Greg Abudu’s baby dedication was a few weeks later, on a Sunday, and after the church service, which Hope hadn’t been able to attend, there was going to be a party at Greg’s home.
Hope could already hear the party as she drove into the estate, a serene and well-maintained compound containing eight homes, a swimming pool, tennis court, and carefully tended lawns. It was beautiful, the sort of place you went to live when your hustling paid off and you became a real Lagosian, one who had arrived.
Hope parked close to Greg’s house, a two-storey white and cream structure with classical columns holding up the porch roof. In the lawn in front of the house, canopies had been set up for shade, with lawn tables and chairs for the guests. There was a guy in one corner bent over a charcoal stove as he diligently prepared asun, the spicy and delicious dish of peppered goat meat that always made Hope weak in the knees. Next to him, a huge table was mounted with covered tableware out of which servers dished rice, soup, stews, and meats and placed the heaped plates on trays to be served to the guests.
There were people were milling all around. A few were dancing, and many more seated beneath the canopies eating and drinking. The band was playing some of the new Nigerian songs, the ones with beats that entered your brain, hooked into the tissue like pinworms, made you sing along even though you hated the lyrics, and made you dance even though you had no idea what the singers were talking about.
“Hope!” It was Greg’s wife Mimi, who had also been a casual friend of Hope’s from university. She was a petite woman, jovial and always incredibly stylish. Right now, she was hurrying to greet Hope, dressed in a well-made Woodin ensemble, with none of the infirmity you would expect from someone who just gave birth less than a month before. “Why are you just coming?” she scolded. “The party is almost over.”
An excuse was on the tip of Hope’s tongue, ‘I had some work and it took longer than I anticipated,’ she was about to say, then she realized that Mimi probably didn’t really want or need the burden of a long explanation. “I’m sorry,” she said instead, and she meant it. “I hope I’m not too late.”
Mimi shrugged. “Not really. In any case the person we are all dancing for has slept off. Thank God. These days we only get to dance at parties where the celebrants are sleeping.”
They both laughed. It was true, Hope realised, almost all the parties she attended these days were for children.
“Come and greet your boss, then you’ll sit down and I’ll find someone to serve you, okay?”
Hope nodded, allowing herself to be led towards Greg, who was carrying the sleeping baby.
“Engineer!” Greg was holding the baby very carefully, as if any wrong move would spoil something irreplaceable. “How now?”
Hope replied with a smile. “I’m fine o.” She peered at the baby’s peaceful face. “Wow, he looks so much like you already.”
Greg beamed with pride while Mimi rolled her eyes. “The next one is getting my looks,” she said.
Greg laughed, then turned to Hope. “I was just about to take this small boss upstairs so he can sleep well. I think the music might be disturbing him.”
“Can he hear yet?” Hope asked.
“They start hearing from the womb,” Mimi said. “But I don’t think Christopher minds the music. Look how peacefully he’s sleeping.” She touched her baby’s face, cooing softly.
“Christopher?” Hope asked, smiling. She loved the name. “Nice.”
Mimi tugged at her arm. “Come and sit, so I can find someone to bring food for you.” She led Hope to a table, leaving her with a promise to send a server her way. Agnes waved from two tables away. She looked fantastic, her makeup and jewellery slightly more dramatic than the everyday office affair, and she seemed to be having fun. Hope would have joined her, but the table was full, and judging from the number of good-looking guys clustered around Agnes, it was obvious that she wouldn’t leave that table to join Hope.
Somebody brought a bottle of wine and a glass, staying to open the bottle and pour her some. “Thank you,” Hope said, letting her eyes wander around. There was something wrong in sitting alone at a party full of people you knew, she thought, almost amused.
She froze, the glass of wine halfway to her lips. Charles was standing in front of her, his eyes tender, and filled with something that looked like pleasure at seeing her. He also looked insanely gorgeous in a black traditional caftan.
“Charles.” Hope said his name dryly, hoping that the tone of her voice and the way she pursed her lips would be enough to deter him from pestering her with his company.
He was smiling, and no matter how much she hated him, she couldn’t deny, even to herself, that he had a stunning smile. “Do you mind?” he asked, pulling out a chair and joining her without waiting for an answer.
Of course she minded. She didn’t want him anywhere near her! But she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of thinking that his presence had any effect on her. She let her eyes wash over him with disinterest, then sipped her wine quietly, ignoring him. It was almost two weeks since that day at her office, and she had since convinced herself that the chance encounter would not repeat itself. Now here he was, smiling at her and giving her that earnest look, as if he hadn’t ripped out her heart and torn it to pieces. Bastard.
She wondered what he wanted. For a weak moment, she allowed herself to fantasize about him throwing himself at her feet and begging for forgiveness. She had composed the scornful words she would throw back at him, to hurt him the way he’d hurt her.
Biting back a sigh, Hope stole a glance at him, and found his eyes fixed on her, a thoughtful look in their brown depths. “I wasn’t sure you’d be here, but I’m glad you came. I’ve been trying to get your number out of Greg since last week you know, but he keeps posting me.”
That was news to her. Hope hid her surprise. “Maybe he guessed that I don’t want you to have it,” she said. “Why would you ask him anyway? He’s my boss. He has no business handing my number to random ex-boyfriends.”
“Random ex-boyfriends?” Charles’s eyebrows went up. “We were together for five years, Hope. I’m not a random ex.”
Hope laughed. It was a rude, scornful sound. Then she took a long sip of her wine and gave him a look, one that she hoped conveyed how much she didn’t care what he thought.
His smile had faded. “There’s no need to be so hostile,” he said. He leaned closer to her and lowered his voice so it was barely above a whisper. “I should be given the chance to make amends, shouldn’t I? To show you how much I have changed from the selfish and immature person I used to be?”
Hope stiffened. Why was he leaning in so close and whispering in that voice that made her think of things they had shared that she would rather forget? Things like pleasure, intimacy… She frowned, angry with herself for her reaction to him. He was still looking at her, his gaze intense, a half smile on his face. Bastard! She thought angrily. This is probably all a game to him.
“I don’t think it’s necessary for you to show me anything,” Hope said, setting her glass down on the table. Her hand was shaking slightly, she noticed, and she quickly brought it to her lap. “I don’t care if you’ve changed or not. I’m not holding any grudges.” She got up, smiling wryly. “Now you can go and find another former girlfriend to placate. I am going to talk to my friends.”
Charles’s expression didn’t change, and his eyes didn’t leave her face. Hope turned away, forgetting to stay collected as she walked away from the table. In her haste, she walked straight into Daniel Amadi, who was standing in the way.
She almost lost her balance as she crashed into his tall, hard-bodied figure. Strong arms shot out to steady her, holding her against his firm chest for a short moment before he released her.
Hope stepped back, embarrassed and trying to compose herself. In that moment, when she’d been flush against him, she’d felt the strong muscles of his masculine body, inhaled the cool scent of his cologne, the clean smell of his clothes. A crazy thought ran through her head about how she would like for him to hold her again, and she pushed it to the back of her mind. He’s not even your type, she told herself silently.
But he did look good. He was wearing a light grey tailored shirt tucked into slim black pants. He looked casual, but somehow, still powerful. She remembered him in the lift, holding her purse out to her. There had been something strangely intimate in that moment, as if, for those few seconds the whole world had disappeared and it was just the two of them.
“Are you okay?” he asked now, giving her a concerned frown. She’d never noticed how dark his eyes were. They were almost solid black, and intense, ringed with long curling lashes, and if you looked closely, there was an interesting ring of lightish-brown around the pupils.
“Hope?” he prompted, and she realized that she was staring. What was wrong with her today?
“I…” she cleared her throat. “I’m fine. I just… I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“Yes, I noticed,” he said, then smiled down at her.
Hope felt her breath leave her chest, leaving her feeling slightly lightheaded. This was the second time she had seen him smile in the space of a few days, and there really was something about his smile. It made her question her conviction that he wasn’t her type, and to wonder if she really had a type at all.
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” she said, her voice suddenly light and almost breathy.
“Really?” He grinned. “Who can resist a baby’s party?” he said. “All of us grown-ups dressing up to celebrate for someone who has no idea what’s going on.”
Hope laughed. “I was just thinking the same thing.”
Daniel raised a brow. “Like minds, hmm?”
She may have been imagining it, but there was definitely something flirtatious in the way he said the words, in the look in his eyes, and the tone of his voice. She felt her insides suffuse with warmth, and she realized that she was staring at him, her lips parted softly as she pulled in a slow breath. She swallowed, then wet her lips, suddenly nervous. Really, what was wrong with her today?
Daniel was still looking at her, in a way that made it hard for Hope to think. “I… um… It was very nice to run into you here,” she said.
He chuckled, and pushed his hands into the pockets of his trousers. “It was um, very nice to run into you too.”
“Okay,” Hope breathed, turning around before she made a fool of herself. She made her escape, going over to Agnes’s table. Luckily, one of the guys had left, so she could sit there with the rest of them, talking about harmless things and enjoying the food and drink. She tried not to notice when Daniel Amadi left sometime later, walking to his car-a black G-Wagon-with Greg in tow.
She watched them talk for a short while before, Daniel drove off, then she turned her attention back to her companions, totally ignoring the fact that just a few tables away, Charles was now carrying out what seemed like a very flirtatious conversation with some girl Hope didn’t know.
Where was his wife anyway? Why was he all over the place, alone, probably being a nuisance to unsuspecting young women? He looked up suddenly and caught her staring. He smiled knowingly, and she looked away.
Later, after she had stayed long enough to satisfy Greg and Mimi, and had drunk just enough wine, but not enough to impair her driving abilities, Hope said goodbye to the proud parents and walked out to her car alone.
It was already evening, and growing slightly dark. Hope unlocked the door and bent over to place the party favour Mimi had given her-cakes, small chops and fried meats-on the back seat. As she straightened, her neck prickled in alarm, and she turned around, almost jumping out of her skin when she discovered Charles standing behind her.
“I was admiring the view,” he said, unapologetic. He unlocked the car next to hers, a gleaming blue range rover, and carelessly placed his own party favour in the front passenger seat. “Did I tell you how good you look?” he said softly, turning back towards her. “You we’re always pretty, but now,” he sighs. “I can’t stop looking at you.”
Hope swallowed, and suddenly pain rose in her chest. She wanted to hurl insults at him, to say all the mean things she had spent years imagining herself saying to him. She had built a future around this man, centred all her romantic dreams on him. He’d destroyed those dreams, and now he had the gall to tell her she looked good?
Calm down, a small voice whispered in her head. He’s not worth it. “Don’t say things like that to me,” she told him.
“I can’t help myself.” He made no move to come towards her, but the apparent sincerity and earnestness in his eyes was like a fist squeezing her chest. “Hope, I’ve never stopped thinking about you. You can’t imagine how many times I’ve wondered what it would be like to see you again, and now I have, I’m completely blown away.”
If someone asked her to describe how she felt in that moment, Hope wouldn’t have been able to. It was a mixture of so many emotions, resentment for him, because he’d broken her heart, regret, for all the dreams she’d lost when she lost him, and yearning, because no matter how much she blamed him, hated him even, there was a part of her, that had never totally left the past behind.
“I have to go,” she said abruptly, climbing into her car and shutting the door. “Goodnight Charles.”
“Wait.” He appeared at the window and Hope wound the glass down, trying at least to be polite. “Can I call you at least?”
She chuckled bitterly. “No. There’s no need.”
“Maybe.” Hope hit the button and the glass started to go up. “But I don’t care.”
He stepped back from the car, but he stood there, watching her drive away, until she could no longer see him in the rear-view mirror.