Authors: Pamela Yaye
“I'm all right, suga. I don't need you to bring me anything, but I do need a small favor.” She paused, then added, “That is, if you don't mind.”
“I don't mind, Auntie. What is it?”
“I hate to have to bother you,” she began, her voice growing faint, “but I promised to cook tonight for the Changing Lives Through Meals program at Jubilee.”
“What are you asking me to do, aunt Mae? You know I can't cook.”
“No, no, chile. Don't be silly.” The thought of Ebony in the kitchen, wearing an apron and all, made her laugh. Her shoulders juddered uncontrollably. Once her chuckles subsided, she continued. “I prepared the food this afternoon, suga. Everything is ready to go. All I need for you to do is pick it up and run it over to the church for me.”
Ebony didn't want to go back outside. It was hot enough out there to cause a serious case of heatstroke. And tonight was the first time in months she had managed to leave the office at a decent hour. There were only two things on her agenda for the evening: peace and quiet. The season finale of
was on at eight o'clock and Ebony had been looking forward to it all week. No, there was no room on her schedule to drive halfway across the city to deliver food.
As if she could hear the deliberations going on in her niece's mind, Mae injected her voice with cheer. “It's for a good cause, Ebony, and it won't take more than an hour if you leave the house right now. All you have to do is give the food to Brother Xavier, and then you can be on your merry little way.”
Ebony checked the time. Her aunt's town house was a ten-minute drive, the church twenty. If she took a quick shower instead of a lengthy bath, she could drop the food off at the church and make it back home before the theme music for
started. Ebony didn't want to disappoint her aunt, and on the upside, stopping by the church would give her another crack at Xavier. She had met some stuffy, uptight men before, but no one had ever turned her down twice.
she thought, protecting her hair with a plastic shower cap,
maybe this is one of those blessings in disguise aunt Mae is always talking about.
“I'll be there in half an hour.”
avier masked his disappointment with a spurious smile.
Where is everybody?
he wondered hopelessly. Three elderly women and their stern-faced husbands were seated on orange chairs, getting acquainted. Xavier had been counting on twenty volunteers for the program; he'd be lucky if he ended up with ten. He checked his watch and was surprised to see that it was minutes to seven.
At the close of the banquet, scores of people, both young and old, had surrounded him to hear more about the Changing Lives Through Meals program. They praised what the church was doing, and seemed eager to get involved.
Where are those people now?
Xavier didn't know why he was so upset; this happened every year. People gave lip service to helping out and giving back to the community, but when it came time for them to step up, they fell back.
Xavier's head snapped up.
Creak. Creak. Creak.
Someone was trying to open the door. Another volunteer! Xavier jumped to his feet, flew down the hall at the speed of light and took the stairs two at a time. He reached the foyer in seconds. But when he saw who was at the door, he came to an abrupt halt.
What is she doing here?
He was desperate for volunteers, but not that desperate. His brief conversation at the banquet with the overtly sexual woman was still fresh in his mind. Xavier didn't allow his thoughts to linger on the past; there was no way of knowing where they would take him and he was in the house of the Lord. Scratching the side of his face, he tried to remember her name. He would feel bad if he had to ask her her name, but for the life of him he couldn't remember. Xavier concentrated for a few seconds. She was named after a color. That much he knew for sure.
Blue? Naw, that's stupid. Nobody names their daughter Blue!
Violet? Definitely not.
Xavier moved forward. The poor woman was wrestling with two gargantuan black pots, several plastic bags bearing the Ralph's Gorcery logo were swinging from her wrists, and here he was standing here watching her like a mannequin.
“Looks like you could use some help,” he noted, snapping out of his musings and relieving her of the pots.
Massaging the tenderness out of her wrists, she smiled her thanks.
After a brief pause, Xavier greeted her warmly. “It's nice seeing you again.”
Ebony's nose wrinkled. “It's nice seeing me again?” she repeated, the doubtful look on her face carried into her tone. “Funny, I got the distinct impression you didn't like me.”
Xavier opened his mouth to dispute her claim but the words didn't come. She was right; he didn't like her. The collar on his striped dress shirt and the accompanying tie were suddenly stifling. Her eyes rolled over his face and he wisely looked away.
Oblivious to his discomfort, Ebony apologized for being late. “I've been driving around this neighbourhood for the last ten minutes trying to find this church. I couldn't remember what side of the block it was on.”
“No worries, you're right on time. We haven't even started yet.” Then, “Is this everything?”
The aroma seeping out of the pots was tormenting Xavier's empty stomach. Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply. “Something sure smells good.” He motioned with his head to the pots. “What do you have in here?”
Ebony pointed to the pot in his right hand. “Sweet and sour meatballs. The other one has fried chicken. The vegetable casserole, coconut rice and cream and mushroom soup are in these grocery bags.” She trailed him downstairs, appreciating the view of his tight butt and muscular legs.
Does the man ever have a body on him!
Xavier ducked into the kitchen, leaving Ebony in the banquet hall with the others. She blinked rapidly, as her eyes took in their surroundings. Was this the same room she had been in four days ago? The dim lights and oversize paintings had concealed flaky paint, crumbling borders and a stained and tattered carpet. The once elegantly dressed tables were now bare, revealing food stains, pen markings and chipped wood.
A fair-skinned woman, wearing an auburn wig, which looked like it was clinging to her head for dear life, waved her over. “Hello there,” she greeted, with a full smile on her plump, collagen-enhanced lips. “I'm Sister Bertha and the man over there in the beige fedora is my husband. Say hello to the pretty lady, Willy.”
When the man did as he was told, Ebony said, “It's nice meeting you both.”
“Wow! Your hair is just too cute.” Sister Bertha touched her nape with clawlike fingernails. “All the big celebrities are wearing their hair like you. I just love the cut. Do you think I should do my hair like that?”
Sister Bertha fluffed her hair and Ebony just about fell out laughing. The sixty-something woman evidently thought she had it going on in her chartreuse A-line dress, multicolored sandals and heavy makeup. The ensemble was hideous, but Ebony couldn't help admiring the old lady's spunk. She didn't know about the others, but she was going to get along just fine with Sister Bertha. “I think it would look great,” she lied, averting her gaze.
God, forgive me for lying in church.
Sister Bertha introduced her to the others. Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne were the oldest couple, and the introductions seemed to interrupt a heated argument; Maria and Jules Hernandez were a nice-looking Mexican couple, who confessed that they had celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary yesterday. After offering her congratulations, Ebony excused herself and set out to find the unbelievably handsome program coordinator. She didn't have to look very far. Xavier stood at the back of the kitchen, with a plate of food in his hand and a fork in his mouth.
“What are you doing?”
The sound of Ebony's voice startled Xavier.
She pointed a finger at the stove, which was topped with plastic bags, casserole dishes and various sizes of pots and containers. Fixing a hand on her lap, she said, “The food you're eating is supposed to be for the homeless.”
“I know, butâ”
“But nothing. Put down that plate and step away from the stove before I call Sister Bertha in here.” The tone of her voice was harsh, but Xavier could tell by the way her mouth was twitching that she was trying hard not to laugh.
Xavier did what he was told, but not before he ate the last three meatballs on his plate. Shamefaced, he threw his hands up in surrender. “Guilty as charged. I was in here tasting the food. But I was starving and the food smelled so good!” He grabbed a napkin from the counter and cleaned his mouth. “You sure can cook! Those are the best sweet and sour meatballs I've ever had.” He walked toward her, a smile playing on his lips. “It's true what they say, you know. The fastest way to a man's heart is through his stomach.”
That's not the only way,
Ebony thought, returning his smile.
He pointed at the stainless steel pot he had carried into the kitchen. “You're going to have to teach me how to make those.”
What's the harm in letting him think I cooked the food? It might help him see me in a better light.
Deciding she wasn't breaking any of the Ten Commandments by not correcting him, she said, “I'm glad the food is to your liking, Xavier, but keep in mind it's for the less fortunate. I didn't slave over a hot stove for three hours so you can eat it all up before the guests arrive.” Ebony ignored the guilt pricking her heart. She waved a hand toward the stove. “It's hard work cooking all that food.”
Now you're overdoing it,
said a voice.
Remember, less is always more.
Xavier cocked his head to the right. He crossed his arms over his chest as he locked eyes with the woman sharing his personal space. Oval-shaped face. Accentuated cheekbones. Small, even teeth flanked by an inviting mouth. A black calf-length body-hugging dress masked her full chest, curvaceous hips and thick thighs.
Blackâ¦Blackâ¦Blackâ¦Ebony! Her name is Ebony!
Xavier couldn't hold back his smile. Remembering her name saved him the embarrassment of having to ask. His eyes returned to her face. She was without a doubt his sexiest volunteer to date. He would have to be careful. Very careful. Caution had to be the order of the day whenever she was around. Ebony was a clear and present danger to his emotional and physical well-being, and if he wasn't vigilant he just might yield to her seductive charms. Strikingly beautiful women had the power to turn even the most moral and upright man out, and Xavier didn't want to be the newest member inducted into the Sucker Hall of Fame.
Ebony was just another woman. Albeit, a provocative and amorous one, but a woman nonetheless. He had mixed feelings about her, but decided to reserve judgment until he got to know her better. Xavier plucked at his shirt.
Is it just me or is it hot in here?
he thought, feeling like the walls of the kitchen were shrinking.
Is it her come-hither stare that's got me hot under the collar or did someone turn up the thermostat?
He watched Ebony walk over to the fridge and pour herself a glass of juice. When she raised the glass to her lips, he wondered what it would be like to kiss her. Sucking her bottom lip. Licking theâXavier gave his head a good shake. Clearing his throat, he dragged his eyes away from her face.
You're in church for God's sake! Stop lusting after that woman! She's bad news.
But soon, his eyes were back on her. Ebony gave new credence to what made a woman sexy. She definitely had a penchant for fine clothes, but it wasn't her outfit or makeup or diamond rings that made her desirable. It was the way she carried herself. Her lithe movements and sensual grace. She walked like the ground was her runway. Shoulders squared. Chin up. Arms hung loosely at her side. Elegance was integrated in every move. And every step she took was flawless. It was these formidable characteristics that left Xavier wondering why she was here. Volunteers didn't look or act or sound like her.
“Don't take offense to what I'm about to say, but you're the last person I would've expected to volunteer,” he said, voicing his thoughts.
“Oh, really? Why's that?”
“Well, with your twelve-hour days and all, I didn't think someone in such high demand would have the time.”
Now I have to stay.
Ebony stepped toward him, took off her cream-colored trench coat, and flung it over a chair. Xavier had pegged her all wrong, and there was nothing she enjoyed more than proving people wrong.
How hard could it be serving the homeless?
Ebony was a little bummed about missing the season finale of her favorite show but this was more important. Xavier-the-know-it-all Reed would see just how charitable and generous she could be. She would have to catch the season finale of
some other time, because tonight there was nothing more important than teaching Xavier Reed a lesson.
The doors of Jubilee Christian Center opened an hour later, to a crowd of over a hundred people. Far more than anticipated. Xavier and the male volunteers wasted no time scrounging up more tables and the women had them dressed in no time. After Xavier welcomed everyone and said a short prayer, he saw to it that guests were organized in two orderly lines. Sister Bertha and Maria dished the food, Ebony staffed the drink table and the rest of the volunteers ensured everyone was comfortable and had enough to eat. Aside from the food Ebony had brought, there was macaroni and cheese, fried shrimp, meat loaf, potato salad, baked beans, dinner rolls and an assortment of soups. There was enough food in the kitchen to feed a large army.
When all the guests were taken care of, the volunteers fixed themselves a plate and sat down wherever there was a vacant seat.
“Spend time getting to know the people at your table,” Xavier had encouraged, when he was giving last minute instructions. His eyes had circled the room and then lingered on Ebony's face. “The only difference between the people eating here tonight and us is that they fell on hard times and didn't have the necessary support system to survive. Inside, we are all the same. We all want to be loved, supported, cared for and cared about. Make the people who walkâ” Xavier had swept a hand toward the hallway “âin here tonight feel special. Talk to them. Ask them questions. Listen earnestly to what they have to say. For a lot of them, it's been months or even years since they had a quality meal and a meaningful conversation.”
Xavier's words of encouragement played in Ebony's mind now. He was asking the impossible. She couldn't even look at her tablemates without shuddering, let alone engaging them in conversation. Mariana, the pencil-thin woman to her left, smelled like she had bathed in vodka. And every time she opened her mouth to put food in, some spilled out. Chester, who sat on her far right, was no better. He had a set of utensils, but pretended they weren't there. He scooped up vegetables with his callused hands. Cut meat loaf with his fingers. Slurped his cream of mushroom soup. His shaggy facial hair was soiled with dirt and now remnants of his meal. When he guzzled down his drink, and then belched loud enough to shake the entire church, Ebony pushed away her plate.
I'll eat when I get home.