Chapter 45

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“So this is why the Ruchets agreed to let you sign with Soulville?” James asked gently, laying aside the written contract.

Maude nodded. The Baldwin children were all huddled up in Victoria and James’s hotel room.

“I can’t believe this!” Victoria expostulated. “These people are barbaric. There is no way in hell you’re staying over there.”

“And by making you live in a basement, they broke at least ten different international laws,” Cynthia observed, bewildered.

“Goes to show you how trustworthy lawyers really are,” Victoria commented dryly.

“Oh please, Mom. Just because—”

“Cynthia, don’t start. This really isn’t the time,” Victoria warned tersely.

“We have to let them know we want to adopt Maude,” James declared.

“They’ll give us a hard time out of spite,” Victoria said, clearly frustrated.

“We have to think this through,” James concluded. “For now, get some rest. You have an early flight tomorrow.”

“I’m not leaving,” Cynthia declared firmly. “I’ve decided to come with you to Carvin.”

James surveyed her, and then nodded. “All right, you’re an adult, you can make your own decisions.”

“If Cynthia’s staying, so am I,” Jazmine put in.

“Me too!” yelled Ben.

Victoria shook her head. “Ben, you’re leaving with Matt tomorrow. That’s final,” she declared in a tone that left no room for further discussion.

“Only girls get to do cool things in this family,” Ben mumbled, as he followed the rest of the clan out of the room.

“Victoria, can I speak to you . . .  alone?” Maude asked.

“Sure. What about?

Maude waited for the door to close before speaking. She wasn’t really sure how to start.

Victoria sat next to Maude.

“Don’t worry about tomorrow,” she said, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. “The Ruchets won’t know what hit them.”

“That’s not what I wanted to talk about,” Maude took a deep breath. “Do you remember that night, the first month I was in New York, where we spoke about my parents? We wondered if sometimes it was best not to know how the people we loved had died.”

“I remember,” Victoria acknowledged.

“I saw something in your eyes,” Maude hesitated. “And now I know, I’m sure something tragic must have happened to someone you loved.”

Victoria looked away painfully.

“My father was Nigerian just like you,” Maude continued, tears welling up in her eyes. “Today, I found out both of my parents had been brutally murdered. I almost wish I hadn’t found out. How does one live with such knowledge?”

Victoria looked at Maude, her eyes filled with pain.

“Like many Nigerians, my family fled when the civil war began. We were quite an influential family. We had a lot of money so it was easy for us to leave and establish ourselves in the United States,” Victoria shook her head sadly. “Others weren’t so lucky. Today the war is over but peace, real peace, takes time. Democracy takes time. Nigeria is a better place today but still needs work. We all had to make sacrifices, and we still do. Even those, like my family, who thought they could escape. We all lost loved ones. For me, it was my brother. You lost your parents. Others lost everything and everyone they loved.”

“I sang ‘Coming Home’ for them. For the people we lost to wars and conflicts.”

“You sang beautifully, Maude. Especially considering the circumstances. You’ve come such a long way,” she smiled gently.

“I didn’t run off stage this time if that’s what you mean,” Maude laughed.

“I’m glad you can laugh about it now.”

“The sting of the humiliation has worn off . . . but not completely,” Maude admitted with a deep sigh.

“It will with time,” Victoria reassured. “For now, off to bed. We’ve got a long day tomorrow. You need all the sleep you can get.”

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