Karen was a pro at taking rejection. She didn’t wallow in self-pity for too long and chose to reaffirm that she was a great catch. She didn’t need a man that didn’t need her. After Clement’s lame attempt at rebuffing her confession, Karen merely thanked him for lending his phone and retreated to the bedroom for the night.

Surprisingly, she wasn’t convinced by Clement’s delayed reaction. That telltale pause after she confessed, and the way his gaze shifted as he announced he was like a celibate priest.

Refocusing her attention on the children coloring in their books, a soft smile lifted Karen’s lips. The five she and Clement had brought last night sat together for most of the activity. After warm baths, delicious food and a comfortable place to sleep, they now seemed content coloring pretty pictures with their new friends. For now, this was their home until Clement discovered their respective homes.

Wubit, Dula’s young wife, supervised some of the younger children. The teenager Eddie sat beside Karen and gestured toward the box of colored pencils. Since the girl couldn’t understand much English and Karen little to no Amharic, the two resorted to sign language.

“Thank you,” Karen said with a thumbs up and reached for a red colored pencil.

Nostalgia swept over her as she drew a heart, remembering her precocious niece and nephew. It was times like this that she wished to forget everything and run home. Resting her chin on one hand, she drew an interlocking heart and shaded it in.

“Pretty picture.”

Karen glanced up at Wubit and smiled. “Thanks. I usually color outside the lines. My sister would be proud.”

Settling in the seat to the left of Karen, Wubit accepted the paper Eddie offered. She grabbed a pencil. “How many siblings do you have?”

Three young girls abandoned their pictures and crowded Wubit, doodling with her on the piece of paper.

Karen’s smile warmed watching them. “Two. An older sister and younger brother.”

“They must miss you terribly.”

“Well they have their own lives. Sister’s married with two and a half kids. Brother’s living it up in college…” Karen glanced up, noting Wubit’s arched brow. “She’s pregnant with the third, and my brother is in college.”

“I figured,” Wubit said, one corner of her lips quirked upwards. “Do you miss home?”

Eddie gestured for the girls to leave Wubit alone, instructing them to return to their own papers.

“I do but…” She shrugged. “I always felt like I wasn’t meant to be in one place, especially not in the States.”

“Really?”

“Hmm. Ever since I was young, I’ve always wanted to do more with my life.”

Wubit’s lips twitched. “You must’ve been a fun child to be around.”

“That’s a nice way of saying I was a handful.”

“That too.” Wubit laughed, eyes dancing over Karen’s face. Then her smile dimmed slightly. “What made you go on this mission trip? Boredom or an interest in African culture?”

“No. I want to be a missionary.” She laughed when Wubit gaped at her. “That’s the same look Clement gave me when I told him…” Her laugh eased away and she returned her attention to her drawing.

“What’s wrong?”

“Just hoping we’ll reunite the kids with their parents. I can only imagine how they must be feeling.”

“Afraid, worried… hurt.”

Karen looked up, seeing those very emotions playing in Wubit’s youthful features. She didn’t look a day over twenty-five yet hidden pain, the same that she’d witnessed in Clement’s eyes, was evident in hers now. She frowned. “Were you also…”

Wubit’s smile was sad as she nodded. “I lost my parents to a fire a long time ago. I was very young, too young to remember all of what happened, but I knew they died in the fire.”

Pain sluiced Karen and she gripped the pencil. “How old are you, Wubit, if you don’t mind me asking…”

“I am twenty-three.” Wubit chuckled at Karen’s wide-eyed stare. “Yes, my husband and I are far in age. But he is the only one for me.”

Karen nodded dumbly, watching the very young wife and new mother continue drawing. It seemed all, including Clement, had matured from tragedies and hardships in their lives. She, on the other hand, felt like a fraud for having faced very little and a brat for complaining about it.

The door opened then and Karen slowly turned, her heart skipping a beat when Clement and Dula stepped inside. She quickly avoided Clement’s gaze, hers falling on the man that trailed behind them.

He was more slender than stocky and almost as dark as Dula. He also wore a wide grin that stretched his narrow face. “Hello,” he greeted while waving.

Wubit smiled. “Welcome back, Brother.”

Karen figured this must be the friend Clement spoke with earlier and waved. “Hi there. I’m Karen.”

“I know,” he said good-naturedly and put a hand to his chest. “I’m Ejigu.”

“Good to meet you, Ejigu. And thank you for your help.”

“It is my pleasure.” He started toward her, one hand out.

Clement stepped into his path, gaze fixed on Karen. “Are you ready to call your friend?”

Karen noted Ejigu and Dula chuckling behind Clement, then dragged her attention to Clement. “Uh, sure.”

“Come with me.” He held out a hand to help her stand.

Hesitating for just a moment, Karen reluctantly placed her hand in his and then stood. She bit the inside of her cheek when he tugged on her hand, silently guiding her toward the door. Karen snuck a peek at their spectators, noting the amusement dancing in Dula’s face and Wubit’s wide smile. Even Ejigu looked like he barely held back a laugh.

She let Clement lead her out of the room before she tugged her hand free and pocketed them in her borrowed capris. “Are celibate priests allowed to hold hands?”

Clement looked exasperated and flustered all at the same time.

Karen snorted incredulously. “Never mind. Give me your phone.”

“We need to talk after your call,” Clement muttered as Karen unfolded the scrap paper and dialed the number. He sighed when she merely turned her back, the phone pressed to her ear. It was obvious Karen wasn’t going to let him off the hook anytime soon. With one more glance at her walking down the hallway, he turned in the opposite direction to spend time with the children. His first order of business was getting the five children to tell them about their home and their parents.

Anticipating the tough task at hand, Clement drew in a sustaining breath and returned to the room.

Ejigu looked up from his drawing upon Clement’s return. “Where is she?”

“None of your business,” Clement groused, walking up to Dula and Wubit.

“Someone’s in a grouchy mood,” Wubit teased, nudging Clement’s arm.

“He’s jealous,” Dula interjected with a twinkle in his eye.

Clement scowled. “Jealous of what? Nonsense.”

Leaving his friends’ laughter behind him, he moved past them toward the group of boys and girls. Then cleared his throat to get their attention, and was rewarded with squeals of excitement for seeing him after few days of absence.

Pacing up and down the chapel aisle, Karen nibbled at her thumbnail as she waited for the dial-tone. Three rings and still no answer. Hope began to dissipate and Karen lowered the phone from her ear.

“Hello?”

She jerked the phone back. “Hello? Ashon?”

“Missi?!”

Karen’s tense shoulders sagged with relief. “My goodness! I’m so glad it’s you. Thank you, God.”

Loud static filled the silence on the other end and she drew back the phone, worried the signal would go out. “Hello, Ashon? Are you there?”

“I’m here…” Static undercut his voice.

She bit her bottom lip. “Are you okay? Everything okay?”

“Yes, Missi. We are fine.”

Karen blew out a breath. “We… you still have the children?”

“I couldn’t leave them. Where are you?”

“I’m with my friend in Bichena. Do you know where that is?”

“No. Is that east or west of the capital?”

Karen frowned, wishing Clement had stayed a bit longer. “Uh, I’m not sure. I just know it’s like sixteen hours from Finch’awa.”

“That won’t help me, Missi. Is your friend there? I will need directions.”

“Where are you? Did you get hurt?”

“Not hurt. I am a few hours from the capital. I didn’t know where else to take them, and I remember you said your friend works in an orphanage.”

“He does!” Karen started for the chapel door, ready to search for Clement. “Hold on, let me—”

Priscilla was on her way from the kitchen toward the children’s center when the chapel door swung open. She narrowly missed the swinging door but ended up bumping in the person exiting the chapel. “Watch it!” she scowled at the foreigner who stood before her.

Karen straightened and the frown eased off her face. She shoved the phone at Priscilla. “Here, give my friend directions.”

“Excuse…” her scowl darkened as Karen pressed the phone to her ear. “Hello?”

“Hello,” the man answered stiffly. “I need to find the orphanage. Can you give me directions?”

Eying Karen askance, Priscilla held the phone. “Where are you coming from?”

A minute later, Priscilla reluctantly returned Clement’s phone to Karen. “Who is he?”

“A friend of mine,” Karen answered, pocketing the phone in her flower-printed pants.

Priscilla scowled. “Those are my pants.”

“They are?” Karen peered down and then shrugged. “Oh don’t worry. I’ll wash them and go back to wearing Clement’s clothes.”

“Keep it—is this guy your boyfriend?” She fell in step with Karen, both heading in the same direction.

“Goodness.” Karen laughed openly. “More like an uncle. Ashon’s is probably a decade older than me….”

“Probably?” Priscilla frowned. “Wubit and Dula have fifteen years between them. It is no big deal.”

Pausing in step, Karen arched a brow at Priscilla. “Your point?”

“Age isn’t but a number…” she halted as Karen scoffed and started walking faster. Catching up, she asked. “What is your real relationship with Clement?”

Karen rolled her eyes. “You heard him. I’m a good friend of his from America. Nothing more.” She imagined the Cheshire grin on Priscilla’s face and quickened her steps. “Thanks for helping with the directions.”

“You’re welcome!” Priscilla answered in a melodic voice.

Silently mimicking her words, Karen pushed open the door to the children’s center and froze in step.

Before her, Clement sat cross-legged with the children sitting around him. He wore a kind and patient smile that reached his eyes, listening intently as one of the girls told a story. There was no doubt that he loved children and would do anything to ensure they were safe and loved.

A thought of Clement cradling his own child popped in her mind and Karen brushed it aside. Celibate priests had no business fathering children much less settling down. He seemed too content as a bachelor.

Yet, as she watched him lift one of the youngest children onto his lap, Karen couldn’t help but question his softly-spoken rejection. There was something that flitted in his eyes when she told him how she felt. Even though it was just wishful thinking on her part, Karen wanted to believe that Clement wasn’t completely immune to romance. Just like her, he hadn’t met the right one.

At that moment, Clement looked up and their eyes met. Karen didn’t look away this time, and gave him a gentle smile. Even if he rejected her again, she planned to show him bachelorhood wasn’t for him.

Clement noted the warm smile softening Karen’s pretty features and marveled how she managed to look refreshed after only a few hours of sleep. He couldn’t deny she was beautiful, and a good woman at that. It was plain to see she would make someone a very happy man, but he wasn’t sure he could take that chance. Her pretty smile would morph into a disapproving scowl whenever he stayed away for more than a day. They’d argue all the time and the excitement he experienced seeing her would cease with harsh finality.

As Priscilla stepped in behind her, Clement refocused his attention on his favorite storyteller. His smile twitched as the little girl waved her arms, enthusiastically describing the scene. Her peers watched with enraptured attention and to his pleasant surprise, so did the five newcomers.

Sobering, Clement thought about the many other children that would be sleeping in a cramped box while being transported to the next auction house. His stomach turned, worried for his next move.

“So Karen,” Ejigu’s voice pervaded his thoughts and Clement looked up to see his friend standing by Karen.

He gaped openly as Karen turned that pretty smile to Ejigu. “Oh, hi again.”

“Hi. Has anyone had the chance to show you around?”

“Not yet. Hopefully soon.”

And before Clement could think to say anything, Ejigu gestured toward the door. “Allow me.”

Perturbed, Clement watched Karen willingly follow Ejigu out the door, laughing as they exited the center.

“Yup,” Dula said by Clement’s right shoulder where he perched on a toy box, bouncing his son Meko on his knee. His eyes twinkled with mirth. “Not jealous at all.”

While his friend chuckled at his expense, Clement forced himself to sit back and listen to the girl’s story for the millionth time.

“Sorry for the interruption,” Ejigu said, jogging back to Karen’s side. “Important phone call.”

“No worries. So, did you meet Clement here too?” Karen asked once they resumed their stroll around the church courtyard. She smiled up at the lopsided paper wreaths that hung on the terrace. There was enough evidence that the orphaned children were loved and taken care of here.

“No,” Ejigu answered easily, hands pocketed. “My main job is a tour guide and driver. We met in the capital a few times, and came to know everyone through him. He is a very good man.”

Karen glanced up at him, noting his dimpled smile. “That he is.”

“A bit stubborn and very hard-headed, but he cares for his family and friends.”

She smirked. “Are you trying to convince me? I already know him.”

Ejigu chuckled but said nothing more on the matter. He moved up a sloping hill toward a small gazebo. “Clement mentioned that you were with him on the last mission. How did that happen?”

Karen paused and watched the man walk ahead of her. Although he was good friends with Clement and probably already knew about the encounter, she didn’t feel comfortable divulging her side of the story.

He glanced over his shoulder and stopped, turning to look at her. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.” She resumed walking up to meet him. “I’m sure Clement told you already.”

“He did…” he regarded her carefully. “You believe what he’s doing is correct?”

Karen shrugged. “I don’t know about correct. I just think at the moment, it seemed the only thing to do besides doing nothing at all.” She eyed him curiously. “I take it you don’t agree?”

Ejigu sighed, facing the sun that was slowly descending behind a mountain. “It’s very complicated. I know that when a child was killed after one of the village raids and countless children were stolen, Clement blamed himself. He became a desperate man then, spending a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out who caused the child’s and the kidnapping of so many others.”

Her breath caught. “A child died?”

“… He didn’t tell you?” He heaved another sigh. “He still has nightmares about that day. Had one yesterday night. That’s why he was awake when you err…Perhaps he should tell you himself.”

She shook her head. “We both know he won’t budge. Please tell me what happened.”

Ejigu hesitated for a moment and then gestured to the gazebo. “We might as well sit. It is a long story.”

Karen quietly moved toward the gazebo, dreading the tragedy that drove Clement to such desperate lengths to save a child. But as Ejigu took his place beside Karen, a ping sound stopped him from starting the tale. Giving her an apologetic look, he retrieved the phone and frowned at it. “It’s a text from Clement.”

“Uh-oh,” Karen said with a laugh. “What does it say?”

“Says your friend has arrived and we should come inside now. Can we postpone our talk?”

Karen jumped to her feet. “Yes, later!” Then she hurried out of the gazebo and back down to the church. Ejigu had no choice but to follow, curious to meet the man that made Karen smile so prettily.

<<Chapter 25 || Chapter 27>>

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