Demola gulped a quick cup of coffee. Standing in his kitchen, he stared at the big house. He'd been out all morning, making sure everything was in order. He'd hoped Tomilola might make a foray onto the estate over the last two days, but not only had he not seen her since the night of their drinking, the helps working in the big house hadn't, either. She'd obviously never left the house.
He thought she was making progress toward lightening up about her dad. About the estate. At least she hadn't thrown his suggestion to keep the place and use it to help support her charity back in his face. A good sign. And he'd hoped the note from her father would soften her up even more. At least he'd hoped it would make her feel less like an outsider. Make her feel like a beloved daughter and therefore someone who belonged here on her father's estate.
Of course, he didn't know what Wole had written in that card. But if the man hadn't told his long lost daughter he loved her, he'd be really surprised. Then again, did he really expect one "I love you," to fix everything? He sighed, taking another sip of coffee. As a matter of fact, he had. He ran a hand down his face. What the hell had he been thinking? The kind of bond he'd been thinking about, the kind of bond that would make Tomilola feel as if she belonged on the Big W, was not created overnight. The bond between a father and daughter grew over time. The love and trust developing as first steps were taken, first bicycles ridden, first cars driven.
All Tomilola had was Demola's word that her father loved her and a single card. Enough, perhaps, for a bond to begin to grow, but hardly enough to create any real sense of kinship. Any real sense of love. And if he was ever going to get her out of that house, that's what he needed to create. He needed to find a way to make her feel Wole's love. Not an easy task with Wole in absentia.
He took another swallow of coffee, thinking of ways to create that end. Only one came to mind. Decision made, he drained the cup with a giant gulp and headed over to the big house.
He stepped onto the porch and knocked. It seemed odd, knocking on a door he'd just walked through for the past ten years, but Wole was gone. The house was Tomilola's now. She had every right to expect her privacy.
"I'll get it." Tomilola's voice echoed inside.
Charles must be there, working. He couldn't imagine who else she'd be talking to. He heard the tread of footsteps on the stairs and a few seconds later, the door opened.
Tomilola stood there, a smile curving her lips. "Hey, Dem." She was wearing a tight pair of faded jeans, hip-huggers, and a tank top that stopped just above her navel. Heat shot through him, his gaze locked on her belly button. And the smooth expanse of skin below it. He wanted to touch her there. See if she was as soft and warm as she looked. Swallowing hard, he pulled his gaze up, made himself concentrate on her face,
She chuckled softly. "Come on in. Looks a little warm out there."
He stepped into the house's air-conditioning, glad for whatever cooling effect he could find, and attacked the problem at hand. "Thought maybe I'd see you out on the estate one of these days."
She shrugged, closing the door. "I've been exploring dad's office, seeing what I could learn about him."
"Then I've come just in time."
She cocked a brow in question.
"I came over to show you some things your dad left you."
"Really?" Curiosity sparkled in her eyes.
"Yep, come on." He took her elbow and guided her to the stairs, ignoring the electricity that jumped between them the second he touched her, ignoring the fact that while he was heading her upstairs for a totally innocent reason, his body seemed only to note that they were headed toward the bedrooms. She hesitated halfway up the steps. "Where exactly are we going, Dem?" It obviously hadn't escaped her notice that there was nothing upstairs but bedrooms.
"Relax, I'm not dragging you away to seduce you. What I want to show you is in one of your dad's closets."
"Whew, I was afraid I was going to have to pull a Jackie Chan, send you sprawling down the stairs."
He chuckled wryly. "So much for my charm, huh?"
"Oh, it's there, Dem. And we're both adult enough to know it But now's not a good time for me to be distracted." A wry smile of her own twisted her lips. "No matter how entertaining I think that distraction might be."
More heat shot through him, his body only hearing the admission that she was as interested as he was and totally ignoring the part about this not being the time. Totally ignoring the fact that Wole's daughter was completely off-limits, period. But if his body didn't know it, his conscience did. Reluctantly, he let go of her and picked up his pace so he was a step ahead.
"So what did my father leave for me?"
"And ruin the surprise?" He shook his head. At the landing, he made his way into her father's room. She stopped in the doorway, looking nervous and lost as she stared in. "So this was his room."
"Yep. Now quit hovering in the doorway and come in."
"I'm not hovering." Lifting her chin and squaring her shoulders, she strode in,
He hid a smile.
She wandered aimlessly for a few steps, her gaze both voracious and anxious as she drank in every detail. Spying the big eight-by-ten photograph sitting on the nightstand next to the bed, she strode over and picked it up. Even from here he could see Wole standing in the picture with his arms around Nike's shoulders. See Nike holding a brand-new baby girl - a tiny, bald-headed Tomilola - wrapped carefully in a pink blanket.
Tomilola studied the photo, her expression intense. Finally, she topped it toward him. "This was him? My father?" Her voice was whisper soft.
Surprise shot through him. "You've never see him before?"
She shook her head. "Mom didn't have any pictures of him. Even after she died and I went through her things, there was nothing."
During all these years, she'd never had a face to put her emotions to? What the hell had Nike been thinking? Not even letting her child know what her father looked like.
Yes, from everything Wole had said, he knew the woman had had problems. And from what Tomilola had told him about Nike's childhood, he could understand why she had them. But right now, he didn't care about poor Nike's problems, he just wanted to strangle her. But he managed to keep his expression neutral as he said. "That's him."
She traced the figure of her father with a shaky finger, her expression bittersweet. "He was handsome."
He chuckled. "I wouldn't know. But he was a good man. A very good man."
She didn't comment, she just continued to study the picture intently. As if she might find the answers she so needed there. "They look happy."
"I think they were when your dad wasn't busy on the estate. But beyond what he looked like, you're not going to learn much about your dad from that picture." He strode over and took it from her, setting it back in its place. "If you want to know who your dad was, how he felt about you, the answers are in here."
He strode to one of the doors leading off the room, pushed it open and stepped inside the walk-in closet.
Tomilola followed, once again pausing at the doorway and peering in. She took in the closet's contents in one quick sweep. "Presents?"
He nodded. "Yours. And your mother's."
She stared at the packages. "Oh, God, please tell me he didn't go out to buy all these after he found out he was dying as some sort of wish-I'd-known-you kind of thing."
"No. Your father was a lot of things, but a fool wasn't one of them. These are the presents he bought for you and your mother over the years. Presents bought with joy and the hope he'd find you and be able to give them to you. Yours are all birthday presents."
The shadows turned to surprise. "You're kidding. Birthday presents?"
"He always said any father worth his salt didn't miss his child's birthday."
Tears misted her eyes. "So he thought of me on my birthday. I always wondered."
Demola's heart squeezed. He couldn't imagine what it would be like to wonder if one of your parents even thought about you on your birthday. It had to be one of the loneliest feelings in the world. And loneliness, he understood. "Wonder no more. He thought of you. And not just on your birthday. All the time. Now get in here and see what he bought you."
She stepped into the closet, her gaze skating over the gifts sitting on the shelves.
The space suddenly seemed smaller, warmer, much more...intimate. He thought about bolting, leaving her to open the presents by herself. But, there were stories behind a lot of these gifts. Stories he knew. Stories she should know. So he kept his feet rooted to the floor.
Standing in front of the gifts, she touched one with a shaky finger. "This paper's old."
"It would be. It would have been wrapped the year he got it for you. Let's see . . ." He reached around her - trying not to notice how close they were - and opened the little card that was taped on top and read it. "Happy seventh, sweetie."
"He wrapped this eighteen years ago?" Disbelief and something else, something tender, sounded in her voice.
"You bet." He stepped back to a safer distance.
"Amazing." She opened a few other tags, reading the inscriptions. Then she turned to one of the big presents on the floor. She angled her head, first one way and then the other, a smile playing over her lips.
"Do you think this is what it looks like?"
He chuckled, looking at the way the old paper with pink teddy bears and blue balloons defined the curved bottom of the object. "I'm sure it's exactly what it looks like. Your dad told me. . .with great pride, I might add - how he made it himself."
"He made it?"
Her gaze softened, and she nudged the gift's highest point, sending it rocking.
He touched her shoulder. "Open it."
Uncertainty shadowed her expression as she stood, making no move toward the gift. He hated to see hesitancy, her doubt in her father's love. Hated more that he couldn't pull her into his arms and comfort her. But this wasn't about him. It was about her. And her relationship with Wale. "It's your present, Tomi. Your father always meant for you to open it. So open it already."
A smile crept across her lips and she gave her head a resolute nod. "All tight then."
She opened the small card taped to the top. "Ride them, darling. Happy third. Love, Dad." Her voice cracked as she read and swiped at her eyes,
Happy tears this time. Good.
She knelt beside the present and went to work on the wrapping, removing it one sheet at a time from the hodgepodge of pieces taped together to cover the big, oddly shaped object. The process was slow and careful, as if she were unwrapping something of utmost fragility or great value. But finally, the wooden rocking horse was uncovered. "Look at it," she breathed, sitting back on her heels, staring at the handcrafted gift.
He was looking. He clamped his lips on the laugh that climbed up his throat. Wole Adenuga had been the most talented businessman he'd ever known. But he'd been a sad excuse for a woodworker.
He stared at the poor wooden horse. The rockers were good; Wole must have used a pattern for those. But the rest of the horse. . .He stifled another laugh. Any horse whose legs were that crooked had best be a rocking horse, 'cause he sure as blazes wasn't walking anywhere. Which, considering the position of the animal's eyes, one almost two inches lower than the other, was probably just as well. The poor beast had to be seeing double. And there was a giant gouge in one haunch, as if Wole's carving tool had slipped. He swallowed another laugh. The poor, poor beast.
"It's beautiful." The words were filled with quiet reverence as Tomilola reached out to touch the polished surface.
This time, he couldn't stop the laugh. It bubbled out like water from a spring. "Are you blind?"
She reached behind her and slapped at his leg. "Stop it. He is beautiful."
He laughed harder. "For crying out loud, the animal looks like something Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer would have found on the island of misfits. And undoubtedly left there."
She smiled with him now. "Maybe, but that's what makes him beautiful. If he was perfect, how would I know for sure my dad made him? But look. . ." she ran her hand over the dimple in the horse's butt - "there's no mistaking it."
No there wasn't.
She ran her fingers over the tooled leather pad that had been fixed to the horse's back with brass upholstery tacks. "Look at this. He must have spent hours." Awe sounded in her voice.
Demola marveled at the depth of tenderness with which she touched the horse. Considering the hardships she'd endured because of her father's mistake, considering she'd spent years thinking of the man as the bad guy, she could easily have looked at the poorly crafted horse and wondered why her father hadn't spent a little cash and bought his daughter a rocking horse without a dimple in its butt.
But it wasn't the gift itself she was appreciating. It was the time her father had spent making it for her. The effort he had put into it that meant something to her. The distinction told him a great deal about the woman kneeling in front of him. Told him that she knew what was important in life and what wasn't. Told him that she had a big capacity for forgiveness, because of all he had to do was look at the expression on her face to know she'd let go of the anger she'd had had for her father. Not such an easy thing when one considered the hardships she'd lived through. Many of them that could be laid directly at Wole's feet.
She was a hell of a woman. Beautiful. Tough. Forgiving.
Desire shot through him, hot and hard and greedy. Desire that went much deeper than the biting lust he'd felt before.
He closed his eyes against it. He might once have dreamed of having a woman like Tomilola at his side. Dreamed of building a family with a strong, loving woman. But those days, those dreams were behind him. He'd thrown them away the day he'd taken the law into his own hands. And he couldn't get them back.
Ruthlessly ignoring the need pounding through him, he forced his thoughts back to the moment. "Actually, according to your father, he spent weeks putting this guy together."
"Weeks." She glanced over her shoulder, a telltale sheen of moisture in her eyes. "You could have shown me all these gifts the first day I came."
He shook his head. "I wanted you to be able to appreciate them. Enjoy them. And I was pretty sure that's not how you would have looked at them that first day."
"No, I wouldn't have." She touched the end of the horse's nose, then looked back at him. "Thanks."
"No problem." He held his hand down to her. "Come on, let's open some more."
"Yeah, let's." Smiling from ear to ear, she grabbed his hand and pulled herself up. She surveyed the shelves, homing in on a rectangular box about eighteen inches high. After a quick check of the tag she pulled it off the shelf. "Let's try this one. He bought this the year I was ten."
He smiled. She looked about ten now, her eyes glistening with anticipation as she ripped the paper from the box.
She pulled the last of the paper away. "Yeah, baby." She turned the box so he could see. "Barbie."
He stared at the big-busted, tiny-waisted figure. "Yep, she looks like her." He'd never understood the love affair the entire female population under the age of twelve seemed to have with the doll, but he'd known enough little girls in his life to know it was real.
She turned the box around and ran her finger over the clear plastic, studying the doll. "I can't believe it. A new Barbie. Look, her hair is perfect. And so is her dress. Not a single tear or stain."
"I take it there weren't a lot of new Barbies in your childhood."
She shook her head. "Toys and clothes always came from garage sales or Goodwill. Which, on the whole, is fine. You can get some pretty neat stuff at garage sales. But I tell you, finding a Barbie in halfway decent shape was tough. The hair and clothes were always a mess. But this one. . ." She ran her fingers over the plastic again, her gaze almost beatific as she stared at the doll.
"So open her up. Take her out."
Her fingers moved to the top of the box, but at the last second they stilled and she shook her head, "I think I'll keep her just the way she is - all shiny and new in her pink box. Maybe I'll give her to my little girl. That would be cool, a Barbie bought by her grand-dad."
Her little girl. He pictured her holding a tiny baby with black hair and eyes. Pictured himself making that baby with her, a fresh wave of need pounding through him. He gritted his teeth against it. And fisted his hands against the thought of someone else making that baby with her. Fisted them harder as he realized sooner or later someone else would. Because while Tomilola deserved a fairy-tale ending, complete with Prince Charming and a couple of kids, he didn't belong anywhere in that picture. No one would mistake him for Prince Charming.
He forced the images of making love to Tomilola out of his head and concentrated on the moment at hand. Tomilola set the Barbie carefully back on the shelf and did a quick read of a few tags before picking up the next present and turning it to him. "Shall we see what's in this one? It says Sweet Sixteen, Sweetie."
Though short, the messages on the tiny cards obviously meant as much to her as the gifts. "Open away."
She tore the wrapping away, revealing a square, thin, white velvet box.
He smiled. "Looks like jewelry to me."
Her eyes sparkling, she opened the box. "Oh, my God." She tipped the box back so he could see.
A single strand of white pearls glistened in the closet's light.
"Very pretty. But they'll be prettier on."
"You think?" Hesitancy sounded in her voice, as if she couldn't quite believe they were hers.
He nodded. "Definitely."
She lifted the pearls from their velvet bed with unsteady fingers. Setting the box down, she opened the clasp on the pearls and fit it around her neck. But her fingers weren't steady enough to connect the clasp.
He shouldn't help. The last thing he needed was to be close enough to touch her. But before he knew it, his feet were moving across the closet floor, and he was saying, "Here, let me get that."
Stupid, Stupid, Stupid, Stupid. But his hands were already taking the tiny gold clasp from hers. His fingers drinking in her warmth, reveling in the soft silkiness of her nape. He steeled himself against the desire racing through him. Told himself he was only offering a helping hand. But the tightening of his jeans belied that reasoning. He wanted to touch her. Wanted to feel her.
He promised himself he'd step away as soon as he had the necklace hooked. But he had the clasp locked in seconds. And his feet didn't move. Nor did his hands move from her neck. Instead, they settled on her shoulders, moulding to her soft curves, his fingers stretching to the delicate line of her collarbone. And his feet took another half step closer, his body touching hers, measuring her curves, reveling in her softness.
She stilled, the air around them becoming super-charged, crackling with electricity and latent desire. He prayed for her to move away. Because, damn his soul, he couldn't. He couldn't make his feet move. Couldn't make his hands let go any more than a dying man could make himself forgo that last sip of sweet air.
With his own bleak future stretching before him, he wanted to taste her generous spirit. Wanted to taste her incredible strength. He didn't want to think of the cold, lonely years ahead of him. Didn't want to think about how solitary his current existence was.
She didn't move away. And when she looked over her shoulder at him, she didn't look the least bit inclined to move. Her eyes were slightly dilated. Her lips parted. Her breathing short and fast. God help him, she looked like a woman ready to be kissed.
A loud ringing chime peeled through the house,
They both started, the sound breaking the spell.
She sprang out of his hands as if she'd been burned, her cheeks coloring a becoming shade of pink. "That's the, um. . ."
He dropped his hands and stepped back with a wry smile. "The doorbell. Go on, answer it. I'll be right behind you."
She dashed out of the closet.
He followed at a more sedate pace, giving his body time to cool, telling himself the interruption was for the best. He had no business touching Tomilola Daniels. No matter how much he wanted to.
He found her at the door, holding a simple green vase with a dozen red roses in it and talking to the flower deliveryman - or boy. The pimply-faced kid couldn't be more than eighteen.
She handed the teenager a five-hundred naira tip, said thanks, and closed the door as he disappeared down the stairs. Turning to Demola, she held the flowers up. "Will you look at these?" She struck her nose into the blooms and took a deep breath, her eyes closing as she inhaled the scent. "Beautiful. But who on earth is sending me roses?"
He knew, and wished he hadn't been here for their arrival.
But before he could leave, she pulled the card from the clear plastic holder and opened it. "Just a little nudge to get you thinking about planting those red roses." She looked up, shaking her head. "Not fair, dem boy."
As if he needed any reminders at the moment of how unfair life could be. Ruthlessly ignoring the need still throbbing inside him, he stopped at the door and locked his gaze on hers. "Life doesn't give second chances often, Tomilola. But you're being offered one now. A chance to get to know your dad. A chance to make a good future for yourself. Don't throw it away." Without another word he brushed by her and headed back to his house.
His quiet, empty house.