Read Wishing Lake Online

Authors: Regina Hart

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

Wishing Lake (2 page)

“This isn’t the place.” Darius lowered his voice and used his coffee mug to gesture toward the people around them.
Behind the counter, Megan stood with Ramona and Doreen. On the other side of the counter, Darius sat beside Ean Fever, his childhood friend who was also Doreen’s son and Megan’s boyfriend. Jackson Sansbury, Darius’s boss and a member of the town’s founding family, sat with his girlfriend, songwriter Audra Lane.
Simon ignored Darius’s perhaps-too-subtle request to change the subject. “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want. Last night, I ate dinner in bed.”
Megan gave a slow blink of her cinnamon eyes. “Why would you want to eat an entire meal in bed?”
Ramona almost choked on her coffee. “What my cousin’s trying to say in her overly diplomatic way is, unless you’re sick, eating a meal in bed is one way to make sure you always sleep alone.”
Simon settled back onto the bar stool. “Maybe I should tell Quincy to enjoy his final days of freedom before you join him in Philadelphia in January.”
“Your wife walked out on you.” Ramona shook her head. “I don’t think Quincy would benefit from your relationship advice.”
Doreen cut into the conversation. “What can I get for you, Simon?”
Darius gritted his teeth. It had been too much to hope his father would say whatever he had to say, then leave.
“I had breakfast at home.” Simon pointed toward the pastry display. “I’ll just take a slice of Boston cream pie and a coffee.” He slapped Darius’s back. “I’m really here to keep my boy company.”
Darius had relived this nightmare every Saturday since his parents’ separation in July. It was like a macabre version of the Bill Murray movie
Groundhog Day
.
“I have plenty of friends here.” Darius took a calming breath and drew in the scent of coffee, bacon, confectioner’s sugar, and cinnamon. He shoved his bacon and eggs around his plate. Maybe in time his appetite would return.
Simon accepted the mug of coffee Doreen gave him. “Yeah, but you’re the only single one. Jackson’s dating Audra. Ean’s with Megan. Ramona’s moving to Philadelphia to join Quincy. Even Doreen’s dating again.”
“Gee, thanks.” Doreen offered Simon his slice of pie. It was served on a white porcelain plate that probably had more sense than he did.
“You give me hope, Doreen.” Simon plunged his fork into the pie. “If you can reenter the dating scene so easily after being widowed after more than thirty years of marriage, the transition will be easy as pie for me.” He chuckled at his own humor.
“Where’s Alonzo?” Audra asked, referring to Alonzo Lopez, the town’s sheriff and Doreen’s boyfriend. “He usually joins us Saturday mornings.”
In the songwriter’s voice, Darius heard a desperate attempt to change the subject.
Simon chuckled. “Yeah, Doreen. You’d better check on your man. You don’t want him running away with a younger woman.”
Ramona crossed her arms. “You would know all about married men and younger women, wouldn’t you?”
“Ramona.” Jackson’s low voice held a cautionary tone.
Darius appreciated his boss’s concern for his feelings, but it wasn’t necessary. He’d known for years the kind of man his father was.
He turned to Simon. “Why are you here?”
“You need someone in your corner.” Simon jabbed Darius’s upper arm with his elbow as he washed down more pie with a swig of coffee. “Don’t let them pressure you, son. There’s nothing wrong with being single.”
Darius regarded Simon in disbelief. “You’re not single. You and Mom are still married.”
Simon scowled. “We’re separated.”
“Not legally.” Darius searched his father’s expression. If Simon was anxious to end his marriage, why didn’t he file for divorce?
“Speaking as a lawyer, Darius is right.” Ean lowered his coffee mug. “Your separation hasn’t dissolved your marriage.”
Ean shoved away his empty plate. In contrast, Darius’s half-eaten breakfast cooled in front of him. Again. The only way he’d regain his appetite was if Simon left. Past experience demonstrated that wouldn’t be happening any time soon.
“Are you and Ethel going to try to work things out?” Megan’s question elicited a dry look from Darius.
His parents reconcile? Not likely. They’d been hurtling toward a divorce his entire life.
Simon grunted. “Why would I want to get back together with Ethel? I’ve never been as happy as I am now without her. In fact, I’m looking forward to getting back into the dating scene.”
“I thought you’d never left it.” Darius couldn’t let Simon’s hypocritical comment pass unchallenged.
His father glowered at him. “Now don’t you start with me. A man makes one mistake—”
“Only one?” Darius interrupted.
Simon swallowed more pie. “I never said I was perfect. Still, your mother left me anyway.”
“I don’t understand that.” Ramona rested her hands on the counter. “Don’t get me wrong. I would have left you, too—after I knocked out all of your teeth.”
“Ramona.” Megan’s voice carried a low, reproving note.
Audra set down her porcelain mug of coffee. It landed on the Formica counter with a decisive snap. “Let’s get back to discussing the Halloween party. It’s next week and I want to know what to expect from my first Trinity Falls Halloween.”
Darius could have kissed Jackson’s girlfriend for again trying to change the topic. She’d arrived in Trinity Falls from Los Angeles in July, just a few weeks before Peyton had arrived from New York. Audra had left briefly after Founders Day in August, but Jackson had wooed her back. The couple seemed more in love every day.
“Now that’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about.” Simon looked at Megan and Ramona. “Ethel never wanted to come to your Halloween celebration. Well, you can bet I’m coming this year.”
Great
. In addition to ruining Darius’ Saturday morning breakfast routine, Simon was going to put a damper on the Books & Bakery Halloween celebration. He’d rather be locked in the smelly archives again—with Dr. Peyton Harris, of course.
Jackson leaned forward on his bar stool. “Simon, what are you going to do now that you’re retired from the post office?”
“Oh, I’ve got plenty to do,” Simon rushed to reassure him. “Plenty.”
“Such as?” Darius prompted.
Simon laughed, tipping his head toward Doreen. “Oh, you think I pulled out of challenging Doreen for the mayor’s job because I didn’t think I could beat her?”
Ramona snorted. “No, we think you came to your senses.”
Darius gripped his cup. “Your name never even made it to the election ballot. You didn’t get enough signatures on your petition to enter the mayoral campaign.”
Simon sulked. “That’s another thing your mother ruined for me.”
Darius’s tension grew in his neck and shoulders. “You ruined that for yourself.”
“Your mother’s not an easy person to live with, you know.” Simon finished his pie.
Darius clenched his teeth. “This isn’t the time or place for this conversation.”
Simon ignored his son’s warning. “She’s a bitter, angry woman. She’s bitter and angry all the time.”
Darius had had enough. He forced himself to move calmly as he rose to his feet. He pulled his wallet from his pocket and left more than enough money beside his plate to cover his breakfast.
“Thank you, Doreen.” Darius turned to leave, ignoring his friends’ concerned expressions. “I’ll see you guys later.”
But Simon wouldn’t let up. “She wasn’t even that good of a mother to you. Admit it.”
Darius forced himself not to respond, not to react. No, Ethel hadn’t been a picture-perfect mother. But the whole town didn’t need to know that. Although some probably suspected it.
Instead of replying, he hardened his heart and kept on moving. He’d had a lot of practice doing that over the years. So much practice, he’d begun to wonder whether he’d ever feel again.
CHAPTER 2
Peyton closed and locked her kitchen window. Her apartment still reeked of burned toast. It couldn’t be helped now. She had a lot of errands to run and needed to get moving.
She was almost to her front door when the phone in her living room rang. Should she answer it? With a sigh, she turned around. It could be one of her students.
Peyton shrugged off her jacket. The low heels of her red Rockports were muffled on the gold carpet as she hurried back to her living room. She glanced at her phone, perched on the large, mahogany corner table. The caller ID mocked her. She should have ignored the summons.
She picked up the receiver. “Hello, Mom.”
“Peyton, darling, what took you so long to answer the phone?” Irene Biery Harris was adept at masking her prying ways under a caring tone. She’d been that way all of Peyton’s life. But by the age of five, Peyton had gotten wise to her pretenses.
“You caught me on my way out. How can I help you?”
“Where are you going?”
“I have a lot of errands to run.” Peyton didn’t want to go into the details of her last-minute shopping for her Halloween costume accessories. Besides, she still wasn’t certain she was comfortable wearing the outfit Ramona had talked her into buying.
She settled onto her pale silver sofa. Apparently, this was going to take a while. She glanced at her wristwatch. It was just after ten o’clock Saturday morning. It was hard to believe that, almost twenty-four hours ago, she’d been locked in the archives with Darius Knight.
Plenty of women in Trinity Falls would have loved to have switched places with her. Instead, Peyton was more interested in the mystery still surrounding that event. Was Darius right? Were the town’s matchmakers set on pairing her with one of their most eligible bachelors? Why?
“Don’t tire yourself out, darling.” Irene adopted a nurturing croon. “It isn’t good for your looks.”
“Thank you, Mom.” Peyton rubbed a hand over her face. “Why are you calling?”
“Your father and I have a wonderful idea to celebrate Christmas this year. We’re planning a trip to Aruba!”
Her parents planned to travel for Christmas? The coward in her cheered their decision. “Aruba? That’s wonderful. I hope you and Dad have a great time.”
“We all will.” Irene laughed. “You and Bruce are coming with us.”
We are?
“Have you spoken with Bruce?” How could her soon-to-be-ex-fiancé, Bruce Grave, commit them to a Caribbean Christmas vacation without consulting her?
“Of course not!” Irene laughed again. “We wanted to share the surprise with you first.”
This is a surprise all right.
“I had no idea you and Dad would ever consider celebrating Christmas anywhere other than New York. What brought this on?”
“You did! Your father and I love living in New York. We love everything about the city—the neighborhoods, the theaters, the museums. But after you decided to take a sabbatical from New York University to teach for a semester at that small college in Trident Forrest, Iowa—”
“Trinity Falls, Ohio.”
“That’s right. We decided to try something different, too. But we wanted to go someplace warm. And Aruba sounds so exciting, doesn’t it?
Aruba
.”
“I don’t think I can manage a Caribbean trip right now.” Peyton rubbed her left temple.
“I know professors don’t make any money. And I’m sure you’re making even less now at that tiny college in Iowa—”
“It’s a university, Mom. And it’s in Ohio.” Peyton held on to her patience with both fists.
“Yes. But I’m sure Bruce will pay for the trip. After all, you’re practically married.”
No, we aren’t.
How was she going to get out of this? “It’s not about money. This just isn’t a good time.”
“Why not? Isn’t Christmas break the end of fall semester?”
Her mother couldn’t remember Peyton was teaching at a university, not a college. Irene couldn’t recall the name of the town or to which state Peyton had moved. But trust Irene Biery Harris to finally remember Christmas break was the end of fall semester when it benefited her.
“Yes, but I need to prepare for the start of NYU’s spring semester.” Peyton’s lies were adding up. Why didn’t she just tell her parents and Bruce the truth?
Because I’m a coward.
“You can do that over the vacation.” Irene’s tone was dismissive. She’d made up her mind to have a family Christmas in Aruba.
“I’m sure that would be a lot of fun for me, pouring over syllabi in the hotel room while the rest of you frolic on the beach.” Peyton smoothed her left hand over her hair. She’d left it free rather than wrestling it into the tight bun her mother insisted suited a college professor better. After all, Irene couldn’t see her now.
Irene snorted. “It would be your decision to bring work on vacation.”
Peyton’s eyes slid over her glass-and-sterling silver entertainment center with the large, silver, flat-screen television, cable box, and DVD player. How could she end this nightmare?
“Why don’t we talk about this when I come home for Thanksgiving?” Would Irene grant her this reprieve? It was still sooner than she’d planned to give her parents and Bruce her news.
“Thanksgiving is more than a month away.” Irene was employing her whiny voice. “Your father and I want to make these arrangements sooner rather than later.”
Peyton understood Irene’s concern. Thanksgiving was November twenty-seventh. Today was October twenty-fifth. But she couldn’t allow her mother to pressure her.
She glanced again at her watch. It was almost ten-fifteen. Books & Bakery’s Halloween event would start at one this afternoon.
Peyton rose. “Mom, I need to get going. I’ll call Bruce later to discuss the trip with him.” More lies. How large would her web of deceit become?
“You do that, darling. You know, you’re lucky to have a man like Bruce. Men like him—wealthy, attractive—can have any woman they want. He chose you.”
“Yes, Mom.” In fact, Peyton’s parents had chosen Bruce. But what did Bruce really want—Peyton or a partnership in her father’s investment firm? Peyton suspected she knew the answer to that.
“All right, darling. I hope to hear from you. Soon. I’ll give your father your love.”
“Thanks, Mom. Good-bye.” Peyton recradled the phone.
Some of her enthusiasm for her day had waned. Her mother had just moved up her day of reckoning. Would she have enough time to prepare for it?

 

Darius tracked Megan McCloud’s progress from her office to where he stood with their friends near the front of Books & Bakery. The bookstore owner looked like a very irritated Robin Hood. It was the last Saturday of October, the day Books & Bakery hosted its annual Halloween celebration and children’s story time. For the event, Megan had chosen an archer’s costume. Her tall, slender figure was wrapped in a formfitting, long brown vest; loose white shirt; black tights; and boot tops. The white feather tucked into her black felt hat vibrated with temper as she pushed past him, Ean, and Jackson.
Megan settled her hands on her slim hips before confronting her cousin and business partner. “Ramona, you hired
Stan
for our children’s Halloween story time—
again
?”
Ramona looked toward the store’s entrance. “Has he arrived?”
Not for the first time, Darius wondered whether Ramona had chosen her costume—
Star Wars
’ Queen Amidala, complete with white jumpsuit and laser gun—as a tribute to her boyfriend, Quincy. Dr. Quincy Spates, who was now teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, couldn’t make this year’s Books & Bakery Halloween celebration. It was the first one he’d ever missed. But the
Star Wars
fanatic would have loved his girlfriend’s costume.
“No, Stan hasn’t arrived yet. Belinda told me you’d hired him.” Megan referred to Belinda Curby, the owner of Skin Deep Beauty Salon. “Ramona, why did you hire the town
drunk
to read to children
again
? Don’t you remember what happened the last time you did this?”
Ramona waved a dismissive hand. “That was last year. Stan’s a changed man now.”
“That’s what you said last time.” Megan’s words were almost incoherent behind her clenched teeth.
Ramona seemed to consider the accusation. “No, I didn’t.”
Darius judged the risk of entering the fray and decided his odds were good. “Megan, I understand your concern, but maybe this time will be different. Let’s give Stan a chance.”
If it were possible, smoke would have billowed from Megan’s ears. “Last year, he sang obscene bar songs to my customers—including the children.”
“And Mom took care of that.” Ean stepped closer to Megan, resting a hand on the small of her back.
Megan glanced at Ean. Her tense features eased just a bit. “That’s true. Thank goodness for Doreen.”
“Everyone deserves a second chance, wouldn’t you agree?” Darius appealed to Megan’s well-known sense of fairness.
“I’d agree.” Ramona nodded.
Megan spun on her. “Of course you would. You’re the one who hired him—
again
.”
“If Stan’s not sober, we’ll take care of it,” Jackson said. “But it’s worth the risk to give Stan another chance.”
Megan switched her glare from Ramona to Jackson. “How will you take care of it?”
Jackson shrugged. “I’ll take him home.”
“And I’ll take his place reading to the kids.” Ramona grinned. “They enjoyed my reading last year.”
Megan looked from Jackson to Ramona, then back. “All right.”
Darius’s relief was short-lived as Megan zeroed in on him, Jackson, and Ean. They were on the precipice of another crisis.
Megan clenched her fists. “Oh, for heaven’s sake! Where are your costumes?”
Ean rushed to reassure her. “We’re wearing costumes. I’m a corporate executive. I’m even wearing a power tie.” He smoothed the red silk fabric.
“I’m a repairman.” Jackson wore a brown flannel shirt tucked into faded blue jeans.
Megan narrowed her eyes at Darius. “Isn’t that the same outfit you wore last year?”
Darius touched his gray stitch fedora. The name tag on his teal sweater read M
EMBER OF THE
P
RESS. “I
couldn’t think of anything else.”
“It barely passed for a costume last year.” Megan scowled.
“Oh, here’s Peyton.” Ramona’s voice was excited. “Doesn’t she look
great
?”
Darius looked over his shoulder . . . and almost swallowed his tongue.
That
was Dr. Peyton Harris?
The pocket-sized siren striding toward him looked as though someone had painted her into an old-school Catwoman costume. She’d accessorized her black stretch polyester jumpsuit with matching gloves, a gold belt, and a long, gold coin necklace. Her headband with feline ears peeked over the top of her riot of copper curls. The university professor appeared to have stepped straight out of the campy 1960s
Batman
television series.
“You look
fantastic
.” Ramona greeted the shorter woman with a hug. Darius wanted to change places with the mayor.
Peyton returned Ramona’s embrace. “Thank you. I’ve never worn anything this revealing before.” She sounded nervous.
The professor stepped back and somehow ended up standing right beside him. How had Ramona managed that? Not that Darius was complaining.
“Thank you for wearing a costume.” Megan sent a scathing look toward him, Ean, and Jackson. “Not everyone got into the spirit of the event.”
Ean protested. “Honey, we’re wearing costumes. They’re just very simple.”
Peyton gave Darius a once-over. Her gaze lingered on his fedora. “What are you supposed to be?”
Darius tapped the white sticky label affixed to his sweater. “I’m the press.”
“Are you serious?” Peyton laughed. The warm sound bubbled up from her chest to pour over him like spring water. “You could have put a little more effort into it.”
“How?”
“I don’t know.” Peyton’s caramel eyes danced with amusement. “Maybe you could have used a prop like an audio recorder or even a pen. But really, this is just sorry.” Her voice broke on more laughter.
Darius gestured toward her jumpsuit. “You look great. I never would’ve guessed you were a Catwoman fan.”
Peyton’s laughter faded, but her smile remained. She had perfect teeth. “It was Ramona’s idea.”
He should have known. He’d bet his comic book collection that Ramona had encouraged Peyton to choose the Catwoman costume because the caped crusader was Darius’s favorite superhero.
Darius stilled. He was thinking like his father. The realization turned his stomach. Not everything revolved around him. Maybe Ramona just knew the little professor would make a hot Catwoman.
“Great party, Megan.” Simon’s greeting came from right behind Darius.
So his father had been serious about attending the event this year. Darius forced himself to relax and face the older man. Simon wore a brown cowboy hat, navy shirt, faded blue jeans, black boots, and a brown duster. His red kerchief around his neck completed the Wild West look.
Megan gave Simon a beaming smile. “Thank you, Simon. Great costume.” She sent another shaming look to the other men in the group.
“Thank you. I ordered it on the Internet.” Simon squeezed his way between Darius and the university professor. “And who do we have here?”
Darius made the introductions against his better judgment. “Dr. Peyton Harris, this is my father, Simon Knight.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Knight.” Peyton offered Simon a tentative smile.
“Call me Simon.” Was his father flirting with the professor?
“I’m Peyton.”
Tension built in Darius’s neck and shoulders as he observed Simon’s easy exchange with Peyton.
Am I actually jealous of my father?

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