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I chased sleep all last night, doing my own version of the dead man's float on land. Not moving, stifling my sobs, I dared not toss or turn though my heart raced and my brain churned.
Taylor, my man, my lover's, gentle, enflaming touch unnerved me instead of igniting my heart. He wanted to make love to meinside out. I knew what he needed, what he wanted, but something inside me shut down. And I was scared. Scared of what it meant.
"Tell me what's wrong, Baby. Talk to me," he'd said when I mumbled some incoherent excuse about not feeling up to it. Never in our three year relationship could we keep our hands off each other, right from the very beginning. Did he know I was lying?
Even as still as I remained, as hard as I worked at keeping my treacherous thoughts sealed shut, commanding my heart to stop that thudding noise, Taylor still worried about me. "Max? What's wrong, Baby?" He stroked my hair. "Want me to get you something?" He began to massage my neck, my back, releasing the knots of tension. That's the way he wassensitive and in tune with my needs, my feelings. He always listened to me, really listened, and that made all the difference in the world. Taylor was always more than my man. He was my friend.
From the day we met, it was as if we'd known each other all our lives. There was an easiness about Taylor that just made it to simple to open up to him and not to be afraid of what he might see. From the beginning it drew me to him like a magnetthe need to be cared about totally and completely without having to fight for it.
I wanted to turn into his arms last night, pour out my heart and my darkest fears, bury them in the strength and security of his embrace, but for the first time in the three glorious years that we'd been together I couldn't. So I did the first thing that came to my mind, did something I'd sworn I'd never do. I lied. I lied to keep from hurting him with the truth.
"Mmm. Nothin', Babe, really. Just thinking about some things at work. Sorry if I'm keepin' you up." I eased out of the bed, nude as usualTaylor liked thatand slipped on the short, peach silk robe that I kept at the foot of the four-poster bed. "Maybe some warm milk would help." I leaned down and kissed his temple, there on that salt and pepper spot that I sometimes teased him about but secretly thought only added to his ruggedly handsome looks.
"I'll sit with you," he mumbled, his voice a cross between Isaac Hayes's seductive timbre and tires running over gravel. That made me smile.
"Don't even think about it, Ty. Go back to sleep, Babe."
Still emotionally rattled, I tiptoed out of the room, walked down the short hallway, and peeked in at the partially open bedroom door. Something inside of me filled, just as it always did whenever I looked at my son, hunched up like a lump of sugar beneath his Spider-Man sheets. My blessing.
I stood for a moment in the doorway, watching Jamel breathe in and out and the battlefield of action heroes spread out across the sheets, some having fallen onto the navy blue-carpeted floor.
My throat clenched. Three years ago, with one simple phone call, one sentence, this all could be so differentthis life I had worked to buildbut that was then.
Inhaling my reality, I let it settle in the unlit place inside myself and headed downstairs to think.
That was nearly four hours and three cups of coffee ago. Everything was still out of focus. The only thing that was a bit clear was the view of the Golden Gate Bridge that was slowly materializing beyond my little window on the world.
The beacons of sun streaming into the kitchen window were warm as always for eight a.m., even if they were filtered by the everpresent fog that hung over San Francisco like gauze drapes used to keep mosquitoes out. Music, coming from the little clock radio on the sink, slow and bluesythe kind that slips through your pores and seeps into your soulfloated around the squared-off yellow room, bringing its own brand of "just sit back and relax." But I couldn't.
Above me, from upstairs, I heard the rush of the shower pounding against the ecru-colored tiles, and knew that Taylor was up. Any minute, like clockwork, Jamel would come bounding down the stairs, sleep still stuck in his inky black eyes, eyes just like his father's, wanting his bowl of Frosted Flakes with no milk.
For all intents and purposes it was a day just like any other, except for the boulder of truth that sat on my chest. There was no way I could put off telling Taylor much longer.
How many times in the past twenty-four hours had I wished that my old homegirl Val hadn't called from New Yorkthat she hadn't mentioned Quinten Parker's name again, hadn't made me remember what I'd struggled these past years to forget?
For a fleeting moment, when she told me that Nikita was dead, there was that dark, ugly instant when I was almost relieved, vindicated somehow. From the day Quinn met Nikita Harrell, our relationship shifted. I'd known Quinten Parker nearly my entire life. His twin sister, Lacy, was my best friend, before she was killed. There was a bond between Quinn and me, one that I'd fantasized about and thought could never be broken.
We came from the same roots, talked the same language. I took the unspoken relationship between us as an inevitable given. Then Nikita walked into his lifethe girl from the right side of the tracks, the last person I, or anyone, ever imagined Quinten Parker falling forand my dreams of a lifetime with Quinn fell to pieces. Nikita Harrell rudely awakened me.
But then, as Val and I hung up, being human stepped in, and that unexplainable love harbored in my heart for Quinn since I was six years old suddenly roared to life, like dry wood stacked too close to the flame. And all that other stuff didn't matter. I hurt for him, felt his pain as surely as if it were my ownjust as I'd always done. When whenwould he finally find his peace, some happiness? Everythingeveryonehe'd ever loved was taken from him, one by one. And I was no better than the fates that dealt Quinn an unwinable hand. I wrapped both of mine around my mug.
The coffee was cold now, but I drank it anyway, rewinding last night in my head. I should have made love with Taylor. I should have let him into my soul to push away the images of Quinn that were resurrected, wash away the doubts that began to form around the edges of my heart.
Quinn. Q. His face loomed in front of me. Those long, silky dreads that must be almost to his waist by now. Those mesmerizing eyes, the wicked, dimpled smile, and thrillyour fingers that could stroke the blacks and whites of a keyboard and steal your soul. Oh, yeah, I remembered. I remembered the dreams we shared, the laughter, the pain, the bed
"You never came back upstairs last night," Taylor said, standing in the archway of the kitchen, catching me completely off guard. When did the shower go off?
I looked up at him and tried to smile. Momentarily he paused, his long body held in that just to the side angle that gave the impression he didn't have a care in the world. One of the things that had attracted me to Taylor Collins was his total air of casualness.
"I know. I, uh, didn't want to keep you up, and I knew I wouldn't be able to get back to sleep."
He eased into the kitchen and pulled out a chair from beneath the table and straddled it, bracing his arms across the rounded top. He rested his chin on his forearms and caressed my cheek with a stroke of his finger. "You wanna tell me what's really bothering you, Max? Or are you going to keep running the line about the job?"
"It's not a line. It's"
"Don't lie to me, Baby. I know you, remember? Something's bothering you, and has been from the moment you walked in the door last night. And I know good and damned well it's not the job. You could run that travel agency of yours with your eyes closed." He looked at me for a long moment, his warm brown eyes waiting, probing.
"Mommy, I'm hungry," Jamel announced the instant his toes crossed the threshold of the kitchen. I was sure Taylor heard my sigh of relief.
"Mornin', Sweetie," I cooed, giving him a sweeping hug.
"Hey, Shortstop," Taylor said, rubbing his big hands across Jamel's head, much to his delight.
"Hi, Daddy." He giggled.
I got up from my perch and took the box of Frosted Flakes from the cabinet and filled a bowl for Jamel.
"We'll talk tonight, Max," Taylor said, making sure I didn't miss the no-nonsense tone in his voice. He stood, slid his arm around my waist, and pulled me close. "Whatever it is, we'll work it out. We always do."
He dipped his head and took a long, lazy kiss, then eased back, his eyes smoky with desire. I knew that look.
All I could do was nod my head as he turned toward Jamel.
"See ya later, Slugger." He snatched Jamel up and gave him a tight squeeze. "Love you, buddy."
"Love you, too."
Taylor put him down and walked out.
The self-imposed noose of avoidance by silence grew taut around my neck. And I knew the longer I dodged the inevitable the tighter it would become.
After the usual ritual of getting Jamel ready for day care, doing a quick straightening up of our two-story town house, I found myself alone with my thoughts and my decisionone that I couldn't put off much longer. "Nikita's funeral is in two days, Max," Val had said. "I know it's hard, and probably asking too much, but you should be there. You and Quinn well there's history between you two. I think he needs you, Girl, but he'd never say that."
She was right. Quinn never would say he needed anyone. He was used to doing everything on his own, from the time he was sixteen, a man since he was a boy. His self-assurance and confident swagger only camouflaged the tenderness that rested in his spirit, but it was the lure of inaccessibility that always intrigued me, drawing me to him like a moth to a flamethe desire that was a part of me, to reach him, heal him. Oh, yes. I knew him.
But no matter what my decision, there was still my business to run and Jamel to raise. Slipping on my suit jacket, I headed for the door.
As usual, the morning rush hour traffic was a monster. Front ends kissed rear ends for miles, at least as far as you could see through the haze. After a while, though, you get used to it. So, rather than give myself a headache by chiming in with the other horn blowers, I turned up the volume on the radio, eased back a little in the seat, and listened to some cool jazz. My girl Phyllis Hyman was working one of her songs, and I sang right along with her. In some other life I just knew I was a singer.
Peeking across the lane to my left, one of those suit and tie-wearing brothers was having a heated argument on his cell phone. I immediately felt sorry for the poor soul on the other end. Even from my vantage point I could see the veins popping out on his forehead. To my right, a woman with four kids in her backseat appeared to be trying desperately to keep them from jumping out of the windows.
I wasn't sure which was worse, creeping along to work at a snail's pace or being trapped underground on a New York subway, engulfed by the pungent odors of the city and the cloying scents of every designer perfume under the sun. Even so, there were days when I actually missed that.
Picking up stakes from New York and moving to San Francisco was a hard decision. My entire life, everything and everyone that was familiar, I left behind. But five years ago, it was the only choice to be made. The need to start over, to break away from the ties that bound, were more powerful than the desire to stay. The only problem was that the cord wasn't broken.
Not too long after my arrival, just when I was getting my head together and my business off the ground, letting my spirit mend, Quinn arrived. At the time, I thought it was for good, that the day I'd longed for finally arrived. We spent two years together, moving from the tentative stages of friends to lovers. Foolishly, I believed that away from New York, away from the pain and the relationships of the past, he and I could really build a life together. I was wrong.
Quinn had ties, too, ties more potent than anything I could bind him with. Somewhere, buried deep inside, there was a part of me that knew he'd go back. Back to New York. Back to Nikita. I just didn't want to believe it.
Humph. Quinn and Nikita. Ms. Uptown Girl. But hey, got to give her credit, she loved him. I suppose. The problem was, so did I at the time. It took letting go and letting Taylor into my life to finally find my piece of the happiness pie. Now, with one phone call, it felt as if my whole world were being turned upside down again. No dessert for you.
My eyes began to burn, and it had nothing to do with the smog. How was I going to explain to Taylor that I needed to go back to New York to be with Quinn? Better yet, how was I going to face Quinn for the first time in three years and not tell him about his son?
"Didn't think I'd ever make it," I said, breezing into the office on a gust of hot air an hour later. I tossed my purse on top of my always overloaded desk and flopped down in the cushioned chair.
Marva, my business partner and dear friend, glanced up from her computer screen and grinned as if everything was just lovely.