He was again on the terrace when he saw the man come out to dump a bunch of files in his car. Saz gave the thought only a minute’s consideration before he strode back inside, and was striding across the street in another minute.
He didn’t know what he intended to achieve by breaking the frosty silence between them. He wasn’t sure he wanted to achieve anything. He’d tried telling himself that regularly dropping the boy at school and providing him with some food was all he could do. But the thoughts in his head, the ones that kept him worrying about how the boy’s life might turn out, wouldn’t let him leave it at that.
There was nothing more he could do, Saz told himself once again, struggling with a grumpy scowl as his second cousin regarded him coldly. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d spoken a word to Iloba Nkeonye. They hadn’t related at all when he came for his father’s funeral.
Saz offered him the greeting meant for their clan, and added casually, “It looks like you’re getting ready to leave for work.”
It took the man half a minute to respond, but his cold expression remained. “Yes. Why are you here, Ifechukwude? Tired of thinking you’re old enough to disrespect your elders these days?”
It took an effort to keep his tone easy, and to work up the cool smile, “First of all, it is Saz, no longer Ifechukwude. And no, I am not tired at all, as I have not been disrespecting my elders.”
“Saz? Is that supposed to be a nickname?”
“It is my middle name and the one I use now.” He wasn’t going to give the man any more explanations than that. “Anyway, I am here in respect of Okey. I’ve observed in the last few days that he never leaves for school on time. Why is that?”
“You came here to question me about my nephew?” First, he looked incredulous, and then his face scrunched up with annoyance. “What right have you to question me about him?”
“The right of a relative. Or, maybe it’s just the right of an adult looking out for a child.” Saz shrugged. “He’s your sister’s son, your late sister’s son, and shouldn’t you treat him better?”
“He’s my sister’s son and no business of yours,” Iloba hissed. “Let’s not pretend to ourselves like our families relate well, Ifechukwude. We have all learned to stay out of each other’s business and it should continue to be that way.”
“Is that how you get away with maltreating him, because people who should speak up are staying out of your business?”
“People who should speak up?” He let out a short mocking laugh. “Listen to you talk as if you are one of them. You are an illegitimate son, Ifechukwude. You shouldn’t speak when true bloods are speaking. This is not your affair, so I counsel you to stay out of it.”
“My birth might have been illegitimate, but I am a son accepted and welcomed in his father’s house, and so have a right to speak on matters concerning my father’s people.” He made sure he did not flinch his gaze from Iloba’s. “He’s a little boy, and you and wife have no right to use him as a house boy.”
“You mean like your step-mother did to you in your father’s house, and right under his nose?”
The mockery hurt. More than it should, Saz thought, stilling himself against the stab of pain. “He’s my relative too, and when you and your wife have failed, maybe he should be in my care.”
Iloba stared at him. Then he barked out a loud laugh. “Are you saying you want to take over Okey’s care?”
That was what he’d just inferred, wasn’t it? Was he out of his mind? Panic made Saz take a step back, away from the man staring at him with mocking eyes, and from the thought that he was committing himself to something he wasn’t sure he wanted to do.
“Go to work, Iloba. We will continue this discussion on a day we have enough time to talk it through. And by the way, my name is Saz. See that you use it next time we talk.” He turned and stalked out of the yard.
What was he thinking? Had he just said that he would take over the care of a nine year old boy?
Saz slammed into his bedroom and collapsed on his bed, scrubbing his hands down his face. Why had he said that? He was a single man. He would be gone from here in a matter of weeks, and…
And he didn’t want to be responsible for any child.
Not without a wife.
And God knew he didn’t want a wife now.
Good God! What had he been thinking? Saz expelled a long breath, sat up and tried to think. Why had he gone over to Iloba’s yard to confront him? He hadn’t even made a conscious decision to do so. He shouldn’t have confronted him. Not in that manner.
Not while they stood at the side of his house, and were exchanging greetings for the first time in a long time.
He shouldn’t have confronted him at all, not over Okey, Saz thought, frowning as he reproved himself. He’d been wrong to act without clear thought. It had been an impulse, borne out of an unconscious misguided notion that he needed to protect the boy from a fate he himself had suffered as a child.
The boy didn’t need his protection. He probably would be fine at the end of the day. He himself was fine, wasn’t he, despite what he’d gone through?
No, he wasn’t fine. Saz accepted that truth with a sigh. He shouldn’t have been maltreated under his father’s roof. He should have be given more choices. He could have been more than he was today, if he’d had those choices.
That was the truth. But another truth was that there was nothing he could do for that boy. Not at the moment. Not when he didn’t even have a proper means of livelihood. He needed to get his business back on its feet. He needed…
…to mind his own business, his mind finished. The boy was a third cousin, and surely he shouldn’t be his business?
He couldn’t afford to let it be his business, Saz decided, fishing into his pocket to pull out his phone.
He dialled Eze’s number, and said once he picked, “Is it possible for us to see today?”
Eze gave an affirmative response and said he would be at the store in the evening. Saz ended the call, and firmly closing off the thought of the boy, and his family, across the street, he took his car keys and strode out of the house.
He had enough control over his mind to keep it busy with other thoughts when he wanted to, and so Okey was tucked away all through the day, and he was back to thinking of Anya–of getting her into his bed–by the time Eze came into the store.
“It looks like business has been good these last few days,” Eze remarked as he took a seat.
“Hmm.” Saz made the non committal sound, not willing to agree even when it was the truth. “Should I send for a drink for you?”
Eze shook his head. “Not necessary. I’m planning to stop over at a site I will begin work in next week. I’m meeting the owner of the building in about forty minutes. Meanwhile, I’ve got news.”
“Tell me you’ve found a buyer,” Saz begged.
Eze chuckled. “If only it were that easy. I did meet up with my man at Asaba though and he’s assured me that he will make this a top priority. He thinks within the next one month he could find someone willing to buy over your business.”
“One month? That’s too long. I didn’t plan on being here for long.”
“Well, you’d better make it a part of your plans, because finding a buyer is not going to happen that easily. I told you before,” Eze reminded. “Anyway, what are you looking so displeased about? The store here is doing well, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a win-win for you.”
“My life’s in Benin, Eze, not here.”
“Your life was once here, and can be again, if you want.”
“I don’t want,” Saz said shortly. “I need to go home. I need to reopen my business. I need to have my life back in the order it once was.”
“In that case, be patient. One month or less, and you will begin to fulfill these needs.” Eze stood and turned to walk out of the store, adding as he went, “Was it just about the buyer you wanted to see me?”
“Yes. And thanks for meeting me. I guess I should have asked over the phone.”
“No matter. I was coming this way anyway. How about going with me to check out the site? It’s at Isah Road, and we could hang out at Buchi’s Bar after we are done there.”
Saz would have accepted the invitation, but he wanted to see Anya. “Another time. Right now, I want to stop over at the pastry shop.”
“What pastry shop?”
“The only one I know in this town, A Slice Of Heaven. I’ve got my eyes on the baker there.”
“You mean Anya?”
“Yes, I mean Anya.” Baffled by Eze’s drawn brows, Saz asked, “What’s with the frown? You haven’t got your eyes on her too, have you?”
“I’m a married man, and while it might mean nothing to most, for me it means I’ve got eyes for only one woman.” His tone might be light, but Eze was still frowning. “I hope you’re not considering her for the female companion thing we talked about?”
“As a matter of fact, I am. Any reason I shouldn’t?”
“Yes. She’s my wife’s second cousin. Their grandmothers were sisters.”
Second cousins encounters was becoming a thing, Saz thought wryly. Aloud though, he only said calmly, “I don’t see how that makes any difference.”
“It makes a difference because all you want is a sexual companion. She’s a good woman, Saz, and after the bad lot life’s thrown her, she deserves better than a man who only wants sex from her.”
While he didn’t care to have his friend make him feel to a careless player, Saz decided to leave out a rebuff for now. “What bad lot did life throw her?” he asked instead.
“Made her a widow after she’d barely become a wife.”
“She’s a widow?”
Eze nodded. “Her husband died four years ago, barely eight months after their marriage.”
“I didn’t know,” Saz murmured, frowning. Did it make any difference? Should it?
“Now you know. And while I can’t tell you what to do, I’m asking that you let her be. What Anya needs now is a man who will love and care for her, not use her and dump her.”
“I don’t intend to use her and dump her,” Saz snapped. “Contrary to whatever you might be thinking, I don’t treat women carelessly.”
Eze opened his mouth as if to say something, then shut it again and simply gave a nod.
“What?” Saz demanded. “What’s with the silence?”
Eze shrugged. “I was just thinking I shouldn’t judge you because of our discussion. I made the suggestion of a female companion, after all. Besides that, we ended up growing up apart, so I actually don’t know what kind of man you are.”
“You may not know what kind of a man I am, but I know you’re a good man and a good friend.” Because he meant his words, Saz smiled. “I like her, you know. I’m not going to lie to you and say that I’m thinking of something permanent with her, but I like her, and won’t willingly do anything to hurt her. If she says no to whatever I’m offering, I will respect her wish and back off.”
“I guess I should be satisfied with that,” Eze said, and relaxed his face into a smile. “You are a good friend too, and I recall you were a good guy.” He got in his car, added as he slotted the key in the ignition, “You keep faith for a buyer soon and the business running. I’ll see you.”
Saz stepped back and gave a wave. Then called out orders for Ekezie to lock up the store at sixty-thirty before heading to the van.
Making his way through the narrow main road, he thought that he didn’t quite like that he had to confess he had feelings for Anya.
No, he didn’t have feelings for Anya. That wasn’t what he’d told Eze, and it wasn’t the fact. He liked her. That was the fact–the truth. It would have been hard not to like her given the kind of easygoing, friendly, kind and dedicated woman that she was.
Anyone who wasn’t a malicious human being would like her. And him doing so didn’t…shouldn’t mean anything more than that. He wasn’t even going to think about it, or about the fact that she’d once been married. Neither facts mattered.
Yet, when she joined him at his table after attending to a customer, it was the first thing that came through his mouth, after their jovial pleasantries, “You were married before, and didn’t think to mention it?”
Her friendly smile wavered, but didn’t totally disappear. “I see someone’s mentioned it for me. Anyway, I didn’t mention it because we are still in the process of getting to know each other. Is it a problem for you?”
“Not at all.” And it wasn’t, Saz reminded himself. “I only wondered why you failed to mention it, even during our date a few days ago.”
“There’s no big reason, like I said, other than it didn’t feel like it was time to drag in past relationships. Besides, it’s a small town and people tend to tattle. I figured you will hear it one day or the other.”
“And I did, from your cousin’s husband.”
“Which one?” Her brows drew together. “I have a number of female cousins who are married.”
“Oh. Tochukwu’s husband. He’s an old friend of yours, isn’t he?”
“He’s still a friend of mine.” Drawing back slightly to stop himself from stroking the dimple on the side of her mouth, Saz frowned. “How did you know we were friends?”
“I remember seeing you two together in the old days. You were in the same school, weren’t you?”
“So we were. It still kind of shames me that I have not even the slightest recollection of you.”
Anya chuckled. “It shouldn’t shame you at all. I’ve told you we were age and circumstances apart those times.”
“But now, we’re not,” Saz murmured. “I’ve thought a lot about kissing you and being with you since our date.”
Her eyes lit up with a sparkle of laughter. “Have you really?”
“Yes. I want to make love with you.”
“Well, you do get straight to the point.” She chuckled and shook her head. “Maybe I want the same thing, to make love with you. But I prefer to wait until I’m comfortable with the desire before acting on it.”
“Do I make you uneasy?” There was something about talking to her in low tones that sparked off a hum of lust. “Is that the problem?”
“No, that’s not the problem. Actually, I don’t have a problem at all, and you don’t make me uneasy. Well,” she grinned. “Not uneasy in a spooky way. I just prefer to be very sure, that’s all.”
“I like a woman to be very sure.” He couldn’t resist any longer, so he stroked a finger along the side of her mouth. “I like how you smile and a dimple appears here. I want to kiss that dimple. I want to know how your mouth tastes.”
“Wow, I’ve totally forgotten what it feels like to hear talk like that.” She moistened her lips and huffed a breath. “I’m going to have to think on this matter and decide what I want to do soonest. For now though, I will get back to work before I embarrass myself by jumping across the table to grab your mouth.”
Saz grinned. “That won’t be embarrassing. It would be, and is, erotic.”
“It is embarrassing if you’re in an open shop, live in a small town, and have your sales assistant shooting glares at you.” She let out a sigh before she stood up. “I’ll see you around, Saz.”
“You definitely will.”
He turned to watch her walk back to the counter and behind it, and then he grinned when he noticed Nkechi glaring at him.
Taking the paper napkin with him, he got up and strode out of the store.