After suffering a mental breakdown that nearly destroyed her marriage, Nina Taylor works hard to maintain her tenuous hold on sanity and be a good mother to her two young daughters. Despite her best efforts, she questions the possibility of a full recovery.
Single mom Deja Johnson struggles to overcome her troubled past and raise her young son. But her friendship with Nina brings more complications. What Deja is hiding could not only destroy relationships, but endanger lives.
One traumatic night threatens to shatter Nina’s mind. With Deja’s help, she strives to maintain her mental balance. But as events spiral out of control, the women must find out if Nina is losing her sanity or if someone is plotting against her.
“I’m worried I’m going to go crazy…” Nina shifted uncomfortably in her therapist’s brown leather armchair. “Again.”
Dr. Austin scribbled on the yellow pad that rested on her knee. She placed her pen down then eyed Nina. “Tell me more.”
Nina sighed. Her gaze darted around the neat mid-sized office overlooking downtown Palo Alto. “It’s a fear that never leaves me.”
Dr. Austin nodded. “I know. How does that feel?”
Nina pushed her curly locks behind her ear and focused on Dr. Austin’s intense-but-kind blue eyes. “It feels as though I’m going to lose control of my mind. And I can’t!” Though thick books on the wide bookcase absorbed the sound of Nina’s raised voice, she lowered it. “Again. My husband can’t go through that. It’s a miracle he even reconciled with me, but our marriage is shaky after what happened. The girls can’t go through that, especially since they’re just starting to trust that Mommy’s okay. I certainly can’t go through that. I’m still not fully recovered after my breakdown.”
“I hear you, and you know I’m here to help.Things don’t have to get out of control the way they did during your breakdown last year. I know the medication has alleviated most of the severe symptoms like your delusions, distorted thinking, and mood shifts. Sometimes, people get so much better on the medication that they think they don’t need to take it anymore.This can lead to a relapse. Are you still taking your medication and in contact with your psychiatrist?” Dr. Austin asked.
“Of course. I’m fully aware that I will probably take medication for the rest of my life to manage this. I definitely wouldn’t just stop taking it.” Nina hoped Dr. Austin didn’t peg her as irresponsible. Nina’s sanity meant everything to her.
Dr. Austin raised her thin eyebrows. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m just covering all the bases.” She tapped her pen on the pad. “I know that there’s a tough anniversary coming up. Do you think that has anything to do with these feelings?”
Tears welled up in Nina’s eyes. “Maybe.”
Dr. Austin grabbed a tissue from her desk and handed it to Nina. “Have you been thinking about Isaiah more often?” Nina fiddled with her wedding ring. “Of course. He was my only brother.” Only eleventh months apart, Nina and Isaiah grew up inseparable.
“What about Damien?”
Nina flinched. “I don’t want to talk about him.”
Dr. Austin glanced at Nina over her thin glasses. “That’s fine, too. I won’t push you.”
“It’s also that…” Nina hesitated to broach the subject. “Some things have been happening that make me feel off.”
Dr. Austin leaned toward Nina and removed her glasses. “Like what?”
The weird things were probably just figments of her not-to-be trusted imagination. “Actually, it’s nothing.”
“Are you sure?”
Nina nodded. “It’s nothing.”
“Well, you’re checking in with me weekly, taking your medication, and monitoring yourself. So while I understand your concern, I want you to feel confident that I’m here to help make sure you stay healthy. We’ve also made a crisis plan in case things start to get scary or out of control. Part of your plan is regularly checking in with your dad. When was the last time you did that?”
“Earlier today. We talk daily, usually just quick check-ins. He’s captain of the Nina-surveillance team and my accountability partner. He’s doing a great job.”
“Then I don’t think you have anything to worry about right now. We have the crisis plan, but we’re not close to needing that.”
Nina drew a breath then blew it out. “You’re right. I’m so anxious to get my life back, and I don’t want anything to get in the way. But it’s probably all in my head…literally.”
Dr. Austin smiled, which made the wrinkles around her eyes more pronounced. “I’m glad to see that sense of humor of yours. What else do you have planned for today?”
“My nanny, Candace, emailed earlier and said she has a big test in one of her classes tomorrow, so she needs to get off early today. I’m going to pick up the girls from school.”
“I know going to the girls’ school can be stressful. Will you be okay?”
Nina wrote Dr. Austin a check for two hundred fifty dollars. Until she met her deductible, the weekly appointments were costly, but she’d purposefully sought someone with a PhD in counseling because she couldn’t afford anything less than a full recovery. “The trick is to get there after the rush. I’m working my way up to dropping them off in the morning, but I’m not quite ready to face the morning crew of parents after what happened.” The mere thought made Nina’s stomach turn. She rose from the chair and handed Dr. Austin the check.
“Same time next week?”
“Definitely.” Nina glanced at her Michael Kors watch: exactly 2:50. Her therapy appointments ran like clockwork.
A strong breeze blew past Nina as she stepped outside, whipping her shoulder-length curly black hair into her face. Hugging her arms to her chest, she hurried to her car, avoiding the leaves falling from the trees on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. As children, she and Isaiah used to love to wear boots this time of year and stomp down the street in their middle-class neighborhood, crunching the yellow and brown leaves beneath their feet. On Saturdays, as soon as they heard the metal scraping the sidewalk, they’d run outside to join their dad, who would sweep huge piles of leaves. Before he could get them into the trash can, Nina and Isaiah would come out of nowhere and slosh around in them. Their dad would gripe about it, but he had a grin plastered on his face the whole time.
Now, autumn meant that winter was just around the corner like a bothersome relative who always showed up on the doorstep for the holidays. And with the end of autumn came the day that had forever changed all of their lives.
As she hurried down the street lined with trendy Silicon Valley shops, her phone rang.
“Hey, girl. You busy?” Deja asked.
“Never too busy for my only friend. I just finished my appointment with my therapist.” Sure, her weekly appointment with a psychologist was regular mental health management. But she couldn’t rid herself of the shame that lingered like smoke in a cheap hotel room and was glad she had a friend who didn’t judge her for her illness.
“I hate to bug you, but do you think Candace can get Miles when she gets the girls and take him to your place? Work’s crazy right now, and I won’t be able to get him from school before six.”
“She actually has to study for a test, so I’m getting them. But of course, I can take Miles home with us. Just call Ms.Medina and give her your permission for me to take Miles with me. It will be no problem at all. I’ll get takeout, head home, and make sure they do their homework. And you’re never bugging me. You know that.”
“Thanks. You’re the best,” Deja said. “I’ll call now.”
Nina grabbed a coffee at the local coffee shop then headed back to her car. Once in her black BMW, she turned up the radio until hip-hop music blared through the speakers. She needed something to distract her on the thirty-minute drive to the kids’ school in San Jose. Hopefully, she wouldn’t run into anyone there who’d want to talk. After what had happened, the only people who went out of their way to talk to Nina were usually digging for gossip.
Once at the school, Nina headed through the parking lot to the playground. Crowds of the kids in after school care played on the jungle gym equipment or chased each other around the blacktop. The cold stung her face as she searched, but her girls weren’t among them. She checked by the picnic tables near the gym where the kids ate leftovers from lunch. But the tables were empty. After jogging to the girls’ bathroom at the entrance to the gym, she flung the door open. “Bree! Laila!” Only her echo answered.
Her heart pounded. Maybe Miles knew where they were. Please let Miles know! She jogged to the basketball court where Miles usually shot hoops. There was a game of knockout going on but no sign of him either. She couldn’t figure out where they could be. Her heart thumped in her chest.
She dashed back to the fence. “Ms. Medina,” Nina called to the after school attendant in a bright-yellow windbreaker.
“Mrs. Taylor, hello,” Ms. Medina said. “Are you okay?”
“Where are my girls?” Nina panted.
Ms. Medina glanced sideways at Nina. “With your nanny. She picked them and Miles up in quite a hurry, saying something about a test.”
Nina smoothed back her hair, taking shallow breaths. Candace had said she had to study, so it didn’t make sense she’d pick them up.
“Are you sure?”
Ms. Medina outstretched her wooden clipboard. The pages flipped in the wind, then her stubby finger pointed. “See? She signed them and Miles out a little after three. Miles’s mom called earlier and said he was going home with you. So I told her, and she took all three.”
And there it was: Candace’s signature checking them out for the day. “Okay.” Nina tried to block out Ms. Medina’s inquisitive stare. “Have a good afternoon.” Fingers trembling, she dug her phone out of her purse. Candace answered on the third ring. “Candace, you emailed and said you needed me to pick up the girls.”
“Yes, but you emailed me forty minutes ago and said you couldn’t do it.” Irritation laced Candace’s words.
“I did not.”
“Yes, you did.”
Nina placed her free hand on her hip. “This isn’t funny, Candace.”
“Who’s joking?” Candace asked without a trace of humor in her voice. “I have to study for my test.”
“Hold on a second.” Nina brought up her email on her phone and went to her sent messages. She gasped. A message to her nanny had been sent at about the time she’d been in the coffee shop: “Candace, I can’t pick up the girls. Please get them, and I’ll be home later. Thanks –Nina.”
“Nina, are you there?”
Nina’s heart pounded in her ears. “Yes.”
“Are you okay? You sound freaked out all of a sudden.”
“Yes. Fine. I’ll see you at home.” Nina struggled to catch her breath, worried about another one of the strange mix-ups that had been occurring over the past month or so. Though she didn’t know why they happened, she was certain she couldn’t afford a relapse.
Sophia Douglas can’t shake the fear that she’s in over her head. A spontaneous elopement and a layoff from her high-paying job are stressful enough, but a plus sign on her pregnancy test sends her into a panic. Fearing her husband, Terrence, might leave like her father did, Sophia confides her insecurities to Tara, her friend and mom of three.
Though Tara Fisher encourages Sophia to trust Terrence, she’s hiding her own secret: a handsome attorney is pursuing her, and she’s questioning her commitment to Josh, her husband of ten years. After a devastating career-ending accident, Josh has changed and so have Tara’s feelings for him.
When a crisis arises that threatens to destroy Sophia and Terrence’s young marriage, Sophia must either overcome her fear of abandonment or lose everything she never knew she wanted. Meanwhile, as Tara is torn between responsibility and passion, her imperfectly put together life starts to unravel, and ghosts from her past resurface to haunt her.
As these two couples grapple with secrets, temptation, and illness, only time will tell if their vows are strong enough to hold them together.
Read the First Chapter Below
Sophia had aced most tests she’d taken in her life; but once, just this once, she hoped for a negative result. She drew a long breath, and her russet-brown hands shook as she picked up the pregnancy test from the marble vanity. Like a fortuneteller looking into a crystal ball, she peered through the plastic cover. She grabbed the box and reread the instructions: “A (+) sign in the round window indicates a ‘pregnant’ result. A (–) sign in the round window indicates a ‘not pregnant’ result.” A huge plus sign stared back at her from the stick.
Tears filled her eyes, blurring her vision. Wiping them away with one hand, she opened a plastic bag and shoved the pregnancy test and empty box into it. As she jammed the bag into the garbage bin underneath the sink, she felt more like a teenager hiding a pregnancy test from her parents than the married woman she’d been for over a year and a half. But she wasn’t ready to tell Terrence. She knew what his reaction would be.
Sophia left the master bathroom and shut the door as if to quarantine the newly acquired information. The nausea and intense fatigue over the past few weeks now made sense. She closed the blinds, blocking out the blackness of night. Her king-sized bed, with its soft pillows and comfy blankets, had never been so appealing, so she pulled back the black-and- white embroidered bedspread and slid underneath it. Luckily, Terrence wouldn’t be home until late, so she had plenty of time to let the news sink in without him questioning why she was in bed. She’d agreed to go to The Spot with Tara that night, but maybe she could get out of it.
Shutting her eyes, she did what she did best when life was too stressful—she hid. It was a coping mechanism she had developed two decades before, in the sixth grade, the year she had been labeled “gifted.” Honors courses, scholastic activities, and tests, tests, tests had followed. Usually just lying in bed and resting her body helped her escape stress. But now her heart thumped and she struggled to breathe. Throwing off the blanket, she sat up. She inhaled through her nose, held her breath for a moment, then blew out the air, repeating the exercise until her heart steadied.
Her phone rang, and she grabbed it from the nightstand. It was her mom. She put the phone back down. Seconds later, it rang again. This better be important.
“Hello, Mom,” Sophia answered.
“So how’d the interview go?” her mom asked.
“It went.” She’d gone on a job interview a few hours earlier for an entry-level sales job but had received the same response she got at the majority of the interviews she went on—she was overqualified and in a higher salary bracket than the position provided. She’d known that going into the interview, but at this rate, any job would do to help pay the mortgage.
“Based on your tone, I’m assuming they didn’t schedule a second interview?”
“Nope. But they said they’d be in contact.” “Well, keep applying.”
Sophia had been applying for at least ten jobs a week ever since she’d been laid off from her sales job nine months earlier. At this point, she’d rather throw her laptop out the window than send another resume, rather pluck every hair from her body than interview for another position. But she didn’t voice her frustration. Her mom hadn’t held a job since Sophia was a child and had no idea what it was like to invest one hundred percent into a career just to be “let go.”
“Of course I’ll keep applying. So what’s up, Mom?”
“I called to ask you for a favor. You know Carl’s been having those heart palpitations, and I think part of the problem is Desiree. Your father up and left, and the last thing I need is this husband dying on me.”
Here we go again. It had been over a quarter of a century since her father had left her mother for another woman. Sure, scar tissue still lined Sophia’s heart from his departure, but she wished her mother would heal and move on, especially since she’d remarried Carl twenty- three years ago. When her mom wasn’t harping on Sophia’s dad, then she was complaining about Sophia’s half-sister, Desiree. Her mom’s second husband, Carl, spoiled their only child rotten, one reason Sophia preferred distance from Desiree.
“What’s Desiree doing now?” Sophia asked.
“Doing?” Her mom’s voice rose. “That’s the problem. She dropped out of college and moved back home. Now she doesn’t do anything but party, drink, and spend our money. Carl invested over one hundred thousand dollars in a private university just for her to drop out her senior year because she wants to be an actress. An actress! As if wannabe actresses aren’t already overpopulating Los Angeles.”
“Mom, give her a break.”
“No, I’m the one who needs a break. I was hoping she could stay with you for a while. Maybe you can rub off on her a little bit.”
Sophia sighed. “All she’ll get from me is a case of the unemployment blues.” While I’ll get a headache from her.
“Now stop talking like that. You didn’t graduate top of your class at Stanford to sit around and mope.”
“And I didn’t ask for Cisco to lay me off either. Anyways, I’ll have to talk to Terrence about Desiree.”
“Oh, yes. The stranger you ran off with. How’s that going?”
“It’s been over a year since we eloped, so he’s not a stranger. And it’s great.” Sophia couldn’t help but smile when thinking about Terrence. “We’re getting into a nice married rhythm.”
“Newlywed phase. Let’s see how long that lasts. Just think about Desiree, please? I know you two aren’t close, so this could be an opportunity to bond.”
“That’s a nice way to spin it, but you’re right. I wish we had a closer relationship. I’m willing to help, but like I said, I have to run it by Terrence.”
Sophia ended the call and glanced at the time. How is it seven already? She was supposed to be getting dressed for the Halloween party Tara was dragging her to. Sophia had bought a skimpy referee costume from Goodwill the day before, imagining she’d wear it with leggings for the party and on its own for Terrence later that night. Since he was an NBA sports agent, he’d get a kick out of it. But now, her desire to party had completely disappeared.
She pulled the covers back over her head. She’d prefer to stream a romantic movie and get lost in another world. Ever since the layoff, she’d been using Netflix to catch up on all the classic flicks she’d missed over the years as she studied or worked overtime. She’d finished Love Jones earlier in the day and couldn’t wait to watch Notting Hill.
Her husband’s voice startled her, and Sophia removed the blanket, finger-combing her pressed hair. “Terrence?”
Though impeccably dressed in a gray suit, he wore a sullen expression.
She hurried to him, stood on her tiptoes, and pressed her lips against his. “What are you doing home? Shouldn’t you be prepping Eric Richards for the season opener with the Warriors tomorrow?”
Terrence’s muscular arms enveloped her body. She inhaled his familiar after-work scent of musk cologne mixed with perspiration. “It’s a long story, and it’s been a long day. I wanted to come home and unwind. Why are you in bed?”
Sophia forced a yawn. “Oh, just resting.”
“You and that bed. If it weren’t an inanimate object, I’d be jealous of it.”
“But I do need to get ready for the Halloween party.” Sophia cupped her hands on his umber cheeks and peered into his large dark-brown eyes. “Will you change your mind and come with me?”
Terrence pecked her on the lips. “I would, but I had a helluva day. How was yours?”
The failed interview and the positive pregnancy test were both topics that required more energy and time than she currently had, and getting out of the conversation took precedence over her desire not to go out. “I’m running late. Can we talk later?”
Terrence pulled her toward the bed with a playful grin. “Just how late are you?”
“Late, late,” Sophia said. In more ways than one.
Terrence pretended to pout, so Sophia stroked his black, slightly receding hair. She kissed his lips. After, the corners of his mouth turned upward. “I’ll wait up.”
Sophia beamed at the gorgeous specimen that was her husband. As she padded to the bathroom, she tried to imprint that moment in her head. She wished she could freeze time and seal their marriage in a special time capsule. But she couldn’t. Like an unwelcome guest, change was knocking at their door. Sooner or later, she would have to answer it.
Josh unplugged the drain in the bathtub then gathered the discarded Halloween costumes off the floor. Opening the medicine cabinet, he scanned the orange-tinged bottles, grabbed the Vicodin, and popped one in his mouth. Beyond relieved that his dad duties were over for the day, all he wanted was a beer and to veg.
Tara stormed into the bathroom, a bath towel wrapped around her slender frame. “Josh, I’m running late for the Halloween party. Can you put the girls to bed?” she asked, drying her long blond hair with another towel.
Josh hesitated, envisioning his couch. Since he stayed home all day with the girls, he eagerly awaited Tara taking over at bedtime.
Tara rolled her eyes. “Forget it.”
“No, no, I’ll take care of it,” Josh said.
“Take care of this mess of hair at some point too,” Tara said.
Josh made a mental note to get his hair trimmed the next time he took the girls to Supercuts. After leaving the bathroom, he headed down the hallway lined with family pictures then entered the room Teeni and Michelle shared.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he called to Teeni, who ran around in circles, flapping her arms like a bird. “It’s bedtime.” He groaned as he picked her up and placed her in her toddler bed.
“Snow Wipe,” Teeni said, arms outstretched to her costume, which Josh fitted on a metal hanger.
“Michelle, get in bed already,” he said to his four-year-old.
She lay on the rainbow rug, flipping the pages of her Disney Princesses book. Josh considered himself a patient person and he loved his girls, but after a long day and an even longer week, he just needed the day to be over. But Tara worked hard too, so she deserved a little fun of her own. Josh had to admit he wasn’t exactly the life of the party lately.
“I’m Cinderella, Daddy, not Michelle.” She crossed her arms, bottom lip stuck out.
He pulled back her pink comforter. “Get in bed, Cinderella.”
Smiling, Michelle hopped under the pink sheets, and Josh tucked her in. He hung both costumes in the closet before turning off the light.
Next door, Josh found his eldest daughter in bed, scrolling through pictures on her overpriced iPod touch that Tara had bought against his protest. “I had the ba-est costume in second grade, Dad.”
“Great,” he said unenthusiastically. He wasn’t happy about Chelsea’s Elsa costume from Frozen. There had been plenty of reasonably priced costumes to pick from—like the other girls had chosen—but Tara had had to buy Chelsea the most expensive, though the dress would most likely only be worn once before spending the rest of its days in clothing purgatory with all the mismatched socks. “Lights out, Chelsea. I love you.” Josh switched off her light.
The doorbell chimed, so Josh hurried to the kitchen, grabbed the bucket of candy, and opened the front door. Three boys in their early teens, wearing wrinkled jeans and hooded sweatshirts, extended their paper bags.
“And what are you three supposed to be?” Josh asked, putting a handful of candy in each bag.
“Teenagers,” one of the boys said. “My mom said that’s scary enough.”
Chuckling, Josh shut the door on what was hopefully the last batch of trick-or-treaters. He grabbed a beer from the fridge. A murmur of music came from his and Tara’s bedroom, but Josh headed for the couch. Suddenly the murmur morphed into loud music. The last thing he needed was the girls waking up.
“Jo-o-o-o-osh?” Tara yelled from the bedroom doorway. “Can you come zip up my dress? It’s a little stuck.”
“I’m just about to sit.” He tried to hide the irritation in his voice. “Can you come here?”
Tara stormed toward Josh with an exasperated huff. He winced at her white, skintight nurse’s costume as he inhaled the floral perfume cloaking her.
“I told you I’m late. All you want to do is watch that damn TV, Josh.”
Josh wanted to say that this was the first time today he had flipped on the TV to watch a channel other than PBS Kids and that he was just about to sit down after a very long day of Halloween parades and trick-or-treating. Instead, he held his tongue.
Gathering her hair atop her head, Tara shoved her back toward him. “Zip.”
“Tara, I don’t think you can call this a dress,” he said with a laugh as he struggled with the costume, which was so tight that the two sides refused to join. He noticed that the tag read size four, and he remembered she was a six. “Honey, this dress isn’t even your size.”
Tara pushed his hand away. She tugged and squirmed until the dress finally zipped, then she spun around to face him. “It fits, thank you very much.”
Though her thin lips were pursed and her close-set, heavily made-up blue eyes glared at him, Josh couldn’t help but admire his wife’s beauty. “Okay. But do you have to go out? We could have a nice evening at home tonight… together.” He gestured to the couch.
“I told Sophia I would go.”
“Oh, she wouldn’t mind.” He was actually surprised Sophia wanted to go to a party since she was a more serious type. “It feels like it’s been a while since we’ve spent time together, just the two of us.”
Shaking her head, Tara returned to the bedroom.
Josh stared at the empty space Tara had just occupied. Between working late, girls’ nights out, and parties at The Spot, it seemed as though Tara was never home. He missed how things were only a few years ago. He missed his wife. Though he didn’t like to admit it, Tara’s attitude toward him seemed to have changed. But then again, ever since his accident, everything had changed.
Lowering his body onto the couch, Josh exhaled. He popped a bite-
sized Snickers into his mouth. Before he could turn on the TV, the doorbell rang. Seriously? He heaved himself to his feet and opened the door.
“Trick or treat,” Sophia said.
Josh eyed Sophia’s referee outfit and black leggings, wishing she’d taken Tara shopping with her. Though he liked Tara’s sexy outfit, he didn’t like the idea of other men appreciating it also. He gave Sophia a hug. “You look nice.”
“Thanks.” Sophia shrugged, pushing her shoulder-length hair behind an ear.
Tara whizzed through the room then gave him a quick hug. “Don’t wait up, Josh.”
Tara’s straight nose and high cheekbones gave her oval face a delicate appearance. He embraced her warm, soft body, breathing in her vanilla bean-scented hair. “Have a good night, honey.”
Tara pulled away then went out the door. “I’ll be back late.” “Don’t you want a jacket or something?” he called after her.
Tara shot him a stare as icy as the wind rustling the leaves overhead, then she hurried out into the darkness with Sophia.
Once Tara’s car drove away, Josh shut the door, grabbed his laptop, and settled on the couch. With their anniversary fast approaching, Josh had a lot to do to make sure he planned a perfect celebration.
Tara flipped down the visor to check her makeup in the mirror. She reapplied her red lipstick. “Ready, Sophia?”
Sophia shrugged. “I guess. I don’t know how you talked me into going to this party.”
Tara wasn’t sure if it was just the car’s dim lighting, but Sophia’s face seemed pale. Even so, her friend looked great. Unlike Tara, Sophia wore little makeup, usually just mascara to coat her unfairly long eyelashes, which accentuated her deep-set, brown, almond-shaped eyes. She had thin, perfectly arched eyebrows, a regal nose, and full lips.
“It’ll be fun, Sophia. Plus, I’m worried about you. I know being out
of work has been hard on you, and I hate seeing you all depressed and stuff lately. Seems like all you do is sit around watching movies.”
“What’s wrong with movies? I mean, have you seen Ghost lately? It’s incredible!”
Tara laughed. “See? You really need to get out.” Sophia chuckled. “Probably true.”
They left the car, and Tara’s three-inch stiletto heels rhythmically struck the sidewalk as they strutted toward the club. She didn’t care what Josh thought about her costume. She looked good, and his comments about her nurse outfit highlighted yet another one of his insecurities. At The Spot, an eager line of costumed adults wrapped around the building.
Tara grabbed Sophia’s hand and headed to the front of the line. She presented them to the bouncer and yelled over the music thumping through the doors, “Hi, Damian.”
“Nurse? Nice.” He eyed Tara up and down. “You know, I haven’t been feeling well tonight. I might need a shot here.” He pointed at his flexed bicep that threatened to burst through his black T-shirt.
Tara squeezed his tanned bicep and thanked him when he opened the door, ignoring the grumbling of the people who waited in line.
“Wow,” she said when they stepped into the building. “Is this our neighborhood bar?” Sophia asked.
When the restaurant turned into a club on Friday and Saturday nights, the usual tables and chairs were removed to create a dance floor. But tonight, it had been transformed completely with Halloween decorations. They ducked to avoid the cotton cobwebs hanging from the ceiling.
“My feet! My feet!” Tara joked as dry-ice mist crawled along the floor.
Tara and Sophia navigated through the packed club to the bar. “Shall we drink?” Tara asked Sophia.
“I’m not,” Sophia said. “Go ahead and get yourself one though.”
“Okay, party pooper.” Tara pointed at an empty spot at the bar next to a caped figure with red blood painted near his mouth.
Tara signaled for Keith, the bar manager dressed in a cop costume, then ordered a vodka cranberry with an extra shot of vodka on the side.
Sophia ordered a ginger ale then yawned as she smoothed down her hair, pushing it away from her face.
“You sure you don’t want anything else?” Tara asked.
Both women shared the love of a good drink. Tara had invited Sophia over for cocktails shortly after she and Terrence moved into the house next door a year ago, and they’d become fast friends.
“Not now,” Sophia said.
Tara stepped back and posed. “Tell me the truth. Do you think this costume is too tight?”
Sophia eyed Tara. “The costume’s great, but Terrence would barricade the door before he’d let me out dressed like that.”
“Give it some time. You two have barely been married a year.”
“You mean Terrence will care less what I wear the longer we’re married?”
Tara grinned. “No, I mean you’ll care less about his opinion.” Sophia looked as if she was trying not to smile. “You’re bad.”
Keith danced toward Tara and Sophia. Though he pointed his finger up and down like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, his costume favored one of the Village People. He made their drinks then placed them on the bar.
Tara took a deep breath then threw back the shot, which burned on its way down. She slammed the empty glass on the bar. “One more!”
Sophia nudged her. “Are you sure? You should take it easy.”
“Easy?” Tara raised her eyebrows at Sophia. “Nothing’s easy about my life these days.” She downed the second shot from Keith, then she sipped the perfect blend of cranberry and vodka.
As Tara bobbed her head to the music, she felt alive—a sensation she chased more and more ever since Josh’s work injury had ended his construction career. Being the sole breadwinner was tough and too similar to the days when her mom took care of her dad. A time she liked to forget.
A man dressed in a toga and built like a linebacker approached Tara. Flipping back his long blond hair, he bent toward her. “Let’s dance.” He held out his hand.
Tara stared at his dark-brown eyes and tried to decide if his aggressiveness was a turn-on or a turn-off. She glanced at Sophia, who
subtly shook her head no, but then Tara placed her hand in his. After all, Halloween parties only happened once a year.
“Just one dance,” Tara said to Sophia.
They squeezed onto the crowded dance floor. An amalgam of body odor, perfume, and cologne clung in the air, and they carved out a couple feet of space. Tara swung her hips from side to side, bounced her shoulders, and snapped her fingers to the hip-hop beat. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d danced with Josh.
Toga-man leaned in close to Tara. “So what’s your name?” “Tara. What’s yours?”
“Chris.” He put his arms around her waist. “You’re so sexy.”
“Thank you,” Tara said, though if he thought this was going somewhere, he was mistaken.
As the song ended, a voice shouted, “Excuse me, Mrs. Fisher with an M-R-S!”
Tara recognized the Spanish accent, and she spun around. Mariana, dressed in a cougar bodysuit and eared headband, stared at her.
“Excuse me?” Tara put her hands on her hips, feigning anger. The stare-down broke as Mariana and Tara laughed.
“Let’s get a drink,” Mariana said.
“Okay. Thanks for the dance,” Tara said to Chris, who scowled.
Tara and Mariana headed to where Sophia had sat, but Sophia had disappeared. Though she’d probably just gone to the bathroom, Tara regretted leaving her friend after dragging Sophia to the party.
“So I know people are in costume, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Josh you were grinding on,” Mariana said.
Tara smirked. “I was dancing, and no, it wasn’t Josh. I think his name was Chris or something.”
“Chris, huh?” Mariana raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, Chris,” Tara said, searching the club for Sophia.
The strobe light illuminated a man entering the bar. Whether it was the light or the drinks, Tara thought the man was gorgeous. Clothed in a suit, he stood out from the crowd. As he headed for the bar, he must have sensed her eyes on him because he looked at her and smiled.
Startled, Tara’s gaze darted away as she pretended to listen to Mariana rambling on about her ex-husband’s latest transgressions. Tara could only resist the urge to glance in the man’s direction for a few seconds, and when her eyes drifted toward him again, his intense eyes stared at her. As the strobe light stopped, Tara lost sight of him in the crowd.
“Tara? Did you hear what I said?” Mariana asked.
“Of course,” she lied. “But I need a drink. I’ll buy a round.” “Then make mine a double,” Mariana said.
Tara left the table and squeezed through the crowd. The man was ordering a drink from Keith, and against her better judgment, she slipped into the opening next to him, resting her hand on the wooden bar’s surface.
“Can I buy you a drink?” the man asked Tara.
“No, thank you,” she said, avoiding eye contact.
Keith approached, and she ordered two cosmopolitans. As he made the drinks, Tara felt the man’s eyes on her. She turned her head and discovered she was right. The man was stunning up close. His salt-and- pepper hair and the fine lines around his gray eyes gave away that he was at least a decade older than Tara, but he had a twinkle in his eyes that made him seem years younger.
“Can I help you?” Tara asked.
The man shook his head. When Keith placed the cocktails on the bar in front of Tara, the man pulled out a one-hundred-dollar bill and handed it to Keith.
“I told you I didn’t want you to buy me a drink,” Tara said, though the idea of a man buying her something was a nice reversal from her situation with Josh.
“You’ll find that I don’t really take no for an answer,” the man said. “Really?” Tara laughed, something she hadn’t done very often since
“See, I got a laugh out of you,” he said.
Tara raised her brows. “That’s all you’ll get out of me.”
The man put his hands to his heart, and Tara noticed his wedding band. She relaxed her shoulders, figuring that since he was married also, he was probably a harmless flirt.
“Then I can die a happy man. But before then, can you at least tell me your name?”
“Tara. Mrs. Tara Fisher.”
The man grabbed her pale hand and gave it a firm kiss. An electric current ran through Tara’s body.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Ms. Fisher. I’m Louis Steinman, attorney-at-law, and I will be prosecuting you for stealing my heart.”
Tara laughed again, pulling her hand away from him. “Are you serious? Does that work for you when you’re hitting on women who aren’t your wife?”
“Ouch!” he said.
“Tara, are those our drinks getting warm?” Tara startled at Mariana’s voice. “Oh, uh—”
“I’m Louis.” He held his hand out formally to Mariana. Mariana took his hand. “I’m Mariana. I work with Tara.” “Oh, do you now? And what do you all do?” Louis asked.
Tara subtly shook her head, but Mariana didn’t seem to notice, her gaze fixed on Louis. Those damn gray eyes.
“We work at Williams and Stansky, not far from here,” Mariana said.
A mischievous grin played on Louis’s face. “Oh really? I happen to know that firm.”
“Well, it’s time for us to go,” Tara said abruptly, hoping he wouldn’t remember her firm’s name. “I don’t want to lose our table.” She grabbed her drink.
Tara scanned the bar, and her heart stood still as her dad’s worn and intense face stared back at her. She blinked, and his face morphed into that of another patron. Her dad couldn’t possibly be there. The shots must have been affecting her already. Since she still didn’t see Sophia, she worried something had to be wrong with her.
“What was that all about with that man?” Mariana asked, placing her drink on their table.
“That was nothing. I’m going to find Sophia. Keep our spot.” Tara headed into the women’s restroom. “Sophia?”
A toilet flushed, and a stall door opened to the ghost of Sophia. All color had drained from her face, and with red and watery eyes, she said, “Oh, Tara.”
“Oh my god, are you okay?” Tara rushed to Sophia. Sophia’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah.”
“Have you been in here this whole time?” Tara put her hand to Sophia’s clammy forehead.
“Yeah,” Sophia repeated.
“Well, are you feeling sick?” Tara felt so selfish, dancing and drinking while her friend was sick in the bathroom.
“I’m feeling… pregnant,” Sophia said.
Tara’s jaw dropped. “You’re pregnant? Oh my god!” She hugged Sophia but couldn’t detect a trace of happiness in her. “What’s wrong?” “I’m just not sure if I’m ready for this. I’m unemployed and broke.”
Tara waved dismissively. “Small details. What’d Terrence say?”
“I found out earlier today, and Terrence doesn’t know yet. I’ll tell him tomorrow, so please don’t tell Josh.”
“My lips are sealed.” Tara stuck out her pinkie finger. “Pinkie promise, as my girls say.”
Sophia hooked her pinkie around Tara’s. “Pinkie promise.”
Tara clasped her arm through Sophia’s, and they left the bathroom. Though happy for her friend, Tara was so glad she was over the whole pregnancy-and-baby stage. She’d enjoyed it while it lasted, but there was nothing like having her body back and getting a good night’s sleep.
When they got to the table where Mariana sat, Tara scanned the bar. Damn. Louis the mystery man had disappeared as quickly as he’d materialized. She wouldn’t have minded one more glimpse into those eyes. But Tara refocused on Mariana and Sophia. His disappearance was probably for the best.
Terrence clicked delete. He wished the news could disappear like the email from his inbox. But it couldn’t. “Shit!”
He slammed his laptop shut. As he chugged his beer, his gaze drifted to the framed pictures next to his computer. He picked up the one of Sophia, him, and the Elvis lookalike who had officiated their wedding. His lips edged upward then faltered. He still had to tell Sophia what was going down. He couldn’t stand to disappoint her.
He put the picture back in its place beside the frame of him and his parents at his graduation. It was the last photo they had all taken together before that damn drunk driver had killed the two most important people in his life. It had fractured Terrence’s heart, but his only consolation was that they’d passed on together. Terrence had always considered his parents’ marriage pretty close to perfect. Sure, they had fought every now and then, but ultimately, they had each other’s back and didn’t let each other down. He closed his eyes then shook his head, forcing away the self-pity. Sophia now assumed the highest priority in his life; he couldn’t let her down.
Terrence drained his second beer and immediately wanted another one, so he abandoned his home office that doubled as a guest room. Stumbling down the pitch-black hall, he replayed the day’s events.
“Shit,” he mumbled, thinking about the news. Though he loved kids, tonight he wasn’t up for trick-or-treaters. So he’d left a tub full of Halloween candy on the porch and shut off the house lights.
He flung open the fridge, squinting as the light pierced the darkness. He reached for a single beer on the door shelf, but he took the unopened six-pack instead. After slipping on a jacket and shoes, he slipped out the front door. Misery loves company.
The cold night air raised goose bumps on his arms. He stepped through the hedges adjoining their lawns then rang Josh’s doorbell.
Josh opened the door. “Bro, how goes it?”
“Trick or treat.” Terrence lifted the six-pack.
“Beer? You’re the kind of trick-or-treater I like,” Josh said. “Come in.”
After grabbing two beers, Terrence handed the pack to Josh, who put them in the fridge plastered with pictures, flyers, and magnetic letters. Terrence followed Josh out of the kitchen and to the living room. Stepping over a laundry basket full of clothes, they plopped on the couch. Though his house’s layout was identical to Josh’s, his neighbors’ home was much more lived in. Toys were always strewn all over the place, the matching floral couch and loveseat showed signs of wear and tear, and family pictures decorated the walls. Terrence stared at the Home and Garden channel on the TV.
Josh grabbed the remote. “You want to watch sports or something?” “No!” Terrence clenched his beer. “I mean, no,” he said softer.
Terrence gulped his beer. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Josh put up his hands innocently. “Talk about what?”
“Fine. You beat it out of me.” Terrence ran his hand over his head. “My star client broke the news today that he’s gotten another agent. After doing so well during his rookie year, agents were all over him.”
Josh’s eyes grew wide. “No way.”
“Yep. He’s leaving and going with someone else.” Terrence’s heart sank. Saying the news aloud made it somehow worse.
“Where you going? I know it’s bad, but not end-our-friendship bad,” Terrence joked.
“Bro, I’m getting you another beer.”
Staring at the television, Terrence zoned out. He’d gotten into sports management to help athletes—people who often had no idea how to protect their assets and asses when multi-million-dollar contracts were on the line. What he hadn’t expected was needing to protect himself from client-stealing agents.
Josh returned, put two more beers on the coffee table, and grabbed a handful of candy from the bucket. “Want some?”
“Naw, man, I really shouldn’t. It’s not like I’m in my twenties, when I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain weight.”
Josh popped a bite-sized Butterfinger into his mouth. “I wish I could say no.” He laughed. “I don’t even want to know how much I’ve gained since the accident.”
Terrence had noticed that Josh had gained quite a few pounds over the past year. Extra weight wouldn’t be as noticeable on Terrence’s six- foot-three-inch frame, but since Josh was barely five ten, it seemed to go straight to his gut. Terrence couldn’t blame him though. Having a steel beam fall on your back and being alive and well to talk about it was more than anyone could ask for.
“You should hit the gym with me, man,” Terrence said.
“I know. I know. I used to live in the gym when I played football in high school. But back to your situation.” Josh pointed his beer at Terrence.
Terrence didn’t want to go back to his situation. “Did you know some estimates figure that sixty percent of NBA players file for bankruptcy within five years of retirement? I’m wondering if I’m going to end up like them.”
“What do you mean?” Josh asked.
“It’s a small agency where every client counts, so they’re not happy with me. The worst part is—”
“It gets worse?” Josh asked.
Terrence nodded. “Sophia and I bought our house while Sophia was working and I was doing really well at the agency. We got an adjustable- rate mortgage, and our payments are set to adjust to be higher than we can afford now. Worst-case scenario is we lose the house.”
Josh’s mouth hung open.
“Say something,” Terrence said.
Josh’s lips moved but no words came out for a moment. “What does Sophia say?”
“Sophia doesn’t know.” That sounded worse aloud also. “You’re wrong then,” Josh said.
Terrence raised his eyebrows. “About what?”
“Telling Sophia is going to be the worst part.”
Terrence put a bite-sized Snickers into his mouth. The melting chocolate somehow eased the pain. “Yeah. I’m going to tell her tomorrow, and I’m dreading it. We practically just got married, she’s out of work, and now this happens. She’s pretty level-headed, so hopefully she’ll understand. It’s just… my dad never got into a mess like this. How am I gonna break the news?”
“I don’t know.” Josh gulped his beer. “But good luck.” Terrence scoffed. “I need more than luck.”
“You’ll figure this out. I hate to sound like a bumper sticker, but shit happens. You just need to adjust.”
“Yeah, like you’ve adjusted since the accident.” Terrence admired the way Josh had gotten back on his feet both literally and figuratively. “You could say that. But if you’d asked me ten years ago if I would be a stay-at-home dad, I would have laughed in your face. As a site foreman, I was running the show. But right after the accident, I couldn’t do anything but be laid up. As time passed and I got better, paying the nanny was almost ridiculous since I was home,” Josh said while chewing candy.
“So that’s how you became a stay-at-home dad?” Terrence had always wondered but never had the guts to ask about their arrangement.
“Yep. Once I was mobile again, Tara and I decided I would temporarily stay at home with Michelle and Teeni during the day while she worked and Chelsea was at school. But temporarily turned into one year and counting. Since I can’t go back to construction, I’m screwed. I don’t have experience doing anything else, and I’ve been out of work for so long, no one will want to hire me. But to be honest, I love being with the girls.” Josh held up his hand. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s tough work. People who think stay-at-home parents don’t do anything are crazy. But being able to watch my girls grow up is worth more than a paycheck right now.”
“That’s cool, man. That’s a real good attitude to have. You’re a great dad too.” Hopefully Terrence would feel the same way when his time came to be a dad.
Josh shrugged. “You know, it probably feels like the end of the world losing that client, but you’ll bounce back. And if you need anything, I got your back.”
“Got fifty thousand dollars?” Terrence pretended to be serious. Josh chuckled. “Not even close.”
“Know an awesome up-and-coming basketball player in need of an agent?”
“Nope,” Josh said.
“Then forget you. I need to find some new friends.” Terrence laughed. He was lucky to have a friend like Josh. “I’ll get us another round of beers.”
As Terrence stood, his house keys fell out of his pocket onto the couch. He scooped them up and squeezed them, determined to do whatever it took to keep his and Sophia’s house.