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Monte scanned the day's calendar on his PDA as he moved toward the elevator bank for floors twenty through thirty-one of midtown Manhattan's Time Warner building. He adjusted his red tie and smoothed the lapels of his midnight-blue Brooks Brothers suit absently, thinking about all he had to do in the day ahead of him. The lobby area was just beginning to buzz with activity at seven forty-five on a Tuesday morning. Monte had an eight-thirty meeting and a string of conference calls to follow. It would be a busy day as usual, through which he would plow tirelessly, making deals come together seamlessly. No matter, he thought, because by five o'clock Monte would call it quits for the day. His boys had a Little League game that evening and, with him being their coach as well, it definitely wouldn't do for him to be late.
Monte opened the Daily News paper he'd tucked beneath his arm, turning to the sports section. The ding of the elevator as it landed on the lobby floor and its doors opening drew Monte's attention. He stepped into the elevator, pressed the button marked twenty-seven and became engrossed in the paper again. Absorbed in the highlights of the Nets' latest Cinderella victory, Monte didn't look up as another passenger entered the elevator just before the doors closed. The car began its smooth ascent and Monte's senses were suddenly assailed by the faint yet sweet scent of lilies. His eyes followed his nose and they led him to slender feet clad in six-inch stilettos, up stockingless, shapely brown calves to a stunning black skirt that stopped midthigh and hugged sinfully curvaceous hips.
Monte swallowed as his eyes continued their journey, taking their sweet time. The torso of this magnificent vision was held securely by a black suit jacket and its top button stopped at a bustline that begged for attention. Above a pearl-necklace-adorned graceful neck was the face of an angel. Hazel eyes met Monte's, and he was at once embarrassed at his voyeurism and enthralled by her beauty.
Monte opened his mouth to speak, but before he could command control over his vocabulary, the elevator came to a halt and, with a chime, the doors opened. The alluring woman exited, without as much as another glance at Monte, who remained dumbfounded and immobile.
Monte had always prided himself on being a man who was not easily moved by a pretty face and, had she been just that, Monte probably would not have given her more than an appreciative nod. Yet, there was more to the woman than just physical beauty. There was an ethereal essence that seeped from the inside out, and a presence that had captivated him. He could only liken the experience to being caught in a spider's web, hopelessly entangled in the strong fiber. It was not until the doors closed again and the elevator continued its ascent that he came to his senses and realized that the floor the woman had exited on was also his floor, the twenty-seventh. He quickly depressed a button for one of the higher floors, exited and caught another car headed down.
"Who was that woman who just got off of the elevator?" Monte asked the receptionist when he'd landed at the office space of Cooper & Beardsley. The entertainment-law firm had been home to Monte for the past six years and he'd been a senior associate for the past two.
Monte's immediate investigation uncovered that the beautiful woman he'd been ogling in the elevator was one of his firm's newest clients, Torie Turner, a model turned actress whose career was, by all accounts, poised to take off. After spending years as a print model, she'd decided to take her career to the next level, building an impressive résumé along the way. Over the past few years she'd done a number of small theater productions, a few commercials and had recently completed the pilot episode for a new television series. Like many new-millennium actors, Torie had opted to replace the services of an agent at fifteen to twenty percent with an entertainment-law firm offering headhunting, contract negotiations and other legal services at a lower cost per diem. Torie Turner was as smart as she was beautiful, and after careful consideration, she'd hired the Cooper & Beardsley firm, with junior associate Monica Schwartz as the lead attorney, to review the contracts and offers that were beginning to come her way.
Monte knew instantly that he'd never had the pleasure of seeing any of Torie's work because, if he had, he doubted seriously he would have ever been able to get her out of his head. Distracted, and uncharacteristically nervous, Monte kept one eye on his work all morning and the other on the closed door of the conference room where Torie's meeting was taking place. His plan was to spring into action the moment the door opened and casually saunter in her direction. He hadn't figured out what he would say to her, but hoped the words would come to him when needed.
The persistent flutters in Monte's gut kept him on edge. He felt abnormal and quite unlike himself, as if he were having an out-of-body experience. While Monte had never considered himself a ladies' man in any sense of the term, in his youth he'd never had a problem in that department. At thirty-five years old, Monte had successfully become what is commonly referred to as an IBM. This ideal black man had worked hard to establish security in his career, become financially fit and was also well traveled. Intellectually stimulating, good-natured and articulate were adjectives to which he was well suited. Finally, Monte's six feet three inches of velvet black skin and well-maintained physique made him the complete package. Monte had yet to meet the person, male or female, with whom he could not hold his own on any level, which was why he was completely thrown for a loop that this Torie Turner might actually be that person who made him feel less than self-assured, and he steadied himself to dispel that possibility at the first chance he got.
However, when the door finally opened and Monte spotted Torie from his vantage point across the corridor, he continued to sit immobile. His mind raced as he tried to force himself into motion, but his nerves held him captive. Deflated, Monte realized that it had been years—seven to be exact—since he had approached a woman to whom he felt an attraction. His late wife, Shawna, was the last woman he'd ever made an advance on or struck up a casual conversation with regarding anything on a personal level, and Monte realized that he was sorely out of practice. To make matters worse, he felt like an idiot as he sat watching her disappear down the corridor with pretty-boy Matthew Sampson trotting alongside of her and beaming that twenty-thousand-dollar cash-and-carry smile of his. Monte resolved that perhaps it wasn't meant to be, acknowledging that he would have felt even more idiotic if he had approached her in front of Matthew and the entire office of his colleagues and found himself tongue-tied. Worse, he might have said something foolish, prompting her to laugh in his face.
Monte cast off his designs on the opulent woman, chiding himself for even considering approaching her. He had a full life, he reminded himself. With the care of his two young sons and his ailing mother as his number-one priorities, along with building a secure and successful career, Monte felt he didn't have time for any distractions. Besides, he reasoned, what right had he to ask for more?
Irritated and disappointed, Monte plowed through the rest of his day, determined to forget about Torie Turner. It proved to be a feat next to impossible.
"Mama, I already told you that I'm done with the commercials and, for now at least, the stage. I'm concentrating on television and movie scripts, period. Why can't you get that?"
Torie stabbed at a piece of lettuce in the Cobb salad in front of her and glared at her mother. It was just after two o'clock in the afternoon and the two women were seated inside of Braserie, a French restaurant in midtown, having a late lunch.
"Torie, I just don't want to see you put all of your eggs in one basket," Brenda replied.
"Mama, if I want to be successful at this, I have to focus on one thing. I can't commit to a theater production and still go out on casting calls."
"But, Torie, you read all the time about how limited the roles are for black actresses in movies. I mean, honey, you have to face the fact that there are a lot of talented, pretty girls out there trying to land that next big movie."
Torie took a deep breath. Dealing with her mother had always been a trial. No matter what Torie felt or wanted, it seemed to her as if her mother's sole purpose in life was to feel or want something different for her. For all of her childhood and much of her young adult life, Torie had acquiesced to her mother's wishes, but no more. Torie had moved to New York from Atlanta with two purposes in mind—one, to establish her career, and two, to put some distance between her life and her mother's controlling habits.
"Mama, can't we just enjoy lunch…enjoy your visit and not get into this again? Just trust me for a change. I know what I'm doing, and besides, if it doesn't work out, I can always get another commercial or play," Torie said, looking at her mother imploringly.
Brenda Turner considered her daughter. There were times, like this one, where Brenda winced at the sight of her daughter. Torie was beautiful and, in her face, Brenda saw herself. In her youth, Brenda had been equally as stunning and, she felt, twice as ambitious. She'd wanted so much for herself and had planned on touring the world as a famous jazz singer. Brenda had thought that she could have it all—the career, the fame and the family. She'd married Torie's father at twenty-one years old, despite her own mother's misgivings. She'd been singing at local nightclubs in the southeast and had been putting together an arrangement to work with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock on an upcoming collaboration. Her husband, Hanif Turner, was also involved in the music business as a saxophone player, although considered by most to be just a mediocre talent. Yet, they were happy and excited about their futures, and Hanif was very supportive of Brenda's musical ambitions. That's why when Brenda discovered that she was pregnant, neither of them was overjoyed. Due to irregular periods and virtually no symptoms, Brenda was almost six months along by the time she realized that she was expecting. Brenda's dreams, along with her marriage, paid the price under the strain of caring for their child.
"I just want you to maximize on your opportunities while you still can," Brenda said now, casting her eyes down to the grilled salmon and steamed asparagus in front of her.
The underlying message of Brenda's statement was not lost on Torie. She'd always noticed the faraway look that came into her mother's eyes when she was washing the dinner dishes, vacuuming or undertaking some other mundane task. Torie was still a relatively young child when she'd come to understand what that look on her mother's face meant. Motherhood had been an unexpected hitch in her mother's life plan. There was no way Brenda could have known that her first child, a boy named Miles by his young parents, would have been born with a congenital birth defect that they would spend the first five years of his life fighting. Torie was one year old when Miles succumbed to his disease and, by then, Brenda's dreams of a career in music had shriveled up and died.
"Mama, please don't worry. Trust me. I know what I'm doing. You'll see," Torie said, looking at her mother in a meaningful way.
"All right, well, tell me about these lawyers you hired. How was your meeting? Did you have a good feeling about them?" Brenda asked.
"Oh, the firm is one of the best—a lot of heavy hitters in the entertainment field. They've assigned a young woman, a junior associate, to work on my contracts, and I already like her. She's current, yet very knowledgeable. She's already made a lot of calls on my behalf, and I get the sense that she's going to be a tough negotiator," Torie answered, grateful for the change in subject.
"That sounds terrific, honey, but have you thought about this? Are you sure you want to go with a female? I mean, you know how this business is. Maybe a man might be more beneficial to you," Brenda said.
Torie sighed beneath her breath, amazed at her mother's perfected ability to put a negative spin on any subject. As she thought of a response that would put her caring but pessimistic mother at ease, a slow smile came to her face while her mind recalled the image of the tall, dark and scrumptious man she'd shared an elevator ride with that morning.
"What? What are you smiling about?" Brenda asked suspiciously.
"Nothing, I was just thinking about the fact that Cooper & Beardsley is home to more than its fair share of fine male attorneys. I should bring you with me the next time I go there and hook you up with one of those professional men, Mama." Torie laughed.
"Me? Child, please. You know I'm not even studying no man. All that's over with for me," Brenda said.
"Mama, why do you say things like that? You're a beautiful woman, and you've got a lot to offer a man. If you'd stop acting like you have one foot in the grave, you could—"
"Torie, I don't want to talk about this again. Like I said, I am not interested in offering anybody anything. And just because you're taking a very wise and necessary break from men right now, does not mean you should be concentrating on my personal life. Hook me up? Please. You just focus on your career and nothing else, you hear?"
"Yes, ma'am," Torie said with another exaggerated under-the-breath sigh.
Torie was seven years old when her parents split up for the last time. It had been a tumultuous relationship, plagued by the resentment born of unfulfilled dreams. The couple had had one more child, a son they named Darius, but that wasn't enough to save the relationship. Darius was still a toddler when their father moved, first out of the home and then out of Georgia. He eventually ended up in California, where he remarried. After that, they saw less and less of him, and she watched as her mother grew more and more disinterested in romance altogether.