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Authors: Reshonda Tate Billingsley

What's done in the dark

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RESHONDA TATE BILLINGSLEY

Her bestselling novels of family and faith have been hailed as:

“Emotionally charged . . . not easily forgotten.”

—Romantic Times

“Steamy, sassy, sexy.”

—Ebony

“Compelling, heartfelt.”

—Booklist

“Full of palpable joy, grief, and soulful characters.”

—The Jacksonville Free Press

“Poignant and captivating, humorous and heart-wrenching.”

—The Mississippi Link

DON’T MISS THESE WONDERFUL NOVELS:

The Secret She Kept

“Entertaining and riveting. . . . A heartfelt and realistic look at the damaging effects of mental illness on those who suffer from it and the ones who bear the burden along with them. . . . Jaw-dropping, a drama-filled story. . . . Definitely a must-read.”

—AAM Book Club

Say Amen , Again

Winner of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work

“Heartfelt. . . . A fast-paced story filled with vivid characters.”

—Publishers Weekly

Everybody Say Amen

AUSA TodayTop Ten Summer Sizzler!

“A fun, redemptive book, packed with colorful characters, drama, and scandal.”

—RT Book Reviews

A BET ORIGINAL MOVIE!

Let the Church Say Amen

#1Essencemagazine bestseller One ofLibrary Journal’s Best Christian Books

“Billingsley infuses her text with just the right dose of humor to balance the novel’s serious events.”

—Library Journal(starred review)

“Amen toLet the Church Say Amen. . . . [A] well-written novel.”

—Indianapolis Recorder

“Her community of very human saints will win readers over with their humor and verve.”

—Booklist

A Good Man Is Hard to Find

“Billingsley’s engaging voice will keep readers turning the pages and savoring each scandalous revelation.”

—Publishers Weekly(starred review)

Holy Rollers

“Sensational. . . . [Billingsley] makes you fall in love with these characters.”

—RT Book Reviews

The Devil Is a Lie

“An entertaining dramedy.”

—Ebony

“A romantic page-turner dipped in heavenly goodness.”

—Romantic Times(41/2stars)

“Fast moving and hilarious.”

—Publishers Weekly

Can I Get a Witness?

AUSA Today2007 Summer Sizzler

“An emotional ride.”

—Ebony

“Billingsley serves up a humdinger of a plot.”

—Essence

The Pastor’s Wife

“Billingsley has done it again. . . . A true page turner.”

—Urban Reviews

I Know I’ve Been Changed

#1Dallas Morning Newsbestseller

“Grabs you from the first page and never lets go. . . . Bravo!”

—Victoria Christopher Murray

“An excellent novel with a moral lesson to boot.”

—Zane,New York Timesbestselling author

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Felise

“ANY MAN THAT CAN RESISTthis must not be a man!” I giggled as I wiggled my toned behind in the full-length mirror in my bedroom. I made sure my snow white lace thong was situated just right, then brushed down the candy-apple-red negligee. I’d never in my life spent two hundred dollars on lingerie, but I wanted tonight to be special. Ineededtonight to be special.

My commitment to Shaun T’s Rockin’ Body workout DVD had paid off. Everything was tight in all the right places, and my body looked like it belonged to someone who was twenty-five—not the thirty-five-year-old mother that I am.

I fluffed my curls and gave one last smile to my reflection. Today was my fifteenth anniversary, and I was determined that a sex life that died fourteen years ago would be resurrected tonight.

I had taken all of my sister, Fran’s advice. Even though she was single, she never had a shortage of men.She swore it was her ability to give good loving that kept her Rolodex on fire.

I pressed play on my iPod to start setting the mood with all of our favorite songs. I dimmed the lights as the sounds of Luther filled the room. I had left a trail of rose petals—from the garage, through the kitchen, up the stairs, into our bedroom, then finally all over the bed. I wanted Greg to experience the alluring ambience the moment he walked through the door.

I checked, then triple-checked that everything—the wine, the rose petals, the scented sheets—was just right. But my smile faded when I noticed the time. It was eight thirty. Two hours past the time my husband had said that he’d be home. I immediately felt myself getting frustrated. I had moved heaven and earth to get someone to cover my shift at the hospital so I’d be home in time. I had hoped my husband could do the same.

I took a deep breath. I was not going to stress about tonight. Greg was a borderline obsessive-compulsive workaholic who was dedicated to his job as a successful investment banker. For our anniversary, though, I hoped he would try his best to relax and just enjoy himself. And tonight I was going to help him make that happen. He would relax, and we would rekindle the spark that had long ago been extinguished.

I threw on my silk robe and busied myself with my iPhone messages until I finally heard the door chime, signaling Greg was home. I glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand: 8:52.

Okay, Greg was late but not that late, I told myself. We could still salvage this night. I removed my robe and easedinto a sexy position on the bed. I plastered on a seductive smile and waited for the door to open.

A few minutes later, I glanced over at the clock again.

9:06.

“Okay, what is taking him so long to get upstairs?” I mumbled.

When the clock hit 9:18, I had had enough. I got up, grabbed my robe, and made my way downstairs. That had to have been Greg coming in because our daughter, Liz, was spending the night with a friend.

I peeked out the small bay window near the staircase. Greg’s car was parked in the driveway, so he was home. What in the world was he doing? Surely he had seen the trail of rose petals.

I had just reached the middle of the stairs when I heard the vacuum cleaner. Not understanding, I descended a few more steps. Then my mouth fell open when I saw my husband vigorously vacuuming up the rose petals I had so meticulously laid out.

“What are you doing?” I screamed over the vacuum.

He glanced up. “Hey, babe, getting all this stuff up off the floor. Liz must’ve made a mess or something.”

I stared at my husband in disbelief. “Are you serious?”

He didn’t reply as he took the hose off the vacuum and began sucking up the petals off the stairs.

“Liz didn’t do that! I did!” I yelled over the vacuum.

He didn’t stop cleaning. “You did this? What did you spill?”

I picked up a few petals at my feet, then threw them at him. Of course, they didn’t do anything but flutter back to the ground. “I didn’t spill anything. I laid them out!It was a trail of rose petals.”

He looked at me like that was the dumbest thing I’d ever done.

“Well, you know I like to come home to a clean house.” He finally cut the vacuum off and started picking up the rose petals the machine hadn’t nabbed. “Why do you have all of this stuff laid out like this anyway?”

Only then did he glance up at me and notice the negligee. “What are you wearing?”

I wanted to cry. I knew we hadn’t been intimate in a long time, but this was ridiculous. “What does it look like I’m wearing, Greg?”

“Oooh,” he said, as realization set in. “I’ve just been preoccupied.” He took a step toward me. “I’m sorry, you know things have been crazy at work.” He stopped talking to manically pick up some rose petals that he missed. “I’m sorry, you know clutter bugs me. But I appreciate the effort.” He leaned in to kiss me.

I pushed him away, though not hard enough to send him down the stairs. “Are you serious?”

“No, it just caught me by surprise. Usually, you have on a head scarf and some sweats when I get in.” I was the one surprised when he added, “What’s the occasion anyway?”

I stood waiting for him to break out into laughter. Tell me I was being punk’d, anything. Finally I said, “Today, Greg. Fifteen years.”

The truth finally dawned on him. “Oh, my God, babe. Our anniversary. I am so, so sorry. You know I’ve been swamped at work, and I just completely lost track of what day it was.”

I shook my head in disbelief. Thetears I had been holding back made their escape. I had no words as I spun around and marched back to our bedroom.

“Come on, don’t be mad,” he said, following me.

I don’t know why I was even shocked. I decided to turn around and give him a piece of my mind. But before I could speak, I noticed him picking up rose petals in the hallway.

“Ughhh!” I screamed, slamming the bedroom door.

I wanted to leave. I didn’t even feel like taking the negligee off. I just wanted to get away from this suffocating house and away from my inconsiderate and unaffectionate husband.

Our once-a-week sexual escapades had dwindled to twice a month, then to once every other month. It was unreal. I used to think he was seeing someone else. After all, he’d cheated on me shortly after we got married. We’d gone to counseling and, I thought, moved past it. But the past three years especially had been brutal. I felt completely neglected. I’d even hired a private investigator to have him followed. But three thousand dollars later, all I discovered was what I already knew: my husband was simply a severe workaholic.

But tonight was the last straw.

I snatched a maxi dress off the hanger in my walk-in closet, then slipped it over my head. I then snatched a change of clothes and stuffed them in my gym bag. I couldn’t stand to be in the same house with him another minute.

I marched back downstairs. I found my husband actually taking out the garbage. “You can clean up the rose petals in the bedroom now,” I said, whisking past him.

“Babe, come on, don’t be mad at me. I was just taking the garbage out while I gave you a minute tocool down.”

“Well, I’m cool. Cold as ice.”

“Where are you going?”

I ignored him as he followed me out in the garage.

“Felise! I said I’m sorry.”

I continued to ignore him as I got in the car and backed out. I didn’t know where I was going, but at the moment, any place that was far away from Gregory Mavins was exactlywhere I wanted to be.

2

Paula

I CAN’T BELIEVE I PRAYEDfor this.

I mean, growing up, all I thought about was becoming a mother. I wanted to be a wife and have a house full of wonderful kids.

That was my dream. This was my nightmare.

“Stevie, if you don’t get your butt down off of that sofa!” I screamed at my oldest son. “And now, look, the twins are up there, too. You know they’re going to do whatever you do.” I swatted at my ten-year-old and turned my attention back to the phone. I’d picked it up when it rang, but I hadn’t even had a chance to speak when I noticed my kids acting plumb fools. Again.


Page 2

“Hello?” I said, exasperated.

“Just one time, I’m going to call your house and have a civil conversation without you going off on your kids.”

I tried to smile at the sound of my best friend’s voice. But I wasn’t in a smiling mood. These kids had worked mylast nerve. Again.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. I really do. But my oldest, Tahiry, was fourteen and in that stage where I couldn’t stand her. Then my ten-year-old son was ADD, ADHD, or one of those other acronyms to describe a child who couldn’t keep his butt still. And then, just when I thought I was done having kids, I got a double surprise three years ago. Marcus and Mason. You know that 99.9 percent effective rate for birth control? My twins are that 0.01 percent because I took my pills faithfully. So imagine my surprise when my doctor informed me that my ulcer was actually babies (with ans).

So, with three rambunctious boys and a teen who was feeling herself, I wouldn’t be experiencing any peaceful moments in my house any time soon.

“Stevie, watch your brothers. I’m going out here to have a smoke.”

“You know cigarettes kill people,” Tahiry said, not looking up from her spot on the recliner where she’d been texting God knows who for the past two hours.

“So does having kids,” I mumbled.

Stevie stopped jumping long enough to say, “For real, Ma. They told us at school that cigarettes turn your lungs black and you get all crippled and stuff and can’t breathe. I can’t be having a jacked-up-looking mom, coughing and stuff.”

“She’s not going to be jacked up,” Tahiry said. “She’s gonna be dead.”

“You’re gonna die, Mommy?” Marcus asked in horror.

“Of course not, son.”

“If she doesn’t stop smoking, she will.” Tahiry shrugged nonchalantly. Did I mention I couldn’t stand my daughter?

“My dad quit smoking and got run over by aMack truck,” I said, grabbing my pack of Virginia Slims and making my way out onto our back deck.

“Why are you telling your kids that?” Felise said on the phone. “You know your dad died in a regular car accident.”

I plopped down on a patio chair. “Regardless, he’d stopped smoking and he died anyway.”

I didn’t start smoking until I had kids. I knew it was a nasty habit, and my husband, Steven, hated it. But I needed something to take the edge off, and since I wasn’t much of a drinker, I medicate with cigarettes.

“What’s up? What are you doing?” Felise said. “I was hoping I could come scoop you up and we could go have a drink or something.” She sounded distressed, but as much as I would’ve loved to have spent the evening catching up with her over drinks, that was no longer my reality.

“Girl, please. Steven is gone. As usual. So I’m stuck at home with the kids. Their behinds need to be in the bed, but I just don’t have the strength to fight with them. I hate summers.” I lit my cigarette and took a long inhale. The smoke immediately began relaxing my nerves.

“Isn’t your mom there?”

I blew out a puff of smoke. “Yeah, but she’s about to go play bingo. Besides, I wouldn’t be good company. I’m in a foul mood.”

“Which is exactly why you need to get out. I’m in a foul mood, too, and I need to vent.”

“About what?” I didn’t give her time to answer before adding, “Why are you going to have a drink anyway? Isn’t today your anniversary?”

“That’s what I need to talk about.”

Suddenly, the patio door opened, and Tahiry steppedout. “Mom, you might want to get in here. The boys are having a water gun fight in your living room.”

“Are you freakin’ kidding me?” I screamed. “Felise, I’m sorry, you’ll have to tell me what’s going on later. I have yet another catastrophe to go deal with. Call you later.”

I hung up the phone. I couldn’t even hold a freakin’ conversation with my best friend. That’s how messed up my life was.

I took a quick last puff of my cigarette, tossed it down, and hurried back inside. I immediately told myself to follow my therapist’s advice and use my “calm” voice.

“Stevie, Marcus, and Mason,” I began, “please don’t jump on the sofa and shoot water guns in my house.” They looked at me for barely a moment, and then Mason sprayed Marcus as they took off running.

See?I don’t know what kind of school my therapist went to or what kind of kids she was used to dealing with, but that calm mess didn’t work on my kids. I wanted to whip their behinds—like my mom used to do me—but Steven didn’t believe in spankings. To me, that was part of the reason our kids were out of control.

“If y’all don’t stop it right now!” I screamed. That got the reaction I had been looking for, and everyone came to a halt. “Go to bed! Don’t play with any toys, just put on your pajamas and get in the bed!”

They sulked as they walked off. Tahiry, who was still texting away on her phone, didn’t bother looking up as she said, “You should have stopped having kids at me.”

I wanted to tell her I should’ve never started with her. But since that’s not something I’d ever verbalize to my children,I kept quiet.

Things had so not turned out like I planned. By college I’d shed those domestic dreams of childhood. I was going to be a big-time actress. I’d even dropped out of Howard University my junior year to pursue my dream. But after a couple of commercials, that dream had died really quick, and before I knew it, I was working in retail. I still got bit parts here and there, but nothing to consider a real acting career. Then, Felise, who had been my best friend since ninth grade, had introduced me to Steven when he’d moved to DC to go to Georgetown Law. Before I knew it, we were in deep. Tahiry was conceived two months after we started dating. Steven did the honorable thing and married me, and the course of my life was rewritten.

While I wouldn’t say Steven had pressured me into marriage, it’s not something I just had to do. But heaven forbid the esteemed son of Texas judge Walter Wright have a child out of wedlock. Not to mention the pressure from my family. Everyone made me feel so guilty that I felt that I had no choice but to get married. And although I’d learned to love my life, I now felt trapped. And resentful. On top of that, Steven worked so much. He was one of the most sought-after criminal defense attorneys in Texas. I was a stay-at-home mom, and I didn’t want to be. My passion was the theater. Just last month I’d been offered a role in a local stage play by an old director I used to work with. But they were planning to go on tour, and I couldn’t very well abandon my kids and go traipsing around the country with some play.

Meanwhile, my husband got a reprieve every day at work and with his out-of-town trips. Me, I never got a reprieve and it was taking its toll.

I made my way into the back guest room that hadbecome my mother’s room. Her door was open, and she was on her knees, praying.

“Heavenly Father,” she was saying, “I end this prayer asking that you bestow upon me bountiful blessings tonight at bingo. If I win, I promise I’ll give the church ten percent. Amen.”

I shook my head at my mom’s bootleg prayer and made my way back to my room. Her next step would be more practical. She would ask me for money for bingo.

I wanted out of my life. And as soon as my husband got home, I was going to tell him. I simply couldn’t do this anymore.

3

Felise

I NEVER KNEW JACK DANIEL’Scould be so comforting.

I’d been sitting here crying for the past thirty minutes, and since I knew I wasn’t much of a drinker, I’d been taking it slow. But the whiskey had me realizing one thing for sure: I was sick and tired of my husband.

Fifteen years of begging for affection. Fifteen years of living with an obsessive workaholic. After fifteen years you’d think I’d be used to it, but I was exhausted. I’d begged Greg to make more time for me, to give as much to our marriage as he gave to his job. And he’d try, and succeed for a while, but then he would go back to normal.

I needed a new normal.

Don’t get me wrong. I had no plans to divorce my husband. At least I didn’t think I did. He’d been the one who had repaired my broken heart when my one true love chose another. It’s why I’d hung in for so long. But I knew that if something didn’t change, a change of address would be in myfuture.

“Felise?”

I turned around to the voice behind me. I immediately smiled at the sight of Steven, my dear friend and Paula’s husband.

“Hey, pretty lady,” he said, hugging me. “What are you doing here?”

I raised my drink. “Drinking,” I replied with a giggle. I wasn’t surprised that he was here. The Four Seasons bar had some of the best drink specials in town. “What are you doing here?”

“I had a meeting with one of my frat brothers. He’s trying to get me on board with this business venture. It sounds promising, but it may take me away from the family more, and I’m just not sure that’s something I want to do.”

That made me smile. Greg wouldn’t have even considered his family.

“Good ol’ Steven,” I said, raising my drink to him in a toast. With the stretching I almost slipped off the chair.

“Whoa,” he said, catching me. I could see the wheels turning in his head as he assessed my condition. “Okay, what’s really going on? What are you doing here?”

I released a strained laugh. “What does it look like?”

“It looks like you’re drinking”—he cocked his head and studied my drink—“whiskey.”

I saluted him. “You’re good.”

A light went on in his eyes, and his face changed. “Felise, what’s going on? Isn’t today your anniversary?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Steven remembered it was my anniversary, but my own husband didn’t.

“Where’s Greg?”

I immediately lost my smile.“He’s at home, cleaning up.”

“What?” Steven said, confused.

“He’s vacuuming up the rose petals I had laid out for our romantic evening.”

“What do you mean, vacuuming up?”

I took a deep breath and set my drink down. I needed to leave that bourbon alone. It was starting to make my head spin. “You know my husband,” I said. “He’s cleaning. On our fifteenth anniversary. I know it sounds unbelievable. But that’s my husband, good ol’ Greg.”

“Hey, man, can I get you anything?” the bartender asked, approaching us.

“Bring me something a little lighter,” I said. “Apple martini.”

“Should you be mixing liquor?” Steven asked.

“Should you be all up in my business?”

Steven smiled at that. He knew he couldn’t push me too far. He turned to the bartender and said, “You know what? Bring me a cranberry and vodka.” He slid into the barstool next to me. “You don’t mind me sitting here and having a drink with you, do you?”

I shrugged indifferently. What I was thinking, though, was that right about now I’d rather sit with him than just about anybody.

When the bartender placed the drinks in front of us, Steven said, “Okay, tell me what’s going on. You and Greg have a fight?”

I took a deep breath, sipped my martini, then relayed the whole sad story.

“Wow,” he said when I was finished.

“Yeah.” I leaned in. “So tell me, Steven, if I recall, didn’t you whisk your wife away for a weekend in Puerto Rico for your anniversary?”

Steven held up a finger to stop me. “Ah, not quite. That was the plan, but remember, Paulabailed on me.”

I nodded. “Oh, yeah.” I remembered thinking Paula was out of her mind that day. Steven had called and asked her to meet him at the airport. He’d planned a surprise weekend trip for their anniversary, arranged childcare and everything, and Paula wouldn’t go because she said they “couldn’t just drop everything and jet off somewhere like they were single.” I’d felt like Paula and I needed to switch spouses.

It was a feeling I quickly brushed off, even though Steven had been mine before he was Paula’s. But that was a long time ago. Back in college when he and I were best friends who crossed the line. And when he’d gone to DC for law school, I’d hooked him up with Paula, my best friend since high school, who had gone to Howard University and was making her home in DC. I’d just wanted her to show him around. I never expected them to fall in love.

But the one thing I knew about Steven was he was a hopeless romantic. He would make up for that fiasco. No way would he let his fifteenth anniversary go by without some grandiose celebration.

Steven took a sip of his drink, then sadly said, “I don’t know if we’ll even make it to fifteen.”

“What?” I asked in shock. I knew Paula had been unhappy, but I had no idea Steven was feeling the same way.

“Sometimes I feel like marrying Paula was the biggest mistake I ever made,” he candidly admitted.

Immediately, I started feeling butterflies in my stomach. I tried to tell myself it was the liquor, but my heart wanted to believe that maybe, just maybe, Steven was thinking about us. As horrible as it seems, at that very moment I hoped that he was. Then I would know I wasn’t the only one who stillhad unresolved feelings.

4

Felise

IT’S TRUE THAT LIQUOR BRINGSout the real you. Because I had just asked a question that, had I been in my right mind, I would’ve never dreamed of asking. But I repeated it anyway.

“You can be honest. It won’t hurt my feelings,” I said. “Do you ever think about us? That’s a yes-or-no question.”

I was on my third apple martini. Couple that with the bourbon I’d had earlier and I was feeling pretty courageous.

Steven was nursing his third drink—since joining me—so I could tell he had a little buzz, too. Still, he said, “Come on, Felise, we agreed that was a chapter that was closed.”

I playfully stuck my bottom lip out. “I know we made the right decision. We’re too much alike.”

“Yeah, and don’t forget, you fixed me up with Paula.”

“Yeah, I did, and here we are.” My heart ached as I thought of their beautiful wedding. I loved Greg. I really did. But he was frugal and had considered a big wedding a waste of money, so we’d been married in a simple ceremony atthe justice of the peace. The bad part was Paula had simple tastes, too. She couldn’t have cared less about a big wedding. But Steven was from a prominent family and his mother would’ve died if she’d been denied the opportunity to see her son married in a huge ceremony. And talk about huge! They’d had ten bridesmaids (including me), ten groomsmen, and two hundred and fifty guests watch them exchange vows in a historic Catholic cathedral, followed by a reception for four hundred at an elite country club. Yep, I’d gotten a dirty courtroom at the courthouse and Paula had gotten my dream wedding.


Page 3

When the minister asked if anyone saw any reason why the two of them should not be married, the only thing that kept me from speaking up was the one-twentieth-of-a-carat ring on my finger. Of course, Steven had pulled out a four-carat diamond that had made everyone gasp.

“Hey, are you still with me?” Steven waved his hand in my face.

I tried to laugh, but a distorted cry came out instead. “Sorry.” I covered my eyes with the palm of my hand.

“Hey, hey,” Steven said, scooting closer.

I turned my head as I tried to ward off the tears. “Sorry. It’s just that sometimes I wonder about my marriage.”

He sighed like he could relate. “You’re not the only one. It’s like, I love Paula, I really do. But after she became a mother, she changed. I try to do my part to help. I tried to hire a nanny, but Paula refused. I did what I could to make life easier for her. But it’s almost like she’s happier wallowing in pity.”

I knew all too well what Steven was talking about. I knew full well how miserable Paula was. I talked to her about her negative attitude on a regular basis.

Steven was about to say something else when his phone rang. He pulled it out of the holder on his hip, glanced at it, and said, “Speak of the devil. This is Paula.” He pressed Talk. “Hello.” He paused.

“Naw, I’m still here,” he said into the phone. “I am not drunk . . . Yes, I had a few drinks.” He rolled his eyes and pulled the phone away from his ear as Paula’s loud voice broadcast from the phone. He put it back to his ear. “Look, don’t start with me, Paula. I told you I was going to be out late . . . I asked you to come. You’re the one who wanted to stay at home . . .” He gritted his teeth as he stood up. “Oh, don’t give me that. Your mom was there. Why is she living there if you don’t ever want to leave the kids with her?” He paused again, and I could tell Paula was going off. “You know what, I told you about calling me out of my name . . .” His brow was furrowing, and I could tell he was getting upset. “I don’t think so! I pay the mortgage. I wish you would put my sh—” I put my hand on his arm to calm him down and remind him where he was. He took a deep breath and said, “Stop threatening me with divorce. If you’re going to leave, then leave . . . I wish you would put my stuff on the lawn!”

More muffled roars came from Paula’s end. Then finally he said, “You are deranged! I was meeting with Kevin, not another woman! Why would I invite you if I was planning on meeting another woman? . . . I didn’t think you’d refuse. You know what? You’re being ridiculous, as usual. Don’t call me rushing me. I’ll be home when I get home! You . . . Hello? Hello?”

He tossed the phone on the bar. “Uggh!” He flinched as, unexpectedly, he grabbed at his chest.

“Are you okay?” I asked. Paula had mentioned he’d been having some chest pains, but she had just chalked it up to stress from his demanding job.

Steven stood deathly still for a minute, then relaxed before saying, “Yeah. That woman gives me heartburn.” He signaled for the bartender, and I relaxed. “Excuse me, can I get another drink? And make it a double!”

I knew Paula wasn’t happy, but I’d had no idea their marriage had reached this extreme. “What was that all about?” I asked. I definitely noted that he hadn’t told her that he was with me.

“I swear, that woman! I just don’t know how much longer I can do this. She’s always accusing me of cheating! Felise, as God as my witness, I’ve never cheated on her, but for as much as she accuses me, I might as well be.”

“Don’t say that,” I replied as the bartender set a double shot glass in front of us. “Your wife loves you.”

“I’m just tired.” Steven took his drink and downed it in one extended gulp. “See, you’re not the only one who’s unhappy.”

I hesitated as I saw the pain swirl in his eyes. “Can I ask you a question?” I finally said.

He managed a smile. “Ask away.”

“Why didn’t you tell her you were here with me?”

He shrugged, not looking guilty. “I don’t know. She didn’t give me a chance before she started going off. It’s probably best anyway. With the rampage she’s on, you don’t need to be dragged into our drama.”

I nodded, for the first time wondering if she ever brought up our past.

“Don’t worry,” he said, as if reading my mind.“It’s not you. She doesn’t have an issue with you, with us. Her issue is with me. Me and her.”

Our eyes met when he said that, and I didn’t know if it was the liquor or what, but I found myself saying, “Do you ever find yourself wondering, ‘What if?’ You know, with us?”

He stared at me as he somberly said, “All the time.” He sighed heavily and returned his gaze to his empty glass. “When I want to be spontaneous and go somewhere, I wonder about us. When I long to just kick back and have fun, I think about us.”

“We did used to have some fun.” I managed to laugh. “Remember that day you woke up and said, let’s just drive to the Grand Canyon?”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that,” he said, finally smiling. “What were we, like twenty? We just up and went. It took us two days, but we had so much fun.”

“Oh, my God. You remember that honky-tonk club we went to and were teaching those people how to cabbage patch?”

“What about when you told those people at that restaurant that we were Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown?”

“I completely forgot about that.” Our laughter finally died down, and I grew somber again. “I haven’t felt that in a long time.”

“Me either,” Steven said softly. At that moment his hand brushed up against my thigh. His touch sent shivers up my spine, and I was shocked. I’ll admit, I was hurt when I’d learned Steven and Paula were dating, but I blamed myself, so that forced me to bury those feelings. But if they were buried, why in the world were they being resurrected now?

“Why did you fix me up with Paula?”he asked me.

I wanted to tell him that was my biggest regret in life. But Paula was my best friend. I would never utter those words. “I . . . I had met Greg and, I don’t know, I just thought you and Paula would get along. I mean, I didn’t know you’d fall in love and get married and I’d have to see you forever.” I managed a smile.

He didn’t return my smile. “You told me you saw me as more of a brother. That you didn’t want me.”

My mind raced back to that day, the day before he was supposed to marry Paula. He’d come to me because he “needed to be sure” that he was doing the right thing. This man was about to marry my best friend. I was one of her bridesmaids. What was I supposed to say? “I thought I didn’t want you. I convinced myself that I didn’t want you,” I said, my voice shaking.

“I knew you did.” His voice was husky as he leaned in closer. “I know youdo.”

Now was the time for me to tell him that he was out of his mind. To reiterate that no matter what Iusedto feel, we’d chosen our paths in life. But my feelings swam around in my brain and no words would come out.

“Have you ever wanted something so bad, something that you’d denied yourself for years?” he stood over me and whispered in my ear. His hot breath tickled my neck.

I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t say a word because all kinds of conflicting emotions were running through my body. We sat in silence for a few moments. Finally he said, “You shouldn’t drive tonight. Do you want me to call you a cab?”

“I’m not going home tonight,” I found myself saying.

He waited, then said, “Me either.”

I knew we were about to ventureinto dangerous territory, but I couldn’t help it as my hand covered his. His touch was electrifying, and I didn’t know whether to run or collapse into his arms.

He pulled himself away and motioned to the bartender. “Can I close out my tab?”

We didn’t say a word as the bartender rang him up. For a minute, I wondered if Steven was about to take off running as he nervously shifted from side to side.

After signing the credit card receipt and stuffing his copy in his wallet, Steven turned back to me.

“I’m going to get a room,” he finally said. “Wait right here.”

He didn’t wait for me to reply as he hurried off toward the front desk. Everything inside of me was saying get up and go. Right now. Go home before it was too late. But go home to what? A husband who no longer knew how to make me feel like a woman? A husband who hadn’tseenme in years. A husband who thought so little of our relationship that he would forget our wedding anniversary? No, I had nothing to go home to.

I don’t know how long I sat there, but Steven came back, leaned over me, and whispered, “Room 527. I’ll understand if you don’t show.” He eased a room key into my hand, and his touch sent more chills through my body. I took the key and didn’t turn to watch him as he walked away.

5

Paula

PEACE. THAT WAS A WELCOMEsound in my home, so I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, and relished the quiet.

The kids were finally in bed, and my mom was still out. A part of me wanted to be mad that Steven wasn’t home yet—it was after midnight—but our argument had been pretty ugly, and he probably was going to get drunk with Kevin and talk about what a horrible wife I was.

That actually made me sad because I really didn’t want to be a horrible wife to Steven. I just had so much bitterness and resentment, and I didn’t know how to work past it.

I took a long inhale on my cigarette and let the nicotine work its magic.

“Hey, what are you still doing up?” my mom asked, poking her head out on the deck.

I blew a puff of smoke. “Just enjoying the solitude.”

She eyed my cigarette disapprovingly,and like a child, I mashed it out. “How was bingo?”

She shrugged as she sat down next to me. “I didn’t win. Lost forty dollars. I don’t know why the Lord won’t answer my prayer to hit it big.”

I couldn’t help but laugh because she was dead serious. My mom had a warped view of religion. She was the only person I knew who would watchThe Passion of the Christon bootleg video while reading the Bible she took from a hotel.

“So, where’s Steven?” she asked, looking around.

I shrugged. “Out with his friend.”

“Hmph. Kinda late to be out, huh?”

I didn’t want to get her started. I knew having my mom around didn’t help my marriage. She was always adding her two cents. But my mom had been dependent on my dad, and when he died two years ago, she was beside herself. My sister, Charlene, lived in New York, so my mother was all alone. She had come here from my childhood home in DC and, well, just never left. I knew Steven hadn’t really been feeling the idea, but he’d gone along with it for my sake.

“Are you guys okay?” my mom asked pointedly.

I don’t know why, but that actually opened up the dam and I felt tears gushing out.

“Oh, no, baby,” my mom said, coming to my side. “What’s going on?” She rubbed my back. “Why are you crying? Did Steven do something to you?”

I shook my head as I tried to compose myself. “No. I’m . . . I’m just so miserable, and I told Steven tonight I want a divorce.”

My mom leaned back like I’d just delivered the most awful news ever. “And why would you do a fool thing likethat?”

“I’m just so unhappy,” I confessed.

“Unhappy? That man gives you a good life.”

“Yes, he provides this big ol’ house for me,” I said, motioning around our six-thousand-square-foot home, “but Steven and I act like bickering roommates. We have no passion. I want to feel some sparks.”

My mother didn’t bother to hide her disgust as she stood and went back to her seat. “Girl, this ain’t some kind of romance novel. Love don’t pay the bills.”

I sighed. “You loved Daddy.”

“Not at first,” she admitted. “Shoot, I was trying to get out of Arkansas and your daddy offered me a ticket out. He had a good job with the railroad, and he loved me more than I loved him.” She wagged a finger at me. “That’s the key. You always got to find a man that loves you more. That’s the man you need to be with.”

I let out a long sigh as I wiped my tears. “It’s not only that, Mama. This being nothing but a mother wasn’t my dream. I love my kids, but there’s more to me than this.”

She continued shaking her head. “Hmph, well, you better take up knitting or find you some kind of hobby.”

“What about my dreams? Do my dreams fall by the wayside because I have kids?” I snapped.

“Yes,” she said matter-of-factly. “If you talking about that actress crap, you got to grow up. That ship has sailed. You got a family now.That’syour priority. And you going and tellin’ your man you want a divorce. How are you gonna take care of your kids?”

I hadn’t thought about all of that. I was just mad and mouthing off because he was out kickin’ it while I was stuck in the house—again. I guess I didn’t really want a divorce. I just wanted something different. I wanted to be happy.

My mom patted my leg. “Maybe you need to start having some more Paula time. Go out with Felise. Shoot, go out with your husband. You’re the one who thinks you have to be stuck in the house all the time. It’s like you like wallowing in self-pity. I’m tellin’ you, you’d better get it together before Jody’s got your girl and gone.”

“What?” I said, looking at her confused.

She continued wagging a finger in my direction. “While you saying, ‘Scat, scat,’ someone else is ’round the corner sayin’, ‘Here, kitty-kitty.’ ”

I couldn’t help but smile at my mom’s cornball country sayings. “I have no idea what that means.”

She sighed like she had to break something down to me. “You’re not going to know how good you got it till you ain’t got it no more. You gonna look up and some other woman is gonna have your man.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Nah, I know Steven. He’s a lot of things, but he wouldn’t cheat on me.”

My mother narrowed her eyes. “I told you. Never say what somebody wouldn’t do.”

“Well, I trust my husband,” I said pointedly.

“Okay, but just know, you walk around here in a constant funk, mad at the world, taking it out on your kids and husband. Someone wants to deal with that for only so long. It’s no wonder Steven is never here. I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t want to lay with you and your funky attitude either.”


Page 4

I was shocked. “Whose side are you on anyway?”

“I’m always on your side, but I’m on the side of righteousness first.” She threw her hands up. “Hallelujah.” I pointed to her bingo stamp on her hand. She licked her thumb, then wiped it off. “I’m just saying, Mama knowsbest. And you best get it together. Talk to your husband. Tell him your concerns. Maybe you guys can find something you enjoy—besides running all over the country starring in one of those chitlin circuit plays. But you need to find something outside of the home that brings you joy. I guarantee you that man will do whatever it takes to make you happy. And once you find that, give as much to your husband as you give to your kids. Everyday life is terrible for love. Love needs time, and time is the air love breathes, and people have no time.”

I stared at my mother, impressed. “Wow, that was deep, Mom.”

“I know a little sumthin’, sumthin’.” She stood and winked. “I hope you heed what I’m telling you. But now I’m going to look up some Bible verses on money. Maybe I’m not praying right.”

I would’ve laughed at her, but her words were weighing heavily on me. Was I pushing my husband away? Was I blaming my family because I wanted to wallow in pity? Was I not giving my marriage the time we needed to grow our love? I sat in silence as my mother’s words sank in. Something inside me said that she was right. Maybe I was the problem. Maybe I needed to make a change.

The more I sat thinking, the more I decided my mother was spot on. So tomorrow would be a new day. I didn’t know how, but I was going to end this pity party and try to focus on making my husband—and me—happy.

6

Felise

MY BRAIN AND MY BODYwere in a tug of war. My brain said to go left toward the exit, but my body went right toward the elevator. Before I knew it, I was standing outside room 527, tears streaming down my face.

I knew that I needed to take my butt home.

But I neededthismore. I needed to feel Steven again. If only for one night. I needed to know what it felt like to be loved on every inch of my body. Three long years ago was the last time I’d been taken to the heights of pleasure. I’d tried everything to talk to Greg: therapy—which he refused to go to—talking, books, everything. And still he wouldn’t listen. He couldn’t accept that my needs weren’t being met. And he was insulted that I would insinuate that he wasn’t doing his manly duties. He kept asking me to cut him some slack because of how hard he was working for me and our daughter, Liz.

I needed love. I neededloving.

I took a deep breath, then told myself if Greg had loved me right, I wouldn’t be here about to do wrong.

I was crossing into dangerous territory. But in my heart, I was looking forward to going inside, anticipating what the night held.

You loved him first.

The little voice that had been guiding me up the elevator spoke up, as if to give me that one last push before I changed my mind.

I dipped the key into the lock, then walked in to see Steven sitting nervously on the edge of the bed. He was still fully dressed and looked like he had completely sobered up. He stood up awkwardly as I came in.

“I–I wasn’t sure if you were going to come,” he said.

My gaze shifted downward. “Me either.”

“Believe it or not, I really have been faithful.”

“Me, too.”

“But, I . . .” He stepped closer. “I’ve never felt so alone.”

“Me either.”

“Felise, I don’t . . .”

I held up my hands to stop him. “I know,” I whispered.

He stepped closer, until I could feel the heat from his body. His breathing was labored, and I could tell he was having an inner battle—just like me.

Steven gently ran a finger behind my ear, then down my neck and around to my chest.

He still remembered what turned me on.

I released a slow moan as I relished his touch. “This is so wrong,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper.

“It is. But I want you, Felise. Ineedyou.”

We each waited on the other to move until finally unbridled passion made our decision for us.

He kissed me with a ferociousnessI hadn’t felt in years. Everything inside me wanted to protest, stop him before we went too far, but when I opened my mouth, once again nothing came out. And the minute I felt his tongue, my body reacted. When our tongues did a slow dance, I shivered. When he kissed my neck, I needed more.

He slowly slid off my dress. “Oh, my God,” he said when he noticed my negligee, which I’d forgotten I was still wearing. “You. Are. Stunning,” he said, running his eyes up and down my body. It felt so good to be appreciated. To be wanted.

He didn’t ask why I had the negligee on. He just planted sensual kisses all over my body. Steven took me the height of ecstasy right there against the wall of the hotel room. And before I could catch my breath, he was guiding me toward the bed, where he did it again and again.

Waves of euphoria filled my body until I collapsed in his arms. I realized that slow tears were sliding down my cheeks. I wanted to believe they were guilty tears, but I knew better. These were tears of pure bliss, peppered with thoughts of what could have been.

After we finished, we lay in silence. I snuggled close to him as his arms formed a protective barrier around me.

“I don’t know the last time I felt like this,” he said.

“Me either.” We relapsed into silence—a blissful, comfortable silence—for a while. Then I sat up. “Why didn’t we work?” I knew I didn’t need to be going there. But as I’d watched his happy life with Paula over the years, I can’t tell you the number of times I wondered why that couldn’t have been me. I didn’t realize how much I’d suppressed my feelings until this unexpected release.

He sat up with me. “We were young, stupid. We didn’t realize we were best friends for areason.”

I sighed, remembering a relationship I had long ago blocked out. Steven was my friend before he was my lover. He was the first boy I met at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a year above me and took me under his wing. He had a girlfriend at the time and never made any inappropriate moves. We were merely good friends who evolved into best friends. Our relationship became a source of contention with his girlfriend, and when they broke up, we grew even closer.

We made the mistake of briefly taking our relationship to the next level my junior year. And it was wonderful—until he announced that he was heading to law school in DC. I had no desire for a long-distance relationship and decided that crossing the line of friendship had been a mistake. I don’t know if I really felt like that or if I just couldn’t bear the thought of my boyfriend being so far away. At the same time I’d met Greg—a first-year grad student—and he was constantly in my ear about the life that he could provide if only I gave him a chance.

I thought the grass would be greener. It was a decision I’d regretted ever since.

I wanted to ask Steven more questions, but I knew if we kept talking, Paula’s name would come up. And I couldn’t bear the thought of mentioning my best friend while I was lying here with her husband.

“Well, everything happens for a reason. We both have wonderful children,” he said.

That we did. My daughter, Liz, was my heart and joy. And I loved his daughter, my goddaughter, Tahiry, just as much.

I lay back down on his chest.

“You ever wonder what our kid would’ve looked like?” he asked after a few beats of silence.

I inhaled sharply. We hadn’t spoken about that since the daywe left the women’s clinic. No one—not Paula, Greg, or even my sisters, who I was close to—knew that weeks after Steven announced he was leaving for law school, I found out I was pregnant. We had gone back and forth over what to do. I couldn’t bear the thought of Steven giving up his dream of law school to become a father. But before we could make a decision, I miscarried. The doctors couldn’t tell me why, just that “it happens.” I was heartbroken, especially after Steven said it “must’ve been God’s will.” We were never the same after that. That’s why when he told me Paula was pregnant, it was the biggest blow ever.

When I didn’t reply, Steven said, “You know, I’m sorry. Let’s not go down memory lane. It is what it is. We are playing the hand we’ve been dealt. Tonight, I just want to enjoy you.”

I inhaled his scent and snuggled closer. After a few minutes, I knew it was time to say what we’d been trying not to say all night. “You know this can never happen again,” I said, watching his face for his reaction.

He nodded. “I know.”

I didn’t know why, but that actually stung. He must’ve realized it because he quickly added, “I mean, trust me, I wanted it to happen, but we both know it was wrong. We both were in need, and so we found comfort in one another’s arms.” He pushed a stray curl out of my eye. “Don’t worry, there will be no secret rendezvous, no clandestine meetings. Tomorrow, we’ll pretend this never happened. Tomorrow, we’ll go back to our normal, boring, miserable lives. Tomorrow, it’ll be different. But tonight, I want to make you feel like the beautiful woman that you are.”

He leaned in and once again kissed me passionately. Within a few moments we fell backinto what felt like the most natural of grooves.

7

Felise

THE SUNLIGHT PEEKED IN THElarge bay window overlooking downtown Houston. The rays tickled me out of my sleep. I yawned, stretched, and remembered that my body felt like it hadn’t felt in years. I hated that this euphoria had to end.

I glanced over at Steven, who was still soundly sleeping. That man had been better than he was in college, and I hadn’t thought that was possible. He’d definitely gotten better with time. Our lovemaking had run the gamut, from slow and steady to raw, unadulterated passion. We’d finally collapsed, exhausted, around four a.m.

I eased out of bed and went to retrieve my purse, which was leaning on my pile of clothes on the floor, exactly where I’d left it when I entered the room last night. I dug my phone out and looked at it. Greg had called a dozen times, sent two dozen more apologetic texts. Seeing the texts made me feel incredibly guilty. The reality was, I’d cheated on my husband. Something I’d never done before. But making matters worse, I cheated with my best friend’shusband.

Steven was right. This would never happen again.

I thought about waking him for one last romp, but when my cousin was going through detox, she’d told me that the best way to let go of something that wasn’t good for you was cold turkey. Since Steven had been intoxicating last night, this morning needed to be the beginning of cold turkey.

I turned on the shower and closed my eyes as the pellets of water hit my face. My mind started churning. How many days would I spend reminiscing about Steven’s touch? Would I ever be able to get over the way he made me feel? What would happen when Greg remembered to offer his lackluster lovemaking? Would I have to imagine Steven to get in the mood? How was I ever going to face Paula again? As I realized that Steven and I had opened another whole host of problems, I released a fresh stream of tears.

Fifteen minutes later, I was fresh, dressed, all cried out, and ready to face the one who got away.

“Hey, Steven,” I whispered, easing onto the bed. “I need to get going.” I ran my hands along the bottom of his feet. “You probably should, too.” When he didn’t stir, I pulled the covers back and ran my fingers down his naked back. That’s when I felt how cold his body was.

“Steven?” I said, turning him over. “Steven?” His arm fell on the side of the bed, and his head flopped to the side. “Oh, my God! Steven?”

I felt for a pulse. Nothing. I leaned in to see if he was breathing. Still nothing.

“Oh, no,” I cried, glancing wildly around the room. Maybe someone had come in while I was in the shower. But there were no signs of forced entry or foul play. Hewas dead! He was really dead!

Visions of him clutching his chest last night at the bar flashed through my head.Oh, my God.Did he have a heart attack?

I backed on unsteady feet into the bathroom, trying to calm myself while I figured out what to do. I was hyperventilating, and tears were streaming down my cheeks. How could this have happened? I noticed the phone in the bathroom and immediately reached for it to call 9-1-1. But I stopped just as I was about to pick up the phone. 9-1-1 would bring on questions, and I wasn’t ready to give answers. There would be a death report. Because I was with him, an inquiry. They’d take my information, include it in the report.

“No, I can’t get caught up in this,” I mumbled. I tried to take slow, deep breaths as I figured out my next move. Fran! My sister.She will know what to do.

I snatched my purse off the bathroom counter, fumbled for my cell phone, and nearly dropped it. At last I managed to call the only other person I knew who could help me out of this mess. I numbly watched my fingers scroll through until I came to Fran’s number.

“You’d better have a good reason for calling me this early,” she answered.

“Oh, my God, Fran,” I cried. “You’ve got to help me.”

“Felise? What are you doing? Are you crying?”

I couldn’t help it. The waterworks had begun again.

“Oh, my God. Youarecrying. Who do I need to come jack up? Did Greg do something to you?” she said.

Any other time I would’ve smiled. That was Fran, the ever-protective younger sister who was like a Chihuahua in size but a pit bull in spirit.

“I . . . I’m in a bad situation.”

“What is going on?” she demanded to know.

“You’re not going to believe this! I’m in a hotel—”

“A hotel? So that’s where you went for your anniversary?”

“I’m not with Greg.”

“Shut the front door! What? Is my sister getting her freak on with someone else—on her anniversary?”

“Fran, this is serious,” I cried.

“Okay, okay. Calm down and tell me what is going on.”


Page 5

“I’m with someone.”

“Who?”

I couldn’t bring myself to utter the words, but if I was going to get my sister’s help, I had to tell her everything. “I’m with Steven.”

Silence filled the phone. “I hope you know another Steven, not Paula’s Steven,” she finally said, “because I know there’s no way in hell that’s who you’re talking about.”

My sob was her answer.

“Are you freakin’ kidding me, Felise? Why are you in a hotel with your best friend’s husband? No, don’t answer that. Tell me instead, why does it have you all worked up like this?”

“Because . . . because . . . he’s dead.”

Another pause before she said, “Come again.”

“You’re not going to believe this.”

“Try me,” she said calmly. It was as if she was waiting on the punch line of a bad joke.

“He’s dead. Steven is dead.”

“What? Dead how? Did you kill him?”

“No!” I exclaimed, then lowered my voice. “At least I don’t think so. We just . . . We just did it all night last night and this morning . . .” I slapped my forehead.“Oh, my God, I wasn’t thinking. I’m a nurse. I should’ve known his chest . . . his heart . . . I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Okay, sis, calm down. What happened? Start from the beginning.”

I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself down. I don’t know how I made it through the story, but I did, and a few minutes later, my sister had learned the CliffsNotes version of what happened.

“So, let me get this straight,” Fran slowly said. “You just woke up this morning and he was dead?”

Dead.That word had such finality. I swallowed the lump in my throat. Steven was really gone. “Yes,” I managed to get out.

“Are you sure he’s dead? Maybe he’s just a deep sleeper.”

“I’m a freakin’ nurse!” I snapped. “I know when someone is dead and when they’re asleep.”

“Okay, calm down.”

“I was about to call 9-1-1, but I just freaked and called you first.”

Her next words had a harder edge. “Yeah, calling 9-1-1 is something youwon’tbe doing.”

“But it’s the right thing to do,” I sobbed.

“Oh, okay, then, should I meet you at your house to help you pack your bags so you can get out of town? Because if your husband doesn’t kill you, your best friend will,” she said, her voice full of sarcasm.

“Maybe they don’t have to know,” I whimpered.

She let out a long sigh like I wasn’t thinking straight, which, of course, I wasn’t. “If you’re anywhere near the scene when someone dies, police are going to take your information.”

I glanced into the other room as if,in some kind of way, I was expecting to see Steven’s body gone. I couldn’t believe what was happening.I’m sitting here talking police procedure, and my best friend’s husband is dead in the other room.“I can give them a fake name,” I finally said.

“And do you have fake ID on you, too?”

I groaned as I slid to the floor. “What am I gonna do?”

“Okay, okay, let’s figure this out,” Fran said. She paused, and I knew her devious mind was plotting. “Whose name is the room in?” she finally asked.

“His?”

“That’s good,” she said, sounding relieved. “I don’t have to come help you move the body.” I knew my sister was dead serious. If that’s what I had needed, she would’ve been right there with plastic gloves on.

“I’m not attached to the room at all.” As I said that, a starker truth dawned on me. I was attached to Steven. And now I’d never talk to him again. I’d never see him smile at one of the remarks I made. I’d never feel his body casually flowing around mine, keeping our long-held secret. I felt a pang deep in my heart as I fought back a flurry of tears.

“Okay, that’s good,” Fran said, moving full speed ahead. “Since you were meeting your best friend’s man, I’d like to think you were discreet in coming up to his room.”

I nodded like she could actually see me. I really did feel like I was having an out-of-body experience.

“You were discreet, weren’t you?”

“Yes. Yes,” I said. “No one saw me come up here.”

“Okay. You said it looks like he just died in his sleep, right? Nothing looks out of order?”

“Yes. I mean, he must have had a heart attack. I don’t know.” I was getting more and more workedup.

“Okay, here’s what I need you to do,” Fran said. “Pull yourself together. Clean up any sign that anyone else was ever there. Did you order room service?”

“No.”

“Did anyone else see you together at all?”

I thought about that. “The bartender did. But that’s it.”

She exhaled with apparent frustration—that obviously wasn’t the answer she was hoping for. “Well, as far as the bartender is concerned, you could’ve been some random chick at the bar.”

I let her continue working this out. I was useless to help plan this cover-up. I stood in the bathroom, watching the lifeless body of my one true love. All I could think was my world was coming to an end.

“Just wipe down everything you think you might have touched. If they think the cause of death is natural, there won’t be an investigation. But wipe down everything, just in case,” Fran instructed.

At the mention of a possible investigation, my heart started racing again. I noticed my hand was trembling beyond my control. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Just like I said, clean it up and get the hell out of Dodge.”

Fran wanted me to just up and leave? “Shouldn’t I at least call for help?”

“No! Housekeeping will be there soon. Let them find him.”

“No! This is just too much!”

“Do I need to come over there and help you?”

Of course, I didn’t want Fran to clean this mess up. Through the doorway I stared at Steven. He no longer wore the euphoric look he’d had when we finally went to sleep. Allof that was gone. Forever.

I felt like I couldn’t stay in that room one second longer. “No, I want to get out of here now.”

“Okay, then do like I said. Go home and act like nothing ever happened. Wasn’t that what you two planned to do anyway?”

“Yes, but—”

“But nothing,” she said, cutting me off. “You don’t have any other choice. Now, get up, because I know you’re crouched in a corner, crying, and get to cleaning this mess up.”

I did what she said and started vigorously wiping down everything in the bathroom. I felt like a criminal. I had visions of police bursting through the door at any moment. “What am I supposed to do when Paula calls and tells me what happened?” I asked as I wiped the toilet handle, the shower, and everything else I might have touched.

“You’re going to be the supportive friend and be there to help her grieve,” my sister said like that was a no-brainer.

That was so easy for my sister to say. She was the take-no-prisoners, hard-core one of the family. I was the emotional one. That’s why I had no idea how in the world I was going to get through this.

I hung up with Fran, promising to call her as soon as I reached my car. After I wiped down everything I could’ve even possibly breathed on, I gathered all my belongings, triple-checked to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything, then tiptoed toward the door. My heard disintegrated into a thousand pieces as I took one last look at Steven. In a voice strangled by years of regret, I whispered, “I’m sorry. I love you. God forgive me,” before easing out of the room.

8

Paula

IN ALL THE YEARS THATwe had been married, Steven had never stayed out all night. We’d had arguments before—some pretty ugly ones —but he’d always come home.

Until last night.

What do you expect when you told the man you wanted a divorce?I heard my mother’s voice in my head. I truly hoped Steven knew I was just mouthing off. That was a bad habit of mine, saying things I didn’t really mean. It had been a source of contention throughout our marriage. I was pretty good about not saying crazy stuff to the kids, but Steven had seen the brunt of my verbal fury on several occasions. I only hoped this time I hadn’t gone too far.

When he came home today, I promised myself, I wasn’t going to be mad about him staying out all night. I wasn’t going to hurl accusations at him, like I’d been prone to doing lately even though he’d never given me reason to suspect he was cheating. I was going to explain why I was so unhappy. We would fix this. As soon as he got home.

With a renewed positive attitude, I made my way into the kitchen and noticed the mess as soon as I set foot in the spacious area.

“What in the world?” I mumbled.

All four of my children stopped and turned to me, looking like I had walked into something major. Then I noticed my favorite tray with the giant sunflower.

“We were trying to make you breakfast,” Stevie said dejectedly, like I’d ruined their surprise.

“Yeah, we know they’ve been a handful,” Tahiry added, pointing at her brothers, “and so we wanted to do something nice for you.”

Twenty-four hours ago, I’d been dreaming about what it would be like to be childless, and now my kids were reminding me why I loved being their mother.

“Don’t be mad at the mess. We’re going to clean it up,” Tahiry hurried to add.

I couldn’t help but smile as I walked over and hugged each one of them. “I’m not mad. I’m actually very happy”

“You don’t seem happy,” Mason said.

I squeezed him tight. “I am,” I replied. “Let’s just enjoy breakfast.”

“You don’t want to eat in your room?” Tahiry asked.

I pulled out a chair at the kitchen table, where my mom was sitting, reading the newspaper. “No, I want to eat right here with my family.”

“Where’s Daddy?” Marcus asked, climbing into the chair next to me.

“He had to go into work early.”

My mom side-eyed me. She could tell I was lying. But we all sat down, and they filled me in on the latest newsfrom their school. The meal was less than stellar, but the fact that my kids had cooked it made it feel like a gourmet breakfast.

After we finished eating, Tahiry gathered the boys and announced that she was taking them upstairs to play on the Wii and watch a movie. She would make sure they were quiet so I could enjoy the rest of my day. I studied my daughter and my three sons, who were all standing there looking angelic, and I wondered what they were up to.

“Okay, what’s going on?”

“Nothing. Granny just told us that you were sad and so we’re going to be on our best behavior today,” Tahiry said.

“Yeah, but we can’t make any promises for tomorrow,” Stevie added.

I laughed as Tahiry shuffled them out of the room. I picked up my cell phone and called Steven again. I’d already called him twice this morning. He still didn’t answer, but this time I left a message.

“Hey, babe. It’s me. I’m so sorry about last night. I want to talk to you about what’s going on with me and figure out how we can fix this. Okay? Love you. Please come home.”

I hung the phone up and wandered into the living room to watch TV. I started flipping through the channels until I came across the movieLove & Basketball. I smiled because that was Steven’s favorite movie. As the familiar scenes appeared on the screen, my mind drifted back to our first date. He’d done the cooking as we watchedLove & Basketball.

“So, how was the food?” Steven had asked.

I smiled and patted my stomach. “You don’t meet many college students that can cook.”

“Yeah, I wanted to be a chef, but my parents weren’t trying to hear that at all.” He grinned. “But I like cooking, and I like having someone to cook for.”

“Well, aren’t I the lucky one?” I had come to his tiny Georgetown apartment. It was sparsely decorated—a sofa, coffee table, TV, and a Muhammad Ali picture on the wall. But that didn’t faze me. I was just enjoying his company.

“I’m trippin’ that we never got to meet in the entire four years I was at UT,” Steven said. “Felise said you guys used to be the best of friends.”

I shrugged. “We are from DC, but my dad moved us to Houston when I was little. Felise and I became best friends in middle school. But then she went to UT, I came back up here to Howard, and we kinda drifted apart. Once my dad remarried, I didn’t go back to Houston much. But that’s the good thing about real friends. You can go forever without talking and still pick up like you were together yesterday.”

Steven and I chatted all evening. He told me about him and Felise, and it sounded like he really cared about her. I recalled the times she’d told me about him, and she’d always made it clear that they were just friends. Watching him, though, I don’t know why she wouldn’t want more with him. He was intelligent, funny, charismatic, handsome, and just an all-around good guy. I made a mental note to get the real deal from her, but in the meantime, I was going to hit him up for all the information I could get.

“So, are you and Felise really just friends?”

He hesitated, long enough that I didn’t know what to make of it, but then he said, “Yeah, we really are. I guess I took your best friend slot. Besides, she has her man now.”

“You talking about Greg?”

“Yeah, she loves her some Greg.”

He had a look cross his face that I couldn’t make out, which led me to ask him, “Are you sure?”

“Oh, yeah. What did Felise tell you?”

“She told me that you guys were just friends. That you were like a brother to her.”

He forced a smile. “See. A brother.”

“So, that means you’re on the market?”

He shrugged. “I’m not trying to get in a serious relationship right now. I want to focus on law school. But I wouldn’t mind having a good friend to hang out with and whip up my meals for.”

I leaned back and nibbled on a raspberry soufflé he’d cooked for dessert. “I wouldn’t mind being that friend.”

Before long our friendship escalated into something more, and before I knew it, we were sleeping together on a regular basis.


Page 6

When I got pregnant with Tahiry, just two months after we started sleeping together, we decided to do what was right—and that had been the story of my life ever since.

I SHOOK AWAY THE MEMORY.I needed to focus on the positive and stop thinking about what-ifs and what could’ve been. This was the life God had given me. It was time that I learned to appreciate it.

I lay back on the couch as I made all kinds of mental promises of how things were going to change as soon as Steven got home. I could be happy as a wife and a mother if I took my mother’s advice and found something outside my home that gave me purpose. Yeah, I thought. I had a good life. And getting an outside life wasall I needed to get myself back on track.

9

Felise

I DON’T KNOW HOW Igot down the hallway, down the elevator, and out of the hotel to my sister’s apartment, but here I was, in her living room, trying desperately to pull myself together. I was pacing back and forth across her Berber carpet. The tears hadn’t stopped coming.

“Okay, would you relax?” Fran said.

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re not the one that committed a crime,” I said frantically. I wassonot a criminal. I’d forgotten to pay for a bracelet when I was fifteen, and I had an anxiety attack until I got my mom to take me back to the store to pay for it. How in the world did I think I’d be able to live with leaving a dead man without reporting it? “I’m such a lowlife,” I moaned.

“Oh, stop being dramatic,” Fran said. “What crime did you commit? I don’t think having a lethal kitty is against the law.”

I stopped and stared at her. That was not what happened between Steven and me. “This isn’t the time for jokes.”

“Okay, okay,” Fran said, raising her hands apologetically. “Sorry.”

I fell down onto her sofa. “I just can’t believe this.”

Fran shook her head. “Me either. Because I can’t understand how Dolly Do-Right,” she said, using the nickname she had given me after the bracelet incident, “would do something so scandalous.”

That had always been a source of contention between Fran and me. I was the perfect one. The one who always did what she was supposed to, and was always where she was supposed to be. Even our older sister, the ultra-religious Mavis, got in more trouble than I did. But Fran was the wild one, and our parents—God rest their souls—never let us forget who they preferred: me.

“I can’t believe I did it either.” I sighed. “I was just so mad at Greg for forgetting our anniversary, and I was so sick and tired of being neglected, and then I bumped into Steven at the bar, and he was mad at Paula, and we both had been drinking and . . . and . . .” I buried my face in my hands. “What have I done?”

Fran leaned back and inhaled. “Well, I’m not surprised that you finally stepped out on Greg. The way he neglects you, I’m surprised you hadn’t done it already. But I just can’t believe you did it with Steven.”

“I’ve got to come clean,” I said with finality. I didn’t have any other option. I couldn’t carry this guilt around.

“And why would you do something stupid like that?” Fran asked, perplexed. “You cleaned up the place, right?”

“Yes, but I should have called for help.”

“Why? You said yourself that he was dead. He was stillgoing to be dead whether you reported it or not, so why should you get in trouble, too?”

We were interrupted by the doorbell. I froze as images of police bursting in to take me into custody flashed in my head.

I jumped up. “Who is that?”

“Calm down. It’s just Mavis.” Fran got up and headed toward the door.

Now I really was ready to run. My older sister was as bad as the police. Since our parents died in a car crash when I was in college, Mavis had taken over the role of mother and, most of the time, had taken it way too far. “Mavis? Why didn’t you tell me she was coming over here?”

“Because I didn’t know you were coming over. You were supposed to be going home, remember? Mavis was already on her way over to pick up some money I owe her. You know she’s like Tony Soprano when it comes to getting her money back.”

I took a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves. “Don’t tell her,” I said. “I can’t take her judging me.”

Fran put her hand to her mouth. “Oops, too late.”

“Ugh, do you have to tell everybody everything?”

“I was on the phone with her when you called, and she wanted to know what was wrong. I tried to tell her nothing, but she didn’t believe me. I told you, she’s Tony Soprano. She strong-armed me.”

The doorbell rang again, and we heard Mavis’s muffled call. “I hear y’all in there. Open this door!”

Fran shrugged at me, then opened the door.

Mavis didn’t even speak to Fran as she rushed towardme. She looked so much like my mother it was eerie—full-figured, beautiful smooth skin, and a head full of naturally curly hair. If I didn’t know better, I would think it was my mother coming to be by my side.

I took a step back because my sister had been known to smack me back in the day, and I didn’t need her having any flashbacks. But she just grabbed me and hugged me tightly. “Oh, Lord, Felise. What have you gotten yourself into?”

I couldn’t help it. Being in my sister’s arms felt safe, even though I knew I was far from that. “I messed up, Mavis,” I cried.

“Yes, you did, baby girl,” she said, stroking my hair, “but it’s going to be okay.” She pulled back and examined me. “So, what did the police say?”

I looked over at Fran and didn’t respond.

“See, my mouth isn’t that big. I didn’t tell her everything.”

Mavis’s eyes grew wide. “Tell me what? What is there to tell?”

Neither Fran nor I said a word. Mavis’s hands went to her hips. “I know somebody better get to talking.” She narrowed her eyes at me. “What did the police say?”

“I–I . . .”

“She left without reporting it, okay?” Fran said.

“Excuse me?” Mavis asked in horror. “You left the scene of a crime?”

“Mavis, leave her alone,” Fran snapped. “There was no crime. He died in his sleep. I got this handled.”

Mavis threw up her hands in exasperation. “You don’t need to be listening to Fran. You know she got the devil in her.”

Fran gave Mavis the hand. “You better go somewhere with that, or you’re about to see the devil rear its ugly head.”

“So, you really think I should tell that I was there, Mavis?” I asked.

“Girl, don’t listen to Mavis,” Fran said. “Tell for what?”

Mavis sat down next to me. She had a way of adding things up quick, and I could see that turning myself in was no longer her first option. “I can’t tell you what to do, Felise,” she replied, taking my hand. “I’d never be in that situation because no way I’d get involved with my best friend’s husband—”

“Way to make her feel better, Mavis,” Fran said, cutting her off.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Mavis clarified. “What I’m saying is I can’t tell you how I would react, but I can tell you one thing: what’s done in the dark always comes to light.”

“Not always,” Fran said. “Because nobody still knows about that time you and Elijah Reynolds—”

“Fran, would you shut up,” Mavis snapped. “This isn’t about me.” She turned her guns back on the guilty party. “Whatever you do, sis, you need to take to your knees and repent.”

“Okay, on that note, I need to go,” I said, rising. I felt bad enough as it was. The last thing I needed was Mavis preaching to me.

“See,” Fran said, “you always bringing God into the equation. Now you got her all spooked.”

“Honey, God is always in the equation,” Mavis replied, “whether I bring Him or not.”

I knew how this was going to go, and I couldn’t do the two of them bickering right then. That’s all they’ve been doing for as long as they’ve been alive. Usually, I played the peacemaker, but I was so not in the mood.

“Okay,” I said. “Both of you are right. Mavis, I need to pray. And Fran, I do need to pull it together.”

They both nodded their heads in agreement.

“So, do you want to tell me how you ended up in the hotel room with Steven?” Mavis asked.

I shook my head. I wasn’t standing for Mavis’s opinion on what happened between us.

“She just finally got fed with the neglectful husband of hers,” Fran replied.

Fran liked Greg, but she’d been telling me for years that I deserved better. She couldn’t stand his obsessive ways and how he devoted so much time to work.

“So how long have you and Steven been having an affair?” Mavis asked.

“We weren’t having an affair,” I protested. “We both happened to be in the same place. We both were upset at our spouses. We had been drinking.”

Mavis tsked. “Unh-huh, that devil’s juice will do it every time.”

Fran rolled her eyes as I continued. “I tried to turn away once I got to the room, but it’s like this little voice was pushing me forward.”

“Unh-huh. Satan has a little voice,” Mavis said.

“Okay, Pope Mavis,” Fran interjected. She turned to me. “Seriously, pray about it, ask for forgiveness, and move on. You’re not doing anyone any good if you keep beating yourself up about it.”

“I agree,” Mavis said sternly. “I’m not going to tell you what you need to do, but you need to come clean.”

“No, she doesn’t,” Fran said.

“You know it’s the right thing to do,”Mavis continued. “You don’t need me or Fran to tell you that.” She patted my arm. “But whatever you do, I’m by your side, okay? Even if it’s seeing you through divorce court and your trial.”

“Mavis!” Fran exclaimed.

Mavis quickly apologized. But she was right. That’s exactly where I’d be if Greg ever found out.

10

Paula

I’D FINALLY GONE TOO FAR.In all our years of marriage, Steven had never gotten so mad that he’d stayed out all night, let alone all the next day. But as I rolled over and saw my husband’s untouched side of the bed, I realized that’s exactly what had happened.

After spending the day with the kids, I’m come into my room to lie down, hoping Steven’s warm body would wake me up as he eased into bed next to me. He’d apologize. I’d apologize. Then I’d show my husband how much I really loved him.

I threw back the covers and stood up. It was almost ten p.m. I couldn’t believe I’d been asleep all evening. I eased downstairs, hoping that Steven had come in and didn’t want to wake me. But to my dismay, the living room was empty, the space where he normally dropped his keys was clear, and when I opened the garage door, my heart sank when I realized that his car still was AWOL.

I fell back against the wall inthe hallway. I couldn’t take the suspense anymore. I had the strangest feeling in my gut that I had truly messed up this time, and I didn’t know how to make it right.

I said a small prayer for God to deliver my husband home. I’d adopt a new attitude permanently. My mom was right. I had been such a jerk, and the blowup I had was completely uncalled for.

I was just about to pick up the phone to call him again when my mom appeared in the kitchen entryway.

“Oh, hey, Mom,” I said dejectedly. “What’s going on?”

“Heard some movement in here and came to see what was going on, since I knew the kids weren’t here.”

“Where are the kids?” I asked.

“Tahiry went over Liz’s so they can practice for their cheer competition. Rodney came and got the boys and took them to a movie,” she said, referring to Steven’s cousin, who often took the kids. “I figured it was okay and a way to get them out the house. He’ll bring them back early in the morning on his way to work. And Tahiry will be back whenever you go get her.”

I nodded, grateful for her making the arrangements.

“Are you okay? Is Steven home yet?” my mom asked.

I fell down in one of the seats at the kitchen table. “Mama, I really messed up,” I cried. “Steven has never stayed away this long.”

“Maybe he was really upset. I mean, the threat of divorce is pretty major.”

“But I didn’t mean that. I was just angry,” I confessed. “I was having a serious I-hate-my-life-moment and thinking things would be better without him.”

My mom patted my hand sympathetically.“Yeah, that’s usually the way things work. Everyone always thinks the grass is greener on the other side. But it’s not. You got a good man, honey, and you have to realize that before it’s too late.”

“Steven wouldn’t go anywhere, would he?” I don’t know why, but I no longer believed that.

“Baby, a man can take only so much. When he doesn’t feel loved in his own home, it’s just a matter of time before he seeks love somewhere else.”

I buried my face in my hands. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

My mom was quiet for a minute, then gently said, “Well, I was talking to this lady at bingo and I think you’re suffering from postpartum depression.”

I cocked my head at this unexpected remark. “Really, Mom?”

“Yes, really. I mean, you were unhappy before, but it seemed to go to a whole different level after the twins were born.”

That reminded me all over again of my fight with Steven. “I know, Mama. I love them, I really do, but I can’t shake this.”Postpartum depression?I had never thought about that. But it would definitely explain my mood swings.

“You gotta find a way to shake it,” my mom said. “Maybe even see someone professionally. Or go to your primary care doctor. I’m sure they got some pills for it.” She turned her attention to a picture of our family, which was displayed prominently on our refrigerator. “And explain it to your husband. I’m sure he’ll understand and even help you through this.”

I nodded, praying that she was right.

“Just get some rest. I’m sure you’re still tired, so go layback down. That was a pretty heated argument, so just give Steven a minute. You got a good man. He’s not going anywhere. You asked the man for a divorce. Maybe he just wants to make you sweat. I’m positive he’ll be home tonight.” My mom kissed my forehead before walking out the room.

I hoped that she was right, but I still needed to talk to someone else. I needed to call the only other person who understood my pain. I picked up the phone and called my best friend


Page 7

Felise and I went way back. She was my ride or die. We drifted apart when we went to college, but our bond was never broken. The only time things got a little shaky with us was when I first started dating Steven. She seemed distant, like she was trying to avoid me. Some people would say I broke the girlfriend code by dating him, but she assured me that they were merely friends. I made it very clear that I wasn’t going to do anything without her blessing, and she gave it to me. I’d even fought my feelings for Steven in the beginning. But when Felise found her own happiness with Greg, what was holding me back?

Felise didn’t answer, and my heart sank. I needed to talk to her. So I dialed again. And again. She knew if I called back-to-back, it was an emergency.

I was grateful when she finally picked up the phone. “Hey, Felise, I’m sorry to be blowing up your phone, but I need to talk to you.”

She hesitated, then said, “You want to talk to Tahiry? Her and Liz are upstairs turning flips.”

I didn’t know why she would say that. If I wanted to talk to my daughter, I would’ve called her cell phone.“No. I need to talk to you.”

She still sounded brittle as she said, “What’s going on?”

I opened my mouth to talk, and a sob came out instead. When I recovered from the outburst, I said, “I think I really messed up this time.”

“What do you mean?”

“Me and Steven had a huge fight. He hasn’t come home since. I haven’t even heard from him,” I said.

“What do you mean, you haven’t heard from him?” she asked.

“He didn’t come home last night or all day today, and you know that’s not like him. The fight was really bad.”

“Maybe he’s somewhere trying to cool off.”

“Do you think he left me?” I asked pointedly.

“Wh-why would you say that?” she replied.

“Because I asked him for a divorce.”

“A divorce? Why would you ask him for a divorce?”

She was sounding too cool, like she already knew all about it. But I didn’t have time to decipher her demeanor. I was in the middle of a crisis. “I know it’s crazy. I was just frustrated and upset. I don’t want a divorce. I love my husband.”

Felise continued to sound distant as she said, “Well, I’m sure everything is fine. He’ll probably be home in a little bit.”

Even she didn’t sound like she believed that. “You know this is completely unlike him,” I continued. “Even when he’s mad, he still comes home. I think I might have gone too far this time. What if he’s with a divorce attorney right now?”

“Don’t be silly,” she replied. “It’s ten-thirty at night. He’s not with a divorce attorney. And no, you didn’t go too far. I mean, he’s probably— He’s probably somewhere, you know, just cooling off.”

I shook my head, desperation settingin. “His phone is going straight to voice mail, and he didn’t even call to check on the kids. He’s gone. My gut is telling me he left me.”

“Come on, don’t think like that,” Felise said. I could tell my best friend was trying to pacify me, prepare me for the worst, because she sounded like she knew that I’d finally pushed Steven over the edge. She’d been trying to tell me to ease up on him, and I wouldn’t listen.

“Everyone has fights,” Felise continued in a flat monotone. “You guys, umm, you are gonna be fine.”

She didn’t sound like she believed that. And now neither did I.

11

Felise

I TOOK A DEEP BREATHas I dropped my cell phone down on the kitchen table.Keep it together, I said, repeating what I’d been telling myself all day. I’d been doing okay until now. That phone call from Paula had shaken me to my core. I’d tried to ignore her calls, but she was relentless, and I knew if I didn’t answer, she’d get in her car and head over to my house. No way could I see her face-to-face. When Greg had returned from his coffee run this morning and he had Tahiry by his side, I thought I would pass out from guilt. I couldn’t look my godchild in the eye. No way would I be able to face her mother. Greg had tried to talk to me about last night, but I was saved by a call from my supervisor. Two nurses had called in sick, and she asked me to cover their shifts. I changed into my scrubs and was out the door so fast I could have been running in the Olympics.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I came in the living room and saw it was empty. Greg’s car was in the driveway, butmaybe he was asleep. Yet as soon as I felt myself try to relax, I heard his voice behind me.

“Babe, I am so sorry.”

I spun around to see him standing in the hallway, an apologetic look on his face, a bouquet of roses in his hands.

“I was so scared you weren’t going to come home.” He held the flowers out toward me. “I know this won’t make up for me being a jerk, but I want to make it up to you.”

My body trembled as I fought back tears, which made Greg pull me into his arms.

“Baby, don’t cry. I’m so sorry. I’m gonna work on being a better husband. I promise.”

I knew I needed to pull myself together, so I nodded dutifully.

“How about I take you out tomorrow night?” he asked.

An entire evening alone together? “No,” I sniffed. “I have to work the four-to-twelve shift.”

I dropped my purse on the floor. Like clockwork, Greg immediately picked it up and set it on the counter.

That was the least of my concerns. Right then I just wanted to get away from him, shower, and try to pull myself together. I made my way upstairs and had another urge to cry when I walked into the bathroom. Greg had taken Post-it Notes and posted messages all over my bathroom mirror.

I pulled one off.

I’m sorry.

Then another.

I love you.

And two more.

Please forgive me.

I’m trying.

The fact that he’d cluttered up the whole mirror meant a lot. Seeing the clutter had to drive him crazy. And that deviation from his strict routine made me cry even harder.

Feeling miserable, I shed my scrubs and stepped in the shower. The hot water mixed with my warm tears as I tried to cry everything out of my system. All day I had wondered if the maids had discovered Steven yet. I played out all kinds of scenarios, from it being ruled a simple death by natural causes to the FBI coming in and taking me down.

When I got out the shower, I knew I was a wrinkled prune, but I did feel a little bit better. Fran was right. I was going to have to get past the guilt. I was going to have to learn to live with what I’d done.

I dried off, slipped into my lounging gown, and walked back into the bedroom. “What are you doing?” I said when I noticed Greg sitting up on the bed with his laptop.

“I was just looking at some tickets to a comedy show. Mike Epps is at Reliant this weekend and, well, I was hoping I could take you.”

I forced a smile. I loved comedy shows, and any other time I would’ve been thrilled that my husband had taken the initiative. However, I was in no mood to laugh. But I knew if I protested, Greg would continue trying to make up for last night, and that would only make me feel even more guilty. Right then I just wanted to be left alone.

“I’d like that. Why don’t you go get the tickets in person? You know, if you buy them online, they have that ridiculous surcharge. Plus, I’d really like some ibuprofen.”

He looked up in concern. “What’s wrong?”

“I just have a headache. And we don’t have any pain medication,” I said, praying he didn’t go check the medicine cabinet.

“Okay. I’ll go pick up the tickets and get you some Advil.” He had researched the subject thoroughly, and that was what we had to have in the house. He closed the laptop and came over to kiss me. “I hate when you stay away overnight. Promise me that no matter what kind of jerk I am, you won’t stay at Fran’s again.”

I nodded but didn’t say anything. He assumed I’d spent the night at Fran’s because that’s where I usually went when we argued, which lately had been quite frequently. I was actually surprised that he hadn’t called Fran’s looking for me, but I know he hated people being in our business. Greg’s obsessive ways were driving me insane. The worst of them was, we had to have weekly meetings to review where every dime was spent. He calculated, down to the penny, how much money we were blowing by letting the faucet drip, or leaving the bathroom light on. All he did was work, nitpick, then work some more.

As soon as Greg left on his errands, I went to his laptop and typed in “what happens when you leave the scene of a crime?” I had been searching for ten minutes when my cell rang. Fran’s name popped up on the screen. She’d tried to call earlier, but I was working and I’d forgotten to call her back.

I answered, “I’m fine, Fran.”

“You know I have to check, girl. So, are you holding up okay?”

“As well as can be expected,” I replied with a heavy sigh. “I worked today so I didn’t have to be around thehouse. I was scared I would confess.”

“Good grief, remind me never to rob a bank with you,” Fran said. “Your conscience is eating at you, and it hasn’t even been twenty-four hours.”

I added a little steel to my voice. “I’m sorry, I don’t know proper etiquette for killing someone.”

“You didn’t kill him, not literally, anyway. But I am gonna start calling you the kitty slayer.” She laughed. I didn’t.

“Fran, would you stop playing around? This is serious. I just know Paula is going to call me any minute now and tell me the police have showed up at her house.”

She sighed like I was spoiling her fun. “Fine, and when that phone call comes, you need to fall down on the floor and scream, ‘Oh, Lawd, not Steven. Don’t tell me Steven is gone home to glory!’ ”

I knew my sister was being her usual silly self, but I was so not in the mood. Steven was dead. A man I’d loved without even realizing how much I loved him was gone. And I had no idea how I’d live with that. Or the guilt of bringing on whatever killed him.

“Bye, Fran. I’ll talk to you later,” I said.

“So what did Greg say?” she said, ignoring my good-bye.

I closed the laptop. “He’s apologizing for being such a jerk.”

“Oh, wow. I know that’s not helping your conscience.”

“You know it’s not. But look, I need to go. I’m fine, okay?”

If Fran kept trying to keep me on the phone, I was going to hang up on her. But luckily, she said, “Okay, sis. But seriously, relax. Everything is going to be all right.”

“Okay. Bye.”

I hung up the phone. Fran was dead wrong. Something told me it would be a long time before everything wasever all right again.

12

Felise

I FELT AWFUL, YET THElittle voice in my head kept trying to convince me otherwise.

He was yours first.

I shook away that thought. I’d let Steven go, all but handed him to my best friend with my blessing. I’d denied that I had any feelings, and now I was paying the ultimate price. Fran joked about me killing him, but the more I thought about it, maybe she was right. I knew he had a heart condition. Paula had told me that years ago, but I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. Still, I knew it. Why didn’t I think about that?

That was not the only burden I had to carry. Now that I knew he had never stopped loving me either, I had to spend the rest of my life wondering what would’ve happened if I never had let him go.

As I sat alone in the empty bedroom, my mind drifted back to the time that I had made such a terrible mistake.

“Hey, you,” I said, racing into Steven’s arms as I picked up him from the baggage claim. I hadn’t seen him in six months, and I was surprised at how happy I was. “You got a beard and everything.” I rubbed his chin. “I send you to DC a boy, and you come back a man.”

He gave me a quick peck on the cheek. “What you talking about, girl? I was a man long before I set foot on DC soil.”

“You look good.” I squeezed his biceps. “Muscles and everything. I guess Paula and Ms. Jean feeding you good up there.”

“Yeah, they’re taking care of me.”

Yet the look on his face had me uneasy. I knew Steven well, and I could tell when he was hiding something.

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked.

He flashed a smile. “Naw, I’m cool. Just a long flight.”

“Well, all that hard work will be worth it soon because you’re going to blow up. You’re about to be a bona fide attorney.”

“Yeah, I hope so. Law school is kicking my butt, so I just hope that I can make it.”

Something unspoken was still wrong. “Boy, please. You graduated with a 3.7. You know you’re acing law school.”

“Nah.” He laughed. “Didn’t I tell you? I’m thinking of dropping out and going to barber school.”

I gave him a playful push. We laughed some more as he tossed his luggage in the back of my car. “You hungry?” I asked as we pulled off.

“Starving,” he replied.

“Cool, I figured we’d go to Beef N Bun,” I said, referring to our favorite eatery.

On the ride over, we fell back into our comfortable groove, laughing and talking about everything under the sun.

At the restaurant, we got our food, settled in, and I made more small talk. I didn’t know what had changed, but Steven once again didn’t seem himself.

“Okay, now that we’ve said our hellos and shot the breeze, tell me what’s really going on,” I said, looking him dead in the eye.

He shrugged. “Same ol’, same ol’. But what’s going on with you? You still dating Rain Man?”

I cracked up, laughing at his name for Greg. “He’s not Rain Man, he just has a few obsessive tendencies.”

“So when am I gonna meet Mr. Good Guy? Since you’re raving about him all the time.”

“He’s actually going to meet us here.” I glanced at my watch. Greg wasn’t feeling me coming to pick up Steven alone. He had no appreciation for our friendship, so I’d tried to ease his worries by having him meet us.


Page 8

He said jokingly, “Cool, but you know if I don’t approve, you have to dump him.”

“Oh, is that how we’re doing it now?”

He nodded. “Yep, you had to have a say in who I’m dating, so I have to give my stamp of approval.”

My eyebrows rose in shock. “Dating? So you and Paula aredatingnow?”

The expression on his face said he felt like he’d put his foot in his mouth.

“Yeah, we’re kinda kicking it,” he admitted.

I don’t know why, but that put my stomach in knots. “Kickin’ it, like we’re-having-a-good-time kickin’ it?” I clarified. “Or kickin’ it, like we’re-really-feelin’-each-other kickin’ it?”

He didn’t respond, and he lost his smile.

“Steven, what’s going on?” I said. “I can tell you’re keeping something from me.”

He took a deep breath, then said, “I don’t know how to say this.”

His tone made me set my fork down. “How about you just come right out and say it?”

Steven released a heavy sigh. “Paula is pregnant.”

The knots in my stomach twisted in a tight fist. I couldn’t even get words to come out of my mouth. “Wow,” I finally managed to say.

“I mean, I don’t know how it happened.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You don’t?”

“I mean, of course I know how it happened. She’s just, well, she’s as shocked as I am,” he stammered.

“Is she keeping it?” I asked bluntly. I know Paula and I weren’t as close as we used to be since she moved back to DC but I couldn’t believe that she hadn’t shared that with me.

“What?”

Steven narrowed his eyes, and I immediately felt bad.

“No, I’m not saying she should have an abortion,” I said, trying to backpedal. “I just thought, you know, with school and all, all I was saying . . .” I didn’t know what I was saying, so I let my words trail off. All I knew was this had to be the most devastating news I’d ever heard.

“So, what are you going to do?” I finally asked.

“Well, I came home to break the news to my parents, and you know what they’re going to want me to do.”

I held my breath as I waited for the next words.

“They’ll want me to marry her.”

“Marriage?” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “How do you feel about that?”

“How should I feel?”

We stared at each other. I didn’t know what to say. Not until that very moment—when the thought of Steven’s happily-ever-after with someone else was about to become a reality—did I realize that I wasn’t being honest with myself about Steven. Because the pain I felt was overwhelming me.

Tears began welling up in my eyes, but before either of us could say anything, Greg walked in.

“Well, this must be the great Steven,” he said, approaching our table. I immediately willed my tears back and swallowed the lump in my throat.

“And you must be Mr. Wonderful himself, Greg.” Steven stood to shake his hand. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Both Steven and I managed fake smiles. Greg put his arm around me and pulled me close. His hug didn’t feel warm at all. In fact, it felt tight and possessive. Suddenly, I was glad that I’d never told him that Steven and I had slept together. Steven and I had both agreed that since it was a mistake for us to cross the line, we needed to forget it ever happened.

“Well, that’s good because the way she raves about you, I was beginning to wonder if I should be worried,” Greg said, pulling me even tighter.

Steven laughed uneasily. “Naw, she’s like my little sister. Nothing going on here but the best of friends.”

Little sister? Best of friends?Who would’ve ever thought those words could be so painful?

I wriggled to get Greg to let go a hair. I said, forcing a smile as I glared at Steven, “See, I told you, baby. We’re just like brother and sister. And besides, Steven was just sharing the good news with me.”

“What good news?” Greg asked.

“Looks like him and Paula are about to have a baby.”

“What? Congrats, man.” Greg extended his hand again.

Steven shook it. “Yeah, it’s not the ideal situation with me being in my first year of law school, but life happens.”

“I feel you, but from what Felise has told me, if anybody can make it work, you can. Y’all getting married?”

I waited for that answer.

“Yeah, probably.”

It took everything in my power to keep my knees from buckling.

“Well, let me know, man. Maybe I can chip in on the bachelor party.” He leaned in and kissed me on the lips, like a dog staking its claim. “And who knows? Maybe we can have a double wedding.”

STEVEN HAD RETURNED TO DCafter that visit, and the distance between us began, both literally and figuratively. Paula started calling me more. A part of me sensed that she was trying to make sure that I was okay with everything. But she was pregnant with his child, so what was I supposed to say at that point? I’d given her my blessing, and I definitely couldn’t take that back now. So I continued to assure her that I was happy for her and for Steven.

I couldn’t take Steven’s calls, though. He called often, trying to gauge where my head was. The few times I did take his call, I was abrupt and I could tell that he knew my excitement was fake. Thinking of Paula and Steven married with children hurt my heart to the core. And I never told a soul.

But that’s why, one day, when Greg made a haphazard proposal at Joe’s Crab Shack, I jumped to accept. We had been dating for nine months, and besides his few obsessivetendencies, he was a good guy, so I said, “Sure.” That was the extent of our proposal.

He bought me a miniscule ring from JCPenney. I almost died when he turned away from the one-and-a-half-carat ring I was eyeing, pointed at the smallest diamond in the case, told the clerk we’d take that one, then handed her a 20-percent-off coupon. When I started making wedding plans, he took one look at my budget and decided that it made “absolutely no sense to spend that kind of money on a wedding.” I protested at first, but then Paula emailed me a photo of her elegant wedding dress. I knew I’d never have a dress like that, so why bother? Greg and I went to the justice of the peace three days later.

I took great pride in telling Steven that I was married. His long silence told me that my declaration of love for Greg stung, and I was glad. I wanted him to feel the same pain I did. He never let on, though. And I took my place as a bridesmaid at their wedding. I fought back tears as I watched them say, “I do.” I led the toast for the married couple to have a lifetime of joy. And I convinced myself that I wasn’t in love with my best friend’shusband.

13

Paula

I WAS BEYOND WORRIED NOW.It was nine the next morning. I still hadn’t heard from Steven. I’d logged on to AT&T and seen that he still hadn’t made any calls since we talked, which only intensified my worry.

I was about to break into a full-fledged panic when my mother appeared in the bedroom doorway.

“Umm, Paula.” She looked extremely nervous as she fidgeted with her hands. “The police are here.”

“The police?” I said, jumping up off my bed. “For what?” In my distracted state I hadn’t heard the doorbell ring. “Are the kids back? Where’s Tahiry?” I asked as I slipped on some pants.

“I went and picked up Tahiry last night. She and the boys are downstairs.”

“Well, what do the police want?”

My mom didn’t answer as she followed me out. I had barely reached the bottom of the stairs when the first officer said, “Mrs. Wright?”

“Yes?” I replied, taking slow steps in their direction.

The first officer glanced at Tahiry and her brothers, who were all standing in the middle of the living room, staring at him.

“Ummm, is there somewhere we can go talk in private?”

“Private? Why do we need to talk in private?” I asked, my voice squeaking. “Is this about my husband? Did something happen to Steven?”

“Please? It’ll just take a few minutes,” the officer said.

I didn’t like the way this was sounding. “Mom, can you take the kids in the other room?”

Tahiry wanted to protest, but the look on my face must’ve told her that now wasn’t the time. My mother took Mason and Marcus’s hands and led them out. Tahiry and Stevie reluctantly followed.

“What’s going on?” I asked as soon as they were out the room.

“Well, it is about your husband”—he glanced down at his notepad—“Steven Wright.”

My heart immediately sank. “What about him? He’s fine, right? Where is he? Has he been arrested?”

“Ma’am, unfortunately, there’s been an accident.”

I fell back against the wall. I had to hold on to the railing to keep from losing my balance. “What kind of accident?”

The officers exchanged glances; then the second one, a compassionate-looking man, stepped forward. “I’m sorry to have to inform you of this, but Steven’s body was discovered in a local hotel this—”

“Wh-what do you mean, body?” I said, cutting him off. Surely this had to be some kind of mistake. I felt my mom ease to my side and take my arm, trying to keep mefrom collapsing. “Where’s my husband?”

“Sweetie, calm down,” my mom whispered, her voice shaking.

I jerked away. “No, what are you talking about?”

The second officer looked pained. “Ma’am, there’s no easy way to say this. Your . . . Your husband was found dead in his hotel room this morning. One of the housekeepers found him in his bed unresponsive. Of course, the coroner will give the final report, but it looks like he just died in his sleep.”

All of the breath inside me escaped, and I fell to the floor. I didn’t realize that I was screaming until Tahiry came running out.

“Mom, what’s wrong?” she cried.

“There has to be some kind of mistake,” I heard my mother say.

“Mom, what’s going on?” Tahiry frantically repeated.

“Get her out of here!” I screamed at my mom.

Tahiry jerked away as my mom tried to take her arm. “No, I’m not going anywhere! What’s going on?”

I looked at my daughter, then opened my arms to hug her. “They said your dad is gone,” I sobbed when she didn’t move.

“Gone where? When . . . when is he coming back?” She stammered, turning her gaze from me to the officers.

“Ma’am, I’m so sorry,” the first policeman replied.

“What happened?” I heard my mom ask. I don’t know exactly what he told her. Honestly, how on earth could it even matter? My husband was dead. Whatever they said elicited agonizing screams from Tahiry.Then my whole world went black.

14

Felise

MY MANIC HUSBAND WAS WORKINGevery nerve in my body. He was going all out trying to make up for the anniversary fiasco and driving me straight to the mad house.

“. . . So I was thinking that maybe this weekend, instead of going to see Mike Epps, we could catch a plane to Vegas for a late anniversary celebration,” he said. “I know the tickets are last minute, but I think we deserve it.”

I was sitting on the bed, thumbing through a magazine, not digesting a single word on the pages. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone to mourn.

I definitely didn’t want to hear any chatter about Vegas. Steven used to love going there. His favorite . . . I caught myself and had to fight back the lump in my throat. Was I going to spend the rest of my life thinking about Steven? I struggled to keep down the tears. I couldn’t cry. Greg knew I was upset about the anniversary, but tears would bring a whole other set of questions.

Still, a part of me wanted to cryin my husband’s arms. He’d grown to love Steven, too. After Steven and Paula got married and he saw how close Paula and I were, he let down his guard. Steven and Greg would’ve probably never been friends on their own—they were too different—but they had developed a mutually respectful friendship over the years.

That made my betrayal even worse.

My cell phone rang, and I saw Paula’s name pop up on the screen.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t talk to her yet. I knew that I was going to have to at some point. But I was sure that she had gotten the news by now, and I didn’t know what to say.

“You’re not going to get that?” Greg asked when I tossed the phone back on the bed.

“I don’t feel like talking,” I snapped. “Period.”

“Okay, hint taken,” he said, standing. “I guess I’ll leave you alone.”

“That would be nice.”

Greg stood over the bed, staring at me. “How long are you going to stay mad at me?”

I took a deep breath and slapped the magazine, trying to pretend I wanted to keep reading. “I’m not mad, Greg. I’m over it, okay?”

“It doesn’t seem like it.”

“I’m just not in the mood for conversation.” I would have given everything to just disappear right then. Go to a dark land where no one could talk to me.

“Well, you haven’t been in the mood for conversation since you got home. You slept on the sofa, and if you say that you’re not mad anymore, then I don’t know what it is,” Greg said.

We were interrupted when Liz camerushing into the room with her Samsung Galaxy extended toward me. “Mom,” she said frantically, “it’s Tahiry. She’s on the phone crying. She said Ms. Jean has been trying to call you because Uncle Steven died.”

My daughter didn’t call Paula her aunt, but for some reason she’d taken to calling Steven uncle. Maybe because he was always doing stuff for the girls and they absolutely adored him. Right then, hearing her call him that sent daggers through my heart.

I slept with my daughter’s “uncle.”


Page 9

“What?” Greg said in shock. “What do you mean, Steven died?”

Liz thrust the phone toward me. “Here, she wants to talk to you.”

I could not get around this with my husband and daughter standing there, staring at me. So I slowly took the phone. “Hello?”

“Nana!” Tahiry cried, which was another punch in the gut.

“Yes?” I said.

She was sobbing hysterically. “They say my dad is dead.”

Both Greg and Liz were staring at me, so I knew I had to sound shocked. “Oh, my God,” I said. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. Some cops just showed up at our door. Mom passed out, she’s up now, but she’s moaning and nobody can get through to her. Granny’s going crazy. Oh, my God! What am I going do? The boys are crying, and I . . . I just can’t believe this.”

“What’s going on?” Liz whispered in the background.

“Can you come over?”Tahiry sobbed. “We need you, Nana.”

How in the world could I say no? “Okay, I’ll be there right away.”

When I hung up, Greg and Liz were standing there, waiting for answers.

“Something horrible has happened,” I said, getting out of bed. “They found Steven dead.”

Greg let out a loud gasp and Liz screamed “No!” as Greg took her into his arms.

“Come on, honey,” Greg said, motioning for me to get up. “You told them we’re on our way over there, right?”

I looked at him and wanted to say “We?” But I just nodded. I knew I had to go through this. I had to go face my friend. Not only did I have to face her, I had to give her a shoulder to cry on. While my husband stood at my shoulder. How in the world was I ever going to live with myself?

15

Felise

IF I COULD HAVE BEENanywhere else right then, I would have been.I felt like the scum of the earth as I stood in the living room of my best friend’s home. A somber Stevie had opened the door for us. Greg had hugged him, and Tahiry came racing into my arms.

“Nana, why? Why did my dad die?” she cried, squeezing me tight, like she didn’t ever want to let me go. “Whyyyy?”

I held her as my own tears streamed down my face. “Baby, sometimes we don’t understand things.”

“What am I going to do?” Tahiry sobbed.

My guilt aside, my heart broke for Tahiry. She was so much like her father it was eerie, from their beautiful hazel eyes to the dimple in their left cheek to their caring, witty personality. I don’t know if that’s what drew me to her over the years, but I loved Tahiry like she was my own daughter.

“Oh, Felise!” I looked up to see Paula come barreling toward me. I didn’t want to let Tahiry go because I didn’twant to hug Paula. But Tahiry moved aside and into Liz’s arms so the two of them could weep together.

Paula threw her arms around me, and all I could do was stroke her hair as she sobbed and asked, “Why? How could this happen?”

I wished that I could answer that for her. I had no idea why Steven had to die. And certainly not why he had to die at that time and that place. With me.

Greg came up behind Paula and rubbed her back as I held her.

“Paula, I’m so sorry. What happened?” he asked.

Paula stepped back and swiped at her tears. “That’s just it,” she said. “I don’t know. The police said that he was found in his hotel room. All they said was it didn’t look like foul play or anything.”

“I didn’t know he was going out of town,” Greg said.

She buried her face in her hands and sobbed some more. Her mom came and stepped up on the side of her. “He wasn’t. It was the hotel downtown—the Four Seasons.”

Paula sniffed as she tried to explain. “We had a fight, and he spent the night at a hotel. They said he just died in his sleep.”

Greg looked bewildered. “Was he sick?”

“No! I mean, not to my knowledge.”

This thought made Paula wobble like she was about to faint. Greg took her arm and led her to the sofa. While he was cordial to Steven, Greg had a genuine affection for Paula. “Come on, sit down. You don’t need to overexert yourself.”

After he settled her on the sofa, they both looked like they were waiting for me to say something, so I turned to mydaughter. “Liz, why don’t you take Tahiry in the kitchen and get her something to drink?”

Tahiry looked at me like she wanted nothing more than to climb into my lap like she used to do when she was a little girl. I nodded to tell her it was okay, and she let Liz lead her out.

Greg eased down next to Paula. “Now, tell us what happened.”

Paula shook her head. I could tell she couldn’t make any sense of what was going on. “They said a maid found him in his hotel bed dead. He must’ve been there all day. They said the Do Not Disturb sign was on the door, so the maid hadn’t cleaned the room. Not until late last night, when they realized that he hadn’t checked out, did they find him.”

“Oh, my God,” Greg said.

I had completely forgotten about the Do Not Disturb sign. The thought of this small detail sprang up like a billboard in my mind, reminding me all over again of how horrible that morning had been. I stood with my hand covering my mouth, tears in my eyes. I didn’t need to act. Watching Paula, I truly was heartbroken. “I just don’t understand it,” I managed to say. Which was the truth.

Greg said, “What did they say was his cause of death?”

Paula dabbed her tears as she pursed her lips to stifle more cries. Her mother, Ms. Jean, stepped up. “They haven’t said yet,” she replied. Her eyes were puffy and red as well. “All they told us is that it doesn’t look like foul play. I think it may have been his heart, but we won’t know until the medical examiner releases his findings.”

“He had a bad heart?”Greg asked. “I didn’t know that.”

Paula looked at me strangely. I had never mentioned that to Greg because I didn’t see the need. And I never knew his condition was bad enough to kill him. Maybe if I had . . .

Paula sniffed again as she told Greg, “Steven had a heart murmur. That’s why he had to stop running marathons. But we thought he had it under control. I just don’t understand. How does somebody just die in their sleep?”

Greg patted her hand. “I’m sure the medical examiner will have some answers for you. In the meantime, is there anything we can do?”

“I guess I need to notify Steven’s mom and begin planning . . . planning his . . .”

I stepped up when she couldn’t finish. “You don’t need to do anything right now.”

Paula extended her hand toward me, and as much as I didn’t want to, I reached out and took it. Her hand felt all soft and flabby, like Steven’s death had sucked everything strong out of her.

“I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this,” she said.

I finally sat down on the other side of her. As guilty as I felt, my grief was real, so I did what I was supposed to do—I let her cry on my shoulder.

“Well, one thing you don’t have to worry about is going through this alone. We are going to be right there for you,” Greg said. “Right, Felise?”

My stomach twisted in another sharp knot. “Right.”

I had never in my life felt as low as I did then.

16

Paula

I DIDN’T KNOW HOW LONGI had been driving around. I just needed to get out of the house. I needed to escape the nightmare that my life had become. I would give anything to turn back the hands of time, to go back just two days. I wouldn’t fight over frivolous things. I wouldn’t make my husband so unhappy that he didn’t want to come home. And most of all, I would push him to go see the doctor. My mind raced back to about exactly this time last month. Steven had canceled his doctor’s appointment because a meeting came up. I had brushed it off.

If only I had pushed him.

Butwould,could,should—none of those words mattered now. All that mattered was that Steven was gone.

My ringing cell phone snapped me out of my daze. I saw my mother was calling again. She’d been calling me nonstop for the last hour. I knew she was worried sick. I was supposed to be lying down, but the thought of lying in the bed that I had shared with my husband was suffocating andheartbreaking. I pressed Ignore again and continued driving. Before I knew it, I was pulling into the circular driveway of the Four Seasons Hotel. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I needed to come here. I needed some answers, and this seemed to be the only place I could get them.

I parked, then walked to the front desk and asked to speak to a manager. They brought me a curly-haired boy who looked like he couldn’t have been more than twenty-two years old.

“Can I speak to the manager?” I said softly.

He flashed a wide smile. “Um, yeah, you’ve got him.”

“Hi. Uh, I–I . . .” I stammered. “I’m sorry to bother you, but my husband was found here yesterday.”

He lost his smile. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“He died here yesterday,” I said, my voice cracking.

A look of compassion immediately crossed the young man’s face. “Oh, I am so sorry. I was off yesterday, but everyone’s talking about it. My condolences to you and your family.”

I didn’t want his condolences. I wanted answers. “Thank you”—I shook as I spoke—“but I’m trying to figure out what happened. When did my husband book the hotel room? Was he here with someone? Did you all find anything out of the ordinary in his room?”

The guy looked at me sadly. “I’m sorry, I can’t give you that information.”

“He’s dead!” I snapped. “What do you think he’s going to do? Come back and sue?”

“Ma’am, calm down please.”

I slammed my hand on the counter.“I will not calm down! I need some answers!”

He looked around. Several people had started staring, but I didn’t care. “Hold on,” he said. He began tapping on one of the computers behind the counter. “Your husband didn’t get the room until late Friday night, and it looks like there was nothing out of the ordinary. Housekeeping said that he was just in the bed, like he’d died in his sleep.”

“Was he alone?”

“Like I said, I wasn’t here, but the room is just in his name.” He checked the screen again, then turned to the girl at the end of the counter, who was trying to act like she wasn’t listening to our conversation. “Lori,” he said, then waited for her to approach. “You checked in Mr. Wright, didn’t you, the other night? The guy they found dead?”

Her hand moved to her heart. “Yes. That is so sad.”

Her sympathy looked genuine, so I asked her, “Was he alone?”

Her eyebrows rose in shock, and she looked over at the manager like she didn’t know what to do.

“It’s okay,” he said. “This is his wife, and as you can imagine, she’s obviously upset. But I told her, we show that he checked into the room by himself, right?”

Lori still looked apprehensive, but she nodded her head. “Yes, he was by himself,” she replied. “He looked a little tipsy and said he was going to get a room to sleep it off.”

I don’t know why that didn’t give me the relief I’d thought it would.

“He had been at the bar drinking,” Lori added, trying to help.

“Maybe he got some kind of alcohol poisoning at the bar,” I said. I knew I was grasping at straws, but I neededsomething to make sense.

The manager tensed up, and all compassion left his face.

“I’m sorry, that’s all the information we can give you. I could lose my job giving you that much.”

“Thank you,” I said as I spun around and headed toward the bar.

I found a lot of people in the bar area: laughing, flirting couples oblivious to my pain. I immediately marched to the bar.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” I called out, waving to get the bartender’s attention.

The male bartender was in the middle of taking an order, and he said, “I’ll be with you in just a minute.”

“No!” I said, slamming my palm on the bar counter. “This can’t wait. I need to know something.” I fumbled in my purse and pulled out a picture of my husband. “This man, he was here the other night. Do you recognize him? Were you working?”

He sighed, then excused himself from the customer in front of him and walked over to me. He glanced down at the photo.

“Yeah, I served him. Why?”

“You gave him a lot to drink, and then he died in this hotel. What did you do to him?”

“Whoa, slow down, lady,” the bartender said, holding up his hands in defense. “I didn’t do anything. I don’t do anything but serve drinks.”

“Was he drunk? Did you keep serving him? Did you give him alcohol poisoning?” The words were rushing from my mouth. I’m sure I looked like a madwoman, but I felt like desperation was swallowing me whole.

“Whoa,” he said. “You need to chill out, lady!”

I couldn’t help it. I started losing it, yelling at the bartender, accusing him of killing my husband, until I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Paula?” I turned around to see Felise’s old college roommate Sabrina. We’d all hung out when I came back to Texas over the holidays freshman year. I’d seen her a few times over the years. The last time, I was at this hotel for a cheer camp for Tahiry. I’d forgotten that she worked as a bartender here.

“Sabrina!” I said.

“What is going on? What’s wrong?” she asked.

I couldn’t help it. I started crying as I buried my head in my hands.

“Shhh, it’s okay, calm down.” She looked at all the people staring at me, including the bartender, who looked pretty mad. “Hey, Zen, I got it,” she told him. “I’m sorry, she’s upset. Just go on, I’ll handle it.”

Zen still had an attitude, but I couldn’t be concerned with him as I let her lead me into the ladies’ room.

“Now, tell me what’s going on.”

“Steven died here the other night,” I cried. “He was at the bar, then he got a room, and then he died in the room, and I just don’t understand. I don’t understand what happened. I don’t know if he got some type of alcohol poisoning or if somebody killed him or what.”

“Okay, calm down. I assure you, Zen is our best bartender. If he thought Steven was anywhere near drunk enough to get alcohol poisoning, he would’ve stopped serving him.”


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I wiped the warm moisture flooding my eyes. “They said it was Steven’s heart. But it just doesn’t make sense!”

She wet a paper towel and handed it to me.“Here. Wipe your face.”

I took it and dabbed my tear-streaked face.

“Look, I will find out what I can for you, okay?” she said. “But Zen is a good guy, and he wouldn’t have poisoned your husband. So just relax, and let me see what I can find out, and I’ll get back in touch with you, okay?”

I sniffed, nodding as I balled up the paper towel and tossed it in the trash.

“Look, this is all too fresh. You go home, get some rest. I’ll get your number from Felise, and we’ll talk soon, okay?”

I knew she was right. I needed to get out of there. But I also needed to figure out what was going on before I lost mymind.

17

Felise

THIS ISN’T ABOUT ME. THAT’Swhat I had to keep telling myself as I gathered up the strength to knock on Paula’s door. I had to focus on my goddaughter, who needed me right then. Nothing else mattered.

“Hey,” Paula’s sister said, opening the door. Although I had known Charlene for years, I didn’t think she cared too much for me. Paula always said that Charlene was jealous of how close she and I were. Her sister was never rude or anything, but she wasn’t overly nice either.

“Hi, Charlene. When did you get in?”

She gave me a polite hug. “I just got in. Trying to get everything situated.” She stepped aside to let me in.

“Tahiry called me. I was worried about her, so I came over,” I said as I cautiously advanced into the living room. I was praying that I didn’t see Paula.

“Yeah, she’s not doing too well,” Charlene replied.

“Where’s Paula and the boys?”

“The boys are upstairs moping around, too. Paula is asleep. Do you want me to wake her up?”

I wanted to breathe a sigh of relief. “Nah, let her sleep.”

“Hey, Nana.”

I looked up to see Tahiry’s long figure coming down the stairs. She had on some cut-off jeans and a tank top. Her long natural hair was pulled back haphazardly into a ponytail. Over the past year Tahiry had sprouted into a young woman. Today, though, she looked like a helpless little girl.

“Hey, sweetie. I just came by to check on you. Maybe get you out of the house,” I said, trying to will a smile to come.

Her eyes were swollen and sunken. She leaned up against the railing. “And go where?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Wherever you’d like to go.”

She thought about that for a moment, then said, “I want to go back to the past. When my daddy was home.”

“Oh, honey.” I opened my arms, and she all but fell into them. She cried silent tears as I led her over to the sofa.

I let her cry for a while before I leaned back and dabbed her face. “You know what? Why don’t we go get something to eat? How about we go to that new seafood restaurant downtown?”

She grew solemn again. “My dad had promised to take me there soon.”

“Well, then that’s definitely where we need to go. We need to go in his honor,” I announced.

She managed a faint smile. “Really?”

I nodded. “Yes, really.”

“Can we also go find me something to wear? I don’t have a dress to wear to the funeral, and Mom . . .”

“And your mother is distraught,”I said, finishing the sentence. “That’s why I’m here. We’ll let her rest, and I’m going to do whatever I need to do to help you through this.”

She hugged me again. “Thank you, Nana. Just give me a minute to change,” she said before darting up the stairs.

Charlene had remained at the entrance to the living room, saying nothing. To relieve the tension of our mutual silence, I asked, “Will you be okay with the boys?”

She nodded. “They’re my nephews. I can take care of them.” But then she let her attitude go and added, “Sorry. Everyone is so stressed. The boys are upstairs just watching TV, not really saying anything. You know, none of us are used to that.”

I walked over and hugged her. She was caught off guard but finally hugged me back.

“I know I’m not there for Paula like I should be. It’s just . . . so hard,” I said.

She gave me a genuine smile. “Well, you’re there for Tahiry, right? And that’s good because I’m not the greatest with teens.”

“She’ll be okay,” I said. “You take care of Paula and the boys, and I’ll make sure Tahiry makes it through this.”

Charlene seemed happy with this proposal. So was I. Taking care of Tahiry was at least one promise that I could keep.

18

Paula

HOW IN THE WORLD DOyou bury the man you love, especially when he’s only thirty-six years old? How was I supposed to smile as person after person came to offer condolences?

My house felt like Grand Central Station. I didn’t even know who all was here. The last few days had passed in a blur. I know Steven’s mom and brother had arrived yesterday. They’d gone to take his suit to the funeral home this morning. I simply couldn’t do it. My sister, Charlene, had come up from DC, but really, I couldn’t entertain any of them. I felt like I was just going through the motions.

Steven’s mother, Lois, a very poised, put-together woman, approached me. She was wearing a navy St. John pantsuit, her hair pulled back into a tight bun. Even in her grief she looked like royalty. I sat at the kitchen table with the blank piece of paper in front of me. I’d yet to formulate one word. “Sweetie, you should really let me do this,”she said gently.

“No, I need to,” I said, tugging the paper toward me. I didn’t mean to sound harsh. I liked his mom, I really did. And I knew she was grieving just like me, but I didn’t want her around right then. I didn’t want anyone around when I wrote my husband’s obituary. Well, except for the one person who understood my pain because she understood me. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t here.

“I was just trying to help,” Lois said.

“She knows that,” my mom said, stepping forward to play peacemaker. “You know she’s stressed.”

Lois nodded, flashed a sympathetic smile, then walked off.

“Mom, did you call Felise?” I asked before she walked away as well.

My mom nodded. “I did. She said she’d be by here later. She sounded broke up herself.”

“She probably is. They did use to be best friends in college.”

My mom raised an eyebrow. “Umph.” I knew she never liked how close they were, but you’d think by now, she would have gotten over it. She didn’t believe in “man sharing,” as she’d called it. But I wasn’t sharing Steven. He was mine. Hehad beenmine.

I understood if Felise was broken up, but she couldn’t be mourning nearly as much as I was. And I needed her here with me. We could share in our grief together.

“Let me see the phone.” I motioned to my cell phone, which was sitting on the counter. “I’m going to call her.”

“I just don’t understand,” my mother said, reaching for the phone. “You’re the one grieving, but you got to call her?” She rolled her eyes as she handed me the phone.

I called Felise and it actually rang three times, and just before it went to voice mail, Felise picked up.

“Hey, Paula, how are you?” Felise asked.

“Not too good. Trying to do this obituary.” I released a long sigh. “It would be nice if I had some help.”

She didn’t respond right away. “Where is your mom?”

“She’s here. Where are you?”

“I’m at home.”

Usually, I would’ve gotten an attitude with Felise, but I didn’t have the energy, so I said, “Felise, this is so hard. I can’t do this. I need you here. Where are you?” I cried. I knew I sounded like a blubbering fool.

“I, ah . . .”

“Please, Felise. I know this is hard on you, too. But you’re the only one who knows what I’m going through. His mom doesn’t know about the fight, and I . . . I just need you.”

She held back for a moment, then said, “Okay, okay. I’m on my way.”

“Thanks, Felise. See you in a bit.” I wiped away my tears, a sense of relief filling me because my best friend was on the way.

My mother stood there, a chastising look across her face. “What kind of friend do you have to beg to be there for you in your time of need?”

“I’m not begging her, Mama.” I waved my mom off. I wasn’t in the mood for her either. “Just please, go check on the kids, or make sure the guest room is ready for Lois, something.”

My mom threw her hands up. “Fine,” she said, stalking off. “But I’m gonna give Ms. Felise a piece of my mind.”

I hadn’t written more than a sentence in the obituary when my doorbell rang. I don’t even know who let her in, but I looked up to see Felise standing awkwardly in the doorway to the kitchen. At the sight of my best friend, I jumped from my seat and raced over to her. I couldn’t help but fall into her arms.

“Shhh, come on, sweetie. It’s going to be okay,” she said, stroking my hair.

“It’s never going to be okay again,” I cried, clutching her tightly. She let me cry for a few moments, until finally I pulled back and said, “How am I going to make it without him? I haven’t worked in years. Shoot, I don’t even know how much money we have in the bank!”

“I’m sure Steven had insurance money. You guys will be taken care of,” Felise said soothingly.

For the first time, I realized I didn’t care about the money. I just wanted my husband.

“I know.” I sniffed. I sat back down at the table and pointed to the mostly blank piece of paper in my hand. “Trying to do this obituary is killing me. I just can’t believe he’s gone. And the way he died, it’s just not adding up.”

She blinked, like she was spooked. “What are they saying?”

“They still think it was his heart. They’re doing an autopsy now.” The police officer handling Steven’s case was getting tired of me. I called that man four to five times a day. And every time I got the same answer: nothing.

“There was no investigation because police said, as of now, it appears to be natural causes,” I added.

My mom shook her head as she walked over. I didn’t fail to notice that she didn’t bother speaking to Felise.

“Ain’t nothing natural about a man dying so young.” She squeezed my hand. “But you be strong. I know you may not believe me, but you will make it through this.”

I heard what she was saying. I just couldn’t, for the life of me, see how I’d ever be able to do it.

19

Felise

I GROANED AT THE SIGHTof my sister, Mavis.

“What? Don’t give me that look,” she said, pushing past me and into Fran’s living room. I knew that she wouldn’t be able to keep her nose out of my business. After all, Mavis made her living minding other people’s business.

“Have you come to your senses and confessed yet?” She glared at me through judgmental eyes as she plopped down in the recliner.

Fran took my arm and pulled me inside since I was still standing there with the door wide open.

“Mavis, don’t come over here starting nothing,” she said. “If I had known you were going to be doing all of this, I wouldn’t have even invited you.”

I glared at Fran. “Whydidyou invite her?”

“Because Mama’s gone and I have to be the voice of reason,” Mavis said, cutting her eyes at Fran. “Because obviously your little sister is not.”

“Whatever. Don’t try to make me feel guilty.”

“Youareguilty,” Mavis said. “And you are going to end up in the pen right along with Felise.”

“I’m too cute for the pen,” Fran said, striking a pose. “The guardsandthe prisoners would be fighting over me—men and women. Unh-unh, I can’t be doing all that. Shoot, I can’t even visit the pen, which is why we need to make sure Miss Guilty Conscience sticks to the plan.”

Mavis crossed her legs like she was getting comfortable, which wasn’t a good sign. I’d come over here to get my head together. If Mavis was here, that meant I was in for a long lecture.

“So for real, Felise. What are you going to do?” she asked.

“She’s going to do exactly what she’s been doing,” Fran said, snuggling back into her seat on the sofa. “Play it cool.”

“How can you live with yourself?” Mavis asked. “I know the guilt has to be eating you alive. I mean for God’s sake, you’re the godmother of her child.”

“Thanks for reminding me, Mavis,” I mumbled. “I can always count on you to make me feel better.”

“You know how I do,” Mavis replied. “I am going to make you feel better. But I’m going to make you feel worse first. Maybe that will keep you from making this mistake again.”

That elicited a painful laugh. “Trust me, I won’t be sneaking up to my best friend’s husband’s hotel room ever again. I won’t be sneaking to any man’s room, not after last time,” I said.

Fran frowned and pointed a narrow finger at Mavis. “Don’t start beating her up! She beats herself up enough. Now, here you come. That’s why don’t nobody like having your judgmental self around! Every time you open your mouth, you always want to talk about somebody else.”

“Don’t get mad at me because the two of you act like you don’t have any common sense!” Mavis snapped right back.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I let out a groan. “Ugh! Would you two shut up already?” I looked at Mavis. “Of course the guilt is eating me alive. I feel awful. I never planned for this to happen. I can’t imagine how Paula would feel if she ever found out.”

Mavis raised an eyebrow. “If? No, honey, that’swhenshe finds out, because I’m sorry, but shewillfind out.”

“Not if Felise plays her cards right,” Fran said.

“I’m sorry, Ms.CSI. You watch a couple of episodes and think you know the perfect way to cover up a murder.”

“First of all, it’s not a murder. Secondly, yes, IdowatchCSI, which is why I know—”

Mavis cut her off. “Why you should know that the criminalalwaysgets caught.”

“I’m not a criminal,” I muttered. Mavis looked at me, her eyebrow raised again.


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“She’s not,” Fran reiterated.

“Honey, I know you’re not a criminal,” Mavis said, reaching out to cover my hand. “But this whole cover-upiscriminal, and even if leaving him there wasn’t criminally wrong, it was morally wrong. Being there with him was morally wrong!”

“Okay, and so what do you want her to do about it now?” Fran said. “Seriously, she made a mistake. In your perfect world, she should just go tell her husband, tell Paula, tell the police. Then they’ll all pray on it, forgive her, and let her go on her merry little way, right?” Fran tsked in disgust as she fell back on the sofa. “You and that fantasyland you live indrive me crazy.”

Mavis ignored her and continued talking to me. “Fefe,” she said, calling me by the nickname my mom used to call me whenever I was in trouble, “I know that you didn’t mean for this to come out the way it did. I just am worried because I don’t want this to blow up in your face. And my gut is telling me that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”

“What do you suggest I do?” I said. Her words were really starting to get to me.

“A web of lies eventually gets tangled,” she replied. “As difficult as it is, come clean.”

Fran jumped up like she could tell Mavis was getting through to me and she needed to nip this in the bud right away. “And say what? ‘Hey, Paula, I know I helped you through the funeral and let you cry on my shoulder and everything, but I was with your husband the night he died. We were getting it on, and it must’ve sent his heart into overdrive, but if it makes you feel better, he died feeling good.’ Really, Mavis? Is that what she should do?”

Mavis sighed like that sounded ridiculous even to her.

“I just know right is right,” Mavis muttered.

“All I’m saying,” Fran continued, turning her attention to me, “is you have to pull it together andkeepit together. That’s all you have to do.”

“And what’s going to happen when the guilt keeps eating at her?” Mavis pointed my way. “Because I can see that it already has.”

At that moment, I caught my reflection in Fran’s ceiling-to-floor mirror. I looked a hot mess. I had on a pair of tattered leggings and a long, dingy T-shirt with a hole in the front that I hadn’t noticed until I was in my car and on my way over here. My hair actually looked like it hadn’t been combedin a couple of days. I had no makeup on. My lips felt dry and crusty, and my eyes were swollen because I’d cried the whole way over here.

“That’s what she’s going to work on,” Fran said. She ran her eyes up and down my body. “And she will never, ever, ever wear that outfit again, looking like she’s going to work on a Habitat for Humanity project.”

I hated that they were talking about me as if I wasn’t there, but they both were right. I needed to keep it together, and I needed to come clean. But I knew if I came clean, I would lose everything. Greg would not forgive me. Shoot, his mother had pawned him off on a relative when he was eleven, returned two years later, and spent the next twenty-five years trying to get him to forgive her. To this day, Greg refused to have anything to do with his mother. And Paula, if she didn’t try to kill me, she’d never forgive me either. Then I thought about Tahiry and how much I loved her and how close she and Liz were. My betrayal would kill them both.

No, I decided, there was no way I was coming clean. I needed to learn to get over what I’d done. I’d asked God for forgiveness, and I meant it from the bottom of my heart, so I hoped that He forgave me. Now I just needed to figure out how to forgive myself and pray that it was enough to help memove on.

20

Paula

THANK GOD FOR FELISE. THAT’Sall I could think as I watched her straighten Mason’s little tie. I don’t know how I would’ve made it these last few days if Felise hadn’t taken part of the load. At first, I was a little worried. She didn’t show up until I called, begging her to come, but since then she hadn’t left my side. I was glad that she was devoting more of her time to my children, especially Tahiry, than to me because I didn’t have the strength to comfort them right then. After I put my husband in the ground today, I was going to have to pull it together for my children. But first I had to get through the funeral.

“So, are you ready?” Felise asked. She looked more like the widow than I did. We both had on simple black dresses, but Felise wore a small pillbox hat with a netted veil hanging over her face. Any other time I would’ve talked about that hat, but today—on the worst day of my life—her attire was the least of my concerns.

“Hold on before we go,” I said,taking her hand. “I just want to tell you how much it means to me that you’re here.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “Where else would I be?”

“I’m lucky to have a friend like you. I know my mom is trying to be strong, but she’s more emotional than I am. So is Steven’s mom. I don’t know how I would get through this without you.”

She shifted, like I was making her uncomfortable, then said, “Come on, let’s go.”

I draped my arm through hers as my children, my best friend, and I headed to bury my husband.

“BEAUTIFUL SERVICE, PAULA. STEVEN WASa good man.”

I smiled as Steven’s boss looked at me through sorrow-filled eyes. We had come back at my house for the repast, along with just about everyone from the service. People were wall to wall.

“Just know that if you or the kids need anything, I’m here.”

I patted his hand, which covered mine. “Thank you, Mr. Chimere. My friend Felise will be staying with me a few days. She’ll make sure I’m taken care of.”

Felise’s eyes bucked. I knew I hadn’t talked to her about that, but I knew it wouldn’t be a problem.

“It’s so wonderful to have great friends,” Mr. Chimere said to her.

“Thank you,” Felise said, her voice soft.

I greeted more people until I simply couldn’t take it anymore. “I gotta get out of here. I’m going to lie down. Come with me for a minute,” I said, taking Felise’s hand and pulling her down the hallway. As soon as the door to my bedroom closed, I collapsed. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I cried.“How am I supposed to make it through all the days to come?”

“You’re a strong woman. You’re going to pull it together and keep moving,” Felise said matter-of-factly.

Her eyes looked wracked with pain, reminding me once again that I wasn’t the only one grieving.

I sat up on the bed. “I’m sorry. You were close to Steven, and I know you’re hurting, too.”

She forced a smile. “This isn’t about me. This is about you and the kids. So you have to be strong for them.”

“I know. It’s just the guilt is killing me. My last words to him. I didn’t want a divorce.”

“Shhh,” she said. “Now’s not the time. Tell you what, why don’t you lie down? I will take care of everything out there. You just rest, okay?”

I nodded. Flopping down on the bed did feel like the best thing in the world right then. “Where’s my mom and Charlene?”

“Your mom is already lying down, and Charlene is keeping the boys entertained. Tahiry and Liz are in her room.”

I hoped my mom was fine. She’d actually passed out at the service, but I didn’t have the stamina to deal with anyone else right then, so I was grateful for Felise for taking on that task.

Felise headed toward the door. I stopped her just before she opened it. “Felise?”

“Yeah?” she said, turning toward me.

“I love you.”

She hesitated, and a slow tear escaped from her eyes. “I love you, too, Paula. I really do.”

I smiled and crawled under my covers, confident that my friend would make sure everythingwas handled.

21

Felise

“ARE YOU OKAY?” GREG SAID, approaching me. I nodded as I slowly massaged the back of my neck.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied. “It’s just been a stressful day.” I know Paula hadn’t wanted so many people back at her house, and I surely didn’t either. We both wanted people to pay their respects and leave us to our grief. But Steven’s mom was a true Southern matriarch, and according to her, “Steven wouldn’t be able to rest in peace unless he got a proper send-off, and that includes a repast.”

“I just got Paula to lie down for a while,” I said. “This is really hard on her.”

He pulled my chin up and looked me in the eye. “It is hard on you, too. You don’t look good.”

I snatched myself away from his grasp. I didn’t need him making me perfect today. “How am I supposed to look?”

He drew back in shock, and I sighed. I had to stop snapping at him.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just . . .”

He put a finger to my lips. “It’s okay, honey. No apology needed.” I was grateful for the reprieve and changed the subject as soon as I could.

“Those were nice words you spoke at the service today,” I said. Putting Steven in the ground had to have been one of the most painful things I’d ever done in my life.

“I am surprised you didn’t want to say anything.”

“Nah, I think you represented well,” I replied.

Greg continued to study me. I must not have been making the right responses. “Do you need anything?” he asked. “I’m worried about you.”

The last thing I needed was him reading anything extra into my grief. “I’m fine,” I said, “really I am. But I could use some water.”

I wasn’t really thirsty. I just wanted Greg to leave me alone.

“Okay, one water coming right up,” he said, squeezing my hand before heading into the kitchen.

I watched my husband walk away so purposefully, and I wondered how we would ever fix us. Amidst my mourning I had come to realize a truth that should have been apparent to me long ago. I had put up with so much for so long because honestly, I think I lived vicariously through Paula and Steven. Even if I couldn’t be with him, I wanted to be a better wife because of him. How could I continue to do that with Steven gone?

“Very nice ceremony.”

I turned toward the voice coming from behind me.

“Oh, hey, Sabrina,” I said, leaning in to give her a hug.

Sabrina Fulton was my roommate from freshman year of college. We’d fallen out right before school ended, and then she didn’t come back sophomore year. I’d seen her several times over the years, and we were both cordial to each other.I was just glad that we’d put our petty spats behind us. “I didn’t know you knew Steven.”

She leaned back against the wall and shrugged. “I didn’t. But remember, Paula used to hang out with us when she was visiting you in college.”

I tried not to frown in confusion. I didn’t know they still talked.

“It’s so beautiful how you’re there for Paula,” Sabrina said.

“Thank you,” I replied. “Just trying to be there for my best friend.”

“Yep,” Sabrina said, taking a sip of her drink. “Good ol’ Felise. Always the good girl of the group. The one everyone wanted to be like, who could do no wrong.”

Her tone made me uncomfortable. “Ah, are you going somewhere with this?”

“Nah, I just want to compliment you.” She flashed a tight smile. “I love to see women sticking together.”

“Oh, okay.” I didn’t really care for Sabrina anymore, so I said, “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check on the kids.”

“Yeah, that’s right. You’re godmother to the oldest.”

I smiled and nodded. “Yes, Tahiry.”

“Well, you go take care of them and I’ll talk to you later.” She turned to walk off, then stopped. “Oh, yeah,” she said, turning around. “Zen told me you were at the bar the other night.”

The mention of a bar put me on my guard. “Who’s Zen?”

“The bartender,” she said, looking me directly in the eye. “You know, at my job, at the Four Seasons. I introduced you to him the last time you and some of your sorority sisters were there for happy hour a few monthsago.”

My mind started churning as I recalled that day. We’d already been at the bar an hour when Sabrina started her shift. She’d made personal introductions, and Zen hooked us up with drinks the rest of the night.

I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten that. That’s why Zen had greeted me like he knew me when I first sat down at the bar. I thought he was just being friendly to get a bigger tip. Maybe if I had remembered meeting him before—shoot, if I’d remembered that Sabrina worked there—that would’ve kept me from going to Steven’s room.

Sabrina continued, “He told me that you were upset and getting pretty toasted, but luckily,” she added slowly, “you had someone to help you get over whatever was bothering you.”

I couldn’t move as she kept talking. “I hate I missed you, though,” she said. “Hate I was off that night, period. I heard there was quite a bit of action that night. There was a fight in the bar, and then of course the stuff with Steven.”

I was still frozen as Greg walked up. “Here, hon.”

Sabrina broke out in a huge smile. “You go on and see about those kids now.” She set her glass down and turned to Greg. “Hi, I’m Sabrina Fulton. You must be Felise’s wonderful husband.”

Greg smiled and shook her hand. “Greg Mavins, nice to meet you. Are you a friend of Paula’s?”

“Kinda sorta, by way of Felise here,” she replied. “Felise and I used to be roommates our freshman year, and we all would hang out whenever Paula came to town. I hadn’t seen her in a while, but I work at the Four Seasons, so I’m trying to help Paula figure out what happened to her husband.”

I sucked in air and tried to keep from passing out. Greg didn’t seem to notice, but Sabrina smirked.

“Such a shame,” Greg replied. “They say it was his heart, so I don’t know what else there is to find out, but I know Paula is just looking for some peace.”

“Yep,” Sabrina said, “and I’m hoping I can help her find it.” She turned her malicious smile on me. “Well, I must get going. Give my condolences to your BFF.” She actually reached out and hugged me, and it took everything in my power to hug her back.

As she backed away, I had to lean against Greg to keep from losing my balance. Sabrina was a hood girl who had landed at UT on a track scholarship, and I knew all about her survival instincts. Her street ways would mean major trouble for me, if she knew anything about that night.


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She doesn’t know anything, I told myself.

“Greg, it was nice to meet you.” She took out her iPhone. “Felise, give me your number so we can . . . catch up.”

“Uh . . .” I began.

“Oh, I know today isn’t a good day. I can call Paula later and get it from her if you prefer.”

I quickly took her phone. “No, I’ll put it in.”

She stood there with a stupid grin on her face as I programmed my number in her phone.

“Cool,” she said, taking the phone when I was done. “I’ll be in touch.”

She flashed one last smile before she took off. As she walked away, Greg put his arm around me and said, “I sure hope she can help Paula get some closure.”

I hugged him tighter, but only because I realized what Sabrina wanted. She knew. The question now was exactly what she planned on doing with that knowledge.

22

Paula

MARTIN LAWRENCE DANCED ACROSS MYtelevision screen. He was in rare form playing his neighbor Sheneneh Jenkins. That used to make both me and Steven crack up laughing. But now I stared blankly at the television. Even if I did find it funny, was I supposed to laugh? Was I supposed to laugh ever again? How could I watch our favorite shows? How could I find joy in the little things we used to do together? How could I do any of that ever again?

My door eased open and Tahiry peeked her head in. “Mom, Grandma Lois said she’s about to head out. She needs to get to the airport.”

I knew that I’d been a horrible host to my mother-in-law, but hopefully, she understood. Steven’s father had passed several years ago, so she knew the pain of what I was going through.

Lois peeked her head in. “You don’t have to get up.”

I was already on the edge of the bed. “No, I need to see youout.”

Lois walked in the room, and the look on her face told me it pained her to enter her son’s bedroom.

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” Lois asked.

“I’ll be fine,” I replied.

Concern blanketed her face. “I’m really worried about you.”

I managed a smile, even though I was so unhappy. “My mom is here. Seriously, I’ll be okay.”

“I feel like I need to move back here. We still have the house on Danforth.” Lois had moved to Florida after her husband died, and I knew how much she loved living there.

“No. I’m fine. You don’t need to be worried about me or the kids,” I told her.

She nodded in acceptance. “Okay. I hope I’ll still be able to see the kids.”

I squeezed her hand. “You know I would never keep you away from your kids. You’re their link to their father.”

She seemed relieved. She had always been cordial to me, but we’d never had the relationship I’d envisioned having with my in-laws. I think part of the reason was because she was disappointed in my getting pregnant before we were married. But thankfully, she’d never treated me with ill will. And regardless of how she initially felt, she loved her grandchildren and had always played a vital role in their lives.

“Well, I’m going to keep you in my prayers. I know your mom is here, but you let me know if you need anything,” she replied.

I stood up and hugged her. “I will, and I’ll let you know if I hear anything else about Steven’s death.”

That caused her to stop in her tracks. “What else would you hear?”

It suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t shared my concerns with her. “I meant when I get the autopsy results.”

“Autopsy? But he died of heart failure. Why are you doing an autopsy? You think it’s something else?”

“No, I just want to be sure, that’s all.”

That seemed to pacify her, and she squeezed my hand one last time. “You let me know if you need anything.”

I waved good-bye and returned to my bed. I tossed and turned, but was unable to go back to sleep.

Five endless days had passed since we put Steven in the ground. They say the pain is supposed to get easier, but it hadn’t. I didn’t know how I was going to find the strength to move on. Having a job might have helped. I needed something to take me away from sitting around here, wallowing in self-pity.

I finally gave up my quest for sleep and picked up the phone to call Felise. Maybe we could go have lunch. Her phone bounced to voice mail. I hadn’t seen her since the funeral, which was pretty frustrating. I know that she was grieving, too. I know that she was hurt by losing Steven. But we would heal better if we grieved together.

I hung up and made my way downstairs. The kids were in the kitchen, sitting quietly at the table.

“Hey,” they muttered in unison.

Every one of them looked sad.

“Do you guys want me to fix you something to eat?

“Grandma Lois cooked for us before she left,” Tahiry said.

“Tahiry’s food tastes nasty,” Mason said.

“Forget you,” Tahiry replied.

“Where’s Charlene?” I asked.

“I don’t know. She went out.”

I sighed. “Where’s Mama?”

“In her room, same place you were, in the bed,” Tahiry said. It seemed like she had an attitude.

“I’m sorry, guys. This is just hard.”

“We know,” Tahiry said.

I rubbed Marcus’s hair. “Just bear with me, okay? It’s not going to be like this forever.”

“I miss Daddy,” Mason said.

Unexpectedly, in the middle of playing his handheld video game, Stevie let out a huge sob and laid his head down on the table. He had been so strong. He’d cried silent tears at the funeral and, at one point, tried to comfort me by telling me he would now be the man of the house. I realized at that point I wasn’t the only one grieving. And if nothing else, I needed to find the strength to help my kids get through thisas well.

23

Felise

I KNEW THAT PAULA NEEDEDme. So I had to pull myself together so that I could be there for her. Fran was right. It would start to look suspicious if she kept turning to me and I shunned her.

“Mom, can I—?”

“What?” I snapped. “Why aren’t you in the bed?”

My daughter flinched. “I just wanted to ask you something. Never mind.”

I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”

My precious daughter stared at me through innocent eyes. Even though she was thirteen, she wasn’t like a lot of her friends—she was mature for her age. With her long, naturally curly hair, underdeveloped chest, and long, athletic legs, she hadn’t come into her looks yet, and that was fine with me.

“I was just asking if I could go over to Tahiry’s house in the morning,” Liz said.

“No,” I replied. In the week since the funeral Ihadn’t been back over there. Liz had been over there every day. But between trying to figure out Sabrina’s sarcastic comments and stewing in my own guilt and grief, I hadn’t been able to make the trip myself. “There’s a lot going on right now.”

“But Mom . . .”

“What did I say?” I snapped. “When I say no, I mean no!”

She took a step back as Greg eased into the room.

“Liz, sweetie, go on to bed. We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Greg said.

“What is there to talk about? I already said no.”

He waited for Liz to disappear down the hall, then closed our bedroom door. “I understand that Steven’s death is weighing heavily on you. But taking it out on your child is not the answer.”

I rolled my eyes. With his work schedule, he was hardly the one to lecture me about our daughter. “I’m not taking anything out on anyone.”

“Yeah, you are.” Greg sat down on the edge of the bed. “I know you’re upset, but you are taking it out on us and that’s not fair. We all are sad about what happened.”

I couldn’t disagree with him about that. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not trying to be difficult.”

“It’s understandable. You’re going through a lot.” He scooched closer on the bed and began massaging the back of my neck. His touch felt like an invasion, and I flinched, then ducked away from his touch.

He held his hands up. “Sorry.”

I let out a long sigh. “No, I’m sorry.”

“I understand, baby. You got a lot going on.” I sensed the edge in his voice. He had thought he’d won out over Steven, but now he could see how deeply I was affected.His phone rang, and he reached into his pocket to cut it off. “I was just saying, I know you are going through a lot right now, but I want us to be able to pick up the pieces and move on.”

That sounded less like comfort and more like a threat. Or maybe I was imagining things.

The phone rang again. This time Greg glanced at the display and said, “I’m sorry, babe. Gimme a second. Hello,” he answered.

I narrowed my eyes at the sound of the woman’s voice.

“Hello . . . Um, yeah, I’m in the middle of something. Okay. Will do. I’ll call you back.”

It took everything in my power not to go off as he hung up the phone.

“Who was that?”

“What?”

“I didn’t stutter.”

“That was Donna from work.” He had the nerve to look appalled that I was questioning him.

“Who is Donna?” I snapped.

“Really?” he said. “You know me better than that, Felise.”

“I know I’m not going to let you make a fool out of me,” I said, snatching the phone from him. I glanced down and saw several text messages on his screen.Need u now, I read. I looked up at him in shock. “ ‘Need u now’? Who the hell is Donna, and why is she talking about needing you now? Tell your hos not to call you in the middle of the night!”

He stared at me in disbelief. “Wow. Myhos? Donna is my supervisor.”

“You must think I’m stupid. I know your boss, andsheis ahe.” I was so not in the mood for Greg trying to play me. He’d hada brief affair nine years ago, and I’d found out this exact same way—from him ignoring her phone calls. Granted, Greg and I had gone to counseling and worked through that, but I wasn’t about to travel down that road again. I pushed Donna’s name on the phone and put the phone to my ear.

“May I speak to Donna?” I snapped as soon as the woman answered. I half expected Greg to snatch the phone away.

“This is she,” the woman said.

“Yes, Donna, this is Felise Mavins, Greg Mavins’s wife. I’m trying to understand why you’re texting and calling my husband at almost one in the morning. News flash, he’s married.”

Silence filled the phone before the woman said, “Umm, I know that.”

“And I guess you just don’t care.”

“Umm, wow, okay. This is Donna Langley—I’m one of the new partners. I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure of meeting as I just transferred in two weeks ago. I wasn’t trying to cause any problems, but my computer crashed and I lost a report Greg did and we need it for a presentation in the morning. That’s all.”

I swear, if I could’ve made myself disappear in a tiny hole in the earth, I would have.

“Ah, ah, I . . .”

Greg snatched the phone away. “Donna, I can’t apologize to you enough for my wife. As you can imagine, she’s very upset about her friend’s husband, and that’s the only reason I can imagine that she would do something like this. So please accept our sincerest apology for disturbing you.” He let her respond, and I could only imagine what she wassaying. “I’m sorry, I was just trying to be by my wife’s side, I was going to call you back . . . Yes, ma’am. I will email you over another copy of the report right away.”

Greg hung up the phone and glared at me. “I know that you’re going through a very difficult time, and for that reason, and that reason only, I’m going to give you a pass. But don’t ever, ever do some anything like that again.”

“But I mean Miranda . . .”

“Miranda was almost ten years ago. We went to counseling. You said you forgave me. And I have never given you reason since then to believe that I am unfaithful.” He was steaming, and now he had another reason to be upset. “You know I don’t do that ghetto foolishness of calling and confronting someone.” He stood, then walked toward the door. “It’s obvious you need some ‘me’ time, so I’m going to sleep in the guest room. Hopefully, when you wake up tomorrow, you’ll be in a better place because this is absolutely unacceptable.”

Greg walked sternly out the room.Well, I told myself, feeling helpless,at least I got him to go away.

24

Paula

I WANTED TO SCREAM ATthe sound of someone tapping on my bedroom door. I wanted everyone to leave me alone. I didn’t want to come out from under these covers. I knew my mother was as much of a basket case as I, so I knew she wouldn’t be much help. But hopefully, my sister was holding it down. I couldn’t deal with her over-the-top behind either, but at least she was handling my children. I’d tried to spend the day with them yesterday after I saw how they were grieving, too, and although I’d made it through the day, today I had retreated back to my safe place: under my covers.

“Hey, Paula, someone’s here to see you,” Charlene said, easing my door open, despite the fact that I hadn’t bothered to answer.

“Ugggh,” I groaned. I didn’t feel like visitors. Why did people always feel the need to come visiting you when you’d lost a loved one? Didn’t they say everything they needed toat the funeral?

“Who is it?” I moaned.

“You need to get up and come see,” she replied. “They have on plain clothes, but I can smell a cop a mile away.”

I sat up in bed. “Cops?”

“Yeah, I think they’re detectives or something.”

“What do they want?”

“I don’t know. You?”

“Maybe they have some news about Steven.” I threw my covers back and stood up. I knew I looked a hot mess, so I ran my fingers through my hair. I threw my robe over my pajamas and made my way downstairs.

“Where’s Mama?” I asked.

“Same place you were, in the bed.”

My heart was racing as I spotted the two men standing in the living room. I hoped that they had some information, that my husband had been the victim of a brutal robbery gone wrong, something other than that he had died from a heart condition. A condition I knew about when I told him I wanted a divorce.


Page 13

“May I help you?” I asked.

“Hi, Mrs. Wright, I’m Detective Clark Aimes. We wanted to let you know that we have concluded our investigation.” He handed me a sealed envelope. “Since the autopsy confirms that your husband did die of heart failure, we’re closing the case. All the details are in that letter.”

The other detective handed me a box. “We also wanted to drop off his belongings. A few things that were in the hotel room.”

When I didn’t make any attempt to move, Charlene stepped forward and took the box. “I don’t understand. Why are you closing the case?” I asked.

“There’s nothing else to look into. Everything appears to be in order.”

“In order? How could a thirty-six-year-old man dying be in order?”

“I’m sorry.” He squeezed my hand, and then both of them headed out the door.

I sat heavily on the sofa, the box set on the table in front of me. My sister was standing by, looking uneasy, while I set the official report down, then pulled the box toward me. I pulled out my husband’s wallet and fingered it while I tried to keep a tear from escaping. I could not believe this. It was over.

“Umm, Paula, I know that you’re dealing with a lot, but . . .”

“But what, Charlene?” I wasn’t in the mood for my flighty sister. I just wanted to sit here and go through my husband’s belongings.

“I don’t know how to say this,” Charlene said, fidgeting with her hands.

“Say what?” I asked, not trying to hide my irritation.

“Okay,” Charlene shifted from side to side, “but you’re going to be really mad.”

“Mad about what, Charlene? Just tell me. I don’t have time for games.”

She was biting her bottom lip, which was not a good sign. “Tahiry isn’t here.”

A prickle of alarm made me sit up straighter. “What do you mean, she’s not here? Where is she?”

My sister ran her fingers through her hair but didn’t answer as her eyes darted about, like she was looking for a wayto escape.

“Where is Tahiry?” I demanded.

“I–I don’t know,” my sister stammered. “I let her go to this party last night, and, ah, she didn’t come home.”

I stood up abruptly, nearly knocking over the box. “What do you mean, she didn’t come home? What party did she go to? She’s fourteen! She doesn’t go to parties!”

“How am I supposed to know that?” my sister cried. “You were so out of it, the boys were driving me crazy, and Mama was a basket case.” She started talking real fast. “Tahiry was stressing out and wanted to go to that party, and . . . and I thought it would make her feel better.”

“Oh, my God, where is my daughter?” I yelled.

“I don’t know. I tried calling her cell phone, but it’s going straight to voice mail.” My sister looked more frazzled than I was. “I can’t handle this. I don’t do kids. Where is Felise? She needs to be here helping with this stuff.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I just need to know where my child is,” I cried, shaking my sister. “Call Felise—see if she knows where Tahiry is. Just find my daughter, do you hear me?”

I fell back on my sofa. “I just can’t take any more.” I continued crying as I buried my head in my hands.

25

Felise

I WAS STANDING IN THEmiddle of the kitchen, getting ready to go, as my husband entered. He gave me a strange look. I hoped that he wasn’t going to grill me about that Donna fiasco. I’d overacted. Big deal. I wasn’t about to get into another argument about it.

“What?” I finally said as I stuffed a bottle of Aleve into my purse.

Greg pointed to my scrubs. “So, you’re going to work?”

“Where else would I be going?” I looked around for my bottled water. I’d been off for a week and a half, and I needed to show up before I lost my job. Besides, I’d made up my mind last night that I wasn’t going to wallow in sorrow anymore. Maybe going back to the busy ER would keep my mind off my loss.

“Where else would you be going?” Greg asked. “I don’t know, maybe to see about your friend? She called me yesterday, concerned because she hadn’t talked to you.”

“Why is she calling you?” I rolled my eyes in disgust.“Fine, I’ll call her on my way to work. Does that make you feel better?”

He held up his hands in defense. “Sorry, I just . . . I don’t know, I mean Liz has been going over there every day, and it seems like you’d be trying to go over there, too.”

I tossed my purse over my shoulder, not bothering to hide my agitation. “So now you’re planning my schedule, too? Isn’t your own schedule full enough?”

“Okay, okay. Don’t bite my head off,” he said. “I was just asking.”

I huffed as I snatched my keys off the counter. I felt like I was slowly falling into a horrible abyss and I needed to escape.

“I have to go to work.”

“Fine,” Greg said, shaking his head as he turned to walk away.

“I don’t understand what everybody wants from me,” I mumbled.

He stopped, spun back around. “I don’t want a thing, okay? I just asked.” He was agitated now, too. That was how he worked. Whenever he felt on the defensive, he got mad about it.

I left without saying another word. I had just pulled out of my garage when my cell phone rang. Paula’s home line popped up. I found myself wishing she had other friends.

“Hello,” I said, answering only because I didn’t need her calling Greg and creating more drama.

“Hey, um, yes, Felise, this is Charlene, Paula’s sister. Um, is Tahiry at your house?”

I frowned. “No. Liz wants to come over to your house.”

She sighed like that was not the answer she was hopingto hear. “Well, Tahiry didn’t come home, and we don’t know where she is.”

“What do you mean, she didn’t come home?”

Charlene rushed the words out. “She went to a party last night, and oh, my God, I can’t do this! I don’t handle kids!”

I quickly pulled over to the side of the road so I could give her my full attention. “Okay, just calm down. What’s going on?”

“I let her go to a party last night.”

“Tahiry? To a party? Where?”

“I don’t know. Look, she was upset, and I thought it would help her feel better.”

I couldn’t believe Charlene. She always had been ditzy. Who lets a fourteen year old go to a night party and doesn’t get details?

“Let me call my daughter. Maybe she knows something. I’ll call you right back.” I hung up the phone and called Liz.

“Hey, honey,” I said when she picked up.

“Hey, Mom.” Her voice was cold, and that made me sad. Liz wasn’t like most young teenagers. She really was a good kid, and I know she was trying to understand why I’d been snapping at her so much lately. After I managed to lift myself out of my misery, I was going to have to do something nice to make up for how I’d been acting.

“Have you talked to Tahiry?” I asked.

“No, why?”

“She didn’t come home last night.” Liz didn’t offer a helpful response. “Do you know where she is?” I continued. When she still didn’t say anything, I said, “Liz. I need you to tell me where she is.”

“Mom, she’s just upset.”

“Elizabeth, where is she?”

“She spent the night over Kayla’s house,” she finally admitted. “That’s why I wanted to go over there this morning. She really needed me to be there for her.”

I groaned. Kayla was a fast-tail girl that neither Paula nor I liked our daughters hanging around.

“What is she doing with— You know what, never mind. Call her and tell her I’m on my way over to get her right now.”

I didn’t think as I made a U-turn in the middle of the street. I called Charlene back to tell her I was going to get Tahiry and would be to their house in a half hour.

Less than ten minutes later, I was knocking on the door to the home Kayla shared with her six siblings and her grandmother.

The older woman, complete with pink hair rollers and a bent cigarette dangling from her mouth, answered the door.

“Who you is?”

I fought the urge to correct her English. “I’m looking for Tahiry. I’m her godmother.”

The woman looked me up and down as if she was trying to gauge whether I was telling the truth. As if some random woman would show up claiming a teenage girl. I wanted to berate this old woman for letting Tahiry stay here in the first place, but I held my tongue until she let me in.

“She back in the back.” The woman stepped aside.

Once I was in the tiny, dirty living room, I couldn’t help complaining. “You didn’t think to call her mom?”

The woman’s hands went to her hips. “Look, I got a hard enough time keeping up with that hot granddaughter of mine and her little crumb-snatcher brothers. I’mwatchingWheel of FortuneandFamily Feud, and I ain’t got no time to be asking her who she bringing in and out her room!”

I decided it would be useless to have a conversation with this woman.Just get Tahiry and get out of here.

She turned toward the TV show and screamed, “Drinks and food! How you not gon’ say drinks and food? Chimney?” she shouted. “Now, that’s the dumbest question ever!” She turned to me. “The question was, name something that’s on the house. A chimney, really? Look! Even Steve thinks it’s crazy! Look at him rolling his eyes!” she said, pointing at the TV. Then she had the nerve to lick her lips. “Mmm, mmm, mmm, I tell you, if I was a few years younger, back in my heyday I woulda had that man. But now I’m waiting on them to invent some Viagra for women before I get back on the dating scene.” She cackled.

“Tahiry, please?”

She rolled her eyes, annoyed that I didn’t find her humor entertaining.

“Kayla!” she screamed. “Someone is here for your friend.”

After a teenage minute, Kayla finally walked in, Tahiry lagging behind her. Kayla was wearing a pair of Daisy Duke shorts and a fishnet tank top with her bra showing. She looked like a cheap hooker, especially the way she was smacking on her gum. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why Tahiry or my daughter hung around this girl.

“Tahiry, your mother’s worried sick,” I said.

“She ain’t worried about nobody but herself,” Tahiry said, her eyes betraying her sadness.

I took a deep breath. “Tahiry, this is hard on everyone.”

“You think it’s not hard on me?” Tahiry cried, like she was bursting out of a shell. “My daddy’s gone!And I can’t talk to my momma or my granny! I’m just supposed to deal with this by myself!”

I took her into my arms and hugged her. “I am so sorry, honey. But you know you can always come to me.”

She sobbed as she clutched me for dear life. “What am I going to do, Nana?” she said as I stroked her hair. “What am I supposed to do without my daddy?”

“Excuse me?” Kayla’s grandmother said. “They ’bout to do the lightning round. Can you take her on home and y’all finish that conversation in the car?”

Kayla actually laughed.

I took Tahiry’s hand. “Gladly,” I said, leading her to the door.

“Bye, Kayla,” Tahiry said, sniffing as she followed behind me.

“I’ll call you, girl,” Kayla said as she blew a big bubble.

When Tahiry and I were settled in the car, I said, “What are you doin’, honey? Don’t ever do that again. You had us all worried to death.”

“Liz told you where I was?” she said.

“Yeah,” I said gently, “and the fact that you told her must have meant that you wanted me to know.”

She looked away, and I knew that had been the case.

“Why did my daddy have to die?” Her tears had subsided to a slow trickle.

I didn’t know what to say, so I just took her hand and said, “I don’t know, but you can rest assured that he’s in Heaven right now looking down on you.” I touched her chest. “And he’s going to live on right there in your heart forever.”

“It’s just so . . . I don’t know . . . tense around our house. Why can’t I come live with you?”

I felt awful. If I thought it would help, I would push aside any feelings I had to let Tahiry stay with me. But I knew Paula needed her daughter, even if she wasn’t acting like it. “Tell you what, promise me you’ll never run off like that again, and I will talk to your mom about chillin’ with us for a little while. Deal?”

“Deal.” She sniffed.

She looked out the window as she wiped her tears. We rode in silence until we pulled up into her house.

“Tahiry!” Paula said, swinging the door open and meeting me on the porch.

A part of me wondered if she was going to haul off and smack her daughter upside the head. But she grabbed her tightly, and they both broke out crying.

“Baby, don’t do ever do that to me again. I would die if something happened to you, too.” While still holding her head tight to her daughter’s, she looked up at me. “Thank you, Felise.”

“You’re welcome. Tahiry is just very upset and trying not to worry you because she knows how hard this is for you.”

Paula pulled away from her daughter, wiped her eyes, and kissed her on the cheek.

“I’m so sorry, baby.”

“No, Mama, I understand.” She reached out to include me in the hug. “Nana made me feel better.”

“She always does.” Paula smiled and then reached over to enfold me as well. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

I inhaled sharply, grateful that she couldn’t see my eyes because I’m sure the guilt would’ve given me away.

26

Paula

“YOU KNOW THOSE THINGS AREN’Tgood for you.”

I looked up to see Tahiry standing over me, her arms folded across her chest, her lips poking out.

“So, what, you’re the cigarette police now?” I tried to say with a smile as I dropped the cigarette down by my side.

“No, it’s just that I’ve already lost my dad. I don’t want to lose my mom to lung cancer.”

Wow.That was a low blow, but it was enough to make me squish my cigarette out.

“Okay, babe.” I held up my hands in defeat. “I’m done.”At least I’m done smoking around her, I thought. But my cigarettes were the only thing keeping me calm these days.

“What are you doing?” I asked her. I’d tried to spend the last two days giving Tahiry some extra time. Yesterday, we’d lain in bed together, watching old movies. The together time was good for us both. I’d come out here on the deck to try and steal a moment of “me”time—and a smoke.


Page 14

“I’m trying to straighten up the living room,” she announced.

I raised an eyebrow. “Youstraightening up the living room?”

Tahiry shrugged. “Keeps me busy. But I wanted to see what you wanted me to do with a box.”

“What box?” I asked.

“I don’t know. It looks like it has a few of Dad’s things in it. Why is it in the living room? Are you packing his stuff up already?”

“Of course not,” I said, trying to figure out what she was talking about. “Oh, my goodness, that’s the box the police brought over,” I said, when it dawned on me. “Go get it. Bring it here. I haven’t paid it any attention since they brought it here.”

“Oh, okay.” Walking back inside, she returned with the box and set it at my feet. “What is that stuff?”

“It’s just Dad’s belongings.”

“Oh.” She turned like she couldn’t bear to see me go through it.

His portfolio was placed on top, so I took it out and shuffled through it. I didn’t find anything unusual: some paperwork with Kevin’s signature, business cards, a notepad, and his iPad. I set the portfolio to the side and then slowly fingered his suit and his tie, his socks. But I stopped when I saw his underwear. I couldn’t think why, but something didn’t feel right. And then I figured out what was puzzling me. Why would his underwear be in this box and not on him? My mind started churning as I tried to figure that out. I never asked the police what he was wearing when they found him.

But why would they have removed his underwear before the coroner came? I jogged my memory, and I was right. This box came from the hotel, not the coroner.

I was so engrossed in my thoughts that I didn’t hear my sister walk out onto the deck.

“Hey,” Charlene said.

I glanced at her, then quickly turned back to the box. “Hey.”

“What are you doing?” she said, walking over to peer in the box.

“Just going through some of Steven’s stuff,” I said. I was annoyed that she was messing up my thought process.

“Ugh, are those his drawers?” she said, eyeing the briefs I was holding in my hand.

“Yeah.”

“Yuck. Why are they giving you back his underwear? Did you take him some clean ones to be buried in or something?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “That’s what I’m sitting here trying to figure out. Why is his underwear among his belongings? They only returned what they found in the hotel room.”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe they took his underwear off?”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “But why? I mean, he died in his sleep.”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I guess he wasn’t wearing any underwear when he went to sleep.”

“That’s just it,” I said as my puzzlement started to come into focus. “Stevenneversleeps in the nude,” I said. “Theonlytime he does . . .” I paused as the words formed on mylips. “The only time he sleeps naked is when he’s having sex and he falls asleep.”

My sister’s mouth fell open. “You don’t . . . You don’t think . . .”

My mind started churning. I knew my husband well. There was no other explanation as to why he’d be naked when he died. Acting on instinct, I dug in the box until I pulled out his wallet, which I remembered dropping back in when I’d first gotten the box. I sifted through the wallet until I found a receipt. Several Coronas, hot wings, and that’s it. The bill was fifty-seven dollars. I tossed that receipt aside and continued going through his stuff. Then I noticed another credit card receipt. This one had two vodka and cranberries and then two apple martinis.

“Hold up,” I said.

“What? What?” my sister said, leaning in as she sat down next to me.

“This receipt paid for apple martinis.”

“And?”

“What man do you know drinks apple martinis? Certainly not my man.”

My sister grabbed her chest. “You’re not saying . . . You really think Steven was with somebody else?”

“Of course I don’t want to believe it, but that would make sense. That’s why he was naked in the bed. That would explain this.” I held up his underwear as realization swept over me. “My husband was with another woman when he died.” The words hurt just coming out of my mouth.

“Do you think she killed him?”

I took a deep breath as I tried to processwhat I’d learned. “I don’t know. The autopsy said he died of a heart attack, but maybe someone caused the heart attack.”

We sat in silence, shocked by this new revelation, before my sister said, “You know what? I think you’re letting your mind get the best of you. Steven was one of the good guys, and I’m sure there’s an explanation. I mean, he would buy some woman a drink and never have to see her again. You know, just to be nice. That doesn’t mean anything.”

I nodded as I took in what she was saying. My heart didn’t want to believe that Steven had been in that hotel room with someone else, but everything was pointing to that. Including my gut. Now I had an entirely new problem. I had to findout who that woman was.

27

Felise

THIS WAS THE FIRST TIMEthat I had felt halfway okay about being around Paula. Fran was right. I had to push the guilt aside. I’d never forgive myself for what I’d done, but I needed to help Tahiry and Paula. So when she’d called me this morning, telling me she needed to talk, I didn’t ask about what. I told her I’d come over as soon as my shift ended.

“Knock, knock,” I said, slowly pushing open the front door.

“We’re back here,” Paula called out from the den.

I headed down the hall and to the spacious den in back.

“I brought you some—” I stopped when I saw Sabrina sitting there, holding a teacup in her hand.

“Well, hello, Felise. So good to see you,” she said with an evil smile.

“Hey, Sabrina,” I slowly said. Sabrina had been more my friend than Paula’s, so why she was sitting here in Paula’s living room was beyond me. Unless . . .

“Hey, Felise.” Paula stood up and gave me a hug.“Sabrina surprised me and stopped by. I asked her to look into Steven’s death, to ask around the hotel to see if she could find out anything.”

I had yet to call her since she gave me her number, so I had no idea what Sabrina was up to, but the way she was watching me, like a predator, was not good. “Paula here was just telling me what a blessing you’ve been to her and her family,” Sabrina remarked.

Paula draped her arm through mine. “Yes, Felise has been a lifesaver.”

Sabrina clicked her lips. “Good ol’ Felise. Always saving lives,” she said with a smirk.

“Soooo, you just dropped by?” I asked. My tone told her she could now pick up and go.

“I did.” Sabrina stood and took Paula’s hand. “I can’t imagine the pain of losing your husband, the man you love from the bottom of your heart. It’s almost like—” She turned her wide eyes on me. “It’s almost like a betrayal, wouldn’t you say so, Felise?”

If I’d had any doubt that her snarky comments the day of the funeral were just a coincidence, they were gone. Sabrina knew. The question was, had she come here to tell Paula?

“It is very difficult,” Paula said, sadness overtaking her once again. “I was just telling Sabrina how Steven and I had a fight before he died.”

I looked at Paula like she was crazy. Why in the world was she sharing her personal information with loudmouthed Sabrina?

“Yes, she did,” Sabrina said, “and I told her, all couples fight, so there was nothing for her to feel badabout.”

Just then we all heard a loud crash upstairs. “I’ll be right back,” Paula said hurriedly. “No telling what those boys have gotten into.” She dashed toward the stairs.

Sabrina and I were left alone. “Such a tragedy,” she said, making a mocking face of sympathy. “And can you believe Paula has to carry that burden of knowing her last words to her husband were during a fight?” She stopped, as though a question had popped into her head. “Do you think her husband sought comfort in the arms of another woman? Because, for some reason, she now seems to think so.”

What? Did Sabrina know something I didn’t? I kept my cool as I stared at Sabrina. “I don’t know why Paula would think Steven was with someone else,” I managed to say. “He was one of the good guys.”

“You would know, right? I mean, you guys were really close back in the day. I mean, you were never home because you were always spending the night at his place.”

“We were very good friends,” I clarified.

“Friends.That’s right. Nothing more.” She made another face, to show me how ridiculous that sounded. “I don’t know why Paula’s all worried. Steven probably went to the hotel to drown his sorrows at the bar. I see it all the time. He was probably too drunk to drive, so he got a room.”

Her tone was the exact opposite of her innocent words. I was tired of playing games with her.

“Sabrina, what are you doing?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” she replied.

“You’re not Paula’s friend. So, what are you doing?”

“Ohhhh, can you school me on how a realfriend should act?”

Paula walked back in. “Girl, these boys are going to be the death of me. Stevie has been acting out, and as bad as his behind was, I can’t afford for things to get any worse.”

Sabrina turned to her and smiled. “Aww, honey, it’s going to be difficult for everyone. I know you have Felise here in your corner, but don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything.”

“Thank you, Sabrina.”

She flashed a fake smile my way. “Well, I guess I’m going to give you two some BFF time.”

“Remember what we discussed,” Paula reminded her. “Let me know what the hotel security concludes with their investigation. I’m going crazy here, and any little bit of information helps.”

“Oh, I’ll definitely be in touch,” Sabrina said.

She gave Paula a hug, then flashed another tight grin at me. “I’ll see you later, Felise. I know you probably want to try and help Paula deal with this awful tragedy.”

I didn’t say anything as Paula walked Sabrina to the door. So she hadn’t told Paula anything. But the gnawing feeling in my gut told me I didn’t have long before she did. And only one thing could stop someone like Sabrina Fulton: money. I made a mental note to call Sabrina tomorrow to find out just how much it was going to take toshut her up.

28

Felise

AS SOON AS THE DOORclosed, I started in on Paula.

“What was she doing over here?” I asked. “Since when are you two friends?” The last thing I needed was Sabrina cozying up to Paula. Wherever Sabrina went, trouble wasn’t too far away, and I had enough trouble in my life.

Paula made her way back over to the love seat. “Don’t tell me you’re still trippin’ over the beef you two had back in college.”

“No,” I protested. “I just don’t understand. She’s not your friend, so I’m trying to figure out what she’s doing over here.”

Paula smiled, something I hadn’t seen her do in days. “Are we having friend envy?”

“Paula, I’m serious.”

“Calm down, girl. She came by because I had her looking into some stuff for me.”

I’d been a fool to think that night would recede into the past. “Looking into what, and why?”

She folded her arms to show mejust how serious she was. “I told you. I’m not comfortable with this theory that Steven just died in his sleep. Even if it was his heart, why did it suddenly give out?”

“You said yourself, his job was stressful.” I quietly drew in a big, long breath to keep from getting worked up. If I protested too much, I might make her suspicious. “All I’m saying is I don’t see how Sabrina can help you.”

“She can help me get some answers.”

“Help you how?”

“I don’t know. She works at the Four Seasons. It’s obvious those people don’t want to talk to me. Maybe she can get them to talk to her. Maybe she can find something out that I can’t. Like who was with him the night he died.”

I froze. “Wh-why do you think somebody was with him the night he died?”

“I just do.” She had a determined look on her face, which wasn’t a good sign.

“I told you that you’re letting your imagination get the best of you.”

“And I told you that I’m not crazy.” She stomped over to the corner, and picked up a box, then brought it over and dropped it on the table in front of us. She pulled out a pair of men’s underwear and held it up.

“What is that?” I said, though I believed I knew all too well.

“Steven’s underwear.”

My heart plummeted to the pit of my stomach. I had a vivid flash of taking them off him. “Wh-why do you have those?”

She pointed at the box. “This is the box of stuff that police brought from the hotel room.”

My heart started beating faster. I tried to recall if I had retrieved everything that belonged to me. I instantly dismissed that thought, though. I was confident that I hadn’t left anything behind.

“So his underwear proves that he was there with someone else?” I asked, trying to make sure I kept the shakiness out of my voice.

“Believe it or not, it does.” She tossed them back in the box.

“Okay, Paula, you’re seriously reaching.”

“No, hear me out.” She turned to face me like she wanted to convince me of her theory. “Steven never went to sleep in the nude.”

“What?”

“He never slept in the nude,” she repeated. “So for them to say he was found naked in bed raises a red flag. This box is all the stuff they removed from the room after the coroner removed the body. The naked body. The only time Steven went to bed with no clothes on was after sex.”

I had to grab the back of the recliner to keep from falling over. How was I supposed to know that? Did I ever know that? “Paula . . .”

“No. I was married to the man for fourteen years. I know him. He never went to bed in the nude unless he just finished having sex. It’s the one habit he was anal about.”

“Paula, I really think this is just your imagination going into overdrive.” I actually felt sick, like I was going to throw up. “I know you’re searching for some answers, but this is a stretch.” The fact that I had to try to convince my best friend to stop searching for the “other woman” was making me feel worse than I already did.


Page 15

My mind raced as I searched for explanations as to why he’d be naked.

“Paula, you said yourself that the people at the hospital told you that he was drunk. He probably went to the room, took off everything, and passed out in the bed.”

She paused like she hadn’t thought about that, so I seized the opportunity.

“You know he didn’t drink that much. And if you two were arguing, he got toasted.”

“He wasn’t a big drinker,” she said and I prayed that my words were getting through to her.

I continued, “So, if he drank as much as they say, he probably barely made it up to that room, stripped himself of all his clothes, and fell out in the bed.”

“But I also saw a receipt for two apple martinis and two vodka and cranberries.”

Hearing the exact drinks I’d had nearly knocked me off my feet. “And? So he got a martini.” She raised an eyebrow at me. “Or he bought someone a martini at the bar. You know Steven was always the life of the party.” I could see her mind churning, so I knew that I couldn’t let up. “Him buying the drinks is nothing new. Remember you got mad when he went to that Jack and Jill event last month and paid the whole tab at happy hour? I’m sure that’s all this was.”

“You think so?” she said, hopeful.

I felt like a heel as I took her hands. “I know so.”

I saw her relax, so I gave her a hug, then said a quick prayer for God to forgive me for the lying snake thatI had become.

29

Paula

I MISSED MY HUSBAND SOmuch. When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to say, “Neither date nor time is promised, so treasure each day like it’s your last.” I wished that I had listened to those words. I wished that I had not fought over such trivial things. I wished that I hadn’t pushed my husband into the arms of another woman—if I actually had. But most of all, I wished that I had taken my husband’s heart condition seriously. Maybe if I had made sure he kept up his doctor’s visits, they would’ve detected that his heart condition had advanced enough to kill him. Maybe they would’ve put us on notice that he had to change his lifestyle. And maybe he’d still be alive today.

But I couldn’t think like that. Steven used to always say, “Life is what you make it, and you can’t live in a world of maybes.”

As I sat on the foot of our California king bed, my mind drifted back to the first time Steven had uttered thosewords to me.

I had never cried so much in my whole life. The trash can positioned at my feet was overflowing with balled-up Kleenex. I felt like I had been crying for two weeks.

“I can’t believe I let this happen,” I said for the thousandth time. “Maybe if we had just been more careful . . . Maybe if I hadn’t been over to your place all the time . . .”

Steven had been pacing back and forth in front of me. “It is what it is. And we can’t live in a world of maybes now.”

“I just can’t see myself struggling with a kid.”

He looked sternly at me. “Paula, you didn’t do this alone, so you’re not going to go through this alone.”

His words were so comforting to me and hammered home what a great guy he was. I had never planned to get pregnant. I took my pill religiously. Shoot, I had big dreams. I had recently landed a new part in a stage play, and based on opening weekend’s sales, it looked like we were going to take the show on the road for several weeks. How could I do that if I was pregnant?

“I don’t believe this.”

“We’ve been through this over and over. I thought when I left to go home for the weekend, you were okay with everything,” he replied.

I was, but images of Steven never returning had swamped me all weekend. I kept envisioning his “I need to go back to Houston” as an excuse to leave me and our unborn child. The thought of being a struggling single mother made me sick to my stomach. When he’d walked in my house that evening, I’d burst into tears.

“I told you, everything happens for a reason,” Steven said. We were in the bedroom of my mother’s house, where I was living. Usually, she didn’t play that being-up-in-the-bedroom-with-your-boyfriend mess, but she knew about the pregnancy and knew that Steven and I had serious business to discuss.

“Being somebody’s baby’s mama was not in my life’s plan,” I admitted.

That brought Steven up short. “You’re not going to be my baby’s mama.”

He got down on his knees in front of me and said, “Hopefully, you’re going to be my wife.”

If I hadn’t been sitting down, that surely would’ve knocked me over.

“Wife?”I said. Steven had told me that he’d broken the news of my pregnancy to his parents. Of course, they weren’t happy about it, but he said, like everyone else, they would learn to get over it.

Nowhere in that conversation did he mention marriage.

He fumbled in his pants pocket and pulled out a small ring. “My mom gave me this ring. It’s my grandmother’s ring.” He held it out to me. “It means a lot to me. And I want the mother of my child, the woman I want to be my wife, to have it. I wantyouto have it. Please say you’ll be my wife.”

The sight of the ring made me want to cry even more. I needed a magnifying glass to see the diamond. When I had dreams of my proposal, they did not include me with a baby in my belly and a microdiamond ring.

“Steven . . . we can’t do this,” I managed to say.

“You can and you will,” my mother said, popping up out of nowhere to come stick her nose in my business.

“Mama, please.”

“No.” She walked in my bedroom and directed her attention at Steven. “I think it’s so admirable what you’re doing. Do you love my daughter?”

He looked at me and then back at her. “Yes.”

“And I know she loves you. And you two are going to do right by this baby. Bring her or him into this world with a mother and a father married and living under the same roof. I didn’t raise you any other way,” she told me firmly.

I felt like I was fifteen years old. But she was right. I knew plenty of successful people who were single mothers, but that’s not the life I envisioned. Abortion wasn’t an option, and neither was giving up my child for adoption.

“So, what do you say?” Steven said.

“She says yes,” my mom repeated.

I side-eyed her, and she stepped back and made a zipper motion over her lips.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” I asked, even though I wasn’t sure myself.

He placed his hand on my stomach. “I am.”

I took a deep breath. Do the right thing, the little voice in my head said. So I responded. “Then yes, the answer is yes.”

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” MYmom asked, walking into my room and snapping me out of my trip down memory lane. My microdiamond had been replaced by my wedding day with a three-carat princess-cut diamond, compliments of Steven’s father, who refused to let his son “shame the family with that little ring.” I think that Steven was a little insulted that I had sided with his father, but with the two rings side by side, that was a no-brainer.

“I’m just thinking.”

“I’m thinking that you’re thinking too much.”She gave me a soft smile.

“Mama, Felise says I’m searching for something that’s not there.”

“Baby, you lost your husband. That’s understandable.” My sister had filled my mom in on everything, and I was surprised she had taken so long to give me her two cents.

“I think you’re reading too much into the underwear thing. I mean, I was there—you had a big argument on the phone. You think this mystery woman was just sitting there, being quiet?”

That was easily explained. “She knew to shut her mouth when the wife calls.”

“You’ve been watching too much Lifetime.” My mom picked up the remote and clicked the TV off. “I think you’re trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense.”

“I guess.” I shrugged.

“You’re going to drive yourself crazy, replaying and over-thinking everything. I’m sorry this had to happen, but his death is not a reflection of your relationship or anything of the sort, so you’ve got to let it go.”

I nodded but merely to get my mom to leave. She would never see eye to eye with me. My gut was telling me that no matter what any of them said, I couldn’t rest until I got someanswers.

30

Felise

THE SOUNDS OF TEDDY PENDERGRASSmet me at the door.

“Hey,” Greg said, greeting me as I walked in.

“What’s this?” I asked, dropping my keys on the counter. The kitchen was spotless, and dinner was laid out on the table, which was decorated like it sat in the middle of a five-star restaurant.

Greg leaned in and kissed me before flashing a seductive smile.

“I cooked dinner. Liz is over at her friend’s house, and I thought we could have a quiet evening at home.”

I groaned. I wanted a quiet evening, all right, but by myself. It had been a rough day in the ER, I had been madly trying to figure out what Sabrina was up to (I’d called, but she hadn’t returned the call), and I just wanted to get home and lay down.

“Wh-what’s this?” I motioned to Greg’s shoes, which were in the middle of the floor. He eyed the shoes and smiled,not making any attempt to pick them up. “So, you’re really just going to let them sit there?” I asked.

Now I was getting nervous. Shoes lying around might have seemed normal for the average person, but for Greg not to pick them up? I needed to take his temperature because he obviously was running a fever. “Why are your shoes in the middle of the floor?”

“It’s an experiment,” he said. He put his hands over mine and led me to the kitchen table, where he sat me down. “I know I’m not the easiest person to live with, but one thing’s for sure: I love you with all my heart. I know I need to relax and get this OCD under control, so I’ve been seeing a therapist.”

“What? Since when?”

“Since the night of our fight, the day after our anniversary. I’ve only had a few sessions, but I can feel some progress.”

“You’re going to see a therapist?” That in and of itself was major because Greg was old school, and while he knew that something was wrong with him, never in a million years did I think he’d seek help. He only agreed to counseling after his affair because he didn’t want me to walk out the door.

“I don’t want to lose you, and I saw in your eyes the night of our anniversary that I was on the verge. I couldn’t risk that. So, yes, I’ve been seeing a therapist, and she gave me an exercise today.” He looked over at the shoes again, and his cheek twitched at the violation they represented. “Whew, it’s been hard. I stepped out of them when I got home, and I’ve been wanting to pick them up ever since.”

I couldn’t help but smile.

Greg continued. “Felise, I want our marriage to work,and I know these last few weeks have been difficult. Your having to be there for Paula hasn’t been easy either.”

I heard the words, but I didn’t believe him. After all, I’d heard all of these promises before. And my husband would try. He’d try to put me first, but the effort never lasted. I think the record was nine days.

He stroked my hair and then leaned in and nuzzled my neck.

“I love you,” he whispered. “I miss us. And I want everything to be all right.” As music softly filled the room, Greg bent down and lightly bit my shoulder, which used to turn me on. Now it made me tense up.

“What are you doing, Greg?” I said, ducking away from his touch. I stood and tried to walk away, but he came up behind me.

“I want you, baby,” he said. “Ineedyou. It’s been so long.” His voice was husky as he turned me around and forced his tongue into my mouth. “Please, Felise,” he moaned. His hands went inside my pants as he grasped my behind and tried to lift me onto the kitchen table.

“Greg, don’t,” I protested.

“Come on, baby,” he said as his hands pulled at my panties.

I knew that I needed to be with my husband, but as he kissed me, I saw images of Steven lying deathly still in that bed and I yelled, “Stop it!”

Greg backed away in shock. I grabbed my underwear and pulled them up. “Just stop!”

“I’m sorry,” Greg said, stunned.

“I . . . I just can’t do it,”I cried.

We stared at each other like two strangers. “Felise, what’s going on? Have I lost you?” he said.

“No, no, it’s not that,” I replied more quietly, trying to play it off. “I’m just . . . I’m just not in the mood.”

“It’s been over a month.”

“I know, but I can’t. Why can’t you understand?” I snapped.

“Ihavebeen understanding!” he snapped back. “I understood the night my wife stormed out and spent the night somewhere else. I’m understanding every time I touch you and you flinch like I disgust you. I understand that you haven’t looked me in the eye since our anniversary. Was that our breaking point? Did I lose you that night?”

I adjusted my scrubs and tried to calmly reply. “You’re overreacting, Greg. I have a lot on my plate right now.”

He huffed as he ran his hands over his head. “Okay, Felise. Whatever.”

I inhaled. Exhaled. “Why don’t we sit down and eat?” I glanced at the counter by the stove. He’d made blackened tilapia and garlic mashed potatoes. “The food looks delicious.”

“You eat it,” he growled. “I’ve lost my appetite.” He grabbed his cell phone and headed upstairs.

31

Paula

I HEARD THE DOORBELL RINGING, but I couldn’t move to answer it. I hoped my mom or sister did because right then the only thing that mattered was this piece of paper in front of me. I sat on the sofa, tears trickling down my cheeks as the paper shook in my hand. I didn’t realize how unsteady my hand was until I saw the paper waving back and forth.

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