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“You expect me to believe your girls don’t talk about these decisions?”
“I expect you to be astute enough to realize if I went to all this trouble to get you here, I’m not going to waste
“You could have put a stop to it.”
She shook her head. “Not without hurting this fundraiser. We’ve built our reputation on wild, dangerous stunts. Putting an end to the rodeo part of the event would have made us look like scaredy-cats. No way would the corporations have pledged money for that. And Martha is counting on that money for the treatment she needs. I’m not going to let her down.”
The knot in his gut pulled tighter. Of course they couldn’t let her down. He stabbed his fingers through his hair. “Dammit. Everything was fine when I left. What the hell happened?”
“What do you mean everything was fine? I wasn’t fine.” She pointed at her chest with an angry finger.
“You would have been. In time, you would have been.” He couldn’t stand the pain he saw in her face. Couldn’t stand that he’d put it there. He paced away, curling his fingers into tight fists. “Promising Wole I’d bring you home was stupid. I’d already screwed up one family. What the hell made me think I could help his?”
“Don’t tell me I would have been fine. You don’t get to make that call. And what does that mean? You’d already screwed up one family?”
“It doesn’t mean anything.” He paced away. That was the last road he wanted to go down.
“Oh, no. You can’t back out of that statement now. I think it’s important.” She strode over and pulled him around, her gaze sharp and intense. “Do you blame yourself for your sister’s Molest?”
Panic nipped at his heels. “Don’t be ridiculous. How the hell could I have been responsible for my sister’s Molest? She was at a school event. My dad dropped her at the school’s doors. She was there with a hundred other kids. She should have been perfectly safe. No one could have known he would drag her out the back door and Molest her.”
She shuddered at the harsh reality of his words, but her gaze didn’t waver. “What about what happened after? Her death? Do you blame yourself for that?”
He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. It was as if a giant hand was squeezing the life out of him.
“Yes.” The word was out of his mouth before he could stop it. “Yes, I blame myself. If I hadn’t gone after that bastard, if I hadn’t been so intent on proving how big a man I was, I wouldn’t have been in jail the night my sister ran her car off the bridge. I might have been around to take the keys from her. And if I’d done that, maybe my parents wouldn’t have had to bury their daughter.”
“Oh, God.” She closed her eyes momentarily. When she opened them, empathy spiked with determination glistened there. “I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. If you hadn’t gone after the rapist, if you’d been at home, maybe you would have saved your sister that night. But you might not have, either. Teenage girls are sneaky. And innovative. I can’t tell you how many times I told my mom I was going over to a friends to study when my real destination was to a club. And even if you’d saved her that night, it doesn’t mean you would have saved her the next time. She’s not blameless for what happened to her.”
“She was a nineteen year old girl who’d been brutally raped.”
“Yes, she was. She was young and hurt and, like you, she made some bad choices.”
“She’s not responsible for those choices, she was hurting too badly. I, on the other hand, was simply trying to stoke my ego, prove how big a man I was.” And he hated himself for it.
She shook her head. “You’re not going to sell me that. And if you’ve been selling it to yourself all these years, you’re obviously still trying to hang on to all that male pride.”
“You can hardly compare my anger to the pain she was going through. If she made mistakes it was hardly her fault, but me. . .”
“Don’t.” She pinned him with a steely glare. “Don’t you dare belittle the emotions you were feeling then. Were you angry someone had hurt your sister? I’m sure you were. Livid. But don’t pretend it was the only emotion you felt. Or even the strongest one. You forget, I know what it’s like to see someone you love hurting. . .physically, mentally. I stood over my mother’s bed and watched a nightmarish disease ravage her. I saw her pain every minute of everyday. And it hurt like hell. Don’t try telling me your sister’s pain didn’t hurt you.”
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“Even if it did, it was no excuse for going after him.”
“No, it wasn’t. But it would certainly have been one heck of an impetus. God knows, there were days if I’d thought killing someone would make my mom feel better, I might have pounded someone to a bloody pulp myself.”
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“Don’t count on it. There were some black days back then.”
One look at the shadows in her eyes and he knew there had been. But he couldn’t let that sway him.
“You’re talking theories. I’m talking reality. You didn’t go after anyone. I did. And I not only sealed my sister’s fate by doing that, I destroyed my parents’ lives as well. Do you have any idea what it was like for them to have one child dead and the other locked up as an attempted murderer?” He shook his head, pain washing over him. “All their hopes, all their dreams, flushed down the toilet. And I did it. I won’t risk ruining another family.”
Her eyes went wide. “Oh, my God. That’s why you left. The real reason you left. Not because you were afraid I couldn’t handle a few bigots. But because. . .”
“It’s not the reason.” He stalked away, panic stampeding after him. “It’s just another reason. I can give you a dozen more if you’ve got an hour or so and a sofa. I could lie down for you and you could psychoanalyze me all day long if you like.”
“If I get you prone, psychoanalzying you will be the last thing on my mind.” Her voice was low, husky.
Desire slammed through him, hot and hard and powerful. He had to put an end to this conversation before it completely ambushed him. And then find a way to stop her and the others from riding those sharks.
“Tomilola, it’s time to go.” The female voice broke into their argument.
Startled, they both turned to find Rosie peeking around the corner.
The tall lady tipped her head toward the front of the boat. “It’s time.”
Tomilola gave her head a quick nod. “I’ll be right there. You guys head on down.” She turned back to him. “I don’t have time to pussyfoot around here, so I’ll get right to the point. You made a mistake once. A big one. One that affected people’s lives. But you’ve paid for that mistake. More importantly, you’ve learned from it. Does that mean you’ll never make another one? Probably not. Fallibility is part of the human condition. But. . .”
“I don’t need a lecture on mistakes. I. . .”
“You’re going to get one, anyway. You told me once you thought of all the mistakes my folks made, my mother made the biggest one when she walked away without giving herself and my dad the chance to make things right. How is what you’re doing any different?”
“Oh, for crying out. . .it’s completely different.”
She shook her head. “No, actually, it’s not. You might be running for different reasons. But you’re still running, Demola. The question you have to ask yourself is do you want to behave like my mother? Or my father? Dad made as big a mistake as Mom did twenty-two years ago. The difference was, he dug in and did what he could to rectify the situation. And he didn’t do it just for himself and his family; he did it for others, too. He did it for the workers that work on the estate. He did it for you. He gave you a second chance, Demola. Don’t throw that back in his face.”
She turned from him and started back toward the aisle that led to the front of the boat, but she turned on her heel and came back to him. “I love you, Demola Adenuga.”
The words hit him like a sucker punch.
She chuckled softly and shook her head. “I’m not going to take it back, so live with it. I love you. And I’m not willing to let the best thing that’s ever wandered into my life wander out. So do us both a favor. Make the right decision here. Screw up some courage and give us a chance.” She raised on her toes and kissed him, hard and deep. Then she turned on her heel and strode away.
He watched her go, his world spinning around him.
She loved him?
He swallowed hard, her words about her mother and father echoing in his head. Was she right? Was he running?
He stared at her as she donned her diving gear and stepped off the side of the boat. Her image appeared on the giant screen as she slowly sank toward the bottom of the sea. Big, sleek, torpedo-shaped animals appeared in the background.
She settled on the bottom of the sea and took a spear from a diver already kneeling there, a big fish skewered on the end. A shark darted her way, his sleek body racing through the water, his deadly jaws gaping.
Why did he get the feeling if he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life watching Tomilola go from one hair-raising stunt after the next, he’d better come to terms with his past.
To Be Continued…