Two months after their meeting in Eli’s office, Nalia clutched her handbag, as she waited outside the courthouse. Her choices had led her to this moment.
Still, divorce wasn’t an easy choice. She struggled with the decision. Her hand touched her jaw, and for the first time in years marveled at the lack of pain.
Men and women alike glanced her way as they passed her on the corridor. She was glad to find the overwhelming urge to keep her head down gone. Before, with Malik, she found it hard to look up, afraid people would guess how she’d gotten the bruises on her face.
God, she had hated that feeling. That helpless feeling that she couldn’t express without tears filling her eyes, and sliding down her cheeks.
Nalia let out a soft breath and glanced at the time on her phone.
Nicholas was late.
He remained worlds away, even though they spent almost every day together these past two months. Nicholas had turned cold toward her after he found out she was married.
As if a switch had turned off inside him, Nalia’s frown deepened. Perhaps he judged her choices harshly. She couldn’t tell. Nicholas helped her without complaint. He wasn’t her lawyer. He had refused that job outright, and instead, had gotten a competent woman working with FIDA. Christine was a godsend.
Christine had taken Nalia through the divorce process without asking for money first. When Malik had shown up at the new one-room house she rented, Christine helped save her from a beating. Christine had used that incident to get the law on Nalia’s side. There was nothing to fight for in court. Nalia didn’t want anything Malik owned. She was afraid Malik’s money would haunt her. She thanked God every day that they hadn’t gotten children. It made the divorce process easier. Now if it would only end.
Nalia sighed, leaning on the wall.
“Are you happy?” Malik asked, and she looked up in surprise to find him standing a few feet away from her.
“I asked, are you happy, Nalia?” Malik repeated when she didn’t answer him right away.
Malik looked tired, his suit hanging on his shoulders, his jaw unshaven. His eyes, however, still held the same anger toward her. He refused to forgive her for making the choice to leave their home.
“I’m happy,” she said, her voice strong.
“You’ve made us into the talk of the town. Everyone knows we’re divorced. How are you going to keep working at the school? Surely parents will shun you for being a divorcee,” he sneered.
“If they don’t want me there, I can always get a transfer to another school,” Nalia said.
She had options.
Christine taught her that. Refusing to leave a bad marriage was not one of those options. Christine taught her that choosing to live a free and happy life was the only option she could make. She wasn’t alone.
“You have everything figured out,” Malik said.
Far from it, Nalia thought.
Holding Malik’s gaze, she straightened her shoulders.
“All I know is that I don’t want you slapping me because you didn’t get what you want.”
Malik scoffed and took a step closer.
Fear arced through her, irrational fear, because they were in public. There were people passing them in the corridor. Malik wouldn’t dare hurt her here, but still the fear grew deep inside her and she had to clench her fists to keep from running.
“You’re weak,” Malik said in a hateful tone. “You’re no beauty, and you could never fit my standards. It’s good you’ve left. I’ll find a better wife now.”
Nalia bit her inner lip wishing she could ignore his words. She knew Malik wanted to hurt her, and she shouldn’t let his words matter, yet they did. They mattered because she had loved him. Loved him enough to marry him, and try to build a life with him.
Tears stung the back of her eyes and he smirked.
“I hope you’ll be happy,” she said in a tight voice.
She locked her knees as he stared at her for a moment before he turned away and went into the courtroom. She fell back on the wall with a sigh once he disappeared, and took in a deep breath.
Warm hands clutched her shoulders and she looked up into Nicholas’s kind eyes.
“Are you okay?” Nicholas asked.
The tears she had held back fought their way out, her eyes filling; she blinked fast hoping to keep them at bay.
“You did well,” Nicholas said, squeezing her shoulders. “You did very well.”
She closed her eyes and the tears fell down her cheeks. Nicholas moved closer, handing her a handkerchief, he waited for her to wipe her eyes and compose herself.
“You’re late,” she said after a while, staring at his white handkerchief.
She met Nicholas’s gaze.
She wasn’t sure what he was sorry about, being late, or being cold toward her.
“Well, you’re here now,” she said with a small shrug. “Christine is getting paperwork done. She wanted to talk to you.”
“I know,” Nicholas said, his gaze still holding hers. “I’m—
She frowned when he broke off.
“What?” she asked.
“I thought distance was better,” Nicholas said abruptly. “I thought it would make this easier for you. Watching you stand up to him, I think I made a mistake. Nalia—
She dropped her gaze to his shirt collar.
“I thought you didn’t want anything to do with me because of him and the divorce.”
“That’s not true,” Nicholas said, touching her right shoulder.
Nalia met his gaze, a soft gasp escaped at the longing in his eyes.
“It’s time,” Christine interrupted, coming up to them holding a pile of files. “We should go in.”
Nicholas nodded and squeezed Nalia’s right shoulder. Christine headed into the courtroom, but Nicholas stopped Nalia.
“It’s almost over,” he said.
“I feel like it’s just beginning,” she said, hopeful.
Nicholas took her right hand and squeezed gently.
“I’m right here,” he said. “Right here with you.”
It was hard to ignore the wave of happiness that swept through her.
The thing with love, Nicholas thought, is that it didn’t come like in the movies.
There was no spark, no wave to wash away over the heart like magic. Love at first sight, he scoffed. Yeah right. He’d never subscribed to that piece of lunacy. All he knew was that love came when you least expected it. In the form of realization, and not struck down like an idiot holding a lightning rod.
He shook his head, his gaze on Nalia who had spent the past five minutes lighting a jiko. She was coughing now, the smoke rising from the lighting charcoal all but choking her. She wiped a hand over her brow, and left a smudge of charcoal on her forehead. Her weave was covered with an old scarf, and the green apron she wore had definitely seen better days.
Nalia scowled at the rising smoke and stepped back from the jiko. She entered the kitchen, using the back door and returned with a plastic container lid. Nicholas sat back in his chair, watching her fan the jiko like her life depended on it.
In truth, it probably did.
She had a cake order due in the afternoon. Her charcoal oven was unlit, and it was almost eleven o’clock. He had asked her countless times if he could buy an electric oven for her, but she refused. Preferring the charcoal oven to the whopping electric bill… the woman was strict when it came to expenses.
Her bakery was doing well. She was the baking primary school teacher now, instead of the divorced primary school teacher. She had worked a year to achieve that title.
One whole year, he sighed.
Nicholas had visited her, sat here in the small yard outside her bakery and rental house watching her work to build a life.
Nalia never complained, even when her orders overwhelmed her at times. Or when she ordered sacks of flour and her supplier refused to deliver them. Nicolas chastised her constantly when she chose not to call him for help and instead struggled with public transport.
Stubborn woman, Miss Independent, he sighed.
Yet her tenacity made her appealing.
Hell, he’d probably started falling for her when she jumped in front of his car one rainy night. Those days, he had not been ready to imagine he could allow a woman close to his heart—
A painful poke on his shoulder brought him back from his thoughts, and he blinked when he realized Nalia stood a few feet away.
“Your phone is driving me crazy,” she said. “Answer it.”
The ring tone penetrated his thoughts, and he grinned. Reaching for the gadget, he watched Nalia walk back to her jiko. Thankfully, there was progress and the charcoal was lit.
“Hello,” he answered his call.
“Did you find the courage yet?” Eli asked in greeting.
Nicholas sighed, staring at Nalia as she carried the jiko to her charcoal oven.
“I’m afraid to talk about that right now, she’s on a tight deadline…”
“Chicken,” Eli teased. “If you don’t tell her, I’ll call her and break the news to her.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Nicholas said, afraid Eli might carry out his threat.
Eli and Nalia had formed a fast friendship. He had been jealous at first, but now he liked that Nalia had Eli to rely on, too. After learning the truth about her life with that Malik, he wanted her to have people to call on, good people to trust.
“Your pitiful stalking is getting to a critical stage,” Eli said on the other end. “You’ve even kept the villa, Nick. Is it for her?”
“She liked that house,” Nicholas said with a smile. “Especially the books in the library…Oh stop rushing me. I’ll do this on my own time.”
“Fine, you coward, if she calls me at all, I’m going to drop a huge hint.”
Eli ended the call before he could protest, and Nicholas got to his feet.
“Do you have to leave?” Nalia asked, her hands at her hip as she turned to look at him.
“No,” he said.
“Oh good, make yourself useful.” She frowned, her gaze taking him in. “You might want to roll up your sleeves. Don’t want to ruin your handsome shirt.”
Nicholas put his cell phone into his pocket and did as asked. He neatly folded his shirtsleeves to his elbows. He glanced at Nalia, and almost balked when she pointed at a sack of charcoal leaning against the wall.
“Will you put that in for me?”
Nicholas shuddered glancing at his pale blue shirt. He had come straight from his office, hoping to catch Nalia and ask her out. Instead, here he was…he gave an inward groan and bravely walked to the sack of charcoal. Thanking his gym time, he carried the bag into the bakery and placed it at the spot she designated.
Dumping the bag on the stand, he stepped back quickly and caught a snicker from Nalia.
Turning to look at her, he frowned when she laughed.
“I didn’t think you’d do it,” she said in between chuckles. “Nick…”
“Woman,” he said, inspecting his shirt.
There was a smudge on his stomach, he wiped at it with his hands and frowned when he added to the stain.
“Stop,” she said, swiping his hands away. “You’ll only make it worse. Come on, wash your hands, and take the shirt off, I’ll clean that spot for you.”
“Why would you make me carry the charcoal then?” Nicholas asked, when she led him to the sink and handed him soap.
Nalia leaned on the counter with a smile. Damn that smile, the golden smile he couldn’t forget. Nicholas stopped washing his hands and turned to her.
“I came to ask you if you can go see the villa with me.”
Nalia met his gaze in surprise.
“Are you selling it?”
“I was going to, when we first met.”
“Oh,” Nalia said. “I guess the new owners will have it gutted and—,”
“I changed my mind,” he said.
“Selling the villa,” he said, taking in a deep breath. “I’m keeping the house.”
“Keeping it?” Nalia stared at him. “As in you’re going to live there? Here I thought you were a simple man…what do you need all that space for—,”
“I was going to ask you to move in with me.”
Nalia gaped, her eyes going wide.
“I—,” Nicholas broke off and he reached out to wipe the smudge of charcoal on Nalia’s forehead. “I love you.”
“I have thought about this for months, and—,”
“Months? When were you going to let me in on your thoughts?”
“When I was sure?”
Nalia stared at him and for a moment he thought he’d misread her.
“I’ve known for a while, you know. No man will agree to carry charcoal when dressed like you are right now.”
“I should have known you knew,” he said then, staring at the smudge on her face.
“No woman will stay with charcoal smudges on her face in front of a man she likes, without assurance,” he said.
“Oh you,” she pushed at his chest and he caught her arms with a laugh, pulling her into his arms as he’d wanted to for a year.
He kissed her then, and smiled when she wrapped her arms around him. It was like coming home.
“I promise to protect you,” Nicholas said, when they broke apart and he hugged her. “I won’t break your trust, Nalia.”
Nalia held on tighter.
“You gave me strength when I didn’t have any. If I hadn’t met you, I’d still be married to Malik. I would have gone back to him thinking that I’d keep surviving, but meeting you saved me from that.”
“I’m glad that you’ve waited this long for me.”
Nalia leaned up to kiss his left jaw.
“So what is your answer, girl with a golden smile?” Nicholas asked, needing a clear way forward.
Nalia kissed his right jaw.
Nicholas let out a laugh and wrapped her in his arms, whirling about in the middle of her bakery.
“I have a cake to bake,” she said when he held on.
“You’re spoiling the moment,” Nicholas complained.
“And I have a business to run,” Nalia said, extracting herself from his arms. “You’d better go inside and take that shirt off. I have t-shirts in there…
Nicholas smiled as she moved him aside to wash her hands.
His woman, he thought as she went to mix a cake recipe. He couldn’t wait to see what the future held for them.