Keeping Secrets - Chapter One #ContemporaryRomance #Africa
“Mrs. Essien, your husband is out of his coma.”
Phone pressed against one ear, the other hand reaching for the remote control, Ebony bolted upright. Her hand shook as she fumbled to mute the television news channel she’d been watching. The discarded controller clanked onto the clear, glass-topped side table.
“D...did I hear you correctly? Felix is awake?” She couldn’t hide the tremor in her voice, nor relax her tight-knuckled grip on the overstuffed arm of the upholstered cream sofa. Disbelief warred with hope, trampling all over her troubled mind.
“Yes, madam,” the nurse said at the other end of the line.
Breath rushed out of her lungs. The living room turned blurry. She lowered her lashes and slumped backwards, the velvet cushions a haven of soft comfort. A tear seeped from the corner of her eye and rolled down her cheek. She didn’t bother to wipe it. This didn’t represent sadness. No. This spelt relief—pure and simple—at prayers answered. At last.
“Hello? Are you still there?”
Eyes flickering open, she took in the bare cream walls of the living room and her gaze landed on the pile of framed wedding photographs in the far corner, overshadowed by a dark wood sculpture of a couple cinched in passion.
Since she’d taken delivery of the photos, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to put them up.
“I’m still here.” She swiped another tear with the back of her hand and cleared her throat.
“How is he? When did he wake up?” The words rushed from her lips, relief now overtaken by excitement.
Soft laughter filtered through the phone. “Take it easy, madam.”
Ebony grimaced. The respectful term for a woman only made her feel ancient; she’d prevented her household employees from using it to address her. But she didn’t tell the nurse on the phone.
“Sorry,” she said instead as she curled her lips with joy for the first time in weeks. She could forgive the woman who delivered such delightful news.
“No need to apologise. I understand, Madam,” the nurse continued in a cheerful voice. “Your husband woke a few minutes ago. The doctor is with him now and he seems okay, considering his condition. There is a request on his note to contact you as soon as he wakes up. This is the reason for my call.”
“Thank you so much, Nurse. I’ll come to the hospital straight away.” Ebony ended the call and sprang to her feet, ready to race to the bedroom to change.
Bad move. Her head swam, making her nauseated by the sudden movement, her stomach heaving like a turbulent sea.
Sinking back into the sofa, she breathed through the queasiness, head tilted slightly forward on her hands.
Oh, Lord. I hope I haven’t picked up a stomach bug.
It’ll teach her to buy street food. Last night, she’d craved Kilishi so much, she had to stop on the way home from hospital to pick up the beef jerky-style food cured and seeped in spices.
The omelette and toast she’d had for breakfast hadn’t stayed down, to the dismay of the housekeeper. The poor girl had looked appalled at the notion she may have poisoned her mistress. Hence the reason Ebony had been sitting in the living room when her phone rang, instead of being already at the hospital, her usual routine.
Perhaps, the stress of the past few weeks finally caught up with her. Long days and even longer nights, staying up worried about Felix.
Her chin dipped into her chest and her shoulders slumped as a wave of guilt hit her.
I should’ve been there when he woke up. He should’ve seen me first. Not the nurse or doctor. Me, his wife. Today of all days, too. Is it fate that he woke on Valentine’s Day?
“Aunty, are you okay?”
Ebony exhaled a sigh and lifted her head. The word ‘aunty’ gave her familial closeness to the addresser, a sense of not being alone in this mansion or dealing with faceless employees, but rather engaging with a member of the family.
Bisi, the housekeeper, stood beside her sofa twisting her hands, her anxiety plastered on her round face, her outfit—a blue check dress, white pinafore, and white sandals—creaseless and stainless, her hair plaited in neat straight cornrows, pulled into a bun at the back. The twenty-year old girl always took pride in her appearance. Living in meant Bisi became part of their household, which made her family.
Ebony curled her lips into a reassuring smile. “I’m more than okay. Stop worrying.”
She stood carefully and this time, the world stayed the right way up.
“Just tell Kola that I’ll be ready to go the hospital in thirty minutes.”
“Yes, Aunty.” The girl nodded. “I’ve packed the bag ready for you. Do you want me to skip class tonight, in case you need me?”
“No. There’s no need for you to miss your lesson.”
Ebony paid for Bisi to study Home Economics at their local college, with emphasis on Cookery after she discovered the girl’s interest in food and flavours. She should tell her Felix woke up. But after waiting so long to get some good news, she wanted confirmation with her own two eyes before announcing it to the rest of the household staff.
“Thank you for packing the bag.”
She patted the housekeeper on the shoulder and headed upstairs, bare feet slapping on cold marble. Crockery tinkled behind her as Bisi cleared up the teacup and saucer from the side table.
On the threshold of the master bedroom, she halted, taking in the space before her. The cream walls and dark wood effect reached here, too. The heavy mahogany frame of the massive bed and headboard has been specially ordered, the design bespoke. She remembered asking for the measurements for the mattress before she ordered luxurious Egyptian cotton sheets.
That had been before disaster struck. Neither one of them had slept in the bed since it arrived.
Blinking back tears, she crossed the floor, her toes curling into the velvety, beige shag-pile rug covering the hard slate.
She walked into the clothes closet and sucked in a sharp breath. Seeing the rows of Felix’s shirts and suits always triggered unhappiness. Today, she should be jumping for joy. Yet, her chest tightened and the back of her throat hurt.
“This isn’t how we planned it, Felix....” Her voice croaked.
She clutched his white shirt, inhaled deeply, and sobbed. Body racking, her legs gave way. She crumpled to the floor, the metal hook from the hanger clattering as it hit hard slate.
Could it be possible to feel intense joy and sadness all at the same time? One minute she wanted to sing her joy with a microphone. The next, she wished she could crawl into a cave a hide.
Worse, she couldn’t shake the boulder of guilt weighing down her body. This was all her fault. She’d doomed her marriage right from the start. How else could she explain that she wore a wedding band, had a marriage certificate to boot, but had never felt the warm arms of her husband around her?
“Aunty, Oga Kola is ready for you.” Bisi’s voice sounded close.
Did I leave the bedroom door open?
Standing, Ebony took one last sniff of Felix’s shirt before tossing it into the laundry basket. Though it had the crisp smell of detergent, it reminded her of the man before the accident.
“I’ll be down in five,” she said and entered the adjoining bathroom, keeping her face averted so the girl couldn’t see her from the entrance. She listened to the receding footsteps as Bisi departed.
At the sink, she stared at her face in the mirror. Her exhaustion showed, twin dark shadows beneath eyes red from lack of sleep and crying.
Cool water from the tap calmed the puffy eyes. A couple of eye drops brightened the whites, and dabs of concealer hid her sullen skin. She applied some lip-gloss and brushed out her hair, letting the tresses hang loose. It helped to cover up her fatigue.
Just like she got good at covering up everything else. She couldn’t reveal that all wasn’t well in paradise.
She slipped on her shoes, grabbed her bag, and headed out to see her husband.
“Mr. Essien, you are in the Worthington Hospital in Lagos. You were in a car accident and suffered several injuries, including a head trauma, resulting in you falling into a coma,” the doctor said after examining him thoroughly and offering him extra painkillers, which he rejected. He needed a clear head to chase away the fog lurking in his brain.
“How long have I been here?” he asked, anxiety coursing through him, prickling his skin.
“About six weeks. Can you remember what happened?” the doctor asked.
He’d barely taken in the physician’s name, simply noting the man’s position as a consultant surgeon in a reputable hospital and realising, from his looks, that they must be about the same age.
He racked his brain but couldn’t remember anything about an accident.
And he couldn’t shake the feeling of something being terribly wrong. Why couldn’t he remember?
“No. What day is it?” he asked to get his bearing. The doctor told him. Stunned, a bolt of alarm shot down his spine. “And you say I’ve been in a coma for over a month?”
“Yes. What do you remember?” the doctor enquired again.
“The last thing I remember is being on my way to the airport with my driver.”
Briefly, the doctor’s face creased in a frown before he spoke. “There is no cause for alarm. Some memory loss is expected with the kind of head injury you suffered. You are a healthy young man and with time, I expect you to make a full recovery. In the meanwhile, we’ll carry out some more tests and monitor your progress to ensure everything is healing as it should.”
After the doctor left, he’d drifted back into a hazy, restless sleep.
He woke with a dull ache in his head. Before his eyes opened, he lifted his hand to his forehead, massaging it. Heavy, drooping lids blinked several times as his eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight coming through the window, the black and white motif print curtains pulled back and secured with sashes.
Raising his right hand, he flicked his wrist, expecting to see his gold watch. Instead, a plastic hospital tag with his name hung in its place. Adhesive tapes secured the IV cannula to his left hand. He didn't move it, so as not to dislodge the needle stuck into his veins. However, he'd insisted on having the catheter removed. About time he started using his legs again when nature called.
He scratched the stubble on his chin. Someone had been shaving him regularly. A nurse? Considering his room had the opulence of a hotel suite than that of a regular hospital ward, it could be part of the service. A quick brush over thick hairs on his head confirmed he needed a haircut, though.
He scanned his white-walled surroundings, where a TV screen hung on the wall opposite his bed, two chairs to the side, and a table sat in the corner with a vase of fresh African tulips, begonias, and delphiniums. The brilliant display of red, orange, pink, and white flora caught his attention. As he inhaled their light, crisp scent, he wondered who had sent the flowers. A card sat beside the vase but he didn’t bother reaching for it.
He scrubbed a hand over his face, his frustration rising. Why couldn’t he remember the accident or the events leading up to it? Perhaps if he focused on the things he could remember, he could work his way forward.
He recalled his identity. Easy. He’d recognised the name on the tag. Felix Essien. Definitely his name. Son of Chief Aloysius Essien, chairman of Apex Group, and Mrs. Margaret Essien.
Clenching his jaw, he rubbed the back of his neck as anguish burnt across his chest. His mother had died when he’d been eight years old.
Palms pressed against his eyes, he puffed out a relieved sigh as he remembered the woman with the beautiful smile and dark curly hair who had referred to him as ‘the apple of my eye.’ He never wanted to forget her. Regret knotted his stomach.
These days, he referred to Mrs. Angela Essien as Mother, not stepmother. His father had laid down the rule very early on when she moved in. Mark and Tony Essien were his brothers; he hadn’t referred to them as half-brothers since they were boys.
They were all Essiens, family regardless of the blood ties. They stood by each other, no matter what life threw at them.
The Essiens ruled the African financial sector—Kings of African finance, according to Business Times magazine.
As head of Apex Private Bank, Felix reigned over the private banking arm of the Apex Group. Their head office had its base in Lagos, with branches throughout sub-Saharan Africa and other main offices in Johannesburg, Nairobi, London, and New York.
A business he needed to get back to. Leaning forward, he picked up the remote control and flicked the TV on. He found the news channel, hoping to catch up on world events and business news from the past six weeks.
He reached for the jug of water on the bedside table. Anchoring his uninjured left leg, he pulled himself up but winced as a sharp pain shot up his right leg, bound in a cast. Letting out a silent curse, he sat up and poured himself a glass of water from the jug. As he drank, he stared at his injury, wondering how long he would have to wear the cast. He had a business to run and needed to get out of the hospital as soon as possible.
Placing his cup back on the table, he turned just as the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen walked into the room. A slow-building smile curled his lips. The best thing he’d seen all day stood no taller than five-feet-eight, although a couple of inches could be attributed to her print platform sandals. Slender, but with curves in the right places, enough to hold.
Why am I even thinking about holding on to a stranger? She must have walked into the wrong room.
Elegant. The word whispered across his mind.
Smartly dressed in a black, silver-embroidered linen tunic and with dark-blue skinny jeans that clung to wide hips, she had the refinement he liked in a woman without the haughtiness.
She halted at the door, luscious lips parting as her brown eyes widened, her emotions so easy to read. Disbelief. Acceptance. Joy. Then she walked towards him, her lips widening in a hesitant yet glorious smile.
His heart crashed into his ribcage before racing off in a sprint.
“It’s true. You are awake.”
Her voice drawled akin to a soft velvet whisper, sending warm shivers to all the wrong places in his body as she leaned over and gave him a hug.
Dazed, he lay there basking in her heat. It seeped into his body and her floral perfume tickled his nostrils. Speechless and enthralled, he watched her. She straightened up, took his hand, and held it between her warm, soft, much smaller ones. His heart rate increased, his body’s response to her touch unmistakeable.
Desire. Powerful, heart-stopping desire. It coursed through his veins, filling him with the need to hold on to her. Yet, he wanted more.
Frowning, he looked up at her. She moved her coppery-brunette hair back from where it fell over her face. Long dark lashes and curved brows framed her golden-brown, almond-shaped eyes. Her skin looked so flawless he wanted to reach out and touch it; her lips so sensuous he wanted to pull her back down and taste them.
“Happy Valentine’s day, Felix. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you woke up. Please forgive me.”
As she spoke, tears pooled in her eyes, inciting a sudden need to take her in his arms and soothe her fears. Berating himself, he stiffened his body instead.
What is she playing at?
Angry at himself for responding to her, he withdrew his hand from hers. He missed her soft skin.
Her eyes widened, enquiring and confused. He ignored her and asked the burning question in his mind.
“Who are you?”
Never had three words caused Ebony so much confusion. Without thinking, she fell back onto the chair behind her. Knots tightened her stomach with apprehension as a thousand and one questions filled her mind.
What is going on here? Haven’t I suffered enough? Surely, Felix isn’t going to resort to punishing me by denying me.
She had rushed to the hospital eager to see her husband awake and on his way to full recovery. Walking into the room to see him sitting up after he’d spent several weeks broken and fighting for his life, her heart had sung with joy. She had visited him every day, torn apart to watch him oblivious to his surroundings. To watch the man who had always been strong, fit, and full of life, lying damaged and unresponsive, had broken her heart.
“I...I’m Ebony,” she said, and waited for a sign of recognition from him. When none came, his face remaining impassive, she continued.
“Your wife. Don’t you remember me?” she asked, her voice rough and just above a whisper as she struggled to keep her emotions in check and stop her stomach churning with fear. When it came to Felix, she could never hide her feelings.
“I’m not married.”
Felix’s blunt and forceful reply ripped her heart out. Again. A shocked gasp escaped her lips.
He lifted his left hand as if to prove his point. Small white tape covered his third finger.
“The medics had to cover the metal up when you went into surgery,” she said. “I forgot to take it off afterwards.”
His eyes widened as he peeled off the wrapping and revealed the platinum wedding band beneath. He shook his head before looking back at her, his dark brow lifted in an unspoken query.
Ebony lifted her left hand and showed him her matching solitaire diamond ring and wedding band.
“We got married on the thirtieth of December. Remember?”
When he shook his head, she scrambled in her bag with desperation, searching for her phone. Gadget in hand, she turned it on. The screen saver popped up, a picture of both of them on their wedding day.
“Here, see?” If he wanted irrefutable proof, there it lay.
Breath held, she watched for his response.
He stared at the photo with no sign of acknowledgement, his eyes a blank pool of black ice.
She’d seen that cold expression before. The night when everything changed between them. It should have been the best of her life. Instead, it became the worst. The night he'd had the accident.
Pain lanced through her mind. She squeezed her eyes shut and breathed through it. She couldn’t let despair overtake her again. She’d been in that black pit before. Never again. Time to move forward, one step at a time.
“Felix, what’s going on?” she enquired with a boldness she didn’t exactly feel when he failed to respond with answers to her reflective queries.
Frown lines crossed his forehead as he stared out of the window; his mind seemed to be in a faraway place.
Pinching her lips together, she fought the urge to yell for answers in frustration.
Breathe in from the nose and out through the mouth. She practised her calming technique, hands clasped on her lap, waiting for a reply. She had to be patient with him as he recovered from serious injuries.
Seconds ticked away before he turned to focus on her.
“I’ve lost some of my memory because of the head injury I sustained in an accident that I can’t remember, by the way. It’s the reason I can’t remember you...us...our wedding.”
He sounded exasperated, which she understood.
Air whooshed out of her lungs in relief. He wasn’t denying her.
His black eyes connected with hers, conveyed an intensity that hinted at other things more sensual. The air died to a halt in her throat as his gaze turned to the darkest onyx, keeping her transfixed on him.
“But if we are indeed married, then surely I’d remember us.”
The implication of his words sank into her brain, her body’s response instantaneous.
He might as well have tossed a lit matchstick onto a pile of kindle firewood with her body perched at the top. Except these flames weren’t turning her to ashes. Instead, her body awakened, a phoenix rising from the fire.
Heat travelled up from her curling toes in her wedge slip-on sandals to her face, setting her whole body ablaze. Heart pounding in her chest, she squeezed her hands together in front of her and tried to calm her quivering body.
This instant lust existed from the first time she’d seen him. One look from him and her body had responded in a wayward manner. Same as today. Despite being in a hospital, he still wielded power over her body.
And he couldn’t even remember her! How pathetic did that make her?
With her heart racing, she looked on, entranced, as a lazy smile dimpled his cheeks dusted with stubble. Though she shaved him every morning—she knew how Felix loved being clean-shaven—a shadow of hair always shaded his chin whenever she arrived back the next day. This morning, it gave his rugged face a fierce and sensual edge, making her want to rub her palms against the coarse, short bristles.
The tilt of his smile said he read her like an open book. Could he read her naughty thoughts, too? Her face flushed and she lowered her gaze as annoyance flashed through her mind. She needed to stop falling for his charms.
“Your shy smile is confusing because it implies that I haven’t touched you. But if we are married, ima-mmi, then we must have had a wedding night, at least, and I know from looking at you now that I wouldn’t have been able to resist you.”
Her husband at his most dangerous—full frontal charm.
The husky tinge of his words, the bait. His seductive words, the hook. Ensnared, he reeled her in and she couldn’t help stealing a glance at him.
Ima-mmi. My Love. She rolled the phrase around in her head, letting its warmth suffuse her heart, cherishing it. The last time she’d heard him use the term of endearment on her seemed like a lifetime ago.
They’d had a different relationship. Since then, he’d made it very clear he didn’t care for her in that way. So why did he use the term again now and mess with her head?
The widened smile showing white teeth indicated he knew exactly what he was doing to her, his intent gaze demanding an answer to his implied query.
Then again, he couldn’t remember a thing about their marriage. His words suggested hope for them; that he could come to love her. With his memory gone, they would get a second chance. Could they wipe the slate clean and start again?
Could she provide a satisfactory answer without giving away the troubles with their marriage?
“So tell me.... Did we have our wedding night or not?” The stern tone returned as his expression darkened.
“No.” The word left her lips as if wrenched from her very soul after cleaning her out. Shame scorched her cheeks and she darted her gaze away. “We didn’t have our wedding night. You had the accident on the same evening.”
From the corner of her eye, she watched as a brief frown touched his handsome features.
“You mean we got married and we didn’t...?” As he spoke, he gave her a slow appraisal from head to toe, spreading the heat of mortification all over her this time.
Why does the ground not open and swallow me up when I need it to?
“Yes. No. I mean—”
Before she could complete her sentence, the door to his hospital suite swung open and Felix’s brother, Mark, walked in, followed by his father.
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