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Authors: Pamela Yaye

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BOOK: Trouble with Luv'
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She caught Xavier watching her, and managed a weak smile.

“Are you going to eat the rest of your food?”

Ebony redirected her eyes to the beige-skinned man with the fatherly voice. “No, you go ahead.” When she handed him her plate, he grinned broadly, revealing badly stained teeth. “Old Man Griffin's the name,” he told her. “Thanks.”

He tossed a handful of shrimp into his mouth. “Suppa' sure is good, miss. Lady.”

Realizing he was referring to her, she said, “Glad you're enjoying it.” Sister Bertha had seen to it that all the guests washed their hands and faces with soap, but to remove the grime out from Old Man Griffin's fingertips called for something a little stronger than regular soap. It looked like the man needed some extra-strength bleach.

“We gonna get dessert?”

“I think I saw some chocolate swirl cheesecake around the back.”

“Chocolate swirl cheesecake! My old lady used to make that…was good…real good. Haven't had dat in a long while.”

“Where is she?”

He shoveled macaroni into his mouth. “Don't know for sure.”

“What happened?” Ebony asked in a quiet voice. She was about to withdraw her question, when the older man dropped his fork, propped his elbows up on the table and started to talk.

Ebony, and the other people at the table, listened quietly as Old Man Griffin shared from his past. He recounted how his life had taken a turn for the worse with clear detail and emotion. It was the winter of 2001, three months after September 11th. People were still scared. The economy was crumbling. Jobs were hard to come by. But the construction industry was flourishing. He loathed the cold weather, but he needed a steady paycheck. It was his third day on the job, the coldest day of the year, and he was battling the flu. A gust of bitter wind had rocked his scaffold, and in the blink of an eye, he slid off and landed hard on his back. Neck and facial injuries and a broken back had ended his construction career. He scratched his head. “Da foreman said I wasn't en…entittl…”

“Entitled,” Ebony corrected.

“Thank you, miss. Lady. Da foreman said I wasn't entitled to any cump…cumpens—”

“Compensation?”

He smiled his thanks. “Yes, dat's it. He said I wasn't entitled to any compensation because temporary workers aren't covered for disability insurance or health benefits.” He fell silent for a few seconds. “Those damn welfare checks weren't enough to feed my pregnant wife and two small kids. It was hell. I couldn't get another job until my back healed and I couldn't send my old lady out to find work, either. When we couldn't pay da rent da second month, our stupid landlord kicked us out.”

Old Man Griffin twiddled with the napkin holder. Unshed tears pooled his black-brown eyes. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, pushed the pain back to its rightful place and said, “We didn't have anywhere to go. My wife's cousin took pity on us and let us stay with her and her family for a month, and then we had to go.”

“And you don't know where your family is now?” Ebony asked.

“My old lady took da children to her people down south…I think they're in one of da Carolinas, I'm not sure. I haven't seen or heard from dem in a year. Her family never thought I was good enough for her anyways.” He hung his head, but the anguish in his voice was unmistakable when he said, “I miss dem kids, especially the baby. She was just a few weeks old when my wife left. She's three now and don't even know her own daddy.”

“At least your ma didn't toss you out on the street so her pimp could move in.”

Ebony swung her head to the right. Her gaze landed on the slight adolescent-looking girl with the chalk-white lips sitting next to Amelia. The girl reminded her of Halle Barry in
New Jack City
. The stringy blond hair. Cheap makeup. Too-short skirt and stretchy blouse. Ebony didn't know what drug she was abusing, but it was obvious she was a slave to something.

“Back in the day, I was the most popular girl in school. All the brothers wanted to get with me. Jocks. Pretty boys. Geeks.” She snorted. “Today, those boys wouldn't touch me with a ten-foot pole.”

Silence fell over the table. In the silence, Ebony searched for the right thing to say. “There are places you can go and get help. Agencies. Shelters. Community Centers. They'll get you off the street, help you stay clean and give you a fresh start.”

“There's no help for me. Ma used to say I'd never amount to anything. Told me I'd end up turning tricks like her. Said it was in my blood.” With a flick of her head, she said, “Guess she was right.”

Ebony extended a hand. “I'm Ebony. What's your name?”

“Why do you care?” The woman's eyes hardened, and her shoulders arched like she was gearing for a fight. She took in Ebony's perfect hair, flawless complexion and polished nails. “You must feel pretty good about yourself, huh? Serving poor black folk. I bet you think you're better than us. All dressed up in designer clothes and shit.”

It took a lot for Ebony to get embarrassed. But when a hush fell over the room and people at surrounding tables gawked at her, she felt her face flush. She didn't dare look over at Xavier; she could feel the heat of his angry stare right where she was. Drinking from her glass didn't loosen her airway.
Keep your cool,
she told herself.
Don't argue with her. If you ignore her, she'll get bored and move on to something else.

No such luck.

“Is this your good deed for the year,
Ms. Socialite?
Feeding homeless bums? Giving advice? Pretending to care? Trying to make the world a better place, huh?”

For the first time in Ebony's life, she was speechless. Running a shaky hand through her hair, she wished that she were back at home, in bed, figuring out the latest mystery on
CSI
.

“Don't you hear me talking to you?”

Ebony's eyes spread.
Is she talking to me?

“Yeah, you heard me, Miss I-think-I'm-Better-Than-Everybody-Else. You're too good to answer me now, huh? People like you make me sick. You walk up in here like you know what's going on out there on the streets, but you have no idea. I've been taking care of myself for years—y-e-a-r-s—and I don't need no damn agency making my life worse.” Her eyes tapered. “I don't need your advice, either, ya hear? I can take care of my damn self!” She leaped out of her seat and the plastic chair sailed back on the floor and landed with a clunk. Leveling more insults at Ebony, she snatched up her frayed windbreaker and then stormed out of the hall.

Chapter 5

“M
y dogs ache,” Sister Bertha announced, hobbling into the kitchen some three hours later. “I don't know about the rest of you, but my shift is over. Come on, Willy, let's go home. Mama needs to soak her feet.”

The other two couples followed suit, leaving Xavier and Ebony alone to finish up. The next forty-five minutes flew by quickly, as they worked to get the church basement back in shape.

Ebony couldn't remember the last time she had worked this hard. She had swept and mopped the kitchen floor while Xavier stacked the tables, collected garbage and vacuumed. Once the dishwasher was loaded, and the cycle set, Ebony was going to bid Xavier good-night and head home. Anything that had been overlooked would be his responsibility. She was beat. So tired she could hardly keep her eyes open.

“Where's the dishwasher?” she asked, checking underneath the sink and along the counter. “Is it in the storage room or something?”

Xavier tapped his chest. “You're looking at it!” The look of disbelief on Ebony's face brought a grin to his mouth. “The church doesn't have the extra money to buy one,” he explained. “So for now—” he held up his hands “—these will have to do.”

Ebony faced the sink. It was overflowing with crusted plates and utensils and the counter was piled as well. What she really wanted to do was go home, but she didn't feel right leaving Xavier alone when there was still work to be done. The clock on the microwave said it was five minutes to ten. The sooner they got started, the sooner she could go home. Ebony picked up one of the sponges on the counter and flung it his way. “You wash, and I'll rinse.”

They worked side by side for the next twenty minutes. Conversation was minimal; the only sound in the kitchen was of clinking dishes and gushing water. Xavier thought of his plans for the weekend while he washed; Ebony thought about work while she rinsed. She would be spending much of the morning behind her desk, proofreading reports on her company's five-year plan. She and Kendall had a follow-up meeting with the senior loan officer at First National Trust Bank in eight weeks and they couldn't afford to be unprepared.

Six Discreet Boutiques stores were scattered throughout Minneapolis, some in high-end malls, others in single standing buildings. The idea of opening her own boutique had been conceived after interning at Victoria's Secret. Ebony had always loved soft things, and in her opinion, nothing made a woman feel prettier or sexier than lace. After she'd shared her aspirations with Kendall, who had an eye for design, they had come up with the idea to host weekly “Silk Parties” in their dorm room. It was new and exciting and before long, all the girls on campus were trying to wrangle an invitation. In the fashion of Avon and Mary Kay, Ebony and Kendall had organized the event to give women of all shapes, colors and sizes the opportunity to sample undergarments, place orders, offer feedback on previously purchased lingerie and make suggestions. The “Silk Parties” had been an instant hit, and after peddling their merchandise on campus for two years, they'd had enough profits to rent a small store.

The present day success of Discreet Boutiques wasn't enough for Ebony. Opening additional stores, expanding the company to neighbouring states and taking it worldwide would be the culmination of all her dreams. These days, lingerie and sensual products were a billion-dollar industry. Ebony was thankful they hadn't thrown in the towel those first few years when business had been rough. Poor quality lingerie, meager sales and slothful and indecorous staff had threatened to do them in when they opened their first boutique, almost ten years ago, but when their marketing director, Sabrina Navarro, had come on board, there had been a dramatic turnaround. The advancement of women in society, and the influx of moms working outside the home, had given “the weaker sex” both confidence and independence. Modern day women knew what they wanted in their careers, their relationships and most importantly—the bedroom.

Ebony was so absorbed in her musings she didn't notice Xavier watching her. Like a well-oiled machine, she took the dish he passed her, rinsed it and placed it on the rack to dry. As she turned to receive the next dish, her hands skimmed his hands and sent a ripple of desire through her body. Recovering quickly from the jolt, she turned to face him. Ebony pointed at the dishes in the sink. “You're supposed to be washing, not watching me.”

Xavier gave her a grin. “Looks like someone's head is in the clouds. He must be very special.” Xavier didn't wait for her to deny or confirm. The cheeky expression on her face was answer enough. “So, you have a boyfriend?”

Ebony smiled like she had a secret she was unwilling to share.

Shaking his head in disbelief, he shoved a plate into her hands. Disapproval was in his eyes and in the tone of his voice when he said, “If you have a boyfriend, then why were you all over me at the banquet?”

Ebony rinsed off the dish and dropped it on the dish rack. The other plates shook. “Let's set the record straight. I was
not
all over you last Saturday. I merely introduced myself and asked if you'd be interested in having dinner, that's it.” She was quick to add, “And if you must know, I'm single. The last thing a woman like me wants is some man up under her twenty-four-seven. I'm happily dating and that suits me just fine.”

Xavier didn't look convinced. “Really?”

She nodded. “My girlfriends think I'm clinically depressed because I'm not sprinting to the altar, but I'm perfectly sane.” Ebony found herself laughing when Xavier made a funny face at her. “It's true! I'm just not one of those women in a rush to settle down. I'll be the big three-0 in July but I just don't feel the need to get married. Not one bit,” she stressed.

“Your birthday's in July?”

“Uh-huh.”

“When?”

“The twenty-ninth.”

Xavier stared at her. “You're kidding!”

“Do you want me to show you two pieces of ID?”

He shook his head.

“I was born at 1:22 a.m. on July 29 at the Arthur Hayes Medical Center.” Ebony's forehead crinkled. Xavier was staring at her like she'd just confessed she was thirteen rather than thirty. “What's with the wide eyes and slack jaw? Why is it so hard for you to believe I was born on July 29?”

“Because
I
was born on July 29!”

Her stomach flopped. “Really?”

Xavier nodded. “I came into the world three years before you, though.” After a minute, a smile flickered across his face. “Crazy, huh?”

“And you said we had nothing in common,” she teased. “I guess it's true what they say after all, you can't judge a book by its cover.” Then, with her most innocent smile and in a honey-sweet voice, she said, “I'm not as bad as you think, Xavier.”

Coughing to hide his embarrassment, he busied himself with washing the last remaining dishes. His mind returned to last Saturday. He hadn't exactly been warm when she came over and introduced herself. In fact, he had been downright rude. He had nothing against her personally, just women like her. She was right of course.
You can't judge a book by its cover. But you can tell what it's about by the packaging,
a small voice said in response. Xavier knew little about Ebony, but he knew her type. She was outrageous and unpredictable—everything he didn't want in a woman. That was reason enough to stay away. Far away.

Xavier looked around the kitchen. It was spotless. The floors had been mopped. Dishes were neatly stacked. Leftover food had been wrapped and stored in the freezer.

He swiped his keys off the counter and turned to Ebony. When she smiled at him, he realized he wasn't ready for their time together to end. The night was still young and he had nothing to do at home except laundry.

“Do you want to go somewhere for coffee?” He pointed to the clock on the microwave. “It's still early.”

Is he asking me out?
Ebony sure hoped so. She had every intention of saying yes, but decided to make him sweat it out. “I don't know, Xavier. What would we talk about? We have nothing in common, remember?”

To her astonishment, he guffawed loudly. “Does that mean you're turning down my invitation?” Xavier didn't know why, but he wanted to know more about her. Lots more. Ebony was unlike anyone he had ever met. She intrigued him. There was an openness about her and she was a woman of tremendous charm.
I'm not interested in her on a romantic level,
he told himself,
we're just having a cup of coffee.
Xavier had no intention of falling under her spell. They were going to share a cup of coffee, and then he was going home—alone. “I feel indebted to you for all your help. I'd still be elbow-deep in soapsuds if you hadn't stayed behind. The least I can do is buy you coffee.”

Ebony thought for a moment. Xavier's invitation was strictly platonic, but he didn't have to know she had other things in mind. She was attracted to him at the deepest level, and the more he resisted her, the more she wanted him. Her face glowed, radiant with anticipation. She was going to be polite and engaging and flirtatious and her “date” wouldn't know what hit him. Seducing Xavier Reed was going to be fun. “I'm ready when you are,” she said, tossing her jacket over her arm and collecting her purse.

A smile warmed Ebony's lips. By the end of the night, Xavier would be on his hands and knees begging to take her out again. She loved challenges, and nothing revved her engine like a healthy dose of competition. Snagging Xavier Reed would be like taking candy from a baby. And Ebony was in the mood for something sweet.

Xavier did another quick sweep of the kitchen. Confident that everything was in place, he flipped off the lights.

When Xavier fixed a hand to her waist and guided her through the kitchen, she had to remind herself to breathe. Ebony had met hundreds of gorgeous men, everyone from professional athletes to models to actors, but there was something special about the man walking beside her. Xavier Reed was in a class all his own. As far as her eyes could see, he was perfect. Sharp eyes. Long, thin fingers. Thick lips perfect for sucking and kissing. And the spicy, refreshing cologne embracing his skin suggested he had an adventurous side. Just the type of man she was looking for.

I just wish he wasn't so fine,
she thought, as they climbed the stairs.
He could turn me out with just one smile!

While Xavier secured the locks on the doors, Ebony hurried across the church parking lot and climbed into her SUV. Thoughts of their impending date consumed her mind. She would have to keep her loose tongue in check. If she said or did the wrong thing, she might not get another chance.

Xavier jogged over. “Follow me,” he told her. “I know the perfect place.” When he turned and walked toward a battered gray car, a lusty smile claimed her lips. Ebony shook her head slowly, awe clear in her eyes.
That man is too fine for his own good!

 

Dakota's Bar and Grill was not what Ebony had in mind when Xavier asked her out. She was thinking of a fun, happening spot like The Hampton Club, or Sydney's Café, not a mediocre restaurant with second-rate food and poor service. Trailing him into the dining area, she was careful not to touch anything. The customers were a mix of young starry-eyed couples and middle-aged singles who were looking for more than a tasty meal on a Friday night. Ebony took in her unsightly surroundings. Her eyes narrowed in disgust at the hideous neon plastic tablecloths and paint-splashed walls.

“Have you ever been here?” Xavier asked, sliding into one of the booths.

“No. Never.”
Thank God
went unsaid.

“Then you're in for a real treat tonight.”

Ebony would rather stand than sit down in the flaky vinyl booth, but when Xavier motioned for her to take a seat, she did. It was as cold as a hospital examination table. Inspecting the tablecloth for a second time, she noted that it had bread crumbs and what looked like tomato sauce stains.

“Hungry?” Xavier asked, from behind a laminated menu.

“Starving.” Ebony didn't even bother opening her menu. She already knew what she was having. You could never go wrong with soup and salad. But when the frizzy haired waitress with the pierced eyebrow bounced over and described the specials of the day, chicken noodle soup and Caesar salad quickly lost their appeal.

“The snapper is the best thing on the menu, Ebony. Go on. Try it. You'll love it.”

She gave the waitress the nod. “And I'll have a glass of red wine.”

“And you, sir?”

Xavier closed his menu. “I'll have the Chocolate Supreme Milkshake and a slice of apple pie.”

Before Ebony could ask for the table to be wiped, the waitress bent down and gave it a thorough cleaning. Some of the worry lines on Ebony's forehead fell away. When she saw wet wipes lying beside the condiments, she tore open a package and wiped down her hands.
Maybe this place isn't a dive after all.

The waitress departed, returned a few seconds later with their beverages and then left to check on a trio of black women now seated in her section.

BOOK: Trouble with Luv'
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