Tomilola sat listlessly on the sofa in the living room, staring out at the Big W. It was almost noon. The sun was approaching its zenith, its heat busily baking the Lagos oil. The hands were flocking to the bunk house, coming in from the barns and the closer ranges for lunch. She shifted her gaze from the daily hustle and bustle and stared at the little house across the road.
The house that had been Demola's.
Pain clawed at her heart and the numbing sensation she'd been battling since he'd left two weeks ago got a little deeper.
Rose came into the room, pouting as she spied Tomilola on the sofa. "You're not sitting around brooding again, are you?"
Pulling herself from her stupor, Tomilola mustered what energy she could and shoved it into an expression that hopefully made her look cheery. "No. I'm just sitting here. . ."
"Brooding," Rose filled in with a knowing look.
What energy Tomilola'd managed to gather leaked out of her like air from a balloon. "Yeah."
Tomilola dropped down onto the sofa beside her. "This is pitiful. You realize that, don't you? You're acting like an idiot. Quit lying around mooning over this guy. Go out and learn how to chase cows or something."
"Cattle. Learn how to chase cattle. And there's no point in that."
"Because I'm not going to stay." There, she'd said it. She ought to be glad the only person she had to say it to was Rose. Amaka and Yemi had headed back to their own homes last week.
Rose's brows crumpled in confusion. "You're not staying? Are you all going to sell the place then?"
She shook her head. "I still want to use it as a base for the charity. But I'll get someone else to run it. Charles, maybe. As the financial man, he knows better than anyone what it will take to keep the place going. Once I'm gone, he can hire someone to keep the day-to-day operations running smoothly." She hadn't been able to hire anyone to take Demola's place. It just seemed. . .wrong, somehow.
"But if you leave, where will you go?" Concern filled Rose's voice.
"Back to my place in Port-Harcourt."
"Oh, no, you're not going back to that godforsaken hole-in-the-wall where your only company will be the cockroaches living under your sink." She pushed up from the sofa and paced away. When she turned back, her eyes crackled with stubborn determination. "This is ridiculous. You can't walk away from the most decent home you've ever known just because Demola did. The man is gone. Snap out of it and get on with your life."
Fresh pain slashed through her. "You don't have to tell me he's gone, Rose. I'm well aware of that fact."
"Then stop acting like a thirteen-year-old with a broken heart and get back into the game. Think about some of the fund-raisers we talked about using the estate for. The auction. The rodeo."
Tomilola thrust up from the sofa. "I don't want to think about those things. They both require being here. And I don't want to be here anymore, period. It's too painful. Everywhere I look, I see him. I look at the flowers and I remember the day he took me to dad's study. Yesterday I took a ride out to the bar and. . ." Her voice broke and tears flooded in her eyes. She spun away, swiping at the tears. She wasn't going to break down in front of Rose, never.
"Oh, my God." Rose whispered, dropping back onto the sofa. "You love him."
Tomilola spun back, shaking her head. "Don't be ridiculous. It's just. . ."
"Just what?" Rose demanded.
Tomilola's heart raced. She'd already lost too many people she loved. Her mother, way too early for a child to be saying goodbye to a parent. Her father, before she'd even known him. She didn't want to add the man she loved to that list.
She strode over to the window, panic pushing at her. She didn't love him. She didn't. She stared out at the window looking for a distraction, anything to keep her from thinking about the words pounding through her head, the emotions squeezing the air from her. But the yard was quiet, everyone had gone to eat.
She tried to concentrate on the cattle standing nose to tail and gently scratching each other's rumps in the nearest corral. But her gaze slid sideways until she was staring, once again, at Demola's favorite cattle. She dropped her head against the cool pane of glass with a defeated groan. She could deny the words all she wanted, but there was no denying the pain in her heart.
She loved him.
God help her, she loved him. She turned back to Rose, her shoulders slumping as she leaned against the glass. "Now what?"
Her expression sympathetic, Rose came over and put her arms around her. She held her quietly for a minute, then pulled back just far enough to look into her eyes. "If you love this guy, you can't give up this easy. You can't give up on this estate and you can't give up on him. You've got to go after him. Fight for him."
She shook her head. "He's not going to give in, Rose. He's too damned stubborn. Too damned. . . honorable."
Rose waved away her comments. "Honor, you're not buying that nonsense about him tainting you, are you?"
"I've never bought it and you know it. But that doesn't mean he doesn't buy it. And in case you haven't heard, it takes two to tango."
"I'm not asking you about the tango. I'm asking you if you believe he's not worthy of you."
"Oh, for pity's sake. He is the most decent man I've ever met. Any woman would be lucky to have him in her life."
"Well, then, pardon my bluntness, but you need to quit sitting here like some sorry quitter. You need to pack your bags and go out and get him."
The word caught in her mind, jogging another memory.
. . .I can't believe Wole's daughter is this much of a quitter. . .
Demola's words echoed in her head, followed by others, equally pointed.
. . .From what you said, leaving at the first sign of trouble and never looking back was a habit of hers. Before you decide to walk away from the Big W, make sure this isn't one of your mother's traits you're glooming on to. . .
She'd made up her mind that night she wouldn't give up easily again. But she had. Not on the estate, but on something far, far more important.
Shame on her.
She straightened her shoulders. "You're right, I wimped out. And. . .that's enough of that. Come on, you can help me. . .oh geez, major problem."
"What's that?" Rose asked.
"I don't know where Demola is. Even if I wanted to toss a rope around him and tie him down until he listened, I don't know where to find him. He called Charles right after he left, told him he'd let him know when he'd be staying some place long enough to have his cheque sent, but so far he hasn't made that call."
"Okay, that's going to be a tricky roadblock. But we can get around it."
"How?" Desperation froze her brain.
"I don't know, but we'll think of something. Maybe you could put an ad in the paper, threatening to burn the place down if he doesn't get his cute little behind back here."
Tomilola shot her a disparaging look. "What paper would that be?" For all we know, he's in Dubai somewhere. Or South Africa."
"I see your point."
"Wait a minute." Hope surged through her as her idea began to take shape. "The Angels always get international press. . .and air time."
Rose nodded. "We do, but we can't go on TV and threaten to burn the estate down."
Tomilola laughed, feeling more alive than she had in days. "No, we can't. But Demola's not wild about the Angel stunts. I think a risky one might bring him running."
Catching on, Rose smiled. "Got one in mind?"
An article she'd read in a travel magazine a few months back popped into Tomilola's head. She smiled wickedly. "As a matter of fact, I do. Let's go call the other girls."
Demola strode into his hotel room in Maitama with the bag of burgers and fries he'd picked up across the street. The last three weeks had been the longest of his life. Longer than the five years he'd spent behind bars.
He missed the Big W.
He missed Tomilola.
Swearing softly, he set his dinner on the small table by the bed and toed his boots off. "Get over it, fool. You made the right decision." The only decision he could make if he was going to keep his promise to Tomilola's father.
Which didn't make him stop missing her. Didn't make him stop wanting her.
He propped the bed pillows against the headboard, sat, kicked his stockinged feet out in front of him and grabbed the white paper bag, wishing to hell it was a bottle of Red Label instead. The last thing he felt like doing was eating. But nursing a bottle of red label until he passed out. . .that had definite appeal.
Too much appeal for a man who didn't have anything in his life to stay sober for. So he'd forgone the bottle for the bag of food. Pulling a burger out, he stared at the ugly painting tacked on the wall above the TV. God, he was sick of motel rooms. He needed to get back to work. If he had something to occupy his time, his hands, maybe he'd stop thinking about Tomilola.
Stop thinking about how beautiful she was. Stop thinking about the way her breasts had filled his hands. Or the way she'd looked at him the night they'd made love. He closed his eyes, trying to ignore his body's response.
He definitely needed to get back to work. The problem was, he didn't know anyone around here. He decided to catch the end of the news while he finished his dinner and then he'd strategize on how to go job hunting.
The national news reporter, his gray air perfectly styled, stared out at the audience with a smile on his lips.
"The Angels are at it again. They've scheduled a fund raiser for a young girl with leukemia. Martha Okon's family lives on the outskirts of Lagos, and is in need of funds to help pay for their daughter's chemotherapy. The Angels are stepping outside their usual venue for this stunt and heading towards the borders. They're having a shark rodeo off the coast of the Benue River, feeding and riding the sharks in those waters to raise money. They've got the Dangote Group of Companies on the hook for a thousand dollars for each fish the world's most deadly eating machines take off the Angels' spears. Five thousand for each fish they take out of the Angels' hands. And ten thousand dollars for each "ride" the Angels take holding on to the sharks' dorsal fins. It promises to be quite an event. For those interested in adding to the pot, an e-mail address will be flashed at the end of the program."
Demola stared at the TV, his blood running cold, the burger in his hand all but forgotten as the commentators moved on to the next story.
They were going to feed sharks? From their hands? And then they were going to blithely grab hold of their dorsal fins for a little ride?
Over his dead body.
Tossing his dinner aside, he stood and snatched the phone from its place on the bedside table. He punched the estate's number in, stabbing each button with the anger building inside him as he paced away from the bed - until the short hotel cord brought him to an abrupt halt. Dammit.
The phone rang on the other end.
"Big W." Charles' voice.
"What the hell do you think you're doing, letting those girls head down to the border to feed sharks, for crying out loud?"
"Ah, you must have just caught the news. CNN did a good job, don't you think? The girls should make some good money with this stunt."
"Good. . .have you lost your damn mind? They'll probably get eaten alive."
"Tomilola says not, though I imagine they could." Charles' voice was amazingly calm considering the words coming out of his mouth.
"Then stop them, dammit."
"I'm not their mommy. And neither are you. In fact, you don't have any say at all over what they do. More to the point, what Tomilola does. You're out of her life, remember?"
He stilled. There was something far too smug in Charles' tone. "Is this a setup? Is Tomilola just trying to lure me back within her grasp?"
"She hasn't said so. She's playing it straight, hasn't mentioned she has any other motivation for the fundraiser beyond Martha's need."
"But. . ." Demola pushed.
"But there's a calculating gleam in her eyes that's pretty hard to miss." There wasn't an ounce of empathy in Charles' voice.
"And knowing that, you didn't stop her."
"Like I said, not my job."
Anger raced through him. What the hell was Charles thinking? He knew the man hadn't been happy at his leaving. Charles had made himself clear on that subject when Demola had called right after he'd left. But when all was said and done, he thought his friend had at least understood that he didn't belong in Tomilola's life, that his leaving was the only option available. Apparently not. "Anything happens to any of those girls, Tomilola in particular, I'm coming after you."
"You know where to find me."
"Count on it. In the meantime, where and when is this little shindig taking place?" His gut clenched as he realized he'd have to chase after her. Have to put an end to this nonsense himself.
"Day after tomorrow off the shores of River Benue. Their final meeting with the press before they head out on the boat is 7:00am. You'd best get a move on if you want to get there before Tomilola feeds her arm to a shark. Have fun. Say hi to the girls and. . ."
Demola slammed the phone down and paced away, struggling for a calming breath, glad he was as far from Charles as he was.
Say hi to the girls?
Right after he wrung their necks.