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Authors: Bonita Thompson

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BOOK: Vulnerable
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“Oh, my Goddess,” Sicily reacted.

Nonchalant, Rawn glanced Sicily's way. “What?”

“I…nothing.” She looked down at the menu and pretended to be looking at it because Sicily needed something to distract her. “Haven't you decided? I'm starved.”

“The catfish cakes should be here soon,” said Rawn.

Yet Sicily could not stop looking over at the bar.

Rawn grew curious. Sicily was preoccupied by whatever was taking place behind him, so he looked over his shoulder. Searching the room, he caught sight of Henderson Payne at the bar. No sooner, Rawn's eyes fell on the beautiful and seductive woman seated beside him.

CHAPTER THREE

I
t was a crisp summer morning when Rawn strolled along Street One and spotted the white woman he saw at Café Neuf a few days ago. Her vivid eyes were concealed by fashion-statement sunglasses. Despite her being dressed casually in a pair of faded red Converse sneakers, capri-style leggings, and a sleeveless sweater in bright watermelon that clung to her lithe silhouette, it did not play down the polished look that caught his eye at the bakery-café. She walked hurriedly, and only a few feet in front of Rawn. Because the island was secluded and attracted high-profile types, the mysterious woman from Café Neuf could easily be mistaken for a celebrity on holiday attempting to be incognito.

She turned on Heather Avenue, and Rawn, unbeknownst to his own curiosity, turned onto to that street too. It was that very day his life took a detour, and dramatically adjusted the direction of his fate. He lost her in the crowd of tourists and locals. His interest intensifying, Rawn poked his head through a few of the shops nearest to the corners of Heather and Street One, but the intriguing woman from Café Neuf had vanished like a solitary cloud. He walked into Starbucks, but the coffee bar was oddly empty with the exception of customers at the counter and at the pick-up order bar. Several doors down was Barney's, a sports bar which was crowded and very loud on any given night. Rawn did not anticipate her being in the bar. When he walked in and headed toward the back by the pool tables with the pretense he was going to use one of the public telephones, he caught sight of her sitting in a booth.
The woman sat with a tanned man with good looks and wearing workout clothing.

Rawn feigned using one of the pay telephones for several minutes, listening to a phantom on the other end. He had an excellent view of their table. The couple ordered another round of imported beer. Rawn liked how the woman from Café Neuf handled her beer and drank it from the bottle rather than from a glass. It took nothing away from her charismatic femininity. From his point-of-view the couple's conversation bordered on passionate. More like two people with strong opinions on the topic of say, politics. At last, Rawn saw two men leave a table on the opposite side of the room. Eagerly he claimed it, and told the waitress when she came to clean it off, he would take a Corona. Not long after he sat and was served his beer, the couple finished their drinks. The man with good looks and a dark tan left loose bills on the table and they laughed with a rush of excitement while leaving the bar. Rawn nursed his Corona for ten minutes, paid his check and left Barney's.

It had turned very cloudy, and the intensity of the sky made the island look dark and somber while he sat in the sports bar. On his way home he stopped at G Street Wok for Chinese, a noisy, disorganized and always busy take-away. It was the third time that week he had stopped off for something to eat. Earlier, he was thinking how ridiculous his routine had become: dateless nights, going to bed alone, and eating take-away meals from a carton or that he pulled from a paper or plastic bag. Sometimes leftovers he heated up in the microwave.

Not long after the school year ended, he found himself signing on to the Internet and having conversations with strangers in chat rooms, starting to rely on pseudo connections instead of developing companionship he could actually touch. At some point it became
obvious to him that he began to depend too much on the Internet. Rawn decided he was turning out to be like too many people who fell into a trap and had become socially isolated. When he was with himself, he was fine with that. He did not feel desperate or lacking during times of solitude. But Rawn stopped going online to
chat;
he no longer wanted to get too involved with, or devote time on, the lives of people he most likely would never meet.

He always missed teaching during summer recess.

Being alone was not his choice. Rawn resented the options that were accessible to him. Every single woman he met was too this or too that. She was not
only
this or
only
that; she was
too
something: too chatty; too insecure; too self-conscious; too soulless to retain his attention. While he might have been, as his mother claimed, “too picky,” he was not looking for “the one” necessarily, so he was not as choosy as his mother might have suspected. It did not matter how the relationship, brief or otherwise, evolved; the woman had to hold his attention. Even his friend Khalil, who would lower the bar if he did not want to sleep alone, agreed it was getting more problematical to find a woman who could maintain a man's attention for any length of time. It could have been the lack of ambiguity, he was not sure. The last time Rawn was in L.A., Khalil told his best friend: “Man, there are some fine women in L.A. Milk
chocolat
, dark
chocolat
, nutmeg, cinnamon, cappuccino, vanilla, caffé con leche…But once I get laid, look, I'm done…” Except in Rawn's mind the single lifestyle was a scary, shot-in-the-dark place to be these days. For Rawn, meeting someone in a bar or club and taking her home for a night of casual sex had become—complicated.

Trying to find a single woman without children who was likewise smart was a challenge for a single man, especially for a black man. And a woman who was engaging and thought-provoking was
equally tricky. A good example of the woman he enjoyed spending time with was Sicily, who was his closest friend in Seattle. Her organic looks alone could pique the average man's interest. Like-wise, Sicily was intelligent, creative, and captivating. Perpetually, Rawn met women who came across confused, or had an androgynous nature: she was curious about being with other women or she was not sure how she felt about men. With a Ph.D. in psych-ology, Sicily once told him there was something in his attitude—something in his psyche—that drew those types of women into his life. The few blind dates that had been set up by informal friends, by the end of the second date, any appeal that was there had worn off and Rawn did not feel the need to see her again.

He learned that in one split-second life could be like a strand of yarn that came loose from the sleeve of a sweater. It was the morning he received a call from his mother that forced him to evaluate all the stuff he tried to avoid over the past two years. He was sitting in his office grading papers, and when her voice greeted him, Mrs. Poussaint chose not to beat around the bush. Rawn was always asking his mother about Janelle, the woman he had planned to marry after graduate school. Mrs. Poussaint sensed her son's conflict with Janelle because he cared deeply for her, but his love for her was not the same as her love for him. When he broke things off, Janelle was beside herself.

“I read it in the
Post
over the weekend, Janelle's getting married.”

“Married?” Rawn was on his feet before he was aware he was even standing. “To…. Who is she marrying, Mama? It's not some- one that I know?”

“I think he's a Johnson.”

Not that his being a “Johnson” meant anything to Rawn.

“William graduated from Penn. He's a specialist, but I can't recall what kind. Your father knows him.”

He's a doctor? Was he older than Janelle?

He was not altogether certain if his mother was trying to make him feel jealous or angry, or was this her way of nudging him to finally get over the fact that he ended things with Janelle and broke her kind heart. The truth of the matter—Rawn did not know what to say. He never saw it coming. And even if there were warning signs, he had no idea his reaction would be so—well, visceral.

“I guess she went on with her life. After all, it's been…what, nearly two years?”

More accurately, one year and eight months. Was that long enough to have met and fallen in love with another man? They were once best friends—they were lovers—for four years. They had been publicly engaged.
She found—met—someone and fell in love that quickly?
Then he was never the right man for Janelle.

“When is Janelle getting married, Mama?”

“In May. I suspect you'll get an invitation. After all, you two have managed to remain friends.”

“That would be great,” he purposely exaggerated. The news—the blow—was horribly physical. Rawn tried to steady his thoughts. He believed in Janelle; he
cared
about her. Except the word
care
, in comparison to love, was small. His leaving Denver, his hometown, and moving on without her was likewise releasing her so that she could explore and grow and experience a sense of individuality. And perhaps some time down the road they could find each other again. Destiny, fate, that sort of thing. They were young, and they had no idea what it was truly like to know themselves or experience the many possibilities that were out there—in the world. Janelle felt more safe than right. Rawn craved a kind of raw love, or was it lust? It was not that he was being insensitive; he had absolutely no idea how it would affect her, but he admitted
to Janelle what he wanted and needed. Rawn would never forget the look on her face when he ended it.

“I suppose she'd invite you to the wedding,” his mother said, but he could read between the lines since Rawn knew all too well how his mother thought. It sounded more like,
Do you think you can actually
sit
through her wedding?

“I'm happy for Janelle. She must have found what she needed. Janelle wouldn't marry if it wasn't right.”

So the Doctor—a “Johnson”—from
Penn
would take her to Africa. She would finally see the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Uganda, Niger—and there was Mozambique, where Janelle was dying to go, and where she could speak French. Although Rawn grew up speaking French with his Haitian grandparents and with his Creole family in Louisiana, Janelle had an ear for languages and she spoke French as well as, if not better than, he. They had planned all kinds of trips to places like Paris and Cairo and Budapest right after Janelle was established as an attorney and when Rawn finished grad school. But somewhere along the way, things changed. Forthrightly, Rawn's feelings changed.

“Are you sure you're okay, Rawn?”

That motherly tone yanked him back into the here and now.

Rawn felt the wailing in his throat; a knot caught at the base, and when he swallowed, it seemed only to make the knot grow, like a tumor developing into an incurable cancer. He wanted to scream at his mother:
Hell, no! I am not
okay!
Why did you call me and tell me this?
On the other hand, Rawn understood that his mother was only giving him information that he would eventually become privy to on his own.

“Mama, I need to go. Tell Daddy and Tera hello. I'll talk to you later.”

“ 'Bye-bye, Rawn, dear. Take care of yourself. We love you.” He couldn't
bear to remain on the line and listen to his mother's oftentimes long-winded farewell.

His concentration had been destroyed, his nerves shattered. He was wounded by the news of Janelle's pending wedding. He had no idea she was seriously involved with another man. As much as he tried to deny it to himself—and in the months leading up to his mother's call, he had entertained the thought—a part of him had wanted Janelle back.

CHAPTER FOUR

T
he temperamental Pacific Northwest sun that tranquilly blended in with steel gray hue defined the sophisticated suite at the Four Seasons. Tamara's eyes popped opened and she was immediately aware that Henderson was already up. He sat in a chair on the other side of the suite looking over papers. While his back was to her, his body language warned her that Henderson was in a solemn mood. It was not like they did anything, so he had nothing to feel guilty about. She was over Henderson, and Tamara was not fully aware of it until she slept next to him and felt absolutely no urge. While Henderson was over Tamara as much as she thought she was over him, he did not have the same willpower.

Tamara decided some time ago, hands off—no married men!
How many failed marriages did I have a hand in?
She pressed her eyes shut, trying
not
to think about how she most certainly had a hand in nearly ruining Henderson's marriage. Of course there had been other women besides her, but it was Tamara's relationship with him that did the most damage. It did not cost him financially, but it took everything he had emotionally to save his high-profile marriage. Henderson fought hard and fought dirty. If Daphne were to leave him, she would need to be very vigilant and maintain a steady look over her slender shoulder because he was a payback kind of guy.

Like Tamara, Daphne went by one name. She was the ex-supermodel, and the woman Henderson loved beyond any other. The one he chased from one continent to another until he persuasively
romanced her away from a British rock star. Daphne stayed in their shattered marriage. But not for the sake of their children; she certainly did not stay for Henderson. Rumor had it she remained in their marriage because she abandoned her own identity to be his wife. Dutifully, she sat at home games and looked breathtaking; looked stunningly gorgeous through three pregnancies despite having gained over thirty pounds with each—the third and last finally producing a son. Ten years ago Daphne was huge! Her earnings provided her with an apartment that offered views of Manhattan's skyline and the East River, a condo on Wilshire Boulevard, west of Beverly Hills, and an apartment overlooking the Seine. She had not only a career; Daphne was equal to Henderson and all but as controversial. One could only imagine the bitterness she must have felt being placed in the position of being gossiped about because of her husband's notorious infidelities; the fact that she had to compete with his stable of one-, two- and three-night stands. She was now
Mrs.
Henderson Payne, and the attention was less on her, something Daphne struggled with, because the public interest was almost always on him. Tamara could only imagine that she resented being her husband's public appendage. Daphne could not go back to the visibility she had as an in-demand runway model. Not only was she ten years older, likewise she was no longer waif, or what she was referred to back in the day—heroin chic.

BOOK: Vulnerable
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