Gabriel warily eyed his friend over the car hood and huffed a breath, causing Jeremiah to peer up at him. “You went back, didn’t you?”
“The day we saw Odetta, you went back.” Gabriel scowled when something resembling guilt flickered in Jeremiah’s black eyes. “Fool. What were you thinking?”
“It wasn’t her.” Jeremiah lowered his gaze, rubbing off dirty oil from his palms.
Gabriel clenched his jaw, squinting at Jeremiah. “What are you saying? We both saw her.”
“I checked,” Jeremiah argued. “There was no one named Odetta on the guest list. It wasn’t her.”
His firm tone left no room for argument and Gabriel glared at him.
Jeremiah sighed and resumed the inspection under the car hood. In increasing annoyance, Gabriel stepped away from the car and walked to the half fence by the driveway. He frowned, watching an elderly woman push a baby stroller across the street. “When will you go to Abbeville?”
Jeremiah wiped the sweat from his eyes. “Probably next week. Why?”
Gabriel didn’t respond at first and Jeremiah looked over his shoulder, taking in his friend’s taut shoulders.
“It wasn’t her, Gabe,” Jeremiah insisted gently.
“I hear you.” Gabriel didn’t sound convinced.
Mildly affronted but not in the mood to argue, Jeremiah grunted low in his throat and returned his eyes back to the car hood.
“What a strange woman,” Ada scoffed, adjusted the black lace belt over her satin gown. “Sure she has a close relationship with Jax, but to treat me like I’m not worthy to marry him is just too much!”
Samina smiled sympathetically. It seemed even after a day, Ada could still not shake off the indignation she felt under Ms. Nadine’s open criticism. “I’m sure Jaxson made her see your many good qualities.”
Ada rolled her eyes. “I don’t need her adding more stress to my already-stressful life.”
Samina managed a smile.
“Maybe we should’ve waited a few months,” Ada mumbled, smoothing the satin over her almost-flat stomach. “Planning a wedding in six weeks is no joke.”
“You’re doing fine,” Samina said, earning her a grateful smile from Ada.
Ada fluttered her fingers to the row of dresses in the corner. “Check out your dress. It’s the peach one on the right.”
Samina turned to the rack of frilly gowns and her stomach clenched slightly. There was only one in a sea of blue dresses that could be remotely resemble the peach Ada claimed. Except that it was a tangerine chiffon.
“What do you think of your gown?”
Samina smoothed a hand over the soft chiffon and blinked up at Ada. “Interesting.”
“Interesting? For as long as I’ve known you, interesting isn’t a good word.” Ada then dropped her arms, squinting at Samina’s shoulder. “What’s wrong with it?”
Samina’s eyes widened. “I didn’t say anything was wrong with it. I just…”
Ada scoffed and looked down, assessing her generous curves into the satin white dress.
Thankfully, a saleswoman moved into the room with a smile that froze as Ada turned toward the mirror. With one worried glance at Samina, she ushered forward, plastering a smile on her face. “Can I help you, Miss?”
Ada turned her back to both women. “Help me zip this up.”
Both Samina and the saleswoman exchanged glances. The zipper gaped open with little room to work around and both women approached Ada slowly.
With Ada fidgeting and the saleswoman’s complexion paling by the second, Samina brushed her hands aside and stepped in front of the zipper. As the saleswoman gripped the gaping ends of the dress, Samina tugged on the zipper. They both breathed a sigh only after Samina secured the hook at the top of the dress.
Both stood back and studied Ada’s curvy form squeezed in the satin white gown.
“It’s beautiful!” the saleswoman gushed, clasping her hands together.
“No, it is not,” Ada said between clenched teeth as she shimmied against the taut material of the gown. She threw a desperate look in Samina’s direction. “Do something!”
The saleswoman paled. Samina sighed. “It’s alright, Ada… We’ll figure it out.”
“Don’t worry.” The saleswoman stepped forward and tugged gently on the bodice. “It’ll fit perfectly once we do the final fitting.”
“This is my third fitting! How many do I need to get?” Ada pushed her hands aside and pulled at the embroidered bodice.
Samina and the poor saleswoman grimaced as the beading along the bodice popped out.
Ada’s face crumbled. “What am I gonna do? I’m getting married in less than two months!”
Samina held back a sigh and held her tongue. “It’s a beautiful gown.”
“Yeah, beautiful gown that I can’t wear.” Ada’s lips trembled and she turned to the nervous saleswoman. “I don’t like it and I don’t want it.”
The saleswoman swallowed hard, beads of perspiration dotting her forehead. “But w-we can let it out a little. This type of shape fits your figure.”
“I said I don’t like it.” Ada swiftly turned back to Samina. “I look like Ursula from the Little Mermaid, don’t I?”
Samina’s tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth at the look in Ada’s eyes. Though her friend was naturally curvaceous, Ada was a disciplined eater except during extreme stress. No doubt planning a wedding with little help only exacerbated her habitual late-night eating and snacking. She swallowed hard, struggling for a diplomatic response.
Just then, a fast melodious tune interrupted her thoughts, playing over the chamber music. Samina recognized her ringtone and jerked her attention to her purse on the chair.
Ada scowled and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Hold that thought,” Samina said, hurrying over to retrieve her phone. Her eyes widened in surprise at Ezekiel’s name flashing on the screen.
“Sammie, pick it up.”
Samina flipped open the phone and held it to her ear. “Hello?” she answered hesitantly.
There was a slight pause before Ezekiel replied. “Sam?”
His warm baritone made her cheeks tingle. She gripped the phone tightly and managed to reply. “Yes, hello…”
“Hello. Is this a good time to talk?”
Samina peered over to see Ada and the saleswoman both facing the mirror, assessing the dress. “Uh, well…” Samina hesitated, knowing Ada desperately needed her. But her curiosity kept her on the phone, wondering why Ezekiel was contacting her after such a long stretch of silence between them. “Not really…”
“This dress is beautiful on you,” the saleswoman protested in a calm voice despite Ada’s increasing agitation. “Most brides can’t pull off this look. I assure you.”
Samina caught Ada’s eye in the mirror and managed a smile she hoped would encourage her friend.
“Oh wow…” Ezekiel mumbled. “I did call at a bad time.”
Samina watched Ada’s brow only furrowed. Her smile waned. Ada’s state-of-mind was more important at this moment. “Hey, let me call you in a few hours?”
“Yeah sure, Sam. That’s not a problem.” Ezekiel sounded winded. “Call me when you’re free. I apologize for the interruption.”
“I’ll call you later.” Samina quickly disconnected the call and shuffled over to Ada’s side.
Ezekiel stared down at his phone, unsure he heard correctly. The words dress and brides stirred up images of Samina draped in resplendent white and his chest tightened uncomfortably.
“I come bearing gifts!” James strode into the room, toting a box in his arms. With a smug grin, he placed the box on Ezekiel’s desk. “Courtesy of Goodwin. The meeting went well as we predicted. Congratulations.”
Turning slowly, Ezekiel only regarded the crate of food in silence.
“Uh-oh,” James muttered, his smile waning. “What’s eating you?” He pulled out a box of take-out and placed it before Ezekiel. “I thought you’d be jumping for joy. We get to keep their business.”
“Great,” Ezekiel muttered in a lackluster tone that raised James’ brow and stirred his curiosity.
James took the seat opposite Ezekiel and opened his own box of food. “What gives?” He reached for a pair of chopsticks, snapping it open.
“I think I’ll rescind the job offer to Sam.”
“The nanny position?” James eyed him curiously. “You found someone else?”
Ezekiel shook his head, trailing the plastic spoon over the rice and meat.
“Does she not want it?”
“It’s not about her. I don’t want it…” His unsettled stomach churning, Ezekiel swallowed the food.
“You don’t want what?” James lowered the chopsticks into his box of noodles.
Ezekiel caught the knowing glint in James’ eyes and shifted in his chair. “It doesn’t matter…” Pushing out of his chair, he moved to stand by the window overlooking the city.
James smirked. “Since you came back from Houston, you’ve been acting strange…”
James chortled at Ezekiel’s warning tone, tickled that his uncanny observation. He wasn’t Ezekiel’s best friend for nothing. Rising to his feet, he jaunted over to Ezekiel’s side and peered out the window. “You’re curious about her, aren’t you?”
Ezekiel clenched his jaw. He could already see where James was going and didn’t like it one bit. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Admit it, Zeke. I know you are.”
“Impossible.” He steeled himself at the vision of Samina surrounded in white, her smile radiant and alluring.
James turned to face Ezekiel. “We’ve been friends since high school. Witnessed all your past crushes and relationships, your dumb insecurities and whatever foolishness you’re working through in that block head of yours.”
Ezekiel squinted at him.
James grinned, unapologetic. “Look, It’s obvious when something or rather, someone is bothering you.”
Ezekiel dragged his gaze to the window.
“Samina’s got you all bothered?”
Ezekiel stiffened and he stepped away from the window. “You’re delusional.” He didn’t have time to deal with any confusing thoughts of his childhood friend. Sitting back down in his chair, he peered down at the phone.
James chuckled softly. “It’s funny how the tables have turned.”
“What are you yapping about now?”
James merely shrugged, moving back to his seat. “Somehow, between your trip to Houston and now, you’ve been defensive about your feelings for Samina.” He shook his head incredulously. “Just like she was back in the old days.”
“I am not defensive about her, because I don’t have any feelings. I barely see her for that to be the case…” He trailed off, catching the rest of James’ remark. “What do you mean she was like that back in the day?”
James grabbed his food container, a triumphant smirk lifting his lips. “I’m surprised you didn’t know.” He watched Ezekiel fish out a piece of meat to his mouth. “Sam has always had the biggest crush on you.”
Ezekiel choked on the chicken and his eyes swung back to James’ face.
James nodded eagerly. “Yup. For as long as I remember, she’s always liked you…”
Ezekiel swallowed the offending piece of meat, his brow furrowed deep. He couldn’t have possibly heard correctly. “Repeat that? Who liked who?”