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Tyra Cunningham stood at her bedroom window watching her younger sister, Darlene, drive off for her first day of work as an attorney. The early June breeze was blowing through her hair and drying the tears she hadn't realized were welling up in her eyes. She'd done it. Nobody would have thought it was possible. With the responsibility she'd taken on for her fifteen-year-old brother and thirteen-year-old sister not to mention herself, she'd produced remarkable results. Her brother, Clark, was a civil engineer working in Baltimore, and her sister had just been hired by one of Frederick, Maryland's most distinguished law firms. In the meantime, she had managed to educate herself. Of course, she'd had Maggie's support, but she'd made the important decisions and taken responsibility for the family.
She raced down the stairs and into the breakfast room. Maggie, who had been her parents' housekeeper before they had died in an accident, indeed, before Tyra's tenth birthday, sat eating her breakfast. "I feel like celebrating, Maggie. I don't have to worry about either of them any more. Mom and Dad would have been real proud, and that's all I ever wanted. I hope you know that I couldn't have done it without you, though."
"The Lord always provides. Now, I wish He'd provide you with a man. It's not a good idea you strolling around here with three decades under your belt and never even looking at a man."
"I look all the time. I just don't see any brothers who make me want to go to the trouble."
"There's a difference between browsing and looking. When I was your age, I would have been considered too old for marriage, that is, if I'd still been single. When you gon' have children after menopause? You young people act like youth is eternal."
"Oh, Maggie. For the first time in memory, I feel footloose and fancy-free."
"I know, chile. You've had to be a grownup since you were seventeen, and now you feel like you're seventeen. But take my word for it, that's not for you." She refilled her coffee cup. "Tyra, I'm serious. If men want a family, they look for a younger woman. If they fall for you before they think about family, you're lucky."
"You know more about this than I do. My one foray into dating wasn't very good, but I'm still hopeful."
As she headed up the broad, winding stairs of the house, she was proud that she had not only preserved what her parents, both physicians, left to her and her siblings, but had doubled its value. Their big, white-brick Georgian mansion stood out even among the elegant homes surrounding it. She put on a straw hat and sneakers, got a pair of shears and went out in the back garden to trim the hedges and cut away the dead blooms from daffodils and jonquils before the hot Maryland sun made it unbearable.
Boredom set in almost at once. What was she going to do with the rest of her life? She had a degree in psychology and was qualified to be a psychoanalyst, but she hadn't pursued a career because she'd been so focused on raising Clark and Darlene.
She went back inside and sat on a kitchen stool and waited for Maggie to come up from the laundry room in the basement. "What am I going to do with myself, Maggie? I plan to get a job. But a job isn't the answer for what I'm feeling. It's as if they went off and left me. I'm used to Clark being away, but Darlene's the baby, and she's on her own now."
"You're lonely, and you're gonna find out that it's not loneliness for Clark and Darlene. Being a woman means more than wearing a dress and putting on lipstick."
"All right. All right. I get the message. I've sent out job applications, but with no response so far. I only started last Thursday, so I guess it's too soon."
"You've got the empty nest syndrome that parents get when their children leave home. You'll get over it. Excuse me." She went to answer the telephone in the kitchen. "She's here, Clark. Just a minute."
"Hi, Sis. I'm bringing home a friend for dinner and overnight, so you and Maggie fix something real nice. Be there at about six."
"All right. At least this will give me something to do. With Darlene at work, this place is awfully quiet."
"I can imagine. For years, you've been busier than you had a right to be. See you around six." Tyra hung up the phone.
"He's bringing a friend home for dinner, Maggie, and she's spending the night. He wants us to serve something special, I guess. Wonder who she is and where they met. I'll put some flowers in the guest room. At least, this gives me something to think about."
"I was going to serve roast pork. Oh, well. I'll just dress it up," Maggie said. "Let's see. Cold mint-pea soup; roast pork with mushrooms, roast potatoes and asparagus. A salad, and let's see crÈme caramel. Coffee if anybody's got room left. That's not so much, since everything's light except the pork and potatoes. I need some more lemons, mushrooms and some cognac for the dessert."
"Good. I'll phone the grocer and the liquor store."
Tyra finished setting the dining room table, put a bowl of hyacinths and sweet peas from her garden in the center of the table and sat down to watch the local news. A while later, she heard the doorbell ring, glanced at her watch and saw that it was already ten minutes to six.
"I'll get it, Maggie."
She opened the door and gasped. Standing beside Clark was a strikingly handsome man, who stood a good two inches taller than Clark's six foot three. He was a good-looking man who wore success the way peacocks wear plumes. And the way he fixed his gaze on her unnerved her. Annoyed with herself, she looked down at her long, blue denim skirt and flat sandals. Her T-shirt flattered her ample bosom, but that was all it did.
She gathered her wits. "Come in. Clark, the time got away from me, and I haven't even dressed for dinner. I'll be right back." She ran upstairs before Clark could introduce her to his friend. Why had she assumed that his guest would be a woman? Well, at least they hadn't made chicken-À-la-king. Men preferred food that stuck to the ribs. She took a sponge bath and changed into a long, red-silk dress and heels. The shoes raised her height from five feet eight and a half inches to almost six feet. She liked being tall.
"Byron Whitley, this is my sister, Tyra," Clark said when she returned to them. "My kid sister, Darlene, should be here in about half an hour. And this is Maggie Jenkins," he said, as Maggie served hot hors d'oeuvres. "Maggie is our housekeeper and surrogate mother. Maggie, this is Byron Whitley."
"Welcome, Mr. Whitley," Maggie said. "I hope you'll visit us often." She cast a sideward glance at Tyra and smiled as if triumphant.
Tyra had never learned to drink, mostly because she felt that she had to set a good example for her siblings, especially her sister. Nonetheless, she leaned back in her chair, crossed her legs and, after deciding that she could use something to steady her nerves, she asked her brother to make her a vodka tonic.
Clark stared at her. "You sure? In that case, you'd better eat some of those little canapÉs Maggie served."
Tyra looked at Byron. "This morning, my responsibility for my brother and my sister ended. Clark has been on his own for the past five years, and today our sister, Darlene, began her first day at work. She's an attorney. I think I deserve a drink."
"You do, and I'll join you," Byron said, looking intently at her as if there were no one else other than the two of them. When he raised his glass to her, she shifted in her seat, uncomfortable with the sexual tension between them.
She heard the front door open and was about to go to greet her sister when she realized that Darlene had gone directly up to her room.
"Darlene's here," she said to Byron. "We'll eat in a few minutes."
Byron focused his attention on Tyra. "What do you do, Tyra?"
"I'm a psychoanalyst, but I think I'd make a good counselor."
He rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger. "Yes. I expect you will be. Counseling can be very rewarding."
So Clark wasn't matchmaking, thought Byron. He hadn't told his sister anything about his coming to dinner. Indeed, she hadn't expected her brother's guest to be a man, given her attire when she first greeted them. He smiled inwardly. When she saw him, she dressed in a hurry. He liked that, and he liked her. A woman who looked as if she might be in her late teens came into the room, her face all smiles. He noted that she had the Cunningham looks, but she certainly didn't have the bearing of a lawyer.
"Hi, all," she said.
Clark walked over to her, put an arm around her and said, "Byron Whitley, this is Darlene, my baby sister. She did a decent day's work today for the first time in her life. Darlene, this is Byron Whitley."
"I'm glad to meet you, Darlene."
"Thanks. I'm glad to meet you, Byron." She turned immediately to her older sister. "Hi, sis. Did I keep you guys waiting?"
Not much escaped him, and if he didn't know better, he'd swear he'd just been given the brush off by someone who was anxious to portray herself as something that she wasn't.
"No, you didn't," Tyra said to her sister. "Let me check with Maggie."
Tyra strode to the kitchen, her suspicions rising. "What's going on here, Maggie? Did you get a look at Darlene? From head to foot, she looks the way she did ten years ago with her hair in a pony tail, no makeup, jeans that are too tight and sneakers. She didn't leave here this morning looking like that."
Maggie didn't seem concerned. She handed Tyra two bowls of cold mint-pea soup. "Here. Put those in Clark's and Mr. Whitley's plates. I'll bring in yours, Darlene's and mine."
She knew that Maggie's nonchalance was her way of avoiding things. "Okay, but don't you think Clark and Darlene are up to something?"
Maggie's withering look was not unusual. For years, she'd used it as a way to express her disapproval without saying a word. "What on earth could they be up to? You ever know Darlene to keep a secret? Clark's too smart to be in cahoots with Darlene about anything that's supposed to be a secret. After you take those bowls in, would you come back and cover that platter while I light the candles?"
"Why don't you cover the platter and I'll light the candles? I don't want to rearrange your handiwork," Tyra said.
She put the soup at each place setting and looked in the top drawer of the china cabinet for the lighter. When she couldn't find it, she searched for a match. She lit two matches, both of which quickly burned out.
"Let me do that for you."
She looked up at Byron Whitley, towering over her in a way that few men did. When he smiled and extended his hand for the matches, her left hand went to her chest as if to lower her heartbeat. He took the matches from her hand, lit the candles and asked her, "Would you go to dinner with me Sunday evening?"
She wanted to say no. Indeed, she thought she was going to decline. Not because she didn't like him, but because she did. And that was the problem. She didn't know whether he liked her or knew that she was attracted to him and planned to take advantage of that fact.
"Will you?" he urged.
"I'd love to. Thank you." Embarrassed because she'd agreed so readily. He raised an eyebrow, but she pretended that she didn't see it.
After Maggie said grace, Clark asked Darlene about her first day at work. "I think they were all being nice to me. I liked the orientation that Mr. Harris gave me."
"It was probably very thorough," Byron said. "That firm knows its business. You've landed a good position. What area are you in?"
"I'm in contracts."
"Good," Byron said.
With Tyra's help, Maggie served dinner. She believed that serving one course after another made a meal more enjoyable. For dessert, they each got three heaping scoops of crÈme caramel.
Byron tasted it, closed his eyes. "I'm never leaving this place. After a meal like this, I could sit here until it's time for the next meal."
"Oh," Tyra said, "I'm not sure I'd like to see roots growing from you."
Darlene giggled. "I doubt he'd grow the kind of roots you have in mind, Sis."
Her comment had a suggestive overtone. "What kind of roots do you think I have in mind?"
"Let's just say you're not thinking of carrots." Then, as if to dispel any misunderstanding, Darlene turned to Byron. "I'm out of line, but this is kind of funny."
Byron's laugh shook his body. "She's got your number, Tyra."
"Yeah," Clark said. "She's used to getting away with it. If Tyra sent her to her room, she'd stay there five minutes, come out, say she was sorry, hug Tyra and that would be the end of it."
"I'm not a pushover." Tyra felt uncomfortable under Byron's intense stare. "Let's go into the living room and play some music," she suggested, to break the tension.
She and Darlene helped Maggie clear the table and clean the kitchen. "What are you up to, Darlene?" Tyra asked her.
"Nothing. Just relaxing after a hard day's work."
"Don't make jokes, Darlene. I know you. And nothing's going to convince me that you worked hard on your first day on the job. Nothing! Go in the living room and pick out some music, anything but hip hop."
"I don't do hip hop any more, Sis. You're way behind. I'm going upstairs for a minute."
Maggie put away the dish towel, removed her apron and looked at Tyra. "You didn't have to come in here to help me clean up. Why you trying to avoid that man? I saw how he looked at you, and you saw it, too. He's not wearing a ring, so what's your problem?"
"If you're trying to shove me into his lap, you can forget it. I'm not about to throw myself at him."
"You're not fooling me, Tyra. He's gotten to you. You're thirty-one years old, and men your age are getting married. So quit fooling yourself. Leave that tray here. I'll take the coffee in. Find another excuse to avoid Mr. Whitley. If a man like him looked at me the way he was looking at you, I'd be in there where he could see me. I'm gonna have to sit you down and talk to you."
Byron Whitley met her in the hallway. "Are you avoiding me? If you're not interested, say so. I won't be offended."