Single Mama's Got More Drama

Содержание:

Single Mama's Got More Drama

   

SINGLE MAMA’S GOT MORE DRAMA

   Usa Today Bestselling Author

Kayla Perrin Single Mama’s Got More Drama


   For Leslie Gray, a longtime friend

    and newly single mother.

    You’re beautiful, funny and talented,

    and you deserve nothing but the best.

   Here’s to never settling and to hoping

    that your true Mr. Right comes along.

   I love you!

Contents

   Prologue

   Chapter 1

   Chapter 2

   Chapter 3

   Chapter 4

   Chapter 5

   Chapter 6

   Chapter 7

   Chapter 8

   Chapter 9

   Chapter 10

   Chapter 11

   Chapter 12

   Chapter 13

   Chapter 14

   Chapter 15

   Chapter 16

   Chapter 17

   Chapter 18

   Chapter 19

   Chapter 20

   Chapter 21

   Chapter 22

   Chapter 23

   Chapter 24

   Chapter 25

   Chapter 26

   Chapter 27

   Chapter 28

   Chapter 29

   Chapter 30

   Chapter 31

   Chapter 32

   Chapter 33

   Chapter 34

Prologue

   “Ms. Cain?”

   “Hello,” I said, sitting up straight when I heard the voice on the other end of my line. It was Tassie Johnson’s lawyer. My heart filled with hope after the message I’d left for him. I finally had a way to come up with the cash necessary to buy out Tassie’s estranged husband’s share of my condo, and hoped that her lawyer was calling to tell me that we had a deal.

   I give Tassie Johnson a nice sum of cash. She leaves me the heck alone forever.

   “I’ve spoken with my client,” Bradley Harris said.

   I crossed my fingers. This was it. The moment I’d been waiting for. My headache with Tassie was about to be over.

   “However, Tassie asked me to tell you that she is rejecting your offer.”

   “What?” For a few seconds, I couldn’t even think. Couldn’t understand. Then I saw red. “How can she reject my offer? Those were her terms. If I bought her out, I could keep the condo.”

   “Yes, but she’s had a change of heart. She feels, having had time to fully consider the matter, that she would like to relocate to South Beach.”

   “And my apartment,” I remarked sourly. That evil, evil—

   “Your shared property.”

   Shared property, my ass. “So in other words,” I began, anger brewing inside me like hot water in a kettle, “Tassie Johnson’s only interest is in screwing me over. Do me a favor—tell her to stick it where the sun don’t shine. Oh—and tell her I want my hat back.”

   And then I hung up.

   If Tassie Johnson wanted a fight, it was on.

   It was while I was gazing at the engagement ring Lewis had given me that I thought of something. Rather, made sense of something.

   The day Alaina and I had gone to Atlanta, we’d seen Tassie near Eli’s casket in the funeral home. I remembered that I’d seen a man beside her, offering comfort—an attractive man.

   Tassie had tried to smear me in the media, making me out to be a manipulative slut while she’d been the doting wife, but it was unlikely that she had been sitting around waiting for Eli’s return for seven years. She was an extremely attractive woman, one who could have her pick of men.

   She could have cheated on Eli for all I knew. What if she had some skeletons in her closet that she didn’t want exposed?

   There was one way to find out.

   I searched for the Miami Herald reporter’s card and dialed her number.

   “Cynthia? This is Vanessa Cain,” I said without preamble when she picked up.

   “Hello, Vanessa.”

   “You said that you’d help me out if I ever needed anything. Well, I need something.”

   When I replaced the receiver five minutes later, I was smiling.

   If anyone could help me bring Tassie Johnson down, it was Cynthia.

   It was high time I played dirty.

1

   Ten days later

   I was locking the door to my condo when I sensed them. Sensed them and knew they meant trouble.

   Securing my keys in the palm of my hand, I immediately reached down and scooped up my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Rayna, who was standing to my left. It was an instinctive, protective gesture—because I knew this was going to be bad.

   Then, fearing the worst, I slowly turned.

   My stomach lurched. Standing behind me were two very large men. One African-American, one Caucasian. Both looking like they abused steroids and had just escaped from prison.

   “Vanessa Cain?” the white man asked, his voice raspy. Harsh.

   I swallowed. Stalled for time.

   “You are Vanessa Cain, right?” the man continued. Tattoos covered both of his forearms, which didn’t exactly give me a warm and fuzzy feeling about him.

   Nerves had me shifting my weight from one foot to the other. “Who wants to know?”

   “We’re here to help you vacate Tassie Johnson’s condo,” the black man said, his words sounding like a threat.

   I chuckled nervously as I met his stern gaze. “Excuse me?”

   “It’s time you leave,” he told me. “And never come back.”

   “This is my home.” I pressed my face to my daughter’s. “Our home. You wouldn’t take a mother and child from their home, would you?”

   “I’m sorry, Ms. Cain,” the white man said. “We’re simply following orders.”

   “Whose orders? The court’s—or Tassie’s?”

   “It’s time,” the black man began, “for you to leave. Tassie will send you your things.”

   “Oh, isn’t that sweet of her?” I retorted sarcastically. “You want me out of here? You show me a court order. This is America. You can’t just kick me out of my own home.”

   Neither man seemed swayed by what I said. In fact, they both took a menacing step toward me.

   “Wait!” I cried. “Don’t do this.”

   “It’s time for you to leave,” the black man said again.

   Was that the extent of his vocabulary? Was he a robot programmed to say only six words?

   The men took another step in unison, now invading my personal space. “But—but you can’t,” I sputtered, clutching Rayna to my chest while trying to block the men from getting to my condo door. They weren’t just big—they could easily compete in sumo wrestling.

   The big, bald, white guy wrapped his fingers around my upper arm. “Hey!” I protested. “You can’t touch me! That’s assault!”

   “Then move out of the way,” the man said.

   Rayna began to cry. Tears filled my own eyes.

   “But this is our home. Don’t you have a heart? How—how can you be so cold?” I cradled Rayna’s head to my shoulder to comfort her as she cried. Neither man batted an eye. I wondered if Tassie had hired them from Rent-A-Thug.

   “I have a baby,” I went on. “You can actually kick me out of my home with no concern at all for my child?”

   “We have our orders,” the men said in unison.

   “Please,” I begged, as Rayna cried louder. “Please, have a heart.” One man took hold of my left arm, the other my right arm, which was secured around Rayna. “No,” I said defiantly. “Nooo!”

   I backed up until my body was against the door. I wriggled around, fighting to free myself. And then my eyes popped open. It took me a good couple of seconds to realize that I was in my bed, and that a pair of over-steroided thugs weren’t in the room with me. I was sitting up, my body tangled in my sheets.

   I’d been dreaming. Thank God.

   I let out a relieved chuckle.

   But my relief was short-lived. Because reality came crashing down on my shoulders, knocking me backward onto the pillow. Tassie Johnson, my late fiancé’s estranged wife, wanted me out of the home I’d shared with her husband. Yes, it’s a crazy and convoluted story, but I didn’t know that Eli Johnson, my fiancé, was still legally married at the time I was involved with him. He’d romanced me, seduced me, then proposed. We’d moved in together and had been planning a life together. How was I to know that he had an estranged wife and a couple kids somewhere? But Tassie didn’t believe me—or maybe she did, and she just didn’t care. All I knew was that as his official widow, she was making my life hell regarding the property I’d shared with Eli.

   Tassie had insisted that I buy out her husband’s share of the condo, an all but impossible feat for a single mother like me. But despite the unlikelihood of me coming up with that kind of cash, I had. Only now that I’d come up with a way to buy her out and get her off my back, she up and changed her mind…and changed the game.

   The sound of my door opening drew my gaze in that direction. The moment Rayna saw me, her face erupted in a smile.

   Mine did, too.

   “Mommy!” she cried, and sprinted toward me on the bed.

   “Morning, sweetheart.” I reached for my daughter and pulled her onto the bed with me. I hugged her against my chest tightly.

   “It’s morning,” Rayna went on, her way of telling me that it was time for me to get out of bed.

   “Yes, it’s morning,” I agreed, then glanced at the clock—7:12 a.m.

   It was the perfect time to get up—if I was heading to work. But it was a Sunday morning, the perfect time to sleep in.

   My nightmare had gotten me up, and now that Rayna was awake, I was up for the day.

   I lay down with Rayna, tucking her against my side. Maybe we’d both drift off.

   “Mommy?” Rayna said, her little voice sounding serious.

   “Yes, sweetie?”

   “Want Daddy.”

   “Oh, baby.” I hugged her small frame. “I know you do.”

   Eli hadn’t just been my fiancé, he’d been a father figure to my daughter, whose own father had abandoned her while I’d been pregnant. Since Eli’s death a few months earlier, Rayna hadn’t really asked for him much. I knew she missed his presence, and I’d tried to explain to her about heaven, but I also knew that she was too young to really understand that he’d never be coming back.

   “Want Daddy come home,” she said.

   “I know, baby. We miss him a lot. And I’m sure he misses us, too. But we can’t feel sad about that, remember? Because he’s in heaven, a very beautiful place, and he’s happy there.”

   “Want to go heaven,” Rayna said, pouting.

   “You will, one day. One day, we all will go to heaven. And you’ll see daddy again.”

   Given the adulterous circumstances of Eli’s passing and the numerous lies he’d told me, I doubted we’d be reunited beyond the pearly gates. But Rayna didn’t need to know that. She never needed to know the ugly truth about what had happened. Some things, children deserved to be protected from.

   I pressed my lips to Rayna’s forehead, feeling a moment of sadness for her sake. Eli’s public and scandalous death had thrown my life into upheaval and I guess, because of that, I’d had to quickly put the pain of his betrayal—being killed while in the arms of another woman—behind me. Certainly for my daughter’s sake, because she’d needed me to be strong.

   But I felt for her, worried for how she was dealing with Eli’s sudden loss in her tiny heart.

   “You want to go to the zoo today?” I suggested. “See all the animals? Maybe Amani can come with us.” Amani was my babysitter Carla’s daughter, and she and Rayna were only a year apart. They were playmates each day when I was at work.

   Rayna clapped her hands together. “Party, party!”

   The last time we’d been to the zoo, five months earlier, we’d gone for Amani’s birthday party. Which is why Rayna was associating another visit to the zoo with another party.

   “It won’t be a birthday party,” I told her. “But it will be fun. We can take that train around the zoo. And you can play at the park.”

   Rayna nodded enthusiastically. “Zebras!”

   “Yes, you’ll see lots of zebras.” Rayna was a huge horse-and-pony fanatic, and hadn’t wanted to leave the zebra exhibit the last time we’d been to the zoo. She literally could have stayed there for hours and been content. “And maybe after we can go to the lake and feed the ducks.”

   “Feed ducks, feed ducks,” Rayna chanted.

   There were countless small lakes in South Florida, most with ducks and herons and cranes. The ducks, of course, were the only animals that cared to get close to humans. Bring food, and you were their best friend. I enjoyed seeing Rayna’s face light up when she tossed bread to them, getting a thrill out of the ducks surrounding her feet for a feast.

   Yes, Rayna and I would spend a fun day together.

   Put all the men we’d loved and lost out of our minds.


   I decided I’d wait until ten to call Carla about going to the zoo, it being a Sunday morning and all. On the weekends, I didn’t like to phone people too early. It was sort of an unwritten rule with friends and family: I didn’t call them before ten in the morning, and they didn’t call me. In fact, I liked to laze around in my pajamas most of the morning, sometimes later.

   When Eli had been alive, Sunday mornings had often become family bed time, with me, him and Rayna in our bed, watching the Disney Channel, snuggling and giggling—not having to worry about interruptions from the outside world.

   So I was a little surprised, when, at 8:40 a.m., my phone rang.

   I snatched the receiver off of the wall base in the kitchen, where I was mixing batter for pancakes. Seeing my sister’s number on the caller ID and given the time, I couldn’t help wondering if everything was okay.

   “Hello?” I said.

   “Morning, Vanessa.”

   My sister didn’t sound stressed. “Morning, Nikki.”

   “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

   “No, you didn’t. What’s up?”

   “Well…” she began, then hesitated.

   I frowned. Maybe everything wasn’t okay. Was my sister having a problem with her husband, Morris? They’d gone through a brief rough patch, but as far as I knew, they were blissfully in love again.

   “Nikki?” I prompted.

   “I have something to ask you. Something important.”

   “Okay,” I said cautiously.

   “I know this is going to seem a bit weird, but given everything that’s happened, I think it’s right.”

   “Just tell me already.”

   “All right.” Now, I heard a smile in my sister’s voice. “I’m hoping that you’ll agree…to be the maid of honor at my wedding!”

   It took a good couple of seconds for my sister’s words to register. And then I was confused.

   Considering she was already married.

   “Your what?” I asked.

   “My wedding,” Nikki repeated.

   “You already had one of those. Eight years ago.”

   “I know, silly,” Nikki said. “But Morris and I are renewing our vows.”

   “You are?” I asked, my voice a croak. Not because I wasn’t happy for my sister, but because I vividly remembered her first wedding. It had been a very elaborate and expensive affair. Mostly, I remembered how my sister had turned into Bridezilla as she planned the most important day of her life. She complained about practically everything. The floral arrangements weren’t big enough, not pretty enough, the bridesmaids dresses were too long, then too short. The menu changed at least once a week before it had to be firmed up. She wanted over-the-top elaborate on a scale that only celebrities typically indulge in. Anyone who tried to reason with her—namely, me, Morris and their wedding planner—got an earful and often a bout of tears thrown in on top of that.

   Nikki is my only sibling, and eight years my senior. She can be trying on a good day, but when she’s stressed out, she’s pretty much unbearable.

   “I know what you’re thinking. That a second wedding now is at least fifteen years too soon. But after Morris’s indiscretion, we felt it was best to have a brand-new start. You know.”

   “Hey, you have to do what you need to do,” I said. If she felt a renewing of vows was in order, who was I to argue? “What are you thinking? A small ceremony somewhere?” Hopefully a city hall wedding, where she couldn’t be too demanding. A justice of the peace could marry them, and then we all could be on our merry way without the headaches that would come from a bigger wedding.

   “Nothing too big,” Nikki said. “Maybe seventy-five or a hundred people.”

   “What?”

   “And it’s got to be on the beach. I said I want to go somewhere exotic, like Thailand. But Morris says the Keys will be fine, or maybe Jamaica or the Bahamas.”

   Was my sister serious? Or was she pulling an early morning prank? I didn’t know what was worse—that she thought one hundred people constituted a small wedding, or that she expected a hundred people to travel across the world to Thailand for her second “once in a lifetime” day.

   That had been her mantra the first time around. That she needed this extravagant thing, or that impossible to get thing because it was for her “once in a lifetime” day.

   How nice she got to have two.

   “Are you serious about Thailand?” I asked, half-chuckling. “I mean, you can’t be—right?”

   “What’s wrong with Thailand?” she asked, sounding a little dismayed.

   I felt the headache coming on already. Bridezilla Part Two. Oh, the joy.

   “I hear Thailand is one of the most beautiful places in the world,” my sister went on.

   “I’m sure it is…but I don’t think anyone has ever traveled there to have what they’d describe as a ‘small’ second wedding. Seventy-five to a hundred people? That’s not a small wedding, sis.”

   “What’s wrong with you?” Nikki asked. “Aren’t you happy for me?”

   “Of course I’m happy for you. I’m very happy that you and Morris are staying together and that you’re working things out. It’s just—”

   “That it hurts you to see me having a second wedding when you haven’t even had your first?”

   I gritted my teeth at the comment. Counted to three. Made sure that when I spoke, I didn’t say something I would end up regretting.

   “No,” I began. “I was going to say that what you’re proposing sounds very expensive. A small, intimate wedding at city hall would accomplish the exact same thing. A renewal of your vows. And if you still want to go to Thailand, go for your second honeymoon.”

   Silence. Nikki must have been mulling over my suggestion.

   “You think seventy-five of your closest friends will be willing to hop on a plane to Thailand?” I asked, my tone saying the question was rhetorical.

   “Probably fifty or sixty of them.”

   I highly doubted that. My sister’s friends were all like her—married with children. Not to mention their careers. I didn’t see that many of them being able—or willing—to head to Thailand for her second wedding.

   “Will you do it?” she asked. “Be my maid of honor?”

   “Yes,” I answered. “Of course.” I really didn’t have a choice. I could only hope that as the weeks passed—and common sense set in—Nikki would decide on having her wedding a little closer to home.

   “Good. I’m so excited!” she squealed. “A second wedding, a fresh start. This is going to be wonderful.”

   “I’m sure it is.”

   “I was thinking maybe December. Over Christmas, when everyone will have time off. That’ll give everyone time to start making travel arrangements now for their trip to Thailand.”

   I suddenly realized that when it came to Nikki, “common sense” wasn’t necessarily a factor. For some reason, she was stuck on Thailand. “I thought you said that Morris wanted to go to the Keys or the Bahamas,” I said, hoping to steer her off the far east course.

   “Yes. But I want to go to Thailand.”

   I shook my head. My sister. There was no getting through to her. When she got an idea about something, no one could change her mind.

   I wondered if Morris even wanted a second wedding, or if he was strictly going along with the suggestion as penance for his sin of adultery.

   “Oh, I have to run,” Nikki suddenly said. “We’re going to church.”

   “Okay. I’ll talk to you later.”

   “If you want, you can meet us there for the later service. There are a few eligible bachelors in the congregation.”

   “I’ll think about it,” I lied. I wasn’t against the idea of going to church. Eli and I used to go together sometimes. What I didn’t want was my sister trying to hook me up between hymns.

   “Don’t just think about it,” Nikki said. “Do it.”

   “Later, sis.”

   “’Bye.”

   Once I hung up with Nikki, I called Carla and asked if she wanted to go to the zoo with the kids.

   “Oooh,” she said. “That sounds like fun.”

   “Meet you at your place for noon?”

   “You’re on.”

2

   I was just about ready to head to Carla’s place when my phone rang. Leaving Rayna in the doorway, I ran into the living room to answer the phone.

   I snatched up the receiver. “Hello?”

   Nothing.

   “Hello?” I repeated.

   A few more beats of nothing passed, and then I heard the dial tone in my ear.

   I replaced the receiver, figuring someone had dialed the wrong number. No sooner was the receiver back on the hook than the phone rang again. I picked it up before it could ring a second time and said an exasperated, “Hello?”

   Again, nothing.

   “Stop calling me and get a life,” I said to whomever was on the other end of my line. Really…prank phone calls? Twice in a row wasn’t an accident—it was an asshole.

   I was just about to pull the receiver from my ear when I heard a faint voice. A whisper of something, but so low that I couldn’t make out what the person had said.

   “Who’s there?” Was it actually not a prank call and simply a bad connection?

   And then I heard the voice again. Definitely a whisper, but loud enough this time that I could make out what the person had said.

   Bitch.

   “Who the hell is this?” I demanded. But even as I asked the question, I realized I knew who it was.

   Tassie Johnson.

   “If that’s you, Tassie—” I began, but the dial tone suddenly blared in my ear.

   I slammed down the receiver, convinced that the person who’d called had been none other than Tassie “The Bitch” Johnson. The woman had to be close to forty, but it was clear that she got off on behaving like she was still in junior high.

   Oh, I hated her. Hated her with a passion. Instead of Tassie trying to understand that Eli had lied to me about her existence, and accepting the fact that I hadn’t “stolen” him from her, the woman was out for blood. She was living in the multimillion-dollar mansion that Eli had bought while he’d played for the Atlanta Braves. I’m sure she had cars, expensive jewelry and expensive art. Along with her Atlanta home, there were no doubt second and third homes in other cities.

   Tassie Johnson didn’t need my condo.

   The only reason she was interested in it was because she wanted to make me miserable. Punish me for having been with the man who no longer loved her.

   If her petty behavior with me was any indication, it was no wonder she had pushed Eli away. Of course, that didn’t justify Eli’s not telling me about her or the children they’d had together.

   I checked the caller ID for the number of the person who had called, certain I’d see a 404 area code. But all it showed was Private Name, Private Number.

   That wasn’t surprising. And it didn’t matter. I knew it was Tassie trying to get under my skin. And because I knew that, I didn’t let the phone call bother me.

   I headed back to Rayna, who was waiting patiently in the foyer. At two-and-a-half, she rarely waited patiently, which only proved how excited she was to get on with our outing.

   “Okay, sweetie,” I said. “Mommy’s ready.”

   The phone rang again.

   “For crying out loud,” I muttered. I debated not answering it, but if it was Tassie again, I wanted to give her an earful before she had the chance to hang up.

   I charged into the living room. Before picking up the receiver, I checked out the caller ID. Seeing my sister’s cell phone number, my anger dissipated and was replaced by confusion. It was minutes to noon. Hadn’t she gone to church?

   I put the receiver to my ear and said, “Nikki?”

   “What do you mean, I’m unbearable?” my sister asked, and now my eyebrows shot up.

   “What?” I said, not at all understanding what was going on.

   “Are you forgetting why we have to renew our vows in the first place?” she went on.

   I got it then. She obviously wasn’t talking to me. “Hello? Nikki?”

   Nikki groaned in frustration. “Vanessa, will you talk some sense into Morris?”

   “Nikki, what’s going on?”

   Nikki didn’t answer. I heard some shuffling sounds and the faint sound of gospel music. But I also heard the sounds of traffic, making me wonder if they were in the car. If so, the music had to be coming from the radio.

   “Hello?” I said.

   “Hello?” Morris’s voice.

   “What’s going on, Morris?”

   “Your sister and I can’t agree on this whole second wedding thing.”

   “It’s not a thing,” my sister said in the background. “It’s about our reaffirming of our vows because you fucked up!”

   “Nice post-church talk,” I muttered. The minister must not have reminded the parishioners to abstain from cursing, I thought wryly. Morris didn’t hear me, however, because he and Nikki were now bickering back and forth. I caught snippets of, “We’ve been through this,” and “So in your mind everything’s fine?”

   I wondered if either of them would notice if I hung up the phone.

   I didn’t. Instead, I said, “Morris? Are you still there?”

   “Yeah.”

   Rayna wandered into the living room and went straight for the box of crayons and pad of paper on the coffee table. One of her favorite things to do was draw pictures.

   “I thought you were going to church,” I said.

   “We did. But we…had a disagreement.”

   “In church?”

   “About the wedding,” Morris clarified.

   How had they had time to discuss the wedding during the ceremony, much less get into a disagreement? “What exactly is the issue, Morris?”

   “I don’t see why we can’t take a trip to Key West with our closest friends. That way, Nikki gets to have her wedding on the beach. And we both get to save a ton of money. She watched some show where a couple got married in Thailand, and suddenly she’s got it in her mind that that’s the only place in the world good enough to renew our vows.”

   “You’re lucky I even want to marry you again!” Nikki spat out. “After what you did.”

   “Where are the kids?” I asked.

   “In the backseat,” Morris replied. “Watching a DVD.”

   Good grief. “Put my sister back on the phone.”

   After a couple seconds, Nikki came on the line, saying, “You see what I have to deal with? Not only does he cheat, now he’s got to make this difficult, too.”

   “Nikki, I understand you’re upset,” I said in a calm voice. “But you have the boys in the car. This kind of fighting in front of them is…well, it’s crazy. You don’t want them all involved in grown folks’ business. Especially not this. Talk to Morris when you get home.”

   Nikki didn’t say anything for a moment, which I took to be a good sign. Hopefully I was getting through to her.

   “Be glad you’re not in a relationship,” she finally said. “Because men suck.”

   “Right, they totally suck,” I said, feigning agreement. Rayna held up a picture with green and blue strokes, and I smiled encouragingly at her. “But please calm down until you get home. Don’t let planning your second wedding send you to divorce court.”

   “Vanessa, I’m coming over.”

   “What?”

   “I can’t deal with Morris right now,” my sister said, her voice cracking. “I just need to be away from him for a while.”

   “But I’m on my way out—”

   “I’m gonna drop him off and head straight to your place.”

   No, not this. Please, God. “Why don’t you call me back when you’ve gotten home?” I suggested. “Make sure the kids are fed or whatever, take a moment to calm down—”

   Nikki started to cry.

   “Nikki,” I said after several seconds. “Nikki?”

   “Morris thinks I’m overreacting,” she sniffed. “Do you think I’m overreacting?”

   I didn’t want to answer the question. I didn’t want to answer it truthfully, that is—not with my sister bawling on the other end of my phone line.

   So I said, “You’re emotional. That’s understandable. But like I said, you have to calm down. If not for your sake, then for your kids. This can’t be good for them.”

   “Okay,” Nikki said, and I heard her inhaling some deep breaths. “You’re right. Mommy’s sorry,” she said to the boys. “I’m just a little bit mad at your dad right now.”

   Understatement of the century. “Call me when you get home,” I said. “We’ll talk some more.”

   “We’re almost home, so I’ll drop Morris off, then head straight to your place.”

   “You’ll what?”

   “I really need you right now, Vanessa.” Nikki’s voice broke. “I really need my sister.”

   “Yes, but, I made plans. How about later?”

   The dial tone sounded in my ear.

   Oh, for God’s sake. Had my sister heard me? Was she going to go home and stay there—or would she soon be on her way?

   With any luck, Nikki’s spat with Morris would be resolved by the time she got home, and she’d call to tell me that she was no longer coming over.

   I reached forward and pulled Rayna into my arms, frowning as I did. Nikki being Nikki, if she did come here and I wasn’t around, I wouldn’t hear the end of it.

   “Let’s go zoo!” Rayna said.

   Damn, this wasn’t fair. I had a fun day planned for my daughter, and now it was ruined. “Maybe we can go see the monkeys and all the animals another time,” I suggested. “Your cousins are coming over, so you can play with them.”

   “Monkeys,” Rayna said, pouting. “Zebras.”

   “I know. But, your Auntie Nikki is coming over. And she’s on her way right now, which means we can’t leave.” I kissed Rayna’s temple. “Next weekend, I promise.”

   Rayna’s pout grew larger.

   Beside me on the sofa were two of her ponies, her favorite toys to play with. I lifted both and gave her one. “How about we play ponies? Is this one Rainbow Dash?” I asked as I held up the green one, knowing full well that this one’s name was not Rainbow Dash.

   “No,” Rayna admonished with a smile, happy to be able to correct me. “That’s Minty.”

   “That’s right. Green tea.”

   “No! Minty.”

   “Ohh. Minty.”

   “Yes, Minty.”

   “Rayna, do you want to play with me?” I asked in a high-pitched voice, prancing Minty around.

   Rayna giggled, then began playing with her own pony. We played together for several minutes before I remembered Carla.

   “Just a minute, sweetie. Mommy has to make a call.”

   I lifted the receiver from beside me on the sofa and punched in the digits to Carla’s number.

   “I’m sorry, Carla,” I said after I filled her in. “But you know my sister. And I can live without the headache of her freaking out when she comes over and finds I’m not here.”

   “I understand,” Carla said.

   “Next weekend?”

   “It’s a date.”

   I brewed a fresh pot of coffee, figuring I’d need the extra caffeine if I was going to have to spend the next several hours drowning in a sea of my sister’s issues.

   Not something I relished, considering I had enough problems of my own.

   I waited.

   And waited.

   Nikki didn’t show.

3

   By the next morning, I still hadn’t heard from my sister—but I also hadn’t heard from the police with any bad news. I was pissed that she’d had so little regard for my time that she didn’t have the decency to call and say she wasn’t coming over.

   I wondered if she’d even given me a second thought. If she’d considered, even for a moment, that she’d done anything wrong.

   But I soon stopped thinking about Nikki when I got to work and saw the temp receptionist behind the desk in the entrance to the office. She had frizzy red hair and a face full of freckles, and looked nothing like the woman she was filling in for. Though the temp had been there for the past two weeks, it still caught me off guard to see her sitting behind the broad desk.

   Still made me feel a moment of sadness and anger that she had to be there at all.

   Alaina Rivera, my good friend and the agency’s regular receptionist, was home recovering after a vicious attack by her jealous and out-of-control ex-husband. She’d been banged up pretty good, had spent a week in hospital, and God only knew how much longer she would be off of work due to her injuries.

   I pushed aside my feelings about Alaina and smiled at the temp as I strode past the reception desk. “Good morning, Nora.”

   “Good morning.”

   I was almost fully out of the foyer when I heard her ask tentatively, “Um, Ms. Cain?”

   I halted, turned back. “Yes, Nora?”

   “There was a call for you about ten minutes ago. From a Bradley Harris? He’s from—”

   “Harris, Lawton and Stein. Yes, I know.”

   “Oh. Well, he said that you two have been playing phone tag and it’s crucial that you call him back today.”

   Bradley and I had not been playing phone tag. I’d been avoiding him after his phone call a week and a half earlier, when he’d told me that Tassie no longer wanted me to buy out Eli’s share of my condo—she wanted me out, period.

   The way I saw it, I didn’t have much to say to Bradley Harris on the matter, because I wasn’t planning on moving.

   Nora extended a sheet of paper to me. “He, uh, left numbers where you can reach him.”

   “Thank you.” I walked back to the reception desk, where I took the slip of paper from Nora, though I didn’t have any intention of calling Bradley back.

   I mean, what was the point? We didn’t see eye to eye on this issue, and likely never would. I figured if I avoided him long enough, Tassie would give up on her demand and they’d disappear from my life forever.

   A girl can hope, can’t she?

   I continued on to my office, where I crumpled the note with the lawyer’s phone numbers and tossed it in the trash.

   I didn’t want to call him. I’d played nice, danced around like a puppet as Tassie pulled the strings and got a good laugh out of making my life hell. Trying to “come up with a solution,” as the lawyer had suggested, had resulted in Tassie changing her mind. So really, could my plan to ignore her and her lawyer put me in a worse position than I already was in?

   Though I’d had that nightmare about being forced out of my home, I didn’t believe for a second that was going to happen.

   I settled in behind my desk and booted my computer up. It was a Monday morning, and I needed to get schedules in order and start on the mid-month payroll. Agent expenses had to be calculated. There was a lot to do, and calling Bradley Harris simply wasn’t on my list.

   But first, I allowed myself to think about the one person I knew I was better off forgetting.

   I opened my drawer and withdrew the framed photo of me and Chaz. We’d taken the photo when he’d come to Miami to visit me and explore the possibility of signing with the agency I worked for. Believe The Dream, Change Your Life was an agency that represented motivational speakers and life coaches. Chaz was one of the hottest names in the business, and he worked alone. Had I been able to sign him to my agency, I would have had my shot at becoming an agent, which was my ultimate goal.

   It had almost happened. But a little white lie I’d told Chaz had come back to haunt me. Chaz had dumped me because of that lie, and as a result, had walked away from the opportunity to work with me.

   Chaz had always said that the one thing he couldn’t deal with was dishonesty. I’d learned how serious he was the hard way.

   In the picture, Chaz was smiling widely, a spark in his eyes. I was smiling just as happily, a woman who’d finally found the man of her dreams.

   How could Chaz and I have gone from this happy moment to utter despair? As long as I lived, I would never forget the look of utter disappointment on Chaz’s face when Byron, my daughter’s father, had shown up in the restaurant that day. Having told Chaz that Rayna’s father was dead, Byron’s appearance—and theatrics over possibly losing his daughter—had been a double shock.

   Why hadn’t I told Chaz that Rayna’s father indeed was still alive, but a total deadbeat dad?

   My phone rang, startling me out of my thoughts. I jumped in fright, then reached for my phone.

   “Vanessa Cain.”

   “Hello, Vanessa.” A woman’s voice.

   “Yes?”

   “My name is Charlie Mann. I’m with Real Life Pictures in Hollywood.”

   I sat up straight, wary. “Yes.”

   “I heard all about your ordeal with Eli Johnson, and I’d love the opportunity to speak to you about the option of buying your story.”

   “Buying my story?”

   “I’d like to make it into a movie of the week.”

   I frowned into the receiver, wondering if the person on the other end of my line was playing some sort of a joke on me. “Are you…is this a friend of Tassie’s?”

   “You mean Tassie Johnson, the wife Eli never told you about?”

   The woman sounded almost gleefully excited as she relayed the facts I had wanted to put behind me. Like someone sharing a piece of gossip.

   No, she wasn’t a friend of Tassie’s.

   “This is for real?” I asked.

   “Absolutely. And your story has the right amount of sex, deception, twists and turns that would make a fantastic movie. The secret wife and kids, being murdered in his lover’s bed. The whole ‘celebrity behaving badly’ angle is a huge sell.”

   “Right,” I said absently, the woman’s retelling of what had happened in my life making my stomach twist.

   “Of course, you’ll be paid,” Charlie went on.

   “Oh?” I rolled my chair forward and rested my elbows on the desk. “How much?”

   “The exact amount will have to be negotiated, but it would be…significant.”

   Possibly thousands of dollars, just for sharing my story with America. A story they already knew, quite frankly, so it wasn’t as if I would be airing my dirty laundry.

   Of course, a movie would get into much more detail, like how I’d met Eli, our courtship, his life with Tassie.

   My life with Rayna.

   “When can we meet, Vanessa? I’d be happy to fly you to L. A.”

   “You know what, I’m not interested.”

   “I think we should meet face-to-face, and you can hear my ideas.”

   “I really am not interested,” I reaffirmed. “I think the story has been exploited enough, and I didn’t exactly come out of it smelling like roses. Then there’s my daughter…”

   “I promise you, we’ll handle the story sensitively.”

   “Short of when my parents died, what happened with Eli was the worst time of my life. I have no desire to revisit that tragic time.” Not even if the money sounded appealing. “I’m sorry, but that’s my final decision.”

   “If you change your mind—”

   “I won’t. Thank you for the call, though.”

   I replaced the receiver, then exhaled sharply. A producer wanted to make a movie out of my life?

   Unbelievable.

   When my phone rang again, I assumed it was the producer calling back, and I debated not answering it. But there was one thing I couldn’t do as the agency’s office manager—ignore my phone.

   I picked up the receiver and put it to my ear. “Vanessa Cain.”

   “Hey, girl.”

   “Alaina,” I said, feeling immediate relief. “How are you?”

   “Better. I’m feeling a lot better than yesterday.”

   “Oh, I’m so glad to hear that.”

   “I figure I’ll be back to work in no time.”

   “Of course you will. You’re a fighter.” I said the words not only to support Alaina, but also because I believed them. In the face of a horrific assault, she was finding the courage not just to go on, but to not let what her ex-husband had done bring her down emotionally.

   “So, any office gossip?” Alaina asked. “I’m going through serious gossip withdrawal.”

   “Not really,” I said. “Well, that’s not true. You’ll never believe who just called me.”

   “Chaz?” Alaina asked excitedly.

   “No. Not Chaz.” Hearing and saying his name, I felt a pain grip my heart.

   “Tassie?”

   “No, not Tassie.”

   “Then who?”

   “A Hollywood producer,” I said, enunciating my words. “Would you believe she wants to make a TV movie about my story? My relationship with Eli, how he was killed, the fact that he had a secret wife and kids. All the drama that made my life total hell.”

   “Oh, my God! How much are they going to pay you?”

   “I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t stay on the phone long enough to ask.”

   “What? Tell me you did not just say what I think you said.”

   “You heard me.”

   “Are you crazy?” Alaina asked. “You turned the producer down?”

   “I just said that all that drama made my life total hell. I don’t want to relive that.”

   “But you could probably get rich! And then you wouldn’t have to marry Lewis, because you’d have the money to buy Tassie off yourself. It’d be a nice way to profit from something so horrible.”

   “And all I have to do is let them exploit me,” I said in a fake-cheery voice. “It’s not like I haven’t had enough stress because of the media covering the story to last me a lifetime.”

   “I guess I can see your point. But still…”

   “No buts. If I do this, I’m not only letting myself be exploited, I’m letting my daughter be exploited. And I’ve got to protect Rayna at all costs.”

   There was a soft sigh on the other end of the line. “I didn’t think about that. Still, it’s pretty cool that a producer wants to make a movie about your life, even if it’s not going to happen.”

   “I guess,” I agreed noncommittally.

   “So what’s going on with Debbie?” Alaina asked, referring to the ownership of the agency. “Is she still screwing Jason?”

   “Actually, I’m not sure about that. She hasn’t mentioned him, so maybe that’s a good sign. I hope it means she’s decided to stop her affair and concentrate on her family.”

   “You never know with Debbie.” Debbie and I had been friends since I’d started working for her, but we didn’t see eye to eye about her affair.

   “This is true. Other than that, nothing much new here. Other than we all miss you and can’t wait for you to return.”

   “I’m hoping next week. The doc says my ribs should be healed by then.” Alaina paused. “But enough about me. How’s Lewis?”

   At the mention of his name, my stomach tightened. Not exactly the appropriate reaction, considering he was my fiancé.

   “He’s all right. I guess.”

   “You guess?” Alaina asked. “Haven’t you spoken to him?”

   “We’ve talked.”

   “When was the last time?” Alaina asked, her tone saying she didn’t believe me.

   “A couple days ago.”

   “Mmm-hmm. Are you avoiding your fiancé?”

   “No.” And I didn’t like the way Alaina had said fiancé— as though she were mocking me.

   “When are you gonna tell him?” she asked.

   “Tell him what?”

   “That you don’t want to marry him.”

   “I—” I stopped abruptly, unsure what to say. I had accepted Lewis’s engagement ring, which had been part and parcel of his offer to help me come up with enough cash to get Tassie off of my back.

   Lewis’s proposal had trapped me between a rock and a hard place. I wanted—no, needed—his help. But I didn’t quite know how to ask for his financial help and turn down his proposal. I’d loved Lewis once, but he had been a total player. I couldn’t have been more surprised when he told me he’d help me with my Tassie problem—and then had proposed.

   According to Lewis, he knew now that he loved me and that I was the only woman for him. He was done with his cheating ways and wanted to make a life with me.

   “Vanessa?”

   “Oh, sorry. What did you say?”

   “I’ll take that as a no,” Alaina said.

   “Ally, you know I love talking to you, but I’ve got a ton of work on my desk.”

   “You can’t avoid this issue forever. Pretty soon, Lewis is going to start talking about setting a wedding date, and if you don’t love him, don’t want to be with him, you have to tell him. You can’t marry him just because he’s got the financial means for you to fight Tassie.”

   “I’ll talk to you later, Ally.”

   “All right, girl. But think about what I said.”

   Think about it? I could do nothing but.

   Like Alaina had said, Lewis was the only one who could help me fight Tassie. And I certainly didn’t want to seem as though I would use him only for his cash. How could I turn down Lewis’s proposal? Especially since he claimed to love me?

   I stared at the photo of me and Chaz again, then put it back in the desk drawer. It was after Alaina had been attacked by her ex that I’d gotten a new perspective. That maybe passionate love was overrated. Passionate love led to seriously painful heartache.

   The kind I was suffering now.

   I’d come to the realization that it was probably far better to have a marriage based on friendship and respect. Sexual chemistry—like what Lewis and I had once shared—was a bonus.

   Not that there was any sexual chemistry right now. Try as I might to convince myself of the non-passionate-marriage argument, I was still grieving over Chaz, and until I’d gotten over him, I knew I couldn’t share my body with Lewis.

   But perhaps some time soon…

   Even as I tried to convince myself of that, my mind wandered to the photo of me and Chaz, and that happy time we had shared.

   And I knew in my heart that I wanted that back.

   Wanted him back.

4

   I put Chaz out of my mind and concentrated on work. It was the only way. Actually, it was the best way. Focusing on work made me forget about the grief I was feeling in my heart.

   At least temporarily.

   There was still no call from my sister, but I took her lack of contact as good news. Trust me, if she had been planning to see a divorce lawyer, she would have called and made me join her.

   Thank God she hadn’t. I didn’t need her drama on top of my own. Already, I’d missed out on taking Rayna to the zoo because of Nikki.

   I glanced at the wall clock. It was almost three-thirty. I would try to leave a little early today, head home, get Rayna, then take her to the lake so we could feed the ducks. There was a spot in Coconut Grove we’d been a few times, and it was always a fun experience.

   My daughter needed fun right now. We both did.

   And she needed to know that even if the man she’d known as her father wasn’t coming back, I would always be there for her.

   I got up, stretched my body, then strolled to the window. As was typical every day during the summer months in South Florida, we’d have an afternoon downpour. I welcomed the short showers as they cooled things down. The sun always returned after the rain, and right now, it was shining brightly on downtown Miami.

   My phone rang. I turned around and took three long strides back to my desk and snatched up the receiver before the phone could ring a third time.

   “Vanessa Cain.”

   “Ms. Cain. Hello.”

   I swallowed.

   “This is Bradley Harris.”

   The man didn’t have to identify himself for me to know that it was the lawyer I’d come to dread hearing from. “Yes. I recognized your voice.”

   “I called this morning, but I haven’t heard back from you.”

   “Really?” I asked, feigning surprise as I rolled my eyes. “You know, we have a temp receptionist right now. She must have forgotten to give me the message.”

   “That must be it,” Bradley said, but I could tell by his tone that he didn’t believe me.

   “How can I help you?” I asked brightly.

   “I’m calling to see if we can arrange a meeting to discuss the transfer of the condo to my client.”

   The condo. Not “your condo.” As if I had no ownership of it whatsoever.

   “You want a meeting,” I repeated.

   “Yes.”

   “You know, I’ve got a very busy schedule. Maybe we can arrange something in a few months.”

   “Ms. Cain, I know what you’re doing.” The lawyer sounded a little exasperated. “You think that if you put this meeting off, the problem will simply go away. I assure you, it will not.”

   I said nothing.

   “There are two ways to do this. The easy way—and the hard way.”

   I rolled my eyes again. Now the lawyer sounded like a character out of a bad movie. “You don’t have to threaten me.”

   “I’m not threatening you. But you do need to know that this is a serious legal matter, one that won’t be resolved with stall tactics. And trust me, you don’t want this going to court.”

   I frowned, thinking. I wasn’t too sure that Bradley was right. In fact, I figured he was trying to scare me. However, I knew that going to court would cost money. Money I didn’t have.

   I didn’t have even the slightest interest in meeting with attorney Bradley Harris and the woman who had been a thorn in my side. But despite the fact that I’d been avoiding Tassie’s lawyer, I knew he was right. I couldn’t avoid Bradley and Tassie forever. At some point, this situation would have to be resolved.

   Fine—if Tassie wanted a meeting, we’d have a meeting. However, she would soon learn that I wasn’t planning to hand over anything to her.

   She was in for a fight.

   “Ms. Cain?”

   “When?” I asked. I knew I sounded testy, but I didn’t care. “When were you and Tassie thinking of having this meeting?”

   “Early next week would be good for my client. We can meet in Miami, as I know that will be more convenient for you.”

   “Very thoughtful,” I muttered softly, not meaning my words. But the lawyer was right. I would have to meet with him and Tassie Johnson sooner or later.

   It would just have to be sooner.

   “Will that work for you?” Bradley asked.

   “Yes. How about Tuesday? The afternoon will be better for me.”

   “Let me verify my schedule and speak with Tassie, then I’ll get back to you.”

   “You do that.”

   I hung up the phone, emitting a groan as I did. Then I forced myself to draw in a few steady breaths.

   I was looking forward to this meeting as much as a person looks forward to root canal. But on one hand, I was glad that the lawyer had forced this meeting. Because with a date set, I would have to take action myself.

   The last time I’d spoken with Bradley Harris, I’d been determined to fight back. Determined to keep my home from the hands of a greedy, conniving bitch. I’d called a reporter from the Miami Herald who’d followed the story of Eli’s death and asked for her help. But as the days passed and I hadn’t heard from her, I’d put the whole matter out of my mind, wrongly hoping that Tassie would simply go away.

   I needed to call Cynthia Martin back, see what the reporter had discovered. Perhaps she’d forgotten my request or had been too busy to do any digging. If that was the case, my call would prompt her into action.

   And if she’d been unable to find any dirt on Tassie, then I’d have to hire a private investigator. Because I knew the dirt was there.

   I felt certain that Tassie was involved with the man who’d been at her side at Eli’s funeral. There was no law against that, especially since she and Eli had been separated for years. But it mattered in terms of the way Tassie had portrayed herself in the media—like the doting, grieving widow who’d never stepped out on her man, even though he’d had his own indiscretions. And she had painted me out to be a gold digger who had relentlessly pursued her pro-athlete husband for his cash.

   Given her lies, I knew that for Tassie perception was everything. A woman like her would hate to have the truth about her own adulterous relationship exposed for the world to see.

   And if she hoped to persuade a judge that she deserved my home because she and her husband had been very much together at the time of his death and that I was simply a woman on the side, she also needed to keep up her grieving widow charade.

   With Cynthia’s help, I was about to blow that plan up in Tassie’s pathetic face.

   Well, I hoped I was. Even if I believed that Tassie had been living her own life and had been romantically involved with at least one man in the past seven years, I still needed proof. Proof was the only thing that would persuade her to leave me the heck alone.

   My temples throbbed. Talking to Bradley Harris and thinking about my predicament had brought on a headache.

   I withdrew a bottle of ibuprofen from my desk and downed two capsules with the dregs of my cold coffee. As I was swallowing, my phone rang again.

   I hesitated—and then was angry that I even had to be wary of answering my office phone. Damn Tassie Johnson.

   I picked up the receiver and placed it at my ear. “Vanessa Cain.”

   “Baby,” came the smooth, sexy voice.

   My stomach tensed slightly at the sound of Lewis’s voice. It shouldn’t have, of course, considering he was my fiancé.

   Then again, he wasn’t really my fiancé—well, not in the true sense of the word. He’d proposed marriage, and had assumed that I’d accepted. I’ll admit, I didn’t do much to let him think I hadn’t accepted his proposal, but I hadn’t really had a choice. He was the way out of a problem—the problem being the woman who wanted to take my home from me and my daughter. Lewis could easily give me the money to pay off Tassie Johnson.

   The simple fact was that I couldn’t afford to turn down Lewis’s proposal. Not when I knew that it was part and parcel of his offer of financial help.

   But I’d loved him once. I could love him again.

   “Vanessa?” Lewis said, reminding me that I hadn’t greeted him. “You there?”

   “Hey, Lewis.”

   “What’s wrong, baby?” he asked.

   “Nothing.”

   “Then why do you sound stressed out?”

   “I do?”

   “Uh-huh.”

   “It’s been a long day,” I said. “I’m getting a bit of a headache, that’s all.”

   “Maybe I need to come by and give you a nice back rub.”

   I smiled and said, “Nice try, Lewis. But I’ll be fine.”

   “It would just be a back rub. Right in your office. With the door open if you want. So everyone will know there’s no monkey business going on.”

   After realizing that I couldn’t exactly turn Lewis’s proposal down, I’d told him two things: that I wanted a long engagement, and that I wanted to wait until we were married to have sex.

   Total stall tactic. I admit it.

   “I’ll pass on that, thank you.”

   “Damn,” Lewis muttered. “You’re being tough on a brother. But I get it, so I’m not complaining.”

   “Thank you for understanding.”

   “Any word from Tassie Johnson’s lawyer?” he suddenly asked.

   “As a matter of fact, yes,” I said. “I got off the phone with him a few minutes ago.”

   “And?”

   “And he’s proposing a meeting. Next week.”

   “Good.”

   I drew in a shuddery breath. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

   “You’ve got to do this sooner or later, babe.”

   “I know.”

   “Did you tell the lawyer that you definitely have the cash and offer to buy out Tassie’s share again?”

   Lewis had advised me to do that, but I hadn’t. “I didn’t bother to call him back, because it’s clear Tassie is playing games. I kinda hoped they’d just go away.”

   “Now you know he’s not going away, so the meeting’s a good thing. I’ll go with you, we’ll bring a check. Tassie’s gonna be there?”

   “Yes.”

   “I’ll make it a cashier’s check. When Tassie sees it, I bet she’ll happily accept it and disappear.”

   I found myself smiling. Lewis was definitely being super-supportive, and I was extremely grateful for that. The idea of him being with me at the meeting set my mind at ease. Perhaps with Lewis by my side and a fat check in his hands, Tassie would give up on her latest plan. After all, I knew she was a greedy little witch, using her lawyer to push me around. The bitch was probably laughing her head off in her Atlanta mansion right now.

   But she’d see who would have the last laugh.

   “Not that you should buy her out,” Lewis went on. “Now that we’re engaged, we’re gonna find our own place to live.”

   “You know why this is important to me.”

   “On principle, yes, I get it. It’s just kind of a shame, since you’re going to sell the place anyway.”

   “Not really, since we’re going to have a long engagement,” I pointed out. “As we discussed.”

   “I know. But that doesn’t mean we can’t live together.”

   “Yes, it does, because living together will compromise the no-sex rule,” I said sweetly.

   “Baby, I hear you. And I get it.” Lewis paused. “When I was with you, I messed up. Big-time. That’s why I’m willing to do anything I have to to prove to you that you’re the only woman for me. I know you love me. But you can’t trust me. And I’m going to change that.”

   Lewis was saying all the right things. I had loved him. Loved that he made me feel sexy and desirable with just one look. Loved that he made me laugh. I could have married Lewis and lived happily ever after if he hadn’t been such a player.

   But lately, my outlook on love had changed. I wanted the fantasy…but it had eluded me. Maybe I was far better off marrying someone I liked a lot and got along with as a friend—and that was definitely Lewis. Even after he’d cheated on me, we’d remained friends. Maybe that was a sign that we’d be able to have a successful marriage.

   “Mostly, I’m thinking about Rayna,” I said, which wasn’t a lie. “Her little heart’s been broken over Eli, and now Chaz is suddenly gone…She’s the reason I want to make sure I keep our home, so there’s some sense of stability for her.”

   “I think it’ll help if she starts seeing me again. We should do some fun things together—”

   “No,” I said, cutting Lewis off. “I’m not ready for that.”

   I’d trusted Eli, and he’d hurt me. Now Rayna was without the father she’d known. She hadn’t known Chaz long, but she’d taken to him immediately. Until I was certain that I’d be marrying Lewis, I didn’t want my daughter forming an attachment to him, because the last thing I wanted to do was put her little heart at risk again.

   “It’ll happen,” I quickly said, not wanting to offend Lewis. “Just…give it some time.”

   “What about dinner tonight?” Lewis suggested. “We can go over strategy regarding your meeting with Tassie and her lawyer.”

   I was about to say no, but stopped myself. Lewis was going to give me the cash I needed to take care of my Tassie problem. And I was engaged to him—officially, if not wholeheartedly. I couldn’t avoid him.

   “Actually, that’s a good idea.” I could take Rayna to feed the ducks after dinner with Lewis. “Why don’t I call my babysitter, and if it’s okay with her, you can meet me on Ocean Drive and we can have an early dinner? That way I won’t be out too late, and I can spend some quality time with Rayna before she goes to bed.”

   “Sounds like a plan.”

   “I’ll call you back to confirm.”

   “All right, sweetheart.”

   Sweetheart.

   I swallowed at the term of endearment as I hung up the phone. If only when Lewis said that, I felt warm and fuzzy inside.

   But I didn’t, and I wasn’t sure I ever would again.

5

   Lewis and I made plans to meet at The Clevelander, a spot that had a lot of history for us. Sexual history. I could have protested when I called Lewis back and he suggested the spot, but I didn’t. I knew that Lewis was hoping I’d cave to the emotional history the place represented for us. And for that reason, I knew I needed to go there as a test of my own feelings for him as well as a test of my own resolve to keep our relationship platonic.

   As I waited for Lewis at a table on the patio, I gazed at the palm trees that lined the South Beach strip. The scent of the ocean filled the air, and I could hear the sounds of calypso, reggae and hip-hop coming from the surrounding clubs. At night, the strip lit up in an array of neon colors, highlighting the beauty of the art deco buildings. On South Beach you had the beach, the swanky clubs, architectural history and natural beauty. As far as I was concerned, South Beach was one of the most beautiful places in the world, and very likely the hippest.

   I loved living here. It offered fun for the kids, excitement for the adults. Being on South Beach was like living in paradise. As I took in everything I loved about the place, I was more convinced than ever that I wouldn’t lose my home.

   At least not to a greedy, conniving, self-serving bitch.

   “Hey, gorgeous.”

   At the sound of Lewis’s voice, I looked over my shoulder. He looked sexy as hell in a tailored, pin-striped navy suit. Honestly, Lewis Carter looked like a top-paid model, or even a movie star. I had no doubt that his smile had gotten many a woman hot and bothered—me included.

   Yes, Lewis’s great looks had attracted me to him, but it was his ability to make me laugh that had made me fall in love with him.

   As I stood to meet Lewis, I sensed eyes on us. A quick glance around and I saw that women in The Clevelander and those strolling the street were checking Lewis out. He had the kind of sex appeal that drew women’s attention like white on rice.

   Not seeming to notice the women, Lewis slipped an arm around my waist, drew me close and kissed me full on the mouth. It was the kind of kiss that at one time would have had me smoldering, but I didn’t feel much more than a tingle now.

   I was kind of hoping I would. Anything to show the feelings I’d had for Lewis once could return.

   I broke the kiss and smiled up at Lewis. “As usual, all eyes are on you.”

   “But I only have eyes for you, baby.”

   Lewis gestured for me to sit, so I did, and he helped me ease my chair back under the table. Then he took a seat opposite me.

   His eyes zoomed in on my left hand, then narrowed. I knew what he was thinking before he spoke the question.

   “Where’s your ring?”

   “Oh.” I drew my purse onto my lap, reached into it and opened the engagement ring box. Beneath the cover of the table, I slipped the engagement ring onto my finger. “I noticed someone following me when I left my office building,” I lied. “I slipped it off my finger…in case the guy wanted to cut my finger off to get the ring.”

   Lewis’s eyes widened. “You were followed?”

   “I think so,” I hedged. “I’m not sure. But, I wanted to be safe. Just in case.” I placed my left hand flat on the table, showcasing the amazing engagement ring. “It’s a big rock.”

   Lewis took my hand into his. “And no less than you deserve.”

   Smiling somewhat uncomfortably, I pulled my hand back and linked my fingers together, then rested my chin on my joined hands. “I want to thank you for offering to go with me to the meeting with Tassie and her lawyer next week.”

   “Of course I’m going with you. You’re my girl.”

   “I think your being there is going to help a lot. But I have a couple other ideas I want to run by you.”

   “Shoot.”

   “First of all, I was thinking that it’d be really stupid for me to go to that meeting without a lawyer. I looked through the phone book for some, but I don’t know who’s good. I need someone who’s tough. Someone who will push back when Tassie pushes. For the most part, she’s been running the show with her demands, treating me as though I have to deal with her terms. That crap’s got to stop.”

   “That’s a great idea.”

   The waitress arrived, a pretty Latina whose eyes lit up when they landed on Lewis. Normally, Lewis might give a woman like her a sexy smile. But he looked her way only to order a half-carafe of white zinfandel for the table.

   When the waitress was gone, I asked Lewis, “Do you know someone? Someone tough? In your business dealings, you must have a lawyer. If your lawyer isn’t appropriate, hopefully they’ll know someone who can help me out. I don’t know what kind of attorney would be good in this situation—divorce, civil?—but I do know that I need a bull.”

   “I know a couple lawyers who’ll be perfect for the job. Sharp, tough. Bruce Barnes. Neil Gorman. Neil’s a shark.”

   “Perfect,” I said, relieved. “You think you can put me in touch with him tomorrow? I need to get on this fast. I don’t even know how I’ll pay someone, but—”

   “Don’t worry about that,” Lewis said. “You’re my fiancée. I’ll take care of you.”

   Nodding, I didn’t meet Lewis’s eyes. I was aware that with each step I was taking toward resolving my situation with Tassie, I was owing more and more to Lewis. Not that he would ever expect me to repay him—at least not monetarily. And yet I felt I owed him, so much so that I couldn’t confess that I wasn’t altogether sure about this marriage thing. I would far prefer to continue being friends with him and see how things went, but I just didn’t know how to tell Lewis that.

   “Vanessa?”

   The sound of Lewis’s voice jolted me from my thoughts. “Sorry. I was just thinking.”

   “It’s gonna be all right,” he said. “Trust me.”

   “I hope so.” I gestured to the South Beach strip. “I can’t lose my home, Lewis. Not to Tassie Johnson.”

   “You’re not going to.”

   “What I don’t get about her is that she’s a mother. As a mother—one who’s living in a multimillion-dollar mansion—how can she be so cold and callous as to take away my home? She doesn’t have to like me, but where’s her concern for my daughter?”

   “You know this is about Eli,” Lewis said. “This is Tassie’s way of hurting you for hurting her.”

   “That’s the thing. I didn’t hurt her. She and Eli were married in name only by the time we got involved.”

   “She still wants to make you pay.”

   “Tell me about it,” I agreed. Which was exactly the reason I would do whatever it took to get the bitch off my back.

   When I saw the waitress coming, I lifted the menu and perused it. “How do you feel about an order of calamari?” I asked. “Maybe that and some bruschetta?”

   “Add an order of beef fajitas to that and I’ll be good to go.”

   The waitress placed the wine and two glasses on the table. “Are you ready to order?”

   The question was directed toward Lewis, as though I weren’t even at the table. I rolled my eyes. Some women.

   “We’ll have an order of calamari and bruschetta to start, and after that, we’ll share a large order of beef fajitas.”

   “All right.” The waitress collected the menus. I saw her gaze linger on Lewis even as he faced me once more.

   I shook my head as she walked away. “Someone’s got eyes just for you,” I pointed out.

   “Who?” Lewis asked.

   I flashed him a mock-scowl. “Don’t pretend you didn’t notice how the waitress was drooling.”

   Lewis dismissed the comment with a nonchalant shrug. Then he poured us both wine.

   He raised his glass in toast. “To life without Tassie,” he said.

   I clinked my glass against his. “Now I’ll drink to that.”

   We both sipped our wine. As Lewis lowered his glass, he said, “You mentioned you had ideas about how to fight Tassie. What else were you thinking?”

   “Right. Well, when Tassie’s lawyer told me she no longer wants me to buy out her share of the condo—that she wants to move in instead—I got pissed. It’s like you said, the bitch is just trying to mess with me. She refuses to accept that fact that I didn’t destroy her marriage. Hell, I knew nothing about her. She can say what she wants to the press, but she knows the truth.” For a moment, reliving the hell she had put me through, I seethed. Then I pulled myself out of my anger and continued. “I immediately called that reporter, the one from the Miami Herald I told you about?”

   “Right.”

   “I saw Tassie at Eli’s funeral. She seemed very cozy with a man by her side. I know she’s got some skeletons in her closet. I was hoping the reporter could help me dig them up.”

   “And?”

   I frowned. “And I haven’t heard from her yet. I called her again today and got her voice mail. I’m starting to think there’s nothing Cynthia can tell me. Well, at least nothing that she could find. I think it’s time I hire my own investigator.”

   “Now you’re talking,” Lewis said. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.”

   “If I could get pictures of Tassie with someone else, establish some sort of proof that she was definitely involved with another man while Eli was in Miami, maybe I can use that evidence to get her to back down. She’s made a name for herself as the ‘victim’ in the media. I don’t think she’d want anyone to know that she was really crying in some other man’s arms.” I paused, remembering the hot stud beside Tassie at the funeral. I was certain he was her lover.

   “And the way she didn’t let Eli see his kids,” I went on. “The way she threatened to cry child abuse if he didn’t do what she demanded…A person should be put up on charges for that kind of behavior, not rewarded with more material possessions.”

   “Or get the shit beaten out of them,” Lewis offered. Then smiled.

   “Wouldn’t that be nice,” I commented. If the law allowed it, maybe I’d ask for five minutes alone in a room with Tassie—and one of Eli’s favorite bats that he’d used when he played for the Braves. “I’ve thought about suing her for pain and suffering, but I don’t know. Although this is America. Anyone with seventy-five bucks can fill out the forms to sue someone at the courthouse. Of course, you need the money to keep the suit going—something she has and I don’t.”

   “You don’t need to get into an ugly lawsuit situation. It’s too time-consuming. What you need is for Tassie to back down. Immediately. I know an investigator. He can dig up some dirt.”

   “You do?”

   “Baby, I’m a well-connected man.”

   That I believed. I didn’t know the extent of Lewis’s contacts, but I did know that with him being a real estate investor and developer, he knew a lot of people. Six degrees of separation and all that, he would certainly know someone who knew someone who could provide the help I needed.

   “Now,” Lewis said, his eyes brightening while his voice deepened, “let’s talk about us.”

   I glanced away, suddenly uncomfortable. With Lewis, it would always come back to “us,” I realized. We’d had some serious sexual chemistry that sizzled like eggs in a hot skillet.

   “How late can you stay out?” Lewis asked me, the deep timbre of his voice making it clear exactly what was on his mind.

   But still I asked, “Why?”

   He reached for my hand. Ran his tongue along his bottom lip. “I was thinking…maybe we could go to my place for a few hours. Or, I can go up to yours.”

   I started to ease my hand out from under Lewis’s, but he tightened his fingers, keeping my hand in place. “Lewis…”

   “Would it be so wrong?” he asked me.

   “I didn’t say it was wrong—”

   “Good, because I want to make love to you, baby.”

   I swallowed. “I know. But you remember what I said, don’t you?”

   “Yes, I remember. But come on, what’s the point in waiting?” Lewis leveled one of his charming smiles on me. “It’s not like we haven’t been intimate many, many times before.”

   My face flushed, and I admit I felt something. How could I not? The times Lewis and I had been together had been electric.

   “I was hoping I could change your mind,” Lewis said, running the pad of his thumb over my inner wrist.

   I pulled my hand away while returning Lewis’s smile. “Oh, no you don’t. You’re not going to charm the pants off of me.”

   “No?”

   “No.”

   Lewis reached for my hand again. Lifted it. Pressed his lips to the inside of my wrist. “Well, I’m going to have fun trying.”

   I felt another tingle then. Lust. I reached for my glass of water and took a sip.

   “You want it, too,” he said with his trademark confidence that had always turned me on. “You know you do.”

   I stared at him, checking out his handsome face. Could I fall into bed with Lewis? Sure. Could I fall into bed with Lewis as a way to try and forget about Chaz? Absolutely. It was the kind of thing I would have done in the past.

   Lewis was guaranteed to perform in the bedroom, and he knew exactly how to please me.

   But I couldn’t—and wouldn’t—sleep with him while Chaz was still in my heart. Not until I’d made the definite decision to put Chaz behind me and move on.

   “What I want,” I began slowly and smiling sweetly, “is to wait until we’re married.”

   “Are you sure about that?” Lewis challenged.

   “Yes, I’m sure. It’ll be easy for us to fall into bed together, but—”

   “And fun,” Lewis supplied. “A lot of fun.”

   I flashed a mock-scowl his way. “But,” I continued, picking up my point where I’d left off, “if we wait until we’re married, then I’ll know for sure that your heart is in the right place.”

   “You still don’t believe me?”

   “It’s not that I don’t believe you,” I quickly went on. “But come on, Lewis. You know me and you when it comes to sex.”

   Lewis wriggled his eyebrows. “How could I forget?”

   “My whole point about waiting until we’re married—instead of falling into bed together—is that we’ll both know that we’re getting married for the right reasons.” I took a moment to let my words settle over Lewis. “Our sexual chemistry was never the problem. But a marriage has to be based on more than that.”

   Lewis nodded slowly, his lips pulling downward in a small frown. I knew he didn’t like my position, but like the last time when we’d discussed this, he seemed to accept my terms without a fuss.

   Two women in barely there bikinis strolled by the table. I watched Lewis, waiting to see his gaze follow the women as they passed.

   Instead, he raised my hand to his mouth and kissed it. “You’re worth the wait.”

   My lips spread in a genuine grin. Ever since proposing to me, Lewis continued to surprise me. I expected him to get frustrated with me over my no-sex requirement, but he continued to be patient. I expected the player I’d known to react to the beautiful women who flirted with him, or at least check out the eye candy. But he wasn’t doing that, at least not in front of me.

   Instead, Lewis gave me more and more reason to believe that he really did want to marry me for all the right reasons. And more so, that he really was in love with me.

   Heck, he’d remembered my favorite wine, white zinfandel, something he hadn’t done before.

   Maybe this marriage thing to Lewis was going to work out just fine. Maybe, like I’d tried to convince myself, marriages built on a mutual friendship and respect were the ones that went the distance. It wasn’t necessary for my heart to be overflowing with love for Lewis in order for us to have a good life together.

   As long as he would be faithful to me, treat me with respect, be a good father to my daughter, that was all I could want.

   Then why was it, I thought as I raised my wineglass to my lips once more, that I couldn’t help wishing that it was Chaz sitting across from me?

6

   “So?” Carla asked when I got to the door after my dinner with Lewis. “How did it go?”

   “It was nice,” I replied.

   “Nice?”

   “Nice dinner. Nice ambiance. Good company.”

   Carla raised an eyebrow. “Are you still engaged?”

   I strolled into the apartment, sighing as I did. “I guess so.”

   “You guess so?”

   “Yes,” I said. Then with more conviction, “Yes, I am.”

   “Vanessa.” Carla frowned. “I thought you were going to tell him that you don’t want to marry him.”

   “I was?”

   “That’s what you told me last week, remember? Over a bottle of wine as you were crying about the fact that you weren’t in love with Lewis.”

   “Vaguely.”

   “Vaguely?” Carla asked, her voice full of skepticism.

   “I remember,” I said as I plopped myself down on the sofa. “Of course I remember.” I’d been extremely confused that night, pining over Chaz, but knowing that I needed Lewis to help me fight Tassie. “Well, I’ve changed my mind.”

   “Now you do want to marry him?”

   “Where’s Rayna?” I asked.

   “She and Amani are snuggled under the covers on my bed. They’re engrossed in that Barbie Island Princess movie. But don’t change the subject. Have you really changed your mind about Lewis?”

   “You should have seen him tonight, Carla. He ignored every woman who tried to flirt with him. Every single one. He even showed me this note our waitress had slipped him when she gave us the bill. The skank had the nerve to give him her phone number! Even though he was clearly with me.”

   “That’s the way women are,” Carla said sourly. “A man’s more attractive when he belongs to someone else.”

   “Lewis ripped up the number right in front of my face. The old Lewis never would have done that.”

   “Score one for Lewis. But—”

   “And he’s going with me to that meeting with Tassie and her lawyer I told you about when I called you earlier. He’s going to bring a cashier’s check, which I think Tassie will happily accept.”

   “Again, that’s nice—”

   “And he’s putting me in touch with a lawyer tomorrow. One who can represent me during the meeting. It’ll be totally foolish for me to go without one.”

   “Definitely smart.”

   “And he’s also going to help me find an investigator, because I need to dig up some dirt on Tassie before the meeting. Hopefully, if all goes well, Tassie will be out of my life forever after next week.”

   Carla crossed her fingers. “Let’s hope.”

   “Yes. Let’s hope.”

   “Any other wonderful things to tell me about Lewis?” Carla asked.

   “No. That’s about it.”

   “Then can I give you my opinion?”

   “Of course.” I pulled my legs up onto the sofa with me and stared at my friend.

   “Everything you’ve said is great, and Lewis definitely sounds like he’s changed.”

   “No one is more surprised than I am.”

   “But—” Carla said, holding up a hand to silence me. “Everything you’ve said also sounds like you’re trying to convince yourself why you should go through with marrying him. And if you’ve got to convince yourself, then should you really be doing it?”

   “It’s not as simple as that,” I said.

   “Really?” Carla asked. “Because I thought it was as simple as if you love someone, you marry them. If you don’t love someone—”

   “I’ve learned that life isn’t as easy as black and white, right and wrong. Being in love or liking someone. There are so many shades of gray, Carla, complicating everything.”

   “You’re justifying,” Carla said in a singsong voice.

   “But how can I accept his help and not marry him?”

   “With a ‘thank you very much for your help, but I’m not in love with you.’ You and Lewis stayed friends after your relationship ended the first time. I’m sure you’ll remain friends if you tell him the truth now.”

   “I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. “Lately I’ve been thinking that love is overrated.”

   Carla laughed. “Love is overrated? This coming from the woman who has always been seeking the real thing? Hell, when you came back from the Bahamas, you had such a glow. And when Chaz came to visit you here, I’ve never seen you happier.”

   “And Chaz dumped me, remember? That’s exactly why I say that love is overrated. No offense—I know some people find the real deal—but for others, maybe it’s enough to find someone you like a lot, someone who makes you laugh. Someone who won’t break your heart.”

   “Chaz is going to come around,” Carla said. “I really believe that.”

   “I wish I could believe that, but he was very clear. He couldn’t accept any form of dishonesty. I left him a couple messages, but he hasn’t called me back.” My throat grew thick with emotion, my heart heavy. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get over him.”

   Carla patted my hand. “Oh, sweetie.”

   “Which is exactly why I need to marry someone I’m not head over heels in love with,” I went on, trying to push my sad feelings aside. “Lewis and I can have the passion in the bedroom without love. I think it’s a win-win situation.”

   “I saw the way Chaz looked at you,” Carla said, her voice encouraging. “It was obvious how much he loved you.”

   I swallowed. Hard. I didn’t want Carla talking about Chaz—it was too painful to remember what I’d shared with him. “It’s over,” I said simply. “He made that very clear.”

   “But it doesn’t have to be,” Carla insisted. “Not forever.”

   “Carla—”

   “A man wants to know a woman’s crazy about him,” she said. “Just as much as he’s crazy about her. I say you fight for him.”

   “I tried that. It didn’t work, remember?”

   “You called a couple times. Maybe you need to call twenty times. One hundred. Whatever it takes to prove to him that he’s the only man you’ll ever love.”

   I lifted my left hand, showing the enormous engagement ring Lewis had given me.

   “I’ve got nothing against Lewis,” Carla said. “Except that you couldn’t trust him to be faithful.”

   “But that’s the thing. He’s really changed.”

   “Fine. Let’s say he has. If you could return from a date with him and be glowing the way you did after you’d met Chaz, I would wholeheartedly support any union between you and him. You’re a terrific girl, Vanessa. You deserve nothing less than to spend the rest of your life with a man you’re passionately in love with.”

   I held up a hand to stop Carla. “Stop, please. I’m confused enough already. Besides, I have the problem of Tassie Johnson. Lewis can make it go away.” I wouldn’t know for sure until after the meeting, but I was hoping that with a big check, Tassie would choose greed over her fight with me. And the only way for me to come up with that kind of cash was Lewis.

   What else could I do? I had resolved to think of my daughter’s happiness instead of my own. Thinking of my own happiness had resulted in dating disaster after dating disaster. Personally, I was ready to close the door on my heart once and for all and deal with being a good mother. And being a good mother meant keeping my home for my daughter.

   “I’ve given my opinion,” Carla said. “I’m not going to browbeat you with it.”

   “Thank you.”

   “Because the truth is, whatever you decide, I’m going to support you. I just want to see you happy.”

   “Thank you.” I leaned forward and hugged Carla. “That means a lot.”

   “You were there for me when I had my marriage crisis. The least I can do is support you.”

   Only a month earlier, Carla had contemplated an affair. I knew she didn’t really want to do that, but she’d been missing her husband terribly, who was in Iraq on a tour of duty. Thankfully, she’d come to her senses and not jeopardized everything that mattered most to her.

   “Have you heard from Paul?” I asked.

   Carla’s face erupted in a grin. “Just this evening, actually.”

   “And how is he?”

   “He’s doing well. He misses me like crazy, as I do him. And with every day that passes, I don’t worry as much. The worrying was making me go insane.”

   Didn’t I know it. The big issue that had had Carla very worried—and in my mind, thinking irrationally enough to even consider an affair—was her fear that Paul would die in Iraq and leave her a widow. It was a completely natural fear, and all any of us could do was pray for Paul’s safe return.

   “I’m counting down the days until he gets back,” Carla said. “As soon as he’s home, we’re going to Disney World.”

   As I watched Carla’s face light up as she spoke, her earlier words got me. The whole bit about being passionately in love with your partner and deserving nothing less than that.

   Seeing the love in her face made me believe in the ideal. Wish for it in my own life.

   Before I got lost in thoughts about Chaz again, I got up from the sofa. “Let me check on my little pumpkin.”

   I walked down the hall to Carla’s room and peered inside. Amani and Rayna were lying on the bed, a comforter covering them as they watched the television.

   Rayna smiled when she saw me, but didn’t make a move to get off the bed. “I watching Barbie,” she said.

   I padded into the room. “Yes, I see that.” I eased onto the bed beside my daughter and kissed the top of her head. “Is it a good movie?”

   “Shh!”

   “Oh, okay then.” I giggled as I got up. “I’ll let you watch the rest of your movie, then we’ll go home.”

   I went back out to the living room, where Carla was still on the sofa. She had the television on to CNN and was absorbed in a story about a missing girl in Omaha.

   “This is so scary,” she said, turning to me. “The father was so pissed over losing custody that he took his little girl and took off. No one knows where they are. The mother is devastated.”

   “Of course,” I said, only half-interested. Carla was addicted to television. Soap operas and CNN. While she didn’t say so, I figured she watched CNN all the time for any news about fallen soldiers.

   “Do you mind if I head upstairs to shower, then come back down to get her?” I asked.

   “Sure. Go on.”

   I left Carla’s and headed upstairs to my place. In my bedroom, I stripped out of my suit.

   That’s when I noticed the red message light flashing on my phone.

   I went around to the side of my bed where my phone was and punched in the code to check my voice mail.

   “Vanessa, this is Cynthia Martin. I tried you at work, but you’d already gone. Call me back. It’s important.”

   Cynthia then rattled off her number, but it wasn’t necessary. I’d committed it to memory. I called her back immediately.

   “Hello.”

   “Hi, Cynthia. I’m glad I—”

   “This is Cynthia Martin. I’m unable to take your call right now, but leave me a message, and I’ll be sure to get back to you.”

   I frowned, but left a message letting Cynthia know that I was home now, and that she could call me anytime.

   Then I went to the bathroom and turned on the shower.

   As I climbed into the tub, I was both excited and scared. Excited at the prospect that Cynthia might have gotten the dirt I needed, but scared that she hadn’t.

   I wished she’d said either way what she had learned. The suspense was killing me.

   I showered quickly, hoping she returned my call soon. She had to have good news for me.

   I wouldn’t allow myself to think anything else.

7

   I called Cynthia Martin no less than five times the next day when I was at work, and was completely dismayed when I got her voice mail each time. How was it that the woman had called with news, but now wouldn’t get back to me?

   Every time my phone rang, I hoped it was her calling. All but one time I answered it, it was someone calling regarding my work. The one non-work-related call had come from Lewis, who’d let me know that he’d put in a call to both the lawyers he’d mentioned the previous night and was waiting to hear back from them.

   I glanced at my wall clock. It was ten minutes to five. Disappointed that the whole day had passed without a word from Cynthia, I frowned.

   And then my phone rang. I snatched up the receiver before it could ring a second time. “Vanessa Cain.”

   “Hey, Vanessa. It’s Cynthia Martin.”

   “Cynthia,” I said, my heart filling with hope when I heard the reporter’s voice.

   “I’ve got news for you,” she practically sang.

   “You do?”

   “Yes. And you’re going to like it.”

   I pumped my fist in the air and mouthed the word yes!

   “Can we meet this evening?” she asked.

   “Name the time and place.”

   “How about the Barnes and Noble on Kendall Drive? We can meet in the Starbucks café.”

   “Sounds good.”

   “I can be there around five-fifteen.”

   My office wasn’t too far from that bookstore. And if I met Cynthia now, I wouldn’t have to go home, only to head back into downtown Miami later. “I’ll be there.”

   “See you then.”

   As soon as I replaced the receiver, I quickly finished with the file that was on my computer and logged off. I slipped into my slingbacks, which were beneath my desk, and collected my purse. Then I hurried out of my office, saying a quick goodbye to the co-workers I ran in to, before heading to the bank of elevators.

   Hardly able to contain my excitement, I all but danced around in the elevator, ready to spring through the doors the moment they opened on the ground floor. I watched each floor light up during the descent, and inwardly groaned every time the elevator stopped on a floor other than the first.

   About three minutes later, I was the first to get off the elevator when it landed on the lobby level. I caught Edgar’s eye immediately. The building’s long-time security guard raised his hand in greeting and offered me a meek smile.

   I’m not sure what kind of look I leveled on him, but I know it wasn’t pleasant.

   “Come on,” Edgar said as I neared the security desk. “Are you going to be mad at me forever?”

   In reply, I scowled at him.

   “Vanessa…”

   Edgar and I weren’t close friends or anything, but I hadn’t expected him to betray me the way he had. Edgar was a friend of Rayna’s father, Byron, and had told him about my involvement with Chaz Anderson. Because of that, Byron had shown up at the restaurant where I’d been having lunch with Chaz, confronted me about not wanting to “lose” his daughter—thereby exposing my lie about Rayna’s father being dead—and that had been the end for me and Chaz.

   “Come over here and talk to me,” Edgar urged, motioning for me to go to him.

   I paused, debating what to do. But after a moment, I sauntered toward him. Reaching the security desk, I blew out a heavy breath and stared down at Edgar.

   “Yes, I’m going to be mad at you forever,” I said. “Edgar, how could you have told Byron about me and Chaz?”

   “I already told you. Byron said he’d changed—given up the gambling, you know? I know that was a big problem for you guys, and I figured, he seemed like he was telling the truth. And doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance?”

   Byron was a compulsive gambler. It was one of the reasons that our relationship was doomed to fail. I didn’t know about his habit until we’d already been involved about a year, and when I found out he was in debt to bookies for thousands, he always had what seemed like a reasonable explanation for how the situation had gotten out of control.

   Every time I asked him how the “situation” was going, he told me he was working off his debt. I believed him. And then I noticed that some of my jewelry was gone. Like a diamond-and-emerald necklace my father had given to my mother that I’d received after her passing. At first, Byron swore that he hadn’t taken it. Then, he claimed he “borrowed” it.

   I never saw it again, or any of the other jewelry he’d taken. I still remember thinking that the reason he was so upset that I was pregnant was because of the money it would cost to raise a child—money he was happier spending on placing bets.

   “It was up to me to decide whether or not he deserved a second chance,” I said to Edgar.

   “I know. But he kept telling me how he’d changed, and was talking about how much he wanted a relationship with his daughter, that he was ready,” Edgar went on. “But that you wouldn’t give him the time of day. Then there was that article in the paper about you and Chaz, speculating that you’d get married.” Edgar shrugged. “I felt I had to say something.”

   Edgar had explained himself already, but no matter how many times he told me the story, I would never understand. He had jumped the gun by talking to Byron about my relationship with Chaz, though he’d rightly assumed that it was serious. I guess it boiled down to the fact that Edgar and Byron had been friends from the time Byron had also worked security at the building, and despite Byron’s short-comings, Edgar must have felt some sort of obligation to tell him about me and Chaz.

   What Edgar didn’t understand was that Byron talked a good game. He said the right things about getting over the gambling and wanting to be a decent father to those who would listen, but in reality, he didn’t try. He knew that if he admitted the truth—that he’d simply abandoned his daughter—his friends and family would see him as a schmuck.

   “Well, you ruined everything,” I said.

   “I was only trying to help. Trying to be a good friend.”

   “You want to know something? Something that will show you Byron’s true character?” I paused, made sure I had Edgar’s full attention. “I haven’t heard from Byron since that day he showed up at the restaurant. So. There you go.”

   “I’m sorry,” Edgar said. “I really am.”

   “Yeah,” I said softly. I still liked Edgar, even if I felt I had to keep up the pissed-off act with him a while longer. It was probably best I didn’t get too chummy with him again, because I didn’t want him running back to Byron with any more stories about my love life.

   That was one of the reasons I made sure not to wear the ring Lewis had given me to work. And of course, I hadn’t wanted any questions from anyone in the office. Only Carla and Alaina knew about my engagement. I hadn’t even told Debbie.

   “You have a good evening,” I said to Edgar. I knew it wasn’t his fault that Chaz had dumped me, but if only he hadn’t told Byron. If I’d been able to broach the subject of Rayna’s father actually being alive in some other way than the dramatic fashion with which it played out, Chaz might still be in my life.

   “Yeah, you have a good night, too,” Edgar said, but his voice sounded off, and he was looking beyond my shoulder, not at me. The wary expression on his face had me alarmed.

   “What?” I asked, and quickly followed his gaze over my shoulder.

   As I did, I gasped, feeling as though I’d been scalded by fire. Byron. Then I spun back around and glared at Edgar. “Did you set me up again?”

   “No!” he protested. “He just showed up, I swear!”

   I didn’t know what to believe. All I knew was that my heart was suddenly pounding furiously. There was a chance that he wasn’t here to see me, but rather Edgar. That’s what I hoped as I secured my purse strap over my shoulder and started briskly away from the desk.

   Byron promptly blocked my path.

   I didn’t say anything to him, just moved to the right to try to step past him. He matched my movement, which made it very clear that he was here to see me.

   “Get out of my way,” I said. I didn’t care why he was in the lobby of my office building. I had nothing to say to him.

   “We need to talk,” he said.

   “I don’t want to talk to you.” I was already frustrated and spoke louder than I’d intended. I glanced around surreptitiously to see if any people were staring. No one seemed to care about me and Byron as they headed toward the exit.

   For now. If our “conversation” continued, I didn’t doubt we’d end up with an audience. The last thing I wanted was an ugly conflict with a dozen witnesses. So I made a quick step to the left and moved around him, then hustled to the front door.

   Byron was on my tail. I could feel him. But I didn’t turn. I breezed through the door behind someone else who was exiting and hurried onto the street.

   I took about ten steps before I felt a hand clamp down on my shoulder. Even though I knew it was Byron behind me, I flinched nonetheless.

   “Damn it, Vanessa. You will talk to me.”

   “What?” I demanded as I whirled around. My chest was heaving, my breathing labored.

   “I want to see my daughter.”

   “Excuse me?”

   “You heard me.”

   “Yeah, I heard you. But considering you’ve been a deadbeat dad since before Rayna was born, what you’re saying may as well be in Chinese, since it makes no sense to me.”

   “I want to see Rayna. Let’s set up a time and meet somewhere you feel comfortable.”

   “Like in your bookie’s office, perhaps?” I asked.

   “I’m done with the gambling. I already told you.”

   “And I’m just supposed to take the word of a liar?” Byron had been around intermittently when I’d been pregnant. One of those times had been when my friends had thrown me a baby shower. He’d gathered the presents and driven me home from my sister’s place—only he hadn’t given me all the gifts I’d received for Rayna. Some ended up missing and—you guessed it—were never seen again.

   “A guy can change, Vanessa. I’m ready to be a dad.”

   “Not gonna happen,” I said.

   “She’s my daughter.”

   “No, she’s not.”

   “Yes, she is.”

   “Maybe biologically, but not in all the ways that matter. And that was your choice, Byron. Not mine.”

   “Don’t be a bitch,” Byron snapped. “I’m trying to do the right thing here.”

   I laughed sardonically. “Better a bitch than a deadbeat. This conversation is over.”

   Turning away from Byron, I started to jog now. I pressed on even as my feet hurt in my shoes. When I was half a block away—and certain that my heels were destroyed—I finally looked over my shoulder.

   Byron was nowhere to be seen.

   Only then did I stop jogging. Stopped and gulped in air. Not just because I was winded, but because I was panicked. Panicked at the thought that Byron wanted to be part of Rayna’s life.

   I leaned my back against the exterior of a building, my stomach suddenly nauseous.

   This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. I repeated that line in my mind over and over, as though just by thinking it, I could make what had happened a bad dream rather than an ugly reality.

   People gave me odd looks as they passed me, and I finally eased myself up off the wall. My heart was still pounding, and I felt sort of numb.

   I made my way to the parking lot where my car was, and as I got behind the wheel, I noticed my hands were shaking.

   Was Byron truly feeling paternal? Or was it once again a passing phase? I hadn’t heard from him after that day at the restaurant. Not one peep. Not an apology. Not a request to see Rayna. I guess there were times when the reality that he’d fathered a child hit him in the head like a giant conch shell, and he probably felt a bit of guilt over not being in her life.

   But the guilt would pass. It always did.

   When I realized I’d been sitting behind the wheel of my car for nearly ten minutes, I started the engine and drove out of the parking lot. I was going to be late for my meeting with Cynthia.

   I resolved not to let Byron get to me. It wasn’t the first time in the past two-and-a-half years that he’d had an attack of conscience and had reached out to Rayna by sending a gift. Then months would pass without a word from him or even an e-mail.

   I had a far more pressing matter to deal with. Getting to Cynthia Martin and hearing what she’d learned about Tassie Johnson.

8

   I didn’t make it to the Barnes & Noble bookstore until five-thirty. I rushed inside, hoping Cynthia wouldn’t be upset at my tardiness. But when I saw her, she was casually standing near the perimeter of the café with a magazine in her hand.

   Seeming to sense me, she looked in my direction. Then smiled.

   I returned her smile. I never thought I’d be so happy to see Cynthia Martin, not after how some of her reports after Eli’s murder had made me look in the press. But I couldn’t help being giddy with excitement.

   As I strode toward her, she replaced the magazine on the rack.

   I’d prayed that she would come through for me, give me some kind of ammunition I could use against Tassie, and it looked like my prayers had been answered.

   “Hello,” I said as I reached her, and offered her my hand. “It is so good to see you again.”

   Cynthia took my hand and shook it firmly. “It’s good to see you.”

   “Sorry I’m a bit late. Traffic.”

   “No worries,” she said.

   I glanced around the café. There were a number of available seats. “You want something to eat or drink before we sit down?” I asked. “A coffee, a sandwich? I’m buying.”

   “I’m fine,” she said. “I don’t need anything.”

   “No, I want to buy you something,” I insisted. “It’s the least I can do.”

   “All right, then. I’ll take a latte and a scone.”

   I went to order while Cynthia sat at a table where no one was within earshot. A few minutes later, I joined her at the table, setting down two large lattes, her scone and a piece of carrot cake for myself.

   After dealing with Byron, I deserved a treat.

   I was anxious to ask Cynthia what she’d uncovered. But I decided to let her eat a bit of her scone first while I munched on my carrot cake.

   That resolve lasted thirty seconds before I had to speak. “I’m dying here. You said the news is good?”

   “Very.” A devious spark lit Cynthia’s eyes.

   “How good? Or should I ask—how scandalous?”

   Cynthia swallowed a mouthful of coffee before speaking. “Tassie Johnson has been a very bad girl.”

   “Meaning?”

   “Meaning she was far from being a grieving widow.”

   My heart was so full of excitement, I thought it might burst. “The guy I saw her with at the funeral. He’s her lover?”

   “Ray Carlton,” Cynthia said, nodding. She broke off a morsel of her scone and put it in her mouth.

   “I knew it.” I lifted my cup of coffee, but didn’t take a sip. “She had the nerve to talk about Eli being unfaithful while flaunting her lover at her husband’s funeral.”

   “It’s worse than you think,” Cynthia said. “Or perhaps I should say better.”

   I lowered my coffee cup. “Oh?”

   “When I say Tassie Johnson has been a very bad girl, it’s not just because she and Ray are lovers. It’s because of how long they were an item. Long before she and Eli split.”

   “How long?”

   “Try before she walked down the aisle.”

   My eyes narrowed in confusion. “What—like an old boyfriend?”

   “Old boyfriends aren’t scandalous. Everyone’s had at least one lover before getting married. I’m guessing the average these days has got to be between ten and twenty other partners, but I don’t have the hard data to support that claim.”

   I could care less about the average number of partners a person had before settling down. I moved a hand in a rolling motion to indicate that I wanted Cynthia to continue with the news about Tassie.

   Her eyes danced with humor. “But it is scandalous when you marry someone, continue to see your old boyfriend and even have an abortion when you’re still very much living with your husband.”

   “Tassie had an abortion!” I couldn’t help exclaiming, then glanced around. A handful of people were suddenly intrigued by my conversation. “Wow, that’s progressive for a soap opera, isn’t it?” I continued loudly, hoping to kill any eavesdroppers’ interest in what I was saying. “I thought people always end up having the baby or miscarrying on those shows. But a real abortion.”

   Cynthia edged across the table, and continued speaking in a lower tone. “I’ve got the records to prove it.”

   I wanted to jump up and down and scream hallelujah, but I remained seated. Remained calm.

   “When?” I asked, keeping my voice down.

   “A year and a half after she’d had her first child.”

   My excitement fizzled. “Then the baby could have been Eli’s,” I pointed out. “Maybe the timing wasn’t right, and they decided they didn’t want to have another baby.”

   “Eh, eh, eh.” Cynthia waved a finger. She was clearly enjoying this, as though she’d always imagined herself being some sort of secret spy. I guess that’s what journalism entailed…to a degree. “It was Ray’s baby.”

   “It’ll be my word against hers.”

   “But will she be able to explain why her ex-boyfriend took her to the abortion clinic? Why he paid for it with his credit card?”

   I gasped, but quickly covered my mouth. “Oh, my God.”

   “Uh-huh.”

   “So she was having an affair right from the start,” I said quietly. Another revelation hit me. “Do you think she was never in love with Eli? That she married him strictly for his money?”

   “If I were a gambling woman, I’d guess exactly that. It doesn’t look like her relationship with Ray has ever waned.”

   I sipped my latte, stewing over Cynthia’s words. This was good. Very good. Once, I’d been dreading the meeting with Tassie and her lawyer, but now I couldn’t wait to see her and let her know the skeletons I’d dug out of her closet.

   “So, is that helpful enough?” Cynthia asked.

   “Are you kidding? It couldn’t be any better if you had photos of them in the act.”

   “Good. I’m glad.”

   “How did you find all of this out? Abortion clinic records?”

   “A journalist never reveals her sources.”

   “Okay,” I said. “I understand.”

   “But, I will say that it helps to track down a former housekeeper with an axe to grind.”

   “Oooh, you’re kidding?” I asked, my eyes as wide as saucers.

   “Not at all. Gotta love the hired help.”

   I laughed out loud.

   “I won’t tell you her name—since it’s not important—but she pointed me in the right direction. It took me a while to find her, which is why I didn’t get back to you sooner.”

   “Hey, you got back to me with gold. I’m not complaining.”

   Cynthia sipped her latte. “Keep that whole tidbit about the former housekeeper to yourself, though. I promised the woman I wouldn’t say anything. In fact, don’t tell Tassie where you got the information. She doesn’t need to know.”

   I mimed pulling a zipper across my lips…then burst into laughter.

   Cynthia sighed with contentment. “Ah, sometimes, my job is deliciously fun.”

   “I’ll remember to stay on your good side.”

   Cynthia’s expression grew serious at my comment. “You were never on my bad side. And for the record, I’m sorry about how the story of you and Eli played out in the press.”

   I waved away her apology. “I didn’t mean that personally.”

   “Still, I’m sorry,” she went on. “I was just doing my job, but I know that’s little comfort.”

   “It’s okay,” I told her. “That’s all behind me, and I’m moving forward. With your help,” I added with a smile.

   “Speaking of which, I have a copy of all the proof you need.” She reached into her large purse and withdrew a manila envelope. She passed it across the table to me.

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