Topher’s first love was a spindly blond girl with violet-blue eyes and a pouty pink mouth named Cindy Feltwether. She was eight years old and had a mean right arm. He was six years old at the time, short and spotty with freckles everywhere.
His eight-year old neighbor Cindy tugged at his curls and poked his freckles, calling them his leopard spots. It didn’t matter to him because he loved her. Nadine scoffed then and still did to this day, reminding him that his first love had shaved her head and tattooed most parts of her body. She was also in a Canadian jail for multiple counts of grand theft auto and trespassing.
He’d liked many other girls since Cindy. Even dated a few but the result was the same. Nadine didn’t trust his judgment and antagonized every single woman he introduced. Most were turned off by her sharp tongue and prickling personality. Except Samina.
His heart fluttered every time her gaze warmed at the mention of his aunt. Nadine too was intrigued by the shy beautiful Samina, even though she acted nonchalant. He’d believed Samina was the one because she’d charmed Nadine so easily.
Staring at her as she trudged around the front of the car, brow pensive, Topher still believed she was the one. He couldn’t tell his heart otherwise.
He watched as Samina suddenly looked up, her face brightening into a smile that warmed him all over. Topher frowned as she embraced the girls. He squinted as she offered a shy smile to the girls’ father; Ezekiel Dames.
He didn’t set out to memorize his name; he could’ve cared less about the man except that he was actively championing Samina’s heart. In fact, since they arrived at the campgrounds, the widowed man refused to leave her side. Topher could see right through his hovering act. He was staking his claim, and making sure Topher knew it.
Then the girls hurried off to chase butterflies, waving colorful nets in their hands as they ran. Topher watched in growing agitation as Ezekiel pulled Samina into a hug, his hand pressed at the small of his back. His head bent close to hers, whispering something in her ear.
It better not be sweet nothings or I’ll…
Swallowing a growl, Topher forced himself to look away. And met Karen’s eyes dancing in curiosity. He quickly straightened his face. “What’s up?”
“We’re about to start the chili and Dad says he wants your help with something. Come.” She curled an arm under his and pulled him toward her. “I have a proposition for you…”
Topher swallowed hard as she led him over the uneven terrain. He forced himself not to look back and see the cozy scene with Samina and another man. As if hearing her words for the first time, he dug his heels to stop her. The gleam in her eye made him nervous. “Look, Karen… I—”
“Relax Toph,” Karen replied, turning her eyes forward. “I’m not flirting with you.” She then stopped and faced him. “I know something you don’t know yet.” Her lips tugged upwards. “And you’ll have to trust and listen to me if you want things to change.”
He frowned. “Change…?”
She arched a brow. “With Samina.”
His heart did a somersault as it always did when her name crossed his mind. “…Okay?”
She smiled. “You should know that we’re all Team T here.”
“We?” Topher cocked his head. “Team T?”
“Team Toph as opposed to Team Z, for Zeke.” She wrinkled her nose. “Ezekiel.”
His lips twitched a smile. He straightened his face, assuming an air of nonchalance. “Is that so?”
“You should know that Zeke is Samina’s first love. This… relationship is only because she wants to give her past feelings a chance, closure.” Karen paused when she heard Obadiah calling for her to hurry. “Anyway, we better hurry. Get good seats.” She gave him a conspiring smile and wriggled her brows.
Though unsure sure Samina’s relationship with Ezekiel had little to do with closure, he let himself consider Karen’s words. Ezekiel was Samina’s first love, like Cindy was his. Fantasy was Cindy all grown-up with flowing platinum-blond hair and a killer smile, not the series of mugshots sporting a snarling face covered with badly-picked tattoos and a pointy head that was her reality. He paused, wondering about Ezekiel’s reality. Hidden warts, a bad temper, bad breath…
Having witnessed the kiss Samina shared with the man outside her parents’ driveway last night, Topher’s mood darkened as the sky above. There was no way it could’ve been bad breath.
“Toph?” Karen repeated when he didn’t hear her the first time.
Pushing aside the disturbing thought, Topher offered her a smile. As they walked together, he glanced over at her, curiosity trumping restraint. “So what’s your proposition?”
She threw him a grin, eyes gleaming with secrets. “You’ll see. Just trust and leave it to me.”
Topher had no choice but to. Samina wasn’t exactly speaking to him.
Samina was not in the mood for this. She’d been cramping since they arrived on the campgrounds and Karen was currently leaning into Topher’s arm across the makeshift pot of chili. It wasn’t as if she cared that it was Topher who Karen flirted with, really it wasn’t. But she couldn’t concentrate, not even to the story Beulah and Adelaide told of a cowardly he-bear and a mean she-goat. Especially with her sister probably whispering some secret about her.
Then Karen placed a hand over Topher’s arm, fingers cupping his firm muscle.
Samina plunked her spoon into the bowl noisily. She glared at Karen who looked straight at her. “If you’re not going to eat, why don’t you go set up our tent?”
Karen smiled like a Cheshire cat, her eyes gleaming, reflecting the light from the stove fire. “Is there a problem, Sammie?”
Of course there is, you shameless flirt! “If you’re done eating, our tent needs setup.”
“Oh right.” Karen shifted her gaze to Topher. “Mind lending me a hand?”
Samina clenched her jaw but stayed quiet. Nothing she would say now would be appropriate.
Topher hesitated but didn’t look at Samina before answering. “Sure.” He put his bowl aside and stood.
Ezekiel nudged her knee. “I didn’t know you hadn’t pitched it. I could’ve helped you set it up.”
She shook her head, watching them walk around the other pitched tents. “It’s okay.”
“Will Aunty Karen marry him?” Adelaide asked aloud, her lips tight, her eyes narrowed. Samina wanted to hug her.
“No!” Beulah said adamantly and leaned into Samina’s side. “Aunty Sammy will marry Daddy.”
Samina inhaled sharply. Deidre’s bowl dropped to the floor. Sheena squeaked.
Ezekiel laughed nervously and reached around Samina’s waist to tug gently on one of Beulah’s plaits. But he said nothing to correct her.
Rendered speechless, Samina gaped open-mouthed.
Ezekiel shrugged with a whatyagonnado look on his face.
She stifled a groan.
“You okay, Sam?” Gabriel spoke up.
Suddenly feeling dizzy, Samina forced out the breath she’d been holding. “Uh…” Lowering the bowl by her feet, she stood. Brushing Ezekiel’s helping hand aside, she moved around the fallen log. “I-I need to use the restroom.” She hurried away before he or anyone could stop her. She had no real answers to give them. Marry Zeke?!
Stumbling around the wall of trees to the restroom area, Samina dropped onto a bench. She drew in a breath.
Samina choked on the breath and started to cough. Ezekiel rubbed at her back, in the soothing way he did with his girls. Without warning, tears gathered in her eyes and she sniffed loud.
Alarmed, Ezekiel stopped rubbing her back and tilted his head to look at her face. “You okay?”
“I’m just…” she inhaled a breath and pushed it out.
“Is it… Aunt Flo?”
Samina whipped her head back and glared at him. “What?”
His expression was rueful, realizing his faux-pas, but concern etched on his face. “You seem a bit off since we arrived.”
She didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or moved. Instead, Samina looked away and sighed.
His hand moved over her knee, squeezing it gently. “I understand…”
No, you don’t but it’s sweet.
“I wonder how it’ll be when Adelaide gets that age. It’s coming closer by the day.”
Samina peeked at him just in time to see the trouble furrowing his brow. When he looked her way, he managed a feeble smile which she reciprocated.
“I wouldn’t know what to do and freaking out is not an option.”
She shook her head. “Never is.”
His smile waned, his countenance thoughtful. “I wish she had someone to be there for her. Someone who understood what she was going through.”
Samina swallowed, a shiver trickling down her spine as Ezekiel tilted his pointed gaze. She squinted at him. “About Aunt Flo? C’mon Zeke, your mother knows about that—”
“Not just that,” Ezekiel answered gruffly. A bit too gruffly as though impatient. He cleared his throat. “I want the girls to have someone who would love them like her own.” His dark eyes skimmed her face. “I want her to be someone that they’ll love. That I love.”
Her breath caught at the intensity in his eyes.
Ezekiel gave her a gentle smile. “I love you Sam. And I want you to be that woman.”
Samina blinked, unable to find the words. For years, she’d imagined this but didn’t think Ezekiel would ever notice her, want her as much as she wanted him. Past tense. Her gaze skittered over his features, her heart beating a dull tattoo. “Zeke, I…”
He pressed a finger over her mouth. “I know it hasn’t been long since we started dating.” His half-smile was sheepish. “I haven’t exactly asked you to be my girlfriend, but it’s because I’m not just about dating you. Because I want more. I want forever with you.”
Forever with Ezekiel. Samina bit her bottom lip as he shifted even closer and cradled her hand in his. She’d fantasized about this moment; him bent on one knee before her, them surrounded by her favorite flowers, cream tulips, lit tea candles and the sweetest jazz music playing. Except the man she envisioned wasn’t Ezekiel. Her heart stopped as he suddenly knelt before her.
“Samina Miriam Wells…”
Samina blinked, lost for words but knowing she had to do something. Fast. Her heart was racing, her palms were sweaty. Everywhere was hot.
Ezekiel took her hand in his, brushed her fingers with his thumb. He looked up, warmth and adoration glowing in his dark eyes. “I want you to be—”
“Sammie!” Karen pitched forward, scattering a pile of dead maple leaves in her wake. She sounded breathless, alarm lighting her face. Her eyes darted from Samina to kneeling Ezekiel and then back to Samina again. “M-mom wants you…” She swallowed in mid-panting.
All day, Samina wanted nothing more than to shake Karen for her meddling. Now she wanted nothing more than to hug her tightly. Looking once at the confusion on Ezekiel’s face, she offered him a pathetic smile. “Please can we talk later?” She didn’t give him time to think about it and hauled to her feet, hurrying past Karen into the woods.
Karen was at her side in seconds. “Are you gonna do it?”
“Do what?” Samina asked breathlessly as they cleared the thicket of trees.
Samina halted in step and whirled around. She scowled. “First the shameless flirting and now you eavesdrop?”
Karen scoffed, placing her hands to her hips. “I plan to do more than that if it would help you see.”
“Help me see what?” Samina clipped out, her jaw clenched tightly. She didn’t like the accusation in Karen’s glaring eyes.
“That you love Topher, not Zeke.”
Samina’s eyes shot over Karen’s shoulder at the wall of trees before glaring at her. “Be quiet,” she hissed, grabbing Karen’s arm and pulling her in the other direction of thicker trees.
“Why are we hiding?” Karen wrenched back, scowling as she rubbed her arm. “You’re in some horrible mood and it doesn’t have anything to do with Aunt Flo.”
“Then stop pissing me off.”
Karen pushed out a short, harsh laugh. “What’s really pissing you off? That I’m flirting with the very available Topher or that you can’t have him?”
Samina scowled, her face twitching. “That’s enough.”
“No Sis. I just got started.” Arms crossed, Karen walked around Samina. “I’ve noticed something very interesting about you. You desire things you can’t have and ignore the good things available to you. Your dream career, your dream life.” She paused in front of her, both brows raised. “… your dream man.”
Samina bunched her fists. “Shut. Up.”
“Your dream career was to be a well-known, talented painter. Everyone has told you what a great artist you are, we tell you this all the time but you refuse to listen.” Karen shook her head. “When you lost that fellowship, when they rejected you because you didn’t qualify, you stopped painting. You didn’t even consider the other good schools that offered you scholarships. Because you kept pining over a fellowship you couldn’t have.”
Samina pushed past Karen. “I’m not listening to this.”
“And your dream man?” Karen hurried to block her path. “You started liking Ezekiel, what, when you were fifteen?” Karen cocked her head to one side. “He was your best friend for years before that and you never had feelings for him. You felt nothing for him until he got a girlfriend and became unavailable.”
“Shut up, Karen.”
“For years, good guys have asked you out. But because it wasn’t Ezekiel, you didn’t give them a chance. You don’t give anyone a chance. And now that he’s available, you falter.”
Her face was so hot, she felt sweat trickling down her cheeks. It had to be sweat. “Shut up!”
“This is real life, Samina,” Karen said firmly, grabbing Samina by the shoulder. “Stop dreaming. Wake up and see what’s there for you. Topher—”
Samina jerked away, causing Karen’s hands to slide off. “For your information, Ezekiel was just about to propose to me.”
Karen stared through hooded eyes. “Oh, yeah? Then why did you run away before he finished?”
Her face heated violently. She jutted her chin. “You said Mom wanted me for something!”
“Give me a break.” Karen scoffed derisively. “Since when do you hurry to answer Mom? Admit it, Samina. You don’t really know what you want and because of it, you’re confusing everyone including yourself. I’ll tell her you’re busy.” She brushed past Samina and stomped back to the family camp.
Speechless and reeling from Karen’s jarring words, Samina closed her eyes and told herself to breathe first.
She stiffened at the sound of her father’s voice and groaned aloud. Dad, please not right now. Wiping her face, Samina turned to Gabriel standing where Karen had departed from. “Yes Daddy?” But her face twitched as the tears continued to fall, her shoulders shaking.
Gabriel closed the distance and pulled her into his arms as she wept aloud.
When her sobs subsided, Samina felt embarrassed, even before her father. He’d never really given her advice about men, because she’d never mentioned Ezekiel, because he wouldn’t know what to say. Him starting now would only feel awkward and forced. She started to pull away. “I’m fine now…”
His hand closed around her wrist, holding her close to him. “Let’s take a walk.”
Samina bit her bottom lip, looking at him through swollen eyes. Walking with Daddy meant talking with him too. She tamped down a sigh and forced herself to nod. “Okay…”