For everyone who missed when I first published this, I’m sharing this twenty-first episode of Dear High Mistress again. There was a major downtime from my host and I lost some posts. I apologize for the inconvenience.
“I’m adding weight!”
“You don’t have to shout. I’m right behind you.”
Toni felt the warmth of Andre’s breath on her neck before his arm enwrapped around her. She pouted at the result that stared back at her from the bathroom scales she stood on.
“I’ve added 2kg.”
“You’re supposed to add weight.”
“But I don’t want to,” Toni whined.
Andre rested his chin on her shoulder, his hand on her tummy. “You’re carrying an entire human being, ma chatte. You need the extra fat.” He made small circles around her navel.
“Everything is changing, Andre,” she said with a serious voice. “The house, my body, our priorities… You do realize that we’re going to be parents of four kids, right?”
“Doesn’t that scare you?”
“It does, but that’s life. The most important thing is doing it with someone you love.”
“I was thinking the other day… What if Anouk hadn’t met me online and I hadn’t led her astray and she was still alive… I wouldn’t have met you.”
“But that didn’t happen like that…”
“I know, but what if?”
“I don’t know, Tone. I don’t think about what never happened. I’m more invested in what goes on now.”
Toni breathed out loudly. “Back to fat-shaming myself. At this rate I’ll be a whale by the time the baby comes out.”
“You’ll be my whale.”
“Yep. And you’ll be my Jonah and I’ll swallow you.”
“You’ve got jokes huh?” He tickled her.
She stayed stiff in his arm. “Try harder. My shock absorbers are dead.”
He lifted her off the bathroom scales, causing her to yelp. He carried her into their bedroom, dumped her on the bed, held one of her feet and proceeded to tickle her. Toni squealed in laughter as she tried to free herself from his hold. At that moment Jozi barged in.
“Jozi, come and save me from your daddy!” she solicited. The boy dove on the bed but betrayed Toni by tickling her second foot. “Really? Josiah?”
Somehow Toni managed to drag herself away from them, but not without pulling Jozi to her. She drew the child to her chest as her breathing slowed to a steady pace.
“I’m starving. I’ll fix breakfast,” Andre said, heading out.
“None for me, please!” Toni stated.
Jozi freed himself from her clutch and went for her iPad. He passed it to her. She typed in her password and handed it back to him.
“Thank you.” He scurried off.
“Don’t smash it on a wall gecko like you did with the other one!” she shouted, leaving the bed.
She looked around. The room was a mess. They had moved into the house just a week ago and were yet to get their bearing. Unpacked cartons and bags littered the entire place. Toni had marked the day out to fix the mess, but she was lazy and suffering from pangs of morning sickness. She convinced herself that she needed Leticia badly.
Toni made her way to the bathroom and stood before the washbasin. She had become obsessed with her reflection lately. Her skin was blushed with smoothness and a healthier complexion. Everyone noticed the glow. The whole world knew about her pregnancy. She hadn’t wanted the attention, but she and Andre had needed to make their relationship public to kill the High Mistress drama. That had been two months ago. The pregnancy was in its third month. So far, all was going well.
Toni spat in the sink and rinsed her mouth. She felt the urge to spit again. She waited but nothing came. When she returned to the bedroom, she found her phone ringing. It was Leticia calling.
“Letish?” Toni threw her weight on the bed in relief. “Tell me you’re on your way with suya. I badly want suya.”
“Iya Ibeji, nobody sells suya in the morning. What’s up?”
“You’re not. You need me. You need me to come over and help you arrange that big house.”
“Unfortunately, I can’t make it. DP and I are staying in today for some R&R. But I promise I’ll be there tomorrow, very, very early.”
“We have housewarming tomorrow nau.”
“That’s why I said early.”
“Okay,” Toni replied moodily.
“I’m sorry, boo.”
“It’s fine. Just make sure you come with mango then. Forget the suya. Those big ass Julie and Peter mangoes. I don’t care where you get them from. Just bring them.”
“Okay.” Leticia was laughing. “I even have gist for you sef.”
“What gist? Tell me.”
“Nope. Until I come.”
“Then why did you tell me about it? You know I won’t rest now. I told you to stop doing that to me.”
And Leticia was off the line. Toni had scarcely dropped the phone when it began to ring again. Ruby was on the line this time.
“Ru?” Toni called tenderly.
“Aunty Toni, please can you come to my mommy’s house now?”
Toni sat up. “Is everything okay?”
“No. Please, just come.”
The line went dead. Toni tried returning the call but couldn’t connect. She tried a second time, putting the phone on speaker while she rummaged through a heap of clothes for what to wear. The phone gave her a dead tone.
Toni picked a pair of shorts and a blouse, wore them and hurried downstairs. Andre was in the kitchen, the only place in the house they had taken their time to organize.
“I have to go to Nkechi’s. Ruby just called. Something’s wrong but she won’t tell me and I can’t reach her line. I’m worried.”
“You want me to…?”
“No, no. Stay.” Toni hurried out. “I’ll be back.”
“Get more eggs on your way!” she heard Andre say before the front door shut. In her car, she instructed Siri to try Ruby’s number again. As she drove out, she listened to the same dead tone from the child’s phone. She drove to Nkechi’s place with calm, however. Duke was seated outside the house with a pucker on his face when she entered the compound.
“Aunty Toni?” He looked up with sad eyes.
“Duky Duke, what’s wrong? Why are you outside?”
“What’s wrong with your mommy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay. Stay here.”
Toni walked into the house without knocking. From the front door, a foul smell hit her. She could immediately pick out that it was alcohol-tainted vomit. A couch facing her was lacking its cushions. Toni recalled seeing them outside.
“Ruby?” She ventured in, eyes in all directions. “Ruby?”
“I’m here, Aunty Toni!”
Toni followed her voice to a door on the right that was left ajar, showing what she suspected to be Nkechi’s bedroom. She walked to it and entered. Nkechi was sprawled on a bed bereft of beddings. She was nude with just a wrapper covering the lower part of her body. On the floor was a bedspread stained with blood. Toni could hear water running in the bathroom, and out of there, Ruby emerged. The girl’s dress was soaked.
“Aunty Toni?” She had tears on her face. She hurried to Toni and was taken in her arms where she cried. Toni dragged her out of the bedroom.
“Where’s your room?”
Ruby, still crying, led Toni into a smaller bedroom that had a bunk bed.
“What happened?” Toni asked, undressing Ruby.
“Mommy didn’t come home on time yesterday,” she narrated, sniffling. “When she came back, she just fell on the chair in the parlor and vomited there, and then entered her room. Then I woke up this morning and cleaned the cushions and carried them outside. I now saw her door open and entered there. I saw blood everywhere. I was calling her, shouting. Duke was calling her too, but she didn’t answer us. After, she just woke up, removed her dress and pant and told me to wash them. She removed the bed sheet too. Then she climbed the bed and slept again. That was when I called you.”
Toni sighed out, forcing calm on her anger.
“So sorry you had to see all of that, Ru.” She picked a clean pair of clothes from a bag resting on the bed. “But I need you to be very honest with me now. Does this happen all the time?”
“No.” Ruby shook her head.
“This is the first time, Aunty Toni. I’m not lying.”
“Then why don’t you like coming here?”
“Because she doesn’t stay at home. When we come, she’ll tell me to microwave our food and she’ll just go out. She won’t come back until we’ve slept. Then she’ll go out again tomorrow and leave us with the woman that makes my hair. On Sunday, after church, the same thing. She’s never around.”
Toni was boiling with anger now. “Okay.”
“But she said we should not tell you anything that happens here or she’ll take us to a place where nobody will find us.”
“She said that?”
“Yes. Every time. She also said that it was because of you daddy divorced her.”
“You know what? Just get dressed and pack your things and Duke’s. Every single thing. I’ll be right back.”
Toni stomped back into Nkechi’s room. She burst into the bathroom, filled a bucket with water and hurled it on the sleeping mother of two.
Nkechi jolted up like one coming up for air from the deep of the sea. The wrapper covering her body gave way, revealing a bloody mess beneath her. Toni shut the door, after which she assaulted Nkechi’s cheeks with a fiery slap.
“Antonia?” Nkechi looked up at her, dazed. “What are you…?”
“What am I doing here? Your daughter called me. Ruby called me, and I come in and see this mess. You’re menstruating and vomiting all over the place, dead drunk and stupidly useless! Take a good look at yourself, Nkechi! Just look at you! Mark would be turning in his grave right now, hating himself for ever looking your way! Hating me for allowing you back into his children’s lives! No child deserves to have you as a mother! You’re disgusting!”
Nkechi continued to stare at her in a haze.
“I’ll leave you here to die in your filth! The kids are going home with me and never coming back! I will take you back to court and get full custody of them! Stupid ho’! I pray you bleed to death!”
Toni barged out. She found Ruby waiting with her bag and Duke’s.
Ruby nodded. “My phone fell inside water. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Toni stroked her back. “That one was kind of old, anyways. We’ll get you another one. Just keep the SIM. Let’s go.”
The child glanced at Nkechi, peeping into her bedroom.
“She’s fine,” Toni assured her.
Toni led the way out. Duke was still seated in the manner she had left him.
“Duky, let’s go home.”
“We’ll buy something on the way.” She took his hand, lifting him up. “You want pizza?”
She cradled him in a hug. “We’ll buy pizza and ice-cream.”
He stared at the house as she carted him away.
“Your mommy is fine. Come on, let’s go.”
Leticia could hardly make out what she saw on the screen beside her. She had always wondered if there was some special type of school one had to attend to read sonograms if you weren’t medically inclined. She had never understood why expectant mothers went teary-eyed at the sight of indiscernible images from an ultrasound. Nonetheless, she always imagined that she’d catch the bug when her time came. But, here she was, staring at the first image of her unborn child and upset that she couldn’t make anything out of it.
“What am I supposed to show my friends? Where’s the proof? That doesn’t look like a baby.”
The woman in whose company she was, who had become a friend and mentor over the past six weeks, smiled at her. They had met on the day she got assaulted by the crazy woman whose husband she used to be involved with. It was she who had kindly offered the services of her driver to Leticia to help change her tire. Leticia had lied to Toni about going to Daisy’s that day. She had actually ended up with the woman, who happened to be a nurse and fertility expert. Her name was Martha, a mother of two, a widow.
Leticia had opened up to Martha the instant they sat in her car to wait while the tire was being changed. It was Leticia’s rock-bottom moment. She could have shared her pain with anyone at that point. She needed an outlet, and Martha turned out to be more than what she was looking for. She took her home, cleaned her wounds and offered her lunch as they sat for a longer discussion. Martha was a well of wisdom and knowledge. Leticia had found, since that first encounter, that she could never get tired of listening to her. She also found it weird that the woman didn’t judge her despite the fact she was the religious type. So conservative she was that she went without jewelry makeup and any type of artificial hair. Yet, she took Leticia in without judgment and started her on a natural fertility treatment from that day. Leticia had been skeptical, her reason being that Martha had only performed a single strip test to determine the pH level of her vagina and diagnosed her problem.
“You’re too acidic. You’re killing off all your husband’s sperms.”
Leticia also noted that Martha had refused to call Dapo her fiancé.
“Do you also use artificial lubricants during sex?”
Leticia had looked at her, embarrassed.
“It’s okay. Talk to me.”
“My man is a bit on the big side. We use lubricants most times. In short, we have all sorts.”
“That could be a problem. Besides that, you are stressed and that affects your pH level too. And what is your diet like? Do you cook or eat out?”
“I cook only during weekends. I’m an advertiser. My life is mad busy. Cooking is sometimes the last thing on my mind.”
“You’re unhealthy, Leticia. Your vagina is unhealthy too.”
“You think that’s why I can’t get pregnant?”
“You can get pregnant. You just need to heal yourself.”
Martha filled a bag with herbal supplements for Leticia and gave her a general guideline on changing her lifestyle. At no cost.
“Just drink the shakes, exercise, eat healthy, pray and start planning for your wedding. Your baby shouldn’t be born out of wedlock. And stop saying God is punishing you for your past. He isn’t.”
Still, Leticia remained skeptical. She kept her encounter with Martha a secret, and even after they became friends, she was mute about the relationship. She diligently followed her words, changed her diet and lifestyle and began making plans towards her traditional wedding. When she missed her period, she didn’t hold her breath. She mentioned it to Martha casually.
“You’re pregnant,” Martha replied confidently.
“Should I do a test?”
“It’s up to you.”
And so she waited for a few days and some more before running a test early one morning. The result was a bold positive sign on the test stick. Leticia held the digital device for a long time, staring at it with a smile that stayed on her face all day. But she kept the news from Dapo and Toni, which was quite a difficult thing to do. She was scared to jinx it. Martha alone was aware.
“When can I see the baby? Do me an ultrasound nau.”
“When you’re nine weeks gone, Leticia. You may not see anything now. It’s possible to get a sonogram of an empty sac.”
“Empty sac keh. God forbid.”
“Some ultrasounds are done too early and they seem to show nothing, and because of this, some inexperienced doctors advise mothers to do D&C.”
Leticia hugged her tummy protectively, making Martha laugh.
“So, wait. You will see your baby soon. Just keep doing all the things I asked you to.”
And so Leticia waited for what seemed like years. She counted each hour until this moment. The excitement she had built and the mere restlessness of holding the news in left her anticipating something magical at her first ultrasound. But the disappointment she got from the sonogram put her in a pout.
“Why can’t you see your baby’s features?” Martha laughed, reiterating her complaint.
“I’m trying to.” Leticia squinted.
“This is a milestone, Leticia. Your baby is no longer an embryo. He’s a fetus now.”
“He? Can you see his dick?”
“No. I don’t call babies ‘it’. Next ultrasound, she might be a her. Just claim a gender and it will come to pass.”
Leticia wasn’t claiming anything. She needed a clearer picture. And Martha, being patient with her, started all over until light and moisture filled Leticia’s eyes.
“I can see it!”
“Him or her,” Martha corrected.
“I can see them.”
Martha laughed loudly, shaking her head. “You’re not having twins.”
“Shebi it’s him or her. Wo, Aunty Martha, leave me to claim them. Anyone that comes out I’m cool with that.” Leticia continued to stare at the screen as Martha printed out the first image of her baby.
“So I’m finally pregnant.”
“You didn’t believe you were?”
“I’ve not felt anything. No morning sickness.”
“You mustn’t have morning sickness. It’s not a sure sign of a healthy pregnancy. Just enjoy the fact that you’re not feeling like running from your body every morning.”
Leticia directed her stare at Martha. “Aunty Martha, do you think that God made it that all the ATMs you had used that day refused to work and you had to stop on that street to see me disgracing myself with that woman? You think it was all part of God’s plan for us to meet like that or it’s just coincidence?”
Leticia already knew what Martha’s answer would be, but she needed to hear her say it again. Martha was the ‘yes’ to all her ‘no’s’ and the assurance that God had forgiven her of her past. She was still amazed at how she had happened upon her life at the right time, with the right medicine and the right dose for her healing.
“You know it’s all part of God’s plan, Leticia,” Martha replied, handing her the ultrasound photo. “Now, go and tell your family the good news. The next time you come here, come with your wedding invitation or I’ll flog you.”
She wiped Leticia’s tummy clean and sent her off on her way to attend to other patients.
A lot of things had happened between Omolade and Cruz since that night at the palmwine joint. Wonderful things, mostly. Cruz was now working at a financial firm. They saw more of each other and their relationship had gone through a few phases that strengthened their bond. Lade wasn’t sure if it was love she felt for him, but it was something strong enough to have her finally letting him into the part of her life only Tayo had known.
Last night, Cruz had slept over. They had made love. It hadn’t been magical. Mostly because Lade had held back, withdrawing at the last minute. She had suddenly become scared that she was throwing in too much of herself into a man again. What if he hurt her like Tayo had done? What if he turned out to be another Manny?
She didn’t share her fears with Cruz, of course. She managed through the motions until he stopped and asked if he was terrible at it.
“No. No… I’m just not ready.”
“You’re not ready? Physically or emotionally?”
Lade hid her face in a pillow.
“Emotionally, it is,” Cruz said in disappointment. She heard him leave the bed to the bathroom. When he returned, her face was out of the pillow and her eyes on him.
“It’s okay. Do you still want me to stay?”
“I think we should watch TV in the parlor because I won’t lie, I’m still very horny and being in this setting with you would kill me.”
They shared a couch and watched a couple of movies until Lade slept. Cruz took her in and held her until he fell asleep. When she found herself in his arms in the morning, she was surprised that she didn’t feel like bolting away. She enjoyed the feeling of being held by him. It was reassuring and pleasurable.
She slipped out of the room quietly to make breakfast but found that Vera was already at it.
“I assumed you two would badly need food this morning,” she said to Lade, smiling mischievously.
“Nothing happened.” Lade picked a mug and inspected it for dirt.
“We started, but it didn’t go well. Long story.”
Lade rinsed the mug and filled it with warm water from an electric kettle.
“I’m scared,” she whispered, looking in the direction of her bedroom as if expecting Cruz to pop out of there. “What if we don’t work out? I’d have had sex with him for nothing.”
“Does he look like someone who does nothing sex?”
“Is it written on their foreheads?” Lade added two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar into her mug. “Tayo and I were married before he started misbehaving. Vera, I don’t want to fall into another unbearable situation.”
“Knowing Tayo and his anger and possessiveness, his issues were there before you got married to him. You just didn’t want to see them. Or maybe you were too naïve to understand that they were potential danger signs. Cruz, on the other hand, has ticked all the right boxes.”
“I know, but…”
“But what, Lade?”
“You still can’t be too sure.”
“True, but you’ll never know. If there’s anything your experience with Tayo has given you is the power to walk away when you start to get hurt. You tested that power on Tayo himself and cut off intimacy while it was still good. You’re in control, Lade. I doubt that Cruz would turn out to be a mistake, but you can totally show him the door when he screws up. As for now, he’s doing great, making you happy. Why don’t you just go with the flow and give him a chance?”
The first taste of Lade’s drink left her teeth on edge. “He’s really a nice guy, right?”
“From all you have told me.”
Lade said nothing more. She consumed her drink and rinsed the mug. Her eyes returned to Vera.
“I’ve not said hi to my baby today or taken a picture. You’re looking good this morning, mommy.”
Holding out a frying spoon threateningly, Vera sniggered. “If you touch me, Omolade, I will do something you don’t like.”
“Stop complaining jor.”
Lade turned on her phone’s camera.
“Don’t you have enough pictures of me in that phone already?”
“You keh. I’m not snapping you. I’m snapping my baby. Pose jare.”
Vera, smiling, took a pose and Lade captured the moment.
Lade dashed towards her, stooped, held her bulge and kissed it multiple times while receiving painless whacks on her head from the frying spoon. She jumped up, hands on Vera’s tummy still. Vera tried to move away, but Lade went behind her and held her tightly.
“We’re in this together.”
Vera struggled out of her clutch but she was too weak for Lade’s grasp. Both ladies were in a fit of laughter.
“Baby bear, tell her,” Lade spoke to the baby. “We’re in this together. No escape.”
“Lade, leave me nau.”
“I’ll press your boobs o. Stay one place. Didn’t you know what you signed up for? When I was giving you massage the other day, you didn’t complain. You better stay still and enjoy my boyfriend hug. Our baby needs it.”
They heard a sound and looked up. Cruz was staring at them with interest.
“Hi.” Vera waved. He waved back. Lade released her and went to him.
She put her arms around him but got a cold response.
“I have to go. I need to do some trips today, make extra cash.”
“But we planned for breakfast.”
“I can’t stay.”
“Please, eat something before you go. Vera would be sad.”
“She’s cooking. Please.”
But Cruz left, putting Lade in a mood.
“It’s the sex,” she said to Vera over breakfast. Her plate was scanty. Vera’s was filled.
“I don’t think he’s that shallow. It’s something else. You should call him and ask.”
“I’m vexing for him. I begged him but he didn’t listen. Even when I escorted him to his car. You see what I was saying about…”
“He is not another Tayo, Lade. He’s simply upset over something. He’ll talk to you later.”
And as Vera predicted, Cruz reached out to Lade towards sundown. He wanted to talk, but not in her house. She picked a cab and met him at Freedom Park where he was waiting. She feared that he wanted to break up with her, so upon meeting him, she confronted him with her suspicion.
“Just go ahead and do it. I can take it.”
“Do what?” Cruz asked.
“Break up with me.”
“Can you sit down first?” He took her hand and pulled her onto the park bench he was seated on. She sat beside him.
“I don’t have plans to break up with you, Lade. But this all depends on your answer to my question.”
She watched him clasp and unclasp his car key.
“Are you a lesbian?”
“Are you a lesbian?” he repeated.
Lade’s face went into a frown. “Lesbian,” she echoed the word slowly. “How? Please explain.”
“You and Vera. I saw two of you this morning. And other times. You keep kissing her tummy. I’ve also heard you say ‘my baby’ and then you quickly change it to ‘the baby’. I’ve been confused. Last night too, you couldn’t connect sexually. I know Nollywood has a lot of gay people… I just want to know if you’re one of them and Vera is your partner.”
Lade felt like laughing, but she couldn’t. Instead, she stared at a shrub ahead of them, searching for the words to tell him.
“I’m not going to judge you. I’ll be hurt that you led me on… Wait first, are you bisexual?”
“No.” She looked at him. “I’m neither. I’m straight…”
“Please, don’t say ‘as a pole’. That’s overused. And it doesn’t fit females, being that you ladies don’t have poles.”
Lade chuckled silently.
“So which are you?”
“Straight as straight.”
“And the thing with you and Vera?”
“There’s no thing with me and Vera.”
Lade exhaled. She hadn’t told Cruz about her infertility or who Vera was to her. Her reason being that she would have to explain to him that she was having the baby with Tayo, a twist she was sure he wouldn’t like.
“Vera is carrying my baby.”
Cruz gave Lade an animated top to bottom stare that put her in loud laughter.
“Please, don’t tell me you’re a guy and you did sex change. Please, don’t say it. Please, don’t…”
She hushed him with a finger to his lips. “You’re so cute when you freak out.”
“You’d better not be a dude touching my lips.”
Lade put her hand down. “Are you ready to hear my story and promise not to judge me?”
Taking his fingers between hers, she opened up about Tayo, Manny and the surrogacy arrangement with Vera.
“Wow. That’s a lot to take in.”
“No, I meant, you… That’s so much for you. I’m so sorry for what that Manny bastard did. And for how Tayo treated you. If he hadn’t been an ass, you wouldn’t have found yourself with Manny. I’m just sad you’re having this baby with him.”
“Like I said, he and I are good now. He’s changed.”
“Are you sure?”
“At least, towards me. He treats me like gold.”
“That’s comforting,” Cruz commented sarcastically.
“Are you jealous?”
“Jealous? You’re having his baby. Let me kuku just kill myself.”
Lade rested her head on Cruz’s shoulder. “The whole IVF process and harvesting of eggs is expensive and tiring. Storing the eggs is double expensive, so I just had to hurry with the process. I didn’t want a sperm donor. I don’t like the idea of having to raise the baby alone. That was why I chose him. I want my child to have a father.”
“I wish I had met you earlier.”
Cruz kissed her head. “Still sorry for what he and that Manny person did to you.”
“I’m over it.”
“Are you sure?”
“So what was last night about? Was I that horrible?”
Lade sat up. “No.”
“I was scared of letting go and trusting you with my…”
Lade blushed. “I meant my life. Sex is a huge deal for me. I don’t want to go all the way unless I’m sure.”
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
“What can I do to show you that I’m different from the men in your past?”
Lade lifted and dropped her shoulders in a shrug.
“Introduce you to my family?” he asked.
“Maybe. But let me introduce you to mine first. Toni’s having a housewarming tomorrow. I’d like you to come.”
“And Toni is Tayo’s elder sister, right?”
“You’re no longer an Ogunfuwa.”
“It’s not about the name. It’s about bonds I can never break. Toni is my elder sister. Dapo is my elder brother. They are more family to me than my real family that abandoned me the moment I got married. Besides, Toni is the aunty of my unborn baby. We’ll forever be connected. I’d love you to meet them.”
“Let’s get out of this place. It’s so unromantic.”
“Are you telling me!”
They had been arguing for the better part of two hours. Imade and Rita. And Toni had been fine with either watching them or spending time on social media. At some point, she had left them to a couch by the window and stretched out there while they hashed it out with their lawyers. It seemed the bickering was never going to stop, but they finally came to an agreement and called her over to the negotiating table.
“I’m getting a penny-pinching twenty percent, Antonia,” Rita declared bitterly.
“Considering what your husband is worth, I’d say that’s a lot.”
“Of course you’d say that. You’d probably be sucking his balls this night for a lot more than I’ll ever get from him.”
“Be nice or I’ll have him drop it to ten percent,” Toni threatened as Imade pulled out her seat at the head of the table. When she sat, she asked for a moment to send a message to someone.
“Hurry up. I have things to do,” Rita whined.
Toni put her phone away only after she was through. “So, are you guys sure you’re cool with the new terms?”
They both answered in the affirmative, albeit begrudgingly.
“My secretary is adjusting the documents,” Imade added.
They waited in silence until the door opened and the secretary walked in with a bunch of papers. Toni breezed through them and handed copies to both parties. There was another long wait of document-perusals and whisperings before pens were put on paper and the Harrisons’ divorce was made final.
“At last, everyone has gotten what they want,” Toni said in relief.
“Some, more than others,” Rita replied, standing up with the help of her lawyer. When she was certain she had all her documents in her possession, she looked Imade in the face and announced, “I’m pregnant, by the way. And you know whose it is. Congratulate me later. And oh, ask your sidechick about it. She’s aware.”
Toni veiled a smile as she watched shock and anger mar the handsome features on Imade’s face.
“Get out, everyone!” he ordered.
His team of lawyers and secretary hurried out of the office at that single command.
“You knew about the pregnancy?” he accosted Toni.
“Only in the manner of being told. She could have been lying to me.”
“Antonia, you knew?”
“Don’t call my name like you christened it. I owe you no allegiance. What we’ve always had and still have is a business relationship. If Rita comes to me and asks me to keep a secret from you and I agree to it, I’ll be loyal to my word. Not to you. So, yes I knew and I didn’t tell you because you are Type A piece of shit and Rita deserves much more than you were willing to give her. That woman gave you the best of her fertile years and you denied her a child, your affection, took her father’s company and wanted to throw her out like trash. What the fuck is wrong with you, man?”
Imade left the table to a liquor cabinet for a shot of whiskey. He came back to Toni with a glower, the whiskey having done its job of burning down his anger. He gazed at Toni with familiar longing.
“I should have never let you get away. You’re such an asset underneath that bitchiness. I love the power trip you constantly ride on, the same way you rode on my dick.”
“Stop having a hard on from being screwed over. Get your lawyers in here, let’s finish what we started. It’s a Saturday and I shouldn’t be here.”
Imade leaned over the table and spoke into the intercom.
“Get legal back in here,” he ordered, sat, and gazed at Toni again. “Buying into CIPRON is the best decision you’re ever going to make.”
Toni smiled blandly, reaching for a file in her leather portfolio. The door opened to let in the team of lawyers. And right behind them was Andre. He walked in, bringing in his everyday intimidating manner. Toni spun her chair around to give him a welcoming smile, while pretending not to see the ghostly look on Imade’s face.
“Imade, you’ve met Andre Frabice Kouassi, my fiancé. I told him about your offer to me and he felt it was a good investment.” Toni pushed the file in her possession to Imade. “I made minor adjustments with the name by including his. We’re signing as a joint entity.”
“Both of you?”
Andre picked a chair without being offered. “I don’t see why not,” he replied. “Unless you have a problem with that?”
“Good. Let’s get down to business.”
When Toni and Andre got home later that evening, Nkechi was waiting outside in her car. She was sober, bearing a contrite expression, one Toni had never seen before. While Andre drove into the compound, Toni stayed back to have a word with her.
“Please, don’t take them away from me,” Nkechi begged, red eyes bearing into Toni’s.
“I have no choice, Nkechi.”
“Please…” Heavy tears swamped her face. “I’m not a terrible mother.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Mark never loved me. Our whole marriage was about you, Toni. I was never there. He obsessed over you for nine years. He had your pictures in his phones and laptops, he stalked you online and even physically. He even moaned out your name once when I was giving him head. It was all you.”
“What were you expecting? You thought you could pin him down with pregnancy.”
“I just wanted him to love me. Even when I got pregnant with Duke and had him, I thought, okay, he’d love me now. He was crazy about the boy from the moment he was born. He named him immediately he saw him. I was happy. I felt, ‘this is it. This is the moment my husband falls in love with me’, but…” Nkechi shook her head. “I found out a month later that while you guys were still together, you had picked baby names and Duke was one of them.”
Toni stared into the distance, refusing to conjure up memories of her time with Mark.
“And do you know how I found out? We fought after somebody from the office told me Mark had mentioned the possibility of a merger with Covet. I was angry, I confronted him, accusing him of doing everything to go back to you. He blew up really badly, letting out everything he had hidden from me. He told me he never felt anything for me, that he still loved you, that our marriage was a farce and that I would always live in your shadow. It was then he told me that Duke was the name you had planned to give your first son.
“So, just imagine my state of mind then. I was broken and depressed. I couldn’t eat for days and this meant I couldn’t take care of Duke well. Mark’s mom blamed me and accused me of trying to kill her son and grandson. Duke had to be put on formula. It was the first time Mark mentioned divorce. And you know he doesn’t believe in it. He said he was tired of the marriage because he didn’t love me and that we fought a lot. But I couldn’t imagine myself leaving him. I was scared of what people would say. How was I even going to start again? I became suicidal. One morning, I got up and left. I left the kids and stayed with a friend for a month. It was either that or they found me dead in my room. When I came back, I called our pastor and my family and they begged on my behalf. Mark accepted me, warning that if I ever disappeared, he’d be done with me. I came back and we stopped having sex and sleeping in the same room. He started having affairs. They weren’t sexual, though.”
“But you were sleeping around in the office, weren’t you?”
“That happened after he totally shut me out. I cheated because I wanted his attention. But he pretended not to know. He concentrated on the kids while I disconnected from them. Ruby…” Nkechi bit her lips in regret. “I was always angry at her for no reason. I think I almost hated her. Duke too. I didn’t see him as my son. I saw him as an extension of what you and Mark shared. The more I pushed them away, the more Mark bonded with them. But I loved them, Toni. I loved my kids.”
“You did not.”
“I did. I was just so angry and depressed to let them in. And I didn’t want just them. I wanted their father too. I wanted my home to be perfect.”
“By sleeping around? Nkechi, you don’t quench fire by adding more fuel to it.”
“I know, and I screwed up. I was messed up. I knew I was fighting a losing battle.”
“Did you even love Mark at all?”
“And yet you left him the moment he fell ill.”
Nkechi covered her face and wept, saying words Toni couldn’t pick out.
“You never loved him. You lusted after him, you wanted his money, but not him. And definitely, not his children. How a mother can comfortably get up and disappear, leaving her kids in the care of a sick man, baffles me. The worst part is that you disappeared with someone else’s husband and didn’t come back until you heard that there was money involved in the care of your own children. How heartless can you be, Nkechi? You’re not the victim here. The kids are. And this is why I’ll never allow you go near them again.”
“Please, we can work something out?”
“No, we can’t. Those kids need a stable home and trustworthy parents and Andre and I would give them that. It was what Mark wanted. And from today, I’ll honor his wishes. Be prepared to see me in court. Or better still, run away again.”
“Go home, Nkechi.”
Toni began into the compound.
“Does Andre know you still love Mark?”
“Does he know he can never compare to him?”
“That he’ll always play second fiddle to a dead man?”
“I’ll second fiddle your mouth with a slap from here to Istanbul if you say one more word about my man. And if you hate your job and the nice car and house you have, go near Andre. I’m not the type of woman who fights strange women but I will uproot any unfortunate fantasies you have of him before you even display them. This is before he puts you in your place. I might have played around with Mark and that was why you were able to snatch him from me. But you see Andre, I’ll skin a bitch alive for him.”
Nkechi raised both hands in innocence. “I have no plans on him.”
“Save your lies for the fool that’ll believe you. I know the script well. I wrote the codes. Get out of here, Nkechi.”
Nkechi shut her door as Toni continued her journey in. The nanny that had babysat the children in her absence and Andre’s was just leaving the house at that moment. They exchanged greetings at the front door before Toni went in.
She met silence in the house when she entered. Upstairs, she found the boys asleep but Ruby’s room empty. Andre was also not in their bedroom. Toni peeped out to the backyard and found them at the poolside. They seemed to be in an intense conversation. Toni let them be and found comfort beneath the sheets.
Outside, Andre listened to Ruby talk about how much she missed her father. It was her first real conversation with him. He had always sensed that she didn’t like him because she felt he wanted to take Mark’s place. She was aloof towards him most times, and as hard he had tried to connect, she had kept the distance. Earlier, he had been determined to break the wall between them but hadn’t gotten the chance to, due to the meeting with Imade Harrison. Hence, when they returned and he spied her from his bedroom, seated alone at the poolside, he dove right in and stole the moment.
Surprisingly, she had responded with his request to sit with her by showing a sad smile.
“Are you okay?” he had asked.
She had shaken her head.
“Do you want me to ask you about it?”
She nodded and then tears spilled. He was careful not to take her in his arms, even though it was what he badly wanted to do.
“Why are you crying, Ruby?”
“I miss my daddy. I want him to come back.” She sniffled, wiping her nose. “When he comes back, mommy will go away and things will be better.”
For a child who always thought intelligently, this was the first time Andre was seeing the vulnerable side of her reasoning.
“I understand how you’re feeling, Ruby. I lost my dad too. I still want him to come back. But I know that’s never going to happen. When people die, they die.”
“I know,” she answered in annoyance.
“Your daddy is never coming back.”
Andre could see Toni cringing at his words. But it was his manner to be blunt about things.
“You know that, right?”
“Your daddy is sleeping soundly, resting from all the stress in this world, resting from the pain he went through with his illness. You want him to come back and feel that all over again?”
“I don’t think so too. You love him too much to let him suffer again. Same way he loved you and still loves you and doesn’t want you to be hurting. That’s why he put you in good hands. Aunty Toni is the best. She loves you so much I sometimes get jealous because I want her to love me that way because I love her that much too.”
Ruby looked like she might smile.
“And guess what.”
“Because I love her that much, I love you and Duke the same way.”
The girl held his eyes. He saw questions in them, questions he easily read.
“I know your daddy didn’t ask me to take over from him but I’m going to. Well, I’ve been doing so, but officially, I’m your daddy now. So that means I get to take care of you and do all the things daddies do with their daughters.”
“Do you have a daughter?”
“Where is she?”
“Sitting right here with me.”
He saw the smile growing at the sides of her mouth.
“But of course, I have to learn what it is daddies do with daughters. Will you teach me?”
“We’ll start with tonight. What did you do with your daddy every Saturday night?”
“Watch TV until I start sleeping and then he’ll say, ‘there’s a cockroach on your leg, Ru! Wake up!’ and I’ll wake up and run to my room, screaming. He did it every time.” The child giggled. Andre smiled.
“I hate cockroaches too.”
“Not my daddy. He’ll pick them with his hand and crush them. He liked catching rats too. He killed chickens with a cutlass like this!” She made a hacking motion to which Andre flinched, causing her to erupt in laughter.
“You want us to kill chickens tomorrow?”
Her eyes widened. “You can kill chickens?”
“Like this!” He repeated her hacking motion. She squealed in laughter. “We’ll kill lots of them. Me, you, Duke and Jozi.”
“Yay. So, are you better now?”
“You want to go in and watch a movie?”
“For real? Aunty Toni won’t get mad?”
“Just one movie. Which one?”
“Jumanji. It’s on Box Office.”
“Didn’t we watch that during the Christmas holidays?”
“Uncle Andre, please.”
“Yay!” She jumped up.
“Look! There’s a cockroach on your leg!”
She screamed, and without looking, broke into a run. It wasn’t until after she sped past the swimming pool, she stopped and looked back. She frowned at Andre who laughed at her silliness.
“It’s not fair.”
He took her hand and they walked into the house. Andre found prawn crackers somewhere in the kitchen. He fried an entire pack and went into the living room with two glasses of juice. They watched the movie until Ruby fell asleep. He carried her up to her bedroom. When he laid her down, she opened her eyes.
“I hope you and Aunty Toni have a baby girl, so that I can have a sister.”
She shut her eyes. “Goodnight Uncle Andre.”
In his bedroom, Andre stripped out of his clothes and stood to stare at Toni for a while.
“Don’t even think about it,” she muttered.
He slipped in behind her. “What’s a man got to do to get laid around here these days?”
“After the housewarming I’ll have time for you, baby daddy. Now, just allow me sleep.”
He kissed her cheek and soon he heard the steady rhythm of her breathing. He was beginning to fall asleep as well when he heard, “I finally figured out how you got me pregnant.”
“Your withdrawal method was no withdrawal method at all. You dropped something inside every single time, but it was so little I never noticed it.”
“Say it’s a lie and let thunder fire you.”
His laughter broke into the night as he tugged her into a cuddle.