southerncharms4

Jeremiah wiped the sweat from his brow. His eyes swept over Sheena’s rosebushes and the weeds that threatened their survival. He stifled a groan. The sun beat relentlessly, and with sweat dripping between his shoulders, he settled back on his haunches to tug at yet another stubborn weed

“I’ll do it later,” Ezekiel spoke over him. “It’s too hot out.”

He shook his head, ripping the weed from the soil. “We said that last weekend and look, the weeds are growing too fast.” He turned his head, squinting against the sun at his son’s silhouette. “Get me some water, would you?”

Ezekiel hesitated. “Dad…”

Jeremiah clucked his tongue, the sun’s heat inciting impatience. “Don’t give your old man a hard time too. Go.” He sighed as his son trudged up the sidewalk and into the house. Then he leaned back and released a measured breath.

Even with the sun beating hard on him, this distraction was much needed. Sheena’s disparaging silence was getting too hard to bear.

Coward. You’re nothing but a lily-livered coward.

His fingers squeezed the weed in his hand, his jaw tightening as Gabriel’s words echoed in his head, mocking. It’d taken every ounce of self-control not to turn back and slug Gabriel in the jaw. The man had gotten away with his arrogance for way too long and Jeremiah was tired of it.

A car door slammed behind him. Jeremiah glanced over his shoulder and squinted at the truck parked on the side of the road. His shoulders stiffened as Gabriel crossed the street toward him. Every muscle in his body tensed up as the man’s long-legged pace ate the distance. He dropped the weed to the ground and stood to face Gabriel.

The hardened look said he meant business, a storm raging in his eyes.

Jeremiah smirked wryly. “What, no call—” Gabriel’s fist slammed into his jaw, sending him staggering back into Sheena’s rose bushes. Stars danced between his eyes as he righted himself. Instead of the man’s dark scowl, he saw red. And lunged for Gabriel’s throat.

They both fell back on the grass.

The time was 1971 again. The two young men stumbled onto the dewy grass. His left cheek on fire, Jeremiah gripped the grass to stand. Gabriel grabbed him by his collar, jostling him. He blinked away the stars dancing around his head. Gabriel drew back his elbow and slammed his fist into Jeremiah’s face. Odetta screamed as all turned black.

Jeremiah staggered to his feet just as Gabriel started to stand. “Not this time,” he growled, kicking his friend on his back. Gabriel stumbled to his knees. Jeremiah grabbed him by the collar, jerking him upright.

Glaring at the unfocused look on Gabriel’s face, his jaw tightened. His fingers curled in a fist and he drew back his elbow.

Deidre thumbed through a family album, a wistful smile playing at her lips.  Pausing at a picture of Gabriel’s goofy smile, his daughters draped over his arms, she giggled softly. Her fingers traced the lines of her husband’s warm smile and hers waned. Nowadays, he brooded, that smile she fell in love with, missing.

Blowing out a breath, she flipped the page. Her heart skipped a beat.

Thirteen-year-old Samina smiled back at her. Eyes danced with mischief as if she was struggling not to laugh. Deidre’s smile faded completely.

She leaned into the sofa and drew the album closer, gazing at her daughter’s vibrant eyes. Back then, Samina had just announced her dream of becoming a world-renown artist.

Pangs of shame made her wince as Sheena’s words mocked the formative years she’d spent raising her children. Her brow furrowed at the silence; every member of the family notably missing. Was she really that manipulative?

The sound of metal rustling across the hall drew her attention to the front door. Her heart fluttered as the door swung open.

Samina stepped inside, lugging a crate. Gabriel wasn’t beside her.

Deidre rose quickly and hurried to meet her daughter at the door.  “Sammie?” She noticed a frown marking her daughter’s pretty face and wanted to smooth it away. Her fingers twitched at her side. “Is… everything okay?”

Samina halted and blinked in surprise. “Mom?” The tension eased off her face and one corner of her lips twitched in a half smile. “How was your outing with Aunty Sheena?”

Deidre shrugged, eyes sweeping over her daughter’s face. Even though she’d seen her earlier that day, the urge to pull Samina into her arms overwhelmed her. “Too short, but fun.” She smiled, and reached for her daughter.

Samina laughed gently and patted Deidre’s back before drawing back. “Are you okay?”

“Uh-hmm.” Her gaze flitted over Samina’s face. “Where’s your dad?” She arched a brow when Samina’s smile faded and something flashed in her eye. “What?”

“Nothing.” Samina heaved a sigh. “I didn’t ask where he was going… Anyway, I better get going.” She stepped away, propping the crate against the wall.

“Wait!” Deidre bit her bottom lip when Samina eyed her curiously. “Can’t you stay for a bit? It’s been a while since we talked…” She still felt the pangs of hurt when Samina chose to go out with her father, even though both hadn’t seen her since her mysterious vacation. She started to ask Samina about it. Calm down, Dee… Don’t run off your children.

Samina kicked a shoulder, her smile feeble. “I guess so.”

The hesitance in her reply broke Deidre’s heart. Tamping a sigh, she tucked an arm under Samina’s and led her back to the couch. “I admit I’m a little jealous that you spend more time with your father than with me.”

Her daughter’s silence told her everything she hoped wouldn’t be.

Swallowing another sigh, Deidre offered Samina a smile. “Tea? I bought some yesterday.” Afraid that Samina would change her mind, Deidre spun on her heel and hurried to the kitchen. “Come choose one while I heat the water.”

Feeble footfall behind her made Deidre breathe a sigh of relief. She tucked in a smile, grabbed the kettle and moved around the counter to the sink.

“The microwave is better,” Samina mumbled, pulling open the cabinet.

Better as in faster. Piqued by her daughter’s attempt to hurry their time together, Deidre rolled her eyes and replaced the kettle. “I suppose…” She shifted aside as Samina came to stand by the sink, filling the mugs with water. Her eyes swept over Samina’s tense shoulders, and down her thin arms. “How’s… work? They’re treating you well?”

Samina lifted her face, a question in her furrowed brow.

Deidre offered her a blank stare.

“Everyone’s nice.” One corner of her lips twitched upwards and she lowered her gaze, her smile widening. “I like it.”

The shy warmth in Samina’s smile reminded her of the picture she’d gazed upon. This was Samina happy, content, and wistful. In a non-salary job, her daughter had found contentment. Deidre managed a smile and turned to the drawer, fishing out the bag of exotic tea. “Which one do you want? I’ve got jasmine, oolong and white.”

“Any is fine, Mama.” Samina skirted around her to the microwave.

Mama. Her heart fluttered at the word. Deidre smiled, grabbing a few packets of tea. “Let’s do a mix. Be a bit adventurous.” She hurried to Samina’s side, humming as she sniffed the teabags, her smile brightening. “Hmm, smells wonderful.”

“Mom, are you okay?”

Deidre snorted a laugh. “What, your mom can’t have a little fun?” She looked up.

Samina gauged her mother’s exuberance with a dubious stare.

Her smile sagged a little. Had her meddling really provoked her family to distance themselves from her? The truth in Samina’s eyes made it hard to swallow. Deidre grimaced. “You know that I love you, right?” Her voice shook. “You know I’m not trying to make you miserable, right? That I care for you very much?”

The doubt eased off Samina’s face and she smiled gently. “I know, Mom.” Her gaze sweeping over Deidre, warmed her from the inside out. “I know you mean well.”

Overwhelmed with relief, Deidre grabbed her daughter’s shoulders and pulled her closer. “I love you.”

Samina’s gentle laugh rocked Deidre, more so when her arms wrapped around her. “I love you too, Mama.”

Mama. Her heart soared. Deidre sighed and drew back to gaze at Samina’s lovely features. This beautiful, kind and talented girl was hers. Sheena was right. It was high time she stopped meddling and let Samina know she was proud to be her mother. “Sammie, I—”

The microwave beeped, cutting off her words.

Deidre sighed.

Samina smiled warmly and disengaged from her arms to retrieve the mugs.

She studied Samina’s slender form, brows drawing a frown at her too-thin arms and nonexistent waist. “Don’t people eat like gluttons on vacation? You’re looking too thin for my liking.”

Samina stiffened visibly, her hands stilled over the cup.

Deidre frowned, tugging Samina’s hands from the steam. “Be careful.” Tearing open the teabags, she dunked two bags in each cup and extended one to Samina. “How’s Topher?”

When Samina didn’t answer, Deidre squinted at her. “I thought you two were getting along. What happened?”

Samina blew the steam off the rim of her mug. “I don’t know…”

“I don’t understand.”

Her lips pursed slightly, eyes still downcast. “It’s nothing, Mom. Don’t worry.”

Mom? Deidre cocked her head. Lifting the cup to her lips, she watched Samina trudge to the counter stool. Something was wrong and she would’ve prodded if not for the sake of a delicate harmony they’d created after the embrace.

In silence, they sipped their tea, occupied with their own troubled thoughts. Samina kept her gaze downcast, busying herself stirring the tea bag. Deidre kept her eyes on Samina, questions forming in her head.

Then the house phone rang and both women breathed a sigh of relief. Deidre lowered her cup and picked the phone on its third ring. Her brow furrowed at the sound of sirens in the background. “Hello?”

“Deidre!” Sheena’s panicked voice broke through the din. “Come over now!”

A cold frisson shot through Deidre’s legs and she gripped the countertop with her free hand. Even before Sheena divulged the reason for her alarm, she knew. Gabriel. Her teeth clenched. “What’s going on?”

Samina looked up, watching as the frantic voice on the other end rattled a news that darkened her mother’s brow.

Deidre’s flashing eyes snapped to hers. “Okay, I’m on my way.” She slammed the phone on its cradle, her glare demanding an explanation. “What did your dad say before leaving?”

Words failed her. Anxiety prickled the back of her neck, recalling the stormy haze in her father’s eyes. The sharp tone when he barked at her, the tension stiffening his shoulders. Her heart skipped a beat. He’d barely uttered goodbye before reversing from the driveway, the truck engine roaring as it sped down the street. As Deidre grabbed the car keys and hurried to the door, panic seized her. “What’s going on?”

Deidre jerked open the door, slinging her purse over her shoulder. “Your father and Uncle Jeremiah are fighting each other at Sheena’s place. The cops are there.”

Samina shot to her feet. “What?!”

Heart in her throat, Samina peered out the window as they turned onto the street where Ezekiel’s childhood home stood. Her jaw dropped at the cars jam-packed, blocking the street. People walked down the sidewalk, toward the Dames’ residence.

Parking on the side of the street, Deidre snapped off her seatbelt and shoved the door open. “I can’t believe he would do this in front of all these people…”

Samina stepped out and peered over the cars, spotting the flashing lights of police cars. She shook her head.

“Unbelievable!” Deidre slammed the door and started for the house. Samina hurried to her side. Her heart beat a violent tattoo as they pushed through the crowd of onlookers, until they stood on the mowed grass.  She immediately spotted Aunty Sheena, Uncle Jeremiah and her father Gabriel standing before a burly uniformed officer.

Ezekiel stood behind them with arms folded across his chest.

Both her father and Uncle Jeremiah stood as far away from each other as they could but close enough to hear the officer’s stern lecture. Their faces, including Sheena’s and Ezekiel’s were like stone as they listened.

Then Gabriel’s concentrated stare shifted, stiffening as he spotted his wife and daughter. Instantly, his broad shoulders stiffened and he averted his gaze.

“Shameless man,” Deidre bit out as she stepped forward.

Samina seized her arm, holding her back. She shook her head when Deidre scowled in protest. “Let’s just wait here.”

“What a shame,” an onlooker mumbled in disgust. “Two grown men fighting like hoodlums in a suburb.”

The small crowd muttered their agreement. Deidre’s arm tensed under Samina’s hand. Samina held on tighter, her face on fire.

Both men didn’t look contrite, still buzzed with whatever anger caused them to throw fists at each other. A tremor shot through Samina. How could they fight? Why did they fight?

“What d’you think they’re fighting about?” Another asked, voice colored with derision. “A woman?”

Samina scowled and she had to grip her mother’s arm to keep her from whirling about to unleash her wrath. Though she was tempted to let her go and see what would happen.

Then the officer stepped away, speaking in low tones into his phone. Deidre wrenched her arm from Samina’s grip and strode quickly to them. Gabriel took a step back but Deidre ate up the distance, wagging her finger. “You…”

As they drew closer, Samina could see the streak of blood from her father’s split lip. Uncle Jeremiah didn’t look any better, his nose bloodied. Then her gaze collided with Ezekiel’s worried one and she quickly lowered her gaze, disturbed.

Ezekiel placed a hand on Jeremiah’s tense shoulder.  “Let’s go inside, Pops…” The older man made no fuss and let his son lead him up the sidewalk to their house.

Deidre smacked Gabriel’s shoulder. “Are you insane!?”

Samina grimaced at the vacant look on her father’s face. What was going on?

Sheena grabbed Samina’s hand. “Oh good, you’re here.”

“What happened?”

“Oh honey…” Sheena shook her head, gripping Samina’s hand. “I don’t know. It all happened so fast. One minute I’m inside with the girls, and then all of a sudden Ezekiel is shouting for his dad to get off yours. And then the police—” She pressed a hand to her temple, visibly disturbed.

“What were you thinking, Gabriel?” Deidre screamed from the sidewalk, pummeling her husband’s chest with weak blows. “What nonsense is this?”

The sirens sounded as the police car reversed out onto the street and drove away. Samina squinted at the crowd of onlookers stalling, waiting for something to watch, to criticize. Her lips pursed, her hand tightened around Sheena’s.

“Dee stop,don’t you think they’ve had enough?” Sheena protested weakly. “Where are you going?” Sheena called after her.

Deidre glanced over at Samina. “Drive your father’s truck back. His keys are in the ignition.” She scowled as Gabriel shrugged her arm off and stormed past her. “Don’t even think about–Gabriel!” she shouted, hurrying after him.

Samina pushed out a breath, growing increasingly agitated as the onlookers shook their heads, watching her parents flee the scene. She turned back to Sheena, struck by the tears glistening in her eyes.

Just then, Ezekiel came outside, his expression grave, disturbed. His eyes skimmed over the crowd still on the lawn and his lips pursed. “Show’s over!” he barked.

Muttering their disgruntlement, the crowd slowly dispersed until only Sheena and Samina stood in the driveway. Ezekiel heaved a sigh and stepped off the porch toward them. “Mom, you better get inside…”

Sheena managed a nod and patted Samina’s hand. “I’ll see you later.”

Samina bit her bottom lip, watching Sheena’s bowed shoulders as she trudged past Ezekiel to the door. Then she lifted her eyes to Ezekiel’s troubled ones. “The girls…?”Her chest tightened painfully, imagining their frightened faces.

Ezekiel shook his head. “They’re in the room.” His square jaw clenched revealed more than he said. “I’m pissed off. What’s going with the two of them?”

Samina remained silent as her father’s harsh directive to Topher came to mind. She stiffened.

Then Ezekiel’s hand rested on the back of her neck, his fingers kneading away the tension there. Samina released a sigh as he pulled her into his arms. For a moment, she rested against his warm strength, relaxing under his massaging fingers. Then her gaze fell on her father’s abandoned truck, and her lips pursed in displeasure. “You had to break them up?”

“Yeah, just before my dad slammed his fist into your dad’s face again.” He scoffed incredulously. “I didn’t even know those cats could still fight.”

She bristled inwardly, imagining the bruises that would mark her father’s light complexion tomorrow. “Who was winning?” she blurted out.

He paused. “What?”

Samina looked up to his dubious stare. “You heard me?”

The corner of his lips twitched, bemused. “Our middle-aged dads were pounding each other’s faces in and you ask who won. Sam, seriously?”

Suddenly annoyed, Samina nudged him aside and folded her arms. “I know who started it already, that’s why…”

“And still you have the mouth to ask.” Ezekiel kicked a shoulder, wry smile in place. “…Mine did.”

She scowled instantly. “Like that something to be proud of.”

His smile waned and then completely faded. His brow furrowed at the glare she hurled at him. “You started it…”

“And you finished it. Congratulations.” Samina started down the driveway toward her father’s truck.

His hand grabbed hers and pulled her flush against him. Her cheeks heated as his chin rested against her shoulder, cheek pressed against her ear. And though frustrated, Samina didn’t have the willpower to step out of his arms.

“Let’s not fight…” he pressed a placating kiss to her ear.

She frowned at the quiver shooting up her legs. “We’re not fighting.”

He tilted his head over her shoulder, catching her eyes. “We’re not?”

His warm breath kissed her skin. She drew in her bottom lip, fighting her reaction.

His gaze lowered and she held her breath. Then his mirthful gaze flickered to hers. Her face fired and she ducked from under his arms, hurrying down the driveway toward the truck.

“I’ll call you later, Sam. Be safe.”

Samina ignored him, climbing into the car. They couldn’t afford distractions. She snuck a peek at his fleeting figure as he ducked into the house. Samina heaved a sigh and started the engine of her father’s truck.

Their fathers were at odds with each other and no amount of distraction could stop the niggling feeling that she was partially responsible.

<<Chapter 39 || Chapter 41>>

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