“No means no, Darah,” Bart said, tone firm and unyielding as the glare he leveled on her. “The sooner you learn that, the better.”

Darah scowled as she always did. “Ugh, stop. You’re not the boss of me!”

Bart snorted. “Fifteen years old and you still talk like a spoiled child. The answer is still no and that’s final.”

“Ugh! I hate you!” she screamed and spun around, colliding into nine-year-old Eleazar on her way up the stairs.

Eleazar and Bart winced when she slammed the door.

“And quit slamming that door!” Bart bellowed though he was sure she wouldn’t hear him over her ear-grating music. He shook his head, giving his youngest brother an exasperated glance Eleazar returned.

“Women,” Eleazar muttered, sounding just like Clement.

Despite his grated nerves, Bart snorted a laugh and passed a hand over Eleazar’s head. “What you know about women?”

Eleazar looked up with an expression that Bart could only describe as exhausted. “You don’t wanna know. Trust me.”

Bart shook his head in mirth and walked around the counter to open the fridge. “How was school today?”

Slumping over like he carried the weight of the world on his little shoulders, Eleazar exhaled a breath. “We have to do anchor charts again.”

Bart frowned, pouring two glasses of freshly-made lemonade. “What’s an anchor chart?”

“See? Not even you know.” Eleazar accepted the glass and gulped the contents like water.

“Slow down big guy,” Bart muttered, amused.

“Life’s hard,” Eleazar replied, putting the empty glass down.

“Sure it is.” Bart scoffed incredulously. “You’ve been spending too much time with Ms. Moody upstairs. Done with your homework?”

Eleazar’s pained expression said it all. “Can I play one round first? I need… inspiration.”

Bart smirked. “Inspiration, huh? Fine, we’ll play one game but you gotta finish your homework before the adults get home. Got it?” He grinned, watching a beaming Eleazar scoot off the stool and rush over to the living room to set up their game.

He could tell Eleazar missed Clement more than he let on. The nine-year-old probably counted down till Clement returned home for the holidays.

His phone rang on his way to the living room. “Hang on,” Bart instructed Eleazar while unlatching the phone from his belt. He lifted the phone to his ear. “Kasey, hey…”

The intro video to the combat game boomed from the loudspeaker. Eleazar gave Bart a chagrined look and quickly lowered the volume.

Bart gave him a thumbs-up. “Yeah, just hanging with Eli.” His brow furrowed. “It’s today? Oh… okay, I’ll be there, don’t worry… Okay, bye.” He sighed, disconnecting the call. “Hey Eli…”

Eleazar didn’t turn around. “It’s okay. I can play on the computer.” There was a resigned tone to his voice, as though used to Bart changing his mind.

Bart hesitated only for a moment and then quickly stood. He didn’t have much time. Leaning in, he kissed the top of Eleazar’s head. “I promise we’ll play tomorrow.” Walking to the stairs, Bart could’ve sworn he heard Eleazar mumble ‘you say that everyday,’ but was distracted by Darah walking down the stairs.

She eyed Bart surreptitiously and turned her nose up before brushing past him. “Ooh, let’s play Smash, okay?”

Bart turned at the foot of the stairs and watched with a wry grin as Darah settled beside Eleazar. His moody fifteen-year-old sister had calmed down. Thank God. Shaking his head, Bart jogged up the steps to his room.

Phoebe was home by the time he returned downstairs. She looked up, her grin brightening her pretty face. “Someone’s dressed up,” she singsonged, drawing both Eleazar’s and Darah’s attention.

The two had settled on the dining table to finish up their homework; Phoebe’s gentle nudging must’ve done the trick since Bart could barely get them to listen to him, especially Darah.

Darah now inspected him from head to hips and sniffed in disinterest. Bart knew better than to grin but did anyway, which made her scowl darken.

“You look like James Bond!” Eleazar exclaimed with a wide smile mirroring Phoebe’s.

“Thanks, big guy.”Bart grinned and tugged the sleeve of the jacket over his wrist. “It’s not too much?”

“Depends on what you’re dressing up for,” Phoebe said, a knowing glint in her eye.

“It’s for Kasey,” Eleazar beat him to it.

Darah wrinkled her nose in distate and turned back to her books.

Phoebe’s smile dimmed a little but she was graceful enough to retain it. “That’s nice…”

Bart ignored her stilted tone and smiled. He knew neither his sister nor sister-in-law cared for his girlfriend of a few months, but he liked her. For one, they had a lot in common. Sure, he would’ve liked to be with someone they liked as much as Phoebe, but… He sighed. “Kasey’s parents are celebrating their fiftieth anniversary.”

“Oh wow,” Phoebe’s smile brightened. “Congrats to her parents.”

Bart nodded. “It’s the first time I’ll meeting them, so gotta dress to impress.”

“Or die trying…” Darah mumbled with her head down, missing the glare Bart tossed her way.

Phoebe cleared her throat, pulling Bart’s attention back to her smile. “Have fun, Bart.”

“Good luck!” Eleazar said, giving him a thumbs-up.

Bart winked. “Thanks.” His gaze skimmed over Darah, knowing she would never wish him luck or bid him a good time since her loyalties lay elsewhere.

Phoebe clucked her tongue, stepping up to him. “Your tie’s all crooked. You and Abe are a lost cause, I swear. What am I gonna do with you?”

Grinning, he tilted his chin so she could adjust the tie. “What would I do without you?”

“Maybe get married,” Darah mumbled.

“Darah, leave the man alone,” Phoebe said, her eyes dancing with mirth. Patting his chest, she then stepped back. “She’s right, you know.”

Bart smirked. “She just wants to pick a fight because I said she couldn’t go to a house party.”

Phoebe frowned, turning around to Darah. “What house party?”

Darah glared at Bart; she’d purposely asked him, and not Abe or Phoebe since their answer would be a resounding no. Phoebe often spoke of the dangers in teenage house parties. Darah’s eyes blazed with indignation. “It’s nothing, Phoebe.”

“That’s right because you’re not going,” Bart said triumphantly, tugging on his sleeves as he made his way for the door. A smile tickled his lips as he heard Phoebe lecture Darah on dangerous house parties. “See you later.”

Minutes later, Bart entered the grocery store and made a beeline toward the flowers stand. He couldn’t go empty-handed to an important dinner with his girlfriend’s parents, but he had no idea what flowers to choose among the colorful array.

“Tulips. Can never go wrong with tulips,” a familiar voice spoke up to his right. And before he turned to see her face, Bart knew. His heart skipped several beats as he spun around.

Dressed in a simple yet becoming dress, Geraldine Pena stood before him.

She looked the same yet different somehow. Her hair, normally worn in a messy ponytail skimming her shoulders, was shaped in a blunt bob framing her oval-shaped face. She looked slimmer, the round neckline of the dress revealing her sharp collarbones. Bart noted however, that her dress couldn’t hide those curves as well as her former choice of clothing; cargo pants and oversized shirts. No complaints on his end.

As though realizing his lack of manners, Bart swung his gaze back to her face. Instead of looking insulted by his obvious ogling, Geraldine wore a sad smile which he didn’t return. Thoughts he’d kept hidden away for three years emerged to the surface and his brow furrowed.

“Hey Bart,” Geraldine said in that low husky tone of hers. Instantly, Bart forgot the reason he’d come to the store in the first place. Or how to speak…

<<Series Page || Chapter 2>>

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