This Fire Down in My Soul

J. D. Mason

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One
 
Renee Turner
 
(Laughing) “How come you always look at me like that?”
 
“Like what?”
 
“Like you don’t know why I keep coming back. Like I don’t belong here.”
 
“Is it that obvious?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean for it to be.”
 
“The church bulletin said counseling sessions were available and open to all women in need of guidance, Dr. Faye. So—come on now. Guide me.”
 
“You don’t seem like the type to need guidance, Renee. Confident, ambitious, focused . . . I honestly don’t know why you come to see me.”
 
She hesitated for a moment before responding.
 
“An overachieving, self-assured woman like myself can have issues like everybody else, Doc. Sometimes, I just need to let off some steam. Sometimes, I just need someone to talk to.”
 
“You’re head of the singles ministry, Renee. I’d think you’d have plenty of people to talk to.”
 
Renee rolled her eyes. “My job as head of the singles ministry is to keep lonely people occupied and blind to the fact that they are lonely in the first place.” She smirked. “So, who’s got time to talk? I mean, really talk.”
 
“What about your friends?”
 
She laughed. “Friends?” Then held up one finger. “I have one friend.”
 
“Raymone?”
 
“And he makes a joke out of ever fucking . . . I mean . . . sorry.”
 
“No problem.”
 
“I don’t always feel like laughing, and not everything is funny. Raymone likes to play that sarcastic queen role of his to the hilt and sometimes it gets on my nerves. I don’t think he has a serious bone in his body.”
 
“Why don’t you have other friends?”
 
She shrugged indifferently. “I prefer not to have too many friends bringing baggage and all their drama and chaos. One or two good friends is all any woman needs, but”—her eyes twinkled mischievously—“I think I’m in the process of making another one. Lucky you.”
 
“I’m flattered.”
 
“Don’t be. My motivation is purely selfish.”
 
“How so?”
 
“Ours will be a lopsided relationship at best, Doc. One-sided, and all about me. That sucks, huh?” She didn’t wait for a response. “I talk. You listen, maybe nod your head every now and then. A match made in heaven.”
 
“So, what is it you want me to listen to and nod my head to today?”
 
Renee smiled. “About—how much I love attending this church, and to ask you where you got those kick-ass shoes, First Lady. Pardon my cussing.”
 
“That’s par for the course with you, Renee.”
 
 
 
Bohemian—retro—groovy. Say it loud!—bargain basement cheap. Designer label expensive chic. Renee’s look summed up in a nutshell. She worked hard developing her artistic, expressive style, in an understated, but definitely enviable and effortless way. Renee Turner climbed out of her black Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, full moon afro first, wearing Jimmy Choo rust leather ‘Taris’ pumps, 7 for All Mankind Boot cut jeans, a long sleeve, creamy white, V-neck tee that she found on sale at Old Navy, slipping a Dolce & Gabbana camel suede buckle tote over her shoulder. A Tiffany’s wide band, eighteen-carat gold ring with ten round brilliant diamonds circled her middle finger, while cheap mahogany carved hippopotamus earrings she picked up at a flea market on her last homage to South Africa, dangled precariously from her ear lobes.
 
She stared up at the palatial home in front of her. It had that brand-new, old-world, Spanish kind of vibe going, with the stucco exterior, wrought-iron accents, arched doorway of the entry. Given the style and the neighborhood, Renee guessed the price to be between five and six hundred thousand, easily, depending on the upgrades inside. All and all, though—it was cute.
 
“Trishelle?” Renee smiled at the woman answering the door.
 
“You must be Renee.” The woman smiled back, extending her hand to shake. “It’s so wonderful to finally meet you in person,” she said, closing the door behind them. “I’m such a fan of your work.”
 
“Thank you so much,” Renee responded, making a concerted effort to appear and sound gracious and humble. But her shit was tight, and just about everybody in Dallas, maybe even the world, knew just how tight it was.
 
Tall woman, Renee thought as she followed Trishelle Stevens. She had to have been at least six feet tall, maybe more . . . . Auburn curls framed her white face and bounced just at the top of her narrow shoulders. Brilliant blue eyes sparkled beneath wisps of bangs. In another life, she was probably a model, Renee concluded. It would have been a damn shame if she wasn’t. Trishelle was model beautiful and pliable, almost generic-looking like a mannequin that you could dress anyway you wanted, and she’d end up looking unrealistically good.
 
“As you can see,” she said over her shoulder, leading Renee through the house, “we haven’t done anything to the place, except move in,” she laughed. “I’ve never had a house this big before, so I have no idea where to start with decorating the belly of this whale, and I certainly wouldn’t want to fuck it up, which is why I’ve asked you to come.”
 
The kitchen was a chef’s and his whole team’s dream with granite, slab countertops that spanned for miles, stainless steel, oversized appliances, a huge six-cook top stove, and two baker’s oven. An endless array of dark-stained cherry custom cabinets, some with glass-paned fronts, provided space to store enough food and dishes to serve a small country. Canned lighting in the ceilings ran the length of the kitchen, which apparently ran the length of the whole south side of the house.
 
Trishelle poured two cups of coffee, and the women sat down at a small and oddly out-of-place kitchen table. Trishelle seemed to read Renee’s designer mind.
 
“It’s from our home in Seattle,” she said sheepishly, lovingly running the flat of her hand across the top. “I’m going to hate to see it go. The truth is, this is a major upgrade for us,” she chuckled. “You could just about fit our entire house in this kitchen. My husband called it cramped.” She looked at Renee, and smiled. “I liked to think of it as cozy.”
 
So this woman had no idea of what needed to be done to this house. That much was obvious. She was desperate for help and answers and direction. All Renee had to do was rise to the occasion. Interior design was as much psychology as it was art. It was not only a study of space and hardware, but a study of human character as well. If she was going to turn this whale’s belly into a home for this woman, then she needed to start her design concept from the center of Trishelle Stevens, and forget all about these oversized walls and the never-ending garish kitchen surrounding them.
 
“What kind of work do you do?” Renee asked, studying Trishelle.
 
“I teach.” Her eyes sparkled, then faded. “Well, I used to, back in Seattle.”
 
Renee flashed a patient smile. “And what brings you to Dallas?”
 
“My husband does,” she said with pride. “And his new position.” That pride faded away quickly.
 
Mrs. Stevens was here because her husband dragged her here chasing after his career, giving little to no thought to hers. And she loved him just that much to let him. In the short exchange, Renee had Trishelle’s life all figured out. That woman was impressed by her new house, but she definitely wasn’t in love with it, and she was certainly more than a little intimidated by it.
 
Dr. Renee Turner to emergency. Stat!
 
They slowly strolled through the house, room by room, stopping long enough for Renee to record her findings in her microrecorder.
 
“Color?” she said to Trishelle. “What’s your favorite color?” Renee smiled warmly and stared with genuine interest into Trishelle’s eyes, as they lit up at the thought.
 
“I like orange, and plum, and midnight blue.” She grimaced. “Sounds like they’d be a mess together. Don’t they?”
 
Renee smiled assuredly. “You’d be surprised.”
 
“My husband, Lewis, on the other hand, prefers neutral colors.” Renee hadn’t missed that subtle hint of disappointment in her tone. Almost as if Lewis had a tendency to let all the air out of his wife’s colorful balloon on a regular basis.
 
Leave it to Dr. Turner to resuscitate her failing patient, she thought with pride. “Oh, I think we can find some middle ground.” She gently touched Trishelle’s arm. “Trust me.”
 
Arched doorways and spiraling staircases in this house screamed for attention and dared to be showcased and brought to life. Yeah, when she was finished, this one would go on her Web site and would be a lovely addition to her portfolio for the day she finally landed a meeting with The Donald or Oprah to decorate one of their digs.
 
Renee was recording her notes in the study, lost in her observations when Trishelle disappeared from behind her. The sound of a man’s voice threatened to trample on her creative train of thought.
 
“Hello,” his voice came from behind her.
 
“Hi, honey,” Trishelle greeted him in a whisper, so as not to disturb Renee’s artistic vibe.
 
She finished with her notes, then turned to greet the man who’d be paying for her services. “Hello.” She reached out to shake his hand, fighting back surprise. “I’m Renee.”
 
He smiled and gently took her hand in his. “Lewis. Lewis Stevens.”
 
Another one bites the dust. The lyrics rewound over and over again in her head. The brother was nothing short of an African King reincarnated.
 
“Your home is lovely.” Renee hoped she sounded convincing, but she’d seen better.
 
He smirked. “My home is empty, and I’m hoping you can help make it feel more like we live here instead of feeling like we’re taking up space in a warehouse.” He looked at the wife he held in his arms, pressed up against the side of him, and gave a noticeable squeeze. “I hear you’re one of the best designers in the city.”
 
Something about the look in his eyes almost hinted at sarcasm and cynicism, and Renee knew already that she wasn’t digging this caramel-skinned god.
 
“Yes,” she smiled, meeting his gaze with her own. “I’ve heard that, too.”
 
Touché. He looked as if he thought it, but didn’t say it.
 
“She has some wonderful ideas for the place, sweetheart,” Trishelle chimed in. “I think you’ll like them once you see what they are.”
 
“I’m sure,” he smiled. “Well, I’ll leave you two ladies to finish up, and,” he gave his wife a quick peck on the lips, while loosening his tie, “I’ll be upstairs in the study.”
 
For a second, she felt a twinge of jealousy kick her in the ribs, and a sense of black-on-black betrayal warmed her from the tips of her toes to the top of her head. But common sense rang in, reminding her that he couldn’t help who he loved, and when he was looking for a woman, Renee was probably traipsing around Europe with all her belongings in her backpack or some shit like that, which is why she missed him. Besides, she’d never set foot in Seattle, so there was no way their paths would’ve crossed anyway.
 
An hour and a half after she’d arrived, Trishelle escorted Renee to the door.
 
“I have some thoughts,” Renee replied, confidently, “and I should have a proposal ready for you in a few weeks.”
 
Trishelle sighed, relieved. “Thank you so much, Renee. I’m so glad to have met you.”
 
“The pleasure was all mine,” she said, professionally. “We’ll get this place together for you in no time,” she winked, and turned to leave.
 
“Good-bye.” Trishelle said one last time. “Oh, and Renee?”
 
Renee turned to her.
 
“Remember.” Trishelle’s expression turned downright menacing. “Money is no object.”
 
Copyright © 2007 by Jaclyn Meridy. All rights reserved.