Chapter One

It was amazing how much the Columbia landscape had changed since the last time Dante Groves had been back to the place she considered home. New strip malls replaced her old familiar haunts. Apartment buildings were in place of the rest, or they were just completely gone. It was disconcerting how much of what she’d remembered had been erased from the area.

I really have been away far too long.

Nothing ever stayed the same, not even in Missouri. Dante turned off her GPS and let her memory of these roads take her to her chosen destination. Her stomach rumbled so forcefully it made her feel queasy. She checked the time on the dashboard clock. No wonder she was starving. She’d driven way past lunchtime and it was now bordering on dinner. Dante decided that appeasing her hunger was way more important than reminiscing over her lost youth. She had consigned that to the past long ago. At least the road she was on now was all too familiar. The Baydale Mall she was heading toward was looming in the distance. Even that looked larger than she remembered it. There’d obviously been a few structural additions since she’d last been there.

She prepared to switch lanes to head toward the mall, but a brand new building captured her attention. A restaurant lay just ahead with a bright orange awning that definitely hadn’t been there before Dante left. Her stomach tightened at the thought of food. She’d had breakfast on the road, a hastily grabbed breakfast burrito from a drive-through, and now she desperately needed something more filling. She also needed to sit somewhere other than in her car. Decision made, Dante pulled off the road and into the parking lot of Takira’s and managed to find the last space to park in. It was a relief for her to finally get out of the car and stretch her legs.

“I’m getting too old for cross-country driving,” she grumbled, checking then double-checking that she’d locked the car securely as it held all her worldly possessions inside. I’m forty-seven years old, and everything I own I can pack into the trunk of my car. How sad is that?Dante smoothed down her shirt and hoped she looked less rumpled than she felt.

Ambient music greeted her, and the air conditioning was a relief after the heat of Missouri’s temperatures beating down on her in the old secondhand car she’d picked up. The car’s AC was hit or miss at best. Dante liked the fact the restaurant’s music wasn’t too loud to distract the customers from their conversations. I sound like my mother. She smiled as a greeter came straight for her and was soon directing her toward a table.

“Oh my God,” someone said as Dante weaved her way through the tables. “Dante?”

Dante stopped in her tracks. She knew that voice. She turned around as someone behind her stood up from their seat. “Trent?” Dante tilted her head back a little to look up at Trent, grinning like a maniac at her. She welcomed the hug that enveloped her and returned it twice as hard.

“For God’s sake, Trent, did you never stop growing?” Dante pulled back and stared at her. “What are you? Seven foot now?”

Trent laughed. “I peaked at six. Anyway, I’m not that tall; you’re just economy sized.”

Dante laughed at that old familiar retort. She’d last heard it from a much younger Trent Williams. She grasped Trent’s arms and looked her over. “You’ve gotten even more handsome if that was possible. Look at you. You must be breaking hearts statewide.”

Trent shook her head. “I gave that up some time ago.” She pulled out a chair at her table for Dante to join her. “Man, it’s so good to see you. How long has it been?”

“You were just a babe when I moved away.” She thought a moment. “I’d just turned thirty-six so…my God, it was eleven years ago.” She grimaced. “That time went fast. Feels even longer looking at how you’ve grown.”

Trent got a faraway look in her eye. “I was twenty-three when you left. I still remember us meeting when I was just eighteen and new to the scene.” Trent smiled at her across the table. “You were my hero and role model all rolled into one, Dante Groves. I hope you know how much you did for me back then.”

Dante shook her head. “You’d have found your way, Trent. You just needed to be away from that damned family of yours to see your own strength and beauty in the world.”

Trent picked up a menu. “You eating?”

Dante nodded. “Yes, I’m starving. I’ve been driving all day. I was heading for the mall but spotted this place first. And look who I find in here.” She smiled. “So, how new is this place because I don’t remember it ever being here before.”

“It was built two years or so ago. We got this restaurant, a sporting goods store, and a comic book store out of it.” Trent grinned. “The comic book store is a personal favorite.” She beckoned over a server. “Can we order some drinks, please?” She looked back at Dante. “I’m waiting on someone before I order food, but if you want to go ahead don’t let me stop you.”

“I’ll look at the menu in a minute but a light beer would be most welcome. I’ve still got to drive.”

Trent put their drink orders in and then settled back in her chair. “So, what brings you back here? Didn’t you move to Texas?”

Dante nodded. How did she even begin to explain what a debacle that had been? She’d thought it would be her happy ever after but instead had turned into her worse nightmare. She was still wondering where to start when her drink appeared before her, along with some appetizers.

Dante broke open one of the small samosas to get a taste of the spicy pea and potato filling crammed inside. She hummed at the burst of heat that tripped over her tongue from the mix of spices. She dipped her next one in the chutney, took a mouthful, and groaned in appreciation. “Wow, that is delicious.” She went back for more. After another mouthful, she finally answered Trent’s question. “Yeah…Texas. Turned out to be way too hot there for this soul. Also, not the smartest move I ever made.”

“Didn’t you move away to be with that nurse?”

“Counselor. Chloe was a counselor. Looking after the mental health of her patients tirelessly.” Dante made a face. “Looking after them a little too much, to be honest. I caught her cheating on me a few years ago. Found out it wasn’t the first time either. So I packed up my things and walked out.”

“Fuck, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah, well, it happens. Wish it hadn’t happened in my bed with me catching her and another woman mid orgasm, but hey, shit happens.” Dante held up her bottle to Trent in a toast. “Here’s to my not being stupid enough to ever get burned again.” They clinked their bottles together.

“You said a few years ago? What’s taken you so long to come back home?”

“I decided to just shake loose and go places I’d never seen before. I’d played the dutiful partner long enough. It got me nowhere but homeless, woman-less, and eventually jobless. So I figured I’d go to all the places I’d always dreamed about but Chloe was too busy at work to have time for.” Dante shrugged.

“Where did you go?”

“Universal Studios first, took myself to Disneyland too and rode every ride three or four times without hearing, ‘Don’t you think you’re too old to be doing that?’ in that disapproving voice Chloe always had when it was something I enjoyed doing. I bought myself a Mushu dragon there that has been my companion on the long journey that’s finally led me back home.”

Trent smiled. “I know Mushu very well. Mulanis a favorite movie in my house.”

Dante took another bite off the plate. “Then where did I go? Oh, Germany, where I attempted to drown my sorrows in their very fine beers. But there’s only so many hangovers you can wake up to before that gets old fast.” Dante smiled as she remembered what came next. “And then I went to England. I stayed in London for about a year, found a job, and while there witnessed the glory of the Second Coming.”

“Really? I think we missed that event over here somehow.”

“I was incredibly lucky to score a ticket to see Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn concert. It was only the second time in her career she performed a series of concerts, and I got to see her. It was the closest thing to a religious experience I have ever witnessed. I ripped up my bucket list there and then. That was the only thing I’d ever wanted to see, and nothing will ever come close to beating it in my lifetime.”

Trent smiled at her. “I remember you’d have her playing in the car when you’d pick me and Elton up to go out with you. Every time I hear her I think of you.” Trent eyed her over her bottle. “So, you played hooky and traveled the world, got to see your idol, and now you’re back in Columbia. Are you here to stay or are you just passing through off onto your next adventure?”

Dante shook her head. “No, I’m hoping to stay put if I can find work. I’ve done a variety of managing jobs on my travels both here and abroad, but I’m looking for something more permanent. And I’m in need of a roof over my head. But I need to eat first and then I can sort out the details of what I have to do next.” She took a long drink from her beer. “But enough about me and my failed love life, what about you, young Williams? How has life been treating you since I last saw you?”

Trent tapped at the badge fastened to her shirt. “I’m an assistant manager at Gamerz Paradisenow.”

Dante was proud of her. She remembered Trent starting at the job and how excited she’d been.

“Do they still appreciate your knowledge?”

“They do, and my staff are all gamers too so it’s as good as it gets as a dream job for me.”

“You still have that lanky long-haired guy by your side?” Elton and Trent were hard to forget, both for their heights and their looks.

“The one you use to call the String Bean Wookie? Yes, we’re still BFFs, best friends forever.”

“More like partners in crime,” Dante said dryly.

“We were young and foolish. I forget you knew me way back when.”

“So, my handsome butch, why no breaking young girls’ hearts?” A big smile as gentle as she had ever seen broke out on Trent’s face.

“Things changed, Ichanged, and life got a million times better.” Her eyes lit up and sparkled.

“Mama!”

Dante startled at the high-pitched voice that sounded from behind her. Someone’s child was obviously excited. What she didn’t expect was to see the smile on Trent’s face grow even brighter as she slipped from her seat to crouch beside the table.

“Mama!”

A little blond girl flung herself into Trent’s arms. Her arms wrapped tightly around Trent’s neck as they exchanged kisses.

“Mama, I missed you!”

“I missed you too, Harley.” Trent stood back up and winked over Harley’s head at someone.

Dante figured whoever it was must have sent the child after Trent. She didn’t turn around to look; she was still reeling from the whole “Mama” business.

“Have you been a good girl for Mommy today?” Trent asked, settling back into her seat with Harley in her arms.

Harley nodded against Trent’s neck. “Mommy said no eat worms. They not spaghetti.”

Trent laughed and kissed Harley’s head. “Good girl. No one wants worm breath.” She nudged Harley gently. “Are you going to say hello to my friend Dante? She’s going to be so happy to meet you.”

Harley turned and smiled in Dante’s direction, flashing a mouthful of little white baby teeth. “Hi,” she said, burying her face back into Trent’s neck shyly.

Dante had to admit this kid was incredibly cute. She had big blue eyes and a mass of blond hair tied up with a brightly colored scrunchie. She was dressed in a Wonder Woman T-shirt and a little pair of denim shorts. Tiny Wonder Woman sneakers adorned her feet. Dante reconsidered; the kid was certifiably adorable with a great taste in heroes.

“Hi, Harley.”

Harley shifted to sit on Trent’s lap and cuddled back against her to play with Trent’s work tie.

“Did I hear right? I mean, I’m edging ever closer to fifty and the hearing isn’t what it used to be.” Dante still couldn’t believe what she was seeing or what she’d heard. She watched as Trent gently rocked Harley back and forth in her arms while Harley swung on her tie.

“Harley, who am I?” Trent asked her.

Harley patted Trent’s chest. “Is my mama!”

Dante’s jaw dropped.

Things hadchanged.

Dante couldn’t take her eyes off Trent with Harley sitting so peacefully in her arms. “Yeah,” Trent said. “It was a big change for me too. But I wanted it.” She kissed Harley’s head tenderly. “I wanted it so bad. Look what I got blessed with, Dante. I have a daughter and she, like her mother, is everything to me. I got a family, Dante, one of my very own.”

Dante recognized the disbelief that cast shadows across Trent’s eyes for a moment before the sheer joy of being loved replaced it.

“I’m so happy for you,” she said. “How old is Harley?”

Harley answered and held up two fingers and one slightly bent. “Two and a half,” she answered seriously. “I go to school now.”

“It’s a mother and toddler meet-and-greet kind of thing,” Trent said. “I guess it’s to make sure that little kids are comfortable around other kids before they’re thrown into a more structured school regimen. Harley’s used to kids though because she’s got cousins out the ass.”

“Mama! Naughty word!” Harley looked aghast.

Trent grinned at her and kissed her head. “You are your mommy’s daughter. I’ll put a dollar in the jar when we get home.”

Suitably mollified, Harley sat back to be cuddled a little more.

An incredibly pretty blonde navigating her way around the tables with a stroller caught Dante’s attention. She was gorgeous, and Dante sat up straighter.

“What’s just pinged on your radar?” Trent asked. “Or should I saywho?”

Dante had forgotten Trent had learned all the right butch cues from her.

“A breathtakingly beautiful blonde is heading in this direction,” Dante said, not taking her eyes off the woman.

“Is that so?” Trent said.

The blonde headed straight toward their table, and Dante stood up as she drew near.

“Well, aren’t you sweet?” The blonde smiled at Dante and leaned down to kiss Trent’s smiling lips. “Now why didn’t you stand for me?”

“I have a lap full of baby,” Trent said, stretching up for another kiss. “Hey, Juliet.”

Dante sat back down as Juliet took the seat beside Trent’s.

“Mommy!” Harley shouted.

Juliet held out a soft plush toy for Harley’s grabby hands. “You left Yoshi in your stroller. He was getting lonely.” She handed him over.

Harley kissed his soft fuzzy head and then walked him across the tabletop. “Yoshi wants ice cream,” she said.

“Well, he’ll have to wait until after you eat your meal and then he can share whatever flavor you pick out tonight,” Juliet said.

Harley nodded and began chatting to Yoshi quietly, probably explaining the delay in dessert for little dinosaurs.

“Juliet, this is a very dear friend of mine. Dante, this is Juliet. My wife.”

Dante tried not to look too stunned over that piece of information. She held out her hand to Juliet. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Juliet.” She cast an eye at Trent. “You truly are the luckiest butch on the whole planet. You know that, right?”

Trent looked smug. “I’m well aware of how lucky I am, believe me. Jule, Dante is the one who taught me how to be the suave and sophisticated butch that swept you off your feet.”

Juliet gave Trent a smoldering look that made Dante almost groan in frustrated arousal. God, Trent had snagged herself a looker. Lucky bastard.

“The Jedi Master to your Padawan, babe?”

Trent laughed. “Minus the lightsabers sadly, but pretty much yes. She got me out of some fixes when I first began negotiating the gay scene.”

Juliet’s full attention switched to Dante and all but seared her where she sat. “So you would be the one to know stories of a young Trent that maybe Elton wouldn’t be a party to or unlikely to divulge?”

Dante shot Trent a less than innocent look. Consider this payback for not warning me the gorgeous blonde I was eyeing was yours.“I just might know a few tales best told out of earshot of your daughter and her mother.”

“Is my mama,” Harley suddenly piped up, patting Trent’s arm. Then she leaned over to pat Juliet. “Is my mommy.”

“You’re a very lucky little girl,” Dante told her. “She’s the spitting image of you, Juliet.” Dante had a feeling Trent loved that more than anything else.

“In looks, yes,” Juliet said. “But she’s her mama’s child in temperament and likes.”

“Mommy, my-pad, my-pad,” Harley demanded as she pushed aside the menus on the table to clear space for her tablet. She took it from Juliet with a cheery “Thank you!” and switched it on.

“We had to get her a tablet of her own. She kept beating my Angry Birds scores.” Trent’s disgruntled face made Dante laugh. “It was demoralizing, and the sticky finger marks were getting harder to clean off. Plus it was prudent to get her one of her own so I didn’t keep finding she’d deleted my games by accident.”

“Naughty birdies, Mama.” Harley pointed at the screen, and both her and Trent’s attention fixated on the game for a moment.

“The gaming gene she definitely gets from Trent,” Juliet said. She picked up the menu and scanned it. “Same as usual for you, babe?”

Trent nodded. “Yes, please.” She looked over at Dante. “Order whatever you want. It’s my treat.”

“Trent—”

“No, Dante. You were there for me when I needed you as a young adult. I’m so glad to have you back here. Paying for your meal is the least I can do.” Trent turned to Juliet. “We need to help her find a job and a place to stay. She’s literally rolling in with just her wheels and nothing in place.”

“What kind of work are you looking for?” Juliet asked.

“Anything that pays the bills. I helped manage a bar for a month or two in Kansas City to get the money together to come back here. I am a trained manager by profession, and that’s come in handy in a lot of places. But I’ll literally do anything as long as it pays.” She wagged a finger at the managerial badge on Trent’s chest. “Something I’m glad Trent didn’t follow in my footsteps with. You stuck with it, just like I knew you would.”

“I’m very dedicated to my job. It probably helps it’s connected to something I’m passionate about.”

“Well, when I get a job and someplace to live, then you can hook me up with a new console. Chloe wouldn’t let me use mine, and I stupidly gave in to her.” Dante shook her head at how gullible she’d been. “She didn’t want me in the house ‘rotting my brain with games.’” Dante air quoted. “Of course, now I know why she wanted me out of the house.”

“When you’re ready just come into the store and I’ll do you a great deal,” Trent said. She looked down at Harley in her lap. “You hungry, Harley Q?”

Harley nodded, her head bent over the pad in her little hands. “And juice please.”

Juliet got up. “Darling, you know what I want. I’ll go send Zenya over for our order. I can see she’s on tonight.” She pressed a quick kiss on Trent’s temple as she slipped behind her. “I’m going to see if Takira is in.” She smiled down at Harley. “Harley, you tell Mama what you want, okay?”

“Cheese,” Harley drew out the word with a multitude of eee’s.

Trent grinned and looked at Dante. “That’s her favorite thing at the moment.”

“And strawberries,” Harley added.

“Just not on the same plate though, eh, baby?”

Harley laughed, muttered, “Silly Mama,” and carried on with her game.

“You’re happy, aren’t you?” Dante asked. “And you’re married. My God, dude, you’re married!”

Trent held out her hand to show off her ring. A simple gold band sat on her finger. “I found me a keeper, and for reasons I will always thank God for, she wants to keep me too.”

“Family life suits you. I’ve never seen you look so content. I just remember you downing shots and singing bad karaoke with Elton. Then I was having to carry you both home, and you still came back to the bar the next night raring to do it all over again.”

“That was just existing. This,” Trent nodded toward Harley, “this is living. Meeting Jule, us having Harley Quinn, it’s everything my life should be.”

Dante’s lips quirked. “You really called your kid that?”

“It’s Juliet’s fault. There’s a family thing where they use Grandma Sullivan’s maiden name as a middle name for all the kids. We just carried that tradition forward, and there was no way in hell I was letting that opportunity pass me by.”

“I’ve missed you, kid,” Dante said.

“I missed you too. Wait until you see Elton.”

“He still trying to grow that damn fool beard he was so desperate for?”

Trent laughed. “He got better at it. It’s more than just peach fuzz now.” She drew Harley’s attention from her game. “Harley, Zenya’s coming. Can you tell her what you want for your dinner, please?”

Harley scrambled up to stand on Trent’s lap, balancing herself by gripping onto Trent’s shirt collar. “Hi, Zenya, I want cheese!”

Zenya, an attractive dark skinned woman with dreadlocks tied back in a ponytail, laughed as she interacted with Harley. “Of course you do. One special order of mac and cheese for Harley Quinn coming right up.” Zenya looked at Trent and Dante next and wrote down their orders.

Trent stopped her before she left. “Put this all on one bill, please. Dante’s family and she’s not spending a dime tonight no matter how much she asks for the bill, okay?”

Zenya nodded and winked at Dante. “Enjoy your meal.”

Dante swallowed at the lump that had risen in her throat. Yes, she’d made the right move. She was back where she belonged. She was home.

 

Chapter Two

Takira’s head was lost in the endless stream of receipts and orders that she was scrolling through on her laptop. She berated herself for the millionth time for not realizing that her ex-manager’s littlehabit of betting on every football game had grown into a full-blown addiction to gambling. She’d have been more than willing to get Claude any help he had needed. Instead, he had helped himself. Helped himself to thousands of Takira’s restaurant takings and dragged her into a debt she didn’t discover until it was nearly too late. Claude had been able to steal a huge chunk of money. Had he been less greedy or less in debt to the people he owed the money to, Takira might not have missed smaller amounts siphoning out of her bank account. But Claude had been desperate so he’d taken as much as he could get in one go.

The courts were now trying to recover Takira’s losses. Her lawyer was in the process of chasing Claude from state to state as he fled from the promise of prison time for his crime. Also from the promise of having his knee caps shattered courtesy of the loan sharks he’d been supposed to pay off. So instead he had used the money to run.

Finding him was proving to be a challenge, and Takira was resigned to the fact the money was lost and she had to start from scratch to rebuild her safety net for the restaurant.

She lifted her head to stretch her neck a little to rid it of the tension that seemed to live there now. Takira’s gaze fell upon the photograph that resided on her desk. It was a rare family shot. Her parents, Simone and Milton Lathan, stood behind Takira and her twin sister Latitia. Takira stared at her sister for a moment.

“I bet you’re laughing your head off at my misfortune, aren’t you? You never passed up an opportunity to celebrate any failure I suffered.”

She couldn’t believe how identical they were in looks but miles apart in personality. She knew Latitia had hated looking like her. “You might be happy looking like Viola Davis, but I’d have preferred a skin color like Beyoncé’s.” Takira ran a hand over her dark skin. She considered the actress a truly gorgeous individual so had taken it as a compliment. Latitia was never satisfied. She could have been the living embodiment of Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Janelle Monae, and she would have still found something to find fault with. Latitia had constantly complained about Takira’s mass of natural brown curls that fell past her shoulders like a mane. Latitia had sat for hours in hairdresser chairs having hers cut, straightened, and dyed, anything to change her looks from Takira’s. Anything to not be the person she was, to reinvent herself, to fit in with the rightcrowds, to be less identical. Takira understood the need to carve out her own sense of identity. But Latitia had inherited all of their mother’s worse traits, including putting Takira down at every chance. They might have been twins, but their mother had pitted them against each other from birth. Over time, any bond they might have shared was shattered. Takira was destined to work hard and feel the need to prove herself constantly. Latitia grew up believing the world owed her a favor, and she wanted it paid in full.

Takira was so lost in the past that she barely registered the knock on her office door. She called out for whoever it was to come in, never taking her eyes off the photo. She waited for them to start reeling off something that was happening in the restaurant that only she could possibly deal with. At the silence that greeted her instead, Takira looked up and found Juliet Sullivan-Williams staring back at her, arms folded and foot tapping.

“Did I miss a meeting we had or something?” Takira searched her memory for an appointment that must have slipped her mind with Juliet who now took care of the restaurant’s financial side for her. Never mix friendship with business, Takira had learned, but Juliet’s financial wizardry had kept Takira’s running and afloat once Claude had disappeared along with her money. Takira had never been more grateful to have someone she trusted watching over her business now.

“No, no meeting. But imagine my surprise when I’m informed by your staff that you’re still ensconced in your office instead of braving the rush hour traffic with somewhere else you’re supposed to be.”

Takira checked the time, groaned, and put her head in her hands. “I lost track of the time. I’ve been sorting out the problem we had with our freshly sourced tomatoes.”

“And then, no doubt, something else came up and your attention was diverted again.”

Takira nodded. “The timing just couldn’t be any worse. One of my servers quit yesterday because her boyfriend is moving out of town and asked her to go with him. And I still need a manager to replace the Claude-shaped hole in my team. But everyone I’ve interviewed just doesn’t seem right to me. This restaurant is my baby. I want to work with people I know will take as much pride in it as I do. But then, I thought Claude was perfect for the job and look how wrong I was there.”

“We’ll find you someone. But you need a break from being all business, if only for an hour. And wow, isn’t it a good thing that I’m eating here tonight with Trent and Harley as our usual Friday treat?” Juliet stared her down before Takira started to argue. “I’ve ordered you a meal. If I have to I will drag you out of here by your beautifully abundant hair and force you to eat something because I’m betting you haven’t eaten all day either.”

Takira realized her stomach was feeling decidedly hollow now that she’d stopped working. She smiled at Juliet’s no-nonsense face. “Who knew I’d end up with such a wonderful friend from you being regular customers? And such an amazing accountant too.”

“Flattery still won’t get me to fudge your taxes, honey,” Juliet said and gestured for Takira to leave her seat. “Come on. Come see my handsome wife and our gorgeous child and bask in our domesticity before Harley starts eating and we all end up wearing it.”

“My staff loves that child.” Takira began powering down her laptop. She wouldn’t be working anymore today. “I swear they fight over who gets to serve her dessert just to see her smile.”

“Harley does love her sweet treats. It’s a good thing she’s so active otherwise she’d be a little baby butterball. Zenya has our orders tonight, and I’ve given her yours too.” Juliet reached out to catch Takira’s arm gently. “How are you doing today? Honestly now, no bullshit, because I can spot that a mile off.”

“I’m resigned.”

“And procrastinating,” Juliet added gently. “You have to go to your mother’s eventually today. You know that, right?”

Takira nodded. “I’m just working more on it being later rather than sooner.”

“Come with me. You can eat, have a coffee to fortify yourself to face your mother, then you can leave. My offer still stands if you want me to go with you.”

Takira shook her head. “No, no, I’ll be fine, I promise. I just wish things were different.”

Juliet pulled her in for a hug. “I know. I wish things were different for you too. But you know you have Trent and me ready to help you every way we can. You’re not alone, Takira. We’re here for you. Don’t be too proud to ask.” She guided Takira out of the office and waited while she locked it up. “I just wish you’d let me find you a good woman, get you all settled down and not doing everything by yourself.”

Takira snorted. “I have more than enough on my plate, thank you very much. I don’t have time for any woman. She’d come second to the restaurant, and no woman in her right mind would settle for that.”

Juliet squeezed her arm in sympathy as they wandered out into the bustling restaurant. Takira put on her bravest face and waved and greeted her regular customers warmly. She was proud of what she had accomplished with her restaurant and how well received it was in the community. She’d worked tirelessly to achieve her goal of being a restaurateur. This was the fruition of years of hard work. This was her life.

Juliet’s voice pulled her from her musings.

“You know, I get to see Trent every day, but she still makes my heart skip a beat.”

Trent looked up and locked eyes with Juliet. “Look at how she looks at you,” Takira said. “How do you ever keep your hands off her?”

“We have a two-and-a-half-year-old,” Juliet said. She slipped her arm out of Takira’s to retake her seat, leaving the last empty seat for Takira.

Trent smiled at Takira. “Did Juliet drag you kicking and screaming from your office like usual?”

“She did, but it was worth it to see you all.” Takira planted a kiss on Trent’s cheek.

Harley held her arms out. “‘Kira, up, up!”

Takira gathered Harley in her arms and cuddled her close. “Hey, baby. Are you being a good girl for your mommies?”

Harley nodded seriously, her attention distracted by Takira’s hair which she started playing with.

“Takira,” Trent said, “I’d like you to meet a very dear friend of mine.”

Takira turned, embarrassed she hadn’t realized there had been a fourth person at the table.

Dante stood and held out her hand. “Dante Groves. You have a beautiful restaurant. I’m looking forward to eating here.”

Takira’s breath caught in her chest. Dante was like an older version of Trent. A more mature butch, the kind of woman Takira found unashamedly sexy. She had a weakness for androgyny. 
For her, the butcher, the better. There was just something about 
a woman comfortable in her body that displayed a more masculine air.

Dante might be as butch as Trent, but she was nowhere near as tall. She was pleased to note that in her heels she was just that bit taller than Dante too. Dante was solid in stature, not slender or curvy, but broad. She was rounder in the face than Trent was; her obvious maturity had softened some of the sterner lines. Dante’s gray hair was shaved on the sides with the top left a little longer in an artfully disheveled quiff. The severe cut suited her.

Takira took in Dante’s dress. She tried not to swoon over the rolled up sleeves of a black denim shirt that displayed toned arms. There was even a hint of a tattoo. She couldn’t quite make out the design from where it peeked out under the precise folds that creased the shirt just so. Dante wore black jeans with a rolled up cuff, and Takira could see a pair of well-worn but shiny black leather boots. Takira realized she’d been silent just that little too long and that she was still holding Dante’s firm hand in her own.

“Any friend of Trent’s,” she said huskily, sitting down as carefully as she could with Harley still in her hold. “I hope you enjoy your meal with us tonight.”

Dante sat down too. “I’m sure I will.”

“I’m having cheese!” Harley announced to pretty much the whole room.

Takira laughed at her. “That’s because you have my head chef wrapped around your baby fingers, and he won’t let anyone else make your mac and cheese but him.”

Harley giggled and reached back for Trent and her game.

Their food soon arrived, and Takira dug in, trying hard not to critique the taste of her meal seeing as it wasn’t something she had made herself. She still liked to make time to cook in her restaurant. That was where she truly belonged.

Trent was managing to eat her meal and help Harley with hers. Juliet leaned over from time to time to wipe food from Harley’s face and from off Trent’s once-clean white shirt. Takira took a moment to just enjoy the company and the food and let her mind drift to the woman next to her who was eating like she hadn’t had a meal in days.

“How are you enjoying the lasagna?” Takira asked, trying not to laugh at Dante having to slow down in order to answer her.

“I am so glad I was driving past this evening. I found the most excellent company, and everything else…” Dante looked up from her plate directly into Takira’s eyes, “is beautiful.”

Takira smiled and hoped her blush wasn’t too noticeable. For a moment she let herself bask in the ambiance of the room and tried to push everything else from her head aside. She existed only in this moment, and nothing was going to change.

She knew she was lying but continued to pacify herself with those thoughts before she had to face reality’s harsh truths. Her future plans were about to be taken out of her hands. Not even the welcome distraction of this woman was going to save her.

Another coffee, beer, and juice arrived at the table, and the empty plates were whisked away. Takira smiled at how efficiently her staff performed. She laughed at Harley’s excitement when her strawberries arrived, topped with soft ice cream and covered in sprinkles. If only life were that simple. Trent wrangled Harley closer to the table so she could eat her treat. She made it look so easy. Takira looked away and caught Dante looking at her.

“You appear to have the weight of the world on your shoulders.”

Takira shook her head trying to summarize her feelings that were making themselves known even to complete strangers. “No, I’m just…it’s been a stressful few weeks and I’ve lost a few staff members, which hasn’t helped.” She tried to shrug it off. “But that’s the nature of business I guess.”

Trent wiped some sticky juice off Harley’s chin. “Dante’s a manager by trade,” she said. Takira stared at her. “Just putting it out there. You need a manager. Dante needs a job to help get herself settled back at home here in Columbia. It would kill two birds with one stone.” She smiled at Takira’s frown. “I can vouch for her. You won’t find a harder worker. She managed the bar where we first met and then took on the restaurant next to it when they joined forces. They were devastated when she left. Said they’d never find better, and they didn’t. They went out of business within two years after their new manager mishandled the books.”

Takira adored Trent but wasn’t just going to take her word for it that this Dante was suitable material to take a role in her business. She eyed Dante speculatively. Dante looked as surprised as she was by Trent’s recommendation. “I’d have to see your résumé before any decision could be made.”

Dante nodded. “I have all my paperwork in my car. I can give you a copy.”

“Let me finish my coffee, then you and I will go talk.” She looked up at Juliet’s pointed cough of disapproval. “I can manage an interview before I have to leave. I know exactly what I’m looking for in a manager. It won’t take long.”

“Thank you,” Dante said sincerely. “I appreciate you even giving me an interview on such short notice.”

“It’s hard work,” Takira warned her. Dante just smiled.

“I never shy away from that.”

“Then we’ll talk.” Takira refused to talk business on the restaurant floor, but she had to admit to being curious about just who this Dante Groves was. She did need a manager though and quickly, thanks to Claude’s disappearance. Everything had happened so fast and she’d been so stunned that she hadn’t had time to put out any feelers to see if anyone at another restaurant wanted to change locations. If Dante had the right credentials, Takira wasn’t going to knock fate bringing Trent’s old friend home and delivering her right on her door step.

Fate owed her something good to balance all the bad she’d had to suffer through lately.

 

 

Takira’s office was a stark contrast to the rest of the restaurant. It had less of the bright oranges and yellows that was the restaurant’s theme. The office was a calmer mix of creams and lavender. Dante spotted a small figurine on Takira’s desk. It was Olaf from Frozen. His presence made her feel more at ease. She couldn’t help herself; she grinned.

Takira looked up from reading Dante’s résumé.

“What?”

“You have an Olaf on your desk.”

Takira looked over at the happy snowman then back at Dante. “He makes me smile,” she said.

“It’s one of my favorite movies.” Dante leaned over the desk a little. “I have a huge collection of Disney movies in the trunk of my car. Those and my portable DVD player have kept me sane in many a motel room.”

“You’re a Disney fan?” Takira looked surprised.

“From the classics to the new stuff with Pixar. Every time I visit Disneyland it’s like the first time all over again. I usually go on my own though because not everyone appreciates the House of Mouse.”

“The last time I went was with my sister and my nephew. He was barely three months old, which was way too young to appreciate it, but Latitia had insisted on going. She soon left me pushing the stroller while she took herself on all the rides and then wandered off ahead of me doing her own thing while I tagged behind. It wasn’t much of a trip for me, and she still complained she’d had to deal with the baby.” Takira frowned.

“Well, if you ever want to go again with someone who will drag you on and off every ride and in and out of every store, then count me in. I would make sure you enjoyed your trip and had a blast. I’m going to live there once the Star Wars theme park is open.”

That made Takira laugh. “Nowthere’s no doubt you’re a friend of Trent’s. She and Elton can prattle on about those movies for hours if you let them.”

“I can’t believe I literally just stepped foot back in Columbia and there she was. Now I know I’m home.”

Takira riffled through the papers in her hand. “You worked at the Albion in London. That’s a highly renowned restaurant. Even I’ve heard about it over here. You had a year managing there, correct?”

Dante nodded. “I applied for a work visa to stay there and run it for a while. That was a great place to look after, always very busy. The clients were so friendly and London is an amazing mix of cultures. The whole world passes through there. I got that job through a friend of a friend. It pays to make contacts in this business. You never know where it might take you.”

Takira handed Dante back her paperwork. Dante smothered her disappointment and struggled not to let it show.

“You’ve done a wide and varied selection of jobs and quite some traveling in the past four years. How likely are you to actually stay in a job before the wanderlust has you wanting to roam again?”

“I’m ready to put down roots. I’ve been gone too long as it is. The traveling was great at the time and fulfilled its purpose, but there was only so long I could afford it, and I eventually got tired of not having my own bed to sleep in at night.”

“Where are you staying now?”

Dante looked sheepishly at her. “That’s next on my list of things to sort out. I’ll probably find a cheap hotel tonight to stay in while I find a place to rent. I’m tired of living out of my suitcase too.”

Takira looked thoughtful for a long moment.

“Your credentials are exemplary and your references are full of praise. For that reason, I’m prepared to offer you a probationary period here at Takira’s. After which you may decide that you don’t want to work here or I might decide you’re not suitable for the role I need.” She stared Dante down. “I hear the boss is a bit of a ball-breaker.”

“Good thing I don’t happen to possess a pair then, isn’t it?”

Takira’s laugh warmed Dante as she felt a weight lift from her shoulders. For now, she had work with the promise of something more permanent if she did a good job. She wasn’t going to turn the opportunity down.

“The job also comes with a place to stay if you want it.”

“You’re kidding.”

“There’s an apartment above the restaurant where I live. It has an extra bedroom with its own bathroom attached. You’d be sharing the living room space and the small kitchen that’s up there with me. But I’m rarely in residence as the restaurant takes up most of my time. Being here would save you worrying for the probationary period and give you more time to look for a place of your own without feeling rushed into settling for the first thing you saw.”

Dante let the words sink in as she realized how lucky she was. She’d only been back in Columbia three hours. She couldn’t help but wonder what she’d done to deserve the abundance of opportunities being gifted her.

“The room is free, but you’d be expected to contribute to groceries and do your share of the cleaning,” Takira said in the silence. “The room’s not exactly big, and it’s just temporary until we decide if this is going to work out.”

“Yes,” Dante blurted out. “Yes to it all, please. Thank you!” She hadn’t relished the idea of having to live in yet another impersonal hotel room.

Takira smiled. “Something tells me you’re not rendered speechless often.”

“Hardly ever, but then I’m never given all I could wish for in one go. It’s overwhelming. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Things don’t usually just fall in my lap this easily.”

“Well, you’ve yet to experience working and living with me. Reserve your judgment until then.” Takira’s eyes fell to the clock on the wall. “I really need to go. I recommend you go get yourself settled in upstairs. Your room is the one to the left of the living room. I’ll have a word with Eric on the way out. He’s been temporary manager since Claude…left. He’ll be glad for you to take the job off his hands. He can go through the job with you tomorrow…unless you don’t work weekends?” Takira cocked an eyebrow at her.

Dante wondered if this was a test. “Just tell me what time he wants me and I’ll be there.”

Takira nodded as she stood up. “Familiarize yourself with the restaurant. If you want any food everything you eat here is now free.”

Dante stood up too. “Free?”

“You’ll be working here. The food is excellent, if I do say so myself. You might as well enjoy it.”

“Damn, I’m beginning to wish I’d come home sooner.”

“But then the job wouldn’t have been available and you might not have run into Trent who kindly steered you in my direction.”

“Everything for a reason and a time for it all,” Dante said.

“Is that one of those Yoda quotes?” Takira asked.

“I can see we’re going to have to work on your knowledge of Star Wars. It’s severely lacking.”

Takira looked like she was about to argue when her phone rang. She looked at the screen and grimaced. She cut the call off abruptly. “I have to go.” She slipped a key off her key ring and handed it over to Dante.

“Here’s the key to the apartment. Make yourself at home, and I’ll be back some time later tonight. If there is anything you need, Eric is in charge so just seek him out. I’ll warn him who you are on my way out.” She stuffed her phone in a pocket and then held out a hand to shake Dante’s. “I’ll sort all the paperwork out for you tomorrow, and we’ll discuss your salary and benefits before you sign. For now, welcome to Takira’s. How are you with children?”

Dante’s eyebrows raised at the non sequitur. “Okay, I guess? Kids, animals, and oddly enough, little old ladies seem to be drawn to me.”

“Good to know,” Takira muttered. Her phone rang again and her face fell. She looked unhappy.

“Are you all right?” Dante asked, feeling the need to reach out and touch Takira because she just looked so…lost. She wisely kept her hands to herself. It didn’t pay to get touchy-feely with an employer no matter how upset they seemed.

“Family,” Takira said bluntly.

Dante nodded. “Enough said. Go.” She opened the door for Takira to precede her out of the office.

Takira stayed where she was. “I’d better tell you before you hear it via staff gossip. My last manager left taking a great deal of money that he’d stolen from the restaurant. I trusted him and he let me down…”

“I won’t let you down. Just give me the chance to prove it.”

Takira hesitated like she still didn’t want to leave, and Dante knew she couldn’t exactly ask. She was almost in two minds whether to offer to go with her, but Takira nodded at Dante sharply, took a deep breath, tightened her jacket around her, and strode down the hallway like a woman on a mission.

Dante looked at the key in her hand. It had been a long time since she’d been in possession of one. It had mostly been key cards for the last few years. She shot another look after the disappearing figure of Takira and then up at the stairs that led to her new home.

Time to settle in before she did anything else. She headed back out into the parking lot to gather up as many of her belongings as she could carry. She balanced some clothing bags on top of her precious box of DVDs. She wasn’t leaving them out in the heat any longer. They had a shelf in their future, and Dante hoped she had as secure a place for herself to rest as well.

She stopped for a moment and took time to look over the restaurant’s handsome architecture. She would have hugged herself if her hands weren’t so full. Welcome to Takira’s indeed.

 

Chapter Three

Takira didn’t hurry walking up the path to her mother’s door. Had she not felt so terrible she might have managed to conjure up a smile at her reluctance.

You’d think I was preparing to face a firing squad.

She rang the doorbell and for a brief moment considered just turning tail and running back to her car. She wondered if she had the time to manage it and if her heels would hinder her.

The door opened.

Too late.

“Hi, Mother,” Takira said, noting the defeated tone in her voice and hoping her mother didn’t pick up on it.

“I thought you were supposed to be coming earlier. I’ve been waiting for hours on you.”

“I’m sorry. I had to interview a new manager. Remember, I told you Claude had left and I need to get someone in to take his place?” Takira wondered how much longer her mother was going to keep her waiting on the doorstep while she explained her tardiness. God, it’s like being a teenager all over again and having Mother yell at me over something so all the neighbors could hear. “I had someone literally walk through my door today with the right qualifications. I couldn’t let the chance of her being perfect for the job pass me by.”

“So, now you have someone to take that job off your shoulders? Because you know you’re going to have to cut down on your work.” Her mother ushered Takira into the house, talking a mile a minute the whole time.

Takira followed behind trying not to let the chastisement send her spiraling back to when she was younger, back when she could do nothing right and her mother took great delight in pointing that out to her. She tuned her mother out by habit and walked into the living room. The TV was on showing the bright and colorful characters from a new cartoon featuring dogs in hats. The reason why Takira was there sat right in front of it, his attention rapt by the story unfolding.

“Hey, Finn,” Takira called, and he scrambled to his feet to fling himself at her and wrap himself around her legs.

“Auntie Kira,” he squealed, lifting his arms for Takira to pick him up and kiss him.

“Hi, sweetheart. Have you been a good boy for Grandma?” He nodded solemnly, his hand already occupied with the necklace Takira wore. His mother had worn one exactly like it. Takira tried not to think about that too much and let him play. She looked at her mother. “Did you pack everything or do I need to…”

“He’s ready. He was ready hours ago.” The sharpness of her mother’s voice pricked at Takira’s skin as it always did. “You just need to put everything in your car. Have you been so busy that you forgot to buy a car seat? He has to have one, but I never got one because you know full well I don’t drive at my age now.”

Takira nodded. “My friends helped me pick one out. They have a child the same age as Finn.”

Her mother huffed. “His name is Phineas. You know Latitia named him after Phineas Newborn Jr. because of your daddy.”

Takira steeled herself for the rest of the speech that she knew verbatim. She had to hear it every single time she shortened Finn’sname.

Her mother continued. “Because he was your daddy’s favorite jazz pianist and you know what a good girl Latitia was. She wanted to honor that when her baby was born.”

Takira wisely kept her mouth shut and schooled her features not to give away what she was thinking. Latitia hadn’t named her child in memory of the musician they’d grown up listening to back when their father would hold them in his arms and dance them around the kitchen. No, Latitia had named her baby boy some ridiculous name that was sure to get him beat up at school by some crazy kid called Denzel or Dwayne. All because Latitia had counted on showing her father what a good and dutiful daughter she was, providing him with a grandchild when his lesbiandaughter wouldn’t. Then she could ask him for anything and he would give her all the money she wanted because no grandchild of his would ever go without.

Finn’s own father hadn’t stuck around once Latitia had told him she was pregnant. He’d run back to his wife and kids and paid Latitia enough money to keep quiet. But there was no way Latitia would have ever kept her mouth shut once the money ran out. Sadly, their father had died before Finn reached six months old. With him gone, Latitia could only rely on their mother, and she wasn’t as easy to con out of money as Father was.

And now your mommy is gone too.

“I hope you didn’t just buy the first car seat some other person showed you. It has to be just right for him.”

Takira’s wandering attention came back to the room to find her mother still prattling on about the car seat.

“Juliet came with me to find the one she has for her daughter. She wouldn’t let me buy any old thing. She helped me find the right sized bed for him too. She’s been invaluable.” After all, it’s not like you gave me much time to prepare, is it? One phone call telling me to come take him off your hands because you just couldn’t cope with him.Takira bit her tongue. Nothing she would say could change anything. She looked at Finn in her arms. He looked so much like Latitia, which meant he resembled Takira too. Takira had been the first born, meaning her sister was designated the baby of the family forever just for being born five minutes after her. Yet I came in second to her all my life. She shook those feelings off; she had more important things to do than wallow in self-pity.

“Did Grandma tell you what we’re doing today?” she asked Finn. He bobbled his head. Takira had a feeling her mother hadn’t prepared Finn for yet another upheaval in his life. She looked at her mother, but she studiously looked away. Takira faked an excited tone. “You’re coming to live with me at my home now.”

Finn looked at her, then over at his grandma who was pretending to move an ornament on a shelf. “With you?” he asked.

Takira nodded. “Yes, all your toys are coming with us in my car, and we’re going on a little trip back to my restaurant where I live and work. You’re going to have a new room to sleep in.” Takira prepared herself for her next words. She’d never expected to have to say them. “I’m going to look after you now.”

“Grandma?”

“She’ll still see you, but you and I are going to look after each other. Do you think you’ll like that?”

Finn pondered this silently for a moment then nodded. “Go play with you now.”

Takira released a shaky breath. Okay, this was really happening. “Shall we go home?”

Finn looked again at his grandma who had been his constant companion for the past two weeks. Takira wondered what was going through his little head as her mother refused to look at him.

“We get ice cream, Kira?”

That’s who she was. She was the cool aunt who took him out for an hour and they had ice cream at the park and played on the swings. “Yeah, we can have ice cream before you go to bed.” Her mother made a grumbly noise that made Takira want to roll her eyes. “Just this once as a ‘welcome to your new home’ treat.”

Finn was just happy at the mention of ice cream. He let Takira put him back down in front of the TV while she gathered the pitiful array of possessions that had made it to her mother’s home with him. She couldn’t believe how little he had to show for the time he’d been with her mother. Takira seemed to remember packing way more toys than what were now stowed in the plastic bags in the trunk of her car. She had a feeling her mother had deliberately gotten rid of most of them so that they didn’t take up too much room in her own house.

Just like Finn had, apparently.

Her mother had been adamant that she would take Finn in, raise him like she had her two daughters. But she was so much older now and didn’t have either the patience or the energy to run around after a child. Finn’s father was out of the picture so Takira had to face her nephew going into foster care if she didn’t step up and step in.

I’m all he has left and I won’t let him down by refusing to raise him.

She leaned back against her car and looked up at the sky, searching it for an answer to whether she was doing the right thing in taking on a child. The restaurant was her baby. It was the most important thing in her life and would always come first.She heard a noise from the direction of the house and found Finn at the door, hopping in his little socked feet, mindful of the fact he wasn’t allowed outside without his shoes on.

“You ready to go on an adventure with me, Finn?” Takira clapped her hands at him to make him smile. She was just thankful he was too young to realize what exactly was happening. That his grandma was making her take him off her hands because she can’t cope with him. For all her big talk and assurances that she’d already raised two girls so what was another child to raise?

Obviously, one too many.

Takira hated how that sounded and how she felt concerning it. She hadn’t had a great deal of choice in it all. Her mother just assumed she’d put everything she had worked for in her life on hold and take care of a child for the next however many years. Takira was angry at her sister for dying while Finn was still so tiny. She was furious at her mother for telling everyone she was going to be the best grandma and raise her grandson right. She’d gotten a great deal of sympathy and attention for that pronouncement at her canasta group. Her mother and Latitia had always shared the same selfish genes. They both talked big, but when it came down to doing something, it usually had fallen to Takira or her father to actually see it through.

Some things never changed.

Takira picked Finn up, and it tore at her heart how he cuddled into her. He was hers now, as close to a son she’d never expected to have. The weight of him in her arms was nothing compared to the crushing responsibility she felt pressing down on her shoulders.

“Let’s go, Finn.”

“Grandma coming?”

Takira found her mother sitting on her sofa pouring herself a drink. She’d already changed the TV channel over to something she wanted to watch. Takira recognized a dismissal when she saw it.

“No, Finn, it’s just going to be you and me now.”

 

 

For a moment, Dante had hesitated putting the key in the door. After so long living out of a suitcase and just sleeping wherever she found a room with a mattress, this was an awfully big step. A place to stay, a promise of a job to go with it, it all spoke of a permanency she hadn’t adhered to in years. And living with someone else? She’d been single, celibate, and relying on her own company for the past four years. Sharing with someone was going to be challenging after so long living a solitary life. She’d gotten used to being alone; there was less chance of being hurt again that way.

The first thing that struck her was how large the upstairs apartment was. It was basically a huge living area with a small kitchen to the right and two hallways down either side leading toward the bedrooms. Dante felt comfortable in it. Takira’s choice of furnishings was tasteful yet functional. She hastened to find her room. She stood in the doorway of it and just grinned.

“Perfect,” she muttered. It was big for a bedroom, spacious enough she could live in it should she feel anti-social. She scrutinized the layout and decided where a TV could go so she could get back to her gaming. She blamed Trent and Elton for that. They’d pestered her into joining them on a game night on more than one occasion when they had been teenagers, and Dante had caught the gaming bug and gotten one of her own. Consoles had changed, but the thrill of the game hadn’t. She was looking forward to buying a new console with her first paycheck.

For now, she busied herself sorting out her DVDs and putting them on a wooden bookcase that seemed placed in the room for entirely that purpose. She’d left the house she’d shared with Chloe pretty much empty-handed. Maybe this time she’d feel more at home. She could stay in this apartment for a while, and if things worked out, find a little place of her own to settle down in.

She placed Mushu on top of the bookcase, turning him this way and that until she had him positioned just right. She could hear Chloe’s mocking voice in her head. “You’re butch, for God’s sake. It’s embarrassing having to explain to my friends that the Disney prints on my walls are yours. You’re supposed to be able to talk about sports or cars with their husbands. No one wants to talk about your silly cartoons.”

Myfriends, mywalls. Dante should have known there and then how it was going to be. Chloe had been adamant she favored a minimalistic look. Dante soon came to realize that meant only when it came to herstuff being under consideration for a place in a room. The priceless original artwork Dante had was stored in the trunk of her car like everything else she’d retrieved from a storage locker. She reminded herself to ask Takira if she minded her hanging them in her room. She was long overdue getting some pleasure from them.

Dante dropped her suitcase and backpack by the bed and then spread out on the mattress to stare up at the ceiling. “Best day in ages,” she said with a smile.

Her thoughts drifted to Takira. She was beautiful. From the riot of curls framing her face to her no-nonsense attitude. Trent’s kid obviously liked her too, and weren’t kids supposed to be great judges of character? Dante berated herself. There’d be no lingering thoughts about how pretty her new boss was. But it was nice to know she could still find someone attractive enough that they stole her breath away when they smiled.

She’d thought she’d lost that rush to lust thanks to Chloe and her tricks. Getting the hots for her new boss was not the smartest move she could ever make though. Especially seeing as Takira was highly successful, unashamedly beautiful, way too young for an old dog like Dante, and probably hooking up with some young stud who had less gray hair, muscles in all the right places, and way more stamina. Dante had learned her lesson well; she knew better than to risk playing with fire. And that woman would burn her alive in a heartbeat.

Dante closed her eyes and groaned. Takira had the most soulful eyes she had ever seen.

Deciding to just not go there, Dante picked herself up off the bed to go clear out the rest of her car. She had a job to do, and that didn’t entail daydreaming about her new boss.