Book: Tough and Tender (Bad Boy Romance Box Set)

Previous: TRAPPED INTO MARRIAGE
Next: Chapter Two

Chapter One

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Keyonna laid down the receiver, a dismayed look on her face thanks to the phone conversation she’d just had.

Only minutes ago, she’d answered the ringing phone with enthusiasm, hoping it was a call she’d been expecting from an important, prospective client. But then the eagerness dissipated at the sound of the voice of her long-absent boyfriend.

“Keyonna, it’s me,” said the warm, familiar baritone.

“Mark!” Keyonna breathed, half-dazed. And then, recovering her composure, she continued lamely, “Umm...hello.”

Hello?” he mimicked drily, his deep voice warm and humorous. “We haven’t seen or heard from each other in two years and all you can say is hello?”

Keyonna found herself smiling, noting that Mark was still the light-hearted, easygoing dude she’d known since she’d been in high school. They’d been best friends first and then, when they got older, things got heavier and they fell in love. Or so she’d thought.

However, Keyonna reminded herself that right now she should be angry, not amused with him. Heaving a sobering sigh, she allowed the silence to stretch for a few moments as they both struggled for something to say.

“Are you...”

“How’s the...”

They both spoke simultaneously, and then shared a nervous laughter which seemed to ease the uncomfortable tension hovering since she’d picked up the call.

“You first,” Mark offered.

“So where are you calling from?” she asked.

“From right here in Boston. I’m at my aunt’s home. Didn’t you know I got back?”

Keyonna lowered herself into the nearest chair in her spacious office, feeling even more dazed as she pressed fingers to her now throbbing temples. “Of course I didn’t. How would I? When did you return to the country?”

“About two days ago. I figured you’d hear I was coming home. So Trisha never called to tell you?”

Keyonna’s lips twisted wryly. Trisha was Mark’s cousin, and a few years younger than Keyonna’s twenty-six. Both girls had never got along that well.

“No,” Keyonna murmured, and then sighed deeply. “Wow, Mark. It's such a surprise to hear from you. And believe me, I’m glad you’re back but...”

Shaking off the urge to ask him what the hell he wanted after staying out of touch for two years, she added, “So I take it your duty tour is done?”

“I’m basically redeployed back to the States so it looks like I’m home to stay,” Mark told her, his tone full of that charming warmth. “Lord, Keyonna. I missed you. My aunt has organized this dinner in honor of my homecoming though I begged her not to. You have to come, baby. It’s tomorrow.”

“Well, I...”

“I know, I know; a party is hardly the place for us to reunite after two years. I planned for us to meet somewhere secluded and romantic where we could catch up on old times but...” Mark paused and Keyonna could almost hear him shrug. “I didn’t even have time to call you since I returned - until now. So you’ve got to come. I need to see you again.”

Keyonna’s head was reeling. Well, fine; it was understandable that a man like Mark would think he could simply show up after two years and she’d drop everything just to see him again. He definitely had the looks, money and social status to make any sane girl do just that.

But Keyonna knew that if she needed to be brutally straight with herself, she wasn't enthusiastic to see Mark again.

Not as much as she should be, anyway. Yeah, sure, there had been a time she’d been susceptible to his undeniable appeal. She may have even believed herself in love with him once. He’d been her dream guy ever since they’d started dating when she was twenty-one. But then he decided to sign up with the Navy and then a year or so later, was deployed to Afghanistan.

The relationship had endured for another year and part of Keyonna had felt proud that Mark had a role in ensuring their nation’s freedom and security. She'd been more than willing to make whatever sacrifice required, while still keeping their romance alive.

But then things started to change as Mark was away more and more often and for longer periods of time. She'd known his job was very dangerous and she’d tried to understand the reasons why he couldn’t always be there when she needed him.

And yet even she couldn’t blind herself to the signs that Mark didn’t seem ready to maintain the relationship with the kind of dedication that she was willing to put into it.

The bottom line was: Mark chose to focus solely on his military career, giving Keyonna the chance to slowly overcome the girlish infatuation she’d felt for him in her younger adult years. The starry-eyed Keyonna whom Mark had known was long gone, replaced with someone tougher who’d seen a bit of life’s ups and downs and was wiser for it. She was through with their sweet little fantasy love but apparently, Mark hadn’t gotten the memo.

“Keyonna?” she heard Mark say with a hint of worry in his voice. “Are you still there?”

“Uh...yeah,” Keyonna replied, her tone hesitant. “About the party – I really don’t think I...”

“It’s going to be a special night for me,” Mark told her quietly. “In more ways than one. Sure, it’s going to be a formal affair but it’s also going to be about family, and friends. People who’ve meant something to me at points in my life. For a long time I’ve been away from home, and some days I never even dreamed I’d make it back in one piece. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for and I really wish you’d be there to share it with me.”

Keyonna pushed her fingers back through her hair and let out another deep-seated sigh. “Okay. I’ll be there. What time does it start?”

“It starts at seven,” Mark said, and then added in a deeper, husky tone, “I really, really missed you, Keyonna.”

“I missed you too,” Keyonna said, biting her lip and despising herself for lying. After all, for most of the last two years, it had been a classic case of out of sight, out of mind for her. Just like she believed it had been for him.

Keyonna barely even remembered much about his appearance, come to think of it. His image was a faded photo in her memory and she couldn’t help feeling a pang of guilt.

She did recall though that Mark had a look that most of the girls found irresistible. She’d always felt proud having him as her boyfriend especially since she’d been the envy of her pals for getting the hottest guy in their circle of friends back then.

Keyonna hung up from the unexpected call with a lingering feeling of dread. She was not looking forward to coming face to face with an ex she’d all but forgotten even existed. At age twenty-six, Keyonna Hayes was now one of the youngest and fastest rising interior decorators in the city. Her eclectic, cutting-edge designs had caught the eye of many top industry players ever since she was in college. She’d had a dream job waiting for her when she graduated, interning for the hottest name in the business and building up her own considerable portfolio in less than three years.

Keyonna knew she had a lot to be proud of though when it came to her personal life, she couldn’t say she’d been in much of a winning mode. Wrong choices in men had burned her more times than she cared to admit. She’d dusted herself off again and again and now, she wasn’t up for romance or love. All she cared about was her career and for the next couple of years to come, intended on rising to the very pinnacle of her chosen field before even thinking of finally settling down for the family she’d always dreamed of.

Keyonna had always been idealistic – well, before she’d ended up kissing too many frogs to make her lose her taste for finding her prince.

Now she couldn’t help but cringe as she thought of one of the conversations she’d had the last time she’d been with Mark before he had to be deployed back to Afghanistan, almost a lifetime ago.

They’d sat on a beach, staring at the ocean with Mark’s big arms around her shoulders as she leaned her back against his chest.

“I’ll be back, baby,” Mark had said softly as she’d sniffled into her knuckled fists, devastated he was off on yet another assignment. “Right now there’s a war going on and we’re the only ones ready to fight it. But soon, I’ll make the time and we can work on our plans to get married, have kids and a home.”

Keyonna had lifted misty eyes to his. “Let’s get married now, Mark. This week – tomorrow. Right now. Let’s just elope somewhere and make it official. I’m scared I’ll lose you and we’ll never get this chance to make our dreams of forever after come true. So let’s not wait a moment more. You love me, don’t you?” 

Mark had kissed the top of her head warmly, tightening his hold around her. “You know I do. But my life is not mine to organize the way I want and it would be unwise to jump into marriage so soon. You’re barely twenty-three and I’m just two years older. We need to make sure we know what we’re doing and I need to give us time to find our feet. My family may be rich but I feel I need to at least try to make something of myself. And so do you, my love. It would definitely be a mistake to jump into marriage right now.”

Keyonna had turned round to spear him with a scowl in the moonlight. “Cut the crap, Mark. We both love each other and we’re full grown adults. Marriage would be the right step for us. I’m old enough to start having babies and you know how much I love them and can’t wait to be a mother. Just tell me if you aren’t ready for the commitment.”

He’d frowned at her accusing tone. “That’s not it, Keyonna.” His firm, reassuring tone calmed her as his hands which patted gently through her hair. “If you really think about it, you’ll know I’m suggesting the right thing. You’ll just have to wait for me, sweetheart. You will, won’t you? Promise,” he’d said with a half-teasing frown as he plucked on the tip of her nose.

Besotted, Keyonna had gazed up at him and said softly yet fervently, “Yes, I’ll wait for you. For as long as it takes.”

Now, just a few years later, Keyonna felt grateful that Mark had been so level-headed. She knew without a doubt that if they’d married then like she’d tried to convince him, it would all be a shambles by now. Because now she knew she had no clue about what love was, or passion that could be between a man and woman. She’d had glimpses of it with men she’d met over the last couple of years though she’d never really let herself get too deeply involved. There’d always been that one vital ingredient missing but so far it had been enough to just know that there was a part of her that was vibrantly feminine and needed the right spark to bring her inner flame to life.

And that spark couldn’t come from Mark, of that she was sure. One thing was for certain, she’d never really loved him or else why had it been so easy to let things go? Sure, they’d kept in touch for some months and she’d been hungry for his calls and letters letting her know how he was doing though she never knew exactly where he was or what mission he was on. But then the communications thinned until it got to a point that she didn’t even notice because she was so busy chasing her career and living her life.

And now this.

Damn!

Keyonna chewed on her bottom lip and then exhaled deeply. Just when she felt so focused, accomplished – unfettered. She was living the good life, with great friends, top connections and a healthy, vibrant state of mind and body. She couldn’t help but wonder what in the world Mark had planned for them now. Not that there was a ‘them’ – but she couldn’t help going over his words again, about them catching up on old times. She sure hoped he wasn’t going to hold her to her silly promise of those years ago.

Suddenly, Keyonna felt a laugh break through her throat at the very thought that she might be taking things all wrong. She was certain Mark had moved on just like she had. He must have figured out for himself that their cute little romance had just been that, nothing more.

And it was history. He had to know that, right?

Previous: TRAPPED INTO MARRIAGE
Next: Chapter Two
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