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"Jo, tell me. Have wedding jitters taken a toll on you yet?"
Erica Sanders glanced across the table, thinking that only April, her close friend since junior high school, would have the nerve to ask her something like that with a straight face. April North knew her so well. She could tell Erica's anxiety and stress were mounting, only a couple of weeks from the engagement party at which the couple's families would officially meet. Erica was so not looking forward to that affair unless her mother's attitude changed drastically.
"Yes, I'm a little stressed," she admitted. "My sanity is barely holding up. But it's to be expected of every bride, isn't it?" She figured if anyone should know, surely April would. After all, her best friend had walked down the aisle three times already.
"Umm, a little stress is to be expected of every bride. But in your situation " April left the words unsaid.
Erica's mother was driving her crazy.
With one breath Karen Sanders would rant and rave about Brian Lawson not being good enough to marry her daughter, and with the next breath she'd give the wedding planner hell because she intended for Erica's wedding to be the social event of the year.
It would be a wedding befitting the great-great-granddaughter of one of the founding fathers of Hattersville, a small town of seven thousand, noted in the history books as one of the first cities for freed blacks in Ohio. Erica had lived in Hattersville all twenty-seven years of her life, except for her college years in Wisconsin. Living in another city those four years had opened her eyes to a lot of things, especially how closed-minded and snobbish some of the residents of her hometown were. But not all of the citizens were privileged. Her friend April had been born on the other side of the tracks, in the Fifth Wardsomething Erica's mother liked to remind her of every chance she got. But to Erica, what side of the tracks someone was born on didn't matter, and her close friendship with April had always been special. Besides, April, who had always been a beautiful person, had gone from rags to riches and was now a world-famous model. That proved that anyone who put her heart and mind to it could become successful, despite her humble beginnings.
Needing to escape the oppressive atmosphere of the town even more than Erica did, April had traveled west to attend UCLA, where she'd met husbands one and two. Husband number three, whom she'd divorced a year ago, was someone she'd met in Great Britain.
"You know as well as I do," April continued to say while eating her salad, "that Ms. Karen's idea of a dream marriage is one between you and Griffin."
Erica knew that was true. Griffin Hayes's family, like hers, represented old money in Hattersville. Naturally some people, especially her mother, assumed she and Griffin would grow up and marry. There were those, again namely her mother, who figured that doing such a thing was not only politically correct, but would destroy some curse reputed to have been placed upon the two families that could only be broken by a marriage between them.
Unfortunately, nobody bothered to inform her and Griffin's hearts, since they just weren't feeling it. Their families had thrown them together so often when they were growing up that eventually they began thinking of themselves as sister and brother, rather than as a couple whose lives were destined to end in holy matrimony.
Although they'd tried dating while in high school, the fire was simply not there. Griffin had recognized it and so had she. That was when they'd made the decision to be nothing more than friends.
"Mom might as well get used to the idea that I will not be Mrs. Griffin Hayes," Erica said. "I most certainly have. Trust me. Brian is all the man I want and need." She doubted anyone, even April, knew just how much she meant that.
"Will he be flying in this weekend?"
A huge smile spread across Erica's lips and she held up two crossed fingers. "Let's hope. They've hired two more attorneys at his firm but he still has a large caseload."
She and Brian, an attorney at a prestigious law firm in Dallas, had met last summer while vacationing in Myrtle Beach. He had been out fishing on the pier one morning and she had been jogging along the shoreline. They had struck up a conversation, and he had invited her to breakfast the next day. A few weeks later, they had become lovers.
When the summer ended they decided to keep the affair going and, beating the odds, their long-distance romance had survived. Over the Christmas holidays Brian had asked her to marry him. She had accepted and now looked forward to her August wedding and her move to Texas.
Her mother had been in an uproar at the thought of her only child marrying someone other than a Hayes and moving away. Even now, months later, there were days Karen Sanders had problems coping with the inevitable.
"So how's your dad holding out?" April asked, breaking in on Erica's thoughts. "Has your mom convinced him to disown you yet?"
Erica thought about her dad, with his soft hazel eyes so filled with love and understanding. He had given her his full supportalthough he kept it low-key so as not to get her mother riled. But it was the little things he would say and do to let her know he admired the fact that she was doing the very thing he hadn't done, marrying for love instead of for the sake of preserving some legacy. It was no secret her parents' marriage had been arranged.
"You know as well as I that won't be happening," she replied. She and her father had a close relationship and things between them would always be that way.
A short while later she and April were walking to their parked cars, promising to get together several more times while April was in town visiting her grandmother. It was the first week of March and there was definitely an Ohio chill in the air, which made Erica tighten her shawl around her shoulders. The shawl, a Giorgio exclusive, had been a birthday gift last year from April.
Up ahead Erica saw the town's square, brightly lit and rimmed by a well-maintained lawn. The parks in the Fifth Ward might look deteriorated and in need of care, but here the statues of the city's forefathers were in perfect condition. It almost sickened her when she thought of the good citizens' priorities.
She glanced at her watch. It wasn't even eight o'clock and already the retail businesses had closed, leaving the area looking like a ghost town. The town had survived what would have been rough economic times when a few wealthy residents had come in and bought out the small, struggling businesses, which made the rich even richer and gave them tighter control and ownership of the town.
Even her job as head librarian and accountant at the town's historical library was nothing more than a cushy position created by her parentsmainly her motherto assure the history of Hattersville was well preserved. Erica was constantly reminded that if it hadn't been for the forefathersthose free blacks who'd come from Canadathe town wouldn't exist.
For generations there had been a distinct line between the two groups of people living in Hattersville, the haves and the have-nots. Those that had moneythe Hayeses, Delberts, Sanderses, Carters, Heards, Bakers, Cobbs and Stonewells were those who owned major manufacturing corporations that employed thousands of people who drove into the city to work.
After giving April a good-bye hug, Erica slid into her car, a cherry-red Mercedes two-door that had been a birthday gift from her father a couple of years ago. After strapping on her seat belt, she was about to turn the key in the ignition when her cell phone rang. She smiled when she saw the caller was Brian. She wasted no time answering it. "Hi."
"Hi, sweetheart. Where are you?" he asked.
"About to leave Ryder's Steak House. April's in town so we did dinner." She paused a moment and then asked, "So, do you think you can get away for the weekend?"
She heard his chuckle and the sexiness of it carried through the phone. She immediately recalled the first time she'd seen him, shirtless and wearing a pair of cutoff jeans with a fishing pole in his hands. He had given her a flirty smile and she'd turned to mush. She had actually felt that smile in every part of her body, every pore and every single cell. That smile had transformed her into one hot and achy mass and on that day she'd discovered that the whole concept of lust was as real as real could get.
"Yes, I think I can get away," he said, interrupting her thoughts. "By the way, there's something waiting for you at your house."
A smile touched her lips. He had been known to send her thinking-of-you gifts through the mail. "There is?"
She wondered what he'd sent her this time. Last week it was a CD on which he'd recorded "Rock-a-bye Baby" in his deep voice like Barry White's as a way to lull her to sleep each night. "What is it?" she asked.
He gave her another sexy chuckle before simply saying, "Me. And now that you know, don't speed getting here."
How could she not, Erica thought after a quick gasp escaped her lips. They hadn't seen each other in over three weeks and she was filled with a deep longing that she knew would be getting satisfied in a big way when she saw him. Sensual shivers danced up her spine when she envisioned how that would be accomplished.
"Make yourself comfortable until I get there," she told him.
"I've done that already and I can't wait to see you, baby."
She couldn't wait to see him, either. "I'm on my way."
Before Brian could give her a hot response, one that would probably make her detonate, she clicked off the phone, started her engine and pulled out of the parking lot. With Brian in town her plans for the weekend had definitely changed. Everyone would understand.
Everyone but her mother.
Brian Lawson held his mobile phone in his hand a moment longer than necessary before putting it on the table. He released a satisfying breath at the same time that he felt flutters in the pit of his stomach. The same thing always happened to him whenever he heard Erica's voice.
If anyone had told him that falling in love with a woman would be this way, he would not have believed them. But he was convinced he had fallen in love with Erica the moment he'd seen her that day on the beach, and somehow he had known she was different from the other women he'd dated.
He had been a man comfortable with being single. A man who enjoyed dating when it suited him, with no plans to settle down anytime soon. However, after spending time with Erica that summer, he had known in a short period that she was a forever kind of girl. But the thought hadn't scared him off like it really should have. Instead, the more he'd gotten to know her, the more he'd wanted to become her forever kind of man.
Sighing deeply, he took another swallow of beer and glanced around his future wife's eat-in kitchen. It was large, spacious and it suited her since she enjoyed cooking. So did he. That was one of the first things they discovered they had in common.
The walls were painted a pale yellow and her appliances, all white, actually made the room appear larger. His stainless steel kitchen back in Dallas, although it might look more modern, seemed depressingly sterile compared to hers. And then there was that huge picture on the wall, the one of Myrtle Beach beneath a sunny South Carolina sky. It was nice to look at while sitting at the kitchen table, especially during a frosty Ohio winter. Even better, it was a drawing of the exact place they'd met that summer. Right down to the actual pier. When he'd seen it in a gallery in Texas, of all places, he couldn't miss the chance to get it for her. For them.
He sat down at the table to wait for Erica to come home. If he remembered correctly, Ryder's was twenty minutes away on the other side of town, and although he'd warned Erica not to rush, he knew that she would anyway. That meant she would be arriving in ten minutes or so.
He glanced around the kitchen again, and from where he sat he had a good view of her dining room and living room. His condo back in Dallas wasn't nearly as large. It was the perfect bachelor pad, but they had decided that they would move into a bigger place after they married, one closer to the office.
They had also decided to keep this condo so they would have a place to stay whenever they returned to Hattersville to visit her parents. Of course there were plenty of guest rooms in her parents' monstrosity of a house, which could easily be considered a mansion. But he appreciated Erica's intuitiveness in knowing he'd be uncomfortable spending even one night under Karen Sanders's roof. It was no big secret that he wasn't exactly her choice for a son-in-law.
Erica's mother was definitely nothing like his mother. Rita Lawson had to be one of the sweetest and most down-to-earth women to walk this earth. She had raised him after his father died of an aneurysm when Brian was fifteen. Putting him through college and law school hadn't been easy, but she had done it without any complaints. For that he was exceedingly grateful. And now he was proud that she was doing something she'd always wanted to do. She'd always loved the outdoors and was now a landscape architect for a major corporation. Her job entailed a lot of traveling, which was something she'd always dreamed of. Just last week she had returned from Beijing. It had been her first trip to China and he couldn't help but recall how excited she was when she'd shared the experience with him.
She had officially met Erica months ago and had immediately fallen in love with the woman who was to be her future daughter-in-law. He took another sip of his beer wishing Erica's mother had been that accepting of him.
He tried not to let the thought bother him, but every once in a while he couldn't help but dwell on it. Didn't the woman know that the time when parents selected spouses for their offspring was over? Erica had her own life and was old enough to determine just how she wanted to live it and with whom.
Brian heard the sound of a car door closing and knew Erica was home. He stood up and a feeling of anxiousness flooded him. Anxiousness and love.