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Back On Top
By ANGELA WINTERS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2011 Angela Winters
All rights reserved.
Sherise Robinson couldn't believe she had let herself run behind today of all days. Her first day back at work from maternity leave and she was going to show up late if she didn't speed things up. That was not the message she wanted to send.
As she rushed around the master bedroom of her elegant Georgetown town house in Washington DC's Northwest side, Sherise felt panic start to set in. A lot was riding on how today went, no matter how much her husband, Justin, tried to tell her otherwise. The power-hungry, manipulative bitch, as her coworkers had secretly named her, was coming back, and if she showed any signs of softening, weakening, she was dead. The barracuda was now a mama and she could just imagine what they were all thinking: She's vulnerable.
As she stopped to look in the full-length mirror that covered her walk-in closet door, her confidence was lifted. She was going to show them they were wrong. Finally she found her missing Missoni stacked pumps and her outfit was complete. She looked sharp and sexy, and at twenty-seven, Sherise felt certain she showed no signs of having given birth six months ago. That was thanks to very expensive underwear that tucked everything in, but also to the fact that she made sure not to gain more than the twenty-five pounds her doctor told her was the minimum amount healthy during her pregnancy. While there was still a stubborn pound or two hanging around, everything was tightening up nicely.
From head to toe, Sherise checked every inch. Her shoulder-length hair, just done yesterday, was styled nicely in a sharp "don't fuck with me" bun with just a few "I might be flirting with you" dark brown tendrils falling down. She liked to keep the men confused. It gave her an advantage and Sherise was all about getting the advantage. Her makeup was flawless, highlighting her high cheekbones and dark green eyes. It was spring, so her lipstick was a soft, flirtatious pink. Her golden caramel skin was glowing and it would wow when she took off the jacket of her black and white striped Nipon wide-legged pantsuit to reveal her white sleeveless Marc Jacobs business shirt. No one who saw her at the Executive Office Building today would forget.
"I'm back," she said in that sexy, raspy voice of hers. "Bitches better step aside."
"You're late," were the first words Justin Robinson said to his wife only seconds later as she entered the contemporary European-style kitchen.
"I'm fine," Sherise answered as she rushed for the refrigerator. "I'm taking a cab."
Sherise quickly closed the refrigerator door and rushed over to the little monster emitting those sounds. Her six-month-old baby girl, Cady, was the love of her life. She sat in her baby chair, her hands reaching out for her mommy with evidence of her breakfast all over her face, not to mention her bib. She was an adorable baby with soft, chocolate skin, nice and chunky with fat cheeks that Sherise couldn't get enough of.
"Sorry, baby!" Sherise leaned in for a quick kiss, but didn't trust herself for more. She knew leaving Cady today would be hard enough. "Mama has to go."
"You should eat something." Justin put down the baby spoon and leaned back in his chair. He was looking at his wife with concern. "You don't want to go in there without your fuel."
"I'm grabbing something on the way." Sherise appreciated her husband's concern, but there was a part of her that was still a little angry with him for trying to pressure her to stay home for good.
Justin, thirty, was old fashioned and his upbringing had been very different from hers. Because Sherise grew up poor as dirt on the hard streets in Southeast DC with no father to be found and a mother who couldn't give a damn, she only knew how to fight. Justin was a lover, not a fighter. From Chicago, he grew up in a traditional middleclass black family with a stay-at-home mother, a doctor for a father, and all the safety cushions that came with such an upbringing. He was stable and reliable and represented what Sherise wanted to be, which was why she decided the night she met him four years ago, when he was just a recent Georgetown Law grad, that she wanted to marry him. A reliable wage earner who was hot enough to be attractive, but not so hot that every other woman would want him too. He was the kind of guy who would come home every night. Most of all, Justin, a six-figure lobbyist on Capitol Hill, had the connections that Sherise's never-ending ambition could use to get ahead.
But Justin put a wrench in her ambitious game when he suggested Sherise be a stay-at-home mom after Cady was born. They had at first agreed to a regular twelve-week maternity leave, knowing that Sherise had plans of moving beyond her position as assistant director of communications for the White House's Domestic Policy Council. She was hungry for power and her ultimate dream was to make it from the Executive Office Building across the street to the West Wing of the White House. After endless fighting, Sherise went the route that had always served her well—refusing affection until she got her way. While she loved Justin, he did not overwhelm her, which made him a good husband candidate for her. She could control the way her body reacted to him, thus control the power he had over her.
It wasn't as if he wasn't attractive. He was six feet tall and, while he had an extra ten pounds, he wore it well. He was a sexy dark brown with beautiful light brown eyes and a sturdy face. He wore preppie boardroom glasses that made him look distinguished and was always looking sharp in his expensive business suits. The point was, while she found him perfect husband and father material, Justin had never gotten Sherise to lose control of herself. She could resist him, but he couldn't resist her. She played her games and made certain he couldn't resist, which resulted in a quick marriage proposal. This control over him was why her compromise of a six-month leave was quickly accepted and rewarded with access to affection again.
Sherise felt a pull in her gut as Cady called for her again, but she fought it and went to check her briefcase. It made her want to cry, but she wasn't a stay-at-home mom type. She was too ambitious, too greedy. Did that make her a bad mother? She didn't know. She only knew that she would be miserable without the challenge of a career. It made her feel strong, safe, and allowed her to do what she did best—power play and win.
"I filled up her bag." Sherise's back was to her husband and child as she organized the items in her briefcase on the French-villa style dining room table. "So all you have to do is grab it and walk her over to the day-care center."
Sherise almost jumped when she felt Justin's hand on her shoulder. She turned to face him and was comforted by the compassion in his eyes.
"I know this is hard for you, baby." He leaned forward and kissed her on her forehead. "You don't have to pretend."
"Please," she begged. "Don't do that. You'll make me cry. I can't walk in there with red eyes."
"You know that you'll be back in the swing of things before noon," he said. "Don't sweat it, baby. Cady will be fine at day care. I'll drop her off on my way to work and you can pick her up on your way home."
"And you don't hate me?" she asked.
Justin smiled his usual charming smile. "I couldn't if I tried."
She knew that. She could always rely on Justin to be a supportive husband and a fully involved father. Which made her feel all the worse knowing that Cady might not even be his child.
Billie Hass felt her stomach getting tighter and tighter as every second passed. Her petite fingers gripped the coffee cup in her hand as she stood at the counter and looked out the window facing the street. The building where she was starting her new job on K Street was right in front of her. She didn't look much different than any of the expensively suited lawyers who walked inside, but she knew she was different.
Growing up in Southeast DC, Billie had witnessed the injustices against the poor firsthand. A father she watched accused of a crime he didn't commit and railroaded by the legal system, and a mother who died trying to fight the corruption of health insurance companies had molded her opinion of power. Billie knew two things. She had to get out of poverty and she had to fight for those who couldn't fight for themselves. This motivated her to get through law school, always with the objective of fighting for justice.
She graduated four years ago, at age twenty-five, and began her career as a public defender in DC. She was chided for not shooting for Big Law and six-figure salaries, but was planning for something better. Billie intended to run for office one day and use her power to fight for legislation that spoke for the voiceless. The young men who were guilty until proven guilty and poor women who the system shepherded toward dependency. She had met with a lot of obstacles but was winning more than losing. That was until Porter Hass happened.
Billie met Porter at Georgetown Law School. He was four years older than her, having spent time in the navy before going to school, so she found him a bit more knowledgeable than the average brother she dealt with every day. They had so much in common. While Billie had grown up on the tough streets of Southeast DC, Porter had struggled to survive in the dangerous Highland Park neighborhood of Detroit. Seeing cops shoot and kill his brother at the age of ten and get away with it, Porter had many of the same plans to fight injustice when he started law school.
But something changed. Another thing Porter and Billie had in common was a desire to live a better life than they had known as kids, to escape the ghetto mentality of "bad is good and there is no way to succeed so why bother." They wanted to escape always being on the wrong end of ... well, everything. But unlike Billie, who only wanted to get rid of the bad, Porter began to desire an escape from all of it. Billie didn't want to forget everything about the hood, but Porter did, and at some point during law school, he decided he wanted to be the power that they were supposed to want to fight.
Despite their differences, she married him because she loved him and he had a lot of good qualities. He was smart and sexy and he was a great father to his now fourteen-year-old daughter, Tara. While he was still in law school, Porter fought for custody of Tara when her mother, Shawn, got too deep into drugs to care for her. Porter and Shawn were teenagers when she got pregnant and, while Porter fought his way out of it all, Shawn never bothered. He never turned his back on Tara and for that, Billie loved him. That, and the fact that he set her body on fire every time he touched her. She had never felt the passion for a man that she had for Porter. Their sexual chemistry blew her mind.
But while it blew her mind, it wasn't enough to save their marriage. Billie could handle Porter's negative comments about the people she defended and even his digs at what he called her "ghetto tendencies," but if it wasn't clear they were moving in different directions, his affair with the blond, perky twenty-three-year-old clerk at his law firm, Claire Flannigan, was as clear as rain. The heartbreak was followed by a divorce in which Porter's expertise and connections gave him the upper hand over Billie. It all put her in a position where, financially, she could no longer afford to work for a pittance. She had six-figure student loans, new bills, and Porter had taken everything in the divorce.
Now, here she was on the corner of K Street and Eighteenth in Northwest DC, barely visible above the morning crowd with her petite five-foot-three frame. She had the skills to get a high-paying job in Big Law white-collar criminal defense. Her money problems were taken care of, but starting her life over, divorced and single at twenty-nine, was not what she had imagined.
Feeling her phone vibrate in her pants pocket gave Billie an excuse to wait just a few more minutes before entering the building and leaving the career she loved behind. The fact that it was Tara was just icing on the cake.
"Hey, sweetheart," Billie said, holding her finger to her free ear to drown out the crowd noise. "What's up?"
"I hate that bitch!"
"Whoa, Tara. What is going on?" Billie knew her stepdaughter had a short temper just like her father; she angered easily. "What's wrong?"
"Claire," Tara said with a voice that sounded a lot younger than fourteen. "Billie, you just don't know what I deal with."
"What did she do now?" While Claire was the last person Billie wanted to talk about, she would never turn Tara away. Porter was making it hard enough for her to spend time with the girl now that they were divorced. She loved Tara and missed her terribly, which Porter knew.
"She's moving in," Tara answered.
Billie felt her chest tighten at the words. She tried to control her emotions. Their divorce had only been final three months. "Well, she is your father's girlfriend."
"She's his jump-off," Tara corrected. "You don't marry the side piece."
"He's not marrying her." Billie shuddered at the thought. "At least not yet."
"He married you after you moved in," she countered. "Only I liked you. This stuck-up Barbie is not going to be my new stepmother."
Billie sighed. "Tara, I can't really tell you how to be with her. You know I'm compromised on this."
"You hate her," Tara said. "Just like me. She's selfish and stupid and had the nerve to try and tell me what to do this morning."
"You really need to talk to your father about this." Billie's instinct was to advise Tara to tell Claire to go fuck herself, but she knew that wasn't right. Tara didn't need to be put in the middle of this more than she already was. "You're gonna have to sit down and ..."
Billie didn't even need a second to recognize the voice of her ex-husband. Porter had a deep, mesmerizing voice that pulled at something inside her even when he was mad, like now.
"Billie," he repeated. "Is that you?"
"Yes it is." Billie could hear Tara complaining in the background. "Look, Porter, I was just—"
"You're not allowed to talk to my daughter without my permission!"
"Since when?" Billie asked.
"Since I said." His voice was cold and short. "You're not her stepmother anymore."
"But you know I love her and she loves me," Billie said. "We were just talking."
"You're trying to turn her against Claire," Porter accused. "And I'm not gonna let you do it."
He hung up before Billie could defend herself. Not that it would have made a difference. While he had promised to give Claire up once Billie found out, she knew he never had. And when she made it clear a divorce was what she wanted, he made it clear that Claire was what he wanted. Ever since, Billie saw only the ugly side of the man she used to love. He had humiliated her and betrayed her and now he was going to try to keep her from Tara, the closest thing she'd ever had to a child of her own.
Which made it all the more insane to Billie that she was still sleeping with him.
Erica Kent had both hands on her curvy hips and a "don't-even-try-lying-to-me" look on her face as the front door to her Adams Morgan apartment slowly opened. In walked her boyfriend of four years, Terrell Nicolli, looking guilty as hell. She wasn't about to fall for that puppy-dog look in his dark eyes as he came toward her. He was looking good in blue jeans and a short-sleeve T-shirt that fit tight enough to show off the muscles under his light brown skin. He always looked good, but Erica was so mad, nothing was going to distract her.
"Baby." Terrell held his arms out as he approached but was stopped in his tracks as she held her hand up.
"Don't try that shit with me, Terrell." Erica could deceive many with her girl-next-door cuteness but she was not one to be trifled with. "It's eight in the morning. Where in the hell have you been?"
"You know I'm working the night shift," Terrell said as he bypassed her and went for the kitchen of their tiny two-bedroom apartment. He had hoped she would have left for work by now. "You leave me some breakfast or did that asshole brother of yours eat it all?"
"Your shift ended at six," Erica said, following him to the kitchen. "Why are you walking up in here two hours later?"
Excerpted from Back On Top by ANGELA WINTERS. Copyright © 2011 Angela Winters. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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