In episode #2, Carter finds herself face-to-face with her next mission, the devastatingly handsome Kenneth Stevenson, and no matter how cool she tries to play it, she can’t help but to swoon under Kenneth’s gaze.
In this next episode, Carter has to deal with the aftermath of her swooning over Kenneth with her best friend and co-owner of F.A.C.E., Vince. When the whole team tries to have their say in her “error,” Carter goes off on them and leaves, with Vince trying to make amends.
Thursday, April 7
I was not in the mood to deal with Vince. It’s probably why I hit the snooze button five times and then finally drug my ass out of bed at eight instead of 6:30. After showering, dressing in a tee and sweats, and pulling my hair through a scrunchie, I pulled out my driveway and crept to F.A.C.E. Headquarters.
Every time I pull into the underground garage of F.A.C.E., I can’t help but to think back to when Vince, Rico, and I first started the company. We had all met in grad school. Rico and Vince had met at the police academy, and were two years older than me. Despite the fact that at times I can be a huge brat, the boys took to me, and soon enough, we were renting a huge 3-bedroom Victorian a few blocks from campus. One night, we and a bunch of friends were out drinking and bitching about cheating mates. After way too many margaritas, I told a girlfriend that I would spy on her boyfriend to see if he was cheating. Two days and two rolls of film later, I proved her man was a dog, and I, again slightly drunk, suggested to Rico and Vince that starting a cheater investigation service might be a way to pay back student loans. We didn’t know how right I was.
We ran everything out of the three-bedroom house we rented. The den was our headquarters; our rooms contained the many gadgets we went broke for though sometimes, we were able to get great deals from a guy that worked at a high-tech shop who knew a friend, who knew a friend, who used to smoke weed with Rico back in the twelfth grade. We really did think our shit didn’t stink. We wore black because we thought it would make us look mysterious and at night, would camouflage us. We were young and had watched way too many detective/crime shows.
Unlike our beautiful Victorian home, the new face of F.A.C.E. wasn’t too pretty on the outside. Beige. Concrete. Brick. A non-descriptive warehouse, just like every other building that surrounded it.
The inside of F.A.C.E. totally made up for it though.
I stepped out of my bus and made my way to the elevator. I waved at the camera that loomed over head before slipping my hand in the biometric hand reader.
“Thank you, C.I. Devlin,” the elevator announced.
Sometimes, I had to laugh when things like elevators spoke to me at F.A.C.E. Headquarters. It almost seemed like too much to do for a place like this. Being so incognito, like we were the F.B.I. or the C.I.A. We were almost as technologically advanced and secretive as the F.B.I. Were we as important, too? I thought so. I mean those other guys are there to protect our well beings, usually by any means necessary. Well, look at us. When you think about it, what, like fifty-percent of all marriages end in divorce, right? Even if you take marriage out of the picture, there are millions of people who prefer to love their mates without the pomp and circumstance of a wedding. Those people break up, too. We deal with the heart, and with so many people giving and then losing the most precious organ they owned, was it any wonder we were important and wanted to take precautions against people trying to ruin the good in the hearts of so many people?
I entered the elevator and pushed the ‘Lobby’ button. I rolled my shoulders and took deep breaths. Each second in the elevator made my heart constrict. Before I had enough time to calm myself, the doors flew open, and I was flooded in darkness. To the left were the bank of offices and conference and storage rooms. To the right, the lobby. Wanting to avoid Vince and the gang a bit longer, I turned right and let the line of small, recessed lights on the ceiling guide me down the black-painted hallway. Brilliant light flooded the lobby. It was a small space, but the huge skylight allowed light and sky to stream through. The brightness contrasted with the black glass walls. The only furniture was Suzie’s silver, circular desk and her expensive, ergonomic chair.
There was a door and outside, a sign that read On the Spot Security Systems. The sign out front wasn’t a complete lie; Vince and Rico installed security systems for companies during their off time, whatever that was these days. Cheating was in high season most of the time. The sign, the entrance was F.A.C.E.’s front. If you honestly needed security for your company or home, you’d come in like a normal customer and be helped. If you were a brokenhearted client or a member of F.A.C.E., you came in through the garage and elevator.
I found Suzie rifling through a stack of manila folders on her desk. She only sat out here to welcome clients; she could normally be found in her big office down the hall, shoes off, feet up, and a laptop on her lap, fingers flying.
When Suzie spun around, her eyes widened.
“You are in so much trouble, Carter,” she said.
“And your hair is purple,” I replied. “Wasn’t it black last night?”
“Yep.” She smiled and twirled in place. “You like? I know it’s over the top, but I think it’s cool.”
And it was—on both accounts. At least once a month, Suzie was trying to do something different to alter herself. This month: hair! It was short and spiky and purple. Thank goodness she was one of those white people with a natural tan because the color would not have passed with Holy Ghost white. Despite the hair color and the ring in the corner of her bottom lip, Suzie looked like any executive secretary/everywoman you might meet. She wore a black, tailor cut suit and pumps. Her wire-rimmed glasses perched on the dainty upturn of her nose. She was that nice merge of crazy and corporate that fit in nicely at a place like F.A.C.E.
“Dig the hair, girl,” I finally said. “Okay, so how much trouble am I really in?”
Suzie slipped the folders in one arm and hooked the other around one of mine.
“Missy,” she began, whispering, “Vince is watching the footage from last night right now.”
I groaned. “Maybe I should just sell my third of the company now, huh?”
Suzie laughed. “Come on. I’ll protect you with my spiky hair.”
“You stupid. Let’s do this.”
I sighed and walked down the hallway, arm in arm, with Suzie.
The door to the main conference room, our “command center,” was cracked open. I could hear Raven say, “No that girl did not go and fall in love with that cheating ass man!”
“Oh,” Nate’s baritone voice said before laughing, “we better be lucky cameras were on her. Who knows what her crazy self would’ve done.”
I couldn’t move. It took Suzie pushing me through the door to finally get my feet moving. I stumbled in and all eyes were on me. I felt like the last piece of chicken in a KFC bucket. And everyone was still hungry for more finger, lickin’ goodness.
Vince stood at the head of the table, a remote in his hand.
“You’re late,” he said, never taking his eyes from the screen at the other end of the table.
“Uh,” I began and completely shut my mouth. I had been late before. Never 45 minutes like now, but I was late. Had never been chastised before. Had never seen Vince not look at me, not want to see me.
“Sorry,” I whispered. I took the seat which was to the left of the seat I normally sat in—which was next to Vince. Something told me he didn’t want me near him today. Suzie sat beside me. The snickers from everyone died down and when I looked down the table, there I was on the projection screen looking lost and mesmerized by Cheater Number 5302.
I glanced across the table at Rico and even he wouldn’t look me in the eye. Only Nate and Raven, the instigators of the group, stared at me, wanting to see what would happen next.
“Care to explain this?” Vince asked, still standing.
I found the courage to speak and answered, “I’m thinking there’s no need to explain. You see what you see.”
“Hmm,” Raven said, then coughed.
I snapped my head in Raven’s direction and said, “You got something to say, Rave?”
“Girl,” she answered, chuckling, “don’t catch a ‘tude with me because you looking stupid up on that screen.”
I threaded my fingers together and rested them on the table.
“You messed up, Carter,” Vince said.
“Big time,” Nate chimed in.
I looked up at Rico. “Say something, Rico,” I said. “Do you think I messed up?”
He finally looked my way. He shrugged and answered, “I wouldn’t say messed up, but you did let your emotions show and that ain’t good.”
“Okay.” I nodded. A burning fueled itself in my belly. All traces of my anxiety disappeared. Anger took its place. “I’ll admit it. I messed up.”
“You couldn’t deny it if you wanted to, Carter,” Raven said.
I looked over at Raven, her eyes twinkling with mischief. Any other time, I could take her and Nate’s chiding about my non-dating ways or whatever was on the Pick on Carter agenda they cooked up each week.
But this time, I was pissed.
I stood and leaned over the table, resting my palms on it. I tilted my head in Vince’s direction.
“Look at me, Vince,” I said. “Now.”
He did. His eyes were as clear as usual, but something was missing.
“I fucked up, okay,” I said. “I’ll take that. You’re mad at me. I’ll take that, too. All of you think I messed up big time. I’ll take it.” I walked to Vince, took the remote from his hand, and turned the screen off. “I’ll take it so long as I can dish it out.”
Vince began speaking, but I gave him the hand.
“Up until this point, I have been the consummate professional,” I began. “This was what, my fifth UC case? Everything I’ve done up ‘til now has been, and I’ll let the ego blow up a bit, masterful.”
I walked behind Raven and leaned over her shoulder before saying, “I haven’t had two sexual encounters with my targets.” She turned to face me, brown eyes blazing. I smiled and stared her down until she finally looked away.
“And,” I continued, “I sure as hell haven’t fucked my way through clients like a damn gigolo.” I didn’t even have to look Nate’s way. He knew who I was talking about. “Not once have I said anything against you two for what you did or didn’t do, and this is my damn company, too. I could have been pissed. I could have suggested your asses be fired, but I didn’t because I know you’re good at what you do despite your faults. And, there’s a part of me that hopes you learn to keep your shit in your damn pants…or skirts.”
Rico chuckled; I looked his way and it stopped. “I deserve Vince’s comments…” I looked his way, “…to an extent, but I know I don’t deserve any of your negative comments about what I did. You think I don’t feel bad already? Why the hell you think I’m late? To avoid having to deal with this shit.”
I walked around the table and toward the door.
“If you want me off the case, Vince,” I added, “just let me know, but let me tell you that I’m a person that doesn’t fuck up often, and I know you know that. I will work my hardest not to do it again. You can bet on it.”
I marched down the hall, walked into my office, and slammed the door. Angry wasn’t a strong enough adjective to begin to explain how I was feeling. I was never a person to mess up anyway, and having them all tell me of my mistakes was too much for me. I didn’t even get into the many screw-ups Rico and Vince had in the beginning of this operation. They knew. I knew they knew. They knew I knew. Nothing was left to be said.
I flipped on my CD player, found my Encore CD and slipped it in. I surfed until Eminem’s “Mosh” began. I turned it up and walked to my desk. I straightened my Ph.D. degree that hung on the wall alongside my other degrees and grabbed a tissue from the desk to wipe dust off the glass.
I sat on the edge of the desk and looked out the window just as the phone rang. I quickly muted the music and picked up the phone.
“Carter Devlin speaking,” I answered as I walked toward the windows.
“Miss Devlin,” the woman said. A breath caught in my throat.
“Yes, Mrs. Stevenson. How may I help you?”
I had no idea she would be calling. Probably something I would have learned if I had stayed at the meeting.
“Well,” she said softly, “I just wanted to say hello to the woman who is helping me find the answers. Is that okay?”
After the way I fawned over her husband the night before, I hardly had the right to say anything to the contrary.
“Sure it’s okay. How are you doing today, Mrs. Stevenson?”
She sighed, and I could feel the anxiety in her voice.
There was a knock at the door, then someone entered. I knew it was Vince. He wore Nautica cologne and a knee surgery he was still healing from made his right leg land harder than his left when he walked.
I didn’t look up once as I moved to the desk and sat upon it.
“I’m okay,” Mrs. Stevenson said. “I know you met my husband last night.”
“Yes, I did,” I said as Vince sat beside me on the desk.
“When will I be able to hear about your findings?” Mrs. Stevenson asked.
“Vince Clark will be contacting you in regards to that, Mrs. Stevenson.”
Vince nudged me. I turned to him and he mouthed, Cynthia Stevenson. I nodded.
“Okay,” Mrs. Stevenson said. “I thank you for all you’re doing to help me in this matter.”
“You’re very welcome,” I said. “You take care. Vince will contact you shortly.”
Mrs. Stevenson said goodbye, and I hung up the phone.
Vince opened his mouth, but I quickly said, “She wanted to know when we might be contacting her about last night.”
I turned my face toward the window, completely ignoring Vince.
“I’ll have to contact her today,” Vince said.
“Yes?” I said without looking his way.
“You were right,” he said.
“Everything.” Vince sat beside me on the desk. I still wouldn’t look his way. “I shouldn’t have reprimanded you in front of the others. Technically, I’m the director, but you, me, and Rico are the real directors.”
I didn’t say a word.
“The gang shouldn’t have reprimanded you, either,” he said. “It’s not their job. Besides, we never dissed the others in the command center.”
“Carter.” He sighed.
Finally, I turned to Vince. His dark green-brown eyes were normal, not like earlier. They sparked in his golden-brown face. I shook my head. I reached up and dug the fingers of my left hand into his sandy-colored, crinkly hair. It was soft and thick.
“When are you gonna start dating?” I asked.
“What?” Vince laughed as he leaned away from me. My hand slipped from his hair. “Weren’t you just mad at me?”
“Boy, you know things like that don’t last,” I said, shrugging. “Besides, I just think you’re so freaking sexy, I’m like someone needs to snatch you up.”
“Get out of here with that mess, Carter.”
He tried to turn his head from me, but I caught the rising color in his cheeks.
“You’re blushing,” I said, giggling. “That’s so cute.”
“Stop playing, girl.”
I stood and faced Vince. “I’m just saying that you are a beautiful man. Some girl should be appreciating that.”
He nodded and stared at me. “That’s true.”
I smiled. “Hey, you remember when we used to fix each other up in college?”
“I remember Debra Stanton,” Vince said. “You told me she was so sweet and nice and pure and all that jazz, and that girl was a damn freak.”
I howled in laughter. “I bet she did your world up, huh?” I threw my hands up on my hips and cocked an eyebrow up.
He snickered. “Naw. I wasn’t with that.”
“You mean to tell me that I gave you a cute freak and you did nothing with her?”
He shook his head no. “That wasn’t my thing. Never been my thing.”
“After all these years, I figured I knew what you liked.”
“You don’t have a clue.”
I grabbed Vince’s hands. “Hold on,” I said. “Let me think.” I closed my eyes and began humming some weird, chanting sounds. I opened my eyes and smirked. “You looking for someone like me, ain’t ya? Go on, admit it. It’s just you and me here.”
“Yeah, you got me. Never going to be right ‘til I got you.”
“I knew it.”
“So what are we going to do about that?”
I gave Vince one of my hmm looks before snuggling up between his legs and throwing my arms around his neck.
“I tell ya what,” I began. “If we haven’t found anyone in a year’s time, it’s you and me.”
Vince laughed. “Whatever, girl.”
“You ain’t settling down no time soon and especially not with me.”
I had to admit it. I was hurt. I mean I know I’m a basket case, but I had hoped my best bud would at least pretend I might get a grip one of these days.
“I want to settle down,” I said. “Some day.”
Vince ran a finger down my cheek before cupping my chin. The green in his eyes grew dark. I had to catch my breath. I never saw this look before, had no idea if he wanted to hit me, kiss me, or choke me.
“I’m the guy that’s going to continue to set you up until you find that one for you.”
“Is there even one out there for me though?” I asked.
Vince nodded. “At least,” he responded. “There is at least one out there that will change all those negative beliefs you have about love and relationships.”
I blinked and thought about Kenneth. He had said the same thing. I rubbed my left temple, the spot Kenneth’s heart had been just the night before.
“You okay?” Vince asked.
“I guess,” I muttered. I stepped away from Vince and plopped myself down on the black loveseat in a corner of my office. “That love stuff is crazy.”
We both sat in silence for a while, me thinking about Kenneth and love and cheating, and Vince. There was a time I knew everything Vince thought. That was back in college, back when he, Rico, and I lived together, back before Rico got married and Vince thought it was best that he move out so that we could try to be adults and find mates. He didn’t want to be my crutch; he didn’t want me to be his crutch. Now, I watched the closed-off expression on his face and wanted to know what he was thinking, so I asked, “Whatcha thinking?”
He shook his head and looked my way. “The Stevenson case,” he answered. “I need to contact Cynthia today.”
I looked down at the gleaming oak floors. “I know I messed up, Vince. I’m sorry. I promise that…”
“I’m going to keep you on the Stevenson case,” he interrupted.
I jumped up and ran to him. “For real?”
“Yeah, for real. Against my better judgment.”
I hugged him hard and planted kisses up and down his cheeks. When I kissed his chin, his goatee tickled my lips.
“You are too cool, babe,” I said. “Thank you for trusting me.”
Vince slipped his arms around my waist and pulled me into him.
I calmed myself down and said, “Yes?”
“I want you to be careful, okay?”
I ran my hands over the top of Vince’s hair. “I promise.”
Vince tugged on my ponytail before pulling me in for a hug. His warmth made me quiet, calm. He was the only person to ever make me feel that way, and I knew I had to work hard not to disappoint him again.
“Hey,” I whispered into his chest.
“You are mighty buffed, babe.” I stepped away a bit and grinned. “Never noticed how tight you were becoming.”
“It’s nothing,” he said. “I’ve been working out more. Remember when I tried to get you to come with me to tone up the fineness you already possess?”
I laughed. “Yeah.”
“Well, I went. I figured that I should make myself 100% ready—heart, mind, and body—for the woman who will enter my life.”
Though Vince’s words seemed like words any man might say, the seriousness in his eyes, the way he leaned back on the desk, and the tone of his soft, deep voice made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention.
“She will be highly appreciative,” I said. “Highly.”
“I hope so.”
I couldn’t help but wonder who this woman might be and what type of questions I would ask to see if she even deserved to be loved by my Vince.