Lily Java Talks about her October Double Release!

I’ve been looking forward to these books for a long time. Lily Java has been in her writer’s lab for over a year, only allowing very brief peeks into what she was working on. Then, late this summer, I got more than a brief peek and was blown away. I always knew she was a great writer, but a double-release, where the story spans a couple of decades is also ambitious, and somewhat risky. But she pulled it off.

Not only did she pull it off, she pulled me in … Into 1970s and early 1980s New York when the city looked and felt very different from it does today, and when gentrification wasn’t even a thing. But that’s just the backdrop, and however well-drawn and integral to the story the time and place may be, the characters are still the stars of this duo of books. Ethan Vance, and Serena Clay are two college kids who fall deeply in love, and learn very quickly that sometimes love isn’t all that matters. There’s almost nothing else I can tell you without ruining it, and I definitely don’t want to ruin it. BUY these books! Read them. You won’t regret it.

Still, since Lily has had some of us on tenterhooks awaiting these releases, I wanted to hear from her about what it her creative process was like this time around, where she’s going next.

Read the interview below. Take it from me, she’s just as interesting as her books …

  • You’ve taken a fairly long hiatus from releasing, though clearly not from writing since you’re giving us two full-length novels in quick succession. Tell us a little bit about what your process was to create ‘Ethan’s Choice’ and ‘Serena’s Vow’. Where did the idea come from, and how did these novels come about?

Hiatus. Great word. Makes it sound like my being away so long was all part of some grand design. It wasn’t. LOL. The idea for these two books came initially from one troublesome little scene in my last book, Blackbirds. In that book, my hero Elliott is having a pleasant Thanksgiving with his mother, his girlfriend, and his young daughter when his father Ethan Vance, a man he’s never met shows up. It’s an explosive encounter and from it we learn that Ethan had what seems like a good reason for his initial abandonment of his family, but it left a lot of open-ended questions. Then Ethan is only mentioned once more in the epilogue of that book, saying that he’s a guest at his son’s wedding. But, that’s it.

Naturally, readers being a curious bunch said “Hey Lily, what about that guy Ethan? Will we ever find out more about him and Ell’s mother Serena?” And that was it. I couldn’t get the two characters out of my mind.

I thought Serena and Ethan’s story would be one book. I was so cocksure of it I wrote six chapters and gave the book a title: Blank Pages. But conceptually I wanted to show a fully realized love story—a relationship that spanned many years. The idea of writing about a young couple in love, then tearing them apart for a long time, then showing them again mature and in love was intriguing to me. It was a theme I experimented with in Blackbirds but not to such an extreme. When we meet Ethan and Serena initially this time, they are only 18 and 19, then when we see them really come together as couple again it’s that fateful Thanksgiving when they’re in their 50’s, and they both have done a whole lot of living in between. I could have squeezed all that into one book, but it would have either compromised the story OR been something like 600 or 700 pages.  Heck, that’s a Marlon James or a J.K. Rowling novel, not women’s fiction.  

So, two books it became. Ethan’s Choice gives us a lot of, I hope fascinating, backstory on Ethan and covers our couple falling hopelessly head over heels gaga for each other before life forcefully intrudes on them. Serena’s Vow shares everything that comes after, including when love resurfaces for two people who it’s been lying dormant in for a very long time.

  • These books span over a couple of decades, including a very interesting time in New York. What was it like to write about a different era?

Well, it was not as challenging as you might think because I was actually alive and living in New York in every decade I wrote about, so I had many personal experiences to work with. Still there were a few moments when I felt like I was in over my head. So, I did some research too. Honestly it was an amazing time to reexamine after having lived in it. New York City in the seventies was a scary, turbulent place but as a young kid I didn’t see it that way at all. It was all just normal to me.

I have some serious admiration for actual historical fiction writers who do this kind of thing all the time and have to write about bygone eras that require a lot of research. Then they have to take that research and turn it into an engrossing narrative with fleshed out characters who see their world very differently than someone looking years later with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. It’s an intense enterprise for a writer mostly cause it’s fairly easy to screw it up.

I had to caution myself often that even though I was familiar with many of the settings and types of people I was describing from the past I wasn’t writing history per se; I was writing a fictional love story. Eventually I decided to make it a little easy on myself and start deep writing where I usually do, thinking about the music my characters listen too. From the beginning that was a joy and super helpful.

Sorry for everyone born after 1986, but music in the seventies and early eighties was freaking amazing. My playlists for these books were AWESOME. Doing that also provided me with some sense memories about the current events of the time, the clothes, the devices that were used, the spaces and neighborhoods the characters lived in. It helped me reflect and create a nuanced vibration for the times I was writing about.

  • In reading these books, the first thing that struck me is that they’re not romance novels, though much of your readership are diehard romance readers. How would you categorize this work? And is this the voice we should come to expect from you in the future?

From the beginning, I have always prayed for my writing to do two things for people reading it: give them joyful satisfaction on completion and help to heal whatever ails them, even things they didn’t necessarily know they needed healing for. Anyone who really knows my work knows I am a romantic with a capital R. I write complex, entertaining, and evocative love stories. However, true love stories featuring human beings anyway, are fraught with minor and major complications, so I write about that too. I think writing about those parts of a love story is exploring “the negative space” Walter Mosley is always talking about. The things that are unseen that make us think and react the way we do are important to consider and talk about. Cause let’s face it that’s where we’re all living our life, right? I’ve heard a term used lately called Romantic Realism and I think I fit quite nicely between that R and R. And yes, I expect I’ll write more of it but I bore easy so there are many different ways that kind of writing will manifest itself for me, I think.

  • It’s always interesting to hear what writers read. What are you reading these days, and who are some of the writers who influence you, or who you are inspired by?

I’m influenced/inspired by so many writers, including you. This past spring, I made a promise to myself that I’d finish writing these books this year. That commitment changed my reading habits a lot. I couldn’t read anything romantic for a long time. I also couldn’t read any super emotional women’s fiction. I’d start books like the last Tayari Jones that everyone devoured when it came out, and I couldn’t get past the first few chapters. I finished it finally last month and loved it but glad I didn’t read it while writing about Ethan. That book put me in such a mood there’s no telling what might have happened to him. Instead I inhaled Lisa Regan’s detective novels over the summer, which were great but as far from what I was writing as I could get. In between to prep for the next Wine With Writers event, I read most of the catalogues of Piper Huguley and Joan Vassar, which blew me away and let me know unequivocally that I was not writing historical fiction. Right now, I’m still reading Regina Porter’s The Travelers, which has grown on me. What a massive undertaking that was. I really want to know how long that took her to write. Her vision boards must have looked like police procedural or army war maps. I just started books by two favorites Stephen King’s The Institute and an Alice Hoffmann novel I somehow missed called Faithful

  • What is your ‘dream novel’? By that I mean, what’s the novel you desperately want to write? And why is it your ‘dream novel’?

I have several dream novels actually, but I’ll tell you about one. It’s about the struggles of two married soldiers having to live apart while one is on tour. There’s a lot of nefarious outside forces complicating their lives and they don’t have each other to fall back on. It’s a suspense novel with a little law of attraction spirituality thrown in for good measure and a love story too, of course. I’d like it to part of it take place in what I see as the most wildly polemic and problematic part of this country right now. The so-called heartland. I don’t know why it’s my dream novel other than the fact that it comes to me often in daydreams and sleep dreams too. I haven’t got much of a frame of personal reference for any of it, which makes it feel like an audacious idea. That’s also what makes it somewhat exciting for me to think about.

  • What’s a trend in publishing or self-publishing you’re happy to see lately? What’s a trend you’re less excited about, or don’t like?

Honestly, I don’t talk a lot about this because it gives me a headache but since you asked. LOL. I’m happy to see that content is flourishing. There seems to be an endless supply and it seems to have a never-ending number of forums where it’s featured. It’s creating this ripple effect that encourages the diverse voices of the young and socially conscious. It also means that reading has a lot more competition so shorter books are preferable to go along with the shorter attention spans. That’s disheartening but it may also be why poetry, which I love is having a resurgence. It’s really short. LOL. Book quality is back in vogue. That’s great. Marketing earlier is a necessity for success. That’s a pain in the neck for indie writers especially. Hopefully it will mean there are more opportunities for how you can market. Best of all, independent bookstores didn’t disappear entirely. Love that story about the only indie bookstore opening in the Bronx recently. It serves wine so I’m making a special trip to that one very soon.

  • Now that you’ve completed two very ambitious books, what’s your next project? 

I have one last project in the Blackbirds saga to do. I wrote and shared some excerpts of it over the Xmas holidays under the working title Home At Last’. It was well received but I doubt that many knew who I was writing about. The main female character features a young woman named Laura. She happens to be none other than Laura Vance, daughter to Elliott and granddaughter to Ethan and Serena. She was seen as a child in two of the books in the Blackbirds series and she’s always been a super interesting character to so many people, including me. Her backstory is charged like every lead in this series, but I wanted to explore what that would do to her little psyche when she grew up and tried to navigate her own love life and relationships. I’m planning on an early 2020 release for that book. There are some other surprises you can expect from me in 2020 but I’m not letting that cat out of the bag just yet.

Both books are AVAILABLE ON AMAZON! ‘Ethan’s Choice’ you can read right now, and ‘Serena’s Vow’ is available for PRE-ORDER with an October 25 release date!

Conversations with Creatives: An Evening with Diane McKinney-Whetstone & Reflections from Lily Java

Talking to creatives—no matter their medium—about their work is one of my favorite things to do. Every artist’s point-of-view is different, and looking at, reading, or hearing their creation is like a peek into their mind and the way they see the world. So, on the evening of November 14, when I got the chance to have a conversation with Diane McKinney-Whetstone and hear a little bit about her work and her process I knew it was going to be a highlight of my year. And it was.

Author, Diane McKinney-Whetstone

About 50 women (and a few intrepid men, including Ms. McKinney-Whetstone’s husband, Greg) gathered on a cold night in Germantown, Philadelphia at the Our House Culture Center to watch me interview her about her books, her inspiration and her process. It was an interestingly personal gathering, with a few of the women greeting the author like old friends, several of them having known or grown up with her in Philadelphia even though some hadn’t seen her in decades. Just happening by for the event, was the iconic author of ‘Black Ice’, Lorene Cary. She, and Diane McKinney-Whetstone greeted each other affectionately, and obviously know each other well.

But I’ve come to learn that Philadelphia is like that—a small town masquerading as a big city,with intricate intersections of place, and space and relationships. And that’s how Ms. McKinney-Whetstone writes as well—her stories are complicated but familiar, personal, warm, welcoming and with the hint of an inside joke, that you’re only in on if you come from Philly. We talked about Tumblin’ her first novel, and about Lazaretto, her most recent offering, and she read from both which was a rare treat. I asked questions about her work, about race, about the craft. I was inspired and rejuvenated just listening to her and even more than that, I was struck by the commonality of the creative struggle—the characters’ voices in your head that come unbidden day and night, the self-doubt that often accompanies them, the worry that you don’t have enough time, aren’t “doing it right”, or should be engaged in something much more important, especially in times like these.

A few of my own writer-friends were in the audience, one of them on the cusp of publishing for the first time (who would kill me if I outed her), and another who already has, my friend Lily Java. Since Lily is, like me, prone to analysis of just about everything, I thought it might be fun to interview her about the interview, so you can hear another point-of-view besides my own. So, here goes …

Diane McKinney-Whetstone talked about ‘writing as a Black woman’ versus ‘being a Black woman who writes’. What did you think about her response? It was a great question you asked because it seemed like a deceptively easy one to answer. It’s funny too, cause thinking back on it, my initial reaction to her answer was that it was safe.  She seemed to hint that she can’t help but write as a Black woman because that is who and what she is. In other words, it’s natural.

Did you relate? Of course. Absolutely. For me it’s sometimes difficult to extrapolate the difference between the two options given. Being a Black woman who writes and writing as a Black woman are, as a whole, the reasons I felt brave enough to publish my work to begin with.  Knowing that I hadn’t read or heard enough of my type of voice was a strong catalyst — but how could writing like that not also be tied to my identity? I’m empathetic by nature, but I’m not that good at experiencing life outside myself to write as anything other than a Black woman.

One of the more gratifying moments for me was hearing her reaffirm that we need to give ourselves permission to write. How do you interpret that? Yes, I loved that moment too.  And she was absolutely right.  You have to make and give yourself the time to write. And even though an enormous load of guilt, self-recrimination, and exhaustion might come your way when you do acquire that time, it still has to be sacrosanct — untouchable. 

What does that mean to you? The thing that resonated for me most was when she said that she needed to overcome the idea that what she’s doing is frivolous. Boy that statement rocked me. I was raised to fight my own inner demons early because there were plenty enough on the outside to fight. Consequently, I don’t always see myself as someone who is lacking in self-esteem or confidence but of course I am. And I especially am when it comes to writing. Also, the times we’re living in don’t help much. It’s easy to say you’re writing to entertain and allow people an escape but doing it while the world is fraught ain’t easy either. Yeah, I think it was during that part of the talk that I turned to the young writer next to me and whispered something unoriginal but apt, “If it were easy, everybody would do it.”

We also talked a little about writing ‘under the white gaze’. What were your thoughts on her response to that? You mean after I finished snickering and rolling my eyes that you asked it?  Hahahaha. Seriously though I thought she was practical on the subject. She’s a literary writer but she isn’t writing purely for white audiences. Her themes and subject matter tell you that. I also thought it was clear she wasn’t going to object to anyone of any shade reading her work.  I especially liked her encouragement of anyone writing in their own vernacular whatever that happened to be. 

Do you feel the‘white gaze’ as you write? Not at all. I do feel the gaze of my parents, grandparents and the rest of my family, as well as some of my teachers in the K-12 years. I especially feel the gaze of other writers of various hues, that I love and who have inspired me to read. Here’s the thing though. I think people are always trying to put Black people in a particular box.  As if because we’re Black what we do has to be, observed, managed, or judged through a certain lens in order for it to be called Black. It’s nonsensical. There’s good writing and there’s bad writing. Period. And not every story or voice is gonna resonate for everyone.

She had some interesting thoughts about the lack of differentiation among genres when authors are Black. Did you have thoughts on that as well?  Yeah, I do.  Can you tell?  So, here’s the thing I keep wondering, why DO we identify AA fiction in such limiting ways?  I suppose as a marginalized voice in publishing we feel as if that maybe the only way for our reading audience to find us but it does automatically keep us all in that same box I mentioned earlier. I’ve concluded that there’s no easy answer or solution except to have many more good AA writers who a rededicated to their craft and are writing out of the box that publishers as well as readers, black, white, or mauve, want to put us in. There’s a line in the movie “Legends of the Fall” where Anthony Hopkins plays an old man recovering from a stroke and he shakes his fist at the sky and says “Screw the government!”  I think of it when I think about this subject cause I always want to say “Screw the genre!”

It was surprising to hear that she doesn’t think the publishing industry has become significantly more competent in terms of decision-makers that promote the work of Black creatives.  I wasn’t surprised by that. I agree with her. There are still fairly poor hiring practices when it comes to broadening the employee demographics in traditional publishing and not nearly enough entrepreneurs of color jumping into the field of publishing either. I feel like we’re seeing a lot of placeholders in Black fiction right now, some quite brilliant, but not nearly enough to give us a true expansion of excellent diverse content in the publishing world. I think today the film and TV entertainment industry has in many ways done a better job of mixing it up and giving us that.

There was a minor skirmish during the conversation that seemed to indicate a divide between anew, younger generation of readers, and women who are Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s contemporaries, who read Bebe Moore Campbell, Terry MacMillan and the like. Do you think there is a real difference in the quality of Black fiction now than when those women were the household names for Black readers?  Sure, there is, but I guess I would take issue with the word quality. That word suggests there might be a superiority of one group over the other. I think there are huge differences in the circumstances and trends for those writing Black fiction now as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago. Those historical differences are often what makes the reader feel however they’re going to feelabout it. I imagine sometimes it’s hard to relate. That doesn’t make it better or worse writing though in the aggregate.  Does anyone want to compare the “quality” of Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen to Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou?  They’re about three decades apart. It might bean interesting thesis but for my money, I’d rather just read them and forget the comparisons.

What were your most important take-aways from the conversation? I had two. 1) I need to spend more time with writers. It always makes me feel better to be around my people. Hahaha.  Seriously though, I’ve gone to see a lot of writers talk about their craft and I always feel great afterwards. It’s such a niche profession, and there is much to learn from the others who do what you do too.  2) I saw a lot of familiar faces at this event, which made me happy.  All were readers, but many were writers too and that is what keeps me hopeful about this profession especially when it comes to Black fiction.  There are so many out there who want to take the plunge and eventually will. 

Thank you, Lily Java. Fun hanging with you, as usual!

What I Learned at Wine with Writers ATL

 

iStock_000052910038_Medium-56b09b3f3df78cf772cffbb6What I Learned at Wine with Writers

I’m not good at personal appearances. I only started doing them about a year and a half ago and remember thinking—with exhaustion—about how stressful it is to stand in front of a room of people and to … speak. I think my best voice comes through in writing, so speaking feels like a chore, especially since I do it so much in my other job.

This weekend, at Wine with Writers, something occurred to me as I was waiting—with a fair amount of terror—for my turn to read aloud to roll around. Here’s what I learned. I didn’t start Wine with Writers so that you could see writers.

I started Wine with Writers, so I could that I, and other writers could see you.

Writing is quiet. For me, it’s often silent. I don’t like being spoken to when I write, and I definitely won’t be speaking to anyone. But once the words are on the page, and set free into the world, I want to hear what you thought of them. Did they move you? Did they anger you? Did you get me? Do you understand?

That’s why writers clamor for reviews, or at least that’s why this writer does. So I can listen. So I can hear you. But I find that some of the most thoughtful readers, the people who are most moved by books, sometimes freeze at the task of writing a review. It feels daunting to them, like being asked to submit an essay to a judgy teacher. And more than that, it requires them to do that which they most admire in writers—it requires that they choose the right words to portray feelings. And I know from experience that that is hard work.

So, this weekend at Wine with Writers, surrounded by my old writer friends the quietly funny Rae Lamar, the lyrical Lily Java, the dopest of the dope Jacinta Howard, and my new writer friends the exuberant Tasha L. Harrison and she of the silky, sultry written and spoken voice DL White, I realized something. I realized that I wanted to hear more from the women in the audience than I did from any of us.

I wanted to know what moves, frustrates, thrills and inspires you.

I wanted to know why you came.

I wanted to see, and listen to you, the largely hidden tribe of women who find life and sustenance in books.

I got that this weekend. I saw you, I heard why you came, listened to you. And it ended far too soon. Thank you. We will do it again.

Love & light,

N.

 


 

Wine with Writers ATL

I love writers. I really, really do. They’re such rare breeds. Most of those I’ve met (either IRL or in online spaces) tend to be gems, who on the outside are quiet, and unassuming but once unwrapped … whoa! And I feel privileged whenever I get a chance to participate in some of that unwrapping, by talking about their books, their philosophy of writing, and some of the big questions in life.

In Atlanta, on March 10, I get to do that with my sister-writers Rae Lamar, Jacinta Howard and Lily Java. Just like we did in the Philadelphia area last year, we’re getting together at Wine with Writers with a fairly small group of readers, some wine and delectables, to talk about art, and life and how the two often become intertwined. What’s even more exciting, is that this year we are joined by Tasha L. Harrison and DL White, one of whom I discovered late last year, and the other whose work I began to read just weeks ago.

They’re very different types of writers, but both have this thing I love — realism. So we’re going to talk to them about that in Atlanta, sip some wine, chill with good music, meet  readers, give away some stuff, and sell some books. And of course, Lily, Rae, Jacinta and I will join the conversation, and answer whatever questions you want to ask.

If you’re in the area, drop by and join us. This isn’t a book fair. It’s smaller, more intimate and leaves lots of time for conversation; for you to get to know us, and for us to get to know you. This time, the theme is ‘Identity & Individuality: The Movement Toward Issue-Based Black Women’s Fiction.’  These days, personally, I’m finding it harder than it used to be to create escapist fiction. And it made me curious what other authors are feeling, especially those who–even in the best of times–find it difficult to not include issues they care about as part of their narrative thread.

If this sounds like your vibe, register for the event, and see you in ATL!

Love & light,

N.

In the meantime, check some of the work I personally enjoyed very much by the featured authors:

Sticky Moon‘Sticky Moon’ by Lily Java

Someone very close to Myra Lambert has been brutally murdered. It’s commonly believed that her longtime stalker is the person responsible. Troubled ex-cop Glenn Sparrow was hired to play bodyguard for the vulnerable real estate heiress, while his best friend NYC Homicide Detective Lt. Max Harper solves the case. After a foiled abduction, Glenn and Myra retreat to the Catskills and the Lambert family farm, where they hope she’ll be safer and harder to find. In this remote, secluded refuge time seems to stop for Myra and Glenn, offering them an open window into each others world. What they find may be what they both have been searching for, but with a killer on the loose and Myra his possible prey, time may also run out. Are there limits to the lasting happiness a couple under siege might find with each other?

22’22’ by Rae Lamar

Having suffered the loss of her fiance, cushy job and luxury Midtown Atlanta condo at the height of the U.S. recession, Nina Drake packed up and left the ruins behind to start anew in sunny South Florida.

With no life and no friends, Nina settles in and resigns herself to the simple existence of a gift shop attendant where she passively observes the scores of colorful clientele living in the five-star resort where she works. After a few random run-ins with a peculiar resident, Nina’s boredom gives way to curiosity and she blindly steps out of her dull routine into someone else’s shoes…and the arms of an irresistible stranger. But it’s only a matter of days before Nina goes from dreaming of romantic possibilities to realizing that this tawdry hookup can never evolve into something real…

In spite of Nina’s aversion to his sordid past, Dean Whitmore is determined to make her believe that his intentions are as real as their instant connection. And the fact that he only has a few weeks to prove it to her before life leads them in different directions just makes the challenge that much more appealing…

 

Keeping Willow‘Keeping Willow’ by Jacinta Howard

Devin Walker, drummer for The Prototype, has one priority: turning his alt-soul band into the superstar act it’s destined to become. Singularly focused on his music, his creative passion is all-consuming—that is, until he crosses paths with his best friend’s college roommate, Willow Harden.

Willow was drawn to Devin from the moment she first saw him. And when Devin does, finally look Willow’s way, she’s easily seduced from her protective bubble into the lure of his fast-paced ambitions, though at times, she wonders if she can handle it.

Unable to resist their potent chemistry, Devin and Willow free fall into a relationship that makes them question each other and doubt themselves. Devin knows he should probably leave her alone; Willow knows life for her might not be any good without him. Can they possibly make their love work? And if so, at what cost?

 

Truth of All Things‘The Truth of All Things’ by Tasha L. Harrison

WHERE I COME FROM, COPS AREN’T SUPERHEROES.”

Photojournalist and wedding photographer Ava Greene has been unlucky in love, and even though she calls herself a hopeless romantic, she is more than a little bitter about it. The only attention she seems to get is from the men she has absolutely no interest in and has become unintentionally celibate in her effort to avoid “trash ass dudes” and has officially given up on the idea “the one” when Officer Friendly rolls up on her block.

“NOT ALL COPS…”

Arrogant and just shy of being a cornball with his bad-dad jokes, she knows that this stocky cop might just be the one to make her second-guess every thought she ever had about cops.

Ava tries to make it clear to Levi that she doesn’t need saving, that she doesn’t need to be worshiped, but he is convinced that is exactly she needs. But when Ava finds herself on the wrong side of the law, will he be the hero she needs or toe the “thin blue line?”

 

‘Brunch at Ruby’s’ by DL White

Brunch at Ruby'sRuby’s Soul Food Cafe has been the neighborhood hot spot their whole lives, so it’s only fitting that Ruby’s is where Debra, Maxine and Renee meet monthly to do what girlfriends do– eat, drink and offer unsolicited advice on life and love.

Debra Macklin has it all: a successful career, a long marriage and a happy 12 year old daughter. But she’s hiding a secret that could not only shatter her perfect image, but destroy her marriage and career. When her secret is spilled, Debra is poised to lose everything she holds dear.

Maxine Donovan is a self made woman but despite all she earns and owns, she’s on a constant quest for Mr. Right. Handsome, aloof Malcolm Brooks might just be The One, but when Malcolm’s attention turns toward her friend instead, Maxine is ready to risk a strong bond to fight for him.

Renee Gladwell left a lucrative job and a handsome boyfriend to nurse her father and Gladwell Books back to health. A temporary stay has turned into four years of struggling with Alzheimer’s and a family owned bookstore that is in no shape to sell. Renee is in limbo, caring for a man who is slowly forgetting his past—including her. When she meets Malcolm Brooks, her life brightens, but is love worth risking a friendship?

Brunch at Ruby’s is a funny, inspiring, soulful look into a lifelong friendship where bonds are bent, but never broken.

Women who Misbehave

Wine with Writers poster - final-2 (1)

On March 25th, I’m going to be in Collegeville, PA (about an hour NW of Philadelphia) with Tia Kelly, Jacinta Howard and Lily Java for a book signing, readings by the authors and panel discussion, moderated by Ashley Coleman, author of ‘Love on Purpose’.  Our discussion theme is a juicy one: “Romance, Realism & Portrayal of African American Women in Popular Fiction”. Not only do my fellow panelists happen to be some of my favorite indie authors, the topic is one I love to talk about with anyone who’s willing to listen or participate. Over the past couple of years as I’ve grown into my writing voice a little bit, I realized something. I enjoy writing stories of love, stories that are “real” and most all, stories about women who misbehave. No meek heroines for me; or if they are meek, I love writing about how they mess up, make mistakes and often wreak havoc in their lives as well as others’.

So when my fellow authors and I are together in Collegeville, I imagine what I’ll want to talk about is how romance, even though based on a simple formula, can be one of the more complex genres to write, if you want the love to feel real. I imagine I’ll also want to talk, and hear about whether realism is something people value in romance, or whether the fantasy is the hook for most readers. And finally, I definitely want to talk about how much juice I get from writing about women, specifically women of color who “misbehave”. Some of them are like Lorna, in one of my featured books, ‘The Fall’, a woman determined to blaze her own trail, arrogant, self-righteous and downright rude, and the hell with people who don’t like it. And some of them are like Zora in my other featured book for the event, ‘Young, Rich & Black’ who is determined to decide for herself who she’s going to be, even if that person is at odds with who everyone else says she should be. But I won’t get into it too much right now, because that’ll leave nothing for Saturday March 25th at the Towne Book Center Wine Bar and Café.

If you’re in the neighborhood, or can make it there, consider joining us, and joining in on the conversation. Register for the book signing and discussion free here, and/or for the wine tasting as well, for a small fee!

Hope to see you, but either way …

Happy Reading!

~N~

From ‘Because My Heart Said So’

lena-and-quentin-coverSo you may have heard that Jacinta Howard, Rae Lamar, Lily Java and I released a compilation of novellas, under the title ‘Because My Heart Said So’ this spring. Well, this winter, we’re each releasing the full-length novels for the stories started in that book. My contribution, ‘Acceptable Losses’ is excerpted here. Check it out, and if you haven’t already, check out ‘Because My Heart Said So’. 

About ‘Acceptable Losses’:

Quentin is in the middle of a separation from his wife that seems to have no conclusive end in sight, while Lena is stuck in Single Girl Hell. The only respite either of them have is their regular coffee dates, while working on shared projects at a very demanding job. Sick of hearing about Lena’s semidisastrous attempts to couple-up, Quentin decides to fix her up. With his brother. Seems like a perfect solution; after all, his brother is a decent enough guy and Lena deserves that. Perfect … until it appears that the fix-up might actually work.

From ‘Acceptable Losses’:

Mara looked amazing.

She had colored her hair a reddish-copper shade that complemented her dark skin and gave it a subtle, bronze glow. When Quentin first saw her a couple nights earlier, it was a surprise. It was still short, the look she favored to accentuate her high cheekbones and full lips, but in a different, more modern style. And as always, Mara looked flawlessly chic. Sitting across the table from her in Kapnos, their second dinner date in three days, Quentin recalled what he used to feel like being the man with her on his arm. Ten feet tall, that’s how.

Now, he observed her as though she was a beautiful stranger.

“What’re you thinking of having?” She was looking down at the menu, chewing on the corner of her lip in the way she always did when she was concentrating on something.

“Those phyllo pies sound amazing,” Quentin said. “You?”

“Something with lamb,” Mara said, still not looking up. “Can’t do Greek food and not have lamb.” Finally, she put her menu down and gave him her full attention.

Quentin instinctively smiled, but part of him wasn’t even there.

After their first successful dinner at Filomena, they were both relieved and maybe even a little over-exuberant because the evening had been a good one. By avoiding talk of their marriage and separation, they actually managed to have some semblance of a good time. And when they parted in front of the restaurant, Quentin kissed her on the cheek and felt Mara lean into it. For a few moments, he considered making the kiss something more, maybe even inviting Mara back to the house. She was his wife, after all, and he hadn’t gotten any in months. But the thought that the same might not be true of her held him back.

The next day they talked again—still pleasant. So they planned, tonight, to go to the restaurant owned and operated by a celebrity chef they had watched together years earlier on a television cooking reality show. Taking baby steps, they might somehow, soon, get to a place where they could talk about the big pink elephant in the room. Without trying to use it to trample each other to death.

“So how’s work been?” he asked. “We didn’t talk about that Monday.”

“The same. Lots of travel. But this year, thankfully, I might get to go someplace more exciting than Chicago or L.A.”

Mara was a corporate event planner. When they first met, when Quentin was in law school, she was already well established in her career, putting together high-end events for Washington DC’s movers and shakers. She had even done a few events for the firm after they were married, but now, for obvious reasons, someone else in her company handled the Fox Cheatham account.

Quentin couldn’t say that the frequent trips she had to take were responsible for the cracks in their marriage, but they sure hadn’t helped. After having a knock-down, drag-out fight with your spouse, it was generally better if they were around so the apologies could be made, and the make-up sex could be had. Instead, many of their fights ended with Mara having to get on a plane the next day, widening the distance between them, both literally and figuratively.

“So where to this year?”

“I might get to go to the UAE.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. Really excited about that one.”

“Going alone?” Quentin asked.

Mara’s face fell. “It’s for work, Quentin. So, yes, I’m going alone.”

“And if it weren’t for work?”

Mara leaned back, folding her arms. “There’s a question buried in there.”

“Does it sound buried? I thought I was being very direct.”

“So you want to know if I’m seeing anyone.”

“I do want to know that, yes.”

“Quentin …”

“We’re not in court, Mara. You don’t have to worry about saying anything self-incriminating. This is just me, just you. Talking.”

“And we were doing so well,” she said, almost to herself.

She picked up her glass of water and took a slow sip.

Then their waiter arrived and for a few minutes, they both busied themselves with asking questions about the menu, placing their orders and getting a wine recommendation. When they were alone again, the mood was different— taut and more than a little tense.

“You can ask me the same if you like,” Quentin offered.

“I already know the answer,” Mara said, squeezing her lips together in a tight purse.

“You do? How?”

“Because I know you. You wouldn’t bring up seeing other people unless you were certain you had the moral high-ground. You haven’t been seeing anyone, so you can’t waste the opportunity to show how comparatively … dirty my hands are.”

Mara looked up at him, and her eyes had hardened into the look that he became familiar with as their marriage began to fall apart.

“That’s your thing—being the good guy compared to everyone else. Your whole life is defined by that. Even with your family.” She shook her head. “You’re the ‘good son’, and Darius is the fuck-up, isn’t that how it works? You’re so used to being in relationships where the other party is cooperative about playing that role that you can’t stand it that I won’t fall in line.”

“That’s interesting psychoanalysis, Mara. But you haven’t answered the question.”

“Off the record, counselor?” she asked sarcastically.

“Yeah. Off the record.”

“I am seeing someone. Yes. There. Are you happy now? Did that adequately feed your righteous indignation?”

Quentin leaned in closer. “Did you honestly expect me to not want to know if my wife has been fucking someone else?” he asked.

Mara looked down at her lap. “Why are you doing this?”

“Doing what?”

“Starting this fight with me. Quentin, by the time I left, you wanted out of our marriage so badly, I could practically hear you hyperventilating every minute we were together. But you had to cast me as the villain to make yourself feel good about it.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Is it? You need to feel like you’re justified to want out, but you also want me to be the one to pull the trigger. So after we got along so well a couple nights ago, I guess I should have seen this coming—you orchestrating this argument to …”

And for a moment, she stared at him and Quentin was shocked to see that there were tears in her eyes.

“You fell out of love with me, Quentin. I could almost feel when it happened. And then after that, you set about making sure I fell out of love with you … you just …” She stopped and took another sip of water. “Look, we’ve already been separated for nine months. In three more, we can get divorced without there being any admission of fault on either side. I suggest we agree to make that the plan.”

“You want a divorce.”

“Yes,” Mara said.

But what was curious about it was that she didn’t look resolved; she almost looked … defeated. Tired, even. For a fleeting moment, Quentin wondered whether any of what she said was true, that maybe he wanted out before she did, that he might have fallen out of love with her first.

“But what you said on the phone? That meant something to me. I want that,” Mara continued. “For us to not hate each other when all is said and done. So, yes, Quentin. You can have your divorce.”

“I don’t recall asking for …”

His wife looked him directly in the eyes and offered a small, sad laugh. “Oh yes you did,” she said. “Maybe not in words, but yes. You did.”

~~~

Read more about Quentin and Mara in the full-length novel, ‘Acceptable Losses’, coming this winter.

Lily’s Path to More

BMHSS Final CoverOver the past three weeks, you’ve gotten acquainted with three of the writers from my upcoming collaboration, ‘Because My Heart Said So’. One by one, Jacinta Howard, Rae Lamar and I have submitted to the inquisition of the author who has played the role of project manager, house-mother and general herder-of-the-cats, Lily Java. Sure, she had her character Sydney from ‘Because My Heart Said So’ do the actual interviews, but that is consistent with who Lily is—she gets people to ‘do stuff’, adding a process where there were previously only “cool ideas”. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that without her tenacity in pursuing the “cool idea” of a collection of Friends-to-Lovers stories, this book would not have happened.

So, along with Jacinta and Rae, I am super-excited to have everyone get to know Lily Java and her stellar work. She has been the level-headed calming influence of our group, the one who keeps me on task, gently prods me back into focus when my ideas wander, and I think Jacinta and Rae would agree, pretty much the “adult in the room” when the rest of us begin to get goofy. And the fact that she’s a damn good writer whose lyrical contribution to the Collection classed up the joint? Well, that’s a bonus.

Welcome, Lily Java! We’re old friends so it seems odd to have you here for something as formal as an “interview”, particularly about something that we collaborated on. But since you had me in the hot seat at least once, I’m thrilled to be able to return the favor.

So let’s start here ‘Because My Heart Said So’ is very definitely a compilation of romance novellas, and you very well-received debut novel ‘Sticky Moon’ is not purely romance. You wowed us with that book. Why depart from that genre? Or have you departed from it?   How do you think you’ve evolved creatively from then until now?

I’m absolutely not through with the suspense genre. There are two more romantic suspense novels in me fighting to get out. One, I plan to publish in the fall. But the mini—departure is definitely part of my evolution as a writer. I still feel like a virgin in this industry. So new, fresh, and dewy. It’s an odd feeling given my actual age. Before I published ‘Sticky Moon my brain was full of stories — all types. I’d been a deeply closeted writer in my head my whole life with a ton of unfinished ideas. Once I finished something for the first time, which was only about 2.5 years ago, it was like the flood gates opened and all this very disparate stuff started flying out. Then I realized that was fitting ‘cause I’m nothing if not radically independent. I never liked being put in boxes or categories so the idea of being married to one type of story didn’t sit well with my imagination. Last fall, I started trying to establish a regular writing schedule that fits sanely into my life and writing smaller stories that I could finish while also delving into other genres. I could’ve easily been a detective in another life and I adore suspense novels and movies, so it was natural for that to be my first book. But despite that, I believe love is THE strongest and most unpredictable emotion so trying to write a story without love being an element would be the most challenging for me. And relationships involving people in love interests me a lot.

Sticky MoonYour genre-hopping leads me to believe you get inspiration from varied places. Tell us about that. What inspires the different types of genres you write in? Where do those ideas come from?

Literally everything inspires it and the ideas come from everywhere. A few days ago I was trying to catch a cab and nearly collided with this woman in her seventies with fuchsia hair, wearing makeup and an outfit that resembled the wardrobe of a teenager in a bad copycat version of an eighties John Hughes coming-of-age flick. Consequently I cannot get the vision of that woman very far out of my head. Making shit up about her is on a pretty constant loop in my mind: is she the landlord for a young newlywed couple in Brooklyn who are falling out of love already as they look for a starter apartment or the dynamic aunt and sole support to a schizophrenic nephew who she fights with child services about so he can continue to live with her or is she a former disco queen whose personality is frozen in time (think creepy Betty Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane)? I don’t know yet but that woman I saw for about 10 seconds is definitely going into a story. I think the key to finding and using inspiration is not being afraid to let your mind go in a completely off-beat direction.

Everyone knows that we creative types are a little temperamental. Rae and Jacinta and I have already described the love-fest of a process for getting this book together, at least logistically speaking. But what were your greatest fears about this process? What were the best surprises about it?

We had a brutally short writing schedule for this book and I’m a slow writer. And since I’m also the type that’s always piling on to my challenges like a damn fool, I was simultaneously the primary manager for a project at my day job that if it didn’t go well I could easily have lost said job. Oh yeah, and my house was and still is, under some pretty major reconstruction that I’m overseeing alone. So consequently my greatest fear was that I wouldn’t finish the book on time.

My second biggest fear was that I’d finish the book but the story wouldn’t measure up to the incredibly talented writers I was working with. I’m not neurotic so I got over that fear fast though. I knew the other stories would be really wonderful so if mine sucked one out of three ain’t exactly bad odds for the reader. In the end, I did finish on time and I liked how my story came out. That wasn’t the biggest or even the best surprise though.

The best surprise was how well we four meshed together as people and writers, seemed to carry over into how well our stories meshed in the book. When you do a collaboration like this eventually everyone takes on a role, you find out everyone’s strengths or weaknesses and you hope fervently that you all don’t have the same strengths and weaknesses. In our case it was repetitively clear working on this project that we complemented each other in ways that were often surprising and educational.

Syd and EllTell us about your story in the ‘Because My Heart Said So’ Collection. What’s your guy like? What’s his girl like? What’s their ‘love language’ when they’re together?  

Elliott is an interesting guy. He’s at the top of his game or so everyone thinks because he’s hip, focused, and brilliant at almost anything he attempts especially managing people. He’s also a man who has always been recognized or encouraged by women and his relationships with them but, except for the women closest to him, he sees that gift only as a means to an end. He’s never been in love, nor does he particularly think he needs it and then he meets Sydney. Sydney is also interesting but in a very different way. Painfully shy, inherently quirky, studiously insightful, and stubborn are some of the words I’d use to describe her. Sydney can also be profoundly honest given that she sees most things in black or white, and rarely grey.

As for their love language both Sydney and Elliott are vivid and visual creatives. So first and foremost they bond that way. They know that artistry makes them each observant and perceptive about the world at large and consequently gives them both an intensity in how they perceive each other. But on a personal level they also see a similar dysfunctionality in their respective families and upbringing. There is a fragility and innocence to Sydney that Elliott immediately feels protective of. There are deep-seated fears in Elliott that he doesn’t quite measure up to his shiny image, which Sydney who is well acquainted with fear, scoffs at, because to her mind Elliott is very nearly perfect.

One of the things about collections of work from disparate authors is that the ‘voices’ have to vibe well for the collection to hold up. How would you characterize your voice and those of the other authors?

Nia’s voice is so current or maybe a better word for it is relevant. Whenever I read one of her books I literally feel as if her characters are echoing thoughts inside my head. A Nia Forrester book always makes me personally feel present and accounted for when I read it, which is not only validating, it’s cool. She’s also got a phenomenally sensual undercurrent running through her books that can be surprising as well as exciting because she’s clearly an intellectual. But that just goes to show you. Men? Smart girls are very sexy.

Jacinta. Where do I begin? Talk about sexy. Okay, I won’t start there. Jacinta writes intimacy in relationships better than almost anybody I’ve ever read and I’m not talking about physical intimacy. It’s almost like she tunes into what her characters think and feel emotionally with such precision that when she presents it — you can feel it. That is a neat fricking trick to have as a writer. I remember reading her the first time and just how the characters shared riddles about music became a metaphor for their closeness and I thought: Oooo, how she’d do that? And lately Jacinta is getting deeply in touch with the sensual side of her writing. I’m starting to carry fans around when I read her. I’m just saying.

I love Rae’s voice. It’s extremely memorable to me because it makes me laugh while also articulating something I think is extremely hard to share accurately in books about relationships: the fact that all humans are flawed but not necessarily tragically flawed. Rae’s characters represent the reality of how men and women actually are with each other to me – the good or bad, and often that reality is sweet and hilarious. I once asked Rae whether she was the comedienne in her family and she said no. I realized later that Rae’s funny not because she’s trying to be, but because she’s telling the truth.

My voice? That’s easy. Moody, graphic, esoteric — but hopefully not frustratingly so. There’s so much going on under the surface with my characters, to use a well-oiled phrase, a lotta deep shit. I think I have a tendency to make all my characters seem relatively important to the overall story, even the minor ones, because everybody’s got a place here, right? Speaking of place even a setting can play a defining role in how things pan out. Basically there are so many intriguing layers to people and places, it’s very hard for me to forget that when I write.

People always want to know what authors are like, personality-wise—the people behind the pen can be somewhat of a mystery. Give me one word that tells readers something they don’t otherwise know about each of the authors of ‘Because My Heart Said So’, yourself included.

Nia — hypothesizer

Jacinta — designer

Rae — diplomat

Lily – solutionist

-Your voice is really unique, particularly in the black romance genre. If you could pinpoint one characteristic you possess that you feel aids you in your writing approach, what would it be and why.

I have been an avid reader practically all my life. There is nothing that gives the visual and imaginary part of my brain a better, more thorough workout than reading all kinds of things, and all the time. It primes my pump if you get my drift. Geez, that’s like a joke. How many clichés can you put in one sentence? But what can I say, it’s the truth.

-What’s your biggest writing fear?

Running out of time before I can write my best work.

-Indie publishing can be incredibly taxing at times for most writers. Has there ever been a time when you thought about no longer pursuing writing, as in actively publishing books? If so why and what convinced you to continue pursuing your craft?

From the summer of 2013 when this all started for me until now I only thought about no longer doing this once. I’d release ‘Sticky Moon’ a month earlier than I wanted to because of my husband. By that time he was too sick to read it but I’d been reading passages to him for nearly a year. And he was in essence my strongest source of support and encouragement for almost three decades. He’d been telling me to write forever so when those blinders fell from my eyes there was one person happier than me – him. He died seven weeks after I published my first book and for ten months after that I thought it had been a fluke. I’d written SM as some weird cathartic therapy trip and woe is me I’d never be able to pull it off again. You know that sort of nonsense. But underneath it all, I knew it was bullshit. Yeah I’d lost my #1 fan who also happen to be a fab editor and that can be debilitating for a writer. Writers may write for themselves but they also thrive on recognition of their efforts and their vision. To know someone “gets” you? Sheeeit that’s everything.

So what convinced me to get back on the horse? I took one of those weird quizzes on social media and it said that my one defining trait was ambition. And it even showed a drawing of someone literally reaching for the stars in the sky. That shocked me. No, it floored me. I’d always associated ambition with the material wealth and the circumstances that go with it and that has never been me or what I’m about. However, keeping my eye on the ball and how to catch said ball, has always been important to me. I am one of those people who is excessively goal-oriented about things I want to accomplish. Turns out that’s ambition and I don’t think I‘ve ever been happier with an accomplishment than I am when I write books.

If you could pinpoint one moment in the ‘Because My Heart Said So’ collaboration as being the most memorable what would it be?

For me that would be when we made the decision to read each other’s stories. As a group the four of us have been fairly democratic in our decision making. In the beginning we decided that we wouldn’t read each other’s work until the day the book was released. Shortly after we submitted the book for pre-order when it was still in its draft phase the concerns started mounting. We put it to a vote and it was decided we should read the work in its entirety to figure out whether the four stories worked together or whether each individual story worked at all. Everyone got a lot calmer after we did read it, you could literally hear the breathy sighs of relief through the computer screens. That was the first and only time I felt we had a real crisis of faith in the project.

This collection has spurred a lot of interest in each of the authors individually and collectively. Where do you see your creative path taking you as an author personally? And where, if anywhere, do you see the collaboration with these particular authors going?

When I sit down and think about it, I know I have at least ten more novels in me, maybe more. I occasionally think at some point I’ll try being a hybrid writer if only so I can admit once and for all how absolutely impossible I am to micromanage and control. 😉 I also want to write a play and a screenplay. So, that’s where my creative path takes me to… more.

I see this collaboration as a blessing for all of us so I believe it should blossom into more writing as well, definitely more books. I’d like to see us take on another theme or maybe even two. I see us being substantively supportive to each other’s individual writing goals too. I’m going to contradict myself here because that in fact, may be the best surprise to have happened in this collaboration, the establishment of trust that in our little quartet there is someone who “gets” our voice and is enthusiastic about it being heard by as many people as possible.

And where can readers find you online?

Website: http://www.lilyjava.com

Twitter: @LilyJavaWrites

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorLilyJava/

Amazon Author Page

About Lily Java

Lily Java2When she isn’t indulging her new found writing superpower, Lily raises funds for culturally rich arts organizations planning events in the iconic landmarks of one of her favorite cities in the world, New York. Other times she dotes on the artists she lives with (her family) hoping they’ll reciprocate by letting her feed her passions for reading and writing without feeling neglected or getting all grumpy about it. Lily doesn’t fly or wear a cape (presently) but she does read the minds of the characters she writes about, who come to her in multiple genres as well as all sizes, shapes, and colors. A true ambivert, Lily enjoys solitude just as much as she likes meeting and talking with other passionate readers and writers.

 

Sample Sunday: ‘Because My Heart Said So’

 

BMHSS Final CoverThis has been a crazy-exciting week! Along with Jacinta Howard, Lily Java and Rae Lamar, I’m thrilled to announce that our Friends-to-Lovers Collection is available on Amazon for pre-order in advance of our June 15 release date. We’re all a little shell-shocked honestly, and hadn’t thought too far beyond getting the book written so now that we have, we’re befuddled about what to do with ourselves. So let’s take this one day at a time, starting with a Sample for Sunday.

From ‘Because My Heart Said So’

About ‘Acceptable Losses’ by Nia Forrester

Quentin is in the middle of a separation from his wife that seems to have no conclusive end in sight, while Lena is stuck in Single Girl Hell. The only respite either of them have is their regular coffee dates, while working on shared projects at a very demanding job. Sick of hearing about Lena’s semi-disastrous attempts to couple-up, Quentin decides to fix her up. With his brother. Seems like a perfect solution; after all, his brother is a decent enough guy and Lena deserves that. Perfect … until it appears that the fix-up might actually work.


From ‘Acceptable Losses’:

“This was so not what I was expecting,” Lena said, laughing as she and Darius exited the fitness studio. “When a guy asks me out, I’m thinking wine … fancy hors d’oeuvres, a complete meal maybe …”

“We can do something like that next time,” Darius said.

“So now that you sweated my tail off, am I free to go?”

“Nah. We’re going to Jamba Juice,” he said, inclining his head to the left.

Lena sighed. “Okay, you’re in charge, so let’s do it.”

“You did well in there,” he said as they started walking.

“Thank you. Was it a test or something? Something you put women through to see whether you want to take them on a real date?”

“Nah. Why would I need to test you? My brother says you’re cool people, so you’re cool people.”

Lena shook her head. “That’s all it takes, huh? Q’s endorsement?”

“He’s never steered me wrong.” Darius shrugged.

“And is he in the habit of … steering women your way?”

Darius laughed. “I do a’ight on my own.”

Lena didn’t doubt it. While they were working out, more than a few gym-bunnies shot envious looks her way, their eyes skimming Darius’ frame, struggling not to stare. It was a special kind of high, she couldn’t lie—being with That Dude at the gym, being the object of all that envy.

When Lena called him back to let him know she was free, Darius told her to “dress very casually, and for an active evening.” So Lena had worn loose black yoga pants, her tennis shoes, and a long-sleeved, white Under Armour shirt, pulling her hair back into a high Afro-puff. She imagined he was probably taking her to play laser-tag or something, but when she met Darius at the address he gave her, she got out of the Uber and realized it was a Washington Sports Club.

We’re gonna work out, he’d announced, looking pleased with himself.

And they had. After a half hour warm-up on the treadmill, Darius took her through his routine of dead-lifts, bench presses, squats, and flies. Somewhere about forty minutes in, Lena felt those endorphins kick in, and actually started to enjoy herself.

And it didn’t hurt that she got to watch Darius’s muscles ripple and tremble as he put them to work. Even the grunting and groaning as he handled the heavy weights was kind of sexy.

Now, as they walked down the cobblestone sidewalks of Wisconsin Avenue, Lena was glad she’d come. Working out was something of an afterthought for her most days since she worked long hours, so it was good to see how well her body held up under pressure.

“After we get our smoothies, want to see my studio?”

Darius was walking closely at her side, but not touching her. Lena pretended not to notice the looks he got from other women. His tattoos didn’t just cover his forearms, she’d learned; they were all the way up to his shoulders and neck as well. And when he lifted his shirt in the gym to wipe his brow, there were even more on his chest.

“I would love to see your studio,” she said. “But you’re not going to talk me into getting a tattoo.”

He grinned. “No authentic tattoo artist would do such a thing.”

In Jamba Juice, they both got energy bowls and sat at one of the tables to eat, Darius’s long legs stretched out beneath it, on either side of Lena’s.

“So is this your standard Wednesday night?” she asked.

“This is my standard, any-day-of-the-week night. Except for Fridays. On Fridays, I hang with Q.”

“Every Friday?”

“Without fail.”

“That must get irritating for women you’re involved with. Friday is supposed to be date night, couples’ night. Do you ever bring your dates with you?”

“Nah. Friday is about me and Q. If she’s not with that, she can’t be with me.”

“That’s a pretty hard line to draw. I guess I should be flattered I was invited to hang out with you two last Friday.”

“You should,” Darius said, looking at her seriously for a moment. “He’s never done that before. Neither of us has. That’s how I knew you were important to him.”

Lena looked down into her bowl and scooped up a spoonful of strawberries and yogurt. “I don’t know about all that. We’re friends, and he wanted me to meet you, that’s all.”

“Hmm.” Darius looked at her searchingly. “Y’know, I’m going to share something with you about my brother …”

Lena looked up, waiting.

“He doesn’t … always know his own heart. So when he wanted me to meet you, like maybe so I could ask you out, I wondered, y’know. Especially when I saw you two together.”

“What did you wonder?”

“Whether friendship was all either of you wanted. From each other, I mean.”

“Did you ask him?”

“I did.”

“And what did he say?” Lena asked, trying not to sound too eager to know.

Darius shook his head. “I’d rather hear what you say.”

Lena forced herself to meet and hold Darius’ gaze. “Your brother’s married,” she said. “And even if he weren’t, we are most definitely just friends. I wouldn’t have accepted your invitation tonight otherwise.”

Every word of what she said was true, but then why did it feel like a lie?

Darius’s eyes held hers for a few moments more. “Okay,” he said finally.

Then he looked down into his bowl again and dug in, coming up with a heaping spoon of fruit and oat grain which he promptly ate, chewing like it was the most delicious thing he’d ever eaten.

When he swallowed, he leaned back and watched her eat a few bites. Lena pretended not to feel self-conscious at being so openly regarded, and kept eating, albeit more slowly and daintily than she might otherwise have done.

“So,” Darius said, “you want to hang out again sometime?”

Moment of truth, Lena.

Darius was waiting, his light-brown eyes trained on her face. All the confusion about Quentin aside, he was the most attractive man who had asked her out in eons. And the most fascinating. If she had met him any other way, and at any other time—like before she met Quentin—she would be jumping out of her skin to say ‘yes’. But she had met Quentin first and had only met Darius because he was Quentin’s brother.

Then she recalled what Marlon had said earlier that evening: He’s married, Lena, and it looks like he’s trying to stay that way.

“Yeah,” she said to Darius. “I think I would.”

He grinned. “Hurry up and finish that,” he said, “So I can walk you over to my studio. And talk you into that tattoo.”

 

‘Because My Heart Said So’ is AVAILABLE NOW TO PRE-ORDER!