Phoebe stifled a yawn as she stepped around a group of cheerleaders tittering in the middle of the hallway. Her gaze skimmed over them and her lips twitched, recalling the not-so-warm memories of high school. Thankfully that was all they were; memories.
She turned to the voice and her smile brightened as her aide hurried over. Her brow arched as the young woman wheezed for air, bending at the waist to catch her breath. “Take it easy. What’s the hurry?”
The girl looked up, face flushed. “You have an important call.”
Phoebe eyed her carefully. “From who?”
“Department of Family and Protective Services. They didn’t say anything except that you call back as soon as possible. I know you were on your break but–”
“It’s okay, thank you.” She turned back quickly toward her office, her aide in tow. Perched on her desk, she hit redial, nodding her thanks as the aide closed the door for privacy. Then with baited breath, she listened as the dial-tone rang.
Once the operator spoke a greeting, Phoebe sat up. “Uh hello, I’m returning a call. My name’s Phoebe Randall–oh okay, I’ll wait.” She bit her bottom lip, heels tapping the floor.
“Okay but see, no one cares what you have to say about this.” Geraldine folded her arms across her chest. “It’s not going, you are.”
Bart squinted at her. “If anyone’s leaving this place, it’s you.”
Exhaling a deep sigh, Darah dropped on the bench beside Abe. “Do they ever stop?”
Abe watched the two adults argue about removing or refurbishing the claw foot tub in their parents’ bathroom. He grunted and then spoke over their bickering. “Keep it down. Eli’s taking a nap.”
Geraldine kissed her teeth. “Abe, reason with this insufferable man.”
Bart scoffed. “You’re the one’s that insufferable and obtuse. The tub needs to be replaced. Everything in here needs to be replaced.”
“What do you know about anything?” Geraldine cast Abe a beseeching look.
“Don’t look at me; you’re on your own.” Abe shook his head, annoyed with the two of them arguing every time they got in the same room. Maybe he should’ve never asked Bart to stay longer than he wanted to; the man was increasingly grumpy with each passing day.
Darah nodded in solidarity, her mouth pursed tight in disapproval as she glared at Bart.
“And what did I do this time, Lil’ Miss Attitude?” Bart asked his sister, folding his arms across his chest.
Geraldine snorted, eyeing him with disgust. “When you talk to her like that, no wonder she doesn’t like you.”
“Was anyone talking to you?” Bart arched a brow at her.
The doorbell rang and Abe shot to his feet. “Try to keep it down,” he reminded them, stepping out of the bathroom, Darah in tow. He paused, glancing down at her. “Hoped you’d play referee for me.”
“Not a chance.” She moved past him down the stairs.
Abe sighed as Bart and Geraldine picked up on their bickering. Shaking his head, he followed Darah down the stairs to the front door.
Darah pulled it open and Abe stopped at the last step, recognizing his brother’s guidance counselor standing in the doorway. Save for tendrils of loose black curls framing her heart-shaped face, she wore her hair in a tight ponytail that stretched her face taut, accentuating her high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes.
“Who are you?” Darah’s direct question pulled him back to the matter at hand.
He stepped forward, putting a hand to her shoulder. “Ms. Randall…” his brow arched silently as his mind began to race; was Clement in trouble, did he cause a scene at school?
The woman gave him a smile and looked down to Darah. “Hi, you must be Darah, Clement’s sister.”
Darah snorted. “No one calls him Clement, but yeah that’s me. Who are you?”
Abe met the woman’s eyes, offering her a smile of apology before he addressed his sister. “Darah, why don’t you check on Eli? Make sure they haven’t woken him up yet.”
She rolled her eyes. “I got it, ‘Adult’ business. Fine, I’ll go.” She turned to the woman attempting to hold back an amused smile. “Bye, Lady I don’t know.” Then she circled behind Abe and wandered back up the stairs to the master bedroom where their youngest brother napped.
Breathing a laugh, Abe turned back to the woman and raised both brows. “Is something wrong, Ms. Randall?”
She gave him a slight smile. “Phoebe. May I come in, Mr. Teka?”
He hesitated, dreading the reason for her strained smile. His pulse jumped in his throat and he swallowed hard. “Abe,” he croaked out and stepped aside. “Come in.”
His eyes widened in surprise and Phoebe tried not to think about the length of his thick lashes or the intriguing shade of deep chocolate in his eyes. She looked down momentarily, fiddling with the strap of her purse. “I-I know this sounds very strange—”
“What’s your reason for doing this?” he asked, causing her to look up. His thick brows were furrowed, obviously perturbed by her announcement. “You’re Junior’s guidance counselor, not a social worker assigned to my case.”
She hesitated for a moment before responding. “I used to work for the Department of Family and Protective Services. Started counseling after many years of doing social work. My ex boss’ boss got your request and called to investigate about Clement–uh, Junior’s condition. I’m sure they’ve done the same for Darah and Eleazar.” She drew in her bottom lip, gnawing on it. “I just thought that I–”
“With all due respect, Ms. Randall–”
He sighed and jerked a nod. “Phoebe, there’s nothing you can do. With Junior not talking to you or anyone, not since our parents…” He swallowed hard, Adam’s apple bobbing uncomfortably against his throat.
Compassion warmed her from the inside out, watching the conflicting emotions wage for control on his striking face.
“Give me a few weeks with him. Your parents… they died suddenly. It’s understandable that he’s still in shock that you all are in shock.” She folded her hands on her lap, assuming a supplicating gesture. “Let me help. I want to help, Abe.”
His eyes searched her face for any duplicity before meeting her gaze.
She could tell he had a lot to think about, and judging from the raised voices bickering upstairs, he shouldered the burdens alone. Her heart ached for him, wishing she could do something to help.
His expression grew skeptical but Phoebe could feel him loosening his resolve, giving her a chance. Her shoulders lowered in relief, though he was yet to say a word.
“How can you help?”
It took everything in her to keep from smiling. “Well I–”
Just then, footsteps thudded loudly down the stairs and Phoebe looked up to see a woman dressed in dusty overalls, face tight in a dark scowl. She came to a stop at the foot of the stairs, as if just registering the newcomer. Her hazel eyes volleyed between Abe and Phoebe and back again at Abe.
“I’m not doing another thing in this house until that stubborn goat you call brother is back in California,” she announced with a tilt of her square jaw. Then with a huff, she stormed past the living room and slammed the front door behind her.
Stunned, Phoebe turned to Abe who gave her yet another rueful smile.
“Sorry, what were you saying?” he asked, unaffected.