“You all right, baby?”
Zaire stilled her hands. She’d fussed over the kinara at the reception desk for what seemed like an eternity, all in an effort to avoid Ainsley.
She turned slowly to face her mother, hoping she could conceal all the hurt and anger she’d tried to contain since this morning’s blowout in the diner.
“Sure, why do you ask?”
“Because you and Ainsley have barely stood on the same side of the room since he arrived at the party. I understand why you’re upset with him. But even you have to admit he only reached out to his mother because he cares about you and he wants to help.”
Her mother wasn’t wrong, but if you gave Ainsley an inch, he’d take the next one hundred miles and ask for more.
She exhaled in an exhausted huff, too emotionally worn-out to fight her mother and Ainsley too. “If you want me to accept the offer, I will. But that won’t change anything between Ainsley and me, not after the way he disregarded my feelings like this.”
Her mother placed warm hands on the sides of Zaire’s face, swiping gentle thumbs across the apples of her cheeks. “Is the money tempting? Yes. If you were okay with it, I’d take it in a heartbeat. But you’re my daughter and I love you. If this isn’t what you want to do, I respect you enough to stand beside you. I just wish you and Ainsley would find some way to work things out between you. I’m sorry the clinic ended up coming between you.”
She smiled the first real smile she’d been able to muster since that debacle this morning. Like always, her mother’s voice and touch always made things better. If only Orisha’s love could magically fix her problems with Ainsley too.
“Mama, this isn’t the clinic’s fault. It’s Ainsley’s. It was just one more thing to show me that I don’t belong in his world. He didn’t seek me out as a peer, as someone on his level, he decided to rescue me because I couldn’t possibly know what’s best for me. It’s just one more instance where he shows me his work, his family, his judgment are all better than mine.”
Despite all the taunting and mistreatment she’d taken from both her colleagues and superiors from medical school to now, Zaire had never felt smaller and more insignificant than when Ainsley had dismissed her request to not involve his mother in her family’s financial affairs.
Orisha was about to respond when Zaire held up a finger. “I think it’s time we officially get this party started.”
She turned around to glance at the small crowd gathered in the reception area, smiling at the warmth that surrounded her whenever she was at home with her people.
“If I could have everyone’s attention for a moment.” The attendees paused in their conversations and turned in her direction. “Thank you for celebrating Karamu with us. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term, Karamu is the Swahili word for ‘the feast.’ This feast, as should every other day of Kwanzaa, serves to remind us to take care of our community, our families and ourselves. It reminds us we are not alone, and only through cooperation and support can we find the enlightenment and success we seek.
“When my parents started this clinic, it was to serve the community that had birthed them. I didn’t always get that then, but now, I understand that when you’re from a place like East New York, sometimes the only people we can depend on to take care of us are ourselves.”
Her eyes scanned the crowd and landed on Ainsley long enough to watch him flinch. Was that a low blow on her part? Absolutely. It didn’t make it any less true, though.
“Thank you for letting us be a part of this community. For as long as we can, we promise to do our best to take care of East New York. Now, before I get too sappy and sentimental, I’ll ask that the esteemed Reverend Dr. David K. Brawley, pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church, to bless this feast so we can eat.”
The room grew silent as the clergyman lead them in an exuberant prayer of thanksgiving. When he was done, people began to line up at the makeshift buffet against the wall where the staff—and Ainsley—took their stations and served the food.
As Zaire’s gaze scanned the room, she saw Jamila Clay walk over to Ainsley, whispering something in his ear before she locked gazes with Zaire then headed across the room to stand in front of her. “Zaire, I was hoping we could get a chance to talk tonight. I leave in the morning and there are some important things I wanted to share with you before I head back to San Francisco.”
Zaire nodded and Jamila continued. “My son really screwed things up.” The woman’s admission did nothing to soothe Zaire’s broken heart.. “But if you don’t hear me out, you’ll be the one at fault, Zaire.”
With a dramatic statement like that, Jamila Clay had all of Zaire’s attention.
“Zaire led her former future mother-in-law to her office in the back.
“Mama Clay,” Zaire began slowly. “I know you want to see me and Ainsley together, but we can’t. My place is here at this clinic, for however long it remains open.”
“Because you’re too good to take Clay money?”
Zaire’s mouth dropped open as she tried to make sure she was hearing Jamila correctly.
“You know it has nothing to do with that. You’re a woman in medicine, the highest position in the hospital, to be precise. You can’t tell me you didn’t have to worry about your reputation to be taken seriously in your role.”
Jamila smiled at her. “Of course I did. I told you, my son was wrong for going behind your back and asking me to bail you out. I understand completely why you were upset about that. But what puzzles me is why you didn’t come to me yourself. You know you should have. But you didn’t because your pride wouldn’t let you. You needed to do it on your own.”
“You did it on your own.”
Jamila gave her a wide grin that said, Little girl, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.
Jamila sat down on the small love seat at one end of the office and patted the cushion next to her. Zaire sat and waited for the older woman to enlighten her as to what she was missing.
“Did you know I was born and raised in Compton? We were not rich, and even though my parents worked to take care of us, they weren’t able to send me to college. I worked two full-time jobs while doing my undergrad. I wanted to go to med school directly after, but I didn’t have the money. I was so desperate, I was ready to take a year off and take on a third job so I could earn enough for my tuition. Eric and I were newly married, and even though he wanted to go to his parents and ask them for the money, I forbade him. I would do it on my own.”
Zaire sat fascinated by Jamila’s story. Ainsley hadn’t shared any of it with her during their time together. Jamila was so refined; Zaire just assumed she’d come from a blue blood family just like the Clays.
“I didn’t want the Clays to think ill of me because I came from humble beginnings. I didn’t want to be thought of as less than.”
“You obviously found a way.” Zaire’s observation was met with another patronizing smile.
“Yes, I did. But not because I worked myself to death according to my original plan. My father-in-law, who’d always encouraged me to go to medical school, showed up on my door and told me he wasn’t going to let my stubborn pride rob the world of the doctor I was destined to be. He also told me this idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps was a lie the wealthy peddled to the poor to keep them from ever raising their station in life. Rich people used their money and influence all the time to create better situations for their children, and if I was going to be a Clay, I’d better damn well take advantage of the hard work he and my mother-in-law had done to make a better way for Eric and me.”
“You took the money from him?”
“Yes, I did. And instead of working myself to death while trying to get through med school, I was able to focus on studying and becoming the best doctor I could be.”
Jamila leaned in closer with a conspiratorial smile on her face as her gaze met Zaire’s.
“I’m going to tell you the same thing my father-in-law said to me. There’s no way I’m going to watch all you and your family have worked for disappear. And I have a proposal that I think even your stubborn pride won’t scoff at.”
Zaire’s attention was momentarily pulled away by the volume of the music and the happy voices of the people in the reception area, highlighting all this community stood to lose if the clinic folded. She wanted to be mad, to sulk like a petulant child. But listening to this smart woman whose career inspired her own, she knew she couldn’t be angry.
“What do you have in mind?”
“Orisha gave me a tour earlier and I’m pretty impressed at what she’s been able to do here with so few resources. UCSF has satellite facilities we partner with all over the country. I think this clinic is perfect for that program. We’d finance the clinic, and in exchange, you’d help us start a residency program here in East New York. It would be a lot of work and your mother wouldn’t be able to do it on her own. I’d want you to head it up.”
Surprised Jamila would suggest something that would keep Zaire and Ainsley apart, she watched her cautiously.
“What about Ainsley?”
“What about him?” Ainsley’s deep voice traveled across the room, drawing Zaire’s gaze.
He filled the door, and her heart fluttered more than she cared to admit as she stared at him. He was gorgeous, as always, but the solemn shadows cast over his face tugged at her heart.
“Your mother suggested making the clinic a UCSF satellite. In exchange for funding, we’d create a residency program here.”
Ainsley’s face lit up like he’d finally figured out the answer to an enigma. “You’re brilliant, Mother. Why didn’t I think to ask you to do that instead of a bailout?”
“Because I’m top doc at the hospital. The big picture is sort of my thing. Today is Kuumba, after all.”
Ainsley’s eyes turned to slits as he stared at his mother.
“It’s the sixth principle of Kwanzaa, darling. It means to creatively come up with ways to leave Black communities better than we found them. That’s all I’m doing.”
“I know what it means, Mother. Zaire and Orisha have given me a pretty thorough Kwanzaa education in the time I’ve been here. I just didn’t realize you knew anything about the holiday.”
She shrugged, waving a dismissive hand in the air. “It’s always safe to assume I know everything, dear. I would’ve thought you’d have learned that lesson already.”
Jamila returned her attention to Zaire and covered her hand with a warm one of her own.
“Can you live with this proposal, dear?”
“Thank you for this.” Zaire spoke on a whisper. In one move, this magnificent woman had lifted her burdens and made her feel like she belonged. “As grateful as I am for this opportunity, I do have two conditions.”
A slick smile spread across Jamila’s face. “What’s your ask?”
“The clinic is renamed the Walter Paige Memorial Center at UCSF.”
Jamila nodded. “I’d be happy to. Your father certainly deserves that honor. What’s the second?”
Zaire turned her gaze to Ainsley, who was still standing at the door. When their eyes met, she could see so many unspoken questions in his eyes. “If he’s willing to give up his cushy job as head of pediatrics, I’d like to have Ainsley help me spearhead this.” She stood up, holding her breath until she was in front of him, her hands instinctively reaching out to his. When their fingers finally touched, the emotional wall she’d been holding up all day broke.
“Would you be okay with that, Ainsley?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he looked over Zaire’s shoulder to his mother. “Mom, can you give us the room?”
His mother slipped out quietly, closing the door behind her and leaving them alone in a small office with so many feelings clogging up the air, making it thick and hard to inhale. He turned around briefly, locking the door to make sure they weren’t interrupted.
“Are you asking me to work with you because you think it will make my mother happy or because you really want me here? I promise you, I had nothing to do with this satellite offer. She came up with that all on her own. If you’d prefer I stay on at UCSF proper, it won’t affect your deal at all.”
“I’m asking you because besides either of our moms, you’re the best doctor I know. If this new residency program is going to be a success, I’m gonna need you.”
He closed his eyes before he spoke again, as if he were bracing himself against his own words. “Is that the only reason?”
She stepped into his arms, pulling them around her waist before sliding her fingers against the hard wall of his chest.
“No, it’s not.” Her voice was shaky as she tried to restrain all the feelings welling up inside her. “I’m still angry about what you did, Ainsley. You were wrong for going against my wishes and asking your mother for a bailout. But the truth is, if I’d trusted you with my family’s legacy the way you have trusted me with yours, we might have figured this thing out a long time ago. I was willing to let this clinic and this community suffer because of my pride. Because I didn’t want to feel inferior to you and your family. I won’t do that again. If you want the job, it’s yours.”
He opened his eyes, bringing his hand to her face and cupping her cheek. “You’re right. I did screw up. I was wrong. And I promise it will never happen again. We will make decisions together or not at all. But I have one more question. Will you just be my colleague or do I have a chance at winning your heart again?”
She turned into his palm, pressing her lips against it and letting her teeth nip at it as she pulled away.
“My heart was always yours, Ainsley. It was my head I had to get straight. Yes, I want to be your colleague. But more than anything, I want to be with you.”
He leaned down, bringing his lips to hers, pressing flesh against flesh, demanding she open to him.
She willingly relented, allowing his tongue to cross the barrier of her lips. She might not want Ainsley taking over her life or career, but she’d be a fool to resist the benefit of his control over her pleasure when they were so hungry and desperate for each.
He broke the kiss, and thank the ancestors he did. Her lungs burned, demanding she breathe, but she was too needy for his touch to worry about something as benign as feeding her cells oxygen.
“Imani,” he whispered, drawing her confused gaze. “It’s the seventh principle of Kwanzaa. If I googled correctly, it means to have faith in our people, in our community, in our struggle.” He pulled a familiar box from his pocket and opened it to reveal the beautiful diamond ring he’d presented her back in San Francisco. “I’m offering you this ring because I have complete faith in you. I believe with all my heart in the good we can do together. Do you have enough faith in me, in us, to accept it as it is given?”
She looked up at him, channeling all the certainty she could muster, refusing to get this wrong again.
“Ainsley, you frustrate me more than I can express sometimes. Nonetheless, I believe we’re unstoppable together. Nothing would please me more than becoming your wife.”
“Good, Zaire,” he beamed as he slipped the ring on her finger. “Because I love you.”
“I love you, too.” She excitedly replied. And no matter how much he got on her last nerve, she knew she always would.
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