Read an Excerpt
"I can't believe you have another brother and that I have another cousin," Cherise Ransom told Elle as they stood in line for the duck with chocolate sauce that everyone at the wedding reception had been raving about.
"I know," Elle murmured. "It's eleven of us now."
"Well, we call ourselves a clanI guess it's true. Especially with all of the marriages and childrenthere's a bunch of Ransoms running around Los Angeles." Cherise's gaze traveled once more to where Ransom Winters was standing with his bride, Coco, holding court.
"He's definitely related, though," she said. "He looks just like us. I think it's pretty cool that his mother named him Ransom. I guess she wanted him to have his father's name in some way."
Cherise glanced over her shoulder at a woman standing nearby and said in a low voice, "Aunt Amanda sure seems to be taking it well."
Elle gave a slight shrug. "He's not hard to love at all. Ransom is a really neat guy, and he was an instant fit with the family. As for my mama, she wants to leave the past behind. Ransom was conceived when she and my dad were separated."
"Sometimes the past definitely has a way of catching up with you," Cherise responded, staring straight ahead, watching the bride and groom, but her mind was somewhere else, in another place and time.
Elle followed her gaze and said, "Ransom and Coco make a beautiful couple, don't you think?"
Cherise nodded, bringing her thoughts back to the present. "I want someone to come knock me off my feet like that."
"The right guy is going to show up when you least expect it, cousin."
She met Elle's smile with one of her own. "I really hope so. You and Brennen are crazy in love, and you've just had another baby. All of you well, all except Ivy, are deliriously happy. To be honest with you, sometimes I get a little sad being around all the love and happiness."
"Now you sound like Ivy," Elle pointed out with a light chuckle.
"See, that's who I need to start hanging out with," Cherise said. "She and I are on the same page. We can be lonely together."
Elle passed on the chocolate-dusted scallops with vanilla butter sauce, while Cherise decided to give them a try. "Not too much," she told the server. "Thanks."
Cherise made her way back to the table, following Elle. She sat down next to her.
"Girl, there's so much chocolate at this reception, I can feel myself putting on pounds. You know that's the last thing I need right now," Cherise said, picking up one of the elegantly designed boxes of chocolate truffles.
"You need to stop that, Cherise," Elle told her. "You look beautiful."
"She sure does," a man said from behind them.
Cherise turned around in her chair. "Hi, Daddy." She rose to her feet to give her father a hug.
"Uncle Jules, where have you been?" Elle asked. "I tried to call you last week."
"I was in Raleigh, North Carolina. An old friend of mine is terminally ill, and so a bunch of us decided to go up and spend some time with him." He stroked his daughter's shoulder. "I've told you about talk like that, Cherise. And look at your plate. You hardly have anything on it."
"Don't get me wrong, I'm happy with the way I look," she quickly explained. "But I can't just go crazy when it comes to food. I want to be healthy and keep off the extra pounds, so I eat smaller portions. I'm a full-figured gal and proud of it." Cherise sat back down.
Elle hugged her. "I'm so proud of you. I remember when you came to live with us and how much your weight bothered you. You've grown up to be this beautiful and extremely confident woman, and now you're helping other girls do the same."
"I'm just trying to get them to focus on being a size healthy versus a size four." Cherise was proud of her work as a counselor at the Darlene Sheppard Center, a therapeutic community for overweight children and teens.
Her father spent a few more minutes with them before moving on to talk to some of the other guests. Cherise was glad to see him, although he stayed on the gohad always been that way, which is one of the reasons her parents had divorced. The other was that he loved women and hadn't been exactly faithful, but Cherise loved her father in spite of his flaws. Out of all of her siblings, she was the closest to him.
The newlyweds gradually made their way over to where Elle and Cherise were sitting.
"Congratulations," Cherise said. She wiped her mouth on the cloth napkin before continuing. "The ceremony was beautiful."
Ransom gave her a hug. "What's up, cousin? I just met your sister."
"Jazz wasn't sure she was going to make it," Cherise responded. "But she really wanted to meet you. Coco, you look stunning."
"I was about to tell you the same thing," she responded. "Cherise, how are the girls?"
Coco was referring to the teenagers Cherise counseled at the center. She had taken them on a tour of the Stanley Chocolates factory, which was owned by Coco's family, and for drinking chocolate at the Chocolate Bar next door, owned by Coco.
"They have their challenges," she answered. "But I'm trying to work with them."
"Cherise, when Coco and I get back, I'd like to talk to you about working with the structured day program," Ransom said. "I've wanted to get something started for girls."
She nodded. "We'll definitely talk when you get back."
When they walked away, Elle turned to Cherise and asked, "So are you going on the family cruise with us next month? We're going to the Mediterranean this year."
"You guys are all coupled off," Cherise responded. "I tried to get Jazz to go with me, but she's not going to be able to, so I think I'm going to sit this one out. Besides, the ship is probably full by now."
"Ivy's going," Elle said. "She booked a family suite because we thought more were coming, but some people had to back out."
Cherise shook her head. "I think I'm going to just wait for the next one. I'm not prepared to go on a cruise this year."
"Please come on the cruise so that I'll have somebody to hang out with, Cherise," Ivy Ransom, one of Elle's sisters, said as she joined them. "It's just me and the girls in a huge suite. You can stay with us."
She was still undecided. Cherise enjoyed being with her cousins, but she often felt like the odd man out, because most of them were married or involved in a committed relationship. Her brother Julian was going on the cruise and taking some girl he'd recently started dating. Ivy was divorced and bitterCherise didn't want to hear her complaining the entire trip. If she decided to go, she wanted to have fun.
"I have to think about this for a moment," Cherise said.
"Well, I've already paid for someone and she's not going to be able to go, so just let me know if you can go in her place. I'll call the cruise line to change the information." Ivy sat down at the table with them. She glanced over her shoulder at the man sitting beside her mother and said, "I still can't believe Mama brought a date to the wedding. First she brings him to the Valentine's Day dinner and now he's showing up for the family dinners on Sunday. What exactly is going on between her and Mr. Ragland?"
"Mama told me that they were just friends," Elle said. "I know that he's a prominent attorney and seems to be a nice man. He lost his wife a few years back."
"I don't want him hurting Mom," Ivy snapped.
"I don't think there's anything to worry about," Elle responded. "Mr. Ragland seems to be quite infatuated with Mama. Look at himhe can't keep his eyes off her."
"Even Aunt Amanda can get a manI know I need to step up my game," Cherise said with a chuckle.
"Mama's still sexy," Elle said, laughing softly. "Don't be fooled by that cane. She's still got her groove."
"Oh, Lord," Ivy muttered, shaking her head. "Please tell me that our oh-so-Christian mother is not sleeping with Mr. Ragland."
Cherise hid her smile behind her napkin at the horrified expression on Ivy's face. She could be such a prude sometimes.
"I don't think she is, but since I don't live at home anymore I don't really know for sure. But Ivy even if she isshe's a grown woman," Elle told her sister.
Ivy stood up with purpose. "I'm going to have a talk with her."
"Do it at your own risk," Elle warned. "I'm going to stay over here and just mind my own business."
"Me, too," Cherise intoned.
Her uncle had died a long time ago, so Cherise was glad to see her aunt Amanda enjoying the company of a man.
Ivy sat back down. "Mom can take care of herself, I suppose. But back to you, Cherise. I really hope you'll come on the cruise. I don't want to be the only single person in the clan."
Cherise excused herself to make a visit to the ladies' room, where she eyed her reflection. She was five nine and full-figuredno doubt about that. Her flawless mahogany complexion was devoid of heavy makeup, and her dark brown hair fell past her shoulders in waves. She wasn't bad-looking. She just wasn't one of those thin types that a lot of men seemed to love.
Cherise thought about her options. She believed her Mr. Right was somewhere closemaybe he'd be aboard the Emerald Princess. That's how her cousin Laine had met his wife. But even if he wasn't, looking was part of the fun, she decided as she thought about the scores of men that would be on the ship.
When she returned to the table, Cherise announced, "Okay, I've made a decision."
"This is their existing facility," Steven Chambers began as he pointed to a photograph on the board. "There's about thirteen thousand square feet of space. They're entering into a major facility expansion of about forty thousand square feet of building space on the new site. I'm going in this afternoon to present the new design to the church executive board to get their feedback."
His supervisor nodded in approval. "The pastor of this church is a good friend of mine. It's important that we know exactly what he wants to achieve in this project."
"I started doing a schematic design after I spoke with Pastor Wilkins last week," Steven said, "but before I finish it, I need more information."
"Wilkins was very impressed with the new Holton Building, and he insisted on having you as the lead on this project."
Steven straightened his tie and smiled. "Thanks, Randall. After my meeting this afternoon, I'm off for the next fourteen days. I'm really looking forward to this vacation."
"Enjoy," Randall said. "You've earned it."
Steven left his supervisor's office and took the stairs down to the parking garage situated in downtown Los Angeles. He entered the freeway and headed toward Inglewood to meet with Pastor Wilkins and his staff.
In a few days he would be aboard the Emerald Princess, cruising toward the Mediterranean. The last time he went on vacation was with his ex-girlfriend. It had been almost six months since that relationship ended. He had cared deeply for the woman but knew that they had no future, especially since she already had a husband in northern California. Steven had had no idea that he was involved with a married woman until her husband confronted him.
His cell phone rang, the custom ring tone letting him know that it was his favorite aunthis other momwho was calling.
Steven grinned as he clicked on the speakerphone. "Aunt Eula Mae, how's life in Ghana?" She and her husband had been living there for the past ten years because of his work.
"It's still beautiful here," she responded. "But I'm ready to come back to the States. I miss y'all so much."
"Mama and I were just talking about you yesterday," he said. "We miss you too. I thought Uncle Jerome was planning to retire this year."
She released a long sigh. "I thought so too, but I guess we both were wrong. Jerome wants to stay here for another year. That man is tapping on my last nerve with this job of his. I've told him that I'm leaving him."
Steven laughed. "Aunt Eula Mae, you're not going anywhere."
"I'm ready to come back to the States. Hey, you haven't gotten married on me yet, have you?"
He laughed. "You know I haven't. I can't get married until you meet her. I don't know what it is about you and Mom, but you can definitely spot toxic women." They had both warned him about all the ones he dated and, as it turned out, they'd been right on the money. Steven trusted his aunt and mom because they had been wonderful role models for him, and he respected their opinions.
Steven chatted with his aunt for most of the drive home.
"I'm here at the church, Aunt Eula Mae. I'll give you a call back before I leave for Barcelona tonight. I'm flying there a few days early so that I can spend some time in Spain before the cruise."
"Have fun, hon."
He smiled. "I intend to do just that."
Steven disconnected the call and shut off the car.
Humming softly, he got out of the car and headed inside the church. Once the presentation was over, Steven planned to stop home long enough to change into something comfortable and grab his luggage and passport, then drive to the airport. He was looking forward to this cruise.
"Well, look at you, Cherise," Elle said when they were in Bloomingdale's at the Beverly Center. "And you were worried about wearing a swimsuit. Girl, you look good."
"Elle, are you sure?" Cherise peered into the mirror, staring critically at her curvy size fourteen torso, and even she had to admit the black one-piece swimsuit with ruching and well-placed ruffles flattered her full figure. "I guess it doesn't look bad."
She smiled over the fact that she looked younger than her twenty-five years. "No, not bad at all. So, are you ready to wow everyone on the cruise ship and the Mediterranean, cousin?"
Elle picked up a neon-green swimsuit and responded, "Not quite. I like this one, but it's a little too bright for me."
Cherise stole one last glimpse at the mirror. "Okay, I'm getting this one."
When she walked out of the dressing room, Cherise and Elle strolled up to the counter and paid for the items Cherise had selected for the cruise. They left the boutique and walked down the street to a nearby restaurant for lunch.
"I don't know why I waited until the last minute to shop for the cruise. When did I decide to go?"