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Authors: Yahrah St. John

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BOOK: This Time for Real
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“Goodnight, Peyton, Amber,” several voices called out.

Peyton waved, grabbed Amber by the hand and flew out the door.

“You left without saying goodbye to Malik,” Amber commented once they were outside. “He obviously liked you. What harm would it have been to let him take you around town and show you the sights?”

“The harm? The harm is…” Peyton's voice trailed off. She couldn't think of a single, logical reason she shouldn't go out with Malik, so she said, “I'm just too busy settling in. Can we please change the subject off men and to say…work?”

“All right,” Amber conceded. You could bring a horse to water but you couldn't make them drink. “How can I help?”

“Well,” Peyton thought quickly. “I'd like my students to complete some volunteer work along with my class, but I have no idea where to start.”

“The SCA Internship Program has a lot of great volunteer jobs,” Amber replied. “You should check out the listing in the department. They have a lot of opportunities in community centers and organizations throughout New York.”

Relieved, Peyton squeezed Amber's arm. “Thanks, Amber. I think I'll do that.”

Chapter 2

“W
e need new volunteers, Theresa. With several of our college interns returning to school after summer break, we are going to be short-staffed in the day care center.” They needed interns to help the full-time staff with playtime, reading and dispensing breakfast and lunch. “How could you let this slip through the cracks?”

Theresa was irked by Malik's accusation. He knew how hard she worked. “What's your problem this morning?”

“Nothing,” he replied tersely. “You just need to do your job.”

“Now you listen here, Malik Williams.” Theresa wagged her index finger at him. “I take a whole lot of crap off you because you have a lot on your shoulders, but I will not take you disrespecting me.”

Instantly repentant, he apologized. “I'm sorry.” He wasn't upset with Theresa. He was still smarting over the
fact that the professor had rejected him. Peyton had captured Malik's attention immediately with her athletic figure and her attractive features, which had been devoid of makeup; but the professor had been determined to keep her distance, and that she had by skipping out without saying goodbye. “Really, I am.” He squeezed Theresa's shoulder.

“All right, you're forgiven,” she said reluctantly. “So what or
who
has gotten under your collar?”

“It doesn't matter.” Malik shrugged, but that didn't stop his mind from wandering to Peyton's milk chocolate skin and long black hair that he'd love to run his fingers through.

“Yes, it does. When you come in breathing fire, it sure as hell does.”

“What can I say?” Malik bunched his shoulders. “I met this beautiful woman on Friday night and she gave me the cold shoulder.”

“So a
woman
has you this wound up. Who is she?”

“Her name is Peyton Sawyer and she's a professor at NYU.”

“Speaking of,” Theresa began. “NYU's education department has always been great with supplying volunteers for the center.”

Malik nodded. She had a point. “Why don't you call and see if they have some candidates available? Of course, they'll have to apply and complete the physical and background check.”

“I'm on it,” Theresa said.

An hour later, Theresa had called over to the Metropolitan Studies Department and discovered that Professor Peyton Sawyer had expressed an interest in the center's volunteer program just that morning. Theresa was elated. Whoever she was, she'd gotten
under Malik's skin. Peyton Sawyer could be exactly the cure Malik needed to fix what ailed him.

 

Peyton was excited as she stood in front of her first class at NYU on Tuesday afternoon. She was teaching “Introduction to Metropolitan Studies” and giving students the basics on the urban environment. She'd reviewed the list of agencies that supported the Metropolitan Studies intern program. There were many great agencies in need, but when she'd received a call from the assistant director at the Harlem Community Center, the choice had been made for her.

Theresa had expressed a need for volunteers at the center and Peyton jumped at the opportunity to have her class participate. This was exactly the kind of practical experience students in her class needed—those who might have an interest in social work or just in making a difference. And not only would she be asking her students to volunteer, but Peyton herself intended to take part.

It was one of the things she wished she'd shared in common with her husband, a desire to help others. David had always moaned and groaned when she and her mother Lydia volunteered or campaigned for a good cause. He didn't mind writing a check, but physical labor? Forget about it! Despite his shortcomings, though, she'd loved him for years. Heck, they were teenage sweethearts. She hadn't tried to change him; she'd just loved and accepted him for who he was. Maybe one day she'd find a man as dedicated as she to community service.

“One of the best ways to learn about the community and the social welfare system is to get involved,” Peyton said, beginning to end her lecture. “Which is why I want all of you to volunteer at the Harlem Community Center.
There are many areas that might interest you, such as the computer center, day and afterschool care, sports or the arts. There is something for everyone.”

As students signed up, one struck Peyton immediately. A beautiful young woman dressed rather plainly in what looked like secondhand clothes. “My name is Kendra Jackson. But I have to tell you, Professor Sawyer, I don't have a whole lot of time on my hands.”

Caramel-colored, Kendra had big expressive eyes, but with some sadness. It made Peyton want to befriend her. “I understand, but volunteer work will give you practical experience to apply the principles you've learned in class. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Well, you see, I have a six-month-old daughter,” Kendra replied. “And my grandmother looks after her during the day, so I really have to get home.”

“Why don't you bring her with you?” Peyton suggested. “The community center has a day care.”

“They do?”

“Yes, they do,” Peyton replied and widened the circle so the other students could hear. “And they need all of your help. They've lost their summer volunteers and would like us to start right away.” Peyton rallied the troops. “Can you all come with me this afternoon? I believe there is some preliminary paperwork that you have to fill out before getting started, as well as having to attend a new-volunteer information session. And I'm sure if we discuss your situation, it shouldn't be a problem, Kendra.”

“You mean you're coming too?” Kendra asked. “Why? You're the professor, you don't need extra credit.” Several students chuckled.

“I'm coming because I want to help,” Peyton returned. “I practice what I preach.” Half a dozen faces
smiled back at her. She'd won them over. “I'll see you all back here at four p.m. sharp and we'll head over to the center together.”

 

“Why are you smiling like a cat that just ate a canary?” Malik inquired when Theresa poked her head in his office later that afternoon. Theresa was beaming like a neon light. It was clear she was proud of herself.

“Oh, I just found us a group of volunteers from NYU,” Theresa answered. “They'll be stopping by any minute for a new-volunteer information session.”

“Wow, you sure didn't waste any time,” Malik said. He couldn't recall a time when Theresa had moved so quickly, which meant she had something up her sleeve. “What gives, Theresa?”

“Nothing,” Theresa said, smiling. “We needed help and I got it.”

“You sure did,” Malik said. “You're a gem, Theresa.”

“I know.”

The phone rang and Theresa picked it up. “Great, thanks,” Theresa hung up the receiver. “The volunteers are here.”

“I'd like to meet them.” Malik rose from his chair. “You know, introduce them to the center.”

“I think that's an excellent idea.”

“Aren't you coming?” Malik asked.

“No, uh, I have a lot of work to do.” Theresa backed out of the door. “I'm sure you can handle it.”

“All right.” Malik eyed her suspiciously one final time before walking down the hall to the meeting room. He found over a dozen young men and women listening to the volunteer coordinator go over the application process, which included a photo and videotape release,
NY State central registry check and professional and personal release forms.

Malik was proud to see today's youth giving back to the community. It warmed his heart—until he saw the woman sitting in the front row holding center stage.
What is Peyton Sawyer doing here?

When the volunteer coordinator, Denise Burke, looked up and saw Malik at the door, she waved him forward. “I'd like all of you to meet Malik Williams, the director of the Harlem Community Center.”

When Peyton heard his name, her heart jolted.
No, say it isn't so. How could
he
be the director of the center?
Peyton wished she could snap her fingers and disappear. Instead, she sat with her attention towards Denise Burke. She saw him glance her way out of the corner of her eye as he walked towards the front, but she kept her eyes straight ahead.

“Thank you
all…
” Malik emphasized the word as he stood beside the coordinator “…for coming. It really means a lot.” He touched his chest. “Just to give you a little history, the Harlem Community Center was founded in nineteen fifty-eight, and more than five hundred families and children use the center each and every day…”

Peyton couldn't hear a word Malik said, because she was fixed on the man himself. She studied him underneath hooded lashes and watched as he tossed back his dreads when he became exuberant. Even in faded blue jeans and a T-shirt, Malik had a swagger about him that caused Peyton to feel flushed.
Why was she having such a strong physical attraction to this man?
She couldn't understand it. She'd never thought of herself as someone unable to control herself, but Malik Williams was causing all sorts of heated sensations to flow through her body.

“The center is here to inspire the young people in this
community to use education and leadership to transcend difficult circumstances,” Malik continued. “I am one of those people, ladies and gentleman. I, along with several of my close friends, grew up using this center, and today I'm privileged to work here and give back to all the community that contributed to my success. That being said, I welcome you to the Harlem center and hope you enjoy your volunteer experience. If there is anything that you need, please feel free to come and see me. My door is always open.” Malik bowed and then headed for the door, but not before saying, “Professor Sawyer, a word if you please, outside.”

Peyton thought about ignoring his request as if she hadn't heard him, but several curious sets of eyes were looking at her, so she had no choice.

“What are you doing here? And what kind of game are you playing?” Malik asked, once the doors had closed.

Peyton's brow furrowed. “What are you talking about?”

“I wasn't good enough for you to talk to, let alone spend time with, but now you come into
my
center acting like you're here to help people?” Malik's voice rose slightly.

“It's not an act,” Peyton replied sternly. “I had no idea you were director when I picked this establishment. I wanted to volunteer as I'd done in Ohio, and give my students some practical experience. That's it, nothing more. You're just angry because I turned down your offer to show me around New York.”

“And the only reason you turned me down was because you were attracted to me,” Malik replied with a smile.

Was it that obvious?
Peyton wondered. “I am not,” she lied.

“I think you're scared.” Malik came towards her until he was inches away from her face. He watched her take
a step back. He was so close, he could smell the exotic scent of her perfume. “Scared of going after what you want, scared of dating someone different than your norm, scared of dating outside the box.”

She didn't like that he'd hit the nail on the head, and yelled, “How dare you!” She realized just how loud she was, when several of her students turned and stared at her through the glass, so she lowered her voice. “You don't even know me.”

“What I know is that I will not play a game of cat-and-mouse with you, so consider your services no longer needed.” He turned on his heel and began walking away, even though he desperately wanted to pull the scared little professor into his arms and kiss her senseless.

He didn't get the opportunity because Theresa came storming towards him. “Malik Williams, what's going on here? I heard loud voices.”

“You can't fire me. I'm volunteering!” Peyton stomped her foot.

Malik turned around. He hated that even her pouty face was so damn sexy. “
I
am the final word at this center, Ms. Sawyer,” Malik yelled over his shoulder before sauntering past Theresa into his office and shutting the door behind him.

“He can't fire me, can he?” Peyton asked, turning to Theresa. “I mean, I'm here to help. I want to help and be here with my students.”

“He is the director,” Theresa said, shrugging, even though inside she was dying to laugh aloud. Everything had worked better than she'd hoped. Peyton had ruffled Malik's feathers again, which meant he found her more intriguing than the other women in his life. “But I can talk to him if you're serious.” Theresa stared back at
Peyton. Did this woman have the fortitude to handle a man as strong and bullheaded as Malik?

“Of course, I'm serious. I believe in helping the community,” Peyton replied. “I can give you several references at other centers, shelters and hospitals where I've volunteered.”

Theresa smiled. “Once he calms down, I'll talk to him. Just fill out the paperwork, and by the time you come back I'll have it all worked out.”

BOOK: This Time for Real
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