Barnes & Noble.com
T. L. Cooper
When Victoria, who is white, meets Daryn, who is African American, she has no idea the effect he and his family will have on her life. As she struggles for the success she’s certain will make her parents proud, Daryn’s family introduces her to a new definition of love, family, acceptance, and success. Victoria and Daryn struggle to keep their friendship intact as they are faced with the prejudices of family, friends, and lovers. The empty place in Victoria’s heart forces her to face all she’s sacrificed in her quest for success including friendship, love, family, and grief.
Heads turned as Victoria stepped into the ballroom and stopped to survey the crowd. She radiated the confidence of a woman who never feels the need to think about her astounding beauty. She felt eyes on her as she started across the room. Her long black hair brushing her back just above the top of the back of her red curve hugging halter formal gown. She glanced toward a window and caught a glimpse of her heart shaped face with its flawless skin and her brilliant green eyes. She smiled impulsively suddenly seeing just how far she had come from that girl struggling to be noticed, to be recognized. The image staring back at her shocked her as the eyes clouded over with an emptiness she couldn’t define, an emptiness she didn’t want to acknowledge.
Victoria couldn’t believe all these people were there to celebrate her fortieth birthday. If only they knew how she felt about parties not to mention about how she felt about most of them. She looked around the room for what must have been the hundredth time in less than five minutes. She didn’t know who she was expecting to see. Hoping was a better word. And she did know if only she would let herself realize it. Yet, realizing that would also mean acknowledging the impossibility of her expectation. No, she wouldn’t think about that. Not now.
She smiled and shook hands with a few business associates and their spouses. She needed to put on her party face and that took too much focus to be distracted by her thoughts, by things that couldn’t be changed. She never could remember the name of the older man who patted her shoulder as she walked by, but he had been at every one of these parties dating ten years back.
She walked away seeing more of the same boring faces she saw every year at this party. She wished she were anywhere but there. She was really going to have to put an end to these annual events. It was little more than public relations, and she was tired of doing it because it was expected. Her public relations department would just have to find a new way to soften her image as a coldhearted, no-nonsense businesswoman. Bitch was the word most often used to describe her, which was a complement.
Socializing had never been her idea of fun. She was much more comfortable in business meetings – at least they served a purpose – or by herself planning a new strategy. Her business was her only love, her baby, her life. She couldn’t remember her last vacation and hated the idea of taking one. She had to stay on top of things to make sure she didn’t miss any opportunity. In her business taking a day off could mean missing the opportunity to acquire that next important business – the next mountainous profit.
It was way past time to change the decorations. Ten years was a long time for the same look. There were elegant arrangements of red and white roses and carnations scattered throughout around the room, satin streamers on the banister to the stairs going up to the balcony, and a huge white satin banner with HAPPY BIRTHDAY, VICTORIA written in huge red letters. When she turned thirty, it seemed like a big deal, but now at forty, it just didn't hold the same appeal.
The first party, her thirtieth, had been really special for a few reasons. She’d had other celebrations, but that was her first ever real birthday part with a lot of people. She had really been celebrating her success and not her birthday. Most importantly, it was the first birthday she allowed herself to celebrate since he left her life. For some reason, today, her fortieth birthday, she couldn’t get him off her mind. If she could quit thinking about him, maybe, just, maybe, this party wouldn’t seem like such a monumental waste of time.
As Victoria looked around the ballroom a warm rush of pride swept over her. The great pains she’d taken to make this room perfect with the help of her decorator five years earlier had paid off. It was always booked and had a waiting list of almost a year. The room was filled to its capacity, as it was most nights, with well over four hundred people. The room fit its name, The York Room, but only she knew that. The room and its name was her personal and private tribute to lost but not forgotten friendship.
The lights of the city below them twinkled through the huge windows and French doors lining one wall. She smiled to no one in particular remembering the struggle she’d had convincing her decorator that they could do the trim and the floors in mahogany with forest green walls. She’d insisted on the marble columns that lent elegance to the room. Her eyes traveled up the hand-carved ivy pattern of the banister lining the winding staircase leading to the balcony.
A group of her company officers and their spouses were chatting on the opposite side of the room. Her thoughts drifted back to her final meeting that day – a meeting with those very officers to discuss a takeover bid on a small cabling company. She was excited about the small company’s potential. The company was in financial trouble, but from looking at its books the problem was from some poor management decisions. With some restructuring she could turn it into a profitable investment. Her officers disagreed but weren’t prepared to give her any concrete reasons why. She gave them until morning to convince her with the facts, so they wouldn’t be staying at the party long. In her business, time was the enemy.
A voice wrenched Victoria from her thoughts and back to the party. “Victoria. Victoria, my dear, we’re over here." She looked up to see Myla's hand waving below almost everyone's head. She smiled. Myla tried so hard, but she was so short she didn’t realize her hand was barely visible.
She made her way across the room to Myla and Myla's husband, John. Myla met her halfway. Myla said, “Victoria, you look gorgeous, my dear old friend." Victoria looked into the eyes of the woman who had been her best friend for the past ten years.
"Myla, I'm so glad you could come. I didn't expect you to. You look great. How was your trip?"
"Wonderful! John and I loved the Cayman Islands. I'll tell you all about it over lunch next week."
Victoria smiled. She’d missed her weekly lunch with Myla the past few weeks, but apparently their vacation had been good for them. She was glad to see them happy after their recent marital problems. When their eyes fell on one another they were filled with love as they held hands and chatted with party guests.
Victoria moved away from Myla and John playing hostess to her guests, people she couldn’t have cared less about. She had reached all her goals, and these people had had little, if anything, to do with any of it. She had achieved the power she longed for all her life. She was on top. She had no one left to prove herself to, but she had the power. That was what mattered. It didn’t matter what she had lost as long as she achieved her goals. And here she was. She had the power to influence politicians, laws, businesses, people’s lives, friends, and enemies. The evidence was there in the people who wouldn’t have dared to miss this party. She’d achieved the life she dreamed of since childhood, so why couldn’t she ignore those nagging memories invading her perfectly ordered, controlled life?
She moved to the stairs, slipped quietly around the No Guests Allowed sign, and tiptoed up the stairs. She stood on the landing and looked down into the sea of faces. She knew little of anyone’s personal life nor did she care to know. Yet, tonight, watching them, she wondered what secret pain each person went to sleep remembering, reliving, each and every night.
Victoria stood for quite some time looking down at her guests. Some were laughing, some were sharing private looks of love, and some were expressionless. Some feigned interest in someone's comments. Others were genuinely interested in someone's comments. Hateful glares passed between people. Lustful longing lingered in the eyes of others. Jealousy and envy made their presence known to a few. There was a young couple in the corner by a terrace door fighting while another couple was trying to steal a romantic moment in the shadows on the other side of the room. She shook her head, thinking what a confusing and troublesome thing love could be. Human nature had always intrigued her.
Victoria saw Myla's tan round face staring up into John's blue eyes with her shoulder-length blond hair spreading out behind her like a fan. John pointed discreetly in Victoria's direction, and Myla turned to look up at her with amusement in her brown eyes. Myla waved at Victoria then reached back to smooth John's brown hair with her waving hand. She realized a second too late that Victoria didn’t want to be spotted. That was Myla for you. Hopefully, no one noticed. If it had been anyone else she would have been furious. She was used to Myla's second-too-late thoughts. They happened a lot. She loved the spontaneity that ruled Myla's life. It was something she would have hated in herself. Spontaneity would interfere with her control of herself and her life.
Waiters wandered among the guests with trays filled with glasses of champagne. There were tables throughout the ballroom filled with fresh vegetables, fruits, and cheeses. Dinner wasn’t being served at this party. There would be a huge birthday cake later. With this many guests, she simply couldn’t bear the idea of having to sit through dinner. She took a glass of champagne from one of the trays. She wandered through the crowd talking to people often taking a sip of her champagne to avoid saying anything. She just kept thinking, “God, I'm glad this only happens once a year."
Finally, it was time to cut the four tiered cake decorated with red and white icing roses as well as real roses surrounding it. As usual her chef had outdone himself. She blew out the forty candles and everyone burst into applause. It was the same thing every year. Myla handed her the cake knife decorated with a red satin ribbon. She cut the first piece of cake as she did every year straining to not roll her eyes at the absurdity of it all. She laid down the knife, took a bite of the cake, set down the plate, and walked away.
Victoria snuck out the back after she cut the cake. There was such a crowd no one, except maybe Myla, would really notice, and she desperately wanted to be alone. She could go home but that would be the first place Myla would look for her, so instead she went to her office. Myla would never assume that Victoria just wanted to spend some time alone. She would assume that something was wrong. After all who would want to be away from such an awesome party if nothing was wrong? Victoria smiled. Myla always said it was the differences in their personalities that made them such good friends. They were able to provide one another with different perspectives on the same issues. It was an interesting idea, but she wasn't sure she agreed with it.
Victoria flagged down a cab and gave the driver the address of her office building. Then she leaned back and closed her eyes grateful to not have to smile for anyone at the moment. Her driver would wonder where she was at the end of the evening, but he was hired to drive her not worry about her. She didn’t want to be found, so this was the best way.
She opened her eyes as the cab came to a halt. She handed the driver his fare and tip. She stepped out of the car and stood on the sidewalk looking at the huge, beautiful, black glass skyscraper. The building was her pride and joy. She remembered throwing herself into designing this building and controlling every move her builders made just so she could push away the thoughts she didn’t want to deal with. Had that really been ten years ago? Ten years already. Ten years since… No, she didn’t want to think about that. The building was everything she loved. It was huge and exhibited strength and power. Her office occupied the entire top floor. She would be able to see the whole city from her office. She couldn't wait to get up there.
She glanced around at the flowers in front of the building. Their sea of colors created a sharp contrast to the masculinity of the building. She was pleased with the landscaping and made a mental note to use the same company next year. Hell, maybe she would buy it. She liked the rainbow effect they had created around the fountain just in front of the building. She paused for a moment to look at the symbol of her success before walking past the fountain to the front door. She nodded to the elderly security guard as he tipped his hat to her and opened the door to allow her to enter the building. “Working late on your birthday, Ms. Caldwell?"
"Not exactly. I just want to be alone. Make sure I'm not disturbed, okay, Max?" Max was a dying breed, a true gentleman to the core.
"No problem, ma'am. I'll see to it. Hope you’re having a happy birthday."
"Thank you, Max. I'll be in my office. I don't know how long I will be there."
Victoria stepped onto the elevator, closed her eyes, and leaned back. Finally, she was alone. That’s when she was happiest. It was so refreshing to never have to worry about someone else's feelings or happiness. This was a wonderful life she had chosen for herself, or was it? Her mind kept drifting back to the past tonight - about the time before she had made herself such a success, to a time better left behind like the dying flowers given by an ex-lover, a time loaded with emotional bullets.
The elevator's sudden but smooth stop brought her back to reality. She was in the lobby to her office. She welcomed the dark room. Her secretary had gone home hours earlier and was probably at that ridiculous birthday party. She turned on the light and walked across the room pulling her keys from her purse. She unlocked the door to her office, her private sanctuary. Sudden relief washed over her. She had made all the right choices. This was her life.
This office represented everything that made her happy, everything that made her who she was. Her office exuded strength - her strength. She turned on the light to the inner office and stood there soaking in the view. Some of her clients had expressed surprise at the office’s masculinity, but it suited her perfectly. Paintings of several of the larger companies she owned hung on the mahogany paneled walls. The desk was huge with a comfortable black leather chair for her and two black leather chairs facing the desk. Her desk sat at an angle with bookshelves filled with leather-bound volumes on one side and a huge window on the other side. The window took up one whole wall. It made her feel powerful to look out at the city. Off to the side were a bar built into the wall, a black sofa, chairs, and a coffee table. Hidden in the wall on each side of the sofa was a door, one to the small conference room on her floor, one to her personal bath/dressing room.
The conference room on her floor was only for private meetings. All other meetings were conducted in one of the two conference rooms on the floor below her.
Victoria smiled as she poured herself a glass of scotch. She leaned her hands on her desk a moment before settling into her chair. She pushed a button on her desk and turned off the overhead light before turning on her desk lamp. Turning toward the window, she slipped out of her shoes, propped her feet up on the desk, and leaned back in her chair. She was going to allow herself the luxury of remembering - of remembering the past, the time before her success.
Starting college felt like a beginning to her even then. A beginning of what she had no idea, but a beginning nonetheless. Looking back, it had been the beginning of her finding her true self and setting that self free. Over the years, her ambition turned to obsession as her gullibility was stripped away.
Daryn. Oh, Daryn.
There it was. The name, the thought, the memory that had interrupted her thoughts all day. It pulled at her, nagged her, distracted her. She would give in to those memories just this once.
She’d met Daryn a few days after she arrived on campus. She was standing in line to process her class schedule when she felt an overwhelming presence behind her. She half-turned glancing over her shoulder and looking into the college’s logo splashed across a flat, muscular chest. She looked up and momentarily lost herself in his understanding deep brown eyes dancing with mischief and his genuine, welcoming smile. His dark skin reminded her of her grandmother’s incredibly moist chocolate cake batter. She hated herself for making that comparison, but it was the first thought that popped into her mind. And there had always been something very comforting about baking chocolate cake with her grandmother. She quickly glanced away fighting her impulse to reach out and touch him.
He held his hand out as she turned. “Good morning. I’m Daryn York.”
She smiled and shook his hand. “Good morning. I’m Victoria Caldwell.”
“Line moving very quickly?”
He smiled and pulled a thermos from his backpack. “How about some hot chocolate?” She stared at him. “You must be a freshman. I always come prepared to wait a while.” He handed her a paper cup and poured the hot chocolate into it. Then poured himself one.
“Thanks.” She sipped slowly surprised it was the real thing and not instant.
They chatted while they waited in line. Schedules in hand, they walked to the bookstore. Daryn told her it was best to just get it all over with as quickly as possible. Get the chores out of the way, and then there was time to play. She listened with fascination as he shared with her the lessons he’d learned the year before during his freshman year. They went to lunch, and the conversation continued.
Over the next several weeks, Victoria shared her dreams, her ambitions, and her fears with Daryn – something she’d never done with anyone. She could never bear the patronizing smiles and unbelieving looks she watched her classmates receive when they shared their dreams with the adults around them or even with their peers. And she enjoyed listening to Daryn’s. His confidence inspired her. She especially loved listening to him tell stories about his childhood on his family’s farm. The light in his eyes when he talked about his family was something she envied. There was something about him that made her feel safe, made her relax without feeling guilty, made her feel like sharing her true self.
One of their favorite things was going to the park late at night when it was deserted. One night she sat on the bottom of the sliding board hugging her legs with his coat wrapped around her body, her dark hair in a ponytail, her eyes wide with anticipation looking down at him sitting on the cold, damp grass listening to her. “Daryn, do you know what scares me the most?”
“”Black men?” Daryn laughed.
“No, silly. I’m not afraid of you, am I?” She cocked her head to one side, playfully. Then continued not giving him the chance to respond, “I’m serious.”
“No, I don’t know. What?” Daryn’s expression turned serious.
“Failing.” Her voice was almost a whisper.
“Anything. Everything. Who knows? I just don’t think I could go on if I ever failed at anything. My parents wouldn’t love me anymore. My family would be ashamed of me. I don’t know it I could love myself. I have to succeed. I can’t afford to make any mistakes.”
“Vic, failure is often what leads us to success. You can learn from not succeeding....”
“Daryn, you don’t get it. I can’t be important, loved, needed, respected if I fail. I just can’t fail. I can’t be a disappointment. I won’t let myself.”
“Vic, I think you’re too hard on yourself. You’re a wonderful, intelligent, capable person who could have anything. You just need to relax a little. Enjoy life.”
“I’ll have time for that when I’m a success. Until then I have to be perfect. I have to.”
“Vic, no one is perfect. No one can be perfect. All we can do is try to live the best we can without hurting each other.”
“I can strive for perfection, and I will! I will get as close as possible.”
Daryn shook his head without saying a word.
As Victoria remembered that conversation now, she said aloud to her empty office, “Okay, perfection wasn’t possible, but look, just look, at all I have achieved. I did find my success. I didn’t fail.” All the while, there was this nagging voice inside her head saying, “Yeah, and what do you really have? What?”