It was her opinion that a man taking drinks to the woman’s family to formally request her hand in marriage was a truer form of engagement than when he simply made a show of asking her to marry him. Of course, he required the woman’s acquiescence to do the first, so one might say the two went hand-in-hand. Onyisi had performed both rituals, and now, he and Chinonye were celebrating their engagement.
It was a small party, just a dozen people, but it was nonetheless a boisterous one. Drinks flowed freely, accompanied by bush meat. Hearty congratulations were offered to the intending couple, and Buchi kept them, and the rest of his patrons, entertained by music from his loud music player. The atmosphere buzzed with so much gaiety that it was impossible not to be affected. She usually shied away from social gatherings, but she was so much at ease, she didn’t want the evening to end.
Or maybe she didn’t want it to end for another reason, Callista mused, shifting her gaze from an ardently talking Isioma, to Mario. All evening, he’d been attentive, and it wasn’t pretence, for they were pretending no longer. He was steadily watching her now as if they were alone, and with the same glint that had come into in his eyes the moment she stepped out of the house when he came to pick her up.
What was he looking to see? she wondered even as her body tingled with delicious warmth. Whatever it was, she wanted him to find it. She wanted to be the object of a man’s unwavering desire for once. Maybe it was shallow of her to wish for this purely physical need, but she had a yearning so deep for it, she felt no shame.
Leaning a little forward, so only he would hear her, she said, “You keep turning your gaze back on me, and it’s making me self-conscious. Focus on something else before Nonye starts teasing again.”
“I don’t want to focus on anything else. I like looking at you,” Mario said, his tone equally low. “You took a little more care with your makeup this evening. You look like some kind of exotic witch.”
“It’s the dark shadows I used on my eyes.” Unable to stop the flush of pleasure at his words, Callista smiled. “I usually go for simple looks, but decided to be a little more daring and dramatic this evening.”
“Daring and dramatic suit your face,” Mario murmured, fighting the temptation to stroke her cheek. “Do you know you could be a face model?”
“A face model, me? Please.”
“I mean it. You think your face too bony and boyish, and possibly that is what we all think when we look carelessly upon it. But,” unable to resist any longer, and not caring that they were surrounded by people, he stroked a finger along her narrow chin. “You have lovely bones, and when highlighted, they give you an unusual beauty.”
“Cally and Mario are not at all with us in this world. They are in a world of their own,” Onyisi teased, switching attention from the argument they’d all been embroiled in. “Look how intently they are gazing at each other, and whispering words only they can hear.”
“And Mario cannot keep his hands off her.” Eyes sparkling with the excitement of a woman newly engaged, Chinonye grinned. “But I am willing to bet Mario was suggesting they sneak away without us noticing.”
“No, he was not.” He had not dropped his finger from her face, and she had not stopped trembling, but Callista composed herself enough to speak casually. “In any case, we’re not leaving here until you and Onyisi have bought out Buchi’s drinks. I’ve only had two bottles, and I want another.”
“Then have another, and maybe it will loosen up your tongue to confide in us what Mario’s been whispering to you.” Placing the order for a fresh set of drinks to be brought to their tables, Chinonye slipped a companionable arm around Callista. “Are they whispers of love or lust, the sweet words he’s telling you? For a man feels both equally.”
“And a woman doesn’t?” Onyisi queried.
“Not like men do,” Jebolisa said. “Our emotions tend more towards love than lust.”
“I beg to disagree.” Giving his wife a playing poke on the side, David argued his point. “Women feel lust and love just as much as men do, and I should know as I’m married to you.”
A roar of laughter went up. And it was that moment when a teasing argument arose between the couple that Chukwudi strolled into the bar. He paused to scan the noisy room filled with more people than it usually was, and his mouth tightened with displeasure on seeing Callista billowed in Mario’s arms as she laughed.
So she was here with him. Struggling with his dark scowl, he made his way towards the group clustered around three tables. And what had she done to her face? She looked–pretty, Chukwudi realised, shocked.
“Cally.” He said her name before he could think what to stop himself.
Then he cleared his throat when she only angled her head to stare at him coolly. “Imagine seeing you here. And the rest of you too. I offer my greetings, good evening.”
There was a collective response to his greeting, most not at all hearty. None from Callista and Mario, he noted.
“It looks like you all are having a party,” he remarked, quelling the desire to withdraw as he was clearly not wanted.
“Indeed we are,” Onyisi said, offering a friendly smile. “It is my engagement. Mine and Nonye’s.”
“Ah yes, I believe someone mentioned you took drinks to her people. Well, congratulations.” It was expected, so Chukwudi offered the handshake, and a charming smile to Chinonye. “And to you too, Nonye. I see you finally caught Onyisi in your snare.”
“It is the other way round, for it is I who caught her in my snare,” Onyisi corrected, planting a kiss on Chinonye’s cheek.
“Lucky you then. My congratulations and best wishes again. Although, you failed to invite me to your party, I hope you will buy me a drink.”
“The party is just a small get-together among close friends.” Not one to mince words, Chinonye stated what was fact, ignoring the jab her fiancé gave her. “But you’re here, and there are drinks on the table, so have one.”
“How gracious of you, Nonye,” Chukwudi said in a sarcastic tone he didn’t bother to conceal. He recalled now that he never liked Chinonye.
Or any of the lowly people Callista considered friends. And because he felt insulted, and she made it worse by her continued disinterest in his presence, he pounced on her. “You seem preoccupied, Cally. Thinking what day it will be your turn?”
“As a matter of fact, I’m wondering how soon you will rid us of your unwanted presence.”
There was a general snigger, before Jebolisa said with a snort of laughter. “Now, that is what I call telling the brutal truth.”
“What it actually is hiding behind a cold mask to prevent others from seeing what you are really feeling,” Chukwudi retorted, barely biting down the insult he wanted to hurl at Jebolisa.
It wouldn’t do if he insulted another man’s wife–in his presence.
But he didn’t have to be so controlled with Callista. “Or, am I wrong, Cally? Has it not always been your secret heart desire to have a man propose to you? A desire that causes you despair because you know it will never be?”
“You have said enough, Chukwudi. Get out of here.”
Chukwudi shifted his gaze from Callista’s face, which now was suffused with mortification, to his pleasure, to meet Mario’s cold stare. “Come now, Mario, no need to act the protective lover when you know I’m telling the truth. You doing so might give our Cally a hope she can’t afford to have. And that won’t be fair at all.”
“Stop with this insulting talk, Chukwudi,” Onyisi reproved sharply. “Have you no knowledge of what is a joke and what’s not?”
“But who said I’m joking?” Chukwudi laughed, enjoying himself now because Cally had her head bowed as if she wanted to bury it in shame. “This is a truth I myself heard from Cally. Tell them, Cally, if I lie.”
“One more word. Just utter one more word of insult, and I will bloody your mouth.” Coldly calm, with only his eyes flickering with the evidence of his fury, Mario gave the warning.
“Hey, I’m not looking for a fight.” Tossing up his hands, Chukwudi chuckled. “But it looks to me like I misjudged your relationship, seeing how heated up you are over her. Tell us, Mario, are you going to marry Cally, as Onyisi here is getting ready to do with Nonye?”
“That is none of your business, you overbearing, arrogant fool,” Jebolisa hissed, having had enough.
“No, it’s none of my business, but I’m just curious. In any case, I know the truth there too, and it’s a big, fat no. And you know why?” He looked around a bunch of furious faces, focused on the one who’d had the impetus to deprive him of his plaything for the Christmas holiday. “Because no man wants a woman like Cally for a wife. Mario, just like me in the past, is only having a good time. True or false, old friend?”
“False.” Mario’s hand slipped off Callista’s shoulder where he’d held her firmly against him. “Not only false, but a stupid and senseless presumption of thinking you know my mind.”
“False?” He noted the dangerous glint in Mario’s eyes, still Chukwudi guffawed. “You are telling me you want to marry Cally? I mean, Callista with her skinny, almost sexless body, you want to marry her?”
“That does it.” Faster than anyone could blink, Mario leapt off the bench, grabbed Chukwudi by his shirt, and punched him on the mouth.
He followed the punch with another ploughed into his stomach. Then he shoved him backward, knocking aside a table as they both stumbled to the floor.
“Mario, stop!” Onyisi rose swiftly to stop the fight, but he was forcefully pulled back.
“Leave him to teach the fool a lesson on how to respect a woman,” David said.
“Maybe you’re right. After all, a man has a right to defend his woman,” Onyisi murmured, wincing when Mario’s fist connected with Chukwudi’s chin, and the jackass whimpered. “Weak, arrogant idiot.”
But while David and Onyisi, and almost everyone else at the bar, were willing to watch Mario pepper a helpless Chukwudi with blows, Buchi wasn’t. With the help of another man, he yanked apart the fighting men, and stood between them to keep them from pouncing at each other.
“You started trouble here, Chukwudi, and I never tolerate trouble in my bar, so get out,” he ground out.
“This is what you’re saying?” Chukwudi snarled, touching his bleeding lips, and wincing at the pain he felt there, and in other parts of his body. “He jumped on me without warning, started a fight for no just cause, and while I’m bleeding, all you can do is ask me to get out?”
“You’re lucky you are just bleeding from your mouth. If he hadn’t stopped me…” Mario left the rest of the threat unsaid. Instead, he twisted his mouth into a smile. “And oh, to clearly answer your question. Yes, I do want to marry Cally. I plan to marry her.”
“What?” Chukwudi would have snorted if he wasn’t too shocked to make even that sound of mockery. “Is that supposed to be a lie to save her face?”
“What it is, is the end of this matter, and your time to go.” A heavy-set man, Buchi swept Chukwudi around and nudged him out of the bar, and into his car.
“Well done, Mario,” David said, reaching to give him a pat on the shoulder.
He didn’t think he had done well enough, but Mario nodded, and turned to look at Callista.
She was staring at him, utter shock on her face.
Without thinking, Mario covered the distance between them, and took her in his arms.