SAMPLE SUNDAY: ‘Young, Rich & Black’

Holding her phone between her shoulder and the side of her head, Zora stuffed her black one-piece swimsuit and a brown viscose skirt into her hobo along with an orange scarf and a long-sleeved beige t-shirt.

“You talk to Rashad since you’ve been home?” the voice on the other end of the line asked.

“Nope. He hit me up a couple of times, but I didn’t pick up. All we have right now to talk about at the moment is business, and I’m on Break, so …”

“Yeah, but you guys barely even broke up. After two years being together, that’s kind of cold to cut a brother off like that. And I can’t believe you’re going to hang out with Deuce Scaife again.”

“Mia,” Zora sighed. “It’s no big deal. I’m just …”

“Trying to get a little of that good-good,” her friend cackled on the other end of the line. “I don’t blame you, girl. Nothing like it to get you over the post-relationship hump. No pun intended. And if what I hear about him is true …”

the-optics-of-it-the-black-power-coupleOh, it was definitely true. But Mia didn’t need to know all that.

“Mia, I’ll call you back when I get home later. And please stop bringing up Rashad. He is definitely past tense.”

“If you say so. But dudes like Rashad don’t come a dime-a-dozen. You should …”

Zora held the phone away from her ear.

She had heard this sermon one time too many for her taste—about how Rashad was a “woke brother”, how he was on some “Barack Obama-type shit” and most of all how rare he was. That was the kind of talk that helped lead Zora into such an intense relationship with him so quickly in the first place; and it was probably also responsible for her staying in said relationship for at least one year too long.

It was just that the optics of her and Rashad were too powerful to ignore. People loved the idea of them. Together, they looked like the prototype of the ideal Black power couple—her with the dark skin and big natural, and Rashad, with his militant bearing and unrelenting scowl, staring down anyone who dared to look at him even halfway funny. And that they were co-chairs and co-founders of a Black Lives Matter chapter? That just made it even more of a modern Black American storybook romance.

When she was honest with herself, Zora admitted that it wasn’t just other people who loved the idea of her and Rashad. She had too. Until just a few months ago, she was as bought into the story as anyone else. Breaking it off had actually given her a few anxiety attacks. What if he was The One? What if she was being foolish by letting him go?

There was no question Rashad was going to be making some big moves in the next few years. He was the guy who would miss his five-year college reunion, but only because he was running for State Senate, or was a nationally-respected activist too busy to attend since he was on a speaking tour. But being in love with Rashad’s passion and drive; being enamored of his politics, and in sync with his worldview wasn’t the same as being in love, enamored with or in sync with Rashad himself. It had taken Zora a long time to acknowledge that, and now she was determined not to backslide by having anyone persuade her otherwise. She had been avoiding his calls mostly because of all the people who might attempt that persuasion, Rashad was the most persuasive of all.

Deuce Scaife was a convenient, albeit very pleasurable, antidote to that. No one could be more different from Rashad than he was. When they met up that night, completely by accident after his traffic stop, she had taken her shot, partly to see what would happen if she did; and partly because he had—much to her surprise—been just as magnetic as all the rumors suggested.

Glancing at the face of her phone, she checked the time. He would be pulling up at any minute. And since she preferred to head him off at the front door, or better yet at the curb, she needed to get downstairs fast. The last thing she wanted was for her brother, Ousmane, to spot the car outside and suggest that she invite her guest in. His, and her father’s more traditional sensibilities would be offended if she snuck out with some anonymous guy without at least introducing him for their inspection.

“Mia, let me catch up with you later,” she said, cutting her friend off mid-sentence. “I need to get out of here before Ousmane starts getting on my nerves.”

“Okay. But answer the brother’s call, Zora. Even if you’re not planning to get back with him, y’all can still do some good work together.”

In that, Mia had a point. BLM was facing a lot of negative media backlash, and along with about a dozen other college chapters, there had been talk about having a stakeholder call over the holidays to strategize on how to counter all that. The problem with decentralized movements like BLM was that a few knuckleheads; or as was the case in New York, a lone gunman with misguided motives and a history of mental illness, could blow the whole thing up in one news cycle. Just because nationally, the movement lacked the resources to coordinate a rapid-response strategy.

They had lost a lot of ground over the past few months and were in danger of losing control of the media narrative altogether. But luckily, Rashad was a master strategist. If they had a stakeholder call, Zora was confident he would have more than a few good ideas for how they might recapture their hard-earned public support.

On the handful of occasions when he had been in the media locally, Rashad had owned the interview, coming across as articulate, thoughtful and commanding of the facts. His credibility had no doubt given credibility to the movement itself. Zora still remembered the hundreds of emails and text messages he had gotten from chapters and individual supporters around the country. The buzz online about him after one particular radio interview that past spring had enabled them to raise over ten thousand dollars for their chapter in less than a week.

In a word, Rashad Dixon was impressive.

“Admiration is not love, Zora,” she whispered to herself.

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** EXCLUSIVE SAMPLE **

exploringFrom ‘Young, Rich and Black’:

“Human relationships are complicated,” Rashad said. “You can’t rig that shit. It just happens the way it happens.”

Zora said nothing, keeping her hands folded on her lap, listening to him talk.

Usually, she loved listening to Shad talk. He had such agency of expression, such complete command of his words. They were currency for him—buying him entrée into circles where most young, Black men would never go. After Penn State, he was going to law school at Stanford, and after that, who knew? The sky was certainly the limit for someone like Shad but he wanted to be out West. He liked that he was going to be close to Oakland, because like lots of East Coast Black activists, he was in love with the city as the birthplace of the Black Panther Movement and imagined that there, some of the magic from that time would rub off.

“And I definitely understand why you were curious about him. I mean, hell, how many like him we got out there, apart from the ballers?”

He was talking about Deuce. Because after an hour of barely-disguised curiosity about how inaccessible she had been to him over most of the Break, he guessed that she had what he called “a fling” with someone. So, not wanting to act like Deuce was a dirty secret, and most of all wanting to put an end to the probing, Zora had just come out with it.

I drove home with Deuce Scaife, she said. And we wound up spending some time together over Break.

Yes, they spent time together. Lots of time. And then there was New Year’s Eve which was amazing. Scarily so. So scary that when Deuce had taken her home the next morning, Zora ignored all his calls and texts, instead immersing herself in her parents and brother for the next day and a half, then packing all her stuff to return to school.

She called Shad late on the night of the third of January, and suggested that they get going sooner rather than later. He was there before nine a.m. on the fourth and they had hit the road in his reliable but beat-up Toyota 4Runner.

Today, she knew for sure, Deuce would give up calling and stop by her parents’ house. He would have exhausted his limited patience by now; and knowing her planned departure date would simply show up. He was spoiled in that way. Spoiled in every way, really. He just wanted what he wanted when he wanted it. He never waited for anything. Not even for her. When he wanted her, he just … took her.

Sighing, Zora shook her head. It wasn’t working. She wasn’t going to be able to work up anything resembling anger at him. Because he had never treated her with anything but respect, and care and consideration. If his greatest sin was that he wanted her all the time, and didn’t like waiting to have her, then she was in for a hard road to get him and their “fling” out of her system.

“I don’t mean to get all in your business or anything,” Rashad continued. “But as far as you and him …”

“Nothing changes,” Zora said. “We were just … kickin’ it over Break.”

She couldn’t even look at him when she said those words, because they felt so blatantly false. But it was basically what she and Deuce had agreed to—the temporary shedding of expectations. And that was all.

“Figured.”

“What does that mean?” Zora snapped.

Rashad shrugged, looking away from the road for a moment. “Nothing. I just don’t see bruh at a BLM march, do you?”

“It’s not like he’s oblivious to what’s going on out there. He’s been stopped before.”

Rashad laughed. “Impressive. Him, and every other Black man in America. That’s hardly the equivalent of street cred.”

Zora rolled her eyes. “He’s more than you think, Rashad,” she murmured. “And besides, that wasn’t what it … what we were about.”

“Okay, so tell me,” Rashad’s voice rose a little, and Zora heard the annoyance, and the jealousy he had concealed before. “What were you about?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Because …”

“Did you fuck him?”

“Shad.”

“You did, right? Because that’s all I can think of that would make someone like that interesting to someone like you. Curiosity about the magic dick that sends all these dumb-ass girls scurrying his way to get used.”

Zora’s stomach clenched at the phrase, ‘sends all the girls scurrying his way.’

But that was Deuce’s rep. And though Rashad hadn’t said it, implicit in his comment was some judgment about the type of girls Deuce was notorious for bedding. He generally checked for Latinas and White chicks, and the precious few who weren’t, may as well have been since they looked it. His type was so firmly established that even people on campus who had never exchanged three words with him could probably pick his likely sex partners out of a line-up.

Zora knew what it was like to be fetishized. Since puberty there had been guys, some of them White, some of them Black, for whom her darkness, her unmistakable Blackness, seemed to be her single most irresistible feature. They stared at her in a manner that was vaguely disturbing, sometimes putting their arm against hers, rhapsodizing about the contrast in their skin tones. Or they played a little too often with her wiry, kinky hair, testing its texture, stretching and releasing it; examining each component of her as though she was a rare museum piece.

Deuce wasn’t like that.

He never remarked on their differences, but instead, often told her she was beautiful, or pretty. Even Rashad had never done that—leaned in, though they were in a crowded room, in a Target checkout line, or waiting for movie tickets—and with mouth against her ear, whispered, you’re so beautiful or damn, you look amazing today.

Where’d you learn that? Zora had asked him once. Where did you learn to make a girl feel so good?

But that time, she meant something else entirely. Deuce had been at the foot of the bed, between her legs. When he lifted his head, he looked dizzy, and drunk with her. Sliding up along her body, he was rock-hard.

Making you feel good, makes me feel good, he said almost matter-of-factly. And you don’t know, Zee … you taste better than anything in this world.

Then he kissed her, long and deep so she could taste herself as well. But Zora still didn’t know what he was talking about. To her, what made the kiss good, was just … him.

“You know what?” Rashad said now. “It don’t matter. You fucked him, but it’s over. That’s the important thing. It’s over. And I’m confident in my shit … Fuck that nigga.”

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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.”

 


 

Come With Me #HolidayShorts

holidays“How long did you say the drive was?” Presley slipped from beneath the sheets as she spoke, and walked naked toward the bathroom. Nate let his eyes follow the side-to-side sway of her retreating ass.

Moments later, he heard water running. She was brushing her teeth. With his toothbrush, no doubt. He’d told her a million times that she could leave one here, but she always ignored him, preferring to use his, which he would have found borderline disgusting, if it were anyone but her.

“Twelve hours. Give or take,” he called after her.

“And you’re not flying, why?” She stuck her head out into the doorway. Just as he’d guessed, her mouth was frothy with toothpaste.

“Because the ticket prices are ridiculous.”

“No. You’re ridiculous,” Presley said. “You know what traffic is going to be like out there?”

“Shitty the whole way, probably,” Nate acknowledged.

“Exactly. Why would you put yourself through that?” She ducked back into the bathroom.

“Because I’m a masochist,” he mumbled under his breath.

“Huh?”

“I said I’m not paying almost a thousand dollars to fly somewhere in the contiguous United States.”

“It’s your own fault for waiting so long to book your ticket.”

“That’s not the point, Presley.”

In the bathroom, she made a scoffing noise, and then came the sound of the shower. “Are you coming in to join me?”

“What’re you doing for the holidays?” he called, ignoring her invitation.

“I don’t know yet. Get in here before the water gets cold. I have to make it over to the club by ten.”

When he walked into the bathroom, it was to the sight of Presley shoving aside the shower door and stepping under the rainfall showerhead, letting her head drop forward, chin to chest as the water drenched her, and her hair fell in curtains on either side of her head, obscuring her face. Nate watched her for a few moments, taking in her Rubenesque figure with a smile of appreciation. That ass was just unreal, and rivaled only by her beautiful, large, doe-like eyes with just the hint of a slant to them.

“Are you getting in, or not?” She flipped her hair back and turned to look at him. With the water streaming down her face and over her breasts, it almost looked like she was covered in honey, because of her golden-brown complexion.

“Yeah.” Nate joined her and purposely brushed his forearm against her nipples, grinning when they hardened.

“You want to get on the road tonight you’d better not start anything,” she sang.

“You didn’t tell me what your plans were for the holidays,” he reminded her as he pulled the shower door shut.

“I don’t have any. I’ll wake up on Christmas morning and see what the day brings.”

Nate heaved a deep breath and bit his tongue. It was cute at first, that Zen nonsense. But once in a while, an occasional plan wouldn’t hurt. Just once in a while.

“You’re not going to go see your family, or …?”

“No. My family lives in Hawaii, remember? Somewhere where a thousand-dollar plane ticket is the standard cost of admission, because it’s not in the contiguous United States. I told them I wouldn’t be making it home. Too expensive.”

“I would’ve bought you the ticket,” he said.

Clearly his impatience was audible.

“What’re you getting so bent out of shape about? I wouldn’t have expected you to buy me the ticket. Don’t be stupid. Especially since you don’t even want to buy your own.”

“To New Jersey, a thousand dollars is unreasonable. To Hawaii on the other hand …”

“I’ll be fine, Nate.”

“Okay, so what’re the options?” He reached across her for the body wash.

“What d’you mean?”

“For Christmas. If you’re not going home, what’re your options?”

“I told you. I don’t know.”

“Are you going to be alone?”

Presley didn’t answer, and instead stepped under the showerhead once again, dousing herself completely and making it effectively impossible to carry on a conversation.

“Pres, I asked you something.” Nate pulled her from beneath the stream and turned her to face him.

“I don’t know. Maybe, but probably not. I actually have a pretty rich social life, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Actually, he had noticed. Presley’s ‘rich social life’ was the reason they met in the first place. She and her friends were at a club he was at with his boys; the first stop on what was to be a long night of bar-crawling for a bachelor party. Presley had been in the same VIP area with a group of women, whooping it up and ordering bottle after bottle of champagne. Turned out they were having a divorce party, and Pres was at the center of it, keeping everyone animated and in the spirit of things.

Halfway through the evening, Nate realized that his eyes kept returning to her, the voluptuous dark-haired beauty with the red, red lips in the black cat-suit and impossibly high heels. About the third time she looked up and caught him staring, she had smiled, walking up to him as bold as you please.

Was there something you wanted to say to me?

“What’re Celeste and Stacy doing for the holidays?” he asked her now.

“I have no idea.”

Celeste and Stacy were her closest friends, her partners-in-crime among the notorious party-girl set Presley ran with. Nate’s boys ribbed him about her sometimes, telling him that he had managed every man’s dream—having a beautiful woman use him as a booty-call. And yeah, sometimes that was what it felt like, because by necessity, Pres worked pretty jacked-up hours and often showed up at Nate’s only after she was done in the wee hours of the morning.

Very well-known on the club circuit as a one of the hottest party planners and hostesses, Presley managed events that were so hot, she didn’t even need a celebrity’s name on the marquee any longer. Presley Paine had become a name in her own right. The women at the divorce party where Nate had met her hadn’t been her actual friends, he later learned. Pres was just there to keep them happy, liquored-up and prone to spending more and more on the overpriced club cocktails.

Her surname wasn’t even really Paine. She just had a theory, she’d once explained to Nate, that people were more likely to remember names that were alliterations. Her last name was actually Kahele. Her father was Hawaiian Native, and her mother was Black, and they both still lived on the Big Island with her three siblings, all boys. In addition to being the only girl, Presley was the eldest and the most rebellious. She rarely went home not only because it was expensive, but because she and her father fought a lot. He didn’t approve of her “club lifestyle”, she had said, making air quotes with her fingers.

“I feel like we need to do it one more time before you leave,” Presley said, turning and grabbing Nate in her soapy hands. “Just to calm you down. Reassure you that I won’t be here crying into my egg nog or something while you’re home with your family.”

“So what will you be doing?” Nate asked, trying not to be distracted by the slow, back and forth motion Presley was making with his member grasped in her fist.

“This and that.” Presley’s voice sounded dreamy. She released him, and Nate opened his eyes just in time to see her drop to her knees.

~~~

“Pres?”

Nate sat up in bed and looked around. It was dark now. Glancing at the clock he saw that it was just past eleven. He had allowed Presley to lure him back to bed after their shower, and then once she’d worn him out, she had slipped out. He wasn’t surprised she was gone, but he wished she wasn’t. Their relationship, which she preferred to refer to as their “arrangement” was unconventional to say the least. Pres didn’t expect dinner dates or daily phone calls; she didn’t squawk when he went out with his friends, or disappeared out of town for work without telling her in advance. She just popped in and out of his life on a whim—sometimes he’d see her every day for a week, and then she’d be gone for a month. And she might spend two nights with him over a weekend, and then not call or answer his calls for two weeks.

I was on the road. That was always her explanation. She did parties in different cities, and people paid her for that. Sometimes handsomely, sometimes just by comping rooms and drinks for her and a few friends. She had a BMW x5 that she barely made the payments on most months, and a shitty apartment in a ramshackle house in Cabbagetown where she paid next to nothing because the building wasn’t up to code.

Nate never asked her whether she met guys when she was at the clubs. Because of course she did. And he never asked if she hooked up with any of the guys. Because he didn’t want to know.

He planned to hit the road around midnight, or one a.m., when traffic was light, with the intention of making it to New Jersey by noon or so on Christmas Eve. His sister’s house was sure to be a zoo, with her two little ones, her three stepchildren and his brother-in-law’s extended group of friends with their kids, all of them under the age of six. The only saving grace was that the house was so doggone huge, Nate was sure he could find some quiet if he needed it.

He would call Pres when he got there, just to see what she was up to.

He was packed and ready to go by midnight, right on schedule. Nate dumped his leather duffle in the passenger seat of his car and backed out of the driveway. Atlanta was alive tonight, everyone getting the non-wholesome partying out of their system before sitting at their momma’s Christmas dinner table. Nate’s own mother wouldn’t be with them this Christmas. She was heading to Paris to spend it with her … boyfriend. Nate almost cringed at the word, associated with his mother. But hell, she was entitled. Robyn had tried to enlist his help to persuade their mother not to go, but he’d refused.

Let Carolyn live a little, he’d told his sister. I mean, live for herself for a change. Not for us.

Fine, Robyn said. He heard the pout in her voice. But it won’t be the same without her.

Robyn was definitely a momma’s girl. After her divorce, she had returned home and clung to their mother’s apron, just like when they were kids. Nate remembered those days, seeing his sister sink into a deep, dark and lonely place when her marriage ended. And he remembered how skeptical he’d been at first when she took up with the notorious Chris Scaife. But he was happy to be proven wrong. Chris, music mogul or not, turned out to be as bowled over by his sister as she was by him; and now, two babies and a few years later, they were as close as ever. Nate almost didn’t mind the noise and chaos at their house during the holidays because it was all about family—and what else should the holidays be about if not that?

The route out of town took him past Concourse, the club where Pres would be working tonight, and as Nate drove by, he took in the convoy of flashy cars and flashier women outside the main entrance. Even with his windows rolled up to ward against the cold he could hear their voices, loud and excitable and they prepared to go inside and get their party on.

Pres would be in there somewhere, wearing a short skirt, something sleeveless, arms in the air and dancing up a storm. He didn’t often go to the clubs when she was working, because now, that woman seemed like someone else entirely. Pres was to him the sometimes-goofy girl with her hair in a sloppy ponytail, wearing one of his shirts, legs bare and stretched into his lap, eating from a tub of Ben & Jerry’s and interrupting Game of Thrones, asking, ‘wait, who’s this guy again?

Grinning at the thought, Nate swung over into the right lane and hooked into an underground garage. Since he would be gone for a week, what the hell? One last quick goodbye, one last kiss, one last look at her goofball face before he hit I-85.

~~~

He couldn’t find her. Nate checked out all the usual places in the club where Pres was likely to be – the VIP area, the private party rooms and behind the bar. Then he went up to the balcony to look down at the dancefloor.

It was stupid to think he would be able to spot her in this crowd, he thought as he headed back downstairs, being jostled by people who were heading up. So, he’d text her or something. Tell her he was thinking about her, and wish her Happy Holidays. Not that she was likely to respond.

“Nate!”

It was Stacy, among a group of women at the foot of the stairs, a glass in hand containing a strangely bright pink liquid.

“You here for the Ho-Ho-Ho?”

Nate squinted. “The what?”

“The party!” Stacy laughed, shouting to be heard over the music. “It’s called the …”

“Nah, just looking for Pres,” he said, shaking his head.

“Oh. She’s not working tonight,” Stacy said. “Sorry.”

“You sure? I’m pretty sure she said …”

“What?” Stacy yelled. “I can’t …” She indicated her ears.

Holding her by the forearm, Nate nodded an apology to her friends and steered her in the direction of the alcove behind the stairs, and the corridor there that led to the restrooms. It was somewhat less noisy in that spot.

“She isn’t working tonight,” Stacy repeated.

“Maybe somewhere else?” Nate suggested.

Stacy shrugged. “Nope. She stopped in. Said she wasn’t feeling well and went home.”

Nate considered for a moment. “What’re you doing for the holidays, Stacy? You and Pres hangin’ out, or what?”

“Flying home tomorrow. My folks are in Florida. Lucky me, huh?”

“And Presley?”

Stacy shrugged again.

“She didn’t even try to make it to Hawaii, huh?”

“Why would she?” Stacy looked confused.

“Because that’s where her family is from.”

Stacy’s face fell and she pursed her lips.

“What?”

“Pres doesn’t have family in Hawaii. Not anymore,” Stacy said. “Not that she can find anyway. She has a brother in prison there, and her mother’s dead. She lost touch with her father ages ago. That’s how she and her brothers wound up in foster care.”

Taking a step back, Nate leaned against the wall. “Wait. What? Foster care?”

“She’s a former foster. Doesn’t talk about it much, but yeah. So there’s no family in Hawaii to go back to for the holidays. Don’t tell her I said anything, okay?” Stacy was already angling her body away from him, ready to go back to the party.

“No,” Nate said quietly as Stacy walked away. “I won’t say anything.”

~~~

“Thought you were working tonight?”

Nate pretended not to notice that Presley’s eyes were a little puffy and pink, and skirted around her at the front door of her apartment, looking around once he was inside. It was only a cut above his senior year apartment when he was in college, with mismatched furniture pieces that had more likely than not been reclaimed from the side of the road. It was obviously a place to lay her head, and no more than that. Except that, incongruously, there was a state-of-the-art television against one wall. Some stupid VH-1 reality show was on. Women wearing too much makeup were swearing and swinging at each other, their hair weaves whipping in wide arcs, the only dialogue a cacophony of bleeps interspersed with the word ‘bitch’, and for variety, ‘low-rent ‘ho’.

“I changed my mind,” Pres said. “Decided to stay in for a change. I think I might be coming down with something.” She sniffled for effect, which Nate figured was her alibi for the swollen eyes.

“Seemed fine earlier at my place.”

You probably gave it to me,” she said.

He smiled, and rather than look directly at her, which he sensed she wouldn’t want him to do, Nate perused the books on her sad little lopsided bookshelf. There were lots of celebrity biographies, tell-alls by B-listers, and one by an infamous former video vixen.

“If I gave it to you, it’s only fair that I stay here and look after you,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Pres asked the question slowly.

“I mean …” This time Nate did turn to look at her. “You can’t be here, sick and alone over the holidays. So I have to stay and look after you.”

Presley’s lower lip wobbled. “No, you don’t.”

“Yeah. I kinda do.”

She shook her head, but didn’t try to speak again. Nate pretended he didn’t see the tears pooling in her eyes.

“Yeah,” he said again.

“If I thought …” She was forcing each word out, obviously struggling not to cry. “If I thought you were feeling sorry for me, I would be … infuriated.”

Nate smiled at that—the thought of Presley infuriated. He couldn’t imagine she would ever be any more threatening than an angry poodle.

“And besides, you have your family thing to go to.”

“Oh yeah,” he said, as though he’d only just remembered it. “There is that.”

“So, you have to go.”

It was probably meant to be a statement, but it sounded somewhat like a question. That was when Nate knew for sure.

“You’re right. I do have to go,” he acknowledged. “My sister would kill me if I didn’t show. So … you’re just going to have to come with me.”

Presley’s eyes opened wider. And it was that that did it. The tears finally spilled onto her cheeks. She ignored them, so he did too. Glancing down at his watch, Nate feigned impatience.

“C’mon. Pack a bag. We’ll be gone a week.”

Presley was slowly shaking her head. “You can’t just bring … strays to your family’s Christmas.”

“You’re not a stray,” he said, his voice sharper than he’d intended.

He took two steps toward her. Presley’s head fell back and he leaned in, touching his forehead against hers.

“You’re not a stray,” he said softer. “You’re my girl. So where else should you be at Christmas, other than … with me?” He leaned in closer to kiss her, but Presley pulled back,

“My nose is dripping,” she explained, wiping it with the back of a hand.

Nate smiled. “So … wipe your nasty-ass drippy nose, get packed and let’s roll.”

A look crossed her face then, a mixture of excitement and trepidation, and then outright fear.

“Nate, your family though? I mean …” She shifted her weight from one leg to the other and then back again.

“Come with me, Pres,” he said. “Please.”

“Are you su…”

“You know why I didn’t buy a ticket sooner?” he interrupted. “Because I always wanted you to come. I was hoping I would be buying two tickets. And then I chickened out on asking.”

Presley’s beautiful large eyes grew larger still, and she managed a tiny smile. “Is that … true?”

“Yes,” he said honestly. “Come with me.”

Nate pulled her close once again, and with drippy nose and all, he kissed her. The tension in her shoulders subsided, and her body relaxed into his. He felt, rather than heard her sigh.

“Okay,” she said, her voice a whisper. “Yes.”


Hope you enjoyed this visit with Robyn’s (aka Mrs. Chris Scaife’s) brother.

Happy Holidays!

N.

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.

SAMPLE SUNDAY: From ‘The Come Up’

Jamal Turnercolor coverflatMakayla Hughes watched from across the club as Jamal Turner glanced at his watch for the third time in as many minutes. In fact, she’d been watching him ever since he entered. It hadn’t been difficult to do since he was about a head taller than most of the other men there. And the way he carried himself, with such obvious self-assurance was an attention-getter as well. Not that she didn’t already know who he was—everyone at Scaife did.

Jamal Turner was SE’s rainmaker. He secured big names and closed deals, and was known to be in the innermost of inner circles of the big boss himself; sought after by headhunters from Sony, Virgin and just about every other entertainment conglomerate on the planet. But Jamal Turner was almost as emblematic of Scaife Enterprises as the man himself. Not too many people could boast of being practical besties with Robyn Scaife, invited to every single family event and able to get on Chris Scaife’s calendar whenever they wanted; but Jamal Turner could.

Rumor had it he could waltz into Chris Scaife’s office at will, sitting on the edge of his desk and taking the kind of liberties no one else would dare, like calling him “Boss Man” with a mixture of deference and irony that was hard to question. Makayla herself had once heard him do it, when at a company party she was standing just five feet away from Chris Scaife and his pretty wife and Jamal Turner approached them both. Robyn Scaife’s eyes lit up at the sight of him and the boss had looked on with barely concealed amusement as his wife and friend embraced.

To say that Turner’s reputation preceded him would have been an understatement, but precede him it did. Long before she even scored the job in the PR department, Makayla had heard of him, back when she was at CUNY-Brooklyn, scouring the internet for leads on internships in the entertainment industry. Partly because he was known to have forged-in-steel friendships with some of the artists he helped develop, and partly because he was just so damned photogenic.

Jamal Turner was a photographer’s dream. With the dark chocolate complexion, erect, hard-body posture and winning smile, he just begged to be memorialized in photographs. And somewhere along the line, he’d learned the colors that accentuated his rich darkness—orange, white, yellows and occasionally a powder blue. He was gorgeous, there was no getting around that—the kind of gorgeous that could make a girl just the tiniest bit pissed off.

Makayla was a little pissed off now as a matter of fact. Because Turner had called her boss, not her, when he’d requested the meeting with Devin. And because he was standing at the other side of the club, near the stage like he had better places to be, and a better class of people to be with. But she happened to know that he was homegrown, a kid from uptown who’d managed to make good. No matter how many recording superstars he was pictured with in the blogs, he shouldn’t be standing there like this dingy little nightclub was beneath him, because she happened to know it wasn’t.

And finally, Makayla was pissed off because she was nervous, and she never got nervous. Not about anyone. But she was nervous and just a little intimidated, to tell the truth, by Jamal Turner. He had walked by her countless times in the office, usually accompanied by someone else closer to his pay-grade, looking all confident and larger-than-life and just … delicious as all get-out.

She hated to admit it to herself, but the fact that he’d never once turned in her direction with anything approaching interest irked her somewhat. True, she was just an admin assistant, but it wasn’t like she was ugly or anything, and rumor had it that he was one of those men who didn’t even have a “type.” When it came to women, he appeared to like them all. He dated lots of famous and beautiful women, but there were also a fair number of regular girls from around the office who he’d been with as well, some model-like and slender, others heavyset and buxom. Some white chicks, and a few sisters as dark as he was. But while they didn’t seem to fit a certain type, they all had one thing in common—if their post-Jamal behavior was any indication, they mourned the passing of their time with him and would have all loved a reprise of their role as woman on his arm.

Looking down at her jeans and black batwing blouse, she wished she’d dressed up just a little more. Not because she was hoping to capture his eye—or so she told herself—but because she didn’t want to come across as dowdy, either.

But being in a nightclub tonight hadn’t been in Makayla’s plans and so the time had simply gotten away from her. She’d been trying to get some more studying done before heading out for this “quick meet-up.” That was what her boss Serena had called it anyway. Serena was one of five deputy communication directors at Scaife, and handled community relations, doing the PR for anything related to Scaife’s charities. Rarely if ever did she deal with the more glamorous stuff unless there was a celebrity in need of a little image rehab by visiting a children’s cancer ward, or donating money to a school music program. But from the sound of things, she knew Jamal Turner quite well; she certainly seemed eager to help him get to Devin.

I hate to capitalize on a personal relationship, Kay, she’d said, toying with one of her rather large earrings. But it would be a huge deal if you could just arrange this meet-up. Believe me, Jamal knows how to take it from there. All we’re talking about is an hour out of your Saturday night.

And since Makayla pretty much wanted to be Serena one day, she’d agreed. She’d only been working for her for six months, and had yet to find a way to distinguish herself, so this seemed as good a way to do it as any. And if Scaife actually signed Devin because of her intro, there was no telling what that might do for her prospects at the company. Not that signing Devin was anything even approaching likely.

Sighing, Makayla began making her way toward Jamal Turner. She only hoped Devin wasn’t in one of his moods tonight and wouldn’t embarrass her. On her way over to the club, she’d texted him to let him know what was up and he’d promised to be on his best behavior. But Devin was temperamental and always had been, with moods as changeable as the weather. If sound-check hadn’t gone well, or if he got his sneakers scuffed on the subway ride over; if there was someone on drums tonight other than his regular guy, or he’d slept a half hour less than usual the night before … there was no telling how he might show out.

When she was about a foot away from Jamal Turner, Makayla smelled him. She didn’t know how she knew it was him, she just did. It was an unidentified musk, an earthy, sexy, manly scent that had a richness to it that reeked its expense. Walking toward him, he seemed even taller, her head would just about reach his chest; the chest that was accentuated in that bright-white long-sleeved shirt in a clingy fabric. Not too many men could pull off a shirt like that without looking cheesy. Tucked into an army-green tailored pant, he looked … perfect.

Scowling, he reached up and ran a large hand over his closely-shorn head and sighed, taking one last look at his watch. Finally, he pushed himself up and away from the wall where he’d been leaning, with the apparent intention of leaving.

Makayla cleared her throat. “Jamal,” she said. And when he didn’t hear her over the din, she tried again, speaking much louder this time. “Jamal.”

He looked about for a moment, not sure who had spoken his name until finally his eyes rested on her. Jamal Turner smiled.

“You must be …”

“Makayla,” she said extending a hand. “Makayla Hughes.”