“Good grief!” Phoebe gasped, bursting through the front door, her nostrils assailed with pungent smoke and fish. She looked past Darah to the kitchen. “What happened?” she called over the blaring smoke alarm. She stepped inside and made a beeline for the kitchen.

“What do you think happened?” Darah asked, on her tail. “Geri burned dinner!”

Phoebe looked to the back door propped wide open and sagged her shoulders. At least they had sense to open the back door. She shook her head and turned to Geraldine who was standing in front of the stove, coughing violently.

“The guys’ll be here any minute with the guy from the department. If we can’t get the smell out and there’s no dinner, what are we gonna do?” Darah exclaimed, panic still ringing in her voice. She turned wide eyes to Phoebe, entreating her help.

“I’m working on it,” Geraldine groused with a gravelly voice. “Just stay out of the kitchen and keep spraying everything.” She poked the seared fish, grimacing as it rolled over, pulverized from the hot flames.

Darah scowled. “The vanilla doesn’t get rid of the smoke.”

“It’s better than nothing–oww!” Geraldine lifted her hand from the pan and inserted her thumb in her mouth.

Phoebe rolled her eyes and nudged Geraldine aside. She shook her head at the pitiful sight before her. What person with tastebuds would attempt to eat this?  “You two go get odor eliminators! Air fresheners are not gonna cut it.”

Darah and Geraldine glanced at each other quizzically. “What about dinner?” Darah asked quietly.

“We’ll start over. What do you have in the pantry?”

Darah and Geraldine exchanged expressions. Then Darah sighed. “Macaroni shells. Cornbeef. Sliced bread, cookies, chocolate-chip ice-cream… oh, and frozen peas.”

Phoebe glanced down at her, impressed.

“I go with Abe to grocery shop,” Darah answered with a careless shrug.

The mention of Abe made Phoebe’s heart skip a beat. She wanted to see him so badly. But the thought of him coming home to a house that smelled like an old barbecue pit and no food to show for it made her shove the forlorn thought aside. She would see him soon. “Okay. Darah, you get me the cornbeef, frozen peas and macaroni shells.”

Darah nodded and stepped behind Geraldine to get the ingredients.

“What about me?”

Phoebe turned her eyes to the woman who wore a defeated expression. She smiled. “You get the best odor eliminators you can find. When you get back, we’ll make dessert.”

“Dessert?” Darah echoed, sticking her head from behind the fridge door.

Phoebe smirked. “You’ll see.” She turned back to Geraldine. “We’re counting on you. This interview has to go well.”

“Understood.” Geraldine nodded, still somber. “I’ll go now…” She turned, her work boots clunking across the weathered floorboards.

“Hey Geri,” Phoebe called after her and gave her another smile. “It’ll work out, don’t worry.”

Geraldine nodded and turned away.

Darah sighed as she transported the ingredients to the counter, watching Phoebe discard the burnt fish into the trashcan. “She’s worse than me…”

Phoebe smiled gently. “Not everyone can have the same talents. I could never make beautiful what Geri can. Or take care of her older and younger brothers as you do.”

Darah arched a brow. “You have siblings, Phoebe?”

The question was a simple one, but one that invoked pain in her chest. Phoebe sighed softly. “I did… but he died when I was just a little girl.”

“I’m sorry…”

Phoebe shook her head, meeting Phoebe’s eyes. “It’s okay. I know that one day, God will give me a big family, to make up for what I’ve missed.”

“A family like us?”

The hope in Darah’s voice echoed what hid in Phoebe’s heart. Their gazes warmed on each other and Phoebe fought the urge to pull Darah into her arms. She’d always wished for a sister, and the thought of having a precious sister like Darah as hers made her wish desperately that it would happen and soon. “Maybe…” Hopefully.

Then the sound of the front door opening brought the girls back to the present.

“What the–You burnt dinner again, Darah?” Clement rushed to the archway of the kitchen, eyes wide. Then he did a double take of Phoebe in the kitchen. “You’re back?”

“That wasn’t me!” Darah protested, opening the can of cornbeef. “Gerri did it this time.”

Clement shook his head, hooking his thumbs on the pockets of his pants. “I should’ve known she couldn’t do it. Saw her peel out of here like someone was chasing her.”

“She’s gone to the store for a sec and we’re short on help.” Phoebe smiled in greeting. “Welcome back, Junior. You’re just in time. Come help me with the garlic bread.”

Abe was a nervous wreck as he waited in the driveway for the middle-aged gentleman to park behind Bart’s rented SUV. He tried to mask it, giving the man a welcoming smile, a firm handshake and direct eye contact.

“Right this way,” he said, his heart pounding hard and fast in his chest. He hadn’t stepped into the house and thus didn’t know what to expect. No one had called with an emergency about Geraldine’s cooking, so Abe had hope everything would be fine.

He unlocked the door, contemplating only for a moment whether to step in first and get a glimpse of the place before he allowed him to enter. But the gentleman nodded with a smile and stepped in first. Lifting up a silent prayer, Abe entered himself. A fresh fragrance greeted them at the door.

“Something smells good,” the gentleman remarked, scanning the room.

Abe nodded, surprised himself. He detected a hint of beef and was that garlic bread? His stomach rumbled in anticipation.

Just then, Eleazar rushed out of the kitchen and rounded the long settee to give his oldest brother a hug.

Abe smiled, lifting his youngest brother up in his arms. He still couldn’t get over how tiny Eleazar was for his age but was grateful that he was healthy.

The gentleman waited until Abe lowered Eleazar back on his feet before extending a hand and a warm smile. “You must be Eleazar. I’m Mr. Harry.”

Eleazar nodded though he kept his hands to his side. Abe could tell even from where he stood that his six-year-old brother assessed the older man with suspicion.

“You’re here to give us a test.”

Harry glanced up at Abe who gave him a shrug. Then the older man chuckled good-naturedly and looked back down at Eleazar. “A test?”

Eleazar nodded, still wearing his stern expression. “We are gonna pass, y’know.”

Harry chuckled. “I hope so.”

Abe grinned fully now, bolstered by his brother’s matter-of-fact tone. He put his hands over Eleazar’s shoulders. “Why don’t you welcome our guest and show him where to sit, Eli?”

Eleazar then put out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Harry.”

The older man’s lips twitched an amused smile before he closed his hand over Eleazar’s small hand. With a shake, Harry gave the young boy a wide grin. “It’s nice to meet you too, Eleazar.”

Then after he’d collected his hand again, Eleazar stepped around Harry and gestured to the leather couch. “Sit here. I will show you our family pictures.”

Abe watched his youngest brother take command and decided to check on the dinner. As he turned toward the kitchen, his footsteps halted. Bart and Clement stood in the doorway, watching Eleazar with bemused expressions on their faces.

He moved to them, peering over their shoulders to spy the girls’ fanfare. “Where’s…” he trailed off, spotting the three women in the kitchen. His eyes zeroed in on the one that made his heart beat fast whenever he thought of her. “Phoebe…?”

She looked up then, wisps of hair sticking to her forehead. Her pretty eyes widened at the sight of him and she gave him a tentative smile, which he readily returned.

“Wipe that goofy grin on your face and get in there,” Bart muttered under his breath, sliding to the left so Abe could enter with ease.

Abe meandered over to Phoebe, his smile widened realizing she was really here and not an apparition of his thoughts. “What are you doing here?”

Her gaze swept over him. “Darah called me… with your phone.”

He didn’t bother seeking out his sister. “No wonder I couldn’t find it.”

Phoebe gave him that pretty shy smile of his.

Abe wanted to embrace her and never let go. “And the real reason you came?”

Her smile waned and her eyes sought his, hesitation flickering only for a moment. Then her gaze warmed. “Because I missed you. I missed y’all too much.”

He grinned wide and this time didn’t hesitate pulling her into his arms. “We missed you too. I missed you too.” And when she sighed, Abe didn’t wait to ask and just put his mouth to hers.

Darah cheered somewhere behind him but he was too busy rejoicing when Phoebe slid her arms around his shoulders and kissed him back.

“Phoebe? Phoebe, for heaven’s sake!!”

Just like that, the spell was broken and the couple lifted their heads. Phoebe’s eyes were heavy as she tried to lift them open, her hands still propped on Abe’s shoulders.

“Phoebe, what are you doing here?!”

Her eyes snapped open then and she jerked her gaze over Abe’s shoulders. Phoebe inhaled sharply and ripped her hands from Abe’s shoulders. “Uncle Harry!”

“Uncle Harry?” Darah echoed, eyes darting between the couple and the astounded middle-aged gentleman standing in the doorway.

“What are you doing here?” Harry echoed, eyes blazing with annoyance.

Phoebe ducked her head behind Abe’s shoulder and groaned aloud. Not again.

<<Chapter 7 || Chapter 9>>