From now until November their seeing each other was a given. With that in mind Monique determined that it was best to keep her meetings with him as public and professional as possible. Because she could not be responsible for her actions with that man behind closed doors.

Chapter 6

The next day, Niko entered the Drake residence to the sound of raucous laughter floating down the hallway. He smiled, despite the fact that he had no idea who’d told the joke or caused the chuckles. It could have been anyone. When it came to Drake gatherings around the family table, they were always lively, filled with stimulating conversation and many differences of opinion. It was as though having a child to cover every possible angle of life’s spectrum had been Ike Sr. and Jennifer’s plan.

Take the oldest, Ike Jr. Almost from the womb, it was known that he’d be the one who’d step into his father’s footsteps and carry on the family business. He’d taken to this role like a fish to water, had graduated with business degrees from Fisk University and the Wharton School and hadn’t looked back. Reginald, the second son, was doing the same thing in their native home of New Orleans. As with Ike Jr., business had come naturally. So had family life. After spending time in California and giving relocation brief consideration, he’d married his college sweetheart and turned a nineteenth-century Creole town house into a modern-day masterpiece. Warren, the brother directly under Niko, took after his grandfather as a lover of the land. The first crop harvest from a vineyard he’d begun several years ago had turned a tidy profit and seemed poised to do it again. The twins, Terrell and Teresa, though currently working at the family business, were still figuring out exactly what they wanted to do in life. Armed with degrees in engineering and journalism respectively, and boasting fraternity and sorority connections and healthy bank accounts, the sky was the limit. Julian, next to the youngest, was the serious one in the bunch. As quiet and introspective as his siblings were the opposite, he’d not talked until he was two years old and even now spoke sparingly, usually when he had something to say that was prolific and profound. A personality that was perfect for psychology, his chosen profession. And then there was London, the baby of the family. She’d managed to stay out of trouble long enough to earn a degree in fashion design and she’d surely spent enough money on clothes to fund several college educations, but what she’d end up doing with her life was anyone’s guess. He heard her now, arguing with their father about why he should buy her a house. Niko shook his head. His mother was right. The Drake bunch had been overdue for a get-together. He didn’t realize how much he’d missed it until now.

“There he is!”

“About time you got here, boy.”

“If it isn’t the politician. Where you been? Out kissing babies and schmoozing old men?”

The questions came in rapid fire with one beginning before another could end.

“Will you all stop the interrogation?” Jennifer raised her voice above the din, quickly gaining the respect that she commanded. “Let the child sit down before you start in.”

“Thanks, Mom.” He kissed her and took a seat.

“Now,” Jennifer said as soon as his butt had touched the cushion, “why are you so late getting to the brunch?”

“Geez!” Niko joined the others in laugher. He eyed the drink pitchers on the table, deciding whether he wanted a Bloody Mary mix, lemonade or tea. Given how he was in the hot seat, he reached for the one containing alcohol. “I thought you were on my side.”

“I am. I let you sit down, didn’t I?”

“That, you did.”

“Does your being late have anything to do with your date last night?”

Niko almost spewed the sip he’d just taken. Not even twelve hours later and his private dinner with Monique was already making the rounds?

Jennifer reached over and patted his hand. “Don’t worry. This isn’t fodder for the rumor mills. Grace hired Esteban for a dinner she’s having tonight and happened by the club to share some last-minute changes she’d thought of for her menu. She saw you and Monique Slater leaving out the back door. Said you two shared a friendly hug.”