If you missed episode 9 click HERE
The next morning, Tomilola headed down the stairs, her bare feet sinking into the thick carpeting. It had been another long, sleepless night. Shaking her head, she wondered, for perhaps the millionth time, what Demola’s deal was. Wondered what his cryptic remark about not belonging in the picture with her meant. Wondered why he was running the other way so fast when the chemistry between them was obviously so good.
She smiled ruefully. A few days ago she’d been glad of his reserve. Now, it was just frustrating. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t be getting to the bottom of that little problem this morning. She’d seen the cowardly beast’s truck disappearing across the field before the sun came up this morning. She’d have to snag him later. In the meantime, there were other questions she needed answered. Questions about the estate. She thought Charles could help her with those, and she’d noticed his truck was still parked in the yard. Once she had her shoes on, she’d hunt him down. She hit the bottom of the stairs and headed toward the kitchen, tennies in hand. The three pairs of socks she’d had with her when Demola had snagged her in Port Harcourt were in the dryer.
She pushed through the swinging doors – to find Charles leaning against the counter, eating a bowl of rice.
“Hey,” she said. “Thinking of the devil.”
He looked up at her. “Looking for me?”
“I was going to be as soon as I finished dressing.”
He looked down at her. “Those tennies doesn’t do you justice.”
She looked at the tennies, taking in their soft construction. “You’re probably right. But since I barely have enough money in savings to cover the rent on my place in Port Harcourt until I can get back there to collect my things. I don’t think shoes are in the budget.”
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. While you won’t have access to any of your dad’s money for the next six months, he did create a fund so you could pay your bills and have a little spending money during this time. He didn’t want you to be out anything if you decided not to stay. There’s plenty of money there to cover your rent.”
“Great. Then shoe shopping is back on. Is there a store nearby?”
“That little down about ten miles down the highway?” she asked in disbelief. The place didn’t look big enough to have more than the petrol station that sat on the highway. He smiled, spooning up another bite of rice.
“I’ll give you a signed cheque from the estate. You can fill out the amount once you’ve picked out the shoes – and whatever else you need. There’s plenty of money in the fund, and I know Demola dragged you here on short notice.”
She grabbed her socks from the dryer and strode back into the kitchen. “Fine, but I have a better idea than sending the cheque with me. Can they spare you from work today?”
“Good. Then come with me to town. I have a ton of questions about the estate. You can answer them while we drive. Then you can just write the check for the store.”
“We can do that. But Demola is probably the best person to talk to about the Big W. He’s involved with every aspect of the place.”
“Don’t worry, I have every intention of lassoing that boy later.” Boy did she. “But what I’m interested in at the moment is the estate’s finances. That’s your bailiwick, isn’t it?”
“Good, then grab your keys and let’s go.”
Five minutes later, they were bouncing down the dirt road in Charles’ car. “So what do you want to know?” he asked.
She chuckled. “I’m not exactly sure. Why don’t we start with how much this place made last year. Maybe that’ll give me an idea of what’s possible and what’s not.”
“Last year, it cleared almost half a million dollars.”
“Half a . . .” She stared wide-eyed at him. “The Big W sold half a million dollars in cows?”
“Cattle, Tomilola. Cattle. And yes, a big chunk of the profit came from beef and fish farming. But your father also has other investments and a stock portfolio. And the poultry made good money last year. Very good money.”
She took a deep breath and expelled it slowly. Cattle, poultry, investments and stock portfolios? Maybe she should have taken her business classes more seriously. “Okay, this is more complicated than I thought. Let’s take a different direction. Demola said Dad funnelled against most of his profits back into the estate to grow it. But as far as I’m concerned, the Big W is plenty big enough. So I’m going to want to channel that money in a very different direction.”
He cleared his throat. “Can I ask what you have in mind?”
“You know what the Alpine Angels do, right?”
“Fund-raisers for people in medical crisis.”
“Right. And I want to use the profits the Big W makes to do more of the same.”
His expression turned thoughtful. “Sounds interesting. And as long as you’re careful not to cut into the money needed to run the estate, you should have a steady source of income for the Angels. And there are some great tax benefits to that scenario.”
Excitement skittered through her. “So you think it’s doable?”
He nodded, obviously intrigued by the idea. “Absolutely. However, if your goal is to turn the Big W into the base for a charity organization, you might want to keep some of the money for growth. Because the bigger the Big W is, the more money it will make. And the more you can give away.”
She thought about that for a sec. “Okay, you have a point. But making the Big W bigger might be a little tricky, since I’m not sure about the cattle. As you noticed the other day, I have some problems with how that end of the operation is being run. I’m going to make some changes. And some of those changes might cut into profits.”
He thought for a second. “Then think about increasing the cow end of the business. Or go heavier into investments. Your dad used investments strictly as a way to diversify. So he’d have money coming in during the down years in the cattle industry. But you could use them more proactively.
“I like that idea. Except. . .I don’t know anything about investing. Did Dad make his own investment decisions or did someone do it for him?”
“Your father always made the final decision, but I found the investments for him.”
“Really? I thought you were just the accountant.
He smiled. “I said I did the estate’s books, and I do. But I handled all your father’s financial needs. My job description probably leans more toward financial adviser than accountant.”
“So you could help me restructure things for the charity and help me grow the investment end of the business?”
Excitement poured through her. What portion of last night she hadn’t spent thinking about Demola’s kiss, she’d spent wondering how to turn the Big W into a moneymaker for the Angel’s charity. It was thrilling to hear it was doable. “Okay, let’s get together soon and start working on strategies.”
“Just wander into the office when you’re ready and we’ll get busy. But first, it’s time to shop. We’re here.”
She’d been so engrossed in their talk she hadn’t noticed they’d driven into the tiny town.
Charles drove past a petrol station, the post office and a bank before pulling into a space in front of a store with a big display window and a sign that read T’s Apparel and Sundries.
Sundries? There was a word one didn’t see too often these days. Smiling, Tomilola got out of the car and strolled over to the display window. Two mannequins, one male, one female, stood in frozen poses, each wearing pair of stiff Wranglers, a pearl-snap western-cut shirt, black hats and two pairs of the fanciest alligator-skin shoes she’d ever seen. She pointed to them as Charles joined her on the sidewalk. “Those are cool.”
He chuckled, shaking his head a little. “Pretty fancy for real work.” He held the door open for her.
“Maybe.” She strode past him into the store and looked around. Racks and shelves of jeans and shirts and other “sundries” were scattered around the front of the store. She headed toward the back where she spied a small open area with a few chairs and a wall full of shoes.
Once there, she spotted the alligator-skin shoes immediately. She picked one of them up, the alligator skin smooth and tough beneath her fingers. Absolutely the coolest shoe she’d ever seen. She turned it over.
Her eyes popped wide and her jaw dropped. She held the boot up so the sole was visible to Charles and pointed to the sticker. “Twenty thousand naira,” she mouthed.
Smiling, Charles walked over to her. “If you’re really hooked on those, there’s plenty of money in the fund for them.”
She shook her head. “No way would I pay fifteen thousand naira for a pair of shoes. I have a list of people I could keep in the medications they need for months with that kind of money.” She set the shoes down and picked up a simple, black one.
Charles shook his head and took it from her hand. “Not those. They’re cheap, but you’ll have blisters on top of blisters by the time you break them in. And they won’t last more than a year.”
He set the shoe back on its shelf and pointed to a few pair of shoes clustered on a larger shelf. “Look at those. They’re a little more expensive but they won’t ruin your feet while you’re breaking them in and you’ll be able to wear them until the day you die.”
And they weren’t quite as plain as the black ones, either. She checked the price on a pair of brown, two-tone ones. Very affordable.
“Hey, Charles. You looking for new shoes?” The young, female voice floated through the small shoe area.
Tomilola looked up to see a pretty girl smiling broadly at Charles, her big eyes filled with admiration. She squelched the smile that pulled at her own lips. She’d been right about Charles turning ladies heads. This one was obviously smitten.
“Actually, I brought Tomilola in to buy.” The smile Charles gave the girl was polite and friendly but nothing more as he waved a hand toward Tomilola. “Barbara, I’d like you to meet Tomilola Daniels, Wole Adenuga’s daughter. Tomilola, this Barbara Okorie. She’s been working here at T’s for the last year. Her daddy owns the estate to the west of the Big W.”
Barbara’s expression brightened. “Hey, it’s great to meet you. I heard they’d finally found you. I’m sorry they didn’t find you before your dad passed away. But he’d be glad you’re here now. He always wanted the estate to go to you.”
It was nice to hear from someone besides Demola that her father had wanted her there. Tomilola bobbed her head. “Thanks.”
Barbara nodded at the boots in Tomilola’s hand. “You wanna try those?”
“You got it. Have a seat.” Barbara tipped her head toward the chairs and disappeared into the back.
A man in his late fifties or early sixties, with gray hair and deep lines around his eyes, wandered in while they waited. As he made his way to the wall of boots, he looked their way, his lips turning down as he spotted Charles.
Before Tomilola could ask what the man’s problem was, Barbara returned with two big boxes in her arms. “Okay, let’s give thee a try.” She set the boxes on the floor, looking at Charles as she opened the top one. “So how are things going out at the Second Chance?”
Tomilola looked at Charles, surprise running through her. “The Second Chance? Do you work on another estate as well as the Big W?”
Barbara laughed, slipping the shoes on Tomilola’s feet. “That’s just what a lot of the folks around here call the Big W, being as how your daddy gave so many young men a second chance and all.”
“A second chance?”
“Yeah, you know, guys broke with no place to live or having a little skirmishes with the law. A lot of folks around here wouldn’t hire those men, but your daddy would if he had an opening. Even if he didn’t sometimes. He thought everyone should have a second chance.”
Something warm and fuzzy trickled through Tomilola. Sitting a few seats down, the old man snorted, the shoe he’d picked to try on in his hand. “The Second Chance is only what the fools in these parts call your old man’s place. The smarter ones call it the Little P” Pure contempt sounded in his voice.
“Shut up, T.J. Nobody asked for your input.” Charles spoke calmly, but the hard look in his eye made it clear he meant business. The man curled his lips in a nasty sneer. “P, as in penitentiary. Half the men working on your dad’s place are ex-cons. From thieves to drug dealers to murderers.”
Murderers? She looked to Charles, a cold chill swirling inside her. “The man’s jerking your chain, Tomilola,” Charles quickly assured. “There are no murderers on the Big W.”
The old man snorted again. “Just ask your executor what he spent five years in prison for, if you don’t believe me.”
She snapped her gaze to the man, the chill settling in her stomach. “The Big W’s executor?”
Pure hatred narrowed the man’s cold, gray eyes. “That’s right, your executor, Ademola.” He spat the words like bullets. And then, as if he couldn’t contain his anger anymore and didn’t want to do something he would regret, he slammed the shoe he’d been holding on the chair next to him, thrust himself from his chair and stalked away.
She turned to Charles, the chill spreading to her bones. “Is Demola an ex-con?”
“Let’s talk in the car.” He nodded to the shoes on her feet. “Those going to work?”
How would she know? Her entire body was numb. “They’re fine.”
“Good, let’s get out of here.” Charles grabbed her shoes and started stuffing them into the shoe box. Barbara looked up at Charles, her big eyes apologetic. “I’m sorry, Charles. I. . .”
“Not your fault, Barbara. It’s not your job to control the local dissidents. Let’s just get these rung up, shall we?” He crammed the lid on the box and helped Tomilola to her feet. A thousand questions pounded through her head as Charles paid for the shoes and escorted her back to his truck. Was this the reason behind Demola’s reserve? The reason he’d left her that night, her lips throbbing, her body aching? And if it was, what then?
As soon as the car was on the road she turned to Charles, her stomach tied in knots. “Demola’s an ex con?” His lips pressed into a thin line he answered with a single nod.
Oh, God. “What did he do?”
Charles shook his head “Your father had a rule on the Big W. No gossiping behind people’s backs. You want to know about someone, you ask him.”
She couldn’t believe her ears. “You’re kidding, right? You’re going to stonewall me? You don’t think I have a right to be a little nervous about the idea of living with a bunch of ex-cons?” She wanted to be a PC about this. If the men were ex-cons, they’d paid their debt to society; she shouldn’t penalize them with her prejudice. But the thought of living with a bunch of men who’d done God knew what was damn unsettling.
“Look, having made his own mistakes, your dad understood that sometimes people screw up. He didn’t think that they should pay their entire lives for it. But he wasn’t an idiot, Tomilola. He always hoped, always believed, he’d find you and your mother and bring you home. Do you really think he’d bring men onto the estate who’d be a danger to you?”
“Quite frankly, I don’t know what to think. But just because my father was comfortable with these men, just because he thought my mother and I would be safe around them, doesn’t mean I will feel the same. I want to know who these men are and what they did. And I think I have that right.”
He grimaced but nodded. “You’re right, you do. But I won’t talk behind their backs. What I can do is give you the names of the men with prison records. There aren’t that many, by the way. Seven, to be exact. You can call them in, ask them yourself why they spent time behind bars. If they want to tell you what they did, fine. If not, you can decide if you want to let them go.”
She stared out at the highway disappearing beneath the car’s hood, acid pouring into her stomach, a sharp ache throbbing suspiciously close to her heart. She thought she’d known what kind of man Demola was. Now she didn’t have a clue. But she was damned well going to find out.
She gave her head a sharp nod. “I can live with that. Let’s start with Demola.”
To Be Continued…