Mornings at Phoebe’s house proved to be a challenge; especially when dealing with a precocious six-year-old who tried every outfit in her closet before deciding on the same outfit from yesterday. Phoebe tugged on the purple tank-top over Karla’s head. “Don’t you wanna wear something else today? Your other clothes are sad because you’re picking favorites…”

“Nuh-unh,” Karla shook her head, mimicking her mother’s expression. She held out one arm so her mother could put on her shirt. “I like this one better.”

And although Karla didn’t need help putting on her clothes, Phoebe enjoyed this quality time with her daughter who was growing up too fast. She smiled sweetly at her little girl. “Of course you do. Aunty Darah bought it for you.”

Karla flashed her mom a smile that melted Phoebe’s heart, and distracting her from the disconcerting talk she and Abe had with Eleazar yesterday.

Then the sounds of footsteps outside the bedroom door brought Phoebe back to the present. She allowed Karla to put on the rest of her clothes and stood from the bed, moving to the door. “Looks like your brothers are ready to go. Go downstairs and eat breakfast with them while I get Daddy.”

“I wanna wake Daddy,” Karla said, hurrying out of the room before Phoebe could stop her.

Phoebe looked around at the mess of Karla’s clothes strewn all over the room and shook her head. No doubt she’d spent the first few hours of her day cleaning up. With a sigh, she stepped out of the room to the sound of excited chatter downstairs. Instead of joining Abe and Karla in the master bedroom, Phoebe headed down the stairs.

“Are you really staying?” James, her second son, asked as she reached the bottom of the stairs.

Phoebe’s eyes widened at Darah and the suitcases before her. She came to a stop. “What’s all this?”

“Aunty’s staying this time,” James answered excitedly as he turned to his mother, his big brown eyes dancing with delight behind his coke-bottle glasses.

Darah gave her sister-in-law a wry smile. “At least I hope so… I know there’s no room.”

Phoebe smiled back. “You can have Eli’s room.” Then her smile waned. “He’s moving out.”

Isaac frowned. “But you said I could have Uncle’s room.”

Her expression quizzical, Darah reached up to rub Isaac’s head. “Sorry kiddo.”

Though pouting, Isaac gave his aunt a shrug.

Phoebe eyed Darah. “What happened?”

“Semester’s over and since my load is lighter next term, I thought I’d just move in. Y’know, help out with the kiddos.” She frowned. “Why’s Eli moving out? How’s Abe taking it?”

“Long story,” Phoebe managed without sighing. Her eyes then shifted to her sons who wore conflicted expressions. “Right now, these guys will be late for school and Abe’s… preoccupied.”

“I can take ‘em.”

Phoebe looked back at her sister-in-law and smiled. “That’d be a great help, Darah. Thank you.”

“Not a problem.” She turned to her nephews. “We can grab chicken biscuits on the way.”

Phoebe watched Isaac’s pout melt into a grin that matched James’ and she shook her head. “Barely here for a minute and you’re already spoiling them.”

“That’s because I’m their favorite aunt,” Darah said unapologetically. She slung an arm on the boys’ shoulders. “Get your stuff so we’ll be going. Morning drive-thru is brutal.”

Five minutes after Darah and the boys left the house, Abe walked downstairs with Karla on his back. He frowned at the suitcases leaning against the wall. “He’s serious, isn’t he?”

Phoebe’s heart wrenched at the disappointment on her husband’s face. “You know he is, but those are Darah’s bags. End of semester.”

Brow furrowed in confusion, Abe set Karla on her feet and adjusted his collar. “She’s moving back?”

“That’s what she said.” Phoebe handed Karla a cup of milk. “Don’t drink too fast.”

“Yes Mommy.” Karla guzzled down the liquid.

Abe accepted the cup of dark coffee and took a sip before asking. “Is she okay?”

“Darah?” Phoebe mumbled, packing a sandwich for both husband and daughter. “I’m sure we’ll hear all about it when she comes back.”

He nodded when she nudged the lunch bag to him. “I suppose so. Eli say anything yet?”

“Didn’t hear him leave.” She risked a glance at Karla obliviously chomping away at her egg sandwich. Then she turned back to her husband. “What was it this time?”

His expression was wry as he sipped his coffee, hesitating to answer. “125 over 85…”

“Abe…”

He lowered the coffee and reached for her hand. “It’s fine. I’m monitoring it.”

Phoebe eyed him warily. “You really need to take it easy.”

“I will, Babe.”

“I’m serious,” Phoebe insisted. “We’re getting older and I have no intentions of becoming a widow.”

His expression darkened. “You won’t.”

“I better not, Abe. You need to calm down.”

“I’m trying.” Abe gave her a look very much like their two sons when caught doing something naughty.

Phoebe shook her head and abandoned her daughter’s intricate lunch to give Abe a hug. Her hands rubbed his broad shoulders, holding him tight. “I know it’s tough, with Eli and everything else going on… but we have to stay healthy and alive for our family. Alright?”

Abe rested his cheek atop her head. “You’re right.”

“Promise me even if something else happens, you’ll stay calm.”

He snorted. “Nothing else better happen.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Mr. Teka.” She tilted her head slightly to watch Karla dipping her sandwich into the cup of milk. “You’ve got a daughter very much like Darah…”

Abe stifled a groan, his arms tightening around Phoebe. Raising Darah had been tough on them both.

Phoebe chuckled. “Look on the bright side, at least Darah has finally calmed down. We’ve got at least two decades before Karla is settled.”

Karla looked up at her parents and flashed them an impish smile. Abe groaned again and Phoebe laughed before disengaging from her husband’s arms. “You ready for preschool?”

“Is Daddy taking me?” She raised her big brown eyes to Abe.

“If you eat your breakfast like the princess I know you are,” Abe answered, bending down to kiss Karla’s forehead. “But didn’t you wear this yesterday?”

“Don’t bother,” Phoebe answered, amusement in her tone. “I already have a mess to clean upstairs.”

“Darah can help you.” Abe grabbed an egg sandwich and chowed down, Karla mimicking his move.

Phoebe shook her head as she watched the duo. “Nature is so cruel. None of our kids are like me.”

Abe chuckled, leaning in to give Phoebe a kiss only for her to lean away.

“Your breath smells like eggs.” Phoebe squeaked when Abe reached for her.

Karla giggled as Abe chased Phoebe around the counter. “Lemme play too!”

“When you finish your food,” Abe said, easily grabbing Phoebe by the waist and pulling her to him.

Phoebe didn’t have a chance to escape and didn’t want to. She rested her palms against his chest, feeling his heartbeat and raised her gaze to his handsome face. Her heart still fluttered as the first time he smiled at her thirteen years ago. “You’ll be late.”

“When you’re the boss, it doesn’t matter.” He flashed an impish smile like Karla’s and bent to kiss her.

“Abusing power I see,” Phoebe muttered just before their lips met. She slid her arms around his neck and responded to Abe’s morning kiss, egg breath and all.

“What d’you end up telling them?” Tess asked over the phone.

“Didn’t get a chance to,” Darah answered, pulling into the driveway. “You still mad at me?”

“How could I not be? This by far is the dumbest thing you’ve ever done, considering all the things—”

“Alright, alright I get it. I’m stupid.” Darah put the car in park and stared at the house she’d grown up in with her brothers. She leaned into the seat and sighed. “It feels so weird being back here. I mean I love my family, but I’m certain they’ll bug me to no end. Forget privacy or my freedom.”

Tess was silent for a while and Darah pulled back the phone to see if she’d hung up. She would’ve deserved it and more from Tess after she’d confessed the truth about Jeremy.

“Don’t be mad, okay?” Darah beseeched her best friend. “I should’ve told you earlier but I thought we would get married, and he told me we would. That stupid promise ring had my brain all backwards. That jerk had me really believing he wanted—”

“You okay?”

“Not really. I’m still very angry.”

“I meant health-wise… are you okay?”

Darah stared at the front door, imagining Phoebe was busy cleaning the house or preparing another sumptuous meal for dinner. Her stomach growled in response. “Actually I’m kinda hungry. That chicken sandwich only lasted for—”

Tess heaved a sigh. “I wish you wouldn’t joke about this.”

“I’m fine,” Darah insisted, unbuckling her seatbelt. “What are you worried about, anyway?”

The silence on the other end made Darah squirm.

“What are you thinking?” she asked when Tess still didn’t respond after a long moment.

Tess then sighed. “Just let me know if anything happens. And I mean anything, or else our friendship is over.”

Darah smirked. “Yeah, I promise. Sorry for worrying you.”

“Yeah whatever… Bad girl,” Tess muttered and disconnected the phone.

Exhaling a breath, Darah fortified herself for the short trek up the deck steps to the front door.

It swung open and Geraldine grabbed her hand, pulling her inside. “Talk.”

Darah choked on a laugh and nudged the door close. “I should’ve known word would get out.” She eyed Phoebe standing nearby and sighed. “I missed you guys, that’s all.”

“Oh please.” Geraldine folded her arms. “You got kicked out of your place?”

Her stomach did a somersault and Darah managed a smile. There was no way Geraldine knew about her living arrangements. “No. Just ended my lease is all.”

“Let the girl sit down first, Geri,” Phoebe sighed. “I made egg sandwiches.”

“Yum.” Spying Geraldine’s narrowed stare, Darah walked around her to the countertop and smiled. “Thanks, Phoebe.” She grabbed the sandwich and lifted it to her mouth.

“First explain why the change of heart,” Phoebe said, pouring Darah a cup of coffee. “Thought you hated the long commute. Will it be okay next semester?”

“I’ll figure it out,” Darah answered around a mouth full of egg and bread. Her eyes swung to Geraldine, eying her work boots and jeans. “Aren’t you late for work?”

Geraldine smirked. “You deflecting means something happened. And you will answer when I get back.”

Phoebe glanced over her shoulder as Geraldine ambled to the door. “I thought Bart said to wait a while before heading down.”

“He said J.R. was already at the site. Traffic shouldn’t be bad around this time.” Geraldine glanced once at Darah. “I’ll tell both you’re back in town.”

“Ooh, yeah!” Phoebe answered excitedly. “Maybe J.R. can come down with you two for dinner.”

Geraldine smiled. “I’ll let him know. See you.”

As Geraldine stepped out, Phoebe turned a pointed look in Darah’s direction. “Maybe you two can finally talk now that you’re back home.”

“Nothing to talk about.” Darah brushed off the flutter in her stomach as hunger pangs. She chomped down on the egg sandwich while eying another Phoebe prepared. “Are you gonna eat that?”

Phoebe nudged the sandwich to her. “You, your brother and niece are the same person. Eat slowly.”

“Hmm,” Darah mumbled with her mouth full. There was no point mentioning that her stress over Jeremy’s selfishness made her a voracious eater. Phoebe didn’t need to know Darah had gained a couple of pounds since the break-up or that she’d packed snacks to last her a week in her suitcase.

“Well since J.R. will be here for dinner, I guess we won’t have to worry about Eli’s empty spot…”

Darah’s chewing slowed as she eyed her sister-in-law’s forlorn expression. “Why’s he moving–?” She choked on the sandwich and pounded her chest to dislodge the piece of bread.

Phoebe nudged the coffee closer. “We had an argument.”

That wasn’t news; Eleazar had gotten rather moody over the years, much to his siblings’ chagrin. They didn’t understand the change but didn’t fault him for it, since he’d had a tough childhood with poor health despite their care and support. Maybe that was why Phoebe was hurt by the change.

“About what?” Darah hedged softly, watching the lines on Phoebe’s face.

Her sister-in-law had the best skin among the Teka family; Geraldine and Darah suffered from stress pimples, Darah currently sporting a painful one near her right ear. But age and the stress of being the matriarch of their family drew wrinkles around Phoebe’s eyes and her forehead.

Phoebe exhaled a harsh breath. “He spent a few nights outside.”

Again, not a surprise. Eleazar was like Bart in that regard, slightly rebellious and overly curious. She recalled a story from her brothers about their father dragging a rebellious teenaged Bart by his ear home one day after he’d snuck out with friends. Darah nodded, taking another bite of her sandwich.

“With some girl from his class.”

Darah choked on the bread and egg, her eyes wide at the fury brewing in Phoebe’s eyes. She swallowed hard and prayed that Phoebe would never have to find out about her own rebellion.

<<Chapter 3 || Chapter 5>>

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