Sitting across his penitent children, Ezekiel placed his hands on the table and watched both Adelaide and Beulah playing with their food. Dinner time was always a struggle for him ever since Winsome’s passing, the last few years of her life rough for him and the girls.

It seemed most of his time was spent making his dying wife comfortable. He’d wanted to take Winsome somewhere, far from the children so that they would not have to see her suffer, but she wanted to be near them even if it was just for a little while.

Watching little Beulah toss the mashed potato clumps around her plate, Ezekiel knew he should’ve been more firm about his decision to keep his wife at home. Or maybe it was his cooking. “Are you not hungry or is this still playtime?” he asked the girls softly.

Adelaide peeked over at Beulah and nudged her little sister. Ezekiel cleared his throat and his first daughter looked up at him sheepishly. “You too… What’s wrong with your veggies?”

“They’re cold…” she muttered softly, poking a sweet pea with her fork and it bounced off her plate like a missile.

Ezekiel cringed, reaching for the two plates. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Daddy, can we have oatmeal cookies please?” Beulah asked sweetly as he walked over to the kitchen, poking the vegetables to make sure. Yep, they were still frozen.

“You already had that for breakfast and lunch,” the chagrined father replied, tasting Beulah’s mashed potatoes. “Why don’t you want your food?” The doorbell rang as he grimaced at the powdery taste.

“I hate mashytatos,” Beulah protested, sliding off her chair to the front door.

“Look first!” Ezekiel called over his shoulder, placing the two plates in the sink.

“Uncle Jimmy!” Beulah squealed with sheer delight as she swung the door open with Adelaide’s help and beamed up at the man holding a box of pizza and a bottle of juice.

“Hey little tyke,” the man grinned down at the little girl and chuckled when Adelaide pulled her aside so he could enter the house. “Where’s your Pops?”

“Throwing the food away,” Adelaide replied casually, releasing her sister’s arm so Beulah circled the man until he bent to give her a hug while balancing the pizza and juice.

Ezekiel turned around the counter to retrieve the box and bottle from James Franklin, his best friend for twenty years and business partner for half as long. “How’d you know?”

“A little birdie told me,” James replied simply with a wide grin.

The harried father managed a smile and stared down at the pizza box. “Ham, pineapple and cheese…” Adelaide and Beulah’s favorite. “Thanks.”

“Of course.” James lifted Beulah and propped the girl on his hip. “And how was your day?” He paused, poking a white substance smeared on her cheek. “What on earth?”

Mashytatos!” Beulah answered proudly as James wiped it off her face.

“Mashed potatoes… or something like it,” Ezekiel clarified, opening the box. Adelaide shuffled forward expectantly and Ezekiel had to stifle a laugh. Forcing a stern expression at his first daughter, he gestured behind him. “Serve the plates first.”

James grinned. “I would’ve thought your mom would FedEx some food.”

“I declined.” Ezekiel walked over to help Adelaide lift a few plates from the dishwasher. “What brings you here besides saving my children from my cooking?”

“Let’s eat first, I’m starved,” James grinned at Beulah, tickling her tummy until she giggled in his arms.

Once the two girls were satisfied with their slices of pizza, Ezekiel sent them both upstairs to prepare for bed. He and James remained downstairs, chomping down the remaining slices.

“So… what have you decided?” James said, picking out the pineapples from the pizza and placing it on Ezekiel’s plate.

Ezekiel shrugged his bowed shoulders. “Haven’t thought much about it since I came back,” he replied, placing the ham slices on James’ plate. “No time I guess.”

James snorted, popping a ham slice into his mouth. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re rethinking the move…”

Ezekiel rolled his eyes instead of admitting his reluctance to leave D.C.

“You wanted this though…” James reminded him gently.

“I know.” Ezekiel sighed, leaning back in his chair. “It’s just raising children… isn’t easy.”

James nodded and glanced down at the half-empty box of pizza. His brow furrowed. “You can’t eat ham and pineapple pizza forever, Zeke.”

Ezekiel’s jaw twitched, not looking at his friend. “I’m working on it.”

“A temp nanny or something could help while you settle the details.”

Ezekiel smirked wryly, rubbing grease off his fingers. “Forget it.”

James huffed. “Things are different now, Zeke. You officially need help.”

He frowned up at his best friend. “I’m doing fine.”

“Yeah, feeding your children cereal, cookies for brunch and frozen veggies and powdery mashytatos for dinner.” He shook his head. “At this rate, you three won’t last the summer.”

Ezekiel swallowed hard. “Well, there is one thing…”

James paused inhaling another slice. “What?”

“My parents,” he turned to his friend’s inquisitive stare. “They want the kids to come in a little earlier.”

“What’s the problem?” James grinned widely. “Your problems have already been solved! You let them go on their own and come back to finalize the move.”

“Shh!” he whispered fiercely, gesturing toward the stairs. “I don’t know if they’d want to go there right now. Laide’s already mad at me for moving her out of school.”

James smirked. “Something tells me your children have already packed their bags and are just waiting for your word to say they can go stay with Grandma and Gramps.” With a knowing smile, he took another bite of his pizza.

“Who says they’re going?” Ezekiel shot back impatiently, feeling overwhelmed by the thought of separating from his two daughters for the first time since their mother’s passing.

What if Beulah couldn’t sleep at night and if Adelaide completely locked her heart from everyone to retreat to her own space? He shook his head somberly. “I… I have to think about it. Y’know, discuss it with the girls first.”

Minutes later, Ezekiel gaped at his two daughters on Adelaide’s bed. “You want to go?”

Adelaide nodded with a blank stare, Beulah grinning toothily. “Can we leave now, Daddy?” his five year old asked, bouncing on the bed.

His heart twisted at her unbridled excitement. “It’s late,” he croaked. He hadn’t expected them to jump at the idea of leaving home so soon. “What about your friends?” he turned to Adelaide, recalling her earlier tantrums. “Won’t you miss them?”

“Might as well get it over with,” Adelaide replied sagely, folding her arms across her chest very much like an adult.

Beulah nodded adamantly and slid off her sister’s bed to perch on her father’s lap. She wrapped her arm around his and propped her head against his arm. “Will you stay with us too?”

“Dad has to work, Beulah,” Adelaide replied sternly.

Ezekiel blinked, still stunned by the unexpected reaction to his proposal. He peered down at the petulant stare of his youngest and managed a smile. “I can stay for a few days but Daddy has to come back to work with Uncle James before I join you again.”

Now that he thought of it, transitioning the kids on their own could help ease some of the worries he had about the move.

“Can’t Uncle James come too?” Beulah urged on, her big brown eyes probing into Ezekiel’s. “When can we leave, Daddy?”

He could only stare at his daughter’s round face, seeing Winsome in her. His heart twisted painfully and he lowered his gaze to Beulah’s fingers curled around his arm. “When do you want to go?”

Topher Chance peered down at the woman leaning heavily against his arm. Her slight fingers trembled as she clutched onto his jacket and he placed a hand over hers to still her frazzled nerves. “It’s okay,” he said in a soothing voice, shouldering through the crowd toward the rental cars booths.

“Please Christopher, no fast cars,” Nadine Chance grumbled hoarsely to her tall companion, her head bowed and propped against his shoulder. Though on a good day she stood statuesque at 5’10”, her weak back and shoulders bowed under the weight of her illness and her head barely brushed his shoulders.

“Yes Ma’am,” he answered easily as they reached the counter. “Good evening. Could we get the smallest—” he chuckled when Nadine nudged him with her bony elbow. “What cars are available?”

Minutes later, Topher turned to face the woman with a crooked smile. He dangled the keys before her face. “Your safe carriage awaits, milady,” he informed her, grinning impishly.

Nadine gave him a faint smile, her light-brown eyes sweeping over his face.

His smile waned, noting ruefully how the plane ride deepened the wrinkles on her brow and around her bow-shaped mouth.

“Let’s get you to the hotel,” he said, gently securing her arm under his.

“I thought we’d be staying with Jaxson?”

Topher reached for their shared suitcase. “I think it’d be better if we stay at the hotel. More room.” He peered down at her, smiling ruefully. “Besides, I didn’t think you’d want to share a bathroom with a bunch of messy guys.”

Nadine scoffed, smothering a cough with her other hand. She released a raspy sigh before replying. “I’ve had to deal with your messes since you were born. What’s another week more?”

A smirk tugged at the corner of his lips as he guided her toward the front of the airport. “Trust me. Jax is a lot messier. So, I’m saving you the trouble.”

As she rolled her eyes at him, he laughed and guided her down the sloped ramp toward the garage.

As they pulled out of the garage a few minutes later, his phone rang.

With one quick look at Nadine sleeping with her face turned to the window, Topher answered on the third ring.

“Hey man… Yeah, I just got in.” A slow smile crept up his face. “Is that so? Well in that case, count me in.” He paused again, peering over at Nadine. “Yeah, she’s sleeping.”

Another smirk tugged at Topher’s lips. “She wanted to but we got a hotel suite instead. It’s for your sanity, trust me. Hm, I’ll tell her you called. See you tomorrow.”

With that, he pulled the Bluetooth from his ear and placed the phone on the cup holder. Glancing once at Nadine’s sleeping form, Topher’s grin turned impish and he stepped on the accelerator, guiding the small car to the freeway.

<<Chapter 2 || Chapter 4>>