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The crowd was chanting in protest louder now, the loudest since they'd started an hour ago.
"Silicon Valley for everyone!"
"End racism in Silicon Valley!"
"Full disclosure Top Pressure!"
"Silicon Valley for everyone!"
Jesse Grant had to take a deep breath. Finally, she thought. They were stopping now that they had reached their destination. She knew it had been a while since she'd exercised regularly, but following the crowd up the steep San Jose hill had winded her.
"Note to self," she whispered as she turned on her minirecorder. "Put jogging back on the daily schedule."
She lowered the recorder, her mind wandering to the place where it somehow found itself every day. To the beach, where she used to jog. To him.
Peter Jackson, a local activist, raised his poster in the air. He wasn't chanting for the moment, so Jesse took the opportunity to do her job. She lifted the recorder.
"Now, Peter," she said. "You've led this crowd of protestors through downtown San Jose to Top Pressure's offices. Now that you've reached your destination, what do you want?"
He leaned forward, his raisin brown skin wrinkling early because of life under the California sun. "We want Top Pressure to know they aren't getting away with anything. The facts are, this company is a major sports software corporation now, employing almost one thousand people. Of those, only two are minorities, neither of whom are in executivepositions."
"How do you know this, Peter?" Not a stranger to activism herself, Jesse could see the conviction in his eyes and she immediately liked him. He was one of the good guys, one that believed in equality and justice because it was right, not because it brought the cameras and tape recorders out.
"We had to force our way in to find out," he answered. "You see, when a recent report on the status of minorities in high tech solicited employment data, Top Pressure refused to comply. When the data was requested, they were a privately owned company. However, since then, they have become a publicly traded company and owe the public that information."
"And they have not complied?"
"No," Peter continued. "They kept stalling. Until the good people of Silicon Valley pressured the government to let us in and find out for ourselves. Suddenly the numbers appear. Not to our surprise, we find two minority employees out of almost a thousand. We suggested a civilized conversation about the issues. The response we received was a mere form letter saying Top Pressure is an equal opportunity employer. But their hiring practices don't fit with that statement."
"So this protest was the next step?" Jesse knew as a reporter she had to be as objective as possible. But she couldn't help but be angry with Top Pressure.
"After a couple more unanswered requests for a sit-down with the community."
Cole Nicholson heard the protestors shouting as soon as he turned the corner. He saw the crowd gathered across the street, disrupting traffic. What was the problem this time? He clutched the bag holding his Chinese takeout in his hand as he reached the steps to his office building.
"Looks like Top Pressure has some problems, Mr. Nicholson."
Cole nodded to James Midkif, a summer intern who delivered the mail to his office every day. Being a software company, Top Pressure was a competitor. Video games was a big business, and fiercely dog-eat-dog. Cole knew he should be interested in whatever trouble they might be having, but he wasn't. He wasn't interested in much of anything but work right now ... work he had to get back to.
Then he saw her. Why she caught his eye among the several dozen people around he wasn't sure. No, that wasn't true. He was sure. She was incredibly beautiful, and that was why he spotted her now as he had that day on the beach months ago. Yes, it was her. The woman who'd broken his concentration as he jogged on the beach. Right where the chipped red wood bench sat. No one had been able to distract him from his jogging zone-out in the five years he had been jogging that same stretch of beach every weekday morning. Not even the women that jogged in bikinis that were a size or two too small. But her, this one who'd just popped up one morning about three months ago, had caught his eye and never let go. The sun had somehow shone brighter on her, and when he'd been hooked on that very first day. She had been like a breeze when she jogged by. Time had slowed in a world where a thirty-hour day still wasn't enough. They had never spoken, only exchanged loaded glances and respectfully flirtatious smiles as they passed each other. Seeing her every morning had become the highlight of his day. Then, as abruptly as she'd appeared, a month ago she'd stopped coming. Cole's life had been thrown out of whack for a while after not seeing her. He hadn't forgotten her, couldn't have even if he tried. And now, here she was again. It seemed like years since he'd seen her. He was beginning to wonder if she had even been real, or some hallucination he had created to convince himself he still had a life despite this work madness of the past few months. But she was real, and as soon as he'd gotten over the shock of seeing her, his mind formed the question. Why had she stopped coming to the beach?
So, she was a reporter, he assumed from the scene before him. She was interviewing the man who appeared to be the ringleader of the event. Her familiar glowing chocolate brown skin, generous dark eyes, seductive lips that would scare any man, a healthy figure that was flattered by a sundress that let her curves determine its fit. He liked this much better than the oversized T-shirt and biking shorts she jogged in every day, although she even managed to make that look good. He loved her wavy black hair cut short to her head, as if her face didn't want the competition and didn't need the hassle. It didn't matter. Her face, which he had come to know every inch of, couldn't be matched by even the most beautiful hair in the world. Especially not with that dimple on her left cheek when she smiled.
Maybe he could take a few minutes away from work. He'd passed up the chance to talk to her before and thought she was gone forever.
"This is the issue." Peter returned his attention to Jesse after leading the group in several chants. "You got over two million people in this valley and surrounding areas. This high-tech haven. Of which, twenty-seven percent are Hispanic, over four percent African American, and nineteen percent Asian. So you tell me, with the population fifty percent minority, how does a company of a thousand have only two minorities in it? No matter what your hiring practices are, if you're complying with the law in the least, the numbers should be higher."
"What do you want Top Pressure to do?" Jesse asked.
"Disclose their records!" A young Latina woman interjected, almost pushing her way to Jesse. "That's what we want. I've got three friends with high-tech jobs in the area that applied for positions here. Each one of them with Ivy League MBAs and at least five years of tech experience on them. None of them were hired. Even though the company claims to be begging for employees."
The woman's confession sparked a tempered discussion between observers and protestors. Jesse realized there was a big story here and was glad Peter had called her.
It was hotter than usual this June morning, and Jesse reached in her backpack for her water bottle. Taking a sip, she glanced across the building crowd, across the street. That's when she saw him, and the bottle almost slipped out of her hand.
He was looking right at her; she could tell that much, even at this distance. The crowd around him faded a bit, as she felt a distinct pull to him. The same she felt every time she saw him and his dark chocolate brown skin, muscular build, hazel eyes, and broad nose. It was that same black, clean cut hair and flawlessly shaven face that she remembered more than she cared to admit. It was a shock to her, but she blinked and looked again, then saw him clearly standing taller than any of the men around him.
Many times, she wondered if she would ever see him again after she had stopped jogging on the beach. Hoping she would, hoping she wouldn't. Now she was looking right at him, and the feelings it stirred in her, she knew by heart. Instead of the Stanford University T-shirt and baggy shorts she'd seen him jog in almost every day for a month, today he was dressed like most of the men in Silicon Valley: like he had money, but worked so much that he never took the time to actually shop for high-priced clothes. His wardrobe was casual, probably whatever he could order off the Internet. She imagined he did everything off the Internet, as most people in Silicon Valley did.
Still, Jesse had to admit it worked for him. He was attractive, very attractive. And that was why ... she didn't want to think about it anymore. The thoughts of their early morning encounters, the smiles and occasional nods, made her want to walk over to him, but she fought it. She fought it because she wanted to so badly. He made her think of her past, the past she was trying to get away from. She had to remind herself of that to make herself turn away from him. It was just too dangerous.
But then he smiled. He smiled that smile that she had found herself looking forward to every weekday morning. And just as before, Jesse felt her knees go weak. She smiled back because she couldn't do anything else.
"Smoke and mirrors," Peter Jackson said. "Smoke and mirrors is all it was a few years ago when everyone kept talking about minorities in high tech. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a bad thing, we'll do something about it. So what's happened? Nothing really. A few companies have changed things around. But others, those like Top Pressure, are still saying they'll do something about it. Well, now we'll do something about it."
Her smile sent a surge of energy through Cole. He knew he had to ...
"Cole! Cole, there you are."
Cole turned to see Debra Kennedy, the assistant to the CEO of his company, coming toward him.
"Chris is looking for you," she said, her fire-engine red hair frizzing in the humidity. She repositioned her librarian-style glasses. "He says its urgent."
"What is it?" Cole asked as she passed him.
Debra didn't stop, only turning her head over her shoulder as she kept on. "No telling with him. Just hurry. He's calling all over for you. He's ticked you turned your cell phone off."
Cole grabbed his phone out of his back pocket. "Damn battery."
He looked up at the woman again, gripping the lunch in his hand. She had turned away, disappointing him terribly. He wanted to ... needed to ... but he couldn't. Maybe her turning away was for the best.
A woman was the last thing he needed to concern himself with, even though she was no ordinary woman. There was too much to get done. Besides, he had made a promise to himself, to his product and his future. That was why he wouldn't approach her now, why he hadn't approached her any of those days on the beach. And, oh yeah, there was Tracy ... and she was one woman who would not be forgotten. Cole knew he had avoided that issue for too long.
No. He had no time for this woman, even though he wanted desperately to speak to her. So, with one last look at the young beauty who had a permanent place in his mind, Cole turned and headed into the building. Back to work.
Jesse nodded at Peter, letting him know she understood what he was saying. But as much as she cared about the issue and tried to stay with him on it, she was distracted, and eventually her attention forced her to turn back to him, back across the street.
He was gone. She felt her shoulders lower in defeat, hoping he would stay interested, but almost glad that he didn't. After all, what would she have done? Walked over to him? What if he had walked over to her? She would have done the same thing she had all those other days she had seen him and wanted to approach him. Nothing. Not after what she'd just been through. There was no room in her life for a man. Back to work.
* * *
"Another painting of a naked man?"
Jesse asked the question as she stood behind her best friend, Joan Griffin.
"It's my vision." Joan tilted her head back and rolled her eyes at Jesse. She put her brush down and assessed the painting. "Don't make fun of my masterpieces. I don't make fun of yours."
"I'm not making fun of it," Jesse said, placing her hands on Joan's shoulders. "It's just that we've been taking this art class once a week for two months now, and every one of your free paintings is a naked man."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Joan whisked an imaginary bug out of her face, the air moving a few strands of her thinly braided fine hair.
"I'm talking about whether it's a bowl of fruit or a vase on the stand, you paint a naked man. Today, for example, the teacher placed an arrangement of lilies in the middle of the room."
"I painted a bed of lilies," Joan said defiantly.
"With a naked brother laying on them." Jesse tapped the back of Joan's head. The girl had issues. That was why she liked her so much.
"You've got a problem with naked men?" Joan asked.
Jesse smiled, her white teeth shining between full lips. "Paint on, sister."
"Besides," Joan mumbled, "you're only a layer of cotton away from me."
Jesse shrugged as she looked at her painting. "This is a sidewalk scene."
Joan pointed at the painting on the easel right next to her own. "Please, girl. All this scenery is backdrop. That brother on the steps of that building is the subject of your painting. You aren't fooling anybody."
Jesse blushed. She looked around the empty classroom to make sure no one heard. No, everyone had left. Joan always lagged behind, making her late.
Jesse was too embarrassed to tell Joan that she couldn't think of anything but that man, The Jogger, the name she had given him the first day she'd seen him. The name she had whispered in her sleep.
"Hey." Joan leaned sideways, looking closer at the picture. Her brows furrowed. "You've drawn him before haven't you? I could swear ..."
"Don't be ridiculous." Jesse quickly covered the painting with the satin flip wrap. She had painted him before, painted him jogging. But how could she explain that? Joan would have a field day with that, already being one to overanalyze everything. "He's nothing more than a stick figure. All the people I draw look the same."
"Touchy, touchy." Joan gave her a once-over. "If I didn't know you better, I'd say I just struck a nerve. You are way too attached to your art. No one is going to pass judgment on you."
Jesse pretended to laugh. Although she loved the art class she'd suggested to Joan they take on the campus of San Jose State University, she was tired. It had been a long day, and she was hoping a good night's sleep could get The Jogger off her mind. She was still reeling from seeing him again.
She looked at herself in the mirror next to the door of the classroom. She had paint on her cheek and her leg. Despite her smock, her jean overall shorts had paint on them, too. She couldn't be neat it she staked her life on it. It wasn't just her clothes. Her eyes also told of her long day.
"Quit staring at yourself in the mirror, girl." Joan had twirled her seat around, watching her. "Everybody knows you're cute."
Jesse laughed. "Thanks, but I know I look a mess."
Joan rolled her eyes. "I should be so lucky to look a mess like you."
Joan sold herself short. Jesse had told her that more times than she could count. She was a beautiful twenty-five-year-old black woman. She was tall, thin, with a good heart and cynical sense of humor that made you laugh at things you knew you shouldn't. She'd taken Jesse under her wing the second she had moved to San Jose, and had been there for her since. Jesse hadn't been the easiest person to get along with while dealing with what she had just escaped.
Jesse grabbed her purse. "Let's skip the ice cream run. I gotta get out of here, girl. Us old gals need to get some rest."
Joan shrugged. "Yeah, right. What are you, twenty-eight? Careful where you step, old gal. Don't want to break a hip or anything."
"How long you plan on staying here?" Jesse asked. "I don't want you out late by yourself."
"Are you on your fear trip again?" Joan's eyes softened. "He's not here, Jesse. He's in prison in Chicago."
Jesse sighed. "This is not about Henry, Joan. Despite what people think, there are actual crimes committed on Silicon Valley streets."
Joan feigned fear, mocking with quivering hands. "Ohhh! Alone at night in Silicon Valley. What's going to happen? Maybe some teenagers will drive by and hurl insults at me like `Your mother's computer only has a 12X CD-Rom.'"
Jesse waved a dismissing hand at her. "That's the last I worry about you. Just watch out. I'll see you tomorrow at work."
"Unless I win the lotto." Joan returned to her painting.