Lara walked into the kitchen, minutes after her friends left. Jack wasn’t around but that did not surprise her, he was a busy man; it was still a wonder that he had spent so much time with her, trying to console her grieving self. Her friends were still convinced that he had skeletons in his cupboard, but what could he be hiding that she could not forgive? He had been her pillar when even her father was nowhere to be found, what could he be hiding that would be so unforgivable?
Mrs. Balogun, standing in front of the gas cooker, humming a song, turned immediately she entered. Her face immediately lit up into a pleasant welcoming smile. “Omolara” she muttered softly, sharply reminding Lara of her mother. She had to remind herself that she had cried enough; steeling herself against tears and memories, she smiled weakly at Mrs. Balogun.
“I was wondering if you… needed my company” Lara said. Although she was not lying, she was not also saying the total truth. The truth was that she was the one in need of company. Immediately Bola and Teresa left, she had felt that low sinking feeling again and she really needed someone to drive her thoughts away from the pain she was feeling.
“Absolutely dear” she beamed as though she were very happy that Lara came to her. “Why don’t you sit here…” she pointed to a stool, “…while I make lunch. You must be getting hungry by now”
Lara shook her head and moved to stand beside Mrs. Balogun instead. “I would rather assist you instead of sitting idle while you work; but I am not hungry” she raised her eyes from the cabinet to smile at Mrs. Balogun.
“I’m sure that would change when you perceive the aroma of the sauce I am making for the rice…” she grinned as she moved to the sink to rinse the fresh pepper in a bowl. “With stock fish, beef, meet and ponmon, you won’t be able to resist it”
Lara chuckled. “It sounds appetizing already, but my tummy is still full, thanks to your delicious breakfast”
She smiled with a little sympathetic look crossing her face. “You don’t know how happy I was when you ate it. I specially made it with you in mind. You’ve lost so much weight my dear, I want to help you gain them back” Mrs. Balogun said as she removed a knife from its stand to start dicing the tomatoes.
Lara swallowed. If this conversation continued this way, they would end up discussing the misery and she didn’t want that. She collected the knife from Mrs. Balogun and moved the bowl of tomatoes till it was directly in front of her. “I’ll do this.” She said, giving no room for debate. “Your daughter is out?”
Thankfully, she didn’t debate the matter, going ahead to rinse the condiments. “Yes! She went for lesson. She would be sitting for JAMB soon”
“She doesn’t like me very much, does she?” Lara muttered.
Mrs. Balogun paused to look at her. “Now, I wouldn’t say that, I think she is just jealous” she smiled. “She has been with Jack for a while; she must have grown attached to him”
Well, the jealous part was very obvious! Lara thought. But couldn’t Bewaji see that Jack was not the one for her? She frowned. He is definitely too old for her! And obviously too dark! Not that Jack was dark in complexion obviously, his milky brown complexion was one that was especially uncommon, Lara thought as his image popped into her head. But he had a dark personality that she could not merge with Bewaji’s innocent self. She could not even imagine them together without having a frown plastered on her face. ‘Maybe because you cannot bear the thought of them together!’ her brain screamed at her.
“How long have you been here?” she asked, warding off the voice in her head as she started dicing the tomatoes into bits.
“About four years” she answered after a moment’s pause.
Lara blinked. That’s long enough! It surely hadn’t taken four weeks to even get her to develop some sort of attachment to Jack; she could understand Bewaji’s bitterness. Who would live with someone as handsome as Jack without developing feelings for him? “I see. That’s long” Lara finally said, with an uneasy feeling in her stomach.
“Yes! I can’t believe it has been that long” Mrs. Balogun smiled. “It seems like only yesterday when I arrived at the gate there, with my daughter, when I had nowhere to go” Lara turned her head to Mrs. Balogun as her interest became pricked. “I had just lost my husband and his family…” her face turned sour as she stared at the stock fish she was removing with a faraway look. “… His family threw me out with my daughter. They couldn’t care less since I didn’t bear a male child.”
“I am so sorry” Lara whispered softly.
She swallowed. “Everywhere we turned to for shelter, we were turned away. We were homeless for days as we roamed the streets with no one to help us, until we found ourselves at the gate outside. I initially didn’t want to knock because I felt that whoever was inside would not do anything to help us, but I didn’t have a choice.” She smiled softly and glanced at Lara who had completely stopped the tomatoes she was slicing to listen to her. “We knocked and knocked until the gateman opened the gate for us. When he called Jack…” she smiled fondly, looking more like a mother with her faraway look. “I was so sure that he would turn us away. He had this hard look on his face that made him look cold and ruthless, and coupled with the fact that he was young and owned such a big house, I felt we had walked straight into a death trap” she chuckled. “Bewaji actually thought we would be used for money rituals.”
Lara chuckled too, imagining the scenario Mrs. Balogun was presenting. There was something warm about thinking of Jack as a knight in shining armor. And… that was what he had been ever since Lara met him. What woman would not fall in love with such a man?
Mrs. Balogun continued. “I explained my predicament to him, with the hope of getting his help. I expected him to either drive me away empty handed or give me some Naira notes at most, but he had invited us in and shown us to a room. He ordered the maid he had then to make us dinner. It was too good to be true. Since then, he has been the one helping us with everything; he helped Bewaji finish her secondary education in a very classic school and also gives me more money than I would ever need, yet all I do is maintain the house since he doesn’t stay here very often.” She shook her head. “I would do anything and go any length to see that he is happy. He tried to behave as though he is untouchable and incapable of showing affection, but I know it is just camouflage. Something or someone must have hurt him so much to make him close himself up and I have been trying to penetrate him but his walls are probably too thick. But, whatever you are doing must be working…”
Lara who had been listening so intently paused at that, staring at Mrs. Balogun. “What are you talking about?”
She smiled. “Jack has been different these past few days. You are the first woman he would bring here, I have never seen him with a woman; I was so stunned that day when I arrived and Bewaji told me that we had a female guest! I can’t pinpoint what it is about him, but he is different. He smiles more, and even makes it obvious that he is worried about you. I have never seen him that way”
Well… what could Lara say to that? She was too stunned to speak. She had noticed everything Mrs. Balogun said about Jack, his swift change after he kissed her showed that he was holding himself aloof, trying to prevent himself from getting attached to someone, but why? What had really happened to him to make such a sweet man erect walls around himself?
She swallowed. “Ma, if you wouldn’t think it inappropriate, may I ask you something?” She said carefully as she continued slicing the tomatoes.
“Of course dear”
“Errr… I saw a small picture frame in Jack’s bedroom. It is a woman’s picture. Do you by any chance know who she is?”
Mrs. Balogun smiled softly. “Jack has never answered any question related to the picture, in fact, he turns rigid anytime I try to question him about it, but I think the woman is his mother.” She said. Lara swallowed. That same thought had occurred to her. “He has her eyes” she said, looking thoughtful. “I wish I knew more about her, he seems to hold her very dearly”
Lara stared at the tomatoes she was dicing, her thoughts so far away. Her heart ached for Jack. He was so closed off, yet so open. If he could only let her in… would she be able to repair whatever damage she found there?
Jack got out of his car and closed the door. He caught sight of Lara approaching from the garden and felt a dull ache in a region remotely close to his heart. He couldn’t express the happiness he felt, seeing her outside with her eyes dry. The past few days had been hell for him as he tried his best to get Lara out of her depressed state. He had felt her pain just as much as he had felt his for many years. He had so desperately wanted to shoulder her pain and see a smile on her face again but he had known that it was impossible. The helplessness of not knowing what to do when a loved one was in pain was something he could not handle.
He watched as she walked towards him, noticing the fact that she had lost so much weight again. He would make sure she ate, even if he had to feed her himself! But could he? Could he even stand in front of her now without wanting to repeat what had happened in the room that morning? Without giving in to the urge of kissing her till they came up breathless?
He swallowed and walked up to Lara. When he got nearer, her face eased into a small smile, making Jack blink slightly. “You didn’t tell me you were going out.” she accused as a greeting, her mouth pulling up to a small playful pout.
For a second, Jack didn’t know how to respond, staring at her face like he was just noticing her beauty for the first time. And maybe he was! Her fair flawless face was egg shaped, glowing beneath the late afternoon glow of the sun. Her eyelashes – encamping sparkling white eyeballs – fanned out, making her look like those unreal Barbie divas, but now, what he noticed most was her lips. As she drew her lips up in a pout, it became almost impossible to resist the temptation of continuing what they had started that morning. Holding on to his sheer will, he looked away, remembering that he was yet to answer a question-like accusation. “I’m sorry. I got an urgent call”
He paused slightly. “From your father”
Her playful smile vanished instantly and Jack almost mourned the loss of it. Her eyes turned cold. “I see” she said dryly. “What did he want?”
Jack swallowed. “You really want to know?”
“Yes! He would only call you for something that concerns me. I have heard enough bad news, nothing he does can surprise me anymore. Tell me” she said firmly.
Jack nodded stiffly. “Come” he said and led her to a bench, beneath a flowery shade. When he saw that she was calm enough, he told her about what he discussed with the governor, making it sound less awkward than it had when he heard, but then, Lara still deduced that he was painting the encounter way brighter for her own good. He didn’t tell her about the later part of the governor’s speech though. He didn’t think she needed to know about her father’s plan to keep her mother’s family out of the burial.
“So, he wants me to demonstrate my pain to the press in order to get people’s sympathy for his re-election, right?” she said when Jack was done.
“Sounds worse than he had put it” Jack said with a slight apologetic smile. “I think he just doesn’t want the real cause of your mother’s death to be revealed to the press” He couldn’t believe he was covering up for Tunji Banks!
Lara chuckled bitterly. “Don’t make excuses for him; I know my father” she jumped to her feet as anger surged through her. “How could my mum have endured marriage to such a man for years?” She ranted as she paced slightly in front of Jack, dividing his attention by giving him ample view of her shapely body. “I hate him! God knows I hate him.” She said spitefully.
Jack sighed wordlessly, enjoying the view but hating the anger in her voice. His plan all along had been to make her hate her father, so much that she would be willing to destroy him herself. But now, seeing her bitter, he realised that he didn’t want it. He didn’t want her to be as bitter as he was. He had lived years of his life hating and he had grown bitter and cold. He couldn’t bear to see Lara go through the same also. What the hell was happening to him? Was he surrendering his revenge for Lara’s happiness? Could he be so soft as to ignore all the years he put into avenging his mother, all because he couldn’t imagine Lara in more pain? It was a stupid thing to do but as he stared at Lara who stood, still burning with anger, he knew he couldn’t do to Lara what Tunji Banks had gleefully done to his mother! He couldn’t destroy her life so completely by making her the laughing stock of the world! He wouldn’t be able to live with himself.
“He wants me to talk to the press?” Lara barked into space as she paced slightly again. “He would wish he never asked me to do that by the time I’m done” she promised.
Jack stood up from the bench with a sigh. “You should calm down Lara” he murmured.
“I can’t” she returned sharply, pacing blindly. Her foot came in contact with a stone and she stumbled forward with a slight shriek. Without pausing, Jack’s hands flashed out, catching her before she fell on her face. He held her awkwardly in his arms as she pulled her head up to right herself. “Are you okay?” He asked breathlessly.
Lara made no move to leave his arms as she raised her face to his, cranning her head back to gaze up at his taller form. Her mouth was breathtakingly close, causing more than enough distraction for Jack’s already scattered mind. “I’m fine” she whispered, so softly, Jack could almost not hear it. Her eyes shyly left his, lowering slightly until it rested vaguely on his lips.
Jack couldn’t hold it anymore. Letting out a low frustrated groan, he covered her mouth with his, holding her head captive as he kissed her with all the pent up frustration he was feeling. Her small hand went up to his neck, holding him close and wordlessly showing him that she wanted the kiss as much as he did. Jack’s blood surged through his veins, making it impossible for him to think straight as he took the kiss to breathtaking heights. His hand, roaming her back pulled her close until he could feel the tremor of her body against his; until he could match her racing heartbeat with his. Lara ran her small hands against his heated cheeks, tickling him slightly. She sighed out his name and Jack almost went overboard with the thrill he felt, hearing his name from her lips. His name sounded different from her lips. He wanted to hear it over and over again.
With great effort, he slowed and pulled away. Lara’s face was a myrage of emotions as she stared up at him. He swallowed hard. She wanted him to kiss her again! He could see it in her eyes. She might probably even give in if he wanted to go beyond that. Such sweet innocence. He raised his lips and kissed her forehead softly. He lowered his eyes back to hers. She was looking at him questioningly. He could literarily see confused questions running around her head. “I’m not good enough for you, love” he whispered.
If anything, her frown deepened. “What do you mean by that?”
Jack swallowed. What could he say? I am too maimed? I am unlovable? I cannot give you the love you seek? All these would require further explanations he wasn’t ready to give. He kissed her forehead again and gratefully, the universe provided him with ample distraction. The weather changed and few droplets of rain showered down. “Let’s go in” he said, and wordlessly, each battling their own unspoken questions and worries, they went back inside.
Jack entered the bar with his face cap firmly in place. He had just come from his mother’s tomb. He hadn’t been able to stay under the same roof with Lara without thoughts of kissing her running through his mind. He had thought that visiting his mother’s tomb would help. That like before, seeing the place his mother was buried would bring him back on course and drive away secondary distractions, but tonight, it hadn’t worked.
He had stared at his mother’s tomb for a long time without saying a single word. Thoughts of Lara had plagued him where he was supposed to be remorseful and he felt ashamed of himself. Ashamed that he was letting a woman drive him out of his vengeance quest. But he was helpless towards whatever it was that he was feeling. Damn, he couldn’t even think of hurting Tunji Banks without wondering how it would affect Lara.
Jack swallowed and walked fully into the bar. It was different from the one he often used with Sword; classic and tastefully designed but it was a bar, nonetheless! He walked to the back where he specifically told Sword to stay and surely, sword was there, waiting for him.
“Sir” Sword said in greeting, standing when Jack got close.
“You don’t have to stand, Sword” Jack said softly, making sure to keep his voice muted. They both sat down in agreed silence. There was a jug of iced juice on the table joining them, just as he requested when he made the table reservations. Jack poured himself a glassful and drank from the cup slightly. Something told him that he would need to be calm enough to receive the coming information. Maybe it was because Sword stood up to greet him; he only did that when he was bringing a rather unpleasant news.
“Spill it Sword” Jack murmured, sitting in a relaxed form.
Sword cleared his throat. “You wouldn’t like any of this!”
Jack nodded. “There is nothing you want to tell me that i have not guessed yet!” He said
Sword nodded. “You’ll be surprised” he murmured with a bitter look on his marred face.
“Just spill it”
Sword swallowed. “Well, I made little investigations and was surprised at what I found. I got an old maid, one who worked for the Banks during the early years of their marriage; you know the thing they say about servants knowing everything?” He asked rhetorically, then continued. “Her name is Maria. When she heard of the death of the governor’s wife, she was only too happy to tell me so many things.” He twisted his mouth bitterly.
Jack kept quiet, watching Sword without betraying any emotion even though his tension was increasing. Only something unpleasant would make Sword stall information so much.
“You are right! Mrs Banks did have a connection with your father… I mean, with Pascal.” He finally said. “According to the maid, Mr Banks was not playing his err… husbandly role, so after years of suffering, Mrs Banks was forced to seek solace in another man’s arms”
Jack’s hand fisted around the glass of juice as anger spread through his veins. “Pascal?” He offered and Sword nodded stiffly.
“By her explanations, I think the affair occurred close to the time your father sent you and your mother out. So…”
Jack stopped listening as his brain froze. So, this was it! His father, who had been proving himself to be a loving father and husband had swiftly changed. Raining insults and beating up his mother at the slightest provocation. Lara’s mother was responsible for that? His affair with Lara’s mother had made him push Jack and his mother out of the house during the late hours of the night?
Oh no! This was too much! Jack had the incredible urge to smash something. And just when he had thought the governor’s wife to be the victim all along! She was most likely the cause of every damn thing! He swore under his breath, holding on to his temper in order not to cause a scene there in the bar by voicing his rage.
“I know what you must be thinking” Sword said, ” but don’t crucify her yet. I was curious about the fact that the governor was not performing his err… duties… and I got the information I needed. The governor is impotent”
Jack froze. “What are you saying? He is Lara’s father, right?”
Sword nodded. “Yes! Mr Banks actually suffered an accident two years into the marriage. He was always a heavy drinker and it had its impacts on his… Err… Instrument. I got their family doctor to give me some info after serious threats. He had chronic diabetes due to his alcohol intake and one day, while driving home drunk, he got involved in an accident which affected his nerves and claimed his manhood. You see why you can’t totally blame his wife? Coupled with the governor’s obviously irritating personality, how long could she stay in the marriage without falling into the temptation of extramarital affairs?”
Jack had heard quite enough! His head was hot and almost exploding. He really couldn’t think straight. It was one thing to hear that Lara’s mother was the reason why his home had turned sour until he was ultimately ejected onto the street, together with his mother. It was another thing to be told that her action was not entirely her fault. How did the Banks come full circle in destroying his once happy home? “Is that all? I think I have heard more than enough for one night.” He grated out through clenched teeth.
Sword shifted slightly, his face showing his nervous state. What on earth could be left unsaid?
“Actually, there is one more thing you… should know”
Jack was having a weird feeling about this. He gritted his teeth, holding on to the last of his patience as he waited for Sword to spill whatever bomb he had.
“Mrs Banks got… she got pregnant for your father”
Jack almost stopped breathing altogether as he sat, staring at Sword like he had just gone insane. “What the hell are you saying?”
Sword shifted. “She had a child… A son” Jack had never been so shocked in his entire life. “You and Lara share a… step brother”
Jack’s blood ran cold as he stared at Sword’s nervous self. For a while, he just sat there, allowing the information to sink in; replaying Sword’s information and disecting it as though he hadn’t heard him right. “Do… do I know this person?” He voiced the question hanging lose between them.
He saw Sword’s throat work as he swallowed, then his head moved to a nod. “Yes”
Lara sat at the back of the car with Teresa and Bola at the front. Teresa was driving and Bola was by her side. They were all in disguise clothes. Her friends had succeeded in dragging her out of the house in their quest to getting her off her mourning sober mood. They had worn disguise clothes in order to avoid journalists.
“Where on earth are you girls driving me to?” Lara muttered at the back with a frustrated look as she gazed out the window of the car into the dark night.
“To have some fun sweetie” Teresa said as Bola turned on the radio, allowing sweet music to float through the car.
“When we are there, you’ll be happy you left the house.” Bola said gleefully.
Lara looked out the window. Even though she kept quiet, she was already glad she was out of the house. She needed a diversion and Lara knew her friends would definitely give her one. She looked at the road, letting the site of the Lagos streets wash away her thoughts, fears and doubts. The ground still shimmered with moisture, an aftermath of the rain that began earlier when she was with Jack in the garden.
Thoughts of Jack filled her mind with that memory, filling her with both sweet feelings and confusion. She couldn’t understand the rationale behind Jack’s actions. One minute, he was kissing her, the next, he said he wasn’t good enough for her… Who could understand a man like that? If he thought he wasn’t good enough, why did he ask her to marry him? It was all so puzzling. Jack himself was a really big puzzle!
“Isn’t that Jack’s car?” Bola’s voice popped into her fuzzy brain as she turned to see what Bola was talking about.
She frowned. “That’s his car” she confirmed as she turned to stare at the bar beside the car. She knew Jack had left that evening; could he be seeing a woman. Her heart almost stopped at the thought.
Teresa slowed the car down. “Want us to play spy?” She murmured with a mischievous look on her face.
Lara was about to reply with a resounding ‘NO’. If Jack had another woman, she would add to her pain by knowing. But then, before shd could voice her answer, a figure walked out of the bar. That was definitely Jack! She thought and felt an immeasurable thrill when she did not see any woman hanging on his arm, but her happiness was short-lived. The image that followed right behind Jack practically froze her heart in her chest. She blinked as her heart went from frozen to racing within seconds.
Oh no! She couldn’t be seeing correctly! Something had to be terribly wrong! She watched as Jack circled to the car and stopped to exchange words with the man. To the world, nothing could be wrong with that scene, but to her, a million things were wrong! What in the world was Jack doing with her captor?
Thoughts are Real!
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