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Whoever said Saturdays were meant for sleeping in obviously never belonged to a sorority.
The room was buzzing with excitement at getting together after a single month of being apart. It’s not like there wasn’t a whole shredding project the Saturday before; almost half the chapter of Omega Kappa Omega worked the parking lot as random folks freely dropped off their personal documents. Whew, just the memory of dragging recycling cans around on that hot day had Nichelle grabbing a cool water along with some grapes off the back table of snacks.
“Sorors, please have a seat. It’s ten on the dot.” Nichelle’s mother slash graduate chapter president was more timely than anyone had a right to be—a constant clash with her laid-back daughter.
Everyone made it to their seats, still chattering, but at a lower rumble than before. Nichelle took a seat near the front of the classroom-style room since she’d have to present her report later. They followed the agenda to a T, including the allotted time for each item: old business, new business, adopting the previous meeting minutes, etc. Her mother was dressed to the nines, decked out in their sorority colors of navy blue and silver. Her tutu would have seemed inappropriate on any other woman of a certain age, but Betty Sampson pulled it off with her thin frame and wrinkle-free, dark reddish-brown skin—something Nichelle definitely didn’t inherit from her mother. She had a more athletic build, thanks to her love of basketball. And her skin was peach-colored.
When it was time for the graduate advisor reports, Nichelle stacked the mess she’d made on the seat next to her. When she first got there, she’d collected several stapled papers, small bags of paraphernalia and trinkets from this soror and that one to pass along to the young women on campus, and her plate with what was left of her grapes.
“Soror Nichelle Sampson, please come forward.” Her mother sat in her chair next to the podium. To her mom’s right was Amanda, Nichelle’s closest friend and fellow professor who served as the chapter vice-president and program chairman. And next to her was the secretary busy tapping on her laptop, capturing the meeting minutes.
Nichelle headed to the podium, conscious of her uncovered legs as she went. She intentionally wore a longer skirt, but they wouldn’t go unnoticed. “Thank you, Madam Basilius.”
Her mother looked down at Nichelle’s legs and frowned.
Amanda hid a grin behind her slender fingers, rings covering almost every single one.
Nichelle knew she’d be in for it the minute she’d realized her last pair of hose had a run in them. She probably should have checked earlier in the week. She was not one for planning ahead. There was nothing she could do about it now, so she concentrated on the laptop in front of her at the podium and hit the down arrow for the next slide. “Good morning, Sorors. As you can see, Psi Gamma had a busy month. The young ladies sponsored a food drive for the local food bank, made fifty pillowcase dresses for Haiti, and visited the assisted living center close to the campus to have a sing-along with the residents.” She clicked the key again to show the pictures of the co-eds with the residents, smiles all around, then clicked again to the next slide. “Five seniors will graduate next weekend, and we had their luncheon this past Sunday. Remaining sorors will begin practicing for the Labor Day Classic step show. That concludes my report. Any questions?”
The crowd murmured. She watched them expectantly, but nobody raised their hand. She turned to her mother, who probably would love to ask a question about her bare legs, but obviously couldn’t. Not yet, at least.
“Thank you, Soror Nichelle. Next up is Soror Amanda Rivers with the programs report.”
Nichelle sat and watched her bestie take her place behind the podium. Amanda should have been Betty’s daughter instead of Nichelle because she was just as fashionable—decked-out in a chartreuse pantsuit with a blush-colored scarf draped over her shoulder. The bright pink and green colors complemented her tawny brown skin and auburn braids.
“Good morning, Sorors. Good morning.”
When the crowd offered an enthusiastic but not quite roaring return greeting, Amanda raised the volume of her voice. “I said good morning, Sorors.”
The response was at full volume.
“Yes, that’s better. I love looking out at your beautiful faces, Sorors. You know what I would love even more? Seeing all these beautiful faces at our programs.”
This was Amanda’s usual spiel on the first Saturday of every month. The same forty to fifty usual suspects showed up for service projects even though there were two hundred members of the chapter. Amanda worked harder than anyone Nichelle knew, and she tried to help her friend wherever needed even though Nichelle supported the undergraduate chapter. They were extremely active, and oftentimes their activities clashed with the graduate chapter’s. As grad advisor, she had no choice but to be with the younger ladies.
“Now, Sorors, I’ll be sending out the activities for the week later on this evening per usual. Please ensure that you review your email carefully and update your calendars so you won’t forget. We need six sorors to volunteer for the youth dance performance Friday night. Those middle and high schoolers are counting on you, Sorors. Please contact Soror Tanya if you’re able to make it. Her email and number are in the chapter directory, and it’ll be in the email this evening. Don’t disappoint the young performers, Sorors.”
She could soror with the best of them. As Amanda continued on with her report, Nichelle checked her phone’s calendar to see if she was booked Friday. She may not be the most absolutely organized person in the world, but her phone really made it easy, as long as she remembered to update her calendar right away. She’d been in a bind too many times when she didn’t. According to her phone, Friday evening was free after a staff meeting that afternoon. Who schedules a staff meeting on a Friday afternoon? Her dad, the head of the political science department, that’s who. Between her father bossing her around at work and her mother bossing her around with sorority activities, you’d never know she was thirty-two years old.
She typed out a quick email to Soror Tanya volunteering. With that done, she redirected her attention to the front. Apparently, Amanda had wrapped up her report and sat down.
After everyone gave their various reports, Betty dismissed the meeting so they could sing their song and disburse. Nichelle gathered her belongings and headed to the front table to speak with her mother and her friend who were both packing up. The sorority met at the Berkeley community college and needed to right the room how they found it. Other sorors were in the back wrapping up the leftover food and drinks.
“Hi, sweetheart.” Her mother pulled Nichelle in for a hug and whispered in her ear. “You know better. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Nichelle lifted one shoulder. She did know better. “Sorry, Mom. I’ll make sure I check beforehand next time.” She wouldn’t mention how antiquated she thought the rule was about pantyhose. There was no point because these rules were made at the national level. It was stupid, though. They didn’t even wear stockings to church—not that she attended anymore. That rule went out with the dark ages ten or twenty years before. Her mother was always decked out, with a feathered hat chic enough to put the Queen of England to shame.
Betty patted her on the back before releasing her.
Nichelle’s stomach rumbled. “Where do you want to go for lunch, ladies?”
“Sorry, honey, I can’t make lunch today. There’s a big court case coming up, and I need to pull some documents together.”
“But it’s Saturday. And you’re retired. Do you have to do it now?” Nichelle stuck out her bottom lip.
“Recently retired. And I hadn’t checked my email in days. Richard texted me late last night because of the lack of response.”
How long after someone retired were they still on the hook for unpaid work? Nichelle thanked her lucky stars again she hadn’t followed her mom into the corporate world. “Can’t the new CFO do it?”
“Be a big girl, Nichelle.” Her mom smirked and pulled Nichelle in for another hug. “We can have dinner some time this week.”
She grumbled, “Fine,” then sniggered.
It all started with a crustacean craving. Nichelle simply planted some subtle food-related notions into the conversation with her bestie after their meeting and voila, forty-five minutes later, she was digging into a delicious Seafood Bucatini and an Ultimate Lemon Drop on the outdoor patio at Skates on the Bay. It was a good respite considering how busy Nichelle and Amanda had been. It was difficult getting her friend to slow down for a meal without Nichelle’s delicate prodding. Even after sorority meetings once a month.
They walked the couple miles to Nichelle’s rented one-bedroom apartment in a lovely, shaded smaller complex near the university. The breeze off the Bay was mild and the sky cloudless, and Nichelle was grateful for the shade engulfing her building, welcoming her home.
Nichelle stretched when she reached the bottom of the stairs, her muscles still tight. “Girl, I don’t know how I’m gonna make it up those stairs. I really need to get more exercise. Can you roll me?”
“Who’s gonna push me?” Amanda laughed, then groaned. “Even after that walk, I’m still full. I’m ready for a nap.”
Naps were fine, but Nichelle usually didn’t partake. They left her feeling groggy. “Seriously though. You want to come up and watch Island Romance?”
“Now you’re talking. I love me some Bryce. And you know he’s gonna hook up with Bianca.”
“No. Absolutely not. It’ll be Theresa.”
“You’re outta line.” Amanda climbed three of the stairs and looked down at Nichelle. “Team Bianca all the way.”
“We’ll see.” Nichelle moaned as they trudged up the steps, but she stopped short and tensed at the sight of a tall man standing outside her door. “May I help you?”
The man turned, dressed in a dark-blue uniform. “Do you live here?”
Nichelle relaxed when she spotted a package in his hands, and a larger leather zipped bag near his feet. “Yes. Is that for me?”
“May I see some identification please?”
Amanda nudged her and raised a brow.
She strained to see the label on his uniform, but it was a courier service rather than a normal delivery company. “Okay, but I never have to show my ID for packages.” Nichelle walked up the final step and dug around in her purse for her driver’s license.
“This is a special delivery, ma’am, and I can’t release it without your identification and a signature.”
She handed her ID to the man, then glanced at Amanda and shrugged. What in the world could she be receiving by courier? She couldn’t remember ordering anything, certainly not something special enough to sign for.
“Here you are, ma’am.” After returning her license, he handed her an electronic pad, and she scribbled her signature. Then he released the package to her.
Should I tip him? Ugh. She dug in her purse looking for money while the man waited. She rarely carried much cash around.
Amanda reached around her and handed the courier a bill.
He nodded and left Nichelle and Amanda outside the apartment door thoroughly bewildered.
“Let’s go inside.” Amanda was peeking around even though there was only one other apartment on the floor and the only stairwell leading up there remained empty.
Nichelle unlocked the door, and the women hurried inside. They headed straight into the kitchen which was directly to the right of the door. A short hallway led to the remainder of the apartment.
“I can’t wait to see what’s in here.” She put the package next to her purse on the counter and searched for a box cutter in her many cluttered drawers. “I know I have something to open it with in here somewhere.”
Amanda tapped her four-inch pumps impatiently on Nichelle’s tiled kitchen floor. “Girl, how do you live like this?”
“What? It’s in this kitchen some—Ah, here it is.” She triumphantly lifted the tool, then set to work on the package.
Inside the larger box was a smaller metal box with a key. Nichelle unlocked that box with shaky hands. Next was a smaller navy velvet box along with a single sheet of ivory stationery folded in half.
She glanced at Amanda. “What the what?”
“Just open it already!”
The box gave off an ominous vibe, and Nichelle shook her head. “I don’t have a great feeling about this. You look.”
Amanda happily snapped the little blue box open and promptly gasped.
“What?” She peeked over Amanda’s shoulder and stared at the beautiful pink ring inside. The gem was a huge pearl, like nothing Nichelle had ever seen before. Her hands trembled even more, and the paper slipped onto the floor. Instead of picking it up, Nichelle slumped into a chair. Something was wrong with this entire situation.
Amanda picked up the sheet and read aloud.
This may come as a shock to you, but I am your grandmother. I’ve had to love you from afar because of decisions made by your birth parents, but I wanted you to have something to know me by even though I am gone. This is a precious family heirloom and rare gem that originally belonged to your fifth great-grandmother in Jamaica. Take care of it. I hope you’ll pass it along to your daughter or son someday.
I wish circumstances were different. Try not to have any regrets in this life, dearest.
“Is that it?” Nichelle reached for the letter and scanned it herself. The entirety of the letter was a paragraph. No other clues besides the ring.
Amanda shook the bigger metal box and peered inside again. “I guess so.”
“What does it mean?” Nichelle stared at the single sheet of paper.
“Have you ever heard of a grandmother named Florence?”
Nichelle shook her head, set the paper on the table, and picked up the ring. “No. My grandparents died before I was born, but neither grandmother was named Florence. They were Josephine and Jessie. Even with all the nicknames everyone in my family uses, Florence wouldn’t fit either of those.” She sniffed and took a deep breath, the foreboding giving way to the harsh reality.
Amanda put her arms around Nichelle’s shoulders and squeezed. “I hate to point it out, but she does say your ‘birth parents.’”
The ring suddenly became heavier in Nichelle’s trembling hands. “I, uh. Maybe it’s a—” She was going to say joke, but who sends a family heirloom to someone in jest? Nichelle picked up the paper and studied the short prose again, and soon fat droplets splattered on it, blending the ink. Nichelle buried her head into her friend’s shoulder, absorbing as much consolation as possible. There wasn’t enough comfort in the world to erase what she probably should have known her entire life. She was adopted.
Nichelle laid her head on the steering wheel and closed her eyes. Could she die from heartbreak? Was that a thing? Sure, she’d read about broken hearts in novels and heard of people losing the bae they’d been married to a long minute, then passing away right after. But what if it was your parents who broke your heart? She didn’t know how to feel. A lie by omission was still a lie. And as far as lies go, this was a doozy.
She heard the movement before feeling the light touch. She’d nearly forgotten Francesca was in the car. “Are you okay?”
Hooboy, okay was such a relative term. “I’m fine.”
Francesca cocked her head just the slightest.
“I’ll be fine.” She didn’t know the first thing about researching rare gems and was grateful for her younger sorority sister’s help, but she just wanted to drive back home and crawl under the covers.
“Clark’s brilliant. If he can’t figure out the ring’s origins, he’ll know who can.”
Nichelle nodded. It was a blessing that Francesca overheard Nichelle talking to Amanda at the undergrad step show practice. “I’m not sure if I said anything before, but thank you for introducing me to your brother.” She hiccupped a little on the word brother.
Her own brother had died only six months before, and the wound was still raw for her parents. Which is why she hadn’t confronted them right away. She needed a couple of days to temper her fury. She missed her brother too, but they’d never been close. Besides the huge age gap, they just didn’t have anything in common. He wasn’t interested in education, and she was a college professor. He played tennis for exercise but wouldn’t attend her basketball games because he wasn’t a fan of watching sports. He ran lots of women in and out of his life, and Nichelle…well, Nichelle was friend-zoned more times than she could count. She finally made up her mind to put romantic relationships on the back burner and focus on her career, which had so far paid off.
Now Nichelle understood why she and her brother had nothing in common.
“Meet you in there?”
“Sure.” Francesca hesitated a moment with her hand on the door. “One of my classmates is adopted and she goes to a group every week. They meet just off campus so let me know if you want the details.”
Nichelle smiled and nodded. “Thanks. I’ll let you know.”
Francesca got out of Nichelle’s two-seater Fiat and ran inside the building. Literally ran. Ah, to be young and run everywhere. Nichelle remembered those days well. Not that she was old, but now that she was on the other side of thirty, her running everywhere days were over. Matter of fact, her running anywhere days were gone, and she was glad about it. She’d run enough playing sports in college, although she didn’t mind a pickup game here and there, just no basketball speed drills anymore. Those things were brutal.
She pulled out the dark blue box and opened it again, staring at the huge pink pearl ring. Her heart squeezed. Both box and ring were obviously ancient, and the musty smell that rose every time she opened it was testifying. It was like nothing she’d ever seen. She’d only received it a couple days before, but it was enough time for her world to be completely shattered, her identity thoroughly destroyed.
Whew, life comes at you fast.
The note that came with the box fluttered to the floor. Nichelle picked it up and read it for the hundredth time, then wiped the tear trailing down her cheek and shook her head. Couldn’t the woman have given her a bit more of a clue? Nichelle snapped the box closed and put it back in her purse. Time to meet this head on.
Nichelle walked across the parking lot, and when she opened the doors to the store, a sweet mixture of jasmine and vanilla caressed her nose, comforting her. The showcase room was big, but not huge. The design spoke of ease and relaxation with low tables and plush chairs, the jewelry held in suspended boxes along the walls. There were filled bookshelves and more chairs paired with end tables. Was this a jewelry store or a library? When Francesca told her she and her brother inherited a jewelry store from their grandparents, she was expecting long glass and steel cases filled with necklaces and rings. This was not that.
There were a few customers milling about or seated in chairs being helped, sipping various colored liquids out of crystal glasses. Nichelle could use a sip of whatever they were having right about now. She spotted Francesca coming out from the back, but she was alone. Where was this brother of hers?
“He’ll be right out.”
Nichelle nodded. “Thanks. I sure hope he can help.” She offered the girl a small smile, then turned to the back of the room where Francesca just came from.
Standing there was her brother.
It was obvious, because although his features weren’t exactly the same—and he was frowning where his sister was usually smiling—he had the look of gorgeous Francesca. He was tall, at least six-one. He had the darkest brown hair, cropped close on the sides, but a little longer on top, which was mostly wavy with a slight curl at the ends. His eyes were… Even from across the room, his eyes were potent, so brown, they appeared black. His wardrobe matched his intensity with a gray sports jacket worn over a crisp white button-down shirt and pressed dark trousers. He was a whole snack. Well damn.
Francesca waved. “Clark, over here.”
End of Excerpt