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By Kennedy Shaw
URBAN BOOKSCopyright © 2008 Kennedy Shaw
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSunday afternoon, while most people were enjoying the humid north Texas weather, Jenna Bradshaw was adding up her life. She sat at the oak desk in her home office, hoping the numbers on the spreadsheet program on her computer screen would be in her favor if she added them a second time. She glanced out the window and admired the sunshine.
She loved living in Dallas and everything that came with living near the arts district, from the trendy restaurants, to the myriad cultural activities at the nearby Dallas Museum of Art and the Myerson Art Center, to living within yelling distance of so many other artists. Jenna sighed and returned her attention to the flat-screen monitor. Maybe, just maybe, the numbers would be in her favor.
They weren't. In her checking account she had five thousand dollars, in her savings, ten thousand. That would only keep her afloat for a few more months, and her latest project was far from finished; it was still just a thought in her head. She hadn't sold a painting in two years.
For the last ten years, she had survived solely on the proceeds from her art and had done quite well. She had given herself the luxury not only of owning a home in the art section of Dallas but also of paying cash for a new car. But with the sluggish economy and layoffs occurring more frequently, her painting sales had fallen off greatly. Luxuries like a painting were no longer a priority. She didn't even have a gallery show in sight.
She had only one real choice.
With a sigh, she made the call she had been putting off for the last few weeks. She called her friend at the temp agency to see if they had any job openings to tide her over until her sales picked up again. She smiled as her best friend answered the phone.
"Harcourt's Essential Temps, Dawn Castle. How may I help you?"
"Hey, Dawn. It's me. It's time."
"Jenna, girl, it's about time you called me."
"I know. I just kept hoping things would turn around."
Dawn was known for her perky attitude, which at the moment Jenna absolutely hated. "Well, Jenna, it's not like you'll have to work in an office forever. I have an opening at Duncaster and Finch in downtown Dallas, very posh. They are a stickler for proper attire and punctuality. If you're good, you might get to be permanent," Dawn chuckled, knowing that was last thing Jenna wanted.
"I only want temp status. Will I still be able to work on my new project? Is there much overtime?"
"Actually, at this place, temps don't work overtime. They almost treat them as subcitizens."
Jenna laughed as she turned off her computer. "That's fine with me. That means no one will bother me."
"Well, the last temp I sent there ended up meeting someone and getting engaged."
Jenna grinned. "That won't happen to me, Dawn. I don't have time for romance. I have a masterpiece to create."
"So, you think you'll ever get married?" Angela Taylor-Hill asked her older brother, Zyrien.
Zyrien was so tired of everyone in the Taylor family asking about his personal life. He was the oldest of eight, for goodness' sake. "My career and you guys are my main focus right now. I don't have time for relationships. Besides, there are enough grandkids running around this family without my contributing any." He helped his sister clean up after the surprise party for their parents' thirty-fifth anniversary.
Angela shook her head at her brother. "Don't give me that crap. You need to find you a nice woman who understands you and leave those young girls at your job alone. They see a brother in management with no kids and no drama and they pounce like a cat on a mouse. Wouldn't you like someone you could talk to and share some realistic goals with, instead of what you were going to buy them or their kids next?"
Zyrien hastily nodded. He was tired of dating women he had nothing in common with but the color of their skin. He wanted someone who would challenge him on all levels, though he didn't think that was possible. "I appreciate your concern, Ang, but right now I'm focused on work." He was lying, but his very pregnant sister didn't need to know that. She was six months along with her first child. The last thing he wanted to do was worry his sister.
"Have you ever thought in terms of an older woman?"
"Never. Too dull."
She winked at her brother. "Never say never. You just never know. Besides, an older woman would be settled and wouldn't give you all that drama." She waddled into the kitchen.
Later that evening, he was finally in the solitude of his four-bedroom home, reveling in the peace and quiet. He loved his family dearly, but he also loved being away from them.
As he flipped on the TV in the master bedroom, he reflected on his sister's words. The big three-five was approaching and he was still miserably single.
* * *
"Why don't you smile?"
Monday mornings were always hard for her. She dreaded coming to work after such a productive weekend. But Jenna forced a smile at the young black man as she headed to her desk. He spoke to her most days as they passed in the hall. She chalked it up to being a fellow African-American. She had only been employed at Duncaster and Finch a few weeks and was still feeling her way around her job. Most days she didn't feel like smiling.
Most days she was just happy her new bosses hadn't told her that her temporary clerical services were no longer needed. She plopped down in the leather chair and surveyed her work.
Jenna looked at the growing mound of papers on her desk and sighed. Given that she was new to the department and instructions were vague, she did her best. She began working on the stack, inputting the information into the computer's database.
Jenna just didn't fit in. In her other life, back when she was an accountant, she had never fit into the corporate world. She was the round peg trying to fit into a square hole. That was probably why she loved painting so much. She didn't need an audience to paint. She only needed her imagination and sometimes a model.
Most of her work associates were young and had children and husbands or some other drama. Here she was, childless and over forty. She couldn't even boast of getting out of a bad marriage; she was deliriously single-not even a boyfriend.
At lunchtime, she gathered her latest paperback novel, headed downstairs to the company-owned cafeteria, and picked out a salad. She sat at a vacant table. After she fixed her salad to her liking, she took a forkful to her mouth. Delicious. She took a few bites and began to read the novel.
"Do you mind if I sit with you?" a masculine voice asked.
Jenna looked up and stared at him for a moment. He was the same young man from that morning, telling her that she needed to smile. He probably just felt sorry for her, eating alone, she thought, and put away her novel. "Sure, you can sit down."
He sat down with a plate full of diet no-nos: greasy cheeseburger, French fries, chocolate cake, and soda. She wondered how his mocha skin stayed so smooth when he ate that kind of junk. Must be the perks of being young, she thought, as she nibbled on her salad.
"My name is Zyrien Taylor," he said, extending his hand across the table to her.
"Jenna," she said, taking his hand and careful not to mention her last name.
Zyrien took a bite of his burger and downed a few fries before he spoke again.
"So, how are you liking your new job so far?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "It's OK. What do you do?"
"I'm the national accounts manager," he said.
That figured. He was always impeccably dressed in the trendiest business fashion. Today he wore a blue button-down polo shirt and tailored slacks, looking like a male supermodel. Jenna glanced around the room. "Should you be eating here with me? I mean, I'm a temporary employee."
He leaned back in his chair and smiled. He had perfect, straight white teeth and dimples! But those hazel eyes were his best feature. "You're still a human being, right?"
"Yes, but I know the rules are pretty stringent around here. I can't even park in the employee parking lot. I have to walk at least ten minutes just to get to the building," Jenna said, watching her companion.
He nodded. "Yeah, I think that rule stinks, but some of the more tenured employees complained about not being able to find a place to park in the mornings and you know how that is."
Jenna agreed. She noticed the women at the next table blatantly listening to their conversation. They were probably mad, since nothing juicy was being said, she thought.
Jenna stared at him in confusion. "Oh, I get it. No, I don't have any. No husband. I'd like to do them in the traditional manner. You know, husband, then children."
He laughed. "Yeah, I feel you on that. I have a big family. I think that's why I don't have any. I have four sisters and three brothers and I'm the oldest."
"Wow," she said. "Now that's a big family."
"Yeah, Sundays are always nerve-racking for me. We have dinner at my parents' house after church and the kids run around like they are hopped up on chocolate or something. I'm always happy to go back to my house, where it's peaceful and quiet. How about you?"
"Well, I'm afraid it's just me and my younger brother and he lives in Austin."
"What about your parents?"
"My parents are deceased. I take it yours are still alive."
"Yes. My mom just turned fifty-two last month. She and my dad went to Vegas for her birthday."
"That sounds exciting."
He took another bite of his burger and it was gone. "It was a surprise. My parents were very young when they got married. They didn't get to have a honeymoon. I was on the way," he explained with a wink. "So us kids got together and sent them to Vegas."
"I bet they were surprised," Jenna said, trying to keep her mind on the conversation and not the fact that she was sitting with a very attractive, very young man. A man that made her feel older by the second.
"I'm thirty-four," he volunteered the information.
Jenna almost choked on her salad. "I didn't ask."
"I saw that worried look on your face. How old are you?"
Jenna pondered the question. She could always claim the Fifth Amendment. "How old do I look?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Thirty or so."
Jenna smiled. People always told her she didn't look her age. They always swore it was because she had the good sense to avoid marriage and children.
"Jenna, how old?"
His expression changed from shocked to more shocked. "You look great."
"Thank you, Zyrien." She glanced at the clock on the wall, rising. "I enjoyed talking to you, but I must get back to work."
He rose also. "Yeah, I should be getting back as well. We can walk together."
Any other day the elevator would be crowded with people rushing back to work. Not that day. They were the only two people on the elevator. Jenna better assessed his chiseled features. He was shorter than her five feet, ten inches, somewhere in the region of five-eight, she guessed. But he was muscular. He filled out the cotton shirt perfectly, his biceps straining at the short sleeves.
He leaned against one of the walls, staring at her. His hazel eyes assessed her attributes carefully before he spoke. "So. Since there's no husband, is there a boyfriend?"
"That would depend on your definition of boyfriend," she said softly.
"Do you date regularly? Does he live with you? Are you sleeping with him?"
"No, no, and no."
He smiled. "Well, I guess that means you don't have one?"
"Yes, you are correct."
The elevator dinged for their floor. He motioned for her to precede him. "It was nice chatting with you." He smiled, then went in the opposite direction.
Jenna always prided herself on the fact that she could tell when someone was picking her up. But today her radar was definitely off. He didn't even make a play for her or anything. Feeling even older by the second, she walked to her desk.
She had just started to input the information in the computer when she received an e-mail. In the three weeks she'd been working there, she had gotten a total of ten e-mails. Usually it meant more work, which she didn't need. She opened it with trepidation. To her surprise, it was from Zyrien. He thanked her for letting him sit with her.
How did he know her last name? They weren't required to wear name badges. Had he been inquiring about her? He was a manager; no one would have questioned him if he asked for the information. She didn't reply to the e-mail.
Zyrien sat at his desk, mulling over reports and wondering why Jenna didn't respond to his e-mail. His plan worked wonderfully. He didn't seem too needy and it almost seemed natural. Too bad he didn't normally eat lunch that early. He usually didn't eat until late afternoon, in an attempt to finish all his paperwork and get a jump on the next day.
But for some reason the fact that she didn't reply to his e-mail began to gnaw at his resolve. He had noticed her the first time he saw her in the elevator. She had flawless light brown skin that reminded him of honey. She usually wore stilettos, which made her even sexier to him. He had always wanted to date a tall woman.
"Are you daydreaming or thinking about the meeting you have in exactly five minutes?" Brenna Fitzgerald, his assistant, asked, smiling at him.
"The meeting, of course," Zyrien lied, rising from his desk. He gathered the report he hadn't finished and headed to the elevator.
He walked into the meeting room and took his seat. He watched as the other managers filtered in. At thirty-four, he was one of the youngest managers in the company and one of the few African-Americans in a managerial position. He had worked hard to get to that position and wanted nothing to detract from that. Even the fact that he hadn't finished his report.
"Zyrien, I know you're working on the numbers for some upcoming projects," his boss told him, "but there's a new development."
"Yes, Mr. Duncaster, what is it?" There goes the thought of leaving work early.
"We're in serious competition with one of the larger accounting firms for a government contract. I need you to put aside your other projects, and focus on landing that contract. You know, how much more manpower will be needed, salary projections versus revenue, and how will that affect our budget, since we're almost at the end of the fiscal year."
Zyrien nodded, knowing exactly what his boss was talking about. He always prided himself on the fact that he kept informed of changes in the accounting industry. He knew of the large contract and if his company could land it, that would be quite a feather in their cap. But it would require more manpower than their company had. Duncaster and Finch might not want to lay out that much money up front without the promise of the contract.
"I'll need the updated numbers by the end of the month, which gives you about three weeks to work on it. The first prelim meeting will be July 3. If you need some help with the data, let me know."
Mr. Duncaster dismissed the meeting and Zyrien left the room, already thinking about all the work he was going to have to do to make this report happen. He rang for the elevator. As he stepped inside, he studied his notes, ignoring the other passengers. Until he took a deep breath. He smelled her perfume. She was in the elevator. He discreetly glanced around the crowd and spotted her.
Jenna stared at Zyrien.
He smiled back at her, for lack of anything else to do.
Chapter TwoLater that afternoon, Jenna sat at her desk, looking in disbelief at the e-mail she had just received. Zyrien had asked her to have a drink. Tonight. He was certainly persistent.
So he was putting the moves on her. The bar he suggested was just across the street, and she could postpone her workout one night.
She responded affirmatively and sent the e-mail. She laughed when he instantly replied.
Exactly two hours later, Jenna and Zyrien sat in the bar talking as if they had known each other a hundred years instead of one day. Zyrien ordered a Guinness and Jenna had a glass of her favorite Kendall Jackson Chardonnay.
Zyrien played with his beer bottle, as if he were pondering the fate of the world.
Jenna couldn't stand it any longer. "OK, what is it?"
He smiled. "I was just trying to figure out how to ask you to dinner."
Jenna wasn't expecting that. "Why?"
Zyrien took offense. "What do you mean, 'why?'"
"I just wondered why me and not one of the hundred other women at work, like those girls who sat across from us at lunchtime. They stared at you the whole time we ate."
He shrugged it off like it was an everyday occurrence. "Women are attracted to my looks, but then they usually change their tune when the real me starts sneaking out."
Excerpted from Love Lessons by Kennedy Shaw Copyright © 2008 by Kennedy Shaw. Excerpted by permission.
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