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The letter weighed heavily in Sasha Carring-ton's purse. For two weeks she'd carried it around like a talisman, still not believing the words she'd read over and over at least a dozen times. The only person she'd shared her good fortune with was her best friend, April Harris, and only because it was April who'd insisted that she submit her name and qualifications. Sasha had been reluctant to say the least. I've never won anything in my life, she'd groused to herself even as she'd sealed the envelope and dropped it in the mailbox more than five months earlier. Now her future was only a plane ride away, that is, if she could ever get off work, tie up some loose ends and pack her bags.
The instant Sasha spotted Brenda sauntering through the door, she signed off her computer with a swipe of her Summit Hotel identification card. She purposely ignored Brenda's syrupy-sweet greeting which she should have given almost an hour earlier. That was no one's fault but John Ellis, the manager, Sasha inwardly fumed. Brenda got away with murder and John turned a blind eye. Had it been her coming into work even ten minutes late, he'd be threatening to write her up.
"Anything I need to know about reservations?" Brenda asked while she settled in behind the counter.
Sasha cut her a look sharp enough to slice glass. "Guess what, I really don't have the time to explain—with you getting here so late and all," she added just loud enough for Carol, the reservation-ist at the end of the counter to hear.
Brenda flushed momentarily and tossed her head, flipping her very expensive weave over her shoulder. "Fine." She dismissed Sasha with an arched brow, put on her commercial-ready smile and moved into greeting mode as a handsome, well-dressed man approached the desk.
Sasha sighed as she watched Brenda work her usual spell around him, the way she did with every man who came within sniffing distance. His soft brown eyes didn't even register that Sasha was on the same planet. She retrieved her purse from beneath the desk, said goodbye to Carol and pushed through the revolving doors and out into the humid Savannah evening. She adjusted the strap on her purse higher on her shoulder and headed for the parking lot across the street from the four-story hotel.
"Humph, humph, humph," a man who appeared to be in his early thirties murmured as she passed. "Love a sistah with some meat on her bones." He licked his lips like the wolf with Little Red Riding Hood on his plate.
Sasha's stomach flipped when he grinned, baring a row of missing teeth. She shook her head and kept walking, trying not to let the obvious get her down. A fine looking businessman walks into the hotel and doesn't blink in her direction, yet a toothless, my-job-is-to-stand-on-this-corner man gives her a big shout-out. What is wrong with that picture? she thought as she deactivated the alarm on her car.
She slid behind the wheel, leaving the door open while she turned the ignition of her ten-year-old Honda Accord in the hope of releasing some of the tightly-packed heat trapped inside. She pressed the button for the air conditioning and inhaled a blast of hot air.
"Damn, it's hot." She pulled open the glove compartment and took out a wad of napkins that she'd collected from her various pit stops. She flipped down the visor mirror and peered at her reflection before dabbing her face. Hmmm, she needed a touch-up—badly. And when was the last time she'd tweezed her brows? She'd all but chewed off her lipstick. No wonder the only catcall she could get was from a toothless hobo. She flipped the mirror back in place.
When the car had sufficiently cooled she closed the door, buckled up and headed for her second job—the family catering business, Carrington Caterers. Between her real job at the hotel, the evenings at the family business and the classes two weekends per month for her certification in Hospitality Management and Food Preparation, it was no wonder she looked the way she did. She didn't have a moment to spare for herself, or for anyone else for that matter. Neville, her ex, simply couldn't understand that she wanted more than to spend the rest of her life at the beck and call of someone else, working at something that would never be her own, which was why their ten-month relationship had ground to a halt. She had a plan for herself and she couldn't be distracted by anything or anyone that was not part of her plan.
It was bad enough that she was off target by two years. By thirty she'd wanted to have finished her advanced degree and have her business off the ground so that she could tell the folks at the Summit Hotel just what they could kiss. Then she could buy that little house she'd had her eye on for almost five years.
In another six months she'd be finished with school and her business plan was almost completed, she mused, feeling mildly placated as she turned onto Charles Street. She zipped through a yellow light and made a right at the next corner.
She truly loved Savannah. She loved the way the late-afternoon sunlight showcased the scenery outside her window. She loved the antebellum architecture, lush greenery, landmark mansions and quaint shops. She was a Southern girl to the bone. She'd been up North a few times—New York specifically—to visit relatives. It was certainly a fabulous place, with nightlife that never seemed to end. But before her week-long visits were over, she was always ready to come home. The hustle and bustle of the Big Apple shaved a good five years off her life. The madmen behind the wheels of yellow cabs, not to mention the ludicrous policy of moving your car from one side of the street to the other on alternate days. She chuckled at the memory of her Aunt Linda jumping out of bed and running outside in her pajamas to move her car in the morning. And the noise never seemed to stop: honking horns, music blasting from car windows and she couldn't imagine that the police and the fire department could possibly be called as often as they were in New York. It was a great city to visit, but she could never live there.
The bright blue-and-gold awning with the double C logo for Carrington Caterers loomed ahead. Sasha slowed, eyeing the street for an open parking space, the closer to the front the better. She zipped her midnight-blue Honda into a spot vacated by a gas-guzzling Suburban, beating out a Lexus by a mere bumper.
Sasha bit back a chuckle and kept her eyes straight ahead as the Lexus crawled by her. She could almost feel the cuss words bouncing off her driver's-side window. She turned off the car, gathered her purse and tote bag and went inside as quickly as she could, eager to get out of the sticky heat and into the cool interior of the family domain.
CC had been in business for more than twenty years, starting off in her mother Grace's kitchen on Kennisaw Road where she did "favors" for close friends who were having small gatherings or surprise family events. Grace Carrington's homemade soul-food dinners and desserts became so popular that she outgrew her kitchen and rented the space CC now occupied. Once they were old enough, Sasha and her younger sister, Tristan, helped out. Their dad, Frank, who also knew his way around a stove, handled the books and the deliveries.
Fortunately, the recession had been kind to them. While many businesses in downtown Savannah were suffering or had closed, CC still managed to do well, all things considered, and maintained a profit. Grace firmly believed that food was the best comforter in good times and more so in bad. However, with more people becoming health-conscious and a flurry of government studies on obesity in the U.S., Sasha had been trying to convince her mother and her sister to broaden their menu to include some healthy alternatives. She urged them to serve more than the fried, buttered, gravy-laden, ham-hock-seasoned, sugar-coated foods that CC had built its reputation on. Grace and Tristan were not interested.
Sasha opened the heavy wood door and was greeted by the mouth-watering aroma of CC's famous seasoned collard greens. Her stomach jumped in delight, but she fought back the urge. For the past four months she'd quietly embarked upon a lifestyle change, cutting back or eliminating many of the foods she'd grown up on. It was a struggle, but she was slowly winning the battle, having lost nearly twenty pounds for her efforts. Her mother's high blood pressure, her sister huffing and puffing over the simplest activity, not to mention her Aunt Shelia's heart attack a year earlier had put Sasha on notice. She'd gone from a solid size eighteen to a curvaceous size fourteen. She had plans, and she wanted to be around to see them fulfilled, and if she had to take her mother and her sister with her kicking and screaming, she was going to make sure that they were around to enjoy her success.
"Hey, Charise. My mom around?" Charise was Sasha's first cousin on her mother's side, her Aunt Shelia's daughter. She came in after school to help out a couple of days a week.
Charise was busy on her iPhone. She didn't make a move without it, and she barely glanced up. "In the back." She angled her head toward the kitchen.
"Thanks. How's school?" She patted her cousin's shoulder as she came around the front counter.
"Graduate next year," Charise said, as if by rote.
Sasha smiled, shook her head and walked toward the kitchen. At least Charise was still in school and didn't have an infant on her hip like so many of the young girls in the city.
Grace looked up for an instant from her task of rolling dough for the crust of her famous peach cobbler. "Hey, baby. Hand me that brown sugar," she said with a slight lift of her double chin.
Sasha did as she was asked to the tune of banging pots and stirring spoons coming from the other side of the wall that divided the baking area from the ovens, supervised by Clyde, the only person who wasn't family that Grace allowed in her kitchen. "Hey, Clyde," she called out.
Clyde poked his head out, his dark brown face gleaming with sweat. He flashed her a toothy grin. "Hey, yourself. How you be?" His eyes rolled up and down her body. "Get any thinner you gone blow away." He chuckled.
"I doubt it," she tossed back. The Hasting women were all "big-boned" as they liked to call themselves. Her mother's sisters, Linda and Shelia, were both double-Ds and size twenty-plus. Her grandmother had been big, too, and Sasha's sister, Tristan, was well on her way to winning top prize. Sasha worried about all of them, but they swore that their men loved it and no one could pay them enough to pass up a good meal.
"So when are you leaving?" her mother asked, not interested in hearing another one of Sasha's lectures on food.
Sasha leaned her hip against the counter. "My flight to Antigua leaves at seven tomorrow night."
"You sure picked a fine time to take off on vacation. You know this is a busy time of year for us, with graduations and weddings," her mother complained as she wiped sweat from her brow with a paper towel.
"I know. But if I don't take my vacation now I won't get a chance to go."
"I still don't know why you have to go to some island."
Sasha had no intention of telling her family the real reason for her trip. If things didn't work out, she didn't want to hear "I told you so."
Sasha went to the sink and washed her hands. She moved next to her mother and began kneading dough for the pies. "I know this is a busy time, Mom," she began, "but this is really important to me."
Her mother turned and looked at her daughter curiously. Her brows drew together. "What's so important about a vacation in Antigua?"
Sasha drew in a breath. "It's just that I've planned this for a while. I can't back out now. This is the first time I've been out of the country." Her voice began to bubble with enthusiasm even as she hoped her mother would share in her excitement.
Grace's full lips were tightly pursed before the glimmer of a smile loosened them. "Be sure to bring me something. And I don't mean a T-shirt," she warned, wagging a rolling pin at Sasha.
The two women laughed.