An artist trapped in an unfulfilling relationship, Leah Downey wants more out of life. But she plays it safe, never venturing too far from her comfort zone . . . not since the night she was mugged at knifepoint.
Beginning a relationship with a perfect stranger is completely out of character for Leah. But something about Jason Horn strikes a chord deep within her. They couldn’t be more different. Jason is white, a streetwise New York cop haunted by his own demons. He’s stunned by his instant attraction to this vibrant black woman who arouses both desire and his fiercest protective instincts.
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The Color of Love
By Sandra Kitt
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Sandra Kitt
All rights reserved.
When it started raining later in the afternoon, the first thought that came to Leah's mind was whether or not she could use it as an excuse to beg off attending her sister's fashion event that evening. She looked out the window behind her at the gray November afternoon made even grayer by the concrete skyscrapers and canyons of Manhattan, and by the dullness of the East River. On the other hand, Leah reasoned, she was grateful that the weather wasn't going to precipitate into the season's first snowfall.
She heard the snapping sound of two fingers and turned to face Jill, the hyper-kinetic senior art director.
"Hello. Earth to Leah. Come in, Leah Downey ..."
Leah couldn't help chuckling sheepishly, since she'd been caught in the act. She swiveled on her stool to face her drafting table and her department supervisor. "Sorry. You wanted something?"
Jill sat comfortably on the edge of the low supply cabinet placed adjacent to the drafting table. She tilted her head as she regarded her co-worker. "Boy, you were really out in deep space. What's going on?"
Leah shrugged. "Not much. Just trying to decide between three concepts for that text on money management."
"Oh, you mean The Money Tree." Jill leaned forward and took a quick glance at the sketches on Leah's table. "Go with green or gold, dollar signs or a money bag ..."
"Or a tree," Leah finished helpfully. "Why didn't I think of that?" she asked dryly.
"Because you were busy daydreaming. I envy you," Jill said suddenly. She gently shook her head so that her straight blond hair danced and then settled in an attractive pageboy that curved along her blunt jawline.
Leah raised her brows. "You're envious because I daydream?"
"Because you obviously have such a rich fantasy life. Your imagination must work overtime. That's probably why your designs are so good."
"My designs have nothing to do with my daydreams."
"With your sex life, then?" Leah laughed. "Well, it must come from somewhere. You're really good, and you know you're really good."
Leah ignored the compliment. "I don't think you want to discuss my imagination or my sex life, Jill. What's up?"
Jill crossed her legs and then uncrossed them. She tossed her head again, examined her nails, which were chewed, short, and ugly. "It's not about work. I was just wondering if you'd like to go out for drinks or dinner after work. We haven't done that in a long time."
"I know," Leah said with some hesitation. "But I seem to recall that you never had time for that once you met Larry."
Jill crossed her arms over her chest. Then she uncrossed them, playing with the sleeves of her sweater. "Well, that's all over."
"Oh, I didn't know."
"I knew it wouldn't last," she announced.
However, Leah guessed by her colleague's expression and her suddenly pink cheeks that it had been a painful ending.
"He made up with his wife. Now she's pregnant."
"That didn't take long."
Jill sighed. "It only takes one time. Anyway, the next time I'll look for someone like Allen."
Leah looked confused. "Allen?"
"You guys have been together forever. I never hear you complain, and you never seem to have fights. Perfect. Any day I expect you to announce your engagement."
Leah shifted nervously, recalling the phone argument she and Allen had had two nights ago. She felt uncomfortable being the subject of Jill's speculations. Of talk about marriage ... and a lifetime. "We haven't talked about it yet."
"Wouldn't it be romantic if he gave you a ring for Christmas?" Jill suggested with excitement. "God, I love stuff like that. I want to get a ring inside a cake, or a bottle of champagne ..."
Leah grimaced. "Messy."
"So, how about tonight?"
"Oh." Jill's smile quickly disappeared.
Leah was surprised by her obvious disappointment. It wasn't as if they were good friends. In the past their after-work dinners had been fun but mostly extensions of work and office gossip. She and Allen had double-dated with Jill and a previous boyfriend several times more than a year ago, but double-dating was not Allen's thing. Although she and Jill had once or twice exchanged party invitations, Leah still never considered that that made them close friends. But she could sense that her co-worker needed to talk. Maybe about Larry and their breakup.
"I'm sorry. Gail's fashion show is tonight and ..."
"Oh," Jill repeated.
"There's a reception and I really have to be there. I'm leaving a little early this afternoon to get ready. Maybe I can ask Gail if you can—"
"Oh, no. Don't bother." Jill laughed awkwardly. "We'll do it some other time." She got up to leave.
"Jill?" Leah detained her a moment longer. "How about next week?"
"How about next week for what?" someone asked from the doorway.
Leah sighed patiently and rolled her eyes heavenward. It was Jill who responded to Mike Berger, the assistant art director, as he approached Leah's worktable. He looped an arm around Jill's shoulder with familiarity. He didn't wait for an answer to his first question.
"What are you working on?" he asked Leah.
She placed her arms flat on the drafting table, effectively covering the designs she'd created that morning. "Illusions, that beauty book by the former Ford model."
Mike chortled. "Jill probably gave it to you 'cause the model was black."
"How about because you know nothing about makeup?" Jill countered. She slipped from under his arm. "Come on. You want to fight, fight with me ..."
Leah watched as Jill deftly led Mike away, telling him that she had another, more important project for him to work on. Leah disliked that Jill found it necessary to stroke his ego, but she disliked and distrusted Mike Berger even more.
Mike Berger was, as one of the editors had once phrased it, a poor excuse for a modern man. He was white, male, and not without talent. He was also sexist, spoiled, exuded a sense of entitlement and privilege, and was laughably unenlightened. Leah had learned to work around him with the same kind of equanimity with which she managed most situations she had little control over: by not taking it seriously.
Leah liked her position at a small publishing house in Midtown, near the United Nations. She was an assistant art director, a position equal to Mike's, but she was also considered the senior designer. She no longer considered that she might have gotten the job by virtue of being black and female in the right place at the right time. The bottom line was, she was talented and had proven her capabilities. She had been told many times by other artists, even in off-the-record remarks by editors, that it was she who was really the creative motivation behind the output of book designs and promotion. Jill was the real art director with a management style considered warm and fuzzy. Probably a smart tactic, Leah had always reasoned, given everyone else's propensity for climbing over other people's backs to advance their careers.
Leah knew that she could do the senior position job and do it well, but as far as she knew, no one had as yet suggested or supported that idea to management. It didn't matter to her. Justice was relative. She was happy not attending management meetings and dealing with the promotion department. And Mike was more than enough interference.
As her mind segued from one thought to the next, an idea insinuated itself into the free-flow. Leah quickly pulled forth a blank sheet of paper and began to quickly sketch in the basics for the cover of the Illusions beauty book. All because she'd been rehashing her history with Mike Berger. But she certainly wasn't going to thank him for the memories.
When Leah had first met him, Mike had been spending a lot of time pursuing anyone with breasts, although it took him a little longer to turn his pursuit to her. Leah suspected that Mike had decided she was too dangerous. But perhaps for want of any other opportunity, he did eventually make her a target. The thought spurred her idea as the sketch took shape. She could have written the scenario; the chase was steamed with jungle fever, as it were. She was black, still sweetly forbidden, taboo, and that must have made the pursuit all the more exciting to Mike. But Leah had no intention of being an experiment for anyone's ego or gratification.
Leah could recall in minute detail that afternoon, nearly three years ago, when he'd cornered her in a supply room between shelves of Strathmore paper and bristol board. Under the pretext of needing her help, Mike had followed her inside the narrow room and closed the door. Leah turned around to protest, but had found herself engulfed in an embrace and his mouth fastened to hers. She could have screamed, but she'd known that the implications would have worked more against her than Mike. She'd let her body stiffen and kept her mouth tightly closed against his attempt to force it open. His hands had quickly pressed over her with a boldness that made her breath draw in.
He finally pulled back impatiently.
"Come on," Mike breathed heavily. "What's the big deal? You know you've been wondering what would hap—"
Leah hauled back and belted him. She couldn't believe she was actually doing it, but nonetheless the punch landed on Mike's cheek, catching him completely off guard.
"Oowww!" He cringed in genuine surprise.
Leah pushed her way around him and got the door open. "You try that again and you're going to wish you never heard the words Black Power."
"I can get you fired," he said, but more hurt than angry.
"Before or after you explain why I hit you?"
Leah had hurried away to the ladies' room, where she'd locked herself in a stall and stood shaking for several minutes.
Mike had given up trying to maneuver her against a wall, but there remained a tension between them that was still sexual for him, suspicion for her. But she knew he'd never try anything with her again. And she felt sorry for his wife.
When the telephone rang, interrupting her concentration, most of the rough sketch was complete, and it was good. Still, when Leah answered she was distracted.
"Hello, Art Department."
"I don't believe it's raining," Gail said in annoyance.
"Could be worse."
"That doesn't make me feel better. People might not come tonight if the weather is bad. This could ruin my event. This is a pain in the ass."
"Calm down and stop exaggerating. People will come and it will be a huge success."
Finally, Gail chuckled. "You promise?"
"For whatever it's worth, sure."
"And Allen better not show up in a suit or I won't let him in."
"He hates the western look."
"I don't care. This is my event."
Leah rubbed her temple. "God, I hate it when the two of you go on this way. Why are you always at each other's throats?" She had expected another barbed answer from Gail, but she was surprised at the momentary silence.
"Ask Allen," Gail responded. "I have to go. There's still a lot to set up. Is Allen coming back to the house with you afterward?" she asked suddenly.
Leah felt an odd heaviness in her chest. "Probably. Why?"
"I don't want him to mess up my plans. I'll see you later. Bye." She hung up.
Leah sat holding the receiver a moment longer, completely confused by her sister's last remark. Did that mean Gail was going to be with someone else? She had lost count of her sister's short-term affairs and, given Gail's attention span for most things, wondered what exactly it was her sister was looking for. And did it really take so many men to find out?
She stared at the new sketch, put it away in a folder of ideas, and tried to turn her attention to the half-finished jacket of the money book. It was taped to the board, and she eyed it with disinterest. She felt distracted. Edgy. She wasn't looking forward to the show. She wasn't particularly looking forward to being with Allen. He was either going to complain about the people in his office, how he was not appreciated enough, or trash Gail's efforts. And Leah wondered who her sister was going to spend the night with this time.
Leah got up from her drafting table and left the studio to go to the small staff lounge. There she made herself a cup of hot tea, just needing the movement and activity to curtail her moodiness. No, it wasn't moodiness, she corrected herself as she returned to her drafting table. But rather than sit to work once more, she stared out of the window overlooking the river. She frowned at the way the rain continued to pelt the city, and for no real reason a hunched figure came to mind, the man she and Gail had found outside their home back in September. Leah suddenly wondered what had happened to him. Was he at this very moment getting soaked to the skin? He might get sick. Catch pneumonia. What if he fell down unconscious in the street somewhere? Would anyone notice him? Or had he disappeared back into his own life?
Leah tried to put her finger on the problem of her restlessness, but could only come up with dissatisfaction. But she also wished she hadn't relived the incident with Mike, the argument with Allen, or the total stranger who had haunted her dreams. She looked out over the city and felt a sudden need for something more. Something different.
There were so many things that she loved about New York. There were many more things that she disliked and found confusing. There was a lack of beauty and gentleness that Leah felt the city needed to soften the harder, unavoidable edges of day-to-day life, which was sometimes scary. Leah imagined that there were people who lived in the city who didn't know anything beyond their streets or neighborhoods. There were whole generations of city-locked kids who didn't know that the night sky was black and studded with a million brilliant specks of light called stars. In the polluted skies overhead they saw nothing, and they never looked up. People were living cheek by jowl without taking the time to know anything about the person right next to them. How could they do that? Where was the curiosity?
But there was danger as well. The man in her dreams: the one who'd mugged her. It had all come back again in September and in nights since then. She sometimes felt so fragile, but she didn't want to be helpless. She didn't want to be a prisoner, either, to an event that hadn't been her fault but which, nonetheless, sometimes threatened to engulf her. That in one moment on a summer's night her very soul and existence would have ended at a meager value of nine dollars ... and the whim of a man.
The dream was always the same.
The crazy flight down the tunnel along hallways and corridors continued with almost predictable regularity. Finally Leah would float, lift upward out of sleep into welcome daylight. She'd catch her breath and will her pounding heart to slow down. Then she'd curl up in the bed sheets, feeling small and needy like a child. Sometimes she was aware of the sound of her own voice, the low moans and whines of exhaustion and fear.
Suddenly out of blackness came the danger. The ominous man with the knife, not caring who she was but pursuing her relentlessly until she was worn out and unable to escape the presence gaining on her.
In the low tunnel light in her mind, the face was clear. It was the grinning black face of the man who'd attacked her. Once, in the dream, it had been the face of someone she didn't know at all, and once it had even been the face of Allen. Not chasing her, but laughing at her.
The attack had taken place on the nearly deserted Pratt campus where she'd taken an evening art class. At first to Leah it had seemed that it would be a mugging. That is, until the very quiet and opportunity of the moment became clear to Leah and to the man confronting her with a knife. She'd seen the change in his eyes, when he stopped being concerned about escape and a few dollars, and had lingered over the possibilities that had come almost simultaneously to both their minds. Instant panic and dread filled her. His response had been one of glee. He'd smelled sweaty and nervous, and he had not cared about her shaking hands and tremulous voice.
Leah's imagination had jumped to fast forward, to afterward, when she'd have to pull together her shattered wits and her used body; when she'd have to go for help and tell someone. She became paralyzed with fear when she further considered the other violent choices available to the attacker.
If she didn't show fear, she had tried to reason to herself, if she didn't demonstrate vulnerability, maybe he wouldn't think to hurt her. But it had been so quiet in the stairwell.
He'd started to laugh at her quick understanding of the situation. Leah's first thought had been that he was going to kill her when he was done. She thought about Gail having to call their father to tell him.
Leah had only put up a token attempt at resistance. She had been afraid of an outright struggle because of the knife. What if she made him mad and he just stabbed her ... over and over again?
She could still feel weak with nausea when she thought of that knife held against her face.
He'd hit her with his fist, and when her head had resounded with a painful thud off the wall, she'd slid to the floor dazed. She'd been wearing a khaki jumpsuit. Fashionable and blessedly difficult. In his anger and frustration at the obstacle of the clothing, the black man had pulled and slashed at the fabric, cutting Leah's fingers and thigh, although superficially, when they got in the way. Her screams had been feeble, the mere utterances of defeat and helplessness. He'd hit her again.
Excerpted from The Color of Love by Sandra Kitt. Copyright © 1995 Sandra Kitt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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