“He Smells Like Women’s Perfume—But I Know It Isn’t Mine”

Loving A No-Good Serial Sleaze

Only ten minutes after I arrived at the party that my best friend, Teresa, dragged me to, I was wishing I’d stayed home. Music was throbbing so loudly I could hardly think. All around me, couples were dancing, their bodies moving sexily to the beat. I didn’t belong there— I was getting married in three days, for goodness’ sake!

I looked around for Teresa to tell her I was leaving, but when I saw no sign of her, I took a paper cup of punch and escaped out into the backyard. The cool evening air brushed my face as I took a seat on the wooden steps leading down to the grass, grateful for the peace and quiet. I looked up at the stars dotting the night sky like a million scattered diamonds and smiled, thinking about my future.

Just a few more days and I’d be married to Felix. We’d been dating since high school, and for the most part, our relationship had been rocky, filled with drama and reconciliation. But all that was over now—we’d finally faced the fact that we couldn’t live without each other!

I sipped my punch and behind me, the door opened. I glanced over my shoulder and my heart fell as I saw Cedric walking toward me, his expression intense.

He sat beside me on the wooden steps. “Hello, Nikki.”

“Hi, Cedric,” I replied awkwardly. I dated Cedric briefly a year ago, when Felix and I broke up after one of our stupid fights. And although I shared only three or four dates with Cedric, he took it hard when I went back to Felix, although we agreed to be friends.

“I hear from Teresa that congratulations are in order,” Cedric said. I nodded, smiling.    “Felix and I are finally getting married.” When I got no reply, I turned and looked at the man sitting beside me. He was gazing off moodily into the dark backyard.

“He’s not right for you,” he said harshly.

“I love him and that’s all there is to it,” I said. “I thought you were my friend.”

“I am your friend and that’s why I’m speaking to you like this!” Cedric glared at me, his dark eyes burning. “Why would you want to marry a man who will break your heart—over and over again?”

“I’m not listening to this.” I began to stand up, but Cedric clamped his hand firmly over my wrist and yanked me down again. I stared at him in shock, my heart thumping, but not with fear; Cedric is the gentlest man I’ve ever met. I was angry with him, but that wasn’t it, either. It’s just that his face was so close I could remember the way he kissed me, soft and fierce and insistent. And I didn’t want to remember.

“How dare you!” I hissed.

“Where is Felix right now?” he demanded.

“Working. Out of town.”

“How convenient.”

That was so unfair. Felix is a skilled construction worker and he goes where the work is. We were saving to buy a house.

“Let go of me, Cedric,” I said, trying to free myself.

That was when he kissed me.

Instantly, I stopped fighting as his lips pressed against mine, sending warm shudders trembling down my body. My head knew this was wrong, but my heart wanted to pull him even closer, to open my lips and taste him. . . .

Cedric lifted his head, staring tenderly into my eyes. “I love you, Nikki,” he said simply. His words brought me sharply to my senses. I shoved him away from me so hard that he fell down the short flight of steps, onto the grass.

“Leave me alone—you pig!” I gasped, and ran back into the house.

I realized I was crying when I was halfway home. My body was shaking as I drove to my apartment. To make matters worse, I wasn’t even sure why I was crying—was it because Cedric kissed me? Or because I responded?

I showered, changed into my pajamas, and climbed into bed. What was I thinking, accepting an invitation to a party? I needed loads of sleep and no stress before my wedding, unless I wanted to look like hell on my big day!

Try as I might, I couldn’t drift off to sleep. My thoughts went back to my early days with Felix, when we were both in our mid-teens. I fell madly in love with his dark, swaggering good looks and the hint of danger around him. And even though we had bad times—times when I thought I’d never stop crying—the one thing that didn’t change was the passionate love I felt for him. We’d been together for ten years, and Felix swore to me he’d never look at another woman again.

His cheating was the cause of all our problems. In high school there were tons of girls just lined up, hoping to catch his eye—and they usually succeeded. Since high school, Felix was involved in four affairs—that I know of.

I shifted in bed, gnawing at my lip with worry and closing my eyes on the bad memories. I shouldn’t be having thoughts like this now. . . .

Felix told me to forget the bad times, because they were all in the past. I wanted so desperately to believe him. People change, I told myself. He has matured, and he’s less selfish these days. It’s me he loves.

On impulse, I suddenly sat up, throwing the quilt aside as I reached for my cell phone. It was after midnight, but so what? I needed to speak to my fiancé!

The phone rang and rang. I was about to hang up when I heard Felix’s deep, sexy voice. “Hello?”

“Hi, sweetheart,” I said.

“Oh, Nikki—it’s you,” he replied, sounding relieved.

“Who were you expecting?” I chuckled to show I was joking.

“Nobody, of course,” he said quickly. “Anyway—what’s up?”

“Nothing—I just felt like hearing your voice. I wish you were here.”

“Only a few more days and then we’ll belong to each other forever,” he said.

“Oh, Felix.” I sighed and leaned back against the pillow. “I miss you so much. I wish we could just fast forward through the next few days.”

“Just hold on, baby,” he said. “And remember—I love you.”

We talked for a few minutes longer, and then I said a reluctant good-bye, aware I had to be at work the next morning. I manage a small coffee and bakery store, and my coworkers were almost as excited as I was about the wedding! I’d been showered with gifts and cards ever since I made the announcement, making me realize just how lucky I was to work with such good friends.

There was a wonderful, festive atmosphere in the store over the next few days, and I completely forgot all my worries. I was singing softly to myself the day before my wedding, aglow with happiness, as I arranged some biscotti on a plate. I didn’t see Cedric walk in.

“Hello, Nikki.”

At the sound of his voice I jerked in shock, then looked up, my expression tight with anger. “What do you want?”

“To say I’m sorry,” he replied softly. “Sorry about what I said and. . . .” He lowered his voice. “For kissing you.”

I stared into his dark, sincere eyes, at a loss for words.

“I’m jealous,” he admitted with a crooked, little grin that made my heart jump. “I can’t help that—but I want you to be happy, Nikki.”

“Thank you,” I managed, and smiled back at him.

He laid a small, white envelope on the counter between us, and then turned and left. I watched him go, my heart still pounding.

The envelope contained a card with a beautiful, softly focused photograph of a red rose. Inside, he wrote: More than anyone else in the world I know, you deserve to be happy. Good luck. For some reason, the heartfelt message made my eyes fill with tears.

However, by the next afternoon, I’d forgotten all about Cedric. Felix was home, and my parents’ house bustled with relatives—aunts, uncles, cousins, my brothers, and their wives. Every last detail had been taken care of. The large church where I’d been baptized and confirmed was filled with flowers and guests, there was a photographer waiting to capture every moment, and the community hall two blocks away from the church was packed with tables heavy with food. All my life, I’d dreamed of this day.

“You look beautiful, Nikki,” my sister, Kerri, said softly.

Teresa, my other bridesmaid, dusted blush over my cheekbones. “Felix is going to faint when he sees you.”

“I hope not!” I said, and we all giggled.

The house was quieter than it was all day; everyone had left for the church. My father waited downstairs, smart and uncomfortable in his new suit, waiting to give me away.

I looked at my reflection in the mirror over the dresser. My dress was a very simple, antique cream with a close fitting bodice and a heavy, flared skirt. My dark hair was decorated with pearls and small, yellow rosebuds. I did look beautiful, and I’d never been happier in my whole life than I was at that moment.

There was a sudden ring of the doorbell.

“That should be the limousine.” Teresa smiled.

But as we opened the bedroom door, a female voice floated up the stairs. She sounded urgent.

“If you’re a guest, you need to go straight to the church,” Papa was explaining.

“No—I’m not a guest. I just need to speak to Nikki,” the woman said.

“Who is that?” Kerri murmured.

“I don’t know.” I didn’t recognize her voice. Carefully lifting my dress away from my shoes, I went downstairs, followed by Kerri and Teresa.

A small, pretty blonde stood on the doorstep, dressed in faded jeans and a T-shirt. She looked very young, hardly out of her teens. Her eyes widened when she caught sight of me in my wedding gown.

Papa looked at me helplessly. “I told her the guests are already at the church. . . .”

“Are you Nikki Dunbar?” the girl asked me.

I nodded, suddenly cold. Something bad was about to happen; I just knew it. “Who are you?” I asked nervously.

“My name’s Britney,” she said.

“Look, what are you doing here?” Kerri demanded. “As you can see, we’re rather busy.”

Britney swallowed. “This is about Felix. I—I’ve been seeing him for almost a year now.”

“Seeing him?” I repeated blankly. I felt numb all of a sudden, as if none of this could really be happening.

“How dare you?” Kerri shouted. “How dare you come here like this?”

“Calm down!” Papa ordered. He turned to Britney. “Look, whatever has happened, now is not the time to discuss it. My daughter is about to be married.”

“Let her talk,” I said, hardly recognizing my own voice. It sounded so harsh, so defeated.

Britney stared at me. I didn’t know her, but I did somehow know that she wasn’t lying. She was just another girl Felix cheated and lied to.

“I’m going to have a baby,” she whispered.

Her words sliced into me. For the first time I noticed the small, but unmistakable, bulge beneath her T-shirt.

“Oh, my God!” Kerri moaned.

Teresa squeezed my hand—hard.

I wanted to run away, but I was rooted to the spot, frozen.

“I followed him here,” Britney said. “He doesn’t want me or the baby, but . . . I thought you should know.”

I suddenly spun around and ran as fast as I could up the stairs, back to the safety of my old bedroom.

Papa thundered after me. “Nikki!”

I locked the door and pulled off the dress, stuffing it into the closet. I never, ever wanted to see it again.

“We don’t even know if she’s telling the truth!” Papa yelled.

But I did know. Britney wasn’t the first girl to tell me she was sleeping with Felix.

I pulled on my robe and slowly opened the door. “It’s off,” I said.

Teresa was standing behind Papa, crying softly. Kerri rushed forward and hugged me.

“Please tell everyone I’m very sorry, but the wedding’s off,” I said dully. I pushed Kerri gently away and closed the door, relocking it. And I didn’t open it again that day, not even when I heard my mother weeping and my brothers swearing to kill Felix as he beat on the door and swore that Britney was a liar.

Cedric’s words came back to me as I listened to the man I’d nearly married telling me for the millionth time that I was the only woman he wanted: “He will break your heart—over and over again.” That was what Felix had been doing practically since the day I met him. I cried myself to sleep so many times over his cheating. Never again.

“Go away, Felix,” I said. “I never want to see you again.”

I made myself a promise at that moment. I would get over Felix, and I would survive. I deserved better, and someday maybe I’d find someone who appreciated and loved me.

Six months later, Cedric walked into the coffee shop. It was winter, and I’d stopped crying myself to sleep every night. Felix had moved away. I didn’t care where he was, and I didn’t want to know.

“Hello, Nikki,” Cedric greeted me softly.

I nodded. “Hi.”

“I heard what happened. I wanted to come before, but I thought I’d give you a little time,” he said shyly. “If you go out with me, Nikki, I will try to never hurt you or make you cry.”

I believed him, even though there were times over the past months I thought I’d never trust another man. Cedric is decent, kind and honorable—as different from Felix as night from day.

“I want to take you to dinner tonight,” Cedric blurted out nervously.

I remembered his kisses, and the words he’d spoken to me three nights before my wrecked wedding day. Cedric loves me. And I was finally ready to love again.

I poured a cup of foamy, hazelnut coffee, slid it toward him, and smiled. “What time?”