© 2017 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce, copy or use without the author, Michelle Lindo-Rice's written permission. This excerpt is used for promotional purposes only.
Enjoy the First Three Chapters ofA Reason to Sing
Book Three of the “Song of the Heart” Series
Megan Higgins wished she had never opened that door.
She had ventured up the stairs with a fresh load of laundry when she saw her walk-in closet door ajar. The closet was a small fourth bedroom that her husband, Jackson, had converted into a dressing area as a wedding gift.
Curious, she pushed the door open and gasped. It wasn’t because her clothing had been ripped from the hangers or that her shoes had been tossed to the floor. No, her eyes were riveted on the one-hundred-eighty-pound man swinging two feet off the floor. Megan zoned in on his face, purple from asphyxiation, noting the corded rope twisted around his neck. The white laundry basket filled with baby clothes fell from Megan’s hands onto the lush green carpet. “Jackson!” She screeched. “What have you done?”
Jackson’s body swayed on the industrial-strength fan he had insisted on installing since the ever-clogged AC duct made the room feel like a sauna in summer. Jackson had had it specially made, bragging it could probably hold two hundred pounds. She never dreamed he would test out his theory. She never dreamed he had been right. “Jackson,” she bellowed again. “You can’t do this.”
Had Jackson been fighting for his life while she was in the basement folding clothes? He had kissed her this morning and said he would be working late.
“Jackson!” Megan pleaded. “You can’t leave me like this! We have a son! Cooper needs you!” She reached into her pocket for her cell phone. She’d left it in the basement. Stifling her hysteria, she tore down the hallway into her bedroom and grabbed the cordless phone from her nightstand before running back into the room. She punched in 9-1-1, almost tripping over the broken blades from the fan.
While she waited for someone to answer, Megan grabbed Jackson’s legs and pulled them up to rest on her shoulders. “Jackson!” she called again.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” she heard through the line.
Megan wobbled from the strain of her husband’s weight. “Come quick. Help me! I need an ambulance! My husband’s…my husband’s h-h-hanging in my c-c-closet!” She rattled off her address and cut the call, ignoring the operator urging her to stay on the line. Megan dropped the phone as her knees began to buckle. With a sob, she let go of his legs and dragged her dressing table chair under Jackson’s feet.
Megan wiped her brow. She needed to cut him down. She raced down to the kitchen, snatched a large butcher knife from the wooden block and dashed up the stairs. Megan slid on one of Cooper’s onesies and stumbled to the floor, landing hard on her butt. A couple of inches to the right and she would have been pierced by the knife.
Megan drew a breath, thanking God for quick reflexes. She hoisted to her feet, scrambled into the closet, and stepped on the chair.
It felt like hours instead of mere seconds until Megan successfully sliced the cord. Thank you, Lord. She braced herself, knowing she wouldn’t be able to hold Jackson’s weight. He toppled onto her and her right ankle gave way. Megan fell off the chair and Jackson landed on top of her with a heavy thud.
Holding back a scream, Megan rolled him off her. She squatted next to him and pummeled his chest. “Jackson! Jackson!”
The doorbell pealed followed by loud bangs on the door.
Megan brushed her hair out of her face and scampered downstairs to open the door.
“He’s upstairs!” she howled to the two EMT workers and returned to the closet, kneeling beside Jackson and squeezing his hand.
When the EMT’s entered, they immediately began CPR.
“I found him hanging,” Megan said as her shoulders slumped and her breathing escalated. She clutched her chest. “I don’t feel good.”
An EMT took Megan’s arm. “Breathe. Breathe. You’re having a panic attack, Mrs. Higgins.”
Megan allowed him to lead her to her chair. She looked over at Jackson and lowered her head. Her life as she knew it was about to change.
It would never be the same.
And she had no one but herself to blame.
“I said no to seven million dollars. I said no to seven million dollars.” Megan leaned against her front door and breathed out the words. She clutched her stomach. “Oh, Lord, I said no to seven million dollars.”
The temptation to open the door and run after Ryan Oakes was strong. The multimillionaire had presented her with the certified check, but she had refused to take the blood money. Not when her husband had warned her he would come. Ryan Oakes was not a philanthropist. He was trying to appease his conscience.
Megan’s body shook. “Jackson, why did you leave me?” she whispered. Had she not listened enough? Had she not been a supportive wife? Guilty thoughts plagued her, though she knew she didn’t cause Jackson’s death.
Her nails scraped the cherry wood door as she crumbled to the parquet wooden floor. Megan buried her face in her hands and sobbed. Her shoulder length hair cascaded about her. She needed money. She had been sick to the point of death with a rare strain of pneumonia. Her hospital bills were astronomical. Megan would have died if it had not been for the prayers of the saints at A Better Life Center. Their prayers moved the hand of God.
Six months ago, everything was different. She had a healthy twelve-month-old, Cooper, and a husband who adored her. But then she had gotten sick and Jackson Higgins had committed suicide.
Or so they say.
Megan knew differently. Ryan Oakes was a murderer. If only she could prove it. It had been a rough winter. Come, spring, come.
Her lips curled as she thought of Ryan’s preposterous comment only moments before.
It was not the words, but the way he said them. If she didn’t know better, Megan would have believed Ryan meant them.
As if she would ever give him a chance. Money, good looks, and charm did not turn her head. Fit and tall with beautiful brown eyes and a wide smile, Ryan looked like a man in his thirties, but she knew he was forty-five years old from television interviews.
Megan’s head snapped up at the sound of a whimper coming from the playpen in the living area. She wiped her tears and straggled over to her son. Cooper tossed and turned. His gurgling bothered her. Ever since Jackson’s death, Cooper had not slept well. Megan patted Cooper on the back until he settled.
“Hush little baby, don’t say a word,” she sang before her voice broke. Megan blew air at her bangs.
The doorbell chimed.
Megan flailed her arms. “That man is so persistent. I’m going to tell him where he can shove that check.” She marched to the door and swung it open.
Her eyes widened. “Mr. Manchester?”
Jackson’s attorney, Kyle Manchester, flashed his five-hundred-dollar-an-hour smile. He reminded her of a snake, but Jackson had insisted Kyle was the best.
Megan gritted her teeth. “This is not a good time,” she said and moved to close the door.
Kyle placed his foot on the threshold. “Mrs. Higgins, you haven’t returned my calls. It’s urgent that I speak with you.”
She pushed against the door. “I don’t have any money. I’ve settled most of my bills and I have a small trust for Cooper, but other than that, I’m broke.”
“Will you at least let me in?” Kyle pleaded.
Megan stepped aside. She resisted the urge to rub the goose bumps popping up on her arms. He made her feel unsettled.
Kyle strutted into her living room and sank into the plush fabric of her couch. Then he plopped his briefcase next to him as if he owned the place.
“What do you want? When you took Jackson’s case, your payment was contingent upon a win. It’s not my fault Jackson passed before you got your big paycheck.”
“Don’t you mean killed?” Kyle asked.
“I’d like to continue the lawsuit,” Kyle said. “You’re sick with a young child to care for and no income.”
Megan folded her arms. “I have a master’s degree in music. I was a music teacher for ten years. And I’m not sick anymore, thanks to the healing power of God.”
“You haven’t worked as a music teacher for four years,” Kyle said. “And I heard all about your healing, but we don’t have to mention that.”
She lifted her chin. “I’m not going to deny what God did for me. Ever. My answer is no.”
Kyle lifted an eyebrow. He opened the file folder and extracted a piece of paper. “I think you need to read the contract.”
Megan narrowed her eyes and took the document. Kyle had a sly look on his face. She scanned the contents before her mouth dropped open. “Why would Jackson agree to pay you even if you didn’t win?”
“Because my time is valuable, Mrs. Higgins. Jackson wanted the best and I am that and more. In his defense, Jackson knew we had an airtight case.” Kyle’s greasy smile made Megan back up.
“But, I don’t have three-hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars,” Megan said. “You can’t hold me responsible for Jackson’s stupidity.”
Kyle stood. “I can and I will.”
Megan did not doubt Kyle meant his words. “I wish I hadn’t turned down Ryan’s offer,” she muttered.
Kyle lifted a brow. “What offer?”
Megan swung around and walked toward the front door. She needed Kyle Manchester out of her home.
Kyle gripped her arm. He applied enough pressure until she had to face him.
She shrugged out of his hold and rubbed her arm. “Ryan offered me a large sum.” Megan bit her bottom lip. Why was she telling Kyle this? Something about him made her want to tell her business.
Kyle’s harsh face softened. His eyes salivated. She could almost see the dollar signs. “You should take it. You’ll have enough to pay me and care for Cooper.”
Megan shook her head. “I have no intentions of taking Ryan’s blood money. He killed my husband.” Her tongue loosened. “Did you know he had the nerve to ask me to marry him?”
Kyle threw back his head and laughed. “I can’t believe my good fortune.”
Megan tilted her head. “What good fortune?”
He touched her face. “You’re certainly a precious gem.” His voice dropped. “I understand why Ryan’s smitten with you.” His eyes scanned her snug jeans and fitted purple shirt. “I admit when I first saw you, I wondered how an ape like Jackson landed a woman like you.”
Megan drew a breath. “Jackson was not an ape. He was kind and considerate and—”
“Not the man I can be for you,” Kyle interrupted. He reached for a tendril of her hair and tugged it hard. “Consider the debt paid if you marry me instead. I wouldn’t mind getting one up on Ryan Oakes.”
She flailed her hands. “Why do I feel like I’ve been transported into soap opera land? I’m not a pawn, and I find you insulting.” Megan shoved him away from her. She sped to the door and opened it. “Get out.”
Kyle cackled. “I’m only messing with you.” In an instant, his demeanor changed and he was all business. “I’ll file a civil suit if I don’t receive my money. I strongly suggest you take Ryan’s check or accept his marriage proposal.”
Megan glared. “I’ve been taking care of myself for thirty-eight years, Mr. Manchester. I don’t need you telling me what to do.”
“You’re not thinking, my dear.” Kyle moved into her space. “You can avenge Jackson. Marry Ryan. Get him to love you. Get him to open up to you. You read the Bible. You know the story of Delilah and how she seduced Samson. Be Ryan’s Delilah and bring him to his knees. Use your beauty, and your…” He scanned Megan’s generous frame. “Assets. Make Ryan confess to killing Jackson. What a way to honor your husband.”
Kyle’s words wrapped around her mind, tempting her. Megan felt compelled to obey his command.
“You have such a way with words,” she whispered. “It’s mesmerizing.”
“So I’ve been told.” Kyle’s bright eyes drew her in. He was stocky and his looks were nothing to brag about, but suddenly Kyle was the most desirable man she had ever seen. His aura tantalized her. She took a step toward him, but Megan saw a shadow. She shivered.
“There’s a dark cloud around you,” she said, with a slight shiver. “I can see it.”
“I’ve heard that, too.” Kyle leaned close. “I think you can handle me, though.”
Megan snapped out of her trance. She pointed to the door. “Leave my home.”
Kyle reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a business card. “I won’t stay where I’m not wanted. But I’ll give you my personal number. You can reach me anytime.”
She held the card against her chest as Kyle sauntered through the door. Just before he got in his vehicle, he said, “Call Ryan. You have a young son and you need the help. You never know what can happen. One day Cooper could be fine and the next he could be… well, you know.”
Megan rushed out the door. Her short legs could not compete with the power of his Audi. He whipped around the bend before she reached the curb.
Megan slowed. “Jackson, what have you done?” she whispered. Megan scurried into her home and secured the locks behind her.
Immediately, she praised God and dispelled any darkness because of Kyle’s visit. She went over to where Cooper rested and prayed over him.
Cooper stirred. Eyes like Jackson’s observed her before he let out a strong wail. Megan smiled and scooped him into her arms. With practiced skill, she changed him and strolled into the kitchen. She seated Cooper in the booster chair and poured some juice into his sippy cup. She had given up using the high chair. Cooper kept wiggling out of it to sit on the tray. Cooper hollered and banged his fist on the table. His legs pumped back and forth.
Megan smiled. “I’m coming. I’m coming.” She hummed as she took out the containers of mashed potatoes and peas she had prepared the evening before. Megan warmed them and tested the temperature. With a nod, she grabbed a spoon and slid a chair next to her son.
Then she bowed her head and blessed his meal.
“Amen!” Cooper cried. “Eat!”
“Open up.” Megan plopped a dollop of mashed potatoes into Cooper’s mouth. She smiled at the joy on his face. If only her problem could be solved with a scoop of potatoes.
Once Cooper finished his meal, Megan cleaned him up and tidied the kitchen. Holding him on one hip, she headed to the basement. Cooper loved going down the stairs by scooting on his bottom, but holding him was faster. Cooper tugged on her hair and giggled with glee. Megan extracted her hair from his fist before setting him down to play. Jackson had designed a play area with everything that would entice a little boy. It also helped to keep the rest of the house clean.
Cooper waddled to the mega blocks. Megan cringed at the crash that followed. Blocks flew everywhere. Cooper stacked them and some found their way into his mouth. Megan kept wipes handy so she was not concerned. She laughed at her son’s antics and sat in ‘her’ seat in the sectional.
Megan looked at the empty seat next to her. In the evenings when Jackson got home, he would fight with her for the remote so he could watch a ballgame. She would tell him to put it on a cartoon channel.
There was no one to fight with her now.
Megan reached for the remote and turned on the 65-inch television. She channel surfed before shutting it off to join Cooper on the rug.
“Sing, Mommy.” Cooper clanged the blocks together.
Megan looked in the corner of the room. Her blue guitar, a thirty-sixth birthday gift from Jackson, rested in the corner.
“Sing, Mommy!” Cooper said.
“Mommy will sing later,” she said. Tears streamed down her face. Megan turned away from Cooper to dry her tears. Besides Cooper, she had no one, no family to lean on. She had lost touch with most of her colleagues after she became a full-time mother.
“Want Daddy,” Cooper said.
Megan broke. She cuddled Cooper in her arms and allowed the tears to fall. “I want Daddy, too, Cooper. I want him, too, but Daddy’s gone.”
Pain sliced through her. It was all Ryan’s fault. Kyle was right. Ryan needed to pay. Seven million dollars would not be enough. No, Megan decided. She needed his heart.
So she could crush it.
Vengeance is mine.
Megan heard God’s voice and slumped. She could not break someone’s heart on purpose, but she could get evidence to convict Ryan. She smiled. Yes, she could do that. She bit her lower lip. Could she ask out the devil?
She could and she would if it meant finding out how her husband ended up hanging in her bedroom closet. Megan reached for her cell phone.
I killed someone.
Well, I didn’t kill someone with my own hands, but I orchestrated it. Well, not orchestrated, but I’m responsible. I needed someone taken care of. And he was. But now I have to live with myself.
Taken care of.
Jackson Higgins had been taken care of. Ryan Oakes would never view the words the same again. He faced himself in the rearview mirror.
His cell vibrated, and Ryan shook the macabre thoughts out of his mind. He swiped to accept the call. “Did you get my text?” he asked without even a hello.
“Yes, I’m on it,” the gruff voice said.
“I need to know everything about her, her every move,” Ryan said. “If Megan sneezes, I want to know about it.” Ryan disconnected his cell and rushed into Margaux, the restaurant in the Marlton Hotel where his daughter, Karlie Knightly, lived. Karlie and her fiancé, Brian Oakes, were already snacking on beet chips.
Karlie had thought about moving into her mother’s home in Hempstead, Long Island, but changed her mind when she became engaged. She and Brian were house hunting. Ryan hoped they would choose a home in Garden City, where he resided.
Ryan greeted his daughter with a kiss on the cheek. He went to hug Brian, but the young man shifted out of his reach. What was that about? Ryan wondered. Brian had recently been in a car accident where he had almost lost his life. Ryan and Brian had made peace over their troubled past, so he didn’t understand the cold shoulder.
Ryan took his seat and addressed Brian. “You can hug me. You were my son for twenty-three years of your life. As far as I’m concerned, you’ll always be my son.”
“Forgive me if I can’t get used to the fact that my former father will be my father-in-law.” Brian shook his head. “I mean, who keeps his daughter a secret?”
Again, this had been settled or so he thought. Ryan tapped the bridge of his nose. Six years ago, he had taken a paternity test, which proved Karlie Knightly was his daughter. She was the product of a one-night-stand with Tiffany Knightly. Tiffany had been a chart-topping singer before she succumbed to lung cancer. Ryan had chosen not to disclose the results. A decision he had regretted because the truth surfaced. No matter how deep you bury the truth, it inevitably found its way out.
“Brian, I’ve forgiven Ryan so we need to move forward,” Karlie said. “That’s what God would want us to do.”
Brian rolled his eyes before reaching for a slice of country bread.
Karlie dipped her roasted cauliflower into the salsa verde and said, “Ryan, I took the liberty of ordering the Rotisserie Amish Chicken for us to share. I know it’s your favorite.”
“Thanks, Karlie.” Ryan helped himself to some beet chips and changed the conversation. “How is the album going, Karlie?”
“I’m putting it off until after the wedding,” she said. “We just wrapped up filming the first few episodes of The Misadventures of Karlie and Brian and the network offered to pay for our wedding. They think it will boost the ratings for the show.”
The Misadventures of Karlie and Brian came into being when Karlie and Brian had made YouTube videos highlighting Karlie doing unusual stunts to boost her singing career. Karlie would tape herself kayaking with alligators or zip-lining. But with each adventure came an unexpected catastrophe. Karlie and Brian became Internet sensations birthing a new reality show.
Ryan lifted his chin. “You don’t need the network. You have me. I’m honored to help.”
Karlie slid her gaze from his. “I’m fine, I uh—”
“Neil is helping with the wedding,” Brian said.
Ryan could see the satisfaction on the younger man’s face. He challenged Brian with a stare-down. “I insist. I know Neil won’t mind since I can give you the wedding of your dreams.”
“I do have money of my own…” Karlie trailed off. She drummed her fingers on the table as if she were uncomfortable.
Ryan took her hand in his. “No. It’s every father’s dream to walk his daughter down the aisle.”
Karlie pulled out of his grasp. Brian opened his mouth but she held up a hand. She faced Ryan.
Ryan didn’t like the uneasy look she gave him.
“I asked Neil,” she whispered. Her eyes pleaded for him to understand.
“I think it’s presumptuous of you to expect that honor,” Brian said. “You falsified documents citing your paternity. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgotten.”
Ryan swallowed his disappointment. “You’re right. I had no right to ask.”
Karlie reached for his hand. “I’m glad you did. Maybe you both can. I’ll talk to Neil.”
Ryan forced a smile. Now that he had his daughter, he didn’t want to share that moment with Neil. Neil had only been in her life since she was sixteen.
“I don’t think that will work,” Brian said. He gave Ryan a pointed look. “Mom is bringing a date. What about you?”
Ryan wasn’t surprised. Patricia Oakes was a beautiful and desirable woman. Too bad she had a sexual addiction. They would still be married. Megan’s face flashed through Ryan’s mind. “I’ll be bringing my wife.”
Karlie’s eyes widened. “You’re married?”
Ryan squared his shoulders. “No. Not yet, but I will be in a couple of weeks. Maybe a month, max. We’re planning a small, intimate affair. This is our second go-round at this so we’re not looking to do anything fancy. We might book the Ritz-Carlton.” He only had to convince his bride.
“You don’t call that fancy?” Brian jeered. “I think it’s pompous and ostentatious.”
Ryan pulled on his tie. He knew Brian wanted to rile him, but Ryan had just met his second wife. Nothing was going to spoil that moment. Not even the sulking man before him. “When are you going to get over it? Patti deceived me. I treated you like you were mine.”
Karlie interrupted their standoff. “I had no idea you were dating.”
Ryan shrugged. “You’ve been busy. That’s why I’m glad we have this moment to catch up.” His stomach growled.
“It’s started already,” Brian said. “He’s going to get all caught up with this mystery woman and forget about you.”
“I’m here now,” Ryan said.
“You ignored me for most of my life,” Brian spat.
Ryan relaxed. “I did and I’m sorry.” He looked at Karlie. “I’m a changed man. Better.”
She nodded. “I believe you.” She swatted Brian on the shoulder. “Back off.”
“I won’t back off,” Brian said. “This man is an imposter and a murderer.”
Karlie gasped. “How can you say that about the man who raised you?”
“Because it’s true,” Brian said. “I can’t prove it, but I know your father is shady.”
Karlie leaned into Ryan as if to shield him from Brian’s attack. Ryan took a tendril of her hair in his hand before rubbing her cheek. “It’s okay,” he said. “I won’t dignify that comment with a response.”
Brian stood. “I’m going to get some air.” He looked at Karlie. “I know I said I’d try, but this is too much. He killed that man. I can’t prove it, but I know it and it…” His voice broke before he stormed off.
Ryan eyed him, and his heart ached. How did Brian know? He shifted. Did Karlie believe him?
Karlie’s eyes filled with tears. “I love you both.” She shook her head. “Maybe I’m being naïve for wanting it all. You, Neil, Brian…”
“And you will have it all,” Ryan said.
She touched her chest. “I’m sorry Brian is coming at you like you’re a ruthless monster. I hate that he doubts your walk with God.”
Ryan shook slightly. He and God were often at odds. God seemed to have a wealth of patience, while Ryan was too wealthy to be patient. He got tired of praying for something to be fixed when he could pay to get it done himself.
Karlie jabbed him in the arm. “This is where you’re supposed to agree with me.”
“I do. You’d have to be made of steel to resist Pastor Ward’s messages.”
She laughed, not knowing Ryan had spoken his truth. “I agree,” she said, launching into a retelling of the pastor’s latest message.
Ryan’s statement about Pastor Ward was true for ninety-nine percent of the people. He had been a faithful member of Zion’s Hill under Pastor Keith Ward, but a faithful member didn’t equal a faithful follower. Ryan yearned for the Word to penetrate his soul, but his heart was like titanium. Ryan was that one-percent where the Word seemed to bounce off his heart. He thought he was unreachable until Megan had turned him into a bumbling fool. Maybe she was the key to his redemption. His do-over. She had a son. Her son needed a man in his life.
Why couldn’t it be him?
He straightened. It would be him.
Ryan knew what he had to do. He kissed Karlie on the cheek, interrupting her mid-sentence. “I’ve got to run.”
She nodded. “I know you’re a busy man. I’m glad you made the time.”
He tapped her nose. “Always for you.”
She grabbed his arm. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
Ryan lifted an eyebrow.
“I’m inviting Merle.”
Ryan bunched a fist. “She killed Tiffany. That woman is a viper. You need to stay away from her.”
“She’s my blood. Just like you are.” Karlie’s level gaze challenged him.
“Fine,” he found himself saying, but he knew it was only to appease his daughter.
“I don’t want any trouble,” she said. “I’m warning both you and Brian.”
“I can’t imagine Neil being okay with this.”
Her shoulders dropped. “He’s not. The house shook from his bellowing, but it’s time we moved on and put the ugly past behind us. I feel it’s what my mother would have wanted.”
Ryan clenched his jaw and gave a terse nod. Tiffany would have wanted peace, but she wouldn’t have allowed Merle to use or abuse her. Merle milked Karlie as if she was a cash cow, but because Ryan knew Karlie had a great manager, he didn’t intervene. Winona Franks tended Karlie’s finances with the care a botanist gave to plants. Karlie’s net worth flourished by the day.
His cell buzzed. He knew his eyes were wide when he saw the name on the caller ID. “I’ve got to take this,” he said, and with a wave he rushed out the door. He bumped into Brian on his way out, but Brian didn’t acknowledge him.
Normally, Ryan would have ended the call and confronted him, but he was too excited by the caller on the line. If he had his way, this phone call would be the beginning of many more.
“You could have at least tried to be civilized.” Karlie glared at Brian once his former father had departed. Their server arrived with their meals, serving Karlie first.
Brian slid into the chair opposite her and waited until the server placed his burger with smashed avocado before him. “I don’t believe in being cordial to a murderer. And neither does most of the population in America for that matter. Or did you forget the feature on Jackson Higgins’s convenient death?”
Karlie rolled her eyes. “I don’t believe that nonsense. I grew up under my mother’s spotlight. You can’t believe everything you read in the papers or hear on the news.”
“It’s not about the papers,” he said. “I know Ryan. He’s hiding something. I told you about the note I found.”
Karlie shook her head. “That note doesn’t prove a thing. If I thought it meant something, I’d ask Ryan about it myself.”
Brian had the proof in his wallet. He had a note written by Ryan himself. After Brian’s accident and the stunning revelations that his mother was a sex addict and Ryan wasn’t his father, Brian and Ryan had decided to work on mending their troubled relationship. Brian had gone to Ryan’s house to visit him when he had found that stunning piece of evidence in Ryan’s wastebasket. Brian didn’t know what made him look at the sole item in the trash, but he was glad he had.
The crinkled paper had the names Jackson Higgins and Frank Armadillo scribbled several times. Brian had remembered overhearing Ryan talking to someone named Frank before Jackson’s death made the news. It all had to mean something.
Brian had done a Google search on Frank but only found an obituary. Then he had one of his tech buddies dig further but his friend had found nothing. This heightened Brian’s suspicions.
That’s why he had kept the note and told Karlie about it. It was circumstantial at best, but it proved Ryan was guilty. Brian knew it. Since then, he had distanced himself from Ryan Oakes. He had lost all respect for the man. But he was Karlie’s father, and he loved Karlie. Brian didn’t want to hurt Karlie so he attempted to be civil. Most of the time.
Brian’s knowledge was more than a hunch. He could see into Ryan’s hollow soul. Ever since Brian had read about the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, he had seen Ryan for what he was. Ryan was the stony ground. He cared more about making it in this life than the one hereafter. But Brian knew Karlie wouldn’t believe him. Brian bit into his burger.
She had been a Christian for years. He was new to this whole serving God thing, so Brian kept his spiritual revelations to himself. “What’s that whole mess about his getting married?”
Karlie shrugged. “I had no idea he was even dating again.” She squinted. “I’m not sure he’s even divorced.” She cut into the chicken and ate a small piece.
“I don’t think so, but if he is, he needs to slow his roll. The ink on those papers would still be wet.” Brian shook his head. “Ryan’s competitive. Maybe he’s trying to one-up us. The next few months should be about our wedding.”
Karlie laughed. “That’s ridiculous. Brian, you’re one of the smartest men I know until you talk about your father—I mean, Ryan.”
“That man is not my father. He’s all yours to deal with.”
“I have no idea what to do with him.” She bit her bottom lip.
He took Karlie’s hand and brought it to his lips for a quick kiss. “Pray for him. That’s all you can do.”
“I do. Every night. His name is right up there with yours.”
Brian ran his thumb against her palm. “How did I luck out with a girl like you?”
“Oh, please.” She removed her hand out of his to get a drink of water. “This from the guy who has over one hundred thousand teeny boppers fawning over him on social media.”
Brian shuddered. “I agreed to the YouTube show to help your singing career, not to become the sex symbol for children and cougars.”
Karlie giggled and leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. “I can’t wait to get a sample of what they’ve been eyeing.”
Her words made his heart rate increase. If she only knew the sleepless nights…the dreams…the torture. He had never wanted someone as much as he wanted Karlie Knightly. Brian didn’t think he would ever tire of that feeling. He used to be a drive-by lover and didn’t do long-term relationships, though he left them all satisfied. He intended to meet Karlie’s every need and then some. She had been saving herself for marriage, and Brian would always treasure the gift she would give him on their wedding night.
Brian switched seats so he could be next to Karlie. He hugged her close, savoring the coconut fragrance in her hair. “I can’t wait until I can be with you. I want to wake up to you every day for the rest of my life.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You don’t think we’re too young?”
Brian saw the doubt in her eyes and scooted even closer to her. “We’re young, but this love between us isn’t.” He motioned his hands between them. “We’ve been friends since we were sixteen. We know each other more than people who have been married for twenty years.”
She held onto his arm, and then her eyes narrowed. “You can’t resist the jab at Ryan and Patricia, can you?” she asked, referring to his parents.
Brian shook his head. “I wasn’t even thinking about them. But they are a perfect example of how you can be sleeping with a stranger for decades. We don’t have secrets.” He cupped her head with his hands. “There isn’t anything about me that you don’t know. You know my darkest secrets, and yet you love me. And, I know you. I know your heart.” He ran his hand down her arms. “Soon, I’ll know your body.”
Desire surrounded them like a cocoon.
Karlie exhaled and moved out of his embrace. “Keep talking like that and we won’t make it. We’ll have a honeymoon before the wedding.”
Brian laughed. “We will have a wedding first. I assure you, I fully intend to keep both our promises to God.” He gestured to the server and then asked her to box their meals.
She looked over at the other tables before whispering, “I can’t keep my hands off you. You don’t want to know the thoughts I have at night.”
Brian dropped his voice. “I can’t wait for us to make those thoughts a reality. And we will in”—Brian pulled up an app on his watch—“Seven months, five days, and thirty-six hours.” He stood, needing to put distance between them. Brian pulled out several bills to take care of their meal and reached for Karlie’s hand.
“What will you be doing the rest of the night?” he asked, touching her nose.
“I have studying to do,” she said. “And I was working on a song.” She twirled one of her curls around her finger. “Unless you wanted to come up?”
“I can’t,” he said, avoiding the siren lure of her eyes under those long lashes. Eyes filled with a promise she knew nothing about. “Remember, I told you Professor Grayson wanted to see me.”
She lowered her head, twirling her left foot in circles. “Let me know what he wants,” she said before heading toward the elevator.
Brian watched her leave, aching to go after her. He felt her keen disappointment but knew today wasn’t a day they could risk being alone. He had to use wisdom if he was going to make it to his wedding night. The old Brian would have gone into the elevator for a serious make-out session, but he was a new man. He had another love, a greater love whom he couldn’t ignore.
He tugged on his blazer and hailed a taxi. “NYU School of Law, please,” he told the cabbie. “I’m going to Vanderbilt Hall between MacDougal and Sullivan.”
The cab driver gave him the once over. Brian clenched his jaw to keep from asking if the man knew there were black men in law school. Then the cabbie gestured for him to get in. Brian barely made it inside the vehicle before the cabbie tore off the curb. He heard tires screeching behind him, but the cabbie stuck up his middle finger and kept on driving.
Brian leaned back into the cracked faux leather seat, ignoring the sounds of the blaring horns and the smell of curry in the cab. His cabbie had a to-go container of curry chicken and rice and shoved scoopfuls into his mouth as he drove. Brian cracked his window and turned his head. He wished he had brought his Bible with him.
Ryan entered Brian’s thoughts. He didn’t know why he couldn’t keep the vitriol at bay whenever he was in Ryan’s presence. Brian tried, knowing it would please Karlie, but he failed every time. Ryan was a never-ending source of contention between them. The only one, really, besides Merle, who was twenty-five times worse than Ryan. At least Brian knew Ryan’s evils. Merle was a viper, waiting for an opportunity to strike. Merle was a she-wolf poorly disguised as a sheep because there was nothing meek about her.
Brian saw through Merle as well, but again, Karlie seemed blinded by blood. The only blood that meant something to Brian was the Blood of the Lamb. Brian decided to pull up his music app and put in his earphones. Tasha Cobbs was just what he needed. He closed his eyes. Before he knew it, the cab came to a stop.
Brian thanked the driver and paid his fare with a generous tip.
“Best of luck to you,” the cabbie said before merging into oncoming traffic.
Brian jogged into Vanderbilt Hall and headed to see Professor Grayson, the Faculty Director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law.
A check of his watch told him he was two minutes early for his seven p.m. appointment as his footsteps echoed down the hall. Brian tried to picture himself as a criminal attorney and grinned. That so wasn’t happening. His interest was in entertainment law, but he wasn’t going to ignore a special invite from the renowned professor. Since the receptionist was gone for the day, Brian knocked on the door to Professor Grayson’s office.
Hearing a voice telling him to enter, Brian opened the door. The faint smell of cigar hit his nose. His eyes scanned the law books and the decanter holding a brown liquid. Clearly, Professor Grayson followed his own rules. The pepper-haired gentleman stood and extended his hand. Everything about him screamed big money.
He was almost as tall as Brian at six-feet-five. Brian gave him a hearty handshake. He had grown up with the likes of Ryan Oakes and wasn’t intimidated by success.
“I’m glad you were able to see me on such short notice.” Professor Grayson gestured for Brian to take a seat.
Brian obliged. “I’m honored to meet you in person. Your case against serial killer Wayne Yonkers is famous.”
The professor gave a dismissive wave. “I thought I was a hotshot then.” He settled into his leather chair and pointed to the decanter. “Can I get you a drink? Water?”
Brian declined the offer. “So, why am I here?”
Grayson cleared his throat. “I have a unique opportunity for you, young man. I know you’re a first year student, but you came highly recommended.”
Great. This sounded like Ryan’s doing. If so, he wanted nothing of it. Brian squirmed in his blazer, clasping his hands to wait for Grayson to finish speaking so he could turn him down.
“Kyle Manchester is seeking an intern. He has an upcoming case, and you’re the one I’d like to recommend.”
Brian straightened at that name. Kyle Manchester was his father. His real father. His mother had told him the name of the man who sired him with much reluctance, but Brian needed to know. She also revealed Kyle Manchester had no idea Brian was his son.
“Whose idea was this?” Brian growled.
Grayson leaned forward. “Mine.”
Brian shook his head. “But why me?” Brian couldn’t believe this was all a coincidence. “Did my father—er—did Ryan Oakes put you up to this?”
The other man’s eyebrows furrowed. “No. Of course I know who he is, but I haven’t met him.”
Everyone knew the co-owner of Spababies, Incorporated. It was Ryan’s brainchild, along with the equally successful tycoon, Michael Ward.
Brian stood. “So, if this wasn’t Ryan’s doing, why me?”
Grayson studied him with sharp eyes. “Why not you? You have an impressive grade-point-average and you’re in the top one-fourth of your class.”
“I still don’t get why I’m being singled out.”
“I don’t get the hesitation. You should be honored.” Grayson’s face became stone cold. “Do you want the internship or not?”
Brian stepped back. He eyed Grayson’s numerous awards. The man had accolades from the president himself.
Grayson lifted an eyebrow. “Well? You have to meet him first anyway. Do you want to do that?” He tapped his fingers on the mahogany desk.
Brian took deep breaths. Did he want to meet his father? Yes. Like he needed to breathe. But Brian had intended to wait until he earned his law degree. When he met his father, he wanted to be well put together, but maybe God had other plans. He forced himself to speak.
“It’s not that I’m not interested. It’s that…” He wasn’t about to share his personal business with Professor Grayson. He looked the other man square in the eyes. “I don’t believe in coincidences. Please level with me. Tell me why I was chosen. I’m sure there are at least fifty more qualified candidates.”
Professor Grayson nodded. “Fifty-three to be exact. But none of them…” He slid his glance away for a second before meeting Brian’s gaze. “None of them has Dr. Patricia Oakes as a mother.”
Brian’s shoulders slumped and his hands fisted. “My mother put you up to this?” He wanted to make it on his own merit. When would his parents stop wheeling and dealing with his life? They had gotten him into the finest prep schools by making hefty donations and coming through with big favors. Even when he should have been expelled, their ‘generosity’ had ensured his reenrollment.
Professor Grayson came around the desk to stand before him. “Patricia doesn’t know I’m doing this.”
Patricia? They were on first-name basis. An earthquake swallowing him whole would be more welcomed than this awkward moment. He tugged on his shirt collar. His mother had confessed she was a sex addict, which shattered Brian’s already not-so-rosy existence. The thought of her and Professor Grayson… Brian shook his head.
He turned away from the professor. “I’m leaving. I don’t care to hear about my mother’s escapades.”
Professor Grayson grabbed his arm. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Your mother saved my daughter’s life.”
Brian turned to see the mild confusion on the other man’s face and knew the professor spoke the truth. The tension left his body.
“My wife died when Carla was nine years old,” Grayson said, “and since then, it’s been Carla and me. Then Carla was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. Your mother was the only one who dared to perform the surgery. She sat many nights with me during recovery. Carla is now sixteen years old and giving me hell.” The Professor chuckled. “But, I’m loving every minute of it.”
Brian lifted his head. To say he was relieved was an understatement. He cleared his throat. “I…”
Grayson patted his arm. “She spoke about you a lot. So, when I saw your name…”
Brian nodded. His heart warmed knowing his workaholic mother had spoken about him. He would have preferred she spent quality time with him, but Brian rebuked that thought. “Can you tell me about the case I’d be working on?”
Professor Grayson shook his head. “Mr. Manchester is busy with several cases. I’m not sure where you’ll be needed. But, you’d be foolish to turn down this opportunity. Go interview with him. Just because I recommended you, it doesn’t mean you’ll be chosen. You might not be a good fit.” The professor looked at his watch. “I’d better get going. Carla’s due home from band practice and she hates to be home alone. I’ll have my secretary call you with the details.”
The men shook hands.
“Thank you so much for thinking of me,” Brian said.
The professor patted him on the back. “I hope you’ll be chosen. This will be an amazing experience. You won’t regret it.”
Brian smiled. He was going to meet his father. He experienced dual feelings of excitement and unrest. He knew he would regret meeting Kyle Manchester. Brian didn’t know why, but he knew he would. But not even that feeling would keep him from meeting the man responsible for giving him life.