southerncharms3

They met under the passageway between the two stairs in the church lobby. Samina couldn’t help but smile at the radiance on Ada’s face, her mocha skin sun-kissed from her honeymoon in Monterrey Bay. The two friends embraced for a brief moment before Ada leaned back to study her friend’s face.

Samina’s smile remained, eyes sweeping over Ada’s warm features. “You look radiant.”

“Thank you kindly.” Ada’s winking smile waned a little. “And you look tired.”

“Thanks…” Samina muttered, dropping her hands from around Ada. She didn’t need a reminder of Topher’s rebuff just hours ago. Avoiding Ada’s probing eyes, she scanned the lobby for sign of Jaxson.

“Don’t bother. He stopped by the hospital to see Nadine.” Ada’s brow furrowed. “I thought they would be back in Edmonton by now. Any idea what happened?”

Samina shrugged. “How will you get home if he took the car?”

Ada arched a brow at Samina’s deflecting. “We drove separate cars.” Her smile was wry. “I’m still getting used to all of it, to be honest. Me, a married woman.”

“Ada, please…” Samina refrained from rolling her eyes. “You’ve been practicing your new last name long before you got engaged.” She smirked when Ada nudged her shoulder.

“Anyway…” Ada smacked her lips. “Now that the wedding is done, I can concentrate on you and Topher.”

Samina scowled. “Don’t bother.”

Ada cocked her head. “What—“

“Aunty Sammie!” a girl’s shriek halted Ada’s words and turned their attention to a young girl tearing across the lobby, puffy pigtails flying as she ran.

Seeing Beulah’s toothy smile invoked Samina’s and she bent at the waist, arms open. “Oof! Hey Beulah.” She planted a kiss on the girl’s temple and lifted her head to see Ada squinting at her. Clearing her throat, she looked down at the adoring eyes of the five-year-old beaming at her.

“Papa and Laide are coming,” Beulah announced, showing off her smile. One front tooth was missing and the sight endeared her to Samina.

Pushing aside every troubling thought of Topher, she caressed Beulah’s soft cheek, then lifted her eyes to Ezekiel and Adelaide headed their way.

Laide greeted both women with a polite hello, though she reserved a shy smile for Samina. Ezekiel winked audaciously at Samina, drawing a querying stare from Ada.

“We’re coming to your house, Aunty Sammie!” Beulah proclaimed, grinning wide.

Samina met Ezekiel’s eyes and he nodded, though his smile was wry. “My parents are already on their way to your place.”

“Oh?” She frowned, anxiety nipping at her. “For what?”

Ada’s gaze bounced between the two of them, brow creased with confusion.

“Lunch.” He kicked a shoulder, his knowing eyes skimming over her. “With the girls there, I’m sure everyone will behave.” Then he smiled. “We’ll stop by the house first though, so you’ll have to hold it down till I get there.” His gaze twinkled with mirth. “Think you can handle it?”

Samina hitched her chin. “We’ll be fine.”

Ada squinted as Ezekiel and his daughters walked away. She folded her arms and turned to Samina. “Explain.”

Picking at her cardigan, Samina sighed. “Our fathers got into a fist fight.”

Ada scoffed incredulously. “First off, I was asking about Ezekiel, but this is even more bizarre. Why were they fighting?”

Samina hesitated replying. No doubt Topher would tell Jaxson about their twisted fate, which he would then relay to Ada. She chose the easier topic. “What about Ezekiel?”

“You two looked a little too cozy right there.”

Samina shrugged. “Sure. We’re dating.” For some reason, acknowledging this felt odd.

Ada’s eyes grew wide as saucers. Her mouth grew slack. “What?” she eked out. Then she shook off the shock, her brow furrowing. “What about Topher?”

“What about him?” Samina knew she sounded surly but Topher’s last words still affected her. She sighed, snuffing out the irritation. “Look, we’re not meant to be. He’s…” she shrugged, at a loss for words.

“He’s what?” Ada eyed her carefully.

Samina adjusted her purse on her shoulder. “As you heard, there’s a crisis I have to avert, so let’s talk later. Greet Jax for me.” She spun on her heel and started for the door.

“This isn’t over, Sammie!” Ada called after her.

Waving over her shoulder, Samina hurried away before she said something regrettable.

Although Deidre and Sheena chatted freely while prepared the lunch, their husbands sat on opposite ends of a sofa, watching the televised basketball game in stony silence. Obadiah sat between them, stoically watching the game, though he was on referee duty.

Samina bit her bottom lip as one of their favorite players scored a three-pointer and neither cheered or high-fived each other as they usually did on game days. She glanced over her shoulder at the two mothers. “Shouldn’t we do something?” she frowned at their indifferent expressions. “Wasn’t this supposed to be a reconciliatory lunch?”

Deidre rolled her eyes. Sheena offered Samina an assured smile. “They’ll loosen up once there’s food in their bellies. Come help me cut the pie.”

Breathing out a sigh of resignation, Samina moved around the counter to unwrap the sweet-potato pie.

Karen swept in behind her. “I’ll do it. Go sit down.”

Samina’s face heated under Karen’s pointed stare. “I’m fine.”

“Go…” she nudged Samina aside and grabbed the knife.

“By the way, Sheena, did you know your son and my daughter were conspiring behind our backs?” Deidre snapped a celery stick in half. Samina cringed at the heated glare directed at her.

Sheena chuckled softly. “You mean with them dating?”

Deidre whipped an accusing glare to Sheena. “After what we talked about, you went behind my back?”

“Really, Deidre?” Sheena sprinkled the cheese into the salad bowl. “Can we stick to what’s important right now?” She pointed her chin at their husbands.

Mumbling an incoherent but unfriendly reply, Deidre snapped a few more celery sticks with gusto. Sheena tossed Samina a wink.

Just then, the doorbell rang. Samina drew in a breath and moved to the door. “I’ll get it,” she announced for everyone’s benefit and pulled it open. Her heart stopped beating. Her eyes widened at the sight of a somber Topher stood in the doorway.

What was he doing here?

“Who is it?”

At her mother’s loud inquiry, Topher’s striking gray eyes bounced off her face to over her shoulder.

Samina’s fingers curled around the doorknob.

“For goodness’ sake, Samina.” Deidre was now by her shoulder and she nudged her aside. Her eyes widened in surprise. “Topher?”

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Wells…” Topher replied, his deep timbre hesitant.

Samina snuck a glance over her shoulder and stifled a groan. Both Gabriel and Jeremiah were now on their feet, eyes riveted to the open door.

“P-please, come in.” Deidre stumbled back, stepping on Samina’s foot. Topher stepped in.

Samina held her breath as his gaze paused in the direction of the two men, his father’s friends, and his face hardened slightly. She clocked Jeremiah’s look of shock and Gabriel’s surly expression.

“Well I’ll be…” Jeremiah breathed incredulously. He took a step forward. Topher’s shoulders stiffened as Jeremiah came to stand before him. “You’re Odetta’s boy.”

Topher swallowed hard. Then he looked Jeremiah in the eye and replied. “And you are Mr. Dames.”

Jeremiah shook his head, gaze glistening with revelation. “Please call me Uncle Jeremiah.”

Surprise flickered on Gabriel’s face before it was snuffed out completely in a scowl. “Uncle? Don’t you mean father?

Sheena inhaled sharply. Deidre glared at her husband.

Both Topher and Jeremiah turned to face him, wariness in Topher’s, confusion in Jeremiah’s.

Samina bit her bottom lip and squeezed her fingers together. It made sense now, her father’s anger. He’d believed all these years that Jeremiah had stolen Odetta and that she’d given birth to his son. That Topher was Jeremiah’s kid.

Then Jeremiah burst into laughter. Gabriel growled and started for his friend’s throat.

Samina shot forward just as Topher placed a hand between the two men, barring Gabriel from reaching for Jeremiah’s collar. She glanced up at Topher’s tense features.

“Dad, please,” Samina beseeched her father as she stood at Topher’s side.

Gabriel halted in step, taken back.

Hysteric laughter waning, Jeremiah shook his head and wiped at his eyes. “You’re a fool, Gabriel. A big fool.” He waved a hand over Topher. “Are you that blind with resentment not to see the resemblance?”

Deidre covered her face, stifling a groan.

Samina quickly moved to her side, perturbed at how Deidre trembled against her. “Just listen…”

Gabriel frowned up at Topher, confusion and wariness etched in his face. Then something eased the tension in his furrowed brow as realization hit. His brown eyes searched Topher’s face. Then he drew in a measured breath. “Maurice.”

Jeremiah nodded, dropping a hand on Topher’s arm. “Odetta and Maurice eloped. The day you saw us, she was asking for my help to tell you because she was too scared to hurt you.”

Deidre stiffened. Samina squeezed her shoulder. When Deidre ventured to look at her, Samina offered her a smile.

Gabriel dropped his head, touching a finger to his temple. “I don’t… understand.”

“Maurice and Odetta were married, Gabriel.” Jeremiah didn’t bother hiding his impatience. “She’d tried telling you for months that she wanted to break up, you were too focused on your thesis to notice she was unhappy.”

Topher finally turned to Samina, eyes narrowed in slits. “Is this why you summoned me here? To make things clear for everyone?”

Samina bristled at his accusing tone. She could feel the weight of everyone’s eyes on her and hitched her chin at him. “I… I didn’t summon you.”

He squinted at her, his jaw tight as stone. “Check your phone.”

She scowled. “What are you insinuating—?”

“Uh, sis…” Karen interjected with a contrite expression as she stepped forward. “I texted him.”

“Why would you–?”

“Wait,” Obadiah cut in. “So he’s not our brother then?”

All eyes bounced to him. Gabriel scowled. “What on earth would give you that idea?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Deidre folded her arms, stepping one foot closer to Gabriel. “Perhaps the fact that you act shady every time Odetta or Abbeville is mentioned.”

“That’s because you always get upset when I mention anything about my past,” Gabriel growled, frustrated.

“What woman wants to hear about her husband’s past loves!?”

“People, please!” Sheena called over the noise. “Enough already. This isn’t about you guys anymore, but about Topher.” Samina held a deeper respect for the older woman as she offered Topher a warm, welcoming smile. “We’re just about to eat. Will you join us?”

Samina held her breath.

Topher breathed a sigh. “If that’s okay with you…”

“Of course it is!” Jeremiah slapped his shoulder, smiling. “Maurice, your father, was our best friend. Isn’t that right, Gabe?” he slanted a pointed glare at Gabriel.

Gabriel blew out a breath and jerked a nod. Samina felt sorry that he’d been blindsided on every turn; back then and even now. “Yeah…” He managed a weak, distracted smile. “Join us.”

All breathed a sigh of relief and started for the kitchen when the doorbell rang. Samina moved around her mother and pulled open the door.

“Aunty Sammie!” Beulah screeched with delight, wrapping her arms around Samina’s waist. Laide snuck around them inside. Then Beulah disengaged and moved around Samina, lunging into her grandfather’s arms.

Ezekiel raised a brow as his father introduced his youngest granddaughter to the stoic, formidable gentleman standing beside him. He turned to Samina with a crooked smile. “What did I miss?”

“Don’t ask.” Samina offered him a weak smile and turned. She stiffened as her gaze collided with Topher’s.

Oblivious, Ezekiel draped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her closer. “We don’t have to hide anymore, do we?” he whispered in her ear.

Her frozen tongue couldn’t form an intelligible response as Topher’s eyes narrowed briefly before he turned away to give Beulah one of his rare smiles. Her stomach did a somersault and not from the light kiss Ezekiel pressed on her forehead.

In silence, Samina watched Ezekiel saunter over to greet Topher, her heart pulsing violently in her throat.

What am I going to do?

<<Chapter 43 || Chapter 45>>

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