Read Let It Shine Online

Authors: Alyssa Cole

Tags: #civil rights, #interracial romance, #historical romance

Let It Shine (8 page)

That kind of shame was an albatross. He’d borne its weight for so long—becoming bigger, stronger, and harder to injure had lightened his load but not removed it.

If he really thought about it, it was that shame that had driven him to the nonviolent resister meetings. He knew that he could stop a man with his sledgehammer fists and his hard left hook. But Jack had been wrong when he said throwing punches was Ivan’s favorite thing; there was something redemptive about taking a punch that he couldn’t explain, and to be able to do so for the greater good…

He was shadowboxing in his room when he heard the door open and his father return. His fists dropped to his sides as he heard his father’s shuffling steps. Each one sounded like it only occurred through some extraordinary act of willpower, and through his anger Ivan reminded himself that he wasn’t the only one who carried an invisible burden.

He walked down into the kitchen and saw his father standing in front of the sink, where water ran into an overflowing cup as he stared through the window. Mr. Friedman turned his head, as if he hadn’t noticed his son walk into the room. “Ivan.” He paused, his features hardening from soft and sad to defensive.

“What happened earlier today was a
shandeh un a charpeh
,” Ivan said. The Yiddish wasn’t usually the first thing his brain went to, but he didn’t know the words in English that could convey his disappointment in his father.

“Yes,” his father said. He put the glass down without drinking it. “It was shameful and disgraceful to be engaging in relations with that girl out in the open like a man with no sense of morality.”

“Oh please, Pop,” Ivan said. “If it had been Libby Weinberger out there with me, you wouldn’t have been so quick to judge.”

“First the boxing, now taking up with these rabble-rousers. You’re not a schvartze—why don’t you let these people fight their own battles? Do you think they would’ve help us if the Nazis had made it to these shores?” Mr. Friedman rubbed at his brow. “When you were a boy you said that all you wanted to do was become a scholar, but then everything changed. Sometimes I wish we had never come to this place. Maybe it’s being here that makes you such a disobedient son.”

Ivan wished his father’s words didn’t have the ability to cut through him like a sharpened stone. He wanted to turn away from the anger and confusion he saw in his father’s eyes, but he was a man now and would face this as a man would.

“You want a scholar? Chew on this: whether a person is gentile or Jew, they’re entitled to
Kavod HaBriyot
—human dignity. Millions of people are being denied their dignity right now, and if I can do something to help change that, I will.”

“What do you want? That I should be happy that you’ll risk your life for the same people who come into my shop and call me a cheap Jew to my face?”

“Yes!” Ivan said. “People shouldn’t have to be perfect to be seen as worthy of empathy.”

His father stared at him, then shook his head. “I don’t understand you. I don’t understand anything anymore. I’m going to go talk to Rabbi Hirschman.”

“Good. Make sure you ask him what he thinks of you being a bigot.”

His father flinched and Ivan knew he had gone too far.

“Pop—”

The door slammed shut.

Ivan dragged himself up to his room, but he felt even more like a stranger in his own home than usual. He didn’t know what had just happened between him and his father, but he felt like he’d just gone ten rounds only to be awarded a draw. He felt alone, and he knew there was only one way he wouldn’t.

He picked up the phone beside his bed and dialed. When Sofie’s voice came through, he smiled, in spite of everything.

“Hey. It’s me. Did David and Henrietta get home okay?” he asked.

“Yes, they did. One of their friends was driving by and pulled them into the car.” Her voice was stiff, and for a moment he thought she was angry with him. That thought hurt him far more than it should have, but when she remained on the line instead of hanging up, he realized she wasn’t alone.

“Did things go okay with your father?” he asked.

“No.” That was all she would give him. Her polite distance was making him miss her more than if he hadn’t called.

He leaned back into his pillow. “I know this is probably crazy, given everything that happened today, but I can’t stop thinking about that kiss. I think it was probably the best kiss I’ve ever had in my life.”

There was a long pause, then he heard her breath shake on an exhale. That one little sound went through him like a static shock.

“Well, I don’t have much experience in such matters, but…I feel the same way.”

Those words eased past all of the ugliness of his encounter with his father, past the fear that had pumped through him when he thought Sofie might get hurt by the crowd.

“Sofie.” He wasn’t one for emotional displays, but it seemed that every minute that went by without him revealing how he felt was a moment lost. “I know you have lots more important stuff to worry about, but I’d like to take you out. I understand if you say no, but I can’t stop thinking about you. I never have, if I’m being perfectly honest.”

He thought about all the times over the years he’d seen someone who looked like her. A sudden hope would pound a ridiculous beat in his veins at the possibility…of what? It wouldn’t be a second chance, really, but an opportunity to see what could happen.

He heard footsteps; the click of her heels on wood floor. Ivan held his breath, waiting for her to reject him. Their kiss had been amazing, but why would a woman like Sofie want anything to do with him?

“You know of someplace that we can go without starting a riot?” Her voice was quiet, like she was trying not to be overheard. Still, the playfulness in the tone of her serious question buoyed him.

“I have an idea,” he said. “You free before church?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll pick you up at eight, then.”

“Make it seven,” she said. “Bye.”

Ivan sat staring at the phone. Maybe he was crazy, but he was pretty sure she’d agreed to a date.

Chapter 10

Sofie slipped through the doorway and out into the cool breeze of the Sunday morning dawn. She’d left a note for her father, and she prayed that the early hour she’d chosen meant that neither he nor her neighbors would see her slip into the Buick as it pulled in front of her house. She was dressed in her favorite outfit, a brown pencil skirt she’d spent hours sewing but never worn outside her room paired with an ivory shell. The little ruffles down the front of the shirt were both girlish and a hint at her feminine curves, so she offset it with a beige cardigan lest anyone else at church think her a hussy. After the way Ivan had made her feel, she was thinking maybe being a hussy wasn’t such a bad thing.

“Hey,” she said, nerves jangling as she settled into the seat and Ivan pulled away, taking them to some unknown destination. The smell of coffee and eggs wafted from the back of the car, making her stomach rumble.

“Hey,” he said. The tight awkwardness of her greeting was contrasted by the smoothness of his deep voice. “I picked up breakfast for us. Milkshakes are apparently a great hair conditioner, but I decided I’d rather have food in me than on me today.”

She laughed, even though it was a crazy thing to laugh about. They could have been killed the day before. Maybe she laughed because they hadn’t been.

“Where are we going?” she asked. She wasn’t afraid, at least not of Ivan.

“There’s only one place I could think of where we could hang out without worrying too much,” he said with a shrug. “It’s only slightly better than the dumpsters from yesterday, so I understand if you don’t want to stay.”

He pulled up in front of a small brick building adorned with a sign that read “Jack’s Brick House.” A peeling painting of boxing gloves hung from the door, and junk that looked like castoffs from a mail-order fitness regimen littered the side of the building.

“I see what you mean by ‘slightly,’ but I’m guessing this is better than getting chased down Franklin Street.”

She stepped out onto the cracked pavement, walking on tiptoe so her ivory pumps didn’t get caught in any cracks. Ivan knelt and rummaged under a tire that was strewn in the grass, producing a key he then used to open the door.

“Are you supposed to be here?” Sofie asked. “I’m fine with breaking the law for a good cause, but a quiet breakfast isn’t one of.”

“Jack knows I come here when I need alone time.” Ivan walked in, and she followed behind him. The enticing smell of breakfast was replaced by the smell of old sweat and leather, a combination that wasn’t as bad as she’d imagined.

“Is this where you bring all the girls who are too dark to share a pop with at the five and dime?” Sofie asked as she sat in the folding chair Ivan directed her toward. She didn’t mean for it to come out sounding like that—annoyed and accusatory—but she was risking a lot by trusting him enough to blindly follow him into the morning. If she was just another conquest, she deserved to know.

He dropped into the seat next to her and had the nerve to grin. “Would it make you jealous if I said yes?” he asked, handing her a warm paper cup of coffee. When she quirked a brow, he shook his head. “This gym is like my place of worship. I’ve been coming here since I was twelve, and I've probably spent more time here than anywhere else. If I bring a woman here, black or white, it’s serious.” He took a sip of coffee and pinned her with that intense gaze. “You’re the first.”

Sofie ignored the deeper meaning of his words and the way she wanted them to be true. But they couldn’t be true, could they? “Ivan, there are a pair of crusty gym socks under my seat. This hardly rates as a first date, let alone a serious one.”

For the first time since they’d reconnected, he pulled his gaze away from her in embarrassment. Regret stabbed at her that she’d been the one to make him feel foolish—she knew well enough what that felt like.

She fiddled with the edge of her coffee cup. “I didn’t mean that. I’m glad to be here, crusty socks and all. Just…don’t you think you’re moving too fast?”

Ivan gave a short laugh and shook his head. “Let me give you a tour of the place.” He was his usual playful and flirtatious self as he showed her around, even though Sofie could tell something was on his mind. He pointed out awards he and other boxers at the gym had won, showed her pictures of him sweaty and bloodied after victories. It was one thing to know Ivan was a fighter, but to see it…

He even moved differently in the gym, like a predator that struts through its own territory and knows no fear. And he had reason for his pride. He walked her through his daily workout, and when he gave a brief demonstration of how to use the heavy bag, Sofie felt warmth that had nothing to do with the coffee she gulped rush through her body.

“Your…stamina is impressive,” she said.

He grinned at her, and Sofie wondered just how it was possible for a man’s mouth to be so enticing.

“I’ve been training since I was twelve, Sof. I’m the reigning champ for the region, so yeah, I’ve got good stamina.” For a moment she wondered what had driven him to this violent sport, and then it clicked. Ivan had been weak, and now he was strong. That horrible moment from their past hadn’t only affected her, it seemed. She wondered if he thought about that day as often as she did, but she refused to ruin the morning with that sadness.

“Reigning champ? You should really mention these things earlier when you’re trying to get a girl to go steady with you,” she teased.

He walked toward the ring and mounted the raised platform with ease. Once inside, he struck a Mr. Universe pose. “Well, I’m defending the title next weekend, if you want to see me fight.”

The thought both thrilled and frightened her. What would it mean if she said yes? Would it mean she was his girl? How would people react if when he looked out into the crowd, it was her that he gazed at with affection? Sofie found she didn’t care as much as she should have. For the moment, they were alone and Ivan was waiting for her, hand outstretched.

“Want to see what it’s like from the inside?”

She’d thought she would be turned off by the smell and the boys’ club atmosphere of the place, but she had to admit it was exciting, not least because she was alone with Ivan. She stepped out of her shoes and took his hand, giving a yip as he pulled her up and into the ring without even mussing her clothing.

“Wow,” she said as she walked across the taut canvas. She bounced a bit, testing its give, and threw a few playful jabs his way. “You must feel like a king when you’re in here with people cheering for you.”

His eyes tracked her as she moved, like she was quarry that he didn’t plan on letting escape.

“It has its perks,” he said, walking toward her. She moved backward in response, following the moves of some pre-scripted dance between them. She didn’t think Ivan walked toward his opponents like this as he backed them up against the ropes.

“Tell me something, Sofie.” The tone of his voice made her breath catch. It was deeper, more sultry, and he knew exactly how to wield it. “Yesterday you told me that you were the one who convinced David and Henrietta to do that sit-in. You were the one who decided it was the right time to act. How long did it take you to come to that decision?”

Sofie felt like an animal that sees the snare tightening right before its capture. That feeling should have frightened her, but that wasn’t why her heart was racing. “It just…happened. I just knew it was the right thing to do, and I trusted what I was feeling. For the first time in forever, I didn’t second-guess myself or think of the proper thing to do.”

Ivan moved closer. Her gaze was locked with his, but she felt the rope along her back vibrate as he grabbed it on either side of her.

“You’re telling me that you rushed into a situation that could have gotten you kicked out of school, left you with a permanent record, or killed you, all based on a feeling?” His words were liquid insinuation. When she nodded, he tugged at the rope, bouncing her closer to him.

“I guess you could say rushing things isn’t always such a bad idea then, huh?” He leaned down and kissed her, and again she felt the touch of his mouth in every part of her body. Her hands flattened over the hard muscles of his chest, and she felt his pecs jump as her palms made contact, like she was electrifying him.

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