The quickest way to Aunie Franklin's heart was
not through complimenting her looks. She had been praised for her appearance
since she was five years old and quite honestly didn't understand what
all the fuss was about. Like most women, she felt she needed a helping
hand from the cosmetic industry. Anyway, wasn't the arrangement of one's
features pretty much an accident of genes? Not exactly an accomplishment
she could point to with pride, was it? Now what she would truly find flattering
was to hear she was intelligent, or better yet, competent. At twenty-six
she felt she had already wasted most of her life being nothing more than
a decoration- nice enough to look at, she supposed, but ultimately rather
Not, she thought with justifiable irony, that it was likely
to be a particular problem today.
She looked up at the facade of the old brick apartment house.
It had caught her fancy immediately, with its old-fashioned portico, the
warm coloring of the bricks, and the lovely front door, which was mostly
a large oval of beveled glass. She couldn't believe her luck in spotting
this place. The building was not too large, it was close to a community
college, and best of all there was a sign, Apartment for Rent, on a peg
thrust into the postage-stamp sized lawn out front. She hadn't even noticed
that at first glance. Her eyes had been drawn to the building itself as
she'd slowly maneuvered the narrow streets in her rented car. It had an
air of shabby gentility that made her feel right at home. She'd lived
in places like this one before.
It looked absolutely perfect, which couldn't help but make
her feel a bit nervous. Things that looked too good to be true generally
were. She'd discovered that the hard way.
Perfection ceased to be a problem the moment she attempted
to find a parking space. In this neighborhood it was obviously an exercise
in frustration. She had to drive several blocks, turning several corners
in the process, until she finally found a space so small it took her three
attempts at parallel parking to squeeze into it. Then, of course, she
had to find her way back. She'd turned so many corners she was completely
But she was not so lacking in intelligence as it was popularly
believed back home in Atlanta. She had made note of the cross streets
and eventually made her way back to the building. She walked up the path,
pressed the intercom button, and peered into the foyer.
It had the look of being lovingly restored, all gleaming
wood and new paint. There was an open staircase dead ahead that displayed
a polished oak banister. The stairs were covered in an old, thin tapestry
runner that had probably been quite valuable once upon a time.
The speaker next to her ear emitted a static crackle. "May
I help you?" asked a disembodied voice.
Aunie leaned into the intercom. "I'm here about the apartment
"The manager's apartment is 1A on your right." The door
buzzed and Aunie pushed it open. Closing it behind her, she shivered in
the sudden flow of warm air. She hadn't realized how chilled she was until
she'd stepped out of the moisture laden wind. After a lifetime in the
South, she was going to need a bit of adjusting to this Seattle weather.
It wasn't actually raining, yet there was a dampness in the air that cut
to the bone.
More heat curled around her when the door to the manager's
apartment suddenly opened before she could knock on it. In the doorway
stood a black woman dressed in layers of colorful cotton, an ankle bracelet
gracing one bare foot, and a brightly colored scarf tied turban-style
around her head. The woman's welcoming smiled faded as she studied Aunie
with concern. "Ah, woo-mon," she said in a soft Jamaican lilt as her warm
brown eyes noted the damage to Aunie's face. "What hoppened to you?"
Aunie gave her a polite smile in return, stretching her
mouth as far as the still-split lip would allow. "I'm inquirin' about
The exotic woman seemed not to take offense that Aunie had
not answered her question. She smiled serenely. "Yes, of course, you will
like it very much, I think. You come wid me." she stepped back to allow
Aunie entrance to her apartment. "I am Lola."
Aunie extended her hand. "Aunie Franklin."
"Pleasured to make your acquaintance, On-nie. Please-" Lola
gestured to the overstuffed sofa- "make yourself comfortable while I find
To herself, Lola thought, I sign this one up quick, before
James catches sight of her. With her usual decisiveness, she had taken
one look at the fragile looking woman with the battered face and determined
she was in need of help and friendship... and very likely protection as
She also knew that if James were to see her, he would turn
her away in a second. He had some ridiculous new notion about not taking
care of people anymore. Said he was tired of having everyone's problems
dumped in his lap and from now on, he was looking out for number one...period.
With that bad-luck family of his, Lola understood his sudden change of
attitude. But it was the man's inherent nature to handle trouble, so at
the same time it made her impatient. Destiny was destiny, and it was futile
to rail against what was meant to be, now wasn't it? Lola knew that even
if James did not.
Grabbing the keys and donning a pair of worn ballet slippers,
Lola then led Aunie upstairs. The second floor didn't show the same loving
care that the ground floor did, but Lola was quick to explain. "Just finished
redoin' the first floor and this unit," she said as she opened the apartment
door and stood back for Aunie to enter. "The mons, they be starting on
the hallway up here come Monday."
"Oh, this is nice," Aunie said a moment later as she wandered
about the high-ceilinged apartment. It was light and airy, with stark
white walls, and in the small dining area were two tall, narrow, old-fashioned
windows that let in the weak afternoon light through slanted wooden mini-blinds.
A curved archway separated the living room from the dining area, and the
floors in both rooms were polished hardwood. There had been generous used
made of natural woods: framing the windows, in the moldings and foot boards,
and in the built-in bookshelves on either side of ... "Oh, a fireplace ," Aunie breathed reverently. She didn't actually know how to build
a fire, but she was certain she could learn. She looked over her shoulder
at Lola. "Does it work?"
"Certainly. The mons, they finished redoin' this place not
too long ago. Everything work perfectly."
Aunie's overall impression of the apartment was of spaciousness,
even though it wasn't actually all that large. There was a small, efficient
kitchen and an even smaller bathroom with an old-fashioned claw-foot tub
and pedestal sink. The bedroom was a reasonable size, though, and its
floor was covered with thick, plush, wall-to-wall, pearl-grey carpeting.
It also contained a huge closet.
"I'll take it." Aunie turned to Lola. "Oh, wait. I guess
I'd better inquire first how much you're asking."
The rent was only a little steeper than she'd expected to
pay, but it included heat, so in the long run she would probably get the
best of the bargain. She had a feeling she was going to go through a great
deal of fuel before she became acclimated to this damp new climate. With
a sense of satisfaction, she trailed Lola back to her apartment to sign
the papers. First full day in town, and already she'd found a place to
stay and had brochures from the nearby college.
"How do you spell your first name, woo-mon?" Lola asked
as she filled in the forms. "O-n-n-i-e?"
Aunie corrected her and went on to spell her last name also.
In moments, she was signing a six-month lease and endorsing a number of
traveler's checks to cover first and last month's rent and a damage deposit.
When everything was in order, Lola offered her a cup of tea.
"Welcome to your new home," she said with cheerful friendliness.
"I hope you will as hoppy here as I have been."
Aunie hoped so, too. Talking with Lola as she finished her
tea, she marveled at how uncommonly relaxed and at home she felt. She
had never actually known an African American on a personal level before.
The few with whom she'd had even the most minimal of contact were connected
to the service industries, and it was a firmly entrenched belief in her
family that people from their rarified echelon of society did not mix
with those who served them. She wasn't so sheltered she didn't realize
there were many African-Americans in positions of authority far removed
from serving others. She had simply never met any and so had never given
any thought to how well she'd mix with them in a social situation.
Prejudice apparently wasn't as inbred in her as it was in
other members of her family, however; inexplicably, with Lola she felt
as though she were talking to an old friend. The exotic woman had a natural
dignity and exuded a friendliness that prevented Aunie's old demon shyness
from manifesting itself. She felt she could listen to the lilting cadence
of her voice forever, could bask in the warmth of the woman's eyes.
The front door banged open, and Lola swore softly under
her breath. Gesturing Aunie to remain seated, she rose to her feet and
crossed the room in a swirl of colorful skirts.
"Lola!" Aunie watched with interest as a tough-looking,
well-built man swept Lola off he feet and swung her around. He had the
go-to-hell eyes of someone who'd seen it all, and soft, pale blond hair
that receded slightly from his high forehead and was pulled straight back
into a short ponytail. Aunie had never particularly cared for ponytails
on men, but the style seemed to suit this one's face, which was all strong
planes and angles. The shape of his skull was delineated faithfully beneath
the taut skin of his forehead; he had a bony, prominent nose and a stubborn-looking
chin. His cheekbones were flat and angular, his teeth were white, and
slashing lines cut from the corners of those rebel eyes clear into his
lean cheeks. There were three shallow creases in his right cheek next
to his mouth.
"How's my favorite woman?" he asked, grinning at Lola and
holding her in a grip that dangled her feet off the ground, even though
they were very nearly the same height, perhaps five feet ten or eleven
inches tall. Aunie wondered with fascinated speculation if they were married.
She'd never met anyone from an interracial marriage, but it wouldn't surprise
her, given the ask-me-if-I-care expression in the man's eyes. He looked
like the type who would do exactly as he pleased and not give a damn what
the rest of the world thought of his behavior.
"James, you fool mon, put me down," Lola said sternly.
"Not until I have your promise you'll dump Otis and run
away with me."
"Go on wid you, mon! What is this I'm hearin'?" Lola planted
her hands on his broad shoulders and pushed back until she could see his
face. He grinned happily. "Will you be forsakin' all your blonde bamboos
wid the bras sizes larger than their IQ's to make an honest woo-mon of
me, James Ryder?"
"No. But think of the scintillating conversations we could
have before I go back to my wandering ways. C'mon, Lola, whataya say?
It'll be fun."
"Take your mitts off my woman, Jimmy," a deep voice rumbled.
"I'd hat to haveta squash you like a bug."
"I'd hate to be squashed, Otis." Still grinning, James let
Aunie's startled attention was drawn to the black man who
had spoken. She'd been so caught up in the blond's theatrics she'd failed
to even notice the other man, but now that she had noticed him, her eyes
Before he'd smiled, she'd thought the blond looked tough...
and it was most likely that he was. Compared to this man, however, he
looked like a pussycat.
Otis was tall- very tall. To Aunie, who was seated, he appeared
to be an ebony giant, all roped muscles, dark, gleaming skin, and standing
veins. His bald head shone in the overhead light and there was a ridge
of scar tissue bisecting his skull from the crown of his head to his temple.
A small golden hoop glinted in his ear and when he suddenly smiled, she
was taken aback. He had a surprisingly sweet smile, with the whitest,
strongest teeth she'd ever seen.
Oh, God, this was too perfect. Aunie nearly hugged herself.
If Wesley somehow managed to track her down, coming face-to-face with
these two men should at least give him pause. The corners of her lips
"Who's your dainty little friend, baby?" The deep rumble
made Aunie's head whip up. Otis had crossed the room on silent feet and
was standing before her.
Lola joined him, hooking her arm through his, and hugging
an impressive biceps to the side of her breast. "This is Aunie Franklin.
Aunie, this is my husband, Otis Jackson, and our friend James Ryder."
She took a deep breath and girded herself. "Aunie's rentin' 2B."
"Oh, shit, baby," Otis whispered. "What did ya go do that
"The hell she is!" James roared, and Aunie stared at him
in startled confusion. The humorous tease of a moment ago had vanished.
In his place stood a furious, scowling man who looked ten times harder
than she had thought him to be. She rose to her feet, but she was tiny
and still had to crane her neck to look him in the eye as he towered over
"Sorry lady," he said flatly, staring down at her with eyes
colder than the Pacific Northwest rain. "That apartment's not for rent."
Not, at any rate, to another screwed-up little waif looking to make her
problems his problems.
Aunie drew herself up. "Ah have a signed contract that says
it is," she disagreed in her well-bred, soft-spoken voice. The sudden
thickening of her accent was the only outward sign of an escalating inward
anger. She didn't know what this man's problem was, but she was not giving
up her new apartment.
"Ah, shit, she's a Southerner, too," he muttered in disgust.
He turned on his heel and stomped away. "Dammit, Lola, why'd you do it?
Look at her face! Some asshole's beat her up, and now you've gone and
landed her in my lap." His head whipped around and he impaled Aunie with
angry moss green eyes. "Or are you gonna try and tell us that "- the wave of his hand encompassed her abused face- "happened to you
when you walked into a door?"
"Ah'm not tryin' to tell you a solitary thing, mistah,"
Aunie replied with cool disdain. "I don't know you from Adam, suh, and
the condition of my face is my business. Not yours."
"You've got that straight, sugar. Remember that when your
old man shows up looking for blood, because I'm just gonna step aside
and wave him by." James turned away. "Lola, why ?" He raked
his fingers through his hair from crown to rubberband. His fist closed
around his ponytail and tugged until his roots strained. "Couldn't you
see she's trouble? God, I don't fucking believe this. I've got a whole
truckload of problems to straighten out already, but you just had to saddle
me with hers, too, didn't you? I'm never gonna get a minute to myself
now, what with handling all the Ryder shit and now Miss Magnolia Blossom's
"Excuse me!" Aunie's infuriated voice sliced through his
complaint. "You've got quite an inflated opinion of yourself, haven't
you?" Between swollen, blackened lids, her brown eyes flashed fire. Breasts
rising with indignation beneath her oversized silk-and-cotton-blend sweater,
hands clenched into fists at her side, she stalked forward belligerently.
Despite her diminutive size, James found himself backing up a step, wondering
how she managed to appear to be looking down her nose at him when she
had to tilt her head way back merely to meet his eyes.
"Who the devil are you, mistah?" she demanded,
"Superman or something? Ah purely don't recall him havin' such a filthy
mouth." She tossed her head, making her shiny brown hair swing away from
her bruised jaw. "That apartment is mine, paid for and signed on the dotted
line and I am moving in on the first. I don't know what you're
in such an uproar about, anyway- nobody requested your assistance handling
my problems." She conveniently chose to forget her momentary excitement
over his and Otis's obvious street-aware toughness. It was beside the
"I came here to rent an apartment, period," she informed
him with cool disdain, "not find myself a big brotha to fight my wars
for me. But for the record, suh, if Ah did need someone, I think Ah'd
ask Otis here. He looks a whole lot tougher than you, so you can just
give your superhero cape a rest. I won't be requirin' it."
She swung away and plucked her coat and purse off the couch.
Controlling her outrage with an effort, she managed a weak smile. "Lola,
thank you for your warm hospitality," she said. "I look forwrd to getting
to know you much better. Otis, it was a real pleasuah to meet you." She
turned to James and nodded coolly. "Mistah Rydah."
And then she was gone.
Otis looked at tha stunned expression on his enraged friend's
face and tried to control his grin, but it refused to be subdued. "Well,
I guess you can rest easy, Jimmy. I doubt she's a victim of wife abuse,
"Why the hell not?" James demanded indignantly. "She's such
a midget, it wouldn't take much to subdue her."
"Yeah, well, she may be tiny, Jimmy, but she's got attitude."
Otis disagreed. "She backed you into a corner, didn't she?"
"Yeah, Superman," Lola murmured with a throaty
James muttered something truly foul, turned on his heel,
and slammed out of the apartment.
Otis put his arm around his wife and dragged her down onto
the couch next to him. "You've really stirred up something this time,
Lola shrugged. "She needed a place to stay and she loved
the apartment," she replied calmly. "Was I supposed to supposed to turn
away the steady income because she was sportin' a few bruises?"
"Hell, babe, it is Jame's apartment house and you
know his feelings. You had to know that little gal would be expressly
contrary to what he wants."
"That mon doesn't know what he wants."
"And you do, I suppose?"
Lola just gave him her mysterious, three-cornered smile-
the one that drove him mad and had led him to pursue her some years back
until she finally agreed to marry him. Laughter rumbled like distant thunder
in his massive chest. "Yeah, I suppose you do, at that." With a mock growl.
He grabbed her up and rolled her over.
After the fact, Aunie was quite amazed at her temerity in
standing up to James Ryder. She sat in her rented car ten minutes later,
shaking with reaction. Had that really been she, the Aunie Franklin who,
up until a year ago, had never made a wave in her life, angrily defying
a man with such dangerous eyes? Perhaps she really was going
to be able to make all the changes in her life she desired to make.
She'd better. It wasn't as if she had any other options.
The first thing she did when she reached her downtown hotel
room was call her lawyer in Atlanta. The phone rang several times before
she remembered the three-hour time difference. She disconnected and dialed
his home number.
The phone there rang several times also and she was just
on the point of hanging up when he answered.
"Jordan? It's Aunie."
"Aunie! Where are you? Are you all right?"
"I'm at the Westin Hotel in Seattle; I'm fine, and guess
what? I've already found a place to live."
"That was quick."
"Oh, Jordan, I wish you could see it. It's wonderful." She
sat down on the side of the bed and kicked off her shoes. "It's in a beautiful
old building just blocks from the college I hope to attend, and it has
a fireplace and lots of natural wood, and it's filled with interesting
"Sounds perfect. Is it a secure building?"
"Yes." She clutched the receiver more tightly and asked
with quick alarm, "Wesley is still in jail, isn't he?"
He hesitated, then said, "They let him out on his own recognizance."
"Don't worry, Aunie. It was stipulated he could not leave
the state before his trial, and he doesn't have the first idea where to
find you even if he could leave Georgia. Also, there is some good news."
"Let's heah it. Ah could use a little good news about now."
Feeling her grasp on her accent slipping- always an accurate barometer
to the amount of stress she was feeling- she took several slow, deep breaths.
"You don't have to return to testify. Because of the threats
to your personal safety, the judge has agreed to allow your deposition
and the photographs of the damage Wesley did to you to stand in your stead."
"Oh, Jordan, that is good news. The fewer trips I have to
make between here and Atlanta, the less chance there is for Wesley to
track me." She threaded her fingers through her hair. "Let me give you
my new address. Do you have a pencil?"
She recited it and he read it back to her for verification.
"Will you send the things I put in storage?" she requested. "The rest
can be sold with the house, or if it's easier to sell it separately, do
that. Either way, I don't want it. I'm moving in on the first, so if you
could get my stored stuff here by then, I'd sure appreciate it. I realize
it doesn't give you a great deal of time..."
"Don't worry about it. I'll do the best I can."
"Thank you, Jordan. You've been such a comfort through all
"Don't mention it. How do you like Seattle?"
"It's green. And cold." She glanced out the window. "I'm
supposed to have a view of the Olympic mountains from my hotel room, but
so far I haven't seen anything except clouds where they're supposed to
be. They tell me they're quite beautiful, though."
"I'm going to send you the name of a lawyer there," Jordan
said. "I'll send him a copy of your file, and, Aunie, I want you to go
see him. Get a restraining order...just in case."
She shivered. "The restraining order didn't do me a whole
lot of good last time."
"I know, sweetheart. But it should add clout to the case
against him, and I want you to have one."
"Oh, Jordan," she said with quiet despair, "is this never
going to end?"
"It will, Aunie. Maybe sooner than we think."
"God, I've been prayin' for the day."
"You just enjoy your new life and try not to worry, okay?"
"Call me again if you need anything or if you just want
"I will. Thank you again, Jordan."
"You're welcome, dear. Keep in touch."
They rang off and Aunie sat for several despondent moments
in the gathering gloom. Finally, she returned the phone to its resting
place and rose to pull the drapes and turn on the lights. She bumped up
the thermostat and retrieved from her purse the curriculum brochures she
had picked up at the college. After briefly consulting a menu, she ordered
room service, changed into a warm sweatshirt, leggings and two pairs of
socks, pulled the little writing table and a chair in front of the heat
register, and sat down to read.
At her appointment with the college counselor earlier in
the day, she had been warned that it was quite late to be registering
for the fall quarter. One or two of the classes that interested her had
already started this week and another class was full. Aunie had felt a
bit discouraged, but the counselor had also offered hope. She'd said it
wasn't uncommon for classes to be dropped in the first week, so there
was still a very good possibility that Aunie could get the ones she desired.
Sitting in her hotel room, she finished selecting her alternate choices
and filled in the registration form to be returned to the school tomorrow.
Then she didn't know what to do with herself. Her dinner
was delivered and she ate it while watching the news on the television.
After setting her tray out in the corridor, she wandered around the room,
rechecking all its features. She scanned the pay movies listed inside
the armoire that housed the television set. Nothing appealed to her. She
picked up a paperback, tried to read, then threw it down on the nightstand
next to the bed.
Crossing slowly to the window, she pulled back the curtain.
It was dark now and her room boasted a panoramic view. Lights formed a
city scape that stretched out before her, and she watched the lighted
windows of a ferry in Elliott Bay as it glided slowly toward town. She
shivered in the cold emanating off the plate glass and dropped the curtain.
Picking up the evening paper, she read an article about
a man who'd been arrested for making obscene phone calls to approximately
a hundred women. The article also reported that in an unrelated case,
the telephone company and the police were working together to track down
a different caller responsible for placing an alarmingly high number of
harassing phone calls to female students at a local college. Aunie tossed
the paper aside. She didn't need to hear about other people's troubles.
She had enough of her own.
In her wanderings around the hotel room, she had avoided
looking into any of the mirrors, but finally, she crossed over to one.
Bracing her hands on the small built-in vanity, she slowly lifted her
All her life, she had heard how beautiful she was. Sometimes
it had been a blessing; sometimes it had been a curse. However she viewed
it, one thing was certain. The woman reflected in the mirror would surely
never hear such compliments.
There had not been sufficient time for most of the swelling
to go down. She had walked out of the hospital emergency room two days
ago, closed her account at the bank, called a company to crate the few
belongings she would eventually want shipped to her, packed as many herself
as she could carry with her, and called the airlines for flight information.
She hadn't known exactly where she was going, but she'd felt the need
to cover as much ground as possible while Wesley was still in jail. She
only hoped he wasn't paying private detectives to keep an eye on her while
he was incarcerated. But, surely not. He hadn't had time to arrange it.
Unless, of course, he hadn't really dismissed the one he'd
already had in his employ, as he'd told her he had. She wouldn't put anything
Leaving Jordan in charge of her stored belongings and of
putting her house and car up for sale, she had caught a red-eye to Chicago.
At O'Hare, she'd decided on Seattle as her final destination because it
was far away from home and she didn't know a soul there. Wesley would
have no reason to assume that she was heading there. She had slipped into
a women's restroom and tried her best to change her appearance. It hadn't
been an easy task with her face in this condition: the swellings and discolorations
made it conspicuous. Desperate to escape detection if she were being watched,
she had explained her situation to a large group of businesswomen on their
way to a seminar, and one of them had gone to purchase her ticket for
her. They had then buried her in their midst, carrying her from the restroom
to the gate of departure.
She didn't recognize that face in the mirror. The contusions
affected its shape, effectively disguising her much-lauded bone structure.
There was a stitched tear in her left earlobe where Wesley had ripped
out he pierced earring. Both eyes were blackened, but thankfully no longer
swollen shut. Her nose had been broken, but the emergency-room doctor
had assured her that once the swelling went down, it should be good as
new. Her lip was split; it, too, would mend. Her skin was eventually going
to regain what had once been referred to by a suitor given to flowery
compliments as its poreless, alabaster complexion. A gross exaggeration,
that, but her complexion was the one physical attribute she took pride
in, and anything would be an improvement over its current condition, which
was a rainbow of hideous bruises, ranging the spectrum form dense purple
to saffron yellow.
basically, the doctors had told her, her injuries were superficial. She
was lucky, she had said. No other broken bones, no eye damage, on concussion
to report, no lost teeth. After the fuss her mama had made in the emergency
room, they'd rushed to assure her she would once again regain her former
beauty. Those assurances had satisfied Mama, but left Aunie feeling quite
Because, sometimes, her looks had been a blessing.
But, sometimes, they had been a curse.
End of Excerpt.