GET YOUR COPY FROM THESE STORES:
It was the last day of school. The students, teachers and parents of Spence Academy had gathered to say goodbye to the school year and to welcome summer. Michael Klein, along with the other parents of Class 4B, was seated in the back while their children were at their desks busily preparing to give their speeches.
“… and that’s why my role-model is Mark Zuckerberger.” The boy up front finished his speech with a huge grin.
The end of his speech was immediately followed by enthusiastic clapping and cheering from the students and parents. Waving shyly at his proud parents, he headed to his seat.
“That was an excellent report, Donald,” Miss Engels, the homeroom teacher said as she moved to the front of the class. “I’m sure Mr. Zuckerberger would be happy to know how much he’s influenced you.” Beaming, she said, “Next up we’ve got Reuben Klein. Benny come on up.”
Though Michael smiled proudly and clapped as his son made his way to the front of the class, he was nervous. Benny was generally good with people, but public speaking was a different animal. He wouldn’t choke, would he?
Benny, unlike his father, wasn’t in the least bit anxious. His gaze swept the room before, with a grin, he launched into his speech.
“Hello, my name is Reuben Klein, but everyone calls me Benny.” He lowered his eyes to read the speech he’d hurriedly prepared just this morning. “When people think of role-models, they think of people like Mark Zucker-whatever who invented something…”
That earned a laugh from the listeners. Although Michael also laughed, it was tinged with embarrassment because he was one-hundred percent sure that Benny hadn’t said that to be funny. He probably had no idea who Mark ‘Zucker-whatever’ was or what he’d invented.
Benny continued, “Some people think of people like Oprah who overcame many things to be successful. Or athletes like Tom Brady who win awards every year. Sure, all these people are great and good role-models. But none of them can beat my dad.”
The announcement that Michael was his son’s role-model was both surprising and heart-warming. Just last night, Benny was debating on whether he should go with Barack Obama or Spiderman. Michael hadn’t even expected to make the list.
“Oprah might own a TV station,” Benny said, “but my dad puts on the best puppet shows in the world, and he can do magic too. I bet Oprah can’t do that.”
More laughs greeted his bold pronouncement.
“Tom Brady can catch a football, but my dad can catch me faster than light when I fall from my bike.” Gloating now, Benny added, “Batman might be stinking rich, but he can’t make a PB&J like my dad.” He lifted his eyes from his paper to meet his dad’s eyes. Grinning, he said, “The Hulk might have muscles but I bet he can’t carry me and my sister while running barefoot just so he can get us to the hospital faster when we have a fever like my dad does…”
Many of the parents were now glancing at Michael with envy. None of their kids had listed them as their role-model. Michael squared his shoulders and sat up straighter. Yup! That was his kid.
On and on Reuben waxed about Michael’s virtues, comparing him to popular action heroes and famous people then showing how Michael was a much better role-model.
“… My dad is the greatest hero in the world.” Folding the paper carrying his speech, Benny finished, “That’s why he’s my role-model.”
The thunderous applause that followed the end of his speech was more enthusiastic than any that the other kids had received.
Unlike most boys his age, Benny had no problems showing affection for his father in public. He raced between desks to Michael and hugged him. Getting a little teary-eyed, Michael buried his face in the crook of his son’s neck and patted his back. This was one of those days when he was grateful to be a father.
As Benny headed back to his desk, his sister, Riley, who was also in the same class, glared at him.
“That’s cheating,” Riley accused as soon as the family of three were alone in their car on their way out of school. “Daddy, you should give him a penalty.”
Benny gave her an outraged look. “How did I cheat?”
“You made me go with Marie Curie so you could look good by saying Daddy is your role-model and make people cry.”
“I didn’t make you go with Mary Cuckoo,” Benny protested.
“It’s Marie Curie,” Riley corrected, “and you did too.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did,” Riley insisted.
“Okay, okay, let’s stop with the fighting.” Michael cut them off. He met his daughter’s eyes through the rearview mirror. “I don’t think this counts as cheating, Riley.”
“But he didn’t even have his speech ready until this morning,” Riley complained. “I’ve been working on mine for two weeks and he wins the prize for best speech? It’s so unfair.”
That’s just how life works sometimes, Michael wanted to say, but he knew that that would only discourage his daughter who was the more diligent of the two. So he suggested, “How about this? When we get to O’Malley’s you can have two milkshakes instead of one because you worked so hard on your speech.”
“But I don’t want to eat at O’Malley’s,” Riley complained. “Daddy, can’t you make us fish-fingers?”
“O’Malley’s has fish-fingers too,” Michael said. To be honest, he was looking forward to eating out because that meant no cooking and no dishes.
“But they’re not as good as yours,” Benny chimed in. “Please, Daddy.”
“Please, Daddy,” Riley pleaded. “Pleeeeease!”
Michael had no choice but to surrender. How could he not give in when the two rascals were giving him their best puppy eyes?
A few minutes into their drive, Michael’s phone rang. It was Logan Avery, one of his friends.
“Yo,” Logan greeted as soon as Michael answered the call. “Are you coming for the game?”
“Nope, sorry,” Michael apologized. Usually, he, Logan and a few other friends hang out in the evenings either playing basketball, drinking or watching games. “The kids are now on summer break so… you know…”
“You know… what?” Logan sounded confused.
“Oh! I forgot that you weren’t a parent.” With a laugh, Michael explained, “Summer break means they’re at home all the time.”
“All the time?” Logan sounded horrified.
“Yes. All the time.” Michael chuckled. “That means I have to spend most afternoons and evenings with them now.”
“Yeesh! That sounds boring as hell.” Logan shuddered. “Remind me not to have kids.”
“Kids don’t want you either,” Michael teased.
“Ah! Then we understand each other.” Logan asked, “If you’re not coming in, when can we see you next?”
“Just drop by the office,” Michael suggested. “Or you could come by the house?”
“The house?” Logan paused a minute. “Um… I don’t think so.”
“Riley is there,” Logan fake whispered. “The kid kind of scares me.”
“She scares you?” Amused, Michael snuck a glance at his daughter through the rearview mirror. Riley was currently scolding Benny in the back seat because his shorts were dirty. “She’s not that scary.”
“Are you kidding me?” Logan snorted. “Every time I meet her it feels like she’s judging me.”
“That’s because she probably is,” Michael teased. “She thinks you’re a bad influence on Benny.”
“Me? A bad influence?” Logan protested, his tone laced with mock outrage. “For shame! I’m an angel.”
That drew laughter from Michael. He and Logan talked a bit more before they ended the phone call. Afterwards, Michael stopped by the store to get supplies for dinner before heading home. About an hour later, he and his children were in the elevator headed up to their condo.
“Daddy, have you seen our new neighbor?” Benny asked as the elevator doors opened up on their floor.
Michael frowned. “We have a new neighbor?”
“Yes.” Riley nodded as they walked down the hallway. “Some people were moving in stuff yesterday when we came from school, but we didn’t get to see the owner.”
“Maybe they’ll have kids our age,” Benny offered as he snuck a hopeful glance at the door directly opposite theirs.
“I doubt it,” Riley said with her know-it-all voice. “If there were any kids, we would’ve seen them yesterday.”
“Don’t go and bother them though, okay,” Michael said to both his kids though it was mostly directed at Benny. The boy had been known to knock on new neighbors’ doors just to introduce himself.
After getting nods from both kids, Michael turned to the door. Once he keyed in the pass-code, the door opened. Michael stood aside to let his kids through before following them in.
Michael set about making dinner. He hadn’t become a master-chef by choice. It was because he had to. That’s what happens when you’re raising your kids alone.
In Michael’s position, most men would’ve chosen to put the kids up for adoption or perhaps not let them even been born. The twins had been conceived while Michael was still in college. Their mother, Karen, had wanted an abortion but Michael had convinced her to have the children. Unfortunately, Karen had died during childbirth. Taking care of the kids was Michael’s way of not letting their mother’s sacrifice go to waste while also taking responsibility for the sins of his youth.
The kids were old enough now to help out with chores. Riley helped to peel potatoes while Benny tried to help while making a complete mess of things. Eventually, Michael just sent him to tidy up the living room. Once the fries and fish-fingers were made, Michael made the kids shakes before serving them.
As usual dinner was a rowdy affair with the siblings bickering one minute then joining forces to hassle Michael into letting them watch their favorite show for just one more hour. He didn’t fall for it. As soon as dinner was done, he sent the kids off to take their baths while he cleaned the dishes.
Afterwards, he called their nanny to remind her that their summer break had started and that she’d need to come to the house by eight the next morning. He and the nanny took a few minutes to come up with a program of activities for the next week before ending the call.
By the time Michael was done with the nanny, the kids were ready for bed. Though their house had four bedrooms, the kids preferred to share a room. Michael settled in Riley’s bed to read them their bedtime story.
The kids were old enough to read on their own, but they’d become so used to the nighttime ritual that it was hard to break them out of the habit. Plus, Michael liked it too. Often it was the only chance he got to just cuddle with his babies.
Riley and Benny crawled onto the bed to lie on either side of him so they could better listen to the story. By the time he was done reading a chapter out of the Erin Hunter book, both kids were fast asleep. Michael carried Benny to his own bed before tucking them both in, kissing their foreheads and turning off their lights.
Finally, he could get some alone time. Sighing in relief, he pulled a beer from the fridge and headed to the living room. He sat down and was just about to put his feet up when he remembered that he still had to take out the trash. With a tired groan, he stood up again.
As soon as he opened the front door, loud music laced with a heavy dose of boisterous laughter and the cloying smell of alcohol smacked him right in the face. Their new neighbor was having a party and hadn’t bothered to close their door. Wincing, Michael immediately closed the door behind him to make sure the noise didn’t wake his kids.
Didn’t the new neighbor know this was a family building? Michael was just about to close the door for them when two women stumbled from the interior of the condo. Michael immediately recognized one of the women.
Gigi Champion? Shock shuttled through him. She was their new neighbor.
Of course he recognized her. How could he not? She was one of the most recognizable black, A-List actresses. Plus, Benny had an unhealthy crush on her, and had even forced Michael to take him to her book-launch just a week ago.
But even if Michael didn’t already know her, he would have definitely noticed her.
Gigi Champion was a beautiful woman. She was about five-three – perhaps a little short for him but Michael wasn’t afraid of bending or carrying her. Her skin was a light shade of brown and her brown eyes were the prettiest he’d ever seen. But it was her body that got his full attention.
She had the kind of body that had always been his weakness. He liked curves. No, he loved curves. And she had assets that would fill his hands nicely – luscious, full breasts that filled out her little pink t-shirt splendidly and an ass that looked spectacular in those itty-bitty, denim shorts.
And right now, she was as drunk as a skunk.
Her pretty brown eyes were clouded with the haze of alcohol, and she was practically hanging on to her companion as they stumbled to the door.
“Do… do you have to go?” Gigi asked her companion as she clung to her neck with both arms. How the other woman could walk with Gigi hanging onto her like that was a mystery even science couldn’t explain. Gigi whined, “The party is… isn’t even over yet.”
“It’s over for me,” the other woman said. “Damien has already called three times to ask me when I’m coming home.”
“This is why I didn’t want you to marry him.” In a huff, Gigi pushed the other woman away from her. Now that she had no support, she swayed around a little as if trying to find her balance. Surprisingly, she didn’t fall flat on her face. Shaking her finger at the other woman, she drawled, “He’s a punk.”
“Hey, that’s my husband you’re calling a p-” The other woman stopped speaking when she noticed Michael. “Oh! Hi.”
Gigi noticed him at the same time too. Her pouty expression immediately transformed into a lazy smile. The woman was already gorgeous, but when she smiled…. Michael’s heart bumped in his chest. Damn! Even drunk, she was stunning.
“Whaddup, Mister!” Her hooded eyes lit up as they took him in. She waved. “You must be my new neighbor.”
Michael was irritated by the noise coming from her condo. But his immediate attraction to her was even more annoying. From everything he’d read in the papers, Gigi was a promiscuous, party girl with commitment issues (there was a reason everyone called her the ninety-day bride). He shouldn’t have been attracted to her. She was bad news.
Instead of responding to the greeting, Michael growled. “Could you shut your door? There’s so much noise coming from your place when there are families living in this building.”
“Oh!” Gigi was immediately apologetic. “Sorry.” She stumbled backwards and reached to close the door behind her. She blinked and swallowed several times as if to clear her muddy mind then tried again. “Hi, neighbor. I’m Gigi Ch-”
Michael didn’t wait for her to finish the sentence. He just walked away.
“Oh! Snap!” The other woman whispered loud enough for Michael to hear. “What’s his problem?”
“Dunno! Maybe he’s on his period,” Gigi suggested then immediately burst into giggles because of her lame joke.
“That is not funny,” her unimpressed friend said.
“It isn’t?” Gigi frowned. “It felt funny.”
“No, it wasn’t funny,” her friend insisted.
As Michael turned the corner in the hallway and headed to the trash-chute, he could still hear them arguing, and Gigi’s voice was the loudest. He shook his head. It didn’t matter how pretty she was. Judging from the party she’d decided to host on her first day in the building and her drunken behavior, it was obvious that she wouldn’t be the peaceful, family-friendly neighbor he’d been hoping for.
His sexy, new neighbor was going to be trouble with a capital T.
“If I’m not wrong,” Sherry Lee, the hostess of The Sherry Lee Show said, “this movie is about the way women and men look at relationships differently.”
“You’re right!” Gigi agreed with a smile. She was quite aware of the cameras and audience watching and recording her every move, but she’d been doing this for so long that the attention didn’t faze her. “I’m surprised you caught that, Sherry.”
Sherry laughed along with her audience. “Why are you surprised?”
“Yes, Gigi, why are you surprised?” Owen Shaw, Gigi’s co-star, jumped in. “Sherry’s a smart lady. Certainly smart enough to get the underlying message in our movie.”
“No. No, I don’t mean it that way.” Gigi laughed away the rebuke. Turning to Sherry she said, “I mean I know you only do reality shows. I watch your show every day and you always say you hate movies – especially romantic melodramas like ours.”
“Aw, you watch my show every day?” Sherry pressed a hand to her chest. “I’m flattered.”
“Me too,” Owen chimed in. “I watch your show every day.”
“That’s great.” Sherry turned back to Gigi. “You’re right. I’m not a movie girl. But come on, this is you and Owen Shaw. How could I miss it?”
“So you’re a fan too?” Owen asked.
“I’m a big fan of both of you.” Sherry turned to Gigi again, “So, Gigi, what did you learn while playing Amani Taylor?”
“Well,” Gigi started, “women tend to assume a lot of stuff. Amani never once asked Derrick if they were in a relationship yet she was still surprised when he told her he thought they were just ‘hanging out’. A lot of women do the same th-”
“Actually-” Owen cut her off. “-I think my character, Derrick, had more to learn in the movie.”
Cutting me off? Really? Gigi barely held herself back from rolling her eyes. Somehow she kept a smile on her face as she turned to Owen. “Really? You think so?”
“Of course. Derrick is the kind of man who doesn’t look at the bigger picture,” Owen sermonized. “I don’t even think he knew how much he liked Amani until she moved on and replaced him.”
“What about you, Gigi?” Sherry asked. “Do you feel like Amani played a part in the downfall of their relationship?”
“Most relationship issues aren’t entirely one person’s fault,” Gigi agreed. “If Amani had-”
“Most of the fault was with Derrick though,” Owen cut in again. Turning his attention to the cameras, he added, “If men knew how to value what they already had, I think there’d be a lot less regret out there and more happy relationships.”
Gigi barely managed to keep from throwing a sarcastic jibe at him. Owen was so desperate to cultivate this ‘racially-aware, perfect boyfriend material’ image that he was always doing the most whenever they had interviews. When he wasn’t selling himself with smarmy monologues on TV, he was always tweeting or instagramming politically-correct and ‘woke’ stuff so he could look good for his fan-base.
All that would have been okay if he wasn’t a dick behind the cameras. After shooting with him for three months, Gigi now knew that it was all an act. All one had to do was see how he treated the stylists and other crew to know that this was all just PR for him.
Gigi wasn’t about that life. She’d been hurt by too many fake friends and family to tolerate such shenanigans. The only reason she wasn’t calling him out right now was because they were on TV, plus she was too hangover to get into an argument.
The interview went on for another ten minutes. When it was done, Gigi thanked Sherry for having them on, signed autographs for her fans in the audience then said her goodbyes.
“Gigi, that was a good interview,” Owen whispered as they took the steps down the set. “We should celebrate. Wanna have a drink with me?”
Gigi harrumphed. “In your dreams.”
“Come on, babe.” Owen offered her his greasiest smile. “You can’t always say no.”
“Why are you always like this?” Irritation crossed his pale features. “We would make a dynamite couple. You’re black, I’m white. People would love us.”
Why was she not even surprised that the color of her skin was the reason he wanted to be in a relationship with her? His whole life was a P.R. stunt. She’d never dated a white man, but if she ever did, it would not be this poser.
“I mean think about i-” Owen’s words screeched to a halt when he spotted Gigi’s manager, Davida Harris, coming towards them.
The only phrase that could accurately describe Davida was ‘put together’. The dark-skinned beauty always looked like she had her life figured out. She was quite tall, five-ten to be exact. However, that didn’t keep her from putting on the highest heels she could find – every day. Her make-up was on point, as usual, and her ombre wig was so well put on only the experts could tell that it wasn’t her real hair. Add in the fact that she was wearing a striped shirt over a white faux-leather skirt, and it was quite obvious that the lady knew one or two things about fashion.
Maybe it was because Davida seemed like a woman who didn’t take bullshit that scared Owen. Maybe it was the slow, sneering up and down look she gave him as she drew closer to them that made him wary. Either way, Owen’s whole body tensed and he took a step back as if to avoid her.
When she was within speaking distance, he coldly greeted, “Harris.”
“Shaw,” Davida returned just as stiffly.
“Um…” Owen turned to Gigi. “Let’s talk some other time.” He snuck a wary, narrow-eyed glance at Davida before adding, “When we’ve got some privacy.”
“I don’t think so,” Gigi said. But the man wasn’t even listening to her. He was too busy running away from Davida.
“Is that punk still bothering you?” Davida asked as she handed Gigi a bottle of water and two pills.
“Of course.” Gigi took the water with a grateful smile. “You know him.”
“I told you to just do what I did,” Davida advised. “Kick him in the family jewels and he’ll never bother you again.”
Gigi shook her head. “I can’t. At least not now.”
“Because that would be messing with my money.” Gigi tossed the pills into her mouth and took a healthy gulp of water. “I need him so I can promote the movie and keep making bank for you and me.”
“I didn’t even think of that!” Davida grinned. “This is why you and I make a great team.”
As she handed the bottle back to Davida, Gigi asked, “Did it show too much?”
“Did what show?” Davida asked. “How much you hate Owen, or how hangover you are?”
“Nope, it didn’t show,” Davida reassured her. “You were as professional as ever which is why you’re my best-selling client.”
“I’m your only client,” Gigi reminded her with a teasing smile.
“That is true for now.” The other woman wiggled her brows. “But you don’t know what moves I’m making. I could replace you anytime.”
“Okay. Miss Business Lady. Get your money,” Gigi teased even though she knew that there was no way Davida would ever dump her. They went too far back.
The two women had met while Gigi was still a rookie, waiting tables in L.A while auditioning during her off-days and weekends. Back then Davida was just a tea-girl for a nondescript agency. Gigi had gone to audition for the agency, but they’d rejected her. Davida who’d watched the audition had followed Gigi and advised her to try at another agency and even recommended a few because she had potential.
That first meeting was the stepping stone to their friendship. They’d stuck together while both were struggling to break out in their respective industries. At one point in time they were even housemates. Gigi was lucky enough to get her big-break first and join an outstanding agency, but as soon as she was big enough to need a manager, she’d brought Davida in. That was over ten years ago. They’d been inseparable since then.
Once the two women were out of the broadcasting station, they headed to Davida’s car.
“What are those?” Gigi asked as she settled in the passenger-seat. She was staring at the wrapped presents in the back seat. “Are they for me?”
“Yeah, we got a few more today.” Clucking in mock-disapproval, Davida teased, “I don’t even know why these people love you.”
“That’s cause I’m loveable.” Gigi reached for a purple package. “I can’t wait to see what’s in there! What did I get? What did I get?”
“Don’t open it yet.” Davida grabbed the package from her hand and threw it back to the backseat. “I haven’t checked them yet.”
“But I wanna see what’s in there!” Gigi whined, drawing her lips into a pout.
“And you will, after I’ve made sure that there are no hidden cameras like last time,” Davida said. “I don’t know how many times I have to tell you this. Gigi. You have to be more careful. For Christ-sake you have stalkers.”
“I know. I know. But they haven’t really done anything.”
“You mean sending you weird letters and photos or putting a camera in a teddy bear is nothing?” Davida drew in a deep breath as if to calm herself. “If it wasn’t for that stalker, you wouldn’t have had to move. And you still think it’s nothing?”
“I mean they haven’t hurt me or anything,” Gigi said. But the look her manager gave her was enough to make her sigh in surrender. “Okay, fine. You’re right. I’ll be careful.”
“Are you still using the counter-surveillance techniques I taught you?” Davida asked as she started the car.
“Yes, I am.” Gigi said, “I never use the same route when I go home and I make random turns.”
“And you’re not giving your number out to random basketball players?”
“No, I’m not, Mommy.” A teasing smile playing on her lips, Gigi added, “I only take people’s numbers. I don’t give out mine.”
“And you always-”
“Oh my God, Davida! Stop.” Gigi reached over to squeeze her friend’s arm. “I’m being careful. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“I’m not worried about you,” Davida denied. “I’m just looking after my money. You’re my number one investment.”
Gigi laughed. “I’m flattered.”
About twenty minutes later, Davida dropped her off in front of her building. After saying her goodbyes, Gigi headed in.
She’d just gotten into the elevator and the doors were closing when a deep voice called, “Please hold.”
Gigi instinctively reached out to press the ‘open’ button. Seconds later, a man swept into the elevator. He nodded a silent thank you then stood beside her. The doors closed, and the elevator started its upward journey.
Gigi’s first thought was that he was fine… like really, fine. He was quite tall. Even though she was in heels, the top of her head barely touched his chin. Despite the fact that he was wearing a suit, it was obvious that he was quite fit and muscular underneath. The man’s dark, brown hair was buzz-cut short, and his eyes were deep green. A light beard covered his face and his wicked lips were delightfully kissable.
Mmm. Usually, she wasn’t into white guys but this man could get it.
Her next thought was that he seemed oddly familiar.
She snuck a curious look at him. He was staring straight ahead at the doors. Had they met before? Or was he just a celebrity she recognized? He certainly had the Hollywood looks.
No. She shook her head. He wasn’t a celebrity. She knew her celebrities, even the ones most people didn’t even recognize. He wasn’t a celebrity… but she’d definitely seen him somewhere. But where?
Seconds later, it came to her. He’d been at her book-launch a week ago. She’d taken note of him then because he’d behaved strangely. Instead of lining up like everyone else, he’d stood to the side watching her with an intense gaze that had left her feeling uncomfortable. She’d taken her eyes off him for a second to sign a t-shirt for some guy, but when she looked up again he was gone.
Okay, so he was at her book-launch, so he was a fan, right? So why wasn’t he behaving like a fan? Most fans would be gushing happily right now and saying how good it was to see her. So why was this one pretending not to have seen her? Strange!
What was even stranger was his being here. This had to be a coincidence, right? An actress and her fan could end up in the same elevator. But what were the chances of it happening within one week of seeing each other? Perhaps it wasn’t that coincidental.
She snuck another look at him – this time a suspicious one. Could he be her stalker? The one who’d been sending her love letters and begging her to tell him where her new place was so he could come visit her.
No, no, no. She was overreacting and seeing malice where none was intended. Besides, this guy was too handsome to be a stalker.
Wait, wait, wait! What was she talking about? It was entirely possible for a good-looking guy to be a stalker. Look at Ted Bundy.
Overreacting much? Her inner voice mocked. There was no proof that this guy was a Ted Bundy so there was no point in scaring herself. Maybe he was here to visit a friend. Let’s just wait and see what floor he selects.
Only the guy didn’t select any floor.
By now Gigi’s heart was thumping hard. Though she’d acted like she didn’t care about her stalker when she was with Davida, it was all just a pretense. She cared – she cared very much. The thought that this might be him and that they were stuck in one elevator alone was quite terrifying. Still, she didn’t let the fear show on her face.
For some reason, the ride to her floor seemed to take longer than usual. Maybe it was because her stalker was in here with her. What if he tried to jump her before she got to her floor? She sent him a wary look before shuffling closer to the wall and away from him.
Finally, the doors opened, and Gigi immediately scrambled out.
Please, don’t follow me, she mentally pleaded as she paced to her condo with fast steps. But the man followed her, slowly but surely.
Oh my God, he was coming for her. Gigi should’ve started running, but something possessed her. Despite the cold fear racing through her, she spun around to face the man. “I know karate.”
Surprise and confusion filled the man’s features. “What?”
“I know karate,” Gigi repeated as she lifted her arms in what she assumed was a martial-artsish stance.
“Okay.” The man shrugged but kept coming.
“If you come any closer, I will use it on you,” Gigi threatened, taking her leg back so she could kick him. It wasn’t an easy task considering that she was wearing a tight pencil skirt.
Though the man had stopped walking, he didn’t seem threatened by her at all.
Glaring at the man, she added, “I’ve got a purple badge.”
The man laughed. “A what?”
“I said I’ve got a purple badge, and I’m not afraid to use it.”
His eyes dancing with amusement, he informed her, “They don’t use badges in karate. They use belts.”
“Really?” Gigi had never attended a karate class – or any self-defense classes for that matter – so she had no idea if he was right.
“Really.” The man started walking again.
“I’m warning you,” Gigi threatened even though she was now taking backward steps and in the process had even passed her door. “If you come at me, I’ll hurt you.”
The man merely rolled his eyes.
He was close now. Really close. Gigi stiffened, preparing to defend herself. Only instead of coming at her, the man turned to the door opposite hers and pressed the key pad. It was only when the door unlocked that she realized what was happening.
Her jaw dropped and her eyes widened. “You’re my neighbor?”
“Yes.” His expression said that he wasn’t happy about that fact. “We met yesterday.”
“We did.” His lips curled up in a disapproving expression as he added, “You were drunk. Really drunk.”
Ah! That explained it. Gigi’s memories usually became a little blurry whenever alcohol was involved. Immediate embarrassment flushed through her, but even before she could apologize to her neighbor, he entered his house and slammed the door behind himself.
Obviously, her new neighbor wasn’t interested in being friendly. Wincing, Gigi opened her own door and got into her condo.
* * * * *
HIS NEW NEIGHBOR was ridiculous. A day later, Michael still wasn’t over their last encounter. Purple badge? His deep laughter echoed in the empty elevator. Obviously, the woman had no background in any martial arts. Her defensive stance had been so awkward that if he was really after her as she obviously thought, he would’ve taken her down in the blink of an eye. Maybe he should give her some tips.
Hell. No! His inner voice immediately protested. They’d probably end up killing each other. And even if they didn’t, Gigi would probably use what she’d learned on him. Still, the thought of teaching her was oddly titillating. If he was to give her self-defense lessons, then he’d need to be close to her… you know, to teach her how to get out of a chokehold. Then he could hug her, and maybe…
What the hell was he doing? Was he thinking about Gigi Champion in that way? Michael cringed. He must’ve gone mad for a second there. Him and that crazy lady? When hell freezes over!
The elevator dinged its arrival at his floor, interrupting his thoughts. As soon as the doors opened, Michael saw three people, one man and two women, exiting Gigi’s condo and heading to the elevator. Between them was a rolling garment rack filled with clothes. They nodded in silent greeting as they passed him in the hallway. It was only after they got on the elevator that he noticed that they’d dropped an empty shopping bag right in front of his door.
He could’ve just picked up the shopping bag and gotten rid of it. In fact, if it was any other neighbor, that’s exactly what he would’ve done. But the thought that the bag was from Gigi’s guests irked him. Before he could reason himself out of his next actions, he stormed to her door and knocked.
It took a few seconds but finally the door opened.
“Yes.” Gigi stood at the door, glaring at him with her arms folded over her chest.
Obviously, she wasn’t happy to see him. But what caught Michael’s attention was how sexy the lady looked. So this was why women liked leggings so much. The black leggings she was wearing clung to her legs like a second skin, lovingly caressing every single curve and leaving nothing to the imagination. Her black, hooded crop-top cupped her voluptuous breasts breathtakingly and left a tantalizing strip of her flat belly exposed. Add in the fact that her bare feet were adorned with pale pink polish and a ring on one of her toes… she looked like a dream.
Every nerve in Michael’s body came awake… as did other parts of him. For a moment, he couldn’t even speak, let alone take his eyes off her. He swallowed convulsively.
“Excuse me!” Gigi yanked him from his lascivious thoughts. “Do you need something?”
“Um… yes!” Michael cleared his throat in an attempt to get his thoughts together. “I just came to ask you to pick up after yourself.”
He didn’t mean to sound so rude, but that’s how it came off.
Gigi’s eyes immediately narrowed. “Excuse me?”
“Your people dropped that.” He turned to point at the shopping bag. “You should pick it up. The residents here like to keep things clean and less noisy.”
“I’m sorry?” Her eyebrows arched upwards. “Are you saying that I’m dirty and noisy?”
He should say no, right? Yet he couldn’t. Ever since she’d moved to their building, she’d been a nuisance. First the party, then the unprovoked confrontation yesterday and now litter in the hall.
Though he didn’t speak, his answer was clear enough.
Immediate anger flashed in Gigi’s eyes. “Are you kidding me? You call a shopping bag in the hallway being dirty?”
Again, he didn’t speak.
“Ridiculous!” Gigi stormed out of her house, brushed past him and grabbed the bag. She turned to him and waved the bag angrily. “There! Happy now?”
He forced a smile. “Yes.”
“Ridiculous!” She muttered as he skirted past her to get to his door. Instead of getting into her house, she watched him as he typed in his pass-code. However, before he could get into his house, she called out, “You could’ve just picked it up.”
“Why should I?” He turned to face her. “I didn’t drop it.”
She had no answer for that.
To stick the knife in further, he added, “And if this happens again, I’ll have to talk to the building manager.”
“Are you kidding me?” Her breath exploded in a noisy gush as she stared at him. “You’ll tattle on me?” Her gaze turned disbelieving. “For dropping a piece of paper? When we’re neighbors?”
When she said it like that, it did sound ridiculous. But Michael wasn’t about to acknowledge it, so he started, “I’m just saying that you need to be a good neighbor-”
“Good neighbor, my ass!” Gigi cut him off. She kissed her teeth. “You know what I can’t deal with you right now. All I’ve had to eat for the day is lemon juice and maple syrup.”
“I fail to see what your diet has to do with the issue at hand.”
“That’s your problem. You fail to see,” Gigi retorted sarcastically. “You know what… Go ahead! Go report me. And after you’re done, ask them to remove that stick that’s up your ass.”
With those vitriolic words, she strode into her house and slammed the door behind her, leaving him steaming because she hadn’t given him a chance to come up with a fitting comeback.
Her new neighbor was ridiculous. A day later, Gigi still couldn’t wrap her head around how petty the man was. A shopping bag? He’d called her dirty over a shopping bag? Though she didn’t know his name, she was sure that ‘Petty’ was somewhere in there. And what was all that noisy business about? She wasn’t that noisy. The only time she’d had any real noise in her house was during her party and it was just a onetime thing. Plus she’d kept the noise in her house.
Was a woman not allowed to have a house-warming party? Ridiculous!
Kissing her teeth, Gigi settled deeper in the settee and grabbed another comic book from the pile on the coffee-table next to her. Now that she was done shooting her movie and most of its promotion, she had time to indulge in her favorite pastime – comic books. She was currently holed up in a backroom at her favorite comic bookstore.
Coming to the comic bookstore had required ‘dressing-down’. Gigi was wearing a nondescript hat, glasses and no makeup. Instead of wearing something to show off her body, she’d chosen to go with jeans and a t-shirt because that’s what most people wore and it practically made her disappear into crowds. Today, no one had recognized her but if they had, she was ready to do her well-tried spiel of ‘No, I’m not Gigi. I just look like her. Everyone says so’.
Of course, most people would say that that was going to a lot of trouble just so she could read comic books. It was easier to just get them online and read at home. But Gigi liked the smell of paper, and the air in here smelled of paper and coffee. Mm… she took in a healthy gulp.
She was such a regular at this particular store that the owner had even spruced up one of the backrooms for her. Gigi now had her own space and didn’t have to deal with people staring and wondering where they knew her from while they browsed the store.
Stretching her legs out, she focused on her current comic book. Usually, she was all about romantic comic-books and today was no exception. She turned the book to check out its cover. Gracing the cover was a swooning, voluptuous brunette held in the arms of a black anime hero who was bending over as if to kiss her. Splashed above the salacious image was the title. And Then We Kiss.
Even the title was cheesy. Ooh! Gigi loved it. Grinning, she turned to the first page.
She was just getting to the juiciest part when her phone vibrated on the coffee-table. She arched her neck to see who was calling. When she saw the name blinking on the screen, an immediate frown creased her brow. It was her mom. She considered not picking up, but she knew her mother well enough to know that the woman would likely keep calling and sending messages until Gigi surrendered.
With a sigh, Gigi put down her book and reached for her phone. She didn’t even get to say hello. As soon as she swiped the answer button, her mother started ranting.
“What is wrong with you?” Lisa Champion shrilled into the phone. “How can you not tell me that you moved?”
Maybe if you ever visited me you’d know, Gigi thought but didn’t say it aloud.
“Do you know how embarrassing it was to find out from the girls?” Lisa ranted on. “I can’t believe you put me in a position where I had to see Kayla Carter’s smug face. She was practically laughing at me for not knowing that you’d moved.”
Gigi frowned at the mention of her ex-friend. “What were you doing with Kayla?”
Kayla was a basketball wife. During her short stint as a basketball girlfriend and wife, Gigi had hung out with the woman because they ran in the same circles. She’d even made a few appearances in the reality show Kayla was a cast member of.
However once Gigi and her ex had parted ways, Kayla had cut Gigi off. Apparently, they didn’t have anything in common anymore. Whatever! If their friendship was based on who they were married to, then it wasn’t much of a friendship anyway. But why was her mother still hovering around Kayla?
Lisa hedged, “You know… we were just hanging out.”
“Hanging out?” Gigi couldn’t believe her ears. “What for? I don’t even talk to her any more. Why would you? You don’t have any connection to her.”
“You’re my connection,” her mother retorted unrepentantly.
“How many times have I told you not to hang around those women,” Gigi scolded. “They’re just looking for something to gossip about on their show for ratings, and you’re feeding them with stories about me. Besides, I’m the star not you.”
“And who made you a star?” Lisa countered. “Me.”
Gigi rolled her eyes. “This again?”
Ignoring the sarcastic remark, her mother went on, “You’re making all that money because of me. If it wasn’t for the face and the body I gave you, you wouldn’t be a star.”
“Actually, Nana said I looked like my Daddy,” Gigi retorted.
“Please child, your Nana didn’t know nothing. Your Daddy was a scrub. His face looked like it’d been through a hurricane and a tsunami. All that pretty you got is from me, and don’t you forget it,” Lisa said. “Which reminds me, you haven’t sent me an allowance this month.”
“What do you mean allowance?” Gigi frowned. “What about the boutique?”
“I knew you’d bring that up!” Her mother snorted. “Okay, so you opened a small shop for me. Hurray! That doesn’t mean you can neglect your duties as my daughter.”
“Small shop?” Gigi couldn’t believe her mother. The boutique was huge, located on one of the busiest streets in the city and boasted over two-thousand dollars in net-profit every day. What was her mother on?
“The shop’s barely enough to feed me and Kam,” Lisa complained. “Send us something.”
“What do you mean it’s barely enough?” Gigi reminded her, “You’re living in the house that I bought, which means you don’t even have to pay rent, and you’ve got a shop. How is it not enough?”
“It’s just not enough,” her mother retorted flippantly. Before Gigi could confront her further, she said, “Kam wants to talk to you.”
Kamarou, or Kam as everyone called him, was Lisa’s twenty-three year-old fiancée. However, Gigi preferred to think of him as the soon-to-be-dumped boy-toy. He’d been with Lisa for about two months and was already engaged to her. If Gigi’s calculations were correct, he had about two more months in her mother’s life. That’s just who Lisa was.
Since he was just a temporary warm-body for Lisa’s bed anyway, Gigi didn’t see the point of even talking to him. She started, “No, thanks. I don’t want to-”
But she was too late. Even before she was done with her protest, the phone had already changed hands.
Kam’s high tenor echoed over the phone. “Hi, daughter.”
“Daughter?” Gigi guffawed. “I’m eight years older than you, son.”
“Age is just a number,” Kam countered flippantly. “Hey, I saw you on TV with Sherry Lee.”
Even before he asked, Gigi saw it coming.
“Could you get me an interview with her?” Kam asked. Even though he had zero experience in the movie industry and even less work-ethic, the man had delusions of making it as an A-List star.
“It doesn’t work that way.” Gigi was shocked by how patient she sounded as she explained, “They call you, not the other way round.”
“Come on,” Kam wheedled. “You two looked really friendly. I’m sure she’d consider it if you asked.”
“Even if I wanted to, which I don’t, who would I say you are?” Gigi reminded him, “You haven’t done anything that’s worth being interviewed about.”
“Wow! That’s harsh!”
“If you stopped asking me for such favors, I wouldn’t have to be so harsh.”
“We’re family!” Kam whined.
Gigi snorted. “Not even barely!”
“Hey, brat!” Lisa was back on the phone. “How can you talk to him like that? He’s my fiancée and your future step-father.”
Gigi closed her eyes, pulled in a deep breath before asking, “Is there anything else you wanted to talk about or can we end this phone call?”
“Just send me money.” With that Lisa ended the call.
Gigi took the phone off her ear to stare at it for a couple of minutes. What had she ever done to God to deserve a mother like Lisa? For a second, she considered not sending the money to Lisa, but she gave up on the idea. Despite her faults, Lisa was still her mother. And as much as Gigi hated to admit it, her mother was part of the reason why she was who she was right now. If Lisa wasn’t such a terrible mother, Gigi would never have been so motivated to be better than her.
With a sigh, she tossed the phone back on the table. However, before she could pick up her book, there was a knock on the door. Seconds later, a short Latina carrying an iced coffee and a bundle of comic-books entered the room.
Her name was Selena and she’d started working here just three months ago, but already Gigi liked her. Though Selena had recognized Gigi on the first day they’d met, she’d never asked for autographs, never tried to be friendlier than she should be. That alone made her better than many, many of Gigi’s acquaintances.
“Are those for me?” Gigi pointed to items the other woman was carrying.
“Of course!” Smiling, Selena handed her the iced-tea and set the books on the coffee-table.
“You’re an angel, Selena.” Gigi gratefully took a healthy gulp of the drink. “Aah… that is delicious. This is why I love you.”
“You’ll love me even more once you check those out.” Selena pointed to the comic-books she’d brought. “I just found ‘The King’s Maid’ one through five.”
“What? No way.” Gigi immediately reached for the comic-books. Her disbelief turned into glee when she realized that they were the books she’d been looking for all this time. “Oh my God, you found them. I love you, Selena.”
Pleased with herself, Selena left Gigi to her reading. Gigi stayed at the store for two hours more before reluctantly handing the comic-books back to Selena and leaving.
ONE GOOD THING had come from Gigi’s encounters with her petty neighbor. She’d realized that she really needed to take those self-defense classes that Davida was always pleading with her to try. What if her neighbor had really been a stalker? What if this happened again? It was quite obvious that her smart mouth wasn’t going to save her.
After leaving the bookstore, Gigi headed to her self-defense class. That lasted for an hour or so. Afterwards, she stopped by the luxury store to check out their latest shoes before heading home. As she got on the elevator at her building she was joined by a white, heavyset, middle-aged woman along with two children, a boy and a girl. It was obvious that the two children were siblings because of their strikingly similar facial features, green eyes, dark hair and matching heights.
At first the three ignored Gigi, but then the boy frowned. He took a step forward, tilting his head so he could have a better look at Gigi’s face. He shook his head and stepped back to his position beside the woman with him. Seconds later, he was back again, staring at Gigi. Gigi knew the exact moment he recognized her. His eyes widened, his mouth fell open, and he started jerking on the hand of the woman with him.
“Mrs. Scarbo. Mrs. Scarbo,” he whispered excitedly.
Mrs. Scarbo looked down at him. “What?”
Staring at Gigi, the boy whispered, “It’s her.”
Mrs. Scarbo snuck a peek at Gigi. “It’s who?”
“It’s Gigi Champion.” The boy’s eyes were so wide that they looked like they were about to pop out of their sockets. “It’s Gigi Champion.”
“No, it’s not,” his sister chimed in. She gave Gigi a skeptical up and down look. Obviously, she was unimpressed by Gigi’s lack of makeup. “It can’t be. She doesn’t look like her. Gigi Champion is much prettier.”
Gigi wasn’t sure whether to be offended or flattered.
“That’s rude!” Mrs. Scarbo turned to Gigi with an apologetic smile. “I’m so sorry.”
Gigi grinned. “It’s okay.”
“It’s Gigi Champion,” the boy insisted in a loud whisper. “I’m in the same elevator with Gigi Champion.”
Obviously, he was a fan.
“It’s not Gigi Champion.” The girl turned to meet Gigi’s eyes. “Excuse me, Ma’am. You’re not Gigi Champion, are you?”
Just because she wanted to see the little girl’s reaction, Gigi admitted, “I’m Gigi Champion.”
Surprise flashed in the girl’s eyes. “Really?” She gave Gigi another disbelieving onceover. “You don’t look like you.”
The boy, on the other hand, was now jumping in excitement. “See, I told you. I told you it’s Gigi Champion. It’s Gigi Champion.”
He looked like he was about to bounce through the roof with excitement. Luckily for all of them, the elevator came to a stop at Gigi’s floor. She got off the elevator.
“Oh my God, she’s going to our floor,” the little boy loud-whispered behind her. “She’s going to our floor.”
Were they her neighbors? When she stopped at her door, the three stopped on the opposite door. The boy was still looking at her like he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. When she pressed her pass-code into her door and it opened, he gasped to no one in particular. “I think she’s our neighbor.”
The boy’s excitement was infectious, and Gigi couldn’t help the smile that curved her lips as she got into her house. However, once the door closed behind her, she realized that she’d just missed a critical fact. If the siblings were her neighbors, then they likely belonged to Mr. Stick-In-The-Ass.
No way. That wasn’t possible. Some woman had been mad enough to get married to that petty man? And even give birth to his kids? How? No way in hell! Then again, those kids had the same green eyes as Mr. Stick-In-The-Ass so it was possible that they belonged to him.
Shaking her head in disbelief, Gigi got rid of her glasses and hat then headed to her bedroom. She was trying on her new shoes when her doorbell rang. She kicked off the shoes then headed to the door. A peek through the intercom revealed an unexpected guest. It was the little boy, and he was waving shyly at the camera.
An instinctive smile lifted Gigi’s lips as she opened the door. “Hi.”
“Hi.” The boy’s smile widened. “Do you remember me?”
“Yes.” Gigi nodded. “We just met on the elevator.”
“No. No. You’re funny.” Though he laughed, it was obvious he was nervous by how tightly he was clutching a notebook and pen to his chest. “Not from the elevator. From before. Don’t you remember me?”
Gigi racked her mind, trying to figure out when they had met but nothing came to her.
The boy was still hopeful. “Remember, I’m Benny.”
“Oh, Benny.” Acting like she remembered him, she said, “Hi. It’s great to see you again.”
But Benny wasn’t fooled. He narrowed his eyes. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
Gigi winced. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” He shrugged. “I’m really, really a fan of yours, Miss Gigi,” Benny said. “Is it okay if I get your autograph?”
“Sure. No problem.” Gigi stretched her hand out for the notepad and pen. As she signed the notepad, she noticed that Benny was trying to peek into her house. Usually she wouldn’t invite a stranger into her house, but he was just a kid and a cute one at that. She asked, “Do you want to come in?”
His mouth opened in a silent gasp. “Really? I can come in?”
“Sure.” Gigi stepped aside to let him into her house.
“Thank you.” The little boy skipped into the house. Gigi followed him into the living room only to find him spinning around in an effort to see everything. He gasped. “Woooow!”
Though Gigi’s condo was nothing special, it was the epitome of color. The beige couch in front of the large, floor-to-ceiling windows had several throw-pillows in every color of the rainbow. That couch was flunked by a baby-pink armchair on one side and a powder-blue armchair on the other. Even her rug was colorful. It was a mix of greens, blues, grays and white to match her fruity-green drapes. Maybe it was too much color for some people, but it left Gigi feeling alive.
Obviously Benny liked it too because he was taking in everything with impressed oohs and aahs.
“Wooow!” His eyes zeroed in on her collection of interesting knickknacks from places she’d visited. The knickknacks which were housed in a tall glass shelf in the corner of the room, and they included dolls, vases, mugs and more. Gasping, he said, “So pretty!”
“Thank you.” Smiling, Gigi drew his attention, “Benny, would you like a glass of juice.”
“Yes, please.” He nodded eagerly then politely asked, “Is it okay if I look at your dolls?”
“Of course!” Gigi still couldn’t quite believe that Benny was an offspring of the crazy man next door. He was too polite, too cute. Maybe he was his nephew. She headed to the kitchen to get him a glass of juice. When she came back, she found him seated on the couch still looking around.
“Thank you.” He took the glass she offered. But instead of drinking the juice, he just stared at the glass. In one of his loud whispers, he gasped. “You touched my glass.” He looked up at Gigi with unabashed adoration. “Oh my God. I’m drinking juice from a glass that you touched.”
The adoration was flattering. However, Gigi didn’t get to enjoy it for long.
Just then her doorbell rang again. This time it was Benny’s sister.
The disapproving look the little girl gave Gigi when the door opened left no doubt that she wasn’t as ardent a fan as her brother. “Excuse me, Miss Gigi. I’m looking for my brother. Did he come here?”
“Yes. He’s here.” Gigi gestured to the interior of the condo. “Do you want to come in?”
“No, thanks,” the little girl shook her head. “Could you tell him that our nanny is looking for him?”
Leaving the door open, Gigi went back to the living room. Benny was now on the carpeted floor, staring at the glass of juice on the coffee-table as if it was holy water and he couldn’t quite decide if he should drink it.
Gigi pulled him from his musing. “Benny, your sister is at the door.”
Benny looked up. “Riley?”
“Yes.” Gigi nodded. “She says your nanny is looking for you.”
Benny’s face fell. “Oh!”
With a disappointed sigh, he rose to his feet. His eyes met Gigi’s. “Is it okay if I go with the juice?”
Because the notepad and juice were too much for one boy to carry, Gigi helped him out. However, when they got to the door, Riley took the notepad from her then reentered their house. Instead of immediately following his sister into their house, Benny paused for at the doorstep.
“Miss Gigi.” He grinned. “Thank you for the juice and the autograph.”
“You’re welcome.” Smiling, Gigi watched him as he got into the house.
What a lovely boy! If he really was Mr. Stick-In-The-Ass’s son, then his father needed to take etiquette lessons from him.
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