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Asher and Riley Hudson's Bedford home swelled with talk and laughter. Guests filled practically every room of the lovely two-story Southwestern styled house. People were still arriving, their vehicles circling around as drivers searched for parking space on the stadium-size lawn.
The guest list may have been a tad lengthy for a baptism, but no one wanted to miss out on the chance to meet the newest and cutest Hudson. The fact that a baby was the guest of honor put all parents in attendance at ease. No one had to search for a sitter since all kids were welcome. The younger children had a wonderful time breaking in Ahmad Hudson's elaborate playground set while the older ones enjoyed several rounds of basketball on the two courts the property boasted. For adults and kids alike, the gathering was a sheer delight.
Happiness loomed over everyone. Everyone, that is, except the guest of honor's godparents. Thankfully, a fair share of business-talk intermingled with the afternoon's events, occupying Talib and Misha just enough to keep their thoughts and eyes off one another.
Such was the case when Misha stood near the bar cooing with her godson/nephew and nuzzling her nose to his cheek.
"Already got the man buyin' you drinks, huh?"
Misha laughed at Tony Geraldson's remark and gave the baby a tiny bounce. "A woman's gotta train a man early," she told the heavy-set bartender.
Tony laughed when the five-month-old in Misha's arms cooed as though he were voicing his opinion on the matter. Misha's dark eyes glinted merrily but she tilted her head when it appeared the baby was looking elsewhere. Turning, she discovered what had sparked the child's cheerful outburst.
"Talib." Her glee vanished.
"Misha." His voice was soft. "You need help here?" He was already leaning close to tickle his nephew's cheek.
Misha bristled when the scent of his cologne teased her nostrils. "We're good." Her voice was tight yet her expression softened when she looked back down at the baby.
It was easy for Talib to take note of the vinegar in her voice and he smiled. Knowing he was playing with fire, he moved a tad closer. "Shouldn't you ease up a bit?" His dark gaze spanned the length of the bar.
"Counting my visits?" She rolled her eyes. "Could you hurry with that ginger ale, Tony?"
"Got it right here, Misha."
She turned and gently set Ahmad in his uncle's arms. Without another word, she took her drink and stormed off.
Talib pressed a kiss to Ahmad's forehead and watched Misha disappear into the crowd. "Now I've done it, haven't I, mate?" He chuckled as the baby seemed to coo in agreement.
"What the hell do you mean, you're sorry?" Misha had bolted away from Talib only to have her temper freshly stoked when her best friend forbid her to leave.
Riley cringed and waved her hand to ward off Misha's frustration. "I hope you don't whine like that around Ahmad. 'Cause I'll bring him over for you to deal with if he ever starts it."
Misha folded her arms over the draping bodice of her dress. "Well, I'll be happy to take him home with me right now. I just can't stand to be here for another minute. No offense."
"Mmm-hmm." Riley didn't veer from her task of adding more hors d'oeuvres to a platter while lecturing Misha at the same time. "And is it the party or Talib you're running away from?"
"Oh come on now, Riley." Misha reached over to swipe two of the goat-cheese pastries from the platter. "You know, this is some thanks I get after all my understanding about you and Asher."
"Dammit," Riley hissed, almost cutting her finger upon listening to Misha. "Right. Understanding. Well, if understanding means feeling kicked around by your best friend, then I guess you were tremendously understanding."
"Motherhood has made you cold." Misha's tone was matter-of-fact.
Riley finally took pity and turned to cup her friend's face. "What's this really about?"
Misha pulled Riley's hands away. "It's really about him being here. Him being back in my life, so to speak, after six years when he's supposed to be back in Phoenix. Even if it is just temporary."
"Right." Riley puffed her cheeks nervously and turned back to the goat cheese spread.
"Hold it." Misha grabbed Riley by the chain belt at her waist. "Spill it."
"I really need to get this stuff out"
"All right!" She set the knife on the counter. "Well, you already know he's here helping Asher with the new office."
"And he may be here awhile."
"What's 'a while'? Weeks?" she probed when Riley wasn't forthcoming with an answer. "Months? Months, Riley?"
"Oh, stop it, please." Riley propped a hand to her hip. "You knew this wasn't something that could be done overnight."
"Just tell me he's definitely going back to Phoenix and not moving out here." Misha leaned against the counter and rested her face in her hands. She looked up when Riley didn't respond right away.
"He's definitely going back to Phoenix and not moving out here."
"Humph." Misha's lashes fluttered as she rolled her eyes. "I'd be better off asking Asher."
"Ha! Like he'd tell you anything Talib asked him not to. Those two are thick as thieves." Riley shrugged and turned back to the platter. "I used to think we were thick as thieves."
"What are you talking about?" Misha's tone was absent as she worried over Talib's next move.
Riley tucked a clipped lock of her hair behind her ear and grimaced. "When are you gonna share the real and full story on you and Talib?"
Misha stopped biting her thumbnail and frowned at her friend.
"I know there's more you haven't told me."
"What more is there to tell? You know the messiest part of it all."
"That you went down an ugly road." Riley went to put the spread back inside the refrigerator. "That's all you told me and to this day I've got no idea what that means."
"Jeez, Riley, do you need me to spell it out for you?"
"Yes. You bet I do when I see you this way. Running from a man isn't something you do. I've seen you pounce a lot of brothers but never run from them."
Misha's wrapped hair covered her face more fully when she bowed her head again. "They weren't Talib."
"Will you promise to come and talk to me if you need it?" Riley decided against putting on more pressure and extended her hands.
Misha accepted the offer and kissed her friend's cheek before they hugged.
"This is the most important thing anyone will ever tell you, man. Fumble is the worst word in the English language."
Talib and Ahmad were catching the last quarter of a pre-season football game while they relaxed in the den. Talib occupied one of the deep suede armchairs and propped his feet up on an ottoman. Ahmad was beginning to doze from his cozy position near his uncle's chest.
"What's goin' on, fellas?" Asher greeted when he found the two camped out before the television. "What's the score?" He tickled Ahmad's cheek then chose a spot on the other armchair.
"Twenty-eight, twenty-one. Not in our favor," Talib announced.
"How's Wade?" Asher referred to one of their newest clients, Nevil Wade.
"Sharp as usual, but the bloke can't do much with the so-called help he's got."
Business consumed the conversation for several moments. In the midst of it, Talib kissed his nephew's head and passed him over to his dad.
"So why're you holed up in here?" Asher queried when a commercial broke into the game. "Tons of people out there are wanting a second of your time." He tossed his tie over his shoulder and settled in more comfortably with Ahmad. "I'd appreciate the truth," he tacked on. Seconds passed before he accepted there would be no response from his friend. "You and Misha avoiding each other when you want to be right next to each other.seems pretty stupid."
"I've been considering more exposure for the new branch." Talib slipped his feet back into the polished tan wing tips he'd been sporting.
"Are you crazy? We've been getting exposure left and right."
Asher smiled. "What have you got in mind?"
The look Talib slanted was answer enough.
"Hell, man, why don't you just go and talk to her?"
"That's all I want." Talib stood and walked over to lean against the tall pine bar in the room. "But she wants no part of itof me."
"That's a lie, you know." Asher's voice was light as he nuzzled his son's hair.
"I'm not so sure it is, Ash." Talib studied the invisible pattern his index finger traced into the bar top. "She's more than angry with me. I suspected it before, but now I know."
Concern shadowed Asher's light eyes. "You know what?"
"I think so. No, no, that's not right." Talib pushed off the bar and strolled the room. He stroked the silky whiskers darkening the honey tone of his face. "No, I don't think she's terrified. I'm bloody sure as hell of it."
Misha found solace on a secluded bend along the back porch. She wiggled to a more comfortable position on a cushioned seat and heard a crinkle from the paper she accidentally sat on. She smiled, finding several outdated newspapers belonging to their competition. Silently, she commended Riley's thoroughness. The girl always liked to see what the other guy was doing, so she could take it one step furtherone step better. Despite that, Misha felt her approval waning when she saw a copy of The First Beacon.
Misha placed aside her disgust and browsed the paper. But it just returned full steam when she saw that the Beacon had added a new section to the paper.
That week's edition boasted the debut of "The Word on Entertainment" by editor Justine Duke.
"That shady wench." Misha seethed with anger as she conjured the image of her former colleague and greatest enemy. The woman's irresponsible reporting had caused several upsets between Riley and Asher. Not to mention the upsets between Misha and Talib.
Misha felt her anger gradually taper into anticipation. The need for a slice of revenge was rising sure and steady.
"There you are!" Gloria Reynolds's firm voice filled the area when she waltzed around the corner. "I've been looking everywhere for you."
"Well, you found me." Misha made room on the lounge chair and watched as Gloria angled her tall, curvy frame next to her.
"The baby's baptism is turning out to be the biggest business party of the season."
Misha had to laugh at the woman's excitement. "I'll bet you've got enough scoops to keep The New Chronicle thick for the next year."
"I won't deny that." Gloria gave a quick toss of her auburn locks. "But it's not The New Chronicle I've collected the biggest scoop for, but The Stamper Court." She spoke of the new publication Riley had been slated to run with Misha as her chief editor.
Intrigued, Misha sat up a bit straighter on the lounge chair listening as Gloria talked of a feature on Hud-Mason.
"We've already got Asher's and Talib's blessings to run with the thing. The co-owners are eager for as much exposure as possible."
Misha knew that wouldn't be difficult for them to obtain. Talk of the successful agents was everywhere. Even the advertising world had caught the fever. Talib's and Asher's faces were gracing everything from NYC subways to billboards in Times Square.
Misha noted that an expose would be great for her and Riley's new publication which was garnering almost as much talk as Talib's and Asher's new venture.
"Are we talking more of a background piece or something more specialized?"
Gloria bit her thumbnail and considered the question. "Oh, this would definitely be more specialized."
Misha reached for her phone to input notes, but realized she'd left it in the baby's nursery when she first arrived at the party. "Well, I can put Coyt Parsons on it." She ran down the project in her head. "He'd love the opportunity. He certainly does have a flair for flashy writing and this would probably call for just that."
"You may want to wait on that." Gloria scooted to the edge of the lounge. "The board is gonna insist on you handling it."
"Why?" Misha moved to the edge of the lounge, as well. "I'm an editor, Gloria, not a writer. Trust me, I know my limits."
"That may be, but you writing the story was the one thing they insisted on."
"Right." Misha leaned back and regarded her publisher with clear suspicion in her tilting onyx stare.