As they both reached for a dusty model ship kit, Gabriel looked up to his eldest daughter’s stern expression. Then he lifted his hand, watching with longing as Samina tucked it between two boxes. “Is that necessary?”
“Mom’ll give you a hard time if she sees yet another one.” Samina dusted off her hands. “She thinks everything you bring home from this place is just junk.”
Gabriel grunted, moving to her side as they strode down the aisle of the consignment shop. “She just doesn’t know hidden treasures when she sees it.”
“She saw you,” Samina tossed back with eyes dancing in amusement.
Gabriel poked her side, grinning when Samina giggled and ducked away. He’d missed her laugh, missed her company but knew she was far too grown to move back home. The house was entirely too quiet, to which Deidre claimed was his fault and not because she was often overbearing.
“Besides,” Samina’s low voice pulled him out of his reverie. “We’re only here to drop off old stuff, not bring back any.”
He smirked at her pointed stare and nodded. “Fine… Let’s just pass the time window shopping.” In truth, he needed this distraction from all that plagued his thoughts, his conscience.
Turning the corner to the furniture aisle, Samina cleared her throat to get his attention. “Dad, about Obadiah…”
Gabriel sobered at the thought of his only son. “Sam… I’m sorry for tossing him to you guys like that.”
“Don’t worry, Dad.” She offered him an encouraging smile that only made him feel guilt-ridden. Parents disciplined their children, not siblings.
Gabriel sighed softly, looking away.
“Besides,” the smile in her voice pulled his attention to her once more. “It’ll be good for us to be together now. We’re bonding quite nicely.”
He raised a brow at her. She normally valued her solitude, like he did.
Samina frowned at him, a smile on hers. “What?”
“What does that even mean?” She laughed softly. “Obadiah said that too.”
His brow furrowed, heart throbbing painfully. He missed his son, aware that the boy’s absence was entirely his fault. He swallowed down the lump of regret and managed to respond with a “How is he?”
Samina hesitated before responding. “He still thinks you overreacted and didn’t wait to hear him out.”
Gabriel stiffened as Jeremiah’s accusations from yesterday rang in his ears, echoing what his daughter just revealed. Both his son and his best friend had been caught by him in the same compromising positions and with no defense to stand on. They’d let him down. So why was he the one that felt remorse and loss?
A jingle he recognized sounded. Gabriel blinked out of his reverie once more, watching Samina pull out her phone. He frowned as her eyes widened and she hesitated answering. “Go ahead…” he mumbled, hands in his pockets.
She gnawed at her bottom lip, hesitating once more before answering on the fifth ring before it went to voicemail. “Hello?”
Gabriel sighed, looking down at a worn baseball glove. He thought of Obadiah and the times they’d played in the park, tossing a baseball across the field to each other.
“Hey…” Samina answered reluctantly. “Yea, a little. I’m out with my dad.”
Gabriel looked back at her, noting her half smile with a frown. Whoever this person was made his daughter nervous and unsure.
Then she lowered her lashes, her smile waning. “Today? Why so soon?”
He raised a brow at the alarm in her tone.
“Oh, I see…” Samina snuck a peek at her father.
He raised both brows in silent question. He hadn’t seen her this disconcerted since she graduated from high school and was awaiting her college acceptance letter.
“Um…” Samina drew in her bottom lip, mulling whatever this person had asked of her. “Well, I’m with my dad so…”
She said that already. Gabriel shook his head, puzzled. His girl was definitely nervous, for reasons he couldn’t comprehend. But then again, she was like her mother in many ways. Complex, complicated, confusing.
Samina peered up at him once more, a question in her gaze. “Well, maybe we can catch an early lunch if that’s okay?”
Frowning at her beseeching look, Gabriel found himself nodding, not sure what he was agreeing to. Whatever it was wiped away the anxiety from her eyes. Then Samina flashed him a dimpled smile that cleared his own wariness.
“We can meet you at the Bread Café in half-an-hour.” Samina turned away, pushing the cart toward the exit. Gabriel had no choice to follow.
Once Samina disconnected the call, she turned to him with a strange smile on her face. “Wanna come somewhere with me?”
Gabriel bit back a scoff. She’d already invited him without permission. He kicked a shoulder. “We’re meeting a friend of yours?”
Samina nodded, lowering her gaze.
He cocked his head to one side, eyeing her curiously. Who was this friend? “A guy you like?”
Her head snapped up, eyes slightly wide.
Gabriel smirked. “It’s not every day I get to meet my girls’ crushes.” He nodded, approving. “What an honor. I’m down. Let’s go.”
Samina’s hand on his arm made him look back at her. “Don’t get excited, Daddy. He’s just a friend…”
Something glinted in her eye and even after thirty-two years of marriage to Deidre, the most complex woman he’d ever known, Gabriel couldn’t put a name to what he saw in their daughter’s gaze. He raised a brow. “If he’s just a friend, why am I meeting him?”
She blinked in surprise.
Gabriel hid a smile and cleared his throat. “Let’s go.” He grabbed the cart and moved toward the exit.
“Wait,” Samina called out as she shuffled to meet him. “He’s leaving today and I still want to hang out with you after he leaves.”
“Uh-hmm.” He deposited the cart in its holding place, his lips twitching with contained mirth.
Gabriel bit back a chuckle, the heaviness lifting off his heart at her agitated state. He fished out the car keys with one hand and took her hand with the other, leading her out of the store. “By the way, how’s the job?”
Samina pushed out an exasperated breath. Then shrugged. “I like it.”
Gabriel smiled, draping an arm around his daughter’s shoulders as they walked out onto the parking lot. “That’s good.”
Samina peered up at him dubiously.
“Hmm?” He steered her toward his truck.
“No lecture about maximizing my potential or downgrading my status?”
Gabriel paused, imagining Deidre’s stern face with Samina’s words. “Your mother is entirely too dramatic.” He led her to the passenger’s door, pulling it open with a gentle smile. “As long as this is what you want and you’re content where you are, I’m happy.”
“Dad…” Samina smiled softly, gazing up at him with tears glistening in her eyes.
“Oh boy….” He rolled his eyes and pointed his chin to the passenger’s seat.. “Get in before I change my mind about meeting this friend of yours.”
Samina’s smile faded and a line appeared between her brows. “Daddy!”
Gabriel chuckled, moving to his side of the car.
For reasons she didn’t dare explore, Samina was a mess of jittered nerves as she and her father pulled up in front of the Bread café. Her fingers skimmed over the seat belt, eyes scanning the front window for a tall, broad-shouldered man. Inadvertently, her heart skipped several beats.
Gabriel chuckled beside her and Samina schooled her features, knowing he would only tease her if he knew.
She paused, frowning. Knew what?
She pushed back the disquieting thought and unbuckled the seatbelt. “Yes Daddy?”
“Is there something I should know before I go in there with you?” As Samina turned to him, he had a perplexed look on his face instead. “A way I should react to your friend?” His smile resurfaced; bright and full of mirth.
Samina rolled her eyes, anxiety rolling off her shoulders. “Daddy… He’s a friend.” She still had yet to mention her evolved relationship with Ezekiel, adding this to her list of grievances to her parents.
Entering the café, Samina didn’t have to search the crowd to find Topher and Nadine sitting in a corner booth. Ignoring the flutter of her rebellious heart as Topher stood to his full height and waved them over, she tucked an arm under Gabriel’s and led him around the chairs toward them.
Topher smiled warmly at them, walking over with a hand extended to Gabriel. “It’s nice to meet you sir. My name is Topher.”
Gabriel disengaged his arm from Samina’s and shook Topher’s hand. He quietly took in the young man’s impressive height and settled his eyes on Topher’s face. “Nice to meet you too, Topher. Where are you headed?”
Samina missed Topher’s answer as she skirted around him to greet Nadine seated at the booth. “Good afternoon, Nadine.”
The older woman smiled warmly as Samina slid into the seat beside her and gave her a brief hug. “You made it,” she said hoarsely, gently squeezing Samina’s hand.
Samina pulled back, penitent. “I’m sorry that you’re leaving so soon.”
Nadine winked. “We’ll be back.”
A flutter in her stomach stopped Samina from replying. Her cheeks warmed under Nadine’s pointed gaze.
“I wanted to meet you also because I hear you’re from Abbeville too,” Topher continued, a smile in his voice.
“Too?” Gabriel echoed.
Nadine peered around Topher’s bulky frame, curious to see Samina’s companion. Samina smiled as Topher shifted his frame to reveal Nadine. “This is my aunt, Nadine… Nadine, this is Samina’s dad.”
Samina’s smile froze when her father’s did. Nadine inhaled sharply beside her. Shock morphed to disbelief on her father’s face. She didn’t have to look at Nadine’s face to know the truth. Her father and Nadine knew each other.
Nadine tugged her hand from Samina and started shifting in her seat. She scooted against Samina, forcing the younger woman to step out of the booth. “I-I, we need to go.” She gripped the booth tightly, her breath becoming haggard with every move.
As Nadine bent over the table, Samina moved close just as Topher did, to steady Nadine before she slumped over.
Her body trembled against Samina’s arm and she lifted her face to Topher’s. “W-we need to go now.” She shrank away from Samina’s hold, leaning into Topher’s arm, hiding her face into his chest. “Please… Let’s go.”
Shaken to silence, Samina stepped back as Topher held a breathless Nadine in his arms and led her past a shell-shocked Gabriel toward the patio.
Her eyes fell on Gabriel, noting he stood frozen and haunted. A cold shiver skittered down her spine. “Dad?”
Gabriel moved woodenly to the abandoned booth and slumped onto the seat.
Suddenly cold, Samina wrapped her arms about herself and moved to take the seat Nadine once occupied. In silence, she regarded her father’s face. He looked positively spooked as though he’d seen a ghost.
As she opened her mouth to question his reaction to Nadine, Topher strode quickly to their table. She noticed Gabriel stiffened instantly.
Turning her attention to Topher, she noted that Nadine was absent. Questions swarming in her head, she lifted her eyes back to him. His face was somber, distressed as she felt.
He swallowed hard and turned to Gabriel. “Sir, my aunt… She’d like to speak with you…” His Adam’s apple jostled. “Would you?”
Gabriel’s eyes shot up in alarm and Samina noted the frantic glint in his eyes. His jaw worked, debating whether to oblige them and Samina silently pleaded that he would. He swallowed hard and jerked a nod. “Where…is she?”
Samina bit her bottom lip as Topher directed her father to the patio. Something was terribly amiss as her father dragged his feet to the door, his tense shoulders bowed as though he was being sent to the gallows.
Topher heaved a deep sigh and slumped into the seat. He groaned, leaning his elbows on the table and covered his face with his hands.
Nadine hurled a scowl at Gabriel as he stepped out onto the patio. Once he dropped heavily onto the metal chair, she pursed her lips. “Unbelievable.”
Gabriel slowly lifted his eyes to her. It was like if he’d been yanked to a past wrought with pain. His heart thudded violently in his chest, eyes gliding over her oval face. She was here yet not really. Gaze unwavering, he shook his head. “I can’t …believe it.”
Her lips thinned in loathing, glare revealing indignation. “I’m not Odetta, so stop staring at me.”
He flinched as if she’d slapped him. Gabriel curled his fingers into his palms, his jaw tightening. “The boy… He yours?”
Eyes narrowed. “What part of Aunt don’t you understand?” She folded her arms across her chest, face hard as stone.
No, this couldn’t be Odetta. Nadine had always hated him, that he remembered almost as clearly as Odetta adored him. He swallowed hard, a burn churning in the pit of his belly.
“Not that it makes a difference to you whether he’s mine or hers, right Gabriel Wells?”
He peered up at her, disconcerted.
Samina’s head was still swarming with unanswered questions, Topher sitting in silence across the table from her.
He sighed, broad shoulders bowed inwardly. “I don’t know.” He lifted a hand to his hair that had grown since the wedding.
Surprisingly, her fingers itched to smooth back the cropped curls he’d disturbed. She stiffened, curling her fingers inward. This was neither the time nor the place… Nor the person. Samina frowned.
Topher blew out a breath and looked up then. “I’m so sorry about Nadine…”
His worried gaze stirred something akin to regret in Samina’s heart. Wanting to ease his nerves and hers, Samina reached over the table and grabbed his free hand.
Topher gave her a rueful smile and looked down at their joined hands. His other hand lowered on top of hers, fingers brushing hers.
His touch sought and offered comfort for their frazzled nerves. Samina smiled in gratitude and clutched his hand tight. His gaze moved back to her face, now warm and tingling. In that brief moment, their parents’ unsettling reaction to one another was forgotten.
Her eyes swept over his features, realizing now that she wouldn’t get to see him for a long while. She bit her bottom lip. “Everything will be okay, right?”
Topher’s smile was rueful, uncertain.
Samina held her breath.
His thumb traced a line across her knuckles, warming her all over. “I don’t know, Samina… I think I’m in love with you.”
She inhaled sharply, her heart tossing into a somersault.
His gray-green eyes swept over her face in a caress, as though memorizing her.
She found herself doing the same, imprinting every line and curve of high cheekbones, Roman nose, and bow-shaped mouth. She drew hers in, sneaking a peek at his face.
He loved her?
Her face warmed under his intent gaze and she smiled.
Something about this, about him, felt right.
A slow smile curved Topher’s lips upward and he started to lean in. She found herself inching forward, holding tight to his hand.
“Let go of her hands now.”
At the sound of Gabriel’s firm directive, both Topher and Samina sprang apart.
Gabriel didn’t give Samina a chance to compose herself or explain, not that she could do much with her face on fire and her heart beating a tattoo against her ribs.
Breathless, she gasped as Gabriel snatched her hand from Topher’s and tugged her to stand. “Dad—”
The stormy, murderous look on Gabriel’s face made her swallow her words.
Topher scooted out of the booth and met Gabriel’s vehement glare. “Sir, I-I can explain. I–”
“There’s nothing you can explain,” Gabriel cut off Topher with a stern expression that brooked no argument. Topher drew in his lips.
Samina’s heart hurt at the contrition spread across Topher’s handsome features. She wanted to pull away but Gabriel gripped her hand tightly, keeping her at his side. She dared not look up at her father, afraid to see the indignant fury Obadiah described.
He tugged at her hand, pulling her away from Topher.
Heart in her throat, Samina looked over her shoulder at Topher standing by the booth and her eyes tingled with helpless tears as Gabriel led her out to the truck.
Frozen on his feet, Topher watched helplessly as Samina and her father left the restaurant. The ire flashing in Mr. Wells’ eyes forbade him to come any closer, to reach for Samina. Heaving a frustrated sigh, he pushed a hand into his hair.
“Christopher,” Nadine’s raspy voice grabbed his attention.
He jerked around to see her leaning heavily over a nearby table. Her light skin was pallid, her fragile features drawn with fatigue.
Topher hurried to catch her before she slumped over.
Nadine lifted a tear-filled, unfocused gazed to his face. Her breath grew more haggard, more labored, every breath pushing her body against him. Then her eyes crossed and she suddenly went limp in his arms.
Blood and warmth leached from his very being. “Nadine!” Topher swept her weightless body into his arms and started for the exit door, heart in his throat.