All of the board members, save one, were present. Fifteen or so people stood around, nibbling on sandwiches and watching her mostly and smiling. G was one of those smiling back at her, although she thought his smile was more on the smug, self-satisfied side. As a result, the smiles she returned were less than stellar, not that he seemed to mind. All he did was laugh at them, while holding on to Heather’s hand.
She was still in the what-the-hell-G mode, irritated with him for a bunch of reasons. Number one was that he here with a date. So much for him sticking to his side of the city with his girlfriend and Sydney to hers. Number two was his membership on the board, and number three, which superseded the other two, was that he’d kept that information to himself.
She ran her gaze over the group again. So far all but Bishop’s wife, Mrs. Deborah Walker, had been welcoming. Her opinion of the preacher’s wife, sister to Mavis, mother of the two slain boys, Brandon and Brian, and the grandmother to an abducted grandson Brian Jr., was clouded by all the shade she’d thrown Shelby—the girlfriend to her son, Brian, that wasn’t good enough.
“May I have everyone’s attention,” Mavis said, scanning the room. “Sydney, there you are,” she said as her gaze landed on Sydney’s. “Come over here, please.” Her right arm opened, ready to pull Sydney into her body. “I would like to introduce you all to Ms. Sydney King. She allowed this old woman to take her to college and to become a part of her life, as she completed not one but two degrees. Engineering and Studio Art. Her emphasis was in drawing. Those pictures on the wall, are hers,” she said, all wide smile beaming. “I met her and her sister at the opening of OCAAT Austin. What year was that, baby?”
“2007,” Sydney said.
“2007. Brian, my nephew, God rest his soul, introduced them to me. Graham, you were there?” Mavis asked, her gaze landed on his.
“Yes,” he said.
“She and Graham, a board member now, volunteered to tutor kids. You were, what, a freshman in high school, yes?” Mavis said, meeting Sydney’s gaze again in confirmation.
“Saturday mornings, she and Graham were here like clockwork. Brian and his Shelby worked the afternoons. God rest his soul. It we could turn back time. Anyway, what you might not know is that she continued working with OCAAT in the summers, while she finished high school and a year of junior college before she finally left us for college. She taught math and art classes to our summer students during some of her summer breaks from college. So, I know firsthand how strong the desire to help runs within her. I also know how hard she worked to finish her college degree, how much she wanted to be an engineer. Right, Graham?” Mavis said, meeting his gaze this time.
“Right,” he said.
“So, to tell you I was surprised by her request to come to work for OCAAT, instead of taking a job in engineering, would be an understatement. I was blown away, but not displeased. I know her talent, her work ethic, and I’m selfish enough to not only hire her, but put her to work with me directly, as my assistant. It won’t be for very long once she sees her first paycheck and how much work is required. But for however long she wants to work for me, I will welcome her,” she said, smiling at Sydney. “Sydney, please meet my friends. We are board members, yes, but we are first and foremost family. Thank you all for joining me in embracing my new assistant, Sydney King,” she said, and lifted her glass into the air. “To Sydney King,” she said.
“To Sydney,” the crowd said, including G, who smiled along with the others. Yep, same G when he smiled. She moved her gaze to the young woman whose waist his arm was wrapped around. She was staring back at her, smiling too, however small it was.
“Welcome,” Bishop said, standing in front of her, hands outstretched, thankfully pulling her thoughts away from the one she thought she was over. “An engineer and an artist. Brian always said you were smart,” Bishop said, smiling. He seemed sincere, Sydney thought.
“Thank you,” Sydney said.
“OCAAT, huh,” he said
“Yes. I like the work that you do. I recognized early on that there is a difference in the education we received before I went to the Woodlands. It’s like two different worlds, and I want to make sure our kids have the education to participate in all the worlds that are available to them.”
“It’s the truth,” she said.
“You know, I did recognize that you and Graham were good friends to Brian. I wanted you to know that I appreciated that.”
“Brian was a good friend to me as well. I know he and my sister weren’t probably what you wanted, but Shelby loved him.”
“How is your sister?
“I don’t know.”
“You two aren’t in touch?”
“Not since . . .”
“She lost the baby.”
“In spite of what you may think, I did like Shelby. They were young, too young in my opinion, for some of the decisions they made,” Bishop said, staring into his drink.
She shrugged again. “I disagree.”
“As I would expect you to. It doesn’t make it any less true. But,” he said, holding up his hand, “I’m not here to argue with you. I’m here to welcome you into our organization.” He smiled again. “If you have any questions, or if anything comes up that I might be able to help you with, I’m only a phone call away. Janine is my assistant, she’ll put you through immediately. Here’s my business card. My personal cell number is on the back.”
“Thank you,” Sydney said, surprised as she watched him move away, resisting the impulse to search the room for Graham.
“Hello, Sydney King,” Deb Walker said, taking her husband’s place in front of her.
“Hi, Mrs. Walker,” Sydney said, meeting the gaze of her sister’s nemesis, and the other half of the Walker power couple.
“Why on earth would you give up the promise of being an engineer and artist for OCAAT? And as an assistant, no less,” Deb asked.
Sydney sighed. The same old snooty hadn’t changed. “You know firsthand the good work OCAAT does. You’re a part of it. I want to be a part of it too,” she said for the second time tonight, hoping it wasn’t going to be her entire evening.
“What if I don’t believe you?”
“Why would I lie?”
“You tell me.”
“OCAAT helps other people, like me. Like the teenager I was without parents.”
“Blah, blah, blah. Have you seen your sister?”
“No,” Sydney said, a little shocked. She’d seen this woman’s rudeness before, directed at her sister, but never at her. Those days were over, she guessed.
“I’ll never forgive her, you know. For leaving my grandbaby alone for someone to take,” she said, tears in her eyes just that quick. “She took my son from me, and then my grandson.”
“I miss B and my nephew too,” Sydney said, the only thing she could think to say in response, moved unwittingly by this woman’s tears.
“Most people assume it’s permanent, your new job with my sister, but it’s not. It’s probationary. Anyone in a position so close to her, the founder, with her knowledge of the organization, has to have final approval from us all. Not Graham Garrison either, but the executive committee, which he isn’t a part of. He shouldn’t even be a board member, just as you shouldn’t have a job working for my sister,” she said. One quick pivot any soldier would be proud of and she was gone, taking with her any sympathy Sydney might have felt for her losses.
“Don’t listen to her. Hurt people hurt people,” a man said, filling in the empty space in front of her, his gaze on Mrs. Walker. He was thin and wore his hair in a short afro, almost all of it white. He turned to face her. “Mason Wilder, at your service,” he said, and smiled. “Mavis is very proud of you, considers you the daughter she’s never had. And Deb—well, she’s had a difficult life. Losing two boys, her only boys, would be hard on anyone, and she lost her grandbaby, too. So, we can give her some room, can’t we?”
“Yes,” Sydney said, moved by his graciousness.
“I manage the Friendship Foundation’s real estate properties. You’ll be working with me soon. I’m the one that will help you locate houses for the boardinghouses committee,” he said, extending his hand to Sydney.
“Nice to meet you,” she said, shaking his hand.
“Nice to meet you too, although I feel like I know you already. Mavis talks about you all the time. She loves you very much.”
“I know. I am very grateful to her for her support. I love her too. She’s probably the closest thing I’ve had to a mother,” Sydney said.
“Good. I look forward working with you. If Mavis vouches for you, then you’ have to be something. She knows I don’t abide fools. Are you one?”
“No sir,” she said, smiling. She liked this dude.
“Come by the shop when the time comes.”
“The properties building. It’s where you’ll find me. ’We can do most things by email, but I’d rather we didn’t. Okay?”
“Sure,” Sydney said, watching as he moved away, and another founder took his place to welcome her.
Finally, Sydney was free, Graham thought, watching her head to the kitchen. He hadn’t been able to talk to her, as she had been locked in conversation with just about every person here, one after another. He headed for the kitchen too.
Mavis’s kitchen was small, like her home.’’ He’d loved the smallness of it as a boy, here with Brandon and B. He felt protected and safe, playing outside, watching TV, and eating whatever Mavis cooked for them.
It was pristine as always. Mavis was a stickler about cleanliness. Just like when he was a kid, the color scheme was predominantly white with a little bit of peach around the edges. The sink, refrigerator, and stove were one straight line along the right-side wall. The table and chairs stood in front of it, and the pantry started halfway along the left wall.
Sydney was inside with her back to the door, bent over, rooting around for something. She was something to see in her white dress this evening, a black belt cinched around her waist, and black heels high enough to reach his gaze on her feet. He liked the way grown Sydney dressed. He liked how all the parts of her had grown up too. He’d watched her grown up ass off and on since his arrival, move around the room, bouncing in time to her steps, and somehow it was all he could think about.
He’d watched her interact with the other board members since his evening had begun, holding her own and poised. Yeah, college and getting away had been good for her. She’d blossomed into a very lovely and confident young woman, charming those that were open to be charmed, and holding her ground, he thought, with the ones that weren’t. She had grown up for sure. If he had any doubts about that, they were long gone.
“You shouldn’t have to work at your own party,” he said, standing in the pantry’s doorway.
“You’re a board member,” she said, all accusatory, a quick spin around to face him. She held a stack of napkins in one hand, the other hand on her hip. She knew he was behind her, had seen his dress shoe-clad feet standing in the doorway. Actually, she could feel his presence, smell his sharp, masculine scent—it was new, but she liked it. So much for letting the past be the past, she thought. She couldn’t seem to shake him. It didn’t help that he was dressed in his version of grown-up, fitted out in a suit that fit perfectly, a tie that matched perfectly. He stood with his arms crossed, leaning into the pantry’s doorway, watching her, all relaxed male confidence. She moved closer to him. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me,” she said, crossing her arms now, her gaze direct, clear, and confident, vestiges of her old crush nowhere to be found. It could be that she hid it well, but either way. Sydney King had most definitely grown up. Spectacularly so.
“When was I going to tell you?” he asked.
“After I told you I was going to work for Mavis.”
“I figured you’d find out on your own,” he said, watching her, amused by this new and yet not-so-new Sydney. She’d always had a mouth.
“Why?” she asked.
“Why are you on the board?”
“Why are you working with OCAAT instead of becoming an engineer, like you were trained to do and always dreamed of becoming?”
“Don’t change the subject. And I thought you didn’t have a problem with it.”
“Who’s changing the subject? And I don’t have a problem with it. It’s your life.”
“Really, thank you for pointing that out to me.”
“I don’t get why you’re upset then.”
“You think I’m upset? And you didn’t answer my question. Why are you on the board?”
“I’m here for the same reason as you.”
“Which is?” she said, giving him plenty evil eye. He laughed, charmed by the woman as he’d been by the younger version of her so long ago. He’d spent a considerable amount of time since her arrival on Sunday thinking about their past.
“You tell me,” he said.
“I told you already,” she said, sighing heavily.
“Tell me again,” he said, mightily pleased by her agitation.
She made a face, but answered. “OCAAT is a great organization. I like the work they do.”
“Liar,” he said, cutting her off with a small smile.
“Who are you calling a liar?” she said, stepping closer. He smirked; amused, she thought. “It’s not funny.”
“Who’s laughing. You’re here to find your nephew,” he said, moving from humor to quiet and serious in a heartbeat.
She stared at him, more than a little disconcerted by his words. And wait, what, how did he know that . . . He had to be guessing, she thought, delaying her response longer than necessary. “Keep your voice down,” she said eventually, scanning the kitchen behind him. No way did she want anyone to hear their discussion.
“You’re searching for your nephew.” He whispered this time, wanting to laugh at what he thought might be her evil eye again.
“Here you are,” Heather said—interrupting again, Sydney thought, irritated at the interruption and with Heather, who had come to a stop beside him. “In the pantry of all places,” Heather added, moving her gaze between them. Sydney had to work to keep from rolling her eyes.
“Congratulations on your new job,” Heather added, standing beside G after he straightened his body from the casual lean against the doorjamb.
“Hi.” Sydney said, smiling, her irritation properly stowed away.
“You’re ready to leave?” Heather asked, looking up to Graham. “I have that thing, remember,” she said, leaning up to touch her lips to his, which Sydney knew was meant for her, an overt act of ownership. Yes, she got the message. He was taken.
“I do,” he said, checking his watch after the kiss.
“We should go now if I’m going to make it on time,” Heather added.
“Yes, we should,” G said, swinging his gaze back to Sydney’s.
“Nice seeing you again, Sydney,” Heather said, tugging G’s hand.
“Nice seeing you too, Heather. You too, G,” Sydney said.
He laughed, but otherwise remained quiet. She thought she caught a small smile at his lips, but who knew with Graham. He was turning out to be a man full of surprises. Now, were they good surprises or bad, she wondered. If he kept his mouth shut about her business, then they were good. If he was the old G, telling her how to live and manage her life, then they would have a problem and he was in for a world of hurt.
She was done needing protecting. The memories of him withholding information from her, because he thought he knew what was best, wasn’t fresh on her mind, but ’they weren’t far away either. She was done running her life choices past him. It didn’t stop the irritation she felt with him at knowing her in a way no other men did. Would that ever end, she wondered, shaking her head, heading back into the fray, napkins in hand.