Authors: Teona Bell
Copyright © May 2015, Teona Bell
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Charmaine started at the sound of the alarm across the room. She raised her head a little way and winced at the shooting pain from several spots on her body. Something clung to her cheek, and she brushed at it. Was that cereal? Gross. She took in the room around her and frowned. Empty cans, used paper plates with crusts of pizza on one of them, and an empty bottle of wine littered the room. One would have thought she had thrown a party last night.
Rising a little more, she groaned at another pain, this one in her hip. When she rolled over, she found she had been lying on one of her study guides. No wonder. The thing was two inches thick and not meant to double as a mattress. She needed to learn if she was going to stay up all night trying to figure out a part of her program that had her frustrated for weeks, she should actually stay awake. The energy drinks had been countered by the wine or vise versa. Either way, she’d gotten nowhere.
“Choices, Charmaine,” she muttered as she sat up. The blaring continued, and she made her way staggering to the alarm clock to shut it off. Afterward, she considered the room and came to the conclusion that cleaning could wait until evening when she got off work.
In the shower, just as she had added shampoo to her hair, she thought she heard the phone ring. Leaning out and dripping water on the floor, she listened. Whoever it was would need to wait. Besides, she wasn’t expecting anyone to call. She would see her mother on Friday, like usual.
After she was finished washing off, Charmaine stood before the bathroom mirror and wrestled with her hair. She needed to stop being lazy and do something with it. That wasn’t on the schedule either—neither the funds nor the time. If she slapped a little gel in her crazy mane, especially around the edges and wore a bun all week, she would be fine. Who was she impressing anyway?
Her cell phone rang again. She glared at it and caught her sister’s name on the screen. “What the heck could she possibly want?”
Charmaine stabbed the connect button with the very tip of her baby finger so she wouldn’t get gel on the phone. “Stacia,” she said without affection.
“Baby sister,” Stacia chirped, annoying the hell out of her. “I finally caught you. I’ve been calling for days. Girl, where have you been?”
“I’ve been busy, Stacia. You know I’m trying to finish my program.”
“You’ve been doing that thing for a year or ten. Aren’t you bored yet?”
Charmaine sighed. “You wouldn’t get it. I’m trying to change my life, and my program is the way to go. What’s up? I’m going to be late for work.”
“If I know you, you’ve still got an hour before you’re due in.”
“Did you forget the commute?”
“Charming, why are you always so mean to me?”
Charmaine stilled her hands in her hair and shut her eyes to count to ten. She drew in a breath and blew it out. “Call me Charming again and see if I don’t hang up on you.”
“Damn, you’re grumpy early in the morning. Okay, I’ll get right to it. I’m having a party next Saturday, and you’re invited. There’s going to be a ton of single guys here, and I know you can make a hookup with at least one of them. It’s at eight, but you can come earlier, and we can shoot the breeze while I make snacks.”
Charmaine shook her head staring at the phone. Her sister must be insane. When would she get it through her head that they weren’t close like that, that they never would be? “I’m not coming to your party.”
“Charmin—uh—Charmaine, come on. You’ve got to have fun sometimes.” The whine that had entered her sister’s voice grated. One would think Stacia was the younger sister. Not that Charmaine was young enough or would ever stoop to whining being twenty-nine.
“You have enough for the both of us on a weekly if not daily basis. I’ve never come to one of your parties, and I’m not going to start now. Plus, I’m not in the market for a man.”
Least of all the jerks Stacia liked to party with. Every guy her sister brought home before Charmaine had moved out of their mother’s house had been a loser, including the two men Stacia had kids with. Okay, to be fair her older son’s dad wasn’t bad, but the younger girl, who the heck knew who he was. In Charmaine’s book that said loser.
“You’re not getting any younger, Charmaine. Aren’t you going to have kids? For that you need a man.”
“Au contraire, in this day and age, I can have kids without one. Just lead me to a sperm bank.”
“Ew, no! And do without the dingaling? That’s punishment.”
“Again, you’ve had enough for the both of us.”
Stacia’s voice dropped low, and for once she grew more serious. “You can convince me you’re not lonely, Charmaine. I know you have your dreams and everything, and you’re scared of—”
“Stop. Just don’t even go there. I’m doing fine, but whatever I do it’s my business and my decision. You’re free to do whatever you want, Stacia. I’m not knocking you for it. Just don’t think I want or will be involved.”
The line was silent for a few minutes, and Charmaine went back to doing her hair. The gel had dried a little, and she had to rewet her whole head to get any semblance of neatness. Not satisfied with the end result because she looked plain as hell, she added a bit of eyeliner to her eyes and then froze.
What am I doing?
Her sister’s words about being lonely ran through her head, and she threw the liner pencil down.
“You’re always so cold, Charmaine,” Stacia said at last, and there was a catch in her voice. Charmaine stopped moving to look at the phone. She thought her sister hung up. “I know you don’t respect me, and you think I’m just this screw up.”
“I don’t,” Charmaine lied. She bit her lip and blinked a few times fast.
“Come on. Admit it. I’m the example you keep in front of you of what not to be. I followed in Mama’s footsteps, having a kid when I was sixteen, and now I have Amaya. She’s only four, and I have no idea who the father is. I disgust you.”
“What do you want me to say, Stacia?” Charmaine washed her hands and dried them. Then she picked up the phone and left the bathroom. “I’m not going to lie and say I like your choices. Everybody makes mistakes, but you’re not even trying to change. No, I don’t want the same thing out of life. You and I both saw how Mama struggled to take care of us and how a lot of times we went without. I’m not doing it. You want me to somehow accept what you’re doing, but do you accept that I’m choosing my way on my own?”
“It’s not fun,” Stacia complained.
“So what? It’s my life!”
“Okay, come by on Friday then. We can hang out, maybe go shopping.”
Charmaine rolled her eyes. “I don’t have any extra money this month.”
“You’ve probably got a million dollars in a savings account.”
“From holding up what bank? Look, I’ve got to go, Stacia. I’ll call you back tonight.” Charmaine ended the call just as her sister was saying something else. They both knew Charmaine wouldn’t call. She never did. Just like she didn’t attend the parties, she didn’t go out of her way to spend time with Stacia. Whether she was wrong or not, that was her routine, and her older sister already knew it. No matter how many times she tried for them to get closer, it wasn’t happening. Charmaine did her duty with family, visiting her mother every week without fail. That much was all she could take.
When she was done getting ready, Charmaine searched her disaster area of an apartment for her tablet and found it under the bed. She mentally crossed her fingers as she hit the power button and whooped in delight when it came on. The battery was even half full, but she took the charger anyway so she could plug it in at the office.
As she let herself out of the apartment, she concentrated on reading the small article she had found about creating platforms in C sharp, hoping it would give her some new insight. To her right, footsteps sounded in the hall, but she didn’t pay them any mind. One more sentence, and she would stick the key in the door and lock it. Wait, what did that term mean? She tried manipulating the screen to a new window to do a search.
Charmaine’s tablet tipped too far for her to catch it, and all she could think about was the screen shattering and the cost of getting it fixed or replacing the entire tablet. She screeched and leaped forward, both hands extended. At the same time, a speeding train barreled into her and knocked her sideways. Another yelp escaped her, and strong male hands encircled her waist.
Charmaine went down to the floor, face up with the tablet somehow under her. She glared into the greenest eyes she had ever seen. He had bent to one knee with his hands still clinging to her hips. Charmaine sat forward, but he didn’t move back fast enough. She had to turn her head to keep from kissing him on the lips.
Aggravated, she shouldered him back farther. “Get off me, damn it!”
He scrambled to his feet and held out a hand. “I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
Charmaine ignored the stirrings in her body to slap his hand away and stand on her own. She was too busy snatching up her tablet and checking it over to look into the man’s face again. Idiot should have looked where he was going before he mowed down unsuspecting women.
“Of all the rough, clumsy…” she muttered and continued down the hall. Then she recalled she never did lock her apartment door and spun back around. Once again, she smashed into the big man and yelped in pain. Charmaine raised a hand to her forehead and rubbed it long-sufferingly. She shut her eyes. “Are you going to move, or should I?”
“I’m trying, but when beautiful clumsy women get in the way…”
“Stuff it,” she growled and spared him another glance.
Charmaine managed to at last get herself and her tablet out of his path, and she locked her door then headed to the elevator.
“Good morning,” came his deep voice from somewhere to her left.
She didn’t raise her head but grunted.
“Nice weather we’re having.”
Another grunt from her. The bell dinged for the first level, and when the doors swung open, she made for the street. As Charmaine walked toward the curb, the strap on her heel broke, and she hopped on one foot while she removed the shoe. She examined the shoe—ruined. “Son of a bi—this is not a good day.”
All the way back to her apartment, Charmaine grumbled, changed her shoes, popped pain pills for her still throbbing head, and then headed out again. She was late for work in the end, and she blamed it on her sister for calling and the idiot big oaf, whoever he was in the hall. If she could just stick to her own plan and have everyone stay out of her way, life would be perfect.
Yeah, if only!
Six months later…
Charmaine pulled into the lot and cut the engine. She peered out through the windshield frowning. “This the place you meant?”
The little girl beside her with the long dirty blonde hair looked up and nodded. Charmaine had looked at that hair when she went to pick up the four-year-old and groaned. She would be responsible for doing it from now on. Amaya being biracial, her hair would be this way, but it didn’t make Charmaine’s life easier.
“This car is dirty,” Amaya announced in a high-pitched voice. She had spotted the discarded wrapper Charmaine had left on the floor that morning. “You should clean it out.”
Charmaine sighed and reached for the wadded paper. “I cleaned it out. That one was an accident.”
Amaya, the pain in her rear, found another one. “What about that?”
“Are we here for your books or trash hunting?”
The little girl unbuckled her seat belt and climbed out of the car. Charmaine followed. She watched as Amaya ran to the entrance to the medium sized used bookstore. Why would a kid her age even know about this place? Could she read already, or was Charmaine expected to read to her?
At a more sedate pace, Charmaine entered the store and studied Amaya as she paused to look around. She hoisted her small backpack higher on her back, and Charmaine had a flashback of Stacia when she was much younger. Charmaine had always been behind her because Stacia was fast. While her older sister’s daughter didn’t have the same brown skin as dark as they had, she still looked somewhat like her mother. Charmaine wondered if the little girl missed her Stacia. Not that much time had passed, yet, she hadn’t cried for Stacia for very long. Charmaine hadn’t either, and she wondered what she herself felt. Numb maybe.
When Charmaine came out of her reverie, she found the little girl had disappeared. Charmaine scanned the aisles. “Amaya, where are you?” A woman glared at her, and Charmaine widened her eyes right back. “This isn’t the library. Get a grip.”
The woman sucked her teeth and turned her head. Charmaine continued on, looking for her niece. At some point, she realized the place was bigger than she thought. Stairs on the right wall led to a second floor of more stacks and a small coffee counter.
“Who the heck would come all the way up here for coffee?” she wondered. “Amaya!”
Heads swiveled in her direction, and then she heard the scream. Charmaine ran down another aisle to find a man holding Amaya’s arm as she tried to get away. Charmaine charged him and clamped down on his arm.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded. “Get your hands off her.”
Green eyes flared in anger, and the big man faced her. Actually, now that she was close up on him, she thought he looked slightly familiar. The broad shoulders and above average height should have given her a clue if not the arrogant air he gave off.
“If she’s with you, maybe you should keep a better eye on her, Charmaine.”
Charmaine blinked. “Excuse me? First, don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t do, and second, I don’t know how you think you know me, but your don’t. Back off.”
His expression went from anger to surprise. “Are you kidding?”
“What do you mean am I kidding? I don’t joke with strangers who think they can kidnap my niece. You should be happy you’re not chewing your balls right now.”
“Whoa.” He raised his hands in defense, and out of the corner of Charmaine’s eye, she caught the small crowd gathering, including some man who looked like he might be the manager of the store. “Do you always speak with that kind of language around her?”
Amaya tugged on Charmaine’s arm. “Let’s go, Aunt Charmaine.”
Charmaine pulled away and dug through her purse. “I’m going to call the cops on this pervert.”
“No,” Amaya whined, sounding like her mother. “Let’s go.”
Charmaine ignored her and found her phone. She made to dial, and the man folded his arms over his chest, watching. His ass wasn’t even afraid that she was going to call. She shook her head at him.
“By all means,” he said. “You can explain to them about the books in your niece’s backpack that you didn’t pay for.”
Charmaine froze, and Amaya stopped pulling.
The man continued. “I was going to quietly suggest she put them back, but she screamed and well, you know the rest. I’m guessing dramatics and not listening runs in your family.”
She pointed a finger at him. “You don’t know me, and you don’t know my family, sir.”
He smirked. “Charmaine Poe.”
Her mouth fell open.
“Perhaps you don’t recognize me because we met on many occasions like this.”
His smart ass grabbed a book and held it in front of her face then proceeded to duck all around it while still keeping his face obscured. Charmaine burned up with embarrassment, and several people laughed.
“Doesn’t ring a bell?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes but said nothing,
“Maybe you recall the many conversations we had about the weather in the elevator?”
Then it all came clear, the sexy deep voice, the green eyes, the hard body she had careened into a few months ago. This was the man who wouldn’t stop saying good morning to her every single morning, her neighbor who lived on her floor. Talk about being blind to her surroundings, but she had an excuse. She had been working on her program and was busy. Just because he thought he was all that didn’t mean she had to notice him.
“Okay, so you know who I am and where I live,” she acknowledged. Charmaine started to turn away from him.
“Elliot Barone,” he supplied. The words
I didn’t ask
trembled on her tongue, but that was being anal if he spoke the truth about Amaya.
“Uh-huh.” Charmaine grabbed Amaya’s arm and hurried her along to the other end of the aisle. Once she ducked around the corner and out of sight, she spun the little girl around so she could get to the backpack. “We haven’t been here five minutes, and you’re already trying to send me to jail?”
Charmaine pulled out three books, all with stamps from the bookstore on them, and she groaned. After dumping them on a shelf, she hurried Amaya down to the first floor before the manager could catch up to them. Unfortunately, he must have called down to another employee because she was waiting at the front door when they got there. Could this day get any worse?
“We don’t have anything,” Charmaine said and showed the empty bag. Her stomach knotted. She had never been in trouble with the law, although Stacia had been arrested countless times for drunk and disorderly conduct.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the hard-faced woman with the head of static filled hair said. She looked like she was having a bad day too and wanted to take it out on Charmaine. “We can’t just let people walk in here and take books just because they’re used. We have a business to run.”
Charmaine got her back up. “Oh really, you just assume because some man accused us, we’re guilty? Did you see us take anything?” She had a moment of panic thinking they had security cameras.
“I was mistaken,” came a deep voice behind her. “As you can see, the backpack’s empty.”
Charmaine stiffened. Why was he defending them now? He had obviously seen the books because Charmaine took them out. Plus, this wasn’t the first time Amaya had stolen.
Maybe the green eyes and the voice worked, because the woman started trying to fix her hair and almost simpered. “Well, please be more careful next time.”
Charmaine barreled past, holding onto Amaya’s hand. When they got to the street, stopped the little girl beside her car. “What is up with you? Why do you keep doing this? Those books weren’t even anything anybody would want.”
Amaya bowed her head and twisted her fingers together. “Sorry, Aunt Charmaine.”
“You keep saying sorry, but you don’t stop!”
“Maybe there’s a reason she’s doing it,” came the nosy voice again.
Charmaine sighed and straightened. “Why are you following us?”
He leaned against the car and smiled. Nice smile with the eyes.
Okay, stop, Charmaine, for real! You don’t have time for him.
“Can I buy you two ladies lunch?”
She stared at him.
“I mean to make up for almost getting you thrown in jail and all.”
“No, thank you.” Charmaine shuffled Amaya into the car.
He looked so disappointed, it shocked her. Didn’t men usually hide their feelings, like playing it off that they weren’t that interested anyway? “It was a little mistake. How about not telling her mother?”
Charmaine had a twinge of pain. She grabbed his hand and pulled him away away from the car and Amaya’s hearing. “My sister is dead. She died six months ago when one of her— Never mind. You don’t need those details. Anyway, she’s gone, and I have custody of Amaya. This isn’t the first time she’s stolen things either. For the last few months she lived with my mother, and every week there was something. So don’t tell me how to deal with her. Good-bye.”
Charmaine left him standing there, but curiosity made her peep in the direction she left him after she got in the car. He was gone. She searched the parking lot but didn’t see him. Well, good because she had let enough outside forces slow her down. Amaya could stew at home and reflect on what she did while Charmaine wrote a little more code. Just a little more, and she would have a prototype. Nothing could get in the way.