Atlanta; The Present
Cecelia “CeCe” Williams clicked her left mouse button with fervor. She still couldn’t believe she had to do one hundred and fifty hours of community service. One hundred and fifty hours! That crazy judge. Why hadn’t he just let her pay the fine and be done with it? After all, it was only a few measly parking tickets.
As she finished running the numbers for her client’s monthly audit report, CeCe considered how she could repay the esteemed judge for his Solomon-esque wisdom. She ought to send a letter to the mayor. And the governor. Murderers and drug dealers were getting off scot-free. Embezzlers and swindlers did no time. And here she was, getting one hundred and fifty hours of community service for a few measly parking tickets!
How many parking tickets, CeCe? came the voice of conscience she sometimes wished she could silence.
“OK, OK,” she muttered aloud. “Maybe it was more than a few.”
“Talking to yourself, CeCe? Now I don’t know why you’re doing that, when the two of us could be lunching in a quiet booth someplace making plans for our next date.”
CeCe didn’t have to turn around to know the words came from Larry Meadows, God’s gift to women—or so he thought. “I’m busy, Larry,” she said, her eyes fixed on her computer monitor. The Excel spreadsheet displayed before her held more interest than her unexpected and uninvited guest.
“But you’ve got to have lunch sometime,” Larry said in the exaggerated drawl that he turned on and off at will. “How about having it with me today? We can go to the Ritz.”
CeCe turned to look at the tall, lean, brown-skinned guy standing in the doorway of the cubicle that was her home for at least eight hours of each day. He was handsome, she had to admit. Most of the women in the office considered his aristocratic profile and boyish charm a lethal combination. Too bad they only served to remind her of someone she’d much rather forget. “That’s not a good idea, Larry.”
Larry looked over his shoulder as if to see whether anyone else was around. He turned back to her. “Look, CeCe,” he said, his voice tight and minus the drawl now, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his tan slacks. “I’ve apologized a thousand times for that first date. I just got carried away. I promise you I’m not that kind of guy. I really would like to take you out again.”
CeCe actually believed he was sincere. “I’m sorry, Larry, but I don’t think so.”
“Why not? Do you think you’re too good for me?”
CeCe shook her head. A child in a man’s body. She bet David, her four-year-old son, was more mature than this thirty-something man. “I don’t want to go out with you again. Can’t we just leave it at that?”
“Look, I’m not used to begging women to go out with me. I just thought I’d give you a second chance to see what you were missing. I guess you’ve lost out, though, because I’m not giving you any more chances.”
CeCe stared after him as he stalked away. A few years ago, if someone had told her that most men were variations of Eric, she wouldn’t have believed them. But she knew the truth now from experience. She seemed to attract two types of men: those who wanted nothing to do with a woman with a child, and those who expected a single mother to be sexually available. The first kind she understood, so she always made it clear up front that she had a son.
The second kind were still a mystery to her. They came in all shapes and sizes, and they had assorted modes of operation. Some, like Larry, went at you on the first date, assuming you were open for anything. Others were more subtle. They were willing to cultivate the relationship a little, but with the expectation that once it was established, sex would become a regular part of it. Even Christian, or so-called Christian, men seemed to have this expectation. She’d quickly grown tired of it and made her celibacy part of the initial conversations. Better they knew that up front, too.
Enough, she chided herself. She didn’t need to think about men today. No, she’d made a pact with herself, and she refused to allow men to worry her. She’d been in love once, and once was definitely enough to last a lifetime. Besides, she had more important things on her mind. Like a four-year-old son who was more a little man than a little boy. Like a full-time accounting job that paid part-time wages. Like a part-time job selling real estate that seemed to need full-time hours to be profitable. Like an overzealous judge and a hundred and fifty hours of community service time.
She glanced up at the Mickey Mouse clock on the wall of her cubicle. As always, looking at David’s contribution to making her office feel more homey caused a warmth to settle around her heart. She could still remember him standing on her upholstered guest chair, trying valiantly to help her position his gift in just the right spot.
This time, though, she couldn’t luxuriate in the good feelings the memory evoked. It was quarter to twelve, and she knew she was going to be late for her noon community service appointment at Genesis House. The drive from her Buckhead office to Genesis House’s downtown location would take a minimum of twenty minutes, and finding a legal parking space nearby would take an additional fifteen, if she was lucky. She took a bit of pleasure at the thought of Nathaniel Richardson waiting for her this time, though. It would serve him right for standing her up on Saturday after she’d canceled two promising appointments to show houses. Selling even one of those properties would have put her three thousand dollars closer to paying off the debts that hung over her head like a dark cloud threatening to break into a ferocious thunderstorm at any moment. If she missed another appointment because of Nathaniel Richardson’s inability to keep to his schedule, the two of them were going to have serious problems working together.
“CeCe, do you want to go to lunch? We’re going to Mick’s.”
Pushing thoughts of her debts to the back of her mind for the time being, CeCe looked around and saw two members of her work group, Debra and Cathy, standing at the entrance to her cube. “Not today,” she told them. “I’ve got an appointment, but I’ll walk out with you.” CeCe grabbed her purse and followed her coworkers out of the building.
Twenty-five minutes later, after circling a two-block radius surrounding Genesis House four times, praying all the while for a surface parking space to open, CeCe pulled her blue, four-year-old-but-new-to-her Maxima into the first open space in a parking deck about four blocks away. If Nathaniel Richardson missed this meeting, she decided as she got out of her car, she’d have to go back to Judge Solomon and see what kind of sentence his wisdom would mete out for the guilty Mr. Richardson.
Thirty-three-year-old Nathaniel “Nate” Richardson stood in front of the paint-splattered windows of his Genesis House office and looked out on downtown Atlanta without really seeing it. He thought about Cecelia Williams, or more specifically, he thought about the Saturday appointment with her that he’d had to cancel. In his eighteen months as director of Genesis House, Saturday had been the first time he’d allowed his personal problems to interfere with his work. And he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it one bit. He was a man who believed in commitments, and he prided himself on keeping the ones he made.
A humorless chuckle escaped his lips. Here he was, bemoaning a missed interview with a community service volunteer, when his real concern was for another broken commitment. Not that he’d wanted to break that one. No, that choice had been Naomi’s, but he’d participated in it just the same.
He thought it ironic that his only appointment this past Saturday had been at three o’clock, the same time as Naomi’s wedding. Had it been divine Providence? Had God given him the appointment with Ms. Williams to help keep his mind off the wedding? Well, if he had, then Nate had certainly messed up that plan. The appointment served as a minor distraction, at best. He had thought of nothing but Naomi’s wedding—not the one on Saturday, but the one five and a half years ago when she’d married him. The thoughts had become so oppressive that he had started to feel as though the office walls were closing in on him. He’d had no choice but to cancel the meeting with Cecelia so he could get out of here.
He and Naomi had been married only eighteen months when she told him she was leaving him. Not leaving him to return to her family and her home in Richmond, but leaving him to start a new life in Atlanta. Shocked didn’t adequately capture his surprise at hearing her words. He’d been happy and had thought she was, too. Evidently she hadn’t been, because she’d packed up and moved just as she’d said she would do. Knowing they had no chance for a reconciliation if they lived in separate cities—especially since her city of choice was the home of the guy she was engaged to before she met him—Nate sold his budding Chicago law practice and the home they’d shared and followed her here to Atlanta.
In the four years since his arrival, he’d done nothing but pursue the reconciliation that he believed God wanted for them. Even when Naomi immediately started seeing her ex-fiancé, he didn’t lose hope that reconciliation would someday happen for them. He’d talked to Naomi until he’d run out of words. He’d prayed until his prayers became a soulful hum from his heart to God’s ears. But by the end of their first year of separation, she’d divorced him anyway.
He still hadn’t allowed himself to give up, though. Whatever he and Naomi had lost, he believed God would restore. But his hope had died on Saturday. On Saturday his marriage had finally and irrevocably ended. Naomi had become another man’s wife.
The sound of the buzzer on the front door of the outer office alerted Nate to what he suspected was the arrival of Cecelia Williams. He turned away from the windows and went back to his desk, gathering the papers he would need for their meeting. As his family, his friends, his pastor—everybody, it seemed—had told him, he’d done all he could do. It was now time to put off his “sackcloth and ashes” and get on with the life that lay before him. He was blessed with a job that made a difference in people’s lives, a loving and supportive church family, and parents and sisters who loved him enough to refrain from saying, “I told you so.” He hadn’t been able to make right the mistakes of his past—his marriage to Naomi was forever in the failure column of his life—but he could do as his loved ones counseled and accept the forgiveness that God offered him and move forward. Comforted by their advice and now believing he could heed it, he took a deep breath, said a silent prayer, and pulled open the door to the outer office.
“Cecelia Williams?” he called to the conservatively dressed, statuesque woman whose back was to him.
CeCe turned her attention from the announcement-covered bulletin board that dominated the wall of the outer office and looked up into the clear, brown eyes of the man whose face she’d just seen on one of the flyers tacked on the board, the man who was the director of Genesis House, the man who’d cost her three thousand dollars in lost real estate commissions. She knew it was the same man, even though in the picture he sported a full head of closely cropped hair and now he was as bald as Michael Jordan. It was his eyes. There were an honesty and an innocence in those eyes that attracted her and made her feel safe, while at the same time stirring up a primal need for self-protection. It wasn’t a physical need for self-protection, though given his size—broad shoulders, muscular, and about six inches taller than her five-foot-seven-inch frame—such a reaction would not have been surprising. No, it was more a need to protect her emotions, maybe even her heart, which made no sense at all. She pushed those thoughts aside and tried to conjure up the anger she’d felt in response to what she considered his unprofessional behavior on Saturday. That effort failed miserably when his face broke into the biggest, stupidest, kindest smile she’d seen on an adult face in a long time.
His extended his hand. “I’m Nate Richardson, and I want to apologize for missing our meeting on Saturday. Personal problem. I hope I didn’t inconvenience you too much.”
“No,” CeCe said, shaking his offered hand. “Everything worked out. And call me CeCe; everyone does.” Way to go, CeCe, she chided herself. You really told him off. She’d wanted to tell him off, but that stupid smile of his reminded her of the one David sometimes wore when he was sitting in the middle of the floor playing with one of his toys—an open, honest smile that came out of a contented and happy heart. How could she stay angry with anybody—man, woman, or child—who wore a smile like that?
“Well, I’m still sorry, CeCe,” he said again, placing the file of papers in his hands on the faded green receptionist’s desk that looked as though it had seen better days. In fact, all the furniture in the room did. Surprisingly, the eclectic mix of worn furnishings gave the office a lived-in feeling that was both comfortable and full of vitality. “I want you to know right now,” he continued, “that we’ll count Saturday as a full eight hours worked. It’s not your fault I had to leave before you got here. Sound fair?”
CeCe smiled, mentally deducting the eight hours from her required hundred and fifty. “More than fair.”
“Good. Now, have you eaten lunch?”
She waved her hand, dismissing his question. “I really wanted to meet with you so I skipped lunch today.”
“Well, we can’t have that. What say I buy you lunch? I think I owe you one anyway.”
“But you don’t have to—”
He cut her off with a disarming half grin. “I know I don’t have to. I want to. If I don’t eat lunch, I get grouchy, and believe me, you don’t want to see me grouchy. How about it? We can talk while we eat.”
Her lips curved upwards at his playful words and the expression that accompanied them. “When you put it like that, I guess I don’t have a choice.”
After taking the file from the desk and tucking it under his arm, he opened the door for her. “Come on, then. My stomach is growling.”
Laughing, CeCe preceded Nate Richardson out of the building.
“Do you feel like walking?” he asked once they were outside. He looked up at the clear June sky. “I don’t think we’re going to get any rain today.”
She smiled as she fell into step with him and walked in the opposite direction of the path she’d taken from the parking deck. “Walking is fine.”
They walked down about four blocks that were bustling with downtown workers on lunch break before Nate stopped at a street vendor’s cart. “How do you feel about a hot dog or two?”
She smiled at him again. She was turning into a regular Cheshire cat around this guy. “Don’t go all out on my account,” she said, at ease with him enough to tease him.
He jingled the coins in the pocket of his olive slacks. “Hey, remember that Genesis House is nonprofit. Two hot dogs is going all out.”
She laughed. “OK, I’ll take a hot dog and a soda, if it fits in the budget.”
“Only because I need to make up for my bad manners on Saturday,” he said, his voice light with laughter, as he turned to speak to the vendor.
CeCe watched and listened as he ordered three hot dogs—one for her and two for himself—and two Cokes. As she did so, she realized that it had been a very long time since she’d been as relaxed and at ease with a man as she was with Nate Richardson. She’d just met the man, and they were joking around as though they’d known each other for a long time. Given her track record with men, she wasn’t sure this was a good thing. “Better safe than sorry” was her motto. She silently repeated it now as a reminder to protect herself around this man as she would around any other male.
“I’m impressed,” he said once they were seated on a just-vacated concrete bench in Woodruff Park right across the street. The park was full of Yuppies and Buppies out on break, the city police having rid the area of the homeless during the year leading up to the Atlanta Olympic Games.
CeCe took a bite of her hot dog, then wiped the mustard from around her lips. “Impressed with what?”
He inclined his head toward her can of Coke. “You went for the caffeine and the sugar. I think we’re going to get along well.”
If I don’t smile myself to death first, CeCe thought. “I think I’ll reserve judgment until you tell me what the remaining one hundred and forty-two hours of my community service are going to be.”
“One hundred and forty-two hours, huh?” Nate laughed again, and CeCe decided that she liked the sound. “You don’t have to tell me, but I have to ask. What did you do to get a hundred and fifty hours?”
CeCe chomped down on her hot dog. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
He nodded. “Yes, I would. Stuart, your judge, is a big supporter of Genesis House, not to mention a close friend. I know he’d never send us a hardened criminal without first making me aware, and I also know he has a weird sense of humor. He’s fair, though.”
CeCe peered up at him over her hot dog. “Well, I’m not sure about the fair part.” She wasn’t sure if she liked the idea of this man’s being friends with the judge who’d sentenced her.
“So what did you do?”
Taking another bite of her hot dog, CeCe mumbled, “Unpaid parking tickets.”
He leaned toward her. “What? I couldn’t understand you.”
Realizing that he wasn’t going to give up until he had an answer, she looked directly at him and said clearly, “Unpaid parking tickets.”
“Stuart gave you a hundred and fifty hours for a few unpaid parking tickets?” Nate whistled. “You must have said something to upset him. That sentence seems stiff even for him. What did you do, mouth off to him or something?”
CeCe shook her head. “All I did was tell him how ridiculous the sentence was.”
“One hundred and fifty hours.” He studied her, and his probing brown eyes made her nervous. “Just how many tickets did you have?”
CeCe put the last bite of her hot dog in her mouth and answered with a full mouth.
“How many? I couldn’t understand you.”
What was the point in trying to evade his question? “Forty-something.”
Nate’s eyes widened, and his hands froze with his hot dog three-quarters of the way to his lips. “Forty-something? You mean you had more than forty unpaid parking tickets? How did you get so many?”
“I’ve been asking myself that same question.” She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. She knew she’d gotten the tickets because she was always in a hurry and it seemed that she was never able to find a legal parking space when she needed one. It didn’t matter if she was trying to get into the courthouse on her lunch break to look up the title to some property, or if she was trying to make a quick run to the pharmacy. It never failed; if she parked illegally, she got a ticket. “They just added up over the four years I’ve been in Atlanta. You know how you get them and toss them in the glove compartment?” He gave an affirmative nod. “Well, I guess I tossed them and promptly forgot about them.”
The probing brown eyes seemed to assess her again.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
He chuckled. “I’m thinking I’d better check my glove compartment. I probably have a few tickets in there that I haven’t paid.”
Surprised and pleased that he sought to identify with her on this point rather than tease her, CeCe acknowledged that her new boss was a charmer. It occurred to her again that she needed to protect herself emotionally from this man. She found him much too appealing for her own good. His smiles, his self-deprecating humor, his easy manner, and those probing eyes of his could prove dangerous to her if she didn’t watch out. Her best strategy was to keep the focus of their interactions on their work. “So,” she asked him in her most professional tone of voice, “you’ve got me for a hundred and forty-two more hours. What are you going to do with me?”
Once more his intense eyes zeroed in on her. Then he asked, “What do you want to do?”
She took a swallow of her Coke and then placed the can on the bench in the space between them. “I haven’t really thought about it,” she said, recalling her conversation with the receptionist when she’d come in on Saturday. CeCe had taken an immediate liking to the woman, who seemed as upset with Nate for canceling their appointment as she was. “As I told Shay on Saturday, I already have two jobs, and I’d like to keep both of them while I’m doing my community service. So I’d appreciate it if I didn’t have to work all day every Saturday.”
Nate nodded. “Shay mentioned that to me. I don’t think it will be a problem. Any other requests?”
“Not really. If you’re willing to work with me on the schedule, I’m pretty open about the work. I confess that I didn’t know much about Genesis House before Saturday. Shay gave me the rundown on your programs and services, and I admit that I’m impressed with all you’re doing and all you’re trying to do.” She didn’t see a need to add that she thought some of the goals were a bit ambitious. She couldn’t fault them too much for that, anyway. As one of the few Christian-based organizations run by blacks that served the poor and underserved in downtown Atlanta, Genesis House had worked miracles given what they had to work with. She was especially impressed with their community self-governance efforts in the Robinwood area, an eclectic section of the city that consisted of families ranging from the lowest socioeconomic level to the high-middle socioeconomic level. The idea of empowering neighborhoods to manage their own interests appealed to her on a very basic level. “Just tell me how I can help.”
His scrutiny this time seemed to take on a greater intensity. She wondered what she’d said or done to trigger it. Just when she’d decided to ask him, his inspection ceased. He finished his second hot dog and tossed the wrapper into a can about five feet from them. Then he opened the file he had brought with him and handed her a red folder and a yellow folder. “I’ve been thinking of two different projects. Right now, the key concerns facing us are unemployment and teen pregnancy.”
“Teen pregnancy?” CeCe took the folders as her antennae of suspicion immediately shot up. She wondered what, if anything, Nate Richardson knew about her past. Had this teen pregnancy idea just come out of the air, or was it chosen because of her unique qualifications?
“That’s right, teen pregnancy. People rarely think of it in the context of the family. There’s usually this picture of the pregnant teenager, all alone, but most times that teenager is a member of a family unit, and that entire unit is affected by the pregnancy.”
He was right, of course, and she had the scars to prove it. “What would you want to do about it?”
“I’m not sure of the details,” he said, stretching his long legs out in front of him and resting his folded arms across his stomach. “All my ideas are in the red folder. I was thinking we could start with small group sessions for the teens and their parents and see where it went from there. What do you think?”
“I’m not sure,” CeCe said. What she thought was that the teen pregnancy issue hit too close to home. “What’s the other idea about unemployment?”
“That’s much easier. Check out the yellow folder. I was thinking we could help the unemployed and the underemployed seek new or better positions. You know, give them pointers on presenting themselves professionally in an interview, conducting an effective job search, updating their basic skills—those kinds of things. Some small group sessions where family members discuss how their job situation affects them might be a good idea, too. As you can see, I have ideas, but again, no solid plans. Do you think you can work within parameters that general?”
CeCe answered with a slow nod of her head. “I think I work best that way. I kind of understand what you’re looking for, but there’s still room for me to be creative in how it’s accomplished. Or at least that’s the way I’m reading you.”
“You’re reading me right.”
“The people we’re planning these projects for—who are they, and do they know what we’re planning?”
He finished his soda and flattened the can with his hands. “They’re everybody. Some people come in off the street; others are directed to us from Social Services. We’ve adopted the Robinwood area, so everything we offer is targeted specifically to them.”
CeCe thought the continued focus on the inner-city Robinwood neighborhood was a wise and commendable choice. It showed Genesis House’s long-term commitment to the neighborhood and its people. She felt a bit guilty that her personal knowledge of the area was limited to an occasional drive-through en route to some destination in southeast Atlanta. “Does that mean I get to talk to the residents as I build the programs to make sure I incorporate what they need?”
“That’s exactly what it means. You’ll spend some time in the office, but your real work will be in the community. This job takes a lot out of you, but you get a lot back. I can promise you that.”
CeCe believed him. She could hear the satisfaction in his voice. “So how long have you been with Genesis House?” she asked, wanting to know more about the man and what made him tick. She told herself she only wanted the information because it would help her to work with him more effectively.
“I started as a volunteer four years ago.”
“A community service volunteer or a regular one?”
He laughed, and the gleam in his eyes told her that he appreciated her wit. “A regular one. The founders, Shay and Marvin Taylor, are friends of mine. You met Shay on Saturday.”
“Now I’m embarrassed,” CeCe said. “I thought Shay was the receptionist. She didn’t say anything about being the founder.”
“No need to be embarrassed,” he said. The light in his eyes seemed to dim, and she wondered what had caused it. “She and Marvin haven’t been around much since I took over the directorship about eighteen months ago. Shay has recently started coming in to help around the office. I hope we’ll be seeing more and more of them.”
CeCe knew there was a lot that Nate wasn’t telling her, but she didn’t feel it was her place to inquire further. She, perhaps more than most people, understood a person’s right to privacy.
“So which assignment appeals to you most—teen pregnancy or unemployment?” he asked, turning her attention back to the work.
CeCe looked at the two folders. “I’d say unemployment.” There was no way she was ready to lead any workshop or any discussion on teen pregnancy.
He extended his hand to her again. “Welcome to Genesis House, CeCe Williams. We’re glad to have you.”
As CeCe took his hand, she searched his face for some clue as to what he knew about her past and what conclusions he’d drawn about her based on that knowledge. All she saw were his bright eyes and kind smile, and maybe a tinge of the pain from a few moments ago. Having no other choice, she did what she’d done since first meeting him—she returned his smile. “Believe it or not, I’m looking forward to the experience, Nate Richardson. Maybe a hundred and fifty hours of community service won’t be as bad as I had expected.” As she made the statement, the thought that she should protect her heart from this man pressed against the forefront of her mind.