rowhouse

Crystal cast an anxious look at the door before swinging her gaze back to Tamar. “He was taking me home. That’s always chancy but I. . . I was selfish, I wanted him to take me home. Dad was drunk and started messing with Dylan. He said something about mom and then it went downhill from there. He swung and then it fell back into old patterns.”

Tamar fought to keep her expression still even though her entire body shivered at the thought of someone pummelling Dylan with a heavy hand and raging fury. She wanted to run to him and hold him but instead eyed Crystal warily. “What about you? Did he touch you?”

Crystal’s voice broke on her laugh. “Of course not. He knows Dylan would kill him and that’s not an exaggeration. He only says stuff and even then he doesn’t say it in front of Dylan.”

Her brow furrowed as she studied the high school student. There was a maturity in Crystal that even she hadn’t possessed back then… Tamar sighed. “I’m glad you’re okay, Crystal,” she whispered, her blue eyes scanning the girl’s features just in case Crystal was hiding any injuries or secrets from her.

“I just wish Dylan was as okay,” she whispered. “And then as if fighting wasn’t bad enough, he comes home and beats himself up for not being able to move me out of there.”

Tamar’s lips formed a slight o as she stared at Crystal in silent awe. The two of them, Crystal and Dylan, were sharing an unimaginable burden, and something in her wanted to help lighten their load. The wheels in her head started spinning and she straightened her back. “Cry–” her phone sounded against her hip pocket and Tamar frowned at the interruption. Sighing, she tugged the offending phone from her pocket and immediately swallowed a groan. Bekah. “Excuse me a minute, ‘kay?” she whispered to Crystal with a smile and shuffled to one corner of the room. “Hello?” she whispered once she was a few feet from the girl.

Bekah clucked in annoyance. “Where the heck are you?”

“With Dylan and Crystal–look, Bekah, I need a favor.”

“You’re in no place to ask for favors, Tamar. What are you doing out with them? I was scared out of my wits looking for you!”

“I’m sorry…” Tamar grimaced, clutching the phone. “Look, can Dylan and Crystal sleep over?” She held her breath at the stifled silence on the other end.

“Wait a minute,” Bekah finally spoke and Tamar could hear the click of metal locks in the background, followed by the distinctive sound of an engine running. “You want your boyfriend and his sister to shack up with us?”

“Just for one night,” Tamar said quickly, shifting her back to Crystal. “Actually… Let’s discuss that when I get home.”

“Good thought. When are you getting home?”

Tamar bit her bottom lip. “We’re leaving in a bit. They’re just getting their stuff.” She peeked over her shoulder and gave Crystal a smile. “Is that cool?”

“Do I have a choice in the matter?” Bekah dragged out a sigh.

Tamar grinned, turning away from Crystal. “Thanks Bekah. Love you.”

“Yeah yeah…” Bekah disconnected the call and Tamar finally heaved a sigh.

She then turned to Crystal with a wide grin. “Good news!” she announced, the tautness in her shoulders loosening instantly. “You can stay with us.”

Crystal smiled tentatively. “That’s good. I didn’t want Dylan trying to take me home tonight. . . and I really didn’t want to go myself.” She winced when Dylan walked out of his room at that exact moment. For the briefest of instants guilt flashed plain across his face before he wiped all emotion from his face.

“You sure you two don’t just want to make it a girls’ night?” he offered quietly.

Tamar smiled gently and nodded, her eyes probing his to trust her. “It’ll be fun, the four of us. Don’t feel awkward about it, Sinatra. Besides, I insist.” She then tilted her chin, daring him to challenge her further.

His face suggested fun wasn’t the word he had in mind but he didn’t argue anymore after that. “Ready when you are then.”

Tamar gave him a grateful smile for yielding and walked over to Crystal. “There’s another bedroom besides mine and Bekah, so you don’t have to feel uncomfortable.” She placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder, wanting to calm her fears or worries. “Let’s go then,” she said, looking over Crystal’s shoulder at Dylan. His bruises made her stomach twist painfully and she couldn’t wait to get home to focus her attention on him.

Dylan didn’t have many words on the way to Tamar’s. Crystal didn’t push but frequently reached out to touch him, even if only for a few seconds as if to reassure herself he was okay and with her. He obliged her and sometimes returned the touches but otherwise focused on the drive. Crystal sighed as they pulled into the complex and shared a look with Tamar.

Without a word, Tamar nodded at Crystal and slowly stepped out of the car.

Bekah immediately pulled open the door, having sat by the window for Tamar’s return. She bounded down the steps and made her way over to the car. Her footsteps faltered and she swallowed a breath at the sight of Dylan’s bruised face. “Geez. . . what happen—” she halted when Tamar cut her a warning look. Dragging her gaze to the quiet girl beside them, Bekah managed a smile. “You must be Crystal?”

“And you must be Bekah.” Crystal forced a smile. “Tonio and Dylan have had a lot to say about you. It’s nice to finally meet the legend.”

Bekah glanced once at Dylan and frowned slightly before returning her eyes to Crystal. “Why don’t you guys come inside?” She gestured to the steps and moved out of the way to let Crystal and Dylan enter first. As Tamar stepped around her to climb the steps, she grabbed her cousin’s hand to pull her back. “What happened?”

“Later, Bekah,” Tamar whispered, pulling her arm from Bekah’s grasp. Releasing a shaky breath, she jogged up the steps and turned to Crystal. “Welcome to our humble abode. It’s not much but I hope you’ll be comfortable here. Bekah,” she peered over at her cousin who wore a quizzical frown. “Could you show Crystal the room?” She didn’t wait for Bekah’s reply and immediately moved to Dylan’s side, hooking an arm under his and steering him toward the bathroom.

Bekah frowned deeper at her cousin’s retreating figure. “Sure. . .” Then she turned to Crystal. “Want something to drink before you settle in for the night?”

“Umm, water would be good if it’s not too much trouble. I’m sorry we’re crashing your place like this.”

Bekah waved her off. “Don’t even mention it.” She strolled to the fridge and pulled it open. Her eyes scanned the first two shelves and wrinkled her nose. She would have to stop by the grocery store to stock up soon. Shrugging, she grabbed two cold bottles of water and nudged the door before crossing the room back to Crystal. Her eyes quickly studied the girl before her and satisfied that there were no bruises on her face, she extended one bottle to her. “So tell me, what has Tonio been saying about me?” she asked, hoping it would distract the girl from whatever caused that wrinkle on her brow.

Crystal took a long swallow of water before looking over at Bekah. “I think the better question is what he hasn’t been saying. It would definitely take a lot less time to cover.”

The corner of Bekah’s lips quirked up as she regarded the girl openly. Then averting her head, she covered the amused smile by taking a swig of her water before looking back at Crystal. Gesturing down the hallway with the bottle, she raised a brow at her. “Wanna check out your room?”

Tamar ambled across the room, standing by her armoire and gestured silently to her bed, watching Dylan as he stood quietly at the door.

Dylan ran a hand down his face and immediately regretted it. Sighing, he leaned against the wall and dropped his head back. He knew he was being a jerk but he was still trying to process things, make arrangements, figure out what to do with Crystal. Besides, what was there to say about what had happened?

Biting her lip as he made no move to come over, Tamar trudged back to him. She reached for both his hands. “Dylan…” she whispered gently, her heart twisting in pain for him. What could she do? “Let me in, please. Let me help.”

“This isn’t something you can help, pretty girl,” he finally said. His voice was as rough as sandpaper and he didn’t bother trying to clear his throat. “We’ll work it out. We always do.”

Tamar blinked, frowning as she felt her eyes sting at his rough words. She knew he had a right to be upset but his words stung. She lowered her gaze to her fingers wrapped around his own. Her thumbs moved over the back of his hands. “I just want you to sit down for a minute…” she said gently. “To clear your head so you can think calmly.” She peeked up at him. “Is that so much to ask?”

The motion of her thumbs along his hands was simple but something about it unlocked something in him. With a heavy sigh he started across the room to the bed, drawing her with him. He sank down onto it and pulled her down onto his lap. “Better?”

She fought a smile and nodded solemnly at him. Lifting one hand to cup his chin, her fingers stroked the skin that wasn’t bruised or broken. Her brow furrowed with every stroke and her eyes flickered over his. “Not yet. . . But I will be when I can take care of you.” She leaned forward and placed a soft, fleeting kiss against his forehead. “Let me take care of you, Dylan.”

He turned his head to press a kiss to the palm of her hand. “You already took care of me,” he reminded her quietly. “Medicine really is a good fit for you.”

She rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean, Dylan.” Her fingers moved down the solid column of his neck and slid over his shoulders. “What can I do for you to rest your mind? For you and Crystal?” Her thoughts wandered, caught hold of what Crystal had told her earlier and she quickly shifted her gaze back to his. “What will you do about Crystal? Can she stay with you at your place. . . or?” she asked, her voice barely over a whisper.

He closed his eyes and focused on her touch. She was posing the very question he’d been asking himself repeatedly. It was several moments before he found the words to say. “I’m working on it.”

Tamar tamped down the excitement that bubbled inside her at the hint of desperation in Dylan’s voice. She knew this was a way she could help and told herself to remain calm. “What about. . . here? Could she stay here?” She bit the inside of her cheek, her eyes riveted on him as if anticipating his flat-out refusal.

“What?” he croaked. His brain couldn’t come up with more than that. Had he heard her right? She was offering to let Crystal live with her?

She gave him a crooked grin. “We have one more room. I can fix it up nicely for Crystal to have as hers. You know, for as long as she wants it.” She nudged his shoulder gently. “Is that okay?”

He just stared at her. Could it really be that simple? After years of trying to come up with a solution, she’d just dropped it on his lap as if it were no big deal. “That’s. . . a lot. If Nick found out she was here-” he broke off, shaking his head at the thought.

A cold tremor skittered up her spine but she straightened on his lap. Her fingers gripped his shoulders, forcing him to look at her. “How would he find out if we didn’t tell him?” She frowned at him. “Dylan, what other option do you have?” She chewed at her bottom lip, not wanting to think about anything else. “Let her stay here with us. At least until you come up with something better. Please?” she squeezed his shoulders.

He had no other options. That had been the story for far too long. “Just. . . for now. Okay? A few days. Until I can get something sorted out.”

Tamar’s face split into a wide grin and she threw her arms around his neck, snuggling against him. “Thank you,” she breathed, securing her arms around him. The tightness around her heart eased, grateful that he was finally trusting her with Crystal. Even if it was only for a few days.

She was thanking him when she’d at the very least given him a temporary solution to a problem that had kept him awake at night on more than one occasion. “I should be thanking you.” His voice was no more than a whisper as he drew her in tightly. She never stopped amazing him and not for the first time he wondered how he had gotten so lucky.

Tamar could only smile, pressing a gentle kiss against his ear, burrowing closer in the warmth of his arms. She marveled how easy it was to rest in his arms and not feel overwhelmed or threatened. Her heart fluttered and she closed her eyes, her fingers slowly rubbed the space between his shoulders.

“I’m sorry about tonight,” he said in her ear after a few minutes of silence. “I don’t think this is what you had planned.”

She shrugged, nestling her cheek against him. The scent of him relaxed her body and she smiled. “It’s alright. . . I’m just glad you’re okay.” Her smile waned. “When you didn’t call, you worried me something fierce, Dylan.”

His muscles tightened the slightest bit and he lifted his head, his eyes serious. “You’re not allowed to worry, pretty girl. Not about me.”

Tamar rolled her eyes. “Why not? I’m more than allowed to worry about you. I…” She frowned slightly at the words that formed at the tip of her tongue. Averting her gaze to his taut muscles, she drew invisible lines along his skin. “I care about you. Of course I should worry.” She peeked up at him. “It’s my right to.”

“I understand the concept but I like it better when you don’t worry. So if you could just forfeit that right. . .” he suggested, nuzzling the soft spot just behind her ear.

Her back stiffened slightly as his warm breath tickled her skin. Tamar bit her bottom lip and forced out a laugh, searing him with a warning look. “I know what you’re doing and it won’t work. Not one bit.”

“Are you sure? ‘Cause I think it is.” His chuckle was silenced by the kiss he pressed to that same spot.

She muffled a moan and pinched the skin of his bicep. “Nope. It’s not.”

“Sure? Really sure?” he asked in between kisses. He reached up and captured her offending hand, holding it against her thigh.

Tamar smirked and inclined her head, nuzzling her pursed lips to his. Enough talking. She’d waited all day for this, for him. Snaking her arms around his neck, she deepened the kiss and closed her eyes, reveling in the feel of him against her.

Dylan knew he couldn’t stop her from worrying even if he didn’t want her wasting time being concerned about him. He could, however, take her mind off of it so he set about doing just that. He coaxed her with soft teasing kisses and gentle strokes over her arms and along her back.

“You do that too well,” Tamar’s fingers trailed at the ends of his hair. “And you need a haircut.” She nipped at his bottom lip, scooting closer to him.

“I learned from you.” He sank his weight more fully onto the bed, bracing on his elbows as he looked up at her. “You don’t get to tell me I don’t look as good as usual and then sneak more kisses, woman.”

She raised a taunting brow. “And what are you going to do about that if I do, Mr. Ramsey?” She ruffled his hair.

“Stop kissing you, Ms. Malek.”

Tamar chuckled softly and nodded. “Works for me.” She took her precious time, sliding off his lap and stood to her feet. “I’ll go check on your sister,” she said, looking down at him. “You rest up.”

“Can you handle me rested up?” he challenged with a laugh.

She turned up her nose at him. “You can’t handle me without resting up.” Swiveling on her heels to hide a smirk, she started for the door.

He fell back onto the bed completely then, outright laughing even though he couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t imagined he’d be smiling let alone laughing after the day he’d had and yet he’d already done both. Because of Tamar.

Shaking her head at the sound of his laugh, Tamar strode to the room beside hers and smiled at the sight of Bekah unfolding a clean purple bed sheet over the single bed. She turned to Crystal standing near the bed and smiled warmly. “Everything okay?”

Bekah flapped the sheet over the bare mattress without looking over her shoulder at her cousin. “How’s he doing? Resting?”

“Uh-hmm.” Tamar kept her eyes on Crystal. “I bet you’re ready to turn in too, huh?”

Crystal nodded absently. “I could hear him laughing. Really laughing.” Her eyes were wide and she blinked violently. “You’re good for him. Thank you for being there for him, us actually.”

Bekah peeked from the corner of her eye at Tamar who smiled shyly and smirked, tucking the ends of the sheet under the mattress.

“I’m grateful that you told me,” Tamar said softly, her blue eyes searching Crystal’s. She wished either she or Dylan would go tell her everything but knew it was more than just trust. She knew how difficult it was to speak of deep wounds and unhealed scars. Giving the young woman an encouraging smile, Tamar sighed gently. “I want you to feel comfortable here, Crystal. . . If you’re ever in the neighborhood and you need a place to crash, feel free to stay here.” She wasn’t sure if she should’ve waited for Dylan to give Crystal the news but her whole body was itching to divulge it all. One stern look from Bekah stilled her tongue and she bit it back behind another smile. “I’m getting ice-cream and pie for Dylan and I. Would you two like a bowl?”

“Not me,” Bekah mumbled. “Indigestion at midnight is a beast.” She smoothened the sheet over the mattress and straightened her frame before turning to face Crystal. “I’ll be in my room if you need anything. Good night,” she said with a half-weary smile and trudged between the two out of the room.

“Goodnight Bekah.”  Just after she left the room, the full weight of Tamar’s words hit her. Crystal dropped down on the bed as if her legs could no longer hold her weight. “That’s…that’s really generous of you. I–wow. I don’t even really know what to say.” She’d expected something like that from a friend but not from Tamar, especially given the way she’d acted toward her when they’d first met. “Did I ever apologize for being a brat?”

Tamar waved her words aside and moved over to the edge of the bed, perching there. “Don’t even mention it.” She smiled in Crystal’s direction. “And don’t you dare apologize for caring fiercely for your big brother. I’d be worried if you didn’t.”

Crystal smiled sheepishly. “Fierce is definitely one way to describe it. Still, I was kinda rude with it and I do apologize for that.”

She lifted one shoulder. “Don’t mention it. . .” With one quick survey of the room, Tamar pushed up to her feet. “In for some ice-cream and pie or do you just want to get some sleep?”

“Maybe just some ice-cream. Do you mind if I drop in on Dylan for a minute?”

Tamar scoffed incredulously. “Gosh, why would I mind? He’s your brother.” She shook her head and flashed the girl a smile before she strode to the door. “Seriously, Crystal. Relax and feel free with whatever in this house. I’ll go get you your ice-cream.”

“Thanks!” she called after her even as she left the room in search of Dylan. She found him stretched out on Tamar’s bed, hands clasped behind his head and eyes closed. She hesitated just outside the door. He was resting and she didn’t want to bother him with her stupid need for reassurance.

“You going to stand there all night, peanut?” Dylan drawled without opening his eyes.

<<Chapter 25 || Chapter 27>>

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