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“Now wait a minute,” Deidre called out as Samina followed her siblings to the door. “Samina, we need to talk.”

A chill ran down her spine at her mother’s no-nonsense tone, reminding her that she was not yet off the hook. They’d just been slightly distracted with Topher, with Odetta, with themselves to worry about her surgery. Samina stifled a groan, fearing her parents’ reactions. Keeping secrets and telling lies were punishable crimes in the Wells family.

“Can we go?” Karen whined, earning her a look of betrayal. She shrugged, giving Samina a ‘serves you right’ look and turned back to their parents. “I have to study before we leave.”

“And it’s too awkward for me to stay, so…” Obadiah kicked a shoulder.

Samina scowled, feeling slighted. Wasn’t he supposed to be her ally?

Gabriel nodded, waving them off. “We’ll drop her off later tonight. Be here by nine tomorrow morning.”

Samina stood frozen as her siblings scurried out the door, imprisoning her inside, her pulse racing as she gauged her parents’ stern expressions. How she wished this day would just end.

“Come sit,” Gabriel muttered, patting the spot between him and Deidre.

Samina hesitated and eyed the chair clear across the room. That would be a safer seat. “I guess I can’t stand?”

“Not an option,” Deidre clipped out, folding arms across her chest. Indeed, she meant business.

Heaving a deep sigh, Samina pushed on her feet and trudged to the chair.

“First,” Gabriel began before she could find a comfortable position. “How are you feeling?”

His concern made her sit up straighter. “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

Deidre scoffed lightly. “Is that so?” Her flashing eyes showed no sign of mischief and blatant scheming to put her and Topher together.

“What was it for?” Gabriel continued in his patient voice that brooked no argument or lies. “The surgery. What was wrong?”

“Huh?” Samina sounded too breathless for her own liking. Signs of nervousness, which could mean she was about to tell yet another lie. She couldn’t do that. Not with her father. His probing eyes would realize it even before she uttered the words. With a sigh, Samina averted her gaze to his right shoulder. “I-It was a tumor.”

Deidre inhaled sharply. Gabriel sat up in alarm. Samina cringed. This was what she wanted to avoid, if Karen had kept her big mouth shut.

“Tumor?” Deidre gasped. “W-where?” Her fingers grabbed Samina’s, squeezing it.

A lump hardened in her throat, making it hard for her to respond. Though the surgery was weeks ago, and her last checkup showed signs that she was going to be just fine, reliving those moments of loneliness and fear rendered her speechless. She’d been really terrified that night before the surgery. What if she hadn’t woken up?

If possible, Deidre would resurrect her only to give her a peace of her mind. Her father would hold his head in his hands and groan as he always did when he didn’t know what to do. Karen would cry for years. Obadiah would punch something or someone… Everyone would be sad.

A tear rolled down her cheek, as if she finally realized what she’d done by going through the procedure without notifying anyone. She’d been selfish, even if she was thinking of everyone’s feelings.

“What were you thinking?” Gabriel bit through clenched teeth. His eyes were red, as if he was holding back tears. Deidre didn’t bother hiding her distress, weeping aloud. “Surgery without any of us beside you. How could you do this, Samina?”

She sniffed, her mouth trembling. “I-I’m sorry! I was… scared.” She choked on a sob as Deidre wrapped her arms around her. “Everything was going wrong, with me losing a job, not having a husband or anything to call my own. It’s bad enough that I’m a failure as your eldest, why did I have to be sick too?”

Gabriel’s scowl darkened. Deidre hugged her closer. “Oh Sammie… don’t say that.”

Samina shook her head. “I am…” she insisted weakly, the tears falling with no signs of stopping. She sagged against Deidre, the sobs seizing control.

In that instant, Gabriel’s indignation faded at the sight of his girl’s tears and wrapped his arms around the two of them. “It’s okay… you’re okay,” he hushed Samina’s bawling while Deidre rubbed Samina’s back in that soothing manner as if she was six again.

Within the hour, Gabriel placed a call to Karen and spoke in hushed tones. Samina lay in Deidre’s arms, listening as her father announced that Samina would be spending the night. She closed her eyes before he turned and feigned sleep. She felt the gentle brush of her mother’s palm over her frizzy hair, felt the warm breath of her father’s sigh when he settled beside his wife and first daughter.

“Poor thing,” Deidre cooed gently, smoothing Samina’s brow. “She’s been through so much in so little time. I can’t even imagine…” Her voice trembled a little. “It’s our fault.”

Gabriel didn’t argue. Didn’t dare.

“If only I’d been more observant.” Deidre sniffed a tear. “I should’ve noticed what was really bothering her instead of worrying her about a stupid job or a husband. My poor baby girl.”

Samina felt the lump in her throat but couldn’t swallow. Not when they were gazing down at her.

“You couldn’t have known,” Gabriel insisted gently. “She’s always been reserved; keeps things to herself, for fear that she’ll inconvenience everyone or appear too weak.” He grunted, incredulous. “I wonder where she gets that from.”

Deidre snorted derisively. “Seriously, Gabe… You’re really asking?”

He sighed resignedly. “Not now, Deidre. Let’s focus on her for now.”

Samina felt a tear slide down her cheek.

In the silence, Deidre sighed. “I think she likes Topher.”

Samina’s breath caught and she quickly pushed it out, as if snoring. Her heart was racing so fast, she was sure her mother could feel it against her thigh.

Her father chuckled, his rough palm rubbing her cheek. “Since when does she snore?”

“Life is hard, Gabe,” Deidre answered in a dismissive tone. “Did you hear what I said?”

He pushed out a long-suffering breath as he always did when Deidre took that tone with him. That exasperated tone that said he wasn’t listening to her. “And what happened to focusing on her?”

If she wasn’t pretending to sleep, Samina would’ve high-fived her father. But that would just blow her cover. She didn’t need their nagging, or crying, or whatever else right now.

“I am…” Deidre sighed in resignation, brushing back Samina’s curls. “I’m just not sure she’s happy. With anything in her life right now. Not even Ezekiel.”

Samina bit the inside of her cheeks, her chest throbbing a slow dull ache. Was she really as pitiful as her mother made it sound?

“That’s not true…” Gabriel countered softly. “She’s painting now and aside from our little drama, she likes her job. She’s plenty happy, Deidre.”

Again, Samina would’ve hugged her father tightly if not for her cover. She drew in another measured breath and released it slowly.

Deidre paused. Then sniffed. “She told you that?”

“She told you too but you were distracted on your crusade to get her married.” Gabriel sighed. “Let her be, Deidre. She’ll find her way as she’s always done.” His heavy hand rested on Samina’s shoulder, the pad of his thumb brushing her bare arm. “With a mom as headstrong as you, why wouldn’t she?”

Deidre snorted. “That sounds deceptively like an insult, Gabriel Thatcher Wells.”

“A compliment, my love. A well-intended compliment.” He chuckled lightly, the welcoming sound wrapping Samina like a warm fleece blanket. She’d missed his laugh. Feeling her mother lean over her, Samina hid a smile when her parents reconciled over a lengthy kiss.

Samina stirred to the sound of a lawn mower and groaned at the dull ache on her side. Squinting one eye open, she saw Topher sitting on a chair opposite hers. Scoffing softly, Samina closed her eyes. Wake up, Samina… enough with the weird dreams. 

She attempted again, squinting the other eye open this time. Topher stared at her, one dark bushy brow raised inquisitively. Choking a gasp, Samina snapped her eyes shut. This wasn’t a dream. Topher was sitting in her parents’ living room. For how long?

She started to sit up, her legs felt stiff, bound. A blanket was caught between them, holding her legs captive. Her face was on fire, knowing exactly what he must be thinking, watching her flail with a blanket. How long had he been sitting there, watching her sleep?

Shifting a little too far left, Samina squeaked as she felt her body lose contact and roll over the cushioned edge. She braced herself for the short fall. Except strong arms prevented her from falling face down.

Samina jerked in his arms, pushing her palms into his chest.

“Hold still,” Topher sucked in his teeth, holding her close despite her pesky wriggling.

Samina lay stiff in his arms as he pushed her gently onto the couch. Mortified, Samina riveted her bleary gaze to the carpeted floor. No doubt she looked a hot mess, with one side of her frizzled curls lopsided and flat. Her eyes were probably swollen from crying. She groaned inwardly. She must’ve really dozed off once her parents got distracted with their reconciliation.

Breathing out a sigh, Topher moved away to retake his seat.

Through lowered lashes, Samina peeked at him. He looked like a mountain man; deep-blue flannel shirt stretched over his muscled torso and loose dark jeans with boots. While she still wore her musty Sunday clothes and probably had eye-boogers. He smelled freshly of sandalwood and mint, while her exotic jasmine body mist faded hours ago.

He settled into his seat and folded his arms across his chest, assessing her in silence.

Samina clenched her jaw, willing her rebellious pulse to stop skipping. She was too grown to be swept away by a man’s impressive physique and amazing scent.

Ezekiel smells like lime and clean laundry, Samina told herself, staring at him dead on. She refused to be intimidated by her conflicted feelings.

Topher squinted at her, jaw hard as stone.

She glared back. “What are you doing here?” It was much too early for heart palpitations.

His gray eyes swept over her and Samina sought out the blanket to wrap around her. Then his lips lifted in a mocking smirk, a brow arched derisively. “Long night?”

She stiffened at his scathing tone. This wasn’t the easy-going, kind Topher with a perpetual warm teasing word and eyes that often danced with mischief. No doubt he still felt slighted by her new relationship, but now she was much too tired for sympathy. “Please, grow up.” She fought a grimace at her own breath, deciding to keep her mouth shut from now on.

His smile faded instantly, his features hardening. “That’s what you say when I saved you from falling on your face?”

Her face fired. A gentleman wouldn’t have mentioned that. Ezekiel surely wouldn’t have. Samina clenched her jaw. “You wouldn’t have noticed if you weren’t staring at me while I slept.”

He pursed his lips and looked away, brow drawing a frown.

Samina frowned as her indignation fizzled instantly, leaving only regret. She hadn’t meant the accusation but for some reason, it came out as though it was the truth. Even though it surely wasn’t. He probably just glanced her way when she stirred from sleep. Why would he stare at her? Rolling her eyes, Samina started to apologize. “Look, I…”

“Next time,” Topher cut in, voice low and without intonation. “Sleep in your room… It’s distracting.”

She frowned at his begrudging tone. “What… is?” When he turned her way, her stomach pitched. Stunned, Samina shot to her feet and rounded the sofa toward the stairs.

Topher stood quickly and with his cursed long legs, closed the distance between them, blocking her path.

Samina inhaled sharply as he grabbed her arms. The smell of him and mint filled her nostrils. Her knees suddenly felt weak and she frowned. I don’t swoon. I won’t swoon!

His mouth opened and closed, wrestling over a word. Her gaze volleyed from his lips to his eyes, trying to decipher what he struggled to say.

Suddenly, Topher dropped his arms and stepped away. Samina bit back a protesting sigh, watching him drag a hand over his beautiful curls. She squeezed her fingers together, inwardly berating her wanton thoughts.

You love Ezekiel! Her head screamed even as she gazed at Topher’s dependable shoulders, having silly and unnecessary thoughts.

Topher was a head taller than Ezekiel, with broader shoulders, a longer torso and strong legs. He looked good in jeans, but then again, so did Ezekiel. Always had. In fact, she always felt fuzzy when Ezekiel touched her. Though Topher’s touch was equally warm and unsettling…

“Right?”

Samina blinked out of her reverie. “Huh?”

Topher was now facing her, gaze solemn and resigned. “You’re happy… right?”

Her mother’s words from last night echoed in her ears. Happiness. The word sounded so foreign in her ears. Samina felt her eyes sting at the concern etched on his brow. Topher looked better, approachable smiling. She didn’t like when he frowned, knowing it was because of her. “Uh-huh,” she managed, voice shaking. She eyed the stairs, seeking a quick escape.

Topher took a step forward. Samina took a step back. He paused, cocked his head in silent question.

“I-I need to get ready,” she mumbled the only excuse possible and hurried up the stairs to her room before the tears fell. The door closed behind her, Samina closed her eyes and told herself to breathe. She’d made the right choice; going to her surgery alone, getting a job at House of Hope, choosing Ezekiel instead of Topher. She should be happy.

Downstairs, Gabriel greeted Topher warmly just as the door opened, Karen and Obadiah announcing their arrival. Samina quickly wiped her face and pushed away from the door, to the bathroom. She had to get ready fast, before everyone worried about her again.

Within the hour, Samina pondered feigning an illness to skip the camping trip altogether. Meanwhile, Topher helped Gabriel and Obadiah load up the van. Karen and Deidre stocked the backseat with a cooler full of snacks for their long drive.

“Okay, that’s done.” Dusting his hands together, Gabriel moved past Samina to the driver’s seat. “Sam, take the middle row with Topher. The rest, get to the back.”

She squinted as her parents shared a conspirator’s smile across the hood before ducking inside their respective seats.

“Uh, Sammie, why don’t you take the backseat?” Karen intervened with a kind smile. “You can stretch out and rest some more. Toph, Obad and I can squeeze in the middle seat.” She hooked an arm under Topher’s. “She gets car-sick easily,” she informed him as they walked up to the open car door.

So it’s Toph now? Samina narrowed her eyes at her sister, clearly flirting with Topher.

“Ah, I see…” Topher glanced over his shoulder at Samina, concern wrinkling his brow.

“I’ll sit between you guys,” Karen continued, batting her lashes. “Since I’m smaller.”

Obadiah scowled but didn’t argue.

Samina quickly schooled her features. Whatever her sister chose to call Christopher Chance was none of her business. In fact, Karen could flirt with him all day, for all she cared. Samina loved Ezekiel. Tilting her chin with this resolve, Samina breezed past them. “Obad can sit back with me. It’s not a problem.”

Obadiah smirked knowingly. “That’s okay, Sam. My legs are too long for the back seat anyway. Karen, you sit there.”

Karen’s eyes widened. “But—!”

“You know, since you’re smaller.” Obadiah winked at Topher who tried his best to hide a smile.

“Hurry up!” Deidre interrupted Karen’s protest. “The others are already on their way there.” She smiled at Gabriel as he sorted out the CD-player choices.

Samina frowned as Karen slumped beside her and folded her arms. Tossing her a ‘serves you right’ look, Samina cocked a brow. “Flirt,” she mouthed, earning a loud scoff from Karen.

Topher slid into the seat in front of her, the scent of him tickling her nostrils. Samina leaned into her seat, far away from his warmth and disconcerting cologne.

Karen tugged her sleeve to pull her close and whispered. “So what? It’s not like you like him, right?”

It was definitely a whisper but loud enough for Topher to hear it clearly. Thankfully, he focused his attention on Obadiah’s words to take note. Samina snatched her arm back and glared at her.

Unapologetic, Karen’s eyes danced with mirth and something else Samina didn’t want to decipher.

She looked away. It would do her no good to humor Karen, who spent half of her day reading trashy romance novels and letting her wild imagination run free.

Her eyes fell on Topher’s dark curls, her fingers itching to touch them. Samina curled them inward and faced the window just as the car pulled out onto the street. She drew in a measured breath, ignoring the weight of Karen’s eyes on her. Definitely no good at all.

“Camping, here we come!” Obadiah whooped and both Karen and Topher chuckled. Samina groaned inwardly, slumping deeper into her seat.

<<Chapter 45 || Chapter 47>>

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