He extended a hand when she did not reply and shook hers.
“Jeff, hello,” Nkem greeted him, winking behind Veronica.
“So, who’s ready to go?” Uncle Kindness broke the tension.
“We are!” Aunt Tammy yelled comically.
“Let’s get the party started!” Nkem shouted.
A few heads turned to see what the noise was about but they were not bothered. Jeff was still holding Veronica’s hand since she did not protest. Isacc rose and assisted his wife to get to her feet.
“Did you drive yourself, doc,” Uncle Kimdness asked.
“Maybe you will drive behind us, then?” he asked again.
“Let my driver drive your car while you join us in my car,” Jeff offered.
“It’s a tricky road. You don’t want to get lost.”
Veronica did not know what to say. The group was already headed to the parking lot. Aunt Tammy and family got into their car. Isaac and Nkem followed in another car. A young man who Jeff introduced as his official driver, Tony, took Veronica’s keys from her. Jeff and Veronica got into his car, accompanied by the event photographer who did not have a car of his own. Two other guests who did not have a ride got into Veronica’s car. Jeff’s car was the latest Ford explorer. He held the door open for Veronica to enter and then put his camera bag into the boot before getting into the driver’s seat.
Her brain was racing furiously.
“How can he have a driver and two expensive cars? Did I completely misjudge him? Father…I am in trouble,” she was thinking.
Jeff put the radio on as he started the car. “Do you mind if I play some music, ” he asked.
“No,” she managed.
“What kind of music do you like? Do you like gospel music?”
“I love gospel rock.”
“Then I have what you need,” he said as he slotted in CD.
As the music filled the car, he began the drive to the venue for the reception. It was not far from the church but there were many turns. Veronica was glad she didn’t insist on driving as she would surely have gotten lost. They carried on a conversation, totally oblivious of the photographer who sat in the backseat.
“How do you like living in Lagos?” Jeff asked.
“I suppose it’s okay, ” she replied and shrugged.
“How is it at work? I heard you took over recently from the previous owner.”
“My uncle, Dr. Nigel: He passed and left it to me.”
“I am sorry to hear of his passing but wow, he had great confidence in you for him to leave the hospital to you. You totally deserve it, by the way.”
“How has the transition been? Did your staff give you any problems? I remember the first day we met, you had an issue with a nurse.”
“Yeah, it’s been difficult. Some of them saw me as a threat. I let the worst of them go but some had worked there for so long that I felt guilty about firing them,” Veronica rubbed her nose nervously as she spoke.
“I can understand that,” he nodded. “You never get to that point where you feel nothing when someone’s source of income is being taken away.”
“So, are you into photography? You haven’t told me much about yourself, ” Veronica asked.
“I’m sorry. Photography is my first love. I actually put myself through school by taking pictures of other students,” he explained.
“Great,” she said.
He was going to say more but his phone rang, interrupting them. He looked at the screen and saw it was Nkem so he passed the phone to Veronica to answer. She took it from him, surprised.
“Hello, Aunty,” she said into the phone.
“Please tell Jeff to stop and buy bottled water for us. Aunt Tammy just got home to find that the ones she bought have a funny taste,” she requested.
“Okay, Ma. How many are we talking about?”
“She needs 10 cartons.”
“10 cartons? That’s fine. I’ll tell him.”
She ended the call and told Jeff what they needed. They were on the street where Aunt Tammy lived so he stopped for the photographer to get down and turned to head to the closest supermarket.
“If you don’t mind my saying so, you look smashing today. That dress is so pretty, ” he turned to look at her in the car.
She blushed and smiled. “Thank you.”
“Is it safe for doctors to be as beautiful as you are?”
“What do you mean?” she laughed.
“I mean…patients may refuse to be discharged even when they get well,” he grinned. “You don’t know how close I came to admitting myself into your hospital just to be close to you.”
“No way?” She punched his arm playfully.
“O yeah. And please punch me again…I like it,” he made a funny face.
Veronica bent over with laughter.
“Did I say something funny? ” he raised an eyebrow.
She was still heaving with laughter, patting her knee and trying to control her mirth. They were at the supermarket. Jeff parked, turned off the engine, got down and rushed to her side before she could undo her seat belt. She tried to hide her pleasure by averting her gaze but she was enjoying the attention. He reached for her hand to assist her as she got out, holding onto it while locking the car and turning to head for the entrance. Veronica was surprised at how comfortable she felt with him.
“Me who had been irritated with him? Thought he was a hustler? This photography must be lucrative for him to even employ a driver,” she was thinking.
“Do you need anything? A drink?” he offered.
“No, thanks,” she replied.
They bought the water and waited in the car while it was loaded into the boot. On the drive home, they chatted some more. Jeff found out how passionate she was about her career, her interest in charity and her deep commitment to God. She realised that he was a very good listener, humorous and courteous. He often made fun of himself and kept her in stitches all the way. Some how, where he worked never came up.
At the venue, Veronica was warmly received by the family. They ushered her into the sitting room and gave her a seat. A number of guests were already seated under the canopies outside listening to the live band and enjoying cold drinks. Jeff asked her to excuse him while he got busy helping out with the service. They had already exchanged numbers with her promising to let him take her to see a movie the next weekend. Nkem and Isaac took the seat beside her, nursing plates of food. She was accepted the plate of food she was offered and dug in. Jeff soon freed himself from the duties he had been assigned and joined the group. The couple gave them space by turning to chat with some other guests. Veronica was already tiring and had said she would soon take her leave.
“Doc, could I have your number?,” Nkem suddenly asked.
“Sure,” Veronica said as she brought out her phone.
Isaac cleared his throat.
“Why are you clearing your throat now? You keep doing that,” his wife teased.
“Let my brother be,” Jeff warned playfully.
“If I may ask, are you using any medication for your allergies?,” Veronica asked.
“Allergies? “Isaac wondered.
“You keep clearing your throat like it itches, your eyes are bloodshot and from what Aunty says, this is a regular occurrence,” Veronica stated.
“I have never…No one told me I have allergies,”he answered slowly, reflecting on her words.
“You need a few tests but you may not have to live with those symptoms.”
Nkem let out a whoop. “My sister, he will be in your office tomorrow. I will personally ensure it,” she assured.
Isaac was frowning. “Nothing is wrong with me.”
“Like I said, he will be in your hospital tomorrow,” Nkem repeated, eyeing her husband. “Jeff will take him.”
Jeff immediately perked up and accepted to drive his brother to the hospital. He was already looking forward to the weekend when he would see Veronica again. Any reason to make the wait shorter was welcome. He asked to be excused to inform their hosts that Veronica was about to leave. He planned to drive her car to a point where she could find her way and then head back in his car which his driver would follow behind them in. Nkem rose to use the bathroom . Veronica and Isaac were left alone.
“Your brother is so kind. He seems to always put others first,” she remarked.
“O, Jeff has always seen the best in others.”
“Maybe that’s why his photography business is doing so well.”
“Photography business? Is that what he told you?” Isaac burst into laughter.
“Why are you laughing? ” she asked.
Isaac calmed when he realised she was serious.
“Jeff is too humble. He is the HR manager of Chocolat International. In fact he oversees their West African division. Besides that, he and a friend just started a recruitment agency. I guess he is waiting for it to become profitable before quitting his job. The photography is a hobby. He doesn’t make any money from it anymore because he gives his pictures away,” Isaac explained.
Veronica gaped at him.
“Did you enjoy the party?” Isaac asked when she fell silent.
She nodded, unable to answer because she was mortified that she had assumed Jeff was a hustler and had treated him unkindly. It was inexcusable that she had maligned his character when she had no actual proof. He had been nothing but polite and she wondered how to dig herself out.
“Toyin will laugh at me,” she thought.
Jeff returned with Nkem and Aunt Tammy.
“Thanks for coming and thanks for the gifts,” Aunt Tammy said.
“You’re welcome, Ma. I had a great time,” she replied.
“I gave Jeff a package to put in your car. It’s just a bit of cake. We really appreciate your coming doc,” she went on.
Veronica thanked her as she hugged Nkem, waved to Isaac and left with Jeff. He took her hand as they left, waving to the guests who were still lingering outside. She was sober, reflecting on her past conduct and thinking furiously of how to redeem herself. In his car, she turned to him as soon as he started the engine.
“Umm, I want to apologise for the way I treated you on the past few occasions we spoke. I don’t know what came over me,” she began.
He was silent.
“Can we start on a clean slate?” she rasied a brow.
“Of course. If I may ask, what was it that irritated you so much?”
“Well, one of my friends, Seun, was a victim of a con artist. She was the chief medical officer of a clinic here in Lagos. The guy had no source of income. He kept posing as a big boy while she footed his bills because she didn’t want to lose him. They got divorced after 3 years of marriage. She had given him some money that she took from the hospital because he wanted to import stuff. He took off for America and never came back,” she narrated.
“What! That is unbelievable. ”
“My friend has become a shadow of herself. I think I had my guard up so high because the day Aunt Tammy had her baby, you were casually dressed and seemed to have a lot of time on your hands.”
“Yeah, I have flexible hours at work because I’ve paid my dues. I was head-hunted by the previous HR manager when he had to retire and if I take time off, I usually work overtime to pay back.”
“Now that that’s out of the way, I need to ask, do you have a boyfriend?” he turned to look at her.
“Is it too early to ask?”
She shook her head. “The truth is, I have been in a rather one-sided relationship with a colleague that I met during my internship. We have carried on without ever defining what we are doing,” she pursed her lips.
“Alright. I trust you to take care of that. I want you to know that I really like you and I want us to be much more than friends. I hope I have a shot?”
They had got to the bus stop she had told him she could drive home from so he stopped and fixed his gaze on her.
“Do I have a shot, Veronica?” he repeated.
She swallowed silently.
“Huh?” he asked.
She nodded finally. “Yes you do.”
“Hurray!” he yelled and turned off the engine.
She smiled without saying more. He unlocked the doors, got down and helped her out. His driver had parked behind them. He followed her to her car, carrying her cake in one hand and holding her with the other. Tony handed her her keys and walked over to Jeff’s car. She got into her car.
“Thanks for coming, ” he said.
“I should thank you,” she said.
“I’ll call you tonight. Bye,” he waved.
“Bye, Jeff,” she said as she drove off. *
Immediately she got home, Veronica dialled Toyin’s number.
“TY, I fall my hand today*,” she said when her friend answered.
“Give me gist.”
“That guy that I told you is a hustler? The one I have been giving the cold shoulder? ”
“He is the HR manager of Chocalat International! ”
“You are lying!”
“He is even in charge of their West African division. My sister, you needed to see how I disgraced myself, asking if he was a photographer!”
“Kai! ” Toyin burst into laughter.
“My mouth refused to close, where I was gaping like a roasted fish. Meeeen, I feel like slapping myself,” she regretted.
“I hope he didn’t hold it against you.”
“No, he was so gracious. I didn’t know Nigerian men open the door for women.”
“They do when they want to make an impression. No be so Toks been dey open*? Now, I have to remind him that he has to continue with the behaviour that made me marry him O.” Veronica laughed.
“Toks eh! If I catch him.”
“So tell me about him. Better still give me his name so I can check him out on social media. He had better not have skeletons in his closet.”
“TY, are you working in a hospital there or you joined the CIA?”
“Whatever the case, at least let me know what he looks like. We don’t want children with buck teeth.”
“Hian! Are we already planning my wedding? ”
“Of course. You remember I am your matron of honour? I don’t want to hear that anybody else is contesting with me.”
“Hold your horses baby. I haven’t fallen for him. There is still the issue of Buchi. We haven’t had the talk.”
“I told you to settle this matter last week. Call him tonight. Even if Jeff is not the one, you need to get out of that relationship. I don’t see it going anywhere.”
“I’ll call him right away. I think I have put it off for too long,” Veronica decided.
“That’s my girl. No good thing will he withold from those who believe in him,” Toyin quoted the scriptures.
“From those who are upright in heart,” Veronica completed.
The call ended soon after. She settled in for the call to Buchi. Perhaps her encounter with Jeff had emboldened her, perhaps it was her friend’s encouragement. Whatever the case, there was no need postponing doomsday.
To be continued. Cheers,