The strip of shops, eateries, and galleries in The Village of West Greenville were dark and quiet when I pulled my Subaru into the parking lot a few blocks away from The CoWorking Spot. In the last few years, this part of town had experienced some growth with the arrival of a few restaurants and specialty shops. But that was just a handful of businesses; most of which closed at or around six o’clock, leaving the streets quiet on a late summer evening. I took advantage of this moment of quiet. Closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths to settle the nervous butterflies in my stomach.
About a month ago, I allowed myself to be convinced to sign up for a six-week entrepreneurship course— something I’ve been regretting since the day the payment cleared.
What makes me think I could run my own business?
The only thing I’d managed in the last ten years was a household, and occasionally, the front desk at my ex-husband’s real estate offices. Those skills didn’t necessarily translate into the sort of hustle one needed to be an entrepreneur. But at the time, my sisters Birdie and Agostina, as well as my friend Estelle, made it seem like a great idea to start a business with the skincare products I made from the herbs and medicinal flowers in my garden. And I agreed. Or maybe the gallon of wine I drank that night agreed because now that I was sitting in my car with my brand new laptop, in a brand new laptop bag, I wondered if I’d temporarily lost my mind.
The Bluetooth in my car announced that I had an incoming call from Estelle Murphy.
“Get out of the car, Sonja,” she ordered.
“Why did I let you talk me into this?” I groaned and opened the car door, slightly annoyed that she knew me so well.
“Because you’re more than ready for it. We’ve gone through this. Get out of the car, and I’ll walk down there with you.”
“Okay. I’m coming.”
I’d arrived a good forty minutes early, mostly because I needed to stop by Ink Blue Yoga to get a pep talk from my Estelle.
Ink Blue, Estelle’s yoga studio, was one of my favorite places. The front windows went floor to ceiling, which made the interior look and feel bright and warm. The smooth, shiny hardwood floors were warm in the winter months and cool in the summer. They welcomed bare feet and I almost wanted to drop my bags, strip down and get in a few vinyasas. Estelle was good at this business thing and was brilliant at getting her studio seen. If I checked our town’s hashtag on Instagram on any given day, her yoga studio always showed up in the top nine.
“Hey, Soni,” my friend said and gave me a knowing look as I came in. “Amelia?”
The woman sweeping at the far end of the studio looked up.
“I’m going to walk Soni down to the The Coworking Spot. I’ll be right back.”
“No, problem. I’ll get everything set up for the six-thirty class.”
She grabbed two bottles of water out of the cold case near the cash wrap and handed me one. I opened it and followed her back out to the sidewalk.
“Okay,” she said. “Out with it. What are you feeling right now?”
I gnawed on my bottom lip. “I’m nervous.”
“I’m probably going to be the oldest person in the class —”
“And that matters because…?”
“It makes me feel self-conscious. It’s been years since I’ve been in a classroom. I’m not sure if I can learn everything I need to know to make this thing work.”
“Sonja, you’re one of the smartest people I know. You’ll be fine.”
“How can you say I’ll be fine? It took me six days to figure out how to use this fucking computer you made me buy.”
Estelle laughed at me, and I joined her, realizing how pathetic I sounded. Doing something new was always scary. But it had been so long since I’d done anything new that this felt huge. She grabbed my hand as we walked the remaining two blocks to the building that hosted The Entrepreneur Academy.
“There’s no need to be intimidated by anything you’re presented with today. You’re there to learn, and the instructor is there to teach you. Who’s your instructor again?”
I laughed and rolled my eyes. “You sound like you’re escorting your kid to their first day of elementary school.”
“Aren’t I?” she joked.
I pulled up the email they sent me after I registered for the class. “My instructor is someone named Atlas James. You know him?”
Estelle gasped, and her steps faltered a bit. “Yeah… yeah, I know him.”
“What was that reaction about?”
“Uh, nothing. Atlas James is … he’s an amazing teacher. I learned a lot from him.”
“Yeah, but you gasped.”
Estelle cleared her throat and smirked. “You’ll see.”
We arrived at the doors, and I turned to her with a smile. “So, I’ll meet you next door when the class is over so we can have some drinks?”
“Oh, most definitely! Relax, and have fun. It’s not nearly as hard as you think it will be. Especially not with Atlas teaching. I think you’re really going to enjoy yourself.”
I rolled my eyes. “Bye, Estelle.”
Still laughing at my friend, I went inside the coworking space that doubled as the Entrepreneur Academy classroom on evenings and weekends. From what I read online, the two people who owned the business and ran the programs were dedicated to helping an underserved group of entrepreneurs get a foothold in the economy growing in Greenville. The businesses that students started after attending the Academy were conscientious and interested in blending into existing community. That was precisely the kind of business I wanted to build; one that felt so familiar that my customers could easily imagine the hands that made the products and feel connected to the process.
I’d entered on the street level across from the Village Journal into a small lobby and seating area.
“Hi!” a young girl sitting behind the desk said with a smile. “Welcome to The CoWorking Spot. I’m, Chloe. Can I help you?”
“Uh, yes. Hi, Chloe. I’m here for the Entrepreneur Academy Course?”
“Ah, yes. Could you just sign in for me? They’ll be meeting in the Community Classroom at the big table down there,” she said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder. “But you’re a little early, so feel free to grab a cup of coffee and look around or just hang out up here. Atlas is around here somewhere.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said as I signed in.
When I was done, I adjusted my bag on my shoulder and made my way down the steps to the Community Classroom. The big table was in an open area, with about ten or fifteen chairs around it. The group was far smaller than I anticipated it would be, and for some reason, that made me feel even more nervous. That and the fact that this Atlas person was somewhere in the building and if no one else arrived soon, I would be the first to meet him. All that tittering Estelle had done on the sidewalk made me wonder what the hell I was in for.
After choosing a seat on the far end of the table away from the big screen TV as the place to drop my laptop bag, I went back up to the lobby to grab a cup of that free coffee the girl at the desk had offered me. I was still considering the dark, strong-smelling brew when a young man bounded up the stairs.
I swear my mouth went so dry that my tongue stuck to the roof of it.
“Hi!” he said cheerily, his lips splitting into a grin that lit up his face. And Jesus Christ was it a gorgeous face. He had smooth dark skin and the sort of distinctive features that were so unusual that it was hard to look at him without really staring. Full lips, a broad nose, and bedroom eyes with thick lashes that squinted when he smiled like he was doing now.
“Hello,” I managed to croak, unable to tear my eyes away even though he was standing next to me now, and I had to look up, up, up to meet his gaze. This man was tall and built like he could plow my north field without a horse, with shoulders that he could probably throw a woman-sized stack of potatoes over. And by woman-sized, I meant me. I would like to be that woman-sized sack of potatoes.
That thought startled me. I couldn’t remember the last time I looked at a man with little more interest than I gave a sturdy dining room table.
“Trying to get that last dose of caffeine in, huh?” he said casually as if his deep baritone wasn’t designed to disintegrate my panties the moment he opened his mouth.
“Uh, yeah. I usually try not to drink coffee this late. It tends to mess with my sleep, but I’m not usually out after this hour, so—”
What the hell was I even saying? Why was I talking about my caffeine intake like some old lady who needed to be at home before nine to make sure she took her remedies?
“I hear that,” the young man said as he tore open two sugar packets with the edge of his bright white teeth. His tongue swiped at a loose granule, and my pussy clenched like I knew how that tongue would feel between my thighs.
Look away, Sonja. Look a-damn-way.
He gestured at the still empty cup in my hand with the carafe of coffee in his hand, offering to fill it up.
“Yes, please.” I held out the paper cup in my now trembling hand. “Thank you,” I said once it was filled and finally turned toward the coffee station to add some sugar and cream.
“No, problem. I’ll see you down there,” he said, a smirk in the corner of his full lips.
“Oh! You’re here for the Entrepreneur Academy thing?”
He pivoted around the corner to make his way back down the stairs. With his eyes on me, his smirk shifted into a smile. “I’m the instructor,” he said just before he disappeared from view.
“Holy fuck … that’s Atlas James?”
“Yes, ma’am, it is,” the girl behind the desk said with a wistful sigh.
Leaving the cup of untouched coffee on the bar, I ducked into the nearest bathroom to call my so-called friend. Her self-satisfied giggle met my ears when she finally decided to pick up the phone.
“You could have warned me that my instructor was a real-life action hero, so I didn’t embarrass myself by drooling and blubbering like an idiot.”
“You drooled and blubbered like an idiot? That’s surprising. I didn’t think he would get that much of a reaction out of you.”
“And what the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Sonja,” she began gently. “I’ve known you for almost nine years, and I’ve never heard you so much as sigh at the sight of a pretty man. Even men that are universally handsome never seemed to move the meter for you.”
I scoffed. “Yeah, well, Atlas James sure as hell did.”
“Mmmhmm… six weeks of class with him was not an unpleasant experience.”
“Estelle! You’re happily married!”
“I’m married, not dead, Sonja.”
“I get that, but…”
“Yes, I allowed myself to enjoy his personage, then I went home to my husband. And since you no longer have one of those, none of that should matter to you.”
“I have no intentions on—”
“I gotta go. The six-thirty power hour is about to start. I’ll meet you for drinks, and we can talk about how Atlas made you squirm in your seat for an hour and a half.” Then she hung up before I could respond.
I glared at my phone’s darkening screen for a moment and tried to figure out if there was a way that I could sneak downstairs, grab my new bag and twelve-hundred-dollar laptop, and duck out before the class started. because I couldn’t sit in the same room with that man. Hell, maybe I didn’t need to grab my stuff. Estelle could drive me home. My kids were there, so I didn’t need to worry about how I would get in. I could pick up my bag in the morning or some other time when I was sure he wouldn’t be here. Then I would quit the class because a woman my age should not be subjected to a man that young and that fine for six-long weeks without any sort of satisfaction.
Satisfaction? I mean, seriously. What satisfaction did I want from this man? And more importantly, what satisfaction would he be willing to give? Did I want to know? Goddamn, he had successfully scrambled my brain. This was not right or okay.
I glanced in the mirror and smoothed my hand over my newly cropped hair. Around the same time that I allowed myself to be convinced to sign up for this course, my sister Agostina thought it was a good idea to chop off all of my hair. “A woman who cuts her hair is about to make big changes in her life,” or some foolishness she’d parroted from a mindfulness blog she read. Initially, I thought the cut looked cute. Fun. Now I just looked like a middle-aged woman who’d lobbed off her hair and dyed it to hide the grey.
I sighed and shook my head at myself, then turned on the water to wash my hands. I was making too big a deal out of this. He probably didn’t even notice that I’d drooled over him. I wasn’t unattractive, but I’d long ago realized that I’d become invisible to a specific type of man and definitely a certain age bracket. Atlas James fit that demographic. Yeah… I was worried about the wrong thing.
By the time I made my way out of the bathroom and toward the low murmur of conversation in the Community Classroom, I’d convinced myself that I was overreacting. I’d only assumed that he had noticed me noticing him. That didn’t make it true.
And I believed that until I realized that my bag had been moved to a seat other than where I’d left it. It was now in front of a chair closer to the middle of the table…
Right across from where Atlas was setting up his laptop and unloading his backpack.
I glanced toward the place I’d left my things and saw that two girls were huddled there now. How wrong would it be if I put on my mom-voice and bullied them out of their seats?
“Decided against the coffee?” Atlas asked, pulling me out of my reverie.
“Uh… yeah. I had a couple of sips, but I’m jittery enough. It would have been a mistake.”
“I probably should have done the same, but you know…Y.O.L.O.”
I cringed inwardly. “Yeah…Y.O.L.O.,” I echoed then pulled out the chair.
My son used that horrible slang phrase when he was in middle school. Was this Atlas in the same age bracket? Now I felt a little gross about lusting over someone who was probably only a few years older than my high school-age son.
I laughed at myself again. Unloaded my bag.
Stay on task, Sonja.
“Okay… It looks like everyone is here!” Atlas said. “Let’s get started.” He clapped his hands together and moved toward the front of the room. “Welcome to The CoWorking Spot. I’m Atlas James, and I’m going to be your instructor for this cohort of the Entrepreneur Academy. A little bit about me…Yes, my name is really Atlas, but I don’t think my mother named me that in anticipation of me having shoulders big and strong enough to carry the world on them, but it helps that I grew into it.”
We all laughed at that, and he seemed to relax a little bit. “I’m a business coach for creative people who want to use their talents to make money. I’ve been at that for a little over six years, and before that, my best friend and I built a tiny home in a step-up panel truck and I traveled to every state in the continental US. I have two degrees, business and MBA in marketing, both of which used to build and run this business. Now…” He looked from one end of the table to the next, and then his eyes settled on me. “I’d like to get to know all of you.”
My mouth suddenly went dry, and my nipples drew up into tight little buds against the thin silken fabric of my bra. I folded my arms, leaned forward on the table, and prayed that he didn’t ask me to go first. Nothing but squawking high pitched sounds would come out of me if he did.
Atlas smiled at me then turned his attention to one of the young girls at the far end of the table.
“You there in the pink sweater. State your name, state your business.”
Everyone at the table was at least ten or more years younger than me. They had internet jobs that I’d never heard of before — like social media manager and content strategist — that they’d joined the Entrepreneur Academy to grow. None of them had a business that sounded anything like mine.
“And what about you, Miss…” Atlas pushed up the sleeves of his henley and pointed at me.
My brain short-circuited.
“Sonja…” I stammered. Yes, that’s my name. “Sonja Watts and I want to open an online store to sell natural soaps, essential oils, hand, and body cremes, and maybe teas using recipes created by my Gullah grandmother.”
The room fell silent.
“Excuse me…Sonja?” one of the girls at the end of the table began. She was sitting across from the girl in the pink sweater. I think her name was Ashley.
“What is a Gullah exactly? You mean, like Gullah, Gullah Island? That show that used to come on Disney?” Ashley asked with a giggle that her friend in the pink sweater echoed.
Atlas turned his attentions to Ashley and regarded her for a long critical moment. “Gullah people are Coastal Carolina African Americans who have maintained most of their West African culture, to include language and traditions,” he explained finally. “They practice a lot of holistic medicine through cherished recipes passed down through generations.” He looked at me again, his eyes soft and…was that appreciation I saw there? “I imagine your business will be no different than someone starting their own beauty brand.”
“I imagine so…” I said, feeling for the first time in an hour that I was right where I was supposed to be.