Chapter 1: A Sturdy Foundation
“The truth,” Stephanie reached out to cradle her daughter’s head in her hands. They lay side by side on a bed Carly could only faintly remember shopping for as a newly formed tween. Back then Carly beamed with pride as her mother schooled her on the importance of selecting the right frame. “Do not be fooled by the luster of copper and gold” She remembered Stephanie instructing her. “You’ll find, in life a sturdy foundation will always keep you from feeling the lumps.” Now, Carly was all too familiar with her mother’s many lectures and lopsided metaphors. They were unsolicited, hackneyed, and tired by this point in their relationship.
“The truth,” Stephanie continued, “is love hurts more than any scraped knee or broken bone you will ever experience.”
Carly let a single tear fall past her cheek and Stephanie protectively wiped it away. “I am so sorry she hurt you.”
The she Stephanie spoke of, Lori Purifoy had dumped Carly with all the dignity and care that could be managed by a one sentence text message.
“You will heal from this.” Stephanie spoke with confidence to a daughter she was desperate to hold on to. Whatever her faults, she had no intention of being the sort of unfeeling parent her mother had been for her. She felt Stephanie’s body turning beside her, her daughter’s spine stiffened in a familiar way, the way she had trained her, the way that was intrinsic to all Carlisle’s. Even if Carly’s last name was Lancaster, Stephanie had always only viewed that as a formality and unrelated to the truth of her nature.
“I know” Carly finally spoke up with a mixture of confidence and menacing that left Stephanie an undeniable sense of pride.
“Mom, I know I said a life of politics wasn’t my thing…but “ Carly could see her mother trying unsuccessfully to hide the smile forming on her face. “Don’t get too excited” Carly cautioned. “I was just thinking maybe there is a middle ground.”
“Our family does so much charity work, so many good things for the community.” Carly stood up from the bed, she felt like she needed to show her mother she was capable of standing on her own two feet.
“But we’re not seeing nearly as much benefit as we could” She paused for a moment to study her mother’s face. Noting Stephanie’s ever-present skepticism, she corrected herself. “As we should.” Carly pulled out her phone and dove straight into her Instagram. “Mom, all the coverage on our family is about you yelling at randos and dad misappropriating funds…” Carly tried to scroll past the plethora of Lori pics before her mother spotted them, but it was no use. Lori was all over her feed and Stephanie’s eagle-trained eye wouldn’t have missed it for a second.
“You’re saying we need to put a face to our PR efforts?” Stephanie inquired.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying…someone who doesn’t have any skeletons in their closet, someone trained in performance and media…” Carly was teasing at this point, but Stephanie was fully on board.
“Someone like you” Stephanie finished. Sure she was happy to see her daughter pursuing something a little more stable than a career in entertainment, but she had not just fallen off the turnip truck. She knew exactly what Carly was after, and for once, she was more than happy to help her get it.
“You can start with a meet and greet at the community center. I’ll put you in touch with my stylist Bella.”
Stephanie stood behind her daughter, her hand firmly placed on Carly’s shoulder. She studied their reflections in the full-length mirror. Every day she saw a little bit more of herself. Still though, there was something uniquely Carly in that image. It was something Stephanie had lost long ago, something purely good, unaffected, unadulterated, just good.
Ever since she was little all Lori Purifoy wanted was to prove that she was worthy of the massive pharma kingdom she stood to inherit. She thought all she had to do was put in the work, prove that she could hang with the boys, and always, always beat them at their own game. She thought that was enough, enough for her father to see that she was the right choice. But, the more she worked, the more she bucked up against that long-standing boys club, the more she understood. Her father, much as he wanted to envision himself as a nu-age fair-minded male, was no different than any of the rest of the good-ol’-boys. He would never see her as a leader, and she’d be lucky if he ever let her strive past anything other than head of PR.
Lori tapped her fingers contemplatively against the whisky glass she’d been nursing for an hour while she watched the trend lines moving up and down on the company’s social media graphs. She wished she could call Carly. But that was no longer an option, Stephanie made sure of that. Instead, she went for her plan B, thinking all the while of how she’d previously hoped to no longer need a plan B.
“Alex” she called out to her assistant over the phone’s speaker. “I’m board.”
As soon as she spoke the words Alex, a petite woman sporting glasses and a clearly toned physique marched into Lori’s office looking glad to have been called. With her she brought a small case , the kind one might use to carry a small flute or piccolo.
“Why do you look so Surprised?” Lori wondered out loud.
Alex brought the case up to Lori’s desk making sure to close the blinds on her way over. “It’s just been a while” she explained as she opened the case to reveal a series of vials. “What’ll it be today?”
Lori studied the vials in front of her, some containing liquid, some containing powder, until she found one that suited her mood. Alex put the rest of the case away. Lori only clutched the vial, she wasn’t ready for what it meant. “Hold on.” She told herself as Alex removed her glasses. “Hold on” she repeated internally while the other woman removed her top. “Hold on” and she could feel the heat of the other woman’s body crawling up to meet her legs underneath her desk.
She welcomed Alex to the space between her thighs. Her hand still clutched the vial. She’d invented her own version of Russian Roulette where the stakes were higher because she’d been addicted to the bullets. But it was what she needed, to prove that she was stronger than her prior bad acts, that she could hold poison in the palm of her hand and not be owned by it. Lori’s head tilted back as Alex found her way to Lori’s center.
She forced herself to stay focused on the ride. Even as her mind started to wander toward Carly. “Hold on” she repeated until she finally came and her body shook softy with satisfaction. Her thighs contracted around Alex’s head until she mustered enough strength to tap her young assistant on the head like a toddle that’d finished their meal. “Good job” Lori sighed.
Alex got up from under the desk and quickly straightened up. She held out her hand expectantly. Lori finally let go of the still-full vial and returned it to Alex who carefully placed it back in the case from which it came. “You know, parties are a lot less fun without the party favors” Alex teased.
Lori pulled Alex in close to her, the smell of her love still present on the other woman’s lips. “This isn’t about fun.” Lori paused, making sure to lick the last remnants of her juices away from Alex’s mouth. “It’s about power.” With that, Alex walked out. Lori wasted no time ogling the other woman’s well-crafted backside as she exited. It was almost distracting enough to keep her from noticing the alert on her phone, but not quite. Lori picked up her cell and scrolled through her notifications only to be greeted by the sight of Carly Lancaster wearing a meticulously crafted outfit that was just revealing enough to arouse, but not so tantalizing as to detract from Carly’s oh so important good-girl image. Underneath the picture the caption read:
“Meet and Greet with Carly Lancaster at the District Ten Community Center Win a Date with Atlanta’s First Daughter #Pride365”
Chapter 2: In a Twist
Carly embraces her role as the face of the family's community outreach while flexing her muscles in a contest of wills with her father.
For the past five days Carly’s mentions were full of speculation and pledges of support. Local media were hounding her for a definitive statement on her own sexuality, but, per her mother’s advice, she remained vague, only reaffirming her support for the local LGBTQ community and encouraging people to show up and donate. They were generating a lot of buzz, well Carly was, and Stephanie was glad to have her daughter’s assistance in distracting attention away from Amara Hughes’ investigation into the family finances.
Carly was so pleased with herself she hardly noticed when her dad Evan came storming up to her as she prepped for a press conference in front of her aunt Rondell’s restaurant.
He clutched a newspaper clipping angrily in his hands. “Baby girl, what is this?” he demanded as he slammed the article on top of the podium that divided them.
“Dad!” Carly whispered cautiously. Her eyes scanned the article her father had confronted her with. It was the OpEd she’d written on the rate of LGBT homelessness in Atlanta. “There are cameras here” she cautioned.
Evan bit his lip, suddenly remembering his surroundings. He drew from within himself to find the falsified smile he’d crafted into perfection. He leaned in close to his daughter and tapped on the podium microphones to ensure they were still off.
“You wanna support social issues, I’m all for it, believe me.” He huffed out hot air in frustration. “But, you run it by me first.” Evan looked around him at the place he used to call home, feeling every bit the interloper he now was. “Now, Mrs. Dorothy Dandridge, figure out a way to cancel this shit without making me look bad.”
Evan turned to walk away fully expecting his daughter to comply, the way she always had. But instead he heard the camera crew calling lights up and counting down. His daughter’s voice broke the silence.
“Nearly a third of all homeless people in the city of Atlanta identify as members of the LGBTQ community.” Carly paused for dramatic effect. “Nearly a third” she repeated. “That’s an increase of almost thirty percent in a five-year period.”
Something about the conviction with which Carly spoke caused Evan to pause. “Members of our community, Atlantans just like you and me struggle every day with the dilemma and the stigma of deciding whether the consequences of living an authentic life will be worth it for them.”
Evan watched as many in the small camera crew and the restaurant patrons who had gathered to watch began to nod their heads in agreement.
“While I’m lucky enough to have the support of my family and access to resources,” The camera crew instinctively shot to Evan who couldn’t move fast enough to avoid being seen. “Many others are not. In an effort to combat the socioeconomic divisions that negatively affect our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, Please join me and the wonderful volunteers at the District 10 Center this Friday. We’ll be auctioning off a date with me, as well as a five-course family dinner catered by my aunt Rondell.
Carly was preparing to wrap when she suddenly felt her father’s hand placed flatly on her back. She turned to see his jaw squared and his lips pursed. He was prepping to steal the show.
“I’m very proud of the work my daughter is doing to combat this issue in our great city. As a show of support the mayor’s office is offering up a summer internship. We look forward to seeing you all out there.”
Carly knew better than to be fooled. She’d seen her father at work, she knew he had something else in mind. Once the lights went down and the cameras were off, she did not hesitate to demand an explanation.
“Way to steal the spotlight dad, what are you up to?”
“What? I can’t offer a show of support?” Evan smiled with almost no effort to hide the duplicity in his thoughts. “You should post this to your SnapFace, or FaceChat…I’m not up on the vernacular, but I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
Evan prepped to leave again. But something stopped him in his tracks. He turned to face his daughter one last time. “And honey, next time you want to come out to me, just know you don’t need a damn camera crew to protect you.” He stepped closer, just enough to ensure Carly could see his sincerity. “I love you, and that will never change.”
With that, Evan walked off leaving Carly to feel a small twinge of guilt for not trusting her dad enough to come out to him personally.
Evan waited all of a full minute after entering his town car to put in a call with the chief of police.
Daniel, “Danny” O’Rourke sat behind his desk staring at the phone with disdain, hating the fact that the mayor treated him as nothing more than a personal errand boy, and hating even more that there was little he could do to change the dynamic.
“Hey Danny, it’s me Evan. Listen I need a favor” A short pause followed.
Danny sighed, anticipating a big ask. “What is it now Evan?”
Evan could sense the frustration and did his best to Assuage Danny’s fears. “How’s your girl Monica?”
But Danny was in no mood for small talk. “Evan, stop dicking around, and keep my daughter’s name out of your corrupted mouth.”
“Okay, okay. Simmer down Sparky” Evan mocked. “It’s nothing big, I promise. Just some silliness with my daughter. How good is your guy in computer crimes?”
Carly could not wait to go home and show the finished video package to her mother. She’d just picked it up from the editor and it turned out far better than she’d expected. She must have played the 90-second-long spot at least five times before she even walked through the door. And, if she was being completely honest, it felt great to finally have something she and her mother could bond over.
She was so excited in fact, that she rushed over to her mom’s home office space, completely ignoring the fact that Stephanie was presently engaged in a meeting of the minds with her grandmother.
“Mom, you have got to see this.”
Irene raised an eyebrow, causing Carly to suddenly remember her place. “Sorry grandma. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Carly paused to allow them to continue whatever it was they’d been deliberating before she arrived. But Irene conceded the floor. “Go ahead dear,” she insisted, feigning conversational fatigue. “We could use the distraction.
Carly pressed play on the video and let them both watch. At the video’s conclusion Stephanie seemed pleased as punch.
“Honey, I do love getting your father’s knickers in a twist” she smiled. At the comment Irene raised a shocked eyebrow. “Oh don’t play dumb mother, you know as well as anyone else that my marriage to Evan is not without its complications.”
Irene paused, not wanting to comment on the abrupt and public revelation of her granddaughter’s sexual identity. “I’ll leave that to god” she told herself. “Well, at least it’ll distract from the nonsense investigation Amara Hughes and the DA’s office just announced” she offered. Then as if biting into a fruit hanging low on the vine she added “But Carly, honey, do you really have to offer yourself up like some common escort available to the highest bidder? It’s not very becoming.”
Carly smiled her grandmother’s concerns away. “It’s just for fun grandma, it’ll be a prearranged night on the town with cameras following. Nothing untoward, I promise.”
As Carly walked away Stephanie mouthed a silent thank you to her mother for refraining from voicing her personal objections to Carly’s sexuality.
“Stephanie, sweetheart, I’m of another generation perhaps, but she’s still blood. No need to be cruel if it serves no purpose.”
Stephanie wanted to get back on the soapbox she’d been on before Carly arrived, but she knew it was no use. She knew Irene agreeing to bite her tongue was the best she could hope for in the moment.
Carly sat up in her room trying and failing to post the press packet to her Insta account. The video upload kept hanging and getting rejected. When she finally tried logging out and logging back in, she received a message saying
Account temporarily suspended pending investigation
She could have kicked herself for not seeing this coming. She knew her dad was up to something. But, she was sure that he’d underestimated her as well. Carly was nothing if not resourceful, a trait she’d picked up from her father. She was going to get that video posted. Better still, she was going to make her dad wish he’d never tried to silence her.
Chapter 3: Window Shopping
Carly finds a way to outsmart her dad while Stephanie's plotting seems to be paying off. But an unexpected visit from Lori may throw everything off course.
It was entirely too easy for Carly to convince her dad's secretary to let her in to his office unattended. Worse still, he hadn't changed his password after she'd lectured him multiple times about the importance of online security. So, posting her press packet with the hashtag #FamilyPride to all of her dad's @MayorLancaster accounts was easier than she'd anticipated. The hard part was the three days of lectures and brooding she had to put up with after the fact. Bu there was nothing Evan could do. If he took the videos down, it would only lead to negative speculation and a torrent of questions he didn't need and didn't want at the moment.
Things rolled along uninterrupted but the plan had become much larger than some minor side project for Carly and Stephanie to bond over. The more social media attention Carly got, the more her family members felt the need to add their input and exercise some level of control over the looming event. None was more vocal than Carly's grandmother Irene. “Stephanie, tell me you’re sure Chief O’Rourke’s mulatto love child was placed on Carly’s security detail.”
“Of course I am mother, I’m nothing if not thorough.” Stephanie waved off her mother's nagging. "And I certainly cannot afford to leave my daughter in the hands of that Purifoy witch."
“Well, just be sure she actually shows up” Irene insisted. Irene was not about to leave anything to chance, but she hadn’t counted on Carly overhearing.
“Make sure who shows up?” Carly demanded.
Irene looked uncharacteristically startled, but Stephanie quickly covered for her. “Your security detail of course. Honey you’re a bit of a public figure now. We can’t afford to leave any stone unturned.”
There were twenty-four hours before the meet and greet, but the way her family had been going back and forth with each other it felt like it would be ages before the whole spectacle was over with. She could barely breathe without having to sit through another debate or demand from someone. Everyone wanted to change things or cancel the whole event all together. Everyone except, surprisingly, her mother. Instead of fighting with them she shot her grandmother an untrusting look, then announced to no one in particular "I'll be in my room, if anyone even cares what I'm actually doing."
As soon as she was out of earshot Evan came stomping into the room demanding one last time that Stephanie cancel the event. "You have to pull the plug Steph, if I do it she'll think it's because I disapprove..."
Stephanie raised an eyebrow in shock. She figured of all people Evan had no room to judge anyone else's sexual preferences. "Well, do you? Because, honey..."
"No, of course not!" Evan insisted. "But there are bigger things at stake."
“Darling, what is all the fuss about?" Stephanie patted Evan on the shoulder for reassurance. "Carly is a hot commodity now, one we can use to our mutual advantage.”
Evan pounded his fist against the adjacent wall. He was trying to restrain himself but it was so hard sometimes with Stephanie. She could be so infuriatingly dismissive.
“Stephanie, this is not about Carly and you know that. I just had to plead with Rev. Price not to pull his endorsement. “
“Once again Evan, you’re thinking far too small" Stephanie scoffed.
“Small?!” Evan laughed incredulously. “Rev. Price means a five-point bump in the polls. He’s basically the black vote in the city.” He clenched his jaw, “There’s nothing small about that.” Evan stood firm “Talk to your daughter Steph,” he demanded. “Call this thing off.”
But Stephanie was not one to be told what to do. And she surely wasn't going to be made to do her husband's dirty work for him. “Rev. Price WAS the black vote Evan. The only people who still follow his influence are old church ladies.”
“You mean like your mother?” Evan couldn’t resist the jab.
At that, Stephanie decided it was time to reveal the full scale of her motives. She hoped it would be enough to bring Evan fully on board. “Here you are quibbling over five points when I have the ability to deliver ten points your way" There was a lingering scent of something delightfully menacing in Stephanie's tone as she finished, "If everything goes to plan"
“How in the hell are you going to do that?” Evan scoffed.
“The police officer’s union, obviously.” Stephanie staked her claim matter-of-factly as if it was just a thing that was going to happen out of the clear blue sky.
Evan scoffed his disbelief again. “There’s no way you can pull that off. Danny O’Rourke hates our family.”
Stephanie, feeling newly enraged by her husband’s lack of confidence in her skills, leveled her palm flatly and swiftly against the side of his face. “First things first hubby, don’t ever doubt me like that again. Secondly, Danny O’Rourke hates you. THAT, my dear Evan, is a very important distinction.”
Evan pretended to be upset about the slap, but it was useless. Stephanie knew him too well, especially the perverse side of him that needed desperately to be put in his place. He turned his face away from her in shame. Stephanie couldn’t help teasing him, she felt oddly comforted in her knowledge of his weaknesses. “I do so miss the sound of you begging at my feet like a dog Evan. But pick your tongue up off the floor.” Stephanie scolded. “And call one of your glorified concubines to clean up the drool.”
Finally the day of the event had arrived. The room was lined wall-to wall with every big name in the city. The gym must have maxed out at around a thousand people. Between the crowd and all the camera equipment, Carly worried they'd have to start turning people away. She was unmistakably proud of herself for having pulled off an event of this magnitude in such a short time frame, her mother's assistance notwithstanding. She probably could have done without the rainbow themed balloons and streamers, but all-in-all, it was better than she'd expected. The only thing putting a damper on her self-congratulatory celebration was the complete drip of a security detail they'd assigned to her for the evening. She couldn't budge three inches without Officer O'Rourke monitoring and following after her.
"Ever hear of a space bubble?" Carly complained. "I mean, I know everyone's mugging to grab a photo with me, but damn, can I breathe!"
“You think I want to be here?” Officer O'Rourke laughed at the assumption. “Trust me I’ve got far more important work to do that does not involve babysitting you.” She, of course was referring to the fact that her father pulled her from her first night patrol in order to assign her to Carly's little exercise in narcissism. But Carly couldn't possibly know that. Not that Monica thought she would care even if she did know. "The name's Monica, by the way" Officer O'Rourke offered smartly.
“So go then” Carly insisted. “I’m not chaining you down.”
“Would if I could, but uh…” Monica pointed to three men huddled in the back corner of the room stealing glances at Carly. “See those three creepers over there. They’ve been eyeing you for half an hour and have yet to bid on a single item.”
“Probably just window shopping” Carly dismissed.
“Yeah I thought that too, but that one in the track suit hasn’t taken a single sip out of that Styrofoam cup he’s been holding.” Monica stared them down leaving Carly to think the young cop had totally lost it. But Monica was just overly perceptive. She’d earned the respect of her peers because of it. So, if her gut told her a person holding on to a cup full of liquid without even once drinking from it had other plans for the contents of that cup, she knew she was right.
The room was a buzz with so much chatter and so many people moving around eager to place bids, It was understandable no one paid any attention to the oddballs huddled up in a corner to themselves. The three gentlemen made their way over to Carly and introduced themselves in unison. “Hey Carly, we just wanted to say we think it’s great what you’re doing here.”
Carly turned her attention to Monica “See, they’re harmless.”
“Thank you, I’m glad you guys made it out. Hopefully, you’ll be making a donation. We’ve got multiple auctions going on.”
“Oh, most definitely” the guy in the middle spoke up. “And, uh, one other thing”
“What’s that?” Carly implored. Had she been paying attention she would have noticed the shift in his tone. But that was Monica's job.
The guy in the middle lunged forward, but Monica blocked him off taking the full brunt of the liquid he hurled toward Carly while shouting “Mayor Lancaster’s a punk-ass bitch.”
Carly jumped up from the table in shock. The liquid turned out to be red paint and Monica was dripping in it.
Monica was quick to run after the bastards but Evan held her off, insisting his security detail had it under control. Instead, he directed her toward the restrooms so that she could clean herself up. He wasn't completely convinced his wife's plan would pay off, but he'd already told Rev. Price to piss off, so there was no other choice but to bet on Carly and Monica hitting it off. Though, from the looks of things, they were butting heads more than anything else.
Carly, finally managing her way out of her dazed trance, put on a smile and followed after Monica to ensure she was okay. On her way she’d grabbed a mustard colored jumpsuit from Bella. It was accented with bold gold zippers. Not exactly Monica’s style from what Carly could tell. But it was the only item on the rack not specifically tailored for someone else.
When Carly arrived at the restroom, she found Monica unbloused, with her hair down, her chest dripping with the water she’d clearly been trying to salvage her uniform with.
“Like what you see?” Monica laughed after catching Carly staring for entirely too long.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…here.” Carly stammered while nervously handing over the jumpsuit she’d brought with her.
“Yeah, I’m not wearing that” Monica declared dismissively while still trying to wipe the paint out of her uniform.
“Doesn’t look like you’ve got better options” Carly teased.
After looking down and realizing she’d actually made the mess in front of her worse, Monica relented. “Fine.” She made quick work of stripping away her uniform and dawning the jumpsuit that fit her surprisingly well. She even managed to strap her belt around the waste without it sagging or falling off as she walked. “How do I look?” she asked.
“Like a badass” came Carly’s honest answer.
Lori's initial plan was just to be a casual observer, just there to make sure Carly's big shindig hadn't hit any snags. Thus far she'd done a pretty damn good job of mingling without being noticed too. She simply sipped on her drink did a couple rounds of chitchat and then spun back into the crowd without even once approaching the guest of honor. That was, of course, until the incident with the paint sent Carly whizzing right by her chasing after the commissioner's brat. She didn't even turn her head. Didn't notice Lori as she zipped right past and nearly knocked her drink out of her hand. That, from Lori's perspective, was simply unacceptable. So, when she spotted the two of them jonting out of the restroom together, suddenly thick as thieves, she decided it was only right to make a proper introduction.
“What happened to being a serious thespian” Lori joked as she made her way over to the bidder's table. “I mean, this isn’t exactly the London Theatre.”
“We all make compromises. I'm sure you're familiar with the sentiment” Carly shot back.
“Yeah, but not you. You’re supposed to be real” Lori insisted. But Carly was in no mood to be lectured by a woman who couldn't even give her an honest answer about their break up.
“I am real. Can’t get any more real than coming out on camera" Carly snorted. "And, like you should be the one telling me to be more authentic?”
“Look around you” Lori spun a judgmental finger in the air, pointing toward all the cameras, staging, and strangers. “What part of this is supposed to be authentic?”
“Are you going to buy a ticket?" Monica finally interjected. "Cause if not, you’re holding up the line.”
Lori made quick work of sizing the other woman up. But she decided she couldn't take a cop in a yellow jumpsuit seriously.
“How much" she asked with her attention squarely focused on Carly.
“Ouch, that’s kinda steep” Lori teased. She then took out her checkbook and quickly scribbled fifty-thousand in the amount field. The volunteer worker who was sitting next to Lori nearly shot his eyes out of his head when he saw the amount.
“How many tickets will that get me?” Lori asked.
“All of them” the volunteer interjected before anyone could say anything, earning himself a jab in the side from Carly.
“Matty’s being hyperbolic” Carly tried to play it down. “But it is a very generous donation” she conceded.
“Anything for the community, right?” Lori let the words slip playfully from her mouth before walking away. She didn't bother looking back. The unmistakable heat of a particular set of eyes watching her as she exited stage left was all the confirmation she needed. She still had Carly, no matter what. Nothing Stephanie had done to push them apart could keep that from being true.
Chapter 4: A Rock and a Hard Place
The winner of the raffle is finally announced. But will anyone care when all hell breaks loose?
When things fell apart in the Lancaster family, they tended to do so in extravagantly spectacular fashion. While everything had been proceeding rather smoothly, Carly's meet and greet was no exception to the family rule. This time, the unraveling all started with a little boy and a purple balloon.
They'd just called the winner of Rondell's catered meal and Carly's aunt reacted in typical fashion to the news that Greg Peters had even dared to bid in the first place. "I am not cooking for that man Stephanie" Rondell declared in defiance.
"Oh come on, Evil villains need soul food too" Greg mocked while chasing after Rondell. In the background amidst the adults chatting and waiting for the next raffle to be announced, several kids had started pulling balloons off the walls and tossing them up in the air. They were playing that game where everyone tries to keep all the balloons in the air without letting any of them fall to the ground. It was a perfect metaphor for how Stephanie was feeling at the moment. She just needed everything to go exactly right. Which is why she had no time to deal with Rondell and her latest tantrum.
Meanwhile Carly was doing an amazing job of being a charming hostess. She was doing so well, in fact, that she hardly noticed when Monica stepped off to confront a scruffy faced portly man with graying red hair who had immediately started sizing everyone up as soon as he stumbled into the room.
“Commissioner!” she called out to him with irritation heavy in her tone. “What are you doing here?”
“What happened to dad?”
“I’m on the job. Don’t tell me you came down here to babysit the babysitter.”
At Monica’s last comment, Danny became visibly ruffled. No matter what he tried, it seemed he could never get it right with Monica. She was either demanding that he back off, or chastising him for not doing enough when she was younger. “I came down here to show face, support a good cause.” He pulled a raffle ticket from his breast pocket and handed to Monica. “See, I even got you a ticket.”
But Monica wasn’t in the mood for daddy-daughter bonding time on the job. "It's not enough you stick me with this crap assignment" Monica barked. Despite herself she couldn’t keep her voice at an even keel. "Did you really have to storm over here throwing your weight around?"
“I had some free time” Danny interjected. “I just wanted to see you in action is all.”
"Why,” Monica fumed. “because someone threw paint at your little girl?" There was a pregnant pause as Monica waited for Danny to deny it. But no such denial ever came. "How am I supposed to get any respect with you constantly stepping on my toes?"
Back at the bidding table, Carly was busy trying to spot where in the crowd Lori had disappeared to. But it was like a colorblind person playing Where's Waldo. After tracing the same square so many times it made her eyes sore, Carly decided to distract herself with something else, anything else. Eventually, her attention landed on the balloon game. By Carly’s count there were now a baker’s dozen of balloons randomly bouncing up and down in the air. This she knew because every time one floated her way, she would do her part by tossing it right back up toward the ceiling.
At the center of the room Evan was in the middle of a heated exchange with Stephanie and Irene. “You didn’t tell me they were going to throw paint at her”
“Calm down Evan, it was just paint.”
“Stephanie it was paint thrown at my daughter. I’ve broken bones for less.”
“She didn’t suffer a drop” Irene interjected. “Monica saw to that.”
“I’m not playing these games with you Stephanie. You better clean this shit up.” Evan demanded with a pop of his collar.
But the more Evan demanded the more it made Stephanie want to be less compliant.
“Evan, sweetie. How many times do I have to explain that this is my game. You’re just lucky I let you collect two-hundred dollars every time you pass Go.”’
Senior started clinking a metal fork against his beer bottle. But with all the hollering and various arguments, hardly anyone heard him. “Listen up!” He instructed with as much projection as he could muster. “Listen up!” Still, hardly anyone turned an eye. Frustrated, Senior decided he'd try his luck from atop one of the tables.
"I said LISTEN UP!" he tried one last time. This time he had everyone's attention, especially Rondell.
"Daddy, get down from there before you hurt yourself."
"Well," Senior started, "We have officially surpassed our goal of $250,000." He paused to allow everyone time to applaud. "I'm gonna let everyone get back to what they was doing. But first it's time for what y'all all came here for." Everyone laughed in acknowledgment. "The piece-de-resistance, the big finish, the grand finale draw."
Stephanie just knew that Senior would have gone on forever if someone didn't stop him. Really, her finding a microphone and cutting senior off was an act of mercy. At least, that's what Stephanie told herself. As they wheeled out the spinning barrel, Stephanie stepped forward
"Thank you all for your generous contributions. Some, more generous than others." She started to spin the barrel full of tickets. Carly watched as she did, the whole time thinking of Lori's words "What part of this is supposed to be authentic?" At least half the tickets in that barrel belonged to Lori. She hadn't seen a single person other than Lori purchase more than a hundred tickets. There was no way for anyone else could win. Sure, it wasn't exactly even odds, or fair, but hey, at least she wouldn't have to suffer through a night with some rando.
She was schooled in the art of putting on a good show, but inside, Stephanie was jumping with unbridled glee at the feet she was just seconds away from pulling off. She opened the barrel’s latch, pulled the door open and stuck her hand in. “Ladies and gentlemen, the winner of the date with my beautiful daughter is none other than…” Stephanie drew a ticket “Ticket number 65244!”
A steady stream of disappointed sighs followed. After a while, when no one else was stepping forward, Lori presumptively emerged from the crowd.
“Who in the hell let that gutter trash in here?” Stephanie muttered under her breath.
Carly stood from the table and smiled as she leaned forward to hug Lori.
“Do you have the matching ticket?” Stephanie demanded of Lori. “We can’t confirm anything without a matching ticket.”
“Are you kidding me, I bought all the tickets. Well close to all.” Lori insisted.
Out of curiosity, Monica reached into her belt and pulled out the one ticket her father had given her. She nearly hit the floor after reading the number off in her head. Stephanie wasted no time taking note of Monica’s facial expression.
“Monica dear, you look stunned. Do you have something to share.”
Though Monica could smell something fishy from a mile away, she felt pressed between a rock and a had place. Something in her just did not want to see Lori win.
“I, ugh, I have the winning ticket” Monica stammered, her voice shaking with indecision. She walked forward and displayed the ticket for both Lori and Stephanie to confirm.
At the sight of the ticket Lori stormed off. “You have got to be kidding me!” she hissed, making sure to flip Stephanie off as she stomped away.
Monica couldn’t help but notice the sudden change in Carly’s facial expression. She felt bad, but there wasn’t much time for explaining or apologizing because Stephanie was already grabbing her arm and pulling her into a photo-op.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Stephanie announced. “Monica O’Rourke, our lucky winner!”
Stephanie insisted on a photo of Monica and Carly hugging. It was exactly as awkward as hugging someone who was clearly disappointed to be stuck with you should be. Monica decided to use the photo-op as an opportunity to clue Carly in.
“I don’t actually want to go.” She tried. “So, you don’t have to worry about that.”
But that did nothing to change Carly’s cold shoulder. “Yeah, I’d hate for you to be stuck with a crap assignment any longer than need be” she retorted. Her mother had always teased her for being a softie, and Carly was sure on some level that Stephanie had a point. But that didn’t take away from the fact that she’d thought they connected in the restroom. Not that she needed a bestie, but she at least thought they respected each other.
Carly was still posing for pictures with Monica but her eyes were fixed on Lori exiting toward the parking garage. Even after Lori was good and gone Carly couldn’t help glancing wistfully toward the exit sign.
A single purple balloon came floating by and Carly reached up to bop it back up, Monica stretched her hand out at the same time so that they were both responsible for keeping it afloat. The sudden flash of a camera distracted them and the balloon came tumbling downward.
“Perfect” the camera man declared, admiring the image he’d managed to capture of Monica and Carly seeming to work together wordlessly.
A little boy ran forward to catch the balloon before they let it fall. But in his haste, he slipped on a loose floor board. Carly took notice and jumped out to brace the little boy’s fall. She got to him just before his head hit the ground. However, the balloon could not be saved. It hit the ground just before the little boy and his foot landed atop of it, popping it instantly.
At the sound, half the room panicked and hid under the available tables. Some men suffering from excess testosterone drew weapons they had previously been concealing. Even Monica had her hand on her holster for half a second.
“Relax everyone” Carly instructed. “It was just a balloon.”
An alert buzzed on Carly’s phone. It was Lori.
Meet in the garage when you’re ready. I’m not good at being patient.
As a result, Carly had to make quick work of making sure the little boy was okay before she darted off to the parking garage without giving Monica an opportunity to object.
When she got to the garage, she found Lori standing at the center, her hair tossed to the side, looking every bit her usual overly confident self. But Carly knew better. All that bravado was just an act, an act Carly had been bending over backward to peel away.
“What do you want?” Carly demanded
“Isn’t it obvious?” Lori scoffed. “I want you, Carly.” Without another word she marched forward and pulled Carly in to her by the hips. She kissed her swiftly and forcefully. Lori felt pleasantly surprised to have Carly return the kiss. “I missed you.”
“It’s been two weeks” Carly laughed. She could barley hold it together with the way Lori was tracing every exposed inch of her skin with her lips.
Lori had her hands tucked inside the waistband of Carly’s pants. She made quick work of teasing her fingers downward until she could feel the entrance of Carly’s lips. At the touch of Lori’s fingers Carly jumped excitedly. No matter how much she protested, the two weeks had been torture for her too.
Lori would never tell Carly, but Carly Lancaster had a tell right before she was going to climax. Without failure, no matter what position, she would always find a way to bite Lori’s neck. It didn’t take much after the neck bite for Lori to finish her off. So, this time, when Lori was fingers deep inside of Carly and she felt the tell-tale love bite, Lori pulled out immediately. This all to Carly’s confusion and disappointment.
“Don’t stop” she begged. But Lori shook her head in protest teasingly.
“Don’t go on the date” Lori whispered into Carly’s ear.
“What?” Carly blurted with genuine confusion.
Lori simply repeated her demand. “Do not go on the date.”
“I have to, it’s for charity.” In a fit of frustration Carly tried to finish herself off. But Lori stopped her.
“As hot as you doing that is, I can’t let you off that easy.” Lori explained while snatching Carly’s hands away.
“Apparently not” Carly shot back.
Lori had her hands tightly pinned to her sides so Carly couldn’t move them unless Lori let her. She carefully maneuvered to remove Carly’s belt then used the belt to wrap her hands together. As a result, Carly’s pants slipped down just enough to expose her underwear.
“Freak” Carly hissed.
“You mean, you don’t like it?” Lori mocked, knowing full well that Carly loved it.
That much was true. Carly was loving every bit of Lori’s naughty antics. However, she couldn’t shake the feeling of something nagging at her. As much as she wanted Lori, she also needed an explanation. Somehow, standing in a public parking garage with her pants down and her hands tied up didn’t feel like a position from which she could argue her case. She knew, the only way to get Lori to listen was to make a power move of her own.
Chapter 5: Alternatives
Carly reflects on the the night she shared with Lori before their split.
This update is shorter. Ill be writing the rest soon though, so hope y'all keep reading.
The last time they were together was the night before the infamous text message. Lori had called saying that a friend of hers was holding an exclusive gallery viewing and she wanted Carly to be her plus one. Initially, Carly was surprised. She'd been begging Lori for what felt like forever for a night out. But trying to reason with Lori oftentimes felt like trying to swim through a rapid current. Every time she thought she was getting somewhere, Lori would come in like a fire hose and push her all the way back. In that way, Lori was a lot more like her mother than Carly cared to admit. So it should have been no surprise when they arrived to the sight of a gallery devoid of any other people.
“I thought you said this was a viewing” Carly questioned.
“I said exclusive viewing” Lori reminded before giving Carly a reassuring kiss on the cheek.
“Since when did exclusive become synonymous with private?” Carly continued to gripe, despite the fact that they’d already started touring the gallery. But Lori had already anticipated Carly’s dissatisfaction. Although she played at being annoyed she thought it was kind of cute how pure Carly seemed to be in her intent.
“Is that Ryan Howard’s The Evolution of Woman?” Carly asked with unmasked Glee. She’d tried to see the sculpture live when it was first unveiled at the City Arts in the Park festival, but, due to yet another of her mother’s endless feuds, she was barred from attending. By the time the festival ended, the artist had his sculpture moved out of state.
“I personally find it reductive. But I thought you should have a chance to see for yourself.” Lori was watching from behind as Carly examined the piece. She was in awe, but not of the sculpture, and if she were being completely honest, that scared the shit out of her. “So, what do you think?”
“I kind of like it” Carly admitted, to Lori’s surprise.
“It’s ironic. The evolution of the modern female experience as depicted through the male gaze.”
“It’s a depiction of women as objects, as nothing more than an extension of man…”
Lori was on the verge of soap boxing when Carly turned around and kissed her. “I love that you are not afraid to disagree with me.”
The wall adjacent to the sculpture featured a massive painting featuring the signature motion blure technique that Lyn X was so find of. By the time Carly made it over to the painting though, Lori already had her pinned against the wall.
“So, was this your plan all along.”
“Maybe” Lori teased while pinning Carly’s hands over her head.
“you do like controlling the narrative.” Carly let her body go limp so that she could wiggle her way away from Lori. “if this is just sex for you, we don’t need to be here” she relented. “I don’t appreciate my time being wasted.”
“Are you kidding me right now?” Lori despite her better angels could not hide the fact that she hated being iced out. “ It was nearly impossible to find all of your favorite artists. Not to mention the fact that I even remembered who they were.” Lori looked around at all the exhibits, the one's she'd carefully selected over a period of months. “You really think I did all this for sex?”
“You literally had me pinned against the wall just now Lori”
“I didn’t mean for that to happen” Lori offered sincerely.
But Carly was still confused, so she persisted. “What does that mean, it was an accident? Your mouth tripped and fell on top of my lips?”
Lori thought long and hard about what to do. She knew she could lie. She was good at it afterall. She’d lied so we’ll in fact, that it took Juniper two years before she even suspected Lori of having a drug problem. Two whole years of Lori seemingly spinning out of control before either one her parents attributed her behavior to anything other than youthful indiscretion. Lori didn’t want to lie to Carly, shed been trying so hard to keep her walls up, she didnt realize how badly she needed them to fall, just this once at least.
“I’ve been” she started before hesitating to finish. “I’ve been to rehab.” Lori studied Carly’s face for a reaction but couldn’t find anything. “It was a long time ago.”
“You’re an addict?” Carly questioned.
Lori fought hard to measure her words. She never called herself an addict and she hated when other people did. “I had a problem a long time ago, and I got help. Traditional rehab didn’t exactly work, so I found alternative therapies.”
“But how can you work for your dad’s company when…”
Lori could already sense where Carly’s line of reasoning was headed.
“I didn’t get an MBA from Emory to please my parents, or as a way to gain access to pills. I’m damn good at my job, and hell, I even like it most of the time.” Carly started to relax a little, at least enough to let Lori touch her again. “What I do saves lives. It saved my life anyway” Lori finished with her hands once again wrapped around Carly.
“So, what are your alternatives?” Carly’s question was one of genuine curiosity.
“Well, there's exercise” Lori started which gave Carly a whole new understanding of why she was always in the gym. “And then, sometimes, there’s sex.’
Lori fully expected Carly to retreat again, instead what she got was a kiss on the head. “I would never judge you for your past. I want you to know that.” Carly's words bore the full emotion of the love she felt in that moment. She kissed Lori again. It was just a soft peck on the lips, but even so, the intent behind it could not be misinterpreted.
“We don’t have to do anything” Lori insisted.
But Carly just kissed her again. “I love you” she whispered. And when Lori protested again she repeated the routine. “I love you” Carly kept saying between longer and more elaborate kisses, until they were making love on the gallery floor. For Lori it was the first time she’d ever made love to anyone. The first time she wasn’t using sex to cover for anything else. It was the best she’d ever had it, and from the way she curled into Carly, the way she allowed herself to be held, Carly knew it too. Something had absolutely changed for Lori that night.
That’s why it was such a shock. An absolutely devastating shock, when the next evening Carly got a text from Lori saying it was over.
Carly, I can't do this, it's over.
That's all she got.When she tried to call she got pushed to voicemail, and when she tried a surprise visit to Lori’s office, Lori’s assistant refused to let her in. None of it made any sense. But, at the very least, thinking back on that night helped Carly understand exactly what she needed to do to get Lori' s attention.
Chapter 6: Just Go
Carly gets the answers she's been asking for, but it's nothing like what she thought it would be.
“You broke up with me” Carly blurted out as if it were a brand-new revelation. But Carly knew exactly what she was saying and why she was saying it. “You broke up with me” she repeated with her hands still tied up.
Lori for her part was doing her damnedest to ignore Carly’s words. She chose instead to think of the fact that Carly was wearing the gold butterfly hair clips Lori had loaned her the morning after their first time together. It had to mean that Carly still wanted them to be together. It had to mean that the break up wasn’t as bad as it seemed. In her mind the whole thing may as well have not happened in the first place. Lori didn’t break up with Carly by choice. Stephanie forced her hand. If it were up to her this whole thing never would have happened. She and Carly would still be basking in the afterglow of that night at the gallery, and she wouldn’t have to suffer through the thought of another woman’s hands going to places that had previously only been visited by her.
Instead of talking, Lori took the end of Carly’s belt in her hands and used it to pull her closer before guiding her toward the back end of her car. There was a rustling of feet moving somewhere in the distance, but Lori was hardly concerned. Her focus was singular. She just wanted Carly and she did not want to stop, or think, or talk, until she had her again. With the belt tight in her grip Lori spoke her demands.
“Stop saying that.” She instructed before kissing Carly again.
But Carly wouldn’t let it go. “Tell me why.”
“Carly stop” But Carly was unrelenting. Mostly she was being this way because she knew Lori was trying to run away from the truth. She knew, as much as Lori wanted her, she didn’t want her like this, tied up and on public display. No, it was clear to Carly now more than ever, this was Lori acting out. “Tell me why you broke up with me Lori” she repeated. But Lori just stood silent. The only progress they made was that Lori finally undid the belt and let Carly’s hands hang free.
“just go” Lori muttered in defeat. But Carly wouldn’t budge.
“I said I loved you Lori. You broke my heart” Despite herself, Carly was near tears. She'd worked pretty damn hard to put on a tough outer appearance for her mother’s sake, and a little bit for herself as well.
But being there with Lori was a lot harder than she’d envisioned it. So hard, in fact, that when Lori reached out to comfort her, she had to flinch to keep away from her touch. She couldn’t take one more touch, not even a gentle grazing, or she’d have fallen completely apart.
“What kind of person does that?” Carly wondered aloud. But not to Lori in particular. “What kind of
cold, callous, cruel person does that?”
“You deserve better” Lori admitted. “You deserve a mom who isn’t a manipulative bitch. You deserve so much Carly”
Carly tried to understand but she didn’t see what her mother had to do with them. “What does any of this have to do with...”
“Your mom?” Lori cut her off. “It absolutely has everything to do with your mom.” The weight of that secret had been dragging Lori down every single day of the past two weeks. Finally letting it out felt like such a relief.
Danny could see his daughter headed straight toward him like a targeted missile. He’d always thought Monica looked most like him whenever she got steaming mad. That’s when you could tell somewhere deep in her bones was the soul of his hot-tempered Irish mother.
“Do I look like a joke to you?” Monica snapped.
Danny thought to quip about her jumpsuit resembled Charlie’s Angel’s. But he knew better. “Sweetie, whatever you think I did, I didn’t do it okay” Danny tried earnestly.
“So, you didn’t pull me off night shift to play security?” Danny was too flustered to respond and it was just as well because Monica would have bulldozed right over him. “You didn’t buy me a ticket to a raffle for a date?”
“Actually, that one I did not do” Danny interjected, feeling as if he’d won a point is a heated tennis match.
“EVEN BETTER!” Monica shouted sarcastically while clapping her hands in fake praise. “Let me guess, your buddy the mayor gave you the ticket.”
Danny didn’t dare admit that Monica was right. He resented the implications that came with such an admission.
But Monica had no problem speaking it out loud. “It’s one thing if you want to be Mayor Lancaster’s bitch, but keep me out of it. I’m not about to be a pawn at Evan Lancaster’s disposal.”
“Okay” Danny relented. “You’re right. I used you, and that wasn’t fair.” Danny gathered enough of himself to put his commissioner hat back on. “But you know who else got used?” He paused for effect, not for any legitimate response. “Carly, she didn’t deserve any of this either.” Danny looked around the room scanning for all females with gold butterfly hairclips. It took him all of thirty seconds before he felt confident in his assessment. “How long has Carly not been in the room?’
The flush of Monica’s face let him know Monica had lost track. “Well,” he sighed. “Go find her!” With that Monica ran off in the direction of the garage, the last place she remembered Carly going.
"Don't go on the date" Lori repeated.
"Because, I don't want you to okay." That was the best Lori could manage. She knew it was less than compelling, but she hoped it would still work.
"You're the one who said it was over. Why should I care what you want?"
Lori's brow furrowed. She wasn't used to having to explain herself. "It doesn't matter what I said."
"It doesn't matter? You BROKE UP WITH ME!. You're not making any sense..."
Carly was cut off by the sudden shock of Lori grabbing her by the waist and shoving her up against her car. She had Carly's hands pinned up toward the roof. "Tell me to stop" Lori insisted. But Carly couldn't muster the words. Instead, she let Lori have her way ripping at her clothes until she was nearly nude before one of them had the good sense to open the backseat door for privacy.
In that moment, with her legs straddled around Carly's reposed body, Lori admitted to herself that she'd become addicted to Carly. But she couldn't let go of the control that not saying it aloud afforded her. "I'm better with you," she said instead while teasing her fingers down Carly's center.
But even that caused Carly to retreat. "Then why did you end it?"
Lori wanted to tell her, but she knew it would only make things worse. "Carly, don't do this. Don't be like this" she pleaded between kisses against the tender spots on Carly's neck.
It was no use, Carly gathered up her undergarments and rushed out just as Lori found the courage to admit what she’d been hiding “Your mom has a sex tape of me.”
Carly paused outside of the vehicle thinking long and hard about Lori’s confession. She was angry. Angry at her mom for being so underhanded, but also angry at Lori for not being strong enough to stand up to her mother. Still, Carly felt herself on the precipice of forgiveness. “I told you, I would never judge you for your past.”
Lori wanted to take the win, she wanted to let Carly gloss over everything and just move forward together. But it felt false. If she wasn’t telling the full truth, she couldn’t really count it as forgiveness. She learned that in rehab. She had to rip the bandage off. “Carly, the tape is from three weeks ago.”
Carly could not find the words to respond to Lori’s confession. Instead she simply shut the car door in her face and turned to walk away. As she did, she was met by Monica, who'd been clutching the rest of Carly's clothes and smirking with a not-at-all subtle sprinkle of judgement thrown in.
"You did all this just to make the Purifoy girl jealous?"
"No!" Carly scoffed while grabbing her clothes. But she knew that wasn't true. "Not all of it anyway. I do really care about the community."
Monica laughed as Carly struggled to walk and put her clothes back on at the same time. "I'm sure you do."
“How much of that did you hear?” Carly asked nervously.
“Enough” Monica admitted. “But I know when to mind my business."
Monica stopped just shy of the doors to the community center. She gestured to fix Carly's hair. "So, next Saturday, I hope you're not planning on taking me to a parking garage" she joked. But Carly wasn't ready for any ribbing at her expense.
"So you changed your mind? You're coming"
"Yes" Monica agreed as they walked through the doors together. "You're not the only one with a complicated story and I think I misjudged you." When they got back in front of the waiting audience Monica leaned over and whispered with a smile "Besides, it might be fun making your ex jealous”
Chapter 7: The Rhythm
Lori tries to focus on a major business project, but the ghost of her relationship with Carly won't let her go.
Lori was midway through her workout routine when she heard the unmistakable blood-boiling sound of Stephanie Lancaster’s heels click-clacking against the overpriced marble tile her father had insisted on during last year’s renovations. She got on a bike, put her headphones on and started pedaling feverishly. Lori hoped, beyond reason, that if she focused hard enough, she could just will Stephanie away. Today she had other things to focus on, very important things. Things she’d been working on for the better part of a year. She lowered her head, firmed her grip on the handlebars, turned up the music, and pedaled.
Still, every time the notes in the song bottomed out, she could hear it, click-clack, click-clack, click-clack, building to a crescendo. PLEASE DO NOT COME IN HERE, Lori hoped against hope. NOT TODAY. But the odds were not in her favor. Stephanie spotted Lori through the gym’s glass doors, dripping in sweat and burning up the pedals on her bike as if she were a New York City messenger. She pushed the doors open and marched straight over to Lori.
“Lori,” Stephanie announced. “Nice to see you getting a workout that doesn’t involve my daughter” When Lori tapped at her headphones to indicate she couldn’t hear, Stephanie wasn’t buying it. “Cut the crap” she demanded. “We both know you can hear me.
“You’re right,” Lori finally spoke up. “The loudness of your ego is hard to drown out.”
“I was just here to hash out my client’s settlement details with Titus” Stephanie explained. “And I just realized I couldn’t leave without seeing you too.”
But Lori was not in the mood for mind games and pointless fuckery. She wiped at her brow with the back of her hand, then tried her best to send Stephanie on her way. “I have no business with you Stephanie”
“Not anymore you don’t” a wry grin crept across Stephanie’s face “I told you I would see to it that my daughter moved on.”
“What? With Monica O’Rourke?” Lori’s tone was unmistakably dismissive
“Of course with Monica” Stephanie scoffed. “She’s stunning, and smart, and not a conniving wench like you.”
Lori thought back to her adventures with Carly in the community center parking lot. She couldn’t help laughing at Stephanie’s naïve confidence. It was pathetic that she even felt the need to march over to Lori’s place of business to gloat in the first place. But Lori knew Carly couldn’t move on quickly, especially not with someone handpicked by her mother. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that”
“And why not”
At this Lori had to laugh again. She was so amused she had to start pacing around Stephanie to keep from hysterics. “Because, Stephanie I told Carly what you did.” Lori calmed down enough to stand still again. The tone in her voice shifted from amusement to satisfied surety. “I told her every last dirty, underhanded detail.” She waited patiently as Stephanie swallowed hard as if that fact was a bitter cold gulp of air. “And I was four fingers deep inside of her when I told her” Lori added, just to rub it in. “She begged me to let her c…”
Stephanie immediately slapped Lori before she could even finish the sentence. “Shut your filthy mouth!” she shrieked. With her phone secured from the depths of her purse, Stephanie immediately began searching for the photo evidence she’d gathered as proof of the chemistry between Monica and Carly. Carly had posted the picture of her and Monica floating the balloon together to her twitter account. Even to Irene, who was growing ever vocal about her reservations, Carly and Monica looked like the second coming of Barack and Michelle. Stephanie flashed the photo in Lori’s face, making sure to hit the like button in front of her.
“#Carmon is trending in Atlanta.” She smirked with renewed confidence. When Lori turned her back to walk away, Stephanie felt compelled to add salt to the wound. “They’re going out tonight.”
“You just don’t know when to quit, do you.” Lori scoffed. “I’m not worried about a staged charity date”
“Staged or not, Carly needs someone like Monica” Stephanie insisted.
But Lori was having none of it. She’d been around Carly long enough and shared enough secrets to know how badly Carly’s mom had screwed with her head. “She needs someone who respects her enough to be honest with her” Lori retorted.
Feeling insulted by Lori’s presumptions, Stephanie felt the need to explain her position. She wasn’t upset with Lori, in a way she understood how a person could spend two or three months with Carly and suddenly believe in magic. Her daughter had a sort of genuine mystery about her. It was a quality Stephanie was glad to exploit for the family benefit, and it was also the quality about Carly that terrified Stephanie the most. She worried what would happen if some unscrupulous person ever tried to take advantage of her little girl. “My daughter is like a Cherry Blossom tree in full bloom” Stephanie waxed poetic. ”You,” she waved a finger in Lori’s direction, “are the Gale Force wind coming to rip all her flowers off the branches.”
“What.” Lori muttered, her face scrunching in confusion.
“It’s in your nature to be careless Lori.” Stephanie explained. “Can you really blame me for doing everything I can to protect my daughter from your wreckage?” With that Stephanie walked out leaving Lori to stew in the steam of her newly formed anger.
Hunter Purifoy hated waiting. He hated it so much that he’d become notorious for walking out of meetings if all the participants were not present within five minutes of the scheduled start time. Yet, he found himself waiting, waiting and wondering. If it wasn’t Lori would he have afforded as much Grace? Would he have been bending over backward to keep the folks from Center-G on the teleconference line. This was Lori’s deal after all. It was unlike her to be tardy to her own party. At least, it hadn’t been like her in years.
Three months ago Lori had barged into a board member meeting without even bothering to request permission before interrupting the discussion. “We’re fucked” she announced while handing out a carefully packaged portfolio style competitor analysis to each board member.
“Young lady, we are in the middle of…” One board member tried to lecture her.
But Lori cut him off swiftly. “Getting screwed” she asserted. “We’re losing two percent every month to Center-G this quarter.”
Arnie Maxwell, one of Hunter’s most trusted advisors, at least had the decency to skim through the portfolio before completely dismissing it. “Center-G is a fad boutique wellness company. We’re not even in the same market.”
Lori was prepared for that too. She slammed a stack of social media printouts onto the table and began reading them aloud “Finally dumping Trazamil thanks to Center-G #FlushThePills” she started. “Center-G cares about the whole person @PurifoyPharma should be scared #FlushThePills.”
Finally, it seemed like she had their attention, but the residue of skepticism still lingered. “Well, isn’t that what we have you in PR for, to respond to these things?” One person spoke up. Hunter, seeing the spark in Lori’s eye was to fascinated to interject with his own thoughts. He wanted to see how she was going to play her hand. He wanted to see if he’d raised her right after all.
“Why respond when we can take over?” Lori retorted.
Arnie nearly spun out of his chair at the suggestion. “I’m sorry, now I can see that this is possibly a bigger concern than I first thought,” he conceded. “But there is no way on god’s green earth Purifoy is getting into the business of wellness retreats.” At his assertation a few other board members had a chuckle.
But Lori wasn’t done yet. “Arnie, buddy, unclench” she said this half-jokingly but with enough condescension for Arnie to know he’d stepped too far. “Center-G and their Kumbaya Yoga and snake-oil represents an attack on Purifoy’s bottom line” Lori continued. “My bottom line.” She slammed her palm on the table for emphasis. “We’re not going to merge with them. We’re going to dismantle them”
Lori went on to explain how buying out Center-G and then disassembling their services would allow Purifoy to absorb any non-overlapping customer base. “That’s nearly five billion dollars in new growth potential by the end of the third quarter” she finished. By the time she was done, everyone in the room was fully on board. Hunter couldn’t have handled it better if he’d spoken the words himself. He recalled being so prideful and boastful that he bragged to his golf buddies for a full week about it.
Now though, with Lori running more than five minutes late to her own meeting, any good grace Lori had earned with her father was beginning to wane.
She was supposed to have hopped in the shower by now, she was supposed to be getting ready for her conference call with Center-G,. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t focus. She found a jump rope in the corner and whipped that into oblong hoops with rapid speed until her feet could no longer sustain the rhythm. Lori put her headphones back in and broke away from the jump-rope to do pushups. When she got tired of the pushups, she went back to the bike. She repeated that rotation over and over until there was nothing in her head except the music. Eight miles on the bike, fifteen total minutes of jump-rope, and two-hundred pushups later, Lori finally felt the endorphin high kicking in. By then though, she was already ten minutes late to her video conference.
There was no time for a shower, or to straighten up her hair, which was dripping in sweat. No, they’d just have to take her as she was. She had the upper hand any way. Lori walked into the room to find her dad chatting up Brian Fielding, the forty-something CEO of Center-G. He’d dialed into their video conference system from Miami.
“Lori,” Hunter turned in his chair, immediately startled by Lori’s disheveled appearance. “So nice of you to join us.”
“Hey, Brian” Lori announced into the camera. “Nice to see you.” She spoke as if they’d met before. They hadn’t.
“I was just telling Brian that we’re prepared to give a very generous offer.” Hunter tried to steer the conversation back on course.
“I’m all ears” Brian responded with clear indication that he’d been waiting on Lori.
For her part, Lori was not fazed by the judgmental glances coming from both her dad and Brian. She was still riding her endorphin high and it was just starting to peak. “The offer’s four-hundred million” Lori stated flatly. At that both Hunter and Brian dropped their mouths in shock. For Hunter, he was stunned by such a ballsy undersell. For Brian, he was simply insulted.
“IS SHE JOKING!” Brian shouted into the camera. “We’re projected at TWO-BILLION in profit next year.”
“I’m sure there’s been some sort of miscommunication” Hunter tried to laugh it off.
But Lori wouldn’t allow it. “No, no miscommunication Brian. It’s four-hundred million. Take it or leave it.”
At that, Hunter put the microphone on mute and covered the camera lid. “Care to tell me what in the hell has gotten into you?” he fumed. “You’re going to blow this deal.”
“Dad, they’re sitting on one-hundred million in debt. They’ve completely tapped out the market which is why they’re targeting our customers, and they’ve been underpricing their services in order to beat out the competition” Lori explained. “They can’t possibly continue at the current rate of growth and they know it.”
Hunter turned the camera back on and unmuted the microphone. “well Bri, we’ve had some time to reconsider” he began.
“Good, I’m glad” Brian straightened his spine so that he was centered on his chair.
“Offer’s three-hundred million” Hunter finished. At this reduction, Brian simply hung up.
Hunter turned to Lori, the prideful smile he’d lost earlier once again returned. “I assume you wanted that to happen.”
“Daddy, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
They shared a brief moment of comradery. It was only a second or two, but it fed Lori’s desperate need to see her father look at her the way he looked at Arnie, like someone who had earned his respect. “So,” Hunter broke the silence. “What next?”
Lori had already started exiting the room. She turned to acknowledge her father’s question. “Full-Court press” She stated as coldly and savagely as you would expect from someone who had been raised to delight in the destruction of competition.
As she approached her office Lori instinctively took out her phone. Texting Carly about her day had become a habit. A bit of a natural reflex. However, she was swiftly greeted by the sight of Carly on her timeline. A picture of her on her Twitter account. She was stepping into her dad’s town car. Her hair had been done up into a fishtail braid that she swooped over her left shoulder.
She was wearing a summery white paisley dress with cupped short sleeves. Lori had mentioned how Carly’s skin had an irresistible glow whenever she wore white. She tried to fight the thought but it was coming to her in flashed now. Monica’s hands creeping up Carly’s thighs pushing the fabric of her dress ever upward. Lori struggled to hold on to her high. Her eyes glanced downward at the caption under the photo.
Tonight’s the night. Hope Monica’s ready for me #Carmon
Lori shoved the doors to her office open in blind frustration. Not at Carly, she only had herself to blame. She’d underestimated the intensity of her feelings for Carly, and now she was paying the price. “ALEX!” she called out as she stormed into the office. Her dutiful assistant rushed in at once. Alex had decided on a pair of Seven Jeans and a black button up blouse for the day. At the sight of her outfit, Lori sighed in frustration. “Why? Why are you wearing jeans?” Lori asked while approaching the other woman.
Alex looked confused but offered an explanation anyway. “It’s casual Friday” she tried.
To this, Lori simply shook her head. “Take them off” she instructed. “Now.”
As Alex undid her zipper, Carly grabbed at her crotch and felt, through Alex’s underwear, for the moistened signs of a welcoming pussy. Alex was already drenched. Lori let herself slip inside without fully removing the underwear. She closed her eyes and got lost in the rhythm of another woman bending to her will, releasing her body to Lori’s control.
Alex slipped a vial full of purple pills into Lori’s free hand. “I didn’t have time to grab the case” she whispered between gasps of pleasure. “But these used to be your favorite.”
It was a vial full of perks. At the sight of them Lori’s eyes nearly shot out of her head. She could sense herself salivating. Still she held tight and closed her eyes again. She was focused on the rhythm. In, out, two fingers, then three, in, out, then drop to her knees to taste the goodness of her handy work. In, and, out, two, then three, just a taste she repeated. Just a taste over and over to the rhythm until Alex came with so much force that her body collapsed onto Lori’s face with her lower lips still riding Lori’s tongue.
When it was over, Lori opened her eyes and let the vial slip from her grip. Alex lay on the floor shaking with aftershock. Lori soaked in the high of knowing that she’d given Alex that much pleasure. But Lori couldn’t hold her. That’s not what they were about. They’d agreed never to talk about it, and never to interfere with each other’s relationships.
Lori watched as Alex sat up just enough to grab the vial, open it, slip two tiny circular pills into her hand, and swallow them dry. She didn’t bother trying to stop her. This was just a transaction, no different than the deal she was negotiating with Center-G. She wasn’t supposed to care. That fact, made her miss Carly even more. Lori missed being held. She missed talking to someone who actually wanted to listen to her. And, if her only other alternatives were hours in the gym and sex with people who were toxic to her recovery, Lori knew she was fucked.
Chapter 8: Water Converging Together
Carly seizes a chance to learn more about Monica while Stephanie tries to keep her hands clean.
Carly stepped out of the car feeling ever last inch of herself. The driver had pulled up to a nice, if somewhat understated townhome at the center of East Atlanta Village. That was the part of town frequented by artsie types and co-op dwellers. Her Grandad always called East Atlanta folks the village people. Carly hadn’t pictured Monica to be the bohemian type, but it was a welcome surprise. Initially, she felt the sort of nerves that come along with any first date as she walked up the steps and prepared to knock on the door. However, she only managed three steps before the door to the car behind her opened up and her mother’s hired security stomped out, followed swiftly by a camera man who was obnoxiously snapping photos every time Carly moved. Carly, in an effort to block them out, focused on the pattern of mockingbirds flying over water in Monica’s stained-glass door. She raised her hand to knock, but stopped when the door seemingly opened on its own.
From the open slit, Carly could see Monica, her thick mop of curly hair peeked out from a cracked door.
“How’d you know I…” Carly started.
“What kind of cop would I be if I didn’t have home security?” Monica answered with a laugh. She was wearing a red spaghetti-strap tank and dark blue jeans. Her hair, free of the bun she’d worn while on duty, bounced freely about her shoulders. She grabbed a cropped leather jacket from her coat rack and stepped onto the stoop with Carly. “So, Miss Lancaster, where are you taking me?”
The easy way that Monica said her name, smooth like chamomile tea, put a smile on Carly’s face. “Well, a little birdie told me you like live music” Carly started. “So, I’ve arranged a concert in the park.”
They started to walk toward the car together “Oh, you arranged it did you?” Monica teased as she hopped into the backseat with Carly.
The car ride started off quietly. Monica made polite conversation, asked Carly what she’d been up to since the fundraiser, she even made a point to compliment Carly’s dress. But no matter what she did Carly just kept her answers short. It was nothing Carly was doing intentionally, she just couldn’t take her mind off that night at the fundraiser, more specifically what Monica had said at the fundraiser.
“I want us to have fun tonight” she finally spoke up. “But first, I have to ask you something, and I need an honest answer.”
Monica took a deep breath in “Okay, shoot.”
“You said I was a crap assignment, and then all of a sudden you changed your mind” Carly explained. “What changed?”
Monica turned to look Carly directly in the eye. “You didn’t deserve that. That wasn’t about you.” Monica reached out to hold Carly’s hand as a show of sincerity. “Having your dad as your boss is kinda a recipe for a toxic relationship.” Monica left it there. She wasn’t the type to dump her family history on people she didn’t know very well. Still, she could tell Carly wanted to know more. She figured she’d be getting follow up questions at some point. But, at least for now, at least this night, Monica thought, they could just be two women having fun together.
As soon as they got to the park Monica could tell Manuel Rivera was playing. She knew as soon as she heard his trumpet that her dad had blabbed to somebody about her favorite jazz musician. Between that, the camera guy, and the clearly planted park patrons who looked every bit like lawyers from Stephanie Lancaster’s firm, Monica just wasn’t feeling it. But she tried, for Carly’s sake, to focus on the horn and relax into the music.
After a while, it started to work. It didn’t hurt that Carly had no shame in trying to twostep to every song that played. As the night wore on the air shifted to something crisp enough to bite, but not too cold to leave. They sat reposed on a blanket someone had offered to them, or more accurately, directed them toward. They casually sipped on red wine, the bottle for which Carly made a point of snapping and tweeting. Monica was sure someone in Carly’s orbit had promised a plug. She reminded herself to be understanding.
The air cut into Carly’s exposed skin. Monica took notice of the tiny raised hairs on her arms. “Are you cold?” Monica asked, though the answer seemed obvious.
But Carly could barely hear over the music. She leaned in closer to Monica. Close enough that her earlobe grazed the brim of Monica’s lips. “What” Carly asked with her voice elevated over the music.
The camera flashed in front of them and Monica instinctively pulled away. “Nothing, never mind.”
Stephanie was busy researching business owner obligations under the HITECH act. The firm had just landed the City University Hospital account and she’d been immediately thrown into a class action concerning an information breach. But it was all tech-speak to her and staring at it for so long was starting to give her a headache. The headache only amplified when someone started pounding on her door while ringing the doorbell repeatedly. Assuming it was a solicitor, Stephanie sent Constance, their housekeeper, to send them away. But, unfortunately, that did not work.
As soon as he saw the door opening, Smokey took his chance to barge his way in. “A brotha ain’t stupid Stephanie” Teddy shouted as he marched deliberately into Stephanie’s office. It was as if someone had already given him the home layout.
Stephanie recognized the voice right away. It was Smokey, the two-bit thug she’d hired to make a scene at the meet and greet. Though, she could never bring herself to refer to a grown man by such an infantile nickname as Smokey. She’d convinced him to let her use his birth name, Teddy. But a proper name was not a magic wand, Teddy was not interested in civility, and Stephanie had not paid him to be a gentleman.
Teddy waited for While Stephanie closed out her laptop and walked closer to him. “You got me throwing paint at little girls. Meanwhile, I got proof yo’ husband put hands on my baby cousin Rodrick.” Teddy pulled out his phone. “What y’all ain’t know is my boy sent me the video of your husband stompin’ that ass”
Stephanie was taking her time inching ever closer toward Teddy. She did not at all care about invading his space cushion. “First of all,” Stephanie made a point of slamming her heel into the ground on her final step. “It’s Mrs. Lancaster to you. We, Teddy, will never be on a first name basis.”
Stephanie navigated around Teddy as if he were vermin that might infect her if they were to, even accidentally, touch. “Now, what is it you want? More money?”
Teddy placed a hand on his chin as if he were in deep reflective thought. A beat passed, then he settled on an answer. “Bet!” Smokey declared with a nod of his head. “Run me my money Steph…” he recoiled like a wounded animal at the sight of Stephanie’s raised eyebrow. “Mrs. Lancaster.”
“Fine, someone from my team will reach out to you shortly”
“Naw, I need that bird in my hand” Smokey insisted. “I ain’t got time for what’s chirpin’ in your bushes.”
Stephanie thought to protest but saw that Teddy had raised his shirt up enough to expose a pistol in his waistband. “Well, aren’t you the clever wordsmith” Stephanie mocked. Stepping over to her desk, she retrieved the hideaway key to her wall safe from the underside of her desk drawer. After her security guard instructed Smokey to turn around, she entered her pin into the safe, turned the key in the lock and opened it. From inside the safe, she retrieved two thick stacks of fifty-dollar bills. Once the safe was closed again, Teddy was instructed to turn around again.
Stephanie slapped the money down into Teddy’s open palm. “I suggest you spend it wisely” she instructed. “This, will not happen again.”
Smokey got up feeling especially victorious. He’d thought maybe he could shake Stephanie for a few hundred. He was looking at ten large at least now, by his estimate. If Rodrick hadn’t of disowned him, Teddy thought the two of them could figured out a way to rip the Lancaster’s off years ago.
As soon as she was sure Teddy was out of earshot, Stephanie took out her cell and dialed her husband. “Evan, sweetie, we have a problem.”
Feeling that things weren’t exactly going well, Carly determined that she could fix it, decided to try and mix things up. “Let’s play a game” “she tried. “Truth or dare.”
Monica laughed instinctively. She hadn’t played truth or dare since she graduated the academy. But, she figured, it would be a good way to get out of her own head. “Okay, I’ll bite. Truth.” She took a sip of her wine and waited for Carly to come up with a question.
Carly thought seriously about what to ask. She didn’t want to waste an opportunity to learn more about Monica. “Why’d you decide to be a police officer?”
That was a long story, one Monica struggled to condense into one or two sentences. She took a generous sip of wine before answering. “well, I had a fantasy about one-upping my dad. Did it just to prove I could do it better than him I guess.” Carly watched as Monica finished off her wine and pored herself another glass. Their heads tilted back and arms lazily commingled. The sun was setting and in the rainbow tinted haze, they looked like two bodies of water converging together.
Monica had never admitted why she joined the force to anyone before. Not even to her mom. She’d always just said it was because she loved her community. She wasn’t sure why she felt so comfortable telling Carly the truth. But, she brushed it off. It was her turn and she wasn’t about to let Carly get off easy. She’d noticed a tattoo on Carly’s back shoulder blade. If she wasn’t so perceptive, Monica wouldn’t have even noticed. It was a white ink design, so Monica was sure no one in Carly’s family even knew. “I dare you to show me the rest of your tattoo.”
Carly had been busy vibing to the music when Monica asked to see her tattoo. The only other person who ever noticed it was Lori, and that was inevitable. Lori had a very thorough knowledge of Carly’s anatomy. A blessing that could be attributed to the nature of their now defunct relationship. “I didn’t get to pick” Carly protested.
“My game my rules” Monica countered with another sip of wine.
“Your game?” Carly teased. But she eventually relented and lowered her sleeve to let Monica get a good look at the tiny raised etching on her back-left shoulder. It was almost too tiny to read, but Monica could just make out the words as she traced them with her finger “Tracie, on vive toujours.” Admittedly, Monica was a little tipsy, which simply meant that she was not so careful with her words. “Who is Tracie? And why does she live forever?”
“Tracie’s my aunt” Carly explained. “She died, she overdosed on pills.” The wind blew hard and distracted Carly from explaining any further. Despite her best efforts she shivered at the cold air. This time though, Monica didn’t bother asking. She simply removed her jacket and placed it over Carly’s shoulders. “Feel better” Monica asked as Carly wrapped the jacket snuggly around her.
“Yeah, thanks.” She answered before leaning over and kissing Monica on the cheek. As quick as she’d done it, she just as quickly pulled away. Her face blush with embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed.” Even though it was just a peck on the cheek, Carly would have felt terrible if Monica was straight. They hadn’t explicitly talked about it. For all Carly knew, Monica was just a good-natured ally trying to save Carly the embarrassment of a no-show charity date. “I just, it was a reflex.”
Monica grabbed Carly by the shoulders as a way of reassuring her. “Relax, it was just a peck on the cheek” Monica’s hands slipped down to just above Carly’s elbows. She kissed Carly on the mouth softly, accepting the invitation when Carly’s lips slowly parted. “Just so we’re clear” she winked as she pulled away. “But I don’t like playing with other people’s toys.”
Carly couldn’t hide from the fact that the kiss was good. More importantly, she was glad to have the ego boost that Monica being in to her provided. But she didn’t want to overanalyze it. She went back to the game. “Truth. What is up with you and your dad?”
This was the question Monica had been dreading. But she knew it deserved an answer. Carly had seen far too much of their disfunction not to ask about it. “Well, here it goes” she said with a smile and another sip of wine. “Twenty-five years ago my dad had an affair with his beat partner, my mom.”
Carly could tell Monica was uneasy about continuing. She reached out to rub circles into the other woman’s back as a means of comfort.
Monica sighed in relief. It felt good to say it out loud to someone. Her mom had always made her feel like it was some shameful secret. “So, I’m Danny O’Rourke’s secret black daughter” she joked. “Well, not secret anymore, but it’s kinda hard to get over not being in your dad’s Christmas photos or getting a card on your birthday.”
The camera flashed in front of them. This time though, Carly was the one to get irritated. “I’m kinda over this, you want to get out of here?”
When Monica agreed, Carly devised a plan to ditch the security guard and camera guy by convincing them Monica wanted to go home early. In reality, Monica took a ride share to a pool bar she’d visited a couple times, and Carly met up with her after making sure all the cameras and press team had left.
At the sight of Carly walking into the bar Monica stood up so quickly from the stool she’d been sitting on that it nearly toppled over. She’d worried Carly wouldn’t show. The excitement of not being ditched got the better of her, and she could have kicked herself for not maintaining her cool. But, she tried to play it off by quickly grabbing a pool table.
Monica made quick work of procuring a stick and racking the balls. “Do you play?” she asked.
“No, but I’m pretty good at math" Carly reasoned. “This is just geometry with a little physics thrown in”
At that, Monica had to laugh. “Alright then” she dismissed as she lined up to take her shot. She was so focused on getting the shot right, she hardly noticed Carly sneaking up behind her.
As Monica threw the pool stick back, Carly grabbed her by the waist and leaned into her ear to whisper “So, you’re in to me?”
Monica was so startled by the contact that she missed the angle of her shot and the cue ball jumped across the table. “Like I said, physics and geometry” Carly laughed.
“Okay, you got me” Monica admitted. However, she couldn’t let the ambiguous comfort of their banter linger. The shadow of her parent’s relationship was ever-present in her mind, and Monica had always promised herself never to relive their mistakes. “Look, this is fun. But uh, I hope it works out with you and Lori, really” She needed to be clear, had to be. She was fine with having a harmless night out. But she was not about to get into the mud of whatever was happening between Lori and Carly.
So, with Monica’s line in the sand made plain, they played on until the bar closed. Sometimes they broke to talk, if they weren’t too busy giving each other shit and trying to outdo each other’s shots. When the lights came on and the music went off, the audio from the television was suddenly playing with loud precision. Someone had turned it to the local news. The newscaster’s voice called Carly’s attention.
“Local petty criminal found dead in an ally behind Atlanta’s City University Hospital” Nothing being said was out of the ordinary for a large city like Atlanta. But, Carly took notice of the name of the hospital. She remembered her mom celebrating landing that account for the family practice. Her attention turned to the news story's accompanying photo. She must have stared for too long because Monica took notice too.
“Isn’t that…” Carly began
“Yep” Monica finished before Carly could complete the thought. They both stood silent staring blankly at Teddy’s picture. They didn’t know him as Teddy, or Smokey, or Rodrick’s cousin. They just both knew he had thrown paint at Carly the week before. And, they both knew, deep down, something did not feel right.
Chapter 9: Uncomfortable Quiet
Carly finds herself in a familiar place when she can't go home and can't seem to fall asleep.
Lori had no idea what kind of lunatic thought it was a good idea to come knocking on her door at one in the morning, but she was going to have a good talk with the building's doorman about the difficulty of finding a steady job in an unstable economy.
“The date is over. You survived.” Carly announced in lieu of a hello. Her voice was jovial and nonchalant. She fully expected Lori to relent and own the fact that she had overreacted. She hadn’t counted on miscalculating Lori’s mood. But by the look on her face, it was clear to Carly that something was off. Way off.
Lori let Carly in just barely past the door, but she was too tired to pretend she wasn’t irritated. “I asked you not to go.” She was curt, it was too late for mincing words. Lori just was not in the mood. Most of this was thanks to the fact that she’d spent the whole night stalking Carly’s gram and Twitter accounts, staring obsessively at the pictures, of which there were plenty. She’d seen everything. She knew everything.
“For Christ sake Lori it was for charity”
As time wore on Lori’s lingering fatigue transformed into a persistent frustration. She kept seeing the picture of Carly and Monica kissing at the park. Someone on the Lancaster family’s social media team had captioned it as
They just go together.
“You kissed her” Lori finally blurted.
“I what? How do you even” Carly was so caught off guard she couldn’t string the words together. Still, her question was plainly understood.
“God, Carly its all over the gram, #Carmon is trending. Sure your mom’s having a grand time rubbing that in my face too.” Lori moved to allow Carly more space to cross the threshold. This, however, was no act of hospitality, she just felt bothered by holding the door open for so long.
“Pretty sure you’re the one who broke my heart and not my mom” Carly bickered as she sauntered her way in.
“Could you please stop saying that.”
“Stop saying what? That you broke up with me?”
Lori ran her fingers through her hair in frustration. “Carly I’m serious, God, it’s like an albatross around my neck! Why can’t you just let it go?”
Let it go. Those three words, in that order, infuriated Carly more than almost any other pattern of the English language. She could almost feel the heat of her temper building to a boil. “I can’t let it go. I loved you. And you broke up with me out of nowhere!”
“Carly shut up.”
“I just hate it okay”…
“Carly STOP!” Lori was pleading at this point. All the images swirling in her head were of Monica leaning all over Carly, of Carly smiling after their kiss, of the door closing in her face that night at the community center. She was spiraling. Lori knew she was spiraling, and Carly repeatedly reminding her that it was all her fault was not helping.
“Are you even sorry?”
“Of course I’m sorry” Lori huffed. “I’m sorry, okay.” Lori looked away determined not to have to make eye contact. But Carly wouldn’t let her get away with that. She placed her palm under Lori’s chin and nudged it in the direction of her eyes.
“The way I feel about you is not safe for me” Lori spoke up. “I love you too much. Carly” Despite her best efforts Lori let a tear slip away. “I’ve worked really hard to get my life together and I just can’t risk falling apart right now.”
Carly’s anger had not dissipated. But part of that anger still came from love. Besides, there was an undeniable element to the tension between them. They’d both been too stubborn to give in. But at the sight of Lori in anguish Carly finally broke and kissed her.
They both relaxed into each other and for a moment it was as if nothing had ever happened. Carly’s hands slipped to Lori’s sides while Lori wasted no time pushing Carly’s hips into her own. She palmed Carly’s backside greedily.
“I missed that” Carly whispered her confession in between a trail of kisses all the way down Lori’s neck. “What is it about your hands and my body that just goes together?”
At that, Lori suddenly paused and pulled away. She’d been triggered by what Carly assumed was an innocuous statement. They Just Go Together was supposed to have been a sensuous tease but it just brought her back to the picture. They Just Go Together was conjuring up the image of Monica and her slender physique with her hands wrapped around Carly, and their lips meeting against the backdrop of a fading sun. They just go together. “You still taste like her” Lori muttered.
“It was just a kiss” Carly insisted defensively. “It’s not like I slept with her.” But going on a date, even a staged one, did feel nice for a change.
Lori wanted to be mad at Carly for throwing the cheating in her face, but even she knew it was fair game. “Why are you even here?” she requested to know instead.
Carly reflected on the winding journey that had her Uber driver circling around her parent’s house three times before she finally decided she couldn’t spend another night in there. “I can’t be around my mom right now” she admitted. “I didn’t know where else to go."
Lori didn’t bother digging deeper into Carly’s words. She understood completely. “You can take the bed.” She offered while digging in her hall closet for blankets. “I’ll sleep on the sofa.”
And, for about an hour, that’s exactly what they did.
By one-forty-five A.M. Carly had been tossing and turning for thirty minutes. By two in the morning she was doing little more than just staring at the ceiling in defeat. Sleep was not going to happen, she accepted that. So, by two-fifteen she was up on her feet, walking in a trance out of the bedroom and toward the sofa.
Lori felt something nudging at her, but she was in too deep a sleep to be easily roused out of it. Even the subtle whisper of Carly luring her by name did not nudge her.
“Lori, wake up.” Carly tried. But nothing. “Wake up” she tried again. Still, nothing. Finally, she tried nibbling Lori’s ear lobe which did the trick.
“What are you doing?” Lori questioned; her voice groggy with fatigue.
“Come to bed” Carly offered innocently. But Lori saw through Carly’s innocent act.
“We can’t” she offered her soft refusal.
“Please” Carly insisted.
“Carly, I can’t”
But Lori was already allowing herself to be guided toward the bedroom. She told herself they would just lay together. She could handle that much she was convinced. But the second Carly laid back on the bed with her head reposed against the pillows, the glow of ambient lighting like glitter against her skin, staring at Lori wantonly, Lori understood that despite her best efforts the conclusion of this night would inevitably lead to sex. Sex that she absolutely wanted, but sex that she was mature enough to admit she could not handle.
“I love you Lori Purifoy” Carly stated in a soft crooning tone. That was all it took for Lori to mount the bed and give in to her desire. She took Carly into her arms and let her lips down to Carly’s bosom. Meanwhile Carly had slipped her thigh between Lori’s and allowed the rhythm of Lori’s actions to guide the friction of her leg rubbing against Lori’s exposed center.
Lori took her time though. It’d been ages, or what felt like ages since they were together. She wanted to savor the moment. She spent a while just teasing Carly’s lower lips with the tip of her thumb and enjoying the way Carly shivered gently at every brush. All the while she was kissing every inch of Carly that her lips could reach, slowly, gently.
“please” Carly begged when the teasing got to be too much.
But Lori was not going to let up. Instead she raised her thumb to her lips and sucked the juices away. “I missed tasting you” she teased with a smile before finally allowing two fingers in. “I missed you.”
Carly could feel the growing plumpness of Lori’s walls sliding against her thigh. She knew Lori was close. She also knew Lori was too distracted to keep her from speeding her climax along by rubbing at her sensitive top of her lips. Sure enough, Lori came in and fluid full body wave that left traces of her love trickling all the way down Carly’s leg.
But Lori had enough composure to keep her fingers where they were, still swirling and curling slowly, allowing the build to reach maximum threshold. Carly had managed her way to a reversed position so that she had access to Lori’s still sensitive folds. She kissed at them and watched as the pulsated feverishly. When She licked her way to Lori’s center, Lori’s body squirmed and she let out a moan of pleasure. Carly continued, even as her own climax was building inside of her. She buried herself inside Lori’s love until they both arrived within seconds of each other. Lori’s second climax was far more powerful than the first. She crumpled into the bed like a cube of sugar dissolving into tea. Her body shook and shivered. The subtle grin on her face revealed the ecstasy of her experience. Carly wrapped her entire body around Lori and absorbed the energy of her aftershocks. They fell asleep like that, entangled in each other, wrapped in the warmth of each other’s energies.
In the morning Carly woke to the sight of Lori sitting in a wicker chair adjacent to her bed, sporting a pair of steel-framed glasses, reading studiously from a thick stack of documents covered in charts and graphs.
“Good morning beautiful” Lori smiled.
“Good morning” Carly replied, still sleepy. Carly was caught up in the sight of Lori with glasses, a fantasy she didn’t know she had, but was glad to have fulfilled. She caught a glimpse of the Header of one of the documents, Center-G False Negatives by Quarter, it read. “Isn’t Center-G that wholistic healing company?” she inquired.
“Yeah” Lori answered while simultaneously putting the stack of papers away. She leaned over the bed and kissed Carly on the head. “Why don’t you take a shower, grab something from my closet and get dressed.” Lori swiftly changed the subject. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Twenty or so minutes later, Carly came out looking like a slice of apple pie in one of Lori’s short-sleeve plaid shirts and a pair of cutoff shorts. “I can’t believe you kept these” Carly commented about the shorts she’d left at Lori’s what felt like a lifetime ago. As she walked out, Carly saw that Lori had catered an entire breakfast for just the two of them.
“What’s the occasion?” Carly questioned coyly
Lori took a seat at the table and motioned for Carly to sit across from her. “This is for us. For our future.” Lori explained as Carly sat down.
Carly couldn’t help smiling at the thought of a future with Lori, but she was also scared. She didn’t want to get hurt again. Lori, proving that she’d been paying attention sensed Carly’s trepidation.
“It’s up to you of course, but I think we deserve a reset” Lori explained.
Carly cut into her spinach omelet and chewed the first bite thoroughly while considering her thoughts. She was irritated that Lori was trying to gloss over everything with a fancy breakfast. But she couldn’t deny that she was still hopelessly in love with Lori. Maybe they could just reset. Maybe.
“What exactly does a reset look like?”
Lori took Carly’s hands in hers from across the small table. “It looks like me and you and nobody else.”
“Would we be able to go out in public?”
Carly waited for Lori to answer. But there was no response, just an uncomfortable quiet with the intermittent disruption of clattering silverware. “Coming out was so freeing” Carly finally broke the silence “and I’m serious about my commitment to a free and honest life
“I know you are, and believe me I love that” Lori insisted then trailed off.
“But…” Carly offered with a soft roll of her eyes.
“But we still have to be careful in public.” Lori finished. “Look, it’s my work.” Lori tried to explain, but the more she explained the further she felt Carly slipping away. “Everything I’ve spent my entire adult life striving toward is at the mercy of a bunch of rat pack ass-clowns who only feel like they can relate to me if I’m pretending to be …” she couldn’t finish the thought.
“A womanizing dirtbag like them” Carly completed the thought. She was all too familiar. Her mother had similar complaints about the family practice. It was half the reason she wanted nothing to do with law school.
“Yes.” Lori confirmed. “Which is exactly why I need to sure up my position in the company before making any public declarations.”
“When then?” Carly demanded to know.
“Soon. I promise.” Lori insisted with absolute surety. She thought back to the Center-G reports she’d been reading earlier and how the numbers proved even better than she’d anticipated. “Very, very soon.”
But it wasn’t enough for Carly. She finished her omelet, stood up from the table and kissed Lori on the cheek. “Not good enough.” Carly walked over to the door to let herself out. “Lori, I’m not going to wait forever while you figure things out.” And then she was gone leaving Lori by herself to wonder how something so good fell through her grasp yet again.
Chapter 10: Hell of a Woman
Stephanie's day starts off well, but quickly unravels when she realizes things are not what she presumed them to be.
Under normal circumstances, Stephanie would have been in full-scale panic mode. After all, her newest client was hounding her for answers about the dead body on their property, the dead body she was almost sure her husband had something to do with, the dead body who most surely had dollar bills on his person that could eventually be traced back to her. To top it all off she hadn’t even heard back from her daughter about last night’s date. But, the more she thought about it, the more Stephanie was beginning to see the positive.
Teddy was dead, and, cliché though it may be, that old adage was ringing true in Stephanie’s ears: Dead men tell no tales. Further, if Carly hadn’t come home yet, Stephanie figured she must have been worn out from a night of fun with Monica. And, if Carly was having fun with Monica, it meant she was one step closer to forgetting about Lori Purifoy. So, instead of panicking, Stephanie was even more at ease than she’d been the night before. Her confidence was visible in the relaxed way that she marched into the police station not even pressed to dress down the gate officer for asking to see her identification.
“I need to speak with the commanding officer on duty.” Stephanie spoke through the thick clear glass that blocked her off from the checkpoint officer at the information desk.
“Concerning what ma’am?”
“A document request” Stephanie explained with a hint of annoyance in her tone.
“You need to fill out form GA-231R, official state record release” the officer rattled off without bothering to make eye contact. His voice was monotone, as if he had pre-programmed responses at the ready for any given situation.
“Young man, look at me” Stephanie instructed in as nurturing a motherly tone as she could muster. “Do you know who I am?”
At that, the officer finally looked up to acknowledge her. As soon as he did, he was visibly flabbergasted. “My apologies Mrs. Lancaster” he stammered. “I’ll let the commissioner know you’re here to see him.”
Stephanie smiled reassuringly, but then reconsidered. She was, after all, already at the police station. Why not take the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. “No need to bother the commissioner, is the Monica on duty today?”
The check-in officer thought it was strange for Stephanie to want to speak with Monica given that Monica was only two years removed from being a rookie. But then he remembered the office was buzzing about #Carmon. “She should be at her desk ma’am. I’ll page her to come see you.”
Monica hadn’t been able to sleep the entire night before coming in to work. Her mind was racing with thoughts about Smokey and his untimely demise. She was convinced the location of discovery was intended as a message to Stephanie or the entire Lancaster family. She was also convinced that who ever was behind it, they were only getting started. So, instead of behaving like a normal human who sleeps, Monica immersed herself in every possible detail about the hospital, about Smokey, and the Lancaster’s, drawing connections where she could, and some where she shouldn’t. All of it landed her at the payoff of having Rodrick Stevens sitting directly across from her blabbing about any and every grievance he’d ever held against the Lancaster’s.
“It’s so good, finally having someone listen to me” Rodrick exclaimed with a sigh as he braced his weighty arms against the splintered wood of a dated desk chair. “I was starting to think I’d lost it or something.”
Monica sat at the other side of the desk swiveling back and forth in her chair between sips of coffee. “So, how did your cousin know the mayor?”
Rodrick puffed up his cheeks and let out a big huff of air. “I don’t know…I don’t know, but I do know one thing…” Rodrick trailed off letting Monica get visibly annoyed by the unfinished thought before adding “He was right about Lancaster being a punk ass bitch.”
“Hey, why don’t we cool it with the vulgarities and micro-misogyny.”
Rodrick placed his hands flat on Monica’s desk. “Look, whatever you do, you gotta look into Evan Lancaster. The man is nuts, he beat the sh…crap out of me.”
Finally, Monica thought, a tidbit she might actually be able to use. She’d heard whispers about Rodrick being beaten a few weeks back, but nothing ever came of it. She figured it was all just water-cooler gossip.
“Mayor Lancaster physically assaulted you?”
“YES! I mean, yes. And I have video of…”
“You have video?” Monica interrupted.
“I had video” Rodrick lamented. He could see Monica was starting to lose interest. “I’m telling the truth. And that’s probably what go my cousin killed.”
Monica was going to ask what Rodrick meant by that, but before she could get the words out her phone rang. She held one finger up in front of Rodrick, the universal signal for an indefinite brush off.
“I’ll be down shortly” Monica winced into the receiver.
“How may I help you Mrs. Lancaster” Monica announced as she marched down the APD stairs into the main lobby.
“Monica, dear, so nice to see you again.” Stephanie motioned for a cordial hug, but Monica stiff armed her way to a simple handshake instead. “And in full uniform this time around” Stephanie joked before dropping her hand.
“Well, lets just hope it stays that way.” The statement from Monica was half joke, half shade.
“I just stopped by to request a copy of your Teddy Fredricks file.” Stephanie paused to reach into her purse. “But while I’m here, I thought I’d drop this off.” Stephanie procured a pre-filled check from her purse and attempted to hand it over. But Monica wouldn’t even look at it. She simply shook her head and waved it away.
“I’m not my father, Stephanie. I can’t be bought.”
Stephanie, ever the control freak, laughed off the dismissal. “No, of course not.” Stephanie tilted her head back with a soft chuckle, a physical demonstration of the preposterous nature of Monica’s suggestion. “I heard that the policeman’s pension fund was in dire need of financial assistance. I wanted to make a personal donation.” Stephanie tried to hand the check over again.
For her part, Monica at least took the time to look at the check this time around. Two-hundred-thousand dollars. It was a check, for TWO-HUNDRED-THOUSAND dollars. What was up with the rich people in Atlanta, Monica thought, always writing checks for large amounts of money as if they were throwing away gum wrappers. Still, she had her principles.
“Appreciate the sentiment Stephanie, but there’s a website for that.” Monica turned to leave. “I’ll be back with a copy of the case file” she paused mid stride. “Oh, and a link to the donation site. I’m pretty sure they take Ca$hBuddy.”
Monica wasn’t gone more than thirty seconds before Rodrick came bounding down the stairs past Stephanie. His was the last face she’d expected to see, and absolutely the last that she wanted to see given her family’s current predicament. “What are you doing here?” she demanded to know.
Rodrick grinned dismissively. “I got the police listening to me now.” He turned to face Stephanie, “You and your husband should be scared.” He popped his collar with confidence and then continued his exit.
Stephanie had been waiting for the case file, but the sight of Rodrick made her lose focus. Her new obsession, finding out what in the hell Rodrick had been talking about with the police, dominate every free space in her mind. Her eyes tunneled in, her ears blocked out all the surrounding noise. Even her skin was numb to the breeze of other people rushing past her. She needed to know, she had to know. But, Stephanie Lancaster was no fool. She knew there was no way Monica would give her any details. She’d have better luck trying to suck milk from a camel’s teat in the winter.
Instead, when Monica returned Stephanie thanked her for the case file then quickly changed the subject. “So, I assume things went swimmingly with Carly last night…”
“That, is none of your business” Monica shot back.
“Well, I just meant it as a compliment. It must take a hell of a woman to keep my Carly from coming home after a night out.” If Stephanie hadn’t been so caught up in actively plotting her ruse she would have noticed Monica’s surprised expression. “When you get a chance just let her know…you know never mind. I was young once too. I’ll let you two have fun.”
“Carly didn’t come home last night” Monica questioned.
“No…” Stephanie answered with only the slightest hint of worry. “If my daughter isn’t with you, then where…” Stephanie trailed off again, having mentally answered her own question before Monica could assist.
“Excuse me Officer O’Rourke. I need to go speak with a blood sucking serpent named Lori Purifoy.”
The day had not gone according to plan, and that was putting it mildly. Still, Stephanie was sure she could salvage things and set the #Carmon train back on the right track. The Georgia sun was only just hitting its high point, still plenty of daylight left for a course correction. At least, that’s what Stephanie told herself as she approached the door to Lori’s apartment. She shook off her momentary lapse of self-doubt, raised her tightly curled fist to the door and knocked confidently.
Carly had been waiting patiently for Lori to get back from work. After their disagreement, they’d settled on something analogous to an open relationship. The rules were simple enough. Carly could date as she saw fit, unless and Until Lori was ready to go public with her. That much, Lori was happy to agree with, anything that kept the hope of their relationship alive just a little longer. The only problem was the second half of their agreement. Carly demanded that, if at any time she decided to get serious with someone else, she could walk away without any questions or discussion. In Lori’s mind it was an excessive stipulation that Carly only insisted on in order to manipulate Lori and cause her stress.
But, for now, Carly was excited at the idea that Lori had left work early to get back home to her. Her enthusiasm made it that much more disappointing when she opened the door to find her mother staring back at her.
“Carly, darling, what are you doing here?” Stephanie immediately questioned.
“Isn’t it obvious” Carly snorted with a roll of her eyes. “I’m avoiding you.”
Stephanie wasn’t going to waste time pretending to be oblivious. She knew Carly was too much like her to fall for it anyway. “It is my right as your mother to do whatever I see fit to protect you” she offered her defense instead. But, even if Carly could understand her motherly instinct, it had little to do with the source of Carly’s rage.
“Mom, you of all people should know what it’s like for a working female, even today. How could you do this, shame another woman like this.”
Where Stephanie was expecting to see anger, instead she saw humiliation. Like Carly was embarrassed to be associated with her. “I did what I did out of concern for you.”
“You slut shamed Lori and used prior bad acts to shame her into silence.” Carly had positioned her body to block off half the door. Every time Stephanie thought she found room to enter, Carly would shift and close it off. “I knew you were ruthless, but I thought at least that much was beneath you.”
“Carly, I…” Before Stephanie could finish her thought, Lori came prancing down the hall looking every bit like the overly confident succubus.
Lori saw Stephanie in front of her, but decided that ignoring her would prove more impactful than acknowledging her presence. The way Lori figured it, Stephanie was like the plant from Little Shop of Horrors, if they just ignored her, she’d shrink and go away.
“Hey babe” Carly announced as she approached the door. She stepped her way around Stephanie and gave Carly an extra long kiss on the lips just for Stephanie’s benefit. Before Stephanie could protest, the door closed in her face. But she had one last ace up her sleeve. Stephanie knew many things about her daughter, including the fact that, despite her best efforts, Carly was unmistakably a daddy’s girl.
She took her phone out and started texting. Even if Carly was ignoring her, eventually, she would read her messages.
Carly, sweetie, I understand you’re mad at me. But please don’t take it out on your dad. He needs your help.
There was no way Stephanie was going to allow herself to be bested by Lori Purifoy. She had blazers older than Lori Purifoy and it would be a cold day in hell before she allowed herself to be bested by an over grown infant whose motives could not be trusted.