Karen hid a smile as she entered the house and spotted Samina lounging on the couch, her feet curled under her with her laptop resting on her thighs. “What, no night rendezvous with the Dames kiddos?” She didn’t bother masking the sarcastic edge in her voice, and sauntered over to the couch.

Samina merely smirked as Karen dropped on the sofa beside her. “Don’t worry. I won’t be going there any time soon.” She scanned the screen, the screen reflecting on the rim of her glasses.

“I see.” Karen managed to sound neutral as she leaned in to read. “House of Hope? So you’re considering them then?”

“Already signed the papers,” Samina mumbled, scrolling down the fine print.

Karen nodded with a grin. “Don’t worry, you’ll fit in just fine.” She sighed, leaned back in the sofa. “I hate to bring up Bridezilla, but aren’t you supposed to be with her right now?”

Samina inhaled sharply.

Karen raised a brow at her stricken expression. “What, you forgot?” Her frown deepened as Samina shot to her feet and hurried down the narrow hallway to her bedroom. “Sammie,” she hollered after her. “It’s late. Just call and cancel.”

At Samina’s silence, Karen pushed to her feet and moved to the hallway. The sound of muffling sobs caught her midstride, a shiver skittering down to her toes.

As the sobbing intensified, Karen hurried inside. The sight of Samina huddled on the floor, her face buried into the bedcovers. Her heart was racing as Samina choked for air and she moved to kneel beside her.

“I can’t do this!” Samina wailed, pressing her forehead against Karen’s shoulder. “Why is this happening to me? Why?”

Karen gaped at her, fear gripped her throat. It wasn’t often she witnessed a breakdown quite like this. Samina hardly ever cried.

Then the doorbell rang, jarring Karen from her immobilized state. As the ringing persisted, Samina leaned away and released Karen to answer the door.

Still trembling, Karen pulled open the front door. Her eyes collided with the gray-green gaze of the man at her doorstep. Her brow furrowed in confusion at his broad shoulders, her eyes skimming over his imposing frame before returning to his warm eyes. “Yes?” she croaked out.

A trace of confusion quickly faded to recognition. He grinned, flashing straight teeth at her. “You must be Karen. I’m Topher Chance. Is Samina in?” He kept his arresting gray-green eyes on her and for a brief moment, Karen could only stare at him.

It wasn’t until he shifted his weight that she blinked out of a trance and recovered her tongue. “Uh, yeah, she’s in…” The disturbing image of Samina weeping inconsolably in her room made her pause. She shook her head. “She’s busy.”

Something akin to relief fell over his features and he smiled. “I’m glad she’s okay. We were worried about her.”

Karen tilted a brow, still holding the door to her. “We?”

“Ada, Jax and I. Well mostly, me.” He chuckled softly. “I apologize. I’m Samina’s friend and date for the wedding. More aptly, the best man.”

“Date?” Karen croaked as his grin brightened.

“How like you to exaggerate,” Samina countered dryly over Karen’s shoulder.

Karen noticed his eyes danced with mirth as he looked over her head to where Samina stood. Turning around, Karen swallowed a sigh of relief that Samina seemed composed as usual.

Samina stared past her. “Was Ada worried?”

Feeling awkward for standing between them, Karen ducked and walked around Samina to perch on the sofa. But not without peeking back at the attractive giant on their doorstep. “Date?” she mumbled incredulously.

“Well, she has a right to be.” Topher sighed. “Where’s your phone?”

Samina hesitated, hands clasped tightly behind her back . “I turned it off.”

He shook his head, a wrinkle in his brow. “Bad girl.”

Karen raised a brow at his berating tone and the contrite dip of Samina’s head.

Then Samina folded her arms across her chest, shoulders tense. “Did you come here to scold me or give me a message?”

Topher merely laughed in reply and Karen squinted at him. Seemed he was used to Samina’s snippy attitude. “Don’t worry about it. I covered for you.”

“And just how did you do that?”

Karen held her breath, her astute gaze darting between them.

“Don’t worry about that,” Topher answered easily. “Just have a good explanation when she comes charging through your door tomorrow morning.”

Karen snorted, pulling their attention to her. She stood from the sofa. “Doesn’t Ada have anything better to do than terrorize her wedding party?”

Topher smirked in amusement at Karen, recognizing the resemblance down to their strong-willed personalities. He brushed aside a buzzing wasp. “Samina, could you be a good hostess and let me in?”

Samina scowled but moved aside, Topher ducking inside with an unaffected smile.

Karen bit the inside of her cheeks to keep from laughing. She liked this guy. “So Topher, wanna enlighten me how you know my sister?”

“Karen…” Samina’s warning tone sounded over Topher’s low chuckle.

He nudged Samina and winked audaciously at her. “Want me to tell her or you?”

Samina merely jutted her chin in a stubborn angle, her mouth pressed in an obstinate line.

“No matter.” Karen quickly gestured to the couch. “Topher, why don’t you have a seat? I’ll get you a drink while you and Sissi talk.” She bustled past the kitchen, her heart thrumming with uncontained excitement.

Topher smiled in amusement as Karen skulked away. “Your sister’s nice,” he said quietly, settling into the leather chair and stretched out his long legs.

Samina closed the laptop and set it behind as she settled in the chair opposite him. “Why did you come?”

He then leaned forward and propping his elbows on his knees, he reached for one of her hands. Ignoring the slight resistance before she surrendered her hand to his, Topher smiled at her. “You remember what I said at the tea house?” he asked in a gentle whisper, admiring the gentle sloping of her high forehead and straight nose leading to the natural pucker of her full lips and stubborn chin.

Samina’s eyes widened and she tugged at her hand but he didn’t budge to release her. Resigned, she pressed her teeth against her bottom lip and averted her gaze. “Yes…”

Topher smiled wryly. It was a start. He looked down at her slender hand in his. “I was serious, Samina. I want you to consider it. Consider me.”

“Alright, here we are,” Karen announced brightly, entering the room. She frowned as Samina jerked her hand from Topher’s and shifted away. Hesitantly, Karen extended a bottle of water to Topher. “Sammie, want one?”

Samina only shook her head, gaze trained on her clasped hands.

Karen and Topher exchanged a wary glance.

To Karen’s chagrin, Topher stood to his feet. He smiled at Karen and gazed down at Samina’s downturned face. “Now that I’m satisfied that you’re safe and sound, I’ll take my leave.” He then turned to Karen, gesturing to the water bottle. “Thanks.”

“I’ll walk you out,” Karen said, trailing behind him.

“Not necessary,” Topher said gently, pulling open the door. He gave her a nod and slipped out of the house without another word to Samina.

Karen pouted as she slowly closed the door behind him. “He didn’t say goodbye to you…”

In silence, Samina picked up her laptop to retreat to her room.

Karen scowled as Samina’s lock fell in place, locking her in. The somber look on her sister’s face contradicted the bumbling joy in her heart at the prospect of a man besides Ezekiel vying for Samina’s heart. Clenching her jaw in determination, Karen stalked to the couch and reached for her purse, rooting out her purse.

Her lip curled in distaste as she scrolled down the contacts list for Ada’s number. Although she’d opt for a root canal procedure, questions urged her to dial her number. Plopping on her mattress, she pressed the phone to her ear and waited for Ada to pick up.

“Yeah…” Ada heaved a sigh, expressing her displeasure. “What could you possibly want?”

Karen rolled her eyes. “Trust me, if I didn’t have important things to discuss, I wouldn’t be calling you.” She scoffed at Ada’s bitter laugh. “Who is Topher Chance?”

There was a long stretch of silence on the other end and Karen almost snapped at Ada when the older woman chuckled dryly. “So he came over, huh? Probably to make sure his story matched hers.”

“Come off it and answer the question.”

Ada sniffed disdainfully. “He’s Jax’s best friend and the best man. Y’know, the male counterpart of what your older sister’s supposed to be.”

“Hey, handle your beef with her and not me,” Karen said easily. She folded her legs under her. “What else? Is he interested in Samina?”

“Excuse me, but how is this any of your business?”

Karen gritted her teeth. “Ada, I swear to God, if you don’t just act normal for one second.”

“If I tell you, will you convince your sister to behave like a responsible maid-of-honor?”

Karen scowled, bristled by Ada’s harsh accusation. “Look, I don’t know what’s wrong with Samina but she’s going through a lot right now.” She frowned deeper, the disturbing image appeared in her mind’s eye. “I found her crying in her room before Topher came over here.”

The silence on Ada’s end was as deafening as the static.

“Hello?” Karen mumbled in annoyance, ready to drop the phone.

“What’s wrong with her? She’s constantly out of it and she forgets our appointments as if she doesn’t care.” Ada’s voice trembled with concern. “I mean, I know I’m a little strung up right now—”

“A little?”

“Fine,” Ada conceded though her tone hinted impatience. “But Samina’s behavior has me even more agitated. What’s going on with her?”

Karen shook her head. “I’m not sure I would even know. She’s been so secretive lately… ever since Zeke and his girls came to town.” Her scowl deepened and she returned to the matter at hand. “That’s why I need to know about this Topher guy.”

“He likes her,” Ada sighed. “I mean, he’s been curious about her since five years ago. Now, I think he’s serious about pursuing her.”

Karen’s eyes widened. “How come he hasn’t said anything to her about it?” Her head swam, overwhelmed with excitement at the thought of a man other than Ezekiel capturing Samina’s heart.

“Bad timing, I guess. He’s a geophysicist and doesn’t stay long enough to pursue any serious relationship. It’s been complicated for him over the years but maybe he’s looking past that now, if he’s serious about her.”

Smart, handsome and has eyes for Samina. Karen couldn’t help the wide, stupefied grin that moved her lips. She clutched the phone closer to her ear. “How long is he in town for?”

“He took a break for our wedding and for his aunt. So a few weeks—” She groaned. “You’re killing me here, Karen. Can’t you help me?”

“Alright, fine,” Karen replied begrudgingly. “I’ll help get Samina back on track with your wedding. But trust me. I’m not doing this for you.”

She could picture Ada rolling her eyes. “Gee, thanks.”

“No Ada, thank you.” Karen promptly disconnected the call and stared up at the ceiling. It seemed things were finally looking up for Samina and if she had her way, Topher would have his chance with Samina. Her lips curved in a smile, hope fluttering in her chest. Samina could return to enjoying life again.

Topher fought a grin as he leaned against the back of the chair, scrounging for plane tickets on the laptop later that night. He mustered up the image of Samina’s dazed expression and the way her lips trembled, drawing his gaze there. He could still trace the dips and curves of her beautiful mouth.

As Nadine stirred awake in bed by the desk, Topher quickly schooled his features.

“Why do you look so guilty?” she asked, her voice hoarse from sleep.

He smirked. “Why’s your eyesight so good after all these years?”

“Oh shush.”

Topher chuckled lowly, pulling up another tab on the screen.

The sound of the bedsheets rustling pulled his attention and he warily watched as Nadine shifted her legs to stand. “Where are you going?”

“I want to walk around a bit.” She smiled weakly, his heart twisting at the fragile lift of her lips. Although she was improving under the nurse’s care, Topher still hesitated over her demand for independence.

“Want some company?”  He stood and moved to her side before she could protest.

Moments later, they walked slowly down the paved path that wove around the hotel, Nadine’s arm curved under Topher’s. They were preoccupied with their own thoughts, the bustle of the city and traffic filling the silence.

Topher smiled down at Nadine as she tugged at his sleeve, pointing across the street to a yogurt shop.

Settling down in a corner booth, Topher watch Nadine scoop pomegranate yogurt to her mouth before turning to his own melting treat.

“What do you think of Houston?” Topher asked after a few minutes of companionable silence. His eyes remained on his cup yet he felt the weight of Nadine’s eyes on him.

“Nice enough.” She scraped the spoon over the cold treat and slanted a curious glance at him. “Trying to dump me here?”

The corner of Topher’s mouth quirked in a wry smile. “Just a question.”

“It’s not like you to just ask a question, Christopher.” Her tone was serious, he couldn’t help but look up at her. Caramel eyes were blazing. She was angry with him, her lips thinning in a firm line. “What are you getting at?”

His jaw was slack as he gaped at her. When her eyes narrowed suspiciously, Topher blinked away the daze and choked a laugh. “Not just for you. I wouldn’t dump you for anything.”

“Or anyone?” she asked pointedly, her lips pursing.

Topher raised both brows incredulously. “Is that a pout?” He laughed when she glared at him and grabbed her hand. “Nadine… you’re the only family I have. Don’t say things like this. You’re breaking my heart here.”

Nadine tugged her hand from his to scoop up a spoonful of cream to her mouth. “You’ll have to soon.”

He scowled, retrieving his own spoon. “If my future wife doesn’t like the idea of having you around, then she’s not my future wife.” He paused from lifting the yogurt to his mouth at the sound of Nadine chuckling, eyes dancing with amusement. Topher rolled his eyes, feeling duped.

“You’re a good boy, Christopher.” Her lips curled in a satisfied smirk. “I raised you well.”

“You’d like to take the credit, wouldn’t you?” He licked the yogurt off the spoon.

“Speaking of future wives… how is your Samina?” Nadine’s probing gaze remained steady on his face.

Topher fought back a smile. “She’s fine. Hopefully you guys will get to see each other before we leave.”

At his waning smile, Nadine tilted her head. “You’ll miss her when we leave?”

He lowered his gaze. “We’ll keep in touch…” Hopefully. His stomach flipped over.

“You’re in love with her, aren’t you?”

The amazement in Nadine’s voice drew his eyes back to her face. He frowned. “Is that what it is?” Once, love had sounded so foreign to his ears.

Nadine pinned him with her probing stare. “Shouldn’t you know?”

Topher dropped his gaze and swirled his spoon in the melted yogurt. “I’m not sure if it’s that. I just think she’s…”

“Christopher,” Nadine interjected softly. “That you can’t come up with a clever comeback means you probably are.”

He blinked at her. “Really?”

She slow-blinked and flashed him a smile he returned. Nadine laughed hoarsely. “I don’t know what to do with you…” she returned to her yogurt while it was still worth eating.

Topher merely stared at her bowed head, letting her words sink in.

<<Chapter 23 || Chapter 25>>