hallway

“There were twin girls… one fair and one dark,” Nadine said in a wistful tone. “Closer than two peas in a pod, playing together, growing together. We were the best of friends, Odetta and I.”

Samina glanced over Nadine’s head at Topher. He had his head bowed as if in reverence for his dead mother. Her heart ached for him. What would she do if she didn’t know her parents?

“Then there was three. A family moved to the upper level of our apartment complex.” Her lips twitched a smile. “We were in the same grade, but he was a few months older. Kind eyes, a good listener.”

Even without hearing the boy’s name, Samina knew who Nadine described.

“Jeremiah Dames,” Nadine said, her gaze softening. “We played together, growing together… He was our first friend.”

Samina’s heart skipped a beat as Topher’s brow furrowed. What was he thinking?

Nadine summoned a breath, coughing it out. “Then we went to middle school.” Her gaze flickered over Samina’s face.

Samina offered a smile albeit weak and uncertain. She held a baited breath.

“By this time,” Nadine continued. “Odetta and I and Jeremiah were closer than ever before. We didn’t mind sharing each other’s attention; he was the brother we never had.” Her lips curled in a wistful smile. “Then we became a foursome. A new kid on the block. He lived a street over but we often spent time together during school.”

Samina shifted on her feet, wondering if this was her father.

“His name… Maurice Santiago.”

Topher and Samina glanced once at each other before turning to Nadine.

“A complete opposite of Jeremiah; he was impulsive, stubborn and a force to be reckoned with…” Her smile contradicted her harsh description of this unknown man. “But fiercely protective. He took care of all the bullies that taunted any of us. He was our friend and we played together, grew together.” Her smile waned.

Samina’s heart skipped a beat.

“Then high school drew near.” Her now somber gaze skimmed over Samina’s face. “A new kid came to town. His father and mother were of a higher status than most; engineer and scientist. They were the talk of our small town for quite some time.”

Samina drew in her bottom lip, recalling her prestigious grandparents who had passed on years ago. “My dad…”

Nadine dipped her head. “Your father, Gabriel Wells….” Her brow furrowed slightly. “Odetta was obsessed with him, much to everyone’s chagrin. She suddenly lost interest with our group, wanting to spend time in Gabriel’s company.” Her voice took a disapproving tone that drew a frown on Topher’s face. “Suddenly, Jeremiah’s enduring strength and the security of Maurice’s reputation wasn’t enough… I wasn’t enough.” Her caramel eyes darkened. “By the end of high school, Gabriel and my sister became a pair. And Maurice, Jeremiah and I were…” She shrugged. “We just were.”

In silence, Samina watched Nadine’s bony fingers press the blanket bunched at her waist. Even after all these years, the older woman couldn’t forgive Gabriel for separating their close-knit group. But that couldn’t be the reason for her anger.

“I was certain all three loved Odetta equally,” Nadine mumbled. “She was comparably frailer in stature and disposition, while I was the darker, rasher twin.” She snorted derisively. “It wasn’t hard to realize that they dealt with me because of her.”

“Nadine…” Topher finally spoke out.

She brushed him off with a smirk. “Maurice became impatient, surly. Jeremiah was more subdued than normal. But funny thing was he and Gabriel became friends.” She chuckled softly. “At eighteen, I felt betrayed. All my three friends had changed once Gabriel came.”

Samina bit her bottom lip, a pang of guilt prickled by Nadine’s resentful tone.

“Odetta and I grew apart. We fought daily, we didn’t play together. She spent more time with Gabriel and Jeremiah. We argued about college plans and the future.” Her brow furrowed. “She wanted to leave Abbeville, dreamed of being something bigger than our hometown. I wanted to stay close to home. College wasn’t a priority for me then. It was everything to her. So we fought and she moved away.”

Topher blew out a breath, as if impatient to hear the truth of his birth. Samina couldn’t blame him and although her father wasn’t his, her whole body was stiff with anxiety.

“Our group was now severed with Odetta gone. Maurice moved away too, pursuing music. Jeremiah and Gabriel went to a college nearby. And I stayed home.”

Samina peeked at the tenseness in Topher’s shoulders, his hands hanging at his sides. She tamped down the urge to go to him and forced herself to listen on.

“I assumed Odetta would be happy now that she’d gone away. I wished her nothing but the best.” Nadine’s brow furrowed, her lips pursed at the painful memories. “But she was becoming restless, I could tell every time she visited home. Though she and Gabriel stayed together for more than ten years, Odetta constantly questioned her value in his life.” Her jaw tightened, her eyes hardened. “Almost as if she couldn’t keep up with him. I told her to break it off with Gabriel, anxious for her to return home.”

Topher frowned. Samina held her breath.

“She didn’t break it off with Gabriel yet, worried since he was working on his thesis. But she took a semester off and came home.  Then Maurice came back.”

Samina met the storm in Topher’s gray eyes.  Her heart thudded against her ribs.

“Everything changed.” Nadine murmured in a wistful voice. “Odetta was swept in a storm she had no idea was brewing in Maurice’s heart for years.”

Samina frowned. Topher shifted his head to look at Nadine.

With a sigh, Nadine leaned into the pillow, exhausted. “One night, she climbed in beside me, crying. Said she’d betrayed Gabriel and knew he would never forgive her.” She drew her arms around her. “Said she was in love and didn’t know how to tell Gabriel, how to make things right from that moment forward.”

Her heart skipped a beat. Maurice was Topher’s father?

Nadine shrugged. “I knew she always cared for Maurice. Honestly, if he’d been half as ambitious as Gabriel and as level-headed as Jeremiah, she would’ve ended up with him from the beginning.”

Samina held her breath.

“I asked what she’d done and she said that they’d eloped.”

Samina inhaled sharply. Topher’s jaw tightened, eyes glistening with tears.

Nadine silently pointed to the Bible on the bedside table next to Samina.

Passing it over, Samina watched as Nadine pulled out a faded photograph from the bind. Topher shifted closer, eager to see his father now.

Staring at the faded photograph, she immediately recognized younger versions of her father and Uncle Jeremiah. She saw the two women, the fairer twin of Nadine flanked between Jeremiah and Gabriel. Then, off to the corner, stood a somber-faced young man with hooded eyes staring the photographer.  His facial features were a muted version of Topher’s but the features were almost identical.

“This, my dear Christopher…” Nadine’s bony finger caressed the young man’s face. “This is Maurice Santiago. Your father.”

He heaved a deep sigh. “Wow.”

Samina’s eyes welled up with fresh tears and she finally lifted her gaze to Topher. The way he hunched over the bed, gazing at the picture hinted the turmoil inside of him. Again, she squelched the need to wrap her arms around him.

Nadine sighed and turned to Samina. “The reason I can’t forgive your father is not because he took my sister away from me, but because he didn’t give her a chance to explain… Didn’t give her the benefit of being herself.”

Samina nodded, her heart in her throat.

“No matter.” Nadine shrugged, extending the photograph to Topher. “Your father and I will talk later. Right now, you and Christopher need to talk.”

Topher stiffened visibly and Samina bit her bottom lip.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Nadine scoffed. “Enough with the Romeo-Juliet drama. Go off with you two, I’m sleepy.”

At first, Topher could only stare at the photography while Samina waited on him. He seemed content to stay by Nadine’s side and would have if Nadine didn’t threaten to kick him out for good. It was a weak directive but Topher finally dragged his feet to the door. Samina followed and came to stand outside the room, facing a blank-faced Topher.

He heaved another sigh and looked down at the picture once more.

Samina frowned. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”

Topher didn’t lift his head. “There’s nothing to say.”

Samina squinted. “After all Nadine said, you have nothing to say?”

He sighed and finally lifted his gaze to hers. “This isn’t a good time. Let’s talk later. I have questions to ask Nadine.” He turned to go.

She grabbed his sleeve to stop him, bristling at his dismissal. “Not until we talk.”

Topher stared down at her hand on his arm.

Face on fire, Samina dropped her hand as if his arm was on fire.

A flicker of pain crossed his face before cloaked behind the blank stare. “What is it, Samina? What do you want?”

She swallowed hard, mustering up courage that was already wilting. “Do…” she licked her dry lips. “Do you like me?”

His expression darkened, his lips tightened. “Samina…”

“Do you?”

He squinted at her. “Should you be asking me this?”

“Just answer me.” Samina felt her pulse jump in her throat.

Topher averted his gaze. “What does it matter if I do? You’re dating someone.” He turned back to her, his gray eyes now dark, accusing. “I’m not like my father and you’re not like my mother.”

Samina reared back, his cold words slapping her in the face.

“Sorry I can’t escort you outside,” he said, stare detached, voice without pitch. “Goodbye, Samina.” Then he turned away and walked back into the room, shutting the door behind him.

Reeling from the accusation and dismissal, Samina sagged against the wall.

Nadine eyed Topher as he crossed the room and moved to the window. She scowled at his back. “You’re a bigger fool than I thought you were.”

His back answered her in silence.

“Can’t you see she has feelings for you? And you compare you and her to your parents? What rubbish.”

“It’s rude to eavesdrop.”

Scoffing, Nadine settled under the covers. “Topher, your parents wasted time because of hurt pride and misunderstanding. Don’t repeat their mistakes.”

“It’s more complicated than that.” Topher turned to look at her. “There’s bad blood between us. You hate her father, and besides–”

“I don’t hate Gabriel, I just don’t like him.” She rolled her eyes at his dubious stare. “And since when do you pay attention to me being dramatic anyway?”

Topher smiled wryly. “You’re always dramatic.”

She scowled. “You’re a cheeky, disrespectful boy.”

His smile waned, his expression now somber. “Tell me about… them. About Maurice. I need to know more.”

Sobering at the longing in Topher’s gaze, Nadine nodded and gestured him over. Silently, Topher ambled over to her side and settled beside her in the bed. Nadine smiled wistfully as he gathered her in his arms and she summoned a breath. “Your father…” She smiled gently. “He loved your mother fiercely.”

<<Chapter 42 || Chapter 44>>

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