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Chapter 1


“No, Miss B, you don’t understand,” one of the two teen girls who were standing by Amara Sethy’ desk whined.

Amara, who was used to this kind of whining, didn’t even look up from the assignments she was marking. “Then explain it to me so I can understand.”

The two girls traded glances, then one of them, Nova, jumped in. “ASH is having a virtual concert on Tuesday.”

“I’m aware.” Amara wasn’t really a fan of the band, but they were the hottest thing among teens right now. Since teens were her people, she knew all about ASH. “But I still don’t understand what their concert has to do with my test.”

“Your test is on Wednesday morning.” The other girl, Blue, added, “We’ll still be hung-over.”

Amara looked up at once, and arched her eyebrows. “Hung-over?”

“Not that kind of hangover,” Blue corrected herself with a sheepish grin. “It’s like a euphoria hangover. You can’t study after their concerts because they leave you feeling high.”

“Then don’t watch the concert.”

Nova and Blue pulled in sharp, horrified gasps. “Are you serious right now?”

“Very serious.” Amara scoffed. “I won’t postpone your math test for ASH.”

Blue’s gaze went from pleading to aghast. “Really, Miss B? Really?”

“Really,” Amara emphasized.

“C’mon Miss B,” Nova whined. “I thought you were cool.”

“Sorry. Not that cool!” Amara laughed. “The test is on Wednesday.”

“You can’t do this to us.”

“We’ll fail.”

“You know how my dad gets when I don’t get straight Cs.”

“Save us Miss B…” and on and on the complaining went.

Amara ignored it and kept marking. When she’d first started out as a teacher, the constant whingeing, pleading, and smart-mouthing had bothered her. She loved kids, but having so many of them in your ear all day took some getting used to. But now that she was almost a veteran, it barely made a bleep on her radar.

“Miss B?” A male voice cut into the girls’ whining.

Amara, Nova, and Blue all turned their attention to the door to see a Black boy, about fifteen, standing there.

“Yes, Nathan?” Amara prodded.

“Mrs. Klein wants you at Admin, “Nathan explained. “She says you have a guest.”

“Okay, thank you.” Amara stood.

The girls, of course, didn’t get the hint. They followed her all the way down the hall to the administration office with pleas to postpone the test. But when they got to the office, Amara stopped them at the door with a firm order to go for lunch. Reluctantly, the girls left, but Amara was sure that this wasn’t over. Even if Nova and Blue didn’t show up again, other ASH enthusiasts would be breathing down her neck before the day was over.

Amara entered the office.

“This is why I told you not to be a teacher,” a voice chimed in just as Amara got into the office. Along with the voice came the strong spicy smell of Ethiopian food. Immediately, Amara knew who the voice belonged to.

“Ma?” Already grinning, Amara turned to face her mother, who was seated on the couch meant for visitors. “What are you doing here?”

Her mother, Zoya Saunders, smiled and pointed to a large picnic basket. “I brought you and your workmates lunch.”

Zoya was a beautiful woman. Despite being almost sixty, her dark skin was clear, bright and blemish-free. The gray strands in her long, thick, curly hair were pretty, as if she’d deliberately introduced them. She was as tall as a model (close to six feet) but not quite as skinny. Her love for food and chef-worthy cooking skills had given her generous curves that were the envy of many women.

Fortunately, Amara had been blessed with her mother’s genes. She was just a few inches shorter at five foot eight, and just as curvy. Though her hair was currently cut in a buzz-cut and dyed blonde, when she let it grow, it was usually just as thick, curly and healthy as her mother’s. The only difference in their looks was that Amara’s skin was a few shades lighter, courtesy of her Indian father.

“I told you, you don’t need to keep bringing us food,” Amara complained even as she walked closer to hug her mother. “The school provides perfectly good lunches.”

“Umm, speak for yourself, lady,” Susan Klein, the school receptionist, interrupted from her perch behind the admin counter. “I’ll take your mom’s food over whatever abomination they’re serving in the dining hall any day. Zoya, you’re a great cook.”

“Don’t encourage her,” Amara scolded before her beaming mother could respond to the compliments. “She’ll be here every day if we don’t stop her.”

But Amara spoke too late. Minutes later, the admin office was crowded with coworkers oohing and aahing over her mother’s cooking. As they scrambled to get lunchboxes, they kept complimenting Zoya and blowing hot air in her ear. Without a doubt, the woman would be back by week’s end with another load of lunches.

After grabbing two lunchboxes, Amara dragged her mother out of the admin office to the parking lot.

“You really shouldn’t keep bringing lunch,” Amara complained as they settled in her mom’s car. “They’re getting spoilt, and now they even have the gall to ask me when you’re coming.”

“I’m doing this for you,” Zoya returned. “You think I want to cook that much food all the time and lug it around? No. I keep coming because I want them to think of you as indispensable.”

She opened the tins to reveal rice, sautéed meat chunks and a side of veggies. The smell coming from the food was divine, and Amara’s mouth watered.

“My math skills are what make me indispensable,” Amara countered. “And stop lying. You know darn well that you love to cook a lot of food. The only reason you keep coming here is because you finally have enough mouths to help you get rid of all the food you cook.”

“That’s not true,” Zoya denied, but a second later admitted, “Okay, fine. You’re right.”

“Why don’t you just open that restaurant that you’re always talking about?”

“I want to, but I don’t know.” Zoya made a face. “Most new businesses fail within the first year.”

“Yours would be the exception,” Amara said.

The next few minutes were spent encouraging her mother in her entrepreneurial ventures. But soon the conversation fizzled into silence because Amara was too busy shoveling food into her mouth like someone who’d been starving for days. Zoya’s food was that good.

“Eat slowly,” Zoya scolded while trying to wipe the side of Amara’s mouth. “You’ll choke.”

Amara swatted her mother’s hand away. “Stop, Ma. I’m not a baby.”

“You’re my baby. Even when you’re sixty, you’ll still be my baby,” Zoya retorted before firmly wiping Amara’s mouth with her fingers and coming up with a grain of rice. She reached for her lunchbox and spooned a bit of her own meal into Amara’s box. “Here, have some of mine too. You’re getting thinner, and I don’t like that.”

“I’m getting thinner?” Amara scoffed. “Ma, stop. Everyone says I’ve gained weight.”

“Who? Who is everyone? Who is saying you’ve gained weight?” The older woman’s eyes narrowed. “Is it Justin?”

Justin was Amara’s boyfriend.

“No, it’s not Justin.” Knowing that her boyfriend was a sore point between her and her mother, Amara tried to change the topic by talking about her stepdad. “How’s Dan? Did his arm heal?”

“Dan is fine, as is his arm. Now, stop trying to change the subject,” Zoya retorted. “Tell me the truth. Is it Justin who said you were fat? I bet he’s the one. He’s always got something smart to say.”

Alright, Justin had mentioned something about her adding a few pounds and needing to join a gym or something. But Amara was used to his lack of a filter, so it hadn’t bothered her at all. However, she knew how her mother felt about him, so she lied, “No, Justin didn’t say I was fat. He would never say something like that.”

“He would never say something like that?” The older woman’s eyebrows shot up and sarcasm dripped from her tone. “Really? Are we talking about the same Justin?”

“Ma, stop it,” Amara scolded. “Why are you always coming for Justin?”

“You know why.” Zoya said, “Because he’s wasting your youth away. You’ve been dating that little boy for how long? Twelve years?”

“Ten,” Amara corrected.

“And he still hasn’t put a ring on it.” Zoya kissed her teeth. “The audacity!”

“Ma, I’ve explained to you all of this. Justin and I are too young for marriage.”

“You’re twenty-seven. He’s twenty-eight. What’s young about that?” The older woman retorted. “By the time I was your age, I was already divorced.”

Amara rolled her eyes. “This isn’t nineteen-twenty, Mother. We’re not popping babies at fourteen like you guys.” That earned an instant smack on the back of the head that had her uttering an ‘ow’ and glaring at her mother.

“I was twenty-two when I had you, Missy,” Zoya said, “so don’t be spreading rumors about me and your daddy.”

“I’m just saying twenty-seven is considered young for my generation.”

“Yeah, but you and that little boy have been dating for ten years,” Zoya reminded her. “Ten years and he still hasn’t even proposed. That doesn’t make sense.”

“He says he can’t propose yet because he doesn’t want a long engagement,” Amara explained. “He’ll propose when he’s ready for the wedding.”

“And when will he be ready?”

“When he turns thirty.”

Zoya snorted. “Is thirty some magic number that I don’t know about?”

“No, it’s just the age he’s decided on.”

“What about you?” Zoya studied her keenly. “Is this the age you decided on too?”

Actually, no! Amara had had no say in the ‘wait until thirty’ decision. If anything, she’d broached the subject of getting married several times over the years. At first, Justin had adamantly resisted the idea of marriage. To him, cohabitation was enough. They didn’t need some ‘useless’ piece of paper to confirm that they loved each other and intended to spend the rest of their lives together.

It was only after repeated coercion and threats of leaving that marriage had been put on the table. But even then, Justin had demanded a grace period until he reached thirty so he could ‘mentally prepare himself’.

Since there was no way to drag someone unwilling to the altar, Amara had surrendered. But so she had some control, she’d insisted that there would be no babies until she had that ‘useless’ piece of paper. That pissed Justin off. But he couldn’t force her to have his baby just like she couldn’t make him marry her. Checkmate!

Still, she couldn’t tell her mother all that. It would only make Zoya dislike Justin more.

So Amara lied, “Yes, I was part of the decision. I want to wait until he’s thirty too. It’s only two years away anyway.”

“A lot can happen in two years.” Zoya paused for a beat then proposed, “You should play the field while he’s dilly dallying.”

Not quite understanding what the other woman was saying, Amara squinted. “Play the field?”

“Yeah.” Zoya nodded. “See some other guys. Check out what’s out there other than Justin.”

Amara let out a horrified gasp. “Ma!”

“What?” Zoya became defensive. “I’m just saying.”

“Stop saying,” Amara scolded. “You’re advising me to cheat on my boyfriend.”

“No, no. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just… I’m just…” The older woman’s words trailed into silence even as worry creased her features. She sighed deeply before leaning closer to take her daughter’s hand. “Look, baby, I’m worried for you. A woman should marry a man who loves her more than she loves him. That way, you can be a bit sure that you have his loyalty. But that’s not what’s happening in your case. Justin doesn’t pull his weight in this relationship. You’re the one doing all the work, and he’s just riding along.”

Zoya took a breath then continued, “Even if you convince him to make things legal, you’ll always be the one who wants the relationship more. I lived that kind of relationship with your dad, and it almost broke me. I don’t want that for you, honey.”

“Justin is not Dad,” Amara protested.

“But he displays the same tendencies.”

“No, he doesn’t.”

“Yes, he does.” Zoya listed, “He’s always criticizing you and putting you down.”

“It’s not criticism. It’s critiquing.” Even though she knew that she sounded like a fool, Amara couldn’t restrain her instinctive need to defend Justin. “He just makes suggestions so I can be a better version of myself.”

“He should use those suggestions on himself,” Zoya retorted before continuing. “That aside, he doesn’t treat you like a woman he adores. How many times has he forgotten your birthday? Didn’t he give you a pen for Valentine’s Day?”

“He’s just not good with romantic gestures,” Amara returned defensively.

“No, he just doesn’t like to put in effort to make you feel special,” Zoya countered, “and he’s a commitment-phobe. You remember how much drama there was when you two were moving in together? That boy made it seem like you were forcing yourself into his house when he’s the one who asked you to move in. He changed the date eight times and made you lose your deposit. You had to stay with me and Dan for close to three months before he finally let you into his castle.”

“He was having problems with his landlord.”

“Bullshit!”

“Mother!”

“Excuse my French,” Zoya apologized with a chuckle. Seconds later, the amusement died and was replaced by worry. “I think what bothers me most about Justin is the way he doesn’t defend you against his family when they say silly stuff.”

“It’s not everyone in his family who says silly stuff. Just his dad,” Amara clarified. “And the only reason Justin doesn’t speak up against him is because it will only make things uncomfortable.”

“Avoiding confrontation just because it makes you uncomfortable is the coward’s way out. If Justin really loved you, he’d shut his dad down every single time.” Zoya demanded, “Is the old man still calling you a welfare queen?”

“No,” Amara lied.

Zoya caught the lie instantly. She sneered, “I’m going to kill that old sack of shit.”

“Mother!”

“No, I’m not apologizing for cussing this time.” Fury in her tone, Zoya said, “Elijah Taylor is an old, racist, piece of excrement who doesn’t know when to keep his dirty trap closed. You know, now that I think about it, maybe Justin not proposing is a good thing. At least I don’t have to hand you over to that family.”

“It’s not that serious, Ma.” Amara sighed. “I only have to see Justin’s family like once a year.”

“And the rest of the year, you have to deal with him.”

“Justin isn’t that bad.” Amara came to his defense again. “I wouldn’t have stayed with him this long if he was.”

“You’ve only stayed with him because you’re a kind, loyal girl who was raised right.” Zoya squeezed her daughter’s hand. “Any man would be beyond lucky to have you. If Justin doesn’t want to marry you, there are many, many fish in the sea. Let’s go fishing.”

“I like the fish I have,” Amara countered passionately. “Justin may not be perfect, but he’s a decent guy. He doesn’t beat me. He’s not stingy. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t cheat. That’s more than most guys offer these days, and it’s certainly more than dad offered you.”

That silenced Zoya for a couple of a long minute then she sighed. “I can’t argue with that. He’s certainly not as bad as your dad.” Meeting Amara’s eyes, Zoya added, “But that doesn’t mean that he’s the one for you. It feels like you’re just settling for him.

“I’m not. I just recognize that it could be worse,” Amara admitted. “Listen Ma, I really love Justin, and I want to be with him. Can’t you just support me in this?”

“I do. I support you.” Zoya drew a breath. “The only thing I’m saying is that if Justin continues to keep you waiting, you should look at your options. Don’t keep all your eggs in his basket.”

Though Amara didn’t agree with everything her mother was saying, she knew Zoya was only saying it because she wanted the best for her. So she nodded. “Okay, Ma. I hear you. I’ll think about everything you’ve said.”

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Chapter 2


Later that same day, Amara got home to find the surprise of her life.

The lights were off when she walked through the door, but R&B music was softly playing in the living room. However, what caught her attention were the candles that lined the floor and lit the room dimly. They had been arranged in an arrow that pointed towards the hallway. Strewn between those candles were fresh rose petals.

It was very romantic and quite unexpected.

“Wow!” Amara gasped as she stood at the door, looking at the candles. Had Justin done this? Couldn’t be! He wasn’t the romantic type.

At. All.

But no one else could’ve done it. It was only the two of them in this house, and she certainly hadn’t lit any candles. It had to be him.

Whoa!

Still stunned by the romantic scene, Amara kicked off her heels and hung her purse on a hook by the door. Her stocking-clad feet made no noise as she waded between the candles and roses and headed to the hall where she found another pretty arrow. This one was curved and pointed to their bedroom. The bedroom door was closed.

Her heart thumping like a rogue drum, she turned the doorknob and pushed the door open.

The scene that met her was the stuff of Hallmark movies. Love songs coming from overhead speakers echoed in the room. The king-size bed was strewn with fairy lights and rose petals arranged in a heart. Above the headboard was a blinking sign that had the letters J and A mingled together.

What was this? This was so unlike Justin that it made her nervous but excited. Thoughts of what could be going on here ran through her mind. Obviously, it wasn’t a typical night. He’d never done this even for an anniversary, so something very special had to be going on.

The something special baffled Amara for a few seconds, but soon her brain began to swirl with ideas. One idea stood out the most. Was this it? Was this the day she’d been dreaming about for years? Her mouth went dry and her heart-rate sped up. Was it finally happening?

No, don’t jump to conclusions! She scolded her excited senses. You’re probably misreading the situation. This could be something else.

Something else like what? The voice in her head was practically vibrating with exhilaration. Nothing else makes sense. There’s only one answer. He’s going to propose. He’s going to propose. Oh my God, he’s finally going to propose.

Right then the bathroom door opened, and the man of the hour himself walked out.

Justin Taylor was an objectively attractive man. Six feet tall, muscular body that had been shaped by daily visits to the gym, dark hair that was cut just as short as Amara’s, blue piercing eyes, heavy stubble… he looked good. But he looked even better today.

He was wearing a black bowtie but with no shirt. All that naked chest was out for her to admire and salivate over. Apart from the bowtie, the only other piece of clothing on him was black boxers. Though it wasn’t the most creative costume, it was still clearly a costume. This was another surprise because Justin hated costumes. Even when they got invited to Halloween parties, he’d wear his usual clothes because ‘costumes were juvenile’.

Leaning against the wall and grinning like a Cheshire cat, he greeted, “Hello Milady.”

“Hellooo, sir.” Still stunned, she took him in then glanced at the room again. “What’s going on? What’s all this?”

“This is the prelude to the best night of your life.” He prowled to her and when he was close enough, he leaned forward to press a swift kiss to her lips.

Speechless, Amara watched as he circled her until he was behind her. Grabbing the lapels of her coat, he asked, “May I take this?”

Wordlessly, she nodded.

With more care than she’d ever seen him take, he helped her out of her coat. He threw the coat on the floor then started working on the zipper of her blue dress. Soon the dress was on the floor. Obviously, sex was on the menu today. But the rose petals, candles and music were too much for just sex.

“Justin, what’s going on here?” She turned her head slightly so she could see him. “What’s the eve-”

He swiftly sealed his lips to hers in a firm kiss. “Sh, no questions!”

She shut up.

Eager to see where this was going, she let him help her out of her dress and her underwear. Once she was naked, Justin took her hand and led her to the en-suite.

There, another surprise awaited her. Fairy lights on the tiled floor around the large tub, rose petals in the soapy water, and by the tub stood a tray with two full wineglasses and a bottle of wine.

“This is beautiful,” Amara gasped as she took it all in.

“Not more beautiful than you,” Justin returned, and her heart melted in delight.

As they made their way to the tub, she glanced at the wineglasses. Did one of those glasses have a ring at the bottom? God, she hoped so.

“Let me help you in.” Justin generously offered his hand.

With a smile, she took it and entered the tub. Perfectly warmed water welcomed her, and she sunk into it with a happy smile.

“A glass of wine for my queen?” he offered.

“Yes, please!” She eagerly nodded.

As soon as the wineglass was in her hand, her gaze swept to the bottom, but she saw nothing in the liquid. Maybe she’d missed it because the room’s lighting was dim. She waited until Justin bent to get rid of his underwear before she quickly brought the glass closer to her eyes and peered inside.

Nope! No ring inside.

Her heart sank. But the little voice in her head butted in again. Maybe he gave you the wrong wine. Maybe your ring is in that other glass.

She glanced at the other glass, but it was too far away for her to ascertain the absence or presence of an engagement ring.

Justin, who hadn’t noticed all her peering and was now naked, got into the tub. The water sloshed around with his movements, but settled once he sat down opposite her.

He smiled. “How do you like the wine?”

“Very nice,” Amara said as she took a sip of wine. But it would be even nicer if there was a ring in it. Aloud, she asked, “Did you do all this by yourself?”

“I did,” he said while taking the other glass of wine. She watched him closely as he took a sip of the wine, trying to see if he’d realize that he’d given her the wrong glass. Nope, there was no change in his expression. Worse, he assumed that her keenly studying him was out of surprise. He laughed. “What? Why do look so surprised?”

“I… I don’t know,” she stammered. “You don’t usually do stuff like this. What’s the occasion?”

“No occasion. I just wanted to pamper you.” He set his glass back on the counter by the tub then reached beneath the water for her foot. Massaging her sole, he said, “Work’s been hard for you this couple of weeks and I wanted to do something special for you.”

Disappointment immediately overwhelmed Amara. Obviously, she’d jumped the gun on the proposal.

She stammered, “That’s… that’s really nice of you.”

There was an edge to her tone and the smile she gave him was faker than a Lolex watch, but Justin didn’t even notice.

Grinning, he asked, “You like everything I’ve done, right?”

“I do.”

“The rose petals?”

“Very beautiful.”

“You heard the music, right?”

“Yeah, you picked all my favorite songs.”

“I made the playlist while I was at work,” he revealed. “What about the lights on the bed?”

“Very creative.”

“I had to order those online. I didn’t even know stupid lights could get that expensive.”

“It was worth the money.”

“What about the candles?” On and on, he questioned her about what she thought of this ‘event’. Like a robot, she kept complimenting him because she knew that was what he wanted. He lapped up the compliments like a self-satisfied cat.

He seemed happy. Amara was not.

Even though she kept smiling, she was a bundle of twisted emotions on the inside. On one hand, she was glad that he was finally making an effort to be romantic. However, she couldn’t let go of the disappointment at not getting a proposal when everything had pointed to it.

He said thirty, she soothed herself. Just wait two more years.

“Amara,” Justin interrupted her miserable thoughts.

“Yeah?” She met his eyes.

He paused for a long second, then asked, “What do you think about our relationship?”

“Huh?” She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Like…” He looked more serious than she’d ever seen him. “Are you happy?”

“Yeah, of course I am,” Amara quickly answered, afraid that he’d seen the disappointment in her face.

“Really? You’re happy?”

“Why wouldn’t I be happy?” She forced a smile. “You’re the perfect boyfriend.”

He smiled at the compliment, but a moment later, became serious again. “Aren’t you bored?”

“Bored?” She frowned. “Why would I be bored?”

“I mean, we’ve been dating for ten years now.”

“Yeah, but I’m good.” She shrugged. “Being with you has never been boring. Every day, I find out something more interesting about you. Tonight, I just found out that you have a romantic bone or two that I didn’t know about.”

Her answer should’ve delighted Justin. He should’ve been smiling. But all he did was sigh.

It made her ask a question she never thought she’d have to ask. “What about you? Are… are you bored?”

His answer should’ve been a quick ‘no’, but the long hesitation before he answered had her heart lurching in alarm.

Instead of giving her an answer, he just said, “It’s been ten years, Amara.”

Suddenly the water didn’t feel warm. It was freezing cold. The lingering wine on her tongue was bitter. The talk of being bored and the constant mention of the length of their relationship left her certain that she’d completely misread the situation. This wasn’t a proposal event. It was beginning to look more like a breakup event.

Carefully, she set her glass on the counter beside her. Her tone was icy as she demanded, “Yeah, it’s been ten years. So?”

“So…” Justin paused for a beat. There was nervousness in his gaze as he asked, “Aren’t you interested in adding a little spice to our relationship?”

Huh? Squinting, she canted her head. “Spice?”

“We’ve been doing the same thing for ten years.” He gave her a stiff smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Wouldn’t you like some adventure?”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying. Be clearer. What spice? What adventure?”

Justin answered her with a long silence then said, “How would you feel about opening our relationship?”

Amara blinked once then again. She wasn’t sure that she’d heard him right. “I’m sorry. What?”

He licked his lips as if they were dry then said, “I want us to open our relationship.”

Because her mind just refused to wrap itself around the absurd request he’d just made, she tripped over her words. “I don’t… I don’t understand. Open… open… open it how?”

“You know…” Justin explained, “see other people, but still be together.”

The shock that swept through Amara was describable. Her throat closed up, and it became infinitely harder to breathe. Her thoughts spun like a hamster on a wheel until she felt dizzy and nauseous. It felt like she’d faint, like the water she sat in would swallow her at any moment.

He wasn’t serious, right? He was kidding, right?

This wasn’t happening, right?

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Chapter 3


Amara would’ve preferred a breakup rather than this mess. Open relationship? Was Justin kidding her? What kind of woman did he think she was?

Disbelief, fury and disgust raced through her while she stared at Justin as he sat across from her in the bathtub. Part of her wanted to scream at him for making such an offensive proposal. Another part of her wanted to punch some sense into him. Fortunately for him, she’d never been the type to let her temper run wild.

Without a word, she rose from the water.

“Where are you going?” Justin asked. “We were talking.”

Amara said nothing. She just got out of the tub. Water dripped off her body to fall on the granite floor as she made her way to the rod that held their towels.

“Amara!” Justin noisily got out of the tub, splashing water everywhere with his frantic movements. “We were talking.”

She didn’t even turn to face him. She wrapped herself in a towel then yanked the door open and walked out of the bathroom. Justin also grabbed a towel from the rod. While wrapping the towel around his waist, he raced to follow her out of the bathroom.

“What’s wrong?” he called out.

That question sparked Amara’s anger, and the leash that had been holding her back snapped. Furiously, she turned to face him and yelled, “Are you kidding me? Did you just ask me what’s wrong?”

“Yeah, what’s wrong?” Justin gave her wide puppy-dog eyes like he genuinely had no idea what was going on. “Why did you leave? We were having a nice time.”

“A nice time? A nice time? You call that a nice time?” Her palm itched to meet his pale cheek and turn it bloody red. “You just asked me to let you screw other women.”

“What? No!” Justin shook his head vigorously. “No… no, that’s not what I meant.”

“Then what is your definition of an open relationship?” Scowling, she demanded, “Isn’t it just a complicated term for sleeping with other people while still in a relationship?”

“No… well…” He tripped over his words. “Yeah… no… you’re not getting it.”

“What am I not getting?” she bit out.

“That it won’t be just me.” He gave her a stiff almost scared smile. “You can sleep with other men too.”

“Is that supposed to make me jump up and down in excitement? What makes you think that I’d like to sleep with other men?” She countered, her tone dripping with outrage. “I love you. I don’t want to sleep with anyone other than you.”

“I love you too,” Justin said.

“Obviously not,” she retorted. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be trying to screw other people.”

“Look, look, look, Amara. Let’s not be angry. Let’s calm down.” He moved closer and grabbed her wrist. “Let’s sit down and talk this over.”

She should’ve yanked her arm out of his grip, but she reluctantly let him drag her to the bed. They sat beside each other on it.

“I love you.” Justin placed his hand over her tightly fisted one. “You know I do.”

“Do I?” she gritted.

“I love you,” he repeated. “But this has nothing to do with my feelings for you. This is about our future.”

Her eyebrows shot up in question.

“You want us to get married, right?” Justin asked. When he didn’t get so much as a nod from Amara, he answered himself. “I know that’s what you want, and that’s what I want too.”

Did he? Because for the last ten years he’d been acting like she was holding a gun to his head and forcing him to the altar.

He continued, “The reason I haven’t popped the question is because I worry.”

“Worry about what?”

“About us.” He paused for a beat before gravely continuing, “You and I have been together since were seventeen and eighteen. We were each other’s first everything; first kiss, first sex partner, first love.”

Amara scowled. “You say that like that’s a bad thing.”

“It sounds romantic, but let’s be honest,” he countered, “neither of us got to explore who we were. We didn’t get to hang out with other people.”

“But hanging out isn’t what you’re looking for, is it?”

Justin answered her with a sigh. “I want to marry you, Amara. I really do. But I’ve been locked up for ten years.”

“Locked up?” Amara’s breath caught and hurt shuttled through her. It felt as if he’d just stabbed her straight in the heart. “Is that what you see our relationship as? That you’re locked up? Am I the warden in this scenario of yours?”

“You’re deliberately twisting my words,” he returned with a hint of frustration in his voice. “What I mean is that I’m curious about what else is out there. I’d like us to have some adventure before getting completely tied down by marriage and kids.”

“Then let’s go on a holiday,” she sarcastically suggested. “That should cure your need for adventure.”

“You’re deliberately pretending not to understand what I mean.”

“No, I genuinely don’t understand what you mean.” Her voice rose with every word until she was practically yelling. “Adventure? Spice? What a load of bullshit!”

“It’s not bullshit!” Justin yelled back. But a second later, he pulled in a deep breath to calm himself. “Look, I could’ve been like other men and just found a side-chick, but-”

“Am I supposed to applaud you for that?” she retorted. Before he could answer, she clapped mockingly. “Yay! What a man you are. You don’t have a side-chick like other dudes. Congratulations. And what a lucky girl I am. You asked me first before you cheated. Yay! Should I get you a trophy with these claps or are you gunning for a Nobel prize?”

Hurt flashed in his eyes. “You don’t have to be that sarcastic.”

“You’re lucky that sarcasm is all I’m giving you,” Amara returned bitterly. Actually, she was surprised that she hadn’t punched him yet because the hands that were still tightly fisted on her lap were begging for her to give in to her wilder instincts.

“Amara, I don’t want to cheat on you after we’re married.” Justin reached over and squeezed her hand again. “But I have this itch, and I’m afraid that if I don’t scratch it now, I might want to scratch it when we both have a lot more to lose.”

Though he didn’t say it explicitly, Amara read the threat in his words. Her rage shot through the roof. She saw red. Shoving his hand roughly off hers, she demanded, “Are you saying that if I don’t let you cheat on me now, you’ll cheat on me after we’re married?”

He didn’t even deny it. “It’s not a guarantee, but it’s a possibility.”

Amara’s jaw dropped and she couldn’t even get a word out as shock shuttled through her.

“But what I’m proposing isn’t cheating.” He reached for her hand again. “It’s not cheating if we both know about it and are both doing it. Think about it. This is a win-win.”

“Win-win how?”

“If we have an open relationship, we both get to taste everything we’ve been missing out on without losing what we have,” he coaxed. “We get to satisfy our curiosity without risking our relationship. Once it’s all out of our system, we can get married.”

It all sounded so rational, so well thought out, and like it all made sense. And yet, Amara couldn’t get it to make sense to her. Worse, her mind had gone completely blank and she couldn’t even think of a rebuttal. Frustration, anger, disbelief, disappointment, hurt and more emotions circled through her to the point where she wasn’t even really sure what she was feeling.

She became chocked up and her eyes watered as the hurt grew more intense. But she held her tears back because she didn’t want Justin seeing them. She didn’t want him to know how badly he’d hurt her with his unspoken insinuation that she wasn’t enough for him.

She shook off his hand then stood.

“Where are you going?” Justin asked.

“Just…” She pulled in a shaky breath. “… I need a moment.”

Before he could say anything more, she rushed from the room back to the bathroom. She shut the door firmly behind her and locked it. She leaned on the wall next to the door and as she did, her now watery gaze swept over the scene before her.

The fairy lights on the floor. The tub filled with warm water and rose petals. The wine and wineglasses.

To think that she’d thought that all of this was so romantic an hour ago, when it was just a prelude to the worst conversation of her life. God, she’d been such a fool. A tear dropped down her cheek. Soon another joined it. After the ten years she’d given him, this was what she got?

How could he even think that she’d agree to something like this? What kind of woman did he think she was? She wiped both cheeks roughly to get rid of some of the wetness. Just how low did he think her self-esteem was for her to be okay with such a proposal? Was her mother right? Had she’d wasted the best years of her life on a man who wasn’t worth it?

A low knock on the door cut into her thoughts. It was followed by Justin’s voice.

“Amara!” he called out. “Are you okay?”

The sound of his voice just made her tears spill faster.

How could he do this to her?

* * * * *

JUSTIN WAS RELENTLESS in his quest to convince her that open relationships were where it was at. For the next week, he spent their every moment trying to convince her that his ‘proposal’ wasn’t as offensive as she thought and that she needed to at least think about it.

Frankly, it made her want to break up with him. Many women in her position would’ve already walked out of the door. But two issues made her hesitate.

One; ten years were a lot of years to throw away. She’d invested so much time, energy and emotions into this relationship that the thought of letting go made her nauseous.

Two; he hadn’t actually cheated on her… just suggested it.

She considered leaving the house for some time but nixed that when she realized that the only place she felt comfortable crashing at was her mom’s. If she went to her mom’s, Zoya would want to know why she and Justin were fighting. Even if Amara tried to hide what was going on with Justin, Zoya would surely yank the truth out of her. Once Zoya learned the truth, all hell would break loose. Justin would be lucky to come out of this thing with his head still on his neck.

So she stayed.

But she wasn’t happy, and Justin’s persistent need to regurgitate the topic angered her beyond description. Still, along with that anger came curiosity about open relationships. Before she knew it, she was sneakily googling information and watching videos about open relationships; what it was, how common it was, pros and cons, stories of couples who were in open relationships, all of it.

By the end of her research, she was more confused than when she’d started. There were so many conflicting opinions about the viability of such relationships. However, after all that reading and watching, her anger with Justin had somewhat abated. She could see now why he might think that this was a good idea.

Still, she needed more information. So she broached the subject with two of her colleagues. Colleague One was Elaine Jackson; Black, tall, hair in braids, awe-inspiringly muscular body because of years of body building. Elaine was their school’s gym teacher and the closest thing Amara had to a best friend. Colleague Two was Caleb Reed; white, five-six, skinny, already balding at twenty-seven, and bespectacled. Caleb was a sub but came to school often enough that he’d formed a friendship with the two ladies.

“Guys, I have a question.” Amara broached the subject while they were having lunch.

The three friends had chosen a table that was far enough from the other teachers and students that there was no risk of being overheard.

“What’s the question?” Caleb asked.

Amara jumped in headfirst. “What do you guys think about open relationships?”

Caleb’s eyebrows flew up as surprise filled his eyes. Meanwhile, Elaine burst into a big grin.

“Well, that came out of left field.” Elaine jabbed at Amara’s side with her elbow. She teased, “I didn’t know that you were kinky like that. Is this what you and Justin are up to now?”

“No, no, no. It’s not. I’m not asking because I want to do it.” Amara rushed to defend herself even as mortification rushed through her. “I’m just curious.”

“Look at her ears,” Caleb, who was now grinning just as hard as Elaine, said. “They’re turning red.”

Amara slapped her hands over her ears. “Guys, stop embarrassing me. It’s a serious question.”

“Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.” Elaine chuckled. “It’s just that teasing you is so much fun.”

“What was the question again?” Caleb asked.

“I asked what you thought about open relationships,” Amara reiterated.

Caleb thought for a second then said, “I think they’re the best way to set your relationship on fire.”

“Are they?” Elaine asked.

Caleb gave her a questioning look. “You don’t agree with me?”

“I mean…” Elaine frowned. “I don’t know.”

“What’s not to know?” Caleb countered. “It’s quite obvious that they’re a bad idea.”

Amara agreed with him. But still she was curious. “Why?”

Caleb responded, “First, it’s technically cheating.”

“It’s not cheating if you’ve both agreed on it,” Elaine countered.

“In my book, it’s cheating,” Caleb returned. “Relationships were meant to be monogamous.”

“Who says?” Elaine asked. “Monogamy is a relatively recent concept. Our ancestors were out here rumbaing willy-nilly outside their main relationships.”

“Okay, I’ll give you that,” Caleb conceded. “But there are many reasons people decided that monogamy was safer than the ‘rumbaing’. Loyalty to each other makes the relationship more intimate and increases trust. It also makes for a more peaceful relationship because neither of you is fighting for attention with some third wheel.”

Amara chimed in. “Plus, it reduces chances of getting an STI.”

“I’ll take Amara’s point, but yours-” Elaine pointed at Caleb and shook her head. “Nah! An open relationship can just be as intimate and peaceful as a monogamous one. It just depends on whether the two main partners are on the same page and if they both want it. Also, there are so many advantages.”

“Do tell,” Caleb said with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

The sarcasm flew right over Elaine’s head, and she continued, “You get to experience the thrill of a new relationship without the tediousness of getting to know someone new. If you have a fetish that your partner isn’t into, you can explore it without making your partner uncomfortable. If you don’t want to have sex, you don’t have to force yourself to just to satisfy your partner. You can send him to someone else… or vice versa. As far as I can see, it’s a good deal. It might even make the relationship stronger.”

“So you’re saying you’d do it?” Amara asked.

“If you’d asked me that question ten years ago, I would’ve said ‘hell to mother-freaking no’. Good deal or not, ain’t nobody ready to deal with all the drama of bring other people into your relationship.” Elaine made a face. “But after my divorce, I’ve become a little flexible. I probably would try it out if I was in the right relationship.”

“What happened in your divorce to make you change your opinion?” Caleb asked.

“The bastard cheated on me,” Elaine spat out. “Now, I can’t help but wish that I would’ve had some cake too like he was doing while I was raising his kid. Maybe then I wouldn’t have felt so shortchanged. Maybe if we were in an open relationship, he wouldn’t have felt the need to sneak around then force me into a divorce. Our kid would still have a whole family and not a broken one.”

By the sadness in Elaine’s eyes, it was clear that she was still bitter about her split with her ex-husband.

Caleb’s voice was much softer as he said, “There’s no guarantee that’s how things would’ve gone. Bringing third parties into your relationship is a magnet for drama.”

“Maybe,” Elaine reluctantly agreed. “But if you’re dealing with someone who isn’t satisfied with what you’re giving, it might be wise to loosen the leash at times. And if that means that you get to enjoy yourself too then… win-win.

Caleb frowned. “Why would you stick with someone who is not satisfied with what you’re giving?”

Elaine asked, “You’ve never been in a long-term relationship, have you?”

“No,” Caleb admitted. “But what’s that got to do with anything.”

“You just wait until you’ve been glued to someone for five years or more and have a kid or two.” Elaine chuckled but there was a hint of bitterness in her tone. “Then you’ll understand why it’s so hard to walk away. You’ll understand why opinions you were so firm about become negotiable.”

Amara didn’t completely agree with Elaine. However, the woman’s words stuck with her, and she wondered; was it more prudent to just open hers and Justin’s relationship rather than wait for him to cheat? Was this a viable way to save the relationship she’d worked so hard to nurture?

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