Prologue and Chapter 1

Prologue

 

“Derrick, welcome back. You know I love to see my regulars. What can I get you to drink?”

The sexy bartender had on a layer of extra clothes in comparison to her workmates.

“The regular, Samantha.” I dug into my back pocket for my wallet as she winked and walked away, making a show of swaying hips.

The lights and music in the club I frequented were loud and made it damn near impossible to think. Just what I needed, to be numb…to take an hour or two and forget the hell that was my life.

She returned with four shot glasses. I slid a few twenties across the counter to cover my drinks and gave her a generous tip. “Keep ‘em coming, love.”

She accepted the payment, slipped the tip into a well-endowed cleavage, and winked. “Sure thing.”

I downed two shots, back-to-back, and coughed. The mahogany liquid felt like silk running down the back of my throat. I closed my eyes and let the effects wash through me, waiting for it to reach every part of my body.

The remaining shots were consumed to speed up the process. The minute I finished the last glass, I signaled the bartender and pointed to the empties. She nodded and walked over with the whiskey bottle in hand and topped me off. She winked. I drank, then closed my eyes again.

No way would I be driving home tonight. Thus, the reason I’d taken a cab.

It’s funny how life can kick you in the nuts, take away everything you’ve worked for, and leave you damn near destitute.

It’s one thing when you’re the one at fault.

It’s completely different when it happens by someone else’s hand.

I loved my family, but my brother had gone from one to look up to, to the bane of my family’s existence, damn near taking everything we had worked for.

And for what?

A drug habit that had drained our family’s construction business dry from constantly putting him into rehab.

Now, due to bad decisions and contracts he’d made under the table, without my or our father’s knowledge, the company had been forced to file bankruptcy.

I loosened the tie around my neck.

After spending hours with our attorney to see if there was any way for us to get out of this mess, my father and I parted ways. He went home to explain to my mother the depth of her oldest son’s deceit, while I, on the other hand, decided to take up residence on a bar stool in a strip club and get drunk.

It was either that or find my brother and kill him.

The last five years of my life were devoted to our business. Our father—well, really stepfather—taught each of us the ins and outs of the construction business based on our strengths. The goal was for him to retire and spend much needed time with my mother, who was dealing with lupus.

Shaun and I had been handed the reins two years ago. I took them ran with them. Shaun caved under the pressure and left not only the business, but his wife and two beautiful daughters. Apparently, his drug of choice to escape the pressure went from weed to crack. A huge leap from a manageable narcotic to a killer.

I should know. I’d experimented with weed when I was in college and a few years beyond. But it was just a recreational thing, not habitual.

Bad decisions were made; the repercussions affected me and my family.

I had a lot of shit to make up for, and I had.

Thanks to Shaun, I was about to start over.

Again.

“Hey, baby. Is my girl on stage boring you?”

I opened my eyes and found a pair of perfect breasts covered by the sheerest material known to man. My eyes traveled down to the small square between her thighs, and down a set of shapely legs that ended in a pair of heels that had to be eight inches high. Then I found her face.

“Honestly, I’m not in the mood to pay her any attention.”

She smiled at the comment, tilting her head at a seductive angle and licking her lips. “What about me?” A hand went to my thigh, ran up and down, then squeezed somewhere near the area of my groin.

She was about that money and, I had to admit, had my attention.

“What do you have in mind?”

Her eyes lit up. I could have sworn I saw dollar signs in them and heard a cash register ding in her head. Or between her thighs. Was there a difference?

“For starters, you can get a lap dance for five, but if you really want a show….” She leaned forward, intentionally resting her breasts on my arm and whispered some very suggestive deeds in my ear.

I chuckled. The rational part of my mind said no, that I should swallow my drinks and catch a cab home. No amount of money spent tonight would ease the pain of what I was feeling.

The irrational and rather horny part said to hell with reason. This was my last night in Charlotte before moving to Georgia and starting over. Who gave a damn about what I did tonight?

Not my parents. Not me, and certainly not the ho that had just licked my ear.

“Why the hell not? You only live once.”

Her smile was wicked as she took my hand and led me to the back of the club.

 

Chapter 1

 

“Georgia traffic sucks.” I adjusted my grip on my cell phone and put it on speaker.

“Derrick, I warned you, didn’t I? You’d think your last trip down here would have taught you to leave early if you wanted to get on the south side of Atlanta on the weekend.” Trevon laughed.

“Yeah, well, I was staying on that side of town at the time, since that’s where the job was. Now I’m working above downtown Atlanta. I go where the work is.”

“You don’t have to explain it to me. Do what works for you, man. Anyway, dinner should be ready by the time you arrive. I guess Kai will be able to wait. These days, she’s eating everything in sight! But I’m happy, man, because she’s happy. The baby is growing and life is good.”

“I’m happy for you.” I glanced at the driver who sat in the car beside me. “Look, I’m gonna get off the phone, because I just passed a cop who was lookin’ at me as if I was texting while driving. I should be there in twenty minutes.”

“See you when you get here.”

I hung up the phone and set it in the cup holder; just as the cop rolled up beside me.

I glanced his way, did a head nod, and focused my attention back on the road. My papers were in order, my license straight. Unless he just wanted to pull me over for some imaginary infraction, there was nothing for him to do but continue to drive in the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

It’s hard to believe I gave up life in North Carolina and moved down South. This wasn’t my first trip to Atlanta, but live here? I couldn’t help but feel as if my life was about to go through some major changes.

And to make matters worse, I wasn’t comfortable with my new work situation.

Five years of being part owner of a lucrative construction company owned by my stepfather had given me a taste of control. Not over my employees, but over my time. I’d done the work I wanted and set my own schedule. My stepdad, Charles, ran the company, secured jobs, and did the legwork to keep it going. My brother, Shaun, and I had run different divisions. I was in charge of projects as they started from the ground up; while he was in charge of interior finishing and the finer details. Our mother handled the three P’s; payroll, permits, and paperwork.

Until she was diagnosed with lupus.

Everything spiraled out of control after that. Her health took the front seat to the business. Charles retired early to see that she got the medical attention and support needed at home. I stepped up to fill Charles’s shoes, and Shaun…well, that’s when shit fell apart.

Putting thoughts about a past that could not be changed aside, I checked my GPS again and found I was now minutes away from my boy’s house. It had been months since I’d last visited Trevon. Other than the time I spent completing a renovation of the restaurant he worked for and the overnight trip back to stand as best man at his wedding, it had been four months.

I pulled up to his house, parked in the drive, and surveyed my surroundings. He had a nice home in the suburbs: a manicured lawn with a fenced in yard, cars in the driveway, and a dog. The one-story home seemed to be perfect for what he had going on in his life.

I stepped out of my truck, grabbed the package I’d brought with me, and heard children’s laughter and a barking dog, all of which seemed to be coming from his backyard.

I walked up the stone walkway and rang the doorbell. My attention went to the basketball hoop in the driveway. It had been a long time since I’d played. Maybe I could talk Trevon into a game of one-on-one after dinner.

“Well, well, look at what the cat dragged in.”

I turned and expected to see Trevon’s wife, Kai, but instead faced her sister. The first time we’d come face-to-face had been during the renovations. She was in charge of interior decorating, while I was in charge of renovating the entire restaurant. A delay in the work schedule had had her fuming. She’d searched me out and jumped down my throat, demanding my crew be finished so she could keep to her interior decorating schedule before she had her baby. She had been heavy with child and bore a pregnancy glow. She’d had the baby by the time I came back for the wedding.

But today…

“Kelli, you look…” Unable to help myself, my gaze traveled the length of her body. All the baby weight was gone and damn, she was fine.

She wore a pair of ripped jeans, a T-shirt, and her feet were bare. Long jet-black hair rested on her shoulders and cat-shaped eyes drew my attention.

“I look what?” A hand went to her hip as a thin eyebrow arched.

She may have had her baby, but she still had the attitude.

Before I could respond, a little girl, the spitting image of Kelli, ran to the doorway and tugged on her shirt. “Mommy, Aunty said the timer went off on the stove.”

Kelli ran a hand over the little girl’s head. “Okay, tell her I’ll be there in a second and that Uncle Tre’s friend is here.”

The little girl looked at me. Her eyes widened as her head went back to take in my full height.

Kelli clicked her teeth. “What do you say, Christina?”

The little girl snapped back to attention. “Hello.” She grinned, then ran off to deliver her messages.

Kelli’s attention came back to me. “You were saying?”

I cleared my throat. “The last time I saw you was at Kai and Trevon’s wedding. You look nice.”

“And what, I looked like a crazy person then?” She stepped aside and directed me to come in.

I wasn’t taking the bait. “No, I was going to say−”

She laughed; the musical quality struck a chord inside of me. “I probably did. I was breastfeeding a three-month-old while trying to play maid of honor. It was crazy.” She breezed past me and walked down the hallway. I followed, unable to take my eyes off her waist and hips as they swayed. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t trying to be sexy, but in those fitted jeans….

I ran a thumb over my brow and forced myself to look away and remember she was a married woman. As much as I appreciated a woman’s anatomy, there was at least one line I didn’t cross. Married women were completely off-limits.

The smell of cooked food grew stronger as we neared the kitchen, and my stomach growled. It was the perfect distraction.

“Hungry?” Kelli glanced over her shoulder.

Damn, those eyes of hers were sexy as hell.

“Is it obvious?”

She laughed again. “Well, dinner will be ready in about thirty minutes. Kai and I are putting the last touches on everything. She wanted to make it all, but I forced her to stay seated. She’s too far along to be up and moving around too much. Her doctor wants her on bed rest, but has allowed her to move around as long as she’s at home.”

Before I could respond, we entered the kitchen and there was Kai, her face round and beaming.

“Derrick!” She moved to get up, but I went to her side and put a hand on her shoulder.

“If you’re supposed to be resting and got up to hug me, Tre would have my neck.” I leaned down and hugged her. “These are for you.” I handed her the box that was in my hand.

She didn’t hesitate to peel off the thin wrapper. “Chocolate-covered strawberries?” Her eyes grew wide. “Did Trevon tell you about my crazed obsession with these?”

“Yep.”

“You have earned an even warmer spot in my heart.”

A snort came from the opposite side of the kitchen. I glanced at Kelli whose back was turned. Again, my eyes slid to the eye-catching logo stitched on the back pockets of her jeans.

“So where is that husband of yours?” I forced my attention back to my hostess.

“He’s in the backyard with the kids.”

“Kids?”

“Justin, of course, and my niece and nephew.”

The mention of Kelli’s kids was enough to keep me from looking her way again.

“Oh, yeah. Well, do you mind if…,” I pointed toward the back door.

“You’re family, Derrick, make yourself at home.” Kai shooed me in the direction of the backyard. “We’ll let you know when dinner is ready.”

I headed to the back door and did my best to avoid eye contact with her sister.

The transition from inside to outside was a slap in the face. From the mouthwatering aroma of a home-cooked meal, to the smell of new leaves and budding flowers on the trees and bushes. Spring was in the air which meant opportunities of various kinds were about to begin, one of the reasons why spring was my favorite time of the year.

I spied Trevon on the far side of the yard throwing a ball back and forth between himself, his son, and niece. A little distance away, a little boy sat in the grass, one finger in his mouth, watching the activity as if sitting at a tennis match. He was too young to participate, but that didn’t keep him from reaching out and clapping his hands every time the ball was thrown in the air.

I was about to call out when a white blur darted across the yard and stopped in front of me, teeth bared, growling.

“Hold up! I’m a good guy.” I stopped in my tracks, but stood my ground as the pit bull sniffed everything her short legs could reach.

“Sugar. Friend!” Trevon jogged over to where we stood, reached down, and rubbed the dog’s back. After a few seconds, she backed off and settled next to him, but her eyes were on me.

“Damn, that little thing packs a punch.” I laughed and reached out to clasp hands with my best friend.

“Yo, D, you made it.” He stood back and looked at me. “Look at you, same as always. I invite you to come over for a home-cooked meal and you come dressed like you’re headed out to the club.”

I chuckled and looked down at my attire. Yeah, I was cleaned up; a pair of jeans and a fresh shirt and matching Timberlands. “Hey, you never know when you’re gonna roll up and meet a fine woman. You only get one time to make a first impression.”

“True, but unless you have plans to go out later, there’s no one to impress around here.” His attention went to the kids as the ball hit him in the back. “Hey, grown people talking! Come here you!” He ran after Christina and Justin, who let out squeals of laughter and ran across the yard, zigzagging to keep from being caught.

I laughed, but remained still since I was being guarded by the furry white bodyguard.

Trevon caught up with the kids, swooped them up, and tucked one under each arm before heading my way.

“Justin, do you remember Uncle Derrick?”

My godson giggled as he squirmed in his father’s grasp. “Yes!”

“And this little angel in disguise is Christina, Kelli’s daughter.”

“I know him already!” she laughed. With her being bigger than her cousin, she managed to squirm out of Trevon’s grasp and ran toward the infant sitting in the grass.

“What’s his name?” I watched as Christina helped her brother stand on wobbly legs.

“Carlos.” His attention went back to Christina as he sat Justin on his feet. “Be careful with him.”

I looked over in time to see Christina supporting the baby under his arms as he tried to take a step.

“How old is he?”

“Seven months, I think.”

Seven months? Had it been that long since I’d last seen Kelli when she was pregnant with him? Man, time flew.

I studied the yard. “Where is their father? He didn’t come for dinner?”

Trevon let out a false laugh. “The hell if I know. He’s probably at home with his new wife, I’m sorry, girlfriend…that’s if he isn’t cheating on her.”

I whipped around. “Say what?”

Trevon grabbed the ball he had been tossing back and forth with the kids and sent it flying across the yard. Sugar ran for it. “Alonso left Kelli and the kids high and dry, right after she gave birth to Carlos.” He shook his head. “It’s a shame what he’s put her through.”

My eyes widened. “She’s divorced?”

“Almost. The paperwork’s been filed, but they’re having issues about custody and housing. It’s a shame because she did so much to help him get where he is in his career. And what does he do? Leave her to foot the bill, literally, and goes to start a whole new life. She’s lost nearly everything.”

“Damn.” My attention went to the kitchen window; Kelli was looking my way. Our eyes met for a moment, then she walked away.

“The worst part of it is, he moved out and left her the house, but he didn’t pay the mortgage. Kelli didn’t make enough to keep it, so he sold it. Now they live with us while she gets back on her feet.”

My brow creased as I shook my head.

“Hey, guys, it’s time to eat!” Kelli stood in the doorway, wiping her hands on a towel.

Once again, our eyes met, but this time, she turned away before our gazes truly connected.

 

****

 

“This has got to be the best meatloaf I’ve ever had…well, not as good as my mom’s, but it’s a close second.” I forked another helping and savored the juices that pooled on my tongue.

“Thanks.” Kelli didn’t look my way, but instead she spooned some type of mashed baby food into Carlos’s open mouth.

“Kelli is an excellent cook,” Kai said, then reached across the table to get what had to be her third serving.

Damn, she could eat. Then again, I guess that’s what a baby would do to a woman’s body. I kept my shudder internal. As beautiful as Kai was, the whole pregnant woman thing was something I just couldn’t understand.

Across the table, Trevon watched her with love in his eyes. I chuckled. It had to be true love to watch an attractive woman go from sex goddess to baby-maker.

My gaze went back and forth between the two of them. Did they still have sex? If so, how?

I shuddered, forcing the unexpected and unwanted image from my head.

Across the table, Carlos sputtered, sending baby food flying onto Kelli. Justin and Christina laughed. Kelli sighed, frustration on her face as she looked down at her shirt. A sickly combination of yellow and green decorated her rainbow-colored top and stood out like a sore thumb.

“So, how long are you going to be in town?” Kai asked around a mouthful of food.

“It depends on the job. Right now, my plan is to get in and see how this company works. I can’t lie; it’s been years since I worked for someone. I’m used to being the foreman who reported to only one man, my father. Now, I’m the new guy in the company, and I’m black. The construction industry has several levels. Most work goes to Hispanics because they are willing to work for pennies. Somewhere in the mix are the Blacks…if you’ve got the skills. Above all that it’s nothing but the Good Ol’ Boys. Companies owned by families who promote from within. Whether or not they have the skills means nothing.”

“What about companies owned by African-Americans, like your family had?” Trevon reached for a second helping of mashed potatoes.

“We,” I gestured inbetween us, “can’t seem to work with one another without stabbing each other in the back. The first job I took before leaving home was with a black-owned company, one similar to my family’s.” I shook my head. “I didn’t last a week.”

“Couldn’t get the job done on time?” The smart-ass comment came from Kelli’s side of the table.

My eyes narrowed. Nearly a year had gone by since our first knock-down drag-out argument about the scheduling changes that had to be made for the job I did for Trevon. Man, this woman didn’t know how to let go.

“Oh, I know how to do my job. Never doubt that. But when you’re better than the boss’s son.…”

“Back-stabbing begins,” Trevon said around a forkful of food.

“Exactly.”

“So, where are you staying?” Done eating, Kai sat back from the table and rubbed her belly.

“For now, at an extended-stay hotel. If things work out, I’ll look for an apartment and make the move to Georgia a permanent one.”

“Extended-stay hotel?” Kai shook her head in disapproval. “That’s a waste of money. If you need a place to stay, you can stay here.” She looked over at Trevon, who nodded.

“It’s not a bad idea, but where? Kelli’s got the spare bedroom and the other’s for the baby.”

“He can have the baby’s room. I mean we haven’t decorated it yet and I’ve got two months left before the baby’s even born. Besides, our bundle of joy will be sleeping in a bassinet in our room for the first couple of months. Derrick is family. In my family, you help one another.” She looked over at Kelli, whose face had turned a few shades of red. “Did I mention the benefits?”

My brow went up. “Benefits?”

“Home-cooked food and friendship. Can’t go wrong with that.” Kai grinned.

I risked a glance in Kai’s direction. While the offer was tempting, the last thing I wanted to do was infringe on my best friend and his wife as they prepared to welcome their first child into the world. As it was, the house already had its fill of unexpected guests; Kelli and her two kids.

Kelli.

The idea of seeing her on a day-to-day basis was tempting, especially since she was now single.

Laughter erupted from the end of the table where Justin and Christina sat. The giggle fest sent little Carlos into a fit of excitement. He banged the table with his hands and spit more food onto Kelli’s shirt. She groaned again.

Then again, Kelli was a mother. No matter how much I found her to be attractive, a relationship with someone who had kids was not my speed, especially young ones.

“Thanks for the invitation. I’ll kick it up the road for now, but if things change, I might take you up on that offer.”

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