Read Wishing Lake Online

Authors: Regina Hart

Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #General Fiction, #African-American storys, #Fiction

Wishing Lake (18 page)

“It’s still important to keep our expenses down,” Peyton cautioned. “We want as much money as possible going to the center.”
“What you’re doing . . .” Stan looked at the people seated around the table. “You have no idea how much it means to people who need the help the center provides.”
Darius squeezed Stan’s shoulder. “No problem.”
“We’re happy to do it.” Warmth filled Peyton’s voice.
A chorus of agreement circled the table.
“The community center is going to let us use their activity room for free.” Darius returned to the planning agenda.
Simon interrupted. “Bet that was your idea, Darius. You see? I told you my son had a good head on his shoulders.”
Peyton held out her hand toward the older man. “Simon, you owe us five dollars.”
Simon’s eyebrows jumped. “But—”
Ethel exhaled an impatient breath. “You agreed. Now pay the woman.”
The meeting quieted while Simon pulled five crumpled one-dollar bills from his wallet. He handed them to Ethel. The money passed from her to CeCe, then Stan, then Darius before landing with Peyton.
The little professor smiled. “I’ll log this as our first official donation. Now, if there are no other questions, we’d like two volunteers to handle the registration database.”
Olivia raised her hand. “I’ll build the database.”
“I’ll help.” Vaughn lifted a hand also. “Since we’re both on campus, it’ll be easier for us to work together.”
“Great.” Peyton made a note on her meeting agenda. “Catering and location arrangements?”
Stan volunteered. “I know the people at the center.”
“I’ll help Stan.” CeCe volunteered so quickly Darius wondered whether she wanted to work with Stan or whether she just didn’t want to be stuck with either Ethel or Simon. If it was the latter, he couldn’t blame her.
Peyton wrote that down. “That leaves the entertainment and program assignment to Ethel and Simon.”
Ethel gasped. “I don’t want to work with Simon.”
Simon looked smug. “Don’t worry, Ethel. I won’t show you up too badly.”
The group agreed to meet again the following Thursday, then they wished each other a good evening.
Within minutes, Darius found himself alone with Peyton. “You run a tight meeting.”
She tucked her meeting notes into her project folder. “Thank you. It comes from being a teacher. If students sniff out any weakness, chaos will ensue.”
“Your solution to keep my parents from arguing was brilliant. Thank you.”
“Not bad for spur of the moment.” She gathered her purse, then led him from the room.
Darius fell into step beside her as they walked down the hall toward the rear entrance. “I wanted to ask you something.” He winced at his lame opening.
“What?”
“You enjoyed the Sequoia–Heritage football game.”
“It was a lot of fun.” Peyton’s grin brought back fond memories for Darius.
He forged ahead. “Noah’s championship play-off game is tomorrow night in Canton. Would you like to go? I think you’ll enjoy this game even more. It pits the two best teams in each state division against each other. There’s a lot on the line.”
Peyton gave him a teasing smile. “Are you asking me out on another date?”
Darius slid her a look. “I guess I am.”
Peyton stopped to face him. “You guess? You’re not sure?”
“No, I’m sure. I’m asking you out on another date.”
“So soon? We just had a date last night.”
“Is it too soon?” Darius settled his right hand on her waist. Peyton always made him feel like a high school freshman.
“No, I guess it’s not too soon.”
“You guess? You’re not sure?” Darius gave her a taunting look. “Maybe this will help you decide.”
Darius lowered his head and covered her mouth with his. His lips moved on hers, caressing, tasting, drinking in her sweetness. Peyton’s body melted into his—or maybe it was the other way around. He groaned deep in his throat and pulled her closer. His heart beat against his chest. His breathing grew ragged. Darius’s hands moved from the small of Peyton’s back to the curve of her hips. He pressed her against his fullness. Peyton gasped into his mouth. Darius’s blood sang with the sound. His groin swelled . . . and that’s when he remembered where he was. Darius stepped back, holding on to Peyton so they could both keep their balance.
Darius cleared his throat. “Are you sure now?”
Peyton’s laughter wobbled. “I’d love to go with you to the state play-offs. Thank you.”
“Great. I’ll pick you up at four. The game starts at seven.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Darius escorted Peyton to her car. He held her door as she settled behind the steering wheel. “Drive safely.”
Her soft gaze lingered on him. “Good night.”
He watched her drive from the parking lot. His heart had been missing for so long. Now Peyton was making him come to life.
CHAPTER 18
“I’m sorry your team didn’t win the championship.” Darius sat at a table with his half brother, Noah, at Books & Bakery late Saturday morning.
The Sequoia Soldiers had made it to the state championship play-offs but had lost their divisional competition the night before. Darius knew how much Noah had wanted that title—as much as Darius had wanted it when he’d been in high school.
“I appreciate your being there even though I didn’t get the job done.” Disappointment clouded Noah’s midnight eyes, which were identical to Darius’s and Simon’s eyes.
“You played a great game.” Darius cradled his cup of coffee. “I was really proud of you.”
“I don’t know what bothers me more, that I blew my last chance at a championship or that I don’t have any titles and you have two.” Noah frowned at his glass of water and plate of Trinity Falls Fudge Walnut Brownie.
“Football is a team sport.” Darius defended Noah to Noah. “I didn’t win those titles by myself. As long as you can look yourself in the mirror and say you left everything on the field, you can’t blame yourself.”
Noah didn’t seem convinced, but Darius knew the younger man would eventually get the message. “I’d still rather have the title.”
“I know the feeling.” Darius sliced into his brownie.
“Hi, Darius.” Michelle Mosley stopped by their table. Her voice was breathless with obvious nerves. Her wide, tawny eyes flashed from Darius to Noah . . . and stayed there. “I just wanted to check on you to make sure you have everything you need.”
Darius struggled against a smile. Michelle was a sweet girl on the cusp of womanhood. At one point, she’d had an obvious crush on him. It appeared she’d now transferred her interest to his more age-appropriate younger brother. But Noah was looking at Michelle with only a vague expression of polite interest. His mind was probably still on the state play-off loss. The dummy.
Darius smiled at the high school junior who had eyes only for Noah. “We’re fine, Michelle. Thank you.”
Michelle had dyed her hair evergreen for the holiday season. It had been Valentine’s Day red in February, magenta for Easter, and royal blue to celebrate Independence Day in July.
She pulled her attention from Noah’s enjoyment of the brownie and focused on Darius. “OK. Well, let me know if you need anything. I’ll just be right over there at the counter.” She jerked her right thumb over her shoulder toward the front of the bakery.
Darius looked around the café. Doreen was at the cash register. The line of customers was long but moved at a brisk pace. A few diners enjoyed drinks and pastries at the counter. A few more enjoyed each other’s company at the circular, blond-wood tables.
“Thanks, Michelle.” Darius sipped his coffee.
Noah still hadn’t responded. His lights were on, but no one was home. Michelle gave the younger man one last lingering look before returning to the bakery counter. Noah didn’t notice.
Darius considered his clueless younger brother. “So what’s on your mind? You didn’t drive here from Sequoia just to tell me how disappointed you are by your team’s loss.”
“I need some advice.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“I’m trying to choose a college.” Noah traced the condensation on his water glass. “I want to go away like you did, be on my own and experience life in a big city. But at the same time, I don’t want to leave Sequoia. I don’t want Mom to be alone.”
Darius swallowed a forkful of his brownie. “Don’t worry about June. She’ll be fine. This decision is about your future.”
“But who’ll look out for her while I’m away?” Noah’s thin, sepia features were stark with concern. “Her whole life has been work and me. She doesn’t have many friends. She’ll be lonely.”
“She has me, Noah. I’m one of her friends.” Darius caught and held his brother’s troubled gaze. “I’ll check on her while you’re at college. You just need to worry about yourself so that later you can take care of your mother.”
“I know you care about Mom. But you have your own life.” Noah stabbed another chunk of brownie. “That history professor is hot. God knows what she sees in you, but you’d be an idiot not to spend some time with her.”
“Um, hi again.” A high-pitched voice interrupted their conversation. Michelle was back. This time she was wielding a carafe of coffee. “Would you like more coffee, Darius?”
“Sure.” Not really. Usually, customers brought their mugs to the counter. But since she’d come all this way, Darius thought it would be rude to decline her offer. “Thanks, Michelle.”
“You’re welcome.” Michelle shot another glance in Noah’s direction.
Darius caught her wrist as his mug threatened to overflow. “Thank you, Michelle.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Michelle turned again to Noah. His head was bent, absorbed with the remains of his brownie. She raised her voice. “Hi, I’m Michelle.”
Noah looked up. His throat worked as he swallowed a mouthful of pastry. He lowered his fork, rose to his feet, and offered his right hand. “I’m Noah.”
June would be so proud.
Michelle moved the coffeepot so she could shake Noah’s hand. “Would you like some more water?”
“Yes, please.” Noah gave Michelle his half-full glass. Michelle blushed as she turned away. Noah resumed his seat.
Speaking of idiots . . . Darius kept that observation to himself. “Peyton and I are seeing each other.” Thinking of her gave him a warm feeling. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to forget my friends. Why don’t you talk with June? Let her know you’re worried about her.”
“Could you talk with her?” Noah’s eyes brightened with the idea. “I want to know what she’s thinking.”
“This is a conversation
you
need to have with your mother. Not me.”
“Please, D. She’ll be straight with you.”
“Noah—”
“Please.”
Darius took a deep breath. The air was heavy with the scent of pastries and other baked goods and the tang of the spices and fresh vegetables Doreen was using in the afternoon’s soup.
He scowled. “Fine. I’ll speak with June. First. But you’ll need to speak with her on your own after.”
Noah grinned, offering Darius his hand. “Deal.”
Michelle returned with Noah’s water. “Here you are.”
Still grinning, Noah accepted the glass from her. “Thank you.”
Michelle blushed again, then left.
Darius watched her go. “You know, I’m not the only idiot in our family.”
“What does that mean?”
Darius’s answer was a smile.

 

“Noah’s not here,” June called to Darius Sunday afternoon.
Darius looked up and found her standing in the doorway of her little wood-and-stone cottage at the end of the short, curving path. He’d made this trip to Sequoia, Ohio, a small town neighboring Trinity Falls, at least once a week for almost six years.
“I know.” In the cold air, his breath formed white puffs with his words.
“I thought he went to see you yesterday.” She stepped back to let Darius into her home. The cozy little cottage was full of natural light, bright colors, and fat, fluffy furniture.
“He did. I came to see you.” Darius stripped off his black topcoat and gave it to June with his thanks.
“Why?” June hung his coat in her front closet, then led him into her living room. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“No, thank you.”
June gestured him toward her foam green armchair. She sank onto the matching sofa, leaving the love seat empty between them.
The room was full of Cale family memories. Photos of Noah crowded the maple wood fireplace mantel and dotted the pale yellow walls. The images were records of his life from birth to young adulthood—first steps, first bike, prekindergarten graduation, First Communion, Confirmation, football.
“Noah’s worried about you.” Darius put his right ankle on his left knee.
“Me? Why?” June’s voice lifted in surprise.
Darius chose his words carefully. “He’s afraid to go away to college because he doesn’t want you to be alone.”
“That’s stupid. He’s going to an out-of-state university.”
So much for diplomacy. “That’s what I told him.”
“What did he say?”
“That you don’t have any friends.” Darius watched closely for her reaction. “All you do is work and take care of him.”
She rolled her eyes, shifting in the armchair as though uncomfortable. “He makes me sound like a martyr.”
“Saint June.”
“Far from it.” She frowned. “Why didn’t he talk to me about this himself?”
“He asked me to speak with you.” Darius spread his hands. “He didn’t think you’d be honest with him.”
“As if.” June heaved a sigh, crossing her arms and legs. “He needs to stop worrying about me and pick a university already.”
Darius shrugged. “You know Noah. When he forms an opinion, only divine intervention will change his mind.”
“Divine intervention?” June rose from the armchair to pace her living room. “I’ve never been called
that
before.”
Darius laughed his surprise. “What are you going to do?”
“I can’t understand why he’d tell you he’s considering a local university when most of the ones on his wish list are out of state.” June’s voice was pensive. Her pace slowed.
“But he included a few that are in state, which means they’re more than safety nets. He’s legitimately considering them.”
“Where would he go?” She gave him a dubious look as she paced back to her armchair. “Sequoia Community College? Trinity Falls University?”
“Those are good schools. You went to TFU.”
“He’s going out of state.” June turned to cross to the fireplace again. “I’ve never been out of Ohio. That’s something I’ve always regretted. I want more for my son.”
“It’s ultimately his choice, June.”
“Staying in Sequoia’s not what he wants.”
“What are you going to do to change his mind?”
“I’m going to tell him that he’s not staying in Ohio.” June resumed her seat.
Darius lowered his right foot to the ground. “What are you going to do once Noah leaves for college?”
“Remodel his room and have sex.” June crossed her arms and settled back into her armchair. “Not necessarily in that order.”
“All right.” Darius tried to mask his surprise. He failed. “Maybe you can word that a little differently for Noah.”
“Of course.” June rolled her eyes again.
Darius studied her in silence for awhile. June was a beautiful woman, tall, fit, intelligent, and charming. At thirty-nine, she looked ten years younger, at least. “Why haven’t you ever married?”
She snorted. “You’re one to talk.”
He smiled. “I guess we’ve both neglected our personal lives.”
“I’ve been raising Noah. What’s your excuse?”
Darius couldn’t think of one.

 

Monday morning, it took a few moments for Darius to realize the knocking sound was coming from his cubicle in the
Monitor
’s offices. He looked over his shoulder to find Alonzo standing in the doorway in his sheriff’s uniform: tan shirt, black tie, and spruce-green gabardine pants.
“Sorry to interrupt.” The sheriff seemed to be waiting for an invitation.
“You’re not interrupting. Have a seat.” Darius spun his office chair to face his guest. “I’m not used to that sound. Usually people just walk in.”
“I know you’re busy.” Alonzo lowered himself onto the beige tweed guest chair.
“There’s no rest for the wicked.”
“But the righteous don’t need rest.” Alonzo completed the quote.
“That too.” Darius studied the older man’s body language. Alonzo was tense. His dark gaze landed everywhere but on Darius.
“Have you decided whether to take that promotion?”
Darius froze, then realized the other reporters couldn’t hear Alonzo’s soft question over the usual newsroom cacophony of shouts, telephones, and typing. “You’re not here to ask about my career plans, Sheriff. What’s on your mind?”
Alonzo hesitated. “I need advice.”
“On what?” Darius had interviewed state politicians who’d been more forthcoming.
“I proposed to Doreen more than a week ago.” Alonzo sounded like he’d lost his greatest treasure.
Darius braced for bad news. “And?”
“She said no.”
Darius was as disappointed as though he’d been the one Doreen had turned down. “Why?”
“She’s comfortable with our relationship as it is now.”
That didn’t sound like Doreen. She was still afraid. “What do you want?”
“I’ve wanted to marry Doreen for more than forty years.” Alonzo’s response was fast and frustrated. “I’m not settling for anything less.”
“So what happens now?”
Alonzo rubbed the side of his face. “She asked me to give her more time.”
“What can I do?”
“Tell me what to say to convince Doreen to marry me.”
Darius’s mind went blank. When had he become the Dear Abby of Trinity Falls? “Sheriff, I’ve never proposed to anyone. I’ve never even wanted to.”
“You helped Ean get back together with Megan when they split up last year.”
“I explained the situation to Ean from Megan’s point of view.”
“You convinced Jack to reconcile with Audra.”
“I told Jack what his life would be like without her: crap.”
“You’re the one who convinced me to tell Doreen how I felt in the first place.” Alonzo leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. His voice lowered to a barely audible murmur as he spoke to the faded gray carpet. “I guess Paul will always be the love of Doreen’s life. She’ll never let me into her heart.”
“You’re already in her heart. Everyone can see that.”
“Then why won’t she marry me?” Alonzo looked up, his eyes dark with pain.
“Because she’s afraid.”
“Of what?”
“Of letting go of who she was with Paul.” Darius frowned. “I thought you knew that. Isn’t that the reason you had that Day of the Dead ceremony?”

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