Authors: Pamela Yaye
A bowl of peanuts sat on the middle of the table next to a vase of fake flowers. Ebony scooped up a handful and put some into her mouth. When she finished what was in her hand, she took some more. “These are good. I could eat the whole bowl!”
“How can you be hungry after all that food we ate at the church? Where do you put it all?” he joked good-naturedly.
“I didn't eat anything at church,” she confessed, double-checking to ensure her napkin was clean. Ebony covered her lap, and then dusted the salt off her hands. When she lifted her head and found Xavier watching her, she asked him what was wrong. “What's with the frown?”
“Why didn't you eat at church?”
“Old Man Griffin was still hungry after he finished his plate, so I gave him mine.”
Xavier raised a brow. It was the second time tonight Ebony had surprised him. First she had stayed behind to help him clean, and now this. He had watched her on and off during the night and whenever he glanced her way she looked like she wanted to bolt from her seat. Chester and Mariana were sloppy eaters, and he thought their poor table manners had robbed her of her appetite. But that hadn't been it at all. Xavier was glad his assumptions were wrong. Thinking about dinner reminded him of something he wanted to say. He waited patiently for the waitress to serve Ebony her meal, and then for her to start eating, before he spoke. “I wanted to talk to you about Lydia'sâ”
“The young girl who stormed out of the church.”
“I didn't even know her name.” Ebony knew what was coming next. Xavier was going to reprimand her for chasing the girl off. “I don't even know what I did wrong. One minute I'm listening to Old Man Griffin talk about his accident at work and the next thing I know she's yelling at me!”
Xavier reached out and touched her hand.
His warmth spread up her hand and to her heart. It was a dizzying sensation. Ebony stared down at his hands. His fingers were long and thin, his nails neatly trimmed. But it was the size of his hands that made the blood in her body rush to her most intimate parts. She bit down on her bottom lip to keep from blurting out what she was thinking.
“I don't know what she said to you, but don't take it personal. Her mother has a heavy drug habit and she's been arrested for prostitution too many times to count. She kicked Lydia out of the apartment shortly after her seventeenth birthday and she's been hustling ever since. I've been trying to get her into a shelter, but she refuses to go.”
When Xavier had been young and idealistic, he had thought he could change the world. He was going to make a difference. Touch lives. Bring change. Under his care, druggies would kick their addictions, dealers would see the errors of their ways and prostitutes would turn away from their corners and head to the church. But he soon realized there was little he could do if the person didn't want to change. And the majority of the homeless people who came through the church doors night after night didn't really want his help. These days Xavier concentrated on providing a place where they could have a hot meal. “Lydia's tough-girl-I-don't-need-anybody persona is a defense mechanism. It's her way of coping with all the crap that's going on around her. You represent everything she's not but would love to be. That's why she lashed out at you. Don't take what she said to heart. They were the words of an angry girl who feels like she's fighting against the world.”
In the ensuing silence, Ebony gave more thought to what Xavier said. His words were comforting and made a lot of sense, but she couldn't help feeling guilty. Maybe she had done something to provoke Lydia. Or maybe he was right. Maybe Lydia was a troubled teen trying to find her way. Xavier had given her something to think about.
Ebony sipped her drink. “You're very insightful, Mr. Reed.”
He winked at her. “I get that all the time.”
They laughed. Ebony looked out the window and marveled at the number of stars in the sky. It was a clear night, flanked by a light breeze. Somewhere between stargazing and finishing her meal, her mind wandered. She would have to go into the office early tomorrow. Piles of paperwork were stacked high on her desk and she had an afternoon meeting with a bank representative. Ebony had realized at a young age that education was key for enrichment, personal and professional growth and most importantly, independence. Starting Discreet Boutiques had been her passport to financial security and its success was a complement to her hard work and dedication. Success came at a price, and Ebony refused to let anythingânot even sleep deprivationâstand in her way.
“Who are you daydreaming about now?” Xavier asked, intruding on her private thoughts. He took a bite of his pie.
“Not who, what. I was thinking about work.”
“Do you always have work on the brain?”
“Most of the time.”
“What do you do for a living?” His right hand flew up before the question was off his lips. “Don't answer that. Let me guess.” Cupping his chin and soothing his hand over his jaw, he narrowed his eyes on her face. Admiring her creamy-brown complexion and well-shaped lips wasn't going to give him any clues, but he gawked anyway.
Ebony's heart skipped a beat. And then another one. She tasted her drink, and the rich liquid cooled her body's fire. It wasn't Xavier's steady gaze that made her palms sweat; it was desire. It surged through her body like a hurricane through the state of Florida in the month of June.
“You're a career-minded woman, with great self-confidence,” Xavier began, “so I'd guess that you were a stockbroker, a state prosecutor or maybe even a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.”
Ebony nodded appreciatively. “Not bad, Xavier. I'm not CEO of a billion-dollar companyâ
but I am co-owner of a popular lingerie boutique.”
“I knew it!”
“How'd you know?”
“Power's oozing from your pores.”
“Am I that easy to read?”
Xavier snapped his fingers. “Like the cover of a book.”
Ebony liked the way his smile danced across his face.
I wonder how the rest of his body moves.
“Have you been involved in the program for a long time?” she asked, changing the subject before her lax tongue got her into trouble.
“This is my fourth year as the program coordinator, but I've been going to Jubilee for years. The members have become part of my extended family. Pastor Henderson and his wife, Necee, are my second parents and their teenage sons are the brothers I never had. I don't work too far from the church, so when I need a quiet place to work, I come by and use one of the upstairs offices.”
“Where do you work? Oh no, let me guess,” she said, imitating him to a tee. Letting her eyes rove over his thick, juicy lips, she wondered if it was possible for him to look anything but delicious.
I bet he'd even look good in a pair of neon pants,
she thought, holding his gaze. “You're a natural born leader, so I'd guess you work in Human Services. You're a firefighter, a medic or maybe even a cop.” A picture of Xavier in a blue polyester uniform and handcuffs dangling from his hips flashed in her mind. Then a devilish grin rippled across her face. “Am I right?”
“Not bad. But you're wrong.” He chuckled heartily at the exaggerated look of shock on her face. Xavier finished his milkshake. “I'm the guidance counselor and home economics teacher at Christian Academy High. Butâ” he paused for effect “âwhen I was a little I used to play cops and robbers.”
Xavier's heart warmed at the sound of Ebony's rich, throaty laugh. It was playful, sexy and flirtatious all in one. And he wanted to hear more of it.
For the next forty-five minutes, conversation flowed smoothly between the pair. Flirtatious smiles, shrieks of laughter and amusing tales punctuated the meal. Ebony was shocked at how much they had in common. They shared more than just a birth date. Sushi was their favorite food. Baseball their sport of choice. They both played the piano and were the biggest John Coltrane fans of all time. And they had each seen the movie
about fifty times.
The waitress bounced back over to the table. “How's your meal, ma'am?”
When the waitress took the plates and asked if they needed anything else, Xavier draped his arms over the back of the booth. “Could you bring us a couple of dessert menus? I think my date is in the mood for something sweet.”
Am I ever,
Ebony thought, cleaning her lips with a napkin.
“Had you always dreamed about owning your own business?” he asked, returning to the topic they had been discussing before they were interrupted. “Is this what you imagined yourself doing when you were a kid?”
“Nope. When I was seven years old, I wanted to be a firefighter.” The words were barely out of her mouth when she felt a sharp stab of pain in her stomach. Ebony's eyes watered. Gripping the side of the table, she took a long, deep breath. It didn't help. She felt like the room was spinning.
Xavier examined her face. “Are you okay? You don't look too good.”
“Be right back,” was all Ebony could say. Cupping her mouth with one hand, and cradling her stomach with the other, she hurried toward the washrooms.
Once inside the ladies' room, Ebony threw herself over the sink and emptied her stomach. She thought the worst was behind her, but when she tried to stand up, she felt her stomach twist into tight knots. Holding her side, she slumped against the wall and dropped to her knees. Closing her eyes, she prayed that the pain would end.
“Oh my God!” she heard someone yell. She felt a hand on her shoulder. “What's the matter?”
Ebony's eyes flittered open at the sound of the soft and caring voice. The scent of onions permeated the tiny jail-cell-size bathroom. She felt the heat of the woman's breath on her face, but she didn't have the strength to move away. “I'm sick,” she said.
“Do you want me to call your husband?” The woman read the question in her eyes. “My sisters and I are sitting in the booth behind you guys. Now, let's get you cleaned up before I go and get him. If he comes in here and sees you slobbering all over yourself, he'll probably pass out.”
Ebony didn't want him to see her like this, but she couldn't spend the rest of the night on the bathroom floor of Dakota's Bar and Grill, either. She took the toilet paper the brown-skinned woman offered her, cleaned her mouth and dragged herself up off the floor. When Ebony saw her reflection in the mirror, her eyes spread wide in shock. Mascara coursed down her cheeks, the front of her dress was stained and to top it all off, she smelled like spoiled fish.
aradise Moore adjusted her denim Lane Bryant dress. She checked her bra, stuck out her chest and drew a deep breath. Sauntering through the dining area, she switched her thick hips to the music playing. She tried on a myriad of smiles as she approached the corner booth, and settled on one that showed every single tooth.
The man with the deep-brown skin and hazel eyes was even better looking up close. He had a straight nose, a pointed jaw and eyes that looked like they could see right through her. When she pulled up in front of his table, his cologne wrapped itself around her and all two hundred pounds of her tingled. It took a half minute for Paradise to remember why she was there. She cleared her throat and once she had his undivided attention, said, “I'm sorry to bother you, but your wife needs your help.”
Xavier chewed the pie in his mouth. “Pardon me?”
“What do you mean, who? Your wife!”
Paradise wrinkled her nose. Was he for real? His wife was in the bathroom with a sore stomach, a high fever and numbness in her hands and legs and here he was trying to run game. Sure, he wasn't wearing a wedding ring, but that didn't mean anything. He was probably one of those husbands who “forgot” to put it on before he left the house. The man was too handsome for words and his dimples made her want to plop down on his lap and nuzzle up under his chin, but only a fool would mess around with a married man. Karma was no joke and she didn't want to provoke the vicious hand of fate.
Paradise pointed to the other side of the booth. “There was a woman sitting here with you a few minutes ago. About five-eight, kinda bony, exotic features, big butt.”
“We're not married. She's aâ¦” What was she? Ebony was certainly friendly enough and he liked talking to her, but he didn't consider her a friend. But for lack of a better word, he said, “She's a friend.”
Paradise grinned like she had just won first prize on a TV game show. The man was fair game. He was on the market! She sat down, made herself comfortable and extended a hand. When he squeezed it, she said, “I'm Paradise Moore. What's
“I don't mean to be rude, Ms. Moore, but I believe you came here to tell me about my date. Is she all right? Where is she?”
“In the bathroom throwing up. I'm no doctor or anything, but I am a registered nurse at Hennepin County Medical Center and experience tells me that your friend has more than just an upset stomach. After having three children of my own, I can easily decipher the early signs of pregnancy. Throwing up at any given time of the day and spending hours on end in the bathroom are signs number one and two.”
Xavier sat in stunned silence. Ebony was pregnant? Hadn't he just watched her drink a glass of wine? “No, she couldn't be pregnant.”
“Oh, yes, she is,” Paradise told him, matter-of-factly.
Why would Ebony harm her unborn child by drinking alcohol?
Xavier had seen firsthand the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome and other drug and alcohol related learning disabilities. It infuriated him that mothers could be so selfish when it came to the physical and emotional needs of their unborn child.
Xavier rubbed a hand over his forehead, in an attempt to clear his mind. During dinner, Ebony had impressed him greatly. She had a quick smile, a vibrant personality governed with charm and grace, and an abundance of energy. It was exciting to be around a woman who spoke her mind and expressed herself so freely. When their discussion had turned to the present state of politics and government, Ebony had argued her opinion like she was speaking on behalf of the president himself. There hadn't been a dull moment all night.
To his surprise, there was nothing arrogant or egotistical about her. Xavier knew you couldn't really know someone after a few hours, but he had a good idea about who she was. That's why news of her pregnancy took him for a loop. Ebony bordered on being a workaholic and it sounded like she had her personal and professional life all mapped out. Why would she complicate her life by having a child? It wasn't Xavier's place to interfere in people's private matters, but he couldn't sit by and do nothing while she endangered the health of her unborn child. Drinking alcohol while pregnant made about as much sense as smoking a cigarette in church.
“So, where are you going after here?” Paradise asked.
Xavier tested out a smile. “Thanks for your help.” He collected his jacket and Ebony's things and slid out of the booth.
A minute later, Xavier stuck his head inside the door of the ladies' room. He found Ebony perched on a wooden stool, sipping a glass of what he surmised was ginger ale. The desire to take her in his arms and kiss the tracks of her tears was overpowering. Xavier didn't know if it was the knowledge of her pregnancy, or the vulnerability in her eyes, but he wanted to hold her. Comfort her. Soothe away the pain lines etched across her face. Tell her she and the baby were going to be just fine. But he didn't. He didn't know her well enough to offer such intimacy.
When Ebony saw Xavier in the doorway, she straightened her clothes and cleaned the corners of her mouth. Embarrassed, she couldn't even bring herself to look him in the eye. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Getting sick all over yourself and then hiding out in the ladies' room was not the way to make a good impression on a man like Xavier. Or any man for that matter. Ebony had rinsed her mouth out with water for a good five minutes, but her breath still smelled like old socks.
Xavier took in her sad eyes and crumpled clothes. Ebony Garrett, a woman of luxurious tastes who prided herself on her impeccable appearance, was a mess. Strands of hair were pasted on her forehead, she had bloodshot eyes and the natural glow of her skin had faded. His sister, Jacqueline, was nearing the end of her first trimester, and complained nonstop about the sudden bouts of dizziness, nausea and vomiting she experienced on almost a daily basis. Maybe there was some truth to what that Paradise woman had said. “What happened?”
After a few quiet seconds, Ebony found the strength to speak. “I just want you to know that I don't make it a habit of crying in front of strangers.” Her attempt to diffuse the awkwardness between them brought a smile of understanding to his lips and temporarily put her at ease. “I think I have food poisoning. That, or I suddenly became allergic to snapper. Can you drive me home? I don't think I'm well enough to drive.”
“Of course. Do you think you can walk out of here?”
“Yeah, I'm okay.”
When Ebony tried to stand, Xavier came over, put a comforting hand around her waist and then guided her out of the washroom. Ignoring the shameless whispers and curious stares of the other patrons, they made their way to the front of the restaurant. People could be so nosy, he thought, noticing Paradise and her band of equally chubby friends eyeing them.
Doesn't anybody mind their own business anymore?
Xavier stopped at the register to settle their bill, but the white-haired manager took one look at Ebony and said, “The meal's on the house.”
The Fairview Southwest Hospital Emergency room was a hive of activity. Doctors and interns bustled down the halls, responding to intercom pages; telephones and pagers buzzed relentlessly and patientsâeveryone from a man complaining of severe chest pains to a car accident victimâwaited intolerantly for their names to be called.
Xavier wiped the sleep from his eyes. He turned to look at Ebony, surprised that she could sleep with all the commotion spinning around her. Stretched out across three chairs, her hands tucked under her head like a pillow, she slept soundly. She murmured in her sleep, and he unconsciously reached out and stroked her hair. It was soft and smooth, felt like silk underneath his fingertips. His hand dropped to her back, where it soothed away any lingering aches. Then he rested it casually on her shoulder.
On the drive to her house, Ebony had asked him to pull over twice. When he pulled over to the shoulder, she had bolted from the car, clutching her stomach. Xavier had never felt so helpless. When she had enough strength to return to the car, tears were streaming down her cheeks and she was shaking uncontrollably. Xavier had tried to comfort her the best way he knew how, but nothing he said or did seemed to help. Ebony insisted that she didn't need to see a doctor, but when her stomach pains got stronger, she relented.
Xavier stared down at her, compassion clear in his eyes. Her face was clammy and deep circles rimmed her eyes.
I wonder who the father of her child is. Does she even know?
Startled by his thoughts, he looked away. Ebony didn't strike him as irresponsible and since she didn't have a boyfriend and was wholly devoted to her career, he couldn't understand why she'd let something like this happen. But it was none of his business. For all he knew, this could have been a planned pregnancy.
When a petite woman with a gash on her forehead staggered into the emergency room mumbling incoherently, one of the nurses jumped up from the front desk. Xavier felt his temper flare as he watched them disappear behind a flowered curtain.
“We've been waiting for two hours,” he said, once he reached the front desk, “but a woman just came in from off the street and received immediate medical attention!”
A redheaded nurse jotting notes down on a metal chart glanced up at him. “Patients are categorized into three general categoriesâimmediate, life-threatening, urgent, but not immediately life threatening and less urgent. As usual, we're short on beds so we have to attend to life-threatening conditions first.”
“Does she have to die before a doctor will see her?” Xavier didn't realize he had spoken out loud until the nurse said, “Your wife won't die from food poisoning, sir, and there really isn't much Dr. Bellman can do. She'll advise you to buy some over-the-counter medication, and tell you to monitor your wife's condition for the next twenty-four hours.”
“Why didn't you tell us that
we filled out those stupid insurance forms and wasted two hours of our time?”
The nurse continued writing. “Because I'm not a physician.”
Xavier didn't want to disrupt Ebony's sleep, but he didn't want to spend another two hours in the waiting room just to hear the on-duty doctor say, “There's nothing I can do.” He wanted to take her home, but he didn't know where home was. As they exited the restaurant parking lot, she said she lived in the Linden Hills area, but she hadn't supplied a street or house number. Xavier could always check her driver's license, but he didn't feel right digging through her personal belongings. That would be intrusive. And besides, the nurse said her condition needed to be monitored for the next twenty-four hours. As far as he knew, Ebony lived alone.
It didn't take Xavier long to realize there was only one thing he could do.
When Ebony woke up, her face felt swollen, and her throat was sore. Swallowing was painful and she could feel a headache coming on. She stretched like a cougar in the wild, yawning loud enough for her neighbors on either side of her to hear. The windows were closed, and the blinds turned up. The room was dark, protecting her from intrusions from the outside world.
Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she eased out of bed and then shuffled into the bathroom. Only she didn't end up in the bathroom. She ended up in a walk-in closet. Ebony blinked.
Am I still dreaming?
Flipping on the lights, she took in the unfamiliar surroundings. Books and fitness magazines crowded the nightstand, shoes spilled out of the closet, and a flat screen TV that took up a quarter of the room was positioned directly in front of the bed.
Ebony hopped like a jackrabbit when there was a knock on the door. “Yes?” Her voice was timid and weak. She suddenly felt like she was living out a scene in one of those creepy horror movies she loved to watch.
The door creaked open, and when she saw who was on the other side, both relief and trepidation filled her heart. Ebony was glad it was Xavier at the door and not some masked man brandishing a butcher knife, but his presence left her feeling nervous.
“How is the patient doing this morning?” he asked brightly, walking into the room.
Praying he wouldn't come any closer, she took a step back. One whiff of her morning breath could slay a band of dragons. If she so much as opened her mouth, his eyes would roll in the back of his head and he'd keel over onto the carpet. Ebony gave her head a shake. She was being silly. Her breath didn't smell
bad. “I'm okay. I have a slight headache but my stomach doesn't hurt anymore. Why am I here?”
Xavier told her about their trip to the emergency room. “Since I didn't know where you lived, I decided to bring you here.” When she lowered her head, and her eyebrows knitted together, he added, “I cleaned you up the best I could. You complained of being cold, so I put some extra clothes on you. Sorry they don't match.”
Ebony's shoulders sagged in frustration. She wasn't sulking because her clothes didn't match or because her hair was a mess. It bothered her that he had been forced to take care of her. Ebony started to apologize for seeming unthankful, but his voice drowned her out. “Hungry? I was about to start breakfast.” He motioned with his head to the clock hanging behind her. “I guess I'll be making brunch. It's almost eleven-thirty. What would you like to eat, Ebony?”