ALL FOR LOVE

.
I'm Moving!

 

all.for.love.jpg

 
 
 
 
Click here to order your copy!
 
Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.
 

 
.

Prologue

Enright Place was usually quiet on Sunday afternoons.  Politely pretty in summer and always quaintly picturesque when frosted with winter snow.  Today, beneath a scatter of fallen leaves and a warm autumn sun, the street was pretty much a parking lot.  Cars were parked bumper-to-bumper in front of the broad lawns of beautifully preserved Victorian-styled houses. 

Rachel Solomon was about ready to give up looking for space.  Fingering the gold hoop in her ear, she tugged in frustration and said a word her mother would never forgive when it landed in her palm.  She was still staring down at the earring when a slick black Volvo sedan eased into the space beneath the Wilson’s old oak tree; the one she’d been heading for.

The muffled voice at her side made her jump and close her hand convulsively over the earring.  The face at her window made her grin up at her brother.  “What did you drive?  I don’t see your truck.”

“We drove the Lexus.”  Holding tightly to his wife’s hand and looking just like his father, Levi swung his long body low, jacket dangling wide, as he used his heavy knuckles to rap at the car window.   “Hurry up and get parked, slowpoke!”

“Leave your sister alone, and let’s go see your mom.” Roz shifted the shiny beribboned box she carried under her other arm.  She kept her voice low when she smiled around her husband’s shoulder.  “Hi, Rach.”

“Hi, Roz.”  Dutifully, Rachel returned the smile and pretended not to see the little shoves Roz gave Levi.  She heard her brother laughing at his own joke as he and Roz strolled toward the family home and felt a tiny pang of loneliness. 

“Chelly!  Chel-lee!”

Rachel tried to ignore the woman screaming from the passenger side of the black Volvo.

It didn’t work.  Celia couldn’t have cared less as she leaned out, waving her whole arm. Rachel saw the driver reach over and touch her shoulder, which only seemed to spur her sister-in-law to more fervent greeting – she was using two arms now.  To his credit, John finished parking and climbed from the vehicle before beginning his own greeting.  Walking around the back of the car, he mouthed his sister’s name and helped his heavily pregnant wife from the car.

Celia’s belt caught in the car door and she reached back for it.  Murmuring, she smiled up at John.  His face took on a tenderness his sister had never seen before as his arm coiled about Celia’s shoulders.  She pulled her taupe trench coat closer and resumed waving, even as she leaned on John’s arm and waddled down the street.

“Nice,” Rachel murmured against the window.  Pressing her lips together, she kept her eyes on her younger brother.  Who would have thought, back in the days when he was so bent on terrorizing girls that her little brother could fall so deeply in love with any woman?  

“This is only going to get better and better,” Rachel warned herself.  Pulling the sun visor low, she held her foot on the brake.  She managed to find the back of her earring.  Taking her time, she ignored the sound of the car behind her and worked the post back into her ear lobe.  Satisfied that the darned thing would stay where she’d put it, Rachel raised her eyes just in time to catch a wave from cousin Terri, husband Dave and their four boys.

Bending low, Terri peered into the interior of Rachel’s car.  “Hi, sweetie.”  She looked over her shoulder and motioned the boys forward.  “Say hello to your cousin Rachel.”

“Hello, cousin Rachel,” the boys chirped.  Grinning, they showed bright smiles filled with baby teeth and flashes of the handsome men they would one day become.  Backing away from the car, they circled their father’ and deluged him with shrill questions.

“The boys want to know why you don’t have any kids,” Terri giggled, translating.  “They want to know why you’re by yourself.  Why are you by yourself?”

“He was busy today,” Rachel improvised.

Terri’s manicured nails tapped the car door.  “Uh-huh, busy.  Okay.  See you inside,” she said, then rushed her family down the street.

Rachel watched the group move away.  There was a damned good reason she was alone today.  When you weren’t seeing anyone, you simply had no one to bring to family events.  Or, at least it was simple until your family got into your business -- all in the name of love.

“Lord, I love my family.  I really do,” Rachel whispered, “but there’s just so darned many of them.  I know they want the best for me, but I wish they would just stay out of my business.  Bringing me men, fixing me up… Lord, you know as well as I do, they’ve done everything but hang a sign around my neck saying, “If found – Keep her”.  They’re wearin’ me down, Lord.” 

Her mother’s uncle, Whitmore Davenport, strolled past her car and paused in his conversation with the younger man at his side.  Unlit cigar in his hand, he grinned widely, showing conspicuously white teeth.  Rachel warmed her smile and returned the wave, but not before Latrice paraded past towing twin five-year olds.   

Uncle Whit smiled approvingly at the pretty little girls and their mother.  Then he turned and pointed.  Rachel slid low in the seat and tried to fake invisibility.  It didn’t work.  He knew she was there, so she gave up and waved.  “Why can’t he take a hint?  A covered dish would be a lot more welcome than another spare man.”   

Rachel gripped the steering wheel.  Cruising slowly, she counted the cars that belonged to her family – eighteen in all.  The ones that most immediately caught her eye were the bright ruby toned Cadillac Seville, the conspicuously vintage crimson Mercedes convertible, and a sporty, low-slung scarlet Porsche hugging the curb in front of the house she’d grown up in.  Sharp cars, driven by even sharper women, they belonged to her aunts.  Her sassy, family-loving, church going, much loved, Delta pledged, well-meaning aunts.

“Wonder what they brought mom for her birthday?  I mean, besides men for me.”  She looked at the cars and their Delta Sigma Theta license tags.  Amanda, Beverly, and Claire were all present and ready to help their baby sister Delia celebrate her birthday.

“And make my life a living hell.”


   

Chapter One

It was relatively easy, putting one foot in front of the other, walking through the front door of her family home.  It all felt right, the perfectly cleaned and arranged rooms, the mouth-watering smells riding the air, the rich blend of voices and music.  What made the effort difficult was the pressure of every eye in the room.

Well, that and their furtively poised, leaning bodies.  The whole scene, everyone frozen in place with fixed smiles and searching eyes, was so obviously staged that it made her stomach wrench.  Rachel wanted to believe that maybe it was the sharp click of her boot heels against the parquetry that had drawn their attention, but she knew better.  They were listening.  

They were all listening for the solid, heavier steps of an accompanying male –preferably a big, broad-shouldered one, tall enough to balance Rachel’s statuesque presence.  When no such animal materialized, they relaxed and cocked their heads like puppies. 

 “How are you, all?” she offered.

“Just fine, thanks.”

“Just look at you, Rachel.  Come here, baby.”  The voice, thickly southern and maternal, drifted over the others and across the room.  It was Aunt Darlene, her father’s oldest sister.  Resplendent in a leopard-print tunic and brown stretch pants, she sat with her foot raised on an elegantly embroidered hassock.  She’d brought the artistic little footstool with her for the express purpose of resting her now-healing ankle.  She’d broken it rollerblading.

Darlene was perfectly comfortable holding court where she sat.  Pounding the tip of her cane against the mellow polished gold of the living room floor for attention, she motioned Rachel closer.  Her red-lipsticked smile, bracketed by powder rouged cheeks, creased with pleasure at the sight of the younger woman. 

Rachel tried to ignore the theme from “The Twilight Zone” playing across her mind as she crossed the room.  Bending from the waist, she offered her cheek for Aunt Darlene’s kiss.  Closer, the older lady’s fingers closed on her shoulder, squeezing tightly.  “You know they done fished you up some more men, don’t you?  Even my Bert – his is the heavyset, dark-skinned fella in the striped sweater over in the corner.” 

Rachel moaned and Darlene nodded.  “I know, I know,” the old lady whispered.  “Way I see it, you’re a pretty girl and you can either throw that gift at your mother and run now, or stand your ground.  I vote for stand your ground.  You’ll find a man of your own, on your own – someday.  Just keep on looking.”

“And, what makes you think I’m looking?”

“Baby, you forget, I know your people,” Darlene chuckled, patting the arm of her chair.  She waited for her niece to sit, then leaned closer.  “You got a genetic predisposition toward family.  Marriage and family?  They’re in your genes.  Oh, and your mother and her three sisters?  They can’t wait!”

“I know.”  Rachel kissed the older woman’s dry cheek.  “They just don’t ever seem to get enough of trying to put me together with some man.  You and I both know that they were looking for me to be hanging on some man’s arm like I couldn’t make it without his support.”

“It’s ‘cause they love you, darlin’.”

“I suppose…”  Rachel’s shoulders rose and fell with her sigh, then her lips twitched. 

Indulgence graced the curves of Darlene’s face and her voice as she reached to adjust the creamy folds of Rachel’s cashmere scarf.  “Maybe it’s because they really do know you for who you are.” 

“They act as if they can order my life like a child’s.  These people, my loving family members treat me like my life is interactive television.  I am not a democracy – who told them they got a vote?”

“Honey, please,” Darlene sucked her teeth and raised her brows.  “You do know who you’re talking about, right? 

“Yeah, I do.”

“You know how proud your mama and daddy are of their children.  Two sons, and you sandwiched in between, their only daughter.  I know they’re excited about Celia’s pregnancy, but you my dear…”  Darlene smiled widely.  “See, it’s something special about girls.  They got you grown and educated, and you’re good at what you do, now all they want… all any of us want is to see you settled.”  

“With a house full of grandbabies,” Rachel finished. 

“And in love would be very nice,” the older woman agreed.  “Is that so much to ask?”

“They can’t just take me as I am?”

“Please.  None of us want you left all alone and lonely.”  Darlene pushed out her lips and shook her head.  “You know we love you.”

“I know that.” 

“A man’s a real nice thing for a woman to have around, honey.”

Trying to keep her face straight, Rachel blurted, “’…a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle…’” 

“Bicycle!”  Darlene pulled back in her chair and struggled not to laugh out loud.  “And who said that?”

“Maybe it was Steinham or Friedan or somebody like that, but… whoever she was, she was right and I just wish my family would quit trotting all these poor men out for me.” 

“Feminist rhetoric doesn’t always mean what it ought to.  Long nights can get awfully lonely, you know.  Best go find your mama, now.  I know she’ll be glad to know you’re here, but don’t forget what I said.”

Like I could.   Rachel playfully traced an artfully dyed blonde lock at Darlene’s forehead.  ”I like this new hair of yours.”

Winking, Darlene primped and patted her styled blonde wig.  “Thank you, baby, even if you are trying to change the subject.”  

Grasping the woman’s wrinkled brown hand, Rachel smiled and heard “The Twilight Zone” play louder in her head.  Her stomach quivered.  Nobody needed theme music like that – especially not a woman facing the pitying glances of her family and the meat-market scrutiny of the men they’d scrounged up in the hope that she’d finally find, The One.

Backing across the room, Rachel swallowed lukewarm air and her smile twitched.  The “Twilight Zone” was still playing in the back of her head, thin and reedy, but still there.  The only thing missing was Rod Serling’s terse voice-over.  Trailing her fingers against the foyer wall in a way her mother would never approve of, she couldn’t stop talking to herself as she made her way deeper into the house. 

And “The Twilight Zone” played on.  If I have to have theme music, why didn’t I choose the theme from “Sanford and Son” or something?  It might be alright if the music in my mind was some kind of funky party music, something from Missy Elliott or Mary J. Blige.  Shoot, Faith Evans or even Stevie Wonder would be more acceptable.  But, me?  I have to step into, “The Twilight Zone”.  Realizing her mother wouldn’t hesitate to make her wash that wall, grown or not, Rachel crossed her arms.  “Wonder why my psyche would choose such an eerie tune?  I probably need to see a professional about that.”

“About what, cousin Rachel?”

“What?”  Looking down into the clear wonder of twin pairs of five-year-old eyes, Rachel realized she’d said the words aloud.

“You said you’re gon’ talk to somebody.  Is that good or bad?”  Desta, twenty minutes older and far braver than her sister posed the question for the two of them.  When Rachel was slow to answer, the little girl bent her knees and bounced up and down, making her white tights bag at the knees.  Curious, she twisted her black leather strapped shoe against the parquet and stared openly.  Willing the woman to answer, she pushed her tongue into a corner of her angelic mouth, showing the gap where she’d just lost a tooth. 

“Oh, it’s a grownup thing, Sweetie.  Nothing for you two to worry about, because you know that this is a birthday party.”  

“With cake,” Desta said.

“And ice cream.”  Dalila looked at her sister, then her cousin, as she pushed her hands deeper into the embroidered pockets of her plum-colored velveteen jumper and waited.   She smiled and moved closer when Rachel bent lower.

“You gonna talk ‘bout something special?”  Both girls raised their eyebrows and looked wise, too wise for five-year-olds.

“It’s something I forgot to do at work,” Rachel said, confidentially.  “You know how it is.”  The girls nodded and linked hands.  They’re definitely a part of my family, Rachel decided, looking into their identical faces and seeing her mother’s eyes.  Why do kids always know when something is being left unsaid?  What makes them so intuitive?

Straightening, Rachel watched the girls’ head for their mother.

“How come a sister as cute as you is hangin’ out all on her own?”

The man’s whispered voice stroked her ear, and eyes narrowed, Rachel spun with enough force to knock the man off balance. 

“Whoa!  Girl, if I’d known that you could move that fast I wouldn’t have gotten so close.  I’m sure there’s a place for that kind of speed in the WNBA,” Levi laughed, pressing his back against the wall that kept him from hitting the floor.

“Levi!” 

Her brother, two years older and six inches taller, raised his hands in mock surrender.  His thick black brows lifted and his lips curved with lingering youthful joy.     

“So silly,” Rachel pouted, pulling the belt of her black jacket from her brother’s hand.  Lifting both arms and her right leg, balancing like The Karate Kid, she narrowed her eyes at him.  “Don’t you make me go crane on you, boy!  You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.  It’s not… not right.”

“Put your leg down, Rachel.  I tried to tell him,” Roz’s sultry voice insisted.  Eyes nearly hidden by a thick fringe of bangs, she finger-combed her hair and looked as innocent as was possible for a woman wearing a sheer black velvet lace shirt.  Her golden skin flashed beneath the gauzy changes of the fabric when she moved to place a possessive long-nailed hand on her man’s shoulder.

Levi’s grin grew sheepish.  Roz always had a calming effect on her husband.  “C’mon Rachel, it’s not like you don’t know just about everyone in the house.” 

Knowing her brother, that was as close to an apology as he was likely to get, so Rachel settled for it.  “I don’t know all these strange men you’ve all trotted out here.”

Roz’s eyes were sly when she rose on her toes to murmur into Levi’s ear.  Listening, he placed his hand over hers and made a face.  Shuffling his feet, he allowed Roz to lead him away.  He hated being caught, always had, and he hated being told he was wrong even more.

 “Probably just not used to being approached by a man,” he growled. 

“Levi!  Stop teasing your sister.  I thought I would be through telling you that by this time of your life,” Reverend Allen Solomon’s voice floated toward them.  “You children never seem to grow up – no matter how old you get.” 

“And you love us this way, don’t you, Daddy?” 

“Have to admit I do,” he chuckled.  “Leave her alone, Levi.”

Following the sound of her father’s voice, Rachel found him in a corner on a narrow stepladder.  “What are you doing up there?”

“Exactly what I was told to do – you know your mama,” Allen grinned peering over the tops of his glasses.  “It wouldn’t be a party for my wife if the house wasn’t all decked out in streamers and balloons.”  A tilt of his head indicated a colorful array of provisions on the lace covered dining room table.  “All of that comes courtesy of your aunts.  You know they believe that no one in the world knows their baby sister as well as they do.  You can see that they’ve provided more than their fair share of candles and red sweetheart roses.  They chose a special little silver crown for Delia.  It’s even trimmed in red.” 

 He bent slightly to drop a kiss on his daughter’s forehead before he moved his feet higher on the plastic stepstool to hang a bouquet of red and white balloons against the glossy white dining room arch. 

“It looks good, Daddy.” 

“Well, thanks honey, but your Uncle Frank’s coming up fast on your left flank.  If you’re as touchy as your mama thinks you are, I’d get a move on if I were you.”

“Why don’t they just understand?” Rachel groaned.  “I’m very happy with my life as I’m living it, and I can live it all on my own.” 

Hands above his head, anchoring the balloons in place, Allen shook his head.  “That’s exactly what we’re all afraid of.”

Opening her mouth to answer seemed like a wasted effort and from the corner of her eye, she could see that her father was right.  Uncle Frank, Aunt Bev’s husband, made little effort to hide his intent as he pushed the tall man along in front of him.

Well over six-feet with a reluctant mustache and sadly muddy puppy dog eyes, the man her uncle had chosen for her wasn’t much to look at.  His brown skin ran to a tone Rachel had once heard Aunt Bev describe as, paper sack brown; kind of a nondescript brown layered haphazardly between yellow and red. 

Looking at her, apparently a bit embarrassed, he passed a broad hand across his receding hairline and couldn’t quite bring his eyes to meet Rachel’s.  Uncle Frank whispered something into his ear and nudged his shoulder.  The man stopped and shoved a hand deep into the brown flannel of his trousers.  Swiping his other hand across the breast of his plaid shirt, his brow furrowed. 

“Aw, Frank, I don’t know about this,” he said just loud enough for Rachel to hear before she made a quick turn into the kitchen.  Stepping inside the door, Rachel drew a deep breath and almost counted herself safe – then she saw her mother and aunts.

Beautiful women, all sharing the flawless copper skin Rachel was happy to have inherited, the four of them crowded around the white counter fronting shelves she remembered her father and brothers building. They hadn’t noticed her yet, and Rachel wondered if she should back out of the kitchen and take her chances with the man Uncle Frank had corralled.  The man had looked almost queasy, she thought.  Better not to embarrass him further. 

Rachel stayed where she was, watching her mother and aunts.   With their backs to her, it was hard to tell them apart, unless you truly knew them, but Rachel had no problems.  Delia, the one in the apron was her mother, and the baby of the group.  Then, from across the room, she heard the oldest sister, Amanda’s sultry version of Eartha Kitt’s trademark growl rise in delight and appreciation. 

“Girl, you know the kitchen is the place where Delia makes her magic,” Beverly, the second of the sisters laughed as they all inspected a clear jar of homemade peach preserves. 

“I’ll bet there’s not a lot she can’t do in the kitchen,” Claire challenged.

Beverly’s head snapped in her sister’s direction.  “I’ll take that bet,” and her hand dropped to the hip pocket of her red slacks.

“You two ought to quit,” Delia sniffed.  “You’ll bet on anything, and you’ll lose if you bet against me.”

Beverly and Claire locked eyes, then looked at Delia, and Rachel knew what they were thinking.  Delia was probably right.  

Twenty-five years as a nutritionist and Delia knew every trick in the book – if, in fact, you believed her, she’d even invented a few of them.  She understood the mysteries of lump-free gravy and could effortlessly produce the stuff by the gallon.  Fluffy, golden, cat-faced biscuits were never a real challenge for her.  She could braid bread and prepare vegetarian meals that made even the most carnivorous of guests salivate.  Delia knew how to fold napkins to make little birds and set a table almost too beautiful for a meal.

She could even get finicky children to eat vegetables – apples in the potato salad almost never failed to gain approval.  It still made her daughter and the now grown-up former seven-year-old members of her Brownie troupe twinkle to think of the goodies she’d prepared.  Delia Solomon could even make a salad special, like the time she’d turned lettuce, canned Bartlett pears, a few raisins and cherries, along with celery into a pretty fair version of a girl.

“I am so glad that if one of us had to inherit granny’s skills, it was Delia,” Amanda sighed.  “My hips couldn’t take it if I could cook.”

“It’s not the cooking that would do you in, Amanda.  It’s the eating.”

“Ooh, I bet five she’s not going to let you get away with that.”  Claire plucked a single dollar bill from her pocket and held it aloft. 

“Claire, put your money away,” Amanda waved a finger at her sister.  “And Beverly, you just need to stop player hating, ‘cause you know I still look like a foxy, young version of Eartha.” 

“’Player hating’ and Eartha Kitt, again?” Rachel giggled from her place by the door.

“Yes, my darling.  Eartha.  With her slinky body and feline good looks, I even thought about the divine La Kitt when I bought this outfit,” Amanda said, running her fingers along the collar of her red crepe jacket and the hip of her matching capri pants.  “It’s all about the lovely, late Eartha – and me.  Give us a hug, Love.”

“I just hope you don’t fall off those high-heels and kill yourself.”  Folding her fingers into the softness of her angora sweater, Claire looked thoughtful.  “I’ve always looked better in red than black, you know.  Hug me now, Rachel.”

“We all look good in red, ‘specially when we’re celebrating our sister/sister’s birthday,” Beverly soothed, bringing her sisters and niece together in a hug.  

“And Sister Delia, speaking of that birthday, how does it feel to be turning sixty?” Claire teased. 

Across the room, Delia tucked another red and white napkin into a fourth basket before shaking back the clipped tousle of salt and pepper curls framing her smooth-skinned face.  Full lips curled and her eyes, the color of maple sugar, sparkled.  “Feels good.  Matter of fact, it probably feels just like it will when I’m nine months older – like you.”

“Uhm,” the sisters hummed.  “Sixty sure made her sassy, didn’t it?”

“No, she was always that way and somebody needs to remind you of those nine months you always manage to forget.”

Claire lifted her rounded nose in mock hauteur.  “Be that as it may, she’s not just our baby sister, she’s a Delta.”

“That’s right,” Amanda sang out with hip shaking certainty.  “She’s a Delta born, she’s a Delta bred…” 

“And when she’s gone, she’ll be a Delta dead!” her sister’s chorused.

“Enough of this Black Greek stuff,” Allen declared from the doorway.  “You all are havin’ way too good a time in here.  I halfway expected to find a senior grade step show when I looked in.  Delia ain’t goin’ nowhere today, but in there to cut that cake.  And as for my daughter, the girl hasn’t even had a chance to get out of her coat and y’all are already getting started with that good old Delta rush.”

“Hmph,” the sisters said as one. 

“Allen please,” Claire smirked, “as far as we’re concerned, we could get her pledged faster than you could get her out of that coat.”  She fingered her niece’s sleeve.  “Nice coat Rachel, wanna pledge?” 

“No, but thanks for the offer.  I don’t think that walking around, quacking like a duck is appropriate at this stage of my life.”

“It’s not like that at all,” Amanda said.  A practicing family attorney for the past thirty-four years, she was ready to lay out her case.  “Pledging as a graduate would get you involved in the community and help you to make connections.  You know Judge Wilkens is a soror.”

“I wondered how long it would take you to get bring her into this.”  Dropping her eyes, Rachel let her tongue trace her teeth.  “I don’t know if you know the statistics on kids and street crime, but I honestly think that a sitting judge ought to be more familiar with the circumstances that could take a child to the streets, and then keep him there?  Don’t you?”

Amanda forgot all about Eartha Kitt.  “In Alice’s defense…”

Rachel’s eyes found their match in her aunt’s.  Intelligent fire flared between the two women, and Rachel knew that her aunt would understand her passion – especially if it was aligned with her own. 

Amanda had a thing about children and families.  She’d always understood the reasons for Rachel’s career focus.  She supported Rachel’s reasons for combining her social work practice with a child psychologist’s to provide innovative counseling and support to troubled adolescents.  Her support never wavered, until now.

Solomon & Sterling had recently completed a series of juvenile assessments for Clayton and Fulton counties.  While several of the assessments had proven key to rehabilitating youthful offenders, three sitting judges routinely disregarded them.  The only dissenting female, a soror and Amanda’s line-sister, was Alice Wilkens, a hard-core disbeliever.  Her recent decision was still rubbing Rachel the wrong way, and every time it came up, Amanda was there to defend her soror.

Rachel reluctantly gave in.  “We’re here for a party.  I can call your office tomorrow, and we can talk about the sociological implications of Judge Wilkens’ laissez faire attitude.”

“There are some things that you simply have to give a chance, and Alice …”

“Never gave us a chance, even when we brought in a clinical referral from Kevin Sturgis.  He did the study based on Max’s request.”  Sliding her jacket from her shoulders, Rachel hands found her hips. 

“Slow your roll, little sister.”  Amanda’s eyes pinned her niece.  “My understanding was that the child in question, at age fifteen was already a chronic offender with no family support…”

“So that gave her the right to totally disregard…”

“No, the state of Georgia gave her that right, Rachel.  As a soror, however…”

Rachel couldn’t stop the little laugh.  “I can’t believe that you still think that if I’d been a Delta and a soror, especially one that you know, and in charge of the Morgan case, we might have succeeded in getting our findings heard.” 

“Don’t sass your aunt,” her mother and aunts chorused. 

Chastened, Rachel drew a long breath and held it, choosing her battle.  “No, Auntie.  I don’t think it works like that – especially not with The Honorable Judge Alice Wilkens on the bench – soror or not.” 

“You know she’s right, Amanda.  I’m sure that Rachel and her partner tried to draw the strongest possible lines between her young client’s actions and his environment.  That’s what a sociologist would do when paired with a psychologist, right?  Besides, if that good looking partner of hers couldn’t convince Alice, there was no point in trying anything else.”  Beverly rolled her eyes heavenward and fanned her hand beneath her chin.  “That boy could convince me of a lot of things.  He is, as they say, very hot!” 

Delia hooted.  “What you’re feeling has nothing to do with that boy and how hot he is.  That’s a hot flash you’re feeling, girl.”

“I got over those a few years ago, I’m glad to say,” Beverly huffed. 

The kitchen’s swinging door whispered closed as Allen stepped fully into the room.  Silently, his wife and his sisters simply smiled and looked knowing.  “In here telling my daughter stuff like that, all I can say is….”  Allen’s final comment was a headshake.  He delivered a quick kiss to his daughter’s cheek, then steered her from the room. 

“What’s going on?  Why are you dragging me in here, daddy?”  Rachel nearly bumped the doorframe as her father hurried her along.

“The least they could have done was let you out of your coat.  I have to wade in there to rescue you, then, I have to bring you all the way into the den to say what I have to say.”  His big hands peeled the jacket from her arms.  Turning, he was quick to hang it in the closet, then stood thoughtfully facing the door.

“What’s up, daddy?” 

“Uhm, I don’t know what you mean, Rae-Rae.”  The corners of his mouth twitched and even from the back, he looked suspicious. 

“Yes you do.  You said you had to bring me all the way into the den to say what you have to say and now you can’t face me.  What is it?  Is it some kind of surprise?”

“Surprise?  I don’t know what you mean, Rae-Rae.”

Rachel’s face fell.  “It’s a man, isn’t it?  You went out and found me a man, didn’t you?  Who is it this time, Daddy?”  Allen opened his mouth for denial and she stopped him.  “Give it up, Daddy, even Peter stopped on the third denial.” 

Allen faced her and muttered something about her having too much education, then his eyes found hers – big, soft, and brown, maple sugar brown, just like her mother’s.  “You need to get out more.”

“Lying is a sin, daddy.  Especially when you lie by omission.”

“I’ve never seen that written in the scriptures, Rachel.”  He shook his head and tightened his face.  “Reading all those mysteries of yours, watching those movies, all you can see is conspiracy theories.” 

Then, Allen Solomon made a mistake.  He looked at his daughter really looked at her.  Rachel Dianne Solomon looked like what Reverend Solomon had come to expect most successful career women to look like.  Beautiful skin, smooth and the color of newly minted pennies, flushed like a ripe peach attested to her good health.  Stylishly shoulder length streaked dark hair complimented her classy clothes and jewelry.  Like her mother, she curved well and abundantly in all the right places, courtesy of that gym membership she’d nursed along since her senior year at Howard.  If he had to say so himself, his daughter was a very pretty woman – in a stressed out kind of way

“Maybe you wouldn’t be so stressed, if you had a man in your life,” he suggested, then tensed at the look she gave him.  “I played golf with Harry Rice the other day, and since he and Betty were coming by today, and their son is down from Michigan.” Allen shrugged.  “I thought I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb….” 

“And, he just happens to be age appropriate and single.” 

“Widowed,” her father mumbled, not looking at her.  “His name is Michael.  He’s, uh, out there.  In the living room.  He’s a dentist.  Got his own practice.  Did I tell you his name is…” 

“Yeah, Dad, you said his name is Michael.  Which one is he?”

“Sitting on the couch, the one in the blue suit and striped tie,” Allen finished, sheepishly.  “I hope you’re not too mad at me, honey.  I love you.”  He shook his head again and spread his broad hands.  “Rae-Rae, in this life, a man’s job is to provide.  When I married your mother, I knew that was my job.  From the time I looked at her walkin’ down that aisle and she was so beautiful, all dressed in white, coming into my life, and all I could see was my responsibility.”

He pressed his glasses higher on his nose.  “She was the most wonderful thing, the most wonderful person I had ever seen, and all I could think of was responsibility.  Her and those little eggs inside her, the ones that would someday become you and your brothers – my responsibilities.  Taking care of her, keeping a roof over my family’s heads, food in your mouths, shoes on your feet, and God knows, a book in Levi’s hands, those were my responsibilities.” 

Folding his hands over his slight paunch, he continued.  “Your mother and I, we got you grown, we got you educated.  I only have one last responsibility left, and I knew it was mine from the day I asked your mother to marry me.  On the day you were born, I knew it would come.  I need to see you married and secure, Rachel -- it’s my job.”

“Daddy, you’ve fulfilled all of your responsibilities, I’m happy.  Trust me, I’m even secure.”

He gave her shoulder a final pat as he opened the door.  “I hear you.  I trust you, but do me a favor?  Talk to the dentist, okay?”

Rachel tugged at the neckline of her pale blue angora sweater and nodded as she left her father.   

“Oh, Rae-Rae, there you are!  I love that sweater, the color is so feminine.”  Beverly passed a hand along her niece’s arm.  “Soft as a kitten.  Is it very warm?”

Waylaid, Rachel smiled at her aunt and tried not to flinch.  “It’s very comfortable.  Actually, I’m going to pick up another one later this week, want me to get one for you, too?”

“What a Sweetie you are!”  A heavily ringed hand stroked Rachel’s cheek, followed by a kiss.  “Oh, and I want you to meet someone.  His name is Elvin Roberts and he’s a little on the short side, but he drives a Porsche just like mine.  His is red, too.” 

“I should have known it was just a matter of time until you trotted out a man for me.”

“But, he drives a Porsche,” Bev insisted, attaching herself to her niece and patting her shoulder.

“I guess that makes all the difference,” Rachel said, too brightly.  “Oh well, I knew where I was going when I left home.”

A sullen human tugboat, Rachel endured her aunt’s introduction to a man who looked at her like he hoped his name was tattooed on her body.  He seemed determined to flatter her into submission.  The man began with her hair, his eyes caressing every strand.  He demanded she name its color – like he’d never seen a black woman with auburn highlights.  Reaching out, he pawed at her hair and she made a calculated move to avoid the unwarranted contact. 

“What are you looking for in a man?” Elvin asked, trying to hypnotize her with his slightly cross-eyed penetrating gaze.

That he be the same species as me.  Rachel was glad the words didn’t cross her lips.  “Oh,” she said instead, “excuse me, my mother needs my help.”  Weaving across the crowded room took nearly thirty seconds, but she made it, managing to lose Elvin along the way. 

“Mom, you truly do not need to work like this on your special day,” Rachel declared lifting the tray from her surprised parent’s hands and delivering it to the table.

“Oh,” Delia deposited herself in the nearest chair.  “If you feel like that, you can go help Celia and John set up that platter of chicken in the kitchen, too.  Oh, and the vegetables; get them and the canapés.”

“Got it,” Rachel agreed, darting into the kitchen.

“Hello.  You must be Rachel.”  Behind her, the man’s voice was low and provocative enough to stop her breath in her throat.  Rachel had to remind herself to turn and breathe again. 

“I am.  Who are you?” 

“Oh, hey,” John dropped the chicken he was handling and skated across the wooden floor toward his sister.  Celia, fingers moving across salad garnishes, watched him.  He paused long enough to wipe his large hands on the apron he was wearing.  It was one of his mother’s and he made an obvious effort to look manly in it.  “Let me make some introductions, here.  Rachel, this is Dave.  He’s the regional rep from my cell phone company.”

Rachel parted her lips, but John rushed on.  “We’d been talking for a while and Dave sounded really nice on the phone.  Well, that and he got me an awfully good rate on my second line, so I thought, why not?  He’s not seeing anyone and you’re not seeing anyone…”

Rachel barely heard her brother’s words.  Here was a man she’d failed to notice, and for the life of her, she couldn’t understand how she’d overlooked him.  Waving black hair with a sprinkle of silver at the temples and sparkling hazel eyes framed by his classically charismatic face.  Late thirties, maybe early forties, with nice teeth in a nice smile, he made her think of a model in a glossy full-color Ebony liquor ad.  Brother John had done well.  I can give a man a chance.  She looked up into his smiling eyes.  I owe the man a chance.

“Tell me about yourself Dave.”  Rachel folded her hand over his as she led him to the windowed alcove.  “What do you do when you’re not representing cellular service?”

Dave was an aspiring comic.  “I do a lot of open mike nights, and every now and then, I get on the bill at Joker’s Wild in midtown.  I’m kind of a cross between D.L. Hughly and Steve Harvey.  I talk a lot about my childhood,” he grinned and captured Rachel’s hands between his.

“I figure it’s only a matter of time until I make it big.  Then, I’ll need a woman like you by my side.”

“By your side?”

“Well, yes.  Having the right mate is all important in show business.”  Leaning back, he cast a judging eye over Rachel.  “You’re attractive and your brother says you’re well educated.  You’re a little older than I thought you would be, but I can see definite possibilities.”

Possibilities?  Rachel plotted evil for her younger brother.

Pregnant Celia swooped forward bearing a large bowl of potato salad.  Dumping the bowl into her sister-in-law’s lap, she used both hands to urge her from the alcove. 

“I’ll hold the door for you,” Dave offered.  At least Dave had good teeth, clear skin, and wore good cologne.  Gallantly, he reached back for a basket of whole-wheat rolls before following her through the door.  Leaning forward, he made sure to seek and hold her eyes as she placed her bowl on the table.  “Let me tell you about my act.”

“I talk about how things have changed over the years, how I don’t understand all this excitement over available technology.  You know, stuff like The ClapperThe Clapper is nothing new.    We had that at my house years ago, when I was a kid.  It was me.”  He double-clapped his hands together, “Davie go get me a glass of water.”  He double-clapped again, “Davie turn off the TV.”  When Rachel just blinked, he gave a short laugh and nudged her shoulder.  “That’s part of my act, get it?”  He double-clapped again.

“Clapper.  Got it.”  Rachel ducked back into the kitchen.  Once inside, she held a shoulder to the door, grateful Dave didn’t follow. 

“Rae-Rae, move.  I need to get the cake.”  Claire pushed the door forcing Rachel to move aside.

“Your mother is the only woman in the world who would willingly and happily bake her own birthday cake,” Claire laughed, planting candles in top tier.  “And eating the cake first, good before bad.  Only Delia and her superstitions…  You want to get me another box of candles and a whole book of matches – sixty is a lot of candles.  Here, help me so we can get them lit before they melt.”

Triumphant and glad that the candles were slow melting, Claire brought the cake out to a chorus of “ooohs” and “ahhs” and a rousing rendition of ‘Happy Birthday To You’

At her mother’s side, Rachel reclaimed her hand from Austin Lincoln – the man her brother Levi invited. 

“I told him not to do it,” Roz apologized in a whisper. 

“Make a wish,” Claire encouraged, clapping her hands.  Latrice’s twins looked up and accepted the cue, joining her in the applause. 

Delia laughed, “I can take a hint.  Don’t help me, I can do this by myself – I’ve been working out.”  Taking an exaggerated big breath, she managed to blow out all the candles on her cake. 

“Did you wish?”  Beverly never could stand suspense.  “What did you wish for?” 

“You know I can’t tell you.  It won’t come true if I do, but I can’t wait to cut this cake.”  Amanda offered a silver cake knife and Delia shook her head, pointing to the table. Amanda sheepishly laid the knife on the table in front of her sister. 

“Why’d she do that,” Austin queried. 

“My mother is as superstitious as they come.”

“Yeah,” Levi put in.  “She won’t take a sharp object from another person’s hand.  She thinks it will lead to sharp words between her and the other person.”

“True enough,” Allen agreed, arm securely about his wife’s shoulders.  “From the day I met her, Delia and I have never passed so much as a straight pin between us, and I can’t count the number of sharp words we’ve passed on one hand.”

“See?” Delia passed cake.  “It works.”

“I guess it would.  You don’t have time to cuss each other when you’re busy dodging black cats, picking up pennies, and throwing salt over your shoulder.”  Latrice’s tongue touched a corner of her lips, catching the dot of frosting lodged there.

Delia raised her brows at her niece.  “I’m going to pray for you, Smart Mouth.  Eat your cake.  But you,” she crooked a finger at her daughter, “I want to see in the kitchen.

“Not the kitchen,” Rachel moaned, moving with heavy feet.

Delia barely waited for the door to close.  “I saw what you did out there.”

“What?”  Rachel frowned, knowing what would come next.

“With that nice Mr. Lincoln, the man that Levi invited.  You could at least be pleasant to some of these young men.”

“Uhm-hm,” the aunts agreed from the place they’d managed to assume by the kitchen door.

“I guess you know that Allen is right behind us, don’t you,” Beverly said as he walked through the door.

Rachel rolled her eyes.

Delia propped her hands on her hips.  “Girl…”  

“Mom, do you realize that you, daddy, all four of my aunts, two of their husbands, both brothers and a sister-in-law have all invited a man here for me to meet.  To tell you the truth, I don’t believe you – not any of you.  What have I done to make you think I am so desperate that you need to stage a Testosterone Roundup on my behalf?” 

“Rae-Rae, nobody is rounding up anything for you.  We just… well, I just thought that someday – preferably sooner than later – you might want to hear another heartbeat besides your own,” her mother offered. 

“Yeah,” John agreed, easing into the room on his brother’s heels, and sliding an arm around Celia’s shoulders as though the gesture made his point.  “We thought you must be lonely.  Companionship is a good thing, you know.”  Celia nodded.

“Any more of this sweetness,” Rachel fumed, “and I think my teeth will rot!  How dare you all be so continually presumptuous?  This is my life, not ours.”

“I know that.  We all know that.  But you need to know this, we dare because we love you.  Since you seem to be taking your sweet time finding the right man, it seems like you need a little help.”  Delia touched her daughter’s cheek, then wagged her finger under her nose.  “I swear girl, if you were a cake, I’d be trying to get some baking powder in you!”

Celia frowned up at John.  “What does that mean?”

“Some of mom’s cooking wisdom,” he whispered.  “You add baking soda to make the batter rise, lighten up and move faster.”

“Oh.”  Celia looked at him as though his words made all the difference in the world. 

Annoyed by the interruption, the aunts pointedly turned their exquisite faces back to the problem at hand.  “Go on, Delia,” Amanda urged, wanting the point made.

“Okay,” Delia assented.  “You don’t have forever, Rachel.  Nobody does.  First you expected to be settled at twenty-five, then thirty, now it’s forty.  You know fifty is next, right?” 

Celia surrounded her full belly with both hands.  The motion was more criticism than Rachel could take.  “Why do you all think you have to know everything?  Why do you think that just because you love me, I owe you a play-by-play on my life?  Well, news flash: I don’t.” 

Without looking, she knew the expression crossing Levi and John’s faces, bless their happily married souls.  The brother’s heads went close and a rushed buzz of conversation hovered over them. 

“See?” Levi whispered.  “It’s hormonal man.”

Rachel took two steps forward and wished she had the ability to control the pointing finger she waved beneath her brothers’ noses.  “My hormones, like my life, are none of your business.” 

“We just want to know that your life is settled, Sweetie.”  Ever the peacemaker, Allen stepped between his children, warning his sons away. 

Folding her arms into the warmth of her sweater, Rachel bit her lip.  “If any of you had bothered to ask me, I could have told you better.  You know what?  I have told you better!” 

A round of narrowed eyes and a chorus of, “What?  Who is she talking about?” surrounded her.  Levi looked at her as though she was hallucinating. 

“I’m already seeing someone.”  Eyebrows rose all around, then fell in silent disbelief.  “Yes, that’s right.  I’m seeing someone.” 

“Who?”  Levi made the word a blatant challenge. 

“Who?”  Rachel nearly choked.  “What do you mean, ‘who’ – like it’s any of your business?” 

“Well, then… If you’re seeing someone, why didn’t you bring ‘him’ with you today?” he challenged. 

“I didn’t bring him with me today… and there’s a reason.  There’s a really good reason why I didn’t bring him with me today.”

“What is it?” 

Disbelief settled in John and Celia’s eyes.  Standing quietly by his side, she began to rub circles on her stomach, while the aunts breathed deeply, hands crossed protectively in front of their bodies. 

“He had to…I… the thing is…I didn’t want to just put him on display and have you all inspecting him like he was a new car or something.  That’s why I didn’t bring him.  It would have been too much.” 

“’Methinks she doth protest too much’,” Levi said, his voice low. 

“What is that supposed to mean?”  Rachel bristled.  Her parents simply stared back, watching and waiting.  “Oh, for pity’s sake!”

“Mystery man got a name?”  

“Yes.  Of course he has a name, Levi.  What do you think?  I’m making him up?”

“We’re waiting.”

“Alright!  It’s Max, okay?  It’s Max.” 

“Maxwell Sterling?  At the sound of his name, the room seemed to thaw.   “Your partner, Max?  Didn’t you go to school with him, too?”  When Rachel nodded, her family sagged into a group hug of relief. 

“Oh, this is so sweet,” her mother cooed, breaking free.  “You’ve been friends for so long, and now colleagues.  Max is a better than acceptable choice.  You definitely should have brought him with you.” 

“He, uh… Well, I already explained that.”  Rachel wrinkled her nose at Levi.

“Maybe what’s-her-name, that party-girl he’s been living with wouldn’t let him come?”

“He’s living with a party-girl?” Delia quizzed her husband who quickly shrugged innocence.

“That’s just flat-out ugly!”  Rachel’s lashes fluttered and her lower lip quivered.  “Levi, over the years, you’ve called me some pretty awful things, but you’ve never called me a home wrecker.   You’ve never accused me of deliberately hurting a good friend.”

“So, he’s not living with a party girl?” Celia wanted to know.

“What kind of woman do you think I am?” 

Levi dropped his eyes.  “Well, I’m just askin’.  Last I heard…”

John’s arm tightened around Celia.  “I haven’t heard anything.”

“Well, if he’s free, I guess he's certainly better than a lot of the losers out there,” Levi growled, heading for the door. 

Roz made a face at her husband’s back.  “I’ve seen Max and he’s certainly a cut above the men your family tried to choose for you – way above.”  She laughed when Levi grabbed her hand and tugged her into the dining room.

Delia’s fingers found the elephant pin at her throat.  Fingering its upraised trunk she smiled.  “This little pin always brings me such good luck.  Who would have thought it could grant a birthday wish?”

Claire nudged Beverly.  “Pay up, I told you so.”

Bev poked through the tailored pockets of her red woolen trousers and finally pulled a crumpled five-dollar bill free.  Handing it to her sister, she made a face.  “I could have sworn it was about the baby.”

“Always bet the favorite,” Claire smiled demurely.

“This is so sweet,” Delia whispered, her forehead touching Allen’s.  Ignoring her sisters, she smiled and gave her husband the tiniest of kisses.  “Isn’t that sweet?  Those two have always gotten along so well, even as children.  Who would have ever thought…”

Allen moved first, breaking the spell.  “So how long has this…” he shrugged, “… flirtation of been going on?  How did it happen?  How did you know he was the one?  Why did you wait so long to tell us?”

“Forget all that,” Claire demanded, planting a fist beneath her chin.  “What do you like about him?”

Rachel was surprised to feel how easily the words crossed her lips.  “I like his decency.  He’s honest and intelligent.  He has integrity…” 

“…and a butt like…” Celia used her hands to illustrate her point, then closed her eyes and sighed with deep appreciation. 

The aunts shook their heads and looked at a laughing Delia.  “It’s the hormones, girls.  You remember when you were pregnant.” 

“Girl, all I remember is that last time.  People kept telling me how high I was carrying and it seemed like that baby was never…” 

“But what I want to know,” Amanda insisted, “is how you really feel about him.  You still haven’t told us how you really feel about him.” 

“I care about him.  Deeply,” Rachel said, knowing she wasn’t fooling anybody in the room.  

“Rachel Dianne, that’s not what I want to hear, and you know it.  Your mother and father gave us the honor of giving you your middle name, and I beat my sisters down until they gave in and we named you Dianne.  You know why, don’t you?”

Before Rachel could respond, Beverly picked up the story.  “It was because we wanted you strong in every possible way, is why.  We named you after Diana.” 

“Ross?” 

The aunts turned as a single body and looked at Celia with great pity. 

Beverly’s nose wrinkled.  “You are one conflicted child, do you know that?  In myth, Diana is the goddess of the hunt, the moon, and fertility.” 

“Oh.”  Celia looked apologetic and made more circles on her belly. 

Turning back to Rachel, Beverly shook her head and continued.  “We wanted only the best for you and we still do.”  Amanda, Claire, and Delia fingered the matching silver elephants they wore on their breasts and nodded.   

”Whatever the reason, we’re glad you’re with Maxwell.  It’s settled.”

“Yes, settled,” Rachel said on a breath of relief, just before her mother’s words became real.  “What’s settled?”

“Dinner with the family, now that you’re a couple,” her mother said simply.  “We’ll see you and Maxwell for dinner on Sunday, right?” 

Rachel swallowed hard and just nodded.      

  

Back to The Fitwryter?

 

Chapter Two

 “Stupid.  I can’t believe I got myself into something this stupid.”

Rachel’s finger pulled at the suede collar of her suit jacket.  It felt tight and confining.  Two fingers twisted at the olive toned buttons, freeing her.  Jacket open, her gold sweater fully exposed, Rachel Solomon realized the tightness she’d felt had little, if anything, to do with her jacket.  It was in her chest, right there around her heart, like a band.

“Stupid.  I can’t believe I let my mouth get me into this mess.”  Even to her ears, it wasn’t a pretty tune.  All night, she’d lain in the center of her King-sized bed a designer sheet wrapped lump, tossing and turning, wretched right up to the chime of her alarm clock, trying to hear the right words string themselves into a mature and plausible statement of purpose – something that would satisfy Max’s insatiable curiosity. 

Lifting a graceful hand, fingers tracing the air, she tried to hear how she would sound to him.  “I have to say something Max won’t be able to debate in some kind of high-toned intellectual terms,” she told the Jay C. Allen prints on the wall. 

 “Maybe I should just tie him up and kidnap him – it might be easier.”  Judging from the aloof postures of the man and woman pictured in the framed print, that plan didn’t seem altogether likely.  Her elbows found the desk and her hands fisted.  Dropping her chin to her knuckles, Rachel closed her eyes.  “What the hell was I thinking?”

The ring of her cell phone saved Rachel from yet another chorus of the, blues.  Her eyes touched on the small brass chronometer in the corner of her desk.  Not even eight in the morning and someone was already trying to reach her.  Grabbing her purse didn’t help; the phone was still ringing.  “Has to be Bridget.  She’s the only person I know who will call just about anybody whenever the mood strikes her.” 

“Reveille” played loudly as she scrambled deliberately through the Coach bag, to no avail.  Frustrated, trying to stop fumbling, Rachel settled for dumping the bag’s contents onto her desk and pawed through the mess. 

The slender black cell phone had burrowed into her wallet and she pulled it free.  Thumbing the call button, she noted the unfamiliar number and hoped that it wasn’t one of her many family members with an emergency.  “It’s Bridget,” she promised herself.  “Hello?”

“Girl.”  The lone word was utterly feminine and bridged the gaps in a psyche that knew and needed the balm of sisterhood.  Painted in a lilting Georgia drawl, the word was a simple, singular, and absolutely magical invitation to sit down, chat, and share secrets.

“Good Morning, Bridget.  How are you?”

“I’m fine thank you, but why did it take you so long to answer?  You know I was about to give up, don’t you?  Of course I didn’t give up because I was concerned about you, but then, I’m a friend and I have a good heart.  You’ve been on my mind all night long, what’s wrong?” 

Bridget Smith had never been one to mince words, not even back in the third grade.  Miss Ball had been so right when she looked at her young student and predicted that the little girl would never miss a chance to get the last word – in anything. 

“Why are you so quiet this morning, huh?  Oh, I know what it is.  Yesterday was your mother’s birthday, right?  Right.  The whole clan turned out, didn’t they?  Sure they did, it’s your family, right?  Did they trot out a lot of men like they usually do?  Girl, I know they did.  Were any of them likely prospects?  Not even any “fixer-uppers”?  I guess not, judging from the funk you’re in this morning.  Well, I hope you let them down easy – the fam, I mean.  You know that they love you and all their efforts are in your best interest.”

“Do you need me to help out with this, or are you having a private conversation?” Rachel finally interjected.

“Hmm, that’s tired, girl.  Mean, too.  But, I guess the old saying is true:  ‘The best defense is a good offense.  Frankly, that was pretty offensive.  Fam hurt your feelings?  Tell me about it.”  Rachel could hear the clink of a spoon against the thick sides of the giant pink ceramic mug Bridge always used for her morning coffee.

“Are you starting with the coffee already?”

“The more, the merrier, is the way I see it.”

“Still going for the major caffeine jolt, using that vat you call a cup?”

“Yes, girl.  If it’s not big enough to take a bath in, I don’t want it.  My big cup will have to do until somebody either finds something bigger, or science figures out a way to just give it to me IV.” 

“And how would you get the cream and sugar in?” Rachel laughed.

“True love always finds a way.”

“Coffee’s going to kill you.  If the caffeine doesn’t get you, you’ll probably go down like some kind of addict.”  Rachel sniffed, the indelicate sound carrying over the phone line.   “They’ll find you all alone someday, huddled over a cooling cup.  You know, twitching and drooling, sniffing the fumes for that one last high.”

“That’s funny, real funny – tease a sister about her fix, early in the morning.”  Bridget stirred her coffee and grew sober.  “Tell me what happened.  I already know it involves your family and it’s about a man.”

“Not really, I just bit off a little more than I can chew.” 

Bridget sipped audibly, then waited.

Rachel tossed an ancient mass of wadded white tissue at her wastebasket and missed.  Using the heel of her shoe, she pulled it close enough to snatch it from the floor.  Balling the dusty softened paper into her fist, she fixed her eyes on the wastebasket and missed again.  Plucking it from the floor, she settled for leaving it on the desktop.

“Maybe it’s just a friend thing, you know, but I’m not hearing any talk from you and I’m concerned,” Bridget drawled, pulling the final word longer than necessary, making her point.

“Well…”  Rolling the ball of tissue against her desk, feeling it absorb some of the sudden moisture from her sweaty hands, Rachel held the phone between her shoulder and ear.  How was she going to explain the intimate intricacies of her problem to a woman whose attention span was usually limited to new shoes at Shoemaker’s Warehouse, or a Macy’s “Super Saturday” sale was going to be a bit difficult. 

“Talk to me hon, my coffee’s getting low.”  Bridget was exactly the kind of woman you could confide in about the ten pounds you’d just gained or the buff new trainer at the gym.  On top of that, she was a prober.  She had a need to know and all the necessary determination it took to ferret out the answers.

At sixteen, Bridget Smith was the one who tried to read everybody’s fortune with shredded tealeaves sifted from torn Lipton tea bags because she had a personal need to know everybody else’s business.  Gina Stiller simply referred to their mutual friend as nosy and that judgment was not without merit. 

Six-feet tall, with rich chocolate skin, and a nonstop strut, Gina had always been the darker shadow of copper skinned Rachel’s passionate intensity, and the perfect mirror to Japanese-American Bridget’s frequent lack of subtlety.  For almost longer than any of them could recall, she’d been the filter for their shared secrets, and right now, Rachel wished that it was Gina on the other end of this call. 

It wasn’t that Bridget wasn’t supportive, because her loyalty was unstinting.  Moral support was a big part of her personality – she just had to have her fun first and Rachel didn’t know if she could live through the fun today.  Besides, Gina was still in Italy.

“Rachel?”

“I’m here.  Now listen Bridge, if I tell you this and hear it anywhere, I’ll have to kill you.  Understand?”

“How ‘bout… darn, you’d have to be here for us to pinky swear, but I promise to keep it just between the two of us.  Girl, come on; trust me enough to tell me.  What happened?”

Rachel pulled at the strand of matched pearls at her throat and wished for her own cup of coffee, but didn’t trust herself to get it and talk on the phone at the same time – not with this conversation going on.  Chair away from the desk, she moved the narrow telephone into her hand.  “I probably shouldn’t tell you anything.  You’re too eager.”

“But I’m in girlfriend mode now.  What happened?”

“I lied to my family yesterday.”

“Why’d you do that, Rach?”

“I didn’t start out to do it.  It was an accident, sort of.  My aunts were there and all my cousins.  Celia, all pregnant and stuff… there was a lot of pressure to, well…conform.”  She licked her lips and swallowed hard.  “To make a long story short, when my back was to the wall, when they kept pressing me, I told them that I was seeing Max.  Of course, my parents were thrilled, and then my Mom insisted that I bring him to dinner on Sunday.”        

“Slow down, I need to think.  Are you telling me that you’re inviting Max to dinner as your… what?”

Rachel blew against the edges of her set teeth.  “Bridge, I already told you that I told them that I am seeing Max.  Seeing, him.  That implies connection and commitment beyond guest, don’t you think?”

“So the bottom line is that you’ve committed Max without consulting him, huh?  My guess is that he’ll back you up – as far as you want him to.”  Bridget blew three soft notes against the phone line, then sighed.  “How far do you want him to go, because my feeling is…”

“Please don’t go psychic on me, it’s too early in the morning.” 

“I need to be the voice of reason here – what about Shani?”

“Shani?  Yes, her name came up.”

“Levi brought it up – I’m guessing?”

“You guess right.”  Rachel snapped the Coach bag shut.  “What’s Shani got to do with anything?  Bridge, I’m going to run all the necessary interference and she doesn’t need to know a thing.  Right now, all I’m asking Max for is a dinner,” she frowned and shrugged.  “Maybe two.  A few words with my folks, smile at my father’s jokes, that’s all.”

“Rach, you know as well as I do, that dinner is not even the issue, but Shani is a very large part of it.”

“I’m only trying to get him to come to dinner, not marry him.”

“Well, you may not be, but Shani sure is and she lives with him.  From what I’ve heard, she was the date from hell – came for an evening and never went home…”

“Bridge!  I told you that in strictest confidence!”

“That whole thing about Asian people being inscrutable?  Even half-Asian, half-black people like me?  Not true, and you’re right, I talk too much – sometimes.  But my point is that your family will be satisfied with nothing less than a ring on your finger, a white wedding, four or five choruses of “Oh Promise Me,” and a chapel length train on your veil.  You’re asking that man to lay down a lot for you.”

“I told you, I’m not asking for a wedding.” Rachel snapped.  “I’ll be thirty-eight on my next birthday.  We both know I’ve kissed my share of frogs and I am not looking for a prince at this late date.  All I’m going to ask Max to do is have a Sunday dinner with my family.  That’s all.”

“That’s still a tall order.”  Bridget tapped her nails against the phone.  “Don’t take this wrong, but have you two ever… you know?”

“No, I don’t know.”  Rachel bit her lips and held the tiny phone closer to her ear.  “Come on Bridge, you say everything else you want to say.  What are you trying to ask?”

“Okay, well what I want to know is if you’ve ever slept with Max?”

“No!  He’s my friend, why would you even ask me something like that?”

“Because people have been known to sleep with friends, and frankly, when needs are being met, ain’t no shame in the game.”

Rachel’s moan sounded like air escaping from a balloon, and it never phased her friend.  “Girl, if I were you, I would have done it a long time ago.  All that brain, wrapped up in such nicely sculpted brawn and those amazing eyes, I’m fairly certain I would have done it.   Maybe I would have done it four or five or twenty times, with absolutely no regrets.  Now, I know he’s your friend and I know that you’re respectful of your friendship and you don’t want to have to look back in regret.  

“But girl, sometimes you have to take a chance, even in spite of folks like Shani.  In every woman’s life there are some times they all would wish they could take back something that they didn’t place a high enough value on – I know I do.”

“Bridget, you’re amazing.  Only you…”

“No, now let me finish.  Thinking about it, maybe I would even do something radical like stage a Nookie Recall”.  You know, take back all that good stuff, all those special moments, and those little bits and pieces of myself that I gave away in moments of passion.  And, I mean I gave it away – willingly at the time.  Today?  I’m not even friends with some of the men I gave it to, either.  But, with Max, girl, it would all be good.  Everything with him would be an investment – Shani or not.  He’s a good man.  You two have been friends and together all your lives.  He already loves you.”

Rachel pressed her knees together and ignored the light shiver pressing through her thighs.  “When it comes to love, Max loves me as a friend, exactly the way I care for him.  Meanwhile, he’ll be in soon and I need to get ready for my day.”  She glanced at the clock.  “And, speaking of getting ready, don’t you have to do something wonderful for the state of Georgia today?”

“Guess you’re right.  OCSR can’t function without me,” Bridget drawled.  "The Office of Child Support Recovery only stands a chance when I’m on the job, so I do have to go.  But keep this in mind, Shani be damned, maybe it’s not your family that’s pushing you toward Max.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe the Universe is conspiring to put your life in line and that little lie of yours is destined to set things in motion.”  Something mechanical clicked and chimed on the other end of the line.  “Oooh, it’s ready!  More coffee,” Bridget cooed lovingly over the burble of liquid flowing into her huge mug.  She sipped and sighed approval.  “We still gon’ do lunch today?  Still at one, same place?  I have a surprise for you, and I’ll get a follow-up then.” 

“I know you will, you always do.”  Rachel shook her head and tried not to laugh.  Not answering Bridget was the same as an affirmative.

“Don’t sass your good friend, I may be all you have someday unless you take up with Max on a long term basis.”

“It would be just my luck that the Universe is picking on me.”  Closing the telephone, between her hands, Rachel made a face and hoped Bridget’s words weren’t part of some self-fulfilling prophecy and she shivered.  “I sound like my mother, now.”

Rotating her chair, turning to face the desk, Rachel managed to drop the phone into the Coach bag.  Folding her hands on the desktop, she lowered her eyes.  “I still have to say something to Max.  As good a friend as he’s been, for as long as we’ve been friends, I would be wrong to not give him a choice.  Even if it lands me in the doghouse.”

“Wonder if the name Shani really means anything?  Seems like Max once said it was an African name that meant something like, ‘marvelous’.  If that’s right, her name is about the only Afrocentric thing about her.  It sounds like something she would choose for herself.  Bridget always said Shani named herself, that her real name was probably Sapphire or Sadie.” 

“Bridget is wrong.”  Smoothing the dark sheen of her hair, Rachel frowned.  “The Universe has nothing to do with this, because right now, I feel about as wrong as two left shoes.  My mother looked so hopeful when I mentioned Max’s name.  I know she was having instant visions of wedding marches, white picket fences, and cherubic little grandbabies.  It was like all her hard work had finally paid off – like I’d validated her somehow.”

Sinking lower in her chair, Rachel refused to look at the now accusing eyes of the Allen print people. “A stranger would think I’d never had a man in my life before, but they’d be wrong.  They wouldn’t realize the mistakes I nearly made.  Keep breaking your engagements, you’ll never get married.  That little pearl of wisdom was gleaned from Daddy.  Of course, there was a lot I never told Daddy.

Covering her face with both hands, feeling her eye shadow smudge, Rachel didn’t care.  All she could see on the dark screen of her closed lids was her mother – young, innocent, and carrying those precious little eggs her father liked talking about so much. 

“Oh, migod,” she moaned again.  Suddenly, the constriction was back.  Binding her chest too tightly for even a thought to pass, her jacket was too confining and Rachel struggled free, throwing the offending garment around the high back of her chair, playing for time. Hearing the click of the outer office door, knowing that neither the receptionist nor Rista Alford, this year’s student intern was due to come in before ten, Rachel sat straighter, steeling herself.  

Pulling a yellow legal pad free of her drawer, she centered it on her desk.  She took her time arranging two cushioned black pens, then lifted one and held it above the page.  Satisfied with the picture she presented, she consciously slowed her breathing.  “Max, is that you?  Can you step here for a minute?”  

His head was the first thing to come around the door, followed by his long body.  The embossed leather briefcase he carried beneath his arm was the only clue to his real occupation.  Tall and sturdy, the man looked good.  He’d always been fit, almost as if soundness of body, soundness of mind, and general wholeness was his birthright, but this morning he was wearing health like a designer original.  Black two-tone Diesel glasses, distressed Perry Ellis leather in rusty grayed shades of black, and a close-cropped shading of beard made him look more like some sexy actor or singer, than a respected Behavioral psychologist.

“You called?”

“All that leather,” Rachel gave him a teasing pout as he took the chair in front of her desk.  “You’re on that motorcycle again, aren’t you?”

The black Diesel glasses tilted and so did his smile.  “I offered you a ride, anytime you want it.”

“That’s all I need.  Me on a motorcycle behind you with my skirt hiked up so high that people can see next week’s wash.  I don’t think so.”

“But, you’ve got to admit, it makes an interesting picture, damned near fetching.”  His grin ripped something vital in her heart.

“You make that dimple flash at me again, Maxwell Sterling, and I won’t be able to say what I called you in here to say.”

“Just tell me you’ve got coffee.”  She pointed and he headed for the tall painted ceramic pot on the table.  Looking smooth and elegant, he pumped hot black coffee into one of the red and white mugs her aunt Claire was so fond of making in her ceramics classes.  Propping his hip against a corner of Rachel’s desk, he drank deeply.  “Cinnamon and vanilla?”  He sipped again.  “So, what’s up?”

“Max?  Could you take the glasses off?  I did something and now, I need a favor.  I want to see your eyes when I ask, okay?”

Hooking a long finger over the bridge of the glasses, his white teeth showing against the swell of his lip, he pulled the dark glasses slowly free of his face.  Revealing the steady umber gaze with the slow rhythm of seasoned striptease, he held her eyes with his.  Tucking the glasses into his jacket, he raised a brow.  “Better?”

“Much.”  Lord, Rachel couldn’t move her eyes from his.  This man could have made millions just blinking those eyes.  “It’s a big favor.”

Reaching across the space between them, his fingers touched the back of her hand.  A light limited connection, then a final pat.  “You’re my friend.  If I can, I’ll do what I can.  Talk to me.” 

Knowing that her courage was rapidly deserting, Rachel’s tongue traced her lips slowly.  “Yesterday was my mother’s birthday.”

“Oh.  So, how was it?”

“Good.  It was fine.”  Rachel licked her lips again.  “Max, when you come from a big family like I do, you have those big gatherings and you get used to them.  And that’s why I need to ask this favor.”

“So, how do I fit in?”

“I told my family that we were together, and that you would come to dinner on Sunday.”

 “You did what?” 

“I told my family that we were together, and that you would come to dinner on Sunday.”

“This is a joke, right?”  Max sipped slowly, peering over the cup rim.

“Max!”

He drew one long leg higher, crossing it at his knee.  Resting the coffee mug on his leather covered knee he grinned.  “Same old Sugar Ray.  They put you in a corner and you come out swinging.” 

“Max.”

“No problem; I’m your friend and I’ll do it.  But I reserve the right to ask for a favor in return, at a time to be named in the future.”

Rachel blinked.  “Seriously, you’ll do it?”

“I have a few questions first.” 

“Ask away,” she said, her face innocent and open.

He gave her the benefit of the dimple again.  

“Why was mine the name you pulled out of the clear blue sky?”

“I thought of you because…” Her eyes widened, spilling their maple sugar clarity over him.  “You’re my friend.”

“Was mine the first name, or was it the only name you thought of?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Frowning, she cocked her head.  “Why are you asking me these questions?”

“I’m wondering what the pattern is in your asking me to do this.”

“There’s no pattern, I just really want my family to stop hustling every available male they can find into my path.”  Rachel was rewarded with another flash of his dimple.  Bridget’s words curled in her mind:  ‘All that brain, wrapped up in such nicely sculpted brawn…’  Starting with the heavy black boots he wore and moving upward, Rachel took a visual tour of some of that sculpted brawn. 

When he lowered his head and smiled at the floor, muttering, “my, my, my,” Rachel was tempted to walk around her desk, station herself in front of him and look up into his face, just to see the expression he wore.

“What’s that mean,” she finally asked.

His fingers folded over the front of his jacket and he tugged at it.  “Your answers, they make me think of the Ganser Syndrome.”

“What’s the Ganser Syndrome, a book?”

“It’s a pattern of behavior; blurring the lines, giving me answers you think will work for me.”  He shook his head and gave her a blast of the dimple.  “You know you don’t have to do that with me, Sugar Ray.”

She planted fisted hands on her hips and raised her chin.  “I’ll have you know that I’m not manipulating anything or anyone.” 

Matching her stance, Max placed hands on his lean hips and leaned forward.  “Now it’s selective deafness.  The Ganser Syndrome is a maneuver often used by people feigning mental illness.”

“I didn’t!”  Rachel had to catch the hand she almost raised to her lips.  She’d answered too quickly.   

“Yeah, you did.  Like when I asked about names, you pretended to not quite understand the question and answered what you thought would stop me from asking more.”  He raised his brows, without the dimple this time.  “You are playing a game.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Come on Sugar Ray, you can put the defenses down with me and you know it.  You’ve always had a soft spot in your heart for me.” he lifted his finger and smiled, teasing. 

“Soft spot?  Max…”

“Don’t deny it, that’s why mine was the name you pulled out of the sky when you thought this little game up.”  He looked wise and satisfied.  “But, it’s okay – I have a little soft spot for you, too.  Always have, and your favor?  I’ll do it – for you.”

“You’ll do it?  You put me through all that Ganser stuff and you’ll do it?”  When he nodded, Rachel walked around her desk to stand squarely in front of him.  “Max, do you truly understand what I’m asking?  I couldn’t ask anybody else to brave the gamut of my family.  You know they’re going to pry into every corner of your life that they can get into.”  She examined his face for signs of weakness or prank and found none.  Instead, she saw only a face that any woman would enjoy waking to.  “Max, my daddy is going to pray over you.”

“Again, no problem,” he grinned.  “You know I go to church, and I’ve always loved your mama’s cooking.  Sunday dinner and looking like I’m in love with you is no problem.”

“Wow.  You, uh, make that sound very believable.” 

“It’ll be my pleasure.”

His pleasure?   “Max,” she swallowed hard, “I don’t want you to do this if it’s going to make things hard for you with Shani.” 

“Yes, you do,” he grinned, the dimple flashing.

“Okay, you’re right.  I do.” 

Max opened his hands to her, and his grin softened, growing wistful.  “I’ve told you over and over, Sugar Ray, Shani and I were something that never should have happened.  She’s a long way away from being a soul mate.  She’s the guest who came to dinner and never left, but it’s over.  The only reason it’s taken this long to get rid of her is because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.  You want me, I’m yours.”

Sincerity surfed the corner of his lips, touching her unexpectedly.  Gripping his free hand between both of hers, Rachel dropped gracefully to her knees.  “Thank you, Max.  You know I could never have asked this of anyone else.”

“Stand up Rachel, there’s no need for you to go to your knees.  You and I, we have a history.  And I meant what I said: you want me, I’m yours.”  Closing his hands over hers, he helped her to her feet.  Drawing her close, lifting her hands, Max let her arms drape his shoulders. 

“What are we doing, Max?”

“Practicing.  We want to get this right the first time, don’t we?”

He smelled like Tiffany for Men and the cologne was totally in sync with his body chemistry.  Heady and intriguing, it was the right fragrance on the right man and right then, Rachel knew Max was earning straight A’s in chemistry.  She let her lashes drop, watching him through their veiling.  Bridget is wrong.  Nothing bad could come from this.

Max let his hands slide around her waist, then skim inches lower, pulling her hips tight against his and Rachel didn’t resist.  She stayed where she was even when his lips brushed her forehead.  Was that what the Universe had in store for her?  A tiny little baby kiss?

Max smiled.  “I know, I know.  But, hey, we’re friends with a lot of history between us.  Remember back in grad school, that bad night when everything in the world seemed to be going wrong?” 

Her lips parted, no words escaped.  How could she forget? 

“We said that if neither one of us was married by the time we were forty, then it was on.  We would marry each other and at least we could take our friendship into forever.  Remember?”

Rachel thought it over, her eyes finding his.  “We’re not forty and it was the booze talking.  You know we were drinking tequila that night.  We could have promised to do just about anything together.” 

“Yeah, but we didn’t promise just anything.  “We promised to get married and I know you didn’t forget.  You backing out on me, now?”

She gave his chest a small pat.  “Max, there’s no way a man like you won’t be married, if you want to be.  There are hundreds of women like Shani, who would be more than willing to help you out.”

“Like you?”

“If worse, comes to worse."  Rachel swallowed and her throat locked.  I’m flirting with him, she realized, wondering if Bridget was right after all.  Maybe the big foot of the Universe was about to give her a swift kick in the butt and here she stood in Max’s arms painting on a bull’s eye.  I’m standing here flirting with my best friend in the world and liking it – what’s wrong with this picture?

“We did make a promise,” he said in a voice strongly reminiscent of promises made in the wee hours of dawning days. 

Rachel cleared her throat to find a path for her words.  “And, now I’m asking a favor.” 

His arms relaxed just enough to allow him to lean back and look into her face.  He let the dimple play for all it was worth and something alive and determined flickered in the depths of his gaze.  “Okay, Sugar Ray, but I’m still reserving the right to ask a favor in return at a later date.”

“Isn’t that like a postscript or a codicil or something?”     

“That’s the deal, take it or leave it.”

Quid pro quo?” 

He nodded. 

“Okay.  Okay, it’s fair,” she nodded. 

“How far do you want to go with this game?”  He moved a large firm hand across her back and Rachel felt herself move with it.  Nothing said that her deal had to be unpleasant and this contact with Max was about as far from distasteful as a sane woman would want to be.  Still, one needed to maintain at least the façade of objectivity and dignity. 

“Don’t call it a game,” she whispered, dropping her cheek to his shoulder.  “That sounds like I’m tricking someone, and I would never do that to my parents.  All I’m doing is buying a little peace and quiet, making them happy for a little while.”   

“And you’re doing this for love, right?” 

“All for love, Max.” 

“So how far do you want to go with this?  Do I at least get to hold your hand?  How far does it go?” 

“Just this far,” she answered, rising to her toes.  “One kiss…”

What was a mild flirtation between friends slipped a little to the side and hung poised there as their lips met.  Flirtation was replaced with a fierce softness and calculated tenderness that could only lead to the searching hunger of mouths and tongues.  Shocked, stepping free of his arms, the fingers of both hands crossed Rachel’s lips.  “I think that’s enough practice, don’t you?” 

“You want me to get it right, don’t you?” 

Rachel saw something new and different behind the smoke of his level gaze.  Her fingers fell from her lips and stopped only when her palms pressed themselves together.  In his eyes, standing within arm’s reach of her friend, she saw a soul-deep welcome.  Her ears ached with a replay of Bridget’s words, and Rachel Solomon could hear the rushing wind of an encroaching Universe.

“I think one kiss might be enough to convince them.”

“One kiss can do a lot to convince someone of how two people feel about each other.”  Bending slightly, his eyes still attached to her heart, Max collected his belongings and headed for his own office.  Rachel heard him whistling as he walked.

Hooking a finger over the string of pearls at her throat, Rachel twisted them slightly.  Propping an arm beneath her breasts, she was glad she’d teamed the gold sweater with the olive wool suit.  “At least I looked good when he came in here in all that grunt-and-sweat-to-die-for leather,” and she stopped, remembering the sleek fit of his black leather pants.  “That man must spend hours in the gym, just doing squats.”   

She reached for a glass of water from the console beside her desk and drank deeply.  “Okay, think of something else because you’ve got to work with him, so calm yourself.”

The cool water was good and swallowing made space for other thoughts.  Her fingers pressed at the ring of water she’d left on the console’s maple surface.  Wiping the water away, she turned back to her desk and pulled her calendar forward.  Her first appointment was at eleven.  “It’s cute that he still calls me Sugar Ray, like he used to.” 

Sugar Ray.  Nobody else ever used that name for her.  Nobody else had a right to; the name belonged to him and was only good for her.  Sugar Ray, he’d called her and the nickname sounded good and right spilling from his lips. 

Sugar Ray, he’d pronounced the name this morning just as easily as he had all those years ago.  Rachel remembered taking a couple of swings at the school bully who ate her lunch for the first two weeks of fourth grade.  If memory served, she’d actually landed a few of those swings and Maxwell Sterling was right there for each of them. 

Max, had always been there.  It was Max who kept the kid’s older brother from chasing her home.  It was Max who convinced the principal that the little girl had actually provided a public service by bloodying a bully’s nose.  He told the story so vividly that Levi and John called their sister Sugar Ray for months until their mother convinced them that the appellation was neither ladylike nor appropriate for their sister.

But it was okay for Max to call her Sugar Ray. 

“Sugar Ray – now, that’s a name only a buddy could call you.  I’m glad he’s been my buddy all these years, and I’m glad he’s willing to participate in this little charade.”

Rachel lifted a small silver key from her desk drawer.  Turning to the file cabinet, she unlocked it and found the Murray file.  Removing the abstract, she cast a careful eye over Max’s work and had a quick mental flash of him leaving her office in those leather pants.  Wonder if they were custom made?  They fit like…   

Catching herself, Rachel refocused.  “It’s funny that he still remembers the night we made that silly pact,” she smiled.  “If neither one of us is married by the time we turn forty, let’s marry each other.”  Which one of them said the words?  She tried to recall and couldn’t.  “It must have been him, I’m too ladylike.”

She moved her finger over the lines of computer print.  The night they’d made that foolish covenant was one of the worst in her entire life – the first time she’d broken an engagement.     

Remembering that night, how she’d gone to Max’s apartment, only to find him just as hurt as she was.  Losing that first deep love left them both bereft.  It left them both feeling hollow and denuded.  They’d lit every candle in his house, broken the seal on that bottle of tequila, and sat listening to Natalie Cole, vintage Marvin Gaye, and Earth Wind and Fire, looking into golden flames and each other’s eyes.

Maxwell Sterling had bold, all-seeing eyes.  They were dark, a dusky brown, and alive with flashing light, like something wild and free.  And there was something else that night.  When he looked at her over burning candles, his gaze was intensely personal.  Transmitting a message meant only for her, his eyes offered secrets only hinted at by the slight upturning at the corners of those spellbinding eyes.  Shot through with flashes of gray and blue, his eyes were hypnotic.   

And it was wrong of any woman to paint hurt in those eyes.  Rachel still felt that way when she recollected the night they’d reached their drunken accord.   It was the first time in all the time they’d known each other that they’d sunk to such a level and together, they’d cried into their shot glasses while reassuring each other of their ultimate worthiness. 

At some point, between tears and Tequila, Rachel Solomon felt his heat and dreamed of what his touch might be like, though she was sure it lay on the other side of a line she would never cross.  For the first time, she wondered what his lips would feel like moving anywhere except along the fine skin of her cheek. 

Sitting across from him, cross-legged and drunk, she’d felt awareness that nearly pulled her from her seat.  It was the first time she’d wondered, watching the way his denim shirt laid against the firm muscle of his shoulders and chest, what his male tightness might feel against the curves of her female softness.  It was the first time she’d looked at her own long legs in their jeans and wondered what they might feel like entwined with his.  Until today.


Back to The Fitwryter?

 

Chapter Three

“So, Sugar Ray needs a favor, and looks like I’m it,” Max pushed his office door open with his booted foot.  The door, canted at a slight angle, balked at his nudge so he pushed harder and had to dance past to avoid spilling his coffee.  Once inside, still wearing what Rachel liked to refer to as his get-over-grin, Max gave the door a solid bump with his hip.   

“Here, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to let her know what I feel for her and she walks right up and steps into my arms – felt pretty good there, too.”  Piling his jacket and briefcase on his desk, Max paused, laughing softly.  Eyes to the ceiling, he opened his empty palms. “Thank you,” he whispered.  “If only for the moment, I’m the man of her dreams.  Now, all I have to do is figure out a way to stay there.”

Max turned slowly on one heel, taking in the world around him.  Helping out a friend had a way of changing one’s outlook on life, especially when the friend had legs up to her ears, curves that made a man sweat in dry places, and smelled as sweet as his best friend did. 

Rachel smelled awfully good this morning.  No doubt, she would have smelled just as good across a crowded room, but holding her did heighten the effect.  He closed his eyes on the fragrance, then opened them.  Lifting the lapel of his denim shirt to his nose, his grin grew wider.  The scent of 360o had the delightful tendency to linger when she passed.  Clean and sensual instead of girlishly floral, it was perfect for her, and he could smell it in the fabric of his shirt.

“She smells this good and has the nerve to ask me if I’ll do a favor for her.”  He sniffed again.  “The girl never did fight fair.  Now, I need to figure out what to do about Shani.”

“Hell of a lot of nerve making plans.  A man with another woman in his house has no right going around sniffing his best friend just because she asked him for a favor – even if she does smell good.”

Max found the red and white coffee mug on his desktop and was disappointed to find it empty.  His eyes went to his door and he debated walking back through it.  Lifting the lapel of his shirt, he sniffed again.  A sepia memory of the tender sight of Rachel’s slender throat and the coppery sculpted curve of her cheek drifted across his mind. 

Setting the red and white mug solidly on his desk, Max turned to the bank of windows.  With little thought, he reached for the brief wand at the juncture of the window and the wall.  Turning it slowly, he opened the blinds, admitting morning sun.  Pale as the early autumn glow was, it made him squint against its brightness.  Funny, how natural it felt to turn to these windows when he needed to think, particularly when the thoughts concerned his partner. 

“Seems like I’ve known her forever, and I know I’ve loved her for almost that whole time,” he whispered to the sun.  “Everything about Rachel has always suited me.”

And, though he’d never said the words to his partner, it was true.  When Rachel first found the suite in the Flatiron building, he’d hated it.  The rooms were irregular, oddly angled.  Built at the turn of the twentieth century, the triangular building was, to put it kindly, quaint.  Funny looking was the term Max used.  Hell, he’d even pointed out to Rachel, the only thing the old building was good for was as a set on the old Matlock series, and he didn’t even like the show.

But, good ol’ Sugar Ray, she’d done what she did best: dug in her heels and fought his prejudices with every tool she had in her formidable arsenal.  Her argument began with location.  Located in downtown Atlanta, the Flatiron building was minutes away from the MARTA train station, and a bus stop was right at the front door.  That meant that the children and families referred by the Juvenile Justice Center didn’t have to depend on private cars to transport them.  Woodruff Park, directly across Peachtree Street was a bonus.

Beyond that, there were several good restaurants nearby and the public library was even closer – five minutes away.  The rent was reasonable and the address was impressive.  Rachel insisted that nobody needed to know she’d gone to Home Depot for the portable heaters they kept in the storeroom for emergencies.  The building was an historical landmark and listed on the National Register.  Max hesitated and Rachel crossed the street and had the local office supply store print their business cards.  He signed the lease, his name next to hers, and they’d occupied their five-room suite for the past four years.

“Sugar Ray is a special kind of woman,” Max told his reflection in the window and the man mirrored there nodded agreement.  Her by the book, button-down professionalism meshed well with his intense, Jung-cum-Freud as applied by Rogers theoretical outlook. The partnering of Max Sterling and Rachel Solomon proved that human beings could adjust to anything.  Their odd cornered offices in the Flatiron Building proved human beings could decorate almost anything.

Traditional Rachel just about had what his Grandmother Ann would have called a conniption-fit when he hauled in the third set of speakers for his stereo system.

Sure, he’d logic-ed her out of her fit, but there was still something very fulfilling about wearing her down, even four years later.  Looking out the window, watching morning traffic congregating on Peachtree, Max watched two homeless men struggle a rusted shopping cart topped by a mountainous amalgam of black plastic bags across the street and into Woodruff Park.  Met by two other men, they rolled the cart to a slat-backed bench and begin to separate the bags.  Watching the sorting process, Max wondered what the bags held.  Aluminum cans, he soon discovered, watching the men sort their booty.

Having wasted enough time, he moved to the small acrylic painting on the wall directly across from where he stood.  The painting concealed a small brass-latched door.  Tripping the latch, Max found the controls to the stereo he’d secreted within the walls of his office.  Touching preset buttons, he tuned the system, liking the soft jazz that washed his space.  Sliding the painting back in place, he gave it a second look. 

It was the work of one of his patients, seventeen year-old Allison Pennye.  She claimed it was from her “Depression period”.  An abstract done in black and white, the painting carried a sense of darkness touched with unannounced of hope.  Allison was talented.  Max hoped she would continue her progress and give herself a chance to realize that talent.

There were four other paintings on the wall, all done by Allison.  He’d almost passed on treating her when she came to him two years earlier.  At first glance, Allison simply had too many problems.  Recommended for treatment by a friend and former classmate, Kevin Sturgis, over at Grady Hospital, she’d gone through a series of problems related to family loss.  Orphaned twice in her life, the young woman rejected contact at every turn.  When Allison came to the offices Max shared with Rachel, he’d had his doubts and asked her to sit in on the session. 

Rachel and Allison liked each other immediately.  Maybe it was the shoes. 

On her first visit, Allison walked in and refused a seat.  Mahogany skin drawn tight across a high brow and slanting cheekbones made the savage glare in her dark eyes all the more prominent.  Slouched with her back against the wall, she wore her sagging jeans and shirt like a badge of honor.  Hands balled into tight fists, the five-foot tall teenager pushed out her plump, moist lips and resisted all of Dr. Sterling’s charms.  He smiled and she fugued.  He spoke and she scowled.  They seemed a match made in Hell, until Rachel entered the room.      

Dressed in the shade of drop dead red that complimented and amplified the cupric glow of her skin, Rachel apologized for her tardiness and acted as if plastering one’s body against an office wall, behind the door was one of life’s most natural actions.  Sitting in one of the three casually placed chairs across from the wall of windows, she crossed her legs and waited. 

Sitting, so relaxed and aware, something in her posture caught Allison’s eye.  “Like your suit,” she muttered.

“Thanks,” Rachel smiled.  “I like your jeans.  Didn’t TLC wear those in…”  She stopped and let her brow furrow in thought.  “I know it wasn’t “Waterfalls”, because they wore the sarongs there.  Was it, “Crazy, Sexy, Cool”?”

Allison’s nod was a spare motion, but something moved behind the murk of her brown-eyed glance.  “I think it’s the color, you know?  With those shoes.”  She waited for Rachel’s nod.  “Who they by?”

“Christian Louboutin.”  Max looked from the woman to the girl and wondered what language they were speaking.

“Bet they cost a grip.”

“Girl…”  Rachel let the word draw itself long and low, her eyes telling so much more than one word should have ever been able to convey. 

“They bad,” Allison said, peeling herself from the wall.  Closer, she bent to inspect Rachel’s feet.  Planting her elbows on her knees, she squatted.  “Yeah.  They b-a-d.  Got a nice shape, natural but real curvy, kinda like a woman’s body.  That color, it’s like a woman, too.  Ripe.”  That said, she straightened and looked back at Max.  “We gon’ work here or not, doc?”

Feeling like a man from Mars, Max stepped into the session and two years later, he could honestly say Allison had done a lot of work and made progress.  She gave him the paintings shortly after being accepted into an Atlanta Art Institute program for gifted students.  “These are for you.  They’re a thank you,” she’d said shyly, smiling when he accepted them.

The paintings looked good on the walls. 

Tempted, Max reached and the empty coffee cup taunted him.  He looked at the door again, wishing for the coffee almost as much as he wanted to see the woman who had it.  Finding his chair, Max sat hard, draping his long leg over the arm.  His fingers found a pen and tapped it in unconscious rhythm against the green blotter on his desk. 

Pulling a yellow pad free of the stack on his desk, he looked at the blue-lined page, then shoved it away.  He leaned back in his chair, reaching for his thick, leather-bound dictionary.  It was a hardbound, low-tech version that he still used even after Rachel installed a program on his PC. Flipping pages he sought one word, just to be sure.   

“Okay, Mr. Webster, let’s see what you have to say.”  Flipping more pages Max sought one word, just to be sure.  “Love,” he read, “…a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person, especially when based on sexual attraction… a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection…  Uhm.  That’s Rachel.”

He moved his finger lower on the page.  "Lover, a person who is in love with another.”  He closed the book.  “Damn, that’s me.”

Max thought about Shani, pulling her image close in his mind, and all he could see was the swing of her long hair, the twist and flex of her dancer’s slim, graceful body.  Well, he amended, that and the full and lushly swollen breasts she swore she’d grown on her own.  Max used his thumb to ruffle the corner of his abandoned legal pad, knowing she had no intention of her ever abandoning his life.  This was one of those days when he looked at her and wanted to run away screaming. 

At moments like that, Rachel Solomon was the bravest person he’d ever known.  She had principles and values that she refused to abandon.  She knew how to take a stand and at least had the good sense to cut her losses when she found herself involved with the wrong man and move on – even if it took her four tries to get it right. 

How she managed to wind up with Darius Garrick, he’d never understand.  Garrick was absolutely the wrong man for her.  That brother was the poster boy for the Peter Pan Syndrome and he never did figure it out – there was no way Rachel was going to take up permanent residence in Never Never Land. 

Too bad it took her so long to see that Darius was never going to give her the love and devotion her father gave her mother.  Deep down, that was what she wanted.  And for a while there, she talked a good game, almost convinced herself that she could accept being tacked on to a man’s life, but it wasn’t for her.  Rachel was never meant to be an accessory or an observer.  She needs someone solid in her life.

“And, I know that because I know all about how to fix everybody’s life but my own,” Max sighed, locking his fingers behind his head and leaning back into his chair.  “I’ve talked to her enough over the years to know better than to tell her stupid lies just to get what I want.”  From all she said over pizza, lunch, and popcorn in her den, Garrick didn’t seem to understand what a relationship was all about.  He didn’t seem to understand that the definition of sensitivity was not, “what I want is important.  What you want comes later, if I have time and if I remember”.

Not that Darius Garrick wasn’t regretting it these days and still trying to get back into her good graces.  He’d sent enough flowers to fill a couple of funeral homes and she’d refused every blossom – they’d arrived a bit late.  But, man, Garrick was one of those kind of guys who never learned that one more chance didn’t entail screwing up three or four more times, then making a pitiful excuse.  To make matters worse, he didn’t know anything about the woman he claimed to want in his life.

It didn’t take a lot to know that an honest and intelligent woman couldn’t be treated as anything less.

A gifted photographer, Garrick was big on life in the fast lane and had no business with a traditionalist like Rachel.  Not even if she was a bright, articulate, and cryptically beautiful traditionalist.  “I like my toys,” Garrick once declared, pompously pulling Rachel against his body and squeezing her tightly.  Nobody heard the words she’d whispered into Garrick’s ear, her throat moving with the effort, but he let her go and only his eyes followed as she made her way to the far end of the dining area.  That was last year at the Super Bowl party – the one Shani’s friends sponsored up in Buckhead at Café Sambuca. 

Garrick’s hands and attitude were possessive and Rachel was dignified and stiff in response – and Garrick never saw his error.  Max chuckled at the irony.  “Any man who intends to plan a life with Rachel Solomon had better step to the real and be a whole adult.”

“Rachel’s nothing like Shani.”  Offering her the keys to his house and a weekend trip to Nassau would never be enough.  She didn’t need his money or his title and was never impressed by it.  She had her own.  A woman like Rachel needed a future with someone who had a future to offer her.  The proper care and feeding of a relationship with a woman like Rachel didn’t include taking her to a party and treating her like an accessory or forgetting about her while hanging with his boys, then taking her home and expecting sex.

“Here I am standing in judgment of another man’s life while my own is in shambles,” Max muttered.  “I know as well as anybody that I can’t move forward until I’ve cleared the debris from where I stand.”  He reached across his desk for the telephone.  Pressing in the numbers, he concentrated on breathing while he waited for an answer. 

“Hello?” she finally answered, her voice breathy and sleep-hazed.

There were times when he could forget her.  Minutes, hours, and sometimes a whole day would go by, and Max would only realize it as he was finishing up the final notes on a case. 

“Good Morning, Shani.”  Max knew he had to be brief. 

“Good Morning, Lover.”  Recognizing his voice, Shani went into her usual song and dance, and Max tried not to let his mind wander. 

“Shani, this isn’t the best time for this, and we’ll talk more when I get home.  I’m coming home early and I think you need to have your things packed when I get there.  This is the end.”

“The end of what?”  Suddenly, she was wide-awake.

“Shani, we’ve talked about it before.  It’s time for you to move on, for both of us to get on with our separate lives.”

His ears rang from the way she slammed the phone down.

*   *   *

“Thought you were coming straight home,” Shani said from her place on the sofa. 

Firmly lodged in sex-kitten mode, Shani had dressed for the occasion.  Her green-eyed gaze, courtesy of contacts from Lens Crafters, was coy but firm and she’d taken the time for full makeup, paying special attention to golden hue of her peach-blushed skin.  

She looked pointedly at the watch she wore.  Her eyes narrowed and she shook back the long loose tumble of her hair, blowing at her bangs and making them flutter above her heavily lashed eyes.  “I thought you had something very important to discuss with me.”

The briefcase thumped softly when he set it on the table near the door.  Letting his jacket slide down his arms to his hands, he dropped it on top of the briefcase and walked across the floor to the sofa.  Defensive, Shani pulled her knees higher, setting her chin on them.    

“What are we going to talk about, Max?  How you want to throw me out?  You can’t just end things like this.  You can’t.”

“I’m not, and I didn’t just end things.  I’ve tried to talk to you about separating and moving on for a month.  Every time I bring it up, you refuse to talk about it.  Shani, I’ve offered to help you with the move.  Like I said before, I’m not trying to make this any harder than it has to be. I’m willing to pay the broker fees, the first and last month’s rent – whatever it takes, but you need a place of your own.”

“That’s stupid, Max.”  Barefoot, she stood, leaning just enough to emphasize her abundant curves in the pink pajamas she’d chosen for the occasion.  She shook back the fall of hair and directed her gaze to the ceiling.  Her eyes blinked rapidly.  “That’s ridiculous.”

Max watched her rake her fingers through the savage fall of near waist length hair, an obvious demonstration of her frustration.  The motion was showy and a deliberate lifting and thrusting of her ample breasts at him, a visual reminder to him of what he was endangering. 

Watching Shani fling her wanton hair again as she wrapped her arms around her bare midriff, he shook his head and said nothing knowing the effort would prove futile.  One of her slender shoulders peeked forth as the pink top slid low against the tawny flush of her skin. 

Watching attitude steaming from her in waves, Max compared Shani to Rachel, and Shani was rapidly coming up short.  His eyes followed the track of skin from cheek to the bared inches beneath her shoulder and he wondered how he’d ever found her welcoming.  Totally oblivious, Shani lifted her eyes to Max’s face and her expression softened, tarnishing the tawny gold of her complexion in his eyes.

He shivered as he walked past her into his bedroom.  How did I ever let her into my home?  Why the hell did I ever let her into my bed?

The large airy room, touched with the wood and earth tones of the Southwest was part of the way Shani had worked her way into his life.  The colors, the furniture, and everything else, right down to the paint on the walls were her doing.  Standing beside the leather-topped side table she’d placed in front of the windows, Max traced a finger along the rim of a heavy, butter colored, blue-scribed clay jug.  The edge was rough, scraping his finger almost the way Shani was scraping his soul.

It’s my own fault, he admitted sadly.  I opened the door and let her in.  Pressing his hands against the solid wood of the tall armoire across from his king-sized bed, Maxwell Sterling tried to remember the reasons he’d allowed Shani Morrison to occupy a space in his life.

Vivacious and sparkling at first glance, her good taste broke down to price tag awareness – if it cost enough, it had to be good.  Sad to say, Max allowed, that was pretty much Shani’s strongest reason for being attracted to him.  I’m the best man she can afford.

Max tried to ignore the unwelcome vein he felt pulsing at his temple.  Tensing, consciously taking charge and moving his thoughts away from the heat of anger, Max was grateful when the pulsing eased.  He was right, he knew it as well as he knew his own name.  Vanity aside, he really was the best man she could afford. 

Shani, with her pretty face and tightly curved body, knew that while she was a hot commodity in a buyer’s market, she wasn’t the only one out there.  As she aged, her cachet would change, and she had to make the best deal she could while she still had something to trade. 

With me, she’d get a doctor and I would get sexual compliance.  Tit for tat, so to speak.  From the start, this wasn’t going to last forever and I thought we both knew it.  I can’t do forever with a woman who cares more for things than for people.  Eventually, she’d grow tired of me being, ‘the doctor’ – that or one with more money and prestige would come along and she would be ready to move on.

Max passed a hand over the shading of beard on his face.  “I’m doing the right thing for all the right reasons.  It has to end.”

“Why?” Shani sniffed.  Clutching her long sleeve in her fingers, she touched the fine bones of her wrist to her lips.  Barefooted, her features limned in mild light, she looked demure and kittenish, smaller than her five feet and six inches.  Completely vulnerable in her pink velour pajamas, her green eyes filled with water.  “Why does it have to end, Max?  Why can’t we just be here together, like before?  Why can’t we have something perfect?  Just the two of us?”

“There is no, two of us.  Even when we tried being together, it was never perfect.”  His eyes closed tiredly.  “Shani, we’ve been through this – over and over.  We’re two different people on two different paths.  I don’t want to party and hangout like you.  My life has another direction.  We don’t work and this game of play-house has to end.”

“You could at least look at me, or am I so repulsive to you?”

Her voice was closer and when he opened his eyes, she was at his shoulder.  Max dropped his hands to his sides and stepped back from her and the armoire, unconsciously giving ground.  “How you look has nothing to do with it.  It’s over, Shani.”

Taking a step closer, Shani’s tears disappeared, replaced by a hot and burning rage.  “How I look has nothing to do with it?  That’s not what you said the last time we were together.  As a matter of fact, that night you were calling my name like I was the Messiah of your new religion.  Now, you want me to leave?  No, I don’t think so.  I’ve made a commitment to this relationship and I’m standing by it, even if you don’t.”

“It’s not as if we have real a relationship, Shani.  At least we don’t have one that I want to handle.” 

“Now you’re telling me you can’t handle a relationship?  No.  No, no, no!  What’s going to replace me in your life Max?  A five-finger exercise, or are you gay now?”

Max felt his jaw work.  “My sexuality has nothing to do with this issue, Shani.  I’ve had it and I’m not going to live like this any longer.”

“Nothing about you is the way it’s supposed to be.  Just like your job,” Shani screamed, deliberately ignoring his words.  “Oh sure, you make good money and lots of it, but nobody else I know spends their days pawing through the garbage in some bad-assed kid’s head.  Nobody else, just you!  All my friends look at me and wonder how I put up with you, and you know what?  Some days, so do I.”

“Shani, maybe you need to understand what I’m saying to you.”

“I’m not stupid, I understand what you’re saying, but you can’t send me away, Max.  This is my home.  I live here.”  She dropped her eyes and her soft-looking lower lip pooched forward. 

 “See, that’s where you’re wrong.  Shani, I invited you to dinner.  Dinner and a concert, two months ago – that was all.  It was a date, not an invitation to move in.  You stayed overnight, we had great sex.  I went to the gym the next day and when I got back, you’d made a copy of my keys and brought in a load of your belongings.”

“It wasn’t like that,” she murmured, balling a fist against her cheek and looking up at him with trusting eyes.

“Aw, come on, Shani, it was exactly like that, but it’s time for you to go, now.  I don’t love you.  Quiet as it’s kept, I know you don’t love me and the longer you stay, the worse it gets.  Right now, I see you as some kind of psychic vampire.  It’s like you came into my life and drew off everything you needed to create the life you wanted for yourself.”

“Oh, so now I’m some kind of a parasite?  All I do is take?  Is that what you’re saying?”  The anger was back.  “Judging from the fact that I’m still here, I think I gave as good as I got!”

“That would make you a symbiot.”

Her mouth dropped.  “You just called me a simple what?”

“Not simple, symbiot,” Max said tiredly.  “A symbiotic relationship is when two totally dissimilar organisms, like you and I live together.”

“Oh.”  Shani filed the term away for future reference.

“I still want you gone.”  Raising his hands, Max shook his head.  “Shani, it’s not that your sexual prowess hasn’t been appreciated.  The Lord knows, it bought you two solid months of security, but all good things do come to an end.  You’ve got until the end of next month and I’m not going to argue it any further.”

“The end of next month,” she parroted, dumbfounded.  “You mean,” she raised a hand and began ticking off fingers.  “Six weeks from now?”

“Six weeks can be a long time, if you use them right, and I’m sure you’ll find a place of your own, something nice.”

“Something nice?  I got something nice, I just want to keep it,” she muttered, as Max walked around her and out of the room.

Standing in the hall, thumbs hooked into the belt loops of his jeans, Max realized he had no destination.  All he really wanted was to be away from Shani.  “This is a shame,” he said.

“It really is,” Shani said quietly enough to make Max feel bad about what he’d said to her.

Turning, he looked down at her.  Barefooted and contrite, she seemed smaller and more exposed than usual.  Feeling guilty, he placed his hands on her shoulders and moved them slowly along her arms as though his touch was apology for all that had passed between them.  “Shani, I don’t love you and I want you to understand that.  I really do care about you and I want us to remain friends, but the truth is, neither of us was ever in love.”

“One of us wants to be,” she murmured, leaning into his shoulder.  When he wrapped his arms around her and stood holding her, she nodded into his shirt.  Her small hands, warm and neat, moved across the front of his denim shirt, tracing the topstitched pockets and touching metal buttons, then moving lower. “I love being with you, it feels more right than anything else in my life.  I need to love you, that’s all.”

Shani’s clever hands moved across the front of his jeans, finding his crotch and making her smile. 

“Shani, I’ve already told you, things have got to change.  I’m in love with someone else.”

“I see,” she said, her hand massaging deeply.  “You’ll say almost anything to get what you want, won’t you?” 

They stood there together, swaying slightly, not saying anything.  Shani’s hand grooved along the hardness she was intent on building.  Max closed his eyes and tried to control his breathing.  Shani might have a lot of problems, but as far as he knew, sex wasn’t one of them.

“This isn’t right.”

“We can make it right,” she whispered.  Standing on her toes, her tongue found the space his dimple sometimes occupied.  “Max.  Maxey.  You know me, baby.  You know I have dirty words and dirty thoughts, and sometimes a little temper, but I’m just what you need.”

When she slowly turned him toward his bedroom, Max’s thoughts screamed alarm, and a low thrumming ached in his loins.  Her touch ignited something deeply primitive between them and Max was harder than the great Stone Mountain in Georgia.

Her voice was a wish.  Whispering his name and more, Shani made promises of all that she held for Max and all that she would give him.  Pulling at his shirt and pressing kisses into his flesh, Shani pushed close to him, her tight thigh crawling against his pants leg.  The brush of her hair where it touched his arm beneath the roll of his cuff made his skin tingle, the softness so much like Rachel’s.  Moving lower, determined to undress him with special care, her skin smelling of Perry Ellis’ 360o, Shani again reminded him of Rachel – she wore the same fragrance.

“We should talk,” Shani insisted, tugging at his belt.

“Shani,” Max tried to think beyond the hunger and smell of her available femininity, “This is not right.”

“We can make this right.  I promise.”  Lips swollen with engagement and moving in hunger, Shani shook back her hair and stood, pulling away the pink velour top of her pajamas, revealing the silken pour of her naked skin.  She leaned forward, brushing her ample breasts over his chest.  Her nipples, rushed and gnarled with anticipation, seemed to reach for him and she moaned at his touch.   

Teetering on the greased slope of good intentions, Max closed his eyes and knew he should push her away.  This was no time to lay back for the ride.  A clean break, that was his intention.  Calling her name, he was shocked by the sharp lash of Shani’s hand across his face.

“You son of a bitch!” she screamed, her green eyes lethal.  “You stinking son of a bitch!  How long?  This didn’t just happen, how long?”

 “How long, what?”

Snagging her top from the floor, Shani pressed it to her bare breasts.  “No wonder you want your house back all of a sudden.  No wonder I’m not enough for you all of a damn sudden.  How long have you been in love with her?”

Blinking, Max tried to understand.  “Her, who?”

“Don’t you play me for a fool!  Don’t you dare play innocent.” 

“Play?  What did I do?”

Covering herself with one hand and arm, Shani slapped at Max with the other, catching Max’s elbow. “You called me by her name!”

“Ow!  What name?”

“If you were going to take a lover, you could have at least told me.”

“A lover?”  Knowledge dawned and he let the name slip past his lips at the same moment it crossed Shani’s.

“Rachel Solomon.”

                                  Back to The Fitwryter?

Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.