bouquet

Samina eyed Karen warily as she adjusted the flower brooch over her shoulder. She noted the tightness around her sister’s mouth and the concentrated wrinkle in her brow.

Since that night, Karen hadn’t mentioned the surgery and even Obadiah steered clear from the topic. And although she’d asked for space, she didn’t like the pointed silence or evasion.

At least one of them could’ve asked what would happen next, if the surgery had cured her completely, because she too wondered at every dose of hormone pills. Waiting for the report from her post-op check-in wasn’t the easiest thing to do.

She fidgeted and Karen hissed, causing her to stiffen.

“This brooch is tricky so if you don’t want either of us pricked, stand still.”

Samina nodded and snuck a peek at Karen’s face. “You’re… still mad?”

Karen rolled her eyes and sighed. “What do you think?” She frowned, tugging on the strap of Samina’s gown. “Honestly, what was Ada thinking? Not only is the color of this dress blindly atrocious, it doesn’t fit her theme.”

The corner of Samina’s lips twitched a smile. “Don’t let her hear that.”

Karen grunted, adjusting the brooch pin to secure the strap. Then her brown eyes slanted over Samina’s face. “How is it?”

Samina kicked her other shoulder. “It’ll do.”

“No. I mean…” She pointed her chin at Samina’s face. “Your nasal septum okay?”

Samina blinked. “My what?”

Karen frowned. “I heard they make an incision there… for the, y’know.” She lowered her gaze to the brooch pin. “Did it… hurt?”

Regret choked out her words. She’d been incredibly wrong to keep this from her family. “I…” she croaked out.

Grabbing her shoulders, Karen scowled. “Stop crying. You’ll ruin your makeup.” She thumbed a tear from Samina’s cheeks.

“I’m sorry…” Samina sniffed back the tears.

“Sorry for what?” She dabbed at Samina’s eyes, frown still present on her brow. “Keeping your surgery a secret or ruining the makeup?”

“Both.” Samina choked a soft laugh.

Karen offered her a half-smile, eyes gliding over her face. “I’m mad that you hid away as if you don’t have a family, Sam. I won’t lie and say I’m not.” She squeezed Samina’s shoulder. “But I’m glad that you’re okay.”

Samina nodded, pulling Karen into an embrace. She closed her eyes, resting her chin against Karen’s shoulder. “Thank you…”

Karen patted her back gruffly, before pulling back. “You sure you don’t want to take someone else to the wedding?”

She knew exactly who she referred to, another topic they both avoided. Everything was still so new and confusing with Ezekiel. Bringing him to the wedding seemed unusual. Strange.

“Not that I mind coming since Jaxson has some fine friends.” Karen’s bright smile pulled Samina out of her reverie.

“Well then…” Samina smiled in return. “That settles it.”

Karen’s smile then waned. “Besides, it’s best that I come instead of Ezekiel… Y’know, for Topher’s sake.”

Samina’s smile dropped as did her heart, plummeting to her stomach. Topher. Without her permission, his detached expression and cold words stayed with her ever since that strange night, nagging her every time she responded to Ezekiel’s texts and spoke to him over the phone.

Due to her maid-of-honor duties occupying all her free time, she didn’t get a chance to see Ezekiel… or Topher. The best man who’d assigned himself as her partner-in-crime was notably absent. Jaxson had mentioned he was busy with Nadine, but Samina knew better. He was avoiding her.

A tug at her frilly sleeve pulled Samina’s attention back to the frown on Karen’s face. Her chest tightened, fearing that she’d offended her sister again.

“Let’s go before Ada throws a fit.” She pulled Samina to the door, grabbing both their purses and the car keys.

Surprisingly, Samina breathed a sigh of relief as the bouquet sailed over her head, the crowd erupting in cheers as Myrtle, Ada’s older cousin, caught the bouquet. She caught Karen’s eyes across the room and grinned.

Karen rolled her eyes but smiled anyway.

Though she wanted to be married, for some reason, catching the bouquet in Topher’s presence seemed almost disrespectful. Inadvertently, she scanned the room and immediately caught Topher’s hooded gaze focused on her.

Her face warmed at his open perusal and she quickly looked away, adjusting her sleeve.

“I aimed too high,” Ada bemoaned, draping a bare arm over Samina’s shoulders. “But I’m so glad Myrtle caught it or I’ll never hear the end of that.” She wriggled her brows, face lit with joy and excitement.

A surge of jealously filled Samina’s lungs, arresting her rebuttal. She shook it off quickly and offered Ada the brightest smile she could. This was her best friend’s day and she was going to be happy for her.

Then the song came on. The crowd cheered in recognition at the melody and Ada grabbed Samina’s hand, tugging her closer to the dance floor. “Find your partner, Sam.” She winked audaciously and Samina wished she’d been honest with Ada about Topher.

Jaxson sauntered over just as the singer’s voice crooned out the first word. Grabbing Ada by the waist, he pulled her close just as they’d rehearsed.

Samina’s pulse jumped at the second beat, their cue was next. As Jaxson and Ada circled the room, the crowd roared in cheer and Samina’s cheeks warmed in anticipation for Topher to reach for her.

Just then, a hand slid around her waist and Samina’s heart skipped several beats as Topher pulled her into his arms. She stumbled against him and glanced up quickly at his chiseled features. One corner of his mouth was slanted in a smile.

Heat surged through her veins and she lowered her gaze. The music changed and Topher released her to move to Jaxson’s side, as they rehearsed.

“This is how we do it!” The crowd sang along, feeling the energy of the song.

Though her feet moved with the rhythm and she danced in step with Ada beside her, Samina could only see Topher, his bright smile and svelte form moving as if he had no cares in the world.

Ada hooked an arm under Samina’s, grinning at her. “Smile, girl!”

Samina could only muster a wobbly one, tears stinging the back of her eyes. Was he that unaffected by her? Or was he merely deflecting?

The song changed yet again, a slow melody. Ada released her arm and moved to the center, where Jaxson waited for her.

Samina held her breath, knowing what was next.

“Cos I’m your ladyyyy…” The women shout-sang along with Celine Dion.

Topher shifted his gaze to Samina, his smile waning.

And you are my man…”

Samina swallowed hard and stepped forward, meeting him in the middle of the dance floor. Her heart skipped a beat as he pulled her close. She almost sighed in the strength of his arms.

Then he sighed, grabbing Samina’s attention to his face. He wore a rueful expression that made her start, stepping on his foot.

“Sorry…” they both said together.

She frowned, fingers curling over his shoulder. “Huh?”

His lips curled in a half smile. “I’m sorry.”

Her gaze met his, seeing regret there.

“I didn’t take your news as well as I should have,” Topher continued, his deep timbre and the unexpected apology rocking her off-kilter. “Friends should celebrate each other’s good news and I didn’t. I’m sorry for my appalling behavior.”

Samina couldn’t swallow the hardened lump in her throat.

He tilted his head slightly, beseeching her with his striking gaze. “Forgive me?”

The tears at the back of her eyes tingled at the gentle cadence of his baritone. Samina jerked a nod. “I’m sorry too…”

Topher smirked. “For leading me on?”

Her eyes widened.

Topher laughed softly. “I’m kidding.” His smile remained, gentle, forgiving, warm.

Samina relaxed in his arms for the remainder of the dance.

Karen met her afterwards with a glass of water and a bemused expression. “How curious…”

Samina paused from taking a swallow of the refreshing liquid, parched. “Hmm?”

“For a moment there, one could forget you’d broken his heart.” Karen shook her head. “He must really like you, Sammie…”

Cheeks aflame, Samina gulped down the drink, eyes moving to where Topher congratulated his best friend with a one-arm hug and a pat on the back.

“Well since he’s available, you don’t mind if I dance with him?” Karen wriggled her brows and sauntered across the dance floor toward Topher.

Watching Karen poke Topher’s shoulder and he turn to greet her, Samina felt her stomach clench in protest. She swallowed the water, troubled to silence.

How curious indeed.

Jeremiah heard him before he saw him. His shoulders tensed and he squinted into the distance, marking the spot.

“Funny seeing you here…” Gabriel muttered, coming to stand to his right.

He swung the club, watching the golf ball sail and hit the net kilometers away before landing on the green. Then he glanced over his shoulder.

Gabriel stood with his arms folded, no golf bag in sight. In fact, his friend wore jeans and a dress-shirt, hardly golf-appropriate. His face was hard as stone, all business like. “Let’s talk.”

Jeremiah smirked dryly, lowering his club. “You’re done avoiding me?”

Gabriel narrowed his eyes at him. “Ezekiel turns 33 next month, right?”

He raised a brow, tugging off his gloves. “Since when do you care about that stuff?”

“Answer the question, Jeremiah.”

He scowled, growing increasingly tired of Gabriel’s shifty moods. “Yes, so what? Did you come here to start a fight? I rather your silence that this.” He tossed the gloves on top his golf bag and bent over to unlace his shoes.

Gabriel turned to face him. “That day… in your car.”

Jeremiah’s fingers paused. Cold frisson shot down his spine.

“Why?”

He looked up, stunned to silence at the pain etched in Gabriel’s weathered face. It was as if they were back in college, standing on that grass still wet with dew.

“Why was Odessa in your car?”

Jeremiah scowled darkly, connecting the dots. “You’re crazy.” He left his shoes on and grabbed his bag. Anger surged through him as Gabriel blocked his path. “Move.”

“You didn’t tell me what happened.”

He gritted his teeth, fingers squeezing the bag. “Move!”

Gabriel barely flinched at Jeremiah’s bark. “I didn’t give you a chance to explain yourself but I want to hear it now.”

Jeremiah scoffed. “After thirty-four years, you want to hear my side now?”

Gabriel’s jaw tightened, his patience waning also. “You had thirty-four years to tell me the truth and you didn’t. Sounds like a guilty man, if I ever heard one.”

Knowing the other golfers were now staring their way, Jeremiah checked his anger and shook his head. “Forget it, Gabe. I know you’ll always believe what you want to. Move out of my way before I make you move.”

For a second, Jeremiah wasn’t sure Gabriel would move. Resentment practically oozed out of the man’s core, heat blazing in his eyes. This man was sporting for a fight and if he gave Gabriel one reason, another searing punch would land on his jaw. With the tension between him and Sheena these days, he couldn’t afford to fight with Gabriel… even if he wanted to.

Then Gabriel stepped aside.

Air gushed out of Jeremiah’s lungs and his shoulders relaxed. He pushed past Gabriel, eying the glowing exit sign a few feet away.

“Keep running like you always do,” Gabriel’s taunting voice called in the silence. “Just like you were in high school, you’ll always be a coward.”

Jeremiah’s footsteps halted.

<<Chapter 36 || Chapter 38>>

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