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“Well hello humidity and smog,” James drawled, leaning back into the cushioned passenger’s seat of Ezekiel’s car. His mouth twisted in plain discontent over the slow-moving cars. “And of course, horrible traffic.”

Ezekiel smirked, switching on the signal to make a right turn. “Like D.C. is any better.”

James scoffed, peering out the window at the cloudy sky. “Well at least our weather isn’t as temperamental.”

“Our?” Ezekiel chuckled, giving his friend a cursory glance. “Do I need to remind you this was once your home?”

James threw Ezekiel a scowl. “Don’t tell me you’re already used to it.”

“It’s not that bad.” Ezekiel shrugged, turning the car onto Louisiana Street. “It’s home.” He slammed on the brakes as a Metro bus swerved into his lane.

“Sure it is…” James snorted derisively, clocking his friend’s tight jaw. Shaking his head, he scanned the bustling lunch-hour crowd strolling down the street. He surveyed the eclectic mix of historic brick buildings jammed between modern-styled steel-framed lofts.

“You’ll be surprised how many people migrate to Houston on a daily,” Ezekiel remarked, slowing to a stop at the intersection. “Especially when places like Downtown are evolving to look like places in downtown D.C. and even some places in Chicago.”

James threw him an exasperated glance. “So you took a part-time job as a tour guide on your free time. Save the speech, will you? I’ve lived in Houston long enough to know not to return here.”

Ezekiel laughed, draping his hands over the steering wheel. “Never say never… Besides, D.C.’s summers can get as hot as Houston’s.”

“Bite your tongue. No summers are worse than Hou—” He trailed off, eyes focused on the pedestrians crossing the street in front of their car. “Well, I’ll be…” he breathed, a smile lifting his lips.

“Changing your mind already?” Ezekiel muttered dryly, adjusting the collar of his polo shirt.

“Yeah right.” James choked out an incredulous laugh. “You won’t believe who I just saw.”

“Who, an old girlfriend from high school?” Ezekiel eased off the brakes and continued on Louisiana Street, breathing a sigh of relief when the Metro bus turned on the next street. He sped up a little.

James chuckled. “Samina.”

Ezekiel jerked on the brakes. A drawn-out car horn screeched behind him. Ignoring it for a moment, he snuck a look at his rear view mirror and would’ve turned fully around if it wasn’t for the weight of James’ astute gaze on his face.

“You okay, man?” James’ voice hinted restrained mirth at his reaction.

Clearing his throat, he eased off the brakes and continued on. “Sure it was her?” he managed to ask as nonchalantly as he could.

“Positive.” James folded his arms. “I’ll spare you the suspense. She looks good.”

“I guess…” His teeth clenched at James’ delight on his expense, Ezekiel couldn’t help picturing her in her surprise birthday party. The yellow sheath dress that accentuated the coffee tones of her skin.

“You guess?” James mocked, snorting a laugh. “Well, it looks like she’s out on a lunch date with someone.”

“Date?” he echoed softly. Samina out on a date? Ezekiel scowled as a biker swung onto the astonishingly-narrow lane beside him. Nothing was going his way today.

James smirked at the hitch in Ezekiel’s baritone voice. “Looked like it. She was walking with a tall dude.”

A frown marred his brow. “Maybe it was her dad. Uncle Gabe’s a tall guy.”

“Uh, hate to break it to you, compadre… that wasn’t her dad. Except if by some groundbreaking new technology, he’s become thirty years younger, taller, more toned and lighter in complexion.”

Ezekiel’s scowl darkened, imagining the faceless man James just described as Samina’s companion. He didn’t like what he saw. “I see…” he managed, not knowing what else to say.

“Indeed,” James replied, amusement clear in his voice. And without another word, James returned to people-watching, openly listing the differences between Houston and D.C.

Tuning out his friend, Ezekiel scowled as yet another cyclist swerved around him. He sat up in his seat and shoved aside the nagging thoughts of Samina in the company of a younger man, knowing all the while that he couldn’t delay any longer.

Samina sighed as Topher closed her door and hurried around the front to enter the car. “Really, you didn’t need to pick me up,” she said, tugging the seat-belt across her lap. “I could’ve driven myself there. It wasn’t far from my work.”

Joy surged through her at the thought of working again. Yes, “work” at the House of Hope was more of a volunteer job but it still felt good leaving the house, driving with other Houstonians heading to work. She had her own cubicle and her business cards were on order!

Topher smiled at the serene look on her face. “I wanted to surprise you. Is that a crime?” He turned on the engine and put the car in reverse.

She shrugged. “Not a crime but unnecessary. You didn’t need to waste time coming to pick me up.”

“Oh it’s worth it.” He reversed onto the cross street, tossing her a bright smile. “Definitely worth it.”

Samina’s face fired at the knowing twinkle in his eye and looked away, watching the buildings blur as Topher entered the main street.

“So, Ms. Wells…” Topher spoke up in the silence. “How’s work so far?”

His question coaxed a smile and she turned to face him. “I like it,” she answered honestly.

“It fits you,” Topher answered, tossing her a glance.

Samina raised a brow, surprised at his confident tone. “You think so?”

He dipped his head, a slight dimple appearing at the corner of his mouth. “Oh definitely.” He smiled to punctuate his words. “You’re kind, conscientious, generous, talented, determined. And you have an uncanny protective quality that I’m sure they’ll appreciate there.”

She lifted her head. “Uncanny?”

“Mother Hen-esque quality.”

Samina scoffed out an incredulous laugh. “Mother Hen-esque?”

He grinned, eyes dancing playfully. “It’s one thing I like about you.”

Her face heated as he flashed his straight pearly whites at her before facing the road. “Thanks?”

“Oh, you’re most welcome, Ms. Wells.”

The hum of traffic filled the silence as they took the circuitous route in Downtown Houston. Then Samina frowned, turning to face him. “Those things you said earlier…”

“Compliments?” he offered, eyes on the road. “I meant them.”

Her cheeks tingled. “It seemed too easily said…” She wouldn’t readily admit that it wasn’t often anyone complimented her on anything.

He tossed her a look before smiling. “Can I be honest with you?”

Samina’s shoulders stiffened and she braced herself. “Sure…”

“When I meet someone, I make a list.”

Her brow furrowed. “A list.”

“Hmm,” he bobbed his head. “A list of qualities I like and dislike about a person.” He turned to look at her. “After five years, I’ve developed a list for you too.”

She raised a brow, curious what bad things were on the list. “Go on.”

Topher chuckled softly. “Let’s just say your good outweighs the bad, by far.” He slowed the car at a traffic light. “You know, it’s a strange coincidence that our families are from the same town. Abbeville.”

She smirked, noting his deflection. “It is strange.”

“I’m inclined to say it’s more like fate. Destiny…” He flashed her a crooked grin.

Samina rolled her eyes at the suggestion. “Actually only my dad’s from Abbeville. And besides, you’ve never mentioned anything about your parents.”

“You never asked,” he countered, pulling the car onto another street. “Actually, I never met either of them. Nadine’s the only one I’ve known all my life. All I know is that my folks met when they were kids, got together in college and had me. At least that’s all Nadine says. I know nothing about my father.”

Her heart squeezed tight, her eyes roaming over his striking profile. “What was your mother’s name?” her voice was soft, hesitant.

His lips curved in a half smile. “Odetta Chance…”

“Odetta Chance.” Samina smiled. “Very pretty name.”

Topher winked. “Not as beautiful as Samina. Your name is exotic yet homely.” He chuckled when she rolled his eyes at him. He faced the road again just as a cyclist swerved around him. “So… after the wedding, I’ll be heading back to Montreal.”

Samina frowned at a fleeting twinge in her chest. “When will you return?”

Topher smirked, glancing her way. “That question means you’ll miss me then?”

She pressed her lips together and quickly faced the window.

“I’m teasing,” he cajoled, nudging her hand with his.

At his unexpected touch, a warm shiver zinged up her arm. Swallowing a gasp, she quickly shifted her hand away.

He merely smiled, pulling into an open parking spot in front of a Mediterranean grille café. Without unbuckling his seatbelt, he turned to face her. “Samina…”

The solemnity in his voice coaxed her to look his way. When she did, Samina blinked at the intensity in his gaze. “Y-yes?”

His eyes swept over her face, a corner of his lips lifted. “I hope you’re aware how serious I am about you.”

Samina couldn’t breathe or move a muscle. She could only stare, overwhelmed by the intensity of his gaze burning into her.

Then his fingers grazed her wrist and the warmth from his touch traveled up her arm and along her shoulders. Involuntarily, her fingers curled into her palms and his eyes darted up to hers.

Samina swallowed hard, unable to look away.  “I…” she began, her throat clogged with emotion.

His fingers curled around her slight wrist, Topher offered her an encouraging smile to continue.

“Nadine…” she choked out. “H-How is she?” And before she did something crazy like lean into him again, Samina tugged her hand from his.

Topher smiled. “Doing a lot better. Hopefully, she’ll be at the wedding and would like to see you before we leave.” Then he unbuckled his seat-belt. “Let’s get some food in you so I can take you back to work. Don’t want you getting in trouble on your first week there.”

Samina nodded, bewildered by her wanton response to his touch.

As they settled in a booth at the corner of the restaurant and ordered their meals, Topher adjusted his long legs, his knees brushing against Samina’s. “Sorry…” he muttered, shifting his legs.

She shrugged silently and turned away to scan the restaurant hall, aware of his gaze on her. Unable to stand it, she tossed him an exasperated look. “What is it?”

He merely shook his head, a contented smile playing on his lips. He leaned back and draped one arm casually on the top of the chair.

Uncomfortable under his open perusal, Samina dropped her gaze to the unlit candle before them.

“Can I ask you a question?”

She slanted him a glare. “Do I have a choice?”

His lips twitched in amusement. “You always have a choice, Samina. But could I ask anyway?”

She kicked a shoulder, looking down. “Go ahead.”

“What do you see yourself doing for the rest of your life?”

Samina frowned up at him. “Pardon?”

Topher tilted his head, studying her with those gray-green eyes. “What are your aspirations and dreams?”

She scoffed incredulously. “What, are you a counselor?”

He smiled, gesturing her to answer.

Samina blew out a sigh. “Aspirations…” She smiled wistfully as if recalling a thought from a long time ago. “To be a world-renown artist.”

Topher’s brows lifted in surprise. “Really?”

Just then, a waiter returned with two plates of pesto grilled chicken and steamed vegetables. Once he thanked the waiter and watched him leave, Topher turned back to Samina. “Artist as in drawing and painting?”

She reached for her frosted glass of water. “Yeah.”

“Like Picasso or Michelangelo?” he lifted the glass to his lips.

Samina paused to sip the cold water before responding. “Not quite, but yeah.”

“I bet you’re as good as them.” He then reached across the table, hands open to her. “Let’s pray.”

At his softly-spoken mandate, Samina felt her cheeks warm and she placed her hands in his. The strange sensation returned, skittering along her skin like electricity as his fingers wrapped around her palm.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she listened in silent reverence as he said a soft prayer, blessing their food and their families. Her eyes teared up as he prayed for their health and her chest squeezed tight, recalling Dr. Halliday’s urging to prepare for next week’s surgery.

Once they whispered their shared amen, Samina quickly slipped her hands from his before losing all composure.

Topher made no mention of her discomfort and lifted his fork. “So did you ever fulfill any of your aspirations, Ms. Artiste?”

Samina smirked, cutting a piece of grilled chicken. “I wouldn’t be sitting here, if I did.” She grimaced at the bitter undertone. “Sorry, that didn’t sound very nice.”

“It’s alright,” Topher chewed on a steamed stem of broccoli. “So what made it impossible to fulfill? I thought you were an art teacher in college?” He grinned unapologetic at her raised brow. “Jaxson has a big mouth.”

She kicked a shoulder. “There was no opportunity. Hard to break into that kind of business.”

“How come? Art fairs, flea markets…”

Samina inclined her head. “Flea markets?”

“What, don’t like them?”

“Never really thought about them.”

“You think it’s only for weird people?”

Her eyes widened, cheeks blazing at the amusement dancing in his gray-green eyes.

Topher chuckled. “You’ll be surprised the talent in a typical flea market.”

Samina hesitated replying, envisioning a pen of clucking chickens and a mystical tent.

Topher chuckled. “How about you come with me once next week?”

She frowned. Her plans for next week consisted of a week-long escape to a hotel to recuperate from the surgery. She couldn’t afford traipsing through a flea market with anyone. “I don’t know…”

“C’mon, Samina. What d’you got to lose?”

Sighing, Samina warily eyed his boyish grin. Maybe the surgery wouldn’t be as bad. Maybe Topher had something worth checking out. “What day?” she heard herself ask.

<<Chapter 24 || Chapter 26>>

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