“Staring the phone down won’t make her call you,” Nadine drawled from the sofa, tugging at Topher’s attention.

He chuckled, pocketing his phone and pushed to his feet. “You hungry?”

“We just ate,” Nadine answered dryly, watching him cross the hotel room toward the kitchenette.

“Right, well I’m hungry again.” He pulled open the fridge and stuck his head in.

Nadine smirked at the racket he made rummaging inside the fridge. “When’s she coming back?”

Topher’s hands stilled and he peered over the fridge door at her. “She didn’t say…” His thick brows were crooked with uncertainty, she wanted to grab him in a hug.

It wasn’t often he put himself out there, letting someone see his vulnerability. He really liked this girl, she could tell. “It’s killing you not to call her, isn’t it?”

He groaned and straightened, closing the fridge. “Let’s take a walk. You like those, don’t you?”

Nadine chuckled as he made his way over to the sofa. ”Actually, I’m fine here. Let’s just sit and enjoy the silence.” She smiled as he plopped beside her, his weight jostling her to his side. She sighed inwardly as he propped his head on her shoulder. “Your head is too heavy.”

Her lips twitched a smile as he lay his head on her lap, his long legs draped over the edge of the couch. If he wasn’t in an uneasy mood, she would’ve pointed out the ridiculous picture they made. Instead, she brushed the curls on his head, soft and thick strands tickling her palm.

Topher tilted his head, facing her bony knees. “I haven’t done this since I was a boy…” he mused aloud.

Her fingers paused stroking, her smile waned. She could picture the exact image of his small head resting on her lap, his silent tears wetting her knees while she stroked his head full of sun-kissed curls. He’d been so young then, so sweet, so lonely. Tears stung her eyes and she blinked them away, swallowing hard.

“I’m a big baby, huh?”

Nadine’s smile was wry. “My big baby.”

Topher didn’t respond, preoccupied with his thoughts no doubt. She quietly stroked his hair, imagining what Odetta would’ve done if she’d been here. What she would’ve said. Even after thirty-odd years of raising her sister’s son, Nadine still felt unsure that she’d done the right thing all these years by keeping the truth from Topher. Letting him believe she was the only one he had in this world.


She blinked out of her reverie and her chest tightened with remorse. “Hmm?”

“What was my father like?”

Nadine’s fingers froze, her stomach doing a somersault. She should’ve known he wouldn’t stop asking, that she couldn’t give him the runaround for too long. It’d been ten years since he last inquired about his absent father. “Why?”

Topher shifted his face to peer up at her. “I’m curious… you never answer me directly.” He smirked. “Was he that bad of a guy?”

Her chest tightened as she surveyed his chiseled features. He had Odetta’s penetrating silver gaze yet everything else about his face mirrored that of his father; from the prominent brow, the square jawline and his slightly-crooked smile. Nadine bit the inside of her cheek. “Your dad… really loved your mom.”

Topher’s brows lifted. “Really?”

The curious glint in his gray-green eyes twisted the knife in her heart. Her crimes against him were too great to number. Nadine dipped her chin in silent remorse. “So much so, he fought like a madman for her. He was crazy about her.”

His lips twitched wryly. “But he didn’t stay.”

“He couldn’t…” Nadine could see every memory of her distraught and desolate very-pregnant sister in those moments, and remembered feeling only frustration. She drew in a breath, a cough tickling her throat. She scowled impatiently, holding a hand to her mouth.

Topher sat up, hovering at her shoulder as her body wracked with the violent cough. He placed a soothing hand on her back, rubbing it gently. “It’s okay, Nadine… Don’t say anymore. I understand now.” He stood.

The tickling cough subsided for a brief moment and Nadine watched him cross the room to retrieve her inhaler. All these years, she’d believed she protected him from the pain her sister endured, but he in turn suffered in silence so she wouldn’t have to visit painful memories.

Her vision blurred his lonely shoulders and Nadine closed her eyes. I’m sorry, Topher… I’m so sorry.

Ezekiel loved her and wanted to date her.

Samina shook her head incredulously, sorting the keys on her keychain as she stood on the front step of her condo.

It seemed surreal, as though she’d woken from one of her crazy teenage dreams, except she’d pinched her thighs until they were sore. His words were not a dream and his warm gaze was very much real. So was his touch. Her cheeks tingled from the fleeting caress of his lips when he whispered his goodbye, promising to wait for her response. His gentle smile vowed he could wait for a long time if he had to.

Biting back a giggle, Samina inserted the key into the door and stepped inside the quiet house.

Except it wasn’t completely empty.  The television was on, muted, and Obadiah sprawled on the sofa, in his pajamas. Brow furrowed, she closed the door and watched Obadiah sit up and turn toward the door.

Samina blinked. “What are you doing here?”

“Hey Sam,” Obadiah drawled casually, lifting a hand in greeting.

A glowering Karen strode out of the kitchen, holding a bowl of freshly-popped popcorn. “Dad sent him over here as punishment, although I’m not sure who’s been punished here, him or us.” She kicked his leg from barricading her path. “Apparently he’s done a fool thing and Dad doesn’t want him in the house right now.”

Concern wrinkled her brow, and placing her bags by the door, she moved into the living room. “What did he do?”

“Both aren’t talking.” Karen hissed in annoyance as Obadiah grabbed a handful of her popcorn. “But whatever it is, this dummy will be here until he apologizes to Dad.” She nudged the hand of popcorn he held to his mouth, grinning deviously as Obadiah’s hand smacked his face, sending the popcorn flying.

Obadiah kicked at Karen’s legs, growling as she lunged for his face.

Samina scowled, all thoughts of Ezekiel’s proposal fading. She rushed in to separate them before they started a full-out brawl.

Once a scowling Karen and brooding Obadiah sat on different chairs, Samina leaned back in the seat and heaved a sigh. She turned to face Obadiah, face stern. “Now, what happened?”

He stiffened, lowering his gaze.

Karen snorted in disgust. “Probably making trouble with some gir—”

“Shut up!” Obadiah snapped his head up and started to stand. Karen bunched her fists and held them up.

“Both of you shut up.” Samina squinted at Obadiah. “Sit down. Tell me what happened?” Her voice and her stern expression brooked no argument.

Obadiah swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing awkwardly. “Nothing.”

Samina scowled, patience waning fast. “If you don’t talk, I’ll kick you out too.”

Both Karen and Obadiah stared at her agape and Samina nodded, chin slanted in a stubborn angle. “Don’t forget whose child I am.”

Stunned, Karen and Obadiah exchanged a wary glance.

Samina arched a brow. “Well?”

“I…” he choked out as if no air could pass his windpipe.

Her gaze swept over Obadiah’s contorted features that struggled to hide pain for his father’s discipline under a shield of contemptuous anger. “What happened?”

He lowered his gaze to the floor. “Macey and I were working on a project…”

Karen snorted derisively but drew in her mouth when both Samina and Obadiah glared at her. She cleared her throat and shifted her gaze to the television.

“We…” He shifted uncomfortably in his seat before continuing. “We were in the library for a long time. We barely noticed anything until Macey got hungry and wanted to leave.” He hesitated, a line drawn between his brows.

“Go on,” Samina urged gently.

Obadiah cleared his throat. “Things got pretty serious when we stopped by the park on the way to her house. I-I’ve been trying to ask her out for some time now, but she always gave me the runaround.” He lifted his shoulders. “But then she started asking if we could spend time together. I didn’t say no.”

This time, Karen and Samina exchanged a glance, concern etched on their brows. Whatever provoked their easy-going, laid-back father to make such a rash decision must have been quite traumatic.

“I-I didn’t think things would get out of hand that quickly.” He licked his lips, torment in his eyes. “One minute, we were talking and the next we were in the backseat…”

Samina closed her eyes. Karen sat up in her chair. “Are you serious?” Karen’s voice was so low and without intonation, it sent chills down Samina’s stiff spine.

“N-nothing happened!” Obadiah’s eyes flew to Samina’s face, his brows slanted as he silently beseeched his sisters to believe him. “We were just messing around but Dad didn’t let me explain. He just dragged me out of the car and asked Macey to find her way home. He didn’t let me say anything.”

Their mouths parted in surprise, eyes wide in disbelief. This from their kind-hearted, patient and loving father?

Samina could only imagine the pain their father felt witnessing his son in such a compromising position. But instead of feeling sorry for both her father and brother, relief sagged her shoulders.

Karen shook her head. “Honestly Obad. Why do something like this? And in Dad’s car? Are you out of your mind or just plain dumb?”

“It’s my car,” Obadiah squeaked out.

“Like you’ll be allowed to drive anywhere after this stunt you pulled.” Karen folded her arms. “he probably confiscated the car for good. What a dunce.”

“That’s enough, Karen.” Samina sighed as both her siblings turned to gape at her. “Obad knows he was wrong. Why point out the obvious and make it worse?” She turned back to Obadiah, offering him the warmest smile she could fathom. “I need my room back so you’ll have to sleep on the couch. I’ll get you a blanket.”

Obadiah only stared at her, his lips parted.

Samina turned to Karen’s dubious stare. “Don’t be quick to judge, Karen. We’ve all disappointed Mom and Dad before. This isn’t the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last.” She faced her brother once more. “You’ll draft a sincere apology to Mom and Dad… and to Macey.”

His brow furrowed. “Macey?”

“Yes, Macey.” She slanted a brow, daring him to challenge her. “You essentially took advantage of her trust by compromising her in that way. If something like that happened to us, would you take it sitting down?”

Obadiah dropped his head, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yeah, you’re right…”

Samina folded her arms. “And you know why you have to apologize to the parents?”

He swallowed hard but jerked a shaky nod.

“Good.” She heaved a sigh and pushed to her feet. “We’re going to figure this out.” She cut Karen’s protests with a severe look. “All of us will figure out the best thing to do. For now, I’m going to bed.”

“Aren’t you gonna tell us where you went?” Karen frowned as Samina walked around the chair toward her bedroom. “Mom and Dad have been calling here every day since you left. Don’t you owe us an explanation?”

“Later,” Samina mumbled. Then she walked around the chair and started for her bedroom. “Obad, come get the blanket. I’m too tired to bring it out to you.”

Karen scoffed incredulously. “Unbelievable. I’m not covering for you anymore!”

When Samina turned with a folded blanket, she stiffened under Obadiah’s scrutinizing stare. “What?”

Obadiah shook his head, accepting the blanket with a smile. His probing eyes swept over her face. “Something’s different about you.”

Samina rolled her eyes. “Yeah well don’t get used to it. Bye.”

Obadiah flashed her a grin as he backtracked to the door. “Sleep well. And welcome back,”

With a sigh, she moved to close the door when he turned to face her. She raised both brows. “What?”

“Thanks, Sammie.”

Samina shrugged with a smile. “Don’t let it happen again.”

His face straightened, now solemn. “I won’t.”

As Obadiah walked back to the living room, Samina closed the door and leaned against it. She could hear him answer Karen’s barb with one of his own. Relief draped over her shoulders and she closed her eyes, breathing a sigh.

For now, Obadiah’s dramatic discovery would be the topic of the week. Especially if her parents disagreed on Obadiah’s punishment. Which meant no one would care much about her absence.

Her mother’s scowling face and the disappointment wrinkling her father’s brow told her otherwise.

“Wishful thinking…” Samina mumbled, trudging to her bed. Within minutes, she was curled under the covers, sleeping away her worries for now.

<<Chapter 31 || Chapter 33>>