Ben was slowly realizing that leaving Rita on Sunday afternoon hadn’t just been the most difficult thing he’d ever done, but it also might have been a mistake. Though he’d left to avoid crowding her too soon, as everything she did, even a thing as simple as yawning, brought his emotions close to spilling; he was now wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to just tell her and face the consequences.
If she rejected him, he would just pursue her as doggedly as she’d pursued him. She might have bargained for one night but she was getting forever. Ben had thought leaving was more reasonable, he didn’t want her to think he was crazy. And since she hadn’t mentioned his love declaration, spilled in a moment of weakness, he decided she hadn’t heard and so he had more time to ease her into it.
Except he was slowly going mad with want. Ben was always on his A-game on Mondays, but today, his mind was so inundated by Rita and their weekend together that the memory seemed clearer in his mind eye than the document in front of him. It was a good thing his uncle had returned over the weekend, he would make arrangements for her second condition. She hadn’t explained what she wanted with the old man, but he would do it, just so he could contact her again.
As though summoned by his thoughts, her scent tickled his nostrils, causing his heart to leap into his throat. He shoved from his seat, heart thudding; had she come to see him? Ben had not expected she’d show up. He understood that she would stick to the one night agreement, but her showing up would blow that out of the water, he would confess his feelings and damn the consequences.
Ben opened his door with her name on his lips and had to apply brakes as he’d almost barrelled into his uncle’s back. He watched in amazement as his uncle extended his arms in welcome to...his eyes narrowed, Rita?
Rita cringed as Zach Inyang bypassed her extended hand and engulfed her in a hug instead, as though they were old time friends. She stiffened, ready to push him off, but a hand on her back reminded her of the plan. So, she smiled and accepted the embrace. She was extremely glad that it lasted a second because something else caught his attention.
“And who do we have here?” his voice had noticeably changed, well, at least, to Rita who was observing. She flicked a glance to his face and saw the deep interest in his eyes as he gazed at her escort.
Rita turned on the familiar office corridor, swallowing because she was sure Ben stared at them, though she’d not risked looking over at his office door which was right there in front of them, she could feel his eyes on her like a pair of hot branding irons.
“Um...this is my cousin, Oge.”
Zach’s eyebrows went up with more interest, “Ibo?”
Rita smiled, a showing of teeth rather than an emotion, “Yes, her mother, that’s my aunt, married an Ibo man.”
“Welcome, my dear,” he went for a hug again, totally eclipsing the woman who was way smaller than her that she could pass for a teenager.
“Thank you, Sir,” Okpara smiled shyly like a confirmed naive teenager. It helped that she was small, thin and had big eyes.
“Please, ladies, come to my office,” Zach invited, turning to lead the way, that’s when she saw Ben, he was unavoidable as he stood in the open doorway of office, looking like he wanted to tear his uncle apart...for her?
She gave him a nervous glance though she swallowed the emotion and projected a smile of confidence when his uncle introduced them. Should she lie?
“Oh, and here is my wonderful branch manager, Benjamin Inyang,” Zach slapped Ben on his shoulder like a proud father would a son. “Ben, this is Rita Ukara, owner of Ritaz Imaginations, the company upstairs.”
Rita could have sworn Ben took a shocked step back at that announcement. This was the part she hadn’t prepared for. She heard his sharply drawn breath; she saw his accusing gaze, the questions in them and finally the hurt. The hurt was more painful, her chest felt like it was weighed down by a pile of cement blocks.
“We’ve met,” she blurted, smiling and taking Ben’s proffered hand for a shake. His smile was stiff, then he jerked his hand off as though touching her burned him. He refused to look at her as his uncle introduced her escort. His jaw ticked as he stepped back into his office, still not looking at her as she followed his uncle to his office at the end of the corridor, same as hers upstairs. Maybe, there was an unspoken consensus that the end office belonged to the bosses, a very random thought when she should be focused on nailing Zach Inyang or worrying about his nephew.
“Please sit,” he motioned to the leather seats in front of his magnificent desk. “What can I offer you?” he smiled at them, his eyes twinkling at Okpara more than her.
“Nothing, we’re good, thank you, Sir,” Rita smiled.
Zach’s eyes returned to Okpara, “Are you sure, Oge?”
Okpara docked her head, turning to Rita like a child would seek silent permission from an adult, Rita smiled, shaking her head, before turning to Zach, “Okay, a soft drink for her.”
The dirty old man chuckled and got up excitedly to ring his secretary, who unsurprisingly, was the saucy receptionist. Rita gave her a smug look as she brought the pack of juice and two glasses. Zach insisted on pouring the drinks for Okpara and himself; the ladies exchanged knowing glances.
“So sorry, Sir for bringing her along for this business meeting,” Rita apologized. “Maybe, she could wait out...”
Zach snorted, “No, please, it’s fine.”
“It’s just that she’s waiting to get into the university and I’m trying to get her necessary skills, so she interns at my company. But when she heard I had a meeting in a printing company, she jumped up and told me how interested she was in colour separation.”
Rita grinned when Zach chuckled good-naturedly. “Really? What course are you looking to study at the university?” he asked Okpara who docked her head shyly.
“Fine and Industrial Art.”
“Amazing,” he said in a tone lower than when he spoke with Rita. Jesus, the man couldn’t help being dirty.
“The art thing sort of runs in the family. I don’t know if Ben told you, but I was the one that did Mr. Uwa’s design.”
Zach laughed and looked genuinely pleased. “Oh, small world. See, Uwa is quite ecstatic about his designs and has decided to use one of each for different charities, for his wife and daughter. He looks forward to working with you more.”
“Yes, he called me, though I told him it has to be a value chain partnership, with me designing and Ben, that’s Global Press, printing.” She swallowed her nervousness and smiled because Zach thought nothing of her slip.
“Amazing, a real business woman. Okay, this is what I’ll do, I can spare a month to allow Oge here, intern at my company to learn more on colour separation...for free.” He announced this and sat back, satisfied at his magnanimity.
Okpara reacted as expected; she squealed and looked excited while Rita managed to look pleasantly shocked. “Thank you, Sir,” they both repeated and Rita saw him lick his lips, his eyes smouldering on Oge.
“He hasn’t picked my calls!” Rita complained to her friends. “And I can’t go see him at the office because of the plan.”
“Then go to his home,” Eka suggested, sipping from a glass of water.
It wasn’t rare that one of the women chose water to the wine of the evening, maybe she was on medication; with her worry over Ben, nobody had had the chance to share anything else. Rita mourned, “That would be desperate.” She didn’t know his house, not that it would be difficult to find out. “And I could be wrong...” She pouted, falling sideways on her couch, placing her head on Eka’s thighs. “That he might have said he loves me...”
“He did?” Both her friends shouted at once.
“I’m not sure,” Rita said slowly, her brow furrowing with deep folds. Eka smoothed the folds with her delicate fingers, cold from holding her glass of water. “Maybe, I dreamt it. I mean, the fact he stayed back that time got me having wild ideas, like maybe, he felt what I was feeling.” Rita sighed, her heart twisting with pain that got her breathless whenever she wondered about Ben, which was every time. “Too soon, I must have been dreaming,” she decided, sighing and leaving more of her weight on Eka’s thigh.
“It’s not too soon if you feel something for him, why do you think it’s too soon for him to feel something for you?” Eka pondered.
“Because,” Rita blew out air, “I’ve had more time to...stalk him.” She cringed because it sounded bad now that she said it out loud. “Who does that?” she murmured in self deprecation.
“You were just shooting your shot. And you should be proud. It takes real courage to shoot your shot.” Nene commented, pointing the remote at Rita’s TV to change the present channel.
It still felt fantastic, like a wonderful dream that she’d gotten her one night with Ben, even more than her one night, then she’d scored the connect with Zach and with how the plan was going, they’d soon have their man in the bag. But Rita realized, if she was asked to give her vendetta up to have Ben, even for a few weeks, she’d do it without blinking. Ben had showed her what it meant to be cared for by a man. He might not love her, but having more time with him would give her more moments to file away for when he left. Because no matter what she’d imagined, men like Ben didn’t fall in love with women like her...in less than two nights.
Eka coughed, “It’s been three weeks Rita, send him a text then.”
“What would I say? Plus, I’m worried that if this works, the company might crumble and...and he might be out of work.”
Silence reigned in the room and Rita’s anxiety escalated because, if her friends were silent, it meant her worry was legit. In their silence, the visitor’s toilet flushed and a minute later, Okpara stepped out, wiping her hands on the seat of her skinny jeans.
“Are you talking about Benjamin?” the small woman asked, turning red wine into the spare wine glass and taking a sip having chose the seat beside Nene.
“Isn’t he the only one we’ve been talking about since we arrived?” Nene joked.
Rita sighed, shutting her eyes, lethargy stealing over her. She’d been feeling unnecessarily tired this past week and she believed Ben’s withdrawal was sapping her strength.
“I’m sorry for being such a cliché and a bore.” She should be the life of their gathering, not the one stuck on a man who didn’t care. He probably was with a girl now to wipe off the taste of her from his psyche. Her brow furrowed, maybe, a skinny girl, she worried.
Eka hit her shoulder sharply, sending pain down her arm and jostling her from her depressing thoughts. “Stop it!”
“I was joking, babe.” Nene consoled. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“It takes guts to shoot your shot,” Okpara shrugged.
Nene gasped. “That’s what I said.”
“And if it’s any consolation,” Okpara leaned back in the chair, “The guy is a boar at the office. And from workers’ complaints, this evil attitude is recent.”
“That sounds like a sulking man to me,” Eka added.
“Yes.” Nene agreed, giving Rita a concerned look.
Her heart leaped for a second then dropped. Rita sighed, regretting being a damper but unable to help herself. “Or, he’s angry for being played by me. I lied to him. I had a chance to confess, but I was too selfish, I didn’t want to lose what little time he was offering and when he left on Sunday, he didn’t sound like it was over.”
Okpara nodded, “I’d be selfish with that one too, and I’ve only seen him in suits.”
“You should’ve seen him in low slung jeans...”
“...And a sleeveless shirt, showing off his abs and muscles while placing food on the table,” Eka completed with a sigh.
“Oh, and that kiss, dear God, I went back home and demanded a quickie before dinner. Mike was shocked.”
Eka covered her face, “Jesus, I thought it was only me!”
“You too?” Okpara chuckled against her wine glass.
“Jude had asked what had inspired my passion. I couldn’t very well say ‘Oh, Rita’s man was so alpha he turned me on’.”
Rita groaned in the midst of their laughter, recalling that evening, the shock of finding him there, his confidence; yes, he’d been the consummate alpha man. “You’re not helping. I’m the one that saw him naked. How could one person be so badass sexy, caring and sweet? He washed my hair...” and she busted into tears recalling the whole weekend.
“Jesus, Rita,” Eka’s hand fluttered over her shoulder not knowing how to comfort her.
Nene got up from her seat, pulled off Rita’s legs from the couch, making her sit up so they could sandwich her. It wasn’t enough, she wanted Ben’s arms.
“He took care of me, guys.” Through her tears she saw Nene motion to Okpara and she got up. “He cleaned me up after...love making. He woke me one time to give me water, said I sounded parched,” she wailed more and her friends murmured consoling words.
“That sounds like a good man,” Okpara appeared with the sachet of wipes. “You shot your shot before; you can still shoot shots again. I mean, following Okafor’s Law, you can Google it, where shots have been fired, it’s just a matter of blowing the embers to revive the passion, no matter the time that has passed.”
“What?” Both her friends exclaimed.
“On that note, I believe we need a subject change.” Okpara shifted to the edge of her seat and clapped her hands once. “Zach invited me to his house for next weekend...and it isn’t for tea.”
Rita sat up. “He did?” her heart thudded and her hands shook a little as she wiped the evidence of her unexpected cry bout.
Nene frowned. “Isn’t he set to travel again, like he’d told both of you that first day?”
“His invite is kind of sudden,” Eka commented.
“Not really,” Okpara replied Eka. “He’s been suggestive these past weeks. He insists on being there on my intern days and had changed my two days a week schedule to everyday. Oh, and he’s touched my breast countless times.” She nodded at the shocked gasps of her friends.
Rita already knew these as she’d been getting daily updates from Okpara. “So, what are we going to do?” anxiety chewed at her intestines like termites would a dead tree.
Okpara shrugged, “I’m going.”
“What do you mean?” Eka yelled.
“The man is a known juvenile rapist,” Nene added, appalled at what Okpara was suggesting.
“Zach touching my breast isn’t enough grounds for arrest, talk more of conviction, and it is conviction we are going for. From investigations, there’d been many other girls, some refused to come forward because their parents had gotten settlements at the time, some had been threatened and bullied. The few that are willing to testify have stories similar to what is playing out. So, I’m assured he will try something, and I’m going to get that on record come next weekend.”
Rita loved her determination but she feared for the small woman. “I won’t forgive myself if something happened to you.”
“And you aren’t really a teenager, won’t that void the case?” Nene worried.
“Nothing will happen to me, we’ll have a plan. And we want a rape conviction, whether on a teenager or an adult, rape is rape.”
“This is dangerous.” Eka stated and Nene nodded, both still sandwiching their friend.
Okpara chuckled without mirth. “Zach should be worried. I am dangerous.”