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“Thank you.” Peyton squeezed Theresa's hand. “You're a lifesaver.” She went back inside to finish listening to the information session, while Theresa thought about how she would continue to stoke the flame.

 

“Malik, you're being unreasonable.” Theresa barged into his office several minutes later. He was sitting with his mentor, Andrew Webster, the former director of the community center.

“Andrew, it's so good to see you, sweetheart.” Theresa came forward and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “When did you arrive?”

“A few moments ago,” Andrew returned. Even at sixty-five, Andrew looked as healthy as a horse. At six foot six, he towered over most men, including Malik, which is why he'd always managed to put the fear of God into him as a youth.

“Andrew just dropped by to discuss the upcoming ‘Feed the Homeless' event before we were interrupted,” Malik said, eyeing Theresa.

“Well, if you weren't acting like such a horse's behind,” Theresa retorted, “I wouldn't have had to interrupt you.”

“What's going on?” Andrew looked at his two former colleagues.

“There's a volunteer that is not suited for the center,”
Malik responded. He had no problem discussing the situation with his mentor. He valued Andrew's opinion. Because of him, he'd taken an interest in community service.

“Does he or she have a criminal background or health issues?” Andrew inquired.

“Well…not that I know of.” Malik had no real cause to disapprove of Peyton Sawyer, other than that she was a tease.

“She's a great candidate,” Theresa spoke up and closed the door behind her. “She's a professor at NYU and has encouraged many of her students to volunteer at the center. They're in orientation right now.”

“So your beef is personal?” Andrew asked.

“She turned him down for a date,” Theresa revealed.

Andrew turned to Malik. “So she damaged your ego. Is that it?”

“Before she knew who I was, she insulted me. Peyton Sawyer probably thought I was a lowly bohemian, and beneath her, a college-educated professor. I don't want that kind of person at the center. The people here need help. I won't have her making them feel inferior.”

“Don't you think you might be overreacting a tad?” Andrew asked. He'd known Malik for years and this wouldn't be the first time he'd seen his protégé's quick temper. “You
do
recall your behavior a few months ago with Quentin, don't you? Why don't you go talk to the woman—you know? See what she's truly about before you leap to judgment. I think you could stand to learn a lesson from the past.”

Trust Andrew to be so rational, so logical.
Malik supposed that's why he looked up to him. Andrew had been the only father figure he had ever had. His biological father had skipped town shortly after he was
born, leaving his mother to raise him on her own. That's until she hooked up with his stepfather Joe Johnson.
Did growing up in Joe's shadow give him his fiery temper?

“Fine, I'll talk to her,” Malik conceded, “but I make no guarantees.”

“That's all I ask,” Theresa said, and then winked at Andrew.

 

NYU was Malik and Sage's old stomping grounds. He loved the carnival-like atmosphere of Washington Square Park, with the dog-walkers, skateboarders, musicians and chess players. He'd called ahead to find out Peyton Sawyer's next class time and headed straight there. Class hadn't yet started, so Malik was able to blend in with the other one hundred or so students waiting to hear her lecture.

Malik was surprised when Peyton arrived in a short black skirt that revealed a generous amount of leg, and a sleeveless blue knit top that showed off her buff arms. Instead of prim and proper in tweeds and a button-down shirt, like most NYU professors. Malik was sure all the young men in the room were salivating just as he was.

Malik was mesmerized as he watched Peyton lecture for the next hour, and not just because of her sheer beauty, but more so because she showed a genuine passion for her work. He rarely saw that kind of enthusiasm. Her students' response and the discussion were a clear indication of how much she stimulated their minds. Malik was impressed.

“Your first paper will be due in two weeks. In a few days, my assistant will have the lecture notes online.”

Malik waited until after most of her students had filed out before approaching Peyton.

Peyton was packing up her books when she felt a presence behind her. She whirled around and was shocked to find Malik Williams standing there. “What are you doing here?” The moment the words were out of her mouth, she realized how accusatory she sounded. Could it be because Malik looked like he could easily fit in with the Greenwich Village crowd, in cargo pants and a tight T-shirt? The shirt revealed his muscular arms and tight abs.

“Sounds familiar, huh?” Malik asked. His tone suggesting that he'd been as disconcerted as she when he'd found her on
his
turf.

Peyton ignored him and threw books into her satchel. “What do you want, Malik?”

Malik bowed his head. “I'm here to apologize. I was wrong about your intentions.”

Peyton turned back around. “You're admitting you're wrong?”

“Yes, I am.” Malik stood up straight. “I was wrong about your reasons for coming to the center, and after sitting in on your class and hearing how passionate you are about serving the community, I'm here to tell you that you can volunteer at the center.”

Peyton chuckled. Should she be grateful that he'd had a change of heart? Perhaps. But he hadn't been completely off the mark, either, when he'd said she was scared of her attraction to him. She had never felt that kind of instant attraction. Not even with David; their relationship had been more of a slow burn. “I fully intended to do that. With or without your blessing, but I will accept your apology.”

“Thank you,” Malik said, smiling. “And if you let me, I'd like to make it up to you. How about a cup of coffee?”

“Are you asking me out
again?
” Peyton asked.

Malik took a deep breath. She really wanted to bust his chops. “I am asking you out for coffee.”

Peyton debated with herself. Should she go? It was just coffee, after all. Perhaps if she went out with him and satisfied her curiosity once and for all, she could get back on an even keel. “All right.” Peyton threw her satchel over her shoulder. “Lead the way.”

Malik and Peyton took a short walk through Washington Square Park to Caffe Reggio. Always crowded, they managed to grab an outside table just as a couple was leaving. “Good looking out,” Peyton commented.

“This was always a favorite hangout of mine when I went to NYU,” Malik said as he helped her into her chair.

“Thank you.” Peyton inhaled deeply and received a whiff of Malik's musky cologne. He smelled darn good.

A waitress appeared several moments later and took their order. Malik ordered a cappuccino and a cannoli and Peyton couldn't resist ordering their homemade tiramisu with her caffe latte.

“How did you get in the community service field?” Peyton asked, making polite chit-chat.

“Because I experienced firsthand how difficult it was for my mother, a single woman, to raise a child on her own. She didn't have the resources that are available today. If she did, maybe things would have turned out differently.”

Peyton was curious about Malik's comment, she wondered if it had something to do with the fact that he and his friends frequented the center in their youth; but when he didn't expound further she didn't press for more details. The waitress came back and placed their coffees and Italian pastries on the table.

“Would you like anything else?”

“No, we're good for now,” Malik replied, and the waitress departed.

“So, how long have you been director at the Harlem center?”

“For about five years, since my mentor retired.”

“Sounds like he was a big influence.”

“You've no idea,” Malik replied, sipping his cappuccino. “Sometimes though, it feels like I'm fighting an uphill battle. We always need more equipment, more supplies, more food…” His voice trailed off.

“But you persevere,” Peyton said.

“Yes.” Malik nodded. He'd never stop fighting. “But we could use a corporate sponsor dedicated to our center. Anyway, enough about me.” Malik turned the tables. “What made you decide to pack up your bags and move to New York? Usually, only starving artists hoping to catch their big break purposely move here.”

“Not necessarily true,” Peyton replied. “Sometimes people move because they need a change. When I put some feelers out and found that NYU had a position, I applied. Of course, it helped that my brother lived here.”

She grew reflective. “My mother is a teacher too, and she's always been passionate about giving back. She used to take me with her to the homeless shelters, and if there was an event going on at my school, like a clothing or food drive, she was all over it.”

“Sounds like she's a phenomenal woman.”

“I respect her a lot. She's inspired me to volunteer, which is why I came to HCC.” Then she added, “I had no idea you were the director.”

“And if you
did
know you would have run in the opposite direction?” he wondered aloud. “What is it about me that disturbs you, Peyton?”

The way he said her name was like a soft caress, and it sent a little shiver up Peyton's spine. He was staring
at her so intently, waiting for her response, that Peyton lost her words.

“Is it because you're married or otherwise engaged?” Malik asked the question he'd been dying to ask since they'd met. Peyton wasn't wearing a wedding ring, but that didn't mean anything these days.

“I'm single,” she said softly.

“So there's no reason why we can't spend time together?”

“Isn't that what we're doing now?”

“Coffee during the day hardly counts,” Malik countered. “How about we take it slow, and when you're ready we'll go out on a real date.”

Peyton breathed a sigh of relief. “I think that could work.”

“Now, can we just enjoy the ambience?” Malik asked.

Peyton smiled. “That sounds great.”

They whiled away the rest of the afternoon sipping their coffee and talking politics, food, movies and music. They discovered a common love of democracy, sushi, sweets, dramas and jazz.

It was nearly evening when Malik walked Peyton to her office. She'd left several books that she needed for her next article. Peyton explained that the head of the Metropolitan Studies department expected the department's professors to have articles published in the education journals each year, so Peyton had to get cracking.

“Well, I have to admit I enjoyed the afternoon, Malik Williams.” Peyton extended her hand when they made it to the building.

“So did I.” Malik brushed his lips across Peyton's hand. She'd let her defenses down long enough for him to see a different side of her. “And I look forward to
seeing you at the center.” He gave her a broad smile before walking away.

Peyton started towards the entrance but couldn't resist looking back. When she did, Malik waved at her before crossing the street. He had definitely captured her interest. The question was, what was she going to do about it?

Chapter 3

W
hen Quentin called him later during the week Malik said, “Hey, Q, what's up?”

“Two things, actually,” Quentin began. “I spoke with a friend of mine at
Manhattan Weekly,
and he would like to do a feature on you for the newspaper. You know, showcase the center and hopefully drum up some support. And if that doesn't work—”

“Then what?” Malik asked. “What aren't you saying, Q?”

“Well…last week, you mentioned that you needed a corporate sponsor to contribute a donation solely to the Harlem center.”

“Do you have someone in mind?”

“I do, and he'd like to meet with you over lunch on Monday, if you're interested?”

“Of course I'd be interested.” Malik would jump at
the chance to discuss a corporate contribution for renovating the center and updating their technology.

“Great, I'll see you then.”

When Malik hung up the phone, he realized Quentin hadn't told him who the meeting was with. Malik shrugged it off. Anyone who would contribute to the center was okay in his book.

“So, how's the background check coming on our volunteers?” Malik asked, walking into Theresa's office.

“Good. None of the students have any records.”

“And Ms. Sawyer?” Malik inquired.

“What do you want to know?” Theresa asked, raising a brow.

“I don't know. Was there anything interesting?” Malik was curious about what was beneath that cool surface.

“Nope, not a thing,” Theresa lied. There
was
something. On the central registry check, Peyton indicated a maiden name, which meant she was probably divorced, but Theresa wasn't going to tell Malik, because he'd just get in his own way. Better to let him find out on his own.

“Glad to hear it,” Malik said. Peyton was a vibrant woman that he was not only attracted to but actually liked. She not only shared his passion for helping others, but championed it. He'd been waiting all his life for a woman that shared his convictions. Was it possible that he'd found her?

 

Peyton was working on her next lecture when she heard a knock on her office door. She looked up and found Kendra standing in her doorway. “Kendra! Hi.” Peyton smiled and motioned her forward. “C'mon on in and have a seat.”

“Thank you, Dr. Sawyer.” Kendra sat down in the chair across from her and dropped her knapsack.

“What brings you by?” Peyton inquired. It wasn't unusual for students to stop in during her office hours for advice on what classes to take or just to talk about college life. But Peyton suspected there was more to Kendra's visit.

“Well…” Kendra lowered her head. “It doesn't look like I'm going to be able to volunteer.”

“Why not?” Peyton asked. “The volunteer coordinator indicated it wouldn't be a problem for you to leave your daughter in day care.”

“I know, but my boyfriend is very upset. He doesn't like the fact that I'm spending all this time in class; and if I volunteered, there wouldn't be any time for him.”

Peyton took a deep breath. “I have to ask, Kendra, what is more important to you? Spending time with your boyfriend or getting a quality education?” Peyton took off her reading glasses. “Volunteering and understanding the needs of a community are vital if you want to go into this field.”

“School, of course,” Kendra answered, insulted. “I already had to take a semester off to have Tamara, and I'm back now. Omar takes care of us.”

“Kendra, there are a lot of options and programs available to you as a single parent. You don't have to rely solely on your boyfriend.”

“That's easy for you to say, Professor Sawyer. Not so easy when you have to feed an six-month-old.”

“Perhaps I could talk to him on your behalf,” Peyton offered. Although, she'd only been to a few lectures, Peyton saw promise in Kendra. During class, she was quick to speak up and offer her opinions and ideas.

“You would do that?” Kendra was surprised.

A knock sounded on Peyton's door before she could respond. Amber waved to her from the door. “Excuse me,
Kendra,” Peyton apologized and glanced up. “Amber, give me a few minutes okay?”

“Sure.” Amber eyed her suspiciously before walking away.

“Of course I would help,” Peyton said, finally answering Kendra's question. “I want you to succeed. So, if you'd like bring him by. We can all talk and maybe come up with a solution that would work for everyone. How does that sound?”

“I guess it's worth a try,” Kendra said, picking her knapsack off the floor. “But I warn you, Professor Sawyer, Omar can be somewhat of a jerk.”

“He wouldn't be the first I've encountered,” Peyton replied, rising from her chair. She walked Kendra to the door and poked her head out looking for Amber. She found her leaning up against the wall.

“You ready?” Amber asked.

“Give me a sec to get my purse.” Peyton rushed inside her office and pulled her purse out of the desk drawer and slung it over her shoulder. “I'm ready,” she said seconds later.

They left the building and went over to the faculty dining hall. Amber waited until they'd ordered summer salads before homing in on Peyton.

“Peyton, Peyton, Peyton,” Amber shook her head. “You have to learn not to get so involved in your students' affairs.”

Peyton's mouth curled into a grimace. “What do you mean? I was only trying to help.”

“It's just not a good idea,” Amber replied, “to get so
personally
involved.”

“If I can help a student, then I'm going to do it,” Peyton stated firmly. As a teacher, she'd seen her mother
help many students, and Peyton strived to do the same. “How difficult can it be, anyway?”

 

For his meeting with Quentin and the corporate sponsor, Malik dressed extra-carefully. He wanted to impress the bigwig, if he was going to convince him to hand over thousands of dollars. He chose a black, double-breasted suit and teamed it with a starched white shirt. He nixed a tie, because he hated the darn things, and he left a few buttons open at the top. Dark loafers, which he'd bought from a local street vendor, completed his ensemble. Malik admired himself in the mirror. He rarely, if ever, got dressed to come to the center, unless he had a meeting at the CAN headquarters, or the board was making their semi-annual visit.

Malik finished up paperwork in the morning before meeting Quentin at The Grill Room. “I have a twelve o'clock with Quentin Davis,” Malik informed the maître d', once he arrived.

“Follow me.” He led Malik across the marble-floored dining room to a table with a view overlooking the Hudson River, where Quentin and Avery were already seated.
What is
she
doing here?
Malik wondered.

“Avery, Quentin,” Malik nodded as he came towards the table.

“It's good to see you, Malik,” Avery said, smiling.

Malik sat down and the maître d' placed a napkin over his lap. “Enjoy your lunch,” the maître d' said.

“Thank you. I'm surprised to see you here, Avery, but happy that you could join us,” Malik responded and turned to his best friend. “Q, I have to thank you for this opportunity, because the center could use a makeover.”

“Don't thank me yet,” Quentin looked towards the doorway.

“Why would you say that?” Malik asked, then his eyes followed Quentin's, to see corporate tycoon Richard King walking towards them. Malik blinked several times to make sure his eyes weren't deceiving him, but when he opened them Richard King was standing right in front of him.

“Malik.” Richard extended his hand—which Malik declined.

Malik inwardly seethed. Just a few months ago Richard King had wanted to tear down the community center and build a multimedia complex and condos, but Malik and CAN had fought him hard. What in the world would possess Q to think that he would ever accept a donation from the man who tried to destroy the very thing he was working so hard to preserve?

What Malik wanted to do was tell King that he could take his money and shove it, but he heard Andrew's voice telling him not to be so quick to judge. He busied himself by reaching for the pitcher of water and pouring himself a glass.

“Richard.” Avery rose and kissed her biological father's cheek. Not many people knew that she was the product of an interracial relationship. Richard had once had an affair with Avery's mother, an African-American woman. Even though they hadn't acknowledged each other publicly, only finding out they were related earlier this spring, she and Richard had begun to form a tentative friendship.

“How are you?” She attempted to make conversation, even though Malik was shooting daggers at both her and Quentin.

Avery had already gone out on a limb a few months ago when she'd asked Richard not to go forward with his Harlem development plans. When she'd approached him with the idea of doing a flip and renovating the
center, to show his commitment to the community, initially he'd been hesitant. But she'd persuaded him to at least come and listen; but now Malik's attitude threatened to ruin all her hard work.

“Well, darling,” Richard said, and smiled. It warmed his heart to have a relationship with the only biological child he'd ever have since his wife, Cindy, and he had been unable to conceive. “Quentin.” He leaned over and shook the photographer's hand.

After the waiter came and took their drink and lunch orders, Quentin dispensed with the pleasantries and got right down to business. “We all know why we're here.” He glanced at Malik, who was conspicuously quiet and sat sipping his water. “Harlem Community Center is in need of renovation. The center is looking for a corporate sponsor. Malik, why don't you explain to Richard some of the community center's needs?”

Malik inhaled deeply and willed down the bile that was in his throat, then took on a professional air. “HCC needs a corporate sponsor dedicated to our center and willing to put up the funds for remodeling. We need new paint, carpeting and tile throughout, plus refinishing the gymnasium floor and updating the kitchen. The computer facility is in desperate need of new technology. The game room could use another foosball machine and a new ping-pong table. We'd also like to set up some type of reserve for any special projects that we'd like to complete in the future.”

“You don't need a lot.” Richard chuckled.

“Are you laughing at the needs of the common folk?” Malik asked.

“Of course he wasn't,” Avery said, defending him, “but that was quite a laundry list. Isn't that right?” Avery's green eyes landed on Quentin's for help.

“Yes, but trust me, Richard, when we—” Quentin glanced at Malik, wanting his friend to know that they were all in this together “—say that it's all needed.”

“I don't doubt that it is.”

“But you're wondering what's in it for you?” Malik asked, as the tycoon sat back and stared at him. “I would say the satisfaction of knowing that you're helping a great many people, but since I doubt that's the answer you're looking for, then I would say the positive press that it would generate, given your portrayal in the media as a ruthless tycoon. And of course, the tax relief.”

“Malik, that's enough!” Avery said. She was embarrassed by his rudeness.

“Let the man speak his mind, Avery. He's entitled to his opinion,” Richard replied, “no matter how wrong it might be. If I were as ruthless as you say, Mr. Williams, I would have gone through with the development deal despite my daughter's plea. And I most certainly wouldn't be here listening to you today.”

“Touché. But then it begs the question, why are you here?” Malik pressed. “Are you here to assuage your conscience?”

“I'm here because your center needs funding and I can provide it, but if you'd rather look elsewhere…” Richard left his words hanging in the air.

“What I would like is to be able to look myself in the mirror and be proud of the man looking back at me.” Malik rose from his chair and threw his napkin down. “I'm not at all sure I can do that, knowing that the King Corporation would be the sponsor. Quentin and Avery.” Malik turned to his friend. “Thanks for trying, but I don't think this is the right fit for the center. Richard, good day.” Malik turned on his heel and strode out of the restaurant.

“Malik, wait!” Quentin yelled, but he was already gone.

 

Malik fumed on the train ride back to Harlem. Of all the potential corporate sponsors in Manhattan, Richard King was definitely not the person he'd expected to see when Quentin asked him to lunch. His cell phone had rung several times since he'd left the restaurant, and he let all the calls go to voice mail. He was in no mood to talk to Q right now.

Malik knew who was behind the ambush: Avery. Quentin would have never thought about approaching the man who tried to tear down the center to ask for money. Malik was beginning to think his boy was whipped.

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