Eric Kabuto was at a disadvantage. He worked hard to escape sobbing women unless it was his mother or four sisters. The experience of dealing with the women in his family had taught him that a woman’s tears were a powerful weapon.
The woman at his feet buried her face in her hands and let out a sob. It sounded desperate to his ears, and it tugged at a part of him that he hadn’t known existed. A part of him wanted to kneel down beside her and pull her into his arms. She’d ran into him at full force and fallen to the floor before he could save her.
She was short and curvy, her black weave long and pretty. Her clothes were neat, classy; she dripped of refinement. He crouched down to touch her trembling shoulders. She didn’t seem the type to burst into tears so publicly.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Does anything hurt?”
When she didn’t lift her head from her hands, his gaze moved to her heels. The black stilettos looked dangerous. Maybe
she’d twisted her ankle. He shifted to check, his hands sliding over satin skin, as he checked her foot. She smelled like fresh mint, the scent sweet and elusive. He frowned as every cell in his body reacted with attraction.
“I’m fine,” she said suddenly, moving her legs away from his touch.
Her voice was soft, like music, he stood and took her elbow to help her up. She wiped her eyes with her palms as she got up. She straightened her red jacket then finally lifted her head.
He sucked in air as he met her gaze. She had a round smooth face, full lips and clear brown eyes. Her eyelashes clumped from the tears. She wiped the dampness from her soft cheeks and dropped her head.
“I’m sorry, this was my fault,” she said in a quiet tone. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“I’m not the one who fell,” Eric said with a small smile. “Are you sure you’re okay? You fell so hard.”
“I’m okay,” she said absently. “Excuse me.”
She turned and entered the ladies bathroom without another word.
He blinked, shortly confused by the urge to rush in after her. She hadn’t looked okay.
Her eyes, he thought, her eyes were full of sadness. He wondered who she was.
He turned to find his assistant, Linda, standing a few feet away.
“The meeting is about to start, Taylor is waiting for us.”
Eric gave the ladies bathroom door one last glance. Putting the crying lady out of his mind, he dragged his thoughts back to the reason why he was here.
“What took you so long?” Linda demanded as she grabbed his arm. “The hotel sales managers are about to show up. Taylor and Beth are waiting.”
“Yes, I know,” he said tugging his arm out of Linda’s hold. “Don’t worry, I won’t cause a scene. I’m here for Taylor.”
“Are you sure about that?” Linda asked giving him a skeptical glance. “The last couple of months have been a trial, you know. Watching you wallow over Beth has been depressing.”
He winced at the reminder of what he’d lost. The wound in his heart throbbed and he forced the pain away ruthlessly. He’d promised himself that he would move on. Beth was no longer available, and he loved Taylor too much to come between them.
He’d grown up with both Taylor and Beth, in the semi-urban Waithaka area. They’d ran along dirt roads flying kites, playing bano, making mud pies and getting as unruly as they could. They’d made a tight bond of friendship that had seen them through primary, secondary school and college. He didn’t know when he’d started liking Beth as more than a friend.
One day, after his first photography assignment, he’d gone to her house to share with her the triumph of his first paycheck. He’d found her doing laundry in the back of the house. She’d been stomping on the sheets in a large green basin to get them clean. She’d lost her balance when he called her name. He’d caught her in time though, his arm sliding around her waist. He could still remember the soft gasp she’d let out, the moment etched in his brain. It had been his first day of hell.
After that day, he’d noticed every time Beth walked into a room. He’d memorized her laugh, her voice when she spoke, the way she tilted her head slightly when she was listening keenly. His heart had longed for her; it had taken him three months to pluck up enough courage to tell her how he felt.
He had that day etched in his memories too. The day he’d lost Beth, without having ever confessed his feelings to her.
Unknown to him, Beth and Taylor had been dating, and on the day he was going to ask Beth to be his girlfriend, they’d both just found the courage to tell him about their relationship.
The pain that had ripped through him was still fresh. It had taken everything inside him to smile and wish them well. He’d spent the last three years working assignments in places that would take him out of the city and away from the blooming happiness between Beth and Taylor. Now they were getting married, and Beth had begged him to take their wedding photographs.
They reached the conference room where he’d stowed away his gear before he’d gone in search of a bathroom. Linda pushed the door open and he followed her in to find Beth and Taylor in deep conversation. Beth’s beautiful face lit up when she saw him and a pang of jealousy swept through him.
“Eric,” she said pushing her chair back and standing.
She looked so good in a cream tailored dress that hugged her slim figure to perfection. Her brown skin was warm under the fluorescent lights. He stilled himself as she came to hug him, her flowery perfume insidiously flooding his nostrils.
“You look good. Why didn’t you call us? What time did you reach Nairobi?”
He patted her shoulder and took a step back from her.
“I’m sorry. I got in very late. It was past ten at night. I figured you might be asleep.”
“Since when has that ever stopped you?” Taylor teased as he stood too and came around the table to greet him. They exchanged an abrupt hug before Taylor took his hand in a firm handshake. “Where were you this time?”
“Garissa,” he said.
He’d taken an assignment there to take photographs of a resort for their website and advertising purposes. He’d spent three days in Garissa enjoying the hot sun and the oasis the resort had created. Before that, he’d done a wedding in Diani, a tour in the Mount Kenya region and a fashion house show. His photography kept him busy. Busy enough to stay away from both Beth and Taylor for months if he chose.
“Are you guys ready?” he asked abruptly. “We have days before the big day.”
Taylor turned to Beth. He watched Taylor slip his arm around Beth’s waist and tug her close. The gesture was simple but spoke of intimacy. A close connection he coveted. Moving away from them, he busied himself by walking to the side table to pick up his camera bag.
“As ready as we’re going to be,” Beth answered as they returned to their seats around the long glass table.
Linda sat across them. She opened her laptop and got busy working on his schedule, and updating their studio website. He was glad for her because she kept him organized. He carried his bag to the seat beside Linda, putting as much distance as he could between him and the happy couple.
The conference room doors opened and in walked a friendly tall woman in navy-blue.
“Morning Grace,” Taylor greeted her as she shook his hand then Beth’s hand. “I hope we’re not late for our meeting.”
“Not at all,” Grace said glancing at him and Linda curiously. She smiled at them as she took a seat beside Beth. “I wanted to apologize for our chef’s outburst yesterday. A few things went wrong-,”
“Please, it’s alright,” Beth stopped Grace with a hand on her arm. “We were all in the wrong. I’d like to try again. Maybe tomorrow, this time we’ll communicate better. My family was being unreasonable. It won’t happen again.”
Grace gave a relieved sigh. “I’m so happy to hear that. I’ve arranged for another tasting tomorrow afternoon. Chef Nick will be happy to listen to you.”
“You said we’d meet your boss today?” Taylor asked. “We’ve only talked to her on the phone these past weeks. I’d like to clear everything today. We have four days left.”
“Yes,” Grace gave the door a frown. “She’ll be right in. Why don’t we get-,”
The door opened and the woman who’d bumped into him by the bathroom entered. Eric sat up, his gaze searching for the vulnerable expression he’d seen minutes ago. She looked composed, her red jacket neat, not a trace of tears in her eyes.
“I’m sorry for being late,” she said in a cordial tone.
She walked over to Taylor and Beth first.
“It’s good to meet you, Mr. Kamau and Miss Kinuthia. I’m Victoria Waina, the Savon Hotel Senior Sales manager. It’s nice to finally meet you face to face.”
“I feel like I know you,” Beth said. “You’ve been such a big help.”
Victoria, Eric smiled.
Her name suited her.
Strong and vibrant, he thought.
He wondered what would make such a woman burst into tears.
“This is Eric Kabuto and his studio assistant, Linda. Eric is a long time friend and he’s agreed to take our wedding pictures,” Taylor said interrupting his thoughts.
Victoria looked up at him and he watched in fascination as she recognized him. Her smile faltered slightly but she didn’t cower. She walked around the table, shook Linda’s hand before she took his in a strong steady handshake.
“Good to meet you, Mr. Kabuto,” she said with a nod.
Before he could answer, she let go of his hand and moved away.
“Why don’t we start our tour? I find it’s better to get a feel of the venue. Grace and her team have prepared everything. We’d love your input, that way we can adjust as we go.”
Eric took his camera with him. The Savon Hotel had elegant décor, luxurious and comfortable. He got the feeling that he was walking through a home. An expensive comfortable home, he adjusted as he directed his camera to a pair of cream Victorian chairs set against the wall in the hallway outside the ballroom.
Victoria led the way into a large ballroom where they’d host the reception. She and Grace walked around the room talking about the arrangements they’d made. Whenever Taylor or Beth made a suggestion, Victoria discretely noted it down on a small pad he hadn’t realized she was holding.
She was competent and photogenic. He found himself directing his lens at her expressive face more than once. She was animated and entertaining. Whenever Beth and Taylor disagreed, be it on the amount of flower arrangements, guest tables and the cutlery, Victoria expertly helped them make a decision.
“Are you coming to the wedding?” he asked her when she finished going through the preparations they’d made for the reception and the after-party.
She glanced at him in surprise.
“I-I’ll be-,” she broke off with a frown.
“You have to come,” Beth said glancing at him with a closed expression. He watched as Beth took Victoria’s hand and squeezed. “You have Grace to handle the details here. You should come to the wedding. You’ve helped us so much.”
Grace agreed. “It will be fun, Vicky.”
Victoria scowled at him. “I don’t even have a dress.”
She would distract him from depression. Linda pinched his arm and he ignored her.
“He’ll keep you laughing,” Taylor said fondly.
Victoria gave him a skeptical glance. She wasn’t happy about his suggestion. He wondered if it had to do with the reason why she was upset earlier.
Beth tugged Victoria’s hand. “Don’t worry about a dress, you’ll get one. And Eric might hide behind his camera a lot, but he won’t let you get bored.”
Victoria smiled although it didn’t reach her eyes.
“How can I refuse,” she said. “I’ll be there.”
“Good,” Eric said happily.
She gave him a curious glance before she directed the conversation back to the wedding reception.
By the time they finished, Eric had snapped a whole roll of pictures of Victoria. He loved her face on camera.
“You’re grinning,” Linda said as he packed up his camera. They’d returned to the conference room while Victoria, Taylor and Beth went to the billing office. “I haven’t seen you like this in a while. Is it the short, curvy lady?”
He made a face at her. “Does it have to be a woman?”
“It’s always a woman with you.” Linda picked up her laptop bag and dangled the car keys. “We need to get going. You have a studio session with the musicians from Jiji Entertainment in an hour. It’s going to take that long just to get to Hurlingham. Traffic is wild right now.”
Eric packed away his Nikon D4S and carried the bag with care. They found Beth waiting for him in the lobby. Linda tactfully hurried away.
“Hey,” Beth said her gaze searching his. “Are you coming to my house later? Mum wants to see you. She’s missed you.”
He dropped his gaze away from her soft brown skin. He couldn’t look at her face without wanting to touch, caress, and press a kiss on her cheek. Clearing his throat, he shook his head. “My schedule’s pretty full today.”
“What about tomorrow?” Beth asked.
“I’ll have to check with Linda.”
“Is she your wife?” Beth said, her voice tinged with irritation.
He glanced up to find her studying him. “She’s my assistant, Beth.”
“I barely see you, since you started traveling around the country. Do you know the last time we spent together was at my parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary two years ago?”
“I’m sorry. Life has been pretty busy lately,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed and he winced at the hurt he read in them. He wished this could be different. He wanted to rid his heart of the cumbersome feelings he still had for her. She was marrying his best friend for goodness sake.
“I’ll try to make it tomorrow,” he said quietly.
“Fine, don’t strain yourself,” she said in a cold tone. “What happened to you, Eric? We all used to be so close. Now you feel like a stranger. Can’t we go back to the days we used to be like siblings?”
“Beth,” he said taking a step closer to her.
He lifted his hand to touch her shoulder only to stop when he saw Taylor approaching with Victoria.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly and stepped away from her.
“Did we take long?” Taylor said as they reached them.
“No,” Beth said giving Eric a hurt look before she turned to Taylor. “Are you all done?”
“Yes,” Taylor slipped a hand around Beth’s waist. “We’re now in Victoria and Grace’s hands.”
Beth held out a hand to Grace, then to Victoria. “You ladies are the best. I’m so glad you’re helping me. I feel relieved because all I have to worry about is the church ceremony.”
“Don’t worry about a thing,” Victoria assured Beth. “Relax and just be ready for Saturday. If there are any changes, you call or have your wedding planner call Grace or me. We’ll be glad to help.”
“I hope to see you at the church ceremony,” Beth said happily.
Victoria nodded in agreement. As Taylor and Beth left, Eric latched on to Victoria’s arm.
“Promise you’ll come,” he said when she gave him an irritated glance.
“Eric,” he corrected. “If you want me to leave, say you’ll come.”
“Why do you want me there?” she asked as Grace left them and went to talk to the ladies at the concierge desk.
“Because,” he said with a grin. “I know your secret.”
“What secret?” she asked with a laugh that died away when he leaned to whisper in her ear.
“You’re sad,” he said. “I saw it in your eyes earlier. By the bathroom, tears clumping your eyelashes.”
She jerked away from him. “That’s none of your business.”
“I know,” Eric said letting go of her arm. “I have the cure, Victoria. A day spent with me taking pictures of a fabulous wedding. No strings attached, just a good time. You don’t have to do anything but find a nice red dress.”
She scoffed. “Mr. Kabuto-”
“Eric,” he corrected.
“I’ll wear whatever I want.”
“Does that mean you’re coming?” he asked with a raised brow.
Grace joined them again. “She’s coming; I’ll make sure of it.”
“Thank you, Grace,” Eric said winking at her. He turned to leave but paused smiling at Victoria. “Find a red dress. Red would look great on you, Victoria.”
She scowled at him and he chuckled. He left the Savon Hotel with a wide grin. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait for Saturday.
To be continued….
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Copyright 2014, Elly Kamari