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Prologue


“Carter, I’m going to kill you,” Eve Linyard threatened between fast breaths. Her arms were killing her, her fingers were screaming for help, and her legs were threatening to give up on her. She puffed out noisily. “As soon as we’re done here, you’re dead. I hope you brought your coffin.”

Carter Welling, who was hanging from a ledge a few feet above her, chuckled. “I didn’t force you to come here.”

Still panting like a woman in labor, she complained, “No, but you lied to me that we were going to the gym.”

“It’s not a lie.” Carter’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “We are at the gym.”

Though Eve wasn’t attracted to him in that way, she had to admit that Carter was a fine specimen. His sensual voice and blue eyes were the very essence of romance. Add in the long lean athletic body, the hefty trust fund and a wickedly sexy grin, and it was no wonder that women fell over themselves to get to him. However, right now, all Eve wanted to do was punch that charming grin off his face.

“A gym is where you run on the treadmill or do aerobics. Not this-” She stopped speaking when the pain in her arms intensified. She looked up to see how much higher up they still had to go and almost cried. “Oh my god, Carter. I don’t think I can go up any further.”

“You can.” Carter’s tone changed from amused to encouraging. “Just grab the next rock. It’s right next to you.”

“Nooo, I don’t wanna,” Eve whined, but she reached for the next rock.

“You’re doing great,” he coaxed. “Grab the next one.”

“I’m tired, Carter,” she complained but reached for the rock above with her other hand.

Up the wall they went with Eve complaining the whole way and Carter encouraging her or teasing her. Eve wasn’t into vigorous exercise; she was more of a yoga girl. But she didn’t mind sweating once in a while especially if it was with a good friend like Carter. However, good friend or not, if she’d known that he was planning to torture her like this, she would never have shown up.

“Great job.” Carter gave her a high five when they floated back to the ground. “Now you’re ready for real rock-climbing in the outdoors. How’s your Saturday?”

“Booked!” she said emphatically as she struggled to unbuckle her harness with the help of a trainer.

“What about next Saturday?” Carter asked.

“It’s booked too, and before you ask…” She smirked. “…all my Saturdays from now on are booked. This is the last time I’m hanging out with your lying ass.”

 “What if it’s not rock-climbing?” Carter got rid of his harness too. “I got tickets to Infinite’s concert.”

“You got tickets?” Eve’s eyes widened. “How? They were all taken when I tried to get them from the band’s website.”

 “I have my ways.” He smiled. “So what do you say? Saturday with me?”

“I want to go. I do.” She winced. “But I have a date with Daniel on Saturday and you know how he gets when I cancel on him.”

“I knew you’d say that. So I got four tickets.” Carter showed her with four fingers. “I’ll bring someone and you bring Daniel.”

“Aaah!” Eve squealed then moved towards him to give him a quick hug. “This is why I love you. You’re always thinking ahead. Thank you.”

He grinned. “You’re welcome.”

Eve smiled back. She was glad to see Carter smiling again and socializing. This year had been hard on him especially after the death of his older brother, Arthur. He and Arthur were so close that he’d been broken after the unexpected loss. Eve couldn’t even count the number of nights she’d spent on the phone listening to Carter talking about Arthur. Even her fiancé, Daniel, had started to think that there was something more going on between them. Thankfully, he’d gotten over that crazy idea quickly. Carter was Eve’s best-friend. Nothing more.

“Your phone is ringing,” Carter cut into her thoughts.

“It is?” Eve asked as she waited for him to hand it over. Since her leggings didn’t have pockets, she’d handed it to him for safe keeping.

Carter checked the screen before he gave it to her. “Your dad.”

“Thanks.” Eve swiped the answer icon then pressed the phone to her ear. “Hi, Dad.”

“Hi, Torchie,” Mark Linyard greeted her with his pet-name for her. Apparently, when she was young her eyes were so large compared to the rest of her facial features that they’d looked like flashlights. “Your mother wants to know if you’ll be home in time for dinner.”

“Yeah, I’ll be home for dinner.” Meeting Carter’s eyes, she said into the phone. “Is it okay if Carter comes over too?”

Carter immediately shook his head and mimed, ‘I’m busy’.

Meanwhile, her dad said, “Of course Carter can come too. He’s always welcome, and I think his mom is on her way too.”

Carter was still vigorously shaking his head so Eve said, “Okay, I’ll talk to him then let you guys know if he’s coming over.”

“Great.” Mark ended the call.

Eve turned back to Carter. “Why can’t you come to dinner?”

“Date.”

“With who?” Eve didn’t give him a chance to answer. Narrowing her eyes, she asked, “Not with that crazy blonde who tried to get you to pee on her, right?”

Carter laughed. “What I can say? I like them crazy.”

She shook her head and clucked disapprovingly. “You’re going to date a serial-killer one of these days.”

“Are you sure I haven’t dated one yet?” Carter arched his eyebrows suggestively even as he linked his arm with Eve’s. They started towards the changing rooms.

“Ooh.” Eve gave a fake tremble. “Now that’s a thought.”

The two friends parted at the gym’s parking lot with each driving off in their respective cars. Eve planned to head straight home but she received a message from her mother with a list of things she needed from the grocery. The grocery run took thirty minutes then Eve was on her way home.

Home was a one-storey, contemporary, craftsman-style mansion that lay on its own small property tucked inside a gated community. A charcoal gray, sloping, slate roof met gorgeous brown-brick walls that were punctuated with spectacular art-glass windows. Though it was just early evening, the lights were already on, giving the whole house a romantic feel.

As Eve brought her SUV to a stop in the driveway, she noted that apart from her parents’ cars, there was an extra car parked there. Immediately, she recognized the car. It was Carter’s mother, Sharon’s car. Eve smiled. If she had to rank the people in her life, Sharon would’ve ranked as one of her favorite people just below her parents and Carter.

Still smiling, Eve headed into the house. As soon as she entered the living room, she spotted her father and Sharon. The two couldn’t be more different. Mark was a dark-skinned, heavyset man with a bald head, light beard and stern features that only eased when he smiled. Sharon was a white, slender woman with her platinum, blonde hair cut into a short pixie-cut. Her eyes were blue just like Carter’s and seemed to smile even when she was serious. The woman exuded a friendly warmth that drew in everyone who met her.

Sharon was the first to notice Eve. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t my favorite girl in the world.”

“Hi, Aunt Sharon.” Grinning, Eve crossed the room. Sharon stood up to meet her for a warm embrace.

“Look at you.” Sharon pulled back to give Eve an up and down. “You look good.”

“I look good? Psh!” Eve scoffed. “Not like you. I wish I look that good at fifty-nine.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere.” Chuckling, Sharon pulled Eve to the couch. “So tell me how have you been? How’s the business doing? Tell me everything.”

Before Eve could answer, her father cut in. “What? Am I invisible?” Mark teasingly complained. “Little girl, don’t you see me here?”

“Hi, Daddy,” Eve greeted briefly before turning right back to Sharon. “You came alone? Where’s Jackson?”

Jackson was Arthur’s adopted son. Now that Arthur and his wife were dead, Sharon had taken in Jackson and was raising him with Carter’s help.

“He had a sleepover with one of his friends,” Sharon said before going back to her original topic. “How is the business doing?”

“The business is doing great.” Eagerly, Eve added, “I just launched the new eye-shadow palette that I was telling you about and it’s flying off the shelves like you wouldn’t believe.”

Three years ago, Eve had been working as a pharmacist for a big drug company. Imagine everyone’s surprise when she’d declared that she was going into the makeup business. Everyone thought she was having an early mid-life crisis. Her parents had tried to stop her and Carter, who was the most spontaneous person she knew, had pronounced her as crazy. Sharon was the only one who’d supported her from the jump.

Sharon, who owned one of the biggest cosmetics companies in the country, had encouraged Eve to give it a try and given her invaluable business tips. Thus Little Eve was born.

Now in its third year of existence, Little Eve had established itself as one of the fastest growing beauty brands serving women of color. Sure, Eve had done most of the work to make the company what it was. However, if it wasn’t for Sharon, she wouldn’t have believed that success was possible.

“Eve,” Toni Linyard, Eve’s mother, interrupted the conversation as she entered the room. “Did you forget to say hello to your mother?”

Toni was the perfect foil to Mark’s stern demeanor. Everything about was boisterous; from her large curly hair and lively eyes to her voluptuous, motherly figure. Like Sharon, she exuded friendliness. According to Toni, it was this personality trait that had made the two of them click so fast when they’d met in college. Toni and Sharon had decided to be friends right on the spot. Almost forty years later, they were still tight.

With a laugh, Eve stood and crossed the room to hug her. “Hi, Mom.”

As soon as she pulled back, Toni looked around as if searching for something then she asked, “Where’s my stuff? Don’t tell me you forgot to buy it?”

“No, no.” Eve rushed to add, “I bought it but I forgot it in the car.”

“Go get it.” Toni tapped Eve’s butt. “I need some of that stuff for dinner.”

The next hour and a half was spent preparing dinner. Later, when the four settled down at the table, the ambience was cheery and welcoming.

“Mark, are you planning to go for a second term?” Sharon asked in between bites of her meal.

“I’m not sure yet.” Mark’s eyebrows came together in a frown. “Leo Turner’s coming in really strong and the voters like him.”

“They may like Turner, but he hasn’t done what you’ve done for them,” Eve said. “Everyone says that you’re the best mayor we’ve had.”

“You should run again,” Sharon chimed in. “You know you have my support if you do.”

Mark was the sitting mayor of their city. Though Stamford was somewhat liberal, as a black candidate, Mark had had an uphill task in getting elected. Sharon’s support had been invaluable because she was one of the most respected businesswomen in the city and had connections to everyone. In fact, if it wasn’t for Sharon, he probably wouldn’t be mayor.

“Let me think about it a little more,” Mark said.

“Okay, enough with the politics at the table,” Toni cut in. “Let’s talk about something more fun.”

Eve’s mouth kicked up into a half-smile. “Fun like what?”

“Fun like Carter,” Sharon chimed in. Her eyes on Eve, she asked, “What do you think of him?”

“Of who? Carter?” Eve shrugged. “He’s great.”

Sharon lifted one eyebrow. “Great enough to marry?”

Eve frowned. “I don’t understand the question.”

Her tone serious, Sharon asked, “What do you think about getting married to him?”

“Huh!” Eve blinked several times. “What?”

Her parents seemed just as shocked in the abrupt turn of the conversation and they were both staring at Sharon as if she’d lost her marbles.

Unconcerned, Sharon said, “I think you and Carter should get married.”

For a second, Eve just stared at Sharon. Then she burst into laughter. In between chuckles, she said, “You almost got me there, Aunt Sharon. I thought you were serious.”

Her gaze grave, Sharon said, “I am serious.”

Eve’s jaw dropped and her mind went blank. What?

“Uh… Sharon,” Toni cut in before Eve could respond to that ridiculous proposal. “Eve’s already engaged to someone else…”

“…And even if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t marry Carter,” Eve added.

“Why not?” Sharon asked.

“Because he’s my best-friend.”

“His being your best-friend is even more reason for you two to get married,” Sharon said. “It means that you already understand each other and will get along well. Besides, our families get along so well; you two getting married would just be icing on the cake.”

“That’s nice and all,” Mark said, “but I don’t think Eve is romantically attracted to Carter.” He turned to Eve. “You’re not, are you?”

“God, no!” Eve shook her head vigorously. “Carter’s great, but we’re better as friends.”

“Oh… okay…” Sharon smiled. However, though her mouth lifted, that smile didn’t reach her eyes. “I was just putting it out there. I like you so much that I wouldn’t mind having you as a daughter-in-law.”

“I wouldn’t mind having you as a mother-in-law either.” Eve smiled. “But Carter’s not the one for me.”

“I hear you.” With a small, secret smile, Sharon went back to her meal.

That should’ve been the end of that conversation.

But it wasn’t.

Six months later, Eve found herself walking down the aisle on her father’s arm. The chapel throbbed with excitement and Eve could see the smiles of the wedding guests through her thin veil. Whoever had decorated the chapel had put their heart in it because the space looked like a dream; flowers, scented candles, white and magenta fabric to match the bridesmaids’ dresses, and matching balloons.

The guests had dressed accordingly; beautiful clothes to complement their wide smiles as they watched Eve walk down the aisle. Sweet piano music thrummed around her, its romantic rhythm merging seamlessly with the excitement throbbing in the chapel.

It was a beautiful wedding, and Eve should’ve been smiling behind her veil but no matter how she tried she couldn’t. Heck, it was taking all her effort just not to cry.

Up ahead, Carter was waiting for her. He looked handsome, even more handsome than usual because he’d cleaned up for the wedding and was wearing a tuxedo. His smile as he watched Eve come to him was the kind that could make a woman’s heart stutter in its path. But that smile only made Eve hate him more. How could he be so happy when she was so miserable?

Eve’s gaze wandered away from Carter to the first pew right in front of the altar. The moment she spotted the author of this fiasco, bitter bile rose up her throat. The witch was smiling at Eve in that fake, friendly way of hers that had fooled so many people. Anyone would think that she was an angel who was excited to see her new daughter-in-law.

Eve’s hand curled into a fist and she had to take deep breaths to ease the red hot anger that overwhelmed her as she glared at Sharon. If it wasn’t for Sharon, this debacle wouldn’t be taking place. If it wasn’t for Sharon, Eve would be marrying another man today. If it wasn’t for Sharon, Eve would still own Little Eve. If it wasn’t for Sharon, Eve wouldn’t know the secret that had broken her heart and ultimately forced her to accept this marriage.

If it wasn’t for Sharon…

As Eve walked down the aisle, she kept her gaze glued to the bitch. Forcing Eve to marry Carter was the greatest mistake Sharon had ever made in her life. She just didn’t know it yet.

She’d regret this day.

One day, Eve was going to erase that fake smile from her face.

One day, she’d be as miserable as Eve was now.

One day, Eve would crush Sharon’s world in her fist like Sharon had crushed hers.

One day!

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Chapter 1


5 YEARS LATER

The auditorium was filled with people; row upon row upon row. Some of them were men but most of them women, which wasn’t strange given that the subject of this conference was ‘Women In Leadership’. The mood of the audience was somber yet charged, and an eagerness to learn swirled around the room in unseen currents. Quiet reigned in the large space, and the only sound was the voice of the woman standing on stage giving her speech.

“The philosophy I live by is that I’m anyone’s equal but no one’s superior.” Sharon paused dramatically to look around the audience before adding, “As women we need to emphasize that this is what we’re looking for. An equal playing field.” She took a breath then continued, “We need to be braver, more confident, and sometimes repetitive to be heard. We need to force ourselves into spaces that we have been traditionally told are not ours…” And on she went.

Anyone could tell that her speech was touching hearts. People were nodding along, some were taking quick notes, and others were even recording her. The only one who didn’t take her seriously was Eve.

What a load of bullshit! Eve thought as she watched her mother-in-law talk. Even though she was seated on the first row just after the stage, she had enough of a view of the audience to know that they were eating up Sharon’s crap like it was the Ten Commandments and she was Moses delivering them straight from God’s mouth.

Eve itched to shoot up to her feet and yell out that Sharon was actually the devil. That everything she was saying up there was carefully crafted to make her look good; none of it was real. That she was a psychopath and a monster with many, many faces that she changed at will depending on who she was dealing with. However, five years had given Eve herculean patience and self-control. If these people wanted to be fooled, then let them be. It would make their shock even sweeter when Eve unmasked Sharon.

Sharon finished, “… So please, don’t be afraid to test your limits. Do everything you want to do even if people tell you that you can’t. You’re the only one who determines what you can or cannot do. Not them.”

A cacophony of applause and cheering followed the end of her speech. Several people even stood to clap enthusiastically.

Sharon grinned. “Okay then, any questions before I take my seat?”

Eve turned to see if there was anyone who was so touched by Sharon’s bullshit ‘motivational’ speech that they needed more. Sure enough, several hands shot up. Barely managing to keep from rolling her eyes or snorting, Eve scanned the people who had their hands up. Her gaze screeched to a halt when it landed on the left-hand side of the fourth row. A petite Asian woman in her thirties was enthusiastically waving her hand to get Sharon’s attention. Eve immediately recognized the woman.

Nina Wu. Reporter for the Stamford Tribune. Sharon’s fiercest critic.

Sharon must’ve also noticed her because she studiously ignored that side of the auditorium. However, Nina was persistent. She kept her hand up until everyone had asked their questions and the only hand that was still up was hers.

“Yes, Nina,” Sharon finally acknowledged her with a wide smile. To everyone else it looked genuine, but Eve knew that underneath that sweet smile, fury raged. “You have a question?”

“Yes, I do.” Nina energetically hopped to her feet. Using her notebook for reference, she began, “In your speech, you stated that you’re always supportive of women and try to raise them up. I’d like to challenge that.”

Sharon’s blue eyes twinkled with amusement. “Well, challenge away.”

“You claim to help women but you’ve never actually supported any women to run for office whether it’s at our city’s level, state level or within the Federal government. Last election, all your preferred candidates were male. But that’s not all.” Nina took a breath before adding, “I took a look at your company’s employee list, and surprise, surprise, ninety-three percent of your executives are male even though it’s a cosmetics’ company which tends to attract more female applicants. How do you explain that?”

Immediately, an uncomfortable murmur pulsed through the crowd. Nina’s question had dulled some of Sharon’s shine and the audience seemed to be reconsidering their passionate support for her. Their eyes swung to Sharon. Answer her question. Prove to us that you’re not just words and no actions.

Sharon must’ve noticed the crowd’s dimmed excitement because for just a second, anger flashed in her gaze. However, she quickly masked it with a smile. “That’s a good question, Nina. But were you listening to my speech?”

Nina, who was back in her seat, nodded.

“I don’t think you were.” Sharon explained, “I said that as women we need to look for equality. Equality doesn’t mean that we want to be handed opportunities that we have not worked for and do not deserve. It means that we want to get the same fruits from our labor as men do.” Her tone increasing in strength and passion, she added, “We want the same pay, the same acknowledgment, and the same opportunities for promotion as men with our capabilities. La Belle is an equal opportunity employer. We hire the best; be it men or women. I would love to get more women in my company, but they have to be just as competent as their male counterparts. If you’re competent, you’ll get hired. I believe that that is what all of us here are looking for; equal opportunities not handouts.”

Her words were perfect. They made sense. They touched the crowd and enthusiastic claps echoed afterwards. Meanwhile, Eve barely managed to hold in her sneer. Nice words, but as long as they came from that witch’s lips, they were still bullshit!

As Sharon got off the stage, she was followed with thunderous applause. Eve stood with everyone else, forcing a smile and clapping as Sharon came towards her. When Sharon got close to Eve, she hugged her. Only immense self-control kept Eve from recoiling from the hug. Her forced smile still glued to her lips, Eve patted her mother-in-law’s back then they both sat down.

“You did great,” Eve whispered. However, she made sure that the ‘whisper’ was loud enough so that the people next to them could hear. After all, it was her job to make sure that the rest of the world believed that she and Sharon were the perfect mother-in-law and daughter-in-law duo.

Smiling indulgently, Sharon reached over and squeezed her hand. “Thank you.”

Both women were still smiling and holding hands when the next speaker took to the stage. About two minutes into the speech, Sharon leaned over and whispered, “Restroom. Follow me in two.”

Eve nodded. Seconds later, Sharon left her seat. Eve stayed in her seat for the ordered two minutes before grabbing her purse and walking out of the auditorium.

It was almost as if Sharon was marking time in front of the restroom door because as soon as Eve walked into the restroom, Sharon’s hand cracked across her face. Slap!

Eve staggered backwards, clutching her stinging face and eyes watering.

“What the hell was that?” The smile was gone and only pure rage remained in Sharon’s gaze. “What was Nina Wu doing in the audience?”

Still clutching her face, Eve worked her jaw to ease the pain before saying, “I didn’t know she’d be there.”

“How could you not know?” Jowls shaking with her anger, Sharon demanded, “It’s your job to evaluate everyone who comes to these things.”

“Nina wasn’t on the list the organizers sent us,” Eve explained. “She was a last minute add-on to make up for those who didn’t confirm their reservations.”

Honestly, Nina had been on the list. Eve had seen her there and, even while knowing how Sharon would react, still let her stay on the list. Why? For fun. A slap was a tiny price to pay just to see Sharon’s face whenever Nina was around. Frankly, Eve had been hoping that today was the day the older woman finally had a heart attack and keeled over because of Nina.

“I’m sorry,” Eve said, trying to sound genuinely apologetic. “It won’t happen again.”

“It better not. If I ever see that woman again in any of my events,” Sharon threatened, “it won’t be just a slap. I’ll take off your head.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Sharon took a breath to calm herself before saying, “Call Benisio. I’m ready to leave.”

“But the event isn’t over,” Eve protested.

“It’s over for me.” The older woman walked over to the mirror. Patting her short, white hair and plumping her lips, she added, “I can’t sit around those women any longer. They reek of failure.”

Well, all right then. Keeping her comments to herself, Eve plucked her phone from her purse and called Benisio to tell him to bring the car out front. As she followed Sharon out of the restroom, Eve called one of their assistants and asked him to tell the organizers that Sharon had an unexpected emergency and had to leave.

As expected, Benisio was waiting for them at the entrance of the building. He was a stern, looking man in his late forties. His swarthy skin and barrel-shaped physique were a testament to his Latino heritage. If it wasn’t for the ugly scar running from his left eye down to his jaw, he would be handsome. But that scar plus the dark eyes that were devoid of any warmth made him seem forbidding.

 Benisio was Sharon’s everything man. Driver, assistant, bodyguard, henchman… name it all. She’d plucked him out of the police department twenty years ago and molded him into a loyal dog whose bite was just as bad as his bark. If anyone knew Sharon’s secrets, it would be Benisio.

As soon as Sharon and Eve stepped out of the building, he rushed to open the car door for them. Without even acknowledging his existence, Sharon stepped into the town-car. Eve nodded to him before bending to get into the car. However, just as she put her feet in, Sharon called out from the inside. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Sorry?” Eve dipped her head into the car to meet Sharon’s gaze.

Sharon met her with raised eyebrows. “You’re not trying to get in here, are you?”

Wasn’t it obvious? They were going to the same house after all. Moreover, Sharon was the one who’d ordered her to leave her car at home so they could share this one.

“No no no.” Sharon chuckled and shook her head. “After that nonsense in there, I’m not sharing a car with you. Why don’t you walk home?”

Eve’s jaw dropped. “You want me to walk home?”

“Yes.” Sharon smiled sweetly. “Use that time to think of how you can serve me better.” Before Eve could protest, the older woman called out, “Benisio, close the door.”

His face blank, Benisio waited for Eve to step away from the car before shutting the door firmly. Without even a backward glance, he circled the car to take the driver’s seat. Within seconds the car sped off, leaving Eve staring after them in disbelief. However, after a moment that disbelief turned into a smile. If Sharon thought that going home alone was punishment to Eve, then she was severely mistaken. It was a reward.

Also, Eve was not walking home. What she was doing was stopping by a café for a nice cup of coffee before taking a cab home. If Sharon didn’t like that, well… she could slap her again. Who cared!

The cab dropped Eve off at home about an hour later.

Once upon a time, Eve had thought that her parents’ home was huge. But it had nothing on the Wellings’ home. The sprawling, three-storey mansion sat on an expansive estate with panoramic views of the hills that surrounded the community. The whole exterior was painted white and several pillars graced the front of the house giving it an Ancient Greece feel.

As Eve got out of the cab, she noted that Sharon’s town-car was in the circular driveway. She was already home. Immediately, Eve’s stomach knotted, and she had to take a deep breath to ease her tension.

Just as Eve started towards the house, the huge, double-doors opened and Jackson, her nephew-in-law, rushed out. Eve smiled – her first genuine smile of the day – as she watched the twelve-year-old, dark-haired boy run to her. He was still in his school-uniform, which meant that he’d just gotten home too.

“Aunt Eve, Aunt Eve,” Jackson called between rushed breaths as he got closer to her. “You won’t believe who-”

His words screeched to a halt when he tripped on his own feet and pitched forward. Eve instinctively rushed towards him and caught him before he could hit the ground.

“Hey, hey, hey,” she scolded as she set him back on his feet. “Careful.”

“Sorry!” He beamed up at her. “Hi.”

“Hi to you too.” Eve slung her arm around his narrow shoulders to give him a brief hug. “How was school?”

“It was okay,” he answered simply before picking up where he’d left off. “I bet you can’t guess who’s in the house. Guess who’s in the house.”

Keeping her arm around his shoulders, Eve turned him and they started walking towards the house. “What do I get if I guess right?”

“Just guess. Just guess.”

“Um… I don’t know.” Eve wanted to guess ‘grandma’ but she knew that Jackson would never be this excited to see Sharon. She thought over it a moment then said, “A friend of yours? Keith?”

“No, no, no!” Jackson shook his head. “It’s not Keith.”

“Amanda?”

“No. I told you she and I aren’t talking anymore because I refused to be her boyfriend.”

Eve shrugged. “Maybe you made up.”

“We didn’t.” Jackson demanded, “Guess. Guess. Guess.”

She wracked her brain for a guess but couldn’t come up with any. As they got into the house, she frowned. “At least give me a hint.”

“Well, it’s someone we both like.”

“Someone we both like? Hmm?” Eve was about to come up with a few names but just as they stepped into the foyer, footsteps echoed from the direction of the living room. Seconds later, he emerged. The moment Eve saw him, her heart stuttered in its path, her breath caught in her throat and everything in her froze.

In some vague corner of her mind, Eve was aware of Jackson announcing with flourish, “Ta-da! Uncle Carter’s home.” But all she could register was Carter.

He was back.

The last five years had been good to him. He was still as handsome as ever, his blue eyes still danced with secret amusement and though he’d gained a bit of weight, it had all gone to his muscles and he was now deliciously buff. When her gaze locked with his, it felt like the air between them got sucked right out of the room and it became harder to breathe.

Seeing him again after two months was like being struck by a thunderbolt. Instinctively, she wanted to rush forward and hug him but she stayed rooted to the spot just staring at him.

“Eve,” Carter greeted simply, his low, dark voice stroking her nerve endings.

Despite the whirlwind of emotions roiling inside her, Eve tilted her head and coldly returned, “Carter.”

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Chapter 2


Carter felt his heart leap at the first sight of his wife.

Two months away had not dulled her effect on him. Unfortunately. He took her in slowly from head to toe; his brain gathering her image slowly so he could savor it later.

Eve wasn’t perfect, but she was perfect for him. From her perfectly coiffed hair to her large, pretty, brown eyes. From her button nose to her lush lips. From her caramel toned skin to her mouth-watering, curvaceous physique. She was pretty and sexy… the kind of woman any man would want to keep in bed for days. And Carter was no exception. He wanted her in his bed. Badly.

It hadn’t always been this way. When he’d married her, it was because of pity rather than real love or fierce attraction like it was now. After her fiancée had left her and her business had gone belly-up, Eve had tearfully begged Carter to marry her. Those tears had stung him, and even though he knew that it was crazy to marry a woman who wasn’t in love with him, he’d still walked the altar.

The first few months of their marriage he’d thought of Eve as just his best-friend. But over time something had shifted within him. And he’d found himself slowly falling for his wife. However, the feeling wasn’t mutual. Eve’s stare was still as icy today as it was on their wedding night.

Her voice as wintery cold as her gaze, she said simply, “You’re back.”

“I am.” Despite knowing that she’d hate it, he crossed the distance between them and drew her into a hug. “I missed you.”

Eve didn’t say anything and her arms didn’t rise to his waist. She stood in his arms like a cold, stone sculpture and let him hug her.

“Aunt Eve, you won’t believe what Uncle Carter brought for me.” Jackson interrupted the dispassionate hug. Eagerly, he turned to Eve. “Do you want to see it?”

Eve’s face immediately changed when she turned to meet their nephew’s gaze. All the ice melted, and she smiled at the boy the way Carter wished she’d smile for him. “Sure, Jackson, I’d love to see-”

“Jackson!” A voice cut into her words sharply. The three turned only to see Sharon coming from the living room. Smiling as she walked, she said, “You don’t have to show it right now. Your Aunt Eve just saw your Uncle Carter. Let them talk to each other first.”

Jackson’s enthusiasm immediately dimmed. “Yes, Grandma.”

Carter didn’t miss how the boy shifted closer to Eve as if seeking her protection, or how Eve set a hand on his shoulder as if in silent reassurance.

“I just saw you two hugging earlier.” Sharon’s eyes twinkled teasingly as they shifted between Carter and Eve. “Is that the way you usually hug or are you just shy because of me and Jackson?”

“Mom, don’t!” Carter protested.

Myth had it that mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law couldn’t get along. However, his wife and mother had proved that myth wrong. From what he’s seen, their relationship was cordial and loving – like that of a real mother and her daughter. Sharon was the biggest cheerleader of their relationship and was always bugging him to get closer to Eve. It was the reason why he’d agreed to her proposal that all of them live together. The house was big, and they all liked each other.

“Okay, I’ll stop.” Still smiling, Sharon turned to Eve, “Eve, now that Carter’s here, we should do something special. What do you think about giving Martha a break and cooking for him ourselves?”

Carter immediately protested, “You don’t have to do that.”

“But we will if we want to.” Sharon smiled at Eve. “What do you think? Are you game?”

Eve smiled. “If that’s what you want, then okay.”

Though she smiled, Carter had an odd feeling that she didn’t want to cook for him and was just going along with his mother. However, before he could tell her that she didn’t have to do it, she cut him off.

To Sharon, Eve said, “Jackson and I will go get changed then come back down to help.”

“Great.” The older woman nodded. “I’ll just head to the kitchen and see what we’ve got to work with.”

“Come on, Jackson.” Eve led the boy towards the ornate stairs.

“Carter, you’re with me.” Sharon gestured for him to follow her. “You can tell me all about your new documentary while I scavenge.”

“Sure!” Carter followed her obediently. However, even as he sat at the kitchen island regaling her with stories about his stay in Colombia, Eve hovered in the back of his mind. After two months of having not seen her, the five minute welcome wasn’t enough. He needed more.

“Mom, I’ll be right back,” Carter said then escaped before she could ask him where he was going.

He took the stairs two at a time then branched into the left wing where his and Eve’s suite was. Eve wasn’t in the main room. The bathroom door was open so he assumed that she wasn’t in there either. When he crossed the room and entered their walk-in closet, the sight that met him stopped him in his tracks. Eve was standing by one of the closets, her back to him and only in her bra and panties.

Christ! She was beautiful. When fully clothed, she had the power to make traffic stop. When undressed, she could make a heart stop, and Carter felt his bump against his ribcage in excitement. Though she was facing away from him, he could tell that her lacey, red bra was barely holding in her generous breasts. Her back was cinched in at the waist but flared out at the hips to give her a voluptuous figure that left his hands itching to touch. But it was her ass that held his attention; large, juicy and perky. Carter swallowed hard even as his cock rose at that tantalizing sight.

He must’ve made a sound because Eve chose that moment to turn around.

The moment she saw him, she yelped, “Carter,” and crossed her arms over her chest.

Her arms didn’t offer much coverage, but he got the message.

“Sorry,” he murmured as he turned around.

“Get out,” she yelled.

“Okay.” He started towards the door. “Sorry.”

As soon as he was out of the walk-in closet, the double-doors noisily shut behind him. But the damage was done. After more than five years without sex while lusting over his wife, the sight of her almost-naked had sent his dormant libido into overdrive. He bit back a groan as a vision of how she’d looked flashed in his brain. Immediately, the thought of how she’d look when stripped of her underwear crept in.

Damn! He bet she’d look fantastic in nothing but her skin. Seeing her naked would be great, but what if she let him touch her? Just one touch would be enough. Okay, it wouldn’t be enough but right now, with the way he was hard, he’d take any crumbs she threw his way. Settling on the bed heavily, he wiped his palms over his face then pulled in several deep breaths to calm himself down.

A few minutes later, his lust was once again leashed. It was just in time too because the doors to the walk-in closet opened right then. Eve walked out, and this time she was fully dressed; gray sweatshirt, gray joggers and socks. Practically every inch of her was covered. However, it still wasn’t enough to erase the seductive image of her in her underwear. Without conscious thought, he lowered his gaze to her breasts.

“Don’t you know how to knock?” Eve drew his attention back up to her face. Unlike him, she didn’t seem enthralled by the encounter. She just looked angry.

“Sorry,” Carter apologized again. “I didn’t know you were naked in there.”

“Well, next time ask before you come in.” Kissing her teeth, she started towards the door.

“Hey.” He stopped her just as she reached the door. “I actually came up because I wanted to see you.”

“Me?” Turning, she pointed to herself and frowned. “Why would you want to see me?”

“You’re my wife,” he reminded her. “Why wouldn’t I want to see you?”

Something flashed in Eve’s eyes but she didn’t say anything.

“We haven’t seen each other in two months.” Forcing a smile, he asked, “How have you been?”

She leaned back against the door and shrugged. “Fine!”

If this was five years ago, a question like ‘how have you been’ would’ve elicited a whole session of storytelling and laughter. Now all he could get was a ‘fine’. The worst part was that he had no idea what he’d done to elicit this kind of coldness from her. If he knew what he’d done, then at least he could fix it.

Tilting his head, he watched her. “Aren’t you curious about what I was up to?”

She didn’t answer. She just stared at him.

“The trip was more intense than I thought it would be.” He hesitated a second then said, “I almost got killed this time.”

He had no idea why he mentioned the whole almost getting killed part. He’d kept it a secret even from his mother just to keep her from worrying about him. Perhaps it was because he wanted to see a reaction that wasn’t disinterest from Eve.

She didn’t disappoint him. Immediate concern flashed in her eyes and she stood straighter. He waited for her to verbally express that concern; ask him how or if he was okay. But she didn’t. She just stared at him.

Still, her concern was enough to reignite the hope within him. She still cared about him. His best-friend was still somewhere beneath that thick, icy veneer.

“Don’t worry,” he reassured. “It was just a brief encounter with the local drug-dealers. Apparently, they don’t like it when foreigners talk to the locals without their say-so. Fortunately, we got out of it unhurt.”

Relief filled Eve’s expression and she sagged back into the door. However, that relief was soon replaced by the cold mask, and she asked, “Is that all you wanted to tell me?”

“No.” He smiled. “But we can talk later.”

“Fine.” Eve opened the door and left the room.

Carter watched the closed door for some time wondering what to do about his wife. Any other man in his position would’ve given up by now. And he’d considered it several times too. But he was haunted by memories of their past friendship and his considerable attraction to her.

Instead of giving up, he’d chosen to run away. He could’ve taken projects that were closer to home, but it hurt too much to be around Eve. It hurt to see her watching him with those cold eyes. It hurt to share a room with her when he knew that he couldn’t even touch her. It hurt to feel like they were planets apart even when they were in the same house. So he’d run away.

But that hadn’t worked out so great, especially not on this trip. When he and his crew had been attacked in Colombia and it looked like they were about to die, the only person he’d thought of was Eve. While driving like a madman to get away from the bullets that were being sprayed at their jeep, all he’d thought of was that he couldn’t die here. She’d be devastated.

And when they’d found safety in the form of an army contingent, Carter had promised himself that he’d change their relationship. Five years in this limbo was enough. It was time to stop running and instead change things.

 

* * * * *

 

CARTER’S RETURN WAS such a big deal that two days later, Sharon invited Eve’s parents over to celebrate the event.

“Isn’t this great?” Sharon cheerfully exclaimed as she looked around the dinner-table. “I don’t think the mood has been this happy in a while.”

“That’s because we were all worried about this one.” Toni gestured towards Carter.

“Well, you all don’t need to worry.” Carter grinned. “I’m back now.”

Eve, who was seated next to him, kept her eyes on her plate. Like Jackson, who was seated on her right, she quietly listened to the conversation as she ate.

Truth be told, her heart had almost stopped when he’d revealed that he’d almost died in Colombia. Though she couldn’t reveal it, the truth was that she still cared about him. A lot.

Whenever he left the country to shoot one of his documentaries, she was wracked with worry. Why couldn’t he be like other directors and film tame subjects like wildlife or something? No, he just had to be the guy who chased the most dangerous stories. Last year it was something about Chinese dissidents. This year it was Colombian drug traffickers. Every time he came back home, she wanted to hug him in relief then slap him for making her worry so much. But she couldn’t do that, could she? Not when she was trying to seem indifferent to him.

“Are you back for a little while,” Mark asked, “or for a long time?”

Like everyone else around the table, Eve waited for Carter’s answer.

“For a long time,” Carter said. “I don’t have any projects currently planned. And even if I do take up something, it will be something fluffier to clean my palate.”

“That’s great!” Toni, like everyone else, grinned. “Now that you’re around, you and Eve can get to giving us grandchildren.”

All eyes turned to Eve, but she studiously ignored them, choosing instead to focus on her food.

“Toni, don’t rush them,” Sharon scolded. “I’m sure they’ll get to it when they’re ready.”

“They should be ready by now. It’s been five years.” Toni’s eyes narrowed as they swept between Eve and Carter. “Or… is there something wrong?”

“Toni, leave the kids alone,” Mark chimed in. “If there was something wrong, they would’ve told us, right?”

His question was for Eve.

She met his eyes and forced a smile. “No, Dad. There’s nothing wrong.”

That is unless one counted the fact that she and Carter had never even consummated their marriage.

“We’re just taking our time,” Carter backed her up. Lying through his teeth, he added, “Eve and I wanted to enjoy being married for as long as possible before bringing kids into it.”

“Well, don’t wait too long,” Toni said. “You two aren’t getting younger, and neither are we. I want to be there when my grandchild goes to college.”

“Okay, that’s enough of that,” Sharon said. Changing the subject, she turned to Toni, “You guys just started the semester, right? How’s your new group of students?”

“Same as the last.” Toni snorted. “They’re all very proud of their very wrong opinions on subjects they’re too young to know anything about.”

That drew laughs from everyone at the table. Eve forced out a laugh so that she wouldn’t be the odd one out. As she faked her laughs and smiles, she watched the people around her. They all seemed so happy and at ease in each other’s company. Anyone watching them from the outside would likely assume that they were the perfect family. However, this happy, loving atmosphere was a mirage. Like fog, it masked the secrets, enmities and unhappiness that festered beneath their bright smiles.

Dinner flew by in a flurry of conversation and laughter. While Carter, Sharon, Mark and Toni went to the living room for after-dinner drinks, Eve went upstairs with Jackson. Her excuse was that she was going to check on his homework. But the truth was that she just needed a break from all that fakeness. She only came down when her parents sent the housekeeper up to let her know that they were leaving.

“Torchie, you were really quiet tonight,” Mark said as he and Eve walked out of the house arm in arm.

“Was I?” Eve asked even though that he was right.

“You were.” Studying her keenly, he asked, “Is everything all right with you?”

Eve smiled brightly. “Of course everything is all right.”

Toni, who was walking on the other side of Mark, said, “You know you can tell us if anything is wrong, right?”

Eve took a deep breath to ease the instant thread of irritation that shot through her at the sound of her mother’s voice before she said, “There’s nothing wrong, Mom. I’m okay.”

Mark watched her for a moment then asked, “Or are you angry because your mother and I asked about kids?”

Eve shook her head. “No, I’m not angry.”

“We’re just asking because we know you’ve always wanted to have kids,” Toni said.

Yeah, Eve had wanted kids. But that was before all these people had screwed up her life. Now all she wanted was revenge.

“You haven’t been home in a while,” Mark said once he and Toni were in his car. “Why don’t you come over this weekend?”

Eve, who was standing next to his window, said, “I’ll try.”

But even as she said those words she knew that it wouldn’t happen. One; because Sharon would never let her. And two: because she was too scared of herself. Every time Eve was alone with her parents, she always felt this pressing urge to erupt and spill her guts. But she couldn’t do that. Not when it meant the end of her family as she knew it.

Her parents soon drove off, and Eve strode back to the house. Martha, the housekeeper, met her at the door. Martha was in her early fifties, but remarkably well preserved with a heart-shaped face and honey-colored hair. Her black uniform hid a stout physique and a back that was straight as a rod. She had the air of a commander; something that served her well while trying to manage the rest of the household’s help.

“Mrs. Welling wants to see you,” Martha said.

“Where is she?”

“She’s in her office.”

Uh-oh. Sharon’s office was like the Principal’s office. No good ever came from visiting it. Eve squared her shoulders, took a deep breath then marched down the hallway to the office. She knocked on the large white door once, then after hearing Sharon’s ‘Come in,’ turned the doorknob.

The office was light and airy. The walls were painted a pure white that reflected the light brilliantly. Long windows looked out to a beautiful view of the garden outside, and several interesting pieces of art lined the walls. A tall shelf bursting with books occupied one whole wall. In front of that bookshelf was a sitting area, tastefully decorated with white settees and a glass coffee-table. There was even a vase of fresh pink and white roses on the coffee-table.

It was all very pure and angelic. Unlike the she-demon who sat behind the large white desk on the other side of the room.

Sharon looked up when Eve walked in. Gone was the smile that she put on for people she was trying to impress. Staring coldly at Eve over her wire-rimmed glasses, she asked, “Are they gone?”

“Yes,” Eve replied. “They’re gone.”

“You didn’t tell them anything funny, did you?”

Pretending ignorance, Eve asked, “Anything funny like what?”

But Sharon wasn’t fooled. She sat back in the leather chair to watch Eve for a long time before nodding. “Good. Keep it that way.”

Eve asked, “Is that why you wanted to see me? To ask me if I said anything funny?”

“No.” Sharon sat up straighter. “Did you and Carter have sex last night?”

Coming from any other mother-in-law the question would’ve been shocking and inappropriate. But this was Sharon. There were no boundaries when it came to her interference.

Unfazed, Eve admitted, “No.”

Immediate anger flashed in the older lady’s eyes. “Why not?”

“He said he was tired,” Eve lied.

“Tired?” Sharon grabbed the acrylic paperweight that was on her desk and threw it at Eve. Eve ducked to the right, and the paperweight flew right past her to crash into the floor with a heavy thud.

Her voice rising, Sharon scolded, “What’s the use of that pretty face of yours if you can’t even get a man to get over his tiredness? Have you forgotten the reason I brought you into my family? You’re supposed to give me grandchildren. That was our agreement.”

“I remember,” Eve acknowledged.

Sharon’s blue eyes were spitting fire as she demanded, “If you remember, then why aren’t you doing anything about it?”

“I’ll talk to Carter.”

“Don’t talk to him. Seduce him.” Her tone sarcastic, the older woman added, “Or do I have to give you lessons on how to do that?”

“No, I can manage on my own.”

“Then manage it. Soon.” Sharon threatened, “Your deadline is coming up soon. If I don’t get a grandchild by the end of next year, you will be replaced. Got it?”

“Got it.” Eve nodded. However, as she left the room, she couldn’t hide her smile. Sharon didn’t know it yet, but her deadline was coming up soon too. By the end of this year, she’d be wishing that she’d never allowed Eve into her family.

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