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Rebel Preview - Chapter 1

Here is your preview of Rebel, book one in my new series available in the That One Summer anthology. 18 books for $0.99 through June 16.

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ANEKA

Head pounding, I stopped for a minute, gripping the twisted leather of my steering wheel before getting out of the car. Sunlight blazed red through my closed eyelids. My thighs stuck to the hot seat even though I’d cranked the air conditioning to proper Texas summer levels.

Linen shorts sounded like a fabulous idea when I fled my living room in a rage twenty minutes ago, dressed, and jumped in the car, barely stopping to pack. Not so much now.

All because of a stupid midday news teaser after my favorite soap.

“Ma’am, can you close your door? We need this spot.”

The chirp of a young, miss-ish drawl popped my eyes open. Her tone and being called ma’am.

When had that happened? And how could she tell from one bare leg outstretched into the neighboring spot in the Target parking lot I was a “ma’am” and not a “miss” or a simple, “Hey, lady.”

“Sorry,” I sang, twisting back to aim my apology at the open passenger window of the sedan behind me.

As I reached down to grab my purse, I caught sight of the months-old Forbes magazine cover sticking out of my hastily stuffed overnight bag. Just seeing the edge of the cover image bumped my heart rate up a few notches, but I didn’t have time to flip through the article for the hundredth time, wondering and fantasizing like some lovesick fangirl.

Snatching up my purse, I hopped out and bumped the car door closed with my hip. Crowds of people prepped for the long Fourth of July weekend. A few gave me looks, but maybe it was normal glances. Not inquisitive ones. Or judgmental ones. With my head down, I prayed to get in and out with little fuss.

Every night this week, my husband’s bullshit flooded the Houston news broadcasts.

“Today at five, the Elijah Shaw scandal. What auditors of the Triumph of Faith Assembly are saying about the mega-preacher’s alleged embezzlement. Our news team has the latest.”

The cheerfully delivered play-by-play of my life’s destruction echoed in my head as I grabbed my cart. I ducked my chin and headed up the chips aisle. I needed salty, crunchy reinforcements for the drive to east Texas. The sweets I could get when I hit town. I could practically taste a bite of the sweet and spicy honey buns at Sweet Bliss bakery.

The thought of getting the hell out of Houston for the rest of the summer buoyed me through my selection. Cool Ranch Doritos or Flaming Hot Cheetos? Both. Pringles or Kettle Chips? Both.

I swept the snacks into my basket like one of those combines I saw in the corn fields driving south on Highway 59. That was where Elijah told everyone he planned to build a shiny new church complex. I’d seen the plans. I’d helped fundraise for a beautiful church hall. K-6 charter school. Gymnasium. Arts center.

Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.

He promised his congregation the campus was still in the works, but so far, all he’d done was take his side hussy to a “spiritual retreat” for two in the Bahamas.

I had to stop calling her that. And I had to stop cussing. Mom’s gentle lady tsking echoed in my head like a church chorus. She didn’t raise me to speak filth, but that was all I could do these days. And the word felt so appropriate for the sticky, stinky mess of my life.

My ex-husband’s new young lady didn’t make me promises over the course of a twenty-two-year marriage. He did, and since our separation, he’d done nothing to change my mind about leaving.

At least it was almost over. My lawyers sent him a signed agreement two weeks ago that, after much back and forth, seemed to meet everyone’s compromised demands. All he had to do was sign it. Then we could submit it to a judge and be done. It had been almost exactly two years since I received a stunning bouquet at the house with another woman’s name on them. “To: Tyffani, I love you,” scrawled in his looping script with a heart over the “i” like a middle school girl.

He’d never looped a heart on a note to me a day in his life. Pushing fifty, he was too damned old to date a woman who spelled her name like that, let along punctuate his duplicity with heart scribbles.

Screw him and his ho.

I sighed, blinking back to reality before I collided with another shopper.

They weren’t my business anymore. Or it wouldn’t be as soon as a judge signed off on the damn papers. Unfortunately, we hadn’t heard from Elijah or his team. He was dragging his feet while flitting around town with Tyffani.

The embarrassed faces of my children swam in front of me. At least the twins were out of state in their second year of college. Jeremy was at Duke. Naomi was at Howard. Hopefully, they didn’t have to hear the news everyday like an IV drip of poison.

When I thought of the tanker full of worms I unleashed by confronting him, sometimes I wasn’t sure I’d do it again. If I could have smiled through this latest in a line of indiscretions and indignities, there would be no divorce, no fight over dividing up our worldly goods, no examination of our finances, no discovery of the shortfall he created by moving money out of the church coffers to pay for his affair. Tyffani might still be a secret, and this side-winding sexcapade could have burned itself out like all the others.

Elijah had a windfall coming from his late grandmother’s estate. He swore he would have put all the money back. Maybe he would have. If I’d said nothing, maybe my children wouldn’t be facing the shame of our dirty laundry blowing in the public wind.

Enough.

The embarrassment wasn’t my fault. This mess was on him, not me.

I rounded the corner to get cookies and outrun my maudlin mind spiral, but at the end of the aisle, I spotted a long, flowy sundress. Pink with yellow lilies around the hem. I knew that print. I’d been with her when she bought it—a one-of-a-kind creation from a little shop in Ireland on one of our girls’ trips.

She looked up and backed out of the sweets aisle, avoiding my eyes.

Was she running?

Oh, hell no.

I broke into a near jog and turned right, spotting her left turn two aisles down. The rush of rage at seeing my onetime best church friend for the first time in six months put my legs on turbo. She cancelled our standing lunch dates, refused to answer my texts and calls, but she couldn’t avoid me in public. Not without a scene, and Vanessa Fairchild-Evans hated a scene.

I caught up to her in the cereal aisle where a store employee complicated her exit with a giant restocking cart.

“Aneka! Oh, um, hey, girl. How’re you doing?”

Her deep-set brown eyes rounded under the sharp fringe of her bluntly bobbed ebony hair. My ex-friend drew out the last word in a topsy-turvy rise and fall that reminded me of Elijah’s bullshit handwriting.

“If you wanted to know, you could return a call every once in a while or drop by with margarita mix and tequila like I did when you went through your trouble with David,” I snapped, quelling the urge to scream so, hopefully, the kid restocking the Apple Jacks didn’t hear.

Vanessa scanned the shelf and clutched a box of granola in her burgundy-tipped fingers, turning it to examine the nutrition facts as they were the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“I thought y’all moved out of the house.”

I steadied myself with a hard grip on my cart. “Elijah moved. I’m still at the same address.”

“Oh, the news—”

“You could have heard that directly from me if you cared to know. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? You don’t. A decade of so-called friendship is out the window because my husband made the news.”

On that note, she straightened to a righteous posture. “David felt like it was important for us to distance ourselves. We have had our problems, and we’re trying to associate with people who uplift us. And—”

I flung up my hands, stopping her. “So you see me and run the other way?”

“It’s all so much. David went to lunch with Elijah, and a process server dropped papers off in front of everyone on the golf club patio. Everyone saw. We can’t have people thinking we have anything to do with your…situation.”

I bristled. “Elijah’s situation. I have nothing to do with it either.”

One of the biggest sticking points in our marriage was how I refused to work at the church. I sat in the front row twice on Sundays, every Wednesday night, and for any and every Triumph of Faith event, but I refused to work there. Despite whispers from some in the congregation, I put my business degree from the University of Texas to work, starting as an office manager for a home renovation company and eventually becoming the president of operations. Outside of raising two kind, curious kids, my career had always been a bright spot.

Or it had until the whispering and stress got to be so much that I took a leave of absence eight months ago. A month ago, the CEO and I worked out a “separation package” where I transitioned my duties to a replacement and took a payout for my equity in the business. But unlike my nervous, impeccably presented friend with the sudden cereal obsession, she checked on me every few weeks to see if I wanted to come back.

I still wasn’t sure. About the job. My alleged friends. My entire life.

As pissed as I was at Vanessa, she wasn’t the only one to cut off contact the minute our high-flying status as community scions came crashing down. I’d spent two decades building what I thought were strong friendships, only for them to evaporate. How could I have been so wrong about everything?

Only one woman from my old church crew still called me. She left a weekly message to say she was praying for my strength…to return to my husband and reclaim God’s grace.

Vanessa cleared her throat, eyes softening. “I know you had nothing to do with what Elijah did. I do, honey, but I… Things are delicate. David’s an elder. I’m up for a position on the church board. We can’t afford for people to think we’re involved. We decided as a family, and I have to support my husband. You’re choosing something else, but you understand that still. Don’t you?”

Still?

My eyes stung with angry tears. “I understand that my supposed friend abandoned me because keeping up appearances is more important than loyalty. Or compassion. So much for Christian love.”

My dry humor fell flat. Vanessa shifted from foot to foot, wringing her hands. But she said nothing. I sniffled and wiped my eyes.

“I don’t even know why I bothered saying anything.”

Chasing her through Target like a Fury was stupid. I backed out of the aisle and turned away.

“‘Neka, look, I’ll call you when this blows over.”

My old friend’s empty words floated toward my back. I just finished my shopping and got back on the road to go home.

* * *

Bliss, Texas, population 3,256, was a wonderful place to be from. But the minute I loaded my second-hand Honda Accord to leave for college, I swore I’d never again be more than a visitor.

I blew a kiss at the Bliss road sign behind me and stepped on the gas.

Now, crossing into town three and a half hours after leaving Houston, my foot eased up, and my shoulders relaxed. It was almost seven and still bright out, even though the sun dipped toward the horizon.

People cruised in and out of shops on Main Street and the two main eateries in town, which sat side by side, the Lucky Duck diner and the Forage and Fodder. The thought of Elma Watkins’s chicken and dumplings or the perfect burnt ends of brisket at the Fodder made my mouth water, but I smiled and kept driving.

The town seemed brighter than the last time I visited. My eyes darted down again to the magazine cover now staring at me from the passenger side floorboard. The serious expression of a confident global magnate and all-round business baller cloaked the bright smile I remembered.

From the dustier side of tracks in Bliss to the cover of freaking Forbes.

Was he in town?

Caleb McKnight probably had better things to do on a holiday weekend than hang out in his high school stomping grounds. Still, word was he’d come back to make good in the town where he used to make mostly mischief.

In my rush to get out of Houston, I didn’t tell anyone I was coming up. My parents kept encouraging me to come back for a break—even though they were in Panama doing a trial run on retirement with some friends who moved there. They worried I might buy a new house, which would cement the divorce in their mind. They still hoped Elijah and I would reconcile. On our weekly phone calls each Saturday morning, they dropped hints.

“You can check on the house for us,” Dad said.

“You’d be doing us a favor, and you won’t have to waste money on a new place while you two work things out. Houston is so expensive,” Mom would add.

They texted me the alarm code and told me I could pick up the key from Idabelle Gibbs, who lived next door. I didn’t need to. They never changed the locks, and I’d kept the house key on my key ring for twenty-eight years.

A surprise invasion was better. Giving advanced notice would have the Bliss rumor mill in force before I even unpacked my suitcase.

Exhausted by the day, the week, the year, and possibly my entire adult life, I didn’t have it in me to paste on the welcoming smile all my old friends and neighbors would expect. Not until I had a good night’s sleep in my old bed.

I turned off Main and climbed the hill on Oak Street, where my childhood home stood at the end of the block overlooking the town. It was the last house before the street dead-ended at a densely pined copse that sloped down to Bliss Creek, a winding tributary from Lake Bliss a couple of miles away.

I parked in the driveway and sat, looking at the two-story cream Victorian with dark green trim and its rusty red doors and steps. The last time my parents repainted, I begged them to get a little adventurous. Swap the cream for pale green or experiment with shades of red. Ida’s house was lavender with sunny yellow shutters and ochre trim. The Bigsbys down the street went with tone-on-tone blues, from cornflower to midnight.

Mom thought the idea outrageous. Dad ceded notions of style to her.

“After fifty years, I trust your mother on how to make a respectable home. What’s stylish for the Bigsby house is garish for ours. You know that,” he said.

I knew what they told me my entire life. Be circumspect and respectable. Rise above. But after years of following the rules, I landed in the exact spot I was supposed to avoid: a garish spectacle of judgment and gossip.

I shook my head. Enough wallowing. Besides, the sky had darkened, not only from the sunset. A few fat drops hit my windshield.

As I raced to unload my luggage and groceries onto the front porch, the downpour started in earnest. I ducked back under the covered porch and hurried into the house.

I hadn’t been home in three years, and my parents had been gone for a month, but the house smelled the same. Old wood floors and paneling with a hint of lemony polish. Dried roses on the round table in the center of the entryway. A sweet hint of pipe smoke when I passed dad’s office. He smoked once a month, which was all my mother would allow, but over decades, the scent soaked into the wood.

I took a deep breath and smiled.

I’d forgotten how much I loved this house, even if I didn’t love every memory in it. I loved the way every wooden step dipped under my feet, worn by all the people who came before me. I loved the way the house shook and echoed when you closed the front door and how voices drifted up the staircase. I loved the steady, comforting patter on the roof tiles when it rained and sitting on the porch swing swathed in damp air.

Coming back already felt like starting over, back before I left to go to school. Before I met Elijah Shaw my first day on campus. It had been raining then too, and he appeared out of nowhere with an umbrella to walk me between the six-pack of buildings in the central quad. My hero.

I dragged my suitcases up the stairs to my old room. The squealing wheel on my suitcase sounded like rewinding the tape on my life. The stress fell away a little—even if I had no idea what came next. I would figure it out. I always did.

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NEXT: Chapter 2

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Order the anthology now!