Just three short days before this moment, Bianca had stood in the center of TOSTS—her pride and joy—ready to pull the hair she'd decided to grow long again right back out of her head. The chic, quaint eatery on Los Angeles's west side, formally named Taste of Soul Tapas Style, was two days away from its one-year anniversary celebration. The place had been in chaos. The truffle, caviar, and special champagne shipments had all been backordered, the cleaners had destroyed the new waitstaff uniforms, and the chef had been called away due to a death in his immediate family. The stress had brought on the unexpected arrival of Miss Flo, Bianca's monthly, complete with bloating, cramps, and a pounding headache. What was a sistah to do?
Put on her big-girl panties and make it happen, that's what. What other choice was there?
Forty-eight hours ago, Bianca had huddled with her assistant and the sous-chef, who'd then called all over America until they found last-minute supplies of truffles, caviar, and bubbly. After reaming the cleaners a new a-hole, Xavier had called in a favor from a designer friend and had ten new uniforms whipped up posthaste. Finding a selfless bone in her weary body, Bianca had had flowers delivered to the funeral home that housed her chef's brother and had quieted Miss Flo and Company with some prescription-strength pain pills.
Twenty-four hours ago, Bianca had finished her day at the second L. A. Livingston Corporation establishment, the increasingly popular soul food restaurant, Taste of Soul. She'd spent two hours on a conference call with her brother, Jefferson, and the finance department at corporate headquarters, overseen a fiftieth birthday luncheon for a party of twenty-five, and soothed the soul of a hapless vegetarian who'd been losing her mind because she'd eaten the cabbage and then realized that this particular selection was seasoned with smoked turkey legs. Bianca had found it convenient that sistah-girl had eaten the entire plate before making this observation, demanding her money back and threatening lawsuits. Not to mention that she'd somehow missed reading the ingredients to the Chaka Khan Cabbage side dish clearly listed on the menu. Bianca was furious but had too much work and too little time to argue. She'd given the emoting customer a gift certificate for two free dinners and a menu to take home so that she could study it before placing her next order. With a bright smile to hide her frustration, Bianca had asked Ms. I-Haven't-Eaten-Meat-In-Twenty-Years to pay particular attention to the items with a small v beside the name, identifying them as vegetarian dishes.
Eight hours ago, Bianca had linked arms with her husband and officially welcomed the guests to TOSTS' one-year anniversary. Tickets for the evening's event had been steep—two thousand dollars—but the price included an all-you-can-eat buffet, a champagne fountain (filled with the double-priced bubbly that had had to be rush-ordered and FedEx'd to the event), and an intimate evening with the night's entertainment, Prince. As if pleasing the palate and the auditory senses weren't enough, the tickets were also tax deductible, with part of the proceeds benefiting a soup kitchen. Following in the footsteps that the Taste of Soul founders Marcus and Marietta Livingston had set, the establishments Bianca managed did their part in making the communities around them a better place.
An hour ago, Bianca had kicked four-inch-high stilettos off her aching feet, slid a Mychael Knight designer original off her shoulders, separated herself from a Victoria's Secret thong, and eased into the master suite's dual-head marble shower. Seconds later, Xavier had joined her.
"Mon bien-aimé de chocolat," Xavier murmured as he eased up behind Bianca and wrapped her in his arms. "You are the chocolate on the menu for which my heart beat all night long." He took the sponge from her hand and began soaping her slender body from head to toe.
"Mmm, that feels good," Bianca said. She leaned back against her husband's wide, firm chest. Moments before, she'd been dog tired, but now her husband's ministrations were filling her with new, lusty energy. She wriggled her soapy body against his and was immediately rewarded with a long, thick soldier coming quickly to attention. They made quick work of the cleaning process before Xavier lifted Bianca against the cool marble wall and joined them together in the age-old dance of love. The contrast of the cool marble, hot water, and even hotter desire swirled into a symphony with a melody known by Xavier and Bianca alone. This was their first time together in almost seventy-two hours. Ecstasy came quickly, and then they climbed into bed for an encore.
Five minutes ago, Bianca had screamed in delight as her body shook with the intensity of a seismic climax. Xavier, the quieter of the two lovers, had shifted rhythms from second to third, before picking up speed and heading for his own orgasmic finale. He hissed, moaned, squeezed Bianca tightly, and went over the edge. Too spent to move, Bianca had kissed Xavier on the nose, turned herself to spoon up against him, and vowed to take a shower first thing in the morning. She smiled as Xavier kissed her on the neck. That man knows how to rock my world, she thought as she looked at the clock. It was early morning: 4:45.
At 4:50, a shadowy figure crouched along the buildings on Los Angeles's west side. He stopped, looked both ways, and walked purposefully toward a door on the other side of the alley. It was the back door to TOSTS—Taste of Soul Tapas Style. In less than one hour, Bianca Livingston's world would get rocked again.
"What is it, Etta?" he asked, though he already knew the answer.
"Nothing," Marietta replied.
Marcus put down the newspaper. "Uh-huh, I know that nothing, which means it's definitely something. You got a feeling, huh?"
Marietta nodded, her eyes narrowed.
"Good one or bad one?"
Glancing at her husband, Marietta responded, "It's got my stomach rumbling a little bit."
Marcus passed a weary hand across his chocolate brown, still-handsome face. Two years ago when his wife's stomach "got to rumbling," they'd soon received a phone call telling them that one of their twin sons, Adam, had been shot. Last year she could have sworn that something was going on in the company, something that—like now—had given her indigestion. Later, their eyes had been glued to the screen as they watched a man in handcuffs named Quintin Bright get carted off to jail. Turns out he'd somehow hacked his way into a Livingston Corporation bank account and helped himself to hard-earned company funds. To this day, Marcus believed that there was more to that story than the twins had shared. He figured now may be just as good a time as any to get to the bottom of that mystery, along with the one that even now had his wife's face, as beautiful in her seventh decade as it had been in her second, marred with a frown.
"Mama." Bianca paused, trying to hold on to the last vestiges of control she had before breaking down from the pressure of an early morning phone call. "Let me talk to Daddy."
Diane Livingston, who'd been enjoying a cup of coffee with her husband in the family's newly remodeled kitchen, immediately knew something was amiss. She sat up straighter, put down her coffee cup, and asked, "What's wrong?"
"It's business!" Bianca cried. "I need to speak to Ace!"
Ace heard Bianca's raised voice and reached for the phone. A quick look passed between him and Diane. "Ace speaking," he calmly answered. He'd noted the alarm in his daughter's voice yet spoke professionally, the way he always did when discussing work with his children.
This sense of normalcy was exactly what Bianca needed to calm her escalating panic. "Ace," she said, speaking in a strong voice even as tears threatened, "there's been a fire."
Fire, Ace mouthed to Diane, who looked on with deep concern. "Where at, baby?"
Ace frowned, the father in him replacing the businessman. "Bianca, are you okay?"
She, too, segued from businesswoman to daughter. "Yes, Daddy. A little panicked but otherwise I'm fine."
"Where are you?"
"We're on our way to the restaurant."
"Xavier is with you?"
"Good." It had been a rocky road at first, but Ace had come to both respect and love his fiercely independent son-in-law. "Call me as soon as you get to the site."
"Okay, I will."
"We'll be on our way there just as soon as the pilot can gas up."
They said their good-byes and Bianca hung up the phone. Even though she didn't know the extent of the damage, she didn't think for a moment to tell her father not to come. When something happened to one Livingston, it happened to all of them. That's just how they rolled.
Marietta was channel surfing but upon seeing a commercial featuring her grandson, she stopped. "You can barely turn on the TV these days without seeing Toussaint." She tried to add a bit of chagrin to her tone, but it couldn't get past all the pride in her voice. "That child sure loves a camera."
"And the camera loves him," Marcus said, noting how handsome his grandson looked and how natural speaking to millions through a small camera lens came to him. Because of his presence on the Food Network and his brother Malcolm's BBQ Soul Smoker invention, the Taste of Soul brand had witnessed a phenomenal national growth spurt in the last two years. The line of Livingston barbeque sauces was now in every major chain across the country, including Target and Walmart, and was being sold in very large volumes.
"Did you ever see this coming, Marcus? Any of this?"
Marcus shook his head. He knew exactly to what Marietta referred. When they took over managing a small barbeque joint on Atlanta's famed Auburn Avenue at the beginning of the civil rights movement, they had no idea that their tireless efforts would result in a trend-setting food conglomerate that, combined with the entrepreneurial efforts of the third generation of Livingstons, was worth well over a half a billion dollars. "All I wanted to do was get through college and save enough to buy you a ring."
"Oh, so you were that sure of yourself, huh?" Marietta asked, a twinkle in her eye as she remembered the tall, dark, handsome man who'd cut quite a swath across campus. "And all this time I thought you were just looking for a competent waitress."
"Honey, the way you whipped up those baked beans and potato salad, not to mention how those curves of yours filled out that baby blue uniform? Any man would have been a fool not to know you were worth more than a weekly paycheck."
"Ha! Especially when that check barely topped ten dollars."
"C'mon, now. You got to keep the tips."
Marietta fixed him with a look of chagrin, but her eyes were smiling. "We were crazy to do what we did."
"Yeah, well, crazy comes with youth."
These septuagenarians became quiet as they remembered those early days, when Marietta was carrying a full load at Spelman and Marcus was juggling a double major at Morehouse. The days before both of their thick heads of hair turned gray. Marcus's father had inspired in him the love of grilling. Even as a teenager, helping Papa Nash cook vats of his secret barbeque sauce on Saturday afternoons was one of his favorite pastimes. A whole hog would be turning on the spit and Mama Jane would be whipping up cobblers in the kitchen. The next day, he and his brother would jump into their grandfather's jalopy and sell barbeque dinners across Alabama, where Marcus was born, until the foil-wrapped dinners were gone. A whole pig every single Sunday ... that's what they'd sell.
And that's how Marcus had gotten seriously bit by the barbeque business bug. When a classmate told him that his uncle needed help at his restaurant, Marcus jumped at the chance to run the spot. Later, when the owner decided to sell, Marcus took a look at the ledgers and the long lines of patrons and put his dreams of becoming a doctor on permanent hold. After a handshake sealed the deal, he brought in the woman he'd been eyeing at the Spelman/Morehouse meet-ups to run the front of the house and married her that same year. The next year saw the birth of their twins, Adam and Abram (nicknamed Ace), and the rest is Livingston history.
Both Marcus's and Marietta's attention was pulled back to the television when a "Breaking News" banner filled the screen. Soon thereafter, a reporter came into view, with a smoldering building serving as her backdrop. Marietta reached for the remote and turned up the volume.
"An explosion rocked Sunset Strip early this morning, "the reporter intoned in an appropriately serious voice, "sending residents running for cover and causing early morning joggers near the location to flee for their lives. Officials say that TOSTS—"
"Jesus!" Marietta exclaimed.
Marcus leaned forward as a scowl jumped onto his face.
"... the trendy tapas bar on the city's west side went up in flames around five a.m., totally destroying the building and all its contents. So far it appears that the business was empty. No injuries or missing persons have been reported. Major damage was sustained by the neighboring buildings as well, but at this time, reports remain sketchy as to the cause of this powerful blaze. What is known is that this morning, as the smoke clears, it is to find that this popular new establishment, Taste of Soul Tapas Style, has literally gone up in smoke. For Channel Eleven News, I'm Leslie Myers reporting."
Marcus had already reached for the phone and was speed-dialing his son's number as Marietta muted the television. No words were exchanged. None were needed. Because both knew they'd just heard why Marietta had "got a feeling" that made her stomach rumble.
Toussaint shut off the water and stepped out of the shower. Ignoring the water pooling off his dark chocolate, six-foot-two-inch frame (not to mention his delectable nine-inch flame), he reached the bathroom door in four long strides. He'd heard the tremor in his wife's voice. Something was wrong.
They reached the bathroom door at the same time—Alexis on one side, Toussaint on the other. He pulled open the door and, seeing his daughter's observant eyes and ready smile, muted his response. "What is it?"
"The news," Alexis said, walking into the suite and turning the television to CNN. "They just broke a story about a fire at TOSTS." CNN had moved on to another story so Alexis kept punching the remote, searching for another station that might be reporting on what she'd just heard.
Still naked, Toussaint walked to his cell phone charging on the nightstand. He punched Bianca's number on speed dial. The call went to voice mail. "Cuz, it's me. Lexy just saw something about a fire at TOSTS. Call me."
In the time it took for Toussaint to leave the message, Alexis had gone into the bathroom, retrieved a towel, and begun to dry off her husband's still-wet body. He reached for it, carelessly wrapping it around his lean hips while he balanced the cell phone under his chin. The call to his parents' house went through. His mother answered.
"Good morning, son."
"Mama, have you heard?"
Candace Livingston, who had been working out in the family's home gym, trying to keep size fourteen from becoming sixteen, turned off the treadmill and reached for her water bottle. "Heard what?" she said, before stepping down and taking a long swig.
Excerpted from Taking Care of Business by LUTISHIA LOVELY Copyright © 2012 by Lutishia Lovely. Excerpted by permission of DAFINA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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