Single mother Malika “Pumpkin” Tavares lost faith in fairytales after she fell for a toad. Town royalty Armand “Manny” Charmayne has been searching for his soulmate all his life, whom he’ll recognize at first sight by a golden aura, that only he can see, surrounding her person. Manny doesn’t see gold when he meets Pumpkin, but the more he gets to know her the more he considers defying fate, if only he can convince her to take a chance on love again.
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“OMG, PUMPKIN! YOU EVEN DRIVE like a prude!”
Pumpkin Tavares allowed the condescension in LaTom’s voice to roll off her back. She may not have had a date in a little while —okay, a long while. In any case, she certainly wasn’t taking driving advice from her cousin who spent most of her time in the back seat of cars. While they were parked. Somewhere off road. Late at night.
“Next time we need to catch a cab,” LaTom said from the back seat of Pumpkin’s car.
“Hmm, hmm,” agreed her sister, LaRon, who sat in the passenger seat.
Pumpkin raised a dubious eyebrow at the empty threat. Cab drivers expected payment. They also sported those handy off-duty signs on top of their cars. Not that her cousins would pay attention to a come-back-later or closed-for-the-day sign on her car. In their minds, Pumpkin existed as their personal chauffeur.
“I could drive better than this.” LaRon drummed her fingers on the dashboard. “I should’ve gotten my license.”
“Me, too,” LaTom piped in from behind her sister.
Well, there wasn’t anything stopping them now. Except the convenience of being a backseat driver and not having to take any responsibility.
“What did you say, Pumpkin-Head?” said LaTom.
Pumpkin opened her mouth. Her lips flapped like a fish out of water, no air going in or out. She hadn’t just said that out loud. Had she?
LaTom glared at her in the rearview mirror. Pumpkin’s eyes slid away and onto the baby LaTom bounced on her lap. Yes. On her lap and not in the car seat.
“I really wish you’d strap him in back there,” Pumpkin said.
Little LaRico stood on his mom’s lap. His chubby fingers played with the automatic window button; watching it magically go up and then down. A few miles back he’d gotten the glass down enough to stick his head out of the window like a little dog, with tongue hanging out of the mouth and all. It kept the fussy baby quiet, but then a cop pulled into traffic and, from her driver’s seat control panel, Pumpkin put the window on lock down.
“He’s in the back seat.” LaTom let LaRico loose on the floor. “When we were kids, there were no laws about car seats.”
“That’s right,” LaRon chimed in from the passenger seat. Her eyes skimmed dot matrix perforated forms. “The government is all up in mamas’ business nowadays.”
With the attention off her, Pumpkin decided not to point out how these suggestions became laws after the deaths of many children. She’d never win the argument. Neither LaTom nor LaRon had gone to law school, but they both knew the system inside and out.
Instead, Pumpkin focused all her will on the car in front of her to move the last few feet forward so she could break free of the gridlock.
The sounds of the late afternoon traffic assaulted her ears: the impatient bursts from the expensive, new model cars; the wheezing grunts of the hooptie mufflers; the squealing of breaks protesting the snail’s pace of Friday rush hour in Saint Anne’s Parish, Louisiana.
And then, it appeared out of nowhere. Like a horse —a white horse with flaxen mane and tale— leaping over an agitated mass of trolls. Like a villain appearing in a cloud of magic to deliver a devastating blow to the budding happy-ever-after.
Pumpkin couldn’t be sure which role the white, Ford Mustang with gold trim played as it charged through traffic. Its front wheels left the road for a split second. Its tail pipe breathed a sigh of exhaust as it seized a hole in the bumper-to-bumper traffic and escaped off the exit ramp, like magic. The next moment, the highway seized up again.
The horn behind Pumpkin blared, demanding she move the few feet forward to get them all closer to nowhere. Pumpkin’s little, orange Beetle obliged, knowing it could never achieve such a feat as leaving the asphalt on its four small tires. Or swerving its round frame across the double yellow divide. Pumpkin stayed in her lane and inched forward along with the rest of the rabble.
A quarter of an hour later, the lane opened up and they reached their destination. Pumpkin pulled up to the front entrance of the Saint Anne’s Department of Family and Child Services: DFACS.
“Just drop us off here, Pumpkin.” LaRon’s hand was already on the door. “That food stamp line always takes long with all those old folks and cripples.”
Pumpkin stared straight ahead and gave an internal shake of her head. She wouldn’t put it past her cousins to fake a disability to gain an advantage.
It took a few seconds for Pumpkin to register the silence. She turned to look over at where LaRon and LaTom stood outside her car. Two pairs of the darkest brown, nearly black, eyes glared at her.
Crap! She’d spoken her mind out loud again.
Early in life, Pumpkin instinctively developed an internal filter to use when dealing with her cousins and their trifling-ness. It worked thusly: mouth stayed shut, head might nod, or noncommittal grunt might sound from the back of her throat in response to any foolishness they said or did. But never did her true feelings travel from her head to her mouth. This morning the filter appeared in good working condition when LaRon called, and guilted Pumpkin into interrupting her schedule and driving them here.
Pumpkin tried to cover her verbal slip by nodding in appeasement. But then her mouth flew open. “Do you two ever worry that you feed into the negative stereotypes of single moms?”
“What do you mean negative?” they said in unison.
“Well, both of you are able-bodied, educated women. Why not get a job?” Pumpkin’s hand flew to her mouth, no one more shocked than she was by its masochistic defiance.
“We have a job.”
“Are you saying that’s not a job, Pumpkin-Head?”
“Because it’s a full-time job.”
“And we deserve to get paid for our time.”
“I thought you were a feminist, Pumpkin?”
“It is… I am…” Pumpkin wasn’t sure which question she was answering. Since their youth, the two of them had a way of firing more than one at a time, so that Pumpkin didn’t know who was speaking nor to whom she was answering. “It’s just that both of you get child support from your babies’ daddies.” Six children, five daddies. That’s another story. “It’s enough money for food, too. Don’t you worry you’re cheating someone else who may need it more?”
“Who says we don’t need it?” LaTom threw a baby blanket over her Dolce top before settling LaRico on her shoulder.
“We want the best for our kids.” LaRon’s Jimmy Choo’s tapped the pavement in annoyance.
“Mama?” The voice came from the backseat of the car. Pumpkin turned to the face of her eight-year-old son, Seth. For both the duration of this conversation, as well as the duration of the ride, Seth’s face had been buried in a chapter book.
“Mama, I have to use the bathroom,” he said from his booster seat in the back.
Now, technically eight-year-olds don’t have to sit in boosters, but Sethie didn’t quite reach the seat belt’s shoulder strap yet, and admittedly, Pumpkin was a card-carrying, licensed to hover, helicopter parent.
She turned to her cousins. “Could you?”
They both rolled their eyes in annoyance. As if Pumpkin hadn’t left work early, yanked her son out of his after-school routine, and scrambled across town to help them run an errand during rush hour.
LaRon made an impatient gesture to Seth. “Fine,” she said.
“Thank you,” Pumpkin said. “I’m just going to park and be right in.”
Ten minutes later, Pumpkin found a spot and headed back towards the building. The Saint Anne’s DFACS building loomed, imperious and menacing in the cloudy sky. Time and the elements had faded its facade to a pale shade of brown. Its shadows blotched the countenances of the women ushering their children in and out of its doors. Unlike LaRon and LaTom who typically skipped up the steps, these women looked daunted, despondent, and demoralized as they entered the building. No one took pride in turning to the welfare system.
Pumpkin watched one mother exit the glass doors; one child in her arms, another walking beside her. The little boy walking alongside her reached out and took his mother’s hand in his own, a smile on his lips, unwavering trust in his eyes. Pumpkin felt the jolt that halted the mother’s steps. The love that passed between the two reverberated in the air. The determination that lit up the mother’s eyes was palpable to any witnesses.
Coming down the steps, the family passed a table. The red and white banner strung across its front read “Preston Whitely for Mayor.” Pumpkin saw the light in the mother’s eyes dim under the scrutiny of the two women stationed behind the table. They handed out fliers to passersby, but their manicured hands retracted as the mother and her children neared. One woman looked down, wrinkling her nose at the mother’s worn shoes. The other woman flipped her highlighted hair over her shoulder, the gleaming ring-set on her left hand sparkled.
The light from the ring must’ve caught the mother’s eye because the woman winced. She reached out her left hand, all fingers bare, and pulled her son closer to her.
As the family passed by Pumpkin, the mother glanced up, a brave front on her face. Pumpkin offered her a smile. She’d been in that mom’s shoes. A young mother, alone in the world. Wondering where she and her child’s next meal would come from. Eyes cast down when approaching home, fearful of a notice on the door. Pumpkin had hated walking up the DFACS steps as a child, certain a mark was being stitched into her hand-me-downs. The clothes Pumpkin wore now were purchased off the rack with her own money. Her shoes weren’t designer, but they were brand new. Though she was now a self-sufficient woman, Pumpkin often feared people would spot a scuff or scrape left over from those years.
Pumpkin turned and stopped in her tracks. Not because of the near collision, but because of the Adonis who stood before her. Tall and lean with dark, thick curls atop his head. But it was his eyes that arrested Pumpkin. They took her back to her teen years, watching Donnie Simpson on Video Soul; or farther back to Smokey Robinson doo-wopping with The Miracles. They were a pale gray. And he smelled… edible. Like fresh baked, butter croissants sprinkled with earthy spices.
“Excuse me,” he repeated, with a slight Southern drawl that was more refined than lazy. He prolonged his vowels just enough to let you know he was Southern, but the consonants he pronounced perfectly. “Are you Heather?”
And of course, he was looking for someone else. “No, my name is Malika.”
He looked at her and squinted. Then his eyes rolled past her up the steps of the DFACS building. “Oh, sorry. I thought you could have been one of my volunteers.” He stepped away, clearing her path to the entrance.
I thought you could have been one of my volunteers.
Pumpkin looked beyond him to see a voter registration table.
I thought you could have been one of my volunteers.
Part of her knew she should simply walk into the DFACS building to find her cousins and her son, because who knew? LaRon and LaTom could’ve let him go to the bathroom by himself and just forgotten about him —again. But another part of Pumpkin smarted. He’d taken one glance at her, paired it with her Eubonic-consonant-rich name, added it to her current location, and come away with an incorrect assumption.
“You know, I could have been yours,” she said.
He turned back. “Mine?”
“I mean, I have done something like this before.”
“Something… with me?”
“No! I’ve never met you before.”
He opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, then started again. “What exactly are we talking about?”
This was not going the way she’d planned. But what exactly had she planned when she opened her mouth? Her filter malfunction needed to be repaired soon.
Pumpkin took a deep breath, clearly aware of his smokey eyes watching her with… was that wariness or amusement? Growing up in her family, she had trouble deciphering the two.
“I mean, I have been a volunteer. I’ve done a voter registration drive before.”
Having cleared up that misjudgment, Pumpkin assumed the conversation was over. Only, he looked doubtful at her proclamation.
Pumpkin gave her internal filter a kick. In response it sputtered, “I organized it, actually.” Pumpkin gave it a mental shove to keep quiet. And then, “It was very successful, actually.”
“Where did the drive you organized —successfully— take place?”
“Oh,” she said. “At my school. My college —university, actually. Louisiana State University.”
“I know LSU,” he grinned.
Good. Grinning meant amused. He had a nice grin, Smokey Eyes. Straight white teeth. Plump lips that stretched wide. Maybe a little too wide. Almost big bad wolf wide.
“Well,” she said. “There’s a community college with the name Louisiana so…”
“You have a problem with community colleges?”
“No! I just… I just wanted to make sure you knew… which one I meant.” Pumpkin wouldn’t have thought it possible, but his grin stretched even wider.
“My opinion matters to you that much?”
Definitely a wolf.
Then, in confirmation, his eyes slipped from her face and did a quick assessment of her body: the B-cups she no longer bothered to pad, the stubborn muffin top she’d given up on a year ago, the wide hips that looked voluptuous on her cousins but pear-shaped on her.
“I don’t even know you,” Pumpkin said. And she had no intention of getting to know him. Wolves blocked the paths of good girls whether in the forest or on the road of life. Pumpkin had no intention of getting jammed up by a man, ever again.
“Yet, within sixty seconds of meeting me,” he said, “you offered to be mine.”
“No I… That was a misunderstanding, and you know it.”
A chuckle escaped through that predatory grin. The sound rumbled through Pumpkin’s body like a divining rod sensing danger.
“I’m sorry, Malika.”
But then, with the sound of her name on his lips, the humming of the rod ceased. All previous warning signals muted and Pumpkin’s feet took root in the concrete.
“It’s been a long day,” he smiled and a small sigh escaped his lips at the same time.
She’d read the term Cupid’s Bow in romance novels, but the visual didn’t do the term justice. The top of his upper lip, where you’d handle the bow was in the shape of a perfectly symmetrical M. Stretched in a smile, his full bottom lip made her wonder what it would be like to get caught in the crosshairs of his kiss.
“I couldn’t resist having a little fun with you. I hope I haven’t kept you.”
Pumpkin took her eyes off his lips to gaze into his smokey eyes. A smile started to creep over her face, too. “No, you haven’t kept me.”
“You’d better hurry. I’m sure they’re about to close soon.”
“Yeah… wait. What?” Pumpkin followed his gaze to the DFACS entrance. Everything unmuted and red flashed behind her eyes. “I just told you, I went to college.”
“Oh?” His gray eyes furrowed this time. “So, people with degrees don’t fall on hard times?”
“Well… yes. They do. But I’m fine,” she insisted, tapping her new shoes on the pavement for emphasis. “I have a job.” A job that she hated, but it paid all her bills. No government checks came for her and Seth. No child support checks either.
“So, you’re not here to volunteer to help. And you’re not here seeking help. What? Are you here to gloat?”
He chuckled again, but Pumpkin was no longer amused.
“I’ve taken advantage of some social programs, like federal grants for the university I attended while on academic scholarship.” Pumpkin conveniently neglected to mention that her childhood kitchen had been stocked from food stamp monies. “But I’m not gloating about my successes because I’m resentful that this society assumes that I can’t succeed without its help.”
He cocked his head, eyes intent on her. “So, you’d rather the rules be unfair and harder for you so that you can save face?”
Pumpkin blinked. “No, that’s not what I mean.”
What did she mean? How did she get into this conversation? All her life, Pumpkin typically kept her opinions to herself. It had been the safest way to navigate her adolescent and teenage years in a household where the family motto read: everyone for themselves.
“You know how they say if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day,” she continued. “But if you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat forever?”
Smokey Eyes nodded.
Pumpkin hesitated, realizing he was actually listening to every word she said, and waiting for her to say more.
Why not? Her internal filter had taken the day off. “I think the flaw with social programs is that the poor start to believe they can’t do for themselves without it and the rich believe the poor can’t act without their help. And it winds up being a vicious cycle with each side resenting the other.”
Pumpkin glanced at the DFACS door remembering her son was still inside with two professional “cyclists.” She turned back to Smokey Eyes.
He stared up at the clouds in concentration. She could see him turning her words over in his head. It gave her a thrill. She was used to men leering at her body, because, though her curves weren’t artful like her cousins’, they were round enough to grab attention. Watching Smokey Eyes focus inward and contemplate her words was possibly the most intimate experience of her thirty years.
After a moment, his tongue peeked out, like an arrow, to pull taut his upper lip. Pumpkin’s own lips parted as a quiver went through her long dormant core. Any moment now, he would aim words at her.
Any moment now.
Turning his gray eyes back to her, he said, “I do see your point. But I also feel that with great wealth comes great responsibility. And if you’ve caught a lot of fish, you should share. It’s good manners. It’s how I was raised.”
Pumpkin gave a woeful shake of her head at that. “I was raised by people who wouldn’t fish; would take yours; and then demand you go get more.”
“But not you.”
It wasn’t a question. There was something behind those smokey eyes. Not empathy. He was obviously moneyed, in his expensive shirt and tailored pants, where Pumpkin’s teen closet had been sponsored by Goodwill, and her adult closet now sported Target.
“Me? No,” she said holding his gaze.
“And you wouldn’t ask for any food off my table? Even if I’m willing to share?”
It seemed like a trick question. On the one hand, Pumpkin harbored an image of him feeding her bits of food. On the other hand, “Is there something wrong with a woman who is self-sufficient?”
“No. Those are my favorite kind.” He grinned again, the wolf rising to its haunches once more. “I just have a problem when independent women feel the need to trash and discard strong men like myself. I’m part of a marginalized group, too.” He grinned.
Pumpkin couldn’t imagine any woman in her right mind discarding this man.
“I look forward to the day,” he continued, “when independent women and strong men can sit down at the same table and share each others…” he paused for another wolfish grin, “…catch of the day, instead of starving by themselves.”
Pumpkin couldn’t help herself. She grinned, too. This wasn’t the type of man who would stand in her way. This was the type of man who opened doors. The type of man people lined up behind to propel forward. The type of man going places. The type of man people expect big things of. The type of person Pumpkin used to be before she took a detour and crashed headlong into glaring, yellow hazard signs.
“Pumpkin, the food stamp line was way too long!”
“You’ll just have to bring us back Monday morning.”
LaRon and LaTom had an uncanny knack for timing.
“I can’t.” Pumpkin turned to face her cousins. “I work on Monday.”
“Well, you’ll just have to take the day —Oh! Hello, there.”
Uh, oh. The Amazons spotted prey in the clearing.
“You look like a Marine or maybe an Air Force pilot,” purred LaRon. “Are you in the Armed Forces?”
“You look like you own that white Mustang over there.” LaTom switched a fussy, little LaRico to the other hip. Mother and son both salivated.
“Are you a prince?”
That last voice was unexpected in this hunt. It was Seth.
“No.” Pumpkin heard the amused grin in Smokey Eyes’ voice. “I’m just a regular guy.”
“Oh,” Seth said, clearly disappointed as he took his mother’s hand. “That’s too bad. My mom’s looking for a Prince Charming to help her heart, cuz my dad broke it.”
What the! Pumpkin was used to her cousins embarrassing her in public. But her son? When did he become a traitor to her pride?
“No, no.” Pumpkin knelt down, partly to be on par with her son, partly to be out of the scrutiny of Smokey Eyes. “He didn’t break my heart. He just confirmed my disbelief in all the fairy tale nonsense I was fed as a little girl.”
All the adults stared at her now. Even little LaRico gave Pumpkin his undivided attention. Probably because she was arguing fairy tales with an eight-year-old.
Pumpkin tried to save face. “Besides honey, a heart is a muscle. It can’t break. You can have a heart attack, where it stops beating.”
Oh, God! In a panic, Pumpkin attached a defibrillator to her internal filter as it continued to flat line.
Seth scrunched his face in concentration. “So, Dad gave you a heart attack and made your heart stop beating? And now you need a prince to make it start again?”
What did she expect? The child had her gift of logic and her newfound diarrhea of the mouth. Pumpkin glanced over at her cousins for help.
Not likely! They were still sizing up the smokey-eyed candy behind her.
Pumpkin chanced a glance over her shoulder. Sure enough, gray eyes were locked on her and Seth, an amused, wolfish grin spread over his handsome face.
Okay. What were her options here? She could continue the philosophical argument with an eight-year-old who used the undefeatable formula of child-logic. Or she could turn tale and run. Of course, Pumpkin did what any sensible woman would do!
“Okay, guys! Time to go!” Pumpkin ushered them all to the parking lot.
“It was nice meeting you, Malika!”
Pumpkin didn’t even bother glancing back over her shoulder. She kept her eyes trained forward until she saw the salvation of her bright, orange getaway.
“He was cute, Pumpkin,” said LaTom as she buckled herself in the backseat and bounced LaRico on her lap.
Pumpkin pursed her lips and remained silent.
“He looked rich,” mused LaRon.
Probably, Pumpkin thought as she started the ignition.
“He looked familiar,” said LaTom.
“Yeah,” agreed LaRon. “But I can’t place him. What’s his name, Pumpkin?”
“Hmph,” was Pumpkin’s noncommittal answer as she pulled onto the highway. Great, now the filter was back online.
“You spent all that time talking to him and you didn’t even get his name, or at least give him your number!”
“God, you’re hopeless, girl. One baby by him and you probably could’ve been set for life.”
Pumpkin didn’t need his name. She knew enough to know that Mr. Smokey Eyes was out of her league. Devastatingly handsome, likely wealthy, more than an ounce of intelligence, and a firm grip on the ladder to success. Yeah, that type didn’t go for girls like her: single moms, with dead-end jobs, and a weak foothold on the fringe of the lower middle class. No. There were no princes in Pumpkin’s reality. Only frogs. Frogs who stayed frogs long after repeated sloppy-slimy kisses.
For the rest of the drive, the cousins went on and on about Mr. Smokey Eyes. But that man, whom Pumpkin was never likely to meet again, no longer concerned her. Another did. And later that night, she confronted him.
He settled into his bed, the newest Dragonslayer Academy chapter book lay open and half-read on his small chest. He got that from her: the book-wormishness along with the small chest. He also got her dark eyes and dark, curly ’fro that tinted copper in the sun. Seth had his father’s long face and protruding chin. It looked like he might inherit the uni-brow, too. That concerned Pumpkin. Uni-brows were rumored to be a sign of the devil. It was a rumor she knew to be true.
“Seth, what made you say those things today? About my heart?”
He shrugged and concentrated on his Transformer’s bedspread.
Pumpkin prepared herself to ask the question she really didn’t want to hear the answer to. “Do you miss your dad?”
“No.” Seth said it without hesitating. But he looked her in the eye when he said it, and that’s how Pumpkin knew he was telling the truth. “You’re better off without him.”
Pumpkin’s eyes widened in genuine shock. She and Seth never talked about his father. Pumpkin didn’t because she struggled to find nice things to say about the man, and she didn’t want to be one of those women who dogged the other parent. Even if the other parent was an absentee father who didn’t call, write, or support his child in any way.
So, instead, she sent Seth off to the school guidance counselor. Her prognosis? Seth was fine and adjusting as expected. That was hard for Pumpkin to believe after all the trauma Seth’s father caused her. So, she sent Seth off to an expensive therapist who specialized in children from broken homes. His prognosis? The same. Finally, Pumpkin gave up and accepted that her kid just might be okay. And here lay further confirmation.
“I heard you talking on the phone to Auntie Ronnie about Prince Charming on a horse being the only one you’d give your heart to.”
Okay. How does one explain sarcasm to an eight-year-old?
“I know grown-ups like having girlfriends and boyfriends.” His little nose wrinkled at those two titles, and Pumpkin couldn’t help but smile. “Auntie Ronnie and Auntie Tommie have lots of boyfriends. I think you should have at least one.”
Huh. Kid logic. Was she really gonna try and argue that? Because, though Seth’s father didn’t break her heart in the philosophical sense, he did do a number on her head and its figurative sense of worth. Then again, it had been over three years. Maybe she was ready to move on and start dating.
“Tell you what, I’ll think about it.”
But one thing she didn’t have to think about was the type of man she would date when she was ready. She knew, for certain, it wouldn’t be some wolfish playboy who was only interested in a fling, on his way through the woods.