March 6 is the release date.
The only thing Marie Charles enjoyed more than being the center of attention at someone’s party was hosting one of her own. Either way, she was instantly the center of attention. Charlotte’s resident party girl was always on the cutting edge of fashion, dressing in clothes that were always tailored especially for her svelte body. And she knew how to keep everyone’s attention—by either walking into a venue exchanging air kisses with the most high-profile man or woman who caught her eye so that she could get her picture snapped, or by dating the hottest ball player, singer, or actor she wanted. She was a professional public-relations maven, so it was her business to be in the know. But if you asked the right people, Marie Charles—daughter of civil rights attorney Richard Charles III—was just a girl seeking the wrong kind of attention.
Tonight, she was playing hostess at Mez, where her public-relations and event-planning company, M&A Exclusive Events, was sponsoring a party for the Charlotte Bobcats’ second playoff win in franchise history. She’d checked the VIP list and kissed a couple of the players on the cheek, telling them congratulations. And, of course, she basked in the compliments the men lavished on her and how she filled out her gold Alexander McQueen dress. As Bobcats center Drayton Neal reached out and grabbed Marie so that they could take a picture, she turned to her intern, Hailey, and said, “This is how you host a party.”
Hailey, a shy Central Piedmont Community College student, offered her boss and the six foot nine basketball star a slight smile as the Carolina Nightlife photographer snapped photos.
“Have some bubbly,” Drayton said to Marie as he held out a glass of Ace of Spades Champagne Blanc de Blancs. She happily accepted the flute of six-hundred-dollar champagne and sipped with Drayton. He palmed her bottom as if it were a basketball and brought his lips to her ear. “You know you’re sexy as hell. What do I have to do to make you my good-luck charm?”
“Get your hands off me,” she replied through her smile. While most women would’ve welcomed the advances of an NBA baller, it was just another night on the town for Marie. “I’m not a trophy.”
“Umm,” he said, taking a step back and watching her sip her champagne. “You look like one to me. You are wearing that gold, baby.”
Marie drained her glass and turned to Hailey. “We all look amazing when they’re drunk.”
Marie took Drayton’s bottle and refilled her glass. “Thanks for the bubbly and good luck in New York,” she said with a flirty wink. As she and Hailey walked away, she told the intern, “When you’re hosting an event, don’t spend too much time with one group of people. You have to make everyone feel special so they’ll come to your next party. I need you to check the table and make sure everyone has drinks. Have you seen Adriana?” Marie glanced at her watch and fingered her curls. It was almost time for DJ Chill to start his set.
“She was talking to the DJ,” Hailey said. Marie nodded.
“I’m going to check on the bartenders and make sure they’re making the Bobcat rum punch,” she said, then strutted downstairs to the wraparound bar. Marie had carefully selected the drink menu and had worked with the bartenders to make sure everything was perfect. Landing the Bobcats as a client had been a huge get for M&A. Tonight has to be perfect, she thought as she crossed over to the crowded bar. Smiling, a half an hour into the party, Marie was sure that everything was going to be . . . wait. Was that William Franklin, her fiancé, walking in the door with that woman!
William was holding hands with his ex-wife, Greta Jones, looking at her as if they were still together. “Oh, hell no,” she mumbled. She started to stalk over to them, but a hand on her shoulder stopped her.
“Marie,” Adriana Kimbrell, the A in M&A Exclusive Events, said. “Please don’t trip.”
“Do you see this? He came to my party and brought her!” Marie hissed.
“DJ Chill is about to start and we don’t need to have a scene,” she said. “Let’s just sit down, and you need to calm down.”
“I simply don’t believe this bull,” Marie snapped as they sat down at the bar.
Adriana waved for the bartender. “Patrón and two glasses. Leave the bottle.” Turning to Marie, she said, “Ignore them. She’s only sniffing after him again because you two are together,” Adriana said as she poured Marie a glassful of tequila. “She can’t beat you in any other way, so she wants her loser ex back. Let her have it.”
Marie downed a shot and then snatched the bottle off the bar and took a big swig. “If either of them thinks that I’m going to let this go, then they don’t know who the hell I am.”
“Marie, this isn’t just about you and Willie. Our name is on this event. Do you know what I had to do to get Mez to agree to let us have this party here after what you and Tia did during the last event we hosted here?”
Marie took another swig. “We had a good time and got all kinds of press for this place, so they need not trip. I made Mez a hot spot.”
“Neither should you,” Adriana said as she tried to take the Patrón away. Marie quickly moved the bottle out of her friend’s grasp.
“I’m cool,” she said. “Look at this outfit.” Marie stood up and twirled. “Not trying to mess this up by slapping that slut silly.” She glanced out on to the dance floor and watched as William and Greta danced closer than close, but when they kissed, she felt a tug of embarrassment. Everyone knew that was her fiancé, and there he was pretending that she didn’t exist. Sure, she wasn’t in love with him; her relationship was simply a means to an end. Respectability in her father’s eyes. But the longer she watched him, the more the alcohol began to kick in. Marie took a shaky step, with the liquor bottle in her hand, toward the dance floor, shaking off Adriana’s hand and ignoring her as she said, “Don’t do it, Marie!”
Marie thought she’d sauntered over to William and Greta, but the Patrón made her stumble, bump into patrons, and cause quite the scene before she grabbed Greta’s shoulder.
“Oh, shit, Marie,” William said. “Look . . .”
“This is pretty cozy,” Marie slurred. “Funny that you’re kissing her when I’m wearing your engagement ring.” She threw her left hand up in the air.
Greta shook her head and giggled, which infuriated Marie to the point that she took a swing at her. But, in her drunken state, she stumbled and landed on the floor flat on her bottom.
William bent down and helped her up. “You’re embarrassing yourself and you’re drunk.”
“And you’re kissing this bitch as if you’re still married,” Marie shouted, bringing the music and movement around them to a halt.
Greta shook her head. “And this is what you left me for? Have you gotten it out your system?”
William turned to Greta and shot her a look that that cried for silence. “Marie, I wanted to tell you that Greta and I had been seeing each other, but . . .”
“You know what! Go to hell. Both of you go straight to hell!” Marie yelled. She fumbled with the ring on her finger, trying to pull it off and toss it in William’s face. But the ring slipped off and flew across the dance floor. “It was a cheap-ass stone anyway. It wasn’t even flawless. So, kiss my flawless ass good-bye, loser!” Marie turned on her heels and nearly lost her footing as she pushed her way through the crowd. As she passed the bar, Adriana grabbed her arm. “Where are you going?”
“You’re not driving.”
She snatched away from Adriana. “I’m fine and I can drive myself home. It’s three blocks.”
“Marie, you need to sit down, drink some coffee, and sober up,” she warned as she frantically waved for Hailey. “You’re only going to make matters worse if you try to drive.”
The intern walked over to the bar and glanced from Marie to Adriana. Before she could utter a word, Marie launched into a rant.
“And I’m supposed to sit here and watch them?” Marie nodded in Greta and William’s direction. “I will not. He doesn’t even realize he needs me more than I need him.”
Adriana rolled her eyes and then reminded her friend, “You said you were going to dump him anyway. Why are you acting like a donkey?”
Marie tore her gaze from William and Greta. “Because I was supposed to dump him! I messed up. I thought getting engaged would get my father off my back, but it hasn’t worked and that . . .”
“Hailey,” Adriana said, “you’re going to have to drive Marie home.”
“Bu-but,” she stammered as Adriana pressed Marie’s car keys into her hand. Marie glared at the women. “I said I can drive,” Marie slurred.
“Right,” Adriana retorted. “Hailey, don’t let her talk you into allowing her to drive. As a matter of fact, go get the car now.” Turning to Marie, she continued, “I can’t leave because I have to smooth things over after that scene you just caused. You’re going to be all over the blogs, again.”
Hailey tore out of Mez to get Marie’s Jaguar. Marie sighed and shook her head. “Do what you have to do,” she said as she took a last look at William and Greta.
Marie furrowed her eyebrows and pointed her index finger at Adriana, “You’d better hope that damned girl knows how to drive. I just got that Jag.”
Adriana sighed. “Don’t do anything else stupid.”
Marie threw her hands up and stomped outside, feeling as if she was sobering up. As she stepped out into the cool night air, hot tears streamed down her cheeks. How was she going to show her face on the party scene again? Losing her man to Greta Jones, a nobody who didn’t have an outfit that fit her chubby frame?
“I can’t believe what happened in Mez,” Marie heard a woman saying. “Marie Charles looked like a damned fool out there. Drunk as a damned skunk and she tossed her ring. William Franklin isn’t worth anyone making that big of a fool over.”
Marie turned and faced the woman, who was reporting her business over her cell phone as if she was a correspondent for CNN.
“Girl, I got to go,” the woman said as she locked eyes with Marie. Marie started to say something, to read Miss Information the riot act, but she didn’t have time for that. She was going home. Marie stumbled down the stairs as she spotted Hailey pulling out of the parking deck. She looked over her shoulder and saw a small crowd had gathered and was watching her every move. Trying to pull more glide in her wobbly steps, Marie crossed over to her car and opened the passenger-side door of the Jaguar XK. “All right, Hailey,” she said. “Thank you for driving me home. I’ll make sure a car comes and gets you.”
“Marie, I’m not sure if I can do this,” Hailey said. “This car is expensive.”
“Just drive, Hailey, it’s only three blocks,” Marie said as she leaned her seat back and closed her eyes. Her mind wandered to her relationship with William and why she’d even agreed to marry him. She’d only wanted to satisfy her father’s archaic notion that a proper Southern woman should be married and starting a family by thirty.
She was twenty-seven and still young enough to have fun. That’s why she had the job that she created. That’s why she spent her time at every party on the East Coast that she could get into—and that was every one of them that wanted press. Marie knew how to make a scene, good or bad. Tonight was bad. She’d make up for it tomorrow. Maybe even have a bachelorette auction for some needy group and put herself on the block as a way to announce to Charlotte that she was back on the market. That’s right, Marie Charles would be back and William would be a distant memory.
Marie had closed her eyes for only a moment when she felt the car jolt and then a hard impact. Her eyes flew open as Hailey screamed. The car hopped the curve and slammed into a one-hundred-year-old oak tree. The explosion of the airbag shocked Marie and knocked the breath out of her.
“Oh my God,” she and Hailey screamed. Marie struggled to undo her seat belt as Hailey scrambled from the car. “Are you all right?” Marie called out as she kicked the door open and stumbled out of the car.
“I’m so sorry,” Hailey said.
“Were you drinking too?”
“No, no. But I don’t have a driver’s license,” Hailey cried. Tears ran down her cheeks. “I can’t get in trouble. I have to get out of here.”
Marie crossed over to Hailey as well as her drunken legs would take her. She placed her hands on the young girl’s shoulders. “Calm down,” she said. “You take off. I can talk my way out of this.”
“But what about your car?” Hailey asked as she wiped her eyes.
Marie shook her head. “That’s what insurance is for,” she said. The last thing Marie wanted was to get her intern in trouble. She’d taken Hailey under her wing because she saw a lot of herself in the twenty-year-old. Hailey, like Marie, had grown up without her mother and wanted to go into public relations. Marie had met her when she’d spoken to a group of marketing students at the college. Seeing her standing there sobbing uncontrollably, she knew that she couldn’t allow Hailey to face charges. Besides, she was Marie Charles; she could possibly talk her way out of this mess.
“Get out of here; I’ll handle this,” she told her.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Marie replied. “Hurry up.” She noticed a few passersby pulling out cell phones and she assumed they were calling 911. As Hailey dashed away, Marie headed back to the car and climbed into the driver’s seat. She tried to back the car up, but it wouldn’t move. Before she could get out of the car, swirling blue lights and sirens froze her in place. This was going to be bad. Inhaling deeply, Marie hoped that she knew the officers who were approaching her; maybe she could just talk them into calling a tow truck for her and this accident nastiness could be put behind her.
“Ma’am,” one of the officers asked as he pulled the driver’s side door open, “are you all right?”
Marie stumbled out of the car as the officer opened the door. The other officer grabbed her arm, holding her up. “Have you been drinking?” he asked.
Marie looked up at the officer—not recognizing him as an officer she knew—and smiled, then she held her index finger inches from her thumb. “Just a little, but this has nothing to do with that.”
The officer who’d been holding her arm called for a medic and a tow truck, while his partner questioned Marie further.
“Can you stand up?” the officer asked her.
“These shoes are just a little painful,” she slurred, then leaned against a sign post.
“Can you perform some field sobriety tests?”
Marie sighed and rolled her eyes. “Do we really have to do this? Why don’t you just give me a ticket and we call it a day?”
“Ma’am, you hit a tree. This can’t disappear with just a ticket,” the officer said as he watched his partner directed the approaching tow truck and the medic ambulance. “You’re obviously drunk.”
Marie folded her arms across her chest and stomped her foot on the cement. The officer shook his head, knowing that he didn’t need her to breathe into a Breathalyzer to know she was over the legal limit. “Come on, ma’am, either perform the tests or I will have to arrest you for suspicion of DWI.”
“Arrest me?” she snapped incredulously. “Do you know who I am?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t know who you are. Do you have your driver’s license?”
Marie slapped her hands on her hips and focused her indignant stare on the officer. “I’m Marie Charles. You’re not going to arrest me. No one got hurt and you don’t have to arrest me.”
“Yes, I do,” he said as he reached for his handcuffs. This wasn’t how things had played out in her mind when she’d sent Hailey away. The drunk part of Marie considered running; she didn’t want to be put in handcuffs. When it came to dealing with handcuffs, she wanted to be the one in control. But with her shoes and the splitting headache she had, running was not an option.
“Come on, officer”—she paused and squinted at his name tag—“Wiggams. Ooh, just like The Simpsons. Can’t you just give me a warning?”
“Ma’am, place your hands on your head,” the officer barked. Marie rolled her eyes again, ready to tell Officer Wiggams how sorry he was going to be, but she simply did what he told her.
“You’re so going to lose your job,” Marie said with a giggle.
“You have the right to remain silent,” he said. “I suggest you use it.”
“Go to hell,” she snapped as he locked the cuffs on her wrists. The officer read Marie her Miranda rights and then stuffed her in the back of the squad car. She threw her head back and groaned. Marie knew her father would be livid when the news of her arrest reached him.
Six a.m. was the magic hour for celebrity chef Devon Harris. He stood in the kitchen in the middle of his loft creating a savory meat pie recipe for the women at My Sister’s Keeper, the homeless shelter where he volunteered and taught a cooking class for some of the women who lived there. The meals that his students made became lunch and dinner for the sixty-five residents who lived in the shelter. Devon placed the top crust on the pie and gently wrapped it in wax paper. He needed to head for the kitchen of Hometown Delights, the restaurant where he ran the kitchen for his friends, Jade Goings, Serena Billups, Alicia Michaels, and Kandace Crawford. Over the last three years, the restaurant had become one of Charlotte’s premiere eateries and meeting places. Fans of the Food Network flocked to the restaurant because Devon filmed his weekly show, Dining with Devon, there, and every month, Devon debuted a new dish to go along with a social event hosted at the restaurant.
Devon was proud of the work he did at the restaurant and was thinking of writing a cookbook. Hell, he didn’t have anything else to do. Since he’d been in Charlotte, he had grown tired of women looking for a wedding ring after two dates or who thought one dinner date meant they were in a committed relationship. Devon couldn’t deal with that or the women who felt as if they had to compete with everything he did all in the name of being independent. He didn’t mind a woman who had her own thing going on, but did she have to keep throwing it in his face?
Maybe that’s why he threw himself into his volunteer work with My Sister’s Keeper. Working with those women made him happy and took his mind off the fact that his bed was colder than the top of Mount Everest in the middle of December. Still, he’d rather have a cold bed than share it with a woman who didn’t mean a damned thing to him. He’d indulged in a few meaningless flings, which Serena and Alicia gave him hell about, and he was tired of the empty feeling.
“You know you’re just trying to replace Kandace,” they’d say to him when he’d complain about it.
“Don’t let her husband hear you say that,” he’d always reply. Back in college, Devon and Kandace had dated until he made the mistake of cheating on her. Any hopes of rekindling their romance had been dashed when Kandace met Solomon Crawford, a rich guy who always got his way. Devon was genuinely happy for Kandace, even if he didn’t like her husband. But with Kandace and Solomon expecting their first child, he’d made more of an effort to get along with Solomon.
That wasn’t easy, though. Solomon still didn’t trust that Devon was over Kandace and often made snide remarks about Devon still wanting his wife.
Yawning, Devon decided that he’d make himself some coffee, since he couldn’t shake his sleepiness, before heading into the restaurant to bake the pies and take them over to the ladies at My Sister’s Keeper for lunch.
While the coffee percolated, Devon scrambled two eggs and tossed in some of the leftover meat from the pies to make a quick breakfast burrito, then flipped the TV on to watch the morning news.
“Charlotte socialite, Marie Charles, was arrested on suspicion of DUI after police say she crashed her car into a tree on Elizabeth Avenue early this morning. The accident followed a dispute at The EpiCentre, where Charles attacked a man on the dance floor at the popular eatery, Mez,” the newscaster stated. Devon glanced at the picture of Marie Charles and shook his head.
“Everybody wants to famous for all the wrong reasons,” he mumbled as he poured himself a cup of coffee. Devon changed the channel to ESPN and watched SportsCenter while he ate his breakfast. After eating, showering, and dressing, Devon dashed out the door and headed for the restaurant. He wanted to make sure that the pies were hot and delicious for the women at the shelter before he started lunch for the restaurant.