Years after fleeing small-town Springvale, Illinois, Deeana Chase has picked up the pieces of her shattered heart and built a new life for herself as a child advocacy lawyer. Her food addiction is quasi under control, her secrets are buried, and she has even made a tenuous peace with her plus-size body. Until…
Micah Peters—the very sexy and now famous man she fled— walks through her office door and sends Dee reeling. His demand that she help a young boy caught in a custody battle will reunite her with the past she left behind.
Torn between duty and self-preservation, Dee isn’t easy to convince. But when obligation wins, the former lovers get more than they bargained for—a searing passion that burns hotter than ever and startling revelations about what really happened the fateful night she left.
Will the truth set Dee free to love again? Or will past hurts and lingering insecurities destine her to walk away from her heart again, this time for good?
FAT GIRL is the first book in this provocative two-part series about love and self-acceptance.
Please continue for a sneak preview. Intended for an adult audience of 18 years+. Contains strong language and mature content.
The click of the front door, followed by the report of heavy footsteps, breaks my concentration.
My first thought: definitely male. My second: I’m not expecting anyone and walk-ins are rare. As I begin to rise from behind my desk, the thud of leather soles on the hardwood comes to a halt.
Ah. My heart settles. Whoever is out there must see the toy box and Wii console in the waiting area, and realize he’s wandered into the wrong office loft. It happens sometimes. Even with Deeana Chase, Child Advocacy Services, embossed on the glass.
Lowering myself back into my chair, I’m about to return to the case I’ve spent the past hour prepping for mediation, except there are no sounds of retreat. I cock an ear and listen. Nothing. My nerves begin to buzz again as my mind swings back to something Lena, my assistant, said before she left for the day.
A man called to ask if I would be in this evening but wouldn’t disclose his name or purpose. Strange for sure and I should have locked up. A rule I set for both Lena and myself when either of us was working alone. But, true to form, preoccupation with a case took over and I forgot. Now I wish I’d been more vigilant.
Imagination racing in time with my rapid pulse, I pull a can of pepper spray out of my purse and, slipping off three-inch heels, silently move across my office. I’m cautious by design, though rarely this jumpy. The only logical explanation is that last night I stayed up late watching The Deliberate Stranger, an old movie about a notorious serial killer who lured his victims with charm and good looks.
In hindsight, probably not the type of program a woman living on her own should watch. But having worked in Chicago for all of my adult life without encountering a problem, I feel relatively safe here.
I angle my head and peer around the doorway into the reception area. The man standing with his back to me is partially concealed by a giant leafy ficus, but the parts of him I can see are impressively built. He has to be more than six feet, judging by the bit of dark hair peeking just above the leaves. And he’s broad and muscular, if the way one shoulder fills out half of a black leather jacket and one rounded butt cheek flatters blue-washed denim are any indication.
Under different circumstances I might enjoy the view, but all I’m thinking is his fine ass isn’t going to matter much if he’s another Ted Bundy. In sheer masculine volume, this Adonis would have no trouble taking me and my extra weight down without breaking a sweat.
I tighten my grip on the metal trigger with a good notion to spray first and ask questions later. Fortunately, logic kicks in before my imagination spins further out of control. Would any man intent on harm stand there all this time studying the corkboard on which I proudly display cards and drawings from my young clients? The rational answer is no. I take a deep breath and chide myself for being ridiculous.
“May I help you?” I ask, moving into the open doorway.
There’s a pause—a noticeable hesitation—before he steps from behind the plant and slowly pivots. I know even before our eyes meet.
My breath stutters.
And the can falls from my numb fingers.
“Hello, Deeana.” His voice, deeper with age, packs an unfair sexual punch. Just like the rest of him.
As handsome as he was at eighteen, it didn’t come close to his appearance at thirty-three. People magazine has called it right. Micah Peters is the Sexiest Man Alive. No amount of shock or disdain could deny him that.
Partly Brazilian, on his mother’s side, he is blessed with exotic good looks. Short black waves carelessly styled, caramel skin that doesn’t pale even in winter, and espresso-brown eyes fringed with the darkest, thickest lashes I have ever seen.
Like his body, his facial structure is harder—more masculine, more defined. And the inky stubble framing his strong jaw and full, gorgeous mouth only adds to the instant, powerful impact.
But I’m not that naive girl anymore. I’ve taken my knocks and know all too well that the quality of a man’s character doesn’t lie in the quality of his looks. The fact that time has been unjustly charitable to him only fuels the resentment I’ve kept secret and locked away for fifteen years.
It takes every ounce of my trained composure to push civility past the bile rising in my throat. I lean against the wood frame for support and manage to say, “This is a surprise.” The fake calm of the words burns my tongue.
If he’s affected, it doesn’t show in the easy strides that move him toward me. The delicious aromas of leather and earthy cologne fill my senses. As he comes closer still, I struggle not to breathe him in. Mustn’t let him think he has any effect on me either.
Without smiling, his dark gaze slides over my every feature, studying them one by one, as if comparing them with his memory. “It’s been a while,” he says.
Not nearly long enough to forget or forgive. “Several years,” I reply.
Now he smiles. A mocking grin that tells me he knows I remember just how long it has been. That I remember the very night I left him—and everything else that mattered to me—behind.
“I see you didn’t run very far.”
He’s good at reeling me in, but this time I’m not taking the bait. Rehashing the past would only conjure up memories I have tucked away, nice and tight.
“Chicago U had a good child and family studies program,” I say, as though that were reason enough to flee only two hours away.I didn’t even get running away right.
“Humph.” He puts a lot of judgment into that one breath and studies me hard for a moment longer.
Under his scrutiny, I tug the lapels of my jacket together. I haven’t done that in a while—tugging my clothes to cover myself. His gaze lowers to my fidgeting hand and then to the floor.
“You dropped something.” He bends down to pick up the bejeweled canister at my stocking feet.
A tongue-in-cheek gift from my two girlfriends that affectionately pokes fun at my conservative nature. My friends are good for me because I tend to take myself too seriously. As Mick straightens to his imposing six feet five inches, I watch his gaze leisurely climb up my body—past the ample curves of my thighs and hips to the fullness of my breasts. I’ve worked hard to weed self-consciousness out of my system. Yet picturing myself through Mick’s eyes, my efforts fail and I come up lacking.
I didn’t follow his former NBA career; I made it a point not to. But unless I had become a hermit, a once-tempting proposition, I couldn’t have avoided the occasional run-in with his photos splashed across the tabloids, most often with superbeautiful women with supermodel bodies. Photos that never failed to do a number on my psyche. But I’d sooner walk buck naked through Lincoln Park on the Fourth of July—a fate I’d rank right up there with facing a death squad—than allow Micah Peters to witness my lingering insecurities.
I thrust my chin up, ease my hand away from the lapels, and extend it toward him. “I’ll take that.”
He looks at the can and laughs. The cynical sound rumbles low in his chest. “Do you greet all your visitors with sparkly weapons?” he asks and sets the gaudy pink canister on Lena’s desk, out of my reach, as if he doesn’t trust me not to open fire.
If ever there were an occasion to pull the trigger, this would be it. “Only visitors who make cryptic phone calls and then show up without warning.” I would congratulate myself on matching his sarcasm, except the bravado gets stuck in my throat when he takes another step forward.
“Would you have agreed to see me if I’d identified myself?”
“Assuming I was available.” He stalks closer and leans in low—eight inches low—until his mouth is a hairbreadth from mine. In another time, I would have kissed his lips or lovingly traced the faded scar across his right cheekbone. But those days are long gone.
Grinning smugly, he says in a cocky, declarative whisper, “Liar. You would have avoided me like the plague.”
He’s right. But admitting as much would be weak. And I hate showing weakness to anyone. Instead, determined to brazen out his unnerving presence, I hold his gaze and my ground. “Since you went to so much trouble with your cloak-and-dagger act, I assume this visit has a purpose.”
Something indiscernible slices through the cockiness as he backs off and reaches into his jacket pocket. “Will four grand cover your retainer?”
I blink at the crisp stack of hundred-dollar bills he tosses onto Lena’s desk. “You want to hire me?”
“Why else would I be here?”
His biting comment stings a lot more than it should. Not that I have any romantic illusions about Mick coming here to pledge his undying love. He professed that sentiment years ago, and it turned out to be as worthless as the dirt on the bottoms of his designer shoes. But hiring me? It doesn’t make any sense. Unless…
Oh, God… I grip the doorframe. “You have a ch-child?” I’m stammering, shaking on the inside, but I can’t help it.
His level stare turns to stone. I don’t understand his anger, but the curt no expels from me a breath of relief that I hide behind an impatient huff. “Then what exactly do you need my services for?”
He lets the question hang in silence before saying, “It’s Victor’s son who needs your help.”
Victor Torres—my former foster brother and Mick’s accomplice. Too quickly for me to defend against, visions of that summer night fifteen years ago come crashing back, and with the memories I feel the brutal slap of betrayal and the piercing pain of loss all over again.
I long to hurl the ugly truths in his face. Of course I don’t. I didn’t let Mick see the angry hurt then, and I won’t let him see it now. From an arsenal of practice, I pull out an indifference that belies my quaking insides.
“I’m busy with a full caseload at the moment,” I say, my blood running cold. “But I can suggest another attorney.”
If turning to find Dee framed in the doorway felt like I’d taken a fisted blow to the chest, hearing her say I’m busy in that ice water tone was like getting a steel-toed boot to my gut.
Beyond her surprise at my sudden appearance, the least I expected was concern. Hell, an inkling of interest. Something. But as our eyes stay connected, mine in anger and confusion, hers register hardly any emotion. Those big amber eyes, which I fell for long ago, now chill me to the bone. Where is her fucking remorse? She was the one to leave, not the other way around.
My impulse is to fire a scathing missile that will thaw her icy front, but I remind myself that I’ve come here for reasons that have nothing to do with us. Or with noticing how Dee’s generous body spices up an otherwise dull gray suit. In high school, she wore mainly loose, dark clothes in an attempt to disguise the voluptuous curves she hated. Curves that I found soft and sexy. And damn her, I still do.
Frustrated with my errant thoughts, I ruthlessly tamp down memories of all the ways in which I enjoyed her silky body and redirect my mind back to why I swallowed my pride and hostility to come here.
“I don’t want another lawyer,” I say, mirroring her cool. “I’m asking you to take the case.”
Dee shakes her head stubbornly, sending the sable curls, which she used to wear longer, bouncing around her shoulders.
“Think about the reason you became a child advocate,” I push. I’m not above using knowledge of her childhood to my advantage. “You know what that lack of stability feels like, Dee. That’s why helping kids stay in good homes is what you do…is what you always wanted to do.
“For the past three years, Victor and his wife have been providing Dwayde with a secure, loving foster home. They were in the process of filing for adoption when his biological grandparents showed up, threatening to take him away from the only stability he’s ever known. Dwayde wants to stay with his foster parents. He’s scared, Dee. Victor and Isabelle’s lawyer is good, but she doesn’t have experience representing children. Dwayde needs his own attorney to look out for him. He needs you.”
Her expression remains impassive. My appeal seems to have no thawing effect on her whatsoever, as she crosses her arms and adds another layer of frost.
“If the situation is so dire, why isn’t Victor here?” she demands.
Good question. One I’ve debated how to answer from the moment I decided to go against my friend’s wishes. Victor didn’t mince words. Whenever Dee’s name came up, his reaction wasn’t just no but hell, no.
Until this moment, I honestly intended to take the high road, even after everything she’d done. And I believe I would have if she had demonstrated the smallest amount of give, if there were even the slightest hint of warmth in her Arctic expression. But there is none, and that rubs my old wounds raw.
“Do you really think Victor would come here asking for your help after what you did?” Once the dam I’ve been holding together with toothpicks bursts wide open, the past comes flooding out. “His parents took you in when you were fourteen and treated you like one of their own. And how did you repay them? By bailing.
“They were worried sick. Victor’s little sisters cried for weeks, asking every day when you were coming home. No one could do anything. You were eighteen, free to pack up and go as you pleased.”
For as long as I live, I’ll never forget the image of her engagement ring sitting inside that stark white envelope addressed to me. Or the note she wrote her foster parents in a hasty script, as though she couldn’t get away fast enough. A note that simply said, “Words cannot express my gratitude for all that you have done for me.” A note she had the fucking nerve to end with: “You will be forever in my heart.” As if she had one.
The memory boils my blood and reddens my haze. Controlling my temper isn’t my strong suit. “Why would Victor trust you to represent his foster son when you hurt the people he loved?”
“If I’m so god-awful,” she says, bristling, “then I fail to understand why you’ve come here.”
“Because whatever else you may be, I’ve done my homework and I know you’re considered the best.”
“Regardless, Victor’s foster son is not your legal responsibility.”
I swallow an angry breath. “This isn’t about legal responsibility. This is about loyalty, obligation, and love.” Three things she doesn’t have a clue about. “You’re not the only one with debts to pay, Dee.”
“And you’re not my conscience or my judge.”
I wouldn’t credit Dee with a conscience, but I hear in her clipped tone that I’m getting to her. So I rein in my temper for a twelve-year-old boy’s sake and admit, “The situation that Dwayde’s in is because of me.”
Finally, that produces a reaction. Not outright concern but at least curiosity. “How so?” she asks, arching a skeptical eyebrow.
“Two Saturdays ago, the media got wind that I was coaching rec basketball at a community center in North Chicago.” I pause, waiting to see if there are signs that she may be aware of the incident. Searching her eyes, I don’t see any. And that tells me that either Dee has one hell of a poker face or she doesn’t keep up with sports news.
Choosing to believe the latter, I continue. “When I walked out of the center with Dwayde and several of the boys after practice, there were camera crews and reporters everywhere…crowding the front steps and parking lot, shouting questions, snapping pictures.”
Her gaze flicks over me. “The price of fame.”
That pokes a sore spot, and I shove my fingers through my hair to keep from throttling her. I know what she’s thinking—that I sold out my dreams. Which is no less than what I think. But I’m not about to defend the choices I made or my reasons to Dee.
“The price of fame is mine to bear, not Dwayde’s,” I say, feeling a spear of guilt in my chest. “I asked the reporters to ease off and let the kids through. But one bastard out for blood wouldn’t cooperate.” That was when all hell broke loose. “The story went viral and appeared in all the major papers across the country. Dwayde’s grandparents from Kentucky—no one had even known existed—recognized him from the photo, and within forty-eight hours they were on a plane to Chicago, claiming Dwayde as theirs.”
“Biologically, he is.”
I look at her leaning against the doorframe, professional mask in place, arms still folded beneath her breasts, pushing the smooth, plump cleavage above her blouse, and say what we both know to be true: “Biology doesn’t mean shit.”
“It does in a court of law,” she argues.
“That’s why we need you to take the case.”
“There is no we,” she conveniently points out. “Victor doesn’t want my help, remember?”
I remember. But I’m not letting her off with that easy crutch. “I’ll deal with Victor.”
“Even if you manage to, as I’ve already indicated, I don’t have the time. So I’m afraid you’ve wasted a trip.”
She turns around to go into her office, but her blatant indifference snaps the fraying tethers on my control. Riled, I follow and grab her arm, spinning her back around to face me.
“Get your hand off me,” she warns.
Hot pelts of breath hit my jaw, and golden flames jump wildly in her eyes. It’s sick. It’s perverse. But her flash-fire temper affects me like a lit match to gasoline. Sparks erupt, charging the air with electric currents of passion.
Lost in the heated moment, I tighten my grasp and step her into the brick wall—dipping low and aligning our chests, stomachs, thighs, and everything in between. For a moment she struggles, trying to twist out of my hold. But I don’t let go. Instead I tug her closer, aching to take Dee, right then and there. To feel those long legs wrapped around my waist as I drive hard into her snug, slick heat. To hear those breathy moans catch in her throat.
Craving her. Still. Blind lust urges me forward, but flashes from the past yank me back. My mind’s playing out the grief on the faces of the people I care about when they realized Dee was gone and never coming back…the dark hole I’d fallen into…the vast emptiness.
Fuck! I release my grip and take a giant step backward. The distance should provide space. Air. Relief. It doesn’t.
“I’ll give you twenty-four hours to think about taking the case,” I say, my voice serrated with the conflict roiling inside me. “Twenty-four hours to think about a boy who needs your help. Twenty-four hours to think about the family you deserted. Think about that,” I dare her. “Then try telling yourself you’re too busy to give a damn.”
The whisper of hurt that crosses her face doesn’t satisfy me. Not by a long shot. It almost does me in. But deploying the last vestiges of my self-control, I rip my gaze away from hers, battling rage, desire, and too many unnamed emotions, and make myself go while I still can.
Knees on the verge of buckling, I wobble over to my chair, sink into it, and bury my face in my shaky hands. It was the suddenness. One moment I was playing things cool, and the next I was on fire. One moment seeking escape, and the next surrounded by the blistering heat pumping off his large, hard body.
In those split seconds, where anger and arousal converged, I pathetically showed as much willpower as a moth drawn to a flame. But while I was turned on and burning up, he smacked me down cold. And proved two agonizing facts. One, that he can still make me want him. And two, that he still doesn’t want me. His rejection cuts deep. And I hate him for it, and myself, too.
Teetering on a perilous edge, I fish my phone out of my purse and after several fumbled attempts manage to text Jordyn and Lexie:
I could really use some girlfriend support.
No questions asked. We arrange to meet at Jordyn’s. In a whirl of frantic activity, I log off my computer, toss the offending cash—which I have every intention of returning—into my top drawer, and lock the office.
Once inside my car, I take deep, meditative breaths and slowly release them. In, hold, out. I continue until my reeling emotions quiet enough to keep me from backsliding into old habits.
Minutes later, my Acura coupe is crawling through the downtown congestion typical of Chicago at five thirty on a Wednesday evening. This is one of the reasons I moved out of the city two years ago. The other reason just stormed out of my office.
My nerves eventually even out along with the traffic as I reach the I-88 West. Lexie, Jordyn, and I live in Brockville, within a six-block radius of each other and of the fitness center where we met eighteen months ago in Pilates class.
I’ve been a loner since childhood. But neither woman allowed me to wallow in solitude, maybe sensing someone who needed friendship or saving. I’m glad they didn’t give up on me during those times I tried to pull back within myself.
Exiting at Duff Gate, I roll past the rich architecture that peppers the tree-lined streets. To the south, I have a clear view of the sun dipping low in an indigo sky and the mist dancing on the deep blue lake. The pretty little town hasn’t lost any of its tranquil charm during the time I’ve lived here.
Only thirty miles from Chicago, it feels like another world. Initially, when I fled Springvale, I welcomed the anonymity of the big city. It was a chance, I thought—hoped—to bury my past and start anew. I threw myself into college with single-minded determination, earning an undergraduate degree in child and family studies. Next, I took on law school, graduating third in my class. Then I launched my career, becoming the youngest woman ever to be up for junior partner at the prestigious family law firm Stern, Harris, and Associates.
But no matter how much success, respectability, and money I earned, on the inside, where it counted, I was still the unwanted, unlovable fat girl.
With my past constantly chasing me, far too many nights I ate myself into an emotional coma, only to wake up hung over, bloated, and despising that weakness inside me. On those mornings after, with my head in the toilet, I’d promise myself that I had slipped for the last time.
Sometimes days, even weeks, would go by, and I’d be convinced that I had my problem beat. Then bam! Something would trigger me. It didn’t have to be major, just enough to push me off center, and the vicious cycle would start all over again.
It wasn’t until I found myself in the hospital, hooked up to machines and an IV drip, that I was forced out of denial and got myself help. I was admittedly distrustful at first. Court-ordered therapy had never worked for my mother. And I’d sampled the whole tell-me-why-you-hate-yourself thing once before, in my midtwenties, dreading every wretched second that I spent exploring my inner demons.
But Dr. Patrice Roland was different. She didn’t spend our weekly sessions picking at the scabs of childhood. As a behaviorist, Dr. Roland focused on teaching me how to recognize my triggers and alter my reactions. Breathing exercises was one effective technique I learned to push through my anxiety and save myself from self-destructive habits.
It took twenty-one long months to get to this point of quasi control. Twenty-one months to start tracking in a healthy direction. In that time, I quit my job and sold my condo. Bought a cottage-style bungalow in Brockville with a view of the lake and started the child advocacy practice I’d always wanted.
It’s not nearly as lucrative, but I have the autonomy and freedom to do the work I love. So why—my palm thumps the wheel hard—when I’m in the midst of finally getting my shit together does Mick have to show up, unearthing old ghosts and awakening dormant passions?
Why, why, why follows me all the way to Jordyn’s without any respite from thinking about the man who turned my new life on its axis in less than ten minutes. By the time I park behind Lexie’s pearl-white Mercedes, my thoughts are dark and turbulent again. I stand on the sidewalk, letting the brisk October breeze blow over me, begging it to cool my mood. Concentrating again on slow, even breaths, I climb the stairs of the brownstone and press the intercom.
Last summer, Jordyn purchased the nineteenth-century house, which she then remodeled into a stunning triplex. She occupies the bottom floor and rents out the two levels above her. At the sound of the buzzer, I push open the beveled-glass door and walk down the long, narrow hall to find Jordyn waiting at the door.
“Whoa,” she remarks and stands back to let me in, her moss-green eyes executing a quick once-over. “You look like hell.”
“Gee, thanks.” I hang my jacket on the coat rack and toe off my shoes.
“You know what I mean.”
I do, mostly. But it’s the type of comment that preys on my insecurities. With an apologetic smile, Jordyn loops a commiserating arm through mine and leads us to the living room.
Lexie greets me with a wave from behind the bar. Ultrastylish in vintage Chanel, she looks as if she’s just stepped off the cover of Vogue rather than just come from the offices of her PR firm.
Whereas Jord, at five feet two inches is petite and compact, athletic from years of field hockey, Lexie’s tall like me but willowy thin. I might resent my friends for their slim, perfect bodies if they weren’t the most special people in my life.
“From your message, I thought you could use this,” Lexie says, approaching with a glass of wine extended. “Problem at work?”
“Then what’s got you all hot and bothered?” Jordyn probes, sweeping architectural blueprints off the sofa to make room.
Reflecting back on what—or more aptly who—has gotten me hot and bothered, I tip the stemless goblet to my lips and down half the cabernet in unladylike gulps. Drinking isn’t a good idea. But I’m entitled to at least one vice tonight.
“You are never going to believe who was just in my office.” I rest the glass on the coffee table and collapse against the cream and tan pillows.
My friends sit like angled bookends beside me, their expressions brimming with curiosity and apprehension. Sharing still isn’t easy for me, but I do it, clasping their hands, in need of an anchor just to say his name.
“Ho-ly shit!” Jordyn utters her favorite expression while Lexie, a gentler soul, squeezes my fingers.
“Oh, Dee, that must have been awful.”
“My worst nightmare.”
“What the hell did he want?” Jordyn glowers after rebounding from the shock.
“For me to represent Victor’s foster son.”
“What!” they exclaim in unison.
“I know, right? I didn’t ask for details, but the gist of it is that this boy’s biological grandparents are fighting Victor and his wife for custody. And get this,” I say and sputter out a hysterical laugh. “Mick handed over $4,000—in cash—to pay my retainer. I mean, who does that?”
“Evidently, gazillionaire ex–basketball players,” Jordyn supplies.
“It could be that Mick didn’t want the transaction to be traced back to him,” Lexie reasons. “He’s a celebrity and paying for a child custody lawyer might get him unwanted press attention.”
I hadn’t thought of that. But it fits, given what little I know about what happened at the community center.
“Wait…” Jordyn holds up her hand. “Why was Mick there instead of Victor?”
“I asked the same thing,” I say, picking up my wine again. “Apparently, Victor doesn’t think I’m trustworthy enough to represent his foster son.”
“Is that what Mick said?” Jordyn spits out.
“Almost verbatim. He accused me of hurting the people Victor loved.” Sorrow and shame wash over me. I never meant to hurt Victor’s parents or his little sisters—didn’t place enough value on myself then to even think I could. Rita Torres—my foster mother, affectionately known as Mama T—wouldn’t have been consoled by the number of times I picked up the phone throughout the years, dying to hear her melodic voice. Or by knowing she was the only person I had longed to go to and cry in her arms when my world was blown apart. But I couldn’t tell her.
Victor was Mama T’s son, flesh and blood, and Mick, whom she practically raised, was as good as. Telling her and Papa T what really happened would have driven a wedge into their close-knit family. I couldn’t put them in the position of dividing their loyalties. It seemed better to just be gone.
“I hope you let the truth hit Mick right between the eyes,” Jordyn says, balling her small fist.
When I fail to respond, she blows out a frustrated breath that flutters the auburn bangs of her short pixie haircut. “I don’t get why you’re allowing Mick and Victor to cast themselves as the injured parties and you as the heartless bitch.”
It’s wrong to hold out on my dearest friends, but I still haven’t confided the worst part. Some things are just too painful…too soul-wrenching to share with anyone. “I’d rather they think I’m heartless than for Mick to know he once had the power to nearly destroy me.”
I can tell that answer doesn’t sit well with Jordyn, who has never backed away from a fight, but thankfully, she doesn’t pursue it.
“What I don’t get,” Lexie says, “is what this has to do with Mick.”
“He blames himself for some recent media incident he was involved in at a community center that supposedly drew the grandparents out of the woodwork,” I inform them.
“Must be the one involving that reporter,” Jordyn surprises me by saying as she leans over and grabs her iPad off the side table. “Remember me telling you, Lex? Mick decked the guy.”
I sit upright. Decked? Mick had a short fuse—he was hot-blooded in every sense of the word—but I’d never known him to instigate a fight. He had seen the damage of a fist on too many occasions. The only time he ever used his was when provoked to defend someone he cared about.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
Jordyn’s fingers are still for a second. Then she glances up. “We didn’t think you’d want to know, considering how you go out of your way to avoid reading anything about him.”
I can’t fault my friends for that when it’s true. I never read the sports features in the paper, and I always turn off the sports news on TV.
“Here it is,” Jordyn announces, scanning the screen. “An unnamed source leaked his whereabouts to the press, and when the media crews pounced, he asked them to allow the kids to pass.” That much, Mick told me.
“Further on, the article says, ‘Paul O’Malley, a freelance tabloid writer and celebrity blogger, allegedly ignored Peters’ entreaty and pushed through several boys, knocking one of them down in order to reach the former Chicago Bulls star. According to witnesses, Peters punched the blogger in the face, causing him to pitch backward and fall. O’Malley was taken by ambulance to Northwestern Memorial Hospital and later released with six stitches to his lip and swelling to his chin and jaw.’” That much he didn’t.
“‘No police charges were filed against Peters,’” Jordyn continues. “However, O’Malley was quoted as saying he would ‘sue for the brutality’ he suffered.’”
She spins the tablet around. I hesitate before permitting my eyes to skim the inset. It’s a picture of O’Malley lying on a stretcher, which is probably overkill for his injuries but effective for sensationalizing a story and pursuing litigation. The larger image calls loudly to me, and I let my eyes drift there, too. The bill of Mick’s cap shadows most of his profile, but I can’t miss the livid set of his bristly jaw. He’s shielding several young males with his tall, broad frame and an outstretched arm. The other arm is wrapped protectively around one boy with enormous eyes widened in alarm. Intuition tells me, That’s Dwayde.
No wonder Mick feels responsible. He allowed the temper he struggled against to get the better of him, and it was captured for the world to see…for Dwayde’s grandparents to see. Not that I’m going to feel sorry for him. There are no soft edges left inside me for that.
I turn the iPad back around to Jordyn. “Obviously, he came to me assuming my own feelings of guilt would force me to help him out.”
“Pfft!” Jordyn says dismissively. “Mick came to you because he’s still hooked, and this excuse was easier on his ego.”
“You got it,” Lexie agrees.
Gawking, my head ping-pongs between the elegant brunette with the bobbed hair and violet-blue eyes and the cute, feisty redhead. “Are you both nuts?” I say, knowing they have to be if they believe that.
“Mick is not the type to pine over any woman, especially someone like me.” The self-deprecating slam is out before I can call it back.
“Someone like you?” Jordyn questions, as if I’m the crazy one.
“Forget I said that.” I wave the remark away, though it still sticks to me. “I’m just so mad at myself for submitting to Mick’s manhandling. When he grabbed me, I should have—”
“Holy shit! Mick grabbed you?”
“Tempers flared and it got out of hand,” I say, wishing the memory didn’t still have a searing effect on my system. Their eyes round with worry. “He didn’t hurt me,” I assure them. Not physically, anyway. “He quickly let go, as if he’d gotten too close to a nuclear contaminant.”
“Or realized he was motivated by more than anger,” Jordyn offers.
I know better. Mick’s reaction was incited by temper. His parting shot left no doubt. Besides… “Whatever his reason doesn’t matter.” I take another long drink. “It’s that I let him touch me without putting up much of a fight.”
“This wasn’t just a teenage fling,” Lexie points out. “Maybe your body was reacting to the dictates of old feelings.”
“God, no!” My vehement denial gains me two skeptical frowns. “No,” I repeat in a milder tone. I’m struggling enough as it is to rid myself of bad habits. I don’t need to add Mick to the list. Again. “It was temporary insanity…a hormonal response. That’s all. I do not have feelings for him,” I insist, uncertain whether I’m trying to convince my friends or myself.
“Are you sure?” Jordyn questions. “Because you know, once a dog, always a dog, right?”
“I know that and trust me, I’m sure.”
She holds my stare another moment. “Good. Then you can take the case and show Mick you don’t give a shit about him.”
“I’m not taking the case,” I say, draining the glass and clunking it down on the table for emphasis.
“I can understand you not wanting to help Mick or Victor, but what about this boy?” Lexie inquires.
If it were any other child, I’d jump at the chance to help. Only in this instance, I’d have to face my foster parents, deal with Victor, and endure more encounters with Mick. There would be no way to avoid that. “It’s a conflict of interest,” I say.
“Maybe if you were appointed by the court to make an impartial recommendation on custody, but not if you were hired as the kid’s lawyer,” Jordyn responds with annoying logic.
“The point’s moot. Even if I were so inclined, which I’m not, Victor doesn’t want me as legal counsel for his foster son,” I remind them, hanging on to that hopeful defense.
“Mick will convince him. From all you’ve told us, they stick together like glue,” Lexie adds.
“Whose side are you both on?”
“Yours. Always,” Jord says in a compassionate tone. “But we know you, Dee. How many times have you told us that you never turn away a kid? That’s why your caseload has doubled in a year. Helping children is what you do. If you decline, no matter the reason, it will gnaw at you.”
I slant a glance toward my perceptive friend. Jordyn’s brash, take-no-prisoners attitude often fools people into concluding she doesn’t have a soft or sensitive side, when the opposite is true. Not only is Jordyn fiercely loyal, but she’s also one of the most nurturing and caring people I know.
“Do you really want to give Mick and Victor that much power over you?” she asks.
Of course I don’t. But what to do? Take the case and protect Dwayde’s best interests? Or stay away from the torturous past and protect my own?
“I swear you have a sixth sense for Isabelle’s lasagna.”
My emotions are still boiling, but as I step into the foyer I summon up a grin for Victor and sniff the air appreciatively. Mexican lasagna. It smells like home and family. Both of which the Torreses have been to me for as long as I can remember.
“If that’s an invitation for dinner, I’ll take it,” I say when I clasp Victor’s outstretched hand and lean in for a one-armed hug.
“As if you need an invitation.”
Suddenly attuned to the unusual quiet—no sounds of the active twelve-year-old, barking from the dog, or the blare of Gabi’s music—I ask, “Where is everybody?”
“Isabelle’s in the kitchen,” Victor replies, closing the door behind me. “Dwayde went to the park with friends to shoot hoops and took Rufus with him. And Gabi’s supposedly at the library, studying.”
My eyebrows raise in question. “You doubt that?”
“Damn straight. The only thing Gabi is studying these days is boys.” He shakes his head. “She’s driving me around the bend, man. I should have fought harder for her to stay at home to finish out her last year of high school. But no, Mama and I gave in to her cries about a change of pace, thinking she might get over her grief faster by being away from Springvale. I’d bet my badge she’s off hooking up with some punk-ass dude she doesn’t want me to know about.”
Gabi’s a good kid. After being sheltered in a small town and overprotected by Papa T until his death seven months ago, she’s acting out her loss through a little rebellion. I think about my own secret romance and say, “Maybe Gabi wouldn’t sneak around if you’d ease up and stop intimidating every guy she brings here.”
“Like that’s gonna happen. If they can’t handle an older brother protecting his baby sister, then they’re not worth their salt.”
“Gabi’s not a baby,” I say. “She’s almost eighteen.”
“Yeah, and I know what I was up to at eighteen.”
And I know what I was up to. With Dee. And the thirty-five-minute drive from her downtown office to the suburbs in snarling rush hour traffic gave me too much time to recall the intense history we share and the potent feelings attached to it.
For all of Dee’s prickly exterior, beneath it I found an irresistible vulnerability. Out of self-preservation, she played it tough and indifferent, but Dee’s feelings ran deep. Unlike any girl I knew, she looked past the cool jock image I put on for the small town to see. She looked straight into my soul and understood me better than anyone.
“Come on back,” Victor says, saving me from another descent into the past.
I blank my mind to the memories and follow him to the rear of the house, deliciously scented with spicy meat sauce.
“Mick!” Isabelle stops layering the tortillas to rush toward me. “I thought I heard your voice.”
Her pretty smile is bright, but the semicircles beneath her eyes are more pronounced than they were three days ago.
“Hey, Bells.” I catch her up in a bear hug, giving her an extra squeeze. I pray I’ve done the right thing, because I’m about to rip open a Pandora’s box.
“Coke?” Victor asks me, his head in the fridge; oblivious to what’s in store.
“Sure.” I remove my jacket and drape it over the back of the chair. Then I sit, running my hand through my hair. It’s opportune that Dwayde and Gabi aren’t home. I need to do this now. Before I share a meal with them.
Victor flips the lids off the Coke bottles and slides one across the kitchen table. He lowers his long, wiry body to straddle the opposite chair and eyeballs me. After thirty years, we’re more brothers than friends, and he can read me well.
“What’s on your mind, Mick?”
I take a swig of cola, wishing that it were something stronger. My gaze moves from Victor, his narrowed eyes set in his probing cop expression, to Isabelle, preparing the meal, and then back to Victor. I struggle with how best to phrase it, but no amount of sugarcoating is going to make this go down easy. Better to just get it said, I decide, and blurt out my confession without preamble: “I went to see Deeana today about taking the case.”
Everything goes still. As if in freeze frame, the bottle angling toward Victor’s mouth stops midway. Isabelle’s hand pauses on the oven door handle, and for one countless moment the quiet is deafening. I can hear only the erratic beats of my heart.
Then things go back into motion. Isabelle turns toward me and Victor slams his bottle down on the table with enough force to rattle the salt and pepper shakers.
“Christ! I made it clear that I didn’t want her representing Dwayde.” Each word is threaded through clenched teeth.
“You did, but Dee’s the best choice,” I argue in my defense and begin ticking off the reasons on my fingers. “She comes highly recommended by your lawyer and Dwayde’s social worker. She has the credentials and experience. Her practice is exclusively custody and guardianship cases, so she knows all the legal ins and outs. I was at her office, Victor. I saw the drawings and thank you cards from kids posted on the wall.
“You know Dee’s background. Helping children is more than just a job to her. Having been a foster kid herself, she’ll be able to relate to Dwayde. Plus, she’s as tough as ever and has the balls to stand up to his grandparents’ high-powered attorney. If not for our past, you would have already hired her.”
“But we do have a past,” Victor counters, “and you’d be smart to remember that.”
“I remember just fine, but it has nothing to do with Dwayde.”
“Maybe not. But it has everything to do with you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask, certain I’m not going to like the answer.
“I think you know.”
Jaw muscles ticking, I curve my hand around the bottle. “Why don’t you spell it out for me just the same?”
“All right, I will,” he says, as if relishing the chance to knock some sense into me. “When Dee took off, you were a fucked-up mess.”
“Victor!” Isabelle interjects.
“I’m not going to coddle him, Isabelle,” he continues without taking his hard gaze off me. “I never thought I’d see the day when you’d stop writing. Or when you’d start drinking like your old man.”
Those first few years after Dee left are tattooed on my soul. I don’t need Victor’s swift kick in the nuts to remind me of when sleep wouldn’t come unless I was passed out drunk. When getting through the next hour wasn’t possible without a shot of Jack Daniels. When no matter how much booze fogged my brain or how many willing bodies I used to exorcise Dee, I still couldn’t forget.
“I know you loved her, Mick. We all did. But you took it the hardest. And it still affects you, man. That’s why you don’t stick with one woman. It’s why you chose to follow your father’s ambitions instead of your own. It’s why you haven’t written in years.”
The armchair psychology grates on me, mainly because it’s true. Swirling the last of my cola, I say with a nonchalance I’m not close to feeling, “Let me know when you’ve finished your analysis, Doctor, so we can get back to the matter at hand.”
“Refute it, then,” Victor challenges me. “Better yet, tell me you saw Dee today and didn’t feel a damn thing.”
“I went to see Dee today only to hire her,” I repeat, sidestepping the question.
Victor snorts with derision. “I don’t know which pisses me off more. That you took it upon yourself to go hire my son the very lawyer I told you I didn’t want or that I can see you’re already halfway back in love with her.”
Temper as vicious as a pit bull snaps at my throat. Springing to my feet, I brace my palms on the table and lean forward. Victor shoots out of his chair just as fast, and we square off, nose to nose.
I’m itching for a fight. It’s what I know. “What I feel or what I do about Deeana is none of your fucking business.”
“It involves my son so I’m making it my business.”
“Vittorio! Micah!” Isabelle shouts. “Stop this. You are brothers.”
“Stay out of it, Isabelle,” Victor orders, his nostrils flaring. “If Mick thinks he can kick my ass, let him try.”
“Is that what you want?” She slams the oven door closed. “For Dwayde to come home and find the two men he respects the most going at each other?”
Temper is no match for the hot tug of guilt, which turns my anger inward. I should be past this shit. Past reacting like my old man. “I’m sorry, Isabelle. Victor.” I straighten and scrub my fingers through my hair. “After everything you and your family have done for me, I went to Dee because I owe it to you to fix this.”
“Christ!” Victor seethes, slumping back in his chair. “Do you have any idea how insulting that is? My parents weren’t thinking about repayment when you were only eight and lost your mother, leaving you with nobody but a drunk for a father. They gladly took care of you because they loved your mom, and they loved you like a son. You don’t owe us shit.”
He’s wrong. I owe them more than they realize. “I’m not talking about checks and balances, Victor. This is about my promise to Papa T.” I swallow around the fisted lump I get whenever I think of Cayo Torres—the man who for all intents and purposes was my father—dying of cancer. “I gave him my word. I promised to always look out for his family. And I’ve let him down. I’ve let all of you down.”
Victor sighs, his own grief still heavy. “You haven’t let anybody down. Papa wouldn’t hold you responsible for this any more than we do.”
“If I hadn’t lost my cool—”
“When are you going to give yourself a pass on that? O’Malley was the asshole, coming at you and the kids like that. And whether you had hit him or not, the story still would have made headlines, because you’re news. And that’s just the way it is. So I’m asking you—no, I’m telling you—to let this go. Dwayde is our son and we’ll make the call on who should represent him. And it sure as hell won’t be Deeana Chase.”
“Fine.” I shove away from the table, tension grinding in my every muscle. “You don’t want to hire Dee. I’ll stay the hell out of it.”
“I want to hire her.”
We swerve our heads in Isabelle’s direction, and Victor asks in disbelief, “You’re siding with Mick?”
Isabelle walks over to her husband and embraces his stiff shoulders. “We’re all on the same side, Victor. Dwayde’s.”
“He went behind my back.”
“Out of love for us.”
Victor curses under his breath. “What do you think seeing her again is going to do to my mother?”
“I think it will finally give her the closure she’s needed. That you’ve all needed.”
“Isabelle—” he protests.
She smooths her cheek over the top of Victor’s crew cut. “The Franklins are threatening a court order. Dwayde’s scared. I’m scared. Let Dee help him. Please, Victor. Don’t fight me on this.”
I witness my friend battling himself in silence. I’ve never known him to deny his wife anything that was important to her, and I doubt he’s going to start now. True to character, he releases a breath and says with all the reluctance he obviously feels, “Don’t count on this being a cathartic experience for me, Isabelle, but I’ll do whatever you want.”
“Gracias, mi cielo,”she whispers in gratitude and Victor’s expression softens. Not so when he turns to face me. His features darken with judgment and censure.
“A leopard doesn’t change its spots, Mick. So word to the wise, don’t go losing your head over Dee again.” And with a pointed look at my zipper, he adds, “Either one.”
That night, the memory I haven’t let my conscious mind relive in years haunts my dreams. I’ve just turned eighteen and my life is supposed to be my own. But it isn’t. It belongs to my father, and he never lets me forget it.
I don’t want the basketball scholarship to North Carolina State University. As an aspiring writer, I want to go to New York University. A month earlier, right after Christmas, I finally gathered the nerve to tell my old man. It went about as well as I should have expected.
Malcolm Peters grabbed my throat and threatened to break my neck if I ever mentioned NYU or writing again. End of subject. But it isn’t the end for me. I send away for the application and have it delivered to Victor’s.
The day after it arrives, fire burning in my belly, I ditch school. As soon as my father leaves for work, with the morning sun streaming through my bedroom window, I dig into the required submission. For hours, my fingers fly across the keyboard as the short story pours out of me. A mythical world where heroes exist and anything is possible. Worlds I created as a kid to escape the reality of my existence.
I smile as I describe Dionna, the princess with dark, curly locks, golden eyes, and brickhouse curves. My Dionna’s no tiara-wearing, ivory tower princess, though. I give her thigh-high boots and a bustier that barely covers the goods. She’s busting out of it and it’s freakin’ hot. Not that I have more than a dirty dream of what Dee’s plump body looks like beneath those bulky clothes.
Papa T would have my ass for thinking this way about his foster daughter, and Dee would probably be shocked and embarrassed. But it’s my fantasy and I’m playing it out on paper. As consolation, I make Dionna fierce in combat. Dee would like that.
I’m completely lost in the scene where my heroine and the renegade hero, Dark Shadow—that’s me, naturally—battle the enemy with ninja moves to protect the citadel and its people. I don’t hear him until my bedroom door swings open with a force that knocks it against the wall. I can’t shut off in time or cover the application forms on my desk.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
My chest constricts and my lungs work double time as I swivel my chair around to face his question.
“I took off early to study.” I’m so used to lying, the fabrication rolls off my tongue. But he’s not buying it. His sharp gaze takes in my computer screen and the papers on my desk, and I know I’m screwed.
He stalks toward me in his khaki uniform. The gold sheriff’s badge glistens on his chest, and the black revolver sits menacingly at his waist. I can see that his pupils are dilated to the size of saucers. He’s been drinking. I’ve seen the flask he keeps hidden in his office desk and in the glove compartment of his cruiser. On occasion, he comes home at lunch to sleep it off. Figures that today would be one of those times.
My old man can hold his liquor, though. So as drunk as he is, his advance toward me is steady. Purposeful. I’m a sitting duck but I don’t try to move. As a kid, I used to hide under my bed, up in the oak tree out back, or at Victor’s. Before my mom died in a car accident, she would often put herself in between my father’s fists and me. It shames me to think of how many hits she took that should have been mine. But at eighteen I refuse to hide or let anyone else fight my battles.
Snatching up the NYU application forms, he growls deep in his chest, “What the fuck is this?”
It’s obvious so I don’t answer. His breathing accelerates like a raging bull’s. Alcohol fumes mixed with the scent of the mints he chews as camouflage blow in my face. He crumples the papers in his beefy hand.
“Only pussies and faggots write this shit. Are you a fucking faggot?”
I don’t flinch or respond. I’ve spent the past three years screwing any pretty chick in a skirt to prove to him I’m not.
“Maybe I didn’t make myself clear.” His vicious hiss warns of what’s to come. A series of hard punches to the chest, kidney, and gut; nothing to leave any visible marks or that will prevent me from being able to practice.
I steel my soul in anticipation, because the physical pain is the least of it. Only he’s angrier this time. His face is flushed with fury, his teeth bared. He doesn’t tolerate defiance. But he hates my writing even more. I inherited the talent and passion from my mother. And we were what came between him and the basketball career he desperately wanted.
Maybe that’s what makes him reckless this time. Because I don’t count on his large fist slamming into the right side of my face. The pain is explosive and topples me to the floor. I blink against the dark spots.
“Still want to write?” He kicks my stomach with his hard leather boot, and I think I’m going to hurl.
I want to fight back. Fist to fist, I probably could. My father’s a big man, as tall as me, but burly with it, while I’m lean, strong, and quick. But he has that fucking gun on his side. A gun I’ve had pressed to my temple enough times to believe, if mad and drunk enough, he might pull the trigger. And as bad as life with him is, I don’t want to die.
Another kick slams into my ribs this time. “You will play ball, do you fucking hear me?”
I hear him but I say nothing. He kicks me again and again, wanting the answer that never comes. I lie in a heap, blood spilling from the cut on my cheek, hating him for having the power and myself for having none.
I’m blacking out to blessed peace beneath the pain. But it scares me. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is what it feels like in the moments before death. I’m not ready. I have more stories to write. I have people who care about me.
The white wooden house next door floats across my mind’s eye. I can see Mama and Papa T. They call for me not to go. My best friend yells, “Don’t you dare die on me, man!” Gabi’s and Maria’s little arms are outstretched, trying to reach me. My mom’s there, too, telling me to hang on, that it’s too soon. But the face that pulls me out of the darkness is Dee’s.
She’s wearing the crooked smile that appears in her rare playful moments. “Get back here, Mick,” she says. “We haven’t even begun yet.”
I jerk awake. I touch my right cheek. My stomach. My side. Christ! The memory’s real but it was only a dream.
Drenched with sweat, I kick free from the tangle of sheets and bolt naked from the bed. I stand in the middle of my room, my heart racing like I’ve run a hundred-meter dash, sucking in air, until the dream slowly leaves me.
And all that remains is the image of Dee and her crooked smile.