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Close friends since childhood, Kyle, Duncan and Ivan have become rich, successful co-owners of a beautiful Harlem brownstone. The one thing each of them lacks is a special woman to share his life with—until true love steps in to transform three sexy single guys into grooms-to-be....
Handsome psychotherapist Ivan Campbell could diagnose his own issues in a heartbeat—fear of commitment. Every woman he meets is convinced he's the complete package, yet no one has been able to get past the wall he built around himself long ago. But Nayo Goddard isn't looking for marriage. The petite, stylish photographer plays by her own rules and makes it crystal clear she has no interest in settling down. A fun, passionate, no-strings relationship with Nayo should be the perfect solution for Ivan—except suddenly he wants more, much more. And this time, the love 'em and leave 'em bachelor may be the one who's left heartbroken....
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Hailed by readers and booksellers alike as one of today's most popular African-American authors of women's fiction, Ms. Alers is a regular on bestsellers list, and has been a recipient of numerous awards, including the Vivian Stephens Award for Excellence in Romance Writing and a Zora Neale Hurston Literary Award. Visit her Web site www.rochellealers.com
Ivan Campbell barely heard what the woman, who he'd been working closely with for the past two years renovating his Mount Morris brownstone, was rambling on about.
"Ivan, you're not listening to me."
He affected a half smile. "Yes, I am. You said Architectural Digest wants to do a layout of my place for an issue featuring New York City homes and apartments."
Carla Harris stared at the man with the sensual, brooding expression, wishing he would smile, because whenever Dr. Ivan Campbell did smile, it reminded her of pinpoints of sunlight breaking through dark storm clouds. She'd thought she was attracted to a certain type until she found herself face-to-face with the brilliant psychotherapist.
An inch shy of the six-foot mark, he could not disguise the perfection of his toned body, whether in a tailored suit or in casual attire. She didn't know why, but Carla preferred seeing Ivan casually dressed, as he was now, in a pair of jeans, short-sleeved shirt and running shoes. His aftershave was the perfect complement to his body's natural masculine scent.
"Okay, I apologize."
What passed for a smile quickly vanished as Ivan stared at Carla. They were sitting on soft leather chairs in a pale butter-yellow in an alcove off the living room designed for small, intimate gatherings—a room his mother had referred to as a parlor. He'd lit a fire in the fireplace to ward off an early-autumn chill. The fireplace was an architecturally minimalist design that resembled a hole set inside a low, horizontal box along a wide expanse of wall, without a mantel or surround. Large pillars in bronze candleholders of various heights and sizes were positioned off to one side of the stone hearth, accentuating the modern interior of the brown-stone, which was situated in one of Harlem's most prominent historic districts.
Ivan knew Carla was flirting with him and had been since their initial meeting, which now seemed ages ago. He'd communicated, albeit subtly, that he didn't believe in mixing business with pleasure. His deep-set, intense, dark brown eyes met and fused with a pair of gray ones behind a pair of oversize horn-rims. The fire-engine-red glasses and flaming-red spiked hairdo had become Carla's signature look—a look that was a bit too funky for his tastes. Laid-back by nature, Ivan preferred women who were less flamboyant, whose manner of dress didn't call attention to themselves.
Carla took another sip from a bottle of sparkling water. "I know how much you value your privacy, Ivan, but I'll make certain your name and address don't appear anywhere in the piece."
Ivan knew what the layout would do for her career. It would be the first time Carla Harris's decorating skills would be displayed in the preeminent magazine of interior design. She was young, having just celebrated her twenty-eighth birthday, and she was not only ambitious, but aggressive. When she'd contacted him for an initial consultation, Carla refused to take no for an answer. She called him relentlessly every other day for three weeks until he'd finally relented, then worked closely with the architect to reconfigure spaces that would restore the century-old structure to its former grandeur.
The designer pressed her vermilion-colored lips together until they resembled a slash of red across her pale face. "You don't have to sound so enthusiastic, Dr. Campbell."
"I know how much this means to you," Ivan said in the comforting tone he always used with his patients, "and because it does, I'm going to agree to the magazine spread."
The interior designer's smile was dazzling. "Thank you, Ivan."
He inclined his head. "You're welcome, Carla."
Ivan wanted to tell her he couldn't care less about someone taking pictures of his residence. At the end of the day all he wanted was to come home and relax after spending hours with his patients and lecturing students as an adjunct college professor.
He'd purchased the abandoned, dilapidated brown-stone more than three years ago. It took a year and a half to complete the renovations and another year to decorate the interior. He'd lost count of the number of hours he'd sat with Carla going over catalogs filled with tables, chairs, lamps, rugs, beds and kitchen appliances. Four stories and fifty-seven hundred square feet of living space that comprised a terrace, garden and patio, powered by solar panels and an organic garden, provided the perfect environment for living and entertaining.
The street-level space had a home theater, kitchen, bath, home office and gym. The second floor had a master bedroom, adjoining bath and two guest rooms with en suite baths. The brownstone contained two two-bedroom apartments on the third floor. One apartment he'd recently rented to young married professionals expecting their first child, and a real estate agent was setting up an interview with a recently married New York City couple currently living with their in-laws on Long Island.
Ivan still hadn't decided what he wanted to do with the fourth floor. The entire space was without interior walls, and he'd had the contractor put in a half bath and a utility kitchen. Not only did he own the brownstone, he was also one-third partner in another brownstone a short distance away that he and childhood friends Kyle Chatham and Duncan Gilmore used for business.
"The photo shoot will take place some time in early December, but I can't set a date until you do something for me," Carla said, interrupting his thoughts.
"You are going to have to do something with the walls."
A slight frown appeared. "What's wrong with the walls?"
It'd taken him weeks to decide on the colors he wanted to paint the rooms. At first he'd decided to have the primer covered with shades of eggshell or oyster-white, then changed his mind because it was too sterile a palette.
"You need pictures, Ivan. The walls are naked, unfinished. It's like a woman going to a formal affair. She's wearing an evening gown, dress shoes, makeup and hairstyle but has neglected to put on any accessories. In other words, where are the earrings, necklace, ring or bracelet? She's beautiful, but incomplete."
"But I'm not into art."
Carla pressed her lips together again. "They don't have to be paintings."
"What else do people hang on their walls?"
"Sculpture," she suggested.
"I told you that I'm not into art."
"What about photography?" Carla argued softly.
"What about it?"
"Would you be opposed to framed and matted photos?"
The seconds ticked off as Ivan thought about the designer's suggestion. He did have a framed photograph of Malcolm X in his home office that had been taken by his father, who'd attended a Harlem rally in 1964 to hear the charismatic Muslim leader speak. In 1999 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp of Malcolm X and Ivan had bought the framed stamp, placing it alongside the photo taken by the elder Campbell.
Carla exhaled deeply as she reached for her tote, searched through it and handed Ivan an envelope. "This is an invitation to an opening at a gallery featuring an exquisite collection of black-and-white photographs."
Ivan removed the printed card from the envelope. The invitation was for later that evening. "Are you going?" he asked Carla.
"No. I attended a preview a couple of days ago. They are magnificent, Ivan."
"Why didn't you pick up a few photographs for me?"
Carla saw the sensual smile and heard laughter in Ivan's query. "I would have, but art is very personal. I know what colors and fabrics you prefer, yet I have no idea what you'd like hanging on your walls."
Ivan sobered again. He knew the designer was right. He never tired of looking at photographs of Malcolm X.
"Okay, I'll go. But if I don't find anything I like, then you're going to have to improvise."
"Improvise how, Ivan?"
"Rent whatever you feel would complement the rooms and decor, and return them after the photo shoot."
He knew his reluctance to put any art on the walls was rooted in a childhood aversion to seeing clothes hanging from hooks or large nails in tarpaper shacks. As a boy, he and his identical twin were sent down South to visit their grandparents. At least, that was what his parents said, but Ivan knew the real reason was to keep them off Harlem's streets where they might possibly get into trouble. He'd befriended another boy whose parents were sharecroppers, and the first time he visited their house Ivan was stunned to find there were no doors or closets. Rooms were separated by curtains, and clothes were hung on hooks or large nails affixed to walls. The odor from whatever his friend's mother cooked clung to his clothes, and Ivan had recurring dreams of chickens, pigs and fish coming out of the walls to attack him.
Carla clasped her cavernous tote. She picked up a black angora shawl and wrapped it around her shoulders. "That sounds like a plan." She stood up. "Now that we've settled that I'll be on my way. I'll call you on Monday to find out if you found anything to your liking."
Ivan escorted Carla to the front door, hugged her and then watched as she walked to where she'd parked her red Mini Cooper. He closed the oak door with its leaded-glass pane after she'd maneuvered away from the curb.
Retracing his steps, he returned to the alcove, sitting and staring at the dying embers. Fall was his least favorite season of the year. It wasn't just the cooler temperatures, shorter days, longer nights and falling leaves, but rather, the reminder of the time he'd lost his twin brother in a senseless drive-by shooting.
Ivan had thought twenty-five years was more than enough time to accept that Jared was gone and was never coming back. But whenever the season changed, it reminded him of holding his dying brother in his arms while autumn leaves rained down on the cold ground while they waited for an ambulance.
He'd wanted to spend his day off doing absolutely nothing, but the call from Carla had altered his plans. At first he thought of telling her he had papers to grade, which he did. But when he'd heard the excitement in her voice, Ivan remembered his promise to the designer that he would do everything he could to help her business. And that meant opening his home to strangers who wanted to photograph the interior.
Leaning to his right, he picked up the invitation. Getting out and attending the showing was what he needed, not obsessing about the loss of his brother. Yes, he mused, he would get out of the house, go to the opening and hopefully find something he could hang on his walls. He scrolled through his cell-phone contacts and punched in the number for a car service, telling the dispatcher he needed a car within the hour.
He owned a classic 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, which he stored in a nearby garage, but he'd decided not to drive downtown, where there was little or no parking, and risk having his car towed.
Forty-five minutes later, showered and shaved, he closed the door to his brownstone and walked over to the Town Car parked across the tree-lined street. The driver, leaning against the bumper, straightened and opened the rear door.
"Thank you, Robert," Ivan said, smiling as he ducked his head to get into the vehicle. The dispatcher knew he liked riding with the elderly chauffeur.
"You're welcome, Dr. Campbell."
Ivan gave the driver the address of the gallery in Greenwich Village, then settled back to relax and enjoy the ride downtown.
His smile faded with the slam of the solid door.
People in the neighborhood had begun calling him Dr. Campbell, rather than Ivan or Mr. Campbell. Referring to him by his title was not only too formal, but pretentious. There was one thing he knew he wasn't, and that was pretentious.
He'd decided to become a psychologist, not to help people deal with their psychological or emotional problems, but to find out who Ivan Garner Campbell actually was, how to come to grips with his childhood. It'd taken years, but he'd accepted the advice he gave his patients: "Take control of your fears before they stop you from living your good life."
He'd set up a private practice, purchased a brown-stone in the Harlem historic district and dated women who kept his interest for more than a few hours—all that attributed to him living his good life.
Nayo Goddard felt as if she'd been holding her breath since Geoffrey Magnus opened the doors of the gallery for the caterer and his staff to set up for the opening of her extensive collection of black-and-white photographs. She found herself humming along to the prerecorded music of a string quartet.
The curious and critics from the art world sipped champagne, nibbled on caviar on toast points, sushi and tiny finger sandwiches while peering intently at the matted photos displayed around the expansive space in the beautiful, 1850s Italianate row house.
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