The alarm beeped twice as a weary J.R. stepped into the dark and empty lobby of his family home. Tossing the keys on the side-table near the door, he traipsed across the polished wood with only the moon lighting his way up the stairs to his room. Nudging the door with his foot, he flipped on the switch and walked up to his closet door.

Unbuttoning the day-old shirt with one hand, the other flipped on the light switch in the walk-in closet. Ignoring the rack of starched shirts, J.R. pushed open a sliding door that revealed folded t-shirts and polos. Sweeping the shirts aside, he pulled out a box from the shadows; an engraved jewelry box.

Blowing off the dust, he traced the etched lines. His lips quirked a wan smile at the engraved initials on by the lock. His mother’s name marking the box, a gift he’d inherited in her death and hid from his father. Drawing a breath, his thumb unhooked the delicate lock and opened the lid.

At one time, the music was a painful reminder of what he’d lost—a mother and a friend. As an adult, J.R. wished the music could play now more than ever. Letting the lid rest against his folded shirts, he quietly stared at the contents within; a plastic watch he’d received at age 10, faded rupee bounded with old rubber bands, and a letter folded under the watch.

Releasing the breath, he fished out the letter and opened it. His eyes skimmed the flowery penmanship, his heart fluttering as he read the note he’d hidden away for so long.

Dear J.R., you might not know this but I like you.

Pausing briefly over the words that rocked his world seven years ago, J.R. sighed and continued.

Yeah, I finally said it. I like you. It’s a little more than like, but I know you’ll freak out if I say that.

His lips twitched a wary smile, knowing he’d done exactly that. What could an eighteen-year-old know about love? His smile faded, realizing he’d been wrong about her all this time.

The moment I saw you, I knew I wanted you, and needed you like you needed me. Something about your sad dark eyes and face devoid of smile told me so… beckoned me to you.

J.R. paused, his face heating up as it had when he first read the letter. Neck-deep studying for her college entrance exams while kicking butt in her Advanced English class, her use of ‘big’ vocabulary words irked her brothers but amused him to no end. He’d known she would be a force to be reckoned with…

In that moment, I wanted to be the only one taking up space in your lonely heart. To chase away the demons of your past, sweep away the cobwebs left behind, and build a fire that warmed you from the inside out. Are you creeped out yet?

He simply stared at the words, imagining her write with that impish smile that always made his heart flutter as it did now. He blinked and continued on.

You might say I’m too young to understand what I’m saying, but love respects all and none. It freely gives to all, regardless of age or qualification… I welcome it. I welcome you to invade my heart as I desire to invade yours. So, will you let me, J.R? Can I love you?

Heart thumping as it did that night seven years ago, J.R. lowered the letter and stared at the wall of folded shirts.

He’d been a coward, not knowing how to process Darah’s letter of love to him. For years, he’d hidden it away although the words were engraved on a heart that longed to invite her in, and let her stay. She’d been too young he reasoned despite her protests, and therefore chose not to mention it to her, not realizing it would deeply wound the young, impressionable woman for ages.

For playing a part in her growing distrust of males other than her brothers, he felt deep shame. If only he’d revealed a legacy that could someday turn Darah into his mother; dull and lonely.

Though he’d believed his parents loved each other; his father’s idea of love was vastly different from his mother’s. Where his father was reserved in his affection, his mother gave it freely until she couldn’t anymore. Spent and resentful, she drew within—keeping her sickness hidden until it was too late. Regretful, his father became a different man to make up for what he hadn’t done earlier… but she was deep in her sickness and died months later, wishing her husband had reciprocated sooner.

Dragging a hand over his face, he sighed out in frustration. Once he’d snubbed her letter, Darah persistently avoided him whenever she could, reserving polite small talk whenever he was around her. Even her sudden proposal could be considered a business transaction, shielding her heart from him.

What a mess he’d made of it. If only he’d accepted her then…

He stared down at the letter and reread her candid affections. Did he dare believe she still felt this way toward him, or was it too late for them now?

Like the first time he read the letter, and every time Darah’s hazel eyes swept over him or he caught a glimpse of her impish smile, his heart skipped several beats. With a smile forming on his face, he folded the letter and tucked it into his pants pocket before shrugging off the unbuttoned shirt. He would have to make sure not a moment too soon.

As he reached for a polo shirt, his cellphone rang. He picked it up on the second ring. “Hello?”

Bhaiyaa,” Hana’s voice filled the air. “On your way yet?”

He frowned at the hesitance in her voice. “Yeah, stopped by the house for a bit… what’s wrong?”

Hana sighed deeply, heightening the alarm strumming through J.R.’s veins. “You should hurry back.”

Tugging the shirt over his head, J.R. started for the door. “What happened?”

“I’ll explain once you get here,” Hana replied. “Need you to concentrate on driving.”

Stomach in knots, he scowled. How could he concentrate on anything else when her tone warned him of terrible news about his father?

He hurried down the stairs and grabbed his keys. “I’m on my way.” He slammed the door behind him, leaving the dark and empty house with the alarm beeping twice upon his exit.

“How long are you gonna keep them in there?” Darah asked, a knot forming in her brow.

“For as long as possible,” Phoebe growled, surprising Darah with her darkened expression. “How could they act like complete hooligans?”

“Did you expect them to stand back and watch their sister getting mauled?” Geraldine drawled from the dining table where her blueprints and stationary were strewn everywhere.

Darah rolled her eyes. “I was not getting mauled, and I could’ve handled it.”

“Yeah, that’s definitely what you were doing…”

“I was until Eli jumped in like some ninja.” Darah rubbed the back of her neck. “Thankfully he didn’t sue or we’ll have trouble on our hands.”

“What kind of example are they to the boys? Or the girls for that matter?” Phoebe raged on. “Having to tell the kids that their fathers went to jail because they were fighting a bad man is—”

“He is a bad man,” Darah interjected, her expression darkening as she relived his betrayal.

Geraldine chuckled low. “So why did you move in with him?”

Darah stiffened, and Phoebe cut Geraldine a warning look. “Chill, Geri.”

“No I won’t,” Geraldine answered breezily, pinning Darah with a stern expression. “Your brothers are in jail all because you weren’t honest about what happened between you and that boy. On your own, you decided to make a choice that will affect not only you but your entire family. Congratulations.”

Shoulders shaking, Darah stood.

“Yeah girl, go ahead and run,” Geraldine drawled, eyes narrowing. “That’s all you do, run from your problems.”

Phoebe frowned deeper. “Geri, that’s enough.”

“No I’m not finished.” Geraldine looked to Phoebe. “Far too long, you’ve been allowed to do and say what you want without facing much consequences. But I’m gonna tell you now that you can’t do that anymore. You hear me, Darah, it’s enough.”

Darah clenched her fists at her side, and though she wanted to run, her feet remained rooted to the ground. Tears pooling in her eyes, she glared at her sister-in-law.

“You’re about to be a mother, and hiding away in your room, avoiding your responsibilities is not what a mother does.” Geraldine’s right brow hooked. “Ignoring what you’ve got to do, is not how a grown woman behaves. You’re not a child anymore, Darah, you haven’t been one for a while.”

Phoebe looked at her with sympathy and started for her.

“Stop right there,” Geraldine said, halting Phoebe’s steps. She gave her a withering glare. “Will you keep babying her even after she’s got a baby to take care of?”

Darah tightened her jaw. Heat traveled from her head to her toes as she stood convicted.

Geraldine returned her attention on Darah, her expression softening at the sight of fat tears streaming down the young woman’s face. “You know I love you, right?”

A hiccup coursed through her, and Darah jerked a nod.

A small smile tipped Geraldine’s lips. “You’ve got to grow up now. You hear me, baby girl?”

Darah regarded her warily. “You should probably stop calling me that…”

“Never,” Geraldine replied as she stood from the chair. En route, she grabbed Phoebe’s hand and pulled her toward Darah.

As her sisters wrapped her in a hug, she finally let it all out as the tears flowing freely; confessing her regret and shame over what she’d done with Jeremy, and growing fear for the future.

Minutes after the women had settled down in their seats, hands still locked together, Phoebe gave Darah a smile and smoothed the damp curls from her cheek. “You’ll be alright.”

Darah snorted. “I’m already screwing it up.”

“She’s right,” Geraldine said, squeezing Darah’s hand before releasing it. “No one’s an expert as a first-time mother. I was a total mess with Jozy, but look how I turned out…”

The women shared weary smiles. Then Darah shifted her attention to Phoebe. “Can we get my brothers released now?”

Geraldine snorted in laughter. “Let ‘em stay there for one night. They need to learn.”

“Exactly,” Phoebe piped in. “Maybe the boys’ll learn that fighting is not the way.”

“There are appropriate times for it,” Darah mumbled, grateful for her brothers’ intervention. The fierce look in Jeremy’s eyes terrified her.

“Wish they could be calm like J.R….”

Darah’s cheeks warmed, recalling the way J.R. stood in front of her, shielding her from Jeremy’s piercing and accusing stare. He’d spoken with a calm assurance that weakened Jeremy’s protests, calmly informing Jeremy he was trespassing and had attacked Darah first, and would be at a loss if Darah decided to press charges against him. That made him rescind his threat to sue her brothers, and the man stomped away in a fury.

“Honestly though,” Geraldine’s voice pervaded through Darah’s thoughts. “What on earth was he looking for? What did you take from him?”

Darah blinked in confusion. “I didn’t take anything…”

“Don’t give me that. You definitely looked guilty. What was it?”

She looked away and her sisters-in-law groaned.

“Darah,” Phoebe beseeched gently. “If you took something, you’ve got to give it back.”

“It’s mine.” Darah looked up. “So why should I give it to him?”

Flabbergasted, both older women gaped.

“You’re kidding me right?” Geraldine asked, brow knotted.

Indignation fled and Darah looked away, shamefaced.

Geraldine growled. “You’re incredibly silly, Darah.”

Darah frowned. “He kicked me out and said I should leave with all my stuff, so I did.”

“He kicked you out?” Phoebe echoed with a furrowed brow. “You didn’t leave on your own?”

Geraldine scowled. “What a jerk.”

“See? He’s trash.” Darah started to relax, grateful her sisters were beginning to understand.

“But still,” Phoebe countered. “What you did was sneaky and unethical. Even if you helped him—”

“I did more than helped him,” Darah insisted. “I practically authored his entire research.”

“Yeah well, you shouldn’t have.”

Darah lowered her head in regret. “He promised me we’d get married. I did it thinking he’d be my husband. That it was all for the family.”

Geraldine grunted. “And he’s a low-down-dirty scoundrel for tricking you, but you’re still responsible for your actions.”

Phoebe nodded. “And even if you had a right to be angry, taking something with his name on it, something that belonged to him is wrong.”

Exasperated, Darah threw a glare at the ceiling. “So what do you want me to do?”

“Return it,” they said in unison.

Darah scowled. “I can’t. I erased it.”

Geraldine slapped a hand over her face. Phoebe closed her eyes.

Just then, the doorbell rang and all three turned to the door. Rushing feet sounded on the stairs as children, both Geraldine’s and Phoebe’s, hurried down to the landing. Tripping over each other, they reached the door just as it opened. A heavily-bearded man shouldered a duffel bag inside, greeting the squealing children with his signature smile. “Hey squirts.”

“Uncle Junior!” the kids said in unison, tackling him with hugs.

After ruffling the boys’ heads and kissing the girls’ foreheads, he peered over their heads at the empty family room. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Daddy’s in jail!” Fallon, one of the twins declared, still holding onto her uncle’s waist.

“Uncle too!” Her twin, Tomas, piped in.

“Say what?” Clement looked up as the three women emerged from the dining room. “What’s going on?”

“You’re home?” Darah gaped at her immediate older brother, scruffy and worn from travel.

He nodded, still distracted over the children’s troubling announcement. “Who’s in jail?”

<<Chapter 17 || Chapter 19>>

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