Posts tagged “Friends

Samina’s Chance: Chapter 40

Posted on 14/05/2015

southerncharms4

Jeremiah wiped the sweat from his brow. His eyes swept over Sheena’s rosebushes and the weeds that threatened their survival. He stifled a groan. The sun beat relentlessly, and with sweat dripping between his shoulders, he settled back on his haunches to tug at yet another stubborn weed

“I’ll do it later,” Ezekiel spoke over him. “It’s too hot out.”

He shook his head, ripping the weed from the soil. “We said that last weekend and look, the weeds are growing too fast.” He turned his head, squinting against the sun at his son’s silhouette. “Get me some water, would you?”

Ezekiel hesitated. “Dad…”

Jeremiah clucked his tongue, the sun’s heat inciting impatience. “Don’t give your old man a hard time too. Go.” He sighed as his son trudged up the sidewalk and into the house. Then he leaned back and released a measured breath.

Even with the sun beating hard on him, this distraction was much needed. Sheena’s disparaging silence was getting too hard to bear.

Coward. You’re nothing but a lily-livered coward.

His fingers squeezed the weed in his hand, his jaw tightening as Gabriel’s words echoed in his head, mocking. It’d taken every ounce of self-control not to turn back and slug Gabriel in the jaw. The man had gotten away with his arrogance for way too long and Jeremiah was tired of it.

A car door slammed behind him. Jeremiah glanced over his shoulder and squinted at the truck parked on the side of the road. His shoulders stiffened as Gabriel crossed the street toward him. Every muscle in his body tensed up as the man’s long-legged pace ate the distance. He dropped the weed to the ground and stood to face Gabriel.

The hardened look said he meant business, a storm raging in his eyes.

Jeremiah smirked wryly. “What, no call—” Gabriel’s fist slammed into his jaw, sending him staggering back into Sheena’s rose bushes. Stars danced between his eyes as he righted himself. Instead of the man’s dark scowl, he saw red. And lunged for Gabriel’s throat.

They both fell back on the grass.

The time was 1971 again. The two young men stumbled onto the dewy grass. His left cheek on fire, Jeremiah gripped the grass to stand. Gabriel grabbed him by his collar, jostling him. He blinked away the stars dancing around his head. Gabriel drew back his elbow and slammed his fist into Jeremiah’s face. Odetta screamed as all turned black.

Jeremiah staggered to his feet just as Gabriel started to stand. “Not this time,” he growled, kicking his friend on his back. Gabriel stumbled to his knees. Jeremiah grabbed him by the collar, jerking him upright.

Glaring at the unfocused look on Gabriel’s face, his jaw tightened. His fingers curled in a fist and he drew back his elbow.

Deidre thumbed through a family album, a wistful smile playing at her lips.  Pausing at a picture of Gabriel’s goofy smile, his daughters draped over his arms, she giggled softly. Her fingers traced the lines of her husband’s warm smile and hers waned. Nowadays, he brooded, that smile she fell in love with, missing.

Blowing out a breath, she flipped the page. Her heart skipped a beat.

Thirteen-year-old Samina smiled back at her. Eyes danced with mischief as if she was struggling not to laugh. Deidre’s smile faded completely.

She leaned into the sofa and drew the album closer, gazing at her daughter’s vibrant eyes. Back then, Samina had just announced her dream of becoming a world-renown artist.

Pangs of shame made her wince as Sheena’s words mocked the formative years she’d spent raising her children. Her brow furrowed at the silence; every member of the family notably missing. Was she really that manipulative?

The sound of metal rustling across the hall drew her attention to the front door. Her heart fluttered as the door swung open.

Samina stepped inside, lugging a crate. Gabriel wasn’t beside her.

Deidre rose quickly and hurried to meet her daughter at the door.  “Sammie?” She noticed a frown marking her daughter’s pretty face and wanted to smooth it away. Her fingers twitched at her side. “Is… everything okay?”

Samina halted and blinked in surprise. “Mom?” The tension eased off her face and one corner of her lips twitched in a half smile. “How was your outing with Aunty Sheena?”

Deidre shrugged, eyes sweeping over her daughter’s face. Even though she’d seen her earlier that day, the urge to pull Samina into her arms overwhelmed her. “Too short, but fun.” She smiled, and reached for her daughter.

Samina laughed gently and patted Deidre’s back before drawing back. “Are you okay?”

“Uh-hmm.” Her gaze flitted over Samina’s face. “Where’s your dad?” She arched a brow when Samina’s smile faded and something flashed in her eye. “What?”

“Nothing.” Samina heaved a sigh. “I didn’t ask where he was going… Anyway, I better get going.” She stepped away, propping the crate against the wall.

“Wait!” Deidre bit her bottom lip when Samina eyed her curiously. “Can’t you stay for a bit? It’s been a while since we talked…” She still felt the pangs of hurt when Samina chose to go out with her father, even though both hadn’t seen her since her mysterious vacation. She started to ask Samina about it. Calm down, Dee… Don’t run off your children.

Samina kicked a shoulder, her smile feeble. “I guess so.”

The hesitance in her reply broke Deidre’s heart. Tamping a sigh, she tucked an arm under Samina’s and led her back to the couch. “I admit I’m a little jealous that you spend more time with your father than with me.”

Her daughter’s silence told her everything she hoped wouldn’t be.

Swallowing another sigh, Deidre offered Samina a smile. “Tea? I bought some yesterday.” Afraid that Samina would change her mind, Deidre spun on her heel and hurried to the kitchen. “Come choose one while I heat the water.”

Feeble footfall behind her made Deidre breathe a sigh of relief. She tucked in a smile, grabbed the kettle and moved around the counter to the sink.

“The microwave is better,” Samina mumbled, pulling open the cabinet.

Better as in faster. Piqued by her daughter’s attempt to hurry their time together, Deidre rolled her eyes and replaced the kettle. “I suppose…” She shifted aside as Samina came to stand by the sink, filling the mugs with water. Her eyes swept over Samina’s tense shoulders, and down her thin arms. “How’s… work? They’re treating you well?”

Samina lifted her face, a question in her furrowed brow.

Deidre offered her a blank stare.

“Everyone’s nice.” One corner of her lips twitched upwards and she lowered her gaze, her smile widening. “I like it.”

The shy warmth in Samina’s smile reminded her of the picture she’d gazed upon. This was Samina happy, content, and wistful. In a non-salary job, her daughter had found contentment. Deidre managed a smile and turned to the drawer, fishing out the bag of exotic tea. “Which one do you want? I’ve got jasmine, oolong and white.”

“Any is fine, Mama.” Samina skirted around her to the microwave.

Mama. Her heart fluttered at the word. Deidre smiled, grabbing a few packets of tea. “Let’s do a mix. Be a bit adventurous.” She hurried to Samina’s side, humming as she sniffed the teabags, her smile brightening. “Hmm, smells wonderful.”

“Mom, are you okay?”

Deidre snorted a laugh. “What, your mom can’t have a little fun?” She looked up.

Samina gauged her mother’s exuberance with a dubious stare.

Her smile sagged a little. Had her meddling really provoked her family to distance themselves from her? The truth in Samina’s eyes made it hard to swallow. Deidre grimaced. “You know that I love you, right?” Her voice shook. “You know I’m not trying to make you miserable, right? That I care for you very much?”

The doubt eased off Samina’s face and she smiled gently. “I know, Mom.” Her gaze sweeping over Deidre, warmed her from the inside out. “I know you mean well.”

Overwhelmed with relief, Deidre grabbed her daughter’s shoulders and pulled her closer. “I love you.”

Samina’s gentle laugh rocked Deidre, more so when her arms wrapped around her. “I love you too, Mama.”

Mama. Her heart soared. Deidre sighed and drew back to gaze at Samina’s lovely features. This beautiful, kind and talented girl was hers. Sheena was right. It was high time she stopped meddling and let Samina know she was proud to be her mother. “Sammie, I—”

The microwave beeped, cutting off her words.

Deidre sighed.

Samina smiled warmly and disengaged from her arms to retrieve the mugs.

She studied Samina’s slender form, brows drawing a frown at her too-thin arms and nonexistent waist. “Don’t people eat like gluttons on vacation? You’re looking too thin for my liking.”

Samina stiffened visibly, her hands stilled over the cup.

Deidre frowned, tugging Samina’s hands from the steam. “Be careful.” Tearing open the teabags, she dunked two bags in each cup and extended one to Samina. “How’s Topher?”

When Samina didn’t answer, Deidre squinted at her. “I thought you two were getting along. What happened?”

Samina blew the steam off the rim of her mug. “I don’t know…”

“I don’t understand.”

Her lips pursed slightly, eyes still downcast. “It’s nothing, Mom. Don’t worry.”

Mom? Deidre cocked her head. Lifting the cup to her lips, she watched Samina trudge to the counter stool. Something was wrong and she would’ve prodded if not for the sake of a delicate harmony they’d created after the embrace.

In silence, they sipped their tea, occupied with their own troubled thoughts. Samina kept her gaze downcast, busying herself stirring the tea bag. Deidre kept her eyes on Samina, questions forming in her head.

Then the house phone rang and both women breathed a sigh of relief. Deidre lowered her cup and picked the phone on its third ring. Her brow furrowed at the sound of sirens in the background. “Hello?”

“Deidre!” Sheena’s panicked voice broke through the din. “Come over now!”

A cold frisson shot through Deidre’s legs and she gripped the countertop with her free hand. Even before Sheena divulged the reason for her alarm, she knew. Gabriel. Her teeth clenched. “What’s going on?”

Samina looked up, watching as the frantic voice on the other end rattled a news that darkened her mother’s brow.

Deidre’s flashing eyes snapped to hers. “Okay, I’m on my way.” She slammed the phone on its cradle, her glare demanding an explanation. “What did your dad say before leaving?”

Words failed her. Anxiety prickled the back of her neck, recalling the stormy haze in her father’s eyes. The sharp tone when he barked at her, the tension stiffening his shoulders. Her heart skipped a beat. He’d barely uttered goodbye before reversing from the driveway, the truck engine roaring as it sped down the street. As Deidre grabbed the car keys and hurried to the door, panic seized her. “What’s going on?”

Deidre jerked open the door, slinging her purse over her shoulder. “Your father and Uncle Jeremiah are fighting each other at Sheena’s place. The cops are there.”

Samina shot to her feet. “What?!”

Heart in her throat, Samina peered out the window as they turned onto the street where Ezekiel’s childhood home stood. Her jaw dropped at the cars jam-packed, blocking the street. People walked down the sidewalk, toward the Dames’ residence.

Parking on the side of the street, Deidre snapped off her seatbelt and shoved the door open. “I can’t believe he would do this in front of all these people…”

Samina stepped out and peered over the cars, spotting the flashing lights of police cars. She shook her head.

“Unbelievable!” Deidre slammed the door and started for the house. Samina hurried to her side. Her heart beat a violent tattoo as they pushed through the crowd of onlookers, until they stood on the mowed grass.  She immediately spotted Aunty Sheena, Uncle Jeremiah and her father Gabriel standing before a burly uniformed officer.

Ezekiel stood behind them with arms folded across his chest.

Both her father and Uncle Jeremiah stood as far away from each other as they could but close enough to hear the officer’s stern lecture. Their faces, including Sheena’s and Ezekiel’s were like stone as they listened.

Then Gabriel’s concentrated stare shifted, stiffening as he spotted his wife and daughter. Instantly, his broad shoulders stiffened and he averted his gaze.

“Shameless man,” Deidre bit out as she stepped forward.

Samina seized her arm, holding her back. She shook her head when Deidre scowled in protest. “Let’s just wait here.”

“What a shame,” an onlooker mumbled in disgust. “Two grown men fighting like hoodlums in a suburb.”

The small crowd muttered their agreement. Deidre’s arm tensed under Samina’s hand. Samina held on tighter, her face on fire.

Both men didn’t look contrite, still buzzed with whatever anger caused them to throw fists at each other. A tremor shot through Samina. How could they fight? Why did they fight?

“What d’you think they’re fighting about?” Another asked, voice colored with derision. “A woman?”

Samina scowled and she had to grip her mother’s arm to keep her from whirling about to unleash her wrath. Though she was tempted to let her go and see what would happen.

Then the officer stepped away, speaking in low tones into his phone. Deidre wrenched her arm from Samina’s grip and strode quickly to them. Gabriel took a step back but Deidre ate up the distance, wagging her finger. “You…”

As they drew closer, Samina could see the streak of blood from her father’s split lip. Uncle Jeremiah didn’t look any better, his nose bloodied. Then her gaze collided with Ezekiel’s worried one and she quickly lowered her gaze, disturbed.

Ezekiel placed a hand on Jeremiah’s tense shoulder.  “Let’s go inside, Pops…” The older man made no fuss and let his son lead him up the sidewalk to their house.

Deidre smacked Gabriel’s shoulder. “Are you insane!?”

Samina grimaced at the vacant look on her father’s face. What was going on?

Sheena grabbed Samina’s hand. “Oh good, you’re here.”

“What happened?”

“Oh honey…” Sheena shook her head, gripping Samina’s hand. “I don’t know. It all happened so fast. One minute I’m inside with the girls, and then all of a sudden Ezekiel is shouting for his dad to get off yours. And then the police—” She pressed a hand to her temple, visibly disturbed.

“What were you thinking, Gabriel?” Deidre screamed from the sidewalk, pummeling her husband’s chest with weak blows. “What nonsense is this?”

The sirens sounded as the police car reversed out onto the street and drove away. Samina squinted at the crowd of onlookers stalling, waiting for something to watch, to criticize. Her lips pursed, her hand tightened around Sheena’s.

“Dee stop,don’t you think they’ve had enough?” Sheena protested weakly. “Where are you going?” Sheena called after her.

Deidre glanced over at Samina. “Drive your father’s truck back. His keys are in the ignition.” She scowled as Gabriel shrugged her arm off and stormed past her. “Don’t even think about–Gabriel!” she shouted, hurrying after him.

Samina pushed out a breath, growing increasingly agitated as the onlookers shook their heads, watching her parents flee the scene. She turned back to Sheena, struck by the tears glistening in her eyes.

Just then, Ezekiel came outside, his expression grave, disturbed. His eyes skimmed over the crowd still on the lawn and his lips pursed. “Show’s over!” he barked.

Muttering their disgruntlement, the crowd slowly dispersed until only Sheena and Samina stood in the driveway. Ezekiel heaved a sigh and stepped off the porch toward them. “Mom, you better get inside…”

Sheena managed a nod and patted Samina’s hand. “I’ll see you later.”

Samina bit her bottom lip, watching Sheena’s bowed shoulders as she trudged past Ezekiel to the door. Then she lifted her eyes to Ezekiel’s troubled ones. “The girls…?”Her chest tightened painfully, imagining their frightened faces.

Ezekiel shook his head. “They’re in the room.” His square jaw clenched revealed more than he said. “I’m pissed off. What’s going with the two of them?”

Samina remained silent as her father’s harsh directive to Topher came to mind. She stiffened.

Then Ezekiel’s hand rested on the back of her neck, his fingers kneading away the tension there. Samina released a sigh as he pulled her into his arms. For a moment, she rested against his warm strength, relaxing under his massaging fingers. Then her gaze fell on her father’s abandoned truck, and her lips pursed in displeasure. “You had to break them up?”

“Yeah, just before my dad slammed his fist into your dad’s face again.” He scoffed incredulously. “I didn’t even know those cats could still fight.”

She bristled inwardly, imagining the bruises that would mark her father’s light complexion tomorrow. “Who was winning?” she blurted out.

He paused. “What?”

Samina looked up to his dubious stare. “You heard me?”

The corner of his lips twitched, bemused. “Our middle-aged dads were pounding each other’s faces in and you ask who won. Sam, seriously?”

Suddenly annoyed, Samina nudged him aside and folded her arms. “I know who started it already, that’s why…”

“And still you have the mouth to ask.” Ezekiel kicked a shoulder, wry smile in place. “…Mine did.”

She scowled instantly. “Like that something to be proud of.”

His smile waned and then completely faded. His brow furrowed at the glare she hurled at him. “You started it…”

“And you finished it. Congratulations.” Samina started down the driveway toward her father’s truck.

His hand grabbed hers and pulled her flush against him. Her cheeks heated as his chin rested against her shoulder, cheek pressed against her ear. And though frustrated, Samina didn’t have the willpower to step out of his arms.

“Let’s not fight…” he pressed a placating kiss to her ear.

She frowned at the quiver shooting up her legs. “We’re not fighting.”

He tilted his head over her shoulder, catching her eyes. “We’re not?”

His warm breath kissed her skin. She drew in her bottom lip, fighting her reaction.

His gaze lowered and she held her breath. Then his mirthful gaze flickered to hers. Her face fired and she ducked from under his arms, hurrying down the driveway toward the truck.

“I’ll call you later, Sam. Be safe.”

Samina ignored him, climbing into the car. They couldn’t afford distractions. She snuck a peek at his fleeting figure as he ducked into the house. Samina heaved a sigh and started the engine of her father’s truck.

Their fathers were at odds with each other and no amount of distraction could stop the niggling feeling that she was partially responsible.

<<Chapter 39 || Chapter 41>>

Samina’s Chance: Chapter 38

Posted on 12/05/2015

metropolis

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?”

“You’ve changed.”

“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.

“No really!”

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?

“Sam?”

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.

<<Chapter 37 || Chapter 39>>

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