Courtney’s eyes widened just seconds before they blinked. April Fools’ Day had been last week. Were her parents playing a belated joke on her?
When they had invited her to dinner, she’d expected them to announce that they’d finally decided to call it quits and get a divorce—not that they would be trying to save their marriage for the umpteenth time.
Her jaw tensed when she recalled how long her parents had been married: too long. They got married when Courtney’s mother had become pregnant with her during her last year of college, thirty years ago, and it seemed her parents had done nothing but make each other’s lives miserable ever since.
Her father frowned at her stunned expression and said, “Well, you certainly don’t seem happy about it.”
She decided to give him an honest answer. “I’m not. In fact, I’d think the two of you would count your losses and move on—in separate directions. Why would you continue to make each other miserable?”
“That won’t happen again,” said her mother.
Courtney merely rolled her eyes. That’s what her mother had said the last time and the time before that—and the time before that. But the infidelity uppermost in their minds was from last year, only a month after Barbara had found out that one of her husband’s students at the university was pregnant by him.
How many women was that now? Two different women pregnant in an eight-year period—when would her mother wake up and decide she’d had enough and refuse to help Ronald Andrews meet his child support payments to his illegitimate children? Her mother deserved so much better, but her father wasn’t stupid. He’d realized a long time ago that his wife was more an asset to him than a liability.
Courtney sighed, picked up her cup of tea, and took a sip. Ronald Andrews was one of those men who didn’t know the meaning of keeping his pants zipped. It simply never occurred to him that every time he pulled out his pecker to use on someone other than his wife he was committing adultery. And her gullible mother seemed too complacent to remind him of that fact, as well.
Most of the time.
There was that time Barbara had actually caught him in bed with another woman. A Paula somebody. Courtney had come home from junior high school and found all the dinner dishes broken, most of the furniture smashed, and her father’s clothes littering the front lawn. Needless to say, her mother eventually took him back and he never learned his lesson.
“And why won’t it happen again?” she asked, wondering if this time around they would give her a different answer.
Her mother smiled, and her father grinned before responding. “We’re getting help.”
Courtney arched a brow. “What kind of help?”
It was her mother who answered next. “From a therapist.”
“You’ve done that before,” she couldn’t help but remind them.
Her mother nodded, still smiling. “Yes, but that last man only took our money. This guy will do a better job.”
Not unless he’s a miracle worker, Courtney thought. Maybe she was the one who needed to see a therapist. . . . What she really needed to do was leave before her parents gave her a monumental headache. She glanced at her watch. “I got to go,” she said, sliding her chair back from the table.
“Where are you going? You just got here.”
It never failed: whenever Courtney got ready to leave, the questions would start. She was twenty-nine, and they were still trying to keep tabs on their only child. She was her mother’s only child, that is. No telling how many more her father could lay claim to.
“I told Sonya I would stop by to see if there’s anything she needs help with before next Saturday. You haven’t forgotten her wedding next weekend? The two of you are planning to attend, aren’t you?”
Ronald Andrews shrugged wide shoulders. “I guess we’ll be there, since it seems she’s serious about marrying that man. I’m sure if she had looked hard enough, she could have found a nice man in her own race to marry.”
Courtney rolled her eyes again. She knew her parents weren’t too keen at the notion of their niece in an interracial marriage. Well, as far as Courtney was concerned, Mike Kelly was a hunk as well as a great catch. Since meeting him, Sonya had wasted too much time before accepting that true love was color-blind. And it was true love. Courtney felt it each and every time she saw Sonya and Mike together. And it was also scorching-hot love. You couldn’t help but feel the heat they generated whenever they were in the same room.
“But then you haven’t found one, so it might not be so easy after all.”
Courtney’s father’s comment cut into her thoughts. “I haven’t found what?”
“A man to marry. A black man.”
She frowned. “I wasn’t aware I was supposed to be looking.”
“Of course you’re looking,” her mother jumped in to say. “You’ll be thirty on your next birthday, and need I remind you that’s only a few months away. You need a husband. Ron and I need grandkids.”
Courtney started to say it would be just her luck to screw up and get someone like her father—and decided not to even bother. He would take that remark as a compliment. It was a good thing she didn’t believe all men were like him and her uncle Joe Morrison, Sonya’s dad. At least her aunt Peggy had had the good sense to finally get over Uncle Joe and move on, even if it had taken her a while to do so. She had almost driven Sonya batty in the process. Joe had destroyed his marriage of over thirty years, as well as his wife’s self-esteem, when he had asked her for a divorce to marry a woman thirty-four years his junior—a woman younger than his own daughter.
“So what do you think of your mother’s and my plans to improve our marriage?”
“I told you what I thought, Dad. I would feel differently if I truly thought the two of you intended to make a change, but I have no reason to think that you will.”
Her mother lifted her chin stubbornly and said, “This time we’re going to prove you wrong, Courtney.”
She smiled sadly at them. “It would mean a lot to me if you did.”
Courtney arrived at Sonya’s home with a gigantic headache. Her cousin opened the door, took one look at her, and arched a concerned brow. Then she pulled her into the house and closed the door behind her.
“Another migraine?” Sonya asked, reaching out and gently pressing her fingertips to Courtney’s temples.
“Brought on by what?”
“Another episode of Ron and Barbara Andrews trying to drive me nuts,” Courtney said.
Sonya released an agitated breath. “What are those two up to now?”
“They want to make their marriage work—like such a thing can actually happen,” Courtney answered, tossing her purse on the sofa in disgust. “I can’t believe Mom continues to let Dad use her. If that’s love, then it’s abusive love.”
“Calm down. If you keep this up, your head will only hurt worse. You can’t let what your parents do get to you. Trust me, I found that out the hard way.”
“I know you’re right, but I’m tired of seeing them do each other in.”
Sonya grabbed her hand. “Come on into the kitchen with me. I got just the thing for you.”
Courtney allowed herself to be dragged off. “And what’s that?”
“Butter pecan ice cream. Our favorite. I was about to eat a bowl, so now you can join me.”
When they reached the kitchen, Courtney shook her head and grinned. “How can you indulge in a bowl of ice cream less than a week before your wedding? Aren’t you afraid of gaining weight and that you won’t be able to fit into your dress?”
“No. Any excess calories I take in, I’ll burn off later tonight with Mike.”
Courtney laughed. “You’re incorrigible.”
Sonya grinned as she pulled the carton of ice cream from the freezer. “Can’t help it when it comes to Mike. He’s the best there is, in or out of bed; however, I like our bedtime activities the best.”
Courtney leaned against the counter and watched as Sonya filled two bowls. Her cousin stood five-nine, with medium brown skin, features that would make any man take a second look, a short and sassy haircut that emphasized her sophistication, and eyes so dark they almost looked black, not to mention a shapely figure. Courtney had always thought Sonya was simply beautiful. And despite a five-year difference in their ages, the two had always been close. Sonya had been the big sister Courtney had never had, and she’d always been proud of her. Sonya had always been wild and uninhibited; at least, that had always been Barbara Andrews’s definition of her sister’s only child. But to Courtney, her cousin’s love-them-and-leave-them lifestyle had been intriguing, made her proud there was a woman who could dish it out just like a man could. Sonya had claimed there was no man alive who could make an honest woman out of her. At least that was the song she’d been singing before Mike entered the picture.
“Hey, go easy on my bowl,” Courtney said when she saw how much ice cream Sonya was putting into it. “Unlike you, I don’t have a Mike to help me work off any calories later, and I need to be able to fit into my bridesmaid dress.”
Sonya laughed as she slid the bowl filled with ice cream toward Courtney. “Don’t complain to me if you don’t have a man. You and I both know why. You’re too cautious; afraid you’ll end up with someone like Uncle Ron or even worse, someone like my dad. Growing up watching your parents’ bad marriage wasn’t easy, and seeing what Dad did to Mom is what has kept you from dating. Mom and Dad are the reason you’ve been so standoffish when it comes to getting serious about a man. You need to change that.”
“Maybe,” she said, knowing what Sonya said was true, although she never wanted to truly admit it. But turning thirty without a man had her analyzing the reason why. At the head of the list was the fact that, over the years, she had developed a cautious side when it came to love.
“I would date more,” Courtney said, not even believing it herself, “but I’m too involved in my work to date. I’m trying to move up in my career.”
Sonya waved off her words, not accepting her excuse. “No matter how hard I worked, I still made time for a social life. A little bump and grind every now and then takes the edge off. The longest period of time I went without sex was when I started dating Mike. He was determined to make me beg for it.”
Courtney licked a scoop of ice cream off her spoon before asking, “And did you beg for it?”
Sonya smiled sheepishly. “Like a shameless hussy. I thought I was all savvy and would show him a trick or two, but he showed me that he already knew all the tricks in the book. The man laid it on too strong, and he was all smooth about it.”
Courtney believed her. Sonya was too much of a woman, one who liked being in control. For her to give up that control to a man, that man would have had to make one hell of an impact on her senses as well as her body, but especially her senses. Over the years, her cousin had dated a number of men, but Sonya had never let one get under her skin. In fact, she went out of her way to make sure she would get under theirs with no plans of sticking around. And although more than one man had tried taming her reckless and elusive heart, each had failed miserably. “I’m glad you finally decided that race wasn’t an issue and gave Mike a chance.”
“I’m glad I did, too, although God knows I tried to fight it. I didn’t want to get involved in an interracial affair, but I couldn’t help myself. For the first time in my life, I began craving vanilla with a passion, wanted to lap it up with everything I had.”
Courtney nodded. She knew the story of how Sonya had gone to the St. Laurent Hotel to confront Jesse Devereau about how he’d been treating Sonya’s best friend from high school, Carla Osborne. Jesse had just found out that Carla gave birth to his son two years earlier and never told him about it, so he flew into town intent on making trouble for Carla. Needless to say, when Sonya confronted Jesse that day, she also confronted Jesse’s best friend Mike, since she had interrupted them dining together.
According to Sonya, from the moment Mike laid his soulful blue eyes on her, it had been instant attraction, the hot and steamy kind. Mike was tall, hard, and had a body that would make any woman drool, so for the first time in her life, she’d wanted to find out if it was true that blonds had more fun. Sonya wanted to put Mike’s smooth mouth and glib tongue to work doing something other than defending his best friend’s actions.
Sonya and Mike formed a pact to straighten things out between Jesse and Carla, and their efforts eventually worked. The two were now happily married, and since Sonya and Mike were godparents to Jesse and Carla’s son Craig, they began spending a lot of time with each other.
According to Sonya, at some point, she and Mike decided to stop fighting whatever was keeping them at arm’s length and give in to their attraction and make things work. And they had. There was no doubt in Courtney’s mind that her cousin had found her soul mate.
“It might work this time, you know.”
Courtney glanced up. “What might work?”
“This thing with your mom and dad. They must have thought it through before deciding—”
“No, and that’s the problem with them,” Courtney said sadly. “They never think things through, Sonya. Mom refuses to analyze and accept just what an asshole Dad has been to her when she deserves so much better. I honestly think she’s afraid of letting go and moving on. She’s terrified that if she gives Dad up, she’ll begin acting like Aunt Peggy did in the beginning.”
Sonya nodded, remembering. Peggy had become a basket case when Joe dumped her for a younger woman. It had taken almost a full year for her to rebuild her self-esteem and understand that the breakup of her marriage hadn’t been entirely her fault. Now Peggy had gotten herself together, joined the workforce, and was too involved with all her charities to worry about her ex these days.
Sonya’s thoughts then shifted to her father. If Courtney thought her own dad was an asshole, then his brother-in-law was an A-plus asshole. What her father had put her mother through before their divorce was almost unforgivable. How could two nice-looking, highly educated blood sisters born from the same woman—a woman who’d raised them to be strong and independent—marry such heartless and untrustworthy men?
“How is Aunt Peggy handling the thought that Uncle Joe is bringing his mistress-turned-wife to your wedding?” Courtney asked.
A sad smile touched Sonya’s lips. “As well as can be expected. I’m thinking she’s hoping he does the decent thing and not bring her, since he knows I prefer not having her there. But we all know that he will, if for no other reason than to flaunt the fact that he has access to some young stuff whenever he wants it. I’ve even gone so far as to ask him to leave Suzette at home, but he refused, saying he won’t disrespect his wife that way. I couldn’t pass up the chance to remind him of all the times he had openly and uncaringly disrespected Mama. I doubt my words sent him on any guilt trip, so I’ve basically told him that if he does anything to ruin what will be the happiest day of my life, or if he allows Suzette to behave in any way to bring embarrassment to Mom, I’ll never speak to him again.”
Courtney nodded. She believed her. “What about Mike’s family? Has he prepared them for what could happen?”
“Mike doesn’t have a family. He was given up at birth and, like Jesse, got bounced around between foster homes, usually the same ones. That’s why the two of them are so close and consider themselves brothers, since they were the only constant person in each others’ lives while growing up. Jesse is the only family Mike has.”
A part of Courtney knew that Jesse and Mike’s situation was sad, but considering the parents she’d had to deal with and all their drama over the years, the thought of being raised in a foster home held some kind of appeal. Now how warped was that? “It wasn’t my intent to hog your entire evening, since I’m sure Mike will be dropping by later,” Courtney said, walking over to the sink to place her empty bowl into it. “But I wanted to check to make sure there’re no last-minute details I can help you with before next Saturday.”
Sonya smiled. “No, the woman we hired as our wedding planner is totally awesome. Carla used her when she married Jesse and was pleased with the results, and so far I am, as well. But I’m glad you dropped by—there’s something I want to give you.”
Courtney raised a curious brow. “What?”
Sonya’s smile widened. “Wait here for a second while I go and get it.” She then hurriedly raced up the stairs.
Courtney went into the living room and glanced around. She thought the house Sonya and Mike had bought together a few months ago was simply gorgeous and elegant. She’d always admired Sonya’s decorating skill, and every time she visited, she couldn’t help but appreciate Sonya’s classic taste as well as her love for bold colors, which did so much for the gleaming oak floors and decorative tile walls. So far only Sonya had moved in. Mike wanted to officially take residence after the wedding, although Courtney was fairly certain he spent many a night here anyway.
And then there was the other home they were having built in Los Angeles, where the corporate office for Mike’s private investigating firm was located. That was where they would be spending a lot of their time. Mike’s company offered professional services to law firms, prominent individuals, financial institutions, as well as major domestic and foreign corporations. Sonya would be quitting her job with a large marketing firm and would bring her marketing expertise to Mike’s firm, starting with the office he had opened here in Orlando.
“I’m back and here you are,” Sonya said, coming down the stairs. She walked over to her and placed a small black book in Courtney’s hand. Courtney glanced up into her cousin’s smiling face, confused. “You’re giving me your little black book?”
Courtney looked down at it. This wasn’t just any little black book. As far as she was concerned, it was legendary. For years she’d known it existed and had watched Sonya whip it out a few times to make a hit. She had even, on occasion, run into some of the men whose names had been plucked from the book for a date with Sonya. All the men had been tall, dark, and handsome. “Why are you giving me your little black book?” she asked.
“Because I won’t need it anymore, and I can’t think of another soul I’d want to have it other than you. Besides, I don’t know of anyone who needs it more. You’ve denied yourself the chance to date as much as you could have, and now I want you to use it to get out there and have fun.”
“But I’ve told you why I’m not dating as much.”
“Yes, and you and I know there’s more to it. You’ve never opened yourself up to anyone and we both know why. I was exposed to Uncle Ron and my dad just like you. Instead of making me cautious, it made me into a bad girl. I’m not saying that you need to become a bad girl, but I think you need to have fun. I truly believe that you want to find love but are afraid to do so for fear of what type of man you might get.”
Sonya didn’t say anything for a moment, wanting her words to sink in. Then she added, “Granted, you probably won’t like every guy whose name is in the book, but I think there’re a number of pretty good prospects. The names I’ve lined through are guys I’ve met and spent time with already. The rest are guys that I met but never got around to actually checking out, but there was definitely something about them that I found interesting enough to get their name in that book.”
Curious, Courtney opened up the little black book and flipped several pages before coming to one where the names hadn’t yet been lined through. The first was Harper Isaac. Mmm, the name sounded manly. She closed the book and looked at Sonya, touched. Her cousin had to care a lot about her to pass on this very special book to her.
“Like I said, Courtney,” Sonya was saying, “I was once where you are now. I kept thinking, what if this man is like Uncle Ron, and when Dad left Mom I wanted to hate the entire male population. I tried convincing myself that all men were jerks, and if you couldn’t beat them, you might as well join them. But even then, I longed for the man of my dreams to come into my life, take me away from being a bad girl, capture my heart, and prove me wrong. Granted, I had no idea he would be of the Caucasian persuasion, but if I had to do it all over again, the only thing I’d change is having Mike come into my life sooner. The first time he tossed one of those I’d-like-to-get-all-into-you looks at me, I was completely lost.”
Courtney couldn’t help the smile that tugged the corners of her lips. “You truly do love him, don’t you?”
Sonya nodded. “Oh, yes, with all my heart,” she said softly, her voice filled with emotions so deep, Courtney could actually feel them. “And I believe he won’t ever do me the way your dad did Aunt Barbara or Dad did Mom. I trust Mike completely. He has shown me that all men aren’t the same.”
“I never said all men were the same,” Courtney said defensively.
Sonya smiled. “No, but deep down you’ve thought it, and over the years you’ve operated on that theory, so have I. For me, utilizing that little black book was fun while it lasted, and now I’m passing it on to you with my blessings and best wishes. It’s time for you to get out there and have some honest to goodness fun. I want you to promise me that you’ll try it for at least a month—or until you meet someone that you like.”
Courtney shook her head. “I don’t think that—”
“No, Courtney. I won’t accept any excuses. It’s time for you to take the first step and I want to be the one who helps you take it. Please, let me do this for you. I don’t want to feel that I’m deserting you by marrying Mike when I know the reason you’re denying yourself the happiness I’m now sharing with the man I love.”
Courtney thought about Sonya’s words. The last thing she wanted was for Sonya to worry about her. “Okay, I’ll do it.”
“For at least a month or until you meet someone you like?”
Sonya lifted a brow. “You promise?”
Courtney rolled her eyes knowing Sonya wouldn’t let up until she promised. “Yes, okay, I promise.”
A relieved grin covered Sonya’s face. “I’m hoping you’ll find your very own Mike among some of those names in that book.”
Courtney hoped against hope that Sonya was right.
Copyright © 2008 by Brenda Streater Jackson. All rights reserved.