southerncharms4

Ezekiel gripped the pencil before it slid out of his fingers and looked up at his youngest daughter jumping on the mattress. “Bumble bee, stop for a moment. Papa is working.”

“Papa, it’s playtime,” Beulah gave him a toothy grin, easing off the bed. She peered over his arm at the open sketchbook on his lap. “Whatchu doing?”

Ezekiel reached down to smooth her frizzy curls. “Drawing.” He slid the charcoal pencil along the edge of the carbon paper.

“Ooh, can I help?” her pudgy fingers reached for his pencil.

“Nu-unh…” He held it away from her reach. “Where’s yours?”

Beulah wrinkled her nose and looked away, pouting in silence.

She was just like her older sister. Ezekiel smirked. “If you don’t know where it is, I can’t give you mine.”

“I lost it…” she mumbled her tone penitent. His artistic, hyperactive four-year old went through more than ten sketchbooks in the last two years, either lost or scribbled over.

With a sigh, Ezekiel flipped a page of his drafting notebook. “Last time, you hear?” he said sternly, tearing one out for her. His cellular phone rang as beaming Beulah grabbed the paper. “Go ask Laide for some colored pencils…” He lifted the phone and pulled it to his ear. “This is Zeke.”

“Hey Partner,” James replied, a little too cheerfully. “Got a minute?”

“Yeah,” He replied, distracted by Beulah folding the draft paper before scurrying out the door to find her big sister. “What’s up?”

“Yeah well…” James heaved a sigh. “Remember when I said I could handle everything while you were gone and you said you didn’t believe me?”

Ezekiel rolled his eyes, pushing the draft book off his lap to stand. “Yeah…” He braced himself for the worst as he always did when leaving James in charge of their architecture/construction firm.

“Well, you were right… There’s a problem.”

He scowled, jamming a hand to his hips. “What is it?” And at James’ hesitation, he clenched his jaw. “Spit it out, Jim.”

“Just to let you know I did all I could do to stop them. Man, they’re pulling out.”

Ezekiel frowned. “Who is?” His mind scanned the short list of clients, zeroing in on one important one and his heart sank. “Goodwin?”

“Yeah man… Look, they’re insistent. Even after I gave them the feasibility study and laid down the possilibities, they believe there’s no longer a market.”

Swallowing a groan, Ezekiel pinched the bridge of his nose. This wasn’t at all what he needed. Not now. He forced out a breath, tamping his growing frustration. “When?”

James paused again and Ezekiel’s patience withered.

“When, Jim. When did they make this decision?” Ezekiel forced through gritted teeth.

James sighed. “It was a week after you left.”

Ezekiel closed his eyes. That was over two weeks ago. “James, man. What are you doing?”

“I tried to fix it.”

“This isn’t high school where you get to procrastinate and it still works out. This is a business!”

“C’mon Zeke, it isn’t my fault they’re going back and forth about this.”

Ezekiel swallowed hard, glancing at the suitcases by the door. “You should’ve called me.”

“Yeah, I should’ve but I thought I could handle it… and you are on vacation.”

“Not anymore,” Ezekiel mumbled, moving to the closet door. “What are they doing now? How much time do we have?” he asked, pulling open the door and tugging out his clothes.

“I requested they wait until you return—Zeke, man… I know you need time with the family.”

Ezekiel heaved a sigh, tossing the clothes onto the bed by his open draft book. “I’ll take the first flight out…” He grabbed his suitcase by the door. “Tell them to expect me by tomorrow evening.”

“Sorry about this, Zeke….”

Ezekiel didn’t know what to say. Goodwin International, a green-energy firm, was one of their biggest clients, and to let them slip from his fingers without a fight wasn’t an option he could consider. “See you then,” he grunted, disconnecting the call.

“Dad…?” Adelaide’s hesitant voice interrupted the rampant thoughts building up in his head.

Ezekiel turned to the door, spotting his daughters and his mother staring at him with wide-eyed disappointment. His mouth went dry.

“Are you leaving?” Beulah asked quietly, eyes glistening with pending tears. She clutched her grandmother’s hand tightly.

He summoned a sustaining breath and managed a smile as he gestured for them to come in.

“I can’t believe this,” Sheena complained softly as she and her friend, Deidre Wells, strode down the aisle of baskets in Hobby Lobby that weekend. “He just came and now has to go back.”

Deidre grabbed a small basket and turned it in her hands. “Well, won’t they lose the opportunity if he didn’t go? It’s their biggest client, isn’t it?” She extended the box to Sheena. “What do you think?”

Sheena sighed, accepting the basket. “I know that much… but seeing the looks on those precious faces, my heart broke a little. It’s hard enough as it is missing one parent.” She turned the basket in her hand and nodded. “This will look good in the room, right?”

“I think so,” Deidre smiled as Sheena placed the basket into the pile of knick-knacks in the cart. They continued their slow stroll to the next aisle.

Sheena lifted her eyes to the display. “If only they could just transfer their office to Houston. It only makes sense for him to move down here instead of shuttling cross-country.”

“Hmm,” Deidre mumbled, scanning the boxes of pink stickers. “Have you decided on what you’ll do?”

Sheena raised a brow. “Decided about what?”

“What to do with the girls all summer. You and Jerry can’t take care of them.”

“Why in heavens not?” Sheena’s thin brows slammed together. “We raised Ezekiel on our own without any trouble.”

Deidre chuckled at Sheena’s aggravated scowl. “I’m not debating about your parenting skills, woman… I’m just saying you might need some help. You’re not as springy and young as you used to be. Beulah and Adelaide can be quite a handful.”

Sheena frowned as Deidre strolled on ahead, knowing she was right. She had to be honest that being in her mid sixties, trying to catch up with hyperactive Beulah and the mercurial Adelaide would be quite the challenge they never experienced with Ezekiel. It didn’t help that both she and Jeremiah were now forced out of retirement because of the economic struggle. Working and taking care of the two girls wouldn’t be a cake walk.

Heaving a sigh, she trudged after Deidre. “Okay then, Oprah. What should I do?”

Deidre raised a brow, maneuvering the cart toward the next aisle. “Easy. Hire a nanny.”

“A nanny.” Sheena scoffed in laughter. “Dee, you forgot the reason why I left retirement in the first place?” She folded her arms, watching Deidre peruse the colorful bed covers. “No money… remember?”

“Of course I know…” Deidre rolled her eyes. “I’m sure there are some college or high-school kids on break that can volunteer to help. Didn’t one of the Halliday girls hand out flyers for babysitting?”

“Yeah for a price…” Sheena scoffed lightly, touching a zebra-printed bedsheet. “I need someone who’ll be okay taking care of the girls for a very low price, if nothing at all.”

Deidre chuckled. “That’s… not happening, my dear.”

“I know,” Sheena sighed, tugging out the zebra print to study it carefully. “Wishful thinking though.”

“Deidre Wells?” a shrieking voice from across the store called out. Cringing, both Sheena and Deidre turned to see a woman clad in a pristine tea-green suit, shuffling towards them.

The two friends smothered their groans and plastered forced smiles on their faces as the woman with matching tea-green heels and a perfect manicure sauntered over. She flashed a bright grin at Deidre, only for it to dim at the sight of Sheena. “Oh and Sheena, how are you?”

“Fine…” Sheena forced out. “How are you, Mrs. Cassidy?”

The woman grinned openly. “Oh, it’s such a marvelous afternoon and I’m so blessed.” She clasped her hands together for good measure. “The movie night was a success. Deidre, you did a great job with the chili, dear. Spectacular taste.”

“Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it,” Deidre answered dryly.

“And you two?” Her gaze scanned the cart before them. “I see you’re doing some light shopping?”

“Hmm,” Deidre nodded with a smile. “For Sheena’s granddaughters.”

Ebony Cassidy’s smile was less genuine, eyes flickering once over Sheena before turning back to Deidre. “Oh right, of course. I hear they’re moving back home. That must make you happy.”

Sheena fought not to roll her eyes at the woman’s banal tone. “Yes, by the end of the summer.” She ignored the haughty lift of Ebony’s thin brow.

“Oh…” Then Ebony’s brow furrowed slightly. “Deidre dear, I’m so sorry about poor Samina getting laid off. How is she holding up?”

Both friends exchanged surprised looks, Deidre jerking her stare to Ebony. “What are you talking about?” she managed calmly,though her whole body trembled at the thought of her eldest daughter’s face keeping secrets from her. She felt Sheena’s hand on her shoulder, silently calming her.

“Oh my!” Ebony blinked in surprise and placed a manicured hand to her bosom. “I can’t believe you had no idea… Wasn’t poor Samina an art teacher at the school there?”

“And so?” Deidre clenched her jaw at the haughty way she articulated the word ‘art’.

“Oh dear!” Ebony lifted her hand to her lips pursed in a perfect O. “Maybe it’s not my place to tell you but poor Samina was laid off from the school. About two weeks ago. My daughter’s best friend Gail, who is a secretary in administration there, mentioned it…”

Intentionally or not, Deidre tuned out the woman’s growing chatter. Her gaze glancing past Ebony’s head at the exit, suddenly wanting to hightail out of there. She pictured Samina’s face, analyzing those drawn-out smiles, nervous laughter, and evasive glances whenever she asked about work. Her heart twisted painfully. Samina, how could you?!”

A warm hand on her arm tugged her out of her reverie. Deidre glanced over to Sheena’s worried stare. Heaving a sigh, she glanced around, noticing now that Ebony was gone. She licked her dry lips. “Where is that hateful woman?”

“I chased her off,” Sheena answered quietly, eyes steady on her face. “Are you okay?”

Deidre shook her head. “No, I’m not. I can’t believe…”

“I know the feeling, girl… Hang in there.” Sheena led the way to the cashier station, their shopping trip cut short. There was lots to be done, with both their children surprising them so unexpectedly.

<<Chapter 5 || Chapter 7>>

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