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"Damn you, Eli," I muttered when my fiancé's voice mail picked up for the gazillionth time. "Are you planning to never talk to me again?"
Cursing softly under my breath, I f lipped my cell phone shut. No point leaving another message. It was obviouspainfully sothat Eli was avoiding me.
Great. It wasn't even nine-thirty in the morning yet, and it was clear that the day was going to be full of drama.
I'd been calling Eli since shortly after he stormed out of our apartment the night before, and so far, I hadn't heard a word from him. Did he expect me to grovel? Perhaps take out a billboard ad announcing to all of South Florida that I had overreacted? We'd had a fight. So what? It certainly didn't warrant him acting like I no longer existed.
Enough was enough. If Eli didn't have the decency to get back to me, why should I spend the day moping over him?
Balancing my Starbucks latte in one hand, I shoved my cell phone into my purse with the other, then strode purposefully into the office building on NE Fifth Street, where I worked in downtown Miami. I showed my ID card to security before heading for the bank of elevators. Only one other person was waiting there, a tall and striking brunette. She barely glanced my way, but when she did, I saw that her eyes were red-rimmed. Clearly, she had been crying. I wondered if she, like me, had dealt with some early-morning man drama.
Probably. At least I wasn't the only one arriving late to the office because of a man.
I got off first, on the eleventh f loor. My plan was to head through the glass doors housing the Believe the Dream, Change Your Life Agency and go straight to my office. But as I approached the doors, I found myself reaching into my purse and wrapping my fingers around my cell phone.
Don't do it, don't do it, don't do it
I did. I pulled the phone out of my purse and once again punched in Eli's mobile number. What can I sayas frustrated as I was with him, there was no way I would stop trying to reach him. He was my fiancéthe Mr. Right I'd finally found at the ripe old age of twenty-eightand I was determined to marry him.
"Eli, baby," I said when his voice mail picked up. "It's me again. I'll bet you're still sleeping, which is why I haven't heard from you yet. Listen, I know I said this before, but I am sorry about last night. I was stressed to the max, had worked an incredibly long dayand you know how I get when I've worked past eight at night." With my shoulder, I nudged the glass door open and headed into the agency. I nodded in greeting at Alaina, the receptionist and a friend, as I walked briskly past her. "The good news is, the campaign is now all set," I said a little loudly, hoping Alaina would hear and think I was on a business call, even though she wasn't my superior. "And I'll be home right after work today," I continued, when she was out of earshot. "No later than six, I promise. And then I'm all yours. Maybe Carla can even babysit Rayna for a couple extra hours and we can go for a nice dinner."
I paused as I attempted the fine art of opening my office door with full hands, succeeded, and stepped inside. I quickly placed my coffee on my desk, along with my purse. "Can you just call me, please? Let me know the wedding's still on," I added with a laugh, the kind that said I was sure it was, but in reality, I wasn't entirely confident of that anymore. Anytime Eli and I had had a disagreement before, he'd never taken this long to get back to me. We were the type who patched things up in a couple hours at the most, and we certainly never went to bed angry with one another.
Eli wasn't that mad at mewas he?
After all, I was the one with the right to be mad. I was a single mother, and he'd damn near bitten my daughter's head off when she spilled her milk on his lap. At the time, I'd reacted instinctively, like a mother hen protecting her chick, but now the clarity of the morning after had me realizing that Eli had simply overreacted, then I had over-reacted, which had led to a stupid fight.
I tossed my cell onto my desk and collapsed in my leather chair with a long-suffering sigh. No sooner had I sat down than my door swung open. My boss, Debbie Noble, walked in and closed the door behind her.
"I'm sorry, Debbie," I began without preamble. "I got held up a little this morning because my sitter had to run an errand, so I couldn't bring Rayna over there at the usual time." A lie, but what the hell. I didn't need any more grief today.
Debbie waved a hand dismissively. "That's not why I'm here."
A grin slowly spread on her face as she strolled toward my desk. "Ask me what I was doing last night."
I reached for my Starbucks cup and took a quick sip of my latte. "I already know what you were doing. You were having dinner with a potential client." The agency represented motivational speakers and life coaches, and I worked as the office manager. "Did you sign her?"
"After that," Debbie said. "When I came back to the office."
"You came back to the office?" I'd been here until nearly eight, and only the cleaning staff had been around when I left.
"Just ask me."
"Okay, I'll bite. What were you doing last night when you came back to the office?"
"Maybe the better question is who I was doing
." Now my eyebrows shot up. "Debbie"
"Jason!" she squealed before I could formally ask the question. "And, oh my God! I've been dying for you to get here so I could tell someone."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa," I said, waving my hands around as I stared up at her in total shock. "You slept with Jason? Jason from the mail room?"
Debbie grinned proudly and rested her butt on my desk. "Honey, nothing that we did together even remotely resembled sleep."
"I don't understand. What was Jason doing here so late?"
"Meeting me for a scandalous rendezvous."
"You're totally serious."
"As a heart attack."
"But he's so young!" I blurted, not meaning to sound judgmental, but I couldn't help it. "What is hetwenty?"
"Twenty-two, but who cares?"
Which made him sixteen years Debbie's junior. "Does he even shave yet?"
"He's old enough to be legal, but young enough to be horny and hardall the time. Vanessa, he is like a steel rod. And I tell you, girl, that boy couldn't get enough last night! On the f loor, against the wall, bent over my desk giving it to me from behind. Mmmm!" Debbie closed her eyes and shivered, as if reliving her orgasmic pleasure.
I cast her a wary look as I reached for my latte and gulped it this time. Her story was making me miss Eli all the more.
"I hope you know what you're doing," I said.
Despite my expressed concern, I knew Debbie wouldn't take offense. Not only was she my boss, she was a good friend. We shared all kinds of personal info and didn't hold back on our opinions.
"Of course I know what I'm doing. And I'm doing it again tonight." She laughed airily. "Though this time I'll make sure he's on the f loor. I got some serious rug burn on my knees
"Okay, I think it's a little too early for that kind of talk." I downed more coffee.
"You should try it some time."
"No, a twenty-two-year-old. Heck, even eighteen."
"Eighteen! You have lost your mind. Besides, I have a man." Debbie rolled her eyes.
"And I'm getting married." I waved my three-carat rock."You remember that important detail, don't you?" I didn't mention that my fiancé was mad at me right now and that he'd spent the night at his best friend's place. I didn't feel like bringing up our stupid fight, especially when I had no doubt that we'd be making up later in the day. Or that a delivery-man with a dozen roses would show up any minute.
"Seriously, Vanessadon't knock it till you try it. Nothing against Eli, but only the young ones can give it to you the way you want. Talk about stamina! Before you walk down that aisle, I think it's in your best interest to"
"Enough." I held up a hand to silence Debbie.
"Tell me more about you and Jason," I said.
She raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. "You know he's got a tongue ring, right?"
"Yes, I've seen" I stopped short when the implication of what Debbie was saying hit me. I'd heard plenty about tongue rings, although I'd never dated a guy with one myself.
"Okay, are you saying
"Mmm-hmm." She smiled slyly.
"Don't get coy now. I want the dirty details. Is it true what they say"
My office line rang, interrupting me, and I groaned in disappointment. I reached for the receiver, saying to Debbie, "Hold that thought."
She clamped a hand over her mouth as she giggled, either because of the look on my face or because she was remembering everything about the tongue ring that I now wanted to know.
"Vanessa Cain," I said into the receiver, my eyes still on Debbie. "Will you hold a moment?"
I pressed the hold button before the person on the other end of the line could even speak, but Debbie shook her head. "I'll finish the story later," she told me. "You take that call."
"Oh, no you don't! You can't leave me hanging like this!"
She tapped her watch.
"Fine, tell me about the tongue ring later," I said hurriedly, "but do you like this guy or what?"
"I'm married," she said candidly.
"I know, but
" In the last year, Debbie had grown increasingly less attracted to her husband and was now on her third affair. I didn't agree with her infidelity, not in the least, but when I'd made that fact clear in the past, she firmly told me she was a big girl and could do what she wanted. That she didn't need my approval, just my friendship.
Since she was a friend, I tried not to judge her, even if I didn't agree with what she did behind her husband's back. Still, I tried to talk sense into Debbie whenever I could slip my moral opinion in.
"You've found a new boy toy, Debbie," I said. "Obviously, you're not happy in your marriage. That's been clear for a long time. You owe it to Benand to yourselfto leave him if you can't be faithful to him."
"And what about my children?" she countered. When I didn't answer, she went on. "Look, screwing Jason is about the sex. Nothing more. He certainly can't offer me anything more than that."
Once, over drinks, Debbie had suddenly gotten emotional and told me how Ben had hurt her while she'd been pregnant with their first child. He and a female colleague had been working together on research about juvenile diabetes, and apparently Ben had almost cheated on Debbie. He couldn't be reached as she'd gone into labor, and had arrived at the hospital after their son was born. When Debbie grilled him as to his whereabouts, he'd broken down and admitted that his colleague had tried to seduce him in his office at the university, and that they'd kissed for quite some time before he came to his senses and realized he couldn't go through with having sex with the woman. He'd been infatuated with her for months, culminating in a moment of weakness.
To his credit, Ben immediately stopped working with her, then stopped working altogether to be a stay-at-home father. Debbie didn't know if he'd been entirely truthful about what had happened, and didn't press the matter, but it was clear to me in her retelling of the story that she had been deeply wounded by what Ben had done. Her trust in him had been forever shattered. Add to the mix the fact that Debbie's father had abandoned her and her mother for a younger woman when she was only nine years old, and it was clear that Debbie had major trust issues where men were concerned. The way I saw it, her infidelity now was a way of guarding her heart, a way of protecting herself from utter devastation should Ben ever say he was leaving her.
I gave Ben credit for having been honest with her, and personally would have written off his actions as immaturity, or even last-minute fear over becoming a new father. And if I couldn't forgive him, I would have moved on.
"I don't see how you can cheat and not feel guilty," I said.
Debbie shrugged. "I guess I did feel a bit guilty when I got home last nightuntil Ben came out of the kitchen smelling like meat loaf and wearing this ridiculous apron he thinks is cute. My guilt vanished like that." She snapped her fingers for emphasis. "Vanessa, we'll chat later. Take that call. It's not like we both don't need to be working. Because I did sign Lori Hansen!"
I watched Debbie head out of my office, thinking that in many ways she was like a man. The fierce, ambitious blonde was the breadwinner in the family. Her husband stayed home with their three kids. And here she was, the one having an affair with a subordinate, the way so many men in positions of power do.
Once again I pressed the hold button, realizing for the first time that maybe it was Eli on the line. I cleared my throat and started speaking in my most professional tone. "Thanks for holding"
"Oh, Vanessa. Thank God."
My heart picked up speed at the sound of Carla's voice. She was my neighbor and babysitter, and if she was calling me so soon after I'd arrived at work, that meant something was wrong with my daughter.
"Vanessa, you have to come home. Youyou just have to. Right now."
"Oh my God. Something happened to Rayna." Had my two-year-old fallen down the stairwell, or gotten into something poisonous, or burned herself ? Panic clawed at my throat. "Carla, tell me what happened!" I pushed my chair back and shot to my feet, already reaching for my purse.
"How bad is it?"
"No, it's not Rayna."
My pulse was pounding so loudly in my ears, I wasn't sure I heard her correctly. "Rayna's okay?" I asked.
"Yes, she's fine. She and Amani are beside me, coloring." Carla blew out a frazzled breath. "Vanessa, it's
"Eli?" Panic turned to confusion. Why would Carla be calling about Eli? Had he returned home already and by chance gone to pick up Rayna? I fully expected him to leave Leroy's place and head straight to the studio, where he and a few former athlete friends were working on their new passiona hip-hop demo. I had my doubts as to whether or not they'd get a record deal, but I supported Eli nonetheless.
"Maybe you don't have to come home," Carla said suddenly. "You have a TV there, right?"
"Why do I need a TV?"
"Vanessa, listen to me. Turn on the TV to CNN. Right now. There's a commercial playing, but the story's coming up next. Oh, Vanessa. I'm so sorry."
Carla had me wondering what the heck was going on. Why would Eli be on the news? Had he been arrested for something stupid like drunk driving? I dropped the phone and raced to the conference room. Thankfully, there wasn't a meeting going on, so the room was empty. I found the remote, turned on the television and fumbled around with the buttons until I got to CNN.
I caught the tail end of a Viagra commercial, and then CNN began again. The female news anchor announced this hour's headlines. I bit my fingernail, waiting for her to say something about Eli.
"Also this hour, the bizarre death of Eli Johnson."
I gasped, stumbled backward. I landed against the conference table and gripped it for support.
Bizarre death? Eli was
I sucked in a deep breath and held it for a few seconds before letting it out slowly. Then my mind began to race, searching for answers.
Surely it wasn't my Eli Johnson.