The Fourth Finger – 14

Catch up on previous chapters HERE

Solomon always got her depressed. And it wasn’t for the fact that he extorted her. Seeing him alone made her miserable and this time was no different. He had turned her entire day into gloom and left her with the bitter realization that her relationship with Raji was no different from the one she had with him many years ago.

The same feelings of pleasure, affection, excitement; and later on, guilt and self-loathing plagued her. In addition, there was that mood of utter helplessness – you want to stop, you vow to stop but you find yourself going back.

She had been told, from the moment she could understand words, that Jesus could save her. She had believed that he could. She had witnessed that he could. But somehow, these days he was silent, content to watch her make a mess of the wonderful morals her parents had instilled in her.

Or just maybe she hadn’t actually been upright all along. Maybe too much of religion had left her only knowing what was right and wrong but not truly understanding the difference. Or it could be that all the times Solomon came to her at night, she knew it was wrong, yet preferred to pretend she didn’t, just so that there would be somebody to blame for her sins later.

Christie wasn’t sure which it was. All that was certain was how ghastly she felt.

Church service was unbearable, with the Pastor emphasizing on the need for Christians to return back to their first love because Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice dying for them. Christie took the message personally and struggled with keeping her composure while the service wore on.

Immediately the service ended, she shoved her car key in Cyrus’ hand. He took it from her absentmindedly, lost in a phone conversation he was having.

“CJ, take Nessa home. Food is ready. Just warm it up and serve yourselves. Your dad is not home. He’s in Port Harcourt.”

Cyrus seemed not to have heard her.

“CJ?”

“Cyrus Junior!” Vanessa screamed. Cyrus spun at her, glowering.

“How many times have I told you to stop calling me that?”

Vanessa wasn’t bothered about his tone. “Mommy has been talking to you.”

Christie snatched his phone. “Take your sister home.”

“Yes, ma.”

“Mommy, where are you going?” Nessa asked.

“To the office, darling.”

“But it’s Sunday.”

“I know, my love, but I have to work.”

“And Daddy is not around too.” She frowned. “Why don’t you just take me to them Ayo’s house?”

Ayo and her little sister, Bukola, were Vanessa’s cousins. Their mother was Folarin’s younger sister. Vanessa was close to the family.

“No, Nessa. Not today.”

Vanessa grumbled her way into the car.

“Don’t use my car to pick your girlfriend o,” Christie warned Cyrus. He snatched his phone back.

“I don’t have a girlfriend and stop calling me CJ.”

CJ was a name his father used on him. He had been okay with it until recently when the man began taking out a sizable amount from his monthly allowance for bad behavior.

“Be going.”

Cyrus entered the car and drove away. The moment he disappeared from Christie’s sight, she dialed Raji. She could hear the TV from his end.

“Hi gorgeous.”

“Where are you?”

Christie smiled at a friend driving out of the church premises.

“At home.”

“I need to see you. Usual place. I’ll be there in let’s say…twenty, fifteen.”

“Give me thirty.”

“Okay.”

Christie hung up. She planted another smile on her face as one of the pastor’s wives trod towards her.

“How is oga?” the woman asked, stopping.

“He’s fine.”

“He still hasn’t changed his mind?”

Christie shook her head. The woman touched her arm.

“Don’t give up. Keep praying. God will touch him.”

“Amen. Thank you, ma.”

“Bless you, dear.”

The woman walked off. She was one of many people always concerned about Folarin’s ‘churchlessness’. He was a dedicated Christian, but had scary views about the church. He was certain the devil had made his home inside the four walls of the church. He even had Bible passages to prove his assertions, claiming God had asked Christians to stop going to physical buildings to worship. The church, according to him, had nothing to offer the believer of today.

Christie had been interested by his strange ideology in the early days of their relationship; fascinated, even. But later on, she became scared, worried that something was off with him, being that she had grown up in a strong Christian home and the church meant everything to her.

However, with time, she would learn of Folarin’s devotion to God, which was profound. He just was unconventional about it and preferred to worship in solitude. When she understood that, her love for him deepened. She realized he was just right for her.

And he still was.

A cab pulled up beside her. She called out the address and got in. The driver took her there in good time.

She entered the hotel and booked a room. While she waited for Raji, she curled up in a corner of the bed and stared up at the ceiling with weary eyes.

She had a bad feeling about Solomon’s visit. She also had a bad feeling about her affair with Raji. Something told her she was going to be exposed soon if she didn’t confess. Sure, it was easy to walk to Folarin and reveal that she was an incestuous, cheating bitch. As easy as pouring gasoline over her body and setting herself on fire.

His mother would remind him how her pastor told her Christie was going to give him sorrow. She would then shove him in the direction of some voluptuous Yoruba girl groomed specially for him to end their eleven-year-marriage, and she would be left with nothing.

And of course, there was Cyrus Junior. How would he look at her the same? How would he remain the same? Who in their right mind told their child that they were a product of incest? And not the abuse type of incest; the type they now call Genetic Sexual Attraction type. Hadn’t she willingly lain back each night and enjoyed illicit pleasures from her own brother? And even if she ever told anyone that she had been exposed at a tender age and didn’t know what she was up to, she could never erase from her mind the fact that she enjoyed it.

Raji walked into the hotel room and stopped a few paces from the door.

“It’s freezing in here, Christie.”

Christie turned around, remembering the cold shower she had some minutes ago and how she wanted more of it but settled for the air conditioners on full blast.

Raji stepped out of his shoes and climbed in beside her.

“I can’t tell you what’s bothering me, but I need you right now,” she said. Somehow Raji understood she wasn’t talking about sex.

He swathed her in with his arms and she stayed that way for a long stretch of time. Finally, she lifted her head from his chest and seized his eyes in a sad stare.

“You want to tell me what’s going on?” he asked.

“Raji, we have to end this.”

“End what?”

“Us. This. We have to end it before someone finds out and everyone involved gets hurt.”

“Where is this coming from?”

“You know me and how I like to bow out of things while the applause is still high…”

“Christie, it’s just me and you and there’s no one applauding here.”

“You know what I’m talking about, Raj. Let’s stop this now.”

Raji stretched out on his back, hands pushed into his pockets.

“Remember the night at Amsterdam? Our first night?”

Christie didn’t want to remember, but it wasn’t as if she could ever forget. It hadn’t started with any sexual innuendos or suggestions. It just happened. They were in her hotel suite, going over a client’s brief for an upcoming ad. Halfway, she indicated disinterest, claiming her head was too saturated to think properly. Raji told her to lie back and relax, which she did. But she had lain on her tummy and given him a view of her backside that was difficult to ignore. When he revealed his thoughts, begging her to rather turn around, she laughed it away. Nonetheless, she did turn but the seed was already sown. All it took was one lustful stare from Raji into her eyes and they went hard at each other.

The sex that followed shocked her. Not because of its occurrence, but because she had never seen Raji as sexually adept. He looked plain on the outside and lacked that appeal Folarin had. Save for his calm nature, which some women may understandably find appealing, Raji was a normal guy; hence her shock when he turned out skillful beneath the sheets. But beyond that, he had gone all Fifty Shades of Raji on her, playing out a dominating character and making her his willing sex slave.

She should have known after spending fourteen years with him that he was that wild. It had been obvious with the way he talked about sex using dark humor or how she often caught his eyes straying in public places. She should have guessed there was more to him than just her business partner and husband’s best friend.

Maybe it was one of the things that connected him to Folarin who used to be nasty in bed, but changed not long after Vanessa was born. He still maintained his skills, but the edge had been taken off, giving way to a man who acted safe and chivalrous with her.

If only he knew how much she loved the dirty and the nasty, how terribly immoral her mind was, how much she wanted to be treated not as a wife but as his slut.

But how was she to say that to him? How was she to expose that side of her without letting out the secret she had sworn to take to her grave? And even if she somehow opened up to him, how would things stay the same for them?

No man would hear the truth of her past and still want to be with her.

“Christie, that night was magical. And every other moment I spent with you was the same. And I know you love me in some way. Why do you want to spoil it? Does Folarin suspect anything?”

“No. It’s not him… It’s about my faith, my walk with God. Something huge is missing in my life. You too. You were telling me the other day that you haven’t prayed in a while and that’s wrong. God is not happy with us.”

“Then he shouldn’t have made me fall in love with you.”

“Raji, stop.”

“I’m not lying. He knows. I love you and I’m willing to divorce Salma and be with you if you will leave Folarin too.”

“Raji!”

“I’m just being honest here.”

He sat up.

“Christie, you’re the one, honey. I swear, I’m not lying. I never loved Salma. I was pressured into marrying her. You know the whole story.”

“And Comfort?”

“When I went to Comfort, I thought she might be the one but…”

He stopped and took her hand.

“You know what you mean to me, Christie. Don’t take it away. If you won’t leave Folarin, I understand. You love him. He loves you too and honestly, I don’t want to tear you guys apart. I just need my own little space in your heart. Don’t hurt me, please. If the frequency is too much, if I’m too demanding, tell me. I’ll stop. Once a week will be enough for me. It will be hard but…”

Christie left the bed. “We have to stop.”

“Christie…”

“We have to.”

“Do you realize you’re in tears?”

“Don’t tell me. I know. You think this is easy for me? Raji, I can’t stop thinking about you. Even when I’m having sex with Folarin! You’ve gotten into my soul! That’s what sex does! It eats past the flesh to a place one can’t reach!”

“And that’s such a bad thing for us?”

“All I’m saying…” She stopped, taking a breath. “This is not easy for me at all. Even right now, I still want you…”

“Then take me, Christie.” He went to her. “Use me the way you want to, baby.”

She moved away from him and dumped her weight on the bed again, sobbing.

Raji didn’t hold her this time. He leaned on the dressing table and watched her cry. He knew her too well. Trying to take advantage of her emotions could land him a space outside her heart. She was a tough woman who was known to take difficult decisions, even when they hurt her. She could, at a whim, decide he was no longer worth her time. He didn’t want to push her to that point.

As a result, he watched her cry and went to her only when she was done.

“I have very few regrets in my life, Christie, but none as damning as letting you go to Folarin. I should have made my move that first day I saw you outside your house – with your long dress and full, natural hair. I was sitting in my car, shocked at how beautiful a woman could look without makeup or jewelry.”

“And yet you opened your mouth and your first words were ‘are you Deeper Life?’ Worst pickup line ever.” Christie recalled, giggling through tears.

“It was the way you dressed. If I had known there was a bad girl beneath all of that. A girl I would fall madly in love with years later…”

“Raji…” she sighed.

He took her helplessness as an open window and dove right in, kissing her deeply. There was no attempt on her side to stop him. Just empty protests that didn’t come from the heart. She had weakened as he knew she would. Such was the effect they had on each other.

“Please stop,” she begged, her tears coming between their lips. But all Raji heard was a plea for him to continue.

Soon the bed took them and their lovemaking. For some reason, it was more intense than it had been in a while. Christie buried her head in a pillow after they were through, looking away from him.

“We’ll both burn in hell, Asepita.”

“Then we should enjoy the moment.”

Christie cackled, snorting in-between, and Raji joined her until he discovered she was actually crying. He wrapped his arms around her and she buried herself in.

“It’s okay, darling. No one’s burning in hell.”

***

After ‘screwing Mark’s brains out’, Toni spent the rest of the day in the office, studying. She went home only when it turned dark.

She found Leticia and Izu making out on her favorite red couch in the sitting room. They scarcely acknowledged her presence as she walked by. She entered the kitchen and prepared a quick meal of noodles as she listened to the radio on her phone.

Toni felt sore from her long-winded sex with Mark, but it was the least of her concerns. She was still affronted by Andre’s attitude towards her, mad at herself for being vulnerable with him.

By the time her bowl of noodles was done and she turned off the radio, she could hear Leticia moaning. Toni tried not to stare when she passed the sitting room to her bedroom. They had turned off the lights but their silhouettes in the dark couldn’t be masked.

Toni had dinner, watching House of Cards. But basically, she was distracted. There were things about Andre she couldn’t stomach any longer. First was how cocky he was. Second was how much he affected her emotions; she couldn’t believe she actually cried for him. Third was the fact that he had a hand in her newfound conscience. She was burdened by guilt over her affair with Mark, mostly because she knew he was in for real, but she was there for selfish reasons and retribution, wrapping him around her fingers.

Nkechi was already fired from work and served divorce papers. At the same time, Toni was buying almost twenty-five percent of DFL shares. All thanks to her vagina; the one Andre desired to have solely to himself. She had no plans to let him have it, and she was settled on her stance to stop seeing him. It was going to hurt but she would survive.

She lay in bed for a while longer, smoking, listening to Izu ask Leticia over and over who her daddy was.

“We get it, stunner. You’re her daddy.”

Toni dozed off a short while after and woke up to the weight of Leticia’s body on her when the morning broke.

“Really?”

“I have something to show you.”

Toni frowned and lifted her eye mask. She pulled it down them immediately. It was too early for anyone to grin that widely.

“I hope Izu is gone.”

“Yes. Wake up. Come and see.”

“Tisha?” Toni whined.

“If you don’t get up this minute, Braithwaite, I’ll sit my ass on your face.”

Toni thought of where Leticia’s ass had been the night before and sprang up. Leticia pulled off the eye mask and helped her out of the bed. Still sleepy, she followed her out of the house. Heavy clouds spread darkness across the sky. Somewhere else, it was raining.

“Is there something I’m supposed to see here?” Toni asked, feeling exposed in her nightshirt, which barely covered her bum.

“Look!” Leticia pointed at a grey-colored car parked across the street.

“And what’s that?”

“My car!” Leticia held her grin, swallowing back a scream.

“Your car?”

“Yep! Izu bought it for me. Isn’t that sweet?”

Toni forced a smile that came out all wrong. “It is, Tisha… but babe, it’s his old car.”

“It’s not.” Leticia dropped her shoulders. “He bought it for me.”

“He bought you a secondhand car.”

“Yeah. So?”

Toni kept a plain face and fought hard not to show any sign of disappointment, but it was difficult.

“You know I always wanted this, Toni.”

“A secondhand car? Tish, Izu has a lot of money. He could afford two brand new cars for you. Why buy you this?”

“You can never be happy for me, can you?!”

Toni pursed her lips together. She didn’t want any form of drama.

“A man loves me enough to buy me a car and you’re not happy for me!”

“That’s not the issue here, Leticia. You deserve a brand new car from Izu. Not that thing. And that’s not even what I’m concerned about. Why is he buying you a car in the first place?”

“Because he loves me.”

Toni looked squarely into Leticia’s eyes. “You are not his first sidechick. In short, the first girl he ever dated when his wife left the country was with him for almost a year and he never got her anything. So, what’s this for?”

“Well…” Leticia shifted. “We got talking yesterday and concluded that the baby was not necessary for now.”

“I don’t understand what that means.”

“We’re having an abortion.”

“We?”

“Toni, don’t start…”

“Tish, there is no ‘we’. It’s just you. You are the only one having the abortion. The only one who will lie on a cold table and spread open your legs to have your baby taken out. The only one who will face the guilt afterwards while he goes on with his life free of all charges just because he decides to hand you down his wife’s overused car.”

Leticia fired Toni an angry look and fumed back in. Toni went after her.

“Tish, don’t be mad. Just hear me out.”

“Don’t be mad?!” Leticia spun around. “You can’t stand that something good is happening to me!”

“That’s not it. God, no. Tish…”

“Then what is it?! Izu loves me! He got me pregnant! He bought me a car! He wants us to be together! Can’t you just be happy for me?!”

Toni gave up. “Okay. I’m sorry. Just go ahead and do whatever. Sorry for caring. Keep on living a lie.”

“You are one to talk! Are you not sleeping with someone else’s husband and refusing a single man who loves you?!”

Toni started to walk away.

“Where are you going? Come back na! Oh! It’s not sweet to hear the truth abi? Go ahead and live your own lie and leave me with my own!”

Toni entered her bedroom and shut her door. She was worried about Leticia. Something spelled doom about her relationship with Izu. She wished there was a way she could separate them. Sometimes being a best friend was not enough. What use was she to her if she couldn’t save her from making terrible mistakes?

***

The Ogunfuwas’ reunion romance barely lasted twenty-four hours. All Lade had to do to get Tayo back to his old self was to talk about her acting career. He flew off handle as she had anticipated he would. This led to a heated argument that had her spending the night in Ife’s bedroom. Come Monday morning, she dressed up and left the house. It was difficult not to tell him she was leaving but his abusive words to her the night before still carried a fresh sting.

Waiting outside was Manny in his car. Lade got a generous kiss when she sat beside him.

“I hope you realize that you’re not coming back here,” he said.

She rested wretched eyes on her home.

“Smile, baby. The future shines brightly for you.”

Lade tried to smile, but found that she couldn’t. She drew strength from Manny’s hand resting on her thigh. She locked fingers with him.

***

Raji caught up with Christie in the elevator on the ground floor of their building. It was raining outside and she had gotten a little wet. With the help of a handkerchief, she was bent over, drying her legs. Raji waited until she was done before he uttered his first word for the day to her. She was carrying the same look on her face as she had the day before. It was a look of weariness.

“Hi stranger.”

“Hi,” she answered.

They were alone and he prayed no one else joined them before the doors closed. Christie kept her face away from him as was her manner whenever they were in public. But the moment the doors locked them in, she turned to him.

“I meant what I said yesterday.”

Raji seized Christie’s lips in a hungry kiss, pushing her to the wall.

“Stop it, I’m on my period, Raj.”

Raji went in deeper before he assented to her wish.

“I kissed you because you’re sad. I don’t know what’s going on but I want to let you know that I’m here for you.”

His worried eyes stirred her. She longed to open up to him about Solomon but she was scared.

“I’m fine, Raj. Just stressed over work.”

“Then maybe we need a vacation. And this is coming in good time. One of the hotels we barter with in Abuja cordially invited Mr. and Mrs. Asepita for a weekend getaway, all expenses paid.”

“Sadly, I am not Mrs. Asepita.”

“You’re going with me, darling. It’s not even up for debate.”

The elevator doors opened and two ladies walked in. Raji leaned towards Christie and whispered.

“And by the way, I’m totally into period sex,” he whispered and walked out. Christie followed him, taking an opposite route to her office.

She had barely sat down when Izu came in.

“Not now, Uchendu.”

“I know you usually have this thirty minutes ‘me time’ before you kick off your day but I’ve got something juicy for you.”

“I’m listening, oga,” Christie said, wincing as an alert came in from her bank informing her that she was five million naira less rich.

“Mrs. Ebute is here and she has a juicy offer to make.”

“And who is Mrs. Ebute?”

“The wife to one of the senior partners at DFL.”

“Details, Izu.”

“Nkechi.”

“The chick that slept with the Musta guys?”

“Guy. Just one guy.”

“And she has a juicy offer to make?”

“Very juicy.”

“And I’m assuming you already got a taste of this juiciness, seeing that your fly is zipped halfway.”

Izu fired his eyes down and pulled up his zipper. “It’s not what you think. I’m just from the bathroom.”

Riiiiiiight.”

“Seriously, you’ll want to hear what she’s offering.”

“Fine. She can wait an hour more. Keep her occupied.”

“I’ll try. She’s a major diva, though.”

“Not my problem, handsome.”

Izu lingered.

“Anything more?”

“I love it when you call me that.”

He left the office. Christie pondered on his words for some seconds and concluded Bernadette probably told him about her and Raji. The realization made her uncomfortable for a while, but the load of work waiting called her attention back to her desk.

Izu was loyal to Raji; he would never tell.

***

He still had his hand resting on her thigh. It was as though it had made its residence there. When they had gone for breakfast at a popular eatery, he had used the other hand to eat while he gently caressed her. He knew his touch was soothing; she had said that to him earlier. It pleased him to know that she saw him as the one who could take her pain away.

As the rain outside beat against buildings and cars and they watched, he left goosebumps on her skin. Soon the cars stopped moving and the street became deserted as the rain claimed dominance, accompanied by a strong wind. Then like a boat lost at sea, a man staggered into view, walking down the street without a care as the rain thrashed against his bare back. For some reason, this made Lade miserable. Manny saw it in her eyes and the slight downward slope of her lips.

How could he erase her pain, this woman whom he had loved for years?

Tayo had taken a happy girl full of dreams and turned her into a broken woman. It was going to take time for her to heal but he would be there for her and give everything. She made him who he was today, having turned him down five years ago because he hadn’t been financially accomplished enough for her the way Tayo was. It was her rejection that spurred him to be ambitious, and her acceptance was going to do some good to his business.

“The rain is dying down,” Lade whispered, leaning into him. The smell of her hair gave him calm. He pulled her closer, his lips on her neck. He craved for her body, but he wasn’t going to take advantage as he did the last time. There was going to be a mutual hunger and only then could he claim her completely.

“Your phone is ringing.”

Manny took his phone from the table and attended to a call he was expecting. Subsequently, he and Lade stayed in the restaurant until it stopped raining and the sun took its place in the sky.

“You need a new wardrobe and I have the perfect stylist for that,” Manny said to Lade. “I want you to be known for your style. Hair, clothes, accessories…all of that. They’ll glam you up and even you won’t recognize yourself, baby.”

Lade couldn’t connect with the excitement in his tone. She merely smiled at him as they left the restaurant to his car. They drove to the office and once they got in, they found a lady waiting. She had a wide smile for Manny.

“Hi Manny!”

“How are you, my love?”

“I dey jare.”

They hugged and he pulled her up to face Lade.

“Isabella, I want you to meet Ruky. She is a stylist with Guru and Monet and she will be your stylist from now on.”

“Hi.”

“Hi, Isabella.”

Ruky gave Lade a hug. “Glad to be working with you. Manny has told me sooo much about you. Nice to finally meet you.”

Lade held a smile. “It’s a pleasure.”

“We’re going to have soooo much fun! We’ll be hanging out a lot so I can get to know you better and what you like. That way, we create a style for you that’s totally yours but at the same time we’ll keep it trendy and chic. We’ll also do a lot of shopping and hopefully, just hopefully, if my bosses are impressed with your style, you could become a brand ambassador for G&M. How’s that?”

“That’s good. I’m excited.”

Manny watched Lade’s face brighten up. He was pleased with Covet’s decision to bring Ruky in. She was probably one of the most expensive stylists in the country at the moment, but Covet didn’t just pick her for her skills. Guru and Monet was the fashion giant of the continent. If Lade ended up being a brand ambassador for them, it was going to open many more doors for her.

“Excuse me, ladies. I’ll leave you two to get better acquainted while I go hustle.”

“No wahala,” Ruky replied. “Isabella’s in good hands with me. We’ll go to G&M and do a little shopping and then head to the spa.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Manny lowered and placed a peck on Lade’s cheek. “Call me when you’re done.”

She nodded. He hugged Ruky and walked out to his PA’s office. The girl was hunched over her lunch, but she quickly straightened up when she saw him.

“I told you to remove every trace of Omolade Ogunfuwa online, didn’t I?”

“Yes sir, and I did.”

“So why do we have her Tumblr account still bearing her old name?”

The girl moved towards him, unease on her face. “I didn’t know she had a Tumblr account.”

“Fix it. I gave you the passwords. Replace everything with Isabella James. Her PR cannot work with conflicting identities.”

“Yes, sir.”

Manny stepped out of the office building and into his car. He took a call from Lulu.

“Hi Manny, I just bought the drug.”

“Okay. Cool. Just keep it until I bring her…”

“Manny, I can’t do it.”

“Meaning?”

“Seriously, I can’t. We’re talking about aborting an innocent baby, Manny.”

“Like you haven’t done that before.”

He started his car and put it in motion.

“It was my choice. I chose to do it. But you’re not giving Lade that same choice. You want to poison her to end the life of her baby. A baby that she wants.”

“Her wants cannot help her needs right now. She needs to get a life, to fulfill her dreams to become an award-winning actress. I don’t see a baby helping her odds.”

“Manny, she’s had four miscarriages and lost a child. She needs this baby.”

“So that she’ll be tied down to a brute that will probably beat the baby out of her soon, abi?”

“We all know Tayo is bad for her, but this is not the best way to get rid of him.”

“You’re not listening to me, Lulu. It is not about him. It’s about Lade. If it was about him, he would have disappeared from the picture a long time ago.”

“Manny, please rethink this.”

“No, did you think back to the time when you murdered your own unborn child for peanuts. Remember? Because if you did, you would jump off the moral high ground you’re standing on right now.”

“I don’t just feel right about this. What if she takes the drug and develops complications, Manny?”

He felt annoyance creeping in.

“I’m sorry. I don’t want to be involved. Don’t do it in my house either or I’ll just tell her. I don’t want blood on my hands…”

Manny took the phone off his ear, crushing the desire to throw it out the window. He let Lulu rant on for a while and returned to her.

“Talk to you later, Lu.”

He curtly terminated the conversation and tossed the phone to the passenger seat. As his journey wore on, he listened to the radio to distract him. It kept him occupied until he arrived at Covet Advertising. A lady at the front desk directed him to the third floor. He rode the elevator up and arrived at Toni’s office. Her PA, who called himself Pascal, informed him that she had dashed out for a meeting and would be back soon.

Manny was given a chair in the PA’s office and a glass of juice. Forty minutes later, Toni came striding in. She let out a smile when she saw him. It was their umpteenth meeting and just like all the others, he was impressed by her poise. The woman carried herself like she owned the world around her. It was rumored that she was a lesbian, but Manny doubted it. A woman simply could not possess such beauty and waste it on her fellow women. He had asked her once, when his head was full of thoughts of wanting her, if she had a boyfriend, but she smiled and told him not to believe everything he heard. He soon came to understand that she was a private person.

“Hi Manny.”

He slowly rose to his feet as she walked forward.

“Welcome, Toni.”

“I should be welcoming you rather. You’re in my territory.”

She extended her hand and he took it. Even with all their encounters, she still kept their relationship strictly professional.

“Come this way.”

She led him into her office and offered a seat.

“Sit down, please.”

He pulled a chair and settled into it. “Thank you.”

“Can my PA get you something?”

“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”

“Okay.”

She made herself at home behind her desk.

“Your office is stimulating,” Manny commented, looking around.

“Thank you.” Toni smiled proudly. The office decor was inspired by Picasso style of art, stated in simple but elegant designs that carried hues of blue, black and white, well-combined.

Manny crossed his legs.

“So, Manny… I got a call from your PA the moment I got into my office this morning and she said you specifically stated that you wanted me to be Isabella’s publicist.”

“Yeah.”

“Manny, you know I don’t handle newbies. And seriously, I have my hands full at the moment. But because of the longstanding relationship this agency has with yours, I will leave her in the care of…”

Manny raised a hand.

“It’s either you or I take her elsewhere, Toni.”

“Manny…”

“Trust me. You will enjoy working with her.”

“Manny, don’t put me in a difficult position. I am too busy.”

Manny leaned back and held her eyes. “I want you, Toni. You’re the best.”

“I…” She laughed. “Well, thank you.”

“Remember the work you and your former boss did on me? You took a bad boy with a bad past and gave him a good name. Because of you guys I got to where I am today. They say a good name is better than riches but you guys gave me both and even more.”

Toni nodded with a smile. “You make my head swell, Emmanuel. But like I said, I’m just too busy. You know the type of divas on my list right now. They need my utter concentration. Taking another celebrity…”

“If I told you that I could get you to your biological mother, would you take Isabella?”

Toni’s lips parted as her face came into disorientation. “What did you just say?”

“Toni, I know all about your mother and how you were stolen from her at a young age and taken to the Braithwaites. I know everything.”

“How? How do you know these things?”

From where he sat, Manny could pick the rapid rise of Toni’s breaths. He smiled at her.

“Did you go looking into my past?” her voice held a rasp. “Did someone tell you things? What do you know about me?”

“I know that you are not a Braithwaite, that your real mother is still alive, that you have two younger brothers and you are an Ogunfuwa.”

Toni left her mouth hanging open again but her shock had brought on a look of desperation.

“Who told you these things?” she whispered.

“It doesn’t matter, Toni. Your mother has been looking for you and I can take you to her if only you pick Isabella as your client and erase her past completely and give her a new identity just as you did with me.”

“That is all?”

“Yeah. That’s all.”

“Fine. I’ll do it. When do I get to see my mom?”

Manny stood up.

“Isabella will be available for you tomorrow. She will tell you all about her.”

Toni rose to her feet also. “What has Isabella got to do with my mom?”

“Relax, Toni. Tomorrow is just around the corner.”

“Manny, I don’t know you that much but you’ve put me in this position where I have to beg you, and it’s not in my nature to beg anyone. If I discover that you’re playing games with me, you will hate me very much…”

“I promise you, this is no game. Your mother is alive and well and you will meet her soon but only if you give Isabella a new life; and trust me, when you hear her story you will only be glad to. Thanks for your time.”

The helplessness in her eyes didn’t make him feel good but he told himself he was doing everything right to secure Lade’s future and dreams. And it wasn’t that he was doing it solely for altruistic or romantic purposes either. With Lade’s exceptional acting skills, there was a lot of money to be made.

As he rode the elevator down to the ground floor, he made a transaction to Lulu’s bank account, sending her some money. It took only a matter of minutes for her call to come in. He ignored it, staring at the screen until it rang out.

She sent a text to thank him. He ignored that as well. He had only paid for her silence; not her compliance. He wasn’t sure he could trust her to go through with the abortion plan. He had to carry it out himself.

He hated seeing Lade in pain but what had to be done had to be done.

 

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