Authors: Susan Andersen
Aunie set the bottle on the end table and stood, carrying the infant into her bedroom, where she gently laid her on the bed and propped pillows around her. She tiptoed from the room and closed the door.
She was in the kitchen heating water for a cup of tea when her front door opened. Suprised James was back so soon and suddenly shy, she smoothed her hair nervously. She took a deep breath and stuck her head around the corner.
Wesley was disdainfully inspecting her apartment. He picked up the telephone on the end table by the couch, looked at it a moment, and then ripped it out of the jack.
She jerked back into the kitchen, gripping the countertop with white-knuckled fingers and breathing hard. He had been looking in a different direction and hadn’t seen her.
But it would take about three minutes to search the apartment and then …
BENDING THE RULES
JUST FOR KICKS
HOT & BOTHERED
HEAD OVER HEELS
ALL SHOOK UP
BABY DON’T GO
BE MY BABY
BABY I’M YOURS
ON THIN ICE
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
For making me laugh and a whole lot more This one is for two special women in my life Dedicated with love
My mom, Bettie Bell
Whom I’m going to be just like when I grow up
My best friend, Mimi Armitstead Who knows me inside and out
With a special thanks to Kathy Baker and Ann Marie Talberg for making this second incarnation possible
The quickest way to Aunie Franklin’s heart was not through complimenting her looks. She’d been praised for her appearance since she was five years old and quite honestly didn’t understand what the fuss was all about—like most women, she felt she needed a helping hand from the cosmetic industry. Anyway, wasn’t the arrangement of one’s features pretty much an accident of genes? Not exactly an accomplishment that she could point to with pride, was it? Now, what she would truly find flattering was to hear that she was intelligent, or better yet, competent. At twenty-six she felt that she had already wasted most of her life being nothing more than a decoration—nice enough to look at, she supposed, but ultimately rather useless.
Not, she thought with justifiable irony, that it was likely to be a particular problem today.
She looked up at the facade of the old brick apartment
house. It had caught her fancy immediately, with its old-fashioned portico, the warm coloring of its bricks, and the lovely front door that was mostly a large oval of beveled glass. She couldn’t believe her luck in spotting this place. The building was not too large; it was close to a community college, and best of all there was a sign, Apartment for Rent, on a peg thrust into the postage-stamp-sized lawn out front. She hadn’t even noticed that at first glance. Her eyes had been drawn to the building itself as she’d slowly maneuvered the narrow streets in her rented car. It had an air of shabby gentility that made her feel right at home. She’d lived in places like this one before.
It looked absolutely perfect, which couldn’t help making her a bit nervous. Things that appeared too good to be true generally were. She’d discovered that the hard way.
Perfection ceased to be a problem the moment she attempted to find a parking space. In this neighborhood it was obviously an exercise in frustration. She had to drive several blocks, turning several corners in the process, before she finally found a space that was so small it took her three attempts at parallel parking to squeeze into it. Then, of course, she had to find her way back. She’d turned so many corners, she was completely turned around.
But she was not as lacking in intelligence as was popularly believed back home in Atlanta. She had made note of the cross streets and eventually found her way back to the building. She walked up the short path, pressed the intercom button, and peered through the glass into the foyer.
It had a look of having been lovingly restored, all gleaming old wood and new paint. There was an open staircase dead ahead that displayed a polished oak
banister. The stairs were covered with an old, thin, tapestry carpet runner that had probably been quite valuable once upon a time.
The speaker next to her ear emitted a static crackle. “May I help you?” asked a disembodied voice.
Aunie leaned into the intercom. “I’m here about the apartment for rent.”
“Manager’s apartment is 1A on your right.” The door buzzed and Aunie pushed it open. Closing it carefully behind her, she shivered in the sudden flow of warm air. She hadn’t realized how chilled she was until she stepped out of the moisture-laden wind. After a lifetime in the South, she was going to need a bit of adjusting to this Seattle weather. It wasn’t actually raining; yet there was a dampness in the air that cut to the bone.
More heat curled around her when the door to the manager’s apartment suddenly opened before she could knock on it. In the doorway stood a tall black woman dressed in layers of colorful cotton, an ankle bracelet gracing one bare foot, and she was wearing a brightly patterned scarf tied turban-style around her head. The woman’s welcoming smile faded as she studied Aunie with concern. “Ah, woo-mon,” she said in a soft, Jamaican lilt as her warm brown eyes noted the damage to Aunie’s face, “What hoppened to you?”
Aunie gave her a polite smile in return, stretching her mouth as far as the still-split lip would allow. “I’m inquirin’ about the apartment.”
The exotic woman seemed not to take offense that Aunie had not answered her question. She smiled serenely. “Yes, of course; you will like it very much, I think. You come wid me.” She stepped back to allow Aunie entrance to her apartment. “I am Lola.”
Aunie extended her hand. “Aunie Franklin.”
“Pleasured to make your acquaintance, On-nie. Please”—Lola gestured to the overstuffed sofa—“make yourself comfortable while I find the keys.”
To herself, Lola thought, I sign this one up quick, before James catches sight of her. With her usual decisiveness, she had taken one look at the fragile-looking woman with the battered face and determined she was in need of help and friendship … and very likely protection as well.
She also knew that if James were to see her, he would turn her away in a second. He had some ridiculous new notion about not taking care of people anymore. Said he was tired of having everyone’s problems dumped in his lap and, from now on, he was looking out for number one … period. With that bad-luck family of his, Lola understood his sudden change of attitude. But it was the man’s inherent nature to handle trouble, so at the same time it made her impatient. Destiny was destiny, and it was futile to rail against what was meant to be, now wasn’t it? Lola knew that, even if James did not.
Grabbing the keys and donning a pair of worn ballet slippers, Lola led Aunie upstairs. The second floor didn’t show the same loving care that the ground floor did, but Lola was quick to explain. “Just finished redoin’ the first floor and this unit,” she said as she opened the apartment door and stood back for Aunie to enter. “The mons, they be starting on the hallway up here come Monday.”
“Oh, this is nice,” Aunie said a moment later as she wandered about the high-ceilinged apartment. It was light and airy, with stark white walls, and in the small dining area were two tall, narrow, old-fashioned windows that let in the weak afternoon light through
slanted wooden miniblinds. A curved archway separated the living room from the dining area, and the floors in both rooms were polished hardwood. There had been generous use made of natural woods: framing
windows, in the moldings and foot boards, and in the built-in bookshelves on either side of… “Oh, a
Aunie breathed reverently. She didn’t actually know how to build a fire, but she was certain she could learn. She looked over her shoulder at Lola. “Does it work?”
“Certainly. The mons, they finished redoin’ this place not too long ago. Everything work perfectly.”
Aunie’s overall impression of the apartment was of spaciousness even though it wasn’t actually all that large. There was a small, efficient kitchen and an even smaller bathroom with an old-fashioned claw-foot tub and pedestal sink. The bedroom was a reasonable size, though, and its floor was covered with thick, plush, wall-to-wall, pearl grey carpeting. It also contained a huge closet.
“I’ll take it.” Aunie turned to Lola. “Oh, wait. I guess I’d better inquire first how much you’re asking.”
The rent was only a little steeper than she had expected to pay but it included heat, so in the long run she would probably get the best of the bargain. She had a feeling she was going to go through a great deal of fuel before she became acclimated to this damp new climate. With a sense of satisfaction, she trailed Lola back to her apartment to sign the papers. First full day in town, and already she’d found a place to stay and had brochures from the nearby college.
“How do you spell your first name, woo-mon?” Lola asked her as she filled in the forms. “O-n-n-i-e?”
Aunie corrected her and went on to spell her last
name also. In moments, she was signing a six-month lease and endorsing a number of traveler’s checks to cover first and last month’s rent and a damage deposit. When everything was in order, Lola offered her a cup of tea.
“Welcome to your new home,” she said with cheerful friendliness. “I hope you will be as hoppy here as I have been.”
Aunie hoped so, too. Talking with Lola as she finished her tea, she marveled at how uncommonly relaxed and at home she felt. She had never actually known a black person on a personal level before. The few with whom she’d had even the most minimal contact were connected to the service industries, and it was a firmly entrenched belief in her family that people from their rarified echelon of society did not mix with those who served them. She wasn’t so sheltered she didn’t realize there were many African-Americans in positions of authority far removed from serving others. She had simply never met any and so had never given any thought to how well she’d mix with them in a social situation.
Prejudice apparently wasn’t as inbred in her as it was in other members of her family, however; inexplicably, with Lola she felt as though she were talking to an old friend. The woman had a natural dignity and exuded a friendliness that prevented Aunie’s old demon shyness from manifesting itself. She felt she could listen to the lilting cadence of her voice forever, could bask in the warmth of the woman’s eyes.
The front door banged open, and Lola swore softly under her breath. Gesturing Aunie to remain seated, she rose to her feet and crossed the room in a swirl of colorful skirts.
“Lola!” Aunie watched with interest as a toughlooking,
well-built man swept Lola off her feet and swung her around. He had the go-to-hell eyes of someone who’d seen it all and soft, pale blond hair that receded slightly from his high forehead and was pulled straight back into a short ponytail. Aunie had never particularly cared for ponytails on men, but the style seemed to suit this one’s face, which was all strong planes and angles. The shape of his skull was delineated faithfully beneath the taut skin of his forehead; he had a bony, prominent nose and a stubborn-looking chin. His cheekbones were flat and angular, his teeth were white, and slashing lines cut from the corners of those rebel eyes clear into his lean cheeks. There were three shallow creases in his right cheek next to his mouth.
“How’s my favorite woman?” he asked, grinning at Lola and holding her in a grip that dangled her feet off the ground, even though they were very nearly the same height, perhaps five feet ten or eleven inches tall. Aunie wondered with fascinated speculation if they were married. She’d never met anyone from an interracial marriage, but it wouldn’t surprise her, given the ask-me-if-I-care expression in the man’s eyes. He looked like the type who would do exactly as he pleased and not give a damn what the rest of
world thought of his behavior.
“James, you fool mon, put me down,” Lola said sternly.
“Not until I have your promise you’ll dump Otis and run away with me.”
“Go on wid you, mon! What is this I’m hearin’?” Lola planted her hands on his broad shoulders and pushed back until she could see his face. He grinned happily. “Will you be forsakin’ all your blonde bimbos
wid the bra sizes larger than their IQ’s to make an honest woo-mon of me, James Ryder?”
“No. But think of the scintillating conversations we could have before I go back to my wandering ways. C’mon, Lola, whataya say? It’ll be fun.”
“Take your mitts off my woman, Jimmy,” a deep voice rumbled. “I’d hate to haveta squash you like a bug.”
“I’d hate to be squashed, Otis.” Still grinning, James let Lola loose.
Aunie’s startled attention was drawn to the black man who had spoken. She’d been so caught up in the blonde’s theatrics, she’d failed to even notice the other man; but now that she had noticed him, her eyes widened.
Before he’d smiled, she’d thought the blonde looked tough … and it was most likely that he was. Compared to this man, however, he looked like a pussycat.
Otis was tall … very tall. To Aunie, who was seated, he appeared to be an ebony giant, all roped muscles, dark gleaming skin, and standing veins. His bald head shone in the overhead light and there was a ridge of scar tissue bisecting his skull from the crown of his head to his temple. A small golden hoop glinted in his ear, and when he suddenly smiled, she was taken aback. He had a surprisingly sweet smile, with the whitest, strongest teeth she had ever seen.
Oh, God, this was too perfect. Aunie nearly hugged herself. If Wesley somehow managed to track her down, coming face-to-face with these two men should at least give him pause. The corners of her lips curled up.
“Who’s your dainty little friend, baby?” The deep rumble made Aunie’s head whip up. Otis had crossed the room on silent feet and was standing over her.
Lola joined him, hooking her arm through his and hugging an impressive bicep to the side of her breast. “This is Aunie Franklin. Aunie, this is my husband, Otis Jackson, and our friend James Ryder.” She took a deep breath and girded herself. “Aunie’s rentin’ 2B.”
“Oh, shit, baby,” Otis whispered. “What did ya go do that for?”
“The hell she is!” James roared and Aunie stared at him in startled confusion. The humorous tease of a moment ago had vanished. In his place stood a furious, scowling man who looked ten times harder than she had thought him to be. She rose to her feet, but she was tiny and still had to crane her neck to look him in the eye as he towered over her. “Sorry, lady,” he said flatly, staring down at her with eyes colder than the Pacific Northwest rain. “That apartment’s not for rent.” Not, at any rate, to another screwed-up little waif looking to make her problems his problems.
Aunie drew herself up. “Ah have a signed contract that says it is,” she disagreed in her well-bred, soft-spoken voice. The sudden thickening of her accent was the only outward sign of an escalating inward anger. She didn’t know what this man’s problem was, but she was not giving up her new apartment.
“Ah, shit, she’s a Southerner, too,” he muttered in disgust. He turned on his heel and stomped away. “Dammit, Lola, why’d you do it? Look at her face! Some asshole’s beat her up, and now you’ve gone and landed her in my lap.” His head whipped around and he impaled Aunie with angry moss green eyes. “Or are you gonna try and tell us
—the wave of his hand encompassed her abused face—“happened to you when you walked into a door?”
“I’m not tryin’ to tell you a solitary thing, mistah,” Aunie replied with cool disdain. “I don’t know you from Adam, suh, and the condition of my face is my business. Not yours.”