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Duke and Raymond discussed unhindered in the sitting room. Raymond was trying his possible best to use his best friend as a tool in order to forget his worries and keep his head straight. Never did a minute pass when he did not think about Luciana, worrying if she was alright. Being in the office made it worse; he was being paid to stay focused when he was doing the exact opposite. He could not remember anyone who took over his thoughts the way Luciana had done successfully. They were never intimate throughout their stay except for the kiss that in the gym. Even though he had been barely conscious, he still felt her soft lips on his and it had continuously haunted him until he felt he would run mad from desiring to really kiss her. The gym had become his favorite part of the house because he went there frequently to work of his stress and thoughts; even at that, there was little or no effect. He had no doubt in his mind that the kiss was what propelled Lucy’s speedy departure. He had known that she would leave soon but not as fast as a bullet.
“RAY” Duke yelled as he and Vicky stared at Raymond who suddenly bolted out of his reverie. The two pairs of eyes peering at him drew a scowl from him.
“What is it? Do you have to yell my name like that when we are two steps away from each other?” Ray asked as the anger that had become his best friend for the past few days began to erupt.
“Considering the fact that I have been calling and talking to you for minutes now with your mind being far away, I was sorely tempted to use a megaphone in retrieving your escaping mind” Duke ranted. “What the hell have you been thinking about?”
“I am sure a particular fair goddess with an incredibly long brown hair and striking eye balls has created a castle in his head. He was merely exploring it” Vicky said with a glint of humor in her eyes.
Duke frowned. “I never knew Raymond was that much into Tinuke. Especially with all her unbearable attitudes. Does she have brown hair?”
Vicky snorted. “Tinuke my foot. Even Tinuke cannot stand Lucy’s beauty. Ray has been testy ever since the rare beauty left, I have no doubt he is in love with her”
Duke smiled. “You don’t say” he had a devilish grin that Ray already recognized as a sign that he would continuously tease him until he said something. He hissed. Duke and Vicky kept on talking about him, like he was not present while he just looked on.
“Raymond is in love!” Duke exclaimed then out of the blues, he asked Vicky. “How did you know?”
She smiled. “You only need to see the way he looks at her. He stares at her even when she is not looking and the look on his face is priceless. She was able to pull him to the kitchen, can you believe that? He looks at her like she was the last icing on the cake and he would not wait to grab it for himself”
Ray snorted. “If I am correct, you used to think the same of Bose and I” he replied.
She smiled. “Yeah, I used to, because I mistook your likeness for her as love. The way you gazed at Lucy can never be compared to the way you looked at Bose. The chemistry between you and Lucy cannot be denied also; I am sure Lucy left because she could not withstand your powerful appeal. I noticed her efforts in ensuring you guys never stood too close to each other” she had this love signs in her eyes as she talked.
The analysis struck Duke as odd, coming from the mouth of Vicky. “And how would you know how a man looks at a woman he loves?”
Vicky turned to him as the humor in her eyes and voice evaporated. Ray noticed the turning table with both relief and anxiety.
“I don’t expect you to know that. The highest you should know is how a woman in love looks at another woman” Duke continued.
“Bring it down Duke” Raymond said quietly, knowing how hard it had been for Duke to forget Vicky.
“I know exactly what a man in love looks like…” Vicky felt insulted.
“Humor me” Duke countered.
Raymond stood up with a sigh and turned towards the entrance. He knew that they needed to settle their score so he decided to leave them alone. He had enough things to think about. When he got to the doorway, he faced the duo and smiled. “I guess you don’t need me here. Three is a crowd. Duke” he called. “Be a gentleman”.
“How can I be anything less? I would not dream of crossing the line with someone who considers herself a man, even though she dresses otherwise. Would rather be with that fat dwarf in the office”. Ray swallowed and left them alone while Vicky sat down, glaring. She was hurt by that sentence.
“So, you consider me unappealing” Vicky mouthed.
“It is your appeal that sickens me. I was crazily in love with you but what did you give me? You threw my love in my face, telling yourself the ridiculous story of being a lesbian”
“It is not a ridiculous story. I am a lesbian. Men do not appeal to me and it is not my fault that I am like this. I did not create myself”
“You were not made like this. The problem is that you have not found the guy to make you squirm”
“I am not interested in any search. I have searched and found no one but now I am comfortable with what I am” she glared and stood up as she became very angry. “The earlier you accept it, the better for you. I have not had anything to do with men for over a decade and I never will” she declared.
“I would be an exception” Duke grabbed her hand and pulled her to him, so fast that she did not even have enough time to breathe.
“What the hell is this?” she asked breathlessly.
“When I kiss you, I want you to know that it is Duke and not one of those whores” with that he brought down his lips to hers, kissing her thoroughly with anger. She struggled for some time against his chest but he pinned her to him until she later relaxed, knowing that no harm would come from letting him indulge himself. She was sure that he would have no effect on her.
When Duke sensed her total surrender, his anger seemed to evaporate and what was left was the love he had for her. He had been sure the feelings were dead but now they burned with rage, even higher than what he had felt for her five years ago. Even as he kissed her, he knew that he would suffer the consequences. He would have to deal with killing that feeling all over again but even at that, he just kissed her. When she placed her palm on his chest, a cold shiver went down his spine and he jerked away from her. She looked stunned but he just turned around and marched out of the house without looking back.
When Raymond left the main house, his intention was to go into the gym as he usually does but he found himself opening another door. Even as he stepped into the room, he could not believe that his legs had brought him there. There was a time when art was his life and he could hardly do without drawing or painting in a day. But he hadn’t lifted a paintbrush or a drawing pencil in years and he wondered if the gift was still there. He swallowed as he traced some of the paintings with his fingertips, drawing dust from them. He remembered with a smile that Lucy also traced them that way.
Raymond took calculated steps towards that stunning painting on the wall and took it in his hands. That painting was the last one he had done. He painted it some weeks before his parents’ death. His parents had been having marital problems which took only God’s intervention to manage. They had been on the brink of divorce and it affected everyone terribly. It all started when a guy came into the house, claiming that he was Mr. James’ son. Everyone had assumed that he was mad or on the verge of madness but they had received the shock of their lives when their dad confirmed the news. His wife hadn’t been able to comprehend the fact that she had a step-son, especially one that was almost the same age with her first son, Kelvin. Raymond and his siblings were also very shocked to find out that they had a step brother. He had destroyed the peace in the house, all bent on destroying the happiness and love which was resident in the house. Even after everyone, including his mum had come to accept the boy and forgive the mistake made by their father; the guy was still bent on destroying the family. He framed up their dad until there was no trust again.
The day everything was resolved, it was a dream come true for Raymond and his siblings because one of the people who connived with the guy came to confess and everything was resolved. He had begun that painting of his parents, telling a story of the pain they went through during that period but they never got to see the painting. He had anticipated and foreseen the smile on their faces when he handed the picture to them but it never happened. The crash burned in his memory.
For the first time since the crash, Raymond really cried. He hadn’t been able to cry. At times, it would be a few drops which he would control but he had never broken down in tears because he had feared that he would cry himself to death. It had taken the strength of Raymond and his two brothers to console their two sisters. He wondered what would have happened if they had taken the girls to the crash venue.
He turned and saw the unfinished sketch on the canvas which was still on the easel. His hands balled into fists as he willed himself to walk towards it. He swallowed hard. That was the only thing that came to his mind after the crash. After the incident, he had ran to painting, seeking refuge, hoping that it would make him forget but the opposite was what it gave him. Every time he picked up his pencil to sketch, he found himself sketching the burnt and frozen bodies he had seen. It scared him as hell and after the fifth try; he ran out of the room and never returned.
He replaced the canvas with a blank one and took out a pencil. He took a deep breath and prayed silently that his nightmare would not resurface. He had only one image on his head as he started to sketch again.
Luciana entered the empty church with her head covered with a shawl, to prevent people from seeing her. She had struggled with her parents until they finally allowed her to go. She walked to the pulpit feeling totally miserable. She had never been this confused, sad and angry in her life. When she got to the altar, she sat at the edge and just stared into space.
“What have I done Lord?” she began as her heart ached. “Why do I have to go through this turmoil? Why have you subjected me to this test? I know I was wrong, did not seek your consent before going for Deolu out of pressure but must I go through this pain now?” tears slipped down her cheeks and she furiously wiped them away. She swallowed as she remembered the constant calls of her parents, asking her to bring a man home. Ever since she clocked 21, the tune had changed from ‘don’t let me see you wasting your time with any boy when you need to face your studies’ to ‘you are a grown woman, when would you bring the lucky man home’. It had been tough because her mum believed that any girl that was 21 years was ripe enough for marriage. When she clocked 23 and was not even seen with anyone in the male gender, not to mention being engaged, the pressure had increased. The job away from home had been all that she needed to breathe but still, her parents kept calling and asking. She was never angry because she knew that they loved her and being the only child, their focus was constantly fixed on her. What happened when she was 20 years old and in her third year in school had distanced her from men and she had maintained that distance. Fred was the only male friend she had in school but she saw him as a friend and nothing more even though he tried to change it. Deolu came along and was even closer to her than Fred was. He was everything a lady could want in a man – a Christian who loved God, a handsome guy who could make ladies trip, a successful and independent man, and a guy who loved her so much.
It hadn’t come as a surprise when Deolu asked her out and she had accepted even though she did not love him. Of course, Deolu never knew that she did not love him but she knew that the feelings she had for Deolu were too simple and easy to be called love. She liked him and felt that was enough because she had given up on herself, saying that she was incapable of love. But here she was, madly in love with someone she had lived with for two weeks and three days. Madly in love with someone who just broke off his engagement to his fiancée immediately she entered his house. Madly in love with someone who had too many ghosts haunting his dreams. Madly in love with someone who had given up on God. Madly in love with someone whose sister is a lesbian.
“Why is this happening to me?” she screamed at the pulpit as more tears left her eyes. “I just want to be happy Lord” she sniffed. “Why am I now faced with these feelings for Raymond when I am obviously with another man?” she lamented. She knew that her heart would never allow her to leave Deolu even though she was clearly in love with Raymond. Deolu had gone through a lot when she was away, it would be suicidal if she told him that she was in love with someone else. Was that not what that useless Tunde did to Teju? Teju had told her everything shortly before she went to Abuja and Lucy had insulted Tunde, calling him all sort of names. Lucy felt she would be in the same category with Tunde if she left Deolu, even though she was not after sex.
Raymond was not perfect in any way but whenever she saw him, she saw perfection. Ever since she got to that house from the hospital and found out that Vicky was a lesbian, along with their religious status, she hadn’t stopped praying for them. Even though Ray’s physical appearance alone was enough to make any lady desire a steaming night, his looks was not the only thing she loved about him. She loved his jovial nature. She loved his ability to understand her silence within the few times they had spent together. She loved his attachment to his parents, even though it was a bit of a setback for him considering his inability to forget their death. She loved his romantic attitude. She loved his inability to cook. She loved his self confidence and independence which was very evident. The fact that he still worked under someone however surprised her. Ray was very famous, probably even more famous than Deolu but she saw and felt his humility and his down-to-earth nature. His compassion was great. She sighed and stood up. Once again, she had been carried away by thoughts centered on Raymond. She wondered if Raymond felt the same way but common sense made her feel that the feelings she had was not reciprocated because she felt that he would love his fiancée, or ex-fiancée. He had slept with his fiancée a lot, he must love her. She swallowed as jealousy threatened to choke her.
“Lord, please fix this for me. If you don’t I would end up living with Deolu, while my heart stayed with someone else” she demonstrated, like she was talking to a physical being. “I also want Fred to pay for what he did to me. Father, you know what he did. Please, fight for me” she wiped her face and went out of the church with the shawl carefully covering her face.
Teju arrived at the hotel feeling satisfied. She was hundred percent sure that everything would be over in the next two days. She was always happy whenever something was going according to plan. She knocked on the door of Deolu’s room excitedly and was glowing when he opened the door.
“Well, I don’t need to ask how things went” he said as a form of greeting.
“Hi” Teju responded instead and brushed past him into the room. She looked like a kid whose mother just bought a baby doll.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“Thought you did not need to ask” she sat on the chair. “I am sure it went well.” She answered and went ahead to narrate everything to Deolu, right from the second she entered the station to the time she left. Deolu smiled through it all but was surprised by the slight annoyance and irritation he felt when she mentioned the stares and filthy comments she received from the policemen. “I was not too happy putting that man through all that” Teju confessed. “He was only trying to help his brother”
“He is a conniving beast. If not for your insistence, I would take him to court along with that bastard”
Teju understood. “I was right. He knows where he is and had been protecting him but he loves his family more. He would not want to lose his career, family and everything by protecting a criminal. He risks the penalty of death if he is caught with this act.”
“Lawyers” he murmured with admiration and Teju grinned. He hadn’t seen her this lively in days and the great happiness he felt because of her good mood surprised him. “You are here now. I want to hear everything about that guy who deliberately gave up a good thing. He must be a fool, I am not sorry to say that”
Teju sighed. She had been contented with keeping her personal life out but Deolu had made it clear that he was not going to back off. She opened her mouth and started narrating everything that happened, exactly the way she had told Lucy. Lucy had insulted the living daylight out of Tunde that she even became happy. There is always this ability and power in a woman’s tongue that could turn any saint into a villain within the twinkling of an eye. As she told Deolu, she felt Goosebumps on her skin as she shivered in remembrance. Unknown to her, tears rolled down her cheeks and it was not until Deolu wiped it away that she noticed them. Wiping them away brought fresh tears and Deolu had to hold her. He was quite used to crying women but seeing the strong and independent Teju crying tore at Deolu’s heart painfully and he also started raining insults on Tunde who was not physically present.
Everything became quiet some minutes later but Teju was still in Deolu’s arms. She started to pull away but she looked at him and became very alarmed by how close they were. Their faces were only inches apart and she could not pull back. Deolu bent his head and covered her mouth with his in a firm kiss. It took Teju some seconds to realize what was going on. She was being kissed by her best friend’s fiancé! She flew out of his arms and did not pause before swinging her palm to connect with Deolu’s cheeks.
“You bastard. You are just as evil as Tunde. How dare you kiss your fiancée’s best friend?” she asked herself the same question.
Deolu was as stunned as Teju. He did not know what devil had made him act before thinking. He did not know what he was doing until he had done it. Now, the damage had been done and he was too alarmed to utter a word. Teju looked at him like he was a demon incarnate. “I thought you loved Lucy. How dare you?” before Deolu could open his mouth, Teju’s phone rang and she picked it with shaky hands, yelling hello into the mouth piece.
She calmed down a bit when she listened to the other person, then she managed a shaky smile. “You’ve made the right decision sir. I would be there tomorrow” she hung up and stared at Deolu. She didn’t know if she was angrier at herself or Deolu. He is a man and she was the woman who should know better than to cry in the arms of a man – her best friend’s hubby.
“I don’t need you here. Please leave if you have enough dignity in you to do that. As you can see, I have everything under control and I can take care of myself” she turned towards the door.
“It is not like that Teju. I am-” Teju slammed the door hard. And Deolu blinked. “Sorry” he finished silently as he held his head which had developed a splitting headache.
Tinuke opened the door of Raymond’s sitting room without knocking. She wanted to see what Raymond had been up to. The first person she saw was Vicky and she frowned.
“What are you doing here?” Tinuke asked.
Vicky looked at her like she had lost her mind. Firstly, she entered without knocking and to make matters worse, she is asking her, Vicky, what she was doing in her brother’s house. Vicky clapped her head as she laughed. Her encounter with Duke fuelled her anger the more. “Oh my…” she said in her foreign voice. “You are asking me what I am doing in my brother’s house? How hilarious. Now, what the hell are you doing here?” she asked glaring. She had always hated Tinuke for her guts and audacity.
“I am here to see my fiancé” Tinuke said boldly.
Vicky laughed. “You mean, ex-fiancé”
“What are you doing here Tinuke” Raymond growled and Tinuke spun to face Ray who was at the entrance. She composed herself and moved forward to hug him.
“Baby……” she drawled as she went towards him with open hands. Ray blocked her advance with his hand,
“Answer the damn question. What the hell are you doing in my house?” he yelled now.
“I am here to give you the good news baby” she was all smiles.
“No news from you can be good” he declared.
“Was about to say the same” Vicky added.
“I am sure you would love this Ray” she paused for effect. “I am pregnant”