Abe took one look at his parents’ bedroom and a wistful smile crossed his lips. Between Geri’s handiwork and Bart’s interior design expertise, the master bedroom had taken on a new look. The heavy drapes were replaced with light muslin and the yellow walls were now a peaceful mint. Yet the furniture remained, though painted white to match the airy design.

He moved his hand over the frame of the bed. His lips twitched a smile. “Bart’s staying,” he said to the empty room. “He’ll move before Christmas. Darah acts like she doesn’t care, but I know she’s happy that we’re all home, together.”

The smile waned, his expression thoughtful. “It’s like you’re gone but not really… I see you in each of them. I thank God for that, because you being really gone would be hard for them. For me.” He swallowed hard, staring at the billowing curtains. “I wish you were here. Wish you could tell me what to do about everything.”

The doorbell rang and he straightened his frame. His heart skipped a beat when he heard Eleazar said he’d get the door and Darah berating him to slow down. Abe exhaled a shaky breath and closed his eyes for a brief prayer. “Please let this work out. Please.”

A knock on the door pulled him around and he saw Clement standing there, wearing a quizzical expression. “You okay?” the seventeen-year-old asked, eying him warily.

Abe nodded and put on a smile. “Sure.” He stepped away from the bed and moved to his brother.

“It’s a woman this time,” Clement muttered as they strode down the hallway. “She looks like a stickler.”

“Then we’d just have to let Eli turn up the charm.” Abe clapped a hand over Clement’s shoulder and met his brother’s skeptical stare. It warmed his heart that even Clement, though gruff and often nonchalant, wanted to keep their family together. It strengthened his resolve to make sure that happened. “We’re staying together, no matter what.”

A ghost of a smile was on Clement’s lips as he regarded his eldest brother. Then he nodded. “If you say so.”

They turned to the stairs, already hearing Eleazar work his six-year-old charms on the woman with stories of his school. Before the little guy could talk about their kitchen mishaps, Darah stepped in with baked treats for their visitor. An amused Bart sat with his arms crossed over his chest, watching over their youngest siblings.

Once Abe and Clement made it downstairs, all eyes turned to them.

Bart smiled. “Abe, Junior, this is Mrs. Bessel from DFPS.”

Abe gave Mrs. Bessel, a middle-aged woman with silver hair and inquisitive hazel eyes, a smile. He stepped forward and extended a hand. “Ma’am, welcome to our home.”

“We said that already,” Eleazar said, pouting that his story had been interrupted.

The siblings and Mrs. Bessel laughed, the middle-aged woman giving Eleazar a fond glance. Abe felt the tension ease off his shoulders. Tonight’s dinner would go well, he was certain of that.

Phoebe was on pins and needles as she hurried down the stairs of her parents’ home, almost colliding with her father and his hot cup of coffee.

“Whoa, Feebs!”

“My bad, Daddy!” she circled around him toward the guest bedroom where her aunt and uncle lodged for the weekend. They often spent the days following Thanksgiving and Christmas in their house, and had done it since Phoebe was little. Without hesitating, she knocked on their bedroom door.

“Where’s the fire?” Clint asked, mildly amused by his only child’s early-morning behavior. “Don’t let your aunt scold you.”

“It’s okay, Dad. She and Mom went for a morning stroll.” She knocked on the door once more. “Uncle Harry, time to wake up!”

Clint shook his head. “There a reason why you’re disturbing your uncle’s sleep?”

“Everyone else is awake,” she said matter-of-factly, knocking again.

The door swung open and a groggy Uncle Harry scowled at her. “Not everyone,” he groused, stepping out of the room.

Clint chuckled, handing his brother-in-law the cup of coffee he’d prepared for himself.

Phoebe moved to his side as he shuffled to the kitchen. “Any news?”

“Other than you interrupting my time of rest?”

“Told you,” Clint said pointedly, walking ahead to fill another cup of coffee. “Feebs, you want some?”

“No Dad, thanks.” Phoebe kept her eyes on her uncle who perched on the stool. “The visit, did you hear anything yet?”

Clint frowned. “What visit?”

Harry took a tentative sip of the coffee and frowned. “Ugh. Brother, this tastes—“

“Tell that to your sister-in-law,” Clint answered with a grimace.

“This could burn off my eyebrows.” Harry shook his head yet took another sip.

“Uncle,” Phoebe whined softly.

Harry regarded his niece. “I should let you squirm the whole day for waking me up unnecessarily.”

Phoebe flashed him a smile that always charmed him. “I’ll make you your favorite pancakes.”

Clint chuckled and Harry merely blinked at her.

She pouted. “Pretty please? I’ll add nuts and raisins…”

“I don’t do raisins anymore,” Harry replied and took another sip, grimacing as he did.

“Uncle!”

Clint shook his head. “You better talk or she won’t leave you alone.”

“Don’t I know it,” Harry mumbled and sighed. “The visit, you ask.”

“Uh-hmm.” She perched on the adjacent stool, eyes focused on him.

He pretended to consider it, making Phoebe groan and Clint chuckle. Then he smirked. “Well, Mrs. Bessel—“

Phoebe inhaled sharply and stood. “You sent Mrs. Bessel to them?!”

He frowned. “I didn’t send anyone. The department asked around and she was the only one available at short notice.”

“Yeah duh! She doesn’t celebrate holidays ‘cos she doesn’t have family, ‘cos she’s a mean old lady!”

Clint frowned at his daughter. “That’s not nice, Phoebe.”

“She can be a little cantankerous,” Harry countered to his brother-in-law before looking back at his niece. “In any case, Phoebe, I had no say in the matter.”

Phoebe groaned and stepped away from the counter. “This is all my fault! If I hadn’t been there that night or if I hadn’t met them at all, they’d be together by now.” Tears rushed to the surface and she angrily wiped at her eyes, disgusted at herself.

“Phoebe,” Harry’s voice was soft yet berating.

She sniffed, turning to her father and uncle. “What?”

“You gonna let me answer or what?”

Her chest tightened, not wanting to hear the consequences of her carelessness, her meddling. “Not really. I know what you’re gonna say. I caused them to be separated forever and ever.”

“Oh don’t be so dramatic.”

She glared at him. “You should’ve insisted that someone else go. Now they’ll have to be apart. Abe will be devastated. They all will be. What have I done?!” The tears flowed free now, her shoulders shaking.

Harry heaved a sigh and Clint quickly rounded the counter, coming to his daughter’s side. Phoebe wailed against his chest and Clint growled. “For Pete’s sake, Harry, tell the girl before she loses it.”

“She already lost it,” Harry countered with a scoff. “Phoebe, they got approved.”

Her sobs caught in her throat and she blinked through her tears. “What?”

“I said they got approved. Mrs. Bessel gave them a strong recommendation.”

Phoebe yelped. Clint and Harry chuckled.

“She did?” Phoebe’s eyes were wide as saucers.

Clint shook his head. “This Mrs. Bessel must be a tyrant.”

“She’s just the female version of Mr. Scrooge,” Harry answered easily. “But that little one must’ve charmed her wig off.”

“Eli,” Phoebe breathed out a sigh. Her smile returned even as tears streamed down her face.  She leaned into her father’s arms.

Harry arched a brow. “Why are you still crying?”

Phoebe shook her head. “I’m just so happy. Thank God it worked out. I’m so happy.”

The two men snorted a laugh and Clint wiped the tears from her cheeks. His expression grew solemn as he regarded his only child. “You must really like them, Feebs.”

“More like love,” Harry muttered, downing the warm coffee. ”You should’ve seen the kiss she plant—“

“Uncle!” Phoebe ducked out of her father’s arms and moved behind the counter.

Clint’s face darkened as he turned to face both of them. “Kissed who?”

“Who got kissed?” Marsha asked as she stepped inside, her sister behind her.

Phoebe groaned. “Doesn’t matter! Who wants pancakes?”

“Of course it matters,” Clint growled. “Someone better start talking.”

Marsha slipped an arm around her husband’s waist. “Stop scowling, dear.”

“Add pecan and raisins, Phoebe.” Belinda chimed in, toeing off her tennis shoes. “I’ve worked up an appetite.” She sagged against her husband, curiously peering down at his cup.

“What happened to your diet, dear?” Harry asked, nudging the half-full mug of coffee to her.

She wrinkled her nose and nudged it aside. “It’s the holidays. Leave me alone.”

Noticing Clint’s attention focused on Phoebe, Marsha released him and moved to Phoebe’s side. She grabbed her daughter’s hand and tugged her toward the pantry. “Let’s go get those pancakes started.”

Phoebe gave her mother a silent look of gratitude and let her lead her away. Aunt Belinda began a conversation about the disadvantages of eating beef, distracting both men for a moment and she breathed a sigh of relief. At least for now, she was safe.

They reached the pantry on the other side of the wall when Marsha turned around. “The guy you kissed, was it that Abe guy?”

Phoebe groaned. “Mom!”

<<Chapter 13 || Chapter 15>>

Advertisements