Read an Excerpt
The pool room at the Four Seasons
"Tell me what's wrong with this picture, girlfriend? I'm a young, educated, professional black woman living with a man who says I'm everything he wants in a woman, yet he refuses to commit."
"Alana Gardner, we're celebrating your birthday dinner, and I don't want to spend the next couple of hours listening to you bitch and moan about Calvin McNair."
The glow from a votive candle turned Faye Ogden into a figure of shimmering gold when she leaned over the table. The flickering flame flattered the burnished undertones in her tawny-brown face and highlighted the gold in her eyes, and the short texturized hair dyed an attractive blond color.
"What's wrong is that you've allowed a trifling ass, no-account Prince wannabe to shack up with you while he waits for his big break. Damn, girl, that parasite will hang around until he decides he wants out, then he'll go off and marry someone half his age and live happily ever after. You know what Oprah says, 'Show him the door!'"
"That's easier said than done, Faye."
"Whose name is on the lease? Yours or Calvin's?"
"Mine, of course."
"Then it should be easy for you to get rid of him, Lana."
Shaking her head in disbelief, Faye stared at Alana. Her best friend was tall, full-figured and drop-dead beautiful, but the talented magazine editor had always sought attention from the wrong people. Her live-in lover may have been what Alana wanted, but Calvin couldn't or wouldn't ever offer her what she needed most for emotional stability.
Shaking her head, black curly hair moving sensuously over her shoulders, Alana folded her arms under her breasts. "I can't."
"You can't? Or you don't want to?"
Alana picked up her wineglass and took a deep swallow. "Why are you being a bitch tonight?" Her dark, slanting eyes narrowed.
"You think I'm a bitch because I tell you what you don't want to hear? Grow up, Alana. You turned thirty-three last week, and the dog you call your man didn't even have the decency to come home."
"He was rehearsing at the studio."
"And you believe that?"
"Why shouldn't I? I love and trust Calvin."
"You house him, feed him, wash his clothes, then spread your legs whenever he wants a free fuck!" She'd whispered the expletive. "And he couldn't give up strumming a guitar for a few hours to celebrate your birthday with you? I'm not being judgmental, Lana. I've been there. I divorced a man who cheated on me because he didn't even try to hide his indiscretions. I loved him, too, but not more than I love myself. You're going to have to make your mind up whether you love Calvin more than you love Alana."
"Are you sure you haven't been eavesdropping on my therapy sessions?" Alana's eyelids fluttered as she blinked back tears.
Faye smiled. "Quite certain. You're my sister-girl, Lana, and I want to see you happy."
Sniffling, Alana blotted her eyes with a cocktail napkin. "Are you happy, Faye?"
There was a pulse beat of silence before Faye said quietly, "Yes, I am."
"I don't know how you do it."
"I don't miss what I don't have." Looking up, Faye caught the eye of their waiter. "I'm going to order a bottle of champagne."
Alana's full lips parted in a smile, exhibiting teeth she'd spent a small fortune straightening and whitening. "What are we celebrating?"
"Your birthday and our friendship."
"I'll drink to that."
Enid had heard enough, and signaled her waiter. "Please let Alain know I'd like a word with him."
"Yes, Ms. Richards."
The maitre d' approached Enid Richards's table. "Yes, madam?"
Enid beckoned him closer. "Alain, tell me what the two women sitting behind me look like." Her voice was low and mysterious.
"They are very beautiful, madam."
Enid smiled, realizing her internal radar was as sharp as ever.
She reached into her purse, took out a small mono-grammed silver case and removed two business cards and a pen. She scrawled Please call meE on the pale blue vellum.
Handing them to Alain, she said, "Please enclose my cards when they're given their check."
Eavesdropping on Alana and Faye's conversation and a second cocktail helped ease Enid's annoyance with the figures in the binder in front of her.
A cell phone rang at a nearby table, and Enid stared at the man who'd neglected to turn off the ringer. The Four Seasons' hard-and-fast rule of No Cell Phones was strictly enforced. After the first infraction it wasn't unusual that subsequent reservations were denied a patron because the distraction impinged on the restaurant's reputation of dining in a peaceful atmosphere.
Her glance strayed from the table, and she sat up straighter, all of her senses on full alert as she watched a tall, impeccably dressed black man approach her table.
She inhaled the tantalizing scent of Marcus Hampton's specially blended cologne as he leaned over and kissed her cheek. Enid met his direct stare, an unconscious smile softening her mouth.
"Sorry about being late," he apologized. "I would've called, but their policy about no cell phones
" His words trailed off when he saw the inviting look in Enid's eyes. "Perhaps," Marcus continued, "the next meeting should be at your place."
Enid patted the leather seat. "Please sit down, Marcus. Would you like a cocktail before we order dinner?"
Marcus wanted to tell Enid he needed more than a drink. He needed her. "Yes." He gave his drink order to the waiter.
Enid noticed the frown line between Marcus's large gold eyes. It wasn't often she saw him scowl and it bothered her because the expression marred his near-perfect face.
Obsessed with beauty and perfection, she'd found herself momentarily mute four years before when first introduced to Laurence Marcus Hampton at an art auction in Sag Harbor, Long Island; they'd exchanged business cards. A month had passed before Marcus called and invited her to another fund-raising event with him.
She'd accepted his invitation, and over the next three months they slipped into a relationship that was socially beneficial for both of them.
Then everything changed when they left a snowy New York City to spend a week on a private island in the Caribbean, sleeping late, drinking potent tropical concoctions and endlessly making love. Marcus was the first man who'd shared her bed, Enid realized, whose libido surpassed hers. The fact that at fifty-six she was twenty-two years his senior was of no consequence once they merged business and pleasure.
Enid picked up a menu and handed it to Marcus. "Order for me, please." Marcus's black eyebrows in an equally dark face lifted.
Enid smiled, knowing she'd shocked him with the request because she never permitted anyone to make a decision for her. But tonight was the exception. Her earlier frustration had diminished within seconds of her eavesdropping on the conversation in the other booth.
She stared surreptitiously at her dining partner. Marcus was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome. His slender proportioned physique, angular sable-brown face with chiseled cheekbones, strong nose and firm mouth afforded him fashion-model status. His large, deep-set, gold-flecked eyes were his face's most noticeable feature. Their color, so incongruent to his dark complexion, glowed with a light that mesmerized her.
She smiled. L. Marcus Hampton was her lover and business partner. He controlled her in bed and she controlled him out of bed. It had become a win-win combination.
M arcus's face relaxed as he studied the entrées. During the time he had come to know Enid Richards intimately he'd never presumed to make a decision for her. In bed he neither conferred, debated nor compromised.
"Rack of lamb and steamed asparagus."
Enid pressed her back to the banquette. "Excellent choice. What are you having?"
"Couscous and a salad."
"Are you back on your vegetarian diet?"
"Only until the end of the month. I'm alternating two weeks on, two weeks off red meat."
When she reached over and covered Marcus's hand, she felt his fingers tense before relaxing under her light touch. "What's wrong?"
Marcus met her direct gaze. "Nothing. Let's eat, then have our meeting so I can go home and finish grading papers."
He knew he hadn't been truthful. There were a lot of things wrong with their relationship. Whenever Enid summoned, he came running, responding to her like Pavlov's dog to his master's bell.
He'd tired of playing the game she played better than any woman he'd ever known. She ran Pleasure Seekers with the dogged determination of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company; however, along the way, Marcus felt as if he'd become one of her clients. The only difference was, she paid him for his services, not the reverse.
Enid sat up straighter, her eyes narrowing. "To save time we can discuss business while we eat."
"It's your meeting."
She went completely still. Something was bothering him, and he had just lied to her. If they'd met at her office or in her home she would've pressed the issue, but not here.
Her delicate jaw hardened. "Well, I compared April figures to March, and profits are down. We picked up two very wealthy clients last month, and you predicted business would increase."
Marcus reached for the binder, flipping pages. "We've already discussed this, Enid. Did you read the activity schedule? The overall number of contact hours is down ten percent. They've been on the decline for the past six months."
Enid stared at the monthly percentages. "They're always off between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day, but pick up again in the spring." Her gaze shifted to Marcus's impassive expression. "Tell me, if you were a client of Pleasure Seekers, who would you like?"
Marcus took a sip from his cocktail, savoring the blend of scotch and vermouth on his tongue before the liquor slid down the back of his throat. A hint of a smile played at the corners of his mouth. The bartender at the Four Seasons made the best Rob Roy in Manhattan. "None of your ladies."
Marcus leaned closer, the fabric of his suit jacket grazing her arm. "Because they're not my type."
"Would a woman your hue be more your type?" Smiling, she rubbed her thumb over the back of his hand.
He returned her smile. "Yes. But you're the only exception, Enid."
She flashed an attractive moue, bringing his gaze to linger on her rose-colored lips. "I've never denied being black."
Now his hand covered hers. "But you don't advertise it, either."
"Would I have gotten this far if I'd hung a sign around my neck advertising my race?"
He continued to stare at her mouth. "No."
Do you know that you look a little like Lena Horne?
Enid lost count of the number of times she'd been compared to the legendary singer/actress. She acknowledged their physical similarities, but there were also differenceshair and eye color.
She had inherited her looks from her fathera white man she never knew, a man who'd seduced her teenage mother, gotten her pregnant, then moved his family out of Jefferson Parish when he'd been told he was to become the father of a mixed-race child.
Janetta Richards died within hours of delivering Enid, so she never met her mother. And she would've become a ward of the state of Louisiana if Darcie Richards hadn't come to claim her grandchild.
But Darcie's attempt to obtain legal custody of Enid was challenged by a social worker who felt Darcie unfit to raise a child. She had become the subject of an ongoing police investigation over rumors that her rooming-house business was a front for other illegal activity.
Darcie called one of her customersa judge, and a week later Riva Enid Richards slept in a third-floor bedroom of the large white house in Storyville under the watchful eye of a live-in wet nurse.
The judge's intervention was repaid with barter. Darcie offered him lifetime privileges at her place of business: the pick of any of her girls. Unfortunately his copious sexual appetite and an aphrodisiac purported to enhance and sustain sexual desire proved a fatal combination. A week following his signing documents giving Darcie Richards legal guardianship of her granddaughter, he died from a massive coronary.
Enid smiled as she sipped her martini. It felt ironic that after retiring from a successful law practice, she'd started up a business similar to her grandmother's.
Both offered women to men for a price.
However, there was a difference.
Darcie Richards had sold sex.
Enid Richards sold companionship.