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?”
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.