Capital Encounters

Chapters 1 & 2

Let me show you why readers say that Capital Encounters is a page turner. It all goes down with four women in the nation's capital.

Get ready to be taken on a sexy and fun emotional ride of highs and lows.  

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1: the move and the green-eyed monster

Summer

At twenty-seven years old, I’d finally earned a salary that made it possible for me to move out on my own. I’d soon become a DC resident and no longer one of Arlington, Virginia. Exhausted, I attempted to keep my gray sweatpants from inching down by resting my hands on my very slender hips. I pursed my mouth to one side of my face, taking inventory of the boxes I had stored in our postage stamp-sized living room. Even though I had sworn to people my unwavering enthusiasm about venturing to live on my own for the first time, some part of me felt indifferent, and I didn’t know why. The voice of my anal-retentive roommate interrupted my thoughts.

“Summer.” Our eyes met. I cracked a nervous smile. “The movers just called regarding the moving date. I confirmed it for you.”

One thing I wouldn’t miss? My roommate’s bland expressions, or her stoic demeanor. I reasoned that my financial crutch made it possible for me to have tolerated her for a year and a half.                                                   

“Okay. Thanks, Lora.” I sighed and managed to fit into the narrow space on the couch between the arm and a box resting on the cushion. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that she wanted her condo to look like a home again. 

I noticed Lora’s lingering presence. “Are you nervous?” she asked. 

Swiping my hands up and down my thighs, I replied, “You could say that.” I looked at her expression. She appeared to be genuinely curious and maybe even concerned.

“You will be fine, Summer. Living alone may take some getting used to, but you will adjust.” With bright eyes, she smiled with what appeared to be pride, before heading to her room with her red ponytail bopping behind her. 

We were both ready to move on from this living arrangement, since we’d both received raises with our promotions. I was slowly climbing that career ladder, from a receptionist at a staffing firm to one of their junior recruiters. Lora no longer needed a roommate, and I no longer needed a residential subsidizer. Besides, we lived in Ballston, an upscale section of Arlington. Not a place for penny pinchers. Although one day, I knew I’d make it to Northwest, but for now, I could only afford to relocate to Southwest DC; and, anything beats living with a roommate. Luckily for Lora, her parents owned the condo but decided to rent it out to her once they relocated back to New York City.

Talk about having handouts. Well, I didn’t have any handouts. As an adult who grew up in a single-parent home, I had to do everything on my own. Having a moment to think, I realized that this promotion vindicated all my post-Delaware moves. The guilt of leaving my mom behind years ago for college had almost devoured my already tiny body. I never gained back the fifteen pounds I’d lost in college. I could only hope that maybe this promotion made it all worth it.

 

 

Yesterday finalized my move into my apartment. I’d already anticipated walking the overcrowded strip in Georgetown on a Saturday morning. But before joining the foray of anxious shoppers, I decided to stop for a quick breakfast. Despite the crowded eatery at La Madeleine, I chose to pay and stay, because the food tasted great and it’d

been a while since I’d dined there. The place was so packed that I feared having no place to sit. I grabbed a tray anyway and proceeded with my order once the line moved.

After paying the cashier, my eyes did a quick dance to locate a place to sit. I couldn’t help but feel like a new girl in the middle of the high school cafeteria looking for the friendliest face with whom to eat. I spotted a woman in a trench coat with her nose and eyes buried in light paperwork, comparing one document to another. I took a chance because all other options were closed.

“Is—is this seat taken?” Her hazel eyes shot up as the hand clutching the pen froze. “I . . . I mean, there is no other place to sit and I—”

A smile broke through her tight lips, exposing perfect white teeth. “No, no.” She waved a hand. “Some company would be great.” I watched her scoot her papers into one hand and into a briefcase as I took my seat. Her long ponytail swung with each hurried motion. “I’m just grading papers here.”

I gave her a grateful smile and ironed my skirt with my hand under my butt to keep from wrinkling the material. I swore I heard a slight accent with that semi-raspy voice. She hesitated and offered a hand. “Emily. Emily Gray.”

 I accepted her hand and replied, “Summer Stevenson.”

“I know, it can be so crowded here.” With a light laugh she added, “It’s the food.” Her big, pretty eyes sparkled. “The food is great.”

“That it is. You’re a teacher?” I asked as I spooned oatmeal into my mouth.

She nodded. “Mm-hmm. Yes. Third grade, in fact.”

Yes, an accent. I knew I’d heard it as I barely masticated my oatmeal. “Really? Which school?”

“Here in DC—Northeast. Dana Key Elementary? Heard of it?”

I squinted my eyes and tilted my head. Why did I pretend to think when I knew I hadn’t heard of it? “Uhh, I don’t believe I have.”

Emily gave me a half-grin. She almost giggled. “Most people haven’t. But yeah, that’s where you’ll find me. And you?”

“I’m a junior recruiter. Well, actually, I just got the position.”

“Well, congrats.” Her eyes popped as she sipped her water.

“Thank you.” I felt shy, and I knew my smile reflected it.

“Where do you work?”

“Oh, I doubt you’ve heard of it. It’s a mid-size agency. DuBois Staffing?” With narrowed eyes and a spoonful of oatmeal in front of my lips, I waited to see if she could recall the name.

“I think I’ve seen the building. You’re in a building with other businesses. Right?”

I nodded, “Yes, yes. We’re in Ballston.”

“Yup.” She shook her index finger at me. “I entered that building a time or two to do my taxes on the second floor.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. “That’s us, but on the seventh floor.”

Emily absently watched her fingers play with the edges of her napkin. She sighed.

Taking a bite of my eggs, I asked, “Where’s your food?”

She looked confused before smiling again. “Oh, right. I’m meeting someone.”

My fork rested in my mouth, and then I snatched it out. “Oh, no. I didn’t . . .” Clearly, I was imposing and started to shift my tray with both hands. I couldn’t move fast enough.

“Huh? No, no, oh, gosh no, please.” Emily shook her head at me. “Sit down, Summer. You’re fine, you’re fine.” Ushering me with her hands, she assured me to stay seated.

“Once she comes, I’ll go up and get my food, too.” Her eyes became animated before I had a chance to respond. “Oh, there she is.”

I turned around to see who she was talking about. My mouth dropped, revealing chewed egg, but I couldn’t help it. She looked stunning.

The confident woman sashayed toward us. The brown hair that swept the top of her arms almost matched her medium skin tone. Her pouty mouth puckered slightly as she held back a cocky grin. Her opened anorak jacket, revealed a cropped lime sweater that allowed the bottom row of her six-pack abs to say ‘hello’ to the world. She marched in her black pumps like no one’s business and froze when her waist greeted my face. I instantly felt small in her presence.

She rapidly spanked her clutch against her outer thigh. “Who is this?” Her chin pointed at me before taking her eyes off mine to meet Emily’s.

A chipper Emily answered, “Oh, this is Summer. Summer Ssssss . . .” Emily’s eyes asked me to help her memory.

I stood up promptly with a chip on my shoulder and offered the broad my hand. “Stevenson. Summer Stevenson.”

Her tongue poked her cheek, and I supposed she might’ve had an attitude. It surprised me that she accepted my handshake. “Brooke Brazile.”

I smirked until her grip almost broke my hand. I tried not to cry out, so I grimaced instead. I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t tell if I liked or hated her. Maybe in this little bit of time she came off too strong. “Nice to meet you,” I replied with little conviction as I sat back down to eat.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, too, Summer.” Brooke arched a perfectly waxed brow at me and took her place in the third chair. She studied me through her beautiful brown eyes as she reached in her clutch to pull out a business card.

“If you ever need a wedding planner,” she said as she slid her card across the table. “Here.”

She squinted in confusion as I almost choked on my water. I placed a hand across my heart. “Oh, honey, thanks. But I assure you, you are feeding hay to a cat when it comes to me and marriage.”

Brooke’s eyes widened before she broke into laughter. “Not a response I’m used to hearing, but okay. I get it.” Emily and I sniggered. Lora’s words rang in my head. You will be fine, Summer. Looking at the faces of these two girls, I instantly felt better about my move.

 

 

After breakfast, I gave my phone number to Brooke and Emily before heading back to my new home. As I stepped into the elevator, I realized that I’d officially made it on my own. Not bad for a poor girl from Delaware. My old neighborhood crossed my mind and how my mom should be begging for new scenery, but not her. She loved her neighbors and the familiar stores and streets. The idea of moving elsewhere didn’t appeal to her too much.

The elevator stopped on the fifth floor and I stepped off and pulled out the key to open the door to 5F. The smell of fresh paint greeted my nostrils as I locked up and maneuvered through the boxes, following the pathway that I’d made through them. It felt strange to be in my own home. It wasn’t much, but for now, I could call it my own one bedroom, one bathroom apartment.

Grateful that I’d paid one of the movers an extra twenty to set up the television and cable box in my bedroom, I stripped down to my underwear and replaced my top with a sleeveless t-shirt and draped it over my bare breasts and stomach. I called my mom before flicking on the Style channel.

I fell asleep with the remote control on my belly and awoke at night. My body felt whipped. Saturday had slipped through my fingers, but the night was still mine to capture. I rolled over and grabbed my cell phone and called Max. I’d met Max in a coffee shop on my first day of work at DuBois Staffing. He’d interrupted me just as I’d prepared to inhale my sesame bagel. I didn’t know how to resist a guy with a nice smile and gentle brown eyes.

We dated enough to qualify as boyfriend and girlfriend. But broken dates and schedule conflicts strained our infant relationship. So, we settled on being friends with benefits, which suited me just fine. In the long run, I could do without marriage, since I grew up as a loner with few friends. Besides, having a great career topped my list.

He picked up with a cough. “Hello?”

I smiled. “You know who this is. I’m programmed into your phone.”

Max chuckled. “Okay, Summer. You got me.”

“You sound tired.”

“Work. What can I say?” He moaned and yawned.

“I wouldn’t recognize you if you weren’t a workaholic.”

“It’s been a while since I last spoke with you.” I heard a sudden spurt of energy in his voice. “So, what made you call?” Max and I broke up four months after I’d joined DuBois Staffing. 

I hesitated. “Well, I moved to DC and wanted to know if you wanted to catch up. You know, come over and check out my new digs?” Silence took over. My stomach locked in mid-breath as I waited for a response. Maybe I’d come off too forward, especially since it’d been a while since we’d last talked.

“Sure,” he replied. I exhaled with relief. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself.

“Good.” After texting him my new address, I got up to take a shower. Once out, I went through a box containing my clothes. I fished through some dresses and stopped when one caught my eye. My boss attached a bonus of two thousand dollars to my promotion, so I treated myself to a few new clothes and used the rest to afford the move. I rested a blue dress against my body and walked over to the bathroom since the boxes hid my full-length mirror.

A tiny-framed woman stared back at me with small breast and a head full of wavy, brownish-blonde hair, which complemented my golden complexion—the result of having a White mom and a Black father. The father I barely knew. He died in a scaffolding accident while working on a building when I was just four. Thanks to the photos that my mom had hanging around the house, I could see Dad’s resemblance as my stare locked into my own reflection.

I shook myself until the somber thoughts rolled away. Max. I needed to focus on him. I threw the dress over my head and shook into it until it hugged my frame. Pleased with the way it fit, I attempted to do something with my hair. An hour later, a knock at my door drew me away from the mirror. Satisfied, I yanked the door opened to find a familiar man wearing a leather jacket and loose-fitting blue jeans. Max smiled at me longingly instead of stepping through my wide-opened door.

“Well, ya’ just gonna stand there, man?” I teased with a friendly smile.

“Maybe,” he replied through his grin.

I yanked him by his jacket. “Get in here.”

Emily

Lost in her thoughts, Emily absently walked around her living room. She stopped to trace the slight build-up of dust on her window ledge. Just a piano, a bookshelf and expensive paintings served as décor in that part of her five-bedroom row house. She sat on the piano stool positioned next to the window. Sitting, she raised the blinds to peer out the window to watch the children play in the backyard next to hers. She and her ex-husband intended to build a wooden fence, but their divorce nipped that plan in the bud.

Crestfallen, Emily decided to take a walk to the neighborhood playground. Tightening the belt of her trench coat, she felt the wind gently push against her body as soon as she opened the front door. Upon her arrival, she sat in the swing and absently kicked her shoes into the mulch, swaying her body with each kick. The woe-is-me attitude seemed a bit healthy from time to time, so she welcomed it. In fact, Emily embraced it, because the Lord knew she’d grown tired of the strong front she had to uphold at work when co-workers went overboard with the pity glances.

Just when she felt the tears greet the rims of her eyes, Emily noticed a brown shoe beside her boot. Daring to look up, her eyes met the gaze of a man with friendly, blue eyes. Feeling bashful, she offered a reluctant smile and slowly lowered her eyes to the ground. But on the way down, she noticed hands stuffed in pockets on either side of a generous package below a flat midsection.

A very masculine voice said, “It’s good to see that adults still appreciate the solitude a playground can offer. Well, when kids are not around.” He snickered.

Biting her lower lip with reservation and nervousness, Emily looked up and offered a weary grin. Barely above a whisper, she said, “Hi.”

The handsome man extended a hand. “Zach.”

Emily gave his hand a weak shake and settled her hands on her lap. “Hi.”

Zach’s eyes squinted with humor. “Two hellos. Do you have a name?” Before she could respond, he flipped his hands up into the air. “Oh, wait, don’t tell me. Linda?” Seeing Emily’s confounded expression hastened his explanation. “It means—”

“Pretty. In Spanish,” Emily completed. “I know. I’m Puerto Rican.”

Intrigued, he took a step back, putting his hands back into in his pockets. “And I just heard a hint of a sexy accent.”

“So, you’re observant,” she retorted standing. She just wanted to be alone with some peace and quiet. “My name is Emily . . . though my dad wanted to name me Anita.” She didn’t even know why she told him so much. She scolded herself for it.

“Glad he didn’t,” he said with a hint of a snide tone.

“Later.” Put off, Emily proceeded to leave the handsome man.

Summer

The hot Chinese dishes hit the placemats in front of us. The steam carried tasty aromas to our noses. “Mmmm.” I giggled. I opened my eyes to see Max with a fork, ready to devour his food.

“I’m starved. Haven’t eaten since, uhhh, yesterday?” He stabbed his fork into the pile of rice and commenced eating his beef-fried rice.

Chewing a mouth full of rice and swallowing, I replied, “You really should do something about your awful work schedule.” I smiled. “I mean, come on. It’s been how long since we’ve dated officially and you’re still spending ninety percent of your time at work?” I shook my head and slid my fork into my next bite.

Max gave a shoulder shrug with a smile. “I have to be able to do things like this, Summer.” He waved his fork between us. “You know, treat us to meals.”

I shifted my body under my bent leg. “Oh, honey, I’m not your responsibility. The jig was up a long time ago. We threw in the committed towel, and now, you can save for one.”

His expression turned serious. “You—you don’t want to try this again in the future?”

I placed a hand on my hip, puckered my lips and looked heavenward. “Max, I can do a relationship here and there, but for the long run,” I shook my head with regret, “I just don’t think it’s in the cards for me.” I placed my hand on his fork-holding hand. “You understand, right?”

The relaxed atmosphere disappeared. “Summer.” He cleared his throat with eyes full of despair. “Summer, you’re the most beautiful and unique woman I know. You’re comfortable in your own skin . . .”

I began to tune him out and almost choked on my rice. Me? Confident? Yeah right. Once I tuned back into his prattling, I picked up at the part where he said, “I didn’t think you’d take that break-up as our seal of fate.”

I stuffed a fork full of rice in my mouth until my cheek protruded. Then I shoved a big piece of broccoli into the other side. I didn’t want to answer this sad sap. I didn’t like offering explanations. In fact, tonight I just wanted the benefit part of our friendship as the dessert to this meal. Sure, I wanted to catch up because it’d been a while. Well, a few months since we’d enjoyed a sit-down moment. But the contents of this conversation seemed so out of the blue. I couldn’t watch as Max peered at me with expectations, so I stared down at the checkered tablecloth. Maybe he would tire of my long chewing and resume eating. I choked down the last swallow and met his eyes above the rim of the glass of water as I sipped. No such luck. He patiently waited for an answer. I placed the glass down and ran my tongue against my bottom gums, searching for leftover food. I sighed.

“Max, I don’t . . .” my already raspy voice sounded strident. “I don’t know what to tell you. Look, if I gave you any indication in the past that I wanted us to develop into something more in the future, then I’m genuinely sorry.” Swiping the cloth napkin across my lips, I added, “I’m not too convinced that I’m one of those people who has to be married with children just to fulfill the prodigal dreams of a big house, lofty furniture, daycare expenses . . .” I hung my head low and placed a saluted hand on my forehead, staring down into the wrinkles patterned on my blue dress.                                  

“Summer.” Max sighed, and I looked up to meet his gaze. “We don’t have to do . . . the whole nine yards, you know. It doesn’t—your ‘prodigal dream,’—doesn’t even have to manifest right away. We can start off, just me and you, a year or two for now. After a real commitment, we could see how we feel about everything.” My lungs tightened and perhaps were on the verge of collapsing. I felt as confined as an elephant in a Smart car.

My fork dropped, my hands waved with caution. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, Max.” I cried as tears welled up. “This is not what I came to talk about. You have completely caught me off-guard.” I stopped talking when I noticed other diners looking back at me. They turned back around one-by-one after they identified the face with the voice of confined hysteria.

“Could you lower your voice?” he begged. “Sheesh.”

And he had the nerve to look irritated. I wanted a smoke, and I didn’t even smoke. I’d seen my co-workers do it in a moment of stress or when work began to feel insurmountable. “Sorry,” I mumbled irritably. This back-and-forth started to feel like a lifetime, so when I saw our waitress, I couldn’t let her get away. I held up my hand. “Check,” I mouthed with a furrowed brow.

Max panicked. “S-so what? You’re leaving?”

“Uh, yeah.”

He angrily swiped the cloth against his mouth and hammered a light fist on the table. “Well this is just great, Summer. You’ve managed to not only embarrass yourself, but me as well.”

If I had to take some blame, that was fine. But I also didn’t ask to be confronted with questions of my unforeseen lifetime resume. I capitulated. “Fine, fine, blame it all on me. I just need to get out of here, Max. I don’t mean to be—”

“Rude?” He stood and slapped a generous meal-and-tip-covering bill on the table before the check arrived.

My angry ex paused and peered down at me, shaking his head before marching out of the restaurant. I appreciated our seat in the front, because I couldn’t bear the embarrassment of passing various facial expressions reading, “What happened?” as I left.

I grabbed my sweater and raced out the door to follow him, thinking I could catch up to Max on foot, as he approached the subway. It was too late. I saw him being lowered with each second by an escalator into the Metro station. So, I stopped. A family-oriented guy like Max didn’t deserve to get caught up with a loner like me.

I didn’t have a car since I worked close to my prior residence. I relied on my toned legs and the Metro system. It only seemed right to take a walk along the sidewalks with the crowds of people to clear my head from his dramatic exit. Ambling the sidewalk, I mumbled under my breath, “Asshole,” as I kept my eyes downward. Just when the night couldn’t get any weirder, I heard a voice say my name as a question.

“Summer?” I couldn’t quite figure out the voice before turning completely around. When I saw her staring at me with a smirk and two hands on the same hip, I let out a mental sigh and gave my best fake smile. “Oh, hi.”

Emily

Emily tried to walk away, but she spun around and stared impatiently into Zach’s eyes when he said, “Hey.” He threw his hands up in the air. “Okay, I can be a jerk. But I’ve never liked that name. An Anita with choppy, black hair bullied me in the second grade.” 

Emily giggled with softened eyes. “Were you really bullied by a girl?” she asked with doubt.

He tucked his lips inward until they were concealed and smiled with a nod. “Yes. She used to greet me every day with a punch in the stomach. My father raised me to be a gentleman, but to be a tough guy. And my mom encouraged me to solve friendship issues on my own. I couldn’t tell anyone I was getting beat up by a girl. Besides, I told my teacher once, and she really didn’t believe me. So, I grew up hating girls with that hairstyle or name. Silly, huh?”

Pursing her lips to one side of her mouth as she listened, Emily sought to assure him. “No, no. That’s not silly at all. You were being a gentleman.”

He appeared shy for the first time as he smiled. “Would you like to come inside for some hot chocolate?”

Emily looked at him suspiciously and smirked. “I don’t know if I should do something like that.” Sternly, she added, “I literally just met you.”

“Come on. I live right there.” He pointed to a house just a few doors down from hers, but across the street. “I’m new to the neighborhood. I’m cold and I can use some hot chocolate.”

“Ohh, right. I saw you move in a few weeks ago. Well, welcome to the neighborhood.” Zach nodded a “thank you.” “With whom do you live?”

“My eight-year-old son. He’s out with the babysitter getting ice cream. He should be back any moment. I just came back from the hardware store and noticed you. Decided to come say hello.”

“Where is his mom?” Emily felt guarded.

“She lives across town—Maryland to be exact—but we were never married. I let him finish a few weeks more there at his old school while I unpack and set up the house.”

She supposed she took an interest in Zach’s single life since her marriage didn’t work. “Why didn’t you marry her?”

Zach laughed. “That’s a conversation I’m willing to share, but in the warmth of my house.”

Still reserved, Emily removed her coat at the door, clutching and twisting her hands, questioning her judgment.

He motioned a hand to his sofa. “Please, sit. I’ll be back.” He hit the remote to light the fire before leaving her alone in his living room.

With her coat slung over one of her folded arms, she made her way to his sofa. Sitting with her legs crossed in her tight blue jeans, she observed his living room through uneasy eyes, taking in the visual of plastic rolled up beside a wall with a can of paint nearby. Minutes later, Zach passed a mug of hot chocolate into her hands and took a place on the arm of the sofa with his drink cradled in one hand. The fireplace blazed, casting a romantic orange glow inside the room.

“Well, Emily, to answer your question posed back there—”

She held up a hand, stopping him. “Oh. No, you don’t have to Zach. I got caught up in the moment.” She was just grateful for a change of scenery. Much to her surprise, being in the company of someone new and of the opposite gender offered some sort of relief.

“Oh, no.” He took a sip. “I don’t mind. Don’t mind at all.” He raced a thoughtful hand up and down his thigh and sighed. “Enzo’s mom, Heather, was a liar. She was also a serial cheater.”

Not knowing what to say, Emily just took a sip of her chocolate. “Well, that’s horrible. Why do you think she did all of that?” she finally asked.

Zach chuckled half-heartedly as he pondered her question. “Not sure. I think she always felt like she had to prove her self-worth by the amount of men she bedded. When I found out she lied about her dad’s death as well as not having a degree, I lost it. That’s when I realized that it didn’t make sense anymore trying to make sense out of her.”

They sipped and chatted about the neighborhood, as she explained how she fell in love with the field of education. He became animated when he told her stories about designing houses. About half an hour later, Zach set his mug down on the fireplace mantel and stood in front of her with an outstretched hand. Emily’s eye’s danced with nervousness. What did he want? What did he expect?

“I see your mug is almost empty. Do you want more?”

Emily exhaled anxiously and laughed inside, but turned red on the outside. She took one last sip and handed it over with a smile. “No. I’m good, thanks.”

Zach placed her mug with his. “Tell me, which school do you teach at?”

“Dana Key Elementary.”

His face lit up. “Get out of town. My son will be enrolling there.”

Emily smiled. “Yeah?”

“You said you teach third grade, so you may be getting him. Heather wanted to handle all of that. That’s why I’m not sure who his teacher is.”

“Well we’ll know soon, huh?” Emily stood with intentions of leaving. Even though she enjoyed meeting a new male face, she didn’t want to overstay her welcome on the first visit.

“I suppose so. Wow.”

“Maybe I should go.”

Alarmed, Zach asked, “Why? I would like to know more about you. It’s only fair,” he teased.

She smiled. “Okay,” she relented. “Well, I live alone and . . .”

Zach placed an index finger on his chin as he listened. “You live in a big ole house. These houses may not be the newest, but they’re definitely not the cheapest. So why are you in a big house by yourself? The old lady next door who gossips about everyone said that a man used to live with you. Am I overstepping?”

Emily froze in consternation. “Good ole Mauzy always running her 82-year-old mouth.” She didn’t want to talk about it. “Y-yes. I was married,” she replied as she played with her fingers nervously, “but not anymore.”

“Okay,” he caught on. “We can leave it at that. I hope I didn’t upset you.” Zach wore a regretful expression.

Emily couldn’t quite lock her eyes with his. Finally, she lifted her lids and said, “Well, it’s just one of those things that you’d rather, you know—” 

“I can’t imagine a sexy woman like you being alone,” he blurted. 

It’d been so long since she’d even tried to connect with a man. Emily cracked a crooked smile and blinked. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Zach waved a hand at her. “Let me show you something.” He wrestled one of his big hands into a pocket of his jeans. “Here’s a picture . . .” Emily stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him, watching him straighten his cell phone into his hand. He slid the bar on his screen to unlock the phone. A chime went off. “Oh, a message from Heather?” Zach explained, “She likes to send me pictures of our son, so let’s see what she sends since that’s all I wanted to show you anyway.”

Emily said, “Oh. This should be nice,” with hope in her eyes. She didn’t move as she watched him open the sent data.

“A video I suppose. Not too good with these smartphones. I prefer the flip ones myself.”

Emily chuckled. “But who would go back to those now?”

“Right?” He raised the phone to allow her to access a better view. “Here we go.” The frozen screen showed a fireplace, but once Zach’s finger pressed the play button, Emily gasped when she saw what the video revealed. That moment made her want to go back to a flip phone.

Summer

She stood there, beautiful as before. If I could ooze green, I would, and envy would be its name.

“What are you doing on this side of the district, Summer? What brings you by?” Her smile was of subtle sass, as if waiting to judge my answer as the truth. 

“Well, Brooke, I had a date. Didn’t go all that well.” I wanted to shoot myself for telling her that much information. I bet she had no trouble at all finding love or keeping it. Now she knew she was better than me in another department. Let’s see: looks, check; confidence, check; love and attention of men, probably a check; successful career with a local reputation, and check.

Brooke walked toward me slowly, with one foot in front of the other. Catwalks must’ve been her thing. Man. I had another opportunity to greet her abs again. She stared straight into my eyes. “You wanna join me?” This was the first time I’d ever seen her show a sincere expression in the whole day I’d known her. 

“Sure, okay. Where?” Why did I feel honored that she wanted to spend time with me? Oh, yeah, because of the checklist. 

“Let’s hail a cab and head to Georgetown. My treat.”

 

 

Fifteen minutes after agreeing to her idea and sitting through red traffic lights, we arrived at a very crowded and dim pub filled with smoke, young people and loud music. Seated at a table all the way in the back, Brooke removed her coat and I my sweater after we ordered our drinks. It was hot in here. We had to crank up our voices just to hear one another.

I told her about my background, and I was very curious and excited to hear about hers. So far, I only knew of her career path and that she was twenty-seven like me. 

“Yeah, so I’ve been here all of my life. I moved away to California to attend Pepperdine University before returning.”

“Why didn’t you stay there?” I asked with genuine interest.

“Well,” she frowned. She took a sip of her Long Island Iced Tea. “It’s not because of my warm, fuzzy family. I grew up as an only child to a mother colder than a freezer who would’ve rather seen men after work than me. When she saw how it affected me, she’d tell me to get over it. She’d tell me that children grow up and go, but men are meant to stay.” Her face turned bitter. She poked her ice with her straw. Obviously, the Long Island had settled in.

“And your dad?” I pressed.

She shrugged. “I don’t even know who he is. All I know is that he’s a man named Greg Brazile. I don’t remember him at all. She said he left when I was a baby. I don’t wanna be anything like her. I left California, because it never felt like home. Plus, it was too big to conquer, and I’m here to conquer.” Her demeanor changed with every sip, and I became less jealous as I became more aware of her more-than-lackluster past. “So, why don’t you wanna be married to Max?” 

Now it was my turn to take a long sip from my margarita. “I don’t know. He wants too much, and I can’t give that to him. I find it scary that he suggested marriage over a date when we couldn’t even make a relationship work.” I shivered. “I don’t want that kind of life—marriage and all that.” My tongue traced the top of my teeth as I continued. “I’m a rookie at living by myself, I’m just learning who I really am, and now I’m supposed to be ready to take on another person? And you know what the sad thing is?”

“Hmm?” Brooke tried to focus with blank eyes. She took more sips as she listened while bopping her head to the music.

“Had we never broken up initially, I may have warped into one of those women who become bridezillas. We’d be shopping at Ikea and Pier 1 Imports on the weekends.” Speaking it out loud made my head hurt even more. I took another long sip. Brooke flagged the waiter down for water.

She must’ve read my confused expression. “Chiiiile. Never go over one glass. Always gotta keep control. Besides, how do you think I stay beautiful?”

To my dismay, she wasn’t teasing. Her looks reflected her beliefs though. I smiled and decided to stop as well then told the waiter that I would also like a bottle of water.  Brooke blurted, “Well, hey, I would love to be married with children somewhere down the line. I want the whole shebang. So, if you and Max have no future, send him my way.”

I couldn’t determine yet how much I hated her, or if I simply admired her for always coming across as brash. But she was crazy to think I would “send him” her way. I had no intentions of handing over my benefits package regardless of how he and I separated. The nerve. I watched her miserably poke her straw at the cubes in her glass again before shoving it to the center of the table. We bopped to the music and took in the scenery as we waited for our water. Brooke reached inside her clutch to place a twenty and a ten on the table. We grabbed our water bottles as I thanked her for the drinks.

“Let’s go outside,” she suggested. Before I could reply, she’d already jumped up and grabbed her clutch. Obviously, she was used to calling the shots in her life. So outside we headed. 

We squeezed through a crowd of smokers to welcome the fresh, crisp air that greeted our noses, bringing relief from the body odors and cologne that plagued the pub. Brooke looked at me with those one-of-a-kind wide eyes. “Hail a cab?”

I nodded. “Sure.” It didn’t take too long for a driver to notice us. We eased into the cab, Brooke first. 

“Penn Quarter, please.”

My head jerked from the cab driver to her in shock. “You live there?” My inquiry sounded more like a demand than a question.

She gave me a half-scornful look. “Problem?” Her eyes locked into mine with patience, as she waited for an answer. Almost salivating, Brooke waited for a chance to be challenged. Maybe I came off weird, so I dialed back my jealousy.

“No.” But I couldn’t play it off and I’m sure that didn’t go above her head. “I was just surprised, that’s all.” And add that to the checklist: residence, check.

“Why?” Her eyes stared at me in amusement with a smile. Yup. If I didn’t know if I liked, admired, or hated her earlier, I knew now. I loathed her, and with no good reason other than jealousy. 

“You’re so young, you’re single and you live in Penn Quarter. Lucky, you.” I placed the cheesiest smile on my face. 

She replied casually, “I’m on top of my game.” Brooke’s expression turned serious as she nestled in the corner between the seat and the door. “I studied magazines when I was a child. I grew up in a very raggedy house. I’m talking wood panel walls and old green carpet. I wanted a nicer home. I didn’t dream of a Prince Charming to swoop me up. I think my mom wanted that. I tapped into my passion to change my life.” She turned to face the window. “I’m writing my own life.”

And I respected her. If nothing else, I respected her. Brooke knew where she’d been, where she was going, why and how. She and I had the same amount of time on this earth, but one of us had more focus. Suddenly, I felt ashamed and behind in life. Brooke shot me a quick glance before looking out of the window again.

 “Anyway . . .”

“No, no, Brooke. I . . . I get it.”

Brooke threw me a piercing look. “Do you?” She readjusted her bottom to point her knees in my direction. “I think you need to walk in my childhood shoes to really get it.”

We rode in silence the rest of the way. I thought about my mom and me. Thought about how life had rewarded Brooke after such misery. One would look at women like Brooke and presume them to be beautiful, lucky and slightly entitled. Women who seemed to have it all usually came from nothing. I wondered if being stripped at birth equipped people with a better drive.

Emily

Horrified, a wide-eyed Emily covered her mouth with a hand. She looked away from the phone and at Zach. “That’s you? That’s you doing that in the video.”

Zach turned as red as the butt cheeks on a ten-year-old boy who’d gotten a spanking from his dad for vandalizing commercial property with friends. He quickly pushed the phone back into the pocket from which it came.

“Oh, man. I don’t know what to say.” His hands washed over his face in true humiliation. “You gotta believe me, Emily. I would never show this to you on purpose. This was an accident.”

Emily stepped back with realization that ultimately, this man was a stranger. Her hands frantically flew up to the sides of her head. “So, why would Heather send this video of you with your pants down whipping your penis back and forth,” she pointed at his midsection, “with-with-with your little hips making it move, if you two are over?”

Zach became hysterical, apparently trying to make sense of things himself. “Sh-sh-she’s stupid and loose. She’s never sent anything like this before. She recorded this when we were together.”

Emily gave a sarcastic smile with folded arms. “Great. So, it’s nice to know that that’s what you like to do on your time with the ladies.” She spun around. “Where’s my coat? I’m out of here.” She didn’t know him well enough to judge him, but she couldn’t help it. It spoke volumes about his character, and in her healing stage, she needed to back away from unnecessary insanity.

“Oh, please, come on, Emily. I was drunk there on Christmas with her a few years back.”

Emily donned the coat quickly. “Mmm, hm.”

Zach’s pleading expression inched closer to her face with desperate hands flailing. “You got to believe me. This—this is not me. It was a moment. A bad one.”

“I can’t say that it was nice meeting you.” She lowered her eyes to his wooden floor as her shoulder pushed past his. “Excuse me.”

Emily trudged through his wild lawn and across the street, berating herself for being so trusting of a stranger. Emily couldn’t believe that she would see him any given day. Never mess with a neighbor, she scolded herself. She wanted to smack herself for exercising poor judgment, but the wind did a better job at it than she ever could.

Summer

We arrived at Penn Quarter. Brooke paid the driver once we pulled up in front of a tall, tan building. Following her inside, the people at the front desk greeted her as she marched with a true sense of belonging. I never knew I could learn so much from someone the same age as me. I followed close behind until we reached the cluster of elevators. As we waited, Brooke gripped her clutch tighter and offered me a faint smile before looking at the floor.

“Why did you invite me here? You barely know me.” We stepped inside the first elevator that chimed. She pressed button number six before looking at me.

“Well, you’re certainly not my type, so you don’t have to worry about anything happening.” She slid her neck from right to left at me with a smirk.” Besides, it’s the weekend.”  My mouth dropped open.

“I didn’t mean it like that, Brooke.” Taking a shot back at her I said, “I may be desperate for some action, but I still prefer dick.”

She shrugged. “Whatever makes you happy, Summer.”

We stepped off onto the sixth floor. A smell of newness overtook my sense of smell. New carpet, fresh paint.

“How long has this building been here?”

“Not even a year. I just moved here myself.” I got the feeling that she just wanted to show me how she lived. I was already jealous of her, and just when I found a reason to relinquish the ugly green monster, she surprised me with something new to make the monster come back. I got that feeling in my gut which told me to prepare myself to be jealous all over again. Brooke was about to show me just how much no amount of excuses could pardon failure.

I waited with anticipation as she turned the key to the final lock. The emotion I felt was like the feeling you get when you're about to see something repulsive. You know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t look away. You knew that it would be on your mind when it was time to sleep, and you could only fall asleep after obsessing about it to death. I didn’t know what made me feel so inadequate since the moment I saw this woman. However, once she turned the key, I was quickly reminded.

When she opened her door, I knew that I had to accept what lay before me. My feet steadied on shiny, cherry oak hardwood floors. Her condo stretched like a map of success. A very pleasant and fresh smell of vanilla hit my nostrils. The well-lit condo stood new, spacious, and updated, with plenty of windows. Modern and chic. Brooke decorated with gray and turquoise as the primary colors and splashes of red popped up tastefully. Everything matched. This was more than what anyone should have in their twenties.

Creeping around from one room to another, I couldn’t hide my reaction nor did I care. My mouth dragged on the floor as I tiptoed. I entered a bathroom and flicked on a switch.

Brooke chuckled. “I’ll leave you to tour. Want anything to drink?” she asked as she walked away.

Aloof, I replied, “Uh-huh.”

I suddenly realized that though we shared the same age, this lady didn’t share a roommate when I’d had one. On a scale of one to ten, my hatred for this girl easily soared past ten. I turned off the light and went to the final bedroom.

Brooke decorated her bedroom with Moroccan style and colors. Stylishly placed in front of a sheer drape, her bed sat as the focal point, centered in the middle of the room. I made my way to her small but generous-sized patio. Even one square foot would impress me. I decided against opening it and slid the door back, because I got the point. Brooke couldn’t only wake up and see the view, but she could smell it as well.

“Hey.” I looked up to see Brooke holding two glasses. “Sparkling blueberry cider.” 

I walked the distance to meet her at the door. “Thanks,” I said as I accepted my glass.

“You’re welcome. Come back to the living room, please.”

“Sure.” With that, Brooke spun on one foot and led us to her living room. She sat on the rug and I on the couch.

With her calves peeled against her thigh, she advised, “Relax,” before sipping, steadying her weight with a hand on the floor. She peered at me over the rim of her glass. “Take your shoes off. Get comfy.”

After seeing someone so beautiful and young have all of this, I needed a real drink. I think I wouldn’t have been bothered so much if she were a guy. I’d never been one to compare myself to guys. In fact, I’d always expected guys to get ahead easily because of their gender. However, to see a woman slay at an early age made me realize that maybe I should be happy that it was possible as a woman, especially one who shared my skin color. So, I did just that. I kicked off my shoes to bend my knees so I could rest my feet beside my bottom.

Her face softened. “What did you expect? Did my place live up to your expectations?” She rested her drink on her thigh.

Her question humored me. I figured that to surmount my jealousy, I should confront it. “Sooner than later, I would love to have what you have,” I admitted reluctantly. As a grown woman, admitting real feelings, ugly or not, defined maturity, not so much ownership of fine possessions.

Brooke pressed her lips together and nodded, looking away. Then she explained, “Summer. This was hard, very hard. I started off real small while in college. Each earning went toward my tuition. I put my reputation on the line. In California, my reputation was embarrassing. I started off rocky and got my tail whipped.” She snickered before taking another sip.

“It takes a lot of guts, Brooke.”

“I can tell you so many stories of disaster that helped shape me into the independent tornado I am today. I saved my pennies to pay back my loans while I was in school. I’ve never owned a car just so I could save extra money.” 

“I simply couldn’t afford one. Still can’t.”

She shrugged. “If you’re serious, you’ll get there.” We sat in silence for a few seconds before she continued. She placed her glass on the coffee table and said, “When I came back to DC, I was polished. Not a pro, but polished. I became a pro here.” Brooke eyed her feet as she started to rub one. “I don’t allow myself to come home until the sun goes down. Yeah,” she added as she looked around, “this took fire-in-the-belly work.”

I nodded absently. “Well, I admire you, Brooke. I really do,” I said in a faint voice.

I tried so hard to beat the green monster away on my own, when all I had to do was confront the enemy. Now that I had, the monster ran away on his own with his tail between his legs. Now that I kicked presumption to the curb and learned to befriend the act of true communication, my jealousy of Brooke slightly waned. In fact, I didn’t even hate her. I smiled at her genuinely for the first time, because now, I respected her. I raised my glass and she returned my smile as she accepted the toast. That night, I stayed and laughed with Brooke until midnight before she kicked me out. “A true diva needs proper rest,” she explained. And now that I knew her background, I understood.

 

2: rich encounters

Emily

I'm here to look at the piano that you have listed online.” The words came out sounding more like a question than a statement. The thin, African American woman with the New York accent looked back at Emily through almond-shaped eyes, waiting for a confirmation that she had the right place.

Emily stepped back to allow her in. “Oh, right. Come on in.” She smiled and shut the door behind the woman. Emily ambled her way back to the room with the piano as she explained herself. “Yeah, I don't need it here. It belonged to my ex.” She stopped before pointing to the piano. “I'm sorry. I didn't catch your name.”

The woman offered a quick apology and extended a formal hand. “Amber Hamilton. I'm so sorry for being all up in ya’ house without tellin’ you who I am.”

They shared a giggle. “No worries,” Emily replied. “Yeah, so it’s fairly new, no scratches and it's barely been played.”

Amber scratched her button nose. “Just eight thousand dollars for your parlor grand?” 

Emily nodded, “And, like the ad said, it’s a Steinway. It needs to go.”

“I see that.” She studied it without a touch. “Shhhheeesh.” Silence fell between them. Amber told her, “But, you know, you can’t go wrong with a Steinway. Besides, in the store, I'd have to cough up more than this. So, it’s okay.” She placed her hands in the front pockets of her narrow trousers. She examined the piano, tracing her finger along the lid, “Does look like new,” then on a key. “Well tuned, too.” Sticking her hands back into her pockets, Amber told Emily, “Okay. I got an envelope full of cash.”

“So, you play?” Emily placed a brunette strand behind an ear.

“I do.” She smiled with pride. “I actually offer lessons in my home over in Southwest. Well, I just moved from Southeast a few months back, but it's how I make my money to survive. I grew up with a gift, so I also perform to makes ends meet. You know what I’m sayin’?”

Emily inhaled as she tried to take in all the information. “I see.”

“I ain’t tryna’ step on your shoes—I mean toes—but why you sellin’ such a nice piece anyway?” Amber looked at her with subtle disapproval. “I mean, even if you don’t play . . .”

Emily exhaled between praying hands. “My husband—well, my ex-husband now . . .” She peered down in deep thought as the black pool of misery slowly sucked her back in. “He used to play it, and, in fact, that’s how he won my heart. I would go to his house, and he would play me a tune.” She clasped her hands in front of her, tugging nervously at her fingers looking downward. “I fell wide open into love. No reservations. I had never fallen in love before. Threw caution to the wind. I wanted to be like my parents . . . in love, but I had friends who tried and got hurt.” She peered at Amber and shrugged matter-of-factly. “And now I’m one of them.”

“Sorry, girl.” Amber wore a sympathetic expression. “Can I ask what happened?”

Emily raised an eyebrow at her with disbelief that she might be dumping all of this on a stranger. On the other hand, she also didn't mind talking about it since she hadn't discussed him in detail in a while. “He left me. He . . .” Tears welled again at the bottom rims of her eyes.

Amber took a step forward. “Oh, honey, I'm sorry, uh—”

“Emily.”

Amber gave a quick nod. “Right, we don’t have to talk about it, Emily. I don’t want to upset you like this.”

“It's okay, you know.” She giggled anxiously. “I should be the one apologizing since you just came here to buy a piano, and instead you got a stranger dumping a sad-sap story on you.” Emily exhaled a deep sigh and placed a palm over her midsection.

Joking, Amber replied, “Are you kiddin’ me? Strangers are the best company.” Emily broke into a broad smile. “No, really. It’s good to have an ear, even if it belongs to a stuffed animal.”

Emily laughed and waved a hand at her. “Well, to tell you the truth, last year, he just woke up and decided that marriage was not for him. We were only together for a few months. He said that it was a big mistake and that he would resent me forever for urging the idea. But I didn't, his parents did. True, I talked about it a lot, but what woman doesn't?”

Amber raised a slow hand. “Me?” They chortled. “I’m in it for fun, nothing else. Girl, if they ain't rich, then we ain't got nothing to talk about. He can have a little dick, but if he got money, a trip to Neiman Marcus will make up for that. Okay?”

They burst into laughter. It felt good to talk about this with someone who could make her laugh at it all. She couldn't do it with Brooke, because Brooke just didn't get it. And Brooke certainly couldn't make Emily laugh about it. Maybe Amber was right. Sometimes all you need is a good stranger.

“Well, I can tell you from firsthand knowledge that having a rich man isn’t everything that it’s cracked up to be.”

Amber shrugged. “I can appreciate that. But I’m really sorry that that joker did this to you. You seem cool so far.” Amber shook her head with disapproval.

Feeling touched, Emily replied, “Thank you, Amber. And you know I'm thinking of selling this place, too. One day. I just can't bear another minute in a big space with massive memories. I need a roomy apartment where the walls won't feel so big.”

“Do you keep in touch with Andrew?” Amber asked.

Emily smirked with confusion. “Umm, that wasn't his name.”

Amber shrugged. “Well, I had to give him a name since you didn't.”

Emily chuckled. “Funny. His name is Eric. And no, he avoids me like the plague. He cannot even bear the sight of me.” Amber stood there with a pouty frown to let Emily know that she sympathized.

“Well enough about me and my sad tale. What about you? Who is this lady buying my piano?” she teased. 

Amber perked up with a grin from ear to ear. “I’m from New York originally. Haven’t even been down here for a year. You know, a friend of mine lent me her couch and then I saved enough to get my own place in Southwest at the Waterfront.”

“Ohhh, okay. That area has come a long way over the past five years. Where in New York are you from? I could tell by the accent.” Emily smiled. “I love it.”

“Thank you. I grew up in Harlem. Whew. I’m aliiive,” she said jokingly with both hands up. Emily chuckled, but then Amber admitted, “I wouldn’t have it any other way, but you know I just had to get outta there. I needed space, air, a different scene, a slower place. It’s exhausting.”

“You ever think you’d go back?” Emily tilted her head as she listened.

Amber thought about it. She folded her arms. “You know, it’s too early to tell . . .” her eyes drifted to the floor, “too early to tell. But hey,” she gazed at her with animated eyes, “I heard an accent, where you from?”

“What you hear is a Puerto Rican from Pittsburgh. Yup. I went to Penn State but got my master’s degree in education here at George Mason.”

Amber pointed at her. “I heard of that school. I’m not the college type though. Too lazy. I love music way too much. Honey, I knew I was done after high school.” Emily smiled. “You, my friend, sound like you could use a break from the monotony.” Amber pointed two gun-shaped gestures at her with an open mouth as she waited for a response. “I don’t have many friends here so what do you say?”

Emily folded her arms. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I’m going out tonight. My friend—my rich friend, Osha—is having a party at her mansion.”

“Ooooh, I don’t know.” Emily began pacing with folded arms. “I don’t think I’m up for partying.”

“Think about it. You seem like you can use a change of scenery, meet some new people, and perhaps you can find a new guy. So, what do you say?” Emily could feel Amber studying her. “Come on. I can use a new face. Osha will be too busy to stay around with me, so what do you say?”

Emily stopped in her tracks and raised an eyebrow. “Where’s this party located?”

“In McLean. You interested?” she teased as she circled around Emily.

“Well, can I bring two other friends? You’d really like them. Well, I just met one of them but she seems cool. I’d like to know her better.”

Amber’s eyebrows raised in curiosity. “Oh, yeah? It's gon’ be lit. You won't regret it.”

Summer

“We cannot use a person like that at our agency, so don’t bother calling her to see what happened this morning. She should’ve shown up for the job this morning, and now we look bad. I don’t want to lose this client because of her.” I shook my head in disapproval as Angie, the senior recruiter, stood over my desk as I sat behind it. “And why was it so hard to locate the files of other candidates this morning? Did Lora not show this to you? This is why you knowing the digital format is so important. We need to fix that, because this cannot happen again the next time an employee decides to stand us up. We always have a back-up solution in hand. Fran will have all our heads. Let’s clean this up quickly.”

I felt overwhelmed. I nodded, pressing the files against my chest. “Yes, I agree. I’m sorry and I’ll figure out the database immediately.”

“It’s not all your fault. We all have to share some responsibility.” Angie’s black hair whipped while she shook her head as if to clear it. “Anyway, thank you for your diligence today. I’ll meet up with Lora to see what she did with you,” she said blandly as she left my office.

I exhaled a huge sigh. Hopefully Lora wouldn’t lose her promotion to senior recruiter. Happy to have my office to myself so I could pack up my desk, I began to clear out for the day. Outside, darkness started to fall as cabs filled the street while cars honked every few seconds. Then my phone rang.

I wanted to say, “Good afternoon, we’re closed.” But what I really said was, “DuBois Staffing, Summer speaking.”

“So, your business card comes in handy.” The voice on the other end of the line had a slightly recognizable accent. It was my new girl, Emily.

“Emily Gray?”

“Just Emily will do. Listen, I have an invite and Brooke said she’s going. I was invited to a party in McLean by a woman who bought my parlor piano. I can’t believe I’m going, but would you like to come? Being in this house is driving me nuts. It’s home and work, work and home.”

“You know what? After the day I’ve had, all I can say is, where’s the party at?”

A Yellow Cab pulled up at the curb in front of me. I waited for Brooke in my short, burgundy dress. I just couldn’t wait to see what the diva would be wearing. Not out of jealousy this time, but for sheer amusement. No doubt, she would go all out. I enjoyed the anticipation. It felt like waiting for a real-life Barbie to reveal her red-carpet attire. Besides, Emily told us to dress up, but not ballroom style. I heard a voice in the background say, “More like cocktail.” So, what did the Diva Barbie choose? Funny, I already had so many names for this girl because she really was a firecracker.

She stepped out with one turquoise stiletto hitting the ground first. I saw a bare, brown leg and then the other leg and voila. Brooke rose in her black, cap-sleeved dress with both hands on her hips. She looked hella sexy. Black and turquoise never looked so good.

We hugged.

“Hey, girl,” Brooke said in excitement. “Look at you.” With one hand in mine, she spun me around. I felt like going back inside to change.

“Well, hey. If I were still envying you, tonight would be the right moment. My sweater dress may not cut the mustard after all. I’m afraid you’ve put me out of business.” 

We shared a laugh and it felt great to be rid of awkward feelings. She didn’t know that I couldn’t afford to buy something extravagant, nor did I own anything on that level. I could’ve worn the same blue dress that I wore on my date with Max, but parties always called for something new and she already saw me in that, too.

Brooke told me, “I think someone will come home with you tonight.” 

“Let’s hope so. I’ve been horny ever since Max tapped out on me last weekend.”

 

Brooke looked around and grabbed my hand. “So where’s our ride? How long are we expected to wait in front of the Wharf?”

“Well if they stand us up, we can at least chow down on some yummy seafood,” I replied.

“Yuck. I hate seafood,” Brooke frowned. Then her eyes brightened with a smile as she pointed. “Look, I see Emily’s truck.” 

Yup, Emily sat behind the wheel of the Sequoia at the red light. I saw the other woman on the passenger side. “Does Emily know that they can make a right on red?” I shook my head in confusion.

Brooke’s forehead wrinkled. “Yeah, don’t know why she won’t turn.”

The tan Sequoia finally drove through the entrance and stopped at our feet. Emily rolled down her window to wave an inviting hand. “Get in,” she called. Brooke and I giggled with excitement like two teenagers and crawled in the second row. Emily’s head swung around and so did the mocha-colored woman. “Guys, meet Amber. I sold my piano to her and she invited us out tonight.” Emily appeared so perky with her big grin.

Flashing her teeth, she said, “Hey, ladies.” Amber had a very pretty face. Not a goddess’s like Brooke’s, but just as pretty as Emily’s. Women would kill for her almond-shaped eyes. She wore a stylish haircut that stopped at her ears and accentuated her oval-shaped face. When she waved, I noticed a musical clef tattooed on the inside of her wrist. 

Brooke shook her hand. “Hello, there. I’m Brooke.” She smiled and then gingerly pulled the safety belt across her chest. 

 

 

 

I shook her hand as well. “How’s it going, Amber? I’m Summer. Nice to meet you.” I eased back into the seat and secured myself with the safety belt.

“Hey. Did Emily ever get around to tell you guys that it’s a masquerade party?”

Brooke and I turned to one another with the same confused expression. I didn’t know how to reply. “I . . . I . . . I—”

Emily’s head swung around quickly to say, “Sorry, guys. Amber forgot to tell me when I was on the phone with you guys. But we already stopped by The Party Store to pick some up.”

Brooke and I exhaled relief. “Cool. What’d we get?” I asked.

Amber yanked a bag up from the floor. “Take a look.” She tossed the bag to me, and I chose a black sparkly mask. I flipped it around as I studied it. “Never done this before.”

“Hand it to me,” said Brooke. When she took hold of the bag, she fished around and picked out a red mask with yellow lines. “Do we have to?”

Amber’s brows pinched. “You don’t like it?”

“I don’t.”

“Well, some people take them off anyway as the party wears on. So, no, you don’t.”

“Don’t you think it’ll be fun?” Emily asked.

“No,” Brooke replied without hesitation and handed it back to Amber along with the bag.

I shrugged. “Well, I do. I’m keeping mine.”

“High five.” Amber held a hand in the air until I met it with a laugh.

“You guys are nuts,” Brooke said chuckling.

Amber replied with, “Are you guys ready to paaaaar-taaaaaaay? Wooooooooohoo.” Brooke and I looked at each other and laughed.

“Yes,” we all screamed back at the wild child.

Amber announced, “Then McLean, here we come.” 

I didn’t know what the night held. I did know that the time had come for me to let my hair down, come out of my shell and to live life to the fullest as a woman living independently.

 

We arrived at the mansion in total disbelief. Well, except Amber. She’d been here before. Following the brick walkway that led us inside, we stepped into a social gathering of rich people sipping on champagne and wine. I had to assume that they were all rich, even though my group wasn’t. No one cared or noted our entrance. They just continued with their conversations. The number of visitors filled more than one room. Live music of soft violins played in some rooms, and pianos in the other. Servers walked around with trays of drinks and appetizers. Buffet tables lined some walls with food. My eyes studied the crown and trim moldings above our heads. I glanced down at the marble tile under my boots. Boy, I hadn’t a clue what these people did for a living to afford a home like this.

Brooke whispered to us, “Where are the people who look like us? Are we really welcomed here, Amber?”

“There are some people of color up in here. You just gotta keep walking. Chill guys. These people are cool.” She slid the green mask over her eyes.

Already studying the crowd behind my mask, I snickered as Brooke rolled her eyes. I whispered to Brooke, “I’m sure we’re welcomed here. Let’s just keep going in like she said.” Brooke shot me a doubtful expression and proceeded. Emily bit her lower lip, suppressing a chuckle.

“Osha,” Amber called to a tall blonde with high cheek bones who made her way toward us. A huge smile spread across her face when she saw Amber. The hostess lowered her mask with the stick as she squinted at the woman who called her name. Amber told us very little about this friend of hers. Osha was a woman from Russia married to Leonard Bardwire, a fat founder of a chain of hotels, whom Amber told us had to be about twenty years Osha’s senior. Amber said that we could call him Leo, should we meet him.

She had a strong accent. “Hello, darling.” Osha and Amber air kissed one another on either cheek. “Mwah. Mwah.”

I turned to Brooke and Emily with a raised brow. Emily pinched her lips to the side of her face. Brooke rolled her eyes and leaned toward me to say, “So fake.” I snickered.

Osha turned around to ask, “And who are these lovely ladies?” Her dark blue eyes smiled at me as she extended a hand to each of us one by one.

“Summer Stevenson.” The other two followed suit. “Thanks for having us here. You have a stunning home.” She thanked me with a hand over her heart.

“Well, ladies, drink up and mingle.” Osha rubbed Amber’s shoulder. “I’ll see you later.” Amber waved as Osha turned to walk away to point a server in our direction. We each took a glass from the tray and sipped as we watched Amber interact close by.

Amber gave a few hugs to men—who were no doubt affluent—and air kisses to their wives, whom she knew by association. When Amber had a moment to take a breather from being ambushed at random, she turned to us to say, “Once you know one rich person, you go from there. Usually, the rich hang with the rich like the poor hang with the poor.” 

I couldn’t help myself. I had to throw a joke her way. “So, what are you?” I asked with a sideways glance and a smirk before sipping the finest champagne.

We all chuckled, including Amber. I loved her sense of humor. “Uh, smart. You see, my law is work for the wealthy and you become wealthy.”

“Now does this include sex services?” I teased.

She shrugged casually. “Hey, if a wealthy man needs a quick blow, I’d do it and take his money with pride and get perks. Otherwise, you’re just stuck with a poor man who will just treat you to a cheap meal. Instead of a perk on the side, you get a pain in your side.”

Emily stared up at her new, taller acquaintance behind a blue mask covered in pink glitter. “So you should consider collecting a letter of recognition from each man. You blow one, get a good grade and get a recommendation. You know, raise the bar in pay.”

“Pay for performance? Dear Patrick Squire the Second,” I started, pretending to write in the air. “Madame Amber deserves all accolades of tea bagging for approximate suction and pressure.” I could barely finish as Emily and Brooke almost fell over in hysteria while a less amused Amber watched with her hand on her hip. Perhaps the champagne contributed to the uproar, or being hidden behind a mask, because I barely knew this woman and offending her didn’t concern me at the moment. Her tongue caressed the corner of her lips as she tried not to laugh.

“We highly recommend you consider her strong skill set and abilities,” I continued.

She just raised her Louis Vuitton handbag. “Well, laugh all you want, you crack heads, but how do you think I afforded this?” 

“Tea baggin’?” Brooke chimed. And we broke out into another gale of laughter.

“Do you know how many extra piano lessons I would have to teach just to pay for this after rent? No. So, I can thank Leo’s friend, Rob, for this. Old White men with money,” she clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Don’t leave a party without one. Ta-ta crack heads. Mingle around.” She blew a kiss and walked away. We stood close to an unlit fireplace in a crowded room of guests, servers and a pianist. 

I looked at Brooke and shrugged. “Well, I guess she serves as a prime example of why women would rather work around the clock than to wait at the rich-man bus stop to be picked up just to afford the finer things in life.”

“Exactly,” Brooke replied.

“Oh, come on guys. Be nice. Amber just has a different way to her hustle. Brooke, you work very hard and get paid generously. Amber just . . .”

“Opens up and says, ‘Ah’?” I couldn’t help it. Emily playfully smacked my wrist and smiled. “Well, doesn’t this just make her a prostitute?” They stared off and shrugged. “I mean, the typical person just expects an orgasm and a verbal confirmation of excellence, but she wants to be paid afterwards. So, doesn’t this make her a legit prostitute?”

Brooke said, “I’d have to concur.”

“Enough, guys. Come on. Let’s go see what this party has to offer.” Emily pulled our wrists as she stood in the middle while we began our search.

“Well, I can certainly mix some business with this pleasure,” Brooke said. “Can’t help but think of the potential clients some networking could bring.”

The possibility of bringing someone home for the night excited me. It’d been a long time. Since Max didn’t come through for me that night, he’d set me back tremendously. I decided to take advantage of the men in heat tonight.

The search to see who would be available proved to be quite easy. My wandering eyes made the women in relationships paranoid, and grabbing the arms of their men told me that. Others weren’t so subtle. Some went as far as stealing quick kisses. Good grief. So, I decided to look for men with a glass of champagne and a hand in a pocket, chatting with other men or simply standing alone. Because of my lack of confidence, I had to think of a way to grab a hot guy’s attention once had mine. 

By now I’d broken away from the others. I wasn’t aware how or when I lost my pack, but somehow, I stood alone. If they needed me, I had my cell set on vibrate, since I knew I wouldn’t hear the ring. 

My glass rested against my lips as I scoped the room. So much beige everywhere—the walls, the furniture, and even the guests’ clothing. I felt confident that I wouldn’t be hard to miss in my burgundy dress. My eyes scanned and lingered, scanned and lingered. I could never be so bold to do this alone without a mask. When I saw a hot single guy, some random chick would happen to sense my radar from another room and, low and behold, his arm would be jerked into hers. At this point, I could do nothing but roll my eyes. Were all girlfriends this annoying?

But then I spotted a gentleman in a corner wearing tan slacks. The handsome man seemed to be alone. I studied his build. Not bad. With broad shoulders and a bulge in the right place, it appeared he stood over six feet. And despite his buzz-cut hairdo, I could see that he had dark hair to match his olive skin. Searching for his hands, I found them anchored in both pockets. Fighting my turtle-like nature, I furtively studied his stare behind his silver mask. I wanted to know what held his attention, because unfortunately, it wasn’t me. His first gaze led me to the champagne and glasses on a server’s tray. I didn’t miss him bouncing on the tips of his toes; he seemed bored. I wrestled with the idea of talking to him. No, no, I couldn’t. Instead, I took the cowardly way out and decided to skate toward the server to get in the hot man’s view. 

Dare I look up to see if he notices me now? Nice going Goldilocks. You didn’t pick a dress with a good cleavage shot. A quick idea ran through my head, suggesting that I use my legs, but I was convinced that it would take more than knees to get his blood pumping. Hmmm. I had to hurry while in his sight. Okay, Summer. Think. Think. Leaning against the fireplace with an elbow on the mantle, I decided to perch my butt out. Gee, how many fireplaces did these guys have? Since the guy still ogled the server's tray, I decided to top off my glass of champagne.

I popped a slender hip out and said, “Excuse me, sir?” He spun around, about to leave. “May I have another glass?”

“Sure. Cristal or—”

“Yes.” Those rappers didn’t brag about this stuff for no reason. As a first-time drinker of Cristal, I rated it beyond good. I bet Amber’s had it more times than I've been laid in the last year.

I took a sip and kept up the pose. Deciding to look up once more as I lowered the glass from my lips, I noticed that he’d disappeared. I didn’t know where. Before I could panic, once two girls moved, I noticed that he’d started my way. I barely escaped a minor choke as the Cristal slid down my throat. Too late. It appeared I could be getting what I’d asked for. The hot guy inched closer to me with a mischievous smile. What to do? I turned to search the room frantically for a friend. Even Amber, but no cigar. Like a plane, he'd landed.

Of course, his full-lipped smirk turned out to be quite sexy. “You alone?”

I immediately melted under his accent. This man made my stomach flip. In the circles of the mask, I managed to see some of his dark, bushy eyebrows above his light brown eyes. They pierced my green eyes effortlessly, as he stood so slack with his hands still hidden. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had any hands? He could be a pirate with two hooks. And if he didn’t have hands, I wondered what size his hooks were.

My shaky hand coyly stroked a strand of hair from my face. “Hello.” I struggled to dial back my awkwardness, obviously, a failure, given my quick wave and a throat clearing. “Umm, no I’m here with friends. You?”

“Alone. I'm a co-worker of Leo's.” He bit his lower lip.

Don’t do that to me, don’t do that to me.

Cohesive words didn’t come easy. “Why is that? Why are you alone?”

He shrugged. “I’ve been to these parties before.” His eyes looked toward the ceiling before falling back into mine. “Nothing new. Besides, I already mingled. But I do know one thing.” He raised an eyebrow.

Determined to kick my nerves to the side, I leaned in closer and playfully raised an eyebrow back. “What's that?”

“I'm bored. I'm lonely, too. Everybody has someone, but you and me. So, I figured you would appreciate some company. Am I wrong?” He grinned and winked. I loved the tone of his voice.

Hmm. What was he trying to say? He had to stop being so effortlessly sexy. It was beginning to wreak havoc on my lower half. Already at the mercy of my vagina because of my unintentional extended stay on Celibate Island, I couldn’t afford to be teased.

“Soooo, did I win your attention by default?” I flirted back by biting my lower lip, too. I flung my Amazonian hair over my shoulder with a hand.

He chuckled. “No, not really. But if you were ugly, I wouldn't be here.”

I shrugged and gave him a corner smile. “Can a girl get a name?”

“Ruben. And you?”

“Summer.” I gave him my hand to shake. He removed one of those elusive hands to reveal a big manly tool. Yes. I could see them on my thighs right now. I had to get out of here. “Well Ruben, I'm bored stiff here. Should I tell my girls—?”

“Tell them that a nice guy is going to drive you home tonight after we chat in my convertible.”

Oh, yeah, just chatting. Liar. I smirked with sheer cynicism. I couldn’t be mad at him, because I wanted what he wanted. Regardless, tonight would be a night of firsts. I’d never been in a convertible before, and I definitely didn’t go places alone with strange men. More and more, I was beginning to see a method to Amber's madness. Well, at least the part where she partied with rich people. “Sure, let me call one of them.” He nodded once and smiled. So suave. 

I got through to Brooke and she warned me to be safe and wished me well. I felt like running out. The mansion offered a great experience, because again, I’d never been in one. On the other hand, I’d never gotten lost with a rich guy. An adventure awaited, but I didn’t know what kind. He disarmed a black, convertible BMW. Never been in one of those before either. I knew one thing: no matter what happened tonight, I had an experience of seeing how the rich lived, up close and personal. Television showed it, but seeing it, being a part of it, that was another story. 

Ruben opened the passenger door and lowered me into his car by my hand. When he joined me inside, he cranked up the ferocious motor and took off toward the opposite direction from which the girls and I’d entered. Would I become wind chimes tonight or one sexually satisfied woman? This would either be the end of me or the ride of my life. 

Emily

In the kitchen, feeling nervous about being in a home with a crowd of people, none of whom she knew, except for her entourage, minus one, Emily leaned over the kitchen island and popped a strawberry in her mouth. Brooke had gone to use the ladies' room, and Amber was somewhere over the rainbow. Out of nowhere, a sudden touch that swiped Emily’s side made her jump. No one had touched her there since Eric.

Spinning to see who it was, Emily froze in consternation as she processed the familiar blue eyes that stared her into stone behind a black mask. He removed it quickly, narrowing his eyes at her. Emily reluctantly removed her mask.

Eric.

 The same tight peach skin with short salt and pepper hair, clean shaven face and new crow’s feet told her that it was indeed Eric as he peered down at her. Was this really happening? What was he doing here?

“Emily?” he whispered, still squinting his eyes in disbelief. “What are you doing here?”

Shoot. I’m in his world. Amber set me up.

 Emily had a few seconds under pressure to reason. Eric made at least a million a year, and always hung with the affluent. He worked in Tyson's Corner, which neighbored McLean. His being there made perfect sense to Emily now.

Tears tried to flood her eyes, but she willed them away—at least for the duration of being face to face with Eric. Like any woman with pride and dignity, she held her head up high when facing the man who shattered her heart.

“I’m here with my friends.”

Eric dug his hands in his pockets and poked his sharp chin in the air. “Oh, you have friends now?” he asked portentously, looking down at her from his nose bridge.

Emily shifted on one foot. She didn’t know how to handle him. In her head, she heard the comments that she’d endured when growing up: What’s the matter with you, girl? You need to get yourself together. Come on, Emily, you are a strong, Puerto Rican woman. Her sisters couldn’t fathom her passiveness. They had that attitude that she didn’t seem to possess.

Regardless, nothing worked. Instead, she found comfort in twisting her lips in embarrassment. How could this be the same man who’d caressed her at night? The same man who’d toasted with her when she’d received her masters and the teaching job? The same man who’d made love to her? The same man who’d slow danced with her and told her that she was the most beautiful woman to ever hit this planet? Was he still in there somewhere, or did he never really exist?

Amber

One of Leo’s friends, fifty-five-year-old George Butler, had a love for younger women, despite his marital status. His wife didn’t frequent parties for a lack of interest. In a room with very few people, Amber made sure that her intentional moves didn’t go unnoticed by George. She considered it a perk to be in a home with many rooms. People couldn’t talk about what they couldn’t see.

The New Yorker presumed that he couldn’t be caught stepping out on his wife, even though he didn’t do a good job at hiding his lust. He didn’t even bother to wear a mask. She bent at the waist to pick up hor d’oeuvres from the layout on the table to give him something to think about. When she chose the one she wanted, she put on a show. Straightening at the waist, Amber offered him a profile view of her as she gingerly placed the hor d’oeuvre in her mouth. No doubt a generic move, but Amber felt certain that that would suffice. And she was right.

George increasingly became worked up, shifting his tie and twisting his lips. The time to go in for the kill couldn’t be more perfect. She poked her tongue out as far as possible and placed the last bite on it before retracting it back into her mouth. Like a bee to a flower, he approached her. 

George cleared his throat and stuck out a firm hand. “George Butler. You?”

She accepted his hand after the last trace of hor d’oeuvre passed down her throat. Ignoring his request for her name, she replied, “You know I can do to you what I did to this hor d’oeuvre.”

George looked around suspiciously. They were in a room with two other guests. He leaned in to say, “Meet me upstairs. I’ll be waiting for you in the hall.”

Amber nodded with a grin. She waited for a few minutes to pass before she located two dark staircases, one of which, led directly to the desperate, old man. She felt confident that they had gone undetected by the partygoers. In the darkness, she could only see the silhouette of the old, horny man waiting in the hallway. Considering his history with Leo, Amber didn’t question his permission to access that level. He found a room for them to enter, and without wasting time, Amber knew how to handle her business.

“George.” Amber cupped him gently at the crotch and massaged. “My name is Amber. And tomorrow my rent is due.” Amber already had her rent covered, but he didn’t have to know that. She wanted him to understand where she was coming from before too much time escaped.

“Done,” he said weakly. He stroked her hair and gave her a gentle push downward to indicate his expectations. He quickly unfastened his pants and slid everything down south to bare it all.

When Amber descended, she imagined dollar signs on his pink and wrinkled genitals in order to give her best performance. Holding his genital with her mouth, Amber heard a short squeak two minutes into fellatio. She wanted to doubt the funny sound, but the smell confirmed her suspicion. With some of him in her mouth, she looked up and asked, “You gon’ really fart while you gettin’ head?”

Not only did he look extremely embarrassed, but his apologetic expression told Amber what she had to do next. She rested her bottom on her heels as she straightened. Her eyes looked upward to meet his.

Snatching off her mask with little patience to spare, she said, “Mutha’ fu . . .” Amber didn’t want to offend him, so she shook her head and rolled her eyes with a sigh to show her disapproval. Irritated, she informed him, “I’m gonna have to charge you extra.” Amber wanted to throw up at the smell of something rancid.

His expression became concerned. “How much more?”

Even though she already knew the answer, she smiled and asked, “George, are you married?” while she massaged him. He closed his eyes and with an opened mouth, he tried to breathe.

“Yu-yes.”

“Well, George. Does she do what I’m doing?” Her smile turned naughty. It seemed blatant that she wouldn’t be there if his wife exercised a tenth of Amber’s skill, but she didn’t see the harm in reminding him of that at this crucial moment. Frankly, that was Amber’s appeal to older men, especially the married ones. The older ones relied on money to snag younger women. The older, married men found that sex dwindled, and they longed for sexual excitement. However, when they were old, rich, and bored, the combination benefitted her the most. Amber waited for an answer, but George could barely speak.

With his head still cocked back, he barely answered with a, “Nah.”

“When’s the next time you’re gonna get this?” 

“How much, Amber? How much to keep you tonight and maybe more nights?”

Since the stench passed, Amber resumed her initial job. Just when she knew George was going to descend into an orgasmic abyss, she relinquished her hold and sat back on her heels. “Two thousand now and a grand per night.” Amber targeted him with the knowledge of his worth. A thousand per night meant nothing to a man with old money and no children. 

His head snapped down in desperation. “Get back to work and you’ll get what you need. Just don’t tell my wife. She could clean me out.” George didn’t wait for Amber. He pushed her back into her pool of talents and she got enough cash for “rent.”

Summer

We made it to the top of an abandoned hill—a great place to park. However, cops could easily hide out here. Ruben cut the car engine as we stared at the dark trees. Luckily, a street light a few yards away illuminated the area. I wondered what he had in mind as we sat in his convertible.

Deprived of stimulation, the idea of being here with him excited me. My adventurous days involved work and watching television. The routine sickened me. In that moment of silence, I wondered the whereabouts of the other ladies. How different my life had become from just a week ago. Who knew that Lora’s words of wisdom would be an understatement to life on my own? It frightened me to live alone, but at least I didn’t feel lonely. My friendships with the girls looked promising, and thanks to Amber, I was learning how people of a whole different social class lived. Parties at mansions? Riding in convertibles? Wearing nice clothes to real events? My life consisted of going to cafes and coffee shops to meet a few people here and there. I rode the Metro or bus of course, not convertibles. And my clothes were for dining at hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Tonight, seemed unrecognizable. Even though tonight didn’t change my personal life for good, the visuals showed me the life to which I could aspire.

He lifted his mask, revealing a handsome face that briefly stole a beat of my heart. Ruben reached for mine, leaving me with my teeth anxiously piercing my bottom lip. His lips cracked with pleasure. “Beautiful.” Relieved, I giggled like a schoolgirl passing a love note to a boy in class.

I couldn’t help but pass my happy mood onto Ruben with my nineties photo-booth smile.

“What do you do for a living?” I asked.   

“I’m a right-hand man.” He smiled without teeth, meaning: We’re not facing trees away from a party for nothing.

“Oh, impressive. Well I’m a junior recruiter. Just in case . . .” I started to give up as I turned my head slowly to take in the scenery to my right. That man didn’t come here to talk about our careers. Again, I wasn’t mad at all. One of us had to be forward, and of course, it couldn’t be me.

“I love your skin,” he blurted as he traced my shoulder with his index finger.

Turning to him, I replied, “Thank you.” He made me smile again. 

The hot man unbuckled my seatbelt and then his own so he could lean in close. Ruben lifted my chin with two fingers. “I didn’t come up here to talk. I don’t think you did. Did you?”

I had to listen closely to understand him, since his sexy accent coated his words. I didn’t mind it at all. In fact, all women should have to do this at least once before they die. 

I shook my head. My heart knocked against my chest like an angry fist on a door. This man was old-school handsome with charm and confidence. I loved his classic dark hair and bushy eyebrows. Ruben was manly, in a world of men wearing skinny jeans. 

“You were the only one wearing a dress quite like that. I saw your curves before you got that second drink. I was just . . . studying you.”

Embarrassed, I laughed into the clawed hand covering my face. I removed my hand as my eyes gleamed into his. “Me, too. I was scheming.”

Ruben smiled. “I know. So now that we’ve both accomplished our missions, come with me.” He hopped out of the car and rushed to the hood.

Aye, aye captain. I followed him. The minute he placed those large hands on my waist, a rod of fire struck through my midsection. Yikes. They backed me up until my bottom touched his hood. He towered over me while closing the gap between us inch by inch. I loved first kisses. Either they sparked something or repelled the attraction. The question of whether he could kiss remained.

I kept my eyes open until I could feel his full lips. But I didn’t immediately get what I wanted. Instead, he seductively withheld his kiss with lips hovering close to mine. Those manly hands caressed my back, played with the hem of my dress, then finally moved to the back of my thigh while resting the other on my hip. His lips still hovered over mine like a helicopter above a building, waiting to land. I could feel his breath against my lips, warming them with his flavor.

When Ruben’s hands found a home on my butt, he softly rubbed each cheek in circles, squeezing them more. The cold air exhaled against my skin once my dress gathered above my butt. That rod of fire steamed into a rocket, ready to explode in a place that’d been asleep for way too long. It felt exotic to be sexually explorative outside in the dark with this man. I was seventeen years old the last time I behaved mildly wild outside. It paled in comparison to this liberating moment. I trusted him to take care of us outside in the dark if danger were to present itself. The naughty side of me wanted to be seen, watched, and lusted after. I kind of wanted an audience. A show with this much chemistry deserved that and popcorn. The fact that we hadn’t kissed made it even better. He’d yet to place his lips on my skin, not even on my neck. I didn’t doubt the time would come, but when?

“I wanna suck your skin until my mouth goes numb,” he mumbled.

My vagina flipped. I didn’t know what was stopping him. He removed my dress, and I didn’t care. I didn’t care about the cold, a wild coyote, a lusting pervert, or the cops. I cared about the fact that this man and I had passion that needed exploring. Was this his style, or did he want to make it last with me? I decided on the former since we’d just met at a party. I refused to define anything or pump my ego. I made up my mind to shut up and enjoy. Max couldn’t evoke within me what Ruben had managed even without the intercourse: the longing, the adventure, the heat. What Max and I had amounted to sex, which couldn’t sustain a marriage. Ruben had already convinced me that he could deliver. I wouldn’t need to hear from Max again.

My dress sat on the car hood, stretched out as a barrier between my skin and the car’s hood. A hotel room would’ve been nice, but the outdoors ironically made the experience feel more personal. A hotel mirrored a cliché. Outdoors on top of a hill broke all the rules. 

I sat on the hood as Ruben undid his belt, button and zipper. He unhooked my bra, setting my breasts free. The cold air hit my nipples and enhanced the realness of the experience. I loved and reveled in my physical exposure. Ruben lay on top of me, gently, as he positioned his lips above mine once more. I felt the evidence of his excitement and mine, too. I never understood public screwing, but I did now. It took longing and sensations to a new level, especially with a stranger. Not knowing what he was all about or what would happen aroused me. I could do this again and again. Mama wouldn’t want to hear about her daughter doing this. Classy women and ladies didn’t do this. But did unorthodox always have to mean trashy in the world of sex?

He removed himself from being on top and pulled out his wallet to pull out a condom. Good. Classy women did unorthodox acts while protecting themselves. Clearly, unorthodox didn’t always mean trashy. Well, not in my book.

Ruben lowered his pants just enough. I saw everything that proved his manhood. If he caught my wide-eyed stare, he could read my satisfaction. Now, the next step would be to see his performance. I had to see if he bought a high-performance car to make up for his lacking in other areas.

The knuckles on his big hands scraped down the sides of my thighs as he removed my thong. It. Was. Show time. Once again, Ruben lowered himself as he entered and inched his mouth toward mine. He froze when he gazed into my eyes after he had no more left to give. We looked each other over once more before finally connecting with our mouths. It was all romantic. They were soft cushions, and he worked them very slowly. As he became more invested in the kiss, so did his thrusts, with his length skating against the walls of my core, nice and slow. I wanted to feel his skin, unwrapped and raw. But as a one night stand, I had to take it the safe way. I closed my eyes and settled on my back, taking it all in, literally and figuratively. After being on my back for minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted more. I wanted to hurt him, rip him into passionate little shreds. Suddenly, I sat up and gripped him by the shoulders like a mama bear with wild claws.

He gripped my chin, pressing his fingers into my skin and said, “Quiero que cada parte de ti.”

I didn’t know what the hell he said, but the intensity wasn’t lost in his irises. Everything I needed to know I found in his expression. And it drove me crazy. Whipping my arms around him, I pushed my body into his chest, wanting to leave the car behind. Gripping onto him, I’d become his koala bear; his body was my tree. Moving my body back and forth, I grinded the life out this man, never taking my eyes off his. Ruben needed me just as badly, and somehow, he got us to the closest tree and eased me up against it. The slight discomfort on my back from the bark and the sweet indulgence from his thrust concocted the best pull between pain and pleasure. I swung my arms behind me, holding onto the tree as Ruben banged into me harder, and I cried out in happy pain like the irritating girls from porn videos. Dying inside, I couldn’t help but thank Amber repeatedly in my head. I locked my ankle boots together and imprisoned Ruben for the duration of this passionate moment. And I realized, that this man could have it anytime, anyplace.

Emily

Figuring she had nothing to lose, it was time to stand her ground, even if she was shaking on the inside. “Why wouldn’t I have friends, Eric?” Emily crossed her arms and waited for a response.

“Are you still using my last name?” His glower told her that he’d hit the peak of annoyance.

Emily decided that it would be pathetic for him to remember her like a bird with a broken wing. She placed a thoughtful finger over her lip. “Hmm. Actually, gray is one of my favorite colors.” Emily then poked a quick finger on his chest. “So, yes. I’m still using ‘Gray.’”

Emily spun to leave, but Eric grabbed her by the arm and turned her to see him. “Well, why don’t you go back to Rosado? Hmm?” Eric made it sound more like a threat than a friendly suggestion.

“Because gray is how I’m feeling most days,” she replied through gritted teeth.

Emily snatched her arm from his; he hissed at her in frustration. She walked away with the sashay that she’d seen Brooke do since the day she’d met her. Eric may have broken Emily, but her pride wouldn’t allow him to see that. Ironically, he may have also been the one to put her back together again. 

Brooke

Brooke toured the mansion, mingled with people, landed a few new clients, but didn’t find a man worth dating. Once again, this night ended up being beneficial to her career more so than her love life. Despite having nothing else new for Brooke to prove, evident by her independence and the fact that she’d made a name for herself, she still wanted a foot massage at the end of the day. Because she felt good about being single for some years, she couldn’t deny now that loneliness had started to eat away at her. Brooke had to admit that sometimes you just shouldn’t have to do it all alone. But that didn’t mean that she would snatch up the first man with interest just to be released from the cuffs of loneliness. So, for the time being, she had to make it work.

Brooke reminded herself that patient women didn’t kiss frogs. No, a woman like Brooke only wanted to place a king in her castle once. Consequently, the patience required to climb the ladder of her career happened to be the same amount needed to find the right man. Glad that she didn’t settle, Brooke went home alone a happy camper.

 

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