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Carmen Sisters excerpts

Book 1:No Easy Catch 

St. Louis Cardinals baseball outfielder Rahn Maxwell had made some wrong turns in life—women and money, to name a few—but this wrong turn could prove deadly if the pair of blinding headlights racing toward him didn’t slow down.

He had just left a nightclub in downtown St. Louis, where he had met some friends. A construction sign had instructed him to detour off Interstate 64, and now his GPS attempted to recalculate. The darkness around him was thick as fog.

“Turn around when possible,” his GPS kept advising, as if it sensed danger.

That would be a good idea, but at the moment, he had a more pressing issue. Since there wasn’t time for Rahn to get out of harm’s way, with a car speeding behind him, he braced for impact. Seconds later, the anticipated crash never occurred. An old Camaro shrieked to a halt alongside his pearl gray Mercedes-Benz G550 SUV, blocking his exit. Rahn experienced a bad gut feeling.

The front passenger window of the car descended, and a dark-skinned man wearing dark glasses snarled at him. Brandishing some type of machine gun, he ordered Rahn to lower his window. Great! And he had just declined the dealer’s recommendation of armor-plated protection for his luxury vehicle. Now, Rahn wished he had followed his advice. How come hindsight couldn’t be foresight?

Watching the gunman’s movements, Rahn counted down the seconds until his life would end. He hadn’t reached thirty-five, the age he planned to announce his retirement. Judging from the looks of things, his short-lived career was about to stop at twenty-seven. God, I can’t go down like this. Please help me. Rahn had too many wrongs he needed to right, people to whom he needed to say his last good-byes, and babies he needed to kiss.

Exceeding his father’s numerous awards in baseball would be the biggest missed opportunity. Even collecting a pension didn’t sound too far-fetched at the moment. An induction in the Hall of Fame would be a plus, too. Now, all that seemed trivial.

All of a sudden, the driver of the Camaro jumped out. He appeared taller than Rahn’s six-foot-three-inch frame. “Nice ride,” he said, pointing his own gun at him.

Against the eerie backdrop of night, the man’s fair complexion gave him the illusion of a ghost face with rows of silver chains weighing down his body. His bling shone like a neon light. “How about letting us take it for a test drive?” He grinned, revealing a gap in his bottom teeth.

Was the trigger-happy dude asking permission? Did Rahn really have a choice?

“You’re moving too slow, man.” Agitated, the gunman hustled closer to the vehicle as Rahn calculated the speed needed to back up without a bullet hitting its target. “Your life or your ride,” he demanded.

Keep breathing, hands down, Rahn thought, more afraid at the moment than he could ever recall being.

“The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to turn one away from the snares of death.” Proverbs 14:27 came to him as a whisper, as if God Himself was a passenger in his car.

The Scriptures never seemed like a lifeline until it was too late. As Rahn was about to plead for his life, his assailant bucked, his demeanor shifting to uncertainty.

“Hey, man—aren’t you Rahn Maxwell?” He bobbed his head. “Yep, you are. All right, now. Whaz up, man? I remember that game against the Dodgers when the bases were loaded. I put a lot of money on that game. Man, oh man, when you cleared the bases with your two-run homer, it was cool.” He snickered as if he was watching an instant replay.

Rahn was about to be murdered, and the man wanted to talk baseball? Rahn could barely recall his name, let alone the specifics of a game from last season.

This is your plan of escape, came the mental nudge.

Right. He took the cue. “Yep, couldn’t let the Cubs gain ground—the Dodgers…the Dodgers.” Stay with the conversation, Maxwell, his mind warned him. He swallowed, still on guard.

“Hey, y’all, it’s Rahn Maxwell,” the gunman shouted to his accomplices in the car. “Check him out.” He still held his weapon erect.

Two thugs jumped out of the backseat. Scarves covered their heads, and bling drenched their bodies, which showcased tattoos splattered across their chests and arms.

Outgunned and outnumbered, Rahn pleaded with Jesus, Lord, if You get me out of this, I’ll clean up my act—promise. Did he just make a vow? That left him no choice but to make good on it, not give lip service, as he had in the past.

Book 2: In Defense of Love 

            “You did what?” Shari cast a suspicious look at Faith. They were at church on a Thursday night for her best friend’s first of two wedding rehearsals that she insisted she need because of her large wedding. “And when did you decide to invite Brother Garrett to play along with me at your wedding? I thought I was solo,” She demanded as her sister’s words from the other day came rushing to her mind.

            Stacy had warned her that if God had Garrett for her, the more she pushed him away, the closer he would get. “Do you think courtroom and lunch were a coincidence? Maybe, but sitting behind you at Bible class and being on the prison ministry team—now that is deliberate.”

             “You’re a marked woman. I believe that brother is serious,” Even Ted had gotten in on their conversation in the background,

            Now Shari wondered if Garrett’s presence was another strategic move and Faith was in on it.

Faith grinned. “Well, I got to thinking…”

“Which is so you and very scary, I might add.” Shari folded her arms and dared her friend to deny it. While Faith was adventurous, Shari was more reserved. Even in friendships, opposites attract.

“Who knows? Maybe you’ll thank me. But when you mentioned Brother Nash took you out to lunch, and I thought about the show you two put on at his grandparents’ shindig, I thought why not add him to the program? So I asked… and he said yes!”

Groaning out her frustration, Shari rolled her eyes at her friend’s play on the phrase when a man proposes and the woman says yes. “It was an accidental meeting and lunch—nothing more, and it definitely was not a date.”

Humph. Faith a snickered and teased, “Not to mention Wednesday night escorts to the car and prison ministry trips together. Chance meetings are what great romances are made of. You know that’s how Trask and I met—at the game that I hadn’t planned to go…”

“I was there, remember? But you already had a secret crush on him. Will you stop keeping tabs on me?” Shari waved her hand in the air. Define romance, she thought. It was filled with ‘love yous’, hugs and kisses. Would she ever hear those words, feel those embraces or experience the kisses of love? “What are you anyway, an aide to Mother Stillwell or Team John and Rita?”

“Neither. I’m happy when I see others happy, especially a good friend—you.” Faith dismissed her in favor of the wedding planner who was coming their way.

“Right,” Shari mumbled. So it was for Faith’s happiness that Shari strolled into the sanctuary, carrying her music case. Garrett was already there in the band stand, adjusting his tenor sax. Taking a deep breath, Shari continued on her way down the side aisle. She smiled at those in the wedding party she knew and nodded at others.

Shari had only been a bridesmaid once—at Stacy’s wedding. It was a silly childhood pact the Carmen sisters had made that they would only be bridesmaids in one another’s nuptials because they were a sisterhood like no other. Stacy had honored that, and when Faith asked her, Shari graciously declined and volunteered to do whatever she could to make the day memorable. So this was Faith’s gift.

She was almost at the altar when she heard a man whisper, “Ooh, she’s pretty for a dark skin girl.”

The insult disguised as a compliment made her lift her chin higher to mask the hurt that threatened to sink her heart. She was a career success story, and that was what she always fell back on when someone tried to rattle her self-esteem. Never let them see you sweat, her father and two cousins, Dino and Victor, had drilled into her.

How many times would her beauty be defined by the hue of her skin? Even in this new millennium, skin was a deciding factor in so many situations, especially in the justice system.  But winning cases didn’t empower her like when she saw a video clip of actress Lupita Nyong’o’s speech at the Essence magazine luncheon.

Lupita openly confessed to praying to have white skin as a child to be beautiful. She finally embraced her dark skin before she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years a Slave and then People magazine named her the most Beautiful People. Those were the victories that couldn’t be won in the courtroom—the acknowledgement of the dark and lovely sisters.

            Shari lifted her chin even higher as she placed one foot on the first step to the pulpit. Garrett was there to extend a hand to assist her up the remaining stairs. His grip was strong but gentle. She whispered her thanks, then rested her saxophone case on a chair.

“You look pretty,” Garrett said softly.

Still distracted by the earlier comment, Shari looked up and glanced into her eyes. Sincerity stared back at her. She mustered a smile. “Thanks.” I needed to hear that. She couldn’t help but wonder if Garrett thought for a dark girl too.

After taking her seat, Shari found herself staring in the direction of the offender. How could she be beautiful in one man’s eyes and almost attractive in another?

Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but fear Me and you shall be praised. The Lord whispered Proverbs 31:30.

Thank You, Jesus, Shari’s soul whispered as the Word of God strengthened her as the rehearsal got underway.

“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get started,” the wedding coordinator spoke into the cordless mic as she marched down the aisle like a staff sergeant.

As Shari observed the woman matched up the bridal attendants on whom would walk down the aisle with whom in synchronized steps, she felt a sense of longing. Would this ever be her? According to her younger sisters, Shae and Brecee, she was supposed to be next since Ted took Stacy off the market. That was easier said than done. She had yet to meet a man who could break down all her defenses to love, although every time Garrett was near, he gave her a glimpse of hope that love would find her.

When the coordinator called for the instrumental duet, Shari snapped out of her whimsical musing. Garrett was about to assist her to her feet, but Shari did it on her own. In sync, they began to play Antwaun Stanley’s “By Your Side.” Cued by the coordinator, Shari lowered her sax, and sang to serenade Faith and Trask at the altar. Garrett didn’t miss a beat as he followed her high notes and low notes on the musical scale.

Once their duet had ended, and they took their seats, Garrett leaned over and whispered, “You are perfect, you know that?”

For some reason at that very moment, she knew now. His glance, his statement, and his cologne mesmerized her that she couldn’t even respond. But somewhere deep within her, an alter ego reared its head and shouted to the man in the audience with the insulting words, “Take that, dude!”

She would never admit it to Faith, but her friend had done a good job pairing her up without even being a bridesmaid. Shari couldn’t wait for the second rehearsal the night before the wedding.

Book 3: Redeeming Heart

What was that?

Octavia Winston’s heart constricted as she strained her ears and inhaled. After counting to ten, she exhaled, but she dared not move. As a real estate agent, Octavia was familiar with the mood of a house—its quietness as well as its subtle growing pains. Occupied homes had different vibes from that of a vacant house.

The University City neighborhood was a crossover from St. Louis city to the county.  Affectionately called “The Loop” because of its proximity to the elite Washington University, it was known for its thriving nightlife, but in spite of that, this block and adjacent ones had witnessed decades of families come and go. This two-story, three-bedroom brick structure was the latest causality and now possibly a crime scene: the possible victim, twenty-nine-year-old Octavia Winston.

Lord Jesus, please protect me. Octavia swallowed. She had no escape route in this lower level—the preferred term she and her associates liked to use when referring to basements. Get a grip, girl! Who cared about semantics in a time of danger?

What was she thinking when she came in her for a quick inspection, leaving her phone and purse secure in a locked car while she was trapped in an unsecured house? She scanned the meticulous area for a stick, brick, or any object that actor Macaulay Culkin of the Home Alone movies would think of to rig as a weapon. The windows were large enough to peep in or out, not wide enough for an escape.

Octavia felt trapped as her heart pumped faster. Her skin began to feel clammy. All she had was her car key, which could gouge out her assailant’s eyes. She scrunched up her face at the thought of such a gory scene. Her shoes! Single and living alone, Octavia could fashion a makeshift a hammer out of anything. Stilettos had their benefits.

She heard a squeak—time was a wastin’. She had to get past the intruder, out the door and to her car, then she could call the police. “Jesus, I don’t know who is upstairs, but please make me a David to whatever Goliath awaits me.”

Releasing a deep breath, Octavia gathered momentum like a plane revving up its engines for takeoff. She quietly tiptoed to the base of the steps. Lifting her short skirt even higher, she hiked two steps at a time upstairs toward freedom. As Octavia made it to the landing, she barreled into something—someone--somebody that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. With her adrenaline still charged, she tackled him like a defensive football player. The impact seemed to startle the intruder. Good. She took the element of surprise to her advantage.

She scrambled to her feet, but tripped. When her assailant got to his feet, Octavia took off, charging ahead, refusing to look back as she opened the door. Outside, she gulped for air, but kept running. Where were the nosey neighbors when she needed them?  She had no witnesses in broad daylight to hear her cries for help.

She scurried across the sidewalk, deactivated her car alarm, jumped into her Taurus and locked the doors. Octavia fumbled with her keys until the right one made contact with the ignition. Steering with one hand, she drove off as she reached for her cell phone on the passenger seat. She used her voice-activation to call the police.

“Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”

She started rambling, “I’m a real estate agent and…just come quick. It’s a big one. He’s in the house—” 

“Are you still in the house, ma’am?” the female dispatcher queried.

“No. I got away, thank God. I knocked him down, but he kept coming after me—”

“What’s the address?” 

Octavia could hear the woman pecking on the keyboard as she gave her the information.

“The police are on their way. Stay on the line—” 

Too late. Octavia did the opposite and disconnected. She dictated a text to her friend Terri Mack, another agent and broker she worked under: S.O.S. Man in house. Got out. Called 9-1-1. Pulling over, she took a deep breath to calm her nerves. In the years she had shown houses, she never had this happen to her. The city neighborhood was stable with black middle-class homeowners who took pride in their properties. Even though this particular listing was on a nice street, the protocol for all agents was to lock up after each showing.  It was her agency’s listing, so who had breached security?

She peeked down at her stocking, which had a run in it, and she’d broken a nail from a fresh manicure. Plus, her shoulder was throbbing as a result of the tackle.  The fear that held her captive dissipated as defiance surged to the top with a vengeance.  Making a sharp U-turn, Octavia raced back to the scene of the crime. Whoever the intruder was, she owed him payback, and watching him get arrested would give her sweet satisfaction.

Book 4: Driven to Be Loved

Squinting, Adrian Cole released a slow whistle as he pulled into the parking space at St. Louis Bread Company on South Brentwood. He'd chosen the cafe-style restaurant for its low-key atmosphere. With a big paper to write for his strategic management course for his MBA, he felt he would be more productive there than at his condo in Maryland Heights, where he could definitely find distractions—number one, the sports channels.

As he mentally cataloged the shiny black Lexus IS’s features, he confirmed the model was top of the line, although he preferred his own silver- gray fully loaded Audi A6. However, the luxury sedan wasn't the only thing that caught his eye.

A woman sat behind the wheel, and something didn’t appear quite right. Even though Adrian couldn’t make out the details of her face, there was no mistaking that she was in some type of distress. Her shoulders were slumped, and her head was bowed.

After turning off the ignition, Adrian grabbed his laptop and got out of his vehicle. He slowly approached her car and tapped lightly on the window, so as not to startle her. But she didn't respond. He tapped again, louder this time. Still, the lady didn’t acknowledge him. Adrian debated what he should do next.

He could see the news story now: “African-American man wanted for attempted carjacking. Man is described as being six foot three, built, and of medium complexion. Witnesses say the suspect was seen trying to break into a black Lexus....” He shook his head. He needed to cut back on his crime show marathons.

With the sun beginning to set, there was just enough daylight for Adrian to make a quick sweep of the backseat and make sure the woman wasn’t being held at gunpoint. Nope.

It appeared the damsel in distress was alive, conscious, and purposely ignoring him; so, he decided his good deed—at least his attempt at one— was done for the day. For all he knew, the woman was on the phone, arguing with her boyfriend or her husband, or learning of the passing of a loved one. Or, maybe she hadn’t taken her meds and was about to go ballistic.

With a deep breath, Adrian continued across the parking lot to the restaurant. Once inside, he fought the urge to glance over his shoulder to see if the woman had driven off, was still holed up in her car, or had gotten out. By the time he picked up his tray of his favorite sandwich—a Bacon Turkey Bravo—and a cup of fresh-squeezed lemonade, Adrian had done a couple more head checks. With curiosity still gnawing at him, he slid into a booth that gave him a view of his target.

He powered up his laptop, hastily blessed his food, and took a swig of his lemonade, still spying on the black Lexus. He eyed the parking lot one more time, then chided himself. How was he going to get any work done if he was constantly looking out there? 

Shaking his head, Adrian tried to focus on the strategic analyses he had to complete on three companies. As he was outlining their strengths and weaknesses, his peripheral vision picked up movement in the parking lot. Adrian’s head whipped up. The woman had pulled down the sun visor and was blowing her nose. He still couldn’t get a good look at her, except to see that she had enough hair that she probably could spare some—whether a gift from her parents or purchased over the counter, it was definitely an asset.

He watched as she meticulously patted her cheeks, applied some lipstick, and then stepped out of the car, her four-inch heels hitting the pavement first. When she stood to her full height, Adrian guessed she was five feet seven or eight. She reached back into the car and pulled out a white jacket—a lab coat?—and draped it around her shoulders. 

The damsel slid on a pair of sunglasses, probably to hide her red eyes, since the sun had mostly set by now. Her skin reminded him of caramel, and the way she strutted on her shapely legs as she walked toward the restaurant said that she took no prisoners. However, just moments earlier, some type of melt¬down had held her captive.

Maybe that was what prompted Adrian to change seats.

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