As the mid-August sun peeked through the slightly opened slats of the white shutters in Lanier Watson's loft bedroom, she turned over on her back. Looking up at the ceiling, she closed her eyes.
Today wasn't just another ordinary day. It was the day Lanier was to meet with her parents, Barbara and Joseph, whom she hadn't seen in years. At the age of twelve, she had been placed into protective custody when her parents had gotten into a vicious physical struggle fueled by substance abuse. Lanier had entered the foster care system on that frightening night and had remained there until the age of eighteen. An academic scholarship got her into college, where she graduated at the top of her class. She'd then gotten a job as a social worker and continued her academic studies until she received a master's degree and became a medical social worker.
Lanier opened her eyes. The ability to relax and let go of her troubles felt good. With all the pain she had endured in her youth and adulthood, she hadn't found a lot to be happy about. How great she felt now indicated how committed she was to achieving a full mental recovery. It had taken her a long time to come to terms with her troubled life, but she'd done it.
A warm smile curved on Lanier's full lips. Thinking of Dallas Carrington, the tall, sexy man she loved with every ounce of her strength, always brought a smile to her face. He was one of a set of gorgeous triplets, a member of the prestigious Carrington family. Dallas, the second-born triplet, played baseball, a shortstop for the National Baseball League's Texas Hurricanes. Austin, first-born triplet, was starting quarterback for the NFL's Texas Wranglers, and Houston played power forward for the NBA's Texas Cyclones. These superstar athletes loved playing professional sports before the hometown crowds in their native Houston.
Lanier had met Dallas over three years ago on a Valentine's Day cruise. He was instantly attracted to her, but she had quickly pegged him as a man with roving eyes. As he hotly pursued her, unwilling to accept no for an answer, Lanier had eventually given in to his indelible charms. Because of her parents' volatile marriage, she had shied away from long-term commitments. Fear of abandonment was at the crux of her complex problems regarding love and romance. Dallas had been more than patient with her, but she feared his patience would run out long before she had conquered all of her insecurities.
Dallas would be at Lanier's side for the luncheon date with her estranged parents. His presence would shore her up. Even if he hadn't been able to attend, she'd made up her mind to go through with it. Putting the reunion off for another day wasn't in anyone's best interest.
Slipping out of bed, Lanier put on her robe and made her way out into the hallway. The bounce in her step made her smile. Before heading to the winding staircase, she glanced back at the clock radio. Right on schedule, she thought. Getting her routine started at the same time every day was once very challenging. Lanier now looked forward to the comfort of the routine.
Without knocking on the adjacent bedroom door, Lanier opened it slowly and peeked inside. Not so long ago, three sleeping figures would've been lying in the empty beds.
Sisters Lauren and Stephanie Liggins were only ten months apart in age. They had occupied two of the three twin beds, which was a step up from their old bunks. Tina Rodgers would've been curled up in a ball in the third bed. The girls had just turned eighteen and would leave for college in the fall. They were now at summer camp. Their departure was hard for Lanier, but there was currently a long waiting list for foster placement at Haven House.
Although the owners of Haven House preferred teenagers, they'd accept most school-age females. No males had resided at Haven House thus far. Former foster children themselves, Lanier and her best friend, Ashleigh Ayers-Carrington, thought they could best serve teenage females.
It didn't matter that the young women had to move on. The two female social workers would always be there for the girls. They loved the young women as if they were their own sisters. After Ashleigh had married and become pregnant, Lanier's duties had doubled. It had taken her a long time to hire help when Ashleigh started working part-time. It had taken even longer for Lanier to fully trust the new employees.
"Rise and shine," Lanier would've sung out cheerfully, followed by an enthusiastic, "You all know the drill." The teenagers would pop out of bed and drowsily greet Lanier. Once they had begun their morning rituals, Lanier would go back upstairs and shower and dress for the day. There was always plenty to do around Haven House. With two other employees to help out, the daily grind had finally become a lot easier for everyone to bear.
Dressed in a chic white linen pantsuit and gold silk top and white pumps, Lanier looked fabulous. Her mahogany skin glowed. Not one for too much makeup, she had only dusted her face with loose powder to combat any shine. She loved lipstick and glosses. The rich Bordeaux shade she wore was a perfect match for her skin tone.
As Lanier entered the empty kitchen, a lump formed in her throat, making it difficult for her to swallow. It was getting harder for her to hide her emotions as of late. All she could think about was the girls who would soon leave for college. There was an endless list of others who needed foster placement, but these young girls had been the first to reside at Haven House. That alone made them very special to Lanier and Ashleigh.
* * *
Lanier licked her lips in anticipation of Dallas's sweet kiss. Tall, with a toffee-brown complexion and too sexy to be legal, he made her pulse quicken just by stepping into her line of vision. His ebony eyes encompassed her in a way that calmed her fears. Ever since she'd first met the hottest shortstop for the National Baseball League's Texas Hurricanes, he'd had a drugging effect on her senses. Although Dallas had had roving eyes on the Valentine's Day cruise where she'd first met him, she still had ended up falling hard.
Their relationship had developed quickly, and they had lots of fun getting to know one another. After a few months of exclusive dating, Dallas began to make sexual moves on Lanier. The all-of-a-sudden fast pace in which he'd come at her had Lanier repeatedly slowing down his intimate advances. When heated moments escalated to heights she was uncomfortable with, she had to put on the brakes to remain in control.
Although Dallas had grown sexually frustrated, none of her attempts to keep him at arm's length had chased him away. He eventually made Lanier see that he was an exceptionally good guy and that she should hold on to him. Nothing about her past or her family's issues had put him off. He had remained beyond supportive.
Lowering her lashes, Lanier moved into Dallas's warm embrace. Tilting her head back, she gave him easy access to her lips, which were hungry for the sweet taste of his. His mouth pressed down over hers, making her body melt like hot candle wax. As his tongue coiled around hers, her insides fluttered.
Holding Lanier slightly away from him, Dallas looked down into her eyes. "No matter what happens today, don't forget I'll be there for you. No one will ever hurt you again."
Lanier's heart skipped a beat. "How can I ever forget it? And I'll be just fine, Dallas. I'm fully prepared to handle this meeting."
The surprised look in Dallas's eyes was easy enough for her to readhe hadn't expected her to be so confident.
If only he knew
and he would definitely come to know if she had her way.
If Lanier Watson had her way, Dallas was in for a super treat. As he got acquainted with the new and improved her, she hoped the bad memories of how she once was would fade from his memory bank. Before the first time they'd made love, she'd lost count of the times she had put him off or had attempted to break up with him. Always spoiling for a fight, her angry attitude and sullen ways would've had the average guy dropping her like a hot potato.
Lanier's memory of her countless horrendously bad moods hurt her the most because they'd injured Dallas emotionally. Still, he'd stayed by her side, blaming her past for her presiding issues. Their rockiest times had actually made her a better person. Dallas had been her catalyst for change. Her love for him had her wanting their relationship to work, but she had to make some more adjustments in her flippant attitude and negative mind-set.
Getting help from a therapist hadn't gone well, but Lanier had gained enough courage to try to move past old devastations. Dallas didn't know the Lanier she wanted to be, and she couldn't wait to introduce him to the brand-new lady in his life. She had all sorts of grandiose ideas to show off her new self to him. Nothing was as important as proving to him that she was ready to receive his love, all of it. No more ducking, dodging and running. Lanier had been enchantingly tempted by a Carrington tripletand now she was ready to be captured.
The elder Watsons hadn't yet arrived at the Golden Dragon, one of Dallas's favorite Chinese restaurants. The bold reds, bright gold and ebony and alabaster hues were perfect tones for an authentic Asian space.
Glancing at her watch, Lanier had mixed emotions about her parents' tardiness. Instead of making a big deal out of it, like the old her would've done, she tried to be grateful for the extra time to make sure she had herself pulled together. The hostess had already seated them at a spacious yet private table.
"Do you want a drink while we wait?" Dallas asked.
Lanier smiled. "A cup of hot tea would be nice."
Leaning toward Lanier, Dallas kissed her cheek. "You got it." He summoned the waiter.
Before the server could return with the order, a hostess ushered Barbara and Joseph to where Lanier and Dallas awaited their arrival.
Dallas glanced at Lanier, his expression quickly turning to one of concern. She had gotten to her feet before he'd been able to take her hand and squeeze it for reassurance. She had harbored so much bitterness for her parents that he wondered if she were truly ready to see them.
"Mom, Dad," Lanier said sweetly, swallowing the foreign words that had once tasted like battery acid. But now she didn't feel the least bit bitter calling Barbara and Joseph "Mom and Dad."
"It's nice to see you. Please have a seat."
Lanier immediately introduced her parents to Dallas without revealing his profession. As far as she could remember, her father had never taken an interest in sports.
Joseph's face was blank as he shook Dallas's hand. Barbara looked nervous. The older woman was the same height as her daughter, and the father was several inches taller. Lanier had inherited her mother's creamy mahogany complexion, but Dallas thought she looked more like her father. She had his eyes, nose and satiny hair texture.
Dallas relaxed in his seat. "It's nice to finally meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Watson. You have a lovely daughter."
"Thank you," the couple said simultaneously, both appearing fidgety.
Barbara made direct eye contact with Lanier. "I'm glad you finally agreed to see us. Have you received my letters?"
Lanier nodded. "I read every one. I'm glad you guys found your way back to each other. Life hasn't been easy for any of us, and I laid the blame at your feet. Building a meaningful relationship won't happen overnight, but this is a great start. Thanks for accepting my invitation to lunch. We have a lot to catch up on."
Lanier's last statement was another bombshell for Dallas since he'd assumed her parents had requested the luncheon. She had certainly done a complete about-face. As relieved as it made him feel, he still couldn't help being concerned for her. She had attempted to pull it all together a couple of times before, only to fall apart again.
Once the orders had been taken, Barbara turned and looked squarely at Lanier.
"I know you don't want us to visit the past, Lanier," Barbara said, "but I think we'll have to at some point. How can we possibly move forward without discussing it?"
Dallas tensed. Reaching for Lanier's hand, he squeezed it reassuringly.
Lanier shook her head. "We can't go back there. If we did, we can't change a thing. I like living in the present," she said adamantly.
Dallas was in awe of how strongly Lanier had voiced her desire to leave the past behind. It was a big change for a thirty-year-old woman who had constantly wallowed in the excruciating pain of the past, reliving all of life's horrors from before and after Child Protective Services had removed her from her home.