Hope tried not to feel bad about the snub from Daniel Amadi, but she thought about it throughout the drive home after work. He’d practically looked through her, and it rankled. It really did.
At home, she had dinner with her parents and half-listened to them as they discussed politics while the evening news was on. Her father was on with one of his lectures again, talking about the ‘coup of the five majors’ and its implications while her mother listened patiently. When Hope got tired of the history lesson, she said goodnight and went upstairs to her room to get ready for bed. Just as she lay down, her phone rang. She felt a slight ripple of excitement when she saw Charles’s name flashing on her screen, and she tried to keep it out of her voice.
“Hi, angel,” was the first thing he said, the simple endearment making Hope’s excitement and pleasure harder to hide.
“Hello” she replied, her voice soft. “How are you?”
“So, so… wondering what you’re doing.”
Hope shrugged. “I was just going to bed.”
“Hmm,” she could hear the mischief in his voice, so his next question didn’t surprise her. “So… what are you wearing?”
She only paused a beat. “Something very sexy, satin, lots of lace, very low cut, and very short.”
There was a long silence. “You’re killing me,” Charles said finally, his voice low.
Hope grinned. “You started it.”
He took a deep breath. “Let’s have dinner tomorrow. Tell me when you close from work, and I’ll come pick you.”
She should have thought about it, thought about refusing at least, but she wanted to see him, and she couldn’t keep lying to herself. “You don’t have to pick me up. I’ll meet you at whichever restaurant we choose.”
“Where’s the romance in that?” he complained. “Can’t you leave your car at the office or something?”
“I could.” Hope considered it. “But I don’t want to get to work the next day and find that the real owners have collected the brain box and tires.”
“The real owners?” He laughed. “You mean thieves? You guys don’t have security? Anyway,” he continued, “why don’t we do it like this – I’ll come and pick you tomorrow morning, so you can leave your car at home. That way we actually get to spend more time together.”
Spend more time together. Hope bit back a sigh. She was treading on dangerous waters here, and she knew it. Already, he seemed to assume that they were back on track, seeing each other. Meanwhile, she knew deep down, that was a risk she shouldn’t take.
Yet she was encouraging him
Taking pleasure in his attention.
Loving it, in fact.
“Fine,” she told him, “You have to be here before seven though, and I close from work at five, but I hardly ever leave before six. You can pick me up then.”
She could almost hear his grin through the phone. “See you tomorrow,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Hope smiled. “Goodnight Charles.”
She thought about that final endearment for a long time before sleep finally took her.
The next morning, Charles arrived on time. By half past six, he’d already sent a text to tell her he was parked outside. Hope hurriedly finished her makeup and checked that she looked good. She was wearing a grey dress with a black mandarin collar and black cuffs, paired with black suede heels and pearl studs in her ears. After one last look in the mirror, she hurried downstairs.
“You no carry your motor today?” Ayuba asked as she hurried towards the small gate.
Hope shook her head, ignoring the gateman’s perplexed expression. He ran ahead of her and unlocked the gate, his expression turning to understanding and curiosity when he saw the car parked outside.
Hope ignored him, quickly making for Charles’ car. She opened the door and climbed into the passenger seat. The stereo was playing dancehall music, but soft, almost too low to hear anything but the beats. Charles looked up as she entered, his welcoming grin making her heart tighten a little.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Good – You look…wow!” he exclaimed, leaning back and arching an eyebrow in her direction. “Do you usually look like this every morning, or is this a special effort for me.”
“Shut up,” Hope laughed. “Stop flattering yourself.”
“What’s wrong with making an effort to look good for me?” he said, shifting to drive and moving the car. “Aren’t I worth it.”
Hope smiled. “Seeing as you drove all this way to pick me up, yeah, maybe.”
He looked at her, a tender smile on his face, and she found herself smiling back at him. It was intimate somehow, that exchange of pleasure at each other’s company.
He still dumped you, Hope. Have you forgotten? And he has a wife. Don’t forget that either.
Hope pushed the warning voice to the back of her mind. She was determined to enjoy the attention, and she did. By the time he dropped her at her office, she’d spent most of the past hour laughing at his teasing, teasing him in turn, and thinking that maybe, if there weren’t any obstacles in their way, it wouldn’t be so bad to be with him again.
“It seems the best option is to channel the storm water outside the estate and create a new storm drain, which will link to the existing canal… Hope, why are you smiling.”
Hope blinked at one of the senior partners at Maduekwe and Makinde. He was standing at the front of the conference room, going through the options she had proposed for the storm drainage of an estate design the firm was working on.
“I’m not smiling…” Hope lied, wiping the daydreaming grin off her face. She’d been thinking about Charles, about that morning, about how easy it had been to forget their past and just enjoy his attention. How unprofessional! “I agree with your assessment, sir. The proposed storm drain is also my preferred option.”
He gave her a look that communicated that he wasn’t convinced of her seriousness, and Hope felt embarrassment flow through her. In such a male-dominated industry, one had to prove consistently that one was competent. Any small slip and some of the older men completely forgot how capable you’d been in that past, in their hurry to label you as another ‘lazy’ woman.”
She forced herself to focus on work for the rest of the day, pushing all thoughts of Charles to the back of her mind. She worked over and above her target for the day, by the time five pm came around, the junior engineers were glad to escape her endless demands for printouts and her red ink markups as they hurried home.
“If we keep working like this every day, we’ll have to go and help other firms finish their work o, just to have something to do.”
Hope looked over at Agnes, who was packing up her stuff and getting ready to leave for the day. “If we worked like this every day, we’d all be dead.”
Agnes laughed. “So you know you were trying to kill all the engineers today.”
Hope stuck out her tongue. “How’s it going with your full package guy?” she asked.
“Kola?” Agnes made a face. “He hasn’t called me since yesterday, and he’s not picking my calls.”
Hope raised her brows. “How come?”
“See ehn… I don’t want to think, or talk about these men,” Agnes said with a shrug. “I’ve stopped calling him sef. I can’t be the desperate one again.” She sighed. “See you tomorrow. Let’s beat our all deadlines this month.”
Hope nodded. “That’s the spirit.”
After Agnes left, Hope spent a few moments staring at her screen. She wasn’t the type to press and press for details especially when the person in question didn’t want to share the information. She wondered how Agnes was feeling. Or what was really happening with the guy. Agnes had never been the type to hold back when she liked a guy, and some guys just didn’t know how to deal with that. Sometimes they took it as an invitation to take advantage of the woman and then leave her with the excuse that she was too easy.
Such guys were not worth it anyway, Hope thought. Better to have a few days of sadness and forget about them than to spend a lifetime with someone who didn’t value you.
While waiting for Charles to call, she freshened her makeup and caught up on her favourite sitcom. She had gone through two episodes before her phone rang.
“How’s my sweetheart,” he said as soon as she picked up.
Her heart flipped. “Who’s your sweetheart?” she replied, ignoring the sweet ache in her chest.
Charles laughed. “I’m outside your office. Are you ready for me?”
“Ready for what? Is it not food we’re going to eat again?”
There was amusement in his voice. “You never know.”
Those words stayed in her mind as she left the office and took the lift down to the lobby. You never know. Like it was possible their night would end some other way. At the thought, she felt her stomach knot. It would be the most foolish thing to let down all her defences and let Charles back into her life, heart… and body.
And she was determined not to be foolish.
Charles’ car was idling just outside the gates, visible through the low fence. As she approached, he got out of the car and walked over to the passenger side to open the door for her.
Hope climbed into the car with a suspicious frown on her face. “I don’t trust you,” she said, once he joined her.
He started to move the car, his expression innocent. “Why not?”
“Opening car doors, come on! When did you start doing that?”
He looked disappointed. “Sweetheart, why not just accept it like the princess you are.”
Hope laughed. “Nah. You’re definitely buttering me up for the slaughter. You’re the big bad wolf, and I should be careful.”
Charles shrugged. “You know that story – red riding hood and the wolf – has a lot of erotic symbolism.”
She pursed her lips. “No, it doesn’t.”
“Oh, it does. It’s definitely about the wolf seducing red riding hood. ‘all the better to eat you with?” he grinned slyly. “Come on, absolutely talking about sex.”
Hope bit her lip, unable to think of a reply. She should change the subject. Talking about sex with Charles would not lead anywhere she wanted to go.
Anywhere she should go, at least not with him.
“Where are we going?” she asked him.
“First a drink, then a long, satisfying dinner, so you can tell me all that’s been happening since… these past years.”
‘Since you dumped me, you mean,’ Hope thought silently, not bothering to say the words out loud, they were hanging in the air.
But if he felt them, he ignored them, concentrating on navigating the evening traffic. He asked about the project Hope was working on, seeming really interested as she described mechanical works and design restrictions. He told her about his work in the bank, and how crazy it was. He dropped names of important clients and Hope tried not to be too impressed.
Drinks were at a lounge at the very edge of Victoria Island, towards Oniru. As she looked over the cocktail list, Charles leaned close. “You should order the screaming orgasm,” he said. “I’ve never met a woman who didn’t like that one.”
Why was it suddenly so hot inside the lounge? Hope resisted the urge to fan herself. “You’re obviously an expert on women,” she said, surprised at how breathy her voice sounded, but she took his advice and ordered the cocktail and a seafood platter.
Hope tried to keep her eyes on the food as she ate. The plate, the other tables, anything but Charles. It was too hard to look at him, especially when his eyes never seemed to leave her face. The mixture of desire and reverence in his gaze coupled with his dazzling good looks were really too much for her.
If she’d driven herself, she’d have found an excuse to leave. Maybe he knew that. Maybe he’d wanted her to have no option to escape the intensity of his presence.
Hope sighed, concentrating on finishing the fried prawns on her plate and drinking the last of her cocktail, which was delicious. “I feel like I could eat bags of that fried shrimp,” she said.
Charles smiled. “Better not. You should leave space for dinner.”
Hope gave him a questioning glance. “And where is that.”
He shrugged. “You’ll see.”
By the time they left the lounge, traffic had lessened. Charles drove through Victoria Island and took the bridge into Ikoyi.
It wasn’t until he stopped in front of a wide black gate that Hope first suspected that they might not be going to a restaurant as she’d thought. The gate slid open, and the uniformed security man standing just inside waved a greeting at Charles as he drove in. The brightly lit building inside the compound was a modern block of apartments, large luxury apartments by the looks of it. Hope stayed silent as Charles parked, wondering how she felt about going to his home. There was a mild curiosity – She wanted to know where he lived, and yes, it would give her an opportunity to see if there was a significant other lurking somewhere. If it was a home he shared with a wife, there was no way there wouldn’t be some sign, at least.
He switched off the engine and grinned in her direction. “All set?”
Hope paused. “Yes,’ she said finally. “Though I didn’t know we were coming to your place.”
For a moment, he looked concerned. “I hope you don’t mind, but I have a very good cook. Trust me, you’ll love dinner here more than you would have at ninety percent of the restaurants in Lagos.”
“No problem,” Hope said, opening the door and climbing out of the car. Around the parking lot, the rest of the compound was beautifully landscaped, with walkways, curbs, flowers, and shrubs. There was a tennis court at one of the corners, but from what she could see, no swimming pool. She was still looking around when Charles took her hand and led her towards the entrance of the building.
He held on to that hand all the way through the lobby, into the lift and up to his apartment. She was conscious of his touch, in fact, it was almost all she could think about. Inside the apartment, she pulled her hand from his, eliciting a raised eyebrow from him, which she ignored. She concentrated on her surroundings instead. He had a large place, beautifully decorated, with high ornamented ceilings and large windows.
“You have a beautiful home,” Hope offered.
Charles grinned. “Thanks. Would you like me to show you around, or would you like to eat first?”
The words ‘show you around’ conjured images of him leading her through the apartment to his bedroom, and showing her, well, showing her things she’d long forgotten. Hope sighed, cursing her imagination. “I think I should eat asap. I’m famished.”
“Well then, have a seat.”
Hope settled into one of the plush settees, and in the next moment, a smallish man appeared from a doorway Hope assumed led into the kitchen. After greeting her effusively and receiving instructions from Charles, he went back through the door and returned a few seconds later to set the table. Charles switched on the TV but turned it to some radio channel, so the sounds of mellow jazz filtered through hidden speakers. Then he joined her on the settee. “So… You’re really not pissed that I brought you here, are you?”
Not pissed. Apprehensive, maybe, a little shaky, definitely excited… She shook her head, “Of course not. It’s a great looking place. At least now I know you don’t live in a cave with skeletons all over the floor.”
He laughed. “No. My skeletons are safe in my closet.”
“Really? So… you do have skeletons.”
He shrugged. “Don’t we all?”
Just then, the cook, Hope assumed that was what the smallish man was, announced that he had finished setting the table. He returned to the kitchen without a reply from Charles, but after he’d gone, Charles got up and took Hope’s hands again, “Let’s eat.”
She let him lead her to the table, silently wondering what those ‘skeletons’ were, and if she should be worried.
He broke your heart once. He’s actually someone else’s husband. What skeleton can be worse than all that?
The food was delicious, well-garnished seafood rice with salad and fried plantains and a bottle of mellow red wine.
“You can’t eat like this every day and not get fat,” Hope said when she’d eaten the last of her food and was sipping from her glass of wine.
“I work out a lot,” Charles said. “Gotta keep fit and strong, you know?”
“I’m sure. For the gyals dem.” Hope spared a glance at his chest. He’d taken off his jacket, and the crisp white shirt he wore did little to hide the firm muscles of his chest and arms.
He laughed and refilled her glass with the last of the wine before leading her back to the living room. They settled into one of the settees. He was so close she could basically inhale the scent of his spicy cologne, but she didn’t move away. He watched her drink her wine, then turned the TV back to a visual channel, a comedy channel showing reruns of Friends, one of her all-time favourite shows.
Hope relaxed, laughing at the hilarious one-liners. By the time the first episode was finished, she was totally at ease, mellow from the wine, and her head was resting on Charles’ shoulder.
The credits started to roll, and he turned down the volume, then turned to face her. “I’ve missed you so much.” He took her hand in his and squeezed it gently. “There’s never been anyone else like you.”
Maybe it was because his voice was so low, almost a whisper, or maybe it was the wine, but everything about him – the timbre of his voice, the expression on his face – made him look so sincere, that she could really imagine that he’d spent the last few years missing her.
He didn’t wait for a reply. He leaned forward and with one hand leisurely stroking the back of her neck, brought her face closer to his. Their lips touched, and Hope tried not to sigh with pleasure… and the satisfaction of experiencing that intimate contact again. His lips covered hers, warm and firm and soft at the same time, and then his tongue was stroking her lower lip, then pushing at the seam of her lips, delving inside her mouth… she moaned as his tongue touched hers, and she moved closer, wanting more.
He deepened the kiss. He tasted of wine and smelled like heaven. His hands moved leisurely, over her shoulders, her back, down her sides, skimming the sides of her breasts, so slowly that she started to ache all over. Somehow, she was falling back on the settee, and he was covering her body with his, one of his hands found the hem of her dress and moved underneath it, skimming the trembling flesh of thighs and moving higher, taking the dress up with it.
He broke the kiss long enough for his lips to trail along her chin towards her ear, his breath fanning her sensitive skin. Her hands were stroking his back, and there was a moan on the verge of escaping her lips. I want this, she thought. I want this so much.
Why shouldn’t I have this?
Because it’s Charles, her slumbering brain managed to reply. You can’t trust him. After the pleasure, there will be pain, because that’s just how he is.
His lips were making their way to the base of her ear now, his tongue flicking out to find sensitive spots he knew from long ago, making her tremble in his arms. She moved her hands from his back to his chest and pushed gently.
“Charles,” she whispered.
“Hmm.” His hand inched higher up on her thigh.
She pushed a little more firmly, and he moved back, a frown on his face. “What’s wrong?”
Hope sat up, smoothing her dress, not wanting to look at him. She was still trembling, still needy, one look at him and she might just decide to let common sense go. “I think I should go home.”
For a second, he looked pissed. “Are you serious?”
She frowned. “Do I look like I’m joking.”
His eyes raked her, and she tried to imagine what he saw, the rumpled dress, the mussed hair… she probably looked like sex in a minute.
Hope stood and ran a hand through her hair. “I hope you understand that I don’t want to move this fast.”
“Why? Because you don’t trust me?”
He shrugged. “Look… the way I see it, we’re both adults. This isn’t like back then when you were holding on to your precious hymen. We’re not kids anymore. We can enjoy being together without overthinking it.”
Hope shook her head, bemused. How could she not overthink it? He was the same guy who’d broken her heart and stolen her illusions. She didn’t have any problem with two adults taking pleasure from each other, but she didn’t want to be the adult thinking things could be serious while the other adult just wanted to get his rocks off and walk away.
She decided to be frank. “I can’t be with you in a casual way, Charles. You used to mean so much to me, and if I stay, you’ll end up meaning as much to me again. And if you don’t feel the same way, if you treat me the way you treated me before, it’ll hurt all over again.”
He got to his feet and straightened his shirt. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” he said. “I’ve said that I never stopped thinking about you.” He picked up his jacket from the back of a chair, then tossed it back, then he went to the table by the entrance and picked up his car keys. “Let me take you home,” he said tiredly.
She bristled at his expression, the unspoken insinuation that she was the immature, unreasonable one. ‘Is it supposed to be enough that you ‘never stopped thinking about me?’ Hope asked the question in her mind. For some reason, she decided not to articulate her thoughts and silently followed him out of the apartment.
They were both quiet on the drive to the mainland. In less than half an hour, he’d parked outside her house.
Hope wondered if she should say anything to him before going inside. His body language told her that he was disappointed, and she was annoyed that he didn’t even seem to have the grace to hide it. Like sex was the only reason they’d gone out in the first place.
She opened the door. “Goodnight,” she said.
He was looking at her. His eyes searched hers for a long moment, and she wondered what he was trying to find there. Then he turned his gaze away. “Goodnight, Hope.”
Why did she suddenly feel so sad? She climbed out of the car and closed the door. Immediately, he was driving away without waiting to see that she was safely inside. After a few seconds of knocking, Ayuba let her into the compound, and as she walked towards the house, she wondered if that was that – the end of this particular episode of Charles’s presence in her life.