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There were no conventional seasons in the East Bay. Sweaters in June and flip-flops in October were standard. Some argued that the weather was quirky even before the effects of global warming had taken hold. Others claimed the weather had only gone wacky in recent years. Either way, the natives were accustomed to layering and keeping umbrellas and shorts on hand all year round. The Bay boasted mild but inconsistent temperatures, Indian summers, and local meteorologists who could never get the forecast quite right.
Despite the unpredictable weather, the six-figure median income, and faltering public education system, the Bay was the place to live. It was home to many start-up and global tech companies, bustling with development, a biker's paradise, and pet friendly — something about it seemed to appeal to everyone. And though rain or fog could always swoop in unannounced, the mild climate made for perfect running weather.
Lake Merritt was Anaya Goode's favorite place to run. Mornings were ripe with domestic engineers toting lattes and toddlers, singles trying to become un-single, and plenty of workout groups. Healthy living was fundamental in the Bay Area. From farmer's markets and vegan soul food restaurants to Trap Yoga and Booty Ballet, one had to try hard not to live a health-conscious lifestyle in the Bay.
"Finish those sit-ups!" a burly trainer urged as Anaya passed a boot camp near the lake's cascade stairs one crisp July morning. "You wanna be sexy this summer? Wanna wear tank tops and tight dresses?"
Only two participants were actually doing the prescribed situps. Another drank water from a bottle, while the rest stared off into space. From the looks on their faces, it was too early in the morning to be thinking about the rhetoric of taut triceps. Most of them probably just wanted a cup of coffee.
Anaya was an avid runner. In the last five years, she had completed four full marathons, a dozen half marathons, ran a six-minute mile, and had never had a running-related injury. When Anaya laced up her Asics, she felt like Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Running sustained Anaya's sanity when Aunt Deb tried to convert her to Scientology, rendered her sublime patience when Uncle Riley asked her to help him increase his credit score, and permitted her to enjoy the occasional guilt-free slice of key lime pie.
In addition to running, Anaya participated in fad lifestyle challenges that her friends never wanted to do. Last month, her goal was to drink a gallon of water a day. The month before, she had completed Whole 30 for the third time, and next week she planned to start intermittent fasting for two weeks. Wearing a perfect size two with enviable abs and thighs like a cyclist, Anaya didn't need to think twice about her weight. But she did.
As she neared the predetermined "finish" bench, Anaya lengthened her stride, her breath coming faster and arms pumping harder. After sprinting past the bench, she slowed and jogged back to it, reveling in the cool morning air. She looked down the path with sweet patience.
"Look at you," Anaya called out a few minutes later as her companion finally reached the finish bench and immediately rested his hands on his knees to catch his breath. She put a foot up on the bench to stretch and looked over at him. He glanced up, caught her admiring gaze, and winked with those long lashes. She blushed.
"No," Carl said, still panting. He stood up and wiped his face with his tank top. "Don't look at me. I'll look at you." He reciprocated her appraising look.
She pouted playfully. "So tell me. How do you feel? Was that better than our last run?"
She knew that five miles was four-and-a-half too many for Carl. She concealed her smile and remembered how Carl had replied the first time she mentioned she was a runner: "Running is at the bottom of my list of faves, along with beets and talking to my mom after she drinks a pint of gin. But if it means spending time with you, I'm in."
"It was a good run, babe." He was lying but he got an A for effort.
"Well, thanks for coming."
"You're beautiful, you know that?" he said in a soothing voice. She still blushed when he complimented her. Even after five years together, his adulation and flattery never got old, and every day, she found herself falling more in love with him.
She ran her hand over the loose bun that contained her dark brown curls and felt small ringlets sticking to her damp forehead. She covered her face. "Stop it. I'm a hot, sweaty mess."
"You're the sexiest hot mess I've ever seen." He gently pulled her hands from her face.
She could tell from his expression that he didn't think she was anything less than perfect. Carl was a wonderful boyfriend but had become so much more to her than that. He was one of her closest friends, and she trusted him with her heart. He listened patiently, he consoled when she was stressed, he helped out whenever he could, and he was never demanding or overbearing. Anaya often heard her mom's say "Love is patient, love is kind" whenever she thought of Carl. He was more than she expected in a partner, and even her two best friends approved of him in their own ways — Sophie called him safe, and Catie called him boring.
"You're sweet. You know that?" she told him softly.
"Shhh. Don't say that too loud." He pretended to look around. "I don't want everybody to know."
"You don't want anybody to know how sweet you are?"
He pressed a kiss on her forehead before adopting an offended expression. "Sweet? No way. If my boys found out that I was running around the lake this early on a Saturday morning, I'd never hear the end of it."
"If your boys heard you were out here running early on a Saturday morning, they would be jealous of how fit you're going to be." She leaned into him, running her hand over his ridged abs — her favorite part of his body.
"They would only be jealous because of who I'm running with." He winked.
"Stop it." She punched him playfully. Carl had told her on more than one occasion that his friends thought she was out of his league.
He gave her booty a playful swat then grabbed her hand as she tried to slap him away. "You ready for breakfast? I'm starving."
They leisurely headed to Lakeshore Café, the crisp morning breeze cool against their damp faces. Lakeshore was crowded. Families and businesses seemed to be moving into the area by the droves. When she was younger, Anaya and her mom would come to Lakeshore after Anaya's ballet class, and they'd run into other families they knew. They would see the same faces each week and were able to easily grab breakfast or tea without waiting in line. Now she rarely recognized anybody and the restaurant and coffee house lines were insane.
Luckily, a couple was leaving just as they entered the café and they snagged a table right away. They ordered their usual — black coffee and an egg white omelet for her, and orange juice and pancakes for him.
"What do you have on tap for the rest of the day?" Carl asked after the waitress had taken their order.
"I have to help Aunt Deb find a new financial planner and finish my report." Anaya rubbed her eyes wearily as she thought about the work and family obligations she had planned for the weekend. She liked her job as director of Housing and Community services for Alameda County. The pay was great, and it was good work, but the hours were long and her boss Wendy was a miserable bitch. And she had recently been assigned one of the toughest projects of her career.
If work weren't enough to drive Anaya mad, she had become the cornerstone of her family since her mom died six years ago — giving financial advice, resolving conflicts (except for the one between her and her sister Ava), and trying to hold the family together. Ever since she'd started working on the naval base project three weeks ago, her days had begun to bleed into each other — work, family, sleep, stress, repeat. She told herself it wouldn't last forever. No matter how bad things got, she tried to keep her head high, and her complaints at a minimum.
Carl furrowed his brow in confusion. "What happened to the last financial planner you helped her find?"
Anaya sighed. "Same as the one before that. She didn't trust him." She gazed out the window, trying not to think about work or family, and just enjoy the present. She watched two men walk by with three dogs and twins in a stroller. She smiled and turned back to Carl.
He leaned in and took her hand. "Hey, you wanna go to Sam's bowling party next week?"
"Huh?" Anaya asked, pulling away and grabbing a menu from the stand on the table, even though she could recite it in her sleep. Bowling party? Isn't there an anniversary party coming up too? When do these people rest?
Carl slid the menu away from her with an inquiring look. "Do you want to go to Sam's bowling party next week?" he repeated slowly. "It's his birthday and I'd like you to come with me." He smiled at her. "We haven't spent much time together lately."
It was no secret that Anaya and Carl's friends would never be close. She normally accepted his invitations because she knew Carl's friends were important to him, but Anaya didn't particularly enjoy spending time with them.
And no, she didn't want to go to Sam's bowling party, or any party hosted by Carl's friends. Faven, Bobby, Ricky, Sam, and Carl had been best friends since middle school and they were more like siblings. Faven's parents had paid for Carl's high school cap and gown, and Bobby's dad had helped Carl negotiate a good deal when he bought his first car. Anaya was glad Carl had such a strong friend base. She just didn't understand why she needed to spend so much time with them.
For Carl's sake, she'd tried to be nice, but even after half a decade and countless social gatherings, she felt like an outsider around them. And while Carl knew she wasn't close with his friends, she'd never quite figured out how to tell him how isolated she felt when she spent time with them.
"Um, okay." She fingered the rim of her water glass. "But you mentioned that Faven was having a party soon too." Maybe I can get out of one of them ...
Carl nodded happily. "Yeah, her parents are having an anniversary party in a couple of months. We are invited to that as well."
Of course we are. She paused before saying, "Um, okay" again.
"You sure?" He reached across the small, wooden table and tilted her chin toward him.
No. "Yeah, I'm sure."
He raised a skeptical brow and leaned back in his seat. "If you don't want to —"
"No, it's cool," she lied, forcing a smile. "I was just thinking about the rest of my day." Bowling party. Anniversary party. Ugh.
Another bowling party meant more deep-dish pizza and beer. Anaya didn't drink beer and knew she'd spend the entire night warding off the usual remarks from the ladies: "I see why you're so skinny. You don't eat!" or "We are going to have to put some meat on those bones. Here, you can have some of mine." Hanging out with Carl's group tested her patience, and because of them she'd exceeded her simple carb threshold four bowling parties ago.
"Sweet. I'll let Faven know. She's been hounding me about a head count."
Faven and Carl were the closest among the group, and she organized all the group's gatherings and always managed to leave Anaya out of the details. The only person Faven seemed to like less than Anaya was her husband, Darren. Thanks to Faven's inclination to gossip, the entire group knew Darren cried after watching Sparkle and that he "lacked spontaneity" in the bedroom. After thirteen years of marriage and three kids, Darren still hadn't earned Faven's respect, so Anaya didn't hold her breath that they would become friends anytime soon.
"Cool." Anaya fiddled with her napkin. A little bit of dishonesty was preferable to creating tension between her and Carl — at least right now. When she wasn't so swamped with work and being hunted down by her family members to complete their personal tasks, she'd take time to talk to him.
Carl tucked a wayward curl behind her ear as the waitress brought over their order. Anaya immediately picked up her coffee, the heat on her hands calming her.
Carl began to cut up his pancakes. "The ladies will be happy to see you."
No they won't. "Are you sure about that?" She sipped the Jamaican brew. It felt like the warm cloths her mom put on her sore throat as a kid.
Carl furrowed his brow.
Anaya put her hand on his. "I'm just kidding. It should be fun." She laughed uneasily.
It wouldn't be fun. It would be slow torture, but Carl was her man, and sometimes you had to take one for the team.
She kept her hand on his and looked out of the window. In her hectic world filled with preparing tax returns for family members, handing out personal loans to her sister, fielding arguments between her aunt and uncle, and handling her ever-growing work responsibilities, Carl was her rock. Her shelter in the eye of the storm.
"You're stressed." He looked into her eyes.
"Talk to me." His gentle tone made her want to go back to his place and not leave for three days. But she didn't have that time luxury right now.
"It's just the same work stuff." She was tired of saying it so he must be tired of hearing it. "I've had to deal with so many non-emergency emergencies, and then there's Wendy, of course. This new project has everyone running around like mad. And even though we both work for the county, it's starting to feel like we are on opposite sides."
"Why don't you get out of there?" She'd heard this argument a thousand times before. "With your master's and your work experience, anyone would want you working for them."
She smiled at his familiar praise. "I know. I want to see this project through, and then ..." She shrugged. "Then maybe I will start looking."
Behind Carl, a young woman with a grocery bag approached their table. Anaya didn't recognize her. Carl turned around to follow her gaze and straightened up when he saw who was coming.
"Hey, Carl!" The woman gave Anaya a nod as she stopped at their table, and then turned to Carl. Anaya leaned back in her chair. She was accustomed to other women being attracted to Carl. Who wouldn't be?
"Hey there, Zendaya," Carl said with a wide smile. "How are you?"
"I'm great." Zendaya pushed her straight dark hair over her shoulder. A gold stud in her nose glinted in the light, accentuating her bold features. "Fancy seeing you here. Do you live in the area?" Her voice sounded like she drank golden honey tea all day.
She's cheerful. And cute, Anaya thought, taking a small bite of omelet.
"Actually, I do. About a mile away." Carl seemed to sense Anaya's thoughts and took Anaya's hand. "Zendaya, this is my girlfriend, Anaya. Anaya, Zendaya."
Anaya extended her other hand. "It's a pleasure."
Zendaya's hand was as warm as her smile. "You're even more beautiful than the picture on Carl's desk."
Ah, so she's been in his office. "Thank you. That's sweet. So you two work together?" Anaya asked Carl. He had never mentioned this Ryan Destiny look-alike with her tiny shorts and neo-soul vibe.
"Not really." She laughed. "Carl is my nephew's social worker, and he's been helping me navigate the system so I can get custody. He's been a godsend." Zendaya put her hand on Carl's shoulder.
Anaya tilted her head and looked at Carl with a smile. "That's Carl. A godsend."
"Yes, he's come by the house a few times to talk to Tyrell and even showed up at his school once. He just goes above and beyond."
"Yes, he does." Anaya was still smiling at Carl. "Above and beyond."
"Well, I'll talk to you later, Carl. It was great meeting you, Anaya. I have to get going." Zendaya turned to leave, then suddenly spun back. "Carl, are you still going to the festival?" "Yeah."
"Cool, we will see you there. I'm going to get Tyrell from practice now."
"Okay. See you guys soon," Carl said.
"She's pretty," Anaya said as she watched Zendaya maneuver through the crowd and exit the café.
"Who? Zen? Is she? She's a client, so ..."
"So that makes you oblivious to how attractive Zen is?"
"Come on now. I'm not interested in her that way."
Anaya rolled her eyes. "Come on, Carl. She's gorgeous. Just because we're in a relationship doesn't mean you don't find other women attractive. Just don't act on it and we will be fine." She paused. "Seriously though, she looks young. Is she actually going to get custody of her nephew?"
"Yep. She's determined. Tyrell's a good kid, just born in unfortunate circumstances."
"That's admirable. Does Zendaya have kids of her own?" "No, she just wants to do the right thing."
"Impressive," Anaya said. Her smart watch buzzed, and she looked down to read the notification.
"Don't tell me you have to go already," Carl said.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Never Too Soon"
Copyright © 2019 Tamika Christy.
Excerpted by permission of Boutique of Quality Books Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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