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The worst part about funerals was, you had to make nice and be cordial to people you either despised or couldn't care less about. There was something about death that brought out all the clichés: Life is short. You never know when you're going to go. Treat each day like it's your last. As if coming face-to-face with mortality would make a person want to "get right" before they had to explain to Saint Peter why they didn't do better.
Penny Keys understood all of this in theory. But with Big Mama gone, she didn't care about the niceties and what she should be doing.
Sophie Hightower embraced Penny as if the woman had been Big Mama's closest friend, and ran off at the mouth about how good it was to see Penny again. And it was all Penny could do not to haul off cussing in the funeral home and shake up the staid and calm wake.
"Thanks, Sophie." Penny couldn't bring herself to fake pleasantries of any kind to this evil-mouthed, hateful old woman. She could barely manage a smile. Ever since getting the call from her mother, telling her Big Mama had passed away, Penny hadn't been fully thinking or feeling. She'd functioned. She'd organized, planned, taken care of everything. But feeling? That was gone.
Heartbroken, dejected, lost
Those words didn't even begin to describe her mood. They certainly couldn't cover the large hole that seemed to stretch on and on in her spirit. She only remembered feeling this empty one other time in her life. She'd had no idea the hollowness in her heart left over from that loss had any room for expansion. Yet there it was, growing and threatening to take her over at any moment if she dared let go of her tenuous gripon control.
Penny gave the funeral home another once-over, but still couldn't find her mother, or anyone else who might save her from cursing Sophie out and making a mockery of Big Mama's wake. Anyone, that is, but the man who caught her gaze immediately. Jason Hightower.
She knew the very second Sophie Hightower caught the passing glances between her and Jason, because the old woman's fake smile dried up, and her well-wishing facial expression hardened ever so slightly. Sophie's lips twisted as if she'd bitten into something bitter, and her shoulders reared back, causing her overly large bosom to poke out even more than the pointy cones already did. The tall, rich-mocha-complexioned woman with the full figure would have been considered forbidding on a good day. Once she had her panties in a bunch over one of her precious nephews possibly falling victim to an unworthy 'hood girl like Penny, forget about it . Attitude overload.
Penny straightened her back and swallowed. She felt her hands clenching together at her side. She resisted the urge to take a scrunchie out of her purse, put her long locks in a ponytail, dig out the Vaseline and take off her earrings in preparation.
I will not cause a scene. I will not
"So, when are you going back to California, Penny? You know there's nothing for you here." Sophie's right eye slanted, and her lip tilted in a bit of a snarl.
Get thee behind me, Satan. I will not cuss this old woman out at Big Mama's wake. I just won't do it. I don't care what you have this old biddy say to me.
As if on cue, Jason, with his confident swagger and cocky demeanor, came walking over.
Was it just her, or did the people in the crowded room of the funeral home seem to part and make way for Jason as he zeroed in on her? Penny hadn't seen him in fifteen years and didn't want to face him now. It didn't appear she had much choice.
She tried to focus on anything else in the room besides himthe metal folding chairs in the corner, the stack of church fans piled on the wooden table along with a big white guest book and carefully folded programs. Even with those things to gaze at, her eyes still managed to find Jason's again.
Those dark brown pools full of accusation and allure would surely be the death of heror, at the very least, the end of her sanityif she continued to look into them.
"Hi, Aunt Sophie." Jason gave his aunt a big hug, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on Penny.
He had changed from the eighteen-year-old love of her life. His athletic build appeared stronger, more substantial, if that were possible. He was still tall. And his deep mahogany complexion was still flawless. For some reason, however, this grown-up Jason seemed larger than life. His presence filled the room, and left her feeling a barrage of things she didn't dare try and label. The dark, navy-blue designer suit he wore fit as if it were custom-made for him.
They must be paying police detectives well these days, Penny thought wryly, as she let her eyes roam Jason's appealing but also very off-limits body.
She was there to bury Big Mama, and that was it. As much as she despised the meddling Sophie Hightower, the woman was right. There wasn't anything here for Penny anything or anyone.
"Penny." The stiff and stilted tone of voice as well as his clipped manner let her know Jason was only speaking to be polite and wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.
Fine with me.
He kept those sexy, daring brown eyes on her, though. The straight and serious line of his mouth made her long for the days when those lips held smiles only for her.
Even though she secretly longed to see him smile just once, so she could see if the sight of those perfect teeth, those full lips and the dimple in his right cheek still had the capability to make her heart stop, she knew it was a lost cause.
And she didn't have time for things she couldn't change, wrongs she couldn't correct.
She only needed to bury her grandmother and get out of town so she could have the nice private breakdown she'd been putting on hold since she got the news.
"Jason." He wasn't the only one who could give a one-word greeting. She would have been willing to forgo speaking at all. She could very well do without the just-under-the-surface bad feelings threatening to bubble up and explode.
"Sorry about Big Mama. She'll be missed. I used to stop by and check up on her a couple of times during the week. I never would have thought we'd lose her. Seemed like she would be here forever." His eyes softened a little, then hardened again just as quickly.
Big Mama never told me she was visiting with Jason twice a week.
But Big Mama wouldn't have. When Penny called, it was all about Penny. And Penny was sure that when Jason visited, Big Mama made those moments just for him. That was her way.
The huge lump that had taken up residence in her chest since she had gotten the news of Big Mama's passing began to throb. Big Mama was really gone, and there was nothing she could do about it. The thought of it made her want to curl up in a corner and just weep until she ran out of tears.
But there was too much to do now. She could cry when she went back to Los Angeles. Right now, she needed to get the wake and the awkward reunion with Jason and his evil aunt over and done with.
With no time to get choked up, Penny took a deep breath. Taking another, she relished the calm that overcame her body.
Sophie cleared her throat and stepped back. "Yes, she will be missed dearly. The Deaconess Board at Mount Zion won't be the same without her."
Giving Penny a quick and cutting glare, she added, "I'm going to leave you to greet the rest of your guests, dear. Come along, Jason. Penny can't be rude and spend all her time talking to us."
Subtlety had never been Sophie's strong point.
Jason nodded to his aunt and then returned his intense stare to Penny. "You can go ahead, Aunt Sophie. I'll catch up with you."
No, you go, too. Follow your dear, sweet aunt. I can't deal with you right now, Jason Hightower. Urgh
Penny inhaled and exhaled.
Remember calm, girly, calm.
She wondered what kind of visualization technique she could use to ease her nerves and get her through the wake and the proximity of the former love of her life. The image of Sophie Hightower's head being compressed in a metal vise held some appeal.
A bright, gleaming, false smile covered Sophie's face just before she cut her eyes at Penny. "Fine. I'm going to go and find my baby brother." She turned to her nephew. "Be sure not to tie up too much of Penny's time." She draped her scarf across her shoulder and haughtily took off across the room.
Penny watched Sophie waltz away, all the while mentally crushing the woman's head, until Jason's smooth baritone interrupted her concentration.
"It's good to see you back, in spite of the horrible circumstances, Penny. Too bad you couldn't have visited when Big Mama was alive."
How did his cocky, tell-everyone-what-they-need-to-be-doing personality not bother me all through high school? Oh, wait it diduntil he made me fall in love with him .
Penny swallowed. Being home again had dredged up enough of her feelings of guilt. She didn't need Jason to remind her of all the reasons she was a horrible person.
She knew she should have visited more. During the time she'd been away, she had spoken to Big Mama five, sometimes six times a week. Penny had flown her grandmother out to Los Angeles for visits at least once a year. Once she had finished school and could afford the costs, she'd never neglected the woman who had raised her.
Penny pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. "Big Mama understood better than anyone my reasons for moving away and staying away. And most important, she knew I loved her."
"Are you sure about that? Because from what I could see, that woman missed you and mourned you the entire time. And for you to stay away that long shows what a cruel, heartless, selfish" Jason took a deep breath, glared at her and cut himself off.
She knew he'd been about to say something that couldn't be taken back. It wouldn't have been the first time.
The two of you deserve each othera backstabber and a slut. I can't believe I ever trusted either one of you. The harsh words he had spoken fifteen years ago echoed in her mind as she took in his mahogany face. The ruggedly handsome and manly face glaring at her right now had residual traces of the anger that had covered his more boyish face fifteen years ago.
She braced herself as best she could, given the fact that she had just lost the only person in the world who understood her and loved her unconditionally. And the only other person she had ever loved with her whole being was standing in front of her, blasting her in a creepily déjà vu manner.
She inhaled and exhaled several times. "You need to calm down, Jason. This is not the time or the place. If you cared about Big Mama as much as you claim you did, then you wouldn't disrespect her wake like this."
A hand rested on her shoulder and stopped her from saying more. Praying it wasn't her mother, Penny turned around.
Terrill had finally made it.
Penny let out a sigh of relief.
"Everything all right?" Terrill spoke the words to her, but his serious hazel eyes remained fixed on Jason.
Giving him a heartfelt hug and greeting, Penny felt herself shake just a little. She had no idea how much longer she was going to be able to hold up. But at least with Terrillone of her oldest and dearest friendsthere, she wouldn't have to go it alone.
"Everything is fine, Terrill. I'm glad you were able to make it."
She had just seen her friend before she left Los Angeles, so she knew Jason's presence was what made her extra happy to see Terrill. She leaned on Terrill's sturdy shoulder and clasped the arm of his suit jacket.
Terrill smiled at her and winked, his way of letting her know he was there for her no matter what.
Most of the people in the room were checking Terrill out. Success seemed to exude from him in ripples, and those who'd known him when he and his mother lived in a small one-bedroom attic apartment were either happy for him or jealous. The way eyes darted and conversations took place behind hands showed that Terrill had given many of the folks in the room something to talk about.
In fact, given the history the three of them shared, the room was probably abuzz with gossip.
She was very proud of Terrill, because she knew what it meant for both of them to make it from their inner-city neighborhood in Paterson, New Jersey, to their positions as movers and shakers in Los Angeles. Not many people from Warren Street who attended PS #10 and then Eastside High School ended up where they were. The two of them were kids from the 'hood who'd done well for themselves.
Shocked by how much she needed someone to lean on at this moment, she let out another sigh. Shooting a hesitant glance at Jason, she couldn't help but notice the intense anger in his glare.
Whoever said time healed all wounds told a big lie.
It seemed as if everyone in the funeral home had their eyes on the trio. Penny lifted her hand to her right eye and rubbed it across the tiny scar she had gotten when she was twelve. Although it was barely noticeable now, whenever Penny felt uncomfortable or put on the spot, her hand found and worried the small mark. She circled it with her pointer finger for a minute before she forced herself to put her hand down at her side.
So what if everyone in the funeral home was probably waiting to see if the three former best friends would cause a scene? She refused to turn into a ball of nerves for their entertainment.
As an image consultant, she knew the importance of appearances. The only thing a person really had any control over was the image he or she put forth. The perceptions of others might have been out of her hands, but that didn't mean she had to play to anyone's expectations.
"Hey, Jason. How's it going?" Terrill made an attempt to reach out to his old friend and got a harsh stare and a sneer for his trouble. His warm-honey complexion took on a tint of red when his former friend snubbed him. He slanted his hazel eyes and nodded.
"You're right, Penny. This isn't the time or the place." Jason gave her a once-over before walking away, and didn't even bother looking at Terrill. "It wouldn't even be worth it, anyway."