Run for her life.
Those phrases resounded in her head when she gathered what little she could and snuck out as soon as he left.
There was no thought of where to go. Gazie only knew she had to put a lot of distance between them.
Was she far away enough now?
Gazie prayed so. He would never think to look for her in these parts. Really, how could he ever think she would cross three major towns and several villages just to get away from him?
No. He would search for her around their village, around the main city, but he would not find her.
If only he’d never again find her.
Her head hurt from being anxious, so she turned her thoughts away from him and looked towards the place she hoped to call home. Hilly Town. The village was so christened as it was up on a hill.
The bike she was on groaned and sputtered as it made the climb. Gazie didn’t think she had a right to complain. She’d had to beg the rider to take her for half the price.
Half the price because it was the last money on her.
No fretting over that particular problem, either. If she did, she would lose the fraction of strength left in her. And she couldn’t survive without it.
Without the hope she clutched desperately to her heart.
But, lord, she was cold. True, her teeth no longer chattered and her joints didn’t ache as much as they did, still she was so cold. Exhausted too. And so hungry, her intestines grumbled louder than a disgruntled old man.
Let there be someone kind to offer her food and shelter. That was her prayer, even though she didn’t count on getting shelter. Hardly anyone allowed strangers into their homes. She would have to find an open stall. If she was lucky, one with a bench, and rest there for the night.
It could be for many nights until she found a job that offered boarding along with it.
At last, the bike coughed to a stop at the park. Gazie descended and thanked the rider, praying God to bless him for his kindness.
Alone, she looked around her.
There were buses parked, one or two could be broken down, just one car, and then nothing else.
Her chest tightened with fear. It had to be past nine, maybe even closer to ten. Too late for a woman to be out at night.
A young woman.
Well, even an old woman wasn’t safe alone at night.
No, it didn’t help to scare herself. Swallowing hard, Gazie pinned her gaze on the building ahead of her. The droning sounds of a generator came from that angle, providing a trail of light.
Gazie followed it. She would run if she could muster the strength for the exercise, but her feet throbbed from exhaustion.
An eatery, she thought as she made out tables outside and people sitting around them. Or not an eatery, but more like a beer parlour. She heard the echo of music now, and those were men at the tables with bottles of drink.
The signboard read, Soup and Booze.
What a peculiar name. But if it said ‘soup’, then it had to have food. The promise of it made her hungrier. Her last meal was the day before. In the afternoon.
Desperate now, her scouring gaze landed on the table closest to the entrance. Three men sat on it; watching her as she approached. The only other table had one occupant, and he appeared to be in a world of his own.
Should she step inside and beg for food?
“Hey, you. Come here.”
There, the decision was taken out of her hands. Ignoring the spasm of fear in her throat that suddenly threatened to make her cry, she moved towards the table of three.
“Good evening, sirs.” That fear more than respect made her curtsy.
“Who are you? And why are you out so late?” The one who’d called her asked.
He looked her over. They all did. She knew her clothes clung to her body in a way that was indecent. It didn’t help that the rain drenched her earlier.
Hoping to cover a bit of her front view, Gazie wrapped her arms around herself as if in resistance to the cold.
“I didn’t leave early enough to make it on time.” Her stomach churned at the sight of pepper soup and grilled meat. “Can you give me a little to eat? I’ve not had a bite since morning.”
They exchanged looks. Still, it was the same man who spoke. “I asked you who you are. What’s your name? And tell me how you got the bruise on your face.”
He’d slapped her hard, for turning him down.
She couldn’t tell them that, or anything about her. In retrospect, she should have walked inside. But what was the guarantee those there were any better than these men? Any less—
The word she needed eluded her. But the way he ogled her was predatory. It made her skin crawl.
“A little food. That’s all I’m begging.” Tears stung her eyes from the shame of having to beg.
“I can give you food. That will be after you tell me your name and from where you’re coming. You have to know that nothing goes for nothing.” His leering smile repulsed Gazie.
Turn and walk away, her dignity ordered. Hunger locked her feet on the spot. “I will do whatever work you ask of me.”
“There’s only one work to do at night.” His stare turned revoltingly lascivious. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
He reached out his hand, and Gazie stumbled back.
“She’s with me.”
She pivoted to see the one who spoke the words. And Gazie could have sworn she was about to keel over in a dead faint.
It had to be hunger. Hunger, and not the fact that the man was a barrel-chested giant. Good lord, how was it possible for anyone to possess such thick muscles?
The shirt on him would rip apart if he so much as flexed his biceps.
“How are you going to claim she’s with you when we saw her arrive?”
Gazie snapped out of her daze. He was trying to help her. Or, at least, that was her hope.
His presence made the spokesman for table of three look pint-sized. The distinction would make Gazie laugh if she had the presence of mind for humour.
“Because she is,” her saviour said. “This is my bar and she came looking for me.”
“Who is she?” Spokesman challenged.
“None of your business, Obata. Will you require anything else for the night?”
“You’re not trying to get in my business again, Jamal, are you?” Threat thrummed in Spokesman’s voice.
Her saviour remained stolid. “It is my bar, so my business in fact.” He looked at her. “Let’s go.”
Gazie scrambled after him.
Inside had way more tables than she could count in a heartbeat. But she noticed it was spacious, well-lit, and had ventilation coming from the ceiling fans and open windows.
He took her behind the bar at the end of the room. Another man was there, younger than him and a lot less muscular.
“Take a sit,” he told her.
Grateful to get off her feet, Gazie climbed on a high stool. “Thank you.” She still hoped he was helping.
He nodded. “What’s your name?”
“Gazie. Yagazie.” It was weird how he made her feel safe. “What is yours?”
The younger man made a strangled noise, while he only tilted his head. “Jamal. I’ll ask the questions. What family are you here to visit?”
A lie was useless. It was a small village where most, if not everyone, were probably acquainted.
“None. I’m on the run, and right now starved.”
He stared at her for several heartbeats, then said, “Combine two bowls of pepper soup and bring it with a bottle of malt.” He raised his voice, added another instruction. “Ikenna, prepare her one pack of your noodles.”
Just like that, food appeared in front of her. They made the other stool her table and left her to eat in comfort.
Hungry as she was, Gazie was done in mere minutes.
He reappeared as she gathered the dishes. “I’ll handle it. Rest. We still have an hour to go.”
He had to mean an hour before he closed the bar. Was he saying he would provide her shelter?
In his house?
Gazie turned to the kitchen behind the bar to look at him. Yes, she’d be safe with him anywhere. His face carried a hint of kindness, the same as his voice.
His face. With hunger not dulling her senses anymore, she could tell he was handsome. The good look wasn’t limited to his face. His hulk-like build must make women drool.
“I said rest, not gawk at me,” he said, without raising his head.
Oh. She averted her gaze, flushing.
Since a few curious eyes were on her, she propped her head on the bar and closed her eyes.
The next thing she knew was that he tapped her on the shoulder, told her it was time to go, and took her with him in his car.
They made a stop to pick up a sleeping boy, and continued to a house enclosed by a decorative block fence.
Why did the child have to stay out so late? Gazie wondered. Or was the man a single parent?
Using his flashlight he located a massive rechargeable lantern, flicked it on, then another, and yet another.
Wow, he was rich.
Gazie didn’t know enough to tell. It was just that his living room was the most exquisite she’d ever seen. It even smelled exquisite. Her frumpy state in ill-fitting clothes became apparent, making her feel out of place.
“How about you take one of the lamps and follow me?” he said, and went ahead. “You’ll use Otito’s room, while he and I share mine. That’s the bathroom.” He nodded to a door. “I’ll get you a toothbrush and towel. But there’s soap and toothpaste inside.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
He opened the door and stepped away from it. “You can call me Jamal. I’ll wait for you in the parlour. Join me after your bath.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry.” Gazie had never addressed a person older than her by name. “Thank you for being so kind.”
With a nod, he turned and walked with the boy into another room.
There could be a wife and she went on a trip. Or she might have—
She aborted the negative thought. A man who’d been so good to her didn’t deserve ill-luck from wicked thoughts.
As he was waiting for her, she made fast work of her bath, dressed in cleaner clothes and joined him in the living room.
He’d showered. It was evident by his damp hair, and he’d changed into pyjamas. The clothes didn’t cling to him; even so he looked much too manly in them.
“The kind thing to do would be to let you go straight to bed. But I’d sleep better myself if I had some answers.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Jamal.” Gazie made herself repeat it, tilting up her gaze to meet his, and surprisingly, her skin flushed with sudden heat.
Hold it now. He was married. Or maybe he was not.
“I’d like to ask a question.”
“Are you married?”
“I wonder if you’re bold, or you have no filter,” he said in a musing tone.
As she didn’t know the answer to that, Gazie shrugged and waited.
“I’m not married.”
“He’s my nephew.”
He wasn’t married. The information pleased her for no explainable reason.
“It must sound like I’m intrusive. I’m the one taking shelter in your house and asking personal questions. I only wanted to be certain I’m not intruding on another woman’s home, or anything like that.”
“It’s all right. I like things to be clear too, which is why I have my own questions.”
Gazie nodded. When they sat face to face like this, he didn’t look so large. He was still a big, muscled man, but not so much a giant. It was puzzling why she felt self-conscious and shy when she hadn’t at the bar.
They were alone. That was the reason.
And she knew now that he was single.
And he was refreshed. And had a different kind of smell on him now. One that tempted her to draw closer and sniff him.
What was she thinking?
Her Shield is available now on Okadabooks.