Only five years ago, she had been completely certain that she and Yomi would be together always, would grow old together. Just like hundreds of other blissfully happy couples in Lagos. How could she have guessed that her life would turn out this way?
Farida Yusuf gripped the steering of her 2010 Honda Accord CrossTour and pulled in a deep breath. Her gaze skirted off the patch of lighter skin around the ring finger of her left hand and returned to the stretch of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway ahead.
She sighed. It wasn’t only his fault. She’d noticed the cracks in their relationship a long time ago. She’d just refused to acknowledge them.
Farida glanced through the windscreen. The pale rays of the early morning sun washed over the stream of cars and trucks heading into Lagos.
Her gaze landed on a silver 2017 Range Rover inching forward through the traffic. What a beautiful car. If only she could afford a ride like that. Maybe some time in the future, hopefully after the launch of her reality show, the news about One Plus One would spread everywhere and pull in more clients.
Farida eased her car forward, allowing a comfortable distance between her Honda and the Range Rover.
She was grateful for a lot of things, though. The main one being the fact that she was doing what she loved to do, something she was great at, and earning a good income in the process. How many people could say that? She had attended a wedding in Ibadan yesterday, had been the Guest of Honour. Both the groom and bride had been her clients. She had matched them together and soon after, they had started dating and now only eight months later, were married. She could do it for others. How come it was so difficult to do it for herself?
If only Yomi would just give her some breathing space and stop pressing her about the money she owed him. She’d promised to repay him. All she asked him to do was give her some time.
She squeezed the steering wheel again, impatient to get to her office in Victoria Island. She should have left Ibadan yesterday evening instead of waiting till this morning. Heavy traffic into and within Lagos had become default. Every day of the week, especially weekdays. Bumper-to-bumper traffic. Ugh. She should have left the wedding reception early. She should have—
A trailer’s horn blared, interrupting her thoughts. The horn screamed again and again.
Farida scowled. She glanced to the lane parallel to hers, going the opposite way. A rickety truck lumbered along the road, slowing the progress of the impatient, horn-pressing trailer behind.
She shook her head. What would sitting on your horn do, for goodness sake? Would it make the decrepit old truck move faster?
And then her eyes widened. “No, no, no…”
Without warning, the trailer swerved out from behind the offending truck, straight into the path of the silver Range Rover.
Farida tapped her foot on the brake and swung her car to the right.
Up ahead, tyres shrieked. The Range Rover veered to the right, a sudden, sharp motion, aiming to avoid an impending face-to-face collision.
She watched, open-mouthed, as the trailer zoomed onto her lane, its horn still bellowing. The Range Rover edged away, right on time, out of harm’s way, into the tree-lined roadside. The trailer bypassed the truck, returned to its lane and sped off.
Farida’s heart pounded. Oh my. Thank God. She glanced toward the other car. It had come to a stop by the trees.
She didn’t stop to think. Farida pulled to a stop behind the Range Rover. She rushed out of her car toward the parked vehicle, stopped and then glanced into the window of the driver’s side.
A man sat in the seat, head forward, lips moving. His hands on the steering wheel were trembling. What was he saying?
Farida rapped her knuckles on the glass.
His head twisted to face hers. He frowned but then the window eased down. “Yes?”
She gazed at him. Gosh, he was handsome. With lead actor good looks. OMG. It took her a moment to reply. “I… I only wanted to ask if you’re okay.”
“I’m fine. Thanks for stopping to ask.” Kurt Achike unglued his shaky hands from the steering wheel of his car and stared up into her round face and warm, caramel-colored eyes. Nice of her, whoever she was, to come over. Good too that she hadn’t been able to hear the curse words that had been spewing from his lips just moments before.
He gulped air into his lungs, willing his heart to stop banging like a drum. God help that stupid maniac, the trailer driver. That man deserved a broken jaw and a night in jail. Scratch that. Many, many nights in jail. Maniac.
“I was behind you…” Farida mumbled. Now you can see he’s fine, go back to your car, her mind advised. But his hazel eyes, a mix of light brown and dark green, kept her there.
“I’m good.” Kurt said, dropping his hands to his lap. Surprising that she didn’t seem to know who he was. Which was great. He was tired of being recognized everywhere he went.
She tossed a glance inside his car, at his ring-free hands on grey trousers, a grey jacket on the front passenger seat. “Okay. Bye, then.”
She moved toward her car. No wedding ring on his finger didn’t mean he wasn’t married. And even if he wasn’t, a man like him tended to date only models and superstars. Anyway, the traffic was easing off. It was time to continue her journey.
Farida entered her car and started the engine. In front, the silver Range Rover slid back onto the road.
Two hours later, Farida stepped into the lobby of her office. The receptionist, Esther, behind the dark wood reception desk, sat up. On the lime-green wall at her back, the name One Plus One was emblazoned in white.
She grinned. “Good morning, Farida.”
“Good morning, Esther.” Farida glanced over at the young woman and caught the blue in her eyes. Esther loved wearing contact lenses, the more distinctive the better. The guy in the Range Rover had hazel eyes. Were they contacts? Probably not. His skin was fair, the color of toffee. He was, most probably, mixed-race.
“You have two calls. The manager of Fever Pitch night club, Mr. Osita Osondu. He says he’s been trying to reach you on your phone. He asks that you call him the minute you get in.”
Farida blew air out of her mouth. She reached into her brown leather handbag and pulled out her phone. “I’ve been driving. I haven’t had a chance to check my mobile.” She glanced at the screen. Sure enough, there were missed calls. “Okay. I’ll call him back. Who else?”
“Your father. He also mentioned that he’s been calling your phone.”
She shook her head from side to side. Gosh, again? Everything was an emergency with him. And it almost always involved money. “I’ll call him later. Thanks, Esther.”
“Just doing my job.”
Farida smiled at her. “Still… thanks.”
“Don’t mention it… boss…” Esther grinned.
Farida laughed and walked into a corridor and through that to a door on the left. She unlocked it and sauntered in, switching the lights and the split unit air conditioner on as she did so.
She gazed around her office, pride swelling her chest. She did this. She built this business. Her eyes skimmed over the glass and chrome desk carrying her laptop and desk phone, to the framed testimonials on the daffodil-yellow wall behind her desk, down to the yellow carpet and up again, to the yellow shelves on the north wall, bearing rows of books and two slender glass vases, one parrot-green, one cherry-red.
Farida dropped her bag on a hexagonal table underneath the smaller of the two windows in the room and moved over to her desk.
Sinking into her white leather and chrome chair, she smiled and closed her eyes for a moment. She loved reclining in this chair, loved working from this office. She could stay here like this all day… But… no.
Opening her eyes, she grabbed at the desk phone and dialed.
“Hi, Osita, it’s Farida.”
The man on the other end of the line groaned and then muttered, “Where have you been, Farida? I’ve been calling.”
“I’m sorry. I drove in this morning from Ibadan.”
“Ah. And you don’t answer the phone when you’re driving. What happened in Ibadan?”
Farida crossed one leg over the other, her eyes on the desk. “I attended a wedding.”
Osita chuckled. “Clients of yours?”
“Well, I, for one, will always be grateful to you for bringing me and Clara together.”
Farida smiled. “It was my pleasure, Osita. You don’t have to keep thanking me.”
“She’s a wife in a million, a trillion… I’m lucky to have her. And it’s thanks to you.”
Farida glanced down at the walnut-brown peep-toe pumps on her feet that went so well with her new handbag. “Osita, I’m happy you’re happy.”
“Anyway…” Osita cleared his throat and added, “I finally talked to him, my cousin and my boss. He agreed to see you. He’ll be coming in very soon.”
Farida straightened in her chair, eyes wide. “Oh, you did it, Osita. I can’t believe it.”
“I promised you I would convince him to make use of your services. You remember that I mentioned that he’s Zik Achike, I mean, Igwe Zik’s, first son. Kurt Achike, but you may know him better as the Breaker of Hearts.”
Farida laughed. “A little. I’ve heard a bit of the gossip but I don’t know what he looks like or anything much about him.”
“Like I said… he’s my second cousin. He owns Fever Pitch and he’s single. If anyone can help him, it’s you.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“I know you will. I have another call coming in. Later.”
Farida said, “Later, then.” She put the phone down, a wide grin taking over her mouth. What a coup. She had snagged a big client. Whoo-hoo!
“Good morning, Farida.” Nosa, her assistant, strolled in, a mug in his right hand. “You’re a little late today. What happened?”
She glanced up at him, at his cute face and smooth features. Gosh, he looked so much younger than his thirty years. Sometimes, he made her feel older than thirty-eight. What had possessed her to get involved with him? Loneliness? Boredom?
“I drove in from Ibadan.” Farida replied, glancing away to the yellow blind-shielded window on her right. Behind the blinds, the sun glowed, its hungry rays fighting to sneak into the room.
“Oh. Well, here…” Nosa placed the mug on the desk. “I brought you coffee, just the way you like it: two teaspoons of granulated sugar, four teaspoons of powdered milk.” He bent over and his lips jumped onto her left cheek, very close to her mouth.
Farida jerked away, her hand almost shoving the coffee off her desk. She glared up at him. “Will you stop, Nosa?”
“I missed you last weekend. I thought you’d tell me to come over.”
She puckered her lips as a frown garnished her forehead. “This is an office. You’re supposed to act like a professional.”
“It’s hard to see you looking so good and not try to kiss you at least.”
Farida sighed. “I’m not your girlfriend, Nosa. We’re just… friends. Here, I’m your boss.” Gosh, this is what a few kisses had cost her. Maybe it was time to end this. Whatever it was.
Her desk phone rang. She depressed the intercom button. “Yes, Esther?”
“Your client is here. I sent him to meeting room two.”
“Thanks.” Farida inclined her head at Nosa. “You heard her. We have a new client.”
“Okay. I’m ready. You?”
She grabbed her iPad from inside her handbag with one hand and with the other, smoothed down her black weave streaked with dark brown highlights and cut in a slanted bob. “Yes. Let’s go.”
They exited her office, Nosa a few steps behind her, moved into the corridor and then turned to the right to an open door.
Farida entered first, into the spacious, white-walled room. A man in a grey suit had his back to the door, staring up into a painting of a gazelle standing poised, alert, on a plain.
He pivoted around.
She gasped. His eyes opened wide.
“You…” He said.
Farida stared at the man in front of her. The guy from this morning. He was her client? He was the Breaker of Hearts? No wonder. He looked like he had broken a lot of hearts in his life. Nearly six feet tall, with a broad chest that his grey bespoke jacket and white shirt couldn’t hide. His hair was cut in a low fade with full curly brown hair on the top of his head. A light smattering of brown hair encircled the lower part of his face. And those eyes. Unforgettable.
“You’re Farida Yusuf? Wow. What a coincidence.” He said and then smiled.
She tottered on her three-inch heels. Dimples. In his cheeks. How much more good looking could one man be? Was it fair? Say something, her mind shouted.
Farida stuck out her hand. “Yes, I am. And you’re Kurt Achike.”
“Otherwise known as the Breaker of Hearts…” He shook his head, eyes blinking, lips dancing as he took her hand and shook it. “Stupid title. Totally undeserved.”
Nosa muttered, “Undeserved?” His gaze swung from Kurt to Farida. “You know each other?”
“We met this morning. On Lagos-Ibadan Expressway.” Farida flashed a glance at Nosa and then glanced back at Kurt with a smile. “This is Nosa Egbede, my assistant. Please sit down, Mr. Achike.”
Kurt nodded, unbuttoned his jacket and then lowered his taut body into one of the white leather sofas. Nosa plopped into another one, facing him.
Farida slid into the seat by Nosa’s side, her pulse skipping. Gosh, this guy was making her nervous. Was it only his looks? Or was it also his bold and sensual scent?
She crossed one leg over the other and plastered a business-like smile on her mouth. “So, welcome to One Plus One, Mr. Achike.”
He placed his hands on the expanse of chair on either side. His hazel eyes gleamed. “Call me Kurt. Mr. Achike makes me feel like I’m sixty. I’m just thirty-nine.”
He was only a year older than her. “Okay, Kurt. Why do you need our services?” She bit her bottom lip. “I mean… a guy like you shouldn’t have problems with finding good women.”
Kurt grinned, his dimples sparkling. “A guy like me?”
Nosa frowned. Farida glanced down at her fingernails. Gosh, this guy. He knew what she meant.
She swallowed and then said, “I mean… you have everything most women would want in a man.”
“Yet I’m single. And I don’t want to be. I’m ready to be in a committed relationship with a woman.”
“Hmm.” Farida nodded. Did he really mean it? She asked, “Do you mind if I ask you why you’re called the Breaker of Hearts?”
“No.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I was engaged twice. I broke off both engagements.”
“Why?” Nosa asked.
“Why did I break the engagements? I changed my mind. One woman didn’t challenge me. She got… sorry to say… boring. The other had begun to rely on me financially for every little thing and I couldn’t take it, so…”
“You mentioned you’re ready to be in a serious relationship.” Farida stared at his nose, avoiding those palm-wetting eyes. “Why now?”
Kurt smiled. Why wasn’t she meeting his gaze? “In a year, I’ll be forty. I had a plan for my life. By forty, I would be married. By forty-two, I’ll have a child.”
“So it’s a personal goal?”
Farida placed her iPad on the seat beside her and steepled her fingers over her knee. “What are your preferences? And what are your must-haves?”
He forked his fingers through his curls. “Um. The usual. She should be friendly, fun, easygoing. She should have a job of her own, a means of income, and she has to be beautiful, in her twenties, late twenties, preferably. Slim. A UK size six or eight…”
Farida’s eyes darted to the midnight black carpet. In other words, he wanted a model. No surprise there. She picked up her iPad and made a quick list.
Kurt glanced around the room. He liked the simple, stark black and white décor. From the moment he had walked into the building, he had been impressed by the invitingly pristine surroundings. And to think that his Good Samaritan from this morning was the brains behind this matchmaking business. According to Osita, her firm had a very good reputation.
He flicked a glance in her direction. She looked the part of a successful businesswoman, in her royal blue dress and her shoulder-length bob. Although she was big, a size twelve probably, with a small waist and curvy hips, she moved sprightly. She looked to be in her late thirties. He couldn’t see a wedding ring.
Kurt asked, “I hear that your clientele consists of affluent professionals and executives. True?”
“Yes. Mostly.” Farida glanced into his eyes for a moment and then pulled her gaze away to the black pocket square in the front of his jacket. “From within Lagos and beyond. We also have matches from outside Nigeria. We prescreen each match with the Nigerian Police and with a private security company. So you can be sure that we’re focused on your safety and well-being.”
“I appreciate that.” Kurt grinned. One hand stroked his beard. His dimples flashed.
Farida fought to control her breathing. This guy. Every action he took, touching his beard, smoothing his hair, smiling and exposing those dimples, all seemed to be aimed at raising the blood pressure of every female within range.
Nosa said, “We usually draw up a list of three possible candidates. Then we can help set up dates with each one, if you wish. And if you like one of the three more than the others, then our work is done. Otherwise, we start from scratch.”
Kurt nodded. “That sounds okay.”
“Wonderful.” Farida gave him a smile. “I’ll leave you to my assistant. We just need you to fill some forms and you’re free to go.”
Kurt returned the smile. He had a feeling that he and Farida would end up being great friends. He already respected her. She was accomplished and kind-hearted. It would be a pleasure to work with her.
Stepping into Cactus Restaurant, Farida’s gaze fell on her two friends, Sobechi Utibe and Alera Beke, lounging around a table.
In a pinstriped black suit and grey-framed eyeglasses over her eyes, Sobechi sipped coca-cola through a straw. Honey-skinned Alera had her head down, her eyes behind gold-rimmed sunglasses fixed on the phone in her hand. A quarter-full glass of Chapman rested in front of her.
“Hey ladies.” Farida called out, smiling.
Sobechi rolled her eyes. “You’re late.”
“Yes. Seven minutes late.”
Alera tore her gaze from her phone. She grinned, a white-toothed grin. “Don’t listen to Sobechi. You know how bankers are…”
“What? How are bankers?”Sobechi asked, eyes round in pretend outrage.
“Uptight.” Farida answered, drawing back the third chair at the table and falling into it. She traded a smile with Alera.
With her blond wavy weave tumbling down her back to her backside, her orange African print mini dress over avocado-green platform sandals, plus the rose flower tattoo on her right ankle, Alera looked every inch like a famous singer.
“Is Yomi still on your case about the money?”Alera asked.
Farida shrugged. Opening one of the bottles of water on the table, she replied, “He says he needs it. He’s remarrying soon—”
“So he doesn’t have money of his own to marry his girlfriend?” Sobechi asked, glaring.
“The three million was his.”
Alera cut in. “Which he put into One Plus One when you were both married. He’s crazy if he thinks he should get it back. You’re too soft, that’s your problem, Farida.”
“If it’s me, I’ll tell him to go and jump into the River Niger.” Sobechi clapped one hand on the table.
Farida inhaled air. Her friends hated Yomi. But they didn’t understand that she needed to pay him back. She just couldn’t ignore his request. He had given her the money when she was going through a rough period in her business and for that, she would always be grateful.
To change the subject, she asked, “Guess what happened to me today?”
“I can’t guess.” Alera muttered, her eyes returning to her phone.
“Out with it. I’m on my lunch break. Get to the story, abeg.” Sobechi said.
Farida poured water into a glass, took a gulp of the icy water. Delicious. Refreshing.
“What happened?” Sobechi yelled.
Farida grinned. “Kurt Achike is my client.”
Alera ripped her sunglasses from her face as her eyes rose to Farida’s face. “Kurt Achike, the Breaker of Hearts—”
Sobechi stared. “One of the infamous sons of Zik.”
“Kurt is your client?” Alera shook her head from one side to the other. “How did that happen?”
“He’s Osita’s second cousin.”
“You’re telling me he needs help meeting women?” Sobechi sank back in her chair.
Farida glanced at her friends’ shocked faces. “He says he’s serious about getting married. I guess he no longer wants to be the Breaker of Hearts.”
“The world is ending.” Alera gasped.
Farida laughed, falling forward. “Alera, you’re not serious.”
Sobechi leaned toward Farida. “I’m a happily married woman but I just need to know… is he as fine up close as everyone says?”
Farida closed her eyes and took in a breath. Opening her eyes, she exclaimed, “Yes.”
Alera guffawed at Farida’s awestruck expression. “I see he made an impression.”
“I won’t lie. He did. But I’m not his type—”
“And he’s your client.”
Farida sighed. “Yes, Sobechi, he’s my client. I hear he’s the first son of this Zik Achike.”
Sobechi scowled at Farida. “This Zik Achike? That’s an Igwe you’re talking about, madam. And Kurt is the Crown Prince. Don’t you know anything about Igwe Zik Achike and his four sons?”
Farida raised both hands, palms out. “I don’t, I confess.”
“Well, Zik Achike is a trained pilot and he owns many thriving businesses, one of which is Zik’s Air. He studied briefly in Germany and there he met Kurt’s mother. They didn’t marry, though. But, to please his father, he returned to Nigeria to continue his studies. Here he eventually met Diola, his present wife. She’s Leke and Toke’s mother.”
Alera eyed Sobechi. “How do you know so much about them?”
Sobechi rolled her eyes. “You girls have forgotten that my husband, Joshua, used to work with Toke Achike in Zik’s Air.”
“Oh yes, yes, right.” Farida nodded. “Well then, tell us more. So there’s Kurt, Leke and Toke. Who’s the fourth?”
Sobechi settled into her chair, enjoying the attention. “Well, Zik Achike finished his education in the States—”
Alera interrupted with a naughty wink. “And he impregnated another woman.”
“No! Shut up and listen. He met a close friend, Gabe Scott. Gabe had a young son. Soon after Zik came back to Nigeria, Gabe and his son started visiting and staying in Zik’s house. One day, on the road to Nsukka, Gabe was attacked by kidnappers. They demanded a ransom. Zik paid but Gabe was already dead.”
Farida wagged her head from side to side. “Oh my goodness, no. That’s terrible. What did Zik do?”
Sobechi shrugged. “The police later caught and arrested the kidnappers. But they were killed in jail.”
Alera slapped one hand over her mouth. “Who killed them?”
“I don’t know. Some people say Zik paid to have them killed. Others say that he killed them himself. Anyway, Zik adopted Gabe’s son. So Zik’s fourth son—technically, the third because he’s older than Toke—is Jon Achike-Scott. Now, among the four guys, only Toke is married. And he’s the only one working for his father. He’s CEO of Zik’s Air. He’s also a State Commissioner and Joshua said that he’s to be the next Governor in a few years. The other brothers have their own businesses.”
“Interesting.” Farida murmured, her hand stretching out to pour more water into her glass.
Sobechi eyed the menu, murmuring, “We’ve got to order soon. I have to be back to the office in about an hour.”
Alera huffed. “We’ll be done before that.” She funneled her fingers through her long hair.
“What’s up with you, Alera? How are you coping with this scandal?”
“You mean, the stink my boyfriend, Daniel, is causing all over social media? My dear, wetin I go do? You wan make I cry? He’s making a fool of himself. I’ve told him so many times that I’m not dating anyone else but he doesn’t believe me. He keeps harassing my male friends, accusing them of sleeping with me. Look, look…”Alera stabbed an orange-painted nail at her iPhone on the table. The screen lit up. “He’s sent me over fifteen texts since I’ve been sitting here, asking me where I am, what I’m doing, how long I’m going to be here and all that crap.”
Farida sighed. “I’m sorry, babe.”
“You should have let Farida fix you up too. She brought Joshua and me together. And remember, she warned you that this Daniel wasn’t right, you said no, it’s him you love.”
Farida nudged Sobechi in the side. “It should be her decision, Sobe.”
The screensaver of a beautiful Golden Retriever appeared for a moment on Alera’s phone before it vanished.
Farida laughed. “No wonder Daniel is acting out. You love your dog more than him.”
Alera grinned. “Macho’s always been there for me. I can’t say the same for Daniel.”
“You need to see the boot of her car. Filled with dog food…” Sobechi threw her eyes to the ceiling. “Nature’s Recipe chicken or something like that…
“Poor Daniel.” Farida mumbled, her lips curving into a smile.
“Daniel has more things worrying him than her love for Macho.” Sobechi made a gesture with a finger, rotating it by the side of her head. He’s crazy.
Farida patted Alera’s hand. “Don’t worry; I’ll keep an eye out for someone good for you.”
“No more talk.” Alera shrieked. “Let’s order, please.”
[End of Excerpt]