She had indeed loved him like she’d never loved any man before. He’d known it because she’d bared her heart open to him, shared all that was inside of her, all that she’d felt for him with him without holding anything back. She’d loved him without restrain and without reservation, and in same way, she’d given herself to him.
He had been her world, her everything.
And he had destroyed that world and everything he’d meant to her.
She no longer loved him. She would never again love him. She would never again love any man. She was done with love, with men and with relationships.
She wished he hadn’t come back to Lagos.
Kobi stared morosely at the paced traffic. She wished he hadn’t waylaid… okay, maybe he hadn’t actually waylaid her Monday night but it sure had felt like it. It had startled her hearing his voice so close to her ear. It had stirred up a feeling of helpless infuriation having to listen to him talk in his usual self-assured manner. And it had been a quick slash of pain his reminding her of what she’d once felt for him.
A momentary slash of pain.
Kobi absently rubbed her thumb against underneath her left breast. He couldn’t cause her pain any longer. No man could, and simply because she wouldn’t permit them to. Chima Obi-Ikendu might be back in Lagos, and he might consider the entire world too small for them to co-exist without having to deal with each other, but as far as she was concerned, he’d stopped to exist three years ago when he decided he preferred another woman to her.
She should forget Chima. She should focus on her dinner with Naeto.
She didn’t really care for social events during the week but Naeto had insisted, and she’d considered it her fine opportunity to let him know that she wasn’t interested in a relationship with him. Or with any other man.
He would be hurt.
Kobi sighed at the thought. But that couldn’t be helped. Her silence and pretend acceptance would hurt him more. Naeto was a good man and he deserved more than a woman who was now incapable of feeling and giving love. He would find that woman too once he stopped looking on her as a prospect. Of that she was certain. Good men with good looks and good money don’t last long in the market.
But her rejection might harm their friendship.
Yet, she could not be selfish even for the sake of keeping his friendship which she so valued. If she had to completely lose him, then she was prepared to make that sacrifice. It was the least she could do for him.
She pulled into the restaurant at the GRA part of Ikeja, settled in a good parking space and switched off her car engine. She adjusted her rear-view mirror and gave her face a critical study. Her face was getting less chubby every day. She liked it, seeing the effects of her weight loss regime. What had Chima thought seeing her almost twenty kilograms lighter than she’d been?
What he thought, or hadn’t thought, didn’t matter. Kobi firmly ducked the thought, snatched up her handbag from the passenger seat and pushed open the car door.
“Hey, beautiful.” Naeto was on his feet as she stopped beside the table he’d chosen. “Hope the traffic wasn’t terrible.” He waited until she sat before taking back his seat.
“It was all right.” Kobi gave him a smiling look-over. “I expected you in a suit. Looks like you’ve been home to change.”
Naeto tugged at the open-button neckline of his Henley shirt, his smile as genial as hers. “I have. Left office early and took the chance to dump the suit for something simpler. Sorry I didn’t give you same opportunity.”
“If I’ve stepped one foot into my apartment, I wouldn’t have been dragged out again until tomorrow.” Kobi chuckled and picked up the menu. “Anyway, how was your day, or should I say half-day at work?”
“Good.” Naeto owned a dry-cleaning service company, which had two other branches on the Lagos mainland and the head office on the Island. “Yours?”
“Busy. That, of course, translates to good business, big money and happy management.” She paused to give her order to the waitress who’d walked over. “I actually accepted your invitation this evening against my desire for a quiet night because I wanted to speak with you, Naeto.” She waited until she had his complete attention, then added. “About us.”
“I’m all ears, Kobi.” His eyes did not waver from hers.
“Naeto.” She wet her lips and sought for the right words. “I like you. I really do.”
“I more than like you, Kobi. I have feelings for you that have gone beyond platonic liking.” He paused for half a minute. “I am falling in love with you.”
“Please don’t.” Kobi felt the punch of panic and inhaled. “I’m sorry. This is not what you expect to hear when you are telling your feeling to a woman. I wish it is not what I have to say but…” she broke off and smiled thinly at the waitress as she set down her dinner and then, Naeto’s. “Naeto, I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Then don’t.” His voice was quiet, his eyes still direct on hers. “There’s no need for us to hurry over this, Kobi. If you need time, I can be patient. You’re what I want and I am not taking no for an answer.”
“Good evening, Kobi.”
Kobi swung her gaze around and stared, with restrained annoyance, at Chima. He was in a fitted sweatshirt over a pair of black denims that boosted his craggy look. “Hello, Chima.” She shifted her gaze to accommodate the man beside him. “Hello, Uche. Long time. ”
“Indeed it has been.” Uche, ever friendly and ever polite—that was how she’d seen him in the old days—dipped his head and offered a big smile. “I can see you’re good, Kobi.”
“I am. And I see you are too. You gentlemen here for dinner?” She had no intention of making any introductions.
But Chima, the devil that he was, must have read her unspoken intention and decided to thwart it. “We are. I’m Chima Obi-Ikendu.” He held out his hand to Naeto. “My friend, Uche Kabah.”
Naeto, a true gentleman, shook the hand and the one Uche offered. “Naeto Bernard.”
“Bernard’s Wash and Dry?” A gleam of interest sparkled in Chima’s eyes.
“Yes.” Naeto inclined his head.
The gleam grew. “Someone recommended you as the best in the city.”
“Oh. Thank you. We do our best to satisfy our clients.” Naeto picked his glass of wine, appearing unsure how to end the uncomfortable exchange.
Kobi decided to take care of the matter. It was, after all, her duty. “Nice to see you again, Uche. Hope you enjoy your dinner.” She said nothing to Chima, only sent him a cold smile.
“We sure will.” Uche smiled, dipped his head to her and offered another handshake to Naeto before turning.
“We will see again, Kobi. Enjoy your evening.” Chima gave a general smiling nod to them and then followed Uche to the other end of the restaurant’s dining hall.
“Are you all right?” Naeto asked, his eyes concerned.
She wasn’t. She was annoyed, unsettled and wanted to leave. But she smiled. “Of course, I am. Chima, like all exes, is obnoxious and irritating, but completely insignificant.”
“So, his interruption has not ruined the evening for you?”
Kobi held his gaze. “Chima can never again touch my life or affect it in any form whatsoever.” She slid her hand across the table and touched his. “Please, let’s forget an insignificant fly and focus once more on our dinner.”
“I’m glad to hear this, Kobi. For you mean so much to me.” He curled his fingers around her own. “I know that men like him have hurt you in the past, but this is a new dawn and I am promising you that I will never hurt you. You can trust your heart to me and know that I will never take you or your affections for granted.”
“I am not sure I can offer you what you seek, Naeto.” She wished she could. She wished she could fall in love with this obviously amazing man. “My heart is frozen. I am incapable of loving any man anymore. I am done with love.”
“You think you are because you’ve been hurt too many times but you are not.” Naeto’s fingers tightened around hers. “The human heart was meant to love and no matter the pain it suffers it craves to do just that—love. Your heart is only afraid right now. But it will love again. And I am here to help you heal through the pain. Trust me, Kobi. I won’t fail you.”
Kobi stared into his eyes and knew that he wouldn’t fail her. But she would fail him. She would hurt him. It was inevitable.
His absent-minded humming stopped as the driver’s door of the Honda CR-V 2014 model opened and Naeto Bernard came down from it. The unconscious stab of jealousy jabbed but Chima ignored it and offered, instead, a friendly smile to the other man.
“Chima.” His eyes sized him up and there was faint wariness in them.
“Piss poor weather.” It drizzled still even though the storm had fizzled out.
“It’s the season for it.”
“That it is.” He was the type women sang their praises—urbane, self-possessed, amiable. He was the type that had never threatened him—until now. “How’s Kobi?”
“At work. As all working class people are on a Thursday afternoon.”
The wariness in his eyes climbed into suspicious. The open mistrust and dislike pleased Chima. “Can you believe I woke up this morning thinking about her? Not surprising seeing as she’s the object of my return.” He held the eyes that were now annoyed. “This might not be good news to you, Naeto, but I came back to Lagos to reclaim what was once mine.”
“And what was once yours?”
The annoyance had smouldering fire beneath it. He wouldn’t be always so amiable. He wouldn’t be competition that he could easily nudge aside. “Kobi. She would be mine again.”
A moment, where men resized their adversary, passed.
“You’re the kind of arrogant jackass that thinks that women are mindless creatures who have no clear knowledge of what they want, right?” His tone demeaned, his eyes scoffed.
“No. I’m the kind of determined jackass that never backs down until he attains his goals.” Man to man, they stood equal—in height, in breeding, in wariness of each other. “I made a mistake once with her; I will not make it again.”
“You will not be accorded the opportunity to. She’s done with you.”
“I am not done with her. That is what counts.”
“Keep away from her, Obi-Ikendu. For heaven’s sake, have the decency to accept that what is over between you two is over and allow her the space to choose better for herself.”
He’d probably be better for Kobi. That didn’t mean he was right for her. “I will hound her until she is mine again. Then, I will keep her mine forever.” He passed the bills in his hand to the pump attendant. “I’ve given you fair warning, Bernard. A retreat wouldn’t be cowardly where there isn’t a fair chance of winning, you should avail yourself of it.”
“You will like that, won’t you? That I step back and leave you the freeway to slide back in and hurt her again.”
The smirk on his face made Chima smile. “Sliding back in is definitely my intention. Hurting her, no. I did that once, I will not do it again. But I do not need you to step back to allow me in, or not. She’s mine.” He held the eyes and saw the smirk ebb away and the wariness return. “She’s always been. She will be again.”
“She’s a human being, not a piece of toy, you self-absorbed pompous ass.”
Chima inclined his head, amused by the insult. “I know. She’s a woman with a heart, body and mind that were all mine once. All mine.” He saw the meaning sink and saw the anger it brought up. No, he wouldn’t always be amiable, not in the pliable kind of way. “She loved me once. She will do so again, because that love, the kind she felt for me, never really dies. We hear of everlasting love, sneer at it, until we come face to face with it and it shocks us to the very root of our souls.”
“Don’t speak of love like you’re capable of knowing its true meaning. You’re the kind that changes his women like he changes his clothes, a new one every day and with same careless abandon. But you’re the past. A past that is no longer needed. You should stay there and out of our lives.” Warning sparkled in his eyes and with it, a glint that spelt fury. “I won’t let you hurt her again.”
“You can’t stop me. Not from hurting her, but from having her.” Chima offered a friendly smile, to him and to the bewildered pump attendant, then he turned into his car.
He drove straight to The Big Mall and went straight to the store manager’s office.
“I’d like to see Kobi.” He said to her young assistant.
Ola, he recalled that was her name, gave him an amicable smile and gestured to a chair. “I’ll let her know that you are here. Your name, please?”
He didn’t sit. He stood and waited for her call.
“Mr Obi-Ikendu is here to see you.” She listened, glanced at Chima, dropped he gaze and her voice. “Oh. All right, ma.” She set down the table phone. “I’m sorry, sir. But she’s very busy now. Is there something we can help you with? I can have one of our technicians attend to you.”
“I will wait for Kobi.” Chima gave her a smile and walked to a chair. She wasn’t busy. She just didn’t want to see him. But he had time on his hand, plenty of it.
He waited forty-five minutes and his patience ran thin. Chima rose and strode resolutely for her door. Ignored the assistant’s protest and pushed it open.
She was behind her desk and her eyes clouded with annoyance at his intrusion.
“Should I call security, ma?” Ola asked from behind him.
“No, Ola. Thank you.” Her smiling was reassuring and dismissive.
The door clicked shut after the girl.
“Gave you satisfaction to keep me waiting, didn’t it?” Darn, she had lost so much weight. Her face was now more oval than round. It suited her. And it made him yearn for things he’d only absently yearned for before. “You weren’t busy, were you? Not diabolically so, you couldn’t spare a minute for me, hmm?”
“This is a place where I work, not attend to personal matters, Chima.”
Her aloof tone and eyes irked. But he deserved it—and likely, worse. “I was wrong.”
“Oh. About what?” One of her eyebrows climbed up. “Barging into my office? Disturbing my work pace? Being a regular nuisance?”
“You never gave me the chance to admit I was wrong before breaking things off.”
“Oh. I was supposed to hang around and listen after I caught you having sex with my co-worker on same bed you and I have shared?”
He felt like a worm. Not for the first time. “I didn’t go after her. She came after me.”
“Adam’s excuse: the woman, not I. Have some balls, Chima.”
The contempt in her voice, in her eyes, beat at him. “I do. Want to test them out?”
“Don’t be disgusting!”
“I was wrong, Kobi.” He strode around her table, leaned over her. “I was wrong about her. I was wrong to allow you break up our relationship without protest.”
“You didn’t allow me.” She scraped back her chair, stood up and put a safe distance between them. “You don’t own me. You don’t decide what I do, or don’t do. You don’t decide what I allow into my life or not. And I say, you have no place in it. You lost your place in it when you chose Marie over me.”
“I didn’t choose her. She wasn’t even a choice.” Chima buried his hands in his pockets to stop himself from grabbing her and yanking her into his arms. “And I say no. Not to not having a place in your life. I panicked before but…”
“Panicked?” She gave a mirthless scornful laugh. “What were you exactly panicked about, Chima? Having to build a future with a plus size woman?”
“I never complained about your body size, Kobi.”
“No. But you took to bed the skinny delectable Marie, didn’t you?”
“It wasn’t about her physical look.”
“I don’t want to hear it!” She spun around and jerked her hand to the door. “Leave my office and stop coming here.”
“Management might not like to hear that you are chasing away customers, Kobi.” Darn, he so wanted to hold her. To wrap her against him and soothe her.
“Leave me alone, Chima.”
“Never again. I want you and I mean to have you. And you’re not as oblivious to me as you think.” He drew her into her arms and covered her mouth, swallowing her protest.
He’d meant for a gentle kiss. But the heat of her mouth touching his seared him in places he’d forgotten existed and inflamed his passion.
She pushed out of his arms and slapped him. “Don’t you ever do that again! Not ever again. Now, get out!”
“Out of your office, yes. Out of your life? Hell no!” His eyes swore that promise before he swung around and left.
Inside his car, Chima washed his trembling hands over his face. Need scrambled like voracious tongues through him. He wanted her. Possibly, in ways he’d never before wanted her, or wanted any woman.
But worse, he was still so damn in love with her.
God help him!
*** ~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~ ***
My apologies to those who follow the Ndubuisi story for missing Saturday’s update. Will make up for it. Cheers.