Saturday, July 6, 2013

Hearts of Steel: Chapter Eight

I couldn’t take my eyes off him. This was worse than it had been at the airport. When I’d first caught sight of him, striding through the terminal, I had what I’d considered to be a mild case of curiosity. It had been just an exercise in people-watching to help pass the time. The way he carried himself would have drawn my eyes to him – even if I’d been in a committed relationship. After all, I am a woman. I’ve got eyes.

I used them to their full effect, zeroing in on him with laser-beam accuracy. This time, I didn’t have a magazine to hide behind. This time, when he saw me, he knew that I was watching him. My appraisal was open, unfiltered.

I wanted to speak with him again in the worst kind of way. Not at all like when we were on the plane. Then, I’d kept the conversation going because it kept me distracted. He’d prevented me from making a total fool of myself – shrieking in unadulterated terror each time the airplane rode the wave of another air pocket.

But this. . .this was something entirely different. As he stood in the foyer of the restaurant, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that he was waiting there for me. No chance meeting. No happened-to-be-going-my-way. He was there, with an invitation from my grandmother, but with an inclination to be there that was all his own.

As soon as he saw me, his entire face lit up with a smile. His eyes, both feral and gentle, swept over me. I closed my eyes for a moment, thankful for the fashion fates that had guided me in the choice of this outfit.

I’d read romance novels where the heroine claimed to be floored at the sight of the romantic interest. I’d always passed that off as a crock of horse spit – often quickly flipping past those initial meeting pages to get to the “good part.” The happily-ever-after part.

If a man wanted to quicken my breath, let him touch me. Pleasure me. None of this eyes-meeting-across-a-crowded-room business. You couldn’t pay me to believe that a simple look could make my heart pound and my breath freeze.

I renege. I recant. I take it all back. Jack Deneen’s gaze could – and did. If I had ten thousand years and just as many words, I don’t think I could ever explain it – how I felt both cherished and challenged. How he, without saying a single word, could make my backbone straighten and my knees weaken. I felt my face with flush and hypersensitive nipples pucker as I brushed by a bracing wind.

The very pit of my stomach churned, not unlike the feeling I got every time I stepped onto an airplane. This time, it wasn’t a knot of fear but an expanding, volcanic flash of desire. I doubted, in my state, if I could eat a single bite of dinner tonight.

At the same time, I wanted to nibble along his freshly shaved jawline. I wanted to sample the delicious curve of his full lips. I could spend the entire evening touching my tongue to each of his fingertips and watching his response each time I tasted another digit.

The pressure of my brother’s hand against the small of my back as he steered me to our private dining area jolted me back to reality. I had better get a grip on myself before I entered the dining area. Grandma, Mother, and my aunts would be watching me like a hawk. I could almost see my grandmother sniffing the air, and instantly determining from the changing scent of my pheromones that I wasn’t thinking “nice girl” thoughts about Jack Deneen.

“Priye,” Dozie said, squeezing my elbow. “We’d better get moving, girl. You know how Grandpa doesn’t like to be kept waiting, especially when there’s food involved.”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” I said, not taking my eyes from Jack.

“Who’s that?” Dozie demanded, and indicated by the sudden addition of bass in his voice that he didn’t take too kindly to the towering “super-hot” dude in the Armani suit visually feeling up his little sister.

Working with my father in our family roofing business had given Dozie his own share of sculpting. He wasn’t as tall as Jack, but I think they matched each other, inch for inch, in the width of their shoulders.

“Grandma invited him,” I said quickly, disengaging my elbow from his possessive grip. More of my relatives had started to pour into the foyer. If I didn’t move quickly, I wouldn’t get a chance to talk to Jack privately before dinner. I’d be too overwhelmed with multiple versions of “long time, no see” greetings, wet kisses of welcome, and exclamations of how I’d grown.

“Go on in. I’ll be there,” I promised, pulling away from him.

“Grandma invited him, huh?” he said, suspiciously, “I don’t think he’s a relative. I would have remembered him. Though something about him is kinda familiar. He wouldn’t be from Grandpa’s side of the family, would he? Cousins from out of state?”

More like out of this world! Jack’s gaze was sending me reeling to the stars. “He’s Jack Deneen.” I refreshed my brother’s memory.

Dozie snapped his fingers in recognition. “That’s right! He’s that striker for the Steeldogs. I didn’t know Grandma had that kind of stroke to get that hotshot striker to come to her dinner party.”

He started toward Jack.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I put my hand in the middle of his chest to stop his progress.

“To talk football, maybe get his autograph. What do you think?”

“Oh, no, you don’t.”

“Why not? He’s a football player. That’s his job. He’s not going to mind me talking a little shop with him. Maybe give him more pointers to improve his game.”

I glanced back at J.D where he stood patiently. From this distance, his game looked pretty good to me. In the back of my mind, I wondered why he hadn’t approached me yet.

“Listen, Dozie, you are not going to ruin this night for me. . .that is, I mean. . .Grandma with talk about that stupid game.”

I kept my voice low and tight, tapping my index finger into his chest for emphasis. I could hear them now, monopolizing the conversation with football stats and predictions for the games to come. I didn’t want to hear it. I had issues with the game. But that didn’t mean I wanted to insult the man who played it.

“Go on, now. Get to getting. I’ll be in to dinner in a minute.”

“Oh, all right,” Dozie grumbled. “But I don’t see why I just can’t talk to the man.” It was like sticking a plate of his favorite food, in front of him, handling him a spoon, and telling him that he’d better not touch a crumb.

I waited until he was almost out of sight, smoothed my hands over my dress, then started toward Jack. Just as I’d feared, I had to wade through a wall of well-meaning relatives before I could cross the twelve feet that separated us.

“Hi,” I said a little breathlessly, and felt a little foolish for the inadequate greeting.

“Hello, Priye Cole. I was wondering whether I’d have to send a search party out to rescue you.”

God, how I loved the way he said my name – as soft as a kiss. Possessive and familiar, formal and respectful. We didn’t speak for several heartbeats, letting our eyes communicate privately what curious onlookers had no right to hear.


I pulled another handkerchief from my inner pocket and dabbed at Priye’s cheek. It gave me an excuse to move closer to her.
“A present from one of your relatives,” I said and wiped away a smudge of lipstick, undoubtedly left by one of her female kin. At least, I hoped it was a female.

Pressing the handkerchief into her palm for safekeeping, I took the opportunity to squeeze her hand in silent welcome.

“If this keeps up, I can start a collection of Jack Deneen memorabilia,” she said, lowering her eyes. She then noticed the flowers that I’d completely forgotten I’d brought for her.

“Are those for me?” She sounded pleased, even surprised. It made me wonder what kind of men she’d been dating to be so astonished by an old-fashioned, yet effective, means of showing interest.

“That depends.” I said, holding them toward her, then pulling back just as she reached for the gold cellophane wrapper.

“On what?”

“On whether or not you think these are good enough to convince your grandmother that my intentions are completely honorable.”

Priye’s laugh hinted at her embarrassment, but she said, “You have to convince me first, Jack Deneen.”

“And how do I do that?” I asked, leaning toward her.

She didn’t step away, but met my gaze head on. “You can start by handing over those lovely flowers.”

“Do you like them? They’re yours then.”

Ten minutes until eight o’clock. I’d been waiting at the restaurant, determined to be on time, since 7:25.

Since I wasn’t sure about their local food, I’d been requested a menu and a few minutes of the maitre d’s time to figure out what I could tolerate and what I’d better steer clear of. Whether the supper tonight was buffet style, order from the menu, or preplanned courses, I was going to make sure that I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of Priye’s family.

“Shall we go in?” I suggested, crooking my arm. She slipped her arm through mine. Her hand rested on my forearm.

“Do me a favor, will you Jack?” she asked, looking up at me.

What? Anything for you, Priye. You name it. Walk barefoot over a bed of hot coals? Bring you the moon? Develop a cure for the common cold? If you ask it, I’ll do it. . .
“What is it? What can I do for you?”

“Try not to talk about football tonight,” she pleaded with concerned eyes.

. . .Oh woman! Anything but that!

I looked at her. “Are you serious?”

“Very,” she said, pressing her lips together.

“May I ask why?”

“It’s my grandparents’ sixtieth anniversary. That’s quite an accomplishment, especially these days when couples are lucky if they last five years without tearing each other apart. It’s a special night for them. I just don’t want anyone to steal their thunder.”

“You mean me?”

She nodded. “something tells me that you’re going to be a very hot topic of conversation at tonight’s dinner table.”

“Why do you think your grandmother invited me if she was concerned about anyone taking away her limelight?”

“That’s another long story. For another time.” Priye promised.

“So what do I do if someone asks me a football-related question?”

“Punt,” she suggested, with a raised eyebrow.

“Unlike the NFL, there is no punting in arena football.”

“I know that,” she said in the same prickly tone as when I’d caught her offering child-rearing advice – or rather paddling-to-the-rear advice – to the airport hellion. “I meant it figuratively.”

“I see,” I said slowly. “I’ll do my best, Priye. But I can’t promise if your grandmother pins me down with threats to my person if I don’t explain the difference between a touch-back and a touchdown, that I won’t cave in.”

“I couldn’t ask for anything less than that, Jack Deneen,” she said wryly.

Together, as close to hand in hand as we could manage, we entered the area reserved for Priye’s grandparents’ anniversary dinner.

In all, there were about thirty Johnson family who had gathered.
“There certainly are a lot of your relatives here tonight.” I murmured out of the corner of my mouth.

Normally, crowds didn’t bother me. I was used to the pressure of their scrutiny. But this was different. I didn’t have my teammates with me, sharing the responsibility of success or failure. I had Priye; but I wasn’t completely sure what team she was on. She seemed pleased to see me. But if Mrs. Johnson gave me the thumbs-down, would she side with her?

“Oh, this is nothing, just a fraction of my family. You should see us in about a year.”

“What happens then?”

“That’s when our family reunion is scheduled. My mother and aunts are doing the planning this year. Tomorrow, we’ll meet and have the official kickoff planning session.”

“You need an official meeting to figure out when you all want to meet again?” I sounded incredulous.

“Have you ever been to a family reunion, Jack?”

I shook my head. “I get together with my relatives during all the major holidays when time allows. But we’ve never had an official reunion.”

“You don’t know what you’ve been missing!” she exclaimed. “It’s like having a huge party with hundreds of your closest friends. No two reunions are ever alike, because each year there is a set different set of planners.

It didn’t bother me a bit to think that I’d still be with Priye in a year’s time. What bothered me more was the here and now. We approached the dining table.

I took a mental deep breath and gave myself a rousing pep talk.

. . .All right Jack. Here you go. Don’t fumble this one. . .

There were five round tables in the room, each able to seat seven or eight people. She steered me toward the head table, to a woman I knew had to be Mrs. Adesuwa Johnson, a striking woman of indeterminate age and timeless grace. I thought I’d had her pegged until I noticed a woman who might have been her twin sister sitting just a couple of seats over. They were involved in a lively discussion. Their voices rose slightly above the rest of the family’s.

At one point, the rest of the room quieted, until everyone realized that they weren’t the target of the elder Johnson sister’s wrath. I couldn’t make out exactly what the conversation was about. But the words mark of the devil, juvenile tendencies, and laser peel made their way across the room.

“My grandmother’s sister must have told her about her tattoo. And now Grandmother has hit the roof. I knew she would. I told my aunt Rosa that she would.”

“Are they twins?”

“No. My aunt Rosa is older; but you’d never know it the way my grandmother behaves.”


“I wouldn’t say that.” She looked up at me, wrinkling her nose at my choice of words. I could tell that she was searching for a diplomatic way of rephrasing my assessment of her grandmother.

“It’s just that she knows what’s best and likes to tell you in no uncertain terms. She’s strict, but fair. Come on. Let me introduce you to her.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea, Priye? They seem to be a little preoccupied.”

“Don’t tell me that a big, strong athlete like you is afraid of a couple of little God-fearing, churchgoing ladies?”

“Your grandmother has all the gentility of a Bengal tiger,” I remarked. “And I mean that respectfully.”

She squeezed my arm. “Come on, Jack. Don’t be afraid. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

I stopped. “You heard me?”

“Of course. I heard you. I know I seemed scared out of my wits, but I was listening to you, Jack. I heard every word you said.”

As we approached the table, the conversation dropped off bit by bit. It seemed as though all eyes swiveled toward us.

“Grandma,” Priye said, loud enough to be heard, but not so loud as to appear to talk over the conversation between the sisters. “I have someone that I want you to meet. Grandma, this is Jack Deneen. Jack, this is my grandmother, Adesuwa Johnson.”

Mrs. Johnson looked up at me for what seemed like several minutes and didn’t say a word. Then she held out her slender hand.

“How do you do, Mr. Deneen.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Johnson.”
“Thank you for coming on such short notice. I hope we didn’t inconvenience you.”

“Not at all,” I replied, and mentally crossed my fingers against the small stretch of the truth.

“Your seat is there, Mr. Deneen,” Mrs. Johnson indicated. “Next to my sister, Rosa Lawson.”

“Mrs. Lawson.” I extended my hand to her, but she stood instead and clasped me warmly to her.

“Priye told me how you kept her company on the plane, Mr. Deneen. Not being a big fan of air travel myself, I can appreciate how much comfort a friend can be. Thank you.”

I think I said something equally gracious to Priye’s aunt. But inside, I was soaring. So far, so good. They hadn’t dismissed me outright. I’d been a bundle of nerves, waiting for Priye and her relatives to arrive. Scenarios of varying degrees, from mildly embarrassing to the unforgivably uncouth, had flown through my mind as I’d used the Global Positioning System in my car to get to the restaurant.

I could only imagine what kind of silly grin I had on my face at the time. My motives for sitting next to Priye on the plane had been purely selfish. But if by being so, I could win one more Johnson over to my side, I’d take the praise.

“So you’re with the Steeldogs?” A tall, elderly gentleman dressed in a dark, three-piece suit stood and held out his hand to me. A large, rawboned man, he looked uncomfortable in the fancy surroundings. His hands, large and gnarled, spoke of advanced age, failing strength, but the uncommon endurance as he patted at his shining, perspiring forehead with a handkerchief.

“This is my grandfather, George Johnson,” Priye introduced. “Grandpa, this is my friend, Jack Deneen.”

“Pleasure to meet you, sir.” I said, shaking his hand.
“Congratulations on your wedding anniversary.”

“Thank you, thank you. Yes, I’m feeling mightily blessed.” Once the pleasantries were over with, he thrust his hands in his pockets, leaned close, and said, “So, son, what do you think of your chances this year to take it all?”

I shrugged, pressing my lips together and shaking my head.

He stood, staring at me, watery brown eyes blinking periodically, as if he expected me to say more. I didn’t. I’d promised Priye that I wouldn’t.

I glanced at Priye and responded carefully. “I. . .uh. . .I really couldn’t say.”

“What do you mean you can’t say? You trying to tell me that you’re sworn to secrecy about whether or not you’re going to make it to the UEFA cup championship?”

Rosa Lawson caught the look that passed between Priye and me, then chuckled softly. “You poor boy. Priye, tell me that you didn’t put a gag order on our guest.”

“Aunt Rosa, you know me better than that,” Priye dissembled.

How could she have sounded so innocent knowing fully well that’s exactly what she’d done?

“Uh-huh. It’s because I know you that I’m hereby overruling you.” She looked up at me with a conspiratorial wink. “I’m sure Priye meant well. But I’m here to tell you, the child has some major issues with the game of football. But that doesn’t mean it has to ruin your evening, does it, Jack?”

“No, but I promised that I’ll try not to bore anyone with my stories.”

“Let’s just say that our friend Jack found some very creative uses for duct tape and stink bombs,” her aunt Rosa continued.

“You heard about that?” I asked in chagrin.

“Oh, I can’t wait to hear this one,” Priye said.

“Sure you can,” I said, patting her shoulder. “I think a more interesting story is what turned you off football.” I turned the conversation back to her. “You didn’t tell me that you didn’t like the game.”

“Oh, well. . .I guess the subject never came up,” she said and winced. We both knew that wasn’t exactly true. She’d had plenty of opportunity to tell me to stop running my mouth about the game. It had been mostly all I talked about on the flight from Ghana to Lagos.

From the way she’d responded, I’d thought she was a dedicated fan. She’d nodded at all the right moments, asked questions at all the appropriate intervals. I looked at her now with a grudging respect. She must have been in agony the entire trip – between the threat of imminent death on one hand and my boring her to death with my stories on the other. I wouldn’t be surprised if she hadn’t entertained thoughts of jumping out of the plane to put an end to her misery.

"Is everyone here? I'm ready to eat now," Priye's grandfarher announced to the room.

"Please join us at our table, Mr. Deneen," Priye's grandmother indicated a couple of seats.

"Oh, goody! We get to sit at the grown-up table," Priye said in mock awe.

"You won't be so pleased when you find out about all the embarrassing stories I'm going to tell Jack all evening," Aunt Rosa predicted.

"Aunt Rosa," Priye began in warning.

"Don't sound so surprised, honey. You know we were not going to let this evening slip by without trying to totally humiliate you."

"Grandma, you're not going to let her do that, are you?"

"You mean totally humiliate you?"


"Well, not totally," Mrs. Johnson promised.

"Exactly," Mr. Johnson added, "I mean, what kind of loving, supportive grandparents would we be if we went around telling your friends that when you were nine years old you put Vaseline on your chest to encourage your bust to grow?"

"George, leave the girl alone. Don't embarrass her in front of her friend."

"Thank you Grandma," Priye said in relief.

"Besides, she wasn't nine - she was twelve and still flat as a pancake."

Priye put her elbows on the table and hid her head in her hands. "Times like these I almost wish I was adopted."

"We won't have to embarrass her," Mrs. Johnson said, lifting a disapproving eyebrow. "I'm certain her questionable table manners will do the job for us."

She jerked her arms back, and folded her hands primly in her lap. I leaned over and whispered loudly so that almost everyone at the table could hear, "If you can remember to keep your elbows off the table, I'll try to remember not to chew with my mouth open."

"Can we order now?" Mr. Johnson insisted.

"In a minute, George. Wait until the whole family is here," Rosa said.

"If some folks want to delay, that's their business. We told them what time dinner would start." He waved over one of the waiters and indicated to start taking drink orders.

I was glad that I had arrived good twenty minutes early. Seemed like running late was an unpardonable sin in this family. Moments later, a couple I assumed were Priye's parents walked briskly into the dining area.

I might have passed the father on the street and not recognized him as being related to her. He stood about five-foot-eight or-nine, with the build of a pro wrestler: wide shoulders and long arms, barrel-chested. His dark hair was speckled with gray, bristly and shaved close to his head. Though the suit he wore was well tailored, probably altered to fit his irregular features, subtle body movements led me to believe that he'd rather be wearing something else, something that allowed him a greater range of motion.

He togged at his tie as if to adjust it and he walked with his hand near the buttons on his jacket, as if he wanted at any moment to rip the confining cloth away. When he came over to shake my hand in introduction, his grip was firm, sure and callused - the mark of years of hard labour.

The woman who walked in on his arm was definitely Priye's mother. They say that eventually all daughters turn into their mothers. I couldn't help staring. That was going to be Priye in twenty years or so. My head swiveled back and forth, noting the similarities between the two women. They had the same heart-shaped face, the same deep-set eyes.

"Sorry I'm late, Mother," Priye's mother said as she leaned down to kiss Mrs. Johnson on the cheek. "Happy anniversary."

Mrs. Johnson reached up and patted her daughter affectionately, then sniffed delicately.

"You smell like petrol," she noted.

"We had a flat tyre. I helped Sunny change it."

I also noted the obvious differences. Mrs. Cole had a few more lines around the mouth and eyes, a touch of gray in her hair. She wore her weight comfortably, as if she'd stopped worrying about conforming to what the fashion industry pushed as the perfect size.

She exercised to maintain good health, I could tell that from the firm tone of her bared arms. But she wasn't going to starve herself or squeeze into too-small clothes or shoes. That I noticed by the light gray silk, free-flowing, two-piece tunic and pants and low-heeled shoes that she'd selected.

Also, unlike Priye, she wore her obvious affection for and devotion to her husband openly. Priye still sought for relatives' approval before emotionally investing in a relationship. Doris Johnson Cole may have once had to go through a similar approval process, but she had passed through. Sunny Cole was now a member of the family - and the one and only man in her life.

During the course of the evening, I don't think Mrs. Cole realized how often she showed to the world how much she loved - and was still in love with - Sunny Cole. From the time the first course was served, they shared from each other's plate, offering tender morsels. They participated in the table conversation, yet at the same time managed to convey to the room that they were wrapped up in each other. He held her hand, she leaned her head on his shoulder. He laughed at her jokes; she kept his plate full.

The more I watched them, the more encouraged I became. In a few years, that could be us. If Priye and I could make it past these crucial, beginning stages of desire cooled by doubt, romance tempered by rationalizations, we had a chance.

If - and what a huge if - we were willing to accept the unexplainable pull toward each other, celebrate rather than condemn our differences, we, too, might find that once-in-a-lifetime love.

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