He had better not be looking up my dress.
Charmaine Evans eyed the man who held her feet in his hands while she stood on his shoulders. Benson Harris turned his head in the opposite direction. She rolled her eyes. Good thing her nude colored bra and undies matched. “When I give the word, give me a push.”
She did not get an answer. He was looking up her dress.
Charmaine dug her feet into Benson’s broad shoulders. His muscles strained and he wobbled a bit struggling to maintain his grip but Charmaine didn’t care. “If you want your eyes, you’d better focus them somewhere else. Or you may feel the effects of a well-placed foot in your face.”
Benson shifted his gaze and cleared his throat. “Sorry. I’m ready when you are.”
Charmaine forgave him. Her long legs were well toned from hours in the gym. She would be offended if he did not look. “Okay, on my count, get me over this fence. One … two …”
Benson gave her a hard shove, and Charmaine went airborne over the fence.
“Ahhhh!” Charmaine crash-landed through some azalea bushes onto spikey mulch. Like a cat, she sprang to her feet. “Benson, I didn’t say three! And now I’m all banged up! Throw me my shoes.”
Benson tossed her the flat-heeled shoes. He crawled over the fence and dropped next to her. “Sorry.” At six foot-three, Benson had been an officer in the navy before he retired at thirty-eight. He still maintained his strict workout regimen running four miles a day and he ran marathons for sport.
“Look at my knees.” Jagged lines and red welts marred her skin. The Inquisitor did not pay her enough for this mess. Okay, they did pay her enough—when she delivered a picture worthy enough to grace the front page.
Charmaine dusted mulch and dirt off her yellow Ann Taylor dress and jammed her feet into the gold flats. If she had known this morning, she would be jumping a fence she would have worn her jeans and a shirt. But when a tip came in, you jump on it. No time to run home and change.
Benson handed Charmaine her prized Nikon SLR 70 mm camera. Charmaine had paid serious money for it. “Let’s go,” she whispered.
They made their way across the lawn. Skulking in the shrubs, Charmaine held back her whoop of jubilation. They had done it. They had infiltrated NFL quarterback Jasper Orion’s stunning 11,000-square-foot brick home in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Her conscience pricked. This was trespassing. She was invading someone’s privacy. Just as quickly, Charmaine shoved away the thought. She was going to get that picture. Word was the NFL’s most outspoken Christian was shacked up with Amanda Moon, the model and girlfriend of Jasper’s best friend, Matthew Lands.
Social media buzzed. Everybody chatted it up and wanted to know how much of a hypocrite Jasper was. Charmaine’s picture would give them the answer—and add twenty-five thousand dollars to her piggy bank. Cha-Ching!
“They’re on the move!” Benson whispered. He pointed inside the house.
Charmaine scurried to the window, glad she had bribed the gardener to secure Jasper’s Dobermans for the night. She released short rapid breaths as she and Benson scuttled around the back of the house.
“I can’t get a shot,” she moaned. Even though she was five-eleven, the privacy screens were a foot above her head.
Charmaine was not going to give up that easily. She moved to stand in front of Benson. “Put me on your shoulders again.”
Benson cupped his hands. Charmaine stepped into them and climbed up until she straddled his shoulders. Her dress was a hindrance. In a swift move, Charmaine yanked her Anne Taylor dress over her head. Whatever had possessed her to wear bright yellow was beyond her. Even though it was September, it was in the eighties. Thank God for beautiful Atlanta weather. She tossed her dress to the ground.
With expert precision, she peered into the lens. Charmaine scanned the living area taking in the crystals hanging from the chandelier. She noted the deep purple drapes, firelights and the orchids lining the wedding arch. Her mouth drooled at the two-tiered white wedding cake resplendent with silver beads and flowers taking center position on a large cherry wooden table. Charmaine snapped several pictures and wiggled with excitement.
“Keep still,” Benson said, gripping her legs.
Charmaine giggled. “We’re going to get paid.” Her eyes took in the blond head belonging to Jasper Orion. She wished she could have captured those stunning blue eyes of his up close.
Charmaine shrugged. The world knew his backside. They would know it was Jasper. She adjusted her lens and waited for him to turn around.
Amanda entered the room dressed in a white chiffon gown. The styling was deceptively simple, but Charmaine knew it had set the model back several thousand dollars. Her glorious dark hair, which had been featured in hair commercials, was pinned up with cascading curls.
The couple hugged. Yes! Charmaine could see their faces. Here was her money shot.
Focus. Aim. Click.
Flash? Oh, goodness. When had she turned on the flash? Jasper and Amanda turned toward the window.
“We’ve been made!” Charmaine cried. “Let me down!”
Charmaine swung her legs behind Benson’s shoulders and slid down his back. She handed him her camera. “Run!”
Benson grabbed it and sprinted across the lawn.
“They’re on the move!” a voice yelled.
Charmaine took off for the fence and saw Benson disappearing over the top. Instead of turning to assist her, the oaf left her behind. She turned her head and saw Jasper hot on her trail.
“Stop!” Jasper yelled.
Like a good reporter, Charmaine had studied the layout of Jasper’s immense property. She knew there was a patio on the side of his house overlooking the ravine. Think, Charmaine, think! Where was the patio? She closed her eyes to pull up a mental picture. Yes. She could see it. It was on her left. She executed a sharp turn and bolted in that direction.
As Charmaine ran across the lawn toward the trees, her brain registered a strange sound. Her eyes widened. Howls. She heard the distinct sound of howling. The dogs. Someone let the dogs out. She dodged around the trees, willing herself not to panic.
“She’s over there!”
With every ounce of athleticism she possessed, Charmaine made her way to the patio. She edged closer to the two-foot brick fence. Charmaine bent over to look into the darkness of the valley below and gulped. The distance to the ground had to be at least two hundred feet. Charmaine trembled. I hate heights!
“I think I see her!”
Charmaine hyperventilated. You have to do this, she told herself, battling the sudden urge to pee. When she heard heavy panting and several howling dogs behind her, Charmaine knew she had no choice. She gripped the brick fence, twisted her body and flipped over. Holding on tight, Charmaine dangled over the cliff. Her hands were cutting into the scaly brick chips. Charmaine considered her next move. There were shrubs and very tall trees a few feet behind her. If she jumped at an angle, she might land in one the trees and she could hide out until morning. As the voices drew closer, Charmaine knew what she had to do.
Taking a deep breath, she hurled her body toward the trees.
“She jumped!” Matt Lands yelled pointing to the patio. He raked his hands into his red curly hair, his eyes wide with disbelief. His once crisp white dress shirt hung over his pants, and he had popped several buttons.
Jasper Orion squinted and shoved past his burly friend. “She wouldn’t.” What would possess someone to jump over a ravine?
Jasper’s two Doberman Pinschers, Compass and Atlas, barked, baring their teeth. Jasper bent over to rub the dogs’ ears. “It’s all right, boys. You did well.”
He peered over the cliff.
Jasper cupped his mouth. “Are you down there?”
The men heard a distinct feminine shriek. “She’s in one of the trees,” Jasper said.
“Help me!” she screamed.
“She fell!” Matt’s eyes were wide with horror.
Amanda Moon raced to their sides. She had taken off her heels. Her feet were wet and muddied from the dirt and dew. Amanda held a flashlight, which she aimed toward the voice. Amanda’s green eyes widened and the men stared. Jasper saw a woman garbed in nude undies, tangled in a tree branch.
“Who are you?” Jasper asked. His eyes scanned her chocolate skin.
Matt gave a slight whistle before Amanda poked him in the chest.
“My name is Charmaine Evans,” she said. “I’m with The Inquisitor.”
Matt groaned. “A reporter. I should have known.” He shook his head.
“She’s not a real reporter,” Amanda said. “That’s a trash mag.”
“Paparazzi,” Jasper snarled. He looked at Matt and Amanda. “Sorry about this, guys. I didn’t mean to ruin your wed—”
Amanda placed a finger against her lips.
Jasper understood. The interloper was no doubt listening.
“Amanda, go call the cops.” Jasper crooked his head at Matt. “Let’s get this invader and bring her inside.”
Jasper made his way to the small fence. He saw the young woman huddled in the branches with her arms wrapped about her. He stretched a hand toward Charmaine. Matt held onto Jasper’s other hand to keep him stable. “Make your way to the edge of the branch and give me your hand.”
“I’m afraid,” she chattered. “I’m afraid of heights.”
Jasper scowled. “Then why on earth did you jump?” He did not bother to wait for an answer. Instead, he motioned at her with his fingers. “Let’s go. The police will be here any minute.”
“No, I can’t be on the news!” the woman shouted.
“Oh, but it’s all right for you to plaster my face all over your filthy paper.” Resentment filled him.
The young woman grabbed a branch and attempted to climb down.
Jasper swung an arm to grab her hand. He encountered thin air. “Matt hold my legs,” he said.
“Just leave her and let the cops handle it,” Matt said.
“She’ll freeze. The temps are already dropping,” Jasper said. He plunged over the fence and reached a hand out. “Charmaine, take my hand,” he yelled.
She shook her head. “I’ll fall.”
“I’ll catch you. Trust me,” Jasper said. He turned to face Matt. “Hold me.”
Matt nodded. Jasper inched over the cliff so his upper body hung off the cliff. He felt two large hands clamp his legs.
Charmaine held out both of her hands. In a powerful motion, Jasper scooped her in his arms. He heard Matt grunt behind him.
“Hold on, Matt,” Jasper said from between clenched teeth. It took serious strength but Jasper flipped Charmaine onto his back.
Charmaine bucked her body against him. His mind registered muscle and a well-toned body.
“Help!” Charmaine screamed.
Jasper recognized her fear. “You’re not going to fall. Calm down.” He heard Matt yelling the same thing but Charmaine was a mean fight. He was getting scratched and kicked in places he could not mention. She was in full panic mode.
“Grab her, Matt!” Jasper screamed.
Matt released his grip on one leg to snatch Charmaine off him. Jasper twisted, hoping to rely on his upper body strength to grab the fence. But Matt’s grip slipped and gravity worked against him.
Jasper felt his body arch backwards, almost in slow motion. At that moment, Jasper knew his fall was inevitable.
He saw Matt skid to the ground. He flung a hand Jasper’s way. “Jasper!”
Jasper grabbed at air. His arms flailed backwards. He hunched his body preparing for impact.
“No!” Matt screamed. “Jasper!”
Jasper’s body bent further backwards.
“Jeeeeessssusssss!” Jasper screamed as he flipped over the precipice.
One year later…
“You can’t be a hermit for the rest of your life,” Lea Evans said. “You must show your face to the world. Persia has been calling you. Take her up on her offer to go out.”
Standing in the foyer of her mother’s home, Charmaine looked into a face much like her own. Her mom was an inch shorter than she was and with her buzz cut, Lea looked ten years younger than her forty-nine years.
“Mom, everywhere I go I’ve been recognized,” Charmaine said. “I’m not ready to see Persia, yet.”
Lea’s brown eyes softened. “She’s been your friend since the sixth grade. Persia called me. She is heartbroken. Call her.”
Charmaine wrinkled her nose. Persia Brooks-Sanders was perfect. Like Charmaine, Persia grew up in the church. Unlike Charmaine, Persia stayed in the church. Now Persia was married to the perfect husband and had the perfect child. Charmaine was far from perfect. She was not ready to see Persia’s judgmental eyes.
“The world hates this face.” She swooped her shoulder-length hair out of her face and pulled on both her cheeks. “This is the face of the woman who destroyed America’s darling. I’ve been too busy job hunting to call Persia. Not even McDonald’s hired me.”
Following the Jasper catastrophe, The Inquisitor had fired her. “We don’t sanction such egregious interloping into someone’s personal life,” they reprimanded. She stomped to her car.
Of course, it was a mere ‘coincidence’ that the paper posted the picture of Matt and Amanda’s secret wedding ceremony at Jasper’s house. Benson charged a huge fee of thirty thousand dollars.
And how much of that did she receive? Not even a dime.
At the time, Charmaine had not cared. She focused her energies, her savings, and her mother’s life savings on her defense. She hired the best, and he served her well.
Charmaine was free, broke, and dejected with no place to go but home to Port Charlotte, Florida.
“Quit exaggerating. You’re such a drama queen.” Lea waved a hand. “A year is like a lifetime nowadays. You won’t be recognized.”
Charmaine faced her mother. “Tell that to Monica Lewinsky. She hasn’t been seen since the whole Clinton fiasco.” Charmaine slumped. “Now I know why.”
Lea shook her head. “That’s not true. Wasn’t she selling handbags or something?”
Charmaine raised her eyebrows. “Exactly. Her future was over.”
Lea tapped Charmaine’s nose. “You were called for a job interview. You’re going.”
“I can’t,” Charmaine whined. “The minute they see me, I’ll be shown the door.” Tears spiked her lashes. “I can’t say that I blame them.”
Lea hugged her close. Charmaine rested her head on her mother’s shoulders, treasuring the comfort.
“You didn’t mean for it to happen, honey,” Lea said. “It was an accident. God has forgiven you. You have to forgive yourself.” Lea rubbed Charmaine’s back.
“I don’t deserve forgiveness. Jasper Orion lost his career and both his legs because of me.”
Even though twelve months had passed, Charmaine sobbed as if it were yesterday. She could see Jasper’s wide eyes, his mouth agape as his scream died on his lips. He fell two hundred feet to the ground and then rolled until his body slammed into the brush.
“Nooooo!” Charmaine held her head and wailed.
“Jasper!” Matt yelled. “Jasper!” He dug into his pants for a cell phone. Charmaine barely registered the 911 call. Her gaze remained focused on Jasper’s lifeless form. His legs were contorted like a pretzel.
Charmaine remembered Amanda running out and hearing the model’s horrified yell. Amanda then grabbed onto Matt to keep him from trying to jump to the tree to help Jasper. “No, Matt, don’t do it. You won’t make the tree. Help is on the way.”
Charmaine slunk to the ground, holding on to the brick fence, but kept her eyes riveted on Jasper willing him to move.
Then Charmaine saw Jasper’s body twitch. “He’s alive! He’s alive!” she yelled before convulsing to the ground with relief.
In a matter of minutes, a helicopter with a rescue team arrived. Charmaine watched as Jasper’s body was carefully lifted and placed inside the helicopter. Someone threw a blanket over her shoulders and tended to her cuts and scrapes before she was handcuffed for trespassing.
“Where are they taking him?” she asked her arresting officer, but she was ignored and flung into the back of the police car.
Charmaine sobbed so much her face hurt.
She looked outside the window to see Matt racing towards her. Several officers formed a ring around Matt to keep him from getting to her. From his hold, Matt yelled, “You’ll pay for this. I’ll make sure of it.”
Charmaine’s body shuddered. That was the last she saw or heard from Jasper Orion. Matt Lands blocked every attempt she made to see Jasper and apologize. Jasper spent four months in the hospital and refused all interviews. She learned he had had to have both legs amputated below the knee. Other than that, Jasper had retreated from the public eye.
Lea held Charmaine by the shoulders and gave her a light shake bringing Charmaine back to the present. “Snap out of it. Reliving that moment is not what God wants you to do. Jasper is alive. God has a hand in everything. All things will work out for our good. You just wait and see. Now wipe your face. Go get that job.”
Charmaine pulled out of her mother’s arms and made her way across the tiled floor to slip on shoes she had left by the front door. Lea’s perpetual optimism was too much sometimes. She ate, lived, and breathed God. What purpose would God have for letting someone lose his legs?
“I guess I’d better be going. Can’t be late.” She sighed.
Cosmic Therapy had been the only respondent to her numerous job applications. Since her arrest, conviction for trespassing and subsequent probation, Charmaine had tried to find normal again. But, she was a social pariah. She could not go grocery shopping without someone pointing a finger at her.
She had been the butt of jokes by late-night talk show hosts. NFL commentators and Jasper’s teammates had ridiculed her. She was “Charmaine the Pain,” “Charmaine the Vain,” and her favorite, “Charmaine the Criminally Insane.” Saturday Night Live devoted a skit just for her. Everyone knew her name, and she hated it.
Charmaine exited the house, hating that she was in Florida. It was in the upper nineties, which in her opinion was ridiculous for the month of September. She kicked at a pebble. Ouch! She had kicked a bit too hard. Charmaine hobbled her way to her mother’s car.
She shook her head. She was a twenty-seven-year-old college graduate living at home with her mama. Never mind that her mother’s three-bedroom house was in the New York section of Charlotte County. Charmaine looked at her watch. She started the 1993 Kia Sephia and put the car in gear.
She wiped a tear. When she graduated, she had promised her mother the world. She had a vision. Journalism. Faith-based books. T.V. show. In that order. But somewhere competition and money took her off track. Charmaine had dropped her scruples and her God.
Recalling all that, Charmaine cringed. She could not stand to look at herself. Her mother touted how God forgave, but Charmaine could not forgive herself. Her selfishness had been too much.
Charmaine straightened. She knew two things. She was going to pay her mother back. Every dime. And she was not leaving Cosmic Therapy without a job. Any job.