Nikki Broussard nuzzled her young daughter's stomach and the child returned the favor, tickling her mother's midsection with slender fingers. Nikki swatted at the four-yearold and raced across the shiny, hardwood floor in the spacious living room, which was warmed by the glow of the late afternoon sunlight that washed through the wide front window. Psalm broke out into a peal of laughter as she chased her mother, who pretended to fall to the floor, just short of the decorative fireplace, and let the girl catch her. The two were tickling each other right there when William stepped into the living room, dropped his briefcase and stretched his arms wide, a smile showing off the dimple in his left cheek.
“Give me some love, y'all!” he said as mother and daughter peered up from their game.
Psalm scrambled to her father and he scooped her up, her ponytails and yellow ribbons swooshing from side to side. He kissed and hoisted her to his right side, then pulled his wife close with his other arm. He gave Nikki a deep kiss, and a sexy groan escaped her upturned lips.
“I'm glad you're home,” she said and let her tongue trail his lip.
“You and me both.” He put Psalm down, then grabbed his wife's rear.
Nikki winked at him, the look in her eye hinting toward later, and sashayed to the kitchen. William followed, and Nikki knew his mind was already on the possibilities.
“I fixed spaghetti.” Nikki lifted the top off the stainless steel pot.
“Smells good,” William said, and took a bite from the spoon she held out to him. “Mmm, tastes good, too. I don't know how I got so lucky to be married to you.”
Nikki was five-foot-three-inches tall, barely 112 pounds, with her natural hair in a fluffy, curly halo that flirted with her ears and slender neck. Her warm brown skin shone under the lights, radiant even without makeup. The toes on her bare feet were painted pink, while the nails on her hands were naked. She wore a fitted, sleeveless sky blue T-shirt over frayed jeans.
“I think I must have bumped my head or something,” Nikki joked.
“Well, I believe it was God's blessing all the way,” William said. “The Word says a man who finds a wife finds a good thing. And I know my wife is goodâthrough and through.”
Nikki's skin grew warm as she let her husband's love radiate throughout her entire body, but she swallowed hard. A niggling thought challenged her husband's assertion that she was a good wife as visions of her past flashed in her mind's eye. She quickly pushed those thoughts away. She was saved now, and that's all that mattered.
“We're both blessed,” she cooed to her husband.
“Well, feed your man, woman!” William bellowed with mock sternness.
“You are so silly.” Nikki rolled her eyes and began spooning the food onto blue plastic plates. William wasn't done with her, though, as he bent and nuzzled her neck, letting his tongue trail lightly down her nape. Nikki giggled and twisted, ending up leaning into his chest.
“Psalm is in the next room,” she whispered, “stop it.”
William acted as if he couldn't hear, and Nikki's body awakened. The plate slid to the counter and William pushed her against the refrigerator, letting his hands roam under her shirt. “William, we really shouldn't . . .”
But her words died in her throat as he sucked them into his kiss. Nikki could feel her husband pressing into her through their clothes and her own body responded. She couldn't tell if the heat was from the stove or the Shreveport July, but she was on fire. William pulled at the strap on her tank, yanking it off her right shoulder.
“Mama, I want some juice.”
Nikki heard the tiny voice from very far away. Her eyes flew open as reality assaulted her. She pushed William away and stepped around him, moving to the doorway, quickly jerking her strap back into place. She saw that Psalm was playing with dolls and trucks on the floor.
“Okay, baby, we're going to eat in just a little while,” Nikki said. “Why don't you go wash your hands?”
William took this as his cue and went up the stairs to change out of his dark blue suit, squeezing Nikki's rear again as he went past.
The previous old one-bedroom apartment they had lived in down in New Orleans had been barely enough for one, let alone three people. The baby had often slept with themâexcept for when they felt like getting as naked and hot as the Louisiana night. Then they let her fall to sleep in their bed and later moved her to the rollaway in the living room. Psalm was an infant then. Now, four years later, in Shreveport, they were living in a four-bedroom house with more than 3,000 square feet. Nikki knew three of their old apartments could fit in it. Hurricane Katrina had wiped away so much of their lives, as it had thousands of others. They fled to the northern part of the state where William was from originally. It was only five hours from New Orleans, but felt like a different world in so many ways.
William's first computer business had been washed away with the rising waters of Hurricane Katrina, but they were now doing even better than before the natural disaster. He had started a new computer company, and had slowly built his clientele. Their income had taken a hit lately, though, as William was spending more time working on a political campaign for his pastor, and that meant less time finding clients. Nikki looked around the kitchen with its glass-top stove and double refrigerator and smiled. Yes, life was good.
That slightly unsettled feeling gnawed at the pit of her stomach, stealing her smile, and she tried, as she had over the years, to shrug it off. Her jaw tensed as she fought to bury the secrets that mocked her. There were things about her that would shake up her very existence if they were ever to come out. Panic bubbled in Nikki's throat as for a brief moment, she imagined her husband learning of the things she had done. But she closed her eyes and leaned against the refrigerator, willing her thoughts to settle. She knew there was a time when she wasn't living right, but she was trying desperately to live a better life now, and that just had to be good enough. Everyone has a past, she often reminded herself.
There was no way William could find out about her life before he entered the picture. Her secrets were safe. Yet, as she tried to assure herself of this fact, the knot in her stomach grew.
Nikki shoved away from the refrigerator and righted herself, letting out a tiny breath. A smile again creased her lips. Hers was the perfect life. Her husband adored her. He was her protector and her friend. That's why she had married him. She had known, even at 20, he would always be there for her. And she had worked hard to create the Nikki she knew he wanted. Now, seven years later, she had succeeded.
“Baby, I'm going to hop in the shower right quick,” William called down the stairs.
“Okay,” Nikki called back.
“Want to join me?” She could hear the hopefulness in his voice.
Nikki grinned. “I don't think so,” she said. “And hurry up. We're hungry.”
“Okay,” William replied. “I just thought you wanted to have a taste ofâ”
“Will!” Nikki interrupted him. “Psalm is right here.”
The start of the shower drowned out William's laugh and Nikki chuckled. Her husband could be so silly sometimes. They often bantered like this. They had been married seven years and there was no sign of an itch anywhere on the scene.
Nikki pulled out a carton of juice from the refrigerator for Psalm. She hummed as she thought back to how she and William had met. They became inseparable her sophomore year at a New Orleans private college, meeting at an off-campus fraternity party Nikki hadn't even wanted to attend, but had let her best friend, Danielle, drag her to one night.
Danielle had actually spotted William first. “You see that tall, goofy dude?” Danielle had pointed. “You see how he's dancing, like he has springs in his shoes? Looking like the Jolly Green Giant on crack? Why is he practically jumping up and down like that?” Danielle had whispered to Nikki behind her hand, laughing. “He keeps looking at me, but I keep ignoring him,” Danielle said. “I know he'll be over here before the night is over, trying to get my number. Like I'd want to go out with some nerdy-looking goofball like him.”
And he had come over. Only it was Nikki's number he was after.
“Hi, I'm William,” he had said, extending his hand.
“I'm Danielle,” Danielle asserted. “Did you come over here to buy us a drink or something? I saw you looking at me all night.”
“Actually, I was looking at your friend, and no, I didn't come to buy you a drink,” William said, then added, “though if your friend here wants one, I definitely will.”
Nikki shook her head. “No, I'm cool. I don't need a drink.” She surreptitiously pinched Danielle in the side. “And Danielle is just kidding.”
She could tell Danielle wanted to protest, but she didn't. Danielle spotted one of her many boyfriends and disappeared into the crowd, and that conversation ended. Nikki turned back toward William, smiling up at him, still shocked that he had been checking her out. Guys never seemed to notice her if Danielle was around, and the attention caught her off guard.
“You don't seem like you're enjoying yourself very much,” William surmised. “You want to go outside and sit in my car? We can talk for a while.”
“What, so you can kidnap me?” Nikki gave him a sidelong glance and a smile.
“Nah. I'm not going to kidnap you. But I am going to steal you away from here.”
They ended up sitting in his car for the next two hours, talking and listening to old school music, while Danielle danced the night away. But Nikki hadn't minded. She and William seemed to click. William was the first man to make her feel safe and taken care of, and she had been drawn to him instantly. The fact that he had picked herâeven with gorgeous Danielle standing thereâmade Nikki feel like maybe she could be beautiful too, that maybe she could be more than . . . well, just more. Even in that first meeting, she felt that way. He hadn't looked like muchâhe was tall and skinny, and told goofy jokesâbut there was something about him that touched her.
Nikki shook her head at the memory, bringing herself back to the present as William came downstairs, the smell of soap enveloping him.
They sat down and bowed their heads in prayer before digging into their food. Husband and wife sat at the table, while Psalm sat on a Dora The Explorer blanket on the floor, just to the right of where the last of the July afternoon's sun bathed the floor. Sometimes they allowed Psalm to play on the floor while she ateâit seemed to make for a more peaceful dining experience. And today, Nikki needed peace. She wanted to discuss something with William.
“A magazine called today,” she said carefully, watching her husband's reaction under lowered lashes.
“Yeah. They saw some of the photos I've taken and want me to interview for a photographer's position.”
“You told them you weren't interested, right?” William glanced at her then took a gulp of tea.
“Well, I was thinking that maybe now would be a good time to go back to work,” she said, looking down at the spaghetti strands she was twirling around her fork. “Psalm can get in the pre-kindergarten class andâ”
“Nikki, haven't we talked about this? You're a stay-at-home mom.”
“Yes, baby, I know, butâ”
“So what's to discuss?”
Nikki's shoulders slumped in disappointment. She nodded and jammed a piece of bread into her mouth. “You're right.” She drew a deep breath and tried to smile brightly. “I'm a happily married woman, able to stay home and take care of my husband and child. What else could I want?”
William leaned over and kissed her. “Exactly.”