Authors: Andrea Jackson
Who’s That Lady?
Genesis Press, Inc.
An imprint of Genesis Press, Inc.
Genesis Press, Inc.
P.O. Box 101
Columbus, MS 39703
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, not known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying, and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without written permission of the publisher, Genesis Press, Inc. For information write Genesis Press, Inc., P.O. Box 101, Columbus, MS 39703.
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author and all incidents are pure invention.
Copyright© 2007 Andrea Jackson
Manufactured in the United States of America
Visit us at www.genesis-press.com or call at 1-888-Indigo-1-4-0
To all my sexy sistahs who haven’t fit into a size ten since elementary school.
There’s more of us to love!
I wholeheartedly thank my critique group: Cheryl, Denise, Lawan, and Phyllis. I couldn’t have done it without you. To Jasmine, thanks for the support even while you worked hard. To Marc Rich, Joe Willis, and the Jefferson Plaza Starbuck’s crew, your warm welcome on Tuesday nights was something to look forward to. To Nancy Wisemen, who listened when I needed it. A thank-you to Sidney Rickman for all her hard work.
When Crystal answered the doorbell of her two-story condo the last thing she expected was romance. She certainly would have dressed better. The paint-stained sweat suit and a bandanna around her head weren’t too attractive. She was also ranting like a nut case, because she and Key were in the middle of a video game that he, of course, thought he could play better than she could.
“No way. You can’t even defend, you dummy,” she yelled over her shoulder as she swung open the door. Her voice broke off in a little cough and she knew her eyes bulged when she saw the man on her doorstep. Before she had even recovered her breath, she was snatched tight against a masculine body, her lips crushed with a kiss that burned with piratical demand.
When the kisser released her, she completed her gasp of shock and held onto the doorknob, her knees wobbly with reaction. “
she managed to whisper, reeling from disbelief.
It wasn’t just the kiss that shocked her. Her roommate’s boyfriend was almost unrecognizable in an eye patch, tri-cornered hat, and balloon-sleeved shirt that was open to the waist.
Graham threw up his hands in a gesture of horrified chagrin that was half-defensive, half-appeal. “Crystal! Oh, my God, I’m so sorry, I thought you were Shonté!”
“Hey!” exclaimed Key from the couch in the living room behind her.
Graham’s guilty glance darted past Crystal. “Key! Oh, my God. Where’s Shonté?”
“That’s not Shonté,” Key said, grinning with glee.
“I didn’t—I thought—I mean—” Graham mumbled, at a loss for words. He covered his eyes with one hand. “Where’s Shonté
?” he asked again.
Crystal didn’t feel much more coherent. Her legs were still shaky. It had been a long time since anybody had kissed her like that.
“Virginia Beach,” she managed to murmur, so dazed that she told the truth.
“In Virginia Beach?” Graham said, his brow furrowing. “I didn’t know she was going out of town.”
“Something you folks want to tell me?” Key growled. He’d walked up behind Crystal so quietly that she hadn’t noticed him until he spoke. She jumped, as did Graham, both of them giving a classic display of guilt.
Graham sputtered. “I wasn’t—I mean, I didn’t…See, I was expecting Shonté….”
With an effort, Crystal gathered her wits. This was ridiculous. Key had to know she would never put the moves on her best friend’s boyfriend. Then she remembered the prepared story she had been instructed to deliver. She was supposed to tell Graham when he called that Crystal had gone to Raleigh, North Carolina, for a workshop. But instead of calling, Graham had come over in a Halloween costume and tried to taste her tonsils.
In reality, Shonté was at a luxurious retreat in the ocean-side resort city of Virginia Beach, about a two-hour drive from their home near Raleigh. And she was with another man. But of course, Shonté didn’t want Graham to know that.
While Crystal was still pulling her thoughts together, Key continued, “You’d better come in, Graham.” He gestured the other man inside. “Unless, of course, you meant to give the neighbors a little x-rated show.”
Graham darted a frantic look around the quiet cul-de-sac lined with quaint two-story row houses painted in varied pastels. “No.” Looking even more flustered, he stepped inside and closed the front door.
Crystal took a deep, steadying breath and eyed Graham Patterson. He was such a nice guy. Look at him—nice clothes—well, usually—nice looks, nice personality, nice secure job. Nothing special about him, but he was no slouch either. Who would have dreamed he could kiss like that? She suppressed a sudden wild impulse to giggle.
Standing beside Key, Graham looked even more out of place in the pirate outfit. Several inches taller than Graham and muscled like a football player, Key stood with his arms crossed over his deep chest. With his lips stretched tight in a disapproving line, he was pretty intimidating.
“Maybe you should leave us alone, Key,” she said.
Key widened his eyes in mock condemnation. “What? So you two can cheat on my sister? I think you owe me an explanation, young lady.”
“Beat it!” snapped Crystal, not at all intimidated by the attitude. She grabbed Key’s arm and dragged him in the direction of the door.
“But the game…” he protested in outrage, gesturing at the electronic equipment attached to the television.
“Later,” she persisted, pushing him toward the door. “I’ll see you at Finnegan’s tonight,” she added in a quiet voice and closed the door.
Graham padded further into the living room of the condo she shared with her best friend, Shonté Emerson. She and Shonté had kept one another’s confidences since they were in middle school. Now they were career women, living and working together. And Crystal still kept Shonté’s secrets, even though she didn’t condone the current kind.
“What’s Shonté doing in Virginia Beach?” Graham asked. With self-conscious haste, he snatched off the eyepiece and hat.
Crystal chewed her lower lip, avoiding Graham’s confused gaze. Should she come clean, tell him his girlfriend was away for a weekend of pleasure with another man? A
Crystal loved Shonté like a sister, and she had tried in vain to talk Shont
é out of the trip. Shonté was in total lust with the good looking, charming, romantic doctor. However, he was married. He gave her the line that he and his wife were married in name only for the sake of the kids, but it still sounded sordid to Crystal. All Shonté saw were the stars in her eyes.
“Sit down, Graham.” Crystal waved toward a chair.
Graham took a stool at the pass-through bar to the kitchen, fumbling to button up his shirt discreetly.
“I’m really sorry, Crystal,” he said, his nut-brown cheeks turning ruddy. “I was expecting Shonté to answer the door. I would never intentionally do something like that to you.”
“That’s okay,” she reassured him, her mind already on how she was going to cover her lapse.
She went into the kitchen, filled a glass measuring cup and put it into the microwave.
“So, what’s up, Crystal?” Graham prompted.
“She needed some time away,” Crystal said, struck by inspiration.
“From what?” Graham’s frown deepened.
“Well, you know,” she said sliding her gaze away. “Stress at work. There’s been a lot of it. And things…”
Anxiety flickered in Graham’s eyes. “Tell me the truth, Crystal.”
Her heart skittered. “What do you mean?”
“She’s tired of me, isn’t she?”
Did he suspect what Shonté was up to? She decided to be cautious. “What do you think, Graham?”
He blinked back his unhappiness. “She says I’m predictable, boring. Not romantic.” He gave an embarrassed little laugh. “That’s why I dressed up in this outfit and came over here today. I thought I’d surprise her. You know, a pirate kind of thing. And guess what? I screwed it up.”
His words brought an automatic comforting response to her lips. “Oh no, Graham. You didn’t know she wasn’t here. I’m sure she would have been pleased if she had seen you.”
“But that’s just it. She would have been here if I wasn’t so boring.”
“Graham, you’re not boring. You’re a nice guy. Maybe it’s Shonté who isn’t the right girl for you.”
He pounced. “You know something, don’t you? Has she been talking about me?”
Crystal tried not to look guilty. She punched the microwave as it beeped.
“Of course not, Graham. Don’t be a doormat.”
Good grief, the man was a dweeb. Shonté would chew him up and spit him out if he didn’t develop a backbone. She passed him a cup and the canister of flavored tea bags.
He ignored the cup and turned an anxious gaze to her. “What do you mean? Am I doing something wrong? How can I make our relationship better?”
“I’m simply saying that maybe you shouldn’t try so hard, Graham. Stand up for yourself. You have a lot to offer a woman.”
“I do?” His mouth curved up in a fatuous grin. She smiled back, thinking he was as eager as a child looking for approval.
But that kiss had knocked loose an awareness of a gap in her life. To be held in a man’s arms, feel his tongue caressing the inside of her mouth.
. She had almost forgotten how good that could be. Here was Shonté going out with two guys and she hadn’t had a man in how many years? God, she felt
for a 27-year-old.
Crystal didn’t really want to mimic her friend, but she had gone to the opposite extreme. While Shonté was out partying, she had been working before Key came over. Her briefcase was open beside her computer in the bedroom upstairs. She was dressed in a baggy sweat suit and her hair was wrapped in a bandanna. She seemed to do nothing but work these days. Shouldn’t she have some fun once in a while? There must be some kind of middle ground.
But right now she had to soothe Graham and send him on his way to await Shonté’s pleasure.
* * *
“I’m the oldest 27-year-old I know,” Crystal said later that evening to Key. She raised her voice to overcome the noise around them. The bustling franchise bar near her house was a popular after work meeting place. Chatter and laughter filled the air, as well as clatter from the kitchen nearby.
They had met there for their regular Friday evening beer. Wait staff in polo shirts and pocket aprons hurried back and forth. One placed a platter of buffalo wings in front of them. The spicy smell tickled Crystal’s nose and whetted her appetite. She picked up a tiny drumstick and chewed before going on.
“I mean, look at me, Emerson.” She and Keyandré Emerson often called one another by their last names. “I haven’t been out with a man in months.”
“You mean besides Pirate Graham?”
“Don’t even play.” She gave a shudder.
“I don’t know, Taylor. You looked like you were all into that face sucking.” He made mock kissing noises while crossing his eyes.
“Would you stop? I was totally shocked. You know that’s not me.”
“No way. This is my hottest date all week. You.”
“Thanks a lot, Taylor.”
“You know what I mean. You’re a handsome, virile man and I should be wildly flattered by your attention. But I’m not one of your honeys, Emerson. We are strictly platonic. And, besides Graham, this is the highlight of my social life. Something’s wrong with this picture, bro’.”
They gazed at the huge mirror on the wall behind the rows of bottles. The mirror reflected a man and a woman seated side by side at the bar. The woman had a milk chocolate complexion, a round face and smooth hair drawn back into a casual ponytail. She was full-figured under a short-sleeved red T-shirt, but there was nothing provocative about her. He was taller, with skin of a rich coffee hue and dramatic features. His hair was braided in tight cornrows in the style of the rapper Xzibit. The biceps emerging from the armholes of his sleeveless blue jersey were full, and his chest was deep.
Yeah, Key was hot, all right. But Crystal liked their relationship the way it was. She considered their relationship a good sociological balance. No games in this friendship. No uncertainty.
“I don’t know,” he said at last. “Some people might say we make a good couple.”
She snorted on a mouthful of chicken. “Yeah, right. We’re more like brother and sister.”
“Maybe,” he said with a shrug. “But we’re not related.”
“I know,” she said, looking at his reflection a little wistfully. How many times over the last thirteen years had she wished that she belonged to Key Emerson’s family? She shook off the mood. “Speaking of that sister of yours….”
“Were we?” Key took a deep swig out of his glass.
“Yes. I don’t know what to do with her, Key. She’s been so restless and so moody lately. Haven’t you noticed?”
“Not really. I’ve got my own life, Taylor. My sister’s a big girl and can take care of herself.”
“I’m not so sure. You don’t know what she’s up to.”
Key shot a sidelong glance at her. She loved his dark, laughing eyes. “I have a feeling you’re about to tell me, Taylor.”
She paused for dramatic effect, and then spoke in a doom-filled tone. “She’s shacking up with a married man for the weekend.”
Key gave her his full attention. “She what?”
Crystal nodded with emphasis. “That’s right. A married man she works with at the hospital, Key. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. It’s wrong on so many levels: personal, career, even short term social. I mean that man is a total
He considered a moment. “It does sound like a pretty stupid escapade. What does she say about him?”
“She says she’s just having fun.”
“Well, there you go. She’ll snap out of it soon enough.”
“What are we going to do about it?” Crystal prodded.
Key folded his arms across his formidable chest and glared at her. “Why do you feel we have to do something?”
“Because we love her. Because we have a responsibility to keep her safe. She’s family, Emerson. You don’t want to see your sister hurt, do you?”
“Me either. She’s not my family, technically, but I’ve always been close to both of you. I don’t understand how she can do this. She’s in total rebellion against her upbringing. She was raised by the same mom and dad as you. They love each other and the two of you. Doesn’t she want a marriage like that?”
Crystal, raised by a too-busy single mom, had embraced the homey atmosphere of the Emerson family from the first moment she walked into it. They’d taken her in like a daughter and she’d thrived on the nurturing.
“I think she’s going through some kind of identity crisis.”
“Stop throwing that psychological stuff at me, Taylor. Sometimes people just do something a little different.”
She frowned at him. “Emerson, don’t be stubborn. This is not a change of hair color or a new purse.”
Key swiveled on his stool to face her. “Okay, then. Maybe you’re applying the wrong theory. Maybe this is a normal process of change and testing for her. Shonté’s always been on the flighty side. And you’ve always felt like you had to follow her around, saving her butt. Maybe the tighter you hold her, the more she’ll rebel.”