I pulled back my sleeve to check my TAG for the time. It had been close to twenty minutes since my last student left. I was grateful when the full hour had ended so I didn’t have to worry about one of his gazillion acne bumps bursting on me or my things. Shit. That dude needed a potent triple dose of benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid…antibacterial soap, or some shit to melt the rocks and volcano craters on his face.
The thought to check my email came to mind, so I pulled my laptop closer. Chewing on my thumbnail, I tapped in my login credentials on the BSU site and scrolled down my inbox.
I made mental checks as I recognized the names of a few of this semester’s professors with yet another syllabus update. Their lack of preparation annoyed the fuck out of me. I scrolled until I came across an email from Aivery. It was sent early this morning. The link inside sent me to a greeting card site, where the page opened to a digital card writing out, “I miss you. Have a splendid day!”
On another huff, I closed out of my school account and logged into my personal Hotmail one. The first unread email I saw had me rolling my eyes mentally.
I’m just checking in to see if you’ve looked at the second quarter earnings report I sent back in July. The third quarter’s will be available before you know it next month. You really must be in the habit of reading them and asking the right question—
I clicked out of the email right away, not finishing it.
Blah, blah, blah, blah…
“Eat a dick, Jimmy,” I whispered to myself. “I’m sure you still know how to.” I found that hilarious and chuckled.
I didn’t fuck with him, and he knew it. If I had questions about money, my well-compensated attorney could have the answers to me in less than an hour. The door of the private study room opened, snatching my attention. In walked stiff shoulders, a baseball cap, and a silky plastic ponytail hanging behind her head. Her sneakers squeaked as she turned to close the door.
Annoyed as fuck, I grabbed my clipboard to check the name again.
What the fuck is the Tori broad doing here?
As she pulled out the chair across from me, I choked out, “I got a girlfriend.”
She scoffed, eyes rolled as she dumped herself into the wooden chair across from me at the small table. Then she sat back, swinging one arm over the back of the chair. “And I don’t. So?”
My eyes narrowed and one cheeked raised in a leer. “You sure about that, tomboy?”
“Sure am, toddler feet.” Then she straightened in her chair, sighing. “Can we get this over with?”
“Get what over with? I told you, I have a girl.”
What does she want?
“This!” Her hand swept over my desk setup: writing pad, laptop, clipboard, textbooks, and writing implements.
“I don’t take random students. The Office of Admissions assigns them, tomboy,” I emphasized.
“Funny, because it’s their stupid fault that I’m getting tutoring in the first place.”
I issued her an empty gape. “You needing help academically is the Office of Admissions’ fault?”
“You heard what I said.” Growling lowly, she rolled her eyes again.
I went to my laptop to cross-check the list I was sent via email against the printout I created for the sign-in sheet. When I was ready to spin my machine her way to show her how serious I was, something hit me.
I reared my head, eyes narrowing with suspicion. “What’s your name?”
“You know my name, man!” She was irritated.
But what in the hell for? It was my time she was wasting, asking for help.
I leaned over my laptop, over this bullshit already. “I only know of Tomboy Tori.”
“Then you ain’t communicating with the Office of Admissions because the first ain’t my name at all, and you won’t find the second one on there either.”
“What’s your name?” I exhaled, prepared to end this childish ass game.
Her nose went north, mouth balled. “For the first and last damn time. KaToria McNabb,” she gritted out.
My mouth dropped. That was too feminine a name for the beast before me. I wanted to ask for her ID, but doubted the girl could pull a scheme of this proportion out of her ass.
Tomboy’s real name is KaToria?
She sat back, huffing loudly. “I ain’t got all night. Some of us make the most of training—or practice, in your case.”
My pissed-the-fuck-off-odometer was well past the restraint phase. I didn’t want to tutor tomboy here. I couldn’t spend any more time with her than I’d already been told I had to.
I sat up again in my seat. “First of all, I have a zero tolerance for tardiness. My time, as a senior and leader of the Panthers amongst other things, is valuable to more people than just me. It won’t be wasted by ignorant asses like you.”
Her eyes popped wide. “What makes me ignorant?”
“The fact that you have no idea of the opportunity being handed to you.”
“Newsflash, club foot. Tutoring happens all the time.”
I laughed at her dumb ass. “You’re one of them.”
“One of who?”
“One of them welfare recipients. The new student who didn’t earn their way to BSU, but got here by way of the pity train.” I shook my head.
“Why do people talk about this place like it’s so damn special? It’s a school full of rich, bratty ass kids, acting like them Beverly Hills 90210 people, only Black.”
I laughed again. Harder. “You’re fucking clueless, too.” I couldn’t stop cracking the hell up. I wiped my wet eyes when I could. “Well,” I sighed, trying to calm myself, leaning into the table. “you’re right about the wealth of some of the students here. This campus is steeped in Black culture, tradition, wealth, excellence and, most of all, superiority. Nothing expressed here, represented here, or cultivated here is subpar to any PWI.”
“PWI?” Her face was tight.
“Predominantly white institution.”
“Okay. It’s a Black college. Whooptie woo!” She tossed her arms in the air, dropping back into her chair. “It’s a state school.”
I leaned closer to her uneducated ass. “Do you not realize Blakewood State University is unparalleled to any academic institution in the country? We’re not the oldest or the largest historically Black college or university, but we are by far the most superior. Founded in 1842, BSU—the original Panthers—was the first institution to be funded and established by a Black coalition consisting of, not just a Christian church, but Black business entrepreneurs, doctors, and educators.
“It was created on the premise of, not equality, but Black superiority, culture-foundation, maintenance, and pride of African Diaspora ancestry. Yes. Originally, it functioned as a state school, receiving funds from the government. But what was boss about BSU was the founders fought for the agreement of total control of the curriculum and admissions. Eventually, when it was able to function independent of governmental aid, back in 1875, the S in BSU became silent, as those ‘negroes’ were able to establish an academic endowment program. Even today, the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Eli Richardson, Michael Jordan, Tariq Evans, and many more unrecognizable names of Black wealthy people around the globe sharing a passion for the economic advancement of Black people, endow the education before you.” I winked. “We’re revolutionists, revolters.”
“So, you’re a Black Panther here?” she hissed cleverly.
My brows rose.
Ahhhh…so, she does have a brain…
I lifted my BSU Panther letter jacket, exposing the logo.
Tori rolled her eyes, likely defeated. “It’s not like this is an Ivy League school or something.”
“Do you even know what constitutes Division I, let alone Ivy League institutions?”
“Can we just get on with this?”
I extended my arm, halting her haste. “No. You made me wait. So, you can spare a few minutes understanding the privilege you sit in right now. Maybe it’ll help you be on time moving forward.” She dropped back into her chair again. “Blakewood, having Division I intercollegiate varsity sports teams for women and men, is unlike the Ivy Leagues you speak of because it does offer scholarships. We reach back, understanding the wealth disparities of our people. Thirty-one of BSU Panthers teams participate in Division I intercollegiate varsity sports teams for women and men. That’s the largest of its HBCU’s kind. Your assignment is understanding how, while boxing isn’t of that number, your success in that program can expand the BSU athletic brand.”
Her mouth balled even tighter. Ignoring it, I continued, “As far as Ivy League: we couldn’t give a shit about being locked outside of the traditional eight’s circle. It could be because of our high caliber of academics; we have a 98.2% graduation rate, and our library system is a beast, encompassing eighteen individual libraries holding over eleven million items with 40% of it dedicated to Black relevance.” I was on a roll at this point, but I had her attention.
“Like those Ivy League institutions you like to throw around, BSU is a predominantly research institution confluence of Black economics. There’s a heavy emphasis on cycling the production, distribution, and services through Black families and communities. And let’s not talk about BSU’’s intricate admission standards. At 24%, it is higher than most of ‘your’ Ivy Leaguers, however, with reason. Again, we award scholarships to talented students around the country because we understand the wealth gap.
“People like you, who are deemed talented in a specific area, BSU sees a value in and believe deserves the higher education experience. So the university relaxes its admissions filter just slightly to be sure we’re providing an opportunity to our own, who may not have had the financial means of pursuing academic excellence, but have the ability to change the world as a Black man or woman.” I cocked my head to the side. “So…anything else you wanna say my school ain’t, tomboy?”
Unable to look at me, Tori rubbed her lips together, arms crossed protectively. Seconds later, her deservingly broken spirit uttered, “I didn’t mean to trash the school. I was just telling you to relax.”
“No.” I shook my head. “My Black ass can’t afford to relax when I’m against the odds in this country.”
“Says the big man on campus.”
“The campus of BSU is safe, the world it’s planted on isn’t. That’s why you need to pursue the wealth of opportunities here like time is fleeting, because it is.” I flipped through the papers on my clipboard for her information. “You clearly have no respect for time. Please let me be the catalyst of that enlightenment.”
Tori didn’t speak, which was wise. She was wasting my time. As I studied her writeup, I finally discovered what she was here for.
“What?” she finally spoke again.
“You scored low on the writing portion of the admissions exam.”
She shrugged, eyes cast into the distance. “That’s what they said.”
“They? Who are they?”
“The athletic director,” she muttered.
She shook her head. “Trisha Gaskin.”
“Trisha is an AAD.”
Tori finally gave me eye contact again.
“AAD? She’s an Assistant Athletic Director. There are dozens of them here. One for most of the athletic programs.” She didn’t know that?
What did this…KaToria McNabb know? Just how to throw a fucking jab?
“Who do you have for writing?”
I closed my eyes tight, jaw flexing. “Your Basic Writing course. Who’s the professor? Johnson or Brown?”
“Oh. The fat lady that makes those weird noises with her nose and throat.”
An unexpected bubble of laughter pushed through my throat. I shook my head.
“What?” Tori eyed me untrustingly while looking to hold back on her own laughter.
“Nothing.” I shook my head again. “It’s just that…never mind.” I took a deep breath. “Okay. Shanice Brown—who, by the way, suffers from allergies and asthma—typically kicks the semester off with having you write about yourself. Next, she’ll have you write about a little known Black figure. What do you have in mind for those?”
“What do you mean?”
My head reared. “What do I mean?” I repeated. “What do you plan on sharing about yourself in the first paper? It should be due next week. Do you have an outline? And for the Black figure: do you have someone in mind for it?”
Her eyes glazed over. “Outline?”
“Yeah. Bullet points of your ideas that’ll structure your paper. It’s an arrangement of points you’ll cover.”
Tori bit her bottom lip, eyes falling in shame.
“This is it,” I muttered, exhaling.
“This is what?” she hissed.
“It’s what those who feel BSU shouldn’t recruit athletes without strong academic backgrounds are arguing.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, you don’t know what a damn outline is, clearly couldn’t pass the general admissions test, yet you come in here late with a damn attitude!”
She banged her fists into the table as she shot to her feet. “I didn’t ask to be here! Still don’t want to be here. Yeah, Blakewood may be rich in culture and tradition, but that doesn’t appeal to regular people who want basic respect!” Her eyes were hard, lips tight as she spewed her little anger. “Maybe I came late because I decided earlier I wouldn’t come at all. I knew you were my student-tutor and don’t feel like taking any more shit from stuck up, mean people like you and your princess girlfriend and hyena-looking and acting friends. Classes started only two weeks ago, and I’m sick of the cool kids’ club already!” She snatched her book bag and headed for the door.
It was the incident in the cafeteria two days ago when she quit her job. I was only fucking with her. Didn’t mean for her to go bat shit crazy and lose her little job.
“And another thing.” She glanced back at me. “I may not be rich, and needed a scholarship to live on the same campus as you pompous fucks, but I didn’t come checking for this school. Y’all came for me. And if you and your friends keep fucking with me, I’ll show you why I’m here!”
The door slammed hard, and I blinked several times with a growing smirk.
Why did I agree to this?
That was the fourth time I asked myself that question since walking to the south side of campus to find this stupid lawn theater thing. Apparently, it was popular because, since Ashton brought it up on Wednesday night, Samantha had mentioned it before leaving for work last night, and ShawnNicole asked me if I was coming this morning when I passed her in the hall on my way to my class. This shit felt like peer pressure.
Walking toward a gigantic projection screen, I saw concession stands. People were walking away with popcorn, drinks, candy, and other foods I couldn’t make out. Dag. This was a real thing. Once again, I was out-cultured at this school. I’d never been to a movie on the lawn. And what made it more awkward was the sea of people sitting on the grass in fifty-degree weather, wrapped in blankets; some were looking my way. I had no idea where I was going and hated being seen outside of the ring.
“Hey, Tori!” A shout from the right had me stopping and desperately searching.
When I found Samantha’s waving arms, I felt stupid. I should have known the only female voice calling me from the West Beverly High crew would have been ShawnNicole’s, and hers was brittle and whispery.
I waved back and tried to add a smile, but deep inside I was hella annoyed. In the next ten seconds, I was going to turn around and head back to my dorm.
Twenty, nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen, fifteen, fourteen—
“McNabb, you look like you’ve stepped in shit!” someone howled, then a chorus of laughter followed.
I rolled my eyes, knowing I’d found my destination. Al stood on his knees and waved his thick arms in the air like I belonged on a short bus. Andrea and Karmen laughed their heads off, Karmen even pointed my way. So immature. After rolling my eyes, they landed on a tight face gaping back at me. Ashton tapped the blanket which was an empty space to the right of him, then flapped his fingers for me to come. So ready to get out of the spotlight, I moved quickly, being sure not to step on legs or knee the backs of heads on my way.
My body froze when I made it to him. What I couldn’t see from a distance was Aivery’s head on his left shoulder as she tapped away into her phone.
“McNabb,” Ashton called out. “Have a seat.” His eyes pulled my attention down to the rolled out Panthers sleeping bag next to him.
“Hey, Tori!” ShawnNicole rasped from the other side of Aivery.
She sat in between Karmen and Andrea. Of course, Karmen sat by mean girl Aivery. That’s when I noticed magazines spread out between the girls, and they played with their phones, too.
ShawnNicole reached over Andrea to show Karmen a hairstyle. How they could see with just the light from the projection screen and a few posts around was beyond me, especially to have study-like focus.
“You want something to eat or drink for the movie?” Ashton’s deep voice broke my attention. I shook my head, rejecting his offer that stung my skin. “Yirp, Alex!” he shouted over my head. Seconds later, a guy was at our shoulder, kneeling over.
Ashton pulled out his wallet and counted off a few bills. “Aivery, you want something to eat?”
“Cheese pizza and Canada Dry.” Aivery’s head whipped away, going back down to her phone.
“Get me popcorn and a Sprite,” Ashton requested. His eyes lifted to me. “What do you want?”
I shook my head, declining again.
The Alex guy snorted. “Pizza?”
“Nah. She ain’t gone like that previously frozen shit,” Ashton mumbled, dismissing that idea with a quickness. “Get her popcorn, water, and Skittles.”
Alex tossed me a look, asking for approval. I lifted one shoulder, wanting him to just go away. I was uncomfortable and didn’t want to be here. Relief washed over me when he finally left, jumping over legs to get out of the bed of blankets.
“That’s what all you girls do?” Al asked me, tossing his chin to the other side of Ashton where the girls were still busy with their phones and magazines. “Or just girlie girls?”
“What’re they doing?” I asked.
“Y’all find y’all little outfits yet?” Al’s country accent cracked me up, even if I didn’t show it.
“Shut up, Al!” Andrea rolled her eyes. “How about you focus on what you’re gonna wear in case you run into Brielle backstage.”
“Brielle would throw the fuck up,” Aivery hissed, and the girls laughed.
Al took it on the chin, shaking his head. “Y’all putting a lot into something so small. Just have fun with it. Wear something you can get drunk in, ‘cause that’s exactly what y’all gone do.”
“Stop hating, Al!” ShawnNicole warned.
“Tori…” He was even louder this time. “You ain’t answer. You do all this to get ready to go out?”
“Only to get walked to the curb to take a poop?” Aivery asked.
My head whipped over to her. As her friends—except ShawnNicole—laughed, she ignored their reactions and kept at her search.
“Knock it off, Aiv,” Ashton mumbled, sitting back on his hands, face toward the movie screen.
His scent annoyed me, reminding me of an inappropriate proximity to him I’ve had too many times.
“You going to the concert, Tori?” ShawnNicole asked.
“You know she’s not,” Karmen snorted.
“You don’t know,” ShawnNicole snapped. Her eyes swung back to me as she leaned over her crossed legs to see me. “I’m asking because I’m almost booked for next Tuesday.”
“Oh, shit!” Andrea’s eyes were wide as beach balls. “Are you going to the concert?”
I only heard of this concert here a few seconds ago. Why did I feel pressured about going? And they weren’t inviting me to go with them. They were just being nosy to see just how poor I was. These stupid humans were different. The shit I saw in movies about snobs in school cliques was true. They were so superficial! Who cares about a concert—
“Y’all wake me up when your high goes down,” Aivery coughed into her hands.
Such a bitch…
And just when I was about to say so, I caught the full lips of her boyfriend next to me, and my pussy literally pulsed. There was no way I could fight with her when I’d been kissing him. And liking it.
“No.” Andrea looked puzzled. “Like…really?”
Was she still asking if I was going?
“Well, just let me know,” ShawnNicole rasped. “If you tell me what you’re wearing, I can do something that would work with it.” She winked before her attention dipped back down into the magazine on her lap.
“So…” Andrea’s eyes squinted. “…you are going?”
“The fuck, Andrea! Would you stop!” Aivery screamed on her friend. “You know the girl hardly got two pennies to rub together to afford ShawnNicole’s campus prices. What makes you think she can afford to go to a Brielle concert?”
Among the snickers from Andrea and Karmen, ShawnNicole demanded, “Don’t do that, Aivery. Not that it’s your business, but Tori has an account with us. It’s never in the red or low. She has a nail allowance, too, just like you. So don’t go there.”
That’s it. It was time for me to go. When my eyes met Ashton to tell him I was out, his said something different. Then his head dropped to one side.
“Why do you always do this?”
Offensiveness building in my chest, I asked, “What?”
“Why do you keep mute about something so simple that could have avoided all this bullshit chatter?” My face went tight, hella confused. “Tori’s man is taking her to the concert.”
Gasps ignited all around me. Even Al and the guys to the left of him reacted to that announcement.
“See!” Andrea cried. “That’s what I meant. Her dude is a fucking baller! How do you think she’s still poor?”
“Shut the hell up, Andrea,” Aivery hissed.
“Shhh! Shhh! Shhh!” Ashton demanded. “The movie’s about to start.”
Sure enough, the random BSU logos popping up on the screen had ended and darkened, then the usual Paramount Pictures introduction rolled. Uncomfortable, I sat tightly, legs crossed, trying to slow the anger stirring in my belly. I was still deciding if I would stay.
“Here ya go!” a loud whisper sounded over my shoulder. The guy, Alex, had returned with a tray of food. Ashton turned and plucked popcorn, a bag of Skittles, and a water bottle, handing them over to me. Then he took the whole tray from him and placed it on his lap. “And here’s your change.”
Ashton’s hand went into the air. “Keep it.”
I turned my attention back to the screen when Ashton began speaking to Aivery about her pizza. Ashton lied to these people, which meant I was forced to lie again, too. I didn’t want to do the whole fake boyfriend thing again. It was exhausting. But this crew. They made me fight for my pride. Their stuckupness was hard to ignore. How was this going to work? Just when I thought I’d struggle with needing to leave, my attention got lost in the movie. Africa. I always wanted to visit there. People said it wasn’t as wild and uncivil as seen in movies and pictures. And these Africans were rich.
Suddenly, I couldn’t remember if I’d seen this old movie before.
I had to—
A big, hot hand covered mine. I didn’t realize, I’d stretched back, sitting on my hands like Ashton earlier. It was him. His face to the screen, but I caught his eyes rolling over to me. I whipped my head back ahead. Why did heat flash through my whole body at that simple touch?
This was messed up.
And I…liked it.
But I’m not a whore…
Me: We’ll discuss it in the morning.
I glanced out of the large window, into the dark sky over the Atlantic Ocean. The waters were troubled, clashing tempestuous waves were violent. I wondered if it was a presage for what would happen tonight, inside the ring.
My vibrating phone brought my attention back down to my hand.
Maggie: That’s what you said last night.
My head bounced back, and eyes blinked.
Me: I did say that. And guess what? I’m saying it again. Goodnight.
Not wanting to continue that conversation, I tucked my phone into the pocket of my blazer and made my way over to the bar. My life consisted of constantly answering and catering to women. Tonight was technically supposed to be a night off from it.
It took no time for me to catch eyes with the bartender. I greeted him with a nod.
“Mauve, clean. And Corona in a glass, please.”
“Right away, sir.” He turned to prepare my order.
“Hey, you.” I glanced down to the beckoning feminine voice and found a pleasant surprise.
“Mrs. Jacobs,” I greeted while meeting her in a physical embrace. “Why do you seem so perturbed?”
“Oh, you can tell, huhn?” She motioned another bartender for service. “It’s because a particular seasoned woman is across the room flirting with my husband, and I can’t do anything about it.”
My attention brushed the cocktail room of forty people, or so. “What old ass woman got you running away from her instead of running in her mou—” When my eyes landed on my mother, grinning in Azmir’s face, my words halted. “That damn Ms. Wanda.” I pursed my lips playfully.
Rayna ordered a glass of water in a champagne glass before commenting, “Ahn-huhn. Now what were you saying about that seasoned Brick City woman?”
I cracked the fuck up. Rayna Jacobs was the wife of business tycoon, Azmir Jacobs. I met her when she was dating Azmir, a friend of my father’s, who I’d known since I was a kid. In fact, it was Jacobs who introduced me to my mentor. Rayna here was a New Jersey native and we’d always found common ground and conversation from that topic alone. “If it makes you feel any better, she dallies with StenRo, too.”
“Listen, my name is Rayna Brimm-Jacobs, not Zoey Barrett-Rogers.” She issued a pointed expression with her meticulously painted smoky eyes as I howled.
“Yo, I’m so out of the game now. Is that the thing? Hyphenating?”
Rayna shrugged. “Just some of us stubborn women. How have you been?” I could see the flicker of concern in her eyes and hear it in her inflection.
“I’m good.” My drinks were placed next to my arm. “Can’t complain.”
“I’m not used to seeing you at sporting events. You’re not working, are you?”
I cocked my head to the side as my face went taut with wonder. “That’s a very good question, Lady Jacobs. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here. But I do know I’m with Ms. Wanda—” My regard skirted over to my mother, still beaming at Azmir. “—and there’s no way I can bring that cougar behavior to work.”
Rayna snickered in good nature. As she sipped on water with lime, a thought occurred.
“How’s this pregnancy coming along?”
“So different from the last. People, including my OB, think it’s supposed to be easier because it’s just one baby, but the five-year gap is making me feel like this one’s giving me the same energy as the one with the twins.”
“You look amazing either way.” I leaned to the side, trying to gain a view of her shoes. “Those must be what…? Four and a half inches?”
“Your shoe game sucks, Ashton. Try four point one.”
Rayna pushed out her foot, showing off. Snickering, I nodded while eyeing them now from a better view. “I don’t think I’m too bad. I do know those are Giuseppe’s Odile. Let me guess, Mr. Jacobs’ choice.”
Sipping her water, Rayna hummed while shrugging I was right. “Just don’t bring it up to him. He’s unnecessarily fixated on me in heels while pregnant.”
“Are you over here flirting with my bone, man?” I heard the strong New Yorker intonation in his tenor, something he couldn’t shake, no matter how long he’d been on the West Coast. “You got her leg hanging the fuck out and shit. I expect that from many, but not my people.”
Pretending to ignore him, I returned my gaze to Rayna’s black suede sandal with the chiffon bow at the heel. “Not at all, sir. Her majesty here is accusing me of having garbage ass shoe game, and instead, I’m wondering why not go with Saint Laurent’s Talitha Feather leather sandal.”
“Those are so…twenty eighteen’ish. I don’t think they’re available anymore.”
“They would be to Mrs. J here if they were purchased when available.” I gave him a duh expression using my head and hands. “It’s a sexier shoe with the same feather look, only the YSLs would have added ornaments to her incredible dancer-calf muscles. They’re about the same size in heels. So, if you’re okay with the GZs here, I’m sure you wouldn’t have objected to—”
“Is this Ms. Wanda’s?” Rayna asked over me while going for the glass of Corona. “I’m sure it is. It seems very…Newark’ish. I’ll take it to her while you two very wealthy, women’s shoe idée fixe, six-foot plus men continue to squabble in this discussion.”
As she strutted off, I taunted, “Idée fixe. Nice, but you’re back in Jersey now, expat.” I turned back to her husband. “Ms. Wanda got her fucked up, man.” Azmir’s head shot back as he laughed his ass off. “Like for real. You know Rayna loves me. Tonight, my moms killed that.”
“Yup.” He agreed, and I couldn’t help but laugh with him. “She’ll be fine. TB’s here. She was his biggest fan before Jade.”
“Yeah. And Jade doesn’t hyphenate.” I sipped my drink, watching his brows slowly furrow.
“Okay. And who does?”
“I’ve never met a Brimm-Jacobs in my life.”
This time, my face fell. I searched for Rayna until I found her with my mother, arm and arm, cracking the hell up. “Did she just play me?”
Azmir chuckled silently. “Indeed.” He sipped his drink. “There are many things I’ve relented to when making her mine, nonetheless I’ve branded and marked her.”
I shrugged with my mouth. “Talk that shit, player.” Then I moved in for a dab. There weren’t many I’d believe so easily as I did Azmir Jacobs. I also knew his claim wasn’t limited to his last name. “I also like your new spot.” To gesture the posh resort, I swept the room with my eyes and head.
If I didn’t know Azmir as well as I did, I would’ve missed his truth before his poker face settled in. “I’m not sure what you’re speaking of.”
After gulping back golden water, I replied, “And that’s because you forget with whom you’re speaking.” As he always did when calculating, Azmir read my body language under the guise of allowing me the opportunity to share more. I took the bait. “An associate of mine out of the Midwest is doing a piece on the gaming industry in the U.S. and is touching on the revival of Atlantic City. He sent me the paperwork with ADJ Enterprise billed as the diversified conglomerate holding company for KAHRI Resort and Casino. He thought it was strange that the Cotton family—a white ass Puritan family—would change their name at the time of your bailout. Did I mention the name Kahri means kingly in Swahili and, to some, is considered Arabic. Either way, the name has a Black man backing it all over it. Only kings do king shit like that.” I raised my near-empty glass in the air.
After a long, decided stare down, Azmir met my tumbler with a clink. “Indeed.”
“Whaddup, Divine,” someone called out from behind Azmir.
When Azmir turned, he gave me view of Ragee. “Aye, what up, Raj.” I watched as they dapped it up. Then Ragee’s attention landed on me, but his smile dwindled. Azmir turned fully toward the woman hand in hand with Ragee. “Mrs. McKinnon, what a pleasure.”
As I swallowed back the last of my drink, Ragee took a couple of steps toward me, breaking hands with who I now assumed was his wife.
“Does she know you’re here?”
I didn’t like his tone or audacity, and almost went the asshole route of asking who she was. Quickly, I decided against it. I’d never formally met Ragee when Tori and I were friends at BSU. I’d heard some things about him from her and vaguely recalled him coming to Brick’s funeral with her, but this was as close as I’d been with him in a room.
“I’m not sure.” I placed my empty tumbler on the bar.
“Are you here for work?”
“I’m not sure about that either, but I’m sure I’ll gain inspiration to add to what I’m working on.”
“Did you tell her you were coming?”
“No.” I shook my head, exasperated with all the questions already. “I was sent tickets and decided to use them.”
“Do you two know each other?” Azmir rejoined the conversation.
Ragee’s eyes bounced between the two of us. “I see you two know each other.”
Azmir chuckled, scratching just above his mouth while readjusting his stance and widening his legs. “Yes. For a very long time.” And he waited.
And I understood that wait.
Diffusing whatever the fuck the energy was misting between us, I extended my hand. “I wouldn’t insult you with a lie by saying I don’t know who you are. But I am Ashton Spencer. And while I’m many things, what brings me here tonight is solely the article I’m writing up on your friend for Sports Illustrated.”
It didn’t take Ragee long to reciprocate the shake. “I’ve heard about your work. Good to officially meet you.”
This shit was instantly weird. Now, dude was acting like he didn’t want anyone around to know the strange ass bravado he let off my way. And Ragee was a big nigga. Although my height, he had to have been at least thirty pounds heavier. Throwing around an authoritative energy could give off antagonizing vibes, and I was not the type to cower to it.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite three men,” my mother purred, gliding to my side with the slip of her arm beneath mine. “Ashton, I was just coming to tell you I met Ragee, and here he is!” I caught when the muscles around Ragee’s eyes loosened. She asked him, “Do you know my son? He’s the CEO of B-Way Burger, you know?” Her attention returned to me. “He said he’s not singing as Tori’s doing her walkout tonight.”
I couldn’t return my mother’s innocent banter. The realization of Ragee’s sonnin’ me had begun burgeoning in my mind. It didn’t matter that he’d moved on and, now, appeared shocked about my mother being at my side.
That was until it dawned on me. Unless my mother was flirting with him, too, Ragee could have been processing whatever Tori may have mentioned to him about my mother. She wasn’t so kind to Tori back then. Neither did she ride her like she had other women I dated. Tori and I didn’t last very long for my mother to see her enough. Also, my mother didn’t know much about Tori and me.
Suddenly, the room was disrupted in energy. After listening, it was clear the time had come for us to finally take our seats if we wanted to see the main event.
“Come on, baby,” Rayna was at Jacobs’ side. “I know Ashton doesn’t care about missing the undercards. Ms. Wanda told me he doesn’t like sports.”
Azmir tossed me a glance with humor dancing in his eyes. Rayna was clowning me again. This time, my wit was tied around my neck choking me, thanks to Tori’s aggressive ass peoples. Ragee, still looking tight, took his wife at the hand and ambled off.
“Touché, Mrs. Jacobs in high heels.”
Rayna stumbled a bit when swinging her head back to look at me with her mouth agape. I tossed her a wink. Smoothly, Azmir leaned down and whispered something to her as they sauntered toward the door.
“What you messing with that woman for?” my mother scolded lowly.
I glanced down at her glass of beer. It was almost empty. “Are you done with that?”
“No!” Her head bobbled. Chuckling, I pinched my brows as her arm tightened around mine. “I’m grown tonight. Shit, I’m kidless and single, Ashton! Now, let’s go.” She nudged me on our way to the door.
*Release date subject to change without notice
**Publisher’s Note: The Muted Hopelessness series will not be available in the Kindle Unlimited library. It will, however, be available on multiple retailer’s shelves for purchase. For more information, click here.
* All photography with models representing Ashton and Tori taken by Brooklyn Hughes
Makeup artist: Kaydene Hughes