Posts tagged “sadness

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>>

Samina’s Chance: Chapter 20

Posted on 13/04/2015

kent

Ezekiel was oddly more disappointed than relieved to see his mother had returned from Abbeville. He gently smiled over the girls’ heads as they cuddled their grandmother. Sheena’s return meant Samina had no reason to babysit.

“My babies,” Sheena cooed against Beulah’s cheek. At Ezekiel’s silence, she glanced up to see the pensive expression marring his handsome features. Releasing the girls to investigate their gifts, she placed her hands on her hips. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you weren’t happy to see me.”

He snorted a laugh and moved to embrace her. “Nonsense. I’m glad you’re home.”

Sheena merely rolled her eyes and turned to watch her granddaughters unwrap their treats. “Only one per day, okay girls?”

“Yes Gramma,” the girls chorused, already unwrapping their boxes.

“I told you guys not to spoil them,” Ezekiel mumbled as they squealed over shortbread cookies. “It’ll be almost impossible for us to go back to normal now.”

“Thanks Gramma,” Beulah chirped, clutching her box to her chest.

Ezekiel’s chest tightened at the unrestrained smile on Laide’s face. She rarely smiled these days and it broke his heart.

“And what’s abnormal about sweets?” Sheena watched the girls scurry to the kitchen and then lifted her gaze to Ezekiel’s face. “Sorry, I didn’t find the salty caramel chews you used to like.”

“It’s fine.” He frowned at the fatigue in her eyes. “How’s Dad?”

She shook her head. “We can only pray now…”

“Gramma,” Beulah called out from the kitchen. “Can we open the other box now?”

“Hold on, Bumblebee.” Sheena peered over his shoulder and her smile returned, though dimmer than before. She patted Ezekiel’s shoulder and moved around him. “We’ll talk later.”

Later on, Ezekiel led Sheena away from the girls’ bedside and set her to sit on the sofa, placing a cup of freshly-brewed coffee between her hands.

Sheena smiled gratefully and lifted the cup to her lips.

Watching the fine lines on her face, Ezekiel settled down beside her. “How’s she holding up?”

Sheena sighed against the rim of her cup and lowered it to her lap. Her gaze rested on his shoulder, contemplating his question. Ezekiel remained quiet, eyes steady on her weary face.

“She’s hanging on…” Sheena finally spoke.

Ezekiel’s lips quirked in a wry smile. Aunt Neve was always so wiry, even in her advanced years. He recalled playing hide-and-go-seek with her during holidays. To think her time was short made his eyes sting, reminded of the fragility of life and Winsome.

“Your dad’s the only one by her side right now.” Her tone was oddly bitter, her gaze unfocused. “With the rest of the family running around like headless chickens, Jere’s presence is what she needs most right now.”

Ezekiel’s gaze swept over her strained features. “And you? She loved you like a daughter too.”

Tears glimmered in her eyes and she lowered her gaze.

“Mom, don’t worry about the girls.” Ezekiel grabbed hold of his mother’s hand. “If you have to go back, go. Dad and Aunt Neve need you there.”

“But the girls…” A line appeared between her brow, her expression uncertain and concerned.

Ezekiel sighed heavily. “I’m here and they’re my girls. We’ll be just fine.”

The furrow over her brow only deepened, not fully convinced.

“Mom, I’ll be here until you and Dad return.” He grimaced, aware that their return meant Aunt Neve was dead. The inevitable end was hard to accept.

A lone tear fell unrestrained and Ezekiel pressed a thumb against his mother’s cheek to catch it. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure something out.”

“Are you sure?” The desperation in Sheena’s gaze gripped his heart. “What if I ask Sammie to stay with them? That way you can work without any stress.”

Ezekiel stiffened and he lowered his hand. Sammie. He managed a smile when she tilted her head in curiosity and reached for her hand.

“Oh goodness…” Sheena breathed out a laugh and looked down at the unwrapped boxes she’d prepared for the girls. A wistful smile crossed her lips. “That’s one thing I missed. Not having daughters to make girly stuff with.”

“Hey,” Ezekiel protested, his brow furrowed. “What am I, chopped liver?”

“You’re fine.” Sheena smirked, patting his hand to placate him. “It’s just that I always enjoyed having Sammie around. She’s the daughter I never had.”

Ezekiel’s shoulders sagged. For as long as he could remember, his mother often fawned over Samina and still did.

He remembered bickering over chocolate cookies and coconut milk, battering over homework and Ezekiel’s chores. Even the night of his prom, Samina stood beside his mother watching while his father fixed his silk bowtie. He recalled the shy smile Samina gave him as she placed the boxed corsage in his hand and wished him a good time.

His heart squeezed tight with regret, him realizing he’d taken Samina for granted… and now it was too late.

“Zeke?” Sheena’s voice penetrated through his thoughts.

He straightened his frame, his throat tight with remorse.

“What’s the matter, son? You look like you just lost your best friend.”

He shook his head at the irony. Samina had been a constant presence in his life, her gentle and quiet grace calming him when he was unsettled. Why hadn’t he noticed this before?

“Zeke?”

A sliver of hope fluttered in his chest as he thought back to Samina’s soft laugh and her coy glances. Could he risk letting her go this time? Ezekiel shook his head. “No. I won’t.”

Sheena frowned. “Pardon?”

He stood to his feet, startling Sheena to stand also. Grabbing her shoulders, he placed a kiss on her cheek and held her at arms’ length. “Love you Mom. I’ll see you in a bit.” He released her and started for the door.

“Where are you going?” Sheena gaped at her son heading out the door.

“Going to do some thinking.” Ezekiel said over his shoulder, closing the door behind Sheena’s blustering protests.

“No, it’s not even,” Ada snapped impatiently, glaring at the cardstock paper in Samina’s hand.

Gritting her teeth, Samina refolded the corner.

A muffled snicker across the table caused Ada to stomp her heel on the wooden floor. “Shut up, Jaxson. Sammie, do the left side first. You’re screwing it up!”

Topher shook his head as Ada snatched the paper from Samina’s hands. “Relax, Ada. Give Sammie some time to get back into the swing of things.” He bit back a grin as Samina threw him an exasperated glare. “I can give her a brief orientation if you want.”

“No thanks,” Ada tossed back. “You’re not even doing yours correctly.” She pushed a boxed favor in Samina’s hands. “Do this one instead.”

Jaxson watched Samina’s weary expression before nudging Topher.

Just then, Ada squinted at her fiance. “Are you done yet?”

“Almost.” Jaxson gave her a sweet smile and scanned the finished boxes to his right.

“Yeah,” Topher muttered. “Ten down, a million to go.”

“Guys, be serious!” Ada stomped impatiently. “We need to finish this tonight.”

“And the reason your wedding planner isn’t doing this is because?” Topher refolded the cardstock paper, his brow furrowed in concentration.

Jaxson snorted derisively. “What wedding planner?”

Ada rolled her eyes. “Why would I pay for something you guys can do for free?”

Topher flashed his gray-green eyes at her. “There’s gotta be laws against this.”

“I fed you.”

“Unbelievable!”

Ada snorted, dropping back into her seat. “Oh shut up.”

With Samina sitting quietly as she meticulously folded mint boxes, his impatience melted. The slight pucker in her brow and the tip of her tongue pressed against her bottom lip made him smile. She was way too serious and he fought the urge to reach across the table and poke her cheek. Instead, he cleared his throat to grab her attention. “I say we go on a labor strike, Samina. What say you?”

Samina didn’t look up, her slender fingers adjusting the box tops. “Since I just came off strike, you’re on your own, Christopher.”

Jaxson nudged Topher’s side, chuckling under his breath.

Ada harrumphed and moved over to her separate table where she was inserting pre-packaged mint into the favor boxes.

Topher merely grinned at Samina’s no-nonsense attitude. Shrugging his broad shoulders, he picked up another unfinished favor box.

“Sammie, we appreciate you and Topher coming over to help us. You guys are awesome,” Jaxson said, ever the diplomat.

Samina managed a smile despite the ever-present headache.

As a soft classical tune filled the silence, the four resumed their work to finish off the wedding favors and reception programs.

After a few moments passed, Samina couldn’t wait to leave. Her nose was congested from crying all morning and now her back and shoulders throbbed incessantly. She’d followed Ada all over town to complete unfinished errands; reasonable punishment for skipping out on her maid-of-honor duties.

Topher glanced up just in time to catch the subtle roll of Samina’s shoulders. His lips pursed and he dropped the box in his hands. “Time to call it a day.”

Ignoring Ada’s protests and Jaxson’s perturbed expression, he stood to his feet and moved around the table to pull the box from Samina’s hands. A flutter of satisfaction trickled up his spine when Samina merely stood at his side. “Samina and I are officially off-duty.”

“But—”

Jaxson placed a hand over Ada’s, quelling her protests.

Ada pouted and stood, watching Samina drag her purse over her shoulder. Tugging her hand from Jaxson, Ada shuffled to Samina’s side and grabbed her sleeve before she reached the door. “I was hoping you’d sleep over.”

Both Topher and Jaxson watched the two women in silence.

Samina shook her head, tugging her arm from Ada’s hold. “I can’t tonight… Maybe another time.”

Jaxson moved to Ada’s side, slipping an arm around her waist to keep her from following Samina outside. “Thanks again, guys.”

“Drive safely,” Ada called out in a strained yet polite tone, eyes watching Samina trudge out the door and down the sloped driveway to her parked car.

Meeting Jaxson’s pointed stare over Ada’s head, Topher nodded and stepped outside. His smile brightened as he jogged up to Samina’s side. “Bailing out on me too?”

Samina paused in step, shoulders stiff.

He tilted his head to inspect her shrouded features under the dim moonlight. “You were strangely quiet this evening, Samina.” He kept his hands in his pockets, to stop himself from pulling her close. She looked so tired and sad.

“I’m fine, Topher,” Samina clipped out in a soft voice. “I just need to rest.”

He frowned, recognizing the fatigue in her tone. “Ada pushed you too hard.”

Samina peered up and Topher swallowed hard at the wry smile lifting her lips. She kicked up a shoulder. “It’s what I signed up for… What we all signed up for.”

“Still,” Topher mumbled begrudgingly. Frustration boiled over, annoyed that Ada ignored the signs of Samina blinking away sleep or rolling her shoulders.

“I’m fine,” she insisted, fidgeting with her keys. “Goodnight.” Samina turned to face her car.

“How about I treat you to some coffee?” He blurted out without thinking and grimaced when she turned to face him. “Please?”

“It’s late.”

Her deadpan expression invoked a smile to Topher’s lips. “I’m not ready to say goodnight yet… Is that okay with you?”

Samina only stared, the croaking melody of crickets in the bushes filling the silence.

And with the moonlight casting a soft glow around her head, her face half covered in shadows, her lips slightly parted, belying her shock, Topher realized he meant every word.

Then in a flash, Samina rearranged her face into a calm, unreadable expression. “I don’t drink coffee.”

Topher bit back a laugh. He should’ve known it wouldn’t be easy. Nodding, he rocked on his heels. “Tea then? I heard you’re a tea connoisseur. What’s your favorite tea?”

Samina hesitated. “Topher, I have to get home…” She desperately wished for her bed and sleep to quickly end this dreadful day.

Topher would not be deterred. “Earl gray, black tea… or maybe chamomile?”

“Yes.”

He inclined his head. “Yes to which one?”

She rolled those adorable eyes of hers and folded her arms across her chest. “Chamomile.”

His lips tugged a smile. “Hmm, I like that. So, yes to tea?”

Samina shifted slightly on her feet and sighed. “Fine. One hour. That’s all.”

He swallowed a laugh at Samina’s intriguing attempt to look stern. “Sure,” he acquiesced with a slight dip of his head. “One hour.”

Samina nodded and turned away, missing Topher’s delighted grin. Then she glanced over her shoulder and met his blank expression. “There’s a Tropioca Tea Bar just a few blocks away. Is that okay?”

“Of course. Your company anywhere is good.”

Samina rolled her eyes and turned to face her car.

As he watched her duck into the driver’s seat, Topher almost felt bad for extending her time outside when he knew she probably just wanted to sleep. But the thought of sitting with her, sharing a cup of tea erased every ounce of remorse from his mind and Topher jogged to his car.

“It’s my birthday today,” Samina mumbled, eyes focused on the amber liquid in her cup. At Topher’s pointed silence, she peeked up and caught his gray-green eyes on her. Face burning, she lowered her gaze once more.

“Oh boy…” he breathed.

Samina stiffened against the hint of remorse in his reply. “I didn’t say it so you’d feel sorry for me.”

Topher grunted. “Why didn’t you say so earlier?”

The scraping sound of his chair scooting back drew Samina’s attention and she glanced up to see him walk up to the counter.

With her brow furrowed in confusion, Samina watched him engage the cashier in conversation, as if she hadn’t divulged the reason for her melancholy.

It was just as well, Samina told herself, refocusing her attention on the brewed rooibos tea. Topher didn’t know her long enough to do anything for her.

Still, for some odd reason, she’d expected more.

For the special day it was supposed to be, nothing was going her way, just every other day. Battling a persistent headache since dawn, she tried not to think of the sore realization that no member of her family called to wish her a happy birthday.

It was like everyone forgot about her or didn’t care. Karen slept over at their parents’ home and even Aunty Sheena, who always called the eve before her birthday, didn’t call.

“Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you,” a chorus of voices sounded through the haze of her frazzled thoughts.

Samina looked up, gaping at the small crowd of people that circled around her table. With tears brimming her eyes, she stared at Topher who stood before her with a lit iced cupcake. Around him, the employees sang the birthday song with gusto.

The tears fell, blurring everything except the candle.

As the song ended and the cafe burst into cheers and applause, Topher placed the cupcake before her. “Congratulations, birthday girl.”

She sniffed noisily, wiping her eyes.

He smiled patiently. “Blow out your candle, Samina.”

Samina dared not look at him and focused her attention on the flickering candle. Then after a brief moment, she drew in a deep breath and blew out the flame.

The applause and cheers exploded again and Samina sobbed for the second time that day.

Topher moved to her side and grabbed her hand. “If I’d known earlier, I’d have taken you somewhere nicer.” Topher gently pressed a clean handkerchief into her palm.

Overwhelmed with emotion, Samina lifted the cloth to hide her face. This was the first and only gift she’d received for her birthday. Topher couldn’t possibly know what this gesture meant to her.

“Oh boy,” Topher muttered as more tears slid down her face. “You don’t like strawberry?”

Samina choked on a laugh and she gazed down at the sweet cupcake. She finally lifted her eyes to him, face tingling from the unabashed tenderness in his eyes. Finding her voice, Samina croaked out. “Thank you.”

He smiled, taking his seat. “It’d be a high offense if I didn’t get to celebrate with you. Thank you for telling me. I will never forget it.”

She smiled derisively at his premature vow. After the wedding, he’d return to his life and probably never visit or call. Ezekiel had been that way too.

The thought of not seeing Topher’s impish grin and gray-green eyes invoked more tears. Ducking her face, Samina pressed the handkerchief against her eyes.

Topher leaned forward, resting elbows on the table. “It shouldn’t be hard to remember. Nadine’s birthday is next month on this date.”

Samina curiously watched sadness flicker in his eyes. She sniffed. “How is your aunt?”

He nodded. “Doing better. This time, her nurse is as stubborn as her. Even with them butting heads constantly, it’s good for her.” His lips twitched a smile. “You should visit again. She really liked you.”

Samina nodded and focused her attention on the cupcake. “Do you want to share?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” Topher laughed at her eye-roll and handed her a fork before grabbing his. “Bon appetit, birthday girl.”

<<Chapter 19 || Chapter 21>>

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