In the two-room suite of Bart and Geraldine’s office, the first three Teka siblings sat in companionable silence. Bart sat behind the executive desk, Abe on the opposite chair, and Clement perched on the window sill; all three wearing pensive expressions. Although they were not biological brothers, these three reacted quite similarly in perplexing situations—initially, at least. Astonishment… and then the rest depended on their different temperaments.

“Maybe I didn’t pay that much attention during that guardianship class,” Bart finally spoke up. “But what the Sam’s hill is emancipation?”

Using profanity was one of Bart’s vices, especially when things bothered him greatly. Being a dad of four impressionable children meant he had to employ milder terms in expressing his irritation.

Abe remained silent. Though his slow-to-anger attitude made him the more approachable brother, he bottled too much inside. The only way any of his family members could tell was by the pain in his eyes. Though this time, he kept his head bent, still reeling from the letter he’d found in Eleazar’s room hours ago.

“Well, it doesn’t matter now,” Clement spoke up, crossing one ankle over the other. “The letter was dated three years ago and since we knew nothing about it, he probably changed his mind. Although I don’t see why he couldn’t wait two more years to be legally independent and leave. This emancipation nonsense, who taught him that?”

“Not even Darah, with all her teenage dramatics, mentioned such rubbish.” Bart’s brows bent in a deep V. “But seriously, was that really in the orientation because I never learned about it. Back when Mom and Dad used to really drive us insane, did any of you consider it?”

Clement shook his head and scratched his chin. “Did we have a choice? Heck, their discipline and nagging sure beat living in a different hellhole every other six months.”

Out of the three, Clement had been through the horrible foster system and bore deep scars from it. His deeply-rooted bitterness stemmed from being moved from one bad foster home to another, and though it had shaped his life mission as an overseas orphanage chaplain, it had also hardened him. Even though he’d “found God” through his job, he was still battling demons from the past.

“Maybe that’s why…”

Bart and Clement looked up at the sound of Abe’s voice. He kept his head bent.

“Maybe he thought the alternative was better.” He put a shaky hand to his forehead, missing the worried look his brothers exchanged. “Even now, he thinks we’re… stifling him too much.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Bart groused. “We’re not nearly as stern as Mom and Dad were with us.”

“Yeah well I told you we shouldn’t have let him meet that woman,” Clement pushed off the sill and walked over to Abe, placing a hand on his shoulder. He frowned at Bart. “The minute I saw her, I knew she was bad news. I bet she was the one that put that silly idea in his head. Emancipation, my foot.”

Bart arched a brow. “Mrs. Crane? Pshaw! The kid’s old enough to know better. Since he turned eighteen, he’s acting like a punk but wants to be treated like a man.”

“Weren’t we all like that once?” Abe countered gently.

“Not if Mr. and Mrs. Teka had anything to say about it,” Bart quipped, irritation forgotten for a brief moment as he thought of their late parents. “Dad didn’t hesitate putting us in check, and don’t let Mom get a hold of your ear…”

All three brothers grimaced, Clement rubbing his ear absentmindedly.

Then Abe shrugged off Bart’s hand and reached in his pocket. His brothers curiously eyed the device he pulled out.

“What’s that funny looking thing?” Clement asked, watching Abe strap it on. “A watch?”

“A fitness something-or-other,” Bart answered, leaning back in his chair. “Darah persuaded Phoebe to buy Abe one, and now Geraldine keeps threatening to get me one.”

Clement chuckled and peered over Abe’s shoulder as he fiddled with it. “Looks like a prison bracelet. What is it, a tracking device?”

“Maybe so.” Bart crossed his arms over his head. “All Abe needs to know is it monitors his blood press…” he paused at the frown wrinkling Abe’s forehead. “Is it high? Bro, we’ll figure Eli’s situation out. Stop stressing yourself—“

“No, Phoebe called a gazillion times,” Clement said. “You’re in trouble?”

“Or maybe she saw the letter. Where did you leave it—?”

The front door of the suite flung open, startling the three men. A wild-eyed Geraldine stormed in, holding a wailing Augustus on her hip. “Where in Sam’s hill are your phones?! We’ve been calling you clowns and you were just here chilling?!”

The three men shot to their feet, Bart coming around the desk. When Augustus whined for him, he plucked his last born from Geraldine and kissed the tears away. “What happened? Why is he crying?”

Clement smoothed Augustus’ ruffled curls. “Poor guy.”

A now-docile Augustus propped his tear-stained cheek against Bart’s shoulder and Geraldine ran fingers through her disheveled mane. “He saw me crying, and started… been crying since we left daycare.”

Alarmed, Bart turned to his wife. “You were crying? Why?”

“What happened?” Abe asked gently, concern etched in his features.

“Especially you, with the call feature on your tracker, should’ve known we called a million times.”

“So it is a tracker,” Clement muttered, shaking his head.

Abe frowned. “I just turned it on, what happened?”

Geraldine rolled her eyes. “You’re supposed to wear it at all times, Abe. Look, if Phoebe finds out—”

“What happened?!”

She and Augustus flinched when the three Teka men snapped in irritation. Then she sighed. “You three need to get down to the hospital, ASAP.”

Their eyes widened. “What for now?” Clement asked, articulating their unease.

Geraldine’s face fell and her lips started to quiver. Bart shifted his son out of view. “Babe, what is it?”

“Darah was taken to the emergency. It’s the baby. Phoebe’s with her…”

Clement muttered an expletive and no one had time to call him out for it. They all remembered the times Phoebe had been rushed to emergency, only to miscarry the babies she’d carried. The thought of Darah facing the same fate, propelled Abe and Clement for the door, almost tripping over each other to exit the office suite.

Bart stalled, watching Geraldine wipe stray tears from her cheeks. He didn’t dare ask what happened, the look in her eyes revealed all and chilled him to the bone.

She then nodded, confirming his fears, and opened her arms to carry Augustus. “You head down first.”

“No, let’s go together,” Bart grabbed her hand instead, knowing Geraldine needed to be there as much as any of them. As far as he was concerned, she and Phoebe had become Darah’s sisters the moment they married into the family.

Geraldine let her husband lead her down to where Abe and Clement had pulled up in front of the building. Clement rolled down the window, his grave expression matching Abe’s. “You coming?”

Bart nodded. “We’ll drop off August with Mama first.”

“No,” Geraldine protested with a shaky voice. “Go with them, I’ll meet you—”

“C’mon, let’s go!” Abe barked from the driver’s seat.

Geraldine plucked Augustus from her husband. “I’ll meet you. Go.”

Bart nodded and kissed his family before climbing in the seat behind Clement. As Abe drove away, Augustus started to whine and Geraldine jostled him against her hip. “You have to be a big brave boy for Mommy and Daddy, okay?” Her eyes watered, walking across the lot to the minivan. “No crying, okay?”

—-

L.J. stirred awake, the sound of the beeping EKG greeting him in an empty room. He groaned and closed his eyes, groggy but without the searing pain. Thank God. Now if someone could do something about the cumbersome mask around his mouth. He reached for it just as the door swung open.

“Don’t think about it, Uncle,” Hana berated in a stern tone, carrying in a flask and a book. She nudged the door to close with her hip and continued her trip to his bedside. “You need to keep it on for now.”

He frowned in disapproval, watching her pour out a cup of coffee. Although it wasn’t his favorite kind, his mouth watered for a taste.

“I promise I’ll brew you your favorite once we get out of here…” she took a sip and faked a grimace, though a telltale dimple in her right cheek gave her away.

L.J. sighed forlornly. What a nice girl… if only J.R. would change his mind. The mention of his son had him scanning the room. He frowned and swung his gaze to Hana enjoying her coffee.

“J.R. stepped out for a bit.” She lowered the cup and folded her hands on the bed railing. “Uncle… there’s something you should know.”

The wrinkle between her brow and the conflict in her eyes made the hair on his forearms stand up. L.J. had a sinking feeling he wouldn’t like what she was about to tell him.

J.R. couldn’t keep his eyes off her. He gazed at the curtain of thick lashes laid flat, her parched lips parted in sleep, tendrils of dark curly hair laying against her pixyish face. His fingers itched to touch her, to hover over the rounded tip of her nose and feel her breathing. He needed reassuring that she’d be fine, that she wouldn’t suffer like his mother had in her last moments. Cold frisson rushed through him, sending tremors along his back as it had when Phoebe finally called him back with the dreadful news.

He drew in a breath and it caught in his throat. He choked on it and immediately felt a hand on his back. Phoebe, the only other person in the room. He’d been allowed entry to the room only because the staff believed he was her fiancé. J.R. closed his eyes tight, scolding himself. He should’ve proposed sooner and made her happy with his love. Why did he waste so much time until it was too late.

Phoebe squeezed his shoulder. “It’s a blessing they could save the baby… It’s a relief.”

He just stared at Darah’s peaceful face. For now, she could rest in peace but the blood-chilling fear when Phoebe first informed him of Darah’s condition made him shiver once more. He could’ve lost them both. The thought made his eyes water. His foolish reaction of Darah’s first child not being his and his begrudging the baby’s father for causing a lifetime of drama had caused this fiasco. If she’d lost the baby, Darah would’ve been crushed and he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself.

“Maybe this is a second chance,” Phoebe spoke through J.R.’s musing and she wore a pained expression. “Not many get that chance… Darah is a lucky woman. I pray she knows that and accepts her place as a mother now.” Her eyes glistened with tears as she gazed down at Darah. “My silly, lucky sister…”

The door opened and Darah’s three older brothers stumbled into the room. Phoebe quickly wiped her eyes, but not before Abe saw her. “It’s about time—” the rest of her words were muffled in Abe’s chest as he pulled her to him and held her tight.

“Is she alright?” Bart asked, standing by J.R.’s shoulder. He and Clement frowned at Darah’s still form.

“She’s asleep,” J.R. answered listlessly, returning his eyes to her. How he wished she would open those pretty eyes of hers and melt away the fear that gripped his heart.

“What happened?” Clement muttered. “She was fine when we left her at home.”

Phoebe sniffed back tears invoked by Abe’s touch. “I should’ve insisted she eat and rest. All that running around, the sleepless nights, the stress… it was too much.”

Guilt pricked J.R., as he recalled the night Darah slept on the stiff-backed sofa in his father’s room.

“And why wasn’t she at home?”

“She insisted on going out,” Phoebe mumbled against Abe’s shoulder. “She must’ve met up with her friend, Tess. Thank God the girl was with her or else she would’ve… w-would’ve lost…”

“Friend, my foot.” Bart snorted. “No telling if she wasn’t the one that caused it.”

“No one caused anything,” Abe countered firmly. “Like Phoebe said, thank God she was there… and Darah is fine.” He stroked his wife’s hair while staring at his sister’s sleeping face. “She’ll be fine.”

Clement took the seat Phoebe abandoned for her husband’s arms, and reached for Darah’s hand. Bending his head, he began to pray silently and the family followed suit.

“What’s with the moment of silence?” a feeble voice drew them out of their musing. As they lifted their heads and opened their eyes to Darah laying there staring at them, she gave them a weak smile. “I’m not dead… yet.”

“Oh dear!” Phoebe stepped away from Abe and hurried to Darah’s side, embracing her.

Darah closed her eyes and let herself be hugged tightly. Once Phoebe released her to perch on the bed beside her, she gave her sister-in-law a more convincing smile. “I’m fine.”

“You better be fine,” Bart groused, folding arms across his chest. “You almost gave Abe a heart attack.”

“Sorry about that.” Her gaze skimmed over her brothers, then settled on J.R, smile dimming. “It won’t happen again.”

“It better not,” Clement muttered, squeezing her hand before releasing it.

J.R. swallowed hard as relief swept over him like a rushing wave, stealing his breath and his words. He’d almost lost her, all because of his foolhardiness.

Her eyes searched his face and her features tensed visibly. “Guys, can you leave us alone for a minute?”

The brothers didn’t say a word, didn’t move a step. Phoebe glanced from Darah to J.R. whose gazes were locked with such intensity, and stood to her feet. “Sure, we can do that. C’mon, boys.” She patted Clement’s shoulder, hooked an arm under Bart’s and Abe’s, and tugged them towards the door.

Clement quietly stood and followed after them, closing the door behind him.

With only the hiss of the humidifier and the faint sounds of her siblings talking outside, Darah and J.R. just stared at each other for what seemed like forever. Then Darah released a sigh and lowered her gaze. “I want you to do me a favor, J.R.”

Her gently-spoken words unlocked something in him and he reached for her hand, cradling it between his. “Anything.” In fact, he was willing to die for her if the need presented itself–his love for her was that strong, that overwhelming.

Her lashes fluttered against her cheek. “I want you to forget me. I want you to move on.”

These words pierced him like a sharp dagger. His jaw slackened and he gaped at her. What on earth was she saying?

At his stunned silence, Darah raised her head and pinned her tear-filled eyes on him. “I want you to leave me alone and go away.”

<<Chapter 23 || Chapter 25>>

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