Both down-home sweet and seductive, Cheris Hodges's new novel is about breaking the rules, going back home. . .and finding more than your heart's desire. . . Celina Hart had security, a steady job, a predictable fiancé. . .and nothing that was making her truly happy. She gave it all up to gamble on her talent, and found success she'd never imagined as one of New York's hottest painters. But when she returns to her South Carolina hometown to care for her ailing father, she gets an even bigger surprise. That "bow-legged" neighbor's boy she used to play with has grown up into Darius McRae, a lawyer who gave up the D.C. fast-lane to get back to his roots. Now, Darius' dark-chocolate build and slow, easy smile are proving to be just as tempting as any city lights. . . The last thing Darius was looking for was a relationship. He'd been burned by too many women who put finance over romance--including his conniving ex-girlfriend Cortina. But Celina's sense of humor and unpretentious ways are igniting more than his passions. And when Cortina starts stirring up a mess of trouble, Darius will do whatever it takes to show Celina a home-grown love is a dream worth everything. . .
Release date: August 1, 2007
Print pages: 288
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Just Can't Get Enough
The crisp smell of roasted coffee beans wafted through the air, tickling Celina Hart’s nostrils. Mornings in Paris had become her favorite time of the day. As the sun cast a golden glow over the city, shopkeepers lazily swept their storefronts, preparing for the throngs of tourists who would flock to the outdoor cafés as soon as the noon sun rose high in the sky. Celina liked to blend in with the locals and rise early. Blending in wasn’t easy, though. Her French was more than a little rough, since she’d only been speaking the language for a short time.
Celina was one of the few American artists who had been chosen to take part in the celebration of Hector Guimard. Her trendy work that hung in some of New York’s most popular galleries and the mural she’d created in Harlem featuring Zora Neale Hurston had caught the eye of the right people. But Celina knew it was Bill Clinton that had gotten her to Paris. When the former president commissioned Celina to paint a portrait for his Harlem office, she had been fast tracked as a hot artist to watch. And the world was watching, much to the dismay of her mother, Rena Malcolm, who would’ve been content to have her daughter stay in one place and teach art.
Celina had tried it and it didn’t work out for her. She had to move and see the world. That’s just what her art allowed her to do.
Dressed in a pair of white capri pants and a pink tank top, Celina headed for what had become her favorite table at Café de la Paix. It sat on the end of the rows of tables, nearest to the road. She watched as the city began to come alive and Paris visitors spilled onto the streets seeking coffee before they began a day of sightseeing and a night of partying.
“Bonjour, mademoiselle,” the slim waiter said as he set a steaming cup of café au lait in front of her. Every day for the last two months, the same raven-haired waiter had been serving her coffee and a chocolate croissant.
“Bonjour,” she replied through her smile.
“Croissant?” He held an ivory plate out to her with a flaky piece of bread on it.
She shook her head no as she blew on the steaming cup and stifled a yawn. The waiter nodded and walked away. Celina reached into her brown saddlebag, retrieved her sketch pad and began drawing the landscape, its rolling hills and flat-top cafés. Some people drank coffee and read the newspaper, but she sipped java and drew. Since being in Paris, she’d been inspired. Celina was never one to draw landscapes, but how could she not commit Paris to paper? Though she was enjoying her work inside Castel Beranger, she hated that the morning was the only time she saw the outdoors. Her mural was nearly finished and there was talk of her creating ones in some other places around the city.
By the time she finished her sketch, the café was filled with sleepy tourists speaking in broken French and sucking down black coffee.
Reluctantly, she put her pad away when she realized that another reason she had gotten up so early was to beat the rush at the American Express. She dropped her colorful money on the table to cover the cost of her coffee, then headed down the block. Her stomach rumbled as she sniffed the fragrance of bread wafting through the air. Paris was no place for a low-carbohydrate dieter and Celina was glad she didn’t deal with fad diets. She kept her svelte figure by running three miles a day and maintaining a healthy obsession with martial arts. Her mother had suggested that she learn how to protect herself when she moved to New York. Celina enjoyed karate; it stimulated her creativity and kept her edgy. She hadn’t been able to find a karate class since she’d been in Paris. Celina walked into the post office, known as the American Express, to pick up what she was sure was a letter from her mother and to cash in some more money.
“Bonjour, mademoiselle,” the postal clerk said, smiling at Celina. She returned his greeting. The man opened her box and handed her a stack of mail.
“Merci,” she said as she took the mail from his hands. Flipping through the letters that followed her from New York, she stopped when she spied a South Carolina postmark. The shaky handwriting on the front of the wrinkled white envelope was unmistakably Thomas’s. Celina dumped her other mail in her bag and ripped her father’s letter open.
Baby, I’m sick. The words stabbed her in the heart. She continued reading, fighting the tears welling up in her eyes.
I don’t mean to dump all of this on you while you’re in Paris, but I need you more than I’ve ever needed anyone before. It may not be fair for me to ask this of you, but I want to spend time with you before it’s too late. Your mother tells me you’re quite the artist and that you’re spending the year in Paris.
I’m so proud of you and I wouldn’t ask this of you if it wasn’t important.
Celina’s breath caught in her chest and the tears fell from her eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d talked to him, since they hadn’t been close after her parents’ divorce nearly twenty years ago. Celina had only been eight at the time and she’d never quite forgiven him for letting them leave Elmore, South Carolina, all those years ago. His eye for other women had led to the demise of his marriage.
While Celina was growing up, Thomas did his best to be a good father, spending every holiday, summer vacation, and school break with his daughter. Rena had remarried two years after she and Celina settled in Chicago. John Malcolm had been a good stepfather, never trying to take Thomas’s place in her heart. It had happened anyway. Thomas had taken on the role as a distant uncle to Celina, but John was her father figure—the one who did the heavy lifting, like doling out discipline and other things that fathers were supposed to do.
Still, Thomas was family and she knew what she had to do. Celina ran out of the American Express in search of her boss, Monsieur DuPont.
Celina walked into Le Palais Garnier, the old opera house where the Foundation’s headquarters was housed. Monsieur DuPont had set up an office in the basement of the historic building. Dashing down the rickety stairs, she frantically knocked on the man’s door.
“Ah, Mademoiselle Hart, what can I do for you?” he asked when he looked up and saw Celina standing in front of his desk. “Your mural is shaping up very nicely. I love your style.”
“I have to leave,” she said, her voice shaky and barely above a whisper.
Monsieur DuPont offered Celina a seat when he noticed the paleness of her face.
“What’s wrong?” he asked as he buzzed his assistant. “Did something happen stateside?”
Celina tried to form the words to tell the art director why she was throwing away one of the biggest opportunities of her career. “Um, my father is . . .” Her voice trailed off. Should she go home to her father? Where was he during the last twenty years of her life? When she’d been sick, it had been her mother and her stepfather, John, who’d cared for her and comforted her. Thomas had only been around when it suited him to be or when he’d been expected to be around. Why couldn’t he have been a better husband? Then he and Rena would’ve still been together and she could’ve taken care of him.
Celina felt like a bitter twelve-year-old as those thoughts floated around her head. She didn’t realize she still harbored resentment over her parents’ divorce. She was a well-adjusted adult and she had no thoughts of her parents someday reconciling. But, like every other child of divorce, subconsciously she wanted mommy and daddy together.
“Your father is—?” Monsieur DuPont asked, then he spoke in French to his assistant, asking her to bring water in for Celina.
“Dying.” The word spilled from her lips like a rancid sip of milk. “I have to be with him and I know . . .” Tears began spilling down her cheeks like a summer rainstorm.
“Mademoiselle, I understand. If you must leave, you must. Your work here has been wonderful and you will be welcomed back in the future.” Monsieur DuPont walked over to the chair where Celina sat sobbing. Her eyes looked like wet black diamonds as she looked up at him. He placed his hand on Celina’s shoulder and stroked her gently. “Family is very important. I understand that you have to leave.”
She nodded and, in the back of her mind, wondered how often she had taken her family for granted. Celina hadn’t seen her father in two years and she hadn’t made a huge effort to talk to him before she left the country. It was past time for her to go to South Carolina and spend time with him. She had to forgive Thomas and allow him into her life in a more significant way before it was too late. And if his letter was any indication, the clock was about to strike midnight.
Everything seemed to move at light speed after Celina received her father’s letter. Two days after she announced that she was leaving, she was in a rental car turning down Drivel Drive in Elmore, South Carolina, her birthplace.
Elmore was a quaint little town an hour away from the state capital. Other than the azalea bushes, there wasn’t much going on in Elmore. Many of the people who lived in the town were retirees or lifers, folk who had never gone farther than Columbia.
The moment Celina’s plane touched down in Columbia, she’d called Rena and told her about Thomas’s letter. She heard her mother gasp over the phone when she told her that her father was dying.
“I’m glad you’re going to him. I thought something was going on when he called and asked for your address,” Rena had said. “He needs you and you need him.”
Celina had agreed and, as she turned into her father’s driveway, she realized that she did need him. She needed him to answer questions that had haunted her for twenty years. Why hadn’t he fought for his family all those years ago? She parked the car behind Thomas’s beat-up Ford pickup truck. A smile spread across her face as she remembered the days she and her neighborhood friends played on the bed of the truck. It had been her favorite hiding place when she and Darius McRae, her best friend at the time, played hide and seek. He’d always find her, though. Celina hadn’t thought about Darius in years. The last time she’d talked to him was her sophomore year of high school. For no reason at all, the two had lost contact. The last she’d heard he was a hotshot lawyer in Washington, DC. It’s good he’s living his dream too, she thought, as she got out of the car. We were lucky to get away from here.
The first thing Celina noticed when she stepped off the asphalt driveway was the lush green grass. The lawn looked as if it had been cut with scissors; not a blade was overgrown. The azalea bushes were in bloom and the blossoms were so purple that Celina thought they had been painted. She wanted to capture the yard on canvas and hang it in the living room above the fireplace. At that moment, she realized that Thomas didn’t have any of her work adorning his walls, while her mother and John had several of her prints, including a portrait she’d created for them on their tenth anniversary. Celina knocked on the front door, since she didn’t have a key to her father’s home. A few seconds passed before she knocked again. Worried and fearing the worst, she turned the knob, found the door unlocked, and walked into the house.
The state of the home where she spent the first eight years of her life took her breath away. The carpet was stained beyond recognition. It was no longer nutmeg brown; it just looked like plush dirt. The yellow paint on the walls had faded and the mantle above the fireplace was sagging and threatening to fall to the floor. “Daddy,” Celina called out. “Daddy.”
A frail Thomas Hart slowly ambled into the living room. He was wrapped in a flannel robe, despite the fact that it was over ninety degrees outside. Celina studied her father’s face. His caramel skin looked ashen, his face gaunt, and his eyes, black like hers, had lost their sparkle. His hair was completely white and thinning across the top of his head.
Celina’s bottom lip trembled as she looked at her father. This wasn’t Thomas Hart, a man who had to fight women off with a stick. This man standing before her looked as if he’d given up on life and was waiting for death to take him away.
“Daddy, sit down.” Celina cleared some of the clutter on the leather sofa. She ignored the rips along the arms of it. The years hadn’t been kind to Thomas or the furniture that she had grown up playing on.
“I don’t need to sit down. I need to walk around a little bit. I was in the bathroom when you were knocking on the door,” Thomas said. “I guess you don’t have a key, huh?”
Celina looked at him and shook her head. “What happened to the place? And who keeps up the yard for you?” The contrast between the inside and outside was remarkable.
“The young man next door,” he said, as he finally sat down on the sofa. Thomas looked at Celina and smiled, though she thought his face was going to crack from the effort.
“I’m glad you’re here. I didn’t want to tear you away from Paris, but . . .”
“It’s okay. I need to be here,” Celina said. “This place needs a good makeover. Do you pay the kid who takes care of the yard?”
Thomas shrugged his shoulders. “He never comes in, I just hear the lawn mower going.”
Celina began picking up some of the old newspapers and magazines that cluttered the living room. “Well, I’m going to give him some token of thanks after I get this place looking livable again.”
Thomas snorted and chuckled. “You are your mother’s daughter.”
Celina knew what he was saying should have been taken as a compliment, but his words enraged her. “And just what’s that supposed to mean?” she spat out angrily.
“Watch your tone, baby girl, I’m still your father. And all I meant was your mother hated clutter and wanted everything in its place.”
Celina closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Have you eaten anything today?”
Thomas shook his head “no.” Celina took the armful of papers she had scooped up off the floor and sofa, then headed to the kitchen. Just as she suspected, there was no food in the refrigerator. “I need to go to the market,” she called out as she stuffed the papers in the trash bag. “What do you want for dinner?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, then broke into a fit of coughing.
Celina decided that she was going to make something healthful. The way her father was bundled up, she knew that homemade soup was in order. But what was wrong with him? She hadn’t asked him about his illness because she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what was sapping the life from her father just yet. Celina tied the top of the trash bag together and headed out the door to deposit the rubbish in the can. She had to get to the farmer’s market before it closed. The one thing she missed about living in the south was the fresh food that could be found right around the corner. The farmer’s market had always been her favorite place. She could sample the fresh fruits before buying them and the meats were homegrown and free of the chemicals that were found in the food at the local supermarket. Celina was going to enjoy her time in Elmore and her time with her father.
Celina returned from the farmer’s market with bags full of fresh cabbage, carrots, oranges, cucumbers, lettuce, chicken breasts, and sweet corn on the cob. She balanced the bags in her arms as she pulled the door open. She wasn’t surprised that Thomas hadn’t locked the door. In their neighborhood, everyone knew each other. But Celina was going to make sure all of the doors were locked from now on. She had been in the city long enough to distrust most people, including those she’d known for years.
She set the bags on the countertop, and then walked into the living room to check on Thomas. He was lying on the sofa with his eyes half-closed. He was so still that she began to panic. “Daddy,” she said frantically.
His eyes fluttered open. “What, child?”
She released a cleansing sigh of relief. “I thought . . .”
“I’m not dead, yet,” he said as he sat up and coughed several times in succession. Celina kneeled down beside him and stroked his back. “I’m okay.”
Celina shook her head. “No, you’re not. You said you needed me and I’m here to take care of you. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Thomas looked up at his daughter and their eyes locked. There were so many years missing between them. Celina didn’t know this man, who had been more like a favorite uncle who always gave the best presents. How were they going to make up for lost time when they didn’t have much time left?
“I don’t have much time, according to the doctors. I don’t want to die alone, even though I may deserve to do just that.” The sadness in his voice almost made Celina cry. How could she want to punish her father, when it seemed he was doing a good job of it himself?
“I’m going to fix you some homemade soup,” Celina said. Looking at her father’s thin frame, she wondered when he had last had a good meal.
Thomas was a proud man and obviously no one in the community knew what was going on. Elmore was the kind of place where people took care of each other and Celina knew many of the local churchwomen would have brought him hot meals every day. Thomas reached up and grabbed Celina’s hand, holding it tightly. His bony fingers felt like sticks against hers.
“Celina, I’ve always loved you and your mother,” he whispered. “I just didn’t show it all the time. When she moved you two to Chicago, I thought it was best that I leave you all alone. I’d hurt your mother deeply and she needed a new start.”
Celina nodded as she slid her hand from Thomas’ grip. It sounded like a bad excuse to her. He still could’ve tried to have a more substantial relationship with her. She wasn’t his wife; she was his daughter.
“I’d better cook,” she said. Celina walked into the kitchen and looked at its tattered state, knowing that she had a lot of cleaning to do before she’d fix a meal. Mounds of dirty dishes sat in the sink and on the counter, covered by a thin layer of mold, and the bottoms of the cast-iron pots were coated with the residue of an unrecognizable goop that was once food. Celina grabbed the bags of food and placed them in the refrigerator. The only thing inside of it was an aging box of baking soda.
How has he been living like this? she thought sadly. Celina closed the door and began cleaning the mess. Everything about the kitchen was the same, but different. Celina remembered standing next to her mother, drying the dinner dishes. Thomas would always go outside and smoke a cigar after dinner. He’d tap on the window and blow round circles at Celina, who’d stand on her tiptoes to get a better look at her father. Rena would tap on the window and tell him to stop. She’d then turn to Celina and warn her about the dangers of smoking and tell her never to start.
Celina smiled as the memory played in her mind. Those had been the good old days and she wished that they had had more of them.
Once the kitchen was somewhat presentable, she began cooking. Celina chopped the fresh chicken breasts into bite-sized morsels and dropped them in a pot of simmering water. She dumped salt, pepper, and oregano into the pot. While the chicken simmered, making a thick broth, Celina prepared the vegetables, precisely chopping the fresh Vidalia onions, carrots, green peppers, and celery. She stirred the chicken, making sure it was done before she tossed the vegetables in. Celina lowered the heat on the soup, then fixed herself a plate of raw vegetables. She was definitely going to take some back to the city when she returned.
Once the soup was done, Celina fixed Thomas a bowlful and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. She carried the food to her father and set it on the coffee table where he could easily reach it. Thomas slowly sat up and smiled at his daughter.
“How’s Rena?” Thomas asked, in between sipping the soup.
Celina nodded. “She’s fine. Is the food okay?”
Thomas nodded approvingly. “You look and cook like her.”
Celina stood up and walked over to the window. Hearing Thomas talk about Rena was somewhat bittersweet. If things had been different, Rena would have been there taking care of him. But his unfaithful ways had broken up the marriage. Watching the demise of her parents’ marriage had scarred her on the notion of love and happily ever after. That’s why it was so easy to walk away from Terrick in Chicago. Even though her exfiancé never gave her a reason to distrust him, she couldn’t let go and let him love her. She definitely wasn’t going to marry him, no matter how perfect everyone thought he was for her.
Terrick Johnson had been an artist as well, but for an advertising agency. He and Celina had a chance encounter when he’d signed up to take a course that she was teaching. Celina hadn’t been the professor that he’d expected and she’d never expected to have a student like Terrick, who inspired her so much.
One evening, when she’d given the class a test, she’d been sitting at her desk watching and sketching his strong jawline, piercing brown eyes, and long dreadlocks. She’d been so engrossed in her work that she hadn’t noticed him when he walked up to her desk.
“Is that supposed to be me?” he whispered.
Celina’s face had flushed with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, it’s just that you have such a unique look and I couldn’t help myself.”
“Do you think we could get together after class?”
“That wouldn’t be appropriate. I’m still your teacher.”
Terrick had smiled at her. “Not anymore. I’m actually dropping this class. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be and my company informed me that they’re not going to pay my tuition anymore.”
“Then do you think you could pose for me?” she asked with a huge smile on her face.
Terrick had posed for her several times before he and Celina acted on their desire for each other. To Celina, Terrick had been safe. All he’d ever talked about was having a family, his job, and marriage. Rena and John had approved of him the moment they met him. He had the proper manners and pedigree and, most of all, he seemed to love their daughter.
But something had been missing between the two of them and Celina never really put her heart into the relationship. She’d known that she didn’t plan to marry Terrick the moment he gave her a three-carat diamond engagement ring. How could she marry him when she’d seen what happens to marriages? The pain, the disappointment, and the bitterness. She’d wanted no part of that and then the letter had come. Someone had submitted some of her drawings to the Harlem Renaissance Society and they’d fallen in love with her.
She’d been commissioned to design a mural for the revitalization project. It was to be a six-month undertaking. But Celina had turned this opportunity into an excuse to break things off with Terrick and get away from Chicago.
Her mother had called it running away. Celina had called it starting over. Now she’d found herself back where everything started. Her joy and her pain were wrapped up in one man—her daddy.
“Celina,” Thomas said softly, tapping into her thoughts.
“You don’t have to sit here and babysit me,” he said as he set his empty bowl on the coffee table.
“I’m going to go next door and tell the guy “thank you” for keeping the yard up for you. Maybe he’ll allow me to pay him for his service.”
Thomas began to cough violently and Celina rushed to his side. “Daddy, are you okay?”
“Just a little fluid in my lungs,” he said, his voice raspy from the fit of coughing.
“What’s wrong? What did the doctors say?”
Celina nervously chewed her bo. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...