“Baby, I have to go take this call.”
Jamal gave a slight nod. The term of endearment grated on his nerves like nails against a chalkboard. “Alright, I’ll be around.”
His date sashayed off a few steps before turning to look over her shoulder. “And don’t let me find a woman up in your face when I get back.”
Jamal wasn’t fooled by the teasing lilt in the softly spoken words. The hardness in her dark eyes told the story. He didn’t say anything to her. He was sure the twitching muscle in his clenched jaw told her she’d better get out of his face with that territorial mess.
Shaking his head in disgust, Jamal’s gaze scanned the room for his mentor, Judge Henry Stiles. After the judge had convinced Jamal to attend college, one of his requirements was to report to him on a monthly basis. Like any other adolescent, Jamal tested the limits. He didn’t straighten up until his mentor snatched him up by the collar threatening to knock some sense into his hard head. After that, Jamal never missed his appointment with the judge. Over time the two became fond of each other. The older man had become so much more to him than a mentor. He became the father he’d never known. The father, his mother’s man, had no aspirations to live up to. And like any son, Jamal wanted to please Henry. For that reason, he followed in the older man’s footsteps and became a lawyer.
Jamal moved through the crowd spotting his mentor at the bar. Sauntering over he clasped Henry on the shoulder. “How did I know I’d find you here?”
Judge Stiles turned and grabbed Jamal in a bear hug. Jamal returned the fatherly embrace. He’d never admit it to anyone, but he had been jealous of the judge’s son, wishing he, too, was his birth son. Overtime, he learned that Henry’s commitment to be part of his life was no different than the one Henry made to his biological son, Nick. And when Jamal let his guard down, he and Nick fostered a bond of brotherhood.
The men broke contact. Jamal was the first to speak. “Look at you, Pops. Looking pretty sharp for an old man. I’m surprised Joan let you out of the house.”
Henry chuckled. “Joan’s too busy spoiling the grand-babies to care about me sneaking out the house. Are you here by yourself?”
Jamal couldn’t help the impish smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Maybe.”
Henry’s robust laughter traveled across the room. “You remind me so much of Nick.” The older man wagged a teasing finger at Jamal. “Just wait. When the right woman comes along you’ll settle down just like he did.”
Jamal bit his tongue to keep from saying, “I don’t think so.” Here lately, the women he dated only held his attention temporarily. No substance. Even the ones who appeared accomplished on paper. Steering the conversation away from his love life, Jamal waved the bartender over. After placing his order, he said, “Let me see pictures of the niece and nephews.” He’d recently saw the kids, who affectionately called him Uncle Mall, weeks ago at Sunday dinner. They couldn’t have grown much since then. Asking to see pictures was the distraction needed to get Henry off his back about settling down.
Happy to oblige, Henry pulled out his cell phone and tapped on the gallery. Jamal ignored the hollow feeling in his heart as he watched the seemingly happy life of another man. Wrong distraction.
Wedging herself sideways between two bodies, Joey leaned against the bar waiting to get one of the bartenders’ attention. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up and her womanly core tingled from the rich, deep timber of the man’s voice behind her floating over the top of her head. Oh man, she’d give up a kidney to have that voice whispering naughty things in her ear as the man it belonged to made slow, sweet love to her. Maybe not a kidney. A thousand hours of community service cleaning elderly people’s homes. A task she abhorred. That’s why a cleaning service came to her home once a week.
Finally, she sighed as the middle-aged woman with Geri on her name tag grinned at her. She needed something real cold, real fast to drink to cool down her runaway thoughts.
“Pretty hair. What can I get for ya?” Geri said, the grin spreading further across her face. Her gaze bounced between Joey and the stranger with the bedroom voice.
Joey wished she was on the other side of the bar with Geri. From the way her gaze kept jerking to the man behind her, he had to be capital F fine. “Thanks. A mojito with extra ice, please.”
The bartender’s laugh was light and lyrical. “Coming right up, honey.” Before Geri walked off to make the cocktail, she leaned forward motioning with her hand for Joey to do the same. When Joey did as instructed, Geri whispered, “Honey, he got a face to match that voice.”
Joey’s face flushed. Was she that obvious? She swallowed hard as she opened her overstuffed clutch to grab a twenty-dollar bill. A muffled groan escaped her lips. A tube of lip gloss popped out of the crammed clutch and fell on the floor. She should’ve known better than to stuff her phone, keys, money, business cards, and lip gloss in the petite bag.
Not giving much thought to the tight confines at the bar, Joey quickly bent over to pick up the rolling tube before someone stepped on it causing them to lose their footing. She froze and her mouth hung wide open in disbelief. Did she just bump her derriere into the side of the man’s lean muscular leg? OMG!
Flustered, Joey shot up and swung around to apologize. She didn’t know if the dizziness in her head was from moving in a rush or coming face to face with the man she’d seen going into the venue with his date. The apology died on her lips when she realized the man was Jamal Peters, her childhood crush.
A breath of air was sucked in and held by Joey. Jamal cocked his head to the side. His dark eyes probing as they scanned her from head to toe and back up again. The hint of attraction was undeniable. Joey slowly released the held air so she wouldn’t fall out on the floor at his feet.
“Do I know you?” Jamal asked, his gaze still roaming her features chasing that dull tingle between her legs into a full-blown aching throb. Firmly she planted her feet on the floor to keep from crossing her legs.
It was so long ago. No way would he remember her from the recreation center. A shy, eleven-year-old girl, who was crushing on the seventeen-year-old bad boy from afar.
Joey shrugged a slim shoulder. “You probably don’t remember me, but I used to hang out at the recreational center after school.”
Her belly quivered when Jamal chuckled. “If you gave me a name…”
Joey blushed. “Josephine Lawrence.”
She placed her petite hand in his large hand when he held it out for a shake. “Jamal Peters. Your sisters, Samantha and Alexandria were a couple years under me in high school. You were just an itty-bitty thing. All of you have boy nicknames. Right?”
Remembering that he came with someone else, Joey slowly slid her hand out of his because he was holding on to it longer than what was proper. She was horny, not desperate.
“Yep, that’s us.” She didn’t bore him with the story of how they’d gotten their nicknames. It wasn’t like she would be seeing him again after tonight. What would he care?
Joey watched Jamal lift his drink to his full lips. Her eyes were drawn to the large hand and long fingers wrapped around the glass. Though there wasn’t a chill in the air, Joey shivered. What would that hand feel like around her thigh? She wanted to reach for his hands to see if they were calloused or smooth.
Draining the glass, Jamal set it on the bar top. His smile teasingly wicked. “I never met a Joey who looked like you.”
Joey cringed, wanting to cover her ears from the sudden screeching at her back. When she turned around, Joey was met with a hostile glare. The woman looked as if she wanted to yank every twist out of Joey’s scalp.
“Jamal! What is going on over here? I step away for one damn minute and you got some chick up in your face.”
Joey was mortified by all the inquisitive stares. Attempting to diffuse the situation she tried explaining, “Jamal and I know each other from the recreation—”
The other woman’s eyes became serpentine-like when she squinted. Joey wasn’t a punk, but she detested snakes. Leaning back, Joey’s gaze was drawn to the woman’s mouth to witness for herself if the woman’s tongue was forked or not.
“I don’t care where the hell you know him from. Just stay away.”
Up close and personal, Joey recognized the woman acting like a banshee as radio personality, Brittany Love. She was far from the giddy, playful persona she portrayed Monday through Friday from six to ten in the mornings. Joey and her assistants enjoyed her morning show. Listening to her show as they produced and packaged products was the highlight of their mornings. Not anymore!
Before Joey could tell Jamal she was leaving, he turned to Brittany Love. She almost felt sorry for the woman. Almost. The thunderous look in his eyes was enough to make Joey take a step back.
“Brittany, stop it right now. Look at everyone looking at you making an ass of yourself.” He gritted out between clenched teeth.
Someone close by commented, “I heard she was nasty…but, damn…I didn’t believe it until now.”
Brittany’s chest heaved up and down. Her eyes darting around the room as if trying to locate the man who openly criticized her character.
When Brittany dashed away from the scene, Joey stepped to the side to keep from being mowed down.
Jamal turned to Joey. “Listen, I’m sor—”
Joey held up her hand, silencing his apology. “It’s alright.” Placing the twenty on the bar, she picked up her drink. “You better go after your girlfriend.”
Squaring her shoulders, Joey wore a mask of indifference, ignoring the whispers as she pressed through the throng of onlookers.
Not much had changed with Jamal Peters. As a girl, Joey sat on the sidelines watching him flirt with girl after girl. At least twice a month a cat fight between two girls, sometimes three, ensued vying for his affections. It was stupid then. And it’s stupid now. Pushing up on turning thirty in a few years, Joey wasn’t about to get into an altercation over a man she hadn’t seen since she was a child.
Later for Jamal Peters. Joey had bigger fish to fry. Like getting up early tomorrow to begin researching natural oils suitable for a men’s line.