Everyone knows the woman in the "viral” video that hit two million views on YouTube. Humiliated, Tamar Johnson changed her name and disappeared behind the embarrassing video that captured her losing her virginity on prom night. But who was the guy?
NFL Running Back Stephen Pierce is football’s darling. He’s spent his entire career doing community service work with at risk kids, and endeared fans as a devoted Christian, even claiming celibacy. It’s time for his high school reunion. Stephen is determined to get his EX, Tamar, to come out of hiding, even going as far as posting their prom picture on Instagram in hopes that she would accept the challenge to show up.
Tamar isn’t interested in the reunion, but her boss is. She writes for a small magazine. Stephen Pierce is a BIG story.
With reunion activity in full swing, tension between Tamar and Stephen reaches an unbearable level.
Before it’s over will the world find out who the real Stephen Pierce is? And will Tamar survive spending time with the only man who’s ever had her heart?
Coming Thursday December 15th.
I frowned. “You can’t fire me.”
“Actually, I can.” My boss, Eva Stanford, dropped into her chair. She folded her arms over each other on the desk. That position meant business. So did the steely glare in her eyes.
“You can’t.” This time my voice held the question. Could she?
“I’m the managing editor. I can fire whomever I want.”
“But I have a contract.”
“You sure do. Have you looked at it since you signed it? There’s a part in the legalese that says you have to do the stories that are assigned to you.”
I hadn’t looked at my contract in years. I never had a reason to. I was happy doing the stories that came across my desk. I didn’t have aspirations of becoming some big time reporter. All I wanted to do was pay my bills and keep pecking at the novel I’d been revising for three years. But now paying my bills might become an issue.
“I can’t do a story about Stephen Pierce. I don’t know anything about sports.”
Eva picked up her cell phone and shoved it in my direction. “You may not know sports, but you know him. I’m pretty annoyed that you kept that from me.”
I took the phone and looked down at an Instagram photo of myself and Stephen. The blood drained from my face. Pain constricted my heart. He was going to be the death of me. “This is my prom picture.”
“That’s obvious.” Eva rolled her eyes. “One of the interns brought it to my attention. He recognized you.”
I squinted at the picture. My head got light. I was glad I was sitting. “I can’t believe he posted this.”
“He’s on his way to your reunion. I guess he’s feeling nostalgic.”
I continued to stare at the picture – at him really. I hadn’t seen this picture in years. I didn’t even have my yearbook or any of the memorabilia anymore. My exasperated sigh filled the momentary quiet. “It’s not my reunion. It’s a thing they do. It’s for all classes.”
“Small school stuff. I get it.” Eva unfolded her arms and pressed her back into her plush, leather chair. “You’re thirty, right? So it’s been eleven – twelve years since prom?”
“Did you go to this thing last year?”
“I don’t go to my reunions.” I pushed the offending phone across the desk to her.
Eva cocked her head. “I’m sure there’s a story there. Does it involve Pierce? Do you ever talk to him?”
I fought hard to keep my face from telling my truth. “He was a prom date, Eva. It was a lifetime ago. I have no idea what he’s doing now.”
Eva extended a manicured fingernail and tapped on the screen. “Hmmm…the caption over his Instagram is evidence that he’s curious about what you’re doing. He put the same thing on Twitter.”
I sighed again. I could tell by the look in her eyes that I was not getting out of this. I harnessed my irritation. “I can’t believe you’re going to make me do this. I haven’t been to Pine since I finished high school.”
Eva reached for a lipstick-smeared, latte cup. “Stephen certainly seems to love it. It looks like he spends a lot of time there.” Easy for him to do.
I resented that.
“Do you have family there?” Eva probed.
I shifted in my chair. “Some.”
“They’ll be glad to see you.” She pushed the button to boot up her laptop. “People get old. They die. I can’t stand my family either, but I visit every few years or so.”
I stood. The booting up of her laptop meant I was dismissed. “Eva –”
“It’s settled, Anne. I need a good story. We’re going to run this for February. Try to find out if he’s dating someone. Something romantic for a Valentine feature.”
I shook my head. “You know how private he is. He’s not going to tell me that.”
Eva cocked an eyebrow. “I won’t push. You know what I need for a cover story.”
I turned to leave the office.
Eva called to me. “Any truth to that rumor about him? The one about the video.”
I swallowed. “That old story?”
“Nothing is really old. I’ll have to see if we can dig up that video. Ask him a question or two about it.”
“Asking him about the video is not going to endear him to me. He really won’t talk to me then.”
“You’re right, but you can ask. I know this isn’t what you normally do, so I’ll send you a few questions. You always ask the hard stuff after you get the easy stuff.”
“I know how to do my job, Eva.”
She lowered her eyeglasses and peered down her nose at me. “You’re acting like you don’t.”
I resisted the urge to fight with her. She always won. “I need to take the afternoon off. I wasn’t planning to go, so I don’t have anything to wear.”
“Fine. Expense it. Expense a trip to the hair salon, too. You need it. Donna has your itinerary and some other details.”
I walked to the door, grabbed the handle, did a half turn and looked back at her. “I guess this is just as good a time as any to tell you this, because it’ll probably come out now that I’m going to the reunion.”
A disconcerting look came over Eva’s face. “Spit it out.”
“Anne Ferguson isn’t my real name.”Available on Kindle and Nook and Paperback
“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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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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Cree Jordan yawned and raised her hand to her mouth to cover a second long, exaggerated yawn. “Excuse me,” she said.
Harrison Lansing or Mansing, whatever his last name was, didn’t seem to care. He kept talking.
Okay, so he wasn’t the type that was going to take a hint or get offended that she’d yawned while he was telling her all about himself and his super successful business. She was going to have to get right to it in order to end this boring date. She was going to have to go Crude on him – Cree-rude and it wasn’t going to be hard. He’d been crass and rude to her twice and he’d treated the poor server like a house slave. She’d given up meanness for Lent, but not justice, so she’d decided it would be her pleasure to ruin his morning.
“I told you I went to Princeton?” He glowered as he raised his fork for the 400th time and shoveled it into that portly hole he called a mouth.
“Three times,” Cree replied, tartly. “But only once this morning.” She should have known to say no to his invitation when he’d pushed his, “I went to Princeton” last night. She’d met Harrison in the hotel bar after she’d attended a mix and mingle with the other Greeting Card Association Conference attendees.
He smiled like he thought her humor was charming. His short stubby fingers encircled his glass and he raised it to his mouth. Short fingers. Ugh. She should have noticed those last night.
Harrison looked only a little bit embarrassed about the three times comment. “Right, and where did you go?”
“I got pregnant my senior year in high school and dropped out to take care of my twins.”
“You have children?” he asked like she’d said something nasty or passed gas at the table.
“Four.” The lie came easily. She didn’t have any children, but the threat often sent men running into the night – or day as it were at this moment.
“Four,” he repeated. “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. You’re quite…”
“Fertile?” she batted her eyelashes and smiled.
“Surprising,” he replied. “I like kids. I’m good with them, but I don’t have any.”
Unable to imagine him being good at anything but eating and being scholarly, Cree shifted in her chair. This breakfast should be over by now. She’d yawned, told him she had four kids and he was still raising his fork and looking at her with interest. How had she gotten herself into this? Why was she out with this clown?
And then she remembered. Shoes. Last night, she looked down at his Salvatore Ferragamo’s and thought about the Louboutin sandals in her luggage. She’d spent all her money and when she was broke, she took meals in from wherever they came. When Harrison offered last night after she’d already had dinner, she suggested breakfast, because the hotel didn’t have a free one and she needed to eat before she boarded the airplane. Plus, she rarely turned down a man who wore Ferragamo shoes. She was too impressed with them.
“Harrison,” Cree shoved her chair back and stood, “it was really nice getting to know you better, but I have a plane to catch.”
“Plane?” He frowned. “I thought you lived here.”
“In the hotel?”
He rolled his eyes. “No, I mean Atlanta.”
“If I lived in Atlanta, I wouldn’t be in the hotel.”
“I mean, I thought you lived close enough to have driven to the conference or whatever it was you said you were attending.”
“The Greeting Card Association Annual Convention.” Cree shook her head. “And I don’t know where you got that idea. I never said it.”
His disappointment was palpable.
“I should get going. It’s an international flight.”
“International? So you don’t even live in the country?”
Was he daft? Did Princeton graduate such? Of course they did. He wasn’t the first overeducated fool she’d had a meal with. She sighed. “I do live in the country,” she said raising quotation marks on the word “country” for emphasis. “I’m going to Kenya.”
“It’s the only Kenya I know. I don’t think there’s a Kenya, Florida or a Kenya, Maryland.”
He raised his glass and finished his drink. “Why are you going to Kenya?”
“My sister is getting married in a few days and I’m her maid of honor.”
“Are you African?”
Cree frowned. Did she sound African? “No.”
“Is she marrying an African?”
Cree couldn’t imagine why he cared, but she answered anyway. “No, she and her American husband are getting married in Africa.”
“Why on earth would they do that?”
Cree rolled her eyes. “I have to go.”
He stood now. “Well, wait. What kind of way is that to end our date?”
Cree cocked her head. “How else would it end except to stop? It’s a breakfast date, Harrison. You didn’t think you were going to get some did you? It’s not even night time. Only people who really like or love each other have sex in the daylight.”
He squinted. “I was hoping to get your telephone number.”
“So you could become my fifth baby daddy?”
“You have a set of twins, remember? So even if you had four kids, you’d only potentially have three fathers.”
“Not if I wasn’t sure which of the Clark brothers was the father of the twins.”
He smirked. “I can tell by looking at you that you don’t have any kids. I suspect you’re making up stories to get away from me.”
“If you’d gone to Harvard, you’d know for sure.”
He pushed his back against the chair. “Have a nice flight, Cree.”
She smiled. “You have a nice life.” She reached into her bag, removed her cell phone, and walked away from the table. “Jerk,” she mumbled to herself as she exited the hotel restaurant. Cree sailed through the lobby and retrieved her luggage from the front desk.
The bellman hailed a taxi and within five minutes she was on her way to Atlanta, Hartsfield Jackson Airport. Nestled safely in the rear of the taxi, she opened Facetime and called her sisters.
“I can’t believe you’re not here. We miss you so much, Creesie,” Brooke Jordan gushed and swung around so that Cree could see her wedding dress.
Cree gasped. Brooke looked amazing and she couldn’t be happier for her. Brooke was getting married. Again. But this time it was for life. This time her sister had found a prince instead of a frog. And the dress…it couldn’t be more –
“What do you think of my dress?” Brooke asked, twirling for the second time.
“It’s beautiful. You make a beautiful bride. The second time around.” Cree wrinkled up her nose. “That first dress was...”
“Cree!” Arielle screeched.
Cree laughed. “I’m teasing.” She yawned again. She hadn’t been this tired in years.
“You must be exhausted,” Arielle said.
“I can’t believe you finally start getting serious about your business right before my wedding. How dare you?”
“The conference was great, thank you very much,” Cree replied. “I have a meeting with Hallmark’s Mahogany Greeting Cards in a few weeks. They want to add a snarky, artistic line to their portfolio. Who could be better for that than me?”
“Sweet!” Arielle raised a hand and gave her a virtual hi-five, which she returned.
Brooke frowned. “I’m happy for you, but I want you here.”
“You act like I’m not coming.”
“Twenty-eight hours is a whole ‘nother day.” Brooke poked out her lips like a three year-old.
“Well, at least with my not being there, I’m not getting on your nerves. Be happy about that.”
“So tell me, what are you guys getting into tonight? It’s dinner time there, right?”
“Yep. Chase and Pamela took a cooking class, so they’re teasing us with a tasting of the food they learned to make.”
“Sounds appetizing,” Cree said, fully knowing her brother and his wife could nail any dish, no matter what part of the world it originated from. She felt a slight pang of disappointment at not already being there with everyone else in her family. “Don’t make me jealous about the food. Tell me, what did you all do today while they were in class?”
“We went on a tour.”
“Not a safari?” Cree shrieked.
Arielle dismissed her drama with a wave of a hand. “No, we told you we would do that after the wedding since Brooke and Marcus already did one.”
“Are Marcus’s cousin’s there yet?”
Arielle was quick to reply. “Three of them. And girl, they are fiyah.”
“Those Thompsons have some good genes,” Brooke added. “I have to give them that.”
“His best friend is here too, but he’s married.”
“So I heard.” Cree dismissed thoughts of him. “Well, the cousins are a start.”
Brooke frowned. “Isn’t that a bit incestuous?”
“Heifer, please, they aren’t our
Brooke nodded. “Okay, right. They would need to be ours.”
“I thought you were on a man-fast,” Arielle interjected.
“I was, but it got hard out there in them streets, so I had to break it.”
Arielle and Brooke looked at each other and chimed in unison, “She needed something to eat.”
“Don’t act like I’m that predictable.”
“You are,” Arielle said.
“Well, I’m a starving artist, so you know I have to sing for my supper.”
Arielle shook her head. “The implications.”
“You just have a dirty mind,” Cree said. “You need to learn how to keep your coins in your bank account while you build your little business, chickie. You might want to take a lesson from your big sis.”
Arielle waved a hand. “I’ll let you know when my bank account gets low and you can school me then.”
Brooke had stepped out of the conversation and came back into view. She was wearing her veil.
“Awww,” Cree crooned. “You look like a fairytale princess.”
“I feel like one. Marcus is a prince.”
“Yes, he is. You definitely got it right with that one.” She leaned forward, put an elbow on her knee, propped her chin on her palm, and sighed. “I hope to meet my prince one day.”
“You probably already met him,” Arielle said, fanning Brooke’s veil out. “But he didn’t meet your ‘4 C’ criteria.”
“I assure you, I haven’t met anyone who was cute, had coin, had good credit and had enough centimeters of height.”
Brooke pulled the veil over her face. “Interesting that a Christian woman wouldn’t have one of her ‘C’s’ be Christian.”
Cree smirked. “Girl, that’s on the list. And if he’s not, I’ll just have to convert him.”
Arielle and Brooke gave each other another look.
Cree laughed. “I’m kidding. Don’t get all confused in the face.”
They chatted about more wedding details all the way to the airport and while Cree waited in line for the driver to get to the check-in counter. Cree stepped out of the cab and just as she heard the trunk pop, she also heard her name.
She followed the voice and couldn’t believe her eyes. “Wayne?”
She stepped up on the curb, but in her shock she mis-stepped and nearly took a tumble to the ground. The reason she hadn’t was because Wayne caught her and now his arms were around her, his face inches from hers.
“I can’t believe it. You look like you haven’t aged a day.” His minty breath was a whisper against her lips.
Cree closed her eyes and swallowed. His cologne was so pungent she nearly tasted it.
“I’m going to get old waiting for my fare,” the taxi driver said, closing the trunk.
Cree straightened her back as Wayne pulled her upright.
He released her hand and reached into his pocket for his wallet. “What does she owe you?” he asked the driver without taking his eyes off of her.
“Twenty-three dollars,” he replied.
Wayne removed a few bills and shoved them at him. “Keep the change,” he said and pulled Cree’s bag from the edge of the curb. “You have everything?” He broke their eye contact and looked into the back of the cab.
The spell Wayne had cast broke. Cree looked down at her small carry-on and handbag and then her one piece of luggage and nodded. “That’s it.”
“You’re packing light these days.” His voice was teasing. She had a 32-inch Rimowa which was more than big enough for any traveler.
“Who is that?” She heard Brooke’s voice coming from her phone. She’d forgotten she’d been talking to her sisters.
“Is that Brooke?” Wayne asked, taking the phone from her hand and turning it to himself. “Hey Brooke,” he said, like they were old friends. “How are you?”
Cree snatched the phone out of his hand before Brooke could sneer at him. “I’ll talk to you guys once I check in.” She ended the call and dropped the phone in her purse.
“Was that a wedding dress I just saw?” Wayne asked.
“I can’t believe…of all places…the airport.” Cree pursed her lips.
“I know. Look at God.” Wayne smiled as he reached for her bag. “What airline are you checking in with?”
“I can get it myself.” She pulled it from his hands. “I’m meeting a friend. They should be here any minute.”
Wayne smiled that dashing, heart-grabbing smile of his again. He looked like Eric Benet with his bedroom eyes and full, kissable lips. She remembered a time when this man made her insides shift. But his smile and looks no longer worked on her. “It must be a woman or you would have said he.”
Cree rolled her eyes.
“What are you doing flying out of Atlanta? Do you live here now?”
“No. I was here for business.”
“Cool.” He hesitated for a moment like he was thinking about what to say next and then asked, “Why haven’t you returned my calls?”
Cree furrowed her eyebrows. “Calls?”
“Don’t play. You know I’ve called you several times in the past few months and I’ve emailed you.”
“I changed my email address.”
“I used the one at your website,” he said. “And I know I have the correct phone number because your voice is on the message.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “Well, you have my attention now. What do you want?”
“I want to have dinner. We need to talk.”
Cree shook her head. “I don’t think we have anything to talk about.”
Wayne’s phone rang and he answered. “Hey, you guys just made it in?” He held up a finger. “Yeah, I’m coming right now.” He glanced at his watch. “The flight’s not leaving any time soon, so what’s the rush?” He listened for a minute then rolled his eyes. “Okay, I’m coming.”
Wayne frowned. “Look, I’m traveling with a group. They just arrived from Charleston and I’m meeting them at the gate. The leader is all spastic, so I’ve got to go. Promise me you’ll call me back or I’ll miss my flight standing here just so I can talk to you.” He raised a hand to her shoulder and smoothed it down her arm.
Even through her jacket, she could feel his warmth. Cree let out a sigh. She hated to promise Wayne anything, but she wanted to get rid of him so she could check her bag and get on her way. She nodded.
He smiled again and leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. “I’m going to call you in exactly eight days and I want a call back or so help me, I’ll drive to Charlotte and show up at ya mama’s house.”
Cree smirked. “Have a good flight.”
“You too, Angel,” he said. And with that he jetted towards the airport door.
Angel. The term of endearment stirred a storm in her emotions. She’d been no angel when they were together and with the way their relationship ended, he’d become the devil. Dinner with him was an unnecessary journey back down memory lane that she had no desire to take, no matter how much he called.
She pulled the bag along the sidewalk to the check-in stand and reached into her purse for her e-ticket.
After being over-aggressively searched by a mannish looking, female TSA worker, she rode the train to the terminal and then made swift work of her trip to the gate. And that’s when she saw him again. Wayne…sitting with a large group of people in the waiting area at a gate two gates down from hers.
She stopped before he saw her and turned her back to the group. Where was he going? And why was he going with all those people?
She backed up to a cell phone charger area and removed her sunglasses from her bag and slid them on. She didn’t want to talk to Wayne, but she had almost an hour before her flight was to depart. She raised her glasses for a second and caught sight of his itinerary. Paris. What was he going to Paris for? Why did she care?
They had more than two hours before his flight left. She didn’t want to take a chance of him seeing her at her gate and coming over to talk again. Thanks to him, she had the taxi fare, so she decided to duck into a restaurant just down from the gate and hide until her flight boarded.
She lowered her shades and went into a coffee shop, ordered a cup of tea and claimed a seat at an empty table.
Emotions flooded her. She felt that same sick feeling that had kept her in bed for six months after Wayne broke up with her. Back in the day when she used to love with all her heart. But he had put an end to that. It wasn’t just the way he dumped her. It was what came afterward that made her sick to her stomach. It was a secret she had never told anyone. Not even Brooke and Arielle. And she told them everything.
When he called her in eight days, she’d ignore his calls just as she had been. He wasn’t going to drive to Charlotte and knock on her parent’s door. She knew that for sure, so she’d never have to see him or talk to him again. She pushed the pain from the past back into the little pocket in the back of her heart where she’d kept it all these years, took a deep breath and exhaled. She pulled out her phone. She knew Brooke was dying to know about her run in with Wayne.
Just as she was about to dial, the waitress came with her tea. No sooner than she put the drink in front of her did Cree hear her name again. This time the voice that rose above her didn’t come from Wayne. Kindle
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Fame comes at a price. Cameron Scott knew that better than anyone in her circle. One day you were “fab” and up. The next day you were down, walking the streets like a nobody with hashtag FAIL on your forehead. Fans, the media, friends and family talked about you on either end of the extreme, but you were invisible when you fell in the middle which was where Cameron was thought to be at this point in her career. Technically, she was actually at the bottom. Her fans just didn’t know it yet.
Her contract with RAT Productions, Real American Television, was not going to be renewed. The show, similar to The Chew
and The View
, was replacing her. Her former boss was clear that she wasn’t gritty enough for the sexy relationship chatter the show wanted to be known for nor had she brought authenticity to her feelings about what was going on in the featured guests’ lives.
Authenticity to her feelings? He didn’t want that. She’d never have a single good thing to say about a man. That was REAL. Every experience she’d ever had was negative, from the first man in her life to the most recent, her ex-fiancé, Doctor Rick Housely. If Cameron’s thoughts could kill, he’d be resting in peace right now for announcing their break-up on television before he even told her. And she thought the folks sending break-up text messages were bad. Rick was such a jerk.
Housely was being interviewed on Entertainment This Week
. When the interviewer asked him about their wedding date, he’d turned toward the camera with a sincerity that only those dreamy eyes of his could convey, and said, “I love you, Cameron, but I’ve searched my heart and prayed to God. I’m not ready for marriage. I hope you’ll forgive me. I hope America will forgive me.”
“Have you forgiven yourself?” the interviewer asked pushing the microphone further into his face. If she wasn’t careful she’d hit that new cap he had on his front tooth and he’d jump on her.
Rick continued, “I have, because I know we’re human and we make mistakes.” Human.
Rick was barely that. Ambitious.
That was more like it. And gay. Most definitely gay. If Cameron hadn’t searched her heart, she’d shout that out to the entire world. But she had searched her heart and realized there was no reason to out Housely. Telling the world she’d accepted an engagement ring from a gay man was way down on the list of things she wanted to talk about. In fact, taking a ring from any man bottomed out a long time ago. And the truth was, she didn’t love him. He’d lied about his sexuality and she’d lied about a few things of her own, so they were even.
“You look familiar,” the taxi driver stated peering back at her.
Cameron noticed he’d been stealing glances every so often and she knew that peek. It was the, ‘I’ve seen you on T.V.’ look that she’d grown accustomed to getting. “Weren’t you on that show with that guy?”
Cameron bit her tongue to keep from rolling her eyes and looked down into her purse. “Yep. Is There A Saved Man In The House
He snapped his fingers. “That’s right. That’s right. The dating reality show.” He nodded his head a few times. She could tell he was smiling to himself like he’d figured it out on his own. “Sorry about the breakup.”
Cameron looked up and forced a smile. “Thank you, but I’ve decided to assume it’s for the best.”
“Yes, but to put it on T.V. like that,” he began. “I don’t know how you Hollywood people do it. I don’t think you could pay me a million dollars to be on T.V. with all those cameras following me and knowing all my private life.”
Cameron took in his reflection in the rear-view mirror then sized up the condition of the grungy taxicab. Couldn’t pay him a million dollars
? She wondered what one had to pay him to get a haircut. People loved talking about what they wouldn’t do for money until money was offered to them. “The show was mostly scripted.”
“Script what?” he asked, his thick African accent getting stronger.
“There are writers. It’s not all real. We’re like actors.” She waited a beat and then added. “It is entertainment you know.”
“But people think it’s real.”
He had a valid point. And what people thought did matter. At least it did to her, but again, she wasn’t outing Housely. Theirs was a relationship built on mutual need. Housely needed to launch his film career and she needed money, lots of it. That’s why she’d auditioned for Is There A Saved Man.
Cameron never expected the on screen chemistry between her and Rick Housely to be so strong, especially since they didn’t really click much off screen. Rick had set his eyes on her early and their cat and mouse game had captured the hearts of America; the last show being the one where Rick proposed and placed a huge diamond ring on her finger. Cameron reluctantly said yes. She knew she didn’t love him. He didn’t love her. And there was the matter of his questionable sexuality. She figured they would eventually break up. But even with all the anticipation of that moment, the show had been Cameron’s lucky break in more ways than one. She had the diamond, but more importantly, she was a reality television star. Every talk show from Good Morning America
to Jimmy Kimmel
wanted to interview her and then out of those interviews came a weekly spot on Real TV
to do a piece about Christian dating. Then she got her big break with RAT Productions for the I Heart Show
. But she’d blown it. She’d blown it because she couldn’t go the distance with the pretense.
Initially, she’d been fine with the dismissal. The show was stupid. She was sure she’d get another job. After all, she was Cameron Scott, America’s reality show sweetheart. But meeting after meeting, after meeting there hadn’t been a single offer. Not one call back. No interest in her at all. She was out of meetings and more importantly; she was out of time and money.
“401 Fifth Ave.” The taxi driver’s voice awakened her from her musing or was the blues a better way to describe her thoughts? Cameron was feeling sorry for herself. Sorry with a capital S.
She turned toward the passenger side window. Through the light misting of rain she glimpsed the aging building that housed the studio. She wrinkled her nose disapprovingly. Times Square, the heart of the theater district, was also the home to many of the country’s T.V. studios. This building was less than a mile away from Times Square, but it felt like it was on the other side of the world. Hashtag FAIL. She couldn’t help thinking it.
“Thanks.” Cameron handed the cab driver the fare she couldn’t afford and accepted the receipt he’d dutifully printed without asking. The cab ride was a splurge. It had been pouring down rain when she left home. She didn’t want to wrinkle or stain her Armani suit traveling on the train in the rain. With dark glasses donned, she’d definitely be on the subway for the trip home.
Cameron opened the door and a blast of bone chilling wet air hit her like a brick. Manhattan in the winter…she hated it. She forced herself out of the warm taxi. Unbeknownst to her, she stepped right into an invisible hole in the asphalt. She gasped and twisted her body awkwardly to keep from falling. Fortunately, the door provided support otherwise she would have been sprawled out on the pavement.
“You okay, miss?” the driver called. His concern was genuine, but it was not appreciated. Cameron shook her head, turned to him and shot him the stink eye. He should have been more careful about where he’d stopped the passenger side door.
“I’m fine. No thanks to you!” She slammed the door like only a true New Yorker could. Glad that the heel of her Manolo shoe hadn’t come off in the tussle, Cameron stepped up onto the sidewalk, smoothed her skirt and stopped breathing. She turned, the taxi whizzed down the street. Her attaché case.
She’d left it on the backseat. Not only was it her favorite Coach bag, it also held her resume. How was she supposed to show up for the meeting without it?
Cameron swallowed, let out a long breath and counted to ten. “Pull it together. You know what this is about. You can’t let it rock your confidence.” She spoke the words out loud to herself, but thought inwardly, if you don’t get this job, you’ll be homeless
Sufficiently motivated, she shook off thoughts of what she didn’t have. She’d have to improvise. It wasn’t the first time and as long as she was in the entertainment industry it surely would not be the last. But, she did want her bag back. Glad she noted the driver’s name and taxi number, as she always did, Cameron tapped on her phone until she found the main number for Yellow Taxi, filed a missing item report and put in a request for the driver to call her to get it redelivered. She entered the building, showed security her appointment letter and rode the elevator to the third floor.
“I’ve never seen the righteous forsaken or his seed begging bread.” She closed her eyes tight and whispered the verse from Psalm 37 over and over during the ride. The elevator doors opened. Cameron walked into a lobby full of women. Most of them were familiar: a couple of former stars from the Housewives
franchise, one of the twins from that show about the sisters, she could never remember which was which, Tia and Tamera and one of the youngins’ from the Kardashian clan. Her breath caught in her throat. So much competition.
She wanted to repeat the scripture again, affirm what she knew by giving the Word power, but the only thing she could think as she approached the receptionist desk was maybe she wasn’t one of the righteous.
Visit the Books Page for purchase links.
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 the age of 16. 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’s not proud of. She’ll do anything to keep her secrets, even if includes sacrificing the success that’s right within her reach.
Mekhi Johnson has 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 for his record label. Will he be able to sign Benxi, or will an old enemy stand between him and his next level?Why is the theme of this project important?
Life if full of unpredictable events and sometimes bad things happen to good people. Stuff happens. I like to believe that my strength as a writer is in creating complex characters with deep wounds. The kind of hurts that only God can heal. Almost There
is a story about the ugly stuff in life that happens to some people as children and young adults that impact their choices and often their options.Almost There
is a prequel to a novel I’ll be releasing in November. It’s the backstory for Mekhi and Benxi, supporting characters that my readers have already become acquainted with in my Samaritan Woman series. Other titles are An Inconvenient Friend, What Kind of Fool, and Righteous Ways. I’ve also introduced a new character. Her name is Zane.
As for new readers, I think Almost There
is the perfect place to begin with my books because it’s the story that happens before An Inconvenient Friend begins. In that respect, it stands completely alone as a title for the series. What did you learn about yourself while writing this book?
That I have to stay true to the story, no matter what my brand is or what my readers expect of me.
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Purchase the Book
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
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.”
“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.”
“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?!!”Visit the Books page for the Purchase Links.
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