Sorry for the break in transmission. Busy weekend, plus no light and down with a cold. Finally bought fuel and now we can continue.
Merry Christmas, fam. I know it doesn’t feel like Christmas for many of us, but hey, we’re still here. So enjoy the holiday as best as you can.
This is dedicated to Uche Okolo. Happy birthday.
Update on Stranger In Lagos… Don’t blame me, blame Okadabooks. We all await the launch of their new website.
“I’ve told you to stop coming here, and stop bringing food to me as well. I’m fine, Salma.”
Salma bit her lip. It was hard not to break down at the sight of Maliq. Standing behind the enquiries counter at the police station where he was held, he was all bruised and messed up from the famous brutality of the police. He could barely look at her as both eyes were injured and inflamed. From the moment she led a team of policemen to his house and they bundled him like a criminal to their station, she had regretted her actions. The look in his eyes that day when he stared into hers still haunted her.
“Salma, you know I didn’t steal from you,” he had said as they tried to push him into the police vehicle. “You know I’d never hurt you like that.”
But he received a slap at the back of his head from one of the policemen. It had stung so badly he lurched over and his forehead slammed over the hood of the car. Salma squeezed her dress in distress.
“Raji, please, tell them not to hurt him.”
“They’re only doing their job, Sal.”
“Salma, I didn’t do it!” Maliq shouted before he was forced into the car. And from thence, Salma’s nightmare began. She cried for most of the day, refusing to eat anything. By the next morning she was up before the sun appeared. She fixed a meal for him and rushed to the police station, only to be told that he had been moved elsewhere.
No one had an answer for her. An hour later and she was still told stories. When she reported the matter to Raji, he was casual about it.
“Leave the police to do their job.”
“Raji, I need to know where they took him to.”
“Don’t bother yourself with that. He’ll be fine. He just needs to confess. Relax.”
But she was unable to stay calm. She fretted all through the day and at night, she stayed awake. The following morning, she was back at the police station. After threats, the policemen finally agreed to give her some information about his whereabouts.
“He will be here tomorrow,” one of them assured her. Raji’s cousin who had spearheaded the arrest was not on seat. Salma’s only option was to take the police by their word. Early the next morning she was there again, but she was kept waiting for a couple of hours before Maliq was brought to her. She had expected to meet him as she had seen him the day he was arrested, but a brutalized version of him was brought to the counter. At the sight of him she broke down and began to question the police officers, demanding to know why they had laid their hands on him. Their retort was silence, and when one of them spoke, he basically told her they were doing their job and she was to mind her business.
“I no even understand you sef, madam. Na you accuse am. Na you come dey form concerned person. Which one you dey?”
“Nice question,” Maliq said quietly through swollen lips.
“I’ll get you out,” she promised.
He rejected the food she brought for him and begged her not to return. Salma left the police station to Covet, bursting into Raji’s office without being invited. Raji dissolved a small gathering of employees he had with him to attend to her.
“He didn’t do it. You have to get him out,” she said the instant they were alone.
“Sal, you disrupted my meeting just to tell me this nonsense?”
“Get Maliq out of that police station, Raji. He’s innocent.”
“Stop being ridiculous, Sal.”
“They’ll kill him in there! Get him out!”
“No. He has to confess.”
“He didn’t do it, Raji Asepita!” Salma screamed in frustration.
“Salma, don’t cross my wires this morning. Allow the police do what they do best.”
“Being beasts, you mean? Brutalizing innocent people?”
“He will confess when they are done with him.”
“So you’re not going to help him?”
She stared at him in suspicion. “How am I sure you didn’t even set him up?”
Raji’s jaw fell. “Are you serious?”
“You had the same access to my bedroom…”
“Are you serious right now, Salma?”
“Did you set him up or not?”
Raji’s head shook in amazement.
“I need to know!”
“I may be many things but I can never stoop so low. Don’t ever accuse me for shit like that again.”
“You’re still heartless for refusing to help him.” With that, she stormed out of his office. On her way home, she called a lawyer friend and furnished her with details of the case. She begged her to represent Maliq. The woman accepted the job. Later that evening she reached Salma and explained that the police had strong evidence against him. They had found out, from going through his Whatsapp messages, that he had been selling gold to clients over the past year, and even on that morning they had found a chat where he claimed that he had new pieces to sell.
“But he insists that they are not yours,” the lawyer informed Salma. “Do you know anything about him selling gold jewelries?”
“No. He never mentioned it.”
“Asides that, the police have it in for him. He has been actively involved in the #EndSars campaign on Twitter.”
“Oh God. Muyinat, please get him out of there for me. If anything happens to him I won’t forgive myself.”
“But do you really believe that he didn’t steal from you, given the new evidence?”
Salma hesitated with her answer.
“Maliq is not a thief. He didn’t do it.”
Salma had no reason for her conviction, but in her heart she knew he had been accused wrongly.
“I’ll do my best. The police are dragging their feet in charging him to court,” Muyinat told her. “But have no worries, the case will be tossed away.”
Salma waited with bated breath for Muyinat’s next phone call, but Muyinat’s sick mother had suddenly passed away and she was forced to withdraw from the case, referring Salma to another lawyer who was only going to be available on Thursday. Salma waited impatiently, and on Thursday morning, she drove to see Maliq with the new lawyer. Waiting outside, she got on the phone with Raji.
“Call your cousin to end this. It’s gone on for too long. If Maliq really had my stuff, don’t you think he would have confessed by now after all the torturing?”
“Salma…” Raji groaned. He was just stirring from sleep.
“Please, Raj. I’m begging you here. Please.”
She didn’t thank him. She felt he didn’t deserve it.
“I’m curious, though. You love him enough to accept that he stole from you and is going to get away with it?”
“Yes.” Her reply was basically to hurt Raji. She was convinced that Maliq was innocent.
Raji hung up without saying goodbye, which was a first for him. Salma walked back into the police station just as the lawyer was stepping out of it.
“I can’t do anything today. He will be arraigned in court next week. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
She thanked the lawyer and escorted him out. On her way back in, a policewoman called her over to the counter.
“Our oga wan see you.”
The ‘oga’ turned out to be Raji’s cousin. He questioned her decision to have the case tossed out.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“This man is a real, hardened criminal, an enemy of the police, which means he is an enemy of the state.”
Salma was silent.
“Even if I choose to let him go, how about all his hateful speeches on the internet against the police?”
Salma sustained her silence. The man was riled.
“I don’t even know why Raji bothered me with this whole thing. Madam, you can go. We will release him by evening.”
“Why not now?”
“Are you to tell me how to do my job?”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“You can go.”
Salma left his office a little elated. She bore the same joy when she asked to see Maliq. But when he was brought out and she saw fresh wounds on him, tears thronged her eyes. She offered him food. He declined.
“I am so sorry, Maliq.”
“I won’t. I shouldn’t have brought you here.”
“You did what you had to do.”
“Well, I have good news. You’ll be out later today.”
“They told you that?”
She nodded, wiping her eyes. “So, please, eat.”
“Go home, Salma.”
He turned away. Salma took the food she had come with and made her exit. She arrived home just in time to dress up for the children’s end of year party. Comfort was there with them. She demanded to know why Salma looked depressed. Salma lied, explaining that she had lost a friend.
“Meanwhile, one alhaja like this came to see you. She said she’s been calling your line but no answer.”
Salma remembered ignoring the woman’s calls. She hadn’t been in the mood to speak to anybody in days.
“She told me she’ll come back, that she just wants to pick up a few things at Obalende.”
“I hope we’ll be around when she comes back.”
Salma hurriedly showered and changed her clothes. On her way out, the said alhaja came driving into the compound. Salma wasn’t so pleased to see her. She had never liked her. They were acquainted via Raji’s side of the family. She was one of those overly-loud rich women that did nothing but show off their husband’s wealth. Even now as she walked towards Salma, she was glittering under the sun like a walking pin board for gold knickknacks. Salma recalled a rather unpleasant encounter with her where she tried to make Salma feel small at an occasion by insinuating that her jewelry was cheap.
“Good morning, Salimot,” Salma greeted. She had also hated the fact that they shared similar names, but she enjoyed addressing her that way, knowing how much she enjoyed the ‘alhaja’ title better.
“As-Salam-Alaikum, Salma.” Salimot, for the first time since knowing Salma, didn’t seem to have her usually haughty air.
“How is the family?” Salma asked.
“Alhamdulillah. Please, can I speak with you privately?”
“I hope all is well?”
“Yes. But please, let’s go in and talk.”
When Fahad saw that Salma was retreating to the house, he made a show of impatience.
“Comfort, just go with them. I’ll be with you in a bit.”
Salma led Salimot into the house and offered her a seat and a drink. The woman declined the latter.
“The thing that brought me here is a very shameful one, Salma.”
Salma watched as she opened her handbag and took out a white polythene bag and spread it before her. All of Salma’s stolen jewelries were in the bag. Salma gasped.
“Where did you get this?”
The woman also took out the wad of dollars that had gone missing.
“Allah sarki!” Salma exclaimed. “Alhaja, what is all this? How did you get this?”
“It’s my daughter o. The one that just turned fifteen.”
“Not Firdaus. Falilat. She was here for your children’s party. You remember?”
“Me I thought I was bringing a human being to come and enjoy herself with her younger ones here, only for her to disgrace me like this. I didn’t know at all. It was my youngest son who told me just this morning that he saw her counting dollars. I now called her and questioned her and searched her room and found this.”
Salma looked on in shock.
“Her stupid reason was that shaytan deceived her to steal from you. If you see the way I beat that shaytan out of her body this morning ehn! Even her father had to beg me. I cannot have a useless child in my house who is working hand in hand with the devil. God forbid!”
“This is shocking.”
“I know, my sister. That is why I’m begging you not to hate my family. You know I am more than this. Is it these jewelries that I cannot buy two times? Why would Falilat disgrace me this way? What does she know about gold and diamonds that she would feel the need to steal them?”
Salma’s eyes tried hard not to blame Salimot.
“I mean, we try to live modestly. I teach them to be content with what they have.”
“It’s youthful exuberance.” Salma was trying to be kind.
“I wanted to drag her here to apologize in person but her father has taken her to the chemist to treat her.”
“You beat her that much?”
“I said I wanted to kill her. It’s better not to have a child than to have a criminal as a child.”
“Take it easy, Salimot.”
“Please, forgive and forget, my dear. I beg you in the name of Allah.”
“It’s okay, Salimot. It’s all forgiven. Please, give me a second, let me send a quick text.”
Salma got out her phone, and in the pretense of sending an SMS, she took discreet pictures of Salimot holding the dollars and jewelries. There was no way she was going to convince Maliq, without evidence that he hadn’t been set up. After she was done, she collected her property and bade the alhaja a fine farewell. She was bursting to give the good news to Maliq but her children’s school party was of utmost importance. On her way there, she called Raji’s cousin and explained the latest development to him. He didn’t seem pleased by the news. Salma also informed Maliq’s lawyer, sending him the pictures she had taken. She then permitted herself some laughter and relief after a long week of tears.
The children’s end of year party was concluded by evening and she left the kids in Comfort’s care. On her way to the police station she got a distressing call from Maliq’s lawyer. He informed her that Maliq had collapsed and was rushed to a general hospital. When Salma got there, she requested that he be transferred to the family hospital on Victoria Island for better care. She sat by his side for hours until he finally opened his eyes by 1 a.m.
She was asleep when she felt his hand on her. She jerked up.
“What are you doing here?” He rubbed her hand.
“You’re awake. Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m good. Just exhausted and really sleepy. Why are you here?”
“Why shouldn’t I be here?”
“Go home, Salma.”
Salma checked the time. “I can’t. It’s too late.”
“Go home…” he said weakly and fell back to sleep again.
Salma returned home only when the sun came up. Comfort was waiting for her, as was Raji.
“I got an alert from the bank this morning,” Raji stated as she walked into the house. It was from Reddington. I was worried. I thought it was Raheem. I called Comfort and she said he was fine. I came here to look for you because I couldn’t reach your phone and I met Comfort here. Are you okay, Sal?”
Salma ignored him. “Good morning, Commie.”
“I was worried about you last night,” Comfort said. “I didn’t want to call Raji because I thought you were…” Comfort looked at Raji.
“You thought she was with a man.”
“Are you okay though?”
“Yes,” Salma replied.
“Okay. I just wanted to be sure you were fine. I should be going. The kids are still sleeping.”
“Thank you, Commie.”
Salma walked her to the door. When she shut it, she faced Raji. “I had Maliq admitted at the hospital. He passed out due to the cruelty of the police. That was where I spent the night.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Did your irritating police cousin tell you that he was innocent? Alhaja Salimot’s teenage daughter was the one that stole from me. Her mother returned everything yesterday. We owe Maliq more than healthcare.”
“Of course, you owe him a lot more.”
“Go to hell, Raji.”
She started towards the stairs.
“So you and him are serious?”
Salma stopped and turned. It was just occurring to her that what she had with Maliq was a thing.
“Yes. We’re serious. You’re still having an issue with that?”
“I’m just…jealous, I guess. I wish you’d defend my honor the way you did his.”
“Those days are gone, Raji.”
She continued up the stairs.
At thirty-five Toni didn’t have any particular birthday wish. She had fulfilled all her dreams, none of which included having a man in her life. Hence, she ignored when Leticia whispered in her ear that she should wish for a good husband as she blew the candles on her cake.
If she was considering Leticia’s suggestion, it would have been easy had her only candidate for marriage been present for her birthday dinner. But he was not. Every other person that mattered in her life apart from her parents was there. Even her younger sister who had flown in from Port Harcourt for a wedding had shown up. Toni was letdown by Andre’s absence. Both of them had planned for this day a year ago. He had wanted to fly her to Paris for the weekend. Not like she hadn’t been there before; it was going to be his special treat to her.
As she sat on the long table in the high-class restaurant where her dinner held, surrounded by those who meant the most to her, she reminisced on her last birthday and how Andre had taken her to Greece but she had stayed in all day because of a stomach bug that left her sick. He had worried over her like a mother over a sick child. When she ended up in the emergency room, he was there, holding her hand and telling her a story in French that was partly hilarious and partly annoying. That night, he lay on the hospital bed with her. It was his face she saw first thing in the morning peering into hers worriedly. She had thought it was the most inspiring sight to wake up to. Later that day when they left the hospital, he took her to see the sights to bring the color back to her face. They lounged about lazily, taking pictures and listening to the sea.
He presented her with a single cupcake that evening with a burning candle stuck in it because she couldn’t stand the sight of an entire cake. He asked her to make a wish.
“I don’t have a wish.”
“None?” He gasped comically, making her laugh.
“Not even to get married to me?”
She laughed again and felt her lower lip crack.
“Just wish for something.”
“Yes. I don’t know who made the rules, but I think on birthdays, angels are there to make our wishes come true.”
“Okay. I wish for whatever you wish for us.”
She blew the candle. He gave a slow, silent laugh that made him sound like a movie villain.
“You did not just wish for what I constantly wish for us.”
“And what’s that?”
“That I get you pregnant and put a ring on your finger.”
“But let it be as you wish. From my heart to yours to God’s ears.”
“Are you kidding me? I take back the wish.”
“You can’t. Candle already blown.”
And then he leaned over and kissed her, ignoring her protest over how her mouth tasted like drugs.
Leticia’s voice sounded like it was coming from afar. Toni straightened up and a blurry stare cleared up to find two burning candles before her. She looked ahead and saw that everyone on the table was staring.
“Did you just wander off into thinking about Andre right now?” Folarin asked and he got a round of laughter.
“Guilty,” Toni said, smiling, and then blew the candles.
“Don’t worry, he’ll be here,” Raji assured. “I personally invited him.”
“Me too,” Christie said.
“And me.” Khanyi waved a hand.
“Same here,” Folarin added.
“Looks like we’re expecting four Andres,” Toni quipped, making her guests laugh more. It set the tone for the rest of the evening. But none of the Andres invited made an appearance. Toni settled for friendship, jokes, laughter, gifts and well-wishes. She saw each guest to the door and every one of them either had something comforting to say about Andre or had a calming hug to give her. She hated that somehow they had made the end of her special night about him. Still she understood that they simply cared. Christie alone had something different to tell her.
“Thirty-five is a good age. Your mom would be proud. Keep slaying, sweetheart.”
Toni hugged her tightly. “How are you coping with CJ?” she asked.
“We’re getting by.”
“She’s depressed mostly. I’m trying really hard to connect but it’s not working.”
“Pace yourself. Don’t force it.”
“I’m more concerned about CJ. He’s too young to be a father.”
“He’ll be fine.”
“And the shame of it…”
“Shhh. It’s nobody’s business.”
“Thank you, Toni.”
Christie walked up to Folarin who was waiting. He enwrapped her with his arm and they sauntered to the parking lot. Toni admired their relationship. They were that one couple she always looked up to. Despite what had happened to them, she saw that the love still burned. She wondered if she would ever have the guts to love anyone that way, to plunge her entire self into another human being without looking back now and then. Even after all these years, love still scared her.
She turned her attention to Leticia and Dapo. They were standing beside Leticia’s car. It had been five days since his great reveal. Leticia had somehow gotten over the shock so quickly that Toni began to worry for her state of mind. Now, she was playing with a smile on her face as she interacted with Dapo.
“Sis?” Dapo called, pulling away from her. Toni smiled at him. “Goodnight.”
Unlike Leticia, Toni’s anger at him still festered. But it was her birthday and she was in good spirits. She blew him a kiss as she made for Leticia’s car. Leticia came at her with a scarf.
“Have you guys reconciled?” Toni asked.
“Has he killed the baby he has with Daisy?”
“No, we’ve not reconciled. That’s by the way. Remember I told you that I had a surprise for you?”
Leticia folded the scarf in her hands and placed it over Toni’s eyes.
“What are you doing?”
She went behind her to secure the scarf.
“Relax. I’m not going to sell you.”
“You know I hate being blindfolded.”
“Just relax, birthday girl.”
Leticia held her hand and guided her to the backseat of the car.
“Sit here like the queen you are.” Toni heard the door shut and soon another opened. “Sit tight.”
“Tish, if this whole thing you’re doing involves Andre, just drop me off now-now.”
“Shut up and listen to some cool music while I ferry you to your surprise.”
Cool music, according to Leticia, was a playlist of all Rihanna’s songs.
“Do you listen to anything other than Rihanna?”
“Riri heals my broken heart.”
“I’m happy for you.”
And Leticia was inspired to sing along really loudly to Rihanna’s music while Toni sat behind, wishing she had an icepick to stick in her throat. Each time she tried to take the blindfold off, Leticia would screech and instruct her to keep her hands down.
“Great. An hour has passed on this our surprise journey.”
“Don’t be silly, Toni. It’s been just about twelve minutes.”
“It could be the whole day. And listening to you makes it feel like forever.”
“My voice is sublime. I used to be a chorister back then. Remember?”
“Until you fucked the choirmaster.”
“No, he fucked me.”
“What difference does it make?”
“He was the fucker and I was the fuckee. Huge difference.”
“Same difference. The fuckery was out of this world though.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“Tish, just get back with Dapo and stop being weird.”
But Leticia kept singing until the car came to a halt.
“Can I take off the blindfold now?”
“No. Actually, this is the real blindfold moment.”
“Then why was I blindfolded the entire time?”
“I don’t know. But don’t take it off now.”
Toni waited until she was helped out of the car. Leticia left her standing for a bit and returned to her. She hooked her arm in hers and tugged her forward.
“Just follow me carefully. You won’t fall.”
They stopped after a few steps and Toni heard a door open. She was then guided into a place that smelled of oranges and she was left to stand on her own. Leticia untied the scarf.
“We’re here. Ta-da!”
Toni blinked until her eyes came into clarity. They were in a small room that had long couches that leaned on three of the walls. The floor was covered in a fluffy black rug and the only other thing in the room was an air conditioner. There was no television. But there was a hidden sound system that began to play a Sam Smith song as if on cue.
“What’s this?” Toni demanded in a frown.
“Oh sorry. Wrong room.”
“Come on, Tisha.”
Leticia took her hand and led her through a door that Toni hadn’t noticed. She was brought into a lounge where everyone she had just had dinner with and other friends were waiting in an atmosphere of hazy lighting and serene music. It took Toni a few seconds to realize that it was a surprise party. No one had screamed out the cliché ‘surprise!’ and this left her curious. But she was soon gifted with smiles as the DJ steered the party into full revelry mode.
Toni was snatched up by a friend and forced into a hug.
“Happy birthday, Toni.”
“Thank you,” Toni answered. The friend let go and she was dragged into Leticia’s arms for a squeeze.
“I know you said you didn’t want a party, let alone a surprise one. But I couldn’t help it, boo. You haven’t thrown a birthday party in a while. You deserve this. Happy thirty-fifth, bestie.”
Toni hugged back. “You know I can never stay mad at you. Thank you, Tish.”
Leticia freed herself from the embrace. “You’ll want to see this.”
Leticia nodded at some guy who in turn nodded at the DJ. The music was turned down. A screen lit up and on it showed a video of Toni from ten years ago. It was her birthday but in her usual way she was spending it at home dressed in gym shorts and a bra, a cigarette in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other. Striking red eyes with long lashes looked into the camera.
“Where I want to be in ten years?” she laughed, fluttering her lashes. “I want to be the boss of my own ad agency, I guess. I want to pursue my PhD too. I don’t know about getting married sha. I’m over men. So, yeah, CEO of an ad agency and my PhD. Let’s start from there.”
Party guests applauded.
“Happy birthday, Toni!” Leticia’s voice came from behind the camera. The video cut to a black screen on which was written: To Antonia Arinola Braithwaite…Just because you’re phenomenal.
Videos and images of Toni were displayed, gathered from friends and colleagues. Toni laughed through most of them until short clips that were gotten specifically from Andre came on. Toni felt her eyes water.
“Is he here?” she asked Leticia.
Andre’s face appeared on the screen at the end of his videos. He seemed to be seated in his office. A spotless white shirt, folded at the sleeves, hugged his torso. He scratched his beard and smiled at her.
“Ma chatte, I know you didn’t want this. But this is me making up for not taking you to Paris as promised. You deserve to have fun once in a while. Bon anniversaire.”
He winked, the video ended. The music came back on. For a stretch of two hours, Toni was given the time of her life with friends. She danced like she was sixteen again, drank like she had no care in the world. Turned out there was a party host and he entertained with games and giveaways. The party came to a point where ten bottles of champagne were auctioned to raise money for a child that needed an open heart surgery. The bottles were then emptied on Toni as she shrieked until she lost her voice. Subsequently, Leticia dragged her away from the crowd, soaking wet.
“Are you guys kidding me?” Toni licked her lips, giggling. “I don’t even have a spare dress.”
“Hasn’t it yet occured to you that I got you covered? Shut up and follow me joor.”
Leticia took her through a different exit that led them up a flight of stairs. They came out to a hallway and it was only then Toni realized they were in a hotel. They entered an elevator. Leticia pressed a button with ‘P’ written on it and they were taken up to the last floor. When the door parted, another door was facing the elevator on which was scrawled Penthouse Suite.
“Andre did all this?” Toni asked.
“So where is he?”
“I have no idea.”
Leticia unlocked the suite and they got in. Posh settings welcomed them. Toni followed Leticia to the master bedroom. Sprawled on the bed was a dress.
“He bought that too?”
“Yeah.” Leticia unzipped the dress Toni had on. She also took off Toni’s wig.
“It’s just occurring to me why you kept insisting that I shouldn’t make my hair and you bought me this wig instead. You knew I’d be soaked with champagne. You had this perfectly planned.”
“Stop analyzing and shower jare. Enter.” Leticia pointed at the bathroom. Toni obeyed. She stripped off her underwear and got into the shower. She was soon done and stepped out to wrap herself in a towel. She realized Leticia was gone when she walked back to the bedroom; but a distinct male fragrance slowed her movement. She followed her sense of smell to the living room and found Andre leaning on a sofa.
“Happy birthday, Ma Chatte.”
Silence was her response. Calm eyes regarded him. On his face was that composed, overconfident expression she had seen on him the first time they met. It struck nostalgia in her. She was filled with a sudden overpowering desire to kiss him.
But her feet remained rooted to the floor.
“I was asked to wish for something when I was about to blow my birthday cake earlier. Crazy thing, I wished that I could see you tonight. And somehow you’re here.”
“Wishes still come true, Tone.”
“Thank you for a great birthday party.”
“You deserve it.”
“So how does it work? You throw an expensive party for me, I show gratitude by parting my legs for you and then we’re back to the way we used to be?”
Andre smiled. “Is that how you want it?”
“I just want to know what to expect next.”
Andre dashed towards her so fast she missed a breath. She lifted her eyes up at him, waiting for the kiss she had wanted so badly in recent times. But Andre put his arms around her in a sheltered hug.
“I can’t start telling you how much I’ve missed you, Tone.”
With her ear pressed to his chest, his words seemed like they were being delivered straight to her soul. The familiarity of his touch and sturdy beating of his heart took her to a place of syrupy memories. And for no convincing reason, Toni felt her eyes betray her with tears. She tried to rein her heart in but it handed her over to Andre’s affection. He stroked her back gently.
“I’m so sorry, ma chatte. I was selfish and stupid.”
“I’m sorry I shut you out.”
“I deserved it. I failed to see that the kids meant so much to you, that they were changing you as you were changing them. If only I had been patient…”
“Let’s stop talking about the past, please.” She sniffled. “You’re here, I’m here… Do you still want to take me to Paris?”
He pulled back and lifted her chin. “Isn’t it too late to catch a flight?”
Toni had a certain twinkle in her wet eyes. “Learn to keep your promises, Frenchman.”
He undid her towel with one tug, sending it to the floor.
“Arinola…” he whirred, eyes worshipping her body. “You know I can’t cheat on my girlfriend.”
“It’s not cheating if she doesn’t drive you crazy like I do.”
Andre came down on Toni’s lips with a soft kiss that bore more of his breath than his taste. But she didn’t break contact. Her hands reached for his neck to pull him closer. They kissed hungrily, with sighs and feverish urgency.
“It’s not cheating if she would be dumped tomorrow,” Andre said.
Toni giggled and then shrieked as he suddenly picked her off the floor and put her across his shoulder.
“Fabrice!” she yelled, laughing. He took her to the bedroom and dumped her on the bed. And then he lay over her.
“Marry me, Arinola. Have my babies. Let’s build our lives together.”
Toni held his face, lost in his eyes. Maybe it was the fact that she was slightly intoxicated, or it might have been that she was too excited to see him that she didn’t think her answer through. But she gave him a quick reply that came in the likes of a gratifying moan, a bop of her head and a word that sounded much like ‘yes’.
Andre grinned and sent his lips on a journey to her chatte.