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When Regina Gibson heard the door swing open and the chime sound, she didn't glance up from the last shards of cobalt-blue tile she was fitting into place. She had them laid out in her mind, and if she looked away, the order would be lost.
She caught the coattails of a suit out of the corner of her eye and hoped he would be a paying customer.
"Let me know if you see anything," she called from the back.
It was getting on in the evening, but with the nearby restaurants still open, people wandered in now and againonce they could tell that the beaten-down corner house was now actually an art gallery and studio.
The exterior of the building hadn't been changed yet, except for a sign, but inside, they'd added installations, shelving, display cases, work spaces. They'd even added tables in the back rooms to teach classes, and they'd partitioned off the kilns.
Once the inside was in better shape, they could start work on the outside so that it didn't look like a rickety brownstone. And once they caught on, they could start the real renovations. It wasn't the perfect place yet, but it was the perfect locationright on the border of the arts and crafts district and near the Torpedo Factory Arts Center in Alexandria, Virginia.
Regina finished laying in the final pieces and cocked her head toward the back room, checking on the two kids. Kyle and Tenisha were still fixated on their little art projects. No problem there.
When she finally looked up, he was standing right in front of the table she was working at, his eyes trained on the children in the back room.
Her eyes didn't follow his gaze to the children. They were drawn to the figure in front of her. His rugged features seemed trapped and contained by his flawless business attire, but his athletic-cut suit didn't hide the rough-hewn inflections or the ridged sculpting of his body. The polish of the crisp navy cotton didn't conceal a raw, unrefined beauty in his shape. It was as if something untamed was tamped down by the elegance of professional trappings.
He had a firm, never-back-down stance that said he would be a hard adversary to rumble with in whatever his business was. And it was business. Everything about him said that he was all businesseverything from the no-nonsense cut of his suit to the angular inlay of his jawline. The smooth, dark brown skin of his face held a concentrated expression that was softened but made no less determined by the curves of thick, sensuous lips. His eyes were serious but also wistful. His eyes
Regina flinched and sucked in a breath. She knew those eyes.
The face was older, harder, different than the face she had known before. But inside it was the prior face, and she recognized it now as if someone had just pointed it out to her. The childhood had gone out of itthe baby fat that had plumped his cheeks, the boyish grin that made his eyes sparkle. These had been replaced by the calm, jagged confidence of an adult. He would be twenty-eight nowthe same as her. He even seemed taller, his shoulders broader.
Regina could barely place this new configuration with what she knew of the boy behind it. It didn't fit the idler she had knownthe slacker lazing on the sofa with his buddies or running the streets with his jeans hanging halfway down his hips. The face before her didn't match the one she had known, the one skipping classes and sleeping through exams. The one who had skipped out on her.
As recognition dawned, so did Regina's rage.
What made him think he could pop in on her after all this time? No way. No how.
Growing more livid with each second, Regina shoved the plywood base of her mosaic farther onto the table, got up from her chair and walked over to the display case on which the cash register sat. This put them out of sight and out of earshot of the children.
Nigel Johns had understood to follow her across the room and now faced her across the counter. And what he faced was wrath.
"Unless you know how to turn back time or are here to tell me I've won the lottery, you better get the hell out."
Regina's voice was low, but its venom was unmistakable, and her body clenched in outrage.
His eyes now turned to her for the first time, but what she found there she couldn't decipher.
"I'm not here for any of that. I'm here for you and"
"You're not here for me or anything else, because I don't want to have anything to do with you."
His face remained calm, and his tone remained even and commanding, which infuriated her more. He may have thought he could waltz in the door, but she would be cutting him off at every pass.
As if it would somehow explain things, he took a folded sheet of paper out of his pocket and put it down on the counter.
"This is for youfor"
"Whatever it is, I don't want it."
When he didn't move, she snatched up the sheet of paper and unfolded it. It was a check for five thousand dollars.
"You think you can buy me?" she said, ripping up the check. "You think you have anything that I want?" She threw the pieces at his fine navy suit and watched them scatter down to the floor. "I told you before, didn't I? I don't need you. Now get the hell out."
Nigel Johns held his stance. Maybe he was waiting for her to get it off her chest and get it over with. But it wouldn't be over anytime soon.
Regina put her hands on her hips and simply glared at him. He said nothing, but he also didn't move.
"Wait," she said. "Do you have a card? I have an item that belongs to youto your grandmother, actuallyand once you have it back, I won't need to hear from you ever again."
He sighed heavily.
"This is not the way I wanted this to be, Reggie." His voice was low, but it was deep and steady. Even that had changed. The disappointment in his tone calmed her a bit, but her position had not altered, and she held her ground.
"This is not the way it's supposed to be between us," he said.
Regina couldn't believe his audacity. Were they on the same planet? She hadn't seen him in over six years!
She threw her hands up in exasperation.
"There is no us, and there never will be again."
"Don't say that before you hear me out."
"You can't possibly have anything to say that will change my mind."
Nigel stepped around the counter, and before she knew what he was about to do, he had pulled her into his arms and was kissing her.
Startled by what was happening, Regina was momentarily unclear on how to react. Her thoughts flew out of her mind.
Something about being in the curve of these arms was familiarthe firmness of the grip about her waist, the abandon of the lips moving over hers, the heat rising up between them. But everything else seemed part of the newness of himthe way his height sent her head back, the buttons of his suit pressing against her abdomen, the boldness of his fingers along her back, sparking flames in her.
These filled her senses, and she became lost in them.
Wait. What was she doing?
Startling her again, he pulled away.
"That's the way it always was for us," he said, letting her go and stepping back.
Regina felt like she'd been caught in a lie, one he'd forced her to tell, and her anger sprang back to life. How could she let herself get caught in the moment? And how dare he put his hands on her after he had disappearedditching her, ditching them, ditching everything?
No way was it going to go down like that.
She stepped up to him, poking her finger against his chest and raising her head for the attack. But she didn't know what to say. Her head had not cleared; she hadn't been able to remember her logical arguments about why what had just happened didn't change anything.
Little footsteps clacked toward the front, and both of them stopped in their tracks.
Tenisha appeared, smocked in the jumbo trash bag that Regina had tied at her neck and around her waist. And thank goodness. The bag was covered from top to bottom with splotches of paint, swipes from the brushes and handprints of various sizes.
Tenisha hesitated when she saw a man there.
"Come, sweetie. What is it?" Regina coaxed, giving her full attention to the child and relieved to have a moment to collect her thoughts.
Nigel stepped back around the counter, his eyes fixed on the little girl.
Behind Tenisha trailed a path of paint that was dripping from the ceramic bisque platter she was carrying. It was shaped like a butterfly, its various quadrants plastered with pastel shades of glaze.
"I'm finished with mine. Kyle is still working on his."
"Did you get the bottom, honey?"
She turned it over for Regina to inspect, all the while smudging little fingerprints of paint from one color to another.
Regina took her back to the table in the classroom.
"Let's just set it here to dry for a few minutes before we add a topcoat." She turned to the little boy, still vigorously applying paint to the baseball-shaped bisque platter he was working on. "How is yours going, little one?"
Regina could see that Kyle was fully engrossed, and so she turned back to Tenisha.
"Once we add the topcoat, we can put these in the kiln and head upstairs to have something to eat. Okay?"
"You sit here and keep Kyle company while he finishes his. Is that okay?"
Regina turned and walked back to the register. Nigel had popped up thinking whatever he was thinking, but it wasn't going to work on her.
"I've had enough, Nigel. There is no us, and there will be no us."
When the corners of his lips twisted into a smirk, Regina's temper stirred again, and she seethed. She'd wanted to be calm, but he wasn't going to let that happen.
"Get out. Get out, and don't come back here."
"No. Get out."
When the chime at the door sounded, neither one looked over.
"Get out," she said again. Neither moved.
"Hey, hey. Is anything wrong here?"
Regina knew Jason's voice immediately and was relieved when he came over to stand next to her. He was over six feet four inches, and he worked out religiously. It was clear to all three that Nigel, despite his new height and weight, couldn't take Jason even if he tried. There was nothing left for him to do but withdraw.
Only he wasn't going to back down easily. He held his ground and gave a brief nod to the other man, as if sizing up his competition. Yes, he must be a formidable adversary in the business world.
"Nothing's wrong. This man is just leaving," said Regina.
Nigel didn't move right away, and when he did, it wasn't in the direction of the door. He casually searched one of his inner coat pockets and took out a silver casea business-card holder.
"You asked if I have a card."
He took out one of the cards and stepped up to the register, handing it in her direction.
When Regina didn't move to take the card, he laid it on the counter. She glared at it as if it had leprosy and then glared at Nigel.
"I'll get that item out to you as soon as possible," she said in a professional tone, stifling her hostility.
Nigel bent his upper body toward her.
"This isn't over, Reggie."
She picked up the business card and put it in the pocket of her jeans.
"It will be soon enough."
Regina watched as Nigel slowly walked out of the studio. She was completely shaken.
Jason, holding Kyle on his hip, sat down at the workstation in the back of the shop.
"You need to talk?"
Regina walked over to the table, glancing in on Tenisha before sitting down. Tenisha was blowing on her plate to get it to dry, and Kyle squirmed down to go get his piece.
"It can wait until tomorrow."
"I got time now."
"No. Really. It will be better said tomorrow."
Kyle returned with his baseball platter. "I made this for you, Daddy."
"I can see that you did."
Jason smiled down at his son and took the plate from him before lifting him back onto his lap.
"Here," said Regina. "Let me have the platter so that I can topcoat it and get it in the kiln."
"But I made it for Daddy."
"I know, sweetie, but it's not finished yet. We want it to be hard on the outside so that you can use it. Come, let me show you."
Regina was almost finished applying the topcoat when the bell at the door chimed. He wouldn't have come back, would he? How dare he show up out of nowheretwice?
Luckily, it was only Ellison, who had come to look for his partner and child.
"Hey. What's the deal with leaving me in the car?"
"My bad. We're in here," Jason called to him. "The pieces aren't done yet. You want to wait or come back another time?"
Before he could answer, Regina offered, "I have some lasagna upstairs. You can eat while you wait for the kiln to fire them."
"We can wait," Ellison replied, picking up Kyle.
Regina set the cones and started filling the kiln. Nigel had had the nerve to throw money at her like she could be bought.
"It's set. Let's lock the front door and head out back."
Gathering Tenisha in her arms, she climbed up the back stairs and let her down to unlock the apartment. She was glad for the company but couldn't keep her mind focused on the random conversations that popped up between them.
Keeping her hands busy wasn't a problem. She heated up and dished out the lasagna, got them all soda and bread, got the adults salad, found an animated movie that the kids could watch and ran down to check on the kiln.
Quieting her mind was another story. What had happened when he'd started to kiss her? Why hadn't she thought to push him off right away? It was because she hadn't known what he was going to do. But that would not happen again.
She heard a car pull up out back, and her pulse quickened. But it was only Tenisha's mom, as expected. Get a grip, girl. He won't have the nerve to just show up again anytime soon, and if he does, I'll be ready for him.
While Jason opened the door, Regina moved into the kitchen to fix another plate of lasagna. She stopped and pulled out the business card from her pocket. It was a local address. Damn.
That was okay. She had what she needed to send him the item. No use worrying about it now. In fact, she would be rid of him for good soon enough.