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Karen scowled as Samina shoved a stack of children’s books into her green-striped canvas bag. “For goodness’ sake, it’s six in the morning. Don’t tell me you’re going there again.” She stood akimbo, watching Samina bend to lace her sandals.

“Then I won’t,” Samina answered easily, swinging the bag over her shoulder.  “Lock up for me.”

Karen gritted her teeth and shuffled barefoot to block Samina’s path. “Why are you doing this?”

Samina threw an exasperated glance to the ceiling. “Because I gave them my word,” she answered firmly, glaring at Karen. “Now I told Zeke I’m already on my way—”

“Ezekiel is in town?” Eyes wide as tea saucers, Karen followed Samina out the door, unperturbed by the cool breeze pushing against her flimsy tank and silk pajama pants. “Well, if he’s here why are you still going? Hey, I’m talking to you!” She grabbed Samina’s arm.

“Stop it!” Samina snatched her arm back. “Will you quit it?!” At Karen’s grimace, she dragged in a harsh breath and released it. “Can I please do what I want?”

Karen mutely took a step back, face hard as stone.

“Thank you,” Samina clipped out and stomped down the sidewalk to her car.

Scoffing in disgust at the flashing taillights of Samina’s car down the street, Karen spun on her heels and stormed back into the house. Body trembling with frustration, she slammed the door and leaned against it.

Then the phone rang loud in the empty house.

Rolling her eyes, she walked up to it and snatched it on the second ring. “Hello.”

At the drawn-out silence on the other end, Karen narrowed her eyes. “Who’s this?”

“Karen… It’s me.”

Karen clenched her jaw. “Ada.”

Ada sniffed with disdain. “Where’s Sammie? Put her on the phone.”

“Not here,” Karen snapped in annoyance. “Stop blowing up the house phone and call her cellphone.”

“Look, I don’t have time for this. Where is she? You know I’d rather talk with her than you right now. She just isn’t picking up my calls. What’s going on? Is she okay?”

“Okay?” Karen bit back an ornery laugh. “Depends on your definition of okay. She’s cranky and impossible but yeah, she’s fine. Why?”

“Karen, she’s my maid-of-honor. My wedding is in a couple of weeks and she’s nowhere to be found. Why on earth is she avoiding me?”

Karen sneered at Ada’s whining tone. “Maybe if you weren’t a bridezilla, people won’t avoid you like the plague. Besides, she’s too busy babysitting kids to listen to anyone else.”

Ada inhaled sharply. “She took the job? What changed her mind? Is she okay?”

Karen clenched her jaw. “Look, I don’t have time. Could I go now? I have to get ready for school.”

“Yeah okay.” Ada sighed. “Could you please tell Sammie to call me? I really need her.”

“I’m not your messenger, Ada.” She eyed her fingernails. “You come over and tell her yourself. Her shift ends at six.” With that, Karen disconnected the call over Ada’s protests and stormed down the hall to her room.

Still reeling from her violent response to Karen’s meddling, Samina sat in her car parked a few blocks from Ezekiel’s home. Closing her eyes, Samina rested her forehead against the steering wheel, replaying the scene. The stunned look on Karen’s face niggled at her conscience. She shouldn’t have behaved that way, constantly losing control of her muddled emotions and veering from fear to frustration. This wasn’t how her life was supposed to turn out.

At this age, she was supposed to own a two-story home with magnolia trees growing in the front yard. She was supposed to be someone’s mother and someone’s wife. Ezekiel’s wife.

Her cheeks burned shamefully, her eyes burned. That dream died long ago when Ezekiel introduced Winsome to the family. He seemed happy and she quietly slipped into the background, content to wish him much happiness.

She squeezed the steering wheel. Thirty years old, forever alone, jobless and possibly fighting a rare illness. “What life is this?” she muttered into the silence.

A dull tap on her window made her jump and Samina peeked under her arm at the window, seeking the intruder to her pity party of one.

Ezekiel stared right back, a bemused expression on his face.

Face on fire, Samina jerked upright and quickly brushed a hand over her curls before rolling down the window. “Hey…” she managed, cheeks tingling.

Ezekiel smiled warmly. “Good morning. How are you?”

Her smile was wobbly. “I’m fine. And you?” Grabbing her purse, she pushed open the door and stepped out when her ankle twisted and she leaned forward.

His hand shot out to grab her arm but Samina ducked away, grabbing the door to steady her balance.

“Easy,” Ezekiel muttered, his gaze settling back on her face.  “You okay?”

“Yup,” Samina squeaked, adjusting her clothes. She stepped around him and strode quickly up the driveway. “Are you about to leave for work?”

Much to her chagrin, Ezekiel jogged up beside her and flashed her a smile. “Just about. The girls are still asleep so I’ll just sneak out before they wake.” He slowed to a stop when she climbed onto the porch. “Sam?”

“Hmm?” Samina hesitated before turning to face him.

At her coffee eyes peeking innocently at him, Ezekiel fought the sudden urge to grab her in an embrace. Stunned by his wanton thoughts, he took one deliberate step back and folded his hands behind his back. “Thanks again for this.”

Samina smiled gently. “It’s okay.” She turned to enter the house.

Chest tightening as she closed the door, Ezekiel released a slow, measured breath. “Zeke…” he said quietly, staring at the closed door. “You’re crazy.”

Samina closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the door. The warmth in Ezekiel’s eyes sent shivers down her spine. It couldn’t be, she told herself and turned away from the door.

Adelaide stood directly in front of her, eyes narrowed suspiciously.

Samina shuffled back, her heart in her throat.

Adelaide blinked. “What are you doing?”

“Uh nothing.” Samina cleared her throat. “Good morning.”

The young girl merely peered out the window and then grunted in disbelief, turning toward the kitchen.

“Hey Adelaide,” Samina started tentatively, heart skipping a beat.

The girl halted her steps but didn’t turn around.

“Look…” Samina said to her back. “I don’t want to step on any one’s toes here. Can’t we just be friends?”

“Laide.”

Samina’s brows rose slightly. “Pardon?”

The girl turned slowly, focusing her dark gaze on Samina. “It’s Laide. No one calls me Adelaide except if I’m in trouble.”

Her shoulders sagged in relief and she managed a smile. “Oh, okay. Laide, can’t we be friends?”

Laide’s probing eyes studied Samina’s face skeptically before sighing. “Okay…fine. Can you make pancakes?”

Samina blinked. “Pancakes?”

“Yeah.”

“Sure, I can.” She smiled. “Is that what you want for breakfast?”

Laide nodded, her eyes still checking for Samina’s sincerity. “Can you make strawberry and chocolate-chip pancakes?”

“Sure.” Samina felt her shoulders relaxing with each word spoken in confidence.  “Any flavor you want, I can make it.”

“Cool.” Laide nodded. “I like strawberry pancakes. Beulah likes chocolate-chip.”

“Then strawberry and chocolate-chip pancakes coming right up.” Samina offered the young girl a kind smile. “Eggs and sausages?”

“Scrambled and no sausage.”

“Yes Ma’am.” Samina gave Laide a mock salute and Laide’s lips twisted to hold back an amused smile, her heart danced triumphantly.

Later that evening, Ezekiel quietly watched the taillights on Samina’s car disappear around the corner. Shaking his head in bemusement, he turned to face the house. His steps halted, spotting Laide’s shadow in the open doorway.

Chuckling, Ezekiel walked up to her and slung an arm around her shoulders, leading her back into the house. “Where’s Beulah?”

“Coloring.” Laide ducked out of from under his arm and turned to face him. “Dad?”

“Hmm?” He slid the top lock of the door in place.

“Is Aunty Sammy married?”

His fingers stilled over the chain lock. His stomach flipped over.

“Dad?”

Heart in his throat, he turned to study Laide’s imploring gaze. “What brought on that question, sweetheart?”

Laide folded her arms across her chest. “Isn’t she your age?”

“Umm…” Ezekiel stalled for time, mulling through her question.

Laide heaved a sigh. “Never mind.” She moved around him toward the stairs. “Goodnight Dad.”

He slowly released a breath and watched her climb the stairs. “I’ll be right up to tuck you two in.” Ezekiel rubbed his chin. “Sam married…?”

Again, his mind summoned the image of Samina’s lovely face peeking from a white lace veil.

This time, Ezekiel smiled and climbed the stairs to his daughters’ room.

His grin widened, hearing their muffled giggles. His heart quickened when he opened the door and found them huddling under the covers. He stepped into the room. “Are you two ready for bed or should I come after playtime?”

Beulah’s tinkling laughter pulled him to the bed. Her giggles got louder when Ezekiel poked the blanket. When he snatched the covers away, Beulah screeched in delight and buried her face into Laide’s stomach.

Laide couldn’t hold back a smile as her father tickled Beulah mercilessly.

Once settled in bed, Ezekiel flanked between his two girls, he gathered them close with both arms wrapped around their shoulders. He smiled blissfully at the sounds of their even breathing.

“Papa?” Beulah broke the silence, her voice muffled against his work shirt.

“Hmm?” he stroked her warm cheek.

Beulah sighed. “I like Aunty Sammy.”

“Me too…” Ezekiel smiled. “Is that so?”

“Uh-hmm.” Her head bobbed enthusiastically against his chest. “She’s nice and makes the best pancakes ever. And she’s pretty, just like Princess Meggie.”

The image of Samina wearing a tiara popped up in his mind and Ezekiel arched a brow. “Who?”

“Princess Megara from Hercules,” Laide answered quietly, her gaze steady on her father’s face.

“Ah, I see.” Although he couldn’t remember sitting through that film, Ezekiel nodded. “Yeah well, Aunty Sammy is pretty…”

As the girls relaxed in sleep, Ezekiel drew his daughters closer. Later on, the image of pretty Samina dressed in royal garb was the only thing on his mind as he tossed and turned all night on the futon couch.

<<Chapter 17 || Chapter 19>>

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