Chocolate Dreams

 

Chapter One

 Jake

 “I’m not touring.”

 “Jake, don’t be a diva about this.”

 My editor, Carmen Washington, gives me an evil glare. Like she just told me she was having my baby and I said I wasn’t the daddy.  Just mad.  She sits back in her big, cushy leather office chair (that my book sales probably paid for) giving me attitude. 

 I hate when she calls these meetings.  First of all, I live in Atlanta, and I don’t like to come to New York City.  There is too much dirt, and not enough green.  Second, Carmen always has orders for me to fulfill.  This time it’s a tour.  Next time, it’ll be a sequel I have no intention of writing. 

 Along with the brown leather furniture, Carmen’s office is decorated in varying shades of blue.  It reminds me of the Caribbean.  Except that the ocean is calm and serene, and there is nothing peaceful of being harassed to go on a tour. 

 “I’m not being a diva.  Stephen King doesn’t tour.  James Patterson doesn’t tour.  Anne Rice doesn’t tour.  I ain’t touring.”

 Carmen rolls her eyes, sighs and begins again, “What’s the difference between you and all those authors you named.”

 “They’re white,” I reply.

 “The difference between you and them is that your sales are down thirty percent.  You’ve got a new book coming out, Jake.  May will be here before you know it.”

 I shrug and try to get comfortable in this hard chair that matches Carmen’s mahogany desk.  “Everybody’s sales are down.  We’re in a recession.”

 “Thirty percent of millions of books still looks good to the suits Jake, so the major authors don’t have to worry like you do.  You aren’t new to the game.  You know how this works.”

 She doesn’t scare me.  I’m the best author she’s got.  I’ve made every bestsellers list, and I’ve sold over a million books.  I don’t do tours.

 “Are you telling me I need to finally get an agent?  Do I need somebody looking out for my best interest here?”

 Carmen throws her head back and laughs.  If she wasn’t seriously pissing me off right now, I’d be thinking about how delicious she looks when she does that.  There's nothing more enticing than a caramel colored girl with a tan.  When she stops laughing she gives me her serious, all-business face again.  I get so caught up in her big, light brown eyes that I momentarily forget that she’s fussing at me.

 “Jake, you can get an agent all you want.  That’s not going to change the fact that you need to get your sales up.  We think a five city tour to all the hot markets can make that happen.”

 “We?  I’m sure that means you and Vanessa Sherman.”

 “Well…it was kind of her idea.”

 I should’ve known.  This is Vanessa’s way of getting revenge on me for not wanting to sleep with her. She knows that tours aren’t my cup of tea. 

 "Take out an ad or something.  I hate tours.  Hotel rooms, airplanes, restaurant food.  All bad.” I lean back in the chair and wave my arm around angrily to prove my point. 

 “Are you kidding?  We’re going to put you up in five star hotels in every city, fly you first class and wait on you hand and foot!  What is so hard about that?”

 “You’re only talking about the good parts!  What about being dragged all over the city by a draconian driver, being asked uncomfortable questions about my life, and being hugged and kissed by hundreds of strange women – some of them not attractive!”

 “Those women you’re talking about are the ones who keep you in those expensive suits and shoes, Jake.”

 “It’s not that I don’t appreciate my readers, Carmen.  You know that.  I’m an introvert and a germaphobe.”

 “Jake!  Get some hand sanitizer and call it a day!”

 “When I get a cold sore from one of those slobbery kisses, I’m suing you and Times Square Books.”

 “Occupational hazard, Jake.”

 She clearly doesn’t understand my level of discomfort at this whole thing.  I did my due diligence, early in my career.  I’ve done tour buses, driven to bootleg conferences, and bought vending tables at churches.  The whole nine.

 But then I wrote All Men are Dogs and my book sales went through the roof.  All of a sudden, I was some kind of heartthrob that knew the kind of man that women really want.  Some of my readers insisted that I was like the hero of my book – this suave dude named Desmond. 

 Desmond is the man!  He knows exactly what to say to a woman.  His money is right all the time and he doesn't cheat.

 I went and created some kind of fairy tale.

 Truth is I’m nothing like Desmond.  I say the wrong thing a lot of times – Desmond gets the benefit of content editing – I do not.  My money is currently right, but it hasn’t always been.  I’ve cheated a time or two (or three...) because I’m not perfect, and a pretty half-naked woman in the hotel room with my wife a thousand miles away was not a good combination.

 My readers are in love with Desmond, but they think they’re in love with me. 

 When I can’t live up to their expectations, their chocolate covered dream turns into a nightmare.  Sometimes, I try to be witty and it comes across snarky, which to a black woman who just spent twenty-five bones on my book, is kind of mean.  I’m not trying to be unkind; it’s just that I’m not that dude, Desmond. 

 “Carmen…I don’t think I can tour,” I finally say. “I’m not being a diva or divo or whatever.  I’m just not good at it.”

 Finally, I see something that looks like sympathy in Carmen’s eyes.  “Well, what if we sent you on a five-city tour with some other authors?  That might be fun.  I’ve got it!  How about a tour with three hot African American male authors?  You would sell a ton of books.”

 I can only think of two other male authors I’d want to tour with.  I can think of many female authors I’d want to tour with, but we’re not really talking about that, are we?  The two male authors I’d tour with are my fraternity brothas, Derrick Shaw and Brandon Jamison.

 Carmen shakes her head like she can tell what I’m thinking.  “No!  Not those two.  Don’t even think about it.”

 “What?  You’re tripping Carr!  The readers love Derrick.  He’s selling more books than I am with his romance series, and he’s got a new book coming out in May just like I do.”

 Carmen leans across her desk and replies, “First of all, Derrick is not on our line and second of all he’s a manwhore.  You need to stop associating with him.”

 

I want to defend my boy, but I can’t!  He does…well…love the ladies.  I’m not the character in my book, but Derrick is just like his hero!  His books have a main character named Ian, who is an FBI agent.  Ian gets the prettiest women, and falls in love with a new one in each installment of the series.

 Just like his character, Derrick is a hopeless romantic. In every city he visits, he woos some unsuspecting woman out of her panties.

 “He’s my boy.  His publisher would love the idea of us going on tour together.  If he doesn’t go, then I don’t go.”  I give Carmen my serious face to let her know I’m adamant about this one.  At least with Derrick there, the trip will be entertaining.

 Carmen eases back down into her chair.  “If Derrick goes, then I’m going to have to go too, to chaperone you.  I don’t need to see you guys on mediatakeout.com”

 “They don’t put authors on mediatakeout.com.  And if they ever did, I’d become a hermit.”

 “Still, you two would need someone to keep you out of trouble,” Carmen insists.  “Stop looking at me like that, Jake.”

 I know she doesn’t like the face I’m giving her.  It’s my one eyebrow up, little smile thing that I give when people are not being real.  But she’s getting the face, because she's trying to act like I don’t know.

 Carmen has a huge crush on Derrick.  Last time we all hung out together, Carmen got very intoxicated and I had to stop her from pulling her skirt over her head and hooking up with him.  It was pretty bad.

 “You just need to make sure you don’t get mad about Derrick and his ladies.”

 Carmen looks away as if this can hide her blush.  It doesn’t.  “When are you going to stop bringing that up? I’m not some heartsick puppy who spends her nights and weekends thinking about your janky friend.”

 I shrug.  "I'm just recalling facts."

 "Well, if I have to deal with the two of you, Brandon’s raggedy self is definitely not coming.”  Carmen releases a frustrated sigh as if this is the most annoying conversation she's ever had. 

 “You didn’t have to call my boy raggedy.”

 “Your boy is tremendously raggedy.  His raggedyness has no bounds.”

 I narrow my eyes at Carmen.  “That’s not even a word.”

 “So what?  It fits.  Brandon is a buster.”

 It is not Brandon’s fault that he’s fallen on tough times.  He was a literary hit, right out the gate.  He sold two hundred thousand copies of his very first book.  It was called Ghetto Chick and it’s about this girl named Chalisa and all of her round-the-way exploits. 

 The readers and book clubs loved it, and he was getting interviews in Essence magazine about a new genre of books he helped to create.  Unfortunately, a zillion other authors copied his style, and some even did it better.  The next installments of Chalisa’s drama got lost in the shuffle with a sea of other ghetto girls.

 Now, Brandon can’t get a book deal to save his life.  Part of it is that he won’t take any less than what he thinks he’s worth.  He thinks he should pull a six-figure deal, and the publishers aren’t hearing it.  So, instead of getting a deal, he’s decided to self-publish. 

 He’s in Atlanta at every event selling his new street fiction, merged with erotica and real life – plus it’s got a message.  This is his description not mine. 

 Although he’s having a rough time right now, Brandon is still my boy, and he’s still a solid writer, even if he doesn’t know what type of book he wants to write anymore.  If anyone could use a come up, he could.

 Carmen says, “I thought Brandon and Derrick didn’t get along.  That could be problematic.”

 “They’ve squashed all that…”

 I’m telling a small, small untruth here.  Brandon and Derrick didn’t exactly squash anything.  They just haven’t dealt with one another since everything went down four years ago. 

 We were at a book conference, and Brandon had brought his fiancée, Regina, some video vixen who was only interested in him because he had just signed a major book deal and had Ghetto Chick optioned for the big screen.  Everything was cool until Regina met Derrick during the book signing.

 Derrick is a flashy dude.  He wears rings custom designed by a New York jeweler.  His suits are the original creations of an Italian tailor, and you can’t buy them in stores.  He wears Prada sunglasses at night, and he drives a tricked out Benz.  In short – he’s a baller, and he wants the world to know it.

 Brandon’s fiancée was a climber – the type of woman who is always looking for the next best brotha, so that she can have a baby, invest the child support money and never have to work a day in her life.  Derrick was the better, faster, flashier model, and Regina decided to upgrade. 

 In defense of Derrick, he did not know that Regina was Brandon’s woman, because we hadn't met her before the conference.  She pursued Derrick, and he was not in the habit of saying no to a stripper body in spandex leggings and a halter top.  Brandon got played before he even knew Regina had left his side.

 Needless to say, Brandon and Derrick had some words.  Well, they had some words and some blows. It was all bad.

 That was four years ago.  Things are different now.   We’re all trying to stay in the game, and we all have to eat.  Plus, we're fraternity brothers.  We go way back to a time before random women and book deals.

 “They’ll be cool,” I assure Carmen. 

 “If you can promise me they won’t be on tour fighting, maybe I’ll agree to it.”

 “I promise.  I’m flying back home to Atlanta tonight.  Got some business to take care of, and it’s Derrick’s birthday next weekend.”

 Carmen’s eyes light up.  “Send him my birthday wishes.”

 “You are pitiful.  You know that right?  Remember what you said…he’s a manwhore.”

 “I can’t say happy birthday?”

 I chuckle and shake my head.  “Sure, you can say happy birthday…but you can’t drool while you’re doing it.”

 “Whatever, Jake.  It’s March, and we’ve got two months to plan and promote this tour.  You get your friends to agree, this weekend, and I’ll take care of the rest.  If I can do my job, I can get my boss and the publicity team off your back.  I’m pulling for you.  You know that, right?”

 “I know.  I eat, you eat.”

 “Right!  Now give me a hug and go round up your thuggish friends!”

 Carmen and I exchange our customary hug.  I used to try to imagine that Carmen’s affectionate squeeze meant that she wanted me.  Because she’s…yeah…she’s hot.  But, the hug is too sisterly for me to think she’s attracted to anything other than my perfect word usage and pristine sentence structure.

 “When you get to Atlanta, tell your Aunt Suzanne I said hello,” Carmen says after separating from our embrace.

 I pull out my phone.  “She’ll want to see a picture of you.”

 Carmen gives me a sweet smile that I capture for my favorite aunt.  Her perfectly shaped lips and the little dimple in her chin make my breath hitch.  I swallow the knot in my throat that forms because I wish the smile was for me.

 I stand next to Carmen and pull her close as I hold the camera out in front of us.  “One more,” I say as I press the button to capture us both.

 When I’m done, I look at the picture and grin.  Carmen is making a silly face, with crazy eyes and her tongue sticking out.

 “You like?” she asks.  “I look hot don’t I?”

 I back away from Carmen and open the door to her office.  “You do, Carmen.  Scorching.  I’ll make sure to show this to Derrick as soon as I see him.”

 I duck out of her office in the nick of time, right as my newest paperback novel soars through the air, with my head as the apparent target.

 I’ll never admit it to Carmen, but the thought of going on a five-city tour with her makes me smile.  Hanging out with my favorite girl will cancel out every slobbery kiss and living out of suitcases. 

 Even if she is checking for my best friend.

 

Chapter Two

 

Carmen

 I don’t know why my heart is beating out of my chest.  I have nothing to worry about.  It’s just a meeting with my boss Vanessa Sherman, one of the managing editors and Queen Bee at Times Square Books.  First of all, I’ve done a great job – an excellent job, and I rock.  Yes, I do.  I definitely rock.

 Inhale.  Whatever Vanessa has to throw at me.  Exhale.  Is totally irrelevant.  I’m great! 

 Vanessa gets up from her desk and comes to sit at the round glass conference table with me.  “Carmen do you know why I asked you here today?”

 I’ve got an idea why she wants to see me.  And I hope that I’m right.  It’s a word that starts with pro and ends with motion.  Promotion.

 “You’d like to give me the day off?” I chuckle at my own corny joke.

 Vanessa opens her cavernous mouth and laughs out loud.  Her red, red lipstick seems to stretch into infinity and has even smudged onto her two front teeth, but I’m too polite to tell her.  “No, silly!  But it’s so funny that you say that, because after our meeting, I’m taking the rest of the day off.”

 “I hope you have something fun planned.”

 “Don’t I always?  I’m going to that fabulous new day spa in Manhattan with my bestest, Chyna.  We’re getting massages and then we’re having a power chat.”

 I tighten my lips into a faint smile and nod.  In Vanessa lingo, power chat, is code for gossip session. 

 “But enough about that,” Vanessa says.  “I called you to this conference for something totally different.  We need to talk about Jake’s new release.”

 Jake’s release is my favorite thing to talk about these days.  I’m so excited about his new book, Still Dogs.  He’s been my author since his last release and that time, his sales were not great. This new book will turn things around.

 I reply, “It’s going to do well.  The retailers like the concept, the fact that it’s a sequel and the cover really pops.”

 “Is he touring?  He needs to tour.”

 “Even though he doesn’t like touring, I think I have him pretty much sold on doing one.  I’ve got some great ideas.”

 She laughs again, and the lipstick smudge is even brighter.  “You are an expert on what Jake likes?  I’ll tell you what he likes.  He likes a crisp Pinot Grigio with baked salmon and wild rice.  He likes spending all day at the beach until he’s the same shade as my favorite cup of Jamaican roast.  And, my dear, dear Carmen, Jake likes having a book deal.  So he’ll do the tour.”

 “I think so.  I hate doing this editor-slash-publicist thing though.  Are they going to hire anyone in the publicity department?  They’re so overloaded that I had to write Jake’s press releases and I’m the one setting up the tour.  I don’t get paid enough to do my job and their job in publicity.”

 Vanessa purses her lips together into a straight line, and taps her pen on the glass.  “We’re all trying to pull together to save our industry, Carmen.  Everyone is doing double duty.  I hope that’s not a complaint I hear.”

 Double duty?  I don’t think so.  I don’t see anyone over in publicity editing manuscripts.  They’re just sitting on their hands while my authors pay the price.  My job is supposed to be obtaining incredible literature.  Their job is to get it sold to the retailers.  Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of one and too much of the other.

 

I shift nervously in my seat and reply, “No, I’m not complaining.  I just want credit for my work.  When Jake hits the New York Times bestseller list again, I want them to know who did the hustling.” 

 “If Jake makes the NYT list again, everyone will be happy, and I’m sure you’ll get your accolades.  We’re a team here, Carmen, and there’s no I in team.”

 Now I feel terrible.  This happens every time I try to step out and show some initiative.  I get blasted and totally smacked down.  Major sigh.

 “Yes, Vanessa, you’re right.”

 “I know I am!  But you’re still learning.”  She touches my arm when she says this, like a mother consoling her young and impetuous child.

 “I am.”

 The tender moment is over, and Vanessa snatches her hand away.  “Speaking of team work, I do have a huge favor to ask of you.”

 “Oh, sure, what do you need?”

 “Since you and Jake have gotten to be such good friends, I’d like for you to find out how he feels about me.”

 My eyebrows shoot up and I feel my heart race.  I was hoping that we’d never have this conversation.  I’ve heard about Vanessa’s slight – okay major – obsession with Jake as a romantic interest, and I try to stay out of it.

 “Um…Jake and I don’t really talk about that kind of stuff.”

 “You could if you wanted to.  I see how the two of you laugh together.  You’re like me and my bestie.”

 “I guess.”

 “Jake and I go waaaay back, and I’d love to rekindle what we had.  I would be so grateful if you talked to him…Unless, of course, you’re planning to hook up with him yourself.”

 I raise one hand in the sky – a halt motion.  “No ma’am, not at all.”

 “Oh, that’s good, because I was going to tell you that it’s against company policy for editors to fraternize with their authors.”  Vanessa nonchalantly rearranges the flowers in the vase on her table while she chatters.  “It’s the new morality clause that they implemented.  Years ago, nobody cared who slept with whom, but apparently, that’s a big deal these days.”

 I smooth out my pants and try to put on a positive face.  “I will talk to him.  I don’t know if I’ll be successful.”

 “It’s just a little, teeny, weeny conversation.  You can do that, for me.”

 “I can do it.  You can count on me.”

 “I knew I could, honey.  I wouldn’t have given you the reins of Jake’s career if I didn’t believe in you.  And if you make this happen, then who knows, maybe you’ll get that promotion you’ve been beating around the bush about.”

 

“Have I been that obvious?”

 “You have.  But I keep telling you to be more direct.  Ask for what you want in life, because no one is going to give you anything out of the kindness of their heart.”

 “Understood.”

 Did she just tell me that I might get a promotion if I hook her up with Jake?  Oh my goodness.  I guess I will be an editorial assistant all of my days.

 Vanessa’s desk phone rings, and she presses the speaker button.  LaTasha, didn’t I ask you to hold my calls?”

 

“You did, but it’s your bestest, Chyna.  She wanted me to tell you she’s running a little late.”

 

Vanessa rolls her eyes, sighs and disconnects the call without responding.  “Do you see what I mean?” she asks.  “I give her a simple task, and she can’t even perform that.  God knows I want to fire her, but she’s my niece and God hasn’t told me I can disown her like that.”

 

I restrain another giggle that tickles my throat.  It amuses me when Vanessa talks about God like He’s another one of her besties. 

 

“I’ll try to have that conversation with Jake this afternoon, and give you an update tomorrow.”

 

“Why don’t you call him right now?” Vanessa asks.  “You can put the call on speaker phone.”

 

I don’t like this, not one teeny, weeny bit.  “Uh…I guess so.”

 

I take out my phone to call Jake, all the while trying to think of a reason to get out of doing this in Vanessa’s office.  Please Jake…don’t answer!

 

But he does, after three rings.  “Hey Carmen.  You miss me already?  I just left your office.”

 

I clear my throat and try to ignore the scowl on Vanessa’s face.  “Um…no.  But what time does your flight leave?”

 “Not until eleven o’clock tonight.  I’ve got one of the latest flights out.”

 “Good.  Do you want to meet me for an early dinner at around six tonight?”

 

There is a long pause.  It’s too long and Vanessa looks worried.  “Are you asking me out on a date?”

 

A nervous laugh from me.  “No, silly!  I have something I need to ask you, but it can’t be done over the phone.”

 

“Okay…”

 

“Jake!  Just come, okay?  Justin’s sound good?”

 

“Yeah, that works.  I’ll meet you there, sweetie.”

 

“Okay, see you then.”

 

I refuse to make eye contact with Vanessa, because I am sure she’s irritated at Jake’s term of endearment.  I should’ve just dialed a wrong number!

 

“All done!” I say while staring at the floor.

 

“You didn’t have to invite him to dinner,” Vanessa says.  “Why didn’t you just tell him over the phone?”

 “I don’t think he would’ve wanted to have that conversation on the phone.  If you want, I can call him back.”

 “No, no.  Don’t call him back.  I don’t want him to think I’m desperate.”

 Question.  Isn’t he going to think she’s desperate after I try to hook them up?  I’m just saying…

 

“Okay, well, I think he’ll be more receptive to the idea after a glass of wine and a good meal.  Don’t you?”

 

Vanessa turns on her mega watt, caricature-like smile.  “I think you’re absolutely right.  That’s why I just love you sweetie.  You’re like the daughter I never had.”  She mimics Jake’s nickname with a grimace on her face.

 

I hope that Jake won’t be too furious with me about the matchmaking.  Maybe he’s been pining away after Vanessa too, and their romance could be a great thing for my career.  Or it could be a catastrophe of epic proportions.  I will cross my fingers and pray for the best. 

 

Who knows?  They could be perfect for one another.

 

Chapter Three

 

Vanessa

 

“Jake and I are perfect for one another.”

 Vanessa’s declaration doesn’t make her feel confident about a romance with Jake, but it feels nice to say it out loud.  She sighs as she glances around J. Randall’s, a posh new restaurant that she and Chyna had discovered one evening during happy hour.  The décor is black and silver giving the place a futuristic look.  Vanessa is relaxed from the full body hot rocks massage that she had at the spa. 

 They’re already on their second round of mojitos when Chyna asks, “So did Carmen say she’d talk to Jake?”

 

Vanessa nods.  “Yes, but she seemed very hesitant to do it.”

 

“Well, of course she was.  He’s her author, right?  What does she look like meddling in his personal affairs?” Chyna swirls the alcohol around in her mouth before she swallows.  It is only one of the many annoying habits that Vanessa has put up with for the last twenty years.  One of the others is her constant need to play the devil’s advocate.

 

“She would look like she’s very thankful to me for everything I’ve done for her career.”

 

Chyna smiles.  “Okay, I get it.  You’re calling in all of your favors.  I guess it makes sense.  We’ve got a husband to land.”

 

Vanessa sighs and takes a sip of her drink.  “I don’t need him to marry me, but I do want a baby.  I’m not going to some sperm bank to get impregnated by a stranger.  Plus, Jake’s got great genes.  He’s handsome, he’s brilliant and he’s rich!”

 

“But he doesn’t love you.  Shouldn’t your baby’s father love you?”

 

There she goes playing devil’s advocate again.  Vanessa grinds her teeth in frustration.

 

“He will love me.  He just needs an opportunity to get to know me again.  We were together before and it was great.”

 

“I remember you two being together for a hot second.”

 

Vanessa shakes her head.  She and Jake had been together for a little longer than a hot second.  They had had a whirlwind affair at the very beginning of Jake’s career.  They were incredible together!  Then she gave him a book deal and he got cold all of a sudden, as if they couldn’t continue their affair undercover.

 

Jake seemed terribly ungrateful to Vanessa, when she was the one who had gotten his career off the ground.  She’d convinced the editorial staff at Times Square Books to give him a chance when she was a very new, very green editorial assistant.

 

They’d listened to her, and she and Jake both became stars.  She was the hotshot new editor that knew how to pick ‘em and he was the young, hip author who made the New York Times Bestseller list on his first time out of the gate.  They were industry darlings and literary successes. 

 

Vanessa wanted them to be lovers as well, and had even convinced Jake to have one more tryst.  She’d thrown caution to the wind and not used any contraception.  Jake didn’t bother to ask her about it, because he trusted her to take care of those things.

 

She was ecstatic when she found out she was pregnant.  She shared the news with Jake and he was the opposite of happy.  He was livid, furious, and flew into a rage.  He accused Vanessa of tricking him, and of trying to trap him.

 

Vanessa remembered feeling so badly hurt that she had an abortion.  She didn’t ask for Jake’s permission or input.  She just told him later that she’d had a miscarriage and that he was off the hook.  Now, she thinks it was the biggest mistake she ever made.  She should’ve kept their love child.  Maybe, it would’ve deepened their relationship.

 

“Jake will come around,” Vanessa says with faux confidence.  “He just needs to know how much I really care about him.”

 

“Good luck, girl.  You know I’m pulling for you.  With all of Jake’s money, you could retire and raise that child at home.”

 

“That’s the plan.  I would surround our child with culture and love.”

 

It’s a wonderful plan and totally plausible, although it won’t be easy winning Jake’s heart again.  It will probably be the hardest thing she’s ever had to do, but when she’s holding that bundle of joy in her arms, all of her work will have finally paid off.

 

Vanessa just can’t ignore the little twinge in her stomach that tells her Carmen is a threat.  Did she really have to invite Jake to dinner?  No one knew more than Vanessa the bond between editor and author.  She’d have to keep a closer watch on Carmen with that thirty year old perky body, and sweet personality.

 

There’s no way a protégée is going to ruin her chance at motherhood.