Sneak peek at The Winter Date

(The First Four Chapters)

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Chapter 1  

December 16

“Wake up, pretty lady,” my best friend said cheerfully in his deep voice.

“Why are you so loud?” I squinted trying to see the time on my cell, wishing I hadn’t fell asleep with my buds in my ear. “Chad, I have at least thirty more minutes of sleep. You’re tripping. I’ll see you at school.”

“Stop sleeping with those damn buds in your ear.” Before I could click, he stopped me. “Hold up before you hang up.  We had plans this morning.”

I searched my oft scattered brain since my break-up to my boyfriend of ten years and turned over in my bed.  I groaned. “We were supposed to exercise. I’m sorry. I was up all night with Autumn trying to cheer her up. She’s still upset and depressed because she broke up with her boyfriend.”

“You mean Baby Bear is still depressed about this said fellow? What has the world come to?”

I could hear the surprise in his voice. I couldn’t blame him. My little sister was notorious for eschewing relationships and breaking hearts much like my older sister Spring.  I was the only one of  four sisters who loved being in a relationship and felt empty without one.

“Yep, she fell for that guy roommate I told you about and she won’t tell me what happened. She showed up at my doorstep and asked to stay with me because she didn’t want to be around my mother. She swears it’s because she doesn’t want to see my mother mope about my father, which Mama really hasn’t done in a few years. Thank you very much.” I rubbed my eyes.  “I think it’s because she doesn’t want to have to explain what happened between Quincy and her because my mother is relentless when it comes to finding out the truth.”

“What do you think happened?”

“Who knows? They were so in love just Thanksgiving.  And I don’t know if I can continue to deal with Autumn and her dramatics, especially because she won’t tell me what happened.  I’m already fighting off sadness, I don’t think I have it in me to keep her spirits up too.  This is supposed to be the happiest time of the year and all I want to do is hibernate until January.”

         Chad admonished, “Hey…hey. Stop all that. You’ve always loved Christmas and it’s not going to stop just because Jared is an asshole. You already let him steal your joy this summer. It was supposed to be a Hot Girl Summer and now we have to settle for a ‘snow thot’ Christmas.”

I giggled. “You are certifiable.”  

Chad said, “Anything to hear you laugh or see you smile. I know it’s been rough, but I promise, you and I are going to have the best holiday.”

I snuggled under my comforter deeper. “Maybe if I didn’t have my class reunion next week, I would.  I don’t know if I want to go. I mean who does a ‘meet and greet’ during the Christmas holidays? Why can’t my class do whatever everyone else does and mess up Memorial Day weekend?”

“It wouldn’t matter when it happened, Winter. You’re afraid to see Jared. Maybe it’s finally time for closure between you too. Go and see for yourself that he’s moved on.” Chad gently said, “It’s been months and he’s not coming back.”

I covered my head with my pillow, hating his gentle reminder. “You don’t think I know that? I’m trying to get over him.”

He responded, “And I keep telling you, the best way to get over him is to get under someone else. I know your sisters have told you the same thing. Men have always been after you but all you ever cared about was Jared. Give someone else a chance, Winter.”

The mere thought of another man besides Jared still made me cringe. “Ugh.”

Chad laughed. “Guess, I won’t suggest Mario.”

“Double ugh. I thought you loved me. Why would you ever set me up with him?”

“Because he’s the only friend I would ever suggest you date. Yeah, he’s looked like he’s fifty since he was a teenager but he’s one of the good ones. The rest of them are out there bad.”

I snorted. “I’m speaking with the ringleader.”

My best friend was handsome, had a sexy body, could charm the coldest heart, and genuinely was one of the sweetest men I’d ever known – until you wanted commitment. 

“Nonsense. I’m just enjoying being a young single black professional. My boys lie to the women. At least I’m honest.”

“Honest? That’s what we’re calling it these days? Lucky, I peeped you when I first met you or I would’ve been hung up on you too.”

“Peeped me? You trying to say I run game?”

“Chad, please.” I laughed loudly. “Are you kidding me? All the time.”

“How so?”

I checked the bedside clock. “We really need to get up. We’re going to be late.”

“You mean you’re going to be late. I did my morning workout and will be at school in about ten minutes. Just because your ass can’t get up doesn’t mean I didn’t.”

“Shit.” I threw off my covers and adjusted my wireless buds. “Why didn’t you tell me you were

already out of the house?”

“It doesn’t sound like I’m in the car to you?”

I listened and heard traffic sounds. “Bye.”

“Wait, get dressed while you talk to me. You never told me that you would’ve been hung up on me. I assumed Jared had rendered you blind to any man.”

In some respects, that was true.  Jared had me completely and totally hooked on him. He’d been my first in everything.  We were high school sweethearts and I’d never even looked at another man, until Chad Turner walked in my Educational Psychology class at Prairie View that first day of my Junior year.  Chad, a basketball player like Jared, had the attention of all the girls in my class with his athletic body, his caramel colored complexion courtesy of his Louisiana heritage though he’d been born in California. To add insult to women everywhere he had the nerve to have dimples that flashed at the simplest provocation.  Admittedly he’d caught my eye too, especially when he’d chosen the seat next to me, smelling good with some masculine cologne that drew me to him like honey to a bee and smiled.  “Hey, pretty lady.”

“Winter you still there?” Chad asked interrupting my thoughts. “Tell me how you knew I ran game back then.”

“I watched you that semester with the other women in the class. I could tell you played the nice guy completely unaware of your effect on the ladies, though we both know you totally did.  Even back then you treated any woman you dated well, like she’s the only one – almost like a girlfriend, so they would get attached and then all they want is you. And the minute she demanded more, you would remind her that you never wanted anything serious. And it’s hard for them to be pissed when you’ve never made them any promises.”

“That’s not a game. My mother taught me to treat women with respect period. It didn’t matter if all I wanted was sex.  If I took you out, you were going to have a good time. And I don’t have time for lying when I’ve learned I get my way more with honesty.”

“Exactly, you learned that you can get what you want from women by making yourself the nice guy who just isn’t ready. You’re still the same with women, now. Get them hooked, got them believing that if they hold on long enough you’ll change your mind, knowing you don’t want commitment.”

“Back then I didn’t want it. Now, I wouldn’t mind. Just haven’t been with the right

one yet.”

I hurried to my walk-in closet, pulled off my satin nightie, and grabbed a wrinkle free dress from the hanger and headed back into my bedroom. “Did you forget, you’re not talking to one of your women?”

“Seriously, Winter. Maybe it’s time for me to settle down.”

“Why?”

         “Why not?”

“I guess if you ready for a relationship, then go for it. I just think you’d have a hard time ignoring all the ass that gets thrown at you.”

“For the right woman, only her ass matters.”

I laughed again. “You’re stupid.”

“Back to your crush on me.” Chad insisted, “So, you’re telling me if I played my cards right, you would have dumped Jared for me?”

“Ain’t nobody saying all that.” I quickly stepped in the dress up to my waist and opened the drawer and pulled out a bra before speaking loudly, “You know I was knee deep in Jared at that time.”

“Exactly, so to hear that you even noticed me, is a complete shocker.  Maybe I would have tried harder if I’d known.”

         I snapped the front clasp of my bra and thought back to our time in college.  “I don’t recall you trying at all.”

“Sitting next to you every class period, always finding an excuse to borrow a pencil, book, or even cheat on your test when we both know I was smarter. I even faked car trouble to get you to bring me home. Any other woman would have known I’d liked you back then.”

I finished donning my dress. “I remember that day because I had a banquet with the Honors Society that night. I had a lot to do but you gave me those puppy dog brown eyes begging me to drop you off though you lived on the other side of town from me.  But you didn’t try anything. I brought you home, you got out the car and thanked me.”

“That’s because the whole ride, I kept trying to work up the nerve to tell you I liked you. You just seemed annoyed that I asked you in the first place and in such a rush, I didn’t say anything. I accepted after a while you just weren’t attracted to me that way and settled for friendship. ”

Enraptured with his story, I planted myself on the edge of my bed.  Chad never seemed nervous around me, ever. He was always confident, even a little cocky. “I never knew that. I just thought you saw me as a friend like you do now.”

Chad lowered his voice. “If it was my choice, we wouldn’t have been just friends.”

Suddenly uncomfortable with the turn in conversation, I asked, “Why are we even discussing the

past?”

“Because I’m just hearing that you liked me, something I wished I knew then…you need to keep

   moving, times ticking.”

I checked my phone on the nightstand to make sure he wasn’t face timing me.  “I didn’t say I liked you.” 

“I think saying you would’ve been hung up on me is actually more than like.”

Retrieving my comfy black pumps from under the bed, I slipped them on each foot. “My point was that I knew you weren’t to be taken seriously then just like now. And even if we did date back then, you and I wouldn’t be the friends we’ve been.  In fact, we probably wouldn’t have even spoken after college. With your wild mannish ways, I’d would have been heart-broken.”

“Or we would be happily married, and I would be waking up to you every morning instead of talking to you by phone,” he quipped softly.  

I rubbed my suddenly nervous stomach wondering why his last statement hit me hard. 

Once the butterflies and thrill of seeing him in class went away, I’d let my guard down and allowed myself to get to know Chad, who proved to be a good study partner and then a friend.  I believed in being faithful and though Jared had had a problem with it once we got to college, I still couldn’t act on my crush towards Chad.  

At the time, I’d met Chad I’d just found out Jared had cheated with a cheerleader who made it a point to approach me and gloat.  I pretended to know that he’d told me, and we were working on our relationship instead of beating both her and Jared’s ass, which was Spring, my older sister’s suggestion when I told her about it later.  I’d confronted him and Jared tried to lie but couldn’t. He’d apologized profusely, but I was too hurt and embarrassed at the time to forgive. We’d been broken up for a month when I’d met Chad, which was probably the only reason I’d even noticed him enough to be attracted.       

“Whatever.” I found my words again and rose up from the bed.  “You know you love women too much to ever be with just one.”

“All I can say is that if one Winter Locke ever gave me a chance back in the day, I might have been a changed man.”

I walked into the bathroom and was startled by my flushed reflection.  My own light brown complexion looked surprisingly luminous and not dull as it had been since Jared walked out of my life.  I took off my satin pink bonnet and fluffed out my naturally curly brown with blonde highlighted hair.  Even my cupid bowed lips seemed fuller just from our conversation about the possibility of an us.  Chad and I had always been open with one another, including how much we both enjoyed sex.  Yes, he would flirt with me from time to time but that was a part of his charm.  Chad had never crossed the line and neither had I. 

I hadn’t crushed on Chad since college, though he admittedly grew more handsome over the years.  Once Jared and I’d reconciled two months later, I’d only considered Chad a good friend.  After graduation, we were hired to teach at the same elementary school, and we became the best of friends. I’d never had close girlfriends because I’d helped my mother raise my youngest sister, Autumn once our parents divorced when I was ten and she was five years old. And when I was sixteen, Jared Anthony, the most popular boy in high school set his heart on me, and all that mattered was him. 

I’d always enjoyed my friendship with Chad, and it was refreshing to have a male perspective on some of Jared’s behavior and he would seek my advice about the women he’d dated.  Jared never liked that Chad and I were friends.  So, we mostly hid our friendship from him and would only spend time during the school day, occasional happy hour with other colleagues, and at my family events, Chad always brought a date.  We’d become closer once Jared ended our engagement the day after Valentine’s Day and two months before our wedding. The fairytale wedding full of pink and frills that I’d always dreamed of which cost me and my father money we were unable to recoup.

“Winter? Hello? You still there?”

“Yeah, I’m here,” I half-heartedly responded lost in the past.  Since Jared ended our engagement without any real explanation and moved out of our shared townhome, Chad had been there for me. Even spending the night on my sofa or offering his place whenever I was scared to be alone after being used to Jared’s presence.  Chad suggested moving out of the townhome and starting fresh in my own apartment to begin new memories.  When I told Jared my intentions to find my own place, he’d been pissed because the home was only in his name and he’d wanted me to finish out the lease.  I’d almost relented until Chad advised I didn’t owe Jared anything since it was his decision to disrupt our lives and he should have to pay the consequences.

Chad said, “If I’d known you were attracted to me, I would’ve pursued you until you were mine.”

My hand holding the phone shook slightly, wary of this Chad – the one who never had a problem with getting any woman he wanted.  “Well, I need to get off this phone and brush my teeth if I’m going to make it in on time.”

He simply chuckled. “Yep, scared of me.”

I began picking out my curls with my fingers in the mirror bristling at his slight taunt. “What do I have to be scared of?”

“That I’m the one for you.”

Afraid of the unexpected want in my expression from his words, I turned away from my reflection. “What are you talking about? What does that even mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean. But now is not the time to tell you something that you already know deep down and I don’t want it to be awkward between us.” Chad paused and when he spoke again, I could hear a tinge of sadness,  “I’d rather have you as my best friend than not be in your world, which is where we would be headed if we keep talking like this because I know you. And you’re probably still standing in front of the mirror, needing to wash the sleep out your eyes and use that mouthwash like twice. You had Italian last night. Bye.”

Something in his tone, made me want to comfort him. “Wait. Don’t get off the phone.”

All I heard was silence.  I stared at my cell fearing he was right about everything he’d just said.

*****

I knocked on my guest room door and opened it when I didn’t hear an answer. Autumn, my youngest sister, was home from college. She was completely covered up by the comforter and pillows. I sat down on the bed and gently shook her shoulders.  “Wake up.”

She grunted and moved into an even tighter ball.

“Look, I’m on my way to work and I might be home late. I’m expecting a delivery this afternoon. Please be so kindly to wake up long enough to pick it up from the front door before someone steals. The rental office isn’t taking any more packages. And I’m picking up Bella to stay with us tomorrow. You have to get it together before she gets here.  She can’t see her favorite Auti like this. ” Summer, my oldest sister, who was a pediatrician and a single mother, wanted Autumn and I to keep her eleven-year daughter during a part of the holidays.

Autumn mumbled from under the sheets, “I know.”

I leaned over and hugged the blob she made under the sheets. “Auti, it’s going to be alright.”

She lifted the comforter enough for me to see the top of her tousled hair and her swollen brown eyes. “God, I hope so. I’m never falling in love again.  This shit hurts.”

“It does, but love is so worth the pain.” I kissed her forehead realizing that for the first time in a long time, I didn’t wake up with a heavy heart and a throbbing ache in my head. I smiled feeling suddenly hopeful. “Trust me, it will pass.”

Chapter 2

December 18

“Luca remember to raise your hand,” I reminded one of my wayward fourth graders as we prepared for our holiday show in the auditorium.

“Okay, Ms. Locke,” he hurried back to his place in the chorus. Luca, an adorable rascal with a high-top fade and chubby cheeks, raised his hand. “Can I use the restroom?”

I sighed knowing that he loved to roam the halls, and with Christmas break in a few days, I didn’t care. “Yes. Take the pass and come right back.”

I checked the clock grateful that my day would be over soon. Our holiday reunion would be this Sunday and I still contemplated attending. I couldn’t believe it had been ten years since I graduated. I loved high school or maybe I just loved Jared so much.  He had been Varsity guard since he was a sophomore and the most popular boy at my school. So, when he asked me out our junior year determined to make me his girlfriend, I couldn’t be happier.  He was all I’d known since I was sixteen and I didn’t know if the reunion and seeing him would set me back emotionally or make him realize he still wants to be with me. And what I would do, if he wanted me back.

Fifteen minutes later as we wrapped up an offbeat, yet endearing version of Jingle Bells on the stage, Luca came back wearing a serious scowl accompanied by Chad, otherwise known as the Assistant Principal, Mr. Turner. “This one here was busy in the gym being the next LeBron when he’s supposed to be here with you. My Christmas gift to him is a walk back to you instead of detention.”

I reached down for the pass and Luca reluctantly gave it to me.  “You do know from now on you make sure you use the restroom at lunch and at PE because you’re not getting a pass from me again. This was your last chance.”

“But what if I really have to pee?” Luca whined and reached to cup himself.

Chad frowned. “Step back this way with me for another minute.” He led the way and Luca walked slowly behind him sensing he was in trouble again.  The students, especially the boys hated disappointing Mr. Turner.  He was a good role model for them and took the time to teach them how to be respectable young men. Everyone knew he was a high school and college basketball star and had an older brother who played for the NFL.  Chad also made sure he talked about his academic accolades and that he made the choice to work with children when he had other more lucrative options.

I studied him as he spoke with Luca toward the back of the auditorium, thinking about our conversation the other morning. God, it would be so easy to love him.  We’d always gotten along so well, and there were moments in which I found him sexy.  He loved educating children like I did, whereas Jared tolerated that I wanted to be and planned to retire as an educator.  Chad dressed stylish with ease and he wore his dark brown hair textured on top, faded on the sides, his beard and mustache were always groomed.  His attire comprising of khakis, a button-down brown shirt, and red striped tie, fit his lean yet muscular frame well.  All the women teachers, including our female principal fawned over him. Most of the staff thought we were a couple because we usually ate lunch and would leave work together, especially after Jared moved out of our home last school year.  His normally pleasant, handsome face appeared stern as he probably lectured Luca about appropriate behavior in public, especially in front of girls and women. 

“Ms. Locke?” 

Pre-occupied with thoughts of Chad, my attention remained toward the back of the auditorium. “Huh?”

“Ms. Locke?”

“Yes?”

“While we wait for our turn, can I play on my cell?”

I dragged my eyes away from my best friend and addressed Malaya, a pretty girl, hair twisted into two long French braids, who’d walked to the stage. She would be singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, along with the second group of children from my class and they were sitting in the front row.  “Mr. Turner is right there, and you know if he sees it, he’s taking it. So, let’s wait until he goes back to his office.” The school had a strict policy on cell phones and students were not allowed to bring them to school. With all the school violence and shootings many parents wanted to be able to get in touch with their children at any time. I didn’t blame them and in my classroom, it was an unspoken rule that if any student finished their assignment early, they could use their cell. Off the record, Chad agreed. As Assistant Principal he had to enforce school and district policy and he was now striding back toward me. “Malaya, quick, put it away, he’s headed this way.”

I started walking down the stairs to the stage to meet him at the bottom as Luca went to sit on the front row. “What did you tell him?”

He moved to the side of the stairs before speaking, “I told him that he was a young man and young men don’t hold themselves, especially in public. I also reminded him that he was a natural born leader and that others would follow his actions right or wrong.”

“Good job, Mr. Turner…oh!” I missed the last step and fell forward.

Into Chad’s strong arms.

He caught me with a smile, my face inches from his. “Got you.”

Our eyes met and his drifted to my mouth.

“Ooh, Mr. Turner about to kiss Ms. Locke.”

I blushed on the accuracy of her words.

He helped me regain my footing and took a step back. “I certainly am.” Chad then kissed my cheek and said to Malaya, “She’s my best friend.”

Mrs. Temple, one of the other fourth- grade teachers, and my co-lead on the Christmas show, commented, “Well, my best friend doesn’t look or kiss like Mr. Turner.”

Malaya giggled. “Mine doesn’t either.”

I walked toward my grinning students waiting in the front row, confused by the warmth that coursed through my body from a simple kiss on the cheek. “Come on group two, you’re next.”

Chad waved to my students and headed in the opposite direction.

*****

During our last staff meeting for the year, Chad led in absence of Dr. Costas, our principal, who had the flu.  Most of the teaching staff congregated around the long table in the lounge, while the other teachers sat in chairs or on the two sofas near the table.  He’d already reviewed the old agenda items and his focus had turned to the discipline in the school. “I know our students can be tough, but we will not call the police under any circumstances.”

Ms. Smith, one of the older first-grade teachers argued, “I disagree. These children don’t care if they hurt you and many lack respect for authority. We need to do whatever we need to do and protect our jobs. We can’t touch them, so what else are we supposed to do?”

“Most of our students are black and we have to think about how images are lasting. Have you ever heard or seen a news report detailing how a white child had to be arrested due to out of control behavior in the classroom? I refuse to believe that our children are the only ones who have behavioral issues and need to be contained by the law. If there’s a child acting up in the classroom, first you need to try to defuse the situation yourself with redirection and not get into a power struggle. If that doesn’t work, ask your student helper to go to the main office and let one of the admin staff know. We can come and assist.”

“What if you’re busy? You and Coach Leslie are the only men they’ll listen to.”

 Coach Howard, an older gentleman, protested, “Hey.”

Mr. Henderson, a fifth-grade teacher, raised his hand in objection.

Ms. Smith rolled her eyes. “Whatever, Coach, you’re ready for retirement and these students know it.” She looked pointedly at Mr. Henderson.  “And I don’t think I need to say why they don’t listen to you.” Chad and I met eyes and I warned him with mine to not laugh as the rest of the room snickered.  Mr. Henderson was a frail tall man who seemed better suited for a computer job where he wouldn’t have to deal with the public.  His practically tween students routinely ran over him daily and Chad had to intervene several times a week.  We needed more strong male teachers and admin staff as most schools throughout the country.

“Even if I’m busy, my admin assistant knows the key staff to engage. Bottom line if any one of you contacts the police without authorization from the main office, you will risk suspension.”

The room went into an uproar. With grumblings and protests of teachers have rights too and it’s unfair.

“Enough!” Chad raised his voice, a rarity given his usual calm demeanor. “If you have any issues with what I just said, we can meet one on one and when she returns in the new year, feel free to speak with Dr. Costas.” The teachers settled quickly because as affable as he could be, he was still the boss.

Ms. Warner, a kindergarten teacher, spoke, “That’s unfair, Mr. Turner. You expect us to put up with kids who bite, hit, curse, and spit with no recourse.”

I intervened. “There is recourse.  Mr. Turner just gave us instructions on what we should do if one of our students has a bad moment. And we spent two days learning behavioral management in the classroom and simple effective holding protective strategies before the school year started.”

She retorted, “Of course, you would defend him.”

I had to bite my tongue to avoid blasting that she was just hurt because she’d been rebuffed by Chad when she rested her ample breasts against his back while he demonstrated a lesson plan on her computer in her classroom after school last year.

 I ignored the looks and under the breath comments of my colleagues who also believed that Chad and I dated and that I wasn’t one of them because of it. “I’m not defending him.  I completely agree with Mr. Turner that we should never call the police on our students.  We’re teaching children, most of whom we can just hold in our arms until they calm down.  If they were middle school or high school students I may feel different, but we teach children who are four to eleven years old.  All a police officer will do is traumatize not only the child being handled by the police but the impressionable minds of the other students who witness it.  Stop looking at our children as the enemy and look at them as children who may not have had the proper guidance that we did. Let’s be the influences some of their parents aren’t.”     

Coach Howard waved his hand dismissively. “You’re still young and idealistic. You believe that what we do really matters.”  

I glared across the table at the older man, who barely instructed or disciplined. “And maybe it’s time for you to retire if you’re so jaded you can’t see that we do matter even it’s just to one child.  In fact, if anyone in here doesn’t believe that we have an influence on our children, you should quit.  Our children don’t need us to give up on them too.  And I guarantee you that students like Luca Brown will grow up to be a better man because of Mr. Turner.”

While I took deep breaths to calm, the room became so silent I could hear a pin drop.

Chad cleared his throat. “Look, everyone it’s the holidays and we have a party room reserved at O’Malley’s and maybe a few drinks and good food will help all of us loosen up and remember we’re all a team. We can table this discussion to the next meeting.  The policy doesn’t take in effect until the beginning of February, so we have time to question and understand what’s expected. I hope to see everyone at the party.”

I returned to my classroom, angry at myself that I let Coach Howard get under my skin.  I placed my head on my desk, wondering if I was up to mingling with my co-workers who only seemed to want to get close to me to see if Chad and I were really a couple.  My door opened and I didn’t even lift my head, knowing who walked into my class.

“Lift your head up, pretty lady. You did good in there. He needed to hear what you said, they all did. You and I may be one of the youngest staff here, but it doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re talking about.”

I propped my chin on my arms and looked at Chad who perched on the edge of my student’s desk across from me. “I know that, but it gets frustrating sometimes that I work with people who don’t feel like you and I do. Anytime I back you up it’s because we have a ‘thing’ and not what I truly believe. I don’t know Chad, maybe we shouldn’t spend so much time together at school. There’s a reason we both said we wouldn’t date co-workers and even though we’re not, to everyone else it appears that we are.”

“Forget what everyone else thinks. You and I are friends and if you were a dude or I was a woman, no one would say anything.”

“But you’re not a woman and I’m not a man.”

Chad sighed loudly. “Thank God for that.”

“Come on, Chad. These teachers think you and I have something going on and it’s like they pit me with admin staff and not one of them.”

“Don’t get caught up in that ‘us vs them’ nonsense. I’m working hard to stop this stupid division between the teachers and the administration. I used to teach and so did Dr. Costas. I just got this job this year, give me more time and we’ll be more united. This party that I’m paying for out of my pocket is toward that endeavor.  As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care what anyone thinks about you and me.  And if I’m speaking as Chad and not Mr. Turner then I really don’t give a fuck and you shouldn’t either.”

I laughed as I sat up. “Yeah, yeah. You’re right. Though I’m pretty sure my statement that Coach needs to retire, and all the naysayers need to quit, just made me the most popular person at Little Woods.”

He smiled. “A few tequila shots and everyone will forget anything you said.”

“Add a few lemon drop shots and I’m there.”

Chad stood and my gaze traveled his firm body to his amused grin. “Um…Winter, you good?”

I ducked my head, embarrassed he caught me ogling him. “Yep. I’ll meet you at O’Malley’s and please have a drink waiting on me.”

“Nope, we’re riding together. I took my car during my break to get an oil change and I have a leak in my power wheel steering.  They kept my car, so I need a ride to the party. Meet you at the front.”

I called after him, “Just keep the rumors going why don’t you?”

It wasn’t until after I gathered my belongings and left my classroom, I wondered if Chad had once again devised a story about car trouble to ride with me. 

Chapter Three

The Christmas party for the staff away from the school was an excellent idea.  O’Malley’s had a live band that played whatever the crowd requested.  We had absolved our differences- at least temporarily- with plenty of food and alcohol.  The female teachers were all over Chad and he remained on the dance floor with a drink in his hand.  Coach Leslie, a friendly colleague, who I’d always wanted to match make with Summer, asked me to dance.  We moved to a couple of songs and when he hinted at getting together over the break, I politely declined saying I didn’t think it would be a good idea.  I then excused myself to sit in an empty booth in our reserved section nursing a chardonnay. As I watched my colleagues, including Coach Leslie, laugh and dance.  I texted Autumn.

Just checking on you and Bella. Still at work party.

I smelled his recognizable citrusy scent before I felt his presence.

“Leslie finally made his move, huh?” he asked too near my ear for my comfort and I nudged his chin with my hand.

“What?”

I frowned. “You’re too close to me. I don’t want others to talk.”

He moved his head, but his shoulder still touched mine. “I’m no closer to you than you were to Leslie on the dance floor. In fact, you were closer.”

“That’s different. And he’s too old for me.”

“He’s thirty-five.”

“And I’m almost twenty-seven.”

“Yet, you let him dance up on you.”

“We were having fun.”

Chad dimpled at me. “Have fun with me.”

I shrugged with one shoulder. “We always have fun.”

“Not tonight, we haven’t.” He took a sip of his vodka and cranberry. “Or maybe I make you too nervous to dance with me.”

“Since when do you make me nervous? I’m always chill around you.”

He observed. “Not tonight…dance with me.”

“Not a good idea. They already think we date.”

“Winter, we’re at a party off school grounds. Everyone is lit or headed that way. I’ve been groped by three different teachers and even Mr. Henderson is giving me the eye. If they believe I’m with you…tonight they don’t give a fuck.”

“No.” I couldn’t dance with him, especially now that I’d started crushing on him again. Sensing he wanted to kiss me in the auditorium and watching him take command of an unruly group of people who were mostly older than him, was downright sexy.  Chad did make me nervous and for the life of me I couldn’t understand the shift in my feelings. Maybe the conversation we had about the possibility of us and that it was the holidays messed with my mind.

“I still need that ride home.”

“Then that looks like we’re leaving together because I guarantee one of these teachers is going to stay as long as possible to try to take you home tonight. Get one of them to take you.”

Chad said, “Exactly why I need you to take me home. Save me and them an embarrassing rejection once we get to my house. And no one is going to wait around if you’re still here with me.”

I said crisply, “Fine. It’s already after nine and we do have to teach in the morning. Wrap it up.”

Chad left the booth annoyed and headed toward the manager.

I checked my cell and still no response from Autumn. 

She answered after two rings, “Hello.”

“Why didn’t you answer my texts?”

“I’ve been asleep. The phone woke me up. Bella and I stayed up late last night and she fell asleep early tonight.”

“You okay?”

“I guess. You got another package. Is it for Christmas?”

“Yes. So, don’t be nosy.”

“I could care less about what you bought. I’m not that kid anymore trying to sneak and look for gifts through the house.”

“I do believe it was just last year, you went through Mama’s closet seeing if she bought you that Coach satchel.”

“Well that was last year, now I don’t have anything to look forward to. I just miss Quincy.”

 “I know you do. I’ll be home soon and maybe you can finally tell me what he did that was so bad, you broke up with him.  Maybe you can work it out. You were just with him for Thanksgiving all happy in Orlando.”

She retorted, “I don’t really want to talk about that.”

I took a deep breath, reminding myself her sharp tone had nothing to do with me. Autumn had never experienced a heartbreak and she was taking it harder than I’m imagined she would.  She had to have loved her boyfriend, more than she told us.  “Do you regret being with him? Can you answer that?”

She answered quickly, “No…as bad as it hurts, and that I miss our friendship the most, I’m glad I took your advice. It was amazing while it lasted.”

“Yeah. I did tell you to sleep with him, didn’t I?” I smiled searching for Chad’s handsome face in the dwindling crowd wondering if we had sex, would I regret it or feel like Autumn that it was worth it, even if I lost him in the end? “I’ll see you soon and bring you some nachos.”

“Sounds heavenly. Wake me up when you get here.”

I hung up my phone as Chad approached.

“I told the manager to settle the bill and everyone else that now anything they eat, or drink would be on them. You ready?”

“Yeah, just need to order some nachos to go for Auti.”

Chad sat across from me, signaled for the waiter for our area and placed my order.

I tapped the table. “Can we talk a minute?”

His forehead wrinkled. “I’m not liking your tone.”

“It’s nothing bad. I want to thank you for being my friend.”

Chad looked skeptical. “What are you thanking me for?”

“I already lost Jared and I don’t know what I would do without you.”

“Why are you talking like you’re losing me too? I’m not going anywhere.”

“You could if you and I don’t work out.”

“Work out? Like in date?” Chad leaned forward. “No matter what happens between us, you’re stuck with me for life. You do know that, right?”

“You say that now, but what if we…” I quickly looked around and whispered, “had sex.”

His eyes brightened and he looked around too and spoke quietly, “Are you thinking about having sex with me?”

“No…I mean I haven’t exactly pictured us, but I have thought about ‘what if’ lately.”

“And?”

“And, all I can think of is our friendship ending and I can’t risk that. You mean too much to me to throw it all away for one night of passion.”

Chad slid smoothly around right next to me and kissed my neck. “It wouldn’t be just one night.” He then moved away and out of the booth and looked back down at me. “Let me know when you’re ready.”

Neck tingling from where his lips touched, I watched him go back to the bar and wondered if I would ever be ready for him.

*****

When I arrived at his lovely, picturesque ranch-style four-bedroom home already beautifully decorated with blinking white lights, Chad had fallen asleep. I watched him rest, smiling at his alcohol-induced snore, as the Christmas lights shone through my windshield.  I knew him so well as my friend, but as a lover was a different story.  He had nice lips, fuller on the bottom.  Would I even like the way he kissed? I touched my neck. Yes, I would.  

Chad slowly opened his eyes. “I’m home already?”

“Yes.”

“You want to come inside and have some hot chocolate. I got those marshmallows you like.”

“Mm… sounds good. Raincheck. It’s late.”

“So what? We have Christmas break soon, you’re not really teaching now. And you can sleep all you want in a couple of days.”

I reminded him. “I do have nachos for Autumn.”

He tapped the glove compartment in front of him. “Forgot about that.”

“Yes, and they probably already cold in this weather.”

“Yeah, I’d better get inside,” Chad said but didn’t make a move to get out the car. “What kind of man you want?”

“You’re asking me this right now? Chad, it’s late. I do have to get up early and deal with children hyped up on sugar and the anticipation of Christmas. I just told you, the nachos for my sister are getting cold and I need to go.”

He responded, “In the time you took to say all that, you could have answered my question.”

I couldn’t argue his valid point.  “I never thought about it seriously because I was supposed to be with Jared forever.

His head fell back against the leather rest. “It’s been months now, Winter. And you haven’t even thought of what you want or don’t want next? You were used to waking up to someone, having someone check for you, be there for you. I know you want that again.  Do you think Jared is the only man who can do that for you? I mean do you plan to be alone for the rest of your life?”

“No, I don’t want to be alone anymore period. Every morning I wake up, either my temples are throbbing or my whole body feels heavy. I guess I’ll believe I’m ready for the next man when that awful feeling goes away.”

“Do you feel like that all day or just in the morning?”

“When he first left me, it was all day. Now, it’s just when I wake up.”

“So as long as your mind is busy then you don’t think about him? Because when you and I are together you seem good. Not at first, of course, but I see you smile and laugh more, and I can see you’re healing whether you believe it or not.”

Looking at Chad, with his bright eyes and enchanting grin, I poked the dimple in his right cheek.  He’d been such a good friend to me these last few months. “Sometimes I wish that day when you sat next to me in class that I wasn’t in love with Jared.”

“Why?” he asked quietly.

“I’m almost twenty-seven years old and I can’t even answer a simple question like what I want in a man.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Maybe if I gave you a chance back then, I wouldn’t have gone back to Jared. And when you and I ended things, I would have had at least some experience with another man. Hell, even my baby sister had more action by the time she was twenty than my whole life.” I clasped my hands together, feeling embarrassed even in front of him. “I don’t know how to date, Chad.”

Chad lifted his head. “That’s why you’ve never given anyone else a chance?”

“Partially.”

He clapped his hands loudly and I looked up at him. “I’m going to take you out on a date…show you how it’s done.”

“Show me?”

“Yes. This weekend.”

“Sunday is my reunion meet and greet party.”

“Then this weekend is perfect because on Saturday we’ll spend the day together and then by Sunday you’ll be ready to waltz in there and date any man whose been crushing on you since high school.”

“Is that the point or to make Jared realize he made the biggest mistake of his life?”

“Why not both? He’s used to the wallflower Winter, not the vivacious, witty, intelligent, strong, sexy woman I see every day. You were different around him,” he said the last part quietly.

“I wasn’t always.”

“I know.”

I had become more passive the longer Jared and I were together, giving in to Jared even when I disagreed. “His ego grew and we both changed. He used to care about making me happy and my opinions and he just stopped.”

“Because you didn’t require it.”

“That’s a cop out and blaming me for his actions. You love someone, you do whatever it takes to make them happy.”

He shook his head. “Rule number one. You must require that a man treats you special. You’re deserving of the best of him and when he doesn’t give it, you call him on it. I know you didn’t call him on his shit. You let him run all over you and the Winter I know would never allow that.  Yep, you need my help before the next man.”

“You’re serious?”

“Very.” He beamed. “Once I get you under a new man, my job is done.”

“Why do you care so much about me being with another man?” I wanted to add “besides you” but figured that he may not want to risk our friendship either.

He tilted his head slightly to meet my eyes. “I love you. You’re my girl.” I blinked to shield myself from the intensity in his gaze, the emotions evident in his words, the energy that had been flowing between us all day.  He continued, “I want you to be happy.  You’re meant to be in a good, loving relationship – one that can stand the test of time.  You’re not like most of the women I date who play games.”

“Chad, one thing I do know is that most women want to be in a monogamous relationship, and they play games hoping to get your attention. Maybe they come across that way to you because you my friend are a catch that doesn’t want to be caught.”

“I told you the other day on the phone, for the right woman, I’m ready.” He leaned closer and for a breathless moment he seemed drawn to my lips.  I moved slightly toward him, suddenly yearning for his kiss.  Chad then bit his bottom lip and nodded before he opened the door. “See you at school tomorrow.  And I’ll pick you up around nine in the morning on Saturday.”

His abrupt shift in mood startled me I was so ready for the soft touch of his lips on mine.  I settled back in my seat, soothing my errant loins with the notion that maybe because he’d told me he loved me like I was his woman instead of his friend, aroused me.  Or maybe he meant it as a friend, and I perceived more since I hadn’t had sex in months. 

“Ugh…nine on a Saturday morning? What are we going to do?”

He eased out of the car and looked down through the opened passenger door. “Trust me?”

I smiled. “Always.”

Chapter 4

December 20

I hugged Luca before he ran off with his mother and three younger siblings.  Families socialized as everyone headed to their cars after the early evening Christmas program in which twenty students from each grade sung traditional carols.  Chad didn’t attend the program because he’d had a meeting with the district about a possible temporary relocation in January to a charter school who needed a principal in San Antonio.  Although it would be a wonderful career opportunity for him, I would miss him if he took the position.  We had a routine in which we would meet up at the gym near our school at least twice a week, and then head to the school.  We also hung out after a long workday. Sometimes doing nothing more than going to Starbucks and discussing educational politics and our students. 

Instead of rejoicing that Christmas break had finally begun, the familiar sadness that I hadn’t experienced in the last week settled around my heart.  I glumly tossed my bag in the front seat of my gray Lexus, recognizing that I already missed Chad, his warm easy-going, steady presence.   Loneliness and envy added to my melancholy when I thought of all the happy families heading home together while I would be entering my now empty apartment since Bella had returned home with Summer and Autumn to stay with our mother.

I drove aimlessly through the neighborhoods of Houston, admiring the decorated homes wondering for the umpteenth time why the man who’d sworn to love me forever, came home one day, unable to make eye contact as he’d told me plainly that he was not ready for marriage and that I needed to move on.  At least, only a dull pain remained whenever I thought of Jared and the demise of our decade long relationship.  Maybe I was ready to date again.  I hit the button on my car to call Chad and it went to voicemail.  My father’s number suddenly appeared on the screen and I ended Chad’s call to speak with him.

  “Hey, Daddy,” I said hoping my voice didn’t tremble.

“Winter.” His gruff voice warmed my heart and I wiped a tear. I hated that my parents split when I was a girl, but I saw it happening. They went from an openly affectionate, can’t keep their hands off each other to coldness and indifference. I hated it because I was a daddy’s girl. Not that I didn’t and don’t love my mother, just that my father could do no wrong.  I even blamed my mother for the end of their marriage, though I knew instinctively from a young age that it wasn’t solely her fault.

I resembled him the most of my sisters. We had the same light brown almost hazel eyes, lips and button nose and we both only had one dimple in the left cheek.  He may have been a shade or two lighter and male, but I was his twin.  My paternal aunt Grace would often joke and tell him that he spit me out instead of my mother.

“What’s wrong?”

“I can’t call my daughter and check on her?”

“Yes, Daddy. You know you can call me anytime.” He and I were the closest of his daughters and we still only spoke once or twice a month and the last time we saw each other had been a lunch I initiated back in September. I knew he loved us but once he and my mother divorced, he became this jetsetter along with his already crazy work schedule as an orthopedic surgeon. My father rarely had time for any of us and it affected me more than I would ever admit to Autumn who hadn’t spoke to our father in four years because of his inconsistency in our lives. 

“It’s the holidays and you and I should have brunch soon.”

Some of my clouds dissipated at his rare invite. “I would love that.”

“You think your sisters…um… would come too?”

“Of course, they would Daddy. We love to spend time with you. You’re the busy one…well, besides Summer.”

“Your mama told me she’s about to start her own practice. Is she thinking in February or March? Your mama wasn’t sure.”

“You do know you can call Summer and ask her yourself?”

“Yeah. I could.” He sounded far away.     

“Daddy?”

“Yes.”

“I think it’s time you talk to Autumn.”

Silence.

“Daddy?”

More silence.

“Come on Daddy, she needs you.”

“I’ve tried.”

“Not hard enough.”

He protested, “She won’t even take my calls and it’s been almost four years. She doesn’t want to talk to me.”

“She does Daddy, she’s just hurt and stubborn like you. It’s been too long and you’re her father.”

He said sternly, “I know who I am. Auti said some awful things to me in front of everyone and never apologized.”

“She doesn’t think she needs to.”

“Well, maybe I don’t think I need to either.”

I shook my head and turned right at the light unto my street. “No disrespect, but you sound like a child. Autumn is having a rough time.  She was with me but now she’s staying with Mama. She broke up with her boyfriend, won’t tell us why, and can’t shake the funk. Any chance she gets, she’s sleeping. It’s not like her.”

“What did he do to her? Did you meet him? Why wasn’t I told?”

“Daddy, I just said we have no idea why they broke up and what he did, if he did anything. He seemed cool from what she said about him and Mama has talked to him on the phone.  He’s a friend of Akila’s who replaced her as Autumn’s roommate when Akila moved back home.  Autumn and the guy recently started dating and seemed to be going well until now.”

He said brusquely, “I don’t want any of my daughters shacking up. She wouldn’t have even thought of living with a man, if you didn’t do it first.”

“Okay, Daddy, before you get on your soapbox again. Jared and I are done, and I doubt I’ll ever live with another man before marriage.  Autumn didn’t move in with her boyfriend, he was her roommate and then became her boyfriend.” My father hated that Jared and I lived together, and our already fragile father-daughter relationship had become more strained during that time. “My point is that she needs you.”

“She hates me. It’s been four years. Even at our lowest point, me and your mama never went more than a week without communicating.”

“She loves you.  She just hates some of the things you did. She might have been out of line to say those things to you at her graduation party –

Was out of line, not ‘might’.”

I continued, “What she said that night was true, Daddy. You haven’t been there for us, especially Auti in a long time.”

He argued, “I have been there.”

“Not the way we need. We all feel that way.” I added that last part quietly.

“All of you?”

“Yes, Daddy. We all love you and that will never change. We’re all grown now, and you have the right to live whatever life you want. Just don’t forget about us.”

Silence on his end again.

“Daddy?”

“Yeah. I’m here…look, just set something up with you and your sisters. Try to do it before Autumn heads back to school and maybe after we talk she’ll want to be there too.  I’ll go by your Mama’s soon and speak to Baby Bear.”

I smiled at his endearment that he called Autumn from the day she was born. “Will do, Daddy.”

“Wait…I did call to check on you. You’re okay? Are you and Jared…”

“No, we haven’t spoken in months. It’s been rough but I’ll be okay. I really do appreciate you checking on me. And I’ll do a better job checking on you okay?”

“Alright, Win. Love you.”

“Love you, too. I’ll call you with some possible dinner dates and times.” I pulled into my garage that connected to my apartment. “Talk to you later.”

“You do that.”

I ended my call and rested my forehead on the steering wheel, dreading going into my apartment.  I tried to call Chad again and it went to voicemail.  Maybe his phone needed charging. He should be back from his meeting and at home.  Chad didn’t live far from me so if he wasn’t home, it really wasn’t an inconvenience.  Maybe I could convince him to grab dinner with me.  I reversed out of my garage and ten minutes later, drove into the driveway of his sprawling home twinkling bright with white lights.  Chad did well for himself.  Outside of his Assistant Principal’s salary, he owned several houses that he leased out to others.  I loved his home and spent so many nights here during the summer and even had my own room.

I rang the doorbell and waited.  I heard something bump and his deep voice curse.  He probably bumped into the hall table, I’d been begging him to move because it was too big for the entryway.

Chad opened the door wearing only long red shorts still hopping slightly. “Hey, what’s up? How was the program? Everything okay?”

“The program was a success.” I shook my head. “One day, you’re going to listen to me. How many more times are you going to stomp your toe or bump your knee to know that you need something else there? And why are you answering the door without a shirt? It’s chilly out here.” I focused on his face because he had a sexy, muscled chest and the few times over the years I caught a glimpse of his smooth naked caramel skin, I’d wanted to touch it.  He continued to work out as he did when he played basketball and had wide shoulders that tapered to a narrow waist.   

“I would have put a shirt on if it was anyone else at the door.” He raised his toned arm and leaned against the door jamb, wreaking havoc with my senses and I stepped back. “It’s late…so?”

“I tried to call you a couple of times and it went to voicemail. I guess I was feeling down after the program seeing all those happy families and wanted to see if you could hang for a while.  Bella and Autumn are gone, so my place is empty again. You want to grab some breakfast at IHOP or go to some other restaurant?”

His eyes softened.  “Umm…I kind of have company.”

“Oh…sorry. I didn’t see a car…never mind…I did just drop by.” Lost in my melancholy mood, I’d forgotten that he would turn off his phone while entertaining women. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning, bright and early.”  

I turned to walk away, and experienced a mixture of disappointment, sadness, and surprisingly jealousy at the silver Porsche parked on the street in front of his house.  He grabbed my wrist. “Wait. You good?”

“I will be.  I’ll just go by Mama’s and see if she and Autumn want to eat something. Guess the holidays are even tougher than I thought. I keep seeing these happy couples enjoying the festive season and I wonder why can’t I be them?  And why I can’t seem to let go of Jared if I’m not supposed to be with him?” I looked at Chad. “I do want love.”

Chad sighed deeply and pulled me toward his opened door. “Come on.”

I resisted. “No, you have plans and given that you look like this, I might have interrupted something.”

He gave a lop-sided grin. “No, about to get started.”

“Gross.” I snatched my wrist. “You touched my wrist and I have no idea where that hand has been.”

Chad smirked. “Oh, if you only knew what these hands do, you wouldn’t be grossed out. Besides I just got out of the shower.”

         “Was your latest planning to leave?”

“No, but I didn’t really want her to spend the night either. She knows I’m off for the holidays and like you decided to drop by unannounced.  She’s trying to find ways to linger and you and I have plans tomorrow anyway, so just spend the night with me.”

My mood lifted immediately at the thought of being here with him. “Care to share what plans?”

Chad smiled. “I’m going to make sure you have the best date. We both love this time of year and

I need to remind you that there’s life after Jared.”

“Come on…what do you have in mind?”

“You’ll see. But I need you to be my excuse.”

“Let me guess, pretend I’m your favorite cousin whose upset about her boyfriend and needs her big cuz to come to the rescue.”

“God, I love you’re my friend. You know me.” He hugged me and I melted into him, needing human contact after feeling so damn lonely. Chad smelled like soap and his skin was so soft. I rubbed my hands against his waist and back almost unwittingly loving the feel of him. “You finished feeling me up?”

I hid my flushed face in his chest. “Fine, you smell and feel really good. I better get some soon before I ravish you.” I pushed him off me playfully but when I looked up at him, his solemn expression unnerved me.  I gestured toward the house. “So, where do you want me to be when you explain your situation to her?”

Chad stared at me a moment longer before he led me through the front door to his open kitchen. “Sit at the island and pretend to be really sad.”

“I know the drill. How many times have we done this?” I hopped on the leather stool and he stood next to me.

“I know, but she was expecting amazing sex.  She’s going to come up with reasons why she should stay.”

“Can we not talk about your sexual prowess now? I just told you, you’re smelling all good, walking around half naked. I’m about to forget we’re friends,” I joked.  I probably should leave because lately he seemed more like the man I met years ago that I crushed on than my best friend.  

Chad’s voice deepened and his finger traced the nape of my neck. “I’m all up for forgetting we’re friends. I’ve always wanted to know how sex would be between us.”

“Alw…always?” My voice squeaked. His gentle touch stirred my loins again. I reached behind my neck and moved his hand.

“Always. I just never thought I would have the opportunity to act on it.”

“And you still don’t.” I reminded him.

“Why not? We’ve both thought about it and we’re two single attractive consenting adults.”

“Who are best friends.”

He lowered his head to my ear and whispered, “I may be your best friend but right now I’m making you hot.”

I touched his chest to push him away and he trapped my hand against his well-defined pec. “Do you feel that?” His heart raced beneath my hand. “It’s what I feel whenever I’m around you. I can feel your pulse through your wrist and it’s matching mine.”

“Chad, this is too much.”

“Is it? Don’t tell me you just dropped by because you wanted me to hang out with you.  You know what it means when I don’t answer my phone and you still came over unannounced. Ever since you told me that you liked me back in college, I can’t stop thinking about how different everything could’ve been.”

Thankfully, we heard footsteps and he backed away and headed down the hall. 

“Hey, baby what’s taking you so long?” A woman’s voice asked.

“My cousin stopped by and she’s got drama that I have to help her handle. I need to run.”

“We were in the middle of something.” She sounded annoyed.

“I know but it’s my fav cousin. See she’s right here.”  

I took a deep breath and allowed my true feelings to show.  I didn’t have to fake sadness. My emotions were all over the place.

A tall, pretty, woman matching Chad’s almost six-foot height, even barefoot, dressed in his blue terry cloth robe, wandered in the kitchen.  I stood apologetically, wiping my sad eyes on my jacket sleeve, before offering my hand. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know he had company, or I would’ve found another way to handle my situation. I’m Terrazine.”

Chad coughed loudly and I squinted my eyes in warning when the woman looked back at him. He shrugged. “Allergies.”

         “And I’m Kiki.” She gave me a limp handshake before turning her attention back to Chad. “I can just hang out here, while you help her do whatever.”

         “I don’t know how long it’ll take.  You and I can do something next weekend.”

I tapped his arm knowing him enough he really didn’t want to tie himself up with Kiki on the weekend. “The family already has plans remember?”

“Yeah…yeah. How could I forget? We have that…that Kwanzaa tradition.” Chad nodded his head as if we were talking about a real thing.  

Kiki placed her palms on his chest, which irked me for some asinine reason. “That sounds amazing. Are friends invited? I would love to come with you.”

I answered sharply, “No. It’s just for family.” 

Chad bit his lip, trying desperately not to laugh while Kiki glared at me.  He quickly turned his lips down in feign disappointment when she looked back at him. “Let me just call you and we’ll get together soon.”

Kiki ran her orange manicured nails up his abs and kissed him like I wasn’t standing there. I turned my head away wondering if I would ever be that thirsty.  I snuck a peek and she gave him her tongue and he received it for a moment before backing up, wiping his mouth. He glanced at me apologetically before looking back at Liza. “Okay. So, go get dressed and we’ll all walk out together.”

“Um…don’t you need to put on some clothes?” I asked.

Kiki clung to his waist. “I can look at his beautiful body all day.”

Irritation real at this woman’s reluctance to leave, I said, “Yeah, well we really have to go before I lose it. I’m barely holding on.”

Chad stopped her now wandering hand which was dangerously close to his crotch area. “Yeah, she’s not doing well, and I need to get some things straight with this dude who tripping. So, you get dressed first and then I will. But we really do need to go now.  Win…Ter…she needs me.” This time I had to hide my smile at his fumbling of my name.

Kiki pouted. “Fine.” She had the nerve to cross her arms and stomp to his bedroom.

He stepped in the hall to make sure it was clear before walking back to me and murmured, “Can you not give a crazy ass name if you don’t want to make me laugh? What was that again, Teriyaki?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t remember. It popped in my head and just as quickly disappeared.”

I concentrated solely on his face.  Kiki was right, Chad’s body was beautiful from his broad shoulders, his defined abs, and his large imprint visible through his mesh shorts – parts of him that I’d never been privy to. “You were right she didn’t want to leave. But I really don’t blame her.” I raised my hand at his smug expression. “I don’t mean that way, smart ass. I meant she was already in your robe, you’re half naked. I would be pissed too, we’re about to do the do and then you leave to help your ‘cousin’? You do know you wrong, right?”

Chad shook his head. “First of all, I’d just gotten out the shower when she showed up uninvited at my door and we were only in the media room watching TV when you rung the doorbell. Yeah, we would’ve had sex later but at that time we were just talking, and she was fully dressed. I didn’t know she’d gone to my room and stripped naked. She’d only been here once before about a month ago.”  

“Wait, so she just got naked and then came looking for you not even knowing who could be at your door?”

He nodded. “Imagine my surprise when I walked in the hall a few minutes ago and she’s in my robe.”

“I’m thinking you dodged a bullet tonight and if you’re smart… you would stay bobbing and weaving.” I mimed my words for emphasis.

He chuckled. “So glad you didn’t try out for athletics or dance. You think I should go and see what’s taking her so long? She only wore a dress and heels.”

“No!” I said more strongly again than I intended. “She’ll seduce you if you go back there.”

*****

After we had a late dinner of a Philly cheesesteak that we split at this local spot, Chad suggested we make a run to Kroger to pick up a few items for our impromptu sleepover.  The temperature had dropped, and my thin leather jacket wasn’t keeping me warm. He had a hoodie in the backseat, and he tossed it at me when I refused to get out of his white Beamer once we got to the store. “Come on. You might see something you want to snack on while we’re here.”

“Get whatever. I’m cold.”

He came around to my side, opened my door, pulled me out. He then grabbed his hoodie and I reluctantly raised each arm as he put the jacket on me, and he hugged me tight. “Warm?”

I inhaled his scent and rested my head on his chest. He was what I needed. “I am now.”

Chad let go of me and tucked my arm under his and we went into the store. We’d been in the store for a while pondering Oreos or chocolate chip cookies.  I wanted to lick the cream in the middle and he wanted the gooey goodness of the chocolate.  He was a health nut, already fussing about the late-night cheesesteak, so he refused to buy both which was my suggestion. My special Christmas edition Oreos with the red filling won after the coin toss.

“We spent way too much time on getting snacks. I’ll go pick up some water and you get the wine,” Chad said before sprinting away.

I called, “I hate pushing the basket and picking out wine.”

“I trust you. Besides you know I’ll drink everything.”

I walked up the spirits aisle and stopped in my tracks. “Damn.”

Jared, my ex, stood perusing the wine, looking as fine as ever in dark slacks and a cream sweater that contrasted well with his gorgeous ebony skin and his black curly hair he always kept low and faded.  I hadn’t had any contact with him in five months since I told him I was moving out of the townhome and he had to settle whatever debts with the leasing agent.  I tried to take a step back off the row, but he noticed me.  I quickly recovered with a smile and walked toward him, hating I didn’t look my best.  My hair in a messy ponytail, I wore skinny jeans, short brown boots, and Chad’s too big New Orleans Gator hoodie, a gift from his NFL playing brother.  Jared glanced behind him and then back at me before smiling. And a feeling of dread crawled across my heart.  Jared rarely grocery shopped so if he was at the store he probably had a woman somewhere with him. I needed to speak and keep it going before I met the woman that came after me.

I kept my voice even. “What’s going on, stranger?” I stopped before I got too close where a hug would be expected. His sweater emphasized his biceps and for so many years I could so easily walk right into his strong arms. “I’ve never seen you on this side of the city.”

Jared slowly looked me up and down appreciatively. “My Win…you are looking good.”

My stomach clenched. His special name for me.  Autumn would say that was the only thing she liked about him – his nickname for me that she’d adopted. “Thank you.”

He smiled displaying his straight white teeth courtesy of braces when we were in high school. “I usually don’t shop here. I’m glad to see you. I was going to call and see if you were going to the reunion.”

I shifted from foot to foot. “I hadn’t decided yet…still debating…with everything that happened this past year…”

“I’m sorry. I know I didn’t handle our relationship right. That shouldn’t stop you from going to the reunion.  Maybe you and I can talk…” A petite, brown-skinned woman, with shiny long black hair, walked right up behind him and touched his waist lightly enough I knew they were together.

“You like feta right?” she asked holding a wedge of cheese in her hand.

I answered, “No.”

He responded simultaneously, “Yes.”

I frowned. “Since when do you like feta? You even hate the way it smells.”

Jared shook his head slightly and squinted his eyes.

“I’m sorry I don’t believe we met,” The woman spoke to me though she looked at Jared expectantly.

Jared raised a dark eyebrow. “Monique, this is Winter. Winter, Monique. Winter and I went to high school and college together.”

I nodded hating that he’d reduced our relationship to classmates.  Wrinkles unbecoming of her youthful face appeared, and she said rather boastfully, “I don’t know why he’s not introducing me as his girlfriend.”

I responded tartly, “Probably because I’m his ex-fiancé.”

She looked startled before glaring at Jared. “I didn’t know you were engaged.”

I intervened before Jared could respond, just wanting to get the hell out of here. “No need to get pissed. It’s fine. Monique, is it? It’s been months since we called it off.”

Chad turned on the aisle holding a six pack of Dasani behind Jared and his happy expression turned to concern when Jared looked back. He walked to me as if we were alone and placed the water in the basket. “You good?”

“Yeah, sweetie.” I impulsively placed my arm around his waist and hugged him to me hoping he would quickly catch on what I was doing.  I pointedly ignored Jared while looking at Monique.  “This is Chad…my boyfriend.”

Jared took a step forward, fists slightly balled, his tone harsh. “When did this happen? You always told me you and he were only friends.”

“We were friends until you broke up.” Chad kissed the side of my forehead and wrapped both of his arms around me from the back possessively. “Thank you for leaving this beautiful woman for me.”

Jared’s jaw tightened as he looked between me and Chad. “It’d better happened after.”

Chad as laid back as he could be was still a competitive man. “Or what? You ended things remember? And I don’t believe Winter ever knew why. You care to share now?”

Jared’s dark skin managed to appear flushed. “Whatever happened between me and my woman is none of your fucking business.”

Chad squeezed me. “You mean your ‘ex-woman’.  My woman now.”

He growled. “I had her first.”

“That may be true, but I know what to do with the queen that she is.” I placed my hand against Chad’s chest feeling his erratic heartbeat that belied the calm exterior he displayed to Jared.  I couldn’t believe two men were about to fight over me if the conversation continued at the rate it was going. They were former teammates who were never particularly close.  Jared always considered himself better than Chad in both profession and in life. He was a young corporate attorney on the glow up and thought Chad’s decision to teach was a loser move given how Chad had the highest GPA of our graduating class while being a top-notch college athlete.

Monique said, “Jared, we need to go.” I’d almost forgotten she was standing there. Apparently so did Jared who closed his eyes warily before looking down at her.

Chad grabbed a bottle of wine off the shelf and starting pushing the basket. “No, we’ll go.”

*****     

As soon as we got settled in the car and Chad started the ignition, I clapped with glee. “He was so jelly.  We’re so going to this reunion.”

Chad shook his head. “I don’t like where this is going. What do you mean ‘we’?”

I turned to face him in the car. “Come on, I need you to pretend to be my boyfriend a little bit longer. You have to be my date, Chad.”

“No, I don’t like all that. I don’t even want to go to my class reunion let alone a reunion where the only two people I know are you and the asshole I’ve hated since college.”

“Hate is such a strong word. I thought you only hated him after we broke up.”

“Nope. Since college. I never told you because you’d probably wouldn’t have been my friend if you knew my true feelings, your head was so stuck up his bitch ass. And helping you get back with him is not something I want to be a part of. He’s no good, Winter.”

I clasped my hands together ignoring his reticence. “Please. Please. At least so I don’t look like a fucking loser. He already thinks we’re together and if I show up alone, he’ll know I lied.

“Or you can tell him I had to travel or made other plans. It’s Christmas time, any excuse would work.”

“I know you don’t want me with Jared and I completely understand. I’m not trying to get back with him, I’m trying to show him he couldn’t break me.” I poked his chest. “You’re were the one who said that I needed to get closure, well this is my chance. I hadn’t felt this good in a long time and it’s all because of you my friend.”

Chad looked away and then back at me. “If I do this, then you have to agree to be my date for my brother’s wedding Valentine’s weekend. Ty insisted I invite someone and bringing you takes the pressure off me asking someone else who’ll make more of it than what it is. I didn’t want to ask you because I wasn’t sure you could handle a wedding on Valentines’ Day.”

“I’ll learn to get over it.” I shook his hand. “It’s a deal. I would love to go to your brother’s wedding, anyway. I like Ty and I didn’t even know he was getting married. Why didn’t you tell me?” Ty, Chad’s older brother, was in the NFL and played for the New Orleans Gators. We’d met a few times over the years. Charm, good looks, and talent ran deep in Chad’s family.  He and his brother weren’t always close though the last couple of years they’d put forth effort on their relationship. I used to think he was jealous of his brother who’d made to the league until Chad told me he never wanted to be in the pros. He’d only used sports to pay for his education.

“You’re a whole lot better now, but I was there when Jared broke your heart, remember? I couldn’t tell you about my brother and share his happiness when your whole world was upside down.” His hand drummed against the steering wheel. “I’ve kept things from you.”

“Like what?”

He assessed my face before answering, “It’s not important now.”

“It is important. Anything that concerns you is important to me. You’ve been my best friend since college, and I want to be there for you as you’ve always been for me.”

Chad exhaled. “Maybe one day I’ll tell you.”

“But…”

“No, Winter. Some things are better left unsaid.”

“Fine, Chad. I’ll leave it alone.” Sensing a rare dark mood from him, I turned the music up and Duffle Bag Boy blasted on an XM station.  I screamed, “That’s my song.” I started rapping at the top of my lungs and he sat next to me amused.

“You hood now?”

“Yep.” I picked up his hand. “You know you want to go hard with me?”

He wrinkled his face still watching me. But when the second verse began Chad jumped in rapping along perfectly with the song, somber mood gone.  I laughingly joined in and we headed back to his place.

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