The Ex Project by Nia Arthurs
Yolanda Walsh shotup with a start, taking in the unfamiliar room. She dug her fingers into crisp bed sheets—white sheets, she would never choose a color so basic for a bedspread—and lifted.
Her eyes hesitantly traveled over every inch of her naked self beneath the blanket, dark chocolate legs, scrawny thighs, lilac lace underwear because she’d been hopeful that someone would see under her clothes and she wanted to look cute.
Who? Who saw them?
She didn’t remember.
How much did I drink last night?
She yanked a robe that was hanging off the side of the bed and shrugged it on. Each movement made her brain slosh around her skull. Withholding a groan, she tried to get her bearings. Where am I?
A quick glance around the room made her heart sink into her stomach. Sunshine blazed through open balcony doors. Filmy white curtains reached for her like satin claws. Teal walls with no art or decoration. A flat screen. A mini-bar.
She was in a hotel room.
With only her bra and panties on.
“Breathe, Yolanda.” She closed her eyes, chasing down her missing memories. “Just breathe and don’t freak out.”
Slowly, images trickled into her head. She remembered going to the bar last night. She remembered Devon, her ex, making himself a nuisance as usual.
Yolanda jerked back. “Duane.”
The door opened and her eyes collided with a tall man. Dirty blonde hair. Pale skin. Screaming silver eyes.
She felt a shock—a surge of electricity from the center of her throat—scorching her chest to her fingertips and then zigzagging to her stomach. Her breath caught on a stunned exhale.
“Morning,” her son’s football coach said.
She would have returned the greeting if her brain hadn’t misfired at that moment.
He strode into the room like he owned it. He was dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt that clung to his sculpted torso. Black sneakers with red laces adorned his feet. His thick, dirty-blonde hair was longish and messy, like he’d just rolled out of bed.
He lifted his hands and she saw that he carried a cardboard carton with two cups of coffee. The small, intimate smile on his face made her stomach tighten.
Her mouth opened.
No words rolled out.
She should say something.
This was not her first rodeo. The most important rule of a one-night stand was to make it clear that there would be no repeats.
A groan built in the back of her throat as Duane stared expectantly at her.
That was a problem.
This man, with his chiseled body and jaw carved from granite, was not a random hookup. He was someone her son admired.
Tay-Tay would never say it out loud, because he was a broody-teenager trapped in a seven-year-old’s body, but she’d seen how much he loved his football coach. Marden meant something to her son. Which was exactly why she shouldn’t have done this.
“Sleep well?” Duane asked.
“Uh…” Yolanda pulled her lips in and tried not to look as befuddled as she felt.
More memories from last night poured in. A crowded bar. Her ex being pushy. Duane pretending to be her boyfriend.
After sweeping her away, Duane invited her out for a drink. One drink turned to many as they talked about his past life as a pro football player, her family’s roots in Belize and her son, Tay-Tay.
She remembered laughing and having a good time. She even remembered sloppily leaning forward and going in for a kiss, but when did that lead to getting naked in a hotel room?
Come on, girl. Be cool. Be bold. Let him know that was a one-time thing. A mistake, really. It’ll never be brought up again.
She opened her mouth, but her breath was temporarily stolen when Duane pressed his fingers to her forehead.
“Is your head okay?”
She jolted from the touch. His hand was rough. Callouses rasped against her dark skin and yet, it was comforting. Warm, even.
She forced in another breath.
I slept with my son’s football coach.
Even if she didn’t remember a second of what they’d done, her body did. Why else would it go wild at Duane’s slightest touch?
Duane didn’t seem bothered by her gaping mouth and shoved one of the coffee cups into her palm. “Drink this.”
She wrapped her fingers around the cup, trying to gather the courage to say what needed to be said.
Come on, Yol. Let him know that you had a good time, but…
Was it a good time?
Her gaze ran down the length of him, lingering on his pants. She tried hard to remember what he’d looked like without it.
Her mind was a blank.
She sipped the coffee instead of speaking.
It was warm.
Just like his hand had been.
Yolanda squeezed her eyes shut, feeling trapped. She couldn’t run from this. She had a son who was her entire world. Because of him, she’d have to see Duane at Tay-Tay’s practices.
At Tay-Tay’s games.
At Tay-Tay’s school.
Best to make the boundaries clear, rather than let it stew.
His eyebrows shot high on his forehead—a forehead that was just as beautiful as the rest of him. Had she ever been attracted to foreheads before? No. Never. But she wouldn’t lie. Duane had a nice one.
“‘Coach Marden’?” His lips curled up at the corners. “That’s a little formal for us, Yolanda.”
The way he said her name, all soft and tender, made her head spin.
“Coach Marden,” she insisted, because it felt like one tiny way in which she could keep control, “about last night—”
Her phone rang, cutting off her brilliant ‘this never happened’ speech.
She glanced at the screen and balked.
It was her mother.
Duane sipped his coffee, watching her intently while she had a mild panic attack.
“It seems important,” he said, gesturing to her phone.
She blinked rapidly. Her thoughts were rushing too fast for her to catch up and she felt like someone wobbling on a tightrope. Any sudden movements and she’d surely fall.
Yolanda curved her fingers around the phone and spoke firmly. “This isn’t how I usually… Coach Marden, I think I owe you an apology.”
His lips curved a little higher. That sexy smirk caused an explosion of warmth and confusion in her. Why on earth did she not remember sleeping with this man? Even if she had to gather her dignity by the handful, having memories of being in his arms would have made the awkwardness worth it.
“I think we—”
Her phone buzzed again.
MOM: If you don’t text me back, I’m calling the police to make sure you’re okay.
Duane’s smile fell away. “Is something wrong?”
“No, it’s just…”
“Just… Theo asking where you are?”
Hearing her son’s name come out of Duane’s mouth with so much care and concern was charming. Annoyingly so. But the fact that he knew her son was exactly why she shouldn’t be here.
Yolanda placed a hand over her belly and cringed again, having no recollection of using protection. What had gotten into her? She wasn’t usually so careless.
“I can take you home,” Duane said, digging into his pocket. She heard keys jangling.
Lifting her hands, she blurted, “No.”
He froze and glanced at her with a surveying look.
“I’ll take it from here. Thank you for last night.” I hope you deserve this appreciation, Marden. I’m going to assume you do. “But I have to go.”
He said something in response, but she didn’t hear him. Scooping up her red dress and slinging her purse over her shoulder, she hustled past him and sprinted out the door.
Thankfully, the hallway was empty.
“Bathroom, bathroom,” she mumbled, searching the doors desperately.
At last, she saw the glowing sign.
Tightening her robe, Yolanda ducked inside. After checking that the stalls were empty, she faced the sink and slapped her hands on the granite countertops. Staring at the harried woman in the mirror, Yolanda groaned.
If sleeping with her son’s football coach and having no memory of it wasn’t bad enough, she looked a mess. Her mascara had smudged, her lipstick was faded and her hair belonged in an eighties punk band.
Yolanda tried brushing through the weave with her hands, but her fingers kept tangling. Giving up, she shoved the faucet and cupped her fingers underneath the cool stream. After splashing her face a couple times, she felt calmer.
Her phone vibrated with another text.
MOM: If you’re with that good for nothing ex, I will string you up by a flagpole.
ME: I’m okay, mom. Tell Tay-Tay too.
MOM:I already told him you were spending the night with your friends.
ME: I’m sorry I worried you.
MOM: I can’t buy Prada with apologies.
Yolanda grinned and put a reminder in her phone to take her mother out to lunch. Buying her mother’s forgiveness was easy, but she’d have to come up with a convincing excuse. Her mother could never find out about this.
Slapping the sink once more, Yolanda spoke to her reflection. “You will avoid Duane Marden with every bone in your body from this moment forward.” She stuck a manicured finger at the glass. “Okay?”
Resolute, she marched to a stall and shrugged into her dress from last night. The gown fit her body like a glove.
She returned to the bathroom sink and observed herself in the mirror. She had long legs, a torso that stretched on forever, and barely any curves. Yolanda had learned to work with what she did have, and the dress’s daring slit did a wonderful job of bringing attention to her legs. Not bad.
After re-applying her makeup, Yolanda felt more in control. The night was over. Shadows had run away and so had all her bad decisions.
She stalked out of the bathroom and then paused. Heading into town wearing a sexy dress this early in the morning would call more attention to her than she wanted. What if the paparazzi got a hold of this? She’d be plastered over the society section of The Belize Times by six p.m.
Thinking fast, Yolanda called her K-pop ride-or-die.
The phone rang once.
Yolanda held her breath, wondering if Latoya was busy with her boyfriend Cole. She would call Giselle, but her other K-pop sister would be working in her smoothie truck.
Finally, Latoya picked up. “Hey, Yollie.”
“Can you come pick me up?”
“Where are you?”
Yolanda loved that her friends were ready to drop everything to be there for her. No questions asked.
She gave the name of the hotel.
Latoya chuckled. “Do I even want to know?”
“No, you don’t.”
“But you’ll tell me anyway because you love me.”
“I slept with my son’s football coach and now I need a ride. How soon can you get here?”
All the laughter fled from Latoya’s voice and she squeaked, “Give me fifteen minutes.”