Born to a white mother and an African-American father, Dallas Oliver has always felt like an outsider. Life gets more complicated when her mother dies and she moves in with her father and stepmother. The one saving grace is Dallas’s unexpected friendship with a white girl named Valerie Holland. Decades later, they’re still best friends. Dallas is a journalist for a controversial magazine and Valerie is a single mother. But their bond will be tested when they fall in love with the same man.
Ex–Navy SEAL Alex Marco and Dallas both have histories shadowed by violence. But Alex is also haunted by his own tragedy. Narrated from the alternating perspectives of Dallas, Valerie, and Alex, Between Friends is a sensual, unforgettable story about friendship, secrets, and a love that transcends barriers.
|Open Road Media
|Barnes & Noble
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The volume on the telephone was as low as it could be, and still its trilling sound startled her ruthlessly from sleep. Her mind, suspended somewhere in an unfinished dream, quickly shifted into semiconsciousness. She reached for the receiver before the phone could ring a second time.
Something must be wrong.
"Hi, Dallas. It's ... me," came back the deep and throaty answer.
Dallas recognized the voice on the other end. "Val, what's wrong? It's not Megan Marie, is it? Your family?"
As she asked the question Dallas pulled herself up into a half-sitting position, her shoulders supported by pillows and the headboard. She glanced at the green-illuminated digital numbers on the clock radio: 1:53 A.M.
There was sniffling and genuine distress, and the answer, when it finally came, was muffled through the folds of a Kleenex or handkerchief.
"No, no. Everyone is fine."
Dallas unclenched the muscles in her neck and thighs. Her body relaxed. She swung her legs from the bed, pulling back the covers. "Hold on a minute. I'm going to switch phones."
She put the call on hold and replaced the receiver. Once out of the bed she searched in the dark through the pile of clothing tossed haphazardly on the chair and floor. She found something large with sleeves and quickly thrust her arms into them. Dallas didn't bother to button the shirt, but wrapped it instead acrossher breasts as she left the room and closed the door behind her. She padded barefoot down a short hallway and into the living room, expertly sidestepping the edge of the wicker trunk that served as a coffee table. She let out a sleepy yawn and climbed onto the sofa, settling into a corner and digging her toes under a cushion. Slouching down comfortably, Dallas reached for the extension, prepared to listen to Valerie Holland's latest complaint or problem.
"You still there?" Dallas asked, fitting the phone between ear and shoulder.
"Yeah, I'm here."
"You just about gave me a heart attack, Val. I won't even remind you what time it is."
"I'm sorry. I ... I didn't even think about the time. Did I interrupt anything?"
"Just my sleep. Not that it would have mattered to you anyway," Dallas responded.
She absently massaged her fingertips through her scalp, pulling and playing with the short, curly locks. Valerie never thought about the time. Dallas had learned that she either had to keep up with Valerie's schedule or miss half the adventure.
"What's wrong now? Did Matthew change his mind again about leaving his wife?" She heard a soft mewling sound and realized that Valerie was crying.
"Just don't say I told you so," Valerie said in a watery voice.
"I don't have to. You knew all along what could happen. You know better than to get involved with a married man. Don't you read Ladies' Home Journal?" Dallas teased wryly. "They always go back to their wives, and you get hurt."
"It ... it's not Matthew. I haven't even seen him in weeks. I'm glad we don't work together anymore."
"Okay. So you're not broken up over Matthew. You didn't wake me up at almost two in the morning to tell me what a bastard he is."
Valerie sniffed. "No ..." She started to cry again in earnest.
Dallas's eyes opened abruptly. She stared into the dark and frowned. "Val?" she prompted.
"Nicholas is dead," Val sobbed.
For a moment the only thing Dallas could hear was the sounds of Valerie's distress. Everything else was so quiet, like a void around the crying. The confusion she was suddenly experiencing had nothing to settle on.
"Nicholas ..." Dallas repeated blankly, as if testing the sound of the name. For a moment Dallas had no idea who Valerie was talking about. Her memory sifted through all of Valerie's boyfriends over the past several years.
"Who ... who did you say?"
"Nicholas! Nicholas Marco. He's dead. He's dead," Valerie said impatiently, as if it should mean something significant to Dallas.
Dallas was not fully awake. She leaned forward to grab an ecru knit afghan from a basket on the floor next to the sofa and attempted to spread it over herself. She wished she'd taken time to put on a robe. She felt a chill as goose bumps rose on her limbs. Her mind began leafing through a mental file, a chronology of childhood events, of incidents and occasions between herself and Nicholas Marco. The list was short and select. She'd actively tried to stay out of his way.
Still, there had been times, like that Tuesday afternoon, when the details remained crystal clear. Even then what most often came to mind had less to do with Nicholas and the attempted rape than with the other person so fatefully present that day.
Alex. He'd appeared out of nowhere to save her.
So, Nicholas Marco was dead.
For Dallas the announcement resurrected deep-seated feelings. Sympathy wasn't one of them. Vin must be beside himself, she speculated silently. And poor Lillian ...
"When did it happen? How?" Dallas asked, feeling neither shock nor sorrow.
"Sometime last night, I think. I got a call from Mom. She heard from Sylvia Campbell. You remember her? That retired schoolteacher whose house is behind the Marcos'. She saw a cop car come to the house around ten o'clock. She told my mother she could hear Lillian screaming ..."
Dallas squeezed her eyes tightly closed, and felt a strong wave of sympathy for the woman. "Bad news spreads quickly," she murmured.
"That's what happens in a neighborhood when everyone knows everyone else's business. I swear if I ever commit a crime, five people on the block will know about it before I'm booked."
"So how did he die? Was Nicholas sick or something?" There was a pause and then more quiet tears. Dallas was starting to lose patience with Val. She didn't understand all this weeping over Nicholas Marco.
"No ..." Valerie croaked. "He ... he was out at some party and got tanked. Then he insisted he could drive home. You know how Nicholas was. Always trying to show how macho he was. Can you believe he'd be so stupid?"
"Yes," Dallas responded flatly, although she doubted Valerie had heard or was even actually expecting an answer.
"He was with someone. Not his wife, of course. Or should I say his almost ex-wife. Some bimbo. Mom said she walked away with whiplash and a few broken nails. Can you believe that? She had her seat belt on."
"Then she wasn't a bimbo," Dallas said dryly.
"Forget her," Valerie said, annoyed. "What about Nicholas, for Christ's sake? We grew up with him."
"We lived in the same community," Dallas corrected. "Other than that I had nothing in common with Nicholas Marco. He didn't like black people."
"I don't know if I believe that."
"How could you forget the stuff that went on the year my family moved into the neighborhood, Val? The racial slurs spray-painted on our garage door? Remember your folks taking Dean and me in for a week so my parents didn't have to worry about us while the police investigated? We heard talk that Nicholas and his friends were involved."
"No one ever saw him do anything. Anyway, it was just talk. He was a kid."
"Old enough to be dangerous. And I was ..." Dallas stopped abruptly.
Valerie made an impatient sound through the phone. "Don't tell me you were scared of him. He acted tough, but he really wasn't."
"How do you know that?"
"Look, it doesn't matter anymore. Your family was like everyone else in the neighborhood."
No, we weren't, Dallas thought stubbornly. She knew there was no way that Valerie could understand the effects of the reign of terror her family had gone through for those first months. The past was even more complicated than that because no one knew about what she alone had to endure. She got it from both sides, like working double duty: for being black ... and not being black enough. As if it were her fault that her mother was white.
Dallas suddenly realized that her body was tense. She was a little surprised that she still harbored an intense dislike of Nicholas. It had been years since she had seen him, years since he had even remotely been a threat to her, and now he no longer existed. But that didn't offer much relief. There was always going to be someone like him. Different people ... same issues. There was a lot Valerie didn't know or understand.
Valerie blew her nose. Dallas grimaced and shook her head. "I don't understand what you're carrying on about. You never had much good to say about Nicholas, either."
"He wasn't so bad."
"You're only saying that because he's dead."
"Dallas, don't be that way. He was kinda cute. I thought he was funny ..."
"He was a jerk."
"You don't understand," Valerie said, no longer crying but her voice still husky with emotion.
"No, I don't."
"We used to tease each other. You know. He'd try to come on to me and say things like, is your father sober this week. And I'd tell him he smelled like garlic. He'd say, for someone Irish I was pretty. And I'd say, for someone Italian he was smart."
"Which one of you was telling the truth?"
Valerie reluctantly laughed.
It did no good, Dallas realized, to attack the dubious character of Nicholas Marco. Maybe it was easier for Valerie to remember Nicholas more fondly because they were both white.
"There's going to be a wake Friday night. What time can you get out here?" Valerie asked.
"There's probably going to be two viewing times. I'd rather go to the early one. More people will be there."
"I'm not going."
"What do you mean, you're not going?"
"I mean, I'm not going. I don't want to be there."
"Come on, Dallas. You can't not be there. It'll look strange. Everyone will notice."
"And no one will care. Especially not Nicholas's family."
"I don't want to go alone. I can't just walk in there, look at him laid out all stiff and everything, and ... and not ..." Valerie's voice quavered.
"Valerie, look ... it's obvious that Nicholas's death has really shaken you up. I'm sorry. I didn't know you had that much feeling for him."
"It's just that Nicholas was always there, you know? He was part of our lives, good or bad."
"Well, I think the best way for me to respect his memory is to stay away."
"Look, everyone knows you're friendly with Lillian. If you don't come, people are going to wonder why. You don't have to stay long, just please come." Valerie's urging ended on a plaintive note.
Dallas knew Valerie was attempting to manipulate the situation. But of course, she knew she had to go. Lillian was her friend, and she cared about what she might be going through. Lillian deserved the respect accorded her as a grieving mother.
"All right ... I'll come ..."
"Just don't expect me to cry and say anything, Valerie."
"I won't, but you'll feel different once you're there. Are you going to take the train back into the city or stay over?"
"I don't know. Depends on how late this is going to last."
"Why don't you stay with me?"
Dallas chuckled. "Not if you're going to spend the night wailing about Nicholas Marco."
When Dallas got off the phone, it was almost three a.m. but she was not inclined to go back to sleep. She felt strangely wired. Not the kind that comes from shock or bad news, but the kind born of speculation. She hardly ever went back to the old neighborhood anymore. Despite having been raised there for some fifteen years, it was not a place she remembered with fondness.
Dallas stretched out completely on the sofa and wrapped herself thoroughly in the afghan. It would have made more sense to return to the bedroom, but she couldn't. She listened to the silence of her apartment, letting both a sense of disquiet and pensive reflections engulf her. No matter how far she tried to get away from the past, she was irrevocably tied to it. Everything from the past was the foundation for who she was in her life, even in that very moment.
Dallas remembered vividly that she had been six years old the first time anyone ever called her a nigger. Nicholas Marco had been the one. She understood the power of the slur in the way it had been said, and the way it made her feel. Very small. Almost invisible. It put her in her place, and made Nicholas feel strong and righteous.
Dallas sighed. She hadn't supposed that her family moving into North Lakewood, a predominately white middle-class neighborhood on the southern shore of Long Island, was going to mean being scared all the time. There were people there who hated them.
She remembered her father sitting at the window all night staring out into the dark street. It made no sense when they returned home from shopping one Saturday to find that every single window in their house had been broken. Dallas didn't understand why anyone would put sugar in her father's gas tank or set fire to their garbage. But she remembered the names of certain people being whispered, Nicholas Marco among them. Dallas recalled her father's stern warning to stay away from the Marco house. She could still hear the way her father had answered in frustration and anger when she'd asked why.
"Because they don't like black folks, that's why."
She hadn't understood what that meant when she was six years old. She didn't realize she was black until then.
The next year when she was seven was the first time she'd met any of the Marco family. It happened because of the mail. Several pieces addressed to Vincent C. Marco had been mistakenly delivered to their house. Coming home from school one afternoon, she'd been informed by her stepmother, Eleanor, that she had to take the mail back to the Marco house.
"Me?" she squeaked, her eyes huge and round.
"Yes. Just put it in their mailbox in front of the house. Then come on back," Eleanor instructed her.
"But I'm scared of them," Dallas whined.
Eleanor was a little impatient. "You walk past that house every day on the way to school. Those people are not going to do a thing to you. You're a child."
Dallas was not reassured. She wanted to ask Eleanor why she couldn't go instead. What if she went over there and never came back?
"Can Dean come with me?"
family? You one of them?"
Dallas stared at him, wondering what she had done wrong. She nodded.
He looked closely at her face, doubt and confusion passing fleetingly over his pale features. And then the full power of his age gathered force within him. His mouth curled derisively.
"Nigger ..." he muttered. "This is my house. What the fuck do you want?"
More than anything else, Dallas remembered what he'd called her. She couldn't even think how to answer because she was just hearing that word hurled at her and she felt as if she'd just been punched in the chest. It sunk in and gripped her heart and tried to squeeze the life out of her. It was the first time Dallas had ever come face-to-face with someone who disliked her on sight. For no reason.
She retrieved the soiled and wet mail and held it out to him. "Here," she said in a small voice.
He continued to look at her calmly, perhaps waiting for her reaction to his words. But Dallas just stared back, trying to decide what she would do if he hit her or called her more names. Then a door opened behind her.
"Nicky? What's going on? Who is that child?"
The boy looked beyond her, and Dallas turned her head as well. Half of the double front doors to the brick house was open, and a lady stood squinting out at them. Nicky walked past Dallas and through the gate.
"One of those black kids. She had our mail ..."
Dallas watched as the woman said something admonishing to the boy. He swept past her into the house.
When the woman turned her attention to her, Dallas froze, expecting more terrible things to be said to her. But the woman smiled. She stretched out her hand and beckoned.
"Come here, will you?"
Dallas didn't move. She imagined that she was going to be dragged inside and something awful would happen to her. She kept her eyes on the woman but began to walk along the fence, back in the direction of home. The woman stepped out of the door. She laughed lightly.
"It's all right, child. I'm not going to hurt you. I want you to take something home with you. To your parents."
Dallas stopped, considering the quiet and pleasant voice and words. Cautiously she approached the gate. She took a hesitant step through the opening and stopped again. The woman waved her hand furiously.
"Hurry! It's cold out here." She turned and walked into the house, but left the door open.
Curiosity propelled Dallas forward. The woman had told her not to be afraid. She was inviting her into what had previously been a mystery. It made Dallas feel special.
When she reached the door, the woman had returned. Close up Dallas realized that she wasn't very tall. And she didn't look very old. Her hair was a dark blond, pulled back into a bun, and made her skin look very white. The woman reminded her of someone. Her smile and pale skin. The kindness in her eyes. She smiled again and held out a stack of papers to Dallas.
"I'm so glad you came over. Did your mother send you?" she said.
"She's not my real mother," Dallas found herself responding.
"Oh ..." the woman said in surprise. "Well, anyway, I have some mail for your family, too. I was going to send Nicky, but hewellnever mind. Here ..."
Dallas recognized her father's name on the top envelope. And she could see that the house numbers were close enough to easily confuse on a quick glance. 469 as opposed to 496 Chatham Street.
"And this is for you, for being nice enough to bring the mail over."
She held out her hand, and Dallas stared at the blue-wrapped candy. She wondered quickly if her father's instructions to never take anything from people she didn't know extended to this woman who lived just three blocks away.
"Go on, take it. It's mint candy."
Dallas made her own decision and took the three pieces from the woman's hand.
"Nicky said your name is Dallas. Is that right?"
"Yes." Dallas nodded softly, finally seeing a similarity between this woman and the one kneeling in front of the house.
"Well, I'm Lillian Marco. Nicky's mother. Now you and I know each other. The next time, you just come on up to the door and ring the bell, okay?"
Dallas nodded, although she wasn't sure she would ever return. But she did feel better. She felt acceptance in the warmly spoken words, even though she herself was still afraid to say anything. The woman suddenly reached out. Dallas flinched as the woman's hand cupped her chin and lifted her face. She blinked as the woman continued to stare into her face with a frown. For a moment Dallas wondered if she was going to repeat that word her son had used and push her away. But instead the woman smiled at her before releasing her, then hugged herself against the cold. "You better get on home, now."
Dallas slogged through the snow back to her house. She squeezed her gloved hand tightly, so the blue-wrapped mint candy wouldn't fall out. She wasn't going to tell Eleanor about it, certain that she would take them and throw them away.
* * *
"Dallas? Hey ... what are you doing out here?"
Dallas frowned, disoriented by the voice. She rolled toward the sound but was slow in opening her eyes. When she did, she saw a handsome face close to hers, its brown features still soft from recent sleep. The well-shaped mouth under the trimmed full mustache was grimacing in confusion.
"I'm fine," she sighed, closing her eyes briefly.
Excerpted from BETWEEN FRIENDS by Sandra Kitt. Copyright © 1998 by Sandra Kitt. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.