This music star can sing about love, but can he make his wife believe it?
Melissa Bellamy wants to be happy. She has a wonderful house in the heart of San Francisco, enough money to buy every designer dig she wants and a successful husband who makes women drool just by opening his mouth. But she's certain they are days away from divorcing and happiness is as elusive as her husband.
Darius Bellamy has hit his sweet spot. Fame, fortune and lots of fans. The only wrinkle in his plan is his wife. If she can just hold on until his newest release drops, he'll sweep her off her feet and make everything right.
There's only one thing wrong with his plan. He may have waited too long.
Melissa Conroy-Bellamy needed a few more minutes to pretend she lived another life. The perfect one. The one she began to structure the day she'd graduated from high school, sixteen years ago. Not the one she really lived because she'd fallen in love with the charming man, with the velvet voice rocketing to super stardom.
From the small window, she watched as the fog rolled towards the gate along with the plane, an appropriate welcome home. The damp, cold San Francisco skyline mirrored the feeling in her gut. But she loved the city. No matter what was going on in the world, the soul of San Francisco always seemed to be happy, even if she wasn't.
The plane taxied to a stop. With a quiet sigh, she grabbed her carry-on bag from under the seat and made her way to the door. She couldn't pretend anymore. With all the advice she'd offered up to her sisters, it was now time for her to take some of her own words of wisdom.
Every day she chose to ignore the inevitable just prolonged the pain. Her sisters' happy relationships accentuated her misery. Asa and Simeon were expecting their second baby. Dakota and Bishop were off on their honeymoon. How she'd given up on her life, accepting less than the minimum, made her queasy. Believing the promises dripping from Darius's lips as if they were manna from heaven had wrecked her sensibilities.
As she made her way to baggage claim, she fished her cell phone out of her purse, turned it on, and dialed her best friend, Pamela.
"Hey, girl, are you back in town?" Pam asked as soon as she picked up.
"Yep, I just got off the plane. Haven't even picked up my bags yet."
"You don't sound too happy."
"I'm going to do it, Pamela. Either something changes or my marriage is over." She shifted to get out of the way of a man running towards his gate. "I've done nothing but think about my future while I was in Bristol. I've had plenty of time to think about my relationship, and I know I don't want to go on this way."
"Well, just don't be hasty. You know Steve and I had one big argument that lasted for months, and I packed my things and left. Not my smartest move. Now, I want him back." Pam had the same lament whenever she talked about Steve.
"No, you don't. You just think you want him because he's dating a tart at the club."
She hesitated. "You're right," she agreed slowly. "But on Saturday night when I'm sitting home alone, I want him back."
"If Darius doesn't agree to some changes, we can commiserate together on Saturdays. What do you think?" Melissa said as she stepped onto the escalator to baggage claim.
"You might have to fly to Philly if you want to cry on my shoulder. I'm thinking about moving back home. There is nothing keeping me here anymore."
Melissa's throat tightened. Pam was the closest thing she had to a sister on the west coast. The thought of not being able to plop down on Pam's sofa and vent her unhappiness was too depressing to contemplate.
"We need to talk. Let me get my bags, get home, and we can have a real conversation. I want to talk you out of leaving."
"You can try. Bye, Mel." Pam clicked off.
Her red bags circled the luggage carousel. Instead of rushing forward to grab her luggage, she allowed it to cycle again. If Dakota were here, she'd asked her to pull out her sage bundle, light the cloth, and cleanse the aura around San Francisco. She must have picked up some funky stuff because everything was going wrong. Stuck in place, much like everything else, she watched the other passengers collect their bags and hurry off. Rushing to get on with their lives, maybe even excited about the future.
The familiar scent of Darius's cologne greeted her before she saw him. Despite the knot in her stomach, her heart sped up. It always would, no matter what was going on between them. She loved him. The pure, simple fact made her happy and sad.
"I got it." Darius stepped through the crush of people as she reached for the luggage. With one clean jerk, he lifted the heavy bag. He appeared thinner. His True Religion jeans were loose in the legs, but his shirt fit his biceps to perfection. The creamy brown color of his skin was visible from under the familiar baseball cap and dark sunglasses, but his dark, piercing eyes were hidden. The slight upturn of his lips chipped away at the ice surrounding her heart.
"What are you doing here? How did you know when I was arriving?" Melissa stared at her husband. He was more handsome than ever. Her grandmother always said absence made the heart grow fonder. Maybe it worked both ways and he'd be ready for some changes since she'd been away for a few weeks.
He set the bag at her feet and cupped her chin. "I called Asa. She told me." He pressed his lips to hers before she could object. The warm tenderness of his tongue welcomed her home. When he released her, he swiped his thumb against her cheek, the way he used to when they first got married.
The spell was broken when he picked up the satchel and headed toward the exit without saying a word. She had to hurry to keep up with his long strides. From behind, he could have passed for any tall, good-looking man heading into the night. But when he turned around and flashed a smile, his whole face lit up. She understood why women swooned when he sang his love ballads.
She clutched his arm. "Darius, what are you doing? It was nice of you to come down here, but I've got this. I'm sure you must have something else you would rather be doing. Isn't there an appearance or red carpet waiting for you to grace with your presence?"
He glanced over his shoulder but kept walking. In the parking garage, he put her bags in the trunk, unlocked the car, and held the door open for her.
Melissa sat as far from Darius as she could in the small Corvette, wedging her body against the passenger door. As long as she held her anger like a precious stone, her decisions were easier. The man sitting beside her was hard to recognize, very little about him resembled the person she'd married. Sometimes she felt like she was on hold and if she waited long enough and crossed her fingers really tight, the real Darius, the one she loved, would come back to her.
He backed the car out of the parking space, paid the attendant, and pulled onto the highway. He asked about her trip with genuine curiosity, but she wasn't ready to forgive him for missing her sister's wedding. Whatever was happening in his life always came before her. She'd become his burden instead of his treasure. Her one word replies shut down the conversation. They rode in silence for several miles.
"You never answered my question," Melissa said when he exited the freeway. "Why did you call my sister?"
"Because you wouldn't take my calls. So, I decided to call someone who would. You've been acting like a first-class pain in the ass," he replied without taking his eyes off the road.
"Have you moved your things out of the house like we discussed?"
"No." The edge in his voice matched the sharp tilt of his chin.
"Why not? I thought we agreed. What are you waiting on?"
"Just because you asked me to didn't mean I agreed. I'm not planning on moving any time soon." He pinched her chin and smiled.
His smugness only made her angrier. So used to having his way, he never took anything she said serious enough.
With a huff, Melissa crossed her arms over her chest. "Darius, I don't feel like arguing with you. We talked about this. Our marriage isn't working."
"You said it and, as usual, you expected me to jump. Well, I didn't and I won't. I moved my stuff into the second bedroom, for now. Be happy for the small concession. But I can't promise to stay put. You know the ventilation down there is poor."
"How much longer are we going to dance around this dilemma? I can't keep playing this game of â€˜when it's convenient for you'. What are the choices this week? Are you married or are you sorting through your options?"
"You know what comes along as part of the business. It has nothing to do with us. We've been over this before. Several artists do the same thing to increase their fan base. It's not forever. Only for right now."
"After five years it has everything to do with us. I'm not living on the edge of your life anymore. Pretending we aren't married to help your career. I'm putting everything into our marriage, and I want you to do the same."
"Melissa, I'm almost there. Dan promised the studio is seriously considering my soundtrack for their movie. Why can't you just play along for a while longer?"
"I've done it for years, and you keep saying just a little longer. I'm not spending this New Year like the past ones. I don't want to live another day hiding behind your stardom. I won't." She paused to swallow the bitter taste collecting in her mouth. "Did you even consider finding another place to live? What about the little house you like in Sausalito?"
He turned left onto Commercial Street without slowing down. "First of all, it's too far from everything. Second, if it's so important for you to move on with your life, then you can move out. You try to find a decent place to live in this neighborhood?" He pulled the car into the porte-cochere and shut off the engine.
"Did you look?"
"No. But I know these things." He applied the emergency brake while staring at her. "Are you coming in?"
The urge to do something different nudged at her, but the cross-country trip had left her bone-tired. Maybe tonight wasn't the time to make any life-altering decisions. They'd managed to put everything off until now, what difference would one more night make?
"Of course I'm coming in." She cut her eyes and unbuckled her seatbelt. Without waiting for him, she marched up the concrete stairs of their Victorian-style home. Inside, the familiar smell of lavender that should have greeted her did not. The ornate crystal tray with the shredded potpourri wasn't working.
There should have been something comforting about being home. Mim, her grandmother had a million sayings, one for every occasion. Her favorite one, there was no place like home, should have applied as Melissa set her purse on the entry table, but she couldn't muster the sentiment.
"Why do you have every light turned on? I feel like I'm in Times Square." Melissa walked up the four stairs leading to the living area.
"I left in a hurry," Darius said. "I had to track you down, remember."
She made her way to the kitchen. For a moment, she couldn't focus on any one thing because so much drew her attention. The neat freak in her suppressed a scream. The moment her gaze landed on the teetering stack of dishes in the sink, the stuffed trashcan grabbed her attention. Her usually pristine kitchen looked like a category-five hurricane had blown through it. Every inch of counter space was covered with half-filled glasses with varying hues of liquids. A box of cereal, two empty beer cans, and three cans of berry-flavored energy drinks cluttered the table. Two 12-pack cartons of the same drink were stacked next to the refrigerator. The aroma of soiled dishes assaulted her nose.
"Darius, what the...?" She spun around to face him.
"I've been busy. I've almost finished the last tracks, so I didn't have time to clean."
"Why didn't you let Margie take care of it? That's what we pay her for."
"She had some family emergency and hasn't been here for two weeks. But you wouldn't know about her troubles since every time your sisters call, you jump on a plane and head off to Delaware. Do you ever think about what I might need? If you were here taking care of our home, I might have finished my tracks by now."
"Dakota was getting married. What should I have done, blown her off to sit home and wait for you to show up and play happy homemaker?" She tried to contain the anger bubbling in her stomach. "It's my family. I miss them. When I'm there, I'm not required to stand in the background pretending I'm just an admiring groupie."
"Here we go again." He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and reached for an energy drink. "I do this because Dan is sure I'll attract more attention from fans if people think I'm single." He opened the can and downed the contents.
"I don't want to hear what Dan wants anymore. If it's more important for you to have fans than to have a wife, I'll grant your wish."
"I'll get the kitchen in the morning," he commented as he set the empty can on the counter with all the other clutter.
She hadn't expected a response about giving him his wish. But some facial expression or sign of regret for the state of their marriage would have been nice. She sniffed the air, then covered her nose. "What is that smell? It's disgusting."
"Oh, yeah. I got a puppy." A small, blue container was pushed into the corner. Through the mesh across the door, she spotted two huge, brown eyes.
Darius opened the door, and a blond dog with paws the size of a bear bounded across the floor. Happy to be free, he circled the island with his tail wagging so fast his hindquarters seemed to shake.
"Are you kidding me? Who is going to take care of a puppy?"
"A fan left him for me backstage last week. What was I supposed to do with him?"
"Give him to Dan. Doesn't he handle all your problems?"
"I tried. He wouldn't take the little fellow."
With a whimper, the puppy blinked up at her, tilted his head, and then squatted in front of her to relieve his bladder on the tip of her camel suede Manolo Blahnik bootie.
"Ahhh," she screamed and jumped backed, crashing into the plates on the counter while trying to reach a paper towel. "Tell me this did not just happen. Tell me this is a bad dream sequence. Do you know what these shoes cost? I've only worn them once. Darius...I--"
"Calm down, Melissa. I'm sure a little pee won't stain." He snatched the paper from her hand and dabbed her right foot. "See, you can barely see anything."
"I can see it just fine." She glared at him. "Who is going to clean up this mess and get rid of the odor permeating our home? You were supposed to be moving out. Instead, you find a stray to move in and he's not trained. Come on, Darius. Does Dan think it's okay for you to be a pet owner?" She stomped her foot.
He scooped up the dog and pushed him out the back door into the fenced yard. "It's just a dog. He's trained. You must have made him nervous." Darius flashed a smile that used to melt her heart a few years ago, but tonight, she refused to allow his charm to penetrate her carefully constructed barrier. Giving in to him only worked to her disadvantage. His big, bright smile short-circuited her ability to think. She stiffened her backbone. Before she would have forgiven him for his infamous transgressions. But not now. Her weakness had set them on their current path.
"Does the rest of the house look like a dumping zone?"
Instead of answering her, he bit his bottom lip, which only meant he was getting ready to lose his temper.
She exhaled and kept her hands planted on her hips to keep from flying about the room like a witch on steroids. "Darius, I'm exhausted. I've spent the better part of the day going through security, dealing with a flight delay, having a baby scream in my ears, and now dog pee. I'm going to bed. Is it too much to ask when I come downstairs in the morning the house be ready for human inhabitants and the stench gone?"
"I've got to get back to the studio." He opened the door and allowed the dog to trot back in. After securing him in the crate, he turned out the light. "I can't make any promises. But I'm glad you're home."
"Darius, don't you dare leave this house without taking this with you." She opened the crate and reached for the dog. After placing him in Darius' arms, she marched upstairs.