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Today's Wednesday, and it's our wedding anniversary. It's been five years since Sierra Darcelle Montague agreed to marry me, Denmark Vesey Wheeler, a battle-hardened street warrior from one of Cleveland, Ohio's most dangerous neighborhoods. I'm still amazed that my beautiful uptown princess said "Yes!" she'd spend her life with me, but she did, and made me the happiest man in the world. So whenever our anniversary rolls around, I always do something extra special to show her how much I love and cherish her. That's why I got up this morning at 4:15 instead of my usual 5:00 to run three miles. I wanted to be back early enough to wash up and surprise Sierra with breakfast in bed.
I step back and admire my preparations. The tray's sitting on a large white marble-topped island in our kitchen. Along with a rose in the vase on the tray, there's a small bowl filled with cantaloupe, strawberries, grapes, and passion fruit; three strips of turkey bacon cooked to the exact crispness Sierra likes; a slice of wheat toast, both sides lightly buttered; Sierra's favorite blend of Colombian mocha decaf coffee (when Felipe at Cafe Nuevo told me that he'd run out, I got on the turnpike and drove like a madman for two and a half hours from Cleveland to get some from his other store in Pittsburgh); and a small bowl of raisin bran with a cup of soy milk on the side.
This breakfast wouldn't satisfy me. I'd prefer a big bowl of grits, three sizzling pieces of scrapple, scrambled eggs with cheese, and a big mug of caffeine-rich Maxwell House. But forget my tastes. This is the food that Sierra likes, and I'm glad to fix it for her.
I glance at the big green digital numbers on the stove's clock. 6:22 a.m. It's time to get moving.
"She's going to love this," I say softly to myself.
I've got a whole day of sweet surprises planned for my baby. I've even maxed out a credit card to make sure that this anniversary is one she never forgets.
I won't start tripping about how it seems just like yesterday when we said our vows, but my love for Sierra has only gotten stronger in the past five years. I'd dated lots of talented, beautiful, smart, and accomplished women, but none of them could compare with her. Like a ray of light splitting the darkness, she stepped into my life.
Some nights when Sierra's lying in my arms and snuggled up against my chest, I look at her and relish the peace she's brought me. No matter how deeply she's sleeping, she'll stir and snuggle closer.
I pick up the tray, step off briskly for our bedroom, and review the things I need to accomplish before this evening. Tonight when Sierra and I get together I don't want any work-related Speed Shift Auto Parts business distracting my thoughts from her. So I'm going to stop in at work and see how things are going.
After that, I need to double-check with the travel agent about the party I'm throwing for Sierra in a few days at the luxurious Vegas hotel where we had our first date. Coordinating to get her family and friends to arrive there before us took some doing, but it'll be worth the effort to see the smile on Sierra's lovely face. It'll be even better the morning after the party, when I tell her that we're flying to Hawaii. Sierra's visited some of the best vacation spots on earth, but she's never been to Oahu. For her, it'll be a thrill. For me, it's a miracle, especially after growing up in the Brownfield District.
My last task will be handled when I meet the guys--Harry Bancroft and Gordon Wilhite--for breakfast down at our favorite greasy spoon, the Hog Jowls restaurant. I haven't seen them for a while, so it'll be good to catch up. We'll also need to discuss finding a fourth person to run with us in the 4 ´ 100 relay in this year's Greater Cleveland Community Sports Challenge. It's only a few weeks away, so we'll have to find someone quick. Last year, Harry's dud brother-in-law ran with us, and he was a disaster. Another good friend of mine, Mason Booker, owner and operator of the Second Shadow Enterprises private detective agency, had been training with us but had to stop with apologies when he ended up with the good problem of having too much business.
I end my list as I step quietly through the living room on my way toward the stairs leading up to the bedroom and Sierra. The stonework in the fireplace catches my eye, and I once again admire the skill of the contractor who did the job. That part of the living room remodeling project was a hassle, mostly because Sierra kept changing her mind. She'd worn the contractor's nerves thin, and mine weren't much better, trying to deal with the stress of watching our budget hemorrhage with each modification. But I'd promised Sierra a remodeled living room and fireplace for her birthday and meant to see it through to the end.
The contractor saw things differently, which explains why the fifth time Sierra called him he said: "Not on your life, lady! I've already wasted too much time on this fiasco. The plans stay the same!"
Sierra called me at work and had barely hung up before I was dialing that sucker. I appreciated his frustration, but he had to understand that I wasn't letting him disrespect my wife. When he got nasty with me, I knew we had to have a heart-to-heart talk. At dawn the next morning, when he pulled up to the trailer that was his office, I was waiting in the shadows. Twenty minutes later he was on the phone, trembling and talking through a bleeding lip as he apologized to my baby. He not only made the changes she wanted but did the work for free.
I ease quietly into our bedroom and stop, taking a moment to savor Sierra's loveliness as she lies on her side, sleeping like an ebony angel. Soft rays of bluish purple light cut through our partially open vertical blinds, stretching across Sierra, blending with her smooth, dark skin into a wonderful portrait. Her shoulder-length hair swirls over her head, the soft unruly strands melding into chaotic beauty. The peach-colored satin sheet clings to her, rising along the smooth arch of her hip and dipping back into the tight curve of her waist. The soft morning light, the peach linen, Sierra's dark skin, and her shiny hair combine into making my sweetheart look like a goddess.
I tiptoe over, set the tray on the nightstand, and sit quietly down on the edge of the bed beside Sierra. She stirs and rolls onto her back. I kiss her cheek, wrap my arms around her, and cradle her close, rubbing my nose against hers.
"Hey, sleepyhead," I say softly.
She smiles. I kiss her lips, eyes, forehead, and cheeks; the tip of her nose; and then her lips again. "I love you," I say.
Her eyes crease open. "I love you too."
"What right thing did I do to deserve you?" I ask, pulling her close and rubbing my cheek against hers.
She massages the back of my neck. "You loved me with all your heart and made me your one and only."
"I do love you, Sierra, with all my heart and strength." I kiss her neck and hug her tight. "And you'll always be my one and only."
She sighs sweetly. "I thank God for you."
God is one of those areas where Sierra and I struggle. For her, God is an omnipresent deity, possessing boundless love, power, and glory. For me, He's a lazy pot-smoking bum who's been laughing Himself silly while watching humanity stumble through a house that was on fire the day He created it.
I grew up in a household with a God-fearing mother and a Bible-thumping father. When crisis came, all their worship, prayers, and faith couldn't move God to act in our defense, so I ditched Him just like he'd done us.
"Happy fifth anniversary, darling wife," I say.
"And happy anniversary to you, darling husband."
I set the breakfast tray down in front of her. "Have some breakfast."
Sierra's eyes widen with delight. "Denmark, this looks fabulous," she says. She sniffs the rose and smiles. "Thank you, honey. Everything's just the way I like it."
I watch in satisfied silence as she closes her eyes, says a quick prayer, then tastes a spoonful of the fruit salad. "This is delicious."
I pull a lilac-scented card and envelope from my robe pocket and hand it to her. She swallows a bite of turkey bacon, cleans her fingers with a napkin, takes the card, and reads it. Her eyes mist over as she reads down each line.
She sets the tray off to the side and opens her arms wide. "Come here."
I lean over and into her embrace, wrapping my arms around her as she encircles me with hers. "You feel so good," I say.
I've never found the words to describe for Sierra the way electricity bolts through me every time I hold her. I don't know how to explain the heat that spreads through me, or the sudden dryness in my mouth. Every part of me wants to get close and love her in all the delicious ways I know how. But my baby's not an adventurous lover, preferring the tried-and-true, achingly predictable and prudish missionary style. At least she's never been stingy.
Sierra reaches inside my robe and rubs along the contours of my solid wide chest. I slip my forefinger beneath the spaghetti strap of her lavender silk gown, moving it out of the way as I kiss her shoulder. I lick along its roundness, kissing from her shoulder to her neck and back, moving my hand along her flat stomach up to her breasts. She sighs, lies back, and pulls me toward her. I stretch out beside her, kissing her tenderly and rubbing my hand back and forth along her thigh, caressing her behind, and then moving along her stomach and down to her lavender silk panties. She lifts up slightly, giving me room to pull them off, and then she helps undress me. I move over her and slowly lower myself into her passion, uniting us in the ancient ritual.
Sierra bites her lower lip and closes her eyes tight, her nostrils flaring with each inhaled breath. She wraps her legs tight around me, locking her ankles together behind my butt and pulling me deeper. I change up my movements, stroking her high then low, straight in and out, and then in deeply plunging circles, trying my best to add a little spice to our dry-as-dust routine.
Sierra moans and presses her thighs in on me, tightening her love crevasse. It feels good--so very good!--and the tingling in my stiffness builds into a riot of bliss.
"Oooh!" Sierra moans.
I grunt my agreement, my thoughts and speech muzzled by the thrill spreading through me. Sierra's eyes are still squeezed shut as she trembles beneath me.
We hold on to each other, exchanging light kisses and soft laughter. "You're a beast," Sierra whispers.
I answer with a playful growl, and we laugh. "I'm the beast you tamed," I say.
She looks deep into my eyes, strokes my cheek, and smiles softly. I stare back and am startled by a shadow that quickly passes over her face. We talk quietly a little longer, eventually releasing each other and straightening up. Sierra eats more of her breakfast, mostly the fruit salad and cereal, since everything else has gotten cold.
"So what are your plans for today?" I ask, standing in front of the mirror and brushing my hair.
Sierra sighs. "The first thing I'm going to do is stop by Amos's and see how my wild nephew's doing. It's only a few more weeks before his trial, and I want to be there."
I listen while keeping my tightened jaws shut. Amos is Sierra's brother, who, quite frankly, I can do without. Yarborough, his twenty-two-year-old crackhead son and my nephew by marriage, might end up doing hard time for stupidly attempting to rob a convenience store last month.
Sierra laughed it off when I first mentioned that Yarborough had a drug problem. But I'd seen enough junkies in the Brownfield District to know when somebody was strung out, and Yarborough was way out. He kept hitting up the family for money to score drugs, but he stayed clear of me. I was on to his game, so he knew there was no point in trying to scam me. The rest of his family was finally shocked out of their denial the evening his mug shot showed up on the six o'clock news.
Family wealth and connections got him out on bail, but he's up to his old tricks. He's already called twice asking for money. I answered both times, so it was a short conversation. I don't know if he's contacted Sierra, but if he has, and she's given in to him, we'll have to talk about that.
Sierra continues, saying, "Then I've got to give City Council a presentation on the costs of revitalizing Public Square, and see if I can generate some interest in the architect's conference I'm organizing."
"Why does Public Square need revitalizing? That's a Cleveland landmark and a main attraction."
"Yes, it is. But City Council wants it to have more of a high-tech look. That means redesigning the buildings to represent Cleveland's boldly stepping into the twenty-first century."
I sit down in the reading chair near Sierra and lean forward, elbows on knees. "Well, baby. Whatever it costs, your firm couldn't have found anyone more talented or capable to be the project's lead architect."
She smiles and extends her hand to me. I take it and kiss her palm. "You don't have to go in today."
She chuckles. "Of course I do. I told you that I have a presentation. Don't worry," she says, lowering her voice into a husky, sexier region. "I'll be home in plenty of time for us to finish celebrating."
I squeeze her hand. "I know you'll be home in time. I've got it all arranged."
Sierra frowns again, not just puzzled this time but concerned. "Denmark, what are you talking about?"
My smile gets bigger as I explain. "I called your firm and City Hall and explained to them both that today was your anniversary, and that your husband would be grateful if your presentation was moved to the end of next week. I next spoke with Brad Langley, and he said . . ."
"You spoke to my boss?"
"I sure did," I answer, nodding. "And he said it would be no problem. He also said that he'd been debating whether or not to push the meeting back a week so that everyone would have more time to prepare. He also said that he wished he'd been as diligent about remembering his anniversary."
From the Trade Paperback edition.