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Paulette’s bedsheets had barely cooled down when her telephone rang, erasing the lazy smile that curled the corners of her mouth, and interrupting the fresh memory of her lover’s recent visit. Though he’d been gone fifteen minutes now, she still smelled a trace of his Hermes cologne on her pillow.
The phone’s shrill ring was like someone else’s wailing child—a complete annoyance. When she saw the name displayed on caller ID, Paulette smirked and rolled her eyes. It occurred to her not to answer it, but her curiosity got the best of her, so she reached over to the nightstand and picked up the receiver.
“Hello.” She was careful to cover the irritation she felt. Paulette was the owner of one of New York’s premier boutique public relations firms, and thus was a pro at covering a multitude of things she didn’t want exposed. She was a master of positioning, whether it was between the sheets or in the gossip pages.
“Are you still up?” the caller asked.
Paulette’s alarm clock said it was a quarter past midnight. She twisted her lips into a tight, pinched sneer, sighing lightly out of earshot of the phone’s receiver. “Yeah, girl, I’m still up. What’s going on?” It was her cousin Lauren, the absolute last person on earth she wanted to talk to. Only the spoiled–rotten Lauren would feel no compunction whatsoever for calling this late at night. Paulette, unlike Lauren, the pampered princess, had to work for a living.
“I’m sorry to call so late, but I didn’t have anyone else to talk to.” Lauren was choking back tears. She’d always worn her emotions on her designer sleeves, a luxury not possible for Paulette, who’d grown up always fending for herself.
Gillian must be out of town, Paulette thought as she pulled herself up in bed, resting on one elbow while cradling the phone between her ear and shoulder. Those prima donnas were like two peas in a pod. “What's wrong? You sound awful.” Instantly, a perfect pitch of concern and sympathy warmed Paulette’s voice. Working actresses in Hollywood—Ms. Berry included—had nothing on her; Paulette could summon fake emotion the way other people drew a breath.
“It’s Max,” Lauren croaked. “I think he’s having an affair.” Just saying those dreadful words out loud somehow made Lauren’s sneaking suspicions feel even more real than seconds before, bringing life to thoughts she hadn’t dared to speak.
“Calm down, Lauren,” Paulette cooed, though she was actually unmoved by the tears and sat idly drumming her fingers on the nightstand through the chorus of sobs as she processed Lauren’s alarming—if not surprising—revelation.
When Lauren finally calmed down enough to speak, she said, “I’m sorry; I just don’t know what to do.”
“Are you positive he’s having an affair?”
“How can you be so sure?” Paulette asked. She needed as much information from Lauren as possible to properly deal with this sticky situation.
What little strength Lauren had returned to her voice, her anger supplanting her hurt feelings. “Well, for example, tonight he told me he was having dinner with Rob, one of his business partners, but Rob just called and left a message for Max saying that he’s still out of town and has to reschedule their breakfast meeting.”
Oops. “Maybe there's a reasonable explanation,” Paulette offered.
“A wife knows these things.” Lauren made her proclamation sound intuitive, as though she’d read mystic marital tea leaves, when in fact the clues were as concrete and tangible as Mount Everest. For starters there were his countless late nights, the pungent aroma of another woman’s essence on his shirts and soiled boxers, and the cavernous gulf that had spread between Lauren and her husband when they lay in bed. Lauren and Max hadn’t made love in over two months, and whenever they did, the act was about as passionate as two cells merging in a petri dish. Though he always had a handy excuse ready to serve up, she realized—as any wife should—that he had to be getting it somewhere else, since celibacy was not a part of Maximillian Neuman’s DNA.
Paulette took Lauren’s all–knowing proclamation and her familiar haughty tone as personal digs devised to mock her own perpetual–bridesmaid status. By comparison, Paulette felt like such a loser for not having the fairy–tale life that Lauren had been handed on a platinum platter: wealthy and successful parents, natural beauty, a handsome and successful husband, and a grand town house on the Upper East Side. Even worse than all of these unforgivable sins was the fact that Lauren was completely impervious to the ill effect her life had had on Paulette’s.
Paulette managed to hide her simmering hatred for her cousin under another layer of fake concern. “So, who is it?”
Lauren took a deep breath, searching bravely for composure. “That I don’t know. At least, not yet.”
There was a soft beep on Paulette’s line, indicating that another call was waiting. “Hold on a minute.” Paulette pressed the flash button after scanning the LCD to identify the waiting caller. “Hey, baby,” she purred after switching calls.
“Are you still naked?” a husky voice oozed into her ear. He was ready for a round of phone sex, even though he’d been gone only twenty five minutes. His insatiable appetite for her was one of the many things that she loved about him.
"Do you miss me?” she cooed.
“Of course I do,” he answered. At the very least there were certainly parts of her that he missed.
“I miss you, too,” she crooned back at him. “And so does your wife.” A sly smile crept across her face as she dropped this bombshell.
“My wife?” Maximillian’s deep, sexy bedroom voice quickly scaled an octave higher.
“Lauren’s on the other line,” Paulette announced offhandedly. She managed to keep the coyness from her voice, realizing he wouldn’t find the situation nearly as amusing as she did.
“What does she want? And why did she call you?” Panic flashed a shade of red over his high–yellow complexion like high tide washing up at sunset.
“Let’s just say she called to tell me something I already know.” Paulette twirled a lock of her thick, coarse hair. Its brittleness and frayed ends were the result of the constant perming and coloring it took for her to achieve the light brown Barbie–doll look that she preferred. It had also taken a nose job, skin bleaching, and a lifetime gym membership, the latter needed to fight off those pesky pounds that were always one french fry away.
“That you’re having an affair.” She barely stifled a giggle. The irony of the situation was rich as whipped cream; her lover’s wife was calling in the middle of the night for sympathy, when his wet spot on her sheets had barely begun to dry.
“Oh, shit! She knows?”
Paulette heard the panic well up in his voice. It was nauseating. “She at least suspects,” she offered him.
“Wh–what did you tell her?”
Of course, his only concern was for himself, and worse, his tone seemed to imply that Paulette had done something wrong. Hell, she wasn’t the one married! She chose to ignore all of this for now. She’d deal with him later. “I didn’t tell her anything. I’m just listening.” Paulette got up from the bed with her bedsheet wrapped around her naked body, letting it trail the floor. She soon calculated the best position to assume while in the tight spot wedged between husband and wife.
“You have to convince her that I'm not having an affair,” he pleaded.
Yeah, right. “Okay,” she said. What nerve!
“Call me when you’re off the other line.” He didn’t even wait for a good–bye before he hung up.
She thought for a second, then clicked back over to Lauren’s call. “I’m back. Sorry about that.” She sat on the side of the bed and resumed twirling her hair, a sure sign that a scheme was moving from concept to implementation. “It was a client who needed consoling.”
“It’s okay. I appreciate your listening. I’m just so upset.” Lauren sounded close to releasing another tide of tears.
“And you should be. If my husband were having an affair, I would be too. In fact, I wouldn’t stand for that shit! Have you confronted him?” Paulette was working Lauren up, building the head of steam needed to blow the lid off of her sad little domestic problem.
“No,” Lauren admitted. In fact, the thought had never even occurred to her.
“Girl, if you don’t put that Negro in check he’ll walk all over you.”
Lauren was quiet for a moment. “You really think I should?” As was her way, Lauren would rather ignore the problem and hope that it went away. Besides, what if she confronted him and he admitted to an affair? Then what? Or worse, what if he left her? Her mother would have a fit!
“Lauren, if you want to save your marriage, you’re going to have to nip this situation in the bud,” Paulette counseled.
Ten minutes later, Lauren was more than sure that her husband was a lying, cheating son of a bitch who had to be dealt with accordingly. Though she would have preferred to talk to her best friend, Gillian, who was out of the country, there was still nothing like a conversation with her no–nonsense cousin to help clarify things. The girls had practically grown up together, albeit on different sides of the same track.
After Paulette was finished working Lauren into a frothy lather, she ended the call and dialed Max back. By now he was parked a block from his house, anxiously awaiting her call so he could sufficiently arm himself before walking into the waiting ambush.
“What happened?” he asked anxiously.
“Nothing, really. I did what you asked. I told her there was no way you could be having an affair. That you loved her way too much, and that it was all in her mind.” Paulette lied like the seasoned pro she was.
“Did she believe you?” He was already breathing a bit easier.
“Of course she did.”
“Good. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Good night.” She placed the phone back on the hook and reclined on the four–poster bed, cradling the masculine–scented pillow while vividly imagining the drama that would soon unfold in the Neuman household.
Paulette only wished that she had an orchestra seat and a bag of popcorn.
Lauren paced the floor in her bedroom suite, nearly wearing a circular swath into the rich, plush carpeting. She was glad that she’d called Paulette, who always made her feel so much stronger. Her cousin’s gritty survival skills had somehow magically rubbed off on Lauren and empowered her, at least momentarily. Paulette, unlike Lauren, had been forced to hone such skills her entire life, because her mother, Lauren’s mother’s sister, had married poorly and been promptly disinherited by the Baines family matriarch, Priscilla Baines–Reynolds.
The esteemed Baines family had been wealthy and powerful for generations, back when Negroes were property themselves. The Baineses were fiercely proud of their auspicious heritage—slave–rape beginnings and all—and considered it their responsibility to breed only into families of similar status. When June married a poor, dark–skinned man with no pedigree, the unblessed union sullied their pristine gene pool, and, unfortunately, Paulette was the by–product.
If Paulette could handle all she’d been through, Lauren reminded herself, surely she could handle Max. But before she could adequately shore herself up, she heard the chirping of the door’s alarm sensor. Her wayward husband had returned home. Lauren was as nervous as if she were the one caught having an illicit affair. She took a deep breath to calm her shaky nerves, straightened her back, and held her head high as she marched through the spacious brownstone to confront him in his den, the first place he always stopped whenever he entered the house. Every evening Max walked in and compulsively checked his computer screen for the status of the world financial markets, keeping a wary eye out for any changes that might affect their overall net worth, as though his own blood, sweat, and tears had earned every dime. In truth, those seven zeros behind the comma were the result of his ability to woo Lauren, thus leading her, her mother, and a chunk of their money right down the aisle. Even though there were ropes tied to the hefty sum—namely remaining married to Lauren—it was worth every penny to be able to go to bed comforted by the presence of so much dough.
Soothed by Paulette’s report of how well her conversation with Lauren had gone, Max was no longer worried. In fact, he didn’t even bother to look up from the computer monitor when he heard Lauren walk through the door.
“Max, where were you?” Lauren demanded, trying to remain calm and not give her hand away too quickly.
He was taken aback. Based on Paulette’s recounting, he hadn’t thought Lauren would question him at all. “Out to dinner. Why?” Nonetheless, he was wily enough to know not to offer any details while under inquisition. He remembered telling Lauren the lie about having dinner with his business partner, and instinctively knew he’d better leave room to wiggle out of it if necessary.
“With whom?” she asked. Normally she wouldn’t dream of questioning him, but emboldened by her knowledge of his lie, she went for it.
Max saw red flags whipping in the wind. She somehow knew that he hadn’t been at dinner with Rob, so he’d have to sidestep across a land mine of his own lies. He looked up from the computer and decided that the best offense was always a good defense, especially where Lauren was concerned. “Why are you questioning me?”
She stood her ground. “Why don't you answer me?”
“To be honest, I’m a little upset. I’ve been working since seven o’clock this morning, and it’s unsettling to be greeted with a Spanish inquisition when I enter my own home twelve long hours later,” he retorted, with more than a dose of outraged indignation.
His tone and anger caught Lauren off guard. She’d expected to hold all the cards and easily trap him in a twist of lies. But she wouldn’t give up that easily; she still held her ace of spades. “For your information, I know that you didn’t have dinner with Rob. He called and said he was still out of town.” Her tone was icy as she stood over him with her arms folded across her chest.
Max swallowed the sigh of relief he felt for not leaning on the shaky lie he’d set up that morning. “So?”
Lauren looked as though she’d been jabbed with a left. “So? You told me you were having dinner with Rob tonight.”
“I was until his secretary called to cancel earlier today.” He stood up and towered over her, using his six–foot–one height to his full advantage.
She hadn’t thought of that possibility. Of course Rob’s secretary would have managed his schedule more efficiently than he had, but that still didn’t explain where Max had been. “So where were you?”
He grabbed the newspaper from the desk and faced her again. “If you must know, Danny and I met to prepare for next week’s board meeting. Is that all right with you?” he asked snidely. When she didn’t have a ready comeback, Max sidestepped Lauren and walked out of the room, leaving her standing there with her foot lodged firmly in her mouth.
From the Trade Paperback edition.