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Welcome to New York, sis." Jude Allen gave his big sister Peyton Sawyer a long hug as he entered her one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.
He stood and assessed his sister. Although he hadn't seen her in several months, Peyton looked as beautiful as ever, fit and trim in a fuchsia track suit. Her warm cocoa-colored skin glowed and her shoulder-length black hair shone brightly. His big sister was a real looker. Jude was going to have to beat the New York fellas away with a stick.
"Thanks," Peyton said, smiling warmly and pulling him inside. "Make yourself at home. That's if you can find a place to sit." Boxes filled up nearly every square inch.
"I'm so glad you're here," Jude said. "Now I don't feel so alone. I have family in town."
"Not that you need me," Peyton commented. Her baby brother was an extrovert and made friends easily. She couldn't wait to see Jude the actor in action. He'd already acquired a bit part on a soap opera and was hoping to snag a Broadway show.
"No regrets?" he asked, pushing several boxes aside and sitting on her leather sofa. She'd sure surprised the heck out of him and their parents when she'd left her professorship at Cleveland State University to move to New York.
"None." Peyton shook her head. "I needed to make a change," she replied. "And what better way than to come to New York, right?" She felt she didn't have to say what she really felt, which was that after losing her husband David Sawyer in a terrible three-car pile up five years ago, she was ready for a change of scenery.
"I understand." Jude patted her knee. Cleveland held too many memories. "You can get lost here."
"But neither Amber nor I will let you do that," Jude replied. "We're here to keep you centered."
Peyton smiled. Amber Martin was her dear friend from college. They'd kept in touch over the years since finishing their PhDs and now they would be teaching at New York University together. "And I appreciate that. But I've got my work cut out for me. Making tenure is not going to be easy." The Dean of the College of Education fully expected her to publish several articles a year before making tenure.
"True, but no one is more driven than you," Jude said. "You'll make tenure." Peyton had known she wanted to teach for as long as he could remember. When they were younger, she'd follow their mom and sit in on her classes while Jude on the other hand preferred the arts. He supposed he got that from his father, who was a musician.
"From your lips to God's ears," Peyton said, laughing.
"You don't need divine intervention," Jude replied. "If had to put my money on anyone, I'd put it on you every time."
"We need funding, Malik. The center needs to be painted," Theresa Harris commented. "And the computer center needs new printers."
"Don't you think I know all of this?" Malik asked, exasperation in his voice. As director, he was aware of all facets that went into keeping the center's medical and recreational facilities in tip-top condition. He'd been the director of the Harlem Community Center since his mentor Andrew Webster had retired and handed the reigns over to him five years ago. Given his success at HCC, he'd recently been given the added responsibility of overseeing several centers throughout Manhattan, but he kept HCC as his home base.
The promotion had increased not only his workload, but his paycheck as well. Malik was doing quite well for himself and owned a renovated brownstone in Harlem. He'd been smart to buy many years ago when no one would have been caught dead living in Central Harlem. Now his brownstone was worth over a million dollars. Who would have ever thought that he, an orphan since the age of ten, would have what he had?
"I have a meeting coming up with the Community Advisory Board at Children's Aid Network. But what we really need is a corporate sponsor. In the meantime, however, we'll have to make do."
"And did I mention we need another volunteer doctor?" Theresa added.
"Now that, I have a handle on," Malik replied, shifting through the manila folders on his desk. He'd already interviewed several doctors who'd offered to come in one day a week to ease the load in the health clinic. "I have several candidates, and it's just a process of picking the best one." Malik didn't know what he'd do without his right hand. As assistant director of the Harlem Community Center, Theresa kept Malik focused. "But I appreciate you bringing it all to my attention."
"And now that we have business covered, what are we going to do about your love life?" she asked. Over six feet tall, Malik Williams was a fine-looking man. Even with long dreads and a permanent five o'clock shadow, a black Bob Marley T-shirt and some faded blue jeans, Malik exuded a raw masculinity. Theresa didn't know why he was still single.
"I appreciate the concern," Malik replied, "but I'mnot interested in seeing anyone right now. My plate is full."
"Do you even remember the last time you had a date?" Theresa asked. "Because I sure can't. You need to find you a good woman to settle down with. I know you'd make an excellent husband and father. I see the way you interact with those kids as their basketball coach."
"Theresa," he said with exaggerated patience, "Marriage isn't for me." He'd seen what marriage could do to people. How it made you lose all common sense and not realize that the man you'd brought into the fold as father to your son was beating the crap out of him. Malik would never forget what it was like being on the receiving end of his stepfather, Joe Johnson's belt. It was better he left marriage to all the gullible people in the world. The ones who believed that love could conquer all instead of the reality that love was blind.
"How would you know?" Theresa responded. "You've never been in a relationship long enough to find out."
"I get what I need."
Theresa didn't blink at Malik's comment. "If you're referring to sex, there's more to a relationship."
"I am. And sex is all I need. Both parties get mutual satisfaction without all the entanglements. Trust me, Theresa. I'm better off." Malik closed the folder. "Now if you'll excuse me, I do have some place I need to be."
Malik glanced at his watch. He was already late for dinner with his best friends, Dante Moore, Sage Anderson and Quentin Davis. The foursome had grown up together at the orphanage, but despite their rocky start they'd all gone on to have successful careers. Dante owned his own restaurant, Sage was a corporate attorney and Quentin was a world-renowned photographer. But this spring their tight family unit had been put to the test with some major drama and they'd all vowed to never let anything come between them again.
Theresa had been his assistant the last five years and knew when he was brushing her off. "Tell Sage, Dante and Q, I said hello."
Malik turned at the door and glanced at her. She knew him too darn well. "Sure thing, Theresa. I'll see you tomorrow."
"I can't believe we're going to be working together," Amber commented as she helped Peyton unpack her new office.
"I'm excited too." Peyton smiled at her best friend. "You just don't know how much I needed a change." She loaded her arms up with books and placed them on the bookshelves from the previous professor.
"I think I have some idea," Amber replied. "Here, let me help you with that." Amber took several books out of Peyton's arms. "So, have you had the opportunity to meet some of the department faculty?"
"Briefly, at a faculty brunch during the interview process in May; but I haven't seen anyone yet. I can't believe it's already August and fall semester starts in a week."
Amber watched as Peyton put every book in alphabetical order according to title. Peyton hated things out of place. "I'm sure they'll pop by and stick their heads in. They can't resist getting the scoop on new blood." Amber chuckled. "We professors are such gossips."
"I'll have to remember that," Peyton replied. "And make sure my skeletons stay hidden."
"As if you had any." Amber laughed derisively. "You are the most straightlaced person I know."
"And you are the most radical," Peyton replied, turning around and staring at her hippie friend. In all the years they'd known each other, Amber hadn't changed a bit, except for maybe the hair. The hair was shorter in a chic layer bob, but her style was still the same. Wearing hiphuggers, a novelty T-shirt and a pageboy cap, Amber looked like a student, instead of an accomplished professor with a PhD in women's studies.
"True, and that's why we make a great team. You are going to have so much fun in New York. Cleveland will be a distant memory."
"What's our first step?"
"First we're going to get you settled in," Amber began, "and then we'll hit the New York dating scene."
"I don't know about all that," Peyton replied. They weren't the ladies of Sex and the City. Peyton wasn't ready for an active social life. She'd been on a few dates the last couple of years, but she'd felt so guilty. David had been the only man she'd ever loved. They'd known each other since they were in kindergarten, and when she'd matured into womanhood love had blossomed. It was hard for her not to compare every man she met to David, as if it would even be possible for them to live up to such a high standard.
"Don't you trust me?" Amber asked, giving Peyton her most innocent face.
Famous last words, thought Peyton.
Malik strolled into Dante's tapas bar half an hour later than expected, and Sage wasted no time.
"You're late," Sage commented, looking down at her watch when Malik joined her at the wave-shaped bar.
"I'm sorry. I had several things to attend to," Malik answered the beautiful, brown-skinned, five-foot, three-inch barracuda of a lawyer who also happened to be one of his dear friends.
"More important than us?" Sage countered.
"Don't answer that." Dante pointed his finger at Malik from behind the bar. "Not if you know what's good for you." He returned to making several drinks for patrons. Even though he was working, Dante always managed to look casually put together in slacks and a crew neck sweater.
"Well, from the looks of it" Malik glanced around the nearly full restaurant"I am not the only one." He didn't see Quentin or his girlfriend Avery Roberts anywhere.
"Quentin had the courtesy to call," Sage replied.
"You mean the Quentin Davis who can do no wrong in your eyes, you mean that Quentin?" Malik pinched Sage's nose as he took the barstool next to her.
"Stop that." Sage patted away his hand. Malik used to do it all the time when they were growing up at the orphanage together. That's when he wasn't fighting off the bullies that made fun of her constant sickliness. Back then she'd suffered from terrible allergies, not to mention her asthma, which had gone undetected due to her mother's drug use and neglect.
"Greetings!" Quentin walked in with his girlfriend Avery. Malik had to admit that if anyone had ever told him there would come a day in which a player like Quentin would be settling down with one woman, he would have called them crazy. But he couldn't knock Quentin, because he had never seen him happier.
"Good to see you, bro." Malik rose from the stool and patted him on the back. "Avery." He kissed her on the cheek. "You're looking well." Not that Malik had ever seen Avery's razor-cut, shoulder-length hair out of place. Fair in comparison to Quentin's chocolate complexion, Avery was class and sophistication all rolled into one.
"Thank you." Avery smiled back.
"So what's on the menu tonight, Dante?" Malik asked. He liked that they'd all incorporated a weekly dinner into their daily lives. When Quentin had been photographing the war in Iraq, a part of their foursome was missing and dinner hadn't been the same.
"A little of this, a little of that," Dante replied coyly. He always liked to surprise the group with new recipes. "What can I get the two of you to drink?" he asked Quentin and Avery.
"A Heineken and a glass of pinot grigio, please."
"How's the center?" Sage inquired.
"Busy and fast-paced," Malik replied. There was always paperwork to complete or a meeting to attend about funding, programming, etc. "Truth be told, the center is in dire need of a renovation."
"I couldn't agree with you more," Quentin replied. Since he'd begun mentoring the center's youth in photography, Quentin had seen the work that needed to be done.
"Have you brought this up to Children's Aid Network?" Avery inquired. Avery was very familiar with charitable organizations, since her mother was one of their biggest supporters.
"I plan on it, but it's a tough position for CAN. They have to weigh which program or center needs the money the most. And HCC has to fall in line just like everyone else."
"Sounds like you need a corporate sponsor," Sage replied.
"That would be a dream come true. A benefactor completely focused on just the Harlem center," Malik replied.
"I'll ask around," Avery piped in. With her parent's social standing in the community, she was exposed to many influential peoplebut only one immediately sprang to mind.
Quentin noticed the grin on Avery's face and whispered in her ear. "You have someone in mind, don't you?"
Avery nodded. "I do and I'll tell you all about it later."
"How's the law firm?" Malik asked, changing the subject. As much as he loved the center, he needed a break from worrying about its troubles.
"Well, I feel like I can see the end of the road," Sage replied. "I've been at the firm for four and a half years. I'm hoping I can make partner in five."
"Don't kill yourself trying."
"Oh please, Malik," Sage chuckled. "You are just as bad as I am. You spend your whole life at that center."
"This is true," Quentin said, coming over with his Heineken.
"I'm dedicated." Malik defended himself.
"To your work," Dante finished.
"And what's wrong with that?"
"You need to find some time for romance, my friend," Quentin pulled Avery towards him and planted a swift kiss on her lips.
"Like you?" Malik said, smiling. "Hmm, I think I'll leave you to that love stuff. I don't believe in love." Malik had seen the flipside of the love coin. Everyday at the center, he saw men who beat their wives, men who left their wives, wives who abandoned their children for men. Love? Love he could do without.
"You are a true cynic, my friend," Quentin replied. He too, had been a cynic, but Avery had changed all of that for him. Now he was love's biggest advocate. "But just you wait when that love bug hits you. Trust me, you won't know what to do.