*in the last chapter, Jeff refers to him as Reid Graham. Y’all. I dunno where Graham came from. it’s Bennet lol.
“And I stand by my assertion that service work is more impactful than politics, at least in the current environment. Why waste time begging these crusty old men to do right when we can just do it ourselves? Is it hard? Of course! Do we need more money? OF COURSE! But honestly… is the other option even viable at this point? We can’t even get these idiots to agree that there should be universal background checks to buy a gun! You REALLY think they give a damn if some Black kids only eat during the school tear? They don’t!”
I finished typing out that text, hit send, and then couldn’t help the smile that spread across my face. Since late morning, I’d been going back and forth with a man whose name definitely wasn’t Nick, but was saved as such in the phone he’d given me several days ago.
The last time I’d “seen” him.
But even without physically being in the same space, he’d certainly made his presence known.
I’d forgotten the butterfly-inducing feeling of texting back and forth all day, specifically with a man who had much more to say than “wyd”, or “gm”. No, “Nick” was all, “What’s on your agenda today”, and “make sure you stop to eat, you have to take care of yourself”, and “what are your thoughts on the mess this administration is making of immigration”. There were no… lulls. No nagging feeling of “I wish this man would leave me alone”, more like, “I love that he doesn’t take forever to hit me back”, even though there was no doubt in my mind that he was a busy man.
Politics was a steadily moving, growing beast.
He was smart enough to know that his obvious passion about the subject was a clue for me, but one that must not have mattered, since he hadn’t backed off or tried to cover his tracks. To my own personal credit, I tamped down the urge to try to look into it, and talked Laurel out of it too. It was information I couldn’t do anything with, and crazy enough… I felt safer not knowing. Besides that, with the current environment, I ignored politics as much as I could anyway, so I barely knew who the players were – something I intended to keep that way.
What if Nick was a conservative?
Just the thought made me shudder.
“You’re making it very hard for me to hold on to my ideals, Ms. Phillips. Your gift of persuasion is both admirable and loathsome. Your words tap right into my desire to work directly with the people I want to help, but I have to tamp that passion down to be effective in my current position. – Nick.”
“You don’t expect me to apologize for that, do you?”
“Absolutely not. I would be disappointed if you did, because as difficult as it is, I appreciate the challenge you’ve placed in front of me. – Nick.”
“Challenge? Is that how you view me now? Why you’ve not wanted to see me?”
“Have you lost your mind? – Nick.”
“There hasn’t been a moment since the last time I saw, touched, smelled, tasted you, that I haven’t wanted to return to our rendezvous. I’ve been insanely busy, and… tending to my other obligations. – Nick.”
Through our conversations over the last few days, I knew that “other obligations” meant keeping his ass at his – probably marital – home. I didn’t remember seeing a tan line or indentation on his finger that first night, when I’d seen his hands, but what other reason would a grown ass man have to be confined at home?
Sleeping with a married man had always been a hard line I refused to cross. Contributing to another woman’s pain was a deal breaker for me.
I had nothing other than my own suspicions telling me that “Nick” was probably not as single as he and Desiree Byers claimed, but those suspicions rarely led me wrong. Still, hearing him speak out his “familial obligations” to his “current position” also had me suspicious that whatever public relationship he was in, wasn’t much different than the one between he and I.
A business transaction.
Did that make it right? Of course not. But I was already so wrong that I doubted it made much difference.
“I can guarantee that I am, in fact, in possession of my mind. It was just a question.”
“With an answer I thought I’d made more than obvious. My desire for you has not wavered, Rowan. Only grown. – Nick.”
With a sigh, I pushed the phone away without replying to that, because it was the type of thing that would get me in trouble. The more we talked, the more he made such statements, the harder it was for me to tell myself that this was just sex, and that it would all be over in a few weeks.
What more than sex could it be anyway, Rowan? You’ve never even seen his face!
I held on to that self-admonition as I returned the phone to my desk drawer, intent on getting some work done. As good as I was at multi-tasking, it was a little difficult to design preschool curriculum when you were busy… flirting. Or whatever Nick and I had been doing.
When I heard a familiar buzz from the drawer, I sighed, knowing that Nick was probably wondering why I hadn’t texted back. I worked for ten more minutes and then pulled the drawer open, eyes widening in surprise when I realized that it was my other phone with the notification.
It was a text from Jeff Perry.
Not that I had his number saved in my phone, but he’d included it in the body of a text inquiring after my answer to his invitation to the gala that was fast-approaching.
Neither Jeff nor the gala had even been on my mind, now that Nick was… I don’t know what Nick was doing, but I liked it, whatever it was.
That didn’t change the fact that I’d left Jeff hanging so far, and hadn’t even done what I was supposed to do as far as finding out if it was okay for me to go. It was a great networking opportunity, so I wasn’t really keen to miss it, but with the way Nick had been occupying my consciousness for the last few days… I wasn’t sure about asking to go anywhere on Jeff’s arm.
So what, is he your boyfriend now?
That thought was just the little holt I needed to shake my head, brushing off whatever unsuitable, untimely feelings had me feeling loyal to Nick. It was, like I’d said, just a business transaction – when this was over, he’d have a different woman sign a contract to his bed.
I texted Jeff back that I would have an answer for him tomorrow and then shut the phone completely off, intent on finishing up my work. But no sooner than I’d really found my focus and dived in, another notification buzzed.
“I thought I turned this damn thing off,” I wondered out loud as I pulled the drawer open again. I quickly realized that this time, it was from the phone Nick had given me, which was still powered on. Very, very briefly, I entertained turning it off too, without even looking at the text. I’d forgotten that any man who brought butterflies usually brought drama too. That was the part I hadn’t missed.
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to not even look, and once I did, I was glad that I had.
“Have lunch with me? – Nick.”
He’d never requested my presence during the day, always preferring to conduct our business when it was dark outside. I knew he wasn’t talking about sitting down somewhere in public, but maybe…
“I can’t eat lunch wearing a mask 😉.”
“I’ll feed you. – Nick.”
As sexy as I may have found such an offer in any other context, I was really, really tired of the mask. Sure, I’d agreed to it, and sure, it made the sex hotter, but beyond that, I was over it. I didn’t even care who he was, not really. I didn’t need a real name.
I just wanted to see his face.
But I already knew the answer to that.
“Now. The car is two minutes away from you. I was hoping you’d say yes. – Nick.”
More like assuming, I quietly fumed. I packed my things away to come back to afterward – if he didn’t decide to keep me in the room all night – and then grabbed both phone, slipping them into my purse. I didn’t bother stopping by a mirror to check myself – if he wanted me in the middle of the day, he got whatever he got.
I didn’t stay pissed long.
Couldn’t stay pissed long.
Not once I smelled his cologne, and felt his hands, not once I melted into the panty-dissipating hug and kiss combo he used to greet me.
After hearing that from him in a much more demanding tone, in a much different context than he meant it now, those two little words made me blush, but I did I was told. I opened my mouth, letting him insert a fork loaded with the most amazing salad greens I’d ever tasted, tossed in the most amazing vinaigrette I’d ever tasted. The rest of the meal had gotten a similar descriptor.
“Another one of those shrimp next, please,” I asked, making him laugh for reason.
“Another? You’re still working on the first one – I cut it in pieces.”
“Okay whatever, just give it.”
“Okay, damn,” he chuckled again. “I gotcha skrimps coming, woman.”
When I was finished chewing, I giggled. “Skrimps? Not a phrasing I expected to come out of your mouth, even in humor.”
“I didn’t always talk like I was giving a speech, Rowan. Don’t always.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve caught your little slips here and there. Assumed you were probably…”
“A converted hood nigga? Guilty as charged.”
I almost knocked over my water aiming for it in the darkness behind my mask as I giggled. “Not how I would have verbalized it, but… yes. So how did you end up here from there? Bootstraps?”
Please don’t say bootstraps…
“Hell no,” he declared, and I knew he was shaking his head, even though I couldn’t see it. “Yes, I was in the hood, just a few wards over, actually. Banged a lil bit, never got caught or nothing, but one of the old heads knew I had a good head on my shoulders – stayed on me about my grades, contrary to popular belief about… everything hood related. He wanted me out of there. On something better. When I was maybe seventeen, Black politician came to talk to the school. Got the rims stolen off his car actually,” Nick laughed. “But he talked to us about registering to vote when we turned eighteen, being a part of the political process and all that. About how it could make a real difference. I bought right into that shit.”
“He was crooked, wasn’t he?”
“As the fucking Grand Canyon,” he chuckled. “But like I said, I bought into it. Helped organize rallies, helped with voter registration, all that. And this was pre-Obama, so there weren’t a lot of us who really thought it would make a difference, but I tried. The politician saw it too, valued it. Mentored me, wrote my college recommendations, all of that. He’s done a lot for me. I… owe him a lot.”
Something about his inflection there made me frown. “Owing” a crooked politician wasn’t exactly an enviable position, but I brushed it off, focusing on the other parts of the story.
“So that explains how you got into politics, but not how you got money. Money to blow on struggling community centers and sex contracts,” I teased.
“Tech,” he answered. “I double-majored. Computer Science and Political Science. I wanted to build something related to political stats, poll numbers, and all of that, but I worried about it being a conflict of interest somehow when I wanted to enter the ring myself later. So, instead… and this is top secret information, Rowan. You can’t tell anybody this, and couldn’t prove it either way, but… very quietly, there’s an app that sports organizations use. College, professional, even internationally. It automatically gathers data from the internet – stats about every game, every player, and delivers a forecast. How many points they’ll average, how likely they are to have an injury, how many years they’ll last in the game. They use it to figure out what they’ll pay, who they’ll draft, how many years to contract for, all that.”
I frowned. “Oh bullshit. That doesn’t even sound legal for real use.”
“Legal or not, I don’t know or care. The fact is, I made it, it works scarily well, and I got paid. Majorly paid. And my name is nowhere near it anymore – scrubbed off of everything, so if they get sued, it’s not my damn problem.”
“Smart man,” I nodded. “Because that sounds like a major lawsuit waiting to happen. But… it’s a brilliant idea. The kind of brilliance your community could use, rather than it wasting away at the statehouse, or Congress, or wherever you’re from.”
He laughed. “That was a smooth segue.”
“Well, I do try. Can I have another skrimp now?”
“You can have anything you want from me.”
My eyebrows bunched as they lifted automatically behind the mask, impeded by the fabric. “Don’t say that. Not while I’m wearing this thing.”
“You’re right. My apologies. Almost anything.”
I smiled. “Another bite of the shrimp will suffice.”
We spent the rest of the meal in relative silence. I only knew he was eating too because of the clinks of the fork against the plate that weren’t followed by a gentle demand for me to open my mouth. When the meal was over, I expected to be taken to the bed, but instead, he left me at the table for a moment before he came back, placing a small, velvety box in my hands.
He didn’t say anything until he was behind me, his strong hands resting on my shoulders. “I have to leave, but, I want to see your reaction to this before I do. Don’t look back at me, but… you can pull your mask up to see what’s in the box.”
I turned toward him, with the mask still covering my eyes. “Do you really trust me not to look?”
“I do. You’re one of the most honest, principled people I know. And I know a lot of people. I absolutely believe you’ll honor my wish for you to not see my face.”
I hated that he was so right – there was no way I’d dishonor our contract to catch a glimpse without his consent, because if it were the other way around, I’d want my wishes honored as well. That didn’t mean I had to like it though.
I turned back around, moving the box between my fingers for a moment before I raised a hand, using it to pull the mask up over my eyes. Once it was secure against my forehead, I opened the box, and immediately gasped.
In the box was a pair of gorgeous sapphire earrings, each one made up of two pear shaped sapphires, dangling from opposing ends and surrounded by diamonds. The necklace was simpler – just one sapphire, but still surrounded by diamonds, hanging from a delicate platinum chain.
“Nick,” I breathed, not taking my eyes away from the jewelry, which had to cost more than a year of my rent. Maybe five years of my rent. “I can’t accept this.”
“You can,” he replied, leaning to speak the words into my ear before he pressed a kiss to my temple. “You will. And it’ll be beautiful on you.”
I shook my head. “I don’t even have anywhere to… I… actually, um… there was something I was supposed to ask you, that seems completely inappropriate to ask now, so… nevermind.”
“No,” he insisted, raising to a stand again. “Ask.”
Pushing out a deep sigh, I let the words rush out. “Jeff Perry asked me to accompany him to the Armstrong Gala. It’s not a date – not to me. It’s a networking opportunity that I need, and I—”
I stopped speaking, paralyzed by that one word. “I’m sorry?”
“You heard me, Rowan. I think you should go. Like you said… it’s a networking opportunity that you shouldn’t miss. As long as Mr. Perry understands that while you’re welcome to be on his arm for the night, he is not welcome—”
“In me,” I finished for him. “There won’t be any concern about that, no matter what Mr. Perry thinks. For two and a half more weeks… I’m yours, and yours only.”
There was a lengthy pause where I expected him to agree, or something. But when he did speak, it wasn’t with conviction, it was with… disappointment.
“Yes. For two and a half more weeks.”
After that, there was another length of silence, one where I stared at Nick’s generous gift and regretted even bringing Jeff’s invitation up.
“Put your mask back on, Rowan,” Nick said, breaking the silence with a request that caught me off guard.
“Really? I thought you were leaving?”
“I was,” he said, pulling the mask down for me since I hadn’t moved. He pulled the box from my hands, putting it God knows where before he pulled me up from my chair and easily lifted me to the table.
“And now?” I asked, pushing myself up to aid him in the removal of my panties from underneath my simple tee shirt dress.
I heard the chair move, and then felt his breath on my thighs as he positioned himself between them.
“Now, I’ve remembered I couldn’t leave lunch until I’d devoured the last course.”
“That must’ve been some lunch.”
I pushed out a hard breath, trying to convince myself not to put Enid out of my house, simply because she’d spoken to me. Our dynamic hadn’t been healthy for a long, long time. Now? The shit was flat out toxic.
And exactly what I didn’t need right now.
Lunch with Rowan had been great. Good food, good conversation, with a woman I couldn’t get enough of. I knew about the gala thing already of course, had even had the jewelry purchased for her with that in mind. But it still stung to hear her ask about going out with goddamn Jeff.
His nosy ass was the reason I hadn’t seen her in days – trying to lay low, avoid being seen again at the Drake. I’d only been seen, period, because of my own negligence that day, but the damage was done now. If he saw me there again, he’d know there was a story. Not what story, just a story, and once that was the case, there was no coming back from it.
I just couldn’t stay away.
But this time, I did it the right way – private elevator, we’d changed rooms, changed cars, everything. And honestly? It was less about me being found out than it was about Rowan. I didn’t want her caught in the crossfires of anything.
What I wanted was to have her pack a bag, I’d pack one too, and we’d just run away.
But I knew that couldn’t happen.
Not with the position I was in, not now.
Instead of saying anything to Enid, I finished the removal of my jacket and threw it across the couch in my office, doing my best to ignore her.
“You were gone for three hours,” she continued, from right behind me. When I turned, she stepped even closer to me, completely invading my personal space. “And you came back smelling like her. Your ass is so disrespectful.”
“Get the fuck out of my office before I do something we both regret,” I warned, only to have it met with a smirk.
“Like what, Reid? We both know you aren’t gonna do shit – me and Daddy stripped all the “hood” out of you. Remember?”
I scoffed. “The “hood” doesn’t have a goddamn thing to do with it.”
“Doesn’t it though?” Enid sneered. “You reek of the exact kind of sixty-dollar perfume some bitch from your past probably thinks is high-end. Hell, you probably think it’s high end. Did you buy it for her?”
“What the hell do you want?”
“Do I have to want something to talk to my fiancée? You’ve been spending so much more time at home, I thought you were finally coming back to me. But then… you don’t even wash her off of you before you come home. Interesting.”
“Yes, interesting. I know she’s not the first of your whores, but… she must be special.”
I chuckled. “I don’t have “whores”, Enid – unless you’re referring to yourself. And even then, you’re the only one deserving of that title. But go ahead – convince yourself that you and I are the same, if that’s what it takes to live with yourself.”
“Oh we are absolutely the same, my love,” Enid smirked. “You’re in this for the politics as much as I am, you just still, for some reason, think you’re noble. You’re naïve. That’s why you’re so mad at me Reid, so disgusted. Because I played this game better than you – I actually got your simple ass to fall in love.”
“What is that, another warning?” she went on, laughing. “Again – you’re not gonna do anything. Your proximity to my family is too important to you – you know my father would destroy you if there was even a whiff of you hurting me. And because you’re a fucking coward, that’s enough to keep you right in line.”
“Is it though?” I asked, rounding on her, stepping into her face. “I’ve just about decided to say fuck this campaign, fuck politics period, so you really may not want to play with me. This is real life, not a game like it is for you. So don’t be surprised when the moves I make are a little more fucking brutal than yours.”
I was relieved to see real fear in Enid’s eyes – hoped it was enough for her to drop this conversation, but I knew her a little too well for that. Knew she didn’t like to lose.
She shuttered the fear in her eyes, narrowing them in defiance instead. “Am I supposed to be afraid you’re gonna put your hands on me? Let me put this is terms you can understand a little better – you ain’t that nigga, Reid Bennet for City Council. At least not since we got our hands on you.”
“Oh no I’ve never been that nigga,” I corrected, moving even closer, forcing her to step back. “I don’t beat up women, never felt a need to. So when I threaten to do something, please rest assured that physical harm isn’t what I have on my mind. I’m talking about the type of shit that stains the public perception forever. But if Kim Kardashian flipped it into a career, I’m certain you can too.”
Her eyebrows lifted in understanding. “You’re threatening me with revenge porn?! Are you kidding?! What happened to all your values?”
“My values are perfectly intact, my love,” I sneered. “I, personally, would never release imagery of you in any compromising position, but ol’ boy that you were screwing around with behind my back? He has no such qualms.”
Enid’s nostrils flared in anger. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying, that it would a shame if you didn’t get the fuck outta my face and I decided to stop paying him to keep your whole pussy off the internet. Oh, damn – you didn’t know we had that deal, did you? And you’ve still been seeing him, haven’t you? Wow, gorgeous. That’s really messed up.”
She shoved away from me, wiping away sudden tears. “You’re a fucking monster, you know that?”
I moved to go to my desk, which had been my original destination before she decided to poke at me, and gotten more of a reaction that she anticipated.
“Maybe so,” I shrugged, unmoved by her obviously hurt feelings. “But if I am… guess who created me?”