Posts tagged “date

Samina’s Chance: Chapter 38

Posted on 12/05/2015

metropolis

As they both reached for a dusty model ship kit, Gabriel looked up to his eldest daughter’s stern expression. Then he lifted his hand, watching with longing as Samina tucked it between two boxes. “Is that necessary?”

“Mom’ll give you a hard time if she sees yet another one.” Samina dusted off her hands. “She thinks everything you bring home from this place is just junk.”

Gabriel grunted, moving to her side as they strode down the aisle of the consignment shop. “She just doesn’t know hidden treasures when she sees it.”

“She saw you,” Samina tossed back with eyes dancing in amusement.

Gabriel poked her side, grinning when Samina giggled and ducked away. He’d missed her laugh, missed her company but knew she was far too grown to move back home. The house was entirely too quiet, to which Deidre claimed was his fault and not because she was often overbearing.

“Besides,” Samina’s low voice pulled him out of his reverie. “We’re only here to drop off old stuff, not bring back any.”

He smirked at her pointed stare and nodded. “Fine… Let’s just pass the time window shopping.” In truth, he needed this distraction from all that plagued his thoughts, his conscience.

Turning the corner to the furniture aisle, Samina cleared her throat to get his attention. “Dad, about Obadiah…”

Gabriel sobered at the thought of his only son. “Sam… I’m sorry for tossing him to you guys like that.”

“Don’t worry, Dad.” She offered him an encouraging smile that only made him feel guilt-ridden. Parents disciplined their children, not siblings.

Gabriel sighed softly, looking away.

“Besides,” the smile in her voice pulled his attention to her once more. “It’ll be good for us to be together now. We’re bonding quite nicely.”

He raised a brow at her. She normally valued her solitude, like he did.

Samina frowned at him, a smile on hers. “What?”

“You’ve changed.”

“What does that even mean?” She laughed softly. “Obadiah said that too.”

His brow furrowed, heart throbbing painfully. He missed his son, aware that the boy’s absence was entirely his fault.  He swallowed down the lump of regret and managed to respond with a “How is he?”

Samina hesitated before responding. “He still thinks you overreacted and didn’t wait to hear him out.”

Gabriel stiffened as Jeremiah’s accusations from yesterday rang in his ears, echoing what his daughter just revealed. Both his son and his best friend had been caught by him in the same compromising positions and with no defense to stand on. They’d let him down. So why was he the one that felt remorse and loss?

A jingle he recognized sounded. Gabriel blinked out of his reverie once more, watching Samina pull out her phone.  He frowned as her eyes widened and she hesitated answering.  “Go ahead…” he mumbled, hands in his pockets.

She gnawed at her bottom lip, hesitating once more before answering on the fifth ring before it went to voicemail. “Hello?”

Gabriel sighed, looking down at a worn baseball glove. He thought of Obadiah and the times they’d played in the park, tossing a baseball across the field to each other.

“Hey…” Samina answered reluctantly. “Yea, a little. I’m out with my dad.”

Gabriel looked back at her, noting her half smile with a frown. Whoever this person was made his daughter nervous and unsure.

Then she lowered her lashes, her smile waning. “Today? Why so soon?”

He raised a brow at the alarm in her tone.

“Oh, I see…” Samina snuck a peek at her father.

He raised both brows in silent question. He hadn’t seen her this disconcerted since she graduated from high school and was awaiting her college acceptance letter.

“Um…” Samina drew in her bottom lip, mulling whatever this person had asked of her. “Well, I’m with my dad so…”

She said that already. Gabriel shook his head, puzzled. His girl was definitely nervous, for reasons he couldn’t comprehend. But then again, she was like her mother in many ways. Complex, complicated, confusing.

Samina peered up at him once more, a question in her gaze. “Well, maybe we can catch an early lunch if that’s okay?”

Frowning at her beseeching look, Gabriel found himself nodding, not sure what he was agreeing to. Whatever it was wiped away the anxiety from her eyes. Then Samina flashed him a dimpled smile that cleared his own wariness.

“We can meet you at the Bread Café in half-an-hour.” Samina turned away, pushing the cart toward the exit. Gabriel had no choice to follow.

Once Samina disconnected the call, she turned to him with a strange smile on her face. “Wanna come somewhere with me?”

Gabriel bit back a scoff. She’d already invited him without permission. He kicked a shoulder. “We’re meeting a friend of yours?”

Samina nodded, lowering her gaze.

He cocked his head to one side, eyeing her curiously. Who was this friend? “A guy you like?”

Her head snapped up, eyes slightly wide.

Gabriel smirked. “It’s not every day I get to meet my girls’ crushes.” He nodded, approving. “What an honor. I’m down. Let’s go.”

Samina’s hand on his arm made him look back at her. “Don’t get excited, Daddy. He’s just a friend…”

Something glinted in her eye and even after thirty-two years of marriage to Deidre, the most complex woman he’d ever known, Gabriel couldn’t put a name to what he saw in their daughter’s gaze. He raised a brow. “If he’s just a friend, why am I meeting him?”

She blinked in surprise.

Gabriel hid a smile and cleared his throat. “Let’s go.” He grabbed the cart and moved toward the exit.

“Wait,” Samina called out as she shuffled to meet him. “He’s leaving today and I still want to hang out with you after he leaves.”

“Uh-hmm.” He deposited the cart in its holding place, his lips twitching with contained mirth.

“No really!”

Gabriel bit back a chuckle, the heaviness lifting off his heart at her agitated state. He fished out the car keys with one hand and took her hand with the other, leading her out of the store. “By the way, how’s the job?”

Samina pushed out an exasperated breath. Then shrugged. “I like it.”

Gabriel smiled, draping an arm around his daughter’s shoulders as they walked out onto the parking lot. “That’s good.”

Samina peered up at him dubiously.

“Hmm?” He steered her toward his truck.

“No lecture about maximizing my potential or downgrading my status?”

Gabriel paused, imagining Deidre’s stern face with Samina’s words. “Your mother is entirely too dramatic.” He led her to the passenger’s door, pulling it open with a gentle smile. “As long as this is what you want and you’re content where you are, I’m happy.”

“Dad…” Samina smiled softly, gazing up at him with tears glistening in her eyes.

“Oh boy….” He rolled his eyes and pointed his chin to the passenger’s seat.. “Get in before I change my mind about meeting this friend of yours.”

Samina’s smile faded and a line appeared between her brows. “Daddy!”

Gabriel chuckled, moving to his side of the car.

For reasons she didn’t dare explore, Samina was a mess of jittered nerves as she and her father pulled up in front of the Bread café. Her fingers skimmed over the seat belt, eyes scanning the front window for a tall, broad-shouldered man. Inadvertently, her heart skipped several beats.

Gabriel chuckled beside her and Samina schooled her features, knowing he would only tease her if he knew.

She paused, frowning. Knew what?

“Sam?”

She pushed back the disquieting thought and unbuckled the seatbelt. “Yes Daddy?”

“Is there something I should know before I go in there with you?” As Samina turned to him, he had a perplexed look on his face instead. “A way I should react to your friend?” His smile resurfaced; bright and full of mirth.

Samina rolled her eyes, anxiety rolling off her shoulders. “Daddy… He’s a friend.” She still had yet to mention her evolved relationship with Ezekiel, adding this to her list of grievances to her parents.

Entering the café, Samina didn’t have to search the crowd to find Topher and Nadine sitting in a corner booth. Ignoring the flutter of her rebellious heart as Topher stood to his full height and waved them over, she tucked an arm under Gabriel’s and led him around the chairs toward them.

Topher smiled warmly at them, walking over with a hand extended to Gabriel. “It’s nice to meet you sir. My name is Topher.”

Gabriel disengaged his arm from Samina’s and shook Topher’s hand. He quietly took in the young man’s impressive height and settled his eyes on Topher’s face. “Nice to meet you too, Topher. Where are you headed?”

Samina missed Topher’s answer as she skirted around him to greet Nadine seated at the booth. “Good afternoon, Nadine.”

The older woman smiled warmly as Samina slid into the seat beside her and gave her a brief hug. “You made it,” she said hoarsely, gently squeezing Samina’s hand.

Samina pulled back, penitent. “I’m sorry that you’re leaving so soon.”

Nadine winked. “We’ll be back.”

A flutter in her stomach stopped Samina from replying. Her cheeks warmed under Nadine’s pointed gaze.

“I wanted to meet you also because I hear you’re from Abbeville too,” Topher continued, a smile in his voice.

“Too?” Gabriel echoed.

Nadine peered around Topher’s bulky frame, curious to see Samina’s companion. Samina smiled as Topher shifted his frame to reveal Nadine. “This is my aunt, Nadine… Nadine, this is Samina’s dad.”

Samina’s smile froze when her father’s did. Nadine inhaled sharply beside her. Shock morphed to disbelief on her father’s face. She didn’t have to look at Nadine’s face to know the truth. Her father and Nadine knew each other.

Nadine tugged her hand from Samina and started shifting in her seat. She scooted against Samina, forcing the younger woman to step out of the booth. “I-I, we need to go.” She gripped the booth tightly, her breath becoming haggard with every move.

As Nadine bent over the table, Samina moved close just as Topher did, to steady Nadine before she slumped over.

Her body trembled against Samina’s arm and she lifted her face to Topher’s. “W-we need to go now.” She shrank away from Samina’s hold, leaning into Topher’s arm, hiding her face into his chest. “Please… Let’s go.”

Shaken to silence, Samina stepped back as Topher held a breathless Nadine in his arms and led her past a shell-shocked Gabriel toward the patio.

Her eyes fell on Gabriel, noting he stood frozen and haunted. A cold shiver skittered down her spine. “Dad?”

Gabriel moved woodenly to the abandoned booth and slumped onto the seat.

Suddenly cold, Samina wrapped her arms about herself and moved to take the seat Nadine once occupied. In silence, she regarded her father’s face. He looked positively spooked as though he’d seen a ghost.

As she opened her mouth to question his reaction to Nadine, Topher strode quickly to their table. She noticed Gabriel stiffened instantly.

Turning her attention to Topher, she noted that Nadine was absent. Questions swarming in her head, she lifted her eyes back to him. His face was somber, distressed as she felt.

He swallowed hard and turned to Gabriel. “Sir, my aunt… She’d like to speak with you…” His Adam’s apple jostled. “Would you?”

Gabriel’s eyes shot up in alarm and Samina noted the frantic glint in his eyes. His jaw worked, debating whether to oblige them and Samina silently pleaded that he would. He swallowed hard and jerked a nod. “Where…is she?”

Samina bit her bottom lip as Topher directed her father to the patio. Something was terribly amiss as her father dragged his feet to the door, his tense shoulders bowed as though he was being sent to the gallows.

Topher heaved a deep sigh and slumped into the seat. He groaned, leaning his elbows on the table and covered his face with his hands.

Nadine hurled a scowl at Gabriel as he stepped out onto the patio. Once he dropped heavily onto the metal chair, she pursed her lips. “Unbelievable.”

Gabriel slowly lifted his eyes to her. It was like if he’d been yanked to a past wrought with pain. His heart thudded violently in his chest, eyes gliding over her oval face. She was here yet not really. Gaze unwavering, he shook his head. “I can’t …believe it.”

Her lips thinned in loathing, glare revealing indignation. “I’m not Odetta, so stop staring at me.”

He flinched as if she’d slapped him. Gabriel curled his fingers into his palms, his jaw tightening. “The boy… He yours?”

Eyes narrowed. “What part of Aunt don’t you understand?” She folded her arms across her chest, face hard as stone.

No, this couldn’t be Odetta. Nadine had always hated him, that he remembered almost as clearly as Odetta adored him. He swallowed hard, a burn churning in the pit of his belly.

“Not that it makes a difference to you whether he’s mine or hers, right Gabriel Wells?”

He peered up at her, disconcerted.

Samina’s head was still swarming with unanswered questions, Topher sitting in silence across the table from her.

He sighed, broad shoulders bowed inwardly. “I don’t know.” He lifted a hand to his hair that had grown since the wedding.

Surprisingly, her fingers itched to smooth back the cropped curls he’d disturbed. She stiffened, curling her fingers inward. This was neither the time nor the place… Nor the person. Samina frowned.

Topher blew out a breath and looked up then. “I’m so sorry about Nadine…”

His worried gaze stirred something akin to regret in Samina’s heart. Wanting to ease his nerves and hers, Samina reached over the table and grabbed his free hand.

Topher gave her a rueful smile and looked down at their joined hands. His other hand lowered on top of hers, fingers brushing hers.

His touch sought and offered comfort for their frazzled nerves. Samina smiled in gratitude and clutched his hand tight. His gaze moved back to her face, now warm and tingling. In that brief moment, their parents’ unsettling reaction to one another was forgotten.

Her eyes swept over his features, realizing now that she wouldn’t get to see him for a long while. She bit her bottom lip. “Everything will be okay, right?”

Topher’s smile was rueful, uncertain.

Samina held her breath.

His thumb traced a line across her knuckles, warming her all over. “I don’t know, Samina… I think I’m in love with you.”

She inhaled sharply, her heart tossing into a somersault.

His gray-green eyes swept over her face in a caress, as though memorizing her.

She found herself doing the same, imprinting every line and curve of high cheekbones, Roman nose, and bow-shaped mouth. She drew hers in, sneaking a peek at his face.

He loved her?

Her face warmed under his intent gaze and she smiled.

Something about this, about him, felt right.

A slow smile curved Topher’s lips upward and he started to lean in. She found herself inching forward, holding tight to his hand.

“Let go of her hands now.”

At the sound of Gabriel’s firm directive, both Topher and Samina sprang apart.

Gabriel didn’t give Samina a chance to compose herself or explain, not that she could do much with her face on fire and her heart beating a tattoo against her ribs.

Breathless, she gasped as Gabriel snatched her hand from Topher’s and tugged her to stand. “Dad—”

The stormy, murderous look on Gabriel’s face made her swallow her words.

Topher scooted out of the booth and met Gabriel’s vehement glare. “Sir, I-I can explain. I–”

“There’s nothing you can explain,” Gabriel cut off Topher with a stern expression that brooked no argument. Topher drew in his lips.

Samina’s heart hurt at the contrition spread across Topher’s handsome features. She wanted to pull away but Gabriel gripped her hand tightly, keeping her at his side. She dared not look up at her father, afraid to see the indignant fury Obadiah described.

He tugged at her hand, pulling her away from Topher.

Heart in her throat, Samina looked over her shoulder at Topher standing by the booth and her eyes tingled with helpless tears as Gabriel led her out to the truck.

Frozen on his feet, Topher watched helplessly as Samina and her father left the restaurant. The ire flashing in Mr. Wells’ eyes forbade him to come any closer, to reach for Samina. Heaving a frustrated sigh, he pushed a hand into his hair.

“Christopher,” Nadine’s raspy voice grabbed his attention.

He jerked around to see her leaning heavily over a nearby table. Her light skin was pallid, her fragile features drawn with fatigue.

Topher hurried to catch her before she slumped over.

Nadine lifted a tear-filled, unfocused gazed to his face. Her breath grew more haggard, more labored, every breath pushing her body against him. Then her eyes crossed and she suddenly went limp in his arms.

Blood and warmth leached from his very being. “Nadine!” Topher swept her weightless body into his arms and started for the exit door, heart in his throat.

<<Chapter 37 || Chapter 39>>

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Samina’s Chance: Chapter 33

Posted on 05/05/2015

streets

Wednesday came quicker than Samina anticipated. Nerves agitated, she watched Topher walk up the driveway to meet her with a wide grin. “Sorry I’m late.”

Samina stood to attention as his eyes openly appraised her from head to toe. She steeled her spine against the warm frisson dancing along her skin.

His eyes slanted to her face, crooked smile in place. “You ready for some flea market exploring?”

Although she’d made her decision about him, Samina couldn’t help but wonder why he didn’t reach out to embrace her. She shook her head, clearing the wanton thought from her mind and smiled. “Uh-hmm.”

He smirked wryly. “Your mouth says one thing and your eyes say another.”

Face warm from his piercing statement, Samina quickly averted her gaze.

Topher chuckled. “I kid. Come, we should get going.” He walked beside her to the passenger’s side of the car and opened the door for her.

Samina swallowed hard and sat stiffly in the passenger’s seat.  And as he rounded the car to the other side, she slowly released a breath. Her eyes remained on the dashboard once he slid behind the driver’s seat and started the engine.

“How was your vacation?” Topher asked, putting the car in reverse.

She managed a smile. “Fine. Nothing serious.” Her fingers curled around her purse strap. She hated having to lie but the less people that knew about her surgery, the better. Even Karen was on high suspicion alert. She didn’t need anyone else questioning her.

“That’s good then.”

Samina snuck a look at his chiseled features and bit the inside of her cheek. He seemed a little more reserved than normal. Was going out with him such a good idea after all?

Then as if he heard her thoughts, Topher tossed her a smile that warmed her face. “I hope you’re ready for a fun evening. I have lots planned for you.”

Her brow furrowed and she shifted in her chair. “Not sure what I’m supposed to think about that.” She raised a brow when he laughed outright, her lips twitching a smile at the welcoming sound.

Whether she wanted to admit it or not, she’d missed his deep, rumbling laugh and the warmth of his silver eyes dancing over her face. Shrugging off the peculiar sensation, Samina crossed her arms over her chest and faced the window. “So where’s this flea market?”

“Well Samina,” he tossed back, eyes on the road. “You’ll just have to sit back and enjoy the ride.  Let me do all the driving.”

Her eyes fell back on him, sprawled in the driver’s seat, his long legs stretched in front of him, one hand draped comfortable on the wheel. As if he’d been driving all his life. She smirked. “You already are…”

Topher laughed, shaking his head. “You’re something else.”

Samina sniffed and watched the trees and buildings zoom past. “How’s Nadine?”

“She’s fine; bossy as ever.” Topher chuckled.

Samina smiled. “But you’re used to it, aren’t you?”

“I have no other choice. She’s all I’ve got.”

Her eyes moved to his face, ruminating through his response with a furrowed brow. She couldn’t even imagine living without knowing one’s family. Her chest tightened in sympathy. “Did you ever try to find your father?” she asked, quickly wishing she could take it back when his jaw tightened slightly. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to answer. It’s just a bit complicated, that’s all.” Topher shrugged, switching lanes. “When I was younger, I asked Nadine every day about my dad; if he was alive and why he wasn’t here with us. But it was always the same response; nothing.” He shook his head, his mouth downturned. “One day, she broke down crying and that was the last time I ever mentioned my father.”

Samina curled in her fingers to keep from reaching out to touch him. “It must’ve been tough, not knowing…”

He kicked a shoulder. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Nadine’s a good mother and I’m grateful for her for raising me. Loving me.” He smiled wistfully, not once looking at her.

Samina blinked at the fluttering in the base of her stomach. She turned to the window, peering out at the darkened clouds gathered like pillows above a skyscraper across the highway.  “Looks like it’ll rain.”

“Don’t worry,” Topher sighed. “It’ll hold up until we leave the market.”

Samina slanted him a dubious stare.

He arched a brow, a smirk playing at his lips. “You’re not chickening out on me, are you?”

She rolled her eyes, inwardly grateful for his smile albeit dimmer than before. “The forecast says it’ll rain all this week and the next.”

He snorted. “I bet Ada’s got that covered. I heard she was on a fast all last week because of the weather.”

Samina couldn’t help but smile. She missed her friend. “I know right?”

Both she and Topher chuckled, imagining their two friends. Topher shook his head. “Jax’s a brave man. It takes a very strong man to love an even stronger woman.”

Samina tucked in a smile and sat back in her seat, watching with her heart in her throat as Topher sharply turned the steering wheel to maneuver around a truck trailer. At the exit lane, his car whizzed past around a jostling minivan to the rightmost lane. She gripped her seatbelt, trying to settle her racing pulse. “Curious, have you always wanted to be a geologist?”

Topher raised a brow at her. “Yeah, why?”

Samina gulped air and glared at him. “What about a race car driver? You’d be perfect for it.”

He blinked at her once before turning to the road, slamming on the brakes at the flashing yellow traffic light. “Sorry…”

Tucking a stray tendril behind her ear, Samina lay back her head and breathed a sigh of relief. “Not bad if you’re trying out for NASCAR.” She tossed him a grin.

Topher smirked in return. “You think you’re funny, huh?”

Samina shrugged. “Just take it easy, that’s all.”

“Don’t worry. I’m a great driver.” He revved the engine, chuckling when she grimaced.

She rolled her eyes, death grip on the seatbelt. “Most bad drivers think they are.”

He scoffed aloud. “You think I’m a bad driver?”

“If it looks and sounds like a duck…” Her lips twitched, noting the dancing lights in his eyes had returned. What a relief. She didn’t like seeing him forlorn and lost. A brooding Topher didn’t seem right.

Topher threw back his head and laughed.  As the light flashed green, he eased off the brake and tossed Samina a mischievous grin. “You’re good for me.”

Samina tucked back a smile as he eased off the accelerator again, just to mess with her. “Are we almost there, Schumacher?”

He choked a laugh, slowing the car behind a crawling SUV. “Yes Ma’am. Just a few blocks ahead.”

She eyed him fidgeting in his seat as he trailed behind the chugging van and laughed. “Just drive, Christopher.” Laughter bubbled in her throat and she covered her mouth to hold it in.

Topher quickly swerved to the left, overtaking the van and breathing a sigh of relief that made Samina laugh more freely. He tossed her a grin. “You have a beautiful laugh. You should do it more often.”

Cheeks warm, Samina focused on the invisible lint on her jeans.

As Topher turned into an open field, Samina finally looked up and read the hand-painted sign erected on the side of the street corner. “New Flea Market…” She smirked. “Original.”

He grinned, put the car in park and unbuckled his seatbelt. “It’s not as big or famous as Trader’s Village but it’s a fine market all the same. Whenever I visit Houston, I always come here. They’ve got great vendors and plenty things to see.”

Samina nodded, eying the scene from the car window.

On a Wednesday evening, the flea market buzzed with activity. Hand-crafted booths were lit, lanterns draped over the staked poles in the ground, swaying in the cool wind and lighting up a darkening sky, tall trees shadowed in the backdrop. People were everywhere, spilled out to the entrance, some strolling leisurely from booth to booth. Cars, bicycles and push-carts maneuvered through the traffic of customers and peddlers alike.

Topher rounded the car to open Samina’s door. “I want to introduce you to someone but we can visit the booths first. Any idea what you want to see?”

Curious to who he referred to, Samina rubbed her hands on her jeans and scanned the bustling scene before her. Vibrant array of silk fabric draped over booths swirled in the wind, beckoning her. She caught the sparkle of costume jewelry on another and the shiny pleather of purses gleaming under the lantern light. It was all so overwhelming and exciting at the same time. She drew in a deep breath and paused, catching a whiff of something sweet tantalizing her nostrils.

Topher leaned down to study her expression and grinned knowingly. “You smell it, don’t you?”

She turned to him, eyes wide. The smell made her salivate. “What is that?”

“Let’s find out.” Topher grabbed her hand and before she could pull it back, he led her through the crowd and around a push car to a booth with Korean lettering, smoke swirling over the slanted roof.

Samina breathed in the sweet aroma, her stomach dancing in anticipation.

Annyeonghaseyo,” Topher greeted the vendor, still holding onto Samina’s hand.

The vendor grinned, wrinkles spreading her high cheeks. She nodded her greeting, while fanning at a sizzling griddle.

Peeking down, Samina licked her lips at the flat pancake cooking.

“Kimchi pancake,” Topher said close to her ear. “That’s the smell.”

“It’s sweet?” she asked, eying the spatula that flipped over the flattened delicacy.

“You’ll just have to try it. Want to share one?” He reached in his pocket, waving off Samina’s protest. “Kimchijeon,” he said to the vendor, holding up one finger.

Nodding enthusiastically, the woman reached for a magazine, ripping a page out of it.

Topher hid a smile at Samina’s watchful eye on the vendor wrapping the hot pancake in a glossy page of the Seventeen’s magazine. Then nodding his thanks, he accepted the pancake, passed her the change and turned to Samina. “Trust me, it’s delicious.”

Samina watched him unfold the treat, steam rolling out from the envelope. The sweet scent of the pancake tickled her nostrils, whetted her taste buds.

He grinned, lifting the exposed pancake to her mouth. “You first. Say ah.”

Hesitating, she eyed him before leaning in to take a bite.

“Chew,” Topher said in mid-laugh, lifting the pancake to his mouth.

Her eyes widened at the mischievous glint in his eyes, forgetting for a moment that the warm pastry stuck to the roof of her mouth. His lips pursed with the motion and she watched, entranced by the action of Topher chewing. Then she blinked out of her daze and chewed slowly.

“Good?”

Mute, Samina nodded. There was a spicy yet sweet taste to the pastry.

He grabbed her hand again and led her down the cramped, makeshift aisles. Even in the open space of the flea market, the crowd of people and numerous booths pulled them closer to each other, Samina’s shoulder brushing Topher’s forearm.  She noted that he’d shifted a little, his torso turned toward her as if to shield her from the crowd bustling around them.

Her cheeks warmed and she turned to a rack of handmade jewelry. Tugging on his hand, she pulled him to the stand. The vendor, a beaming toothless woman with long dark hair that draped down her shoulders, greeted her kindly.

A sapphire stone necklace drew Samina’s attention and her fingers followed, tracing the slanted edges of the cut stone. She turned to the woman. “It’s beautiful. How much?”

The woman beamed brighter, pointing to her chest. “I make. Twenty-five dollar.”

Samina’s smile waned and she eyed the necklace, wondering at the price.

Topher then addressed the vendor in fluent Spanish, first complementing her steady hand and impressive skill. She watched a dusk color creep up the woman’s face as Topher charmed her into a wider smile.

Having only taken a few semesters of Spanish herself, Samina could pick out at least a few compliments Topher offered freely. To her surprise, the vendor turned back to face Samina, eyes warm from Topher’s attention. “Fifteen dollar.”

Biting back a protest, she reached for her purse. Topher’s hand on her arm stopped her.

“Allow me.” Topher tugged out his wallet and pulled out a twenty for the vendor.

“No. I couldn’t possibly ask—”

“What did I say about you letting go of control today?”

The vendor handed her the gift, thanked Topher and soon they were back on the main aisle of the market. “I didn’t expect you to pay for everything,” she protested mildly, caressing the cold stone of the necklace.

“You didn’t expect me to let you pay on our date, did you?”

Samina blinked up at him, cheeks smarting. “This is a date?”

Topher gave her a cheeky grin. “Of course. Any opportunity to spend with you, Ms. Wells, is a date. And I’m looking forward to spoiling you rotten, even at a flea market.” He winked at her, angling his head in the direction of the next booth. “Coming?”

Tongue-tied, Samina paused in step.

Brows raised in question, Topher turned to face her. “What?”

Samina swallowed hard. She couldn’t avoid it now that he’d made it clear. “Topher…” Her eyes swept over his handsome face. “I’m with someone.”

Something flickered in his eyes before it shuttered off. “You’re with someone?”

Samina bit the inside of her cheeks. She nodded, tongue heavy in her mouth. Although she delighted over Ezekiel’s romantic intentions, seeing Topher’s rattled reaction didn’t sit well with her.

“Since when…?” Topher frowned. “On your vacation?”

The low cadence of his voice made her chest tighten. Her eyes tingled and she blinked down at the necklace clutched in her hand. “It’s a long story…”

At his silence, Samina snuck a glance at him.  The pain exposed in his hooded gaze and the furrowed lines between his eyes couldn’t have been imagined; not if her hitched breath was any indication of how the hurt in his face affected her.

“Explain.” Then he held up a hand to stop her. “Actually, tell me later… There’s still much to see.”

In silence, Samina pocketed the necklace and quietly walked beside Topher to the next few booths.

As if nothing had happened, Topher introduced her to several other vendors that recognized him as a frequent visitor and friend. With that easy smile, Topher charmed both the women and men, introducing Samina as his friend.

Samina swallowed the hard lump in her throat at his quick acceptance. He didn’t even let her explain and just took her word for what it was. She ought to be relieved that he didn’t make a fuss, but for some reason, she wasn’t.

Still she offered Topher a kind smile as they approached the back of the market, a few straggling booths framed by tall dark trees. “You obviously come here a lot… They all know you.”

“In case you decide to come back on your own, you’ll feel welcome,” Topher replied easily, lifting a hand to wave to yet another vendor. Then he drew in a deep inward breath and released it.

Samina eyed him warily, noting the catch in his tremulous breath. Maybe he wasn’t as unaffected as she thought he was. Her pulse skipped a beat when his sad eyes skimmed over her face.

He offered her a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Ready for the surprise I have for you?”

She stared back, stunned that he hadn’t rescinded after all. But more so because she was happy that he didn’t. Samina nodded, unable to take her eyes off his face.

Topher nodded stiffly and inclined his head in the direction of the booths by the trees. “Come then.” He turned on his heel and stalked away.

Samina stared at his broad shoulders, wondering why she was the one feeling slighted instead. With a sigh, she trudged over, spotting a man bent over an easel, several painted easels propped and hung on the makeshift wall behind him.  Her heart danced unexpectedly, eyes sweeping over the masterpieces.

“Elias,” Topher greeted the older man warmly and extended a hand just as the man unfolded himself from his stool. They clasped hands before Topher released him. “How are you?”

“As good as can be,” the man answered gruffly, although his weathered features eased off its concentrated state. It seemed even this man was easily stirred by Topher’s charm. Then his dark eyes moved from Topher to Samina and one side of his crooked mouth lifted. “And you must be her then…”

Samina noticed Topher stiffen beside her but he easily smiled. “Yeah, this is her. Samina, this is Elias.”

Elias eyed her with probing eyes.

Samina felt herself inch closer to Topher’s hulking frame and the man barked in laughter. She pursed her lips.

He grinned. “I hear you’re the next Picasso.”

She snuck a glance at Topher’s unwavering smile before looking back down at Elias. “I don’t think so.”

“Good. I never liked his work.” Elias smirked and gestured to his booth. “Well, come. I saved you a stool and an easel to get started.”

She frowned. “Get started with what?”

“I thought you told her already.” Elias glanced once at Topher before addressing her. “You’re my apprentice for the day. Grab your seat and start your painting.” He plucked his paintbrush and squinted at his easel.

Topher shrugged, a rueful smile lifting his lips. “Remember when I asked why you never tried exhibiting your work anywhere?” He gestured to the empty stool and the paint utensils awaiting her. “Here’s your chance.”

Heat swarmed through her, breath caught in her throat as she stared at Topher, her mouth agape.

<<Chapter 32 || Chapter 34>>

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