‘Young, Rich & Black’: An Afterwards Novella

youngrichSAMPLE SUNDAY: From ‘Young, Rich & Black: An Afterwards Novella’

“Didn’t I just see you last night?”

Phone up against his ear, Deuce watched from the other side of the barbershop as his father got the finishing touches on his shave. His own haircut had been done for a little while, and when he got tired of the shit-talking and sports predictions, he called Zora. Just to see what was up with her since they hadn’t talked after he dropped her off the evening before.

“Yeah. Damn. Just checking to see if you’re a’ight. Is that a problem?”

“Why wouldn’t I be alright? From what I remember, you saw me walk up my front path, unlock the door and step right into my house, didn’t you? I know, because I waved at you from the open front door.”

He smiled. He kind of liked it when she teased him; not by being coy, but by playing coy.

“I’m a gentleman. I was taught to wait until the lady was safe before pulling off. And there’s been a few home invasion robberies in Jersey so you never know.”

Zora laughed her husky yet melodious laugh. “Well, no one’s invaded my home. So I’m totally fine. But thanks for checking.”

“You’re welcome.”

For a few moments, there was silence between them. Across the room, the barber was wiping his father’s face clean. Soon he would take out his powder and brush and Deuce would no longer have the privacy he needed to seal this deal.

“What’re you doin’ later?”

“Nothing. The usual for when its cold as hell outside. Netflix. Chill.”

“Come do that with me.”

“Why, when I could do it right here? And not even have to change out of my PJs.”

“You haven’t changed out of your PJs?”

“Nope.” Zora made a popping noise with her lips when she pronounced the word.

“That’s nasty.”

She laughed. “I showered before bed.”

“Yeah. Sure you did.”

“I did.”

“Deuce!”

He looked up. His father was done, and beckoning for him as he doled out tips to the barber and his assistant.

“If you don’t want to come over, let me come over there then.”

“I probably should leave the house,” Zora said, almost as though talking to herself. “Whenever I try to veg out all day, it seems like a good idea, and then around seven-thirty I start feeling a little stir-crazy.”

“So … you comin’ over or …?”

“Ahm …”

Deuce stood, deliberately slow-walking toward the exit of the barbershop where his father was waiting for him. Ducking his head, and lowering his voice, he spoke deliberately softly into the phone.

“C’mon, Zee,” he said. “I really want to see you.”


coming soon.

#HolidayShorts Holdin’ it Down

HolidayShorts.jpg

It’s almost 2017! Can you believe it? It’s been an incredibly challenging year for me in so many ways. Creatively, I was definitely it was a bit of a nadir while I worked on life stuff. But I feel something more positive around the corner, so I thought I’d drop little hints in this, my final holiday short, ‘Holdin’ it Down’. I hope you enjoy, and if you spot the hints of future works to come, I’d be interested to know what you think they are.

Happy Reading, and (less than a week from today) Happy New Year!

Love,

Nia


 

Holdin’ it Down

 

“You should have seen what your son just had me doing.”

Robyn came breezing into their suite, the remnants of a smile still on her lips.

Chris smiled back at her, thinking for the hundredth time that day how beautiful his wife was. Beautiful and unflappable. They had had a full house for Christmas dinner—seventeen people including the kids—and now had six remaining houseguests, if you counted his two middle children Jasmin and Kaden as “guests”.

And yet, Robyn had done nothing but smile all day and look as cool as a cucumber. Even now, hours after the meal, she looked as fresh as she had when she first emerged from her dressing room around one that afternoon, her fire-engine red dress swishing about her knees, her shoulder-length hair still bouncy and full.

“Which son are we talking about?” Chris asked.

“Landyn. To be only two-and-a-half, he is so much like you sometimes it’s scary. I had to literally crawl on my belly just now to escape his room. Whenever I put him down, he just sat up and gave me this look, like, ‘woman, who said you were free to go?’ and then he’d reach up to me like this …” Robyn shook her head. “I had to pick him up again like six times before he finally stayed down. I had crawl out of there so he wouldn’t see me leave the room.”

Chris shook his head. “That’s because you let him play you. I would’ve left his little ass in there, even if he was bawling his head off. Bedtime is bedtime.”

“Yeah, sure you would’ve,” Robyn said rolling her eyes.

“And how does that make him like me? I can’t remember the last time you did anything just because I wanted you to.”

Chris watched as Robyn slid the dress over her shoulders and let it pool on the floor at her feet. Since they’d been married, her hips were a little wider and fuller. Her breasts larger, and she was curvier in general. Chris loved the changes, especially the way most of the new weight settled in the places he enjoyed most—her ass, her breasts, and hips.

“Demanding? Stubborn? Has to have everything he wants, when and how he wants it?”

“That’s like all my sons,” Chris said, unable to keep the pride out of his voice.

Just four years ago, if anyone would have told him he would be the proud father of five kids, he would have laughed in their face. The three he had when he and Robyn got together, he fully intended to be his only children. But she had changed all of that. And many other things about his life as well.

Robyn thought for a second. “Yeah you’re right. Kaden is coming into his own a little more. Did you notice how he challenged Deuce earlier when they were playing on the Wii? Used to be he would have just lost the game and cried about it. Now he’s giving back as good as he gets. Trash-talking and everything.” She smiled and shook her head, her expression as indulgent as though Kaden was her own child. The way she loved his kids, even the ones who weren’t hers, only made Chris love her more.

Sitting on the edge of the ottoman, Robyn reached behind her to unsnap her bra. Chris kept his eyes on her, waiting for the moment when, once the bra was removed, she would briefly massage the mounds of her breasts, and issue a contented sigh. He smiled. She would never guess how much watching that turned him on. To her, it was just a mindless habit that meant she was getting comfortable and ready for bed at the end of the day.

“Speaking of Deuce,” she said. “He’s still downstairs with his friend watching a movie. I told him to let us know before they leave, but you know how he can be. So don’t forget to check on them before we fall asleep. Last thing I want is for you to get an angry call from his mother at one in the morning because he’s still hanging out here.”

“Sheryl’s got a new man. She’ll be cool if he stays here tonight. I just hope he knows he better not be fuckin’ his girlfriend in the home theater.”

Robyn spun in surprise. “Wait. You think him and Zora …”

Chris gave her a look.

“But she’s so against type for him. And he introduced her just as a friend from school who he drove down with, so …”

“She’s got his nose wide open,” Chris said scoffing. “You telling me you didn’t see that?”

“No. I didn’t.” Robyn looked thoughtful. Standing, she began peeling off her underwear. She generally slept without undies, which worked out well for those mornings where Chris woke up, rolled over and helped himself to sleepy morning sex.

The way his wife responded to him, purely on instinct, never failed to awe and humble him. He knew she was his. He said as much to himself—and to her—often. But to roll over in the half-dark of the early morning, touch her low on her hip and just have her turn over to kiss him lazily while still not fully awake; or to feel her part her thighs at the barest pressure of his morning hardness against her made him feel how much she was his. The way she submitted immediately to his touch, let him do as he wanted, issuing soft, cooing like sounds while he stroked deep inside her, was sexy as hell and gave new meaning to the words ‘my woman’ and ‘my wife’. At times like those, he felt like he and Robyn were one. Not just joined in heart and head, but in their souls.

Shaking the sappy sentiment from his head, Chris brought himself back to the here-and-now.

“I hate to say it, but she is going run circles around his ass. You didn’t see the way he looked at her?”

Naked and unselfconscious, Robyn shook her head. “No. How did he look at her?”

Chris mimicked a simpering, lovesick look and Robyn spluttered into laughter.

“He did not! Deuce is cool as hell. He would never come across that thirsty.” She headed for their en suite and Chris watched her go, eyes on the little jiggle of her behind.

“Yeah, well you mark my words. This chick is going to have his gut tied in knots. I almost pulled him to the side and counseled him to up his game.”

“Deuce doesn’t need your help in that department,” Robyn said teasingly. She paused at the door to the bathroom. “He’s got way more game than you ever did, Mr. Scaife.”

Chris laughed. “Yeah, okay.”

“Have to wash off this makeup,” Robyn said just before she disappeared. “So I may as well jump in and take a quick shower.”

As the sound of the water started, Chris thought about who did come across thirsty. No question about it, his brother-in-law Nate’s girl, Presley, that was who. She was a very nice-looking woman, and seemed to be a nice enough person, but a little too starstruck with Shawn and Riley. And asked way too many questions about people in the business. She had that look in her eyes of unbridled ambition and fame-seeking that Chris had become adept at detecting, especially among the beautiful women he met in his line of work, or rather his former line of work.

Though it was obvious she was into Nate—maybe even very much into him—she was the type of chick who would always be yearning for something bigger and better, something that she hadn’t even yet defined, but which she believed was perpetually around the next corner. A man could spend time with a woman like that, and he would probably even enjoy that time. But he would do well not to get too attached to her, because the gratification of just one person’s approval would never be enough for women like Presley—what she was looking for was mass adulation.

She couldn’t have been more different from say, Jamal’s wife, Makayla. Once she shed her shyness, Makayla pretty much didn’t seem to give a crap about the fame, wealth and the high-rolling lifestyle she had married into. Even though married less than a month, those two were finally starting to settle into being a couple. All through dinner, Chris couldn’t help but notice how many times Turner had looked his wife’s way, trying to catch her gaze, and winking or grinning at her when he did. Like she was a gift he couldn’t wait to get home to unwrap. That shit still messed his head up. They were all getting old if Jamal Turner, eternal bachelor and New York’s favorite dark chocolate pretty boy was out of the game for good.

Still, for the past several months, it hadn’t looked like it was going to turn out that way. Especially not after that new situation with the ever-present and always-difficult Devin Parks. Although to be fair, this time the drama was not of Parks’ making, but someone else’s handiwork. That shit … that had been nothing less than an attempt at a takedown.

But Chris had to hand it to Turner. He had managed that whole thing like a pro. There had been a few days in the past month, before things died down, when Chris couldn’t pretend he hadn’t been tempted to step in. In the end, there had been no need, and he was both disappointed and relieved. Disappointed because it was a strange feeling to be superfluous in his own company. And relieved because the way Turner handled himself proved once and for all that he had picked the right man for the job. It also confirmed that he needed to turn his focus one hundred percent to his new venture. He was going to have to come to final terms with letting go of the business he had built from practically nothing into the mega-machine it was today.

“That was so good.” Robyn came padding out of the bathroom, damp and fresh-faced, her skin boasting a slightly pink undertone. “I turned it up as hot as I could stand it and I felt all the tension just melt out of my muscles.”

“You were tense?” Chris shoved aside the iPad that he hadn’t even been looking at anyway.

“Couldn’t you tell? I wanted this to go well, especially with Kaden and Jasmin here for the first time. And all those toddlers running around … and then my mother and Ollie unexpectedly joining us … If Tracy hadn’t come early to help me cook I would’ve lost my mind. By the way, I think she’s pregnant again, did I tell you?”

“Nah,” Chris said, uninterested. He was watching Robyn release her towel from around her, toss it into the hamper in the corner and reach for her body lotion. “What makes you think that?”

“Didn’t you see the way she avoided the wine all night? And I saw her massaging her stomach a few times when she thought no one was paying attention. And Brendan was all over her.”

“Brendan is always all over her,” Chris pointed out.

“Yeah. True.”

Hearing what sounded like a little wistfulness in her voice, Chris turned his attention from her naked body and toward her face. He didn’t always tell Robyn what he felt for her. In fact, he wasn’t so sure he had words that could adequately express it. Every once in a while, he wished he had those words, so she would know. His life before her had been a half-life; and now, with her he felt like he was finally fully living. But who said that kind of thing out loud? Maybe dudes like Brendan, but not him.

Luckily, Robyn never seemed to care about that. She understood him in a way that transcended what he said, or didn’t say. All he knew was that sometimes, he would happen across old pictures of himself in the press or online, something old being revived to make a point about something new that was happening in the music business. And he would see in those pictures, a man who no longer existed. That was almost all because of Robyn.

“She and Brendan are doing brunch at their place in Brooklyn on New Year’s Day. I told her we would definitely be there. We’re going, right? We don’t have any other plans?”

Chris nodded absently. “Yeah, we’ll be there. C’mere.”

“First let me find my …” Robyn was reaching for the dresser, no doubt about to find and put on one of the wispy little nightgowns she wore to bed these days.

“Nah. Don’t put anything on,” Chris said. “Just come exactly as you are.”

Robyn didn’t hesitate. With a bemused expression, she took two steps toward the bed, then another two. And then three, deliberately teasing him with her slowness. Then she seemed to think of something else.

“Did you feel like things were kind of … off between Riley and Shawn? I sensed a little … I don’t know, something,” she mused.

Chris smiled and shook his head.

“I don’t know. And if there was something, they’ll work it out. Those two are rock-solid. Now shut up and c’mere.”

Climbing onto the bed, Robyn got on her hands and knees and began crawling toward him. Soon she was only inches away, or at least her breasts were, when she raised herself onto her knees, her torso upright.

“What do you want?” she asked, her eyes were mischievous. She pulled in her lower lip.

Without answering, Chris tossed back the sheets and released the erection that had been growing from the moment she first entered their bedroom and started shedding clothing. Robyn looked down and then back up at him. Without a word, she slung one leg over his so she was straddling him, weight still on her knees.

“This?” she asked, her eyes never leaving his. “This what you want?”

Chris nodded, and his eyes fell to the apex of her thighs. With a thumb he touched her, moving it in small circles. Robyn tried to lower herself onto him, hoping to supplement whatever sensation it was that had caused her eyes to flutter shut. But with his free hand, Chris grabbed her hip and stopped her.

“No,” he said. “I need you to come at least one time first. So you’ll be really wet …”

“I am really wet,” Robyn groaned. She grasped his wrist and moved his hand back farther. “See? You feel that?” She impaled herself on his middle and forefinger, rolling back and forth. She was hot, grasping and pulling his fingers in, and with each clench, she moaned, deep husky tones that made him want to watch her face, even as he felt compelled to look down.

With her eyes shut, and her lips slightly parted, Robyn looked wildly beautiful. He wanted to kiss her, suck on her full lower lip, bite her neck and bury himself inside her. But he wanted to see that first explosive orgasm. Her first one was always noisy and profound. After that, the others, later, would be quieter, longer, and harder to earn. But he loved putting in the work to get her there.

Leaning in, he captured a nipple between his lips, playing with it and feeling her hips jerk in response. With one hand, she held his head to her chest, asking without speaking, for him to be rougher with her. He nipped her a little and she gasped, then he felt her free hand, clamp around his wrist and he got that noisy, explosive orgasm he’d been working for. Wasting no time, Chris removed his hand, prying it loose from her grip and without losing the contact between his lips and her breast, arched upward and lunged deep inside her.

Robyn cried out, and both her hands grabbed his biceps, her fingers digging into his skin. She was completely still, but where  Chris was deep inside her, there was nothing but movement.

Grip. Release.

Grip. Release.

Grip. Release.

Chris’ eyes met his wife’s and held. Both of them were frozen in the moment, their breathing labored. When Robyn shifted, he held her still once again.

“No,” he breathed. “Don’t move. I just want to feel you. Just like this.”

Robyn smiled and leaned in, cupping his face and sliding her tongue between his lips. She was warm, minty, and sweet all at the same time. They kissed the way they were making love—with sensual slowness, reading each other and responding. As her lips and mouth grew hungrier, it became more difficult to keep still, especially with Robyn twitching and shifting on top of him. Chris wrapped both his arms around her in a bear-hug, forearms crossed at her lower back, hands cupping her ass.

“Some people just can’t follow instructions,” he said against her neck. “I said …don’t move.”

Robyn was almost panting with need. “Don’t think I can,” she said. “You feel so good, baby. So … so… good.”

Chris bowed his head, playing with her nipples again, moving from one to the other and back again. As she panted, Chris felt himself getting even harder. Not too long now. He was going to have to let go. But he didn’t want to, because then it would be over, at least for a few minutes. And that was about as long as it would take for Robyn to fall deeply asleep. He knew his wife. She was always a little bit of a babbler, but her frenetic chatter was a signal that she was close to exhaustion. Like a little kid, she always had one last burst of adrenaline before sleep grabbed ahold of her and didn’t let go. But tonight, he had better uses for that last gasp of energy than letting her run off at the mouth.

Holding her by the waist, he lifted her off him. Robyn’s eyes opened wide in disappointment and alarm.

“What’re you …?”

Chris turned her onto her stomach, sliding a pillow beneath her pelvis and entering her once again. Robyn gasped, looking at him over her shoulder, her eyes hooded and clouded over with pleasure. Whatever he gave her, she was throwing right back at him, until tiny puddles of perspiration pooled in the dimples at her lower back. Her hair stuck in curly ringlets at her temples and the back of her neck, and she flung her head back and forth to keep the rest of it from sticking to her back. Leaning forward, not missing a stroke, Chris lifted her hair, wrapped it around his hand and tugged it, then blew on the back of her neck.

When he grabbed and pulled harder, Robyn’s moans grew louder. She was almost there, so he increased the pace, wanting to get there with her. In that last few seconds, when he knew his climax was upon him, Chris leaned in, grabbed ahold of his wife’s chin and turned her head so he could kiss her. He felt her shudder wrack her entire body just as his tongue met hers, and then, his own eruption followed, close on the heels of hers.

Collapsing on top of her, resting most of his weight on her forearms, it took Chris a moment to regain his breath. Beneath him, Robyn made that purring noise she often made when he’d put in some serious work.

“Hmm,” she said. “That’s what I needed. But now my shower was for nothing. I’m all sticky again.”

“Take another one,” he murmured against the shell of her ear.

“Can’t. Too tired.”

“Doesn’t matter. We’re good. You’re good.” He rolled off her and instead wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her against him spoon-fashion.

They were sticky, but like her, he couldn’t muster the energy to care enough to do anything about it.

Just as Chris was sure she had drifted off to sleep, Robyn sighed.

“Baby?” she said.

“Yeah?”

“What were you and my mom talking about in the kitchen?”

Chris froze. This was the conversation he’d been hoping not to have until tomorrow. This was the conversation, he’d been hoping not to have at all. He told Carolyn that he thought she should be the one to have it, but she said she didn’t mind him broaching the topic if it came up. More likely, she wasn’t looking forward to breaking the news and hoped Chris might prime the pump for her a little.

“Paris,” he said. “You know she was supposed to go for the holiday, so …”

“Yeah, that was weird. How Oliver just showed up like that when she was supposed to go. Is everything alright between them?” Robyn turned in his arms so she was facing him. Her lips were bee-stung and her hair was a mess. But yeah, still beautiful.

“He wanted to surprise her,” Chris stated the obvious, stalling.

Oliver was Carolyn’s “gentleman friend” whom she’d met when she moved to Paris a couple years ago to support Robyn through a career change that had turned out to be a life-change. Not only for Robyn, but for Chris, and for their relationship. Since then, Carolyn and Oliver’s relationship had been long distance, with Robyn’s mother traveling to France once every three months, and Oliver coming to the States as often as his time and business interests would allow.

“So they’re okay, then? Everything’s cool with them? I know my Mom loves him. I would hate for him to have flown all this way to let her down easy or something.”

“That’s not why he’s here,” Chris said.

Alerted by the certainty in his tone, Robyn sat up. “What’s going on? What do you know?”

Chris sat up as well. “You have to promise not to trip.”

“Chris, tell me.”

“He’s … he asked her to marry him.”

Robyn squealed. “Oh my god! Are you …” Then she paused and straightened her back. “But that would mean …”

“That she would be moving to Paris.”

Robyn blanched.

Chris knew she was attached to her mother. When they’d first gotten involved, it was clear to him that her mother’s approval would mean everything, and her disapproval could be the death knell. Luckily for him, Carolyn Crandall was the chillest of people. He was lucky, as far as mothers-in-law went, because she had never been anything less than supportive of his and Robyn’s relationship.

“And what did she say?” she asked, her voice small.

“She loves him.” Chris shrugged. “They want to be together.”

Robyn’s eyes filled. “She’ll miss my kids growing up. And if Nate gets married …”

“Robyn,” Chris said her name with a little more force in his voice, the tone he used when he needed her to focus. And sometimes when they were arguing. “She deserves to have her own life. Not just be your mother, or our kids’ grandmother.”

“I know that. But is she thinking this through? I mean …”

“I’ve never known you to be selfish, Robyn,” he said.

She looked at him in surprise, but said nothing.

“Because that’s what it would be. If you respond to this news with anything other than complete happiness for this change in her life, that’s what it would be. Selfish.”

Robyn sighed, and looked chastened. He knew his opinion of her held a lot of sway over his wife, but he rarely wielded that power to change her mind, or behavior. Because he respected her as well. The nature of their relationship was to allow each other plenty of breadth to make their own individual decisions, and even mistakes. So the significance of him saying this, and saying it in this way was not lost on Robyn.

“Is she sure?” Robyn said. “Did she tell you she was …?”

“She’s excited. And she speaks French fluently now. And has her own neighborhoods and hang-outs over there. Her own friends. Every time she comes back here, her life is grocery shopping and television, looking after Caity and Landyn when we’ve got stuff to do. It’s a smaller life than she wants, Robyn. Smaller than she deserves.”

“I guess she never thought she would have this again. Someone who loves her. And for him to want to take her to live in Paris …”

“Yeah.” Chris nodded. He watched his wife processing, as she did, quietly.

“And we’ll go see her. Maybe summers or something.”

He nodded.

“I am happy for her,” Robyn said. “I am.”

It sounded like she hadn’t completely convinced herself yet, but was working on it. She leaned into him, her head on his shoulder and Chris wrapped an arm around her.

“So tomorrow. Nothing but smiles when she tells you, right?”

“Nothing but smiles,” she confirmed. “But I’m going to miss her so much, Chris.” Her voice broke a little.

“I know. But that’s later. Right now, we’re here. Our entire family is here. Under this roof. And the Scaifes are holdin’ it down.”

At that Robyn smiled a genuine smile. She let her head fall back so she could look up at him. Chris saw the love in her eyes. And felt it in his chest. He smiled back.

“Yeah, we are,” she said. “We’re holding it down.”

~~~

 

 

 

 

Letting Go #HolidayShorts

 

holidayshorts-1“Will you think about it?”

“Yes, I said I would.” Karen heard the strain in her voice.

Fearing that she had also been too loud, she glanced worriedly toward the stairs. She didn’t want to wake the kids. The last thing she needed was to have one of them come wandering out and with sleepy eyes, spot Kaden’s football coach sneaking out of their house while it was still dark outside.

“I think it’s an important step, Karen,” Vic said. “For all of us.”

“The kids …”

“I meant them too,” he said, his eyes holding hers. “It’s time.”

“Okay. We’ll talk again later. But for now you have to …”

“I know,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “Leave before they see me.”

Karen sighed and leaned in, hoping the quick kiss would placate him. At least for the moment.

Across her lawn, behind her neighbor’s house across the street, and in the horizon, she could see the pinkish-orange splashes across the sky. The sun was almost up, and with it, Jasmin and Kaden.

Since they were on Winter Break they seemed to have no trouble getting out of bed in the morning; unlike school days when she practically had to drag them from beneath the covers.

Karen watched as Vic made his way down her long driveway and toward his car. He’d parked on the street, the way he always did, because Karen was paranoid about her neighbors or the kids seeing a strange car in the driveway in the middle of the night. The neighbors wouldn’t care. Or if they did, they would probably cheer for her. Her kids, she wasn’t so sure about.

Vic reached his car and turned to give her a brief wave before getting in and pulling away. She heaved a sigh of both relief and resignation. Watching him leave was hard, and getting harder. But what else was she supposed to do?

He’s fed-up, Karen, the little voice in her head warned. He’s going to leave you.

Shoving it aside, Karen shut the door and leaned against it for a few moments before taking another breath and heading into the kitchen. She would make herself a cup of chai before attending to the kids’ breakfast. Putting on the tea kettle, she reached for her iPad and checked her schedule. There was very little on it—a hair appointment, a manicure, lunch with Priss and Amy, and then shopping with the kids. They still had to get presents. For their cousins, their aunt and uncle and their grandparents. And of course, for their siblings.

The ones for their brothers and sister were harder, because Karen didn’t really know Chris’ other kids. That made it difficult to overrule the choices Jasmin and Kaden made. Deuce was in college now—a sophomore, a junior? Karen couldn’t remember. And the babies, Caitlyn and Landyn were both under four. But mothers were strange sometimes; they had all these rules about what they wanted or didn’t want to their kids to play with. And though Robyn didn’t strike Karen as being that kind of a stickler, one never knew.

Everything to do with Chris’ wife caused Karen to feel a low-level hum of anxiety. She didn’t want to offend, nor to commit some kind of faux pas. But no matter what she did, she couldn’t help but feel that she might never measure up. Not that Robyn had ever given her any reason to feel that way. It was just that damned voice in her head, the one that Vic was always telling her was a liar.

If it tells you you’re not beautiful, it’s lying, he said one night as he kissed her shoulder. If it tells you you’re not an amazing mother, friend … it’s lying.

Vic was so sensitive, so understanding in that way. He didn’t get impatient with her insecurities, or find them to be a turn-off the way Chris had. Instead, he soothed them away.

When they were together, Chris loathed the way she put herself down, the way she assumed, with no evidence whatsoever, that just about everyone was smarter, more consequential, more … everything than she was. It was one of many things that made them a mismatch probably. The fact that Chris knew, or at least had learned how to project the impression that he was better than most people at most things; that he was way ahead of everyone else. She had admired, and envied that about him. Maybe the admiration had been too much, and had turned to simpering, and that was what made him leave her.

But what did it matter now? That part of her life was long done with. Chris was happily married and she was with Vic. So why was it she couldn’t stop thinking about it? It had been years, but she still thought about it almost every day—what she might have done differently so that Chris would have stayed.

What made it harder to turn that question off was his larger-than-life image which seemed to follow her, no matter where she went. Even Priss and Amy never tired of probing about her past relationship, now almost ten years dead.

So … what was he like? Amy had once asked, a twinkle in her eyes.

And when Karen looked confused at the question she’d asked it again, this time with a different inflection.

I mean, you know, what was he like?

And that was when Karen realized she meant sexually. What had Chris been like sexually? It was the most frequent area of curiosity for women up here in staid Bronxville with their controlled glamor, and New York-lite fashions.

I wouldn’t even know how to answer a question like that, Karen had laughed.

Answer it truthfully, Amy suggested. Was he, like, really … wild and rough?

Karen smiled at her friend. No more so than any other man, I guess.

Amy looked disappointed. Karen couldn’t figure out whether her disappointment was that Chris wouldn’t live up to her Mandingo fantasies, or that Karen was disinclined to share that he had.

Amy and Priss weren’t even properly classified as ‘friends’. They were the mothers of her kids’ friends; women she was repeatedly thrown together with during all those enforced socials associated with various teams, committees and neighborhood associations. Amy used to have a career as a gallery manager until she had her third kid; and Priss, whose real name was Priscilla (swear to God) was a jewelry-maker in SoHo until she met her hedge fund manager husband. It was easier to hang out with Amy and Priss than some of the other mothers because Karen secretly didn’t think ‘gallery manager’ and ‘jewelry maker’ were real careers.

Some of the other mothers, though they were now stay-at-homes like Karen, Amy and Priss used to be lawyers, venture capital consultants, compliance officers. Those women formed their own little tribe, and clustered together at socials, talking about things like President Obama’s energy policy or whether or not Hillary Clinton would have made a good president (‘I mean gender aside,’ Karen heard one mother say, ‘What did she really bring to the table other than that she wasn’t the other guy?’). Karen wouldn’t have had any idea how to contribute to that conversation. She hadn’t even registered to vote.

She met Vic at one of those events. It was a celebratory dinner for Kaden’s football team and Vic had stopped in because he was a local celebrity. He used to play for the Giants until an injury forced him into broadcasting instead. Now he was on ESPN as a commentator. Karen hadn’t even known that his kids went to Kaden and Jasmin’s school. But truth be told, even if she had known, she wasn’t sure she would have recognized his name.

When he’d walked into the restaurant for the team dinner, Karen noted how all the other mothers had straightened up in their seats, some of them flipping their hair, or jutting their chins and chests forward. All the boys on the team had oohed and aahed. Some of them, including Kaden, shoved back from their seats to rush him. Vic had smiled and taken it in stride, high-fiving some of them, shaking the hands of others, and beaming at them all.

Vic Elliot, someone whispered into Karen’s ear. His son doesn’t play anymore, but he promised to stop by as a special surprise.

Vic was handsome, tall and still had the build of a pro athlete. Karen found it hard to look him directly in the eye when introduced. When she got home later that evening and Kaden and Jasmin were in bed, she Googled him. He had retired from the NFL four years prior and had two kids with his ex-wife, a former Miss New York. Vic had custody, and his divorce had been messy and public. His children were almost the exact same age as Jasmin and Kaden—a boy one year younger than Jasmin, and a girl, one year older than Kaden.

There were lots of pictures of Vic online. Enough to convince Karen that a crush on him was pointless and unwise. That was all she needed. Even if he was by some remote possibility to become interested in her, there was no way she was subjecting herself to being involved with a high-profile man who had been married to a beauty queen, and also dated models. Oh no. Never again. Her self-esteem wasn’t nearly durable enough for that.

~~~

Karen took the whistling kettle off the stove and poured it over her teabag. She took a deep breath, reveling in the aroma of the chai for a few moments before adding sweetener and cream. Just as she did, the phone rang. She reached for it, grabbing it out of the cradle before the second ring to avoid having it wake the kids.

“Hey,” the voice on the other end said. He still had the power to make her heart race.

Karen wasn’t sure why that was, since she was no longer in love’with Chris. But there was part of her, still, that wanted his approval and always felt as though she was falling just a few steps short of ever having it.

“You’re calling early,” she said. “Everything okay?”

“Just trying to get some things straight for the holidays. You said you’re bringing the kids over tomorrow, right?”

“Yes,” Karen confirmed. “Or you could send your driver. Just because the traffic this time of year will be awful. I’d like to avoid driving too far.”

That was a lie. She wasn’t worried about traffic. She just hated pulling up to that house—the house where she used to live—and letting her kids out of the car, usually running because they were so eager to see their younger brother and sister. And this time, since Deuce would be home, there was that as well. Kaden would be jumping up and down in his seat, just dying to leave his boring old mother behind and spend time with the older brother he practically worshipped. Karen swallowed the lump that rose in her throat. It used to be that Christmas was hers and and the kids’ alone.

Back then, she had yearned for Chris to pay more attention to their children. Had prayed for it in fact. Now that he had made a family with someone else, he wanted Jasmin and Kaden with him as much as possible. Karen was grateful for that, because they adored their father, but it also broke her heart just the tiniest bit as well. They had been absorbed into a large, mysterious new family system that didn’t include her.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Chris said right away. “I’ll have Rick come get them. What time you think?”

“I don’t know. Maybe around three or so?”

“Cool. And what time do you need them back?”

Hesitating, Karen thought about what Vic said. They could spend Christmas together, just the two of them, if she was willing to let her kids go stay with their father.

We’d take them out Christmas Eve, both of us together, he suggested. Your kids and mine. Let them know we’re together, and then maybe, if you’re comfortable with it, you’d explain to yours that they’re spending the holiday with their Dad for a change.

At first Karen had resented the suggestion. Who was he to tell her she should ship her children off for the most important holiday of the year? But that wasn’t his motive. His kids were going to be with their mother, and he would be alone as well. It would give them some time to plan for the future, think about whether they wanted a future that included the other.

You’re not just their mom, Karen, he said. You’re my woman, too. They have a father. You don’t have to hold them so close. It’s time to give yourself and them, a little more rope. Let go a little.

She’d promised him she would think about it. She did want Jasmin and Kaden to know about Vic. At first, she concealed it because of the awkwardness of it all. Vic had started coaching the team. That was how they’d started—Karen and Vic exchanging glances during games, and then finally, he invited her out for a drink, and then dinner. It had been a slow courtship because both their lives were largely about their kids. Well, her life was about her kids and his was about his kids and his demanding job. But he hung in there with her. Even when they first spent the night together and she’d snuck him out the back door like a fugitive. And even though that arrangement had been going on for months now, with her showing no inclination whatsoever to change it.

Then last night, he insisted.

I want to think about what a life together someday might be like. But … with things like they are… I need you to tell your kids. I need us to spend real, couple time together.

“Karen?” Chris prompted. “What time do you need them back tomorrow evening? I want to make sure they get a chance to see Deuce before they go home.”

God, he was different. Trying to arrange things with his children in mind was definitely not the guy he used to be. But more likely, he was acting on instructions from Robyn.

“I’m … I was thinking that … I was considering whether you might want to … you know, to keep them for Christmas,” Karen said. Her heart was pounding, just saying the words, never mind considering actually following through with them.

Chris said nothing for what felt like a really long time. Finally, he took a breath. “You sure?” he asked.

“No,” Karen said, with a sound that was half-laugh, half-sob.

“Everything okay?” Chris asked after a few more beats. He never did know how to handle it when she got emotional; had never understood nor connected with any of her feelings as a matter of fact.

“No. I mean, yes.”

“Which is it? No, or yes?” He sounded mildly impatient.

That was another thing he never had much comprehension of: how women could simultaneously hold two completely opposing impulses, and feel both with equal conviction.

“It’s just … I … I have … I’m with someone,” she began. “And …”

“And he doesn’t want the kids around?” Chris asked, his voice rising. “Is that it?”

“No, no, it’s not that. He has kids as well. They’re going to be away. He wants us to spend Christmas Eve morning with all the kids and then he and I would spend Christmas Day together. He thinks I need to …”

“Do what you want to do, Karen. Don’t let some dude …”

“He’s not like that,” she said sharply. “He just thinks I need to give the kids some breathing room, give you a chance to spend the holiday with them. And give us a chance to see where we could take things, y’know, with our relationship.”

Once again, Chris remained silent for a long while. “I don’t know what to tell you. Other than, I would love to have them for Christmas. And Robyn would love to have them. So whatever you decide … that’ll be fine with us.”

Us.

Now, Chris was speaking in terms of an ‘us’. He was in love with his wife. Like truly, deeply and completely in love with her. Karen sighed quietly. She had to stop letting that surprise her the way it did. She had to stop letting it sting the way it did. He had never loved her that way. Maybe he had never loved her at all.

“So I’ll decide and let you know,” she said, trying to pull herself together.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll send Rick for them tomorrow around three and if you plan to let them stay, send them with their bags and we’ll talk later about when you want them to come back. Sound good?”

“Sure,” she said. “Sounds like a plan. Bye Chris.”

“Yeah, bye. But Karen?”

“Yeah?”

“If he’s a good guy, maybe you should let yourself have that. Y’know what I mean? Our kids are going to be okay.”

Our kids. Sometimes, though they lived with her, and she was their primary caregiver, it felt like she was raising his kids. That sense was only heightened because of the money he deposited into her account each month. It was a sum most people with full-time employment would love to see; but each time Karen saw it, it made her feel small.

Because it was way more than a court would have mandated for child support – it was enough for nice clothes, not just for the children, but her as well; and for lunches out every week, and for trips, dinners, spa days. It felt like too much, and sometimes made her ashamed because within months of meeting Chris all those years ago, she had never worked another day. To alleviate the guilt, Karen gave some of the money away to her siblings and parents, and saved some for the kids in accounts they would have access to when they were in college.

“They’ll be okay.” Chris said again. “Other than missing you like hell on Christmas morning.”

Karen smiled. That was something she always forgot about him—occasionally, he knew precisely what a woman needed to hear.

~~~

“Baby. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Vic kept saying. “Maybe you just weren’t ready. I shouldn’t have pushed you to do this.”

“No, you were right,” Karen said, wiping her nose. “It is time. I mean, how ridiculous am I? Standing here crying because my kids just left to go have an amazing time with their father? I should be happy, right?”

Vic put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her against him, and when Karen lifted her chin, she saw that he looked uncertain about whether to believe her. Unsure of whether he had done the right thing by insisting on this.

Jasmin and Kaden had been a little quiet and standfoffish at first with Vic’s two kids, but neither of them seemed to take issue with the fact that Vic was their mother’s new ‘boyfriend’. In fact, Kaden seemed to think it was pretty cool, having a pro football player—and his coach!—become such a huge part of his life.

Vic and Karen had taken the kids to brunch at First Watch, then they went to the mall together to do some last-minute shopping. After a little while, Jasmin and Vic’s daughter Sarah had peeled off on their own to look at clothes in a tween clothing store. Kaden and Vic’s son Vic, Jr. had less to say to each other.

See? Vic said as they walked together hand-in-hand. It’s fine. They’re fine.

And they were. And she was as well. Until Rick showed up to get them in the black Lincoln with the darly-tinted windows that Chris had his driver use whenever he was chauffeuring family members. Jasmin and Kaden piled in. Carrying with them favorite pillows, luggage and the mountain of gifts that they’d bought for everyone, they barely spared her a backward glance. As they pulled away, Karen waved energetically from the front door, and when they were out of sight, burst into noisy tears.

Vic, who had been discreetly waiting inside for her to say her goodbyes came out to get her, and now was comforting her while they sat together on the sofa.

Karen wiped her nose again and braved a smile.

“So now it’s just you and me,” she said, trying to sound bright. “What’re we going to do with all this time?”

Vic grinned at her and she blushed. He was a voracious lover, and made Karen feel for the first time in her life like she might really, truly let herself enjoy it. When she was younger, before she had her kids, she used to find that difficult. It felt good, but there was always a part of her that was self-conscious about the sounds she made, the exposure of her whole, naked self, and of the noisiness of her orgasms. With Vic, she sometimes cried when she came and he held her, and kissed her as though her tears were the most natural thing in the world.

Let go, Vic would say, his breath whispering against her ear. Just let go.

She wasn’t quite sure she was there yet, but maybe with him, she finally could.

~~~

Later, when they were in her bed, Vic with his head thrown back, not quite snoring but breathing heavily, she lay wide awake and staring at him, studying him—the lines and planes of his square jaw, the broad but high-bridged nose, the thick, well-formed lips and the solid musculature of his neck. This was her man, if she wanted him. If she could just allow herself to believe it.

The phone rang, interrupting her scrutiny. Taking a breath, she picked up. Next to her, Vic rolled onto his stomach.

“Hello?” she said, her voice low.

“Karen?”

She sat up. Oh no. Why her? And why now? Just when she was beginning to think about feeling comfortable in her own skin.

“Robyn. Hi!” Her voice sounded falsely perky.

“Hi. So, the kids got here okay. And don’t worry, everything’s fine. But I had a thought.”

“A thought?”

“Yes. Chris told me why you were sending them over for the holidays, and …”

“I didn’t mean to impose,” Karen said hastily. “I know it’s last-minute and …”

“No, no, it’s not that,” Robyn said. “It’s just that he also told me a little bit about why you wanted them to stay. And so I wondered …”

Karen waited.

“We already have a full house for Christmas dinner and Chris said you’ve never not had Christmas with the kids, so if you and your friend, if you didn’t have other plans for dinner … Did you both want to stop by here?”

Karen pulled the sheet up to cover her bare chest. How unthreatening Robyn must find her, to make such an invitation?

Stop it, Karen!

“I … I’d love to but …”

“Great!”

“I mean, before I could say, I would have to ask Vic. Maybe he’s already made plans for us.”

“And if he has, don’t change them on my behalf,” Robyn said. “But I thought of you when I saw Jasmin and Kaden come charging in. And how you probably miss them already. So … anyway. Only if you want, but the invitation is an open one. We have dinner early, like around two. So please come. If you’d like.”

Karen thought of Chris’ friends—Brendan and Tracy, Riley and Shawn, Robyn’s family, Jamal Turner and his fiancée. They were all nice enough, but they were Chris’ and Robyn’s friends. That was their life, and she had a chance now to rebuild her own. She didn’t need Robyn to feel sorry for her, and glancing over at Vic, she realized she didn’t need to feel sorry for herself either.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice a little stronger now. “That’s really nice of you, but on second thought, I think it’ll be good for the kids to be with you and their father. So I’m going to decline.”

 


 

Begin Again #HolidayShorts

Three-and-a-half hours. That was how long it would take to drive from State College to Short Hills, New Jersey. Deuce could endure almost anything for three-and-a-half hours. Even the company of the one girl on campus he least wanted to see.

holidays 

Nah. Hell nah.

He was being punked. That was the only way to explain this. Out of the almost one hundred thousand students at Penn State …. No way.

Deuce took a deep breath and stood as Zora approached his table at the Hub. Wearing a scowl with her grey sweatshirt and jeans, she was obviously just as surprised and dismayed as he.

“Wow,” she said, her tone sardonic. “Small world.”

“That wasn’t your name,” he said. “On Zimride, the person who responded wasn’t you.”

“I had a friend post for me,” Zora said, referring to his inquiry on the campus rideshare system. “I didn’t know it was you either. Obviously.”

“Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?” he asked sourly. “Of knowing exactly who you’re letting into your car? Of knowing exactly whose car you’re getting into?”

“Look,” Zora said. “We don’t have to do this. If you’re uncomfortable, I’m sure I can find someone else.”

“Like who? It’s five days before Christmas. And didn’t you tell me last week you were leaving the next day? But I guess that wasn’t true either.”

“Either? When did I ever lie to … whatever, man. For your information, I planned to leave when I said I would. But then my car died on me. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, being that those are poor people problems and all.”

Deuce ignored the jab. “So, we doing this or not? I want to make it to Jersey before nightfall.”

Zora shrugged. “Then let’s go.”

It was only then that Deuce noticed the heavy duffle she had slung over her right shoulder, along with the smaller weekend bag and pocketbook in her left hand. He reached for it and after a moment’s hesitation, Zora surrendered the weighty bag.

Without a word, Deuce headed for the exit, sensing her presence just behind him.

Three-and-a-half hours. That was how long it would take to drive from State College to Short Hills, New Jersey. He could endure almost anything for three-and-a-half hours. Even the company of the one girl on campus he least wanted to see.

What he’d been hoping for when he posted the rideshare was just someone to kill the miles and hours with, someone he could shoot the breeze with about music, or if it was a dude, football. Maybe they would share some mutual hatred of the New England Pats, or talk about how overrated Cam Newton was … The last thing he wanted to do was relive his brief misadventure with the campus revolutionary.

When they got to his car, Deuce disengaged the locks and tossed Zora’s bag in the backseat of the Range Rover with his stuff and turned to face her again for the first time.

“Here,” he said, reaching for the smaller bags. “Lemme put those back here as well, so you’ll have some legroom.”

“Thanks.” She handed them over willingly.

Once he’d tossed that in the backseat as well and straightened up, Deuce was surprised to find that she was still standing there, next to the passenger side door, moving her weight from one leg to the other, as though trying to keep warm in the frigid air.

“It’s open,” he said inclining his head in the direction of the door.

Zora looked at him blankly, and Deuce rolled his eyes, opening the door for her, waiting for her to get in and then shutting it. Taking a deep breath, he walked around the rear of the car and got in on his side.

“Your tank is full,” Zora noted when he started the engine.

“Yeah. So what?”

“The deal on Zimride was that the passenger pays for gas, you pay tolls.”

“I don’t need it,” Deuce shrugged.

“It doesn’t matter if you need it. It’s the principle.”

“And we know you’re all about principles,” he said as he pulled away from the curb.

~~~

In the normal course of things, Zora Diallo wasn’t someone he would have crossed paths with. Even though Penn State was only about six percent Black, their social circles couldn’t have been more different. Deuce ran with the jocks – guys on the football team, and his best friend Kaleem who was on a full ride for track and field. And Zora was part of the group that was always protesting something. Deuce remembered her from his freshman African American Literature class though. Much had been made of the fact that she was named after the famous writer; and he remembered that she was one of the few people who hadn’t just read the books they were assigned, but seemed to have spent a lot of time thinking about them too.

He recalled her voice when she spoke up in class. Warm and husky, low but at the same time very feminine. And later, around sophomore year, he started seeing her occasionally on campus, sometimes with a bullhorn, sometimes on a stage, talking about obscure injustices that didn’t seem to have much to do with his life. Until a week ago, when he and Kaleem had gotten stopped in the Range Rover. The stop—which in the end had wound up being little more than an inconvenience had shaken him more than he wanted to admit. Because it had been the third time in as many weeks, and coincided with delivery of his new car, which his father had grudgingly gotten him after some cajoling from his mother.

After the traffic stop, he and Kaleem headed to an off-campus bar. Kaleem, unfazed, tore into a plate of buffalo wings while Deuce sat fuming about the indignity of being made to sit on his hands on a cold-ass curb while two cops verified that he was entitled to drive his own vehicle.

A few minutes into their meal, across the room Kaleem spotted Zora sitting at the bar with two of her girls. She had a wild natural that looked like she woke up and yanked at it by the handful until it stood on end like the hair of that little Black character from that old show with all the kids, Little Ragamuffins, or something like that, Deuce thought it was called. Zora was the kind of chick that made you stare, if only because her skin was dark and smooth as stone, and she had high prominent cheekbones and full, plump lips that made her look like she was always on the verge of puckering up to bestow a kiss.

Deuce remembered thinking when he looked at her that night that she didn’t need the foundation that her two friends had plastered on because her complexion was dark enough to appear completely uniform. And there were few shades of lipstick that would successfully compete with the apparently natural dark plum hue of her mouth. Her eyes were almost catlike in shape, but large and dark. Her nose small but with flared nostrils that gave her a look of fierce determination.

She couldn’t have been further from Deuce’s type. He was into Spanish chicks. Long dark hair, caramel skin and just enough African blood in them to give them ass for days. He liked that they were emotive and a little wild, that they fucked as hard as they fought … all stereotypes, it was true, but in his experience, also based in a little bit of fact.

Kaleem had his eye on Zora, so they invited her and her friends over. Deuce wasn’t in the mood to make small talk with a gaggle of girls, but for his boy Kaleem, was willing to be the wingman for the evening.

Zora hadn’t spoken much, but when she did, Deuce almost felt the vibration of her voice. Something about it stirred his interest; that, and the fact that she couldn’t have seemed less interested in either him or Kaleem. That shit was new. Kaleem tended to attract chicks in droves. Rich dusky skin, along with the movie-star white teeth and his lean runner’s body got him lots of play. He was handsome enough probably—Deuce didn’t feel equipped to assess other dudes’ looks—but there was something about Kaleem that drew mostly blondes, a good number athletes themselves. Kal often partook of those delights, as did Deuce, but his friend had a definite and strong preference for the sisters.

In college, anything goes, man, Kal had told him once. But once I graduate I’m marrying a queen and building a Black nation. Four, maybe five little Kaleems. Nah mean?

So maybe that was what Kal was looking for in Zora—his queen.

But she was cool as ice all evening, until Kal finally turned his attention to her girl Mia instead. And without knowing when or how it happened, Deuce’s attention turned to Zora. She was squeezed next to him in the booth, and at the end next to her, Mia. Her friend Sophie sat with Kal on the opposite side.

Excuse my man for being so quiet over there, Kal said at one point. But we got pulled over tonight on some bullshit, so he’s all shook up.

At that, Zora seemed to notice him for the first time. Turning in her seat to look Deuce directly in the eye, she said, I’m sorry that happened.

~~~

“I could’ve sworn you said you lived in New York,” Zora said now.

She had removed her boots and curled her feet beneath her. Deuce tried not to look at her legs in the close-fitting jeans. Unless he was mistaken, they were the same jeans from that night. That dumb-ass night that he couldn’t stop thinking about.

“I do. Upstate. My father lives in Jersey. I’m going there first to see him, my stepmother, my baby brother and sister, and to spend the night with them.”

“How many siblings do you have?”

Deuce looked at her, and Zora shrugged.

“Is that something I should know?” she asked.

Maybe not. Some other chick, maybe. But not Zora. Of all the girls unlikely to have followed his complicated blended family’s exploits on the entertainment blogs, Zora was probably the unlikeliest.

“Four. Two brothers, two sisters.”

“And you’re the eldest?”

“Yup.”

Zora breathed a deep sigh. “Chris …”

“Deuce. I don’t like to be called Chris. That’s my father’s name.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Deuce saw her take another breath. “Sorry,” she said. “I get it. Your father is a big presence. You want to be your own person.”

“Zora, don’t … psychoanalyze me.”

“Sorry,” she said again. “Look …” She touched his thigh. “Can we just … clean the slate and …?”

“Clean the slate?” he repeated.

“Yeah. I mean, look … it’s not as though it wouldn’t have always gone down exactly the way it did. It’s just that I was the one to put it into action, and …”

“You’re doing it again. Trying to head-shrink me. You don’t know how it would’ve gone down, Zora.”

“Of course I do. Do you even know your rep on campus?”

“Nah,” he said sarcastically. “Why don’t you tell me about it?”

“I could,” Zora said. “But I don’t want us to start fighting again.”

“You don’t think I can take it?” Deuce, switched lanes, heading toward the I-80 on-ramp.

“I’m sure you can take it. I’m just not sure I want to be the one to dish it out.”

“Go ahead. We have three hours to kill.”

“Okay … but don’t say you didn’t …”

“Just spit it out.”

“You’re Chris Scaife’s son. Born with a silver spoon in your mouth, and grew up in a little post-racial bubble. You’re from that crowd who says color doesn’t matter because the only one that matters where you grew up is green. You date White chicks almost exclusively and pretend that doesn’t matter either, and sisters like me you hardly ever give a second glance. Which might be insulting, but for the fact that you treat even the White girls with nothing resembling respect, and are pretty much done with them after a week. So … there you have it. Truth.”

Deuce shook his head, and shook off the pang in his chest as well. “Wow … now that was some angry Black woman bullshit right there.”

“See what I mean? White chicks don’t get angry too? Or is it just us you don’t like to see mad? But come to think of it, the ones you mess with don’t get angry, do they? They just line up, one after the other to get their turn with Christopher Scaife Jr.”

“You forget what happened between you and me that night? I didn’t see you walking away from your … turn.”

“Okay, I’ll give you that. But I chose it, Deuce. You didn’t choose me. I wanted you. But it was sexual curiosity, that’s all. And that’s all it was for you, too. Admit it. I’m probably the blackest chick you’ve seen naked since … ever. You’re just mad I was the one to shut shit down afterwards.”

“That’s one fucked up double-standard. You see that right? And I ain’t about all that color-struck nonsense.”

“Really.”

“Yeah. Really.”

“And how is what I said a double-standard?”

“Do you like to be dismissed, Zora?”

“I don’t know. I can’t say it’s ever happened.”

“Well that’s what all that mess you just said is—dismissal. You don’t even know me. And that night I thought …” Deuce stopped talking abruptly, realizing he was on the brink of sounding like he was begging. And that was something he would not do.

Zora said nothing for a long while, and when she finally spoke, her voice was different. “You thought what?”

“We started talking about the traffic stop,” Deuce said. “Remember? That’s why we started talking. And then when I went to your dorm, we talked some more. The shit that went down later in your room …”

“The shit that went down later in my room …” she prompted. “Go on.”

That’s not why I was there, he wanted to but did not say.

He was there because when he and Zora talked in the bar, their voices slightly raised so they could hear over the din, he’d forgotten that they weren’t alone. Kaleem and her girls Mia and Sophie might as well have not been there. And then when Zora said she had to go back to pack for her drive home the next day for Christmas Break, Deuce hadn’t wanted her to go, so he went with her.

The idea of ending the evening at yet another party with Kaleem and some girls who were pretending they didn’t care who he was, but clearly did, seemed intolerable. He just wanted to hang with Zora, to talk some more, to listen that warm voice of hers, to smell that unidentified fruity scent in her hair, to have an excuse to examine her dark-as-night skin and stare into her cat-like eyes.

He just wanted to be with her.

And that was something in his entire time at Penn State, Deuce could not recall having happened before—that he wanted to be with a girl just for the pleasure of her company.

Then in her room—her messy-as-hell room—Zora had jumped him.

There was no other way to put it. As soon as the door was shut, she turned and kissed him, and he went with it. How could he not go with it? Her lips were soft, full and tasted like the illegally-consumed beer they’d been drinking all night. Her chest was soft against his, and she grabbed his hands to place them on her ass, pressing her pelvis forward and reaching down to stroke his hardness.

This girl wants me? he recalled thinking. This girl … wants me.

The thought was surprising only because if anyone had asked him before then, he would have said that few were the girls who did not. But Zora wasn’t just any girl. She was the girl Kaleem would have called a queen; she was a warrior. She had consequence and purpose. She was not the kind of girl who generally wanted him.

Except that night, she did. And no lie, that shit was off the chain. He grabbed handfuls of her thick, coarse hair in his fists, and they screwed with the lights on, her eyes locked with his, her powerful, firm thighs gripping his hips, holding him tight against her. This wasn’t some fumbling, grappling half-drunken college dorm encounter. This was grown-ass lovemaking, like a man and woman were meant to have. Deuce was present for every breath, every groan, every kiss, and the ultimate collapse of their damp bodies against each other.

And afterwards, he fell asleep. He slept hard and deep until Zora shook him gently awake and he sat up, dazed and momentarily unsure of his surroundings. Her room was clean and she was completely packed.

It’s almost dawn, she said. I’m leaving today.

You sure you have to? he’d asked her, grinning and looking down at his crotch significantly.

That’s the plan. She smiled at him. But that doesn’t mean we can’t, you know, get it in one more time for the road.

And then she’d shoved the sheets aside, lifted the hem of the long t-shirt she was wearing and revealed that there was absolutely nothing underneath.

Deuce left after that, in a daze, exhausted and idly considering whether he might look her up while he was home. Zora had kissed him goodbye at her door, told him to enjoy Winter Break. All the way to his dorm, walking in the cold, he couldn’t stop licking his lips, like some of her just might be there for him to taste.

The very next day, he ran into her girl Sophie, and when he asked her if he could have Zora’s number, she looked confused.

Why do you need her number? she said. She’s on campus. Go see her.

Confused himself, Deuce did exactly that. She was on campus? Whatever happened to driving home for Winter Break? She said she had no finals, just final papers so could leave early. She’d cleaned her room, she’d packed …

As luck would have it, Zora was in her dorm’s common room when Deuce walked in. She was sitting on a sofa with her feet up on a coffee table, and next to her was a brother with shoulder-length locs. Zora had a bright orange scarf tied in her hair, the color accentuating her complexion in a way that was almost breathtaking. She, and her companion were laughing about something, something that was obviously very, very funny. Mid-laugh, Zora turned and spotted him. A momentary look of surprise crossed her features, her eyebrows lifting for a second. And very casually, she lifted a hand in a wave. Then Zora returned to her conversation, never giving him a second glance.

~~~

“Deuce.”

He looked at her. She was chewing on her lower lip and looking away from him, out the window.

“What?”

“I have an idea. And I don’t want you to shoot it down. I want you to think about it, okay?”

Deuce mumbled something unintelligible.

“Will you think about it?”

“Yeah.”

“And before I tell you my idea I have a confession.”

At that Deuce looked at her again.

“I knew it was you,” she said. “That was offering the ride. I knew it was you, and I asked Mia to respond because I wasn’t sure you’d want to ride with me.”

Deuce forced himself not to smile. “So that look you gave me back at the Hub …”

“Best acting I’ve done all year,” she admitted.

“It wasn’t all that good,” he lied.

Zora punched him in the arm. “Shut up. You didn’t know.”

“Nah, I didn’t know,” he said. Their eyes met and held for so long that Zora blushed, her gaze dropping to her lap. Good thing too, since he might have run off the road otherwise.

Deuce wanted to ask her why she’d pretended, but he knew. As much as she was outside of his comfort zone, he was probably way out of hers as well.

“What’s your idea?” he asked instead.

“I was thinking that maybe …” Zora sighed deeply. “That we could pretend that night didn’t happen. And just … begin again.”

“I don’t want to pretend that night never happened,” Deuce said right away. “But, I do want to …”

“Begin again?” she said, that warm husky voice of hers lowering even more.

Damn, she was sexy as hell.

“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s do that.”

Zora turned in her seat and extended a hand. Deuce took it. It was small and warm. He didn’t want to let it go.

“Nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m Zora Diallo.”


Read more about Deuce and his “complicated blended family” in ‘Afterwards‘ and ‘Afterburn‘.

SAMPLE SUNDAY: From ‘ The Come Up’ — COMING MARCH 14.

Makaylapromo2From ‘The Come Up’:

“Don’t you want to know what happened?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“Really?”

Jamal saw out of the corner of his eye that she had turned in her seat to look at him. “Really.”

“How come?”

Pulling out of traffic and onto a side-street, he hit the button above his visor that opened his building’s private garage. As they pulled down the ramp, Makayla seemed momentarily distracted, looking around the well-lit expanse in the underbelly of one of Manhattan’s most exclusive addresses. The apartment was expensive, no doubt about that, but the parking space was as well. In New York City, off-street parking was among the most prime of prime real estate.

“So how come you’re not curious about what happened when I went upstairs?” Makayla asked again.

“Because I’ve seen it a million times. I know that scenario so well, I could write the script.” He backed into the numbered parking space that was mere steps away from the elevator. Its location had been one of the main selling points, and had set him back an extra ten grand over some of the other spaces would have, but Jamal still considered it money well-spent.

“That’s kind of sad.”

“What is?”

“What these guys do to their women. Just because they can. All the cheating and lying. And y’know what the saddest part was?”

Jamal turned off the engine and gave her his complete focus. “What was the saddest part?”

“I could tell she didn’t believe me. She knew I was lying about it being my bag, but she chose to accept it. It was almost like she wanted me to tell the lie.”

Jamal shrugged. “Maybe she did. Because then it gives her the excuse she needs to stay.”

At that, Makayla said nothing, looking straight ahead.

“C’mon, let’s go up,” Jamal said, touching her arm. “Forget about all that.”

While they rode up in the elevator, Makayla remained quiet and Jamal wondered whether he’d made a mistake by exposing her so early to the seedier side of their work. This wasn’t the first time he had helped one of his artists out of a jam when they were deceiving a spouse. In fact, this was one of the tamest episodes he’d ever been involved in; and it was only because he knew the spouse in question that he was able to send Makayla up there on her own. Some women were considerably less reasonable and much more prone to violence. Once, he had personally had to talk down the knife-wielding fiancée of a top ten recording artist while she threatened to “slice his Johnson off.”

Three-Base’s domestic drama wasn’t the worst Jamal had seen by a longshot, but he was definitely a serial offender in the game of adultery; and Makayla was right, Missy wanted to be lied to. She made a lot of noise about her husband’s infidelities, but had yet to make even the slightest gesture toward separation. In fact, the few times he’d been caught red-handed, her way of coping had been to slam the other woman on social media. It was hard to maintain sympathy for a woman in a situation like that.

In the hallway leading to his apartment, Makayla walked slowly, so Jamal modulated his pace to match hers. Tonight at the book party, he wanted to spend a lot more time with her, but it was a work event, so there were about a dozen people he needed to touch base with. While he did, he couldn’t help but watch her across the room. She spent most of her time with Devin, both of them obviously thick as thieves, talking with heads together and laughing at private jokes. Occasionally, someone approached Devin and Makayla wandered away on her own, a drink in hand that she never actually took a single sip from that he could see, and an almost shy smile on her face.

She was still getting her legs under her in this world, and hadn’t yet come to realize that at events like that, she was supposed to be networking, introducing herself to people, and getting in with the right ones. Jamal would teach her all that in time.

“Here we are.”

He stopped at his door and fished out his keys while Makayla waited. Holding her clutch purse in both hands, Jamal could see the subtle lift and fall of her shoulders as she took a breath. She was nervous.

When the door opened, she paused before going in. Jamal watched her take it in. Immediately opposite the front door was the sitting area, flanked by a wall of windows, opening out to magnificent view of the Hudson. This view alone had sold Jamal on the place when he first looked at it. The price, then, had been somewhat out of his reach and the mortgage required him to forgo a lot of other stuff for a while, like furniture. For eighteen months, he’d lived in an apartment empty of furnishings except for a bed and dresser, just so he could come home to this view.

Makayla took a few steps in, and looked right and left. His living room was ultra-modern, with pieces in white and pewter. A white stacked slate fireplace was to the left, and behind it the kitchen. To the right, a long narrow hallway led to the two large bedroom suites, and an entertainment room where Jamal rarely entertained, but often sat with this laptop or tablet, or watching a solitary game. Though he had imagined his bachelor pad as teeming with people and parties, once he moved in, he found that he really wanted it to be his sanctuary. On occasion he had women over, but the parties never happened. His home was, thus far, his greatest accomplishment and he wasn’t eager to expose it to the uncertainties that came with a room full of rowdy guests.

Without waiting for his invitation, Makayla walked through the rooms, one by one, and Jamal silently followed her. She opened doors and looked in the bathrooms (all three of them), sat on his chairs and went to stare for a few moments out the living room window.

“Wow,” she said, when finally she had seen everything.

Jamal smiled.

“I never knew anyone who could afford to live like this in the middle of New York City.”

“I didn’t always live like this.” Jamal shrugged.

“I bet you’re happy you kicked your corporate law career to the curb, huh?”

“Yeah, but not because of the money. Or not just because of the money.” He headed for the kitchen, opening the refrigerator, and Makayla followed. “You want something to eat? They didn’t have much at that party.”

“What have you got?” She put a hand on his back as she leaned around him to peer into the open fridge.

Her hand on his back, exerting very slight pressure, the light scent of her perfume and just the awareness of her being here, in his space felt good. Jamal turned to face her and Makayla looked up at him, expectantly. Her eyes were wide, and large, her nostrils flared slightly and her lips fell apart a little as though she was about to speak. If that was what she intended, Jamal didn’t wait to find out. He kissed her. He couldn’t seem to stop doing that.

Sometimes their kisses were almost whimsical, like in the car earlier outside of Three-Base’s building. Sometimes they were exciting, and dangerous, like when he grabbed her in his office and stole some time before they had to go to a staff meeting. But now, this kiss, this was something else entirely. It was a prelude to something more, so Jamal took his time with it, tugging her lower lip between his, using the tip of his tongue to tease hers and letting her do the same. Both her hands were around him now, and she leaned her head to one side so they could kiss deeper, and harder.

Suddenly, a high-pitched whine broke the quiet and Makayla jerked away from him.

“It’s the fridge. It has a sensor for when the door’s left open,” he explained. Moving them away from it, he reached over to shut it but Makayla stopped him.

“I actually am hungry,” she said with a sly smile.

“Me too,” Jamal said, and she smiled wider, knowing that he wasn’t talking about food.

They made omelets with gruyere, diced tomatoes and onions, and when Jamal tried to go easy on the onions, Makayla playfully dumped more of them in. Jamal planned to take her into the entertainment room to eat but she instead wanted to go out to the balcony where they ignored the dinette and sat side by side on the same lounge chair. The chair was large but still, to accommodate them both, Makayla had to be partly reclined against his chest, which made it awkward for Jamal to eat, but he didn’t say anything because he liked having her there.

“So … about this whole thing with Three-Base,” Makayla said, while she dug into her omelet.

“Aw, man, are you still on that?”

“Yeah. I’m just curious. Don’t you ever feel … like you’re contributing to it, by being the alibi when those guys mess around on their women? Doesn’t it ever make you feel guilty?”

“Not really, no.”

“No?” Makayla turned a little so she could look at him.

The loc that he’d pulled from her bun earlier that evening had come free once again and was resting on her shoulder. Jamal reached for it, feeling its coarse thickness between his fingers. Her locs smelled like coconut.

“I don’t make them cheat. And whether I was there or not, that’s what they would be doing.”

“You sure about that?” she challenged. “If they didn’t know they had a clean-up crew, would they really be as brazen as they are?”

“I’m not the Morality Police. I’m a guy who develops artists, and does what he can to make sure nothing gets in the way of that development …”

“Or in the way of Scaife making money.”

Jamal shrugged. “That too, yeah.”

Makayla turned and leaned against him again, resuming her meal. Though she didn’t say anything, he could feel her disappointment, her judgment.

“If you’re thinking I condone what they do, that I’m cool with it, you would be wrong. If you’re thinking that because they do it, I would do it too …”

“Would you?” She turned and looked at him again.

“No.”

“I want to believe that,” she said finally.

“Look at me.”

She did.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said simply.

“You might not mean to,” Makayla said. “But …”

Jamal grinned. “How do I know you’re not going to hurt me?”

 

SAMPLE SUNDAY: From ‘The Come Up’

 

Come Up Mic Promo2

From ‘The Come Up’:

Oh god, she was going to die. She was going to just D.I.E. No one could throw up as much as she had and not just keel over and drift into the sweet hereafter. Her stomach felt like it had been literally turned inside out like an old gym sock, and Makayla was pretty sure that was what its lining tasted like as well. Bitter and bilious, foul and … ugh, just thinking about it made her want to vomit again.

Slowly rolling over, she reached for the pail next to her bed, too weak to do anything about the rancid stench that rose from it. She would have to get up and empty it. The odor wasn’t helping her already fragile stomach, and pretty soon she would have to manage being in vertical position so she could make sure her grandmother took her medication.

Putting a hand over her mouth in case there was some of the same projectile vomiting she’d experienced in the wee hours of the morning, she managed to slide over the edge of the bed and sit on the floor. It was cool, which felt unexpectedly good, so Makayla allowed herself to slide the rest of the way down until she was curled in a fetal position, her cheek pressed against the wood. Just as she was beginning to entertain the thought of taking a short nap there, her phone rang.

The noise was jarring and unpleasant to her clanging brain, so she made herself sit up as quickly as was possible in her current condition, and groped about until she found it, buried somewhere among her bed sheets.

“Yes?” She croaked as she answered it.

On the other end someone laughed. “Thought you said you could keep up, Hughes.”

Jerking upright, Makayla was rewarded by a swimming, dizzying sensation, accompanied by the now familiar roiling in the pit of her stomach.

“Jamal?” she said.

She’d forgotten—probably too drunk to recall—that it was Friday, not Saturday. A workday; and unless she got her ass in gear, it would be a late-for-work day as well.

“Yeah. I need you in here for a nine-thirty with your boy. Drink lots of water, Hughes. And then call for a car.”

“A car?” Makayla repeated.

“We have a car service. I’ll have Karlie send you a car. You need to be here for this meeting. C’mon now. I thought you said you could keep up.”

“I can. I just … never…” Makayla reached for the pail, hoping against hope that she wasn’t about to throw up while her boss listened on the other end of the line. “I just …”

“Here’s a tip,” Jamal said, amusement still in his voice. “Every alcoholic beverage you consume must be followed by twice its volume in water. No exceptions. Because of that rule, I haven’t had a hangover since I was nineteen. It’ll make you piss like a racehorse all night, but you won’t miss work the next day. And you better not miss work today either. I need you in here.”

And with that, he hung up, leaving Makayla to hug the pail next to her and upchuck the very last remnants of whatever that greenish-gray stuff was, and then stand up to stagger her way to the shower.

When she made it into the office, she was only fifteen minutes late for work, and comfortably on time for the meeting that Jamal said he needed her for. Clutching a large bottle of water, Makayla walked slowly toward her office, ignoring the stares and titters from the offices flanking the long hallway. She looked like half-baked cow crap; she knew that, but just didn’t care. Having mustered up only as much energy as it took to drag on a rumpled gray linen skirt and white t-shirt with black gladiator sandals. She wasn’t even sure whether her last pedicure was holding up but had neither the will nor the energy to go in search of her ballet flats.

All she could manage before heading out to the waiting car was a quick check that Nana had taken her pills and a promise that she would be home early to cook.

Now, as she got to her office, she was surprised to find none other than Devin sitting at her desk, feet up, and playing around with something on his phone. Wearing jeans and a distressed army jacket, he looked like the very antithesis of how she felt—bursting with energy, health and a decent night’s sleep.

“What the … damn, Kay, what you been up to?”

“Shut up,” she said shoving his feet off her desk.

“You smell like … Are you drunk?”

She was. Apart from being hung-over, Makayla realized as she swayed unsteadily in the shower earlier that morning, that she was also still a teensy bit inebriated. Insufficient hours had passed for her to be completely clear of all the alcohol in her system. Jamal Turner had been no joke to keep pace with. He ordered drink after drink, each and every one names she had heard of but never personally imbibed—Courvoisier, Perignon, Bombay Sapphire, Tequila Ley … drinks that should probably never be consumed in the same sitting. But like an idiot, she had.

“I was out last night,” she explained, collapsing into the vacant chair and taking another swig of water.

“Who with? I never known you to drink like that.”

“Long story.”

Before she could say another word, Jamal Turner was leaning into her office. Nodding at Devin, he crooked a finger at Makayla.

“Lemme holla at you right quick,” he said. “Devin, we’ll be back to get you in a minute.”

Standing once again with some effort, Makayla followed Jamal down a few doors to his office at the end of the hall, noting that he looked none the worse for the wear. His office, which she’d only been in a couple times before, was more like the living room of a luxury apartment, decked out with modern showpiece furniture. The desk and computer were relegated to the least obtrusive corner of the room, like afterthoughts, which made sense since most of Jamal’s “work” seemed to happen elsewhere. Like at Onyx.

“Take a seat,” he told her, indicating a comfortable chair near the door.

Makayla obeyed, while he pushed his door so that it was almost but not quite shut.

“So how’re you feelin’?” he asked.

Makayla shook her head, not able to muster up the will or energy to lie.

“Don’t ever do that again,” he said.

Sitting even more upright, she looked at him in surprise. “But you …”

“I goaded you into it,” Jamal said. “Egged you on?”

“Yeah. Exactly!”

Jamal nodded. “And I’m your boss so you thought you had to go along with it.”

“Well, yeah.” Makayla moved closer to the edge of her seat. If he was about to reprimand her for behavior he had practically forced her into, she was going to flip out on his ass. If she could manage it, feeling as crappy as she did.

“The people you’ll be working with are big-name performers. People used to having folks do what they tell them to do.” Jamal sat on a chair opposite hers. He wasn’t smiling now, but looking directly at her, his expression focused and compelling her to do the same. “Most of them work hard; some of them play even harder. Last night, the drinking you did …”

“We did.”

“No. You. I drank one drink for every two you had, Hughes.”

Makayla was shaking her head as Jamal nodded his.

“You did. I counted. I put something in front of you and you drank it. I only sometimes drank mine. Most of the night I had water with lemon.”

“But …”

“Why?” he supplied for her.

“Yeah. Why? Were you trying to get me drunk?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t sure you’d take the bait. But you did.”

“I still don’t get why you would do that,” Makayla said, beginning to get a little angry.

“Like I said. The people we work for—the performers? They’re our bosses, just like I’m your boss. Sometimes they play real hard, and they try to get us to play with them. Like we’re their peers. Their … friends. But we’re not. We’re the help.”

Makayla listened.

“Those high-dollar, high-alcohol drinks I gave you? Some of our clients indulge like that on a daily. And they don’t always enjoy having someone sitting across from them who’s stone-cold sober, looking all judgmental, making them feel like they might not have things under control.

“So they’ll push you, press you, and sometimes even ridicule you if you don’t join in. And once in a while they have other things, too—cocaine, heroin, hell, I’ve even seen some with PCP—and they might try to push that on you as well. You need to learn how to say ‘no’. Even when you’re talking to your boss.”

Makayla nodded.

So. It had been a test. She had known it was, but it wasn’t the test she thought it was. And she had failed miserably.

Seeming to see something on her face, Jamal leaned forward, his eyes more sympathetic now, and holding hers.

“Look, this is a lot to take in. I just don’t want to see you learn it the hard way. We’re tourists in that life, you and me. We don’t live there like they do. Okay? So you go in, you take a look around, you sample some of the local specialties if you want. But don’t get caught up.”

“So I should have said no to the drinks.”

Jamal shrugged. “Or said yes. But know your limits, and have only as much as you can handle. Every minute you spend with the talent you’re working. And you need to stay sharp, especially when they’re not. Remember that. They’re not your friends, they’re your work.”

“But not with Devin,” she said. “He’s not just work to me.”

“I understand. But now he’s not just your friend either.”

COMING SOON.