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Ajacketless and tieless Lucius Gray was nearing his tenth hour poring over documents and case files. He kept telling himself that he'd quit for the day—or rather, night—every ten minutes, but his determination to know this wrongful death case backward and forward prevented him from leaving. He wanted all his ducks in a row so he could squeeze Dr. E. J. Stewart and his insurance company into settling the case for a mid-eight-figure settlement.
It wasn't one of his biggest litigation cases, but this particular case hit him hard. The similarities between Mr. Keith Johnson's death and Lucius's father's were just too striking. Dr. Stewart, a cardiologist, kept finding nothing wrong with Mr. Johnson a year after he had a stint implanted and recommended he see an oncologist for his illness. Of course the oncologist found nothing wrong with him and kept referring him back to his cardiologist. All the while, Mr. Johnson's condition grew worse and worse. When he finally passed away, the autopsy showed that he had a lot of blockages in his arteries and his poor heart just gave out. There were so many of them that it was just un-explainable how Dr. Stewart had missed the obvious.
What did it say about the state of the health-care system when doctors were just too busy to do their jobs?
The phone chirped.
Lucius glanced up, annoyed to have had his concentration broken. He punched the speakerphone button. "Yeah?"
"Mr. Gray, I have your wife on line one."
He frowned. "You mean my ex-wife, don't you, Maggie?"
"I'm just repeating what she said."
Lucius drew a deep breath and pitched back into his chair. Until that moment, he hadn't noticed how hungry he was or how tight his neck muscles had become.
"Put her through," he said and expelled a tired breath. In the next second the phone rang and he picked up. "What can I do for you, Erica?"
"You haven't been able to do anything for me in a looooonnng time," she answered in her usual sarcastic tone.
He rolled his eyes. "I really don't have time to fight with you right now. So—"
"I know. I know," Erica huffed. "You're working on a really important case. The story of our marriage."
"So you kept reminding me through the divorce." Lucius's office door crept open and he looked up in time to see Maggie poke her head inside. He didn't miss the tired lines beneath her eyes or how her morning curls had wilted on her head. "Erica, hold on for a moment." He hit the phone's mute button without waiting for his ex-wife's permission.
"I'm getting ready to head out," Maggie said. "Is there anything else you need?"
Lucius glanced at his watch. It was well past seven o'clock. "No. I'm good. Have a good night. I'll see you in the morning."
Maggie nodded and then disappeared back behind the door.
Lucius drew a deep breath and hit the mute button again. "I'm back."
"I can't bring Ruby this weekend. It'll have to be next weekend."
Lucius's grip tightened on the phone. In the five years since his divorce, he and Erica kept playing the same game with their now eight-year-old daughter—the emotional blackmail game. And now that Erica had a new man, Andrew, in her life, she seemed steadfastly determined to have this jerk take Lucius's place. "You said that last weekend, Erica."
"It was true last weekend, too," Erica snorted. "And don't act like you're so disappointed."
"I made plans," he said, though it wasn't exactly true. He'd planned to wing it. Maybe take Ruby to Chuck E. Cheese or a movie or something.
"Please." He could practically see Erica rolling her eyes. "Buying her a bunch of junk food and dragging her to your office isn't exactly a trip to Disney World."
Great. She played a guilt card. "It was just that one time."
"Uh-huh," she said dubiously. "Like I said, I can't bring her this weekend. Andrew wants to take Ruby up to Boston."
"Boston?" Lucius barked, irritated. "What the hell is in Boston?"
"Andrew is from Boston… and we're going up to meet his family."
"So…what? This relationship is getting serious?" He was surprised by his annoyance.
"Maybe," she hedged, her tone finally softening.
Lucius closed his eyes and then rubbed the tension from his forehead. It wasn't that he still harbored romantic feelings toward his ex-wife. It was more that the threat of him being replaced in Ruby's life with another man was becoming a reality at a pace that made him more than uncomfortable. "C'mon, Erica. How long have you known this guy? Two months—three?"
"A year," she corrected him.
Had a year passed that quickly?
"Of course, if you ever pulled your head out from your… work, you'd see that life was passing you by."
Lucius heaved another frustrated sigh. "Can we not fight tonight? I have a headache."
The line fell silent, but the tension remained. Finally he said, "I don't know if I like this."
Erica chuckled. "Don't tell me that I've finally done something to catch your attention."
"Is that what this is all about—getting my attention?"
Her laugh deepened. "Please. I've stopped trying to do that a long time ago. You made it perfectly clear that your work is all that matters to you."
"That's not true."
"It feels true." Another awkward silence drifted over the line. "I'll bring Ruby next weekend," she said and then disconnected the line.
Lucius held the phone until the automated voice came on and instructed him on how to make a call. "That went well," he mumbled under his breath. He settled back in his chair, replaying the call in his head and wishing he had handled the situation better. But what had been obvious for many years now was, point-blank, he and Erica just rubbed each other the wrong way.
His gaze fell on a framed photograph of his precocious daughter, Ruby. He struggled to remember exactly how old she was in the picture—maybe four or five. It was an adorable picture of her with her thick black hair parted into two fat ponytails. On the day of the picture, she was so proud to show off the loss of her two front teeth. Her big quarter-size hazel eyes danced with excitement at the possibility of seeing the Tooth Fairy.
Lucius reached over his desk and picked up the photograph. Instantly, his irritation and annoyance at Erica melted away and a broad smile broke across his face. Ruby was a perfect amalgam of him and Erica. She had his warm brown complexion and hazel eyes and Erica's button nose and full lips. "Daddy's little girl," he whispered, feeling his chest swell with pride.
Ruby Elizabeth Gray was the absolute joy of his life— despite what her mother thought. Sure, he had been thrown out of his element from time to time by tea parties with imaginary guests or playing baby dolls with dolls that actually did number one and number two. However, most of that came from the fact Lucius grew up in a family dominated by men.
It had been a real shock to him when the doctor told him and Erica that they were going to have a girl. He didn't know what to do with a girl. Up until that ultrasound, he had envisioned mock football and basketball games with Junior. Instead he got a little girl that stole his heart like no other. And he was a better man for it.
Lucius slowly rocked his neck from side to side, but his tense muscles refused to relax and his empty stomach rumbled in protest. Sighing with regret, he knew that it was finally time to call it a night. Propelling out of his chair, he quickly stuffed the case files into his briefcase, slid on his office jacket and crammed his tie into his pocket.
As he exited the building of Kendall, Hendrix and Gray, LLC, he contemplated which fast-food drive-through he was in the mood for. Once behind the wheel of his black Cadillac SRX Crossover, he elected instead to finish off some leftovers he had back at the crib. He'd always been careful to take care of his body through regular exercise and a healthy diet, and there was no need to wreck all that for a greasy burger.
It was well past eight o'clock by the time he finally pulled into his large two-car garage. As usual when he headed toward the garage door that led into the kitchen, he tossed a longing look toward his old wood workshop. His man space, as Erica used to call it. How long had it been now since he'd lost himself in the hobby of building things—six years… seven?
He had always enjoyed working and making things with his hands. It had a way of relaxing him. However, with the influx of bank and credit fraud, his law firm had enjoyed a healthy spike in litigation and court cases. There just hadn't been any time to whittle the hours away in his workshop.
Soon, he promised himself. He'd make the time one day soon.
Lucius entered the house, flipped on the light switch, placed his briefcase on the counter and made a beeline toward the refrigerator. Thirty minutes later he was settled at the dinner table and casually sifting through the day's mail. He stopped when he came across the envelope from Hollington College.
His smile was instant. "Hollington." He chuckled, opening the envelope. "My old stomping grounds." Suddenly memories of football and frat parties filled his head, as well as the small string of college shawties he'd juggled while struggling to maintain his high GPA.
"‘October homecoming weekend,'" he read. His eyes quickly scanned over the invitation card. "Tenth anniversary? Has it been that long already?" He shook his head. Where had all the time gone? Thinking about it, a lot had happened in ten years: marriage, law school, law practice, a baby, working like hell, making partner, working like hell, divorce, working like hell.
There was a theme in there somewhere.
"All work and no play make Lucius a dull man," he whispered. He glanced up and truly took stock of the empty dining-room chairs surrounding the table. Outside, the evening crickets played their songs while his expensively furnished house felt awfully cold… and lonely.
His gaze shifted back to the invitation. Maybe this was exactly what he needed. A little time out with some old friends… and old girlfriends.
"Beverly, what do you mean you're not going to the reunion?" Kyra asked, her hands propped on her slender hips. "This is a big weekend for the university and I'm counting on you to be there."
"I don't see why," Beverly said, straightening a rack of embellished skirts. Her trendy, high-end boutique, Hoops, was on North Highland Avenue and a steady stream of twentysomethings flowed into the store and left carrying enormous white shopping bags with the dainty Hoops logo. The sparkly chandelier, golden cherubs and tasteful furniture lent a chic, intimate feel to the place. "Aside from you and a couple of other people, I haven't kept in touch with anyone from our graduating class."
"Beverly, you were homecoming queen and everyone's expecting you to be there."
"That's too bad, because I'm not going."
"Give me one good reason why you can't go."
"I'll give you three. For starters, I'm swamped here." Selecting a dazzling sheath from off the rack, she slipped it off the gold, padded hanger and held it up to one of the mannequins in the front window. "I'm putting together the final touches for my new spring line, and I have to design a gown for Gabrielle Union to wear to an awards gala next month."
"You seem stressed, Bev. Why don't you let me take you out for lunch?"
"So you can pressure me into going to the reunion?" Beverly shook her head. "No way. I don't have time for this right now. I'm up to my neck in paperwork and it's going to take me the rest of the afternoon to fill the online orders."
"Beverly, you've been dodging my calls for weeks and the reunion is less than a month away. I need to help finalize the rest of the plans for homecoming."
She said nothing, just continued dressing the mannequin and humming to the Smokey Robinson song playing in the background.
Kyra heaved a heavy sigh. "So, that's it? You're not going and there's nothing I can say or do to change your mind?"
Beverly gave a brisk nod, and then changed the subject. "I was at my favorite fabric store last week and it seemed the whole town was abuzz with the news of Terrence's big return."
"Yeah, his arrival has generated a lot of good press for the school. We're received hundreds of online applications, and we had so much traffic on the Web site yesterday, it crashed!"
"I bet," Beverly agreed. "After all, he is the pride of Hollington."
"I'm lining up as many interviews as I can. I even contacted my old sorority sister, Tamara Hodges, about doing an article on Terrence becoming the Lions' coach."
Her eyebrows rose. "You got him to sign on already?"
"Not yet, but I will."
Beverly started to speak, but her words were drowned out by a shrill, piercing laugh. Realizing they needed privacy, Kyra grabbed Beverly's hand and dragged her into the back office. While the boutique was bright and glitzy, the office was a simple, understated space teeming with fashion magazines, invoices and poster boards. "Now," Kyra began, closing the door and standing in front of it, "spill it. What's the real reason you won't go to the reunion?"
Beverly stood her ground. "You're not going to change my mind, so you might as well save your breath."
"The class of ninety-nine voted you homecoming queen, Beverly. How's it going to look if you don't show up?"
"Like I'm a popular fashion designer who has orders to fill." Straightening up, she folded her arms across her chest, her gaze drifting to the open window. "Kyra, I'm not trying to be difficult, but I've moved on from beauty pageants and modeling contests. I want to be taken as a serious businesswoman and that's not going to happen if I'm riding on top of a flowered float."
In an effort to keep the peace, Kyra listened to what she had to say without interrupting. Beverly was frowning, and she could tell by the faraway look in her eyes that her mind was somewhere else. "Why does it feel like you're blowing me off?"
"I'd never do that," Beverly insisted, shaking her head. "We're friends, remember?"
"Then can a sister get a discount on that gold Ferragamo gown?"
Beverly gave a brief sputter of laughter.