Bound To Fate (Bound Series, #1) by Kiru Taye

This is the first day of the rest of your life.

Lara Johnson chanted the words as she trudged down the stairs from her bedroom, her school bag slung across her shoulder. The phrase had been one her mother had taught her to use when the weight of her troubles threatened to crash down on her.
Bound To Fate (Bound Series, #1)
Bound To Fate (Bound Series, #1) by Kiru Taye
Hollowness in her chest reminded her that her world had ended three months previously. The familiar crashing and smashing sounds of the Tom and Jerry cartoon coming from the television drew her into the living room. Lola, her younger sister by two years, reclined on a cream upholstered sofa, her school bag abandoned on the carpeted floor at her feet. In her hands, she held her Blackberry and tapped away at the keyboard with her thumbs. She appeared as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Lara sometimes wondered how they could be related, because just as she proved to be an introvert, Lola was the opposite. The tap, tap of footsteps in the hallway had Lara reaching for the remote control to switch off the television. “Are you girls ready to go?” Judy called out. As their mother’s younger sister, she had become their guardian after their parents died in a car crash. “Yes, Aunty,” Lara replied. “Come on, Lola.” Ignoring everything else, her sister carried on texting for a few more seconds as if whoever was on the other end of the virtual conversation proved more important at this moment. She wouldn’t move until the last second. Lara heaved a sigh and strode across the room. She grabbed Lola’s bag and dumped it on her lap. Lola lifted her head and gave her the evil eye. “What?” “Aunty's waiting. Or do you want to walk to school on your first day?” “I don’t care. I don’t want to go to this school, anyway.” Despite the grumbling, her sister got off the sofa with her bag and headed outside. Lara shook her head as she followed, switching off the ceiling fan on the way. She had misgivings, too, about starting a new school, especially in her senior year when she needed to prepare for final exams. Neither of them had had any choice but to move after tragedy had befallen them. Outside, a breeze flapped the admiral-blue skirt around her knees and the rising sun reflected off the small pools of water on the concrete driveway from the rain that had fallen at dawn. She checked her bag for her small umbrella, not wanting to get soaked if it rained again later. For October, the temperature felt cooler and fresher than the humid heat she’d been used to in Lagos. From what she’d learnt in geography, Enugu lay over two hundred metres above sea level compared to Lagos’s eleven metres. The engine of the silver Honda CR-V revved, making her flinch. Against the background of the quiet neighbourhood, the sound became augmented, especially this early in the morning. Her gaze darted to the car. Judy already sat in the driver’s position and Lola climbed in beside her. “Lara, lock the door,” her aunt called out through the open window. “Okay.” Puffing out a breath, she pulled out the bunch of keys she’d been given and did as instructed. In her old house, she’d been used to securing the premises when going out. As the oldest child, many similar responsibilities fell on her shoulders. She didn’t have the luxury of sitting in the car messaging friends on BBM like Lola while someone else did the chores. Then again, these little chores kept her busy with less time to think about the dreadful past. Or scary future. With the lock in place, she returned her bunch into the bag and hurried to the vehicle now facing towards the gates. She pulled the door and climbed into the back seat. The grating sound of metal on metal made her wince as the watchman tugged open the gates and they drove out. Today, her senses seemed more acutely sensitive to sounds as her anxiety spiked. Her foot bounced against the floor mat, making her black patent leather shoes squeak. She pressed her palms on her knees to stop the restless motion. “Aunty, do we really have to go to this school? Can’t we go back to our old school?” Lola asked in a sweet voice, finally putting aside the phone. “I’m sure they’ll take us back. No problem.” “No, you can’t, sweetie.” Judy gave her a glance. “We discussed this already. You need to stay with me for now. You’ll get used to the new school in no time.” There were a few other reasons they couldn’t go back to their old school, even if their aunt didn’t say them out loud. For one, it had been an expensive boarding school. Secondly, it lay over five hundred kilometres away in Lagos State while their aunt lived in Enugu State. And according to the bereavement counsellor, they needed to be around family. “Aunty's house is nicer than boarding school,” Lara chimed in. Although she missed the familiarity of her old school friends—not that she ever had that many—she wouldn’t swap it for the security and compassion she’d received from Judy, who’d taken them in as if they were her own. Especially as they hadn’t seen much of the woman since they were little. “You say that because you didn’t have many friends,” Lola said in a sarcastic voice. “I did.” “Honey, I know you miss your friends from your old school, but you’ll make new ones here, too. So don’t worry about it. You’ll both be fine.” Judy squeezed Lola’s shoulder. “Okay,” her sister said in a resigned voice. “Lara, you remember where to go to get the registration sorted out?” Judy asked. “Yes. The school admin office.” “Good. Once you show them the letter, they will let you know where to go. I won’t be able to come and pick you after school. But the two of you can take a taxi home together since it’s the first day. You will have to take the bus home next time.” “Thank you, Aunty,” they both chorused. Thirty minutes later, they stood in front of the school gates. Tens of kids in blue and white uniform milled around or headed into buildings. “Hi, Lola!” someone called out. Lola waved back. “You know that girl?” Lara asked, astonished since her sister hadn’t mentioned she knew anyone in this school. Lola shrugged. “She lives on the same street as Aunty Judy.” “How do you know anyone already? We’ve only been in Enugu for a month.” “You’re the one who chooses to lock yourself away in the house all the time. Anyway, where’s this admin office we’re supposed to find?” Lara breath hitched and she felt as if she’d been hit with a sledgehammer. She bit back a retort and shook her head. She hadn’t been locking herself away. She’d been in mourning. Then again, she shouldn’t be surprised about Lola. Her sister was pretty and had been popular at their last school. It looked like she would fit right in at Hillcrest. As for herself, her goals for the year were simple—pass her exams and gain a university place. She didn’t need the attention, and if no one accepted her, she would just have to cope with it as best she could. “It’s this way.” She pointed to a sign on the wall and they headed in that direction. Half an hour later, they’d filled out forms and were directed to their classes. Lola’s were in a different building from hers. “Do you want to meet for lunch?” Lara asked. Lola shrugged and started walking off. “If you need anything, just call or text me,” Lara said. “Yeah. Stop fussing, will you?” Glancing back, Lola rolled her eyes and walked off. Lara couldn’t help fussing. Lola was the only member of her family she had left. Okay, she had Judy, but it wasn’t the same thing. She’d taken care of her sister since she was a baby and always felt responsible for her, even more so now that their parents were gone. Sighing, she turned and hurried across the walkway to the class building. Students gazed at her but no one spoke to her. She kept her chin up and her shoulders stiff, determined to project confidence and determination. The truth was, she wasn’t very good with change. Unlike Lola who complained about it and seemed to adapt a whole lot quicker. By the time she arrived at the door to the correct class, it was already shut and the class seemed to be in session. She paused, brushed her palm over her braided hair packed in a ponytail style, and took a deep breath. Then she turned the metal handle, pushed the door open, and walked in. The class was silent as they listened to the teacher but a murmur passed when she closed the door behind her. A middle-aged man in brown jacket and trouser suit, white and green striped shirt, and a plain green tie stood at the front. Focusing on him, she walked over. “Mr. Ejiofor?” When he nodded, she handed over the sheet of paper she’d been given at the office. “I was asked to give you this.” He took the paper and read it. “We have a new student joining the class today.” He glanced at the paper again. “This is Lara Johnson.” Clutching her hands to the back to hide their shaking, she turned to face the class. Big windows sat on the side. The back wall was plain white with a white board over it. On the side wall next to the door was a geopolitical map of the world. The students sat in columns of two per desk in six columns and four rows. All of them stared at her with different degrees of curiosity. Lara swallowed, her shoulders tightening. She hated being the centre of attention and even more so to a group of strangers. Her darting gaze caught onto another girl in the front row who smiled at her. There was an empty seat next to her. The only empty seat. Mr. Ejiofor picked a book from the pile in front of him and handed it over to her. “Take a seat, Lara.” “Thank you,” she mouthed and walked over to the empty chair quickly. The sooner she sat down, the sooner everyone else would stop staring at her. She dumped her bag on the aisle beside her and placed the book on the desk top. The girl next to her turned and smiled. She was the picture of wholesome perfection. Her straight hair was packed neatly into a ponytail, not one strand out of place. Her school uniform was creaseless and fitted, unlike Lara’s which needed adjusting around the waist. Her oval face was smooth and lovely, no acne in sight. Even the cheer in her curled lips and the twinkle in her brown eyes showed she was a happy and content girl. Lara hadn’t been happy or content in months. “I’m Ada Obi. Welcome to Hillcrest School,” the girl said in a low voice. “If you need someone to show you around, I can help you.” Lara gave a small smile as some of the tension left her body. Someone was being nice to her. Perhaps she’d make a new friend, after all. “Ada, thank you.” Mr. Ejiofor resumed the lesson in English Literature. Luckily, she’d bought a copy and already started reading the assigned book so she didn’t feel too lost in the class discussion although she didn’t attempt to raise her hand to answer any questions and the teacher didn’t bother directing any queries at her. She managed to sit up straight instead of slumping under the melancholic weight that rested on her shoulders. Time flew quickly and Mr. Ejiofor left. During the break before the next teacher arrived, the class erupted into chaos. Shifting in the seat, Lara picked out her timetable and checked the next lesson. Geography—a subject she wasn’t so good at. Flicking the page of the textbook, she glanced at the door. A boy stood there as if on sentry duty, watching for the arrival of the next teacher. The flutter of the sheet did little to calm her nerves as it should. In her old school, she’d acquired the nickname ‘Bookworm’ because she loved immersing herself into the knowledge hidden between the covers of the printed work. Shaking her head, she turned her attention back to the words on the page. Aside from noting the topic of the chapter as ‘Population Change,’ none of the text registered. First day back at school for a new term usually didn’t leave her this agitated. She loved school. But while it was the first day back for her, the school had been back for a few weeks already. She’d missed weeks of lessons and studying. She sucked in a deep breath and gave another glance at the door. The student standing at the entrance hadn’t moved, although his attention was focused on the chaos in class rather than checking if the Geography teacher was on the way. The churning in her stomach returned, her breathing accelerated. Crossing her arms over on the desk, she lowered her head and started blowing out short breaths. I can do this. I’m just sitting in a room with other students. Nothing bad will happen. Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, she repeated the calming actions. Where was the teacher? Perhaps if he turned up, her anxiety would ease just as it had done in the literature lesson. She’d been having panic attacks since the traffic accident. The doctor had offered to sign her off school for another week or month if she didn’t feel ready to be here. Her physical wounds had healed. Mentally, she didn’t know if she’d be ever fully recovered. Tired of hiding from the world, she had to face her life. Face her future, such as it was. Lifting her head, her gaze swept the class. No one else seemed interested in preparing for the next subject. Not even the girl sitting next to her. She seemed rapt on a lanky male student who was telling a story. His hand and body movements as well as the jokes he cracked identified him as the class comedian. They’d had a similar boy in her last school. “What’s his name?” Lara asked in a low voice. She couldn’t be sure Ada heard her above the raucous sound of laughter. Giggling, the girl turned to look at her. “That’s Jimoh. He thinks he’s the next Basketmouth.” With a half-smile, Lara’s raised a brow in confusion. “Basketmouth?” “Come on. You know Basketmouth?” “Yes, I do.” She chuckled. “He’s good but not as good as a popular Nigerian stand-up comedian.” She tilted her head in the direction of some girls sitting in the middle row who’d been staring at her and not so nicely. “What about those girls over there?” “Oh, that’s Princess Gloria and her coterie.” “Coterie?” “You know? Gang, Pack, Clique, Circle. Don’t mind me. I like big words.” Ada chuckled again. Warmth spread across Lara’s chest as a big smile filled her face. She liked this girl a lot already. “Is she really a princess?” “No, she’s not. We call her Princess because she walks around as if her father is the Obi of Onitsha.” Lara glanced at the girl again and she did have a haughty air about her, with the tilt of her raised nose and the group surrounding her. White paper planes making turbulent journeys above heads bobbing with raucous laughter snagged her attention next. Most of the boys sat on their desk instead of the appointed chairs, either cloistered in smaller groups or listening in on the more general conversation. “I never thought so many people would sign up to take Geography this year,” Jimoh said. “It’s because of the fine boy teacher,” another boy chipped in. “No. You’ve got that wrong. I know it’s because of me everyone is in this class, because no one fine pass me. Check me now.” He started doing the vogue pose, causing everybody to break out into laughter. “What is he talking about?” Lara asked, now curious about why the class seemed to be this full for an elective subject. Geography hadn’t been that popular in her previous school. “Don’t worry,” Ada said. “You’ll understand when you see the teacher. He is something else. Half the class wants to be him and the other wants him as boyfriend.” “He’s coming!” shouted the boy standing by the door, and everyone scrambled back to their seats just in time to stand up as the teacher walked in. “Good morning, Mr. Thomas,” the class chorused. Lara’s breath caught in her throat. This was their teacher? It couldn’t be. “Good morning, class,” the man replied. “You may take your seats.” OMG! Lara couldn’t take her gaze away from the man who was going to be her new geography tutor. The world and everything in it seemed to disappear. Just him. Somebody tugged her arm and she turned to find it was Ada. The rest of the class were now seated down. Her face burned as she picked her mouth off the floor. “You must be the new student,” the teacher said. “Yes, sir.” She swallowed. “I’m Lara Johnson.” “Welcome, Lara.” His lips curled in a boyish grin with a dimple on the left cheek. Her heart thumped against her chest and her skin tingled as if he’d reserved the smile especially for her. She couldn’t help smiling in return. Geography would be her best subject this year. “You can sit down.” “Thank you, sir.” Sweeping a hand under her skirt, she turned to sit down and caught the glare coming from Gloria. If eyes could kill, she’d be dead. She lowered her gaze and was glad to have her back to the girl. What was Gloria’s problem, anyway? “Before we get started,” Mr. Thomas said in a deep, mellow voice that captured the attention of the whole class. “I want to let you know that the registrations for the exam preparations tutorials are open today. If you’d like extra help with preparing for your finals, then get your name down.” Leaning forward with elbows on the desk, Lara rested her chin in her palms and just stared at the new teacher. She’d had young teachers in her previous school, mostly Youth Corpers, but she’d didn’t recall anyone looking this young. Or this good. He stood strikingly handsome and tall. They were all seated but she’d bet he’d tower over everyone around if they stood close to him. His skin, a dark, hickory-brown shade, contrasted brilliantly with his white shirt. The top two buttons lay undone, leading her to look up at his face. With fascinating almond-shaped mocha-brown eyes, thick curved brows, balanced nose, full sensuous lips, and square jaw line, his face suited the cover of a magazine. Model David Agbodji had nothing on him. Her mouth watered and she licked her lips. One word whispered in her mind. Sexy. She’d heard the term bandied about by her friends, but she’d never used it to describe anyone until now. She’d never been more sexually aware of anyone until now. The thought had her straightening her posture as her body warmed. She’d never had a boyfriend before, although she’d attended a mixed boarding school. Boys her age never appealed to her. Also, her parents had been strict about boyfriends. She’d been taught that boys were bad and getting involved could only lead to trouble. Her focus had always been on academics and getting great results. All that flew far from her mind as she couldn’t look away, absorbing every word the teacher spoke as if he addressed her alone. “My tutorial classes will run on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. All those interested should register using the forms on the Year Twelve notice boards.” He placed both hands on his desk and leaned forward. “Next week, there will be a test, which will cover everything we’ve discussed so far this term.” A murmur passed through the class. Lara insides quivered and she swallowed down the panic, surprisingly not at the thought of failing the test but at disappointing her teacher. She’d have to study extra hard this week. Of course, she’d be signing up for his tutorials. “Sir?” A student at the back raised a hand. “Yes, Chuma.” “This is unfair. A week is not enough notice.” “Have you been paying attention in class since the start of the term?” “Of course, sir.” “Then you should have nothing to complain about. If anyone should complain about short notice, it should be Lara.” “That’s what I meant, sir. I was complaining on behalf of the new student. It’s unfair for her to take a test when she hasn’t been in class with us.” “Well, let’s ask her. Lara, do you think the test next week is unfair to you?” OMG! He’s talking directly to me. Her face heated up and she swallowed a few times before she could speak. “Well...um...it is short notice for me, sir.” Her voice sounded squeaky. She swallowed again. “In that case, you are exempted from next week’s test, Lara.” Another murmur went through the class and she could hear the disappointment in her classmates’ voices. She crossed her arms and shook her head. She didn’t want to be singled out for favour and end up being hated by the rest of the class. “Excuse me, sir.” She raised her right hand. “Yes, Lara,” the teacher replied. “Sir, I want to take part in next week’s test.” “Good.” He smiled at her again, making warmth spread through her chest. “Now turn to chapter four of the Physical Geography textbook.” The class settled down as the lesson went along. His mastery of the subject and the engaging way he discussed with the class only added to her admiration of him. For a young person who was probably only a few years older than she was, his confidence and ability to keep the entire class active and participating made her want to learn so much from him. Could she stand in front of a class of teenagers and get them to listen? Before long, the bell rang to signify the end of the class and break time. Mr. Thomas dismissed everyone and the students dispersed. Lara sighed, disappointed that the class had ended so quickly, although a glance at her wristwatch indicated two hours had gone by since Mr. Thomas had arrived in class. “Are you going to the canteen for lunch?” Ada asked as she got off the chair. “Yeah. Okay,” she replied and packed up her items. “Lara, I want to talk to you,” Mr. Thomas said. “I’ll wait for you outside.” Ada headed for the door. Lara remained standing on the spot. Mr. Thomas came around to lean back on the desk, facing her. He was less than a metre away from her. Her heart thudded in her chest, her pulse skyrocketing. If she stretched out her hand and leaned forward, her finger tips would graze the front of his shirt. Would his skin feel warm to the touch? Did he have hard muscles beneath the fabric? “I’m impressed that you agreed to take the test next week with the rest of the class,” he said, his gaze both assessing and amazed, his hand resting on his chest with his fingers splayed. Cheeks burning, she lowered her gaze and muttered shyly, “Thank you, sir.” “But as you can tell from the protests, my tests are not easy. As this subject is an elective, I’m determined that every student who signs up for it achieves the best result. With that in mind, I’m also aware that you’re currently at a disadvantage since you haven’t been in school from the start of the school year. I want to level out the playing field for you.” She lifted her head, meeting his gaze. “How’s that, sir?” “I strongly suggest you sign up for the extra weekly tutorials. But for next week, I’m offering you a daily tuition for half an hour during your lunch break.” “All week, sir?” Her brows shot up as her pulse accelerated. She was going to be in a room alone with him for the next few days? “Yes. Is that a problem?” His brows drew together in a frown as he leaned back on his hands. “No, sir.” She bit her lower lip and twisted her watch around, fretting that he would withdraw the offer. “I’m just worried that you’ll be using your personal time to coach me.” “Your concern is duly noted, Lara. But as I said earlier, I’m determined to achieve one hundred percent pass rate for my subject. You have one week to learn topics your classmates have been studying for six weeks. The work isn’t optional unless you want to drop the subject altogether.” “No, sir,” she said quickly. The thought of not being in his class made her heart sick. “In that case, go and grab a quick lunch and get back here in twenty minutes so we can get started. “Thank you.” Hands shaking, she pulled her bag off the floor and hurried out of the room. Ada stood in the hallway, fingers pressing buttons on her phone. “There you are. What did he want?” “He’s going to give me extra lessons to catch up.” As she spoke, Mr. Thomas came out of the classroom. He stared at both of them sternly as if he knew they were talking about him. She bit her lip and avoided his gaze as she blushed. “I expect you back in class at the correct time, Lara.” He turned and walked away. “Yes, sir,” she muttered and grabbed Ada’s hand. “I don’t want to get into trouble on my first day. Please show me to the canteen.” “Okay.” By the time they got to the building housing the restaurant, it was already teeming with students and teachers. Lara searched the room for Lola but couldn’t find her so she sent her a message. She couldn’t stay and eat in there. She bought a meat pie and bottle of Fanta to go instead with the cash Judy had given her this morning. She then bid farewell to Ada who went to queue with another group of girls, and returned to the class. She sat in her chair and ate her food, checking her phone for messages from Lola. None came. Right on time, Mr. Thomas strode in. Her respect for this man ratcheted up another notch. It had to be genuine passion for his students and subject that would make him sacrifice his own personal time for her. She’d had good teachers in the past but couldn’t think of any who had done something like this before. She pushed her chair back to stand up. He waved a hand. “Don’t stand up.” He stopped beside the desk. Pulse racing, she sat forward, her attention focused on him. Would he come closer? Her shoulders slumped when he remained where he stood. “These sessions are informal. I expect you to be on time. I expect you to pay attention, ask questions, and do the work given to you.” “Yes, sir.” Rubbing her clammy hands against her skirt, she licked her dry lips. More than anything else, she wanted to please him. Her foot bounced against the bottom of the desk. Crash! The loud sound made her jump back. Eyes bulging, body trembling, she hyperventilated. Shards of broken bottle lay scattered on the linoleum floor, triggering memories of another time and place. Broken glass shattered on tarmac. Crumpled metal, trapped bodies. The stomach-curdling smell of petrol. Crunching sounds over people’s voices. Someone called her name from far away. A fever swept through her. Sweat trickled down her back and face. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Someone grabbed her shoulders. Dragged her out of the wreckage. No, the person wasn’t dragging her. She was being shaken. “Lara...Lara!” She looked up at the person calling her name. The same person shaking her. What’s he doing here? He doesn’t belong in this memory. Slowly, her environment returned to her. She blinked several times as she struggled to get air into her lungs. “Mr. Thomas?” Her voice came out scratchy and weak, her throat dry. “Lara, do you know where you are?” He squatted beside her, brow wrinkled. Blinking again, she swallowed the bile in her throat and nodded. “In school.” His gaze flitted over her body, the frown still in place. “Are you hurt?” She stared from her hands to the glass on the floor. “No. I’m sorry. Let me clean up the mess.” Shifting, she scrambled to get up. “Stay there.” His tone was gentle and firm. Stiffening, she didn’t move as she watched him stride across the room. He snatched a sheet of paper off the table and came back to pick up the broken pieces from the floor. He dumped the big chunks in the paper bin, opened the door, and disappeared. Rubbing her palms down her skirt, she hunched over. First day in a new school and she’d had a panic attack. In front of the most intriguing man she’d ever met, with skin like dark chocolate and eyes like the sky at night. Oh, God! Heat crept up from her chest to her face. Wanting to get out before he came back, she grabbed her bag. The door squeaked as it swung open and he returned with a small brush and pan. Chest feeling tight and frozen to the spot, she watched him. He worked quickly and thoroughly, sweeping up any last trace of glass and binning them. Striding to his desk, he pulled a bottle of water from his satchel and came back to sit in a chair across from her. “Drink this.” He passed her the plastic container. She unscrewed the sealed cap, tipped her head slightly back, and drank, glad to soothe her parched throat. When she finished, she stretched out her hand to pass it back. “You can keep it,” he said, his gaze fixed to her face. “Thank you.” She broke eye contact and stared at the desk, clutching the bottle to her side as she wrapped her arms across her body to hide her tremors. “Lara, why did you have a panic attack?” he asked, his voice low and filled with concern. Eyes wide, she glanced at him. How did he know? Her foot bounced on the floor. “I...I...” she stuttered. His hand settled on her knee. Warm. Calming. “It’s okay. Breathe in and out slowly.” She followed the instructions of his compelling voice. Her breathing evened out and the shaking stopped eventually. “Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night from a nightmare,” he continued. “I’ll be shivering and sweating and feeling like I want to crawl out of my skin.” “Really?” Her breath caught and she placed the water bottle on the desk. Why was he telling her something so personal? Something he must be ashamed to share with anyone. Just as she was ashamed of the bad memories that plagued her. “Yes. So if something’s happened, you can tell me. I’ll understand.” Withdrawing his hand, he leaned it on the desk beside him, the other on his knee. She sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Something about him made her want to share her experience, although she hadn’t discussed it with anyone after it happened. Then again, people didn’t like to talk about tragedies, afraid of inviting those things into their lives. She was trying to move on from her parents’ death, but the memory stalked her. Being in a new school environment didn’t help matters. She glanced up at Mr. Thomas. He nodded as if in understanding as his lips curled in a sad smile. His sympathetic expression bolstered her resolve. She released another slow breath. “I was in a car crash with my parents. They were killed.” Tears misted her eyes and she swiped them with her palms. “Sometimes when I hear a loud noise, I feel as if I’m trapped in that car.” “I’m sorry for your loss.” The stress in his voice made her look across to him. His hands clenched into fists and the skin around his eyes bunched as he gave her a pained stare. She recognised that expression. It was like staring in a mirror. Staring at a boy who’d undergone suffering. Someone like her. A kindred spirit. He blinked and the distressed expression eased away as if it was an oil portrait brushed over with new paint. “Surviving a tragedy like that is tough on anybody. We have a counsellor here at Hillcrest. If you need to talk more about it, she’s a good person.” The tormented boy had gone and in his place sat the articulate teacher. She nodded. But she wouldn’t talk to anyone else unless it was him. For one, she didn’t like reliving the event. Anyway, no one else would understand what it felt like to carry this guilt around unless they’d been through something similar. Why was she alive when her parents were dead? She’d asked herself the question ever since the accident. “Good.” He lifted his arm and glanced at his watch. “Lunch break is almost over. We’ll have to pick up the lesson tomorrow. Read the whole of chapter one from the textbook before we meet then.” She swallowed. “Yes, sir.” Nodding, he strode to the desk and grabbed his satchel. As she bit her lips and gripped her elbows, disappointment that he was leaving made her chest tighten. Unable to move, she watched him head to the door. Twisting the handle, he turned back to look at her. “Lara, you’re going to be fine. With time, the way you feel will get better.” His lips curled at one corner and he was back to looking boyish in a charming boy-next-door sort of way. Then he was gone. Butterflies fluttered in her belly. Heat flushed her skin. For the first time in her life, she wanted a boy to notice her. Except this wasn’t a boy. He was a man, her teacher, and totally forbidden. She wanted him nonetheless. Chapter Two To whom much is given, much is expected. Ike Thomas lived those words as if they had been written especially for him. But he hadn’t always been so purposeful or honourable. Once, he’d been a carefree young man whose only concern had been of living a full life and having fun. Then, one reckless moment had sent his world crashing. The death of this older brother, Obi, had devastated him. Broken him. There had been several times afterwards when he’d felt he shouldn’t be alive. That he should’ve been the one to die. The one lying six-feet under the earth. The one being eaten by worms and turning into dust. He straightened his shoulders as he exited the admin building, not allowing his guilt to overwhelm him. He’d become good at hiding beneath his cloak of responsibility. Of pretending everything was okay on the outside, when on the inside, pain shredded through him on a daily basis. It proved tougher maintaining the same strong exterior at the end of a long day dealing with teenagers than it did at the start of the day when his energy levels stood at their highest. As much as the students drained him, they also gave him purpose. Gave him a reason to get out of bed in the morning. More than anything else, he never wanted to disappoint the people who’d come to rely on him so much. The respect and admiration they projected onto him made him stand taller and even more determined. On some days like today, the tension returned to his muscles along with a pounding headache. Nothing could shake his self-loathing. Or his wish to go back and change things. A luxury he couldn’t be granted. He settled for making amends any way he could, which included taking this work placement as a teacher, even though it had never been something he wanted to do. His father owned one of the largest property development firms in Nigeria. He didn’t need to work elsewhere to earn money. Not to mention that he was studying Architecture and Design for his Bachelor’s degree program. His parents had been adamant; his father, especially. If he truly wanted to make amends for his offences, then he had to do whatever it took. Perhaps his redemption came in the form of finding love and the right girl in the last place he would’ve looked. Every time he looked upon her face, he felt as if a star burst inside of him. “See you tomorrow, Mr. Thomas,” Mrs. Bello, another teacher greeted. As the head of Year Twelve, she mentored him and he reported to her. The woman was like a mother figure to the year group, well-liked and respected. But she insisted on addressing him formally, so he returned the gesture. “Good night, Mrs. Bello,” he replied as he unlocked his sporty, starlight blue Toyota GT Primo. He tossed his satchel on the passenger seat and lowered his body into the car. He was a tall man but he loved the low suspension and riding with his car hugging the tarmac so close. Although his love for fast cars had gotten him into trouble, he couldn’t shake this one addiction. He just didn’t drive as recklessly as he used to as a teenager. He pulled out of the parking lot onto the road. It was early dusk, the sun low on the horizon. The air-conditioner hummed gently and Afro beat music from his iPod filled the interior. He cruised towards the junction of the quiet street with the school, slowed further when he noticed a group of male students in the corner. He rolled his window down to instruct them to disperse. It wasn’t dark yet but would be in about half an hour. Students weren’t permitted to loiter around the premises after school hours. Just as he leaned across and was about to call out the names of the boys he recognised, he saw the girl they had crowded against the wall. Lara Johnson. His blood froze. What was she doing hanging around with these boys? He knew enough about them. Knew they were the notorious boys in school. Jocks with rich parents, who thought they could have any girl they wanted. His stomach rolled. He’d been one of those boys at their age, so he knew exactly what followed encounters like this one. Bile rose in his throat. He thought he knew Lara well enough to know she shouldn’t be in this crowd. As well enough as any good teacher should know his or her student. The girl with the square-framed spectacles, long braids, and shy smile who worked doubly hard in class, the girl who’d aced the first test he’d given her at nine-eight percent even though she’d only had one week to catch up on six weeks’ worth of school work, wouldn’t hang around street corners with the wildest boys in school, would she? Then again, what did he really know about teenage girls? He was hardly an expert on his own life. He hardly had his life together. How could he judge anyone else’s? “Let me go!” He recognised the shaky protest as Lara’s. She had to be in some sort of trouble. Without thinking, he switched off the engine and pushed the door open. “What’s going on here?” he asked in the authoritative voice he used with unruly students as he strode over to the group. The boys stiffened and moved aside. Lara held her bag to her chest in a defensive posture but her head was bowed and she didn’t meet his gaze. Her shoulders stiffened and hunched up, her braids loose over her face. “Nothing, Mr. Thomas. I was just talking to my girlfriend,” Malcolm said. He was a tall and athletic boy who was the captain of the school soccer team where he played as a midfielder. Lara was dating Malcolm? The back of Ike’s throat hurt and he felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. He had difficulty swallowing to clear his voice so his shock didn’t seep through. “Even so, you know the rules about hanging around after school hours,” he said when he finally worked the shock down his throat. “You should all disperse immediately, or I’ll be compelled to hand out detentions for the next two weeks and letters to your parents.” “We’re sorry, sir.” Most of the boys decanted immediately, walking away briskly. Lara remained on the spot, her back to the wall, her gaze fixed to the dusty pavement. “Lara, how are you getting home?” Ike asked, his voice with a sharp edge. He couldn’t shake the bitterness lodged at the back of his throat that she would allow a boy like Malcolm to touch her. She gave him a quick glance, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose, before diverting her gaze to ground again. “I’m taking the bus,” she replied in a small voice. “Get in the car. I’ll drop you off home.” The tone of his voice indicated it wasn’t a request. “Sir—" Malcolm was still there, although now at a little distance from Lara. “Go home or it’s two weeks detention for you, Malcolm,” Ike cut him off. He’d lost his patience with the lad. Without another word, the boy trudged away, his expression sullen. Lara scurried to the passenger side and Ike waited for her to get in before doing the same. He instructed her to put her seat belt on before asking for her address. She complied. They drove in silence as his emotions yo-yoed from guilt to betrayal. The protectiveness he’d felt for her from the first moment he’d walked into class to find her as his new student hadn’t just been out of a sense of duty or even platonic affection. He hadn’t allowed himself to name the growing attraction he’d felt for her. He’d screwed up his life enough. And he wasn’t about to betray the trust she had in him as her teacher by ever suggesting anything more. At twenty-one, he was older by four years. Not to mention that she was his student and any involvement was prohibited both on ethical and moral grounds. Now, finding out she was in a relationship with a boy, his heart shrank and he rubbed his hand on the back of his neck. He couldn’t help feeling betrayed, even if he knew it wasn’t fair. His heart didn’t seem to care that she was out of bounds to him and free to choose a boy closer to her age, anyway. As they neared the street where her house was located, he was about to ask her which turning when he realised her body was shaking. “Lara, are you okay?” he asked, glancing over at her. Her head was turned towards the window as if she didn’t want him to see her face. She didn’t answer and her body continued to tremble. The muscles on his neck strained and his grip on the steering wheel tightened. Had the boys done something to upset her? If so, he would get hold of each one of them and make them pay. Flicking the indicator, he pulled over the side of the road and killed the engine. He reached down, unclipped his seatbelt, and twisted his body to face her. “What’s going on? Talk to me.” He couldn’t bear to see her upset but he was afraid of touching her for fear of crossing the line. He scrubbed a hand over his head instead of reaching for her like he wanted to. “You’re...angry...with me.” She said the words between sniffs and sobs. “What? I’m not angry with you.” He couldn’t believe she was upset because of him. She peeked at him between her fingers and started crying again. He heaved out a sigh, his fingers around the steering wheel tightened and loosened. “Okay. I am angry. But it’s only because I’m worried about you getting involved with the likes of Malcolm.” He placed his hand on her shoulder, unable to resist trying to sooth away her sadness. Before he could figure out what she was doing, she’d unclipped her seatbelt, turned around, and fallen against him, her head against his chest. He kept his arms wide, unsure of what to do. His instincts screamed for him to draw her close, to soothe away her pain. But the sensible part of him warned that this was one of his students. The rules were clear about cavorting with students. If anyone saw them, he would be in trouble. And he couldn’t afford any more. She sucked in a deep breath and snuggled closer to him. His resistance crumbled and he allowed himself to settle his arms around her. He sucked in a deep breath. Her scent filled his nostrils: musk, sandalwood, and vanilla. He remembered the first day he’d met her and she’d had a panic attack triggered by the sound of her drink bottle smashing on the floor. He’d recognised the fright in her demeanour, as well as the guilt in her anxious movements. It had been like watching a reflection of himself, a projection of his pain and sorrow. In that moment, he’d connected with her on a level he’d never done with anyone else before or since. He’d found his match. His soul twin. The yang to his yin. He’d seen her at least twice a week for the past five months, excluding the holidays. After the school breaks, he’d had an accelerated pulse rate and adrenaline rush on the first day back to school. At the times, he’d told himself he’d been eager to get back to work and finish his assignment at Hillcrest. Deep down, he’d known the excitement had been for seeing her again after the weeks away. Sweeping the braids away from her face with his fingers, he caressed the velvety skin on her cheek with his thumb. Strangely, he felt a sense of peace having her close as warmth radiated out from his chest. For several minutes, they remained in the same position. The world around them continued revolving. It wasn’t a busy street. The occasional car and pedestrian went by. Someone would see them together. He should pull back. He didn’t. Finally, she extracted her body from his arms. He missed her warmth immediately. “I’m sorry,” she said and swiped hands over eyes. He reached for the glove compartment and withdrew a box of disposable wipes. She pulled out a handful of tissues and cleaned up. “Why are you sorry?” He searched her face. He wasn’t sorry that he’d held her for the few precious minutes even if it would be the last time he ever did. “I upset you and I didn’t mean to. I won’t do it again.” Curling one hand around the steering wheel, he pressed his lips together in a slight grimace. “What do you mean?” She tilted her head and flicked her gaze away. “You’re upset that I was with Malcolm. I won’t see him again, if that’s what you want.” His breath hitched at the temptation she unwittingly offered. Did she even know what she was saying? How much trouble that invitation could lead them into? “Lara, look at me.” A smile wavered on her face as she looked up. “This isn’t about what I want,” he continued. “You’re an intelligent girl with a bright future. Boys like Malcolm are trouble. Trust me, I know. If you must date, there are other boys in your year, who should treat you better.” What the hell was he doing? Discouraging her away from one narcissistic teenage boy to a hormonal one? Did he seriously think that any boy in her year group wouldn’t be thinking about sex and at least experimenting? A frown puckered her face and she fiddled with one of her braids, twirling the end around her finger. “Malcolm says none of the boys in school will dare ask me out because I’m going to be his girlfriend sooner or later.” A cold finger travelled down his spine. “Malcolm said that?” “Yes. I just thought there was no point in resisting him anymore. He’d been pestering me for so long. Today, he said he’d walk me to the bus stop. I agreed, but he brought his friends along with him. He was trying to get me to go over to his house when you showed up.” Ike’s chest tingled as she spoke. This didn’t sit right with him. Not just because he had feelings for her. He’d told himself he wouldn’t act on those feelings, at least not while she was his student. “Listen to me,” he said in a sober voice. Feelings aside, she remained an innocent young girl. “Some boys are like wild animals when they’re in groups. They push and dare each other. They do things they wouldn’t normally do as individuals. Don’t put yourself in the position I saw you in this evening again, especially since you don’t seem to know those boys very well. Do you understand?” She frowned as if she had a question but answered, “Yes, sir.” “And if you have to date Malcolm—“ “No. I won’t. I’m going to tell him that I don’t want to be his girlfriend. I’ll do it now.” She pulled out her phone from her bag and started typing on the screen. A smile tugged the corner of his lips. His heart drummed against his chest. He couldn’t help the euphoria bubbling in his veins, but he resisted a fist pump. Moreover, the victory should be for her determination. He admired her for it. The same perseverance she’d shown from the first day they’d met. She had given him strength on days when the weight of the work had threatened to drag him down. “Done,” she said and put her phone aside. “I just have to find a way of avoiding him, especially after late prep when there are less people around.” “I can drop you off home after late prep,” he offered before he could stop himself. Eyes going wide, a broad smile split her face. She reached across and brushed her fingers against his arm. “You will?” Beneath the long sleeve of his shirt, his skin tingled where she’d touched him. His throat grew thick. “Yes.” He coughed to clear the lump. “Just on the days you are in school late.” “Of course. Thank you, sir,” she gushed. “You’re welcome.” The dreamy expression on her large pupils and the steady eye contact told him she was translating his offer as more than it was. He had to maintain the line between them. “You realise I’m just helping you out, right. It’s nothing more.” Her smile didn’t waver. In fact, it looked like she knew something he didn’t. “Of course I understand. You’re my teacher.” “Exactly.” The word came out more vehemently than he’d wanted. Eyes shuttered, she lowered her head. Her throat rippled as she swallowed, and her shoulders slumped. He registered her disappointment and his gut hollowed out. It had to be this way. Her future was at stake, as well as his. The sky was a mix of purples and oranges as the sun set below the roof tops of the residential houses on the street. As much as he enjoyed her company, he needed to get her home. “Lara—“ “I know you’re my teacher and that nothing can happen between us while I’m at Hillcrest. But don’t pretend as if there’s nothing between us.” Her directness knocked the breath out of him. For a moment, he just gaped at her as his heart did a jackhammer against his ribs. “There’s nothing between us,” he said when he finally worked saliva into his mouth. The lie left a bitter taste but he had no other option. “Liar.” She turned on him, her eyes blazing. “From the moment you came to my rescue the day I had a panic attack, there’s been a connection between us. It’s been there in every word you’ve said to me, every instruction you’ve given, every smile we’ve exchanged. It’s grown steadily.” Rubbing his ear, he opened his mouth and closed it. Everything she’d just said was true. He’d felt their bond strengthen over the past months. But it still didn’t make it right. “Don’t you see that what you’re describing can’t be encouraged?” he asked finally, a heaviness settling over his body. He didn’t want to hurt her, but what she was asking for was crossing the line. “I know what the rules say. I’m not asking you to treat me any differently from the other students or to start taking me out on dates. I just want you to admit to me here and now that you feel something for me. I just want to feel special, to feel wanted. Is that too much to ask?” His chest tightened and his headache returned. He massaged his temples and shook his head. “You’re asking for too much. I can’t do what you want.” How could he admit that he’d thought about her as someone other than his student? He’d pictured a future with her in his weak moments. What kind of immoral person did that make him? “You can’t or you won’t.” She waved her hand. “Anyway, its fine. It’s just one more thing to add to what makes me feel shitty about myself. There goes the crazy girl who has a thing for a teacher who doesn’t want her in return.” She grabbed her bag. “Thank you for giving me a lift, but I can walk home from here.” “Lara, wait.” She ignored him and reached for the door lever. Reaching out, he grabbed her arm. He understood her anger but he couldn’t let he leave without resolving this issue. Turning, she glared up at his face and down to where he held her arm. “Are you sure you should be touching your student like this, Mr Thomas? Aren’t you afraid someone will see us?” Her goading rankled. Nose flaring, he released her. “Cut the nonsense, Lara, and don’t you dare leave this car until I drop you in front of your house.” He still had authority over her even if he’d dropped a few levels because of their disagreement. She huffed, dumped her bag on her lap, and crossed her arms over it. Puffing out a breath, he scrubbed his hand on his head. “Lara, you are a special girl. You’re intelligent and I really see a wonderful future for you. But you’re not eighteen yet and I’m twenty-one. I’m the adult here and I’m also your teacher. There’s nothing between us. Now, I’m going to take you home and we’re not going to discuss this topic again. Understood?” Her gaze darted to him, her eyes over bright. “But I love you, sir,” she replied in a shaky voice before she turned away to stare straight ahead out of the windscreen. His breath hitched. Tightness returned to his chest and his stomach sank. Tilting his head back on the rest, he closed his eyes. It would’ve taken a lot for her to make that confession. His admiration for her racked up a notch as the urge to pull her into a hug fired in his veins along with the desire to kiss her and confess his true feelings for her. Don’t be reckless. Think of the consequences. An image of his brother cautioning him loomed large in his mind. His brother had always been the sensible of the two of them. If Ike had listened and complied with the advices, his brother wouldn’t be dead now. Puffing out a resigned breath, he opened his eyes. Instead of responding to her declaration, he turned the ignition and the car kicked to life. As he indicated, checked his mirrors, and pulled into the lane, numbness settled over him. He’d have to break her heart. It was the only way to save her. Chapter Three Lara stared at her hands as the back of her throat burned. What had she done? Propositioning her teacher had to be the most idiotic thing she’d ever done. To have him reject her even so politely had to be the most embarrassing of all. How was she going to look him in the face tomorrow during the lesson? She couldn’t bring herself to look him in the face now. She’d worked it out, figured since the first day something had been brewing between them. She could’ve staked her life on it. See where the stupid gamble would’ve gotten her. Dead. She wished she was dead right now. It had to be better than having to face him again. She twisted her watch and her foot bounced against the mat on the floor of the car. What had possessed her to just come out and say it? She’d known coming out with her feelings would be asking for trouble. Students and teachers were not allowed to get involved in a relationship. And throughout the months since she’d met him, he’d never behaved overtly in any way that would make anyone think he felt anything more for her than any other student. But there had been moments, fleeting as they were, and perhaps more her imagination at the time, when she’d thought there must be more to both of them. He didn’t give her any special treatment in class. But she still remembered her first week when he’d committed half an hour of his free lunch time everyday to teaching her so she could catch up on her school work. She’d scored quite high in the test and she had him to be thankful for it. No other teacher had given her that special dispensation. Then, there was his age. At twenty-one, he was closer to her age than she’d originally thought. He dressed formally in school, always in a smart shirt and trousers, sometimes with a tie and suit jacket. So the outfit made him look older and authoritative. She’d found out he was actually a university student on a one-year internship. She would be in university next year when he would be doing his final year. There, they could date. So what would be so wrong with starting a year early? That had been eating at her and it was what pushed her into this revelation here, at this moment. Now, she couldn’t bring herself to look up at him. It had seemed so logical when she’d thought of it. Still, reality proved to be something else. She had overstepped the boundaries, and he was probably angry with her again. “Lara,” he said in a gentle voice. She froze but didn’t look up at him, afraid of what she’d see in his eyes. “Look at me.” When he spoke so sternly, she couldn’t help but respond. She lifted her gaze to his. In the dim car with only the street lamps permeating it, his expression was dark and intense. But he didn’t look angry. She exhaled a breath. “I...I understand that you know how you feel. Your feelings are valid to you and I can’t tell you how to feel.” He took a deep breath and exhaled. “There can’t be anything between us. Surely, you understand that.” His car had the AC humming but sweat still dripped down her back and between her breasts, plastering the white cotton school shirt to her slick skin. Her fingers drummed against her bag as her desperation took over. “Sir, why?” She was acting like a stupid despondent person but she couldn’t help it. His words couldn’t be clearer. But surely, his action proved otherwise; coming to her rescue with Malcolm and telling her about his nightmares. They must’ve meant something. “The fact that you’re addressing me as sir is reason enough. It implies that we’re not equals. That I have authority over you. That I can take advantage of you.” She turned to him, hands fluttering, clinging onto this last verge of hope. “But you’ve never taken advantage of me. You’ve always taken care of me.” “Lara, it’s my job to do so. I’ve never treated you any differently from the way I treat other students, and I can’t treat you any differently now.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “Sir, I’m not asking you to treat me differently. I’m just asking you to love me.” He was the only person she’d connected with in months. This whole school year. Yes, she got on well with Ada. But the girl was the picture of perfection. Perfect home. Perfect parents. Perfect life. Lara sometimes felt inadequate in comparison. With Mr. Thomas, she knew he wasn’t perfect. Knew he hid his troubles beneath the confident exterior. Just like she did. “Can’t you see what you’re asking for is too much? Do you even understand what a relationship with me involves? Have you ever had sex?” Her face heated up and she looked away. She remained a virgin. Was this the reason he rejected her? Did he want a more experienced girl? From the moment she’d fallen for him in her classroom that cool October lunchtime, she’d decided to save herself for him. Would he send her away because of it? “I haven’t. I want you to be my first,” she muttered as her body trembled. “I’d never thought about sex, never thought about being with anyone in that way until I met you. You make me feel things I can’t explain.” His breath hitched and his grip on the steering wheel showed tight knuckles. The car slowed and stopped. She glanced out of the window. They’d parked alongside the wall surrounding her house. He tipped his head back and closed his eyes, puffing out a heavy breath. Her heartbeats became stronger and the sound of whooshing blood seemed loud in her ears. He was going to send her out of the car and leave her hanging. She wanted to climb above the console separating them onto his lap and cling onto him, begging him until he relented. Opening his eyes, he turned to face her. Her breath caught in her throat. Her mouth dried out at the consuming expression on his face. It was like that brief glimpse of the tortured boy she’d seen months ago. This time, his eyes shone as if a light had been kindled behind his irises and his pupils appeared blown out. Leaning forward, he reached across and cupped her cheek, his palm warm and rough against her skin. Her breath quickened as she pressed her face against his hand, relishing the tingles across her skin. As he touched her skin, surely, he felt this same craving that vibrated through her body and threatened to drive her insane. Surely, he’d realised her feelings were genuine and he’d soon reciprocate it, sweeping her off her feet. “This is a beautiful gift you are offering me. But I’m not worthy of it.” He dropped his hand, leaving her bereft of his touch. “I don’t love you.” His words cut through her like a knife. “What? You don’t mean it.” He couldn’t mean it. He was just trying to save her, surely. She gripped his thigh as panic rose. She swallowed excessively, darted her gaze around the car and settled back on his face. Oh, God. Let him not mean it. Her body felt like a dead weight and she couldn’t bring herself to let go of him and open the door. Grabbing her hands off his body, he raised them above her lap before releasing them. “Lara, you understand that what we just talked about can’t go any further. You can’t tell anyone about it.” A huge lump lodged in her throat and she couldn’t speak. She wanted to scream that it was unfair. But she nodded. The tears in the back of her eyes built up. Not wanting him to see her cry again, she grabbed her bag, pushed the door open, and ran across the road to the house gate. She’d disgraced herself enough. She banged on it until the gateman opened. Tears poured down her face as she ran inside. Lola was standing outside chatting on her phone. But she put it down briefly. “Is that Mr. Thomas’s car...?” She trailed off when she saw Lara tears. “What happened?” Lola asked, now looking worried. Lara ignored her and walked into the house. Her aunt was already home and sitting in the living room. She called out. “Lara, is that you?” Lara wiped her face with the back of her hand and cleared her throat. “Yes, Aunty. Good evening” She took a step towards the stairs. “Come here. Why are you home late?” her aunty asked. Lara used the sleeve of her blazer to further wipe her tears so the woman wouldn’t see before walking into the living room. “I had late Prep.” Judy glanced up at the wall clock. “But you’re not usually home this late even with late Prep.” She turned around and scrutinised Lara’s face. “Why are you crying?” She stood up and walked over to Lara. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing,” she replied, biting her lip and struggling not to burst into further tears. Lola walked in. “It’s not nothing, Aunty Judy. She was crying when she walked past me, and one of the teachers brought her home.” “Shut up!” Lara shouted at her sister. “Don’t shout at me! Is it not true? Didn’t I see you coming out of Mr. Thomas’s car?” “Who is Mr. Thomas?” Judy asked. “He’s my Geography teacher,” Lara replied, swaying her body as she clutched her bag close. Judy’s eyes narrowed. “Why is this Mr. Thomas bringing you home? What did he do to you?” Fresh tears stung Lara’s eyes as she remembered her conversation with her teacher. “It’s nothing.” She turned around and ran up the stairs to her room and locked the door, flung herself on the bed, and cried for most of the night. *** In the morning, Judy raised the question of what had happened the previous evening. Lara explained that she’d been harassed by some male students and Mr. Thomas had driven her home to ensure her safety. She managed to convince her aunt there wasn’t anything going on with the teacher. Judy bought her story. There wasn’t any reason for her story not to be accepted. Lara had never misbehaved before. For the first time in a long while, the thought of going to school had her dragging her feet and chewing her lips. As they neared the school premises, a film of sweat coated her skin even though Judy’s car was cool from the AC. The first lesson passed without trouble. School didn’t scare her—just the thought of seeing Mr. Thomas in her Geography lesson later that afternoon. Before lunch, she got called into the Principal’s office. Mrs. Bello had come to get her. Her stomach cramped and she twisted one of her braids around her fingers. Had Mr. Thomas reported her for misbehaving yesterday? He’d told her not to discuss it with anyone. Surely, he wouldn’t tell on her, would he? Oh, God, she shouldn’t have said what she did to him. Now, she was going to be suspended or even thrown out of school only days before her final exams would start. The knot in her stomach tightened and she fought nausea. “Is everything all right, Mrs. B? Have I done something wrong?” “No, my dear. Don’t worry.” The woman must have seen the apprehension etched on her face and reached out to settle a hand on Lara’s shoulder. She tried to push any panicky thoughts out of her mind. Mr. Thomas wouldn’t rat her out. Instinct said he wasn’t that sort of person. At least, she hoped so. The principal’s office was a large white room with an oak desk. Mrs. Bello shut the door when they walked in. “Come and sit down,” Mr. Idowu, the Principal, said. He was a stern middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair and a booming voice. None of the students liked to be called into his office. But from his expressionless face, Lara couldn’t tell if she was in trouble or not. She sat on the edge of the chair he indicated and Mrs. Bello sat in the other one in front of the desk. “It has come to my attention that there was an incident last night involving you and Malcolm Ibeh. Can you tell us what happened?” Lara’s chest tightened and her clenched palms turned clammy. She darted her gaze at Mrs. Bello who nodded with an encouraging smile. Swallowing hard, she narrated what had happened when she’d left the school premises, how Malcolm and his friends had surrounded her, and how Mr. Thomas had come to her rescue sending the boys away. “Then what happened after you got into Mr. Thomas’s car?” Mr. Idowu asked. Lara bit her lip. She couldn’t possibly tell her them what had happened. She’d promised her teacher. “He drove me home, sir.” “He just drove you home? Nothing else happened?” Lara averted her gaze and lied. “Nothing, sir.” Everything that had happened in the car had been instigated by her. If she confessed, she’d get into trouble. She couldn’t ruin her life just because of some stupid crazy things she’d done because she was in love. “Okay. That will be all. You can return to your class,” Mr. Idowu said, waving her out. Breath rushed out of her as she walked out of the office. It seemed that they’d bought her story. At least, this way, she hadn’t gotten herself or Mr. Thomas in trouble. The hallways were full of students. She glanced at her wrist watch. Lunch time. Although she’d lost her appetite while sitting in the principal’s office, she headed towards the canteen. Most day students like her hung out there. The boarders sometimes headed back to the common rooms in their dormitories. In the cafeteria, she spotted Lola sitting with a group of friends and waved at her. Her sister stood up and came to stand beside her in the line. “Are you feeling okay?” Lola asked. Lara nodded, thinking she was referring to last night. “Yes, I’m fine.” “Even after everything going on?” Lola gave her a sad smile and stroked her arm. Lara narrowed her eyes and angled her body away. Her sister hardly ever spoke to her in school. She certainly never made body contact if possible. “Yes, of course. Why?” Lola shrugged. “Just checking that my big sis is okay. Catch you later.” Lara’s gaze followed her sister as she walked back to her friends. A smile tugged the corner of her mouth. So strange for Lola to be so concerned about her. From the first day they’d arrived at Hillcrest, Lola had made new friends and she’d never needed her big sister. In fact, Lola was one of the popular girls in her year group, if not the whole school. She was fashionable and pretty. The boys wanted to date her and the girls wanted to be her friend. Lola was in the drama club and the music club and she played netball. Lara couldn’t act, sing, or play sports to save her life. But she was in the debate club and part of the school quiz team, so it wasn’t all bad. She got some yam pottage with fried plantain and found a table to sit at to eat. Not long after she sat down, Ada came to sit beside her. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” her friend said. “Why?” Lara asked as she picked up a slice of friend plantain with her fork. “There’s a rumour going around school about you. Is it true?” Lara stiffened and dropped her fork. “What rumour?” “That you had sex with Malcolm Ibeh.” “What? Where did you hear that?” “I heard Gloria talking to Christy and the rest of her friends in the ladies toilet. They didn’t know I was in one of the cubicles.” The little appetite Lara had rescued vanished and she pushed her tray aside. “You don’t believe them, do you?” “Of course not, but that’s not the worst bit. They also said you slept with Malcolm’s friends, as well.” Lara’s stomach rolled and she felt as if she was going to puke everything she’d just eaten. She snatched her bag and tray and dumped the half-eaten food in the bin before rushing off to the ladies. What was Mr. Thomas going to think of her when he heard this ridiculous rumour? So this was why the Principal had called her in? They thought she’d had sex with the other students. Well, at least, her teacher was in the clear. In the ladies’, she waited until her nausea passed and she splashed some water onto her face. Ada met her in there. “Are you feeling okay?” her friend asked. “How am I going to cope with everyone looking at me as if I’m the school slut?” “Well, you should ignore them all. You and I know you didn’t do it, and anyone else who believes that you did is an idiot.” “No.” How dare Malcolm do this to her because she’d broken up with him? She hadn’t even kissed, let alone had sex. Lara rubbed a hand over her face as she paced the enclosed space. “I really can’t let this go. It’s my reputation on the line. I’m going to find Malcolm and make him take back the rumours he started.” “Are you sure?” “Yes,” “Okay. I’ll come with you.” “Thank you.” They both went in search of Malcolm. Nose flaring, she held her chin up, daring any of the students they met to repeat the rumour to her face. Most of them avoided her gaze as she marched past. Finding the rumour-monger proved difficult. Although Malcolm was in the same year as them, he was in a different class. They didn’t find him in canteen or classrooms, so they headed for the playground. Still no Malcolm or his friends. However, they spotted Gloria with her friends, sitting on a bench. Ada walked over to them and Lara trailed behind. “Have any of you seen Malcolm?” “Was he so good that Lara wants round two with him?” Gloria snickered and her friends laughed. Lara gasped and glared at the girls. “I never slept with him.” “That is a horrible thing to say,” Ada snapped, stepping closer to the group and eye-balling Gloria. “We all know that is a lie and whoever started the rumours will pay for it.” “Are you calling me a liar?” Gloria retorted, tilted her nose up. “If the shoe fits.” Ada squared up to her, hands akimbo. “I’ll make you pay for that.” Gloria bristled, the smugness wiped off her face. “I’d like to see you try, Princess. One day, you’ll get your just desserts for being such a bitch, and I hope I’m there to watch you fall from your tower.” “Look, it’s enough, both of you.” Christy, one of Gloria’s friends, stepped in between them, raising her palms in each of their directions. “Malcolm is not in school. He’s gone home on suspension.” “Really?” Ada asked in a shocked voice as Lara gasped. “Yes,” Christy said. “Apparently, he’d been in a fight with someone. Not sure whom. Anyway, he came out of the Principal’s office with a bloody nose. We spoke to him and he said he’s been suspended. But we didn’t get the time to find out what had happened.” “Wow.” Ada turned to Lara. “Karma was swift, wasn’t it?” “It sure was.” Lara couldn’t help the bemused smile as her friend wrapped an arm over her shoulders as they returned to their classroom. “At least he’s not in school spreading lies about me, and I didn’t even have to confront him.” At her desk, she slumped into her seat and blew out a shaky breath. She still had to deal with seeing Mr. Thomas in the next lesson. The empty sensation returned to her belly as she took her book out and started reading it in preparation. She hoped they could move beyond what happened yesterday. Her birthday was coming up in a week’s time. Then she’d be eighteen. Her exams would be done in a month and she’d no longer be his student. There would no longer be a barrier between them. In the meantime, she had to find some time to speak to him after the class and make sure he understood the rumours were a lie. She wouldn’t have sex with Malcolm if he was the only boy in school. When the student at the door announced that the teacher was on the way, Lara brushed back her hair to make sure it was neat and sat up straight in her chair. Mrs. Bello walked in and the class stood up and greeted her. Lara peered at the door, expecting Mr. Thomas to walk in, but he didn’t. Was he running late? “Good afternoon, class. I’ll be your Geography teacher for the foreseeable future,” Mrs. Bello said. Jimoh raised his hand and the woman gave him permission to speak. “What about Mr. Thomas. Is he sick?” “No. Mr. Thomas is not sick. He is unavailable at this time.” “Is it true, Mrs. B? Has he been suspended?” Lara’s head whipped back as she glared at Jimoh. What was he talking about? Mr. Thomas couldn’t be suspended. Mrs. B sighed. “Yes, Mr. Thomas has been suspended pending a disciplinary hearing.” Lara’s heart fell into her stomach as murmuring passed through the class. “Quieten down. I don’t want you to worry about this,” Mrs. B continued. “Mr. Thomas is a grown man and he can take care of himself. Now, what topic did you cover last time?” One of the students answered and the lesson began. But Lara’s mind drifted to everything that had happened today. The rumours in school, and the strange way the students had looked at her. Even her sister had come to talk to her when Lola never did before. And now, Mr. Thomas’s suspension. It all had to do with her and what happened yesterday. It had to be. It was all her fault. If she’d found a way to shake off Malcolm, Mr. Thomas wouldn’t have needed to rescue her. If she hadn’t gone into Mr. Thomas’s car and confessed her feelings for him, he wouldn’t be in trouble with the school authorities. He hadn’t done anything wrong. All he’d done was protect her, even when she was being ridiculous by confessing her love for him. She should be the one suspended. She had to see him to apologise. She had to find a way to see him, but she didn’t know where he lived. One person could help her. She glanced in Jimoh’s direction. He lifted his head and met her gaze with his brow cocked. She returned her gaze to her notebook. After the lesson, she grabbed her things and cornered Jimoh in the hallway. “I want to talk to you privately,” she said. “Follow me to my office,” he said and swaggered off. His ‘office’ turned out to be a secluded alcove between the buildings that backed onto the sports field. “What can I do for you?” he asked, his back leaning on the wall and his hands shoved into his trouser pockets. “I hear you’re the man that can get anything,” she said in a low voice. “I am. I can get you whatever you want for the right price.” She leaned forward and whispered in his ear. “I want Mr. Thomas’s home address.” Jimoh sucked in a sharp breath and jerked his head back. “That’s going to cost you.” “How much?” “Fifty thousand Naira.” “What? That’s too high.” “Well, I’m the one taking the huge risk. If I get caught hacking into the school system, I’ll get expelled.” “But I can’t afford such a high price. Will you do it for twenty-five K?” “Okay. I’ll do it for twenty-five, but I want all the gist about Mr. Thomas when you see him.” She was so relieved he agreed that she just said, “Deal!” and they shook on it. It took her about a couple of weeks to save up the first ten thousand that he wanted up front before he would get the information. She had to raid her savings and take it from the money she was given for transportation and lunch. She had to pack a sandwich from home instead of getting cooked lunch at school. And she walked home instead of taking the bus, although Lola paid her fare a couple of times. Two weeks after Mr. Thomas’s suspension, she still hadn’t heard any news about him, and he wasn’t back in school. Her birthday was in two days and her exams were scheduled to start in two weeks, and she really wanted to see him soon. That evening, she got a text from Jimoh asking for her to bring the rest of the money into school the next day. She was so excited, she hardly slept. As soon as she got to school, she sent Jimoh a text and they met up in the library. She gave him the money and he gave her a slip of paper. She tucked it into her pocket. Throughout her lesson, she couldn’t wait for it to be over, knowing that she was finally going to see Mr. Thomas again. Chapter Four “Mum, I understand what you’re saying,” Ike said into the phone braced between his ear and shoulder as he popped the cap off the bottle of beer he’d just taken out of the fridge. He tossed the opener onto the kitchen counter and the cap into the bin under the sink. “I’m sorry about the stress this is causing you and Dad.” A sigh escaped him. He seemed to be doing that a lot recently. Apologising to people. First, it had been Mrs. Bello, the woman who’d been his mentor since he’d started the placement at Hillcrest. Then to Mr. Idowu, the Principal, who had seemed so disappointed by what he’d done. Now, he had to deal with his parents. At least, it proved some consolation that he didn’t have to face his family yet. Their displeasure measured at a different level, considering his past transgressions. He had screwed up. Again. And as his screw ups tended to be of monumental proportions, this time was turning out to be no different. “I know you are, son.” The sadness in his mother’s voice twisted his gut. “Being kicked off your industrial placement is very bad. Is there nothing that can be done? Perhaps I should speak to the school principal.” He sucked in a deep breath and puffed it out. “I know you’re trying to help me, Mum, but that’s not a good idea. The parents of the student are insisting they don’t want me teaching in the school anymore. They’ve threatened to sue the school if I go back.” His mother heaved a big sigh. “I can understand their perspective. If I were in their shoes, I’d probably do the same thing. So what are you going to do?” He took the phone back into his hand and pressed his warm forehead against the cool wall. “I’m going to write the report of my experience during the past few months. Although I’m not due back at University for another couple of months for the presentation, there’s no harm in getting the preparation done early.” “What about Hillcrest? Aren’t they supposed to write a recommendation for you, as well?” “Yes, I’m hoping they’ll take into account all my efforts from the previous eight months I worked there. And not just what happened in the last one month.” At least, that was what he hoped. “I pray so,” she said. “Are you sure you don’t want to come to Lagos in the meantime?” “No, Mum. I’ll be fine here.” He didn’t want to face his father and his wrath. Not yet. Thankfully, he had this apartment which he’d paid for two years. It came in handy because it was close to the university campus, so he could still live here next year. In the previous years, he’d shared digs with his friends. Hopefully, by the time he got to see his parents face to face, he would’ve salvaged the mess of his life. “Okay. You take care of yourself and call me if you need anything.” “I will. Thank you.” He cut the call after they bid farewell to each other. Leaning against the wall in his kitchen, he closed his eyes and took a swig from the bottle of beer. Being kicked off the internship so late in the program year was bad. He wouldn’t find another placement at such short notice. And if Hillcrest gave him a poor recommendation, it would impact on his degree program. That would be a year’s worth of work down the drain. He rubbed the back of his neck. He’d worked so damned hard at the job only to jeopardise it all in one crazy moment. One stupid mistake. His fist curled in tight, fingers digging into his palm, the other hand tightening on the neck of the bottle as he remembered what’s he’d done to Malcolm. “Fuck!” He opened his eyes and walked out, going towards the living room, and took another swig of beer. He didn’t usually drink in the middle of the day. But this call to his parent had left him jittery. With him halfway down the hallway, his doorbell rang. “What now!” he griped. He really wasn’t in the mood for company. With stomping steps, he marched to the front entrance, turned the lock, and yanked it open. His body stiffened and his eyes bulged at the sight before him, his senses pealing. On the level landing, just outside his door, stood the sum of his misery and joy. Lara. He was so used to seeing her in the blue and white of the school uniform that, for a brief moment, he didn’t recognise her. Blood rushed in his veins as he took a step back and stared at her from head to toe. Today, she wore a black tank top, a pair of navy skinny jeans, and black sandals. Her toenails were unvarnished although buffed to shine. He swept his gaze back up, taking in how her clothes hugged her body. She wasn’t a skinny girl. Neither was she chubby. But the curves were in the right places. He swallowed as his knees loosened, desire sparking in his gut, the temptation she presented all too real. She wore no makeup. Perhaps a touch of gloss that enhanced the heart-shaped plumpness of her lips, making them luscious. But nothing marred her beautiful face. Her loose braids were swept over the left shoulder. Overwhelming passion fuelled by her presence spread in his veins. He wanted to take the step and breach the gap dividing them. He wanted to take her face in his hands and seal their lips together. His grip on the handle tightened painfully. The scrape of lock and key brought him back to earth. One of his neighbours would be out before long. They’d see her. She shouldn’t be here. Reaching across, he grabbed her arm and dragged her into his apartment before slamming the door. “What the hell are you doing here?” Even as he asked the question, he regretted his abrasive tone. His frustration still rode his blood. She flinched, taking a step back, her head bowed. “I came to see you. I was worried about you.” “I’m fine. You shouldn’t be here. I’m your—” he was going to say ‘teacher,’ but he couldn’t use that term anymore as he didn’t have a job any longer. Turning, she paced four steps down the hall, swivelled, and came back to stand in front of him. Her chest lifted as she sucked in a breath and let it out in a rush. She lifted her gaze up to his face. “I know I shouldn’t. But I couldn’t help it. After Mrs. B told us that you got suspended, I knew it had to be because of me.” She gesticulated, hands jerking in the air. “So I had to come and see you. I promise you I didn’t tell them what happened in the car between us. I swear I didn’t.” Taking a step in her direction, he rested his palm on her shoulders to calm her agitated motions. “I know.” His palm scorched and he pulled his hand back. “I know you didn’t tell the principal. I didn’t get suspended because of you.” Well, at least not directly. “Oh?” Her forehead creased in a frown. “So why did you get suspended?” Good question. He didn’t like talking about what he’d done. Grimacing, he scrubbed a hand over his face and spun on his heels, walking into the living room. He slumped on a sofa and took another swig of his beer. She came in and stood beside the sofa opposite. Her gaze flitted across the room before settling on him. Her brows drew together and she twisted a single braid around her finger. She did that a lot when something worried her. That he could be the source of her unease prickled his spine. He waved at the sofa. “You can sit down.” “Thank you.” She walked around tentatively and sat on the edge. “Why did you get suspended, sir?” His back stiffened. Why didn’t he send her home straight away? The plea in her softened eyes made his heart clench, answering the question for him. He took another swig of his beer. “I punched Malcolm.” “You did what?” The shock and accusation in her voice made his face burn. He closed his eyes. The scene with the boy resurfaced in his mind. His blood boiled. “He’d been spreading lies about you. Saying he had sex with you.” He opened his eyes and leaned his bent head forward against his palms so she couldn’t see the shame on his face. “I’d heard some kids whispering about it and went in search of Malcolm. I invited him into a classroom to talk and he started mouthing off. I knew it was all lies and asked him to take it back and go and apologise to you, but he refused. I lost my temper and hit him. Then I dragged him to the Principal’s office and reported him for assaulting you. He got suspended because you verified the story when Mr. Idowu questioned you. I got suspended because I struck a student.” She sucked in a sharp breath. “I’m so sorry. You’re coming back to school, right? Malcolm is back to school. Why aren’t you?” He lifted his head and met her gaze. Her brows wrinkled and she bit her bottom lip. He’d seen the expression of concern a few times previously. He felt a constriction in his gut. He’d missed seeing her these past few weeks. He’d missed the gestures; the curl of her lips when she smiled, even the furrowing of her brows when she frowned. “I’m not going back to Hillcrest. I’ve been sacked as a teacher.” “What?” Jerking back, her frown deepened and tears glassed her eyes. “They can’t sack you.” Sighing, he finished the beer and placed the bottle on the small wooden table beside him. “Malcolm’s father demanded they sack me. The school doesn’t want to have a reputation of teachers assaulting students. They had to let me go.” Fat tears dropped down her face and her voice cracked. “It’s not fair. You’re the best teacher.” His chest ached. He couldn’t stand to see her so upset. Before he knew what he was doing, he’d rounded the table and scooped her up onto his lap on the sofa. “It’s okay,” he said softly as he held her close. She pulled back and looked up into his face. “No, it’s not. It’s my fault you are in this position. If I hadn’t given Malcolm the opportunity to start rumours about me, you wouldn’t have been sacked.” His body stiffened. With his right hand, he pulled her glasses off her face. “Can you see me clearly?” She looked confused for a moment, then nodded. “Yes. I can see things close to me. It’s just the things far away that are a bit fuzzy.” “Good. I want you to understand that what Malcolm did was never your fault. Any decent boy or man should know that when a woman says no, it means no. Malcolm is a sociopath. He thinks he can do whatever he likes and get away with it. I simply should’ve controlled my temper better. Okay? I’m paying for my rash actions. I let all my students down by punching him.” She shook her head, sending her loose braids across his cheek. “No. You didn’t let me down. None of the class members think you did a bad thing. We all miss you.” “I miss all of you, too.” You, especially. He stared at her face as his thumb stroked her smooth cheek. His heart felt as if it would punch a hole in his chest. The hairs on his arms and nape stood erect. The last time he’d seen her, he’d denied the affection he had for her. Now, she sat on his lap, the most intimate contact they’d had so far, her warmth wrapping itself around him. She tilted her head up. She had beautiful amber eyes that flared with heat. Her mouth, so lush, so near. Nights, even days, he’d dreamt about having her like this. Now, he couldn’t resist bridging the gap that separated them and brushing their lips together. The motion, just a caress, proved to be immensely more to his mind and body. Tingles spread through his flesh, longing erupting and spreading with the rush of blood in his veins. His heart thudded against his ribs. All the months, the mental struggles of asserting control, of keeping her apart, crumbled in the simple and powerful stroke. “I shouldn’t do this,” he whispered, not pulling back “But I can’t help myself.” She gave a small moan. Her hands crept up his chest, creating searing paths through the cotton of his t-shirt. Her movements were so tentative he could swear she’d never been held like this. Leaning back, he lifted her chin with his fingers. “Have you been kissed before?” Her lashes feathered her cheeks as she closed her eyes. “Yes, but not like you just did. I...Please kiss me again.” She lifted her lids. Her brown eyes shone bright with adoration and expectation, bringing him to his senses. He slid off the sofa, dumping her on it, and turned his back to her. “You should go home.” “Sir?” “I’m not your sir anymore.” He froze. That one obstacle no longer existed. The one thing that had kept him in check and demanded he lived up to the respect and admiration of his students. Now, the risk of him ruining her increased with each minute she stayed. “Go home before I take away your innocence. Before I do what I shouldn’t.” “It was my birthday last week.” Hesitant fingers feathered his back. Through the fabric of his t-shirt, he felt the burn. His breath caught as his knees jellied. “Since you’re not my teacher anymore, there’s no reason we can’t be together.” He squeezed his eyes shut. His hands clenched and unclenched at his sides. True. They had no more barriers, except for the ones that surrounded his soul. When did you become spineless and afraid of living in the moment? Images of the reckless, conceited, and selfish boy he’d once been returned to taunt him. The one who drove carelessly, partied energetically, and fucked rigorously. The one who seized what was on offer with personal gratification in mind. The one who wouldn’t turn his back on a woman unless he’d already satisfied his cravings. Remember your promise. Every action bears a consequence. You are not that boy any more. His older brother’s image overtook the others from his past. His brother had been his voice of reason when he’d been alive. In death, he came back to sit as the angel on Ike’s shoulder, when the devil in him tried to take over. Dragging in a long breath, he puffed it out and opened his eyes. Her fingers still traced his back as if she were uncertain about what to do next. A more experienced girl would press close, making her need blatant. He should send her home for her lack of knowledge alone. “I’m no good for you. No different from Malcolm. I’m not going to write you love letters and read poetry to you.” A girl like her deserved such things. He just didn’t do them. The things he wanted to do to her were dirty and naughty and, frankly, pornographic. He turned around. She stood less than twenty centimetres apart. A little step and there would be no space between them. A little fumble and there would be no clothes separating them. His pounding pulse thundered in his ears. “When I look at you, especially seeing you in that figure-hugging jeans and top, my body goes crazy and I can’t think straight. I want to take all your clothes off and spread you on my sofa. I want to get inside you and cover you with my body. I want to surround you and permeate you. I want to devour you, so that I become you and you become me.” He stared down at her, his hands lifting and dropping by his sides as the intensity of his need threatened to consume him. She didn’t look away, the soft flare of heat in her gaze showed her answering lust. “Do you understand what I’m saying, Lara? The way I feel right now is too deep, too dark, and too intense for someone as young as you to deal with. You should be thinking about your upcoming exams, your results, and your future.” She took a step and closed the distance between them. Reaching out, she took his right hand and placed it on her chest above her left breast. He squeezed his eyes shut and controlled his breathing, resisting the urge to cup the mound of flesh. “Can you feel my heart racing?” she asked. “Yes.” The thud, thud, thud came through against his palm. “It beats so fast because of you. For the past few weeks, I’ve been so distracted. I haven’t been able to study or sleep properly. I’ve been thinking about you. I can’t function without you in my life. I’m ready for you. I love you. Don’t send me away again. Please.” He stroked his hand over the bare skin on her chest up to her neck. He laid his hand there, not gripping but loose and flat. Her pulse jumped under her skin. “Are you sure of what you’re saying?” He stroked his thumb across her bottom lip. “Yes,” she said in a breathy voice as her pupils dilated. “We’ll have sex if you stay. You won’t be a virgin afterwards.” She shifted from one foot to the other. “I know. I want us to be together in every way.” She had an answer for all of his doubts, demolished the last of his restraint. The corner of his lips tilted in a lopsided grin as he curled his right hand around her nape. He’d always thought her to be intelligent and competent about her school work. Why did he think she’d be any different about her life choices? “Lara…” He spoke her name with reverence as he wrapped his left hand around her back and pulled her into his arms. He kissed her, properly this time. Their lips fused, hers hesitant, although she clung to him, arms around his midriff. “Open your mouth. Let me in.” She did, parting her lips with a gasp. He swept in, tongue tracing the entrance, sampling her, preparing her, before plunging in. She tasted sweet—bubble gum and Lara. His left hand slid down her side and cupped the globe of her bum, drawing her close so no space existed between them aside from their clothes. His right hand tangled with the plaits on her nape. He tilted her head back and angled his so he could deepen the kiss. They both moaned into each other’s mouths. Her grip on his shirt tightened as if she would slip to the ground if he let her go. Passion burned his veins. Any more arguments he could come up with as to why they couldn’t be together fizzled away. He broke the kiss, panting for breath, as did she. He rested his forehead against hers. “I care about you and I want you. But I can’t make you any promises. My life is screwed up right now and I need to focus on getting it back on track.” “I know,” she replied in a husky voice. “And I want you to get the best results in your exams, so that should be your top priority. Promise me.” “Yes. I promise.” “Good.” He loosened his grip on her. “Now, we have to talk about sex.” She frowned and dropped her hands, her gaze lowered. “Do we have to? Can’t we just do it?” He smiled. “No, we can’t just do it. It’s going to be your first time. I want to know what you know.” She pulled away and shrugged. “What’s there to know? A man puts his penis inside a woman’s vagina.” He burst out laughing. “This is not a biology lesson.” He took her hand and pulled her down on the sofa beside him. “When two people who care about each other have sex, it is more than a physical coupling. Sex becomes an expression of the way they feel about each other. It becomes about giving and receiving pleasure in the most intimate way, not just with their bodies, but with their minds, too. That’s why some people refer to it as making love. That’s why some wait until they’re married. Don’t you want to wait until you’re married?” She shook her head, distractedly. “No, I don’t.” She sounded emphatic enough to convince him. He stroked a line with his fingers from her temple down to her neck, repeating the action until she shivered. “I don’t just want to have sex with you. I want to make love to you. I want to give you so much pleasure that will make you addicted to me.” Her breath hitched. He held her gaze, watching the dark pupils blow out even more. She made him want to be a better person. The person she deserved. Chapter Five “I’m already addicted to you.” Lara didn’t know what got into her whenever she was around this man, but her mouth just went loose and spouted whatever was in her mind. Perhaps it was because she knew instinctively that he felt something similar. The truth remained that she didn’t think she could live without him. The past few weeks had been a ton of misery for her. She’d been honest when she’d said she couldn’t sleep or study. Even eating had become a chore forced upon her by Judy, who was getting more worried by the day. “And I could get so easily hooked on you,” he said and kissed her with an intensity that blew her mind. She writhed in his arms as his hands stroked her body. Then his hand was palming her breast through her bra and tweaking her nipple through the fabric. An arc of sensation ran from her breast down to between her legs. She moaned as her body arched. What was he doing to her? She felt like she was burning up. She’d never felt like this before. He trailed his lips down her neck. Then, he was tugging her top strap down her arm, exposing her black bra. He looked up and met her gaze. His eyes were so dark and intense, her breath caught in her throat. “I’m going to suck your breast. Would you like that?” He didn’t need to ask her. She was happy to hand over her body to him. She nodded as her tongue seemed to be suddenly heavy in her mouth. He tugged her bra down, pushing up the plump tissue of her left breast. His head lowered and his mouth covered the top flesh which he sucked in. She moaned long and loud and arched her back and clutched at his shoulders. His tongue flicked over her nipple, licking and teasing while his hand slid down her belly to cup between her thighs. He stroked up and down the seam of her jeans and liquid heat converged in her panties. Just that simple stroke and she wanted to take all her clothes off and have him touch wherever he wanted. He lifted his head. “Open your jeans. Let me touch you, please.” Something squeezed at her heart. She hadn’t hidden the fact that she wanted him. Somebody else would take advantage. Malcolm had wanted to jump right in without permission. Even going as far as claiming that he had. Instead, this man was still asking her permission to do what she’d already offered him. How could she not love him even more? With fingers that barely functioned, she fiddled with her zip and buttons until it lay open. “Lift your bum.” She did, and he pulled the denim down to her ankles. He reached down and stroked her through her white cotton panties. She rocked her hips, wanting more. He rubbed her again. “Do you like me touching you?” he asked, his voice rough. “Yes,” she replied as she breathed fast. “How does it make you feel?” “I feel good. So good.” She couldn’t describe the sensation fully. It was all so new. So foreign. Her body was burning up. Her breaths came in pants, as if she couldn’t get enough air into her lungs. “I...I...” “Do you want to come?” He watched her even as he kept touching her, as if assessing her response to him. “Yes! I want to...come,” she breathed out. She’d never had an orgasm before. “I can do that for you. Just tell me one thing.” He kept caressing, up and down, teasing her, driving her insane. “Are you my girl?” “Yes.” Stroke, up and down. Need flowed through her veins. She trashed about from left to right. “You can’t let any of those boys in school touch you. Do you understand?” “Yes.” “Then, you’re my girl,” he said as he pressed down on the bundle of nerves hidden by her underwear. Fever spread out from her sex down to her toes and up to her head. She keened and he kissed her then as she trashed about, succumbing to her first ever orgasm. He held her until her body calmed and she became aware of her surroundings again. Then he pulled her jeans back up. She was a little too exhausted to protest or ask why he wasn’t removing it totally. She knew what should come next, him taking his clothes off and filling her up. But he seemed to be doing the opposite. He tidied up her top and bra, too, so she was looking composed again. “My name is Ike, short for Ikenna.” Warmth spread across her chest that he’d told her. Still addressing him as Mr. Thomas would’ve been weird considering what just happened. Now, she felt as if he’d granted her access into his life and they were finally on the same footing. “You have such a great name.” “Thank you.” He smiled at her but it wasn’t a cocky, self-important grin. No, one side of his face dipped, as if he were saddened. Her heart thudded. Had she said the wrong thing? She frowned and turned away. “Omalicham.” He cupped her face and turned her to face him. “Why is my girl frowning?” “Why did you call me that?” she asked. “Because you are my beautiful girl. I got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside, I got the month of May. I guess you’d say, what can make you feel this way. My girl, talking about my girl. You remind me of an old song from The Temptations.” “Really?” She couldn’t help the massive smile on her face. “Really.” He leaned down and brushed their lips together. “So why was my girl frowning?” “I thought I said something or did something wrong. You were smiling sadly.” “I’m happy and sad.” She opened her mouth to talk but he placed his finger on her lips. “You have such beautiful innocence and at the same time, you are bold and strong,” he said. “Everything about you calls to me to claim you as mine. But at the same time, I’m worried about spoiling you when there are so many things unclear.” “But being with you feels right.” “It does. I enjoy your company and not seeing you the past few weeks hasn’t been easy. I don’t know. There’s a part of me that feels this could end badly. I don’t want to hurt you.” She didn’t know what else to say and just leaned her head against his chest. He scooped her closer and wrapped his hands around her. She listened to the strong thudding of his heart. His skin was warm and firm. In his arms, she felt safe, the worries of the past weeks wiped away, the peace of mind she’d lacked since the death of her parents now restored, perhaps temporarily. He kissed the top of her head before leaning back. “By the way, how come you’re not in school today?” She looked up at him. “We don’t have classes any more, just study periods for revision.” He glanced up at the wall clock. “So you’re supposed to be studying right now?” She nodded. “And you’re here? That’s bad, Lara. I can’t allow you to miss out on your study time.” “I can study later.” “No, you can’t.” He stood up. “Do you have any books in your bag?” “Yes,” she replied tentatively. “Then go and sit at the table and do your work.” “Really? What about making love?” “Not for you right now. Study first, sex later.” He smiled and winked at her. “I’m going to cook lunch.” She grabbed her bag and walked over to the small dining table at the other end of the living room. “You’re cooking?” “Yeah. If I don’t cook, I starve. Simple.” She chuckled as he walked away. She took out her text book and study notes and managed to get into it within a few minutes. The subject she’d been struggling to absorb managed to sink in this time. Perhaps it was because her mind was more settled. An hour later, the aromatic smell of whatever he was cooking had her stomach growling. She looked up from her books to find him leaning against the door post. “How long have you been standing there?” she asked as she leaned against the back of the chair. “A few minutes.” He straightened up. “I enjoy watching you study. You have such an intensity that is mesmerising to see when your focus is on whatever you’re reading.” She lowered her gaze. Her cheeks heated up. He pulled out a chair next to her. “I’ve learned so much from you.” “You have?” “Yes. I wished I was as studious as you when I was your age. I wouldn’t have gotten into as much trouble as I did.” “What kind of trouble?” “In those days, I was more interested in being popular and getting the girls than I was in studying. When it was time for my exams, my parents had to pay for a private tutor and I had to work doubly hard because they banned me from socialising until after my exams. It was a pain to have to study so hard in a short period of time. To be honest, it was sheer good fortune that I passed my exams.” “But you did well in your exams.” “Not as well as I could have if I’d focused all through the year. It’s why I spend so much effort making sure each student understands the subject. I don’t want any of them to struggle when it’s time for exams.” She reached across and covered his hand on the table. “When I started this year, Geography was my least favourite elective. But I can tell you now, it’s the subject I worry about the least. I could walk into the exam hall tomorrow and I’m sure I’ll be fine. You laid a great foundation for all of us. Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” He settled his hand on her nape and pulled her in for a kiss. She got lost in it, savouring his taste and his scent and the sensations he evoked within her body. She really couldn’t wait to get more physical with him again. “Now, for some food,” he said when he broke away. “You can pack away the books for now and set the table.” “Okay.” She piled her books together and moved them to the floor beside her bag in the corner. Then she went in search of Ike. A smile curled her lips thinking of him as Ike and not Mr. Thomas. The kitchen was at the end of the short hallway. It wasn’t a massive room, the maple-finished units set up in an L-shape along the wall with a black worktop. A sink sat under the window overlooking the rooftops of the other houses in the neighbourhood. His apartment was on the third floor of the building. Ike stood by the cooker, stirring something in a pot. He pointed to a drawer. “The cutleries and place mats are over there.” She took out the items and set places for the two of them. He came out carrying two plates of boiled yam, egg stew with shredded cabbage and carrot coleslaw. “What would you like to drink? There are drinks in the fridge. Just take whatever you want.” “Okay.” She returned to the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of Fanta and found some glasses. The square table had room for four. They both sat next to each other rather than opposite, which was how she’d set it up. She didn’t want to be too far from him. She poured half the drink for him and half for her. She took a bite of the food and had to comment on how nice it was. “You cook very well.” “My mother had two boys first before she had a girl. And she’s always worked as long as I could remember. She and my father built the businesses together. Although we had house maids, she always made it clear to us that we needed to learn how to do chores for ourselves. My brother and I would help out in the kitchen with preparing the meals during the weekends. By the time we left home for university, we’d learnt how to cook most meals we ate at home.” “That’s impressive. I’m not sure I can cook most things well, but I can cook the basics like rice and stew, egusi soup, yam, beans.” “That’s a good start. You’ll need the skill when you go to university, otherwise all your money will go on mamaput.” They both laughed and carried on eating. “So you have a sister?” “Yes, my baby sis, Ify. She’s in Lagos with my parents. She’s at IBS in Lekki.” “Wow. That’s my old school. What year is she in? Perhaps I know her.” “She’s in year 10.” “That’s Lola’s year. I’m sure Lola knows her. It’s a small world, isn’t it?” “It sure is.” Lara stood up and packed up the empty dishes. She put them in the sink and started running the tap to wash up. Ike came up behind her. “You don’t have to do that.” “I should. You cooked the meal. It’s only fair that I wash up afterwards.” “Okay.” As she washed and rinsed, he dried the plates with the kitchen towel and put them back into the cupboard. When she finished and dried her hands, he covered her back with his body and kissed her neck. She moaned softly and instinctively tilted her head, giving him more access. Her body warmed up as if he’d lit a fire within her. He kissed her one last time and lifted his head. Sighing, she turned around. She really couldn’t wait any more. “You said after I finish studying we could...you know...” He stepped back. “About that, I’ve been thinking. Come with me.” He took her hand. Heart pounding, she followed him, thinking they were headed for his bedroom. Instead, he took her back into the living room. “So I’ve been thinking that I may have a solution that wouldn’t make me feel so bad for wanting you. We’re going to wait until after your exams. That way, you can concentrate on studying without distractions.” “What? No!” Shaking her head, she crossed her arms across her chest. She’d been waiting for what seemed like forever to get this far with him. First, he’d denied wanting her. Then he’d confessed the intensity of his feelings. Now, he wanted to postpone having sex? “Think of it this way, it’ll be our way of celebrating completing your finals and leaving high school.” “No.” She squeezed her face and shook her head again. She couldn’t wait to feel the delicious sensations of orgasm. Remembering what he’d done to her made heat flash on her skin and her panties slick. He couldn’t just tease her and then tell her she had to wait. “Think about it. It’ll be so much fun because we both waited, and a double celebration.” She sighed heavily. When he put it like that, then it made sense. Would it be so bad to wait a couple of weeks? She’d waited this long already. Perhaps they could formally celebrate the start of their relationship at the same time and make plans for the future. “Okay.” Grinning, he caressed her right side, spreading tingles all over her body. “Good girl. Now, you can come here. But just one day a week and we have to pre-arrange it so I make sure there’s no one else visiting at the same time. Here—” he pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Give me your phone number.” She called out the numbers and he entered it on his phone. Her phone in her bag started ringing. “That’s me calling you so you can store my number,” Ike said. She walked over, picked up her backpack and took the phone out, saved his number, then heard the sound of someone turning a lock. “Henry is back,” Ike said. Chapter Six “Man, you’re walking on the wire with this one,” Henry Coker said while dribbling the basketball in his left hand as he took steps towards Ike who stood in the defence position of the court. “How do you mean?” Ike asked as he waited for his friend to make his move. Sweat dripped down his back, his mesh sports vest damp and clinging to his skin. The sun was low in the hazy sky but the heat of the day hadn’t faded yet. Ike couldn’t wait any longer. He’d been waiting around too much. He’d finished working on his report. Still, he awaited the final decision from Hillcrest with regards to their recommendations about him. Waiting was driving him crazy. He had so much energy to expend. Not going to work every day and dealing with highly-strung teenagers meant he wasn’t burning off as much energy as before. And his libido was in excess as he hadn’t had sex in months. Not since promising to wait for Lara. He hadn’t touched another woman. “This affair you’re having with that girl—what’s her name?” Henry dribbled to the left. Ike moved to block him. “You mean Lara?” His friend bounced the ball into his right and headed in that direction to bypass him. He leapt from the ground, released the ball so that it banked off the backboard and into the basket. He turned around, grinned, and backed off. “Yeah, her. I wouldn’t have made such an easy shot if you weren’t distracted by her.” “Whatever.” Ike picked up the ball and bounced it a couple of times. He watched his friend and calculated his moves to score a shot. A crossover dribble, euro step, and a lay-up wouldn’t work since Henry had already used that move. Then again, Henry was probably thinking Ike wouldn’t use it for the same reason. “Seriously, man, hasn’t she screwed up your life enough?” His friend’s words cut into his thoughts. “You lost your job because of her. If the school finds out you’re in a relationship with her, you can kiss your recommendation goodbye. You need that letter, man.” Ike straightened and sighed, holding the ball up in his right hand. “I know. But every time I think about letting her go, it’s like I’m ripping out my own heart. I just can’t do it.” Henry shook his head. “What have you done with my friend? Is she that great in the sack?” Ike chuckled, bounced the ball off the floor between his legs, caught it with his left hand, paused, and lowered his voice. “If only. We’re not having sex.” Henry stood there mouth agape and Ike took the opportunity. He powered up towards the basket in a jump shot. The ball curved high over Henry, who only reached up at the last minute, and descended into the basket. Ike walked over to the bench and picked up the towel. He wiped his face and neck before reaching for the bottle of water, unscrewing the cap, and guzzling down half the contents. Henry walked over to him with the ball in his hand. He dropped it on the ground beside the bench and picked up a bottle of water, too. “You’re not having sex? That’s got to be a first,” his friend said solemnly. “Tell me about it.” “This is serious.” Ike shrugged. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I know I shouldn’t be with her. She’s sweet and intelligent. Someone like her shouldn’t be with someone like me.” “She’s young. She should hang with her age mates. Boys her age.” Henry’s words echoed his thoughts. “Fuck!” Ike flung the empty bottle of water at the trash can. “Do you remember what we were like at that age? We fucked any girl that let us.” “Speak for yourself.” “You know what I mean. It was all about fun. It wasn’t about serious relationships. And we weren’t even that good at it. More like fumbling and spilling than anything else.” “As I said, speak for yourself.” Henry grinned as he wiped his face with a black towel. A grin tugged at the corner of Ike’s lips but he couldn’t give in to his friend’s ribbing. “Anyway, the thought of any of those boys doing that to her just makes me want to hit something.” Which was why he’d hit a student in the first place. “Her first time should be special for all the right reasons. She shouldn’t have idiots like Malcolm Ibeh introducing her to sex.” “Malcolm is the boy you punched, right?” “Right.” “Well, if she’s as intelligent as you say, then perhaps, she wants to wait a while before she has sex.” His friend tossed his empty bottle into the bin. “Oh, you don’t know her. She’s headstrong and knows what she wants. She wants sex. And trust me, she’ll do it soon. With or without me.” And didn’t that idea just make his gut congeal. “Hmmm. I still say you’re playing with your future and not in a good way. Any more screw ups and your father will go ape shit.” “Yeah. I know. I’ll be careful.” Nothing else he could do short of cutting Lara off. “Anyway, let’s go clean up and then we’re going out. We haven’t hit the town in so long.” They packed up the items they’d brought downstairs for the game and headed to the main entrance of the apartment block. The building was located in a large estate. The sport courts, basketball and tennis, were at the back. A soft play area was located at the side with a slide, climbing frame, and swings for children. The front housed the parking slots for the ten apartments and visitors, all in a walled and gated complex. The apartments were priced higher than a normal student could afford. But Ike had negotiated the expense with his parents as part of the terms of his placement. He couldn’t stay in students digs during his internship year. Henry had been his friend since their high school days. His friend’s family background was totally different from his. But they’d become fast friends once they’d bonded in school. In their first two years at university, they’d shared digs. So when Ike got the apartment, he still wanted to have his friend close. But Henry couldn’t afford even half the rent but he insisted on paying his way with everything else. He paid the utilities bills and shopped for groceries. Ike stopped as he rounded the corner to the front door. Mrs. Bello was stepping out of her car. “That’s one of the teachers from Hillcrest,” he said to Henry. “Please take my stuff up. I’ll see what she wants.” “Okay. I’ll see you upstairs. I’m going to grab a shower.” Ike wiped the sweat on his neck and shoulders as he walked over to the woman he hadn’t seen for a few weeks. “Good evening, Mrs. Bello. Are you visiting someone in the building?” “Hi, Mr. Thomas.” She beamed a smile at him. “I came to see you.” “Oh, okay. Come on upstairs.” “No,” she said, her keys in her hand but the car door not locked. “Can we talk in my car?” Grimacing, he stared down at his body. “I’ve just been playing basketball and I’m all sweaty. I don’t want to mess up your car.” She waved her hand dismissively, pulled the door open, and got into the driver’s seat. “Don’t worry about that. I won’t be long.” “Of course.” He nodded and walked around to the other side and got in, too. If she didn’t mind, why should he? When he shut the door, she turned on the engine and the AC hummed. Cool air on his hot skin, bliss. “What did you want to talk to me about?” he asked, feeling a little edge and that something must be wrong for her to drive out to see him. She turned sideways to face him. “I have good news about your final recommendation letter. I was speaking to Mr. Idowu and managed to convince him that we shouldn’t mention the incident with Malcolm Ibeh in there.” Ike closed his eyes and tipped his head forward as he sucked in a deep breath and puffed it out. Leaning back, he opened his eyes. “Thank you so much. I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to hear this.” At last, perhaps his luck was turning. “Yes, I figured you’d want to know the good news.” Mrs. Bello smiled but it wasn’t the full beaming smile he was used to receiving from her. Something sad darkened her face. “Something else came up,” she continued. His heart thudded in his chest and he just stared at her because he couldn’t bring himself to ask the question. What? She looked away, her gaze fixed at some point outside the windshield. “One of the teachers mentioned to me that she’s seen Lara Johnson in your car twice driving past her house. I did a quick investigation and also found out that on those days she mentioned, Lara was not in attendance in school.” She paused, as if to give Ike the chance to absorb his words. He couldn’t even look her in the eyes even if she was looking at him. His stomach rolled and sweat beaded his forehead although the car interior was cool. Shit. Shit. Shit. He should’ve known that it was possible for him to be seen together with Lara. His car was very distinctive. Not many people drove a Toyota GT Primo Sports and certainly not in his colour. But he always dropped her back home every time she came to his to make sure she got home safely. He swallowed several times as he awaited the dreaded outcome of this conversation. The loss of everything he’d worked hard for these past years. “While I don’t want to jump to conclusions as to why a student would be in your car, there is very little I can come up with to explain it. I need to stress that it is inappropriate for teachers to socialise with students. It is easy for simple gestures to be misconstrued. “I’m not saying that you’ve done anything wrong. But I will have to insist that you stop associating with Lara or any other student of Hillcrest. I know you’re no longer a staff at the school. But I still have to write the recommendation. My reputation is at stake and I won’t make the recommendation unless I can get your guarantee that you will have no contact with Lara.” “Mrs. Bello. I...” He trailed off as he couldn’t get himself to say the words. Could he really promise that he would never see Lara again? On the other hand, he knew a threat when he heard it, and Mrs. Bello was threatening to ruin his future if he didn’t promise her to keep away from Lara. “Look, I’m not trying to be difficult or mean,” she said when he didn’t speak for a while. “I understand what it is to be a young person. Everything seems more urgent than it is. People can make mistakes. But you see, I’m a mother. These students are like my children. Their welfare is very important to me. I want to ensure that when they leave Hillcrest, they leave in a good frame of mind. Lara is a young girl with a bright future. I don’t want anything that would derail that future.” The implication that he could ruin Lara’s future didn’t escape him. He hadn’t really thought about it that way. At this age of her life, ruining her meant getting her pregnant. What if they had sex as they’d been planning to after her exams and she got pregnant? What would that do to Lara? Of course, he’d planned to use precaution as he always did, but there were never any guarantees. The only guarantee was abstinence. The only guarantee was to keep away from Lara. His heart hurt and he heaved a sigh. He had to do the right thing for Lara’s sake. “I understand, Mrs. Bello. I promise to keep away from the Hillcrest students.” “Good. I’m glad you understand.” She puffed out air as if she’d been holding her breath. Ike opened the car door and paused. “Gloria Rawlins is a close family friend and her parents expect me to watch over her.” “I’m aware of your existing relationship with Gloria’s family, so she’s exempted. She’s a boarder, anyway, and isn’t permitted out of school until the end of her exams.” The knot in his stomach tightened. He didn’t miss the skewed message she delivered. He could socialise with Gloria because her parents approved it. But he couldn’t socialise with any other student. He suspected the woman didn’t want him having a relationship with Lara. Period. The old him would argue that as he no longer stood as their teacher and as long as they were legal, he could do whatever he liked. Or he’d give her a fake smile and nod but the minute she left, he’d stick his middle finger up in a rude gesture and do whatever he liked. The old him had died with his brother. The new him nodded, stepped out, and spoke politely. “Thanks for stopping by.” “No problem. See you in a few weeks at your presentation.” He didn’t stay to watch the car reverse out of the spot. Instead, he headed inside and up the stairs. His feet felt like they were weighted with lead, each step heavy, and his body felt as if it would crumple in on itself. He opened the door to his apartment, walked in, shut it, and leaned against the wooden slab. Slowly, his legs gave out on him and he slumped to the cool tiles on the floor, holding his head in his hands. A small creak announced a door opening. Henry stepped out of his room wearing a pair of blue shorts. As soon as he saw Ike on the floor, he hurried over. “What happened?” Water drops glistened on his friend’s head and shoulders. “I’ve been banned from associating with students of Hillcrest.” “Shit,” Henry exclaimed and sat down on the floor in front of Ike. “How did that happen?” Ike told his friend about his conversation with Mrs. Bello, expecting his friend to say ‘I told you so’ at the end. Instead, Henry placed his hand on Ike’s shoulder. “I feel your pain. What are you going to do?” Ike scrubbed his face. “I have no other choice. I can’t see her again. I have to end it.” The phone in his shorts rang and he pulled it out of the pocket. “Speak of the devil. It’s Lara. What am I going to say to her?” “Just tell her it’s over. That you guys can’t see each other anymore.” “But that will mess her up. She still has exams to complete. I will never forgive myself if she fails her finals because of me.” “Okay.” Henry snatched the phone off his hand. “What are you doing?” Ike sat up straight. “Let me deal with this,” Henry said before pressing the button to answer the call and turned on the speaker. “Hi, this is Henry.” “Oh, Henry. Hi.” There was a pause on the line as she sucked in a breath. “Can I speak to Ike, please?” “He is busy right now. I’ll let him know you called and he’ll call you back.” “O...kay. I’ll talk to him later. Thank you.” “Bye,” he said. “Bye.” She hung up. Henry handed the phone back to Ike. “You’re just going to have to avoid her until her exams are done.” *** Lara’s foot drummed against the floor of the bus as she rode it the few stops from her house to Ike’s. Excitement made her body tremble. She’d finished her last examination paper yesterday. So she was officially free. Free from high school. Free to date Ike openly. They’d seen each other whenever possible these past few weeks. Although he made her use most of the time to study, she was still glad that she’d had his company. He’d helped her out when she’d gotten stuck with any subject. Before each exam, he’d sent her a short message wishing her the best. Now, she couldn’t wait to take their relationship to the next level. She planned to surprise him so she hadn’t informed him that she would be at his soon. But they’d agreed previously that once her exams were over, there wouldn’t be any reasons why she couldn’t go to his whenever she was free. She hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks so she couldn’t wait to see him again. “Good afternoon, oga gateman,” she greeted the man who guarded the entrance. “Welcome.” He waved her in. She walked down the long drive but stopped in her tracks as she saw Ike coming out of his building. With him was a girl she didn’t recognise at first. The girl was leaning against him and they were talking in low tones that seemed way too intimate from where she stood. Lara’s heart stopped and her legs became sluggish as she got closer. Another person joined them. Henry, his flat mate. “Ike,” she called out but her voice came out so low, she wasn’t sure if he heard her. Ike looked up and saw her. His expression registered surprise. He extracted himself from the girl whom she now saw was Gloria Rawlins and came towards her. “Lara, you should’ve called me before coming over. I’m on my way out.” “I called you several times but you didn’t return my calls.” She glanced over at Gloria who was staring at her with the usual malice. Ike pulled her aside. He scrubbed a hand over his face before he spoke. “I’m sorry about that. The thing is, we can't see each other anymore.” “Why?” She glanced at Gloria. “We just can’t.” More distracted with the fact that Gloria was here, she didn’t fully absorb his words. “What is Gloria Rawlins doing here?” “She’s my friend.” “She’s your...” Suddenly, the penny dropped and she stared up at Ike. “You are breaking up with me.” He just stared at her with a distant look in his eyes and his voice sounded flat. “I’m sorry.” “You’re sorry?” Her gut rolled and she doubled over as she grew sick. “Are you okay?” he asked, sounding concerned as he reached for her. “Don’t touch me!” She flinched away from his touch. She’d been such a fool. How could she not have seen this? She’d been so consumed by him that she hadn’t seen that he could have any other girl in their school. She wasn’t anything special. But Gloria was pretty and popular. Why wouldn’t he want her? Tears burned the back of her eyes and her throat hurt. She glared at him and then at Gloria. “I hate you!” She stumbled backwards, turned, and ran towards the gates. Tears fell down her face as she walked on the street. Her vision blurred as her lenses clouded. She pulled the frame off her face and swiped her eyes. Half-stumbling, half-walking, she didn’t know how far she walked until she felt the presence of a car beside her and someone called out her name. She wiped her face again and glanced back with a squint since she didn’t have her glasses on to find Malcolm sauntering towards her. She didn’t want to talk to him. So she continued walking. “Hey, Lara,” he called out. She could hear his quickened footsteps behind her. “I just want to talk.” Chapter Seven Lara didn’t stop. Her heart ached and her shoulder slumped as if she carried the weight of the world. She wanted to go crawl into a hole and cry for the next year. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, least of all Malcolm. “Malcolm, leave me alone,” she said in a choked voice. “I’m so sorry, Lara. I really am. Please, just talk to me.” His voice sounded pained, as if he were genuinely sorry for the things he’d done in the past. She stopped walking and clutched her bag to her chest, her head lowered. Malcolm caught up and came to stand in front of her. “Thank you for stopping. I was just driving past and saw you. I wanted to say that I’m really sorry for all the things I did in the past. I know I was an asshole and you probably would never forgive me. But I’d be grateful if you could.” Lara sucked in a deep breath and blew it out. “I forgive you, Malcolm.” She did. She hadn’t thought about him in weeks, anyway. Right now, she had a bigger sorrow to deal with. “Thank you so much,” he said and came closer. “Are you crying? What happened?” She shook her head. Tears smarted her eyes as the pain of breaking up with Ike crashed over her. “It’s nothing.” “Don’t say that. You’re upset. Did someone do something to you?” He placed his hand on her arm, the tone of his voice concerned. Perhaps it was just hearing him sound so worried about her when she’d never thought he could be so kind—she broke down in sobs as she spoke. “It’s Ike.” “Who is Ike?” he asked gently. “What did he do to you?” She realised he probably didn’t know Ike was Mr. Thomas. She didn’t even know his first name until a few weeks ago. But she didn’t clarify. Probably best if Malcolm didn’t know. “He’s my boyfriend. He broke up with me.” “Oh, I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?” She shook her head and pressed the heel of her right hand to her eyes. She wiped her glasses against her top before wearing them again. “No. I just want to go home.” “Okay. I’ll take you home.” “No. Don’t worry.” “I can’t let you go home in this state. Let me take you, please. I promise I’ll drive you straight home.” She didn’t have any energy to argue with him, so she sighed and nodded. Perhaps if she let him take her home, she would get there sooner and have some peace and quiet all to herself. “Okay.” He took her arm and led to the car. It was a small, red, 2-door VW Golf hatchback. He opened the door and helped her in. Then he got in the other side. Lara noted that he was being very nice, much nicer than he’d been to her at the start of the school year. She gave him her address and he drove her straight home. She’d been expecting him to start asking her out like he used to, but he didn’t say anything all the way until they got to the front of her house. “Thank you,” she said as she unlocked the door. “You’re welcome,” he said. “Take care of yourself.” She was so shocked that Malcolm had been so nice to her without even asking for anything in return. But it didn’t take away from her sadness. Luckily, there was no one home when she arrived. She went straight upstairs to her bedroom and stayed there for the rest of the day. Each time her phone buzzed, she rushed to pick it up, only to toss it aside when it wasn’t Ike calling or texting her. She hoped he would call and tell her it had been a mistake or just a moment of madness. That he wasn’t breaking up with her. Two days later, Lara and Lola were sitting out on the terrace when a visitor arrived. Lara was shocked to see Malcolm walking through the pedestrian gate after the guard opened it. “What’s he doing here?” Lola asked. “I don’t know,” Lara replied as she stood up. Malcolm was carrying a small shopping bag from a popular eatery in the neighbourhood. He came up to them. “Hi, Lara. How are you doing?” he said, smiling at her. “I’m okay, thanks. What are you doing here?” she asked. “I came to see how you were doing. After the other day, I was worried about you. And since I don’t have your phone number, I thought I should pop by and see how you are coping.” She was still wary of him. Of men in general. But this caring Malcolm was different from the arrogant boy she’d known in school. Perhaps finally graduating from high school had matured him. “Thank you for coming by, but I’m okay. You don’t need to worry.” “Okay. That’s good.” He smiled. “Here, I brought this for you.” He held out the bag in her direction. “What is it?” “It’s meat pie and some soft drinks.” “You didn’t have to buy anything for me,” she said, not reaching for the bag. “I know. But I went out to buy some snacks for my mum. I drove past your house on the way to the restaurant and I thought about you. So I decided to buy some for you.” Wow. Malcolm was thinking about her, enough to buy something for her? She was speechless for a moment. “That’s really nice of you,” Lola said and took the bag from him. “Thank you,” Lara said when she found her voice. “No problem. Enjoy it. I have to go now. My mum is waiting for her food.” “Okay,” she said but didn’t move towards him. Lola nudged her. “See him off,” her sister said in a low voice. Lara pushed her hand off but followed Malcolm down the drive. At the gate, she bid him farewell and he did the same. She returned to Lola who was peeking into the bag and taking out the snack. “What’s going on with Malcolm?” She shrugged and sat down. “Nothing.” “Don’t give me that. You guys were squabbling in school and he was spreading nasty lies about you. All of a sudden, he’s coming to our house and bringing you meat pie.” Lara puffed out a deep breath. “Malcolm and I have settled our differences. It turns out he can be very nice when he wants to be.” “Really? Just like that?” “Yes. Just like that.” “So what did he mean by what happened the other day?” Lola took a sip of lemonade. “I don’t want to talk about it.” “Come on. You’ve got to tell me. You know I won’t stop nagging you until you tell me.” “Okay, if I tell, you have to promise not to tell anyone, including Aunty Judy. Promise me.” “Sure, I promise,” Lola said. Lara swallowed. “I had a boyfriend and he broke up with me on Thursday. I was crying when Malcolm found me. He was so nice to me and he brought me home.” Tears welled up in her eyes again. The pain hadn’t gone away no matter how much she tried not to think about it. “Oh, no.” Lola stood from her chair and came over and hugged her. “I’m so sorry.” It felt so good to have someone to hug her. Malcolm had tried but she hadn’t allowed him to touch her. She hadn’t trusted him enough to relax in his arms. When she’d calmed down enough, Lola returned to her chair. “Who is the boy you were dating?” “It doesn’t matter.” She’d promised Ike she wouldn’t tell anyone. Even though he’d broken it off and she was heartbroken, she couldn’t bring herself to betray him. “He doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore. It seems he found a new girlfriend.” “Just like that? Men as such bastards,” Lola said. Lara grimaced. She’d never thought she’d ever allow that word to be used to describe Ike. He had always been good to her until this week. They’d only known each other for less than a year, but he’d had more impact in her life than anyone else she’d met. She wouldn’t be forgetting him in a hurry. “Well, let’s forget your ex and enjoy this gift from Malcolm. At least, it seems he has come to his senses and is treating you the way he should’ve done right from the start.” “What? Malcolm doesn’t want to be my boyfriend.” Lola laughed and shook her head. “For my older sister, you are so naive when it comes to boys.” Lara laughed. “What do you know about boys? You’re only sixteen.” “I’ll be seventeen in a few months. And I know that I’ve had more boyfriends than you.” That was certainly true. Lola had always attracted male attention. She knew she was a beautiful girl and wasn’t afraid of using her looks to get what she wanted. “Seriously, Lola, you scare me sometimes. Don’t tell me you’ve had sex?” “As if. I’m not going to give it up to any old person just like that. I’m waiting for my Prince Charming.” “But you’re the one who claims to have had loads of boyfriends.” “Yes. I have to kiss loads of frogs before I find my prince. It doesn’t mean I’m doing more than just kissing.” “Perhaps that’s what I should do. I should start kissing loads of frogs instead of waiting for the prince.” Except, she thought she’d found the prince in Ike. Instead, he’d turned into the big bad wolf. “Yeah, you should, starting with Malcolm. He wants to be your boyfriend.” Lara couldn’t help laughing at her sister’s words. But a week later, Lola was proved right when Malcolm turned up at her house again, this time inviting both of them out for a drive to get ice cream. Because Lola was with them, Lara was able to relax and join in the jovial conversation. She found out that Malcolm was the last child in a family of four siblings, with three older sisters who were either already married or at university. He was close to his mother and spoke quite fondly about her. “Can I talk to you privately?” he asked when they arrived back at her house. “I’ll see you inside,” Lola said as she got out of the back seat. “Malcolm, thanks again for the ice cream.” “You’re welcome.” He waited until Lola had gone through the gates before speaking. “Lara, I’m having a party next week, and I’d like you to come to it.” He opened the glove compartment and took out a sky blue envelope. “This is the invitation.” “Thank you, Malcolm, but I’m not really a party kind of girl.” “Well, this is a small party to celebrate finishing our exams and graduating from high school. It also happens to be my birthday. I really hope you’ll come. Please.” Pressing her lips together in a grimace, she sighed. Going to a party so soon after breaking up with Ike didn’t appeal to her. Then again, why should she sit at home and mope around just because he preferred being with Gloria? Malcolm had been making an effort these past two weeks. His party sounded like it would be great fun. Still, unease weighted her body about spending more time with him. “Okay, I’ll think about it.” “Fair enough. My phone number is on the card. Also, I want you to come to the party as my girlfriend.” Shifting back in her seat, she gaped at him. He couldn’t be serious. “What are you saying?” “I like you very much, Lara. I know I didn’t go about it the right way before. But I’ve changed. I’m serious about you. I’ve been telling my mum and sisters about you and they want to meet you.” “Malcolm, no.” She shook her head and unlocked the door. She couldn’t deal with this right now. Not so soon after Ike. Her emotions were still all over the place. Climbing out of the car, she shut the door. Malcolm got out, too, and came around, standing by the bonnet as she walked to the gates. “Lara, please think about it. I think you’re beautiful and I’m serious about making you my girlfriend. But there’s no pressure. Whatever you decide, just let me know. I hope you’ll come to the party, anyway.” Wow. Her mouth slackened and she cocked her head to stare at him. Who was this Malcolm who was being such a considerate gentleman? This couldn’t be the same boy who’d harassed her for weeks, months, to be his girlfriend. Then when she’d rejected him, he’d spread nasty rumours about her. “Okay, I’ll let you know what I decide.” “Thank you.” He reached across and squeezed her hand. “Take care of yourself. I look forward to your response.” “Thanks.” She opened the pedestrian gate and walked in a daze. In the house, she found Lola in the living room along with Judy. “Malcolm just invited me to his party next week.” She held up the invitation card. “Seriously?” Lola snatched the card and gawped. “You know this is going to be the hottest party in Enugu this year, right?” “That’s not all. He wants me to go as his girlfriend. He asked me out.” “Oh. My. God.” Lola shouted. “You’ve got to say yes.” “She doesn’t have to say yes, unless she likes him,” Judy chimed in. “Of course she likes him. He’s been treating her nice these past few days.” Lara nodded. “He’s being the kind of guy I would love to date. And I’m struggling to find any excuses to say no to him.” Except that her broken heart belonged to another person. But she couldn’t keep pining for Ike. He hadn’t bothered to contact her over the past two weeks. And it didn’t look like he ever would. Would it be so wrong to date Malcolm? He was excited about being with her. At least, their relationship would be out in the open. She wouldn’t have to worry about sneaking over to his house. He could come over here. He’d already met Lola. She’d have no problems introducing him to Judy. And he wanted to introduce her to his family. They would have a good healthy relationship. Just like other teenagers. “Anyway, I told Malcolm I’ll think about it, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” Chapter Eight “Are we still going to Rush?” Henry asked. “Of course. That’s where we are headed,” Ike replied as he drove the long route that would take him past Lara’s house. “It’s just that this is not the most direct way,” his friend observed. “Yeah. I know.” He grimaced. “I’m just doing a detour.” When had he become a stalker? How many times had he driven past Lara’s house in the hopes of seeing a glimpse of her? For the past few weeks, he’d been doing this at least once a week, perhaps twice. He’d considered stopping once and waiting until someone came out of the house. Hopefully, Lara. But he’d known that would have been unhealthy. That would actually amount to stalking her. This way was better. At least, if he drove past and caught a sight of her, there would be no harm done because no one would know he’d seen her. Because he did want to see her. He’d promised not to make contact with her. He couldn’t touch her. But nothing prevented him from looking at her. And like an addict weaning himself off an addiction, he’d had momentary relapses when the urge to be with her had overwhelmed him and he’d gotten into his car and driven down towards her house, like he was doing right now He approached the building, driving slower than the speed limit, and glanced across. The two sisters came out of the house followed by a woman he presumed was their mother’s sister whom they lived with. Warmth radiated through his body at seeing Lara, and his heart raced. She appeared happy, laughing with her sister as they walked towards a car. He kept glancing between her and the road until she disappeared from view totally. The urge to turn around gripped him. He slowed down and put the car in park. “Lara lives in that house back there,” he said, looking into his rear-view mirror as he hoped to catch another glimpse of her. He hadn’t seen her in weeks. Now that he’d seen her, he wanted more. “She does?” Henry twisted in his seat to look at him and then out through the back window. “What are you doing, man?” “I’m just looking. Nobody said I couldn’t look at her. I just want to know she’s okay.” “Did you see her?” “Yes.” “Did she look okay?” “Yes. As beautiful as she’s always been.” As much as he was happy that she looked good, a part of him withered that she could be functioning without him. “I miss her.” “Man, I feel you.” His friend placed a hand on his shoulder. The gates to Lara’s house opened and a silver CR-V drove out. It stopped just outside the gate. Lara walked out of the gates. She was wearing jeans, tank top, and sandals, just like the first day she’d shown up at his house. She opened the door to the back, glanced over her shoulder towards Ike’s car. His heart stopped as she seemed to hesitate. She must know that he was in there. His car was very easily recognisable. She dropped her hand from the door and started walking towards where he was parked. He wanted to get out of the car and meet her halfway. He’d apologise and they’d kiss and make up. Instead, he sat there, watching as she took steps that closed the gap between them. “Man, you don’t want her coming any closer. You won’t be able to explain this.” His friend's words prompted him into action. He put the car into gear and drove away in a spiral of tyres and dust. He didn’t look in his rear window, for fear of seeing the disgust on Lara’s face at his cowardice. Neither him nor Henry said anything until they arrived at Rush. The bar wasn’t busy yet. Henry ordered the drinks when they settled in. Ike took his phone out. He held it in his hands as he thought about sending Lara a message. But he knew that even if he did write one, he would never send it. All the other messages he’d ever written to her since they’d broken up were sitting in his draft folder waiting to be sent. He never would. What was he going to do to get her out of his mind forever? She’d obviously moved on. He needed to do the same. “There’s a party on campus tonight,” Henry said as he looked up from his phone. “I’m not in the mood for a party,” Ike said as he took a sip of his drink. “That’s exactly what you need. You need to get over you-know-who.” Henry swirled his drink in the glass. “Think about all the fresh girls who will be there.” Ike didn’t want to think about any other girls except the one person he wanted. But he couldn’t have her. So perhaps his friend was right that he needed to let go and start thinking about other girls. His phone pinged and he opened the message from Gloria. There’s a hot party in town tonight. Want to come? He sent a reply. Where? Gloria was the daughter of Chief Rawlins, a close friend of his father. He’d been like a big brother to her since they both schooled in the same city and their parents lived in Lagos. Zik Hall. Are you coming? Zik Hall was one of the guest houses at University. It had a hall that was sometimes hired out for outside functions by non-university personnel. It also had residential rooms that could be used by visiting personnel. But the place was usually full of university students even if they were just acting as ushers. He couldn’t leave Gloria alone with all those older boys. She was still only eighteen even if she acted older sometimes. And he knew what kind of shenanigans went on in the Zik hall rooms. It was quite notorious during parties. Yes. I’ll be there, he replied. “We’re going to a party at Zik Hall,” he said to his friend when he put his phone away. “That’s the same party I’m talking about.” “Cool. One more drink and then we can head out there. You’re driving tonight.” Ike pulled his keys out of his pocket and tossed the bunch at Henry. If he was going to forget Lara and get into other girls, then he might as well get drunk while he was at it. His friend nodded and pocketed the bunch. “I’ve got your back.” By the time Henry drove them to the event hall, Ike had a gentle alcoholic haze surrounding him that mellowed him out. There was loud music and the place was already buzzing with people. He sent a text to Gloria to let her know he’d arrived. They walked into the hall. Plenty of girls there. Most of them looked like university students, and a few he recognised. He said hello to some of the guys, exchanging pleasantries since he hadn’t interacted with most of them in his year away. Gloria showed up with her friend Christy. She told him where she was sitting so he said he’d catch up with her later. He got a corner and stood there with Henry as they checked out the talent on offer. He hadn’t had sex in a few months and there were a few girls here who he could possibly take home for the night. He wasn’t thinking about anything more serious. Just a one night stand. With no strings attached. “Hi, Ike.” A girl strode up to him. He recognised her from his year group. “Hello, Stella. Long time.” “It has been. How are you doing?” “I’m doing great.” They chatted for a little while, catching up on the past year. She was a pretty girl. He’d always been attracted to her, but had never really approached her before. “Do you want to dance?” he asked. “I thought you’d never ask.” She smiled. He glanced at Henry who smiled at him. It seemed he’d scored, without much effort. Then again, he’d never found it difficult getting girls. He just hadn’t bothered since he’d started teaching Lara. Tonight, he would change it all. They went to the dance floor and one thing led to another. Soon, they were grinding against each other, the girl’s bum on his crotch. He pulled her close so that his mouth was to her ear. “I want to fuck you,” he whispered loud enough for her to hear him above the music. She turned around and smiled at him, before leaning up to kiss him. His libido went up a notch. He tugged her hand and pulled her off the dance floor. Then he headed to the lobby and approached one of the receptionists. “I’d like a room,” he said. He couldn’t wait to take Stella to his apartment. Moreover, he couldn’t drive because he’d been drinking and he didn’t want to cut Henry’s night short. The man shook his head. “All the rooms are booked up.” Ike knew that was just a prelude to negotiation. These rooms were in high demand, especially during an event. So the prices where hiked up and a bribe was usually involved. He put a hand into his pocket and pulled out a wad of Naira. He reeled off two one-thousand naira notes and placed it on the counter top. “I just want a room for an hour,” he said and pulled out another note. “And this one is for you.” The man pocketed the extra thousand and added his name to the register before handing him a key. “Room Five is free.” “Thanks.” Ike took the key and smiled. “Come on,” he said to Stella. She followed him up the stairs. Room Five was a basic room with a bed and a small en-suite. But it was clean and it wasn’t like he was going to spend the night here. Stella shut the door and pushed him onto the bed. He bounced as he landed on his back. She walked over to him, hiked up her skirt, and climbed on top of him. He liked that they didn’t speak to each other but seemed to know what the other needed. He just needed to do this one thing to get Lara out of his system. Then, they were kissing again. She wasn’t Lara but she still felt soft and smelled nice, with nothing hesitant about her touch. She’d done this before. She was exactly the kind of woman he wanted tonight. Soon, he was pushing her top over her head and palming her bare breasts. She pulled his t-shirt off and licked his nipples before grazing one with her teeth. Then she repeated the action on the other nipple. He groaned and reached for his belt buckle before undoing his fly. She climbed off him and took her skirt and shoes off. He pushed his trousers down, took out a condom from his wallet, and toed his shoes off. He sheathed himself and lay back down. She climbed the bed and straddled him. Lifting her up, he settled her back down so his tip was grazing her entrance. With one push, he was inside her. She rocked back and forth. He grabbed her head and pulled her down for another kiss as he drove upwards inside her again and again. Reaching between their bodies, he slid his fingers between her labia lips, stroking her again and again until she trembled with an orgasm. He took control of her hips, holding her still as he thrust up inside her, seeking his completion. It came fast, washing over him like a fever. Afterwards, they lay side by side as they both caught their breaths. He’d done it. He’d had sex with someone who wasn’t Lara. Instead of feeling relieved, regret knotted his stomach. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Rolling out of bed, he picked up his trousers, walking into the bathroom. In there, he tossed the condom in the bin and cleaned himself up. He put his trousers on and glanced at himself in the mirror. He only felt bad because this was the first time he’d touched another woman since Lara. A few more times and he would get used to it. He walked out of the bathroom to find Stella dressing. He didn’t say anything as he pulled his t-shirt on and then his shoes. “I know this was just a one-off. But if you ever feel like getting together again, you can call me.” He grimaced. He wasn’t usually this distracted around women. He tried to make amends and walked over to where she stood and brushed his lips against hers. “Of course, I’ll call you. Give me your number.” He pulled out his phone and keyed in her number. Then he dialled it. “Now you have mine,” he said when her phone rang. She smiled up at him. “Great.” They left the room and he returned the key to the receptionist. They walked back to the hall where the music blasted out from large speakers. As soon as Ike walked in there, his heart stopped at the sight before him. Lara was dancing in the middle of the room with Malcolm. Arm-in-arm. Everyone else was watching them. Lara and Malcolm? Before he knew what he was doing, he’d abandoned Stella at the spot and walked to the middle of the dance floor and yanked Lara away from Malcolm. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he snapped. Lara’s mouth dropped open when she glanced up at him. “I should be asking you that,” Malcolm cut in. “Stay out of this, Malcolm.” He dragged Lara’s arm. “Come on. I’m getting you out of here.” “No, you’re not. Lara is my girlfriend,” Malcolm said. Everything went quiet around them. Even the music. Ike didn’t care. All the blood drained from his head. “Is this true? Are you dating him?” “Yes,” Lara said as she glared at him. His head would surely explode. She had promised him she wouldn’t have anything to do with Malcolm. “You promised me.” “You mean just like you promised me?” She gave a pointed look to the person standing beside him. He turned to see Stella and Gloria standing on each side of him. His face heated. He’d betrayed her by having sex with someone else. Could he blame her for doing the same thing? If it had been anyone else, perhaps. But not Malcolm. “You don’t belong here, Lara. Go home before it’s too late.” Her eyes hardened and she glared at him with what he could only interpret as hatred. “No. You’re the one who doesn’t belong here, sir.” She stressed the last word. This was a different Lara talking to him like this. She injected so much venom into her words, his ears burned. “Malcolm is my boyfriend and my place is right here with him. You should go home with your girls.” She turned her back to him. Malcolm pulled her into his arms, the expression on his face totally gloating. Ike’s heart fell into his stomach. He’d done this to her. And now, she was in the lair of a predator and there was nothing he could do about it. He couldn’t even force her out of there by dragging her out. There were too many people who would report back what had happened to Mrs. Bello and cost him his future. It seemed they’d both made their beds. They would each lie in it and face the consequences. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he said before turning around and walking out of the hall. Chapter Nine Five years later. “I got the interview,” Lara said as she stared at the email. Her laptop sat on the small dining table and she on one of the chairs. Two words jumped out at her, sucking away any joy she would’ve felt for getting her first job interview after months of searching. “Congratulations,” Ada said, turning around from her position on the three-seater sofa. “Which company is this?” Lara swallowed to clear the lump in her throat. “Thomas International.” “Wow!” Ada gaped. “That’s the same company Jane works for.” “Jane?” “You remember Jane Benson from uni. She was doing Business Admin. We hung out with her but she graduated a year before us.” “Yes, I remember her. I didn’t know that’s where she works.” “That’s because you don’t keep in touch with anyone.” Lara shrugged. She struggled to make friends or keep in touch with people. After what had happened to her, she’d learned not to trust anyone. Ada was the only friend who had stayed constant in her life throughout the years. Sighing, she glanced around her living room. It was small yet tastefully decorated in warm, natural tones, just like the rest of the flat. There were two cream upholstered sofas with patterned grey/brown cushions, a couple of armchairs on the other side formed a quadrangle with a low, glass-topped centre table, and four matching glass-topped side tables sat between the sofas and chairs. A medium-sized flat screen television and entertainment centre formed a focal point of the room, with family portraits hanging on the walls. In the corner was a large potted Bird of Paradise plant. Behind the longer sofa was a raised dais with an Iroko dining table and six upholstered chairs that matched the sofas. Two doors led away from the living room—one to the kitchen, another into the hallway with the three bedrooms and a family bathroom, though the master bedroom had an en-suite bathroom. Despite the modest proportions, it was a flat she was proud of, a place she called home. She’d moved in with Ada when they’d both decided to stay in Lagos after their Youth Service. They’d been together throughout University and it made sense to get a place together afterwards. The block of flats had just been completed when they’d rented it with the help of Judy and Ada’s parents. The area outside the walled complex had been mainly grassland. Since then, the whole area had been developing fast, as commuter families moved from the congested Lagos suburbs. There were now more residential estates, schools, hospitals, shopping malls, and hotels being built within the locale. “So you know who else works at Thomas International, don’t you?” Lara suspected where Ada was headed but she feigned ignorance. “Who?” “Mr. Ike Thomas.” Ada snorted. “He owns the company. At least, his family are the majority shareholders.” “Yeah. I know.” Her foot started bouncing against the floor tiles. All of a sudden, she was back to the last time she’d seen Ike in that jam-packed party in Enugu. The sharpness of her jealousy at seeing him with that girl. The rawness of his rage when she’d claimed Malcolm as her boyfriend. The price she’d paid for her mistake. One night that had destroyed her and turned her into a shell of her old self. The young, naive school girl had died that night. She’d tried so hard to forget that night. To forget that whole year. But there were moments like this when something triggered a memory and she was back there. Sweat broke on her forehead. She clutched her arms and her body rocked back and forth as she remembered the nightmare. “Lara...” Somebody shook her. “Lara, you’re scaring me. What’s going on?” She opened her eyes and found herself curled into a ball on the sofa with Ada standing over her. She straightened and sat up. Her arm brushed her face and came away wet. She’d been crying. She hadn’t cried in five years. “What happened?” “I should ask you,” Ada said. “One minute we were talking about your new job. The next, you were curled up in a ball on the floor. I had to lift you and carry you to the sofa. You scared the hell out of me.” “I’m sorry.” Lara pushed off the sofa. Her limbs felt heavy as she walked over to grab her laptop. “I’m going to have a lie down.” “Are you coming down with a fever?” “It’s nothing. I just need to sleep. I’ll be fine.” Ada didn’t look convinced. But there was no way Lara was going to discuss what was really wrong with her. She walked into the kitchen and poured a glass of water before taking it to her bedroom. She put the glass on the bedside cabinet. Then, she reached into her bag and pulled out the key which she used to unlock the top drawer. She pulled out the bottle of pills, opened it, and tipped out two into her hand. She popped them into her mouth and swallowed them down. Then she lay down on the bed and closed her eyes. *** Two weeks later, Lara walked into the tall steel and glass skyscraper that housed the headquarters of Thomas International, aptly names TI Tower. She clutched her bag to her side and glanced at her wristwatch for the umpteenth time. The small gold watch had belonged to her mother and was one of the only mementos she had of her late parent. It helped to settle her anxiety as she approached the reception desk. Cool, air-conditioned air kissed her hot skin and she sighed in relief. “Good afternoon. How can I help you?” the girl behind the desk asked. She was a dark-skinned slim girl dressed in a frilly white shirt and a black skirt. She wore heavy makeup and long black hair extensions. “My name is Lara Johnson. I have an interview at three o’clock with Mr. Soneye.” The girl looked her over, as if sizing her up, and then punched a button on the switchboard before speaking into her headset. “I have a Lara Johnson here for Mr. Soneye.” The receptionist spoke in a sing-song voice; the person on the other end said something to which she replied, “Sure.” To Lara, she said, “His PA will be down shortly. Take a seat.” Lara walked over to the sofas and sat down. She picked up a newspaper, although she was so nervous, she couldn’t concentrate on the words. She took in her surroundings instead. The glass and steel skyscraper had recently been completed to critical acclaim. It was a showcase for modern architecture in Africa, the interior a minimalist heaven with clean lines and sleek surfaces. Overtaken by her environment, she couldn’t help day-dreaming about working in modern offices like this one. TI was one of the biggest real-estate developers in Africa and dealt in areas from design and architecture to estate management. Working here would be a dream come true. A chance to use the skills she’d acquired at University. Hopefully, her meeting today would be a step in the right direction. Feeling a pair of eyes on her, she glanced over to the receptionist and caught her watching, her expression contorted in an almost spiteful sneer. Lara rolled her shoulders, shaking over the prickle on her skin at the memory of her first day at Hillcrest School and the similar look she’d received from Gloria Rawlins. She hadn’t seen the girl in years and she certainly wouldn’t let another girl intimidate her in the same way. She refused to be daunted by the other girl’s obvious malevolence. She was dressed in her best skirt suit which, though inexpensive, was still smart and looked the part. She only had a touch of mascara and lip-gloss on, but heavy makeup had never been her thing. Usually, she paid little attention to her appearance. She preferred to be as inconspicuous as possible. But once she’d had confirmation of the interview, Ada had dragged her over to the hairdresser’s to get a haircut as well as a manicure and pedicure. She had even started eating properly again, so that she’d gained a little weight. Anything to get the job, she’d told herself. The ding from the lift brought her attention back into her surroundings. A woman walked out towards her. Lara stood up as she recognised her. “It’s Lara, isn’t it?” the woman said in a bubbly voice and with lovely smile. “Yes. It’s good to see you again, Jane.” Lara took her hand in a firm shake as she’d been taught to do during interviews. “I nearly didn’t recognise you. You look so different with short hair.” “I hope that’s different in a good way.” She hoped a certain somebody wouldn’t recognise her. “Of course. You look good. Come on, I’ll show you to the meeting room,” Jane said and headed back to the lift foyer. Lara grabbed her bag and joined her. Jane was a dark-skinned girl with the perfect hourglass figure that reminded Lara of the Nollywood actress Ini Edo. She was in pink shirt and navy skirt that showed off her curves. The lift doors opened to the swankiest office suites she had ever seen. Everything looked new, shiny, and tidy. A huge, open-plan space sat in the middle, with rows of desks and chairs, glass-panelled meeting rooms decked out with the latest office gadgets on one end, and offices with shielded glass walls on the other. She was struck by the size of it all and the fact that in every direction, the views from the window were amazing because of the floor to ceiling, sun-reflecting glass. To come to work here every day would be amazing. “It’s this way.” Jane continued down the corridor. People looked up from their desks and smiled as they walked by. The atmosphere looked relaxed. Still, she couldn’t shake the edgy energy she felt as she walked into the meeting room where her appointment would be held. “Jane, could you show me the ladies’, please? I just need to freshen up before the meeting.” “Sure. It’s on your right as you walk back down the corridor,” Jane replied, pointing Lara in the general direction. As she walked past the people in the rows of desks working away on their laptops or talking on the phone, her anxiety increased. Her steps faltered as she walked into the ladies’. Gripping one of the sinks, she stood still for a brief moment as doubt overtook her composure. It wasn’t that she didn’t want the job. She just didn’t want to work for a company owned by Ike Thomas or his family. She didn’t want to keep reliving her past. She’d paid for her teenage folly in more ways than one. Now, it seemed that fate wasn’t done with her yet. Lara took another deep breath and exhaled. After months of bemoaning her lack of employment, could she seriously walk away from an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this one? She may never get another chance at a job like this that involved working with top-level executives. This was her chance; she was strong enough and could do this. She had to. There was too much at stake—too much to lose if she didn’t. She would not disappoint herself by letting her nerves get the better of her. She took another deep, calming breath, checked her reflection in the mirror, and reapplied some powder to her face to take away the shine. Straightening up, she walked out of the ladies’ with her chin up and her steps more confident. I am good enough and I can do this. She walked back in the meeting room and concentrated on settling down. Jane walked back into the room. “Olu will be here shortly.” “Who is Olu?” Lara frowned, confused. “Olu is Mr. Soneye.” “You call him by his first name?” She was surprised; she didn’t think the man was that young to be referred to so casually. “Yes, it’s the way we work up here. TI working culture is quite informal and relaxed,” Jane remarked enthusiastically. “It should be an interesting place to work.” Lara smiled. “I didn’t realise you were the PA for Mr. Soneye, as well.” “I can tell you, it’s a great place to work. Olu’s PA is on holiday. I’m just covering in her absence. Would you like some refreshments?” “Just water, please,” Lara replied as Jane left to get the drinks. The door opened and a man walked in. “Hello, Lara. I’m Olu Soneye, the head of projects at TI.” He beamed a friendly smile as he extended his hand for a handshake, which Lara accepted as she nodded. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Soneye.” She returned his smile. “You must call me Olu. We are very informal here at TI. Please, sit down,” he returned. Lara was surprised. Mr. Soneye—Olu—was in his early to mid-forties, old enough to be her uncle. It was unusual in Nigeria to refer to older people directly by their names. He was a congenial man with intelligent eyes and Lara liked him instantly, her body relaxing, losing her initial anxiety. Jane came in with the refreshments, set it on the table. Lara glanced at her notes to prepare herself. “Right. I’m ready when you are.” *** I got the job. Lara sent a quick message to Ada as she sat in Jane’s office, waiting for her to get back. Jane had printed off the job offer letter, terms of employment and job descriptions, and needed Olu to sign them before she could take them home. Her spine prickled and she looked up from her phone. Through the glass partitioning walls, she observed two men talking in low tones down the hallway from Jane’s office. One of them was Olu who was facing her, but the other had his back to her. The man was tall, with broad shoulders that spanned a well-tailored navy suit. Instantly, she knew who he was although she couldn’t see his face and she hadn’t seen him in five years. But the flutter in her stomach and the rapid beat of her heart were the same as the day when she’d sat in a classroom full of teenagers and met him for the first time. She could never forget that instant attraction. The breathlessness and the need to get as close to him as possible… It gripped her now. She couldn’t take her gaze away from him as her body heated up. She should move and hide. She should pray for him to walk away without turning around. She did neither and sat there as if rooted to the spot. It was a morbid kind of fascination. It had to be. Because why else would she want him to see her? Why else would she want to remember? When she knew that remembering would be like ripping open a festering wound. A wound that had never healed. Would never heal. As if sensing her, he glanced back. Mocha-coloured eyes looked directly at her. His dark brows lifted and almost met in the middle, his forehead creasing in undulating lines. Her world tilted precariously, threatening to fall off the edge into a black hole. She knew then, she shouldn’t have come for this interview. Shouldn’t have accepted the job offer. She could still get out of here before Jane came back with the signed contracts. But the men stood in her path. She would have to walk past them to get to the lifts. She glanced in the other direction, looking for a fire exit. There had to be a stairwell somewhere. She could use that instead of the lift. She grabbed her bag and made to stand up when she realised Ike was headed in her direction, his stride confident and powerful, his status apparent for all to see. She wouldn’t make it out of the office in time. Suddenly feeling like the diffident teenager again, her face heating up appallingly, butterflies fluttering in her belly, she wished the ground would open up and swallow her. Shit. Chapter Ten “Have you got two minutes?” Olu poked his head into Ike’s office. “Sure.” Ike stood up and grabbed his jacket from the back of his leather armchair. “I was just heading out for a meeting. We can walk and talk.” “Good,” Olu said as Ike headed towards him and shut the door after he’d exited the room. “I just wanted to let you know we’ve recruited the final member of the Baytown project. I just finished the interview.” “That’s a quick decision.” “She is the best of the candidates we’ve seen and will make a good fit to the team. I didn’t see the point in holding off any longer.” “Great. Well done. I’m keen to get the ball rolling on this project. I presume Jane’s already onto HR about the contract.” “She is. I told the young lady to wait and pick up the contract. In fact, she’s waiting in Jane’s office. Do you have a sec to meet her?” “Of course.” Olu led the way and Ike turned in the direction of Jane’s office. He saw the girl then. She was dark-skinned, with a heart-shaped face and wide brown eyes. Something in the back of his mind prickled as there was something familiar about her. In a few seconds, he was standing in Jane’s office in front of the girl and recognition dawned. It couldn’t be. This person standing in front of him looked so different. For starters, the hair was short and had red streaks in it. The girl he’d know five years ago had long braids and was too conservative and introverted to ever colour her hair such a loud shade. Secondly, the glasses were missing. “Lara, I wanted you to meet our MD, Ike Thomas” Olu said. “This is Lara Johnson, the new project planner.” It was her. He’d banned anyone he knew from mentioning that name for the past five years. After the night that everything changed. He hadn’t wanted to think of her because he knew he would’ve gone looking for her if only to make sure she was okay. And what if she wasn’t? He wouldn’t have been able to live with himself. Seeing her now, she looked okay. In one piece. So it had been a good thing to walk away. She’d survived. He’d survived. The world had moved on. Ike’s muscles went rigid as the breath whooshed out of him. It took him a few heartbeats to recover enough to speak. “Welcome to Thomas International. We’re looking forward to having you on board.” He didn’t stretch out his hand to shake hers, afraid of what physical contact with her would do to him. “Thank you, Mr. Thomas,” she said in a tense tone. “I look forward to working here.” She smiled but it seemed forced. “There’s no need to be anxious,” Olu said in a reassuring tone as he noticed Lara’s grimace. “Ike here doesn’t eat babies for breakfast, although our competitors might think so.” He chuckled at his own joke. Jane chose that moment to make an appearance and Ike let out air as he took a step back to let her get to Lara. “I’ve got a phone call to make,” Olu said and headed out. Ike nodded but he didn’t move. Instead, he observed as Jane handed the documents to Lara who picked up the items and thanked her. “I’ll show you downstairs,” Jane said. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll show Lara down.” It felt strange and right saying her name after so long. “No. I can find my way down,” Lara said, standing rigidly. “I insist,” he said. “I was on my way down, anyway.” Her face fell as she nodded. He walked out of the office and waited outside the door for her to join him. Then, they walked towards the lift bay. He made sure to slow down so he could match her pace. He would be the professional. After all, she had come here to see one of his team on a business appointment, not a personal reunion. He wasn’t going to bring up the past if she didn’t. They didn’t speak as they faced the lift. He pressed the call button deliberately looking out of the window at the view of the bustling metropolis of Victoria Island below rather than at the woman standing next to him, though he was aware of her presence in every other sense. She avoided eye contact as they both got into the carriage and stood side by side although there remained a gap of an arm span between them. He kept his eyes fixed on the brushed aluminium panels of the closed doors as the lift descended towards the ground floor. Finally seeing her again for the first time in long years, she looked like she’d rather be anywhere but where he was. He should just let her go and forget about her. Where was the challenge in that, though? Anyway, since Olu had offered her a job, he’d be seeing her often enough, so why not get started right now? He was a business man known for his cool composure and level-headed judgement, the consummate professional. He’d left the follies of his youth behind. In the enclosed space of the lift, Ike was suddenly more aware of Lara. Her timid smile—which hadn’t changed in five years, it seemed—beguiled him, squeezing at his heart. Her glossy short hair, a sassy change from the long dark braids he remembered, he yearned to feel between his fingers. Her light floral perfume tickled his senses, filling him with an urge to draw her closer to inhale her deeply. He clenched his fists to stop himself from reaching out and mentally shook his head. What’s the matter with you? She practically screamed and told you to piss off the last time you saw her. Luckily, the lift doors opened and this time, he stepped out first, needing the distance to control himself. He sucked in much-needed air that didn’t smell of her fragrance. How could it be so difficult to maintain his composure around her? He hadn’t seen her for five years and he’d been fine. All of a sudden, now, he wanted to make physical contact with her. Like they’d never been separated. Damn. He waited at the reception area for her to return her visitor’s badge and sign out of the register. Outside, surprisingly, he welcomed the heat of the evening sun as he headed to his parked car. The chauffeur had already brought it up front so it was ready to go. It was a Mercedes E63 AMG. His love for sporty, powerful cars remained even if these days, he got to sit in an executive model with a chauffeur up front, and he’d gone from Asian to European manufacturers. A slight sea breeze blew the flap of his jacket. The beep beep of cars on Ahmadu Bello Way floating in the air. “Which direction are you headed for? I’ll drop you off,” he said as Lara headed towards the exit. “It’s fine. I’ll find my own way home.” “Lara, I said, I’ll take you home,” he insisted. His eyes carried a warning; his voice and his stance would tell her he wouldn’t take no for an answer. The driver was staring at both of them and the security guard behind them was watching, too. “If you are sure,” Lara stated, maintaining a level stare at him. “I am,” he replied. With a short nod, she stepped into the car. *** A stirring tension in the air… Ike could feel it, taste it, and smell it, even. Lara sat next to him in the back seat of his car. They’d departed TI Towers over twenty minutes ago heading towards her block of flats in Ajah, which turned out to be one of TI properties. He’d registered the address as soon as she spoke it. Irony of ironies—his lips tugged in a smirk. In that time, neither of them had spoken nor stirred. Lara was giving him the silent treatment. Not that he’d made any attempt to break the palpable stillness. They had ignored each other as soon as the car had moved off. She’d turned away to look out of the window—mouth pursed, back stiffened—reminding him of the statue of a belligerent Yoruba goddess he had seen at a museum. He had in turn opened his laptop to read a document in preparation for a meeting with a client tomorrow. Letting out a deep breath, he closed down his laptop with exasperation, scrubbing his face with his hand. Who was he kidding? For once, the words on the document he was attempting to read didn’t make any sense; they were swimming across the screen, teasing him. Even when his brain registered the words, they were quickly replaced by another image. The picture of a sweet, pretty girl with long, dark, braided hair, bright, enquiring brown eyes, and a timid distracting smile. The same girl sitting next to him in his car. Lara. Except she had grown into a beautiful woman with a short, sassy haircut that showed off her unblemished oval face and delicate neck exquisitely, passionate eyes that flashed with flecks of crimson when she was angry and reminding him of the late evening sunshine, and a smile framed by fuller, more sensuous lips. But there was more to her. None of naivety she had displayed when he’d first met her lingered. Seeing her again was like seeing a dead person reawakened. He’d mourned her years ago like she’d been dead. To think of her living and walking around without him and maybe with someone else had nearly driven him insane. The only way he had been able to cope was to grieve her loss like he had mourned his father, as if she was never coming back. He had made a conscious decision to forget her, to forge a new life. It hadn’t been easy, but throwing himself into work and the business had been a healing elixir. But here she was, sitting in his car, soon to start work in his firm as an employee. Why was she here? Why now, after all these years? Did she really think she could turn up and they could pretend there wasn’t a past? That they didn’t have a history together? That he’d never held her in his arms? Never tasted her sweetness? He watched her; she practically sat as far away from him as possible in the enclosed space of the car. Her eyes trained to look out of the window but he knew she wouldn’t see the scenery. She had that distant look about her. Was she thinking the same thing as him? About the past? Their past together? The image of the two of them flashed in his mind and his heart rammed in his chest. Damn it. Did she plan to just ignore him? Pretend like he wasn’t here? For how long? Like hell. “Lara.” Her chest moved up and down as she sighed heavily before turning slowly to face him. Suspicious caramel eyes stared back at him, her shoulders hunched with resignation as if bracing for something unpleasant. “Mr. Thomas, if you don’t want me to work at TI, I’ll reject the job offer.” Her voice was strained, and something around his heart softened. He wanted to pull her into his arms, to tell her that everything was going to be okay. However, he couldn’t say it, because he wasn’t sure everything was going to be all right. She leaned back into the seat and squeezed her eyes shut. Ike heaved a sigh. She opened her eyes and looked at him. “I don’t want you to quit the job. You earned it.” He scrubbed his head with his hand and for the first time today, his cool exterior slipped. “Then what do you want?” Her wavering voice rose a notch, her hands jerking. “I just want to talk to you.” “I don’t want to talk to you.” “What? You came for a job interview at TI and you expect not to talk to me?” He laughed derisively. The car had stopped in front of her building. She pulled back and glared at him. “I went for a job interview. I got offered the job. I’m sure it doesn’t say on the contract that I have to talk to you outside of the business. I’m sure you don’t want to get sued for sexual harassment.” He flinched. “And I’m sure you don’t want to gain a reputation for being unemployable.” “Fine. You want to talk to me? I’m doing it where I’ll be more comfortable.” She pushed the door open and walked towards the entrance of the building without looking back. Ike got out of the car and strode after her. She didn’t pause for breath as they climbed the stairs until they got to the first floor. She put the key in the lock and shoved the door open. He followed her in and shut the panel after her. She tossed her bag on the table in the living room and took her jacket off. Then she walked into the hallway. He used the opportunity to take his jacket off and look around the space. It was tastefully decorated and he wondered if she lived alone. He knew how much the apartments cost to rent, and if she was unemployed, she certainly couldn’t afford it. She came back and headed to the balcony doors which she pushed aside. From the corner of his eye, he saw a light flicker and he turned to face her when he realised she’d lit a cigarette. Lara smoked? His mouth fell agape. Would the surprises ever stop today? “Lara, you’re a smoker?” “Yes. Do you have a problem with that?” she snapped. “Yes, I do. You shouldn’t smoke.” “Well, you can’t tell me what to do, and if you don’t like it, you can piss off.” “What the hell’s the matter with you?” “You want to know what’s wrong with me? You are.” She pointed the hand holding the cigarette at him. “You are my fucking problem.” “What?” “Are you shocked at seeing me like this?” She paced up and down. “What were you expecting? The virginal, naive school girl of five years ago? Did you come to see if you could pick up from where you left off? Well, news flash. That girl is dead. She died that night.” His eyes widened as his stomach rolled and gooseflesh mottled his skin. “Yes, you killed her that night.” She glared at him as if she truly believed her words. “And this is what you’re left with.” She pointed at her body up and down. “This dirty smoker of a slut. Good news is that you don’t have to teach me anything. I can fuck like a trooper.” “That’s it. I’ve heard enough of this nonsense.” He strode across to her, snatched the cigarette off her, and stomped on it. She clawed at him, wrestling with him. “Calm down!” “Fuck you!” They both landed on the sofa with him on top of her. She trashed about but he held her down until she quieted and he realised she had tears on her face. Chapter Eleven What the hell was going on? The sight of the tears sliding down the side of Lara’s face had Ike’s entire body freezing for a moment. The old feelings of protectiveness he’d had for her resurfaced, gripping his heart in a clamp and leaving him breathless for a moment. “Lara, are you hurt?” he asked as he scrambled off her and sat up at the edge of the sofa. She didn’t respond, instead turned to her side and pulled her legs up so she was curled up in the foetal position. He wrinkled his brow as his mouth dried out. He hadn’t felt anything so strong in a long while, and his worry bordered on anxiety. He cleared his throat so he could speak. “Lara?” Unnerved by her continued lack of response, he got on his knees on the floor so he could look at her face properly. She stared straight ahead and he had to look back to see if something in particular had caught her attention. The only thing there was the midsized television, currently turned off. He looked at her face again and realised her open eyes were dull. Vacant. Like she had vacated her body. There were no new tears and she wasn’t blinking. He remembered a movie he’d watched a while back titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers where humans were being replaced by clones without any emotions. It felt the same way right now staring at Lara. As if she’d been replaced by a clone or at least by someone he didn’t know, if her earlier outburst was anything to go by. “Please, talk to me, so I know you’re okay.” He kept his voice soft and pleading. And he couldn’t remember the last time he’d pleaded for anything. She didn’t talk. Didn’t move. Didn’t blink. He checked the pulse on her wrist and found the constant beat. Satisfied that she was still alive and breathing, he paced up and down in the living room, regularly glancing at her as he waited for her to do something. Anything. Nothing changed. Surely, this wasn’t normal behaviour. Something had to be terribly wrong. After five excruciating minutes of pacing, his anxiety for her wellbeing growing to maddening levels, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and called the only person who he knew could deal with this situation. “Ike, how are you?” she answered in a sing-song American accent. “Hello, Jocelyn. I need your help,” he said, making an effort not to betray his anxiety in his voice. Jocelyn Okoro was a medical doctor who specialised in psychiatry. She had studied and lived in the USA until she’d been offered the job as part of TI medical team. She also happened to be a close friend of his. “How can I help?” she asked, and he could mentally picture her reaching for her notepad. “I’ve got a situation here.” He sucked in a deep breath and puffed it out. “I’m with someone and she’s not responding when I speak to her.” “Hang on,” she said, her tone acquiring an urgent clip. “Have you checked her pulse and breathing?” Ike stared at Lara again. Her chest was rising and falling. “Yes, her pulse is steady but slow and her breathing is regular, so she’s alive.” “Good. Are you in TI Tower? I can come to you.” “No, I’m not in the building. I’m in Ajah.” “Oh. It’s not Gloria, is it?” He pictured her forehead creasing in a frown. “No. Lara is an old friend I hadn’t seen for a while. I’m just a little concerned about her. Can you help?” “Okay. Tell me what happened.” He described the encounter when they’d gotten into Lara’s apartment. “One minute we were arguing. I took away her cigarette and she scratched my arm. I grabbed her hands to stop her and we fell on the sofa. The next, she suddenly stopped moving and became unresponsive.” Jocelyn went quiet for a little while. He presumed she was assessing her words to understand the scene. “Ike, without seeing the person, I can’t make a proper diagnosis on the phone. But from what you describe, how she went from a state of hysteria to catatonia, she could be suffering from PTSD.” “Huh?” He’d heard about the disorder. But it made no sense in this situation. “What does that have to do with anything?” “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can happen to people who’ve been exposed to traumatic events.” “Like what?” “Traumatic events can be anything from sexual assault, rape, physical or mental abuse, to traffic accidents, terrorism, or even war.” He shook his head, gave a glance at Lara, turned his back, and stepped into the hallway before lowering his voice. “Are you saying she could be the victim of one of those things?” “Yes, and from what you’ve described, it seems like something you did triggered an episode where her mind thinks she’s about to suffer the same thing again.” “What the hell? I would never...” he said in a harsh, low voice. He was about to say ‘hurt her’ but he couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t in the past. “Triggers can be different for different victims. For victims of violence, it could be any action that mirrors violence. So maybe when you grabbed her and forced her down, her mind thought she was about to be attacked.” “Fuck!” He tilted his head back and stared up at the white ceiling. He pictured how he’d snatched the cigarette and gripped Lara’s arms when she’d scratched him. He strode to the living room door and stared at her prone body. Had someone held her down without her permission? Forced himself on her? He rocked back and forth and his hands trembled. What had she said about the last time he’d seen her in Enugu? “That girl is dead. She died that night...You killed her that night.” His head became heavy and drooped forward. He leaned it against the wall. Something had happened to her that night and she blamed him for it. “You’re right,” he said in a quiet voice into the phone. “I think something happened to her, years ago.” “Something like what?” Jocelyn asked, probably wanting to identify the root cause of the problem so it could be treated. “I don’t know but I’m going to find out.” He had to. Not knowing was no longer an option after seeing Lara in this state. “You do realise that most victims of sexual assault or any form of abuse don’t talk about what happened to them.” “Why?” He frowned. “Because society shames them and makes them a victim a second time. Most try and lock away the trauma. Unfortunately, a lot of them live with PTSD for the rest of their lives.” He sighed. “Can you help her?” “If she comes to me, I can certainly do my best.” “I’m not sure she’ll agree to see you. Anyway, I can’t just tell her to go and see a psychiatrist.” “True,” Jocelyn said. “That’s another stigma that’s ingrained into society. People think seeing a psychiatrist means being branded as a crazy person. Mental illness is a disease just like cancer or heart disease. It needs to be treated as such.” “You’re preaching to the converted,” Ike said. He understood that mental health was as important as physical health, which was why he’d insisted on providing it as part of the health care benefits of TI employees. “I know a way to get her to see you. She’s just got a job at TI so she’ll be undergoing the usual assessments for the health insurance benefit. I want you to do an extended evaluation while she’s with you.” “I can do a full clinical assessment when she comes to see me. You can access the summary report that goes to HR about her overall wellbeing. But you do realise that anything she says will remain confidential. ” Jocelyn was a true professional and he didn’t expect anything less from her. “Yes, I know. I just want you to help her.” “Okay. In the meantime, keep an eye on her. The catatonia will pass but it could last from a few minutes to a few hours. When she wakes, she might be disorientated for a few seconds. Call me back if you need to.” Ike sighed. He was supposed to have a meeting. But he wouldn’t leave Lara in this condition. “Okay. Thanks, Jocelyn. I appreciate your help.” “You’re welcome. Bye,” she said before hanging up. He cut the line and dialled another number. “Henry!” He didn’t give him the chance to speak when he picked up. “Something’s come up. I’m not going to make the meeting. Please extend my apologies to the commissioner.” “Sure. I’ll handle things over here,” his friend said. “Are you okay?” “Yes, I’m fine. I’ll talk to you later.” They both said their goodbyes and hung up. Returning to the living room, he sat on the sofa and scrubbed a hand over his face. He had to wait. He didn’t know if Lara lived with anyone else but he knew from the layout that this apartment would have two bedrooms. So she could be sharing the place with someone else, at least. Then again, she could be living with her boyfriend, fiancé, or even husband. His breath caught and his gaze went to her fingers. She didn’t have any rings on. He exhaled in relief and then caught himself. What was he doing? Surely, he wasn’t interested in picking up from where they’d left off as she’d accused him. What they’d had was in the past. It had only brought trouble for both of them. They had both moved on. He had a good life now, the reckless nature of his past abandoned. He didn’t want to go back to complicating it. No. He was only here now because he was concerned with her behaviour. Not because he actually felt anything more for her. Liar. You know better than to lie to yourself. Okay. He still felt something for her. But he would have to suppress those feelings like he’d done for years. It was just that seeing her again had left him out of sorts. A moan came from her and he jerked upright and stood. She blinked a few times and uncurled her body, stretching out. Slowly, she pulled herself to an upright position. “Lara?” He didn’t want to get any closer to her in case he seemed intimidating to her. She looked up at him and blinked a few times. “Mr. Thomas? What are you doing here?” He frowned at her question. “You invited me in to talk,” he replied. She stared at him as if he had two heads. “Remember, we were arguing and then I snatched your cigarette away,” he said in the hopes of prompting her memory. “Oh, that.” She turned away and pushed off the sofa to stand. Shifting his stance, he swallowed. “Is that all you have to say? You were unresponsive for over an hour. I couldn’t get you to do anything.” Staring at the floor tiles, she shrugged, dismissing his concerned words as if they meant nothing. “I’m fine.” “You’re not.” His words were sharp. She lifted her head and glared at him. If eyes could kill... He rubbed his hand on the back of his neck and sucked in a calming breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to raise my voice. I’m just concerned about you. I’ve never seen anybody do what you did. Has it happened before?” She grabbed her bag and walked out, her footsteps unsteady. Great. He rolled his eyes upwards. She was back to ignoring him. He followed her into the kitchen. She opened the fridge and took out a bottle of water. “You didn’t answer me. Has it happened before?” he persisted. One way or the other, she would talk to him. “Yes,” she snapped, and pulled out a small plastic pill bottle from her bag. “You can go now. I’m fine. I’m not going to collapse and die on you, if that’s what you’re worried about.” She poured water into a glass and took out a pill. He wasn’t so sure she wasn’t about to keel over considering how unsteady she seemed on her feet. “What’s in the bottle?” he asked, his concern spiking. “None of your business,” she replied, before chasing the pill down with the water. “Tell me,” he insisted. “It’s just Valium. It helps me sleep.” She didn’t look at him as she went about replacing the bottle in the fridge. “So you have problems sleeping?” She shrugged. “Sometimes. I haven’t slept properly for the past two weeks.” “Why?” “Why do you want to know? And don’t tell me it’s because you care. We both know that’s not true.” He took a step towards her. “I do care about you.” She made a sound in the back of her throat that sounded like she thought his words were a pile of crap. He resisted moving close to her for more than one reason. Any closer and he wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off her, if only to shake her to get answers. Once upon a time, she hadn’t been this unreceptive to his words. He scrubbed his face and puffed out a frustrated breath. “Okay. Let’s agree to disagree on that one. Just tell me why you haven’t been sleeping properly the past few weeks.” “Why do you think?” “If I knew, I wouldn’t ask you.” He couldn’t hide his aggravation. She sucked in a deep breath and puffed it out. “I haven’t slept properly since I got the confirmation of my interview at Thomas International. I’ve been having nightmares about the past.” He jerked back. She might as well have slapped him. Her words had the same effect. She was having nightmares triggered by the thought of seeing him again. Even he could figure that out. More than anything else, he needed to know what had happened the night he’d seen her last five years ago. She grabbed her bag and walked around him to head out the door. For a few heartbeats, he didn’t move. Then he went in search of her and found her in a room down the corridor. The room was a mix of cream walls, pastel beddings, and tawny wood furniture. Lara stood in the middle undoing her shirt, her fingers working buttons through each hole in a slow, methodical manner. He stilled at the threshold, hesitant to cross the invisible line both physically and mentally. Compelled, he couldn’t look away, each of her actions mesmerising. She removed her shirt and tossed it on the bed, revealing the sexy black balconette bra. Moving her hands to her back, she undid the zip to her skirt. The sound had his heart rate escalating, the rush of blood thundering in his ears. He’d seen her bare skin before although he’d never seen her fully naked. He shouldn’t be looking at her. Any decent man would’ve turned his back to her or even returned to the living room. He did neither. Her skirt slid down her hips, past a black lace thong that presented her bum cheeks to him as she leaned over to pull the skirt from her legs. All the blood in his body rushed south and his dick hardened. Painfully. She straightened and turned around. He’d never seen her this bare before. His breath caught. She was beautiful. Slimmer than he remembered, but still beautiful. “You’re still here,” she said as she walked over to the wardrobe. Her tone held no surprise. In fact, the corner of her mouth curled in a teasing smile as if she’d known he watched her all along. His cheeks heated. A lump lodged in his throat so he coughed. “I’m sorry but I couldn’t look away.” “I don’t mind. I like you watching me.” She pushed the left bra strap down her arm, then repeated the action with the right one. Then she reached behind and unclipped it. It hung loose down her arms and midriff, revealing full, firm breasts, areoles like discs and nipples as hard as bullets. “You do?” He made a conscious effort to look away from temptation before him, up to her face. “Yes.” She flung the bra over a chair and hooked her thumbs into the tiny straps of her thong. “I think you’re a very sexy man. I’ve always thought so. Always wanted you.” She slipped the thong down her legs and flung it aside, too. “You have...” He lost his train of thought as he stared at her naked body. As if he wasn’t painfully hard before. He swelled again. He met her gaze once more. No shyness there. She wasn’t ashamed of her nakedness. She sat on the bed and pushed back until her head lay on the pillow. Then, her thighs fell apart, showing her glistening pussy. “Can you see how much I want you?” she said in a low voice. He swallowed and nodded. She stroked her breasts with one hand while the other travelled down and parted her swollen labia lips. He suppressed a groan as she gathered her juice from where it dripped and stroked around her clit. She bit her bottom lip as she caressed her pussy from slit to clit again and again, her hips jerking up and down in rhythm. It took all of his willpower to remain where he stood instead of crossing the floor and joining her on the bed to give her pleasure himself. “Do you like what I’m doing?” He swallowed several times but didn’t say anything. “I’m imagining that it’s you touching me, preparing my body so you can fuck me hard.” She drove her fingers into her channel a few times, pumping in and out repeatedly while her hips jerked. Then she cried out, her body shaking and then stilling. After a while, she looked up at him with a sleepy smile. “Thank you.” “For what?” He hadn’t done anything except watch, and that wasn’t a good thing. “For making sure I was okay earlier and for watching me now.” For the first time since he’d walked into her apartment, he smiled. “You are welcome.” “Will you stay with me until I sleep?” she asked, suddenly looking vulnerable. Gone was the abrasive woman of earlier. In its place was some of the girl he used to know. Something clutched his heart. “Yes, of course.” She turned to her side and reached down to pull the top sheet from under her body. He moved, walking into the room to help. He pulled the light sheet up. “Do you usually sleep naked?” The thought kicked up his libido again. “No. Please get my sleep shirt. It’s in the top drawer.” She pointed at the chest. He nodded and strode over. This was safer territory. If he treated her as someone who needed his help, they could both stay on different sides of the invisible line. It didn’t matter that he’d just watched her pleasure herself. Well, it did, but if it never happened again, then that was okay, wasn’t it? He took the shirt out and helped her put it on. Then he tucked the top sheet around her and sat on the edge of the bed. “Do you live alone?” “No. I can’t afford this place by myself. I live with Ada Obi. You’ll remember her from Hillcrest.” He smiled. “I remember her. You two are still close friends?” “Yes.” She returned the smile. “We went to the same university. Shared digs. It made sense to move in together since we both live in Lagos now.” She yawned and covered her mouth with her hand. “Are you in touch with anyone else from Hillcrest?” She shook her head. “Just Ada.” She yawned again. “Mr. Thomas...” “You know you can use my first name.” “Are we like friends now?” Her words were slurred. Her eyes drifted shut. “Of course. We’ve always been friends.” “No. Friends don’t abandon each other.” She sighed and turned to her side. “What do you mean?” She didn’t answer. He heard her gently snore. He watched her for a minute, stood up, and walked to the door. Then, he went back, brushed his lips against her smooth, soft cheek, and whispered, “I won’t abandon you again.” He straightened and walked out of the apartment, shutting the door behind him. Chapter Twelve On Monday morning, an empty feeling sat in Lara’s belly as she walked from the bus stop towards TI Tower. Her first day at work. She glanced at her wristwatch. 8.32am. She’d been told to arrive at 9am, and had calculated it would take her ten minutes to walk from the stop to the building, giving her plenty of time. The sky was a clear blue and the morning sunshine heated the air around her. Pedestrians and cars jostled for space on the pavement and road as people headed to their morning destinations. This street was a crucial part of the business district, packed with businesses, banks, hotels, and shopping malls. The job offer had been processed quickly and Mr. Soneye had wanted her to start as soon as possible. Since she didn’t have any other job to give notice to, she’d been able to start the week after the interview. Once she’d walked through the security at the gates, she took in a calming breath and puffed it out. Then she strolled into the building. This time, the receptionist, Mary Ekpo, was courteous, probably taken aback that Lara was now a TI employee, although her attitude was still off. Jane met her in the reception lobby and took her upstairs, showing Lara to her desk and introducing her to some of the people on the floor she would work on. She was on the top floor, which apparently housed some of the directors and the MD. Apart from the directors’ offices and meeting rooms, the rest of the space was open-planned. Lara was glad her desk was at the other end of the hall from Ike’s office. Everything she needed to start her job was available and ready for her when she arrived at her desk. She couldn’t help but admire the efficiency of the team up here and how everything seemed to work smoothly. The people she met seemed to love working here and Jane had plenty of good things to say about the boss. In the past few days since her encounter with Ike, she had managed to keep thoughts of him at bay for most of the days, but there were moments when her guard was down and thoughts of him would creep in and invade her mind. Worse when she sat in her living room—his inscrutable image always seemed to loom large in that space. A few things had been set up for her to do on the first day, one of which consisted of going over to the TI Medical Centre. Jane described how to get there and Lara took the lift back downstairs. At the clinic, she was giving a questionnaire to complete in the waiting room. Once she’d completed it and handed it back to the receptionist, she waited until she was called. “Lara Johnson?” The woman spoke with friendly American accent. “Yes,” she replied as she stepped into the doctor’s office. “I’m Doctor Jocelyn Okoro, a member of the TI medical team. Please sit down.” She settled in the chair beside the desk to the doctor’s right hand. “I’m sure you read this already in your contract of employment. Thomas International offers comprehensive health care insurance for its employees. As part of this, each employee undergoes a health check when they start work with the company.” “Yes, I read that.” “Good. We are going to give you a physical as well as psychological examination. There’s nothing to worry about. If you have any questions about the process, feel free to ask them.” Her stomach quivered and a chill spread down her arms. She always felt uneasy about doctors ever since she’d had to spend time in hospital. Since then, she only saw them when absolutely necessary and they never gave anything more than perfunctory observations, anyway. She always told herself there was nothing wrong. If she kept her mind blank and projected well-being, they picked it up and it’d all be over soon. “Okay. Thank you.” “First, I’ll get you to see the nurse who will collect blood samples and a urine sample. Then, you’ll come back to me and I’ll carry out the physical examination.” The doctor directed her to the room where the nurse gave her a pot to pee in and then drew blood into different vials. She measured her height and weight. Then Lara returned to the doctor’s office, went on the examination table, and after the physical, she had to complete two sets of questionnaires. Afterwards, the doctor started asking her questions. Most of them were easy to answer. But when she started questions about Lara’s family, she got uncomfortable. “Do you have a large family?” Doctor Jocelyn asked when Lara had returned the completed questionnaire to her. “No. There are only two of us. My younger sister and me. My parents are dead.” “I’m sorry for your loss. Did you parents die recently?” Lara shifted in her seat. “No. It’s been a while.” “Do you have other family? Uncles, Aunts, Cousins.” “We are close to my mother’s sister. She took us in when my parents died. There are other relatives, but we’re not in touch with them.” “What about friends? You must keep in touch with your friends from University or high school.” “I don’t really have that many friends. Yes, I know people on social media, but they are more acquaintances than friends. I only have one close friend. I prefer it that way.” “Makes sense.” Jocelyn scribbled something on her notepad. “Do you get on very well with your sister and aunty?” “Yes, they are the only family I’ve got.” “Did you have any problems with them when you all lived together?” Lara hesitated and swallowed, her mouth dry. Eventually, she shrugged. “Things were okay.” “Good. Do you have a boyfriend?” It’s just a question. Don’t think anything about it. She frowned. “Why do you need to know?” “It’s part of a routine set of question. You don’t have to answer it if you prefer not to.” “It’s fine. I don’t have a boyfriend.” Jocelyn scribbled on her notepad again. “We offer contraceptives to women who want them. Here is a leaflet. There are also free packs of condom available from reception.” “Okay. Thank you.” “Okay. That’s everything for today. If you have any concerns about your health, don’t hesitate to contact me or any one of the team.” Jocelyn handed her a leaflet. “There’s a twenty-four-hour phone line that you can call in case of an emergency. “Also, we offer counselling to victims of abuse and sexual assault. I know that most victims don’t call the police when they are attacked. But we have a phone number that people can call when they want to talk confidentially. We listen, offer advice, and provide support. Read the pamphlet. It provides advice on how to spot early signs of abuse.” Lara took the pamphlet but she didn’t talk. “I know it’s a lot of information to absorb so take your time to read everything I’ve given you. Also—” Jocelyn reached in the drawer of her desk and pulled out a card, “—this has my personal number on it. You can call me anytime on it. I know what it is like to feel ashamed and hide something terrible.” “You do?” Lara’s body hunched. “Yes, I lived with a physically abusive father. We never talked about it in my family. At the age of nineteen, I got married to an abusive husband. My husband’s abuse wasn’t physical, but he mentally and emotionally abused me until I felt I had no self-worth unless I was with him. I lost all my friends and had no contact with my family. At the age of twenty-two, I had a mental breakdown.” Lara’s mouth dropped open. That couldn’t be right. “But you’re a medical doctor. You look normal.” Jocelyn smiled sadly. “I’m normal today only because I got the right help. I had to undergo treatment and most of all, I had to tell someone about what had happened to me. It was only then that I started the slow journey to healing. It’s the reason I went to medical school and specialised in psychiatry. I wanted to offer others the same opportunity to heal from mental illnesses.” Lara swallowed and nodded. “So if there’s anything, it doesn’t matter how long ago it happened. I can help.” “Thank you.” *** A week later, Lara was fiddling with the leaflet the doctor had given her about the counselling service. The thought of talking to someone about what had happened to her years ago felt daunting. She’d kept it a secret for so long. What would be the point of sharing it now? A doctor had told her once that she lacked emotional responses at crucial moments. She agreed because for years, she’d locked everything up inside. She hadn’t gotten angry or cried in years until she met Ike again. To be honest, she didn’t want to unlock any of those emotions, as she was afraid of the avalanche that would crush her. She had a good job and her life seemed to be falling into place. Why should she rock the boat? Anyway, it wasn’t as if she would ever get justice. “Good morning, Lara.” At his level, business-like voice, her heart skipped a beat and her head snapped up to see Ike standing in front of her desk. She shoved the leaflet into a drawer as guilt made her cheeks heat up. She didn’t want him seeing the pamphlet and perhaps deciphering her thoughts, especially since he’d seen her at her most vulnerable almost two weeks ago. Anyway, what was he doing here? She hadn’t seen him since she fell asleep on her bed with him talking to her. “Good morning, Mr. Thomas.” She stood up, smoothing her skirt suit with her hand. Her lips suddenly felt dry and she licked them worriedly, tasting her strawberry lip-gloss. He had a way of making her feel self-conscious simply by being there. “Please sit. You have to call me Ike. We are a close team up here and work on first name basis. I’m sure Olu or Jane would have told you that already.” He waited for her to sit back down and walked round, sitting on the edge of her desk. “How are you settling in? Do you have everything you need?” She’d been at TI for a week and she’d managed to avoid seeing him in that time. This morning, he looked especially handsome in his tailored charcoal suit that exhibited his athletic frame superbly. Having him this close was quite distracting and she suddenly found it difficult to think coherently. She diverted her eyes back to her laptop screen before she could speak and hoped her voice wouldn’t let her down. “Yes, thank you. I have all I need.” She bit her lip nervously. “Good. Olu is away on a conference in Abuja. While he is away, I’ll be dealing with any issues on the project directly and you would report straight to me. First thing though, I would like you to join us for the leadership team meeting this morning. I want to introduce you to the rest of the directors and divisional heads.” “Oh, sure. When is it?” Her nervousness rose higher. It was worse than she thought. She was going to report straight to Ike! Meaning she would be seeing more of him that she had originally thought. Was she really ready for this? She had looked forward to having Olu as a buffer between her and Ike so that she didn’t have to deal with him directly. But no. She was being dropped straight into the deep end—into Purgatory. “It starts in five.” He stood up, his movement so graceful that momentarily, she forgot where she was as her eyes clashed with his cool mocha ones reminding her of a jungle cat she’d seen on National Geographic channel stalking its prey. The thought of herself as Ike’s prey sent shivers down her spine, raising her anxiety level, and she lowered her eyes hastily. Lara, think...don’t get distracted! Coughing, she managed to dislodge the lump in her throat, allowing her to speak when her brain eventually got back into gear. “What do I need to bring along with me?” Her voice still sounded croaked. “Just yourself.” He paused and looked at her, smiling reassuringly. “And Lara, don’t worry. You’ll be absolutely fine.” Glad that he seemed to have confidence in her ability, she hoped she wouldn’t let him down. Things had ramped up pretty quickly and she hoped she could keep her mind on the matters of business and not on her enigmatic boss. There was only one way to find out, though. Taking the plunge and praying it paid off in the end. “Okay. Lead the way,” she said defiantly and straightened up. She picked up her notepad and pen, following Ike into the board room, tendrils of excitements twirling in her belly. *** “Has the quantity surveyor given you his estimate yet?” Ike asked. He’d taken his jacket off and rolled up the sleeves of his baby blue shirt to just below his elbows. The clothes clung to his lean, masculine body. The sight of him took Lara’s breath away. They were in his office discussing the progress of the project. The more time she spent with him had the old feelings she had for him resurfacing. Now more than ever, she wanted him. Every time she was in his presence, her pulse quickened and her body tingled. She licked her lips. “Yes, and I’ve spoken to the suppliers who say they can deliver the materials on time.” “What about manpower? Do we have enough people to complete the project?” “Yes, I’ve been talking to the resource manager who has been liaising with the contractors and agencies. We should have everyone on board in time.” There was a knock on the office door. “Come in,” Ike said. Jane pushed the door open and two men walked in with aluminium trays laden with food and drinks. They set them down on the low table where the bank of sofas was located in Ike’s large office. “Your lunch is ready,” Jane said. “Thank you,” Ike said. The men left with Jane and she shut the door. “Let’s head over to the sofa,” he said as he stood up. “Perhaps I should leave you to have your lunch and come back later,” Lara said. “No.” He came around the desk and took her hand. “The lunch is for both of us.” “Both of us?” Her heart lurched. She tried to pull her hand away. “We can’t.” “What’s wrong with two friends having lunch?” “It’s okay. I’m not really hungry.” He frowned. “You’re not? Then perhaps you’ll eat a little because I want you to do so.” Excitement flowed through her veins at the possibilities couched in his words. Perhaps this was the opportunity she’d been hoping for. In the aftermath of the disaster that had been their relationship, she was the one who’d lost out the most. Perhaps this was the chance to even out the playing field. “And if I do that for you, what do I get in return?” She raised her brow. He smiled the boyish smile that had always made her heart race. “What would you like?” “I want you.” That was the truth. Had always been. He frowned and pulled his hand away. “Me? What exactly do you mean?” She looked up at his face and met his gaze. “If I eat the food, then as my reward, I want you to fuck me.” “What?” His whole body went still. “You’re joking, right?” She shook her head. “I’m not. I reckon you owe me, anyway. A long time ago, you promised you would after my exams and then you backed out on our deal. This time around, if you want us to be friends—” she did air quotes around friends, “—then you have to fulfil the deal we made.” “No. I’m sorry. I can’t do it.” He moved away. She clenched her fists and loosened them. Then she glared at him. “Then I’m sorry, too, because I can never be friends someone who doesn’t keep his word.” She packed up her notepad and headed to the door. “Enjoy your lunch, Mr. Thomas.” “Wait.” Ike’s word had her freezing by the door, her heart racing. “I’ll do it,” he said. “Just don’t go.” Chapter Thirteen What was he doing? Ike’s breath hitched and his heart raced. Sweat beaded his forehead although the office was cool. Why did he just agree to have sex with Lara? Hadn’t he decided that he wouldn’t go there with her? That there was too much at stake again to dredge up all those old feelings? He closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath, his mind whirling. He couldn’t let her walk out on him feeling like he’d let her down again. He’d already hired a private detective to investigate what had happened five years ago. He’d given out the names of everyone he could remember who had been at that party, both the university students and the final year high school students from Hillcrest who’d been there. He didn’t know where most of those people were these days. But if they were alive, then they would be found, he’d been promised. Apparently, with the popularity of social media and smart phones, it was easier to keep track of people. The important thing was that he would find out what had happened to Lara, and he would get her justice one way or the other. Jocelyn had already started the ball rolling in terms of Lara’s mental health. And the ball was now in Lara’s side of the court to seek the help she needed. Nobody could force her to talk if she didn’t. But he needed to be vigilant and he couldn’t do anything that would set her back. He was being brilliantly surprised daily by Lara’s eagerness and enthusiasm with the job. She was like a sponge soaking up everything thrown at her, learning at a pretty fast rate, and already producing sound ideas. Then again, he shouldn’t have been surprised. She was an intelligent woman. He had found out five years ago when he was her tutor how smart and entrepreneurial she was. She had topped her class in the subject and won several awards for her projects. Last week, when the pain of seeing her again had gripped him and he’d momentarily lost his bearings, he had wondered at Olu’s wisdom for hiring her. However, today, after monitoring her actions for the past few days, he was glad she was a member of his team. During their meetings, she always presented herself as competent and composed. There was no hint of the woman who’d broken down last week in her apartment. It seemed she had gotten good at hiding the other side of her. No one else knew about them, their past. At least, it looked that way. She didn’t seem keen to talk about it. To talk to him, even. They needed to deal with the past before they could move on. The whole thing had been plaguing him for days. Images of Lara had been whirling around in his mind. Like he’d acquired a virtual stalker—wherever he went, she was there. It surprised him that after so many years, all it had taken was to see her again and he felt like the young man who had fallen for her. To think that once upon a time, he’d thought she was the one, an angel, the girl to whom he belonged, heart, body, and soul. She had enthralled him, reaching parts of him that were locked to others, showing him the beauty of humanity he didn’t think existed. Now, she was back, and he couldn’t decide if it was a gift or a curse. Because he was about to risk everything again for her. His peace of mind, most of all. He’d never gotten involved with an employee before. Never mixed business with pleasure. Yet, he was about to do it. Not to mention that there were other reasons he shouldn’t. He opened his eyes. Lara stood on the same spot and stared at him, her expression uncertain. He expected her to at least look happy because he’d caved in. Instead, she appeared wary and unconvinced. “Come and sit down,” he said. She didn’t move. “Do you mean it?” He raised his brow in confusion. “Mean what?” “Did you mean it when you said you’ll do it? You’re not just saying it because you think that’s what I want to hear. Only for you to change your mind. I won’t be manipulated again.” She crossed her arms over her chest. He sighed. “I’m not trying to manipulate you.” “Prove it.” “How?” “Let’s do it right here and right now.” He swallowed as his skin heated up. The thought of taking her in his office excited him, even though he knew it was wrong. “The food will get cold.” “I don’t mind. Anyway, there’s a microwave in the rec room.” “Lock the door,” he said, his voice low and deliberate. She smiled the smile of someone who was about to be granted her wish as she turned around to click the keys into the lock position. Warmth spread through his chest that he made her smile. She smiled so little these days, compared to the young girl he once knew who used to beam sunshine at him with her smile. He pressed the button on the intercom. “Jane, I’m not to be disturbed for the next hour.” “Okay, sir,” Jane replied. He straightened and turned to face Lara. “Come here,” he said as he leaned against his desk. What he was about to do, he’d never done in his office before. There was something forbidden about it. A part of him was thrilled at the thought of Lara being the one who would bring out this reckless side of him that he’d locked away. He’d thought he’d outgrown it. She strode across to him, her hips swaying in a seductive manner. She had a feline grace to her movements. His pulse rate ratcheted up another gear, his heart thumping hard against his chest. Blood rushed to his cock, swelling it, and it strained against the fly of his trousers. He hadn’t even touched her and his body was ready to explode. His fingers itched to touch her. She stopped at arm’s length and he leaned forward, placed his left hand on her arm, and dragged her to him until she collided with his body. His right hand reached for her nape, tilted her head back as he lowered his. Their lips met in a passionate kiss. In the recesses of his mind, he remembered the first time he’d kissed her. How tentative and chaste it had been. This time was so different. Nothing tentative about the way her lips opened hungrily for him, as if she’d been starving to taste him. And there was nothing chaste about the way he ravaged her mouth, his lips crushing hers, his tongue thrusting in and out, and his teeth nipping at the flesh. The sounds of moans competed with the rushing blood in his ears. He wanted more of her. How he wanted more of her. He tilted her head and deepened the kiss, dominating her with his mouth and his presence. She melted into his arms, rubbing her body against his with unrestrained abandon. He broke the kiss and they both panted for breath and he lifted her and turned her around, sitting her on the edge of the desk. He settled between her legs and her skirt rode up her thighs as he spread her legs. He kissed her again, feathering her face and trailing his lips down to her neck. She moaned and ground her crotch against his bulge. Then she reached for his fly and started undoing his buckle. He froze and closed his eyes. This was moving too fast. Opening his eyes, he straightened and held her hands. “Wait,” he said, his voice husky as he struggled to get his control back. She looked up at him, her eyes glazed with lust, her lips parted. Although she stopped undoing his belt, she kept her hand on his bulge. Her heat permeated the fabric, making it difficult for him to think clearly. He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You understand that this has to be just once. I can’t promise you that we’ll do this again after today.” She pulled in the corner of her lip. “Yes, I know this is a one-time only deal. But I’ve got you for the next hour, right?” “Yes.” “And you’re a fit young man. So I’m sure you can do it more than once in the time we have.” She gave him a sexy smile. The cheeky girl he’d fallen for back then was back. He chuckled. “I’ll do my best.” She carried on with his buckle until it came loose. His arousal went through the roof as his anticipation rose. The thought of her touching him was driving him crazy. But he stood still and waited. Slowly, she slid down the zipper, the sound filling the air. He held his breath as she reached into his boxers and wrapped her slim fingers around him. Heat skimmed his body. She pulled him out and stroked him gently from the broad head to the root. Groaning, he closed his eyes and thrust into her hand. This was torture because her grip wasn’t firm enough to make him come, but it proved enough to set his veins alight. Something moist and warm covered the tip of his cock. He groaned again and opened his eyes. Lara was on her knees, her mouth covering his dick. All his blood went to his cock. He thrust his hips reflexively and he rammed the back of her mouth. She swallowed around his head and he groaned, his hand going to her head and holding her still as he fought not to come. She didn’t let up, though, and she kept working him with her right hand and her mouth as her left hand held onto his right thigh. He felt as if he could feel her all over his body. “I’m going to come in your mouth if you keep this up.” He could barely say the words. She nodded and moaned around his cock. The action vibrated through him and he lost his control. He pumped into her mouth again and again, his orgasm now within reach as he used her to gain his pleasure. She didn’t try to get away. Instead, she swallowed him each time he rammed in and tightened her grip on his base. “Fuck!” he cried out as he thrust once. Twice. Tipped his head back and his whole body stilled as he emptied his semen onto her tongue. He stood there trying to catch his breath as she licked him clean and he went soft. He opened his eyes as she released him and stood, giving him a wide grin. “I’ve always wanted to do that. Always wanted to be the one giving you pleasure,” she said with a tinge of sadness although she was smiling. His heart clenched and a rush of emotion hit him. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her hard, tasting himself on her. Lara made him feel things he shouldn’t. Right now, he didn’t care. He lifted her and carried her to the desk and sat her on it. He leaned back. “Now it’s my turn to give you pleasure.” He reached to the side and pulled down the zip to her skirt. She helped him along, seemingly in a rush, and pushed the skirt down her legs as he pulled it off her. She had on another black lace thong that barely covered her pussy. There seemed to be little air in the room as he hooked his fingers into the straps and pulled it down her legs. He settled on his knees between her legs and gripped her thighs so he could pull her forward and spread her open. Her pussy glistened just as it had when he’d first seen her naked. Now, she had her top on, covered from waist to chest, but the rest of her was bare to his gaze. He nuzzled her labia with his nose, breathing in the scent of her musk, letting her juices mark his skin. His erection reawakened as he parted her labia and gave a slow lick around her clitoris. She moaned and arched off the desk. “Not too loud, my girl. Everyone on this floor will hear you.” His breath caught and he stilled as he realised what he’d just said. My girl had been his pet name for her five years ago. It had shown his soft spot for her and his claim on her. But it had just slipped out now without much thought. She whimpered, drawing his attention again. He leaned in and tunnelled his tongue into her wet channel before dragging it back up to her clit and pressing down. She jerked her hips. He carried on using his tongue to pleasure her, applying pressure then taking it off, stroking up and down several times. She arched off the desk and gripped his head, trying to push it down to apply more pressure. He didn’t oblige her. She moaned. “I want to come,” she pleaded. “What’s my name?” he asked as he stroked his tongue around her clit for the umpteenth time. “Mr. Thomas,” she said in grumpy tone. He chuckled and leaned back, not touching her. “If you want to come, you have to say my first name, like you know you should.” “I don’t need you to come.” She lowered her hands. “I can do it myself.” “No, no, no.” He tutted and gripped her arms. “There’ll be no coming for you until you do as I say.” “You’re bossy, aren’t you?” She sulked. “Always have been and you know it.” He waited. “Fine. Ike.” “Say it again.” “Ike. Ike. Ik—“ He cut her off when he kissed her hard as he thrust his fingers inside her wet channel. He pumped a few times and then pressed down on her clit with his thumb. She moaned into his mouth, her whole body thrashing for moments on end. Eventually, she quietened and went limp. He lifted his head. She opened her eyes and gave him a lazy smile of satisfaction. He gave her a brief kiss. “Now, let’s eat that lunch. And if you’re good, I’ll fuck your pussy before you go back to work.” She beamed an expectant smile at him and nodded. “Yes, Ike.” “That’s my girl.” Chapter Fourteen Lara floated in a cloud of post-coital bliss as she walked back to her desk, holding her shoulders back and her posture straight. For the first time in weeks, satisfaction coursed through her veins, and she practically bounced as she walked. Ike had finally fulfilled her wish of making love to her, although it had taken him five years to make it a reality. The affectionate man she’d known had made an appearance as they’d eaten lunch sitting side by side on the sofa. Perhaps finally sharing physical intimacy with him had thawed the resentment she’d held against him these past five years. She’d relaxed into his arms as he’d fed her pieces of steamed plantain and moi-moi. Afterwards, he’d settled her astride his lap facing him and had driven into her repeatedly while whispering sweet nothings to her in between kissing her until they’d both climaxed. They’d clung to each other, catching their breaths. It had felt good to be in his arms finally; she hadn’t wanted it to end. Unfortunately, they’d had to untangle and get dressed. They were both still at work. Luckily, he had a bathroom attached to his office, which she’d used to make her appearance presentable again. Now, she breathed in deeply as she settled back into her chair. A slight scent of Ike’s aftershave still clung to her skin. She closed her eyes as she remembered the roughness of his chin where the shaved hair was starting to grow back at it had grazed her thigh. The press of his firm lips as he’d kissed her. She raised her hand and touched her lips. Ike was a great kisser. She wanted to go back into his office and kiss him again. Her skin tingled in remembrance of all the parts of her body he’d kissed. She wanted a repeat performance. Then she remembered that he’d said their encounter would only happen once. He didn’t want a repeat. Her satisfaction dampened. Surely, he’d felt the sizzle as well as the certainty that they should be together. The amazing connection between them and his sexy tenderness must prove they could have more times together. Yes, she knew she wasn’t good enough for him to build a future with. She was too screwed up. Too damaged to ever expect him to want her permanently. But surely, they could enjoy a bit more of each other for a short while. “Lara, can I talk to you?” Popping her eyes open, she swivelled her chair around to find Jane standing the other side of her desk. “Hi, Jane. Of course. Pull up a chair.” “I’d rather talk privately. Let’s use one of the meeting rooms.” Something about her tone felt off but she dismissed it. The woman had been nice to her since she started working here. “Sure.” She stood up and followed Jane down the aisle into one of the small rooms. She shut the door when she walked in. Jane didn’t sit so Lara didn’t, either. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Well, I should be asking you that,” Jane said. “How do you mean?” “Look, I don’t have to be a genius to figure out what was going on in Ike’s office this afternoon. He had never locked himself in his office with a woman before for that long.” Lara reared back. “What...how did you know the door was locked? He specifically told you that he wasn’t to be disturbed.” Jane lowered her gaze, looking ashamed. “I was a bit suspicious so I checked the door.” Lara narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. She hadn’t taken Jane for the interfering kind. “Is this what you do? Go around snooping on your boss’s privacy?” Jane stiffened and pushed out her chest. “I’m his PA. I need to know what he does, especially when he’s in the office.” “You sound more like you’re his mother. He is an adult, old enough to make his own decisions without interfering personal assistants.” She fumed, tired of people who tried to bully her or tell her what to do. Jane winced and for a moment, she was speechless. Perhaps she hadn’t expected Lara to give as good as she got. “I know he’s an adult and so are you, but don’t you even care about the person you are hurting?” Jane said finally. “Look, even if there’s something going on between Ike and me, and I’m not saying there is, we are not hurting anyone else.” Jane’s mouth dropped open and she stared at Lara as if she’d sprouted a horn. “So you think his fiancée wouldn’t care that he is having an affair with you? Do you know how much it hurts when you are cheated on? My ex-boyfriend did that to me for a long time and it was devastating to find out.” “Um. Hang on.” Lara swallowed. “Did you just say Ike has a fiancée?” “Yes,” Jane said. “He’s been engaged for six months.” She gasped and covered her face with her hands. “No!” “Are you saying you didn’t know Ike was engaged?” She lowered her hands. “I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have...” She didn’t complete the statement because she wasn’t sure she could trust Jane. She didn’t want to confirm the woman’s suspicions although her reaction had probably given it away. On the other hand, she wasn’t totally sure she wouldn’t have had sex with Ike even if she’d known he was engaged. Their encounter had been a long time coming and she didn’t want to regret it. “I’m sorry your boyfriend cheated on you. But about Ike, his fiancée has nothing to worry about because there’s nothing going on between us.” “Thank you. I just didn’t want anyone getting hurt.” Shame about that, because she was already hurting. “Good. Now I have to get back to work.” She left the meeting room and headed back to her desk. As she worked, Ike’s engagement plagued her mind. Why hadn’t he told her? Was that the reason he’d mentioned today being a one-off? The workload meant she didn’t get the time to mull over the issue for too long. But she made the decision to leave Ike to his life and his fiancée. *** Ike arrived back at his apartment earlier than normal that evening. He’d been too distracted at work after the afternoon with Lara that he’d been unable to work effectively. Their time together had been special. The glowing smile on her face had been worth the conflict that had threatened to tear him apart for agreeing to fulfil her wish. It had taken him so many years to finally accept the role he’d played in his brother’s death and to forgive himself. He’d learned to accept the responsibility of being in the position of dutiful first child instead of the reckless middle sibling he’d been prior to Obi’s fatality. How could he balance pleasing the woman who had meant so much to him in the past when he owed a great deal to the woman whom he was going to marry and spend his future with? He’d never been the kind of man to keep more than one woman at a time. He’d never cheated before. As he entered his home, his guilt ate away at him and made his shoulders hunch. The scent of a woman’s perfume hit him before he walked into the living room to find her reclining on the sofa. “Welcome home, honey.” Gloria Rawlings stood up and sashayed over to him. She carried herself with class and sophistication, a woman used to having attention and getting her own way. “I didn’t know you were coming over today,” he said, hiding his surprise. “You work so hard. I thought I’d surprise you.” She draped her arms around his neck. Her high heels meant they were face to face. She pressed her lips against his. He took a while to respond. She broke the kiss and looked at him with a frown on her face. “Are you okay?” He sighed. “I’m just a little tired. It’s the reason I came home early.” “Poor baby. Why don’t you go take your clothes off and freshen up? I’ll make sure the chef has something prepared for you.” He tried not to roll his eyes upwards. He was waiting for the day Gloria would volunteer to cook for him instead of instructing his chef. Not that he wanted her in the kitchen cooking all the time. Just that it would be nice if she would at least do it once. Then again, she had never worked a day in her life. Her wealthy parents had pampered her. And he would admit that he indulged her, too. She was the woman he was going to marry and he could afford to pay a chef to cook his meals, so it wasn’t a big deal. Other domestic staff took care of other household chores. And he didn’t expect her to do those, either. When they married, things would continue in the same vein. In the bedroom, he removed his jacket and tie, folding them over the armchair in the corner. He toe-d his shoes off and removed his socks. Then he strode into the en-suite and turned on the shower before stripping off the rest of his clothes. He stepped under the warm spray and washed himself quickly, scrubbing his body to make sure no part of Lara or her scent remained on his skin. Then he cut off the water and dried himself with a towel before tying it around his waist and going back into the bedroom. Gloria came in. “I hope you’re feeling refreshed,” she said as she caressed his bare body, starting from his back and then coming to his chest. His dick gave an unenthusiastic twitch but aside from that, he didn’t feeling the usual pre-sex excitement he would have when she did the things she was doing. She must have noticed his lack of response because she said, “Still feeling tired?” “I’m sorry. Perhaps later.” He hoped his lack of interest would pass quickly. “Okay.” She pouted. “Come and have dinner, then.” She strode out as he got dressed in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. In the living room, the table was set although the food wasn’t out yet. Gloria sat on the sofa flicking channels. He walked to the adjacent sofa and sat down. “I need to talk to you.” He sat with his elbows on his knees as he leant forward, his hands steepled together. She put the remote on the table and looked at him. “I’m listening.” He sucked in a deep breath and puffed it out. “I had sex with another woman.” Her mouth dropped open. For several seconds, she didn’t say anything. Then, she frowned. “Ike, if you’re joking, it’s not funny.” He shook his head. He felt shitty for doing this to her, but he had to tell her the truth. “I’m not joking. I cheated on you.” “What? When? How?” She jumped off the sofa. When he didn’t reply immediately, she shouted at him. “Tell me when you did it!” “Today. In my office. It’s a one-off and won’t happen again.” “You expect me to believe that? You just come home and tell me that you cheated on me and you expect me to accept that it was a one-off?” She paced back and forth as she spoke in a loud voice. “How long has it been going on?” “I swear to you that it only happened once. Today. I won’t cheat on you and keep it from you.” “You are sure it was just today?” she asked in a calmer tone. “Yes. It won’t happen again. I’m sorry.” “Okay. I accept your apology. Our upcoming wedding is more important than some woman who can’t keep her hands off other women’s fiancés.” He stifled a gasp. He hadn’t been expecting her to forgive him so quickly, especially after her outburst. “But I need to know who the woman is,” she continued. “Does it matter?” “Yes, it does. I need to know.” “It was Lara Johnson.” Her eyes widened and she reared back. “The Hillcrest Lara Johnson?” He nodded. “You had sex with Lara Johnson? That trashy whore?” Ike was off the sofa before he even knew what he was doing. He gripped Gloria’s arm. “Don’t ever talk about her like that!” Her eyes widened. “You’re hurting my arm,” she whined. “Did you hear me?” “Weren’t you there at the party where she threw herself at Malcolm?” He narrowed his eyes. “That’s no reason to call her nasty names. Anyway, what do you know about the party?” She shrugged. “Just what we saw.” He released her arm and stepped back. “Well, if you want this wedding to take place, don’t ever call her a whore again.” She let out a gasp. He left a shocked Gloria in the living room and headed for the kitchen. Chapter Fifteen “Hi, Lara.” Lara looked up from her laptop screen when she heard her name. “Hi, Femi. How are you?” she replied a bit distractedly as her mind moved from calculating figures to registering the man standing in front of her. Femi was an accountant from the finance team assigned to work with her to report on the project finances. She had been introduced to him on her first day at work in TI and they had got on quite well. Being in his late twenties, which was not much older than she was, and just slightly taller than her, he was easy going, boyishly good-looking, and always smiled at her anytime they came into contact. “I’m fine,” he replied pleasantly, flashing a set of white teeth. “Have you seen the latest finance report I emailed you yet?” She smiled back. “Yes, I’m just reading it now. I was going to email you once I had finished reading it. Is there something wrong?” “Oh, no. It’s just that Olu requested to see the report before the sponsor briefing this afternoon. I wanted to run through it with you.” “Okay.” She nodded. “Can we do that now, or should I come back later?” he enquired uncertainly. “No, we can do it now. Grab a seat.” She moved her chair so that Femi could pull up a spare chair from the next empty desk. They walked through the report, Femi pointing out the key figures Lara should keep an eye on. When they finished, he looked reluctant to get up. “Eh…Lara. Are you coming out with us next week Friday?” He sounded hesitant. She frowned and hoped he wasn’t asking her out on a date as she didn’t want to ruin their friendship by refusing him. “Friday? What’s going on?” “It’s the project team social night. Once a month, we go out for a meal and drinks after work. Sometimes, the directors and sponsor join us when a major milestone has been completed successfully.” “Oh, yes. Jane told me about that. I’m not sure yet if I’ll be there, though.” “You have to be. You are the newest member of the team and this Friday, we’ll be celebrating you joining the team. You can’t miss your own party, can you?” he joked, breaking into laughter, and she joined him. “Of course I can’t. Looks like I’ll have to be there.” She shrugged in acceptance. Just at that moment, Ike walked out of the lifts across the hall and looked straight at her and the laughter died in her throat when she saw his expression. It looked murderous. The next thing she noted, he was striding towards her desk. Apprehension gripped her and she stopped breathing and didn’t hear the next thing Femi said to her, her full focus on Ike looking so formidable in his dark suit and scowling expression. By the time he arrived at her desk, his expression was guarded and she couldn’t read him. “Good afternoon, Ike,” Femi said when he saw their employer. “’Afternoon, Femi.” Ike gave him a cursory nod, barely acknowledging Femi, his icy eyes focused on Lara as butterflies fluttered in her belly. “Lara, see me in my office in five minutes.” “Sure,” she muttered, her voice sounding strained. He nodded and walked off without another word or a backward glance, and her eyes followed his retreating back. Femi stood up, reminding her there was someone else next to her. “I’ll see you later and I look forward to Friday night,” he said before walking back to his desk. “Me, too,” Lara replied distractedly, her mind already on inscrutable Ike and the reason he wanted to see her. *** Ike was pacing his office floor, running the risk of wearing a hole in the carpet. His blood was boiling with rage and he felt like smashing a hole through the wall. The minute he had walked out of the lifts into the office space and seen Lara and Femi laughing intimately like lovers and sitting so closely, he had seen red. It was like someone had taken a sledgehammer and bludgeoned him with it for the pain that ran through his body. Was Lara dating Femi? The thought that she could have someone else as a lover was cutting through him like a knife. He scrubbed a hand over his head. Why was he getting agitated because he’d seen Lara with another man? He was engaged to Gloria and their wedding day was less than six months away. He couldn’t possibly want anything to do with Lara more than they’d already had. There was no going back. So why did his heart wrench at the thought of her being with someone else? Why had he felt like grabbing Lara and kissing her in front of the whole floor full of staff so that everyone would know that she belonged to him and was out of bounds? “Fuck!” He was so screwed up. He stopped pacing and gripped the edge of his desk tightly, his knuckles cracking in protest. He needed to calm down before she got here; she’d be here in any minute from now. The last time he’d been angry with her, he’d done something he’d regretted. Strange that she seemed to be the only one who drove him to this level of rage, who brought out the beast in him. And always for the same reason, too—seeing her with someone else. He took a deep, refreshing breath and exhaled. He wasn’t a love-struck young adult anymore. He was a grown man, the head of a company that employed thousands of men and women. He had a better control of his emotions and actions; his actions had consequences that affected other people. He couldn’t allow anyone to control the way he behaved. Not even Lara. So he sat down on his chair and stared blankly at his laptop screen. There was a brief knock on his door. “Come.” The door opened and the subject of his current headache walked in, looking elegant and smart in her mink-coloured skirt suit and high-heeled shoes, sending all his newly acquired good intentions out of the window. His blood started fizzing again and he decided to stay seated behind his desk to avoid giving himself away. She stood by the closed door looking balefully at him, obviously not happy to be summoned into his office. “Sit down.” He indicated the chair in front of his desk and turned back to his laptop screen. He’d let her stew for a while. However, when she didn’t move immediately, he looked up and frowned at the chair then up at her. She took a few begrudging steps towards his desk. “Is this going to be long, because I have another meeting to attend?” She wavered by his desk, glancing at the watch on her wrist impatiently. Guts. She had loads of it. He’d give her that. His brave, rebellious Lara. She was challenging him, daring him to cross the invisibly thin line separating them. Again. A smile tugged at the corner of his lips and his fizzing blood settled low in his belly. She needed to know who was in charge here. A lesson was called for; there were still a few things he hadn’t tutored her in yet. He pressed the intercom on his desk. “Jane, can you contact the attendees to Lara’s next meeting and reschedule for another time? She is currently in conference with me. Thank you,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone like he was rearranging one of his own appointments. “Sure.” Jane’s cheerful voice came across on the intercom and he switched it off. “How dare you cancel my meeting?” Lara snapped at him, her eyes flashing furiously as she stood in front of his desk. If looks could kill, he’d probably be mortally injured by now. The blood in his veins flared his need again primitively. *** Lara glared at Ike as he strode casually round his desk like he had all the time in the world. Like he owned the world and could do as he pleased with it. Like he hadn’t just cancelled her meeting with project stakeholders. Stopping right in front of her, he smiled lazily at her, his dark eyes challenging her. She stood her ground but he was so near she could see his pupils dilate and his nose flare with amusement. She clenched her hands to her side to stop herself wiping the arrogant grin off his face. “What is your relationship with Femi Spiff?” he asked, ignoring her rant, the muscle on his cheek ticking. “He is a work colleague and a friend, not that it’s any of your business,” she retorted, glad her voice was cool, though her heart was pounding in her ears, his intense masculine cologne assaulting her senses, and she had to grip the edge of his desk to stop her knees from buckling. Trying to keep her mind away from Ike, she focused instead on his office. It was a huge room probably the size of her whole flat. There was a round board table and chairs at one end, sofas and low tables at another corner, and a massive desk at the other end. The view was stunning—an unobstructed scene of the blue-green rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean under a clear sunny sky as far as the eye could see on one side, and the sprawling and bustling magnificence of Victoria Island on the other. It must be quite exhilarating to work in an office with such views. Ike leaned closer, his breath fanning her cheek and neck, causing them to tingle, bringing her full attention to focus back on him. “Anything that goes on in TI is my business,” he whispered hoarsely before straightening up. “Of course, he could be reassigned to another project. I think we need an accountant for our Ouagadougou venture.” He grinned wickedly. Gasping, Lara had to pick her mouth up from the floor before she could speak. “You can’t do that. You can’t just relocate employees at your whim.” “You will find that I can. Travel and relocation is a mandatory part of all employee contracts. We are an international company, after all. Femi is a young man looking to grow his career, and that kind of project will be good for his resume.” She realised Ike was right. He could send Femi off to any project anywhere whether he wanted to go or not, just because of her. “What’s the matter with you?” She glared at him. “Why are you doing this?” He paced away and came back to face her. “I can’t stand the thought of you being with someone else.” Her mouth dropped open. For several seconds, they both stared at each other as the gravity of his words seemed to settle heavily in the room. Finally, she found her voice. “Let me get this straight. You told me we can’t be together. Yet, you don’t want me to get involved with someone else?” He grimaced and averted his gaze. “I...” His voice cracked. She placed her hands on her hips. “Well, you’re out of your mind if you think I’m not going to date other people, especially since you have a fiancée.” His eyes widened. “Yes, I know. Your busybody PA told me about it.” “Jane told you? I didn’t know the two of you were that close.” “I don’t know about being close. She was suspicious about what we did in your office the other day and confronted me about it. She said her ex cheated on her and she didn’t want you cheating on your fiancée.” Ike frowned. “You didn’t tell her anything, did you?” “Of course not. I told her nothing was going on.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Good. I’m going to talk to her.” “I don’t want it to seem as if I’m reporting her. But you should know that perhaps, she isn’t very discreet about things she hears and sees. This doesn’t explain why you didn’t tell me you were engaged.” She went back to glaring at him. He strode across the room towards her and she backed up ’til her back hit the wall. “I didn’t see the point of telling you. As you said, I owed you and I wanted the moment with you that was denied us years ago.” He stood so close she could smell his aftershave. He stared down at her with such intensity. “You were my girl and I wanted to recapture what we had if only for an hour. It felt so good and I don’t regret it. Would it have made a difference to you if you’d known I was engaged?” She swallowed the lump in her throat and shook her head. “No. I have no regrets about what we shared.” His face hovered above hers and her breath caught in her throat. Her eyes locked onto his as intense heat danced in his gaze. He lifted her chin, rubbing her lower lip lightly with his thumb. While she stood rooted to the spot, desire bubbled within her, stopping all lucid thoughts. Her heart raced in anticipation as his sumptuous lips descended and she closed her eyes, expecting his lips on hers any second. Ike was going to kiss her; right here, right now. Whilst her mind rejected the idea, her body welcomed it. All her nerve endings seemed ripened, waiting. She wanted a taste of him. Still, nothing happened. She opened her eyes as Ike dropped his hands. He sighed and settled his forehead against her. “I wish things were different. I wish I was free to be with you.” Lara felt so choked up, she was going to cry. She closed her eyes. “It’s okay, Ike. I won’t hold it against you if you stay with your fiancée.” He leaned back and she opened her eyes. “It was crazy of me to think that after five years, you would still be single. I really do hope she makes you happy. I won’t ever mention the other day to anyone. It will remain our secret.” He smiled sadly. “I told her about it.” “You did?” “Yes, I felt shitty enough about cheating on her. I couldn’t lie to her, as well. She forgave me.” “You really are a good man. You do deserve to be happy. I could never have made you happy. I’m just too damaged.” Tears slid down her face. “Oh, Lara.” He pulled her into a hug and stroked her back. “You deserve to be happy, too.” She wept silently at everything she’d lost. Her innocence. The chance of a happy life. The love of a good man. She sniffed and pulled back, wiping her eyes. He gave her a handkerchief and she thanked him. “I don’t know what happened to you, Lara, but there’s help available.” She stiffened and pulled out of his grip. “Please hear me out.” He raised his hands in a placating gesture. “You don’t have to talk to me about it. But Jocelyn is great at what she does. She can really help you heal, if you let her. You could live a happy life one day.” She shrugged. “Maybe. Anyway, are you going to promise not to send every male employee off to Kafanchan or Korhogo or some other obscure African town?” He chuckled. “Yes, I promise. I admit that was a moment of weakness for me. Am I forgiven?” She smiled at him. “You’re forgiven. So tell me about this lovely, soon-to-be wife of yours.” “You remember Gloria, don’t you?” Dizziness made her sway on her feet. “Gloria?” He caught her shoulders and held her steady. “Are you okay?” She shook her head. “You’re engaged to Gloria Rawlins?” “Yes. What’s wrong?” He appeared confused. She stared at him in horror. Didn’t he know the woman he was engaged to? She was the worst possible person he could marry. “I’ve come to realise that there are very few certainties in this life, but one certainty I can swear by is the fact that Gloria Rawlins hates me.” Ike flinched and stared at her as if she’d lost her mind. “You’re kidding me.” “I’ve never been more serious. Gloria hates me. In fact, I’ll go as far as describing her as a mortal enemy. She’ll kill me if she can get away with it.” “You’re imagining things. What reason does Gloria have to hate you?” She paced away. “From the first day I started at Hillcrest, she hated me. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know. But she used any opportunity she could get to make my life a misery. Most of the times, I could brush it off until she spread the rumour about me having sex with Malcolm.” “That rumour was started by Malcolm Ibeh.” “Malcolm may have said it. But Gloria is the one who made sure the rumours spread. She was the queen of the playground. Everything she said was repeated readily across the school students.” He frowned as if thinking on her words. “So why did you never tell me about what she did?” “Because I didn’t know you were involved with her until I came to your house the day you broke off with me. After that, you weren’t talking to me, anyway.” “I just find it so difficult to believe that Gloria would do that.” “Okay. What did she say when you told her you cheated on her? I bet she was furious.” “Yes, she was. But that’s understandable.” “I bet she went livid when she found out it was me. I bet she called me nasty names.” Ike’s eyes went wide. “How do you know that?” “It’s not the first time she’s called me names. She used to do that when we were in school.” Ike sighed. “It does seem like she doesn’t like you.” “Do you love her?” He met her gaze. “We have a good relationship and she’s been in my life for so long. I love her in my own way. But we’re getting married because of my obligations to her family and mine. Her father came to my rescue when I needed help and I made my father a promise on his death bed that I would unite our families.” The back of Lara’s throat hurt and she found it difficult swallowing. He had to uphold his family obligations. There was no way around that. She nodded. At least, she had the consolation that he wasn’t in love with Gloria. Chapter Sixteen “There’s someone at the door,” Ada shouted out. “I’ll get it.” “Okay,” Lara called back as she pulled out the stiff card Jocelyn had given her from her bag. The one with her personal phone number on it. “Jocelyn is great at what she does. She can really help you heal, if you let her.” Ike’s words to her yesterday played in her mind. She flipped the card around in her fingers. She hadn’t slept much last night after his revelation that he was engaged to Gloria. Her mind had been all over the place. When she’d gotten home, she hadn’t been able to eat, and sleep certainly hadn’t come. She needed to do something. She didn’t know what kind of help Jocelyn would offer her. She didn’t think talking about what had happened alone would be any good. She just didn’t want to relive that night. But what other option did she have? If there was a chance she would recover and live a normal life like Jocelyn seemed to be doing, then she would have to take it. “Lara, can you come here a minute?” Ada called out. She sounded annoyed. “I’m coming,” she said and tucked the card in the back pocket of her jeans and took her phone. She would call Jocelyn after she checked out what Ada wanted. Although it was a Saturday, Jocelyn had said she was available any time, any day. She strode out of her room into the corridor and stopped. She could see the front door from where she stood. Gloria Rawlins stood outside the door and Ada stood on the inside, blocking her from coming in. “I’m not letting you into my house unless Lara wants you here,” Ada said, one hand on her hip, the other on the door. “What are you doing here?” Lara asked in a shocked voice. Gloria looked up and saw her. “I came to see you. We need to talk but your guard dog here won’t let me in,” she said with a sneer. “Did this bitch just call me a dog?” Ada stepped across the threshold into Gloria’s face. “We’re no longer in high school, Princess. There’s no gang to protect you.” “If you touch me, I’ll get you arrested for assault.” Gloria looked down her nose. Lara stepped forward and grabbed Ada’s hand. “It’s okay. I can handle this.” “You’re sure?” Ada said. She nodded. Ada glared at Gloria once more before stepping back. “I’m in the kitchen. If you need me to chuck out the garbage, just call me.” With Ada gone, Lara turned back to Gloria. “What do you want?” “I need to talk to you. Can I come in, or do you want your neighbours to know that you sleep with other people’s boyfriends?” She raised brow as if she dared Lara to keep her outside. Lara moved aside and waved her hand. “You can come in, your highness,” she said sarcastically. Gloria sniffed before walking past her into the apartment. The spoilt daughter of wealthy parents, Miss Popularity who swanked around like her father owned everything and she was a princess. Even now, she still had that nose-up-in-the-air thing as she stood surveying Lara’s flat like it was the local rubbish dump. She was very light-skinned, a reflection of the fact her mother was German. Her face was heart shaped, her nose small, her black hair long and straight. Dressed in fitted shift Burberry dress and platform shoes, she could have just stepped off the catwalk runway. “Gloria Rawlins. To what do I owe the honour of your visit?” Lara couldn’t keep the sarcasm from her voice. She must be doing something right for Gloria to feel threatened enough to visit her. With Gloria’s eyes conveying the whole you-are-so-beneath-me attitude and lips twisted in a sneer, Lara couldn’t help thinking the other girl had aged dramatically. “Lara Johnson. I hear you now work for Ike. Well done.” Gloria was clapping now as she strutted around her living room like a peacock. “You’ve finally arrived.” Lara simply watched her calmly. Although she knew Gloria was trying to raise her ire, she finally realised that even with all her finery and bad attitude, Princess Gloria couldn’t intimidate her any longer. She was financially independent and had a career ahead of her. She was making her own money, not waiting for her father to die so she could inherit his wealth, unlike the woman standing in front of her. She couldn’t help the unpleasant thoughts. “Well, thank you, Gloria. Ike knows a good thing when he sees it.” She couldn’t resist the swipe and the haughty smile left the other girl’s face. “And I see you are getting bolder, too. Well, let me give you some advice. Keep away from Ike,” Gloria hissed at her maliciously. “And why would I want to do such a thing? I work with the man.” Lara crossed her arms, folded beneath her chest. A feeling of power rushed through her as she realised she was deriving pleasure in seeing Gloria so riled. Strange, because she had never been vindictive towards anyone before. “Yes, indeed. He told me about the kind of work you do for him, spreading your legs out for him like the whore you are.” Gloria sneered at her, her face distorting spitefully. Lara’s face heated up. “Do you seriously think you mean anything to him?” the other girl continued. “You didn’t before, and you are never going to. No one has ever been able to get between us. Ike and I have a special relationship; that’s why we’ve lasted so long. Occasionally, I allow him to catch his fun just to keep him entertained. All men need a bit of distraction once in a while. Something to remind them of their primeval instincts. But eventually, he always comes back to me. Always has, always will. You were just an amusing interlude to him.” Lara felt sick and she clutched her sides as she struggled to stay upright. The other girl’s words hit their mark. “Listen. I’m a woman like you. I may appear more beautiful and wealthier but I have feelings, too, though some people think that I don’t.” Gloria paused, rubbing her arms before continuing. “Ike is like a child in a sweet shop who wants to indulge in every flavour and shape in plain view and I’m just the obliging parent. You understand that, right?” Lara just stared at Gloria silently, not believing the nerve of the girl. She wanted her sympathy? “Well, if you’ve overindulged him, then you alone are responsible for the consequence. Why should I care?” she said balefully. She was getting tired of this conversation. She had better things to do. “True. It is my responsibility, which is why I’m here. To rein him in before it causes any lasting damage.” “Well, you are in the wrong place. He isn’t here. You’re his fiancée so you should know where he is.” Lara waved her hand dismissively. Gloria laughed scornfully. “I’m in the right place. I need to cut off his sweet supply, and you are it.” She couldn’t believe her ears, couldn’t believe Gloria. The cheek, the gall of the woman. She clenched her hands to her sides to stop herself from slapping the daylights out of the horrible girl. How she could be so vicious and still live with herself, she couldn’t understand. “Gloria, we’re not in high school anymore. You don’t scare me.” She could barely contain her anger now. “You don’t come into my house and mouth off. This isn’t the school playground.” Gloria reared back as if shocked by Lara’s vehement words. They both glared at each other. “Look,” Gloria said, eventually. “I know you have a lot to lose so I’m willing to help you out. To make it worth your while.” “Why do you want to help me?” Lara’s mouth nearly dropped to the floor. This conversation was getting ridiculous by the minute. “Because as I said, I have feelings, too, and I’m not such a bad person. I’m willing to help find you a new job. I can arrange a position for you in my father’s company. Or better still. I can give you money to move away.” She took out her chequebook from her bag and wrote on it, tearing out a slip. She held it up but Lara refused to touch it, though she could see the amount was obscene. Gloria really thought she could buy her acquiescence. Did she earnestly think Lara’s feelings for Ike could be traded for money? Could be bought and sold at whim? What was it with rich people that they thought they could buy people and their emotions? And she’d been genuinely thinking about wishing Ike well with his future. But not now. Not when Gloria had turned up at her door. It proved there was more to what was going on. Ike had been genuinely shocked when she’d told him about what Gloria had done in the past. It was now her duty to prove to him that Gloria was nasty and didn’t deserve to be his wife. Too much of a coincidence that whenever something bad happened to her, Gloria was always close by. “I don’t need your money, Gloria.” She put her hands on her hips and took a gamble. “I wonder what Ike would say if he finds out that his future wife is a manipulative bitch.” The shocked expression on Gloria’s face nearly made her laugh, and she capitalised on it. “Does he know that you manipulated him into getting engaged with you?” she taunted. Gloria’s face contorted and she snapped. “I did what I had to do to get him.” Her voice was so vicious that Lara flinched. “Do you know what it felt like all those years watching him have relationships with other women? I hated it, hated every minute of it.” Lara’s eyes widened at Gloria’s confession. She could see the hate contorting Gloria’s face. And it all clicked. “It was you!” she accused. “You are the reason Ike split up with me.” Gloria glared at her. “Of course it was me. From the minute you turned up at Hillcrest, you were moping at him like some puppy. I knew it was only a matter of time before he fell for your whole innocent girl act. It’s why I got Malcolm to ask you out. But he was so dumb, playing the whole caveman act on you. Of course, it didn’t work, and I had to teach him how to act like a gentleman, which eventually worked.” Lara felt like she was going to throw up all over the floor. She felt dizzy and sat on the arm of the sofa. “You set me up with that psycho just so you could have Ike to yourself.” She couldn’t hide the shock in her voice. “I did, and I’ll do it again to make sure he doesn’t leave me.” Gloria sneered. Lara’s hand shook as she picked the phone out of her pocket. Her whole body was trembling as if she had hypothermia. The edges of her vision were starting to blur. She knew what was happening to her and she tried to prevent it. Her mind was trying to shut down again, blanking out everything. “I’m going to tell Ike about you,” she said in an increasingly weak voice. “I may not be good enough for him, but you’re certainly the worst person he could ever marry. I’ll make sure he never marries you.” Gloria stepped towards her, her hatred apparent. “You do that and you can be sure that what Malcolm did to you will be nothing compared to what I’ll do to you. Keep away from Ike.” “Ada!” Lara screamed, knowing she was losing time. She pulled the card out of her pocket as Gloria walked out of the room. Ada came into the room, gripping her shoulders. “Are you okay?” Lara swallowed and nodded. “Where’s Gloria?” “She’s gone,” Ada replied. She lifted her hand and shoved her phone and the card at Ada. “Call her. Her name is Jocelyn. Tell her I need her help.” Lara was now shaking badly and she rolled into the corner of the sofa and curled up. “Lara, you’re scaring me. What did that bitch do to you?” “Please...” was all she could say before darkness claimed her. Chapter Seventeen “Mr. Bode is here to see you.” Jane’s voice rang clear through the intercom speaker on Ike’s desk. “Send him in,” he instructed before turning to his friend he’d been chatting with. “I’d like you to stay for this next meeting.” Henry nodded. “Sure. What is it about?” “I’ll brief you in a minute,” Ike said as he stood up and walked around his desk. Jane ushered in a smartly dressed man into his office. “It’s good to see you, Mr. Bode.” Ike extended his hand and his guest grabbed it in a firm shake. “This is my friend, Henry Coker.” Two men shook hands as he instructed Jane to bring refreshments. She stepped out. He directed the men to the sofas. “We all need to sit comfortably for this meeting.” The two nodded and took their seats just as Jane brought a tray of malt and beer drinks and tall glasses and set them on the low coffee table. She left and shut the door behind her. “Help yourselves,” Ike said. Mr. Bode took a bottle of the malt and popped the cap with the opener. Ike and Henry did the same, ignoring the beer. “So what do you have for me?” Ike said when they’d all had something to drink. Mr. Bode placed his briefcase on the table and opened it. “We’ve made some progress on our enquiries. The main person you wanted us to find, Mr. Malcolm Ibeh. We found him.” “Is this the same Malcolm Ibeh from Hillcrest?” Henry asked. “Yes. I wanted him found to answer some questions about what happened to Lara at that Zik Hall party,” Ike said as he sat up straight. “Mr. Bode is helping to track down some of the party guests. Malcolm is top of the list.” “Something happened to her?” Henry’s eyes widened. “Not in a good way,” he replied and turned back to the investigator. “You said you found Malcolm?” The man pulled out a folder and laid it on the table. “Yes, we did. He is in federal prison in the USA.” “What?” Henry asked. “It’s all in the folder,” the man replied. “He was convicted for abducting a minor across state lines, sexual assault, rape, possession of drugs with the intent to supply.” Ike picked up the folder and opened it. The first thing was a copy of a mug shot of Malcolm, followed by copies of the court documents that listed what he’d been convicted off. “He abducted a child?” Ike looked up from the papers. “Yes. It appears he met and groomed a girl on Facebook. She lived in New York and he lived in Atlanta, Georgia. Apparently, he drove from Atlanta to New York to pick her up and drove her back to his house in Atlanta. The girl was sixteen. He claimed he thought she was eighteen. Although the girl went with him willingly, her parents reported it to the police as he needed their permission to take the girl out of the state, which amounted to abduction. “Also, he had sex with her. His semen was found on the girl when he was arrested. The age of consent is eighteen, so it amounted to rape. He is now on the sexual offenders’ register. And it turned out he was a dealer as they found large quantities of drugs in his house.” “Wow.” Henry’s shocked word mirrored exactly how Ike felt. He’d known that the boy Malcolm was would definitely get into trouble with the law at some point. But he hadn’t imagined this. And he was still a little disappointed that the man was out of his reach. He wanted answers from him. “How did you find all this out?” Ike asked. “I did an Internet search of his name and found an online newspaper mention of a man bearing his name who’d been convicted of abducting a minor across state lines. I wasn’t sure it was the same man. But we are affiliated to a PI firm in the states. We had one of them go over to Atlanta and make some enquiries. It turned out Mr. Ibeh was a well-known member of the Nigerian community in Atlanta. He lived in a big house in a nice neighbourhood. People had been shocked to find out he was a drug dealer. In fact, he has some supporters who think he was set up by the police. They say that it was the girl’s fault for not telling him her age.” “What?” Livid, Ike chucked the file back onto the table. “How stupid can people be? How can anyone defend such a thing? He was the adult. How difficult was it to ask the girl how old she was, especially since she was living at home with her parents?” He’d been in a similar situation when he’d met Lara for the first time, although she’d been seventeen and only a few months from her eighteenth birthday. But he’d ensured that all their interactions were platonic. He’d reserved his sexual desires for other women. It wasn’t until Lara turned up in his house when she’d turned eighteen that he’d allowed himself to think of her as a woman with sexual needs. “I don’t even know how anybody could defend that kind of behaviour,” Henry said, picking up the file. “Unfortunately, there are people who are quick to blame the victim and not the perpetuator.” “As much as I’m glad to see Malcolm pay for any crimes he’s committed, this news is a little disappointing. It means we don’t get the chance to question him about the party. It was his party and we all know he was with Lara that night.” “We still have options,” Mr. Bode said. “One is to question Mr. Ibeh in prison. We can get one of the investigators in the States to pay him a visit. Of course, there’s no guarantee that he will talk, but we can certainly try.” “Yes, I’d like you to do that,” Ike said. “What is the other option?” “I also tracked down a man by the name of Jimoh Obalende. He works at the National Theatre, Iganmu. I’ve got contact details for him.” He reached in the briefcase and took out a sheet of paper. Ike took the paper and pulled out his phone. He dialled the mobile phone number on the sheet. “No time like the present to contact him.” He put the phone on speaker and the ringing sound echoed in the office before a male voice came through. “Hello?” “Is this Jimoh Obalende?” Ike asked. “Yes...who am I speaking to?” “This is Ike Thomas. I was one of your teachers at Hillcrest School.” “Oh. Of course. Mr. Thomas. Good evening.” “Good evening, Jimoh. How are you doing?” “I’m doing okay. It’s a surprise to hear from you today.” “Yes, I know. I’m trying to contact some of the old students from Hillcrest for a project I’m doing and I was hoping you will help me out.” “Of course, sir. I’m happy to help out.” “Great. Can you meet me today?” “Um...Sure. I’m just heading to Lagos Island to drop something off. Can we meet somewhere around there?” “What I want to discuss is a little private, so I would rather do it here. My offices are in Victoria Island. I’m happy to reimburse you for your trouble.” “It’s not a problem. I’ll be there probably in over an hour, considering the traffic.” “Do you know where TI Tower is?” “Yes. Just off Ahmadu Bello Way?” “Great. Just ask for me when you get to the front desk. I’ll let them know you’re coming. See you soon.” Ike cut the call. “It looks like we’ll be getting some answers tonight.” Henry nodded. “Do you need me to stay for your meeting with Mr. Obalende?” Mr. Bode asked. “It’s not necessary. I can update you,” he replied. “Okay.” Mr. Bode closed his briefcase and stood. “I’ll keep searching for the other names on the list and I’ll let you know what happens with the prison visit.” Ike stood and extended his hand. “Thank you for coming. I look forward to more news.” Mr. Bode nodded and waved at Henry as Ike walked him to the door. After he said goodbye to the investigator and saw him walk to the lift, he turned to Jane. “There’s a Mr. Jimoh Obalende who is coming to see me in the next hour or so. Can you inform reception and security to expect him?” “Yes, sir,” she replied. “Do you need me to stay on?” “No. You can go.” It was already past working hours and most of the floor had emptied out. He glanced in the direction of Lara’s desk and it seemed she had gone home, too. He hadn’t seen her today. Then again, he’d been in meetings most of the time so he hadn’t had time to dwell on her. But he missed not seeing her. Dismissing his wistfulness, he headed back into his office and shut the door. “So what is going on?” his friend asked as he went to the cabinet and took out a bottle of whisky with some glasses. He returned to the sofa and poured each of them a shot of whisky. He waited until they’d both sipped some before he spoke. “You remember Lara Johnson, right?” “Yes, the girl from Hillcrest.” He nodded. “Remember the day I called you to that I wasn’t going to make the meeting with the commissioner?” “You said you would explain later.” “I was with Lara that day.” “You were?” Henry looked surprised. “She works for TI now. That was the day she came for her interview and I drove her home. Anyway, she was behaving strangely and I called Dr. Jocelyn Okoro who said Lara was suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.” “Huh?” Henry’s brows went up. “That was exactly my reaction when she said that. It turns out that Lara could have been the victim of sexual assault, rape, or abuse, and it is linked to the night of the Zik Hall party.” “You mean something happened to her that night?” Henry scrubbed a hand over his head. “Oh, no! And we left her there. What exactly happened?” “I don’t know. She won’t talk about it. That’s why I’ve got Mr. Bode investigating. It would’ve been good to have Malcolm Ibeh to question because I know he has a hand in it. And finding out he’d been convicted of sexual offences only cements my conviction.” “Shit.” Henry gulped down the rest of his drink and poured some more. He corked his head as if thinking. “You know, Gloria stayed back that night after we left. She had the car with the driver and claimed she would head off soon after us. But she was there when we got in the car to drive back.” Ike waved a hand in the air dismissively. “She says she doesn’t know more than we know.” Henry closed his eyes, sucked in a deep breath, and opened them again. “Look, man, I know she’s your fiancée, but don’t take everything she says as gospel truth.” Ike narrowed his eyes. “Why would you say such a thing?” “Gloria has a way of wrapping people around her fingers. I’ve seen her in action. Just don’t trust everything she says.” He shook his head. “If this is because you still have a thing for her, then just stop it. I know she rejected your advances years ago, but you need to let it go.” Henry balled his hands into fists. “You’ve been my friend for more years that I can bother to count. I’ve always had your back and I always will. It doesn’t matter what happened between me and Gloria. I would never allow a woman to mess up our friendship. I know the reason you’re marrying her more than anyone else. So don’t accuse me of anything that isn’t true.” Ike sighed. “I’m sorry. It’s just that it’s a shock when people say bad things about Gloria.” Henry raised his brow. “Who else said bad things about Gloria?” “Well, Lara said Gloria practically bullied her when they were in school together. I know Gloria can be haughty, but she knows better than to bully people.” Henry shrugged. “Well, if you trust me and you trust Lara, then perhaps you should pay a little more attention to your future wife. We can’t both be making things up, can we?” Ike frowned. His friend made a valid point. While he could dismiss Lara’s individual accusation or Henry’s comment about Gloria not being truthful, when he weighed them up together, they seemed valid enough to investigate. Also, Gloria had shut down too quickly when he’d asked her about the party. He’d felt at the time she could’ve been hiding something, but he’d had no proof. And he’d still been feeling guilty for cheating on her so he hadn’t wanted to push his luck. Did she really know more than she’d revealed? He’d wait for Jimoh to arrive and hopefully give him some more answers. Jimoh had been in the same class with Gloria and Lara. If there’d been enmity between the two, then he’d probably know of it. Chapter Eighteen “Thanks for coming at such short notice,” Ike greeted Jimoh as he exited the lift onto the foyer. “It’s not a problem,” Jimoh said as they shook hands. “My office is this way.” Ike led the way down the aisle to his office in the corner. He walked in and waited as Jimoh followed. Ike introduced Henry and the men shook hands before making themselves comfortable on the sofas. He offered a drink to Jimoh who accepted a bottle of malt. “So Jimoh, I don’t know if you remember in your final year at Hillcrest, Malcolm Ibeh had a party at Zik Hall,” Ike said. Jimoh’s lips widened in a big grin. “Of course I remember the party. After our final exams, most of us stayed behind to attend that party instead of heading home to our parents. I was one of those. It was the hottest party of the year.” “Good.” He smiled encouragingly. Perhaps he would finally get somewhere tonight. “Do you remember anything specific about that night? Anything unusual.” Jimoh tilted his head. “Well, I remember that it was a fun party. It was packed. Anyone who was anyone around in school or in campus was there that night.” He shrugged. “I’m looking for more specific information about Malcolm and Lara. Did you see them that night?” “Yes, of course. I saw you two, too.” Jimoh nodded in both Ike’s and Henry’s directions. Ike’s face heated up as he remembered what he’d done that night. “But yes, I saw Malcolm. I was there quite early. I know that Malcolm didn’t come at the beginning. He arrived about an hour after I got there, with Gloria.” “Gloria? Are you sure?” Ike exchanged looks with Henry. “Yes, they’d both arrived in a chauffeur-driven car. I remember because I was expecting to see Christy, you know, Gloria’s friend, with them. I had a thing for Christy in those days although she never gave me time of day. But I’d been disappointed that I didn’t see Christy at that time. But she came not long after that.” “So were Malcolm and Gloria friends, dating perhaps?” Jimoh shrugged. “Well, I don’t know that they were dating exactly. At least, I don’t think so. After all, Malcolm declared Lara his girlfriend that night, so it couldn’t be possible. But Malcolm and Gloria were very close, anyway. They were both referred to as the king and queen of Hillcrest. Malcolm was the most popular boy and Gloria was the most popular girl; it was easy to pair them. So yes, they were friends.” Henry tilted his head slightly at Ike as if to say ‘I told you so.’ This was certainly a new revelation as far as Ike was concerned. He hadn’t known that Gloria was friendly with Malcolm. Although they’d been in the same year, they’d been in different classes. And he couldn’t ever remember seeing Gloria and Malcolm together alone. “So tell me more about that night. Did you overhear anything being said about either Malcolm or Lara or Gloria?” Jimoh thought a bit more. “I remember there was lot of energy in the air, especially among Malcolm’s group of close friends. We used to call them the Hillcrest Four gang. Anyway, that night, there was a lot of whispering about them getting fresh meat. But it was a party and there were loads of people popping their cherries that night, so it wasn’t a big deal.” Dread curdled Ike’s stomach. “After the big argument between you, Lara, and Malcolm, things quietened down for a while. Malcolm took Lara out of the hall. She looked distressed before they left so I thought he was taking her home or something. But they headed for one of the rooms. After a while, I saw Gloria coming from the directions of the rooms. I don’t know if she was with Malcolm or whoever, but after that, I didn’t see Malcolm or Lara that night.” There it was. Lara was definitely with Malcolm that night, and Gloria was definitely tied in somehow. “You don’t know what happened between Lara and Malcolm?” “No. As I said, I didn’t see them again until I left.” “Okay. Thank you,” Ike said. “You’ve really been very helpful.” “You’re welcome, Mr. Thomas,” Jimoh said. “Can I ask why you’re interested in what happened that night?” Ike sighed. He didn’t want to betray Lara’s privacy. It was tough enough for her as it was. He didn’t want her to have to deal with public scorn for something that happened years ago. He tried a different approach. “I don’t know if you know this already, but I’m engaged to marry Gloria in a few months.” “Really, congratulations!” “Thank you,” he said. “I’m just trying to find out as much about my fiancée to help me plan a surprise for the wedding.” “That’s interesting. If there’s anything I can help with, I’ll be happy to do it.” “You’ve already done so much. Thank you. If you remember anything else, please feel free to call me.” He handed Jimoh one of his business cards as he stood up. “Of course, I will.” The men discussed a little of the local politics before Jimoh headed out. Afterwards, Henry and Ike sat drinking quietly, each lost in his thoughts. “There’s one common denominator in all this,” Ike said finally as he put this glass back on the table. “Gloria,” Henry said. He nodded and headed over to his desk and grabbed his jacket from behind his chair. He lowered the cover on his laptop, unplugged it, and placed it in his chestnut leather satchel. “What are you going to do?” Henry asked as he grabbed his jacket, too. “I’m going to talk to her.” He pulled out his phone and pressed the button to call his fiancée. “Hi, honey,” she said when she picked the phone. “How are you doing?” “I’m doing okay. It’s been a long day at work. I’m just heading home. Will you be there?” “No. I’m sorry. I’m with my friends and we’re discussing wedding stuff. Not sure when we’ll be done. I’ll come over tomorrow. Is that okay?” “Sure. Enjoy yourself. I’ll see you tomorrow.” “Bye.” She hung up. “I’ll guess I’ll have to wait.” He grabbed his things and headed to the door with Henry following him. “I’m going over to Lara’s house to see if she’s okay. I didn’t see her all day today.” “Is that a good idea?” his friend asked as they got into the lift. “Perhaps not, but I just need to know she’s okay. I’ve been a little unsettled all day not seeing her.” “You still have a thing for her.” “I do.” He rubbed his face with his free hand. “Seeing her again has been amazing. Touching her. Kissing her. Intense.” Henry stared at him, eyes wide. “You had sex with her?” “I did.” He sighed. “It was a one-off. I told Gloria about it and she forgave me.” “She forgave you?” Henry narrowed his eyes. “You do realise Gloria never forgives anything. If she forgave you, it means there’s trouble coming your way later. She has an ulterior motive.” The lift doors opened and Ike didn’t say anything as they walked out and said goodnight to the security guard. Outside in the humid night air, he sucked in a deep breath. “You know, I think you’re right. I thought Gloria gave in too quickly after I told her. It was so unusual for her.” Their cars stood ready for them. Henry turned to Ike. “It’s the wedding. You know she will do anything to marry you.” Ike tilted his head and looked up at the dark sky. “Are you saying she loves the idea of marrying me more than she loves me?” “That’s about the sum of it. Be very careful with this one.” He nodded. “I will.” They bid goodnight and he got into his car. He gave the driver the address for Lara’s apartment and relaxed back into the soft leather. His mind whirled with all the information he’d found out today. Malcolm in prison. Gloria’s involvement with Malcolm. Gloria’s ease at forgiving him. He thought back to his time in Enugu. Gloria had been there the day he’d split up with Lara. She’s also been there the night when he’d had the argument at the party. He was now convinced more than ever that she was involved somehow, which made her forgiving his affair with Lara all the more strange. His skin prickled and he swallowed. He needed to see Lara and make sure she was okay. Luckily, the traffic flow had lessened at this time and the drive out didn’t take too long. The car pulled in through the gates and parked in one of the visitor spots. He didn’t wait for the man to open the door. He strode to the entrance and pressed the buzzer for Lara’s apartment. “Who’s this?” a female voice asked. “This is Ike Thomas. I’m here to see Lara.” There was a pause. “Lara isn’t here.” He didn’t believe her. “Can I come in?” “Okay.” The door buzzed and he pushed it open. He took the stairs two at a time until he got to her floor. Her front door was open and a different woman stood there. “Mr. Thomas, it’s a surprise to see you here.” “You must be Ada,” he said, smiling. “Yes.” She smiled back. “Lara isn’t here.” “Do you mind if I see for myself?” “Be my guest.” She waved him in. He strode in, glanced into the living room. There was nothing there except the flickering TV. He glanced into the kitchen. The light was off and he switched it on. He kept walking until he got to Lara’s room. He knocked on the door. There was no answer. He twisted the knob and opened it. The room was also in darkness. He turned on the light. The bed was made and the room looked tidy. But no Lara. He opened the wardrobe door and closed it. He turned around. Ada stood by the door. “I told you she wasn’t here.” “Where is she?” She shook her head. “I can’t tell you.” “Why? What’s wrong?” His heart was pounding hard against his chest. Ada shook her head again and turned away, walking into the living room. He followed, panic rising. “Ada, tell me what happened,” he snapped, losing his control. “Your girlfriend came here.” “My girlfriend? You mean Gloria?” “Yes, Gloria. She said something to Lara that triggered her. At least, that’s what Dr. Jocelyn said.” “Oh, no!” He remembered how Lara had gone into a catatonic state the last time. “Where is she?” “You have to call Dr. Jocelyn for that information. But you better warn that girlfriend of yours. If she comes near Lara again, I will kill her and I’ll be happy to serve the time. This nonsense has to end.” Ada’s vehemence shocked him. She really cared about Lara. And Gloria must have done something bad to trigger Lara. He gritted his teeth. “Trust me. I’ll take care of Gloria. She won’t hurt Lara again.” “I hope so,” Ada said. “Thank you.” He headed for the door and pulled his phone out as he descended the stairs. Outside, he called Jocelyn. “Ike, hi.” She gave him her usual greeting. He didn’t waste time on preambles. “Is Lara with you?” “Not right now.” “Where is she? I went to her apartment and her friend told me to call you.” “Ike, calm down. Lara is being taken care of. Ada called me last week and I had to go over to their apartment. Apparently, Gloria had been to see Lara and something she said sent Lara’s mind into shut down. Unfortunately, when she woke up, she went into a manic state. I had to sedate her because she would’ve hurt herself. We took her to a clinic and she’s getting the treatment she needs.” “I have to see her. Tell me where she is.” “I’m sorry, Ike. But she doesn’t want you to visit. She doesn’t want you to see her in that state.” “No. No!” He was pacing now. “I have to see her. Please.” “Ike, calm down. You know I can’t break her trust. Go home. She’ll come to you when she’s ready. Just give her time.” He deflated, his shoulders humped, and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Okay. But if you need anything, call me.” “I will.” She hung up. He climbed back into the car and slumped into the seat, shutting his eye as all his fears came to roost. He didn’t know what he would do if he lost Lara for good this time. Chapter Nineteen Ike pulled out one thousand naira note from his wallet and tipped the bellboy who had brought their bags into the hotel suite. “Thank you, sir,” the man said before walking out and shutting the door. “I don’t know why you dragged me out here,” Gloria complained as she flounced onto the sofa. Ignoring his fiancée’s complaint, he pulled his phone out of his back pocket and checked for messages. Seeing none, he placed the gadget on the table and sat in the armchair. “I told you I had to come to Enugu for a meeting,” he said, trying not to let her whining bother him. He’d done the hard work of convincing her to come out here with him. The rest should be easy. “Yeah. But I don’t need to be at your meeting.” He reached across and covered her arm with his hand and softened his voice. “My meeting won’t take too long, and we’ll get some time to spend together without other people interfering.” She smiled at him. “When you put it like that, perhaps it won’t be too bad.” “Anyway, Enugu should hold good memories for you. You spent six years here in school.” She shrugged. “I had no choice in the matter. It’s because of my step-mother that I came to boarding school here. She wanted me far away from Daddy.” His breath hitched at this revelation from his fiancée. “Are you saying you didn’t enjoy your time here?” “Hillcrest was a good school and I had a good time there. What I hated was being away from my father and giving my step-mum time to get her claws into him.” “Hang on. I thought you get on well with her.” She shrugged. “Yeah, we get on.” “But?” “But nothing. Forget I said anything.” “If your step-mum did something to you, tell me.” “What? So I can become a whiny, snivelling, helpless victim? I don’t think so. There’s nothing she can dish out that I can’t reciprocate.” She dug her phone out of her handbag. Ike just stared at her. He really was seeing a whole new side to Gloria that he hadn’t seen before. He never knew there was animosity between her and her parent. His phone beeped and he picked it up. Meet us at Zik Hall in one hour, the message from Jocelyn read. Okay. See you then, he replied. “We’re going out in thirty minutes,” he said to Gloria. “Where are we going?” she asked, not looking up from her phone. “There’s a new restaurant that opened on Okpara Avenue, but first, I want to stop over somewhere first.” *** Lara’s hands trembled and she squeezed them together as she glanced out of the window of the car. City life went on all around her. The cars, the pedestrians, the street vendors. All under a clear blue sky. She knew the temperature was hot out there although in the car, the AC was on full blast. Jocelyn reached across and squeezed her hand. “You’re going to be all right.” She nodded. “I know.” For the first time in years, she truly believed it. The past two weeks had been life-changing for her. Just like the event that had put her on the path to mental breakdown. Jocelyn had done as she’d promised. She’d started Lara on the road to recovery. No, she wasn’t fully healed. Jocelyn’s advice was to take one day at a time. She was undergoing a treatment called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which involved learning how to control her fears and also unlearning some destructive habits she’d formed in relation to her fears and memories. As part of the treatment, they were headed to the venue where her life had changed to confront her past. Jocelyn has arranged it along with the psychotherapist who’d been treating her. As it was, this represented a big milestone. She had rarely visited Enugu during her time at University. Luckily, Judy had gotten a job in Portharcourt and had moved from Enugu. Lola was in Uniport. So Lara had had no reason to come here. As they neared the university campus, her foot started bouncing against the floor mat in the car and she twisted her wristwatch around and around. “Remember your breathing technique,” Jocelyn said as she covered Lara’s wrist with her hand. She nodded and consciously slowed her breathing down, counting out the beats between inhaling and exhaling. It was a technique that helped her tone down her anxiety attack. Jocelyn smiled at her when she relaxed back into the seat. The car pulled up in front of the Zik Hall building. Jocelyn turned to her. “I’m going to be with you every step of the way. Ada is here, as well. You will always be safe. If at any point, you want to give in to your fear, remember that. Going into this building will trigger some memories. Some good and some bad. But remember they are just memories and can’t harm you unless you allow your fear to win.” She nodded. “I know.” “Good. Do you remember the traffic light signals? I’m going to ask you at each stage. You tell me if we’re at green, to keep going, yellow to take a break, and red to stop and get out.” “Yes, I remember.” “So what light are we at the moment?” “Green. I want to get in there.” “Come on. Let’s go and face your fear.” Lara nodded and pushed the door open. She stepped out. Outside the building, Ada was already waiting with a man who introduced himself as the concierge. She sucked in a deep breath and closed her eyes. Then she opened them and walked into the structure. Although the place was relatively empty apart from the receptionist who greeted them, snatches of memories flooded her mind. The lobby had been heaving with partygoers the first time she’d been here. There’d been conversation and laughter, people in a merry mood. She’d also been in a merry mood that day and looking forward to her first adult party. “The hall that we hire out for parties is down this way,” the concierge said, drawing her attention once more. “How are you doing? What’s the status?” “Green,” she said, and followed the man down the corridor. He unlocked the double doors and pushed them open. Light flooded in from the wide windows that lined the outer wall of the hall. Chairs and tables were packed flat against the edges, and the middle was just an open space. She’d been led into this room by Malcolm who’d been holding her hand. The middle of the dance floor had been cleared. The DJ had started playing a slow number and Malcolm had pulled her into his arms for their dance since he was the celebrant and he’d chosen her for his first dance. She’d been elated in that moment although every pair of eyes had been on them and she’d hated being the centre of attention. But it had felt good to be accepted by all the people around there because she’d been seen with Malcolm. Unfortunately, she hadn’t realised her association with him would come with a great cost to her heart and sanity. She remembered Ike grabbing her arm and wanting to drag her out of there. She remembered the anger on his face and her answering fury and the horrible things she’d said to him all because she’d seen him with some older girl going up to the rooms. She wrapped her arms around herself and started rocking back and forth. “Lara, slow your breathing.” Jocelyn’s voice penetrated her memories. She opened her eyes and took a slow, deep breath. “What light are we on? It’s okay if you want a break.” “Green. I don’t want to take a break. If I do, I might not finish this.” “Okay.” Jocelyn turned to the concierge. “Can we go up to Room Ten now?” The man nodded and they all walked out into the corridor as he locked the doors again. Then he led the way up the stairs. Lara’s hands trembled and sweat broke on her forehead. She rubbed her palms together and bit her lip. Her anxiety was still there, but at least her mind no longer rushed to shut down as it usually did. By the time she arrived in front of the open door to Room Ten, she was feeling faint and her feet wobbled like jelly. “Can I take a break?” she said in a weak voice. “Are we at yellow signal?” She swallowed. “Yes. I need to sit down.” “Can you bring us a chair, please?” Jocelyn asked the man who pulled one from the room into the corridor. Lara sat on it with her back to the wall as she tried to gather her wits and not slip into full-blown panic. Her life had been changed irrevocably in that room. Once she stepped into it, the memories would all come back. “Do you mind waiting for us downstairs?” Jocelyn said to the man. “Of course. Just bring the keys down to the reception when you’re done.” “Thank you,” she said as he walked away. It was now just Jocelyn, Ada, and Lara. It showed the level of Jocelyn’s professionalism that she wouldn’t allow a witness who wasn’t part of the therapy team or a close friend to be a part of this process. “Do you want to talk about anything, Lara?” Jocelyn asked as she squatted in front of her. She shook her head and sucked in another deep breath as she realised part of her panic had been that she didn’t want people she didn’t know seeing her in a weak state. Feeling stronger, she stood up. “I’m ready to go in there.” “Okay. Remember, it’s an empty room, and there’s nothing in there that can harm you.” “I am safe,” she said as she took a step into the room. It was indeed an empty room, apart from the medium-sized bed covered in a white sheet, paisley throw, and two pillows. A dark wardrobe stood in the corner, as well as a small table. The chair was missing but she assumed it was the same one she’d been sitting on. A small window covered in matching paisley drapes overlooked fields of well-maintained grass. There was a door leading to an en-suite bathroom. She knew that it was made up of white floor and wall tiles as well as white bath tub, WC, and units without going in there to look. She sucked in a deep breath. The musky smell of the room transported her back to that night; the stuffiness of the room, the feeling of being suffocated, the crushing press of bodies, the hands holding her down, the rip of clothes and skin, the pain flooding through her again and again, crying and begging and still no mercy. Nausea ripped through her and she rushed at the bathroom door, hearing it bang against the wall as she made it in time to the bowl to heave out everything in her stomach. She slid onto the cool tiles as her whole body shook and she dissolved into tears. Ada and Jocelyn joined her on the floor, holding her body as she cried. She lifted her head and pointed into the room. “They raped me in there.” “What?” Ada asked in a shocked voice. “They held me down and took their turns ripping through my body. I cried and begged them. But they stood there laughing at me. I thought he liked me. He said he did. It was their way of initiating me into the group. That I belonged to them. I was their whore.” “Oh, God.” Ada had tears in her eyes. “I don’t know how long I was here for. At one point, he took out a gun and pointed it to my head. Said he would kill me, my sister, and my aunt if I ever told anyone. Said that whenever he wanted me, I had to make myself available. I didn’t care about dying. I had lost a lot already. I didn’t want him to hurt Lola or Judy.” “Who did this? Who are the people?” Ada sounded furious as she swiped her face. “It was Malcolm and his gang.” She broke down crying again and Ada pulled her into a tight hug. They sat on the floor for a while until she was all cried out. Jocelyn gave her a bottle of water from which she drank a little. When she was more composed, they helped her back into the bedroom. “How do you feel?” Jocelyn asked. “I’m a little shaky but I’m good. Better than good. I feel as if my system has been flushed, if you get my meaning.” “Yes, I understand. You did very well. Ike is on his way here with Gloria. I can tell him to meet us at the hotel if you don’t feel up to facing both of them.” She shook her head. “No. Let them come. He needs to see where it happened.” Chapter Twenty “What are we doing at Zik Hall?” Gloria asked as the car pulled up in front of the building. “I told you I had to do a stopover,” Ike said before turning to push the door open. “Wait for us here,” Henry, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, said to the driver before stepping out. Ike stepped out and sucked in a deep breath. This had been his university campus. The familiarity of the setting relaxed him a little, although the dread that had sat in his stomach since he’d boarded the flight to Enugu earlier on that day hadn’t gone away. He hadn’t seen Lara in over two weeks and he would be seeing her today. How was she coping with her treatment? Was she fully recovered? It was such a short frame of time to speculate. But the fact that she’d made the trip back to Enugu was a good thing, according to Jocelyn. Apparently, it was referred to as Exposure Therapy, where the patient was taken to visit the place where the traumatic event happened and they learned to control their fear by exposing them to the trauma in a safe way. Cold sweat broke on his forehead and a sour taste sat in his mouth. He dreaded walking into the building and finding out exactly what had happened to Lara. But if she was brave enough to come here after so many years to face her fear, then he should also be able to face his. Gloria came out of the car and crossed her arms over her chest. “What exactly is going on?” He didn’t reply but took slow, heavy steps towards the building. Henry had come along today as support for him and to make sure Gloria did as she was told. He knew there was no love lost between his best friend and his fiancée. Henry was exactly the best person to keep Gloria from misbehaving. His memories returned as he walked into the reception lobby. That night five years ago, he’d been invited to the party by Gloria. He’d arrived intent on drowning his loss of Lara in booze and women. By the time he’d stepped through the door, he’d already been slightly tipsy. He strode up to the receptionist. “Good afternoon, sir. How can I help?” “Hello. We have an appointment in Room Ten.” “Okay. Take the stairs up to the next level. It’s the last room on your right.” “Thank you.” He turned around to see Henry holding Gloria’s arm. She didn’t look pleased, and Henry had a scowl on his face. Ike suppressed a smile. Those two would make an impressive pair if they ever got over their hatred for each other. He nearly stumbled on a step at the thought. He was pairing his fiancée with his best friend? Had he already decided he wasn’t going through with the wedding? How was he going to reconcile that with the promises he’d made? Sucking in a deep breath, he pushed that thought out of his mind. No need jumping the gun. One step at a time. Right now, he was more interested in seeing Lara. He walked past Room Five and remembered what he’d done in there with Stella. If he’d known Lara was here that evening, would he have had sex with another girl? His footstep became heavier as he walked closer to the room and at the same time, his heart raced because he would see Lara. The door to the room was open. He saw Ada first. She sat on the bed, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. The tingling sensation in his chest increased. He stepped through the door and saw Lara. She sat on a chair in the corner, and Jocelyn leaned against the table beside her. Lara’s head was bent. As if in slow motion, she lifted it. He saw her red eyes. She’d been crying, too, although there were no tears. His legs acquired speed and he was across the floor before he could think about it. He went on his knees and pulled her into his arms. He squeezed her tight, afraid that if he let her go, she would vanish again, never to be seen. “Ike.” It was Jocelyn trying to get his attention. He tilted his head to look up at her. “We have to complete the procedure. There’s something Lara wants to say to you.” He nodded and looked at Lara. She met his gaze and smiled weakly. He stroked her cheek. “I’m listening.” She glanced up at Jocelyn and they seemed to exchange a message. “Ike, can you give her some space?” He swallowed his disappointment at having to force a distance between the two of them. But he trusted that Jocelyn knew what she was doing. He gave Lara’s hand one last squeeze and stood up. There weren’t many options of where to sit, so he leaned against the wall by the door. He heard the footsteps before Gloria appeared at the door. Lara’s body stiffened. Jocelyn leaned down and whispered something to her. Her chest rose and fell slowly and then she relaxed again. Gloria frowned as she glared at everyone in the room. “Ike, what’s going on here?” Jocelyn stepped up and held out her hand to Gloria. “You’re here because I asked Ike to bring you. I know you wouldn’t have come if you knew this was where you were coming. So I’m sorry for the deception.” Gloria narrowed her eyes. “How do I know I can trust you when you invite me to a place where everyone in it hates me?” “Surely, you know that I don’t hate you, and neither does Ike,” Jocelyn said in a placating voice. “Come and sit down.” “Just keep her far away from me.” She pointed at Ada. Ada glared at Gloria before rising from the bed and sitting on the floor next to Lara’s chair. Gloria sat on the bed. “Do you mind having Henry here?” Jocelyn asked. Lara shook her head. “Don’t close the door.” Henry stood just outside the threshold. “I’ll stay here and make sure no one is out on the corridor.” “Thank you,” Ike said. Jocelyn turned back to Lara. “Take your time. If you want to stop or take a break, let me know. Okay?” Lara nodded and lifted her gaze to meet Ike’s. “I’m going to tell you what happened the night of Malcolm’s party. Ike’s chest felt heavy as he struggled to breath. *** “I wish I was going to the party,” Lola said in a sing song voice as they got outside. “You’re too young for a party on a university campus,” Judy said. “I’m only letting Lara go because she’s eighteen and Malcolm promised he would bring her home safely.” Lola and Judy got into the car as Lara locked the door. The gateman wasn’t around that day so she also had to lock the gates after the car pulled out. She was about to get into the vehicle when something made her look back. On the road farther down her street was Ike’s car. She recognised the distinctive colour as well as the make and model. She hadn’t ever seen any other car like it before. Her hand dropped from the car door and she started walking towards his vehicle. Ike was in it, waiting for her. He’d come to see her. Her heart floated as if in the clouds. She couldn’t wait to see him again. Hold him. Talk to him. It had been too long. He’d obviously changed his mind about splitting up with her. Judy was shouting her name, calling her to come back. But she ignored her. Just as she got within touching distance of the car, it sprang forward and covered her with dust as it sped away. She shouted for him to stop. But the car didn’t, disappearing around the corner. She paced up and down, muttering words she didn’t understand as tears rolled down her face. Then Lola and Judy were beside her, pulling back towards the car. “Are you okay?” “Do you want to go back home?” “I’m fine. I’m not going to miss this party for anyone,” she said angrily. “I’m not so sure it’s a good idea for you to go,” Judy said. “Are you going to deny me this one thing? I’ve never asked to go to a party before. Exams are over. I’m supposed to be celebrating with my friends.” Judy sighed. “Okay. But be careful.” She nodded and they got back into the car as Judy drove her to Ada’s house. She and Ada got dressed in their party clothes. Although she wore a skirt, it was still a decent length. Ada’s parents wouldn’t let the leave the house otherwise. She usually didn’t wear make-up, but that day, they’d applied mascara and eye shadow and even painted their nails as they chatted excitedly about what would happen at the event. Ada’s older brother, Eloka, drove them to the venue. He didn’t stay but he was supposed to come back to pick Ada up. Lara was going to be dropped off by Malcolm. She texted Malcolm to let him know they’d arrived. As she walked into the venue, she saw Ike. He was with a girl she didn’t recognise and he had his arm around her shoulders. They walked up to the receptionist and he asked for a room. The back of her throat hurt and the area behind her eyeballs burned as tears banked. She’d heard rumours about those rooms. Ike was going up there to have sex with the girl. Nothing else. She turned around, wanting to get out of there. She couldn’t stay when she knew Ike was upstairs with someone else. She wanted to curl up into a ball and cry. “There you are.” Malcolm appeared before her. “You look beautiful.” She swallowed her tears back and flashed him a smile. “Thank you. You look good, too.” He was wearing a t-shirt with a designer logo, jeans, and even his belt had designer bling on it. “Come on. Let’s get you something to drink.” He took her hand. She and Ada followed him into an adjacent room where they had bar area. He took two bottles of Breezers and passed it to them. “These are really nice.” She took a taste and found it to be sweet and easy to drink. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he said before walking off. She stood with Ada watching the other party goers. She saw Gloria with Christy. The two of them were chatting and laughing. When they noticed Ada and Lara, Gloria glared at them before saying something to Christy and then laughing out loud. “I want you to dance with me,” Malcolm said when he came back. Jimoh was chatting with a giggling Ada as Lara walked off with Malcolm. He took her into the main hall. As soon as they entered, the DJ changed the music. Malcolm pulled her into the middle of the dance floor. She thought they would dance facing each other but separated. Instead, he pulled her into his arms, making sure there was no space between them. She felt a little uncomfortable. She’d never danced this closely with a man, never been this close to anyone who wasn’t Ike. Then she remembered that Ike was upstairs having sex with some girl. And she relaxed into Malcolm, letting him hold her. A rough hand gripped her arm and yanked. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Ike was standing beside her, looking enraged. A part of her was glad that he was standing close to her. It was the closest they’d been for weeks. “I should be asking you that,” Malcolm said, putting his arm around Lara’s waist to hold her in place. “Stay out of this, Malcolm,” Ike said in a dangerously low voice. He looked ready to put his clenched fist through Malcolm’s face. He yanked Lara’s arm again. “Come on. I’m getting you out of here.” Malcolm didn’t let her go. “No, you’re not. Lara is my girlfriend.” Everything went quiet around them as the DJ cut the music. The sound of rushing blood whooshed in Lara’s ears. Ike staggered back one step as if he’d been punched. “Is this true? Are you dating him?” He was staring at Lara, his eyes accusing. “Yes,” she said as she glared at him. How dare he? Hadn’t he been the one having sex with another girl just moments before? “You promised me.” His voice was cold, and a shiver ran down her spine. “You mean just like you promised me?” She glared at Gloria and the other girl standing beside Ike. He turned around and looked at them. His gaze lowered as if he was ashamed and couldn’t meet her gaze. His shoulders hunched and he seemed deflated. “You don’t belong here, Lara. Go home before it’s too late.” There was still anger in his voice. How dare he talk to her like that? How dare he decide that she wasn’t good enough to be here among these people when he was here? She tilted her chin up and glared at him, her anger at him filtering into her clenched fists. “No. You’re the one who doesn’t belong here, sir.” She made the effort of stressing the last word so he would know that from now on, she only saw him as a teacher and he would never mean anything to her again. “Malcolm is my boyfriend and my place is right here with him. You should go home with your girls.” She turned her back to him and Malcolm pulled her into his arms. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She heard his footsteps echoing in the hall as he walked away. His words echoed in her head for moments afterwards. “I’d like to sit down,” she said to Malcolm. She was suddenly hot and feeling woozy and had the need to lie down. Malcolm held onto her as he took her out into the lobby. There was no sign of Ike. Malcolm led her up the stairs. “Where are we going?” she asked, suddenly apprehensive about going into one of those rooms. “I have a room where you can relax and rest.” He tugged her arm. She was feeling tired and she needed to lie down. “Okay. But I don’t want to do anything.” “Of course not.” He opened the door and turned on the light. “Just lie down and have a rest. I’ll come back and get you later.” She looked around the room. She nodded and lay down on the bed. He closed the door and left her in there. She pulled her phone out of her bag and sent a message to Ada. I’m just having a lie down. She must have dozed off because she woke with a jerk. Malcolm was back in the room but he wasn’t alone this time. There were three other of his friends with him. They were drinking and smoking weed. Her mouth felt like sand paper when she tried to talk and her head still felt woozy. “Malcolm, what are they doing here?” He beamed a smile. “They are here to party.” She tried to sit up but her body felt heavy and she struggled to move her limbs. Something like a knock sounded and he went to the door. He opened it and she could hear a female voice but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. She tried to shout but it just came out as a croak. One of the men came to the bed, stripped off the cover of a pillow and stuffed it into her mouth, using his belt to hold it in place so she couldn’t spit it out. The others just laughed. Malcolm shut the door and came over to her. “Now it’s time to party. Boys, take her clothes off.” She struggled and kicked and scratched as the men pulled her clothes off. But four men against one girl wasn’t ever going to be fair. Her top ripped but they did get it off as well as her skirt and underwear. Malcolm just stood there watching as he smoked, as if they were providing him with entertainment. Although her mouth was stuffed, she pleaded with her eyes and tears but he didn’t seem moved at all. This man had come to her house bearing gifts and sweet talking her. He’d promised her aunt that no harm would come to her. Then he was climbing onto the bed. The others still held her down as she thrashed about. “They say you never forget your first time, Lara. You will never forget me,” he said as he gripped her thighs. The other two held each leg while one held onto her hand. “No!” She screamed as he tore into her body. In her pain, she didn’t realise she had broken out of the grip of the person holding her hands. She scratched Malcolm’s neck, digging her fingernails into his skin. He shouted and hit her head, sending it back to the mattress. She fought him as much as he could until his sweaty body slumped over her. Then he was swapping places with the guy holding her left leg. After the second man, all fight left her. What was there to fight for? They would take whatever they wanted, anyway. They took their turns and when they were done, they left her there and returned to their drinking and smoking. She lay on the bed, their mixed semen dripping from her body as she curled into a ball, her mind blanked out. Something cold nudged her temple. She opened her eyes to find Malcolm standing over her with a gun. With his other hand, he stroked down her body. She felt slimy and dirty where he touched. “You are now property of the Hillcrest Four. You are here to be used whenever I want you. You know I know where you live. I know where your aunty works and your sister is still at Hillcrest. I still have boys in the school. You tell anyone about what happened here and they are dead. You hear me, dead. Or better still, Lola can get a dose of the same.” She swallowed the bile in her throat and nodded. “Good. Now go into the bathroom and wash up. Get dressed because I’m taking you home.” She didn’t know how she managed to move, but she stood up, removed the gag, grabbed her clothes, and went into the bathroom. In there, she was glad to use the shower to wash off the stench of their sweat and she scrubbed her sex, hoping to clean off any trace of her violation. When she got dressed, Malcolm placed his arm around her shoulder as he walked her down to the lobby. There were still people around, although not as much as earlier. A car waited outside with a chauffeur. They both got into the back and she didn’t say anything on the ride home. He walked her out of the car to her gates and said, “Remember what I said. Any mention and—" He pointed his fingers at her head in the shape of a gun, “—bang!” She flinched and nodded. She walked through the side gate not looking back to see if he was still standing there. She eventually heard the car driving off as she entered the house. “Lara, is that you?” “Yes, Aunty,” she replied but made no attempt to go into the living room. Instead, she headed for the stairs. She didn’t want her aunty to notice her torn top. “Good. Come and tell me how it went.” “I’m coming. Let me just get a drink.” She struggled up the stairs as quickly as her achy muscles would let her, into her room, and changed her top quickly. Then she took a wrapper and covered her body like a blanket before heading back downstairs to the kitchen to get a glass of water. “Are you okay?” her aunt asked when she saw her all wrapped up. “I think I’m coming down with malaria. I was feeling feverish at the party.” It wasn’t a total lie. Her body felt hot, achy, and feverish although she knew it wasn’t malaria. “Oh, poor you. Go and lie down in bed. I’ll get you some painkiller.” Thankful that her ruse had worked, she went back to her room. Her aunt brought her some painkillers and let her to sleep. But sleep never came. Chapter Twenty-One As Ike listened to Lara telling her story, nausea rolled through him. His muscles cramped. The back of his throat hurt. He turned away from everyone and faced the wall as tears burned the back of his eyes. He’d done this to her. He’d left her there for the savages to tear apart and violate. All because he’d been angry and afraid. Angry at himself for not being strong enough to face up to Mrs. Bello, and afraid of losing his recommendation and disappointing his parents. He’d left the woman he loved behind when she’d needed him. He should’ve dragged her out of there screaming and shouting, if need be. She’d suffered pain because he wasn’t man enough. He realised the room had gone quiet. Lara had stopped speaking. He turned around. Everyone was looking at Lara. Their expressions varied. Jocelyn was sympathetic, with a hand on her shoulder. Ada's hands were clenched in a fist, as if she was angry. Gloria swallowed repeatedly and averted her gaze as if she was guilty of something. Henry’s eyes bulged in horror. Yet, Lara wasn’t looking at any of them. She was staring at him, the skin around her eyes bunched in a pained stare. He had difficulty swallowing as he stumbled forward and fell to his knees, his hands clutching the arms of her chair. “I’m so sorry,” he said, his eyes misting over. “You left me,” she said before falling into his arms and sobbing. “I didn’t know... I’m sorry.” His voice broke and he sobbed with her, his heart ripping again and again for everything she’d lost, and everything that could’ve been avoided. How could he ever make up for leaving her? How did anyone recover from something like this? He lost awareness of anyone else in the room, only conscious of the woman in his arms. He would give the world to make things right for her. She lifted her head, her hand swiping at her tears. “I forgive you.” How could she forgive so easily when she had lost the most? More tears rolled down his face and she wiped them away, her fingers soft on his damp cheek. “I felt so alone that night, like no one cared about me. For a long time afterwards, I believed it because the nightmare didn’t end.” Lost for words, his heart wrenched in pain. What could he say to that? “You could’ve told me,” Ada said, her voice choked. “No, I couldn’t. I couldn’t be sure that Malcolm wouldn’t use that gun of his. I’d seen him in action, and there was no way I was going to put anyone else at risk. After he left Enugu suddenly, I was so glad to move on with my life. I couldn’t wait to get out of this place.” “I will kill Malcolm, if he ever gets out of jail,” Ike said through gritted teeth. “He’s in prison?” Ada asked as Lara’s eyes widened. “Yes, in the States. It turns out he tried something similar out there and he was caught.” “There is a God,” Ada proclaimed. Lara took his hand. “There’s more I need to tell you.” She glanced at Gloria. He turned to look at his fiancée who was staring down at her feet, her chin dipping into her chest. “What is it?” he asked, the dread returning to curdle his stomach as he turned back to Lara. “Gloria set me up with Malcolm. She manipulated the whole situation so she could have you to herself.” The sour taste in his mouth returned as he shook his head. “No. She wouldn’t do that.” He turned to look at the woman he was engaged to. “Gloria? Is this true?” “I don’t know what she’s talking about,” she said and pursed her lips. “She threatened me in my apartment that if I didn’t stop seeing you, what she would do to me would be worse than what Malcolm did,” Lara said in a surprisingly calm voice. “Gloria, why would you say such a nasty thing?” “Are you going to believe what she says over my words? I’m your fiancée!” Henry marched across the room and dragged Gloria up. “Tell the fucking truth, for once in your life.” “You’re hurting my arm,” Gloria whined. “That’s going to be the least of your troubles if you don’t start telling the truth now,” Henry ordered. “Are you going to stay there and watch him talk to me like this? Do something, Ike!” He didn’t move from the spot and nobody else went to Gloria’s rescue. “Fine,” she said finally. “I set the whole thing up.” Everyone stared at her as if she was a monster who’d just walked into the room. “Look, I didn’t know how far Malcolm would go, eventually. He was originally meant to draw Lara’s attention away from Ike.” How could she? He was engaged to someone this devious? His stomach rolled. “Tell me what you did, Gloria,” he said in a stern voice. She huffed and sat back on the bed. “I wanted you for myself. But I saw the way Lara followed you around like a lost puppy. So I told Malcolm to ask her out on a date. Of course, Malcolm being Malcolm, he messed it up, which was how you found them outside the school and had to take Lara home.” “You set that up?” He couldn’t hide his shock. “Yes.” She scuffed her shoes against the carpet. “You always treated me like your sister while you chased every other woman that came along. I couldn’t watch you date some girl in my school, as well. You were always meant to be with me.” He shook his head in disbelief. “You do realise that Lara wasn’t even on my radar until that day when I had to drive her home. Your actions drove us together, not apart.” She shrugged. “I realised that, which was why I had to get more help. I convinced one of the teachers you were driving Lara home regularly. She spoke to Mrs. Bello about it. I knew she was your mentor and she would be writing your final recommendation. If she spoke to you, you’d have to listen.” “It was you all along.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I broke up with her. Why didn’t you just leave it be?” She bit her lip and looked away. “I wanted to be sure that the two of you wouldn’t get together after her exams or after she left Hillcrest. So I had to make you believe she was with Malcolm, which was why I taught Malcolm how to woo her with gifts and to talk nicely. We planned that you would be at his party and obviously see him with Lara. I also had to make sure she lost interest in you, too, which was why I paid Stella to seduce you that night.” “What the fuck? Stella was part of your stupid game?” He jumped off from the floor. He pointed a finger at Gloria, clenched his hand, and slammed it on the table. Everything on it jumped. “So you let Malcolm and his gang do what they did to her just so you could have me? You are fucking sick!” He spun around. “I’m sorry, Lara. Jocelyn, I need to get out of here. If I stay any longer, I’ll kill the bitch.” “Ike!” “What? I shouldn’t call you a bitch? When you could coldheartedly allow Malcolm to do what he did to Lara?” “I didn’t know he was going to do that!” “Really? Didn’t you come to the room? Didn’t you see the boys here?” “I did, but I thought they were just hanging out. They weren’t doing anything to her when I saw her. It was only...” she trailed off. “You can’t stop talking now. Spit it out.” “I went to his house once. His parents weren’t there. I saw him in his room. She was kneeling on the floor crying and he had a gun pointed at her head while he had his...penis in her mouth.” “Fuck!” Ike braced his hands against the walls. “And you did nothing!” “Of course I did something. Seeing what he was doing made me feel sick. I told his mother about it. Within a few weeks, Malcolm was on a plane to the USA.” “So that’s why he stopped.” Tears flooded Lara’s eyes. “He just stopped calling. I hoped he’d died in some car accident or something. It was later I found out he’d travelled out of the country. You’ll never understand the relief I felt when I heard that. But I couldn’t stay in Enugu for him to come back and find me. I had to get away and never return.” She slumped back against the chair and Ike was across the floor beside her. “Can you help me stand?” she asked. He hooked his arm under hers and gently pulled her up. When she stood, she dusted her jeans off and smiled at him. “Thank you.” She sucked in a deep breath. “Gloria, thanks for telling the truth. I’m glad that everyone here knows what really happened. I also want to say thank you for intervening when you did with Malcolm. Although you started the whole thing rolling and I can never forget it, I’m grateful that you realised what Malcolm was doing and did something to stop it.” She glanced at Jocelyn, who nodded. “I’ve also thought a lot about whether I could ever forgive you. Knowing that there’s some humanity in you makes it a little easier for me to say this. I forgive you, Gloria. I’m not saying we’re going to be best of friends and hold hands while singing Kumbaya or anything like that.” Ada snorted. “But I don’t carry any grudge against you. I wish you the best. However, I hope you’ll take up Jocelyn’s services at some point or perhaps seek the help of a counsellor because some of the things you did were sickening. And only a warped mind can come up with all that manipulation.” She sighed. “Anyway, I’m done talking. I’m exhausted. I’d like to go get some food and then sleep for the rest of the day.” Jocelyn smiled at her. “Well done. We can head out now.” Gloria was off the bed and out of the door quicker than anyone else. Henry followed her. Ada patted Lara’s shoulders and then went out. Ike stayed with Lara as she stepped out into the corridor. “Can I come and see you later?” “I’m sorry,” she said. “Not tonight. We’re on a late flight out tomorrow. We can talk in the morning.” “Okay.” He swallowed his disappointment. He would’ve liked to spend more time with her. But he understood she needed to rest after the day she’d had. Outside, Gloria was already in the car and Henry stood beside it. He watched as Lara, Jocelyn, and Ada boarded their car and headed off before he opened the front passenger door of the vehicle waiting for him. It was best for him not to sit next to Gloria because he wasn’t sure he wouldn't strangle her before they got back to the hotel. They rode back in silence and he didn’t wait for either of them when he got out of the car and headed for the reception. He spoke to the guy at the desk and arranged for another room. The man gave him the key to a new room and he headed upstairs to pack his things. Gloria and Henry were in the room when he got in. He went straight to the wardrobe, took out his overnight bag, and started packing his things into it. “What are you doing?” Gloria asked. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m packing my bag. I’m moving to another room.” “What’s wrong with this room?” He wanted to say ‘You’re in it.’ Instead, he said, “If I sleep in this room with you, you won’t be safe.” “Ah, ah...why are you being so difficult? She forgave me. Why can’t you?” His mouth dropped open. “You are a piece of work. You still don’t get it. You’ve manipulated me for years, and you want me to carry on as if everything is okay between us. Wake up, Gloria. It’s over between us.” “You can’t leave me.” She got up off the sofa and walked in his direction. “My advice is for you not to come close to me,” he bit out and held up his palm in a stop signal. Henry blocked Gloria from coming any closer. “Okay. Fine, I’ll give you time to cool off, but we still have a wedding in a few months.” Ike gave a cold laugh. “You really do need a shrink. I’m not going to marry you, Gloria.” “Are you really going to give up fifty percent of your business just so you can punish me for something I did five years ago?” Ike pointed at her. “I’ll give up all of my business if it means I never have anything to do with you.” “It won’t come to that,” Henry said. “I’m going to buy the shares, which will give Ike the money to pay your father off.” Ike’s mouth dropped open, same as Gloria’s. She recovered first. “You can’t do that.” “Yes, I can,” Henry said with a tight smile. “The agreement his father signed with yours means that he can give back the market value equivalent cash instead of shares. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity just as this. Ike is my friend. He watches my back, I watch his.” Gloria groaned in frustration. “Whatever. You’ve been waiting for an opportunity to get one up on me. Well, you won’t get that chance again. Get out, both of you. I don’t want to see either of you again.” Ike grabbed his bag and slung it over his shoulder. Henry held the door open. Ike turned to Gloria. “Gloria—“ She cut him off with a raised hand. “Unless you’re apologising for being rude to me, I don’t want to hear whatever else you want to say.” Before she could turn away, he saw the tears in her eyes. He felt bad for leaving her like this. But she had made her bed and he really wasn’t ready to forgive her. “Take care of yourself,” he said before walking out. “I’ll be seeing you around, Gloria,” Henry said before shutting the door. “Do you think she’ll be all right?” Ike asked. “She’s got a thick skin. She’ll be off harassing another Lagos bachelor before you know it.” Ike chuckled as he put the key in the lock of his door and opened it. “Yes, I’m sure you’re right.” “What about you? What are you going to do?” Henry asked. “Well, I’m going to start by seeing if Lara will have me back. And take it one day at a time.” “That’s a good plan. In the meantime, I’m going to let you settle in. Pop over later if you need company.” “No problem,” he said as he walked into the room. He dumped the bag on the floor and flopped on the bed. Then he pulled out his phone. There was a message from his mother. He sighed and sat up before dialling her phone number to give her the bad news about the wedding. Chapter Twenty-Two “Wake up, sleepy head,” Lara said in a cheery tone as she got out of the bathroom where she’d showered, brushed her teeth, and dressed. She’d had the best sleep in years, perhaps her entire life. She’d slept the whole night without the help of sedatives. It had been a long, dreamless sleep. She hadn’t woken up in the middle of the night hot and shaking from nightmares. Going through the session yesterday had been cathartic. She’d been exhausted by the end of it. They’d returned to the hotel for a quick debrief. Then dinner and she’d gone to bed at about 8pm. She’d had ten hours uninterrupted sleep not induced by medication. This morning, she’d woken in a cheerful mood, feeling as if she finally had control of her life, instead of being ruled by fear and nightmares. Finding a text message from Ike saying he was coming over had added to her cheerful disposition. The fact that he still wanted to talk to her after the things she’d revealed the past day had to be good. Yesterday, a part of her had been worried that he’d be disgusted when he heard the truth. Instead, he’d been devastated by what had happened to her. He’d cried in her arms. She couldn’t remember seeing a man cry before. She’d had to wipe his tears. And then, he’d gotten furious when Gloria had revealed her part in the ordeal. Ada poked her head from under the covers. “What time is it?” “Seven thirty,” she replied. “What? It’s early,” Ada grumbled. “The early bird catches the worm.” “Eh, I’ll gladly skip the worm, thank you.” Ada pulled the covers back up and then down again. “Why the hell are you up and dressed at this ungodly hour, anyway?” Lara grinned. “Ike is coming over at nine.” “He is?” Ada sat up. “I wonder what happened between him and Gloria. He looked ready to kill her yesterday.” “Yes, but I’m sure his friend would’ve prevented any bloodshed.” “At one point, I thought Henry would be the one throttling her. You know that expression parents have when children misbehave and they are about to pull out the cane?” She nodded. “He had it. I thought he was going to spank her or something.” Ada chuckled. “Shame he didn’t, because I would’ve paid to watch someone throttle her ass.” Lara burst out laughing. “That would be something to see, indeed. But I don’t know if there’s any man she couldn’t wrap around her finger.” “Henry wasn’t taking any crap from her. He looked like he had her figured out already. She needs a man like him to keep her in line. God help him.” Ada laughed. “Yeah, God help him if he decides to take her on. Anyway, enough about Gloria. Are you coming down for breakfast?” “Do I have to? Breakfast is open till ten o’clock, right?” “All right then, stay, grumpy. I’ll go and knock on Jocelyn’s door. She should be up.” “See you later.” Ada dived back under the covers. Lara chuckled as she grabbed her phone and bag and left the room. Jocelyn’s room was next door. She knocked and waited a few seconds before the woman opened the door dressed in a white towelling robe. “’Morning,” she greeted. “I wondered if you’d like to come down for breakfast. Ada is still sleeping. I don’t think she’ll get out of bed before 9am unless there’s an earthquake or something.” “Of course,” Jocelyn said with a smile. “I just got out of the shower. Give me a minute to get dressed. You can come in.” She stepped away from the door, allowing Lara in. “Thank you.” Lara went over to the chair and sat down. Jocelyn grabbed a dress from the hanger and went into the bathroom, leaving the door partially open. “I spoke to Ike this morning.” “Oh?” Lara’s heart thudded. “He wanted to know how you’re doing.” “He could ask me directly.” “Of course. But he wanted to know my professional opinion. And he wanted to know how to behave so he didn’t do anything to upset your progress.” She smiled. “And what did you say?” “That you’ve done incredibly well. Your response to therapy continues to be positive. And I told him to be himself. The last thing you want is people tip-toeing around you.” “Good.” Her smile widened as Jocelyn came out dressed in a maxi-length blue and black Ankara print dress. The woman always looked lovely. “You look great.” She smiled in return and put her shoes on. “Thank you. So do you.” “Thanks,” Lara said and headed for the door. “Come on. I want to have food in my tummy by the time Ike turns up.” Jocelyn grabbed her key and purse and followed her. They went down to the half-full restaurant. They found a table by the window and settled down. The waiter dressed in a white shirt and black trousers took their order. They both went for the hot meals, ordering sausages and eggs with their toasted breads. “So how do you feel this morning?” Jocelyn asked after the waiter left. “I feel incredible. I can’t remember the last time I felt so carefree. Like I can do anything.” She felt so good, she was tempted to stand on the table and shout it out. “This is fantastic. I’m so glad. It’s amazing the changes that happen in the brain when we let go of our fears.” “It’s better than any drug I’ve ever had.” “I’m so proud of you.” Jocelyn reached across and held her hand. “Enjoy the feeling and hold on to it. Remember what I said. Don’t let other people dictate how you feel about yourself. There’ll be some days when something bad will happen and you might feel like falling back on the bad habits and thinking destructively. Use the techniques you’ve learned.” Lara nodded. “I’m going to take it one day at a time. I’m certainly going to make the most of the way I’m feeling today.” “Good,” Jocelyn said as their food turned up. “Thank you,” she said to the waiter who left their plates of food as well as a pot of tea. She ate the food with relish, savouring every last morsel. “So how do you feel about Ike coming to see you? Do you still have feelings for him?” Jocelyn asked. “Yes. I still love him. It will be nice to see him and talk to him, but I’m not expecting anything more from him. It’s a huge thing to ask a man to love me after what’s happened.” Jocelyn reached out and placed her hand over Lara’s. “I know how you feel. I feel the same way about myself sometimes. But we all deserve to be loved, and anyone who can’t love us isn’t meant to be with us. Ike is a good man. He might surprise you, so don’t shut him out. Okay?” Lara blinked back tears. Sometimes, she forgot that Jocelyn had undergone something similar to what she had. “Okay,” she said just as her phone beeped. She picked it up from the table and read the message. Her stomach fluttered. “Ike is here.” She typed a reply. I’m in the restaurant. Another message beeped. Okay. I’m coming in. “He’s coming here.” Her voice squeaked as she clutched her shaking hands on her lap. “Do you think I look okay?” “You look great,” Jocelyn said with a chuckle. “I feel as if I’m going on my first date.” She chuckled. “Actually, it is my first date.” The affair with Ike five years ago had never been dating. Not really. And she’d never allowed any other man close after Malcolm. Casual hook-ups and booty calls weren’t dates. Ike appeared in the restaurant and walked towards her. Her heart raced, her hands still trembling. “Relax,” Jocelyn said. She nodded and sucked in a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Feeling better, she curled her lips into a smile. “Hi, Jocelyn. Lara,” Ike said as he stood next to their table. He looked handsome and boyish in a blue t-shirt and dark denims and black sneakers with white soles. He didn’t look like the boss she was used to seeing in suits. “Ike, hi,” Jocelyn greeted with a smile as she stood. They embraced briefly and he kissed her on the cheek. Lara stood, too, her heart still thudding hard against her chest. Ike stepped up to her and wrapped his arms around her. He felt solid and warm. Great, as she sucked in his scent. He brushed his lips against her cheeks and her skin tingled. “You look great,” he said. “Both of you.” “Thank you,” they both chorused as they exchanged knowing looks. “Lara, I hope you don’t mind if we go now. I have a few things lined up for the morning.” “Sure.” She grabbed her phone and tote. “Be sure to bring her back in time for her flight,” Jocelyn said. “I sure will,” he said and took Lara’s hand. Her skin electrified from the point of contact, and the butterflies in her stomach were certainly having fun. She followed him outside. Warm sunshine greeted them as well as the chauffeur standing in front of the shiny BMW. Ike ushered her into the back seat before getting in. The man shut the door and got into the driver’s seat. She relaxed into the soft leather as cool air wafted around her. She remembered the last time she’d sat in the back of a car with Ike. She’d been filled with anger and resentment, but none of those feeling came to play now. Instead, her excitement and elation remained. So much had changed for her in the month since she’d started working at TI. “Where are you taking me?” she asked, watching the scenery as the car rolled out of the gates and joined the morning Enugu traffic. Enugu wasn’t as congested as Lagos, so the flow of pedestrians and vehicles didn’t have the same manic quality as there. A part of her missed the sedate life she’d experienced here for the year she’d lived in this place. “It’s a surprise.” He squeezed her right hand that he still held onto. “But I’ll give you a hint. I’m taking you to somewhere I had wanted to take you to five years ago if we’d had the opportunity to date properly.” She tried to think of places but came up blank. Having never been on a date, she couldn’t think. Ada’s dates took her to restaurants or the beach, but they couldn’t be going to eat since she’d just had breakfast. Enugu was landlocked, so there was no beach. She turned to Ike with a frown. “I can’t think of anything.” He chuckled. “Stop thinking and just relax. We’ll soon be there.” She couldn’t help smiling back. “Okay.” “Good girl.” Her breath hitched at the term, her heart thudding harder. It was his special word for her. She met his gaze and he held hers. Neither of them looked away. It was as if they were bound in that moment, held in place. The car went over a bump and jolted them. She looked away, back onto the scenery outside the window. “How is Gloria?” she asked. Ike sighed. “She seemed fine this morning when I saw her get into the car to the airport. She’s on a flight back to Lagos any minute now.” “You left her to go on her own?” She frowned. “Henry is flying back with her.” “Oh, that’s okay, then.” She giggled when she remembered what Ada said. “Ada said there could be something going on between them.” She covered her mouth with her free hand. “Oops, I shouldn’t have said that.” Ike laughed. “You’re not angry? She’s your fiancée.” He squeezed her hand, still amused. “No. She’s no longer my fiancée as of last night. The wedding is off. But I agree Henry and Gloria would make a great couple if they don’t kill each other first.” She tried to picture Henry and Gloria together, and all she could see was Henry’s scowl and Gloria’s pout. She broke down in giggles as Ike laughed. The car slowed down and stopped. She looked around and couldn’t help the huge smile spreading across her face. “You brought me to the fun park?” she asked in awe. “Yes. Do you like it?” “Oh my God! Yes!” She scrambled around and pushed the door open. She did a three-sixty degrees spin and ran across to where Ike stood leaning against the car with a grin on his face. She grabbed his hand. “Come on.” He chuckled and she practically skipped to the entrance where he bought two tickets. “I want to go on the spinning wheel first,” she said and dragged him in that direction. The attendant greeted them and boarded them when a pod became available. The space was small so their sides pressed against each other. She was giddy with excitement as it began the slow journey up. “You don’t know how long I’ve wanted to do this,” she said as she gripped onto the bar. “You must have come here,” he said. “No. I was waiting until after my exams. But even then, I couldn’t because I was always afraid of bumping into Malcolm or one of his friends.” “I wanted to bring you but I was always worried about a student or teacher seeing us together.” “Thank you,” she said as they climbed high into the air. From the top, she saw the metropolis as she’d never seen it before. The rooftops of houses, business, cars, people. She held her breath. “The sight is amazing.” “It is. Then again, so are you.” She turned in his direction. He leaned into her and pressed his lips against hers. Her breath whooshed out in surprise. He traced her mouth with his tongue. Her heart thudded faster and she reached for him, clinging on to his t-shirt with one hand. His hand came around to her nape holding her to him, as he continued his exploration of her inner recesses. The kiss wasn’t rushed, every touch a caress that spoke to her of tenderness, of banked passion. Of love. When they came up for air, she opened her eyes. They were almost at the ground level again. Ike didn’t move apart until the pod jolted to a stop. He lifted the bars that held them in place and they climbed out. They walked slowly, checking out the other offerings. She wasn’t in a hurry to get on another ride, happy to just stand back and watch other people. There weren’t many people here. It was the school holidays but still early morning. She stopped when they saw a carousel. Except they weren't ponies. “What are those?” Ike frowned. “They look like donkeys.” “Donkeys don’t have antlers. They look like reindeers.” She laughed. He grinned. “They can’t be reindeers. It’s August. They’re donkeys.” “Perhaps they’re reindeer-donkey cross breeds.” She giggled. “I want a ride.” He chuckled and made a sweeping wave. “Whatever my girl wants, she gets.” That phrase again. He would have her believing she was an innocent eighteen again and had her whole life ahead of her. He spoke to the attendant who stopped the carousel so they could board. There was no one else on it. She got on and Ike got on the next one behind her. The carousel started moving. The ride was slow and bumpy. “They certainly move like donkeys.” She started laughing and nearly fell off the plastic animal. She turned back to look at Ike who had a twinkle in his eyes as he watched her. She really couldn’t remember being this carefree or this happy. Probably when her parents were still alive and she’d been a little girl. The ride stopped and they got off. Ike wrapped his arm around her shoulders as they walked to the ice cream stand. He bought two cones and they stood and watched people on the dodgem cars as they ate. Afterwards, he tried the pot shot and won her a white stuffed polar bear. “I’m going to have to take you back to the hotel shortly, but I wanted to ask you something first of all,” he said, looking serious for the first time that day. Her stomach knotted. “What?” He took her free hand. “For the first time since I met you, I’m in a position where I can ask you out without worrying about anyone else or anything else. I’m free to date you, but I really don’t know if you want me. So I have to ask. Lara, will you be my girl?” Chapter Twenty-Three Lara left the room where she’d been meeting with the core project team. She hurried to her desk. The meeting had run over. If she was quick, she could pop out and grab a quick lunch before the end of the break time. She’d been back at work for a few days after the two weeks she’d been away. Jocelyn had signed her off and Ike had approved her absence. But now she was back, she had a whole lot of work to catch up on. She would’ve grabbed some lunch for Ike as well, but he was in a shareholder’s meeting. Apparently, there’d been some changes to share ownership. They would be served lunch in there. She got to her desk, grabbed her purse, and headed to the ladies’. She got into a cubicle and shut the door. She heard two people walk in but she didn’t recognise their voices immediately. “Did you read the post making the rounds on Twitter?” one of them said. “Which one?" the other asked. “Mr. Thomas’s fiancée, Gloria, posted that she broke up their relationship because she found out he was cheating on her. She’s been venting her anger on Twitter.” “Omigod!” “And do you know who the other woman is?” “I don’t know. Who?” “Jane told me in confidence that it’s Lara. Apparently, she caught them together in his office.” “You can’t be serious. She only started last month. And she’s so quiet.” “Yeah. It’s the quiet ones you have to be careful of, you know.” “Some people have no shame, you know.” Lara’s cheeks heated up and she wanted a hole to open up in the ground. They were talking about her and she hated for people to discuss her, especially as gossip topic. She waited in the cubicle for the women to leave before coming out to wash her hands. She’d lost her appetite and wasn’t going out to lunch anymore. She dreaded going back to her seat where people could see her directly. Rushing out of the ladies’, she was lucky that most people seemed to be out to lunch. She walked over to Ike’s office. The door was locked but she had a key so she opened it and walked in. She was going to work from in here for the rest of the afternoon. Thankfully, he would be out so she didn’t have to worry about him coming back and finding her in here. She tried to work but her mind raced as she wondered what exactly Gloria had posted. Not being able to help herself, she logged onto Twitter and searched until she found Gloria’s handle. Her heart sank as she started reading all the tweets and replies. Gloria had turned herself into the offended party and her supporters were in outrage, calling Lara all sorts of nasty names. She slumped on the sofa, tears welling in her eyes. What did she ever do to Gloria? Even after everything, she’d still forgiven the woman, and it turned out Gloria was not ready to move on. The door to the office swung open. She sat up with a jolt. Ike walked into the office, surprise on his face at seeing her. Behind him were Henry and an older woman. She turned her face away and swiped her eyes. “Lara, what’s the matter?” He was already striding across the space. “It’s nothing.” She sniffed and bent to pack her things. “I’m sorry. I’ll get out of the way.” “No.” He tilted her chin up. “Not until you tell me what’s wrong.” “Mum, excuse me for a minute,” he said and took Lara’s hand, pulling her into the adjacent bathroom. He closed the door and held her hands. “Tell me what’s wrong.” “It’s Gloria. She’s been tweeting some nasty things about me.” She lifted her phone up. “I know I shouldn’t have read them, but some of the staff were gossiping about it and I overheard them.” He took the phone from her and scrolled through the tweets. He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “The thing about Gloria is that she’s jealous of you.” “Jealous? What do I have that she doesn’t have?” “You have strength, you have heart, and of course you have me.” He caressed her cheek as he smiled. How did she get so lucky? He always made her feel good about herself. The past few days of being with him had been amazing. “When you put it like that, I agree.” She smiled. “I’d be jealous, too, if someone else had you.” “So don’t worry about her.” He leaned in and brushed her lips gently with his. “I love you. I will always love you. Nothing will ever change that. I won’t ever abandon you again, no matter what anyone else says. You’ve got to believe that.” Warmth radiated through her body as her heart raced. He made her feel alive. The girl who’d been excited about a future with him five years ago had been resurrected. She smiled through tears of joy. “I do.” “Then I’d like to take you out there and introduce you to my mum. She’s wanted to meet you since we returned from Enugu, but I told her you might not be ready yet. But she came for today’s shareholder meeting and I’d really love for you to meet her.” “Your mum? I don’t know.” Lara swiped at her face, wondering how she looked. Her stomach tensed. “I must look horrible.” “You look lovely, like you always do.” Sighing, she bit her bottom lip. “But she’s used to seeing Gloria who always looks immaculate.” Ike pulled her to the front of the mirror and stood behind her. “Look in the mirror. What do you see?” She shrugged. “I see you, and you are the brilliant woman I love. My mum will see that, too.” Smiling, her limbs tingled and the tension in her body dissipated. “Thank you.” He pressed his lips to her cheek, spreading more heat and tingles through her body. “Come on.” He took her hand, opened the door, and led her out to his office. His mother and Henry sat on the sofas talking. “Mum, I’d like you to meet the love of my life. Lara, this is my mum.” He pulled Lara to stand in front of him. Although she felt a little nervous, it didn’t overwhelm her as Ike’s love for her shone through boosting her confidence. She curtsied. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Thomas.” “It’s great to finally meet you, Lara.” Ike’s mum took her hand and pulled her onto the sofa and hugged her. “I’ve heard some wonderful things about you.” “You have?” She glanced at Ike, who just chuckled. “Yes. You are a brave young woman, and I’ll be so glad to have you as my daughter-in-law.” Her mouth dropped open and Ike grimaced. Henry chuckled. “What? You mean you haven’t asked her to marry you? What are you waiting for?” “We’re taking it one step at a time, Mum,” he said. “It’s my fault. I want him to be sure he wants to be with me,” Lara said. “I understand that. But I can tell you that by the way he’s been singing your praises, he’s pretty smitten and pretty sure.” “Mum!” Ike protested. It only made Lara laugh. She loved the woman already. It seemed all her Christmases had come at once. For Ike to still love her knowing that her body had been violated was one thing but to have this kind of genuine affection from his family was the cherry on top of a very sweet cake. “You’re right, Mrs. Thomas—“ “You must call me Mum.” The woman squeezed her shoulder. Lara’s heart filled, ready to burst with joy. “You’re right, Mum. I would marry Ike if ever asks me.” She raised her brows at him, teasing him. He leaned back. “It’s like that, huh. You see how the two of them just ganged up on me so quickly,” he said jokingly to Henry. Henry chuckled. “Well, they’re both right. You’ve got to get your act together. It’s been five years coming.” “You, too, huh?” He chuckled and reached for his satchel. “Well, I have a surprise for all of you.” He pulled out a small box and Lara’s mouth dropped open. “No, you didn’t?” She gasped and covered her mouth with both hands. Her body trembled and her heart thumped so hard against her chest, she feared it would punch a hole. “Yes, I did.” He grinned at her as he went on his knees and took her trembling left hand. “You are bold, brilliant, and beautiful, and nothing would make me happier than having you as my wife, Lara. Will you marry me?” How was this thing even possible? How could she go from almost losing her mind to being absolutely ecstatic within such a short time? Whatever this was, she didn’t want it to ever end. “Yes, I’ll marry you,” she said in a choked voice. He took out the most beautiful ring she’d ever seen and slipped it onto her finger. “Congratulations!” both Mrs. Thomas and Henry said at the same time as they pulled them into hugs. “You can bring the champagne in now, Jane,” Ike said into his intercom before pulling Lara in for the most blissful kiss ever. This was the first day of the rest of her life. Dear readers, Thank you for reading Bound to Fate. I hope you will leave a review on the site of purchase. Continue reading for Chapter One of Bound to Ransom, Bound Series #2, releasing March 2016 Blurb Since the death of her mother, Gloria Rawlins' life has been a series of disappointments by the people she cares about; first by her father and then in a series of disastrous relationships that have shattered pieces of her heart one after another. She's no angel and refuses to make herself vulnerable to anyone again. Until one man threatens to strip away the wall shielding her heart. Henry Coker is not afraid of challenges. Rejected by his father and raised by a single mother, he's had to work hard from the bottom up to prove himself to his peers and the world. But Gloria, the one person he desires above all others remains out of reach until an opportunity presents itself and he has the chance to buy her. Desire like theirs cannot be hidden and passion sizzles between them. But making someone fall in love may just be a challenge too far. Bound to Ransom is a story about breaking the cycle of self-destruction, finding redemption and the powerful love that endures. Bound to Ransom (Bound Series, #2) Chapter One Henry Coker stepped out of the chilly car as his chauffeur held the door open. The air outside struck him as hot and humid. He glanced up at the overcast sky through his dark sunglasses. A storm was brewing in the atmosphere. Just the way he liked it. He thrived on trouble. Challenges made him tick. He shook out his shoulders and straightened his suit, pulling out his cuffs. He was a man in his prime—young, rich, and successful. Unlike his best friend, Ike Thomas, he’d come from nothing, the son of single mother who had worked her bones off to provide for him and his sibling. He’d worked himself from the bottom to the top, scraping and saving and learning and investing. Wisely. Ruthlessly. Today, all his hard work would yield its first major result. He strode across to the entrance of the building that housed Rawlins Constructions Ltd. Inside, he noted that the furniture in the lobby appeared a little jaded. One of the outward signs of the business being in trouble. The last time he’d been here, he’d worked for the company as an employee. That was a long time ago. How things had changed in only a matter of years. “My name is Henry Coker. I’m here for a meeting with Chief Rawlins,” he said to the pretty receptionist behind the desk. “Welcome, Mr. Coker. Chief is expecting you. You can take the lift to the third floor. His secretary will meet you in the lobby.” “Thank you,” he said, and headed for the lift. It was a short ride up and when he got to the floor, a smartly dressed woman in a red top and black pencil skirt met him. “Welcome, Mr. Coker. I’m Simi. Chief is waiting in his office.” “It’s nice to meet you, Simi. Lead the way.” He curled his lips in a smile. She smiled back coyly before sashaying down the corridor, her hips swaying. He followed her as his body kicked to life and he suppressed his libido. He'd been celibate for too long. The office building that had used to be busy and full of employees now seemed deserted, the work spaces abandoned, and the amount of accumulating dust showed that no one had used the desks for weeks. At a panel with the peeling plaque that read Managing Director, she knocked once and then turned the handle. The door opened up into an office that seemed covered in dark wood. It was dated and reminded him of an old movie set. Chief Rawlins sat behind a huge mahogany desk. He strode towards the man. “Chief, it’s good to see you,” he said in a light tone as he extended his hand. “Henry, thank you for coming to see me,” Chief said as he took his hand in a firm shake. “Well, when the boss invites an ordinary barrow boy like me up to his office, I have no choice but to answer the request,” Henry said with humour. Chief gave a laugh. “We both know that you’re not a barrow boy anymore, and I’m not your boss. Sit down.” He waved at the chair. Henry lowered his body into the seat. “Well, no matter. It’s always important to give respect where respect is due.” “And I appreciate it, which is why I wanted us to have this chat as a one-on-one without anyone else’s involvement for now.” Chief paused. “Can I get you a drink?” “No. I don’t drink when business is involved. But I’m happy to have one once we’ve concluded our discussion.” “That’s a good idea.” His gaze darted around the room and his hands fluttered before he leaned his elbows on the desk. “I need your help.” Henry knew what was coming, but he wouldn’t save the old man the trouble. He’d been monitoring Rawlins Constructions for years. A business that had once been synonymous with construction at its height had started declining due to mismanagement, embezzlement, and corruption. Six months ago, one of its tower blocks had collapsed, killing residents and destroying homes and properties. The building had been constructed on marsh land with poor foundation, substandard materials, and in wrong quantities. Apparently, city planning officials had been bribed to obtain the appropriate license and certificates, an investigation had found out after the accident. The insurance would’ve normally paid but due to the irregularities, the cover had been voided. Now, the end was near for the business Chief Rawlins had set up, and the only reason he would call Henry to his office would be to ask for his help in rescuing the company. Chief and the company were facing both criminal and civil law suits. The shares had dropped so much that the whole thing was worth nothing to any investor. Henry leaned forward, mirroring Chief’s pose. “Tell me how I can help,” he said, pretending he had no clue what the man wanted. “I presume you know the situation already with the collapse of Greco Mansions. Because of the legal action in place, all my assets have been frozen as well as the company assets. The business is running with shell staff. I’ve had to send people home until further notice. My lawyers assure me that we’ll win the lawsuit, but in the meantime, investors are getting rid of their stock, which has made the value plummet.” He pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed his sweaty forehead. “I have to think about the families of the men and women who have worked here for years. I have to think about my own family.” “How would you like me to help?” Henry asked in a grave voice. “You’ve worked for Rawlins. You know this is a good company. Unfortunately, there were a few managers who have been embezzling funds. I found out who they are and dealt with them. I don’t want this company to go down the drain. This is where you come in. I need you to buy Rawlins Construction.” Henry puffed out heavy sigh. He pulled his brows together and tapped the table with his finger tips. “This is a bad time to think about selling the business, Chief. Your stocks are worth nothing in the open market,” he said quietly. The corners of Chief’s mouth tightened. “I know that, which is why I’m talking to you privately. You know that this company is worth a lot more than what anyone else would value it. Our reputation and contacts alone are worth a lot.” “I’m sorry to say, Chief, but the reputation of Rawlins collapsed along with Greco Mansions. And your contacts won’t want to be linked with a business being sued for fraud as well as criminal negligence and corporate manslaughter.” He deliberately kept his tone matter of fact but his words were the nails in the coffin. Chief’s eyes narrowed before he forced a smile. “Fine. Perhaps our worth is down the drain, but I was hoping to appeal to your sense of loyalty. I picked you up from the gutter and gave you a job. You wouldn’t be the man you are today if I didn’t give you the chance.” Henry’s hands clenched around the arms of the chair. He sucked in a shallow breath and released it. He held himself back for saying that he would’ve made it even if the man in front of him hadn’t offered him a labourer’s job many years ago. But he didn’t want to rile the man. He still had an ace up his sleeve that he would play when he was ready. “Yes, sir. I appreciate the opportunities you offered me. I learned the tools of the construction business from Rawlins.” He’d worked damn hard and gone from labourer to foreman in a short space of time. It had taken his sweat and determination and sometimes his blood, considering some of the injuries he’d incurred. After his degree program, he’d worked even harder setting up his own firm. He’d found suppliers who were happy to give him the materials without the inflated prices. He’d found dedicated workers, young men like him who were struggling to survive in Nigeria hit by the aftermath of successive unstable governments and a rough economy. Gradually, he’d built up a thriving business and workforce, undercutting Rawlins Constructions for the contracts and winning more and more bids. And the key to their success was that they actually delivered, which made the clients recommend them again and again. “So, will you help me?” Chief asked, his desperation now evident in his feverish eyes and twitchy fingers. Closing his eyes for a moment, Henry sighed. Such a shame to seem a man of Chief's calibre brought to his knees. For sure, he would insure himself from making the same mistakes the old man had made. Still, it didn't stop his heart from pounding with anticipation at the opportunity presented to him. One of the things that drove his successes constituted his ability to capitalise on openings like this one. “I’m happy to help your business. I will take on your creditors and pay off your debt. The business itself, I will buy for a token sum, and absorb your operations into mine.” Chief slumped into his chair and closed his eyes. For a moment, Henry worried he had fallen ill until he saw the steady rise and fall of his chest. A slow smile appeared on the old man’s face as he opened his eyes. “Thank you,” Chief said. Henry held himself steady but he didn’t smile in return. “Don’t thank me yet. I want something in return for helping you.” The old man shrugged. “Sure. I realise nothing goes for nothing. So if it’s something I can give you, then sure, you can have it.” It was Henry’s turn to smile. “It’s definitely something you can give me. The question is if she’ll come to me willingly.” “She?” Chief scratched his cheek before rubbing his chin. “I don’t understand.” Henry sat back in the chair, ready to show his ace card. He’d waited years for this. He placed his elbows on the arms of the chair and brought the tips of his fingers together to form a steeple. He held the man’s gaze, making sure he wouldn’t mistake his words. “I want your daughter, Gloria, in return for me helping you.” The man still appeared confused. “Gloria?” Then a smile returned to his face. “Oh, I get it. You want to marry my daughter.” He shrugged. Marriage wasn’t exactly the thing he had in mind. Revenge was top of his list. Especially since the woman in question had once told him she wasn’t good enough for him. “No, Chief. I don’t want to marry your daughter. A happily ever after will never work between the two of us as you daughter seems to dislike me so very much. She once said to me that she wouldn’t marry me if I was the last man on Earth. And you didn’t exactly approve of her being in a relationship with me, either.” The man’s head reared back as if Henry had struck him. His mouth opened and closed like a fish but he said nothing. “So you see, marriage is kind of out of the question,” Henry continued. “And considering her track record, it’s not a good idea, anyway. How long did her last marriage last? Three months? Six?” Chief seemed to go white and he dropped his gaze. He tugged the collar of his lace buba and more sweat beaded his forehead. “Yes, my daughter has had disastrous relationships recently. But what has that got to do with any of this? What exactly do you want from her?” “As I said already, I want her. Whatever amount I use in paying off your creditors will constitute the amount of the bride price for Gloria. She will live with me and to all intents and purposes, she will be my wife. But any day she decides to leave me, which she is free to do any time, I will be obliged to call back the amount I paid your creditors. Everything you own will belong to me. There will be no legal documents listing her as my wife, but there will be documents outlining the exact amount you owe me.” “What? You’re buying my daughter?” Chief Rawlins looked like he was about to have a heart attack. Henry stood up and walked around the desk as he reached out. The man pushed him away and glared at him. “I asked you a question.” He banged on his desk with his fist. “Are you offering to buy my daughter in exchange for helping my business?” “Yes.” He didn’t return to his chair. Instead, he shoved his hands in his pockets in a relaxed pose. “I’ll give you time to think it over and convince your daughter it’s the right thing. But we both know your creditors won’t wait for long. Have a nice day, Chief.” He knew exactly how long some of those creditors would last, because they were businesses linked to him. Henry turned around and walked out of the old man’s office. He’d made his move. The next move was Gloria’s. And he couldn’t wait. *** For news on upcoming book releases, check out Kiru Taye's website or sign up for her newsletter.

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