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"Wake up, chile! I can't believe the day is half done and you're still lazing around in bed. Humph! It's a wonder you ever get anything done keeping such peculiar hours."
Ebony groaned. Cradling the phone under her chin, she forced her eyes open. She didn't know what time it was, but she knew it was too early for this. Sunlight streamed through the partially opened window, warming the cold, dark room. Birds chattered and a light wind ruffled the lavender satin curtains.
Reluctant to leave the comfort of her bed, Ebony dragged the duvet cover over her face. I don't want to get up now. I'm tired. I want to sleep in. Is that too much to ask?
It must have been, because the next thing she knew, aunt Mae was roaring in her ear. "Are you listening to me, chile? I said, 'wake up!'"
Emerging from beneath the covers, Ebony peered at the alarm clock perched on the edge of the dresser. Blurry eyes prevented her from making out the numbers, 9...1...2. That can't be right, she thought, groping around the nightstand for her wristwatch, aunt Mae said it was noon. The silver hands on her diamond Rolex confirmed the accurate time. "It's only after nine," she croaked, shaking her head in disbelief. "Aunt Mae, I'm-"
"Listen," Mae ordered, cutting her off midsentence, "I'll be dressed and ready to go at five, so don't be late getting here. I'm part of the setup crew so it's important I'm at church on time. People are depending on me, Ebony."
Mae released a heavy sigh. What was the matter with young people these days? she wondered, taking a sip of her tea. When she was a child, she listened when grown folks spoke. It was either that or get smacked upside the head. Her niece, as intelligent and as educated as she was, didn't know how to listen. And the few times she did, she still got it wrong.
"Tonight is the spring banquet at Jubilee Christian Center, remember? I mentioned it to you last Thursday when you came over for dinner. You agreed to buy a ticket and you promised to invite Opal and Kendall, as well."
Ebony yawned. She didn't recall saying any such thing but she could have. She was prone to agree with her aunt Mae whenever she was put on the spot. Ebony loved her aunt to death, but the woman yakked too damn much. It was difficult keeping up with all the rambling she did. For the sake of argument, Ebony agreed with her aunt's memory of events. "Okay, I'll buy a ticket to show my support. I'll even drop you off at the church tonight, but I'm not staying for the dinner. I have far too much work to do, aunt Mae."
"That's not good enough, Ebony. The good Lord expects more from his children than their money. You could make all the money in the world, donate it to the church, and it still wouldn't be enough. He wants your time. This banquet is about Christian fellowship. Meeting new people. Making new friends. There will be singing and eating and mingling and..."
Ebony was too tired to argue. If she couldn't outargue her aunt when she was sober, she'd be no match for her in her present state. She wasn't going to the banquet, and there was nothing aunt Mae could say to change her mind. She didn't have time for fellowship. Or to meet new people. Or to make new friends. She had a business to run. And if she ever got aunt Mae off the phone, she was going to take a shower, get dressed and head straight over to the office.
"It sounds like this, ah, banquet thing is going to be fabulous, aunt Mae, but I can't go. Work calls," she sang, her voice suddenly suffused with cheer. Ebony loved everything about her job. Discreet Boutiques was her life and she wouldn't trade the long hours, the pressures that came with being a CEO or her unbelievably high expectations for anything. "I expect to be at the office before noon and I plan to be there for the remainder of the day," she told her aunt matter-of-factly.
After some shuffling sounds, and incoherent mumbles, Mae said, "That's ridiculous! Preposterous! Working on a Saturday? What's the matter with you, chile?" She didn't give her niece any room to reply. "There is a time and place for everything, Ebony. A time to work and a time to play. A time to be serious and a time to have fun. It won't kill you to attend the banquet. Your work isn't going anywhere," she pointed out, the exasperation in her voice evident. "It will be there when you go into the office on Monday."
That's what I'm afraid of, Ebony thought, forcing herself to sit up and face the day. Going back to sleep was out of the question now, because when aunt Mae got started on something, there was just no stopping her. The sharp-witted Southerner had never been to law school or taken the bar exam, but she could argue a point better than O.J's illustrious Dream Team. "...that's why you don't have a man, chile. Work.Work.Work. Who lives like that?" Mae queried, her tone one of incredulity.
Ebony didn't answer. She didn't expect her aunt to understand. Fifty years ago, single women aspired to be wives and mothers, not career women. Of course she thinks I'm a work-aholic! I should be tending to a husband and breast-feeding babies, not running my own business. Ebony chose her words carefully. The last thing she wanted to do was affront her aunt. They had an excellent relationship and she appreciated her guidance and wisdom. But not when it came to her career. "You don't know how much time and energy goes into running a successful business, Auntie."
"Maybe I don't," she conceded, "but I do know that you're working yourself too hard. You eat, breathe and sleep work. When you're not at the office you're driving there. You have a beautiful house you barely spend time at, a fancy sports car you hardly drive and piles of money you don't spend. What kind of life is that? It's sickening what you're doing to yourself, Ebony. Just sickening!" Mae did nothing to conceal the contempt in her voice. She didn't want her niece to get mad at her but this had to be said. "Working fourteen hour days, six days a week is not healthy for anyone, Ebony." After pausing to ensure her words sank in, she added, "Even George takes a break from time to time. He goes down to that little ranch of his and rides horses and fishes and-"
"George?" Ebony frowned at the phone. "Who's George?"
"The president of the United States! He was reelected, remember?" Mae's voice reached an ear-splitting pitch. "See, you've been working yourself so hard you've forgotten who your president is!"
Ebony burst into laughter. Mae was a hoot. She had enough fire in her five-foot frame for five women and a tongue on her that would make her church friends blush. Upsetting aunt Mae was never a good idea, but Ebony had to make it clear that she wouldn't be attending the banquet. "Maybe next time, aunt Mae. I have a lot to accomplish today, and when I get home from work I'm going to prop my feet up on the coffee table and watch a good movie. Dressing up and socializing with a bunch of church-folk after putting in a full day at the office is the last thing I'd want to do." Smothering a yawn with her hands, she tossed off the sheets and crawled out of bed.
Ebony glanced at the wall clock, amazed at how early it was. On the weekends, she rarely got out of bed before noon. From now on I'm going to turn the ringer off the phone before I go to bed, she thought, stretching her hands leisurely above her head. This was the third consecutive Saturday she had been stirred from her sleep by the insistent ringing of the phone. Aunt Mae was like a mother to her, but unless she was calling to tell her she won the state lottery, she didn't want to hear from her before noon.
"Are you sure you won't change your mind?" A short pause, then, "There'll be good-looking men there, Ebony. Doctors. Lawyers. Engineers. Professional people like you. Won't you come, suga? I really want you there."
Ebony didn't miss the disappointment in her aunt's voice. But if she wavered, even for a nanosecond, Mae would pounce on her like a fox on a squirrel. She had to remain strong. "The truth is, Auntie, I'm just not the churchgoing type."
"'I'm just not the churchgoing type,'" she mimicked. Ebony could see her aunt shaking her head and rolling her tongue over her lips like she was prone to do whenever she was about to lose her patience. "Hogwash! That's plain ole' nonsense, chile. Everyone is the churchgoing type!"
Mae smacked her forehead with her hand. Now I understand. How could I have missed it? It's staring me right in the face! Setting out to resolve the "situation," she stood and bustled into the bedroom. She flung open the closet door and combed through her church clothes. Her hands stopped at a polyester green two-piece. Too flashy. She continued on with her search. "I know what this is all about, Ebony. You don't have anything to wear! No worries, chile. I can lend you one of the new outfits I picked up at Lane Bryant. Got them for fifty percent off and I was able to use my senior discount card, too," she said, sounding proud.
Mae took out a modest-looking pink dress from the back of her closet and inspected it. Holding the outfit at arm's length, she spoke as if Ebony were in the room rather than on the phone. "I know this frock is too big in the chest and has a loose fitting waist, but I'll pin it from the inside and nobody'll be the wiser."
Ebony chuckled. She would swim in one of aunt Mae's size twenty dresses.
Mae went on as if the matter had been settled. "If you don't want to wear one of my outfits that's fine, but wear something appropriate to church. Don't come to the house of the Lord dressed in one of your party getups," she warned, her voice stern. "My friends from the Lakewood Bingo Hall will be there and I don't want them laughing at you."
The phone beeped. "There goes my other line. Looks like I have to run." Mae spoke at a rapid pace. "The banquet doesn't start until six-thirty so that gives you the entire day to laze around in bed if you so please."
"Enjoy what's left of the day!"
"Don't be late picking me up!"
"I'm not go-"
"See you at five!"
Before Ebony could object, the phone line went dead.
* * *
Where were the "good-looking" men aunt Mae said would be here? Ebony thought, as her eyes scanned the well-dressed crowd. She saw short and pudgy, tall and lanky, seedy-looking and average, but no good-looking men anywhere.
Then she saw him. The light-skinned man with the sexy dimples. He was nothing short of gorgeous. Oblivious of the lovesick expression on her face, she trailed him with her eyes around the room like a lost puppy in search of its owner. His vanilla colored suit, matching silk tie and designer shoes confirmed that he had good taste and a strong sense of style. Ebony loved handsome black men who moved with confidence, and Mr. Man was swimming in it.
Licking her lips aggressively, she shifted in her seat to get a better look at him. Dimples are hot! Nice smile. Perfectly shaped head. Size twelve feet, maybe thirteen. And those eyes!
Ebony was eyeballing him so hard, she feared she might pop an eye vessel. But she didn't have the power to turn away. It was as if his eyes were reaching across the room and seizing her attention. And he had other impressive physical attributes as well. A cocoa butter complexion that looked as smooth as a baby's bottom. Well-rounded chin. Thick eyelashes. And a traffic stopping smile that set hearts aflutter.
Over the next thirty minutes, Ebony watched the gorgeous stranger move around the room, socializing with the other guests. His classic good looks garnered him the attention of every single woman in the room, and a few who were taken as well. A constant stream of ladies had been approaching him since his arrival, but he didn't seem the least bit impressed in what any of them had to offer.
The lusty grin on Ebony's face slid away when a model-thin woman with feline features cornered him near the men's washroom. She watched them shake hands, contemplating whether or not to go and rescue him from the woman's clutches. He looked trapped and the terse expression on his face suggested the conversation was not going well. But before Ebony could stroll over there and send Jezebel on her way, the emcee took to the stage and asked guests to be seated. Smiling in satisfaction, she watched the twosome separate and return to their rightful seats.
Ebony helped herself to a buttered biscuit and took a generous bite. Taking a momentary look around the room, she sized up her competition. She wasn't the most beautiful woman in the room, but no one else had her charisma or sexual confidence. That, she was sure of. Most of the women in here looked sexually repressed, she thought, chuckling to herself. And one thing I know for sure is that men adore sexually liberated women. Ebony knew men inside and out. They enjoyed being with females who played by their own rules, lived in the moment and were free to do whatever, whenever, wherever. Ebony was as free as a jaybird. Few hang-ups. Open to try anything at least once.And when it came to sex, she had no inhibitions. None whatsoever.
Ebony set her sights back on the stranger with the killer smile.
"Handsome, isn't he?"
She tore her eyes away from him long enough to give her best friend a smile. "That's an understatement. Handsome doesn't even begin to describe how scrumptious he is."
Opal laughed. "But he doesn't meet your height requirement," she teased.
Ebony licked her lips in an exaggerated fashion. "Every now and then a brother comes along who forces me to make an exception of my rules." She flicked her head in his direction. "And there he is. He doesn't clear six feet and he's more of a caramel shade than dark chocolate, but he's the best-looking man in the room and there are several cuties in here tonight."
In the last hour, the room had finally started to fill up with some good-looking men. There was a six-footer with curly hair resting against the back wall. He was positively adorable, but he didn't look a day over eighteen. Ebony was all for the older-woman, younger man craze, but dating junior would be robbing the cradle. Or rather, the womb. The casually dressed man sitting at the table to her right looked like a low-budget version of Usher, but his mustard-colored dress shirt was speckled with lint and he had a protruding Adam's apple. An older gentleman, who looked like he slept on silk sheets and had weekly manicures and pedicures, was giving her the eye, but he had stained teeth. With all that money, you'd think he could get his teeth whitened, she thought, turning away from his sleepy gaze. No, the prize for the finest man in the room definitely went to Dimples.
Ebony's eyes darted around the room. The well-spaced banquet hall was a cluster of tables set with lace place mats, ivory bone china and triangle vases filled with trumpet-shaped daffodils. Diffused lights and classical music provided an intimate and peaceful setting. Guests were in the process of being served, and latecomers moved around the hall, hunting down any available seats.
"Who knew all the hotties were hiding out in church?" Ebony asked, before returning her attention to the object of her affection. Everything about the man was delicious, from the gleam in his eyes to the way his lips curved into that disarming smile of his. As she stared, one word turned over and over in her mind: tas-ty.
"He reminds me of Gavin," Opal confessed, sorry the moment the words left her mouth. "Sorry. I didn't mean to-"
Ebony waved off the apology. "I was the one who broke things off, remember? I'm fine, Opal. Besides, life's too short for regrets."