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"Excuse me?" Makayla Stevens gripped the phone so hard, a sharp pain whizzed up her arm. "I've done nothing but help Terrance."
"Has it ever occurred to you that maybe you're the problem?"
"No, because Terrance is having issues in his other classes, as well. He"
"Sure, and I'm supposed to believe you."
"Mrs. Blake, each incident has been clearly documented and"
"Hello? Hello?" The dial tone buzzed in her ear. Makayla stared down at the receiver, eyes wide, mouth agape. It wasn't the first time she'd argued with a parent about their child's behavior, but she had never been spoken to in such a scathing manner.
Throughout their conversation, Makayla had heard gleeful revving noises in the background and knew that Terrance was playing nearby. But that didn't stop Mrs. Blake from punctuating her sentences with lively curse words. It was no wonder the five-year-old was a holy terror.
In the ten years Makayla had been teaching, she had never met a child she didn't likeuntil now. Only a month into the school year and Terrance Blake had been sent to the principal's office five times. Mr. Gibson gave his support, but Makayla had a feeling he blamed her for Terrance's intolerable behavior. In the last month she'd used all of her "tricks" but there was no change in Terrance. Extra computer time, positive reinforcement and glow-in-the-dark stickers didn't help, either. Terrance was as bad as ever. He swiped things off her desk when he thought no one was looking, bullied his peers and lied openly.
Makayla picked up Terrance's file. It was heavier than the Bible. She had to do something fast. Mrs. Blake had threatened to file a grievance against her with the Philadelphia school board. Still, her co-workers had assured her she had nothing to worry about. One complaint from an angry parent wasn't going to ruin her otherwise stellar performance record.
Unruffled by Mrs. Blake's threats, she picked up the phone and hit redial. On the third ring, the answering machine came on. How can Mrs. Blake be unavailable when she just hung up on me?
When the automated voice prompted her to leave her name and number, Makayla said, "Hello, Mrs. Blake. It's Ms. Stevens again. Somehow our call got disconnected. I am calling to remind you that parent-teacher interviews are tomorrow night. Your appointment is at 7:15 p.m. I look forward to seeing you then. Goodbye."
After carefully replacing the receiver, she crossed off the last name on her class list. Now that all of the parents and guardians had been called and reminded about the interviews, she could call it a day.
Pushing herself up from her chair, she rubbed her hands over her chilled shoulders. A draft of cool air rushed into the room through the partially open window. Once the window was closed, Makayla surveyed her first-grade classroom. Vivid paint, colorful posters and children's art decorated the walls. A thick piece of red carpet sat in front of Makayla's desk, a row of computers lined the far side of the room and three lumpy beanbag chairs sat near the overcrowded bookshelf.
The distant sound of car horns suggested rush-hour traffic was in full swing. A quick glance at her watch confirmed that it was indeed five o'clock. If Makayla wanted to be on time for karate class, she had to leave now. Shrugging on her jacket, she swung her tote bag over her shoulder and hurried out of her classroom.
"I hate men," Makayla announced, yanking off her headband and chucking it into her gym bag. "Especially the fine ones. They cause the most trouble."
Her best friends groaned simultaneously. The three women were at the King Bonk Institute of Martial Arts in downtown Philadelphia. Their five-thirty class was over and they were in the changing room getting dressed.
"Here we go again," Desiree sang. "What's the problem now?"
Makayla untied her karate belt. "What do you mean, 'here we go again'?"
"Every time you go on a date you whine. You break into this 'I-hate-men' routine at least once a month."
"What happened this time?" Brandi asked, freeing her chocolate-brown locks from their elastic band.
"First, he was over twenty minutes late to pick me up. By the time we got downtown, found parking and reached our seats, we missed half the movie. Then, when he dropped me home after dinner, he had the nerve to ask for gas money. Said something about his check being short this month and he'd pay me back soon."
Brandi laughed. "Sorry, girl, but that's a trip."
"What was wrong with Reggie?" Desiree applied blush to her cheeks. "He worked for the city, had his own place and, if I recall, he was kinda cute."
"Loose Lips Reggie? No way. That man was way too affectionate for my liking." After a year of man-less days and nights, Makayla thought she was ready to jump back into the dating pool. But like her decision to cut her hair and grow it natural back in university, she'd been wrong.
Brandi frowned. "Too affectionate? Most women beg for romance and all you do is complain."
"Who said anything about romance? Reggie's idea of romance is day-old flowers, a six-pack and Steven Seagal movies." Makayla blew out the air in her cheeks. These days she had a better chance of being struck by lightning than finding a good man. She'd had adolescent dreams of the man she loved sweeping her off her feet. But, at thirty-three, she'd settle for him walking her through the front door. Forget romance, candlelit dinners and wild, passionate sex. All she wanted was a single, gainfully employed man who didn't live at home with his momma. "I'm through with the male species. I'm going to take a much-needed break from the dating scene and just concentrate on me."
Desiree shrugged. "Suit yourself. That leaves more men for me."
Makayla rolled her eyes. Desiree Hill could have any man she wantedcelibate, engaged or married. Men paid special attention whenever she was around. Her short, flirty boy cut drew atention to her oval-shaped eyes, and her pecan complexion had a soft, natural glow. Makayla landed a position at Springs Park Elementary School fresh out of university, and later that year Desiree joined the staff. Her quirky sense of humor and their mutual love of Jackie Brown movies bonded them instantly.
Makayla eyed Desiree through the mirror. "Like you don't have enough men beating down your condo door."
"A single woman can never have too many options." Wiggling her hands under Makayla's nose, she said, "Do you see any rings on these fingers?"
"But you said you're not ready to get married."
"I'm not, but it would be nice if Elliot proposed."
Desiree had been dating Elliot Parker for three years, and even after all of that time Makayla couldn't figure out what the attraction was. The corporate pilot was ultraconservative, reticent and, quite frankly, boring. Last Saturday, at Desiree's birthday party, he didn't say more than five words the entire night. Makayla didn't care much for the man, but as long as he treated her friend well she had no complaints.
"Twinkie, you're too picky. Stop being so hard on these men." Brandi put a hand on Makayla's shoulder. "You don't want to wake up one morning and realize all you have for company are stray cats, do you?"
"How many times do I have to tell you to quit calling me Twinkie?" Feigning anger, she spread her hands out at her sides. "I lost sixty pounds, remember?"
Brandi stuck out her tongue. "Show-off!"
The two women had been friends since high school, and aside from Makayla's weight loss, little had changed between them. Every time Makayla thought about how they met, she cringed. It was her first day at Lincoln High and she couldn't have asked for a better day. She had a light schedule, made a friend in biology class and her sandals were holding up just fine. Her mom had given her enough money to buy a back-to-school dress, but she'd decided not to press the issue by asking for new shoes, too.
Makayla was shuffling through the cafeteria holding a food tray when she felt her right heel give way. Within seconds, she was sprawled out on the slick tile floor. Cream-of-mushroom soup dribbled down her cheek, gravy-soaked French fries stuck to her sundress and her bare legs were smeared with vanilla pudding.
A riot broke out across the room. Kids chortled until tears coursed down their cheeks. Some pointed, others made faces and a few chucked food. Horrified, Makayla tried to flee but every time she tried to stand up, she slid back down. Sobbing uncontrollably, she prayed one of the kind-hearted cafeteria ladies would come to her aid. But it wasn't Ms. Fletcher or Ms. Petroski who came to her rescue. It was a chubby girl with beaded braids and crooked teeth. The girl pulled her up and practically carried her out of the cafeteria. Her savior introduced herself as Brandi Thomas, wiped her tears and cleaned her up. On the way home, Brandi stopped at the grocery store and bought a tub of Rocky Road ice cream. That had sealed their near twenty-year friendship.
"Where to?" Desiree asked as they exited the locker room and proceeded through the studio. Grunts, wails and groans permeated the air. The 7:30 p.m. self-defense class had started, and eighteen sweaty bodies in a tight space made for one putrid smell.
"Somewhere where I can get drunk," Brandi said with a smirk. "After the week I've had, I need some hard liquor, a foot rub and some jazz."
Brandi was a marketing director at a Fortune 500 company, and had been in a committed relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Jamaal, for years. A free, gregarious spirit, she was open to doing anything as long as it was entertaining.
Makayla laughed. "Well, I don't know about the foot rub, but Bourbon Blue has a live band and cheap cocktails after six."
"Naw, it's always so crowded there. Let's go to Zeke's," Desiree suggested, pushing open the front door. Outside, it was a cold but clear September evening. A gentle breeze ruffled the trees. "I could really go for their chicken-and-rib platter."
Brandi nodded. "Sounds good to me!" Since the restaurant was only a few blocks away, the three women piled into her green Chevy Blazer.
Desiree clicked on her seat belt. "Makayla, did you leave work early? I came by your class but you weren't there."
"I was on phone with Mrs. Blake. She was yelling so loud I probably didn't hear you knocking."
"Is that woman still giving you a hard time?" Brandi asked.
Glancing out the window, Makayla said, "Veronika Blake makes the Wicked Witch of the West look like Mami from The Young and the Restless."
Laughter erupted from the front seat.
Makayla didn't join in her girlfriends' laughter. Mrs. Blake had Principal Gibson wrapped around her finger and she questioned Makayla's ability to teach every chance she got. Mrs. High-and-Mighty was making her life miserable, and it infuriated Makayla that she wasn't getting more support from administration. "Terrance pulled the fire alarm and she blamed me for not keeping an eye on him! Said if I had been watching him he wouldn't have gotten into trouble."
"Is he really that bad?" Brandi wanted to know.
"Worse. Yesterday he flooded the boys' washroom."
"Well, don't let this Veronika woman bully you," Brandi advised. "Stand up to her or it's going to be a very long year."
"That's easier said than done, Brandi. You've never had the misfortune of meeting the Wicked Witch of the West."
On Thursday, seven-fifteen came and went without any signs of Veronika Blake. Closing her appointment book, Makayla pushed back her chair and stood. God does answer prayer, she thought, allowing herself a small smile.
Makayla erased the board, straightened the desks, and put a stray yellow cap in the lost-and-found box. Returning to her desk she contemplated whether or not to notify the school secretary that Mrs. Blake had missed her seven-fifteen appointment. Nixing the idea before it took root, she cleared the clutter off her desk. Wanetta was a sweet woman, but she could out-talk a TV evangelist, and after a long evening of parent-teacher interviews, Makayla was anxious to go home.
Piling notebooks into the homework basket, she checked the time. It was almost eight o'clock. Way past quitting time. Makayla counted the math folders, then slipped them into her bag. She hated taking marking home, but the tests had been sitting on her desk since Monday and she had promised to give them back tomorrow.
Saturday can't come fast enough, Makayla thought, slipping on her jacket. Her gaze fell across the stack of old newspapers piled up in the recycling bin. A smile tugged at her lips. Makayla's very first article was appearing in the weekend edition of The Philadelphia Blaze and she couldn't be more excited. A lot was riding on the piece. If readers responded favorably, she'd be one step closer to being a travel writer. One step closer to living her dream.
Swinging her purse over her shoulder, she bent down and picked up her tote bag and basket. She turned off the lights and closed the door behind her. In the empty hallway, the growls of her equally empty stomach echoed. A soggy tuna-fish sandwich and a cup of raspberry yogurt had been her only meal of the day and she was so hungry, she felt light-headed.
Fantasizing about a thick slice of lasagna and some garlic bread, she rounded the corner and slammed head-first into what felt like a brick wall. Loose-leaf papers and notebooks sailed into the air, the contents of her purse spilled onto the floor and her feet slipped out from under her.
"I'm sorry," she heard a voice say. "I didn't see you."
Are you blind?
An arm curled around her waist. Allowing the stranger to help her to her feet, Makayla frantically brushed the dust off her pleated skirt. Straightening her sweater, she wondered why things like this always happened to her. Prone to getting flat tires, spilling food and knocking things over, she kept her cell phone charged, spare clothes in her trunk and an emergency credit card on hand.
"Are you all right?"
Do I look all right? Anger gained control of her mouth, but when she glanced up at the stranger, her lips parted wordlessly. Staring down at her, with a remorseful look on his face, was none other than Kenyon Blake.
"Here, let me help you with your things." He collected the sheets of paper littering the hallway, then proceeded to stack all twenty-two notebooks back into the plastic basket.
Standing rigid with shock, Makayla watched as Kenyon retrieved the contents of her purse. When he picked up her tube of mascara, she scrambled to action. Scampering around like a busy hen, she grabbed the box of gum, her leopard-print change purse and her car keys. Spotting two tampons by the heel of his shoes, Makayla prayed the earth would open up and swallow her whole.
Following her gaze, his full lips curved into a grin.
The heat of her humiliation quickly spread through her cheeks and down her neck. With as much composure as she could muster, she swiped the tampons off the floor and shoved them into her purse.
"Are you sure you're all right?" he asked. "You don't look so good."
Makayla forgot how to speak. The pitter-patter of her heart and her shallow breathing filled the silence. Swallowing, she touched a hand to her chest. Is this what it feels like to have a heart attack? she wondered, patting her brow with the back of her hand. "I'm fine" came out of her mouth in a painful squeak.
Kenyon Blake was standing in front of her, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Makayla knew she was staring, but so was he! The years had been kind to him. He had transformed from an adorable teen to one fine-looking man. Kenyon was extra tall. Extra dark. And extra handsome. The width of his shoulders suggested he was a man of great strength. His straight nose, sensuously wide mouth and smoldering brown eyes fuelled his bad-boy look. His skin was mahogany brown, smooth and clear. A single diamond stud clung to his right ear, and the chain around his neck held a cross at the end.
"You must be Ms. Stevens," Kenyon said. "Sorry I'm late, but Terrance's hockey practice ran long. I'm his"
"Oh, of course," she replied. "You're here for the interview." Makayla cringed at the sound of her high-pitched voice. What else would Kenyon be doing here if not for parent-teacher interviews? Now that he clued her in, she could see the resemblance between father and son. They shared the same dark skin, high forehead and blunt nose.
"I must admit, Ms. Stevens, you're not what I expected."
Same here. "I get that a lot," she confessed. At a paltry five feet, two inches, Makayla was often mistaken for an older sister of one of her students.
Smoothing a hand over her hair, she wondered how her makeup was holding up. Her last three interviews had been back to back, which left little time to catch her breath, let alone freshen up. And the last thing Makayla had expected was to run smack-dab into her old high school crush.