Every head turned when Cleveland Alexander walked into the dining hall of First Baptist Church in Covington, Georgia. Groups of women huddled together and whispered about the caramel God who had entered the building and all the wanton things that his chiseled body made them want to do. As he walked, their eyes followed him like he was the flame and they were the moths, only they wouldn't mind getting some of his fire.
One bridesmaid wanted to stare into his slate gray eyes and run her fingers through his long, black Nubian locks while he kissed her senseless, because despite the frown on his thick lips, they looked so kissable and delicious. Another bridesmaid leaned into her friend and told her that if she had the chance, she'd turn that frown on his face into the biggest smile because a man like that needed a woman who could work her hips. The only thing that stopped her from giving a demonstration was a stern look from the reverend who'd overheard their conversation.
But there was one woman who didn't give a damn if he smiled or not. The only thing that Winfred Barker cared about was seeing him turn around and walk out the door so that he could get to the Atlanta Falcons pep rally that he couldn't stop talking about. Unfortunately, she was the only woman who was going to know the feel of Cleveland's big hands. He was the best man and she was the maid of honor and they had to walk down the aisle together. While there was a table full of bridesmaids who would've switched places with her in a heartbeat, Freddie was dreading spending time with Cleveland Alexander. Sure part of it had to do with the fact the she was tired of hearing him complain. Cleveland had told everyone in earshot that the only reason he'd been a part of the wedding party was because his brother, Darren Alexander, was expecting his first child and at the last minute he'd graciously stepped up and stepped in for him. But she couldn't deny his sex appeal, either. Freddie glanced at Cleveland as he took a seat at the table with the groomsmen. She rolled her eyes when she heard him start with that damned Falcons pep rally storyâagain. Part of her wanted to walk over there and ask him why he was even here. The best man was supposed to be the friend of the groom and if this is how he treated his friends, she would hate to be one of his enemies.
The bride, Lillian Thomas, walked over to the table where the bridesmaids sat. “Ladies, thanks for a great rehearsal.” She ran her fingers through her shoulder-length raven hair for dramatic effect. Freddie smirked as she watched her friend. Lillian had always had a flair for the dramatic, but this wedding had turned her into an actress worthy of an Oscar. “I appreciate all of your hard work, and I really enjoyed last night's bridal shower. Give yourselves a hand,” Lillian said, then she turned to Freddie. “Now, if I can borrow the maid of honor for a moment.”
Looking at her best friend and seeing the look of drama in her eyes, Freddie figured that she wasn't going to be eating her plate of spaghetti and marinara sauce tonight. Rising to her feet, she headed to a quiet corner with Lillian. “What's up Lil?” she asked, ignoring the rumbling in her stomach. Lillian had been keeping her so busy that she hadn't had a bite to eat since breakfast, which had been more than twelve hours ago.
“I need you to find out what Cleveland and those groomsmen have planned for tonight. See, if Darren had been the best man, I wouldn't be worried about a bachelor party, you know? He's married and wouldn't do anything too wild. But Cleveland . . .” Lillian cut her eyes in his direction and a dark shadow seemed to cover her face. “He's a bachelor and I'm sure he's planned something wicked. The last thing I want is to have my future husband spending the night before our wedding with some greasy, silicone-enhanced stripper. You remember what happened with Mario Lopez and that pretty B-list actress he was going to marry. He cheated on her the night before their wedding. It's okay if they have a party planned, but do strippers have to be involved?”
“Lil, you know your future husband loves you more than anything in the world. Besides, you're not a pretty B-list actress,” Freddie joked. Lillian slapped her friend on the shoulder.
“Freddie,” Lillian said. “I'm serious. I don't want to be up all night worrying about what my future husband is doing.”
“It's Louis's last night as a free man, let him have his fun.” Honestly, Freddie didn't want to talk to Cleveland. Though she thought that Cleveland was beyond arrogant and a total jerk, he embodied everything that made her knees quiver. Maybe that's why she kept looking for reasons not to like him. If she didn't like him, she could play down the attraction that had been building since the moment their eyes met. She didn't want to admit it, but she felt a jolt when he closed his hand around hers as they walked down the aisle during the rehearsal.
“Louis will always be a Freeman.”
“You're corny, I know the man's last name is
but you know what I mean.”
Crocodile tears welled up in Lillian's eyes and Freddie knew that her friend was about to start with the theatrics.
Here it comes,
“When you get married, you will understand what I'm feeling. I don't want my future husband to spend the night before our wedding with some hootchie on his lap.”
Freddie rolled her eyes. “Umm, you got a lap dance at your bridal shower and you still want to marry him. I don't think a stripper is going to change his mind about marrying you.”
Lillian sighed, placed her hands on her hips and pouted at her best friend. “I don't think he's going to cheat on me or run off with the stripper. I just want to know what's going on.”
Slapping her hand against her forehead, Freddie expelled a loud breath. “Whatever.”
“Just ask Cleveland. No one is near him now, you could get it over with right now.” Lillian practically pushed Freddie in Cleveland's direction.
Rolling her eyes, Freddie slowly walked over to him. Each step she took toward him made her heart race.
He's just a man, no matter how good he looks.
“Excuse me,” Freddie said as she sat in the empty chair to his right. “Can we talk for a moment?”
Cleveland fought back his smile when Freddie asked him if they could talk. Hell yes, they could talk. His excitement was tempered, though. From the moment he arrived in Covington, every bridesmaid had hit on him. He was flattered, as any man would be, but Cleveland liked a challenge. And she was the only one who hadn't hit on him, but he'd be willing to hear her out if that's what she wanted to talk about. He studied her face as she sat down. She was a beautyârich brown skin like ebony wood and the darkest brown eyes that he'd ever seen. Her hair, which was naturally curly, looked to be softer than cotton. With it pulled back off her face, her striking beauty shone like the sun in the sky.
“Yes?” he said, keeping his voice cool. The last thing he wanted was to reveal the lusty fantasy he'd been having about her since he held her hand walking down the aisle.
Sighing, she rolled her eyes, “Look, Lillian's a little worried about what you're planning for Louis's bachelor party tonight.”
“Do you even speak in sentences? Or do you have to be complaining about how much you don't want to be here to do that? If you could just not keep Louis out too late, Lillian would appreciate it.”
Cleveland snarled at her. “It's Winfred, right?”
“Freddie to my friends. But you can call me Miss Barker,” she said, her voice tinged with indignation.
“Well, Miss Barker, tell Lillian that I have no plans to keep her husband out at all tonight. I'm a stand in, I'm getting him to the church on time and I'm holding the rings. Other than that I'm doing nothing else. If I had my choice . . .”
“You'd be in Atlanta at the Falcons' pep rally,” Freddie finished. “I know, you've been saying it for a day and a half. You're not there so I wish you would get over it.”
“You women like stuff like this? A big production for nothing? Instead of going into debt to declare your undying love, why not go to a Justice of the Peace?”
“But this isn't your wedding, so show a little respect to your friend and shut up.” Freddie rose to her feet, casting a sidelong glance at Cleveland. Even though she was scowling, she had the prettiest lips he'd ever seen. He was ready to write her off, though. She was obviously one of those stuck up sisters who thought her role as maid of honor made her an extension of the bride. Lillian was a bridezilla, if he'd ever seen one, and her friend
was one in training.
“Listen, lady,” Cleveland said, “I'm showing respect, as you say, just by being here as the best man. My brother has an obligation to his wife and I came in off the bench to walk you down the aisle. Where's the gratitude? All I'm getting from you is attitude.”
Whirling around, Freddie focused her dark glare on him and Cleveland thought for a second that she might take a swing at him. And even though she had an evil glint in her eyes, her lips looked delectable, and he had to fight the urge to kiss her in a way that he was certain she hadn't been kissed in a long timeâif ever.
“You have a high opinion of yourself that I just don't share,” she said as she turned and walked away.
Roland Hamilton, one of the groomsmen, walked over to the table with his third helping of spaghetti. “She shot you down, huh?”
Cleveland waved his hand as if he were swatting annoying gnats. “Lillian said not to keep her future husband out too long tonight. While you fools are out spending money you don't have at some strip club, I'll be in my hotel room.”
“What do you have against strip clubs? Besides, we got to help this man remember what he's giving up,” Roland said in between bites of pasta.
“This is a waste of my time. I'll bet you these two won't last a year,” Cleveland said snidely as he watched Lillian straighten Louis's shirt.
Roland wiped his mouth. “Shit, I don't give them six months. But I've been wrong before too. Look at Darren and Jill, hell, who thought they would still be together. When's the baby coming? I still can't believe that they're married and about to be parents.”
“Darren said Jill was having severe labor pains last night. The doctor thought she was losing embryonic fluid, so she's been in the hospital for the last few days. Her pregnancy was high risk from the beginning,” Cleveland said.
Roland nodded as he twirled spaghetti around his fork. “Chief has been on pins and needles lately,” he said of Darren.
“He really wants to be a father and will do anything to make sure his wife and unborn child are all right,” Cleveland said as he glanced down at his food.
Roland ripped into a piece of garlic bread before saying, “I can't believe that rich woman wanted Darren. Hell, I should've worked that night and I could be Mr. Jill Atkinson.” He wiped a spot of sauce from his lips with the back of his hand. Cleveland looked at his friend in disgust and laughed.
“Only if she would've gone blind that night.”
An excited Louis walked over to the table. “All right, where's the bachelor party and when are we leaving?” He glanced over his shoulder a few times as if he was checking to make sure Lillian wasn't in earshot. “I love Lillian and all, but if I don't get out of here soon, we're going to elope. Who knew weddings were this stressful? Let's hit it, guys.”
Yawning, Cleveland rose to his feet. “That's on y'all. But before you get too drunk and up to your eyes in strippers, make my reservations for Mardi Gras.”
Louis shook his head. “I can't believe I had to bribe you to step up and be my best man. That's real foul, man.”
“You're lucky it's only costing you a trip to New Orleans. After all the Falcons went through to make it to the playoffs, you got me down here in Newton County when I could be partying and making use of my sister-in-law's sky box in the Dome. Besides, you know the future Mrs. Freeman doesn't like me.”
“Well,” Roland said, “the way these women are throwing themselves at you, you should be paying Louis. I'll give Lillian credit, she has some fine friends. There is nothing like banging a bridesmaid.”
Louis laughed hysterically, “Too bad you won't be finding out what that's like. Lil said the women are talking and they want you to leave them alone.”
“All these fine women around here, it's like being in a candy shop. They need to stop acting so stuck up and get with this good thing. I'm going to say it again, your future wife got fine friends.”
Cleveland's eyes sought out Freddie and he silently agreed.