“Yes. Let me in, Martha.”

She walked away, and pulled out her cell. Going through the phone, she pressed a button and waited, the phone to her ear.

“It’s me. Stevie is here. You want me to let him in?”

There was a pause, and then she spoke. “Okay.” She hung up the phone and opened the door, peering through the crack created by the safety chain. An alarm somewhere in the house started, a slow chirp, gradually increasing in speed. She seemed pleased with what she saw and she closed the door, removed the chain and then opened it again, ushering in a tall man with a muscular build, dressed in a black polo and dress pants, a large gray gun strapped to his belt. Martha shut the door behind him, relatching the chain and locking the dead bolt, and pressed a button on the alarm pad.

She turned to the stranger, smiled widely and held open her arms. “Stevie, I haven’t seen you in ages! Come here for a hug.” It was the most enthusiastic welcome I had ever seen her give, and I moved closer for a better look.

The man’s ugly face, scarred in places with a crooked nose, broke into a wry smile. He bent over, hugging the short woman tightly. I stood awkwardly behind them, waiting for an introduction. They separated, Martha holding him at arm’s length for a moment, looking him over critically. “You look thin, Stevie. We need to start having you over for supper, or at least get you a woman who’ll feed you.”

He laughed, and turned to me, extending his hand. I stepped forward, shaking it, his grip firm and strong. Safe.

“I’m Julia.”

“Stevie. I’m Brad’s cousin.”

“Here to protect us?” I asked.

Stevie glanced quickly at Martha, who hustled between us with a laugh. “Come, let’s move to the kitchen! I’ve got food in the skillet that will burn.” Stevie gestured for me to go ahead, and we walked into the kitchen, which smelled of grilled sausage and chicken. I sat at the counter, but Stevie glanced around, uneasy. “I’m going to check the house out,” he announced, and left, his hand resting on his gun.

I watched his exit, then turned to Martha, my brows raised. “What’s his story?”

“Oh, Stevie and Brad have been close as brothers ever since Brad was born. They’re only four months apart in age. Brad said he sent Stevie over to keep an eye on us, just in case someone decides to stop back by. I doubt anyone will, but it’s nice to have an extra person in the house, especially one with Stevie’s skills.”

She seemed ridiculously relaxed, given the situation. She added spices, chopped veggies and hummed under her breath. I told her my thoughts and she laughed.

“Girl, I’ve seen a lot of things working in this house, and it always ends up all right. Besides, if it’s my time to go, it’s my time. But listen, I changed the diapers on most of these boys. They ain’t gonna touch me with a ten-foot pole.” She set down the wooden spoon and turned to me. “Now, you? You I worry about. There’s nothing stopping them from blowing your pretty little brains out.”

My eyes widened, and I stared at her. “Is that your way of making me feel better?”

“Honey, it’s me being honest. I believe women need to know what they’re up against. If you want sunshine blown up your ass, you picked the wrong black woman.” She turned back to the stove and turned up the heat, adding some more oil to the hot pan.


Brad drove his car through the city streets, weighing the few options he had. He was dressed in a gray pin-striped suit, his shoes polished. His father would expect nothing less for a dinner at home.

The car took the curves easily as he left the city and moved into the streets of old money, condos and skyscrapers stepping aside for brick pavers, Rolls-Royces and heavily staffed mansions.

The estate had been in his family for over three generations. It was a fortress, surrounded by a fourteen-foot stone wall, stylishly covered by boxwood hedges, with security cameras positioned at regular intervals along the wall. The estate, for its pretentious address and luxury appointments, was small, only two acres, for ease in monitoring. Brad pulled up to a small guard shack and nodded to the uniformed man, a longtime employee, who manned it. Two other uniforms came from the shack and circled the car. Brad pressed the button, releasing the trunk, and waited as they shone their lights in the car and glanced through the trunk. Finally, the large, electrified gate in front of his car swung open, and he pressed on the gas.

* * *

STEVIE FINISHED HIS SEARCH of the house and entered the kitchen again, checking all of the windows and the locked door. He finally relaxed and sat at the island. Martha glanced over from the pot she was tending. “We could have just told you there was nobody in the house. And I checked all the doors and locks myself.”

“Nothing wrong with a second set of eyes,” he said softly, looking into her caramel-brown ones. She sniffed disapprovingly, and went to the fridge, getting the pitcher of tea out and pouring him a glass.

He smiled, looking like a teenage boy, and sniffed appreciably. “How soon before the food is ready?”

“Aw, I’d say about twenty minutes. Can you wait that long, or do you need a snack?”

“I can wait.” He took a big gulp of tea, then studied me over the rim of the glass. “So. What’s a pretty thing like you doing with the big ogre?”

I turned to him, a smile in my eyes. “The big ogre being Brad?”

“Of course. He doesn’t know how to treat a lady. Now, me, I could give you the finer things in life.”

Martha laughed, her spoon hitting the counter. “Like what? A Milky Way bar and a six-pack of Miller?”

He groaned, his hand to his heart. “Martha, how am I supposed to impress her when you paint me in that light?”

Martha laughed and grabbed three plates from the cabinet. “Stevie and Brad always thought they had some magic quality with the ladies, used to call it ‘the Force.’ Stevie’s never mastered charm like Brad has—but that doesn’t stop him from trying it on every female he sees.”

“Oh, just ’cause you never fell victim to it doesn’t mean it’s not there. I just went easy on you, didn’t want to give an old woman a heart attack.”

“First of all, I wasn’t old back then. Second, every time you boys got into trouble, you’d be sitting in my kitchen, trying your best to charm your way into me sneaking you some food—so don’t tell me you haven’t tried to use it on me!”

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