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For those who like a lil kick to their hot chocolate

In my every day life I’m a psychologist and life coach and I speak with people everyday about the hills and valleys of our lives. All too often we try to do everything ourselves, think we can handle what has been thrown at us, and sometimes we can and other times we need a little help. So I decided to open up free tips or words of advice for my readers and followers to help you cope with life challenges or if you just need a little encouragement or a plan of action. Feel free to contact me directly through my website, my email at tiye28always@gmail.com and through my social media IG @tiye28always and FB (somehow I have two accounts but I prefer simply the ‘Tiye Love’ one). I will share your thoughts, and questions along with my responses on my site if you email me and I promise to not share your name, handle, or give information that could easily identify you, unless you want me to (this is what I do for a living, I can keep a secret (LOL!). If you directly respond to my website and comment, I’m assuming you’re fine with others seeing our conversation.

My first suggestion is if you’re reading this is to make sure that each day, you’re engaged in something you enjoy. Even if it’s just five minutes or something you take for granted like watching TV. Make watching your favorite show an event, replete with snacks, hot cocoa (or alcohol) and a comfortable throw. Whatever you do, make sure it makes you smile to remind you that there’s always some joy to be found in life!!

Unforgettable Kiss

(Not actual cover)

Chapter 1

“We are out of the Black Tea,” I said to Al, the cafe manager as I rushed to make my latest customer’s blend of mocha and expresso. Monday mornings were always our busiest and I hated that I needed to assist in the coffee section of the bookstore where I’d worked for the last two years.  The store manager always sent me to that area instead of my usual – the Children’s section – to work when it was short staffed because I’d worked as a Barista at a Starbucks in the past.  They’d even offered me a raise if I would transfer to that area, but I loved working with children. As much as I could use the money, I enjoyed my daily Story Time too much to give it up.

“It’s some in the back,” Al called out as he warmed up a croissant for a customer.

“Can you please get it after you finish with your customer? You know Nancy is going to be here soon and ask for her tea.”  Nancy Paul was one of our regulars and a well-known author, who used the bookstore for inspiration.

He laughed. “Okay. But at some point you have to go to the storage room.”

“Nope. This is not my usual area, I’m just helping out over here remember?” For some reason the storage room for the café with its poor lighting frightened me and I hated when I needed to get more supplies. I always found an excuse to avoid that space.

“We’re thinking of making you shift manager and you can get all the free coffee you want.”

I protested as I added whip cream and a swirl of chocolate. “I don’t even like coffee.”

“Blasphemous.” Al covered his ears before dashing to the storage room. He peeked his head out. “That’s what makes you perfect for us. You won’t indulge on the inventory. Plus, you would make your own schedule.”

“Let me think about it, okay?” I really would like to have more control over my schedule, but I really loved working in the bookstore. If I wanted to work in a coffee house, I would have stayed at my last job. 

“Yeah, yeah.” He waved his hand dismissively and closed the door behind him.

I finished serving my customer and prepared to take another order when there was a small commotion at the front of the store, a few feet from the café.  A diverse group of about six people in corporate blue and gray suits who carried themselves as if they were important walked briskly toward us. They held everyone’s attention in the café and the front of the bookstore but mine.  I had little time for pretention.  I wanted to finish serving the breakfast crowd so I could return to my section in time for reading hour.  I asked the customer next in line, “Are you ready to order?”

She was too busy grinning hard and focused on the elite troupe headed this way.  “Is that the new Mayor? I think that’s the Mayor.”

God, I hope not. “I’m not sure, I don’t follow politics. Ma’am there’s a line behind you, so if you need more time, you can step to the side and as soon as you’re ready I’ll take your order.”

“Isn’t he gorgeous?” She obviously didn’t hear me. “And to think that he’s single.  He can have my vote anytime.” I heard the flirtation in her tone, and she had to be at least sixty.

I stole a glance at the man in question, who was indeed our newly elected Mayor.  He leaned against the wall on his cell while one of his minions stood in line to place his order.  The others were around him but giving him privacy for his call.  I guess some may say Tre LaSalle was handsome with his caramel-colored complexion, hair that would be curly if he didn’t keep it cut close, wide smile, brown eyes surrounded by lashes that any woman would buy.  He raised his arm to adjust the phone causing his muscles to flex in his suit. Okay. He’s a babe, but he does nothing for me, at least not anymore. I’d voted for his opponent. I had a hard time trusting men who looked like him, men who were used to getting what they want either because of money or looks. In Tre La Salle’s case, he had both and now he was the youngest person ever elected Mayor of New Orleans at thirty-three years old.

Al who had returned from the back of the café, called one of the Mayor’s staff, to the front of the line. “We’ll go ahead and take your order. I can only imagine our Mayor is busy and can’t wait. Raini will prepare it.”

I rolled my eyes at the fact that we were trained to cater to the rich and powerful who entered our store. What about all the regular folk waiting patiently? There were five people ahead of the Mayor and it would take a while to complete his team’s order of at least six.  I tried to hide my annoyance as the pretty red-haired white young woman rattled off what his people wanted.  I felt someone’s stare and I turned my head slightly to see Tre LaSalle watching me with a smirk. Damn. He could tell I was irritated. When I looked again at him, he winked.  I stared a moment longer with no acknowledgement of his wink and hurried to prepare their orders before I got into trouble for poor customer service or drooling over an undeserving man.

Al and I worked quickly together to get the various coffees and pastries together. We were already short-staffed and now with this demanding group and ever-growing line, we were really backed up. I groaned internally afraid I would be stuck in this section all day. At this point, it was doubtful I would make it to story time and one of my co-workers, Yaz would take over in my absence.

“Good morning. I’m sorry we just came in and skipped everyone. I really do have to run to a council meeting, but I needed to pick up this book and coffee first thing this morning.  So please be a little bit more patient and we’ll be out of your hair.” The Mayor’s voice both soothing and deep as he spoke to the customers who all replied in some manner of acceptance.  I did appreciate that he apologized for skipping the line, though I still believe he could have waited.  “Excuse me, Miss, are you the manager?”

My back was to him making coffee drinks until this point. I turned around to answer him not realizing he was mere inches from me at the pick-up counter. My tongue apparently got caught by a cat. Up close, he was still ridiculously handsome, and he smelled good. “Um…”

“I am. Can I assist you?” Al stepped to the counter, luckily saving me from further embarrassment.

He spoke to Al as he took out his wallet and gave him three, crisp, hundred-dollar bills. “Anyone in this line, can get whatever they want for their patience. I got it.”  He then smiled at me. “Whatever is left is her tip.”

Al responded, “You got it.” He then spoke loudly so that anyone in line would hear, “Order whatever you want, courtesy of the Mayor.” The small crowd in the café cheered.

“Do you take a break soon?” Tre LaSalle asked so quietly, I almost didn’t hear him.  I was adding the whip cream to an iced coffee drink near where he stood.

“Break?” I continued to work diligently on his order wondering where he was going with this question. It almost felt like he was hitting on me since he leaned toward me, but that couldn’t be possible. Why would a man like him even be interested in me, a woman who worked at the coffee shop? Maybe he thought I needed a break because he saw my irritation.  I picked up another iced coffee. “Cherry and whip cream? I’m assuming this one is for you?”

His dark brown eyes widened. “Yes. How did you know of all the orders, this one was mine?”

I met his gaze again briefly before dropping my eyes as I added the whip cream and two cherries. “It was the only one that was different. Everyone ordered almost the same thing. Maybe they all really drink coffee the same way – my guess is they’re trying to make a good impression on you. So, they’re not going to order something as fun as an iced vanilla latte with extra milk, caramel, and chocolate at nine in the morning.”

“You’re good.” He chuckled as he reached for his drink and our hands touched. I almost dropped the drink I was so shocked by the feel of his skin against mine. He must have noticed because his voice deepened. “Can you take a quick break now?”

One of his people, a black man who appeared to be in his late twenties, approached him at that moment. “Mayor, we need to go now, Councilman Davis just called and wants to speak with you before the meeting and you know how long-winded he can be. I sent Nakia to get the book you needed, and she will join us there.”  

“I really don’t want to talk with him before this meeting so he can complain about the tax bill again.”

“You have to if you want his support on the school zoning issue.”

“Maybe I can call and start the conversation before we get there.”

“You can try but he specifically requested that you see him before the meeting.”

He groaned and mouthed “sorry” to me as he grabbed his drink with one hand and pulled out his cell with the other and walked away with his group.

“Did you finish the orders?” Al asked breaking me from my semi-stupor as I watched him leave, suddenly understanding why Tre LaSalle held everyone’s rapt attention.

“Almost. Sorry.” I placed the tops on the cups before putting them in carriers. I handed it to the red-haired woman who originally gave the order.

“Thanks,” she said as she grabbed the pastries and drinks rushed out the store with the Mayor and the rest of his entourage. 

“Have a good day. Come again,” I offered suddenly hoping that this elite group did come back. Why did Tre LaSalle want to know if I could take a break? And more importantly why did I care? He left me hanging years ago and he didn’t look at me like he remembered me.

“I would like a hot chocolate and two blueberry muffins,” demanded the customer who had been mesmerized by the Mayor.

“Okay.” I quickly placed her order. “That will be…”

“Um. The Mayor is paying for it, remember?” She grumbled.

“Yeah, yeah. You’re right. It’ll be ready in a few.” I hurried away mad at myself that I allowed him to get to me again after all these years.

*****

“Are you freaking serious?” Royalty, my best friend, screamed on the phone. “Tre LaSalle was in the store and asked if you, personally, could take a break? What could that mean?”

“I don’t know. I’m not the best when it comes to reading men…there was this vibe between us. I can’t explain it but his presence was overwhelming.”

“I wish I was there because I would have been able to tell you.”

“Don’t I know it.” I shook my head. Royalty always had men. She had been proposed to at least three different times, accepted once, and at the last minute with that one, decided she preferred her freedom.

I on the other hand only had four boyfriends in my thirty-two years and had been with my current one only a few months. I never was boy crazy like my bestie, but it would have been nice to have options.  “I’m putting you on speaker.” I sat at my favorite place in my apartment, in front of my easel.  I sketched whatever thoughts crossed my mind.  It was relaxing and I needed it after seeing Tre today.

“You think he remembered you?”

“I am almost certain he didn’t. Why would he? He was a year older than me and in high school years, that’s at least five years older.”

“Yeah, but you shared a kiss at the Winter Formal. He has to remember that.”

“Earth to Royalty. That man had kissed so many girls before me and definitely much more ever since, if his swag is any indication.  There’s no way he could possibly remember me.”

“You remember it.”

“Duh, it was my first kiss.”

“Oh yeah, right.” She paused. “Tell me again why you didn’t have your first kiss until you were sixteen?”

“Everybody can’t be hoes.” I laughed. We’d been friends since we were freshman in high school. We remained friends even when she left to attend Howard University while I remained home, choosing to work and attend school part-time.  She and I remained friends and over the years we had become best friends. I was godmother to her six-year old son, Grayson. 

“Whatever, I wasn’t a ‘hoe’. I liked boys and they liked me. You just didn’t care about them. Do you know how many dudes you could have had back then if you ever looked up from one of your Octavia Butler or Harry Potter Books? I met you at fourteen and with that figure and black wavy hair you forever wear in a ponytail, you always got attention.  You were hot then and would be now if you cared remotely about your appearance.”

“I have a man who likes me as I am.” Royalty had been riding me about how I dressed since I could remember. I looked down at my army green tank, army painter’s pants, and brown boots. Hey, I was comfortable. Admittedly my style was eclectic. I was an artist, dammit.

“Dex?” She snorted. “You’re settling with him because he’s a nice guy.”

I dipped my paintbrush in a swirl of brown I’d created. “And what’s wrong with that?”

“He is boring. He’s a pastor for God’s sake.”

“And a realtor. There’s nothing wrong with loving the Lord. You need to get your ass back in the church.”

Royalty snickered. “Says the woman who only attends church on Easter Sunday.”

I argued, “You know me, and God have our own relationship. He accepts that I pray wherever I’m at and doesn’t believe I have to step one foot in church to praise him.”

“What anyone says to avoid being guilty for not going to church.” Royalty attended church faithfully and had been trying to get me to join her church for years. It just wasn’t me.

I continued to paint without thought. “Then you should appreciate that I date Dex. I attended his church two weeks ago and I might go again someday.”

“Hey, I’m always down for a brother who attends church, but he is the squarest person I’ve ever met. His voice even squeaks.”

I rolled my eyes. “Only when he gets excited. Besides he accepts my celibacy. Something you should be practicing ‘Miss Holy Roller’ and ‘Miss Love Them and Leave Them’ the rest of the week.”

“I atone for my sins. What can I say, my flesh is weak? And if you got some, you would understand that very basic human need. I think you even believe the lie you’ve been telling yourself. Celibacy? You’re not even a born-again virgin.”

I grumbled. “Whatever, he accepts me.” I was embarrassed to tell the men I dated that I was still a virgin. It was cute when I was twenty-one, now it’s like I’m venturing into ‘nun’ territory.  Except I’m not prudish, Catholic, or particularly religious. I’d just never met a man with whom I really wanted to have sex. It really was that simple.

            “Rain, if he hasn’t tried anything it’s because he has a side chick.”

I protested, “You just said he was a nice guy and a man of the cloth.”

“I meant in general, but he is a man and he’s attractive. If you’re not giving it up to him, someone is. Women love men in the church.”

I got down off my stool to go to my small kitchen to grab a bottle of water out the pantry.  “Here we go again. Why do you keep saying it’s impossible for a couple to be celibate? Dex and I have lasted this long because he doesn’t pressure me like the other men did.”

“A couple who has been dating for months then yes, it’s impossible. I know you’re not having sex so it must be him.”

“How did it go from me seeing Tre again to my sex life?”

Lack of sex life.”

“You’re so lucky I like you or I would hang up.” 

            “Sorry. If you did have sex just once, it would open you up. You are the most passionate person I know. It’s in the way you dress, dance, and laugh sometimes too loudly.  You can see it in your art and this bohemian lifestyle you inhabit. There’s no perfect man. We are in our thirties and sex is so much fun. I highly recommend it.”

I put my bottle down on the cabinet, hating that she was right. “You know I have my reasons.”

She sighed. “I know. But you can’t live in the past. I think you are so used to being this non-sexual being, you’ve become too comfortable. How can you be near a man, especially one that you like and spend time and not want to sex him?”

I walked back to my stool and climbed back on. “Can we please talk about something else?”

Royalty giggled. “Sure…Like how you would so give it up to Tre in a heartbeat.  If you managed to still tell that fine ass man ‘no’ then you got to be a lesbian. He has only gotten hotter with age. I can’t believe that man is still single, and he tried to speak to you.”

“I’m not a lesbian for the last time. You would be the first to know if I was.  And if you think he is so sexy then I’m sure you could get him if you wanted to.” My friend was gorgeous with her model frame, hair styles that changed like the wind, and brown skin.  Since she was a lawyer and because she never left her house without appearing like she should be on a cover of fashion magazine, she would look good on his arm.  Unlike myself, a boho- sometimes chic- artist who never finished college and worked at a bookstore for consistent income.

“But you want him, so why would I do that to you?”

“Because I don’t want him, even if I had a remote chance in hell, which I don’t. From what I could tell, he is still the same arrogant asshole from high school.” Okay. Maybe I was exaggerating. He was just like most popular teenage boys when I knew him, focused on himself and getting girls.

“Then why did you call me as soon as you got a chance to describe in detail what happened today? You had gone out with Dex twice before you mentioned anything about him.”

“He’s someone from my past and our new Mayor, I thought you might want to know he came in the store today.”

“Bullshit. Admit he made you heart skip a beat when he winked at you and made you hot when he asked if you were taking a break soon.”

I smiled despite myself. “Ugh. I hate men like him.”

“Yeah, they’re annoying especially when they’re charming and rich, too.”

“And don’t forget looks and smells good.”

“Did he smell as good as he looks on TV? Please say it isn’t so?”

I thought back to his scent of cool citrus when he stood near me at the counter and smiled. “Even better.”

“Mm hmmm. Maybe he’ll come looking for you again.”

I laughed loudly. “What planet are you on? This man is not going to come looking for me. Maybe he was only asking about my break to make sure I got to have free coffee as well. And even if he was flirting, he probably still loves the women and saw an opportunity. Royalty, that man probably forgot about me, the minute he left the store. No, thanks I don’t want that type of trouble.”

“I think you protest too much.”

“I’m speaking truth. Bye, girl. I got to get off this phone.”

“Tell me you haven’t drawn him yet.”

“I…” Damn. I’d been sketching his face the entire time I was talking to her. I captured his sexy eyes and luminous smile.

“I rest my case. Night. Hope you have sexy dreams of Tre LaSalle.”

Autumn Falls

(Not actual cover)

Chapter 1

“Are you freaking kidding me?” I yelled in the phone. “I can’t afford this rent by myself. Who waits until the week before a semester starts to say I’m not coming back?”

“Autumn calm down,” said my former best friend, Akila. “I have movers coming today to pack up my things and put it in storage.  And I already have someone who’s ready to move in. I didn’t want to tell you until I had someone to replace me. I know how you are about money.”

My temples pounded. “What time are these movers coming here? And why couldn’t you come get your own things? This is fucking unbelievable. How are we best friends and you don’t think I need to know what your plans are, especially when they concern me?”

“I wouldn’t have two off days again until three weeks from now.”

“What the hell? You have a job now? You left here end of June, told me you’ll see me in August and now you have a full-time job and staying in Charlotte. We talk several times a week and you never thought to tell me any of this?”

 “Because I know you would think that staying home to finish school for Kaleb is stupid.”

I snorted derisively. “And you would be absolutely right. I should have figured you would be going through all of this for him. We only have one more year of school. He couldn’t wait one more year or better, yet, he could have transferred here. Didn’t you say he has friends here anyway?”

“Come on, Auti that makes no sense.  I’d already planned to move back home after graduation. He already has his own place, a good job, and I’m living with my parents for now.  I’m able to transfer colleges with little problem. And everyone’s thrilled that I came home for my last year. You should be happy for me.”

I paced in the living room of our, I mean my, two-bedroom townhome. “Maybe if you told me when you told everyone else, I would be. But we’ve been roommates and best friends since we started FAMU and now you plan to live in Charlotte? This was supposed to be our year. We finally both got food stamps and good paying part time jobs in our field. And you’re leaving me with Kim and Nikki? You and I were supposed to go to parties and hang out all night in between cramming for our exams in our fab townhome.”

“We did that last year.”

“Yeah, but now we can actually afford it.” We were both nursing majors and we’d both always earned high marks and barely scraped by to afford the townhome ten minutes from campus.  This year was about coasting and living it up since most of our hardest courses were behind us.

Akila pleaded, “Please forgive me, Auti.  I’m sorry for dumping this on you at the last minute. But honestly I didn’t know how to tell you because as much as I want to be here with Kaleb, I’m going to miss my best friend even more.” Her voice broke at the end. “What am I going to do without you?”

I dropped on my red sofa and hugged my red pillow.  Tears sprung to my eyes at the finality that Akila really was gone and not coming back.  She hated confrontation and would avoid it like the plague, where I met it head on. This was so her to wait until the last minute, though it annoyed the hell out of me. “Yeah, me too. That’s what hurts the most.  You made FAMU fun and I know we planned to part ways after graduation, I just thought I had one more year with you.  I didn’t think you and Kaleb were that inseparable couple.”

“I didn’t either until this summer. We had an amazing summer and I don’t want to leave him.”

“You’ve been apart for more than a year, already.” Akila had met Kaleb, last summer when she went home, and they’d had a long-distance relationship. “What’s one more year?”

 “Autumn, I love him and maybe if you let a man love you too, you would understand.”

“I have plenty of time for love. I need to finish school first and I refuse to let a man deter my dreams. For too many years, my mother put aside her career for my father, who got to be this big-time orthopedic surgeon. And what does he do, as soon as my oldest sister graduates from high school, he’s gone.  My mother made sacrifices for our family for what?”

“I know, I know. Your mother’s story won’t be yours. My parents are still together and they both in careers they love.”

I hugged the pillow tighter. “You forget I have three older sisters and their stories with men leave much to be desired, no thank you. I’m good.”

              Akila sighed. “Love happens when it happens, and you keep blocking it. Every time a man gets close to you, you find reasons why it won’t work.”

“I’m not finding reasons or excuses.  My future isn’t worth any of the men I’ve dated. Just think if I was serious about Chuckie what would have happened to me? I would be fighting with two baby mamas as we speak. I’m not against love, I just want to get mine first.  I’ve seen it happen too many times where a woman has to give up what she wants to be with a man.”  I propped my legs on the matching red ottoman.  Summer, my oldest sister who was a pediatrician, had provided the living room, dining area, and patio furniture, replete with a fifty-inch flat screen.  Akila and I had each taken care of our own bedroom furniture and décor.

“Not every man wants his woman to give up what she wants for him.  And everyone dates idiots, but what about Hakim and Cole? They were good guys.”

“And? They wanted too much of my time and couldn’t get it that I needed to study.  I still have my Masters’ program on the horizon.”

“Fine. I can’t convince you to live a little.”

“You know I have my fun with men.  I love sex as much as the dudes. I’m just not trying to be serious about anyone. You act like I’m a nun and shit. I just don’t need a relationship like you do.” I looked around our cute apartment, suddenly assailed by loneliness. “What am I going to do without you? I’m mad as hell as I am at you for dropping this shit on me, but  I know how much you missed Kaleb and your family. You were meant to return home while I don’t ever plan to go back.  Will I even like this new roommate?”

“Okay…here’s the thing. I really didn’t decide until two weeks ago to stay here and…”

I said skeptically, “I don’t like the way you’re sounding. I don’t need any more surprises right now, Akila. Who is she?”

There was a knock on the door.

“Someone’s at the door and I’m not expecting anyone. What time are the movers coming here?” Then realization dawned at the silence on the other end.  “Wait, so she’s here? Moving in right now? I swear if you weren’t so far away, I would slap you through the phone.”

“Ummm…it’s going to work out…he’s going to pay you one hundred and fifty more than I paid.”

“He? What the fuck? I can’t live with a boy.” I got up annoyed, put my phone on mute, and looked through the peephole and saw a light-skinned black woman with two tats on her neck and two long pink cornrows standing at the door. She frowned when I opened the door. “Can I help you?”

She said with a slight twist of her head. Great. Am I rooming with ghetto girl? “I’m just making sure this is the right place?”

“I don’t know what apartment you’re looking for?”

She stepped back to look at the number on my door above my head. Her shorts were even shorter than mine and she had way more hips than I did. “Does an Auti live here?”

“Autumn. That’s me.”

Her eyes widened. “I thought you were supposed to be a man?”

“And I thought you were supposed to be a man too.”

She immediately became defensive. “That trifling ass bastard. Who the fuck are you to Q?”

I frowned in confusion. “Q? I don’t know anyone named Q. You got the wrong place.”

She put her finger in my face. “Too late to lie now, bitch. You already told me your name. He told me this is where he’s staying.”

Livid, I retorted, “Get your hands out my face. Autumn is my name, but I don’t know a Q. I ain’t got no reason to lie.”

And before she or I ended up in jail, I backed up and slammed the door in her face. She immediately started banging and cursing. I quickly unmuted my phone. “Have you lost your damn mind allowing ‘Black Ink Tallahassee’ to room with me?”

“I don’t know who that woman is. I heard the whole convo…but Q,.. I mean I do know Quincy Jackson.”

“Quincy Jackson, the head drum major? So, the psycho was looking for you? You were messing around on Kaleb with a drum major? When did this happen? I didn’t realize you kept secrets from me.” The banging continued and then she’d started kicking my door too. I yelled through the door, “I’m about to call the fucking cops if you don’t stop. I don’t know Q. My old roommate knew him, not me.”

Akila said, “Auti, I didn’t mess around with him. He went to high school with Kaleb.  Quincy is your…

“Cinnamon, what the fuck you doing here? I told you to come over tonight after I got settled. Stop that shit.” I heard a male voice yelling.

The crazy girl hollered back, “You live with a stuck-up bitch and you told me you were single. That’s my motherfucking problem.”

What kind of name is Cinnamon? I took a peep through the hole and my stomach fluttered.  Quincy was a gorgeous, tall, brown skinned man with reddish undertones, soft black hair braided in small short corn rows.  He wore a loose-fitting tank and long shorts that displayed his muscled arms – of which one shoulder was completely tatted- and his toned legs well. He now smiled at Cinnamon and had placed both his hands on her waist, and she was like putty in his hands. “Babe, you don’t have any problems with me. I haven’t even met my new roommate yet and you here causing confusion.  I’m glad I stopped by when I did.  She could have called the police on you, cutting up like this over nothing.  I don’t have a woman.”

“I could be your woman.” She pulled his head down and before she could kiss him, I opened the door, arms folded.

“Akila is this my new roommate?” I shoved my cell in his hand in between the two of them.  He took it giving me a quick once over and I self-consciously tugged my short shorts down.  He obviously liked what he saw based on the tiny smile he had before he turned his back to answer the phone.  I heard the smile in his voice as he spoke to my friend so I knew without a doubt he would be living with me for the next year.  I patted my foot impatiently at Cinnamon who had been scowling ever since I interrupted their kiss.  “Look, I’m just as confused as you. My old roommate who’s on the phone with him just told me she isn’t coming back and that I have a new one who I didn’t even meet until right now.  I’m not trying to get with your man. And I definitely don’t want him.  So, leave the drama for the other women he’s seeing and not at my home.”

“Other women?” She growled at me. “He just said he doesn’t have a woman.”

“Because he has many.” I gestured toward his turned back.  “Look at him, nothing about him, says he’s only seeing you. And he’s the head drum major? Deep down you know it which is why you were ready to jump my ass.”

“Hey…hey…you don’t know shit about me.” Quincy turned back around angrily and passed me back the phone. “She wants to speak to you again.”

I clicked the phone off, too angry with Akila to talk to her and retorted, “You’re right I don’t but I know your type. And if you fuck up my last year of school with your women and parties, you’re out.”

He raised his voice. “I can do whatever the fuck I want. Akila subleased this apartment to me and I plan to pay my half of the bills, so half is mine.”

“She did it without my permission and if I didn’t need your part of the rent and bills, I wouldn’t have opened my door to this.” I gestured to him and Cinnamon. “And you better keep her on a leash, she’s the type that will stalk you thinking when she’s not with you, you have someone else. Although in your case, it’s probably the truth.”

His admittedly pretty brown eyes flashed, his mouth tightened and when Cinnamon was about to snap back he grabbed her wrist. “Look, I’m moving in later today. I wanted to meet you first and talk but I see you already judging folks. You and I don’t have to speak but half this place is mine. I already have a key.”

I stepped back from the door and snarled, “Fine. Use your key next time.” I slammed the door in both their faces this time and stormed off to my room, frantically calling Summer, hoping that somehow she would have enough to support me my last year in school.

              She answered on the second ring. “What’s up Buttercup?”

I sat down in my desk chair. “We still doing this? I’m twenty-two.” My oldest sister was twelve when I was born and had always been more like a second mother than a sister. Her nickname for me was “Buttercup” until I was five and told her to call me Autumn.  

“You’re twenty-one for another month or so. And you’ll always be my Buttercup.”

“Whatever, Summer. I did call for a reason.”

“Hence me asking, what’s up?”

“Fine smart ass. I need a huge favor.”

“What Autumn?” The serious tone had replaced her more playful, loving one.

“Calm down. It’s not that huge of a favor. Okay…maybe it is.”

              “Spit it out. I don’t have all day.”

“Akila’s not coming back and she found a new roommate.”

“Really? Why? This is your last year?”

“I know.” I leaned back in my chair and said with disdain, “she wants to be with Kaleb. Isn’t that stupid?”

“Auti, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as she finishes school at some point. They’ve been together for a while.”

“I can’t believe you’re saying that?” My big sister has always been about her career. She’s dated men and even has a child, my nine- year- old niece, but her focus has always been on being the best pediatric doctor in Houston. She’s always said that marriage will come when and if it comes.

“I know but sometimes maturity brings about clarity. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so focused on my career at the expense of everything else.  If you find the right man, he’ll support your dreams and you can do it together.”

“Well, not the men I’ve met.”

“That may be true, especially at your age. Just don’t be too hard on Akila. She’s not like you.”

“Well, I’m pissed with her now, but it’ll pass.”

“What’s the favor?”

I closed my eyes in prayer. “You think you can cover her half of the rent? I can work a few more hours and pay a little more. Or maybe I can ask Mama to help too?”

She responded rather impatiently, “Auti, I thought you said Akila found a new roommate?”

“She did but it’s a man. And I can’t live with a man.”

“A man? Does Akila know him?”

“Yes, he’s a friend of Kaleb and the head drum major of the band, though I’ve never met him until today.”

“Head drum major? How was he?”

“Already drama, his woman was here banging on my door pissed he was going to be living with me.”

She exclaimed, “What! What did he do?”

“He charmed her into calming down. You know how men like him can be?”

              “He’s cute?”

Sexy as fuck, popped in my head. “He’s alright.”

“Did he sublease the place?”

“Even if he did, I’m sure I can get out of it.”

“Auti, I’m sorry but you’re going to have to figure it out. I’m trying to save for my own practice and with private school for Bella, I really don’t have it. And don’t ask Mama. She’s finally back into dancing and spends most of her money doing so.”

“What if he’s a rapist or something? I can’t live with him.”

“I trust Akila and he’s the head drum major. He’s probably solid. And you can’t just kick him out legally. What does your gut say about him? Are you worried? Does he scare you?”

I sighed. “No. He doesn’t. Just want peace my last year.”

“You want Akila back. No matter who she picked you would have been upset.”

“Don’t you think it’s foul how she moved out on me and then chose another roommate without my knowledge?”

“Extremely foul and I’d be furious. And I’m not telling you to stay there if you’re unhappy or uncomfortable, just that you’re almost twenty-two years old as you just reminded me. Time for you to figure it out on your own.”

My head started pounding again, that she wouldn’t help me. “That’s what I’m doing, Summer. You know I can’t afford to work full time and finish school. I need your help.”

“No one told you to choose an expensive ass townhome while in college. When I was in college, I barely had enough money for McDonalds. Meanwhile, you’re eating at steakhouses courtesy of all of us. I furnished your place and that’s it. And you better not call Mama,” she threatened.

“I’ll just call Daddy.”

“You do that. I gotta go.” We both knew I wasn’t going to do that. My father had more than enough money to fund my education and lifestyle.  I hadn’t spoken to him since I went off on him at my high school graduation party for not being there for me like he’d been for my older sisters. When he left Mama, he’d left me too.

I said testily, “Bye, then if you have to go. Sorry if my problems are a bother to you.”

              “Bye, Autumn and grow the hell up.”

I threw my phone before myself on the bed, totally feeling fucked. This was so not how I pictured my last year at FAMU, living with a sexy man who already got me hot, truth be reluctantly told.

Essence of You trilogy

The story of Jasmine Green and Montana Keyes

Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the entire trilogy!!

I am really proud of this story, probably more than the rest because the story of Jasmine and Montana began January 2018 and finally came to completion in July of 2019, and is my longest running story. And some of you reading this may remember I started their story on wattpad…got inspired after seeing Black Panther and created Forbidden with Michael “Bakari” Jordan and Chadwick “Aaron” Boswick as two brothers fighting over the same woman. Then finished up Game Changer, the last of the Endgame Trilogy before returning to Jas ‘like a flower’ and Ana to complete Essence of You in November of 2018. I then published on Amazon and got feedback it was too long for readers and I revised and made it into two and Essence of You became Essence of Me as well.

I’m from New Orleans and though I don’t live their anymore, I used my experiences while living there and attending the Essence Festival to inspire their story. There are some readers who may see Jasmine as weak and not strong for someone like Montana but all I tried to do was make her human. Although I write romance, I strive to make my stories with flawed characters and she may have been my most flawed thus far. I hoped I gave enough backstory on why she struggled with liking herself and self-doubt at different points in her life. She had those issues and I as well as other women I know have had struggles with self-love. I wanted to show that it’s really all in your mind how you feel about yourself because in spite of her self-doubt (spoiler alert) as Dr. Zoe Broussard-Carson pointed out, she did love herself and in her relationship with Montana we see how they both have grown through their love for each other.

In Montana, I explored how family trauma has lasting impact on how you perceive self, others, and relationships. Often our parents and for those who are in relationships and have children don’t realize how their actions and behaviors influences their children. Parents have to be aware of their actions and that children may see what’s really going on though often adults think that they don’t.

This was my first story without feedback and my stomach was in knots about how it would be received. I poured my heart and there were times I teared as I wrote (e.g, when she had the baby, the therapy chapter, and their wedding) and I hope my readers felt emotions as I did writing about them. I started having regrets that I even announced that there would be another book after the long first one that was so long it was split into two still long stories (I swear my long ass stories are a thing of the past, especially since my most consistent book in terms of popularity has been One Week, a stand alone that I didn’t think readers would take to it as they have.)

I was told that there was nothing left to write about Jas and Montana and if you knew personally all that I went through this past year (even having a moment where I shut out the world because life was too much) it’s a miracle I even completed their story. As you can see I found a lot to still talk about with this couple. I will miss Jasmine and Montana, and their family and friends…

Please share with me:

  1. Your favorite characters
  2. Your favorite love scenes
  3. Your favorite moments
  4. Which of the characters showed the most growth?
  5. Which supporting characters would you like to read more about in a story or a novella? (Aaron Youngblood’s story is on the horizon for my Forbidden fans)
  6. Do you think Jasmine was wrong for not telling Zena about Tarik and Cali?
  7. Did you believe that the baby was Montana’s? Why or why not?
  8. My stories often deal with forgiveness. Is there anyone that should not have been forgiven for their actions in your opinion?
  9. Is there ever a reason to lie or withhold information from a loved one?
  10. Which of the trilogy is your favorite story and why?

Essence of Us

Chapter 1

Wedding Blues

On the flight back home, I remained awake while Montana slept. I guess the planning and the actual proposal in front of thousands of people via social media, exhausted him.  The minute the flight took off I wanted us to talk and he promptly went to sleep.  I kissed his forehead and settled in my seat, beaming with so much joy.  I was on such a freaking high, I swear I floated and looked down on myself and Montana.  I used to hate when newly engaged women would flash their left hands hoping someone would ask about their engagement.  I don’t know if I was jealous or such a cynic on love that I never believed they were as happy as they professed to be.  Until it happened to me. All I wanted to do was shout to the world that I was getting married and I would be Mrs. Montana Keyes. 

This time, I had no doubt or hesitation when he asked me to be his wife.  It felt right because we were both in the emotional place to become one.  We trusted each other, and we’d created a life that grew within me.  I knew he toyed with me about getting married when we’d had that conversation the night I returned from Martha’s Vineyard.  Still, I thought he would wait until after the baby was born to propose.  Montana truly surprised me, especially after last night in which he pretended he wasn’t quite ready for marriage.  I couldn’t ask for a more perfect moment. It was so us.

 As we’d drove to the airport, I’d checked my cell and I had over one hundred texts, probably from every contact in my phonebook.  I’d planned to respond to everyone but first I’d wanted to speak to my family first.  When I’d spoken with Deja and my mother, they told me they’d watched the whole proposal and found themselves yelling and screaming as if they had watched the wedding between Dwayne and Whitley on A Different World.  My mother said he’d asked her for my hand in marriage a week after they lost the Finals. Montana had been honest with her and told her that we weren’t communicating because he needed to work out things within himself because he wanted to make sure he was truly ready to be my husband.   She told me how she couldn’t stop crying when she heard Summer Breeze, realizing I had told him how much that song meant to me.  Montana had held my hand while on the phone with his own mother having a similar conversation.  He’d look at me and squeeze my hand reassuringly.  How did we get so lucky to find one another?

Now, I looked at him again, lying as flat as the seat would allow, in a deep sleep. I pressed the button, so my seat could lie flat as his and I picked up my life partner’s hand and fell asleep holding it.  

*****

Cali said as soon as she called to congratulate me on our engagement, “I’m so happy for you and I can’t wait for the wedding.”  I sat cross-legged on our sofa, daydreaming about our wedding though I needed to complete paperwork for graduation. “Do you know how hard it was to keep it a secret?”

“When did he tell you?”

“He told me a couple of days before you left for New Orleans and he only did because he wanted to know if his proposal idea was a good one.  And I was the one who told Mama, your mother and sister about Facebook Live so they could watch.”

“Facebook was your idea wasn’t it?” Montana had someone on his team update his social media and rarely posted himself. 

“Of course.  I thought our families should be a part of the proposal since that was his original idea. I also wanted to get the PR out that my brother is finally off the market at the same time.” She paused. “Are you okay with me doing that? I know how these women have been about you and him and now that you’re engaged and having his baby, it’s going to get stupid crazy.”

“So far there’s been nothing, but love based on the comments from Facebook and we were approached by TMZ as we arrived at the airport.  And the guy congratulated us and asked about the wedding date.  I’m a little nervous about all the attention I’m about to get but I thought it was a nice touch to go Live.  It made me feel even more special that Montana had no problem telling the world how much he really loves me.” I got up off the sofa and headed to the kitchen to get a bottle of water.

“Have you discussed when you want to get married yet?”

“I guess he told you he wants a big wedding.”

Cali laughed. “He loves a party. I wouldn’t expect anything less from him.”

“Girl, I got to get used to that part of him, I’m more low-key.  I could care less about a party or a huge wedding.  Justice of the Peace would be fine with me.”

“Marriage is a compromise.  He’s going to settle and not be so into parties. He’s already spending more time with you than in the clubs like he used to.”

“Honestly, I can’t even think of the wedding with finishing law school, Deja’s move to Atlanta, and your brother has a lot of traveling to do in the next few weeks.” I avoided saying that we had also planned a trip to Jamaica with Tarik and Zena for Labor Day weekend. “More than likely it will be in the winter when the season is just beginning, or we’ll wait until after the season is over. I didn’t know we were getting engaged so I’m good with waiting to get married after I have the baby.  And you’ll be a bridesmaid, of course.”

I heard her clap her hands. “I’d hoped you would ask. I know we just started being friends.”

“You’re my sister now and you’ve have been one of our biggest cheerleaders. Montana is choosing his groomsmen and I’m choosing my ladies.  He’s leaving the wedding date up to me, since he doesn’t care when we get married.”

“Makes sense. Where is Ana anyway?”

“He ran to the store to get me some prenatal vitamins and juice.”

“My spoiled brother is at the store doing domestic tasks. Wow. I am officially a hopeless romantic again.”

I smiled thinking of my husband-to-be. In fact, I don’t think either one of us had stop smiling since we returned from New Orleans two days ago. “He’s being a good daddy and husband already.”

“Our father was a good dad – he just wasn’t always a good husband. I’m proud of Ana for taking a chance on love and marriage and that he chose you.”

“Thank you so much for believing in us. I’m proud of the both of us, if you knew all the shit we’ve been through.” I made it back to the sofa with my water.

“Um…I know my brother, so I can imagine a lot.  One day…” Cali sounded wistful.

“What happened to that producer?”

She said nonchalantly, “He was too self-involved. But I did meet this journalist the other day.  He’s so fine and intelligent and cultured.  We’re going to Hawaii for Labor Day.”

“Cali strikes again.” I joked. In the short time I knew her she was on the third man.  She swore to me she was just having a good dating year because prior to this year she really hadn’t dated since she and Tarik ended their relationship four years ago.

“I try.” Cali laughed at herself. “I know we never talk about your friend, Tarik’s wife, but is she going to be fine with me being in the wedding?”

“As long as you’re okay with it, she will be.  Besides you’re Montana’s only sister, you have to be in the wedding.”

“It’s your day and I don’t want you to feel awkward and as much as I want to be in it, if it’s going to be stressful, I don’t have to be in it. I know she’s your best friend.”

“But you and I have become good friends, you’re about to be fam, and I want you to be in our wedding. It’ll be fine. We’re all adults,” I said it though I crossed my fingers that Zena wouldn’t trip too much.

*****

I found out a few minutes later how Zena felt when she called me before I had a chance to move from the sofa. We’d only spoken briefly while we were in New Orleans right after the proposal.  I wanted to wait until I really had more time to talk to her privately.  Montana would be home soon, and I still thought we didn’t have enough time to talk but I answered anyway.  We chit chatted about Taj and her new job as a speech therapist in a private office before we turned the conversation to me.

              “Everyone is talking about his proposal. He really did good. And it was hilarious, his horrible rendition of Jodeci – you getting down on your knees too. If looks could kill, Montana wanted to strangle you.”

I giggled thinking of his murderous expression at that moment. “I had no clue he was recording it. And he seemed so nervous, I only did that to reassure him that this time I was ready.”

              “Duh, he knew that Jas. It’s just an anxiety-invoking experience for any man who’s about to officially change his life in such a permanent way.”

              “Did I look crazy?  I’m not ready to watch it, yet.” I still had some insecurities about my looks, especially because so many people watched the proposal.

              Zena praised, “You both looked amazing. Anyone watching that could see the love between you. I couldn’t stop crying and you know I rarely do that. Even Tarik had tears in his eyes though he swore it was allergies.  When is the wedding anyway?”

I tucked my left leg underneath me.  “We’re still trying to decide, but ultimately it’s up to me.  He’s open but loves the idea of us having a wedding on November twenty-first, the day we officially became a couple. I like the idea, too, but I will be almost seven months.”

“No, not a good date unless you want to wait until next November.”

“I thought about that because that day is special to me too. The only thing is I don’t want to wait that long either.  I used to want a wedding, but now the only thing I care about is being Mrs. Keyes.”

“So why have one?”

“Montana and both our families want a wedding.”

“He wants a wedding? Tarik was cool with the Justice of the Peace or Vegas until I threatened him.”

I leaned back against the sofa getting more comfortable. “Z, he does. He wants to celebrate our love in a big way.  I don’t know if this is his way of being different than his parents who had a private ceremony in his grandparent’s home or just what he wants.”

“Then again Montana does like parties.”

“He does, and that’s really our only difference. This man throws parties for almost every holiday if he doesn’t have a game.  He knows I don’t like all of that, so he wants to continue giving the Christmas Gala and birthday parties. His Halloween Bash days are over for sure.”  

Zena asked, “You’re sure? That sounds like so much fun. I would love to fly home for his Halloween Bash.”

“Nope. That was the last time he messed around with Pepper and I’d been trying to get in touch with him. Too many bad memories.  And he didn’t argue about giving up that party.” I still hadn’t told her about the miscarriage. We were going to spend four days in Jamaica, and we would have time to really talk and I would tell her why I didn’t look at Halloween quite the same.

“Oh, yeah. I forgot about that. So, who’s going to be in the wedding? Have you decided that yet?”

“Deja, you, Cali, and Gabby.  You’ll be my Matron of Honor of course and Deja, my Maid of Honor.  I know Carrie wants to be in it, but Montana is still not really feeling her. If we wait until next November, I may be able to convince him to let her be a part of the wedding party since so much time would have passed.”

“Shouldn’t you have the final say on bridesmaids?”

“Yes, but Carrie hasn’t been the most supportive of us. And then the whole drama with Everette. I just don’t want Montana to be uncomfortable.”

              Zena argued, “She likes Montana, she was just encouraging you to be cautious because of his past. Carrie is happy for you and she can’t help her estranged husband chose to do something so idiotic. Come on, Jas. It has always been the three of us.”

              I reminded her. “She wasn’t in your wedding.”

              “She’s not my cousin and I had to put Tarik’s sisters in the wedding. We still had a budget for the wedding even though Montana paid. You don’t.”

              “But…”

Zena hissed, “But what? He will get over his discomfort and if he doesn’t then that’s on him.”

I adjusted to crossed both my legs, wondering why she seemed bothered suddenly.  “Then, I wouldn’t feel good if he isn’t comfortable.”

“Well, I’m not comfortable with his sister being in the wedding.  Are you still going to ask her to be in the wedding?”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.  “I already did.”

“Well, just tell her it would be awkward.”

My stomach began to form knots. “You mean it would be awkward for you.”

“So, you don’t want Montana to be uncomfortable but it’s okay if I am?” Zena practically yelled.

I raised my voice. “Are you kidding me? Why are we even talking about you? We were talking about Carrie.”

“It’s the same thing. Montana doesn’t want Carrie and I don’t want Cali.”

I started pulling on my hair, nerves fraying.  I took a calming breath. “Zena. This is his wedding too. And she’s his only sister. The same way you had to include Tarik’s sisters, though you really didn’t know them. I have to do the same with Cali.  Besides, Cali asked if you would be okay with it and I told her you would be.”

She retorted, “You told her wrong. I don’t want to be in the wedding with her.”

“What is wrong with you?  Not only did you get her ex, you married him and had his son. Why are you tripping?  She’s not.”

“She’s my husband’s ex.”

“And, she’s Montana only sister and my friend.”

“Which is something I have had an issue with for a long time. I’m not friends with Tarik’s sisters, especially Shoshanna once she made it clear she had a thing for Montana. We’re cordial, but we’re not going to the movies and shit.”

I frowned.  “I never asked or expected that of you.”

“You didn’t have to. We’re more than friends and I thought you respected that.”

“I do. You’ll always be my sister, but Cali will be my sister through marriage and she’s really…”

Zena interrupted voice dripping with sarcasm. “Cool, right? I know that’s all I ever hear from you and Tarik.”

My head snapped back.  “Tarik? He still talks about her? Is this what this is really about? Zena, Tarik is crazy about you. He broke up with Cali because he wasn’t ready to be in a committed relationship. But he married you.”

“She’s Montana’s sister and when we have gatherings involving family, inevitably her name is brought up and everyone loves her. I was pissed as hell that they were at the All-Star game together without me.”

“Together, really Z? I was there, remember?  And I told you everything. They didn’t even sit together. She sat next to me and we couldn’t even see Tarik from where we were sitting. You’re right because she’s Montana’s sister, she’ll always be a part of your life.  You can’t keep thinking of her as a threat.”

“Well, if Montana can tell you not to put your own cousin who’s also like a sister and a best friend to you in the wedding, I’m sure you can tell him that you don’t want Cali.”

“The difference is, I do want Cali to be in the wedding and I love Carrie but I’m not that attached to the idea of her being in my wedding.  I’m fine with Montana not wanting her to be in it, too.  Carrie and I are cool again, but she said some shady shit to me when I told her about Ev kissing me.  And Cali has been nothing but supportive of me and her brother. If it wasn’t for her, I’m not even sure if Montana and I would be back together.”

“You mean that would be me. I was the one who told Montana where you worked in the first place.  He called Tarik in the middle of Halloween night determined to get you back.”

My head started swimming.  “What? He called you on Halloween?  He knew where I worked? It wasn’t a coincidence?”

She spoke harshly, “You can be so naïve. You really think of all the law firms in fucking New York City, Montana stumbles on the one where you work, two weeks after you called him for the last time?”

I grew silent on my end, feeling somehow cheated. I always thought faith brought us back together when I saw him again at the firm. He made it seem that way as well and he knew it wasn’t the truth.

“I believe you should be saying thank you to me. Without me, you and he may not have gotten back together period. You hooked up in Jamaica because of me and got into a relationship because of me. So…you’re welcome.” Zena finished angrily.

I uncrossed my legs and moved to the edge of the sofa. “Jamaica? The place where you lied about his being there because you wanted both of us to be in your wedding? I may have been angry if you told me he was going to be my escort, but I would’ve been there for you.  I’m telling you upfront about who’ll be in the wedding and I’m asking you to put aside your insecurities and be there for me like I was for you.”

“My insecurities?” Her voice squeaked.

“Yes, believe it, Z. You walk around like your shit don’t stink but guess what – we all have insecurities. Some more than others.  Your reluctance about being in my wedding because of Tarik’s ex is understandable, but not being in my wedding because of it, is nothing but your insecurities.”

“It’s about loyalty. And I see now that you’re marrying Montana, your loyalty lies with him and his people. You let him kick Carrie out but choosing his sister over me.”

I took another deep breath. “You know what, Z?  I’m done with being manipulated by you.”   

              “Manipulate?  Girl, please. That would be the man you’re about to marry.  In the end he gets his way about everything. You’re fucking pregnant because that’s what he wanted.  He only asked you to marry him because he’s a big-time basketball player who needs to portray a positive image after all the negativity this past season. His endorsements are through the roof since the Knicks made it to the finals, and no one wants a spokesperson with a ‘baby mama’. So, the next time you accuse me, your best friend, of manipulating you, look at the man sleeping next to you.”

              My hands and voice trembled at her hurtful words. “You know what? If that’s what you think of Montana and his love for me, you don’t need to be in the wedding anyway. You’re so fucking smart and know everything, why would you want to be my friend anyway?  If I’m so stupid and naïve that I can’t see how he’s trying to use me, then why would you care about who’s in my wedding? The bottom line is you’re jealous because you’re afraid that deep down that Tarik made the wrong choice.  And based on how you’re acting about my wedding, he just might have.”

              “Fuck you, Jasmine.”

              Tears sprung to my eyes because we’d never cursed each other. “It only hurts because you know I’m speaking the truth. Goodbye Zena.”

              And just like that the light that was my happiness went suddenly dark.

*****

“Jas, where are you?” I heard the front door close. “Jasmine?”

“I’m in the bedroom.” He must have spoken to Tarik based on the urgency I could hear in his tone.

He came into our room and I lie buried deep under the covers. “What’s going on with you and Zena?”

My eyes were puffy from crying. I wailed the pain so deep, “She doesn’t want to be in the wedding if Cali is going to be in the wedding.  She said I was being loyal to you and not my family because I didn’t want Carrie to be in the wedding, but Cali would be.  We got into it and I basically told her that she was jealous that Cali may have been a better choice for Tarik then she was. She cursed me and then I got off the phone. And we’ve never cursed each other. Ever. What did Tarik tell you?”

Montana kicked off his shoes and laid down next to me on top of the covers. “He said Zena and you got into an argument and that she wasn’t going to be in the wedding and didn’t want to go with us to Jamaica.”

“I guess she couldn’t tell her husband the truth that she’s jealous of Cali because we all know it’s stupid.”

“Yeah.” His voice drifted making me look at him.

“What? Cali should be in the wedding. She’s your sister.”

Montana sighed, “I don’t want this.”

“What?”

“You in here upset.  Zena not wanting to be in the wedding or even wanting to go to Jamaica.”

“I don’t want it either, but she’s not being fair. She lied to me about you being in her wedding because she wanted me to come and she didn’t think I would if I knew. And I was pissed when I got there and found out. I thought she might feel the same way about Cali. So, I tried to be upfront about everything and not put her in the position she placed me in.  Maybe I should have lied like she did to me, and we would all be good.”

Montana turned over to his side. “Pissed? You didn’t want to see me that much?”

I waved my hand.  “Can you focus on the present?”

“We can in a minute, but you never told me you were angry about me being in the wedding. Why angry? I didn’t do anything wrong to you.”

I turned on my side and propped myself on my elbow to face him. “Montana, you know I was just scared of seeing you. Scared that you would reject me because of my own actions.  I’d never stopped thinking about you.  I didn’t like that she tricked me when I’d asked her several times if you would be in the wedding. I was only pissed because I was lied to and wasn’t prepared to see you.  She blindsided me with you.  I thought you might have come to the wedding with a date and I would be forced to watch you have fun with another woman. I wasn’t angry with you at all, okay?” I touched his cheek.  “Can we now talk about the present?”

His face relaxed. “Yes, continue.”

“Wait…we have to go back to the past for another minute. Why didn’t you tell me you knew where I worked? Had me thinking it was fate.”

He looked sheepish. “I never told you?”

I squeezed his nose. “No, boy. You didn’t, and you know you didn’t.”

“It’s such a better story to tell our children that I bumped into you again. And I always thought Zena told you anyway.”

              “Well she just did. It hurt and I felt cheated. You didn’t have to keep up the lie.  It’s still a good story to tell our child that his daddy went to his mother’s job to win her back.”

He put his hand on the back of my neck and pulled me close to give me a quick kiss.  “’His’? Are you thinking it’s a boy?”

“I don’t know. We’ll find out soon enough.  Don’t think I didn’t notice you’re trying to change the subject.” I placed my hand on his chest, loving the soothing rhythm of his heart. “Seriously, why didn’t you tell me that it wasn’t a coincidence that you came to my job looking for me?”

“I planned to at Sylvia’s and you know how that ended.” He winked before continuing, “I was miserable without you and when you called on Halloween, I could hear sadness in your voice. I wanted to call you right then and then I figured you would be angry if you knew I was having a party.  I called Zena to see if you still lived at the same address. She said you did but she wasn’t sure when you would be home since you often stayed with your mother.  It was her suggestion that I wait for you after work.  When she told me where you worked, Lawson and Associates, were one of the firms on my list to represent me anyway.  I thought you were still working in a public defender’s office, so I was surprised to know you worked for them.  It was kind of a coincidence. I saw it as a win-win for you if I asked you to be a part of my legal team and to be my woman. You’re not really upset about it, are you?”

I met his concerned gaze. “Honestly, I feel manipulated. Like, everyone thinks I can’t make decisions on my own.  So, they’ll just make them for me.  You could have simply called and told me you wanted to talk.”

Montana whispered, “Baby, I’m sorry. I guess I never thought that you would take it that way. I fucked up with you and I needed to do something big to apologize and get you back.”

“And you were so firm about Carrie not being in the wedding after we both agreed to choose our own respective wedding party.  I think Zena’s issue is that I’m okay with Cali and not Carrie being in the wedding, mainly because it’s what you want.” I could feel his heartrate increase. “See you’re getting upset.”

Montana frowned. “Don’t act like it’s just my decision. Why would you want her to be a part of the wedding when she was the reason, we had issues?”

“Come on, Montana. She wasn’t the only reason. We both had our own shit and her decision to begin an affair with one of your friends…”

He corrected, “Teammate.”

“’Teammate’… did cause trouble for both of us. But she hasn’t done anything wrong in relation to us since the reception.  It really was about her ex trying to hurt you, to hurt us.  She’s my fam and she’s no longer with Everette anyway and…”

He shot up, startling me.  Before I could fall back, he grabbed me by the arms and growled, “Don’t ever say his name again.”

“Or what?” I dared. I had to change the tension between us. He and I were good, but we were letting the problems of others cause confusion between us. I already possibly lost my best friend and I would be damned if I would lose him over bullshit.            

Some of Montana’s anger dissipated at my response. “What?”

“What are you going to do if I say his name again?” I leaned close to his lips and whispered against them, “What are you going to do to me?”

He lowered his eyes to my mouth. “You’re playing with fire. Be careful you might get burned.”

“You promise?” I gave him a slow kiss without my tongue and pulled back to look at him. “Let’s talk later okay?”

“Yeah, because I need to show you what happens when you don’t obey your future husband.”

“Obey?” I then sucked on his lower lip before using my tongue this time to kiss him. I stopped kissing him just as abruptly as I started. His breathing increased, and I smiled knowing I was about to get fucked good. “Only in the bedroom, Mr. Keyes.”

“In that case, I think you need to suck this dick.”

I reached down and grabbed him through his pants. “Yes, sir.”

“Sir? Never mind.” He grinned, and before I could ask what he meant, he had turned me over, so my ass was in the air, and he lifted my dress practically over my head, and moved my panties to the side to enter me roughly.

Chapter 2

Real Love

              I had a constant ache in my stomach, right next to the baby, though I tried to focus on what I did have – a gorgeous, fine fiancé, loving sister and mother, a healthy pregnancy, and a bright future.  No matter how I soothed myself with those thoughts, the fight with Zena loomed heavy.  She’d been my best friend forever and we used to see each other every day as children, and several times a week as adults until she moved to L.A. Up until we argued, we spoke on the phone at least once a week.  Zena was my family and now she didn’t want to even go to Jamaica with us.  Montana still wanted to go since the first time in Jamaica ended so badly for us.  He wanted a do-over for my birthday.  I argued we had a lifetime of travel and I had so much on my plate with submitting paperwork for my graduation ceremony in December, Deja’s travel to Atlanta in two days, and his busy schedule.  Montana insisted that we should still go and just love on each other for my birthday.  Besides, he argued, he wouldn’t be able to travel with me once the season began in early fall.

              My cell rang as I sat at the desk we added to Montana’s room.  I had to do some corrections to the briefs I prepared for my last class.  Once I finished, I would be officially done with law school and then it would be time to study for the bar.  I leaned back when I saw Carrie’s number. We hadn’t spoken much lately. She’d called to congratulate me, but she had been too busy taking care of her baby and finalizing her divorce for the type of idle chatter we used to have. 

              I answered hoping out conversation would be light, “Hey, what’s up?”

              “Why didn’t you tell me that you and Z not speaking?” Carrie accused.

              I shouldn’t have answered the phone. “It’s only been a few days and I have too much going on to keep talking about it.  You know I’m taking Deja to Atlanta this weekend. She asked me to go with her at the last minute after bragging, she didn’t like goodbyes and that she and Mama could handle it on her own. And I’m still finishing some papers so I can graduate.”

              “So? In the past, you would’ve called me the minute you got off the phone with Zena. Are you still angry with me?”

              “No…it’s just different between us and honestly I think we’ve both been too busy to just talk like we used to.”

              Carrie lamented, “You’re still mad. Zena told me you didn’t want me to be in your wedding and that’s why you and she got into it.”

              “Is that the only reason she told you?”

              She said sharply, “Yes. And at least she still has my back.”

              I rubbed my belly, a new habit that I now had whenever I became tense. “It’s not like that. I do have your back and will always love you.  Montana still has some sort of feeling toward you after what happened at Z’s wedding with Darryl and then after Everette did what he did.  I actually think if we get married sometime next year, he’ll feel better about you and you could be in the wedding.”

              “Wow. Zena’s right, you’re really taking his side about this?”

              I sat up straight. “You know what? My head already hurts because of Zena, who really is only mad because Cali is in the wedding.  Did she tell you that’s what made her angry? She wasn’t really defending you.  She told me that since Montana didn’t want you in the wedding then I need to get rid of Cali because she would be uncomfortable.  And she didn’t understand why her comfort wasn’t as important as Montana’s.”

              “What? Did she really say that? But he’s going to be your husband and it’s his wedding too,” she surprisingly responded. “Okay, she’s tripping hard.”

              “Thank you.” I sighed loudly and leaned back in my chair. “Carrie, you know I love you. I just didn’t want to cause confusion on our wedding day.  My future husband has a temper and is now jealous of Everette. You are a reminder of Ev.”

              “Montana doesn’t need to see me that way.  I confronted Everette about his behavior and he admitted that he was only trying to get at Montana.  He swore that he doesn’t have feelings for you.  He said that he just missed the family and you were always nice to him.  He asked me to apologize for him because he was too embarrassed to see you. And I’m sorry again for saying those horrible things to you.  I know you would never mess around with any man in my life, let alone my husband.  I was just jealous that he kissed you, and he barely touches me anymore.”

              “Carrie, I swear I never did anything to lead him on and he’d never ever hit on me or looked at me differently until that night.”

              “That’s what he told me.  I’m sorry for ever doubting that you would ever do something like that to me.”

              “So, you’re okay with not being in the wedding?”

              “Am I invited to the wedding?”

              “Of course.”

              “Then, I’m fine. Zena made it seem like you didn’t ask me because you were still angry with me. I understand about Montana. I hate it but I get it.  Maybe in time he can see me without associating me with Everette and drama.”

              “He will. He’s my family now like you’ve always been. We’ll get through it.”

               “When is the wedding anyway?”

“I don’t know if I can wait until next November, which is our dating anniversary but definitely want to wait until after February when I have the baby. My nose already spreading across my face and I can tell I’m not going to be cute like you were when you were pregnant.”

She contradicted, “Jas, you’re always beautiful.  And Montana thinks so too.  He looked so happy when he proposed.”

I twirled in my chair and looked around my office-Montana’s-guest room.  It smelled and looked like him, with his Nikes and workout clothes tossed around the room.  Neither one of us were good at picking up after ourselves or had taken the time to get housekeeping, so our home was officially a mess. But it was our mess.  I wanted to always be this happy. Montana had already flown out of town for one of his endorsement deals.  And would be in and out of the city until we headed to Jamaica for my birthday.  I missed him terribly though he left this morning. What would I do without him? “Carrie, how are you really doing? I know how much Everette meant to you and you’d been together for years.”

“I’m not the same. I miss him every single day. I keep thinking as time passes, it will get easier. It’s been almost a year and yet I wake up crying every morning.  I don’t know how I let dick, that wasn’t even that good, ruin my marriage to a good husband.”

“I don’t know whether to cry or cheer that you actually said ‘dick’.” I laughed trying to make my cousin feel better. “Seriously, yes you fucked up, but you have to forgive yourself.  Is he still being hateful to you?”

“I realized Z was right, how can I possibly judge anyone for their mouth, when I committed one of the worst sins?  Ev has been good lately.  I think after what happened with you, and I cursed him out, he got it together. He’s been cordial when we co-parent.  Sometimes I think it’s worse this way.  Before, I knew underneath his anger and nastiness, he still wanted and loved me. Now he seems completely fine with our separation and I think he’s even dating again.”

“Sorry Carrie, but maybe you should try and date, too.”

“I have absolutely no interest in anyone else but Ev.  My advice to you, do what it takes to keep your marriage strong and happy and never take each other for granted.”

“Thank you for the advice. Now, holding on to Montana for the long haul scares the hell out of me, I’m already feeling frumpy standing next to him.”

“Jasmine, Montana has been crazy about you since he met you.  I was there, remember?”

“Yes, but I was a size ten and even smaller when I saw him in Jamaica and now, I’m a twelve and expanding every day. This pregnancy is whipping my ass and I still have six months to go.  What if I have trouble losing this weight? There’s a reason some celebrity women don’t want to have babies – you never know how you’ll look after pregnancy.”

“I know how you feel because I felt some kind of way about my weight gain. It’s an adjustment but I’m fine now.”

“Because you were already rail thin and now, you’re petite with curves. I’ve already been the chubby kid and had the womanly curves as a teenager.  I can’t lie. I’m worried about my weight after the baby and if he’ll still want me.  Montana dated model types before me.”

“You’re rich now. If you’re that concerned, just hire a trainer and a chef who’ll keep you sexy. Or do what the rich do and get surgery.  Stop worrying.  He’ll love you no matter your size.”

              “I hope so. He’s been such a fanatic about my diet. A part of me wonders if he’s doing it for cosmetic reasons too. You know how men can be, especially an athlete, whose job is to be in the best shape.”

              “Maybe…nothing wrong with keeping yourself up. Just don’t stress like I used to. I damn near had an eating disorder and I was tiny. Losing my marriage, woke me up to a lot of things, including perfection is impossible.  And when we get off the phone, I’m calling Zena and tell her to stop tripping.  You and I are good, I don’t need to be in the wedding.  And Tarik doesn’t want Cali, so she needs to let that go. Cali’s Montana only sister, she has to be in the wedding.”

              “Exactly what I said. Please talk sense to her. It got ugly and I hate not talking to her. Did she tell you she cancelled our trip to Jamaica?”

“She told me. That’s why I called you. You two have never argued like this. It’s always been me and her or you and me, but never you and Zena. I’ll talk to her and make it right, okay?”

“Yeah. Love you and let’s plan to have dinner soon.” I smiled grateful for my cousin’s call and that the slight tension between she and I was finally gone.  For the first time since I argued with Zena, I felt like soon everything would be okay.  If Carrie could understand and not have hard feelings about not being in the wedding, then Zena should be able to get over her insecurities about Cali as well.

*****

              The night before I would fly to Atlanta to get my sister settled in college, Montana and I were mindlessly watching television in bed.  He drew shapes on my belly out of boredom.  I commented, “You do know that tickles?”

              “Really?” His finger pressed harder. “Does this still tickle?”

              “Yes.” I smiled.

              “No, it doesn’t. You’re not even moving when I touch you.” He bent to kiss my belly and his mustache brushed against my skin and I moved instinctively. “See, now that’s ticklish.”

              “Fine, it’s making me want you and I’m too tired for sex.  It’s what you did on my back when we were in Dallas, enticing me to sleep with you.”

              He grinned. “It worked didn’t it?  You were so sexy that night, I had to have you.  As soon as I looked down at you in that dress, I wanted you so bad.  I couldn’t wait to get to you. I wanted to punch that random you danced with.”   

              “You still think I’m sexy?” I asked hating my old self-doubts had reared its ugly head now that I was pregnant.

              Montana frowned and moved from my belly to lean over my face. “Where’s that coming from?”

              I dropped my eyes from his. “Just answer.”

              “Hmmm…sometimes you are and sometimes not.”

              That stung.  I felt tears behind my lids, and I shut my eyes tight.

              “Hey, I’m being honest. There are days, I can’t keep my hands off you but every day I’m just happy you’re with me.” He tilted my chin and I opened my eyes. “You can’t possibly think I’m sexy every day?”

              “I do.”

              “Okay, what about the other day, when I wanted to have sex and you didn’t because you were mad with me about…I don’t even remember what the fuck you were mad with me about. But you hopped your happy ass in bed and went to sleep.”

              I rolled my eyes. “We were supposed to go out to dinner, but you couldn’t stop reviewing plays all night.  Of course, you forgot what I was mad about, because you thought it was idiotic for me to be upset.” 

              “Was I sexy to you when you threw a pillow at me because I didn’t hear you call my name?” He raised one brow.

              “I’d called your ass, at least five times. This place ain’t that big. You were ignoring me, and you know it.”

              Montana ducked his head to hide his smile that I still caught. “But was I sexy?”

              “You get on my nerves. No…you were not. But when I’m not mad with you, I think you’re so damn hot.”

              “Baby, I have had some of the sexiest and most beautiful women in the world and after a while, that gets tired.”

              I frowned. “Should I be offended?”

              He laughed out loud. “Remember, you asked me that our first night together at the elevator.”

              “Yes, I do.” I smiled at the memory when he told me he thought I was beautiful for the second time.   “Seriously, Montana, what if I can’t get the baby weight off, will you still think I’m sexy?  You’ve never seen me at my biggest and I’m headed that way.”

              “We’ll work out together. I already got you eating better. No worries. You’re supposed to gain weight when you’re pregnant.”

              I closed my eyes unsure if I liked his response. It still sounded like he wanted me to be smaller.

              “Why the tears?” He wiped my cheek. I didn’t even realize I’d started crying.

              “Hormones,” I said and shifted away from him.

              He picked up the remote and changed channels and didn’t question my explanation, making me feel worse.  Silently, I cried myself to sleep.

*****

              The next morning, I woke before him to prepare for my trip. He was headed to Vegas and I would be going to Atlanta, and we’d planned to leave for the airport together.  I looked in the mirror at my puffy eyes. I needed to get rid of them before Montana saw them.  I pressed a cool cloth under my eyes and brushed my teeth.  When I rinsed my mouth and spit in in the sink, I screamed. Montana stood behind me looking at my reflection through the mirror. “You scared me.”

              “Sorry.” He rubbed his eyes and leaned against me to grab the mouthwash.

              I watched him swish and spit out before he kissed my cheek and wrapped his arms around me.  I turned my head to look at him. “I didn’t think you would be up already.”

              “I wanted some time with you this morning. You fell asleep on me last night. What was that about?”

              I shrugged my shoulders and looked down.

              “I’m still learning about this communication thing and sometimes I fuck up.  I realized that my answer about whether you’re still sexy to me hurt you. Jas, look at us.”

              I studied our reflection.  Montana needed a shave and his growing hair needed to be brushed.  He only wore black boxer briefs and I slept in one of his long white tanks and I had my hair in two French braids.  We were almost similar in skin tone and we both had a slight glow.  His height and build were perfect for mine.  I fit right under his chin.  His dark eyes captured mine in the mirror and he smiled wide.  I melted within his embrace and whispered, “We look perfect for each other.”

              “We do.” I could see the sinewy muscles in his forearms when he tightened them around my waist.

              I touched his chin.

“Jas, I only meant that I’ve had some hot women and though I think you’re a very sexy woman, it’s not why I wanted to make you my wife.” He kissed my neck slowly never breaking eye contact.  “You’re the realest woman I’ve ever known.  You would love me even if I couldn’t play ball anymore. In fact, you can give a shit about my money. I gave you three million and you’ve barely spent it except for this condo.”

              Montana then put his head next to mine and touched my womb. “And having my baby is the sexiest thing you have ever done for me. As I said last night I’ve been with beautiful women and like a lot of men I’ve been shallow and focused only on looks, but with you it’s different. I have it all in one package. Brains, beauty, class, humor, grace, ambition, and above all loves me without reason.”

              My heart soared at his words and I placed my hands over his. “Except I do have reason. You’ve proven time and time again, how much you love me, support me, and want nothing but the best for me and my family. I wouldn’t be standing here frightened out of my mind that I could lose you, if I didn’t have so many reasons to love you.”

              “I knew you were crying about what I said last night, and I didn’t know what to do or say next.  I didn’t want to make it worse, and then I did think maybe it’s the pregnancy like you said.  We’re not going to lose each other. I want a lifetime with you.”

              I inhaled and gazed into his eyes through the mirror. “Even if I can’t lose this baby weight?”

              His brow furrowed. “Is this what all this is about? Your weight?”

              “Yeah. You met me as a smaller woman. I’m getting so big and…”

              Montana squeezed me. “You’ve been exercising regularly these past few months, and I told you we’ll work out together.

              “So that means that you don’t want me to get bigger?”

              “No, you don’t want to get bigger. I’m only concerned about your health.”

              “What do you mean?”

              “I mean you become different when you worry about your weight. If you were confident no matter your size, I wouldn’t care. You drew me to you, not your body. But you don’t even feel good when you gain weight so I’m just being supportive. Not scared or worried about your weight but letting you know that we can do it together.” Montana kissed my cheek. “Didn’t I just say I want a lifetime? We both must be healthy to get there. That’s all I meant, okay?”

              I exhaled deeply so grateful for this man who just made me love him more every day.

              “And you know your mama fine. So, if that’s what you’re going to look like bigger, I’m down.”

               I popped one of his arms around my waist, happy, that maybe we really could have a lifetime. “Ugh. Don’t talk about my mama. I got to keep one eye on you.”

              Montana grinned, pressed his hardness against my back and started lifting my shirt. “And right now, my tank on your sexy body is driving me insane…

*****

              A mind-blowing orgasm and a few hours later, we were all together at the airport.  My mama, Deja, Montana and I hung out in a private area reserved for celebrities or the elite who didn’t want to be bothered with the masses.  His flight would start boarding in a few minutes and he grabbed his leather Coach bag and put it on his back.  He donned his shades and he tugged his cap lower on his forehead.  “I’d better go.  My gate is a nice walk and I got to hurry so no one sees me.”

              Deja buried her head in his chest when he pulled her to her feet and gave her a brotherly bear hug. “Love you, kiddo. Remember anytime you want to come home, call and we’ll fly you home, okay? And I’ll make sure your sister doesn’t drive your car while you’re gone.”

              “Hey…” I protested from my chair next to hers but understood why he promised Deja. No one, including myself, was comfortable with my driving skills.

              “Love you back. Thank you, for everything. You’re the big brother I’ve always wanted.” Deja stepped back wiping her eyes. “Man, I wished I chose a school here.  I want to be around to be an Auntie and spoil the baby.”

              Montana said, “Stop it. You’ll be around bugging us and the baby in no time. Jas and I will be in town for the Hawks game in October.  Atlanta is a fun city and you’re going to love Spelman.”

She grinned devilishly. “And the men of Morehouse.” 

I warned. “Deja, don’t go down there and forget your purpose.”

Mama said, “She’s going to be fine just like you were.”  

My mama meant well but she didn’t know how I was out there bad for a minute trying to be loved no matter what I had to do. But then again, Deja wasn’t me and always had self-confidence. My baby sister who’d had to mature fast to help me take care of our mother and had earned a full ride to Spelman. Yeah, she would be just fine.

I tugged on the bottom of Deja’s hoodie.  “Call me before you get serious about anyone, okay?”  

Montana grabbed my hands, lifting me to my feet and patted my head.  “Isn’t she cute?” He laughed at my glare. “No, call me if you want advice on those dudes who’ll be trying to holla at you. I’ll let you know what’s up.”

“Definitely because Jasmine don’t know shi…ouch, Mama.” She rubbed her arm.  “Ooh!  I can’t wait to get away from these two and their hard hands.”

He put his arm around my waist and spoke to Deja, “Listen, your decision to go to school in Atlanta has been hard on your mama and Jas, though they’re both trying to hide it from you.  I’m here to watch over them both now so you go live your life and if you ever need anything, you can call me. You’re my little sister too. I know you’re going to make us all proud because we’re already proud of you.” His voice caught and I rested my head on his chest blinking back tears.  “And I promise I’ll make sure Jasmine lets you bring your car next semester.”

“Year,” I corrected.

Montana simply winked and tugged on one of Deja’s Goddess braids.  She wiped her eyes and winked back at him. “Yeah, next year.”

I pinched the side of his waist hard and he barely flinched as he bent to kiss me on my lips and rubbed my belly. “Call you tonight.”

I rubbed his growing beard. “Okay. Love you and see you Wednesday.”

I watched my love as he bent to hug my mother, who was in her wheelchair.  Although she could walk short distances, she still needed a wheelchair or a walker for longer distances.  He then playfully tugged on Deja’s braids again and blew me a kiss as he headed to his gate.  It still amazed me how he fit so well within my family.  I honestly think they would be more devastated if we broke up than I would be – okay maybe not more.  When he walked through the doors, almost immediately a couple of women noticed him and asked for pictures. He smiled not flirtatiously so and stopped to pose with them.  Unconcerned, I turned away to talk to Mama and Deja.

“You trust him, don’t you?” Mama asked nodding in his direction.

I glanced at Deja who had put her headphones on and then back to my mama. “I really do. I don’t even get nervous or worried like I used to whenever women approached him or were even near. I never thought I could trust a man so completely.”

My mother displayed her own twin dimples. “I’m glad you opened your heart to love.”

I poked one of them as I often did as a child. “Me too, Mama, me too.”    

Chapter 3

 Birthday Surprise

We bounced along the path in the open jeep toward the island home he leased for our four day stay. I held on tight to the bar above me. “Baby, can you slow down. I am with child.”

              Montana grinned as he turned down a lane leading to a lush green lawn. “You can handle it.”

              I shook my head – men and their toys.  He insisted that he would drive while we were on the island and rented a jeep.  I gripped the bar tighter, praying my baby wasn’t inside of me cursing his parents out.

              As he drove further down the bumpy lane, I could see the villa in the near distance. Simply gorgeous.   It was an off white, with a coral roof, four bedroom, five and a half bath home by the ocean and each of the bedrooms opened to the infinity pool.  I got out of the jeep without waiting for Montana and walked to the entrance.  The staff, comprised of a chef, housekeeper, and a butler, greeted me at the massive turquoise door.

               One older, stately gentleman with cocoa skin stepped forward with a smile. “Welcome. Mr. and Mrs. Keyes, I’m Winston, your butler for the duration of your stay.  We will get your bags and bring them to your bedroom whenever you like.”

              “No, I’m…” I started to correct him when Montana walked up next to me.

              “Yes, we are the Keyes.” He reached to shake Winston’s hand.  “You can bring our bags to our bedroom within an hour or so.  We can tour the villa ourselves and we won’t be needing a lot of assistance.   A few meals and suggestions about where to go on the island, other than that feel free to relax yourself and retire to your quarters.  We’ll be in touch when needed.”

              “Of course, Sir.” Winston introduced the rest of the staff and they dispersed while we walked into our escape for the weekend. 

              Each of the guest bedrooms were different vibrant colors of lime green, yellow, coral, and red. The villa had two lounging areas around the pool that overlooked the ocean. The living area’s décor of beige and white with touch of blues seemed a perfect place to chill and watch the huge flat screen. I was surprised to see a dark blue separate media room replete with leather theatre seats.  The dining table was already beautifully set with silver and fine china, and I couldn’t wait to try a chef-inspired meal.

              I grinned at Montana as we walked around the in-home gym with the latest equipment. “I am so glad you insisted we come this weekend. I thought I would only think of Zena and get sad. But with this beautiful home and island, I don’t care about anything but you and me.”

Montana grabbed me around the waist from behind, leading me away from the gym towards the master bedroom.  I can tell by his determined gait and the hardness that poked in my lower back he was ready for sex. “Wait, baby we just got here.”

“I’ve been horny for hours.  I’m not waiting.” He reached under my sundress, slipped his hand in my panties, and had touched my clit so quick I dropped my cell I held to take pics.

“Shit, boy. Stop it. The staff may be around.” I tried to remove his hand, he only rubbed faster. I moaned, “Fuck, Montana…I just wanted a moment to rest.”

“Rest later.” He nibbled on my neck and popped me on the ass when I bent to retrieve my phone. “Come on, let’s be adventurous.’

“The last time you said that we were ass out on a streetcar in New Orleans.”

“And we about to be ass out in Jamaica.” Montana promised as he swept me up quickly and he strode straight through the expansive white bedroom out to the patio that led to the pool.

I said half-alarmed, half-turned on, “Put me down. People may see us.” 

“What people? It’s just us and staff who I told to retire. We’ll be long done by the time they bring our bags.”  He brought me to a soft blue lounge and sat down with me in his lap.  He immediately grabbed my chin and opened my mouth with his tongue.  Any resistance faded with every dart of his tongue.  We were on vacay and it’s about time I acted like it.

I shifted to pull off my panties and then straddled him until my mound met his khaki covered dick.  I placed my arms tight around his neck, and I deepened the kiss.  He pulled my strapless dress and bra down and massaged my breasts in his large hands as we kissed.  I moved against him sensuously, giving him an impromptu lap dance.  Montana tugged on my sensitive nipples and I winced at the pain.

He said against my lips, “The pain you feel is just a reminder you’re alive and that sometimes you have to go through pain to get pleasure. Don’t fight it because soon you’ll feel nothing but pleasure. Give into the pain.”

Montana loosened my arms from around his neck and lowered his head to capture my stiff nipple in his mouth and he immediately sucked hard.  It stung.   “Ouch…”

I tried to pull away and he pressed me even closer and his tongue laved the bud over and over until my body relaxed into him and I tilted my head back enjoying the heady sensations his mouth did to my nipples. Montana had been gentle with my breasts since the pregnancy. But now, he had no mercy and I didn’t want him to stop.  I panted when he gave the same attention to my other one. “Mm…”

My hands ran up and down his muscled torso and back.  Needing to feel his naked skin, I reached for the bottom of his white shirt and he lifted his mouth from my breasts enough for me to pull the shirt over his head.  When he gently bit my nipple, I scratched his back with both hands causing him to flinch.   He then moved even lower to run his tongue in and out my belly button.  I felt myself beginning to gush just from his mouth.  Not able to take much more, I reached down in between us, to touch his dick through his pants.  My hand moved up and down his thickness that threatened to break the zipper.  I found a spot on his neck and sucked determined to leave my mark.  Montana tilted his head to give me more access.

While I gave him a passion mark, Montana unbuttoned his shorts.   I hurriedly moved his hand to unzip and pull his hard member out.  I unwrapped my legs from around his waist to place on either side of the lounge and lifted enough for him to slam himself inside of me. He finally lifted his head to grunt and moan as I met his strong thrusts, using the ground for leverage.  His deep voice of encouragement sparked my motivation to give as good as he gave.  We moved in unison and the thrice weekly exercise I had been doing not long after we became a couple had paid off and I was determined to outlast and make him come first.  The hot sun beamed on us as we fucked with abandon uncaring about anyone or anything but the carnal lust between us.  He suddenly stilled my riding hips, holding me in place, and rammed deeper, harder, and faster until he exploded inside of me.  Montana continued to move at a slower pace, catching his breath as my body too, reached the pinnacle, before I slumped onto his chest.  We remained in the same position physically spent from travel, the sun, and the strenuous lovemaking and soon fell asleep.    

*****

After a day of lounging by the pool and sharing our respective dreams and plans for our careers and family, we readied for dinner.  I threw on a vibrant pink sundress and he wore a pale blue button up shirt and khakis.  With entwined hands, we walked into the dining room where the chef prepared a scrumptious meal of spinach salad, wild rice, fried fish and shrimp.  For dessert we would have a key lime pie topped with whipped cream. 

“Who’s going to eat all of this?” When he pulled my chair back so I could sit, I kissed his neck. “I am so glad you insisted we do this. I don’t think I realized how stressed I’d been with everything. Just being here for the last few hours has been so chill.”

“You’re sure, it wasn’t ‘the dick’?” Montana deepened his voice when he said “dick”.

I laughed. “Why do you always play so much?”

He moved to sit across from me. “Just saying. You were knocked out after one punch.”

“And so were you. I woke you up, remember?”

“You made me work for it.”

“Whatever. Eat, please.” I took a sip of Evian water.

 The sweet chimes of the doorbell sounded.

I looked at Montana in surprise. “I thought the servants had living quarters in the back of the home. Why would they ring the bell? Who’s that?”

Montana simply grinned, rose from his chair, and headed toward the door.

Still drained from the heat, the wild sex, and the growing baby, I slowly got up, wondering what surprise he had in store for me.  When I finally made it to the hallway, I could hear sounds of laughter.

“Cali?” I covered my mouth in disbelief.

Cali, hair in long red corn rows similar my two French braids, rushed to me and hugged me tight. “Montana thought you might want more company than his boring self, since this is your birthday weekend.”

I held on to her longer than I would have normally, happy that she was here. I had only seen her a couple of times since Dallas and then not since the engagement.  Lately, I had been keeping my distance out of respect for Zena.  But seeing her in person and remembering her positive vibe, I realized I’d been wrong to treat her any differently because my oldest friend had jealousy toward her.  I looked behind her at a smiling Montana and a tall, handsome, white guy, who must be her latest man.  He wore a beige linen casual suit that fitted his lean frame nicely.  He had sparkling blue eyes, a nice tan and dark hair tousled from the drive across the rough terrain to get to the villa. Like Montana, he had a bright smile and nice teeth. I thought about Zena’s mother comment at the wedding almost a year ago and sadness struck me.  I closed my eyes briefly and met Montana’s who now wore a quizzical expression.

Cali walked back to her friend and pulled him toward me. “Jas, this is Allister.”

“I’ve heard so much about you.” Allister spoke with an accent, probably English. He extended his hand to me and I took his hand in mine. “Cali loves her brother and his wife.”

“Wife-to-be. It’s nice to meet you.” I smiled warmly, shaking off my internal blues.  I’m not doing anything wrong by being friends with my future sister-in-law.

Montana wrapped his arms around me from the back. “Jas, he said it right. Get used to it.  You are my wife. The only thing missing is a piece of paper.”

 “An important piece of paper.” I chided but lovingly kissed his neck and looked up into his handsome face. “Thank you.”

“Happy Birthday,” Montana said softly before his lips met mine.

Cali cleared her throat. “Excuse me. There are other people in the room. You sure you wanted me around this weekend?”

I broke away from Montana wiping my hot pink lipstick off his mouth, blushing. “Yes. We both want you around.”

Montana opened his arms to hug Cali and went she went into them, he put her in a headlock. “Of course, I wanted you here so I could do this.”

Cali yelled, “Let me go! I’m going to kill you.” She managed to punch him several times in his arm until he let go.  He then popped her quick on her neck and took off running, she raced behind him in her sandals.

I laughed at their antics, wishing for the umpteenth time I had a brother. I looked at Allister and he seemed just as amused. “You must have a sister?”

He responded easily, “I have two and since I’m the baby I get it from them both.  Glad to see brothers win sometimes too.” 

 As we both gleefully watched the brother and sister chase each other and regress back to their childhood before the family drama and pain, I could tell that Allister was a good match for Cali.  We would all have a fun time together.  “I think we’re going to have the best weekend ever.”

Allister grinned at me. “I think so, too.”

*****

The next morning, I opened my eyes to beautiful pastel colored balloons in front of my bed. I squealed in delight like a child because balloons always made me feel that way.  Montana walked in the room from the patio already dressed in pale blue shorts, white polo, and boat shoes. “Happy Birthday, baby.”

I threw on a robe to get out of bed and hug my balloons, teasingly ignoring his outstretched arms. “How many?”

“Thirty-one.” He folded his arms with a slight grin. “Don’t get any older. We’ll need a bigger room for all those balloons.”

“Whatever. You’re older than me.” I licked my tongue.

Montana focused on the cleavage visible through my robe and grabbed his crotch. “I got some things we can do with that tongue.”

“Ugh, you so nasty.”

“Yep…and don’t ever forget it.” He tugged on my hand.  “Come on sleepy head, breakfast has been ready, and we need to head into the city if we want to catch the cruise around the island. Allister and Cali are already eating.”

“Okay. I can hurry.  I’m surprised you didn’t wake me up for morning sex.”

              “That’s because you need your energy for birthday bedtime sex.” Montana wiggled his thick brows.

              “You know you’re a sex crazed maniac, right? I’m just glad I’m just as sex-crazed.”

              “Which is why I’m marrying you.” He patted my ass. “Now go.”

An hour later the four of us strolled checking out all the jewelry, clothes, music, fruit, souvenirs, books, and other goods being sold in the market.  Allister had been an awesome conversationalist and regaled us with his journalistic stories as he traveled the world.  He fit perfectly with us and I could see why Cali seemed enamored with him. She still had her energy but there was also a calmness.  I wanted to know her feelings about this guy who seemed to be a match for her love of travel.  We hadn’t yet had a moment to ourselves for me to get the details.  I fell asleep not too long after they arrived last night. Today, I would make a point to have some girl time. 

The men walked behind us as we meandered together.  I took the opportunity to ask about her new man. “We can talk more later, but I had to tell you that Allister seems to be such a good guy.”

Cali smiled. “He really is.  We’ve only known each other a few weeks but we’ve been inseparable. This one might last at least until the holidays.”

I snuck a glance to see if the men could hear, but they were several feet away. “Is he your first white man?”

“No, but the first one I brought around Montana.  He met him when we were all together at the same time in Vegas.  I’m surprised he didn’t tell you.”

“He told me he met your new man and liked him, but he didn’t mention he was white.”

“Good.” She looked back and waved at her brother.  “I didn’t know how he would react. You never know with black men. They can date any woman under the sun but get possessive if we decide to date outside of them.”

“I’m so glad that you and Allister are here. It has made this weekend even more special and I feel like we’ve all always hung out like this.”

“Me too.” Cali hugged me tight. “So glad we get to be sisters.”

My heart grew full as we pulled back from the hug and continued walking. “Sorry I’ve been out of pocket lately.”

“I need this in my life.” Cali admired a red wrap dress and glanced at me.  “Why are you apologizing? I know you’re busy. How’s my niece?”

“It would look good on you.” I touched the dress. “You think it’s a girl?”

“Yep.  What do you think?”

“I go back and forth, but I’m almost certain it’s a boy.”

“I hope it’s a girl so I can spoil her with unicorns and princesses.”

“If it’s a girl, she is going to be rotten between you, Montana, and Deja.”

 “I’m so surprised my mother hasn’t been calling you every hour about the wedding, the gender reveal party or even the baby shower. She and Montana love giving parties.”

“She called to ask if we’d already chosen dates for everything, which we haven’t.  She also made me promise that once I know to let her know the dates and she would help me plan.”

Cali bumped my shoulder with hers. “And the minute you do, get ready for ‘Mother-in-law zilla’. I hope your mother is not into party planning. I wouldn’t like to see them bump heads.”

“Thank God, no.  Montana is enough.  I really don’t care or want a wedding, and my mother is not into planning anything so your mother can take complete charge.”

She shrugged. “Whatever you say Jas. Let’s just say if I ever get married, Justice of the Peace for me.”

I said sadly, “Lucky you.”

Cali glanced back at the men who had stopped to look at shades. “You really don’t want a wedding, do you?”

“Not really and with…” I stopped myself, not wanting to tell Cali the truth. I didn’t want her to hate Zena. If Zena could see how Cali seemed happy with Allister, maybe she could feel more secure about Tarik.

“What?”

“Naw. It’s fine.” I touched a couple of sundresses on display.

“I thought we were friends.”

I looked at her sharply. “Of course, we are.”

“Then tell me what’s up.  I’m transparent and I expect my friends to be that way too or at least with me.”

I fingered the soft fabric, reluctant to talk but knew I needed to.  “Zena is upset about the wedding…”

“Hey, Jas…Cali! I can’t believe this shit.” I could hear the excitement in Montana’s voice. We both turned to him and he pointed on the other side of the sunglasses’ booth. “Look who’s here.”

Tarik smiled wide as he met Montana half-way and they dapped and hugged.  Zena reluctantly followed behind and smiled weakly at me and didn’t acknowledge Cali who stood next to me.

Cali smiled in their direction though she remarked through clenched teeth, “I see why you don’t want a wedding. Did it just get cold in this hot ass outside market?”

Instead of joy at seeing my best friend unexpectedly on my birthday as I did just last night when I saw Cali, unease settled in the pit of my stomach…    

Excerpt from Essence of Us -only my Love Noters have access to the code

The security guard alerted me that I had a visitor.  I checked the camera and saw Tarik. What is he doing here? “Yes, send him up.”

I quickly changed out of my nightgown and donned one of Montana’s sweatshirts and threw on shorts. I rushed to the door and opened it, the moment he knocked. With worried eyes, Tarik half-smiled in greeting.

I stood in the middle of the door. “Montana isn’t back from practice yet.”

“I know. Can I come in? I wanted to talk to you.”

 “About Z.” I confirmed, feeling a wave of nausea.  Zena and I still hadn’t really spoken. She’d sent a couple of texts checking on me and the baby, but that was it. A wall had been planted between us and though I wanted to tell her about Tarik and Cali, I didn’t know how Z would receive it. Would she somehow blame me and our friendship is forever destroyed?

Tarik didn’t quite meet my eyes.  “Yeah. Cali told me you know.”

 I stepped aside and folded my arms. “I can’t believe you would cheat on Zena. She loves you, you’re her world.”

“I didn’t cheat,” Tarik protested as he passed me to walk into our living area.

 “Only because Cali came to her senses or at least that’s what she says,” I said the last part quietly, unsure if Cali really would leave Tarik alone.  He was her great love and she still loved him deeply. I’m not sure I could ever resist Montana if he had moved on to another relationship but still wanted me.

Tarik looked down and put his hands in his pockets. “I had a moment, okay? It’s been hard with Z. Ever since you and she got into it, she’s grumpy all the time. And then her focus has completely become Taj. I know our son needs her, but I do too.”

“Then you talk about it with her. You don’t cheat.” I placed my hands on my hips feeling somewhat pleased that she did miss me too, though she was too stubborn to ever say it to me.

He lifted his head, frowning. “You don’t think I’ve tried. Jamaica was supposed to be a reminder to her of the love we have, the promises we’ve made to each other and you know how that ended. When I tell her how much I still need her, all she can say is I should be more understanding because she’s juggling being my wife, motherhood, and work. And you know her, she didn’t say it nicely to me either.”

 I nodded. Zena could be mean, and she had a mouth on her. I knew she had struggled with all the transitions in her life but not to this extent. No wonder she felt jealous of Cali, who just had this sunny disposition all the time. “I know how she can be, and you married her knowing how she could be. Stop making excuses. If she even thought of cheating, you would be so done with her.” I dared him to deny my words. At his silence, I continued, “What am I supposed to do with this information? She’s already mad that I’m friends with Cali. What do you think she’s going to do once she finds out you almost stepped out with Cali and I knew about it and didn’t say a word?”

 He moved closer to me and pleaded. “She doesn’t have to know. We just texted and had a couple of phone calls. That’s it. Cali is done with me. You don’t have to say a word.”

My heart sunk. “Do you hear yourself? You said since ‘Cali is done’, like if she wasn’t you would still mess around with her.”

Tarik frowned and stuttered, “You…you know that’s …not what I meant. I just meant that you don’t have to say anything because there’s nothing to say. I messed up and I won’t do it again. I was feeling sorry for myself…and Cali knows me.  Besides, if you say anything, Montana will be pissed too. He never liked that I dated his sister. It’s the only argument we ever had as adults.”

I disliked that he tried to use Montana to get me to change my mind.  I shifted my feet because we had been standing this entire time.  I was still angry and hurt that he and Cali had reconnected and I couldn’t fake that I welcomed him into my home, though it was his best friend’s home too. “Either you tell her, or I will.”

“Jasmine, nothing happened.” Tarik repeated.

“Because I caught you.  Hell, I’m not even sure if Cali would have left you alone if I didn’t see the text you sent her.”

He touched my arm. “You know how Z is. She won’t forgive me, and nothing happened.”

“But it did. Even though you didn’t act on it. You wanted to. Cali stopped it, not you.”

Tarik’s grabbed my wrist and said desperately, “It’s not your place. She’s my wife.”

“And my best friend.” I shrugged his hand off and he tried to reach for my arm again.

“What’s going on?” Montana walked inside, slamming the door behind him, startling me and Tarik.

Tarik looked away.

I folded my arms and didn’t say a word.

Montana barked, “Someone better say something and quick.  What the fuck is going on?”

I touched my womb protectively at the anger in his voice.  I looked at Tarik and he kept his eyes down. “Tarik…”