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"Denise? Oh, I didn't realize you were on the phone."
Denise Eaton's head popped up and she waved away the woman who'd come into her office. She couldn't talk to the social worker, because if she didn't resolve what had become a dilemma there would be nothing to discuss.
"Are you certain I have no recourse, Myles?" she asked, continuing with her telephone conversation.
After she'd opened the certified letter, reading it not once but twice, she'd called her cousin, Myles Eaton, who taught constitutional law at Duquesne University School of Law, before she'd faxed the letter.
"I'm sorry, Denise. I wish I could give you more encouraging news, but the new owner can legally raise the rent. You approved the clause in your original lease that allows him to do it."
"He had to have known he was going to sell the building when I signed the lease. What I can't understand is why the new owner wants to double the rent. He has to be aware of prevailing rents for this neighborhood."
Denise had chosen the less-than-desirable D.C. neighborhood because the working parents who lived there needed the services she offered, and the rent for the building where she'd set up her business was one she could afford.
"Maybe he knows something you don't, Necie."
"Like what, Myles?"
"Perhaps the area is targeted for gentrification and he wants you to vacate so he can use the property for something other than a child care center. Do you know anyone in D.C. who can advocate on your behalf?"
She rubbed her forehead with her fingers as she felt the beginnings of a tension headache. "Like who?"
"Like someone with political connections."
Denise did know someone, but there was no way she wanted to be beholden to Trey Chambers. "No," she lied.
"If you were my client, I'd recommend you contact the owner and see if you can negotiate a deal that would be reasonable for both parties."
"What's reasonable is I can't afford even a hundred-dollar increase in rent. I'm barely breaking even."
"Call the new owner of the property, Denise, and if you're unable to talk to him, then call me back. I'll look up some of my old law school buddies who practice in the District and see if they'll represent you."
"How am I going to pay them, Myles?" She only had three months of budgeted funds for New Visions Childcare and less than a thousand dollars available for legal expenses.
"Don't worry about paying them. I'll cover the fees."
Denise panicked. There was no way she was going to let her cousin subsidize her business. She hadn't accepted any monetary support from her father and mother, deciding instead to take out a business loan to set up the progressive child care center in a D.C. neighborhood where poor and working-classes families desperately needed the services.
Her delicate jaw hardened when she clenched her teeth. "No, you won't."
"Stop being so muleheaded, Necie."
"Thank you, cuz. I'll call and let you know how everything turns out."
Denise cut off whatever Myles was going to say when she hung up. She wasn't completely destitute. Instead of subletting or renting the one-bedroom Philadelphia co-op her cousin had given her when she moved out after marrying celebrated playwright Preston Tucker, Denise had decided to sell it. After several deals had fallen through, she was finally set to close on the property. But that was three weeks away.
She had to decide whether she wanted to invest the money in the business. The profit she stood to make was enough to cover salaries, utilities, rent and other essentials for operating the child care center. The first year, New Visions had made a modest profit, but this year it was projected to increase by ten percent.
Drumming her fingers on the top of the desk, Denise stared at the framed prints of children from around the world in their native dress. She'd fulfilled a childhood dream of becoming a teacher, but hadn't stopped there. Setting up the child care center was the second stage of her plan and the third and final component was to eventually establish a school for at-risk, underprivileged boys.
However, everything she'd sacrificed and worked so hard for was about to implode. The new owner of the property had given her ninety days to accept the terms of the rental renewal agreement or vacate the property. And there was no way she could find another building, renovate it and secure the necessary permits to run a similar facility in three months.
She stared at the letter for a full minute. Reaching for the telephone, she picked up the receiver and dialed the number on the company's masthead. "Capital Management. How may I direct your call?" asked the woman who'd answered the telephone.
Denise sat up straighter. "May I please speak to Ms. Henderson."
"Denise Eaton, executive director of New Visions Childcare. I received a certified letter this morning signed by Ms. Henderson. I'm calling to set up an appointment to meet with her to discuss the terms of the renewal lease agreement."
"Please hold on, Ms. Eaton. I'll see if Ms. Henderson is available."
Denise continued drumming her fingers, her heart beating rapidly against her ribs, while mumbling a silent prayer that she would be able to appeal to Camilla Henderson's maternal instinctsthat was if the woman had any.
"Camilla Henderson," she said in a strong, no-nonsense, businesslike tone. "How may I help you, Ms. Eaton?"
"I'd like to set up an appointment to meet with you to discuss"
"The letter you received outlining the terms of the rent increase," she said, interrupting Denise.
"How did you know?"
"I'm not clairvoyant, Ms. Eaton." There was a hint of laughter in her voice. "It's just that I've been fielding calls about rent increases all morning." The sound of turning pages came through the earpiece. "Are you available this coming Friday?"
Denise checked her planner. She had a staff meeting at ten. "What time on Friday?"
"I have an opening for Friday morning and another one for late afternoon."
"I'd prefer late afternoon."
"My assistant will call you Friday morning to set up a time and place where we'll meet."
"We won't meet at your office?" Denise asked.
"No, Ms. Eaton. We're currently renovating our offices and conference room."
"Okay. I'll wait for the call. And, thank you, Ms. Henderson."
"I'll see you Friday, Ms. Eaton."
Denise hung up. Camilla Henderson seemed friendly enough on the phone, so now it was up to her to try to convince the woman to lower the rent for the sake of the children, their parents and the employees of the center.
Camilla Henderson exhaled a breath when she dialed Garrett Fennell's extension. It took less than a minute for his executive assistant to transfer her to the CEO of Capital Management Properties.
"Rhett, Ms. Eaton called. I told her I'm willing to meet with her Friday afternoon."
"Call her back and tell her you're available tonight."
"What if she's not available?"
"If I know Denise Amaris Eaton as well as I believe I do, she will make herself available. Tell her to meet you in the lobby of my hotel at seven. That should give her enough time to close the center and make it to the Hay-Adams in time for dinner."
Denise parked her car six blocks from the Hay-Adams. She'd been surprised when Camilla Henderson's assistant called soon after they'd hung up to schedule a dinner meeting at the hotel across the street from the White House for seven that evening. Her plan to wash several loads of laundry was scrapped when she'd left the center at fourtwo hours earlier than her normal quitting time. She'd gone home to shower and change into something more appropriate for a dinner meeting at the landmark hotel that was a popular choice for policy-making meetings among Washingtonian politicos.
She didn't have time to wash and blow out her hair, so Denise brushed it off her face, pinning it into a loose chignon on the nape of her neck. It had taken three changes before she'd decided on a sleeveless ice-blue linen dress with a squared neckline edged in black. The narrow black belt around her waist matched four-inch pumps and the bolero jacket. She wore pearl studs in her pierced ears, a matching strand around her neck and a gold watch that had been her father's gift to her when she'd earned a graduate degree in educational administration. The outfit was perfect for the warm spring weather.
It felt good wearing the heels, only because her work attire was relegated to slacks, blouses and sensible walking shoes. It was only on rare occasions that she wore a suit or dress to work. The exception was when she had a meeting outside the center. Although she didn't interact as closely with the children as she had when she was a classroom teacher, coming into contact with sticky fingers or when she picked up a toddler who'd had an accident, Denise had learned to dress for practicality.
"Good evening, miss."
Smiling, she nodded to the well-dressed young man. "Good evening." Although she hadn't turned around, Denise could feel the heat of his gaze on her back when he passed on her right.
"You look very nice," he said.
Her smile was still in place when she crossed H Street, heading for Sixteenth. His unexpected compliment was an ego-booster. Not only did she need to pump up her ego, but she also needed an additional shot of confidence, and Denise wasn't about to rule out a minor miracle.
She had never been one who'd found herself at a loss for words. In fact her mother had always said she should've been the model for Chatty Cathy. Paulette Eaton claimed her daughter spoke in full sentences before she'd celebrated her second birthday. Her father, Boaz Eaton, said children who were talkative were usually very intelligent. Coming from Boaz, who'd stressed education above all else, it had become the ultimate compliment.
Denise detected a smell in the air that she'd come to associate with Virginia and the Capitol district. Maybe it was chicory or another plant indigenous to the region.
Once she'd contemplated moving from Philadelphia to D.C., she'd met with a real estate agent several times a month to look at vacant properties for her business, and when she'd found the one-story brick building she'd been relieved it hadn't required major renovations. Finding an apartment proved a lot easier for her. She was finally settling into a one-bedroom apartment at the Winston House. It had taken her a year to finalize her move from the City of Brotherly Love to the nation's capital.
The walk was what Denise needed to compose herself when she nodded to the doorman, who'd opened the door to the entrance to the Hay-Adams. "Thank you."
Touching the shiny brim of the hat, the man bowed as if she were royalty. "You're welcome, miss."
She entered the opulent lobby of the building that had been originally designed in the 1920s as a residential hotel. However, Denise felt as if she'd walked into a private mansion on Lafayette Square that featured suites with views of Lafayette Park and the White House.
Her eyes swept around the lobby, searching for a woman wearing a tan pantsuit with a white blouse. She checked her watch. It was six forty-five, fifteen minutes earlier than their appointed time. Walking over to a plush armchair, she sat down and waited for Camilla Henderson.
Rhett Fennell's hands tightened on the arms of the chair as he forced himself not to move. He'd come down to the lobby at 6:30 p.m. to wait for a glimpse of the woman with whom he'd waited six years to exact his revenge. The deep-seated anger that had gnawed at him day in and day out burned as hotly as it had the day Denise Eaton walked out of his life and into the arms of a man who'd gone from friend to enemy.
His mother had pleaded with him to let it goforget about the two people he'd trustedbut he couldn't. It was the thirst for revenge that fueled the fire to propel him to get up every day to grow the business he would use to inflict Denise Eaton with the emotional pain he'd carried for longer than he wanted to remember, and bring Trey Chambers to his knees.
At exactly seven o'clock, he stood and counted the steps it would take to bring him face-to-face with her. A wry smile tilted the corners of his mouth. It was half a dozenthe same number of years since the fateful day that would forever be branded into his memory.
"Good evening, Ms. Eaton."
Denise froze, her breath catching in her throat and making it impossible for her to move. She heard the roaring in her head, fearful that she was going to faint when she registered the voice of the man she'd feared running into since moving to D.C. Rhett Fennell was the only man she knew who could shout without raising his voice.
Her lips parted and she expelled a lungful of air and the roaring stopped. Her head came up as if pulled by an invisible string. Standing less than a foot away was Rhett Fennell, the man with whom she'd fallen in love, given her heart, virginity and a promise to share her life and future with him.
He'd matured. His face was leaner, his black hair close-cropped and there was an intensity in the deep-set dark eyes that didn't look at her but through her. Rising on shaking knees, Denise extended her hand.
"It's good seeing you again, Rhett."
Rhett reached for the proffered hand, holding it firmly within his large grasp before releasing it. His impassive expression did not change as he stared at the heart-shaped face with the wide-set dark brown eyes, delicate nose and temptingly curved mouth that conjured up memories of what he'd been reduced to after they'd finished making love. It was her mouth and what came out of it that had enthralled him before he'd turned to see her face for the first time.
Denise had been blessed with the voice of a temptress. It was low, sultry and definitely had a triple-X rating. She was the only woman he'd known or met who'd been able to seduce him with hello. However, time had been more than kind to her. Although appearing slimmer than she had when they were in college together, nonetheless she was strikingly beautiful.
He forced a smile that stopped before it reached his eyes. "And, it's very nice seeing you again. How long has it been?"
Denise's eyes narrowed. She wanted to tell Garrett Fennell there was no reason to play mind games with her. He was brilliant. Everything he saw, heard or read he remembered, and it was his photographic memory that made him an outstanding student and astute businessman.
And he looked every inch the successful businessman in a tailored charcoal-gray suit, pale blue shirt, purple silk tie and black wingtips. Garrett Mason Fennell was the epitome of sartorial splendor.