southerncharms4

With a smile on her face, Samina watched the girl sharpen the colored pencils meticulously, her brow furrowed in concentration. A week had passed since Talitha worked under her supervision and Samina barely had time to think of her own issues, her curiosity of Talitha growing by the day.

The Talitha at work was deferential and respectful. Any assignment Samina gave was done without complaints. She worked hard and often had to be reminded to pause for a lunch break. It was as if she truly enjoyed the work. Samina’s smile waned, watching Talitha’s deft yet small hand as she sharpened yet another colored pencil. The petite girl before her probation officer stood defiant and unyielding.

Staring at the girl’s lackluster chestnut hair that hung limp on her small shoulders, Samina recalled the contents on Talitha’s file. Born in El-Paso, TX. Resident of Juvenile Justice Center for two years, in foster system for thirteen. Known for insubordination and acts of violence.  No interest in trade or college.

“Talitha,” Samina spoke up.

The girl shifted her hazel eyes to Samina’s face, her thin brows lifted in question.

“What do you want to do when you’re… free to go?”

A wrinkle appeared between the girl’s eyes.

Samina held her breath, watching for the switch in her expression.

Instead, Talitha looked down and kicked up a shoulder. “Dunno.”

“Do you like to draw?”

Talitha looked up, a mix of suspicion and curiosity coloring her gaze.

Samina felt a flutter in her stomach and smiled. “I have a project I want to discuss with you. You interested?”

Kyra sauntered into the main office space a few hours later and frowned at the two of them sitting in a circle table near the break room. “What’s going on? I thought we were going out for lunch.”

Samina lifted her head and smiled at Kyra. “Sorry, got busy.” She gestured wordlessly to Talitha who didn’t raise her head to acknowledge the secretary, her left hand guiding a colored pencil over the canvas.

Kyra gasped sharply and leaned in to study the artwork on the table. “My word!”

Samina beamed, excitement tingling her nerves.

Who would’ve thought it? Talitha, an artist!

“Isn’t she incredible?” She watched the perfect lines Talitha drew and shook her head incredulously. The only other time she’d felt this way was when she’d painted at the flea market with Topher’s friend, Elias. Her smile waned.

“Would you look at that?” Kyra breathed, perching on the table. “She’s talented.”

Samina grinned as though the compliment was for her.

Talitha paid them no mind, her eyes focused on her artwork. Samina swallowed hard as tears threatened. There was a yearning in Talitha’s gaze that Samina recognized all too well. This wasn’t just about passing time while making posters for the building. Talitha’s defiance only showed up when the probation officer tried to stifle her or the records claimed she had no dreams of a promising future.

Instead, Talitha fought for meaning in her life and a reason to belong in this society. She desperately needed a dream to believe in.

Samina could understand this feeling of yearning for a purpose more than anyone else. Her heart squeezed tight as realization hit her like a freight train.

Everything suddenly made sense.

Getting laid off from Yates Academy and getting rejected from every job she applied for, was to steer her in this direction. To prepare her to meet someone that she could relate to, and eventually help.  She’d been sent here for Talitha.

Kyra nudged her shoulder, pulling her out of her daze. “Your phone’s ringing.”

Samina glanced once at Talitha before grabbing her phone. She stood from the circle table and moved to the back of the room by the men’s bathroom door. She frowned at the unknown number and held the phone to her ear. “Hello?”

“Samina?”

She raised a brow at the slightly-familiar voice. “Yes… this is she.”

“It’s me, Principal Forrester.”

Samina choked out an incredulous laugh. “Yes, hello…”

He cleared his throat. “Is this a good time to talk? I wanted to discuss an opportunity with you.”

Glancing over her shoulder to the table where Kyra openly gushed over Talitha’s fine work, Samina smirked. “Actually, sir, this isn’t a good time.”

“Oh… well, is there a good time I can—”

“I don’t think so.” She smiled as he blustered in response. “I’m busy right now, so let me say one thing. Thank you.”

Static answered on his end before he sighed. “For what?”

“For firing me.” She grinned despite how absurd she sounded.

“I-I didn’t fire you,” Principal Forrester protested. “It was the board’s decision. I was just the messenger!”

Samina dipped her chin. “Of course. Either way, thank you for carrying it through. I’m right where I need to be.” She watched as Talitha mumbled a response to Kyra’s question and smiled. “Good luck finding someone else for your opportunity.

He breathed out a deep sigh. “No hard feelings?”

She shook her head. “None at all. Goodbye, Principal Forrester.” Disconnecting the phone, Samina breathed out a sigh of relief. She could feel a weight had slid off her shoulders.

Delay is never denial.

Her father’s words echoed in her mind as she walked back to the table with a brighter smile. “Ladies… let’s get some lunch.”

As they walked down the steps to the main street, Samina gave Talitha a smile. “Lunch is on me.”

“It’s always on you,” Kyra interjected, winking at the quiet petite girl between them. “Where are we off to?”

Samina fished out her keys as they started for her car parked on the side street. “You can pick, although I’m in the mood for quesadillas.”

Kyra’s eyes flitted over her shoulder and she paused in step, a smile twitching her lips. “Um, how about we order pizza and stay in?” She nudged her chin over Samina’s shoulder and all three turned.

Her heart skipped a beat as she spotted Ezekiel standing by the stairs, staring at her. One hand in his pocket, the other resting on the steel banister, he wore a rueful expression on his face.

“What a gorgeous man…” Kyra muttered as Ezekiel started toward them.

Samina bit the inside of her cheek, recalling the way Ezekiel slighted her in anger and stormed out of her apartment. The excitement from earlier fizzled as he came to stand before her.

“Hi,” Ezekiel said, expression somber.

Samina looked past his shoulder. “Hi.”

Kyra cleared her throat and placed a hand on Talitha’s shoulder. “Let’s you and me find something to eat.” She nudged the quiet girl along with her, leaving Ezekiel and Samina to stand in awkward silence.

Ezekiel sighed. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your lunch time. Should we get something to eat first?”

Samina suddenly didn’t have an appetite. She glanced back at him, frowning. “What do you want, Ezekiel?”

He eyed her somberly. “Can we talk somewhere quiet?”

She heaved a sigh but shrugged her shoulders. “Fine. Let’s sit in my car.” She noticed something akin to disappointment flicker in his eyes and almost felt bad. Then she remembered his stormy glare and tightened her jaw. “I parked here.” She started for the car, not waiting to see if he followed.

Once they were settled in the car, the traffic muted and the minutes stretched as they sat in silence, Samina stared forward in wait.

Ezekiel shifted in the seat to face her. “You’re mad at me now?”

Samina rolled her eyes. “Nope.”

He grunted. “Please look at me when I’m talking to you.”

She wanted to tell him to stop talking to her like he did with Adelaide and Beulah but chose to remain quiet as she dragged her eyes to his face.

Ezekiel frowned. “I didn’t realize you could be this cruel.”

His words were like a dagger lodged in her chest.

He continued. “You didn’t tell me about your surgery and I had to find out while hiding from your mother. Don’t I have a right to be angry?”

Pangs of guilt stung and she looked down. “I was going to tell you…”

“Oh, when exactly? After you and I get married, and I realize you can’t conceive?”

His derisive tone pricked her nerves. She tilted her chin. “And what makes you think I would marry you?”

Ezekiel’s brows slammed in a deep V, his eyes silently warning her from speaking out of turn.

Heart hammering, Samina started to retract her statement. “Look Zeke…”

He held a hand. “No, wait… You knew about Winsome, right? About the condition she had, don’t you?”

Samina hesitated. She’d only heard snippets when her mother and his spoke of Winsome’s inability to conceive and how hard it was on their marriage.

Ezekiel nodded. “Winsome had endometriosis and although I was okay with us not having any children, she insisted that we try.” He swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Though I’m grateful that she convinced us to have our girls, I wished I could’ve had both of them.”

Her heart twisted in pain, realizing what she’d done. Discovering the truth of her surgery only ripped open wounds he thought were healed. Made him think of who he’d lost.

“I don’t know, Sam…” His eyes flitted back to hers, his expression grave. “The thought of you undergoing the pain Winsome went through, terrified me. I won’t lie to you, I’m still scared.”

Samina sought his hand and squeezed it gently. “I’m going to be okay, Ezekiel.” She managed a feeble smile when he eyed her dubiously. “You heard all of it. After the treatment is done, I’ll be okay.”

“Don’t you want children, Sam?”

She frowned.

“I see the way you are with the girls… I know you want to be a mother.”

Pain seized her breath, eyes stinging with tears held at bay.

His gaze softened and he squeezed her hand. “Let me take you to lunch. We can talk more comfortably there.”

Samina shook her head, tugged her hand from his. “I can’t. Working…” A tear rolled down her face and she quickly ducked her head, swiping at it with one hand.

Ezekiel blew out a breath. “What about dinner then?”

She lifted her head, staring at the gentle smile that eased the wrinkles off his handsome face.

“Come on, Sam… Let’s talk this through.” He cupped a hand over her cheek, his thumb caressing her face. “You can do all the talking for a change. I’ll promise to listen this time.” He flashed a rueful smile. “Please?”

Samina sniffed back the tears. At one point, long ago, Ezekiel’s boyish smile made her feel warm from the inside out. Now, all she felt was regret for the pain she’d caused him. She stifled a groan and lowered her gaze.

Why did everything in her life have to change so dramatically?

Topher rolled his eyes heavenward as he trailed after the newlyweds. He eyed the lit sign above the front door of the Brazilian restaurant. “Guys, really… I’m not in the mood.”

The smoky, tangy scents tickled his nostrils but he scowled all the more.

“Eating with us or eating, period?” Ada countered, hooking an arm under Jaxson’s.

The two men exchanged glances, and then Topher sighed. “This is nothing against you Ada. I’m just not in the mood to stuff my face with meat tonight.”

Ada smirked at him. “Don’t starve yourself just because you’re lovesick.”

“Ada,” Jaxson mumbled, squeezing her arm.

Topher scoffed and he turned his gaze, scanning the bustling restaurant. He’d rather eat a can of sardines than subject himself to Ada’s teasing banter.

“Let’s go.” Jaxson gave Topher a kind smile before following Ada and the hostess to their seat.

Topher scowled, not wanting to be the third wheel but seeing he had no choice. All day, Ada pestered both he and Jaxson to indulge her unprompted craving for red meat. At some point during the day, Nadine demanded they leave the hospital room so she could sleep in peace. He made a note to reprimand her for throwing him to the wolves.

The hostess skirted around the patrons, stopping before a table positioned in the middle of the room.

Topher quickly sought out a corner table where he could easily direct his attention out the window while Jaxson and Ada flirted with each other all evening. His gaze snagged on an attractive couple sitting in a corner booth and his mouth tightened.

Jaxson’s smile faltered at the discomfited look on Topher’s face. His eyes sought out the cause and he heaved a sigh. “Oh boy.”

“Two sweet teas and one unsweetened.” Ada smiled as the hostess turned to go and turned to see both men still standing. “Uh fellas, what’s going on…?” Eyes widened, immediately recognizing Samina and Ezekiel sitting a few feet away.

With the soft candlelight glowing between them, the scene looked entirely too cozy. She snuck a look at Topher and immediately cursed her odd craving for meat. “Hey, we can go if—”

Topher choked out a laugh.

Ada and Jaxson exchanged worried glances. That didn’t sound like an amused or cheerful laugh. In fact, there was little humor witnessing one’s love in another man’s company.

With a sigh, Topher looked away and tugged back his chair to sit down. “Did we order drinks yet?”

Ada hesitated before answering. “I ordered your unsweetened tea. Topher, maybe we should—“

“Sounds good,” Topher interjected, flashing an all-too-bright grin. Draping his arm over the back of his chair, he smirked at Jaxson still standing. “You gonna stand and eat, man?”

Glancing once at his wife, Jaxson hesitantly took his own seat across from Topher.  “We can trade seats?” he volunteered, aware of Topher’s line of sight.

Topher arched a brow. “Why?” He kicked a shoulder. “Ain’t no skin off my back.”

Ada frowned. Jaxson hesitated, worried by the cool and detached expression on Topher’s face. “You okay, man?”

Topher smirked. “Fantastic.” He leaned into his chair and bobbed his head to the rumba music playing overhead, drumming his fingers idly.

Before he could say anything, Jaxson felt a nudge under the table and glanced over at Ada shaking her head. Smothering a sigh, he leaned back in his seat and waited for their drinks.

A plate of seared pork and a basket of fried plantains later, Topher finally broke his silence with a low, dry chuckle.

“Fate is a petty little thing,” he muttered, gaze riveted to Jaxson’s right shoulder. “Rinse and repeat, they say.”

Ada and Jaxson paused at eating.

“I mean, of all places…”

Jaxson put down his fork. “Seriously man, what happened?”

“Yeah,” Ada piped in. “What went on at the camp?”

Topher eyed the two of them. “What do you mean?”

Ada leaned forward. “I thought you two were getting closer.” she paused when he smirked derisively. “What’s going on?”

He smirked derisively, turning the fork around his fingers. “Nothing really. Just have to accept my fate and move on. I’m not in the mood for a lifetime of regrets.”

The waiter returned at that moment, a pitcher of tea in his hand. “Refills?”

Topher wordlessly held out his glass and watched the waiter fill it up.

“I’m full,” Ada announced once the waiter moved to another table. “Let’s get the check and get out of here.”

“Great idea,” Jaxson mumbled, pulling out his wallet as Topher reached for his.  “Topher, put that away. It’s on us… Besides you barely touched your food.”

Topher hesitated briefly before pushing the wallet back into his blazer. “Thanks…” His right brow twitched, now avoiding Jaxson’s right shoulder.

Across the room, Samina mulled over her decision as Ezekiel’s expensive dinner sunk into her belly like a block of lead.

Ezekiel reached across the table and took her hand in his. “You enjoyed your food?” His thumb caressed her palm.

“Hmm.” Samina managed a smile, feeling uneasy and not just from the heartburn bubbling in her throat. “Everything was delicious…”

“I’m glad.” Ezekiel smiled back, gaze probing into hers.

She lowered her head, feeling the guilt sweep over her. Suddenly, her tongue felt glued to the roof of her mouth, her throat constricting with every breath. Her gaze flitted to the glass of water and she tugged her hand from his to grab the drink.

Ezekiel tucked in a smile as Samina gulped down the drink.

Evading his eyes, she scanned the room just as Ada rounded a table toward her, Jaxson and Topher lagging behind. The heated glare Topher directed at her face shocked her. She swallowed the water the water too fast and lowered the glass.

“Hey, isn’t that your friend Ada?” Ezekiel cupped a hand over his mouth before Samina could stop him. “Hey Ada!”

Ada turned slowly, her smile as stiff as her walk to their table. “Oh hello!” she greeted in an overly bright tone.

The two men behind her remained quiet; Jaxson resigned, Topher brooding, .

Unable to meet Topher’s censuring glare, Samina lowered her eyes just as a tickle scratched her esophagus.

Unware, Ezekiel smiled in greeting as his eyes swept over the two men behind Ada. “What a small world, seeing all three of you here.”

Ada’s smile was a bit stiff. “I forgot you’ve met Topher.” She giggled louder than she should’ve and Jaxson placed a hand on her arm.

Ezekiel’s smile waned and he nodded. “By the way, congratulations. I apologize that I wasn’t able to join in the celebrations.”

Topher stared past her, eyes cold now. Detached.

Samina felt the cough, felt her eyes water. Her throat began convulsing as she struggled to hold it in.

Jaxson offered a polite smile. “It’s not a prob—” his eyes narrowed at Samina. “Hey, are you okay?”

All eyes jerked to Samina who was now convulsing in a choking cough. Ada gasped, hurrying to Samina’s side. Ezekiel reached for her water as Ada pounded on her back until the coughing ceased.

Clearing her throat, Samina held out a hand to assure them she was fine. She didn’t dare look up and see Topher’s withering look.

“Drink, Sam,” Ezekiel urged gently, pushing the glass into her hand.

With shaking hands, Samina held it to her mouth and sipped the water this time.

“Better?” Ada asked soothingly, rubbing Samina’s back instead.

Samina nodded mutely, unable to look at any of them. She felt so silly.

“Don’t scare me like that …” Ezekiel berated her softly, taking the glass from her and squeezing her hand.

“Excuse me,” Topher mumbled, stepping away from everyone and strode quickly toward the exit.

Jaxson nodded his farewell and hurried after his friend. Ada turned to Samina with a weak smile.  “We’ll talk later. Goodnight, you two.” She hurried after Jaxson, meeting him in front of the restaurant. Topher was stalking quickly across the parking lot. “That didn’t go so well…” Ada hooked an arm under Jaxson’s as they trudged slowly behind him.

She had to tell him now. If nothing else had convinced her, Topher’s quick escape from the restaurant told her it was time. She couldn’t delay this any further.

Samina jumped visibly as Ezekiel’s hand grazed over hers.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice tender and full of concern. He’d watched her eat like a hawk, verbally noting how fast she swallowed her food. As though she was Beulah with little experience of eating on her own.

With a sigh, she tugged her hand from his and gripped her seatbelt. “I’m fine.”

“Perhaps I’m too late…”

The statement sounded more like a question and Samina looked down in silence.

Ezekiel blew out a breath. “I didn’t think it was possible that I’d have a second chance at love. A second chance with you.”

Her heart fluttered rebelliously, her mind screaming in protest. She didn’t need confusion, not after she’d rehearsed what she would say to him.

“Truth is I always thought you were too good for me. Too innocent, too sweet…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “And then when I finally decided to take a shot, I pushed too fast, too hard.”

Now she could just stare at him, at a loss for words. Was he saying he’d always had feelings for her and not just recently?

“Sam, what I’m saying is I want to be with you. It doesn’t matter if you may not be able to conceive, just as long as you are alive and with me, everything will be fine.”

Sam. It was the only word that pulled her back to her purpose. She drew in her bottom lip and stared at his shadowed features. “Why?”

He cocked his head. “Why what?”

“Why, after all these years, did you decide to date me now?”

Ezekiel leaned back into his seat, the engine rumbling in his silence.

Samina sighed. “It doesn’t matter… really it doesn’t.”

“Then why ask if it doesn’t matter?”

His tone was low, as reproachful as Topher’s glare from earlier. Troubled and convicted, she couldn’t find the words.

“This isn’t about me, is it?” Ezekiel ventured. “It’s about him, isn’t it?”

“No.” Her stomach gurgled with anxiety. “It’s about me.”

“I don’t understand…” Even in the dark, Samina could feel the weight of his gaze on her face, could picture the wrinkle in his brow.

She nodded; the revelation still fresh in her mind. “For years, I’ve been so confused about everything because I didn’t know who I was. Didn’t know understand what I really wanted out of life for so long that I settled.”

Ezekiel inhaled a harsh breath. “And you’re settling with me?”

Samina rolled her eyes. “You said you’d only listen.”

He heaved a sigh and folded his arms across his chest. “Alright, continue.”

She hesitated briefly, summoning what she’d rehearsed and finding that she didn’t want to say any of it. Instead, she closed her eyes and began from her heart. “I can’t learn to love someone when I don’t know how to love myself.” Her eyes watered. “I can’t be someone’s wife, someone’s mother or someone’s anything when I barely have a clue how to love myself for me or, have the courage to make my dreams a reality.” She sniffed noisily. “Adelaide and Beulah deserve to have someone that can inspire them, not stifle them with her own self-inadequacy.”

Ezekiel sought her hand in the dark. “I’ll help you. We can do this together.”

She pulled her hand away. “No, Ezekiel. This is something I have to do on my own. Without distractions or confusion.”

He was silent for a moment that felt like a lifetime to Samina. Then he blew out a breath. “What are you saying, Sam?”

Heart racing a mile a minute, Samina took in his shadowed features. This would be the last chance she had to rescind her words, act like nothing was wrong. Was it fair to give up this relationship before trying to see if it could work, to believe that his love couldn’t sustain her?

“Tell me plainly so I can understand.”

Drawing in a sustaining breath, Samina grasped onto her fleeting courage before speaking out. “Let’s break up.”

The shrilling sound of her alarm clock jerked her awake and Samina snapped her eyes open. Blinding sunlight from the open curtains made her cower under the covers. She froze, her heart stopped.

Was it a dream?

She jerked the covers down and reached her phone, pushing out of bed to stand. Scanning the phone list, there were no text messages from Ezekiel, which could mean anything.

Her phone rang in her hand, Ada’s caller-id flashing on the screen.

Samina pressed talk before the second ring. “Ada, did we see each other yesterday?”

Ada hesitated before replying. “Is this a joke?”

“Just answer the question.” Samina heard her own breathless voice and fought to calm herself down. “Were you there with Jaxson and Topher last night?”

“Are you still asleep? Yeah, of course we saw you and Ezekiel on your date.” Ada scoffed. “Dang, Samina, it would’ve been nice if you’d given me a heads-up about dating Ezekiel. Why did I have to hear it from Topher? You bad girl.”

So last night wasn’t a dream. Topher’s angry eyes, her choking on water and breaking up with Ezekiel really happened. Her stinging eyes should’ve been a clue that she’d cried all night after the breakup. She sighed. “I was going to tell you.”

“Yeah whatever, bad girl…” Ada huffed impatiently. “Look, Jax took Topher and Nadine to the airport for their flight. Not that it matters since you’re all coupled up, but I thought you should know.”

Samina’s chest tightened and she gripped the phone. “What airport?” she heard herself ask.

“Hobby. They leave within the hour. I can call them to stall.”

Her smile was wobbly as she walked quickly to the bathroom. “Thanks, Ada.”

“We’re even now, at least until it’s your turn to get married.” Ada’s voice betrayed a smile. “Don’t get caught speeding though. I can’t afford to bail you out.”

Samina rolled her eyes as she disconnected the call and shimmied out of her clothes to take a quick shower, all the while summoning the courage to face Topher one last time.

Topher scowled as Nadine took her time sipping the iced latte. “I thought you hated coffee.”

Nadine met Jaxson’s eyes and tucked a smile when he winked at her. She turned back to her nephew and kicked a shoulder. “It’s growing on me.”

Jaxson clapped a hand over Topher’s shoulder. “Relax, you still have a few hours before the flight. Get a croissant or something.” His smile waned when Topher huffed and crossed his arms. “Why the rush, man?”

“He wants to run as far away as possible so he can forget about her.” Nadine sipped noisily on her drink, ignoring Topher’s withering glare. “Because he’s a coward just like his dad.”

Jaxson winced as Topher stiffened. “Nadine, come on… Give him a break.”

“Like he’s doing me any favors with his whining and pining with regret?” Nadine scoffed derisively. “I don’t think so.”

Topher squinted at her, his jaw hard as stone. “Are you done?”

“Actually, no, I barely got started.” She put down the cup with force and glared at him. “Did anyone ask you to let her go? To not chase her? That’s the problem with you. Your pride is just a cover for your hurt feelings.”

“Nadine…” Jaxson warily eyed the entrance, praying Samina would appear in the doorway. “Maybe you shouldn’t.”

“Oh shush,” she interjected, glaring at her nephew. “Get over your stupid pride and go to her. I don’t want a martyr for a nephew.”

Topher folded his arms across his chest, turning his gaze to the security line. “Hurry up with your drink or I’ll leave you behind.”

Nadine scoffed. “Go right ahead. I won’t last another minute with your whining and griping.” She turned to Jaxson. “Take me back to the hotel.”

Just then, Samina entered through the automatic sliding doors, her eyes frantically scanning the crowd.

“No need for that,” Jaxson smiled and shot to his feet. He waved until Samina spotted him. “Topher can have his chance.”

Topher eyed him suspiciously.

Nadine peered over and a smirk twitched her lips. “Well, I’ll be…”

Samina crossed the lobby to meet them, her hair windblown, her hoodie sweater barely on her shoulders as if she’d hurried to catch them.

Dumbfounded, Topher stood to his feet.

Winded, Samina gazed up at him. “Hello Topher…”

<<Chapter 49 || Epilogue>>

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