Yay! This book is almost out. Hearts Never Lie contains two interwoven stories about girls from Lily’s house Here’s a sneak peek of the second story, Ruth’s Choice.
I stared at the music store as I had done so many times before. Huge signs proclaimed discounts as deep as ninety percent off. Good deals, to be sure, but it wasn’t the sales that interested me. I was here for the building itself.
The store was located in a strip mall that sat far enough off the main street to have decent parking, and yet was close enough not to inhibit customers from making the trip. The surrounding shops looked trendy and successful. The perfect location. I believed the demise of the music store had more to do with the presence of two nearby competing businesses than the location. In fact, this street had been on my wish list long before the discount signs appeared in the windows.
I’d talked to the owner last week about leasing the property and learned the rental for the fifteen hundred square feet was sixteen hundred dollars a month. Not cheap by any standards, but far from the more upscale rental properties of the same size. The required first and last month’s rent was a challenge I was up for, but I’d have to buy a new stove and refrigerator for the existing kitchen, which was currently storing guitars. I’d also need to put in tables and a small bar-like space with glass cases to display desserts like in a European café, which was my model, even though I’d never been to Europe.
When I’d shared my plans for opening the café, the owner of the building had been encouraging and offered me an allowance for paint. We both agreed that the tiled floor would work fine. But the first three bids I’d received for the renovations and the equipment was over twenty thousand dollars. Too far out of reach with my current job as a junior dietician at the hospital during the day and my second job as a waitress-slash-cook at a small family Mexican restaurant across town.
Which was why I was all dressed up on this beautiful Thursday afternoon in May and staring morosely at the store. I’d been applying for loans all over Phoenix today, but no one seemed interested in loaning money to a too-tall, half African-American woman, with limited time on the job and a miniscule credit history. My five-month-old college degree in food science and two years waitressing didn’t impress anyone.
I heaved a sigh, and started to take off my D-backs cap to fan myself before I remembered I wasn’t wearing it. Or my favorite jeans and T-shirt. Instead, I wore a borrowed purple dress that was supposed to be retro trendy but was a tad too short and fit far too snugly for my comfort. The black heels that had seemed almost reasonable this morning now made every step torture.
In fact, there was no way I was going to make it to my car wearing them. Gingerly, I slipped first one and then the other off my feet.
A movement in my peripheral vision called my attention. But it was just a man with a camera, a baseball cap pulled low over his brow, brown hair curling out beneath it in wide ringlets. His camera, a serious-looking affair with a huge lens attached, was aimed upward at a small brown bird perched on the scraggly tree several yards from the bench where I sat.
I couldn’t see what interested him in the shot, but he’d have to be a genius to make it appeal to the masses. Or at least to the people here in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, who were passing by without so much as a second glance at the little creature. But the man’s intentness and the steadiness of his hand hinted at experience, so maybe he could see something everyone else missed.
Refocusing on the store, I considered how many weeks it might be until the doors closed for the last time. The contract gave the lessees until the end of this month, with the possibility of extension, and since it was only the first of May and their sales were winding down, it was doubtful they’d extend. But how much time after that would the owner need to get it ready for a new tenant? At my current jobs, it would be at least a year, and probably three, before I scrimped and scraped up twenty thousand dollars and an extra month of padding. By then, this building would be rented to another lucky business owner.
I hated the idea of defeat and losing this location. There had to be something I could do, but my mind was drawing a complete and utter blank. I hadn’t felt so alone and frustrated since leaving my biological mother’s home for good when I was thirteen.
Wait. I pulled myself erect on the bench. I wasn’t alone, and there was nothing to compare to that terrible night when I’d run away. Now I had my foster parents, Lily and Mario Perez, and all the girls who’d ever been through Lily’s House to help me. I couldn’t ask them for money because cash was always tight, but if they would help me do the work, and if I stripped down my original plan to the very basics, and bought everything secondhand, maybe it was still possible. I could give up my apartment and stay with Lily to save rent. I could offer to work more at my current jobs.
I folded my arms in determination, reminding myself of all the meals I would make in my café, and all the people who’d come in and chat, taking a moment from their busy lives to eat one of my pastries. It was a beautiful dream, and I’d make it happen somehow. There was still time.
Of course, I wasn’t going anywhere just staring at the music store. I needed to get working on my new plan. I bent over to grab my shoes, glancing around to see who might notice—only to realize that the man with the camera was no longer aiming it at the tree but at me. For an instant, I froze, emotions zipping through me and making my heart pound against my ribcage.
Shoving my poor abused feet into my heels, I bounced up and faced him, hands clenched at my sides. “What are you doing?”
He slowly lowered the camera, revealing laughing brown eyes that were opened wide, which gave him a somewhat startled expression. His skin was several shades lighter than mine, but he still had plenty of African American blood running through his veins. His smile was wide and friendly, and I found myself wanting to return it.
With effort, I resisted. “Well?”
“Uh, taking pictures?” He raised the camera slightly for emphasis. The words were matter-of-fact, with no mockery implied, but it had been a rotten day, and I wanted to take offense.
“I can see that,” I retorted. “What I don’t understand is why that thing is pointed in my direction.”
His smile widened. “It might have something to do with the fact that you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
The rest of my protest died on my lips. Even through my irritation, I could see he was one fine man. Intelligent eyes, lean body, and tall enough even for me. Not that I was looking for any man.
“Well, uh . . .” I said, finding my voice. “Thank you. But I’d rather you not take my picture.” Even his stare made me uncomfortable.
Again the slow smile that was like a key turning something inside me. “Why?”
I shrugged. Being told I was beautiful was nice, but I was experienced enough to know it usually didn’t end there. Years of counseling had helped me deal with my past, but I’d only had one real boyfriend to practice a relationship with, and we’d broken up when he taken a job in New York. Jamal was a good friend, comfortable like a warm blanket, but I didn’t love him enough to move that far away from my adopted family. I still shared an apartment with two of the girls who’d gone through Lily’s House at the same time I’d been there, and they were my sisters and my support, far more support than Jamal had ever been. I also enjoyed being able to go home to see Lily and the others whenever I wanted. Jamal hadn’t loved me enough to stay, either, but we remained good friends.
“There’s no law against taking pictures,” the man continued. “At least in a public place because no one has any expectation of privacy. I could even sell them. Of course, you can’t actually publish photos without a model release because . . . Never mind. You want to see them?”
Before I could stop myself, I stepped toward him. “I guess.”
He slipped around to my side, bringing with him the faint aroma of cologne. “Just a moment,” he murmured. “I have to enable the screen. I don’t normally use it when I shoot.”
“Oh, you mean you use the little square that messes up your makeup. At least that’s what my sisters call it.”
He laughed. “It’s called a view finder. Ah, here we go.”
The images appeared on the two-inch screen. In the first picture, I was turning toward him. The second, slightly earlier in time, showed me staring in determination, and the third caught me with my lips parted, my expression thoughtful. The shot was fantastic.
“Wow, you’re good.” I looked amazing, beautiful, like someone I didn’t know.
“I had a great model.” He thumbed through a few more. Not all of them made me look as amazing as that third picture, but none were blurred or embarrassing.
“I’m not sure what’s so fascinating about that store,” he said. “But they’re already advertising ninety percent off, so whatever you’re waiting for, it’s probably as good as it’s going to get.”
“Yeah, I know.” I knew it too well, and someone was going to scoop the building right out from under me if I didn’t figure something out. But I wasn’t going to tell this stranger about my dream.
Finally, after about twenty shots of me, the little bird appeared, looking wide-eyed and intent. Nothing at all like the bird I’d seen. This guy had made the waif-like creature as cute and appealing as he’d made me look beautiful.
“You’re not going to make me delete these, are you?” he asked.
I lifted my eyes to his and tried not to drown in their depths. The rapid beating of my heart was ridiculous. He was just a man and those were just eyes. “I thought you said it wasn’t against the law and that I had no say.”
“Well, not in the eyes of the law, but I don’t like to take pictures of people if they don’t want me to. The problem is, once you tell them you’re shooting pictures, it’s harder to get great natural poses unless they’re trained models, and even then, it’s not as appealing, at least to me. I prefer candid shots.” He tilted his head and gave me another smile. “Please?”
“Fine. You don’t have to delete them. But no selling them.”
“Couldn’t get much for them without a model release anyway. Want me to email copies to you? I won’t charge you for them.”
I really wanted that third picture, and I’d even pay for it, but it was silly because it didn’t really look like me, and I almost never dressed this way. Besides, then he’d have my email address. My eyes ran over his brown curls and sincere face. Maybe that wasn’t so bad.
Yes, it was. Especially if he went around telling all the girls he met that they were the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. What a line. I knew his type, and I didn’t want or need the distraction right now.
“I don’t think so. But thanks.”
He sighed, his smile wavering slightly. “Look, these are great pictures. I do freelancing for a couple of magazines. If you’re interested, I could shop them around, but I’d need a model release.”
Shopping the photos around was something I definitely didn’t want. Next, he’d be asking me to strip down to a bikini to pose, and all the counseling in the world hadn’t prepared me for that. No way was I going on display. Consciously, I opened my hands that were beginning to ache for clenching them so long. “That’s really nice of you, but I’m not interested in being a model.”
“What do you like to do?”
“Cook.” So much for not giving him any personal information.
“Yes, and bake and experiment with any kind of food.” I glanced to the side at the music store, wishing he could see it as I did . . . and wondering why it mattered if he did.
“Food’s good,” he said. “I like eating.”
Now I was grinning. “So do I.”
“We’re both creative people, you and I.” He reached into his pocket and took out a business card. “Look, here’s my contact information in case you change your mind and want to see if I can find a home for the pictures. Or if you decide you want me to email you them after all.” He paused, eyes roaming my face as if putting it to memory, which was a silly idea since he already had the pictures. “Or if you ever need a taster. I’m good at tasting. I have a cousin who works on this food show, and he’s always bringing me stuff to try out before they choose the final menu.”
I wanted to ask which food show, but I didn’t need to add more of them to my watch list. And I didn’t want to encourage him if he was working up to asking me out. Was he interested? It was possible, but most likely it was because he wanted me to sign that model release.
To mask my thoughts, I concentrated on his card. His name was Zane Thomas, apparently, and he had a website. He shot weddings, anniversaries, graduations, baptisms, and bar mitzvas.
“It’s my cell number,” he said, ducking his head a bit so he could look into my eyes.
“Thanks.” I wasn’t going to change my mind, but with all my foster sisters, a photographer might come in handy, so I’d keep the card. “Are you expensive?”
“A bit.” There was no apology or offer of a discount, which made me like him more and feel less like he was trying to sell me something.
I glanced down at the card again. “Well, it was nice meeting you, Zane. Good luck with your photography. Thanks for the card. And I guess if I suddenly show up in a magazine, I’ll know who to send my attorney after.” I could have kicked myself as the words left my mouth, but he just laughed.
“It was nice to meet you, Beautiful-woman-in-the-purple-dress.”
“Shouldn’t that be lavender dress? Or lilac? I thought you said artists were creative.”
“Well, I’m still a man.” He emphasized the words with a little wave of his body that hinted he might be a good dancer.
“That’s your excuse? Really?”
“Okay, Beautiful-woman-in-the-amethyst-dress, it was nice talking to you.” He extended his hand, and I put mine into it. His touch was warm and slightly electric, and my breath caught in my throat.
“Ruth,” I said. “My name’s Ruth.”
He grinned. “Hi Ruth. I hope you call me.”
I pulled my hand from his, turned, and began my walk to the car, scarcely noticing the pain of my high heels.
Available February 14th
Hope you’ll pick up the ebook on February 14th. Thank you!
Copyright 2017 Teyla Rachel Branton
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