A wide grin lighting up his face, Ezekiel strolled up the sidewalk to the front door. His heart did a little dance at the thought of seeing Samina today, grateful to see her small car parked on the side of the street.
As he stepped inside, a sweet aroma of sautéed onions and pork chops tickled his nostrils. Breathing in deep, he followed the aroma to the kitchen.
The sight before him halted his steps and warmed his heart.
Samina stood with her back to him at the sink. His gaze took in her willowy frame and he shook his head in disbelief. Had she gotten beautiful overnight or had he always been blind to her soft beauty?
Ezekiel smiled in unabashed appreciation, watching her.
“Papa, you’re home!” Beulah’s over-eager voice jerked his pining gaze from Samina and he turned to greet his youngest racing toward him.
Hooking an arm around Beulah’s waist, he hauled her into his arms and pressed a light kiss against her curly thick tresses. He chuckled as she planted smacking kisses on his shaven cheeks.
“I missed you too, Bumblebee.” He planted butterfly kisses in the crook of her nape until she wriggled in his arms, giggling. “Were you good?” he then propped her on his hip.
“Uh-hmm,” Beulah bobbed her head. “Right, Aunty Sammie?”
Warmth traveled up his neck as he was forced to look back at Samina.
Her eyes stayed on Beulah’s face, a wistful smile curving her supple mouth.
He couldn’t look away. Not until she slanted a curious look his way. He redirected his gaze over her shoulder at the bowl of chopped vegetables. “Uh…where’s Mom?”
“Sleeping again.” Beulah pushed out of his arms and he conceded, loosening his hold on her so she could slide down. Beulah shuffled to Samina’s side and tugged on her apron. “Aunty Sammie, can we eat now?”
“Please,” Ezekiel supplied gently, watching the warm gaze Samina directed at his youngest daughter. His chest tightened.
“Please.” Beulah offered a sweet smile which drew Samina’s own, thus causing Ezekiel’s heart to commence in a series of somersaults.
“In a few minutes,” Samina answered in a soft voice oddly maternal. When she smoothed Beulah’s frazzled curls, Ezekiel wondered what it would be like to be a recipient of her warm touch. “Why don’t you check on Laide and Gramma first?”
As Beulah shot past him to the stairs, Ezekiel watched Samina turn back to the sink without looking at him. Something about her evading gaze made him feel slighted and uncomfortable.
He swallowed hard and stepped forward. “Mind if I help?” he asked, voice surprisingly huskier than he’d expected.
Samina visibly stiffened. Then she peeked at him over her shoulder. “Can you chop some carrots?”
Ezekiel flashed a knowing smile. “I know what you’re making.”
“It’s your mother’s favorite.” She turned away, chopping a celery stalk.
“And mine,” he said quietly, stepping close to her side. “You know, I’ve always been partial to your cooking.”
Samina remained silent, much to his chagrin.
Ezekiel raised a brow at her and he inclined his head to study her detached expression. “You alright?”
Her eyes flitted over him once before returning to the chopping board. She blew out a haggard breath. “Work went okay?”
He hesitated, aware she still hadn’t much luck with the job hunt. Grabbing a carrot, Ezekiel turned it in his hand before replying. “It’s just a lot of negotiating and planning. Any word yet on the job?”
She bit the inside of her cheeks. “Nothing really. Just a position with House of Hope downtown.”
His fingers stilled. “You interested?”
“Maybe.” Samina refused to look his way, her jaw clenched tight. “I’ll meet with the manager of the center if they’re even interested in me.”
“Of course they will.” He studied the carrot in his hand. “They’d be fools not to be interested.”
She placed the knife to the sink. “Don’t say that.”
Ezekiel frowned, looking up at her. “It’s true, Sam. You’re talented and smart. Why wouldn’t they want you?”
Samina scowled. “I don’t need those kinds of words. Especially not from you and especially not right now.” She stepped away from the sink and he noticed her hands trembled as she pulled her fingers into fists.
Alarmed, Ezekiel lowered the carrot to the sink and studied Samina’s taut features. “Sam…”
“Don’t start, Zeke.” Samina gritted her teeth. “I don’t want to hear it.”
The quiver in her voice and the glimmer of tears in her eyes undid him. He couldn’t hold back any longer and moved toward her. Ignoring her soft protest, Ezekiel pulled her into his arms. Tucking her head under his chin, he placed a soothing hand against her back. “I meant every word I said, Sam.”
She released a shuddering breath that shook him. Her vulnerability wasn’t lost on him.
Ezekiel held her tighter. “I have always believed in you and I don’t plan on changing my view now. You’ll succeed in whatever God has for you.”
Samina sniffed back tears and peered up at him with uncertainty and worry behind her watery eyes. Her stubborn chin quivered to hold back a sob.
The rest of his words hung on his tongue as he gazed down at her. When did it happen? When had this woman become so fragile?
“You two alright?” Sheena’s groggy voice forced them from their shared moment. They sprang apart, Ezekiel releasing Samina who scooted to the edge of the counter.
Sheena raised a brow but moved to the stove, breathing in the sweet aroma as Ezekiel did earlier. “It smells marvelous in here, Sammie.”
Ezekiel recovered first, giving his mother a smile before turning back to the carrot chopping duty. He didn’t dare risk a glance at Samina or he would reach for her again. The feeling of her in his arms was imprinted in his mind.
“Beef stew?” Sheena implored, peering over Samina’s shoulder at the bubbling pot of meat, sauce and vegetables. “You know how Zeke and I are partial to your cooking… I can’t wait for dinner.”
“That’s what I told her.” Ezekiel chuckled. “Mom, how was your nap?”
Sheena yawned in response and laughed. “A guilty pleasure, I have to say. I feel so revitalized, thanks to my sweet Sammie. The girls and I had a tea party to hold us until dinner.”
“I’m almost done,” Samina said softly, eyes trained on the pot.
It was just as well since one look from her would weaken his resolve to let her alone. Ezekiel chopped the last carrot stalk and brought the bowl to Samina’s side.
“How was work, darling?” Sheena asked, stealing a handful of carrot bits.
“I’ll be in Houston for a few weeks…” Ezekiel replied, peeking at Samina for her response. She didn’t look up and he caught the suspicious look Sheena sent his way. He cleared his throat to continue. “Which means you can go back to Abbeville.”
“Praise the Lord Almighty!” Sheena clasped her hands together and grinned in Samina’s direction. “See, Sammie dear? God answers our prayers. With Ezekiel here, you can focus on the wedding.”
Frisson of cold shot through him and Ezekiel stiffened. Wedding? His brow tightened in a frown and he snuck a look at Samina.
Laide warily eyed Samina who sat between Beulah and Grandma Sheena. Then peeking a sigh at her solemn-faced father beside her, she heaved a sigh.
Sheena looked up with a frown. “What’s with the sighing, Laide?”
The girl looked pointedly at Samina and finally lowered her gaze to the bowl of meat stew. “It’s nothing…”
“Don’t lie to me, baby girl.”
“Oooh!” Beulah gasped in horror. “You’re in trouble.”
Laide glowered at her sister. “Shut up, stupid.”
Ezekiel dropped the spoon in the bowl and directed a scowl at Laide. “How many times will I say it? Don’t use that word again. Apologize now.”
He rolled his eyes at her dry and insincere response. He was in no mood to deal with her mercurial attitude.
Sheena raised a brow at both Laide and Ezekiel. “And what’s the matter with you, Zeke? Isn’t this your favorite stew?”
The fact that Samina still refused to look at him bruised him more than his mother’s announcement earlier. He pushed the bowl away, his throat tight and dry. “Not really hungry.”
“Me neither.” Laide plunked the spoon back into the bowl and folded her arms across her chest.
“Me neither,” Beulah piped, mirroring her sister’s actions and signature scowl.
Samina lowered her spoon in her bowl and all eyes turned to her. The corner of her lips lifted in a wry smile. “I guess you guys had too much to eat at your tea party. I’ll just pack it up for you to eat later.” She scooted back in her chair and stood.
Ezekiel couldn’t hold back the scowl as Samina gathered as many bowls as her hands could carry. His eyes met Sheena’s disapproving glare and he grunted. “Fine, I’ll apologize.” As he scooted back in his chair, Laide started out of her chair. “You stay here with Grandma.”
Sheena watched Ezekiel stalk to the kitchen before frowning at her granddaughters. “Really, must you two act like your father all the time?”
“I like Daddy!” Beulah countered emphatically.
“I’m sure you do, dear.” Sheena bit back a smile. This was a serious moment. She turned to Laide. “Now tell me what’s biting your backside?”
As Ezekiel approached the open kitchen door, he could hear Samina noisily rummage through the cupboards. Mustering a breath, he moved to her side as she jerked open another drawer. “It’s right here.” He pointed to a drawer to her right.
If looks could kill, the glare Samina speared him felled him. She whipped around and jerked the drawer open.
Ezekiel rubbed the back of his neck. “Sam, I’m sorry.”
He cringed at her cold, detached tone like she wasn’t bothered. Like he didn’t matter to her. Ezekiel swallowed hard. “For being impossible. I was being rude.”
Samina arranged the utensils and slammed the drawer shut. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ezekiel.”
“Oh come on! Will you just stop and look at me?” he groused impatiently.
When Samina froze beside him, Ezekiel winced. “Aw, Sam… I didn’t mean to snap at you like that. Or snub your pork stew.”
She snorted derisively, moving past him to the stove.
“So help me, Sam…” Ezekiel scowled. “Look, I was annoyed with you.”
Samina huffed a breath. “Obviously you were and still are.” She finally looked over her shoulder at him, a line appearing between her brows. “Although I don’t see what I could’ve possibly done to deal with your royal snobbery.”
Ezekiel grimaced. He didn’t know what was worse; her silent treatment or this cold sarcasm.
“Not that it matters.” Samina turned away, dismissing him.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Ezekiel snapped. “Why do I have to hear from my mother instead of you?” He wanted to blame her for his unwarranted feelings for her but knew it was all his fault.
Samina glanced at him again, face riddled with confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“Your wedding. Your boyfriend.” He clenched his jaw, the words sounding bitter on his tongue. As her pretty eyes widened, his aggravation grew. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this before now?”
“M-my what?” Samina squeaked through parted lips. The spoon ladle in her hand dripped sauce on the floor.
Ezekiel scowled, stepping closer. “Give me that, you’re dripping sauce on the floor.” He snatched the spoon from her hand, ignoring any remorse when she flinched. “Aren’t we friends? Why didn’t you tell me you were getting married or that you have a boyfriend?”
“Who’s getting married?” Sheena asked from the archway.
Both Ezekiel and Samina jerked around to face her. Samina sighed haggardly. “Apparently I am.”
Ezekiel frowned at the baffled expression on Sheena’s face as her eyes darted from him to Samina and back to him.
“Wait, what?” Sheena squeaked in a voice like Samina’s.
Samina’s dry laugh drew Ezekiel’s attention. “Is this some perverse joke to make me laugh?” Samina asked, an unmistakable glimmer in her eyes.
Ezekiel’s throat dried up as Sheena rushed to Samina’s side. He swallowed hard and looked away, spotting his wide-eyed daughters gaping at him from the doorway.
Beulah’s scowl matched Laide’s and she shook her head. “Aunty Sammie’s not getting married, silly Papa.”
His face grew hot. The way she admonished him was as if he was the four-year old.
“She’s the maid-of-honor,” Laide said matter-of-factly, her eyes wandering over to Samina and her grandmother. “I’m sorry for being a brat. I’ll eat now.”
Samina sniffed and released a trembling laugh. “It’s okay, Laide,” she said gently. “No harm done.”
Ezekiel stood in silence, a lump hardening in his throat. Her consoling words were only for his daughters, not him. He’d messed up big time and didn’t know where to begin putting things right.
Once Samina left hours later, Ezekiel numbly followed Sheena to her bedroom. He warily eyed the suitcase open on her bed. “How long will you stay?”
“We’ll be back in a week,” Sheena tugged at her son’s sleeve, gesturing to the bed. “Sit for a bit.”
He swallowed hard and perched at the edge. Sheena settled in beside him and covered his hand.
“I’ll get to the point since it’s been a long day and you know I despise mind games.” Sheena squeezed his hand, coaxing his gaze to hers. “You’re in love with Sammie.”
Ezekiel inhaled sharply, his body hot with embarrassment.
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t even try denying it. After the way you acted today, it’s no surprise what you’re feeling.” Her brow furrowed. “Except poor Sammie might think you hate her. You guys aren’t in high school anymore. What was that childish behavior about?”
“She thinks I hate her?” he felt like the wind was knocked out of him.
Sheena narrowed her eyes at him. “You do love her.”
Ezekiel jerked his gaze to their joined hands, his heart skipping a beat. “Of course I love Sam. She’s like a sister to me.”
“Of course,” Sheena answered, unconvinced. “Because a brother would act offended that his sister has a boyfriend and is getting married.”
He frowned. “You told us to call each other siblings…”
“When you were kids.” Sheena scoffed. “Not when you’re both adults and obviously struggling with your feelings for each other.”
Ezekiel didn’t answer. He couldn’t.
She snorted. “Stop with this brother nonsense. When your father proposed, your uncles wanted me out of the house immediately.”
He eyed her warily. “I heard you were a troublemaker.”
Sheena nudged his shoulder. “The fact is you’re not her brother and she’s not your sister getting married. She’s not even getting married. Honestly, Zeke, what were you thinking?”
“I know she’s not—” he took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Yeah, I misspoke. I already tried to apologize.” He grimaced, recalling how Samina coldly brushed past him to the front door. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”
“Mama, please.” His head was full of thoughts, his heart felt suffocated.
Sheena looked down at their joined hands and her thumb caressed the back of his hand. “You might feel a little guilty about your feelings for Samina. It’s normal.”
Ezekiel swallowed hard.
“But it’s okay to let your heart choose again. Even you know it’s time.”
Ezekiel spared her a look. Did he dare believe it?
Sheena gave him a trembling smile, holding back her tears. “Whatever and whoever your heart chooses; your father and I will support you. I just want you to be happy again.”
He pulled Sheena into his arms. The images of Winsome and Samina swirled in his mind and he shoved both aside. There would be time for that later. “Mama, I am happy… I have my girls, you and Dad. That’s all I need.” His throat tightened against the white lie he told his mother and himself.
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