Tempt Me excerpt: Natalie goes to Jamila's house
What better way to drive home the message that I was basically a child, far too young to be interesting to someone as brilliant and worldly as Jamila Jallow, than to roll up in my mother’s stodgy Benz in front of Jamila’s home in Menlo Park?
Because that’s exactly what I did.
I sat for a minute in the car. As I drove through the established neighborhood of midcentury bungalows, I’d thought it was another of Jackson’s practical jokes. Surely a billionaire like Jamila lived in a mansion. But when I pulled up to the address he’d given me, the clean lines of the gray house along with its black shutters, fresh white trim, Texas-yellow rosebushes bracketing the front-facing two-car garage, and the bold stylized J hanging on the violet door told me Jamila Jallow lived here.
Straightening the chain of my pink faux-fur Roger Vivier bag on my shoulder, I clacked up the driveway and the front walk in my pink gladiator-style heels and my dress from brunch and rang the bell.
I waited a full minute, long enough to doubt she’d come home after brunch. Had she gone to work? Or a bar? My sister Sam wasn’t a big drinker, but her fiancé told me that she sometimes needed a drink after spending time with our mother. I rang the bell again and examined the pot of blue-purple African daisies on the stoop. Not a single dead leaf was past its prime to mar their perfection.
“Hey!” A voice called from the neighboring porch. “You coming to see Jamila?”
I turned to face the petite woman in a tracksuit, her salt-and-pepper hair tied in a ponytail.
“Tell her to come over and pick a basket of avocados. And tell her to be sure to get the ones off the top branches. I can’t reach those.”
I blinked. “Yes, ma’am.”
She looked me up and down. “I suppose you can have some too.”
“Um…thank you?” Telma got our avocados from the market. Although I’d lived in California all my life, I’d never picked an avocado off an actual tree. Maybe I should consider a career in fruit picking. I’d tried everything else.
She harrumphed and went back inside her house.
A second later, I heard pounding, then scrabbling by the threshold. What was coming through the door? I took a step back.
When Jamila opened the door, all thoughts of fruit and trees fled my brain. Her feet were bare, showing toenails painted a shimmery amethyst. She wore black leggings under an oversized gray Jamilow T-shirt with the neck cut out. It hung off one shoulder, displaying the wide strap of a royal-blue sports bra. Her makeup was gone, and only a shadow of her purple lipstick remained. Sweat glistened at her hairline.
She held something in her hand, pressing it against her shirt. Something that…moved?
“What are you doing here? Is everything okay?” Her eyes widened. “Is Jackson okay? Your mom?”
“Yes, everyone’s fine.”
“Did I forget something at your house?”
“No, um…not that I know of. Sorry, I—can I come in?”
She glanced down at her bare feet and then back up. “Sure.”
As I stepped over the threshold, I remembered the messy bun I’d put my hair into while I’d been talking over PR strategy with my new consultant, Hannah. Quickly, I pulled the clip out of my hair, shook it out, and combed my fingers through it.
Jamila stared at me.
“What?” My cheeks heated. I’d forgotten to check my appearance before I got out of the car. Had my eyeliner smudged? I shoved the clip into my purse.
“No, you’re fine,” she said. She turned and led me from the small foyer into the living room. The ceilings were lower than I was used to, but huge windows overlooked meticulous landscaping and a small pool in the back. The open floor plan and minimal, low-slung furniture felt open and airy.
“Your home is beautiful,” I said.
“You’ve never been here before?”
When she didn’t offer to give me a tour—not that there could be much to see in such a small home—I settled onto the gray upholstered sofa, straightening my dress over my knees. Jamila took a seat on the curved loveseat across the coffee table.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to the hand she cupped against her shoulder.
Without hesitation, she unfurled her long arm toward me. Curled up on its back in her palm was a hamster. No, not a hamster. It was light brown with a dark snout. Sharp spines poked out of its brown back. “This is Quill. Short for Quill.i.am.” Her cheeks darkened. Was she blushing?
“It’s a hedgehog?”
“Yeah.” She stroked a finger between his eyes and onto his forehead. He seemed to smile in his sleep.
Despite my mother’s no-pet policy, my sister Sam’s dog, Bilbo Baggins, had his own spot under the table at family brunch. When I babysat for Jackson and Alicia, their cat, Tigger, usually made an appearance. I’d never known anyone with a pet hedgehog. The novelty must have been what made my brain slip a gear, so the most ridiculous question popped out of my mouth. “Does he sleep in your bed?”
“No. “He’s nocturnal. He has a habitat in the second bedroom.”
“Is that why he’s sleeping now?” His little pink feet stuck up from his fluffy, white belly. He was adorable. And a lot quieter than Bilbo.
“Um.” She looked down at him and stroked his forehead again. “No, he’s tired. When you rang the bell, we were—” She sat up straighter. “We were dancing.”
It was all I could do to keep my mouth from falling open in shock. “Dancing? Like on Dancing with the Stars?”
“I guess. If he’s the star, and if it’s always hip-hop night.”
I let my gaze wander from her glowing face to her bare shoulder. It reminded me of that old movie I’d watched with one of my nannies, Flashdance. “And only you wear the costumes.”
“We left his in the gym. The sequins make him itch.”
I widened my eyes. “Seriously?”
“Nah, I’m pulling your leg, baby.”