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A yellow cab turned onto South Figueroa and eased to a stop in front of The Beacon Hill Towers. Jacqueline Lawson stepped out into the late, balmy Los Angeles afternoon. The red-vested doorman pulled open the glass-and-chrome door of the condominium as she approached.
"Afternoon, Ms. Lawson."
Jacqueline smiled but it didn't reach her eyes that remained hidden behind wide, dark shades. Her maple-brown skin glistened in the June sun. "Hi, Bobby. Hot out here today." She lifted the weight of her ponytail from her neck to catch some air.
"Yes, ma'am. They say thunderstorms."
"How's your wife and daughter?" she asked, stepping into the cool embrace of the lobby.
"They're well. Thanks. There's a package for you at the front desk."
"Thanks, Bobby." She adjusted her tote bag over her shoulder. Her teal-colored sling-back heels tapped out a slow but steady rhythm against the terra cotta floor. She approached the concierge desk. "Hi, Mike. Bobby said I have a package."
"Sure do. Would you like me to send it up? It's kind of heavy."
"Yes, please. Send it up later. Thanks." She started off toward the elevator and the room swayed. She slowed her step and drew in a steadying breath. The warning words of her doctor echoed in her head. Concentrating, she walked to the bank of elevators. Exhaustion rode through her in waves. She squeezed her eyes closed for a moment and willed herself to remain upright.
The elevator dinged and the polished stainless steel doors silently slid open. A young, very tanned couple exited, gave brief nods and moved past her.
Jacqueline stepped inside, thankful to be alone as the doors closed behind her. She leaned against the back wall for support. She was running out of time and her options were limited.
The doors slid open on the eighteenth floor and Jacqueline pushed herself forward down the hallway that was decorated with fresh flowers on antique tabletops and black-and-white art on the walls. Her two-bedroom apartment was at the end of the hall that she shared with one other tenant.
Once inside she adjusted the cooling system and walked into her bedroom that opened onto a panoramic view of Downtown Los Angeles.
Item by item she stripped out of her clothes and tossed them into a hamper in the bathroom. She took her silk robe from a hook on the back of the door and slid it on, tying the belt loosely around her waist.
She needed to lie down. The simple trip to the doctor's office had drained her more than she'd anticipated. She stretched out on the bed and then turned onto her side curling into a half fetal position.
That's the way Raymond found her when he came in an hour later, carrying the box that had been delivered earlier.
He placed the box in the corner near the chaise lounge and quietly approached. He leaned down and placed a feathery light kiss on her forehead. She stirred ever so slightly, murmuring something that he could not make out. He eased out of the room and shut the bedroom door halfway, deciding to surprise her with an early dinner. He took a quick shower, changed into his favorite weatherworn navy blue sweatpants and padded barefoot into the living space that opened onto the kitchen. He crossed the shining hardwood floor to the entertainment unit. The gleam of Jacqueline's Associated Press Medal for photojournalism sat in its place of honor encased in glass. Every time he looked at it a feeling of pride puffed his chest, reminding him of what an incredible woman she was and the fearlessness that it took for her to earn it. He turned on the stereo to his favorite R&B station.
Since their return from their last assignment in the rain forests of the Amazon, Jacqueline had been quiet and withdrawn. Initially, he thought she was worn out from the grueling three months of the trip or that she'd caught a bug. But she insisted that she was fine.
Raymond pulled open the double door stainless steel refrigerator and opened the vegetable bin drawer. He took out fresh spinach, baby tomatoes, a box of mushrooms and a cucumber and prepared a quick side salad. Jacqueline loved pasta and it was the one thing he was good at in the kitchen. He washed and deveined a half pound of shrimp and then sauteed fresh garlic in a light olive oil. He tossed the cleaned shrimp into the sizzling pan, while the water boiled for the pasta.
Raymond turned from the sink. He smiled at her still sleepy-eyed appearance. "Hey, yourself. Get enough rest?"
She nodded her head, covered her yawn and tightened the belt on her robe. "What are you doing?"
"Fixing dinner. Figured you'd be hungry. I know I am." He plucked a shrimp from the pan and walked over to her. He held it tauntingly above her lips. She opened her mouth and he dropped it in.
She chewed slowly. "Hmmm."
He grinned. "It'll be ready soon."
She sat down on the counter stool. "How long have you been here?"
"'Bout an hour or so." He dropped the pasta into the boiling water and then opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of beer. "Want one?" he asked holding up a bottle of Rochefort Trappistes 10.
Jacqueline propped her chin up on her hands. "A new one?"
"Yeah, and you'll love it. It's a Belgium brew." His smooth brows bounced.
Besides being an award-winning photographer, Raymond was a beer connoisseur and collector. His house in the valley had a room with some of the most rare and expensive beers in the world. He'd been featured in All About Beer and Beer Connoisseur magazines on several occasions. And whatever part of the world that they traveled he always had to try out the beer.
He opened a bottle and handed it to her. He watched her in anticipation while she took her first sip. Her hazel eyes shifted to a warm brown and her lids fluttered closed as she savored the dark color, full-bodied taste with hints of strong plum, raisin and black currant.
"Hmmm," she hummed in appreciation, rolling the liquid around on her tongue. She'd always been a white wine and martini girl, but Raymond had expanded her taste buds. In her head she equated beer to guys sharing a six-pack while watching baseball and eating hot dogs. He turned beer drinking into an exotic experience.
Raymond clapped his hands. "Great. I knew you'd love it." He turned back to the stove, took the pasta off the flame and drained it in the sink. He mixed chopped baby tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil and ground black pepper, and tossed it with the pasta in a large serving plate. He took the cooked shrimp from the skillet, layered them on top then sprinkled the dish with fresh Parmesan cheese.
Jacqueline got up and took two plates down from the cabinet over the sink. Raymond seized the opportunity of her close proximity to slide his arm around her waist and planted a kiss behind her ear. She moved easily away.
"I'm actually starved," she said, not looking at him while she put the plates on the counter.
Raymond watched the way she kept her back to him, the calculated way that she placed each item next to the other.
what did you do today?" he asked, giving the pasta one last toss.
For a moment she stilled. "Met Traci for brunch," she said a bit too cheery. "She asked about you." She looked at him quickly before turning away.
Raymond brought the plate to the counter along with the serving tongs. "Salad is in the fridge."
"I'll get it."
They sat down opposite each other and dished out the pasta.
"Looks and smells delicious," Jacqueline said, staying focused on her plate.
Raymond studied her from beneath his lashes. "When are you going to tell me what's going on with you?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean, Jacquie. You're tired all the time, you barely want me to touch you, you won't hold a real conversation
Do I need to go on? You haven't been the same since we got back."
She blinked rapidly, reached for her bottle of beer but put it down. "Ray." She pushed out a breath.
"Say it. Say what you've been trying not to say for weeks."
She looked at him, stared deep into his eyes and saw her own hurt and confusion swimming in the dark depths.
"I'm tired. Plain and simple. Can't I be tired? I'm not superwoman, you know. I've been working nonstop for the past year in every nook and cranny on the planet," she said, throwing her hand up in the air. "And the last thing I need is you bugging me to death about it." She took a long swallow of beer and set it down then ran her hand through the spiral twists of her hair. She turned her head away. "I'm sorry." She looked at him. "Can we enjoy this nice meal that you toiled over and talk about something else?" She offered a strained smile. "Please."
Raymond exhaled a long frustrated breath. "You're a difficult woman, J," he conceded. "I'm gonna let it go for now."
"Good." She turned her attention to her pasta. "You want me to drive you to the airport in the morning?" He cocked a brow. "You want to?"
"Thanks. By the way, the invitation for my parents' fiftieth anniversary party arrived yesterday. The celebration takes place in three months, and I wish you would come with me."
She kept her eyes on her plate. "I told you, I don't do family."
"You never talk about your family."
"Nothing to talk about." She stirred her food around in her plate.
"Another non-topic," he murmured.
Jacqueline chose to ignore the barb. She'd put physical miles and emotional distance between her and her family for years. She periodically stayed in touch with her nieces, LeAnn, Dominique and Desiree, and nephews Rafe and Justin. But she hadn't spoken to her brother in years. She was not of the mighty Lawson ilk. She made her own name and her own way in the world. She refused to be dictated to by her brother the way he did everyone else. The people in her life didn't even know that she was related to the royal Lawson clan of Louisiana. And that's the way she wanted to keep it, including Raymond.
Raymond studied her while he finished off his beer. What happened between her and her brother? She never talked about Branford Lawson and had he not done some digging on his own he would have never known that they were related. Crazy. But he would respect her wishes, even if he didn't understand her reasons. To him, family was sacred. He came from a large, loving, all-in-your-business family. He couldn't imagine not having them in his life. But Jacqueline Lawson was a complex woman. It was what he loved about her, but he'd kept that to himself as well.
Jacqueline pushed up from the table and came around to Raymond's side. She put her arm around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder. "You're going to have a wonderful time, do all those things that families do when they get together and then you'll fly back."
Raymond turned on the stool and pulled her between his thighs. He looked up at her and caressed the side of her face with his finger. She lowered herself onto his lap. He tilted her chin upward and kissed her softly.
Jacqueline lightly draped her delicate wrists on either side of his neck and looked into his dark almost black eyes, seeing the history of their journey there, a journey that she was going to have to end. Her insides tightened.
When had their relationship gone from professional to personal? For several years it had been only business between them. It was the way it should have stayed but she'd made the mistake of letting Raymond slip past her defenses.
They'd met quite by accident at the National Association of Black Journalists a few years ago, at the annual awards dinner in Washington, D.C.