Vuoke cradled the both sides of his face with his palms, he couldn’t believe it. The blows had come like a dream and he wondered what had triggered it.

“Stop please…” Ochuko’s voice rang out.

Fred stood before Vuoke breathing heavily and daring him to stand up and defend himself.

“You’re shameless! When you want to pick on someone, go pick on someone your size and not on a woman. Who the hell brought you up? A Goat?” He panted.

Vuoke struggled to his feet and stared at the man he’d never seen in his life.

“Who…who are you? What are you…doing here?” He spat, wiping the blood from the corners of his mouth with the back of his palms.

“My name is Fred and I am Ochuko’s friend. I am also going to be protecting her from now on, so if you know what’s good for you, never come close to her ever again!”

Vuoke looked at Ochuko in shock and stared at Fred.

“Do you know who I am?” He asked.

“Yes, I do, you’re a good for nothing vagabond who has no dignity! You are shameless!” Fred shouted.

The door opened and a nurse rushed in, followed closely by a security guard.

“What’s going on here?” The nurse asked. She looked at Vuoke and was quite stunned to see his swollen face.

“This man should be sent out of here! He is mad” He barged into my wife’s room and assaulted me.” Vuoke yelled.

“Me? Assault you?” Fred yelled. “Did you tell the doctor the reason Ochuko is here? Besides, she’s not your wife yet.”

“Don’t you dare yell at me! You are the stranger here and not me! You have no right to be inside this room.” Vuoke shouted. He turned to the security and demanded. “How did he get in? Is this hospital now open to hoodlums?”

“Sir…we’re sorry that this happened.” The nurse said to Vuoke. Then addressing Fred, she said. “Sir, please leave, visiting hours are over.”

“I will not leave!” Fred said. “He almost killed my friend…look at her…”

The security man moved up to Fred.

“You need to leave sir…” He said.

Fred turned to look at Ochuko who was looking at everyone in silence.

“Ochuko, tell them…tell them that you need me here.” He said softly.

Ochuko looked at him, there were tears in her eyes. She didn’t know what to do. A part of her wanted to tell Fred to go and that she’ll talk to him some other time and another part of her wanted to damn it all and get off the bed and follow him.

“Fred…I…I’ll talk to you later, okay…” She said in a soft voice.

Vuoke looked relieved, Fred was furious.

“You’re choosing to stay with him even after all he’s done to you? Ochuko, do you know the reason I rushed to this place at this time of the night? It’s because I dreamt that I was at your funeral…. your funeral! This man will kill you if you do not leave him. You need to ask yourself if he’s worth it.” Fred said.

“She doesn’t need your advice, get the hell out of here.” Vuoke spat.

“Please Fred, I don’t want trouble…please…” She pleaded.

Fred looked at Vuoke menacingly and wanted so desperately to rearrange his teeth. Instead, he turned to Ochuko and said.

“I’ll go…I wish you all the best…” He said and walked away.

“Fred…Fred!” Ochuko called with tears in her eyes.

Fred slammed the door so hard, Vuoke rushed to her side and sat beside her.

“Don’t call him back. He’s worthless…he’s scum.” He said. “Wait… who is he?”

Ochuko turned away from him and stared at the white walls as grief threatened to choke her.

********

Bruce listened patiently and when the call was over, he threw his phone against the wall and got off his bed. His wife walked out of the bathroom and stared at him in surprise.

“Are you okay?” She asked.

He seemed startled to see her.

“Oh, yes…I’m good.” He said, walking to pick up his blazer and put it on.

“You just smashed your phone against the wall…whatever that’s on your mind must be serious.”

“I said I’m fine…I am just having problems with some clients, that’s all.” He said as he walked over to pick up his car keys. “I’ll see you later.”

As he strode out of the bedroom and soon, out of his house and into his car, he fumed under his breath.

“I gave her everything…everything!” He spat as he started the car and drove out of his house.

**********

Zed drank his juice slowly and Bisiola was getting quite impatient with him.

“Drink up Zed, we need to be ready by the time daddy gets here.” She said.

“I don’t want to rush my food…my teacher says it’s bad to rush your food.” He said.

She nodded absent-mindedly and flipped through a fashion magazine, searching for new outfits to purchase but deep down, waiting for Fred’s call. He’d stormed out of the house last night and she still hasn’t heard from him. She picked up her phone and scrolled to the call log, just to see if she’d missed any calls from him but there were none. The doorbell rang and her heart soared, it was Fred.

She rushed out of her chair and hurried to the entrance to open the door. The maid was already at the door but she waved her away. She got to the door, placed her hand on the knob and smiled. Then she opened it.

It wasn’t Fred, but Bruce and he looked very angry.

“Bru…ce…I didn’t expect you to be so…early…” She stammered.

“Really? So that you can hide your lover before I get here?” He fired as he stepped into the house.

In the many years of being with Bruce, she’d never seen him look so angry.

“What…what?” She stammered.

“Don’t you dare try to lie to me…I have proof! You had a lover in your bed last night but he left the wee hours of the morning…do you think I don’t have my sources?”

“Bruce…how…how can you think that?” She stammered.

“After all I’ve done for you. I picked you up from nothing, I brushed you up and I gave you a life that no one would ever give you and how do you pay me back? You cheat on me!” He yelled.

“Keep your voice down, Bruce…our son…”

“Our son should know the ugly truth about his mother.” Bruce shouted at her.

“Look, I swear…I have not had anyone in my bed…it’s just you Bruce…only you…” She begged.

Bruce didn’t respond, he stormed into the house while she hurried after him, wondering who had told him about Fred or whether he was just saying that so that he could unnerve her.

“Zed! Zed!” Bruce called out.

“Why are you calling Zed? What do you want to do, Bruce?” She asked in a shaky voice.

“Zed!” Bruce shouted.

Zed came running, he looked happy to see his father.

“Let’s go!” Bruce said swinging the boy up in his arms.

Bisiola’s eyes widened.

“Bruce, please…where are you taking Zed?”

“We’re going to Sheraton…without you.” Bruce spat and hurried out with her son.

Bisiola hurried after Bruce as he left the house and got into the car with her son.

“Bruce…I’m not lying to you Bruce…” She said banging at the tinted windows. “Zed darling, I’ll see you later…okay…”

Bruce drove away leaving her standing in the compound and staring at the retreating car. ‘Who was spying for Bruce?’ She wondered. Was it one of her household staff? She was determined to find out.

********

“What? How could you Ochuko? Look at your husband’s face!” Her mother yelled.

Ochuko didn’t even look at her mother, she stared at the walls beside her bed. Since Fred had left after confronting Vuoke, she felt so sad. She’d never felt more terrible in her entire life and her heart hurt more than her battered body did. She wished she’d been brave enough to tell him to stay or better still, she’d wished she had told him to get her out of the hospital and away from the problems that were threatening to choke her.

“Ochuko! Am I not talking to you? Who’s that mad man you brought here to beat up my son-in-law?” Her mother yelled.

“Mummy, please don’t stress yourself out. You’re already stressed out with the wedding operations…I don’t want you to stress yourself anymore.” Vuoke said, his voice filled with concern.

Her mother began to cry.

“How old are you Ochuko? How old are you? Do you know you’re slowing becoming an old maid? Girls of twenty years of age are getting married and here you are, at thirty-one years old, and you don’t even have the zeal to fight hard in order to get married. I am so disappointed in you. If you lose Vuoke, you’ll never see any man like him ever!”

Ochuko still didn’t speak.

“Thank you, mom…” Vuoke said to her. “I honestly wish that Ochuko can understand me the way you do. I am tolerating a lot from her.”

“Who’s the man that assaulted you by the way? We need to look for him, we need to send him to the police station.” Her mother said to Vuoke.

“I don’t know who he is and Ochuko doesn’t want to tell me who he is but…let’s forget about him. I spoke to the doctor and he says that Ochuko will be discharged today. With your permission, I’ll take her home with me and we’ll stay together till the wedding day so that I can take care of her.”

“What of your work? Won’t you go to work?” Ochuko’s mother asked.

“I will ask for a leave…it’s almost my wedding day so they’ll approve of it.” He said.

Ochuko’s mother took Vuoke’s hands in hers.

“Thank you for being so selfless and for loving my daughter more than she deserves. Thank you.” She said.

“You’re very welcome, ma.” Vuoke said with a smile.

********

Chioma was at peace; all around her, there was nothing but peace and quiet. Her neighbour’s wife had left him and he had taken his children to his sister’s place. The man came home drunk as a skunk every night and singing loudly at the top of his voice whenever he made his way to his apartment. Chioma wanted to feel sorry for him but she couldn’t. There were challenges in life and Lilian’s husband was going through one of the many challenges. She too, had challenges, for instance, she’d had challenges when she didn’t have a male child but she’d changed her situation and here she was, happy as ever with her husband and children.

Sometimes, she was plagued by nightmares. She saw Lilian running about in search of her baby and other times, Lilian was successful in getting the baby back from her. Whenever she had such dreams, she was never able to sleep again as she’d get up from her bed and walk to her baby’s cot to be sure that he was asleep safe and sound.

There was no way that Lillian would ever find out that her baby was switched. The nurse who’d helped her at the clinic had resigned and had moved far away, leaving a fake address behind so, the case was sealed and there was no going back.

She was seated in her sitting room and going through the dedication pictures of her baby when she heard a loud rap at the door.

“Open…it’s me…neighbour!” Lilian’s husband’s voice came through.

Chioma startled, she was the only one at home as her husband had taken the kids out for some snacks after church. She got up from the sofa and walked to open the door.

Lilian’s husband stared at her, he flashed a smile at her and pushing the door open, he staggered inside.

“I do…don’t…harrrrveee…anyiiiitiiin…tooo eat…” He slurred and slumped on her sofa. “Bet…I…I’m not…hungreee…”

“You…you’re drunk…” She said.

He looked at her and nodded.

“I miss her…I…miss her…my Lilly…” He stammered.

“Errm…how can I help you?” She said quickly.

“Was I wrong? Should I have accepted her…explanations? But wait…wait…remember…the baby girl is…is…sickle…cell…and…it’s not possible…” He slurred.

“Can you please go? My family will be home soon and I don’t want them to see you here.” She said impatiently.

“Advice me…please…advice me…I have lost it all. My wife…I lost her…and…and I don’t want to regret it…should I take her back…even though she might have…have…cheated on me?”

Chioma looked at him, she didn’t know what to say.

“Advice…I need…your advice.”

“No! Don’t let her back!” She said quickly. “If you have doubts, you’ll never stop…”

He looked at her for a long time, then his eyes went to the baby pictures on the sofa. He picked them up.

“This…this baby…this…is my baby…what are you doing with my baby’s picture?” He asked.

Chioma’s heart beat fast, she had no response to his question. He picked up the pictures and looked at them.

“I…can swear…your baby…looks exactly like my first son at…this age…” He hiccupped.

Chioma snatched the pictures from him.

“Please leave…please…go…” She said.

“I’m sorry…it’s just that…I’m so lonely…Lilian and my kids …. I miss them.” He said with tears in his voice.

“Good bye…” Chioma said as she walked to hold open the door.

*******

Two weeks later….

Ochuko opened her eyes and the memories of last two weeks was still etched in her mind as though it was yesterday. She had not been to work since she was discharged from the hospital because she couldn’t face Fred. She’d sent a mail to Human Resources explaining that she was taking her annual leave. She still didn’t know how to face Fred especially after the wedding. A lone trickled down her face and she blinked.

“Happy wedding day!” Her sister, Amanda screamed as she rushed to hug her and jolt her out of her thoughts.

Ochuko was still lying on the bed, she hugged her sister back and forced a smile on her lips.

“Where’s the bride! The beautiful bride! The day’s finally here!” Zainab sang as she stepped into the hotel room.

Ochuko sat up on the bed and forced another smile, Princess, her youngest sister closed the door and leaned against it while Zainab rushed in to give Ochuko a hug.

“It’s been two weeks since that accident and here you are…alive and well. Thank God for sparing your life. I hate to think that something bad would have happened and you wouldn’t have lived to see today.” Zainab said.

Ochuko forced a smile again.

“What’s the problem sis? Your eyes look so sad.” Amanda said to her.

“I’m fine…” Ochuko lied.

“It’s your wedding day…please, be happy.” Amanda said.

Ochuko nodded and looked up to see Princess give her a disapproving glare. Since the accident, Princess had stayed far from her, she only spoke to Ochuko when she was addressed. It was if Princess knew the truth behind her bruises and the reason she’d ended up in the hospital and she didn’t want Ochuko to marry Vuoke.

“Let’s get ready…the people for hair and make-up arrive in ten minutes.” Zainab said.

“Let’s pray…let’s ask God to bless today because it’s the beginning of a new life for our adorable sister, Ochuko.” Amanda said.

“Yes! Let’s pray!” Zainab said aloud. “My mom is Christian so, I’ll say Amen to whatever you say. Let’s go!”

Amanda started the prayers with songs of praises, after which she prayed for Ochuko, Vuoke and the new family that they were about to have. When she was done, she said.

“Princess…please pray.”

Princess kept silent.

“Princess, pray…” Zainab urged.

“I don’t know what to say.” Princess said.

“What’s your problem? Tell God what you want for Ochuko.” Amanda insisted.

“Okay then.” Princess said. She dragged in a deep breath and prayed. “Dear God, please open my sister’s eyes to see what she’s about to get into. Let her know that this is her last chance to either move forward or back out. Make her realize that marriage is till death and that her happiness should be her priority. Make her wise and not a fool. Amen.”

Amanda’s mouth stood open at the end of the prayers.

“What? Princess!” She exclaimed.

“Let’s share the grace.” Zainab said quickly, feeling a bit uncomfortable over Princess’s prayer.

As they said the grace, Ochuko couldn’t ignore the knot tightening in her chest anymore. She wondered if indeed, she was making the right decision.

To be continued….

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