“When I read a Tiffany L. Warren novel I know I’m going to get two things—a riveting story and a faith boost!” –ReShonda Tate Billingsley
Scarred by poverty and life with a crackhead mother, Onika Lewis had a rough start. Still, thanks to her sharp mind, and hard work, she graduated with honors from a prestigious college. But her achievements weren’t enough to earn her the elite status she craved. So she leveraged her gorgeous looks to become a rich man’s trophy…and was eventually dumped her for a younger model. Now Onika is unemployed, broke—and homeless. She’s making a fresh start through a unique women’s shelter, but when she meets Graham, a kind-hearted commuter with whom she has an instant connection, she can’t bring herself to tell him her secret…
Suddenly Onika has someone who cares about who she is beyond her looks. Graham’s unselfish love gives her the kind of hope she’s never had. But when Onika’s wealthy ex wants her back, she plays one deception too many trying to have it all. Now present lies and past secrets are tearing her world apart. And Onika will need to educate herself once more—to learn what really matters, find faith, forgiveness—and build a life she truly deserves.
Praise for Tiffany L. Warren’s novels
“Filled with love, betrayal, heartbreak and forgiveness.” Kimberla Lawson Roby on The Favorite Son
“Highly entertaining. Captivating and compelling. Great book club option.” USAToday.com on The Replacement Wife
“In a fine blend of suspense and inspirational fiction, Warren spins an entertaining tale about folks misbehaving behind the pulpit in a modern African American church.” Library Journal on The Pastor’s Husband
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About the Author
Tiffany L. Warren is an author, playwright, songwriter, mother and wife. Her debut novel, What a Sista Should Do, was released in June of 2005. Her second book, Farther than I Meant to Go, Longer than I Meant to Stay, was a national bestseller. She is also the author of The Bishop's Daughter, In The Midst of It All, Don’t Tell a Soul and The Replacement Wife. In 2006, Tiffany and her husband, Brent, founded Warren Productions and released gospel musicals, What a Sista Should Do and The Replacement Wife. Tiffany is the visionary behind the Faith and Fiction Retreat. Tiffany resides in northern Texas with her husband, Brent, and their five children. Visit her online at www.TiffanyLWarren.com.
Read an Excerpt
Her Secret Life
By TIFFANY L. WARREN
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Tiffany L. Warren
All rights reserved.
Ten years ago ...
Onika's hands trembled as she opened the letter. She'd done exactly as her guidance counselor had instructed. She'd taken advanced placement classes and gotten all A's. She'd joined the Key Club and was elected to Student Council. She'd even run for class secretary and won. So she wasn't worried about the response from the elite, all-women's Robinson University, the top college on her list. She was worried about the after.
What would happen after she told her mother and grandmother?
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she mouthed the first word on the page. Congratulations.
She kept reading, and when she got to the words "full-ride scholarship," the sobs came strong and fast. Uncontrollable.
She was going to be a Robinette. She was going to stroll on the yard wearing her sorority colors of pink and blue (because she would only pledge Epsilon Phi Beta). She was going to law school, where she'd meet her future husband. Or maybe she'd meet him at a brother college because he was going to medical school.
Onika played and replayed her fantasy in her mind as she took the ninety-seven steps from her grandmother's mailbox to the house on the corner, where she would find her mother.
Onika made her way up the dusty path to the front porch of the dilapidated shack. One good North Carolina tropical storm could probably blow it over. Onika never remembered there being grass. It had always been only dirt, rocks, and glass. And she'd been walking these ninety-seven steps her entire life.
She pushed open the unlocked front door. No need to lock the doors to hell. No one would go in willingly, except a kindred spirit to the wretched souls already inside.
Onika knew the place well. She knew every room and, unfortunately, every corner. She knew the regular inhabitants, and she knew when there was a visitor. The visitors were dangerous. They didn't know that Judy was her mama, or worse, they knew and didn't care. After a few narrow escapes from being molested, Onika avoided the strangers in the house.
The scent in the house was hard to describe, but Onika thought it was something like melting crayons. It was a little sweet, hot, and desperate. The whole house smelled like decay. Not death, but the rotting stench of the barely living.
"Judy," Onika called, "where are you?"
Onika hoped that her mother, Judy, was either down from her high or that she hadn't taken her first puff. If she was in the middle of a full-blown high, sharing her news would be pointless. Onika wanted to see the look on Judy's face when she learned that every curse she had ever hurled at her baby girl was canceled.
Onika heard a grunt that she recognized as her mother's. She followed the sound to the back bedroom.
Judy sat on the edge of a ragged, threadbare mattress in only her panties. Her breasts hung to her waist like two ebony pendulums. Judy's wig rested beside her on the mattress and next to a naked, sleeping man.
Judy looked up at her daughter. "What you doing here, Onika? Didn't your grandmama tell you to stay out from around here?"
"I came looking for you."
"I ain't got no money."
"I'm not looking for any money. I came to tell you that I got into Robinson University, and I get to go for free."
"Where's that? Raleigh?"
Judy shook her head and stomped her feet as she cackled. "You ain't going to no Atlanta."
"How you doing that?" Judy's cackle got louder.
"I got a scholarship."
Judy slapped her male friend on the thigh. "Cole, wake up. My daughter going to college in Atlanta."
Cole grumbled and rolled over on his back, giving Onika a full view of his man parts. For some reason, Judy found this funny but threw a dirty blanket over him that she found on the floor.
"You think you something, going away to school, huh? Well, you ain't no better than me. You've always thought you were better, but you ain't."
Onika looked at the floor and dropped the hand holding the letter to her side. "I don't think I'm better."
"You do. 'Cause you're light-skinned and got that curly hair like yo' Puerto Rican daddy."
Judy always talked about Onika's father with a hint of bragging and a haughty air. Almost like she was proud of getting pregnant by him when she was a dark and overweight woman with dry, kinky hair. Somehow, she'd been able to pull a Puerto Rican pimp, and he put his seed inside her.
He hadn't stuck around to see the flower bloom.
"Mama, you need to come home. Grandma is gonna be looking for you in a little bit."
"She knows where I am. She ain't gotta come looking for me."
Onika's grandmother, Earlene, refused to accept that her daughter was a drug addict. She always just said that her daughter was sick. Whenever anyone mentioned rehab to Earlene, she'd say Judy needed a touch from the Lord. Onika watched her grandmother go up for prayer every Sunday at their church. She'd prayed and fasted. Fasted and prayed. And then when Onika was old enough, Earlene made her pray and fast, too.
Onika remembered being on her knees at the altar, next to her grandmother. Earlene had crafted a little prayer, and she'd taught it to her grandchild. Onika knew the prayer before she knew her ABCs.
Jesus be a balm. A balm in Gilead. Heal her by your stripes. By your stripes she is healed.
For hours they'd pray. If Judy had stayed out all Saturday night, all Sunday afternoon Earlene and Onika offered up prayers. Long after service let out, the two of them would stay at the altar, saying their prayer. No. Chanting the words. Until it sounded more like an incantation than a prayer. Until the old wooden church floor splintered beneath Onika's knees. She'd wanted to cry out every time, but she was afraid that, if she broke the prayer, Judy wouldn't be healed.
Onika kept going to the altar until she was twelve years old. That's when she'd stopped believing a healing was coming.
But for some reason, now Onika whispered the words of those childhood prayers as she watched her mother examine a piece of debris on the floor, probably checking to see if it was a crack rock.
Jesus be a balm. A balm in Gilead. Heal her by your stripes. By your stripes she is healed.
She didn't know why she suddenly had the urge to pray. It was the strangest thing. But nothing had changed. The prayer was as ineffective as ever. Judy finally found a bit of the drug hiding in the filthy carpet. Long past the point of being ashamed in front of her daughter, she scrambled to her pipe to take another hit.
Onika vowed to never say that prayer again.CHAPTER 2
Onika left her mother feeling numb. It had been a very long time since Judy's drug addiction bothered her.
There was no reason to be embarrassed about it anymore. Everyone in town knew Judy got high. They knew she slept with men for money to feed her habit. Nothing about Judy was a secret in Goldsboro, North Carolina.
Grandma was waiting for her on the porch. Anytime Onika got home a few minutes late, Grandma feared the worst.
"Where you been, gal?" Grandma asked, hands on her hips and eyebrows furrowed.
Although Onika had inherited her facial features from her Latino father, she'd gotten her body from Grandma. At sixty-four, she still had an hourglass figure. Her perky breasts and behind defied gravity, probably because the only time she took off her bra and girdle was to bathe.
"I went to tell my mother I got into Robinson University."
"You went to tell your mother, huh?" Grandma mimicked Onika's clipped diction and shook her head. "Your mama probably didn't even know what you were saying. I done told you to stay yo' behind outta that crack house. Don't say nothing, you wind up raped."
Onika didn't argue with her grandmother. That was always a waste of breath and energy. It was impossible to win, and sometimes dangerous when she had a blunt object in her hand.
"Robinson University. You done let that white woman at that school fill your head up with foolishness. Why are you going to college all the way in Atlanta? There are plenty good schools right here in North Carolina."
"This is the top school for young black women, Grandma. And I have a full scholarship. They are paying for everything."
Onika was careful to keep her tone nonconfrontational. She wasn't arguing. Not really. She was just stating the facts. Plus, she was going to Robinson no matter what her grandmother said.
"Everything? How you getting there, huh?" Grandma asked. "How you getting home for the holidays? How you putting clothes on your back?"
Onika knew that this would be her grandmother's reaction. Her world was consumed with Judy and making sure Judy was okay. Supposedly, Onika's father was the one who got Judy hooked on drugs to begin with. Grandma sometimes treated Onika as if she was an extension of her father. Only gave just enough so that no one could say she abandoned her granddaughter.
"I will figure it out," Onika said. "I will work hard and save my money."
"And who's gonna see 'bout your mama?"
"I ain't gonna be here forever. When I'm gone, it's on you."
Onika disagreed. The burden of having a drug addict for a mama was more than enough adversity for a young woman. She was not going to live the rest of her life pulling her mother out of drug houses when she refused to get well.
"I can't worry about that now. If I stay here, I'm gonna end up like her. Ain't nothing in Goldsboro for me."
"You ain't nothing like her. Your mama has a sickness, but she has a good heart. She loved yo' serpent father with every bone in her body. With every joint, blood vessel, and organ she loved that man. You ain't like her. You only love yourself."
"That's not true."
"Who do you love, then? Not me, not your mama. Not if you would leave me here with her when you can help. You can go to college less than an hour away. Don't nobody care what college you go to long as you get a degree."
"This school is elite."
"You ain't elite. Yo' mama on crack. Yo' daddy died from AIDS 'cause he liked men, women, and drugs. You ain't got but two bras and three pairs of panties. You ain't elite. You as low as they come. But even the lowest of the low takes care of their mama."
The words wounded Onika deeply, but she had known the conversation would go this way. She'd expected it. She'd steeled herself against it, readied her heart for the onslaught.
Onika tuned out her grandmother's ranting, and took her mind back to the day Ms. Carpenter, her guidance counselor, told her about Robinson University. Grandma was wrong about Ms. Carpenter. She wasn't a white woman. She was biracial, just like Onika. She'd gone to Robinson on a scholarship, too.
"You'll meet the most promising young black people in the country. From prominent homes," she'd said. "Doctors and lawyers for parents. Brilliant."
Initially her description had worried Onika. How would she fit in with anyone from a prominent home?
"I'll be an outcast, Ms. Carpenter."
Ms. Carpenter immediately pulled a mirror from her purse and thrust it in Onika's face.
"Look at yourself, dear. You may not have been blessed with a good home, but you are intelligent and beautiful. A smart woman can change the world. A smart and beautiful woman can change the world while wearing diamonds."
Onika remembered not being sure about Ms. Carpenter's advice. She was smart and gorgeous, but she was working at a high school in Goldsboro. Where were her diamonds?
But after that conversation, Ms. Carpenter had decided to groom Onika for Robinson. She'd taught her how to speak without a trace of Goldsboro shining through. She'd tutored Onika in French until she was fluent. She'd helped her write essays and apply for scholarships.
No one had ever given Onika that much attention and nurturing. She wanted to make Ms. Carpenter proud.
Onika never imagined herself making her grandmother proud, nor her mother. But Ms. Carpenter made her believe she could do and be anything.CHAPTER 3
Onika showed up alone for move-in day and new-student orientation at Robinson University. It's not like she needed that much help anyway. All she had was a bed-in-a-bag and a suitcase.
She also came prepared with her story. She was an orphan. Raised by her grandmother. From Durham, but she was home-schooled, in case anyone asked where she went to high school. She had a Facebook account, but it was under Nikki Lewis. Of course, she was enrolled as Onika, but she'd requested that all of her student information use Nikki instead. Class rosters, dorm assignments, everything was to say Nikki. She told the registrar that she was hiding from one of her mother's abusive boyfriends and needed anonymity. It was amazing how easily the lie had been received.
Onika was too unique of a name, and the last thing she needed was for someone from Goldsboro to pop onto her page and call her out. Or say her mama overdosed. Or anything else that might blow her intricate cover.
Onika walked into her dormitory room and felt a surge of excitement. The old twin bed, desk, and dresser were nicer than any furniture she'd ever had. But what really intrigued her was the way her roommate had decorated her side of the room. She had a rug, pictures on the wall, two lamps (one a lava lamp), a shoe rack that held at least fifteen pairs of shoes, and a comforter on the bed that looked expensive. It didn't look like it came in a bag with two sheets and a pillow case. Onika imagined that the dresser drawers were filled with pretty underclothing. This was a girl who had a different bra for every day of the week.
"Hi, I'm Chelsea Richard," the girl said as she ran up to welcome Onika. She pronounced her last name Reeshard. Onika wondered if it was French.
"I hope it's okay that I took this side of the room," Chelsea continued. "I wanted to wait until you got here, but my mother and father wanted to put everything up for me. Please say it's okay."
Onika was overwhelmed by the amount of sound coming from Chelsea's body. It was too much, as if she had a built-in amplifier.
"I don't really have a preference, so it's fine."
"Oh, good. What's your name?"
"What's Nikki short for? Nicole?"
Onika shook her head. "It's just Nikki."
"Oh, okay. Well, do you need any help unpacking your things?"
"Nope. This is it."
If it wasn't somewhat embarrassing, Onika would've died laughing at the confused look on Chelsea's face as she looked at Onika's sparse belongings. But since it was embarrassing, Onika looked away and opened her bed-in-a-bag and removed the sheets from the cardboard.
"You aren't going to wash those before you put them on your bed?" Chelsea asked. "They're fresh out of the package."
Onika shrugged, not understanding the problem. The sheets were brand-new. Why would she need to wash them first?
"Don't you know that those sheets that come in a package are manufactured in third world countries where they have all sorts of pathogens and bacteria? You shouldn't sleep on them without washing them first."
Onika didn't know about washing them. She didn't have any laundry detergent yet, nor did she know where the laundry was on campus. She was tired from being on the bus and the subsequent taxi ride. She just wanted to make her bed.
"Here, I have some sheets you can use," Chelsea said as if she was reading Onika's mind.
Chelsea reached into her closet and emerged with a set of crisp, white sheets. They were scented with something that didn't smell like any laundry detergent Onika had ever used. When Earlene washed white sheets, they came away smelling like bleach and Borax. Onika inhaled deeply and smiled.
"It's lavender and mint linen spray," Chelsea said like it was nothing.
Maybe it was nothing to Chelsea, but Onika didn't know that there was such a thing as perfume for sheets. Or linens.
Onika quickly made her bed and stuffed the bed-in-a-bag items back into their plastic to wash later. It was warm, so the sheets would be fine for the first night.
"Are you poor?" Chelsea asked.
Onika was disarmed by the question. First of all, because the answer was obvious. Of course, she was poor. Second, who would just come out and ask a person if she was poor?
"I'm not rich," Onika responded.
There was no way she was going to tell this girl that her mama was a crackhead, and that she'd never worked a real job, so yes, she was poor.
"The good thing about being here at Robinson is that we will meet girls from every walk of life," Chelsea said. "And at the end of it all, we'll be sisters."
Excerpted from Her Secret Life by TIFFANY L. WARREN. Copyright © 2017 Tiffany L. Warren. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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