The hair on the back of my neck bristled when I realized the conversation no longer involved just Rick and me.
“I’ve been working as a dancer,” I answered as calmly as I could over my thumping heart.
“Really?” Mrs. Gardner asked with a sparkle of interest in her eyes. “When I was young I always wanted to dance professionally, but my parents wouldn’t allow it. What type of dance–ballet, modern, stage?”
Just as I opened my mouth to respond, Rick spoke up. “Exotic. That’s how we met.” He clutched my hand under the table and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Mrs. Gardner inhaled sharply and the blood siphoned from her face. Royce and Veronica’s shocked gazes met across the table. In an instant, the frivolity that had filled the room earlier disappeared and the room became a silent, airless vacuum. Mrs. Gardner’s long, dramatic hesitation held everyone at the table in suspended animation with their eyes glued on her face. No one made a sound. She cleared her throat and glared at me. “How long have you been doing that?” She spoke as if the words had a horrible, bitter taste.
“For about eight months. I only took the job because it was the quickest way I could find to raise the money I need to start my business after I graduate from school.” My voice was shakier than I would have liked.
“She wants to open a store that sells handmade jewelry, home décor and specialty items,” Rick jumped in before his mother had a chance to ask if I planned to sell vibrators and edible body jelly. “She has a real eye for those things.”
Silence lingered as none of the family wanted to acknowledge the big, honking elephant in the room. Her loathsome expression at my frail attempt to explain only made me forge ahead despite the acid churning in my stomach and rising into my throat. “I dance at a bikini club. There’s no actual stripping going on.” Like that would make a difference to her.
“You’re in school? Where do you go?” Lisette asked cheerfully, obviously sensing my discomfort and trying to change the direction of the conversation.
“Georgia State. I’ll graduate with a B.A. in business with a focus on entrepreneurship this May.”
“That’s a four-year program, right?” Lisette encouraged me to continue, only I doubted the rest of the family even heard her.
“Yes. It’s been a long haul.” My gaze locked with Mrs. Gardner’s. “But it’s almost over. The SBA has been helping–”
“Please excuse me.” Rick’s mother shot to her feet. She gripped the end of the table, her body shaking as if she’d stepped out of the shower into a frigid breeze. “I’m no longer hungry. Finish your breakfast.” She rushed from the room with Veronica right behind her.
If the ground had opened up and swallowed me at that moment, I would’ve rejoiced. No such luck.
Mr. Gardner glared at his son then rose and went after his wife and daughter.
Rick blew out a heavy sigh.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming, Ricky?” Lisette said, sounding a bit incredulous.
“I’d imagined it going differently,” he said, still holding my hand under the table. “I thought …”
“What did you think, Warrick?” Gram finally spoke. “Tamyra, I don’t mean anything against you. You’re a lovely girl, but he should have mentioned this to his mom and dad earlier.”
Rick shook his head. “I didn’t tell them, because I wanted them to meet Tamy without any preconceived notions. Was that so wrong?”
“Your motives were right, only you went about it the wrong way,” Gram said. “Your mother is clearly upset. Go check on her.”
Rick put an arm around my shoulders and rested his forehead against mine. “Will you be okay for a few minutes while I talk to my parents?”
“Shouldn’t I go with you?” I asked, unsure of whether I should even ask.
“No. Let me do this.” He caressed my cheek then left me with a room full of people whose opinion of me I could no longer determine.