Eyes the color of dark amber? Full lush, lips? Body like a gladiator? You know I couldn’t stop there. Just how did Ayo recover from the sight of such magnificence? To those of you who mentioned the heat, believe me - there’s another layer added to the snap, crackle and pop. And it has nothing to do with DC’s infamous August heat! Read on...
Damn! As stupid as she looked, he probably thought he’d been paid
to appraise a collection of wall-mounted singing fish and wide-eyed
puppies painted on velvet.
Ayo scrambled to regain her composure, unaware that Abdul-
Salaam’s brows had knitted together into a frown. He speared her
with a sharp glance. “Since we made an appointment for today at 2:00,
who else could I be?”
Ayo’s head jerked up. Fine or not, he’d better check himself. Better
yet—she’d do it for him. “Since you didn’t show up wearing a name
tag, I had no idea who you were. I saw a man standing on my porch
with a duffle bag. For all I know you could be a baller or a burglar!”
Abdul-Salaam raised one thick, silky eyebrow. “Then you must be
familiar with a better class of burglar than the rest of us. I’ve never
heard of one who knocked on the door and introduced himself.”
Ayo’s patience unraveled. The heat flushing her body had nothing
to do with the cloying humidity that left the entire city gasping for air.
It was a warning, a Beware-of-Ayo sign: look out, because whatever
came to her mind would come flying out of her mouth like a poisoned
But not this time. Especially not in front of her next-door neighbor
who had just come out onto his porch and was paying more attention
to her and Bilal Abdul-Salaam than the circulars crammed into his
mailbox. Besides, she had started the drama. Even more, she needed
the appraisal. He was number one on Eileen’s list; how long it would
take to get an appointment with number two? This man must be a
damn good appraiser, but he needed a client relations intervention—
quick, fast and in a hurry.
Sighing, Ayo gave in. “Okay, look; we’re both wasting time,
bickering outside in this heat.” And the sooner he got to work, the
sooner he could be out of her house and on his way to whatever cave
he called home. “Since we’ve solved the identity crisis and I’ve already
paid my deposit, let’s put an end to the verbal sparring so you can
earn your money!” Ayo gestured to the open door. Bilal’s jaw
clenched. She expected him to turn on his heel and stalk away without
a word. Instead, his gaze swept over her bare arms and the expanse of
skin exposed by the scoop at the top of her dress.
“Oh, good Lord,” Ayo groused to herself. “What’s next? A speech
on modesty? If I’d known the jihad squad was coming, I would have
answered the door in crotchless panties!”
A long low whistle snapped her out of a mental recitation of words
synonymous with Neanderthal. “Man…this is beautiful!” Next to him,
Ayo’s eyebrow raised. She gave a smug snort. The room had that effect
on first-time visitors. Against walls the color of pale butter, a marble
topped mahogany console held her collection of barware. A large
armoire with carved pineapple columns sat between two windows
hung with curtains of sheer white batiste. It was the smaller version of
rooms found in great houses of the eighteenth century Caribbean. This
room, in fact her entire home, paid homage to the skill of West Indian
“Beautiful,” he repeated, murmuring his praise in a late-night
“Quiet Storm” voice that made Ayo think of a rainy night in front of
a fire with a man like him. But as gorgeous as he was, he’d waste the
romantic opportunity to deliver a stern lecture on the sins of the flesh.
When he stopped in front of the gleaming teakwood table, Ayo
squashed that thought and replaced it with a fantasy of his hand on
her flesh, the same way Bilal’s long fingers stroked the dusky rose
Weller vases arrayed on the long gleaming table. Slowly, he circled,
paying the same loving attention to the Roseville Pottery, gleaming
cobalt blue stemware, and the butterfly perched on the shoulder of
bisque Piano Baby in mint condition. For the first time since his
arrival, the furrow between his brows disappeared. “You have some
lovely pieces here.” He looked up at Ayo and her breath hitched. It
was the smile—it transformed him from scowling to spectacular. This
time the heat that flushed her body had nothing to do with anger or
the weather and everything to do with the slow, sensuous movement
of his hand. Ayo willed away the sharp and unexpected attraction to
the man whose face she wanted to slap just seconds before.
“Thanks,” she murmured, lowering her eyes in case they beamed
her erotic thoughts straight out into the room. She gestured to the card
table that could hold his laptop and camera. “If you need anything
else, I’ll be in the kitchen. It’s through that door.” She pointed to the
golden mahogany door, painted from top to bottom with a graceful,
curving palm tree. The word “welcome” was etched above it in
stenciled script. His lush lips turned up into a smile. “Beautiful and
creative.” In spite of the heat, she welcomed the warmth that surged
through her body. Maybe I misjudged him.
Ninety minutes later, Ayo pushed away from the table, intending to
head for her home office. Instead, she stood rooted to the spot, unable
to tear her eyes away from the sight that greeted her. Bilal stood with
his back to the door. His long legs were spread apart. Dark gray fabric
cupped his sculptured butt like the palms of a lover. A roadmap of
veins stood out in the lean, muscular arms raised high over his head.
He arched his neck, and the luxurious locks fell like a curtain of velvet
around his broad shoulders. It was just a stretch, to work out kinks
that must have come from an hour and a half of bending,
photographing and cataloging, but from him it was an erotic, primal
celebration of masculinity. Ayo felt a sharp pull in her solar plexus,
and lower; the sweet tightening that a woman never forgets, no matter
how long the dry season has lasted. Baby, baby, baby! A play list of
suggestive song titles slid into her brain like a sexy slow drag. No
doubt this man did more with his body than sit at a desk, poring over
books on glassware and pottery. She slipped back into the kitchen,
glad that her bare feet made no sound. An involuntary, sensual smile
curved her lips. What a waste! A man so mouthwatering had no right
being a puritanical zealot.
Bilal pulled a paper towel from the roll stashed in his duffel bag,
swiping it across his forehead and inside the collar of the shirt that
stuck to his back like wet tissue. Shaking his head, he looked up at the
ceiling fan and over at the floor model in the corner. Every piece that
adorned the pale yellow walls and gleaming hardwood floors bore the
grace of Ayo Montgomery. Like its owner, the house was beautiful. But
today it was as hot and steamy as a sweat lodge! At least the final
picture of each piece and its markings had been taken. He placed the
digital camera and tripod back in the duffle bag, glad he could
complete the rest of his valuation in the cool comfort of his air
conditioned home. Bilal stood and stretched again. Right now what he
needed was a tall glass of cold ice water.
When he knocked on the half-opened decorative door, Ayo
Montgomery twisted around.
“Oh! You surprised me, Mr. Abdul-Salaam. Can I help you?” She
stood quickly, tugging at her dress with one hand and pressing the
other against the skin at the base of her throat. Bilal’s head jerked up.
He fixed a stare on the green and yellow stripes on the kitchen
curtains; anything but the bare skin of the woman in front of him.
“May I have a glass of water, please?”
Her expression changed from surprise to chagrin. “Oh, I’m so sorry!
I know it’s boiling in here. I should have brought you something to
drink a long time ago. Every air conditioning repairman in the city
must be on call. I guess that’s why I can’t get one of them to show up
here.” When she smiled, he noticed a dimple that ended just below the
constellation of three tiny moles on her right cheek.
While she filled a glass with crushed ice and water from the door of
the refrigerator, Bilal looked around the room. In the bright yellow
kitchen, a blend of aromas wound around one another. The sharp,
tangy scents of pineapple and lemon were laced with coconut and
softened by another fragrance with a similar, richer scent. Through a
window over the sink, the green length of a luxuriant back yard was
visible. Although the high heat of summer had driven most of the
blooms into hiding, the graceful weeping willow, ornamental grass
and wildflowers made the garden an urban oasis.
“Here you are. This should bring you back to life.” Without its
earlier sharp bite of anger, her voice spread over him like cook silk.
When she offered him the cold, sweating glass, Ayo Montgomery was
close enough for him to breathe the clean, orange-blossom scent of her
hair. He stood frozen like a display window mannequin.
“Mr. Abdul-Salaam?” she repeated, holding the glass out further.
“Oh, sorry,” she exclaimed, plucking a green-bordered cloth napkin
from the table and wrapping it around the damp surface. Her fingers
brushed his hand. Bilal flinched and stepped back, as if the cool drink
had suddenly transformed itself into a hot poker.
Ayo blinked. A fleeting glimpse of confusion crossed her face before
it morphed into a mask of controlled anger. She banged the glass
down, sloshing icy water over the striped table cloth. “You know
what? You Taliban wanna-be’s piss me off, trying to prove you’re more
Muslim than the Grand Ayatollah himself! I touched your hand, Mr.
Abdul-Salaam; I didn’t grab your crotch!”
Bilal’s eyes flashed a stormy dark brown. A muscle twitched in his
clenched jaw. His voice was cold as the slushy liquid he didn’t get to
drink. “Well check this out, Mrs. Montgomery—I wouldn’t let you
close enough to grab my crotch! First you treat me like I’m a home
invader; make me work in that sauna without a drop of water, and
now this? You’re just like those other Bible-beating Crusaders—instant
experts on Islam after hearing a five-second sound bite by a gang of
know-nothings. You have no idea of what you’re talking about, but
I’m not surprised!”
Ayo spun around and turned her back, tossing the last words over
her shoulder. “Here’s what I do know—if you weren’t finished in
there, you are now! Don’t bother to come back with your report. Mail
it along with your bill. And you can see yourself out!”