A young man edged around the crowd surrounding Zoey and eventually maneuvered his way into the middle, swooping in to grab Zoey in a hug sweeping her off the ground.
Eli stiffened as Zoey squealed and the crowd erupted in laughter. As the man spun her around as if she weighed little to nothing, Eli caught a glimpse of Zoey’s delight. Still his shoulders didn’t loosen up. Not even when Nwando’s hand rested there. He certainly didn’t remove his gaze from Zoey’s bright and unrestrained smile; it was the most genuine one she’d had since they arrived in Lagos. Who was that man to invoke a smile usually reserved for him on special occasions?
“Don’t be weird, lover boy,” Nwando advised near his shoulder. “That’s Law, Zo’s only brother.”
Her words quelled the suspicion. Eli watched the siblings grin at each other as Law lowered his older sister back on her feet.
“It’s been ages since they saw each other. Those two act like twins,” Nwando continued, a smile evident in her voice. From the bright smiles all around, Eli knew that Zoey was indeed the gem of her family.
Nwando tapped his shoulder, commanding his attention. One brow was raised even as she appraised him from head to toe. “I still can’t believe you made it here…” Her gaze pinned his. “Did she explain everything?”
He didn’t understand what she meant by ‘everything’ but had a feeling Zoey had barely scratched the surface about her family. The smirk that formed on Nwando’s lips confirmed his suspicion. “I guess not,” he answered glibly.
Both brows raised. “I can tell you’re not too happy to hear that–” she paused as the crowd erupted in a chorus of laughs. Her eyes redirected back to him, scanning him from head to toe. Then she wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “No good. One look at you and they’ll know exactly who you are.” She glanced over his shoulder and gestured for someone behind Eli.
Eli started to ask why he had to hide who he was or be relegated to standing in the shadows with someone he’d only just met when a hand clapped over his shoulder. He whipped around.
“Whoa, men!” laughed a bearded man with sunshades. He had both hands up. “Easy, men”
“Shh!” Nwando nudged Eli’s fist. “This isn’t fight club. Dom, do me a favor.”
The man edged close to Nwando. “Sure, baby. ’Sup.”
Eli frowned as the man leaned in close to Nwando who looked anything but welcoming.
Nwando turned to the man named Dom. “How many times did I tell you not to call me that?”
“Men, stop trippin’ baby. Y’know you want me, men.”
“You stop tripping with that fake American accent.”
Eli arched a brow. That sounded absolutely nothing like–
Dom laughed and edged even closer, practically brushing his nose against Nwando’s braided up-do. “Y’know you like it, men.”
Eli grimaced out of second-hand embarrassment for the guy failing his attempt at flirting. He turned his attention back to Zoey fully occupied with her welcoming committee. It seemed she’d forgotten all about him.
A finger poked his shoulder. Eli turned back to see Nwando scowling at him while Dom held a hand over his right eye. His widened and stood alert. “Yes?”
Nwando squinted at him. “I know you came here with Zoey but you’re going to have to focus. Go it?” She lifted two fingers.
Eli flinched beside himself.
She rolled her eyes and turned it to hers. “Keep your eyes on me for tonight. You’re my guest.”
Nwando looked anything but accommodating and Eli nodded, careful not to argue or look at Dom now sporting an eye injury.
“Good,” she said. “Once Dom gets over himself, he’ll help you get fitted and then I’ll introduce you to the other guests.” She turned toward Dom. “Get him something to wear. And stop exaggerating. I barely touched you.” With that, she spun about and pushed forward to join the group greeting Zoey.
Eli finally turned to Dom who was rubbing his eye. “You okay?”
Dom snorted. “Deadly Naija babes.” He lowered his eye and re-adjusted the shades. “Come, let’s be going.” The awkward inflection in his voice was replaced with a more natural accent. Sizing Eli once from head to toe, Dom turned and walked into the shadows.
Eli refrained from looking for Zoey and followed after Dom.
The laughter and music trailed their path down the dimly-lit hallway. Pictures, paintings and tribal artifacts lined the walls on either side but Eli didn’t stop to investigate. He’d find a chance later on to tour the mansion. Dom was taller and bulkier than Eli. His long-legged pace kept him at a distance for Eli who had to pick up his feet just to catch up. At the end of the hallway, he finally did.
Dom glanced his way before facing the path around the corner to climb a flight of stairs. “So you from Brooklyn.”
Eli choked on a breathless laugh. “What? No. Houston.”
“Ah ok, Houston.” His heavy footsteps thudded loudly, echoing in the empty stairwell. “Beyonce’s hometown.”
“Yeah… you like Beyonce?”
There was a pause before Dom replied. “Tiwa’s better.”
Eli shrugged and followed Dom yet another flight of stairs. More pictures lined the walls up to the next floor and Dom took a turn instead of going up another flight of stairs. Eli blew out a breath and kept pace.
“Eh ya, Ezinne. How do you feel now that your baby has returned from America?”
The woman sitting on one of the oversized leather sofas merely crossed her arms. She eyed Zoey from head to toe and kissed her teeth. “It’s not her first time leaving me. I’m used to it.”
Aunty Nneoma snorted, sitting on the opposite end of the couch. “Stop forming, Zine. We all know how you get when Zobo’s away.”
Ezinne Smith glared at her sister. “Did anyone ask you?”
The ladies tittered in response, all accustomed to the daily feuding between the sisters. They watched in amusement as the two glared at each other over their wine glasses.
Another woman, this one sitting closer to Zoey, nudged her arm. “Do something about your mama. She’s been sulking all day!”
“Sorry Auntie,” Zoey answered, winking at her mother who only rolled her eyes. “Only my dad can appease her. Where is my dad anyway?”
“Settling bride price,” Aunty Nneoma answered, examining her nails.
“Still?!” a young woman dressed more formally than everyone else stepped into the circle. “When will they finish?”
The women erupted in laughter. Aunty Nneoma gestured for the scowling girl. “Paula, my dear, come and sit first. You know as the eldest of Late Chief Nnamdi’s grandchildren, this is our customary tradition. Your aunty Ezinne had the same and you must as well, even if our father is long gone. It is your way of honoring him and us, so relax.”
The sulking bride sat in a slump between her mother and aunt. Then she flung a glare at Zoey. “Lucky you.”
Zoey held up both hands in surrender. “Ah, what did I do?”
Paula rolled their eyes. Aunty Nneoma cooed at her daughter, pulling her into her arms. “Pele, my baby.”
The women tittered again, some working to coax a smile out of the bride.
Forcing to hold a smile that made her cheeks hurt, Zoey turned to look for her friends. Nwando walked past the back of the couch and she grabbed her arm. “Where’s Eli?” she whispered, glancing around for her boyfriend.
“Who?” Nwando blinked at Zoey. “Shh. Eli’s not your friend.”
“What’s going on, Zoey?” her mother’s voice sounded behind her.
“Nothing.” Zoey frowned at Nwando, silently demanding an explanation for her strange behavior.
Nwando sighed heavily and turned her hand to grab Zoey. “Come here.” She smiled over at Ezinne. “We’ll be right back.” tugged on Zoey’s arm, pulling her away from the group and to one corner near the doorway. “Here’s the deal.”
“Yeah, what’s the deal?” A frowning Zoey folded her arms across her chest.
“Your parents and everyone in this room has their eyes on you. Maybe that’s why Paula’s ready to fight you, but imagine when their eyes land on Eli. They’ll be ready to tear him to pieces.”
Zoey grimaced. There were a few women in the room whose bite was as painful as their barks. Aunty Nneoma was one, and her mother was another. She shuddered.
“So here’s the plan.” Nwando glanced around once and then leaned in close. “Eli is Dom’s Internet buddy touring Lagos for the week. He’s a creative.”
“Huh–mmmff!” Zoey scowled, yanking Nwando’s hand off her mouth. “I can’t believe you–”
“Stop making a scene. Your mom is looking this way,” Nwando entreated softly, lowering her hand to her side.
Zoey dared not glance over her shoulder–her mother could read faces too well.
“Their guards will be down because he’s Dom’s friend.”
“Who happens to be Law’s friend. So how do you explain Law not knowing Eli?”
Nwando frowned and Zoey mirrored her expression. “You hadn’t considered it?”
“Wait… is Paula pregnant?”
“What–” Zoey glanced over her shoulder to catch her cousin fidgeting in her seat. “Why would you say that?”
“Think about it. She’s increasingly cranky, her courtship was so short, and even the wedding festivities are rushed. Not to talk of her boobs looking gigantic.”
“Crazy girl.” Zoey kissed her teeth in annoyance. “They’ve been dating for ages, Nwando.”
“Hence the pregnancy. I’m surprised at your Aunty though, throwing a big party when her daughter is–”
“My God, Nwando, focus!”
Nwando flinched. “Cool down, girl.”
“Focus,” Zoey gritted through clenched teeth. “Where. is. Eli?”
“I told you, he’s upstairs with Dom. Don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry?” Zoey echoed, gaping at her friend. “This is the same dude you swear is a biggest creep in all of Lagos. And you entrusted my guy with him? Are you okay in your head?”
“Relax. He’s only a creep with girls. Eli’s fine.”
“How comforting.” Zoey folded her arms across her chest. “Doesn’t explain how we get Law onboard.”
“Get Law onboard about what?” her only brother’s voice sounded from the shadows, and he stepped out, holding a bottle of Coke in one hand and a beef kebab in the other. His gaze moved over Nwando and landed on Zoey’s face. He chuckled. “Oh right. You need my help covering for your American boyfriend?”
He snorted in full laughter and pointed at them with the kebab stick. “You should see your faces.”
“Shh!” Nwando roughly grabbed his hand, attempting to put him in a choke-hold.
He easily stepped out of it and bit into the meat. “I never thought I’d see the day you’d bring a white boy home. Didn’t think you had it in you really.”
The warm welcome he’d just given her faded away and Zoey wanted nothing more than to wipe that smug look on his face. She squinted at him. “I didn’t think you’d be this close-minded. And he’s not white.”
“Who cares? He’s not African and you know what happened with Aunty Nneoma.”
Nwando scowled. “Stop Lawrence.”
“Keep calling me that and I’ll squeal.” He smacked his lips loud. “I can just imagine Mom’s face. Man, Dad will freak.”
Zoey swallowed hard. “Law, please.”
His face suddenly changed at her soft plea. “Please what?”
The two siblings stared at each other, both knowing what they’d have to do. Zoey hating every second that stretched between them. Law wouldn’t budge first and she hated giving in to him so easily.
“We’re back,” Dom announced behind them.
Zoey lifted her eyes, taking in the sight of Eli dressed in native attire that fit him perfectly. She gasped inwardly. The perfectly-fitted outfit was one of Law’s favorites!
Law started to turn.
“Fine!” she answered. “I’ll do anything you want.”
She could feel Nwando’s stare at her but didn’t shift her gaze. Law turned to her, his widened slightly.
Zoey could only imagine what his thoughts conjured up and bravely nodded. Her gaze flickered once to Eli eying her curiously. She tamped a sigh and faced Law squarely. “Keep your promise.”
“It doesn’t matter, we’ll discuss my request later,” he answered, a devilish glint in his eye. “Sure, I’ll pretend your boyfriend is my friend visiting Lagos for a week.”
“Actually, he’s Dom’s–”
“Shut up Nwando,” Zoey snapped, annoyed she had to bargain in the first place. “And if Mom and Dad ask you anything?” She couldn’t afford to look at Eli right now or Law would find another weak point to prod and manipulate.
Law shrugged. “You know they won’t. They don’t care about my friends like they do yours. Point in case, Dom.”
“Enh? What does that mean?”
“Shut up, Dom.”
Zoey sighed, the tension in her shoulders loosening. “Okay. Deal.” She extended a hand to her brother.
“American tin,” he laughed before holding her hand in a firm grip.
“Keep your word,” Zoey prodded, tightening hers.
“You got it,” he squeezed her hand.
“When I see my children shaking hands, something tells me there’s trouble brewing,” a deep and hoarse voice sounded behind Zoey.
Zoey whipped around and flung herself into her father’s arms. He laughed and enveloped her in a hug.
Law grinned cavalierly. “Ah c’mon Dad, we’re just conversing.”
“Deals are made in the banks not at your cousin’s door-knocking ceremony.” He sounded cross in his reply but his hold about Zoey was gentle. Drawing back, he smiled gently. “My princess.”
“Hi Daddy,” Zoey smiled back, scanning her father’s weathered features and snow-white beard. “You shaved your head?”
A smile resembling Law’s but warmer formed on her father’s lips. “Why hold on to hair that isn’t holding onto me?”
Zoey and Nwando laughed nervously. Law snorted. “The bald look is trendy, Dad.”
“Of course it is. Welcome home.” He kissed her forehead and his eyes zeroed in on the quiet one beside Dom. “And who’s this? Haven’t seen him before.”
Zoey stiffened, breath baited. She peeked once at Eli who was watching her and quickly looked away, cheeks aflame. No doubt he’d rip her one later. But right now, she needed her brother to make good on his word. Her eyes pierced his face.
Law cleared his throat. “This is EJ from Brooklyn. He’s my friend, Dad.”
Their father was quiet for a moment and then nodded. “You are welcome, EJ.”
Dom nudged Eli in the side and to Zoey’s relief, Eli nodded. “Thank you.”
Then the elder returned his focus to Zoey. “Have you eaten?”
Zoey managed a smile, suddenly feeling light-headed. “Uh, not yet.”
He slung an arm around her shoulders and drew her into his side. “Then let’s get something. We’ve decided on your cousin’s bride price.”
“Ooh, is it high?” Law asked, walking on the other side of their father.
Feeling the burn of Eli’s gaze on her, Zoey swallowed the dread in her throat and let herself be dragged back to the party.