Posts tagged “city life

Samina’s Chance: Chapter 50

Posted on 05/06/2015

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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Samina’s Chance: Chapter 10

Posted on 16/03/2015

apartment

Topher swallowed a laugh at the unmasked chagrin on Jaxson’s face. “Cut him some slack, Nadine,” he said, nudging his best friend’s shoulder. “He’s a busy man these days.”

Jaxson gave him a wry smile and Topher bit back a chuckle, turning to the window.

Nadine snorted, folding thin arms across her shift dress. “Too busy to come see me?”

“Ah Nadine,” Jaxson maneuvered around her to hug her slim waist and kissed her leathery cheek. “You know I’ve missed you.”

Topher eyed his aunt, watching with amusement at her smile drawing a dimple under her mouth.

“Sure you have,” Nadine mumbled, pressing her cheek against Jaxson’s shoulder when he embraced her again. “And where’s that girl you’re hiding from me?”

Jaxson groaned. Topher laughed softly. “She’s probably scared of your impending wrath.”

Nadine wrinkled her nose at her nephew before glancing up at Jaxson. “Is that true?”

“Well…” he then laughed when Nadine jutted her bony elbow into his side. “No, she’s out with her maid of honor.” He snuck a peek at Topher and smirked. “I wasn’t invited.”

Topher snorted. “You’d probably just get in the way.”

“Men are useless in that area,” Nadine agreed, nudging Jaxson aside and walked to the couch. She could feel their eyes on her as she perched on the arm of the chair. “So, will she stop by so I can give my approval?”

The two friends exchanged bemused expressions. Topher shrugged. Jaxson turned a smile to Nadine. “Without a doubt, of course.” He walked over to the couch and sat beside Nadine, reaching for her hand.

Topher’s heart warmed just watching the two of them. Jaxson didn’t treat Nadine like a fragile doll, knowing fully well that the sixty-two-year old woman wouldn’t allow for it.

“Will she come today?” Nadine insisted, staring down at her fingers laced with Jaxson’s.

“What’s the rush, Nadine?” Topher teased. “Want to scoop out your competition?”

“Hush, boy.”

Jaxson chuckled. “Yeah, she’ll come. Maybe she’ll bring Samina.” He winked at Topher’s narrowed stare.

Nadine noticed the exchange and raised a brow at her nephew. “Who’s this Samina girl?”

He only cleared his throat and pulled his gaze to the skyline view from his window.

“Ada’s best friend,” Jaxson supplied with an amused grin. “She’s a nice girl. Pretty too.”

Nadine’s brow furrowed at Topher’s inscrutable profile before turning to Jaxson. “Single?”

“As far as I know.” Jaxson grinned into Nadine’s probing caramel eyes. “We planned on taking you out to an early dinner but maybe we can stay in and order some food instead?”

She squinted in suspicion. “What type of food?”

“What are you in the mood for?”

She sighed, leaning her head against his shoulder. “Home-cooked food.”

Jaxson smiled at the pout in her voice and eyed the kitchenette across the room.

Nadine then tilted her head to peer up at him. “Can she cook?”

Topher glanced over at Jaxson. Nadine frowned, leaning away. “Your fiancee can’t cook? What a disappointment.”

As Jaxson threw him a stare, silently pleading for help, Topher cleared his throat to mask a chuckle. “You’re on your own.”

Jaxson heaved a sigh under Nadine’s quelling stare. “Ada has other talents… Cooking’s just not one of them.”

She shook her head and clucked her tongue in disappointment. “So you plan on eating out every night? You’ll waste away that way.” She eyed his flat stomach and blew out a breath. “I’ll just have to wait and see what so-called talents this girl has.” She started to rise.

“Wait a minute, Nadine.” Jaxson placed a hand on her arm, guiding her to sit back down beside him. He gave her a boyish smile. “Let me call her and see what we can do. She should be done with errands now,” he said, pulling out his phone.

Topher watched in growing curiosity as Jaxson quickly dialed his fiancée’s number.

Nadine raised a brow as Jaxson perked up suddenly.

“Hey babe, you done yet?” Jaxson asked, smiling at Nadine. “Where are you?” He turned silent for a few moments, no doubt listening as Ada rattled on about her busy day. “Uh-hmm. Hey listen, when can you get here?”

As Jaxson tapped the side of his flip phone, Topher smirked knowingly. His best friend was nervous and undoubtedly trying to make Nadine happy with his choice.

While listening to Jaxson spell out his request on the other end, Ada grew more frazzled. “Babe, you know I don’t cook. What’s this about?”

Samina frowned. Ada’s irritation from the altercation at the dress shop was only getting worse by Jaxson’s unexpected call.

“Well what do you expect me to say?” Ada crossed her legs, a sure sign she was getting angry. “We already made arrangements to take them out for dinner. There was no talks of me attempting to cook.”

Samina looked away from the road briefly, clocking the knot in Ada’s brow. She tamped a sigh and faced the road. Whatever Jaxson was requesting couldn’t be good for either of them. They still had a million and one things to do before Ada’s approaching bridal shower. She couldn’t afford to deal with Ada’s snappy attitude for the rest of the night.

Ada snuck a peek at Samina and sighed. “Yeah okay, hush for a minute. I’m thinking.” She shifted in the passenger’s seat to face Samina. “You in the mood to cook?”

Samina’s brow furrowed and she glanced quickly at her best friend. “Pardon?”

Ada blinked innocent eyes at her. “Cook. You in the mood for it?”

Biting back a snark response that she barely had time to eat much less cook for anyone, Samina faced the car in front. “I was actually planning on eating leftovers…” At Ada’s pointed silence, she squeezed the steering wheel. “What’s going on?”

Ada covered the mouthpiece of her phone. “Remember I told you Topher’s aunt is with him. We were supposed to go out for dinner but she’s demanding a home-cooked meal.”

Samina frowned. What type of woman was Topher’s aunt that she could make demands?

Ada rolled her eyes in annoyance. “Jaxson loves her as much as Topher does and I’m sure he’s trying to impress her with my nonexistent cooking skills… Anyway, can you help?”

Samina hesitated. The night was steadily approaching and she still had a box of party favors to fill plus a handful of job applications to complete.

“Please Sammie…” Ada pouted at her, eyelashes batting innocently.

Samina pulled her gaze from Ada and managed a nod. Her shoulders drooped at the long evening ahead of them. “What does she want to eat?”

“Oh thank you, Sammie. I owe you one.” Ada breathed a sigh of relief, then frowned. “I think she’s Creole… so maybe Cajun?”

Samina’s lips twitched upwards. “Not bad. My dad’s Creole.”

Ada grinned and held the phone to her ear. “Listen, since you randomly sprung this on us, we’ll have to stop by Sammie’s place.” She glanced back at Samina. “How long, you think?”

“Give me an hour,” Samina replied, feeling the weight of fatigue creep onto her shoulders.

“An hour,” Ada relayed to Jaxson. “Actually make it two. Yea yea, love you. Bye.” She snapped the phone shut and scoffed lightly. “Trying to show off when he knows I can’t cook.”

Samina could only watch the heavy traffic on the interstate highway, wishing Ada would just learn to either drive or cook. Somehow, she hadn’t imagined how tired today was going to be and it was only getting worse by the minute.

“I know you’ve a lot to do,” Ada sighed. “Anyway, have you considered what you’ll say to Aunt Sheena?”

“A little.” Samina managed a wry smile. She hadn’t had much time to think about anything other than her maid-of-honor duties.

“It might give you something to do while you wait for a real job.”

Samina maneuvered the car to the adjacent lane. “What would you do, if it were you?”

There was a short pause before Ada replied. “I’d do it. After all, he won’t be there to distract and bother you. Besides, you could always consider it a teaching opportunity. Like home schooling.”

“Home schooling,” Samina echoed softly and then smiled. “That’s an optimistic way to look at it.”

“Ugh, so many bad drivers,” Ada scoffed, drawing a laugh from Samina. “Your folks still fighting about it?”

Samina dipped her head. “Only my mom wants me to do it. My dad, he hasn’t really said much.”

Ada wrinkled her nose. “Maybe you should ask him about it. Besides, you listen to him more than your mom anyway. I’m sure he’ll know what to do.”

“Maybe I will…” Samina muttered, leaning back in the seat.

Back at the hotel, Nadine frowned as Jaxson eyed the phone. “Why the fuss?”

“It’s alright,” Jaxson reassured Nadine a smile. “She says it’ll be a few hours though.”

She brushed him off, her brow furrowed deeper. “Was she angry that you wanted her to cook us dinner? She sounds impossible.”

“Like someone I know.” Topher smirked when Nadine scowled his way. He rolled his eyes. “If you were craving Cajun food, we could’ve found a decent restaurant downtown. You didn’t have to inconvenience Ada’s friend.”

Nadine raised a brow. “So she’s getting her friend to cook?”

“If you want to make it through tonight, yeah…”

Jaxson laughed. “Touche.” When Topher shrugged unapologetically, Jaxson grinned. “I’m surprised you’re complaining since you’ll finally get to see her again.”

Nadine cocked a brow at Jaxson. “Again?” She glanced up at Topher. “You’ve met before?”

Jaxson smiled at Nadine. “They met at my law school graduation. Ada and Samina drove in for the ceremony. Let’s just say it wasn’t ‘love at first sight’.”

“At least not for her,” Topher interjected with an ironic smile. “She wasn’t happy to see me.”

“Love at first sight…?” Nadine echoed, gaping at her nephew.

“She was cranky,” Jaxson countered. “Driving a few state lines can do that to a person.”

Topher smiled, imagining Samina’s annoyed expression. He grinned wider, recalling her snappy comebacks.

Nadine raised a brow at his goofy expression and faced Jaxson, eyes demanding an explanation. “What’s this about driving and getting an attitude with my boy?”

Jaxson smirked. “Samina drove the whole time and Topher was being his usual charming self. Except she wasn’t charmed.”

“Couldn’t your girl take over for a while?”

“Ada doesn’t drive,” Topher offered, earning him an exasperated look from Jaxson. “Ever since I’ve known her, she’s never driven by herself.”

“So she gets her friend and fiance to act as lifelong chauffeurs?” Nadine shook her head. “What an odd girl.”

“Like someone I know,” said both Jaxson and Topher.

Nadine scowled as they laughed together and turned to her nephew. “Does this Samina girl not like you?”

Topher’s smile waned slightly.

Jaxson grinned. “It’s not that. Sammie’s just didn’t have enough time to get to know him, which is something both Ada and I intend to remedy this time.”

“Hence the wedding match-up and the dinner,” Nadine said dryly.

Jaxson smirked. “Call it intervention for two people to experience the miracle of love.”

“Cheesy,” Topher muttered, frowning at him.

“Unoriginal,” Nadine mumbled, eyeing her nephew curiously.

Jaxson’s phone rang in the hotel room two hours later. Topher looked up from his laptop. Jaxson shot to his feet, grabbing the phone.

“They’re here?” Nadine mumbled, turning away from the television. “That was fast…”

“They’re in the parking garage. I’ll go first.” Jaxson strode to the door.

Topher turned to Nadine with a stern expression. “Be nice.”

Nadine blinked at him with innocent eyes. “What’d I do now?”

He shook his head. “No intense looks or weird inquiries. Just be the nice lady we know you can be.”

She scoffed, folding her arms. “What intense looks? And I am a nice lady.”

“When you want to be.” He moved around the table toward the bed, bending to straighten the rumbled bed sheets. “Just try your best, for Jax’s sake.”

At her pointed silence, Topher peered down at the pensive look in her eyes.

“You like this Samina girl, don’t you?”

His mouth dropped open momentarily and he snapped it shut, glancing away. “I like her as much as Ada. That’s it.”

“Hmm, Christopher. That’s a bit treacherous of you… Liking your best friend’s fiancée.”

“Nadine…” Topher started in a warning tone.

The door swung open and Jaxson’s voice announced his arrival. “They’re here,” he said with a small red cooler in his arms. Ada trailed in behind him.

“As we can clearly see.” Nadine openly scrutinized the petite brunette at Jaxson’s right shoulder.

“Behave,” Topher muttered, giving Ada a smile. He walked over to give her a quick hug, peering over at the empty space behind her.

Ada patted his back before stepping around him. “Sammie’s getting the rest of the stuff if you’d give her a hand.”

“Got it.” Topher walked around her and turned to give Nadine one last warning look before stepping out of the hotel room. Taking the steps to the sixth level garage exit, he immediately spotted the familiar blue Honda CRV. His lips curved in a smile as he approached the car, his gaze moved appreciatively over the slender figure bent over the open truck.

Samina then straightened with boxes stacked in her arms. Topher’s smile quickly faded as the top box started to slid precariously to one side. Swooping in, Topher caught the box before it hit the cement floor.

Samina felt her heated cheeks as Topher Chance straightened his imposing frame. His gray-green eyes swung to her face and she lowered her gaze to the box in his capable hands. “Thanks,” she mumbled. “I should’ve just taken two trips.”

“Nonsense,” he berated softly and reached to take the leaning tower of food from her hands.

Her hands felt empty and restless now that Topher carried everything. She rubbed her hands against her hips. “Let me help.” Samina started to reach for the top two containers and frowned when he stepped away.

“It’s the least I can do since you had to cook at the last minute.” Topher gave her another smile. “Thanks, by the way.”

Cheeks warm under his gaze, Samina turned swiftly to collect her purse and swung it over her shoulder. “It’s no big deal.”

“So how was your day?” Topher asked casually as they walked back to the hotel.

“It was alright…”

She snuck a peek at the imposing man beside her. Much had changed about the Topher she knew from five years ago. He now sported a trimmed goatee and short beard that only accentuated his chiseled features. Even his strong shoulders seemed broader, encased in a dove-gray cashmere sweater, his long legs strong and lean in a pair of loose dark jeans.

Swallowing a sigh, her eyes crept back up his face and she jumped visibly at his gray-green eyes riveted to her face. Face scorched with heat, Samina looked ahead, realizing they now stood in front of the elevator.

“Ladies first.” Topher gestured with the containers to the open elevator door.

Samina walked stiffly around him into the elevator and faced the lit panel of buttons.

“Tenth floor,” he said, sliding in beside her.

Samina tapped the button and folded her empty arms across her chest.

“So how have you been, Sammie?”

Biting the inside of her cheek, Samina stared down the numbers above the door. She’d hoped for a quiet ride but it seemed Topher had other plans.  “Fine… You?”

“Not bad, thanks for asking. It’s been a long time. You look good.” His tone seemed warmer, gentler. Samina refrained from looking at him to see if his gray-green eyes were equally kind.

Her cheeks heated at the thought and cleared her throat. “Thanks,” she managed to say, shifting her weight from one foot to the other as the elevator progressed slower than usual.

Thankfully, he remained quiet for the rest of the trip to the tenth floor, and Samina tamped down a sigh of relief as the doors swung open.

“Room 1034, on the left,” Topher called as she practically tore down the hallway.

She could hear the amusement in his clear voice and forced herself to slow down. It was silly avoiding him like a blushing teenage girl. Finding the hotel room, she pushed it open and spotted Jaxson and Ada crouching around the coffee table. They both looked up with a welcoming smile. She managed a smile of her own and stepped inside.

“So you’re Samina…” spoke a female’s throaty voice to her right. Samina paused in step and glanced over to a long-legged, willowy female reclining in a leather chaise by the window.

Her angular features resembled Topher’s save the thinner lips and caramel eyes that probed at her. Other than that, everything from her high cheekbones, straight and narrow nose, winged eyebrows and square jaw was the same as Topher’s. Despite her age, she was both striking and dominating in appearance. No wonder she could make demands and expect immediate acquiescence.

Samina’s tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth as she stared right back.

“Sammie,” Jaxson’s voice sounded from the table. “That’s Nadine, Topher’s aunt.”

Samina managed a nod in greeting. “Hello.” Her voice sounded like an inaudible croak.

Nadine merely cocked one of her winged brows.

Behind Samina, Topher threw Nadine a warning look and smiled at Samina’s back. “Why don’t you have a seat while we set up the food?”

Samina eyed the empty space beside Nadine and swallowed hard. She rather deal with Topher’s unsettling stare than Nadine’s probing one. She turned quickly to face him. “It’s okay, I can help.”

“Nonsense.” Jaxson pushed to his feet and followed Topher to the table. “Make yourself comfortable beside Princess Ada.”

Ada rolled her eyes as she settled on the couch.

Samina cleared her throat, feeling the weight of Nadine’s eyes on her. “We didn’t get drinks. Do you have any?”

“Only water. In the fridge,” Topher replied. “Don’t worry, Jax you get it.” He caught Nadine peeking at Samina from the top of her book.

An hour later and Nadine sighed blissfully, leaning into the leather chaise. “That was surprisingly delicious…” she lifted her eyes to Samina sitting on the other side of the table beside Ada. “How on earth did you learn to cook like that?”

A ghost of a smile crept up Samina’s lips. “My dad taught me.”

“He’s Creole?” her brows lifted in interest, glancing once at Topher sitting at her side.

Samina dipped her head, her smile growing. “Yes. From Abbeville, Louisiana.”

Both Topher and Nadine jerked their eyes back to her. Samina lowered her fork, unsettled by their surprised expressions.

“Your dad is from Abbeville?” Nadine leaned forward, caramel eyes searching Samina’s face.

Samina hesitated before answering. “Yes…”

Nadine’s eyes narrowed slightly and Topher laughed softly. “My family’s from Abbeville.”

“That is an odd coincidence,” Ada mused aloud, gnawing at the chicken bone.

“Indeed…” Nadine muttered, lifting her glass to her lips. “What do you do for a living, Samina?”

Samina slowly lifted her eyes to Nadine’s, considering her question briefly. Then she managed a smile. “Home school teacher.”

Ada offered her a beaming smile.

“I thought—” Jaxson pressed his lips together when Ada pinched his leg under the table and lowered his eyes to his food.

Nadine then swung her probing stare in Ada’s direction. “You… explain to me why you don’t know how to cook for my boy?”

“Nadine,” Topher and Jaxson groaned in unison.

“What?!” Nadine snapped back, probing eyes riveted to Ada’s rueful expression. “Well?”

Samina bit the insides of her cheeks to quell her laughter, relieved that Nadine diverted her attention elsewhere. She quietly offered Ada a sympathetic smile. Her shoulders drooped in a relaxed pose, grateful to have dodged Nadine’s pointed questions. Now that she’d finally made her decision about babysitting Ezekiel’s girls, Samina allowed herself to enjoy the rest of her dinner.

<<Chapter 9 || Chapter 11>>

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