Zed knocked on the door of his father’s study, smiling to himself at the sound of the old man’s gruff reply. Ten a.m. on a Saturday morning and Zachary Adedeji Snr. was already in a bad mood, it seemed.
“‘Morning, dad,” Zed said in a mild tone as he strode into the cool, well furnished interior. His father was seated behind his polished oak desk, and on either side of him stood ceiling-high shelves of leather-bound books. The older man looked up at the handsome, casually dressed young man standing in front of him. And as usual, the sight of his eldest son pleased him, managing to ease somewhat, any annoyance that his many business issues were causing him. The state of the nation and its direct effect on his money concerns had more than a little to do with his touchiness.
Nevertheless he made an effort to push the troubling files on his desk to one side, saying to his son in a jovial tone, “Hello, Zed. You look quite laid back this morning. Going to the country club?”
“Yes, actually. I have a tennis game with a friend – and then I’ll be grabbing lunch there afterwards,” Zed replied, settling on the edge of his dad’s desk and picking up one of the morning papers that lay there, glancing through the pages.
“That reminds me,” Zachary Snr. snapped his fingers suddenly. “You do recall that we’ll be having dinner tonight with the family of my good old friend, Jerry Attah. You know I told you last week that he invited us – ”
“”Us?”” Zed echoed, glancing up from the newspaper, his brows raised.
“Yes, son. Your mum and myself, and you of course, since your siblings are away at school and can’t be here. This is going to be a very important evening, Zed. Jerry is like family to me. We lost touch some years back, but when I met him again last week, during my trip to Abuja, he invited my whole family to dine with them at their home here in Lagos, tonight.”
“Well, alright, you and mom can make it, but count me out, okay?”
“What, you’ve got something else on tonight?” his father asked with a shrewd twist to his lips. “A hot date?”
“Well, I did plan to meet with a woman-friend, yes,” Zed replied, dumping the paper. “Look, dad, Mr Attah doesn’t really expect you to drag me along, trust me.”
Zachary Snr. sighed, thinking how stubborn Zed could be at times. And perhaps he got that from me, he realised, not without some inner pleasure. But he stood his ground.
“Zed, son, Jerry and I go back a long way, I told you about this. We were together at the bottom, crawling our way up inch by inch to where we are now. He knows I have a grown up son, I told him to expect us. He’s really looking forward to seeing you.”
“Gee, thanks, Dad,” Zed murmured, with a sigh of long-suffering. “Looks like I have no choice. Sorry if I sound inconsiderate, but I really was looking forward to my date tonight.”
I just bet you were, his father thought with hidden amusement, as his son left the study. Zed King, as his son was known by his friends and associates, was a sort of ladies’ man, who had more than his fair share of female admirers. And not just because of his rich-boy status, as the oldest son of a wealthy food-processing giant. Zach Snr. knew that Zed had enough charm, good looks and wit to win the heart of any woman, no matter what age. And the young tiger knew it, his father realised with a fond shake of his head.
Deciding that he’d lost any interest in business matters, he rose from his desk, suddenly feeling like the huge breakfast he knew his wife, Eva, had waiting for him in the dining room.
* * * *
The Attah household was a busy one that evening, especially the kitchen, which was a beehive of activity. Mrs Genevieve Attah, slim and elegant, and very beautiful even at age forty-five, had come in to inspect and put finishing touches to the elaborately prepared dishes that were to be served that evening.
Her able cook gave her a reassuring smile and told her that everything was all ready. It was a huge European-style meal with the traditional three courses, with the dessert billed to be a fantastic finish to the dinner. Genevieve had stressed the importance of the guests they were expecting, and how she wanted every detail to be perfect.
Glancing around the neatly kept kitchen, Genevieve nodded with pleasure, a feeling which dissipated when she noticed that her niece, who had been delegated to lend a hand, was still doing the dishes.
“Will you hurry up with those, for goodness sake, Taffy. Our dinner guests will soon arrive, and you still aren’t dressed. Finish with the cleaning up and go up and change.”
“Yes, aunty,” was the girl’s meek reply, as she hastily wiped off the cooking surfaces. She’d been up since six a.m. helping with the dusting and cleaning of the house, and then the preparation of the full-course meal, and she was dead on her feet, but she dared not complain.
“Where’s Mimi, by the way,” he aunt mused, as she peeked underneath the steaming pot atop the cooker, sighing with satisfaction at the heavenly aroma that assailed her nostrils. The cook had really outdone herself this time, she thought happily.
“Upstairs in her room, aunty,” Taffy supplied.
“Still painting her face, I’ll bet. Well, I mustn’t have you greeting our guests the way YOU look, Taffy. Go on, leave what ever you’re doing and get ready yourself.” The young girl nodded respectfully, and turned for the door, when her aunt added, “And oh. . . wear that dark blue dress I bought for you – I’m sure you know it.”
Oh yes, I know it, Taffy thought to herself as she hustled out of the kitchen and up the stairs to her room, the one place she had to herself in the house. She looked inside her wardrobe and saw the dress her aunt was talking about, hanging where it had been for months, ever since her “dear” aunt presented it to her last christmas.
Ah, the plain blue one that makes me look just like a maid, she thought angrily as she plucked it from its hanger and threw it across the bed, before jumping gratefully into the bathroom for a quick shower.
Ten minutes later, barely dressed, she heard her cousin’s voice, yelling for her. Buttoning up her dress rapidly, she dashed out of her room and down the hall to Mimi’s.
“There you are,” her cousin was gasping, as Taffy appeared. Mimi was struggling with the gown she’d “stuffed” herself into. Miriam Attah was on the big side, well endowed both top and bottom, and right then she was gaping in the back where the zipper lay half-open. “I thought I’d die calling for you,” Mimi puffed on.
“What is it, Mimi?” Taffy sighed with tiredness as she faced her pretty albeit overweight cousin.
“It’s this dress, Taffy luv. I’ve been trying to get myself into it for like an hour. Could you please do up the zip for me?”
“I’ll try,” shrugged Taffy, and they both huffed and puffed for several more minutes trying to fasten up the zip of the expensive dinner gown her cousin was bursting out of.
“Do be quick, Taffy,” Mimi moaned.
“Well, you must admit the dress could be a size too small,” Taffy said in her defence. “Do you really have to wear it tonight?” she enquired breathlessly, finally succeeding with the zip and closing the button at the top.
“Oh, I have to,” nodded Mimi, also short of breath, as she finally faced the full-length mirror in the middle of the large, elegantly furnished bedroom. “I’ve changed outfits more than four times already, and I figured this has got to be the most flattering.”
Taffy had to agree that it was true; the ruby colour of the designer dress did go well with her cousin’s fair, unblemished skin, and the low neckline with its ruffled bodice was quite eye-catching, its stylish knee-length revealing Mimi’s lovely, shapely legs. It was just unfortunate, Taffy observed, that Mimi had put on more than a few pounds in the past few months.
“You don’t think I’m showing too much cleavage, though?” Mimi asked.
I thought that was the idea, Taffy mused, watching as Mimi sucked in her tummy. “You look lovely,” Taffy assured her, very sincerely. Mimi did look beautiful. Her full figure suited her, and the dress was not bad at all, now that it had been fastened shut.
“Thank you, Taffy,” Mimi sighed, as she turned away from the mirror with a glowing smile for her cousin – noticing for the first time what Taffy had on, adding hesitantly, “And you look um. . . very nice, yourself.”
“You’re too kind,” Taffy smiled, amused despite herself, then asked with curiosity, “Just what is all the fuss really about? You’d think we were having the president over for dinner.”
Mimi’s bright eyes widened. “Are you kidding? Look here, Taffy, don’t you know Zachary Adedeji-King?”
Taffy blinked. “Well, yes, I’ve seen the name a few times in the papers, but – ”
“D-uh, he’s only like the biggest name in food manufacturing now. He own Z.A.K. Industries, not to mention a local airline and a string of airlines to boot.”
“Oooh, he’s big,” Taffy cooed dutifully, nodding.
“Of course he is. He and Daddy were friends ages ago, when the guy was like, nobody. Now he’s this huge business mogul who’s worth a fortune. Also,” she added with a mischievous roll of her eyes, “I believe he’ll be coming along with his first son, Zachary Junior, or Zed, as he’s known. I’ve seen pictures of him in the society mags and trust me, Taffy, he’s worth changing clothes five times for.”
“Mimi, you’re such a clown,” Taffy said, shaking her head at the way her cousin was sighing dreamily. “Just let your boyfriend hear you talk about some other guy like that.”
Mimi waved her hands dismissively. “Babatunde is like a thousand miles away, Taffy. Besides, he’s no saint himself. But never mind, I’ll be on my best behaviour so no need to give me that look.”
“What?” Taffy cried innocently, just as they heard the door bell peal loudly up the stairs. “That must be them; I”ll go get it.”
“Okay. I’ll just put finishing touches to my hair,” Mimi said.
Not wanting to displease her aunt, Taffy made it down to the front door as fast as she could, and was just a little out of breath from jumping down all those stairs when she finally opened the door to see the three elegantly dressed figures standing there.
“Good evening,” she greeted, “Please come in.”
“Thank you, young lady,” the distinguished-looking older man said, as he allowed his lovely, middle-aged wife in before him. They made a captivating picture in their matching traditional attire. The third visitor, obviously their son due to the strong resemblance, was however dressed in a smart, dark suit, with a white shirt and dressy tie.
Taffy had to practically peel her eyes away from him as he nodded to her in greeting before brushing past her and into the hallway after his parents. She could see now that he was every bit as handsome as Mimi had described. He was tall, with dark skin that practically glowed, with a boyish curve to his smooth jaw that made him look younger than he could be. Shutting the door hastily, she hurried to the front so she could show them into the large, expensively furnished living room, where her aunt, uncle and cousin were already waiting to greet them.
Warm, happy greetings followed all round, with hugs and kisses of welcome. Amidst the cheerful atmosphere, Taffy made good her escape, knowing her aunt would expect her to help with the serving of the food and drinks.
* * * *
The evening turned out to be quite enjoyable; the food was fantastic, the company charming, and Zed was already feeling glad that he’d come. The Attahs were wonderful hosts, and had a beautiful buxom daughter, barely two years younger than he was. They were placed side by side at the exquisitely laid table, so they managed to talk quite extensively while they ate.
She was more funny than smart, he decided, not unkindly. He did find her opinions on certain issues quite sensible – and besides, it was interesting enough just looking at her. She was quite pretty after all, with her fair skin and bright brown eyes – not to mention, of course, the delectable view her low neckline was giving him. Unfortunately, he was too much of a gentleman to take advantage of this, and made sure he kept his gaze strictly above her chin level. Most of the time anyway.
“Everything tastes so delicious,” he commented with appreciation, lifting his glass of wine to her in salute. “I guess we have you and your lovely mum to thank for that, Miriam.”
She smiled attractively. “Please, call me Mimi, everyone does. But I must confess I’m no fancy cook though my mum can rustle up a storm. And with Uduak the cook’s help, and Taffy of course, they pulled off this wondrous feast.”
“Taffy? Oh, you mean your maid,” he said, forking a delicious morsel into his mouth and chewing with obvious enjoyment.
“Maid?” Mimi frowned. “But we don’t have one.”
He looked up in confusion. “The young girl that let us in earlier – the one who’s been serving the dishes – isn’t she the help or something?”
“Or something,” Mimi replied with a playfully reprimanding pinch of his hand. “Taffy’s my cousin! On my mother’s side.”
“Oh. So why – ,” he started to ask, wondering why she wasn’t sitting at table with them instead of bustling in and out with laden trays, serving them food and drinks. But then he thought better of prying.
And yet, when she came in again minutes later, her hands holding a tray of heaped dishes, he found his interest was heightened and he took a closer look at her. Despite her slim, girlish figure clad in that shapeless blue dress, he could see that she was a bit younger than Mimi. For the first time, he noticed that she was actually quite lovely, even without a pinch of make-up and her hair tied up away from her face. In contrast with her cousin, she was chocolate coloured, with a pretty pointy nose and full, curvy lips. She moved with a feminine grace that he found appealing, as he watched her deftly place down the laden dishes, while taking up the empty ones unto her tray. She was just about to turn and leave, when, as if sensing his intent gaze upon her, she looked straight up at him and their eyes met.
“Careful, Taffy!” her aunt, sitting nearby, exclaimed, as just then, she saw the tray of soiled plates slip from the young girl’s fingers. Just in time though, Taffy righted the tray and prevented the disaster from happening.
“I’m sorry, aunty,” she said in a low voice, her eyes downcast as she hurried out of the room.
Safely back inside the kitchen, Taffy felt like kicking herself for her stupidity back there in the dining room, just moments ago. Uduak the cook was busy at the sink, and Taffy gave her the tray of dirty dishes, turning to place hot hands over her now cold cheeks as she wondered about her own strange behaviour. It was just that, when she’d raised her head and caught him staring at her, her brain had gone into reverse.
It wasn’t hard to imagine why, really, she reasoned, as she pretended to rearrange items in the ‘fridge, just to keep herself busy. After all, he was very possibly the most handsome man she had ever met, quite unlike the guys she was used to on campus. What with his ultra stylish, expensive-looking clothes and dashing good looks, he was like something out of a designer cologne ad. She was really glad now that she wasn’t sitting there having dinner with them, she realised. She felt sure she’d have been at a loss for words or how to act, not under that dark, piercing gaze of his.
Suddenly, she heard footsteps approaching, and she quickly shut the fridge and faced the door expectantly, relaxing when she saw it was only Mimi and not her aunt.
“More coleslaw,” Mimi announced, and Taffy took the empty bowl from her to get more from the cooler.
“My gosh, Taffy, isn’t he great?” Mimi gushed, leaning against the counter.
“Who?” was Taffy’s disinterested reply as she busily refilled the salad bowl.
“Zed, of course! That’s short for Zachary, which is his dad’s name too. Isn’t he the most gorgeous guy in the world?”
“Mimi, you say that about all the guys you meet,” Taffy pointed out.
“No, this is different. HE’S different. The way he talks, the way he looks – I’m like, totally floored! I mean, I could hardly get anything down, I was so nervous. And of course, he couldn’t take his eyes off me,” she declared proudly.
“Of course,” Taffy agreed, shoving the bowl into Mimi’s hands. “I mean, who could ignore your obvious charms. But you better get back in there or aunty will start to wonder.”
“Not to mention Zed,” Mimi added with a mischievous wriggle of her eyebrows. “I wouldn’t want him to miss me, either.”
“Oh, go on, girl,” this time it was the usually quiet Uduak who spoke up, sending her a reprimanding look. “You talk too much.”
“Okay, okay!” Mimi laughed, making a face at her cousin, who shook her head with a laugh.
Taffy once again busied herself around the kitchen, replacing items, wiping down surfaces. She could hardly see straight with the mysterious shaft of inner pain that suddenly crossed her eyes. She loved Mimi like the sister, and had never had any cause to envy or be jealous of her – until now.
Mimi had a home; parents who adored her, and gave her everything she could ever ask for. Also, she was so lovely that no right-thinking man wouldn’t be attracted to her. And thinking of this, Taffy, for the first time in her life, and for the first time since she moved into the Attah home ten years ago, she felt very, very sorry for herself.
She remembered the first time she’d stepped into this house, a gawky, sad-eyed teenager. Her father, who had been her aunt’s younger brother, had been killed, along with Taffy’s mother, in a terrible automobile accident a few months earlier. They left an orphaned daughter, who was tossed from relative to relative, until her aunt Genevieve appeared and took her from the East to live with her family here in Lagos.
At first, Taffy had found happiness in her new home: her cousin, Mimi, took to her at once, and they became fast friends, due probably to the fact that they were around the same age. They were enrolled into the same schools, and acted just like sisters. Taffy had felt like part of a family again.
But as they grew older, she noticed a change in her aunt’s attitude to her, saw that the woman who was supposed to be her late father’s sister, had never really accepted her as a member of the family. And her husband didn’t help matters by putting up an indifferent air to all that went on in the house. Take for example, that evening: her aunt treating her like a common kitchen help.
Standing there in her stupid ugly dress, coming face to face with the kind of man she’d only seen in her dreams, Taffy had longed to flee rather than let him see her the way she was. He had everything she didn’t – and he was everything she wasn’t. She hadn’t even been considered worthy to share the table with them. Oh, her aunt had made it clear early on that her presence was not required at the table when ever there were prestigious guests – except of course, to wait at table like a stewardess.
And suddenly, life for Tiffany Okon seemed very unfair.
None of the ill-treatment her aunt usually favoured her with, all these years, had ever really bothered Taffy before. It just never seemed to matter. But now, for some reason, it did. And now, she longed so much for the whole evening to be over so that she could lock herself up inside the haven of her room and give way to the hurt emotions that toiled within her soul.
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