Authors: Pamela Yaye
she heard a small voice say. Ebony spent some time mulling over his question. Xavier was a calm presence and had provided the stability she needed in her life. They were a perfect fit. Although Ebony was now open to the possibility of marriage, she wasn't ready for such an enormous commitment.
Inclining his head to the right, he searched her face for answers. Xavier would have preferred to have this conversation at home, but he wasn't about to let this opportunity to discuss their future pass by. “I know what I want, Ebony. I want you.” Flicking a finger between them, he said, “This is not just a summer romance. I know the thought of settling down and starting a family scares you, but that's where I see things headed.”
The flash of panic in Ebony's eyes didn't go unnoticed. Caressing her cheek with his thumb, he watched her gaze drift fretfully around the room. They would be celebrating their four-month anniversary in a week, and although this talk was eight months too early, Xavier couldn't stop himself from sharing his heart. He was ready. Ready to propose. Ready to make her his wife. Ready to spend the rest of his life with her. Her distaste for marriage was the only thing stopping him from buying the ring and dropping to one knee.
Living together was another option, but not one he was keen on. “We're practically living together now,” Ebony would say when it came up in conversation. “When we're not at my place, we're at yours, so why don't you just sell your house and move in with me?”
often went unsaid. Xavier wanted to. He really, really wanted to. The thought of waking up every morning with Ebony in his arms would be a dream come true. He loved the thought of them living together, but as husband and wife, not boyfriend and girlfriend. Ebony deserved more than that. She ought to have the security that marriage provided, and so should he.
“Ebony, talk to me.” He pushed aside his desire to kiss her, and touched the side of her face instead. He leaned in so his mouth was against her ear. “I want to know what you're thinking and how you're feeling and if you want me as much as I want you.” There was so much more Xavier wanted to say. He wanted to tell her that his best days were when they were together, his worst days when they were apart. The evenings that she had business dinners and staff meetings were the longest four hours of his life. He occupied the time by going to the gym, or hanging out with the guys, and although he enjoyed working out and spending time with his friends, he often felt like he was just killing time until she got home.
Xavier made small, light circles on her back. The heat of his breath against Ebony's ear gave her goose bumps. She looked cautiously around the room. No one was watching them, but she still didn't feel comfortable discussing their future at his parents' dining room table. “We can't talk about this now.”
Xavier could tell by the way Ebony was fidgeting with her charm bracelet that she was uneasy, but he didn't remove his hands from her face. “When are we going to talk about our future?”
“Later.” Ebony was relieved that he didn't push her further. She said a silent prayer of thanks when Mrs. Reed emerged from the kitchen and announced it was time for dessert. Xavier left to grab them a few slices of pumpkin pie, leaving Ebony alone with his long-winded uncle. Uncle Posey talked animatedly about his stint in a county jail back in sixty-three. He had more hair on his arms than Alf and stammered excessively, but the more he drank, the less he stuttered. Ebony would have moved to another seat, but there was nowhere else to go. Friends and relatives were packed into the house so tight there was little room to breathe, let alone walk.
Ebony's gaze rested on Mr. and Mrs. Reed. They were sitting side by side, smiling, laughing, whispering to each other. Ebony had a strong suspicion she was the topic of choice. They'd been watching her off and on ever since Xavier's grand “confession.” Ebony didn't mind that they were eyeballing her; she was just relieved that the afternoon had gone smoothly. The Reed family was incredibly warm, and spending time with Xavier's female cousins had given her insight into what he had been like as a teen.
Xavier returned and set a plateful of sweets down in front of her. Forking a piece of banana bread into her mouth, she noticed Mr. and Mrs. Reed kissing.
she thought, trying not to stare. The uxorious man doted on his wife like they were newlyweds, rather than a couple with adult children. Mrs. Reed played the role of the submissive housewife perfectly. Her husband was the man of the house and Ebony guessed the arrangement suited Gloria just fine. She was old school with a capital O. During the course of the afternoon, she had waited on everyone, specifically the men and the children, and refused to sit down until everyone had a hot plate of food in their hands.
I wonder if that will be me one day,
Ebony thought, glancing over at Xavier. A broad and content smile sat on his lips.
bony had had a wonderful evening. The food was delicious, the company pleasant and the time well spent, but now she was ready to go home. Her cheeks hurt from smiling and she was feeling tipsy from all those glasses of red wine.
Detecting a shift in her mood, Xavier lovingly rubbed the back of her neck. Her illuminating smile almost eclipsed the sleepiness in her eyes. “Ready?”
Ebony didn't want to take Xavier away from his family, but she could barely keep her eyes open. “Are you?”
When Xavier leaned over and whispered in her ear, she couldn't hold back her smile. The man had a gift when it came to reading her thoughts. It was as if he was focusing all of his energy and looking into her heart. “Yes, I'm hungry for you, too,” she whispered, in response to his question, “but I don't want you to have to leave on account of me. If you want to stay longer, I can call a cab. I don't mind.”
“No, we can go.” Xavier suppressed a yawn. Then he patted his stomach and said, “I'm starting to feel a little sleepy. I think I ate too much.”
They both laughed.
Straining his neck toward the foyer, Xavier wondered out loud where his sister was. “Man, you've met my grandparents, my cousins and even Uncle Posey, but the one person I've been dying for you to meet isn't here.”
Noting the frustration in his voice, she rubbed a hand across his back. “How about we invite Jacqueline and Andrew over for dinner on Friday? You can fire up the grill, I can order in some side dishes from Stella's catering and we'll make a whole evening of it. I'll invite Kendall, Turner, Opal and Spencer. It'll be a mini dinner party.”
Xavier rewarded her thoughtfulness with a kiss. “That would be great.”
Ebony spotted Gloria, and put some space between them. She wasn't about to ruin a perfectly good evening by getting fresh with Xavier at his parents' house. Aunt Mae had raised her better than that. “Do you need some help, Mrs. Reed?” Ebony offered, as the older woman passed by with an army of plates in her hands. She didn't wait for an answer. She stood to her feet. “Here, let me take some of these from you.”
Gloria beamed. “I like her, Xavier. She's beautiful, mannerly and a successful businesswoman, too?” She turned back to Ebony. “Thank you, dear. Just follow me.”
Ebony did as she was told. The kitchen was crawling with people, mostly women, griping about the problems they were having with their men and discussing hair and makeup. When the room emptied, and the counter was cleared of pots, Ebony and Gloria got down to work. The two women chatted easily, while they worked to get the kitchen back in order. When they heard a commotion in the other room, Gloria excused herself. “I'm going to see what all the fuss is about. Don't you move. I'll be right back.”
Ebony heard Xavier say over the noise, “Happy Birthday, sis! I'm so glad you made it. I was beginning to think you guys weren't coming. How's my niece?”
“Xavier, stop that. The baby might hear you! We don't know if we're having a girl or a boy, but I know my body better than you do, and it's telling me that there's a boy in here!” Jovial laughter filtered into the kitchen.
Ebony thought, as she loaded the last of the dishes into the dishwasher,
I know that voice.
The squeaky childlike tone tickled her memory like a feather. Clients, business acquaintances and past colleagues ran through her mind at lightning speed. For some reason, she felt like this person was someway connected to her personal life. Allowing her mind to wander, she closed her eyes in concentration. Someone she went to grade school with? No. An old college friend? No.
No! No! No!
Ebony swallowed hard, her entire body quivering uncontrollably.
It couldn't be, could it? No. It can't be her,
she decided, unwilling to face her darkest fear.
It can't be!
She was so caught up in her musings she didn't hear Xavier call her name.
“Put those dishes down, and come over here and meet my sister, Ebony.”
God, please, no! Don't let this be happening to me!
She felt the heat rise up the walls of her chest, could actually hear the erratic beating of her heart.
“Jackie, this incredible womanâ¦”
Ebony felt like everything was happening in slow motion. She turned around and ended up face-to-face with her past. The hairs on her arms and neck stood up. Her eyes swept over the woman's small delicate features. Xavier's sister was more cute than pretty. Chin-length bob, high, graceful cheekbones, button nose. With the woman standing hip to hip with Xavier, Ebony could easily see the resemblance between the two. Jacqueline had the same cocoa butter complexion and slight dimple in her right cheek that Xavier had.
In a yellow maternity dress and a multicolored scarf around her neck, Jacqueline resembled a walking traffic light. Looking about eight months pregnant, the mother-to-be certainly wasn't a threat, but the expression on her face gave Ebony the chills. Hate shone in Jacqueline's eyes and if looks could kill, two medics would be carrying Ebony's corpse outside.
Grinning like a circus clown, Xavier looped his arm around Malcolm's wife. Or rather, ex-wife.
Maybe she won't recognize me. After all, it's been, what, six years?
Reality quickly set in.
Of course she'll recognize me. A wife never forgets the other woman.
The light in Xavier's eyes dimmed. “You guys know each other?”
“Of course I know who she is!” Jacqueline's temper flared. “That's the bitch who stole my husband!” Her voice rose to dangerous heights. If it wasn't for the animated conversations and riotous laughter coming from the living room, the whole house would've heard her.
Xavier had never heard Jacqueline curse, and her tone was sharper than a piece of jagged glass. Ebony wasâ¦the other woman? The woman Malcolm had been sleeping with? Xavier felt like all the air in his body had been sucked out of his lungs. This had to be a misunderstanding. Or a case of mistaken identity. “Jackie, are you sureâ”
“Of course I'm sure!” she snapped. “Do you think I'd forget the woman who stole my husband?”
Xavier paled when he saw Ebony lower her head. There was nothing worse than the two women you loved fighting, but before he could diffuse the situation, he had to calm himself. He had to step in, but he'd be no good to anybody if he acted on his emotions. After taking a deep breath, he offered Jacqueline some words of comfort. “Jackie, you have Andrew and the baby andâ”
She cut in. “Leave me alone, Xavier. This doesn't concern you.” Jacqueline stared at Ebony with an almost violent hatred. She balled her hands into tight fists and stepped deeper into the room.
For a second, Ebony thought Jacqueline was going to hit her. The mother-to-be might be petite, but like Ebony's marketing director, Sabrina, it was apparent she was a fighter.
In a very controlled voice, Jacqueline said, “The day I caught you
my husband was the worst day of my life. I thought I was going to die. Malcolm and I had a few problems, but we were working things out. That is, until
came along.” She jabbed her index finger at Ebony's chest with such force, Ebony was certain it would leave a bruise.
The best thing Ebony could do was to take the high road. Let Jacqueline get it all out. Permit her to say all the things she'd been holding inside all these years. Ebony would have followed the route of her thoughts, had it not been for Xavier listening in. What they had was far too precious to be ruined by vicious lies. Jacqueline could call her everything in the book, but Ebony didn't want Xavier to think she had wilfully and deceitfully ruined her marriage.
Intent on clearing up the past, Ebony said, “I didn't wreck your marriage, Jacqueline. I didn't knowâ”
“You're pathetic, you know that? Utterly pathetic. You're a home wrecker. A sleazy gold digger who doesn't have what it takes to find her own man, so she goes after happily married men. âI didn't know Malcolm was married,'” she mimicked. “Bullshit! You knewâ¦you just didn't care!”
Ebony willed herself not to cry. Not here. Not now. She wanted to fight back, wanted to clear her name, wanted to make things right, but arguing with Jacqueline would only make things worse. Eyes glazed with pain, she spoke in a low, contrite tone. “I swear to you, I didn't know. I'm sorry ifâ”
“Shut up!” Jacqueline yelled, cradling her stomach protectively. She clutched her brother's arm and forced him to look at her. “Stay away from her, Xavier. I know her type. She's nothing but trouble. I wouldn't be surprised if she's slept with other married men. I bet she intentionally seeks them out to help finance her extravagant lifestyle.”
“That's not true!” Ebony protested. She started to say more, but when she saw the wounded expression on Xavier's face, she closed her mouth. He looked like he'd been kicked in the stomach and then rolled over and pummeled in the back. His face was blanketed with hurt and he couldn't even bring himself to meet her eyes.
Ebony would be the first to admit that she had made some bad choices in life. There was a time when she didn't care about anyone or anything. She had dated men who were all wrong for her. Spent ridiculous amounts of money. Partied more than she should have. But with the help of aunt Mae, and the support of her girlfriends, she had cleaned up her act. Through intense counseling, she had come to terms with her bitter childhood and the untimely death of her parents.
Ebony wasn't the same naive twenty-five-year-old who had been seduced and deceived by Malcolm Pleiss. She had changed and the past was long behind her. If she had the power to turn back the hands of time, she would. But she couldn't.
“Women like you make me sick. You screw around, spreading diseases and breaking up happy homes. You have no consideration at all for the families left behind to pick up the pieces!”
Ebony wasn't going to take any more of this abuse. She wasn't going to stand aside while Jacqueline bashed her good name and humiliated her in front of the man she loved. Poking out her chest, she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin defiantly. It didn't matter what Jacqueline thought of her; she knew the truth and that's all that really mattered. Clearing the anguish from her voice and resting the dishrag on the counter, she directed her comments to Xavier. “I'm leaving.”
Ebony fled the room before Xavier could reply. After collecting her purse from one of the back bedrooms, she hurried down the hall toward the foyer.
You can't leave like this!
The voice in her head sounded like aunt Mae. Leaving the barbecue without saying goodbye to Xavier's parents would be rude. Mr. and Mrs. Reed had opened their home to her, and made her feel welcomed. Regardless of her hurt, she had to extend her heartfelt thanks to the couple. Ebony found them in the backyard, playing a game of spades with another couple.
“Thanks for everything,” she said, when they looked up and acknowledged her presence with a smile. “I had a lovely time.”
“You're leaving now?” Gloria attempted to stand. “Well, the least I can do is see you and Xavier off.”
“No!” Ebony stripped the panic from her voice, and mustered a smile. “Xavier's not leaving. He's going to stay and visit with his sister for a while. I'm taking a cab.”
“Are you sure?” Mr. Reed asked. “Gloria and I can run you home and come right back.”
“No, I'll be all right. I don't live too far from here.”
“Oh, okay.” Gloria gave her a hug. “Don't be a stranger, you hear? I expect to see you at all the family gatherings from now on. Understand?”
Ebony hated lying to the woman, but she had no choice. After promising to come by next week for Sunday dinner, she tore out of the backyard and down the walkway.