Authors: Lena Matthews
Table of Contents
THE BLACKER THE BERRY
This e-book contains sexually explicit scenes and adult language and may be considered offensive to some readers. Loose Id® e-books are for sale to adults ONLY, as defined by the laws of the country in which you made your purchase. Please store your files wisely, where they cannot be accessed by under-aged readers.
The Blacker the Berry
This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Loose Id LLC
PO Box 425960
San Francisco CA 94142
Copyright © October 2008 by Lena Matthews
All rights reserved. This copy is intended for the purchaser of this e-book ONLY. No part of this e-book may be reproduced or shared in any form, including, but not limited to printing, photocopying, faxing, or emailing without prior written permission from Loose Id LLC.
Printed in the United States of America
Cover Artist: April Martinez
This book is dedicated to everyone who e-mailed me, sought me out at conferences, or wrote me a letter requesting this story. When I’d given up on ever writing something for Tamara and Russell, I’d receive a new message asking me about them. You, my readers, never let me forget Tamara and Russell were characters worth plotting for, and The Blacker the Berry wouldn’t exist without all of your dedication to this couple. I hope you enjoy the story and that it was well worth the wait.
“Tamara, I need a favor.”
Tamara Holifield gripped the cordless phone tighter to her ear and rolled over in bed, pulling up her night mask in the process so she could stare wildly at the blaring red numbers on her digital clock. It was only seven a.m. Favors didn’t happen until after lunch. “Who are you, and why should I care?”
There was a brief pause before a sharp dash of deep-toned laughter filled the line. Laughter didn’t happen before noon, either. “I’m hanging up now,” she warned, pulling down her mask to cover her stinging eyes. Last night was the culmination of a series of nights where she had stayed up way too late in her darkroom, with nothing to show for it but smelly, wrinkled fingers.
Photography was her passion, just not her meal ticket. Despite the fact she’d just climbed into bed only two hours earlier, Tamara would soon have to leave the warm haven of her floral goose-down comforter to go clock in at the administrative office of Martin Luther King Jr. High School for another day of file-clerk slavery. She was way too old to be temping, but the man wanted money for electricity and water, and what the man wanted, the man got. Hopefully, though, she’d be able to rely on her pictures soon as a way to make money. She had a show coming up in two months, so she was working overtime to get her ass in gear.
“Is that supposed to mean something?”
“To Charlotte, it does.” The laughter in his voice, as well as the name he dropped, was like a douse of cold water on her face. Tyson Wilcox was the cowboy married to her best friend, Charlotte, and her soon-to-be baby daddy. Soon. Very soon.
Sleep forgotten, Tamara sat up and yanked the mask off her face. “Is it the baby? Oh my God, it can’t be the baby. It’s too early.”
Jumping out of the bed, Tamara stumbled to her closet, desperate to find something to wear. It wasn’t every day a woman became a godmother.
What was she going to wear?
Did she have enough film?
Did she have to time to brush her grill?
“Tell Charlotte I’ll be there as soon as possible.” Tamara grabbed a pair of jeans off a plastic hanger, breaking the hook in the process.
. Didn’t it just figure?
“Tamara, calm down.”
“Calm. I am calm.” With the phone held between her ear and shoulder, Tamara shoved her legs into her jeans, hoping to hell they’d fit. She couldn’t tell if these were her size if-I-only-lose-ten-more-pounds-I’ll-be-able-to-breathe-in-these-jeans jeans, or her double-digit, tag-removed-out-of-shame jeans. “How far apart are the contractions?”
Sucking in her never-shrinking gut, Tamara panted, “Tell her to breathe slowly.” She tried to follow her own advice and button her pants. It wasn’t working. These were definitely not the comfy double-digit jeans. “And tell her to wait until I get there. Oh crap, how am I going to get there?” Her car was as dead as her last diet. “What am I going to do?”
Frustrated, Tamara gave up the fight with her button and yelled into the phone, “Ty, if you tell me to calm down one more time, I’m going to lose what little religion I have left and kick your—”
“She’s not in labor.”
“She’s not in labor!” Exhausted and upset, Tamara gripped the phone tighter and dropped onto the bed. “Then why didn’t you say so?”
“Maybe it’s because you were too busy having a panic attack to listen to reason.”
“Ty, baby, I love you like a lost cousin, but right now, I could kill you.” Ty laughed, apparently not at all threatened by her comment. “Just because you wrestle cows all day, cowboy, doesn’t mean I can’t take you out. I’m from west LA.” Way west in the suburbs, but he didn’t have to know that. “And I’m not afraid to go back to jail.”
Sure the first and only time had been during orientation at a local prison for a job she’d been hoping to get. Hoping, that is, until she actually realized she’d be coming in contact with criminals. People who might not take her biting sense of humor the right way.
Partially satisfied, Tamara hooked a hand in the waist of her snug jeans and began to pry them down her thighs. A size 10 she wasn’t, but that was a problem for another day. “So what’s going on?”
Ty’s voice lost a bit of the cheerfulness that had been swimming in it a mere moment ago. “Have you talked to Charlotte lately?”
“I talked to her last night.” And the day before that. And the day before that. Charlotte had been her best friend since grade school. The two women couldn’t have been closer if they came from the same womb, and just because Charlotte had gone country and moved three hours away didn’t change anything.
“Did she sound…okay to you?”
“A bit down, but nothing that can’t be expected.” Charlotte was seven months pregnant and confined to her home. Thanks to the bronco bull she’d married, the petite woman was carrying a large baby, and the two just didn’t mix. She was scheduled for a C-section in eight weeks and ordered to stay close to home until then. To say Charlotte wasn’t happy would have been an understatement, but it was to be expected. “Why, is something wrong?”
“Well, yes and no.”
Despite his no, her heart sped up. What the hell was going on? “Spill, cowboy.”
There was a long pause before Ty spoke again, but when he did, his voice was filled with determination. “I want to know if you can come out here.”
“When?” Confusion caused her brows to furrow.
“Now,” he said firmly. “And before you ask, I want you to stay for a while.”
“How long is a while?” Frowning, Tamara sat down and kicked the offending pants off her feet and to the floor.
“Until she has the baby.”
His reply had her mouth dropping wide open. Was he kidding? She hoped so. “She’s not due to have the baby for two months,” she reminded him, just in case he didn’t remember.
“I know.” Ty sighed heavily.
As much as she wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all, she knew deep down, Ty wouldn’t ask something so asinine if there wasn’t a reason. “Talk to me.”
“She’s not doing okay. In fact, she’s doing very not-okay. The pregnancy—as you know, it isn’t going very smoothly.” Ty paused for so long Tamara almost asked if he was still there. “She’s stuck at the ranch, unable to work for long or do a lot, and she’s bored stiff. No, she’s more than bored. She’s unhappy.”
And Tamara could tell that as far as Ty was concerned, that was the problem. Amused, Tamara lay back on the bed. “Ty, baby, as much as I would love to, I just can’t quit my job. I can’t afford to.”
“I’ll pay you.”
The words of the desperate man once more had her grinning. Charlotte was a lucky, lucky woman. “You won’t pay me to spend time with my best friend,” she said patiently.
“I can’t have you doing it for free.”
“I can’t do it at all, Ty.” As lovely as it sounded, she just couldn’t be Charlotte’s cowgirl in waiting. “Jobs that don’t involve flipping burgers or saying, ‘Would you like your receipt in your hand or your bag?’ aren’t very easy to come by these days.”
“What about the weekend?”
Tamara grimaced. She wanted to. She really, really wanted to. The last time she’d seen Charlotte was over a month ago, when Ty and Charlotte came to LA for business. Even though the two women talked every day, either via phone or e-mail, it just wasn’t the same. Tamara missed hanging out with her friend like they used to, back before she’d lost her heart on the Ponderosa. “I want to say yes.”
“Then say it.” From everything Tamara had heard and seen in regard to Ty, he was a man used to getting his own way. “Just say yes and I’ll make it happen.”
“It’s not that easy,” she protested weakly. “I don’t have a car.”
“It’s not a big deal. I’ll find you a ride. Hell, I’ll buy you a car if necessary.”
“Since when did you two have money to burn?”
“We don’t, but I can’t go another week with seeing her so unhappy.”
Tamara couldn’t help but feel a bit envious Charlotte had someone who loved her so much, he was willing to make an utter ass of himself. Even though it was a bit extreme, it was kind of sweet too. “You know you’re spoiling her, right?”
“And your point is?”
“Nothing.” She laughed lightly. “I get off work tomorrow at three-thirty.”
“I’ll have a car waiting at your place by four.”
“Anyone ever tell you you’re pushy?”
“They didn’t lie.”
As she hung up the phone Tamara realized she’d have a lot to do before tomorrow if she was going to be spending the weekend down on the ranch. Starting with finding her jeans that actually fit.
* * *
Russell Crichton stared at the closed green door and sighed. He didn’t know exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the line, he’d morphed into his best friend’s chauffeur. Normally he didn’t mind doing a favor for a friend, but this was going past the call of duty.
Four o’clock had come and gone half an hour ago. They should have been on the road a while ago. He was giving this Tamara chick five more minutes then he was off like a dirty shirt.
Angry, Russell walked a few feet away from the door, crossed his arms over his chest, and leaned back against the wall. Some friend this lady was turning out to be. Here it was, Ty was worrying a hole in his gut over Charlotte, and her best friend couldn’t even be bothered to stick to the agreement she’d made. People just didn’t care about other people these days.
Just one more reason he was making the transition from lawyer to rancher. He was sick and tired of dealing with the scum of the Earth. Sad part was, he wasn’t even a criminal lawyer. His specialty was corporate law, and still it was nasty. The things people would do for a dollar were frightening, and he refused to pander to the masses anymore.
A few more months and his dream would become reality. He was going to turn an abandoned, run-down ranch into a profitable one. It was taking a lot of time and a lot of money; lucky for him, he had both.
When the door across from Tamara’s apartment opened, Russell straightened up from the wall, then frowned. The African-American woman coming out of the apartment with a suitcase in her hand looked familiar. Very familiar.
The full-figured, dark-skinned woman was wearing an expression similar to the one he was sporting and muttering under her breath as she wrestled the gray bag out the doorway, dropping it on the floor as she closed the door behind her.
When she turned around to face him once more, he moved away from the wall, and lowered his arms at the same time as she looked up and met his gaze. A spark of recognition flared in her eyes as she caught sight of him. At the exact same moment, they spoke.
“Hey,” she began.
“Don’t I know you?” he questioned.
“Are you”—Tamara ran her gaze over him, from the top of his black cowboy hat, worn low on his brow, down past his shirt, battered jeans, and dinged-up brown boots before zooming back up to his eyes—“Ty’s friend?”
“Yes, and you’re Charlotte’s.”
“Yeah,” she said with much attitude, before placing her hands on her ample hips and frowning. “What the heck took you so long?”
“Me so long?” Her unexpected anger threw him, as did the bag sitting next to her feet. It was much bigger than a weekend required. How long was she staying? “I’ve been here since a little bit before four.”
“Did it never occur to you to ring or knock?”
“I did,” he shot back.
“I did,” he repeated through clenched teeth, then it hit him. Feeling a bit foolish, he shoved his hands deep inside his jean pockets. “Just not your door. Ty told me G2.”
“Ty told you wrong.” She gestured to the open door behind her. “He was off by a number.”
“So I see. If you didn’t know I was out here, where were you going?”
“To catch a bus.”
She said it as if it was the obvious answer, which of course, it wasn’t. “A bus?”
“Well, I had to get to Santa Estella somehow.”
“And you thought you’d take a bus.”
“Yes. I thought renting a private plane would be a tad pretentious.”
“I guess.” He smiled, in spite of himself. All the less than nice things he’d said to himself about her instantly came crashing back. Here he’d been bitching and moaning about half an hour, and she was preparing to board a bus and take a three-hour drive—probably more with stops—just to be with her friend. Man, he was an ass. “It looks like we’re getting off on the wrong foot here.”
“No, we got off on the wrong foot two years ago when you bogarted in on my cheesy poofs.” She softened her words with a smile that damned near took his breath away. Good Lord, she was lovely. She also possessed a good memory.
“You remember that?” Russell wasn’t big on weddings. All he could recall was waiting for the damned thing to be over and being hungry as hell.
“I never forget a good cheesy poof.” Tamara turned back to the door and jiggled the handle as if testing the lock. When the door didn’t budge, she turned back to him and smiled. “So, ready to hit the road?”
“Now is a good enough time as any.”
Before she could bend over to pick up the suitcase, he grabbed the handle and gestured with the bag in front of him. “After you.”
Instead of arguing or putting on some feminist show, she merely took off in the direction he indicated. The ride down the elevator was slow but quiet, as was the trek outside. She stopped on the stoop and looked around as he pulled out his key ring, pointed it at his car, and clicked off the alarm. He’d just popped the trunk open when she burst out laughing.
Startled, he paused in the middle of setting her suitcase in, to glance back at her. “What?”
“You drive a Lexus?”
He sat her case down and looked at the luxury car in question, waiting for the joke to hit him as well. “Yes,” he said as he closed the trunk and came back to her side.
“Man”—she shook her head in amusement—“talk about judging a book. I was expecting a truck or a coach or something. Not this.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” he teased. “If it makes you feel better, my other car is a horse.” He also had a truck on the ranch, but he figured he’d save that little surprise for later.