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stand by meA SouledOut Sisters Novel
By neta jackson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Neta Jackson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChicago, three years later
The earrings. A slight panic rose in her chest as Avis searched the jewelry box a second time. Where were the ruby earrings Peter had given to her as a wedding present? They went perfectly with the wine-colored moiré silk dress lying on the bed, and she'd already told Peter she was going to wear them.
Avis Douglass sucked in a deep breath and blew it out slowly. Think, Avis, think. They couldn't be lost! She'd only worn them a few times since their wedding six years ago. The deep red brought out a rosy glow in her dark chocolate skin. But ... ruby earrings weren't exactly de rigueur for an elementary school principal in her fifties. She'd had a few kids at Bethune elementary—just a few, but still—who wouldn't have thought twice about ripping them out of her ears.
Besides, she liked to save them for special occasions. like this weekend.
Their sixth anniversary.
A smile tickled her lips, and Avis sank into the upholstered rocker beside the queen bed, forgetting the earring hunt for a moment. Six years. Amazing. Second marriage for her. First for Peter. Old college friend of Conrad's who'd never married. looked her up after Conrad died of pancreatic cancer, and one thing led to another ...
She closed her eyes and rested her head on the back of the rocker, careful not to disturb the twists piled on top of her head after her visit to Adele's hair and Nails that morning. Peter would be home soon—he often put in five or six hours at the office, even on Saturday—but she still had time to get dressed. The tiny smile broadened. Her man had turned out to be a class-A husband—well, mostly—in spite of "baching it" for several decades. She was proud of the way he'd built Software Symphony from a grassroots startup to the thriving business it was today, in spite of the obstacles he'd had to climb over as an African-American male. He treated his employees well—black and white—giving them opportunity to advance, even get more training if needed. He took his involvement seriously as a board member of Manna house, and under his guidance the women's shelter had operated in the black for the past few years.
But those things made him a good man. What made Peter a good husband was not only that he was crazy about her—she wanted to giggle like a girl every time he called her "my queen"—but his unflappable steadiness. A man she could count on. His thoughtfulness about little things and helpfulness around the house went a long way too. Avis chuckled. At least he'd learned to fold his own laundry and do the dishes while he was baching all those years!
In fact, the only time they'd ever had a serious disagreement was over the girls.
Her girls. He didn't have any kids.
Not that they'd had any problems with Charette, her oldest, who was married and living in Ohio. Or Natasha, the youngest, still single, working in D.C. as an advocate with the Center for law and Social Policy. No, their only tension had been all the drama her middle daughter, Rochelle, dumped into their laps. like last Valentine's Day ...
* * *
"Can't believe it's almost one o'clock!" Avis giggled as Peter unlocked the front door and they slipped into the darkness of their third-floor condo. "Makes me feel like a teenager tiptoeing home after curfew."
Peter took her warm winter coat and threw it over the back of a chair. "Except now I get to spend the night." He chuckled. "Come here, beautiful." He pulled her close, and she felt his warm lips pressing gently on hers.
She wove her arms around his neck, breathing in the faint, cool smell of his aftershave. The evening still glowed in his eyes. He'd brought her a dozen red roses and then taken her to dinner and dancing in Uptown. On the way home they'd stopped at a vantage point where they could see the lake, shimmering in the clear February night. Moonlight had tickled the water out beyond the icy buildup along the lake Michigan shoreline.
Breathtaking, even in winter. But thank God for the car heater! The outside temperature hovered around zero.
Avis wiggled out of his embrace and headed for the bedroom. Using the matches she kept in her bedside table drawer, she lit several candles around the room—but when she turned around, she burst out laughing. Peter was leaning against the door frame, arms folded, one of the long-stemmed red roses held between his teeth.
"You're nuts, you know that." Still laughing, she slid the ruby earrings out of her ears and turned her back to him. "Here, help me with this dress." The red silk dress was one of his favorites. But instead of unzipping the dress, he slid his arms around her again from the back and nuzzled her neck.
The loud door buzzer in the other room made them both jump. Avis gasped. "who could that be at this hour!" She started for the intercom beside the front door.
Peter spit a sharp retort under his breath and then called after her, "whoever it is, tell them to butt out and come back tomorrow."
The buzzer rang again, loud and insistent. Somebody had a lot of nerve—at one o'clock in the morning! Avis pressed the Talk button. "who is it?"
"Mom? Mom, it's me! And Conny! Please, let us come up!"
Rochelle! Avis pressed the button that released the door down in the lobby, her heart suddenly beating faster. What was Rochelle doing out this late at night? with six-year-old Conny at that! The girl must've lost her mind!
"Don't tell me ..." Peter's voice behind her was flat. More than flat. Annoyed.
Avis opened the door, stepped into the hallway, and peered over the banister. She could hear Rochelle's and Conny's footsteps thumping up the carpeted stairs of the three-flat, and then their heads appeared as they trudged up the last flight. Conny, bundled in a hooded parka, dragged behind his mother, pulled by her grip around his wrist.
"Rochelle! what in the world—?! Conny, come here, baby." Avis bent down and wrapped her arms around her grandson. "It's all right, sweetie, Grammy's here." She slid the hood of the parka back and kissed the top of his loose, curly hair.
Rochelle brushed past her into their front room. Avis followed with Conny and shut the door.
Peter had turned the living room light on and stood facing them, arms crossed, frowning. "There better be a good explanation for this, Rochelle. Do you have any idea what time it is?"
Rochelle ignored him and turned to her mother. "I'm sorry, Mom. I—I lost my apartment and ... and just didn't know where else to go. I came by earlier, but you weren't here. Where were you guys? you never stay out this late!"
Avis saw Peter shake his head in disgust. "We were out, Rochelle," She said evenly. "You should have called. We had our cell." Taking off Conny's coat, she helped the little boy lie down on the black leather couch. "What do you mean, you lost your apartment?"
Rochelle flopped down in the matching leather armchair. "I told you a couple weeks ago I lost my job. I've been looking, honest I have, but it's a zoo out there! Everybody's cutting back, letting people go, not hiring." She hunched forward, elbows on her knees, her thick black hair full and wavy around the honey brown skin of her face, not quite looking at her mother. "We just need a place to stay until I figure out what to do. Or ... or if I could borrow some money for the rent, I'm sure I could get my apartment ba—"
"No." Peter's sharp retort left Rochelle's mouth open.
Avis winced. Oh, Peter, let her finish. This wasn't just about Rochelle, but Conny too.
Rochelle jumped up, eyes flashing. "I'm not talking to you, Peter Douglass! I'm talking to my mother." She turned to Avis. "Mom, please. I need some money for my meds. I'll pay you back as soon as I—"
"I said no!" Peter took three strides and stood between Rochelle and Avis. "This begging has got to stop, Rochelle. This is your third apartment. We gave you money for first and last month's rent. And you have a Medicaid card for the meds. We can't keep bailing you out."
"Peter—" Avis started.
"I lost the bloody card!" Rochelle's voice rose. "Or someone stole it ... I don't know. But it takes weeks to get another one, and I need the meds now. You know that." Again she turned imploring eyes on her mother. "At least let us stay here till I find another apartment."
Avis cast a pleading look in Peter's direction. Rochelle did need her antiretroviral drugs—three times a day—to treat the hIV she'd contracted from her philandering husband. Ex-husband now. Dexter not only had played around but had become abusive. Avis shuddered. The past five years had been a series of crises getting Rochelle and Conny out of that mess, into a shelter, into a treatment program, finding an apartment, then a series of jobs that never seemed to work out ... and now this.
Peter just stood there, arms crossed, shaking his head. "It's not going to happen, Rochelle."
With a screech the girl darted around her stepfather and ran toward the hall. Avis thought she was running for the bathroom and started to follow, but Rochelle ran past the bathroom, into the master bedroom, and slammed the door. Hurrying down the hall after her, Avis heard the lock turn.
"Rochelle. Rochelle, open the door."
"I'm not leaving!" she yelled. "I don't have any place to go!" loud sobs erupted behind the locked door.
Avis could feel Peter's presence behind her. Turning, she put a hand on his chest and pushed him firmly back down the hall and into the front room, out of earshot. "Peter. It's one o'clock in the morning! we can't turn them out now. Think of Conny." Think of Rochelle too. No way did she want her daughter—still young, vulnerable, not well—out on Chicago streets at this time of night.
"And let her think her tantrum is working? No way."
Avis was firm. "Peter. let them stay the night. Just for the night. We can talk about what to do in the morning."
Her husband threw up his hands. "All right. All right. Just for the night. But we take them to Manna house in the morning. They know her situation. They know better than we do what resources are available." Peter's shoulders slumped slightly, as if giving up. "Maybe they have room at the house of hope. That's more long-term than the shelter, and she can keep Conny with her. Why don't you call Gabby Fairbanks in the morning?"
Avis nodded, relieved. "Good idea. At least get her on the waiting list." She wasn't sure if she was grateful to Peter for backing off or angry at him for being such a stubborn lump. Still angry, she decided, and headed back down the hall.
"Rochelle?" She knocked softly. "Please open the door. you and Conny can stay the night. I'll make up the studio couch in Peter's office. But it's late. We all need to get to bed." She knocked again. "Rochelle?"
She waited. After a few long moments the lock turned and the door opened. Rochelle, red-eyed and tight-lipped, nodded but slipped past her mother and into the bathroom. Avis heard the water running in the sink ...
* * *
Avis sighed, staring at her newly manicured nails. She'd called Gabby Fairbanks at the house of hope the next morning—Manna house's "second-stage housing" for homeless moms with children—but all Gabby could do was put them on the waiting list. "And we've got two other moms ahead of her," Gabby had said. "So sorry, Avis. It might be several months."
They'd offered to keep Conny for a few days, but Rochelle wouldn't hear of it. "It's both of us or neither," she'd huffed. So they'd taken them to Manna house. But when Avis called the shelter the next day, they said she'd checked out.
Disappeared was more like it. They didn't hear from her for days. Days that turned into weeks. And when Avis tried to call her cell, all she got was "This phone is no longer in service."
"Guess she had someplace to go after all," Peter had pointed out. "we can't be jerked around by her tantrums, Avis. She's a smart girl. She'll figure it out."
Avis sighed again. Not a day went by that she didn't think about her daughter and grandson. Conny especially. Rochelle's little boy had started kindergarten this year. Avis wished she'd helped them find an apartment here in Rogers Park so he could attend Bethune elementary where "Grammy Avis" could keep a watchful eye on him. But no, Rochelle had found an apartment on the South Side and enrolled him down there. But if she'd lost that apartment ... Was she taking him to school every day?
And Rochelle used to bring him for a sleepover a couple times a month. Sweet times. But ... they hadn't heard from Rochelle for over two months now, not since that Valentine's Day fiasco—
Avis's eyes flew open with a start. That was the last time she'd worn the ruby earrings. Oh no. No, no, no. Rochelle wouldn't have ... would she? But her wild-eyed daughter had been in this very room that night, right after she'd taken off the expensive earrings.
Snatching up the jewelry box, Avis dumped the contents out on the bed, pawing through them desperately. She had to find those earrings! Surely she'd just misplaced them. She even dumped out her top dresser drawer, thinking they might have dropped in there by mistake.
No ruby earrings.
She heard the front door open. "Avis? I'm home!"
Avis quickly threw her lingerie back in the drawer and slid it into the dresser just as the bedroom door opened and Peter poked his head in.
"Hey, beautiful. I picked up the mail. Got something with a South African postmark." He dangled the envelope just out of her reach for two seconds before handing it to her. "hey, you gonna wear that red dress again? Nice. Do I have time for a shower?"
Without waiting for an answer, her husband disappeared down the hallway toward the bathroom.
Avis glanced at the return address on the envelope. Nonyameko Sisulu-Smith, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durbin, SA. It'd been awhile since she'd heard from Nony! But no time to read it now. Stuffing the envelope in her purse, she snatched the dress off the bed and hung it back in the closet. She couldn't wear the red dress, not without the ruby earrings. She needed more time to look for them. Surveying her options, she finally pulled out a black satin crepe two-piece pantsuit with flared legs and flattering cowl neckline. She'd add a royal blue pashmina scarf and blue onyx earrings and tell Peter to wear his black suit and blue tie.
But as Avis slipped the silky top over her head, a sense of dread sank into her belly, and she had to sit down on the bed, hands covering her face. How could she suspect her own daughter?! But if Rochelle had taken the ruby earrings and pawned them, it might explain why she'd been avoiding them lately.
Avis shuddered. She should have tried harder to contact Rochelle. Maybe it wasn't a tantrum but guilt that kept her away. Tomorrow ... she'd leave another message on Rochelle's cell, ask to meet her someplace so they could talk, use wanting to see Conny as an excuse to find out how they were doing, what was going on. Surely Rochelle knew it was important for Conny to have regular contact with his grandparents.
As for tonight, if Peter asked why she wasn't wearing the rubies, she'd just have to tell him she'd misplaced them somehow. Which could very well be true ... right, Lord? No way could she let Peter guess her suspicions, or this could turn out to be the worst anniversary ever.
Chapter TwoPeter had said he wanted to do something special for their anniversary—and a dinner reservation at the top of the John hancock Building was definitely a delightful surprise. The maître d' led them to a table right by the floor-to-ceiling windows in the hancock's Signature room with a panoramic view of Chicago's skyline. April's drizzle had spilled over to the first Saturday of May, but as dusk settled over the city, the clouds began to retreat and a scrap of moon peeked through. The lights sparking through the mist from every stately building along lake Michigan looked like a field of diamonds.
Avis gave up her coat at the coat check but was glad for the blue pashmina that could double as a shawl, as the air in the restaurant was a bit too cool for her taste. Peter had seemed surprised when he got out of the shower and saw the change of outfits, but she'd hurriedly confessed she couldn't find the ruby earrings, had probably put them in a "safe place"—so safe she couldn't remember where—and assured him they'd turn up when she had more time to look. He'd given her a puzzled look but said nothing more about it.
Excerpted from stand by me by neta jackson Copyright © 2012 by Neta Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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