And it was a treat he gave her.
It started with a leisure roam around the state’s capital, where he took her to all the fun places she could name. When they were through with her list, he took them to the games arcade.
Ignoring all her half-hearted protests, he insisted on teaching her how to play a few of the games, and then proceeded to win her in all of them when his teaching was done. But as a consolation prize, he made sure she had her favourite ice cream.
“I want to see a movie,” she said as they left the ice cream parlour.
“Any one. I just want to enjoy a movie.”
“Then we’ll go see one.”
Pulling the car back on the highway, he headed for the Asaba Shopping Mall.
It wasn’t so much the movie she enjoyed, Callista realised two hours later, but having him share the experience with her.
It was him with her that made the day the closest thing to perfect.
“Let’s stroll around the stores,” she suggested, then changed her mind. “No, let’s enter ShopRite. I’m in the mood to shop.”
“But who shops on Christmas Day?” Mario wanted to know, strolling with her through the aisles.
“People like you and me, or the stores wouldn’t be open.”
“These ones are open because they’re counting on taking advantage of the throng of people who will hit the mall today.”
“Lucky us then.” Callista winked. “I don’t particularly want anything. Well, not anything for me.”
“Then why are we here, looking to window shop?” He put an arm around her as they came to a halt at the men’s products aisle.
“I want to buy you a gift. A Christmas gift.”
“You don’t have to get me a gift.”
“I want to. And you shouldn’t protest as this is not the first time I’m giving you a gift,” she chided with a poke to his side.
He caught the tickling finger. “I know. But just because I got you one this time doesn’t mean you have to too.”
“I think it does. I want this to be a kind of new beginning for us. A tradition between us.” She leaned against him, struck by how much he was starting to mean to her. “In the past, we gave each other gifts if we felt like it. But I will like to always give you something now. It doesn’t matter what. What matters would be our desire to share with each other whatever we have.”
“I like the thought.” He dropped his head, so their lips were only a breath apart. “You know, I didn’t think you were the sort to stay so close to a man and not be shy.”
“I didn’t know I was either. I always thought public display of affection would make me self-conscious. But now I experience it with you, I find I don’t care what anyone thinks.” Feeling his hand circle her waist, she added with a grin, “Up to a point though. I doubt I will be bold enough to do more than have you hold me in a public store.”
“Pity then, for I am sorely tempted to kiss you.” With a regretful sigh, he turned her to face the shelves. “So, what present am I getting?”
“How about a perfume?” She studied the brands in front of her. “I don’t know much about fragrance for men, which do you prefer?”
“But which do you have on now? I love the fragrance.”
“Thank you. But I don’t stick long to a fragrance. I switch them up every now and again.” He gestured to the shelves. “Pick one, and it will be my new fragrance.”
“What if I pick one you don’t like?”
“If you pick it, I’ll definitely like it.”
The soft-toned promise made her smile. “I choose this one then.” She lifted a brand she considered the price right. “I hope the fragrance suits you.”
“I’m sure it will.”
He tried to take it, but Callista nudged aside his hand. “As I’m paying for it, I’ll hold on to it.”
She picked a few needed items for the house before they made their way to the counter.
“Hungry yet?” he asked as soon as they exited ShopRite.
“Famished,” Callista confessed. “Are we eating now?”
“We are. Every eatery here is over-full, so we’ll have to find any with a free table and eat,” Mario said, peering into the eateries they strolled past. “I have a mind for us to see another movie before heading home, else I would have suggested we drive into town for food.”
“I see a free table in here.” Callista pulled him through the entrance, grabbing the table a lady and her two kids were just vacating. “You go order our food, while I make sure we don’t lose this table.”
“Good move. I’ll be right back.”
It took a bit of time before he returned with their food because of the number of people placing orders too.
“I like this,” Callista said, smiling as she gave the place another look.
“The eatery, the food, which?”
“The crowd of people going and coming. Buzzing noises of excitement and pleasure everywhere. Children, women, young people–generally, people everywhere. Happy people.” She looked at him, and beamed. “I’m usually shy around too many people I’m not familiar with, but something about today has cast off all my inhibitions.”
“It must be the Christmas spirit.”
“Or it might be something else,” she said with a secret smile.
“Now, you’re smiling like a woman who knows something she’s unwilling to share with her man.”
Her man. That’s who he was. Gosh, how utterly exciting.
“I am willing to share anything you ask me,” she told him.
“You’re saying all I have to do us ask, and you’ll tell me anything I want to know. Let me see then, what do I want to know?” He paused his eating to stare at her thoughtfully. “Tell me something about you I don’t know.”
She laughed. “I fear there’s quite a bit you don’t know about me.”
“Tell me just one thing then.”
“Just one?” At his nod, she filtered through her memory. “I wanted to be a nurse. It’s the one thing I always dreamed I will become. But Papa died, and Mama’s business took a nose dive after the funeral. I had to learn a skill because that’s all the training she could afford.”
“I didn’t know that. I mean, that you wanted to be a nurse.”
She smiled. “Not surprising. By the time we became friends, it was a dream long forgotten. The only person who knows apart from any member of my family is Jebo.”
“It doesn’t have to be a forgotten dream. You can still pursue it. Write exams to get into a nursing school; go from there.”
“I am twenty-eight, and you want me to write entrance exam into a school?”
“There’s no age limit to one’s dreams, Cally. Circumstances may have pulled you into another path, but you can find your way back to the path you want to walk.”
“I’m a hair stylist now, Mario. I have my own salon, and doing well enough.”
“True. But is that enough for you? Will you not one day look back and wish you fulfilled your dream?”
“Will I?” Frankly, she didn’t know. “How will I cope? Yes, Mama’s business is also doing well now, still I help out in the house. And although I have some savings but how far will that take me before it runs out?”
“You don’t have to close down your salon. You can leave it here for Ndidi to manage, and put her on a salary. Plus,” he took her hand. “You have me.”
“I have you?”
“You have me,” Mario repeated.
It dawned on her what he meant. “Oh no, I couldn’t allow you do that. Have a man take over my bills that way? No,” she said firmly. “I prefer to be independent. In this, at least. Besides, there’s still no telling where our relationship might end in future.”
“That is true. But you should know I’ll never disappoint you, Cally. If I make you a promise to be there for you, I will be there, no matter what.”
She stared into his earnest eyes, and knew she could always trust him. “I know. And I thank you. But I’m okay with where I am now, so we need not trouble ourselves over this.”
Wishing to change the subject, she said, “It’s your turn. Tell me something about you I don’t know.”
“I didn’t grow into my ears until I was well into my teens.”
“It’s true. I was teased sorely for my big rabbit ears until I was at least sixteen.”
“I don’t know if I believe you since I’ve never before heard this tale,” Callista said, smiling. “But one thing I do know is that this doesn’t count.”
“What doesn’t count?”
“This funny, but trivial information.” She pinched the inside of his palm. “Tell me something serious.”
“My rabbit ears were serious business for me as a boy,” he retorted with a mock scowl. “But since you don’t value that important period of my life, I will tell you that I have a building I’m raising not too far from where David and Jebo live.”
“You’re building a house?” She didn’t at all expect to hear that. “How come I never heard of it? News like this often spread around town.”
Mario shrugged. “Not every news spread, if you’re careful how to deal with it. Many people think it’s my cousin, Nonso, building the house since he first bought the plot of land. But he desperately wanted to relocate out of the country, and I bought it off him.”
“This is such a surprising, pleasant news. People look at you and see only an averagely successful entrepreneur, but you are so much more.”
Again, he shrugged. “I prefer people to see what they want to see, and believe what they want to believe.”
“It’s not a bad principle to live by,” Callista said. “And this wasn’t a bad meal, for a restaurant dealing with rush hour.”
“They will thank you for the praise, I’m sure.” He cast a meaningful glance at her plate. “Done?”
“Then we can leave.” He rose, and waited for her to do same before taking her hand in his. “Ready to see another movie with me, or you prefer to do something else?”
“A movie will be fine. Afterwards, a slow drive home, enjoying the evening breeze.”
“As my lady wishes.”
Keeping her close to his side, he led the way to the movie centre.
Their slow drive home took all of fifty minutes, still Callista wished it didn’t come to an end.
“I never knew I could enjoy spending almost an entire day in anyone’s company as I’ve done in yours,” she said, adjusting so they were face to face.
“Your Christmas gift.” She held out the package she’d kept with her. “I hope you will enjoy it.”
“I definitely will. Thank you.” He curved his head, and kissed her.
But it wasn’t like his other kisses. Instead of light, feathery strokes, he plunged deep in her mouth, his fervour telling his desire for her.
“Mmm, Cally and Mario, what is it you’re doing?”
“Kissing until you interrupted us,” Mario said, lifting his head with an unconcealed measure of regret.
It was her father’s cousin who lived behind their house, Callista noted, wishing she didn’t feel like cursing the old man who was peering at them curiously.
“It’s a good thing then there’s talk of you marrying her. See that you do.”
“I will, if she will have me.”
“Why shouldn’t she, when she’s allowing you plunder her mouth right in front of her father’s house?” The old man said, and went off without another word.
“I fear I’ve completely ruined your reputation,” Mario said with a mock sigh of regret. “You will have to marry me to restore your honour.”
“I think I’m more interested in you plundering my mouth,” Callista retorted. “Maybe you should do it again.”
“Such a naughty woman. Good thing I’m rather interested in same too,” Mario murmured before he claimed her mouth.
Her heartbeats were practically thudding by the time he let her go.
“I love that I’m the first man to have kissed you,” he said in a soft, caressing voice. “There’s this pleasure to it, I don’t quite understand.”
“You won’t be the first when we have sex. I mean, if we choose to have sex,” Callista added quickly, flushing slightly.
“I hope you will choose to be with me that way. I would like it.” He rubbed his mouth over hers, enjoying the softness of her. “And I wouldn’t care that I’m not the first. It would be special just the same.”
“You’re special.” At his chuckle, she insisted, “You are. The way you’re honest, straightforward, kindly, fun, and so loving. I never knew you could be this romantic.”
“You had only to be my girlfriend to find out.”
“I’m glad I found out. I’m glad I have you in my life.” She touched his face, hesitated only a second before laying her lips on his.
When he reacted with a soft sigh, she boldly deepened the kiss, exploring his mouth with unrestrained passion.
“You kiss good,” Mario said. “So good, I think it’s best if you run inside before I find myself driving home with you.”
She wished he would drive home with her, Callista thought. But didn’t say it because it shocked her how much she wanted it.
Instead, she smiled and said, “I had a wonderful time today. It’s my best Christmas to date.”
“Mine too,” Mario murmured, kissed her, and pushed back to his seat. “Go on with you, Sweet Cally, before I forget myself.”
I wish you would. But she didn’t voice the thought. “Goodnight.”
“Hold on.” He grabbed her. “Spend the day with me tomorrow. They’ll all be going to Ubulu-Uku to see my grandmother, so we will be alone.”
“Are you not supposed to go with them?”
“I’ll tell them I will visit her on New Year’s Day. Maybe you will come with me.”
“Maybe I will.” She smiled. “But I definitely will visit you tomorrow. So, see you then.”
“See you.” He gave her a lingering kiss. “Sleep well, Cally.”
“You too, Mario.” She got out of the car, gave a wave and turned to walk into the house.
She was smiling, and Callista knew she’d never smiled so happily before.