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Monday, May 31, was a perfect day for a barbecue. The cloudless sky shimmered like a turquoise ocean. The buttery sunlight was warm and pure. Breezes tempered the Georgia humidity, keeping the outdoors comfortable and spreading the fragrance of blooming magnolias.
The official start time for the cookout was two o'clock in the afternoon, but a steady stream of people didn't begin to show up until close to three. By four, over thirty relatives and friends had arrived at his house in South Fulton County. They congregated on the two-level wooden deck in the back, lounged in the large, finished basement, and found places to relax, talk, and eat in the kitchen, dining room, and family room.
Andrew's best friend, Eric Patton, had volunteered for barbecue duty. He worked the huge Weber grill on the patio, cooking enough hot dogs, ribs, chicken, and burgers to feed a small nation. Carmen Love, another of Andrew's close friends, supervised the preparation of the other foods: potato salad, baked beans, salad, corn on the cob, and other delicious summertime dishes. Andrew handled the overall hosting duties, a task that kept him in constant motion.
Dressed in a white shirt and cargo shorts, he walked around the house like a captain inspecting a ship. His mission, which he took quite seriously, was to ensure that his guests had everything they wanted and were enjoying themselves. In the family room, which featured a sixty-inch television, he checked that those people gathered on the leather sofas and chairs were enjoying the comedy film he had selected. In the living room, he found three children gawking at the colorful fish swimming in the sixty-gallon saltwater aquarium, and he took the time to explain the species of each aquatic creature. Outside, on the upper level of the deck, a group of his friends and relatives played Spades, and he offered to replenish their drinks. In the entertainment area in the basement, a few of his cousins played a war game, Ghost Recon, on the Sony PlayStation, which was connected to the projection-screen TV. He offered them tips to advance further in the game.
While making his rounds, he cleaned. Grabbed discarded paper cups and plates here, swept crumbs off a table there. He'd learned that the best way to save himself from having a mess on his hands after hosting a gathering was to clean as much as possible throughout the affair-though he had to admit that he was a neat freak, anyway.
He was downstairs in the bar area, peering at the stereo system unit encased in the wall panel, mulling whether to swap his prerecorded "Cookout" CD for a disc of old school jams, when Carmen appeared in the doorway.
At certain moments, seeing Carmen made his pulse throb a little faster. This was one of those times.
Carmen was, in a word, fine. Twenty-eight years old, blessed with smooth bronze skin, she was around five-feet-four, with an athletic figure sculpted from her years as a cheerleader at Clark Atlanta. Her auburn hair was cut in a short, curly style that perfectly framed her face. Warmth and intelligence sparkled in her large honey-brown eyes.
She wore an orange halter top, a denim skirt, and sling back sandals. It was casual clothing, but she couldn't have been more beautiful to Andrew if she'd been wearing a Donna Karan evening dress and Blahnik pumps.
If only they were more than friends ...
"Dang, undress me with your eyes, why don't you, Drew?" Carrying two Styrofoam plates heaped with food, Carmen walked to the bar.
Andrew blushed. "Sorry about that."
Carmen laughed. "I'm kidding. Haven't you learned by now that I enjoy seeing you drool over me?"
"Okay, whatever." He laughed. She laughed, too. But he wondered what she meant by her flirtatious comment. That wasn't the kind of thing you said to someone with whom you shared a platonic relationship. Not if you wanted to keep it that way.
He and Carmen had been friends for five years. They had met at a book club meeting in Decatur, where Andrew had been invited to discuss his first novel. A member of the book club, Carmen had asked the most insightful questions about his story, shared the most thoughtful comments. After the meeting ended, they exchanged E-mail addresses and promised to keep in touch, simply to discuss books on occasion. But they became fast friends and found themselves discussing not only literature, but also everything else in their lives.
They might have begun dating shortly after they met, but Carmen had a boyfriend at the time, and Andrew had recently broken up with someone and wanted to take a hiatus from the dating scene. By the time Carmen ended her relationship, Andrew had started seeing someone else. Then Andrew broke up with his girlfriend, and Carmen already had found another man. They always missed being available for each other as lovers. But they'd developed such a close friendship that Andrew didn't want to risk destroying it by pursuing a romance. She'd become like a sister to him.
Still, sometimes he wondered, what if. Carmen was smart, had a great sense of humor. She was independent, stable, a positive thinker. Had a great career she enjoyed, working as a C.P.A. with a prestigious accounting firm in downtown Atlanta. And she had a generous spirit; this was probably the fifth time that she had gone out of her way to help him host a cookout, and she never asked for anything in return.
What if ...
His thoughts flashed on the memory of what had happened between them last month, while watching a movie at her place. He quickly forced the images out of this mind.
They had a great friendship. He couldn't risk ruining it-in spite of the flirtatious remarks Carmen sometimes made that caused him to wonder about her real feelings for him, too.
She perched on a bar stool. "Here, brought you something to eat."
"Thanks. I haven't eaten yet."
"I figured that. You're so busy making sure everyone else is taken care of, you forgot to eat."
"You know me well." Stepping behind the counter, he pulled a plate toward him, the one loaded with ribs, a hot dog, potato salad, and an ear of corn. Carmen avoided red meat so he knew at a glance which plate was hers.
On the stereo, Will Smith rapped about summertime. Digging into her potato salad, Carmen rocked with the beat, singing softly.
"Thanks for helping me with the cookout," Andrew said. "I couldn't have done it without you, as usual."
"You know I've always got your back." She picked up a piece of chicken, took a small bite. "By the way, your dad called a minute ago. He said he's on his way."
"That's good to know."
"Why'd you say it like that?"
"Things have been weird with him lately, that's all."
"Since the accident?"
"I guess. Mind if we talk about something else?"
"Sorry." She smiled. "So, how about those Braves?"
"You don't watch baseball."
"And? You like to talk about it. I wanted to discuss something you're comfortable with. Think they'll go to the Finals this year?"
"The Finals are basketball. Baseball is the World Series."
"Whatever, you know what I meant."
He smiled in spite of himself. "You're silly."
"You need a little silliness in your life, honey. All work and no play makes Andrew a dull boy."
"What're you saying, that I'm dull?"
"As a butter knife."
"I'm not dull, I'm just serious sometimes."
"Like twenty-four seven."
"So why do you hang out with me?"
"Because you're such a cutie." She pinched his cheek. Her fingers left a smear of barbecue sauce on his skin.
"Thanks." He reached for a napkin.
"My bad, I'll clean it off." She cupped his chin in one hand, and dabbed a napkin at his cheek with the other.
He was acutely aware of the closeness of her; the sweet sexiness of her perfume; the gentleness of her touch; the lushness of her cleavage, accentuated by the gold cross she wore on her necklace.
Their gazes met. Neither of them looked away.
His breath caught in his throat.
Her full lips, colored with crimson lipstick, beckoned to him.
He remembered how it had felt to taste those lips, when they'd crossed the platonic line last month at her place ...
Can't do that again, man. Too risky. Remember, five years of friendship, five years of friendship, five years of friendship ...
"What the hell are you two doing?" a man's voice boomed.
Eric stood in the doorway, fists bunched on his waist. Dark-skinned, six-feet-three and lanky, he wore a white apron with words printed in big red letters: "Don't F%$K with the Cook!"
Andrew looked at Carmen. Her eyes were wide-and embarrassed. Just like he felt.
Why should he feel embarrassed? They hadn't done anything.
But you wanted to. Don't lie.
Eric's face was stern. "I leave you two alone for five minutes, and you're in here about to get freaky on the top of the bar! Don't you understand that there are children here?"
"We weren't doing anything, man," Andrew said, wondering why he was explaining himself to his friend. "Seriously, we-"
Eric broke into a grin.
"I had you two going, didn't I?" He shook with laughter. "Damn, you should've seen the looks on your faces!"
"Always the comedian," Andrew said. "Don't you have some food to grill?"
Eric spread his long arms. "All done, bro. Grill master Patton has done it again." He bowed theatrically. "Thank you, thank you very much."
"But did you clean up after yourself?" Carmen asked. "I remember what you did the last time you barbecued at my house, Eric. You left behind a mess."
Eric made an expression of mock surprise. "Can you believe this woman? How dare you imply that I, Grill master Patton, have neglected my sworn responsibilities as a grill master? Go look for yourself, woman!"
"I think I'll do that." Taking her plate, she left the room, but not before paying Andrew a meaningful glance.
Eric watched her leave, and turned to Andrew. He raised an eyebrow.
"Man, what were you guys doing, anyway?"
"Just fooling around." Andrew bit into the corn.
"You two going to finally get together?"
"We're just friends, same as always. It's not going anywhere else."
"But you want it to."
"Not at the risk of ruining our friendship."
"You've got to be friends before lovers, bro," Eric said. "Y'all have that covered, so why not go for it? Like that song by Jagged Edge-you ain't getting no younger, you might as well do it."
"You act like I'm forty. I'm only thirty-one. I've got plenty of time."
"I don't know what I'm going to do with you." Eric folded his arms on the counter. Thirty-three years old, Eric had been married for seven years, wedding his college sweetheart shortly after he graduated from Emory Law School. He never tired of praising the virtues of life as a married man. "Imagine, bro, having a woman who's got your back-for life," he'd preach to Andrew. "No more of that nonsense you get on the dating scene, dealing with those trifling females playing head games. Marriage is work, no doubt, but there's nothing in the world like sharing your life with a woman who you love. It'll make you a stronger man in ways that you can't even imagine."
Andrew had known Eric for his entire life, ever since their families had lived next door to each other in East Point. Eric was like a big brother to him and often provided wise counsel. But sometimes, he was way off base.
"I've told you, it's not that I don't want to settle down," Andrew said. "I really do. I've been blessed with almost everything that I could want in my life-the successful career, this house, friends like you. A woman would make it all complete."
"But I want to make sure I marry the right woman."
"No doubt." Eric nodded. "But if Ms. Right is already here, why wait? She's not going to wait on you forever."
"She has a man, you know that."
"That buster she's been dating for three months? Please. He's just filling time for her."
"You assume I've already met Ms. Right. What if I haven't?"
"But you have."
"You don't know that."
"Your big brother knows these things. Trust me."
"Trust you? Like the time you hooked me up with that lovely girl who'd been in jail for stabbing her ex-boyfriend?"
"Okay, you got me. She hadn't told me about that."
"Or how about the fine woman you introduced me to who tried to get me to take her and her mama to a movie on our first date?"
"I misjudged her, my bad."
"Or how about the last nubian princess you were so kind to send my way, who ordered two meals at dinner and said she was taking the other one home to eat later?"
"I give up!" Eric threw up his hands. "You win. I've got no business being a matchmaker."
"Exactly. Give it up. I'll meet the right woman one day, and when I do, I'll know it, and I'll marry her. Simple as that."
Punctuating his statement, Andrew picked up the hot dog and bit into it. Mustard squirted onto the front of his white shirt.
Eric laughed. "See, that's what you get for talking shit."
"Very funny. I'll be back. I'm gonna change shirts."
As he climbed the stairs to the second floor, where his bedroom was located, the party sounds faded. He heard an unexpected noise: running water.
It came from the master bedroom.
He frowned. Upstairs was off-limits to guests. It was an unstated but implicit rule that everyone obeyed.
But when he walked inside the bedroom, and from there into the master bathroom, warm mist filled the air. Hot water cascaded into the garden tub. The drain was unplugged.
He hadn't turned on the water. He had lived in this house for eleven months, and he had never bathed in the tub, preferring to use the shower stall.
Who had been in here?
He watched the water gurgle down the drain.
He had no idea who had been in there, or why. It bothered him. Although he enjoyed having guests, he invited them with the stipulation that no one would enter his private space without his permission.
"Must've been a kid, playing around," he said.
He checked to see if anything was out of place. All of the items he expected-toothbrush, colognes, lotion, and other toiletries-lay where he expected to find them on the dual-sink vanity. Nothing was missing.
Still, when he returned downstairs, he'd remind the parents to keep their children from wandering up here.
He opened the walk-in closet, located off the end of the bathroom.
Excerpted from WITHIN THE SHADOWS by BRANDON MASSEY Copyright © 2005 by Brandon Massey. Excerpted by permission.
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