Over an unhealthy lunch of chocolate-filled donuts and overpriced coffee, Zoey and Eli sat near the window overlooking the planes docked at Heathrow Airport, awaiting their next flight in an hour. Zoey watched Eli lick the chocolate from his index fingers and rehearsed her next line.
The corner of his lips twitched a smile and he lifted his gaze. Zoey averted hers, occupying herself with stirring the coffee. “Chocolate tastes so different overseas.”
Zoey smirked. “Probably.”
“What’s Nigeria like? I mean, the food and stuff?”
She laughed, lifting her gaze. “You’re such a foodie.”
He shrugged. “I like food.”
“Well, since you love spicy, you’ll like Nigerian food.” Zoey shook her head. “We should’ve tried some while in Houston. Can’t believe I never took you to one.”
“You said they weren’t that good,” Eli reminded her, grabbing another donut. “Something about fake meat.”
Zoey choked. “Man, that was harsh…”
“That’s what you said.”
“Yeah well, you’ll have plenty opportunities to try it at home.”
“What’s your favorite food?” his eyes skimmed her face while he bit into the donut. “I’m curious about the jello rice.”
“Jello…” Zoey heaved a sigh, mildly frustrated. Just when she was ready to spill, he was distracted by food. “It’s jollof rice, babe.”
“Ah Jollof. It’s like Mexican rice, right?”
“Not even close.” She frowned. “Eli, I need to talk to you about something.”
A plane whooshed over their heads and Eli peered out, watching the plane ascend into the clouds.
Her sharp tone had him glance her way. He frowned. “What?”
Zoey tamped another sigh and stared him straight in the eye. “I haven’t been completely honest with you–”
A child behind them squealed with delight and Eli’s gaze shifted over her head. Zoey grabbed his hand, smearing hers with chocolate. She grimaced. “E, I’m not a poor international student.”
Eli smirked at her. “I know that already.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m being serious.”
“Okay.” He released the donut and reached for a napkin. Taking her soiled hand in his, he wiped it clean.
Zoey drew in a breath and released it. “E.”
“I know you’re not poor, Zo. I know international tuition is high, and yet you have your own place, your own car, and you’re paying off your degree.” He looked up at her. “But what does that have to do with anything?”
“It has everything to do with everything.”
Eli chuckled, cleaning chocolate from her fingers.
He paused to look up. “Okay, talk to me.”
There was no other way to say it so she began with “My parents have money.”
Eli arched a brow. “Okay…?”
Zoey rolled her eyes. “Let me rephrase that. My family comes from crazy money.”
“Still isn’t that much clearer, Zo.”
“You know that show Rich Housewives Chicago* and the lady with the real-estate investments?”
“One of my dad’s side investments is twice that.”
Eli’s hand loosened and slid from hers.
Zoey swallowed hard. “I know I should’ve told you but–”
“Why tell me now?”
The quietness in his voice stilled her. She stared at him.
His features were taut but his eyes resembled a confused little boy. “Why tell me when we’re halfway there that you come from money? Why now and not before?” His gaze skimmed her face.
Zoey searched his and didn’t like what she saw there. “I didn’t mean to keep it from you, not purposefully. I just didn’t know how to say it. Didn’t think it mattered.”
“Then why mention it now? What for?”
“Because you’re coming home with me and I…” Zoey swallowed hard.
“You want me to be prepared.”
Zoey nodded, surprised yet grateful that he’d taken the words from her mouth. “Yeah.”
“You think I’m gonna embarrass you?”
Her eyes widened. “What–? No, heck no.” She frowned. “Eli, I don’t care about that. I just wanted you to know that my folks are a lot…”
“Attention travelers,” the voice on the intercom interrupted. “This is an announcement for Flight Z345A to Lagos via British Airways. Boarding will begin in twenty minutes. Please report to Gate 40B.”
“That’s us,” Eli mumbled, grabbing his bag.
“Whoa, wait a sec.” Zoey grabbed his wrist, stilling him for just a moment. She searched his expression and scowled. “Sit first.”
Eli didn’t. “You had a year and a half to tell me about your family and you didn’t. Give me at least an hour to process what you just told me. I have nowhere else to go but with you, so give me that. Fair enough?”
Zoey hesitated. Eli’s brooding took way longer than an hour, and she couldn’t afford his silence for another six hours. “I meant no harm, Eli.”
“I know, Zoey, but it still stings.” Eli tugged his wrist free and gestured for her to stand. “Let’s go.”
At least he waited for her to stand before walking in front. Zoey heaved a sigh as she watched his lonely frame and wondered yet again if she’d made the right decision bringing him along.
Another plane whooshed above as Zoey grabbed her bag and rushed after him.
He wanted to stay mad; she deserved more than just his silence. But they were 11,000 feet off the ground with only a boring selection of movies for entertainment and ignoring the person beside him didn’t make much sense. Especially since Zoey kept sighing and fidgeting in her seat.
Eli dropped the headphones to hang on the back of his neck and leaned in his seat, arching a brow at her.
She squinted at the screen and sighed before glancing once at him. “What?”
“What happened to giving me an hour?”
Zoey frowned. “I did–I am.”
Eli squinted at her attempt to look innocent. “Nah, you’re not giving me space and time to think.”
“Space?” She scoffed. “Eli, we’re in a cramped plane. How much space can I give you? You want me to switch places with a stranger? Should I tape my mouth and my body so I don’t bother you?”
Eli shook his head. Zoey could be so dramatic, just like his sisters. He sighed as a thought crossed his mind. “D’you know that all my siblings’ and their spouses have something in common?”
“What is it?”
Her mouth tightened in a hard line. “I already said it was unintentional. It’s more of an omission, honestly.”
“Lie of omission is still a lie, Zoey.” Eli held up a hand before she could protest. “Hear me out. Phoebe lied to Abe about who she was and almost jeopardized Junior, Darah and I remaining with our family. Geri lied to Bart about her ex-husband.”
Zoey’s eyes widened. “Geri was married before?”
“She was. He was a mean jerk to her, and died for his crimes–”
“Good Lord!” Zoey slapped a hand over her mouth, eyes wide.
“But she was able to escape and come back home. Anyway, she didn’t tell him everything and they even tried to lie to her ex in-laws about having a relationship…” he paused and shook his head. “It was a mess and J.R. had to step in to fix it.”
Zoey lowered her hand and stared intently with no interruption.
“Then there’s Darah, trying to hide her pregnancy from everyone.” He frowned. “Hers isn’t much of lying as it is omission of fact but then she was being stupid throughout.”
“That’s harsh, Eli.”
“It is but it’s true. Actually, both were actually lying to each other about their feelings, and they spent so much time dancing around before coming together.” Eli shrugged. “And then there’s Junior.”
“What about him?”
Eli scoffed lightly. “Pretty sure he and Karen are keeping some crazy secret there in Ethiopia. When I stayed with them for a summer, it was weird.” He scratched the side of his head. “Can’t put my finger on it but they were sneaky.”
Zoey sighed. “What’s your point, Eli?”
“Lies only complicate a matter that didn’t need to be complicated.” Eli stared intently at her. “You didn’t need to hide the fact that your family is loaded. I don’t care if your mom’s the queen of Nigeria or your dad owns every building in the country. You’re you and that’s the reason why we’re together, not because of the money your family has.”
Zoey nodded, regret plain on her face. “I’m sorry, Eli.”
“It’s okay.” Eli frowned. “I do want to know now. Can’t go there looking like a fool.”
“So you want me to tell you now?”
“We’ve got five more hours,” Eli answered with a shrug.
Zoey glanced around first, caution clear in her tense shoulders. She dragged her gaze back to him. “Can I write it down?” she asked in hushed tones.
Eli fought a laugh. “They must be really loaded.” She looked tortured and Eli tamped down the laugh from spilling out. “Alright, write it down.”
Zoey readily grabbed her bag and pulled out her notebook. Eli leaned in as she started to scribble, him reading as she wrote.
Half an hour later, Eli sat back, reeling.
Zoey closed the notebook and looked up at him, expression penitent. “I’m sorry.”
He couldn’t respond; not yet. The chart Zoey scribbled out proved that his mind couldn’t fully fathom the implications of Zoey’s background compared to his. Her father, a retired bank commissioner with real-estate and political connections and her mother, a princess of an affluent tribe that he couldn’t pronounce. He was an orphan with a questionable background and only $10,000 in both his bank accounts. She had legacy in her family while he knew nothing about his birth father.
So deep in thought Eli was that he didn’t hear Zoey and jumped when her hand dropped on his shoulder. He blinked at her. “Hmm?”
Eli stared at the woman he called girlfriend so casually, someone who was practically royalty. He’d always thought she was out of his league but now… The truth was a sucker punch to his gut, rendering him speechless.
Her eyes watered. “E, please say something.” Her fingers tightened on his shoulder.
He swallowed the truth down and tucked away his wounded pride. Zoey’s tears were more painful than whatever feeling he couldn’t fully identify. “I…”
Zoey sat up, eyes wide in anticipation.
Eli shook his head and laughed it off. “We should’ve taken the first class seats then.”
She blinked in surprise, obviously not expecting that reply. Then she giggled softly and shoved his shoulder lightly. “You gold digger.”
His half-smile dropped. Zoey’s laughter dissipated instantly and regret dressed her features. “Too soon, huh?”
Zoey sighed deeply and scooted close, tucking her arm under his. “Forgive me,” she pleaded, resting her cheek on his shoulder.
“Sure.” He stared listlessly at the movie Oceans 8 playing on the screen while sifting through his mind for a plan of action.
Four more hours till they touched down in Lagos, and he had no idea what to do.
“Everything will be fine,” Zoey said softly, tightening her hold on his arm. “My parents are more laid back than it seems. My cousin, Paula, she’s marrying a regular guy she met in London from university and everyone was cool with it. My mom was actually an advocate for their relationship.”
The need for an advocate meant there was initial pushback but Eli didn’t have the heart to interrupt her, partly because he wanted to believe that her parents would be accepting of his lack of qualifications too.
“And one of my aunties on my mom’s side is like the coolest aunty ever. Aunty Sophie, she’s picking us up from the airport.”
“What, no entourage?”
Zoey peered up at him, one brow arched. “Do you want one?”
Eli almost laughed. That she thought to ask was ridiculous. “No,” he answered simply.
She looked away. “Aunt Sophie’s like the rebel. She never got married and traveled all around the world. She reminds me of your brother Junior. You’ll like her.”
Eli could only nod. Any ally was welcome. “Ok.”
“I thought long and hard before inviting you, and I wouldn’t have done that if I thought you’d be treated badly. My family will love you. I promise.”
He nodded again, not wanting to weaken her confidence in him or his in her. “I hear you,” was all he said and allowed her to embrace him with all her might. He needed all the strength he could get for the journey ahead.
<<Chapter 4|| Chapter 6>>