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Chapter One- Champagne Problems
My lids blinked open on Christmas morning, expecting to see dozens of designer shopping bags underneath the twinkling tree in the corner of my bedroom. Instead, a white box with an oversized red bow was placed at the foot of my bed. My heart cartwheeled with joy as I excitedly bolted upright and crawled over to it. I quickly snatched the bow loose and shimmied the lid off. Amid the sheets of bright red tissue paper wasn’t a new designer bag or piece of jewelry, but a framed picture of an ultrasound with Shayla Holland, my stepmother’s name on it.
My stomach sank with dread. “A… baby?” I mumbled, wrinkling my nose at the thought. “This must be some sort of joke.”
Per tradition, Christmas gifts in the Holland household came in the form of money. And if it wasn’t money, the gifts were always lavish, never homemade. There I was, thinking I was getting the keys to a new G-Wagon tucked away in the garage or at least a new designer bag. Needless to say, I was less than pleased. The ground passed beneath me as I darted down the hallway toward the stairs. My hand glided down the polished, smooth banister of the curving stairway with miles of garland adorning the top. The festive scent of cinnamon rolls and tinsel wafted past my nose as I barreled into the kitchen, needing an explanation. As an only child, I’d always been the apple of my father’s eye. I was thirteen when my mom was killed in a car accident, making us all the other had. As much as he loved me, I always assumed he didn’t like the pressures of raising a girl as a single father because a couple of years later, he’d remarried Shayla. She wanted to have her own kids with my father, but it didn’t happen naturally. And suddenly, almost eight years, thousands of dollars, and three failed IVF attempts later… she was pregnant.
“Daddy!” I shouted, eyes pinning on him as he stood by the oven, pulling out a fresh batch of cinnamon rolls and placing them on the stove.
He turned to me with a joyful smile. “Merry Christmas, Muffin.”
I marched across the imported hardwood floor, holding up the ultrasound. “What is this?” I asked, laying into him.
He chuckled. “What does it look like?”
I sucked my teeth. “You know what I mean. Is this some sort of a joke?”
“Afraid not, Muffin.”
“So, it’s true?” I asked, brows pulling in.
“Yes. Shay’s pregnant, and we’re having a boy.”
Confused, I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “W-what? How freaking far along is she?”
My eyebrows shot toward my hairline. “Four months? What? Why am I finding out now, on Christmas of all times!”
He sighed. “I’m sorry, Muffin. I wanted to tell you when we found out, but Shay thought this would be a cute Christmas gift.”
I rolled my eyes skyward. “Of course, she did.”
“Don’t be like that,” he scolded me softly. “This is a miracle. You know how badly she’s wanted this and how long we’ve been trying. You should be happy.”
My features softened upon hearing his words. He was right, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t get the feeling of betrayal out of my heart. “I thought I was your one and only,” I stated, swallowing the painful lump in my throat.
He grabbed my shoulders while forcing me to look him square in the eyes. I paused, staring at the crow’s feet in the corners and the salt and pepper-colored hair covering his head and beard. My father was aging. What was he thinking bringing another baby into the world this late in life? With nearly twenty years on the bench, my father served a lifetime appointment as a federal judge. He always put his career first, which meant he did everything later than most, including marriage and children. He married my mother in his mid-thirties and didn’t have me until he was almost forty. He was the most honorable man I knew, and I was proud to be a judge’s daughter. Most importantly, I was most proud to be his only daughter because I was a daddy’s girl through and through.
“You’re my firstborn, Lady. No one will ever replace you in my heart,” he assured me.
I scoffed. “You say that now.”
“You’re both my children. I will love you both equally.
I heard his words, but I couldn’t be too sure. “How can you say that? The kid isn’t even here yet, and you’ve already loved me for twenty-one years!” I argued.
I saw his unwillingness to argue with me in his eyes. “You want a cinnamon roll? They’re super fresh,” he offered.
I shook my head. Even with the enticing, sugary aroma of cinnamon rolls bouncing past my nostrils, I couldn’t eat. “No thanks. I don’t have much of an appetite.”
“Aw, c’mon, Muffin. Don’t be like that,” he called out to my back as I exited the kitchen.
It wasn’t a joke. Shayla was pregnant. A baby was coming. My limbs felt too heavy to move as I retraced my steps back to my room, passing by the fourteen-foot Christmas tree in the foyer. I scanned the winding lights twinkling around the tree from the base to the angel secured at the top. As mesmerizing as the gold and glittery ornaments were, my Christmas spirit was dashed. I’d gone from feeling like one of Santa’s elves to Ebenezer Scrooge.
New Year's Eve rolled around, and I was in the back of my Uber XL with my two friends, Bella, and Avery, hoping to turn my seemingly permanent frown upside down. I’d rented out a lavish section in the club, hoping that being surrounded by bottles and my closest friends would get me excited about bringing in the new year.
I sighed. “Y’all, I still can’t believe there’s going to be a baby in my house in a few months,” I grumbled.
“Yeah. I know. I was shocked when you told me. I don’t think I picked my mouth up for like two whole days,” Avery replied.
“And she thought it was a good idea to surprise me with that news on Christmas!”
“Yeah, she was a lil’ weird for that,” Bella agreed with a nod.
I sucked my teeth. “Right! But Daddy was right there going along with it, eating it all up, talking about how I should be happy for them, and it was a miracle. Maybe it is for them, but it’s not for me!”
“Have you spoken to her since you found out? Y’know, said congrats or anything?” Avery asked.
My shoulders rose and fell. “Yeah. Y’know, fake smile, fake well wishes. Like, I don't know how to be anything but an only child. When I call, he comes. Daddy says nothing’s gonna change, but I know that’s bullshit.”
“It won’t be like that when that baby gets here,” Bella confirmed.
Avery waved her hands in the air as if shooing away all the bad Juju in the back of the SUV. “Enough of all this sad talk,” she interjected. “Lady, you need to find your happy place on the dance floor tonight and not worry about that baby. It’s not your responsibility. It’s theirs.”
“And if you don’t find your happy place on the dance floor, you could try the bottom of this bottle,” Bella suggested slyly while slipping an airplane bottle of tequila out of her purse.
Amusement rippled through us. The laugh I released felt good, freeing even. I downed the entire bottle and reapplied my lip gloss as our car pulled up and dropped us off at the curb. We breezed past the line of people waiting outside to get in and the well-muscled bouncers checking IDs at the door. We stepped inside after getting our hands stamped with the club’s logo. Colored strobe lights pulsed to the bass as Lil’ Uzi Vert’s “Just Wanna Rock” blasted through the massive speakers. People were already crowding the dance floor, doing stiff-hipped dance moves to the beat. The hot, stuffy air smelled like a mix of sweat and cheap cologne, and I couldn’t wait to get to my section and away from all the commoners. I was in no mood to be hollered at by a nigga who couldn’t afford the designer shoes on my feet.
Two hours and several drinks later, I was dancing on the table, twerking, and letting loose with a bottle of champagne in my hand.
“I have to pee!” Avery whined, tugging at my arm.
“Me too. This liquor is running right through me,” Bella yelled over the loud music.
“Can y’all hold it? The ball is gonna drop soon!”
Bella looked down at her phone and tapped the screen for the time. “We’ve got like twenty minutes.”
“Fine. Let’s go now!” I yelled while fanning myself with my hand.
Sweat trickled down my neck as the three of us made our way through the sea of twenty-somethings, crowding the floor looking for someone to usher in the new year with, even if only for the night. “Spin Bout You” by Drake and 21 Savage assaulted my eardrum as I passed near the heavy speaker. I could see there was a line from a few feet away.
“Shit,” I grumbled, feet aching from dancing for hours in four-inch heels.
We continued weaving through the crowd when, out of nowhere, someone pushing through the crowd mashed his foot on mine and kept on blazing through the mob.
“Watch where the fuck I’m walking!” I griped at him before grabbing my foot.
My friends halted. “Are you okay?” Bella asked.
“No! That tall mothafucka just stepped on my foot and kept walking!”
“Can you walk?” Avery yelled.
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“Then c’mon, Lady. Let’s get to the bathroom so we can get back in time for the countdown,” Avery encouraged me with an arm tug.
“Y’all go ahead. I’ll meet you there. I’m gonna say something to him.”
Bella shook her head in disapproval. “Don’t waste your breath.”
“Fuck that!” I fumed before facing my eyes toward the direction he went in. I quickly caught up to him and firmly tapped the back of his shoulder. “Excuse you!”
He rounded on me, eyes anchoring to mine. “What?”
“You stepped on my foot back there and kept on walking!”
“So fuckin’ what, it’s a club. What do you expect?”
A spark of rage ignited in my eyes. “Excuse me?” I hissed, arms tight to my body.
He looked down at my feet. “If you ain’t want nobody steppin’ on those pretty ass toes, you should stay the fuck out the way,” he suggested.
My nostrils flared. He’d made it crystal clear he didn’t give a fuck if he’d injured me or not. All he wanted to do was be a smart ass. I smacked my lips. “Fuck you!”
“Maybe if you ask nicely,” he offered with a smirk, lifting his neck.
I noticed the rose tattooed on his throat before squinting at him with a wrinkled brow. “You should be so lucky.”
His brow raised with curiosity. “Oh yeah?”
I took an inventory of his looks, sweeping my eyes from head to toe. He was proudly sporting cornrows like it was the beginning of the millennium. His hair was parted straight down the middle with five fresh braids going down each side. He had blemish-free caramel skin, and although his expression was set to a scowl, his mahogany brown eyes were warm and mysterious. He was hairy, from his bushy, unkept eyebrows down to his mustache, goatee, and full beard. A tight black T-shirt clung to his chest like it had been painted over his abs, and black jeans and boots. Two platinum chains hung around his neck, and tattoo ink covered every visible part of his skin, including his hands, neck, and the side of his face. Diamonds were shining in his ears, and the watch adorning his wrist, but I knew it was all for show. Nevertheless, his demeanor screamed bad boy, and I didn’t have time for a reckless nigga.
I snapped him a nasty look. “You might be a lil’ cute and all, but you’re not my type. We don’t run in the same circles,” I confirmed with a neck roll.
He tossed me the side-eye. “I'm in every circle, so that’s impossible. I run this city, know it like the back of my hand.”
“Great, you should be a tour guide and put those skills to good use in the new year. Be blessed, nigga,” I hissed.
“Yeah, fuck you too, bitch,” he mumbled under his breath while gently brushing his hard body against mine, leaving me disoriented for a few split seconds.
“Ten minutes until the new year,” the DJ announced, snapping me back into the moment.
I turned around and noticed his smart ass had disappeared. Instead of searching for him, I hurried to the bathroom to meet back up with my friends. Luckily, we returned to our section from the bathroom with thirty seconds to spare.
“Five, four, three, two, one. Happy New Year!” the three of us yelled in unison before clinking our champagne glasses.
As cheerful as my smile was, I couldn’t shake my interaction with that sexy, smart ass from consuming my thoughts. Desperate to rid him from my mind, I was determined to approach the first guy I locked eyes with and make him my new year’s boo. After critically scanning the nearby area, I saw him: a fine, light-skinned brotha with smooth black hair slicked into a low ponytail. He was muscular in all the right places, dressed modestly in slacks and a nice shirt, and best of all, there wasn’t a gold tooth or chain in sight. We traded glances and smiles before I approached him.
“What’s your name?” I asked in his ear.
“Lady. What do you do?”
“I’m an investment broker.”
I smiled with satisfaction. “Are you married?”
“Gay?” I probed.
His brows snapped together. “Hell no.”
“Good. Kiss me,” I demanded before pulling his lips onto mine.
The kiss hadn’t been quite what I expected. It was sloppy and wet, but I was too desperate and drunk to complain. We continued to get hot and heavy in the club, making out uninhibitedly like a couple of teenagers. I didn’t want or need to know his last name or his hopes and dreams. All I wanted to do was feel better.
“The club is about to let out soon. You wanna go back to my place?” he offered.
My teeth flashed white and bright. “I thought you’d never ask. Let me go check in with my girls, and then I’m allyours,” I promised, ready to let him taste my Christmas cookies.
After promising to share my location and send a text when I got home, I waved my besties goodbye, locked arms with Darren, and headed toward the exit. There was a substantial temperate shift as we transitioned from the steamy club to the winter air outside. I immediately hugged my elbows as my breath fogged the air. What I wouldn’t give to be bundled in a puffy coat and warm gloves, I thought. “Where’d you park?”
“Not far, just down this alley,” he answered.
“Let’s walk fast. I’m freezing.”
We hurried past stragglers waiting outside for the club to let out and smokers huddled together as clouds of smoke hung over them. We turned down the alley and were instantly met with a rush of people crowding around a fight and yelling. Before I realized what we were walking into, gunshots pierced the air. Suddenly, people scattered in a million different directions like roaches in the ghetto when the lights came on. I turned to my left to where Darren had been standing, only to see him running the opposite way for shelter. My eyes bugged.
“Darren? Darren, wait for me!” I screamed, jerking my head back to see guns drawn and aimed by strangers.
My leg muscles tightened. As ready to run as my mind was, the shakiness in my limbs prevented me from moving an inch. Unsure of what to do, my heartbeat raced, nearly exploding out of my chest. My heels beat the pavement hard, thundering toward safety when I tripped and fell to the ground. I belted out a scream as my bare knee scraped the pavement. Pain flared in my shoulder and hip. Before I could scramble to my feet, I was gathered into a set of warm, strong arms and shielded from the stray bullets piercing the icy winter air. My eyes doubled in size when I jerked my neck to see who’d grabbed me. To my surprise, my savior was no other than the sexy smart ass himself.
Coming on December 22nd!