The next morning, while she was getting dressed for work, Hope’s phone rang. It was Charles.
“I’m outside the gate,” he said.
Hope frowned, confused. “You’re here? I don’t understand.”
She heard him sigh. “Hope… I’m sorry about yesterday. I want to talk.”
“And maybe try again?”
Try again? Hope wanted to refuse. She should. The silence stretched. She imagined him sitting outside in his car, waiting. She imagined telling him to get lost. She imagined his face as he drove off, that hint of sadness that would be there, the small self-pitying smile…
“I’m surprised,” Hope said slowly. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I know.” He paused. “Why don’t we talk when you come down?”
She finished dressing, hurrying through all her preparations before going downstairs to join him. If Ayuba had any thoughts about her leaving her car behind for the second day in a row, he kept them off his face.
Outside, Charles was waiting. As usual, mellow music was playing on the car radio. His white shirt was crisp even in the dim light, and she hated how she couldn’t help noticing how good he looked. His eyes met hers as she climbed into the car, his expression unreadable.
“Hi,” he said when she didn’t say anything.
“Hi,” she replied quietly.
He didn’t say anything else for a long time as he drove out of the estate.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” he said finally.
Hope was quiet. What exactly was he sorry about? Nearly jumping her bones in his apartment, or acting like a sulky kid when he didn’t get what he wanted.
“I’ve never stopped thinking about you.” His voice was low. “And yesterday I got carried away. It’s just… there’s so much I want to have with you, Hope.”
What about what I want? Hope thought. I want to know I can trust you. I want to be sure that the past won’t repeat itself. “I don’t know, Charles,” she whispered. “Whatever it is you want, you’re going to have to give it time.”
For a minute he didn’t respond, then he nodded. “Fair enough.”
They were both silent as he navigated the traffic, though the sky was only just lightening to the grey of morning, the roads were already full of commuters hurrying to work.
“I’ll pick you up at the same time in the evening,” he offered. “So we can do dinner again.”
Hope gave him a sidelong glance. He looked like he really wanted this, like he really cared to make her want to see him again and spend more time with him. “Okay, but at a restaurant, this time,” she insisted, “I’m not going back to your place, and you take me home immediately after we’ve had dinner.”
He gave her a look, a mixture of contemplation and amusement, then he nodded acquiescence, and his eyes went back to the road.
They didn’t talk much after that. At Hope’s office, he wished her a nice day, then he was gone.
Hope watched him drive away. She was still puzzled that he had come at all, that he was still making an effort. Could it be that he was sincere, that he really wanted to work towards something solid with her? Time would tell, she decided, walking into the building. She would take it day by day and see where it went. At the elevator bank, she spent a few seconds waiting for a lift, and when one of the doors slid open, she entered, then as she turned to wait for the doors to close, she saw Daniel Amadi walking towards her with his confident unhurried stride.
Her eyes widened, and her heart kicked fiercely in her chest. She’d tried not to think about him since he snubbed her in the lobby, but now all the regrets came crashing in her mind. She held the lift for him, but was quiet as he joined her inside, his presence making her feel as if there was something preventing her lungs from getting enough air, as if he’d suddenly sucked all the breathable air out of the small space.
The doors slid closed, and to her surprise, he smiled at her. “Hello, Hope.”
She attempted to smile in response. She didn’t understand her reaction to him. It wasn’t anything like her reaction to Charles. With Charles, there was the nostalgia and longing from all the memories they shared, and of course some sexual attraction. With Daniel, it felt as if he invaded all her senses and somehow, without doing anything, could make her unsure of herself.
“Hi,” she responded, watching as he entered, first the number for her floor, then his. He turned back to her. There was still a hint of a smile on his face. A big contrast to how he’d looked the day he’d seen her with Charles at that party.
“You look great,” he said now. “How’s work going?”
“Fine,” Hope replied, her voice calm, unlike her thoughts. “And you? How are you?”
“Never better,” he said with a small shrug. He looked like he was going to say something else, but the lift came to a stop, and the doors slid open. They were already on her floor. Hope moved towards the doors, strangely hesitant to walk away from him.
“Have a great day,” she told him.
He nodded. “You too.”
As she walked into the reception of her office, her mind was still on him. It was a perfectly innocuous exchange, so why did she feel so tense, so weird, so… confused. It was puzzling.
The day went very slowly. After a while, she stopped thinking about Daniel, or even Charles and concentrated on finishing her work targets for the day. At five, most people started to leave. She was still waiting for Charles, though she wasn’t sure when he was coming exactly.
Her phone rang, it was him.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“Nothing much,” he answered. “Still at work?”
She frowned. “Where else would I be? I’m waiting for you. We’re still having dinner tonight, aren’t we?”
“Of course,” he said quickly. “Look, I have a meeting that’s taking forever to end, so I’ll run a little late.”
‘Maybe we should cancel,’ Hope almost said the words, but she decided not to. She didn’t want it to seem like she was still salty about last night. So instead she said. “Call me when you’re free.”
“I will,” he said.
She spent the next few hours doing a little more work, then catching up on her TV shows. It had gotten dark outside, but Charles still hadn’t called.
Almost everyone had left the office now. Everyone in the open office had gone, but there were still lights on in some of the senior partner’s offices. Hope freshened her makeup, then picked up her bag and made her way out of the office, taking the lift to the downstairs lobby. She didn’t want to be the last person left in her office preventing the janitor on her floor from locking up, At least, the downstairs lobby stayed open till much later.
She settled on one the chairs in the waiting area and fished her Kindle out from her bag. She started to read one of her novels, but after a short while she dozed off.
It felt like a long time had passed when she woke up with a start. She glanced at her watch. About an hour had passed. Panicking, she reached for her phone, expecting to see a torrent of missed calls from Charles, but she was shocked to find none at all.
Not even one call.
He’d kept her waiting this long, and he hadn’t even bothered to call.
She couldn’t believe it.
But why was she surprised? It was Charles after all. By now, the only constant was that he would surely disappoint her.
She pushed her Kindle back into her bag and got up from the chair, her eyes taking in the empty lobby. She sat back down and started to search for a number for a cab on her phone.
She heard the footsteps, but she didn’t pay them much attention. The phone call to the cabman was refusing to connect, and it was too late at night to go outside to try to flag down a cab alone. The street was very lonely at night. That was just an invitation for theft or some other kind of violence.
The footsteps stopped, then Daniel Amadi’s voice. “Hope?”
She turned around to see his tall frame in the main area of the lobby. The lights were still brightly lit there, unlike where she was seated, where they had been dimmed for the night. He’d discarded his jacket from earlier in the day, and he held it slung over one shoulder, the sleeves of the plain white shirt rolled up to expose his strong forearms. She forgot everything and spent a moment just admiring him, even as she gave him a small wave.
He walked over to her, looking surprised, puzzled and concerned. “What are you still doing here? It’s very late. Is it a problem with your car again?”
She shook her head. “Nothing like that. I’m… I was waiting for someone, then I slept off.”
He chuckled. “You must have been very tired.” He looked at her face and sighed, then looked at his watch. “Are you going to keep waiting? They’ll be closing the place for the day any time now.”
“No,” Hope shook her head, slightly embarrassed. She was sure that he guessed she’d been waiting for a man, and she wondered if he was now judging her for being the kind of girl men chose to keep waiting. The kind of girl who accepted such behaviour without complaint. “I was just calling a cab.”
Daniel frowned. “I’ll take you home,” he said, his voice decisive. “I wouldn’t trust any cab with you so late.”
There was something possessive about the way he said the words, and it made Hope’s heart skip a beat. “I…” She searched for the simple words to say okay, but they didn’t come.
He was looking at her face. “You don’t mind if I take you, do you?”
She shook her head, taken aback by the momentary glimpse of uncertainty in his features. “No, I don’t mind at all.”
“Okay.” He paused. “I’ll get the car. You can wait at the entrance.” He watched as she picked up her things. “Have you had anything to eat? Dinner?”
She shook her head.
He paused, his eyes on her face. “Would you like to have dinner with me?”
Would it be a date? Hope wondered, knowing that the thought was ridiculous. “Yes, of course, I’m famished.”
He nodded. “Good.” His eyes dug into hers, and she stared back, caught in that gaze, then he looked away. “I’ll go get the car now.”
Hope waited for him in front of the entrance doors, in a few moments he drove up in a black G-wagon with tinted windows. As she walked over to the passenger side, he leaned over and opened the door.
She climbed into the car. The interior smelled like good leather and spicy but muted cologne. She settled into the passenger seat, her bag on her lap.
“Can I take that?” he gestured at the bag, and when she nodded, he lifted it off her lap and placed it on the back seat. Then he grinned at her. “Now, food. Is there anywhere in particular you’d like to go?”
She could think of a couple of places, but she demurred. Right now, she was more curious to know what he liked, the kind of places he preferred. She wanted to know more about him. So, she shook her head. “Pick a place,” she said. “I could probably eat anything right now.”
He laughed. “I think I know that feeling.”
The radio was on some local radio station, and the radio host babbled gossip about some local musicians in an affected and indiscernible foreign accent. Then a popular track came on. The beat was genius, but the lyrics were just slightly above nonsensical.
“Who writes these songs?” Daniel laughed, his voice echoing her thoughts. She turned to look at him, watching as in the darkness of the car, his teeth gleamed white in his laughing face.
“I ask myself that question all the time,” She said with a chuckle.
He turned the music on and listened for a few moments, his head bobbing just a little. “At least they’re great to dance to,” he said.
She gave him a surprised look. “Do you dance?” It was hard to imagine it… him… letting go on a dance floor.
He quirked a teasing eyebrow in her direction. “Stick with me, and maybe one of these days, you’ll see for yourself.”
Stick with me.
Some moments later, they pulled into the parking area of a restaurant Hope had never heard of. Inside, it wasn’t very big, but the tables were well set apart. The décor was traditional, print tablecloths and raffia place settings, local art on the walls, and the lighting fixtures providing the dim lighting were also covered in traditional looking accessories.
A hostess in a pretty Ankara dress led them to a table. It was low to the ground, as were the soft sofa-like seats which were positioned in an L shape around it.
Daniel helped her into her seat before joining her. They were seated adjacent to each other, almost side by side. Their bodies weren’t touching, but she could feel how close he was.
The smiling hostess was replaced by a waiter who offered them menus. Hope opened hers, looking through the list of dishes with appreciation. Daniel was discussing wine, and when he asked he if she had any preference, she shook her head, letting him do the choosing.
The waiter left to get the wine, leaving them to choose their food.
“Have you decided?” Daniel asked after a while.
Hope nodded. Just then the waiter arrived with a bottle of red wine, which he opened and poured into two glasses, then he took their food orders and disappeared again.
“How do you discover places like these?” Hope asked.
He shrugged. “My assistant, mainly. Also, my siblings recommend places to me sometimes.”
“Siblings?” She raised a brow. Somehow, she’d always imagined him alone. It was odd thinking of him with brothers and sisters, playmates… “Older or younger?”
“My sister is older. My brother is much younger.”
“Me too,” Hope said. “I have a big sister, and my brother is the baby.”
They talked about their families as they waited for their food. Hope found it surprising that they both came from like backgrounds. His parents lived on the mainland. His sister was a pharmacist. His brother had just graduated from engineering and was doing his youth service in one of the oil companies.
“Did you always know you wanted to be an engineer?” he asked her.
She shrugged. “My dad is one, so there was a time before I knew anything about the profession when I wanted to do it so I could be like him. Somewhere before the end of secondary school, it became real for me. I’d read a couple of books about famous engineers and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
He nodded. “You didn’t think of being a nurse like your mum?”
Hope shook her head. “She had crazy shifts when I was younger, and she was always tired.”
He nodded sympathetically.
“How about you?” Hope asked. “Did you always plan to conquer and subjugate the world of ICT in Nigeria?”
He laughed at her words, the sound deep and unreserved, and she realised she wanted him to keep laughing. She wanted to hear that sound again and again.
“Conquer and subjugate indeed.” He shook his head. “I was always into information technology though. I grew up reading about people who’d burst open new frontiers, and I learned as much as I could. I took courses right out of secondary school, by the time I was in the university, I was far ahead of most people in my class, even the lecturers, but I kept studying. When I travelled for my masters, that’s when I saw and learned what I really needed. It was like a different world out there. I worked, learned and came back just to time to provide solutions that growing businesses were demanding in a recovering economy.”
Hope smiled. “Impressive.”
He chuckled. “It’s my prepared presentation… for impressing journalists… and women.”
Women… like herself? Hope tried to think of a reply but was saved when waiters arrived with steaming dishes. The food smelled delicious, and Hope felt her stomach rumble. There was cutlery but also bowls for handwashing. She decided to use her hand and shared a smile with Daniel when she noticed him preparing to do the same.
The food was wonderful and plentiful, and Hope ate until it felt like her tummy would burst.
“I don’t want to stop,” she complained when she couldn’t take another bite, looking longingly at the food still in the serving bowls. “I want to eat the whole place, but I’m too full.”
Daniel laughed. He was washing his hands. “They try very hard to incapacitate people with the food here.”
“I am incapacitated.”
The waiters came to clear the table, then disappeared again, leaving them alone.
“Thanks,” Hope told Daniel. “That was a wonderful meal.”
“I aim to please.” He refilled her wineglass, and as she lifted it to her lips, their eyes met and held over the glass. Hope felt her stomach clench softly. She took a quick sip of the wine, breaking the connection of his gaze. He leaned back in his seat, his body stretched out and relaxed, unlike hers, which suddenly felt wound up and tense. She could feel his eyes on her, and she wondered what he was thinking, whether there was any chance that he felt a measure of the attraction she found herself feeling towards him.
“May I ask you something?” His voice was low.
She met his eyes, a quick smile crossing her lips. “Of course.”
“The person you were waiting for…” he said. “Boyfriend?”
She thought about Charles, and how, since they’d left the office, she hadn’t thought about him, even once, then she shook her head slowly. “No, just a ghost from my past.”
“Good,” he said.
Hope raised her brows, giving him a sidelong look. “Really?”
He leaned forward, towards her, until his face was close to her own. Her skin tingled, even though he hadn’t touched her. Then he remedied that, one hand lightly touching hers, only for a second, before he pulled it away.
Hope breathed, meeting the intensity of his gaze. “I like you,” he said softly, then paused and smiled. “Scratch that. I’m very, very attracted to you.”
“I…” Hope searched for a response. Her heart was pounding. Should she tell him that she felt the same way? Because she did, but… she closed her eyes, just last night she’d been with Charles, with another man. Granted, that had been a mistake, but…was she ready to follow another attraction? She swallowed hard, but Daniel wasn’t waiting for a response. He’d already leaned back, reclining once again on his seat as he downed his wine.
“Let me take you home,” he said quietly.
Hope nodded. There was a little more wine in her glass, and she drank it, before rising to her feet. Daniel rose too, and suddenly they were standing face to face. He reached for her face, a finger coming up to wipe something – a drop of wine she’d missed – from the corner of her lips. The finger lingered, and she met his eyes, the stormy intensity in their depths. Her eyes dropped to his lips, and at that moment, she wanted, more than anything for him to kiss her.
His lips curved into a smile and he pulled his hand away. “Ready?” he asked.
Hope nodded. “Yes.” And then she followed him out of the restaurant on shaky legs.