We have more teasers from my Men of Valor series. This time, HIS STRENGTH, which is book two.
This time I matched two fiercely independent people, Ikem and Nneka, and showed them that life could still teach them some lessons.
Enjoy reading chapter one.
Southeast Nigeria, pre-colonization
Ikem leaned against the cashew tree, waiting.
It was early evening; the sun had begun its slow descent into the horizon, creating long shadows against the heat-baked red soil underneath his feet. It hadn't rained for a few days, leaving a feeling in the air reminiscent of the Harmattan, the dry and dusty season, though the period was still a few full moons away. A gentle breeze swirled around him, lifting the dried leaves from the ground, turning them into a mini-vortex before sending them falling gently back down to earth.
This was now a daily routine. Recently he'd taken to standing by this tree, watching his quarry as she walked along the footpath on her way back from the stream. She always carried her ite full of water balanced confidently on her head. So far he'd been unobserved. At least he thought she hadn't noticed. He'd not made himself known or said anything to her.
As if on cue, he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Pushing off the tree, he stood straight and waited. Anticipation thrummed in his blood. He flexed his shoulders, seeking to quell the adrenaline pumping through his veins.
Then she came into view, the vision that kept him awake several nights. His heart rammed into his rib cage with a heavy thud. Expectantly, he licked his dry lips. He was a grown man in his prime, one of the best wrestlers in the land, but the sight of this woman reduced his body to that of a boy who'd only recently discovered the pleasures of a maiden.
Petite, compared to his tall frame, her skin was dark and gleamed in the sunlight. The gentle lines of her face bore a hint of ethereal beauty. The rounded curves of her body were hidden beneath the loose, drab gray of her mourning clothes. Yet, this didn't diminish her beauty. It made him crave her even more, evidenced by his stirring manhood. He watched the gentle sway of her hips when she walked past. The need to touch her overtook him.
"Nneka," he called out from behind the tall, green grasses now covered in a layer of brown dust. He took a step forward so she could see him better.
With measured ease she turned around, looked left and right along the empty footpath before staring straight at him.
"Ikem, what are you doing here?"
The softness of her voice traveled through him, igniting his already sparking desire. His heart increased its pounding. The blood in his veins rushed downward, leaving him feeling light-headed. Such was her effect on him. Yet, he schooled his expression as he watched her.
Her hair was a mass of short, tight curls. As tradition dictated, her head had been shaved clean at the death of her husband. It drew his attention to her unadorned face, wide eyes, pert nose, and full lips. Her body didn't have any of the decorative uli marking other women wore; neither did she wear any beads or ornaments. Her appearance was designed to deter notice.
Except he noticed her. All of her.
He'd expected her to look puzzled, maybe even frightened, at seeing him standing there. She didn't. Instead she stared at him with boldness unbecoming a woman in a state of mourning. Her dark brown eyes held a brief twinkle of amusement. When he raised his brow in a silent query, she lowered her gaze to the ground.
"I want to talk to you. Come here." Though he spoke quietly, there was no mistaking the demand in his voice.
With haste, her gaze flicked back up to meet his. Her eyes had lost some of their sparkling amusement. Instead they held his stare with fiery defiance; she raised her chin a notch.
"I cannot be seen talking to you, Ikem. You know that." Her tone was self-assured as if she didn't care if she was found talking to him. Knowing the consequences of being seen with him in public, a woman in her position should have cowered and appeared appalled at his forwardness. Her confidence affected him at a most basic level. It challenged him and served to spur him on.
He wanted this woman regardless of the consequences.
Nneka was out of bounds to him. Tradition dictated it. Firstly because of who he was. He was a man with no known lineage. Though he was born and had lived in Umunri all of his life, he had the status of a guest. He was not nw'ala, a son of the soil. By virtue of his birth, he was a bastard, a man who couldn't trace his paternal lineage.
He'd had to stand aside and watch another man take her as his wife two years ago. His proposal had been rejected because of his heritage—or rather, the lack of one. It had nearly driven him insane. As a result, he'd sworn he wouldn't take another as his wife. Instead he'd let loose his previously tightly leashed decadent cravings. Since then he'd acquired a reputation in certain quarters of society.
He didn't care. If he was going to be scorned by people, he'd rather it was deserved and have pleasure in the process too.
As he watched the sunbeam filter through the trees onto her dark skin, illuminating it in a soft caress, he noted her attitude toward him held none of disdain he'd come to expect from polite society. While other women studied him surreptitiously when they thought he wasn't watching, her assessment of him was open. His flesh came alive under her scrutiny.
As a woman still covered in mourning gray, she remained out of bounds to him—to all men—until she completed the required mourning period.
"No one will see us. Come," he insisted, impatience slipping into his voice. He held her gaze without yielding. The gods had granted him a second chance to claim her. He wasn't going to waste it. Besides, the time to give respectful distance to a grieving widow was long past. He'd been counting down the moons. This was the time to act.
She stood still, neither making a move toward him nor walking away. One curved eyebrow arched up, as if waiting for something. Very few people failed to act when he instructed. He was the chief trainer and taught a company of young men in the art of warfare. None dared to defy his command. Certainly, no woman ever did.
Yet he realized he had to deploy other tactics to get this woman to comply. She reminded him of a tigress out in the wild. Fearless. Daring.
"Please," he added and smiled inwardly. He would enjoy taming this tigress.
It was the magic word. She walked toward him, her flowing movement ensuring his eyes were glued to her body as she came closer, her ite still on her head without the need for her to hold on to it. When she stopped in front of him within arm’s reach, he leaned in to help her take the water vessel down. This close, her light, citrus scent mixed with another that he could only identify as her essence and invaded his nostrils. He tightened his grip on the ite when he lifted it off her head and put it on the ground. Instead of pulling her closer and inhaling more of her, he straightened and leaned back against the tree.
"I can't stay long. I'm expected back soon," she said softly.
Will I ever get used to the effect of her voice on me?
"I won't keep you long." He clenched and unclenched his fingers behind him to stop from reaching across and pulling her closer. "How are you?" He spoke calmly, though the fire in his blood raged.
"I'm well." For a brief moment it looked like she could read his thoughts and see the depth of his craving. Her pupils dilated, her brown eyes sparkled in fiery response before she glanced away, biting her lower lip. She was as affected by his presence as he was by hers. His smile widened.
"I want you to meet me tomorrow."
"Why should I meet you, Ikem?" she asked. Her brown eyes dared him openly once again, her chin boldly uplifted. He maintained eye contact for a while, not speaking. He loved the way the gold specks in her eyes blended with the brown. He watched as they turned molten. She was so different from any other woman he knew. They all acted timidly around him, always happy to defer to him while seeking his favor. Nneka was the exact opposite. She looked upon him as if she needed nothing from him. Yet he could tell she was interested.
He took her hand in his and felt its heat burn him like an open flame. The need to pull her closer thrummed in his veins. He caressed the back of her hand softly with his thumb. He heard her breath hitch in response.
"I just want to spend some time with you, Nneka. We'll talk and afterward you can leave."
"But you know I cannot be seen with you, or anybody else, for that matter."
He tugged her closer until he could feel the warmth of her breath against his skin. Lifting her face with one hand, he traced a slow path from her cheek to her neck with the other. The pulse at the base of her neck jumped when he touched it.
"I've waited for you for the past year and find I've run out of patience. Your mourning period is complete. I can no longer wait to do what has been my heart's desire for a long time."
She let out a soft gasp. Her eyes widened even further and darted away for a brief moment. When she looked back at him they'd acquired a calm determination.
"My mourning period might be complete, but my in-laws haven't yet released me. You know the consequences if I'm caught even talking to you like this. I have no wish to incur the wrath of my in-laws."
He knew the repercussions would be dire for both of them and had taken precautions to ensure it would never get to that. "I'll take care of your in-laws when the time is right, but I've every intention of making you mine. I let another man claim you once. I'll not do so again."
"What do you mean by that?" She pulled back from him, the frown on her face deepening. Needing some room to think clearly, he let her go.
"We'll talk about it tomorrow. Meet me by the ube tree in the clearing at the plot of land bordering the river. I noticed you're allowed out in the evenings. If you can make it a little earlier, that would be good too. If you do not show up, I'll come to your house."
It wasn't a threat, but he needed her to know how serious he was.
Her eyes widened. She folded her arms across her chest, watching him with increased interest. "I still insist on knowing why you want me to meet with you."
Pushing off the tree, he smiled as he walked back to her. He could count on his one hand, less than one hand—the number of people who would question him as Nneka did. She was bold and brave. Staring straight at him, she had the look of one who was certain of herself. Her confidence fueled his hunger for her.
"I intend to make you my wife."
For the first time, he saw something close to trepidation flicker in her eyes. Somewhere at the back of his mind he registered her response, but paid it little heed. The pulse at the base of her neck hopped rapidly. She lifted her chin.
"What if I have no wish to be your wife? I lost one husband. I may have no wish to acquire another."
Her gaze roamed his body with obvious appreciation, her action at odds with her words. His manhood stirred again. He was glad for the looseness of his loincloth.
"I have every intention of making it your wish to be mine."
She stared at him, her eyebrow lifted in obvious bemusement. "Do you want me that much?"
"You have no idea how much."
Reaching for her, he lowered his head. He lifted her into his arms and crushed her lips with his. Her body stiffened in his arms, though she didn't attempt to push him away. Her hand rested on his shoulders. He'd wanted to wait till after they'd talked properly to do this. Now he knew he couldn't wait. At such close proximity, he was unable to resist a taste of her.
Her impassivity simply encouraged him to get a response from her. He persisted, running his tongue along the rim of her soft lips, his hand on her nape massaging gently and the other hand around her waist ensuring her suppleness was crushed against his hard body.
"Open for me, Nneka."
Letting out a sigh, she wound her arms around his neck. Her lips opened to let him into her warm moist depths. His tongue flicked hers, delving in and reveling in her sweetness. She tasted heavenly—the pureness of ripened mango fruits fresh off the tree. A groan rumbled through him. He'd waited for what seemed like forever to taste her. She was beyond anything he'd ever imagined she would be. He wanted more of her. But it would have to wait. It was neither the right time nor the right place.
When he broke the kiss, they both panted, out of breath.
"Be here tomorrow," he said before letting her go. She didn't say anything in response; just watched him. He bent down and picked up her ite. Without any further words, he placed it back on her head.
"Take care." She turned and walked back down the footpath, her hips swaying seductively.
He watched her go, his heart slowly getting back to its normal beat. He was a step closer to capturing his quarry.
If you enjoyed the excerpt, you can read His Strength in paperback or eBook in the Men of Valor box set.
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