“It’s been weeks you haven’t mentioned Okpara.”
Rita coughed, almost spitting out the white wine she’d just sipped. Clearing her throat, she carefully placed the wine glass on the coffee table in Nene’s sitting room and pinned Eka with a confused look. “The detective?”
Nene arranged the plate of dried meat in the centre of the table to be easily accessible to the other two ladies occupying her couch while she took the single seat beside it and gave Rita a sarcastic look. “Is there another one?”
Rita hedged, her hand twisting strands of her hair at her nape. “I thought we gathered here on Eka’s behest?”
“Behest? What’s with the big English?” Nene frowned.
“She’s hiding things from us.” Eka stated as reason for her big English, with an accusing gaze.
“She’s dragging her back hair,” Nene noticed too.
“No! I’m...not,” Rita sighed, her shoulders fell. Indeed, she felt guilty, but she’d not been hiding, she just hadn’t felt the need to share...yet.
“So, talk. What’s the update with the detective; what’s the plan?” Nene prodded, popping a piece of meat into her mouth.
Rita sighed, “The idea is to get close to Zach Inyang...”
“Owner of Global Press, right?” Eka asked.
Rita nodded, “Yes, whether through business or...” she hesitated and her friends stared at her, silently inquiring.
“Or...” Nene prodded.
“Or through hot man Ben,” Eka supplied, and then shoved Rita on the shoulder, “Right?” Both waited for her reply and she nodded.
“Well, except, I’m not really thinking of the older Inyang these days,” Rita grumbled, hating to be reminded of her obligation, the one she was tired of pursuing now, after meeting Ben, despite the grave reason that had instigated the obligation in the first place.
“Eh, we noticed. You even unearthed the long buried desire to have a baby without getting married,” Nene eyed Rita mischievously, causing her to smile even though she didn’t want to.
“Enough about me!” Rita waved her hand over her head as though waving off her friends’ inquisitiveness.
“Na lie o! E no work today.” Eka exclaimed in Pidgin English, refuting Rita’s attempt at dodging the conversation. “Tell us how it’s been so far. You’ve been dogging this guy for what, a week...weeks? And you’re yet to give us gist.”
Rita groaned in exasperation, causing giggles from her friends. “It’s been only two days. I saw him the second time, yesterday...and, I might have an ally,” she gave her frowning friends side looks.
“Who?” Eka asked faster than Nene could.
“An ally? This soon in the game?” Nene caught up.
She was embarrassed about sharing the process of getting to Ben, but, these were her friends and they could help with ideas anyway. “I’ve been pretending to be Kate’s client who has to wait in Ben’s office for her.”
“What’s that going to solve?” Nene asked with a frown.
“Proximity and a chance to get a feel of the guy, become his friend,” Eka provided impatiently, “Go on,” she prodded Rita who stared at her in surprise that she got it while Nene nodded.
“Okay, calm down. The thing is, I got busted yesterday.” Both her friends widened their eyes, sucking in air noisily. Rita nodded, agreeing to their shocks. “Yes, Ben’s assistant branch manager knew who I was.”
“Oh my God, so it’s over?”
Rita narrowed her eyes at Eka’s hopeful tone and enjoyed dashing her hopes. “No, it isn’t. James, that’s the assistant manager, took me to lunch today and told me that he knew I wasn’t a client to Kate since I was her boss. I confessed that I liked Ben, so, he confessed that he liked Kate.”
“Telenovella!” Nene cackled.
“Indeed.” Eka agreed.
Rita shook her head at their blatant enjoyment of her predicament. “Well, Ben seems to also like Kate, so, James says he’ll help in whatever scheme I’m planning, and I’m to put in a good word for him with Kate.”
“So, you’re a matchmaker now, uh?” Eka snorted, because she knew Rita hated such things, well, except when it concerned her friends.
“You could just order Kate to stay off Ben,” Nene pointed with a piece of meat to make her point.
Rita cringed and slumped lower in the couch. Her friends stared at her inquisitively. Then Nene started laughing.
“Oh my God, you didn’t.” Eka covered her mouth.
Rita groaned, “I was mad when I found Ben had Kate’s personal number on the first day. So, when I called her, I might have literally pissed around him like a dog to guard my territory.”
“Jesus.” Eka said, looking away as though she couldn’t bear the embarrassment, while Nene kept laughing. “Is that all?” she asked, because she knew Rita didn’t make single mistakes, they came in droves.
Rita slumped deeper and her hands went to her face, her voice came out muffled. “I might have blurted that I liked his arse.”
Nene howled until she coughed pieces of mashed meat on the tiled floor she’d fallen on in her mirth while Eka’s mouth dropped.
“What did he do, what was his reaction?” Nene choked out, now sitting on the floor with tears of mirth on her cheeks.
“He slammed the door in my face.”
This time Eka joined Nene in laughing but it wasn’t funny to Rita how they could laugh at that. When they’d calmed down a bit, Rita rushed through what had happened the previous day at Ben’s office and then grumbled that Ben had had the impetus to tell Kate that she’d looked untidy.
Mirth disappeared from Nene’s face, “In those exact words?”
Her friends might laugh, but Rita knew they were always protective of her with other people; they always had each other’s backs and she didn’t doubt Nene would storm Global Press to kick Ben’s arse, fine as it is, if she perceived any manner of insult. The thought gave her immense comfort.
“Nah. He said it looked like I’d literally rolled out of bed to be there. Maybe, it isn’t what I’d assumed he meant. Maybe, he meant I’d been early, now that I think of it.”
Eka gave her a sceptical look, “What were you wearing, Rita?”
Even though Nene chuckled, Eka wasn’t having it, she raised an eyebrow and Rita felt like a recalcitrant child admonished by her mother.
Sighing, she spoke quickly. “Khaki shorts, T-shirt and flat slippers.”
“On a Tuesday morning?” Eka exclaimed.
“At a corporate environment?” Nene was appalled.
“Rita.” Eka groaned, “That’s a new low even for you. And I’m sure you didn’t comb your hair.” Eka smoothed back tendrils of her hair which floated around her face in a very maternal fashion.
“There was no time. I had to catch him as he arrived. I needed to shoot my shot.” Rita tried to joke, but her friends weren’t falling for it.
“I’ve never seen you this fixated on a guy.” Eka worried.
“Seriously. I mean, you’ve never really cared about men and then, bam, you want to have kids with this one.” Nene added, giving her a confused look.
Rita sat up, sighed and folded her arms under her bosom. “At the rate he’s ignoring me, I might never see his ankle talk more of bagging his cucumber enough to get pregnant.”
Silence reigned in the room, then Nene wailed in laughter while Eka shook her head, her mouth twitching.
“And now, we’ve been availed the opportunity to also help you.” Eka declared, shooting Nene a look to quail her mirth.
“I’m still not in support of this fixation because if it doesn’t work out, you might get hurt. Women shooting shots at a man isn’t...acceptable...to me,” she quickly added as her friends scowled at her.
“But you shot shots at your husband,” Nene pointed out.
“Yes, that’s my husband, it’s not the same thing. And it’s called seduction.” Eka mock snapped.
“Whatever,” Eka cut Nene who giggled, “I know you guys will gang up and tell me not to worry because it might work. So, we are going to help you bag this guy’s...” Eka cleared her throat and waved her hand to indicate Ben’s private part which caused the other ladies to fall sideways in laughter.
Then Eka went ahead to tell her friends how successful the seduction of her husband had gone. Rita was glad that it was Jude’s call that ended the meeting while Eka hurried off with the promise to show up at her house with a plan.
“Tell me the truth, Kate. It’s been weeks and this lady keeps popping up in my office claiming to wait for you. But then she leaves without ever seeing you or your staff. What’s going on?”
Ben was done pussy-footing with Kate. Rita Ukara was slowly driving him bunkers and he wanted her out of his office. He was glad he’d decided to seek Kate out when he did, because it looked as though she was on her way out of the empty, open space of Ritaz Imaginations; a few minutes later, he would have missed her.
Kate cleared her throat. She looked everywhere but at him. She was the perfect picture of someone hiding something. The uncomfortable silence dragged for few more seconds and Ben refused to budge or say anything, therefore making Kate more likely to tell the truth. It was a little truth seeking skill he’d learnt online.
With a heavy sigh she graced him with her gaze. “The company is in her debt.”
Ben narrowed his eyes. It was unbelievable that Ritaz Imaginations, successful as they seem, would owe a single woman. It could be possible though; Ben had seen her with two expensive vehicles, so she could be wealthy enough to, perhaps, give the company a loan.
But she looked so young, with her perpetual baggy shorts or jean trousers, t-shirts and... Ben reined his thoughts; he was getting ahead of himself instead of asking Kate for details.
“So, you and your staff desert the place because of her?” he couldn’t wrap his mind around that one.
“No, we’ve been having on-site jobs...”
“But a secretary could remain in the office. I mean half of the time these past weeks, it appears like your company has run down; you’re never here.”
Kate had the grace to look contrite, “I’m sorry, I should have told you.”
“How much?” Ben wanted to know the amount that would make a company run from Rita Ukara. But then his phone rang. Ben thought Kate looked relieved but he couldn’t be sure because James sucked his attention the moment he answered the call.
“He rejected it again and he’s giving us 24hours to deliver a fresh one.”
James sounded panicked and he had a right to be. Zach Inyang, his uncle and Global Press owner, had collected a huge deal from an oil magnate to print on all the relief materials he needed for his charity foundation; that wasn’t the problem.
Usually, clients came with their graphics already designed for printing, but the oil magnate had demanded Global Press create a design that would make an outstanding brand, an unforgettable stamp for his first outing as a charity foundation, never used and never seen. It was a huge project for the branch and they’d gone all out in hiring brand makers to create the unforgettable stamp that Mr. Uwa, the oil magnate, needed.
All five designs had been rejected and James was telling him the sixth one had gone the same way.
“I’m coming to the office,” Ben was already out of Ritaz Imaginations and jumping down the stairs to his company. “We’ll talk later, Kate,” he called out and didn’t wait for her reply.
“This dude is crazy.” James exploded the moment Ben rushed into his own office.
“Any reasons this time?”
“That is was bland,” James spat, looking frustrated. “What are we going to do? We’ve run out of top shot brand makers to hire and we can’t keep dipping into company funds to...to hire more people without any deposit for the project.”
“Obviously, we aren’t the only ones vying for this project, which is why we have the deadline.”
James groaned, “So, we might lose it, after spending so much? I wish we’d hired local brand makers. These Lagos people be acting like their designs are gold, yet the man keeps rejecting them. Jesus, what are we going to do?”
Ben ignored his hysterical question and stared at the previous designs, all six of them that the man had rejected. “What can we do in 24hours?” he muttered to himself but James heard him and scoffed.
“It took those people a week to deliver each of those designs, and we paid extra for urgency. Having 24hours to do that job is unreasonable. Maybe you should call Boss to get time extension.” James was suggesting his uncle. Could he? He didn’t want to seem incompetent in his uncle’s eyes. He didn’t want to seem like he was overwhelmed in this new, higher position he’d been given.
He wanted to succeed, prove himself with the aim of possibly erasing the bad name he’d gotten from Lagos. Though, nobody in this branch knew of why he’d been sent here, but one could never be sure of who knew who in the branches and bad news had been known to fly across time zones. Ben wanted to be so successful he’d make the company’s newsletter for skyrocketing profits at the Akwa Ibom Global Press branch, maybe, even beating the Lagos branch which had always maintained highest gross profit among the branches.
This project could do that for him... His thoughts ceased as he shifted his head and instinctively inhaled the bold yet, feminine scent that wafted through the air. Ben was yet to master the art of not appreciating Rita’s now familiar scent. He looked up and caught her approach to his open office, he’d not shut the door.
He forced his surprised eyes away from her tailored shirt, over body-fitting skinny jeans and shiny, low heeled leather shoes. After weeks of seeing her in baggy jeans and t-shirts, the brief glance of her in different clothes had transformed her from looking like a chubby teenager to a full blown woman. Rita Ukara was a vision of someone to be taken seriously.
“Hey, guys,” but her attitude was the same; only the clothes had changed.
“Wow, Rita, you look amazing. I love your weave,” James enthused and Ben couldn’t understand how his assistant branch manager could have moved from frustrated to excited in one second.
His comment about her weave made Ben unconsciously glance up. It was a good thing she was smiling at James and so hadn’t seen him looking. Her usually roughly packed hair had been weaved backwards, the tails streaming down her upper shoulder. Ben wondered if that length was all natural hair or she’d added extensions.
Her reply got him looking away with a scowl. Why was he interested in the length of her hair? Fine, he’d always been a sucker for natural long hair, but it didn’t mean he was attracted to her. Ben swallowed and refused to analyse why ‘attraction’ had even been a part of his thought. His scowl deepened.
“It’s not a good time, Rita,” he snapped sharper than he’d meant.
“It’s never a good time with you.”
Of course, she had a comeback. Ben eyed her as she took the seat in front of his table. Their eyes met and held and his heart bumped against his chest so suddenly he lost his breath for a second. Ben looked away while hitting his chest with the flat of his hand and clearing his throat. Then he smoothed his tie and lapels of his suit as he stared at his laptop which still displayed the rejected designs.
“We don’t need distractions at this ...” James coughed so loudly he stopped talking and stared at him.
“I’m a distraction?” Rita snagged his attention, when he turned she had a speculative smile on her face while staring at him. He didn’t even want to know what she was assuming, he didn’t have the time.
“We have deadlines to meet and I’m sure Kate has left for the day, so there’s no need to wait.” Now he knew why Kate had been in such haste.
James frowned, “How do you know that?”
“We met on the stairs.”
Rita still hadn’t looked away from him and it was making him uncomfortable. “What’s the problem? Maybe I could help.”
“It’s none of your...”
“We need an outstanding never before seen graphic design for an oil magnate’s brand new charity foundation. The man has rejected six designs so far and we have 24hours to create another or we lose the account...and it’s a huge account.” James completed and turned to find Ben giving him a tight lipped glare.
“You tell non-staff our business now, rig...”
“Well, what a coincidence, I know someone.” Rita declared.
“Really?” James enthused while Ben sighed and stared at her, raising a brow in enquiry.
“Unbelievable.” Ben groaned. “Everything isn’t a joke, Rita.”
His snap had no effect on her. “Who’s joking?” she looked confused, her gaze left Ben to James and back to Ben. “Who do you think handled Ritaz Imaginations’ brand design?”
James was quiet. Ben did the silent staring think to get the truth, but she looked convincing. He shook his head and grabbed his phone. “I don’t believe you.” He stated and dialled Kate’s number. Could it be why Ritaz Imaginations were in her debt? His head throbbed and he rubbed the side with the most pressure.
Ben didn’t think Kate would answer his call but she did just before it stopped ringing. “Hey, Kate.” He sounded relieved. A glance at James showed he had a frown on his brow, but Ben couldn’t be bothered about his feelings in that moment, he needed information.
It really wasn’t about Rita being a graphic designer anymore. He’d just realized that they should have asked Kate from the beginning for the person who’d handled their brand creation because their company brand was exceptional.
While he spoke with Kate, he watched Rita bring out her Samsung Galaxy Note 12 Pro from a nice purse that shared the maroon colour with her shiny shoes. She tapped on it with expert fingers and showed it to James. Ben watched James’ mouth drop in amazement as he swiped so fast his hand was in danger of becoming a blur.
Ben didn’t hear Kate’s last words because he was staring at a design on Rita’s tablet that James had turned to show him. He ended the call and silently reached for the device. He swiped, looking at amazing designs and drawings and paintings. “You did this?”
“Ben, her designs are awesome.” James enthused, invariably saying, use her already.
He couldn’t stop swiping. Each design held depth and beauty. Over the weeks, he’d seen her bent over the device for hours, never once wondering what she’d been doing. He’d assumed she was playing a game or chatting.
“How much will you charge to deliver in 24 hours?” Ben asked still swiping.
Ben’s hand stilled. He looked up and narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean nothing?”
“Oh my God, Ben!” James was saying, stop questioning our good luck, and take the deal!
He understood James, but there was something else going on here. He felt like he was walking into a trap, he just didn’t know where it was hidden which meant he couldn’t dodge it. His eyes stayed on Rita’s steady gaze until she spoke.
“I have two conditions and they are things you can easily handle.”
“I’ll decide if it’s easy or not.” James glared at him for not grabbing the too good to be true deal.
“James, please, may I have a word with Ben alone?” she turned smiling eyes to his assistant manager who gobbled the whole thing and nodded.
When he got to the door, he glared at Ben over Rita’s head and narrowed his eyes threateningly, which meant, don’t fuck this up. Ben rolled his eyes at James and focused on Rita when he closed the door.
“Do you have a girlfriend or wife, Ben?”
He wasn’t expecting the direct question or the question itself. Ben had no idea what game she was playing but he refused to show his shock. He hoped it wasn’t what he was assuming. He heart hammered against his chest as he leaned back in his chair with a smile and decided to see where it led.
“No. I have no wife or girlfriend. Not that it’s any of your business, but what has this got to do with our prospective agreement?”
“I’m glad you said prospective, that means it has a chance of success,” she smiled at him and he excused the lurch in his chest as anxiety to deliver on the project; time was of the essence.
“What are your conditions, Rita?” he asked as though bored of the issue.
“I want one night with you.”
There was no easing into it, no stammering, no shy eye blinks, just bam, her demand. And it didn’t seem like she was joking. Ben wished she was joking. But for the first time since he’d known her, she looked serious.
He sighed and sat up, wondering if his heart wanted to beat out of his chest with the fervour it hammered against his muscles. “One night doing what, hanging out, dancing...”
His heart ceased beating; he was sure of it and then it continued faster than ever. Ben gave a dry laugh that sounded as unreal as it was to him. “Knowing that this depends on the acceptability of your design, would you not rather be paid for your services?”
Rita bent her head to the side. “Are you not into...women?”
Sputtering, he sat up, “I love women!”
“Then why are you deflecting?”
“You must agree this is rather unconventional.”
“Because I’m a woman?”
Ben opened his mouth and shut it. He’d decided to withhold what he’d wanted to say. “What’s the second condition?” he asked instead.
“I want to meet Zach Inyang.”