Posts tagged “Visit

Sanctuary, Chapter 32

Posted on 17/08/2017

Clement rolled his eyes as Bart’s laugh carried on longer than appropriate. He cast him a quelling glare that had his older brother finally ease off the laughter. “You done?” he drawled, not the least bit amused.

Bart dropped a hand on Clement’s shoulder and flashed a cavalier smile. “Not even close.”

Clement tossed an exasperated glance to the flight listings. “I don’t even know why I invited you here.”

“I just think it’s funny how you gave me such a hard time about Geri and you think I’m gonna let you off the hook now.” He nudged his younger brother. “Besides who else would keep you company on this drive?”

“I’ve driven to the airport by myself many times.” He glanced at Bart askance. “Can’t I greet my woman alone? Is that too much to ask?”

“Not at all… but then I distinctly recall saying the same thing and everyone ignoring me to go escort my woman from the airport while I was forced to stay at home.”

“To prepare for your proposal. And it was only a few months. I haven’t seen Karen in six months.”

“I could argue that’s your fault for sending her away.”

Clement sighed deeply, acknowledging his part to play in the prolonged separation. Bart patted his brother’s shoulder. “Your waiting is over. Does she have any idea what you’re planning?”

He didn’t answer, focused on the group of passengers exiting the arrival gates. Spotting Karen right away, a grin formed and he waved, moving toward her. She looked like sunshine in her yellow sundress and braids swinging as she rushed to meet him.

Catching her by the waist, Clement lifted her in his arms. A smiling Bart hung back, watching his brother and his girlfriend openly express how much they’d missed each other. Karen showered Clement’s face with kisses and Bart chuckled, marveling that this brother had once professed to remain a bachelor for life.

Love certainly had a way of changing a man’s plans. A good thing, in his opinion. His gaze shifted to the couple standing behind Karen and he smiled, stepping forward with a hand out. “You must be Mr. Wells. I’m Bart, Clement’s older brother.”

The man dragged his stare from his daughter to the man standing before him. A wistful smile twitched his lips as he returned the handshake. “Nice to meet you. Call me Gabriel. And this is my wife, Deidre.”

“Good to meet you both,” Bart said, giving Karen’s mother a smile. “I assure you, he’s not always this rude.” He cleared his throat and patted Clement’s back. “Junior, ease up.”

Clement lowered Karen to her feet and glanced over, realizing belatedly that her parents accompanied her. Releasing Karen’s waist, he moved to her parents. “I’m sorry about…that.”

Deidre looked more amused than her husband and tugged Clement into a hug. “Any man that greets his woman like that’s a winner in my eyes. Maybe Gabriel can learn a thing or two.”

“Dee…” Gabriel tossed his wife a warning look she ignored.

Bart gave Karen a hug. “Welcome back to Ethiopia.”

Karen acknowledged Clement’s older brother with a beaming smile. “Thanks Bart. You weren’t jetlagged?”

“Not really. We’ve been busy getting acquainted with everyone at the church.” He turned back to Karen’s parents. “I can assure you Karen’s in good hands. Junior and the guys have prepared a nice suite for you.”

Gabriel and Deidre smiled, albeit strained. They still battled over their second daughter being so far away from home. Gabriel draped an arm around his wife’s shoulders.

“I can’t wait!” Karen exclaimed, tucking an arm under Clement’s. Her parents glanced once at each other. It was plain to see what made their daughter overjoyed and excited for the first time in a long time. This man and this place were the source of her joyful smiles and longing sighs.

“Also, Karen, allow me this opportunity to thank you for saving my bro from bachelor—” Bart grunted when Clement ribbed him in the side. “Okay, yeah… l’ll go get your bags.”

Gabriel exchanged a look with Clement before steering his wife in the same direction as Bart’s, leaving the couple alone. Karen giggled as Bart gave Clement a thumbs-up before he ushered her parents toward the baggage claim. “I forgot how funny he was.” She gazed up at Clement. “I’m excited to see everyone. Not more than you, of course.” She lifted a hand to his cheek. “I missed you like crazy, you have no idea.”

“I think I do,” Clement brushed a kiss on her palm. “Only Abe, Geri and Bart are here. The children stayed behind with the rest.” Clement steered her toward the baggage claim. “How are your siblings?”

“Bummed they couldn’t come. Sammy kept whining about it until we had to board the flight.”

He smirked. “Same with Darah. She made us swear to let her visit once she weans Anwar.”

“We’ll have a vacation for everyone once we’re settled…” She paused, sneaking a look at him. Her boyfriend’s expression was distant as if his attention was on anything but what she just said. Karen didn’t complain, content to finally be with him again. Six months was too long a separation, even if it was necessary.

After the first few calls from Clement and some groundwork on her part, her parents grew supportive about her move to Ethiopia. The months flew by, and her time with family and friends seemed too short. Clement was supportive and understanding, allowing her to cry and whine throughout the grueling process of breaking her lease and moving her things back up. Tying up loose ends would’ve been more painful than it was, and having Clement in her ear and on her mind made it easier. Their prayers late at night and early in the mornings were something she looked forward to. His love and respect for God strengthened hers also.

Overcome with love for her man, Karen squeezed his hand. “You shaved again. Did you miss me?”

Clement glanced down with a smile, showing he was listening after all. “That’s not even a question.” His gaze shifted and Karen turned to see Bart dragging two suitcases. Her parents trailed behind with theirs.

“Is this all you’ve got?” Bart asked, a furrow in his brow. “Your entire life fit in two bags?”

“Mom’s got one of my bags. Besides, a missionary doesn’t need much. Right Babe?”

“Right,” Clement echoed, a proud smile on his face.

Bart snorted. “Alright, Mrs. Missionary. Let’s get going. Everyone’s waiting to see you.”

She watched as Clement relieved her parents of their luggage and followed his brother outside. Giving her parents an assured smile, Karen tucked her arms under theirs and walked with them outside. She was happy.

Thanks to both Darah and Samina, she had imagined Clement waiting for her at the arrivals gate on bended knee, holding a diamond ring. Seeing him with Bart was not exactly how she’d envisioned their reunion after six months but just the sight and the feel of him was enough to dispel the initial disappointment.

A day later, Karen stared gobsmacked at Clement kneeling before her. She barely register the ring box. Tears pooled in her eyes and her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth.

Clement took her shocked silence in stride and reached for her hand. “I love you, Karen, and I don’t want to be parted again. Be my partner in life and service. Marry me?”

“Say yes!” Geri and Wubit called out, and laughed together. The Bichena orphans chanted the same words.

Karen laughed shakily as she looked with blurry eyes at her parents, Clement’s brothers and sister-in-law, and even the Bichena church community. Abe and Bart waved their phones, revealing that the proposal was livestreaming to the rest of the family overseas. She squinted at one screen, spotting a beaming Samina. The other was of Darah and Phoebe, cheering silently.

Clement tugged on her hand to get her attention. “So will you?”

“Of course,” Karen said easily and watched as he stood. She let him embrace her and the tears fell.

He leaned back and wiped her tears. “Today?”

Karen paused. “What?”

“Will you marry me today?”

Her mouth dropped open and she really looked at him, realizing only now that he was wearing a navy suit and she a white floral tea-length dress. She gasped and smacked a hand to her mouth. Everyone cheered.

Karen sought her parents, gaze settling on her teary-eyed mother and smiling father. “Guys…”

Gabriel stepped forward, looking dashing in his formal attire. “Ready to get married, my Princess?”

“Daddy…” Karen burst into tears, realizing that it’d all been planned. Her heart soared with joy amid the cheering and jubilating. She was getting married today!

Clement encircled her waist. “Ready?”

“Been ready six months ago,” Karen said, earning laughs and giggles from their family and friends. She only had eyes for Clement. “I can’t believe you planned this behind my back. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“Let the festivities begin!” Bart called out and everyone cheered as the couple embraced once again.

Dula presided over the ceremony, giving a brief message on the blessed gift of marriage from God to man. She felt the gentle squeeze of Clement’s hand around hers and marveled at how blessed she was to have met and fallen in love with such a man.

“If there be any among us who doesn’t think these two be wed, speak now or forever hold your peace…” Dula smiled at the worried look on Karen’s face. “Priscilla sends her congratulations.”

Karen let out an audible sigh of relief and could’ve sworn Clement choked on a laugh. She pinched his hand but kept her face forward.

“Keep going, Pastor!” Geri called behind them and both Clement and Karen chuckled along with their guests.

Dula nodded. “By the power vested in me by the constitution of the Federal Democratic Repub…” He paused when Clement cleared his throat and smirked. “Under God our Father and Creator, I now pronounce you man and wife. Mr. Clement Teka, you may now kiss your bride.”

Their family and friends, both present and via Wi-Fi, cheered as Clement gathered Karen in his arms.

Five months later.

Eleazar set his bags on the stone floor and scanned the humble furnishings of his older brother’s living room. Noticing the wedding frame propped on the cabinet, he studied it closely.

Half the family attended the impromptu wedding ceremony. He couldn’t since his passport hadn’t processed by then. Eleazar suspected Abe purposefully delayed finding his birth certificate in time.

The door opened and a bearded stranger stepped inside with a welcoming smile. “You must be Eli, the little brother.”

Travel-worn and hungry, Eleazar merely arched a brow.

“I’m Dula,” the man continued. “A good friend of Brother Clement. Did you enjoy the ride over here?”

“It was decent,” Eleazar answered, looking past him at the open doorway. “Where is my brother?”

“He’s… out.”

Eleazar arched a brow at the slight hesitation. “When is he coming back?”

It was already suspicious that Clement had sent another bearded stranger to meet him at the airport, and even that one named Ejigu, gave him a roundabout answer of his brother’s absence.

He squinted when Dula silently shrugged in response. “And you don’t know when he’s coming back?”

“It’s… hard to say. It’s been two days, but that’s normal.”

“Okay…” Eleazar frowned. “What about my sister-in-law?”

“She’s… out also.”

Just then, a girl stepped around Dula, carrying a bottle of cold water and a bowl of popcorn.

“This is Eddie,” Dula gestured to the girl. “She lives and works with us here at the church.”

She flashed Eleazar a welcoming smile and approached the table in front of him. Eleazar watched as she set down the refreshments, flashed him another smile and retreated from the room. Dula eyed him openly.

Face burning, Eleazar feigned nonchalance. “So are they together at least?”

“Your brother and sister-in-law? Oh yes, they’re always together when they go out.”

His brow furrowed. “And you don’t know where they are or when they’ll be back?”

“Nope.” Dula gestured to the snacks. “Why don’t you refresh yourself while my wife makes your dinner? Hopefully they will be home this evening.”

Eleazar warily eyed the man before lowering to his seat and reaching for the bottle of water. Gulping down the refreshing liquid, he continued his open perusal of the bungalow.

“We expanded the living quarters before your brother got married,” Dula said as Eleazar attempted to read the Amharic print on one of the snack bags. “Then we built this left wing for him and Sister Karen just a few months ago. And then he told us you were coming to visit for a month or so.”

Eleazar paused at opening the snacks. Although he’d agreed to stay just a month, he hoped Clement would let him stay longer. He couldn’t go back home now, not when—

A door slammed outside and Dula smirked wryly. “That must be your brother now.”

Eleazar shot to his feet as his brother and wife stepped inside and beside Dula, both covered in dirt and grass with their clothes disheveled and frayed. He gaped openly at them, not knowing what to say first.

Unfazed, Clement smiled in welcome. “You’re here.”

“Hi Eli.” Karen grinned through the grime on her face. “Welcome to our humble abode. Salam, Dula.”

Salam,” Dula answered, amusement clear in his tone. “Although I think you scared the boy to silence.”

“Oh right. Eli, we’ll chat later. Uh, Dula, could you help me and Ejigu with something outside…”

“How many do you bring this time?” Dula asked, following her out through the door.

Once the two exited the room, Eleazar turned to Clement with a frown. “Did you go mud sliding?”

Clement chuckled. “You don’t know the half of it.” He gestured for his brother to sit. “How was your flight?”

“Decent,” Eleazar sat down and noticed the glint of Clement’s wedding ring. “Congratulations again.”

“Thanks,” Clement perched on a chair, regarding Eleazar openly. “What’s the plan for your month here?”

Eleazar shrugged, reluctant to divulge his plans just yet. “Not much. Maybe chill and relax. See the sights.”

“Sights? Chill?” Clement smirked, not buying it one bit. “Hate to break it to you but Bichena is not a chill-and-relax type of place. And you forget I know you better than anyone else. What’s really going on?”

“I’m serious. It’s just for a break.” Eleazar shoved popcorn into his mouth.

Deciding he had time to figure out why his youngest brother sought refuge a thousand miles from home, Clement nodded. “Fine.” He smacked his palms on his thighs and stood. “Let’s get you settled in first.”

“Aren’t you gonna take a shower first? You smell horrible.”

“After we eat. I’m starved.” He slung an arm around his brother’s neck and tugged him toward the exit.

Eleazar wrinkled his nose but let his big brother lead him out to the adjoined living area where Karen, Dula and the tour guide Ejigu awaited them. They turned toward him and Clement froze. Eleazar stopped also, noting of their worried expressions. Karen looked especially conflicted as her eyes darted between Clement to Eleazar. Taking a hint, Eleazar turned to Dula. “Mind showing me the kitchen? I’m starved.”

“Okay!” Dula said with a bright smile. His gaze flitted over the couple and back at Eleazar. “Let’s go eat.”

They waited until both exited the room. Then Ejigu turned to Clement. “Ashon just called, he needs backup.”

Clement’s stomach flipped. They just came back. “Where?”

“East of Debre,” Karen replied. “He sighted someone resembling Petra at another auction. But Eli just got here. How do we explain leaving again?”

He frowned down at her flat stomach. “We are not leaving. You’re staying and I’m—”

“You got to be kidding me.” She scowled. “I already told you I’m not leaving you—”

“I’ll go,” Ejigu smiled when they looked at him. “Sister can’t go in her condition—”

“So I’m the last one to know my wife is pregnant?” Clement frowned at Ejigu. “What were you thinking not telling me about this? You knew and kept quiet, knowing it was dangerous.”

Ejigu held up both hands. “I was sworn to secrecy.”

“Way to go throwing me under the bus, Ejigu.” Karen rolled her eyes. “Relax. I was careful.”

“Careful is staying home and taking care of yourself and our baby.”

Ejigu cleared his throat, uncomfortable as always when they argued in front of him. “I’ll tell Brother Ashon that I am coming. We will take care of it. You two stay low and spend time with your brother.”

Karen placed a hand on Clement’s arm, silencing his protest. “Let them do it this time. They can handle it.”

“And you’ll be careful,” Clement said firmly to Ejigu. “Don’t do anything stupid this time.”

Something akin to regret flashed in Ejigu’s eyes and he nodded solemnly. Clement warily eyed his friend’s barely-healed arm from the gunshot and nodded. “When will you leave?”

“As soon as I get two servings of Wubit’s porridge,” Ejigu grinned and walked out to join the others.

Karen turned Clement to face her and framed his face between her hands. “Don’t worry. They’ll be fine.”

“I know.” His eyes moved over her face, his expression remorseful. “Sorry for freaking out earlier.”

She smiled, love shining in her eyes. “It’s my fault. I should’ve told you even if you’d make me stay behind.”

“At least you know.” He brushed a thumb over her mouth, silencing her protest. “You’ve made me a happy man, Karen.” He pulled her into his arms. “Happy and blessed.”

“You and me both, Babe,” Karen said as she leaned into him, content in his embrace.

– The End –

<<Chapter 31 || Story Page>>

Samina’s Chance: Chapter 19

Posted on 10/04/2015


Stifling a yawn, Samina locked the car door and turned to the condo she shared with Karen. From the darkened windows, Karen was either studying or on another random date. Heaving a sigh, Samina trudged up the inclined driveway to her front door.

From the corner of her eye, Samina noticed a shifting shadow and halted her footsteps.

The shadow stepped out into the light, broad shoulders illuminated under the streetlight.

Inadvertently she took a step back, her heart hammering in her chest. The man’s features were shrouded by the light hitting his back. She swallowed hard and squeaked out a “W-who’s there?”

He chuckled softly

Samina frowned slightly, fingers gripping her purse. “Who are you?” She asked firmly.

“You don’t recognize me?”

The teasing in his clear baritone voice made her face warm up. “Topher?”

He chuckled again and she narrowed her eyes at his imposing shadow.

“I thought I’d have to flash my ID card or something.” He stepped completely out of the shadows and Samina’s shoulders relaxed at the smile softening his square features. “It’s been a long while. Mind if I come in?”

She raised a brow, recalling the day they stood in silence, riding the hospital elevator. If he was here to chat, she wasn’t in the mood. Smothering a sigh, Samina stepped around him to the front door. “It’s late. Did Jaxson or Ada put you up to this?”

“Actually, I came on my own.” Topher stepped behind her as she fished for her keys. “I’ve got something to discuss with you.”

Samina hesitated from opening the door. The gentle concern in his voice was hard to ignore and his imposing presence made her feel uncoordinated. After dealing with her conflicted feelings for Ezekiel, she didn’t have time for this either. She threw a frustrated glance at the starry sky.

“Is that a no or do you need a few minutes to consider?”

Samina bit her bottom lip, peering over her shoulder at him. His hooded gaze prodded her to make a decision. She blew out a breath and pushed open the door. “Fine, but just for a little while. I’m tired.” She stepped inside, flicking on a switch as she passed the lobby.

The dimmed light flooded the hallway and the living room. A light above the dim living room flickered and Samina rolled her eyes in exasperation.

Topher scanned the living quarters before turning back to Samina with a crooked smile. His eyes were filled with warmth that made her pause. He grinned wider. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

She frowned at the soft light behind his cropped hair, casting an ethereal glow about him. Her eyes swept over the light dusting of freckles across the narrow bridge of his nose.

He raised a brow.

Samina looked away and sniffed, disinterested. “A week ago. Hospital,” she mumbled, crossing her arms over her chest.

He gave her a wry smile, recalling the memory as she did. “That’s right…”

Samina cleared her throat, the awkward silence stretching a little too long. “What are you doing here, Christopher?”

His smile didn’t waver. “I missed you.” His honeyed eyes swept over her face, warming her all over.

She frowned and looked away, thoroughly disconcerted.

“You left me alone to deal with Jax and Bridezilla.” Topher pouted. “What happened to us banding together?”

Samina frowned up at him. “Ada’s giving you trouble too?” At his pointed silence, she stepped around the sofa toward the kitchen. “Water?”

“Of course she is,” Topher replied, trailing her. “And yes please.” He paused in front of the counter, watching Samina root out two bottles from the fridge. “So when are you coming back?”

She paused, looking back at him with a wrinkle in her brow. There was something especially odd about him tonight. Sure he was usually friendly, often teasing her with his eyes. But after the hospital encounter, she coudn’t reconcile his strange dismissal or the reason why she was bothered by it. “What do you mean, coming back?”

“Ada seems to think you’ve denounced your title as maid-of-honor,” Topher answered with a deep sigh that relayed his distress. “Imagine my utter dismay when I found out my partner-in-crime was leaving me high and dry.”

Samina’s cheeks warmed and  looked away. “I-I just needed some time. Is she… okay?”

He rounded the counter to meet her. “I wouldn’t worry about Ada,” he assured her gently.

Samina looked up in surprise as he came to stand before him. She had to tilt her head back just to meet his gray-green gaze that openly caressed her face. She suddenly couldn’t look away.

“I’m more worried about you though.” His hands grazed hers as he took the two bottles from her hand.

Her face tingled, mortified. He didn’t forget. “I’m… fine.” No she wasn’t but telling him anything else would only cause more trouble that it was worth.

Placing the bottles on the counter to her left, Topher turned back to her.

Samina’s eyes welled with tears and she blinked them away. Inhaling sharply as Topher’s fingers grazed her chin, tilting it so she had no choice but to look at him.

Rendered speechless at the warmth in his probing eyes, Samina blinked.

In all the years they’d known about each other, or the ‘outings’ they were forced in each other’s company, Topher would’ve never touched her. For one thing, he’d always respected her personal space. And although he was now invading her comfort zone and touching her, Samina was too confused to move away. She didn’t want to.

“Samina…” Topher started gently, his gaze caressing her face as though memorizing every curve.

She felt vulnerable under his probing eyes but didn’t step away. Until his gaze lowered to her parted lips.

Face on fire, she jerked her chin from his touch and stepped back, mortified. She’d almost leaned into his chest!

Touching a hand to her hair, Samina put the counter between them and grabbed a bottle, twisting it open. “Stop worrying about me. I’ve just been very busy.” She could feel his eyes on her as she guzzled down the cool liquid.

Topher smiled. “Do you have a boyfriend?”

She sputtered, water spilling from her mouth. She wiped her mouth. “Pardon?”

Unaffected by her sharp reaction, he leveled his gaze with hers. “Boyfriend, Samina. Do you have one?”

Throat burning from the unexpected attack, Samina scowled. “I don’t see how that is any of your business, Christopher.”

His grin widened in pleasure. “Might be, might not.” He hooked a thumb to the flickering light bulb. “Your lights.”

“What about them?”

Topher chuckled at her impatient tone, eyes dancing with mirth. “Will your boyfriend get it or should I?”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Samina snapped in frustration, feeling a headache creep in. She wished she’d just ignored him at her doorstep.  “And I certainly don’t need one to change my own lights.” Annoyed by his impish expression, she marched into the living room.

“Of course you don’t but since I’m here, why don’t you let me do that for you?” Topher snatched his bottle and followed her. “Indulge me, Samina. I’ve missed our hangouts.”

Samina threw an exasperated glare over her shoulder. “We don’t hang out without Ada and Jax.”

“Let’s change that.”

She faltered a step forward and turned to look at him.

Topher flashed that self-assured smile. “I just want to spend some time with you before I head out. Recharge my batteries, Samina.”

Samina steeled herself against his warm honeyed eyes.

“Tell you what,” Topher added in her pointed silence. “Let me change your bulbs and you pack me a quick dinner for the ride back.”

“Why you think I owe you anything is beyond me.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I didn’t ask you to do it. You imposed yourself.”

Topher could only grin, undoubtedly enjoying the sight of the lovely Samina’s pretty feathers being ruffled. Before it was pure curiosity but now, he enjoyed the blazing heat in her eyes and the intriguing pursing of her lips. Silently, Topher thanked Nadine for nudging him into action.

“I’ll do it anyway, sandwich or not,” Topher amended, rolling the sleeves of his shirt and readied himself for the task at hand.

As he perched on the futon, Ezekiel stared down at Samina’s phone number with a smile. Recalling the girls’ praise of her, he envisioned Samina’s pretty smile.

He shook his head in disbelief. How could he just have realized Samina’s soft beauty and kind spirit. He’d always known her to be a good woman but…

His brow furrowed slightly. She would be thirty years old this year and from what he knew, there were no romantic prospects. His chest tightened, a part of him grateful by that fact. The other part of him felt indescribable guilt, an unsettling thought considering his marriage with Winsome was a happy one.

Heaving a sigh, Ezekiel pressed the talk button and held the phone to his ear as the dial tone rang.

One day if given the chance, he planned to ask why she’d stayed single all these years. His brow furrowed thinking of Samina surrounded by children and a husband. He paused at the troubling thought of her standing next to a man he didn’t recognize.

“Hello?” the low husky inflection of a male voice interrupted his thoughts.

Ezekiel sat up and he glanced down at the phone, noting the late hour. His throat tightened, strangling his words.

“Hello, who’s this?” The man urged a little impatiently this time.

Ezekiel inhaled and forced the words out. “Sam… is this her phone?” A part of him wished he’d dialed the wrong number but he knew he hadn’t.

The air was tense as the man on the other end paused. Then he sighed. “Yeah. Who’s this?”

Immediately, Ezekiel recalled the time he overheard Samina at a bridal shop. His shoulders slumped involuntarily. He gripped the phone. “She home?”

“Samina… is busy,” the man answered in a measured tone. “Wanna leave a message?”

Ezekiel almost laughed at the man’s strained yet polite tone. Until he heard a muffled yet distinguishable voice in the background. His smile waned at Samina’s voice addressing the unknown man holding her phone at eleven at night. It wasn’t his business what company she kept at late hours of the night but his chest burned anyway.

The man chuckled low, a hint of flirtation in his laugh.

Ezekiel clenched his jaw and forced out a reply. “No, that’s fine. Thanks.” He promptly disconnected the call, tossed the phone beside him and fell back on the bed before releasing a strangled moan.

Amused, Topher shook his head and placed the cell phone on the end table. With a smirk, he reached for a lightbulb and moved back to the ladder just as Samina peered out from behind the column separating the parlor from the kitchen.

“Who was that?”

“Dunno,” Topher replied, twisting the new bulb in place. “The person didn’t say, nor leave a message.”

Samina shrugged without prodding and disappeared back into the kitchen.

Topher climbed back down from the ladder and nodded in satisfaction. He then scanned the picture frames lining the wall near the fireplace. He peered at a few, smiling wider at the younger images of Samina.

“I’ll call them back later,” Samina muttered, stepping out of the kitchen with a colorful lunch tote bag. “Here,” she pushed the bag at his torso.

“Aw, you shouldn’t have.” Topher winked at the narrowed look she threw up at him. With a grin, he placed both hands over hers holding the bag to his chest.

As tremors shot through her skin when her fingers brushed his, Samina jerked her hands behind her back. Evading his gaze, she lifted hers to the high ceiling and nodded approvingly. “Thanks.”

Content to admire her without consequence, Topher had to admit he hadn’t noticed the gentle sweep of her curved cheek or the soft fullness of her bottom lip. Or her incredibly soft-looking mocha skin. His eyes slowly traveled up to chocolate eyes now glaring at him. Grinning unrepentant;y, Topher held up the bag. “Thanks for dinner.”

Samina averted her gaze and directed her attention to the spot by his right ear. “How’s your aunt?”

He was silent for a moment and she risked a glance at him. His smile was gone.

Chagrined, she looked down.

Topher sighed. “She’s had better days but she’s okay now.” When Samina looked up, alarm in her chocolate eyes, he managed a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “She was in the hospital for a couple of days. COPD.”

He paused, noticing how she schooled her features. He’d always admired how she was able to curb her emotions well, except with him. Those striking expressive eyes of hers were his favorite features of hers. He loved to watch every emotion displayed fully when she was caught off-guard.

Samina sighed gently, wrapping her empty arms around herself. “Sorry to hear that.” Her voice was soft, comforting.

He turned the canvas bag in his hands, tracing the colorful pattern. “It’s alright. She’ll be discharged next week though she’s very cranky.”

The corner of her mouth twitched, gaze warm with compassion. “Probably tired of being cooped up.”

He smiled wryly, recalling a few instances of Nadine’s sour mood. “You’re probably right.”

Samina nodded. “I hope she feels better soon. Give her my greetings…”

Topher noticed her gaze directed at the door behind him. He held back a smile and moved around the sofa toward the door. He heard her hesitating footfall behind him. “Don’t walk me out. It’s late.”

Still her footsteps trailed him to the door. He pulled it open and stepped over the threshold before turning to face her, eyes taking one last survey of her heart-shaped face. “Goodnight, Samina.”

Holding the door, Samina gave him a wan smile. “Goodnight, Topher.”

Nodding, Topher swiveled on his heels and trudged down the driveway to his parked car. As he drove back to the hospital, Topher glanced down at the packaged dinner and allowed himself to smile. Samina’s begrudging reply that she didn’t have a boyfriend was equally as rewarding as the feel of her soft skin on his fingers. It was a good end to a long, stressful day.

“I could get used to days like this…” he muttered to the starless sky before revving the engine on the state highway.

<<Chapter 18 || Chapter 20>>

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