sunset

“Ow!” Ezekiel grimaced, looking down at a pair of big brown eyes staring at him. Beulah had his mouth pressed between her chubby fingers, pulling them to a painful stretch. “Bumblebee, that hurts.”

Beulah giggled and released his mouth. She settled on his lap and curled against his chest. Laide sat on his other side, face behind a comic book, ignoring everyone.

From her side of the couch, Sheena clucked disapprovingly. “Serves you right.”

Rubbing his sore lips, Ezekiel frowned. “That’s not very nice.”

“What’s not nice is ignoring your mother and smiling a goof while doing it.” She rolled a pair of pink frilly socks, depositing it into a laundry basket at her feet. “Honestly, Zeke, what’s going on? You’ve been distracted all week. Are you dating perhaps?”

Ezekiel’s eyes widened at the suspicious look on Sheena’s face.

“What’s dating?” Beulah peered up at her father.

Laide lowered the book, eyes on Ezekiel.

“Uh…” Ezekiel cleared his throat and glanced around the room. “Where’s Dad?”

Sheena arched a brow and then her expression darkened. “Out… Stop deflecting. Are you dating?”

Ezekiel frowned in concern. His father was barely at home these days. “Shouldn’t you be with him? He’s probably still grieving over Aunt Neve.”

Sheena rolled her eyes. “Zeke, your father is fine. Are you dating?”

“Papa, are you?” Laide asked.

Both Sheena and Ezekiel turned to look at her. Ezekiel’s heart skipped a beat and any fumbling attempt to deflect fell away at the wariness etched on Laide’s face.

“Is it Aunt Sammie?” Laide’s narrowed gaze swept over his face.

Beulah wriggled in his arms. “Aunty Sammie!”

Heat shot through Ezekiel, thinking back to Samina’s dazed expression when he kissed her and the soft warmth of her body against his. “Uh…”

Sheena gasped, pulling his attention to her face. Disbelief widened her eyes and parted her mouth. “Our Sammie?” She held a hand to her chest. “Really?!”

Ezekiel grimaced at the incredulity resonating. “Is it that hard to imagine?” And as Sheena moved closer and grabbed his hand, Ezekiel blinked at the tears swimming in her eyes. “Mom…”

She gripped his fingers tight. “You’re serious? You’re not pulling my leg?”

Ezekiel smiled, pleased that joy now danced in her tear-filled eyes.

Beulah giggled. “Silly Gramma.” She slid onto Sheena’s lap and wiped at her eyes. “Why are you crying? Don’t you like Aunty Sammy?”

“I do, Bumblebee… Gramma’s just happy.” Laughing softly, Sheena pulled Beulah close. Then her smile waned a little. “Does Deidre know?”

His own smile froze, imagining Samina’s mother. Then he remembered her sage words in the church parking lot, his smile returning full force. “Well, she did encourage me to pursue Sam.”

Sheena’s eyes grew wide as saucers. “She did what?!”

“What did you just say?”

Samina looked down, fingers bunching the silk material of her jacket.

Karen dropped to the couch unceremoniously. “This is a joke, right Sammie?” Disbelief clouded her eyes. “You did go on a vacation right?”

Samina could only swallow at the hardened lump in her throat. This was why she disclose details of her surgery or the tumor in the first place; they couldn’t handle bad news very well. She berated herself for leaving her phone at home, or at least for not protecting it with a password.

Groaning, Karen covered her face.

“Sam,” Obadiah finally spoke up, his hooded gaze scanning her face. “You’re… sick?”

Her heart twisted at the uncharacteristic lilt in his baritone. Samina managed a weak smile. “Not anymore,” she rushed in. “The surgery was success—”

“Surgery!” Karen snapped, eyes flashing. “You had surgery by yourself and didn’t tell anyone! How could you do…” she inhaled a harsh breath and with a groan, she covered her face.

Her lips quirked derisively. “Well, it’s not like you could’ve the surgery with me so—“

“Are you kidding me, Sam?” Obadiah scowled darkly.

Samina winced and looked away, smarting from his sharp reprimand. Her jaw tightened, fingers curled into her palms, forming fists at her side.

Even if she could’ve been more forthcoming about the surgery but what good would their panic and worries do for her? And why did it seem like they were mad about more than just her neglect of disclosure? Was it that they blamed her for having the tumor in the first place?

Choking on a sob, Samina turned and fled to her room, slamming the door behind their silence. Pressed against the door, Samina clutched her mouth to keep from crying aloud.

Instead of reveling in Ezekiel’s amorous pursuit, she felt sorry and increasing guilt over Topher’s disappointment. Instead of receiving understanding and comfort from her siblings, they harshly condemned her for keeping the surgery a secret. Instead of being content and successful at the age of 30, she was a social failure with squashed dreams and a debilitating condition that could rob her of a chance at being a mother.

Samina slid to the floor, too tired to hold herself up or hold it in. The sobs pressed against her palm, the tears wetting her hands and she screamed in her mouth. Nothing, absolutely nothing was going her way and she was tired of it. So tired.

Slumped over the marbled counter surface, Topher watched the amber-colored liquid swirl in his glass, soft jazz playing in the background. He lifted the crystal glass to his lips and threw back the liquid, grimacing as it hit the back of his throat.

A hand fell on his shoulder and he slanted his eyes to find a solemn-faced Jaxson standing at his side. Topher grunted and faced the front. “Nadine told you I was here?”

Jaxson slid into the stool beside him. “She’s worried.” He eyed Topher’s glass and waved the scrawny, blond-haired bartender over. “I’ll have what he’s having.” He pulled out his wallet and placed it on the counter.

The young bartender eyed both men warily. “Just go to a vending machine already.” He sneered in disgust but pulled out a crystal glass and a can of ginger-ale.

Spotting the three empty cans of ginger ale behind the man’s elbow, Jaxson offered him a wry smile and slung an arm around Topher’s hulking shoulder. “Can’t you see his heart’s broken? Have some pity.”

The bartender rolled his eyes but poured Jaxson a glass of the sparkling ginger ale. Jaxson raised a brow as the bartender squirted pure lemon juice inside and nodded in approval.

Topher scoffed, slugging down the rest of his drink. He gargled it deep in his throat before swallowing. Then he nudged the empty cup to the bartender. “Another.”

Jaxson shook his head but watched the bartender fill up Topher’s glass. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough? You’ll feel like crap in the morning.” He sniffed his drink and grimaced. An ulcer two nights before his wedding didn’t seem like a good idea.

“Leave me alone.” Topher rolled off Jaxson’s hand from his shoulder. “Go back to your wonderful life and let me wallow in peace,” he drawled, tossing the drink back.

Jaxson heaved a sigh and took a sip of his drink. He cringed, lowering the glass to the counter. Then he eyed his friend draped over the counter, sobering instantly. Nadine didn’t know all the details but informed him that Topher was in a foul mood after his date with Samina. With a grave tone, she cautioned him to be careful with Topher’s sensitivity, that he was very serious about Samina.

Judging from the scowl darkening Topher’s face, and having only witnessed it one other time in college, Jaxson knew the date hadn’t gone so well.

“Another.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” The bartender barked, though he sloshed the liquid into the cup.

“Hey!” Topher slanted the bartender a glowering stare. “Be careful using that name…” He gripped the cup and with his glare unwavering, he tossed the drink back.

The bartender blinked at him, his scrawny shoulders stiffened in alarm.

Jaxson couldn’t help it. He burst out laughing. If Topher didn’t look half drunk in self-pity, it would’ve been a grave matter. His friend had a quick temper; cultivated by Nadine’s upbringing but softened by his relationship with God which he defended as fiercely as he did his aging aunt.

He slapped a hand over Topher’s stiff back and gave the astonished bartender a grin. “Relax, Toph. You’re scaring people.”

Topher grunted, lowering his gaze.

The bartender snuck away and Jaxson turned to his friend. “What happened?”

“What happened?” Topher echoed, his voice void of its usual brilliance and optimism.

Jaxson sobered. It was just like in college again, watching Topher’s face darken with the news of his aunt falling sick for the first time. It’d shook Topher to the core; Nadine was the only family he had. Blessed with four annoying older sisters and doting parents, Jaxson couldn’t imagine the pain and fear that his best friend went through. From his long friendship with Topher, he knew Topher feared being alone and abandoned. Staring at the 34-year-old Topher now, Jaxson felt that same feeling as he had ten years ago.

Topher rubbed at his face, frustration emanating from him. “I don’t know what happened… All I know is I’m too late.” He laughed bitterly, the sound stealing Jaxson’s breath. “Always too late.”

<<Chapter 35 || Chapter 37>>

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