The Presentation Meeting was finally over. It had lasted one full hour and half longer than she had anticipated it would. But if she hadn’t been impatient, she would have foreseen the endless stream of questions, debates, defences and reassurances that dragged it out. Now, thankfully, it was over, and hosts and participants were clustered in twos and threes for the usual after-work chitchat.
Alexandra Ameze Iguodaro secured her iPad and notepad in her black briefcase handbag, rose purposefully to her feet, and indicating with a nod that she was leaving, she left her Creative Director, Nicholas Agbaje, to finish off whatever was left. She would have loved to linger, enjoy the blow-off-steam chitchats and possibly share an after-hour drink, or two. But not this time. She was running behind schedule already.
She moved with the effortless ease and casual gracefulness of a trim-built woman poised on heels across the conventionally structured and elegantly furnished conference hall of the Heritage Hotel towards the door, making sure to avoid eye contact with any of the chitchatting groups.
Raven Heights had made a bid for the Hotel’s advertising contract three months earlier when the newly acquired Heritage Hotel property at Adeola Odeku had still been undergoing finishing touches. When that edifice became an awe-inspiring reality, a Presentation Meeting was scheduled for that afternoon, with only three of the bidding advertising agencies in attendance. What was left now was for the Hotel’s Management to announce which advertising firm would sell Heritage Hotel to Nigeria, and Nigerians.
She hoped it would be Raven Heights. No, she was certain it would be Raven Heights.
Outside the conference hall, Alex picked up her steps, hastening towards the elevator and hoping to be safe inside before anyone would notice and stop her.
The grave voice of the Hotel’s Marketing Manager extinguished that hope for a successful escape. Still, Alex achingly eyed the elevator just one more step away. She was direly tempted to take that step too, to punch the button and scuttle inside the elevator when the door slid open. But this was the manager in charge of a contract she desperately wanted and business would always come before pleasure.
So, squelching the temptation, she fixed a bright smile and turned. “Yes, Mr Kwan?”
Please don’t make this another Q & A section! She silently implored, her plastered smile unwavering as she waited for the compactly built man to walk the short distance in what she’d come to term his unhurried-quick-steps.
“You appear to be in a hurry, Ms Alexandra.” Sam Kwan’s smile was as sombre as his voice. They’d had to settle for Ms Alexandra after he’d almost bitten off his tongue trying to pronounce Iguodaro. “I’ve noticed that Nigerians seem to be always in a hurry to get somewhere, even if it’s only to go get a glass of water.”
Alex allowed a soft laugh. “Not all Nigerians, Mr Kwan. But here in Lagos, it’s something of a culture for people to be in a hurry.”
“Ha. It’s a Lagos trend then?” Sam Kwan nodded his head strewn with straight-and-spiky black hair. “I must make time to see more of Nigeria while I am here.”
Alex stifled the groan that tickled her throat. “That, you must do. Nigeria’s a big and beautiful country with so many tourist attractions. I am sure you will enjoy some of our other cities.” She aimed a covert glance at the slide door behind the middle-aged Asian, willing someone to come through it and interrupt them.
“Your Presentation was quite impressive.” His head was tilted back as he watched her. She didn’t need her four inch heels to dwarf him, even without them, Mr Samson Kwan would be lucky if his head made it to her shoulders. “The visual slides were simple, self-explanatory and highly informative.”
Alex acknowledged the grave-faced commendation with a smiling nod, briefly burying her desperation for escape. “Heritage Hotel as a business hotel has been known for its simple yet amazingly classy and relaxing environment. All Raven Heights is looking to do is replicate same attributes to your clients and customers here in Nigeria.”
“Hmm. I did also find the Presentation from Silver Lining quite illuminating too.” The instant stiffening of Alex’s jaw would have gone unnoticed if Sam Kwan wasn’t a very observant man. “Did you not think so?” He prompted.
“Yes, I found it imaginative too.” Alex’s tone was minimally interested. “The bold flashes of colour for the billboard campaign were… expressive, for want of a better word.”
A movement caught the side of her eyes and about to breathe an inward alleluia, she noted the silhouette of Reginald Akin-Thomas, the Managing Director of Silver Lining Media House, and the breath turned to another stifled groan as the hackles on her back rose. The evening was about to become more tedious.
Sam Kwan saw him too and said. “Ha, here comes Mr Akin-Thomas.”
Reginald Akin-Thomas walked with lazy precision towards them. His dark eyes had their usual cynical gleam. It irritated Alex that her palms itched and went damp. But she only treated him to a frosty smile when he stopped beside Mr Kwan.
“Mr Akin-Thomas, all set to leave, are you?”
Reginald inclined his head. “Yes I am, Mr Kwan. Business day is over. But I see you and Miss Iguodaro are still… chatting.” He aimed Alex a sardonic smile.
She ignored him.
“Simply relaxing after a long meeting, Mr Akin-Thomas.” Sam Kwan smiled amicably. He was not at all oblivious to the tension that steamed between these two. And as a man who’d learned to see beyond what was plain, he understood why, more than they did, he suspected. “Unfortunately, I do still have quite a bit to do, so I’ll leave you two now. Goodnight, Ms Alexandra, Mr Akin-Thomas.” With a courteous nod, he turned and strode down the hall.
“Goodnight, Mr Kwan.” They both called in unison.
The synchronised speaking seemed to amuse Reginald for he gave a deep chuckle.
Alex, once more, chose to ignore him, aloofly stepping away to press the elevator button, and then punched the Ground Floor button once they were both inside.
But the moment the door slid shut, it felt like all the air has been sucked out of the burgundy-carpeted elevator. Although she would rather have her tongue cut out than admit it, she knew the imposing all-male figure in silver grey, single-breasted cashmere suit had everything to do with the sudden lack of ventilation.
“In a hurry to get somewhere, Ms Alexandra?” Reginald’s mocking voice rolled over from the opposite end of the elevator.
Refusing to acknowledge the tug that clutched her belly button, Alex spared him a cool smile. “Yes, I am, Reginald. I’m running late for a private engagement.”
“Really?” He arched a suggestive brow. “With another Executive you’re trying to kiss up to?”
The spurt of anger was searing, but she merely smiled sweetly. “Aw, Reginald, don’t tell me you are jealous because you don’t have any Executives to… kiss up to?”
Reginald let out a roaring laugh just as the elevator stopped and slid open. He allowed her to strut out first before following behind, enjoying the rear-view of her precisely packed body inside the black straight-leg trouser suit.
“He’s Chinese, Alexandra. They don’t really respond to feminine wiles.”
“Is that right?” She turned. “And you know this from experience?” Alex allowed her derisive eyes to slide down and stop just a notch below his belt, letting her gaze linger there a second before shifting to meet his sardonic gleaming eyes. “And he’s Hong Konger.” She corrected haughtily, opened the front door of her metallic-grey Range Rover Evoque and climbed inside.
“That’s just semantics, Alexandra.”
“Have a good evening, Reginald.”
She slammed shut her door, kicked the car into gear and zoomed it out of the spacious parking lot of the Heritage Hotel.
Bloody infuriating asshole! Alex swore, fuming as she found a spot in the teeming Victoria Island evening traffic. Goddamn irritating jackass!
Men like tall, dark and too-good-looking-for-his-own-good Reginald Akin-Thomas set her teeth on edge whenever she was unfortunate enough to run into them. And by God, was she unfortunate when it came to that arrogant, overbearing jackass. With both of them being Managing Directors of two of the most competitive advertising firms in the country, it was inevitable they cross paths every now and then, of course. She just wished it didn’t have to happen on evenings when she had plans to relax and ease off.
Damn it, the man had enough arrogance for ten men! Alex pounded her horn at the Toyota Prado pushing to overtake her. “Am I not driving fast enough for you, jerk?” She didn’t care that her windscreens were up and that the goddamn driver wouldn’t hear her.
Another Executive to kiss up to?
She was a first class graduate of Business Administration from the University of Lagos. Had another Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Staffordshire University and a Masters in Creative Advertising from the University of Fulham. But did all that matter in the we’ve-got-a-penis-and-so-we-are-superior bizarro world Reginald Akin-Thomas and his likes lived?
Just because she’s got boobs and ass, it was conclusive to say she had gotten where she was, not with her brains, but by kissing up to company executives. Well, damn him and his likes with their dim-witted turkey brains who thought that that was the only way a woman could rise to the top!
“In fact, damn all men and their shallow-thinking minds.” Alex ground out.
Well, not all men, she amended, huffing out a long breath to calm her frayed nerves. Her father didn’t think like that at all. If anything, he’d taught her that she can be as good as any man, if not better. And Ken too, he wasn’t one of the shallow-thinking types.
Her forehead smoothed out and her thinned-out lips curved into a slow smile as her thoughts veered to Kenneth Okoruwa, her all-in-one man. He was a first-rate photographer, videographer and Proprietor of Mayfair Events Centre. He was gentle, kind, loving and a complete gentleman. They’d been best of friends since their days in the university. They’d dated briefly a couple of years back. When it hadn’t worked out, they’d reverted to being best friends.
But she wanted more now. She was ready for more. She wanted him to fill the empty my-man slot in her life. Maybe in the past she had doubted if he was the man for her, maybe she had worried they were too much of friends to be lovers, but no more. Now, she knew for certain that he was the one. The only man for her.
Her schedule was usually unbelievably chaotic—something that had contributed to the short lifespan of their one-time love life. But she was ready to make adjustments. She was prepared to make time for him as the man in her life. That was why this dinner date was so important to her. It was time he saw her again not just as his buddy-buddy gal-Friday, but as a real woman.
She thought of the knee-length, scooped-neck silk dress she’d laid out on her bed and grimaced. She was going to be forced to appear in her work clothes thanks to the meeting running over time. So much for wanting to look all feminine and sexy, Alex sighed. Oh well, it was too late now to dash home and change.
She cast a glance at the dashboard—7.05. Christ, if this crawling traffic didn’t pick up she was so going to be late, she silently groaned, desperately eyeing the bumper-to-bumper line-up on the Third Mainland Bridge.
It took her another fifty minutes to arrive the New China Restaurant and Alex literally had to race through its doors. They’d been there before, so she knew he’d be at their favourite table, close to the bar.
Ken rose to his feet as she approached. He looked simple and great in the pale blue striped shirt and black trousers. “You’re late.” He scolded, smiling affectionately as he leaned over to give her a hug and a peck on the cheek.
“Fashionably so, I hope.” Alex grinned, dropping into the seat opposite him. She grabbed his glass of wine and drained it.
“That bad, huh?”
“Horrible.” She chuckled, relaxing back to look him over.
Semi-formal wears always suited him best. She enjoyed that about him. How he can be unfussy and not imposing without being any less attractive. Wanting to tell him that, she leaned forward, but the waiter strode over and the moment was lost.
They whiled the time with small talk until their food arrived. Then Alex ploughed into her plate of shrimp fried rice with a ferociousness that surprised even her. She hadn’t known she was that famished.
“No fanciful-packed lunch at the Heritage?” Ken teased, unfolding his cutlery pack.
“Just juice and miniature-sized chicken spring rolls.”
“Stingy Chinese people.” He commented, digging into his mixed vegetable fried rice.
“They are Hong Kongers really.” She corrected automatically, scattily recalling she’d done the same with that conceited Reginald Akin-Thomas.
“And aren’t they the same as the Chinese?”
She gulped her glass of water before giving her head a shake. “Not really, if you consider that they have a different government, passport, flag and even official language.”
Ken snorted. “They look the same. Dress the same. Talk the same and act the same, so, IMO—they are the same.” He theorized.
“FYI—they don’t act the same.”
“Fine, you win.” He chuckled. “You should know better anyhow since you are the one dealing with them.”
She batted her lashes at him. “Glad you can surrender to my superior knowledge.”
“Yeah, right.” He grinned and then refocused on his food.
A vague tenseness crept over Alex in the companionable silence as her mind pondered on the best way to broach the let’s-get-back-together subject. Maybe she should wait until their meal was done and they were relaxing over dessert. That would set the right ambiance, she was sure.
But why wait? She reconsidered, ordering herself to stop procrastinating.
So, setting down her fork and prepping her smile, she raised her head and found Ken was watching her with a jaw-splitting smile on his face. “What’s with the huge smile?” She queried, half baffled. “Won a lottery?”
Ken laughed and lifted his wineglass, twirling it. “Well, no. I mean, not really.”
She sat back and studied him with amused eyes, the tenseness gone. “Hmm, so which is it—no or yes in a not-really way?”
He laughed again. It was a soft, warm sound that tickled pleasure into her. “You always have a fun way with words.” He bent and retrieved his fork.
Alex watched small smiles play about his full lips. He wasn’t eating, just playing with the scanty grains of rice on his plate. He did that when he had something on his mind. “So? Spill. What is it? You nearly split your jaw in two with that grin, so I know it’s a big one.”
Ken angled up his gaze, tried to gauge her mood. They’ve been friends long enough for him to know she had something on her mind too. There was that familiar furrow on her forehead in spite of the smile.
“What’s on your mind?” He countered.
“What? Me?” Alex rolled her eyes. “What’s on your mind? You’re the one with the wide-beaming smile like you won a jackpot.” She wrinkled her nose at him. “Stop hedging and spill already; you know you’re bursting to.”
That was true. He was. “It’s Amarachi.” He confessed, his excitement building up again.
“Oh.” Her interest dipped. Alex lifted her glass of wine. “What about her?”
There it was again, the swift disinterest when he talked about Amarachi. That careless indifference whenever he talked about what she termed his ‘short-term-love-interests’.
A slow irritation crept up his spine, but Ken only said mildly. “Ah, no more excitement to hear what’s got my jaw about to split in two, I see.”
“Of course I’m interested.” Alex forced gaiety back in her voice. “So, what about our Amarachi? Did she win a contract to design a dress for the First Lady?”
Her tone was teasing but Ken knew it was feigned. Still, he smiled. “Well, not for the FL, but for Mira Daniels—her wedding dress.”
“Mira Daniels?” The flash of surprise wasn’t feigned. “The star actress? Amarachi is designing her wedding dress?”
His eyes went aglow with pride and pleasure. “Not just her wedding dress but she’s designing the entire bridal train.”
“Wow!” Alex was really impressed. “That’s big. Huge. She must be over the moon.” She chuckled. “It’s no wonder you are beaming and excited.”
Ken laughed, then shrugged. “Well, that’s not the only reason I’m beaming, as you put it.”
“No?” She smiled, took a sip of water. “So what else?” Something in the dark glowing eyes, in the tender smile, set off the alarm bells. “What?” She asked a little too sharply.
Ken leaned forward, took her hands and smiled into her eyes. “Lexie…” he used her pet name, and somehow, that further alarmed her. “I’ve fallen in love with her. I’m in love with Amarachi Ekwenem.”
Alex stared at him.
She couldn’t see the wave of shock that wiped every colour off her face. She wasn’t aware that her mouth hung open. She could only feel the ripple of utter disbelief and shock slashing through her, ripping her perfect world apart.