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Samina ignored Topher and Ezekiel for the rest of the camping trip; not an easy feat with hyper girls and unrepentant, meddling mothers underfoot. Thankfully, neither her family nor Ezekiel’s noticed the awkward shift and everyone parted ways, ending the holiday with most of them still smiling.

She couldn’t wait start work again. She’d do anything at work; even scrape gum off the sidewalk, if it would distract her from thinking about Ezekiel’s increasingly agitated texts and Topher’s pointed silence.

Pushing out a breath, Samina hurried up the stairs to the front door of the downtown office.

“Welcome back!” the secretary greeted Samina warmly once she entered the front lobby.  “Hope you had a great vacation?”

I need a vacation from the so-called vacation. Samina walked up to the desk, greeting the younger woman with a smile. “All is well, Kyra. I heard there’s a lot to catch up on.” Despite the unorganized chaos of the organization, Samina still felt good to have some sort of purpose.

Kyra smirked. “Ain’t nothing you can’t handle.” Her eyes glinted with confidence. “Oh, by the way, there’s a new girl and she’s been assigned to you.”

Samina raised both brows. “Me? But I just barely came on board.” She was still getting used to her increasing responsibilities as Activity and Outreach chair. Stack of dusty files and a growing list of phone contacts awaited her attention at the back cubicle next to the men’s bathroom door.

Kyra kicked a shoulder. “That’s how it is around here, best get used to it. Here” She extended a folder to Samina. “You better read this before you meet her. I hear she’s quite a handful.”

Collecting the folder, Samina managed a smile. “Thanks for the heads up.”

“See you at lunch,” Kyra called out as Samina trudged to the double doors.

With a distracted wave, Samina tucked the folder under her arm and made her way down the hallway, greeting her coworkers on the way to her cubicle. Stale air masked with a very flowery scent assailed her nostrils as she sat down at her desk.

Just then, an older man strolled out of the bathroom, the sound of flushing interrupting the silence. He gave her a chagrined smile which she returned before averting her eyes. She certainly didn’t miss this aspect of her new job.

Wrinkling her nose, Samina shifted her chair as far as she could from the door and dragged the folder to an empty spot on her desk. Her eyes skimmed over the details on the page.

Talitha Resendez. Age 18. Resident of Juvenile Justice Center in downtown Houston.

Samina leaned back into the seat, quickly reading the brief biography of the troubled youth. By the closing sentence, a teary-eyed Samina considered the girl who would be her charge for the remainder of the summer.

By lunchtime, she’d regained composure and was ready to greet Talitha who was set to arrive with her probation officer in less than five minutes.

Her phone dinged just as she stood to walk to the front lobby. With a sigh, Samina lifted the phone to see a text from Topher. Her heart skipped several beats as she opened the message to read.

Your dad came by to see Nadine. All is well. SWOY.

“What in the world is SWOY?” She frowned, deflated as she scrolled down the message and found nothing else. Slightly annoyed, Samina turned the phone upside down and stepped out of her cubicle before her five-minute mark was up.

A petite, round-faced brunette sat with her arms folded and a scowl marring her features. A hard-faced man with mottled skin stood at the counter, addressing Kyra.

“She’ll be out—” Kyra paused as the man looked up once Samina stepped into the lobby.

All eyes turned to her, the brooding teenager assessing her openly. Samina offered all a smile as she stepped forward with a hand extended at the probation officer. “Good afternoon. I’m Samina Wells.”

The man’s face barely changed and Samina’s smile waned a little. He took her hand and shook it firmly before letting go. Then he gestured to the teenager who took her time to stand, as if this was her last act of defiance.

Kyra and Samina exchanged glances before turning back to the odd pair.

The man placed a hand over Talitha’s shoulder and the girl’s small face tightened as his was. “This is Talitha Resendez. She’ll be assigned to you for a few weeks before school resumes.”

Samina nodded and offered Talitha another smile, noting the girl’s uncanny hazel eyes and olive complexion. She would be a pretty girl if she didn’t scowl so much. “Nice to meet you, Talitha.”

Talitha eyed her suspiciously as she did with those who asserted too much authority or force in her life. The heavy hand on her shoulder didn’t help any, Samina noted quietly.

Glancing up at the probation officer, Samina spoke in soft tones. “How about we step into the conference room and discuss this more.” She turned to the girl, kind smile in place. “Talitha, would you like something to eat first before we begin?”

“She already had lunch,” the probation officer answered for her.

Samina didn’t take her eyes off Talitha and didn’t miss her eyes harden as if quietly protesting her superior’s words.

“Samina,” Kyra spoke up. “There’s some kolaches from the morning meeting. Grab some on your way.”

“Good idea.” Samina gave Kyra a smile and gestured forward. “Please, right this way. I’ll be with you in a minute.” She paused to watch the probation officer lead a quiet Talitha down the hallway and then tamped down a sigh.

“Good luck,” Kyra muttered as she walked past the desk to the kitchen.

Samina hurried down the hallway to the kitchen, not wanting to leave the girl with the stern-faced man for much longer. There was something very odd about the pair and for the first time, not a thought of Topher and Ezekiel crossed her mind.

Except Ezekiel wasn’t going to let her off easily.

Samina groaned aloud, spotting Ezekiel standing outside her house after she parked her car in the driveway. She stepped out, glaring at him. “I thought I made myself clear, Ezekiel. What are you doing here?” She slammed the door and walked around the front of the car.

He stepped into her path. “We need to talk.”

Pausing in step, Samina stared up at him, noting that his jaw was shadowed with a beard forming. Ezekiel never allowed hair on his face. She eyed the bags under his eyes and heaved a sigh. “I don’t know why you’re doing this but I’m not ready to talk.” She skirted around him and walked up the porch step, tugging out her keys.

Ezekiel snatched it from her.

Samina hissed under her breath and glared at him. She held out her hand. “Give me my keys.”

“Not until you talk to me.”

She rolled her eyes but nodded. Snatching the keys from his hand, she gave him her back as she opened the door. Strolling inside, Samina tossed her purse on the couch and kicked off her shoes. Unbinding her hair and shaking it free, she walked over to the thermostat and turned on the AC. “I would offer you something to drink but you’d think it’s an invitation to get comfortable.”

A choking laugh from him made Samina turn around. There was a bemused smile on Ezekiel’s face that made her squint at him. “What’s funny?”

His smile faded, a wrinkle appearing between his eyes. “Nothing at all. Do you know how many times I’ve picked up my phone to call you?”

She folded her arms across her chest. “Apart from the times you texted me? What happened to giving me space?”

“I never agreed to that and you know it.”

Samina clenched her jaw. “So because we were dating, you think you could dictate what I get to do now?”

He raised a brow. “What does that mean?”

“I’m not a mindless person who needs a man to tell her what to do.”

Ezekiel raised both brows. “Did I say that? I don’t remember saying anything close to that.”

“You didn’t have to. It’s clear you don’t take me seriously.”

He pursed his lips, eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What are you doing?”

Samina turned away, moving to the kitchen. She needed a drink. Jerking open the fridge door, she grabbed an unopened bottle of water and untwisted the cap.

“I want an explanation, Sam.”

“My name is Samina,” she snapped in annoyance. Turning to face him, she glared at the surprised look on his face. “I hate when you call me Sam.”

He frowned. “You’ve never mentioned it before.”

She took a swig of the water before answering. “Well, now you know.”

Perturbed, Ezekiel squinted at her. “What’s going on here?”

“Nothing.” Samina felt her face growing hotter, her heart beating faster. She hated confrontation, hence her need for space. Him being here, invading her space, demanding an explanation, only made it harder for her to make her decision. “I told you I needed time and you should’ve respected that.” She rounded the counter and walked past him.

He grabbed her shoulder and turned her to face him. Confusion and concern were etched on his handsome features. “Talk to me.”

Samina averted her gaze, swallowing hard. She hated that his expression was because of her confusion, her indecision.

“Is this about me proposing?”

Her heart flipped over. Samina clenched her jaw.

“Is that it? Are you not ready? Did I rush you?”

Samina bit her bottom lip, feeling the sting of tears at the back of her eyes.

His fingers pressed the soft part of her shoulder. “Sam—I mean, Samina… look at me.” When she managed to look at him, his gaze was uncertain, anxious. “If I’m rushing you, you can tell me. I’ll fall back, give you space. Is that what you want? Should we take things slow?”

A part of her wanted to scream no; that his proposal and his insistent pursuit of her was what she’d always wanted. Another part struggled to follow, feeling suffocated by his barrage of questions and seeking an escape.

The doorbell rang then and Ezekiel looked up, his brow furrowed. “Are you expecting someone?” His voice hardened with suspicion and Samina knew he assumed it was Topher.

Samina jerked from his hold and moved quickly toward the door. Her eyes widened and she quickly turned to Ezekiel. “Hide! Now!” she whispered fiercely, heart racing.

He scowled darkly. “I’m not going anywhere—“

“It’s my mom.”

Ezekiel moved swiftly down the narrow hallway, toward her bedroom.

Waiting until he’d taken refuge in her room, Samina drew in a measured breath before opening the front door with a smile. “Mom, what’s going on?”

Deidre eyed her warily but pushed her way inside. “We need to talk.”

Samina stifled a groan and tossed a ‘help me’ look to the ceiling before closing the door. She glanced once at the bedroom door before turning to see her mother nudge the discarded shoes with her foot. “Is everything alright?”

“I’ve been thinking about what you told us.” Deidre plopped on the sofa and gestured her over. “Come sit.”

With a fleeting glance at the closed door, Samina trudged to the sofa. “What do you mean?” she perched on the side, eying her mother carefully. Had her father mentioned something about Karen’s outburst? Was her mother here to give her own version of a lecture? “Mom, what’s this about?”

“Hush.” Deidre reached for her hand, cupping it between hers. “What are the updates on your procedure?”

Samina inhaled sharply.

“I couldn’t sleep, not knowing what is going on with your health.” Her brow furrowed. “Did your doctor mention anything after the surgery?”

Biting her bottom lip, Samina hesitated. The walls were thin and this certainly wasn’t the way she wanted Ezekiel to find out.

“Samina…”

Breathing a sigh of resignation, Samina closed her eyes and told Deidre everything. From the discovery of the tumor, the fear of telling everyone, the procedure itself, and the treatment plan she would have to follow until her hormones were back in order.

Deidre wiped her eyes and sniffed. “My poor baby.” She pulled Samina into a hug and rubbed her back. “I can’t believe you went through all of this on your own.”

Samina swallowed hard. “I’m okay, Mom.”

“Yes, my darling girl.” Deidre kissed her ear before pulling back. Her gaze roved Samina’s face, a feeble smile lifting her lips. “My brave girl.” She cupped Samina’s cheek, rubbing her skin with the pad of her thumb. “Your father and I are praying this through. You will be okay. I love you.”

Samina allowed her mother another embrace and sighed. “I love you too.” This wasn’t how she wanted her mother’s affection, not out of pity or remorse.

When Deidre left a half-an-hour later, Samina pressed her head against the door and braced herself at the sound of his footfall behind her.

“You had surgery?” Ezekiel spoke evenly.

Samina drew in a measured breath before she turned around. His expression was furious and stormy. Now Ezekiel was another person angry that she’d kept it a secret. She fought a tremble and began to explain. “Zeke…”

“Just answer the question, Samina. Did you have surgery?”

But before she could respond, Ezekiel shook his head. “Alright. We’ll talk later.” He stomped angrily toward the door.

Samina barred his way and frowned up at him. “What—”

“You wanted space, you got it.” His blazing eyes focused on the door, not her. “Move.”

Bristling inwardly at his slight, Samina watched him jerk the door open and stomp past her to the driveway. She moved to the porch, calling after him. “I thought you wanted to talk!”

The car door slammed in response, the revving engine deafening her protests.

Flabbergasted, Samina watched his car reverse out the driveway onto the street. Something in her gut told her Ezekiel would probably be the one ignoring her calls this time around. With a sigh, Samina re-entered her house, telling herself she only had herself to blame if neither Ezekiel nor Topher would call her for a while.

<<Chapter 48 || Chapter 50>>

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