Tomilola paced anxiously behind her father's desk. The minute she and Charles had gotten home she'd sent one of the hands out to meet Demola, tell him he was expected back at the estate. Pronto. She flexed her hands, trying to generate some warmth in her cold, clammy fingers.
Prison. The ominous title rang in her head, knotting her stomach and sending her feet skimming faster over the thick brown carpet. Pain and anger slashed through her. She'd kissed him. And he'd kissed her back, damn. How dare he not tell her he'd spent time in prison?
Two brisk knocks sounded on the door.
She spun to face the closed portal, squaring her shoulders. If he even tried to avoid her questions, he was a dead man.
The door swung open and Demola stepped into the office. "You wanted to talk to me?" His motions were stiff, his expression apprehensive.
He obviously sensed trouble. Smart man. Cocking up a toe, she pointed to her feet. "I went to town today and bought some shoes. Like them?" She made no attempt to hide her anger.
He blinked fatalistically when she mentioned her trip to town. But he went through the motions of looking at her shoes. "Very nice."
"Yeah, I kind of like them. But as it turned out, they weren't the highlight of the trip." He raised his gaze to hers. "I'm not much for playing games, Tomilola. Why don't you just get to the point?"
"I would have thought you liked games. You've certainly been playing them with me." The corners of his lips turned down, but he didn't comment. He merely stood, waiting.
"Fine. No games. Why didn't you tell me you were an ex-con?"
He blinked and when he opened his eyes it was as if a light had been extinguished, as if his very soul had been blown out. "It's not something a man likes to advertise. Particularly if he's trying to gain someone's trust. And I needed you to trust me to get you on that plane in Port-Harcourt."
Ah, yes. His hard determination. The thing she'd noticed first about him. Had he fooled her into thinking there was a softer side to him? "You've had plenty of opportunity since."
"Yes, I have. But things have been rather hectic since your arrival. And with all the emotions you were dealing with about your dad, I didn't think you needed more distractions."
She narrowed her gaze on him. "You didn't want me to know. Period."
He looked away. "No, I didn't."
Because of the reasons he'd just mentioned? Or because he didn't want her to think badly of him? Because her opinion of him mattered? "Well, now I know. What were you in for?"
He looked back, meeting her gaze squarely. "Attempted murder."
The breath rushed out of her. "Attempted. . ."
She fell back a step. "The man in the store hinted there were murderers living on this estate, but. . .Charles denied it."
"Because there aren't any murderers on this estate. The charge was attempted murder. I didn't kill anyone. Though not for lack of trying." Anger vibrated in his voice, though at himself or the person he'd tried to kill she couldn't tell.
She ran a shaky hand through her hair, the world tilting beneath her feet. He started toward her. "For crying out loud, sit down before you fall down."
She held her hand up, stopping him in his tracks. "I'm fine."
"You don't look fine. You look like you're about to pass out."
"I'm not going to make it that easy on you." She drew a fortifying breath and pulled her thoughts together. "Who did you try to murder?"
He grimaced, once again looking away. "A man."
"That's not an answer."
A muscle along his jaw flexed, but he said nothing. She gritted her teeth. "Fine. A man. Why did you try to murder him?"
He gave her a sardonic look. "You think there's a good reason to take the law into your own hands? Trust me, there isn't."
Well, he seemed to have gotten that lesson down pat. But it wasn't the answer she was looking for. "What did this man do that made you want to kill him?"
Anger sliced through her. "You know, Demola, you didn't cut me one ounce of slack when you dragged me to this place. And I'm not cutting you any now. Why did you try to kill that man?"
He turned on her, anger and torment twisting his expression. "Because he raped my little sister."
"Your sister?" Confusion washed through her. "You told me you didn't have any brothers or sisters."
"I don't. Not anymore." The words were as bleak as the soulless look in his eyes.
"Oh, God. Did he kill her?" Her words were whisper thin, her anger slipping away.
"Not that day, he didn't."
Her stomach churned. "What does that mean?"
"It means Thomas Johnson didn't kill her the day he raped her. Wasn't even around the day she died, but. . "
"Thomas Johnson, T.J?"
He nodded. "Thomas Johnson raped my sister."
"The man in the store this morning, the one who told me about the ex-cons working on the ranch, Charles called him T.J."
He grimaced. "That would be Thomas' daddy. They share the same name. He's had a grudge against the Big W ever since I came to work here. Despite the fact I was in prison when they arrested his son and convicted him for another rape, he blames me for his boy's capture."
"If you were behind bars when his son was picked up, how can he blame you?"
"He blames me because I was the one who scarred Thomas' face. And it was that scar that allowed his next victim to identify him."
"Next victim? He wasn't in jail for raping your sister?"
"He walked." Demola laughed, a cold, hollow, sound. "Legal technicality."
More of her anger slid away, turning to empathy as his story unfolded. "That's why you went after him. Because the law wouldn't."
"I went after him because watching him walk the streets free as a bird after what he'd done to her was destroying Detola."
"That was your sister's name? Detola?"
He nodded, his eyes taking on a glassy look, as if he were gazing back over the years. "After the rape she was quiet, withdrawn. Pretty much what one would expect after a violent attack. But when Thomas got off, she went nuts. Fighting with our parents, sneaking into bars, driving fast and drinking at every opportunity."
His words from the night he'd kissed her - echoed in her head. It doesn't take a psychologist to know that anyone who flirts with the kind of danger the Alpine Angels rush into on a regular basis is fighting. . .something. Her heart tripped. "You said Thomas Johnson wasn't around the day your sister died?"
"No." The single word was clipped, curt.
She didn't want to ask. She didn't want to think about a girl who'd been brutally raped. About a girl who'd seen her rapist walk free. But she had to know what had happened all those years ago. "How did she die?"
His expression was as cold as an arctic night. "Combined the drinking and fast driving one night. Drove her car off the third mainland."
She closed her eyes. No wonder he was sensitive about the Angels' stunts. "I'm sorry,"
"So am I." His eyes were as dull as his voice.
Her heart ached. For Detola. For Demola. "Why did the charge end up being attempted murder instead of murder? Why didn't you kill Thomas? Did you come to your senses, decide it wasn't worth it?"
"Oh, no. I wasn't that smart then. I fully intended to beat him to death. But Thomas' neighbour saw me pull up, saw me pound my way through Thomas front door and he called the cops. The cops didn't get there soon enough to keep me from doing some major damage to him, but they got there in time to save him."
Tomilola couldn't imagine the rage that had sent him to that house. But she could sympathize with it. "I'm glad they got to you before you killed him."
"Why? Because you think he didn't deserve to die?" Anger vibrated in his voice.
She shook her head. "I think he probably did. But killing him yourself would only have ruined your life. I don't think that would have helped anyone. Least of all Detola."
"No, it didn't help Detola a bit."
She suspected there was more behind that remark than met the eye, but right now she needed to concentrate on the Demola part of the story. "How long were you in prison?"
And the anguish of every one of those years was evident in his eyes. "That's a long time."
"You can't imagine."
"No I can't." She watched him quietly. "Is that why you walked away from me the other night? Because you're an ex-con?" She could see the shame that title caused him. "Is that what you meant when you said you didn't belong in the picture with me?"
"Oh, for crying out loud, Tomilola, don't look at me like it doesn't make me the last kind of man you should have in your life."
She'd had Demola dragged in here because she'd wanted to know what kind of man he was. Wanted to know if he was the honorable, caring man she thought he was. Or a cold calculating criminal.
The regret she saw in his face for the decision he'd made all those years ago, the pain still haunting him for his sister's rape and death told her everything she needed to know. "I'm not sure it does. Going after Thomas was stupid. But you did it for all the right reasons. How old were you when it happened?"
Impatience and self-deprecating anger snapped in his eyes. "Old enough to know better And don't glorify or justify what I did. There's no justification for it. It was a stupid, irresponsible, wrong thing to do."
"Words spoken by an older, wiser man." A man whose life was unalterably changed by the events of a sad, tragic time.
"Wiser or not, I guarantee the only thing people see when they look at me is an ex-con. Scum of the earth. What I've done since prison doesn't mean a damned thing to them. And any woman whose name is attached to mine will be lowered to the same level."
"That's a little dramatic, don't you think?"
"Not a bit. Old man Johnson might well have a personal beef with me, but I guarantee there are plenty other people in town who view me and the other ex-cons on this estate with the same contempt and loathing he does."
"I'm sure there are. Bigots have always been, and will always be, around. But there are also fair-minded people. People like Barbara Okorie. She made it clear she had no qualms about the Big W. Or any of the men on it. And my father obviously thought a man's character was made up of more than his past mistakes. As for myself, I prefer to make up my own mind about a person."
His expression shuttered. "By all means, make up your own mind. But I'm not going to drag any woman down to my level. Least of all Wole Adenuga's daughter."
"And I don't get any say in this?" Frustration pounded through her. "I'm supposed to ignore the fact that I still can't stop thinking about that kiss? That every time I'm around you, my nerves hum and little tingles race through my body?"
Demola's expression remained cold, detached. "Unless you're into frustration, I recommend that's exactly what you do. I have no intention of compounding the mistake I made thirteen years ago. I screwed up and I'll pay the price, but I'm so not going to let you pay it with me." He spun on his heel and strode out of the office, pulling the door closed behind him.
She plowed her fingers through her hair. She'd convinced herself Demola was the honorable, caring man she'd thought him to be. Convinced herself he was exactly the kind of man she wanted in her life. But convincing him was obviously not going to be so easy.