Sprawled on a chintz-covered recliner in the sitting area in one of DuPont House’s suites, Tonya Martin crossed her bare feet at the ankles, while her friends claimed matching chairs with cushioned footstools. She had spent the past half hour talking to them when she should have retired for bed.
Earlier that morning, Tonya, Jasmine Washington, and Nydia Santiago had flown into the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and then crowded into a taxi for the drive to the Garden District. They had come to New Orleans for Hannah DuPont-Lowell’s wedding to college professor St. John McNair. Boarding the same aircraft with her friends helped Tonya to overcome some of her anxiety about flying. Her fear had come from a return flight to the States from France during which the jet’s landing gear failed and the pilot was forced to make an emergency landing at New York’s JFK airport. Several hundred passengers and crew used the chute to exit the aircraft, and Tonya wound up with a severely sprained ankle that kept her off her feet for several weeks.
Fortunately, the mid-October weather was much more tolerable than it had been during her first visit to the Big Easy. Then the late-June record-high New Orleans temperatures and humidity had sapped all of her energy. At that time Hannah outlined her intent to transform her historic ancestral home into an inn and convert the two guesthouses on the estate into a café and supper club. The corporate attorney wanted Tonya to invest in the venture, while offering her a twenty-five percent share in the new business as the executive chef.
“I still can’t believe you’re going to move down here.”
Tonya stared at Nydia for several seconds, and then a hint of a smile tilted the corners of her generous mouth. When she worked as assistant chef for Wakefield Hamilton, a private international investment bank, she was familiar with all personnel on sight or by name, but it was not until she and dozens of other employees were unexpectedly let go, with generous severance packages, after the bank merged with another institution and she, Jasmine, the assistant director of personnel, and accountant Nydia spent several hours at Hannah’s high-rise apartment that the four bonded over omelets and brunch cocktails. They had talked for hours about what they wanted for their futures, and once Tonya revealed she was going to wait until after Labor Day to look for another position, the others also agreed to do the same.
“I also can’t believe it,” Tonya said. “In less than four months I’ll become a Louisianan and I’ll eventually run my own restaurant for the first time in my life.”
Nydia ran her fingers through the wealth of thick, black, shiny curls falling over her forehead as a smile crinkled the skin around her large hazel eyes. “I believe everyone should work for themselves at least once on their lives.”
Jasmine nodded. The former interior designer turned human resource specialist attempted to lift her arched eyebrows. The masque on her face was drying and beginning to crack, which meant it was time for her to remove it. “I hear you, Nydia. I do miss running my own shop.”
Twin dimples appeared in Tonya’s cheeks as she pursed her lips. “What’s stopping you?” she asked Jasmine. “Even if you don’t want to go back to interior decorating, you can take Hannah up on her offer to help her run the inn.”
Jasmine twisted several strands of hair around her forefinger. “It sounds tempting, but I’m not ready to leave New York. Everyone and everything I have is there. And as my parents’ only child, I want to be there for them, even though they are still active. They belong to a bowling league and are very involved in their church.”
“Are they retired?” Nydia asked.
“Yes. My father was a high school principal, and my mother a trauma nurse.”
Tonya crossed her arms under her breasts. “Would they be opposed to moving down here with you?”
A beat passed before Jasmine said, “I don’t know. They would have to sell their house, while I would have to find a buyer for my condo.”
Nydia made a sucking sound with her tongue and teeth. “I’ve seen your condo and trust me, my friend, you wouldn’t have a problem unloading it. I’ve saved enough money for a down payment, but there’s no way I’m going to purchase property when my boyfriend can’t come up with at least half.”
Tonya frowned. “I thought you’d stopped seeing him.”
A slight blush darkened Nydia’s gold-brown complexion. “We still talk.”
Tonya’s frown deepened. “Are you talking or sleeping together?”
Nydia managed to look contrite. “Both.”
Jasmine narrowed her eyes. “Didn’t you promise us you would get rid of the bum? Don’t be like me, mija. I know as a woman you have physical needs, but you can’t let that cloud your judgment when it comes to letting a man use you, even if it’s only for sex. He will keep coming back, talking out the side of his mouth, because he knows you better than you know yourself.”
“Why do you sound like such a man hater, Jasmine?” Nydia asked.
Jasmine recoiled as if she had been jabbed with a sharp object. “Is that what you think? That I’m a man hater because of my lying, cheating-ass ex-husband?”
“What else could it be?” Nydia countered.
Tonya knew it was time to intervene before the two women said something they would later regret. Their friendship was still too new and much too fragile to withstand a barrage of verbal insults. “Calm down, Nydia. Jasmine is trying to look out for you because she doesn’t want you to go through what she experienced with a man she loved and trusted. I know nothing about your boyfriend other than what you’ve told us, but if you were my daughter I’d tell you what I said the last time we were here. Get rid of him and block his number. You’ll never be able move on until you do. I’m going to ask you one question, and then this topic of conversation is over. Do you love him enough to want to spend the rest of your life with him?”
The seconds stretched into a long silence, and then Nydia said, “I don’t think so.”
“If that’s the case, then kick his sorry ass to the curb,” Jasmine whispered.
Raising her arms above her head, Nydia exhaled an audible breath. “Maybe I need to get out and find someone else.”
Jasmine shook her head. “I wouldn’t recommend that. Take some time to find out who you are, what you really want in life and in a man; otherwise you’ll end up in the same situation just because you don’t want to be alone.”
Tonya nodded. “Jasmine’s right.”
Nydia appeared deep in thought. “Tonya, how long have you been divorced?”
“Sixteen years. Samara was five when I left my husband. I just couldn’t take his wanting to control my life.”
“How long were you married?” Nydia asked her.
“Fourteen years. I’d just completed my second year in college when I discovered I was pregnant. Samuel and I married right away because his father never married his mother, and he always resented that. I was four months along when I lost the baby. I went back to college at night and worked at a day care center during the day, while all Samuel talked about was trying for another baby. I wanted to finish college, but that didn’t happen when I got pregnant again. I miscarried again. He blamed me for not taking care of myself, and for trying to do too much.
“We compromised when I dropped out of school and became a housewife. We moved out of our one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx to Brooklyn and rented an apartment in his aunt and uncle’s brownstone. He was a subway motorman and earning enough so I could afford to stay home. I was twenty-eight when I got pregnant again. The doctor put me on complete bed rest, and nine months later I gave birth to my daughter. That’s when everything changed. Samuel became even more possessive and controlling. He had his aunt and uncle watching me constantly, and I had to report to him when I left and where I was going. After a while I decided I’d had enough.”
With wide eyes, Jasmine stared at her. “He let you leave?”
A wry smile twisted Tonya’s mouth. “It wasn’t about his letting me. I waited until he’d left for work, then called my brother and told him to come to my apartment. I’d packed all of Samara’s clothes, and just enough for myself, and my brother drove me to my parents’ house in Queens.”
Nydia leaned forward. “Did he come after you?”
“No. He was afraid of my brother, who belonged to a gang dealing drugs and had no problem shooting folks who got in their way. My brother hadn’t come alone. He brought his boys. One had a sawed-off shotgun and the other one carried an automatic.” She bit back a smile when seeing expressions of shock and horror on Nydia and Jasmine’s faces.
“What happened to your brother?” Jasmine asked.
She felt a cold shiver snake its way up her back when she recalled having to identify her brother’s body. “He OD’d on drugs.” A beat passed. “Fast-forward. My mother worked nights, and when it came time for Samara to go to school, my mother looked after her while I finished college.” Tonya closed her eyes as she struggled to keep her emotions in check. “The hardest thing I ever had to do was leave my daughter when I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to attend Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts. Initially, I’d enrolled in the two-year program leading to the associate in science degree. Then when I realized I wanted to run my own business, I knew I would have to get a BS in business studies.”
Jasmine pressed her palms together. “Well, Miss Lady, the sacrifice has been well worth it, because you’re on your way to opening a restaurant. And Samara doesn’t appear to be negatively affected by what you had to go through to secure her future.”
Tonya had to agree with Jasmine. She and Samara had talked about Tonya having to leave her with her grandparents for extended periods of time, and her daughter always managed to assuage her guilt by saying she did what she had to do to save them both. Her daughter had grown up with a mother and two grandparents who had given her everything she needed for a happy childhood: love and protection.
Nydia shifted into a more comfortable position. “I still feel bad about telling Hannah that we would sleep with St. John after she’d broken up with him.”
“It worked, didn’t it?” Jasmine said, laughing.
“Yes, it did,” Tonya agreed. “If we hadn’t hit her over the head with the tough love, then we wouldn’t be here to witness her marrying one of the finest brothers in New Orleans.” St. John had proposed marriage and then admitted that he had been unfaithful to his wife, and that was when Hannah broke it off with him, because of her own late husband’s infidelity.
“We still don’t know why he cheated on his wife, but Hannah has to be okay with it, because in two days she’ll no longer be DuPont-Lowell, but Hannah McNair,” Jasmine said. “I’m really jealous of her because she’s going to marry a man who started out as her best friend.”
“Remember,” Tonya reminded Jasmine, “it took her more than forty years to realize she’d always been in love with him.”
Resting the back of her hand to her forehead, Nydia pantomimed swooning. “It’s just like in the romance novels. She found her happily ever after with a man with a hero’s name. If only I can get my boyfriend to act more like a hero.”
Tonya slipped off the recliner. “Enough talk about heroes, heroines, and romance novels. Will y’all please leave my room so I can get some sleep? I don’t need to stand up as Hannah’s maid of honor with bags under my eyes.” What she really wanted to say is that she was tired of Nydia complaining about her no-account boyfriend. What the beautiful accountant had not realized was that she could have the pick of any man from any racial or ethnic group, who would treat her with more respect than the man now using her for his own selfish motives.
She understood young love, because she had been there and done that, but what she refused to understand was stupidity, expressly if it was staring her in the face. But, then denial was almost as difficult to admit as blame was to accept. “Remember, Nydia, what I told you about possibly renting my apartment. I have the option of renewing my lease for one or two years. I know you don’t need two bedrooms, but why don’t you come by and look at it and see for yourself. Perhaps you can use the smaller bedroom for a home office.”
Nydia nodded. “Jazz and I aren’t leaving until Sunday night, and I know you’re not going back home until Wednesday. I’ll call you Thursday, and we can set up a time to get together.”
Tonya had decided to delay her return to New York because she still needed to go over things with Hannah, who had mentioned she and St. John weren’t taking a honeymoon until the end of the fall semester. Then they planned to fly to the South Pacific and tour several islands. “If you decide to take it, then I’ll renew it under my name and inform the management office that I’ll be doing a lot of traveling and my niece will be staying in the apartment with me.”
“Okay, Titi Tonya,” Nydia teased, grinning.
Jasmine grimaced, and the masque looked like tiny shards of broken glass. “What are you going to do with your furniture if and when you finally give up your apartment?”
“I’m going to ship everything to Atlanta for storage. My daughter plans to rent an apartment or house once she graduates, and not having to buy furniture will save her a lot of money.”
“Lucky girl,” Jasmine intoned.
Tonya had saved and sacrificed taking vacations in order to pay her daughter’s tuition and room and board so that Samara wouldn’t be burdened with student loans once she graduated. She told Samara that she had done her part in underwriting the cost of her undergraduate education, and she was on her own for any advanced degrees she wanted to pursue.
Waiting until the two left her room and closed the door, Tonya turned off the lamp on the bedside table, slipped into bed, pulled the sheet and lightweight blanket up over her shoulders. Fortunately, she did not have man problems, and it was probably the reason she continued to date Darius Williams. Whenever he called asking to see her, he never exhibited any hostility when she said she needed to spend time alone. The one time he mentioned marriage, Tonya was emphatic when she told him she didn’t want to marry again; she enjoyed her single status and the freedom of living her life by her own set of rules.
And if she married Darius, she knew she would not be able to pick up and move to New Orleans, because her husband never would agree to leave his family-owned auto body repair shop. Getting laid off and Hannah asking her to invest in the future of the DuPont Inn had come at the right time in her life.
Tonya realized she was not so much anti-marriage as she was overly cautious when it came to the type of man she wanted in her life, because it wasn’t until years after she married her high school sweetheart that she saw another side to his personality. It was subtle at first, but Samuel Alexander turned from a jovial, laid-back, affectionate man into a suspicious, controlling monster. It became a battle of wills — she wanting to go to cooking school, while he wanted her home with their young daughter. Even when she suggested her parents were willing to look after Samara until she completed her studies, he would fly into a rage, accusing her of being a bad mother.
Six months after her divorce was finalized, she enrolled in Johnson and Wales University College of Culinary Arts with the intent to eventually own and operate her own restaurant. She worked hard, studied even harder to graduate, and it paid off when she secured her first position as a sous chef at an Upper East Side restaurant boasting an elite clientele ranging from A-list movie stars to captains of industry and international businessmen.
Tonya had been employed for a year when the IRS placed a lien on the restaurant because the owner failed to pay millions in back taxes, and she found herself looking for employment elsewhere. Wishing to diversify her skills, she left her young daughter in the care of her parents once again, and this time she flew to Europe and Asia to take a series of cooking courses. Tonya found her niche in France when she traveled throughout the country perfecting regional dishes. Cooking had become an addiction — one she never wanted to give up.
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Excerpted from Breakfast in Bed by Rochelle Alers. Copyright © 2017 Rochelle Alers. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.