Ezekiel Dames whistled to the off-beat singing from the two girls in the backseat. He glanced at the rear-view mirror, pausing at his whistling.
“Beulah, stay in your seat,” he said firmly.
“Yes Papa,” Beulah answered meekly before they continued their excited cheering.
They were on their way to his parents’ home and he couldn’t wait for the long journey to be over.
“Papa?” Beulah’s voice invaded his thoughts.
He glanced at the mirror again, smirking at her toothy smile. “Hmm?”
Ezekiel looked down at the blinking numbers over the radio. “Honey, can you wait a few minutes? We’re almost there.”
“Okay Papa,” the girl answered sweetly.
The surprised father’s eyes shot back to the mirror, noting now that Beulah snuggled against her older sister’s shoulder. He grinned when Adelaide raised a questioning brow at him and winked at her. She shrugged her unoccupied shoulder, a small smile lifting the corner of her mouth.
With a sigh of relief, Ezekiel focused his attention on the road ahead.
“Grappa!” Beulah shrieked excitedly an hour later as Ezekiel pulled their dark-blue sedan onto the driveway of his parents’ home. She pressed her face against the window, waving at the older dark-skinned man standing on the lawn, totting a folded colorful umbrella and a canvas bag.
Ezekiel smiled warmly as Jeremiah, his father, looked up with a wide grin.
“Hold on,” Ezekiel instructed both daughters, Beulah tugging at the door handle. Thank goodness for the child-lock in the rented car. Shaking his head, he put the car in park behind an unknown blue Honda-CRV and stepped out. “Hey dad,” he called to Jeremiah, walking around the car to let out his jittery youngest daughter.
“You made it in time,” Jeremiah replied heartily, waving at his two grand-daughters. He lowered to his knees as his youngest granddaughter hopped out of her seat and skipped into his arms. “Oof!” he wrapped his arms about her small body and closed his eyes, breathing her warm scent. How he’d missed this two.
His eyes opened to watch the older of the two girls step out behind her father, standing with hands folded in front of her. Jeremiah raised a thick brow and gestured her forward.
Adelaide ducked her head shyly and shuffled to Jeremiah who tugged at her arm and pulled her into a hug. Ezekiel watched with a rueful expression as his daughter’s furrowed brow and how she wrapped a hesitant arm around her grandfather’s shoulders.
Chagrined, Ezekiel rubbed the back of his neck. In his poor attempt to keep things ‘normal’ with the girls, he’d chosen to remain in Washington despite his parents’ urging, not wanting to lose Winsome’s faded memory. Holding back a sigh, he walked to the trunk and propped it open. “Where’s Mom?”
“She’s in the kitchen,” Jeremiah replied, standing to his feet. “With your aunt Dee.”
Ezekiel’s hands stilled on the bags in his trunk.
“Come on girls, let’s go inside and greet Grandma,” Jeremiah said without glancing once at his son and ushered his granddaughters in the house.
Peering over his shoulder to stare at the blue Jeep, Ezekiel’s brow furrowed deep in thought. It’d been more than three years since he’d let himself think about Samina and her family.
Ezekiel shook his head to clear his wandering thoughts. The sound of little Beulah squealing in delight as she greeted her grandmother pulled Ezekiel from the car and he hurried inside to greet his mother and her best friend, Auntie Deidre “Dee” Wells.
Samina tried not to focus on the ruckus outside, her insides twisted in knots as she glued her attention on the roasting sweet potatoes in front of her. The sun bore down on her bare neck but she barely noticed it, glaring at the stacked food while her mind wandered
“You know staring them down won’t make them cook faster,” her father, Gabriel, whispered at her ear.
Samina jolted from her reverie and snatching the fork, immediately regretting it as the hot metal seared her palm. Hissing, she dropped the fork and winced as it clattered to the floor. “Sorry…” she mumbled as her father chuckled and bent to pick it up.
“You okay?” Gabriel asked, dark eyes dancing with amusement as he handed her the fork.
She forced herself to nod and averted her gaze. “I’m fine.” Stepping back, the back of her legs hit the cooler, invoking her father’s raised brow. “I’ll be back,” Samina mumbled and shuffled up the deck stairs to the kitchen door.
“Oh good, you’re here,” Karen breathed, pushing an empty glass pan and griddle in her hand. “Can you make the cheesecake? I gotta go.”
Samina scowled, pushing it back into her sister’s hands. “I have to go too.”
Karen narrowed her eyes at her sister. “You weren’t thinking to leave me to do this, were you?”
Samina looked around, brow furrowed. “Where’s Mom?”
“Aunty Sheena’s house,” Karen replied, pressing the griddle and pan into Samina’s side.
Samina ducked under Karen’s hands and stepped around the counter. “Why?”
Karen rolled her eyes, dumping the pan onto the counter. “Catching up—who cares? I have to go.”
“Catching up for what? They just saw each other on Sunday?” Samina frowned as her sister started for the door. “Hey! I have somewhere to be in two hours.”
“I’ll be back before then,” Karen called over her shoulder, pulling her purse from the couch. “Don’t tell Mom or Dad.”
Samina’s shoulders sagged in defeat at the sound of the door slamming behind Karen. Glowering at the griddle and pan, she snatched them in her hands just as the front door swung open.
Her eighteen-year-old brother, Obadiah, staggered in lugging a cooler full of ice and cold drinks.
Lowering it to the floor by the fridge, he nodded a silent greeting and turned when the back door sprang open and their father peeped inside. “Where’s your bro—oh, Obad, come give me a hand.”
“Coming,” Obadiah spun on his heels and strode past Gabriel onto the deck.
Gabriel raised a brow at Samina’s pout. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing…” Samina shook her head. “Just thinking to change up the cheesecake recipe a little.”
“Don’t change it too much.” Gabriel smirked. “Your Uncle Jere’ll complain for days.”
She gave him a shy smile, knowing how much Uncle Jeremiah raved of her baking and put in a standing order for the cheesecake at every party. “I won’t…”
He tilted his head to study her. “Something tells me it’s more than just the cheesecake—” he halted, glancing behind him. “Son, use the tongs!” He scoffed and closed the door on his rebuke, leaving Samina to stare at the door.
Glancing once at the clock, Samina heaved a sigh before toting the glass pan to the refrigerator.
Sheena smiled wistfully, watching Ezekiel cuddle with a sleeping Beulah on the couch. Adelaide propped her head against her father’s shoulder, lips parted in sleep. What a precious sight they made and her heart warmed. Her smile widened when Ezekiel stifled a yawn to wake.
“Long drive, hmm?”
Disoriented, Ezekiel blinked at his mother before giving her a weary smile. “I didn’t know you were back…” he said in a soft voice so as not to wake the girls.
She nodded, leaning against the doorpost separating the living room from the main hall. “It was fun. Wish you and the girls could’ve come.” She rubbed her arms. “But Dee told them you were tired from the long trip.”
He nodded, his heart stirring with slight regret at having missed the family picnic. “I’d have stopped by if I’d known…” Ezekiel stifled another yawn, blinking the sleep away. “How is… everyone?”
“Fine. We were just catching up.” She grinned when Adelaide snuggled closer to her father’s side. “So precious.”
“Thank you…” Ezekiel muttered, although he couldn’t take credit for the sweet-faced beauties. A pang of sadness came over him at the image of his wife’s bright smile.
Sheena noticed the faraway look on Ezekiel’s face and sighed. “We all miss her terribly. Winsome was such a sweetheart.”
Her son could only nod, his fingers stroking Beulah’s arm curled under his.
Pushing away from the arch, Sheena walked over to him with her arms open. “Why don’t we take them to the room upstairs?” At Ezekiel’s hesitance, she gently untucked Beulah’s arm from his and slung it over her shoulder.
Quietly, the two of them managed to carry both girls up to the room she’d prepared for them.
Ezekiel was speechless as he stared at the room he’d once called his own. “Wow…” he murmured when Sheena stepped away from the sleeping children now tucked in his old bed, decorated in pink and purple frilly things. “Everything looks different.”
Sheena grinned proudly at her handiwork. “Your dad helped… And of course, Sam lent her expertise.” She smiled wider. “Everyone’s so happy you’re back home.”
His smile waned a little. There was still much to be done and even the warm reception of his family and old friends could not ease his anxiety. “It’s really nice, Mom,” he mumbled. “Thank you.”
She reached up to pat his cheek gently, her gaze affectionate over his features.
Ezekiel noticed the glimmer in her eyes and reached up to cover her hand with his.
“You’re doing a good job with them, Zeke,” Sheena insisted gently. “Trust me…”
He averted his eyes, focusing on the sleeping girls cuddled together. “It doesn’t feel like that.”
“You just need some help, that’s all.” Sheena squeezed his arm. “That’s why your father and I are here for you.” When Ezekiel turned to envelop her in a hug, her heart broke a little, having missed holding him. “You’ll be just fine,” she whispered against his sleeve, urging herself not to cry in front of him or the children.
Later on, Ezekiel watched over his sleeping daughters before sneaking downstairs to settle on the makeshift bed in the study. His steps down the darkened hallway slowed to a stop at the sound of his mother’s laughter coming from the kitchen.
“How did it go? It’s too bad we didn’t get to see Sam. Jere’s been raving of the new recipe…”
Ezekiel’s ears twitched subconsciously at the mention of Samina, his childhood friend.
“Aw I bet she’s excited, with the wedding and all the preparations…”
He leaned against the wall separating the kitchen from the hallway, ears perked in attention.
“Planning the wedding will surely keep her busy,” Sheena continued, a smile in her voice. “Tell her congratulations and if she needs any help, she shouldn’t hesitate to ask.” Then she giggled again. “Alright lady, I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Goodnight.”
Ezekiel turned away to the study and slowly perched on the futon, listening to his mother’s slow footsteps on the other side of the wall. Numb, he leaned back into the soft cushion and stared up at the ceiling. Samina was getting married, finally. He should be happy for her, Ezekiel insisted. Yet for reasons he couldn’t explain, the news of her upcoming nuptials only left him unsettled for the rest of the night.