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She felt the taxi move again, winding this way and that. And then it slowed, stopped. “This is it.”
She opened her eyes and looked out the windshield. In the day’s waning light, a huge house met her gaze. A three-story building with high-pitched roofs, long balconies and lots of glass. Her stomach flipped again and an icy hand gripped her heart. The bastard. While she and her mother had been living in rat- and cockroach-infested rooms, the kind you paid for by the month, her father had been living in a luxury house. Damn his soul.
Demola’s piercing brown eyes met hers. “Ready?”
She was never going to be ready. But she managed a mute nod. With an encouraging smile, he got out of the truck, strode around to her side and opened the door. Her brain said get out. But her limbs wouldn’t move. He took hold of her elbow, his big hand strong and warm as his fingers closed around her arm. “Come on, it’s just a house.”
It wasn’t just a house. It was a living proof of her father’s betrayal. Living proof that he’d cared more for this cursed piece of land than he had for her mother. Or for her. The thought of spending one second inside its walls. . .
But there were too many kids out there to wimp out now. She forced thoughts of her father from her mind, concentrated on the heat soaking into her from Demola’s touch, and swung her legs out of the taxi. Once she was steady on her feet, he let go of her arm, grabbed her bag from the boot and led the way up the walk.
She followed him, focusing on his broad shoulders, the ripple of muscle under his shirt, anything but the bile climbing up her throat. At the house, Demola pushed the door open, stepped off to the side and waved her in. She took a deep breath and stepped over the threshold. The muted light of dusk filled the house, casting twilight and shadows everywhere. Demola followed her in and flicked on the wall switch behind her.
Light flooded the room, bouncing off the shinny marble floors and illuminating the wide-open space. The room was huge, the ceilings here at the front of the chamber soaring the entire three stories. Combined with the giant windows lining the front wall, it almost seemed as if she were still outside. She shook her head. What an egomaniacal show of grandeur.She took in the leather sofas and rock-back chairs surrounded it, making a conversation area. Other well-appointed sitting areas were arranged here and there around the big room as well. At the back of the room, a wide staircase led to a balcony with several doors running along its back wall. Bedrooms, she presumed.
She looked to Demola, who’d moved into the room and set her bag on one of the sofas. “Did anyone besides my father live here?”
He shook his head.
Of course. She strode across the floor toward a conversation area in the far corner of the room, right in front of the big windows. Demola followed her. Not close enough to invade her space. But she could feel him behind her, letting her know she had his support. It was the only thing that kept her from howling with rage. She stared at the leather sofa, the coffee table with its log legs and the giant slab of crosscut wood making up its surface. It was designed to look like someone had gone out and made it in an afternoon, but the high-gloss shine and fancy wood grain told her it was an expensive piece. Damned expensive.
She raised her gaze to the wall behind the sofa. It was lined with tall mirrors, their shiny surfaces reflecting the room and the lights and her own sorry self. She stared at her reflection.
She shook her head. How many times had her father stood here staring at his kingdom and his own vile reflection while she and her mother scrambled for food? While her mother lay dying of a disease that a little money could have gone a long way to alleviate. The arrogant bastard.
She drew a deep breath trying to calm her nerves, trying to keep from screaming her rage at the hunk standing behind her. A glass piece sitting on an end table caught her eye and she wandered over, letting the piece distract her. It was a beautiful colour. Rich brown with golden streaks arching through it. It looked handblown, its free-flowing from reminiscent of a leaf floating from a tree. Very pretty. It reminded her of Dale Chihuly’s work. One of the world’s leading glass artists.
She picked the piece up, the smooth, heavy glass cool against her fingers. She and the other girls often ran auctions along with their fund-raising stunts as a way to boost the final money count. If this had been made by a local artist, maybe she’d talk him or her into donating a piece for the next event. She flipped the piece over, looking for a signature. The small black letters caught her eye immediately.
Oh, God. She looked over at Demola, her anger boiling into fury. “Do you have any idea how much food or medicine I could have bought for this one piece of art?” She sure as hell could have paid a year’s rent with it. And then she could have used her meager salary for medicine. She possibly could have bought her mother another year of life. The fury exploded. She sent the Chihuly sailing at the mirrors. Glass crashed and rained down in brown and silver pieces. Demola swore and came in low, hit her at the waist, scooped her over his shoulder and quickly carried her from the flying shards of glass. She fought against his hold. “Put me down.” There was a lamp over there she wanted to send into the next mirrored panel.
“Fine.” He dumped her unceremoniously onto a sofa. “But I’m not going to let you tear the place up.”
She bounced up immediately and tried to push past him.
He blocked her path easily with that big body of his. Thirteen years of pain and frustration and helplessness roared through her. “Not your choice. Get out of my way, dammit.” She shoved against him, and when he wouldn’t move she started throwing punches. He easily blocked anything that came near his face and merely kept her contained as the others rained harmlessly on his chest and arms. Which just frustrated her more. She hit harder, quicker, pouring all her despair, all her anger into every punch. She felt tears pour down her cheeks, but she didn’t stop to wipe them away. She just kept hitting. And hitting. And hitting. Until there was no more rage. No more energy. Nothing but despair.
She collapsed against his chest, the tears taking control. What was happening to her? Five minutes in this house and she was turning into her most despised object on earth. A helpless, crying female. But she couldn’t stop the tears. Or the sobs that tore from her throat. She buried her face against his chest, trying to hide the waterworks, muffle the sounds. He closed his arms around her, his body closing around hers like a warm, protective cocoon. “It’s okay. I’ve got you.”
But it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t okay at all. She’d promised herself at her mother’s funeral she’d never be helpless again. But with her father’s betrayal assaulting her from every angle, she felt helpless now. Demola ran his hand over her back, soothing, comforting.
She absorbed his warmth and strength like the desert floor drinking in rain. It felt so good to have someone’s arms around her. Felt good to feel like she wasn’t absolutely alone in the world. She’d been alone for so, so long.
And he felt so damned good.
She snuggled closer, drinking in his heat, and bathing in his spicy aftershave. It would be so easy to let him chase away the pain. But it wouldn’t be smart. Not smart at all. Because if the electricity already building between them meant anything, she knew how they’d end up chasing the pain away. And she didn’t want to go that way. She was serious about her moratorium on men. She’d watched her mother try to find herself in men right up until the disease made it impossible. It had made a sad, lonely life for her mother. One Tomilola had promised herself she’d never repeat. And just because she felt like her life was shattering around her now, it was no time to backslide.
She’d get through the next six months on her own. And then she’d return to her quest to discover who she was and what she wanted in life. She pulled in one more long, deep breath of Demola’s warm, musky scent, let him stroke her back one more time and then pulled herself from his arms.
Demola let her go, his arms suddenly cold and empty. She’d felt so right there. So damned right. He could have held her all night. Just held her.
A ruthless laugh echoed through his head. Yeah, right. He could have kept her in his arms all night, no problem. But holding would have turned into something much more active before long. And that was a trait he couldn’t go down. Not with Tomilola Daniels.
She already had enough complications in her life; she didn’t need more. And sleeping with him was loaded with complications. So he let her go and promised himself he’d keep his comforting on a verbal level from now on. Safer for both of them. He watched her stride toward the sofa where he’d dumped her bag. She swiped at the tears wetting her cheeks. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what got into me. Hysterical, crying female isn’t usually my style.” Her voice was soft, embarrassed.
He didn’t want her to be embarrassed. Didn’t want her to think she had to hide her emotions from him. “Don’t be silly, you’ve had a trying twenty-four hours.” She hung her hands on her hips, staring at the mess her outburst had created. “God, you must think am a meniac.”
“I think you’re tired and sad and angry.”
She expelled a long, shaky breath. “Yeah, I am. And with that in mind – ” She picked up her bag. “I think I’ll head upstairs.. Those are the bedrooms up there, right?” She pointed to the doors lining the back balcony wall.
“Yep, take your pick.”
She waved a hand toward the front door. “Come on I’ll walk you out.”
“Go on to bed, I’ll stay and clean up the glass.”
She shook her head. “I clean up my own messes, Demola. “I’ll get it tomorrow morning. Now go on, I’m tired.” She shooed him toward the door.
He strode across the marble floors, his boots echoing in the room He wasn’t thrilled about the idea of leaving her alone all night. Not as upset as she was. But short of camping out on the living room sofa, something he was sure she’d be just tickled pink about, he didn’t have much choice.
At the door’s threshold he hesitated, looking back to her. “If you need anything, my number is one on the speed dial. Don’t be afraid to call, any time of the night. I’m a light sleeper and I’m right across the road.”
She nodded, a faint smile turning her lips. “Got it. Good night.”
He closed the door behind him and strode toward the house he’d lived in for the last several years. The small log house that had been Wale’s original home stead. Halfway there, he stopped and turned back to the big house. He imagined Tomilola in the bedroom, unpacking her bag, getting ready for bed.
She’d looked tired, beat, when she’d closed the door on him. Like she was holding on to her poise by the barest of threads. And he suspected she was. With good cause. She believed her father had not only abandoned her and her mother, but hung them out to dry during their most desperate hours.
It was a belief he was going to have to straighten out. But it wasn’t going to be easy. Or fun. Showing Tomilola that the parent who’d raised her, the parent she’d obviously loved so dearly had been the one keeping them in poverty, the one who’d lied to her all these years, was going to take everything she believed to be true and shred it to pieces.
His gut clenched. He was good at shredding people’s lives. But putting them back together? A cold sweat broke out on his palms. God knew, he hadn’t been able to put his sister’s life back together. He’d only taken a bad situation and made it worse. Far, far worse.
He clenched his fists and stared up at the stars appearing in the sky. “If there’s a heaven up there, Mr. Adeyemi, and you’re in it, you had better be paying attention.” His voice echoed fiercely as dusk faded to night. “I don’t save damsels in distress, dammit. If you want me to tear this girl’s life up, I expect you to be around to help put it back together.”
To Be Continued…