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Warrick Carver strode off the elevator onto the twentieth floor of Truman Enterprises. He radiated success, and his brisk gait suggested he was a man of purpose. Walking tall, he pushed open the glass door, nodding to the robust security guard keeping watch over the suites of luxury offices. Polished-looking in a wool suit and an azure tie, he approached the reception area, wearing a wide smile that crippled every woman within a one-mile radius.
Energized by the pungent aroma of Colombian coffee, he mentally reviewed his morning schedule. A budget meeting, a visit to one of the construction sites and an afternoon conference call to Japan. His head throbbed just thinking about it.
Peals of girlish laughter punctured the air. His personal assistant, Payton Ellis, and three female associates were gathered around her desk in a tight circle clucking like a band of chickens. Warrick couldn't see what they were looking at, but it incited nods, murmurs and shrieks of delight. On any other day, he'd overlook their impromptu coffee break and make a beeline for his office, but the Human Resources manager was due any minute, and he didn't want the overbearing warlord to catch anyone slacking off.
"Back to work, ladies." No sense antagonizing his employees, he decided, keeping his tone light. "You can finish up your discussion at lunch."
"Guess who's on the cover of People magazine?" Payton asked, wearing a cheeky grin.
Shrugging nonchalantly, Warrick joked, "I don't know. J-Lo and the twins?" Celebrity gossip didn't interest him, but Payton made it her business to know what was happening in the lives of the rich and famous. It didn't matter how many times he told her he didn't care where Bono ate lunch or who Naomi Campbell had bitch-slapped, she chattered incessantly about her favorite stars as if they were her closest friends.
"You'll never guess who it is." Before he could even begin to think of an answer, she screamed, "It's Tangela!"
"My Tangela?" Warrick didn't catch his mistake until he noticed the amused expressions on the women's faces. Coughing to hide his discomfort, he helped himself to a disposable cup and filled it with water from the cooler positioned against the wall. "Isn't that something?" His smile was superficial. No teeth, no shine, no light. "Good for her. That's great."
"I'd say. She's lost almost eighty pounds!"
"What!" Water sloshed over his cup and splashed onto the tiled floor. "That's impossible. Tangela was never fat, she was thick and curvy and…" Images of her supple breasts, wide hips and mile-long legs flashed in his mind, derailing his thoughts. "It can't be," he managed, coming to. "Maybe the woman just looks like Tangela."
Payton grunted. "You guys dated for seven years. I know what she looks like."
Warrick considered her words. He wasn't questioning his assistant's intelligence, but he knew his ex-girlfriend wasn't on the cover of some cheap tabloid. Losing eighty pounds in two years was an impossible feat. No way she'd subject herself to a strict, point-counting diet. Tangela loved food. Buying it, cooking it, eating it. Despite what health gurus and nutritionists said, she wasn't addicted to food and would tell friends and family, "I'm not an emotional eater. I just love fried chicken!"
It's not her, he decided, convinced his assistant had downed one too many mojitos last night during happy hour. Besides, Tangela didn't need to lose weight. Not a single pound. She was perfect from the top of her pretty little head to the bottom of her dainty size-seven feet. "There's no way she'd go on one of those extreme diets or—"
"Oh, it's her, all right. But don't take my word for it," she said, dangling the magazine in front of his face. "See for yourself."
Holy shit! Eyes bright, jaw slack, Warrick stared mutely at his ex-girlfriend's image. Blood stopped flowing to his brain and he felt as though his mouth was packed with salt. A harsh acerbic foam coated his tongue. He'd hoped she'd gained weight, gotten her nose pierced—which he'd been firmly against—or chopped off her hair. But she hadn't. Not only was she a shadow of her former self, she'd grown her hair long, wore natural-looking makeup and had milky-white teeth. Warrick didn't think it was possible, but Tangela was even more striking.
"I'd kill to look like that," one of the women announced.
"I think she's too thin," criticized another. "Tangela's always been pretty—she didn't need to lose all that weight."
Warrick agreed. Two years ago, Tangela had been curvy and voluptuous, like his favorite American Idol, Jennifer Hudson, and now she was a stick figure. Since he could remember, he'd always had a thing for "healthy" women. Broomstick-thin types who graced movie screens and magazine covers didn't impress him. He appreciated an athletic physique as much as the next man, but he loved hips and thighs and butt and his ex-fiancée used to have it all.
Dropping his empty cup in the wastebasket, he leaned against his desk for support. Colors and images and objects collided in his brain and his chest inflated as though he was holding his breath underwater. With much difficulty, he focused his eyes on the cover. The words Amazing Weight-Loss Stories were splashed across the page in thick bold letters and Tangela stood proudly in a skimpy, lime-green bikini. We dated for seven years and I never saw her in anything but a boring one-piece! Her smile was bold, suggesting a wild, playful side and stirred repressed memories in him. Emotions he didn't have a name for rose to the surface at the mere sight of her.
Senses sharper than a comic-book character, he examined the People magazine cover in acute detail. Everything about Tangela was gorgeous. The ultrastraight auburn hair, the shiny lipstick, the hoop earrings. Hands propped audaciously on her hips, shoulders thrown back, chin tilted in supreme confidence, she radiated an inner beauty that literally took his breath away. Warrick didn't need to peek inside Tangela's head to know what she was thinking. Her eyes shone with mischief, her cleavage was blinding and he'd never seen her skin look more vibrant. Tangela knew she was hot and she wanted the world to know. "I think she's… I mean…" He trailed off. "I don't know what to say."
"Doesn't she look incredible?" Payton watched him intently for several seconds. "I already finished reading the article. Go on," she ordered, "take it."
Warrick stepped back. "I can't. I have work to do." As he turned away, he made a point of saying, "And so do you."
At five o'clock that afternoon, Warrick emerged from the conference room feeling tired and spent. Preoccupied in his thoughts, he continued down the hall, reviewing in his mind the conversation he'd had with the group of Japanese investors. As he passed his assistant's desk, he noticed the People magazine sitting on a stack of manila files. No longer safely tucked away in the side drawer with the other tabloids, it sat on the middle of Payton's desk, mocking him, teasing him, a painful reminder of the woman he'd loved and lost.
Glancing around, he flipped it open and scanned the table of contents. "Amazing Weight-Loss Stories," Page 87. But before he could locate the article, Payton appeared out of nowhere. "Looking for something?" she asked innocently.
"No." Sliding his hands into his pockets, he jangled the loose coins. "I need to clear my head. I'll be back in fifteen minutes."
"The Web conference went that bad, huh?"
"Worse. They're threatening to find another firm." He stood there quietly, a reflective expression on his face. "But I'll think of something."
Drumming her manicured nails on the desk, she looked carefully around the office. "Is there anything you need before I go?"
"No, I'll see you tomorrow. Have a good night."
"I will. Jerell's taking me to see Lord, Why Me Again? at the Arts Center."
"Poor guy." He chuckled heartily. "Your husband has my deepest sympathies."
Payton giggled. "It's fun, the acting is great and the audience really gets into the show."
"I bet," he deadpanned, a miserable expression on his face. "Sorry, but it's just not my thing. Tangela forced me to watch one on DVD and I hated it."
"Relationships are about give and take. Jerell goes with me to the plays, and I leave him alone when he's watching football. It's called compromise. You—" she patted his back "—should try it sometime."
"That's why I'm single. I can work as much as I want without anyone getting on my case." He made sure to add, "And that's how I like it."
Sensing she wanted to say more, he said goodbye and strolled toward the bank of elevators. Outside, Warrick was swept up in the hustle and bustle of the Las Vegas business district. Men in tailored suits strode down Fremont Street, tourists snapped pictures of everything and nothing and evening traffic moved at a snail's pace.
Deciding against flagging down a taxi, he pulled up the collar on his suit jacket and stepped around a group of high-school students in ghoulish face masks. If not for their costumes, he would have forgotten it was Halloween. As he passed a row of cafés and convenience stores, he caught a glimpse of Tangela. Or rather, of her picture on a stack of People magazines. Was there no escaping this woman?
His eyes narrowed. How many more times would she intrude on his thoughts today? Last he'd heard, Tangela was living in Mexico studying Spanish, something she'd always wanted to do, but never did because she hated the thought of them being apart.
Warrick grunted. Funny, she'd professed her love with more conviction than a Keyshia Cole song, but didn't have a problem sneaking out in the middle of the night in the car he'd bought her. No, she wasn't the loving, devoted, fiancée she'd pretended to be. Tangela had been out for herself from day one, but he'd been too stupid to realize it.
Without thinking, he stopped at a convenience store, counted out the exact change and requested a bag for his purchase. He couldn't risk someone seeing him with the magazine. They might think he was still carrying a torch for his ex. Or worse, that he wanted her back.
An hour later, behind the privacy of his office door, Warrick stared disbelievingly at one of the November issues of People magazine. He scarcely remembered what he'd eaten at the Third Street Grill or the ten-minute walk back to his office. But now that Payton and her posse had left for the day, he could read in peace.
Appraising the cover, he emitted a low, hollow sound from the back of his throat. Tangela Howard. The small-town girl with the big heart. Raised by a drug-addicted mother, she'd relocated to Las Vegas at seventeen and worked two full-time jobs to pay for university. A year after earning a degree in employment relations, she'd applied to American Airlines in hopes of working her way up from flight attendant to operations manager. Warrick admired the way she'd coped with all the misfortunes in life and had made it his job to give Tangela her heart's desire. His efforts had all been in vain.
Warrick held the magazine so close to his face he could see her clear nail polish. This was the first day since Tangela had walked out on him that he hadn't woken up thinking about her, and as he searched inside for the cover story, he wondered how seven years of love, companionship and earth-shaking sex could have flatlined so quickly.
Shifting on his high-backed leather chair, he released a quick, inaudible sigh. Seeing Tangela again unnerved him. Made him think about things he had no business thinking about. Like how she used to kiss him the second he came through the door. Or how she'd gently caress his face when he was nestled deep inside her.
To keep from taking another trip down memory lane, he studied her picture intently, as if she was a stranger. And she was. This woman with the slender face, toned arms and lissome shape bore no resemblance to his ex-girlfriend. Her eyes were slightly tinted at the corners and had a hint of gray. Definitely contacts, he decided, continuing his appraisal. Gone were her short, springy curls. In their place a high ponytail that grazed her bare shoulders. The ruffled halter bikini made a strong statement: she was a bold, sexy woman who was thirsty for adventure.
Warrick flipped through the magazine and stopped when he saw another full-length picture of Tangela. A small, passport-size photograph was on the corner of the page. Above the snap was the word Before. Tangela was in her navy American Airlines uniform, smiling directly into the camera. Warrick recognized the photo. He'd taken it the night she'd aced her final exam. Almost two years to that day, she'd left him.
Feelings of nostalgia assailed him, but he refused to think about what they'd done on the kitchen counter that afternoon. Face pinched in concentration, he pored over the interview as if he was studying for the Nevada bar exam.
According to the article, Tangela had lost the weight through diet, exercise and nutritional supplements. Why? circled in and out of his mind. Why would she put herself on such a stringent diet? Warrick found the answer at the end of the first paragraph.
"I didn't set out to lose a lot of weight, but when doctors diagnosed a blood clot in my right leg, a friend sat me down and told me to get my act together. I took his words to heart and that was the beginning of my transformation. Walking, exercising, eating well… Now I'm fit and healthy and ready to begin the next chapter of my life."
His? The word was more painful than a slap shot between the eyes. And, as if it were a real-life blow, he needed time to gather his thoughts. Tangela had a boyfriend? It had only been two years since they—correction, she—had broken off their engagement. Not enough time for him to heal, but obviously enough time for her. He continued reading, his frown growing deeper with each fatuous sentence.
Warrick snorted. Emotional eating is the driving force behind weight gain. "Who wrote this crap? " he wondered aloud. "There was nothing wrong with her!" He'd dated Tangela for seven years. If she'd had a food addiction he'd know. Fast food had always been her weakness, but everyone had their vice. He liked beer, she liked cheeseburgers and for others gambling, porn or alcohol did them in. Who was this People magazine reporter to judge?
Warrick was so engrossed in reading the article he didn't notice his sister in the doorway until she cleared her throat. "Is this a bad time?"
Startled, he stared up at his sister. "Rachael, what brings you by?" he asked, sliding the magazine into his top drawer and coming around the desk. "I wasn't expecting to see you today."