Love Yourself First – Synopsis:
After tragedy strikes, Felicia Arman abandons her life in New York City and finds herself back in her original home, Houston. With the skills of a classically trained ballerina, there are not too many jobs she could get right away. So, when her friend offers her a job at their local coffee shop she jumps at the opportunity. One day, she spots a familiar face from her past. He would love to help Felicia out, but she is a bit skeptical. After some negotiation back and forth, they come to some form of an agreement that will be pleasurable for the both of them. The question is, can they keep things professional and refrain from falling for one another? Or will they fall victim to love?On a journey to start fresh and love herself first, Felicia is faced with what falling for him would mean. But it is tempting to think of the possibility of what more could be without their contractual agreement. Does he feel the same? Or is this just business?
“I can’t do this,” Felicia whined into the phone as she recovered from stumbling on the bustling New York sidewalk.
She sought out a piece of the concrete free of snow, ice, and busy feet attached to annoyed faces fed up with her slow, wobbling steps. High heels were the wrong choice. A choice her Ballet Mistress would forbid and a choice she was now regretting. She was beginning to regret a lot of choices as she pulled her peacoat tighter around her body. The windchill was even more vicious as the night grew older.
She turned her back to the street but that didn’t help either. The red sweater dress that sheathed her lean curves did nothing to help her body maintain its heat nor did the makeup on her face or the pounds of curls cascading from her scalp to the dip of her shoulders.
“Licia.” The voice on the other side of the phone called out her nickname with the ease of someone that had uttered a million and one times because she had. She was the creator of the moniker and the only other thing that Felicia loved more than ballet. “Don’t let heels and winter defeat you. Stop giving up so fast. Don’t be a quitter.”
“I’m not a quitter, Monica.” She hissed through chattering teeth. “Take it back.”
Monica’s laughter filled her eardrum and her shivering lips curved up. “I shouldn’t be out here. I have a performance tomorrow that’s half my grade.”
She glanced over her shoulder, out of all the lights burning brightly down the boisterous street it was the one that shined from the restaurant on the corner across from her that attracted her eyes like a moth to a flame. She wrestled her gloved hand out the pocket of her coat to read the time on her watch.
Yes, she was still early but did she have enough time to cancel. Was fifteen minutes before a date too late to cancel? She sighed to herself wishing she hadn’t gone along with her sister’s little scheme and stayed on her routine, practice, and studying path. She knew how to do those things. She didn’t have any experience with what she was about to do. Dating and men weren’t her forte.
“Baby sister,” Monica started softly. “Get out of your head. Stop over-scrutinizing life. Just live it. It’s December in New York. You have a handsome man waiting on you and I know you look stunning because you’re wearing the outfit I picked out for you…so enjoy yourself.”
A white cloud plume from Felicia’s mouth as she chuckled. “I do look rather stunning,” she confidently flicked her hair over her shoulder and a passerby eyed her suspiciously, but she didn’t mind him. “If you were here I wouldn’t be such a cluster of nerves? Do you really have to go home early?”
“Mama needs help getting the house ready for the Christmas party.” Monica raised her tone but the voice that sounded over the speaker still made it through the phone. “Hey, I have to board but just remember to relax; have fun and do all the things that I would do and then some. You know you want to.”
She grinned to herself peering back at the restaurant with minutes to spare. There were a lot of things she wanted. Some of those things people knew because she spoke about it regularly, but some of the things she wanted were secret. A secret that was only shared with her womb mate and favorite person on planet Earth.
“You love ballet, but romance is what you crave.” Monica rushed out. “So, go get both, baby sister.”
“You’re a minute older than me.”
“And it still counts,” Monica laughed and she echoed her. “See you later, Licia.”
Felicia rushed out a ‘love ya, Monica’ before her sister ended the call and she tucked her phone back in her pocket, casting her sight back to the restaurant.
She took another breath and drew in her stomach stabilizing her balance before taking a step. You can do this. You mastered pirouettes and fouettes, you can have dinner with a man. She repeated the words on a loop as she crossed the street and entered the restaurant.
The heat that greeted her as she gave her name to the hostess was welcomed and the eyes that followed her as she strutted behind the chipper woman warmed her cheeks. Still, it was the gaze of the man that greeted at the table in the corner that set her on fire.
He smoothly stood in a butterscotch suit that complimented his rich brown skin and extended his hand effortlessly. “Kenneth Johnson.” He paused, shaking her hand, and ticking his eyes along her body and along her face as if he was committing it to memory. “And I’ve never seen anyone work red and gold as well as you.”
“Thank you.” She took a quick glance away as her smile grew. “They are my favorite.”
“And now, they’re mine,” he kissed her hand delicately. “Join me?”
“Yes.” She claimed the seat he gestured to and got lost in conversation. A conversation that went well into the night with a promise of so much more.
Felicia knew she had his undivided attention. She ignored the rapid beating of her heartbeats and the slight weakness in her legs as she stood in the middle of the foyer in the six-inch gold stilettos. She was nervous being the main attraction for the man that stood mere feet from her waiting to feast on all she had to give.
She swallowed the uneasy quell and remember what her friend told her; she was performing a dance. Dancing was something she could do in her sleep. This tango wouldn’t require pointe shoes but still demanded skill, discipline, and confidence. She could do all those things. She embodied those things. She had to be that young woman she once was and tap into her talent to commence the intimate dance waiting for them.
“All three of your favorite things.” Her hands faintly shook as she pulled the sash of her silk robe. “Heels. Diamonds. Lingerie.” She dropped the sash and let the robe slide down her arms and fall to the floor.
She held her waist as a shiver ran down her back from the way his brown eyes snaked over her lean legs, toned mocha thighs, ample hips, and skipped to her full breast. His gaze woke up her nipples but he couldn’t tell the effect his eyes had on her, they were sitting up in the lace gold bra but not for long.
“On my list of sexiest things on a woman,” He started, taking a step away from the door, chipping away at the space between them. “Heels are number four. Diamonds are three which I might have to make an exception for you.”
“Why?” She lowly asked, pressing her thighs together trying to simper the heat in her middle that neared scorching.
He gestured to the diamond necklace that stopped just above her collarbone and her earrings that caught the few rays of the dying sun that leaked through the windows by the door.
“You’re a goddess with them. No.” He shook his head, chipping away at more of the distance between them. “A siren.”
“Oh.” Her chest rose as she inhaled deeply. The smooth, deepness of his voice was calling her stronger than any siren song. “So, what’s number one on this list of sexy things?”
“I’ll give you a hint,” He mischievously smirked standing with a couple of inches between them. He leaned near her ear. “It starts with a p and ends with a y and the wetter the better.”
Felicia would’ve replied but she was speechless. His hand was hugging his favorite thing and it was just like he liked it.
Chapter 1 Back Home
Felicia knew foot pain. She spent hours in an adagio floored room perfecting the fourth position until she performed magic, creating the illusion of floating. Her turnout was smooth like water and the grace with which she executed all seven positions made all believe that a human could bring poetry to life. It made the radiated foot pain bearable but the pain that she now felt standing behind the counter of the coffee shop on the corner of Maven and Redbrook was agonizing.
It burned her arches creating a blaze that shot up her calves and somehow made her twist her head from side to side. Eight seventy-five an hour shouldn’t inflict the human body with such great pain when it wasn’t going to grant her life with a great benefit; the paycheck didn’t cover all her expenses. But at least she had food.
She rolled her shoulders once more and stretched her hands over her head taking in the robust, nutty chocolate redolence that swirled in The Drip. She let out an easy breath feeling the warmth of someone claiming the space next to her, in the shop that always had customers from open to close, but thankfully had a lull around nine in the evening.
“It’s the shoes.” Carmen proclaimed without taking a glance at her footwear. She didn’t have to sneak a peek since she was there when Felicia laced up the sneakers when eleven turned to noon and she rolled out of bed. “Those are skater shoes and bitch…you ain’t skating.”
Felicia tried her best to suppress her chuckle. Unfortunately, her plump glossed lips curved slightly as she faced her friend. “You’re not funny.”
“I disagree and—” Carmen pointed to her face as her chrome painted manicure caught the fading rays of sunlight that poured through the windows that did double duty as walls. “—so does your face. Speaking of, I’m going to need you this weekend?”
“Thanks for the notice, but you know where I’ll be.” Felicia smiled as she rested her hands on her small waist, but it didn’t bring a shine to her onyx eyes. Where she was going to be for the weekend was the same place she’d been for the last fifty other weekends; Carmen’s apartment. She was thankful her friend gave her a place to stay, but not as ecstatic about her funds to remain so grounded.
Ballet used to prevent her from traveling and now since she gave it up, another factor stood in her way, money.
“It’s just good business,” Carmen added with a snap of her fingers. “And I’m a businesswoman …well…” She stopped to think, her whiskey eyes gleaming in the glow of the setting sun as she thought on all the irons she had in the fire. “It’s a side hustle right now, but I’m about to take off. I’ve got another five hundred followers since lunch.”
She quickly pulled her phone from her pocket and swiped over the screen, producing her Instagram page like it was a magic act.
“Cool.” Felicia quipped, darting her glance at the screen to only view the astounding number of people that adored her friend’s skills with concealer, mascara, liner, and lashes but not letting her eyes peek at her face.
She had no reservations about who saw her face ‘beat to da gods’ as one follower commented a couple of months ago, but she couldn’t bear seeing the image. Her face didn’t just belong to her. The pain that consumed her soul and ravaged her heart was reborn every time to set her eyes on her reflection.
It was a constant reminder of who she would never have in her life again. It was moments like these that made her jealous of single-born people; they were born alone, but she wasn’t. Now, trying to live her life as if she was one of them was a struggle. She was one half of a pair; an identical pair and each day she woke up she felt as if she was missing something.
Felicia quickly turned her back to the door to read the menu and hoped that the tears that routinely came to her every time she remembered her sister and thus the accident. She took in a rapid breath, clenching her eyes tightly together.
“I’m sorry,” Carmen abruptly apologized, hugging her. “I’m so sorry I spaced. Are you good? Of course, you’re not. That’s stupid.” She hugged her tighter as she rambled.
Felicia patted her shoulder to halt her friend’s apology and the vice-like grip of her arms. “I’m good.” She croaked out and her friend’s embrace slacked. “See.” She turned to her. “No tears.”
She was getting better. Truly she was, but there was still an ache in her soul that would release her like the pain of a knee when rain was in the forecast. Time heals all wounds; that’s what they say, but it’s been a year and Felicia wasn’t quite satisfied with the healing of time. She wanted to find other methods to subdue the sting of grief and longing.
Carmen let out a sigh of relief as she still eyed her features studiously to be certain, but Felicia had become more talented at hiding the pain behind a soft smile.
“I’m fine,” Felicia reassured, nudging her away with an elbow. “And tell me what new look you’re trying out on me this weekend.”
The concerned aura that wafted from Carmen dimmed and “How do you feel about animal-print eyeshadow?”
“I—” She started, trying to understand how cheetah and zebra prints could be drawn on the small space of skin between her eyebrow and eyelashes, but her brainstorming was rapidly ended from the snapping of Carmen’s fingers and the twisting of her hips as she asked, ‘you know what it is?’.
“It’s not twerk o’clock, and Xavier let you do the playlist again.” Felicia laughed as she tried to stop the rhythmic gyrations of her friends as an electrifying, energetic song flowed from the speakers that had an old school beat with updated meaning. “What about professionalism?”
“People would pay to have me throw it back on them.” Carmen slid in front of her as she continued dancing, grinding upon her trying to get her to join in on the fun. “You get it for free, and ain’t nobody here, anyway.”
“I am.” The deep, robust declaration that hit their backs made both young women jump as they turned around.
“Shit!” Carmen said, shocked at the sight of the person that she hadn’t notice enter. She took a couple of steps away from the counter.
However, Felicia was stunned for an entirely different reason. She blinked just to make sure she wasn’t having a caffeine-induced hallucination. When he didn’t disappear, she finally spoke.
“Ken…neth?” Her head tilted with bewilderment as she took in a staggered breath. “You’re in Houston.”
“I am.” He smirked at her, then placed his sight on the menu and asked, “What’s good here?”