اصلی Ties That Tether
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This was such an awful read OMG ?
04 April 2022 (22:52)
Amazing novel ...go girl!!!
22 September 2022 (18:43)
A JOVE BOOK Published by Berkley An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC penguinrandomhouse.com Copyright © 2020 by Jane Igharo Readers Guide copyright © 2020 by Jane Igharo Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader. A JOVE BOOK, BERKLEY, and the BERKLEY & B colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Igharo, Jane, author. Title: Ties that tether / Jane Igharo. Description: First edition. | New York: Jove, 2020. Identifiers: LCCN 2020016125 (print) | LCCN 2020016126 (ebook) | ISBN 9780593101940 (trade paperback) | ISBN 9780593101957 (ebook) Subjects: GSAFD: Love stories. Classification: LCC PR9199.4.I37 T54 2020 (print) | LCC PR9199.4.I37 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020016125 LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020016126 First Edition: September 2020 Cover art by Fatima Baig Cover design by Emily Osborne This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. pid_prh_5.6.0_c0_r0 Contents Cover Title Page Copyright Dedication Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 ; Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Chapter 37 Chapter 38 Chapter 39 Chapter 40 Chapter 41 Chapter 42 Chapter 43 Chapter 44 Epilogue Acknowledgments Readers Guide Discussion Questions About the Author To God, for every narrow, crooked road you straightened to bring me here. Thank you. chapter 1 Culture is important. Preserving it, even more important. It’s the reason I’ve always abided by one simple dating rule. Tonight, I’ve broken that rule. It all started when he kissed me, when his silken lips and skilled tongue moved against mine with a perfect and sensational mixture of tenderness and force. It was the kind of kiss that rid me of all my wits and made me act spontaneous and reckless for the first time in my life. That kiss brought me here—to his hotel room. We stagger through the door. Our bodies, entangled, navigate blindly, attempting to reach the bed. He slides a hand into my blouse and, in one swift movement, unhooks my bra. This wasn’t where I envisioned my night going. A few hours ago, I was having dinner at Louix Louis, located on the thirty-first floor of the St. Regis Hotel in downtown Toronto. My date was not the man currently undressing me, but Richard Amowie, the engineer my mother referred to as “husband material.” Like me, he was Nigerian—of Edo descent. He was also a Christian and, from the series of questions he had been asking, the kind of man who believed a woman’s single purpose was to breed babies and cater to her husband. Was I surprised by his archaic mentality? Not at all. My mother’s matches usually have this trait in common. As well as being Edo—the most important trait of all. “What do you do for fun?” he asked, slicing through a well-done steak. “Do you like to cook? Are you a good cook? Do you know how to make Edo food?” Despite the glamorous restaurant with a glistening coppery interior, I was not on a date. I was being interviewed for the position of dutiful Edo wife by a man who couldn’t chew with his mouth closed. The sight of his jagged teeth breaking apart the wine-glazed beef made nausea tickle my throat. My appetite morphed into disgust, and I had no desire to finish the walnut-crusted salmon on my plate. I looked through the large window, at the stunning view of downtown Toronto—clusters of high-rises invading the sky with height, the sight of Lake Ontario spread out in a vast expanse of shimmer and blue, and the CN Tower posing majestically as the city’s greatest beacon. “Well?” Richard asked, one eyebrow raised. “Do you? Do you cook?” “Yeah. I do.” “Edo food?” This specification was important to him. “Yes. I learned when I was a kid—back in Nigeria.” His brow dropped, defusing the tension on his massive forehead. “Good. Very good.” His lips stretched and widened, hitting his cheekbones and exposing his teeth. It was official. I had advanced to the next round. “Want to know my favorite?” he asked. “Black soup with fresh catfish. I love it.” “Yeah. So did my father.” “He died, right? When you were back in Nigeria.” “Yeah,” I said. “Before my family and I moved to Canada. I was twelve at the time.” “Oh.” He chewed his dinner with the temperament of a ravenous goat, not taking a moment to offer a gesture of condolence. “But you’re twenty-five now. So, it was a long time ago.” He made the statement with a casual ease as if referring to a childhood pet rather than my father, a man who died too young and agonized on a hospital bed before he did. “So. About your job,” he continued. “What is it you do again?” “I’m a creative director at an advertising agency.” At that moment, curious about his follow-up question, I pulled a lock of my box braid behind my ear and leaned into the table. “Impressive. But you would quit once you had a family to take care of, right?” I chuckled, amused and stunned by his idiocy. “No. I absolutely would not quit.” “Really?” “Yeah. Really.” His gaze was stern and steady on me, an intimidation tactic I fought by conveying the same look, but with a hint of disdain to go with it. It occurred to me then that if looks could seal fates, he would have ignited to cinders. “Well.” He blinked rapidly, his glare quivering under the strain of mine. “You’re stubborn.” He knifed the steak again. “Your mother didn’t mention that. Personally, I prefer my women to be a lot more . . .” He pondered, eyes narrowed and darting as if considering some vast complexity, and then his stare stilled on me, and he said: “Submissive.” At the utterance of that word, rage seethed inside me. “And I prefer that my men weren’t chauvinistic pricks with the brain and table manners of a caveman!” It was a statement loud enough to capture the attention of the diners at the nearby tables. Inquisitive eyes shifted between me and Richard, inspecting, speculating, and then concluding. The date or interview was officially over. I stood and grabbed my trench coat. “It’s obvious we aren’t a good match.” “Yes,” he said. “Very obvious.” Because of the attention he had gained, he was trying to portray a composed facade, but his straight lips kept reverting to a tight frown. His fingers rolled into fists that trembled, the guise of the perfect husband shedding to reveal his true nature. “Goodbye, Richard.” I left him alone at the table with strangers eyeballing him and offering silent and likely accurate judgment. It was past eight at the time, and I ended up in the hotel lobby, heading for the lounge instead of the exit. A drink made by a professional seemed more enticing than anything I could mix at home. The lounge had a more relaxed vibe than the restaurant; the beige-and-gray palette, cushioned seats, and electric fireplace created a modern and cozy ambiance. I ordered a whiskey sour and sipped with relief. The alcohol unwound the tension that had accumulated throughout the night. My back slacked, and I leaned into the comfortable chair, but the thought of my mother made my spine spike up straight again. She would blame me for how the date ended. At the realization, I emptied the sweet cocktail in my mouth. The flood of alcohol warmed my insides and made my eyes close. I racked my mind for a solution—a way to either survive or avoid my mother’s wrath. I considered multiple possibilities, including hopping on a train to Montreal. While still contemplating, a deep voice broke through my thoughts. I opened my eyes, turned to the seat next to me, and saw the man who had spoken. He was looking at me, waiting for my response, but I had no clue what he had asked. “Excuse me?” I said. “Did you say something?” “Yeah. I was just wondering if you were okay.” He smiled, and a deep blush snuck up his cheeks, staining his white skin. “You downed that drink pretty fast. And for a minute, it looked like you were sleeping . . . at a bar.” “What makes you think I wasn’t meditating?” “At a bar?” I shrugged. “Well, if that was the case, I apologize for interrupting your meditation.” “Apology accepted.” I turned to my empty glass, and he turned to what looked like scotch. I watched him from the corner of my eye, sipping his drink and working his thumb against his phone. “I wasn’t meditating,” I confessed, no longer able to ignore the guilt of lying. “Oh.” He switched his attention to me. “Then you lied. And accepted my apology.” “Yeah.” I smiled, a playfulness suddenly bubbling inside me. “I could give it back if you want.” “No.” His blue eyes dashed across my face, a quick examination. “Keep it. On behalf of whoever upset you tonight, I apologize.” “And how are you so sure someone upset me?” “I just am.” He lifted the tumbler to his lips and drank. “Am I wrong?” I shook my head. “Who upset you?” “Um . . .” The question was intrusive. I didn’t owe the stranger an answer, but somehow, he put me at ease. “My date.” “And what did he do?” Another intrusive question I could have dismissed, and yet, my loose lips offered the answer without restraint. “He was a sexist ass.” “Those still exist?” “Yep. And my mother knows exactly where to find them.” “Your mom set you up?” Amusement curved his flushed lips, which stood out against his pale complexion. “Yeah. It’s kinda her thing. This one didn’t work, so she’ll probably arrange another for next week and another after that if necessary.” “Sounds like torture. I think that warrants a second drink.” He waved the bartender over, and I ordered another whiskey sour. He insisted on paying, and I objected a few times before giving in. He was a gentleman, and as I recall, a well-dressed one, sporting a navy-blue blazer over a white button-down and black dress pants. His hair had a perfect side part that separated the dark, wavy strands into precise proportions. The strong angles that structured his square-shaped face were made soft by the calm blue of his eyes and the gentle fullness of his lips. He had an elegance about him that was neither intimidating nor arrogant. “I’m Rafael,” he said, extending a hand. “Nice to meet you, Rafael.” I gripped his hand, and he gripped mine. It was a standard gesture—simple, nothing intimate or remotely profound—and yet, it stirred a reaction from both of us. His jaw tightened as if he were fighting some frustration, and my heart raced, triggered by an indefinable thrill. “I’m Azere.” The motion to separate our hands was reluctant. “Azere,” he said, uncertain, my name a foreign flavor he had yet to acquire a taste for. “It’s A-zay-ray,” I repeated, enunciating and emphasizing the distinct Nigerian rhythm paired with the name. He gave it another attempt, and although the pronunciation improved, his Western intonation remained inflexible. “It’s a beautiful name.” “Thank you,” I said. “So. You know my deal. What’s yours? What are you doing here, drinking at a bar alone? Did you have a crappy date too?” “Actually, I’m staying in the hotel. I came in from New York for an interview.” “And how did it go?” I watched his lips for the answer. “Well, I hope it went well. If it did, then I’ll be moving back to Toronto. My family lives here. I used to too before I moved to New York.” “And you’re moving back because you miss your family or because—” “Because New York has too many memories,” he said, his stare far off. “Memories of what?” He opened his mouth to answer but then sealed it. Or memories of who? I wanted to ask, hoping he was as liberal with information as I had been, but he changed the subject. The conversation quickly transitioned to less personal topics. We moved to a settee adjacent to the fireplace. The mood felt light and the conversation effortless. I was utterly fixated on him, paying no attention to the thinning crowd or midnight’s quick approach, only aware that I had been touching him as we spoke, my hand falling on his arm and his shoulder and his leg. Each touch sent a zing through me that rattled my core. It was a warning, telling me I had encountered something dangerous and had to proceed with caution. And so, I did. Moving forward, I forced my hands to stay at my sides, to twirl a lock of my braid, to tug on the hem of my short skirt. Although that was a mistake as it drew attention to the faux leather that clung to the curve of my hips and revealed my chestnut-brown skin. Rafael’s gaze instantly dropped to my thighs. When he looked up again, his stare was deep and prolonged. My heart raced. “We’re closing up.” The bartender’s voice boomed through the lounge, capturing the attention of the only remaining people—Rafael and me. We stood in sync. He held my coat as I slid an arm through each sleeve. When I faced him, our eyes connected. For seconds, verging on a minute, I stared at him, inspecting his eyes. They weren’t simply blue, but an ever-evolving tide of blues—sapphire, azure, violet, and periwinkle—all intricately woven together, circling dilated pupils. It was during this moment, while I was studying his eyes, that it happened. He kissed me. It was unexpected. Yet, somehow, I had been waiting for it since he offered an apology for the mistakes of someone else. Sweet and forbidden—that’s how I remember it tasting. It was everything I wanted and couldn’t have. There was a rule I had to obey, and it was simple: never get romantically involved with a man who isn’t Edo. The rule rang in my head. Though, as his lips worked against mine, I felt the rise of defiance. For the first time in my life, my heart was putting up a fight against my mind. Intense sentiments contended with forced reason, and I knew I wanted him. There was no denying it, so I clung to him and kissed him fiercely. Again, the bartender urged us to leave. We ignored him and pressed our bodies tightly together, the need to feel skin intensifying with each stroke of our tongues and exchange of our breaths. “Seriously, guys!” He stood in front of us. “It’s past midnight. We’re closed.” Rafael initiated our separation; I didn’t have the willpower to. “Sorry about that,” he said to the bartender, whose face had turned red with irritation. “We’ll go.” But he didn’t make a move. His focus was strictly on me. His lingering stare implied he wanted more—so much more than the feel of my lips. “Yeah. Whatever. Why don’t you guys take this to one of the many rooms in this place?” The suggestion was the push we both needed to take things further. Rafael grasped my hand and squeezed it, a silent request I responded to by bobbing my head. He led the way, and I followed, each step rushed until we finally reached seclusion. Now, in his hotel room, rumpled sheets snake through our limbs and conjoin our naked bodies. His breath is warm and feathery against my skin, like a wisp of summer air. Sex with a stranger. It’s a new occurrence for me, something I never thought I could do. Somehow, it isn’t what I expected. He isn’t indirectly asking me to leave with excuses of having to get up early in the morning. He’s holding me—my back to his chest—and pressing kisses along the curve of my neck. “You’re beautiful, Azere.” Azere. He hasn’t mastered the Nigerian rhythm paired with my name. Though, the way his Western intonation caresses each syllable creates a new rhythm that’s just as lovely. “It’s late, Rafael. Maybe I should go.” “Stay,” he says. “I want you to stay.” “Okay.” I twist to look at him and trace his handsome features with my fingertip. “Sure. I’ll stay.” Because I want to more than anything else. “Good.” He smiles, wide and genuine. “You know, I turn thirty today.” “Really?” “Yeah.” “Well, happy birthday, Rafael.” “Thank you.” He brings his lips to mine and takes his time exploring my mouth. “I swear, Azere, I could kiss you forever.” “Well, maybe not forever. Just for tonight.” Because tonight, for one night only, I am not the obedient daughter of a conservative woman who is adamant on preserving her Nigerian heritage. Nor am I the daughter of a patriotic man who feared his family’s departure to a foreign country more than the cancer that was killing him. Tonight, I belong to no one but myself, driven by my desires and impulses despite any consequences that might follow. One night. It’s all I can have and all I can give to Rafael, a man who seems worthy of so much more. chapter 2 One of the perks of working at Xander, North America’s top advertising agency, is the downtown workspace. It has that new age corporate design thing going on—open-concept layout, industrial ceilings, glass walls, light fixtures that resemble descending UFOs, and splashes of vibrant colors that imply playfulness. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, there is a spectacular view of brownstone structures and slick glass skyscrapers towering over ever-bustling civilians. Another perk of working at Xander are the snacks available at every staff meeting. At the moment, I’m enjoying a raspberry-chocolate-chip muffin. The warm, fluffy loaf breaks apart in my mouth, and I stifle a moan. Dev, the chief operating officer, is saying something that must be of importance, but I’m savoring the sweetness of the chocolate chips and the tartness of the berries and paying very little attention to anything else. Every bite relieves the cramp in my empty stomach until I’m no longer hungry. I have to stop skipping breakfast. When Dev’s orotund voice suddenly captures my attention, I realize I’ve missed something important. A few minutes ago, he mentioned a new hire. Unfortunately, I tuned out before receiving all the details. “And here he is!” Dev says, elated. He stands and arranges his plaid blazer over his protruding stomach. “Everything settled with HR?” “Yes. It is.” Still chewing, I turn to the door and offer a glance at the person who just spoke. The glance is too brief, and within a second of looking away, I’m doing a double take and carefully examining familiar features—a strong but relaxed jaw, flawless ivory skin gleaming with sun flavor, pink lips with a gentle fullness, and compelling eyes with an infinite supply of blues. Holy crap. I gasp, and a chunk of muffin hitches in my throat, obstructing the flow of air. As I cough and wheeze in the most inelegant manner, I try to rationalize the current situation. I align all my memories, retrieve forgotten pieces of the past, reexamine minor details that once seemed irrelevant, and stitch them all together to form a clear understanding of the present. It’s him. It’s been a little over a month, but I remember that face. It’s the face of a man I thought I’d never see again. And yet, here he is. “Azere,” Dev says just as my throat clears. “Are you okay?” “Mm-hmm. Yeah.” Air courses through my throat like water through an unclogged pipe, and I exhale. “I’m fine.” Far from it. “Right. Anyway, as I mentioned before, we have a new hire.” He gestures to the person standing beside him. “Everyone, meet our new marketing director. Rafael Castellano.” In a moment so brief it almost doesn’t exist, I hear the devil laughing at me, mocking a predicament triggered into motion by my lust and stupidity. Lust and stupidity. No, those weren’t the only factors that created this dilemma. Fate had a hand in this too. And fate is a cruel force, toying with us all, manipulating our lives, making lessons out of them and riddles and jokes—the type of jokes that are bittersweet. This joke, however, is straight up bitter. I can’t handle it. My heartbeat is manic. My nerves aren’t fluttery butterflies but nails, stabbing my stomach. This can’t be happening. “Nice to meet you all.” Rafael is addressing the room, but he is fixated on me. “I look forward to getting to know each one of you.” I’ve already gotten a chance to know Azere. Actually, I know her very well. I expect him to say this, but he doesn’t. We watch each other, neither of us blinking. The moment is so intense, goose bumps sprout to the surface of my dark skin, causing the thin hairs on my arms to spike up. In my chair, I shiver. I squirm. The subtle movement breaks his concentration. He blinks sharply and tears his eyes from mine. The meeting continues, but I don’t take note of anything that’s discussed. The room is spinning, and my sanity is slowly receding because it’s too fragile to handle the madness that is currently my life. How is this possible? How the hell is this possible? Lost in my thoughts, I zone out. When I regain focus, the room is emptying. People are rising and leaving, but Rafael and I remain seated. We have things to discuss. Once we are alone, I stand. Though light-headed by the recent discovery, I manage to balance my weight on my stilettos and walk to the window, away from the open door and prying ears. Rafael follows. “Hi,” he says. “Hi.” A simple greeting that doesn’t quite suit our predicament. “So. Your interview. It was here—at Xander.” He nods. “Why didn’t you tell me?” “It never came up, and I had no idea you worked here. Small world, right?” Too damn small. “It’s good to see you, Azere. Really good.” He flashes his teeth in a grin that makes my heart move in leaps and bounds. “By the way,” he says, gesturing at my face, “you’ve got a little something right there.” “Oh.” I touch the corner of my lips and dust away crumbs. “I had a muffin.” “Oh yeah? What kind of muffin?” “Raspberry chocolate chip,” I say. “It was so freakin’ good. I kinda devoured it. Hence the crumbs.” At the sound of my own laughter, I shake my head and instantly regain my wits. What the hell is wrong with me? I’m supposed to be figuring this situation out and, of course, setting some ground rules that will allow us to coexist on platonic terms. Instead, I’m giggling like an infatuated idiot. Time to get back on track. “So . . . um . . . you work here now.” “I do.” He watches me, stare fixed and consuming, and takes a step forward. The space between us is small—too small for employees who should, for the sake of their careers, appear like they’ve never engaged in a sexual relationship. I should take a step back, but his scent fills the sliver of space between us, and I stand static, close my eyes, and breathe him in. He smells so good—like air. The kind that’s sweet, fresh, untainted. I inhale deeper. Hints of musk and cedarwood accompany the scent of clean air, creating the perfect blend. Days after our hookup, this scent remained on my skin as if my pores had opened and swallowed it, every part of my body desperate to hold on to some piece of him. “Why did you leave without saying goodbye, Azere?” “What?” I look at him. “You left without saying goodbye. I woke up in the morning and you were gone.” A deep frown makes his eyes shrink to thin lines of blues. “Why?” “Umm . . . well.” I tug on a lock of my braid and expel a heavy, shuddery breath. “Look. Rafael, can we just act like that night never happened? We both work here now. I don’t want it to get weird, and I certainly don’t want anyone to know. No one can ever know, Rafael. No one. Please.” “Azere, you don’t even have to ask. I won’t mention it to anyone. You have my word.” With his assurance, I breathe easy. “Thank you.” “I know this situation is completely insane and unexpected. Believe me. I’m just as shocked as you are, but I think we should talk about it. Maybe over lunch or dinner.” “I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think it’s best we just stay away from each other—keep our distance.” He scowls and opens his mouth as if to object, but before he can speak, I escape in a manner more fitting for sneakers than the heels I’m wearing. In the open-concept workspace, prying eyes dart from computer screens to me. As I sprint to the kitchen, the sound of my heels contends with the low murmurs of my colleagues. Today, I’m wearing my jewel-toned satin stilettos, an imitation of the iconic Manolo Blahniks Mr. Big proposed to Carrie with in Sex and the City. They’re stunning but the wrong choice for a day when I want to go unnoticed. Christina, my best friend, is the only person in the kitchen. She’s yawning while stirring a spoonful of honey into a cup. “Chris, where in the world have you been? You missed the staff meeting.” “Yeah. It’s been a crazy morning.” She brings the cup to her pursed lips and takes a sip of what smells like peppermint chai. “Saw you chatting with the new guy. What was that about?” “Nothing. Just answering some of his questions about the office.” I’m proud of the lie. It’s quick, simple, and definitely believable. “Mm-hmm.” She drinks the tea leisurely, her hazel eyes watching me from above the rim of the cup. “He’s hot. Don’t you think?” “No. Not really. I don’t . . . I don’t think he’s hot at all.” Another lie. Though, this one lacks all the elements of believability. “Oh. Okay. Well, rumor has it that the instant he walked into the conference room, you forgot how to chew and choked on a muffin.” She chuckles, and her nose scrunches up, its length shrinking. “Then you proceeded to gawk at him like a damn fool for the rest of the meeting. Did I hear wrong?” She arches a perfectly groomed eyebrow, daring my denial. “Look.” I sigh, and the sharp release of air makes my lips tremble. “I wasn’t staring at him because he’s hot or anything.” Damn the stupid rumors. “Then why were you staring?” She waits for an answer I’m not ready to provide. “Azere, I’m not judging. Hell, I probably would have been staring too. He’s one gorgeous excuse for a man.” Her hand flaps, fanning her flushed face. “Oh, the things I would love to do to him. Whips, handcuffs, and hot wax would definitely be needed.” At her admission, my eyes widen. Hot wax? I have questions but lack the audacity to ask and the resolve to stomach the answers. “Yeah. I gotta get back to work.” “Hold up.” Christina stands in front of me, preventing my exit. “What’s with you?” Tilting her head, she observes me. “I’m getting a vibe.” “A vibe?” I laugh. “Should I credit that to your supposed psychic abilities?” “Or just good ol’ instincts.” She’s still inspecting my face. “Azere, what’s wrong?” There’s so much I could tell her, so many issues currently bothering me. One is sitting a few feet away, confined by glass walls in an office directly across mine. The other issue is a suspicion I’ve had for days, a suspicion I’m not ready to confirm or tell my best friend about. Fortunately, the third issue doesn’t require secrecy because it’s something Christina has heard many times before. “It’s my mom. I’m having dinner with my family tonight, and she’s setting me up. Again.” “Azere, just tell her you don’t want to meet another potential husband. In fact, tell her you don’t need a man.” “That’s definitely not happening.” I glare at my friend. “Immediately when I say that, she’s gonna call the pastor over for a prayer and deliverance session. Her exact words will be”—I clear my throat and conjure a Nigerian accent—“Azere, at your ripe age, if you don’t need a man, a husband, you must be possessed. You must be very possessed, but Jesus will deliver you.” Christina giggles. “Okay. Fine,” she says, settling down. “But, Azere, if you really want a man, you gotta stop letting your mom set you up. She’s a terrible matchmaker. Maybe it’s time you pass the baton to me.” She grins widely, exposing the gap between her two front teeth. “I’ll set you up. With my cousin. Leo.” “Hmm. Leo.” I consider the name. “From your father’s side of the family?” When she nods, I shake my head. “Chris, I only date Nigerians. You know that.” “Yeah. And how’s that been working for you?” I say nothing, and she eyes me. “Mm-hmm. Exactly. Now, let me set you up with Leo. He’s a great guy, and he’s super cute. He looks like a young John Travolta with a hint of an older Robert Downey Jr.” “I’m having a hard time envisioning that combination.” “No need to. You can meet him in person. You two could work out. And if you’re wondering, a Nigerian woman and an Italian man can make a pretty cute kid. Check it out.” She waves her hands over her body like she’s a displayed prize on The Price Is Right. “I’m proof.” I smile and nod in agreement. Christina is a beautiful woman. The mixture of black and white in her DNA adds an undertone of russet to her beige skin and a delicate kink to the brunette locks that puff out and coil past the length of her neck. We interned at Xander together—right out of university. The first time I saw her, attempting to balance a stack of files on her arms, I noticed her eyes. They were wide and frantic, a stunning hazel hue that complemented the ginger-colored freckles on her cheeks. I took half the load off her arms, and the next day, she thanked me with a latte. We became inseparable soon after, having lunch together every day, ranting about our boss, and bonding over our shared Edo heritage. Christina, unlike me, was born in Canada. I became a citizen at twelve, shortly after immigrating. Canadian. It’s a title that is both empowering and demanding as it requires me to give up portions of my Nigerian culture so I can fit into my Western setting. And I’ve been doing that for years—compromising, losing bits and pieces of my original identity in an attempt to reinvent myself. However, the one thing I can’t compromise on is the ethnicity of my future husband. “So,” Christina says, “should I give Leo a call and tell him someone special wants to meet him?” “Absolutely not.” “What?” Her thin lips shrink then turn downward. “Why not?” “Chris, you’ve known me for years. You know what I want.” “Yeah. You want to marry an Edo man and have his babies. Sounds good. But what makes you think life is gonna turn out just as you expect?” She scoffs. “It hardly ever does, Azere. Maybe it’s time you become a little flexible, open up to new possibilities— let go of the life you’ve planned and accept the life that’s waiting for you. I’m just saying.” She shrugs and struts out of the kitchen, her heels clicking and clacking against the ceramic floor. Let go of the life you’ve planned and accept the life that’s waiting for you. For a moment, I wonder what that would be like. If I hypothetically let go of the life I have always envisioned, the life I have meticulously planned, what else would there be? What else would be waiting for me? chapter 3 Rafael Castellano Sweat gathers at the root of my hair and drips down my forehead. According to the watch on my wrist, I ran six miles—six miles that did nothing to relieve the stress of being newly employed at a company where my one-night stand coincidentally works. The shock and disbelief of seeing Azere quickly turned to elation and relief. Though, she didn’t share the sentiments. The private elevator slides open, revealing my spacious, two-story penthouse. I step out, walk to the kitchen, and grab a bottle of water from the refrigerator. I guzzle down the chilled drink, knowing I’ll soon be interrupted by the quick pitter-patter of small feet. Right on cue, the interruption arrives. The toy fox terrier hastens toward me, his tongue hanging out of his open mouth and his tail wagging at an incredible speed. He stops at my feet and barks, demanding my attention. “Hey, Milo,” I say, crouching down to pet him. “Did you miss me?” He licks my hand, his way of answering. “Missed you too, buddy. Did you enjoy your walk with Jenny? Were you a good boy?” He usually is. As I rub a spot under his chin, I recall getting him two years ago. He was exactly what I needed, someone other than myself to take care of. Unfortunately, we haven’t spent much time together lately. I’ve been occupied with moving back to Toronto. Now, with my new role at Xander, I’ll be occupied with trying to prove myself and impress higher-ranking colleagues who already expect so much from me. The pressure to succeed is higher than ever. To make matters worse, I haven’t been able to focus entirely on my new tasks. I’ve been thinking about her a lot. Azere. Today, while sending emails and taking phone calls, I found myself periodically looking straight ahead at where she sat in the office directly across mine, holding her gaze in the brief moments our eyes connected. The image of her in my arms—naked and spent—came to mind throughout the day. It comes to mind now. I still recall the details of that night—not just the pleasure derived from touching her and being touched by her, but the hint of emotion that sprouted out of my guarded heart like a plant through the ground. Being with her—laughing, talking, touching—was the first time in three years I felt something other than utter bleakness. It’s still a mystery how she managed to do that—reacquaint me with my old self, a man who was unburdened and easygoing. Azere did all that in one night, and then she was gone. The only evidence of our encounter was in my mind, and sometimes, I found myself questioning if I had imagined it all. And then today, I saw her—flesh and blood, muffin crumbs dusted on the corner of her lips, and eyes wide with surprise. It was as if our meeting again was the contrivance of some unseen immensity—God, angels, something. Now, she wants me to stay away from her. Fulfilling that request will require mustering a colossal amount of willpower. “Come on, Milo.” I stand and walk through the open-concept space, stopping at a shelf in the living room. “How about some music?” I sort through the collection of records, choose one, and place it on a vintage record player. Seconds after dropping the tonearm, traditional Spanish folk music projects through the copper horn. The music reminds me of the many summers my family spent with my grandmother in Spain. If I listen closely enough—beyond the combination of the guitar, the bandurria, and the castanets—I can hear my feisty grandmother singing along, her voice rising and falling with the same theatrical flair as the singer on the record. I can hear my siblings chuckling as we link hands and attempt to perform the sardana. My parents’ voices are also audible—my father passionately negotiating with business associates and my mother talking and laughing with her sisters. The effervescent music and the familiar chaos fills the empty, quiet spaces in the penthouse; with it, the constant ache of loneliness lessens. On the balcony, I lounge on a chair and Milo hops on my lap. Lake Ontario expands beyond the terrace, city lights and the auburn and indigo hues of dusk reflecting over its swaying, glistening form. The view is serene; it’s the reason I bought the lakefront property. This close to the water, the air is cooler, which I prefer. I enjoy the breeze, the music, and the company of Milo, who is receiving some much-deserved love and attention. When I close my eyes, my mind wanders off to her again. Azere. I think about her—how she walks purposefully, gracefully in stilettos. I think about how her long lashes brush against the thin crease of skin beneath her brown eyes. I think of all her small gestures that seem as seamless and fluid as a dance. Like the way her fingers twirl a lock of her patterned hair—around and around, pulling and smoothening. Each memory makes my heart race. My eyes flash open, and as I look over the vast, tranquil lake, I can’t help but wonder if the memory of our night together is etched in her mind as it is in mine. chapter 4 My suspicion has been confirmed. Denial is pointless now, and yet, it’s the one thing capable of getting me through this night. I pull into my mom’s driveway and park the black Toyota. Tears burn my eyes, and I fan them away. I cried in my apartment immediately after learning the truth, a truth that will surely upend my world. It’s best I keep this information to myself. My family can’t know—no one can. Just pretend like everything is okay. You can do this, Azere. I twist a lock of braid between two fingers. Feeling the intertwining pattern of the neat plait relaxes me. I continue the motion for seconds before stepping out of the car. I’ve got this. The pavement is wet from rain that only just stopped. Along with the petrichor drifting in the warm May air, there is a trace of my mother’s cooking. The aroma of the signature ingredients— ground crayfish and red palm oil—reminds me of life in the Nigerian village I was born and grew up in. It was nothing like this charming suburban neighborhood. As I admire the trimmed lawns, some with For Sale signs wedged in them, I remember that houses in my village weren’t sold and bought. Generations of my family lived, thrived, multiplied, and died in one house, our single history just as important as every building block keeping the structure standing year after year. I remember how we all shared a lifestyle and an identity that was crafted by those who came before us. My father, like his father, was a farmer. My mother sold foodstuff in the market. When she was young, she would balance a tray of smoked fish on her head and hawk on the streets. At nine, I did the same. With one hand supporting the tray on my head and the other braced on my hip, I strolled down the streets laden with red sand and dust, the same streets my mother had walked and her mother before her. I remember at home, in our immense compound, I plucked guavas and cashews from the trees my grandfather had planted as a child. In the mornings, I walked two miles through narrow, crooked roads to attend the school my great-grandfather had helped construct. In the evenings, as the scorching heat of day waned and termites fluttered toward lit kerosene lanterns, my father told my sister and me greatly exaggerated tales of our ancestors—the fighters and the cowards, the dreamers and the unbelievers, the vengeful and the justified. In Nigeria, my entire life was an extension of my lineage. There—in a close-knit community, tucked away from the rest of the world—nothing existed but the paths my ancestors had paved, the buildings they had molded with sand and concrete and sweat, the lands they had cultivated and bled to defend, the traditions they had created and nurtured, the myths they had fabricated and adopted as truths. In that village, life was simpler, more familiar. I miss it. The faint sound of a dribbling ball redirects my attention to the suburban neighborhood, to Jason Carter who is approaching me and bouncing a basketball against the pavement with weary disinterest. “Hey, Azere.” He tucks the ball in his armpit, and an impish grin appears on his boyish face. “What’s up, babe?” “Babe?” I frown and cock my head. “Seriously?” I babysat Jason when he was a kid. When he was a sweet kid. Now, he’s eighteen. He has a rugged beard patched along his weak jawline, an ego with its own zip code, and an agenda to add my name to his developing little black book. “Or do you prefer sweetheart?” “Funny,” I say. “That’s what I used to call you right after tucking you in bed.” “Well, if you wanna relive the past, I’m up for it. But just so you know, I sleep naked now.” “Yeah.” I give him a once-over, shifting my eyes from his head to his feet. “I’m sure there’s been no progress.” “Seeing is believing, babe. Once I get you alone, I’m sure I can make you a believer. But you gotta promise. If I show you mine, you gotta show me yours.” “Gosh.” I cringe. “When did you become such a perv?” “I’m just a man who knows what he wants.” His fingers move through his hair, tousling the confusion of thick brown curls and blond tangled frizz. “Well, man.” I lick my thumb and bring it to his face. “Looks like you’ve been playing in the sandbox.” My wet thumb smears a patch of dirt on his cheek. When I pull back, he gawks at me—his skin flushed and his mouth wide open. Above our heads, moths flutter around the glow of the streetlight. “You might want to close that big mouth of yours.” I pat his cheek and turn away. The stone walkway leads me to the front door of the quaint bungalow. “Well, look who it is,” my sister, Efe, says when I step into the air-conditioned house. She’s standing by the entry table, sipping red wine with perfect ease. “Mom has a surprise for you, and it’s in the living room.” She struts toward me, her yellow sundress flapping against her knees. She looks like me, with the same glistening chestnut skin and full lips. Our slight differences are aspects that make her prettier. Like the slanted cheekbones that shape her oval face and her honey-brown eyes that have a sharp lift at their corners, creating a cat eye. “So,” I say. “What does this one look like?” “Rich. He looks rich.” She strokes a lock of her chemically straightened hair behind her multi-pierced ear. “He smells rich too.” “Rich has a smell?” “If you have the nose for it. He kinda looks familiar too, but . . .” She squints and taps her pursed lips, thinking. “Yeah? But what?” I urge. “I don’t know. Can’t make the connection. But maybe you know him.” “Right.” Groaning, I kick off my shoes. “Oya, let’s get this over with. Where’s everyone?” “Uncle is entertaining your guest. Mom’s getting dinner ready. We’ve all been stalling, anticipating your arrival.” She tilts her head and observes me from an angle. “Azere, you don’t look so good. You look . . . terrified. What’s wrong?” “It’s nothing. I’m fine. Mom’s waiting.” I rush down the corridor, and pictures of my family, framed on the beige wall, blur at the corner of my eye. Nerves and dread rattle in the pit of my stomach. I inhale and exhale at a steady, controlled pace. “Mom?” I say, entering the kitchen. My voice is a whisper muffled by the swishing of the kitchen ventilation. “Mommy,” I speak louder this time, “good evening.” She focuses on her task, separating browned plantains from sizzling oil and tossing them into a bowl lined with paper towels. “Sorry I’m late.” Seconds after my apology, she spins around, and her floor-length lilac dress sways against her petite physique. “A-ze-re.” When the syllables in my name are emphasized, it means I’m in trouble. “I expected you an hour ago.” She scowls and pins her dark lips in a rigid line. “Ah-ahn! What took you so long?” Despite thirteen years in Canada, her Nigerian accent is still thick. Sometimes, it’s like her accent is calling out to mine, saying: “Hey, authentic Nigerian Azere, come out and play.” And that’s when the accent, the one I tried hard to hide after my move to Canada, forces its way out. This happens whenever I’m at home with my family, when I don’t feel the complete pressure of being wedged between two worlds, when I’m not a Nigerian Canadian. When I’m just Nigerian. Then I speak freely, mixing pidgin English with Edo or simply speaking fluent English but with a Nigerian intonation, altering the rhythm of each word. “Mommy,” I say, “lahọ. Don’t be angry. I’m here now. Sorry for being late.” “Don’t tell me sorry o. Sorry for yourself.” I hate it when she does that, when she turns my apology into an insult. Sorry for yourself. Try to apologize to a Nigerian mother and that’s usually the phrase you get in return. “Anyway.” She leaves her position by the stove and circles me. She’s inspecting my outfit, ensuring I appear appealing to my latest suitor. As she moves, the fluorescent light gleams on her smooth, dark skin that’s oiled with shea butter. “Azere, why are you dressed like this? Eh?” She yanks on the loose-fitting blouse I’m wearing. “What is the meaning of this nonsense? Your figure is not even showing at all. What kind of wahala is this? It looks like your breasts are playing hide and seek.” “Mostly hide,” my sister chimes in. “Lord, have mercy.” My mother rubs the creases that line her tense forehead. “In fact, why aren’t you wearing Nigerian clothes? Eh? I know you have many. Or did you throw them away to make room in your closet for jeans and T-shirts?” “No, Mommy. I still have them.” “Then why aren’t you wearing one? You’re meeting your future husband for the first time. And let me also add that this boy is a doctor. A medical doctor. You should have dressed like a bride. Instead, you look like a farmer going to harvest cassava. To make matters worse, you are too thin. Look.” She pokes my collarbone. “They’re all sticking out.” “Osanobua,” I say, grumbling. “Mommy, they’ve always been like that.” “No. Not when you were living in this house, eating Nigerian food on a regular basis. Now you are on your own, eating those yeye Canadian food every single day. Quinoa salad, avocado toast, smoothie bowl.” She rolls her eyes. “If you were eating Nigerian food, you would be more robust and have enough flesh to cover your bones.” “Right.” I have no words. None. “Anyway, what can we do now? You are here, he is here. Let us go.” “Okay,” I say. “Sure. But I just need a minute.” “A minute to do what? To do what, Azere?” To mentally prepare myself for another tragic setup. “You have kept that man waiting long enough.” My mother grimaces, and her round face distorts awkwardly. “He did not come here to gist with your uncle.” Because she’s irritated, her Nigerian accent deepens. She speaks slowly, stressing the syllables in each word. “You are not wast-ing an-oth-er min-ute—not ev-en a sec-ond.” She grips my arm and hauls me toward the living room. “Oya. Let us go. And don’t forget to smile and flirt with your eyes.” Flirt with my eyes. How the hell does that work? To my right, Efe shuffles beside me. She gives me two thumbs up, and I stick out my tongue at her. “Look who has finally arrived,” my mom announces when we enter the living room. “Ah-ahn.” She scans the space, then turns to my uncle, who is sitting in a brown armchair, effortlessly projecting confidence and authority as patriarch of the family. “Where is Azere’s future husband? Where did he go?” “He stepped out to take a work call,” my uncle answers. “He should be back shortly.” “Thank God.” My mother exhales. “I thought Azere found a way to chase this one off without even meeting him.” I roll my eyes and turn my attention elsewhere. “Good evening, Uncle,” I say. “Omwinwen.” He calls me his child in Edo, our language. He’s been calling me that since I was twelve—since my father, his younger brother, died. After the funeral, my uncle—who immigrated to Canada in his early twenties and had a successful career as an engineer—brought my family over to live with him. He shouldered the responsibilities his brother left behind. Omwinwen. At first, it was strange to hear him call me that. I wasn’t his child. I had never even met the man until my father’s death. And though he had my father’s full face, deep-set eyes, sienna pigment, and dimpled smile, the distinction was clear. He was not my father. He was a widower. He lost his wife to cancer and was the father of a boy, Jacob. My uncle understood loss and honored the ties of family. My mother, my sister, and I lived with him for four years after coming to Canada. Selflessly, he took care of us. He provided necessities and more and even financed my mother’s nursing school education. He never resented our presence, nor did he deviate from his unassigned duty. In time, reservations and technicalities were put aside. I loved and respected him. He became my father, and his son, my brother. “Azere,” my uncle says, looking over my shoulder. “Your visitor is here. Turn around. Greet him.” Reluctantly—because I must, because defying elders in my culture is highly frowned upon and basically a one-way ticket to hell—I obey. And when I see the man my uncle has dubbed my visitor and my mother has dubbed my future husband, I gasp. Shit. He walks forward and extends a hand to me. I look at that hand and then at him, clenching my jaw and fisting my hands, restraining myself from reacting. He has a lot of nerve, showing up here. The last time I saw him was the night he took my virginity. It was the last night of church camp. We were counselors, and after everyone had fallen asleep, we snuck out of our cabins. He was waiting for me at the rim of the woods, hiding behind a hefty tree. When he revealed himself, I jolted, and his lips came over mine before I could yelp. “Shh,” he spoke into my mouth as he kissed me. With a flashlight guiding our way, he led us farther into the woods. We stopped at a dome tent he had set up. Inside, he peeled off my clothes. His hands and lips touched every inch of my body. “You okay?” he asked as he eased into me. When I nodded, we made love. He walked me back to my cabin after, and that was the last time I saw him. I was nineteen at the time—naive, overly optimistic, and foolishly in love—and he broke my heart in the worst possible way. Because of him, I acquired insecurities I never had, and my memories of my first love, my first sexual encounter, were tainted. Elijah Osunde did all that. Now, six years later, he’s standing in front of me, holding out his hand for a handshake. A handshake. “Azere,” he says. “How are you?” “To be honest, I’ve had a pretty horrible day, and seeing you here confirms that there is a force in the universe who has dedicated this day to my personal torment.” Efe releases a loud snort but settles when our mother fixates on her. “Azere.” With just my name, my uncle discreetly warns me to behave. “Why don’t we give them a moment to get better acquainted?” He stands and makes an exit. Once in the dining room, he calls for my mother. “Zere, you better behave.” Her warning is indiscreet. She hisses, grabs Efe’s arm, and marches off. After my family leaves, I focus on the man in front of me. “What the hell are you doing here?” My voice is hushed, but the anger in it is knife-sharp. “Azere. You look”—keen eyes move over my body—“amazing.” “Answer the question, Elijah.” “Your mom invited me. Our mothers are apparently friends. They thought we could—” “They thought wrong.” They thought so wrong. “You need to leave, Elijah.” “Your mom invited me to dinner,” he says. “Leaving is rude.” “No, rude is taking my virginity and then going MIA. Remember that, Romeo?” “But, Azere, I thought you understood why I had to leave.” “The fact that you left isn’t the problem. The problem is how you left. How you left me.” “Azere, I was twenty-three and very stupid.” “And I was nineteen and very intolerant of stupidity. Six years later, nothing has changed. So please.” I press my eyes closed, forcing back tears on the verge of falling. “Leave, Elijah.” I look at him. “Just go.” “Zere, I made a huge mistake. Okay? I didn’t handle the situation well. I wish I had.” I wish he had too because up until that point, when he left and broke my heart, I envisioned a future with him. I envisioned eventually becoming his wife and the mother of his children, and he told me, on so many occasions, he envisioned the same. We were in love—a love that, in our youth, was consuming, obsessive, invigorating, ardent. And then he was gone along with the promise of our future. “Azere, I want another chance.” “Another chance?” I’m stunned. A mixture of chuckles and puffs surges from my mouth. “Another chance to do what?” “To be us again—to be everything we were supposed to be.” He takes my hand in his, and I flinch before settling into the sweet familiar. “Zere, after all these years, there hasn’t been another girl who has come close to being everything you were to me. Everything you still are to me.” It’s unfortunate that I can say the same. It’s unfortunate that I haven’t loved another man as fiercely as I loved him or met one worthy of envisioning a shared future with. It’s so very, very unfortunate. “Azere, give me another chance. Please.” “Elijah.” I pull my hand from his grip. “I can’t.” “Just let me prove myself to you. I’m not the same person. I swear. Just look at me.” Yeah, I’m looking and admiring just a little. With his swarthy complexion, he looks like a young Morris Chestnut. His shaved head is lined neat and sharp like the goatee framing his lips. He’s wearing a black suit with no tie. The first two buttons on the white oxford shirt are undone, revealing a hint of his firm chest. He’s more handsome than he was six years ago. If I didn’t have such a strong grip on my resentment, I would be tempted to accept his apology. “Elijah.” I shake my head, rejecting any lustful thoughts that might compromise my good sense. “I need you to leave. Right now.” “Come on, Azere.” “Right now, Elijah. If you don’t, I’ll . . . I’ll . . . tell my mom.” “Tell her what exactly?” He laughs, mocking my juvenile statement. “Your mom loves me. She already calls me her in-law.” “Well, once she finds out you took my virginity at church camp, I’m sure her opinion of you will change. She’ll probably chase you out with a broom, or maybe she’ll grab the hot oil off the stove and aim for your head. And so you know, my mom’s aim is on point.” “Zere, are you serious?” I cross my arms over my chest, indicating I am indeed very freakin’ serious. “Okay. Fine. You win.” He throws his hands up in surrender. “I’ll go. Just let me say goodbye.” “There’s no need for that.” I usher him to the front door and anticipate his exit. “What are you waiting for?” He holds the knob as if he doesn’t know how to work the damn thing. “Azere, I’m sorry. Really. I am.” There’s a hint of remorse in his eyes. “I hope one day you’ll forgive me. Good night.” Finally, he leaves. When I slam the door, my mother steps out of the dining room. Efe follows her like a loyal dog. “Where is Elijah? Did he just leave?” She frowns. “A-ze-re, what did you say to that boy?” “Nothing. She said nothing.” Efe, sweet Efe, comes to my defense. “He’s a doctor. He probably had a work emergency—had to deal with a patient or something. Right, Azere?” “Yeah. Exactly. Efe’s right. He’s off saving lives. Being a hero. Doing his thing.” My mother, who can sniff out my bullshit like a shark can sniff out blood, is glowering at me suspiciously. She knows I chased Elijah off. Soon, a lecture—long and dreary—will commence. I refuse to be present for it. “Efe.” I grab my sister’s hand and drag her down the corridor. “Let’s catch up.” We leave our mother alone, muttering and brooding. chapter 5 The first non-Nigerian man I ever lusted after was Antonio Banderas. At sixteen, I saw The Mask of Zorro—a story of action, romance, and a fearless outlaw with a sultry accent. Over the span of a month, I watched the movie repeatedly. I focused on the way Antonio’s hair swayed in accordance to his movements and the way his lips moved while kissing the woman he loved. My mother, determined to keep my sister and me rooted in our culture, didn’t appreciate my Latin obsession. She tore down the poster of Antonio in my room and replaced it with a poster of Jim Iyke, a Nigerian actor. That’s what my mother has been doing since we moved to Canada—shoving my culture down my throat, so I don’t forget where I come from. In my old bedroom, I flop on the queen-size mattress. The poster of Jim Iyke is still on the lavender-colored wall, right above the bedframe. “Didn’t go well with your potential lover boy?” Efe says. “Nope.” “Wanna elaborate?” “Nope.” I look at her. “How come Jacob’s not here?” “The detective is working late tonight,” Efe says, lying beside me. “He’s obsessing over some murder case. Anyway, you probably want this back.” She shoves a credit card in my face. “Thanks again for paying.” “Sure.” I take the card and slip it into my pocket. “Did you get all your textbooks?” “Yep. Officially ready for law school in the fall. Now, I can spend the rest of the summer being reckless.” “How about you spend your summer in the library instead, prepping for classes?” “Nah,” she says. “I’m twenty-three, and I plan to milk this young-and-free thing until Mom starts nagging me about getting hitched.” “You know that’s coming at some point, right?” “Not anytime soon. Not when I have Mike, a best friend who also doubles as a mock boyfriend. The fact that he’s Edo and Mom loves him is the cherry on top.” A satisfied grin extends across her face. I can’t help but be jealous for not having the same option. If only Christina were a Christopher. “Anyway.” Efe lets out a sharp breath and turns to me. “You know Mom’s gonna come in here at any moment. And you know what she’s gonna do, right?” Lecture me, criticize me, and bring up the promise. “We should get outta here, get some ice cream, catch a late movie, and most important, avoid Mom. There’s a new romance movie out.” “Efe, you’re feeding my obsession.” “Puh-lease.” She scoffs and rolls her eyes. “Your unhealthy obsession with romantic movies has nothing to do with me.” This is true. “Fine. Let’s go watch two lovestruck fools jump over hurdles in pursuit of their ever after.” In my opinion, these are the only stories worth knowing. In sync, Efe and I spring to a sitting position, and just as we’re about to stand, our mother appears in the doorway. “I need to talk to Azere,” she says, her tone stern. “Alone.” “Yeah. Of course you do.” Efe squeezes my shoulder, offering encouragement before leaving the room. “Azere.” My mother sits beside me and releases a lengthy sigh. “So . . . um . . . How’s work, Mom?” I ask, hoping to divert her from the conversation she’s aiming to have. “Anything interesting happening at the hospital—any Grey’s Anatomy–type drama?” She watches me blankly, not a glint in her unblinking eyes nor a hint of humor on her straight lips. “Azere, I am not here to gist about work.” Well, of course she isn’t. “Azere, I am here to talk about the path you are currently on.” “Path? What path?” “You are single.” She says it like it’s a terminal disease. “I don’t know what is wrong with you. I have introduced you to several eligible men, and yet, here you are. Maybe you are being influenced by these modern women—no husband, no children. All they want is their career. You want to be a feminist.” She has obviously been misinformed. I should enlighten her on what the term means, but I don’t have the energy to debate with a woman who doesn’t like being corrected. “Azere, listen. If you want to be a feminist, fine. But please be a married feminist with at least three children. In our country, a woman’s honor is her husband and her children. A career means nothing. I married your father when I was twenty. You are twenty-five now.” She touches my cheek and looks at me dolefully as if I’m truly being afflicted by the deadly disease: singleness. “Enough time has passed. I have allowed you and your sister to reap all the benefits of this country. It’s time to honor your own country. Zere, it’s time to honor your culture. Or have you forgotten the promise you made to your father?” And here we go. “No, Mommy. I haven’t forgotten.” And even if I did, she would refresh my memory. She was present when I made the promise. We were both sitting on the edge of the bed, watching my father take his last breaths. He’d lost a lot of weight at that point. He was so feeble, he could barely lift a finger. We were at a hospital in Benin City. We had been there for weeks, watching my father undergo several treatments. In truth, there was no cure. The cancer had spread too quickly. One day, the doctor told us my father most likely wouldn’t make it through the night. Even then, I was determined to prolong his life. I spoke to him, reciting the stories he once told my sister and me. I even narrated a future where he was alive and well. Hours passed, and he remained inert. When my mouth started to dry and my eyes began to droop, he stirred. “Your uncle is taking you to Canada,” he said, his voice a faint quiver. “Do you know where that is?” I shook my head. “It’s right beside America.” I knew about America, so I nodded. “Everything is different there. It is nothing like Nigeria, like our village. Some people travel abroad and get carried away. They forget where they come from. They forget about their culture. They forget who they are. Omwinwen, don’t be one of those people. No matter where you go, honor your culture.” “Baba, I will.” “Do you remember what happened to Mama Efosa?” He was referring to a woman in our village who had complained her daughter, in America, had forgotten her culture after marrying a white man. “Do you remember what she said about her daughter?” I nodded. “Azere, promise me you won’t do that. Promise me you will never get involved with a white man or any man who is not Edo. Azere, when you are of age, marry a good Edo man and give him children. Just like your mother did and your grandmother and so many others before them. Promise me.” “Baba. I promise.” It was an agreement made with sincerity, an agreement that gave my father peace as he died, an agreement I reflect on every day of my life, an agreement that haunts me and demands so much from me. Efe was asleep when I made the promise. I am so grateful she didn’t have to do the same. She’s twenty-three and free in every sense—detached from the promise my mother considers sacred. I, however, am bound to that promise—sentenced to live cautiously and love selectively. “Azere, Elijah is a good boy,” my mother says. “He is Edo and a medical doctor. Your father would have loved him. He would have been proud.” “Mom, I—” “I don’t know if you remember too well, but Elijah used to go to our church when he was younger. In fact, he was even a youth leader.” She smiles, proud. “He is a very good Christian boy. I even suspect he’s a virgin like you, saving himself for marriage.” Oh, Lord. If only she knew. “Azere, believe me. Elijah will make a good husband.” “Mommy, I can’t be with him. Or anyone else. Not right now.” “And why is that?” Her face hardens with irritation. “Because I . . . well . . .” I’m losing a grip on the denial I’ve been holding on to all night. I can’t pretend anymore. Everything is not okay. “Mommy, I have to tell you something. I’m . . . um . . .” “You’re what, Azere? Speak!” I can’t. The words are stuck. They clog my throat, and I can’t breathe. I stand and sprint out of the room. Outside the house, I clench my chest and gasp frantically for air. During my intense struggle to breathe, a brisk breeze dashes over my face. It has the effect of a firm slap, snapping me back to my senses. Instantly, my erratic heartbeat slows and air passes through my throat. The panic attack is over. Now, as I breathe with ease, the truth becomes a force impossible to contain, and I confess what I couldn’t to my mother. “I’m pregnant.” chapter 6 In most romantic comedies, the lead character usually has a sidekick—someone bold, witty, and capable of providing comedic relief and harsh truths the lead isn’t willing to face. In the movie 27 Dresses, Casey is Jane’s best friend and the blunt voice of reason who goes as far as slapping Jane for pining over a man who only sees her as his errand girl. If I were the lead in a romantic comedy, my sidekick would be Christina. Though, at the moment, I’m not confident about the status of our friendship. Last night, after returning from my mom’s, Christina called me. The conversation didn’t go so well. “Girl, are you caught up on Insecure?” she said when I answered the phone. “No, I just—” “Spoiler alert, Issa got a new man. And he is gorgeous.” She proceeded to rave about the latest episode, detailing each scene and even reenacting a three-person dialogue. And that was when I lost it. My whole world was falling apart, and she was babbling about a show that surely couldn’t be more dramatic than the crap I was going through. “Shut up, Christina!” I snapped. “For once, I wish you would get your dumb head out of your dumb ass.” The insult was juvenile, but I knew the impact it would have on her. She hated when people called her dumb, when they insulted her intelligence. It was the one thing capable of eating at her self-esteem. Yet, I spat out the slur because I wanted to take my frustration out on someone. “Azere.” She spoke after a few seconds of silence. “I don’t know what your problem is. Maybe you had a bad day. Hell, maybe you had a bad week. Whatever it is, you didn’t have to come at me like that.” She sniffed. “You just didn’t.” And hung up. I was wrong, and now, the day after our little quarrel, I’m hoping the cheeseburger in my hand will make my apology more acceptable. “Wanna share a burger?” I say, hovering over Christina. She’s sitting at an empty table in the office lunchroom, picking at a kale salad. “Well?” I shake the brown bag, and she rolls her eyes. “Did I mention it’s a double bacon cheeseburger on a pretzel bun?” “Sit.” I do as she’s instructed and try to contain my relief. “About last night.” I dig into the paper bag, pull out the box of fries, and place it in front of her. “I’m so sorry, Chris.” “I might be willing to forgive and forget, but what was with the bitch attack? You said some mean shit.” “I’m sorry, Chris. Really. It wasn’t about you. The thing is . . .” Before offering an explanation, I survey the lunchroom, searching for prying ears. My colleagues are either engaged with conversation or technology. “Okay.” I take in a deep breath. “A little over a month ago—say about five or six weeks—I went on a date my mom set up. It was at the St. Regis with some guy called Richard. The date didn’t go so well. After it ended, I went to Astor, the lounge in the hotel.” “Oh, I love that place,” Christina says, grinning. “Super swanky. Remind me to write a Yelp review.” When she notes my straight face, she shakes her head, coming to her senses. “Sorry. So not the point.” “The point is, I was drinking and sulking, and there was this guy . . . this white guy. He was from out of town. And we hung out a little. And one thing led to another. And . . . well, I . . .” “You what, Azere?” She shuffles to the edge of her seat. “Go on. Spit it out.” “I had sex with him. In his hotel room.” “What?” Christina’s expression bounces between confusion, curiosity, and utter disbelief. “What the hell, Zere? Why are you just telling me this now, and what happened to only dating Nigerian guys?” “It wasn’t a date, Christina. We just hooked up. I wanted to have some fun and then put it behind me but . . .” “But what?” “But I can’t exactly do that because my one-night stand . . . um . . . well, he works here. He recently started working here. Recent as in yesterday.” Those are the only clues I give, and instantly, her eyes still on me and fill with understanding. “You slept with Rafael?” she whispers. “I had no idea he was gonna start working at Xander. Then yesterday, he just showed up.” “Azere, are you messing with me?” I shake my head. “Well, damn. Talk about an insane twist of fate.” She puffs and ruffles her springy curls. “Your one-night stand turns out to be your new coworker. If this shit ain’t serendipitous, I don’t know what is.” Serendipitous. The word reminds me of the movie Serendipity. After a spontaneous and somewhat magical encounter, Jonathan and Sara part ways without exchanging contact information, leaving it to fate to reunite them. Despite the years that pass and the miles between them, Jonathan and Sara—through a series of hilarious and heartwarming coincidences—meet again. In the movie, destiny has a sweet sense of humor. In my case, destiny has a wicked sense of humor. “Christina, there’s more.” More complications throwing my life out of balance. “Well, tell me.” She abandons her salad and tosses fries into her mouth like they’re popcorn and my story is an Oscar-nominated drama. “Just spit it out.” “I’m pregnant.” “I’m sorry.” Her eyebrows shoot up, almost touching the sleek baby hairs that line her forehead. “You’re what?” “Pregnant. I’m pregnant, Christina.” “Seriously?” “Yeah.” I nod. “Seriously.” “Shit. I did not see that coming.” For a few seconds, she says nothing. She gawks at me, her wide eyes unblinking. “What the hell, Azere?” she finally says. “What were you thinking? Didn’t you use a condom?” “Of course I did. We were safe, but I guess it wasn’t foolproof.” I groan and push my fingers through my braids. “This is bad. This is so bad.” “Zere, honey, you don’t look so good. You’re sweating.” She doesn’t have to make the announcement. Moisture seeps through my pores, drenching my face and my neck and my armpits, making my skin icky. “I’m pregnant, Chris.” That word, pregnant, bears a distinct hint of bitterness that tickles my gag reflex. “And trust me. When my mom finds out, she’s gonna kill me. And I know people say that all the time, but this is no joke.” I tap my chest, trying to calm my rapidly beating heart. “Getting pregnant out of wedlock is one thing. Getting pregnant by a one-night stand is another. Getting pregnant by a man who isn’t even Nigerian, is taking things to a whole other level. My mom won’t forgive that.” I can’t contain my emotions any longer. Tears finally fall, and I feel like throwing caution to the wind and jumping off a cliff. I search the room for an open window. “Azere, look at me.” Christina snaps her fingers and promptly gains my attention. “Listen to me. We’ll figure this out. Do you understand?” I hesitate, and she squeezes my hand. “Azere, you’re gonna be fine. Do you understand me?” “Yeah.” “Good. Now, what did your gynecologist say about—” “Um . . . I never met with my gynecologist. I just took a home pregnancy test. I picked one up at Dollarama yesterday and took the test before going to my mom’s.” “Wait. I’m sorry. I’m confused,” Christina says, shaking her head. “You said Dollarama. Did you buy a home pregnancy test at the dollar store?” “Mm-hmm.” With the back of my hand, I rub tears and sweat from my cheeks. “Yeah.” “Honey, does that sound rational to you?” “It was cheap,” I say, sniffing. “My point exactly. You’re betting your life on a test you bought for a dollar?” “Plus tax.” “Azere, you need to get a real test from a doctor.” “I already made an appointment with my gyno. It’s this afternoon.” “Good. When we get a real confirmation, we’ll take it from there. Now, what about Rafael? I’m guessing you haven’t filled him in.” I shake my head. “Good. Don’t tell him anything—not yet. Wait until you’re totally sure. Got it?” “Yeah.” I nod. “Got it.” “Good. Now, eat your lunch.” Just as I unwrap the silver coating on the burger, Arianna, the office receptionist, comes prancing toward me. I’m sure an invisible fan follows the girl wherever she goes. Long, blond hair flutters in the air, moving to the beat of her steps. A short, beige skirt clings to her toned thighs like skin. The cleavage exposed by her red blouse is small but eye-catching. She’s one tall, hot blonde, and she knows it. “Hey, pretties.” She glances from Christina to me. “Dev wants to see you.” “Me?” I ask. “Why me?” “I’m not sure, but it sounds important. He’s waiting in his office with Rafael.” “Wait. What? Rafael?” “Yeah. The new guy.” She smiles, a small gesture that proves her interest in Rafael exceeds professional boundaries. “Anyway, bye.” She waves and struts away with all the flair of a runway model. “Oh my gosh.” My heart jerks, a new frenetic beat derived from the utter shock of the news. “Christina, do you think he told Dev? I mean, why else would he want to see us both?” My fingernails dig into my sweaty palm. “He must have told him. Shit. The whole HR crew is probably in there too. I’m so screwed.” “Azere, relax.” She draws circles along my spine. “It’s probably nothing.” “You think?” “Mm-hmm. Yeah. Totally.” She isn’t the best liar, but she’s trying, trying hard to convince me my world isn’t imploding. I love her for the attempt. At Dev’s door, I dally while contemplating whether to enter or take off. It’s just him and Rafael, seated across each other, exchanging words that aren’t audible. There are no HR reps present, but maybe they’ll make an appearance at any moment. Any moment. Suddenly, taking off seems like the most rational action. “Azere,” Dev calls out. “Come in. Sit.” I obey. What choice do I have? “Hi, Dev.” I acknowledge Rafael only by glaring at him from the corner of my eye. What the hell has he done? And how do I fix it? I’m on the edge of my seat, too anxious to relax into the cushioned chair. “Azere, Dev called us in for a work-related matter,” Rafael says to me, straight-faced. “A new campaign.” He must sense my discomfort. “Yes.” Dev folds his arms and reclines into the leather chair, giving us his undivided attention. “FeverRun energy drink. The product is on the verge of launching in North America and will require a huge campaign. I’m assembling a very small team to put together a pitch. In case it isn’t obvious, the very small team is you and Rafael.” “I’m sorry, what? Just the two of us? Working? Together?” I clench my teeth, maintaining the stoic expression that’s concealing the rampage in my head—the crying, shouting, sulking. No, no, no. Why am I working with him? Why is this happening? “Check your emails. I sent you both the product profile. Look through it, do your research, and get to work. You’ll be pitching tomorrow.” “What? Tomorrow?” My mind is reeling. Everything is happening so fast. “You expect us to put together a presentation in less than a day. Why the rush?” “The company was with another agency but experienced some issues.” He pauses and touches the thin strands of hair strategically arranged over his bald spot. “Anyway, they’re considering us as well as two other agencies, and I want to give them a solid pitch—an overview of our campaign to assure them we’re the right choice. I’m sure you and Rafael can handle that.” “Dev, correct me if I’m wrong, but FeverRun is a Nigerian brand. Right?” “It is. And?” “Well, I’m Nigerian, so I can probably add a favorable perspective to the campaign. You know who else is Nigerian? Christina. She’s also a very talented copywriter. So maybe we should work together on this instead. I mean, that makes more sense to me.” “Azere, I’m not assigning Christina to this campaign because of her ethnicity. It’s certainly not why I assigned you to it.” He puffs and rubs his temples. “Your work on the Fruit Infusion campaign was impressive. Frankly, it was brilliant, and I thought you and Rafael would make a great team. He’s only just started working here, but make no mistake, he’s got years of experience in the industry. We’re very lucky to have him.” “Thanks, Dev,” Rafael says, standing. “We’ll get started and have everything ready for tomorrow.” He leaves the room, and I’m forced to follow even though I’m not satisfied with the conversation. “Hey. Rafael.” I stride after him and almost trip over my rushing feet. “Wait up.” He keeps moving and doesn’t stop until he’s in his office. “Thanks for finally stopping, Road Runner.” “You tried to get me off the campaign.” Anger makes his tone brisk and rough. “Seriously, Azere? This is my career.” “Rafael.” I close the door, giving us as much privacy as we can get with transparent walls. “We’re supposed to be staying away from each other, not working together. That’s what we agreed to.” “No, that’s what you decided. What you selfishly decided.” “Excuse me?” I’m taken aback. “Selfishly? How am I being selfish? I’m just trying to make the best of this situation.” “You’ve been acting like this situation only affects you. Maybe if you stopped avoiding me and stopped trying to kick me off campaigns, you would see that I’m in this with you, Azere.” He says nothing else, and neither do I. Looking at the digital clock on his desk, I calculate a minute of silence between us. A full minute spent not looking at him. A full minute spent observing the view through the window and the office’s minimalist decor. A full minute realizing the truth in his words and the fault in my actions. “You’re right,” I say. “We’re in this together.” It was easier to keep him at a distance. It helped me ignore the memory of us—our naked bodies sprawled over wrinkled sheets, our lips pursed and locked, and our hands keenly exploring. That memory, as sweet and forbidden as our first kiss, is so hard to dismiss, especially when I’m looking at him and fighting the urge to touch him. But that’s my fault, not his. He shouldn’t be punished for my inability to disregard a one-night stand. “I’m sorry, Rafael.” This time, when we fall silent, my eyes don’t wander. I focus on him. The view through the window is a blur. The decor in the room dissolves to white space. Everything is suddenly void of shape and color, except for him. I become acutely aware of only him, of only us. He breathes and I breathe and that’s all there is, the gentle rhythm of our inhales and exhales creating a harmony of their own. “You thought I told Dev about us. Didn’t you?” he asks, his voice low and mild. “Yeah.” I drop my head, ashamed of the truth. “I gave you my word, Azere.” “No offense, Rafael, but I don’t know you well enough to hold you to your word.” “Okay.” He frowns but nods. “Fair enough.” “But maybe it’s time we start to coexist.” It’s the only reasonable approach. “Maybe it’s time we get to know each other. As coworkers, of course.” “As coworkers.” He hesitates but nods again. “Okay. Yeah. I would like that.” He smiles, and in an instant, the atmosphere becomes lighter. “So, about the campaign. How about we do our individual research and meet in an hour or two to go over ideas.” “I’m actually leaving in two hours. I have an appointment today—a very, very important appointment.” That will confirm if I’m indeed carrying your child. “So, how about I meet you in your office when I get back around five?” “Sure.” He clears his throat and looks me over. “So . . . can I get your number?” “Um . . . why?” “In case I need to reach you while you’re at your appointment.” “Oh. Okay. Sure.” I extend my hand, and he places his cell in my palm. “Use this responsibly,” I say, inserting my number. “No prank calls.” “I’ll make sure my thirteen-year-old self gets the memo.” “You do that.” I hand him the phone, make a move to leave, and then halt when he calls me. “Dev had a lot of wonderful things to say about your work.” He watches me intently, a glint in his blue eyes. “I really look forward to working with you, Azere.” “Thank you, Rafael. I look forward to working with you too.” As I walk out of his office and maneuver between the rows of desks in the open-plan workspace, I turn around. Through the glass walls, our eyes connect, and he smiles. I hate myself when my heart skips, when my skin turns hot, when I smile back at him. chapter 7 I’m sitting in my gynecologist’s office, praying for a miracle— confirmation the dollar-store pregnancy test was indeed bull. A dollar is pretty cheap for a reliable test. What the hell was I thinking? What if the test is wrong? What if I’ve been stressing for nothing? What if I’m not pregnant? This could be a possibility, but I refuse to be optimistic or pessimistic. “Azere.” Farah, my gynecologist and close friend, enters the room with a clipboard in hand. She smiles, and her extended lips lift her round cheeks. “What are you doing here? Didn’t I see you like three months ago?” “This is a different kind of visit.” “You sound serious.” She walks to the table and occupies the chair across from me. “What’s up?” “I think I’m pregnant.” I blurt it out. There’s no alternative. “Hmm.” Farah smooths the black hijab veiling her hair. “The last time we spoke, you told me you weren’t sexually active.” “Well, I was. For one night. Hence my current dilemma.” “Wait.” She stands and strides toward me. Her dark eyes have grown broad with interest. “You had a one-night stand?” “Yeah. At the time it felt right. But now . . .” I curse under my breath. “Farah, I’m in serious trouble. I’m freaking out. You, more than anyone, should understand what I’m going through.” “Me? Why me?” “Well, what would your traditional Pakistani parents say if they found out you were pregnant and unwed? They would basically disown you, right?” “Well . . .” She taps a finger on her chin and contemplates the scenario. “Yeah. They probably would.” “Okay. Now, throw this into the mix. The guy who knocked you up isn’t the Pakistani man they envisioned you starting a family with. He’s white.” “Hmm. Interesting.” She contemplates again. “In that case, I’d simply have to leave the planet. See if there’s a vacancy on Mars.” Exactly. “Wait.” Farah shakes her head. “Your one-night stand is a white dude?” “Yeah.” “Oh.” She sighs, then walks to the far end of the room where there’s a cart. “Well, let’s do this.” She rolls it to me, looks through it, and pulls out a needle and a vacutainer. After connecting the two objects, she goes through the cart again and pulls out a plastic band. “Make a fist.” “I took a home pregnancy test. It was positive. Think it might be wrong?” “Those things aren’t always accurate. A few of my patients have put themselves through the wringer because of those tests.” “So I might not be pregnant?” My heavy heart lightens. So much for not being optimistic. “Azere, how about we wait for the results? No speculations until we get the results.” She ties the plastic band around my bare forearm and wipes a spot with a damp cotton ball. When the needle pricks my skin, I wince. Blood fills the vacutainer, and she slides the needle out. “When will I get the results?” I ask. “Today?” “Definitely not. But since you’re a VIP, tomorrow.” “Thanks, Farah.” “No problem. So.” She clears her throat. “What if you are pregnant? What will you do? Will you keep it?” I’ve been considering that question since last night, and I still don’t have an answer. “Just so you know, whatever you decide, there’s no judgment. Do what’s best for you, Azere.” What if what’s best for me puts me at risk of losing another parent? chapter 8 Walking through a deserted office is equally unnerving as walking through a graveyard. It’s past six in the evening, and the natural light that usually radiates through the large windows has dimmed significantly. My heels click and clack, the sound echoing against the uncanny silence. If I were a character in a Gothic romance such as the stunning and terrifying Crimson Peak, I would be the overly curious girl, walking through dark corridors with a candelabra in one hand and the length of a nightgown bunched in the other, opening doors she shouldn’t dare to only to find the most intriguing creature waiting for her. “Rafael?” I enter his office, and he looks up from the computer. “Hi. Sorry I’m late. There was traffic. Really bad traffic.” I pull off my jacket and settle into a chair. “It’s fine, Azere.” He sits up straight. “Don’t worry about it.” “There’s a storm coming,” I say. Through the floor-to-ceiling window behind his desk, the view of the city is clear. Dark clouds extend over the beautifully lit metropolis, indicating an impending storm. The few people on the street are pushing forward, contending with the strong wind that’s hauling them back. I watch them struggle to reach the subway entrance and then turn to Rafael. “It’s really bad out there.” “Yeah. Everyone took off in a hurry, trying to avoid getting caught in it.” “So, it’s just the two of us?” When he nods, I pull my laptop out of my handbag and try to remain calm. Maybe this is a bad idea. A brewing storm, an empty office, a hot one-night stand turned colleague, and a single black female with little self-control and a lot to lose. These are the exact ingredients for a memorable night and a regret-filled morning. I instantly consider kicking off my heels and running for the exit. I consider it, but the thing is, I really love my shoes. They’re nude Mary Jane pumps. They pair well with anything, especially the red knee-length dress I’m wearing. I should come up with an escape plan that doesn’t involve leaving them behind. “Azere.” I shake off my reverie and look at Rafael. “Everything okay?” “Um . . . yeah,” I say. “Everything’s fine.” I trash the escape plan, open the laptop, and then a file. “I’ve got a few ideas for the campaign. Would you like to hear them?” “Yeah. Sure. Go ahead.” “Okay. Since the product is being introduced in a new country, I think it should get revamped. Let’s start with the slogan.” I glance at my notes. “The energy drink is called FeverRun. The slogan is: ‘Live long, prosper, and stay energized.’ First, that’s a horrible slogan. Second, I don’t appreciate the Star Wars reference.” “Star Trek,” Rafael says. A smirk twitches at the corners of his lips. “It’s a Star Trek reference.” “Yeah. Of course. I knew that.” Frankly, I don’t know the difference between the two sci-fi series—not really my genre. I wonder if it’s his. “Anyway, the slogan should be short and sweet.” “What do you propose?” “Catch the fever. It also works with the name of the product.” “Yeah. It does.” He squints and mulls over the phrase. “I like it. A lot.” “Great. Now, for my next idea.” I glance at my notes again. “In Nigeria, the spokesperson for this product is Genevieve Nnaji. She’s this gorgeous, talented actress. She’s a huge deal. I think we should get a beautiful, talented Western actress. Then we should mirror both actresses, from two different cultures, in the commercial and print ad.” “How would we mirror them?” he asks, leaning forward. “We show the audience how similar they are despite their differences. We show how they both depend on FeverRun for an energy boost. We can show them in everyday settings—going to the grocery store, going to the gym, spending time with their families. By doing this, we—” “Find commonalities between two different cultures.” “Exactly. Also, this method will help the product transition well into its new environment while remaining true to its origin. So? What do you think?” His focused, steady stare is indecipherable. Maybe he hates it. My confidence instantly plummets. “Rafael, if . . . if you don’t like it, we could—” “It’s brilliant.” “Really?” He nods, and I grin. Confidence boost in three . . . two . . . one. “Awesome. Because that’s all I’ve got.” “Well, I had nothing, so—” “I kinda saved your ass?” I bite my tongue. Shoot. Confidence overload. “I’m sorry.” He grins, clearly not upset. “I’m starving.” He stands and loosens the black tie around his neck. “I’m going to run out and pick up something to eat. Can I get you anything?” “Well, I am pretty hungry.” I rub my rumbling belly as if the circular movement can ease its ache for food. “But I’m not sure what I want. Why don’t you surprise me?” “Surprise you?” “Yep. And just so you know, I don’t like mushrooms or onions.” “I’ll keep that in mind.” He grabs his wallet off the desk and strides to the door. “I’ll see you in a bit.” “Okay. I’ll start building the presentation.” I place my fingers over the keyboard but pause before hitting the keys. “Rafael!” He stops and turns around—a single figure in the isolated space. “Everything okay?” “Yeah. It’s just that it doesn’t look too good out there. The storm and all. So be careful. Okay?” He glances at the window, and when our eyes meet again, he nods, a silent assurance before walking away. * * * * * * TWENTY MINUTES AFTER HE LEAVES, HE RETURNS WITH A brown paper bag. I smell the ingredients in the Chinese food he’s bought—ginger, basil, chili pepper, sweet soy sauce. When he places a takeout box in front of me, I open the cardboard container and spoon a portion of chicken fried rice into my mouth. “Mmm, this is delicious,” I say while chewing. “Thanks, Rafael.” “You’re welcome.” He digs chopsticks into his box of chow mein. “Glad you like it.” For an hour, we alternate between eating and working. He listens to each idea I propose and builds on them. He’s smart and insightful, and our collaboration is effortless. When I return from the kitchen with two cups of tea, he’s hunched over the computer, typing. His tie and blazer are off, and the first two buttons on his white shirt are undone. His wavy hair is messy, flopping over his forehead—no perfect side part to separate the dark strands into precise proportions. When he looks at me, I notice something oddly familiar in his eyes—a hollowness. I recognize it because I saw the same in my father’s eyes as he died. The man who raised me was vivacious. His dark eyes were layered with secrets, stories, riddles, and mysteries. Though, as sickness consumed him, his eyes grew vacant as if his soul had been scooped out and all that was left was the vessel—the shell of a man. An intolerable amount of pain did that to him—left him empty. And I sense the same happened to Rafael somehow. Pain, too great to sustain, hollowed him out, took something from him. I’m certain of it because in his striking blue eyes, there is a deep, eerie void. What happened? Was it loss or betrayal or heartbreak? What emptied you out? “Azere.” His voice pulls me out of my deep thoughts. “Yeah?” “Are you okay?” “Yes. I’m fine.” I settle in the chair and extend a cup to him. “Here’s your tea.” “Thank you.” He sips the hot beverage slowly. “We’re almost done. I’m only adding some finishing touches.” “Oh. Great.” The digital clock on his desk reads 9:15 p.m. “I’m so ready to get outta here.” “It’s not safe outside,” he says, setting down his cup. “Not yet. You should wait until the storm ends.” “Oh, it’s nothing. I live twenty minutes away—in one of those apartment buildings along King Street. I’ll be home in no time. Plus, I think the storm is letting up.” As if on cue, thunder erupts suddenly, roaring and causing me to yelp and flinch. Lightning flashes; its silvery blaze rips through the black sky and emits an unearthly glow through the window. My heart is racing, but I keep a calm disposition. Casually, I flip my braids over my shoulder and arrange the pleats on my dress, faking coolness while sipping my tea. Rafael miserably attempts to suppress a laugh by rolling his lips into his mouth. “Are you okay?” “Yeah. I’m fine.” “Right.” His lips are straight now, but there’s a glint of humor in his eyes. “You know what? You still haven’t answered my question.” “What question?” “Yesterday, I asked why you left my hotel room without saying goodbye. You never gave me an answer.” He searches my eyes. “Why did you leave without saying goodbye, Azere?” “Rafael.” I place the cup of tea on the table and huff. “I really don’t want to talk about that night.” “Why not?” “Because . . . because it’s hard enough that I think about kissing you every time I see you. It’s hard enough that I want to touch you. I’m just trying to deal with this crazy situation, but talking about that night makes it harder.” The confession seemed to have surged out my mouth like water through a faucet. Now, he’s looking at me like I’ve lost my mind. Maybe I have. “I’m sorry. That was really inappropriate.” I stand and hesitantly grab my things, avoiding eye contact as I do. “I’m gonna go.” “Azere, wait.” He’s at the door before I can walk through it, obstructing the exit with his large stature. “I wanted to kiss you yesterday—the instant I laid my eyes on you.” He moves forward until there’s no space between us, until his chest is pressed to mine, until his breath warms my skin and his scent fills my nostrils. “I want to kiss you now. So fucking bad.” He tilts his head, brings his lips a mere inch from mine, and takes my breath away—breathes it in, claims it as his own, a part of me now in him. “Rafael.” The urge to touch him and be touched by him seems impossible to resist. Yet, somehow, I manage to step back, to stand separate from him, to keep my hands static at my sides, to suppress all the desires that threaten my logic. “We can’t.” “Azere.” A low grumble sounds in his throat. “Why not? Is it because we work together?” It’s a lot more complicated than that, but his response is simple and reason enough for us to stay apart. “Azere, it’s not like we report to each other. You’re not my superior and I’m not yours.” “I know, Rafael, but I think it’s best we have a professional and totally platonic relationship. I just want to do my job without any complications. Can you respect that?” He tousles his hair and exhales, deflating his enlarged chest. “Yeah. Of course. Our relationship can be strictly . . . um . . . professional.” It seemed to have taken him a lot of effort to get those words out. “And I won’t bring up that night anymore.” “Thanks, Rafael.” “Now, will you stay? At least until the storm lets up. I don’t want you driving in this weather, Azere. Come on. Sit.” He carefully ushers me back into the chair as though afraid I might run if he’s inattentive. I retake my seat and resume sipping my tea. Together we look over the work we’ve done and finalize the presentation. By 9:55 p.m., the rain stops beating against the window, and the wind stops whooshing and stirring objects into the air. The storm appears to be over, but Rafael is cautious, checking several news websites, confirming the storm has indeed ended and the route to my home is safe. He escorts me to the underground parking lot. I’m grateful for his company because the space is isolated and unsettling at night. In my car, as I fasten my seat belt, he leans down, and his face appears in the window. I roll down the glass and inspect his fatigued eyes. I ask when he plans on going home. He doesn’t give a direct answer. He grabs my seat belt—the part that doesn’t touch the chair or my chest, the part that just sort of hangs in limbo—and tugs it as if testing its sturdiness. The action seems overly cautious, but I don’t question it. In fact, a part of me appreciates his care, his attentiveness. “Keep your eyes on the road,” he says, his hand falling away. “Watch out for slick spots. Okay?” I nod. “Sure.” “And about the presentation tomorrow. You should make it.” “Me?” I point to myself, confirming his statement. “Yes, you. You came up with the ideas. You’ll be the best person to explain them.” “Okay. Sure. I can do that.” I search his eyes—blue, beautiful, and hollow. “Well. Good night, Rafael.” “Yeah. Good night, Azere. Drive safely.” I do. I get home in one piece. I take a shower. I brush my teeth. I wrap a scarf over my braids, securing them for a routine night of tossing and turning. In bed, I nestle under a thick duvet and inhale deeply, relishing the scent of lavender embedded in the plush fabric. A little after midnight, I say a prayer for myself and the ones I love. And then, just before I fall asleep, I say another prayer. For him. chapter 9 Rafael Alone in the office, I send my dog sitter a text message, asking how Milo is doing. She replies with a picture of him curled on her lap. With confirmation that he’s fine, I take on a new task. My fingers move against the keyboard, matching the speed at which my brain is working. Focus, work, focus, work. Like always, the basic mantra serves its purpose by centering my mind. Currently, the words I’m typing and reading are my sole focus—my only thought. But then my eyes land on the empty chair across from me. In an instant, another thought, a sharp thought, penetrates my mind. Azere. Earlier, she was sitting in that chair. I smile at the recollection. Damn it. Focus, Rafael. Focus, work, focus, work. The mantra has always been the driving force in my career. For years, it kept me proactive. Tonight, it loses that effect. I can’t stop thinking about her. I prioritize her over the tedious combination of words and numbers on the computer screen. Where is she now? Did she get home safe? Is she okay? I snatch my cell off the table. Maybe I should call to confirm she’s home, safe. When the phone chimes, however, my focus veers. It’s a video call from someone who never takes no for an answer. Declining will only provoke her to call repeatedly. To avoid that outcome, I click the green button, and my sister’s face appears on the large screen. “Hey, big brother,” Selena says, grinning. She’s wearing a band of flowers over her dark hair; the scarlet carnations match the color coating her lips. Her face holds my attention until my eyes move to the picturesque backdrop—the breathtaking sight of Valencia. Buildings with ancient and Gothic architecture align the seaside. Dawn dyes the sky with variations of purples, yellows, oranges, and reds. The warm hues are reflected on the rippling sea. It’s times like these, seeing the scenery, that I envy my family for spending yet another summer in Valencia with our grandmother. “Earth to Rafael.” Selena waves her hand, signaling for my attention. “Thought you might appreciate the view. Just didn’t think you would abandon me for it.” “Sorry.” I smile; it’s the same smile I’ve worn for years, the one meant to convince my family that I’m okay and not utterly broken. “So. How are you? Missing home yet?” “Not really. I love it here. But how about you, Rafa? What’s it like, living in Toronto again? Is it a little weird?” “Actually, it feels good—familiar, like home.” “Cool.” She yawns. “Sorry. I’m exhausted. I went dancing last night. Then to a club. And then to some random house party. Pretty crazy night. I just got in. Thought we could chat before I head to bed.” “Well, you didn’t have to call. It’s five thirty a.m. in Valencia. You should be sleeping.” “And it’s eleven thirty p.m. in Toronto. You should be at home with your adorable dog. Instead, you’re at the office. Working. Right?” She arches an eyebrow, awaiting my response. “Rafael, why aren’t you at home?” “Because I have work to do.” “Right.” One finger falls on the cameo choker she prematurely inherited from our grandmother. Selena is never without the antique jewelry. She wears it with everything and rubs the pendant when deep in thought. Much like she’s doing right now. “Rafael—” “Don’t, Selena. Don’t say what I think you’re going to say. If you do, I’ll end this call.” My finger hangs over the End button. “Go ahead. Do it. And I’ll catch the next flight to Toronto just so I can punch you in the gut. And after you’ve recovered from my almost deadly blow, we’ll have the conversation.” She’s twenty-six, four years younger than me, and capable of delivering threats that make me reconsider my actions. I drop my finger and tuck it under the table. “Thought so,” she retorts. “Now. As I was about to say, I’m worried.” Her big dark eyes well up with emotions. “About you, Rafa. Mom’s worried too.” “Mom worries, Selena. It’s what she does. And you—” “What about me?” “Where’s Máximo?” I ask. “My twin is somewhere in Ibiza likely squandering his trust fund on alcohol, drugs, and prostitutes.” She rolls her eyes. “Maldito idiota.” “Now, there’s someone you should worry about.” “I’m going to mass on Sunday. I’ll say a prayer for him, then. That’s all I can do for that one—bid his case to God and hope for a miracle.” She shrugs. “Anyway, I really wish you were here, Rafael. With us. Abuela misses you. We all do.” “And I miss you guys too. But I have a job, Selena.” “Your job is your entire life, Rafael. You never take vacations or days off. It’s not healthy. Especially because you’ve been using work as a coping mechanism.” “That isn’t true. My career has always been important to me. You know that.” “Yeah. But it became your obsession, the center of your world after—” “Don’t! Don