At the sound of a telltale beep, Nadine lifted her head from the faded photograph in her hand. As the hotel door opened, she promptly shoved the photograph between the pages of her Bible and pushed the Bible to her side.

Topher stifled a yawn as he entered the room. “Hey Nadine…”

She smiled in greeting and leaned back against her pillow, taking in his haggard appearance. “You look dead.”

“Nice to see you too, Nadine,” Topher drawled, draping his jacket over a dining chair. As he walked to her bedside, he scanned the room with a furrowed brow. “Where’s Nurse Kirsten?”

She wrinkled her nose. “I let her go.”

He smirked, perching on the side of the bed. “For the night or for good?”

She sniffed disinterestedly. “We’ll see if her behavior improves in the morning.” Then she eyed him carefully. “How was it?”

His smile waned and he looked down, tugging at the thin bed covers. “Not bad.”

“I assume your Samina was there?”

Topher glanced up, a wry smile lifting one corner of his mouth. “Yeah…” He rubbed the back of his head and heaved a sigh. “Not sure what I’m doing though.”

Nadine frowned, watching as he kicked off his black leather shoes and moved to the empty spot beside her. He had his own bed but when he got like this, Nadine knew something was wrong. She remained silent as his bulky body jostled the bed, trying to find a comfortable position.

Leaning his head against the padded headboard, Topher stared up at the ceiling. “I was sincere and forthright about my feelings. And still…”

She raised a brow. “She said no?”

Topher shook his head. “She said nothing…”

Nadine hid a smirk. Topher wasn’t quite the paragon of patience. “Did you tell her you’d wait?”

He threw her a glance askance. “We have less than a month before the wedding.”

Nadine scoffed. “You wanted her to say yes and move in with you?”

Topher rolled his eyes. “That’s not what I mean… I just feel she’s holding back for some reason. Like she’s not sure she can trust me.”

She nodded understandably. Samina seemed withdrawn and a bit unsure of herself. It was no wonder that the self-assured Topher made her uncomfortable. “Well, Christopher, have you given her reason to trust you?”

He frowned into her eyes, quietly considering her words.

“If a woman is guarding her heart, it takes longer to be sure about her feelings.” Nadine rubbed his hand at her side. “It takes more than just pretty words to get us to accept a man’s heart–” She hitched a breath and pressed a hand to her chest.

Eyes wide with alarm, Topher hovered over Nadine. “What’s wrong?”

Finding her breath, Nadine waved his concern away. “I’m fine.” Still, she drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. “What was I saying?”

Skeptical, Topher frowned. “It takes more than pretty words…”

“Right.” Nadine gave him an assured smile. “You’ve got to do more than say cute words or flash that charming smile when you see her. She’s got to know through your sincerity that you’re serious.”

“I am serious about her,” Topher insisted, his gaze softening at the realization.

Nadine propped her head against his shoulder. “Like I said before, she’s a tough one.”

“Tougher than you?”

She poked his side as he chuckled. “You’ll need patience and dogged persistence with her.”

“That I have plenty of,” her nephew said confidently.

Nadine smiled and closed her eyes. “We’ll see…”

Topher recalled Samina’s iridescent eyes glimmering with tears when he handed her the cupcake. He could still feel the soft skin of her palm as he held her hand briefly.

As Nadine’s labored breathing eased into soft puffs of sighing, he shook off his reverie and peered down at his aunt’s sleeping face. Adjusting the bed-covers over her shoulders, Topher leaned into the headboard and mulled over his next steps with Samina.

Driving down the quiet street of her neighborhood, Samina kept replaying Topher’s words before they parted from the tea bar.

“I think very highly of you, Samina,” Topher had said with his striking gaze riveted to hers. She had to look away, her face burning under his intense gaze.

Samina bit her bottom lip, unsure what had changed between them. Their first meeting hadn’t been the ideal first encounter and she was to blame. Cranky from the long ride to Jaxson’s graduation five years ago, she was not in the mood to exchange pleasantries with Jaxson’s friend.

He must’ve thought her a snobbish, quick-tempered recluse and she labeled him a loose-lipped goof. Now she knew better. Topher was just a sociable, confident man with a kind heart for those he loved.

Her cheeks warmed and Samina squeezed the steering wheel. Parking in her empty driveway, Samina eyed the darkened house and stepped out of the car. Even though Karen wasn’t home, Topher’s warm surprise kept her from despairing. Grabbing her purse, she trudged up the sidewalk to her front door while replaying Topher’s words.

“I feel like we’ve known each other for as long as you’ve known Ada.”

She could still feel the jolt of electricity shoot through her skin when he touched her fingers.

“I know it’s a lot for you to take in,” Topher had continued, his voice low and solemn. “But I want to be your friend…” He tossed a wry smile that made his features boyish. “Well, maybe more than your friend but I’ll take this slow. For us.”

Samina slowed her steps, imagining the way his eyes twinkled at her and his slow, assured grin.

Topher had chuckled then and squeezed her hand in encouragement as he continued. “I want you to consider me as a possible candidate to capture your heart.” He bit his bottom lip as if to reconsider his words. “What I mean is I want you to consider me as someone who can make you a happy woman. Just like you make me happy at the mere thought of you.”

Her heart was beating fast now as it did then. Samina shook off the memory and stepped over the low brush to the front door. Pushing the door open, she stepped inside the dark house.

A twinge of sadness pricked her at the empty house. With a sigh, Samina found the light switch and flipped it open. As the bulbs flickered on and flooded the room with light, she gaped at the scene before her.

The living room was filled with people she recognized, her family and friends.

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you,” Karen sang, holding a round cake lit with many candles.

The small group sang along; party hats sat atop their heads. Some held colorful balloons that bobbed in rhythm with their song.

Hand pressed to her lips that trembled, Samina’s blurry gaze swept over the room. She could see her parents and siblings standing before her, their faces beaming. Her heart skipped a beat, recognizing Sheena and her family. Even Ada and Jaxson stood among the group, smug grins on their faces for keeping a secret from her.

She choked a laugh as her brother Obadiah waved his hands like a conductor.

Looking up, she noticed the birthday steamers and a custom banner draped above the archway leading to the kitchen. Then her heart stopped at the sight of Ezekiel standing underneath it, his gentle smile warming her all over.

As the song interrupted into soft laughter and the group rushed forward, Samina braced herself for the onslaught of hugs and kisses.

Samina smiled kindly as Sheena stepped forward with Adelaide by her side. “Aunty, thank you for coming over.”

Adelaide’s dark eyes swept candidly over her face. “Happy Birthday, Aunty Sammie.”

Taken aback, Samina nodded. “Thank you Laide.”

Adelaide grinned and leaned into Sheena’s side.

Sheena pulled Samina into a hug. Ezekiel stepped behind his mother, holding a sleepy Beulah on his hip. Samina forced her eyes on Sheena’s shoulder instead of his intent gaze.

“I wish for you a life full of joy and love,” Sheena whispered, patting Samina’s back.

“Thank you.” She held back a sigh when Sheena disengaged from the embrace, forcing her to look Ezekiel’s way.

“Happy birthday, Sam,” he said, voice gentle and tender.

Cheeks on fire, Samina managed a smile. “Thanks.”

From across the room, Karen bit the end of her straw as she watched the two by the door.

“Trying to burn a hole through his head or is that your normal way of watching people?” Ada drawled, stepping beside her.

Karen scowled, gnawing the straw. “I just don’t understand why he won’t leave her alone…”

Ada raised a brow. “Leave her alone? I thought he barely noticed her.”

“Does that look like someone not noticing her?” Karen threw her a quelling stare. “He’s been staring at her since she came in.”

“Odd…” Ada peeked at Ezekiel. “What’s his deal?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Karen’s lips curled in disdain. “I want her to move on and forget about him.”

Ada smirked then and crossed her arms. “Well I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that much longer, my dear.”

Karen eyed Ada’s smug grin with open skepticism. “What are you talking about?”

“Sammie was escorted from my house by a man.”

Karen’s eyes widened slightly and Ada grinned. “What man?” Karen demanded, glancing once at her sister who walked Sheena and her family to the door.  “Was it a date? Who is he?”.

The corner of Ada’s lips twitched upward. “Let’s just say our days of worrying about Samina’s love life are almost over, my dear Karen.”

“Girls,” Deidre called from the kitchen. “Instead of standing there gossiping, come give us a hand with the dishes? It’s getting late.”

Ada and Karen glanced over their shoulder to where Deidre and Jaxson stood.

Jaxson tossed his fiance a pleading look and Ada rolled her eyes. Walking over to him, she snatched the dishrag from his hand. “Bye.”

He kissed her cheek, winked at Karen and hurried off to Obadiah’s side.

Karen snuck a peek at Samina’s face as she accepted a hug from their father. Could Ada’s predictions be true? Her lips curled in a smile, watching Samina laugh softly.

“Karen,” Deidre snapped impatiently and Karen turned to her mother. “Tonight please.”

“Yes Mom,” Karen mumbled, shuffling to her mother’s side to wash the dishes.

<<Chapter 20 || Chapter 22>>