Six months earlier …
She stood beside Dorian Douglas and took in his majestic presence. He stood tall, strong, almost head and shoulders above every other man in the room. His deep, chocolate brown skin shone as he held his drink in one hand, the other wrapped securely around Sunny’s slim waist. He practically towered over everyone, his regal aura seemingly radiant around him. Looking at her man, Sunny’s lips spread into a smile without her even realizing it. She loved him so much.
He stared down at her and she watched his lips as he spoke. “You okay, baby?” he asked.
She could see the other women in the room—women dressed provocatively in designer clothes, jewelry and expensive shoes just as she was. Each of them watched Dorian hungrily, wondering what it would take for them to snatch Sunny’s spot by his side. But even with all the sexy women practically stripping for him on the dance floor as the reggae music pumped through the speakers, Dorian’s gaze was fixed on her. He searched Sunny’s eyes as if he could see past them.
She smiled at him and he returned the gesture, kissed her softly on her lips, and held her closer.
“Yeah,” Sunny said. “I’m good.”
* * *
She didn’t realize that she was dreaming until the alarm clock blared in her ear, startling her. Sunny awoke, glanced around her large bedroom and came back to reality. Dorian was dead—had been for more than ten years now. And her daughter, Mercedes—tall like her daddy and as stunningly beautiful as her mom even at the tender age of twelve years old—was sprawled out across the other half of Sunny’s California king–size bed. Sunny turned off her alarm clock and smiled at the sight of her beautiful baby sleeping soundly beside her.
Mercedes had her own room—spacious, professionally decorated and full of every amenity any kid would ever wish for. But she still preferred to slip under her mother’s covers every chance she got and fall asleep beside her, inhaling that maternal scent that gave her comfort like no other smell on earth.
Since the day she was born, Mercedes had seldom been far from Sunny’s side. Sunny adored her, doted on her and would have only the best for her baby girl—her one and only child with the one man she had ever truly loved. Mercedes was the perfect combination of Sunny’s sass and Dorian’s cleverness. She was pretty, smart, and quick-witted like her mother, yet perceptive, aristocratic and calculating like her father.
Sunny appreciated that her daughter still longed to be in her bed at night. She knew that Mercedes was approaching a difficult age when teenage angst and rebellion could come between them.
Sunny had worked hard to get noticed by the elite of the entertainment industry and her persistence had certainly paid off. Over the years she landed major ad campaigns and had established an impressive portfolio for herself. She had been seen on the arm of more than one major player in sports or entertainment and was a favorite of the gossip pages. The name Sunny Cruz rang bells from New York to L.A. and she was doing her damndest to keep it that way. Some questioned Sunny’s motives for remaining constantly in the public eye, when so much of her life as a hustler’s wife had been lived in caution and discretion. Few knew that what truly drove her was an ugly unhealed wound that was so much deeper than what people saw on the beautiful surface.
Sunny leaned over and kissed Mercedes on the cheek, smoothed a lock of her thick and flowing hair away from her face, and softly shook her awake.
“Rise and shine, pretty girl,” Sunny sang. “It’s time for school.”
Mercedes peeked through sleepy eyes and smiled at her mother. “Good morning, Mommy,” she said. “It’s always time for school.”
Sunny laughed and nudged her playfully. “Come on and let’s have Jenny G make us banana pancakes.”
Mercedes bounded out of bed then and scampered off toward her own bedroom, excited that their live-in servant Jenny Gonzalez would be making her favorite breakfast.
Sunny smiled as she watched her go, then went into her bathroom and looked at her reflection in the mirror. She stared into her eyes and tried to see what Dorian had found when he looked into them the way he had in her dream. But all she recognized was the same pain that had taken up residence there the moment Dorian had drawn his last breath in her arms all those years ago.
Thinking of him caused her instant heartache. She had loved Dorian Douglas with such intensity that his absence made her feel hollow. She reached up to the top of the medicine cabinet and searched around with her hand until she touched the soft silk satchel that held her pain reliever.
She reached into the small black pouch, retrieving a tiny white pill. Sunny popped the Percocet in her mouth and sipped some water, eager for the drug to take effect and numb the pain to the point where she could slip out of her mind, just a little bit, for just a little while. Sunny wasn’t in any physical pain. She popped Percs like Tic Tacs throughout the day as a way of coping with the feelings she had struggled with for years—loneliness, pain of love lost, fear of boredom, and of a life filled with monotony and routine.
She got her Percs from Gillian Nobles, an old family friend who was a queenpen in her own right. Thanks to the Nobles family’s access to a cache of prescription medications, Sunny enjoyed the numbing relaxation of a tiny white pill. Pushing thoughts of Dorian to the back of her mind, she went about her morning ritual and emerged from the bathroom feeling ready to face the world.
Ninety minutes later, after a five-star breakfast, showers and hairstyling, Sunny and Mercedes sat side by side in the backseat of her Aston Martin, both of them relaxing with their legs crossed so perfectly they looked like an ad for an etiquette class. Mercedes was clad in her prep-school uniform, while Sunny was decked out in a DKNY blazer, white V-neck, and black leggings. Her red-bottomed riding boots and bright yellow BCBG clutch gave her outfit her signature flair for the dramatic.
Sunny’s driver, Raul, climbed into the driver’s seat and smiled at his two lovely passengers.
“Good morning, ladies,” he practically shouted, his hearing having deteriorated over the years. “Y’all ready to get going today?”
“Yes, we are,” Sunny confirmed. She leaned forward in her seat to speak directly into his ear so that her instructions could be heard clearly the first time. Sunny hated repeating herself to Raul—to anyone for that matter. “We’re dropping Mercedes off at school. Then I’m going to Midtown to meet with Olivia at Shootin’ Crooks.”
The driver nodded and buckled his seat belt. He was familiar with Shootin’ Crooks and with Sunny’s friend Olivia, who worked out of the company’s office on West Fifty-third Street, where she toiled nonstop in conjunction with her brother’s rap empire. Raul had been driving for Sunny for several years and Olivia had played an integral role in getting work for Sunny. Her referrals had garnered some great publicity and priceless contacts. It was one of the many reasons why Sunny counted Olivia as one of her few friends—a term she didn’t use loosely.
Sunny slid back into her seat beside her daughter and crossed her legs once more. She stared at Mercedes and could see Dorian in her. She was a lovely young lady and she was smart. Sunny couldn’t be prouder.
She watched as Mercedes toyed with her BlackBerry. “When you get out of school today, call me. I should be wrapping things up in Midtown by then and we can hang out,” Sunny said.
Mercedes finished reading her horoscope and nodded at her mother, smiling. “Okay. But can I hang out with Genevieve instead of meeting up with you?”
Sunny thought about it. Genevieve was Mercedes’s classmate—a caramel-complexioned Michelle Obama in the making. She agreed. After all, the two girls never got in any trouble—together or separate. “Where are you two trying to go?”
“Bloomy’s,” Mercedes answered, her face as sweet as could be. Shopping at Bloomingdales was one of her favorite pastimes.
Sunny had given her daughter her own credit card long ago, although Mercedes knew that her every transaction was being monitored. She was careful with her spending, but knew that her limit was bottomless.
“Genevieve’s sister works there so we’re gonna stop in and say hi to her and then do a little shopping.”
Sunny pretended to think about it, but she trusted Mercedes and really had no problem letting her go.
“Okay,” she said at last. “Call Raul when you get out of school. He’ll take you and Genevieve wherever you want to go and he’ll drop you both off at home afterwards.” Sunny leaned forward in her seat. “DID YOU HEAR THAT?” she bellowed into her elderly driver’s ear.
“Yes!” he assured her hurriedly so that she would stop yelling. “I will wait for Mercedes to call.”
Satisfied, Sunny patted him on the back appreciatively and sat back.
“Thanks, Madre.” Mercedes looked at her mom and smiled. “You look nice today,” she observed.
Sunny playfully pinched her daughter’s cheek. “I look nice every day, Mercedes.” Sunny winked at her. “And so do you. It’s in our genes.”
Mercedes thought about that, and decided that she agreed. “Yes. Bella is beautiful, too.”
Sunny smiled. “Bella” was the name Mercedes had given to Sunny’s mother, Marisol, as a child. As a toddler, she had a difficult time pronouncing abuela or abuelita, the Spanish word for grandmother. So “Bella” was the name that stuck.
“Yeah,” Sunny said, gazing out the window. “Your Bella is beautiful indeed.” Sunny got lost in thought for a moment as she recalled being a little girl dreamily staring at her mother, Marisol. Sunny had thought her mother was angelic, that her lovely face had been prettier than all the other mommies in Brooklyn. She smiled to herself now, thinking that her own daughter might see her in the same light. Her smile faded slightly as she reflected that she was as far from an angel as it gets.
“Why do you do that?” Mercedes asked.
Sunny frowned. “Do what?”
“You daydream all the time. We’ll be talking about a topic and then you get this funny look on your face and I can tell your mind is drifting.”
Sunny chuckled slightly. “Well, aren’t you Ms. Observant!” She nudged Mercedes playfully.
Mercedes watched her mother closely. “Yes. I am.”
“I guess I’m getting old,” Sunny said, fanning her hand dismissively. “My mind wanders when I least expect it.”
Mercedes smiled. “You may be old, Mommy, but you still look good.”
Sunny laughed, and thanked her for the backhanded compliment as Raul pulled up in front of Mercedes’s school. The Driscoll School was a prestigious private academy on Ninety-sixth Street in Manhattan where Mercedes was learning the basics of elementary education along with Latin, art appreciation and Elizabethan literature. Sunny was determined that her child would have every opportunity to excel in life and there was no better way to start than with a quality education.
Sunny kissed her farewell and watched as Mercedes climbed out of the luxury car, greeted several of her friends and headed into the school building. Raul pulled slowly away from the curb and Sunny took out her compact and checked her reflection in the mirror. She wiped her nose—an old habit—and returned the compact to her purse just as her cell phone rang.
“Hello?” she answered the unknown number.
“Are you on your way?” Olivia asked, knowing that Sunny was chronically late.
Sunny checked her watch. She had thought she was early but on second glance saw that she was running a little late. “I’ll be there in about ten minutes,” she said before hanging up.
Traffic made it twenty, so Sunny had Raul drop her off at the corner of Fifty-second and Broadway and then dismissed him. She explained briefly that she had a busy schedule that day in Midtown, and would call him when she was done later that afternoon. Sunny scurried across the street, aware that the light was about to change. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a man with a camera snapping pictures of her. She was still getting used to the paparazzi, but she wasn’t vain enough to think that they were fans of hers. Sunny was well aware that they were most interested in her when she was on the arm of an A-list celebrity. It wasn’t her modeling or her bestselling novel that had gotten her most of the press over the years, it was the fact that she had dated football player Sean Hardy for close to a year; that she’d been photographed in the company of high-profile people. Sure the salacious novel she’d coauthored with Jada Ford about their years as the drug-abusing, black version of The Real Housewives of New York City had helped boost her public profile, but rubbing the right elbows, air kissing the right people, being seen in the right hot spots—those were the things that had catapulted her. While Jada played the background, Sunny was out front getting all the press. And Sunny relished the attention. Still, these photographers and reporters were a bloodthirsty sort. She was paranoid that one day they’d catch her doing something she was ashamed of.
She stepped into the building lobby and waved her hand at the security guard, who knew her from her many visits to Olivia’s office. He waved her on and she scurried to the elevator and pressed for the fortieth floor.
On the ride up, she adjusted her hair in the mirror. Satisfied that she looked good, she eagerly exited once the doors opened. Olivia was right there waiting for her.
Shootin’ Crooks’ offices were abuzz with excitement. Interns scurried about eagerly, while Olivia’s, brother, Lamin held court in a nearby conference room with a group of men in suits. Sunny smiled, eyes wide.
“Things are getting back to normal around here, huh?” she observed.
Olivia nodded and smiled hopefully. “I think so,” she said. “Since Lamin was cleared of all the charges connected with my cousin’s shooting, and the Feds failed at framing him for money laundering…” Olivia rolled her eyes in exasperation at the thought of all her family had been through. “People are starting to take us seriously as a company again. We’ll be back on top in no time.”
Sunny followed as Olivia led her down the hall to her office. Once inside, Olivia gestured toward the red sofa against the far wall. “Have a seat,” she said. She walked over to her desk as Sunny got comfortable, and retrieved a big portfolio. Sunny silently admired the wine-colored pantsuit Olivia wore as she sat beside Sunny on the couch.
“Even though things are looking up around here, the whole situation with Lamin and Zion and their legal troubles was a wake-up call for me,” Olivia said seriously. “I have to establish my own thing, separate from everyone else, or I run the risk of losing everything I’ve worked so hard for.”
Sunny understood exactly what she meant. Olivia had been a vital part of her brother’s rise to the helm of a music empire. Lamin had started selling drugs when he was in high school and, with the help of his best friend, Zion Williams, had quickly graduated to selling weight. While Lamin recuperated from a gunshot wound, Olivia had carried the torch in his place; in doing so, she fell in love with Zion. She found herself making trips up and down I-95 smuggling drugs for her brother and her man. Lamin had parlayed their success in the drug game into a successful music-production business. Olivia had risen with him, becoming the stylist for artists her brother worked with. While Zion kept one foot in the streets at all times, Olivia and Lamin wanted nothing more than to run a legitimate business.
But years of trials and bad press had taken their toll on Shootin’ Crooks and the company had suffered as a result. Olivia had decided that now was the time to chase her own dreams. She had already done all that she could to help Lamin and Zion with theirs.
“Anyway,” Olivia said, fanning her hand, “today is crazy busy for me, so I have to keep this kinda short. Let’s get right down to business.” She smiled brightly. “I want you to be the face of the Olivia Michaels brand.”
Sunny let her words sink in, but was already smiling. “Why me?” she couldn’t help asking after a few moments. She was aware that, as a woman in her late thirties, she was considered old in the industry. Olivia was taking a risk, to say the least. “Not that I’m not interested,” Sunny clarified. “I’m just saying that fashion is geared toward the young and the skinny. I’m not exactly young and these hips will fill out some skinny jeans.”
Olivia laughed. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for. The Vintage woman is you!”
Olivia showed Sunny sample Polaroids of herself posed in different looks she had put together—pieces she had designed and sewn herself. Sunny flipped through page after page of photos and Olivia’s vision was instantly clear. She wanted a model that embodied the badass, bold sophistication and fashion forwardness of a hip-hop vixen. Sunny had to agree that she was born for this.
“This is my dream job!”
Olivia laughed at Sunny’s obvious pleasure and flipped quickly through the next few photos, explaining her plans for the label’s launch. As they sat going over the pictures, Olivia’s office door opened and Lamin walked in.
“Excuse the interruption, ladies.”
Sunny’s eyes widened involuntarily. Lamin was the kind of fine that makes a woman stop talking midsentence when he walks by. He had the smoothest brown skin, the prettiest lips and eyes that beckoned you closer. His bald head and clean-cut appearance did little to mask the rough and masculine presence that emanated from him.
“Olivia,” he said, “your new clients are here. That gospel duo.”
Olivia nodded. “Told you, girl. Today is busy!” She set the photos down on the table and stood up. Sunny followed suit. “So think it over and then we can talk figures with the lawyers and all that if you decide to do it.”
Sunny smiled at her friend. “There’s nothing to think about. I’m doing it!” They hugged and Olivia clapped her hands excitedly. “Let me know when you’re free and we’ll handle all the legalities.”
“Okay,” Olivia agreed. “Now, you’ll have to excuse me, girl. I have to go style these lovely ladies for a Christmas show they’re taping.”
“I understand. Go handle your business and we’ll talk soon.”
As Olivia headed for the door, Lamin said, “I thought they were supposed to be Christians.”
Olivia stopped with her hand on the knob and frowned at him. “Of course they are. What do you mean ‘supposed to be’?”
“One of them got a thong on.”
Olivia shook her head and Sunny laughed.
“How do you know?” Olivia was afraid of the answer, but she couldn’t resist.
Lamin smirked. “Stephanie the intern dropped a bunch of papers in front of them and the one with the Mary J. Blige hairstyle bent over to help her pick ’em up. And that’s when I saw it.” His smile broadened at the memory. “That’s how they dressing in church now?”
Olivia shook her head again and rolled her eyes at her brother. “Good-bye, Lamin.” She winked at Sunny as she left, still giggling.
Sunny noticed that Lamin was still standing there as if he had something to say to her. Never one to beat around the bush, she called him on it. “What’s wrong? Cat got your tongue?”
He smiled at her. “Your cat can have my tongue any time.”
She rolled her eyes. “Now that was corny.”
“No, it wasn’t. You gotta think about it. It’s a double meaning.”
Sunny shook her head. “I get it. It’s still corny.”
Lamin laughed and so did she. “Okay, so let me start over.”
“Say that again. ‘Cat got your tongue.’ Say that.”
Sunny chuckled at his silliness. She squinted her eyes and said in her sexiest voice, “Cat got your tongue, Lamin?”
He cleared his throat and put on his best Billy Dee face. “Well, actually,” he spoke in an exaggerated baritone, reminiscent of Barry White, “I was hoping to make better use of my tongue, Sunny. Do you think you could help me with that?”
Sunny laughed so hard that she was doubled over. Lamin cracked up seeing her so tickled.
Finally, she caught her breath. “You’re stupid.”
He winked at her. “Ladies love a man with a sense of humor.”
She nodded. “We do. That’s true.”
“So, all jokes aside,” Lamin said. He licked his lips. “You gonna stop running from me or what?” He had known Sunny for years. When her man Dorian had been alive, Lamin had gotten to know Sunny as part of the Family and as Olivia’s good friend. But when Dorian died and Sunny blossomed into a sexy socialite, Lamin—and every other man with a pulse—had taken notice. He had emerged from a messy divorce and scandalous criminal trial unscathed. And all he needed now was a woman who could handle him. He suspected that beautiful Sunny might be up to the task.
Sunny sighed, drained from laughing so hard. She looked at Lamin, took in all his splendor. He was a beautiful man—tall, dark and handsome. But he reminded her too much of Dorian at times. She couldn’t get past that. The gritty edge, the tall, chocolate Adonis thing … it was too familiar.
“I never ran from nothing in my whole life,” she corrected him. She retrieved her purse from the coffee table and winked at him as he’d done only moments ago. “But a real lady knows when to exercise her right to walk away.” Sunny strutted her stuff in true top-model fashion as she walked to the door.
“That shit was corny,” Lamin said, jokingly, though his face was deadpanned.
Sunny laughed as she called out over her shoulder, “Whatever!” And the door swung shut behind her.
Copyright © 2012 by Tracy Brown