Tomilola sat in the taxi next to Demola as the sun leaned towards dusk.
She didn't know what she was terrified of, but her palms were sweating. And the closer they got to the ranch, the harder her heart beat. Which was ridiculous. It wasn't like she had to face dear old dad once she got there. He was dead. Gone. Buried. But his ghost would be there. Not the see-through kind, of course. But she would be staying in his house. She would be surrounded by his things. The estate he built. His personal possessions. Every waking minute she'd be bombarded by the stark evidence that he'd cared more for his ranch than he ever had for her or her mother.
She wasn't sure she was up to six months of that.
She plowed her fingers through her hair. She wanted to just walk away. But she couldn't do that to the helpless kids of the world. She knew the desperation people with major health problems and no insurance faced. So she'd spend the next six months facing her father's betrayal. Even if it killed her.
She forced her mind from those ugly thoughts. Unfortunately, her mind jumped directly to the other new item in her life. Adenuga. Not a safer subject at all. Demola was too big, too. . .commanding.
Too damned sexy.
Oh, man. She ran her hands through her hair and drew in a big breath, trying to get enough oxygen into her system, trying to calm her nerves. But there wasn't enough air in the truck. Demola looked over at her, his brows scrunched in concern "You all right?"
"Tomilola, everything is going to be fine." His voice was quiet, encouraging. But she didn't feel encouraged. She felt like her whole world was going to explode. Not only was Demola making her feel things that had been safely in hibernation for the past three years, but anger and despair over her father's betrayal were already building in her like molten lava boiling beneath the earth's surface. And it boiled a little harder every time she thought of her father owning one of the biggest spreads in Lagos.
She tried to draw in another breath. Tried to ignore the anger simmering inside her. But she couldn't do it.
"Are you thinking of how many kids you can help if you sell the estate?"
"No, I'm thinking of my mother. She died of MS, did you know that?" She watched carefully for his reaction. She wanted to know if he'd known of her mother's plight. If he'd known she was sick and suffering and needed help while her father had turned a blind eye and built his damned ranch. Surprise and sympathy knitted his brow. "No, I didn't. I knew she was dead. That she'd died when she was only thirty-eight. So I assumed either disease or an accident had taken her. But I didn't know she had MS. I'm sorry. That's a tough disease."
She studied him, looking for any sign that he was dissembling. But his surprise seemed genuine. Which meant dear old dad had kept everything about her mother secret. Her state of poverty. Her disease. Her desperate requests for money. Which helped explain Demola's loyalty to him. She nodded her head, "MS is a tough disease. Especially when you don't have any money for hospital stays and doctors' appointments and drugs."
He looked over at her, concern etching his face, "She didn't have enough money to pay for her medical expenses?"
She laughed, a short, humorless sound. "Demola, there wasn't enough money to buy food half the time. And that was before she got sick. After. . ." Her words trailed off as old memories swamped her. Sad, desperate memories.
Memories of watching her mother go from a normal, healthy human being to someone who needed a cane to get around and then a wheelchair; finally she couldn't get around at all. Memories of standing over her bed and giving her aspirin after aspirin because they couldn't afford prescription painkillers. Memories of bone-deep desperation. And guilt.
God, the guilt.
Guilt that she hadn't been old enough to hold a job and take care of her mother. And then later, as she got older, guilt that the jobs she could get as a high school student and even later as a high school graduate only paid minimum wage. Not nearly enough to pay their bills, let alone have anything left over for doctors and medicine. Guilt that intensified even after her mother's death.
Why hadn't she thought of fund-raisers when her mother was alive? She'd helped countless families in the last few years collect money for medical crises. Why hadn't it occurred to her to do it for her own mother? Why had she been so damned helpless?
She swiped at the tear that suddenly spilled over her lashes and looked out the side window, hoping Demola hadn't noticed.
"I'm sorry it was so hard, Tomilola. God, I'm sorry."
Great. He'd seen the tear. Well, tear or not, she wasn't helpless anymore. She shrugged and tipped her chin up. "I don't need your sympathy, Demola. It's been over for a long time."
He shook his head. "If your father had only known, I'm sure. . ."
"He knew." Her tone was as bitter as the anger simmering inside her. "I can't count the number of times my mother called him and asked - no begged - him to send us money."
Demola's head whipped around, his gaze flying to hers. Pure shock shone in those intense brown eyes. "He never told you, did he? That he had a wife and daughter who needed his help?" She shook her head in disgust. "No, he wouldn't have. He wouldn't have wanted the people he worked with knowing what a scumball he was."
Demola shook his head, his expression intense. "Tomilola, your dad didn't. . ."
She slashed her hand through the air. "Don't. Don't you dare defend my father to me or I'll get out of this taxi and board the next flight back, I swear to God."
He drew a breath as if he would protest, even over her warning. But then he shut his mouth and turned his attention back to the road.
"How much farther do we have to go?"
He tipped his head toward the hills that had been getting steadily closer for the last hour. "We're almost there."
Thank God. She wanted out of this taxi.
As if sensing her climbing tension, he reached across the cab and gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. "Hang in there. Beginnings are always the hardest. Once we get you settled, it'll be easy."
She didn't believe that for a minute, but she soaked up his brief touch, appreciating the support - ignoring the electric jolts of sexual energy.
A half mile down the road, the cab driver turned off onto a one-lane road, and then it was only a matter of minutes before the cab wove around and popped out into an estate.
Dear God, the place was enormous. There were buildings everywhere. It looked like a little city. She swallowed the bile raising in her throat. "Is this all my father's?"
Demola looked over at her, his gaze assessing, He obviously didn't want to upset her anymore. But after only a moment of hesitation, he gave his head a gentle, succinct nod. Revulsion clogged her throat. Wale Adeyemi's own little empire.
The cab driver stopped the taxi next to one of the gates. Demola highlighted from the cab and turned to Tomi, "Do you want me to give you a short tour, introduce you to some of the hands? Or do you want to go straight to your dad's house?" His voice was quiet now, gentle, much as his touch had been,
For the first time, she noticed the men wandering around. Many of them were glancing curiously at her. No doubt looking to see who the new person was. She closed her eyes, blocking out their expectant faces. She couldn't meet them now. She couldn't possibly shake their hands and smile and pretend she was glad to be here. Or that the sight of this estate did anything but turn her stomach.
"Take me to the house."
Her words were weak, shaky.