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Today is the worst day of my life.

Bianca Coltrane stood ankle-deep in tossed and torn denim, muddied and ruined silk, and shredded lace and leather. Police officers watched her with suspicious eyes, while her staff stared at the mess around them. She stabbed numbers into her cellphone for what felt like the tenth time, refusing to cry when the call went straight to voicemail.

It’s not supposed to be like this! I had to beg, borrow, and damned near steal to get this far, and people just came and kicked in my doors and snatched whatever they wanted.

According to the police, the thieves had done more than just kick in the doors and snatch things. Cases of merchandise that she was still in debt for had been ripped open and strewn about. Her computer, the case broken, the hard drive smashed, lay under three inches of steadily leaking water. The intruders had cut the phone lines and disabled the security system before pulling the security gates from their moorings. Then they kicked in the rear doors. Not that the details mattered; the damage was done, and Bianca’s throat was scratchy with unshed tears.

Damned snatch-and-grab thieves took the best of my merchandise and then made sure the rest was unsellable. Vive la Reine means “Long Live the Queen,” and it’s supposed to be a dream, not a nightmare.

It’s not supposed to be like this!

She couldn’t stop the thought, even as she turned her back on Jenni, the Spelman College coed who had opened the boutique this morning. Sobbing dramatically, with one hand flung across her damply flushed face and the other clutching the sleeve of a handsome Atlanta police officer, Jenni appeared to be taking the loss personally.

Ignoring the young woman, who had once confessed that her goal in attending Spelman was to find the right husband, Bianca pushed her booted foot through a pile of True Religion jeans that would never be the same.  Estimating the cost, more than she wanted to imagine, she wondered if maybe Jenni’s idea wasn’t smarter than it sounded.

Bianca squeezed her eyes shut and punched redial, and the call went straight to voicemail—again. Why can’t he be here for me? Just this once?

Almost from the beginning, Bianca had known Kelvin Michael Payne was never going to be Mr. Right.  He was never going to be anything more or better than Mr. Right Now. She’d known who and what he was for six months. Eating a bigger slice of reality than she had a taste for right then, she let her thoughts drift back to the previous November and the fashion show fundraiser sponsored by MYT Ltd. and Project ABLE.

Just had to get myself in there . . . Knowing the highpowered sports figures represented by Marissa Yarborough Traylor through MYT Ltd., and the moneyed supporters of Project ABLE, she had gone to the event trolling for sponsors for her new line of street wear.

Watching the show with envy and hope warring in her heart, Bianca had scattered her business cards liberally among the glittering attendees. Pleased when her name was occasionally recognized, she’d worked the moneyed crowd like a day job and only halted her single minded self-promotion when she spotted AJ Yarborough’s broad shoulders. Handsome in his tux, he held his wife’s hand and looked blissful when she’d smiled up at him.

That night Marlea Kellogg had looked like a woman in love as she accepted congratulations for her work with Project ABLE. Her dress, a long, silver column of midnight blue, flowed seductively over the curves of her breasts and hips, slicing high to flash a delicious, well-toned length of leg. When she turned, the gown’s hem shifted and Bianca couldn’t help looking at her feet.

Stilettos, she had noted with a barb of shame. Not sandals, the keen-toed black evening shoes were beautifully made and appropriate to the gown Marlea wore.  After her accident, who would have thought that she would ever be able to wear a shoe like that? Then Bianca remembered that after losing her toes, the woman had run world-record-setting races.

From the moment AJ met her, he was lost to me forever.

Smiling and looking red-carpet ready, AJ and Marlea shook hands with the mayor and posed for pictures.  Bianca had lifted a glass of champagne from a passing tray and brought it to her lips. Watching the couple over the rim of the glass, she’d swallowed a cool draught of envy and remorse. Dateless, Bianca Coltrane had never felt so alone in her entire life. When they walked toward her, looking so much like lovers, she’d had a moment of panic.

Not wanting to face them, she’d slipped around a corner only to come face to face with his sister, Rissa, standing next to her husband, Dench Traylor. Faithful as a sheepdog, Dench was in no way a man Bianca wanted to have to confront—even in friendly circumstances.

                And yet, there I was.

Bianca had swallowed the last of her champagne and exchanged the empty glass for another as a waiter passed.  She took a gulp from the new glass and smiled when Rissa’s eyes stayed on her, the corners of her mouth tight.  Take control, she’d told herself.

“Surprised to see you here,” Dench said, sliding a protective arm around his wife’s waist.

“And I’m surprised to be here,” Bianca had returned, instantly thinking, Okay, that was dumb; calm down, say something nice, and leave. “I mean, I’m surprised that you chose a fashion show as a fundraiser, but it turned out beautifully.” She had taken Rissa’s fingers and squeezed lightly. “I know you’ll raise a lot of money.  Congratulations.”

Thinking back, Bianca congratulated herself on her escape.  It felt a little surreal now, standing in the middle of her ruined business, remembering how she had slipped from the main room into a smaller one. Eyes wandering, she had caught the eyes of a man across the room. His eyes, almond-shaped and dreamy, had lasered in on hers, leaving her shaken. Tall and solidly built, there was something welcoming about the tilt of his lips and the warmth of his heavy-lidded eyes. Exotic in a way she couldn’t readily define, she had been intrigued by the threat of his slow smile.

When a second man walked up with an attractive woman on his arm, the man broke eye contact but Bianca found she couldn’t stop staring. Feeling as though she had been dropped head first into some kind of fairytale, she wondered why her feet wouldn’t move. 

Aware that her parted lips were dry, she’d watched AJ and Dench join the trio. Apparently, AJ knew the gorgeous man. Her eyes measured the men as they stood side by side, wondering if he had ever played football.  Surely, she would have remembered him if he had, and yet . . .

His eyes rose, returning to hers, and he’d raised a dark brow in question. Suddenly embarrassed, Bianca had turned away and stumbled drink-first into the Armani suit of a man who steadied her, kept her from falling over her own feet. She would never know whether to call that first encounter karma or kismet; either way, it brought KPayne into her life.

But that night . . . was it really only six months ago?  That night, Kelvin Michael Payne had been the right man, at the right time. Slick and self-assured, he’d taken her hand, slipped it under his arm, and led her to one of the round tables set up in the marble and glass atrium.

Then he’d talked, whispered mostly, staring deep into her eyes and closing her hands in his. His every word had been a promise, a promise that she was the woman of his dreams and that her every dream was his pleasure. He promised her everything except himself.

At first he was more than willing to indulge all her costly fantasies. It was his money—or at least the loan of it—that had helped Bianca to make Vive la Reine a reality, but the money didn’t come without strings. He’d made her sign a loan agreement, offering an amount she could not get anywhere else, and she’d only half-read the documents, thinking that she had a future with him. And now he was ignoring the damned phone.

Thinking back to their first date, Bianca remembered soft strings playing in the background when he’d offered her that first flute of champagne. She remembered the reflection of starry light in his green eyes and the music in his voice when he’d smiled at her across the table and asked her how they should spend their life together.

She had believed every word that crossed his lips.  Maybe because he promised what she wanted to hear.  But she hadn’t made it easy for him.  She’d made him spend time and money to woo her and convince her of his sincerity. She’d made him spend time at the High Museum and the Alliance Theater, and he even had to sit in the congregation a Sunday or two at Ebenezer Baptist. She’d let him take her to dinner at Justin’s and Nikolai’s Roof, and held his hand on carriage rides along Peachtree Street. Maybe she should have stopped there, because that was when his skilled seduction hit her full force. With the romantic sound of violins and the exotic scent of enticing food and expensive candles in the air, he’d made a proposal over a $1,400 bottle of Bordeaux—Château d’Yquem.

His voice had been soft and his emerald eyes admiring as they caressed her bare shoulders. His whispered invitation had touched the romance threaded through her heart and lured her into going home with him. Her things were moved into the Peachtree Street condo by Monday afternoon, and life felt good.

That was six months ago, and the novelty had worn off.

Now, here they were in the middle of April, and he was treating her like an accessory, dragging her to rap shows and clubs.

“Ms. Coltrane? I’m going to need you for a moment,” the policewoman said.

“Why? I’ve answered all of your questions, haven’t I?  I let you fingerprint me and all of the staff, didn’t I?  You’ve stepped all over everything that was left and left that nasty black powder on everything else. You can’t tell me who did this, or help me get my stock and cash back, can you?”  Hurt, Bianca clutched her cellphone, gritted her teeth, and noted the officer’s name tag—G. Ruiz.  “What else can you possibly need me for?”

“We have a few more questions.” Neat in her APD uniform, her shining black hair twisted into a knot at the nape of her neck, Ruiz was all business until she smiled.  Curving lips and bright white teeth warmed her dusky complexion, inviting confidence. “Let’s sit, shall we?”

Not fooled by Officer Ruiz’s just-us-girls approach, Bianca followed her across the room and sat in the chair she was offered. Ruiz took the chair facing her. Legs crossed and her thumb tracing her cellphone, Bianca swallowed hard. “You think I did this, don’t you? I can’t believe that with all the recent robberies at Buckhead-area boutiques like mine, you’re treating me like a suspect.”

“Believe it.” A stocky blue-suited man with a wrestler’s build, drill sergeant’s graying buzz-cut hair, and hard cop’s eyes dropped into the third chair. “Keyes,” he said, handing her a business card.

Bianca accepted the card. Looking into the flinty hardness of the detective’s eyes, she was tempted to let a few tears fall, just to soften him up a bit. AJ had once told her that she was one of the few women he knew of who could cry prettily. AJ was also the man who said that she’d picked his pocket, drop-kicked his heart, and left him trying to pick his face up off the floor. Bianca’s thick lashes fluttered low.

“None of this looks random,” Keyes muttered, looking away.

A bright tear shimmered at the corner of her eye. “Why would I do this to myself, Detective Keyes?”

Ordinarily, Keyes was a man easily swayed by a pretty face, especially if the long-legged lady behind the face had a body like this one, but he grunted and sat up straighter. This pretty face was getting no benefit of the doubt. She was too pretty—the kind of pretty that rarely, if ever, had to work for anything. “For the insurance money.”

“Excuse me?” The tear fell. Bianca blinked hard and fast. “That’s crazy. I put more into this place, had to borrow more, than these people stole. They kicked in the walls, for Christ’s sake! I’m responsible for that? Do I look like I can kick in walls? The insurance doesn’t even cover my losses, let alone the property damage. And what would I do with that much clothing?  Why would anyone think I did this?”

“People have done more for less.” Keyes looked at her, refusing to belabor the obvious.

Ruiz slid to the edge of her chair, propped her elbows on her thighs, and let her voice go soft. “Ms. Coltrane, the evidence we found here in your boutique is real. The evidence simply is what it is and it’s our job to follow up on it, to collect and document, you can understand that.  We found broken glass on the outside of the boutique; it was broken from inside. The door was opened with a key, though there are no clear fingerprints, not even partials.  The security company verifies that the alarm was disarmed with your personal code, and the broken security gates were found unlocked.”

Shaking her head, Bianca’s hands stilled. “That can’t be right.”

The corner of Keyes’ mouth ticked. “Your salesgirl, uh, associate, says that the recovered register receipts show that you had way too much money on hand, and now it’s gone. She says there should have been less cash on hand for thieves to walk off with. She said that you should have made a trip to the bank to drop the cash off, but you didn’t. Why not?”

“It was late when we finished last night. We had a group looking for clothes for a photo shoot. It was after eight when they finished, and we were rushing. I never thought . . .”  Looking from Ruiz to Keyes and back, Bianca thought about tears and heaved a sigh instead.

Keyes’s voice was low and a little dangerous, even as he tried not to notice the lift of Bianca’s generously sculpted bosom. “Your safe was obviously opened with the combination. On top of that, only high-end stuff, the most costly items in your inventory, were taken.”

“Two-hundred-dollar jeans are pretty high-end, and they were trashed and left behind,” Bianca snapped, then wished she hadn’t.

“But it was the ones that you had tagged at over five hundred a pair that walked out the door,” Keyes said, standing.

“My inventory records . . .”

“Are all conveniently wet and fading or locked in the damaged computer.” Keyes kicked at the wet floor.

“We’ll be in touch.” Ruiz stood, too. Handing over her card, she offered a small smile. “Give me a couple of days, and I’ll have the report ready for you.”

“Sure.” Feeling like a fool, Bianca followed the pair to the back door. Watching them drive off, she knew the shop wasn’t going to be seeing any customers in the near future.

Then the lights went out.

Not sure of which direction to take, Bianca finally decided against the fuse box. Stepping carefully, trying not to slip or trip on soggy clothing and papers, Bianca made her way to the back door and out of Vive la Reine.  Somehow, to her amazement, the late-morning sun still managed to shine and the rest of the world looked normal. Or, at least as normal as one might expect, given that she was running after a man in a hard hat.

“What’s going on?” she demanded when she finally caught him.

“You’ve got water running back here,” the Atlanta Gas Light rep said, pointing down at the growing stream they stood in. “Whoever cut your security and phone lines stood on the pipes and broke them.  Water and electricity are not a good combination. You’re disconnected until you can get this fixed. Better call the water department, too.”

“Why are you even here? I mean, who called you?  How did you even know to be here?”

The man pointed back toward his truck. “Dispatch called me. Guess one of your neighbors saw the water, noticed the pipe, called it in,” he said with a grin. “You’ve got good neighbors.”

“Lucky me.”

                 Bianca watched the man fit the meter back together before walking away. She was still watching when he climbed into his truck and drove off. It’s not supposed to be like this! Remembering her cellphone, she flipped it open and hit redial. Voicemail.

                Fifty new variations of the curses she’d already come up with ran through her mind as she stomped back into Vive la Reine. Now she was going to have to find her purse and keys in the dark. The AGL guy was right.  Water was running; she could hear it. The heavy sigh behind her made her turn. It was Jenni, leaning on her broom.

 “Go home, Jenni. There’s not much else you can do here.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m going to see if I can find a service to board the place up. I’ll call you when things change.”

“Do they really have that kind of service?”


“Board-up services. Are there really such things?”

“Yes, Jenni. I’ll find one. Don’t worry. Just go.”

The young woman propped the broom against the wall. “Okay, but if you need me . . .”

“Just go. I’ll lock up and be right behind you.” Bianca closed the phone and dropped it into her jacket pocket.

Anger grew into a migraine headache, but Bianca refused to give in to the pain, promising herself that this hellish day would get better when she reached KPayne.

               But the promise was as hollow as her belief that when they married, they would finally get to what she had hoped for from the beginning. And what was that, she couldn’t help musing. A little happily ever after? A family? Someone to grow old with?

Someone like AJ Yarborough?

AJ was living proof that fate was more than a rumor. When he met the right woman, fate had clicked his life into a secure place that would never again include her. Still known as “the nicest man in the NFL,” he was retired from the game, married for nearly ten years and looked more in love every time she saw him. 

But KPayne wasn’t AJ Yarborough, and, no matter how much he pretended, he certainly wasn’t Jay-Z, either.  He was a smooth and easy pretender to a cool thug’s life.  If it wasn’t for his family’s money, he would never have had the cars and clothes, the amazing Buckhead condo, or his own music label, but he had it like that.

In the half-light, Bianca stopped in front of a broken full-length mirror and studied herself.  Hair, the color lightened and sweetened to honeyed gold, swept her shoulders. Wide hazel eyes fringed with dark, sooty lashes gave nothing away as she gazed at her own face; she’d always liked the echoes of her mother that she saw in herself. From the brightness of her cinnamon skin to the elegant lift of her cheekbones, Bianca was more than pretty, but the realist in Bianca’s soul knew that beauty had its limits and she couldn’t trade on it forever.  Looking into her own eyes, she knew it was time to make a turnaround.

Reaching she let her fingers trace her features on the cool, grimy glass. I want a man who answers the phone. I want to feel connected to someone I care about.  I want to come home to a man who cares—for a change. I want to know that I count in someone else’s life. I don’t want to be a joke, decked out for some man’s amusement—not any more.

Being five years older than the man she’d paired herself with had her questioning the age difference and yearning for maturity. But KPayne was either too much of a kid or just too flat-out selfish to understand.  Stepping away from the mirror, Bianca found Jenni’s broom and moved it around a pile of wet blouses and her mind flipped back to KPayne and his crew.  Kids, every one of them. Why do I expect anything more of them?

They were loud and flashy, flaunting youth like good jewelry, playing at being big-money thugs, and that tall, dark guy, Alin, he was the worst of them all. Sneaky, with hungry eyes and a leering grin, he had an endless supply of embarrassing questions, and the more he snickered and hinted, the worse the others got. Convinced that things would get better, Bianca held on to KPayne, trying not to hear the insult in the questions: Was it true that older women were good in bed? Was she too old to get pregnant? Did she have any gray hair? Where? What was she willing to do to hold on to a hot younger man?  Instead of coming to her defense or supporting her, KPayne thought it was all a joke, leaving her questioning her own self-worth.

Her booted feet squished through another mass of soggy clothing. Too bad. These boots were barely made for walking, much less slopping through water. Maybe the people who could board up the building could also turn off the water. She parked the broom and tried to remember where she’d left the phone book. Failing, she gave up.

“Nothing else I can do in the dark; I’ll call from home,” she decided. Anything that couldn’t wait had already been destroyed. A final look around Vive la Reine was completely depressing. She found her purse and dug out her car keys.

She almost laughed when she found herself, from force of habit, trying to lock the broken door and set the vandalized alarm.

“I’ve done all I can for now,” she said, walking to her car. The sound of the Jaguar’s purring engine was comforting; at least something was working right. She pulled out of her parking space and headed for the Peachtree Street condo she shared with KPayne. Gripping the steering wheel, focused on the traffic around her, she couldn’t stop thinking about arguing with KPayne the night before. It was silly, a little childish, but . . . Bianca wrenched the steering wheel to avoid hitting the Toyota in front of her, and had to pull her foot off the accelerator. Breathing hard, she intentionally steered her thoughts onto a different track, but they came right back to KPayne.

Biting her lip, she promised herself yet again that she was not going to introduce the words ‘biological clock’ into any conversation with him. Let it tick as loudly as it could, she would not be the one to ever bring it up. And his disrespect, there was no excuse for it, and that was what had started the fight.

Bianca waited until they were in his tricked-out truck, headed to another club. “I’m tired of the disrespect,” she’d finally said. He’d told her to get over it.  Pressing, she’d wanted to know why she should get over it; after all, wasn’t she doing everything a wife was expected to do? Shouldn’t she at least have the respect that a girlfriend was accorded?

“Don’t I pay your bills? Keep you looking good?” he’d asked, laughing. “Didn’t I loan you the money to play boss lady? That would be enough for almost any other chick, why not you?” Not waiting for her answer, he rumbled on. “Maybe because you don’t know which end is up? Tell you what, just ‘cause I don’t want to trip over this, I’m going to plan a weekend in Nassau for us, and don’t worry about packing any clothes. How about that?”

“Fine,” she’d snapped.

For the rest of the evening, KPayne took his joy where he found it, enjoying drinks, music and laughter, ignoring her petulant silence all the while—casually, but effectively, demonstrating just how much of an accessory Bianca was.

The worst thing about the evening was the endless parade of women who seemed to gravitate to him.  Clinging to his hands, stroking his ego, hanging on his every word, they pushed her away with their eyes. With very little effort, he incited their interest, reveling in their attentions. Watching him, it occurred to Bianca that he was auditioning her replacement. Stopped in traffic, she choked on the thought. What would she be left with when he was ready to replace her?

When he finds that perfect woman, he’ll have that perfect, socially acceptable life, and I’ll be out on my ass, she realized. After that, if it’s left up to him, I’ll have a pocketful of tears and a few raggedy memories.

Last night, at evening’s end, not drunk, but definitely fueled by liquid courage, KPayne had grown tired of hearing Bianca talk when he slid low in his seat and let his eyes rove over her. Stopped at a traffic light, he’d decided to make a few points of his own. “How hard would it be to replace you? I can get another one of you like that.” His hard finger snap had made her jump.

“There’s nothing about you that can’t be replaced, Bianca. What I do with you, I can buy on any street corner. You’re not that special.”

 “If I’m not that special, what in the world am I doing with you?”

Her time with him was pretty much over—and she had next to nothing to show for it. Sitting beside him in his truck, she had grown quiet, assessing her situation, rethinking her reasons for investing herself in a life with him. For his part, realizing that he would be sleeping alone, KPayne had tried to apologize as they left the truck and entered his condo. All that did was piss her off.

Swerving around a green convertible, Bianca couldn’t help feeling betrayed by a God who would allow her store to be robbed and trashed and hook her up with a man who didn’t give a damn.

Okay, so God didn’t hook me up with KPayne, she had to admit. I did that to myself. But who does he think he is, anyway? Fuming, she slowed and changed lanes to make the turn for her building.

Oddly, a mountain of “stuff ” was piled high in front of the condo. Someone’s personal belongings had been tossed out—and some of the “stuff ” looked familiar.  Vuitton luggage, some pieces bulging wide, was piled high on the brick walk fronting the building. Gowns were balled and stuffed into garbage bags, along with jeans and boots. Three framed paintings, lush oil portraits, lay sadly on their sides. Willie Miles, the staring doorman, shoved his hands deep into his uniform pockets when she came to a stop in the curving driveway.

Moving closer, Miles looked at her with some pity.  “That stuff over there? That would be yours. Policy is, you’ve got two hours to move it, or the management will trash it.”

 “Trash? My stuff?” That doesn’t happen—not to me!

Miles stepped back when she shoved the door open and stumbled from the vehicle. “Oh, we’ll see about this.”

Bianca pulled out her cellphone, pressed buttons, and jammed it to her ear. Straight to voicemail.  She tossed the phone to the car seat and headed for the pile of her belongings. “How did this happen?”

Willie shoved his uniform cap back on his head and made his face blank. “Sheriff ’s men set your stuff out.”

He might as well have been speaking in tongues. “I don’t understand how this could happen.” Her eyes went from the doorman to her possessions, and then she remembered the cardkey needed to enter the building.  Pulling it from her pocket, she waved a dismissive hand.

“I need to talk to Kelvin about this. Is he in there? He’ll handle this.”

“I’m afraid not, ma’am. You don’t live here anymore.  You’ve been dispossessed.”

Feeling wobbly, Bianca managed to understand the man’s words. She also heard the tall Nordic blonde, the one living with the neurologist on twenty, whisper the word “shame” as she brushed past the doorman, her cool blue eyes touching Bianca.

“He put me out?”

“See for yourself,” the doorman said, nodding and pointing.

Stunned, Bianca stepped across an overturned hatbox and reached for the yellow sheet taped to her Vuitton trunk. “Notice To Quit.  An eviction notice? He’s putting me out? What am I supposed to do?”

 “Whatever you do, you’ve got less than two hours to get it done,” Willie muttered. “Somebody is going to have to haul this mess from in front of my building.”

Fumbling her cellphone, she ignored the doorman and tried to call KPayne again. This time a woman answered.

“He said to deliver a message if you called,” the woman giggled. “Actually, he said when you called I should tell you your stuff is out on the curb and you should take anything you want before the trash gets picked up.”

“Just put him on the phone.”

“For what? You’re out, old girl. Your day is done.”

Screaming laughter ripped through the phone before Bianca could disconnect.





You’re out, old girl. Your day is done. Afraid for the first time in a long time, Bianca didn’t even feel the tears pooling in her eyes when Willie Miles came close.

Things like this are not supposed to happen to me.

“Look, uh, here’s a newspaper,” Willie said, his hand shaking slightly as he gave her the morning edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  “The concierge . . . thought you might need it. Maybe you could, like, check the classifieds.”

Bianca, her eyes soft and confused, looked up at him from the front seat of her car. Seeing her like this made the doorman nervous, made his voice shake a little.

“Maybe you can find a mover, someone to help you get your stuff somewhere.”

Bianca couldn’t meet his eyes, but she accepted the newspaper.

Sitting in the front seat of her car, she opened the paper looking for help. Fumbling numbers into her phone was embarrassing. Searching for her sneakers beneath the pile of clothes left on the street was mortifying.  Introducing herself to the movers, Mr. Harper and his nephews, and explaining why nearly everything she owned in the world was laying out on Peachtree Street was humbling. But helping three men dressed in jeans and worn flannel shirts move her stuff onto the bed of their rickety truck was degrading. And she’d never seen it coming.

The good Lord knew she should have seen it coming; his mother had certainly thrown enough hints. Mean, cranky old thing. Now why do I have to go thinking about her?

Just last week she had been getting dressed for an evening out when his mother called. With her high cheekbones, straight black hair, and surgically altered nose, Catherine Reynolds Payne was as affected and phony as they came, but at least she managed to fake pleasantries after she learned that her son was out and that she would have to leave the message with Bianca, or resort to voicemail. Catherine hated leaving messages, maybe because she was afraid that her comically high voice would be laughed at.

“Please tell dear Kelvin that he is invited to a family function; he always looks forward to these gatherings.  The family is getting together at The Four Seasons to celebrate a cousin’s birthday.”

Striving for politeness she didn’t feel, Bianca had tried to play nice. “How nice. Which cousin?”

“Parker Reynolds. Dear Parker has had such a run of bad luck lately, what with his legal issues and now his marriage. He’s always been a favorite, and now he’s in need of family support and comfort, so a party is the perfect thing.”

“That sounds like fun . . .”

“I’m sure it will be.” Catherine had paused, then didn’t bother softening her next words. “You did hear me say family, didn’t you? This is an occasion intended exclusively for family—you understand.”


Bianca understood that KPayne’s ex-con cousin, the one convicted of running into Marlea Kellogg Yarborough’s car and then performing surgery on her, was more acceptable in polite society than she was.

“There is no offense intended, but the event is social, and Bianca, dear, you have no real place in Kelvin’s life and no attachment to our family at all. It would be different if you were married, or at least affianced, but of course, you’re not.”

Maybe it was unfair, but right then, Bianca didn’t care. Clearly, KPayne had taken his cues for ending their relationship from his mother. The proof had been strewn along the curb for all the world to see.

Getting out of her car at the Public Storage facility she’d found in the classifieds took an act of will that she prayed she would never again have to duplicate. Trying to look like a woman in charge of herself, she crossed the asphalt and stepped into the dusty office. Her feelings were hurt and her confidence shaken, but at least she wasn’t likely to run into anybody she knew, and she would have a place to store her property until . . . until times got better.

The man behind the desk barely looked up as the door opened, but when he did, the look in his eyes—a look that said he’d seen it all before—almost turned her around.  Suck it up, Bianca ordered herself, approaching the counter. If you could do better right now, you would. Since you can’t, just do what you have to. “I’d like to rent a unit, please.”

Shoving forms toward her, the man barely moved his lips. “Got two sizes. Which you want?”

“The large one. Do they come with shelves?”

“No shelves.” The man’s leathery lips were stingy when they parted to utter those few words. Pulling the completed paperwork closer, he looked up, his eyes taking in his pretty customer’s clothes, shoes, and her designer handbag.  When his eyes went back to the papers on the desk, it was clear he’d decided that she probably deserved whatever she got. The look in his eyes made Bianca’s stomach turn—a sure sign that there was worse to come.

Worse didn’t waste much time making an appearance.

“How long do you think you’ll need the space?”

Bianca’s mouth opened and closed. “I don’t know.”  She heard Mr. Harper whisper something to one of his nephews—something she was certain she didn’t want to hear. “Is there a minimum time?”

The man tipped his head and looked at her. Mr. Harper nudged another nephew, and Bianca felt totally judged: pretty but stupid.

“You should think about month to month. You could always extend it if you need to.”

Why didn’t I think of that? Pressing her lips together, she nodded and tried not to hear the whispering men behind her. She pulled out her wallet and fingered through her cash. A couple hundred, she figured, most of which was owed to Mr. Harper. She pulled out one of KPayne’s credit cards and slid it across the counter. “I’ll take a month.”

The guy behind the Public Storage desk sliced the card through the machine, then looked up at her.  “Declined,” he said.

Avoiding his eyes, she snatched the card back and jammed it into her purse. There has to be a mistake. These cards always work. That’s why he gave them to me, to be sure I always had what I needed. The lump in her stomach hardened as she hit another wall of reality. KPayne couldn’t care less what I need.

Fumbling through her wallet, she found a VISA card, another one that KPayne’s accountants kept paid. She pushed it across the desk. “Try this one. Please.”

The man behind the desk seemed amused by her plight. He slipped the card through the reader and waited. “Declined,” he finally said.

Her stomach clenched and Bianca decided that she’d better hurry up and pay the movers in cash before someone called the cops. She pulled a handful of bills from her wallet and counted them out into two piles on the counter. Her breathing was shallow, and she felt faint when she handed the smaller stack to the Public Storage man and the larger one to Mr. Harper.

She pretended not to hear Mr. Harper whisper to his nephews, “Told you she had enough.”

“Just barely,” one of the nephews whispered back, pushing out of the small office.

“Maybe she shoulda hocked some of her jewelry on the way over here,” the other nephew said too loudly.

Bianca felt the Public Storage man laughing as she took her receipt and left the office. Six steps away from the office door, she stopped in the building’s shadow and dug deep in

her purse. Finding her wallet, she snatched the remaining bills free and counted. Three twenties, a ten, two fives, and four singles—eighty-four dollars. Maybe a little more if she added the change in the bottom of her handbag.

Her hand went deep, digging for stray coins, when the sound of a man’s laughter brought her head up sharply. The man from the Public Storage office had come from behind his desk and was enjoying a good laugh at her expense. I can’t just stand here and be laughed at. I need a place to lay my head for the night. Bianca turned stiffly and walked to her car. The man was still laughing as she climbed into the Jaguar and kicked off her tennis shoes. Barefooted, she turned her key in the ignition and rolled onto the street.

Now, what? Where am I going to go? It’s not as if I can just head downtown to the Ritz-Carlton. That would take a credit card, and I know mine don’t work. Damn it, I knew I shouldn’t have listened to him—I should have gotten at least one card of my own for an emergency. Like this.

Trying hard to order her thoughts, she decided that her next move should be finding an ATM machine and making a withdrawal. An ATM would have a limit on the amount of money she could withdraw within a day, but she would have some cash to work with. Glancing back

at the mound of clothing and shoes she had thrown into the Jaguar’s back seat, it took a lot of effort not to burst into tears.

A quick image of the mess she’d left at Vive la Reine flashed across her mind’s eye, but she had to focus— focus on the next thing to do. A place to stay, she decided, practically. She had to find a place to stay because sleeping in her car was simply not an option.

Playing the tips of her nails against her teeth, thinking hard, she waited for the traffic light to change.  A tanned man with startlingly blue eyes leaned across the seat of his car and waved at her. When she turned her face to him, his smile widened.

“It’s late for lunch and early for dinner, but I’ll eat anything you suggest,” he called as the light changed.

Bianca’s foot pressed the accelerator and her car sped across the intersection, leaving the man and his offer behind.

Ahead of her, the bank sign glowed like a beacon in the afternoon sun. Changing lanes, not even looking to see if her admirer had followed, Bianca swerved across traffic and drove into the bank’s parking lot. Aiming the Jag carefully, she made a tight turn that brought her close to the ATM machine. Holding her breath, she took out her ATM card and reached out the window to slip it into the machine. Feeling like a thief, she keyed her code into the machine and waited.

She began to wonder why it was taking so long when the blue screen flickered and flashed a message:  Insufficient funds.  “Oh, hell no. This can’t be right. How can that be?”

Fighting the urge to slam her fist into the face of the machine, she reached for the teller call button, then stopped short. “There should be plenty of money in this account. I’m only asking for four hundred dollars, just enough to get through the night.”

He couldn’t care less whether you get through the night or not . . .

“I have a right to get through the night.” Bianca sat higher in her seat and pressed the call button.

“Good afternoon. I’m Ms. Blackmon, how may I help you?”

Clearing her throat, Bianca shook back her hair and leaned close to the window, keeping her voice low.  “There seems to be a problem with my account. I can’t seem to use my ATM card and . . .”

“Ms. Coltrane? Is that correct?” The teller’s voice was cool and controlled. “I do see a problem, but I believe that it can be resolved. If you would please come into the office?”

Now what? The question marking the end of the teller’s invitation immediately troubled Bianca, but she pulled away from the ATM and steered the Jaguar into a parking slot. She pulled her still-damp red boots over the straight legs of her form-fitting jeans and zipped them. I

may be down, but I’ll be damned if I’ll look like it.

She ran quick fingers through her hair and checked her makeup in the rearview mirror. Sliding a finger along the neckline of her blouse, she slipped it lower, finding a more flattering line about her slender shoulders. Satisfied that she at least looked like someone who could afford to have business with the bank, she reached for her purse, slid out of the Jag, and sauntered across the parking lot.

This is all going to work out.

But as she passed through the heavy glass doors and into the bank’s lobby, Bianca was unsure as to whether the words were prayer or promise.

“Ms. Coltrane.” The tall, curvy woman with the oversized glasses walked closer and extended her hand. “I’m Erica Lane, accounts manager.”

Something was really wrong, and this authoritative woman knew what it was. “I spoke to Ms. Blackmon.”

“Yes, you did, but I’ll be handling this for you. Follow me, please.”

Lord, what am I walking into? All I wanted was a little money, just enough to last until . . .

Bianca followed Ms. Lane’s blue-suited back into a small glass-walled office. When she walked behind the desk, Bianca sat across from her without waiting for an invitation.

Erica Lane sat and turned a small file face-up on her desk. “Ms. Coltrane, do you mind if we talk, woman to woman?”

Bianca squirmed, crossing and recrossing her legs, adjusting her jacket, and shifting her purse. “Do I have a choice?”

“There is always a choice. Do you mind?”

“I guess not, not if it will help with my account and let me use my ATM card.”

“I can tell you now that you won’t be using your ATM card,” Ms. Lane said, folding her hands atop the slender file. “Technically, this is not your account. The ATM card cannot be used without the account owner’s permission.  That permission has been withdrawn.”

“Withdrawn? On top of everything else? Why?”

Shaking her head, Bianca stumbled to her feet and tried to breathe. Collecting her purse, she realized her hands were shaking. Desperate for exit, her body turned but her feet failed to follow and her ankle twisted slightly on the high heel of her boot nearly sending her to her knees. She grasped the corner of Ms. Lane’s desk, steadying herself.

“Look, calm down and have a seat.”Watching her sit, the account manager poured water from the pitcher on her desk and offered the glass to Bianca. “Ms. Coltrane, do you have an account of your own with our bank?”  Bianca shook her head miserably and returned the empty

glass to the desktop.

“Let me tell you a little story,” Erica Lane began. “I’ve been where you are, and I can probably tell you exactly how you got here. This,” she tapped the file lightly, “tells me exactly how you got here. And it didn’t happen overnight.”

“No, it didn’t happen overnight, but I don’t think I want to hear your story.” Lips tight, Bianca refused to cry.

“But it did happen, and now you’re here in my office.  Quiet as it’s kept, you share in the blame for it. Every woman needs her own credit history—even women whose men tell them they don’t need to worry.” Bianca started up again, but Erica raised a hand to stall her. “I

know it’s hard, Ms. Coltrane, but I hope you’ll accept this in the spirit in which it’s offered. I’m not trying to judge you. I already told you that I’ve been where you are, but the only one who can fix this mess is you.”

 “How? I can’t even qualify for a loan, now can I?”

“Not based on this.” Brow furrowed, Erica Lane suddenly looked less authoritative and more like an ordinary woman. Spreading her fingers, she brought them down on the desk with a solid thump. “Do you really want to let this be the best you can do for yourself?” When she spoke again, her voice was low, almost conspiratorial.  “Did you love him?”

Bianca’s eyes widened and her lips parted, but no words followed.

“Did he ever love you?” Bianca’s lips moved silently; heartsick, she couldn’t find her voice, but the banker wasn’t finished. “You can’t claim it, can you?”

“No, he never loved me.”

“But you let him do for you, and that’s how you came to be here in my office.” Erica was relentless but gentle.  “Do you really want to allow this Mr. Payne to control your life like this? He didn’t love you, and you know it.  Oh, maybe you were in love with the idea of him at one

time, but that’s just so much . . .” She brought her fingers together and blew on them, then opened them to release . . . nothing. “A man who would leave you like this, I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. I wouldn’t let him anywhere near my life. But that’s just me.”

Bianca huffed and tried to work up a feeling that didn’t begin or end with defeat. It didn’t work. “You’re right.”

“You bet your sweet ass, I am. You show up here asking why. Did you ask him?”

 “He wouldn’t take my calls.” Bianca looked down at the toes of her clammy boots. Fractured pride was the only thing that kept her breathing.

Erica folded her hands on top of the file and asked, “Do you have any money? Of your own?”

“Eighty-four dollars and some change.”

“I saw you get out of the Jaguar. Eighty-four dollars won’t fill your gas tank.”

Bianca dropped a hand over her eyes.

“Did you even see this coming?” When Bianca peeked at the manager through slit fingers, Erica sighed deeply and shook her head. “He planned this, you know.”

I don’t need this! Bianca slammed a second hand over her eyes. “You think he robbed my store and put me out on the street on the same day to teach me some kind of lesson?”  Suddenly on her feet, her hands fell away from her eyes, and fury eclipsed her pain when she slammed her purse to the floor. “Bitch, you’re crazy. We’re not talking about Superman or James Bond.”

“No, bitch, we’re talking about your ass hitting the ground,” the manager snapped back. “We’re talking about something a simple man put into place that has you so turned around you don’t know which way is up.  And now you’re sitting here with a stranger trying to make a life out of eighty-four dollars and change.”

“He didn’t rob my store.”

“Neither did I. He took your home and your pride, got you out here doing everything short of panhandling and selling little pieces of yourself on a street corner, and you call me a bitch?  Girl, you might be good-looking, but you need to check your priorities and get over your bitchfit.”

“I don’t have to take this.”

“Yes, you do.” Standing, Erica drew a deep breath and walked around her desk.  “Judging by the fact that you’re still here, I’m the closest thing you have to a friend right

now. Sit down.”

Bianca sat.

“Believe it or not, I’ve done this dance, too.” Erica rested a hip against her desk and swung one ankle across the other. “Do you have somewhere to go? Friends? Family?” When Bianca shook her head, Erica sighed.  “You’re not exactly the shelter type, and I can’t imagine

where you could park that Jag long enough to sleep in it.”

“I have eighty-four dollars.”

“And some change. Yeah, I heard you the first time.  You know that might only cover a couple of nights at a really cheap motel, and you’ll still need to eat.”  When she dropped her hand into her jacket pocket, Erica Lane looked serious. “This is not going to last long. I don’t

figure you for a McDonald’s kind of girl, but maybe it will help you get to family or someone who can help.”

She pulled her hand free of the pocket and extended two fifties to Bianca.

Ashamed, Bianca stared at the cash. I called this woman a bitch, and she’s extending herself like this . . . “I can’t take that.”

“If you don’t, you’re a bigger fool than the woman who pulled up to that ATM machine looking for cash.  That woman at least knew that eighty-four dollars wouldn’t take her very far. Call it a loan, if that will make you feel better.”

Still hesitating, Bianca stared at the bills a moment longer before taking them. “A loan, then. I’ll get this back to you.”

“Not a problem.”

Bianca stood, the manager’s kindness galling her.  Wanting to be anywhere other than where she was, she pulled the ATM card from her pocket and folded it back and forth until it finally broke. She laid the two pieces on the desk. “I’m going to handle me from now on.”

“It won’t be easy, but it really can be done,” Erica Lane whispered, watching Bianca’s stiff back as she left the office. Bianca walked straight out of the door, looking neither right nor left. The manager’s smile was small and hopeful. Sweeping the broken card pieces into the wastebasket, she sighed. Maybe this woman really would make it. She hoped so.

I am going to handle me, from now on, Bianca vowed again, unlocking her car door. Sitting in the driver’s seat, she had to admit the truth of Erica Lane’s words: KPayne had planned this! Looking at the wrinkled bills Erica had given her, she felt awash with shame and gratitude. But

this is definitely a loan, she told herself, and I am going to get it back to her. And she’s right—he planned this.

Damn him and his squeak-talking mama!

As much as she wanted to put some of the blame on Catherine Reynolds Payne, Bianca knew she was wrong.  Catherine was a snob, not a ride-or-die, out-for-vengeance cutthroat. No, KPayne hadn’t turned to his mother for any of this; this was all him.

And I let him do it!

Bianca separated herself from the Jaguar and slammed the car door. Late afternoon sun glittered in the western sky, shining and silhouetting the high Atlanta skyline, and she dipped her hand into her purse for her sunglasses.  Slipping them over her eyes, she left the car behind and began to walk with no particular destination in mind.

KPayne or one of his paid-to-be-right lawyers had to go down to the county office to file for that eviction notice.  He had someone pull some strings at the bank to get the money frozen. He had to get my belongings out of the condo. How long did he think about it? A week? Two weeks? All along, looking in my face and planning to dump me as painfully as possible.

Unexpectedly, AJ Yarborough crossed her thoughts. AJ would never have done anything like this—he was too decent. Bianca was stunned by immediate shame, remembering that he had once loved her and she had treated it like a game; and now this. Payback really was a bitch. Why was it so easy for KPayne to use and discard me?

Her gaze lifted long enough to catch the eyes of an approaching man. His bold stare held until he drew close enough to whisper: “Girl, you know you’re so fine, I would drink your dirty bathwater.”

Yeah, right. I’ve heard that one before.

His step slowed even more and held even with her, laying a hand across his heart. “Ain’t nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for you.”

That’s pretty much what KPayne said—in the beginning. She pushed the dark glasses up over her eyes and walked away, leaving her admirer lusting in her wake.

Headed back toward her parked car, a single thought surged forward: I could call Julia. As quickly as the thought occurred, she discarded it. How could she call her sister? They’d shared a mother and childhood, and then everything changed between them.  Standing on the sidewalk with her heart in her throat and her cellphone in her hand, Bianca tried to think.

Opening her cellphone, she scrolled through the directory.  Taurean. Back in the day, Taurean Blaque would have been among the first people she would have thought of. But not anymore. Their breakup had been bitterly decisive.

Ugly breakups had a way of limiting the favors one could ask. Bianca couldn’t help the sigh that escaped her—the breakup with AJ had been just as decisive. But the truth was, if she called him now, he would still probably come, but it would only be out of pity. And as bad as things were, she don’t think that she could survive the look that she already knew would be in his eyes.

Thumbing the buttons on her phone, she continued to scroll through names until she came to Julia Coltrane, her sister. Julia was nine months younger, but those nine months might as well have been nine light-years. Their lives were totally independent of each other. Different as night and day. Julia was in bed by eight, and Bianca was in a Jag 9x8. The last time they’d seen each other was at John’s funeral.

John Leighton was the stepfather who’d raised them—or more correctly, who’d been there until the sisters were both eighteen and on the way to college.

Betting that their stepfather was glad that they were less than a year apart in age and out of the house at practically the same time was the last thing Bianca and Julia had agreed upon. Calling Julia would be a mistake.

Bianca found herself back in the parking lot of the now-closed bank. After four, she guessed, opening her car door and dropping into the driver’s seat. She unzipped her boots and slid her tired feet free.  When she tossed the damp boots over the seatback, they landed on the discarded AJC the doorman had given her earlier.

She pulled the paper free and smoothed it against her thigh. Dragging a finger along the column headed Money to Loan, she saw an ad for pawnshops, and she creased the paper around the ad that promised “highest prices paid”.  Making her way to the pawnshop was easy.  When she pushed the door open, a little brass bell tinkled overhead, just like on TV. Pulling off her jewelry and handing it across the counter, hoping to get enough money to get past the crisis, was harder.

Cursing herself for not wearing more, Bianca snapped the catches on the back of her heavy diamond-studded earrings. Feeling a bit like an old-time stripper, she slipped gold bangles along her arm and onto the glass topped counter. She plucked a trio of stacked rings from her fingers and, against her better judgment, she let the diamond tennis bracelet KPayne had given her to makeup for an argument last month fall heavily beside them when she pulled it from her wrist.

The man behind the counter moved his unlit cigarette from one corner of his mouth to the other and looked down at the pile. “Got to test it first, then I can make you an offer. Go ahead and fill out the paperwork while I’m doing that,” he added, sliding the form and a cheap ballpoint pen across the counter. “Need to see your driver’s license, too.”

The forms were complete when he returned. Bianca noticed that he’d lit the cigarette and smoke from the burning tobacco made her cough. “Okay,” he said, pushing his shirtsleeves high on his thin arms. “I can take the earrings, the bangles, and the rings,” he said, pushing the bracelet toward her. “Not this, though.”

“But it’s a diamond bracelet.” She pushed it back toward him.

He pushed it back. “It’s cubic zirconium. Worthless to me, and if you need money, it’s worthless to you, too.”

“He told me it was real . . .”

“I’m sure he did, but the best I can do is give you three hundred, and that’s only because of the diamonds.”

That’s all? Bianca brought her hands to her face and made a sound she’d never heard before, something pained and strangled, between a whimper and a scream. The broker just watched. She dropped her hands and looked at the stupid bracelet.

Three hundred is enough cash to get through the immediate crisis, but what about next week? What about my store? Somehow, I have to find a way to hold out . . .

The pawnbroker came up with a suggestion. “Have you got a car? How about the title to the car?”

“No.” She was going to need transportation and, for all she knew, KPayne might have finagled a way to take it back.

Knowing that not even in desperation would he ever be her type, the pawnbroker pointed to her wrist and stuck to business. “How about that watch? Looks like a Rolex Lady Presidential, and if it’s real . . .”

“It’s real,” she snapped. “I can guarantee it.”

“I’m just saying, I can give you a good deal.”

Bianca looked down at her wrist and lightly touched the face of the watch. AJ had loved her when he’d given it to her. “No, I couldn’t. It was a gift . . .”

“If you really need the money, then . . .”

“I really need the money.”

The man shrugged and the deal was made.  With tears in her eyes, Bianca reluctantly fumbled the catch on the watch and finally placed it on the counter.

Bianca jammed the cash and the pawn ticket into her purse as she turned from the counter.  Walking the length of the shop, feeling the broker’s eyes on her back, she refused to dwell on whether or not he was betting that she would come back for any of her jewelry. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the pawnshop, she spared a single look back and made a promise. Never again.





The annoying twittering pushed at her sleeping thoughts again, and Bianca’s fingers scrabbled against the sheet. Some part of her knew that the sound wouldn’t bring any good news. Her hand flapped again and she refused to open her eyes. Hunting for the noisy thing, her fingers caught a hard narrow edge. Grabbing it, she sat straight up in the middle of the double bed. Cellphone.

The mostly blue and beige colored room was dark.  Catching hold of the vibrating phone, she blinked hard and fast.

Motel, she remembered, beginning to piece things together. A sliver of light showed at the window, just at the edges where the heavy dull blue drapes didn’t quite meet. Cheap motel.  What time is it? She turned her hand, looking to her wrist for her watch and remembered: I hocked it to pay for this.

Liking her life less and less by the minute, she let the vibrating phone die in her hand. Swinging her legs off the bed, she frowned. She had slept in her clothes, tennis shoes included. Her unwashed body and wrinkled clothes said as much about her predicament as anything

else, but she could at least afford to take a shower. She pulled her blouse over her head and dropped it on the bed.

Sitting in her jeans and camisole, she pushed the tennis shoes off with her toes. Her eyes traced the path across the floor to the small bathroom. Debating the wisdom of walking across the carpet in bare feet, she pushed her toes back into the shoes and stayed where she was.

That left breakfast. Sniffing, she smelled grease, flour, and pepper from the drive-thru chicken dinner she’d half-eaten after checking in. The greasy bag rested on the laminated top of the dresser—just as she’d left it. The phone twittered and vibrated in her palm. Forgetting about breakfast, she flipped the phone open. “Hello?”

“You’ve got all the sense God gave a goose, you know that?” KPayne growled.

“I know you’re a mean, deceitful, son of an evil bitch.”

“Whatever,” he snarled. “I heard about the robbery on TV this morning.  We came in, turned it on, and there you were. How could you not have enough insurance to cover yourself?”

“What are you talking about? They said that on television?”  Bianca stood and went over to the closed drapes.  She pulled the cord to let in the early light and looked out at the parking lot. A big-bellied trucker, heading for his rig, looked up to see her and waved. He smiled when

she nodded back. “The robbery was on television?”

“Robbery,” KPayne snorted. “What was left of your little retail venture was all over television. Cops prowling all over everything and you standing in the middle of it, looking all dazed and confused. They said it was a total loss,  that the insurance company wasn’t going to cover you. How did that happen? I gave you enough money to do everything you needed to do. How did you let something this stupid happen? My mother said you were a stupid cow, and you know what? She was right!”

“Kelvin, look, I tried to reach you yesterday. I had no way of knowing . . .”

“You didn’t have to know anything, it should have been a slam dunk! I got you a lawyer to set the damned business up and you not only overlooked vendors and consignments, you overlooked real property damage — money down the drain. My money down the drain.

Stupid, stupid bitch. I don’t know what I was thinking when I trusted you with that much money.”

“Kelvin . . .”

“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said, and the coldness in his voice hardened into elemental iron. “You signed the loan documents; you need to get my money. You’ve got a payment deadline, and you’d better not miss it.”

The phone went dead in her hand.

KPayne cursed Bianca’s name. And as if his native language didn’t do justice to his fury, he used a word of the gutter French he’d picked up while following his mother around Europe.


Alin looked up over the top of his rimless glasses — the venomous delivery pretty much spoke for itself. Hislong-fingered hands stilled on the cool neck of the champagne bottle he’d been fiddling with. “What did she say?”

“Just stuttered some mess about what she didn’t know, and had the nerve to sound like she was pissed with me.” Eyes glittering, lips peeled back in a sneer, KPayne slapped the phone from palm to palm. “Dumb as a bag of rocks.”

“She could be dumb as a bag of doorknobs, but she’s fine,” Alin said and grinned.

Payne looked out of the broad windows of his condo and ignored the comment. It was getting harder and harder for him to overlook the fact that the head of his posse didn’t mind being led around by his smaller head.  At some point, he thought, a man had to think and move beyond the carnal, and Alin couldn’t seem to do it — mostly because he didn’t want to. He was fine just chasing women and drinking and partying. Alin and his kind were nothing like him. He, KPayne, was destined for The Big Time, and he needed money to get there.

KPayne’s face tightened as he stared out the window, fixed on the problem at hand and the money involved. In front of him, stretching from floor to ceiling, the penthouse level wall of glass led onto a narrow balcony and afforded him a long view of the city’s east side. In fact, if the day was clear and he had a mind to pay the vista any attention, he could see all the way to Stone Mountain from where he stood. But this morning the natural granite mass, swathed in pale lilac and pink fog, made no impression on him.

His concern was money. Who knew that a real robbery would disrupt his plans? Who knew that somebody willing to work harder to steal than to earn a living would step into the mix and that Bianca’s little business would take the hit? And now he had to find a way to pay it back

because he knew that Buoy Mann didn’t play—unforeseen circumstances be damned. And that was going to be a problem because KPayne already knew that there was no undetectable way to slide more money out of the trust fund he’d been raiding for the past couple of years.

Payne ignored the thin line of sweat glazing his upper

lip and watched a lithe, statuesque woman slip into the room. Barefoot and barely covered by the midnight-black lace teddy she’d worn under something he couldn’t recall from the night before, she padded close enough to brush her lips against his cheek. Fresh breath, he noted. She must travel ready-roll. Carries her own toothbrush and toiletries.  If I’m going to pick ’em up, that’s the way I like ’em.

She turned gracefully and danced slowly toward the chair where Alin sprawled, still clutching the champagne bottle. KPayne admired the curves of her body and the suggestive hip-driven rhythm of her slinky strut—yeah, he liked that about her, too. Even if he couldn’t remember her name. Was it Mona?  Maybe not, but Mona was the best he could come up with.

Reaching Alin’s chair, Mona planted her hands on the arms and bent to kiss him.   KPayne’s lips tightened and thinned at the display, but he didn’t look away. No class, he thought. No class at all.

Mona dropped her sassy hip to the arm of Alin’s chair.  Her finger traced the foil still wrapped around the bottle’s neck. “Is that champagne? Orange juice and glasses,” she

murmured. Standing gracefully, she tipped across the parquet floor, toward the kitchen. “I’ll find something to eat, and then we’ll have mimosas. I love mimosas.”

“Mimosa is a sissy drink,” KPayne said flatly. “Bianca used to like mimosas.”

Alin sat up, holding the unopened champagne bottle between his knees. “Maybe orange juice and champagne is just the preferred drink of beautiful women.”

“Beautiful, stupid women.”

“True, that.” Alin raised the bottle in agreement, and then lowered it to swing between his knees. He sat silent for a minute, listening to Mona moving around the kitchen and the sound of the group they’d listened to last night pulsing through the room.

KPayne’s eyes had gone back to the window and his thoughts clearly beyond that. Alin knew that silence was the best thing, but he couldn’t help himself—inquiring minds, and all that. “What if she can’t, man?”

“Can’t what?”

“Pay it back.”

Alin felt the cold snap of Payne’s green eyes. “She doesn’t pay it back on her own, then I’ll have to get original.”

Alin watched his eyes move back to the window and wondered what might constitute originality. The pictures his mind drew weren’t pretty or pleasant and he hoped he was wrong. KPayne was a soft rich boy playing hard. On his own, he wouldn’t hurt her—not for real. “Did you ever love her?”

“What kind of question is that?” KPayne rolled his shoulders and shoved the phone into his pocket. “You want me to bitch up and whine about her? Ain’t gonna happen.  What we had, we had for the moment. Now, the moment is gone.”

The wire snare holding the cork in place twisted and lifted, then the foil curled easily beneath Alin’s fingers.  “That why you threw her out?”

“I don’t need her anymore. I’ve got the contracts, a way to clean the money, and a life that doesn’t include her.” KPayne shrugged indifferently. “All she was doing was blocking the right one.”

Alin’s head bobbed slowly. “So it’s just business. You never loved her.”

“Just business,” Payne agreed. “Besides, women are like busses; there’s one every five minutes. And as long as this one takes me to my money, she’ll be worth the ride.”


Anger burning low, Bianca sat on the foot of the bed because her legs wouldn’t hold her. Looking around, she figured that the room’s dusty blue drapes, green and blue tweed carpeting, and brown plastic laminated furniture was meant to be soothing, but they made her nervous.

This was the closest thing she had to a home, and when her money ran out, even this would be gone.

KPayne was threatening her with a deadline she couldn’t possibly meet, and warning her that she’d better not miss it. Anger rippled hot and fast beneath her skin, sloughing self-pity in the process. And what could he do, if she did?  Sue her?

Installment payments were going to have to do. She blew out hard and lifted a hand to her hair. What am I going to do with this mess? She gathered the tangled tresses into a ponytail and looped stray locks around the bunched hair and tucked them under. Catching sight of

herself in the dresser mirror, she added the beauty salon to the list of places she wouldn’t be going anytime soon.

I hate this! I hate that I put myself here, and I hate that I don’t know how to get out of it. But I can’t just sit here and cry. So that leaves me with . . . what? A chance to call my sister . . .

Wishing for an alternative didn’t seem to help. No matter how she twisted it, calling Julia seemed to be the only answer—even if she wasn’t ready for it. Suddenly, a shower seemed like a good idea, and a way to postpone the inevitable.

Standing under the spray of hot water, it never occurred to Bianca to wonder when she had made the decision to call her sister—she only knew that she would.

Scrubbing her skin with liquid motel soap and reflecting on her relationship to the sister she had forsaken in better times, she wondered if life could get any harder.

Not that their life had been all that hard, but . . . well, some folk would call it hard. Having your military father die in the Gulf War on your fifteenth birthday, and then having your mother marry another military man just after you’d blown out the candles on your sixteenth

birthday cake was a lot.  But then to have your mother die in a stupid boating accident less than a year after that, leaving you and your younger sister with a step-dad who wasn’t interested in expanding his fathering skills was enough to leave a girl with just a few abandonment


Bianca admitted to having a few issues, but none of them was worth dwelling on.

After high school, smart enough to know when she was at the end of her resources, Bianca had taken her decent grades to NYU, modeled part-time, and snared the interest of an NFL player. Knowing big money when she smelled it, she figured out how to make him happy and quickly determined that her skills lay in shopping well and looking good.

Nine months younger, Julia, the smart sister, had packed up her issues and taken them to the University of Chicago. She’d buried them deep in her heart and pursued multiple business- and real estate-related degrees. It couldn’t have been as easy as Julia made it look, but she’d put in the work and excelled. Starting out smart and ambitious with no money, she’d secured an international fellowship that took her to Japan and then brought her back to Atlanta. Like her sister, she knew she wanted more, so it was in the city of their birth that Julia set about rebuilding communities and making money in the process.

Now, we’re all the family we have. Our parents were only children from small families, and her real father is gone.  Julia and I are all that’s left. Bianca shivered. I should have stayed closer to her.

Maybe it was maturity that made Bianca think of her sister’s face when she’d tried to explain why she was going to Chicago. Finding her original birth certificate had changed the truth of everything Julia knew, and leaving her sister to find her own way, Bianca didn’t understand why. Not then, but now . . .

Years later, slinking out of New York on the heels of a failed design attempt, Bianca was left licking her wounds and counting pennies. Coming home, she’d told herself that Atlanta was the perfect place to start over. She’d called her sister and shared a mandatory lunch. Stiff and uneasy, the sisters had sat across from each other like polite strangers, nibbling at a meal that neither of them wanted.

Baffled by her sister’s willingness to trade on her looks and sex appeal, Julia had finally said what was on her mind and then pushed for answers.  Wasn’t it bad enough, she insisted, that their mother had taken the same path?  Why couldn’t Bianca see where her life was headed?  Why was she so willing to take the road of least resistance?

Bianca had spent many sleepless nights wondering the same thing, but the words wouldn’t cross her lips, and Julia pushed harder.  Aggressive and heavy-handed, Julia had crossed another line by demanding to know her sister’s financial condition. Insulted, Bianca had slammed money onto the table and stalked from the restaurant, her spine straight, her feelings bruised. Then she had ignored Julia’s phone calls and investment advice when she cashed in

the small retirement account she’d inherited from their stepfather and invested in her own designs.

Wishing that the motel towels were larger and thicker, Bianca stepped from the shower and onto the pad of thin white towels she’d placed on the floor.  Working the bath-sized towel over her body, she tried again to think of the right words. Julia was no pushover, so how easy would it be to shut the door in the face of someone who hadn’t tried to cross her threshold for so

many years?

Tipping her wrist to check the time, Bianca missed her watch, even as she remembered that she and Julia had not come from the perfect two-parent home, but they always had one. They had been the kids with the matching life, the kids with the peanut butter and jelly life. They always had the mother and father, the home and church, the school and the play clothes, the shoes and socks.  The love and the laughter.

That was when the first tears fell.

She thought back to her childhood, and for just a tiny slice of time, Bianca Coltrane was so lonely that she would have given anything to ease the unbearable pain.  Crying, clutching the edge of the scarred vanity counter, she sank to her knees, dropping the towels as she fell.  Landing naked in the nest of damp white towels, she pulled her knees to her chest and rocked.

How does anybody with so much manage to throw it away with both hands? How did I do it so easily?

It had seemed so easy, walking away from Julia and never looking back. Yes, she still felt pride when she saw her sister interviewed on TV, or saw her billboards. But that was different. She’s my smart, capable, reliable sister.  She’s got her life together on her own terms, and never depended on anyone else to do it for her.

Swiping her hands across her face, trying to stem the tears, Bianca had a moment of panic. Now she would have to admit that she was wrong, that her way didn’t work, that she needed her help. And hope Julia was a bigger and better woman than she had ever been.

What if she pities me? Or shakes her finger in my face and says, ‘I told you so’?  What if she treats me like a charity case? Her shoulders drooped and the tears dried. If she offers to help me, I’ll take it, whatever the cost—and I’ll be grateful for it. I need her.

Dressing, rehearsing, Bianca hoped she could sound natural when she picked up her phone and scrolled through the phone book. Stopping at Julia’s name, she chose the office number and hit SEND.

“Good morning, thank you for calling Coltrane Realty. How may I direct your call?”

The voice was feminine, cool, and genteelly Southern, and it made Bianca’s flesh crawl. She fought the urge to hang up, but took a deep breath instead and said, “Good afternoon. May I speak with Julia Coltrane, please?”

“May I ask who is calling?”

Knowing that the woman was only doing her job didn’t make Bianca feel any better. “This is Bianca Coltrane, her sister.”

“Her sister?”

“Yes.” Now let me speak to my sister.

“Please hold.”

Bianca imagined the woman running through the office and shouting the news to the other staffers: Julia’s got a sister! Her stomach curled when she imagined Julia hearing her name and refusing the call. If she did . . .

Julia stared at the phone on her desk and tried to rise above her mixed feelings. Part of her, the hurt little girl part, wanted to run to a corner of her office and bury her face. Another part, the stiffly grown-up woman who handled her own successful business on a daily basis, stared at the phone for another second and finally lifted the receiver. “Hello, Bianca.”

“Hello, Julia. How are you?”

“I’m well, and you?”


Hearing her sister’s voice was strange for both women. She sounds like Mom, they thought at the same time.

“I called because . . .” Embarrassed, Bianca stalled. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the news lately, but I—I need your help. I need somewhere to stay.”

Damned if this wasn’t a bolt from the blue!

“I see.” Julia’s eyes went to her watch. It was nearly nine o’clock in the morning, and, if memory served, her sister was hardly a morning person. Cupping the phone in both hands, Julia held it close to her mouth, hoping her tone wouldn’t betray her surprise. “What’s going on,


“I’d rather not talk about it over the phone. Can we meet?”

Wondering why her sister had decided to call her, Julia decided to satisfy her curiosity. “If you’d like to come in at ten-thirty, I can see you then.”

 “I’ll be there.”

Julia parked her elbow on her desk and stared at the phone, thinking back to a time when she’d adored her sister, would have cut off her right foot for her. Then she’d come to learn that Bianca would have probably taken the foot and hopped away with it. She reached for the phone and tapped in her assistant’s code.

“Akusai wa hyaku-nen no fusaku,” she murmured to herself, knowing the truth in the Japanese proverb: Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of.  Knowing her sister for who she was didn’t mean she wouldn’t help her, but . . .

“Bianca Coltrane has a ten-thirty appointment.  When she arrives, please have her complete a tenant’s application and run a credit check.” There was no point in going into this without all available information.

Twenty minutes later, Bianca had completed the requested paperwork and the credit information had returned. Julia was almost sorry she’d asked for it. She clipped the corners of the pages together and called her assistant. “Please show my sister to my office.”

The young woman had the good grace not to show surprise as she opened the office door and ushered Bianca into the office. Watching the two women appraise each other, the assistant made her own evaluation. Yes, these two were definitely related. You could see it as much in their height as in the tawny blush of their skin, in the classically molded lines of their faces, and in their matching hazel eyes. God, their parents must have been pretty people, she thought, stepping back and pulling the door closed behind her.

 “Come in and have a seat,” Julia said as she walked around her desk.  Smoothing a hand over the jade green wool of her narrow skirt, Julia wondered if Bianca had dressed down

for their meeting. Her beautifully tailored suit seemed a little subdued for the flamboyant woman she’d known her sister to be. And a little expensive for a woman with her credit background . . . She cut the petty thought off and dropped into the wingchair facing her sister. “It’s good to

see you, Bianca.”

“Thanks. You, too.” Silence loomed between them, and Bianca felt compelled to fill it. “This is a lovely office. You’ve built a very nice business.” 

Irritation flashed across Julia’s face. “That’s it? That’s what you came here to talk to me about? After all this time, you want to complement my business acumen and office décor?”

The corner of Bianca’s mouth ticked when she frowned. “I’m just trying to be polite.  What do you want from me? You were the one who ran off to Japan.”

“Yeah,” Julia said, “but you were the one who just left me hanging—over a man.  When Mom died, you told me . . . you promised me you would always be there. Then when John died, you didn’t make it any better. You just took your little money and danced off.”

“I didn’t dance anywhere.”

“Life has always been a party for you, Bianca, and you put the party before me.”

“You put an ocean between us, Julia, and I swear I wouldn’t be here now, if . . .”

 “If you had any other alternative?” Julia looked sad. “I was hoping that maybe you came here because I’m your sister and you knew you could trust me to help you work out this mess.”

Bianca’s shoulders rolled back, and her eyes narrowed.  “Why does it have to be a mess?”

“You called me today—for the first time in how many years? And I’ve seen your credit report.” Julia stood and reached across her desk. She picked up several sheets of

paper and flapped them a time or two before letting them fall back to her desktop. “Where were you yesterday that you can’t go back to today, Bianca?”

“I knew this was a mistake.” Too embarrassed to be insulted, Bianca shouldered her purse and headed for the door.

Julia beat her sister to the door and held it shut.  “There’s a man in this mix, right?” When Bianca just stared, Julia nodded. “Sit down, Bianca. Let’s see what we

can work out.”

“I don’t want to sit.”

Hand to her throat, Julia took a deep breath. “We need to talk.”

“About the last five years? No, Julia. Between us, we started digging this chasm when Mom passed. It was bad enough when we went through her things and found our original birth certificates. Knowing we had different fathers, and that our mother hid it from us, was worse. I did promise that I would always be there for you—you are my sister.”

“But you broke the promise because a man and a party were more important, and I should have just understood?”

Wishing she was standing anywhere except in front of her sister, Bianca shook her head. “I never said that.”

“You didn’t have to. Your actions spoke for you. You loved me, you just didn’t like me.”

“That’s not true, it never was.” Hurt, Bianca’s eyes clouded. “Between us, we just kept digging holes, and you could never let it go.”

“Let it go? You’re right, but there is so much wrong with you even thinking you can say that. Why should I just let it go? There was a father I would never have known because Mom had my birth certificate amended so that you and I would appear to have the same father —

less for her to explain, I guess. But ultimately, I wound up abandoned by her, him, and then you.”

“Julia, you’re acting like this is my fault.”

“Fault? Damn it, you never understood! This doesn’t have anything to do with fault and casting blame where we’re concerned. I needed you!”

“You told me you decided to go to school in Chicago because you found your real dad there, and you wanted to get to know him. He was an orphan—but you found him, and he reached out to you.”

“You really want to believe he just reached out and embraced me, and that we all lived happily ever after, don’t you? I found him because he wanted me to.”

“You never said anything . . .”

“He thought I might be a compatible donor.” Bitterness shadowed Julia’s eyes. “He wasn’t searching for his long-lost daughter, trying to make me or himself whole. I wouldn’t

have found him if it hadn’t been for his kidney disease.”

 “Julia . . .”

Julia’s raised hand cut Bianca off. “He wasn’t a bad man, just a weak one, and in the end, he loved me in his own way, but . . . I don’t know.”

“But you had a chance to get to know him. You had four years with him.”

“I buried him, too, Bianca, right after my graduation.  And I did it without my sister.”

“Then you took off for Japan . . .”

“And you didn’t see anything wrong with it; it got me out of your hair. Like I said, you loved me; you just didn’t like me enough to care about anything going on with me.”

“Ah, Julia, I always cared. I’m sorry. I was sorry then, and I’m sorry now.” Wishing she had never made such a shambles of their relationship, Bianca was at a loss.

“Sorry is a start.”

“I thought we crossed over this for the final time when our stepfather died, and we agreed that our being sisters was good, but it wasn’t great.”

“And you still called me today, because you just didn’t get it.”

“I didn’t have anyone else,” Bianca said.

“Neither did I.” Visibly struggling with her emotions, Julia looked at her sister.

“How do I apologize for being so self-involved that I abandoned anybody as hurt as you must have been?  Julia, I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know how to make it better for you, so I made it better for me. You seemed to be handling everything, at least on the outside.”

 “On the outside; right. I guess I can forgive, but forgetting is harder. So I guess if we’re really ever going to get over it, I can’t make the same mistakes you did, can I?”

Bianca’s lashes fluttered, and it seemed tears would fall, before she opened her eyes. “I think I get it now. Is it too late for me to say that I’m sorry, that I want to do better?”

“Why?” Julia asked. “Are you afraid I’m going to unsister you or something?”

“This wasn’t easy, Julia. I had to remind myself that you were my sister and that when Mom died we stood for each other when there was nobody else. I had to remind myself that you owed me nothing and I was pretty much asking you to help me hold on to everything. When you said you would see me, I just hoped.”

“Then let’s keep hope alive, okay?” Julia grinned when Bianca’s face softened and a slow smile came to her lips. “Let’s get some lunch. Benedetti’s is downstairs.”

“Really?” Bianca’s brow furrowed. “Just like that?”

“Just like that,” Julia said, then shrugged. “Do you still like spaghetti?”

Knowing an apology when she heard one, especially when it came with marinara sauce, Bianca didn’t have the will to resist. “I crave it.”

“Then I’ll buy. And we can talk.”

Their table was small, and concentrating on the menu used up a few minutes and ordering took a little more time. When the waiter walked away, they were left with a basket of breadsticks . . . and each other.

Turning her water glass, Julia waited, but when Bianca began to toy with the cheese shaker, her patience came to an end. “You want to tell me how this happened?”

“No.” Bianca seemed fascinated by the cheese shaker.


Bianca set the cheese aside and sighed. “Okay,” she finally said. “Yesterday, my business was trashed, the man I was living with dumped me and everything he thought

belonged to me on the street. He cut off all the bank accounts we shared, so I have no money. I spent last night in some no-name motel out by the airport.”

“I knew there was a man in the mix . . .” Julia stopped when Bianca’s lips tightened. “What’s his name?”

“Kelvin.” Bianca’s voice thickened. “Kelvin Michael Payne, also known as KPayne.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Didn’t seem to matter when he was throwing me out . . .”

“Oh, right.” Julia would have said more, but the look in her sister’s eyes and the arrival of food stopped her.  Bending her attention to her plate, Julia stole fleeting glances at the woman her sister had become. Beautiful in all the ways that usually counted, there was something

different, something chastened about her. Has she gone through something like this before?

Across the table, Bianca gathered the final bits of pasta. When she looked up, Julia was watching her.  “What? Do I have something on my face?”

“No, I was just thinking that it was time for us to do business.”

 “Julia, I’ve just told you my predicament.” Bianca lowered the napkin. “I don’t think I have the energy to go through any more angst and recriminations over our relationship.”

“Nobody’s asking you to. I just want . . . to make it right between us. Maybe I didn’t exactly make it easy before, but now I can at least help. Will you let me?”

“Right now, I’m between a rock and a hard place.”

“I know, but let me show you what I think might work.” Julia flipped open the narrow presentation folder she’d brought from the office and pushed it across the table. “I did some checking while I was waiting for you.”

Bianca opened the folder and gazed at the pictures inside. They represented an eighth floor, one-bedroom condominium, facing the city’s east side—hardwood floors, high ceilings, a terrace. She looked up and stared at her sister. “This is really nice, but I could never pay for it. I was hoping you would have something a little more . . . affordable.”

“There you go, assuming things. You didn’t give me a chance to tell you what it goes for. Koketsu ni irazunba koji o ezu, my sister.”


“Japanese for ‘If you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub.’ ”

Bianca closed the folder. “That sounds a lot like ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ ”


“Did you forget who I am? I know high-end when I see it. I know what a place like this goes for, and I know I can’t afford it—and it doesn’t matter whether you say it in Japanese or in English.” Bianca pushed the folder across the table.

Julia pushed the folder back to her. “You’re right, this is a really nice place. I own it, and under ordinary circumstances, I would never consider renting it. But for you, I’m more than willing to make the offer. The rental cost may be more than you’ll ever want to pay, but at least ask me what the cost is.” She lowered her voice. “At least ask me.”

Bianca fingered the folder, then looked inside again. “Okay, what’s the cost?”

“Be my sister again.”

“You’re joking. That’s it?”

“That’s it, no joke,” Julia assured her, nodding in the face of her sister’s disbelief. “That’s what I’ll charge you for rent. Just be my sister, my real sister, again.”

“I—I think I’d like that.” Bianca’s smile suddenly slipped. “We don’t have to do each other’s hair or have sleepovers in matching pajamas or anything, do we?”

“Well, that’s just stupid,” Julia sputtered. “I didn’t say let’s go crazy. I said let’s be sisters again.”

“Are you still going to be pushy? Oh, God, and nosy, too?”

“No more than usual. I just think that if we can be sisters again, maybe we could even become friends—with time and practice, of course. That would be enough for me.”

“Sisters again . . .” Bianca toyed with her fork, buying time as she made up her mind. “Right now, there is nothing in the world that I would like more.”

 “I’m glad, and don’t forget, because I plan to collect.”

“How are you going to write that up in a lease?”

“Am I going to have to?”

“I promise, you’ll have my rent on time.” Bianca smiled. “Because as much as you need to collect it, I think I need to pay it.”

Julia grinned and lifted her glass of iced tea. She laughed when Bianca touched her glass with her own.

“Here’s to sisters,” they said together.