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Heart hammering hard and fast against her ribs, Samina blinked at Topher who still wore that chagrined expression, almost as if he regretted doing this for her. She averted her gaze to the cup of brushes coated with dried paint, the bristles bent from overuse. Then she pictured her own set of brushes in a crate at the back of her closet, her blank canvases next to them. Realization hit her hard and she took a step back, shaking her head. She couldn’t do this.

Topher frowned, but made no move to stop her. “What’s wrong?”

Samina bit her bottom lip, gripping the strap of her purse. “No, I can’t do this…”

Elias looked up then, squinting at her. “None of that running away business. If you claim to be an artist, get your backside over here.” He scowled when Samina made no move to obey. “Sit,” he hooked a thumb to the empty stool.

Topher offered her a wan smile, his eyes watching her as she trudged slowly to the booth. And as she took her seat, eyes moving over his to seek intervention, his phone rang. “Sorry, gotta take this…” He turned away without giving Samina a second glance.

Her shoulders sagged. He was definitely angry with her. Samina bit back a whine as his bulky frame disappeared around the corner.

“Picasso,” Elias mumbled to her right. “The paint is drying and your canvas is still white. My customers will come by at any minute now.”

Samina warily eyed the man’s knobby wrist flick the brush like a wand. She had to admit he made painting strokes look easily flawless. She fought a scowl. “What does that have to do with me?”

He turned to her, brow raised. “They know you’re coming as my guest artist. I keep my word. So paint.” He hooked a stained thumb in the direction of the easel to punctuate his words.

Samina sought out Topher in the crowd but finding no one, she bowed her shoulders, defeated.

“Pick your tool of trade.”

“Pardon?” Samina mumbled begrudgingly. How she got hoodwinked into being an active participant instead of a casual onlooker made her head spin. Even though Topher had a right to be angry with her, she was annoyed with him for leaving her with this craggy old man.

Elias grunted, waving his free hand over the bucket of old brushes, nodding when she reluctantly pulled out a slender brush. “Pick one. Oil, water or acrylic?”

Samina stared at the brush as if she’d never seen one before. Her heart skipped several beats. It’d been a while since she painted without a subject, without a plan. As the former art teacher at Bates, she’d only worked on stencils, painting samples for the class assignments. Inspiration, especially these days, didn’t come easy.

Drawing an inward breath, Samina dipped the brush into the rusty cup of water and dabbed the brush tip into a well of blue paint. Here goes… She lifted the brush to the blank canvas.

“How surprising…” Elias mumbled.

Samina paused at his censured tone. “What?”

He gestured at the well plate, shaking his head. “Watercolor and impressionism… ain’t no good.”

She frowned. “Actually impressionism can be characterized with either acrylic or watercolor.”

Elias groaned, shifting in his stool to face his canvas. He painted broad, careless strokes onto the canvas. “You ain’t one of those, are you?”

“One of those?” Samina squinted at him, bristling inwardly. He sounded just like those that appraised her work with disinterest before rejecting it altogether. Her spine stiffened in defense, despite the fact that her canvas was notably blank.

Elias dabbed the brush on the cloth draped over his knee. “Y’know the old saying. Those who can’t paint, teach.”

She scowled, heat coursing through her. Her jaw tightened as her teeth clinked together. “I know how to paint, Mr. Elias,” she forced out, body taut with aggravation.

He laughed, unaffected by her growing hostility. “I’ll believe it when I see it, Miss Picasso. Get to work.”

Samina’s lips pursed tightly as he dismissed her and she gripped the paintbrush tightly. Her parents didn’t take her art seriously and the academy hadn’t either. There was no way she was going to let this old, craggy peddler make a fool out of her.

“Fine,” she clipped out, dipping the brush into the water. Glaring at the blank canvas, Samina shoved aside apprehension and dipped the brush into the well plate with red paint. She’ll show all of them.

Elias grinned wide. “You better get to it, Miss Picasso. Your first clients will be here soon.” He whistled much to Samina’s annoyance and continued his painting.

An hour of silence and only a few spectators strolled past Elias’ booth, surveying the paintings. Elias stood from his stool, greeting them only to grumble when they wandered away just as easily and he returned to his seat. He glanced at Samina’s canvas, not saying a word except the occasional click of his tongue.

Too engrossed was she in her art piece that Samina paid him no mind, fingers moving the brush along the canvas, splashing bold and vibrant colors.

As the sky darkened slowly and the lights flickered on around them, Samina finally dunked the brush into the cup of murky water. Her heart thrummed and pulsated violently as though she’d just completed a run.

Breathing out a slow, measured breath, her eyes swept over the bold strokes and dots of color on her canvas. A warm breeze swept over her face, cooling the perspiration that beaded her temple and cheeks. And even though her right wrist throbbed from the exercise, she ignored it.

With a sigh, Samina leaned back and smiled with satisfaction. “Done,” she announced proudly.

Elias glanced over and shook his head. “I told you watercolor and impressionism, no good.”

Samina’s smile fell, her heart dropped. She jerked her eyes to seek out the disapproval in his shrouded features. “It’s not…?”

“I’m sure it’s a fine painting, Picasso… But I can’t see it.”

Samina scowled and jerked to stand, grabbing the edge of her damp canvas. Moving around the stool, she stomped to the streetlight and angled the canvas for Elias. “Well, how about now?” She couldn’t mask the frustration coloring her voice.

Elias squinted and shook his head. “Nope. Still can’t see it.”

Smarting from his disinterested tone, Samina bit down a sharp retort, gritting her teeth. “Well then, come see it from here.”

He waved her off. “No need. The customers will be a judge of it.”

Deflated, Samina trudged back to the booth, practically dragging the canvas with her. She slumped into the stool and positioned the canvas on its stand. “I didn’t paint this for money.”

“Oh of course. You’re saving it for Topher then?”

Samina frowned at the painted flowers on her canvas. In truth, she’d drawn this for herself but chose not to say anything before he turned it into a lesson about art teachers having no art sense. Heaving a sigh, she shifted her gaze to critique his own painting and froze.

Vibrant strokes seemed to glow in the shadows. Warmth tickled the back of her neck as she surveyed the bold, broad strokes. The smooth lines and vibrant hues would attract any spectator from a mile away. She leaned in. “What is this paint?”

“Radiant oil,” Elias mumbled. “You’ve never heard of it before?”

He was making fun of her! Samina clenched her jaw, silently wishing Topher would return. “I prefer watercolors.”

He chuckled. “Loosen up, Picasso. And diversify your work. Painting roses doesn’t sell.”

She clenched her jaw. “Petunias. I like flowers.”

“And I like robots and women. That doesn’t mean I should paint them all the time.”

Samina scoffed derisively, folding her arms across her chest. Her eyes once again scanned the bustling scene a few feet away, willing Topher to reappear. She was very much done with this unwanted art lesson and ready to go home.

Elias smirked. “Relax, Miss Picasso. People won’t always like your work. Learn to take honest criticism.”

“Like you did earlier?”

He scowled. “They ain’t got no art sense.”

“Of course…” Samina mumbled, sitting back on the stool.

In begrudging silence, she watched Elias finish his painting, her eyes widening as the lights brought his paintings to life. She could feel her breath catch as he angled the finished painting to face the light and watched the lights dance and skitter across the canvas. By the entrance, a crowd of people strolling toward the booth and as they moved closer, she could hear their open admiration for Elias’ work.

Her painting received a passing notice but she didn’t mind, watching the smile light up Elias’ face as he greeted each customer. He clearly enjoyed their praise and preened unashamedly. She found herself smiling too.

When Elias finally settled back on the stool, pocketing his dollar bills, Samina tucked away her smile and feigned boredom.

He nudged her shoulder. “The market people are good people. I’ve been doing this for more than ten years and every day is a better day than the first day I started.”

She remained quiet, eyes focused on his profile shrouded in the dark.

“Working for an art gallery is often about what sells, what makes people feel important when they hang artwork in their homes. It’s pretentious and dishonest.”

Samina merely stared at him.

“That’s why I like this market. It’s people are honest, both in their criticism and their praise. You can go home, assured that you’re a good painter because they take your paintings and display them on their walls, showing it off because they like it. Not because they want to feel important.” He nudged her shoulder again. “Once you’re honest with yourself, your paintings will become honest too.”

Samina swallowed hard.

“Topher would want to see it, I’m sure. The part you’re trying so hard to hide.” Elias gestured over her shoulder and Samina turned to see Topher strolling back.

She frowned as her heart skipped a beat.

Elias chuckled softly, pulling back her attention. “When you hear the fiesta music, it’s closing time.” He pulled the painting he’d just drawn and extended it to her. “This is for you.”

Her breath caught and she stared at the illuminous painting before looking up. “For me?”

Elias nodded. “I’ll trade you for the flower painting. My wife’ll enjoy this.”

Samina’s cheeks warmed, eyes stinging with tears.

Later, after they bid Elias a goodnight, Samina tucked back a smile and walked alongside Topher down the unleveled ground. Her eyes swept over the booths, watching the vendors close up their shop. She took in a deep breath, inhaling the sweet scents, making memories of this good day.

“So… did Elias treat you well?”

She nodded, side-stepping an older man scurrying between them with a wheelbarrow filled with crates. “It was fun.”

Topher smiled, adjusting the wrapped painting under his arm. He gestured for her to move ahead of him toward the car.

As they reached the car, Samina waited for Topher to place the painting in the trunk instead of getting inside. She bit her bottom lip as he walked over to her side and opened the car door. “Can we… talk?”

He stiffened visibly and dropped his hand from the car door.

Samina blinked as his dark gaze slid to her face.

Then Topher sighed. “Fine.” He moved around her to his side of the car and Samina slipped into the passenger’s seat.

Her pulse quickened as he started the engine but didn’t put the car in reverse. Instead, he leaned back in the seat, stretched out his long legs and turned to face her. “So talk.”

Samina hesitated, taken back by his clipped response. This wasn’t how she wanted to do it. Couldn’t they have gone somewhere a little more… comfortable and where she could at least see his face? She pursed her lips. “Aren’t you going to ask me?”

“Ask what? Who he is? Where you met him?”

She frowned. “Are you asking me then?”

Topher heaved a sigh. “Honestly Samina, it doesn’t matter who he is and where you met him. I’m disappointed that you didn’t give me a chance, but I can’t do anything about that, can I?”

She stared at him in silence. Was this all he had to say?

“But I’ll probably regret it either way, so tell me. Who is he?”

Tears stung her eyes and Samina blinked them away, annoyed by her reaction to his icy demeanor. This wasn’t the Topher she knew. Or maybe she never knew him at all and expected him to understand, at least give her a chance to explain.

She folded her arms across her chest, not knowing what else to do with her hands. “Never mind…”

And he didn’t prod her. Instead, Topher quietly turned in his seat and put the car in reverse, the engine revving loud as though echoing the screaming in her lungs. Samina turned her face to the window, tears stinging her eyes as Topher pulled out of the parking lot and took her home.

“Don’t you dare cry, Samina! Don’t you dare,” she screamed inwardly.

The love of her life had just told her he loved her too and wanted to be with her. Caring what Topher thought about her starting a relationship with Ezekiel was foolish and unfounded. She needed to get her mind right, starting now.

As Topher pulled into her driveway, Samina unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the door. She bit back a protest as he stepped out of the car and moved to the trunk to retrieve her painting. The sooner she got inside the better.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, receiving the painting from his hand. Forcing herself to look at him, Samina willed away the tears that threatened as she scanned his shadowed features. “For everything, Topher, thank you…” Swallowing the lump in her throat, she spun around and hurried up the driveway to the porch.

The sound of fleeting footfall, followed by the revving of an engine as Topher reversed the car onto the main street, invoked tears to fall down Samina’s face. The weight of the painting in her hand reminded her of the beautiful gift tonight had been for her. Topher’s surprise had touched her heart and she truly was grateful. Instead of showing him just how much his kindness and consideration meant to her, she’d hurt him.

A long tear slid down her face and Samina angled her face, pressing her cheek to her shoulder. Balancing the painting, she unlocked the door and stepped inside before the tears fell free.

Propping the painting against her knee, Samina pressed her hands to her face, catching the rebellious tears.

“Sam?”

She inhaled sharply and jerked her gaze up to where a concerned Ezekiel stood in the middle of her living room, a scowling Karen and curious Obadiah standing behind him. Samina groaned inwardly and wiped her face.

<<Chapter 33 || Chapter 35>>

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