Love Me Carefully

Part of the Stories that Stand Alone

For better or worse, this unlikely hook-up might be the perfect union.

Wedding planner Leah Graham doesn’t believe in “Happily Ever After”. It’s fine for her clients to believe in fairy tales, but when it comes to her own nuptials, her feet aren’t just cold – they’re frozen. Jaded by her mother’s frequent trips to the altar Leah’s content to plan gorgeous weddings for clients such as her hair stylist, Ms. Rosie; that is until Ms. Rosie’s meddling son turns Leah’s life upside down.

Computer programmer Terrell Pierce is on the prowl for his perfect bride, but when he catches his girlfriend in bed with another man, his search comes to a screeching halt. Then, as if he needed more drama in his life, his mother announces her intention to remarry, and her groom-to-be is a suspected criminal. Finding a wife suddenly takes a back seat to proving this joker is no good for his mama!

Terrell and Leah are at instant odds – their positions clashing, their attitudes getting in the way. Still, the passion between them simmers as they travel the streets of Baltimore in search of a drug lord, then cruise the seas to Negril with the FBI hot on their trail. Love-at-fist-sight simply isn’t enough to get this couple down the aisle. But murder and mayhem might be!

*NOTE: This book was previously published. The title is the same, but the cover has changed and the content has been refreshed. Please do NOT purchase this book under a different cover.

Love Me Carefully

Part of the Stories that Stand Alone

Love Me Carefully

Excerpt

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PROLOGUE

December

Negril, Jamaica

“You know this is a million dollar deal you’re messin’ wit?” A six-foot-tall Rastafarian named Rohan stood on the terrace of his plush beach home. In the distance, palm trees and a never-ending blanket of sparkling blue beckoned the weary traveler, promising luxury and relaxation. The perfect getaway, the perfect escape.

“I know what I’m doing.” The burly American sat in a chair on the terrace, thinking and re-thinking the plan that had been discussed. It would work, he knew it would. In six months he’d be safe in Negril, away from Baltimore, away from the accusations and speculation that had plagued him for the last ten years. He’d start all over again, leaving his sordid past behind him. Building a whole new life wouldn’t be easy, he admitted, but at least he wouldn’t be alone. He’d be married by the time the deal closed, and he and his wife would move to Negril and live happily ever after. That was the plan. That was his plan.

“Dat’s a lot of ganja to move.” Rohan’s Jamaican accent was thick. He lit a cigarette and took a puff.

“I don’t have to move it. All I have to do is make sure it’s delivered safely to Jones and he can take it from there.” Dismissing Rohan’s concerns with a flick of his wrist, the burly man sat back in the chair. “You just make sure Jones is where he’s supposed to be, when he’s supposed to be there.”

“He’ll be d’ere. Don’t you worry.”

“I’m not worried at all.”

CHAPTER ONE

February

Baltimore, Maryland

Terrell Pierce had worked all night, his mind reeling with computer code and logistics. This had been his routine for the past couple of months. SISCO Engineering was a huge job that he was lucky to land as an independent contractor. By Christmas the re-design of SISCO’s entire system would provide him with more than enough money to have him comfortably in his own home.

That went along perfectly with his timeline. His life had been planned and scheduled since the day he’d turned sixteen. He knew exactly what he wanted and wasn’t about to stop until he had it all. The college degrees, the perfect job, the six-figure salary, all that had come easily enough with dedication and determination—of which he had plenty to spare. Now he was moving towards the next phase of his dream.

He needed a family to round out his perfect scenario. He wanted the whole nine yards—successful career, a wife, kids, house and pets. That was where Tanya came in. She was beautiful, educated and classy. She would be perfect standing beside him as he continued his climb to the top. As soon as things slowed down a bit at work, he would propose and, hopefully, by this time next year they’d be on their way to starting a family.

Life was good.

Pressing the appropriate code, he gained entrance to the high-priced condo he leased. As if on cue, his stomach growled. He dropped his suitcase and headed for the kitchen. But then he heard something. His feet stopped, his ears perking up like those of a hound hearing a fox call.

Plush charcoal gray carpet lined the living room and dining room floors, so his steps were muffled.

The moaning he’d heard coming from his bedroom was not.

He moved quickly then, propelled by adrenaline. When he approached the door the moaning subsided. For one brief minute he thought he might’ve imagined it.

“Oh baby! Yes, baby. Yeah, gimme that ass.” A male groaned after speaking those words.

Terrell’s hand was on the knob and for a split second he considered not turning it. Fuck that! He opened the door, a mixture of shock and fury quickly circling in his gut as he stepped into the room.

In the middle of his bed—in the middle of his king-sized cherrywood Signature bed—some guy was pounding into some woman’s ass with the vigor of a champion stallion.

Only the heels of the woman’s feet faced Terrell, but he had a full view of the man’s naked ass working the hell out of her. Terrell’s hands fisted at his sides.

“Oh yeah, come on, baby. Cum for mama!”

But he knew the voice—knew it very well.

Consumed with their activities, neither person heard him approach. He cleared his throat once, then again for good measure. They stopped mid-stroke.

He wouldn’t overreact, wouldn’t turn this scene into some drama-filled fight that his neighbors would hear and disapprove of, even though his frantically beating heart was trying to lead him in that direction.

“What the hell?” The man turned his head to yell over his shoulder.

Tanya screeched, looking around the dude. “Terrell!”

With clenched teeth Terrell stood at the end of the bed, waiting to receive an explanation, which he doubted he’d understand. “Am I interrupting?” He stuffed his hands into his pockets to keep from dragging her from the bed.

The man cursed again and finally pulled out. “I thought you said you lived alone.” He glowered at Tanya as he reached for his pants.

Tanya turned around to a sitting position on the bed, not the least bit bothered by her nakedness, or apparently the fact that she’d just been caught fucking another man in Terrell’s bed. “I can’t believe you found your way in here. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you in the bedroom.” She crossed her legs and let her palms fall to her bare thighs.

Terrell glimpsed what she so openly displayed. But it was like looking at a stranger. Her usually neat and perfectly styled black hair was in disarray, she wore no makeup on her honey toned skin, and her brown eyes were dark, excited. He could repeat her words and say it’d been so long since he’d seen that look in her eyes. With an inward shake from the rage boiling inside him at the moment, he admitted, this wasn’t the woman he’d known for the past nine months. It wasn’t the woman he’d fallen in love with and had planned to marry. That thought should’ve made him feel at least a little better about the situation, but really didn’t.

He clamped his teeth down so tight he thought for sure he’d get lockjaw. He refused to talk to her until they were alone. The man was hastily getting his clothes on, looking from Terrell to Tanya, yelling expletives as though one or both of them should’ve been doing something other than staring at each other. In retrospect, Terrell figured the man was probably right. This had to be the worst busted lover scene in history. It was too calm, too quiet, but then that was the kind of man Terrell was.

“You don’t even care, do you?” Tanya asked after her lover had finally gone.

Terrell took a deep breath. “Do I care that you’re cheating on me, or do I care that you were tasteless enough to do it in our bed?”

She gave a wilted chuckle. “It would be more like you to be concerned about the bed than what I was doing in it,” she spat.

He turned his back to her then, moved to stand near his dresser, his hands still stuffed in his pockets. Inside he was roiling with anger, and his shoulders stiffened as he replayed the visions of them together. Still, he didn’t yell, didn’t demand an explanation.

“Aren’t you even going to ask me why?” She yelled from behind him.

“Is it going to matter?” he spoke quietly. In his book infidelity was a definite negative. At this very moment he was witnessing his dream begin to crumble, and, for once in his life, was powerless to stop it. He’d chosen her carefully, made sure she met every one of his criteria before asking her to move in with him. It was a sure thing with her, they were a sure thing; he’d already picked out the engagement ring.

Tanya jumped off the bed and yanked on his shirt until he turned around. “This is it, this is the problem right here! This is why I’ve resorted to someone else. But a lot of good it’s done me. You can’t even muster enough emotion to fight to understand why this happened.”

Terrell took a step back because her pulling his shoulder had brought him dangerously close to shaking the hell out of her. She seemed to want a different reaction from him, yet he knew if he unleashed his fury things would go too far, he wouldn’t be able to control himself. Distance was definitely needed. “Are you saying this is my fault?”

“You’re damn right it’s your fault. If you’d paid attention to something other than your computers and your money you would’ve seen this coming. You would’ve tried to do something to stop it.”

He couldn’t believe she had the audacity to try to blame her betrayal on him. “I’m not going to take the blame because you couldn’t keep your legs closed. That was your stupidity.” He did raise his voice then, because the pain of still seeing her on her knees for another naked man was all too real. “I gave you everything, anything you wanted and this is how you repay me. I’m working all night long to make things better for us while you’re screwing some dude in our bed. How exactly is that my fault, Tanya?”

“I didn’t ask for any and everything, Terrell. I only wanted to be with you. But you were so busy trying to own every damned dollar in the world that you couldn’t see that. We didn’t need anything else except each other.” A lone tear slipped down her face streaking her cheeks. “I needed you, not your money,” she whispered.

“Well, now you’ll have neither.” There was nothing else to be said. If he couldn’t depend on her loyalty, they had nothing. He wouldn’t listen to her excuses, wouldn’t give them a second thought. She was wrong, and now it was over.

He pinched the bridge of his nose, knowing a headache was inevitable, and moved towards the bathroom. Pausing at his dresser, he opened the drawer and took out clean boxers and a t-shirt. “I’m going to take a shower. You need to be packed and gone by the time I finish.”

 

Leah Graham refused to celebrate Valentine’s Day, but she had agreed to go out with Leon on the night before Valentine’s, tonight. She was already seated at the restaurant when he called her cell phone to say he was running a little late.

She had gone out with Leon Reynolds, a cool guy she’d met at a wedding show, at least half a dozen times, and they seemed to get along pretty well. Leon was the marketing director for Onyx Apparel, a black-owned and operated business specializing in business casual attire for the urban marketplace. He owned half the company, partnering with his brother, Calvin, who actually did most of the designing.

They’d met in Cleveland.  He was vending the company’s first evening wear line at the same convention. It just so happened that they both worked and resided in Baltimore.

Lately, Leon was hinting at taking their relationship to another level. Leah was hesitant. To her, sex meant commitment. And commitment led to moving in together. And moving in together led to marriage. And Leah was never, ever, getting married.

When she was eight she had envisioned what her wedding would be like. She’d wear a long flowing white gown, with a glittering tiara and a seven-foot veil. She’d walk down the aisle of the church and meet her husband-to-be, who would be clad in a white tuxedo with tails, and a smile meant only for her. She’d take his hand and they’d recite their vows to each other. They’d go on a fabulous honeymoon to Hawaii and come back to Baltimore to set up house. They’d both have full-time jobs but would be home together at night. She’d have two kids and they would live happily ever after.

Yeah, right.

On her ninth birthday Leah’s mother announced that she was divorcing her father. The word devastated did not describe how Leah felt. The thought of her father not being in the same house with her was a hard blow to take. Just days after her birthday all her father’s things were gone, and so was he. A few months later she received a letter from him telling her that he was moving to Alaska to open his own business. Leah had cried for days.

By Leah’s eleventh birthday her mother had married again. A year later she’d had another baby. By the time Leah graduated from high school, her mother had married two more times and had two more children, thus proving to Leah that marriage wasn’t the lifetime commitment she had first thought it to be.

As she grew up, however, she never lost her interest in weddings, their grandeur, the playing out of the ultimate fairy tale. She loved planning them, loved feeling like an artist unveiling a new painting, a director standing proud at his movie’s debut. She’d become a wedding planner even though the institution of marriage held little personal appeal to her.

Leah sat back in her chair, sipped from her glass of white wine, and thought about Leon. She wasn’t angry that he was late. Actually, she’d hoped he was calling to say he couldn’t make it. No such luck, though. She took another sip.

Leon wanted to have sex. She knew that, had known that the last two times she’d been with him. But she wasn’t there yet—didn’t even know if she’d ever get there. Hell, kissing him had become a chore.

Damn. What was she going to do? She took another sip. She couldn’t play coy—she’d never mastered the games some women played. She liked to be up front and brutally honest with the men she was dating, especially since she had no intention of being with any of them forever.

Looking up from her glass she saw Leon walking toward the table. All six feet, four inches of his ebony beauty approached in that cool swagger that let everybody know he was the shit!

Damn.

            “Hey beautiful,” he whispered, bending so that his lips could brush hers.

Leah tried to calm her rampant thoughts. “Hello.”

“Did you order?” he asked while taking his seat.

She nodded. “Yes, the waiter came over right after I spoke to you.”

“Good. I want to get you home as soon as possible.”

Tell me something I don’t know. He licked his thick lips, not looking a bit like LL Cool J, she thought dismally. His eyes glistened with promises she didn’t want to acknowledge, and his large hands reached for hers. “We could ‘ve had dinner at my place,” she said, glad they hadn’t. At least this way she could give him a goodnight kiss and go into her apartment alone.

“I wanted to take you out. We’ll be alone soon enough.” He winked.

No, he wanted to be in control. Leon thrived on control, and normally that was fine with her. She ran a tight ship where her business was concerned, but in her relationships, as few as there were, she was used to letting the guy take the lead—at least until she was finished with him. Then it became her show.

Leon liked to make the plans, liked to come up with the surprises, and for right now, she was simply a willing participant. She dated for entertainment purposes only. There would be no grand love affair happening in her life, so there was never a power struggle. He could do what he wanted as long as she allowed it. Tonight, however, she wondered how long it would be before Leon would use his control to try to bed her.

The food came and she grabbed the waiter’s jacket sleeve. “Another drink, please.” This was going to be a long night.

 

“Who’s next?” Extravagantly painted three-inch nails tapped on the marble counter, waiting for a reply.

“Mary’s next on your list,” Rosie told the skinny young woman who stood in front of her, chewing gum loudly. “And stop chewin’ with your mouth open. It ain’t ladylike,” she fussed.

Keesha frowned at the older woman sitting behind the desk. “I never made any claims about being a lady.”

“And nobody’ll ever mistake you for one, either.” Rosie rolled her eyes. “Come on, Mary, you’re next.”

A tall, heavy-set woman got up from the leather couch in the waiting room and walked over to the counter. Keesha stood on her tiptoes and raked her fake nails through the woman’s hair. “What are you gettin’ done today, girl?”

“I want something sexy. My man’s taking me out later tonight, and I want to look good.” Mary put her hands into her hair, trying to demonstrate a style. “You know, something like a little up, and then a little something soft around my face.”

Keesha smirked. “I know what you mean, honey.” Keesha made the gum pop again as the lie slid effortlessly from her lips. She’d do her best for the sixty-five dollars she was going to charge Mary. “Come on back.”

The two females walked to the back of the shop, where shampoo girls waited for their next client. Mary sat down and Chantel tied a cape around her neck before lowering her head into the sink and switching on the warm water.

The bell on the door chimed, signaling the entrance of yet another woman on a mission to be beautified.

Finished with her clients for the day, Rosie was still sitting up front playing receptionist. She didn’t mind the task because it gave her a chance to get off her feet until Donald came to pick her up.

“Hey Rosie, y’all got any cancellations?” Monica, a regular at Innovations Salon, came in on a fresh gust of cold air from outside.

“Now Monica, you know it’s Friday and it’s Valentine’s Day. The other girls are booked solid and I’m finished for the day.” Monica was stuck-up, and a pain in her wide behind, so Rosie didn’t even entertain the idea of putting her in her chair.

“Come on, I know Nikki can probably squeeze me in.” Standing on her tiptoes, Monica tried to spot Nikki’s chair in the back. To her chagrin, Nikki was styling a client and had another client waiting in the chair across from her.

“Uh un, she got two back there and three waiting and she’s going out tonight. She ain’t takin’ no walk-ins. Why didn’t you make an appointment?”

“I forgot. I thought I was going to be out of town but then things changed. Can’t I just wait and see if she’ll take me?”

“You can wait, but I don’t think she will.”

“I’ll ask her when she comes up,” Monica said hopefully.

“Suit yourself,” Rosie told her.

Nikki wasn’t going to take her. Rosie knew that for a fact. Nikki was going out with Brock Fuller tonight. She’d sashayed and primped and chased that man for a full month until he’d finally asked her out and now that she had her second date with him, she wasn’t about to miss it. Nope, Monica would be sitting there looking stupid for a few hours before she’d finally give up and go home with her hair looking just as it had when she’d come in—a hot mess!

As the hours passed, ladies came in and out of Innovations, dropping lots of money on their way out. Rosie carefully counted all that money and placed it in the moneybag in the bottom drawer. When she saw Donald later, she’d give him tonight’s earnings, along with the receipts.

Rosie had worked at Innovations since its opening five years ago, but she’d only started dating Donald, the owner of the shop, five months ago. Donald was a good man. His wife had died three years earlier from lung cancer and he had concentrated solely on the business after that. But when the shop finally started turning a good profit, he’d relaxed a bit. His two daughters were grown and married with children now, so, after his wife’s passing, he was alone.

A few days before Halloween he’d come into the shop and asked Rosie if she’d go to a Halloween party with him. She’d agreed and, in time, they’d become an item.

Although Rosie hadn’t dated in more than twenty-five years, Donald was a good friend, and it hadn’t seemed so awkward when they started dating. Now Rosie had become accustomed to being with him. And just in the last month they’d started sleeping together. She discovered that she had missed that intimacy.

Sitting at the receptionist’s desk gave her the opportunity to keep an eye on what was going on outside the front door. In the last few weeks there’d been a lot of strange cars parked in their parking lot, with men they didn’t know driving them. All sorts of rumors were floating around, some of which involved the beauty shop.

An hour before closing time, a long black limo pulled up in front of the shop window. The two ladies that were still waiting to get their hair done stared out the window, wondering who would emerge from the vehicle. Rosie stopped massaging lotion into her hands and fixed her eyes on the limo.

The driver of the limo got out of the car first with a vase full of red roses. As he made his way to the front door, the ladies in the shop began to chatter.

“Oooh wee! Somebody’s gettin’ flowers,” Monica said from her seat closest to the door.

“Damn! It’s a lot of them, too. That’s about three hundred dollars’ worth, I figure,” Ms. Ruth assessed.

The girls in the back all stopped doing hair to see who the flowers were for.

“Nikki, you think they’re from your sugar daddy?” Keesha asked, referring to Brock Fuller, who was about fifteen years older than Nikki.

“No, my ‘sugar daddy,’ as you put it, wouldn’t be so predictable as to bring me flowers on my job.” Nikki rolled her eyes at Keesha, but returned her gaze to the door just in case.

“Well, I know it ain’t mine. Ricky’s too cheap to pay my way into the movies, let alone buy me some roses.” Keesha rolled her eyes at the thought of the boyfriend she’d been planning to dump for the last six months.

“Ms. Rosetta Pierce?” the driver asked as he made his way through the door and over to the desk where Rosie sat.

Eyes bulged and jaws dropped as the girls wondered who’d sent Ms. Rosie flowers.

“Oh my, that’s me.” Rosie’s newly moisturized hand went to her beating heart.

“Read the card, ma’am.” The driver pointed to the little white card sticking out of the side of the flowers.

“Oh, okay.”  With shaking fingers, she removed the card from its envelope.

Scribbled in black ink, the words stood out on the cardboard paper: Will you marry me? Nod once for yes and twice for no. Rosie shut her eyes, afraid she’d read it wrong. But when she opened her eyes again, the words were still there. Her heart hammering in her chest, she had to struggle to remain calm. All eyes were on her, and she wasn’t about to act a fool for an audience.

It was Donald, she knew. And he was proposing to her. Here at the shop on Valentine’s Day, he was asking her to marry him. Rosie had lost her husband, Paul, in a car accident twenty-five years ago. And she’d raised her only son, Terrell, by herself until he’d gone away to college. Up until last October she hadn’t given another man a thought. And re-marrying had been the farthest thing from her mind.

But then Donald had come into her life. A friend and confidant had turned into a lover. And she cherished him. She loved him.

Now he wanted to marry her. Her heart was so full she thought it would surely burst.

“What does it say?” Monica yipped.

“Who’s it from, Ms. Rosie?” As was her nosy nature, Keesha approached the front desk.

Rosie knew her answer and lifted her head to see out to the limo. But the driver and Monica were standing in front of her, blocking her view. If she couldn’t see the car, then the person in the car couldn’t see her, and he wouldn’t know her answer.

One thick honey brown arm stretched out to move the driver aside, while, with the other, she elbowed Monica out of the way. Standing in front of the window with the name Innovations spelled out in swirling white letters, Rosie nodded her head one time and waited for the car door to open.

Within seconds the door to the limo opened and Donald eased his way out of the back seat. He wore a black suit, crisp white shirt and bright red tie. A long black wool overcoat hung on his stocky frame, protecting him from the cold winter night. His hair was cut close, and his goatee glistened with gray. His full mouth was spread into a large smile.

Ignoring the gasps and murmurs behind her, Rosie gave her complete attention to the man making his way through the door. The bell chimed when it opened, but Rosie didn’t hear it.  Holding his arms out for her, Donald welcomed his bride-to-be.

Rosie threw her big arms around Donald’s thick neck and hugged him tight. His arms, too, were thick and short, but made their way almost completely around Rosie’s wide waist. Somebody started to clap, and then applause filled the room as Donald kissed Rosie right there in the middle of the shop.

end of excerpt

Love Me Carefully

is available in the following formats:

Artistry Publishing

Jun 29, 2021

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