Mid-April didn’t always come with heavy downpour and thundering storms. But it seemed to be doing so this year. It certainly was doing so that morning. The roar of rumbling thunder accompanied by the whistling crack of lightning rent the air and Kobi winced, ducking even though she was safe under the shelter of her veranda.
She would call in sick, but she never called in sick. She never took excuses, worked on holidays when it was required and beat all her targets. It was how she’d wound up store manager of one of Lagos’ biggest retail stores in just four years.
Hard work kept her grounded and animated. It kept her from losing her mind. So, she would go in today, stormy downpour or not, and she would have a good day at work.
Inhaling, Kobi flipped open her umbrella and walked into the rain.
But the rainstorm meant business was slow the entire morning hours. It was past midday and only when the sun started slowly peeking out in the skies, that hustle and bustle returned to the store and sales started picking up. Kobi was on the phone handling a pain-in-the-ass customer when her assistant poked her head in after a rap on her door.
She gave her a signal to hold on and continued with her placatory speech. “Once more, ma’am, we are sincerely apologising for very inconvenience. But if you could have someone come back in with the blender, I am sure we will take a look at the problem, and if required, replace with a new one.”
She shut her eyes at the stream of curses that condemned their incompetent services and the repeated declaration that nothing would ever be bought from the store by her—and everyone else she knew. Then the line went dead.
“I believe we just lost a customer and that is sad indeed.”
Ola’s mouth twitched. “We might be in danger of losing another unless you can save the day. He insists on speaking only with the manager and he wouldn’t say state his complaint.”
“It’s the rain. It has got to be the rain. It’s left everyone bad-tempered and irritable.” Kobi grimaced and rolled her shoulders. Her muscles tightened when she was tensed. “What did he buy?”
“Several electronic appliances and all purchased just this morning.” Ola leaned one toned hip against the door jamb. “Should I send him or insist he fills a complaints’ form? Although he’s rejected that suggestion thrice already.”
“Send him in. I’ll handle it.” She scribbled a number on a paper and tore if off the pad. “Here. Call her back. Tell her the store wants to replace the blender and requests her address for delivery and collection of said damaged blender.”
Ola took the paper and glanced at it. “But we don’t do pick-ups that didn’t begin with home deliveries and certainly not unpaid ones.”
“We do now if we don’t want to set off an online madness. Social media can be a delight, but it is also a weapon.” Kobi gave a nod. “Please send complainant one in and tell Austin he can use my car to take care of the delivery and pick-up if she’s responsive.”
“All right. You’re the boss.”
Kobi smiled at the salute. “Thanks, Ola.”
The door closed after her and Kobi blew out a breath, tucked in place the collar of her suit and straightened up on her chair.
“Come in.” She invited at the single knock. The door opened and her cordial smile collapsed. “What are you doing here?”
“I have a complaint and wanted to see the manager.” Chima walked into the office.
“You’re the…” Kobi pulled back, stilling the shock and the nerves. She was store manager and he was a customer with a complaint. That was all. “Please, have a sit, sir.” She fixed back the smile and gestured to a seat.
His dark eyes studied her for a moment. Then he pulled out a stack chair and lowered into it. “Store manager? You’ve done well for yourself. But then again, you were always a hard worker.”
The cordial smile didn’t falter. “I was told you have a complaint, sir. If you will tell me what it is, we’d have it resolved at once.”
“You would not acknowledge my compliment? Or even me?” A vague smile played about his mouth. “That is not polite, Kobi. Besides, it is childish and immature pretending like we don’t have a history.”
“What we have is a past, Chima, and I don’t live in the past.” Her stomach walls were clenching and unclenching but Kobi would be damned if she would let his effect on her show. “You came in with a complaint about one of your purchases from our store this morning, if you would let me know what that complaint is, I will attend to it. That is my job and that is the only reason you’re seated right now on that chair.”
A minute passed when only their eyes locked in a silent war.
Then he raised the branded paper bag in his hand and set it on the table. “It’s the kettle. It made funny noises when I plugged it on on reaching home.”
Kobi pulled the stainless steel kettle out of the bag. “It made funny noises?”
“Yes. Would you like me to describe the noises?”
“Completely unnecessary.” She held his mocking gaze. “You purchased this this morning and so any complaints at this time, would attract immediate replacement. Would you prefer same brand or would like to make a different choice?”
“Same brand. My tastes never change.”
The clench in her tummy tightened, but she only inclined her head. “Give me a minute then.” She picked her table phone and dialled. “Ola, could you have the store send in a Master Chef 10-litre boiler, please? Thank you.” She set down the phone. “Your kettle will arrive in a minute. Would there be anything else we can help you with, sir?”
“The guy you were with Saturday night the current man in your life?”
“My life, and the men in it, are absolutely none of your business.”
“So, you have more than one man in your life?”
She shifted her eyes at the door at the soft rap. “Come in.”
Ola walked in. “One ten-litre Master Chef boiler.” She said and handed it over to Kobi.
“Thank you, Ola.” Kobi sent her a smile. “Could you take this one and have technical check to see what the problem might be? The customer complained of funny sounds when he plugged it on.”
“I’ll do that.” She turned and then turned again. “Oh, Mrs Ikeobi is here.”
“I’ll see her in a minute, Ola. Thanks.” She turned to Chima when the door clicked shut. “Your brand new kettle, sir. Would you like to have it tested here?”
“I am sure it will work just fine.” He rose and took the bagged kettle. “I came back for you, Kobi, and I don’t intend to lose you to another man… or to a bunch of men.”
“You were always conceited.” Her hand itched to slap him but Kobi kept it pinned on the table and her voice coldly quiet. “But you belong in a past I have long put behind me and if you’re here erroneously thinking you can somehow bring back that past, then you have wasted a trip. In the world I live in today, you don’t have a place in it, Chima, and you never will again.” She stood up, fixed a genial smile. “I hope we were able to satisfy you, sir?”
“I will not be satisfied until I have you back in my life, Kobi. Thank you for your impeccable services, for now.” With a nod and a faint smile, he walked to the door.
Kobi pressed a hand against her swanning tummy and expelled a long breath. No, she wasn’t going to listen to him. She wasn’t going to believe his words, or trust in them. She was done with him. She was done with men. And she was done with love.
The door squished open and Ifeoma Ikeobi, long-legged, eternally slim and fashionably dressed… as always, strolled in. “What the hell was Chima Obi-Ikendu doing here?”
“He had a complaint about a kettle he purchased and wanted it changed.” In better control, Kobi smiled calmly as she sat down. “Should I have Ola bring you a drink?”
“He had a complaint about a kettle he purchased. How interesting.” Ifeoma sat and crossed her legs on the knees. Her pencil-skirt rode up a notch and her flawless fair skin dazzled under the bright lights. “It’s also interesting how calm you appear.”
Kobi shrugged. “It’s been three years, Ify. I’m over him, as he should be over me.”
“Hmm.” Ifeoma slid a hand into her handbag and came up with a Wrigley 5 gum. “Want one?” When she declined, she plopped one into her mouth and then relaxed back in her chair. “How was dinner with Naeto?”
“Fine.” Kobi opened a ledger on her table and stared at it. “He wants a relationship.”
“That was expected with the ardent attention he’d been paying you in the last couple of months.” Ifeoma tapped her index and middle fingers on the table intermittently. “So, what did you say?”
“That I’d think about it.”
“And are you?”
“I don’t know.” Kobi looked at her best friend’s oval, pretty face and sighed. “I don’t think I need to. I don’t have that kind of feelings for Naeto. He’s a nice guy and so kind and thoughtful and really good to me. But… I just like him, like a friend, nothing more.”
“What?” Kobi frowned at her.
“Chima—what do you feel for him?”
“Chima’s in the past, Ifeoma.”
“Looks to me like he’s returned to the present.” Ifeoma said with a casual shrug.
“He’s returned to Lagos but he hasn’t returned to my present. And he is certainly not permitted to return into my life.” Kobi tightened her mouth into a stubborn line.
“Was that what he really wanted, a chance to come back into your life?”
“It doesn’t matter what he wants, or what any man wants.” She met the pair of eyes across the table with certain determination. “At this point in my life, it is what I, and only I, want that matters.”
“So, what do you want, Kobindi Azuani?”
One who didn’t know Ifeoma Ikeobi very well might interpret the question as an amused, disinterested one. But Kobi knew she was serious—and interested.
“I want nothing to do with men anymore.” Unconsciously, she tilted up her chin and held it stiffly. “I don’t want to depend on them. I don’t want to need them. I don’t want to love them. I don’t want them in my life.”
“That’s a short list of things you don’t want. And the reason that’s your list, my sweet Kobi, is that you are not sure yet what you want. Or…” Ifeoma’s suddenly gleamed with a thoughtful light. “Or it might be, you’re afraid of letting yourself be sure what you want.”
“Stop trying to psychoanalyse me, Ify. I know my own mind and I know I am done with love, relationships and men.”
“Please, don’t be dramatic, Kobi. You’re thirty-two, at least, wait until you’re forty before you raise the white flag on men.” She rolled her eyes, then grinned. “A love triangle, that’s what we have here. Naeto, Kobi and Chima. Wonder which of these eligible men would win the fair lady? Of course, Chima has proven himself an asshole once. But he was a gorgeous asshole and he still is. Or what did you think?”
“I think it’s time you went back to your store and I went back to my job.” Kobi said tartly.
Ifeoma laughed. “You know your heart’s not as hardened as you like to think it is, right?”
“Ify, leave me alone, please!”
“Okay. But I am picking something off the rack and having you pay for it.” Winking, she shot to her feet. “I’ll see you after work for dinner at the house.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t come seeing as you’ve been such pain today.” Kobi pouted.
“And risk disappointing Muna?” Ifeoma laughed. “See you later, girl.” At the door, she turned. “If it were me, I’d enjoy the attention of both men and then pick the better man.”
“And who is the better man?”
“Aha. But I thought you weren’t interested.” Chuckling, she waved and slipped out.
“Naughty woman.” Kobi muttered and then cupped her hands over face and chuckled into it. But she didn’t really need to ask who the better man between Naeto and Chima was, did she?
Naeto undoubtedly was. But her heart didn’t want him.
Her heart didn’t want any man.
And it wasn’t because it was hardened. It was simply because it knew better now.
She knew better now. And she had a job to do.
Kobi picked her phone. “Ola, has Austin taken care of that delivery?”