chapter twenty-two

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"I'm hungry," Ella whined for the fifth time in the last minute, making sure to raise her voice an octave each time. She alternated between tugging at my pants and Ben's, making us feel guilty with her pure blue stare—as though the reason we weren't getting up to leave to the restaurant wasn't that Ben was still playing half-dead with his injury.

"Do you want to just chill here and I take her out to lunch?" I suggested to Ben, absentmindedly ruffling Ella's smooth curls. "Or can you act a little less like a wuss and join us?"

"Fine, fine, I'll get up," he grumbled, pulling himself off my bed and taking Ella's hand instead. Not enjoying our slow walking pace, she tried to dash down the hall to the elevators, but Ben wasn't in the mood for any more accidents and kept a tight grip on her wriggling hand. He had always loved kids and been good with them; the happiest I'd seen him in years was the first day of our junior year of high school, when Leila and Eric announced they were expecting.

"You guys aren't gonna make me eat really healthy stuff, right?" she asked when the elevator doors slid shut. "Everything Mama and Daddy cook is green. I hate green."

"Me too, kid," Ben replied, his lips spreading into a grin. "But don't worry, you're good with us." He winked, and she smiled complacently to herself. I only imagined she was thinking of the least nutritious options on the menu she would finally be able to have.

We came to the same restaurant from several days ago, and I eyed the same table my mother made me and Ben sit at together. I had been thinking of telling her to stop meddling in our relationship, but that would have probably been asking the impossible. I sighed nearly inaudibly as we took our places at a small table near the fountain, which Ella took great interest in. The flowing water seemed almost like a spectacle to her, and she kept tilting her head from left to right to try to understand it. I didn't even understand fountains myself, so I hoped she wasn't going to pester me with questions about its inner workings.

After we ordered drinks—a coke being Ella's immediate choice—I found myself staring off at the couple seated at the table for two to our left. When I focused my gaze more, I realized they were the same people from New Year's, who had walked onto the balcony laughing, seemingly without a care in the world, while Ben and I exchanged heated words. They appeared to be the same age as us, the only difference between us the fact the guy's endearing icy blue eyes couldn't seem to leave the girl's dainty face whenever she talked about anything.

"Samar, you ready to order?" Ben's deep voice snapped me out of my stalking session, and I nodded, smiling. I chose a club sandwich and salad, while Ella proudly ordered a cheeseburger and fries that we all knew she wouldn't be able to finish.

I found myself looking back at that couple again, while Ben entertained Ella by drawing random shapes with her on the kid's menu. Unexpectedly, the girl leaned forward in the space between our tables and smiled.

"Can I just say, your daughter is so cute," she complimented, placing a hand against her chest as she gazed at Ella, who had just proudly drawn a stick figure masterpiece of the three of us. At the mention of the word "daughter," my eyes widened and Ben snapped his head up.

"Oh, no, she's not actually our daughter," I said, causing her cheeks to flush pink in embarrassment. The guy with her shook his head to himself, mouthing something along the lines of "I told you." I held a hand out in the air. "Please, don't feel embarrassed or anything, it's not the first time. She's actually our niece."

"Oh God, are you guys siblings then?" she asked, placing a hand to her forehead, further deepening her embarrassment. Ben immediately shook his head, looking almost horrified at that thought.

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