“You can’t lie here forever, Vanessa. Eventually, you’ll have to get out of this bed.”
Vanessa Jared groaned at her inability to cope with her new normal. Well, it wasn’t exactly new, because two years had passed since her divorce was final. She took a deep breath, trying to force herself to believe the words she’d just spoken aloud.
Vanessa raised her head from the pillow and braced herself on one elbow to try to pull herself into a sitting position. “If I can get up, everything will be fine.” She managed to get her other elbow into position but couldn’t find the strength to lock it. Before she knew it, she was falling back against her pillow, looking up at the ceiling again.
She took a few moments to center herself. She had to do this. The big day was here, and she had a million things to do. Lying on her ass wasn’t going to get a single one of those tasks completed. Regardless of how much she was panicking inside, she had to get it together and plan this divas’ night.
She was just about to give this sitting up thing another try when her phone rang. She reached in the direction of her nightstand and patted the surface until her fingers connected with the phone. “Hello.”
“Hey, diva!” Vanessa pulled the phone away from her ear as the loud duet of voices blared in unison across the line.
“It is”—Vanessa glanced at her bedside table to note the time—“seven in the damn morning. Why are y’all heifers so damn happy this doggone early?”
Cree’s bubbly giggle filled the line. “Janae, I told you she wouldn’t be up yet. You owe me five dollars.”
“Dammit, Vanessa.” Janae’s sharp tone made Vanessa smile. “You know I hate it when Cree is right.”
Vanessa laughed, her body shaking as each warm wave of amusement spread from the inside out. She pressed the speaker icon on the screen of her phone and laid it on her nightstand while she rearranged her pillows and finally made it into a sitting position against the headboard.
“It serves you right for calling me so early. Can’t a girl get her beauty sleep without you two interrupting her?”
Janae clucked her tongue. “Chile, you ain’t ever lied about that. Looking as good as we do over forty takes work, water, and rest. Lots of it.”
“Usually I’d agree,” Cree added. “But since we’re supposed to be painting the town red tonight, I thought we should call you and make sure you didn’t need help getting things together. You sure you’re okay?”
If Cree had asked that question five minutes before, the answer would’ve been an unequivocal no. She wouldn’t have admitted it. No, she would’ve swallowed her unhappiness and smiled, because telling her friends she still had no clue what to do with her life two years after her divorce wasn’t really something Vanessa wanted to even imagine.
She’d spent the first six months after the divorce trapped in a prison of her own making with no real connection to the outside world except Cree, Janae, and her therapist. Six months after that, she’d gotten the hair in her head that she might want to start her own accounting firm, so she’d taken on a few continuing education courses to refresh her skills. But when it came time to actually set up the firm, she’d backed away and retreated into her empty home. Her therapist had assured her this was normal, but back then, it had just felt like failure.
This last year, wanderlust had set in, and she’d traveled to as many exotic locations as her travel agent could book for her. That had worked for a while, keeping the heavy sadness that threatened to swallow her at bay. This sadness wasn’t to do with Karl and his abuse. Nearly three years in therapy had shown her Karl was to blame, not her. But her inability to figure out what she wanted out of life beyond being a rich divorcée plagued her day in and day out.
Afraid she’d unintentionally flag her friends’ concern, she cleared her throat before speaking again. “All the plans for the Savvy, Sexy, and Single Club’s second anniversary are underway. All you two have to do is show up. Your car should arrive by six thirty this evening. You should be in New York by eight.”
“All right, Ms. Thang,” Janae hollered. “Since it seems like you’ve got everything for tonight handled, how are you gonna spend your day?”
Vanessa chuckled to herself, swinging her legs to the side of the bed as she thought about a response. Before she’d heard the excitement in her girlfriends’ voices, she’d planned to mope. Today was one of those days when curling up in a ball under the covers felt like bliss when the alternative was to see your friends living their best lives being blessed and unbothered with purpose.
This was especially true because she still couldn’t seem to find her direction. However, after a few minutes in the presence of these women, even if it was over the phone, she was reminded that there was life still out there for her to live. She just had to keep looking for it until she found what worked for her.
That morsel of advice had come from her therapist. She’d commended Vanessa on doing the work of healing and being so dedicated to her recovery since she’d filed for divorce three years ago. Now, she kept reminding Vanessa to give herself grace as she entered a new phase of possibility in her life.
“I’m gonna do what any diva does when she’s going to be in the presence of remarkable beauty. Spend my day getting pampered and airbrushed to perfection.”
“Get it, girl!”
They all laughed a few moments longer before ending the call. Standing on her own two feet now, Vanessa stretched and allowed the contagious charm and general good moods of her friends to infuse her with the energy she needed to pull her spirit out of the dismal valley it had wallowed in for way too long.
No sense in holding on to despair when food, fun, and shenanigans with her girls awaited her. And as far as she was concerned, misery wasn’t on the itinerary tonight. It was time for her to stop living in the past. If only for the few hours she’d spend with her friends, she would focus on the present. “I declare today a divorce-free day. The only thing you get to entertain is the good time that awaits you and your ladies.”
Showered and dressed, ready to tackle the world, Vanessa slid her arm through the straps of her purse, grabbed her travel mug and her keys, and stepped through the front door. She was in the process of locking it when she heard a voice call from her front yard. “Mrs. Scott?”
Life seemed determined to have a joke at her expense. It didn’t go unnoticed that the very moment she’d found the fortitude to think about her present instead of her past, someone had to remind her of who she used to be.
She looked to see who was calling her by her married name and found an Asian man walking toward her. He was muscular. Not spend-all-day-in-the-gym muscular, just built enough that the fitted T-shirt he wore hugged every bump and ridge of his torso and put his pecs on display. When he stepped up onto her porch, the black denim tightened around his toned thighs and she had to remember that this stranger climbing her stairs had called her name and should therefore make her uneasy. Once he stopped in front of her, pulling his shades off and revealing deep dark eyes that demanded her full attention, uneasy was the last thing she felt. Well, she was unnerved, but not because she was afraid.
She cleared her throat and blinked through the haze this man’s presence seemed to surround her with. “Jared. It’s Ms. Jared. I haven’t been Mrs. Scott in two years. How can I help you?”
“My name is Michael Park. I’m the sheriff in Monroe Hills, Pennsylvania.” Her stomach cramped a little. Both Janae and Cree were from Monroe Hills. Was he here to bring her bad news about one of them? She’d just gotten off the phone less than an hour ago. What could’ve happened? Before she could find the courage to ask, he pulled a wallet from his back pocket and handed it to her. She opened it to see his badge resting against the leather of one side, and his identification card on the other. “I’m here to speak with you about your ex-husband, Karl.”
God, the universe has a piss-poor sense of humor.
“Whatever he did, I don’t want to be involved. Karl stopped being my problem two years ago.”
She handed him his badge and watched him take a deep breath as he slid it back inside his pocket. “Honestly, I don’t know how to say this any other way than to just to come right out and say it. He’s somehow scammed my twenty-five-year-old sister into agreeing to marry him. I need your help to prevent that.”
Vanessa raised an eyebrow as she tried to process what the stranger had said to her. “Obviously I haven’t had enough coffee. Did you just ask me to help you stop my ex-husband from marrying your sister?”
“I did. She’s young and this is the first serious relationship she’s had. She can’t see that Scott is bad news.”
Vanessa shook her head and stepped around him. She was right; she definitely hadn’t had enough coffee for this mess. “I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”
“Please, Ms. Jared.”
She had one foot on the first step when the desperation in his voice called out to her. Against her better judgment, she stopped and looked at him, twisting her foot into an awkward angle that caused her to lose her balance. Before she could feel herself fall, his strong arms were around her, pulling her to him while simultaneously setting her to rights on the leveled walkway.
“Are you okay?”
“Okay” wasn’t a word she’d use to describe what it felt like to be pressed against the wall of this man’s chest. And damn if that wasn’t exactly what it felt like—a wall. Hard to the touch, and strong enough to hold her up while his heat made her want to spread herself like warm butter against his skin, Vanessa was far from okay. Too young to be experiencing menopause, and with the early signs of fall keeping the sunny days cool, this sudden hot flash searing her from the inside out had to directly result from how good it felt to be held by this sexy man.
“Vanessa,” she mouthed, then cleared her throat, trying to make her mouth work to form intelligible words. “Please, call me Vanessa.”
“Vanessa,” he whispered, his mouth close enough that all it would take was a tilt of her head and she’d know what that full bottom lip tasted like.
She swallowed, trying not to look as desperate as her fluttering heart told her she was. Vowing that if she ever regained her composure, she’d put enough distance between the two of them that she wouldn’t behave like such a sex-starved cliché. He stared at her for a long moment, and then he peeled his hands away and stepped back. “Please, Vanessa. Just hear me out. If you decide not to help me after we talk, I won’t bother you anymore.”
The way his dark eyes searched hers was enough for her to grant his request. When he added a sweet smile that curved that sexy mouth into the perfect bow and those deep dimples of his to the mix, Vanessa knew she was screwed—in the theoretical sense, anyway.
She threw up her hands and tapped one of the pointed toes of her designer shoes against the ground. “I’m gonna need more caffeine to deal with this.” When his smile broadened, her heart missed a beat again. If she were smart, she’d recognize that for the internal warning it was and walk away. Yet watching relief mixed with a spark of anticipation flash across his eyes, she couldn’t bring herself to say no.
These last two years, she’d honed her manipulation sensors. She wasn’t picking up exploitation from him, only concern.
Still, even though he seemed on the up and up, she let caution lead. No matter how attractive he was or how concerned he was for his sister, Vanessa had to protect herself. Determined never to be vulnerable again, the new Vanessa had to at least put up a “strong woman” front. “You’ve got as long as it takes for me to finish my cup of coffee at my local coffee shop, and then I’m out.”
Michael sat in a booth in a nearby coffee shop drumming his fingers against the tabletop while he waited for Vanessa. She’d insisted on meeting him there in her own car. He couldn’t blame her. Badge or no, he was a total stranger. He could definitely see how unsavory getting in a car with him might’ve been. He liked her instincts and wished his sister Cindy had enough cynicism not to be so trusting.
It was a sin and a shame that one had to be so guarded in today’s world. Unfortunately, life had taught him that people like Karl Scott preyed upon kind and open people like his baby sister, Cindy, and he wasn’t having that. So before he ended up in chains for wrapping his hands around Scott’s neck and squeezing as tightly as he could, Michael thought about how he would convince Vanessa to help him.
He’d collected enough information about her in his investigation of her ex-husband to know that she was an accountant by trade. She’d worked for Scott Pharmaceutical exclusively until her divorce two years ago. She spent most of her time here in Bergen County, and outside of a few public charity events, she didn’t seem to have much use for high society.
He glimpsed her as she walked into the coffee shop, stopping to look around briefly until she laid eyes on him. She removed her large designer sunglasses, the type people wore when they were trying to keep the rest of the world out. She gave him a small, brief smile, and it was enough to make excitement zip through his chest. He nodded in return, afraid any other gesture would reveal too much. She held up a finger asking him to wait while she stepped toward the counter to place her order. When she was done, she stepped clear of the counter and he could get a better look at her.
It was like watching the heroine enter the scene in a movie; everyone in the room turned to look at her. The few steps seemed to drag out in slow motion, so everyone could take in her beauty.
Vanessa’s dark hair was cut into a sharp shoulder-length bob that moved with each elegant step she took. The deep, rich brown skin of her face reminded him of spun silk: shiny, making you want to feel its smoothness against your own flesh. Her full lips were covered in a vampy matte burgundy color that highlighted her reddish undertones and made him wonder how long it had been since she’d allowed a man to worship them with kisses.
If he was honest, it wasn’t the lipstick alone that had him wondering that. The way she’d been pressed against him when she lost her balance on her porch step did enough to put that tantalizing question in his head. He’d been this close to leaning in and attempting to find out when he thought about how his actions might affect his sister.
Cindy was young and too trusting for her own good. She had no idea what being an adult was about, and if Michael didn’t take care of this situation immediately, she’d come to irrevocable harm.
Their family had suffered enough to last a lifetime. If he’d been there to take matters into his own hands ten years ago, they might never have known the ache of loss particular to tragically losing parents.
Determined to push that pain back into its designated box, he forced himself to focus on Vanessa and those luscious lips of hers again. He’d wanted to know what they tasted like, and her near-tumble had provided him the opportunity. That wasn’t in the cards, though. Like always, his duty to his sister won out and he did the honorable thing instead, setting Vanessa on her feet before things could go too far.
Being honorable really blew chunks, because watching her in her fitted sweater dress that hugged her high-sitting, full bosom, and rounded hips that led into the thickest set of thighs he’d ever seen on a woman, made him wish he didn’t have as much integrity as he did.
He continued to watch her. She was probably of average height. He’d put her at about five foot eight. But wearing those tall boots—the kind that put those curvy legs on display and would tempt a man beyond his limits—she was maybe an inch shorter than his just-over-six-foot frame.
Get it together, Michael. This is about Cindy, not your lackluster libido.
She sat her cup on the table and slid into the seat opposite him, and he was suddenly bothered that he’d chosen a booth for privacy instead of a table near the center of the seating area where chairs were pushed close together.
“So, I’m here. How am I supposed to help save your sister?”
He took another sip of his coffee so he wouldn’t seem like a weirdo when he didn’t respond. He knew the answer to her question. He just didn’t answer immediately because he was still trying to get his head in the right space, where he wasn’t thinking about how good she smelled, or how much he wanted to touch her. “The only thing I really want is for you to agree to meet her, talk to her about life with your ex.”
“You’re assuming my life with Karl was bad.”
“I’m not assuming. I read the transcript for your divorce. Even on paper I can tell what a slimeball he was, how he treated you poorly. Am I wrong?”
She raised an eyebrow and shook her head. “No. He was pretty much a scammer from the day I encountered him. We met in college. I was a freshman; he was a junior. He trained me from then to always worry about his needs and support his dreams no matter what. It wasn’t until twenty years later that I realized my wants and desires didn’t factor into the equation. Once I did, Karl lost interest in me and in our marriage. He’d probably always been a cheater. When I refused to play by his rules, though, he didn’t care to hide his dalliances any longer.”
Copyright © 2022 by Laquette R. Holmes