The scent of lemon oil that had been perpetually scrubbed into the wooden fixtures and peach cobbler so sweet cavities were forming in the back of Rose’s mouth already, invaded her senses even before she could fully open the creaky screen door.
Her grandma’s house, so old that it had its own soul and nestled in the dense woods fifty miles outside of Charlotte, had always smelled the same. Or it could have been that Rose’s grandma had cooked her favorite dessert and got up from her rocking chair long enough to wipe down the wood only on those seldom occasions Rose came to visit.
The corners of her eyes beaded with tears as she took in the den’s familiar layout.
She rejected the thought immediately. North Carolina had stopped being her home a long time ago. But, even as she resolved to this, Rose explored the den with a warm sense of nostalgia. Raising her nose toward the kitchen, she hunted for the source of the tooth-aching smell of baked peaches. Nobody made peach cobbler like her grandma.
“Well, I’ll be! Is that little ole Rosemary I see?”
Rose half-grinned when her Aunt Helen came into view, throwing her arms out and shaking her bosom as if it were the 1990s and she was back on a late-night Las Vegas stage. She puckered her lips against Rose’s cheek, encasing her in a smothering embrace.
For the briefest moment, Rose reverted to a little girl again, her cheeks burning the same shade as her auntie’s cherry-painted mouth at the unwanted attention.
“Hey, Helen,” she wheezed. It was hard to breathe when a pair of watermelon breasts were crushing her lungs. Oh, Christ. Isn’t this bad for them? What if they pop?
A hint of laughter bubbled up Rose’s throat as she imagined her auntie’s boobies deflating like tires blown out. A consequence of moving back home, the friendly, if not a little unnecessary, reception would be practice for what was to come. Not bones crushed by bags of silicone, Rose hoped that wasn’t in her future, but hugging, lots of hugging. Too acquainted with Houston’s mind-your-own mentality, Rose preferred it over North Carolina’s boisterous hospitality, so she was thankful when Helen loosened her arms.
“Oh, bless my heart! The last time I saw you, Rosey, you were about knee-high.” Catching Rose’s cheeks in a pinch, Helen squealed. “Aren’t you as pretty as a peach?”
She nodded her reply, watching with horror as the room flooded with family members she’d not seen in forever, some whose names she didn’t recall.
* * * *
Later that day, Rose sat on her grandma’s back porch, taking in the outdoors. She was drunk on sweet tea, cobbler and compliments of how she’d changed into an attractive young woman.
The crickets, making their music, had her recalling the time she’d gone camping with Simon. Then Rose remembered why she was in Ellenboro to begin with. Her ego, ballooned from her family’s praise, deflated. The reality check smacked into her. The scenic mountains changed from majestic to foreboding. The sky, spotted with fall colors like melted crayons, wasn’t magnificent but melancholy. A leaf spinning loose from its dying branch was the same vibrant hue as the hair Simon had tangled his fingers in the day she came back early from her business trip to surprise him.
“How you figure Simon’s gonna like being all by himself in that big ole house?”
Rose craned her neck. Her momma’s arms were folded in their I-got-something-serious-to-say manner. This talk had been bound to come sooner or later. Her momma’s favor of Simon was no secret. Rose sat up, wishing her sweet iced tea would evolve into something with a little more kick because her gut was churning with the kind of nervousness she couldn’t will away. Rose despised lying to her family, especially her momma. The woman had a built-in lie detector that sniffed out untruths better than police dogs uncovered hidden drugs.
“Simon and I talked.” Rose looked off into the woods, unable to face her mom as she spun the fabrication she’d practiced on the plane ride. “He’ll be all right. He knows my move is temporary. This directorship is good for my career.”
“Rosemary Louise Berkowitz.”
She cringed, smart enough to know full names meant trouble.
“Why do I get the feeling that you’re hiding something from me?”
“I think that’s the peach cobbler you ate making your stomach feel funny.” Rose gave her mother a look of sympathy. “I ate too much, too, but I swear Grandma has gotten better at making it. Is she using new sugar or something?”
“You wouldn’t be tryin’ to avoid your momma’s question, now, would you?”
“Did your accent get worse while I was away?” Rose asked.
Her momma’s expression turned sour like she was sucking on a Warhead.
“I’m joking, Momma.” Rose shuffled her way into her mother’s arms, having missed the way they draped around her back. “I missed you and your accent,” she said, chin wobbling and her eyes filling with watery affection. Rose had missed her momma in general, but never enough to come back to this place.
“Don’t know why. All you have to do is speak and you’ll hear it.”
“Don’t worry about me. Simon and I are fine.”
She pulled away to give Rose a once-over. “Where’s your engagement ring?”
Shit. “I left it in my luggage.” It didn’t even convince her. “You can’t wear jewelry through TSA nowadays.”
Rose exhaled, relieved when she heard the saving bell of her best friend’s voice.
“Rose the Queen has arrived. Where are you?” the familiar voice called.
She clapped her hands together, rejoicing. “Olive is here.”
Leaving her mother’s inquisitive eyes behind, Rose raced indoors.
The second Olive’s and her gazes connected, she nudged her head toward the front entrance, praying her best friend could decipher the plea.
Holton’s voice permeated the kitchen. “Well, ain’t that just a sight for sore eyes? Ms. Olive Wayward has found her way to my doorstep.”
Before Rose could question where her brother’s voice had come from, he zoomed past her in a gust of wind. Two strides later, Olive’s feet were off the ground and her chest was mashing to Holton’s. Olive giggled and slapped his shoulders, asking to be put down, but she wasn’t asking that hard.
Rose rested her hand on her hipbone, her suspicions rising like the Holy Ghost himself.
It was no secret that Holton had harbored a crush on Olive for about as long as their friendship had been, but she’d never thought he’d act on it. Rose and Holton had had that talk—the talk in which she’d told her brother it was a bad idea for him to pursue Olive because if anything went wrong between them, an almost life-long friendship might be ruined.
He kept his word, right?
The enthusiastic squeeze he smothered her best friend with made Rose reconsider.
He was hugging Olive like he wanted to seal their bodies together permanently, and she seemed cozier than normal. Setting her back on her feet, Holton smiled all shy-like. Rose scoffed. She didn’t know what he was acting timid for. That boy didn’t have a shy bone in his body.
“Sorry. I got carried away, but it’s hard not to when you’re the sexiest thing I’ve seen on this side of town since—”
She cut off her brother’s flirtatious talk. “Can I have my best friend back now?”
On cue, Olive ducked past Holton and found Rose, looping an arm with hers. “Let’s get our happy asses to Charlotte. We’ve got plans tonight. Drunk plans.” Olive always knew what to say.
“You have no clue how good that sounds,” Rose said.
Everyone hugged and waved their goodbyes, and afterward, the three of them walked down the driveway to Olive’s red Mini Cooper—bright red, like Jessica’s hair. Rose’s stomach flip-flopped as the images of Simon and her co-worker slammed into her.
Holton’s voice pulled her out of her Houston bedroom. “See you later, Olive.”
Did he just wink at her friend? Holton nodded and smiled Rose’s way, answering her question. It was a weird twin-telepathy thing they had. He almost always knew what she was thinking and vice versa. She didn’t like what was on his mind one bit as he mapped out her best friend’s tank top like the pervert had never seen breasts in his life.
“How about, ‘See you later, sister, who I haven’t seen in forever, and whom I’ve missed more than anything in the world’?’”
Holton smiled and encircled her in his Hulk arms, nudging Rose against his chest. Grinning, she sniffed Old Spice. He still used the same wash that he had since he’d been a boy. Some things never changed.
“Bye to you, too, Cookie Monster. I’m glad you’re back. ‘Bout damn time. Remember, I’m coming to visit you tomorrow to help set up your furniture. Eight a.m., sharp.”
Rose groaned, a brooding and irritated sound. “Why so early?”
Tomorrow was Saturday. She started work Monday. Rose wanted all the leisure time she could get. She was still tired from traveling, for crying out loud.
“No can do. I got work at eleven.”
How her brother had become a law-abiding policeman was beyond her comprehension. This was the same guy who’d smoked a joint before every final during his senior year of high school.
“Love you, Holt.”
“Love you, too, Rosey. Have fun tonight, ladies.” He straddled his police motorbike. “No drinking and driving, ya’ hear? Don’t wanna have to handcuff you.”
“Yes, Officer Berkowitz,” Olive yelled back.
Rose rolled her eyes but grinned.
She didn’t realize how much she had missed her brother until he’d cranked up his motorcycle and pulled away, leaving nothing but dust and dirt at his tail.
“Since when did you start flirting with my brother?” She yanked the seat belt over her body, eyeing Olive as her friend did the same.
“Since when did he become hotter than Hades? Did you see those muscles? Had me sweating like a whore in church.” She wiggled her eyebrows.
Her friend’s smile was too generous for her to be angry with. “I’m kidding. You know, Holton is… He…” Olive raised her chin, concentrating on swerving out of her parking space. Clearing her throat, she changed the conversation. “Wanna talk about Simon?”
The sound of his name sent pain zigzagging down her front. She’d forgotten Olive was the only one who knew the truth about her abrupt relocation.
As they began to drive, Rose stared out of the window, mesmerized by the giant trees smearing into one as the car flew past them. At this speed, the forest had no definition. It was nothing but a dark, never-ending shadow at Rose’s side.
Houston didn’t have this type of nature, at least not where she used to live, smack dab in the middle of a flat-bedded ranch. The air, filtered with pine cones and acorns, smelled fresher and somehow crisper as she inhaled. This was it, the beginning of her new life. Did she want to start it by reminiscing about her past?
“Let’s not spoil the night,” Rose said, her tone as resigned as the final look Simon had given her before pulling off his ring. “But, just in case… Until we get to Charlotte, can you talk about everything that has happened since I saw you last?”
Sometimes Rose’s mouth had a mind of its own.
“I can do that.” Olive reached over to Rose, offering her fingers a hug. “What do you want to hear about first? How my bomb-ass sex with Firefighter Dan ended and I’ve been going through withdrawal for over a month or how Kate got knocked up by her ex-boyfriend and asked me to plan her baby shower, even though she’s only like three weeks in? I don’t know how she is going to raise a baby when she can’t even subtract. I’m telling you, Rosey, there needs to be some psychological tests or somethin’ people have to ace before getting permission to bring life in the world.”
It went like that for about an hour, her friend going on about things Rose would have found interesting if she weren’t so focused on how badly her heart ached, before Olive pulled her Mini Cooper into a complex named Green Oaks Townhomes.
Gathering some luggage, Olive helped Rose haul her bags to the apartment.
“Time to get ready. I bought you something cute.” Olive smiled, a sly twinkle nestling in her eyes, giving Rose the impression that she wouldn’t like what was coming.
* * * *
“I can’t wear this!”
This couldn’t be her in the mirror. The person staring back at Rose looked twenty-five, not twenty-eight, in a little black dress, tight as flesh, and cut in a sleeveless V-neck at the top. Red-bottom Louboutin heels adorned her feet. Olive said the outfit was an early birthday gift. If Olive was going to spend a few hundred bucks on a birthday present for Rose, she wondered what the hell she would be buying Olive for her birthday.
After getting dressed, Olive had used what was for sure voodoo magic in the form of a curling iron on Rose’s hair—curling irons had never responded to Rose that well—turning its normal flatness into subtle waves the color of fresh hay bales. Olive had done her makeup with professional accuracy, murmuring while she’d painted how all those years as a MAC associate were finally paying off. Olive had given Rose dark gray eyes that were smoldering and made her look so much more confident than she felt.
Her best friend had decorated every inch of her.
Even underneath the dress, Olive’s influence was displayed in the form of lacy lingerie shoved so far up Rose’s butt it was as if it were seeking refuge there. The thong was the result of another present from Olive—a Victoria’s Secret bag spilling over with gifts her friend insisted would get her back on the market in no time. What Olive must have meant to say was that the scanty items would get her a one-way ticket to Satan’s doorstep in no time. The clothes made her feel like a sinner, and when Rose told that to her friend, Olive smiled as if to say her task had been accomplished.
“I can’t wear this,” Rose repeated, mouth agape, not sure if she meant the makeup or the dress or, hell, both. “I look…” Turning in Olive’s direction, her mouth fell to a frown. “Isn’t all this makeup deceiving? I don’t look like myself. I look like—”
“A badass bitch? Hotter than the Lord is holy?”
“I was going to say ‘desperate’. Like seriously, Olive…” Rose returned to her smoky-eyed reflection. Watch out, beer goggles. You have some competition named L’Oreal True Match.
“I think there is a compliment somewhere in there.”
Rose scowled at the sprawling figure on her bed.
“Listen, babe…” Olive bounced over to Rose, ruffling the sheets as she jumped up. Her friend placed her hands at Rose’s shoulders, and together they stared into the full-length mirror, Olive’s bright eyes at odds with the pale green of hers.
“You’re so hot I could get preggo from looking at you.”
Covering her chest, Rose shirked away from Olive’s laugh.
“No worries, Rosey. No knock ups for me.” She snatched a round pill holder from her purse, wiggling it like they were playing a game of show-and-tell. “I’m on the pill. I think I need to find a baby daddy soon, though. I’m getting old as hell, and I’ve always wanted a little girl. I gotta get a bun in my oven before it’s out of service.”
Rose relaxed her posture, taking on a solemn expression as she said, “With the move and everything, I just… Honey, I can’t afford a child right now. I know, I promised you this year, but we gotta make do any way we can. Unfortunately, a child isn’t in our budget.”
“Be glad I’m a loving wife, or I’d have divorced your ass years ago.”
Their conversations were always like this, uninhibited with a dash of crazy.
That was how Rose knew Olive was her best friend. Rose could say the craziest thing in the world to her, and instead of pointing out her insanity, Olive went along with it.
Twirling toward Olive, she narrowed her eyes. “Wait just one second, Olivia Wayward. If you’re old, what does that make me? You’re a year younger.”
“I didn’t say that. Why are you putting words in my mouth?”
“Look at you, trying to get out of trouble.” Rose was shaking her head, but she was smiling. It was hard not to around her best friend.
“On a more serious note, I need you to answer one important question.”
“What is it?” Rose asked, trying not to sound too anxious, but really, she was somewhere between terrified and kid-in-a-candy-shop excited to see where the night would take her.
Sweeping her hair behind her shoulder, Olive’s grin suggested foul play. “Do you want to get laid tonight?”
Just the word laid had Rose tingling all over. “Yes, yes and triple yes with a cherry on top—and a banana, preferably over six inches. The penis, not the banana.”
Sure, she and Simon had broken off their relationship only two months ago, but Rose had disconnected from him long before that.
Emotionally, she wasn’t in any condition to start a relationship, but sex?
The only word that came to her mind when she thought about sex was frustrated.
Wound tighter than the clothing on her body, Rose hadn’t lost herself to a romantic touch except her own in over a year. It would be an injustice to use the term romantic to portray the last time she and Simon had had sex. He’d barely been able to stay hard after Rose had told him his unusual dirty talk was making her uncomfortable. That moment had been a red flag and a testament to their lack of chemistry.
Independent to her core, Rose didn’t need a man to satisfy her, but she was sick of pleasuring herself. At the rate she was going, she’d have carpal tunnel by the time she hit thirty. Like hitting thirty wasn’t bad enough already.
Olive interrupted her thoughts. “Then trust me. Wear the damn dress. You’re gonna have boys sticking to you like pimples on a middle schooler.”
“Not great imagery, but I’ll take whatever I can get.” Despite her low-spirited reply, she was happier around Olive than she had in a long time.
Deciding she deserved a simple one-night stand—every woman needed at least one night of hot sex with a gorgeous stranger—Rose took the leap. “Let’s do this. Let’s get—”
“Bananas?” Olive giggled.
“If by ‘bananas’ you mean ‘penis’, then yes, let’s get bananas.” A nice, long and juicy banana. Thighs tingling, she salivated. Jesus, maybe I needed this more than I thought.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed this expert of my debut contemporary romance, Under Her Authority. Click here to learn more about this story. Preorder UNDER HER AUTHORITY at Totally Bound or Amazon and experience Rose and Shane’s full love story! ❤