Read Wishing Lake Online

Authors: Regina Hart

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

Wishing Lake (6 page)

The former high school and college football player returned to the group. Ms. Helen offered him a smile as she patted his arm.
Alonzo retrieved the bottle of red wine he’d saved for after the tributes. With Doreen’s help, he filled and distributed the nine glasses. He asked his friends to bow their heads for a small prayer.
After the appeal, he lifted his glass. “A toast. To our loved ones who’ve passed on and the memories they’ve left behind.”
He watched Doreen as he shared the toast. A cloud swept over her features. She averted her gaze from his and grew quiet again. If celebrating the Day of the Dead together didn’t prove his feelings to her, what more did he have to do?

 

Darius sensed a trap. “You want me to chair a fundraising committee?”
Had Jackson lost his mind?
Darius eyed his publisher warily from the cushioned gray guest chair opposite Jackson’s polished oak desk. It was Monday morning, the day before the mayoral election. He had enough on his mind without puzzling the reason for this assignment.
In the almost four months since Jackson had resumed his responsibilities as publisher and editor-in-chief of
The Trinity Falls Monitor
, he’d settled into his office and routine as though he’d never left. That was thanks in large part to Audra. During the five months the couple had been together, she’d worked miracles on the former recluse who’d retreated from life after his young daughter’s death. Darius was glad to have his friend and boss back at work. At least he had been—until Jackson sprang this morning’s assignment on him.
Darius lowered his eyes while he tried to figure out his pal’s plan. His gaze settled on Jackson’s overloaded desk. On one corner was a stack of newspapers from neighboring towns as well as the nearby metropolitan paper, Cleveland’s
The Plain Dealer
. Sitting on the opposite corner, closer to his computer, was a photo of Audra, laughing as she displayed the bass she’d caught during one of their many fishing trips. Next to that image was a framed picture of Jackson’s daughter, Zoey, who’d died just before her ninth birthday, almost twenty months ago. The pain of her loss had overwhelmed Jackson. If it weren’t for Audra’s love and support, he wouldn’t have been able to keep Zoey’s photo on his desk. That would have been a shame.
Darius caught Jackson’s dark eyes. “Why me?”
“You were at the town council meeting last week.” Jackson propped his elbows on the arms of his black executive chair. “Before she leaves office, Ramona wants to establish a committee to raise funds for the community center’s renovation. It needs a lot of upgrades.”
Jackson’s answer was evasive.
Darius tried again. “Why do you want me to cochair the committee? I cover the news. I’ll write articles about the campaign and what the committee’s doing. But I can’t do a balanced job covering the news if I’m part of the story.”
“You won’t cover this story. Opal will.”
Darius rubbed his eyes with his left thumb and two fingers. Opal Gutierrez was the
Monitor
’s rookie reporter. Darius questioned her training. He’d once accused her of being more like a Dictaphone than a newspaper reporter. Now she was assigned to cover a story in which he was involved. How would she approach it?
Darius gave a mental shrug. He didn’t need to worry. He wasn’t going to be part of the story. “I’ve never chaired a fundraiser.”
“But you can convince people to do things you think are right, whether they want to do it or not.” Jackson smiled. “You convinced Stan to get sober.”
Darius shook his head. “That’s not the same as talking them into giving me their money.”
“Close enough.”
“Come on, Jack.” Darius gave his boss a skeptical look. “What’s this really about?”
“The community center is very important to the town.” Jackson crossed his arms. “I want the
Monitor
to be represented on the committee.”
Jackson’s words were sincere, but Darius didn’t buy them. “Then why don’t you chair it?”
“It would be overkill to have the publisher on the committee.”
Darius wasn’t buying that one, either. “Then Opal can sit on the committee and I’ll cover the story.”
Jackson shook his head. “I want you to represent the paper.”
Is it possible he’d misjudged his friend’s intention? “I’m flattered, Jack. But I’m not qualified for this assignment.”
Jackson held up his hands, palms out. “You wouldn’t be leading the committee by yourself. You’d be working with a cochair.”
The muscles at the back of his neck tensed with suspicion. “Who?”
“Someone you know.” Jackson didn’t hesitate. “Dr. Peyton Harris.”
Darius shook his head in disbelief. “So this is another attempt at matchmaking. Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“No.”
“I’ve heard that when people are in love, they want everyone to be in a relationship. But this is ridiculous.”
“Why?”
Darius considered his boss and longtime friend. “Audra brought joy back into your life. Megan helped Ean reconsider his priorities. And Ramona is keeping Q from becoming an old maid. I’m happy for you guys. But don’t try to fix me up. It’s obnoxious.”
Jackson sobered. “D, I’m saying this as a friend. You’re becoming surly. You need someone to bring out your better side.”
“Thanks for the tip.” Darius stood.
“Just because your parents don’t have a happy marriage doesn’t mean you won’t.”
Someone had put Jackson up to this latest matchmaking ploy. Who was it? Doreen? Megan? Ramona? Quincy?
Darius frowned. “How did you jump from my dating Peyton to my marrying her?”
“She seems perfect for you.”
“Why?”
“Because she frog-marched you out of her office the first time she met you.” Jackson’s expressionless tone and features masked his reaction to what Darius had thought was a little-known incident.
His skin warmed. “Quincy has a big mouth.”
“He also has a point. Women usually try to hold on to you. Peyton literally threw you out.” Jackson laughed at his own joke.
“I’m glad I can amuse you.”
Jackson sobered. “Peyton is intelligent, attractive, kind, and employed. Why aren’t you interested in her?”
“She’s not interested in me, either, so you might was well stop trying to get us together.”
Darius strode out of Jackson’s office door and set a course for his cubicle. He was running away, this time from Jackson’s comments and questions. What good would they do? He’d spent so much time running and hiding from his emotions, he didn’t think he could feel anymore. He was like the Tin Man in
The Wizard of Oz
, searching for a heart.
CHAPTER 6
Peyton stared at her ringing cell phone Monday morning. It was Bruce. Again. He’d called twice today. Each time, he’d left the same message:
Peyton, it’s Bruce. Call me.
But she hadn’t. She knew what he wanted. Undoubtedly, her mother had called him to invite him to spend Christmas in Aruba with the Harris family. In turn, Bruce wanted to know why Peyton hadn’t extended the invitation to him first. Imagining their pending conversation was giving her a headache.
Her cell phone finally stopped ringing, but her relief was short-lived. Bruce didn’t leave a message this time, which meant he’d run out of patience—and she’d run out of time.
Peyton checked her wristwatch. It was just after ten o’clock in the morning. Her next appointment wasn’t for another four hours, when Darius would arrive to interview her for his article on Dr. Hartford’s retirement.
No more excuses, Peyton. Return Bruce’s call.
She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and touched the CALL button next to Bruce’s number. He answered on the second ring.
“Where have you been? I’ve called you three times.” He barked his greeting.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been in classes.” Her initial impulse was to snap back at him. Why hadn’t she?
“Never mind.” He exhaled a short, irritated breath. In the background, Bruce’s keyboard clacked in time with his hunt-and-peck rhythm. “Irene told me she and Carlson plan to spend Christmas in Aruba, and they want us to join them. Why did I have to hear this from Irene?
You
should have told me. I felt like a fool.”
“I’m sorry.” Again she bit her tongue even as she fantasized about wrapping his around his throat.
Peyton rotated her chair to face the window. In the distance, the little pond the university community called Wishing Lake reflected the late-morning sun. The kidney-shaped body of water lay near the edge of the campus. A wandering cement walkway framed the lake. In the center, a fountain kept the water in constant motion.
Wishing Lake . . . How many coins would it take to wish away my engagement?
“Don’t do it again. You know I hate being caught off guard. Hold on.” Bruce moved his telephone receiver away from his mouth. Still Peyton heard him tell his secretary, Leila, to make fifteen copies of the report he’d just approved. His voice was pleasant when he spoke to Leila. As pleasant as he’d been with Peyton before he’d proposed. Peyton glanced at her naked ring finger. Since leaving New York, she’d kept the four-carat, princess-cut diamond ring in its box in her suitcase.
Bruce returned to the line. “All right. Where were we? I told Irene we’d join them in Aruba.”
Peyton grew cold, as though the autumn temperature had seeped into her skin. “I wish you hadn’t done that.”
“Hold on.” Bruce called to Leila again, asking her to send a fax. His request was as sweet as sugar. “Of course we’re going to Aruba with Irene and Carlson. It’s what they want.”
What about what
I
want? When was the last time someone had respected
my
wishes?
Her knitted brow cleared with realization. Five months ago. That was when Darius had agreed not to do an article about her for the
Monitor
. She’d been so afraid her parents and Bruce would come across the interview on the Internet and learn that Trinity Falls University wasn’t a temporary aberration in her otherwise dutiful life. At first, the reporter had tried to pressure her into granting him an interview. But he’d eventually accepted her decision. He’d even bought her a dozen yellow roses to apologize for being a jerk. The memory made her smile.
“Did you hear me?” Bruce’s sharp question burst Peyton’s warm bubble.
“Excuse me?”
Another sigh. “I said we leave the morning of December thirteenth. Irene and I will give you the rest of the itinerary while you’re in New York for Thanksgiving.”
Peyton’s beautiful view of vibrant autumn leaves and sunlight bouncing like diamonds on the surface of Wishing Lake darkened to a vision of a lifetime spent with other people ordering her around. “I can’t leave December thirteenth. That’s the day of the university’s winter commencement.”
“You’ll have to miss it.”
Oh, no, I won’t.
“I’d rather not. One of the joys of being a professor is watching your students walk during commencement.”
“What about Irene and Carlson? After all they’ve done for you over the years, all they’re asking in return is that you spend Christmas with them. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to spend Christmas in the Caribbean?”
Irene and Bruce seemed to work from the same playbook when it came to pressuring Peyton. If bullying didn’t work, try guilt. Had Bruce picked that up on his own, or had Irene made the suggestion?
Peyton remained silent.
Bruce continued. “Don’t tell me you’d rather spend Christmas in that boring little town.”
That comment rubbed Peyton the wrong way. “You can’t judge Trinity Falls when you’ve never even been here.”
“Before you decided to spend a semester there, I’d never even heard of it.”
“Well, you’ve heard of it now.” Unconsciously, Peyton had clenched her free hand into a fist. She forced herself to relax.
“Don’t tell me you’re getting fond of that place. You’ve only been there a couple of months.”
It had been five months. But it was good to know her fiancé wasn’t missing her. “I enjoy it here. It’s a lovely town with a welcoming community.”
“Well, don’t enjoy it too much. You’re returning to New York next month. Hold on.” He moved the phone from his mouth again and called to Leila.
Peyton had had more than enough. “Listen, Bruce, it sounds as though you have a lot of work to do. I need to get ready for my next class. Let’s wait until I come home before we confirm our Christmas arrangements.”
“The arrangements can’t wait, Peyton.” Bruce seemed to have dismissed her as he directed Leila to move his next day’s meetings around to accommodate a business luncheon.
“Why not?” Desperation sharpened Peyton’s tone.
“Today’s November third. Thanksgiving is another three weeks away. Irene’s already confirmed the trip with her travel agent.”
Peyton spun back to her desk. The muscles in her shoulders knotted. “Has she confirmed the dates and the number of tickets?”
“Yes.” Bruce’s keyboard clacked in the background. “Everything’s set. All you have to do is show up.”
Peyton swallowed a scream of frustration. “Bruce—”
“I’ve got to go, Peyton. When you get home, we’ll set the wedding date.”
Peyton listened to the dial tone in disbelief. Despite her objections, her mother and fiancé had booked her on a Christmas cruise to Aruba. They’d disregarded her wishes. Again.
And Bruce wanted to set a wedding date. Won’t he be surprised when she returns his engagement ring instead?

 

“Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.” Darius’s warm baritone strummed the muscles in Peyton’s lower abdomen as the reporter followed her farther into her university office Monday afternoon.
“As long as the article’s not about me, I’m glad to give the
Monitor
an interview.” She was impressed by his manners as he waited for her to take her seat before folding his long, lean body into one of her two gray visitor’s chairs.
“You still don’t trust me.”
Peyton tensed at his accusation. “I’m just verifying that the article you’re interviewing me for is about Dr. Hartford’s retirement.”
“That’s what I told you on the phone when we scheduled this interview.” Darius propped his right ankle on his left knee. He spread open his reporter’s notebook on his well-muscled right thigh. “What makes you think that’s changed?”
Peyton considered opening the window behind her desk just a bit. Her office had become very warm.
She lifted her gaze to meet the challenge in Darius’s eyes. His evasive answer didn’t put her at ease. “So it’s still your intent to write a tribute article on Dr. Hartford?”
“Very impressive.” A taunting smile spread Darius’s well-formed lips. “Instead of giving in to the impulse to punch me in the nose, you formulated that very proper and professional question. Did you develop your patience from teaching or did you go into teaching because you have patience?”
Peyton took her time studying the reporter’s impossibly good-looking face: his classic sepia features; broad forehead; almond-shaped, midnight eyes; long nose; high cheekbones; full, well-shaped lips; and stubborn, squared chin. He was the most attractive man she’d ever met, and at this moment, she wanted to strike him.
“You’re right.” Peyton clung to the patience that so impressed the reporter. “I do want to punch you in the nose.”
Darius threw back his handsome head and laughed. The sound—deep, full, and free—was infectious. Peyton struggled against her own smile.
His laughter quieted to a grin. Even his teeth were perfect. “What do I have to do to get you to trust me?”
“You can start by giving me a straight answer to my question.”
“All right.” Darius sat up on his chair and became very serious. “Dr. Harris, I’d like to interview you today for the article I’m writing on Dr. Hartford’s retirement.”
“Now, was that so hard?” Peyton folded her hands on her desk and leaned forward.
“No, it wasn’t.” Darius’s penetrating stare caught and held Peyton’s eyes.
She grew warm and flustered beneath his fixed regard. Her pulse beat too fast. She struggled with her breathing. Her thighs quivered. Peyton dropped her gaze. She never felt this way when Bruce looked at her. But everything about Darius—his looks, his voice, his scent—made her want to throw caution—as well as her underwear—to the wind.
Good heavens, why was she thinking about flinging her underwear at a virtual stranger? A blush scalded Peyton’s cheeks. Her fiancé considered her cold. But if Darius could make her feel this way, the problem wasn’t with her. No wonder most of the women in Trinity Falls were chasing after him.
“What questions do you want to ask me?” Was that husky voice hers?
“You’ve done a really great job with this office.” Darius looked around. “It’s much nicer than when Quincy had it.”
“Oh?” Peyton kept her eyes on the reporter. It wasn’t a hardship.
“Quincy’s a slob, at least at work.” Darius’s eyes roamed her office. “His house is clean. But when he had this office, it was cluttered, covered in dust, and reeked of burned coffee.”
Peyton frowned. “He must have worked really hard on it before he left. It was very clean when I arrived.”
“It even smells better in here.” He caught her gaze again. “It smells like you.”
Heat rose in Peyton’s cheeks. “What do I smell like?”
“Talcum powder and lilies.”
She swallowed hard. “It’s important to me that students feel comfortable and welcome in my office. They won’t feel that way if they have to climb over books to reach my desk or move stacks of papers before they sit.”
“That didn’t seem to bother Quincy.” Darius gave her an admiring look.
Was he flirting with her? “What questions did you want to ask me about Dr. Hartford?”
Darius’s lips curved in a slight smile. He pulled a mini audio recorder from his inside jacket pocket, pressed a button, then put the recorder on Peyton’s desk.
Peyton eyed the technology suspiciously. “You’re going to record the interview?”
“I thought you’d be happy about that. This way, you don’t have to worry that I might misquote you.”
She nodded toward his notebook. “Why are you taking notes if you have a recorder?”
“It’s in case the recorder fails. I like to be prepared.”
Peyton gave him a skeptical look. She wasn’t comfortable with the recorder, but he did have a point. There was less of a chance he’d misquote her if he recorded their interview. “OK. I’m ready.”
Darius sat back in his seat. “Dr. Hartford is an institution, not only at the university but also in Trinity Falls. As a new faculty member and a new resident to our town, what are your impressions of his many contributions to the university?”
Peyton’s eyebrows rose. He’d impressed her with his first question. She felt challenged to give him an equally impressive answer. And that’s how it went for the next thirty minutes. Darius tossed her thought-provoking questions for which she had to focus to provide intelligent answers. At the end of the half hour, she was ready for a nap. She’d settle for a beverage.
“Can I offer you a bottle of water?” Peyton rose and crossed to her mini-fridge on the other side of her desk.
“Thanks.” Darius’s pen raced across his notebook a moment longer.
Peyton circled his chair on her way to the refrigerator. She glanced over his shoulder, curious about the notes he was taking. His handwriting was illegible.
“It’s a good thing you recorded my answers. Can
you
read that scribble?” Peyton surprised herself. She wasn’t used to teasing people. The residents of Trinity Falls were changing her.
Darius looked at her over his shoulder. “It’s shorthand.”
“If you say so.” She continued toward her mini-fridge. But with her next step, her heel caught on her office’s small, multicolored area rug. She grabbed the back of Darius’s chair to keep her balance.
Darius leaped to his feet, catching her waist to steady her. “Are you OK?”
In reflex, Peyton grabbed hold of his upper arms. She was more disconcerted by Darius’s quick action than her near fall. She stared up at him, eyes wide and lips parted. “You have great reflexes.”
His concerned expression softened. “It comes from playing ball.”
“Oh.” Her grip tightened on his biceps. The hard muscles beneath his navy jacket sleeves fascinated her. He must still work out. A lot.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
She tried to step back, but Darius held her fast. “Yes, I’m just embarrassed.”

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