“So, Mr. Dames, what will it be?” drawled the sandy-haired gentleman from Goodwin International from across the conference room.
All eyes turned to Ezekiel standing on the other end of the polished oak table.
Ezekiel could hear his own pounding heart and glanced up at the timer above the gentleman’s head. He had a plane to catch. Tamping a sigh of frustration, he replied. “Can you ensure that if we accept, you’d be keeping your own end of the deal?”
The gentleman inclined his head. “Naturally.” His gray eyes scrutinized Ezekiel openly, searching for signs of hesitation or weakness. “Have we given you reason to doubt our word?”
“Not yet,” Ezekiel quipped just as easily. He bristled inwardly when the gentlemen chuckled as if he was wearing a clown hat and juggling on a unicycle instead of his crisp suit. They didn’t think he was up for the challenge. Their steady gazes taunted him to back down and prove to them he and James were incapable of handling such a project. He squared his shoulders. “Alright then. Deal.”
Their chuckles faded and they blinked in stunned silence.
Ezekiel tamped down a smug grin.
“Pardon?” stuttered the sandy-haired gentleman and project manager for Goodwin.
“I said you have a deal, gentlemen.” Ezekiel placed the pointer to the table. “My partner and I will read through the contract and get back to you within the week.”
“No,” the manager countered firmly. His eyes glistened with challenge. “We want your decision in two days. Can you get it to us by the end of that business day?”
With all eyes riveted to his face, Ezekiel couldn’t afford to hesitate. “I’ll have it to you by 5pm.”
“You serious?” James bellowed in excitement through the phone speaker. Ezekiel had just relayed the details of the Goodwin meeting on his way to the airport. “Can we get everything settled by then?”
“Absolutely. We can.” Ezekiel tapped the steering wheel, glowering at the endless line of cars packed bumper to bumper. “When do you get in tomorrow?”
“Hmm, let’s see… From London to D.C., give-or-take eight hours. This two-hour layover in Amsterdam’s pretty sweet, though I’d rather be in my bed.” James sighed. “Anyway, count me in by early evening tomorrow.”
Ezekiel rolled his eyes. “Great.”
“What about you? What does this mean for us?”
“Heading to Houston now. I’ll be there indefinitely and you’ll probably have to travel back and forth until we get this deal settled.”
Ezekiel smirked. “Don’t sound so excited.”
“And you?” James asked pointedly. “I imagine the girls will be excited to have you there… indefinitely.”
Ezekiel snorted derisively. “Depends on which of them you’re speaking of. Laide’s moods leave me more confused than ever before.”
“You know how preteens are.” James chuckled. “Anyway, including a special someone, I count three that’ll be glad to see you.”
“Cut it out.”
James laughed louder. “How is our brown-eyed shy beauty doing these days? You haven’t spoken about her recently.”
“That was intentional,” Ezekiel maneuvered in front of a six-wheel trailer, grateful for the approaching exit. “Dude, leave the subject of Sam alone.”
“Dude?! Ha, you never use that word except when you’re embarrassed and want me to leave you alone.” James scoffed. “I’m fine with leaving the subject alone but it’ll probably be hard for you, y’know, since you’re the one thinking about her.”
Ezekiel quelled a sigh. Debating with James was futile. “Anyway, how’s the Paleri venture?”
At James’ telling snort, Ezekiel knew his attempt at changing the subject hadn’t gone unnoticed.
“Associates came by today, we drafted and finalized the plans.” James cleared his throat. “The CFO and CEO were both present in the meeting, and they accepted the proposal within minutes of negotiations.”
“Hmm,” Ezekiel nodded approvingly as he signaled to exit the highway. “Good to hear you’re actually doing work in my absence.” He grinned when James snorted. “I better not jinx it and let you do what you need to do.”
“Just like you should,” James said. “Well, go catch your flight and greet my girls for me. Say hello to your folks and Sam too, that is when you talk to her.”
“Later.” Ezekiel disconnected the call, cutting short James’ laughter. There was no sense thinking too much about Samina now. He’d have to see for herself if there was any truth to James’ words once he got to Houston. For now, he needed to hurry around this rush hour traffic before he missed his flight.
Telling herself two hours wasn’t far off before she could take a nap, Samina turned a smile in Beulah’s direction. “That’s nice, sweetheart…” she paused, blinking away the dizziness. “Wanna jump on another couch… y’know to even it out a bit?”
Adelaide snorted derisively across the room and Samina caught the mocking smile on the young girl’s face. She smiled at the preteen. “Got any better ideas?”
Rolling her eyes, Adelaide shifted in her chair. “Bee. Get off the couch or the boogie monster will eat your toes when you’re sleeping.”
As if lightning struck in the room, the smile on Beulah’s face disappeared and she plopped on her backside. Samina held her breath as Beulah swung her wide brown eyes to her, wanting to verify Adelaide’s threat.
Samina mimicked her wide-eyed expression. “Hmm?”
“Is it true?” Beulah’s voice was barely above a whisper, her right thumb slowly lifting to her mouth.
“Put your hand down, Beulah,” Adelaide snapped impatiently.
Samina frowned at Adelaide and turned back to Beulah. “What’s true, sweetheart?”
With her hand pressed against her chubby cheek, Beulah blinked up at Samina, eyes brimming with tears. “B-boogie m-monster will eat my t-toes?”
Her heart in her chest, Samina managed a smile at Beulah. “Sweetheart, that’s…”
The sound of rustling metal by the front door forced Samina to stop. Beulah squeaked and scooted close to Samina’s side, burying her face under Samina’s arm. Even Adelaide leaned into her seat, pulling her knees to her chest.
More worried that the girls believed there was a boogie monster than the unexpected visitor at the door, Samina hesitated stepping away to investigate. But the sound of the door rustling made Beulah whimper. Samina had to put a stop to this.
“Wait here,” she said softly to Beulah, disengaging herself from Beulah’s hold. Adelaide moved to cuddle beside Beulah and Samina slowly made her way toward the door. It couldn’t be Aunty Sheena; she would’ve informed them of their return journey. At this time of the night, there was only one other option.
Samina stalled in front of the door and swallowed hard.
“Aunty Sammy…” she heard Beulah whimper at Adelaide’s side.
“Hush!” Adelaide snapped, pressing a hand over Beulah’s mouth.
“Stay calm,” Samina said, squeezing her hands into fists as she moved to one side of the door. In the corner of her eye, she spotted a large umbrella leaning against the wall. She moved slowly to the umbrella just as the burglar persisted on the stubborn lock. Although the top slide lock was in place, they weren’t safe yet.
Then the unthinkable happened. The knob turned and jerked under the rough hand that manipulated it on the other side.
Samina snatched up the umbrella and held it in front of her with a tight grip, the pointed tip extended in front of her just as the door swung open.
“God, help me!” Samina whispered as she raised the umbrella over her head and swung it at the intruder’s head.
The girls shrieked in surprise as Samina’s weapon knocked the shadowed figure to his knees.
“Stay there, girls!” Samina bellowed over the man’s audible groans. Feeling empowered that she’d at least slowed him down, she raised the umbrella and pummeled him in the back and shoulders. How dare he scare these girls and attempt to steal from them?
The man’s garbled moans ricocheted across the room as he staggered against into the door.
“Stop!” Adelaide then screamed, running up to Samina’s side.
Blinded with righteous anger, Samina threw a scowl over her shoulder. “I said stay back!”
“No!” The girl scowled right back. “Stop hitting him, stupid. It’s Dad.”
“Daddy?!” Beulah gasped, scrambled across the room and past Adelaide toward the man crouched by the door. She fell to her knees beside the man and threw her arms around his neck. “Daddy!” she wailed against his chest.
Samina dropped the weapon yielding hand and gaped at Adelaide.
“Be careful… bumble bee,” Ezekiel groaned, bracing one hand around Beulah as he squinted up at Samina.
At the familiar voice, Samina jerked her gaze over to Beulah and the intruder who was actually Ezekiel. Her jaw dropped, realizing what she’d done.
Ezekiel gave her a rueful smile. “Hey, Sam…”
Flabbergasted, Samina dropped the umbrella.
Adelaide snorted in disgust and spun on her heels, stomping away.
Both Ezekiel and Samina winced at the sound of the bedroom door slamming hard. Beulah continued wailing into his chest.
If his head wasn’t pounding violently, Ezekiel would’ve burst into hysterical laughter. But the chagrin marring Samina’s lovely face kept him from acting out. This was a very solemn moment and he dared not laugh.
Beulah curled in his lap, her thumb in her mouth. Adelaide sat with her arms folded across her chest, glaring at the floor.
Ezekiel squinted at Adelaide, his jaw clenched tight. “I’ve yet to hear your apology, young lady. Don’t waste my time.”
Spying Adelaide’s mulish scowl, Samina shifted to Ezekiel. “Really, it’s okay… It was my fault for not checking first.”
“It’s not okay,” Ezekiel cut in firmly, eyes riveted to Adelaide’s tense features. “She knows when she’s done wrong and she’ll apologize. Now, young lady.”
Instead of yielding to her father’s no-nonsense tone, Adelaide drew in her slender shoulders and clenched her teeth tighter.
Ezekiel’s glare intensified and Samina cringed. She had to do something. “Ezekiel, please.”
“Adelaide, don’t make me repeat myself. Hurry up before I get angry.” He could feel that stubborn headache creeping in. “We don’t have all night.”
Beulah burrowed deeper in her father’s arms, sucking voraciously at her thumb as she peeked at her sister.
“Adelaide!” All three girls stiffened but Ezekiel didn’t falter. “Now, I said.”
Her smooth brow wrinkled in a deep frown. Risking a glare at her father, Adelaide slowly turned her seething expression on Samina. She bared her teeth to force out the word. “Sorry.”
“Say it with sincerity or you’ll be sitting here all night.”
Samina bit the inside of her cheeks to insist the apology was accepted. They were all exhausted.
“I’m sorry, Aunty Samina.” Adelaide’s dark eyes boring holes into Samina’s face.
Samina dipped her head silently, praying it was over. She couldn’t breathe until Ezekiel let it go.
“Good,” Ezekiel mumbled, shifting a drowsy Beulah in his arms. “Now come escort your sister upstairs and get ready for bed. I’ll be up shortly.”
In silence, Adelaide helped her sister to stand and they both trudged up the stairs without a glance in Samina’s direction.
Ezekiel released a heavy sigh and covered his face with his hands. He pressed his thumbs to both sides of his temples, kneading the pain away.
Guilt surged in as Samina watched him massage his temple. Her palms still tingled from gripping the umbrella tightly.
Ezekiel peered up at her, his inquisitive gaze sweeping over her face. Then a soft smile lifted his lips. He lowered his hand, leaning back into the sofa. “Sam… it’s fine.” He chuckled but grimaced slightly at the twinge at his temple. “I’m glad you were here with them.”
Samina warily eyed the umbrella resting at her feet. “I’m so sorry,” she blurted out.
“Sam,” Ezekiel leaned forward to grab her hand but stopped himself. He pulled his hand away.
Samina bit her bottom lip, eyes tingling with unshed tears.
“Sam…” He waited until she looked up at him. “I feel much better that my girls were under your care.” His crooked smile appeared once more. “Umbrella or not, you’re a force to be reckoned with. That’s good to know.”
She lowered her eyes, unable to form a sentence. Somehow that didn’t sound like a compliment even if he insisted it was. Adelaide’s sharp words still stung.
He sighed and he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Sorry about Laide.”
Samina managed a smile and shrugged her shoulders. “It’s fine.”
“No, Samina. It’s not. She was rude and disrespectful.” He frowned, troubled by his daughter’s unpleasant temper. “I never realized how spoiled she’s gotten but I aim to fix that. She had no right to call you stupid—”
“I said it’s fine, Ezekiel,” Samina cut him off firmly. “Hearing it once was more than enough. You don’t need to repeat it.”
He grimaced, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry.”
Samina shook her head, exhausted beyond reason. Stopping herself from insisting all was fine, she rose to her feet and moved around the couch toward the guest bedroom.
Ezekiel shot to his feet and moved to stand in her path. “Where are you going?”
She blinked, confused. “To get my stuff. Since you’re here now, I can go home.”
He frowned. “Aren’t you going to sleep over?”
She inhaled sharply, eyes as wide as saucers.
He grimaced and quickly lifted a hand. “That didn’t come out right… What I meant was you already planned to stay and I just came unannounced so I thought that—”
Samina snorted as laughter bubbled up her throat. Ezekiel smiled as she held a hand to her lips. He chuckled and soon they were both laughing at the absurdity of the night, from the moment Samina punished Ezekiel for being the boogie monster and burglar.
In the shadows near the stairs, Adelaide stewed in silent anger as she took in the cozy scene of the two adults laughing. Tears streaming down her face, she watched as her father escorted Aunty Samina to the door. Her fists bunched at her sides as she noted the goofy grin on her father’s face, a look she’d never seen before.