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Her heart pounding like a frantic tattoo. Tomilola held on to the shark’s dorsal fin as it thrashed through the water, trying to dislodge her.
One thousand one.
One thousand two.
Eight seconds. Like the bull riders in the rodeo, she had to stay with the shark for eight seconds. She gritted her teeth and held on for dear life as the sharp edged, sand papery hide bit into her skin.
One thousand four.
One thousand five.
The shark jerked toward her, its jaws opened wide, its sharp, jagged teeth a clear warning as the shark tried to make her let go. Oh, God. She closed her eyes and held on tighter. As long as she snuggled up to his side and he couldn’t reach her.
One thousand seven.
One thousand eight.
She let go as the shark jerked in the other direction – away from her – and held her breath to see if the angry fish would turn back toward her to bite her in half or swim away.
It darted into the murky depths.
She sucked in a deep breath of compressed air and looked for the other girls, praying they were okay. Praying she wouldn’t find body parts and a trail of blood floating through the water. She found them together, elbows linked not far away. They all waved heartily. Relief poured through her. They were okay.
It had been a successful event. They’d made money on all but one of the fish the dive masters had brought down for them to feed. And they’d all ridden their sharks. Martha’s parents wouldn’t have to worry about what they could and couldn’t afford for their daughter. Ashley would get every medical treatment she needed.
Now all they had to do was get out of the sea without one of sharks wandering back for a last tasty bite. Tomilola pointed toward the surface with her thumb, signaling it was time to head up. But first, the four of them turned to the underwater cameramen, took their regulators out of their mouths, smiled widely and waved to the people on the boat. Then they were all heading up.
As Tomilola swam toward the surface, keeping a sharp eye on the few sharks that still swam around looking for another handout, her thoughts shifted to Demola. Would he still be there when she got back on board? Or would he be gone? Her stomach tied in a thousand knots.
Let him be there.
Please, let him be there.
She hit the surface, handed her vest with the heavy air tank and her fins off to a helper and scampered up the ladder to the Sea Breeze’s deck, hoping the first face she’d see would be his. But he wasn’t in the crowd that greeted her. Her heart sank and she searched deeper into the layers of people crowding around her, but he was nowhere to be seen. Tears stung her eyes. She did her best to blink them back, glad for the camouflaging effect of the sea’s wetness.
“Aunty Tomi, Aunty Tomi.” The small voice belonged to Martha. The crowd in front of Tomilola parted and the wraithlike child made her way through.
Tomilola forced her lips into a big smile. “Hey, sweetie, what do you think?”
Martha giggled. “I think I’m never going to get into that sea. Those sharks would swallow me whole.”
Tomilola laughed with her. “I think you’re right. We’ll have to think of something else fun for you to do when you get through with all your treatments. How about. . .I know, a trip to Obudu Ranch in Calabar?”
“Yea!” Martha jumped up and down. “Mummy has told me a lot about the place.”
“I bet she has. You can say hi for me.”
Martha’s parents had moved in behind her. Worried frowns furrowed their brows. Tomilola moved quickly to reassure them. “The trip is compliments of the Angels, of course. Your only job is to make sure she gets healthy so she can enjoy the trip.”
Martha’s mom smiled, tears springing to her eyes. “We can do that. And we wanted to thank you girls. You’ve truly been angels to us. If you hadn’t done this. . .” She swiped at her tears, doing her best to hang on to her composure.
“No thanks necessary. You just take care of this little girl.” Tomilola gave the woman’s arm a reassuring squeeze and stepped away, giving the parents time to compose themselves.
That’s when she saw him.
He was standing in the alcove that led down below, his boots looking a bit out of place on the boat, his intense gaze tracking her every move.
A little bubble of hope pushed at her throat. Did his presence mean he’d decided to give them a chance? Or just that he’d stayed to say goodbye? Hope and fear pounding through her, she made her way across the deck. She wanted to throw herself into his arms, but she stopped a few feet away, giving him a little breathing room. “You’re still here.”
The corners of his lips quirked. “So it appears.”
“Does that mean . . .” She plowed her fingers through her hair. She was afraid to ask the question. But she was more afraid not to. “Does that mean you’re going to give us a chance?”
He looked away, the tiny smile disappearing as he gazed out at the vast expanse of water. “It means I think you’re right about why I left. It scares me to death to think of starting a relationship, a family, and then making a big mistake down the road that would tear it apart.”
Was that an I’m-leaving or I’m-staying comment? Afraid to tip the scale the wrong way, she stuck to a true, but unavoidable, observation. “Life is scary sometimes.”
He laughed humorlessly. “If the last twenty minutes is any indication, it can be damned terrifying.”
Since there wasn’t one single bone in her body that disagreed with that, she kept her mouth closed.
He looked at her, his brown-eyed gaze piercing. “I’m never going through that again, Tomilola. Ever. Which means running is no longer an option. You obviously need someone around to rein you in.”
She stilled. That kind of sounded like an I’m-staying. “Are you by any chance thinking you might do the reining-in?’
“I’m sure as hell not going to let any other guy do it.”
That was definitely an I’m-staying. The bubble of hope burst into joy. But she held herself in check. He’d made her work too hard getting him here for her to let him off too easy. She raised a brow. “Is that right?”
“Absolutely right.” He pulled her to him and lowered his lips to hers.
The kiss was hot and deep and left no doubt in her mind that he was staking his claim.
Her knees went weak. Her every nerve ending short-circuited.
Finally, he pulled his lips from hers. “I love you.”
She held on to him, gasping for air, the words ringing like sweet chimes in her ears. “In that case, I can live with the macho reining-in thing.”
He chuckled, low and Sekxy. “Glad to hear it. How do you feel about getting married?”
What? She leaned back in his arms to get a good look at his face. He looked down at her, his expression dead serious.
“Man,” she said. “When you screw up your courage, you don’t stop halfway, do you?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a man of half measures. If I’m going to do something, I don’t play at it. I do it.” He tucked a wet curl behind her ear. “And your father wouldn’t like his daughter playing house. If you were sleeping with a man, he’d want you married. And I fully intend to be sleeping with you.”
Desire shot through her. Hot and wild. She pulled his lips back to hers and did a little claiming of her own.
Several minutes later, he pulled his lips from hers again, his gaze delving into hers. “Is that a yes, Tomilola Adeyemi?”
She smiled up at him, tears of joy filling her eyes. “It’s a yes, Ademola Adenuga, Yes, yes, yes.”