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Copyright © Jamila Jasper Romance
All Rights Reserved.
This book is dedicated to Sheba -- a sweet, lovely being who blessed us with her presence during her life. RIP.
Prologue: Benjamin’s Beginnings
The day I closed the restaurant deal was the best day of my life. I felt like I’d scammed my way into a group of elites, sitting at that table with some of the biggest investors in the game. My father had helped me get a meeting with these guys — some of the top shots in the industry. Craig Gordon, Timothy Patton and Kyle Lyman grilled me for hours, quizzed me on the minutia of my business plan until they were satisfied that I really had my shit together.
And then they signed. And I signed. And then I had the green light to open three new restaurants. The one in Dallas was going right between a shitty Thai takeout spot and a barbershop. The one in Las Vegas was on an upscale street, in a spot my guys had picked out just for the restaurant. The third place was a wild card restaurant in Oklahoma City where I’d be opening the only French restaurant for twenty miles. It was safe to say these openings would be a huge success and the investor’s were over the moon about me.
What can I say, I’m a charismatic guy. I could charm the hooves off a horse with my eyes closed and my tongue cut out.
When I started my French restaurants at twenty, I had no idea how big they’d get. In our city, the restaurant business is tough. And I knew that. My dad gave me $200,000 to get started and I paid the loan back within the first two years of business — with plenty of money left over for me to live the lifestyle that I wanted.
Now that I was franchising the business, I knew I’d have even more rest and relaxation ahead. I was well on my way to my goal of retiring at forty. Now I could finally spend some time settling down, maybe even find the right girl. The right girl wasn’t easy to find. I’ve been dating Kim for the past three years and she’s a nice enough girl but there’s something about her that’s very vanilla.
She’s exactly the type of girl you’d expect me to date. I know where I stand, and I’m a perfect ten. I’m 6’5”, I’ve got millions in the bank from my business and I drive a brand new BMW that I trade in every three years. I’m a catch, especially in this city where most men can hardly hold down a job and even if they can, half their paychecks go straight to their student loans. Bullshit. I might not have a college degree, but I get how to live a good life. And a good life is lived hard and fast.
So right, I was telling you about Kim. Kim’s alright. She’s 5’4”, she’s got mousy brown hair and plain pale skin with freckles all over it. She’s got a nice body — maybe too nice — and she works at one of the private universities coaching water polo in the winter and tennis in the spring. As I said, Kim is vanilla. But she’s hot. Vanilla in bed, but hot. She’s exactly the kind of girl the big shots expect me to have on my arm so I keep her around even if she’s convinced that I treat her like shit.
But Kim knows the deal. She’s my girl, my main girl, but of course I have other chicks in rotation. What can she expect? Her job is so demanding that she can’t cater to my every need. Other women keep me sane. Aside from Kim, I’ve been dating Camilla, Joan and Megan. Or maybe it’s spelled Meghan with an “h”. Hell if I remember. I barely see Megan (or Meghan) anyways.
Camilla is Puerto Rican with this sweet buttery smooth accent. I like when we’re doing it and she whimpers in that soft breathy voice calling me “papi” over and over again. Joan is a solid 4/10, but she’s good in bed and likes all the kinky stuff that I like. I can’t keep her around for too long ‘cause she gets clingy. I’m too much of a free spirit for that. And Megan? (Or is it Meghan?) She’s a girl I picked up from the rougher side of town. She’s skinny, dark-skinned, and loves lavish dates and even more lavish nights. She’s expensive, but at least she’s given me a chance to diversify the kind of girls I get into, if you know what I mean.
As I drove back to my condo, I scrolled through the numbers in my phone. I needed to choose the right girl for the night and I wasn’t sure if Kim would do.
Kim was great, but I didn’t want her to mistake this for me settling down. I liked all the girls in my life well enough but I had no plans to settle down with any of them. Especially not Kim.
But I called her. What else could she be doing on a night like this. When she picked up, I chuckled at the frustration in her voice.
“What is it Benji?”
(She insisted upon calling me that stupid nickname. Something she picked up from my mom who insisted that I marry her before she got too old.)
“Come over,” I demanded.
Asking nicely never got anything done. With women, you had to show them that you knew exactly what you wanted and you were willing to do anything to get it.
Kim sighed. I could tell she was playing up her resistance for the sake of it.
“Why should I come over Benji?” She whined. And she used that nickname again. She was starting to get on my nerves.
“If you don’t want to come over I’ll call someone else.”
I moved to hang up, but Kim wasn’t going to knowingly see another one of my girls on her watch.
“Wait!” She stopped me, “I’ll come over. Fine.”
“Benji, I need time to get ready,” She whined again.
“Twenty minutes,” I repeated. This wasn’t up for debate or discussion. I had good news to share and I wanted a beautiful woman to share it with.
I hung up on her then before she got a chance to protest. Kim knew what she was getting being with me, and I hated when she pretended that she didn’t.
I arrived at the condo, pulled into the garage and walked upstairs. I clapped, turning on the lights. I couldn’t wait for an upgrade. Two years into the restaurant franchising, I envisioned a big upgrade. I already had an architect friend of mine drawing up the plans for my palazzo.
I took a quick, ice-cold shower and changed into a white oxford and khakis. I ignored calls from my father and from my brother, turning instead towards my wine rack. I wanted to select something with body for our evening together.
On my security cameras, I saw Kim pull up with her five-year old Toyota Corolla that I’d given her a grand to fix last month. She looked piss, even in the grainy image on the camera. As she waltzed up to my front door with visible frustration, I wracked my brain for what petty drama she’d managed to concoct about our relationship. Kim was always doing shit like that. We saw our situation differently, that was it.
“Open the door Benji!” She screeched, after I watched her a few moments on the camera.
She knew I was watching her.
I pushed the button on my security system and the door swung open. Kim took her shoes off and came right to the kitchen. Just as I predicted, she was in a mood. And it was one of those moods. I wondered if she was menstruating but thought it would be bad form to check my calendar for her right in front of her.
“Good evening princess,” I said with a grin.
She refused to return the smile.
“You. Are. An. ASSHOLE!” She screeched.
I tried to hold back a smirk. The last time I’d pissed Kim off, she’d hit me with her purse until I apologized. I’d learned my lesson.
“Threatening me with other girls just so I come over?”
“Honesty is the cornerstone of our arrangement,” I replied.
Kim’s face turned beet-red.
“Arrangement?!” Kim screamed, “This isn’t an arrangement Benji. This is a relationship.”
See? I told you we saw things differently.
“Uhh,” I tried to buy myself time.
“Jesus Benji! You’re always doing this to me! You have me sitting here like we’re going to get married!” She continued yelling at me. I didn’t know if I’d ever get her to quiet down.
“I wanted to tell you something today,” I said quietly.
I saw a tiny glimmer of hope in Kim’s eyes. She stopped yelling at me and folded her arms. I wasn’t out of the woods yet.
“What is it you wanted to tell me?” She asked.
“I closed the deal. We’re franchising. Three new restaurants across the United States.”
“Really?” Kim asked.
“Benji! Oh my goodness!” She squealed.
She leaped towards me and wrapped her arms around me. I still had my doubts that this would last long. She held me in her arms and I reached down to kiss her forehead. I don’t know how I managed to stay so detached from Kim when it was clear she was more than attached to me.
She pulled away and I even saw tears in her eyes (poor thing).
“That’s amazing Benji… I’m so proud of you.”
“You always believed in me.”
And then my phone rang. Shit. It was Megan. Her number flashed across the screen, along with her name.
Kim’s eyes darted to the phone and whatever good will I’d built up with her was torn down in an instant. Shit.
“Megan?” She asked, “Who’s Megan?”
I snatched my phone off the counter.
“Don’t worry about it. Tonight is about celebrating.”
“I ASKED YOU WHO THE HELL IS MEGAN!” Kim screamed again.
Her face was red all over again. Her voice reverberated through my condo and I knew I was in for a long night.
“She’s just a friend,” I replied.
I tried to feel guilty as I said the words. I tried to feel guilty as I remembered Megan stripping down to nothing before me and allowing me to tie her up with thick black ropes.
“She’s just a friend?” Kim asked — there was that hopeful tone of voice again.
“Yeah. Just a friend.”
“You’re a lying bastard!” She screamed back at me.
“Kim! Can you please calm down!”
“NO!” She yelled, “Don’t tell me to calm down! I know you’re lying to me. I know you’re sleeping with her! I know that you’re probably sleeping with half the bitches in this city!”
I knew I wouldn’t get through to her. But Kim was like this. She’d cry. And then I’d start kissing her. Then, she’d forget all of it. She knew I didn’t love her. She knew that we weren’t going to spend the rest of our lives together. She knew all of this. But she still came. She still came into my life and into my bed over and over again. She loved this game — as did I.
Maybe one day I’d settle down, but it wouldn’t be tonight.
Kim continued yelling at me, “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”
“NO! Don’t you dare call my name Benji! I’ve done everything for you. I’ve done everything…”
She started to break down. Tears filled her soft round eyes and I tried to take a step closer to her to calm her down.
“STAY AWAY FROM ME BENJI.”
“You’re sick! You’re sick!”
“Can you please calm the hell down?”
She started crying softer now, and she stopped yelling. I breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing I wanted to deal with was Kim’s hysteria while I was supposed to be celebrating.
“Do you think you’ll ever do it Benji?” She asked through her tears.
“Do what?” I replied.
“Settle down. Get married?”
I bit down on my lower lip. I hated when Kim asked questions like this and she knew it. I preferred to live in the moment. I preferred to live in a world where it didn’t matter what I did in the future. I wanted fun, hot sex, hot women and a metric fuck-ton of money.
“No. I don’t think so,” I replied.
The honesty hurt me more than it hurt her. I just didn’t show it.
She let out a piercing scream. This time, I didn’t try to calm her down.
“You’re broken,” She replied through her tears.
I couldn’t lie to her and tell her she was wrong.
“You do everything for mommy and daddy’s love because you’re just some fucked up rich kid. I actually love you Benji… I loved you. I thought that somehow I could change you. But you just want to be a fucked up player. You just want to break hearts.”
“That’s not true,” I said weakly, unsure of whether or not she was right.
Kim looked at me with anger in her eyes that I’d never seen before, “Don’t bullshit me Benji. I know you. And I know you’re such a piece of shit that you’ll never settle down. It would take a real crazy bitch to figure out what the fuck makes you tick.”
“Shut up! I’m done with you Benjamin. I’m done. This is it.”“So you’re leaving?”
Kim picked up her purse and nodded, “Yes. I’m leaving.”
I sighed and she saw my relief wash over my face. That hurt her more than me being an asshole.
“I hope you find someone.”
I wanted to wish her the same, but I couldn’t.
She repeated, “I hope you find someone that can change that fucked up little head of yours. Not every woman will be like your mother Benjamin. Give someone a chance before you die alone like every other rich asshole.”
And then she turned around and left. I wanted to stop her, but I couldn’t. Maybe I just knew that I’d put Kim through enough. She’d been through hell and back because of me, and I knew I’d reached the point in time when I needed to stop hurting her. She’d snapped — finally. I couldn’t bear to pick up my phone or to call any of my other girls. I knew I deserved her wrath.
And maybe, for the first time, Kim had gotten through to me just like she’d always hoped she would. Was I really destined to die alone? Was I really going to waste my youth chasing after shallow women and cheap sex? Was that really it? Kim had a point. A good point. But that didn’t mean I wanted her to be my one and only. Just as I’d told her, that was never going to be a part of my plan.
When she left, I walked to the front door and watched her car zoom away. I stepped out of the front door and breathed in the fresh air. I looked in my mailbox and saw an envelope that I’d left there for the past three days. I knew what it was, but I’d refused to pick it up. Today was the day.
I picked up the envelope and returned inside with my celebratory bottle of wine which I’d now be drinking alone. I didn’t bother pouring a glass. I sat at the barstool in my kitchen and drank straight from the bottle. I got about halfway through before opening the envelope.
You are cordially invited to the wedding of Mr. Y. Hawthorne & Ms. K. Shepherd
June 1st, 2018
I stopped reading before I hit the address and I ignored the “RSVP” date. My brother would know that I was coming. Heck, I’m sure he’d prefer if I didn’t RSVP.
I couldn’t believe the bastard was getting married already. The worst part was not being able to understand why. I lived a hell of a life as a bachelor. Why wouldn’t my brother Yates want a part of this?
I finished the bottle of wine alone and passed out on the couch.
Hawthorne’s was a French restaurant on the other side of town that had been around for 3 years. May Roberts had never been to Hawthorne’s but it was the restaurant that men took women to that they wanted to impress. May wondered why her date hadn’t put effort into other things to impress her.
She was sitting across from him, at the table he’d reserved in the most crowded part of the restaurant. He’d been rude to the hostess from the time that they’d walked into the place, creating an uncomfortable vibe instantly.
May knew she should have ignored Kristin’s advice completely when it came to dating. Kristin was getting married to your classic exceedingly wealthy white guy. Now that May’s best friend was getting married, she felt like the pressure was on to find a guy to settle down with. When Kristin had suggested May go out with Khalil, May had been convinced that it was only because they were both black. Khalil was nice and all, but May didn’t think they’d have anything in common.
Forty-five minutes into their date, May was starting to see that she was right. Kristin’s well intentioned attempt at setting up a date was starting to look like an abject failure.
“It’s a shame black queens these days are all turning into bed wenches…”
May was shaken out of her distracted daydream by Khalil’s conversation starter.
“Huh?” She replied.
“Bed wenches. All these females want to do is find some white man to play slave with.”
May’s eyes widened. Was someone actually saying something so ignorant in this day and age. Thinking that there was a chance she misunderstood, she asked Khalil to clarify.
“What are you talking about? Are you saying that all women in interracial relationships are bed wenches?”
May felt dirty just repeating the phrase out loud.
Khalil shrugged, “Don’t worry. This isn’t about you. You’re not that kind of woman… I can tell. Look at you on a date with a handsome, strong black king.”
May downed half her wine glass. She didn’t think she’d be able to make it through this meal without two more of these.
Khalil went on for a few more minutes until finally, their entrees had arrived. May tried not to say much as she ate, but that didn’t stop Khalil from spilling his philosophical tirades throughout the meal. May was looking for an escape route…fast.
When Khalil started off a sentence with “Jews control everything…”, May thought it might be a good time to excuse herself to the bathroom. Khalil seemed content to let her go and unsuspecting that she was really heading there to work out her escape plan.
Once in the rest room, May let out a loud sigh. Agreeing to this date was a bad idea. Khalil had looked good on paper, but that should have been a clear red flag. Guys who looked good on paper rarely ever measured up in real life. And now, she’d resigned herself to an evening of conspiracy theories and bizarre old school prejudices.
May couldn’t believe that she’d actually dressed up for this date. She looked in the mirror at the new dress she’d picked out. The forest green color complemented the rich, cool undertones of her dark skin perfectly. The dress hugged her figure without showing off everything and she’d felt more confident than she had in months. Too bad that confidence was being wasted on a guy who felt like interracial relationships were the scourge of the earth.
May pulled out her phone and called Kristin. After a few rings Kristin picked up.
“Hey girl, how’s the date?”
“It’s awful!” May hissed, “Do you know what this guy is like?!”
“He’s sooo nice!” Kristin cooed.
May rolled her eyes and tried to get Kristin to focus, “He isn’t nice at all Kristin! He’s insane. I promise.”
“Are you sure you’re not just raising your standards too high?!”
“I’m sure,” May assured her, “Please can we just go through our emergency bad-date procedure?”
Kristin sighed, “Sure. I really thought you guys would hit it off.”
May hung up. She wasn’t about to lecture Kristin on her soft-racism just yet. Kristin had her air-headed moments of thinking that May would get along with any guy just because he was black, but overall she was a well-meaning small town white girl who had been a loyal friend to May since college. (It was hard to imagine how long ago these days were.)
May fixed her hair a bit and then washed her hands before returning to her date. Khalil was waiting for her eagerly with a smile on his face that was unmistakably lust-filled. May sighed and sat down.
“I was waiting for you to get back,” Khalil said, cracking her a smile and then reaching his hand over to touch May’s thighs.
She jerked her leg away. She had just met Khalil and the last thing she wanted was his hand anywhere near her thighs.
May couldn’t figure out what she was doing that was turning Khalil on, but she wanted to stop doing it as soon as possible. She powered through the rest of her entree, trying to ignore Khalil’s rant about how the earth was really flat, and that round earth was a white male conspiracy. May was getting tired of his delusions of persecution, and desperate for Kristin to stop playing matchmaker and pull the trigger on her escape plan.
“So,” Khalil started, clearing his throat, “May I ask why a beautiful black queen such as yourself is wearing a weave?”
May looked up at Khalil with a raised eyebrow. His personality was such a shame. Khalil was actually a good looking guy, he had a good job and he drove a nice car. Unfortunately, his attitude stank, and May was just about getting sick of it.
Right before she could tell Khalil off for thinking he could come to her about her hair choices, her phone rang. It was Kristin.
“Hold on, I need to take this,” May said.
She picked up the phone and feigned concern, “Hello? Hello is everything okay?”
She stood up and gestured to Khalil that she would be heading outside to take the phone call. Khalil nodded.
May took a few steps away from him, barely paying attention as she weaved through the tables in the restaurant.
“Girl it took you long enough…”
“Did it work?”
“I’m walking away from the table right now… We need to think of an excuse.”
“Uhh,” Kristin tried to be helpful, “My cat died. And uh…. you need to help me through the grief!”
“Let’s hope that works…” May mumbled.
“I just don’t get what you don’t like about him!”
Before May could explain, her lack of attention to where she was going caught up with her. Her heel caught on the tablecloth of the table she was walking past and before she knew it, her legs had flown out from under her and she landed face first on the ground.
“May? May?” She could hear Kristin’s voice from her phone which had flown a few feet away from her on the floor.
Following her thud to the ground, the entire table she slipped by came crashing down. Crystal wine glasses, fine china and candles fell to the floor and all shattered around her. Everyone in the restaurant turned from their tables and all eyes were focused on May.
She tried to get up, but only stumbled again.
“Ow!” She cried out.
The man whose table she’d upset crouched down as various waiters and waitresses bustled around cleaning up the mess.
“Are you alright!?” He asked.
May looked up into the man’s eyes.
“Yes… I’m okay… I think…”
“Here, let me help you.”
“Thanks,” May mumbled, “Gosh this is so embarrassing.”
As if the situation couldn’t have grown any worse, as the man helped May to her feet, Khalil came rushing over from his side of the restaurant.
“Hey man, get your hands off her,” He said to the man who was actually helping May off the ground.
The man kept his hands on May, unmoved by Khalil’s threatening posture.
“Are you alright?” Khalil asked, taking May’s hands into his own.
“Yeah,” May mumbled, “But my leg hurts. Could you grab my phone for me?”
The man who had helped May up took a step back and Khalil went to grab her phone. May tried to dust off her dress and ignore the stares of the people whose eyes were still glued to the scene. Khalil handed May back her cellphone.
“Queen, shall we return to the table?”
May saw her opportunity to get out of this date. Finally.
She faked a wince and crumpled to the ground again. The man whose table she’d upset rushed to her side.
“You know what buddy,” He said, “It looks like she’s in a lot of pain. Why don’t you square off the bill and we’ll make sure she gets home.”
Khalil tried to argue with the guy, but he just didn’t have it in him. Waves of relief overcame May to the point where she didn’t bother trying to argue on Khalil’s behalf.
“Maybe we’ll do it again some time…” She offered weakly.
Defeated, Khalil walked back to their table to take his jacket and to pay off the rest of their bill.
“Bad date?” The man who had helped said.
“Huh?” May replied.
“Sorry,” The man said, “My name is Benjamin. You can call me Ben.”
“May. Nice to meet you. And I’m so so sorry for ruining dinner.”
Ben seemed to be amused at the idea that she’d ruined his dinner.
“You didn’t ruin anything. But you also didn’t answer my question. Bad date?”
May nodded, “Yeah.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll make sure he’s gone before we get you home. Sit at my table.”
Ben pulled out a chair for May to sit on and then helped her into it. May had a notion that he knew she was faking how badly her leg hurt, but he didn’t seem to care. Ben walked over to Khalil who was near the register. May looked over at him as he spoke to Khalil, shook the man’s hand and then eventually, took out his own credit card to pay.
Khalil walked out of the restaurant, barely looking back at May. Once he was gone, May again felt relief wash over her. The date was over. Her public humiliation at least had one benefit.
By the time Ben returned to the table, the waitstaff had cleaned up the mess completely and set his table with a fresh set of dressings.
“Well, I got rid of your date,” Ben replied with a smile.
“Thanks. How did you know that guy wasn’t my boyfriend or something?”
Ben chuckled, “Well if he was your boyfriend, you didn’t like him very much considering the lengths you went to in order to get away from him.”
May lowered her head bashfully, “I didn’t cause a scene on purpose.”
“I know,” Ben said, “But you were clearly miserable. I’ve been watching you from the time you got in here.”
Ben didn’t seem phased by May’s uncertainty.
“I can tell when a woman is into a man and when she isn’t. That guy… he’s not for you.”
“Not for me? What do you mean?”
“I can tell what a woman like you wants and it isn’t the kind of guy who will make you cause a scene just to get away from him.”
“Maybe you have a point.”
“Is your leg really okay?”
“Yeah, I think so. But I may have broken my heel.”
May bent over to take a closer look at her shoes. Sure enough, the heel that had caught on the table cloth had snapped off from the sole of her shoe. Great, like this wasn’t embarrassing enough, she’d have to find her way home with only one shoe.
“Why don’t I take you home then,” Ben replied.
“Oh…” May muttered awkwardly.
She liked Ben well enough but she’d just met the guy. She didn’t want to get in his car, much less show him where her house was. This is how women ended up on the evening news and that wasn’t the way that May wanted to go out.
“Listen, I’m betting you’re thinking that you have no reason to trust me, and I could be a crazy ax-murderer just priming you for a midnight feast.”
“Um…” May tried to buy time, not wanting to admit that was exactly what she’d been thinking.
“I get it. But you still need a way to get home because if you had a way home by now you would have told me to take a hike.”
“Well live a little. Listen, I’m not the kind of guy you think I am. I’ll just take you home and… that will be it.”
“If I get into your car, how can I be sure you won’t kill me?”
Ben grinned. He could tell that May was uncomfortable, but attracted to him. He saw the way she looked away from him when she spoke, how her fingers couldn’t stop twirling around her hair and how she bit down on her lower lip every time he opened his mouth to say something. That was alright. He liked that she was attracted to him. But he didn’t like this little mind game she was playing. It was clear that he wasn’t a dusty criminal. He was a well to-do guy offering to drop her off. Sure, Ben wanted more, but he knew that May hadn’t yet figured that out.
“Listen. You can take a picture of my license plate and send it to the girl friend who almost bailed you out of here.”