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.
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.