Page 7 of Black Lies

“A million dollars never hurt anyone, dear.”

I dropped my eyes to the check, surprised to see her name across the top. One million dollars. To me, it meant an extra vacation home. Maybe a condo in Colorado. Nothing that would change my life. But it was still a significant amount of money. Especially to be written off her personal account. “It’s worth a million dollars to you for him to stay single? Or is it me that you have such personal disdain for?”

That flicker of gray again. A tropical storm of emotions in this small woman. “Trust me. I want what’s best for Brant. And, for you.”

I pushed back the check. “No thanks. And it has nothing to do with Brant. I’m not going to be bought off from anything.”

She chuckled, the sound anything but jovial. Instead, it scraped long, dead fingernails down my spine, reducing me, in one squeeze of her vocal chords, to a misbehaving child. “Oh, how easy it is for a child of wealth to take the moral high ground. I imagine, had you had to work a day in your life, that you would react differently. If it were your money that built this house. That purchased your ocean-front view.”

I stared at her, bit back words of retort that didn’t really hold any substance. She was right. Didn’t mean I was going to let her stand here, in my damn house, and make me feel guilty for it. I watched as she ripped the check in half. Let the pieces of it scatter to the counter.

“Fine. You don’t want my money? What about HYA?”

My fingers tightened on the counter, everything changing in the kitchen in that one moment. She wouldn’t. She couldn’t. “What about it?”

“Last year BSX donated…” She moved her gaze around the kitchen, as if there was complex math being done in some corner of her mind.

“Seven and a half million dollars.” I found my voice—it moved out of my throat without invitation. She wouldn’t.

“Seven point six,” she corrected me, her voice hard. “I head our charitable contributions team, along with twelve other departments at BSX. Step away, or I’ll pull this year’s donation.”

My world grew a little smaller. Donations were due next month. We were asking BSX for eight million, which would, in addition to normal expenditures, pay off the existing debt on three new homes we put under construction during the last year. Without that donation, the organization would have to cover both mortgages for a full year. An impossible task. And, honestly, my fundraising skills… I couldn’t make up that deficit. No way. I could barely raise the two million dollars I had pulled in last year. I swallowed. Stared at this evil woman who suddenly held a full house in her deck. A full house of homeless kids.

“Get the f**k out of my house.”

And so my relationship with Jillian began.

Chapter 6

I didn’t react well when being told what to do. I was also selfish. Both of those arrows pointed in the direction of calling Brant. Planting myself front and center in his life in any way I could.

But I couldn’t ignore the kids. The ones I spent Tuesdays and Thursdays with, the one break from my superficial life, the peek I got into a lonely, sad existence that HYA brightened in a few small ways. Important ways. The old woman was right about one thing. There were no emotions attached at this point, no reason why I couldn’t just walk away from the man. Walk away and allow thousands of children to have a little brightness in their lives this year. Would I take that away from them just to spite Jillian Sharp?

Yeah. Probably. I never claimed to be a saint. Manipulation should never win. Plus, I should never lose. My new mantra was to do as I wished, not as society expected or wanted. On that note, I was almost obligated to give her the proverbial middle finger.

I dumped a liberal amount of Kahlua in my coffee, sat down on my sofa, and stewed over the decision. Stewed over why Jillian was so dead set against a possibility that hadn’t even become a possibility yet. Was it me? Some hatred of a stranger she’d never met? Or any woman who might interrupt the flow of Brant’s life? How many kitchens had she stood in? Checks had she written? Foes had she faced?

Three cups of coffee later, I slumped low in the couch, the pillow imprinting expensive designs in the side of my face, when my phone rang. I jerked to life, wind-milling my hands and feet for a brief moment as I found my way to my feet and regained my bearings.

I stood there for a brief moment, my bare feet on bamboo floors, blinked, and tried to find the source of my awakening. The shrill sound of my ringtone reminded me, my bleary eyes finding the cell on the kitchen counter, my weak legs bringing me closer.

BRANT displayed on the screen. I silenced it, stumbled back to the couch, and collapsed facedown.

Think of the children.

My second nap ended sometime after lunch, the irritated growl of my stomach punching through any alcohol-induced slumber. I made it through half the steps involved in a chicken salad sandwich before I was reminded of Brant’s call, mayonnaise fingers plucking my phone and dialing my voicemail.

One new message. Received at 11:07 AM.

“Layana. This is Brant Sharp. I enjoyed last night, sorry to skip out without saying goodbye. I’d like to take you to dinner tonight to make up for it. Let me know if you are free.”

No goodbye salutation. Just an ending of the call, my recorded voice informing me of my options in regards to his message. I pressed 4, saved it, ended the call, and tossed down the cell. I finished fixing my sandwich, a frown pinching my features.

He called two more times that week. Left two voicemails.

The next week nothing.

The next week nothing.

The fourth week he sent a large arrangement of orchids. The card simply said, “Call me.”

Day thirty-four: BSX wired their annual donation, meeting our request, eight million dollars.

On day thirty-five, I called him back.

“Hey.” Total silence in the background. No hum of machinery, no busy San Francisco street.

“I’m sorry.”

“Trust me, I won’t leave in the middle of the night again. I learned my lesson.”

I laughed. His wry tone made me smile. “It wasn’t that. Truly. I just needed to get some things in order before I saw you again.”

His next sentence was a grumble in words. “Clear the bench?”

More like wait out a contract. “Something like that.”

“So… your bench is available?”

I laughed. “As unsexy as that sounds, yes.”

“Good. I’d like to take you to dinner tonight.”