wanted Amanda to be able to recount the facts to her friends accurately. She wanted Amanda to say, “She seemed down or sad.” Raine had no idea why that mattered, when nothing, not even breathing mattered.

She exited the store and climbed into her car. A young mother pushed a shopping cart with two small children past her door. She’d always wanted children. Raine had wanted a family, and she couldn’t fathom why God had not allowed her to have the thing she wanted most. Well, second to most. What she wanted most was her parents, but they were both dead. She sighed and started the car.

The ride home was unremarkable. She entered the house, kicked off her shoes and placed her bag on the kitchen counter. Raine shed her coat and buried herself into her favorite sofa cushion. She remembered the faces of those children at the supermarket. For some reason, they were etched in her mind. The memory of them reminded her of her failure. Her failure to carve out the life she wanted for herself.

Her cell phone rang. The face of her best friend, and former college roommate, Kiara Baker appeared on the screen. Kiara had been calling for days. She was worried. But Kiara had moved to Phoenix nearly a year ago. Phoenix seemed like a million miles away. Raine let it go to voicemail like that was some kind of punishment for leaving her. Truthfully, she knew she wasn’t that petty. Raine just didn’t feel like talking which was unfair to Kiara, because she hadn’t felt like talking all week. When the phone stopped ringing, a text message came through.

I’m worried. Please call me.

Raine’s eyes became wet with tears. “I can’t call you,” she whispered. She tucked her feet under her bottom and leaned back against the sofa cushion. Raine was too sad to call anyone. She had tried hard not to wallow in it, but she was barely holding on. Questions swirled around in her head: Where had she gone wrong? How did she let herself come to this place?

She went to college, started a career like every other woman, but then she stalled. Nothing happened. She’d had no series of boyfriends or dates that would get her closer to marriage. Was she so utterly unapproachable that she’d warded off every man that would have thought she was halfway decent looking? Or had the years of teleworking in isolation and the evenings and weekends spent working at Hope House with the homeless cut her off from civilization? Raine didn’t know if it was her or her lifestyle that had brought her to this place. But she did know she was tired of it. She was tired of the life she had. Living it everyday had become a burden and she had no idea how to change it.

Raine stood and left the living room for the office/sitting room. She’d converted her formal dining room into this tranquil space. It was her favorite room in the house. She’d had a window seat installed under the bay window and covered the seating with a brocade floral fabric in a satin finish that had just the right shades of rose and mint green. Next to the window was her writing table, an antique Queen Anne style desk that she and her mother won at an auction. This little nook was where Raine read, relaxed, dreamed, and where she penned those dreams in her journal.

On the wall above the desk she had a sign her father had carved and painted for her that read, A Room of Raine’s Own. The phrase was taken from the title of an essay she’d read in college by Virginia Woolf. Raine had talked about the insight of Ms. Woolf endlessly the summer she’d read the essay. Eight years later when she purchased her house, her father surprised her with the sign. He’d remembered her rambling and his effort blessed her so. Raine didn’t think there was anything more valuable in her entire house than that gift. She smiled just thinking about the joy it had given her over the years.

She looked to the right. On the other end of the room was her home office. She’d been teleworking three to four days out of the week for a few years. That space had the same relaxing themes, but it was in sharp contrast to her woman cave in terms of relaxation. Though it paid extremely well, Raine despised her job and the only reason the two spaces were in the same room was because her company required teleworker’s home offices to be on the first floor of their dwelling. No stairs reduced the company’s liability for worker’s compensation related injuries at home. Since this was the only room on the first level of the house besides the kitchen, living room and a powder room, this was it. She’d planned to move her private little nook, but then her dad had passed away and her mother became ill shortly after. Now she had no desire to move it. Besides, she was able to compartmentalize the spaces and ignore one when she was in the other.

Raine took a seat at her writing desk, opened the door and removed a prescription bottle of pills that she had placed there. Two months of sleeping pills. Sixty pills would put a dinosaur in a comma. They would surely end her misery. She opened the bottle and poured the pills out. She played with them for a few minutes, taking in the smooth, hard texture. She lined them up in rows of ten like white lines of cocaine across the width of the forest green desk blotter.

Were these tiny little pills the answer to all her problems? Could she really just take them and disappear into heaven with her parents? Disappear from the hell she was living that was void of anyone. She was convinced they were. Hanging herself seemed gruesome. Raine had already failed miserably at slitting her wrist. She didn’t like pain. Escaping pain was the whole point. She sighed. Her stomach growled like a hungry bear was inside of her. She hadn’t eaten since morning. Taking pills on an empty stomach might cause her to vomit and that would be disastrous. She’d read stories about people who failed at overdosing on pills turning into vegetables. That was not going to be her story. She was going to be successful this time. God himself was going to have to come down from heaven to stop her. Raine was determined when she closed her eyes tonight she would wake up on the other side of life. She stood and went to the kitchen to make her last supper.

***

Raine stared at the phone until it stopped ringing. It had been a local number. She didn’t know anyone local that would be calling her after nine on a Friday evening, so she decided it was a wrong number. She ignored it and went back to writing the letter she was leaving for Kiara. Raine looked at the glass of water and the pills. It wouldn’t be long before she’d be done with her short note and then she’d have to take the next step, swallowing them all. She felt overwhelmed by the thought. Her throat closed. She could hardly breathe enough to push the words out of her mind and onto the paper.

The phone rang again. Answer it, a voice in her head said. So instead of ignoring it again, she swiped the screen.

“Hello, may I speak to Raine Still?”

“This is she.” Raine rolled her eyes. Who else would it be? It was her number.

“Oh, Raine, thank goodness. This is Elissa Wilson from the arts council. How are you, dear?”

She immediately regretted her snarky thoughts. Her mother had loved this woman. “I’m well.” Raine put down the pen and pushed the sheet of paper away from her.

“That’s good to hear. Well, I do apologize for calling at the last minute, but we have tickets for you.”

Raine frowned. “Tickets?”

“You called a few months ago about tickets to The Show. At the time we were sold out. I know how much your mother, God rest her soul, loved The Show and supported it every year. I felt horrible that we were sold out.”

Raine closed her eyes and opened them to possibility. “Ms. Wilson, are you calling to say there are tickets?”

“Why yes, dear. I didn’t know that our director put tickets aside in your mother’s name. I just discovered this a week ago, but I didn’t have a contact number for you. I sent a few emails but you didn’t respond. It occurred to me that the secretary at Oak Hill Church would have your phone number, so I called her up and begged for the number. Again, I apologize for the late notice. She just got back to me less than ten minutes ago.”

Tickets to The Show. Raine closed her eyes to the delight of it. Her mother’s very favorite thing. She had promised her mother she’d continue to support the arts council. She’d done so with monthly donations from her bank account, but she’d missed the deadline to get tickets for this year’s performance.

You must support and attend the theatre. The arts are important. Culture is important. The only thing that separates us from the animals is culture and education.” She’d heard that countless times during her childhood and on up into her adulthood.

“I won’t see my grandchildren, but make sure you take them to the theatre. Introduce them to museums and the ballet. Make sure they see The Show every year.”

Raine felt lightheaded. She was glad she was sitting or she surely would have fainted and hit the floor. “Tell me, Ms. Wilson, when can I pick up the tickets?”

“Well, that’s just it, dear. Like I said, it’s last minute. Our fault here. Please understand.”

She was getting frustrated with the drama, but she kept her tone even and courteous. “It’s fine, Ms. Wilson. Please give me the details.”

“The tickets are for tomorrow night’s performance. Nine p.m. They’ll be at the window in your name.”

Raine nodded. Tomorrow night was perfect.

“There are four of them,” Ms. Wilson said interrupting her thoughts.

Raine frowned again. “I only need one.”

“Well, you have four. Perhaps you can invite friends to join you. There’s no charge for them, so you never know, people may be willing to shuffle plans around for free theatre tickets.”

Friends. Raine almost laughed out loud. She didn’t have any of those. “I doubt that’ll happen, Ms. Wilson. I think it would be better if you tried to sell them or gift them to someone else.”

“It’s too late for that. If you can’t use them, they’ll just go to waste. Please do try to find a taker amongst your friends.”

Raine nodded. “Of course. I’ll see what I can do. Thank you, Ms. Wilson. Thank you so much for tracking me down.”

“Enjoy the performance, dear.”

They ended the call.

Raine looked at the pills and the paper and pen. She raised her hands to her ears, covered them and shook her head.

“What am I doing?” Her voice was a desperate squeal. She was shamed. Her parents wouldn’t want her to do this. Even though she wanted to see them again, they would not want to see her. Not dead at thirty-four. Her mother had to reach down from heaven and put tickets in front of her to make her see that. She groaned. The anguish from her pain filled the quiet room. Raine dropped her arms, turned her wrist up and looked at the scars from the time she’d cut her wrist a year ago in an unsuccessful attempt to end things after her mother’s funeral. Why had she let the idea of death consume her? Why couldn’t she find the will to fight for her life? She didn’t know, but she did know one thing. She was not killing herself tonight. She had a date with her mother tomorrow.

Raine stood, left the room as it was and went up the stairs to her bedroom. She opened the closet and walked to the rear where she kept dresses for formal occasions. She chose one she’d purchased but had never worn. It was perfect for a night at the theatre. She hung it on the hook inside her closet door. Walked to her bed, climbed in and pulled the comforter over her body. Her mother’s show. Raine had a reason to live another day. God had given her the sign she prayed for. Maybe there was something she was supposed to do with her life after all.

Chapter 2

Gage Jordan wasn’t crazy about the theatre. In fact, at this stage of his life, he wasn’t crazy about anything that was pretend. Having received his medical discharge papers after serving his fifth tour in the Middle East, he wasn’t able to reconcile anything pretentious or frivolous with the reality of life in the war torn country he had called home for more of his adult years than the country he actually called his real home. But it was his parent’s anniversary. They wanted their children in attendance and standing at attention he would be.

His cell phone vibrated. He removed it from his pocket. The installed walkie-talkie app had an incoming message. He pushed the button and listened.

“You are as slow as an old woman, Gagey. Forward march your hind parts down the stairs.”

A smile touched his lips. His sister, Cree was as animated and descriptive as she had been the day she uttered her first word, which was not mama or daddy, but paday which was her version of party. And she was right. They had been waiting for him for much too long.

He stood and took the two steps that closed the distance between the tub and the sink. Gage had been dressed for more than twenty minutes. Instead of exiting his bedroom and making the trip downstairs to join his family, he’d been hiding out in his bathroom. He’d been hiding from rest of the evening, because he’d already given just about all the mental energy he had to his family.

It had been a long day. It began with breakfast with his parents, served by his older brother, Chase, a gourmet chef with a rising star of a catering business. During breakfast, anniversary gifts were presented and love and laughter were exchanged, as they took a long trip down memory lane. Then the Jordans met for an early dinner at his parent’s new favorite restaurant, The Cajun Queen, where they had ridiculous cuts of blackened steak and enormous prawns covered in rich and decadent Creole sauces.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough, they piled into their cars and met up at The Crave Dessert Bar, one of Cree’s haunts. There everyone loaded up on cheesecake, pies, cupcakes and every other manner of high caloric, sinful dessert they could shove in their mouths. And now they were headed to the theatre for their annual get together to see The Show.

The Show was a variety presentation of various local talents, many of them children. Most of it was musical and included singing, dancing, and instrumental performance pieces. There was even some comedy. It was family friendly, entertaining, well done and any other positive words Gage could think to describe a show of its kind, but singing and dancing and humor were hardly palpable for him. Not at this time.

“You’re a soldier,” he whispered to himself as he raised his hand to straighten his tie knot. In some ways, his battle to re-enter civilian life was worse than the war had been overseas, but he was making the transition, one day at a time.

Gage exited the bathroom, his bedroom and took the steps as quickly as he could. Clapping loudly as he entered the room he shouted, “Okay, let’s go show them that we can show up on time for The Show.”

Cree stood and closed the distance between them. “You look handsome. I think this is the first time in years that I’ve seen you in a suit that wasn’t issued by the Army.” She pursed her lips. Then frowned as she studied his tie. “Didn’t Uncle Sam teach you how to center your tie?” She reached for the knot. Gage grabbed her hands a little more forcefully than he intended to.

“It’s as straight as it needs to be,” he said apologizing with his eyes after he released her.

Cree’s bottom lip quivered. She whispered, “Are you okay?”

He nodded. “It’s been a long day and I’ve only been home a few weeks. I’m adjusting.”

Cree frowned again and sighed in much the same manner as she had the other times he’d reminded her that he was adjusting. He knew she didn’t mean any harm. She just wanted her older brother back and having no frame of reference for all that he’d been through meant she had high expectations for that to happen. Gage knew it was impossible. He’d been changed forever by the war. But he could pretend with the best of them, so he forced a grin, clapped his hands again and barked the order, “Line up Jordan Clan.”

His siblings stood and lined up at the door in order of birth. Doing so was a habit they’d carried over from childhood. Their mother, Evelyn Jordan, said it was easier to keep up with them if they stood in line in ascending order of the way she’d birthed them, so it began with the youngest, Arielle, followed by Drake, Cree, Cade, Brooke, a space for him and then finally, the oldest of the group, his brother, Chase. The only difference in the line up now was that all three of his brother had wives next to them, but they were still the Jordan seven.

They exited Brooke’s townhouse, and filled as few vehicles as they could get into comfortably. Their parents, driven by a limo they’d rented for the occasion, were probably already in route to the theatre.

Brooke, Cree, and Arielle happily climbed into his Hummer. The truck was a gift Gage had purchased for himself with the intention of celebrating his exit from the military. He now realized that not only had it been a spontaneous overindulgence, the vehicle also symbolized a military tank. He’d only managed to remind himself that his permanent disability retirement from the Army was not a thing he wanted to celebrate.

He said a prayer of protection as he always did before he started an engine and then Arielle turned on the radio and filled the car’s cabin with music that she and Cree rocked and sang to. He and his sister Brooke, the old folks at thirty-six and thirty-four respectively, admonished them to lower the volume on their vocal collaboration. They did so, but only for a minute.

Gage trailed behind the other two cars. Chase and his wife, Pamela and Drake and his wife, Olivia were in one vehicle and his brother, Cade and his wife, Savant were in another. Cade and Savant never joined anyone no matter how much room was in the car. It was said that Savant was not easy to share a small space with. Gage had been gone for fourteen years so he didn’t know. But he assumed it was true, because his brother, once fun and lively, seemed stressed and burdened. The man’s chest was less out than it should have been. He was graying early, which was something Jordan men didn’t do. Gage knew better than anyone what stress could do to a man. His career in the military had taught him that stress killed if it was not properly managed. Even if one took the time to exercise, eat right, and get proper rest, they still had to take control of their mind or thoughts about the things that were stressing them would eat them alive. That he knew for sure, because his own mind had practically devoured him whole.

The three car caravan moved effortlessly through the streets of Charlotte, from Myers Park area where most of his siblings lived to the Plaza-Midwood area where the East Charlotte Black Art Theatre was located. When they arrived, their parents, Nathaniel and Evelyn Jordan were stepping out of their limousine.

Gage observed his father’s tender handling of his mother. Of all the men he’d respected in his fourteen year career in the military, he had never met a man that he thought more of than his father. Forty years of marriage and an unquestionable devotion to a woman he met and married in a week, seven children and a successful business in Jordan Home Renovations that they had grown together and were now transitioning to sons Cade and Drake was a lot to admire. He didn’t know many people who could testify to such a fine example of commitment and hard work.

He followed the other two cars into the parking lot outside the small theater, hopped out and opened the three passenger doors and helped his sisters down from the tall vehicle.

“That was a nice ride,” Arielle crooned. “As soon as I get good and in the black I’m going to get me a nice used H2.” Arielle had just started a business management consulting company. She was working hard. But business was contract to contract with some weeks in between clients, which made her anxious. Her father and siblings assured her that all entrepreneurs had to build a portfolio and that a business didn’t grow overnight. Gage was proud of her for leaving corporate America and doing her own thing.

“You can take this one off my hands if I don’t get a job soon,” he replied.

Cree laughed as he reached in to help her. “You’re going to get that job with the feds next week.” She reached up for his tie and pushed the knot again. “What’s wrong with this tie?” This time he didn’t stop her from her manipulation. “I’m not used to you not being all buttoned up properly.”

A smile lifted the corner of his mouth. “Maybe I’m trying to relax my look. Who knows, next week I might show up with a blazer and no shirt.”

All three of his sisters laughed.

It was Brooke who said something this time. “It doesn’t hurt to do something different. Especially if what you’ve been doing isn’t working.”

Cree smirked. “Listen to Ms. All In Love trying to tell someone to step out of the box. If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be tied to some laptop doing that work-a-holic thing.”

Brooke planted her hands on her hips. “Do not try to take credit for the new me. My man helped me to step away from the computer. Not you.”

Cree rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but I had to convince you to give your man a chance. You almost blew that.”

Brooke waved Cree’s statement off. “Ain’t nobody got time for all this fiction. Mom and Dad are waiting for us.”

They met up with their coupled siblings and made their way across the street to the theater.

The smile on his mother’s face made the effort to be here worth it. She’d supported this venue since the days when she and his father lived in the neighborhood and that had been more than twenty years ago. The effort began with an afterschool program in a small community center. Drama, music, and visual arts were introduced to low income children in the neighborhood. Soon it became apparent that the children loved acting and dancing and singing more than anything else, so the center director shifted most of the activities that way and The Show evolved. The Black History Show known simply as The Show was a showcase of different scenes from slavery to the civil rights movement. Adults were also in the performance and every year they managed to get a celebrity to join the cast. This year the spotlight would be on television and movie personality, Loretta Divine.

Cree and Brooke joined their mother in the line to pick up tickets and the rest of the group waited off to the side and debated about whether or not the Panthers would go all the way in the playoffs.

“What do you mean? I spoke with Ms. Wilson yesterday.” Gage heard his mother say. There seemed to be some kind of misunderstanding at the box office that his brothers and father had not yet become aware of because of their banter about football. Gage left the discussion to see about the issue his mother was having.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“There’s a mix up with the tickets. They’re trying to work it out now.” Cree’s mouth was a thin line of disappointment. “I don’t know why these people won’t email you tickets. All this ‘will-call’ at the box office is prehistoric.”

“Or at least pre-email,” Gage teased.

Cree hit him playfully and more light entered her eyes. “You got jokes. It’s good to hear one come out of your mouth.”

He swallowed a protest. It was true that he’d been less than fun to be around since his discharge, but he was trying. He was trying so very hard and no one in world understood all that he was dealing with. They had no idea how hard it was to transition to civilian life after being a soldier for nearly fourteen years. And then there was his guilt over what had happened to his friend, J.J., during his last assignment. Gage was still trying to recover from that. Before his mind wandered back to the memories, he heard Brooke exclaim loudly.

“Oh my goodness! Raine Still!”

Gage and Cree turned in the direction of the woman who had caught Brooke’s attention. Brooke closed the distance between Raine and herself. It seemed to take a few seconds for her to recognize Brooke. When she did, a warm smiled formed over brilliant teeth. She accepted the heartfelt hug from Brooke. Before they parted, Raine looked over Brooke’s shoulder right into his eyes. Gage felt his stomach drop.

“How are you?” Brooke asked, pulling Raine’s attention back to herself. They began the girl chatter involved in catching up.

Gage couldn’t pull his eyes away. Her elegant shoulders rose and fell as she released an exaggerated huff about her dress being an old thing when Brooke complimented it. She raised a hand with long, pretty fingers to sweep her shoulder-length, straight styled hair behind an ear.

Cree’s voice sliced through his thoughts. “Wasn’t she in school the same time you were?” Then she waved off her question. “Never mind. You probably wouldn’t remember her. She was a few years behind you.”

I remember her, he thought. It had been years since he’d seen her. “She attended Cade’s wedding,” he offered like that was his only instance of acquaintance. It was not.

Cree frowned. “That’s right. Her mother sang.”

Gage’s exchange with Raine at the wedding had been brief. A dance that he’d wished could have lasted longer. But her mother became ill, something about eating nuts and needing to go home to take Benadryl. The sudden break seemed just as disappointing for her as it had been for him. Two days later he’d shipped off for his first tour to Afghanistan. That had been his first of two encounters with Raine.

“You all remember Raine,” Brooke said as she practically pulled the woman by her arm toward them.

“Of course,” Cree replied as she stepped and air kissed her. “It’s been a minute. Fab dress.”

She thanked Cree and then raised her eyes to his again.

Gage thought his heart would come out of his chest. She hadn’t changed. He knew that because he remembered every line of her beautiful face, which seemed to have gotten better looking over the years, probably because she’d filled out some. She was a skinny teenager. Scrawny might be an even a better description. Braces and a mass of wild curly hair that no ponytail holder or cornrows seemed to tame, at least not by her adoptive Caucasian mother. But she was pretty. He remembered always thinking those huge brown eyes would make some man melt one day.

Gage had been a senior when she entered their high school. Captain of the football team, he’d been tied down with the head cheerleader. But he’d always been curious about Raine Still, the loner with the eccentric seventy year-old parents. That’s why he’d asked her to dance that night at the wedding. That’s why his heart was pounding out of his chest now.

Gage spoke her name as a greeting. “Raine.” He didn’t know if he was supposed to hug her or shake her hand, so he did neither. She smiled coyly, but those big brown eyes were not shy. “It’s good to see you again,” he added.

Before she could respond, their mother broke the conversation. Her face was a mask of disappointment. “You’re not going to believe this.”

“What is it?” Cree asked.

“They don’t have all my tickets.” His mother practically cried out the words. She handed the tickets to Cree and reached into her handbag for a tissue.

“Well, are they sold out?” Brooke asked.

“You know this show sells out before Halloween every year.” His mother continued. “This is ridiculous.”

They were regrouping and trying to figure out what they could do when Raine spoke up.

“Maybe I can help.” Her words offered hope. She was speaking to his mother, but she drew her eyes to his for a moment. “How many do you need?”

A curious expression came over his mother’s face and while frustration still tainted her words, there was a slight lilt in her tone when she replied, “Just two.”

“I have two extra tickets,” Raine said and then she smiled. It was a smile that was brighter than any of the stars in the sky. Gage felt his stomach drop again.

Raine swept past Cree and went to the now empty ticket counter, exchanged a few words with the gentleman there and came back with two tickets in her hand. “I had four, but I don’t need them.”

His mother blinked, then broke into a gracious smile. “Are you sure dear?”

Raine nodded. “Of course I am.”

“What do we owe you?” Gage interjected removing his wallet from his pocket. He knew from the conversation in the car ride that the tickets were expensive.

Raine shook her head. “Oh, no, they were complimentary, so…” Her eyes met his again and her voice came across with a nervous tremble. “They were free.”

Gage returned his wallet to his pocket. She was blushing. Still shy, he thought. And he still found it incredibly sexy.

Brooke’s interruption broke their gazes. “You’re a godsend, Raine. Mother, you remember Raine, her mother Amanda Still sang at –”

Evelyn Jordan gave Brooke a look that shut her eldest daughter’s mouth. “Of course. Her mother and I worked on the arts council together for years. How could I not know her?” She leaned in and gave Raine a motherly hug. “How have you been, honey?”

Raine closed her eyes, and made the hug deeper as she held on longer than most would with someone who wasn’t family. If Gage didn’t know any better he’d think she was soaking in some motherly love. When the hug broke, Raine replied, “I’ve been fine, ma’am.”

His mother continued, “I tried to reach out to you after the funeral.”

Raine nodded. Her eyes became misty and her voice trembled some more. “I know, Mrs. Jordan. I apologize for not responding.”

His mother nodded understanding. “I know it’s been hard.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Raine was gracious, but Gage knew she was heartbroken. He could see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice. He wondered who had passed away. Both her parents had to be in their late eighties.

“Are we going in or not?” Savant Jordan, Cade’s irritable wife, interrupted in a less than amiable tone. “I’d love to take these five inches off underneath my feet. It’s cold out here and it’s going to get crowded in there. We don’t want to have to sit in the back.”

The air in their space suddenly got a little chillier. Cree handed her all but four of the tickets. Through a tight smile she said, “Why don’t you disperse those, Sugar, and go on in.”

Gage noticed everybody’s smile was tight around Savant. The failing actress seemed to be failing at more than her career. Gage also noticed she and Cade were at each other’s throats most of the time in arguments sparked by her temper. Rumors of a separation were in the air. Jordan’s didn’t end marriages, so Cade was holding on for dear life.

Savant swished away. She shoved all of the tickets but two at Arielle, took Cade by the arm and pulled him into the theater with her. Gage wondered if it was normal for her to run down a list of complaints like she’d just done. Shoes, cold, crowd...he felt sorry for his brother.

The rest of the family stepped to their party. After introducing Raine as an old friend, Brooke announced it was time to be seated because a swarm of people were coming from the parking lot.

His parents locked arms. His father said, “I should make y’all line up.”

The Jordans laughed and their little crowd made a move to the main entrance.

Brooke hung on to Raine for a moment, expressing how good it was to see her, but then looked around and asked, “Who are you here with?”

Raine’s bottom lip quivered and the glow left her eyes. She shrugged. “Late. I’m sure they’ll be here in a minute.”

Gage sensed her disappointment. True to herself, Brooke offered, “Come in and sit with us until.”

Raine declined with a shake of her head. “I might have missed seeing their car go into the parking lot while we talked. Really, it was wonderful seeing you again, Brooke. You look fantastic.”

Brooke smiled widely. “So do you.”

Gage couldn’t agree more. Brooke looped her arm through his and said, “Thank you so much for the save. It’s our parent’s anniversary, so it’s a special night.”

Raine tilted her head to the left and said, “Please congratulate your parents for me. It was my pleasure to help with the tickets.”

But something about those tickets hadn’t been her pleasure. Gage could see it in her eyes. They weren’t quite as bright and the smile on her face reminded him of the one Cree had given Savant. It was disingenuous, but in a sad way.

“Good to see you again.” He nodded and fell into step with his sister.

Gage released Brooke’s arm to allow her to enter the single door ahead of him, then glanced back. Raine was not facing their direction. He hesitated, hoping she would, but she continued to look towards the parking lot.

Her date is late, he thought. Must be a woman because surely a man would have picked her up at home. He chastised himself for wondering if it was some out of order dude. That was none of his business, but the rapid beating of his heart made him think he wished it was. He pushed the thought from his mind before he slipped through the door to join his family.

Chapter 3

While everyone else in the theater was laughing and applauding the hilarious antics of the comedic scene the children were doing around the early civil rights era, Raine was clutching a wad of tissues and fighting to keep racking sobs inside. She was glad the theater was pitch black. She was also glad she’d been the last person to be seated. It allowed her to take the seating that was leftover, one of two in the very rear of the venue.

Although she was sad to be attending The Show without her mother for the first time in the twenty years since its inception, Raine was more saddened by the fact that she had nearly missed it. She’d not taken the time to reserve her tickets the way she knew she needed to, because she couldn’t bear to talk to anyone that was going to offer her condolences. There was no consoling her. Her heart was broken into two pieces in her chest. She had no idea how it managed to beat.

A raucous round of laughter came from the audience for the comedic line Loretta Devine had just delivered. Raine smiled. Getting Ms. Devine was impressive. The older crowd in the audience was sure to enjoy her performance more than they had that kid from that nineties sitcom the arts council had invited last year. Raine couldn’t even remember her name, but she did remember her mother’s thoughts about it. “I don’t know who hired that little, no talented child.” Raine smiled. There was little room for compromise in any area of the Still family’s life, but The Show was never to be second rate.

She released a long sigh. Instead of pitifully wallowing in her own sadness, Raine focused on the performances. The kids were so good. Her mother would have been proud of them this evening. She was glad she’d pulled herself together, because they were even better this year than they had been the last.

Little Shaneka Borden, the mean neighborhood girl, had lost weight and grown so much that she almost looked willowy. Todd Walker, the son of a recently imprisoned man who was formerly one of the biggest drug dealers in Charlotte, had learned to listen. He was singing in the chorus and had two lines as a runaway slave on the Underground Railroad sequence. All the kids were fantastic. Not one of them missed a step or forgot a line.

Oh God, Raine cried out in her spirit. The work had not been in vain. Her mother’s work had always produced something of value. More tears erupted from her soul. Why wasn’t she more like her?

She stood. It was near the end. She needed to leave before anyone saw her. There was no hiding her red rimmed eyes and running nose. She hated sympathy and pity. She hated the empty words that came with them, so like Cinderella escaping the ball Raine rushed out of the main seating area and made her way to the restroom. After she patted her eyes with some water and put in a few eye drops, she blew her nose one more time and exited. She could hear the applause and knew the finale was coming soon. Glad she’d escaped in time, she rushed across the street to the parking area as fast as her metal stilettos would carry her.

Seeing as how she was one of the first people to arrive this evening, her car was at the front of the lot. She passed a large black Hummer with an Army bumper sticker. The license plate read Gage J. It was a sexy car. Just like him, she thought. Gage Jordan. Nothing about him had changed except for the better. His dark eyes, smooth skin, deliciously long dimples, perfect teeth, and impressively broad shoulders were just as she remembered.

Brooke had not known it, but she’d been expecting them. As the man at the ticket booth moved down the list of ticketholders she’d seen the name Evelyn Jordan and a party of ten, which she now knew should have been twelve. She had no idea if Gage would be with them. She actually suspected he probably wouldn’t, but she couldn’t help hoping he was. Raine knew he was in Charlotte. She’d read it in the local newspaper. He’d been awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart and they were pinned on him by the Vice President himself at a reception at the V.A. hospital. The article stated he was discharged and had plans for a second career in the public sector. Raine knew a Purple Heart meant he’d been injured. She figured he must have post-traumatic stress disorder or something you couldn’t see, because with the way that suit and wool coat hung on him, no one could tell her there was something wrong with his body.

She sighed and pulled her own coat tighter. The last person on earth Raine needed to be thinking about was Gage Jordan, but she couldn’t help it. He was the jock she’d had a crush on in high school, the soldier she’d shared her first dance with and the only man she’d ever had a date with.

She smiled at the memory of that dance. His mother, whom she’d been talking to when he made his approach from across the room, had thrown them together. Raine remembered he’d had a determined look on his face, no doubt on a mission to convey some message. He whispered in is mother’s ear and then before Evelyn Jordan left she handed her off to him and said firmly, “This pretty young woman has been holding up the wall for too long. Dance with her, son.” Gage didn’t hesitate to invite her to the floor. After all, the disc jockey was playing Brown Sugar. Even a confirmed gospel music only addict like Raine knew that song. Less than sixty seconds after they moved onto the dance floor, the tempo of the music slowed down and If Only For One Night by Luther Vandross reverberated through the D.J.’s speakers.

“You don’t mind this song, do you?” he asked. She surmised the question was a mere courtesy, because Gage took liberties before she could respond. He placed his hand on the small of her back and pulled her closer to him. Raine saw her life flash before her, but not in a way that scared one to death. Her own wedding, marriage, and children came to her in flashes of light. In those five minutes, she lived every dream she had ever had. And then Gage disappeared into the cabin of a military flight to a war thousands of miles away. She thought she’d never see him again.

A biting slice of the night air snatched her from her memory. She beat herself up for the long ago fantasy and continued the walk to her own car. She climbed in, turned the key and after a minute angrily banged on the steering wheel. It wouldn’t start.

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