Stifling a yawn, Samina locked the car door and turned to the condo she shared with Karen. From the darkened windows, Karen was either studying or on another random date. Heaving a sigh, Samina trudged up the inclined driveway to her front door.

From the corner of her eye, Samina noticed a shifting shadow and halted her footsteps.

The shadow stepped out into the light, broad shoulders illuminated under the streetlight.

Inadvertently she took a step back, her heart hammering in her chest. The man’s features were shrouded by the light hitting his back. She swallowed hard and squeaked out a “W-who’s there?”

He chuckled softly

Samina frowned slightly, fingers gripping her purse. “Who are you?” She asked firmly.

“You don’t recognize me?”

The teasing in his clear baritone voice made her face warm up. “Topher?”

He chuckled again and she narrowed her eyes at his imposing shadow.

“I thought I’d have to flash my ID card or something.” He stepped completely out of the shadows and Samina’s shoulders relaxed at the smile softening his square features. “It’s been a long while. Mind if I come in?”

She raised a brow, recalling the day they stood in silence, riding the hospital elevator. If he was here to chat, she wasn’t in the mood. Smothering a sigh, Samina stepped around him to the front door. “It’s late. Did Jaxson or Ada put you up to this?”

“Actually, I came on my own.” Topher stepped behind her as she fished for her keys. “I’ve got something to discuss with you.”

Samina hesitated from opening the door. The gentle concern in his voice was hard to ignore and his imposing presence made her feel uncoordinated. After dealing with her conflicted feelings for Ezekiel, she didn’t have time for this either. She threw a frustrated glance at the starry sky.

“Is that a no or do you need a few minutes to consider?”

Samina bit her bottom lip, peering over her shoulder at him. His hooded gaze prodded her to make a decision. She blew out a breath and pushed open the door. “Fine, but just for a little while. I’m tired.” She stepped inside, flicking on a switch as she passed the lobby.

The dimmed light flooded the hallway and the living room. A light above the dim living room flickered and Samina rolled her eyes in exasperation.

Topher scanned the living quarters before turning back to Samina with a crooked smile. His eyes were filled with warmth that made her pause. He grinned wider. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

She frowned at the soft light behind his cropped hair, casting an ethereal glow about him. Her eyes swept over the light dusting of freckles across the narrow bridge of his nose.

He raised a brow.

Samina looked away and sniffed, disinterested. “A week ago. Hospital,” she mumbled, crossing her arms over her chest.

He gave her a wry smile, recalling the memory as she did. “That’s right…”

Samina cleared her throat, the awkward silence stretching a little too long. “What are you doing here, Christopher?”

His smile didn’t waver. “I missed you.” His honeyed eyes swept over her face, warming her all over.

She frowned and looked away, thoroughly disconcerted.

“You left me alone to deal with Jax and Bridezilla.” Topher pouted. “What happened to us banding together?”

Samina frowned up at him. “Ada’s giving you trouble too?” At his pointed silence, she stepped around the sofa toward the kitchen. “Water?”

“Of course she is,” Topher replied, trailing her. “And yes please.” He paused in front of the counter, watching Samina root out two bottles from the fridge. “So when are you coming back?”

She paused, looking back at him with a wrinkle in her brow. There was something especially odd about him tonight. Sure he was usually friendly, often teasing her with his eyes. But after the hospital encounter, she coudn’t reconcile his strange dismissal or the reason why she was bothered by it. “What do you mean, coming back?”

“Ada seems to think you’ve denounced your title as maid-of-honor,” Topher answered with a deep sigh that relayed his distress. “Imagine my utter dismay when I found out my partner-in-crime was leaving me high and dry.”

Samina’s cheeks warmed and  looked away. “I-I just needed some time. Is she… okay?”

He rounded the counter to meet her. “I wouldn’t worry about Ada,” he assured her gently.

Samina looked up in surprise as he came to stand before him. She had to tilt her head back just to meet his gray-green gaze that openly caressed her face. She suddenly couldn’t look away.

“I’m more worried about you though.” His hands grazed hers as he took the two bottles from her hand.

Her face tingled, mortified. He didn’t forget. “I’m… fine.” No she wasn’t but telling him anything else would only cause more trouble that it was worth.

Placing the bottles on the counter to her left, Topher turned back to her.

Samina’s eyes welled with tears and she blinked them away. Inhaling sharply as Topher’s fingers grazed her chin, tilting it so she had no choice but to look at him.

Rendered speechless at the warmth in his probing eyes, Samina blinked.

In all the years they’d known about each other, or the ‘outings’ they were forced in each other’s company, Topher would’ve never touched her. For one thing, he’d always respected her personal space. And although he was now invading her comfort zone and touching her, Samina was too confused to move away. She didn’t want to.

“Samina…” Topher started gently, his gaze caressing her face as though memorizing every curve.

She felt vulnerable under his probing eyes but didn’t step away. Until his gaze lowered to her parted lips.

Face on fire, she jerked her chin from his touch and stepped back, mortified. She’d almost leaned into his chest!

Touching a hand to her hair, Samina put the counter between them and grabbed a bottle, twisting it open. “Stop worrying about me. I’ve just been very busy.” She could feel his eyes on her as she guzzled down the cool liquid.

Topher smiled. “Do you have a boyfriend?”

She sputtered, water spilling from her mouth. She wiped her mouth. “Pardon?”

Unaffected by her sharp reaction, he leveled his gaze with hers. “Boyfriend, Samina. Do you have one?”

Throat burning from the unexpected attack, Samina scowled. “I don’t see how that is any of your business, Christopher.”

His grin widened in pleasure. “Might be, might not.” He hooked a thumb to the flickering light bulb. “Your lights.”

“What about them?”

Topher chuckled at her impatient tone, eyes dancing with mirth. “Will your boyfriend get it or should I?”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Samina snapped in frustration, feeling a headache creep in. She wished she’d just ignored him at her doorstep.  “And I certainly don’t need one to change my own lights.” Annoyed by his impish expression, she marched into the living room.

“Of course you don’t but since I’m here, why don’t you let me do that for you?” Topher snatched his bottle and followed her. “Indulge me, Samina. I’ve missed our hangouts.”

Samina threw an exasperated glare over her shoulder. “We don’t hang out without Ada and Jax.”

“Let’s change that.”

She faltered a step forward and turned to look at him.

Topher flashed that self-assured smile. “I just want to spend some time with you before I head out. Recharge my batteries, Samina.”

Samina steeled herself against his warm honeyed eyes.

“Tell you what,” Topher added in her pointed silence. “Let me change your bulbs and you pack me a quick dinner for the ride back.”

“Why you think I owe you anything is beyond me.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I didn’t ask you to do it. You imposed yourself.”

Topher could only grin, undoubtedly enjoying the sight of the lovely Samina’s pretty feathers being ruffled. Before it was pure curiosity but now, he enjoyed the blazing heat in her eyes and the intriguing pursing of her lips. Silently, Topher thanked Nadine for nudging him into action.

“I’ll do it anyway, sandwich or not,” Topher amended, rolling the sleeves of his shirt and readied himself for the task at hand.

As he perched on the futon, Ezekiel stared down at Samina’s phone number with a smile. Recalling the girls’ praise of her, he envisioned Samina’s pretty smile.

He shook his head in disbelief. How could he just have realized Samina’s soft beauty and kind spirit. He’d always known her to be a good woman but…

His brow furrowed slightly. She would be thirty years old this year and from what he knew, there were no romantic prospects. His chest tightened, a part of him grateful by that fact. The other part of him felt indescribable guilt, an unsettling thought considering his marriage with Winsome was a happy one.

Heaving a sigh, Ezekiel pressed the talk button and held the phone to his ear as the dial tone rang.

One day if given the chance, he planned to ask why she’d stayed single all these years. His brow furrowed thinking of Samina surrounded by children and a husband. He paused at the troubling thought of her standing next to a man he didn’t recognize.

“Hello?” the low husky inflection of a male voice interrupted his thoughts.

Ezekiel sat up and he glanced down at the phone, noting the late hour. His throat tightened, strangling his words.

“Hello, who’s this?” The man urged a little impatiently this time.

Ezekiel inhaled and forced the words out. “Sam… is this her phone?” A part of him wished he’d dialed the wrong number but he knew he hadn’t.

The air was tense as the man on the other end paused. Then he sighed. “Yeah. Who’s this?”

Immediately, Ezekiel recalled the time he overheard Samina at a bridal shop. His shoulders slumped involuntarily. He gripped the phone. “She home?”

“Samina… is busy,” the man answered in a measured tone. “Wanna leave a message?”

Ezekiel almost laughed at the man’s strained yet polite tone. Until he heard a muffled yet distinguishable voice in the background. His smile waned at Samina’s voice addressing the unknown man holding her phone at eleven at night. It wasn’t his business what company she kept at late hours of the night but his chest burned anyway.

The man chuckled low, a hint of flirtation in his laugh.

Ezekiel clenched his jaw and forced out a reply. “No, that’s fine. Thanks.” He promptly disconnected the call, tossed the phone beside him and fell back on the bed before releasing a strangled moan.

Amused, Topher shook his head and placed the cell phone on the end table. With a smirk, he reached for a lightbulb and moved back to the ladder just as Samina peered out from behind the column separating the parlor from the kitchen.

“Who was that?”

“Dunno,” Topher replied, twisting the new bulb in place. “The person didn’t say, nor leave a message.”

Samina shrugged without prodding and disappeared back into the kitchen.

Topher climbed back down from the ladder and nodded in satisfaction. He then scanned the picture frames lining the wall near the fireplace. He peered at a few, smiling wider at the younger images of Samina.

“I’ll call them back later,” Samina muttered, stepping out of the kitchen with a colorful lunch tote bag. “Here,” she pushed the bag at his torso.

“Aw, you shouldn’t have.” Topher winked at the narrowed look she threw up at him. With a grin, he placed both hands over hers holding the bag to his chest.

As tremors shot through her skin when her fingers brushed his, Samina jerked her hands behind her back. Evading his gaze, she lifted hers to the high ceiling and nodded approvingly. “Thanks.”

Content to admire her without consequence, Topher had to admit he hadn’t noticed the gentle sweep of her curved cheek or the soft fullness of her bottom lip. Or her incredibly soft-looking mocha skin. His eyes slowly traveled up to chocolate eyes now glaring at him. Grinning unrepentant;y, Topher held up the bag. “Thanks for dinner.”

Samina averted her gaze and directed her attention to the spot by his right ear. “How’s your aunt?”

He was silent for a moment and she risked a glance at him. His smile was gone.

Chagrined, she looked down.

Topher sighed. “She’s had better days but she’s okay now.” When Samina looked up, alarm in her chocolate eyes, he managed a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “She was in the hospital for a couple of days. COPD.”

He paused, noticing how she schooled her features. He’d always admired how she was able to curb her emotions well, except with him. Those striking expressive eyes of hers were his favorite features of hers. He loved to watch every emotion displayed fully when she was caught off-guard.

Samina sighed gently, wrapping her empty arms around herself. “Sorry to hear that.” Her voice was soft, comforting.

He turned the canvas bag in his hands, tracing the colorful pattern. “It’s alright. She’ll be discharged next week though she’s very cranky.”

The corner of her mouth twitched, gaze warm with compassion. “Probably tired of being cooped up.”

He smiled wryly, recalling a few instances of Nadine’s sour mood. “You’re probably right.”

Samina nodded. “I hope she feels better soon. Give her my greetings…”

Topher noticed her gaze directed at the door behind him. He held back a smile and moved around the sofa toward the door. He heard her hesitating footfall behind him. “Don’t walk me out. It’s late.”

Still her footsteps trailed him to the door. He pulled it open and stepped over the threshold before turning to face her, eyes taking one last survey of her heart-shaped face. “Goodnight, Samina.”

Holding the door, Samina gave him a wan smile. “Goodnight, Topher.”

Nodding, Topher swiveled on his heels and trudged down the driveway to his parked car. As he drove back to the hospital, Topher glanced down at the packaged dinner and allowed himself to smile. Samina’s begrudging reply that she didn’t have a boyfriend was equally as rewarding as the feel of her soft skin on his fingers. It was a good end to a long, stressful day.

“I could get used to days like this…” he muttered to the starless sky before revving the engine on the state highway.

<<Chapter 18 || Chapter 20>>