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Authors: Nikki Woods

Easier Said Than Done (25 page)

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I slapped her hand away. “I wouldn't put it like that. I agree I got caught up in the moment. But I'm not falling back into anything and I made that clear to Damon.”

“But he said that he loves you,” Keela offered with a raise of her eyebrows as if that was supposed to make everything better.

“So what?” Essence sneered. “We're back to happily ever after and all that shit?”

“He left me and for ten years never said a word. ‘I love you' does not always make it better. I'm a single woman thanks to Randy's trifling ass and I'm going to enjoy it, not jump right back into anything—with Damon or anyone else.”

Keela's eyes danced. “So, how was it? Good?”

“Mind blowing,” I said, nibbling on a carrot, laughing at their shocked expressions.

Essence snapped her mouth shut, then asked, “Really? That good?”

“Better than it was ten years ago, if that's possible. He wanted me to spend the night and I didn't want to leave, but then I started thinking of the pain I went though when he left and just couldn't. I was tempted, though. It was like we were in some kind of time warp, like we were
back together again.” Images of Damon's sweaty body covering mine popped into my mind and my eyes closed automatically, every nerve tingling.

“Oh girl, you are so gone.” Essence balled up her napkin and threw it on top of a stack of clean chicken bones.

Nodding, I picked up a celery stick and dipped it in the bleu cheese dressing. “I know, but there's nothing I can do but get over it—again. How in the world can Damon and I be together now?” I finished off the last of my Margarita and pasted on a smile that made my mouth hurt. “ Such is life.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes, finishing what was left of the food.

“When are you going back to work?” Keela finally asked. I dabbed at a spot of hot sauce on my sleeve. I had just bought this shirt and already it was ruined. I swore softly before answering. “ I need a couple of days to think, get my head together, but tomorrow's Sunday so if I can get some rest, figure things out, I may be ready to go back to the office on Monday. With everything that needs to get done, now is not the time for me to be out for too long. Besides, I'm really itching to get Scooby's project off the ground, and laying around feeling sorry for myself is not going to make that happen.”

“Ooh!” Keela exclaimed and with excitement flashing in her eyes, dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I forgot. Remember my girlfriend Lola Baker? She said she saw Randy at his company's annual Christmas fundraiser. Her current man works in the same department as Randy or something like that. She told me that Randy was all over that white girl—lots of public displays of affection. Didn't he always tell you that he was against that—kissing in public and stuff? Well, Lola said that she had on this little piece of triangular material that didn't leave anything to the imagination, had all the old white managers drooling. If you ask me, Randy is using her to help him climb the corporate ladder.” She sniped, “What happened to the modeling career he was so fired up about?”

“I'm not thinking about Randy,” I retorted. “Don't get me wrong, I wish him well, but I've never been able to remain friends with an ex—they're exes for a reason. I'm certainly not going to waste any energy helping him further his career. Handling my own career is enough. Add everything else in there..." My words trailed off as I thought about Mama Grace and her will, then about Damon, and all the energy drained out of me.

Keela smiled sympathetically as I shrugged my shoulders and fought back the tears. “ You've been through a lot. Just relax. If you're not ready on Monday, then you're not ready.”

“Keela's right, Kingston. Lord knows I need a couple of days off.”

I shook my head. “You always need a couple days off.”

“Working gives you wrinkles,” she shot back.

“Are you really needing some time off or are you just trying to sneak off with your new man?” Keela asked Essence as she unfolded a Wet Ones and proceeded to clean the hot sauce off her hands.

“What new man?”

“You know what we're talking about,” I replied.

“No, I don't.” Essence puffed up and pushed her plate to the middle of the table. “We almost ready to go?”

I slurped up what remained in my glass then looked for the waitress. “I want one more drink.”

“Okay. Be back, gotta potty.” Essence grabbed her purse and headed for the bathroom.

“Anything for you?” I asked Keela after placing my order with the waitress.

“No, I'm good. I can feel the other two already kicking in. It's my turn to teach Sunday school at church. Gotta be ready for the babies in the morning.”

“Yours didn't have any alcohol in them,” I reminded her.

“Yeah, but I think they gave me a double shot of strawberry.” Keela started to search through her purse for her wallet when a cell phone started vibrating on the table. “Yours?” she asked.

“Nope, I left mine in the car on the charger. I'm not trying to talk to anybody right now.” The waitress set my drink in front of me, then checked the bill before sliding it on the table.

“I'll take it when you're ready,” she said before hustling off to the next customer. The phone vibrated again.

“It's Essence's cell.” She grinned. “Watch this.” Picking up the phone, she spoke quietly, mischievously, trying to disguise her voice. “Hello?” Her smile disappeared and the light faded from her eyes. Her lower lip quivered. When she spoke again, it was with cold fury. “Why the hell would you be calling Essence? Whatever. God, I hate you,” Keela whispered before hanging up and replacing the cell phone on the table, the rage bubbling in her eyes.

“What's wrong, Keela?” I covered her hand with mine, but she yanked it away.

“Nothing.” She threw fifty dollars on the table, then stood up so suddenly she almost knocked the stool over.

Oblivious to the curious stares from those around us, I repeated, “Keela,” but she just looked at me before turning on her heel and storming out of the restaurant.

“Keela!” I yelled after her, but she didn't even pause. I ran to try and catch her when Essence walked up and grabbed my arm. “What just happened?” she asked. “Keela flew past me as I was coming out of the bathroom and didn't say a word.”

“I have no idea.” I shrugged and pointed to the phone on the table. “We were getting our stuff together, your cell phone rang and playing around, she answered it. Then she flew outta here. It must be something the person said to her.” I grasped at straws, “but she didn't say who it was.”

Essence snatched her phone before I finished my sentence and scrolled through the menu to find the last call received. Her eyes became as wide as saucers, and her hand flew to her mouth. “I gotta go after her. Explain things.” She slammed her phone in her purse and walked away, her face pale, as if she had seen a ghost.

“Wait!” I screamed. “What is going on? Who was on the phone? Tell me something.” My voice echoed through the room. Once again the click and clanking of utensils and glasses ceased, and I felt all eyes on me.

Essence stopped dead in her tracks and spun to face me.

“Who was it?” I roared at her again.

“Brandon.”

“Keela's Brandon?”

She didn't answer, but then again she didn't have too. She lowered her eyes and when she looked at me again, they appeared hollow as if all the joy had been chased right out of them.

My heart sank.

Chapter 20

Lake Shore Drive was a mess.. Thick flakes of snow fell in sheets, blanketing the roads, causing cars to slide every which way. Traffic was at a crawl.

On an emotional roller coaster for almost a week now and with this latest bump, I was tired; tired and confused. I couldn't reach either Keela or Essence on their cell phones, so I was in the dark about what had transpired after they had run off into the night. I watched the windshield wipers swoosh across the glass, making perfect arcs out of the snow, as I asked the same question that Keela had posed to her boyfriend while on the phone earlier.

Why the hell would Brandon be calling Essence?
And if it had been an innocent call, why wouldn't Essence just offer an explanation on the spot? It made her appear guilty. But guilty of what? I stopped myself before even trying to answer that question. I didn't want to get ahead of myself. I knew Keela and Essence. I mean, really knew them. We'd been best friends for almost fifteen years. I knew what each of us was capable of and what lines wouldn't be crossed under any circumstances.
Didn
'
t I?
Sure, Essence had been known to date a married man or two. Yes, she had slept with other women's boyfriends and not even blinked. I slung the uncertainties to the back of my mind and concentrated on the road. With no proof that she had crossed that invisible line, there was no use in getting all worked up. All I had right now were assumptions.

Hoping for some distraction, I flipped on the radio and sang along with Mint Condition, but nothing could take my mind off the earlier scene in the restaurant. I merged into traffic, exiting onto 47th street and checked my cell phone, but the display flashed zero new calls. Not wanting to be alone, I pointed my car south and drove to the kennel.

Open 24 hours, the Paw House Hotel looked just like a miniature Holiday Inn. A painting of a droopy-eyed beagle with a Toucan parrot sitting on its back was plastered just perpendicular to the front door. Other than a blue Volvo with a dented rear bumper, the parking lot was deserted.

Barks blended with meows greeted me as I stepped through the door, my arrival announced by a tinkering bell. Legs were propped on the counter, a hand thumbed through a calculus book, and a head bobbed to a silent beat. By all appearances, the front desk attendant couldn't have been any older than sixteen.

“Can I help you?” Snatching a pair of headphones from her head, she asked the question with a pop of gum and bounced to her feet. Her brunette ponytail swayed as she punched some keys on the computer, scrolling through several screens. I peered at her crooked nametag. Missy. I should have known.

“I'm here to pick up my dog, Cocoa.”

“The chocolate Lab?”

“That's her.” I pulled out my Visa as she punched a few more buttons, then yanked a freshly printed sheet from the machine behind her and laid it neatly on the countertop.

“Here's your bill. Why don't you look it over while I go get Cocoa and we'll get you all checked out?” The pair of Reebok Crossfits disappeared around the corner and I glanced at my cell phone again. Still nothing. Heartworm pamphlets were displayed next to the computer and I made a mental note to schedule an appointment for Cocoa's annual checkup.

Toenails clicking on the green tile floor brought a smile to my face. Cocoa bounded around the corner, dragging Missy behind her. She picked up my scent and her tail started whipping, almost causing her to turn in a circle. Dropping to one knee, I suffered through a fierce tongue lapping spurred on by ear scratching and baby talk.

“Everything okay?” Missy asked as she swiped my Visa through the credit card machine.

I nodded, stuck the receipt in my purse and turned to leave.

“By the way, your friend's boyfriend is gorgeous. He oughta be a model or something. But then she looked like one, too.” She smiled and fitted her headphones back over her ears.

Certainty settled like a lead weight in my stomach. I couldn't believe Essence could stoop so low.

“Come on, baby.” I tugged gently on Cocoa's leash. “Let's go home.”

* * *

I twisted my bright orange scarf around my neck and braced myself against the cold. Since the parking lot hadn't been shoveled, I was forced to ease my 2009 Lexus in between two Toyotas on the street perpendicular to my house, which put me a good two blocks from my front door. It also meant trudging through four-inches of snow, Cocoa by my side, the whipping wind stinging my cheeks. A neighbor was struggling to carry two bags of groceries, and I waved, when I noticed someone waiting for me inside my gate. My heart lurched and out of reflex, I dropped Cocoa's leash. Forever the protector she trotted ahead of me, growling. But instead of attacking, she ran right up to the stranger, placing one paw on a covered knee.

My heart settled when I saw that it was Keela sitting on my doorstep—a solitary figure—shaking, tears streaming down her face. “I-I-I-I didn't know where else to go.” She stood up, her arms wrapped tightly around her middle.

“It's okay. I'm glad you came here,” I said, fitting the key in the lock. “Come on, let's get inside where it's warm.”

The phone rang as I ushered her through the door, then stood aside so Cocoa could get in. She dashed upstairs, sniffing everywhere, familiarizing herself after four days away. The phone continued to ring, but I refused to answer it. I already knew it was Essence. Yes, my friends needed to talk, but it wasn't up to me to make it happen. Keela would have to do this on her own timetable.

My still-packed suitcases were on the couch. I pushed them aside before heading to the kitchen to put on a pot of water. Keela didn't say a word and I didn't force conversation. I wanted to get her upstairs, calm her down, then try to sort out the truth.

Sugar, cream, and packets of Chai tea were gathered and placed on a serving tray. Keela's arms and legs were drawn together in a protective ball, her nose bright red, and tears streaked down her face, leaving crisscrossing trails through her make-up. Cocoa climbed on the couch, circled once, then settled beside her.

The shrill whistle of the chrome kettle startled Keela and prompted a fresh wave of sobs. My eyes welled, too, my heart was breaking along with hers. I set the tray on the coffee table and dunked a tea bag in the steaming cup of water before adding heaping spoonfuls of sugar and cream to her cup; sugar only to mine. When I shooed Cocoa from the couch, she scurried under the coffee table, dropping her nose on one paw and falling asleep.

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