Karen gaped at the lumberjack of a man prone at her feet. He was dead; the sole bullet hitting him square in the chest. She looked up at the wide-eyed Jennifer whose trembling hand held the smoking gun. Quickly recovering from her shock, Karen moved slowly toward her friend. “It’s alright. You’re alright…” She skirted the barrel of the gun while inching closer to a dazed Jennifer.
Her hand hovered Jennifer’s and slowly lowered until their fingers touched. Her eyes remained on the girl’s face, watching the tears sliding free down her face. “You’re okay…” she whispered. “Let go.”
As if realizing what she’d done, Jennifer quickly relinquished hold of the weapon and staggered back, tripping over the edge of her bed. She choked on a sob and began to hyperventilate.
Karen slowly placed the gun aside and hurried to Jennifer’s side. Holding her by the shoulders, Karen glanced once at the closed door of Jennifer’s bedroom. She could faintly hear the fire alarm. Her eyes skimmed the very dead body of the man that once held Jennifer prisoner. “We need to get out of here. We don’t have time.”
Jennifer shook her head, freeing herself from Karen’s light hold. “You… need to go.”
“I won’t leave you here,” Karen said firmly. “There’s a fire and we need to get out of here.”
“I have a score to settle.”
Karen noted the gleam in Jennifer’s eyes. “There’s no need for that. Revenge is mine, says the Lo—”
“Shut up, Karen.”
“Girl!” She scowled as Jennifer grabbed the gun and started for the door. “We need to find Clement and get out of here!” She caught up with Jennifer, though careful not to touch her in her agitated state and with a loaded gun, for that matter. “We don’t have time for a revenge plot, Jennifer.”
They turned the corner and both women halted in step. The hallway was completely black with smoke. Karen tugged the collar of her shirt over her mouth and held it there. “It’s no use. Let’s turn back and find another way–!” She scowled as the young woman walked forward. “Jennifer!”
She groaned as Jennifer disappeared in the thick smoke and tossed an exasperated glance heavenward before stepping in after her. The smoke pervaded the thin barrier of her clothes and assailed her nostrils. Coughing violently, Karen squinted against the sting and forged on. Attempting to call out to Jennifer, much less see her, was almost impossible now.
Karen staggered against a wall and dropped to her knees, feeling her way forward. Her sense of direction muddled as oxygen depleted. Karen lowered to her belly, attempting to stay close to what was left of the only breathable air, all the while praying for relief.
Just when she was ready to give up and succumb to the suffocating smoke, a hand grabbed her upper arm and yanked her into a room. Karen rolled onto her back and attempted to expel the polluted air from her lungs. The coughs racked her body and she moaned, clearing her throat.
Her eyes shot open at the familiar voice and connected with Clement’s beautiful face. Karen couldn’t help it; she burst into tears. Clement didn’t hesitate grabbing her by the shoulders, pulling her up and against him. Karen wrapped her arms around him, clinging to his shirt. She wept against his shirt, afraid and grateful at the same time. He was okay!
She was okay. Clement held her tightly as she wept against him. He tossed a silent prayer of thanks and pressed his lips against her temple. That gunshot wasn’t hers. She was alive! Drawing back, he cupped her face between his hands and searched her face, checking for injuries on her. “You’re okay.”
Karen couldn’t stop crying, her blurry vision feasting on his face. “You’re… okay.”
“Of course I am,” Clement said, pulling her back into a tight embrace, rejoicing that she was better than okay. He whispered yet another prayer and pressed a kiss to her temple, letting her cry it out.
After a few minutes, Clement noticed the black smoke seeping from the crack under the door. He reluctantly loosened his hold on Karen and held her at arm’s length, gazing down at her. “I wish we could stay here but we have to move.”
Karen sighed. “The fire’s spreading too fast. I didn’t expect that…”
Frowning, Clement searched her face. “You… started the fire?” Her rueful expression invoked a laugh. Her slight frown made him smile. His thumb caressed her cheek. “Let’s get out of here, okay?”
She silently nodded, taking the hand he held out to her and allowed him to help her stand. She didn’t let go of his hand, her eyes roaming on his handsome face. Relief swept over her as she verified that his face was intact except for a cut near the corner of his mouth. “I’m glad we’re okay.”
“You and me both, babe.” Clement squeezed her hand and tugged her toward the door. “Cover your face.”
Karen barely recovered from the pet name. “Do you know where to go?”
Clement nodded. “Cover your face.”
“Wait, we need to find my friend Jennifer.”
His brow furrowed. “I want you out of this burning building first, and then I’ll find—”
“I’m not letting you go,” Karen insisted. “Either we do this together or we don’t go at all.”
Clement squinted at her and then sighed deeply. “I see you’re gonna be a handful. Come.” He tugged on her hand and opened the door. Karen quickly covered her face and Clement did also, except for his eyes. It felt like forever before the two staggered to another end of the hallway not covered in smoke. Falling to their knees, the couple bowed over and violently coughed out the smoke from their lungs.
Karen grimaced as Clement pounded on her back but didn’t scold him. Holding up a hand, she gestured for him to turn and pounded on his back until both of them could breathe a bit easier. Then sharing a smile, they interlocked their fingers and stood to their feet. “Where to?” Karen asked, glancing behind them.
“Where did you say she was going?”
“To find her moth—” another gunshot rang in the air. Karen and Clement glanced once at each other and then raced toward the sound, Karen fearing for Jennifer’s life. Though his legs were longer and he covered a larger distance than her, Clement never released her hand until they came to another end of the hallway.
“What kind of maze is this?” Karen protested, gasping for air. She tugged her hand free and pounded at her chest. Her eyes scanned the doors. “Which one?”
One of the doors down the hall opened and Clement grabbed Karen’s hand, yanking her to one corner. He pushed her against the wall and covered her with his body. Karen’s breath caught in her throat, her face pressed against Clement’s chest. She could hear his rapid heartbeat in sync with hers.
Clement peered around the wall and frowned. “It’s just Mrs. Badri and her henchman.”
Karen recovered and shoved at Clement’s chest. He stepped back and she started for the open door when Clement grabbed her hand to stop her. She pulled at her hand. “Let me go.”
“Shh!” Clement glanced over her shoulder. “Do you want us to be killed?!”
“Jennifer’s in there,” Karen’s eyes filled with tears. Clement released her hand and she hurried inside, falling to her knees at the sight of Jennifer’s prone body. The tears fell free as she gathered her friend in her arms. Clement stepped inside and knelt beside her, his eyes moving over the woman’s body.
“I don’t see any gunshot wounds but…” he paused, holding two fingers against her jugular.
Karen held her breath, watching his brow furrow. “Is there a pulse?” She looked down at Jennifer’s face.
“She’s alive. Strong pulse.”
Karen sagged with relief and held Jennifer close. “Thank God.” Her eyes lifted as Clement stood. “Where are you going?”
“Stay with her. I’m going after Mrs. Badri.”
“Not without me.”
Clement sighed exasperatedly when she slowly lowered Jennifer to the floor before standing. “What about your friend?”
“You’re my first responsibility. I’m not losing you again.” Karen took his hand. “We’ll come back for her.”
For a moment, Clement just stared. He’d known Karen was strong and brave after the incident in Finch’awa, but it was as if he looked at her with different eyes. His heart skipped a beat when her beautiful eyes openly searched his face.
Her brows hitched in his silence. “What?”
Clement kept staring, the awareness of his feelings for her rendering him speechless. He loved Karen. Probably had for some time.
Karen rolled her eyes and tugged at his hand. “The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can leave this burning place—” the rest of her words were muffled as Clement pressed his lips to hers. Her eyes widened momentarily and then shut, leaning into his kiss.
When Clement lifted his head, Karen’s eyes fluttered open. It took a moment before she could finally speak. “What… what was that for?” her voice was barely over a whisper.
His lips twitched, sending her heart racing all over again. “I’ll tell you later.” He tugged her toward the door.
Karen dug her heels, stopping him. “No, tell me now. Why’d you kiss me?”
Clement sighed deeply but turned to face her. “Why do you think I kissed you?”
Her mouth moved but no words came. It was though she was afraid to articulate it for fear it wasn’t true.
His expression softened and he lifted a hand to her cheek, his thumb caressing her skin. “Let’s discuss this afterwards, okay?”
Before she could protest, a round of gunshots split the air. Clement stiffened and Karen noted the fear flit in his eyes. “No, Ejigu!” He dropped his hand and started down the hallway.
Karen had no choice but to follow.
Reaching the west wing, Clement and Karen stopped as a uniformed man dragged a Kutfi soldier in handcuffs walked past them. Clement placed a hand in front of Karen as though to shield her, but the officer barely gave them a glance as he shoved the handcuffed soldier forward. A step behind his comrade, yet another uniformed officer pushed his prisoner. Three more police officers ushered their prisoners out of the lobby and out to the front of the mansion.
Hand against Clement’s back, Karen looked up at Clement. It was over and Clement squeezed her arm as if to prove it wasn’t a dream. They moved quickly toward the opening, the scene before them stopping both in their tracks. More police officers filled the room, ushering bound and injured Kutfi soldiers toward the exit. Taking Karen’s hand, Clement steered her away from their path.
Clement followed the sound and his eyes widened at the sight of Dula and Ashon, standing beside a uniformed officer. Ejigu was nowhere to be found. His eyes scanned the room, searching for his friend.
Ashon smiled at the sight of Karen and waved. “Missy!”
Karen waved back, grateful to see her friends again. She started toward them, tugging Clement along. Then released his hand to give Ashon a hug. “I’m so glad to see you again.”
Ashon patted her back and looked over her head at Clement. “You okay?”
Clement nodded. “Where’s Ejigu?” The hesitation in the man’s face had him seeking Dula. “What happened?”
“He was shot.”
Karen gasped, a hand to her mouth. Clement resembled a gutted man.
“He’s fine,” Dula assured both. “It’s a flesh wound. He’s with Priscilla and the police now.”
Clement didn’t relax yet. “What about Mrs. Badri? And Mahmoud?”
Karen held her breath, fearing that she’d escaped. Clement’s grip tightened around her hand, he also worried that their work had been for naught.
“In custody,” Dula responded. “They found Ejigu holding them hostage, and the officers mistakenly thought he was one of them and disarmed him. Priscilla let them know he wasn’t before they shot him dead.”
“I guess even Ethiopian police are trigger-happy,” Karen mused aloud, rubbing Clement’s arm with her free hand. “Thank God he didn’t die… although I’m still angry with him.”
Ashon and Dula chuckled. Clement only smirked, his gaze fixed on her.
Karen gasped and tugged her hand free from Clement’s. “Jennifer!”
Clement watched as Karen raced out the door and started for her when Dula put a hand to his shoulder.
Dula’s eyes roamed his friend’s face. “You okay Who started the fire?”
“We’re okay. I’ll explain later.” With a smile revealing what was inside, Clement hurried after Karen.
Jennifer managed a smile as Karen dabbed the handkerchief against her cheek. “Thanks…”
“Not a problem,” Karen said gently and sat back in the chair beside her hospital bed. Her eyes swept over Jennifer’s face. “You’re gonna be okay.”
“I don’t know about that.” Her brow furrowed, conflicted. “I thought I could get to know her, maybe develop a relationship with her but… she left me there to die. Let that man knock me out and left me there. Abandoned me for the second time.”
Karen reached out to cover Jennifer’s cool hand with hers. “She may have given birth to you but she’s not your mother. Remember?” She squeezed her hand and offered her a gentle smile. “I know you will. It’ll hurt for a minute but you’ll be just fine.”
Jennifer sighed heavily and lay her head back. “I’m tired.”
“I’ll let you sleep.” Karen released her hand and stood. After one look at her friend, she turned and walked out of the hospital room. Clement stood on the opposite wall, waiting. He looked up when she closed the door and she gave him a smile. “How long have you been waiting here?”
Clement only answered with a smile and held out his hand to her. Karen didn’t hesitate taking it and let him lead her on a walk down the hallway. A technician pushed a cart towards them. Karen bit back a smile when he laced their fingers and tugged her closer to him, avoiding the cart by an inch.
She glanced up at him but didn’t say a word, admiring his handsome profile.
He led them to the front exit of the hospital and down a winding path to a small bench overlooking a body of water. Djibouti was nothing like Bichena or Kenya, but the scenery was still beautiful. Or maybe it was an effect of her floating on cloud nine.
Clement gestured for her to sit and sat beside her, their hands still joined. He placed his other hand on top, thumb caressing her palm. “You okay?”
Karen still couldn’t believe this was happening. She’d reasoned that it was the spur of the moment and Clement’s relief that made him kiss her, but here he was being so attentive and sweet and…
He was looking at her now, brow furrowed. “Are you?”
His look of concern melted every ounce of anxiety and she smiled. “Better than okay. You?”
Clement nodded with a ghost of a smile. “Me too.” He sobered. “I thought I lost you. When Ejigu came back looking the way he did, and you weren’t with him, I…”
“We made it alive, Clement. Thank God. And thank you for coming for me.”
“I had to.” His gaze searched hers. “Karen, I think I love you.” He shook his head. “No, I know I love you.”
She smiled, heart soaring with elation. “I’m glad you corrected yourself or else.”
He arched a brow. “Or else what?”
Karen grinned fully. “I love you too, Clement. Very very much.”
Clement responded by pulling her close until their faces were inches apart. Karen forgot to breathe, her eyes wide and searching his. He chuckled and lowered his face until their lips touched. She sighed against him, grateful it wasn’t a dream.
Then he embraced her close, placing butterfly kisses against her temple. Karen smiled, hooking her arms around his waist. Her eyes took note of the blue sky and she immediately thought of Bichena’s beautiful plains and valleys. “When are we going home?”
He pulled back a bit to look down at her. There was a slight wrinkle in his brow and Karen mirrored it. “What?” When he didn’t answer, Karen pulled away. “What is it, Clement?”
“I want you to go home—wait,” he added before she could protest. “I want you to go home and rest for a bit. Spend time with your family, I know you miss them.” He lifted a hand to cup her cheek, his thumb brushing her skin. “You need your time with them.”
“We just got started,” Karen whined shamelessly. “You’re sending me home after telling me you love me?”
“Woman, can you let me finish?”
“If you’re gonna say more foolish stuff…” Karen heaved a sigh. “Fine, finish.”
Clement fought a smile and gave her a quick peck, unable to help himself. He then lifted his head and watched her eyelashes flutter. His grin widened. “Being a missionary isn’t easy. Heck, life with me won’t be a walk in the park… which is why I’m giving you the break you’ll need.”
Dubious, she arched a brow. “How long of a break is it gonna be?”
“You decide how long,” Clement replied. “Just know when you return, we’re hitting the ground running. We’ve still got work to be done.”
“Like finding Alice and Petra. Even if Mrs. Badri’s in jail, there are many like her out there.” Karen then frowned. “Wait-a-minute. That better not be a proposal. Are you being serious?”
Clement choked on a laugh. “You’re gonna be such a handful.” His kiss cut off her protests and he pulled her into an embrace. Life with Karen was going to be an adventure of a lifetime and he sincerely couldn’t wait.