In everything give thanks for this is the will of God concerning you.
(I Thessalonians 5:18)
My Father, my God!
I can't begin to thank you enough for all that you have done and continue to do for and through me. Regardless of how high I am allowed to be elevated in this journey, you alone, Lord, will forever get the glory. This is my promise to you.
To my home base foundation,
Thank you for your ongoing support of my writing ministry. Every writer can't say that they have the endorsement of their family, so I count myself especially blessed.
Mama (Bishop Harold
Mrs. Francine Norman):
I love you dearly. Thank you for loving me to life! I am truly blessed to have you as my parents.
Crystal, Harold Jr., Cynthia,
Birth made us siblings, but hearts make us friends. I love you guys!
(1968-1995): Thanks for being my guardian angel. You are forever missed.
What would I do without you, cuz? Thanks for everything!
Thank you for being the best godparents in the world.
Thanks for your legal representation. You are so appreciated.
To the dynamic design duo,
(a.k.a. Papered Wonders, Inc.): For nine years, you have made me look fabulous on paper. Thank you for your endless creative genius.
To my sorors of
Iota Phi Lambda Sorority, Inc. (IÎ¦Î)
and especially to the dynamic divine divas of the
Turtle hugs and White Rose kisses go out to each of you for being my support system, my safety net, and my sister friends for life. I-PHIIIIIIII!!!!!
To the awesome women of the other outstanding organizations that have enhanced my lifeâ
Daughters of Christ Sorority, Inc.,
National Council of Negro Women:
Thank you for the wonderful connections, experiences, and memories that will surely last a lifetime.
To all of those who have partnered with me in the ministries of
KNB Publications LLC, The I.S.L.A.N.D. Movement, Cruisin' For Christ, Pages of Grace Book Club, Gospel Girls Group,
Thank you for sharing in the vision.
Bishop Johnathan & Dr. Toni Alvarado:
Words can't express how blessed I feel to be connected to the vine that is
Total Grace Christian Center.
Thank you for my spiritual home away from home.
A special shout-out to
, for permitting me to use one of her crazy one-liners in this story. Thanks, girl (you so crazy)!
Last, but never least, to those who provided the music and melody that streamed through my speakers and kept me motivated as I wrote this novelâ
Melvin Williams, VaShawn Mitchell, Brian McKnight, Antonio Allen, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Fred Hammond, The Williams Brothers, Maxwell, Wes Morgan, Lowell Pye,
Thank you all! And a special thank you goes to Oprah's Karaoke Challenge winner,
for actually taking the time to call me and sing “Happy Birthday” to me over the phone. Told ya I was gonna give you a shout-out, Abe!
Cloud nine. This had to be what being on it felt like. Officially, Valentine's Day was over, but what a perfect one it had been! In fact, everything about the past three days had been perfect. The time was nearing one o'clock in the morning when Neil walkedârather
through his front door and into the warmth of his home. The anticipation of it all had only allowed him two hours of sleep last night, but there wasn't a tired bone in his body. And there was a great deal of irony in that because though there was no fatigue, he felt as if he were sound asleep and having the dream of his life.
She said yes!
Neil pumped his fist victoriously as the thought filtered through his head.
Shaylynn Ford had obviously not expected his proposal. Shucks ... he had barely expected it himself. The young single mother of one was visibly shaking from the moment Neil sank to his knee and took her hand in his. But as unsuspecting as she had been, Neil had barely gotten the heartfelt words out of his mouth before Shaylynn tearfully agreed to be his bride. It was just too easy. Neil had sweated for weeks ...
. They had been an exclusive couple for just over a year, but he had known from day one that he wanted to make Shaylynn the next (and last) Mrs. Neil Solomon Taylor. He would have proposed on day two had he known it would be so simple. Now he felt ridiculous for holding on to the ring for three solid months before taking the plunge.
Neil stood with his back against the door for a long while, still trying to digest it all. It was hard to believe he was the same man who had avowed himself to lifelong bachelorhood after the painful dissolution of his first marriage fifteen years ago. And it was equally as mindboggling that Shaylynn had been the same woman who, in the not-too-distant past, was still wearing the ring of her first husband, a man who had now been deceased for more than eight years. When Neil first met Shaylynn, her heart had been so committed to the man who'd left her widowed that, seven years after burying him, she was still insisting that people refer to her as
. Ford. As much as Neil prayed to God that she'd give him a chance, he wasn't at all sure of how his and Shaylynn's story would end. But here they were, and their ending was on the threshold of a fairytale.
Thank you, Jesus
. The praise had been silently repeating itself in Neil's mind ever since it all became official, from the second that he slipped that impressive stone on Shaylynn's finger. Two hours had passed since then, but Neil's heart was still doing somersaults. He had almost not done it. As much as he wanted to propose, and despite all of the rehearsing, the prayers, and the spiritual counsel, Neil had come frighteningly close to changing his mind. It wouldn't have been the first time he'd chickened out.
The night had gone without a hitch. It was apparent that Neil had made good choices for celebrating the day set aside for lovers. First he treated Shaylynn to a special Valentine's Day old-school R&B concert at the Atlanta Civic Center. Using a broker, Neil managed to secure tickets that placed them in first-row-center seats, right behind the orchestra pit. He wondered if Shaylynn, as a woman of only thirty-two years, would be able to appreciate the music, but all doubts dissipated in short-order fashion.
The stage featured a wealth of talent and definitely catered to the ladies. Natalie Cole was the only female to perform on the four-artist ticket. The others were Jeffrey Osborne, Peabo Bryson, and James Ingram. Shaylynn seemed to enjoy them all, but when James took the mic, she got so captivated that Neil felt a twinge of jealousy. And he couldn't believe that Negro had the nerve to step down from the stage while singing his hit song, “Baby, Come to Me,” and single out Shaylynn. Neil struggled to hold on to his counterfeit smile when James kissed the petals of a long-stem red rose before handing it to Shaylynn. For years, the smooth vocalist had been, and would probably always be, one of Neil's favorite artists, but at that moment he wanted to knock the shine off of James's Grammy Award-winning bald head. Until then, Neil didn't even know that he was capable of that level of jealousy. Never before had he felt the desire to physically fight another man over a woman. But how could he not be a little insecure? I mean, this was James Ingram, and Neil was living proof that Shaylynn didn't discriminate against well-kept older men. Reminding himself that James was a married man helped out a little, and all residual doubt was erased when, at the close of the concert, Shaylynn turned to Neil, cupped his cheeks, kissed his lips, and thanked him for bringing her to the show. Then she linked her arm through his and held on tight as they left the auditorium together.
During dinner that followed at Canoe, a romantic restaurant at which they hadn't dined since their first official date, she only had eyes for Neil. All the while, a little black box was nestled inside the pocket of his suit, but no time seemed like the right time to present it. There was that one momentâwhen they were holding hands across the table at dinner and looking into each other's eyesâthat he was right on the verge of going for it, but then Shaylynn said something about how Emmett probably would have loved the dessert, and that dampened the mood and changed Neil's mind. It had been weeks since she'd brought up her former husband's name.
Was she ever going to just let that man die
? There was no way Neil would ask her to marry him when she had
the great Emmett Ford
on the brain. If she turned him downâno matter how gently she may have done itâit would have been far too humiliating. So Neil surmised that he'd ask for her hand later; maybe on her birthday.
Neil's mother was playing the role of babysitter tonight, so Shaylynn's eight-year-old son, Chase, was one of two children Ella was keeping overnight. After leaving the restaurant, Neil drove Shaylynn home and sat with her for a short while before deciding that it was time to leave. But as he and Shaylynn stood at her front door, sharing a long kiss good night, something welled in him. It was that same overwhelming love and passion that Neil felt every time he was alone with her ... and standing that close to her. That feeling that assured him that he couldn't keep waiting. He wanted Shaylynn in more ways than one. Neil hated saying good-bye and good night to her. His soul desired to stay. He wanted to share his love with her; his life with her, his bed with her, and there was only one way that he could make that happen. That's when he decided to do it.
And she said yes!
Neil couldn't recall a time ever in his forty-six years that he'd been so happy. It was too early in the morning to call his best friend or his mother to share the news, but when his alarm sounded five hours from now for him to rise for work, Neil would begin spreading the joy.
Am I too happy?
he questioned himself.
That new thought slowed Neil's movements as he peeled off his jacket and draped it on the arm of the sofa nearest him. The black wool Kenneth Cole design was a gift from Shaylynn. She'd presented it to him last Christmas. They were so in sync. Without even consulting each other, she'd bought him a coat, and he'd done the same for her: a black-and-white wool Worthington skirted peacoat that hugged her waist and draped her hips with perfection. Neil removed his driving cap and carefully placed it on top of his jacket and released a sigh, but he failed in his effort to shoo away the new notion that had forced its way into his head.
he, in fact, too happy?
Family historyâespecially history among the male population in Neil's bloodlineâhad taught him not to get prematurely keyed up about anything. Twenty-three years ago, Neil's dad was excited about finishing the new roof on his family's home, because he knew it was something that his sweetheart of forty years was looking forward to. His dad lived to make his beloved Ella Mae happy. But days before completion, the man they all called Pop was killed instantly in a freak automobile accident en route back to the house after purchasing the material needed to finish the job. And then there was Dwayne, Neil's best friend and older brother. Next month would be nineteen years since the family had buried him, and Neil still missed him like it was yesterday. Dwayne had been battling a rare lung ailment for some time, but was doing well and was excited about performing the lead solo for a choir function when he suddenly collapsed and died of what was determined to be acute cardiorespiratory arrest. And then there was the time his uncle ...
Neil chuckled as he sat on the sofa and leaned back against the cushions. What was he doing? He didn't believe in bad omens. Never had, never would. So why was he becoming his own party pooper? The woman he loved had just agreed to spend a lifetime loving him back, and here he was allowing Satan to steal his joy with all of these foolish, unfounded doubts. He wasn't going to die just because he had found a new level of happiness. Die before he had a chance to marry the love of his life? Die before the honeymoon that every fiber of his being was looking forward to? Absolutely not! Neil's closest friend and pastor, Charles Loather Jr., better known as CJ, had preached about that very thingâallowing the enemy to sap the joy that God givesâjust two months ago. Neil's soft chuckle turned into an all-out guffaw. It was one of those loud laughs that seemed to fill the room and free his mind of all of its reservations, but it came to a sudden end at the sound of the doorbell.
Who would be coming to his door at this hour? Neil sat in the quiet darkness for a moment, wondering if he was hearing things. A second chime verified the obvious, and Neil stood and flicked the wall switch that brought light to his living room. There was no sense in pretending no one was home. Whoever was at his door had surely heard him laughing just moments earlier. Neil looked at the watch on his wrist. The little hand was grazing the edge of the one, and the big hand was on the ten. It was probably CJ. It had to be. He was the one person who knew Neil's Valentine's Day plans, and he probably couldn't wait to hear the results. Neil couldn't wait to tell him either. No doubt, CJ had told Theresa by now, and more likely than not, she was the one who had shooed her husband to his house to get the juicy details.
A smile twisted his lips, and he reached for the doorknob. But just to be sure, he asked, “Yes? Who is it?”
An automatic reaction snatched Neil's hand away from the door.
? One moment, the name sounded vaguely familiar, and the next, it was very familiar. This was the mystery man who had called his office twice over the past two months, but had never left a detailed message with Neil's assistant. Neil knew the name, but he didn't know the man. Whoever this Sean Thomas character was, Neil wasn't about to let him in his house at ten minutes before one in the morning.
“Who are you looking for?” Maybe the gentleman was confused. Neil Taylor was a pretty common name. Maybe it was a different Neil Taylor he was searching for. Maybeâ
“Neil Taylor, son of Ernest and Eloise Taylor,” the voice replied.
Okay ... maybe not. Only a few people in Atlanta knew his mother by her given name of Eloise, and even fewer knew his father by anything other than Pop, so this person must have known Neil from his youthful days in Mississippi. But he still wasn't ready to identify himself as the person being sought. He wasn't exactly fearful, but he could hear his heart pounding in his own ears. Neil had no idea who Sean Thomas was or what he wanted, but for some reason, his gut feeling told him that his ride on cloud nine was over.