dueling

“If you change your mind about staying for the evening service,” Laide’s mother said gently, glancing over at the girl beside her. “After your meeting, just call me… Okay?”

The girl nodded with a smile before turning to open the car door. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” As she moved her right leg, Laide hid a wince but squeezed her eyes shut as a sharp pain ricocheted up her leg.

“Are you sure?” her mother asked cautiously, watching her daughter pause.

Laide nodded. “Yup, I’ll call you later if the pain gets too much for me.” She slowly eased herself out of the car and balanced on her good leg. “Stop worrying,” she insisted as she pulled out her crutches.

Once she’d successfully made her way to the sidewalk, Laide paused to watch her mother drive off. Then with a sigh, she turned to face the ominous flight of stairs to the main door of the church building.

Making her way into the church building proved more complicated that she’d anticipated. Balancing her slingback purse while steadying her crutches, Laide gritted her teeth as she fought against the heavy door. Once the door gave way, Laide shuffled into the building and with a silent joy, she took the elevator to the second floor of the youth building.

As the door dinged loudly before sliding to open, Laide rested her armpits against the cushioned crutches and swung her legs out of the elevator.

“Is that Laide?” a male voice hollered from around the corner as Laide approached the chapel room. A young man’s beaming face peered from behind the wall and grinned all the wider at the sight of Laide swinging her legs toward the room. “Come on in!”

Two hours later and Laide was sure she couldn’t stay for the evening service, as the pain intensified on her bad ankle. Listening for the gentle hum of the elevator, she tapped her long fingers against the metal rods of her crutches.

—-

Fatigue was an understatement for how he was feeling right now. His numb fingers rested on the lapel of his army jacket, his mouth tingling from blowing on his saxophone for more than three hours straight. His head pounded from the incessant ringing of the song being played over and over. He couldn’t wait for the concert next week so that he would never hear that song again.

“You going to the service tonight?” one of the praise team singers asked, batting her eyes up at him.

“Nah…” Tahj muttered, locking the saxophone case. “I think I’m gonna head back. Reports to write for class tomorrow.”

“Aww,” she said, sticking her bottom lip out in a pout. “Well I guess we’ll see you on Wednesday then?”

“Yup,” he replied, strolling out of the main sanctuary, the girl’s farewell bouncing off the walls and against his throbbing ears. He eyed the youth building across the stone path and sighed. One quick trip to check if the doors were locked, as he was the resident custodian while his brother was away on business. Reaching inside his pocket for the ring of keys, Tahj crossed the stone path to the building.

To check all the doors in the building, he’d have to climb the flight of stairs to the second floor. Tahj warily eyed the stairs and shook his head, walking to stand in front of the elevator door instead.

The engine of the elevator sounded in the silence of the lobby and the door slowly opened to reveal a young woman with her head bent. When the ring of the elevator rang, she lifted her head, and Tahj immediately stiffened at the sight of the girl he’d antagonized for a quite some time. She always seemed to spark a fight with him yet at the same time made his heart skip fast as her dark eyes collided with his.

Even now, he struggled to keep his heart in check when her eyes warily skimmed his.

In response to seeing him, Laide gripped her crutches and clenched that slender jaw of hers when she noticed the narrowed glare of her antagonist, Tahj Karim.

He could tell she was not pleased to see him, well neither was he. After such a long, grueling Sunday, he didn’t have time to spend another moment dueling with her, especially not when his head was pounding incessantly.

Laide hitched up her chin and turned her eyes from his angular yet chiseled features, annoyed that she’d noticed his light brown eyes and that stubborn, curly black hair that framed his face. She hated the fact that she was a little more vulnerable than usual because of his broad shoulders and long legs that could take up space in the elevator than she’d have liked. Feeling his eyes openly search her face, Laide clenched her jaw and she forced herself to look back at him, challenging him to keep staring.

As arrogant as he was, a slow smile spread across his firm lips. “Hello Addy,” he said in a hoarse voice. “Fancy meeting you here…” She could feel his gaze travel from the top of her head to her toes.

“Back at you…” she forced out in a cold tone, shifting her weight. “Excuse me,” Laide muttered, swinging her legs forward to exit the elevator.

His smile froze, noticing the white cast on her right leg, still making no move to step out of her path. “What happened to you?”

Laide raised a skeptical brow at the concern coating his voice, then thinking back to how she’d gotten herself into this mess, she whipped her head up at him and glared hard. He happened to her. Three days ago, in fact. Playing soccer with her friends in the park and was on her way to scoring yet another goal when she spotted him running with his friends… bare-chested! Without slowing her run, she openly ogled his lanky physique and promptly ended up stumbling over an elevated bump in the middle of the street. Two hours later, she was sitting in the clinic sporting a twisted ankle and her sore pride.

Stopping at his now covered torso, Laide gritted her teeth and lifted her eyes back to his concerned gaze. “Nothing!” she spat impatiently, nudging past him with her left crutch. As she swung her legs to the exit door, she prayed that he wouldn’t follow her and just save her the embarrassment she held within.

“Hey wait a minute! Addy!” he called after her and she could hear his sneakered feet slapping against the concrete as she picked up speed to escape from him. “I need to talk with you!”

“Save it for another day!” she threw behind her, gripping the handles of her crutches, praying she wouldn’t fall. “I don’t have time!”

Tahj frowned as he slowed to a stop right in front of the steps to the main building. He watched as Laide jerkily climbed the steps, balancing herself on one good leg and shaky crutches. Shaking his head, he waited until she’d reached the top step before he turned toward the youth building once more. It was no use talking to her now, especially while she nursed the biggest grudge on him.

No answer. Laide swallowed a groan and slammed the phone back on its receiver.

At the resounding clap of the phone hitting the table, the church receptionist, a middle-aged Korean lady named Mrs. Hee-Jae Han, lifted her head and frowned up at Laide. “You alright, dear?”

Laide’s face burned in embarrassment as she nodded. Not really, considering this was the third call she’d made and still no progress. Glancing up at the clock above the woman’s head, Laide bit back a groan. It was almost eight and still no way to get home. The pain in her ankle reminded her it was time to leave. “I’m okay…” she said politely, glancing over at the front of the office and swallowed a gasp at the sight of Tahj Karim standing on the other side of the glass door, waving at her furiously.

Rolling her eyes, she swiftly turned away toward the telephone and picked it up to dial her mother’s number yet again. “Come on, Ma…” she muttered softly, glaring down at the phone. “Pick up.”

“Hi. You’ve reached the voicemail of 281…” the automated voice of her mother’s inbox system sounded but Laide quickly disconnected the phone. Lowering her face to her palms, she blinked against the frustrated tears.

“I’ll drop you at home, if you want,” said the deep voice of Tahj above her head, causing her to stiffen defensively.

Part 2 >>

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