It wasn’t her first time visiting Mario when none of his family was at home, but Callista felt nervous as she went around the main house to the small bungalow where Mario had built himself a two-bedroom flat.
It was a quaint little house, done up in brick stones and having the privacy of being separated from the family house by a two-foot fence. Callista liked the fact that Mario, even though his father’s only son and heir when he passed on, had built his own house.
He’d always been that way, finding his own path and sticking to it. While his father had retired as a primary school teacher, Mario had chosen to apprentice himself after his ordinary national diploma, and thereafter he’d opened his chemist store. And he’d worked hard and diligently to make himself the most trusted chemist store owner in town.
It wasn’t only in business that he was most trusted, Callista thought, as she raised her hand to tap on the door, even in friendship, you could count on Mario and trust his word. She counted on him, she trusted him, and she wasn’t going to let a small matter like a difference of opinion on Chukwudi cause a tiff between them.
When his invitation to enter came, she opened the door, readied her smile to tease him out of his anger at her, and realised suddenly it was him who made her nervous.
Frowning, she looked at him spread out on his couch, and wondered why the thought of being alone with him twisted her nerves into knots. Why watching him angle his head to give her a wary glance caused her to remember the way he’d held her that night outside the bush bar.
He’d never held her that way before, and she wondered if he ever would again now they didn’t have to pretend about being in a relationship.
“Do you stand there frowning at me because you’re still angry with me, or because you’re suddenly confused why you are here?” Mario chose to tease because seeing her, and in her knee-length dress, made him feel nervous, and he couldn’t recall being nervous around females since he passed his teenage years.
“No. I mean, yes.” Callista cleared her throat, gathered her thoughts and forced her frown into a smile. “I do know why I’m here and I’m not angry with you. I wasn’t really, if truth be told.”
“I wondered if you were because you failed to pick my call last night.” Telling himself he was foolish to be nervous around Callista, Mario patted the seat next to him on the couch. “Come sit. And by the way, you look nice.”
“I do?” She stopped to stare at him, checking if he was teasing. But while his eyes smiled, they were candid–and admiring. “Thank you. It’s a new dress. Jebo made me buy it when I went with her to Onitsha a few weeks back. She said it would fit me.”
“She was right, it does fit you.” Since she hadn’t moved another step, Mario grabbed hold of her and pulled her to the couch, sniffed her when she dropped beside him. “This scent again. I keep wondering why I never noticed it before.”
“I don’t know. Maybe you weren’t paying attention.” She pressed her hand against her stomach, reminded herself she was sitting beside her friend, and tried to settle her rattling nerves. “Although I can’t think of a reason for you to pay attention now.”
“A boyfriend notices things about his girlfriend. Or do you forget I’m your boyfriend?”
“No, I didn’t forget.” Staring at the laughter in his eyes, it struck her that he was good looking. Not in the obvious way of Chukwudi, but in a sturdier bone structure way that gave him a manlier look.
“You’re looking at my face as if you’re seeing it for the first time,” Mario said softly. “Why is that?”
“Why?” Callista shrugged, dropped her gaze. “No reason. I’m just thinking how I was worried you were angry with me, and it turns out you’re not.”
She was avoiding giving him a true answer as she now avoided his gaze, and for some reason it tempted Mario to press her. To touch her and nudge her eyes back on him. But he didn’t do either, because he wondered at his own reason for wanting to do them.
Instead he turned his attention on the movie he’d been watching on the cable movie channel. “No, I’m not angry with you. I had no reason to be. But I thought you were with me, because like I said, you refused to pick my call last night.”
“I missed the call and thought you would call back. When you didn’t, I didn’t bother to return it because I’d made the plan to see you after church today.”
Mario acknowledged the explanation with a nod. “I’m sorry if I was a little harsh two days ago. I know you cared for him and should have been more sensitive of your feelings for him.”
“But he did say it, didn’t he, that all he wanted from me was sex?”
“He did, but I didn’t have to let you know he’d said something so stupid.” Because he was still sorry he hadn’t been more careful that day, Mario slipped his hand through hers and gave it a squeeze. “I know you have feelings for him, Cally, but he doesn’t deserve them. You deserve better than a man like Chukwudi.”
“I know. I mean I finally told myself the truth about Chukwudi and my feelings for him.” She had to curb the odd temptation to lift their joined hands and rub his against her cheek. It was such an out-of-place wish. “I only welcomed him because I had no other choice, and my feelings were no deeper than physical attraction and lust. I told him this and he was furious.”
Callista chuckled as she recalled the insulted annoyance on Chukwudi’s handsome face. “After I left your store, I went to Jebolisa’s, and right there, I talked sense into my head. After I admitted the truth that I didn’t really want Chukwudi, or a man like him in my life, I decided I was going to shove the news in his face as revenge for the poor way he’d treated me.”
“And did you shove it?” Mario liked the devilry dancing in her eyes. It was rare for Callista to display that streak of mischief.
“Oh, I did, and with pleasure too. And he was so furious, he ordered me out of his car.” Callista laughed at the memory. “Of course, I’d already told him goodbye and was getting out on my own before he stopped me to have the last word. I went home that day feeling a pride in myself I’ve not felt in a really long while. I felt like I regained my self-respect and that for the first time, I appreciated myself enough to do what was right for me.”
“I am glad to hear you say this, Cally. And maybe it will sound some way for me to say this, but I am proud of you too. You deserve a good man who will love and respect you, and you will meet that man one day.”
“I don’t know if I will, or if I won’t.” She was now a woman who told herself the truth and she was going to keep doing so. “I am not the kind of woman who easily attract the attention of men. I wish I were, but since I’m not, I’m accepting myself the way I am and living my best life that way.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you, Cally. You’re a woman and every woman attracts one man, if not all men. There’s a man out there who will see you and not be able to stop looking at you.”
He was staring intently at her, and Callista, without being conscious of the thought, wished he would not stop looking at her. “I want to believe you, Mario. But I can’t imagine any man looking at tiny, boyish me and becoming overcome with desire.”
“It is not just what is on a woman’s body that attracts a man. Sometimes, what is beyond the skin touches a man’s thoughts, a man’s heart.” Giving in to that temptation to touch, Mario lifted his hand to her cheek. “You are a pretty woman, Cally. No, don’t doubt my words, for I mean them. You don’t have to be voluptuous or exotically feminine to be pretty, you are already as you are.”
“I have a straight body with breasts that are barely noticeable, how can that be pretty?”
“Because you are more than the shape of your body and the size of your breasts. Everyone is more than what easily meets the eye and you’re no exception, Cally.”
“But what easily meets the eye easily wins the affection of men.” She gave her head a shake. “Let’s not lie to each other, Mario. Men are very physical creatures, they see before they feel. They often feel most for those things they see more. And nothing catches the eyes of a man like a beautiful woman.”
“You are right, let us not lie to each other. And I wasn’t lying to you. But I will tell you another truth.” He touched her lip, felt the quick quiver, sensed his own confusion and dropped his hand. “I am sitting here, talking to you, and wondering why it feels like I am seeing you for the first time. I am wondering why I feel this temptation to touch you, to caress your skin, to kiss you.”
His words shocked her so much, Callista could only gape at him.