I was going to finally man up and confront Natasha.
Natasha ~ Past
I MOVED THE STRAP OF my backpack up more securely on my shoulder, then let out a short breath as I fought for the courage to open the door.
I’d only been on campus for three days, and today was the first day of class.
I was terrified, felt completely awkward, and I missed my sisters.
“C’mon, Tash,” I muttered, then lifted my hand and pushed.
Voices chattered happily as I entered the lecture hall and glanced up, checking the wall clock to make sure I wasn’t late when I saw all the people that were already inside.
Nope, I was five minutes early.
I’d planned to be fifteen minutes early, but I’d spent five outside of the Math Complex, urging myself to enter, and another five in front of the classroom.
Not wanting to bring any sort of attention to myself, I moved to the right and started scooting past the chairs in the back row, with the intention of getting to the middle as quickly as possible, getting everything out of my bag, and sitting before anyone noticed me.
My head was down as I shuffled, my long chestnut hair falling around me, obscuring my face. Which was why I didn’t realize anyone else was in the row until large boots came into sight, just as I was tripping over them.
“Oh,” a male voice grunted, then I was being steadied by a pair of strong hands. “I’ve got you.”
I looked up, struggling to contain my mortification, then froze as lightning struck me on the spot.
He was tall, so very much taller than me, with dark hair and striking features. His hands on my arms felt like brands, and his eyes seemed to consume me with their intensity.
“You okay?” my dark stranger asked, his voice deep and thrilling to my ears.
“Uh, yeah, sorry,” I managed, although I’m not sure how.
I was captivated, mesmerized, staring up at him as he grinned slightly down at me.
He was obviously older, and a lot more confident than I was, and there was something about him that exuded strength. He had a sureness about him . . . I wasn’t sure how else to explain it.
“Take your seats,” I heard ordered from the front of the room, and knew our professor had arrived and was ready to start class.
Yet, I found it almost impossible to move.
Luckily, the deep-voiced man who was still holding me upright was still able to function, and he moved me to the side and turned me, then slid my backpack off of my shoulder and urged me to sit in the seat.
The seat next to his.
I sat with a thud, accepted my backpack, and opened it quickly, avoiding all eye contact with my neighbor as I pulled out my notebook, accounting book, and the bag that held my pens and pencils.
Once I had everything laid out, I shifted in my seat and tried to focus on what the professor was saying. It was extremely difficult though, because I was hyper aware of the long, jean-clad leg that kept brushing innocently against my bare leg.
Sparks flashed with each touch, and I fought to control my breathing and keep my gaze straight as I felt him watching me.
When I didn’t give him the attention he sought, although I did notice that the table in front of him was empty, no book, paper, or any sort of writing utensil, my stranger reached in front of me, zipped my pouch open slowly, and took a pen from inside.
I waited, unsure of what he was going to do but desperate to find out, then flinched slightly when his fingers brushed against my wrist as he turned it on the table. I felt the whisper of the pen on my flesh, then glanced down when my wrist was released.
That’s what he wrote on my wrist, his name. It felt like he’d written it on my soul, and I swear, I could still feel the heat of his fingers on my flesh.
Tap, tap, tap.
I glanced over to see my pen tapping on the table as he waited.
I gave one last glance at the professor, to make sure we weren’t about to be called out for not paying attention, then took the pen from Jericho’s hand and reached for his arm.
He turned it for me, so the underside of his forearm was facing up, and I braced myself as my hand made contact with his tanned skin. His forearm was strong, muscular, although not overly so. It was also soft and warm, and I found myself wondering what the rest of him would feel like.
Hoping my hair concealed the blush on my cheeks, I put the tip of the pen to his forearm and wrote, Natasha.
Before I could pull away, Jericho captured my hand in his, turned it, and wrote in my palm.
He’s asking me out? Is this real life?
I glanced around the room, sure that this was some sort of freshman hazing, where the mysteriously hot upperclassman found a naïve underclassman to mess with. It had to be a joke. Why else would a guy like Jericho be interested in taking a girl like me for coffee?
I’d grown up with my sisters as best friends, our father had left us when we were little, and our mother had raised us. The town I came from was small. So small that we knew we couldn’t get away with anything without our mother finding out, so we never tried.
That was part of the reason why I’d left home to go to school. Not just to get out on my own, but to actually live a little. To make decisions, good and bad, and to handle the consequences of those decisions on my own.
So, even though I was sure it was a joke, and I knew I might end up getting hurt or humiliated, I took the pen from his hand and wrote, yes, on his palm.
I dropped the pen then, turned away, and focused completely on what the professor was saying. I opened my book and took notes, all the time aware of Jericho next to me, and the fact that after class, I was going on my first college date with the hottest guy I’d ever seen.
It took all I had not to squeal out loud, but you can bet your bottom I was screaming on the inside.
It was time to start living.
Jericho ~ Present
I GOT UP EARLY, EARLIER than most, and although initially it had been because I was working to get my fledgling restaurant up and running, now it was a force of habit.
I’d already gone for a morning run, showered, and dressed for my day, now I needed coffee. I strode through my ranch-style home, glancing out the large, unencumbered windows to enjoy the view of my three acres, like I did each morning. It was a view I loved, and had never thought I’d ever be able to experience.
As a boy, I’d lived with the loud sounds of the city, wandering dirty streets, and learning how to take care of myself, while I fought not to get caught up in a way of life that could ruin any chance I had of ever getting out.
My mom was a junkie, strung out more often than not, and my father . . . a ghost.
When I was sixteen, I’d lived on my own in our one-room apartment. My mother had been serving one of her stints in jail, and I’d found a job working as a busboy in a local kitchen. The pay sucked, but they gave me free food, and let me work around my class schedule.
I’d come home late one night after my shift, eager to get in a shower and finish up my homework, so I could get at least a few hours of sleep. When I saw a strange car parked on our street, I’d thought nothing of it, even though it was obviously expensive.
We often had people of means stopping by to buy drugs or score a hooker from our complex, but when I got to my door, I was wary when I found a man in a suit leaning casually against it, his eyes on his phone.
“You lost?” I’d asked, trying to sound tough.
I was already taller than most men half my age, but I wasn’t looking for any trouble.
“Jericho Smythe?” the man asked, putting his phone in his pocket and looking me over.
“My name is Barnes, Clive Barnes, and I’m your grandfather’s lawyer,” the man replied.
“I don’t have a grandfather,” I said, then moved passed him to the door.
“Well, you did . . .” he said, and I turned to look at him, curios
ity getting the better of me.
“Did?” I asked.
“Your father’s father, Jerome Smythe, has unfortunately passed away.”
“You know my father?” I asked, unable to keep my cool at the possibility of finding out information on the man my mother refused to discuss.
“I did,” Mr. Barnes said, his tone cautious.
I didn’t notice his tone, however, as excitement coursed through me.
“Does he know about me? Can you tell me where he is?” I asked eagerly, all pretense gone.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Smythe, your father passed away about ten years ago.”
All hope fled me as a crushing sadness filled me. It may seem strange, to feel so forlorn over someone you’d never even met, but I’d always held on to the hope that one day my father would come for me, or I’d find him, and I’d be able to escape the life I’d been living.
“Oh,” I managed.
“Anyway, Mr. Smythe, what I’m here to tell you is that as your grandfather’s only living heir, you’ve come into a bit of money . . .”
A bit of money had been an understatement, as it turned out. Unwittingly, my father had helped me escape the life I’d been living, at least inadvertently. My mother hadn’t made it out of jail that time, instead getting more time added to her sentence, and leaving me to raise myself.
With my inheritance, I’d been able to go away to school and never look back. It had also given me the ability to follow my dreams and open my own restaurant, and to buy my house, on this land.
I didn’t take a bit of it for granted, and I was mostly happier than I’d ever been . . . except for that year in college when I’d had Natasha.
Newton, my black cat, ran out in front of me and jumped onto the kitchen counter, eager for breakfast. I’d never been able to have pets growing up, unless you counted the strays that were often in our alley, and although I’d always wanted a dog, my hours with Prime Beef had been insane and I didn’t feel right having a dog if I wasn’t home to be there for him.
Isaac Newton, on the other hand, was very self-sufficient, and often acted like this was his home and I was the pet, rather than the other way around. As long as I fed him and pet him when he was in the mood, all was good in our home.
“Morning, Newt,” I said as I started my Keurig, then bent to get his bowl and food.
Once he was fed, I put my coffee in a to-go mug and headed out, locking up as I did. People here always said that they never locked their doors, it being a small town and me living out in a pretty remote area, but being from Philly, I was a compulsive locker.
As I was driving down Main Street, my eyes went to Three Sister’s, as it always did, in hopes of catching a glimpse of Natasha. She was there, visible through their storefront window, sitting at a table by the window, alone, drinking coffee and looking down at something in front of her.
Rather than driving past and pulling behind Prime Beef to park as usual, I pulled in front of my restaurant, took a deep breath, and got out, and for the first time ever, I walked toward Three Sister’s, intent on going inside and confronting Natasha once and for all.
I left my coffee cup in the car, figuring the pretense of getting coffee was a good enough excuse for going inside, although I’d never done it before.
If the girl behind the counter knew who I was, or if she was surprised that I was there, she didn’t show it. Instead she welcomed me just as she did the other guests, and asked what I’d like to order.
Keeping my gaze forward, I had no idea if Natasha had noticed my entrance or not, since her back was to the door, and I found I needed a few seconds to try and calm my stormy pulse, before turning to her and approaching.
After what felt like mere seconds, my steaming coffee was in hand and I had no more reasons to stall, so I turned and started toward Natasha’s table, then froze when I saw a man sitting across from her, smiling and laughing at something she said.
Raging jealousy filled me, and I was torn between storming over there and challenging the stranger to a fight, and fleeing before she noticed I was there.
I was about to flee when the option was taken from me as I heard a female voice say, “Jericho?”
Natasha ~ Present
I WHIPPED MY HEAD AROUND, no longer hearing what Kalvin, my client, was saying, as soon as I heard Jericho’s name.
It can’t be, I assured myself. Jericho hadn’t stepped foot into Three Sister’s ever, there’s no way he’d be there now.
Except, he was.
I nearly choked when I saw his long frame turning away from me to focus on the woman who’d called him. It was him all right, tall, dark, sinfully good-looking, him.
He was already dressed for work, even though it was breakfast time and his restaurant didn’t open for another few hours. I noticed his hair looked perfectly tousled, and he was carrying one of our to-go cups.
I leaned to the side to get a better look, catching myself right before I toppled out of my chair.
“Hello, Mrs. Milstead, how are you?” Jericho was saying to the older woman who’d called out to him.
There was nothing covert about the way I was watching him. I was openly staring, gawking if you will, but luckily, he hadn’t noticed. I was too shocked to be aware of what I was doing, or to really hear what they were saying, until, like a foghorn, I heard, “Are you ready to stop playing coy and let me set you up with my Belinda? I just know you two sweethearts will get along smashingly.”
I must have gasped out loud, because Jericho’s head swung my way.
I turned back in my seat so fast I almost got whiplash, and could feel the surface of my skin turning red with embarrassment. I hoped he hadn’t seen me staring, even though I knew without a doubt that he had.
“Are you okay?” Kalvin asked, eyeing me with a knowing grin.
Kalvin and his fiancé, Malia, had hired us to cater their engagement dinner, and since Malia was currently away on business, Kalvin had been working with me to give them the engagement party of her dreams.
“Uh, yeah, sorry, what were you saying?” I asked, but Jericho was responding, rather loudly, and I tuned in to what he was saying.
“You know what, Mrs. Milstead, yes, I would love to take your daughter out. Why don’t you give me her number and I’ll set something up?”
My heart crumbled and I felt pain and anger radiating through me.
Did I have any right to be jealous? Obviously not . . .
Did I expect Jericho to be celibate since I’d left him? Ha, just the thought is laughable . . . Jericho is an extremely sexual man.
Does that mean it hurt any less to hear him making plans to go on a date with someone else, in my own place of business, no less? Nope, it hurt like a bitch.
Because, even if he hadn’t been celibate, I had, and even if I didn’t have a claim on him anymore, or the right to be jealous, I still was. Very much so. And although it didn’t make sense, and my actions would lead people to believe otherwise, I was still in love with Jericho, and had a feeling I always would be.
What we had was that all-consuming love. The kind where no one else ever measured up, and I knew I’d never be as happy with anyone, as I’d been with him. But, it was also the kind that took over your life, your heart, your mind, and didn’t leave room for anything else.
The destructive kind.
Which was why I stayed firmly facing Kalvin, unwilling to turn again and see if Jericho was watching me for a reaction
When I head the door jingle, signaling it had opened, Kalvin said, “He’s gone,” and I remembered how to breathe again.
“I’m sorry, Kalvin, could you excuse me for a moment?” I asked.
“Take all the time you need,” he replied gently, and I felt the prick at the back of my eyes and knew the dam was about to break.
I’d barely closed the office door behind me before I lost it. Silent sobs choked me as tears ran down my face.
“So stupid, Tasha,” I chastised myself. “Just forget about him . .
Even as I urged myself, I knew it was impossible, especially now with Millie and Jackson getting married, and Jericho and Jackson being friends.
I needed to get over this, get over him, once and for all.
He’d obviously moved on, and it was time for me to do so as well.
I took a few deep breaths, wiped my face, and freshened up my makeup. While I reapplied my lipstick, I promised myself that I was done being a coward. I’d go and see Jericho and clear the air between us once and for all.
Then, hopefully, I’d have the closure I needed to move on.
Decision made, I went back out to finish my meeting with Kalvin with the intention of having dinner at Prime Beef.
I’d never been there before, and I heard the steak sandwich with chimichurri was divine.
“I’m so sorry about that, Kalvin,” I said as I took my seat across from him.
“No problem,” Kalvin assured me. “Did I ever tell you how Malia and I met?”
I shook my head and forced a small smile.
“We were both on dates with other people,” he began, and I pushed all thoughts of my own romantic woes to the side to focus on Kalvin and Malia’s happily ever after.
Jericho ~ Past
I HADN’T MEANT TO ASK her out.
I had a strict no dating policy. I was there to learn, get my degree, and get out. My only goals: building the restaurant of my dreams, owning a place of my own, and connecting with people who I could truly count on.
I hooked up with girls, sure, I was a college junior after all, and I hung out with my buddies, went to parties . . . experienced college the way it should be experienced, but I never went too far. I was always in control and cognizant of my goals.
Then this tiny brunette, clutching her backpack like a lifeline, bumped into me and refused to meet my eyes.
I thought she was naïve, delicate, adorable, and utterly irresistible.
I didn’t know why, but I wasn’t ready to let her walk past me and ignore me for the rest of the semester, so I left all of my belongings in the seat at the end of the last row and walked towards her until she bumped into me, then I maneuvered it so that we were sitting next to each other.
A Touch of Cinnamon Page 2