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Barbara Bentley was sweating profusely and it wasn't the shakes this time. She hadn't had a drink in years. This time it was that philandering husband of hers, Bradford Bentley III, slipping out of bed at the crack of dawn to run to his mistress. Honestly. The man had no shame when it came to his uncontrollable sexual urges.
She listened to him moving around in the bathroom--the toilet flushing, water running--and fumed under the bedcovers. Only seconds ago, she'd been tucked contentedly between her Egyptian cotton sheets, dreaming of the exquisite preparations for her daughter's upcoming wedding--of Beluga caviar and smoked salmon, of starched white tablecloths and lilacs and lilies. Then came the familiar bed tremor as her husband jolted her awake.
But she didn't utter a word. She had long since learned not to question the man who slept next to her each night about these things, unless she wanted to be thoroughly dressed down. And lied to. He'd give her his 'how dare you question me' look and tell her to quit whining. He was only going to play golf, to hang out with his buddies for a few hours, and hadn't he given her everything a woman could possibly want? They had a big beautiful house, a condo at Wintergreen ski resort and another in Nassau, a Jaguar and two Benzes in the driveway, a forty foot boat sitting on the Potomac, and country club membership.
But at fifty years of age, she now knew better than to be deceived by his sly diversions. She wasn't some wide-eyed young bride anymore, and he wasn't running off to hit any balls into little holes in green grass. No indeed. He was off to put his little pecker into a certain brown hole down the block.
She threw the bedcovers off. She needed to cool down. Normally she would shrug it off, he'd done this for so long. But this was their daughter's wedding day. Didn't the man have even a shred of decency? Of propriety? Sympathy? Even for his daughter?
The bathroom door opened, and she lay there with her back turned away from him and fumed as she mentally ticked of the myriad tasks she had to complete--without benefit of her husband's help--before the guests arrived at their home that afternoon for the reception. She had a wedding planner to help out, of course, but Barbara trusted no one to completely handle this very important affair.
Only after she heard the bedroom door shut and her husband's footsteps on the stairs did she yank the silken mask from her eyes. Then she swung her feet over the edge of the bed and reached for the pack of Benson & Hedges sitting on her night stand.
"Men," she hissed under her breath as she lit up. Her husband was fifty-six years old. She wished he'd grow up and act it. She took a deep puff, then blew it out.
She went to the window, pulled the drapes open and looked out over the estate. It was a perfect June day with a beautiful blue sky. The edges of the white tent that had been erected on the lawn the previous day blew gently in the breeze. At least the weather was cooperating.
She glanced at the clock on the wall and decided to let Rebecca sleep a little longer. The wedding didn't start until two, and the future bride had probably been up late last night talking on the phone to her fiance. She needed her beauty rest for this special day.
Barbara had to admit to herself that she preferred it when Bradford wasn't around. As long as he handed over the green stuff whenever she needed it, she could get along just fine, thank you. Although lately he had started to nag her about how much the wedding was costing them. How much was this? And why do we need that?
Honestly, what did he expect? A proper wedding with three hundred guests took money, piles of it. As he often reminded her, they were the Bentleys of Silver Lake, one of the finest families in one of Prince George's County's grandest neighborhoods. He was founder and president of a multimillion dollar technology company, one of the most successful black-owned firms in the area, hell, in the United States of America. To quote him, they had worked long and hard to get all that they had. They had an image to uphold. Well, Mister Big Shot ought to know that they couldn't get away with a two-bit piddling wedding for their daughter.
The day Bradford struck it rich fifteen years ago when he landed that twenty-million-dollar software development contract, she'd promised herself that their two daughters would always have the finest of everything. Private schools, music lessons, beautiful dresses. And on their wedding days they would get a lot more than something like the little rinky-dink cafeteria-style reception in the church hall that she and Bradford had down in Smithfield, Virginia. That was all her aunt could afford for her, but now Barbara could afford the world for her daughters. And they would have it.
When she was twelve, her daddy took off for good--flat out disappeared. Her mother tried hard to raise her only child on her own. But it was tough for a single black woman in rural Virginia back in the 1960s. Her mother lost job after job, and pretty soon she took to drinking and welfare. Within a couple years after her daddy left, they lost the house, then the car, and Barbara became the poorest girl in school. 'Barbara the bag lady,' they called her, as her dresses became more tattered by the day.
You so po', yo' mama make you wish sandwiches for lunch, two slices of bread and wish you had some meat.
Ha, ha, ha.
Where your daddy, bastard child?
That was how she learned her parents were never married. And in the sixties it was still something to be ashamed of, especially in Smithfield, Virginia.
Barbara came home from school on her fifteenth birthday, walked into their tiny one-bedroom apartment, and found her mama dead on the couch. An empty bottle of Boone's Farm lay nearby on the floor.
Her mother's sister whisked her off, and her living standards jumped up a notch or two. But Aunt Gladys took every chance she got to trash Barbara's "no-good daddy." Aunt Gladys's favorite saying was "most men are dogs, the rest are boring as hell." Aunt Gladys's husband mostly sat in the living room watching t.v. when he came home from work. He was considered one of the boring ones.
Aunt Gladys thought Bradford was one of the dogs, and she was dead set against their marriage. She suspected that beneath all the Southern charm oozing from the pores of Bradford Bentley III was a cold and distant man. Barbara had long since come to realize that her aunt's sentiments about Bradford weren't entirely untrue. He was a dog at times.
But he could also be kind and generous with her and the girls. He rarely denied them anything. And she and Bradford had a lot more in common than many people realized. Everyone seemed to think that Bradford came from a prestigious Southern family, that he was born into money because he was so polished and charming. But he was from Smithfield, and his folks were pure country just like hers.
His parents had stayed together, and that made Bradford's life a little easier. And instead of fleeing as her daddy had, Bradford's dad stayed in Smithfield. But he worked in the factories all his life and died penniless and mad at the world. To this very day, Bradford's mother still lived in the same house with one of Bradford's sisters.
Bradford rarely visited them or talked about them. He seemed to have this need to run as far and fast as he could from his humble beginnings, and he had done a good job of leaving all signs of his past behind. They both had. Although she still visited her aunt regularly, she didn't keep in touch with anyone else from Smithfield.
If those snotty-nosed country kids down there could see her now, in her fine stone-and-stucco, Spanish-tile roof, seven-bedroom, eight-bathroom house, they'd be shocked. She had a housekeeper who came every damn day except Sunday. She got manicures and pedicures weekly. She was a long, long way from being 'Barbara, the bag lady.'
She stood up and put her cigarette out. That was enough daydreaming. She had a busy day ahead of her. The aroma of fresh Jamaican coffee drifted up the stairs, and that meant Phyllis, her housekeeper, had arrived. Thank goodness. A hit of caffeine was just what she needed to charge her fifty-year-old batteries for this long day.
Not that she looked her age. No way. She exercised and she gardened, in a climate-controlled green house, of course. She took care of herself. She was still a slim size eight, one size bigger than the day she got married. People often thought she was in her late thirties. No bag lady, this. Not Barbara Anne Bentley.
She looked down at the ashtray. If only she could get rid of that nasty habit. Her complexion was starting to dry out from the cigarettes. But dammit, considering all that Bradford had put her through over the years, she was entitled to a crutch.
She opened the night-stand drawer for a fresh pack to go with her morning coffee, then paused and stared at the bottle of Belvedere vodka in back of the drawer. It looked so tempting, she nearly smacked her lips. She normally opened this drawer several times a day without even noticing the bottle. It had been sitting there for two years now as a pointed reminder of the dark days behind her. She could hear Bradford's voice now, taunting her, ridiculing her whenever he smelled alcohol on her. Like mama, like daughter, he would hiss under his breath.
With the big day ahead and Bradford acting the usual horny, selfish fool, she couldn't be blamed for being tempted. But she was beyond that now. She slammed the drawer shut.
She slipped her feet into satin slippers, tossed her silk floor-length bathrobe across her shoulders, and lit up with her eighteen-carat gold cigarette lighter as she followed the scent of coffee down a long hallway to the stairs. Thank God for Jamaican Blue Mountain and housekeepers.
Oh, yeah . . . baby, that's it. Ooh. Oh, yes!"
Jolene had trouble believing that was her own voice making those lewd noises. Especially after she promised herself never to let this man touch her again until he left his wife. After all, she was ready to leave her husband for him. Why couldn't he do the same for her?
Now here she was barely a week later, leaning up against a stud in the frame of her half-finished house, with her denim Versace skirt hiked up above her ass and her Manolo Blahnik mules strewn across the wood subfloor, while Terrence rammed it up. She dug her three-inch red nails into his back. "Oh . . . yes, yes, yes!"
So much for promises.
Terrence moaned, stiffened, relaxed, then let her go. They both huffed and puffed as they sank down to the subfloor to catch their breath. It was the middle of June and the house had no air conditioning, didn't even have a roof yet. She watched as Terrence stretched his tall, perfect body out on the floor, then leaned her back against a wall stud and shut her eyes.
You silly girl. Letting him get away with this crap, again. Not even this rich hunk of an architect was worth getting your heart broken over. This was it, the absolute last time until he agreed to leave his wife. She was worth more than an occasional screw on the fly.
She shifted onto her knees and crawled across the floor for her shoes while thinking how best to tell him. She was tempted to give it to him straight--me or her, now or never.
"Not bad for a thirty-six-year-old broad," Terrence teased, smacking her on the buttock playfully. Jolene slapped his hand away, a little harder than intended.
"Whoa. I'm only kidding, sugar pie," he said. "You have a beautiful body. That ass, those boobs, those legs. Mmm-umph!" He touched his lips with the tips of his fingers and made a kissing sound. "You do it to me every time we get together."
"I could do it every night if you'd leave your wife," she retorted. "Every morning, too." She looked at him pointedly as he nodded without comment and reached across the floor for his undershirt. That's right, she thought. You know where this conversation is heading, don't you, sweetie? And now you're gonna duck and run.
Her eyes followed him as stood and zipped his slacks. The sight of him standing there above her, his honey-toned muscles gleaming against a sleeveless white undershirt, was enough to tempt her to say the hell with this crap about his wife and pull him back down on top of her. Terrence Johnson was the sexiest man she'd ever slept with. And as part owner of an architectural firm, he was also the most successful. She loved a take-charge, go-get-'em kind of man. So unlike her husband. But she wanted all of this hunk, not just these quickies on the sly. She wanted to be the architect's wife.
She stood up, moved within inches of him, placed her hands on her hips, and turned on her sexiest smile. "Don't you want to be with me, sweetie?" she purred.
He squeezed her arms gently. "You know I do, sugar. But you also know how I feel about leaving my wife before my boys grow up. I have to put them first."
Jolene sighed. "I know your boys are important to you. But it'll be three more years before your youngest goes to college. Kids are stronger about these things than you realize. Hell. You think I'd take Juliette away from her dad if I thought she couldn't handle it?"
He stepped back. "Your situation is different from mine. My . . ."
"How?" Jolene interrupted. "We're both married with teenagers. Both in rotten marriages, I should add. But we love each other, sweetie. Right?"
He sighed. "Yeah, sugar, but . . ."
"Then what's stopping us? Huh?" She knew she was pouting, whining even, but she couldn't help it. She just didn't understand why Terrence wouldn't leave that lame wife of his if he wasn't in love with her. The woman was all wrong for him. She had supposedly attended Spelman College in Atlanta and her father was a doctor. But from what Jolene had heard, she was a mealy-mouthed, plain-ass Jane who took little interest in her husband's career. Terrence was a top-flight architect and a business owner. He needed a strong woman to help him shine. He needed her.
From the Hardcover edition.