Authors: Lotchie Burton
“I know that sounds a bit pompous,” he chuckled and held his hand up, “but let me explain. What I mean is that my usual experience with women, from start to finish, is average. There are no sparks or fireworks. And I'm okay with that. I
average. It's safe. But I don't feel safe around you. Instead of tucking tail and running like I know I should, I want to know why.”
“Well, you just put it all out there. No hesitation or beating around the bush. Don't you keep anything to yourself?” Her arms were still crossed.
“Sure I do. But as a rule, I don't like secrets. Secrets create drama, and I don't like drama. Life is complicated enough. I want to be honest with you, Candace. I don't know where this date is headed or if it will lead to something more, but I'd like to have all the facts before taking that next step.”
Candace picked up her wine glass and gazed at the contents before lifting her eyes to meet his. “I appreciate your honesty and your methodical approach to the âproblem.' But I have to tell you I'm beginning to feel like some kind of science project or something. You're not the only one who'll be affected by this little experiment of yours, Brice. I'm a living, breathing person with thoughts and feelings. And contrary to your aversion to âsparks and fireworks,' I thrive on them. For me, there's nothing more satisfying than the rush of dancing on the edge or playing with fire. Granted, the fireworks might explode in my face, but that's a chance I'm willing to take just for the adventure.”
She took a sip of wine and stared into his eyes.
Brice smiled. “That's precisely what fascinates me and makes me careful. I think you'd make me reckless and throw caution to the wind, and that would disrupt my otherwise well-ordered and meticulous life. I'm happy with my life as is.”
I wish I were as sure now as I was four days ago.
the âreputation' you alluded to? That's it? That you're a cautious, no-frills, no-fireworks kind of guy?”
“Yep, I'm afraid so. There are no deep dark secrets here; I'm just an average guy trying to maintain my average life.”
“Yeah, right.” She snorted into her glass. “I'll believe that when I see it. I think you should know, I Googled you, and there's nothing âaverage' about you. You're all over social media, and your parents are high-profile too, with ties to the White House.”
“That was a long time ago. My father retired from the embassy when the last president left office. He and my mother are tourists now, traveling to places they've never been, and returning to see others from a different perspective. As a matter of fact they're currently away on a yearlong trip to explore Europe, Asia, and South Africa. They'll probably spend most of their time volunteering, though. They're a couple of diehard activist types.”
“That sounds exciting. Did you travel with them when you were younger? Do you have any siblings?”
“Yes, I did. And, no, I'm an only child. But I never really felt like an only child because wherever we lived, my mother practically adopted every kid in the neighborhood. She welcomed everyone into our home, especially other consulate members and their families. We Americans tend to stick together like family. You could say that I was practically raised abroad, because we didn't actually settle in the U.S. until I was in my late teens. Other than English, I speak three languages fluently.”
“How did you end up here in Atlanta?”
“My mother is originally from here. She and my father met in college. He was a political science major and she was prelaw. They married young, and Dad worked for the Department of State and the Foreign Services for years, moving up the ranks. I was eight years old when Dad got his first foreign assignment as a consulate general.”
“Wow. It must have been exciting growing up in so many different places. My dad traveled for his job a lot when I was young, but we never went with him.”
“What did he do?”
“He was, and still is, a community investment consultant for global banking. Don't ask me what that means; I've never understood it. It has something to do with money and numbers and the global economy. I know enough to balance my checking account and pay my bills, and that's good enough for me.”
He chuckled. “And your mom, what does she do? Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“My parents met on the job. My mother was also working in the field of global banking and economy. So it was natural they'd hit it off. I'm sure you've already guessed that I'm biracial. My mother is Caucasian and my father is African American. So, I guess you could say,” she gave him a slight smile, “I've grown up with my own version of cultural diversity.”
Being the product of two different worlds, Candace had always been caught in between, never completely at home or accepted in either. She was too white to be black and too black to be white, and was never made to feel good enough for either race. No matter how self-assured and independent she was in nearly every aspect of her life, she still harbored deep-seated doubts about where she truly belonged. Even with changing views on interracial relationships and fewer raised eyebrows, in the end, ingrained traditions and beliefs often stifled the intrusive voice of diversity.
“Here's to cultural diversity, and may we continue to learn and explore whatever life has to offer.” Brice, interrupting her thoughts, raised his glass for a toast.
“Here, here,” she chimed in as she touched her glass to his. “And I have one older brother, whom I adore. He's my personal superhero and self-appointed protector.”
She smiled inwardly at the thought. Her brother wasn't the only one who looked after her. Her entire family was overprotective. It didn't matter that she was nearly thirty years old; everyone still thought of her as the baby. But some things even her family couldn't protect her from, like her notoriously bad relationship decisions that often led to disastrous results.
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They finished their meals, and as the waiter left to get their dessert order, Brice saw a familiar figure across the room. Blaine Stanford, an old friend he hadn't seen in at least eight months, was standing and talking with another man. Brice informed Candace about his friend and excitedly excused himself to go over and say hi. Blaine was the dictionary definition of tall, dark, and handsome, with dark, coffee-brown skin, gleaming white teeth, and short cropped hair. He was the perfect picture of success in his crisp dark-gray suit, black shirt, and tie.
“Blaine! Man, when did you get back in town? I haven't seen you in ages.”
“Brice. Well if it isn't my blue-eyed soul brother.” He chuckled in a deep baritone voice as they shook hands and briefly embraced. “I should have known I'd run into you since this place is so close to your stomping grounds. How are you? And where's David?” He gave a sweeping search of the room. “Aren't you two usually joined at the hip?”
“I'm here with a date.” Brice gestured in the direction of where he'd left Candace.
“Um, I see you still have a sweet tooth for chocolate.” Blaine's playful sarcasm was evident as he eyed Brice's date. “And I'll be damned if you don't always pick the choicest pieces from the box.”
Brice grinned at his remark. The two of them had been friends for years, but it had taken Blaine time to accept that Brice's craving wasn't simply a matter of curiosity.
“Unfortunately for you, my friend, you've got more to worry about than me stealing from the candy dish. Our friend David has recently discovered his own love for rich dark chocolate. And he's hooked, but good. As a matter of fact, he's gone and swept his lady-love off on a tropical vacation for a few weeks. They wanted some private time together to get better acquainted.”
Blaine gave Brice a startled and confused look. “What the hell are you talking about, man? First of all, David wouldn't let himself be tied down by
woman. And secondly, I know the type of women he's interested inâblonde, bony, and brainless. Are you telling me he got taken down by a sista?”
“That's exactly what I'm telling you. This woman has him so tied up in knots that it won't be long before she has him walking down the aisle.”
“Damn. That's some serious shit. And speaking of serious,” Blaine said as he looked over Brice's shoulder. “I think maybe you'd better get back to your table, man. It looks like someone is making a move on your woman, and she doesn't look too happy about it, either.”
Brice turned to see a tall, lean man with shaggy light-brown hair leaning over Candace and invading her personal space. He was immaculately dressed and stood out with his light hair, pale white skin, and good looks. Candace was clearly upset.
“Yeah, I think you're right.”
There was obviously history between them. The man leaned in close and rested one hand on the chair, deliberately brushing the other across her cheek and down her arm. His conduct showed a brazen lack of respect. “Excuse me, Blaine. We'll play catch-up later, but right now, I need to get back to my date.”
Candace watched Brice as he talked with his friend, loath to admit her fascination with this handsome and unusual man. He was actually a pretty nice guy, a far cry from what she normally scraped from the bottom of the barrel. She'd forgotten what it was like to date a decent man.
Which means this should probably be our only date.
She'd made an exception to her recent “no more dating” policy because, well hell, the man was too fine to say no. But though flattered by his admission of attraction and confusion, she didn't trust “nice.” His dark good looks and polite behavior were charming, seductiveâand hazardous to her health. Granted, she'd spent an inordinate amount of time undressing the man in her dreams, but dreams were much safer than rubbing up against flesh-and-blood reality.
He might appear cool and calm on the outsideâleading the “well-ordered, meticulous life,” he claimedâbut there was something hidden well below the surface. Something raw and hot simmered beneath that deceptive layer of ice. It was difficult for the woman in her to resist the chance to explore. She wanted to unravel his meticulous world and start a fire that would make the Ice King melt.
She closed her eyes and tried to avoid those places her mind insisted on taking her.
Careful, Candy, you're letting your imagination run away with you again. It's just one date.
But, no matter how hard she tried to rein in her rampaging thoughts, it was a losing battle. That is, until she was interrupted by the light brush of warm flesh against her arm. She lifted her face to see Nash staring down with his characteristic smirk and almost unrecognizable menacing eyes. She was shocked and rendered speechless.
“What's wrong, Freak?” he taunted, leaning in closer. “You don't know who I am now?” Candace stared at him in silent disbelief.
“Who's the new guy?” he asked, inclining his head in Brice's direction. “If I didn't know better, I'd think you were trying to replace me.” He boldly grazed her cheek with his finger and then let it slide down over her arm. “He looks too uptight and âDudley Do-Right' to me.” He leaned forward and breathed in her ear. “It won't work, you know. I told youâthis is the only place you can get your fix.” He angrily spat the words and graphically grabbed his crotch to emphasize his point. “No one can handle that appetite of yours like I can. How do you think he'd feel if he knew just what kind of a freaky bitch he has on his hands? I bet he couldn't dump your ass fast enough.”
Candace clutched the stem of her glass nearly to the point of snapping it in two. Her lips tightened into a thin line, and she glared defiantly into his eyes.
“You need to leave, Nash. You need to leave now,” she hissed through clenched teeth. “I don't know what your problem is, but you should have gotten the message by now. Things are over between us. I suggest you take your self-centered, narcissistic, arrogant,
ass and leave. I know you have a highly over exaggerated opinion of yourself, so please let me be the first to inform you that you ain't all that.”
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Brice reached their table in time to hear that last statement. He gave the intruder an icy stare. “Is there a problem here?”
“No, not at all,” the man responded indifferently. “Just saying hello to an old friend, that's all. Right, Candace?”
“Yes, and now we're saying good-bye.”
“Now, Candace, don't give your friend here the wrong impression. We've had our differences, but we're still friends, aren't we? By the way,” the man said, turning to offer Brice his hand, “my name is Andrew Nash, but folks just call me Nash.”
“Brice Coleman,” he responded coolly, ignoring the extended hand. As he regarded Nash's insincere smile and hard, flat eyes, a strong instant dislike settled in his gut. Yeah, there was history here, all right. He'd have to be blind or a fool not to see it. But he'd be damned if he'd back down from a confrontation with a former lover. He wasn't that easily intimidated.
Mutual dislike was apparent as they stood face-to-face, like two Roman gladiators about to do battle. Nash was the first to give ground when he spoke to Candace, his eyes never leaving Brice's face.
“I'll see you around, Candace. Give me a call sometime, and maybe we can get together.” He nodded his head to Brice and walked toward the exit.
“When hell freezes over,” she muttered, lifting her glass and emptying its contents.
Brice watched as Nash strode away. “A friend of yours?” he asked, turning his attention back to Candace.
“I'd hardly call him that.” Her eyes were cast downward and stared into her empty glass. “More like an unfortunate mistake. We were lovers once upon a time, but we were never âfriends.'”
“How long ago was âonce upon a time,' if you don't mind me asking?”