That he would so publicly defame and demean her was something Callista never thought Chukwudi capable of. But he had done it, and she had withered under the utter shame and mortification his mockery had poured on her. She’d been so mortified, she’d found no words to rebuke his insults.
But Mario had rebuked him, not by mere words only, but with his fists. For casting aspersions on her character, he had pounded on Chukwudi like a giant would an insignificant mouse. Then he had declared that he wanted to marry her.
It had been such a shock when she’d heard him say that. It still was a shock, Callista told herself, burried in a state of bemusement as her thoughts whirled. Of course he hadn’t meant it. He’d only said it to save her face–as that insulting fool, Chukwudi, had said.
But he’d said it, and had looked serious and determined when he said it.
Realising suddenly that he’d stopped the car, Callista forced herself back to the present, and noted they were still a short distance from her home.
Blinking, she turned to look at him with a puzzled frown. “Why did you stop?”
Instead of an answer to her question, Mario reached out to caress her cheek. “That’s better. I wondered if you were annoyed with me when you would neither look at me, nor talk to me.”
“I’m not annoyed with you. Why should I be?” His hand, warm and soothing along the side of her face, brought back the memory of how he’d held her against him at the bar.
Like he wanted to soothe away all her pains.
“If you’re not annoyed then, why so quiet? Are you still thinking of the unspeakable nonsenses that blabbing fool uttered?” He slipped his hand down to grip hers. “Put everything out of your mind. Nothing he said bears thinking about.”
“I was thinking of what you did.” It was odd how she wanted to lean in, so he could hold her again. “You fought Chukwudi because of me. You beat him up for my sake.”
“He deserved it.”
He said it simply, like it was no big deal. “No one ever went into a fight to defend,” Callista told him. “My own brother laughed when a fellow made an insulting remark about me.”
“No one there found it funny that he so callously insulted you. Everyone was affronted, and any one of those men there could have dealt with him for his insults.”
“But it wasn’t any of them who dealt with him. It was you.” And it meant everything to her. “You defended me, and I will never forget it.”
“I don’t want your gratitude, Cally.” Mario shook his head. “I did only what any man with respect for women would do. In any case, I want you to forget it, and him. I know he humiliated you, but the shame is on him for being so vile, not on you.”
“A man like Chukwudi has no sense of shame. He thinks himself too important to ever feel shame. And I’m ashamed I once thought him special. That I once considered myself unworthy of him.” She blinked, edging back tears of shame. “If I had learned early to value myself, a fool like Chukwudi would never have had the chance to dishonour me.”
“You’re not responsible for his disgusting actions tonight. You dishonour yourself if you think that. Chukwudi would insult any woman who has the good sense and courage to say no to him. You did, and tonight, he was after a cheap payback.”
“And he found a weapon in something I’d shared with him in the past.” Thinking about it, Callista shrugged. “He didn’t say anything that wasn’t true. I once thought no man would ever want to marry me. It used to be one of my biggest worries, and on a day I was deeply troubled, and he cared enough to ask, I told him. I told him, and he used it against me.”
“Which clearly makes him despicable.”
“Yes, he’s despicable,” Callista agreed, then she looked at their joined hands. “But it looks like his actions have once again forced us into a corner.”
“How do you mean?”
“You said you wanted to marry me. That you plan to marry me.” She gave a little laugh. “I must confess that gave me a bit of a shock. No, not a bit–a huge shock. I couldn’t believe you would say something like that.”
“Because marriage is a commitment people don’t trifle with, especially men.” She inhaled, and let out the long breath. “Anyway, I understand why you made the pronouncement, and I know you didn’t mean it. The problem we’re going to face though is how to explain to those who heard your declaration that it was said only to defend me.”
There was a moment of silence. Then Mario shrugged. “There won’t be need for explanation, for I meant what I said.”
As the moon didn’t provide enough light into the car, Callista couldn’t perfectly discern his expression, but she could read his tone. It held the same seriousness as when he’d made the statement inside the bar.
“You can’t have meant it, Mario. You don’t want to marry me.”
“I want to marry you.”
“No, you don’t. We’re just starting to date, and we don’t know where this relationship will take us. Besides, you said it only because he goaded you into doing so.”
“He goaded me, yes, but I said what I did because I meant it. I want to marry you, Cally.”
“Stop it, Mario. Look, I’m grateful for the way you defended me tonight–“
“I told you I don’t want your gratitude.”
“Well, you have it,” Callista retorted impatiently. “I am grateful to you, but enough with this farce. You don’t want to marry me, and we need to find a way to make that clear to everyone.”
“I do want to marry you.” Framing her face with his hands, Mario looked in her eyes. “If Chukwudi thinks no man will ever want to marry you, then I’ll show him how wrong he is.”
“Are you insane?” Callista pulled back to stare at him in shock. “You want to get married just because you want to prove another man wrong?”
“I want to get married because I want to. It’s my choice. I am choosing to do this.”
“Well, I am not.” Her old self would have clung to an opportunity like this, but Callista was no longer her old self. “I will not be shame-faced into getting married. When I marry, it will be because I met a man I love and want to spend my life with, not to save face.”
“Don’t say that. Don’t believe it, because Chukwudi said so.”
“I don’t believe it because Chukwudi said so. I believe it because I know it.” Giving a sigh, Callista clutched his hands. “You want to do this because you want to save my face. Admit it, Mario. We’re friends, and you can tell me the truth.”
“I am telling you the truth. You know very well I don’t lie unnecessarily, and I have no reason to lie to you in this matter.” Mario kept his gaze still locked on hers. “I don’t want you hurt, or insulted ever again. I don’t want fools like Chukwudi to think you’re undesirable. I don’t want you to be seen as another man’s cast off ever again.”
“Oh, Mario.” He was protecting her. He was willing to make this sacrifice only for her. “You are indeed my friend.”
“Not just your friend, your boyfriend too.”
She chuckled. “That too. Still, I can’t allow you to do this. When we both marry, it will be to people we really want to be with.”
“And who’s to say those people won’t be us?” Mario said gently. “We’re dating, and there’s a possibility we might discover we want a life together.”
“There’s that possibility, I agree. But that’s not the case now. We will tell everyone the truth, and if in future we want more, then they will see that more happen.”
“Why tell them if we are suspecting such a possibility in future? Why not let them go on believing what they already believe, and let the future speak for itself.”
“Because you have spoken for the future, and I will never again live a lie,” Callista said. “We agreed to put an end to every pretense, and it should stay that way.”
“This is not pretense. I said something, and I meant what I said. And yes, I know we’re not thinking of marriage now, and we might not in future, but I also meant it when I said earlier that I don’t want you hurt. I, especially, do not want you mocked. And who do you think will be mocked, or pitied, if we come out to say I didn’t mean what I said at the bar? And,” he added, quite determined. “I’m sure you know that the news will spread around town by tomorrow that Mario is going to marry Cally.”
“I know.” She didn’t need a reminder to recall how fast such exciting news spread. “If I’m to be honest, I’m not looking forward to being the recipient of pitying glances, but I’d rather get them than pretend we are unofficially engaged.”
“No, we are not telling anyone anything,” Mario said firmly. “You may not care if people pity or mock you, but I do. So, we’re going to let this be, and go on with our relationship. If we find later that we don’t want to share a life together, then you will break up the relationship. You, not I, will call it off, and everyone will know it.”
“Mario, you’re still trying to save my face, and I’m telling you it’s not necessary,” Callista said, exasperated.
“I disagree. I won’t have you hurt, or shamed, Cally. Definitely, not because of me. Besides, you promised you will do whatever I asked of you, and I’m asking you to let this be.”
“What? When did I make such a promise?”
“The day you asked me to become your boyfriend.”
“What? But…” Callista broke off, and shook her head. “Goodness, Mario, this sounds like you’re blackmailing me.”
“No, I’m not blackmailing you. You know I will never do something like that. But one thing you swore you never again wanted, is to be an object of pity. And one thing I promised myself is that I won’t hurt you. Not if I can help it.”
Mario leaned close, dropped his forehead against her own. “I said I want to marry you, and I will keep my word. But if you don’t want to marry me, then fine, we will go on with our relationship, and when you’ve had enough, break up with me.”
“Now, you’re asking me to use you?”
“Of course not. But we both know not every romantic relationship ends up in marriage. If you choose ours won’t, then it will be your choice. Only your choice.”
“And everyone will know I made the choice. Everyone will know Callista broke poor Mario’s heart.”
“That’s right. Imagine being the woman who broke this eligible bachelor’s heart. Think of their astonished thoughts, like: ‘dang, Cally didn’t think Mario was good enough for her.'”
“More like: ‘dang, that Cally needs her head examined,'” Callista retorted with a snort. Then she chuckled because he was grinning. “This is drama. You do know that, don’t you? All this giving people the wrong idea.”
“It might be we’re giving them the right idea,” Mario countered with a wink. “After all, look at us, we’re dating for real now.”
“Fine. But remember you asked for this.” Still, she gave him a smile, and his hands an affectionate squeeze. “I know you don’t want my gratitude, but thank you for tonight, and for thinking of me.”
“That’s what boyfriends do for their girlfriends.”
“I found me a good boyfriend then.”
“So you did.” Mario raised his head, regarded her cute face, then kissed her forehead before pushing back on his seat. “Come, I think it’s time I got you home.”
Jolted by the chaste kiss, it took a moment to find her tongue. “Yes, it’s time I get home,” she said, and wasn’t entirely surprised that her voice sounded breathless.