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Uttering an obligatory thank -you and grabbing the claim ticket from the valet, Diane Maxwell took a deep breath and began to hurry down the street toward the minimalist and very modern entrance of the Maryland Museum of African American Culture in Baltimore. She knew the title was much longer than that, but she didn't have time for formality…or to remember.
Instead, she concentrated on not twisting her ankle in her three-inch dress sandals, or getting the heel caught in the hem of her gown.
It was cold. Much colder than Diane wanted to accept, even though it was the second week of December. She was dismayed and annoyed that her breath expelled in a chilly vapor. Yet she would not admit to the vanity and poor judgment that had her out for the evening with nothing warmer than a cashmere shawl wrapped artfully around her shoulders, and no panty hose.
She'd reasoned that she was only going from her car to the entrance of the museum, but she hadn't counted on the valet stand being a city block away. She was already beyond late for the gala function being held at the beautiful facility, but her running-walk had more to do with the goose bumps rising on her exposed arms.
Diane slowed her pace and stopped in front of the museum entrance, covertly straightening the bodice of her gown. She tucked her evening clutch under her elbow and quickly shook out the yards of silk that made up the skirt. She squared her shoulders and tried to give the appearance of a woman of poise and presence and not the tomboy hoyden she was once known as. But there was no audience for her little pretense or her grand entrance.
Once inside the glass doors she was immediately assailed by the warmth and met with the hum of conversation from an upper level of the museum.
"Good evening. Thank you for coming tonight."
Diane turned to the voice to her left, where a reception table had been set up. Behind it sat a lone woman, her folded hands atop a spreadsheet of the names of guests attending the function. She smiled a greeting in return and approached the table. The matron was attired in an overly bright red dress, with a rhinestone pendant necklace lost in the cleavage of her bosom.
"May I have your name, please?" the woman asked, her fingertip poised to run down the list.
"Maxwell. Dr. Diane. I'm here in place of my father, Adam Maxwell."
"Maxwell…Max…yes, here it is. Oh, he's one of the special guests tonight." She placed a check next to the name.
Diane glanced quickly around the empty entrance.
"Am I very late?" she asked, accepting the card calligraphed with her father's name and a table number.
"You're the last to arrive. They just started serving dinner, but you know how the folks are," the woman said with a knowing smile. "The reception ended late 'cause they couldn't get people to stop drinking and talking."
Even as she explained Diane could hear one voice over a microphone introducing herself and welcoming everyone to the annual dinner.
"You better hurry." The woman chuckled. "It's embarrassing to walk in when someone is talking."
"You're right." Diane grinned sheepishly.
She lifted the skirt of her gown and, graceful and athletic, took the stairs two at a time, stiletto heels, rustling silk and all.
"Be careful!" the woman whispered loudly behind her.
At the top of the stairs Diane regained her composure, dropping the skirt and again shaking out the fabric. She looked inside a large darkened room that had been set up with some twenty tables, each capable of seating ten people. She wasn't paying much attention to the speaker, an elegantly dressed woman about her own age, making opening remarks about the event. Instead, Diane was aware that it wasn't going to be that easy to find her table now that the lights had been dimmed. But she took heart in the fact that the first course was being served so no one would be any wiser to her late appearance.
"Can I help you?"
Diane turned to another voice and this time found a young man waiting to assist her. He held out his hand and she realized he wanted her table card. After briefly scanning it he pointed to a table across the room.
Diane sighed. The table was, unfortunately, among those right in front of a raised dais. She gave the young man a charming smile.
"You know, it's not that important for me to sit there, is it? I'm sure I can find a seat somewhere else. Maybe near the back…"
"I'll escort the lady to her seat."
Diane whipped around to find a tall man calmly regarding her. In an instant three things became apparent to her. He was superbly outfitted in a tuxedo that did justice to his shoulders and to a certain haughtiness in his features. She knew who he was. And she wasn't happy to see him.
There was a fourth thing, but Diane purposefully ignored its manifestations. It caused a sudden flutter in her stomach and a dry mouth. But again, instantly, she returned to her first observation. The tux forced her to fast-forward her memories and impressions of Hale Cameron from rough, street-smart and sullen to this sudden real-time urbane and sophisticated presence. The unexpected time warp was startling.
"Oh. It's you."
"Diane," he acknowledged.
She stared, caught off guard. He said her name with both surprise and familiarity. It was that second recognition that caused Diane to change, her eyes hardening and her mouth grimacing in annoyance.
"Fancy running into you," he drawled, his gaze never leaving her face.
Diane quickly experienced a very unwelcome sense of exposure and vulnerability, as if he'd hit a nerve. Deliberately or not. She didn't like her reaction at all.
"This certainly is the last place I expected to see you, Hale," she said, staring him down.
He raised his brows but didn't take the bait.
"I knew your father was on the list tonight. I was looking forward to seeing him. Sorry he couldn't make it."
Diane knew he was fishing for more information but she was not about to be chatty and pleasant to him.
"Something came up."
"I believe you," Hale said smoothly. "Adam would have gotten here on time, and wouldn't slink in late."
Her sharp retort died on her tongue. There was suddenly applause in the room beyond, bringing her back to the present. Diane pulled herself together, but only to turn her back on Hale as he watched her, his expression amused.
"I'll find my own seat," she said firmly to the assistant at the door. She turned back to Hale and gave him a frosty stare. "Yes, I'm late but it was unavoidable. My father will understand."
"I'm sure you count on that." He nodded, taking a large gulp of wine from a glass he'd been holding down at his side.
Hale then summarily handed the empty glass to the assistant, who had stood silently listening to the verbal sparring.
"I'll escort her to her seat," Hale said again.
"Look, I don't want—"
Diane stopped abruptly rather than create a scene when an elderly couple appeared out of the darkened dinner hall, obviously about to leave. Spotting Hale, their faces lit with warm smiles, they called and reached out to him. The woman offered an overly rouged cheek and the man, probably her husband, took Hale's hand to shake.
"Sorry we have to leave, Hale. Getting too old for these late nights," the man said in a tired, gravelly voice.
"We certainly weren't going to leave before having that very expensive dinner we paid for," the wife said with false indignation.
They all laughed as Diane stood and witnessed the exchange. In a way she was fascinated by the affection that the older couple obviously held for Hale and that he seemed to have for them. In all fairness, she recalled that this was the way Hale had always been toward her father, Adam. And her father toward him. Holding Hale in high regard. Talking about him and praising him… ad nauseam.
She tried to move quietly away but only succeeded in drawing the couple's attention.
"Mr. and Mrs. Hightower, this is Diane Maxwell," Hale finally introduced her.
Again there was applause from the room and some laughter. Diane tried to ignore it and smiled graciously at the couple regarding her with mild curiosity.
"Dr. Maxwell," she clarified, more for Hale's sake than the older couple. "It's nice to meet you but don't let me interrupt. I see you're leaving, and I really need to go in…"
"You're Adam's daughter. I've heard so much about you," Mrs. Hightower cut in, beaming at her. "From Adam, of course. We were so hoping to see him tonight."
"He knows how to work a room," Hale commented.
Mr. Hightower chuckled. "He sure can. He also knows how to separate folks from their money for one cause or another."
Diane, faced with such adoration, smiled wanly. "I know I'm a poor substitute…"
"Oh, not at all, young lady. You're a very pretty one," Mr. Hightower said.
"I'll let my father know he was missed."
She stood aside then, as goodbyes were now shared between Hale and the couple and they made their way to the elevator to leave. Diane did not wait for their final departure, but turned to the gala room in hopes of finally slipping into a vacant place at any of the tables near the entrance. She knew that it was inevitable that some people did not make it to these events and there were a number of empty seats.
Before she could reach a nearby table, let alone greet the occupants and apologize for arriving late, someone placed a hand at the small of her back and was firmly guiding her along between the tables and toward the front of the room. Nonplussed, Diane glanced over her shoulder and found Hale close behind her. They were halfway into the room. To stop and object now to his interference would have caused a commotion and embarrassment. Diane, seething with helplessness, had no choice but to allow herself to be directed.
When they reached her table, Hale pulled out her chair, holding it until she sat down. She smiled a greeting to those who glanced her way as she whispered her apologies. She settled herself, actually glad that the minor ordeal was over. She looked over her shoulder in time to see Hale take a seat several tables away.
She was very curious to know why he was even there.
Unlike the occupants of her table, who were much older and the vanguards of another generation of philanthropists, Hale's table was filled with men and women his own age. The four or five women were all attractive, beautifully dressed and seemed to have a lot to say to him, vying for his attention…which, Diane noticed, he didn't deny them. The men also seemed to hang on his every word, with respect and interest and easy camaraderie.
Diane made a little sniff of indifference and turned to answer the waiter who wanted to know if she desired red or white wine with her dinner.
Thankfully, she considered, being late had spared her the need to listen through most of the program, leaving only award presentations and acceptance remarks. One of those awards was for her father.
When the announcement was made for the Joshua J. Abernathy Humanist Award for excellence in education, Diane stood to make her way to the stage. As she did so, hoping not to trip over audio cables or someone's feet, the evening's MC expressed relief that she had finally arrived, fearing that the one seat at the reserved table would remain empty and the award mailed in absentia to its recipient. Mild laughter followed these comments as Diane reached the podium. Allowing the applause to die away she realized, looking out over the audience who were all staring at her, she'd never prepared any remarks.
"Actually," Diane began after she'd accepted the Revere Bowl and the envelope containing the award check and posed for a quick photo with the museum president, "I got lost."
Her honest and guileless opening received genuine laughter. She stood looking lovely and unflustered and pleased with herself for having charmed them.
Take that, Diane said to herself, knowing Hale was in the audience watching. Probably hoping that she'd mess up.
"My father always says I am directionally challenged, but a great swimmer and generally acceptable as a daughter. So, I'm forgiven my few shortcomings."
There was more laughter from the audience and she relaxed, thinking quickly on her feet. She would be brief and succinct and do Adam Maxwell proud.
"My father sends his regrets at not being here tonight. There was an unavoidable conflict. It's my pleasure and honor to be here in his place. As you know Adam Maxwell has always been supportive of Into the Future programs and the great work you do in furthering the opportunities for black youngsters to pursue education and their dreams. He's very moved to be recognized with this award for his work, but says he doesn't deserve it. I agree."
There were some chuckles, but it was obvious that the audience was taken aback by this pronouncement.
"My father would be the first to waive the praise and say he's only doing what desperately needs to be done. Along the way in his life and career there were people to guide and support him, believe in him. He feels he's simply returning the favor. Paying it forward, so to speak.
"Nonetheless I am most humbled, and very happy to accept on his behalf your appreciation of his work and contribution. Also on my father's behalf, I will be donating the monetary award to your organization to be used to further your mission. Encouraging black students who might otherwise have limited opportunities for a productive and happy future."
The audience came to their feet and showed their surprise and approval with enthusiastic sustained applause. Diane stood regal and still, glancing out over the guests with a genuine smile.
"Thank you, from my father and from myself. Again, I apologize for my late arrival but I wouldn't have missed tonight for anything."
She turned and left the stage, stopping only briefly to accept thanks from the director of Into the Future for the gift of her father's award check. The applause continued until she took her seat.
As she did so Diane hazarded a glance over her shoulder to Hale's table. Everyone around him had taken their seats but he was still standing and applauding until the end, his expression indiscernible in the dimly lit room. She hoped she achieved total indifference to his response as she sat down again. But she knew Hale's gaze followed her.
The presentations continued. Diane found that as she was being served her dinner everyone else had pretty much finished. She covertly ate enough of the duck confit and asparagus, artfully tied with a strip of red pepper, to quell her growling stomach before she allowed her plate to be removed. She slowly sipped her wine, giving her something to do as conversation happened around her. She was steadfast in her resolve to ignore the quiet but constant buzz of talk and laughter coming from Hale's table.
She focused her attention on the stage and podium, to others receiving awards and giving thanks. Having performed as she'd been required to, Diane realized she was also no longer the subject of admiring glances, appreciative smiles or even mild curiosity. She felt suddenly, oddly, out of sync with the evening and everyone around her. And alone, as if she didn't belong.