“Another one? How many times, Darah?!”

Wincing at the unholy shrieking on the other end, Darah yanked the phone from her ear.  Glancing once at her niece sleeping in the princess bed , she blew out a breath of relief and lifted the phone back to her ear. “Tess, keep it down.”

“And how many times do I have to say it? Stop acting like an arrogant jerk. I’m tired of introducing you to guys if you’re gonna keep chasing them away with this ridiculous rhetoric.”

Darah rolled her eyes. “Nothing ridiculous about it. I don’t date immature men.”

“Is anyone ever mature enough for you? Never mind, don’t answer that.” Tess huffed. “Like who asks ‘where do you see yourself in five years’ on a first date? Do you want a boyfriend or a business partner?”

“I told you to stop hooking me up. I’m too old for hookups.” She scooted to the desk, careful not to make unnecessary noise even though her niece slept heavily as her father, Abe.

“You’re twenty-five, Darah, not fifty. This is the time to date, test the waters.”

Darah sighed, flipping her book open. “Tess, I’m tired. Let’s stop tonight.”

“Just tell me the truth, Darah. You’re seeing someone, aren’t you?”

Her hand froze. “No.”

“Don’t even try lying. Not only do you suck at it, I know well enough to know when you’re trying. Who is he?”

“I said it’s no one.”

“So it’s not true that you’d moved in with a guy.”

Darah jerked upright, her foot shoving the makeshift desk against the wall. Karla stirred and Darah waited until the girl settled back in bed. She then turned slightly and cupped the phone with her hand. “Who told you that?”

“Some fool messaged me that you’d moved off campus with some guy. Of course I shut down that foolishness quick. Your brothers would kill you both if it were true. You’re too smart for that.”

No words came, her tongue heavy in her mouth.

Her friend sighed. “If only this silly externship wasn’t so far away… I’d find you a good guy on campus and put an end to this interviewing-a-guy-on-the-first-date nonsense. Actually, there’s this guy from my accounting class–”

Letting Tess carry the conversation as she always did, Darah applied Eleazar’s breathing exercise during one of his occasional panic attacks. She felt like she was having one now.

“Are you listening to me?”

Darah blew out a shaky breath. “Yeah, I heard you.”

“So yeah? You’ll go out with him?”

Her stomach churned. “Go out with who? Tess, look–”

“No excuses. He’s really nice and patient unlike the other ones. For once, give this one a chance.”

Panic clenched her throat and she swallowed hard. “Karla’s tossing in bed. I have to go. Bye.”

She disconnected the call and covered her face with her hands.

“Your brothers would kill you both if it were true.”

Darah groaned into her palms.

“Aunty?” a feeble voice from across the room made her look up in alarm. Karla sat on the edge of the bed.

Darah hurried to her side and instantly smelled a distinct odor. Perturbed and curious, she glanced down. The bed was soiled.

Careful to hide her surprise, she looked up at Karla whose face was turned away from her.

Without hesitation, she gently lifted Karla from the bed and kissed her cheek. “It’s okay, Cabbage. Come, let’s go.”

Karla remained mum as she was ushered out of the bedroom.

As they started down the dimly-lit hallway, courtesy of the toy nightlight plugged into the wall near their room, Darah came to a stop. A sleepy-eyed Phoebe shuffled toward them, but stopped at the sight of the two. Her eyes sought her youngest child and a gentle smile graced her lips.

Darah watched Phoebe approach them, the smile still in place. There was no judgment, no correction; just love. Just like Ester. Darah’s chest tightened at the fading memory of her deceased mother.

She watched Phoebe lead Karla into the bathroom and close the door. Abe stepped out of the master bedroom a moment later, rubbing sleep from his eyes. He paused upon in Darah’s path, glanced at the closed bathroom door before turning back to his sister. “Did she wake you?”

Guilt overwhelmed her at his concern, for she was the one who kept Karla awake. Darah shook her head. “I thought she was a heavy sleeper.”

“Too heavy. It’s my fault.” Abe smiled wryly, walking past Darah to the bedroom and over to his daughter’s bed. In one fluid motion, he tugged off the thick duvet and cast it aside.

Darah leaned against the doorframe watching Abe pull off the soiled bed-sheet and place it on the floor. He then grabbed the box of antibacterial wipes sitting on the table by the bed and began wiping down the bare mattress. He didn’t grumble or complain about Karla being too old for bed-wetting. He quietly cleaned his baby girl’s mess, reminding Darah of his selflessness when they were younger.

He was the best father she knew; having raised her since she was 12, the year their parents died. Now he did it with no complaints when it was his own kid.

“Does it happen often?” she asked quietly, her eyes watching him amble over to the closet.

“Not often,” Abe answered, pulling out new sheets. “Only when she gets too hyper and drinks lots of juice.” He chuckled. “She reminds me of you in that regard.”

Darah didn’t recall wetting the bed but smiled anyway. “Well, she is cute.”

Abe chuckled and unfolded the sheet over the bed. Darah hurried to help and he peered at her. “How are your studies?”

“They’re okay.” She shrugged, tucking one end under the twin mattress. “Should be done soon.”

“Know what you’ll do when you’re done?” he tucked in the other side and folded over the covers.

Darah folded her arms across her chest. There was censure in Abe’s tone she didn’t care for, but it was much too late in the evening to start an argument. She exhaled a breath. “It’s a work in progress. I know y’all think it’s an MRS degree I’m gettin.”

Abe’s half-smirk made her bristle.

“And what if I’m to be the next Picasso?” she challenged with her chin held up.

“Oh?” he arched a brow. “Didn’t know Picasso made plates…”

Darah scowled. “Ceramics are more than plates, Abe.”

“Yeah, I know.” A thoughtful expression replaced his smirk. “I just want you to do well for yourself. If ceramics and event planning puts food the table for you and your family, then okay.”

“And what about the fact that both make me happy?”

“Well sure, that’s a bonus. But the sustainability is key, Darah.” Abe’s brows raised. “Being poor and happy isn’t sustainable.”

Darah’s cheeks warmed at his pointed look and she averted her gaze. “Can’t I like what I do for a living?”

“Of course you can,” Phoebe said, catching the end of Darah’s question as she and Karla entered the bedroom. “What are we discussing?” she asked, nudging Abe aside to tuck Karla in.

“Darah’s plates.” Abe knelt beside his wife and let Karla wrap her arms around his neck. Giving her a noisy kiss that made her giggle, he lay her down. “Sleep well, my princess.”

Darah smiled as a thought came to her mind of their father, Yonas, tucking her in with those words.

Then Phoebe patted her shoulder. “Let’s talk more in the morning.”

Instead of alerting them both that she’d have to leave at the crack of dawn, Darah watched the couple head for the door. “Goodnight, you two.”

“By the way,” Abe paused in step and turned. “J.R. will be stopping by. I’m sure he’d be pleasantly surprised to see you since you make it a point to be absent when he’s here.”

Chuckling, Phoebe nudged Abe’s shoulder. “Leave her alone. Goodnight, Baby girl.”

She was definitely leaving at dawn. Darah managed a smile. “Goodnight.”

Abe grunted, then let Phoebe drag him out of the room.

Sighing deeply, Darah bent over the bed to find Karla already asleep. Placing a feather-light kiss on the girl’s cheek first, she turned toward the makeshift desk. Except studying was the furthest thing from her mind. Choosing sleep instead, Darah grabbed the quilted blanket and settled on the padded sleeping bag beside Karla’s princess bed. Drawing up the covers to her neck, she closed her eyes to sleep for a few hours before dawn.

“Your brothers would kill you both if it were true.”

Darah’s eyes snapped open as her heartbeat kicked into overdrive. Tess had known her for years, knew about her over-protective brothers who believed she obeyed their silly mandate not to date until thirty. If they knew she was not only dating but living with one, Darah wouldn’t have a prayer.

“Your brothers would kill you both if it were true.”

She swallowed the panic pooling in her throat. Dying before her brothers gave her permission to date was not an option. She needed a plan and needed it now.

J.R. ambled up the short steps to the Teka home with big boxes under each arm. He bent at the knee and nudged the doorbell with his elbow. Instantly, he heard thundering footsteps and grinned. There was never a boring day in the Teka household and that, among other reasons, was why he kept coming back.

“Uncle J.R.!” he heard from the other side and his grin widened. The Teka children, ranging from ages 6-11, were a fun crew to be around. He enjoyed their company as much as he enjoyed that of their parents; his friends for more than ten years.

The door opened, Abe grinning with some of the Teka kids flanked around him. Spying the boxes under J.R.’s arms, he laughed. “You keep bringing gifts and they’ll never want you to leave.”

“If I don’t leave, how will I bring more gifts–oof!” He grunted when the youngest pair of the Teka children crashed into him, upending the boxes from his grip. The next youngest grabbed the boxes and they started for the stairs, chatting excitedly about the gifts Uncle J.R. had brought this time.

“Hold right there,” Abe called from over his shoulder. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“Thank you Uncle J.R.,” they said in chorus before racing up the stairs, calling out to the older kids that remained upstairs.

J.R. smiled, closing the door behind him.

Just then Bart and Geraldine entered the living room, having heard the brief commotion. Geraldine grinned in welcome. “I should’ve known it was you.”

“The regular Saint Nick. Ready to lose again, Barrister?” Bart taunted as he draped an arm over his wife’s shoulder.

“Sure, after you,” J.R. returned, unruffled by Bart’s dig.

Geraldine rolled off her husband’s arm and squinted at him. “Don’t let Phoebe catch you guys gambling.”

“Dominos is not gambling, Geraldine,” Bart answered patiently.

Abe nodded. “Geri, maybe you should check with Phoebe about that. She wants in on this game.”

“If she’s in, we’ll be even,” Bart replied.

Affronted, Geraldine glared at him. “But didn’t you say women weren’t allowed to play?”

“No babe, just you.” Laughing, Bart ducked from her hand.

Phoebe wandered then into the living room, wiping her hands on her smock. Her dark eyes lit up at the sight of J.R. but the smile quickly turned to a pout. “Aw, you missed Darah. If she didn’t have to go back today, she would’ve made our game even.”

J.R.’s smile slipped. “Darah was here?”

“Just for the night.” Phoebe eyed him curiously. “Left before I had a chance to talk with her.”

He nodded without a word, aware that anything he said would be used against him at a later date. He also maintained a poker face for the same reason.

Phoebe smirked, eyes twinkling. “Well then, I choose Geri and J.R for my team. Bart, you and Abe are on the other.”

“But that’s not even,” Geraldine noted with a perturbed frown.

“Doesn’t matter, babe, since you can’t play.” Bart bent to kiss her cheek. “If you want, I’ll teach you when we get home.”

“Don’t need your help,” Geraldine countered and stormed to the kitchen.

Bemused, Bart watched his wife walk away and then hurried after her.

Abe took Phoebe’s hand and let her lead him to the kitchen.

Stalling a bit,  J.R. peered once at the stairs where he could hear the children playing with the new board game he brought. His eyes paused at a family portrait hanging near the staircase from Bart and Geraldine’s wedding. He smiled wistfully. Then his gaze shifted to a then-teenage Darah and his smile dimmed.

“J.R.!” Bart called from the kitchen. “Hurry before your one-person team loses.”

“Shut up and play,” Geraldine snapped.

With one fleeting look at the impish smile on Darah’s face, J.R. tamped a sigh and turned toward the kitchen.

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