A pivotal year awaits Bless, a young woman who hides her passion: her music. She's not exactly friends with T'meal, a talented athlete who won't explain why he's passed up the chance of a lifetime. Nor is Bless too close to Lamall, a boisterous playboy with a broken private life that's spiraling out of control.
But Bless knows she's meant to help these two young men. She can't deny the Voice that told her so.
A coming of age story of compassion, the awakening of love, and knowing when it's time to step out of the shadows and shine.
Release date: February 2, 2017
Print pages: 478
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Nadine C. Keels
Bless scanned her eyes over the elaborate chocolate cake inside of the box. “Looks good. I got my money’s worth. You want me to order the pizzas before Dae’s clique gets here?” she asked, closing the bakery box. She grabbed the small binder full of numbers that sat by the kitchen telephone.
Treata was taking a practically empty carton of milk out of the refrigerator. “Who left this teeny-weeny bit of milk in here? Hardly enough to dip a doughnut hole in.” She twisted the cap off the carton, nodding her head. “Yeah, you can order the pizzas before the boys…”
There was no need for her to complete her thought, as she and Bless could hear two pairs of footsteps bounding up the stairs of the deck outside of the kitchen. An animated male voice entered the room through the French doors, which were still open. “Happy birthday, everybody!”
Treata looked over at the young man who strode into her kitchen first. She held up the milk carton. “Hey, Lamall, buddy. Are you the culprit who left this droplet of milk in my refrigerator?”
Lamall shook his head over the stack of wrapped gifts he was carrying in. “Naw, that wasn’t me, but you might wanna give me the rest of it. I’m pretty sure I drank straight out the carton yesterday.”
Bless laughed as she flipped open the binder of numbers, looking up to see the tall young man who was next to come into the kitchen. “Hey, T’meal,” she greeted him.
T’meal, who was also bringing in a little stack of gifts along with something in a plastic grocery bag, slightly lifted his chin up and down. “S’up…” he replied as both he and Lamall deposited the presents on the table. “Hi, Miz Treata.”
“Hi, T’meal. You guys are just in time.” Treata set the milk carton on the counter. “Bless was about to order the pizzas.”
“Oh, no, Miz Treata,” Lamall said as he settled himself into a chair at the table. “No need for anybody to order any pizza. I’ve decided to whip out some of your pots and pans and cook Daena a gourmet, multicourse birthday dinner from scratch today, all by myself.”
“Mm, yeah,” T’meal spoke up in a low voice. “Even though you can barely make toast or a bowl of cereal by yourself.”
Treata laughed. “You know, Lamall, you really will have to learn to cook sometime soon. The next four years will fly by. You guys will be finished with college and out on your own before you know it.”
“Oh, so, okay,” Lamall loudly admitted, “maybe I’m the only person around here who might let plain water come out burnt, but it’s all good. I’ve still got you and Dae and Bless and my mom to cook my meals. And Miz Rachel, too. Ain’t that right, T’meal?”
T’meal responded by reaching out and slapping the back of Lamall’s bald head.
“’Ey, boy,” Lamall snickered, belatedly ducking.
“All right, you guys, let’s behave,” Treata bid the two of them as she came over to get her purse. “I know you’ve memorized the numbers for most of the major restaurants around town, Lamall, so why don’t you call for the pizzas yourself? Then you won’t have to go through the trouble of whipping out any pots or pans,” she said with a smile as she headed for the hallway.
Bless shoved aside the binder of numbers and suppressed a giggle as her mother left the room. Yeah, and the rest of us won’t have to go through the trouble of trying to eat his burnt water.
Lamall fiddled with the bags sitting in the chair next to him. “’Ey, Miz Treata?” he called. “I’ll make you a deal, okay? If you show me how to make toast and stuff, I’ll show you how to take a gift out of a shopping bag and wrap it up properly before givin’ it to your kid. How’s that sound?”
“I took the price tags off,” Treata’s voice came from down the hallway. “That’s good enough,” she said, and her bedroom door shut.
Lamall dug into one of the bags. “Oh yeah, Miz Treata. No need for price tags. It’ll be much easier for Daena to look the prices up on this handy little receipt you left here,” he laughed, flapping the related slip of paper in the air before dropping it back in the bag. He got up from the table and moved over to one of the kitchen cupboards, giving Bless a wave. He called to her, as if she wasn’t standing only a few feet away from him, “Whaddup, Bless? How’s my favorite person in the world doin’ today?”
Bless smiled at him. “I guess I’ll be all right, if you don’t bust my eardrums.” She peered toward the top of Lamall’s shirt, saying, “Wait, hold still,” and Lamall watched her reach to pluck a piece of loose thread from his collar. She straightened the collar with a light tug, glancing downward at Lamall’s large, dark jeans, which had intricate red stitching running all the way down the seam. “Are those little letters on your pants?”
“Hm? Oh.” Lamall blinked a few times and dragged his eyes from Bless’s face, looking down at his jeans. “Yup, they’re my initials, ‘L.L.P.’ going down the side. My dad had ’em made for me.” Bless tried to recall Lamall’s middle name as he opened the cupboard and took out a box of individually wrapped cupcakes. He flipped the box upside-down, letting the three cupcakes inside tumble out onto the counter.
“Lamall? Won’t that spoil your dinner?” Bless asked as Lamall crushed the empty cupcake box with his fist.
“Nope, I don’t believe in that. My philosophy’s always been, if you’re hungry, you’re hungry, and dinner’s never spoiled unless it’s charred beyond recognition or somebody sneezed on it.”
“Well,” Bless laughed, “you at least better save room for Daena’s cake, pal. I paid good money for it.”
Glancing at the bakery box in front of him, Lamall grinned. “Oh, yeah. Daena’s cake.” He took one of the cupcakes from the counter and put it back on a shelf by itself, then closed the cupboard, snatching up the remaining two cupcakes with one hand. “Where’s the birthday girl at, anyway?”
Still laughing, Bless indicated the door of the stairwell on one side of the kitchen. “Downstairs. She’s on the phone with Will.”
“Oh.” A scornful smirk came over Lamall’s face. “Shoulda figured. On the phone with Mr. Mundane, like always. I still don’t see how Daena’s been able to put up with that cat all these years. He reminds me of those formula videos we had to watch back in chemistry class. I get bored just lookin’ at him.”
Bless shook her head. “Oh please. Don’t you ever get tired of your Will-bashing?”
“Hey, I never mean to bash good ol’ Will. I’m just sayin’ that the millions of insomnia sufferers in this country would only have to peek at a snapshot of that guy, and they’d be out cold all night. But, then again…” With his free hand, Lamall touched one of the two, glistening gold chains lying around his neck and then smoothed his palm over his chest. “I guess not every man on earth can manage so much charisma, strength, and, well, pure soul,” he regretfully mused, ending on a snicker. “But, oh well. I guess some of us are born with it, and other guys are just born. Know what I’m say—?”
Lamall’s gloating was abruptly cut off by another resounding slap on the back of his head.
“Ow!” His hand flew up to his scalp as he turned to scowl at T’meal. “Look, boy, you better quit playin’ with me. You must’ve forgot who I am,” he complained, but T’meal had turned around to close one of the deck doors, apparently not listening.
“Anyway,” Lamall went on, rubbing at his head, “my stomach’s startin’ to make wacky noises. I may as well go break up the lovebirds’ monopoly on the phone so I can order my pizzas.” He scooted closer to Bless, catching most of her hair beneath his arm when he took hold of her shoulders. “I know you know I’d do anything to save you from Daena’s kind of fate, Bless. Any dude that wants to get to you will have to get through me. You do remember the tests your prospective boyfriends will have to pass, don’t you?”
“Aw, Lamall,” Bless groaned, reaching up to free her hair from his arm. “This again?”
“Of course ‘this.’ Somebody’s gotta look out for you. What’re the tests?”
Knowing that Lamall would not drop the subject until she cooperated, Bless relented, though her words were barely enunciated through a second groan. “Brains test, personality test, driving test.”
“Right, but don’t forget the fourth one. Cash test. I won’t have some broke-as-a-joke dope pullin’ up here in a rusty clunker with squeaky brakes, tryin’ to woo you with a bouquet of dandelions he picked out the dirt behind his shack. You deserve nothing less than the finest.” Lamall inspected Bless’s gaze, but seeing that the smile in her eyes was merely indulgent, he held back further comment, giving Bless’s shoulders a squeeze. He let go of her, stepping toward the stairwell, but then he spun around to grab the milk from the counter. “Did I save this little sip in the carton?” he asked himself aloud as he headed down the stairs with the milk and his cupcakes.
Once he was about halfway down the steps, Bless called after him, “Aren’t you even going to ask what toppings I want on one of those pizzas?”
“Ah, not to worry, my little buttercup,” Lamall called back without stopping, “I know which toppings will bring a song to your heart, a tingle to your taste buds.” His next words came up the stairwell after he disappeared. “I just know you that way.”
Bless almost giggled, but didn’t. “Well. All righty,” she said under her breath, stopping herself from calling down the stairs again. Lamall, please don’t go and hang the phone up on Will today, okay? Be nice. She looked over at T’meal, who was veering sideways from a fly that had come buzzing near one of the two, small, silver loops he wore in his ears. T’meal waved a hand past his ear, succeeding in getting the insect to buzz off outside.
“Must’ve liked the smell of my hair gel,” he said as he closed the door, giving one more perfunctory wave near the dense, black curls on his head.
“Oh,” Bless replied. She watched T’meal move to take a carton of ice cream out of the grocery bag he’d brought in, and as he walked over to the freezer, Bless asked him, “What kind is it?”
T’meal looked down at the carton. “Strawberry cheesecake. Dae’s request was specific. What kind of cake is that?” He indicated the bakery box on the counter while he put the ice cream away.
“German chocolate, at Dae’s request.” Bless wrinkled her nose, smiling. “You’d think she could at least ask for flavors that go better together.”
T’meal shrugged. “That’s Daena for you.” He propped himself against the refrigerator door. Since he only stood there, Bless opened her mouth to speak. She didn’t say anything, so T’meal prompted her. “What is it?”
Bless picked her glass up from the counter. “I was going to get some more juice.”
“Oh,” T’meal said, but instead of moving out of Bless’s way, he extended his hand to ease the glass from her. She instantly surrendered it so that their fingers wouldn’t brush.
He opened the refrigerator, locating a bottle of orangepineapple-banana juice. “This?”
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