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Yasmin Ohaji hated blind dates. Suffering through stilted conversation and dressing up to impress some man she'd probably never see again was not her idea of a good time, but when her sister had said she had the "perfect guy" for her, Yasmin had reluctantly given in. Imani had never steered her wrong and since she could spot a playboy a mile away, Yasmin had decided to give it a shot.
After playing phone tag for a month, she had agreed to meet Cecil Manning at the Laurdel Lounge. The city councilman, like most up-and-coming politicians, talked a good game, but Yasmin had her doubts about the divorced bachelor from Boston. She wasn't pessimistic by nature, but she wasn't expecting much to come of their date. Some good conversation and a nice meal would suffice. Anything more would be icing on the cake.
Yasmin followed the hostess past the smoky bar toward the dining area. Ignoring the tingling in her feet, she lifted her head and arched her shoulders. There was no telling who was watching and she didn't want anyone to know the high heels were sucking the life out of her. But that's what she got for listening to a commission-hungry shoe salesman with pretty-boy looks.
Her thick bangles jingled as she walked, drawing the attention of every single man in the restaurant. Lifting a hand to smooth her hair, she soaked up all the stares of the professional men in the lounge. Healthy smiles welcomed her, but Yasmin was careful not to make eye contact with anyone. Cecil was waiting for her and she was late.
Wanting to know exactly what she was getting into, Yasmin had done a thorough background check on Cecil Manning. Twice married, no kids, a house in South Tampa, properties in Miamiand Fort Lauderdale. The son of a barber and an emergency room nurse, he had done well for himself and had a vaulting ambition to one day make it to the White House.
A dapper man in a black suit stood as she approached. A smile overwhelmed Yasmin's mouth. Not bad, not bad at all, she thought, licking her lips. The picture she had seen of him on the city council home page had not done him justice. He was fit, lean and had medium-dark-brown skin. Yasmin liked clean-cut intellectuals and, based on his appearance, Cecil Manning could be the next president of the United States.
Smiling widely, she prepared to meet her date. If Cecil turned out to be as interesting as he was fine, she would owe her sister big-time.
"You must be Yasmin. It's a pleasure to finally meet you."
Yasmin thought Cecil was going to hug her or at the very least give her a peck on the cheek, but he stuck out his hand and pumped hers with all his might. He was clearly in politician mode. Handshake, smile, turn to the cameras. "I hope you haven't been waiting long," she said, taking her seat. "I got stuck in traffic."
"Ten minutes, perhaps. I used the time to check in at the office. We are on the verge of passing a new bill that would ban smoking in all public areas," he explained.
"It's about time. I for one am sick of going out with my girlfriends and coming home smelling like an astray. It's infuriating."
Riotous laughter filled the room. All heads swiveled toward the sound. Yasmin turned around, annoyance written all over her face. A few feet away from their intimate table for two, a group of youths cackled like hyenas. Pitchers of beer and enormous platters of chicken fingers, potato skins and quesadillas crowded their table. The hefty guy with the hoop earrings winked at Yasmin and she snapped her head straight ahead. Embarrassed at being caught staring, she picked up the menu and perused the beverage list.
The Oliveiras had been her last couple of the day and their constant bickering and name-calling had left her physically spent. A cocktail, rich with alcohol and ice, would perk her up. But if she drank on an empty stomach she'd regret it later. When the shaggy-haired waiter arrived, she ordered something light, a lemon daiquiri.
Cecil adjusted his tie. "I am glad our schedules finally permitted us to meet."
"Me, too. This is my first time here, but it definitely won't be my last." Yasmin had been surprised when he had suggested they meet at the Laurdel Lounge but had decided to reserve judgment until she had seen the place for herself. The restaurant was west of Fenwick Avenue, a few blocks north of Rakine Park, one of Tampa's dangerous inner-city neighborhoods. The establishment had obviously not been affected by its close proximity to the crime-ridden area. All of the tables and booths were occupied, the lounge was packed, and servers shuttled back and forth to the kitchen at a frenetic pace. It was a fun, happening spot and, though the menu was mediocre at best, the laid-back atmosphere attracted plenty of hungry diners.
"How long have you been a city councilman?" she asked.
"Five years. I always knew I wanted to be a politician. My mom says when I was seven, I solicited neighbors for money so I could go to science camp. In high school, I was class president, leader of the debate team, on the student council committee and voted most likely to succeed. I graduated at the top of my class and went on to study political science at Boston University. It wasn't easy working to put myself through school, but I did. While the other kids were partying, I was in my dorm room "
Yasmin was just making conversation. She hadn't expected Cecil to give her a blow-by-blow account of his life, spanning some twenty-odd years. To keep from dozing off, she sipped her cocktail and tried to listen to what he was saying, just in case there would be a test. Like the men and women she counseled, he talked until he was short of breath and only paused long enough to gather his thoughts.
Bored out of her mind, she entertained thoughts of excusing herself from the table and ducking out one of the emergency-exit doors. Cecil asked her what she thought of Mayor Keirstead's proposed tax hike, but before she could answer, he launched into a lengthy speech about the significant downsides of the plan.
"Baby got b-b-b-ack!"
"Yeah, she's got ass for days!"
"And I bet she knows how to work those big, juicy lips."
Yasmin's eyes tapered. The hood in her almost slipped out when she heard someone use the term fine-ass ho, but she forced herself to remain in her seat. Those clowns better not still be talking about me! she thought, tossing a menacing look over her shoulder. She had assumed, based on the gold chains and oversize basketball jerseys, that they were teenagers, but upon closer inspection she could tell they were all in their early twenties. Young, but old enough to know better. The stony-faced man with the tattoos on his neck said something, and everyone at the table roared.
"Clam linguine with shrimp?" The waiter set the plate down in front of Yasmin, momentarily drawing her attention away from the delinquents behind her. Picking up her fork, she ran her tongue over her lips. The tantalizing aroma of the pasta was nothing compared to the taste. Yasmin was so busy savoring the first bite, she didn't hear the question Cecil posed to her.
"How long have you had your own practice?" he repeated, slicing his steak into long, thin strips.
"Three years." Yasmin loved talking shop, especially now that A Better Way Counseling Services was thriving, but she didn't want to discuss work now. Good food needed to be eaten in silence. And she had a feeling if she answered Cecil's questions, it would give him license to make his own counseling critiques babble even more. Yasmin twirled a string of linguine on her fork, swirled it around the thick, creamy sauce, then put it into her mouth. Her eyes closed in silent appreciation of chefs everywhere.
"Do you have any other siblings besides Imani?"
"I'm an only child. I can't say I mind, though. My parents are both retired and are helping me run my campaign. Elections are a year away but you would be amazed at all the work that needs to be done. There are phone calls to make, letters to send out, money to raise and I'm in the process of "
Between Cecil's nattering and the men guffawing behind her, Yasmin couldn't enjoy her meal in peace. The quartet had been running their mouths ever since she had entered the Laurdel Lounge and, after an hour of their senseless chatter, she was losing her patience. Initially, she had paid them no mind. Their comments, though juvenile, had been harmless. But now she was finished eating, and they were still on the same topic: her. Her stylish, backless dress was daring but tasteful, sexy but classy, but that didn't stop them from undressing her with their beady little eyes. And when the gap-toothed ringleader began making sexual references, like I-know-what-I-would-do-with-her-if-she-was-my-woman,Yasmin lost it.
Cecil was an uptight, by-the-book type of man, but that didn't mean he couldn't intervene. Too busy listening to himself talk about crooked city council members and archaic state laws, Cecil didn't have the presence of mind to come to her defense.
Interrupting him midsentence, she asked, "Are you going to say something to them, or are you waiting for them to come over here and sexually assault me before you take action?"
Cecil stared down at his Frappuccino. "Yasmin, I'm sure they don't mean anything by it," he told her, his voice lined with apprehension. "They're just teasing you. Ignore them and they will move on to something else."
"Teasing?" The word shot out of her mouth like a bullet. "The guy with the gold teeth said I have a sexy mouth and the one with the hoop earrings said he'd like to take me from behind. That's teasing?" Yasmin didn't know why she was surprised. No-backbone Cecil was simply showing his true color: sissy pink.
"Keep your voice down. I do not want to cause a scene. Do you?"
Yasmin crossed her legs to keep from kicking Cecil in the shin. Fighting to maintain her composure, she took a deep, soothing breath and repeated words of affirmation to herself. Aloud she warned. "Do something, Cecil, or I will."
"Sista', look like she could give a brotha' a real nice time," came the booming voice of the man in the Adidas hoodie. "I could go a few rounds with ma'."
"Me, too," agreed the cross-eyed one. "That's a bad-ass bitch over there."
Something inside Yasmin snapped. Her parents had raised her to let bygones be bygones, but she couldn't let this go. Forgetting she was an educated woman, with a Ph.D. from one of the finest schools in the country, she leapt up from her chair. Blood pumping, chest heaving and hands clenched, she charged over to their booth. A thousand thoughts raced through her mind and all of them were illegal. I'm going to kill them! How dare they talk about me like I'm a prostitute standing out on the street corner? But before Yasmin could connect her fist with a face, a broad-shouldered man stepped in front of her, obscuring her view.
"Apologize, now",' the stranger ordered. Folding his arms across his chest, he shot a murderous stare at the foursome.
The men looked warily at each other, clearly intimidated by his imposing size. Other patrons glanced over, interested in the exchange, anxious to see how the confrontation would play out. The hostess rushed to the scene, her strawberry-blond hair flapping wildly behind her.
"Is there a problem, Bishop?" she asked, dividing her gaze between her favorite patron and the black men in the booth. No one replied. Desperate to resolve the situation, she tried again. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Shrugging his puny shoulders, the ringleader stood abruptly and stepped away from the booth. "We don't want any trouble, Bishop."
"Yeah, we were jus' messin' 'round, homes," explained the pimple-faced Latino guy. "It was nothin'. I swear."
"She's waiting for that apology," he repeated. His voice was smooth, like aged cognac, not what Yasmin expected for a man of his size or stature. "You can apologize now or after we have a few words outside. It's your choice."
The ill-mannered men mumbled apologies, then scurried out of the dining area before the stranger could make good on his threat. The situation defused, the hostess followed them out of the dining area and the patrons resumed eating as if nothing had happened.
Rashawn Bishop turned around and felt a stab of guilt. He sympathized with the guys he had just chased out of the restaurant. It wasn't their fault the woman in the curve-hitting dress was stunning, was it? He was ogling her, making a complete and utter fool of himself, but he didn't avert his gaze. She probably thought he was just as corrupt as those young men were, but her photogenic smile was irresistible and he couldn't pull his eyes away.
The look of annoyance on her face didn't impede her beauty. She was exquisite. A Nubian princess straight from the motherland. Her mink-black skin reminded him of whipped cocoa. She had thin eyebrows, a delicate nose and the biggest, brightest eyes he had ever seen. They were as deep as the Atlantic, round and bright. Under the subdued overhead lights, her eyes glittered like diamonds. Beaded earrings dangled from her ears, a chocker graced her neck and gold bangles hung from her wrists. She had a one-of-a-kind look that made her stand out in a roomful of women who were trying too damn hard. Her vibrant, copper-brown hair was an abundance of twists and Rashawn had to fight the urge to reach out and touch them. Her locks weren't as wild as Lauryn Hill's, but they were just as thick. The definition and tone of her arms and her healthy figure told him she was no stranger to diet and exercise. She had the kind of body he liked, all curves, all woman.
"I'm sorry about that, Miss. They obviously don't know better."