Read Wishing Lake Online

Authors: Regina Hart

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

Wishing Lake (3 page)

He considered Simon’s costume again. “I didn’t think you’d come.”
“Your mother’s the one who never wanted to come.” Simon slid a glance toward Peyton. “Now that I’m a single man, I can go wherever I like.”
Darius’ stomach turned again. “You’re not single.”
Simon smiled. “Yet.”
A movement in the corner of his eye drew Darius’s attention. Stan Crockett hesitated just outside the group’s circle. Darius waved him closer. “Hey, Stan.”
“Hi, Darius.” Stan nodded at him. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders before turning to the McCloud women. “Good afternoon, Ramona, Megan. Thank you for giving me another chance with the children’s story time. I apologize for my behavior last year. I won’t disappoint you today.”
“Stan?” Megan blinked her wide cinnamon eyes. “You look great.”
Stan’s nervousness eased and a grin brightened his expression. “Thanks, I feel great. But I didn’t know whether I should wear a costume.”
Megan waved a hand. “A costume isn’t necessary.”
Darius shared a silent exchange with Ean and Jackson.
Megan’s surprise was understandable. The Stan Crockett standing with them today bore very little resemblance to the town drunk who’d sang dirty ditties to schoolchildren last year. His green eyes were clear and direct against his healthy, though pale, skin. His dark blond hair had been washed and professionally trimmed away from his clean-cut, sharp features. Black Dockers and a brown sweater hung loose on his thin, six-foot frame. But the clothes were clean.
Megan continued to stare at Stan. “I don’t mean to pry, but I’ve got to ask. What happened?”
Stan’s chuckle broke in the middle. His gaze circled the other six people in the group. “I’ve joined an alcoholics recovery program, thanks to Darius.”
All eyes turned to him. Darius kept his attention on Stan. “Stan’s been sober for almost a year. His recovery is all thanks to his own hard work.”
“No.” Stan’s reply was firm. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without your help and belief in me. You saved my life.”
Their stares bore into him. Darius registered Peyton’s attention more keenly than the others. But he was too self-conscious to return her gaze.
“Well, Darius, I guess you’re not an asshole.” Ramona’s drawl broke his tension.
He looked into her smiling ebony eyes. “That’s high praise from you.”
There was a time when he and Ramona couldn’t stand each other. Now that she was dating one of his best friends, they were both making an effort to get along.
Darius glanced toward the front of the store as three women entered dressed as flappers. He blinked, but the mirage didn’t disappear. The new arrivals only drew closer.
“Mom?” Darius blinked again.
Beside him, his father tensed. “Ethel?” Simon sounded as though he were choking.
Darius’s mother as well as Ean’s mother, Doreen, and Jackson’s girlfriend, Audra, wore similar flapper costumes: a black headband with a matching feather; sequined, tank-style dress with spaghetti straps and fringe hem; and black pumps. The only difference was the color of their dresses. Ethel’s was silver, Doreen’s copper, and Audra’s gold.
Jackson crossed to Audra. He took her arm and spun her around, causing her hem to flare. “You’re beautiful.”
“Great costume, Mom.” Ean’s voice was warm with affection.
Darius’s mother seemed like a different person. She looked ten years younger and ten times happier than he’d ever seen her. He didn’t know what to say.
Simon didn’t have that problem. “Ethel, what the hell’re you wearing?”
“Who the
hell
wants to know?” Ethel shot back.
“You look great, Mom.” Darius looked at the other two women. “You all do.”
“I feel happier than I have in thirty-four years.” Ethel slid her estranged husband a look before shimmying her hips so the fringe hem swirled around her.
“So do I.” Simon’s scowl contradicted his claim.
Darius rubbed his eyes with his left thumb and two fingers. Did either of his parents realize he’d been born thirty-four years ago? Did they care?
“Whose idea was the flapper costume?” Darius needed to change the subject. He was beyond tired of his parents’ constant bickering.
Doreen gestured toward Audra. “Our resident songwriter.”
Audra kept hold of Jackson’s hand. “I thought it would be fun to dress up as a female singing group.”
“What made you decide to come to the Halloween event this year?” Darius directed his question to Ethel. “You’ve never come before.”
Ethel jerked her chin toward Simon. “
He
never wanted to come before, so we stayed home. Doing nothing. As usual.”
Simon met Darius’s eyes before confronting Ethel. “Me?
You’re
the one who never wanted to come.”
Ethel’s glare was fierce. “What
bull
—”
“You can both do whatever you want, whenever you want. Why not stop arguing and enjoy that?” Darius’ stomach muscles twisted into familiar knots. He didn’t want his parents to argue, especially not in front of Peyton. She was new to Trinity Falls. Couldn’t they give her more time before exposing her to their craziness?
Ethel looked toward her coconspirators. “I’m real grateful to Doreen and Audra for letting me be a part of their group.”
Audra squeezed Ethel’s shoulder. “It’s our pleasure.”
Ethel glowed from Audra’s kind words. Why hadn’t his approval meant as much?
Simon’s scowl darkened. “You look ridiculous.”
Ethel struck a pose, cocking her right hip and pressing her palms into the small of her back. “Jealous?”
Peyton’s chuckle surprised Darius. She approached his mother, offering her hand. “Ms. Knight, I’m Peyton Harris, the new history professor with the university. It’s nice to meet you.”
Ethel shook her hand. “Yes, you arrived in the summer. Call me Ethel.”
“Thank you. I’m Peyton.”
“Darius!”
He turned at the sound of his name and saw his half brother, Noah Cale, striding toward him. Noah’s mother, June Cale, followed in his wake. This is what he’d been afraid of when Simon and Ethel had turned up at Books & Bakery this afternoon. From the look in June’s almond-shaped bright brown eyes, she had concerns about their reception as well.
Ethel’s voice shook with fury. “Who the
hell
invited them?”
“I did,” Darius answered quietly.
CHAPTER 3
This wasn’t what Darius had wanted. He’d never meant to hurt his mother. But he hadn’t expected Ethel or Simon to attend the costume party. They’d never come before.

You
invited them?” His mother’s brown eyes were filled with betrayal. “Why?”
“Because they’re my family.” Darius willed his mother to understand.
She didn’t.
Ethel turned her scorching glare on Simon, who flinched from its heat. She gave June and Noah a dismissive look before disappearing into the café.
Peyton felt the tension rolling over her shoulders and up her neck. And she’d thought there was drama in her family. What had just happened?
“I’m sorry.” There was pain in Darius’s voice as he apologized to his two guests. It broke Peyton’s heart.
“It’s not your fault.” The woman put a protective hand on the young man’s arm.
Darius embraced her. She hugged him back. A sharp pain twisted in Peyton’s gut. Envy? No way! But who was this pretty lady? There was no denying the resemblance between Darius and the young man. Was he Darius’ son? Impossible! The newspaper reporter was too young to have a son who looked to be seventeen years old. What was going on?
“I’m glad you came.” Darius stepped back but didn’t release the woman’s right hand. “Everyone, I’d like to introduce you to my brother, Noah Cale, and his mother, June. They’re visiting from Sequoia.”
His brother.
Relief hit her like a tidal wave. Sequoia was one of the towns near Trinity Falls. Peyton remembered seeing signs for it as she’d driven into town.
She glanced at Simon. He was staring at the trio with wonder. Now she better understood the vitriol between Simon and Ethel. If Noah was his son—and there was no denying the family resemblance—he would have been born right in the middle of Simon and Ethel’s thirty-four years of marriage. How long had Ethel known of Simon’s betrayal with this much-younger woman? That kind of hurt cut deep. But Darius was right. Noah was his brother. He had a right to know him. In the reporter’s position, Peyton would have done the same thing.
Darius continued the introductions, moving counterclockwise through the group. “Doreen Fever. Audra Lane. Stan Crockett. Megan McCloud. Our mayor, Ramona McCloud. Dr. Peyton Harris. Ean Fever. And my boss, Jackson Sansbury.” He skipped Simon.
June looked a little overwhelmed. A blush pinkened her brown-sugar features. She dragged her fingers through the short, dark brown curls that exploded around her makeup-free oval face. “It’s a pleasure to meet you all. Darius has told us so much about you.”
Peyton added her greeting to the chorus of welcomes.
Ean gave Darius’s brother a considering look. “I understand you play tight end for Sequoia High’s football team.”
“That’s right.” Noah’s cocky grin was identical to Darius’s. “And I understand you were Heritage High’s star quarterback. Back in the day.”
Laughter rolled through the group. Even Peyton enjoyed the exchange. Trash-talking must be another family trait.
Ean tossed his young target a calculating smile. “Trinity Falls was undefeated against Sequoia—back in my day.”
“In mine, too.” Jackson crossed his arms over his broad chest. “That would make it four straight years of Trinity Falls’s dominance over Sequoia.”
Noah threw back his head and laughed. “Well, if you old-timers have been reading the news, you’d know the tide has turned in the
decades
since you played high school ball. Sequoia has evened up the contest. In fact, we’re going to beat you next month.”
Peyton grinned at this form of male bonding. The laughter and comments coming from the rest of the group indicated she wasn’t the only one enjoying the exchange.
Jackson looked at Ean before arching a brow at the high school athlete. “You think so?”
“It’s inevitable.” Darius clamped a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Sequoia hasn’t lost to Trinity Falls since Noah joined the team.”
Simon’s laughter boomed with pride. “Of course they haven’t. Noah’s a Knight.”
“Actually, he’s a Cale.” June’s voice was mild, but her brown eyes were steely.
Jackson tilted his head, meeting Darius’s gaze. “Care to put a wager on that game?”
Ean’s eyes widened. “D, you’re going to bet against your alma mater?”
Darius shook his head. “I’m not betting against Heritage. I’m betting on my brother.”
Peyton’s heart melted at Darius’s words. Noah’s face darkened with a blush. The look he gave his older brother was near hero worship.
“I’ll take your bet.” Darius held his hand out to Jackson. “Loser buys the winner a beer.”
Jackson shook Darius’s hand. “Deal.”
Noah frowned. “I can’t drink.”
“You can’t gamble on the game, either, genius.” Darius lightly smacked the back of his brother’s head.
“Hey, careful with the hair,” Noah protested, smoothing the close-cut style that also resembled Darius’s.
Darius shook his head. “Was I ever that vain?”
“Yes.” Five voices—Jackson, Ean, Megan, Ramona, and Doreen—assured him.
Peyton wiped tears of laughter from her eyes. She was glad she’d let Ramona talk her into coming to the celebration. These friends formed a family. They showed each other unconditional love and unwavering support, with few exceptions. It was a new experience for her, one she welcomed.
“I want in on this bet.” Ean’s comment drew her from her wistful thoughts.
Darius offered Ean his hand. “Absolutely. You can buy me an order of spicy buffalo wings.”
“Now, wait a minute.” June grabbed Darius’s wrist, stopping the men from shaking hands. She offered Ean her hand instead. “You can buy
my
beer.”
Laughter erupted again.
Darius patted June’s shoulder. “That’s the spirit, June. Anyone else want to stand with the champions?”
Megan smiled. “Darius, I love you, but you’ve lost your mind if you think Heritage is going down to Sequoia. You can buy my beer next month.”
“And mine, too.” Ramona set her hands on her trim hips. “The mayor’s office will always support Heritage.”
“You’ve got that right,” Doreen agreed. “Especially after all the time and money I poured into that football program.”
Audra chuckled. “Something tells me I won’t have access to Doreen’s Trinity Falls Fudge Walnut Brownies if I bet against Heritage.”
“That’s fine.” Darius wrapped his arms around Noah and June again. “It’ll just be the three of us against
all
of you.”
“Not so fast.” Stan stepped forward to stand beside June. “I’m putting my chips in with you. But someone can buy me a soda if Sequoia wins.”
The group cheered again.
Simon squared his shoulders. “There’s no way I’m betting against my sons.”
Noah’s eyes widened as though taken off guard by the older man’s words.
Peyton was lost in the moment. Laughter and friendship carried her away. Without stopping to think, she jumped sides. “I’m probably making a politically inadvisable move, considering I’m new to Trinity Falls and a professor with the local university. But for once, I don’t want to play by the rules.” Peyton pumped her fist in the air. “Go, Sequoia!”
Did the surprise in Darius’s eyes mirror her own expression?
Boos and hisses mingled with cheers. But Peyton heard only Darius’s laughter, warm, deep, and rumbling. She studied his close-cropped hair, angular features, smiling lips, then lost herself in his midnight eyes. This was the reason women in Trinity Falls were infatuated with Darius Knight. Yes, he was handsome—extremely attractive—and smart. But he also helped the town drunk get sober. He cheered for his school’s rival because his brother was on Sequoia’s team. He was a player with a heart of gold. She could see herself falling for him.
Peyton stiffened at the realization. She forced her attention away from Darius. She didn’t need any more complications in her life. She had plenty to deal with as it was.
“Enough trash-talking, people.” Megan raised her voice for attention. “We need to get ready for story time.”
“Have you always been this bossy?” Ramona grumbled.
“Yes, you just chose not to notice.” Megan’s response was dry. “Stan, are you ready for your big moment?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Stan sounded confident. But his movements seemed nervous as he smoothed his brown sweater. He followed Megan across the front of the store to the area set up for story time.
Megan seated Stan in an ornate, red velvet throne decorated for Halloween. Two large fake human skulls were staked to the seat’s high back, and two smaller ones were driven onto the chair’s arms. After Megan announced story time, Peyton watched as a stampede of children charged toward Stan.
Young children raced forward. Toddlers rocked on unsteady legs. Even teenagers managed to join the growing crowd without abdicating their cool. There were princesses and warriors, soldiers and other superheroes, astronauts and characters Peyton should have known—and would have if she watched more television.
Ean and Ramona joined Megan near the reading area. Audra tugged Jackson along behind her. The newspaper publisher looked as though he’d follow her anywhere.
“You coming?” Noah directed the question to his older brother.
Darius shook his head. “No, but you and June go ahead.”
Noah and his mother joined the rest of the group at the perimeter of the entertainment. The young man grabbed a handful of wrapped chocolates from one of several candy bowls around the store. The crystal dishes were shaped like decaying hands.
Peyton surveyed the themed decorations hanging from the ceiling, affixed to the walls, and draped over the bookshelves. “Megan must love Halloween.”
Darius eyed the decorations. “She loves all of the holidays.”
Peyton nodded toward the story time area. “Stan looks amazed to have all those kids surrounding him.”
Doreen hummed. “In the past, when they saw Stan, most people turned away.” She looked at Darius. “You did a wonderful thing, helping him pull his life together.”
“That was very caring of you.” Peyton wondered at the blush rising up Darius’s neck.
“Stan’s a good guy.” Darius’s voice was tight. “He just needed a nudge in the right direction.”
Doreen’s eyes widened. “Look at him. You did more than nudge.”
“OK, ladies, let’s change the subject.” Darius nodded toward the store’s entrance. “Doreen, you’ve got company.”
Doreen looked toward the front of the store. Her body warmed as she watched Sheriff Alonzo Lopez stride toward her. His was tall and lean in his sheriff’s tan shirt, black tie, and spruce-green gabardine pants. He took off his brown felt campaign hat, revealing his still-dark, wavy brown hair. His coffee-brown gaze was intense; his chiseled café-au-lait features serious. As he drew closer, his gaze swept her from head to toe. The way he looked at her in her copper flapper’s dress made her want to take it off.
Alonzo stopped in front of her. He greeted Simon, Peyton, and Darius before giving Doreen a quick kiss. It was a brief touch of lips that made her want more.
“You stop my heart,
mi amor
.” His voice was low and rough.
“Now you know how I feel when I look at you.”
Alonzo’s eyes widened. How could her comment possibly surprise him? Even now she was struggling not to swoon at the handsome lawman’s feet. “I’m glad you stopped by.”
“So am I.” His gaze dropped again to her dress.
Doreen’s cheeks heated. “I wish you could stay.”
“So do I. But it means a lot for the deputies with young children to attend the celebration with their families.”
He’d said the same thing last year. She admired him for putting others’ needs before his own, but it would mean a lot to her to share this time with him, too. “Next year, maybe you could ask one of the other deputies without young children to mind the town while you attend our Halloween celebration.”
Alonzo gave her a sexy smile. “That’s my intention.”
Doreen’s lips parted in surprise. She hadn’t expected him to agree so quickly. “Great. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to your Day of the Dead celebration.”
Day of the Dead, a rather daunting name for a holiday that brings family and friends together to pray for and remember loved ones who’ve died. Doreen was excited to experience this Mexican holiday with him and their friends: Ean, Megan, Ramona, Jackson, Audra, Darius, and Ms. Helen.
“I’m glad you’re coming.” Alonzo took her hand. “It’s important to remember our loved ones. Our memories keep them alive.”
Doreen squeezed his hand. “It sounds like a very special celebration. I’ll arrive a little early to help you get ready.”
Alonzo was silent for several moments, holding her eyes. “Thank you. I’d better get back to work.” He gave her another kiss before straightening away from her.
She leaned into him, breathing his scent, soap and shaving cream. “I’ll see you tonight.”
Alonzo looked her over again. “Don’t change your clothes.” With a wink, he turned to leave, nodding good-bye to their friends.
Doreen’s cheeks flushed. As she watched Alonzo cross the bookstore, she wondered whether her grin was as goofy as it felt. Alonzo held the door open for Nessa Linden, the Trinity Falls town council member and dental office manager, then he disappeared on the street.
Nessa made a beeline to the café entrance where Doreen stood with Simon, Peyton, and Darius.
Still glowing from Alonzo’s flirtatious farewell, Doreen smiled as the smaller woman came to a stop in front of her. “Hello, Nessa. Nice costume.”
“I wish I could say the same, Doreen.” Nessa’s smile was cool. “Do you really think it’s appropriate for a Trinity Falls mayoral candidate to
ever
wear a flapper costume?”
It took Doreen a moment to register Nessa’s attack. Although they’d grown up together in Trinity Falls, they’d never been close. But their relationship had chilled even more since the town’s sesquicentennial celebration last August. Why?

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