“Thanks brother,” J.R. Obed said graciously as he patted Clement Teka, his brother-in-law on the back. The two men shared smiles and a handshake before J.R. took his place beside his teary bride.

Clement grimaced at the sight of her big brown eyes glimmering with tears. “What bride goes to her honeymoon in tears? It’s Dubai, for goodness’ sake not Arlington. No offense to Arlington—”

“Oh come here, you big doofus,” Darah laughed amid her tears and flung her arms around his neck.

“Be careful,” he said, giving J.R. a pointed look over her head. “You’re carrying precious cargo.” He finally drew her back by her slender shoulders and scanned her features. “What happened to my tough, no-nonsense sister?” His thumb rubbed a stray tear that fell down her cheek.

“She’ll be back in a few months,” J.R. quipped as Clement released Darah and she moved back into her husband’s arms. Placing a hand over his wife’s protruding stomach, J.R. smirked and earned himself a dig in his side from his wife’s unrelenting elbow. He grunted in reply. “My bad, she never left.”

Darah clucked her tongue and turned back to face her older brother. Her brow furrowed slightly, concern etched in his face. “When do you leave?”

Clement pocketed his hands, one fiddling with car keys. “In a week.”

“Will you get to talk with Eli before you go?”

Again Clement and J.R. exchanged a look before he looked down at his sister, giving her a gentle smile. “Give him some space, D… he’s figuring things out.”

That was not at all what she wanted to hear. Darah frowned. “We’ve given him space. It’s eating Abe alive and I just wanna shake—” she paused when J.R.’s hand rested on her shoulder.

“Relax,” her level-headed husband of a few months said gently, his hand kneading the tension between her shoulder blades. “Like Junior said, he’s figuring things out… and Abe understands that.”

“Well I don’t,” she shot back, impatience clear in her tone.

“That’s because you’re not a man… thank God,” Clement quipped and flashed his frustrated sister a smile. Then his gaze shifted over their heads to the security line. “You better get going. The line’s long.”

The tension eased from Darah’s face and she glanced over at the security line. Whipping her head to J.R., she nodded before looking to Clement. “We have to go.”

“I know,” Clement dead-panned and accepted yet another hug. He laughed when she held on a moment longer, leaving J.R. to wrestle with her two carry-on bags and the roll-on suitcase. It was Darah’s first international trip and her naive excitement was definitely showing. “Get going, Squirt.” He pressed a kiss to her temple and released her.

Her gaze stayed on him even as she followed J.R. toward the line. “Be careful on your way back.”

Clement merely smiled and waved to both, then once both were addressed by the stern-faced TSA agent and Darah had to turn away, Clement finally dropped his hand. Still, he waited until they’d been cleared and sent down the priority check line, thanks to Darah’s heavy pregnancy and J.R.’s connections. It didn’t take long before they were cleared at the other side and he caught J.R.’s face and waved. With a sigh, Clement finally turned away and headed for the bathroom before driving home.

“Okay,” Karen breathed a sigh, adjusting the strap of her bag on her shoulders. She turned away from the security line and faced the crew of family members standing before her. She smiled at their expressions conflicted. “This is it. Smile a little, it’s just a vacation.”

“A long vacation,” Deidre Wells grumbled, stepped forward to adjust the stiff neck of Karen’s caftan blouse. Her eyes swept over her youngest daughter’s face, a furrow appearing in her brow. “You have your passport and medical card?”

Karen refrained from rolling her eyes. Instead, she patted the pocket of her jeans jacket. “Got it right here, Mama. Relax.”

“How can I when this is your first international—“

“Dee, take it easy,” Gabriel Wells said, placing a sustaining hand on his wife’s shoulders. His eyes crinkled in the corners as he gave his daughter a smile. “She’ll be fine.”

“Thanks for the confidence, Dad.” She smiled when he winked and then shifted her gaze to her sister who looked ready to weep. “Oh Lord,” Karen muttered in mid-laugh. “Not again.”

Samina Wells-Chance sniffed and shook her head. “Sorry, I can’t help it.” She too stepped forward and threw her arms around her youngest sister’s shoulders. “Call us when you arrive.”

“At my layover or final destination?” Karen asked, staying in Samina’s arms for a moment longer than usual. As her mother mentioned, this was her first trip abroad and to Africa, no doubt. Despite her bravado, she was nervous and somewhat afraid of what waited for her.

“All cities, Karen,” Deidre said in a voice that brooked no argument. Her daughters disengaged from their embrace and Deidre stepped in when Samina moved toward her father, resting her hand on her slightly-protruding stomach. Deidre squeezed Karen in a tight hug and Karen made a face over her shoulder, invoking a chuckle from both her father and sister.

“I’ll be fine, Mom,” Karen said, careful to keep exasperation from her tone. “I’m not a teenager.” And just as she said that, a young boy sauntered past them with no entourage of teary-eyed mother and sister to escort him. Karen watched as the boy confidently approached the stern-faced TSA officer, presenting his passport and ticket before walking forward after receiving permission to continue.

She sighed, releasing her mother. “Stop worrying. Besides…” her eyes skittered over Samina’s pregnant belly. “You’ve got two and a half grandbabies to worry about. By the time I get back, my third niece or nephew would be here.”

Samina made a face. “Don’t remind me.” She sniffed and ducked her face against her father’s shoulder. Gabriel smirked and wrapped an arm about his first-born’s shoulder, pulling her close.

“Oh brother…” Karen rolled her eyes heavenward. “I better go before this one starts crying again.”

“I can’t help it!” Samina protested, sniffling.

The intercom beeped and an announcement about international flights sounded over the speaker. Gabriel met Karen’s gaze and nodded. “You better get going.”

Karen nodded, grateful that her father wasn’t as emotional or she would’ve cried too. As much as she was excited about this long-awaited planned trip, her stomach was in tight knots of anxiety. What if she was making a mistake going on her own? Maybe she should’ve waited for Samina to deliver and then plan for the two of them to go together. Topher had already volunteered to plan his work travel around their plans so he could stay with their two kids while Samina traveled… so why couldn’t she wait?

“Make sure you take pictures,” Samina said, pulling Karen out of her reverie.

“And keep your phone on,” Deidre said pointedly, still adjusting Karen’s collar.

Karen managed not to roll her eyes. “Mom, that’s Samina not me. I always have my phone on…. Besides, international calls are expensive, so I’ll just send emails instead.”

“We’ll take care of the bill,” Gabriel inserted firmly and Karen could only smile. Her father didn’t say much about her going on this long pilgrimage to the Motherland, but she knew he was in support even though he worried as the others did.

“Thanks Daddy,” she said gently, earning a wink from him. Then drawing a breath, she smiled through the frazzled nerves. “Okay, I better go.”

“You have everything you need? Cash, calling card, your contacts?” Samina asked, proving fretting was in her blood.

Karen merely nodded. If she was in their shoes, she’d probably be just as bad. “Yup,” she said confidently, patting the breast-pocket of her jacket. After another round of hugs and kisses for everyone including her unborn nephew/niece, Karen finally turned toward the TSA agent who eyed her curiously.

“First trip out of country,” he drawled while checking her ticket.

“Yup,” Karen answered with no reaction to his obvious censure. Collecting her documents, she nodded her thanks as he directed her to the long line of people waiting to unload their bags and get scanned. Tamping a sigh, she turned back to look at her family one last time. “Say hi to everyone for me.”

“Will do,” Samina promised, parking her hands on her stomach. “Love you.”

“Love you too.” Karen smiled, her heart warmed as she watched them blow her kisses and winks before they ushered her pregnant sister away. Ignoring the pang in her chest, Karen drew in a breath and turned to face the front. Standing on her tiptoes, she quietly counted the people in front of her and fought a groan. It would take at least thirty minutes before she would reach her gate terminal. Shaking her head, she lowered her heels and lifted her phone from her pocket to browse her email.

A few minutes later, someone tapped her shoulder. Karen glanced up and behind her, eyes wide in surprise. “Clement,” she said and smiled in greeting. “What are you doing—you’re leaving already?”

Clement’s smile was warm and visible since he’d shaved the beard he had for months. She could clearly see his handsome face, most especially his youthful features. “Not yet,” he said in that deep melodious voice that matched the twinkle in his eye. “But I see you’re on your way.”

Karen smiled demurely, patting her breast pocket for her passport. “That I am.”

His smile turned crooked and his deep-brown eyes did a sweep of her face. Feeling subconscious, Karen arched a brow. “So what are you doing here?”

“Just dropped off the newlyweds for their long-awaited honeymoon.”

Karen laughed softly, inching a bit when the line finally started moving. On the other side of the barricade, Clement also inched forward. “Oh that’s right,” Karen replied with a smile. “I forgot they’d wanted to wait a bit because of Mr. Obed. How is he?”

“He’s fine,” Clement answered easily of his in-law. “He’s inherited my meddling—I mean doting sisters so he’s in good hands.”

She held a hand over her mouth, trying to contain the giggle. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that slip up.” She inched yet again and Clement took another step.

He bowed his head slightly though his twinkling gaze never strayed from hers. “How magnanimous of you.” His eyes then shifted over her head and he straightened. “I think it’s your turn.”

Just like that, the anxiety rolled over her in waves. Karen swallowed and she looked to the young teenager standing next to her. “Excuse me, you can go ahead of me.”

Clement’s brow arched as she allowed four more people to skip her in line. “When’s your flight?”

Karen bit her bottom lip as she fumbled with her passport, the ticket almost dropping if not for her quick hand to catch it. “Uh… in two hours.”

He searched her features. “You nervous?”

His gentle voice made her pause and she nodded, expression chagrined. “A bit.”

Clement’s searching eyes should’ve made her squirm, but it didn’t. After two more curious travelers passed Karen, he pulled his hands from his pockets and held them out to her.

Karen blinked at his open palms and then at his face. “Hmm?”

“Give me your hands for a minute,” he said, tone patient.

With only a moment of hesitation, Karen slowly placed her hands in his. She drew a breath when his long fingers closed around her palms and she peeked up at him, almost forgetting to breathe when she saw that his eyes were closed! Was he about to do what she thought he was about to—?

“Our Father in heaven,” Clement began, his voice gentle and warm as it was the day he officiated his sister’s wedding ceremony in their family’s backyard months ago.

Moments later, Karen’s eyes fluttered open to his and she whispered a soft ‘Amen.’ His dimpled smile stole her breath away and for a moment, Karen forgot where they were… or the anxiety that once rolled violently in her stomach.

He squeezed her hands before releasing it. “God speed on your journey.”

Karen gave him a smile and before she could think to regret anything, she closed the distance and wrapped her arms around him. “Thank you,” she said, closing her eyes as she held on for another moment, wanting to prolong the time and the peace his prayer and presence had gifted her.

Struck by the surprise embrace, it took only a few seconds for Clement to return the hug. He kept it brief, squeezing her shoulder before releasing her. “You’re welco—”

His eyes widened when she pressed a kiss to his cheek. Tongue-tied, Clement watched as she drew away and flashed him a smile. He still didn’t say anything, standing there with his mouth propped open as she maneuvered her way through the gate toward the impatient TSA agent that barked for her passport and ticket. His brow furrowed, feeling annoyed by the agent’s treatment but when Karen peered back at him to wave, he straightened.

“Take care!” they said at the same time, and Karen giggled. “You too!” she called out, waving once more before hurrying to the next shortest line.

A bemused smile quirked his lips as he watched her pull off her sneakers and place them on the conveyor belt. He couldn’t help but chuckle when she forgot to put her phone on the conveyor belt and had to be instructed to do so. Clement shook his head as she took it all in stride, not frown in place.

His grin deepened when she successfully made it through the scanner and did a fist pump when it didn’t beep.

“Cute,” he muttered and stretched a bit to see her pass through the gate until he couldn’t see her anymore. Then Clement finally turned away, heading for the exit towards the parking garage. He had only a few hours left in the day and his first stop was dinner with baby brother Eleazar.

On the short trek to the garage, Clement dialed his brother’s cell and waited. After the second ring, it went straight to voicemail. Frowning, Clement pulled back the phone to stare at the screen.

“Something’s wrong, Junior,” Darah had complained on the way to the airport, fretting as she always did when it came to their youngest brother Eleazar. “I swear, ever since he moved in with his grandmother he’s been acting dodgy and it kills me.”

Clement’s mood darkened as he ducked into the car. He’d been against Eleazar getting close to his biological grandmother, mother to a woman who had abandoned him at the foot of a church dumpster days after his birth. Though the older woman insisted that she would’ve stopped her daughter from abandoning Eleazar so cruelly and causing years of trauma, Eleazar couldn’t separate her from her cruel daughter who at least had the decency to die soon after her unforgivable crime.

He dialed the number again. His fingers curled around the steering wheel, thinking about the woman who put a rift between him and his brother. Though he’d been absent for a few years and the distance could be blamed for the strain in their once-tight bond, Clement blamed the elderly woman for why Eleazar now avoided his adopted family and treated them with a cool attitude whenever he came by to visit his nephews and nieces.

Clement slammed a fist against the steering wheel when the call rang four times before going straight to voicemail. Summoning what patience was left, Clement waited for the beep to leave a message.

“Eli, I leave in four days. Call me as soon as you can.” He swallowed hard. “I love you, bro…” Then with a sigh, he disconnected the call and tossed it to the passenger’s seat before reversing from the parking spot. For now, all he could do was wait and pray.

Unfortunately, Clement was not a paragon of patience.

<<Cover Page || Chapter 2>>