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DOING BIG THINGS

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I'm Moving!

 
 

doing_big_things.jpg
ISBN-13: 978-1470162016

 
         
 
 

 

Chapter One

I wonder if nonmedicated menopause is a justifiable defense for murder?

The thought occurred to me, not for the first time, but I kept it to myself because this was a party: a welcome back to the fold party for me, and held on what better occasion than my birthday. Raising my glass, toasting, smiling like the rest of the guests, I looked around the table. There they were, dressed in formal attire, all bright and glittering, shining like newly minted money, my fifty best friends. Or at least that was what they wanted me to call them.

Now.

And who wouldn’t want to be my friend? After all, I am Loi Cramer, the pretty damned good-looking, sixty year old widow of the late Alexander Cramer, and restored heiress to the Cramer corporate fortune. I’ve got a good heart, and I’m known for doing good where good can be done. I never attended Spelman College, but I established the Cramer Archives at the legendary school in memory of a friend, and I make sure that they are constantly staffed and that the acquisition funds are always available.

Looking around, I was pretty damned sure that every one of the people busily admiring me and lapping up three-hundred-dollars-a-bottle wine figured I was capable of murder. No, now that I think about it, every one of them just knew that I had committed one murder and was capable of a second.

Don’t you just hate that? I know I sure as hell do. I just hate it when people totally outside the event make a decision, pass it on to others as gospel, and then think they have a right to sit in judgment. And the fewer facts they have, the more they make up in their own minds, and the more righteous they become. Now, they were all sitting here watching me, and waiting to see what came next.

Sanctimony is a bitch, isn’t it? Talk about a WTF moment… I suppose that obviously unfaithful husbands who die under questionable circumstances and amazingly generous wills penned by greedy women, that surface with highly providential timing, do tend to make people see things in the worst kind of light, though...

Feeling the stirrings of heat between my breasts, I knew that there was more to come before this evening ended, so I took a deep breath and held it. When I let it out slowly, I thought of the one thing that would have made all of these people really stop and stare – the truth. A few of the wives probably would have stood and brought their manicured hand together in a solid round of applause for me – even if the one death they didn’t know all about was an accident.

I told you, obviously unfaithful husbands and greedy women, but they’d given less than half a thought to the other woman in the story. Me.

Across the table, Ava Duncan winked at me, slicing into my thoughts. Her smile was knowing, and still as pouty and sassy as it was when I first met her, more than thirty years ago. I winked back. I had to. Ava really was my friend and she’d tried to stand by me in the best and worst of times. Truth be told, while she rolled during good times, she wasn’t really a rock in the bad times, but Ava and I knew a lot about each other. And we both knew that I knew a little more about her than she did about me.

For instance, I knew that Ava always planned ahead. I knew that she got her hooks into George Duncan and his family’s money by playing a little bit pregnant. It was a standing joke between us that George, Jr. was the only thirteen month pregnancy in human history – and we never shared the joke with George, Sr. I also knew that while George, Jr. looked a lot like his mother as a child, he looked a lot more like Joe Harris, the family handyman as an adult. Nobody we knew was willing to share that with George, Sr.

I knew about the money Ava had stashed away. Most of it came from selling the jewelry George gave her over the years. She held the profits in abeyance – just in case she needed to make a quick getaway. “I’ve been poor and Negro and a woman,” she once told me. “I didn’t like it. If I’ve got to take two out of the three, poor will never be me again.”

I should have taken her point more seriously.

Standing at the head of the long table, his gloriously balding brown pate gleaming even brighter than the onyx studs of his tuxedo shirt, Linn Williams was saying something. Barking the words in his trademark squeaky voice he rattled on – something about resilience, beauty, and grace. He also used my name several times, so I knew he was still talking about me.

Sitting tall across the table, Ava held her stomach in and tossed her hair. It was probably a wig, but it was a good one, the style reminiscent of a hairdo she probably wore back in the day when she was considered one of Atlanta’s beauties.

We sort of had that in common, being called beautiful. Atlanta born and a graduate of the elite Jones Day School, Ava could pass the “paper sack” test with ease. She was blessed with tea parties, white glove affairs, cotillions, and all the frills that went with them. Her family was true southern black aristocracy, even if they’d lost most of their money, they still had a magic ‘name’, and Ava reaped the benefits. She was born to be treated like a princess, and determined to be a queen.

Me, I came from the south side of Chicago, something I never shared with Ava or much of anybody else. Dark skin like mine was the reason the “paper sack” test was invented and the word ‘enough’ was rarely heard in the house I grew up in. My blessings included a street-walking sister, a heroin addicted brother, and a part-time mother who let me know that all I could ever depend on was me. My family did their best to teach me that I was never going to be a princess, and God knows, I never dreamed that I would be a queen.

Then, I came to Atlanta and my life changed. Queendom was good.

My transformation wasn’t as easy as I’m making it sound and it was a hell of a long way from magical. I was almost eighteen and probably not going to make it out of high school, when my mother took a walk to the store one cool and windy October evening. I didn’t know which store and after three days, I figured she wasn’t going to walk back. My sister Ronnie, was out somewhere; flat-backing, I guessed. My brother, Cedric, was in a corner nodding and drooling; high. I was the only one who noticed our mother’s absence. When I called the police, they didn’t seem surprised. Or interested.

But the police called me when a body was recovered from a cold brick-walled alley, and as one of her three children, the only one anyone could locate at the time, I was the one who had to go and identify her. Stretched out in the morgue, she looked older than her forty-seven years, and so very tired. I wanted to feel sorry for her, mostly because she looked exhausted by life, but I didn’t. Instead, I felt relief; relief that nothing else would ever grind her down, and relief that I wouldn’t have to be there to pick her up again.

Three days later, it turned colder and snow fell. My mother was buried in a pauper’s grave – all I could afford, but at least the welfare people put her name on her little marker. There were no real mourners, just me and an elderly couple who went to everybody’s funeral. Okay, don’t ask me why they did it, they just did, and that day I was grateful for their company.

But standing there, I had a one word epiphany. Run. I knew I couldn’t stay where I was, not if I wanted to survive, and I did want to survive. Turns out, survival is something I’m pretty good at.

The night after they put my mother in the ground, I went home and turned our crappy little shotgun apartment inside out. Pennies and lint balls fell out of Cedric’s pockets, and a tight roll of singles fell out of one of Ronnie’s run over boots. In what had been my mother’s room, I found the mother lode buried in the bottom drawer of her splintery old chest of drawers. She might have lacked parenting skills, but she believed in paying bills. Rent money was in one creased envelope, a second envelope turned out to be cash for the phone bill, with light and gas money in another. I only thought about it for a minute, then I took the utility and phone money. I left enough behind to pay the rent. At least Ronnie and Cedric wouldn’t be outside in the cold – I hoped.

In 1967, it didn’t take a whole lot of money to get on a Greyhound bus to go much of anywhere. I was willing to get on the first thing rolling and when the clerk asked for just about every dime I had in my jeans, I gave it up willingly. I didn’t even know where I was going until I saw the sign on the bus. Atlanta. That day, Atlanta, Georgia meant a way out of Chicago and a chance to survive, for me. I was in such a hurry to make my getaway that I left without a cookie, a sandwich, or a backward glance.

Hungry and tired, I climbed on that bus and curled up in a corner next to the window on the backseat, and tried to sleep my way to a better life. Twenty-two hours later, I stepped off the bus without a clue to my next step. Then I saw the big red and yellow lettered signs that would change my life; they were plastered all over the dingy blue and white tiled bus station walls. Enroll NOW! The Singer School for Certified Nursing Assistants. Financial Aid Available!

Financial Aid? Didn’t that mean money?

I didn’t have any right then, so I let the greasy brown security guard with the greedy eyes buy me a dry burger and some limp fries while I tried to figure out how to get some of that financial aid into my hands. Choking the food down, I tried to get my bearings and make a plan. I was going to that Singer School, and I was going to get some of that financial aid, even if it meant I had to learn whatever it was that they taught.

With the bare bones of a plan sketched in my head, I got directions from the chunky guard while he sat next to me with his leg pressed tight against mine, his pudgy hand creeping along my thigh. He kept trying to pretend that I wasn’t shaking his wandering hand off my leg, and acting like we were on some kind of date. Finally leaning back, trying to find the right words to ask for more, the guard stretched an arm across the back of the booth, while letting his eyes bore into mine. I knew where the conversation was headed and I didn’t want to go there. He didn’t seem to mind that I was hot, wrinkled, and downright funky from my bus ride. The view of my swelling breasts in a tight nasty Soul Train tee-shirt must have distracted him.

Watery coke soothed my throat while my brain rushed thoughts into order: I had to have money, food, and a place to sleep. But looking at the fat eager man beside me, remembering Ronnie’s tales of how to get started in “the business,” I refused the folded bills he tried to press on me. I refused his offer of a bed for the night, knowing what it would lead to. Clutching my virginity like a magical talisman, I refused the used business card he wrote his phone number and address on. When he offered to drive me to The Singer School, I refused that, too.

To his credit and my relief, he didn’t get all mean and hateful at my refusals – he just sort of took them in stride. Thinking he must have been used to getting turned down by women, I did let him point me toward Peachtree Street, and then ignored the heavy crawl of his hungry eyes on my butt when I walked away from him.

Putting one foot in front of the other, I followed the sidewalk down Peachtree like Dorothy followed the yellow brick road to Oz. That day, Atlanta was a city of possibilities for me; I knew I could do better.

A twenty minute walk had me climbing the worn granite stairs of a low redbrick building that looked like it had been there since Sherman’s March to the Sea. On the third floor, I found the door to the Singer School and pushed it open. Walking in, I wasn’t all that sure I wasn’t making a mistake. Standing at the long Formica-topped counter that served as a front desk, I could see three grungy rooms off to the side. Sun slanted in through the windows and in the dusty light, the rooms were filled with used wooden desks and marginally matching battered wooden chairs. Six tired looking young women wearing white skirts and blouses sat in one of the rooms with notebooks open in front of them, all writing furiously. None of them looked much older than me. Maybe I was in the right place after all.

“May I help you?”

The sharp voice snatched me back to the then-and-there, and I realized I had been staring.

“May I help you?”

“I… Yes. Miss…” I had to turn my stare to the white-bloused woman behind the desk. She was short, skinny and black, with lips as thin as the rest of her body. Her side-parted hair was severely permed into thin oily straightness and only moved when she turned her head. I knew this because she tipped her head and looked at me like I was something she’d found on the bottom of her shoe.

“May. I. Help. You?”

The nameplate on her desk read, Ruby Singer, but I couldn’t get a word past my lips. My stomach rolled and if I’d had any option, or good sense, I would have run straight back through the door of the Singer School. But, as luck would have it, I didn’t run.

“I… I saw your sign,” I finally managed.

“And now you want to be a Certified Nursing Assistant?” Ruby Singer waited for me to bob my head and looked at me like I was stuck on stupid. “Do you know what a Certified Nursing Assistant does?”

Had to admit that I didn’t. She sighed like I was one more weight on her back as she stood to face me.

I swear that I remember exactly what she said and did next, just like it was yesterday. She touched that thin heat-bent hair with one hand and the collar of her neat white blouse with the other, then she pursed those little bird lips and said, “Certified nursing assistants are employed by hospitals, nursing homes, and private individuals to take care of patients’ everyday needs. Personal care duties such as bathing, dressing, and feeding patients, as well as brushing teeth and combing hair are included. Certified Nursing Assistants help patients in and out of bed, often by lifting or carrying them, and assist them with walking as they travel to and from surgeries and treatments. Can you do that?”

I nodded. Her eyes looked like she didn’t believe me as she lifted stapled sheets of paper from a wire basket on the counter between us and shoved them into my hands. Then, little bird lips twisted, Miss Singer pulled a book toward her and asked my name – I think I gave her the right one. “How will you be paying for your training?”

Standing there in every stitch of clothing I owned in the world, with no money and not even a purse to call my own, I looked at her like she was speaking in tongues. She sniffed and gave her beak of a nose a quick wrinkle. I knew she was judging me, and I also knew that since I had marched myself into her domain I had no right to complain – but I could beg, and I was ready to do it.

Suddenly, her face changed and I didn’t have to. “You’re not from here and you came because of the signs, didn’t you?” I nodded and cringed a little when her eye raked over me. “You don’t have two nickels to rub together, do you?” I shook my head, and she pulled a second book from under the counter. Writing rapidly with a cheap plastic pen, she made notes on my four-line application. “You’re going to have to pay this back,” she said.

I opened my mouth, and Miss Singer acted like she didn’t even notice. “Once you have a job, you can repay the advance; ten dollars a week. Your course begins at eight o’clock tomorrow morning, and you will have ten days of class work. You are expected to complete all ten days, and tardiness is not acceptable. Do you understand?” Without waiting for me to respond, she reached under the counter again. “You’re about an eight?”

“A what?”

Pursed lips again and a shake of the head. She had nappy roots. “Eight,” she said. “You wear a size eight.” I nodded, not saying that I would wear whatever she told me to. She slapped the skirt and blouse on the counter and aimed her stare at me. Her eyes were almost black and seemed to see everything about me. “This is your uniform, and we expect it to be clean everyday.”

“Yes’m.”

“Yes, Miss Singer. Or, yes, Miss Ruby,” she corrected. When I opened my mouth and repeated her words, she appeared satisfied. Looking down at my application, she propped her lips in disapproval. “Are you a runaway? You don’t have anywhere to live?”

“I… no, ma’am. No, Miss Singer. I just got off the bus from…”

Her nose wrinkled and she looked like I had just answered all of her questions. She reached beneath the magic counter again and pulled out a checkbook. Wielding her cheap pen like a weapon, she scribbled a check and pushed it across the counter. The check was face up but I didn’t want to look too needy, so I used the tips of my fingers to slide it closer, and almost fainted when I saw the amount.

Two hundred dollars. Gratitude made my knees weak. People would be surprised to find out how far a couple hundred bucks could go when you’re really desperate and you have nothing. And not that I’ve ever shared it with anyone, but that little bit of change was enough to keep me from following my sister’s example.

Miss Singer took it in stride. “Use that to find a place. The YWCA is farther down Peachtree, and you can share a room there, for now. We provide breakfast and lunch here.”

I remember ducking my head in a nod and murmuring my thanks. I was almost out of the door when Miss Singer called my name. Turning back, I looked at her. I looked right into her beady little black eyes and it was like I saw her soul – but when I saw hers, she saw mine, too. In that glance, she saw what and who I was, as well as who and what I could become, and she was going to hold me to it.

“You’ve done the easy part and you’ve got the money,” she said. “Everything else, from here on in, depends on you.”

Truer words were never spoken.


Chapter Two

Modest, I looked up from my silk crepe covered lap, took a deep breath and tried to pretend that I was interested in Linn’s continued babbling. How much longer was the old fart going to hold forth on my many good and often great points? He’d already celebrated my beauty and grace, my intelligence, and my fundraising efforts. Now, he was waving his hands in the air and talking about my work with homeless women of a certain age.

Funny, but if you’d asked him about me eight months ago, he would have been hard pressed to string four or five good, kind, or pleasant words together when it came to me. As a matter of fact, he probably would have shared more gossip than the law should allow, and none of it good. Not that I would have been surprised. Linn was good at stretching out second-hand knowledge, and it wasn’t the first time he’d found it hard to shine a good light on me.

Of course, second-hand knowledge and innuendo were the best he could do, when it came to me. I’d never let him get close enough to get anything else on me, not even his little greedy hands. He hadn’t been there when I took my little certificate from the Singer School for Certified Nursing Assistants and climbed on the bus that took me from Five Points to the Cascade Road address of Veronica and Alexander Cramer.

The Cramers came highly recommended. Besides, they were paying six dollars an hour and the job came with room and board – pretty good for 1967, and damned good for a girl like me. A girl with nothing. Miss Singer said that the Cramers were well connected ‘quality people,’ and that if I did good work for them, well then, my future in Atlanta was pretty much insured.

I did say that she had a real knack for seeing the future, didn’t I?

So, anyway, I got on that bus, asked the driver for help with the address, and took the long and rolling ride through southwest Atlanta. The ride gave me a chance to see the kind of large homes that I had not even imagined back in Chicago. Big houses spread out on lots of land, with manicured lawns and sculpted shrubbery, impressed the hell out of me and gave me a chance to covet.

Just so you know, coveting is deeper, hungrier, and more intense than merely wanting. It’s more visceral and primal than simple yearning. Looking at those homes, imagining the life beyond their doors, I craved everything that I knew the residents took for granted. I was locked in the throes of passionate and dedicated desire for a lifestyle I had never known outside of magazines, movies, and TV, when the bus rocked to a stop.

“Hey, young lady!” The driver leaned in his seat, looking back at me. “This is your stop.”

Feeling silly for being caught lusting, I thanked him and climbed off the bus. Checking the address, I followed the bend of the street, and stopped when I found the right number on the stone mailbox. Looking up, I had to look down again, staring at the paper in my hand. Raising my eyes, I took in the expanse of rolling lawn in front of me. No. This couldn’t be right. Who lived in a park?

I skirted the lawn and walked down to the end of the block, but there were no other addresses or houses to be seen. Holding my breath, I walked back to the mailbox and strained to see whatever was at the end of the long and winding path stretched out before me. Wide enough to accommodate at least two cars driving side-by-side, the stone path seemed to go on for miles. Trying to see into the distance, beyond the tall bordering pines, gave me no clue as to where a house might be, but I’d come this far, so I started walking.

Having no watch on my wrist left me at a bit of a disadvantage – I couldn’t have honestly told anyone how long it took for me to walk all the way to the house. I just knew that it was long enough to make my feet hurt in my scuffed white nursing shoes. By the time I finally reached the front of the house, I had sweat rings under the arms of my white shirt and water running down my face. Oh, and it was a cold November day – less than fifty degrees and windy!

I remember standing there, swiping at my face in front of a house that would have taken up a full block of my old Chicago neighborhood. I think my mouth was still sagging open when I mounted the stairs that led to the front door and pushed the bell, but I got it together when the tall woman pulled the door and glared at me. She was tall and thick, wearing a white front-buttoned uniform dress. She must be the maid, I thought stupidly, drawing the knowledge from some forgotten television show. But for the moment, she stood between me and my reason for being there.

Feeling like I probably should have gone to the servants’ entrance, I gave the woman my name and the card that Miss Singer had given me. The woman held the card between her thumb and forefinger while she evaluated me. Her dark brown eyes were hard and untrusting, but I needed this job. I looked away from her eyes, and waited. Finally, she parted her lips, and said, “Wait here.” Then the thick heifer closed the door on me.

Ready to run, but knowing I needed the job, I waited. And waited.

You know that old saying? The one about how, ‘good things come to those who wait?’ When the heavy door finally swung open again, I swore it was true. Back then, in the late sixties, when you spoke about a black man, especially when he was tall and well-built, more than pretty, you named names. You compared him to Marvin Gaye if he had smooth tight brown skin, or Smokey Robinson if he had sexy light-colored eyes. If he was graceful and urbane, you thought about Poitier and Belafonte. Shoot, if he was athletic, you might have even thrown Bill Cosby into the pot.

But Alex Cramer was all of that and a bag of chips. Standing there, framed in the doorway, with a stray shaft of sunlight brushing his tall figure, he smiled at me. I didn’t even get to say anything, but as his glance swept me, his smile widened. An onlooker might have said there was a hint of pirate in his swagger, but a woman, especially a thinking woman like me, needed new words and a new way to describe a man like him.

The late morning sun looked good on him, especially as it slanted along the firm slice of his jaw and highlighted the lines of his broad shoulders. He had a long face that matched his long body perfectly, and the stubborn chin only made the handsome face more interesting. A woman might steal a quick glance, admire the brush of burnt gold in his dark skin, and then have to pause because the arresting curve of his generous lips made the eyes linger just a little longer. But if your eyes lingered on those lips, your imagination might shift into overdrive, and you might forget that the man was even wearing clothes because of the danger that your own might fall off.

Yeah, at first glance, Alex Cramer was exactly like that.

As it was, standing in his own front doorway wearing gray flannel slacks and a creamy white sweater Alex was the best looking man I had ever seen. He was a thief, though, and I knew it from the moment his eyes met mine. First, he stole my breath, and then he stole my will. Standing there, looking up at him on that day, I knew that I was going to get the job. I also knew that I would never refuse anything this man asked of me.

I just had to figure out how to keep him from asking, if I was going the keep the job. So, I did the only thing I could do – I smiled, big and wide, and it must have been the right thing to do.

“Are you the young lady from the Singer School?”

I nodded, struck dumb by the tone and timbre of his voice. Stepping back, apparently forgiving me, he invited me in and as I passed him, I was struck by the height and breadth of the man. And I sniffed him as I passed. His scent was not overwhelming, but warm and manly, it was compelling – probably nothing more than a good men’s soap, but it called to me. Considering I’d never been close to anything more exciting than Old Spice or Hai Karate, I could have stood there inhaling him for the rest of my life and died happy. But that wasn’t what I was in his home for, now was it?

“Come in,” he invited, closing the door behind me. “Let me introduce you to my wife. She’s going to be your patient.”

Well, hell, young and naive as I was, I knew that this virile man wasn’t in need of anything even close to nursing care. I kept my thoughts to myself and followed him deeper into the house.

Walking behind him, I had to admire the curve of his slacks, and then I began to notice my surroundings. How much money do these people have? I couldn’t stop the thought as I noticed the wide rooms and high ceilings, and the furniture was obviously expensive. My fingers longed to stroke the heavy drapes pulled back from the broad bowed windows and my eyes grew wider when I saw two women dusting and polishing, leaving the pleasant scent of lemon oil in the air. Black people live like this?

Almost as though he heard my thoughts, Alex turned slightly, balanced and graceful, and extended his arm, inviting me to walk beside him, but I couldn’t stop staring as we walked. The little Chicago apartment I’d left a few weeks ago could have been dropped into this hallway alone, with room to spare.

“So, what’s your name?”

I looked up into those eyes and read suggestions, leaving me almost too embarrassed to even deliver my own name, but I worked around it. “Eloise,” I said. “Eloise Jenkins.”

“Eloise Jenkins.” He laughed, deep and rich, and I felt the brush of his humor and the stroke of his eyes against my body. I almost managed to tell myself that I imagined it when his arm moved around my waist leading me even further down the long hall. “You don’t look like an Eloise. I think I’m going to call you Loi, from now on.”

“Loi,” I echoed on a sigh, imagining what this gorgeous man saw when he looked at me. Surely, he saw something better and fancier than a tall girl in a white skirt and blouse with a cheap sweater pulled across her chest. Maybe he saw me as sexy and desirable, and as far as I was concerned, he could call me anything he wanted to. Loi sounded like a movie star name, I thought just as my feet tangled and I stumbled into him.

“Careful,” he said, settling his arm around me, keeping me on my feet. A pleasant tremor danced through me, and I wondered if he felt it, too. I took a chance, glanced up into his eyes and knew that he had. Then I had to remind myself not to press into the curve of his arm and wrap my arms around him as we turned to walk past a small reception room and down another hallway.

Dropping my eyes and opting for modesty, I felt the stare of the full-bodied woman who had first answered the door. She was dusting, bent over a shining wooden table as she watched us pass the doorway. She never said anything, but I saw one eyebrow rise and her lips purse, and I knew exactly what she was thinking – I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t thinking it myself.

Making my mind blank, I refused to hold the woman’s eyes, and kept walking with Alex Cramer. He was talking and his voice was entrancing, just like everything else about him. I managed to tune in just enough to hear about the care his wife would need. Nodding, I kept my eyes straight ahead. Shucks, I would have agreed to anything he asked.

Then, he was opening the French doors of a bright sunroom. It was just like in the movies. White walls with shining hardwood trim, pewter doorknobs and window latches, white-painted wicker furniture, colorful embroidered pillows, white sheers at the many windows, and healthy green ferns, along with some variety of trees I had never seen before. In the center of it all, his wife lounged on a chaise, beautiful and fragile.

The complete opposite of her husband, her frail beauty was an almost perfect match for his deeply robust animal sensuality. The first thing that struck me was her hair. Unlike mine, her hair was long dark and wavy – good hair, I remember thinking. The beautiful hair fell like an inky shawl around her shoulders in her pink quilted satin bed jacket, and she shook it back to look at me with wide almond-shaped eyes the color of jade. Her skin was pale and thin-looking, almost to the tone of ivory as it stretched across the fine bones of her face, and I remember thinking that she would feel cool to my touch. Then I took a good look at her slender body and the pallor of her skin. It was like she had no blood and I wondered what Miss Ruby Singer had not told me about my client.

“This is Veronica, my beautiful wife,” Alex smiled, leaving my side and going to her. “And this is Loi. She’s going to be your new companion.” He loved her, I could see it in his eyes, and my heart broke just a little bit. I would have killed to have been her.

Veronica lifted a willowy hand to him and returned his smile, before turning her face to me. “How nice to meet you.” Her voice was soft and breathy, with a genteel accent. “Loi is an unusual name; I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before. Is it a family name?”

Now, how the heck was I supposed to answer that? I’d heard the name for the first time in my life, just five minutes earlier – and it had come from the lips of her husband. “No, it’s a, uh, a nickname. My name is Eloise Jenkins.” And since they were smiling, I did, too.

“Loi is quite charming, though; it suits you.” Veronica’s fingers touched her curving lips and the full lower lip pushed forward thoughtfully. “It’s very nice to meet you, Miss Jenkins. Won’t you have a seat?”

Not knowing or having anything else to do, I sat and waited. I didn’t have to wait long, though. The stunning couple told me what was expected of me – or at least what Veronica expected, and it was nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, it was even easier than I’d anticipated. Veronica already had a nurse, an LPN who came in to visit with her four times a week. My job was mostly that of companion, though I would need to help her with little personal things.

The irony of this wealthy woman needing me to do the things she could not was not lost on me. Coming from inherited money, culture, and education, the Cramers should have been a golden couple, but Veronica had a heart condition developed in childhood and in spite of excellent care, the disease was killing her, and there was nothing money could do about it.

It was clear to me, even on that very first day, Alex loved Veronica, but he was a virile, active man, and though he never really said it, he resented his wife’s condition. Watching them together, I think Veronica knew it. Maybe that was part of the reason she was so sickly – because she indulged her husband’s activities and sometimes even encouraged them, believing that it was only the marriage of family money that had brought them together.

Knowing that everyone in their world silently agreed with Veronica, Alex struggled with fidelity and tried to make the best of a bad situation. His wife would be dead soon, so taking good care of her was only an in-the-meantime effort on his part. Bringing in a caregiver only made sense to him. After all, a nursing assistant wasn’t all that expensive and it made him look like he was trying to do his best for Veronica.

Over and above that, she did love him. So, on the recommendation of his friend Linn, he contacted the Singer School – that way it looked like he was taking care of Veronica, and he was helping out some poor little ghetto girl who would never stand a chance without him. Neither Alex nor Veronica counted on the little ghetto girl being a quick learner. I never counted on parlaying my CNA certificate into a gracious life and a future of splendor. And I certainly never counted on winding up with Alexander Cramer in my bed.

But that was where I found him, night after night.


Chapter Three

"God made woman beautiful and foolish; beartiful, that man might love her; and foollish, that she might love him. We are all glad to know that Loi loved Alex, probably far more and far better than he deserved, and that though he is gone, she is still with us." James Shaver raised his glass and gave me a glance that sizzled across the table, so hot it made me blush. Truly, the man is in the wrong business.

Unlike Linn, who couldn’t tell a joke or deliver a quote to save his life, my lawyer, James, could raise a woman’s temperature and her blood pressure with the mere flicker of his glance. Standing tall and sexy, his rich dark brown skin as creamy and unwrinkled as that of a man half his age, he was the picture of health, and he wore his good looks like a movie spy wore a trench coat – just part of the original equipment.

He and Alex had that old school steam heat and casual style thing in common, even as they grew older. They were men born to command, and born at a time when command was possible. They were men born to money, with the intelligence to multiply it and to make it work for them. And never let there be any doubt, money is sexy as all get out. Across the table, Ava was sitting there with a hand pressed hard to her breasts and her lips parted, panting and all the man was doing was talking – living proof, that even with silver hair, James Shaver was still serving up double helpings of sexy.

From his place at the table, James turned his mega-watt smile a notch higher as he tilted the bright crystal glass toward me. “To our Loi,” he said.

“Our Loi is proof that not every woman is entirely foolish,” someone whispered sharply. “She always was a fast learner.” The voice died quickly when I cut my eyes to the left, aiming to find the speaker.

It wouldn’t have been Lydia Preston, dressed like a nun in ruffled black chiffon, she dipped her head quickly, pressing her lips to her glass. She refused to look at me and it didn’t surprise me one bit. She didn’t have that much nerve. Her eyes shifted under my check, but then I noticed Marianne Charles – a whole other breed of animal. Marianne had all the nerve of a brass tailed monkey. When she found me looking at her, her sly smile dimmed as her gaze slid away – as much as admitting guilt. Bitch always was a coward and she never did like me, not that it was a problem. I never much liked her, either. Besides, she was mostly right. I really was a fast learner.

When I came to work for the Cramers, it didn’t take long for me to get the hang of my job – I pretty much knew what to do from the moment I walked through their front door. Hadn’t I been top of my class at the Singer School? Yep, top of my class for all ten days of my training, so with directions from her doctor, I learned to help Veronica shift her slender frame from her bed to her settee, then to her wheelchair. I learned to listen closely to the doctor and to monitor Veronica’s meals, fluid intake, and her medications. And I listened when she talked about her favorite things.

Alex was one of her favorite things, and she loved to talk about their little intimacies, things far too delicate to share with a stranger, but it was only me. So, Veronica talked and I listened. Then, as she grew used to me, she talked about more than just him. Listening to her, I learned to correct my table manners and refine my speech. Listening, I learned what to wear and how to wear it. Deadly dull, maybe, but I had a feeling almost from Day One that this was going to come in handy, someday…

So I paid attention.

Veronica liked to read, too. Reading might have been fundamental, but it had never much mattered to me, but it mattered to her, so I listened, I watched, and I read aloud whenever she asked me to. Years later, I have to admit that it all paid off. Watching her, I learned the charm and femininity that I should have learned from my mother and sister. Watching patiently, I learned to appreciate fine things like the beautiful antiques arranged so artfully throughout the house. When it came to those antiques, Veronica was always especially happy to share her knowledge of Ellen Lucere with me.

Ellen Lucere was a Georgia slave woman. She was a big strong black woman who didn’t much like working in the fields. Seeking something better than being used and abused, according to Veronica, Lucere opened her eyes to the world around her and discovered that she had a talent. Turning her hand to woodworking and the magic of mechanics, she developed her own furniture making techniques and produced legendary elegance in the process.

Hearing Veronica talk about her was every bit as enthralling as the stories in her beloved books. And I learned to love those books, too. It was either learn to love them or slit my throat – she had me reading aloud just about every day of the week. Looking back, I suppose that all of that reading not only improved my mind, but it encouraged my speech patterns, as well.

And don’t think for a minute that Veronica’s friends didn’t notice the changes in the little ghetto girl, which is what they called me behind my back when they thought I couldn’t hear them. Oddly, none of them mentioned the changes in Alex. Or at least they never mentioned them when they were around Veronica or when they thought Alex could hear them.

Of course, anybody with half a brain could see that all of those fair-weather friends really wanted to do was to pretend that they had better manners than that. Isn’t it a shame when people try to pretend that they are so above everything … and yet they don’t hesitate to lie down in the mud? And they want to take you with them.

But, I learned to be grateful for small favors, because Alex started watching me from the day I moved my things into the small downstairs guest suite. The maid, the one who had shut the door in my face and left me standing outside, I later learned her name was Velma, was in, but Alex led me to the suite himself. Like a king bestowing a gift on a peasant, he’d pushed open the door, then stood aside for me to enter. I knew that he was watching my happy face when I saw the space -- it was more room than I’d ever had to myself in my entire life.

Complete with its own sitting room and bath, the bedroom was done in shades of green and almost half the size of the Chicago apartment I’d shared with my mother, brother, and sister. At the rear of the main floor of the house, I was far enough away from the Cramer’s rooms to enjoy privacy, but close enough to be available if Veronica needed me, and more than close enough to be able to feel Alex Cramer’s presence.

Feeling him behind me, with his eyes sliding over my body, I knew that I more than just touched him. If I had any doubts, all I had to do was wait. In the days that followed my move-in, Alex watched more than just my actions around Veronica. He watched the sway of my hips and the length of my legs when I bent to help Veronica move from the bed to the chair. He watched the curve of my back when I moved across the room and reached to open curtains at the broad windows. He watched the rise and fall of my breasts when I caught him watching, and when I caught him watching, he took the curve of my lips and the lowering of my lashes as assent.

To be honest, all of the blame shouldn’t just fall on him. Maybe those covert smiles were my way of giving him permission to look and to dream about what I could offer. Maybe I was even agreeing to offer more than just dreams; hell, what did I know? I was just some random little ghetto girl, and though all of Veronica’s friends noticed changes in the little ghetto girl, none of them mentioned the changes in Alex. Or at least they never mentioned them when they were around Veronica or when Alex could hear.

But there were changes – lots of them.

The tone of our conversations changed, and when Veronica was not between us, intimacy grew easy. The words between us carried sometimes unsubtle double entendre and I knew where they led, even when I pretended not to. There were small, casually seductive, reasons to brush against one another, and almost before I knew it, Alex finally made his move.

Veronica had had a bad day, one of the worst I had seen. After the doctor left, the injection he’d given her finally eased her into a deep and sober sleep. Late that evening, I made sure that she was as comfortable as I could make her, and then moved toward the door, intending to head for my own bed. Opening the door quietly, I held my breath and slipped into the darkened hallway – and into Alex’s waiting arms.

Startled, I nearly cried out, but he was quicker. Silencing me with his kiss, he inhaled the scream I’d nearly set free.

Knowing that he was married, that somewhere there were rules, maybe unwritten rules, but rules that maybe God or somebody was keeping tabs on, scared me. The rules said this was wrong – that it was wrong to be in the arms of somebody else’s husband and liking it.

No, wrong. Loving it.

“I can’t do this,” I had whispered, eyes wide.

“Yes, you can,” Alex assured me, his lips persuasive.

And looking into his eyes, with his lips on mine, I fell. I fell deep and fast; deeper in lust with him than I could have ever planned to, or known that anyone could.

Sitting at a table in the middle of a party, almost thirty years later, I still sighed when I thought of it. I wasn’t entirely innocent, but I was seduced. No virgin had ever been moved so completely, and even with all that came afterward, my breath always caught in my throat when I remembered the determination that swirled through his eyes that night.

Looking into Alex’s eyes, I felt something made of need and heat work deep and insidiously through me. Whatever was between us had been simmering and growing from the time he opened the door to his home for me. The liquid urge wouldn’t let me think, only feel and act. When his hand moved over the swell of my breast, I felt my hot skin tense, and I think I meant to say something, but the words eluded me. His fingers flexed and kneaded, and I knew that I was about to drown in him.

My heart pounded hard against his hand as his mouth crushed mine, sending a dark thrill through me. When his teeth nipped my lips and his heat rushed me, I gasped and hoped. Parting my lips, I abandoned myself to the assault of his tongue. Sensation and time flew too quickly for me to separate one from the other, and there in the hallway outside Veronica’s bedroom, his hands were everywhere, claiming me with abandon. I felt him quiver against me and had to grip his shirt for balance as I fell back against the wall, taking him with me.

His hands moved and I heard myself moan in shocked excitement when he pulled my skirt up over my hips and pressed closer. Part of me wanted to protest; knew that I should, but I didn’t. My legs climbed his and wound tightly around him – binding him. I wanted every bit of what he was giving me. The scream that should have escaped me when Alex’s fingers clenched tightly into the flesh of my behind was lost, swallowed on the ragged breaths he left racing across my lips. Hard and fast, his body surged against mine as he plunged deep, and even knowing that Veronica slept just beyond us, I clung to him, taking all that he offered.

I think he called my name, but I will never truly be sure. Nearly deafened by the rushing sound of my own blood filling my ears, my world was concentrated on the primal rip of his push through my body. “Come to me,” he whispered against the hollow of my throat, his words hot and moist.

When my body obeyed him, exploding over and around him, I had a moment of complete surrender, baptizing us both. Only seconds behind me, his own moment tore through him and was enough to make him throw back his head with a breathy near-silent howl. Panting, almost wheezing, holding me against his damp body, he shuddered and let his head drop to my shoulder. Partners in crime, we held each other. I closed my eyes and rested in his arms, satisfied.

“Loi.” He whispered my name and it sounded like poetry to me as I slid reluctantly away from his arms.

“We have to be careful,” I whispered, refusing to give a name to what I was and what we’d just done, trying to pull my clothes into order.

Alex watched me, then took a step back, arranging his own clothes as if it mattered in the privacy of his own home. “Careful?” He made the question a tease and I wondered if he could smell the scent of our mating drifting around us in the hall.

“Veronica …” My eyes went to the door of his wife’s bedroom, then back to him. For a moment I wondered if she was awake in there; if she could smell what we’d done…

“It’s okay.” Alex looked down at me, then traced his thumb along my cheek. “Trust me, Loi. Everything will be fine,” he promised and I believed him. From that point on, I was his.

They say that every woman remembers her first time. With Alex, I remember every time, but that first night was really special to me. I simply fell in love. Falling in love with Alex Cramer was a complete experience for me. Everything about him left me branded, right down to the way he used to twine his fingers between mine when we passed each other, going in or out of Veronica’s room. Yes, our time together was stolen. Yes, what we had started out just being about the sex and that was selfish and trite. Yes, I could have refused him, and I know some people think that I’m going to Hell because I didn’t.

Maybe I should have had higher expectations, but nothing in my life had ever led me to expect more than stealing a piece of some other woman’s man. I thought Alex was my more, and it never occurred to me to expect bigger or better. With Alex, I figured I could postpone the hearts and flowers –forever, if need be.

Alex Cramer and everything that came afterward was inevitable for me. I know that now.