Here is Chapter Two from Happy Hour. Get your copy this week. It's the last week to also get a copy of one of my mysteries (signed) and a chance to win books for your book club! Click the link on the right and order now.
Three and a half years ago...
Alyssa Johnson walked out of the funky flat where she taught art classes, a sly smile on her face and a little weak in the knees. This was a great day.
She flagged down a cab and left Soho, heading uptown for the big dinner. Alyssa looked at her left hand spreading out her fingers. The four carat emerald cut diamond with a band filled with three rows of smaller diamonds sparkled in the sun. The sparkle from the sunrays bounced off the wet pavement and into the late afternoon air, or maybe it was the diamond itself against her dark skin that made everything glow and shimmer. Alyssa couldn’t believe it. She was really doing it. Getting married! And to the most delicious man in the world. Terrell Henley.
There was one problem though, a secret she’d shoved so far back into the closet that she prayed the skeleton had turned to dust. She closed her eyes and sunk back into the musty smelling cab, the beauty of the day tarnishing. The memories always invaded her right at those moments when she felt the happiest. It was like a dark angel followed her knowing the exact moments when she might need a reminder of what had happened. This dark angel was sure to keep her from ever having total contentment for the rest of her life. That night rushed back to her in a vividness she couldn’t deny. The skeleton had not turned to dust.
She opened her eyes, forcing the images away, but knowing what resulted from that night could somehow, someday, show up in her life. Ironically, almost as if she was being given a message, the sun disappeared behind the clouds again and drops of rain splattered against the windshield. The rhythmic swoosh and glide of the windshield wipers across the glass combined with the driver’s choice in country music helped bring her back to the here and now.
But the memory screamed at her, swirling with a rush of adrenaline. It wasn’t a matter of if her secret would be revealed. But a matter of when. How would she explain herself to the man she planned to exchange vows with in less than three months?
Terrell would understand. He embodied kindness and compassion. He had political aspirations and was planning to run for congress in the next few years. From there, Alyssa knew his plans were even bigger. His dreams and goals only made it that much more pertinent that she tell him her secret.
Tomorrow. Over lunch she would tell Terrell. He deserved to know, but how would he react? She knew he would wonder why she hadn’t told him sooner. Not tonight, though. Tonight was all about the two of them and their engagement. His law partners were throwing a party for them at their favorite restaurant, Jazzman, and when Terrell heard his best friend from childhood, James, and his wife, Olivia, were coming, Alyssa thought she’d never seen him so excited. Terrell planned to ask James to be his best man.
James had spoken with Alyssa on the phone to tell him that he and Olivia would be flying in from New Orleans to join them at the party. She’d never met James, but had heard story after story about him and the bond he and Terrell shared growing up. They hadn’t seen each other in a few years because James and his wife had an ever expanding family, now with five children. Plus they’d moved from the Big Apple to the Big Easy several years ago, where James owned some nightclubs. This was going to be some wedding—old friends, new friends, family. They would have it all.
The cab pulled up in front of the restaurant. Alyssa paid the driver and got out. Terrell wanted to send a car for her, but she wasn’t sure about the timing and insisted on getting a cab. She knew she might be late and, sweet man that he was, he didn’t mind at all. He understood what her art meant to her. And today of all days, the art studio owner had scheduled an appointment with Raul Perez, the owner of The Perez Gallery, wanting to show him some of Alyssa’s oils. He’d been impressed. Now he wanted to host a show at his gallery! She couldn’t wait to tell Terrell. He’d be so happy and proud of her. Everything was perfect. Almost. It would be though. Everything would be fine once she told Terrell her shameful secret.
She opened the door to the restaurant and pushed back the hood on her mink lined coat, leaving the rain behind. The door shut and the outside world was replaced with a vacuum of loud chatter and jazz over the speakers. The smell of food cooking and the blur of people at the full bar made her smile. Terrell had chosen this place because this was where they’d met. Lots of dark woods, glass and mirrors, and dim lights made the place elegant and warm. It was them. So very them from the day they met.
She clearly remembered that day sitting at the bar when Terrell came up next to her. “Anyone sitting here?”
“No.” She didn’t look up from the white wine she’d been nursing.
“Rough day?” he asked.
She nodded. Her grandmother in Italy had passed away. It was expected but, all the same, Alyssa had hoped she’d see her one last time.
“Want to tell me about it?” he asked.
She didn’t answer.
Usually a man asking her about her day offended her. Men in general often offended her and she’d done her best over the years to stay away from them. She forced herself to date off and on and occasionally met a decent guy. But fear always took over and she wouldn’t allow herself to get close to a man.
“I had a rotten day too. Lost a case.” His voice was strong but sincere. “Looks like you could use a refill. Can I buy you a glass of wine?”
She started to glance up, with the word no at the ready, until she saw who she was about to say no to. She stopped glancing and was now looking. Her heart raced. In that second when her eyes met his, she was speechless for a few moments until she finally replied, “That would be nice.”
Terrell introduced himself and pretty much from that moment on the two became inseparable except when at work. He’d done something for her that no other man had been able to. He released demons pent up in her for fifteen years that she didn’t think would ever escape her soul. The demons may have been set free, but the fact of that night and what happened afterwards remained buried. The dark angel didn’t live inside her any longer but it remained watchful.
“Hey baby. There you are.” Terrell made his way toward her through a throng of people and pulled her into him. His lips warm on hers, his body comfortable, his scent familiar; musk and citrus. And those eyes of his were so divine. “How did it go? The meeting with Perez?” He helped her out of her coat.
“I knew it!” He pointed at her. “He’s going to do a show isn’t he?”
“Oh man, oh baby. That is great. Come on in. The usual suspects are here from the office. I’ve been having a nice visit with James and his wife Olivia.”
“Good. They made it then?”
He nodded. “They did. She is as pregnant as can be again and James looks to be matching her pound for pound. This’ll be number six. Six kids! Can you believe that? I told him he better get fixed and then he’ll have to go on the post pregnancy diet with his wife. Back in the day there wasn’t an ounce of fat on that guy. Guess that’s what marriage will do to you.” He winked.
“It better not.” She wrapped an arm around his waist and snuggled in close. “I like you exactly the way you are.”
“That’s a good thing, because that’s what you’re getting.”
They walked into the back room reserved for large parties where many of their friends and Terrell’s colleagues were having their fill of food and drink. Olivia was easy to spot. Pregnancy became the woman, who tried to stand as Alyssa and Terrell walked in.
“Please don’t,” Alyssa said. “You don’t need to get up.”
Olivia glowed like all pregnant women did, but this one had an extra glow. She had the same color skin as Alyssa did—caramel. That’s what Alyssa’s Italian mother called her—her ‘carmella la vida.’ When kids at school teased her and called her an Oreo, her mother said to her. “No, you’re not. You’re much sweeter than an Oreo. You are a caramel. And caramel is the sweetest of all.” She loved her mom for trying to understand and help her. Her father told her to ignore ignorance. That’s what he’d done all of his life.
Olivia’s black hair cascaded down her back and her smile said it all; she looked to be as sweet as the caramel Alyssa’s mama spoke of and a woman who Alyssa liked instantly.
Olivia quickly introduced herself. “My husband will be back in a minute. He’s so darling. I’m feeling cold and usually I run hot. Obvious by my condition, I guess.” She laughed. “He insisted on running out and grabbing a shawl for me. He took Terrell’s car to Bergdorf’s to buy one.”
“Does sound like a good man,” Alyssa said, and slid in next to her.
“You got one, too,” Olivia replied.
Terrell beamed. “I’m the lucky one.” He reached across the table and took Alyssa’s hand.
“Terrell tells me that you’re an amazing artist,” Olivia said.
Before Alyssa could say anything, Terrell jumped in and told her, along with anyone else at the table who’d listen, all about Alyssa’s artwork. “It’s amazing stuff. Brilliant. My baby is brilliant. You’ll all have to come to the show. She does these oil pieces of vineyards and wine related themes.”
“Vineyards?” Olivia asked. “What made you choose that motif?”
“My mother grew up in Tuscany. My grandparents had a small vineyard there. My parents live there now and take care of the property. And my grandfather is pretty frail these days. I haven’t been back for a while. About three years, or so, but Terrell and I are going to visit for the holidays next year.”
Terrell smiled at her.
“That’s wonderful. I’d love to see your work,” Olivia replied.
“I have some pieces in my apartment,” Terrell said.
“Great. Can’t wait to see them,” Olivia remarked.
The waiter arrived with more wine and drinks for the table. As he finished pouring Alyssa’s glass, he moved back and she caught sight of a man out of the corner of her eye. She did a double take. A fog filled the room and Alyssa’s stomach sank. There was laughter, chatter, glasses clinking, people happy, but all she could hear was her blood racing through her ears trying to drown out anything and everything around her. The room seemed to spin and a wave of dizziness wrapped around her. She blinked. Twice. The fog dissipated and clarity set in.
The man headed straight for the table. Terrell smiled. Alyssa’s throat closed. She tried to swallow. He had a Bergdorf Goodman bag. James. He’d called himself Jimmy back then. Twenty pounds heavier, but it was still him. Alyssa’s hands started to sweat. Her vision blurred again. Her mouth totally dry. He faced her and reached his hand out to shake hers. Did he not recognize her? He really didn’t seem to. She looked at his wife, glittery and amazingly beautiful. James handed Olivia the bag. He removed his hand from Alyssa’s. A deep burn ran from her palm all the way up her shoulder and she tried to find words.
“This must be your beautiful fiancée,” James/Jimmy said. “She’s even more beautiful than you said, brother.”
“She is amazing.” Terrell looked at her oddly.
He was wondering what was wrong with her. He knew her too well. He was reading her.
She had to say something.
She forced a smile. “Thank you.” It was all she could say, knowing that the skeleton was out of the closet.