Demola stood in the small speedboat, his legs spread, his knees loose and both hands holding on to the windshield as they sped over the choppy waves of the Sea. At the moment the only thing of importance was getting to the Sea Breeze, the boat the Angels were using for the shark-feeding expedition.
He'd missed the press conference in the hotel. His plane hadn't been late, thankfully, but the only flight he'd been able to snag on such late notice had put him in Lagos fifteen minutes after the press conference had ended. Now he was playing catch-up, hoping to hell he made it to the boat before the girls went overboard.
His heart pounding, his palms could and sweaty, he glanced over at the man whose services and boat he'd hired. The islander's attention was focused on the Sea Breeze. The throttle was full-bore. Little point in pushing the boat driver to go faster. He couldn't. He was eking out every bit of speed his small boat had.
As they got closer to the Sea Breeze, Demola noticed she was fairly big, around eighty feet. A tall cabin with deck space on top took mist of the center portion of the boat. There was a small deck area aft, with a narrow walkway that ran along the side to a larger deck area the prow.
Almost everyone was at the prow. He imagined they were gathered around the big TV screen that was always present at the Angel events. No doubt little Martha and her family would be there, along with several news reporters, representatives from the corporations and other people who'd pledged smaller money donations.
He desperately searched for the girls. Four bright pink wet suits with brown heads topping them caught his eye. The girls were still on board.
His boat powered down as they approached. As his driver got them snuggled up next to the Sea Breeze, Demola quickly took in the party going on up front. A big shark swarm by on the large screen, its open jaw displaying its sharp, deadly teeth. Demola's gut jerked into a tight knot and he pulled his gaze from the deadly predator. He spotted Martha. She was sitting front and center in a lounge chair. She looked to be about six. Her long, dark hair trailed over her shoulder accenting her unnaturally pale complexion.
That was the word that came to mind as he stared at the little girl. He was glad Tomilola and the other Angels were helping her. But, not in the manner they'd chosen. They had other ways to make money now. Safer ways.
With the small boat bobbing beneath the Sea Breeze's ladder, Demola grabbed hold of the metal rungs and climbed onto the big boat's gently rocking deck. He started up the narrow walkway that led to the prow, looking for Tomilola. He picked her out of the crowd fairly quickly. She was talking to a gray-haired man in a business suit, an animated smile on her lips.
She spotted Demola making his way to her. Triumph chased across her face as she realized her little ploy to get him here had worked. She quickly passed the businessman off to Rosie, whispered something in her friend's ear and headed his way.
He drank in the sight of her. The way her hair spilled in brown curls from the ponytail fixed on top of her head. The way the tight, bright pink wet suit hugged her every tantalizing curve. The way her hips kicked in seductive invitation as she made her way to him. She looked good. Damned good.
But he wasn't here to admire her beauty.
He was here to wrung her neck. He stopped at the end of the walkway, waited for her to close the distance between them and pinned her with a hard gaze. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
She winced at his words and peeked over her shoulder, obviously worrying if anyone had heard. But no one was paying attention to them. Rosie had dragged the businessman in front of the big screen and was addressing the crowd, keeping their attention there. Tomilola took his elbow and started pulling him toward the back of the boat.
He followed because the last thing Martha and her family needed was more strife in their lives. But as soon as he and Tomilola reached the back of the boat, he pulled her around to face him. "Answer my question, dammit. What the hell do you think you're doing?"
She batted her lashes innocently. "Isn't that evident? We're holding another Angels' event."
"Don't jerk my chain, Tomilola. You won't like the result. This event wasn't designed to save that little girl. It was designed to bring me running."
She squared her shoulders and met his gaze head on. "This is absolutely about making sure Martha gets the medical treatments she needs. But was the specific event chosen to get your cute little butt here? You bet."
He narrowed his gaze on her. "And getting me here is worth risking your friends' safety?"
"No, it isn't." she spat. "That's your fault."
"Excuse me?" he asked incredulously.
"Look, I came up with this idea because I knew you'd come running when you heard we were going to feed sharks. But that's all we were going to do originally. Feed the sharks. No big deal."
"No big deal?" he asked pointedly. "They're sharks, Tomilola. Big, deadly, eating machines with monster jaws and row after row of razor-sharp teeth. They're not a bunch of trained poodles."
"And we weren't going to try to make them to jump through hoops. We were just going to throw them a few tasty morsels of fish. That was my idea. You and I talked about this, remember? I want to keep my friends around for a long, long time. I want to start making these events safer. And the shark psychologists. . ."
"Shark psychologists?" For crying out loud, don't tell me you listened to people who call themselves shark psychologists. You think those animals come in and lie on couches?"
She shot him a disparaging look. "Fine. Call them whatever you want. The point is these guys study sharks. They know how the animals think. They assured me feeding them is perfectly safe. In fact, they feed them here all the time. It's no biggie. They even let the tourists do it."
"Stupid, foolish tourists, maybe."
She waved away his words. "Nobody's ever been hurt doing it, so it's obviously safe. It just sounds and looks dangerous, which made it the perfect stunt to get the corporations to pledge their money and. . ."
"Get me to come running. Yeah, I got that part."
She jutted her chin into the air. "Good. Anyway, then Yemi got it in her head that we could up the corporate pledges if we rode the beasts." She tossed her hands in exasperation, shaking her head. "A shark rodeo. What the heck was she thinking?"
"You expect me to believe your girls don't talk about these decisions?"
"I expect you to be astute enough to realize if I went to all this trouble to get you here, I'm not going to waste my time lying to you. As for the decision bit, yes, we usually decide on the event details together. But since you left, I've been a little. . .distracted. Yemi thought she was doing me a favor by making the decision herself. By the time she let me in on her plans, she'd already talked to the corporations and the press. It was a done deal, nothing I could do about it."
"You could have put a stop to it."
She shook her head. "Not without hurting this fundraiser. We've built our reputation on wild, dangerous stunts. Putting an end to the rodeo part of the event would have made us look like scaredy-cats. No way would the corporations have pledged money for that. And Martha is counting on that money for the treatment she needs. I'm not going to let her down."
The knot in his gut pulled tighter. Of course they couldn't let her down. He stabbed his fingers through his hair. "Dammit. Everything was fine when I left. What the hell happened?"
"What do you mean everything was fine? I wasn't fine." She pointed at her chest with an angry finger.
"You would have been. In time, you would have been." He couldn't stand the pain he saw in her face. Couldn't stand that he'd put it there. He paced away, curling his fingers into tight fists. "Promising Wole I'd bring you home was stupid. I'd already screwed up one family. What the hell made me think I could help his?"
"Don't tell me I would have been fine. You don't get to make that call. And what does that mean? You'd already screwed up one family?"
"It doesn't mean anything." He paced away. That was the last road he wanted to go down.
"Oh, no. You can't back out of that statement now. I think it's important." She strode over and pulled him around, her gaze sharp and intense. "Do you blame yourself for your sister's rape?"
Panic nipped at his heels. "Don't be ridiculous. How the hell could I have been responsible for my sister's rape? She was at a school event. My dad dropped her at the school's doors. She was there with a hundred other kids. She should have been perfectly safe. No one could have known he would drag her out the back door and rape her."
She shuddered at the harsh reality of his words, but her gaze didn't waver. "What about what happened after? Her death? Do you blame yourself for that?"
He couldn't breathe. Couldn't think. It was as if a giant hand was squeezing the life out of him.
"Yes." The word was out of his mouth before he could stop it. "Yes, I blame myself. If I hadn't gone after that bastard, if I hadn't been so intent on proving how big a man I was, I wouldn't have been in jail the night my sister ran her car off the bridge. I might have been around to take the keys from her. And if I'd done that, maybe my parents wouldn't have had to bury their daughter."
"Oh, God." She closed her eyes momentarily. When she opened them, empathy spiked with determination glistened there. "I'm not going to tell you you're wrong. If you hadn't gone after the rapist, if you'd been at home, maybe you would have saved your sister that night. But you might not have, either. Teenage girls are sneaky. And innovative. I can't tell you how many times I told my mom I was going over to a friends to study when my real destination was to a club. And even if you'd saved her that night, it doesn't mean you would have saved her the next time. She's not blameless for what happened to her."
"She was a nineteen year old girl who'd been brutally raped."
"Yes, she was. She was young and hurt and, like you, she made some bad choices."
"She's not responsible for those choices, she was hurting too badly. I, on the other hand, was simply trying to stoke my ego, prove how big a man I was." And he hated himself for it.
She shook her head. "You're not going to sell me that. And if you've been selling it to yourself all these years, you're obviously still trying to hang on to all that male pride."
"You can hardly compare my anger to the pain she was going through. If she made mistakes it was hardly her fault, but me. . ."
"Don't." She pinned him with a steely glare. "Don't you dare belittle the emotions you were feeling then. Were you angry someone had hurt your sister? I'm sure you were. Livid. But don't pretend it was the only emotion you felt. Or even the strongest one. You forget, I know what it's like to see someone you love hurting. . .physically, mentally. I stood over my mother's bed and watched a nightmarish disease ravage her. I saw her pain every minute of everyday. And it hurt like hell. Don't try telling me your sister's pain didn't hurt you."
"Even if it did, it was no excuse for going after him."
"No, it wasn't. But it would certainly have been one heck of an impetus. God knows, there were days if I'd thought killing someone would make my mom feel better, I might have pounded someone to a bloody pulp myself."
"No, you wouldn't have."
"Don't count on it. There were some black days back then."
One look at the shadows in her eyes and he knew there had been. But he couldn't let that sway him.
"You're talking theories. I'm talking reality. You didn't go after anyone. I did. And I not only sealed my sister's fate by doing that, I destroyed my parents' lives as well. Do you have any idea what it was like for them to have one child dead and the other locked up as an attempted murderer?" He shook his head, pain washing over him. "All their hopes, all their dreams, flushed down the toilet. And I did it. I won't risk ruining another family."
Her eyes went wide. "Oh, my God. That's why you left. The real reason you left. Not because you were afraid I couldn't handle a few bigots. But because. . ."
"It's not the reason." He stalked away, panic stampeding after him. "It's just another reason. I can give you a dozen more if you've got an hour or so and a sofa. I could lie down for you and you could psychoanalyze me all day long if you like."
"If I get you prone, psychoanalzying you will be the last thing on my mind." Her voice was low, husky.
Desire slammed through him, hot and hard and powerful. He had to put an end to this conversation before it completely ambushed him. And then find a way to stop her and the others from riding those sharks.
"Tomilola, it's time to go." The female voice broke into their argument.
Startled, they both turned to find Rosie peeking around the corner.
The tall lady tipped her head toward the front of the boat. "It's time."
Tomilola gave her head a quick nod. "I'll be right there. You guys head on down." She turned back to him. "I don't have time to pussyfoot around here, so I'll get right to the point. You made a mistake once. A big one. One that affected people's lives. But you've paid for that mistake. More importantly, you've learned from it. Does that mean you'll never make another one? Probably not. Fallibility is part of the human condition. But. . ."
"I don't need a lecture on mistakes. I. . ."
"You're going to get one, anyway. You told me once you thought of all the mistakes my folks made, my mother made the biggest one when she walked away without giving herself and my dad the chance to make things right. How is what you're doing any different?"
"Oh, for crying out. . .it's completely different."
She shook her head. "No, actually, it's not. You might be running for different reasons. But you're still running, Demola. The question you have to ask yourself is do you want to behave like my mother? Or my father? Dad made as big a mistake as Mom did twenty-two years ago. The difference was, he dug in and did what he could to rectify the situation. And he didn't do it just for himself and his family; he did it for others, too. He did it for the workers that work on the estate. He did it for you. He gave you a second chance, Demola. Don't throw that back in his face."
She turned from him and started back toward the aisle that led to the front of the boat, but she turned on her heel and came back to him. "I love you, Demola Adenuga."
The words hit him like a sucker punch.
She chuckled softly and shook her head. "I'm not going to take it back, so live with it. I love you. And I'm not willing to let the best thing that's ever wandered into my life wander out. So do us both a favor. Make the right decision here. Screw up some courage and give us a chance." She raised on her toes and kissed him, hard and deep. Then she turned on her heel and strode away.
He watched her go, his world spinning around him.
She loved him?
He swallowed hard, her words about her mother and father echoing in his head. Was she right? Was he running?
He stared at her as she donned her diving gear and stepped off the side of the boat. Her image appeared on the giant screen as she slowly sank toward the bottom of the sea. Big, sleek, torpedo-shaped animals appeared in the background.
She settled on the bottom of the sea and took a spear from a diver already kneeling there, a big fish skewered on the end. A shark darted her way, his sleek body racing through the water, his deadly jaws gaping.
Why did he get the feeling if he didn't want to spend the rest of his life watching Tomilola go from one hair-raising stunt after the next, he'd better come to terms with his past.
Her heart pounding like a frantic tattoo. Tomilola held on to the shark's dorsal fin as it thrashed through the water, trying to dislodge her.
One thousand one.
One thousand two.
Eight seconds. Like the bull riders in the rodeo, she had to stay with the shark for eight seconds. She gritted her teeth and held on for dear life as the sharp edged, sandpapery hide bit into her skin.
One thousand four.
One thousand five.
The shark jerked toward her, its jaws opened wide, its sharp, jagged teeth a clear warning as the shark tried to make her let go. Oh, God. She closed her eyes and held on tighter. As long as she snuggled up to his side and he couldn't reach her.
One thousand seven.
One thousand eight.
She let go as the shark jerked in the other direction - away from her - and held her breath to see if the angry fish would turn back toward her to bite her in half or swim away.
It darted into the murky depths.
She sucked in a deep breath of compressed air and looked for the other girls, praying they were okay. Praying she wouldn't find body parts and a trail of blood floating through the water. She found them together, elbows linked not far away. They all waved heartily. Relief poured through her. They were okay.
It had been a successful event. They'd made money on all but one of the fish the dive masters had brought down for them to feed. And they'd all ridden their sharks. Martha's parents wouldn't have to worry about what they could and couldn't afford for their daughter. Ashley would get every medical treatment she needed.
Now all they had to do was get out of the sea without one of sharks wandering back for a last tasty bite. Tomilola pointed toward the surface with her thumb, signaling it was time to head up. But first, the four of them turned to the underwater cameramen, took their regulators out of their mouths, smiled widely and waved to the people on the boat. Then they were all heading up.
As Tomilola swam toward the surface, keeping a sharp eye on the few sharks that still swam around looking for another handout, her thoughts shifted to Demola. Would he still be there when she got back on board? Or would he be gone? Her stomach tied in a thousand knots.
Let him be there.
Please, let him be there.
She hit the surface, handed her vest with the heavy air tank and her fins off to a helper and scampered up the ladder to the Sea Breeze's deck, hoping the first face she'd see would be his. But he wasn't in the crowd that greeted her. Her heart sank and she searched deeper into the layers of people crowding around her, but he was nowhere to be seen. Tears stung her eyes. She did her best to blink them back, glad for the camouflaging effect of the sea's wetness.
"Aunty Tomi, Aunty Tomi." The small voice belonged to Martha. The crowd in front of Tomilola parted and the wraithlike child made her way through.
Tomilola forced her lips into a big smile. "Hey, sweetie, what do you think?"
Martha giggled. "I think I'm never going to get into that sea. Those sharks would swallow me whole."
Tomilola laughed with her. "I think you're right. We'll have to think of something else fun for you to do when you get through with all your treatments. How about. . .I know, a trip to Obudu Ranch in Calabar?"
"Yea!" Martha jumped up and down. "Mummy has told me a lot about the place."
"I bet she has. You can say hi for me."
Martha's parents had moved in behind her. Worried frowns furrowed their brows. Tomilola moved quickly to reassure them. "The trip is compliments of the Angels, of course. Your only job is to make sure she gets healthy so she can enjoy the trip."
Martha's mom smiled, tears springing to her eyes. "We can do that. And we wanted to thank you girls. You've truly been angels to us. If you hadn't done this. . ." She swiped at her tears, doing her best to hang on to her composure.
"No thanks necessary. You just take care of this little girl." Tomilola gave the woman's arm a reassuring squeeze and stepped away, giving the parents time to compose themselves.
That's when she saw him.
He was standing in the alcove that led down below, his boots looking a bit out of place on the boat, his intense gaze tracking her every move.
A little bubble of hope pushed at her throat. Did his presence mean he'd decided to give them a chance? Or just that he'd stayed to say goodbye? Hope and fear pounding through her, she made her way across the deck. She wanted to throw herself into his arms, but she stopped a few feet away, giving him a little breathing room. "You're still here."
The corners of his lips quirked. "So it appears."
"Does that mean . . ." She plowed her fingers through her hair. She was afraid to ask the question. But she was more afraid not to. "Does that mean you're going to give us a chance?"
He looked away, the tiny smile disappearing as he gazed out at the vast expanse of water. "It means I think you're right about why I left. It scares me to death to think of starting a relationship, a family, and then making a big mistake down the road that would tear it apart."
Was that an I'm-leaving or I'm-staying comment? Afraid to tip the scale the wrong way, she stuck to a true, but unavoidable, observation. "Life is scary sometimes."
He laughed humorlessly. "If the last twenty minutes is any indication, it can be damned terrifying."
Since there wasn't one single bone in her body that disagreed with that, she kept her mouth closed.
He looked at her, his brown-eyed gaze piercing. "I'm never going through that again, Tomilola. Ever. Which means running is no longer an option. You obviously need someone around to rein you in."
She stilled. That kind of sounded like an I'm-staying. "Are you by any chance thinking you might do the reining-in?'
"I'm sure as hell not going to let any other guy do it."
That was definitely an I'm-staying. The bubble of hope burst into joy. But she held herself in check. He'd made her work too hard getting him here for her to let him off too easy. She raised a brow. "Is that right?"
"Absolutely right." He pulled her to him and lowered his lips to hers.
The kiss was hot and deep and left no doubt in her mind that he was staking his claim.
Her knees went weak. Her every nerve ending short-circuited.
Finally, he pulled his lips from hers. "I love you."
She held on to him, gasping for air, the words ringing like sweet chimes in her ears. "In that case, I can live with the macho reining-in thing."
He chuckled, low and sexy. "Glad to hear it. How do you feel about getting married?"
What? She leaned back in his arms to get a good look at his face. He looked down at her, his expression dead serious.
"Man," she said. "When you screw up your courage, you don't stop halfway, do you?"
"In case you haven't noticed, I'm not a man of half measures. If I'm going to do something, I don't play at it. I do it." He tucked a wet curl behind her ear. "And your father wouldn't like his daughter playing house. If you were sleeping with a man, he'd want you married. And I fully intend to be sleeping with you."
Desire shot through her. Hot and wild. She pulled his lips back to hers and did a little claiming of her own.
Several minutes later, he pulled his lips from hers again, his gaze delving into hers. "Is that a yes, Tomilola Adeyemi?"
She smiled up at him, tears of joy filling her eyes. "It's a yes, Ademola Adenuga, Yes, yes, yes."