Mario thought it wise to give her a fair warning as he pulled into the front yard of the bush bar.
“We’re going to get teased, so be prepared. Try not to be embarrassed, and even if you are, don’t show it or the teasing will get worse.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Mario, you don’t have to caution me like I’ve never been among men drinking before.”
“It’s not just men drinking. There are women there too.”
“I know that too. I can handle myself, Mario, so relax.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Amused by her snooty tone, Mario opened his door to get down.
Then he went around the car, waited for her to get down and slipped a hand around her waist.
“What are you doing?” Callista frowned at him.
“Holding my girlfriend,” Mario said and nudged her forward. “And stop frowning or they might think we’re having a fight.”
“I’m frowning because I’m wondering why you have to hold my waist,” Callista said in hushed voice. “Why not my hand as you usually do?”
“Because this is not the usual situation. We are a couple now, not just friends.”
“We are not a real couple.”
Mario halted, arched his eyebrows at her. “Want us to go in there and tell everyone that?”
“No. Sorry.” Callista huffed, tried to relax her body. It wasn’t as if she’d never been held this way before. “It’s just unexpected that’s all. I’m used to more casual touches from you.”
“I know. But you will have to prepare yourself for more than casual touches from now onwards.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Mario laughed at her worried eyes. “I simply mean I’m going to be more attentive to you. It’s expected of a lover.”
“You are not my lover.”
“A lover is not only the one you share your bed with, Cally. One who loves you is also considered a lover.”
“But you don’t love me.”
“I am supposed to, as your boyfriend. Now, come on let’s get inside. Put a smile on your face.”
“I know what to do, stop giving me instructions like I’m a half-wit,” Callista retorted, fixed her face to look calm and happy. “And you’re not supposed to be in love with me. Remember that’s what we told my mother we are trying to find out, if we love each other?”
“Maybe I have found out I love you.”
Callista swung her gaze upward. “What?”
“Just teasing.” Grinning, Mario mounted the flight of stairs, holding her to his side. “I like the scent on you.”
“I’ve used it a lot of times before, so you should have smelled it on me.”
“Maybe I haven’t because I’ve never held you this close.”
“Stop whispering in my ear. I don’t like it.” It was making her tingle, and Callista couldn’t remember the last time she tingled.
“Boyfriends whisper in their girlfriend’s ear. It’s the way of romance.” Mario was enjoying teasing her. It was his fringe benefit from this pretend game.
“Chukwudi never whispered in my ear.”
“Chukwudi never treated you as a real boyfriend would, did he?”
He had a point, Callista, and reminded that the man was the reason for all this, she brightened her smile and forced her body to go relax against Mario’s. It wouldn’t hurt if people speculated that they were lovers too–the kind that shared a bed. That would show Chukwudi Udolisa.
“Look who’s here, it’s Mario and Cally.” Onyisi started off the teasing they were expecting. “Mario, as she’s with you this evening, are we to take it she’s your new girl?”
Mario threw the generator mechanic an amicable smile. “She’s not my new girl. She’s the only girl in my heart and life.”
“Hear that?” Onyisi hollered, laughing. “I knew all this claim of friendship was just cover-up. Finally, they are saying the truth.”
“I wonder why they pretended at all.” This was from Chinonye, Onyisi’s girlfriend, after they reconciled for the second time. “Were you two ashamed of each other?”
“Of course not. Sometimes, a man, and woman, just want some privacy.” Mario settled on the table beside the duo. “Have a seat, my love.”
“Ah, he calls her his love. That’s a new one.You must be the real deal, Cally, because I’ve never known Mario to address a woman by such effusive endearment.” Chinonye sent Callista a wink. “And I’ve seen him with a fair number of women.”
The endearment had taken Callista aback, especially with the affectionate expression that accompanied it.
Reminding herself, he was acting, and doing a better job than her who’d requested the game, she gave Mario a sweet smile as she took a spot beside him. “When the person is right, everything flows, Nonye. I’m sure you know that.”
“I know that you two are surprising me this evening,” Chinonye returned with a good-natured smile. “Especially you, Cally. When you continually denied being with Mario, I thought you were pining for Chukwudi.”
“Pining? Oh, please.” Callista let out a scornful laugh. “I moved on long ago. Infatuation can only blind you for a while.”
“So it was infatuation with him?”
“A young girl’s foolish infatuation,” Callista said and changed the subject. “Is that Orijin you’re drinking? I think I’m in the mood for it.”
“This one has alcohol, so be careful the one you ask Osita for,” Chinonye teased.
“And where’s Osita?” Mario demanded for the young boy who waited on tables at the bar.
“I’m here.” He appeared from behind Mario. “I was waiting for you to settle down before I come to take your orders.”
“Or you were listening to grown-up talks and forgot yourself.”
“Ah no, Oga Mario.” Osita, nineteen and usually full of good humour, shook his head, smiling. “Have I ears to hear talks among my elders?”
“Tah! Keep quiet with that smart mouth of yours.” Mario snorted. “Anyway, bring us meat–assorted, and then Star for me. You want the Orijin, my love?”
Callista tried not to flush at the endearment. “Yes, please.”
“Orijin zero?” Osita inquired.
“Of course not. Bring the real thing.”
“Are you sure?” Mario asked as he knew she didn’t have much of a head for alcohol. Almost everyone knew that.
“I didn’t leave my late father’s house this evening to come here and drink malt, Mario. I could have bought a bottle from Oyibo if that’s all I wanted.”
“If you’re sure.” He was going to enjoy seeing her tipsy, and teasing her about it the next day. “Osita, assorted meat and a bottle of Star and Orijin–to begin with.”
“Yes sir.” Osita nodded and disappeared once more.
“Did you people hear Maxwell’s gotten a job at Poly?” Ikeobi, from the table by the open double windows, asked.
“I did,” Mario confirmed. “He has even resumed work there.”
Conversation swirled around the good fortune of Maxwell getting a security job at the Ogwashi-Uku campus of the Delta State Polytechnic.
Their order arrived, and Callista, already regretting the foolhardiness, that had prompted her into requesting the alcoholic beverage, took a sip from the tumbler Osita had poured and hid her grimace with a piece of meat.
Soon, she wasn’t feeling the bitter taste of the beer and she joined the conversation, which had gone from one thing to the other and was now focused on land issues Adim, a cousin of Onyisi’s, who was having with one of the Obi’s son.
“I warned Adim on trusting Nduka, but he paid deaf ears to my words.” That disregard for his counsel seemed to annoy Onyisi even now because he hissed. “He’s taking the matter before the elders, but we all know nothing good will come of that. None of them can really go against Obi.”
“But they are not going against Obi,” Callista pointed out. “They are dealing with Nduka and have the right to call him to order when he’s done wrong.”
“Tell me what is the difference between a king and a prince?” Onyisi wanted to know. “And tell me when you have ever seen either one held by the laws of our land.”
“The Obi should be the custodian of our laws and his son, and all his children for that matter, should not above them.” Emboldened by the alcohol swimming happily in her head, Callista argued hotly. “What is wrong is wrong, no matter who is guilty of it. He obviously had no right to dispose of that plot of land, so he should refund Nduka’s money back to him.”
“Maybe you should sit with the elders and tell them this,” Mario teased.
“If they let women sit with them, I will,” Callista declared with a defiant tilt of her chin. “And I will definitely say this. We don’t have an Obi so that his sons can oppress us. We have one, so he can protect us from oppressors.”
“Well said, Cally,” Chinonye approved. “Why should having a king bring us more problems?”
“Because leaders are known to do just that–at least in this land,” Onyisi retorted.
“But it shouldn’t be so,” Ikeobi put in. “
“Argue that with your glass of drink.” Onyisi snorted.
Mario laughed and pushed up to his feet. “Cally and I are taking our argument home.” He held out his hand to Callista. “Come on, love. Time to head home.”
Although she wanted to stay longer, for some odd reason, Callista placed her hand in his, then chuckled as she stood. “The floor almost tilted just now.”
“It’s your head, not the floor tilting.” Chinonye laughed.
“Nonsense. My head’s sitting just fine on my neck,” Callista retorted robustly.
“I hope you can say that tomorrow morning.” Chinonye continued to tease.
“Nonye, I might be tipsy, but I’m not drunk, so yes, I can say the same tomorrow morning.” Leaning into Mario, Callista said. “Let’s go, my dear. I think fresh air will do me good.”
“I believe it will.” Amused, Mario called out greetings to others as they walked out.
“You have a silly smile on your face,” he commented. “Enjoying a private joke?”
“It’s not a silly smile. I’m just happy. I don’t particularly know why, but I am.”
“I can hazard a guess, but being a gentleman, I’ll restrain myself.”
“If your guess is that it’s because of the two bottles of Orijin I had, then you’ll be dead wrong,” Callista scoffed and was about to say something else when the blare of light from the SUV pulling into bush bar’s parking space made her hiss. “Who’s this that cannot dim his lights?
“I don’t know as I’ve never seen the car before.” Mario squinted to peer into the SUV. “Well, well, it’s the prestigious Chukwudi himself.”
“What?” Callista blinked, stared into the car that was now parked a few feet away. “Oh God! It is really him. What’s he doing here?”
“Home earlier for Christmas, and most likely here this evening to show off his big car,” Mario muttered.
“What should we do?”
“Wait to say hello as good manners demand.” Mario let go Callista’s hand, slipped an arm around her waist and drew her to him. “Wear your loving smile, my love, we have a show off of our own to do.”
“I told you to stop giving me instructions, I know what to do,” Callista said crossly and mostly because her fuzzy, happy feeling was gone and now she was suddenly nervous.
“Then smile.” And to make sure she did more than fake a smile, he prodded a finger along her sides, knowing she was ticklish.
“Mario!” Giggling, Callista wiggled and slapped at his finger. “Stop that.”
“Cally?” Chukwudi Udolisa was out of his car and staring in their direction. “Is that you?”
Buchi’s security light wasn’t bright enough to clearly see him, but the sound of his voice, even with the note of surprise in it, sent a flutter into Callista’s stomach. For a moment she imagined him running over to take her in his arms, murmuring over and over how much he’d missed her.
She banished the foolish thought, and responded to his question. “Yes, it’s me. Who’s that?” It wouldn’t hurt for him to think she couldn’t discern his voice.
“Chukwudi.” He strode forward. “I didn’t expect to find you here, not at this time of the night.”
“I don’t know why you should be expecting to find me anywhere, whatever the time of day.” Because her voice sounded petulant like a sulky child’s, Callista cleared her throat and asked coolly. “How long have you been around?”
“I’m just driving into town. I thought I’d hail some old friends before heading home.” He shifted his attention to Mario. “Oh, it’s you she’s with, Mario. I should have known by the car. But it looks like you’ve changed the painting again.”
“So I have, to give it some newness.” Tone affable, smile pleasant, Mario asked. “How was your journey?”
“Long and exhausting. I’m in dire need of a drink.”
“Buchi will have one for you.”
“Yeah. Only it won’t be as cold as I’ll need it to be.”
“He has his generator on, so I’m sure it will be cold enough.”
“Still it won’t be chilled. But guess I will have to make do.” Letting out a martyr’s sigh, Chukwudi focused again on Callista. “You had me worried earlier when I noticed a man’s arm around you before I saw it’s only Mario. All the same, someone might get the wrong idea with the way he’s holding you.”
Hard as she tried, Callista couldn’t squelch the thrill of hearing him say she’d had him worried. “If the idea is that he’s my boyfriend, then it won’t be wrong.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That she’s my girlfriend,” Mario said lightly, dropped his head into Callista’s neck, and kissed the column by her chin. Her entire body went against him and he decided it was time they closed the curtain on act one. “We were heading home. Welcome home, Chukwudi. Enjoy your not-cold-enough drink.”
“Goodnight.” Since Mario had the car door open, Callista got in, then asked in a low voice. “Do you think he bought it?”
Mario cast a glance at Chukwudi still standing where they left him. “Maybe. One thing is for sure though, you shocked the hell out of him.”
“That’s good.” Callista rubbed the place where he’d kissed her. “Why did you kiss my neck?”
“To make our act believable, why else?”
Callista touched the spot again, frowned because it was the first time a man was kissing her right there. And she didn’t know exactly how she felt about it, except that she’d tingled again.