He attacked the can of baked beans with a manual opener, swore when the content spilled, and out of impatience, dumped the can and its leftover content into the bin. He was strung up. No, he countered the thought, scratching in between his eyes, he was angry, at himself, at her, at the bleeding whole wide world.
He’d had a bad week. A bad ten days since he, without logical thought, had stormed her office and had achieved nothing but alienating her even more from him. And yesterday night, when stupidity had told him to call her official store manager’s line, he’d done the worst.
His phone rang and he cussed. Then cussed again when his jittery heart and sore pride wished it would be her. Of course it wouldn’t be her, and simply because she would never call him—not that evening, at least. Inhaling and working through his distorted emotions, he strode out of the kitchen and lifted the phone from the arm of the sofa as it started to ring again.
“Damn it!” He swore at the readout. It was his mother. His mother, and his relationship with her, was something he liked to avoid.
He considered letting it ring out. But she’d just keep calling and when he finally picked, mostly out of frustration, they’d have to talk longer because she’d spend more time reproving him than she usually did.
Slumping on the arm of the sofa, he tapped the phone’s screen and said into its speaker. “Good evening, mum.”
“I can’t believe that you’ve been in Lagos for more than two weeks and didn’t think to get in touch.” Were, as expected, her first words delivered in her soft cultured voice. “I only know because I had the stroke of luck to run into your friend, Uche and his family at the Ikeja City Mall, and mentioned if he’d heard from you lately and he told me you are back in Lagos. Why didn’t you call or come over to the house?”
“I’ve been busy settling in.” His voice, like it usually did when they talked, sounded clipped. “How are Tamara and George?” It wasn’t only because it was expected that made him ask. He had enough affection for his half-siblings to genuinely want to hear about them.
“They’re good. It’s only Tamara at home these days with George in school. How are you? Did you get transferred here or have another job offer?”
Her voice was interested. “No, I was laid off.” It didn’t change his tone, or curb his impatience. “We lost most of our rigs and it affected many of us.”
“Oh, that’s tough.” She was sympathetic. “But you’ve got Dreams Table Water, so it’s a place to start from while you make other plans. Are you fully back in Lagos then?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Where are you staying? Tamara and I could come visit tomorrow evening.”
“I don’t…” He stopped and compromised. “I’ll come see you guys over the weekend.”
“You’re promising to do so?”
He breathed and pressed two fingers against his temple. “I’ll be over on Saturday, mum.”
“All right. We’ll be expecting you. Take care of you, son.”
He let the phone slid on to the sofa and rubbed his temples, his thoughts snapping back to Kobi as his mother rolled to the background. What had he been thinking last night? What had he been thinking telling her, like that, that he was in love with her? Had he expected the information to melt her heart and sweep away all her resistance?
Yeah, he’d expected that. He’d been desperate enough to expect that. He hated to admit it—he hated even more feeling it—but he was desperate. He was feeling desperate where Kobi was concerned and it was making him do stupid things.
He needed to think, Chima breathed into the hands he scrubbed over his face. He had to think, had to coordinate his thoughts into a logical working order. Now, she knew he was in love with her…
Not that she’d believed him, he snorted at his failed tactic. Of course she didn’t believe him. He wouldn’t believe him if this wasn’t happening to him. God, this whole love thing was such a frustrating, exhausting and debilitating business. He’d run from it, hadn’t been able to escape from it, had come back to it and… and now, it just tormented and taunted him.
He wanted her. He needed her, to stop the blistering bumps that hurt his chest where his heart was supposed to be. He needed…
“Food.” Chima muttered, impatient and stomach growling to be filled.
Food was what he needed and desperately as he’d missed lunch working out some improvements plans at the plant. His stomach filled, he might start to think better.
He hauled up to his feet, grabbed his keys and strode out.
Since he would probably need to mutter and grumble his way through his dinner, he opted for a takeout and was about to slide into his car when he heard his name. And even before he turned, Chima knew it was Marie. Her breathy voice was still all too recognisable.
“Chima, what amazing surprise.” She was still a beautiful woman with the lushest skin and curve, and the most beguiling smile. “I didn’t know you were back in Lagos.”
Her perfume was still secretly seductive. “I can’t imagine how you would know. We’ve never been on those terms.”
Her soft laughter rang out, throaty and sultry. “But we did have us a good time once, didn’t we?” Her hand flicked out and touched his holding the roof of his door.
Chima glanced down at the trailing finger and his brows slightly rose at the diamond ring. “I see congratulations are in order. When’s the big day?”
“September 16. I should like it very much if you can come.” Her eyes sparkled with gloating pleasure. It’s Roland Tamuno-Kings. Do you know him?”
Oil magnate’s son and a millionaire in his own right. “Not personally. I see you’ve done well for yourself, Marie. I wish you every happiness.”
“Thank you.” She beamed. “I was just coming in. It can be so tedious sweltering over a hot stove after a full day at work. Oh,” she chuckled as if a thought just struck her. “I now own a boutique—TopClass—at Lekki. My days of working the till are thankfully over.”
“So they are.” Because he was unimpressed, he shifted his glance and without logical thought again, his mouth compressed with displeasure.
Kobi and Naeto were coming through the double glass doors, hands clasped in each other’s. He hadn’t noticed them inside the restaurant. But then he’d been too engrossed to notice much of anything.
He could notice now though, and her body was too angled against his, and she was smiling up into his face—like she used to when they’d been together. The bite of jealousy was not a familiar feeling, not since he’d outgrown his teenage crushes. But it was there and gnawed his stomach walls.
Or maybe it was the teeth of hunger pangs and anger, Chima fought back the bites and the rising scowl at the amended thought, and had the pleasure of seeing her smile wipe off as she caught sight of him, and by the quick cool glance she shifted to his left, sight of Marie.
“Chima. Marie.” Her voice was frosty. Her eyes even more so.
“Kobi.” Chima inclined his head to her. Then to Naeto. “Naeto, evening.”
“Evening.” The other man’s voice was coolly courteous.
“My goodness, Kobi, you’ve lost a ton of weight. Wow! I can’t believe the look of you. You look…” Marie let out a soft, astonished laugh. “Amazing. You look amazing. I never knew you could look like this—so beautiful. I mean, you were so fat, it was so hard to notice anything else but all that flabby extra skin.”
“Fat is derogatory, lady.”
“She never had flabby skin. She was big and beautiful.”
They spoke at the same time. And shot each other cold stares in proprietary warning.
It vaguely amused Chima. Then the faint amusement snapped into dissatisfaction when Kobi’s fingers around Naeto’s, in obvious appreciation.
“Ah…” Marie flicked up both her hands. “Um, I didn’t mean any harm.”
“Of course you didn’t, Marie. You were just talking carelessly. Like you always talk,” the frostiness in her eyes climbed to pure cold distaste, “carelessly and act carelessly.”
But Kobi cut of the indignant protest. “We’ll leave you both to your evening together.”
“We aren’t together.” Chima corrected.
She cast him the merest glance. “Good night, Chima. Marie.” Not sparing the other woman a glance, she swept off with Naeto, whose hand had slipped around her waist, Chima noted with moody eyes.
“Well, she’s turned snooty.” Marie complained. “Obviously dropping all that weight had boosted her self-esteem.”
Chima shifted his gaze on her. God, she must be the biggest mistake he ever made. “She never had any problem with her self-esteem. But I guess it’s something you wouldn’t know as you would consider such a matter dependent on the power of your body and not your brain.”
“I believe you just insulted me, Chima, and I am offended. I ought to make you pay.” Her mouth curved with a flirtatious smile and her finger skimmed over his hand. “What would you consider fair punishment, Chima?”
He didn’t flinch. He wasn’t the kind of man to flinch from flirtation. He, in the right circumstance and with the right play, usually appreciated it. This evening though irritation rippled at her attempt at it; at her attempt when she had another man’s ring on her finger.
“I have to get home, Marie.”
“Is that an invitation?” Her eyes twinkled.
Biggest mistake, Chima thought again. “No, it’s not. Good night.” He lowered into his car, ignored her gasp of shock and drove out of the restaurant’s parking lot.
“Do you want to come in?”
Naeto’s eyes lit with pleasure at the question. “I’d like that very much.”
“Let’s go then.” She kept her hand in his as she led the way inside. “Want a drink?”
“Only if you are having one.”
“No, I’d rather sit… and talk.” She sat. And he did, beside her. “I had a wonderful time tonight, Naeto. But then, I always have a wonderful time with you, whatever the time of day.”
“It is the same for me, Kobi. I enjoy being with you.” He entwined their hands again. “So much. I want to do so many things with you. So many, if only you’ll permit me.”
“I’ve been thinking about what you asked—for a relationship?”
“Yes.” She nodded. “I used to think I would never again want to be with a man. That it’d be impossible for me to fall in love and care for a man again after all my painful experiences. But…” She had thought about this and it was what she wanted. “But I have realised I deserve to love and be loved again.”
“Of course you do.” Naeto squeezed her hand. “Not all men are assholes and not all men hurt a woman, Kobi.”
“I know. I know you are not an asshole and won’t hurt me. You’re a gentle, thoughtful, loving man, Naeto, and I want to be with you.”
“Kobi, do you mean that?”
She smiled at the amazement in his eyes. Oh yes, she meant it. He didn’t arrogantly assume. He’d asked and he’d waited for her to make the choice. “Yes, I mean it, Naeto. If you still want to be with me, I am saying yes.”
“If I still want? Of course I do.” He laughed, pulled her close and hugged her. “I will always want you, Kobi, and I promise not to make you regret this choice you have made. I will make you so happy. We will make each other so happy.”
“Yes, we will.” They will, she repeated to herself and held firmly to her smile.
“My beautiful Kobi.” Naeto murmured, voice tender, eyes smiling. “I hope you know that how you look doesn’t matter in the least to me. Whatever your scale size, I will always find you beautiful. In fact,” he gave her a wink, “I prefer you big with ample skin that can fill my arms than all skinny and structured.”
“I know.” He made her feel beautiful, with the look in his eyes. “But honestly, at this point, I am only losing weight for me. I am doing this for me. Only me.”
“Then you have my full support.” He drew her against him. “Thank you for making me a happy man tonight.” His eyes strayed to her mouth. “Would you mind if I kissed you, Kobi?”
Her body stiffened. But Kobi consciously relaxed it. “No, I wouldn’t mind, Naeto.”
“So beautiful.” He murmured, then leaned down and stroked his mouth over hers.
The kiss was gentle and easy. There was no pressure. No prodding open her lips and tangling with her tongue. It was just several strokes of sweetness and of light passion. It was how she liked to be kissed and she enjoyed his kiss.
Yet Kobi wondered why she hungered for a fiery spark when it ended.
“I’ll get on home.” He got up, took her with him to the front door. “I’ll call when I get home. Thank you for a wonderful night, beautiful.”
“Thank you too, Naeto.” Out of affection, she kissed him on the cheek. “Drive safe, okay?”
“Okay. Secure your door. I’ll call.” He gave her hand a squeeze before turning to leave.
Kobi closed the door and locked it. Then she picked her purse and strolled into her bedroom. She had done it and it was the right thing to do.
Ifeoma didn’t think so when she called her during her lunch break the next day.
“You said yes to him? But how could you?”
“What do you mean, how could I?” Kobi asked impatiently. “I thought about it and decided he was probably the right man for me. I thought you’d be happy at the news since you’ve been hounding me to give love another chance, so why the protest?”
“Are you doing this because of Chima? Have you two seen each other again?”
“No, we haven’t. And keep Chima out of this!”
“You keep him out of this!” Ifeoma snapped back. “You have unresolved feelings for the man and…”
“I don’t have unresolved feelings for Chima.”
“Of course you do. And throwing yourself at Naeto with those feelings hanging is treating him carelessly and he doesn’t such a treatment.”
“No, he doesn’t.” Kobi agreed grimly, pushing back the quick hurt at her lack of support, which she’d been counting on, and her implication that she’d use Naeto. “I am not throwing myself at Naeto and I am shocked you will think something like that, Ifeoma. I like Naeto. I am fond of him. I might not be in love with him… yet, but I care about him and I mean to try to build a relationship with him. I am not using him to get over Chima and that is because Chima is in the past, Ifeoma.”
“Oh Kobi, I didn’t mean it like that. You’re not a user. You couldn’t use an enemy even if you wanted to. I’m sorry if I sounded like that was what I was saying.” Ifeoma’s breath came out in a soft sigh. “Look, I just don’t want you to make any mistakes.”
“I am not making a mistake, Ify. I know what I’m doing.” She did. “I am making a clear choice for myself. You were right, the human heart can’t be frozen against love. It’s impossible. So, I am choosing to be with Naeto. I am choosing him as the man for me.”
There was a short silence. Then Ifeoma said quietly. “Sometimes, we can’t choose for our hearts what they want or what is good for them. The heart has its own mind, Kobi.”
“The heart is not the only organ in the human body, Ify.” Kobi smiled a little. “There is also the brain and this time I am allowing mine full function. Naeto is good for me, so it’s him I choose. Him for as long as we both want each other.”
When the call ended, Kobi leaned forward against her desk and crossed her hands on it. Yes, this time she was making a logical, sans capricious emotions choice. Naeto cared deeply for her, he respected her, he was a good man… and he wanted her. Only her.
So, he was her choice.