If you missed episode 10 click HERE
Tomilola paced anxiously behind her father’s desk. The minute she and Charles had gotten home she’d sent one of the hands out to meet Demola, tell him he was expected back at the estate. Pronto. She flexed her hands, trying to generate some warmth in her cold, clammy fingers.
Prison. The ominous title rang in her head, knotting her stomach and sending her feet skimming faster over the thick brown carpet. Pain and anger slashed through her. She’d kissed him. And he’d kissed her back, damn. How dare he not tell her he’d spent time in prison?
Two brisk knocks sounded on the door.
She spun to face the closed portal, squaring her shoulders. If he even tried to avoid her questions, he was a dead man.
The door swung open and Demola stepped into the office. “You wanted to talk to me?” His motions were stiff, his expression apprehensive.
He obviously sensed trouble. Smart man. Cocking up a toe, she pointed to her feet. “I went to town today and bought some shoes. Like them?” She made no attempt to hide her anger.
He blinked fatalistically when she mentioned her trip to town. But he went through the motions of looking at her shoes. “Very nice.”
“Yeah, I kind of like them. But as it turned out, they weren’t the highlight of the trip.” He raised his gaze to hers. “I’m not much for playing games, Tomilola. Why don’t you just get to the point?”
“I would have thought you liked games. You’ve certainly been playing them with me.” The corners of his lips turned down, but he didn’t comment. He merely stood, waiting.
“Fine. No games. Why didn’t you tell me you were an ex-con?”
He blinked and when he opened his eyes it was as if a light had been extinguished, as if his very soul had been blown out. “It’s not something a man likes to advertise. Particularly if he’s trying to gain someone’s trust. And I needed you to trust me to get you on that plane in Port-Harcourt.”
Ah, yes. His hard determination. The thing she’d noticed first about him. Had he fooled her into thinking there was a softer side to him? “You’ve had plenty of opportunity since.”
“Yes, I have. But things have been rather hectic since your arrival. And with all the emotions you were dealing with about your dad, I didn’t think you needed more distractions.”
She narrowed her gaze on him. “You didn’t want me to know. Period.”
He looked away. “No, I didn’t.”
Because of the reasons he’d just mentioned? Or because he didn’t want her to think badly of him? Because her opinion of him mattered? “Well, now I know. What were you in for?”
He looked back, meeting her gaze squarely. “Attempted murder.”
The breath rushed out of her. “Attempted. . .”
She fell back a step. “The man in the store hinted there were murderers living on this estate, but. . .Charles denied it.”
“Because there aren’t any murderers on this estate. The charge was attempted murder. I didn’t kill anyone. Though not for lack of trying.” Anger vibrated in his voice, though at himself or the person he’d tried to kill she couldn’t tell.
She ran a shaky hand through her hair, the world tilting beneath her feet. He started toward her. “For crying out loud, sit down before you fall down.”
She held her hand up, stopping him in his tracks. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine. You look like you’re about to pass out.”
“I’m not going to make it that easy on you.” She drew a fortifying breath and pulled her thoughts together. “Who did you try to murder?”
He grimaced, once again looking away. “A man.”
“That’s not an answer.”
A muscle along his jaw flexed, but he said nothing. She gritted her teeth. “Fine. A man. Why did you try to murder him?”
He gave her a sardonic look. “You think there’s a good reason to take the law into your own hands? Trust me, there isn’t.”
Well, he seemed to have gotten that lesson down pat. But it wasn’t the answer she was looking for. “What did this man do that made you want to kill him?”
Anger sliced through her. “You know, Demola, you didn’t cut me one ounce of slack when you dragged me to this place. And I’m not cutting you any now. Why did you try to kill that man?”
He turned on her, anger and torment twisting his expression. “Because he raped my little sister.”
“Your sister?” Confusion washed through her. “You told me you didn’t have any brothers or sisters.”
“I don’t. Not anymore.” The words were as bleak as the soulless look in his eyes.
“Oh, God. Did he kill her?” Her words were whisper thin, her anger slipping away.
“Not that day, he didn’t.”
Her stomach churned. “What does that mean?”
“It means Thomas Johnson didn’t kill her the day he raped her. Wasn’t even around the day she died, but. . ”
“Thomas Johnson, T.J?”
He nodded. “Thomas Johnson raped my sister.”
“The man in the store this morning, the one who told me about the ex-cons working on the ranch, Charles called him T.J.”
He grimaced. “That would be Thomas’ daddy. They share the same name. He’s had a grudge against the Big W ever since I came to work here. Despite the fact I was in prison when they arrested his son and convicted him for another Molest, he blames me for his boy’s capture.”
“If you were behind bars when his son was picked up, how can he blame you?”
“He blames me because I was the one who scarred Thomas’ face. And it was that scar that allowed his next victim to identify him.”
“Next victim? He wasn’t in jail for raping your sister?”
“He walked.” Demola laughed, a cold, hollow, sound. “Legal technicality.”
More of her anger slid away, turning to empathy as his story unfolded. “That’s why you went after him. Because the law wouldn’t.”
“I went after him because watching him walk the streets free as a bird after what he’d done to her was destroying Detola.”
“That was your sister’s name? Detola?”
He nodded, his eyes taking on a glassy look, as if he were gazing back over the years. “After the Molest she was quiet, withdrawn. Pretty much what one would expect after a violent attack. But when Thomas got off, she went nuts. Fighting with our parents, sneaking into bars, driving fast and drinking at every opportunity.”
His words from the night he’d kissed her – echoed in her head. [i]It doesn’t take a psychologist to know that anyone who flirts with the kind of danger the Alpine Angels rush into on a regular basis is fighting. . .something.[/i] Her heart tripped. “You said Thomas Johnson wasn’t around the day your sister died?”
“No.” The single word was clipped, curt.
She didn’t want to ask. She didn’t want to think about a girl who’d been brutally raped. About a girl who’d seen her rapist walk free. But she had to know what had happened all those years ago. “How did she die?”
His expression was as cold as an arctic night. “Combined the drinking and fast driving one night. Drove her car off the third mainland.”
She closed her eyes. No wonder he was sensitive about the Angels’ stunts. “I’m sorry,”
“So am I.” His eyes were as dull as his voice.
Her heart ached. For Detola. For Demola. “Why did the charge end up being attempted murder instead of murder? Why didn’t you kill Thomas? Did you come to your senses, decide it wasn’t worth it?”
“Oh, no. I wasn’t that smart then. I fully intended to beat him to death. But Thomas’ neighbour saw me pull up, saw me pound my way through Thomas front door and he called the cops. The cops didn’t get there soon enough to keep me from doing some major damage to him, but they got there in time to save him.”
Tomilola couldn’t imagine the rage that had sent him to that house. But she could sympathize with it. “I’m glad they got to you before you killed him.”
“Why? Because you think he didn’t deserve to die?” Anger vibrated in his voice.
She shook her head. “I think he probably did. But killing him yourself would only have ruined your life. I don’t think that would have helped anyone. Least of all Detola.”
“No, it didn’t help Detola a bit.”
She suspected there was more behind that remark than met the eye, but right now she needed to concentrate on the Demola part of the story. “How long were you in prison?”
And the anguish of every one of those years was evident in his eyes. “That’s a long time.”
“You can’t imagine.”
“No I can’t.” She watched him quietly. “Is that why you walked away from me the other night? Because you’re an ex-con?” She could see the shame that title caused him. “Is that what you meant when you said you didn’t belong in the picture with me?”
“Oh, for crying out loud, Tomilola, don’t look at me like it doesn’t make me the last kind of man you should have in your life.”
She’d had Demola dragged in here because she’d wanted to know what kind of man he was. Wanted to know if he was the honorable, caring man she thought he was. Or a cold calculating criminal.
The regret she saw in his face for the decision he’d made all those years ago, the pain still haunting him for his sister’s Molest and death told her everything she needed to know. “I’m not sure it does. Going after Thomas was stupid. But you did it for all the right reasons. How old were you when it happened?”
Impatience and self-deprecating anger snapped in his eyes. “Old enough to know better And don’t glorify or justify what I did. There’s no justification for it. It was a stupid, irresponsible, wrong thing to do.”
“Words spoken by an older, wiser man.” A man whose life was unalterably changed by the events of a sad, tragic time.
“Wiser or not, I guarantee the only thing people see when they look at me is an ex-con. Scum of the earth. What I’ve done since prison doesn’t mean a damned thing to them. And any woman whose name is attached to mine will be lowered to the same level.”
“That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?”
“Not a bit. Old man Johnson might well have a personal beef with me, but I guarantee there are plenty other people in town who view me and the other ex-cons on this estate with the same contempt and loathing he does.”
“I’m sure there are. Bigots have always been, and will always be, around. But there are also fair-minded people. People like Barbara Okorie. She made it clear she had no qualms about the Big W. Or any of the men on it. And my father obviously thought a man’s character was made up of more than his past mistakes. As for myself, I prefer to make up my own mind about a person.”
His expression shuttered. “By all means, make up your own mind. But I’m not going to drag any woman down to my level. Least of all Wole Adenuga’s daughter.”
“And I don’t get any say in this?” Frustration pounded through her. “I’m supposed to ignore the fact that I still can’t stop thinking about that kiss? That every time I’m around you, my nerves hum and little tingles race through my body?”
Demola’s expression remained cold, detached. “Unless you’re into frustration, I recommend that’s exactly what you do. I have no intention of compounding the mistake I made thirteen years ago. I screwed up and I’ll pay the price, but I’m so not going to let you pay it with me.” He spun on his heel and strode out of the office, pulling the door closed behind him.
She plowed her fingers through her hair. She’d convinced herself Demola was the honorable, caring man she’d thought him to be. Convinced herself he was exactly the kind of man she wanted in her life. But convincing him was obviously not going to be so easy.
Demola crouched by the rear tire of his truck, still cursing as he cranked the last nut on the lugs as quickly as he could. The sun had peeked over the horizon a good half hour ago. He needed to get this tire changed and get out of here before –
The front door of the big house creaked.
Damn. He hadn’t been quick enough.
Footsteps echoed on the porch. He didn’t bother to look over his shoulder. He knew who the footsteps belonged to. Knew where they were heading.
He swore as he set the crowbar aside and started lifting the tire from the rear axle.
The footsteps crossed the drive and stopped beside him.
He tossed the tire aside and narrowed his gaze at Tomilola from his crouched position. “Slitting tires is pretty low, don’t you think?”
She shrugged, taking another sip of coffee from the mug she cradled in her hands. “I did think about just letting the air out, but I was afraid you’d fix that too fast and be on your way before I could catch you. You’re getting pretty good at this avoiding me thing.”
Apparently, not good enough. He straightened to his full height. “We’re in the middle of roundup, remember? I have work to do.”
“Charles said the last of the cows – excuse me, cattle – were driven back to the open pastures two days ago. That sounds like roundup’s over to me.”
Note to himself: strangle Charles next time he saw him. In the meantime, he might need a more direct approach. “Maybe I think we could both use a cooling off period.”
She looked up at him through her lashes. “Maybe I don’t want to cool off.”
Desire slammed through him, hot and hard. Gritting his teeth, he turned away from her and strode to the tailgate. “We’ve already been over this.”
“You’ve been over it. I don’t recall you letting me have much say in the matter.”
“That’s because there isn’t anything to say.”
“Oh, there’s plenty to say. Like, I think what’s important is who you are today, not who you were all those years ago. And I like who you are today. I like the honour and quiet determination that make up the core of you. Like the way you watch out for me. And. . .” she shot him a Sekxy smile “I like the way you kiss me.”
And he liked the way she kissed back. Too damned much. “You’re romanticizing a bit. Honor and determination.” He snorted with contempt. “For crying out loud, I’m an executor, doing my job. End of story.”
“I’m not romanticizing anything. I’ve given this serious thought, and. . .”
“If you’ve thought about it and still think getting involved with an ex-con makes an ounce of sense, you’re either very naive or not thinking as seriously as you should.” He pulled the spare out of the truck’s bed and went to work putting it on.”
She sighed. “You know, if you weren’t so damned honorable and determined, you wouldn’t be fighting me on this. And I did give it serious thought. Getting involved with a man isn’t something I take lightly anymore. In fact, I declared a moratorium on men after I left my ex. I thought if I was going to figure out what I wanted in life, it was best not to have any distractions while I did it.”
So that’s why she’d kept her distance in the beginning. He’d wondered. “A moratorium sounds like a good idea to me. I’d think twice before abandoning it.”
“Oh, I did. But, thanks to your help. . .” she tossed him a cheeky grin . . .”I know what I want. I want to make the Big W my home and use it as a financial base for the Angels’ charity. So you see, I don’t need the moratorium anymore.”
“If you don’t show better judgment than you are right now, you need it more than you think.” He put the last nut on the lugs, grabbed the tire iron and started lightening them, doing his best to pretend she wasn’t there. Doing his best to ignore the aching need gnawing at his gut.
“Man, you’re stubborn.”
Not stubborn. Determined. Determined to give her everything Wole Adeyemi had wanted for her. Everything good and wonderful and bright. But that determination was weakening by the second. He needed to do what he’d been trying to do all week. Put some distance between them. “Don’t you have things you need to be doing?”
“Actually, I don’t. Certainly not anything as fun as this. Do you have any idea how Sekxy you look changing that tire?”
He lunged out of his crouch and closed the distance between them in two quick strides. “Stop it. Just stop it.”
She smiled. “Why? Because. . .”
“Because teasing is only going to make this harder for us. And it’s not going to get what you want.”
Her gaze, warm and knowing, skated over him. “I’m thinking it might get me exactly what I want.”
The sound of a car horn tooting twice broke through her words.
They both turned, looking for the source of the disturbance. A car, its headlights still shining in the early morning light, was moving along the road that led in from the highway.
She looked back to him. “One of the hands coming early?”
He shook his head. “I don’t recognize the car.” But he was damned glad for its arrival. Two more seconds of her teasing and he’d have been tempted to strangle her. And God knew where that would have led.
The car drove down the road that snaked between the paddocks. heading toward them. Suddenly, brown heads were poking out of every window Shrieks and hollers and hey-Tomilolas split the morning quiet.
Tomilola turned back to him with a wry smile. “Take a deep breath, you’ve got a temporary reprieve. The Alphine Angels have arrived.”
Thank God. Not just for the moment, but for the buffer they would offer for however long they stayed. “Did you know they were coming?”
She shook her head. “I’ve been talking to them about things on the phone since I came. They said they’d be coming eventually, but I didn’t expect them this soon.”
Things? He wondered uncomfortably if he was one of those things.
The car pulled to a stop, the girls piled out and then there was nothing but hugs and how-are-you’s. Eventually Tomilola took a step back. “Ladies, I’d like you to meet the foreman of the Big W, Demola Adenuga. Demola, this is Rose, Yemi and Amaka.” She pointed to each girl as she introduced her.
Despite the fact that they were all brown and very close to the same age, Demola noted they were easy to tell apart. Rose was tall and statuesque. Yemi was tiny, a flat five-foot-nothing with the frame of a humming bird. And Amaka, well, Amaka was all curves and raw sexuality. Not his type, but he imagined she attracted men like honey attracted flies.
He shook their hands and gave them polite nods. “Welcome to the Big W.”
Their looks were sharp and knowing as they gave him the once-over.
Great. So much for wondering if he was one of the things Tomilola had discussed with them. He obviously was. Which did not bode well. He was having enough trouble with Tomilola without adding three more scheming females to the mix.
“You guys hungry?” Tomilola asked. “We can go in and I’ll cook you breakfast.”
“That sounds great,” Rose said. “Then after breakfast, you can show us around the estate. I can’t wait to see the cattle. Then tonight, we can put our party dresses on and go dancing. We spotted a place not too far down the road. Looks like a place that knows how to dish out fun.”
Demola nearly choked. Tomilola at the local meat market? He didn’t like the sound of that one bit. “That place can get pretty wild. You might want to just stay in, rent a movie.”
Amaka laughed. “Wild is the Angels’ middle name. Of course, you could come, help keep us out of trouble.” Pure calculation sparkled in her eyes. They hadn’t been here five minutes and they were plotting already. “Sorry, I have business here.”
The curvy one just shrugged and smiled. “Too bad, it ought to be fun.” She turned to Tomilola. “I brought plenty of let’s-go-dancing, turn-the-boys’-heads clothes. Perfect for a little celebration to kiss your moratorium on men goodbye.”
Tomilola looked to him, her eye gaze locking on to his in challenge.
Just the thought of Tomilola in another man’s arms made him crazy. But he couldn’t let himself be sucked into the girls’ machinations. If he snuggled up to Tomilola on a dance floor, it would be all over. They’d be in bed before the night was through. Not an option. He looked away, refusing to even play the game.
“Jimmy’s it is,” Tomilola finally said, a definite edge to her voice. “Drinking, dancing and good-looking guys. Sounds like a good time to me.”
They strolled off toward the house, arm in arm, chatting and giggling.
He stared after them, trying to pull air into his lungs. Tomilola was not going to that bar looking for a man. She was just trying to make him jealous.
And damn her sweet, curvy little hide, it was working.
To Be Continued…