Posts tagged “thriller

Sanctuary, Chapter 30

Posted on 15/08/2017

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.

“You okay?”

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.

“Brother!”

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.

<<Chapter 29 || Chapter 31>>

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Sanctuary, Chapter 27

Posted on 08/08/2017

Clement was both annoyed and intrigued as Karen rushed past him to greet the man standing by the doorway. Not caring that she had the audience of adults and children, she’d flung her arms around the man’s neck and clung to him as if he was a long-lost friend. He had no idea Karen could be so… enthusiastic.

Ejigu snickered beside him. “She seems excited.”

Clement threw him a glance askance.

“I’m so glad you’re okay.” Karen pulled back to gaze at him from arms’ length.

The man chuckled. “Of course! I’ve lived on this earth for forty-something years. Not much troubles me.”

Ejigu whistled in awe. “He’s forty—” he paused as Dula came to stand beside him.

“I trust you.” Karen paused in mid-laugh and looked down at the children standing quietly behind Ashon. She sighed, recognizing each one from the quarantine tent. “They’re okay too. Thank God.”

“I told you, Missy, your God didn’t save them.”

Clement arched a brow but said nothing. He and the others waited for Karen’s acknowledgment.

Finally noticing the curious bystanders, the man looked their way. For a middle-aged man, he had youthful features and reminded Clement of his eldest brother Abe. Then the man’s gaze landed on Clement and his almond-shaped eyes wrinkled in the corners as he smiled in greeting. “You must be the missionary man. He looks just as you described him, Missy.”

Both of Clement’s brows lifted at the nickname. “And you must be Ashon. I’ve heard quite a bit about you.”

Ashon nodded. “I hope good things.”

“Of course,” Karen said, sounding flustered. Her gaze skipped over the men. “Where’s Wubit?”

“Putting Meko to bed,” Dula answered, extending a hand to Ashon. “Pleased to meet you, sir. I am Dula.”

Ashon nodded in response and accepted the younger man’s handshake. He also greeted Ejigu before putting his hand down for the youngest boy to hold.

Clement noticed that the four children used the man’s lanky frame as a shield to hide behind, their eyes wide with suspicion and fear. Tamping a sigh, he returned his attention back to Ashon. “You must be famished.”

“I could eat,” the older man answered, one corner of his lips twitched upwards.

“Then let’s go.” Clement noticed Karen reserved her warmest smile for Ashon. From the corner of his eye, Dula and Ejigu wore unabashed grins. He ignored them also and turned toward the kitchen. “Follow me.”

Wubit and Eddie bustling about in the kitchen as they prepared dinner. Eddie looked up from kneading dough to smile in greeting as the adults entered. Noticing the children, her expression softened. Dula left the group to round the counter, walking up to his wife standing by the stove.

With a soup ladle in one hand and a pot lid in the other, Wubit turned with a welcoming bright smile. Her gaze taking stock of the group and it stopped in front of Ashon. Her smile slipped instantly.

“This is my wife, Wubit,” Dula said. “Wubit, this is Karen’s friend Ashon.”

The pot lid dropped from Wubit’s hand, landing on Dula’s sandaled feet. As her injured husband hopped on one foot, she gawked at the man standing before her.

“Goodness, are you alright?” Karen’s gaze bounced between the couple.

“I’m fine,” Dula said through clenched teeth and looked to his wife. The shell-shocked daze made him forget about his injured foot and he limped back to her side, placing a hand on her trembling shoulder.

Deaf to her husband’s attempt to calm her down, Wubit stepped forward with eyes fixed on Ashon. “Baba?”

When Ashon inhaled sharply, Karen turned toward him. His eyes were wide in disbelief. His Adam’s apple bobbed with great difficulty as he tried to form the word he hadn’t uttered in years.

Thinking back to her conversation with both Wubit and Ashon, Karen suddenly gasped and held a hand to her mouth. Her eyes bounced between the two and she shook her head in disbelief.

Baba,” Wubit whispered, taking yet another step toward Ashon. There was no question in her tone, as if she didn’t need reassuring that this man knew her well.  Tears streamed down her face as she came to stand before Ashon, and it was as if there was no one but the two of them. “It’s me, Baba.”

Tears brimmed Ashon’s eyes. It’d been almost two decades since he’d lost his wife and his little girl. Yet, this girl-woman standing before him strongly resembled the wife he’d lost.

Clement exchanged worried glances with Dula now standing beside Wubit, protective over his young wife. They both knew the tragic story of her childhood and how she’d lost both parents to a fire. Yet she stood, tentative but certain, that this stranger was her father.

Karen’s heart ached for both. Wubit needed Ashon to acknowledge her and Ashon lived an entire life believing he would never see his daughter again.

She put a hand on Ashon’s trembling shoulder. “Wubit lost her parents in a fire when she was very young.”

Ashon’s face crumbled, letting out a heartwrenching sob. His broad shoulders shook as he cried openly. Wubit whimpered, catching her sob with one hand to her mouth.

Confused and helpless, Dula just watched with a frown etched in his brow. Clement and Ejigu did the same. Uneasy, the children silently inched away from a weeping Ashon. The teenager Eddie abandoned the kneaded dough and quietly ushered the children out of the kitchen.

Baba…” Wubit said as Ashon’s sobs quieted.

Ashon’s lips moved as if struggling with the word he hadn’t spoken in years but longed to say.  “Asma?”

Wubit’s lips trembled at the name and fresh tears rolled down her cheeks. She closed the distance between them, standing inches from him. She held out both hands to him. “Baba, it’s really you.”

“Asma,” Ashon said, awestruck as he took her hands in his. Then tugging her into his arms, he held her tight. Wubit wrapped hers around his slim frame and buried her face in his shoulder, weeping all over again.

Standing a few feet off, Clement and Ejigu watched as a beaming Wubit proudly re-introduced her husband to her father while Karen aside him. The two women embraced while the two men acquainted themselves.

Ejigu clucked his tongue. “I still can’t believe it. Your lady friend’s friend is Wubit’s father. Wow!”

“God works in mysterious ways…” Clement couldn’t say anything else, perplexed by the series of events since he ran into Karen in Finch’awa. She managed to surprise him at every turn, and life certainly wasn’t boring when she was around.

“You brought him back to me,” Wubit finally released Karen before returning to her father’s side.

Karen shook her head. “Nope, we just happened to be at the right place at the right time. It was God who did it, not me.” She smiled as Ashon hooked a brow. “Yes, Ashon, God did this.”

“I didn’t say anything,” the man drawled, his gaze returning to Wubit at his side. His expression turned wistful. “You look just like your mother when I first met her.”

Wubit leaned into him, reveling in the warmth of her father’s embrace.

“I don’t know about you but this calls for a celebration,” Dula announced. “My wife’s father and my father-in-law has been found. We must throw a party.”

“The children are asleep,” Wubit protested half-heartedly, hooking an arm around her father’s narrow waist.

“We’ll be quiet,” Dula assured, a twinkle in his eye. “What do you think, Baba?”

Ashon’s smile was gentle. “I would like to try my ibna’s cooking.”

“She’s a great cook,” Karen assured her friend and was rewarded with one of Wubit’s heartwarming smiles.

“I trust her,” Ashon replied, gazing down at his daughter. “If she’s anything like her mother…”

A bashful Wubit pressed her face against his chest, near his beating heart. Ashon smoothed a hand over her curly hair, as if they relived a time when Wubit was still his little girl.

“Then food first,” Dula inserted. “And tomorrow you’ll meet your grandson, Meko.”

Ashon blinked and he peered down at Wubit. “I… have a grandson?” Tears pooled in his eyes.

“Baba, don’t cry,” Wubit lifted a hand, brushing a tear from his cheek.

The scene made her think of her father and she swallowed against the tears. In all honesty, she missed home.

Wubit’s gaze shifted and her smile returned fully. “Baba, come meet our friends. Brothers, this is my Baba.”

“Pleased to meet you again,” Clement said. “You are welcome to stay as long as you need.”

Ashon nodded with a smile. “Thank you, Missionary.”

“Just call me Clement.”

Karen smirked. “Don’t bother. He still refuses to call me Karen.”

Wubit’s smile eased a little. “That’s because Mama’s name was Karen.”

“Oh no!” Karen’s smile slipped altogether. “Ashon, I’m so sorry.”

His own smile was faint but present. “It’s alright. I’m thankful for you, Missi. I wouldn’t be here with my daughter if you hadn’t dragged me across the border with you.”

“Nu-unh, you chose to go on your own! I didn’t force you to do anything.”

The adults laughed and Dula clapped his hands. “On that note, let’s eat!”

 “Actually,” Clement interjected. “I need to steal Karen away for a second.” His eyes settled on Karen and he held out a hand to her.

Cheeks warm, Karen nodded and placed her hand in his.

“Eat without us,” Clement said as he gently tugged Karen to his side and the two walked out of the kitchen hand-in-hand.

Even after they left the church and stepped into the courtyard, Clement had yet to release her hand. He led her up the sloping hill to the gazebo and she tucked back a smile as he gestured for her to be seated first.

Once they seated, Karen glanced once at him. “For someone who doesn’t want a relationship, you sure enjoy holding hands like you’re in one.” She fought a smile when he quickly released her hand. “Well what was so pressing that we couldn’t talk after dinner?”

“I want you to go home.”

Karen gaped at him. “Excuse me?”

He nodded. “Your friend is here now, which means your passport is here. Ejigu can take you to the capital tomorrow and you’ll take a flight back…” he slowed to a stop when Karen chuckled low. “What’s funny?”

“You are. You’re nothing but hilarious.” Karen stood from the bench and moved to the nearest post. She looked out at the expanse of land before turning to face him. “You’re running away.”

He frowned. “Pardon?”

“Technically you’re pushing me away but the problem is the same. You’re scared.”

Clement narrowed his eyes at her. “I’m not scared of anything. You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Actually I do.” She leaned against the wooden post and folded her arms across her chest. “Just be honest, Reverend Teka. If not with me, at least be honest with yourself.”

“I’m not a reverend.”

She scoffed incredulously. “Missionary, pastor, reverend, bishop, whatever. A man of God never lies, right? Although I’m sure you’ve broken the rules several times already.”

Clement squinted at her. “What do you want?”

“The truth, Clement. I want the truth. Stop giving me these tight-lipped responses and be real.” She retraced her steps back to the bench. “I didn’t ask you to say you liked me back. I didn’t ask for anything except to acknowledge my feelings, even if you rejected it flat-out. Instead you tell me you’re a celibate monk.”

“Priest, and I am—”

“Just cut the crap and say you don’t like me back. I’m a big girl. I can take it.”

Clement frowned. “Karen, listen…” he paused when she snatched her hand back.

“You can’t touch me if you want to continue this monk priest nonsense. Don’t lead me on.”

“I’m not…” He heaved a sigh. “You don’t know what you’re asking me to do.”

“What am I asking you to do, Clement?” She scooted close, their thighs touching. “I don’t say things casually. I think before I act, even if it seems like I don’t. It took me a while to realize what I felt for you. And I wouldn’t have said it if it was some passing fancy. Clement, I really—”

“Stop!” Clement rose abruptly and took a step back. “Just… stop.”

Karen stared at him, dumbfounded at his rebuff.

The wide-eyed stare on Karen’s face made his chest ache and Clement drew in a shaky breath. “Look, I can’t be a serious relationship right now. Too many things are uncertain. I can’t even take care of those I’m responsible for; I’m barely here. I couldn’t even keep my ex-girlfriend happy.”

Her expression darkened. “I’m not your ex-girlfriend.”

“I know that,” Clement assured her more gently. He regretted raising his voice at her; she didn’t deserve that. “That’s why I don’t want to subject you to this kind of life. You’ll constantly wonder where I am, wonder where my head is at when I’m with you. Things won’t change just because I put a ring on your finger.”

“I’m not asking you to—“

“Hold on.” Clement returned to sit beside her. “I’ve watched my brothers and their families. They put in all they have and it’s still not enough sometimes. Why would you be okay settling with a guy who can’t even give you fifty percent of himself on a daily basis? Is that the kind of marriage you want?”

Her brows furrowed, her expression soft. “I’m not asking for marriage yet…”

Clement averted his gaze. “Yet but it’ll come. What happens when I keep holding it off because of what I do?” He looked up. “Could you honestly stay and wait for me, worried that I might not return one day?”

Karen bit her bottom lip, mulling over the question and what it could mean for her.

The silence was torture. Clement knew the answer was no but he still watched the emotions play on her face.

Then she shook her head and his stomach sank a little. Her brown eyes skimmed his features. “No, I won’t stay and wait. I’ll go with you.”

Clement’s shoulders dropped and he blew out a sigh. “Karen…”

She grabbed his hand before he could stand. “Don’t run away after saying your piece. Let me say mine.”

“There’s nothing else to say. I’m not going to risk your life and that’s the end of that.”

Karen scowled as he brushed her hand aside and stood. “You’re such a coward, Clement Teka.”

“Yeah well, this coward is taking you back to the capital first thing tomorrow. Get ready.”

“I’m not going anywhere!” Karen stood as he turned his back and started down the hill. “Coward!”

The insult didn’t hurt as much as the scolding he gave himself for being such a fool. A woman like Karen was hard to come by; brave, considerate, beautiful and willing to risk it all for a chance with him. He shook his head, blocking his ears to both his inner voice and Karen’s protests at his back, and stalked inside.

Seeing as Clement didn’t even so much as turn back, Karen dropped to the bench. Dazed, she stared at the wooden boards of the gazebo floor.

She’d gotten her rejection alright, and it stung worse than any past breakups. Maybe because she really wanted this with Clement and he didn’t. Karen placed a hand over her trembling mouth. “Don’t you dare cry…” she warned herself, pressing her lips together.

A gentle wind caressed her cool face and Karen swiped a thumb over her wet cheeks. She laughed softly. “Get a grip, Karen. He doesn’t want you.” Tears fell and she covered her face, crying silently.

It was clear Clement wanted her gone, and she couldn’t stay longer since her flight was in a few days.

Karen wiped her face and stood. She’d leave with Ejigu back to the capital tomorrow, done with delaying the inevitable. Clement didn’t want a relationship with her and she wouldn’t try to convince him otherwise.

Saying goodbye wasn’t as hard when everyone but Clement and Ejigu were fast asleep. Mumbling a half-hearted farewell to Clement, she walked ahead to Ejigu’s parked van. It was better this way, or she’d hesitate leaving her new friends and the children she’d promised to help.

Karen refocused her attention on Ejigu as he climbed into the driver’s seat. “Thanks for taking me…”

His smile was faint. “It’s no problem.” An hour before dawn, Ejigu’s van pulled out of the courtyard and started up the road to the capital. Karen swallowed hard and allowed herself one more glance at Clement’s fleeting figure in the side mirror.

The five-hour drive began in complete silence, with Karen staring forlornly out the window. Although Ejigu wanted to check on her, he remained quiet. Then his phone began ringing nonstop. After a few minutes of Ejigu not answering the calls, Karen looked his way. “You can pick it up, y’know.”

“It’s nothing,” Ejigu answered stiffly, eyes darting to the rearview mirror and back down to the road ahead. His foot pressed on the accelerator, the van picking up speed.

Karen squinted against a flashing light reflected against the side mirror. Her stomach fluttered, thinking it was Clement. She turned back to alert Ejigu, when a blinding light shone ahead. Her eyes widened, realizing it was an incoming car in their path with no plans of stopping.

Abruptly, Ejigu jerked the steering wheel, sending the van swerving off the road. A yelp caught in her throat as the van tilted on its right wheel and Karen clutched the side of the door, eyes wide with horror.

<<Chapter 26 || Chapter 28>>

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