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"I don't understand why we're at the store purchasing an outfit for me, when I have a perfectly good pair of slacks and a snazzy blouse at home." Sara Lovell followed her four sorority sisters through the department store toward the women's section.
"This is a milestone birthday, correct?" Denise asked, over her shoulder. Her pace didn't slacken. She was a pint-sized dynamo whizzing past customers.
"I don't think twenty-five is a milestone," Sara responded, rolling her eyes at Denise's exaggeration.
"Girl, you'd better celebrate it. How many women are twenty-five years old, a professor and no lame man hanging on?" Naomi stepped outside of their entourage to throw out her question, as Sara, who was bringing up the rear, passed her.
"I'm not tenured," Sara corrected. This was her first semester and there were no guarantees in the collegiate world. Like anyplace else, climbing the ladder partially depended on office politics.
"Whatever! Only you highbrowed people know the difference. We, mere mortals, will continue to call you Professor Lovell." Naomi grinned with extra effort since her braces had only been removed two days ago.
They arrived in the women's department, not too quietly. Sara followed the direction of their scrutiny and finger-pointing, trying to catch the gist of their discussion. Her sorors were always up to something. Why did she think her birthday would be any different among these mischief-makers? But she'd be on the lookout for any pranks.
"Ooh, I like this." Naomi held up a little black dress.
"Is that the entire dress or is that only the skirt?" Sara asked, concerned with the choice. "You like to show your skin. I don't."
"You're right. This little number would look good with my long, shapely legs." Naomi spun in front of the three-sided mirror. With a manicured hand on one hip and a haughty raise of her chin, she erupted in a fit of giggles.
"At least those legs would be good for something," Denise added, with a smirk. "I sure enough lost a pretty penny on your lazy behind in the last basketball game. The coach should've left you on the bench." Denise stood behind Naomi's still form, fearlessly sizing her up with open disgust.
Sara foresaw the potential conflict that always ignited without much provocation. She stepped toward Naomi, removed the black dress from her iron grip and set it on the rack with other unwanted items. Then she propelled her friend out of the dressing room to another area of the women's department to cool off.
"Don't take on Denise. You know that she's always in a bad mood after she loses money."
Her friend's budding pro basketball career wasn't exactly taking off in the right direction. Sara empathized with her soror. One thing she'd learned the hard way was how to shoot for the stars, but end up sitting in dirt.
"Hey, Sara, I found a great pantsuit."
Sara looked over at Asia standing next to her twin, Athena, who held up a navy blue pantsuit. The tailored cut was flattering. And how could she pass up the added bonus to wear pants, her clothing item of choice?
Asia handed off the suit to Sara, who headed for the dressing room again.
"I've got several blouses to go with this." Sara changed into the pantsuit. The jacket's cut enhanced her figure, as she expected it would. It had a longer hem that covered her well-padded behind. Although not fond of full pants legs, she did like the comfortable fabric of these that didn't cling to her thighs.
She stepped out into the open area to model. "I really like this." The darker shade complemented her toasty brown coloring.
"Good!" her friends answered in chorus.
Sara laughed. They'd often criticized her inability to make a quick decision. This impromptu trip did manage to improve her mood, considering that she awoke today feeling a bit bummed. The year had not been one for celebration when the highlight was a botched wedding ceremony.
Her sorors made quick business of paying for the outfit. Back at her condo, each woman found a chair and noisily flopped dramatically into the seat, as if they had just completed a marathon.
Sara, seemingly the lone survivor, stood and looked over the four women with whom she'd pledged six years ago. Her line sisters in Xi Theta Sigma were as close to her as blood relatives. Their pledge line, called Ladies of Distinction, consisted of all sophomores. After completion of their pledge process and the ensuing bonding experiences, she thought the line name more aptly described what they strived for in their post-university lives.
Sara headed to the kitchen for refreshments. The party wasn't due to begin for another four hours, enough time for all of them to laze and get rejuvenated. They were known to dance until the houselights came up at more than a few nightclubs.
"What's the final number for the party?" Denise questioned, popping her gum with annoying frequency.
"I got forty, but about fifteen didn't respond. People can be so rude. Anyway, I ordered enough food for about forty-five." Sara flipped through her writing pad with pages of copious notes and other details. "Let me go to my laptop. I've an Excel file with additional notes."
"Stop agonizing," Naomi wailed. "You make my head ache, rehashing nit-picking details. No one can control how much people will eat. When the food is done, well, then, it's done."
"Don't worry, Sara. We're following up on the big and little items," Denise reassured.
Sara sighed, reluctantly closing her writing pad. "Thanks, guys, I'm a basket case. I'm looking forward to the party, despite feeling gun-shy about the idea earlier." Sara sat next to Denise and leaned her head against her soror's shoulder. "Not much to celebrate this year, I'm afraid. I'm on the loser trail when it comes to men."
"You're exaggerating, soror." Denise patted her cheek.
"No, she's not," Naomi objected. "First, she breaks up with her college sweetheart, a.k.a. soul mate. Then she breaks up with her husband-to-be at the altar." Naomi shook her head, clicking her tongue. She twirled her finger around the ends of her braided hair.
"She didn't break up with her soul mate. He walked away from her. And, she didn't have a choice about the wedding, not with his pregnant girlfriend in the audience making a big stink," Athena stated, reciting the list of events without emotion, as if she read a shopping list.
"Thank you, Frick and Frack, for boosting my self-esteem before my birthday party." Sara waved aside their apologies and retreated to her bedroom.
Through the walls, she heard Denise scold Athena for her thoughtlessness.
"My bad," Athena replied in her typical droll manner.
"Sorry, Sara!" Naomi yelled.
Sara was more embarrassed than angry. Fake Prince-Charming types had worn out their welcome in her life. She only wanted to enjoy her party with her friends and sorority sisters.
Jackson Thomas searched the nearby parking lot in the complex for a space, but had no luck. He headed toward another distant area, keeping an eye out for signs that allowed visitor parking. The overhead streetlights didn't illuminate the lot very well. Walking a little farther, if he had to, didn't bother him, since he hoped the extra minutes calmed his nerves. He didn't believe in blind luck, but tonight he certainly accepted this symbol as his four-leaf clover.
As he drew closer to the dimly lit community room, boisterous party-goers walked in and out of the building. Music pulsated out of the windows and door. Heavy beats from the latest R&B hit spilled into the outdoor night air.
Jackson slowed. His nerves sapped the energy from his legs. Doubts held his will in a mind-numbing grip. He wished that he'd brought one of his buddies to bolster his flagging courage as he tried to face his past. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his damp forehead. All over, his skin prickled with sweat to complete his body's reaction to the tension.
Jackson sharply turned toward the voice. Denise waved at him, grinning with obvious enjoyment at his startled expression. "Didn't mean to startle you. Don't worry, I'm not springing her on you. Your girl's chatting in the back. Asia and Athena have her in an in-depth conversation about the top African-American literary authors of all time. You know that's right up her alley. She's on a roll. The twins probably can't wait for you to show up and save them."
Jackson smiled, took a deep breath and headed for the door. He paused, then turned. "Denise, thanks for inviting me. I've wanted to visitkeep in touchfor a long time. You gave me a break. I couldn't pass up this opportunity to see Sarafina. Maybe even ask for another chance, or something like that " His voice died under the uncertainty.
"That's our sister in there. You've hurt her once. Do it again, and I'll personally hunt you down." Denise waved away his protest. "Go. Don't waste time talking to me." She turned, and headed back into the building.
Jackson acted on Denise's advice and sped up his entry. The large room was like a sauna, with the warmth and humidity. The area was populated with small table-and-chair sets already occupied with guests. Unaware of the party's formality, he wore a jacket over a polo shirt. Jackson shrugged out of his jacket and slung it over his arm.
He weaved through the party crowd. Frankly, no one else mattered. There was only one person he cared to see. So far, he couldn't locate her in the crowded room.
A familiar young woman with a pile of micro-braids seemingly exploding from the top of her head nudged his arm.
"Naomi, good to see you," he shouted over the music, exchanging a warm hug with her.
"Go past that column. She's over at the bar. Hurry!" Naomi shoved him.
"Good to see you, too," he managed to reply, although the music probably drowned his words.
He rounded the column with a slower approach. As much as he couldn't wait to see Sarafina, he didn't want to run blindly into her, either. Knowing how her sorority sisters operated, he was sure that they hadn't prepared her for his appearance.
"Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh! Look who's here." Jackson froze as Asia's piercing scream drew several guests' attention. "Hi, Asia. Hi, Athena. Hi Sara Sarafina."
"We're going to get some fresh air." Athena dragged her sister away and they disappeared before Jackson could say anything else. "Jackson? What are you doing here?" Jackson heard and felt the coldness in the frosty acknowledgement. Still under the spotlight of curious guests, he closed the gap between her and him.
"Happy birthday," he managed to say before he was speechless. He presented her with a small box of expensive Swiss chocolates.
She accepted the box and then set it down on the bar. "You haven't answered me."
"Can we find a quiet spot to talk?"
Sara hesitated, sizing him up. "Fine, come with me."
She led him through a door into a large storage room. Once she closed the door, the music, loud chatter and frenzied atmosphere of the party disappeared. In the small space, there was nothing to intrude on their first meeting after three years of separation.
"You're looking beautiful tonight," he complimented as an icebreaker.
"Oh, please. I don't have time for this." Sara turned to leave.
Jackson's hand shot out to hold her there until he could fully explain. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound cheesy. I'm here because I want to see you."
"This is a private party." Her eyes squinted full of distrust.