Ezekiel was oddly more disappointed than relieved to see his mother had returned from Abbeville. He gently smiled over the girls’ heads as they cuddled their grandmother. Sheena’s return meant Samina had no reason to babysit.
“My babies,” Sheena cooed against Beulah’s cheek. At Ezekiel’s silence, she glanced up to see the pensive expression marring his handsome features. Releasing the girls to investigate their gifts, she placed her hands on her hips. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you weren’t happy to see me.”
He snorted a laugh and moved to embrace her. “Nonsense. I’m glad you’re home.”
Sheena merely rolled her eyes and turned to watch her granddaughters unwrap their treats. “Only one per day, okay girls?”
“Yes Gramma,” the girls chorused, already unwrapping their boxes.
“I told you guys not to spoil them,” Ezekiel mumbled as they squealed over shortbread cookies. “It’ll be almost impossible for us to go back to normal now.”
“Thanks Gramma,” Beulah chirped, clutching her box to her chest.
Ezekiel’s chest tightened at the unrestrained smile on Laide’s face. She rarely smiled these days and it broke his heart.
“And what’s abnormal about sweets?” Sheena watched the girls scurry to the kitchen and then lifted her gaze to Ezekiel’s face. “Sorry, I didn’t find the salty caramel chews you used to like.”
“It’s fine.” He frowned at the fatigue in her eyes. “How’s Dad?”
She shook her head. “We can only pray now…”
“Gramma,” Beulah called out from the kitchen. “Can we open the other box now?”
“Hold on, Bumblebee.” Sheena peered over his shoulder and her smile returned, though dimmer than before. She patted Ezekiel’s shoulder and moved around him. “We’ll talk later.”
Later on, Ezekiel led Sheena away from the girls’ bedside and set her to sit on the sofa, placing a cup of freshly-brewed coffee between her hands.
Sheena smiled gratefully and lifted the cup to her lips.
Watching the fine lines on her face, Ezekiel settled down beside her. “How’s she holding up?”
Sheena sighed against the rim of her cup and lowered it to her lap. Her gaze rested on his shoulder, contemplating his question. Ezekiel remained quiet, eyes steady on her weary face.
“She’s hanging on…” Sheena finally spoke.
Ezekiel’s lips quirked in a wry smile. Aunt Neve was always so wiry, even in her advanced years. He recalled playing hide-and-go-seek with her during holidays. To think her time was short made his eyes sting, reminded of the fragility of life and Winsome.
“Your dad’s the only one by her side right now.” Her tone was oddly bitter, her gaze unfocused. “With the rest of the family running around like headless chickens, Jere’s presence is what she needs most right now.”
Ezekiel’s gaze swept over her strained features. “And you? She loved you like a daughter too.”
Tears glimmered in her eyes and she lowered her gaze.
“Mom, don’t worry about the girls.” Ezekiel grabbed hold of his mother’s hand. “If you have to go back, go. Dad and Aunt Neve need you there.”
“But the girls…” A line appeared between her brow, her expression uncertain and concerned.
Ezekiel sighed heavily. “I’m here and they’re my girls. We’ll be just fine.”
The furrow over her brow only deepened, not fully convinced.
“Mom, I’ll be here until you and Dad return.” He grimaced, aware that their return meant Aunt Neve was dead. The inevitable end was hard to accept.
A lone tear fell unrestrained and Ezekiel pressed a thumb against his mother’s cheek to catch it. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure something out.”
“Are you sure?” The desperation in Sheena’s gaze gripped his heart. “What if I ask Sammie to stay with them? That way you can work without any stress.”
Ezekiel stiffened and he lowered his hand. Sammie. He managed a smile when she tilted her head in curiosity and reached for her hand.
“Oh goodness…” Sheena breathed out a laugh and looked down at the unwrapped boxes she’d prepared for the girls. A wistful smile crossed her lips. “That’s one thing I missed. Not having daughters to make girly stuff with.”
“Hey,” Ezekiel protested, his brow furrowed. “What am I, chopped liver?”
“You’re fine.” Sheena smirked, patting his hand to placate him. “It’s just that I always enjoyed having Sammie around. She’s the daughter I never had.”
Ezekiel’s shoulders sagged. For as long as he could remember, his mother often fawned over Samina and still did.
He remembered bickering over chocolate cookies and coconut milk, battering over homework and Ezekiel’s chores. Even the night of his prom, Samina stood beside his mother watching while his father fixed his silk bowtie. He recalled the shy smile Samina gave him as she placed the boxed corsage in his hand and wished him a good time.
His heart squeezed tight with regret, him realizing he’d taken Samina for granted… and now it was too late.
“Zeke?” Sheena’s voice penetrated through his thoughts.
He straightened his frame, his throat tight with remorse.
“What’s the matter, son? You look like you just lost your best friend.”
He shook his head at the irony. Samina had been a constant presence in his life, her gentle and quiet grace calming him when he was unsettled. Why hadn’t he noticed this before?
A sliver of hope fluttered in his chest as he thought back to Samina’s soft laugh and her coy glances. Could he risk letting her go this time? Ezekiel shook his head. “No. I won’t.”
Sheena frowned. “Pardon?”
He stood to his feet, startling Sheena to stand also. Grabbing her shoulders, he placed a kiss on her cheek and held her at arms’ length. “Love you Mom. I’ll see you in a bit.” He released her and started for the door.
“Where are you going?” Sheena gaped at her son heading out the door.
“Going to do some thinking.” Ezekiel said over his shoulder, closing the door behind Sheena’s blustering protests.
“No, it’s not even,” Ada snapped impatiently, glaring at the cardstock paper in Samina’s hand.
Gritting her teeth, Samina refolded the corner.
A muffled snicker across the table caused Ada to stomp her heel on the wooden floor. “Shut up, Jaxson. Sammie, do the left side first. You’re screwing it up!”
Topher shook his head as Ada snatched the paper from Samina’s hands. “Relax, Ada. Give Sammie some time to get back into the swing of things.” He bit back a grin as Samina threw him an exasperated glare. “I can give her a brief orientation if you want.”
“No thanks,” Ada tossed back. “You’re not even doing yours correctly.” She pushed a boxed favor in Samina’s hands. “Do this one instead.”
Jaxson watched Samina’s weary expression before nudging Topher.
Just then, Ada squinted at her fiance. “Are you done yet?”
“Almost.” Jaxson gave her a sweet smile and scanned the finished boxes to his right.
“Yeah,” Topher muttered. “Ten down, a million to go.”
“Guys, be serious!” Ada stomped impatiently. “We need to finish this tonight.”
“And the reason your wedding planner isn’t doing this is because?” Topher refolded the cardstock paper, his brow furrowed in concentration.
Jaxson snorted derisively. “What wedding planner?”
Ada rolled her eyes. “Why would I pay for something you guys can do for free?”
Topher flashed his gray-green eyes at her. “There’s gotta be laws against this.”
“I fed you.”
Ada snorted, dropping back into her seat. “Oh shut up.”
With Samina sitting quietly as she meticulously folded mint boxes, his impatience melted. The slight pucker in her brow and the tip of her tongue pressed against her bottom lip made him smile. She was way too serious and he fought the urge to reach across the table and poke her cheek. Instead, he cleared his throat to grab her attention. “I say we go on a labor strike, Samina. What say you?”
Samina didn’t look up, her slender fingers adjusting the box tops. “Since I just came off strike, you’re on your own, Christopher.”
Jaxson nudged Topher’s side, chuckling under his breath.
Ada harrumphed and moved over to her separate table where she was inserting pre-packaged mint into the favor boxes.
Topher merely grinned at Samina’s no-nonsense attitude. Shrugging his broad shoulders, he picked up another unfinished favor box.
“Sammie, we appreciate you and Topher coming over to help us. You guys are awesome,” Jaxson said, ever the diplomat.
Samina managed a smile despite the ever-present headache.
As a soft classical tune filled the silence, the four resumed their work to finish off the wedding favors and reception programs.
After a few moments passed, Samina couldn’t wait to leave. Her nose was congested from crying all morning and now her back and shoulders throbbed incessantly. She’d followed Ada all over town to complete unfinished errands; reasonable punishment for skipping out on her maid-of-honor duties.
Topher glanced up just in time to catch the subtle roll of Samina’s shoulders. His lips pursed and he dropped the box in his hands. “Time to call it a day.”
Ignoring Ada’s protests and Jaxson’s perturbed expression, he stood to his feet and moved around the table to pull the box from Samina’s hands. A flutter of satisfaction trickled up his spine when Samina merely stood at his side. “Samina and I are officially off-duty.”
Jaxson placed a hand over Ada’s, quelling her protests.
Ada pouted and stood, watching Samina drag her purse over her shoulder. Tugging her hand from Jaxson, Ada shuffled to Samina’s side and grabbed her sleeve before she reached the door. “I was hoping you’d sleep over.”
Both Topher and Jaxson watched the two women in silence.
Samina shook her head, tugging her arm from Ada’s hold. “I can’t tonight… Maybe another time.”
Jaxson moved to Ada’s side, slipping an arm around her waist to keep her from following Samina outside. “Thanks again, guys.”
“Drive safely,” Ada called out in a strained yet polite tone, eyes watching Samina trudge out the door and down the sloped driveway to her parked car.
Meeting Jaxson’s pointed stare over Ada’s head, Topher nodded and stepped outside. His smile brightened as he jogged up to Samina’s side. “Bailing out on me too?”
Samina paused in step, shoulders stiff.
He tilted his head to inspect her shrouded features under the dim moonlight. “You were strangely quiet this evening, Samina.” He kept his hands in his pockets, to stop himself from pulling her close. She looked so tired and sad.
“I’m fine, Topher,” Samina clipped out in a soft voice. “I just need to rest.”
He frowned, recognizing the fatigue in her tone. “Ada pushed you too hard.”
Samina peered up and Topher swallowed hard at the wry smile lifting her lips. She kicked up a shoulder. “It’s what I signed up for… What we all signed up for.”
“Still,” Topher mumbled begrudgingly. Frustration boiled over, annoyed that Ada ignored the signs of Samina blinking away sleep or rolling her shoulders.
“I’m fine,” she insisted, fidgeting with her keys. “Goodnight.” Samina turned to face her car.
“How about I treat you to some coffee?” He blurted out without thinking and grimaced when she turned to face him. “Please?”
Her deadpan expression invoked a smile to Topher’s lips. “I’m not ready to say goodnight yet… Is that okay with you?”
Samina only stared, the croaking melody of crickets in the bushes filling the silence.
And with the moonlight casting a soft glow around her head, her face half covered in shadows, her lips slightly parted, belying her shock, Topher realized he meant every word.
Then in a flash, Samina rearranged her face into a calm, unreadable expression. “I don’t drink coffee.”
Topher bit back a laugh. He should’ve known it wouldn’t be easy. Nodding, he rocked on his heels. “Tea then? I heard you’re a tea connoisseur. What’s your favorite tea?”
Samina hesitated. “Topher, I have to get home…” She desperately wished for her bed and sleep to quickly end this dreadful day.
Topher would not be deterred. “Earl gray, black tea… or maybe chamomile?”
He inclined his head. “Yes to which one?”
She rolled those adorable eyes of hers and folded her arms across her chest. “Chamomile.”
His lips tugged a smile. “Hmm, I like that. So, yes to tea?”
Samina shifted slightly on her feet and sighed. “Fine. One hour. That’s all.”
He swallowed a laugh at Samina’s intriguing attempt to look stern. “Sure,” he acquiesced with a slight dip of his head. “One hour.”
Samina nodded and turned away, missing Topher’s delighted grin. Then she glanced over her shoulder and met his blank expression. “There’s a Tropioca Tea Bar just a few blocks away. Is that okay?”
“Of course. Your company anywhere is good.”
Samina rolled her eyes and turned to face her car.
As he watched her duck into the driver’s seat, Topher almost felt bad for extending her time outside when he knew she probably just wanted to sleep. But the thought of sitting with her, sharing a cup of tea erased every ounce of remorse from his mind and Topher jogged to his car.
“It’s my birthday today,” Samina mumbled, eyes focused on the amber liquid in her cup. At Topher’s pointed silence, she peeked up and caught his gray-green eyes on her. Face burning, she lowered her gaze once more.
“Oh boy…” he breathed.
Samina stiffened against the hint of remorse in his reply. “I didn’t say it so you’d feel sorry for me.”
Topher grunted. “Why didn’t you say so earlier?”
The scraping sound of his chair scooting back drew Samina’s attention and she glanced up to see him walk up to the counter.
With her brow furrowed in confusion, Samina watched him engage the cashier in conversation, as if she hadn’t divulged the reason for her melancholy.
It was just as well, Samina told herself, refocusing her attention on the brewed rooibos tea. Topher didn’t know her long enough to do anything for her.
Still, for some odd reason, she’d expected more.
For the special day it was supposed to be, nothing was going her way, just every other day. Battling a persistent headache since dawn, she tried not to think of the sore realization that no member of her family called to wish her a happy birthday.
It was like everyone forgot about her or didn’t care. Karen slept over at their parents’ home and even Aunty Sheena, who always called the eve before her birthday, didn’t call.
“Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you,” a chorus of voices sounded through the haze of her frazzled thoughts.
Samina looked up, gaping at the small crowd of people that circled around her table. With tears brimming her eyes, she stared at Topher who stood before her with a lit iced cupcake. Around him, the employees sang the birthday song with gusto.
The tears fell, blurring everything except the candle.
As the song ended and the cafe burst into cheers and applause, Topher placed the cupcake before her. “Congratulations, birthday girl.”
She sniffed noisily, wiping her eyes.
He smiled patiently. “Blow out your candle, Samina.”
Samina dared not look at him and focused her attention on the flickering candle. Then after a brief moment, she drew in a deep breath and blew out the flame.
The applause and cheers exploded again and Samina sobbed for the second time that day.
Topher moved to her side and grabbed her hand. “If I’d known earlier, I’d have taken you somewhere nicer.” Topher gently pressed a clean handkerchief into her palm.
Overwhelmed with emotion, Samina lifted the cloth to hide her face. This was the first and only gift she’d received for her birthday. Topher couldn’t possibly know what this gesture meant to her.
“Oh boy,” Topher muttered as more tears slid down her face. “You don’t like strawberry?”
Samina choked on a laugh and she gazed down at the sweet cupcake. She finally lifted her eyes to him, face tingling from the unabashed tenderness in his eyes. Finding her voice, Samina croaked out. “Thank you.”
He smiled, taking his seat. “It’d be a high offense if I didn’t get to celebrate with you. Thank you for telling me. I will never forget it.”
She smiled derisively at his premature vow. After the wedding, he’d return to his life and probably never visit or call. Ezekiel had been that way too.
The thought of not seeing Topher’s impish grin and gray-green eyes invoked more tears. Ducking her face, Samina pressed the handkerchief against her eyes.
Topher leaned forward, resting elbows on the table. “It shouldn’t be hard to remember. Nadine’s birthday is next month on this date.”
Samina curiously watched sadness flicker in his eyes. She sniffed. “How is your aunt?”
He nodded. “Doing better. This time, her nurse is as stubborn as her. Even with them butting heads constantly, it’s good for her.” His lips twitched a smile. “You should visit again. She really liked you.”
Samina nodded and focused her attention on the cupcake. “Do you want to share?”
“Thought you’d never ask.” Topher laughed at her eye-roll and handed her a fork before grabbing his. “Bon appetit, birthday girl.”