"Surprise!" Kyla beamed as her startled husband jumped back. Friends shouted their greetings from the restaurant tables adorned with silver and black "Over-the-Hill" balloons.
"I don't believe this!" Jefferson grinned. He grabbed Kyla around her waist and hugged her close.
Kyla's skin tingled at his touch. After many years, he still turned her on. "We got you, didn't we?"
"That's for sure. I can't believe this."
"Happy birthday, darling!"
Cheers echoed through the restaurant again as Jefferson kissed Kyla. They lingered in the embrace and the crowd applauded.
"Hey, hey Dr. Jefferson!" A voice from the crowd interrupted their moment. "There's no room for that here, Ky. Dr. Jefferson has to be shared with everyone," Jasmine, Kyla's best friend, scolded playfully.
Laughter filled the room as Jasmine wiggled and nudged herself between Kyla and Jefferson. Standing on her toes, she said, "Here's something for your birthday I know you'll never forget." She kissed him, full on the lips.
As friends pushed Jasmine aside to offer their congratulatory wishes, Kyla frowned and remembered her husband's recent complaints about Jasmine. Now, she wondered if she should have so lightly dismissed his concerns. Taking his hand a bit too firmly, Kyla moved alongside her husband, past a smiling Jasmine as Stevie Wonder blasted birthday wishes from speakers around the elegantly decorated room. After a few body-crushing minutes, Kyla loosened her grip and allowed Jefferson to be pulled further into the crowd. He caught her eyeand reluctantly let her fingers slide from his.
Kyla leaned against the restaurant's blue-suede wall and her eyes roamed through the crowd of the ninety invited guests, personal friends as well as colleagues, present to celebrate the fortieth birthday of her husband, a well-respected pulmonary specialist.
Kyla took a glass of sparkling cider from a passing tuxedoed waiter, then moved to a table, away from the swell of guests. Watching her husband over the rim of her fluted glass, she saw him stride confidently through the maze of tables on his mission to greet every guest. She was content to watch it all from the sidelines. "Thank you, Lord," she whispered as her eyes continued to follow Jefferson. "Thank you for giving me sixteen wonderful years with this man."
"Girl, things are heating up in here," Jasmine said, interrupting Kyla's prayer as she bounced down into a chair. Kyla's eyes swept over Jasmine in her red knit, hip-squeezing minidress and, although it was a little too short for her taste, she had to admit that Jasmine did look good.
Jasmine fanned her face, then took Kyla's glass and sipped her cider before Kyla could protest. Kyla got another glass from a passing waiter and crinkled her nose as the cider's bubbles rose and tickled her. She fixed her eyes on the couples on the dance floor, doing her best to ignore Jasmine and the feelings of anger she felt brewing inside.
Jasmine was tapping her fingers atop the silver tablecloth. "Well, it looks like it's going to be the party of the century, Ky." Jasmine's tone belied her words.
"At least the party of the week."
"Well, I'm not as important as you and Jefferson. I don't get invited to all those posh affairs. It's the first time I've been to a p-a-r-t-y since my separation."
Kyla's light brown eyes softened. "Are you okay? You know you can talk to me."
"Nothing to talk about. I'm fine, look at me." Jasmine made a sweeping gesture with her hand across her body. "Do I look like I'm suffering?"
Kyla smiled. "Jas, you look great."
"Yeah, The Commodores called it a brick house. And to think in a little while I'll be forty."
"What's so funny?" Jasmine smirked. "Remember, two weeks after I hit that big number, you'll be joining the club."
"But, we still look good, girl."
They laughed together. "We do, don't we?" But a second later, Jasmine's smile slid away. "I just hope someone else will notice."
"Don't force it, sweetie. It might be a little too soon for you to get involved with anyone."
"Easy for you to say. You have a man."
Kyla reached over and squeezed her friend's hand. "I'm just trying to pass on some good advice."
"How can you give me advice on something you don't know anything about? All you know is perfection and I don't feel like being perfect right now."
"I'm not perfect, Jas."
"Umph. You're as close as any human being on earth will ever be. Just ask my father, my sister, anyone we know, they'll tell you!" Her words sounded bitter.
"How can you say that? You know me better than anyone, except for Jefferson, so you know my laundry stinks just like everybody else's."
Jasmine couldn't suppress a laugh.
Kyla half smiled. "I just want you to be okay."
"I'm fine." Jasmine sighed. "I'm not going to sit here and talk all night when all of these fine men are waiting for me."
Kyla's eyes followed Jasmine as she sashayed across the room. She shook her head. But right now, she didn't have time to worry about Jasmine. Standing, Kyla edged towards the crowd, knowing it was just as important for her to meet and greet the guests as it was for Jefferson. She moved shyly along the perimeter of the room, watching as the waiters bustled around, clicking glasses, making sure none were ever empty and plates were never bare. The guests gathered in clusters and the conversation and laughter mixed with the music to form a melodic hum that floated through the air. Stepping forward, Kyla finally entered the arena and paused to chat warmly with each person, spending a little extra time with the guests she knew might later become benefactors of the Medical Center.
As she continued her stroll, Kyla was embraced and kissed at every turn as if it were her birthday. She picked hot hors d'oeuvres from the trays and, with a fixed smile, searched for Jefferson, finally spotting him at a table with a few of the other doctors. As if on cue, Jefferson turned and looked directly at her with a twinkle in his eye. Heat rushed to her face and Kyla instantly thanked God their nine-year-old daughter, Nicole, was spending the weekend in San Diego with Jefferson's mother. She turned away, afraid that others at the party would be able to discern their telepathic messages. Jefferson's gaze fortified her and she continued her stroll, pausing at the stage that had been set for the DJ.
"The music is great." She smiled at the DJ as Marvin Gaye crooned "What's Goin' On." A small circle had formed in the center of the dance floor. Jasmine was in the middle, with her arms high above her head as she cha-cha'ed with Ian Hollis, the accountant for the Medical Center, who was swaying more like an exotic dancer than a numbers cruncher. As the crowd cheered and Marvin continued to ask about picket lines and brutality, Jasmine's hips swiveled deeply.
"I had a feeling you'd like the old school theme." The DJ's words snapped Kyla back.
Turning away from the dance floor spectacle, Kyla chuckled. "I can't imagine music that I love is considered old."
He laughed. "I know how you feel!"
With an audible sigh, she shook her head. It seemed like a short time ago, but almost twenty years had passed since she had met Jefferson at Hampton Institute. Only five minutes after they had met, Jefferson had proposed to her. The memory of that night was still so clear.
She had wandered out from the Kappa Alpha Psi party, seeking refuge from the suffocating heat inside where the rooms were packed with students celebrating the completion of finals. She was squinting through the dim streetlights when a tall, mocha-skinned brother dressed in red and white fraternity paraphernalia swaggered towards her.
"Some party, huh?" the man with the huge Afro said, as he sloped against the wall.
Kyla nodded and smiled. "A little hot though."
"I like hot things," he said with a half-smile.
Ignoring his innuendo, Kyla walked across the wooden porch and perched against the rail. He followed and leaned on the fence, facing her.
"My name is Jefferson, by the way."
"Nice to meet you." She extended her hand and waited as he switched the Budweiser can from his right hand to his left.
"The pleasure is definitely all mine..." he answered as he took her hand. When Kyla remained silent, he continued. "So, are you a student here? I haven't noticed you before."
"I haven't noticed you either."
Kyla ran her hands along her corduroy jeans. The smooth voices of the Ohio Players blasted through the opened windows and Kyla snapped her fingers.
"Fire! Fire!" Jefferson sang, as his eyes danced with the music. "Fire! The way you walk and talk really sets me off to a full alarm..."
"It was nice meeting you, Jefferson," she said and started back towards the house."
"Wait, we haven't finished yet."
"Haven't finished what?"
"Making all of our plans. You're gonna be my wife," he said as he brought the beer can to his lips.
"You don't even know my name," she chuckled.
"Okay, wife, tell me your name."
She stepped closer so that she could see his face clearly through the streetlights and spoke with a smile. "Kyla. Kyla Carrington."
"That's all I need to know. Everything else I'll learn over the lifetime of our long and happy marriage," he said as his hand traveled gently down the sleeve of her polyester blouse, until his fingers laced through hers.
Her eyes blinked with surprise, but she kept her hand in his. "So, Jefferson. If we're going to be married, don't you think I should know your last name?"
"Does that mean you will marry me?"
They shared their first laugh together in a scene not too different from this one.
"Hey, girl," a voice came over her shoulder. "I saw you over there talking to that Jasmine person. I was going to rescue you, but decided it would serve you right to be stuck with her all night."
"Now, Alexis. You promised you would behave," she said hugging her friend.
"I am behaving." Alexis raised her thick eyebrows, feigning innocence. She paused, lowering her voice conspiratorially. "If I wasn't I would tell Jasmine that her dress is so short, you can see what she had for breakfast!"
"Stop it," Kyla said trying to hold her laugh.
"Pastor says, 'Tell the truth and shame the devil,' " Alexis drawled as she held up one hand as if she was about to shout Hallelujah. "Anyway, sorry I'm late. Things were crazy at work. Was Jefferson surprised?"
"I think he was stunned."
"No problem getting him here?"
"That was the easy part. You know how much he loves this place."
"You worked it, Ky," Alexis said as she reached for one of the black balloons that floated above her. "Memphis restaurant has never looked better. Louise did this, right?"
"She's the best in L.A. She used to cater everything for my office, but recently, she's been hard to get. Hollywood has been calling her."
"I wasn't about to try to do this without Louise. But enough about this stuff," Kyla said grabbing her friend's hand and pulling her into the corner. "There are a lot of good-looking, single, successful men here."
"Kyla..." Alexis whined.
"Now, I'm not trying to set you up or anything."
Alexis raised her eyebrows in doubt.
"I just want you to know... you have options here."
"That's a new way of putting it."
"I just want you to be happy."
"I am happy. I don't need a man for that."
"Kyla!" Alexis interrupted before her friend could continue. "Not everyone is going to find her Prince Charming, have the perfect child and wake up sixteen years later just as much in love as the day she married. That only happens in fairy tales and at your house."
"Well, you never know who you'll meet."
Alexis closed her eyes, slightly irritated, and tilted her head toward the ceiling. "Lord, please have mercy! And, please keep this chile out of my love life!"
"What are you two over here conspiring about?" Jasmine wiped her sweaty face, then tugged at her dress, trying to smooth it down over her hips. "Hello, Alexis," Jasmine said in a slow drawl, imitating Alexis' southern accent.
"Hello, Jasmine," Alexis said curtly. "Anyway, Kyla," Alexis continued, turning her back to Jasmine. "How are things going with the expansion at the clinic?"
"Great. The final proposal goes in next week."
"Does that mean they're going ahead with it?" Jasmine asked, leaning forward so that she could be heard.
"Uh-huh. Can you believe it?"
"Of course!" Alexis said. "As hard as you guys work, you deserve it."
"Yeah, just what you need more success," Jasmine whispered and rolled her eyes.
"Hey, you," Jefferson appeared, and grabbed Kyla's arm. "We haven't danced all night."
As they stood in the center of the dance floor, Jefferson wrapped his arms around Kyla and they swayed to Lionel Richie's sexy voice. "Zoom! I'd like to fly away!" Jefferson sang softly into her ear.
"Umm," Kyla sighed and leaned in closer.
Jefferson brushed her thick bangs from her face and kissed her forehead. "Kyla, I can't believe you did this for me. Thank you." He leaned over and brushed his lips against hers, then pulled her tighter. As Jefferson sang Lionel's words into her ear, Kyla knew this would be one of the best nights of her life.
* * *
"Louise, you outdid yourself this time, lady," Kyla exclaimed as she signed her name with a flourish and handed the check to the caterer.
"I'm glad you're happy. I haven't done many private parties since I opened the Pie Shoppe. But how could I refuse this for Jefferson? By the way, I have a gift for him. I couldn't remember which was his favorite, so I baked two things a pecan sweet potato pie and a pineapple cheesecake. They're in the kitchen."
"No, you didn't!"
Louise laughed. "I know his sweet tooth."
"He'll think he's walking around in heaven! Thank you!"
As she hugged Louise, she glanced around the empty room.
"Jefferson's out front with some of the guys," Alexis said reading her friend's expression as she sat down at the table. "I just saw him. Kyla, this was a great party."
"I was just thanking Louise for everything. So, did you... meet anyone?"
Alexis rolled her eyes and ignored the question. "Anyway... how have things been with you, Louise?"
Louise laughed. "Great. I've been busy. In fact, I have a wedding to do tomorrow, so I've got to get going." Standing, she hugged Alexis, then Kyla. "Tell Jefferson I said enjoy the rest of his birthday."
Kyla remained silent until Louise left the room, then scooted her chair closer to Alexis, but before she could say anything, she heard Jasmine's voice.
"Still here, Alexis?"
Kyla glanced up and saw Jefferson and Jasmine walking towards them.
"Hey, you," Jefferson took Kyla's hand and pulled her to him. "Honey, everyone is raving about this party."
"It was all Louise. She left you a special surprise and said to tell you to enjoy the rest of your birthday." Kyla brushed her lips against his neck, drinking in his scent. "I want you to enjoy the rest of your birthday, too."
"Well... I guess that's my cue. I'm out of here." Alexis stood, readying herself to go, and glared at Jasmine when she didn't do the same.
"Hey, Alexis," said Jefferson. "Brian told me you guys had a great time together. He's a good brother."
"Brian!" Kyla said, opening her eyes wide.
"What about Brian?" Jasmine asked. She hoped they weren't talking about Brian Lewis, the doctor who had just joined the Medical Center. Jasmine had spent quite a bit of time tonight trying to get his attention, but he hadn't shown any interest in her. Now, she hoped that they weren't talking about Alexis getting together with him. That would be a dire end to this dismal evening.
"Jefferson, don't say another word!" Alexis commanded, softening her words with a smile. "You know how your wife is."
"Sorry. I was only passing along some information."
"But Alex, we can help. Jefferson has known him since they were kids, right, honey?"
"Leave me out of this. I don't want Alex killing me."
"You're a smart man, Dr. Blake."
"What are you guys talking about?" Jasmine piped in again.
"Like I said, I'm outta here." Alexis hugged Kyla and Jefferson. "Happy birthday, again. I'll call you tomorrow, Ky." Alexis looked over her shoulder. "Aren't you coming, Jasmine?"
"I was hoping that Jefferson and Kyla could drop me home."
"I think they want to be alone," Alexis said stating what she thought was obvious. "Where's your car?"
Jasmine grimaced at Alexis' cutting tone. "I came with some friends. Not that it's any of your business," she snapped. "Ky, would you mind giving me a ride?"
"No!" Alexis interjected before Kyla could answer. "I'll take you home."
"Alex, that would be great!" Jefferson exclaimed. "I do want some time with this beautiful lady," he said pulling Kyla closer. "I want to thank her and I have a very special way to do that." Jefferson kissed Kyla as if the two of them were already alone.
Jasmine grabbed her jacket from the table and stomped out. Alexis followed, leaving Jefferson and Kyla totally unaware of anything that was happening around them.