Stuck in the Middle - (Book 1 of the Marvelous 3 Saga)

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2 - The Boys Are Back in Town

Gabrielle changed into a pair of jeans and a comfy L.A. Rams sweatshirt before leaving for the Richardson Estate. Borrowing Eli’s car, she pulled into one of the Richardsons’ many driveways.

The Richardsons were among the wealthiest families in Pennsylvania and all of the Northeast region. Their estate was definitely a reflection of that wealth.

Catching a glimpse of Sally through the kitchen window, Gabrielle walked towards the door carrying food in her arms and knocked. But the door was already open.

“Hello? Mrs. Sally?” she called out, stepping into the large estate. When she didn’t receive a response, she headed towards the kitchen.

“Mrs. Sally?” Gabrielle softly called again to the blonde-haired woman leaning over the counter. Sally jumped startled and turned with big, teary blue eyes towards Gabrielle.

“Gabrielle?! Gabrielle Johansson?! Oh, my darling! It is so good to see you again!” Sally smiled brightly as she rushed towards her. Gabrielle quickly placed the food on the table before pulling Sally into a loving embrace.

“You’ve truly grown into such a beautiful woman,” Sally said, pulling away to look at her.

“Thank you, Mrs. Sally. I’ve missed you so much. I’m... I’m so sorry about Papa Steve,” Gabrielle said, remorsefully.

“Oh, my dear... thank you,” Sally cooed, her eyes brimming with tears.

She glanced over the containers of food on the table and chuckled. “Did your mother make me dinner again?”

“She sure did,” Gabrielle grinned.

“That woman. I don’t know what my life would be without her. You have to catch me up on your life in L.A.! But first, you must go see the boys. It’ll be a lovely surprise for them to see you after so long. Christopher is in the back, I believe, talking to some of the construction workers. And Charles is... probably breaking and rebuilding something... somewhere... He’s been even more distant lately, but that’s normal, all things considering...”

“Construction workers?” Gabrielle asked.

“Yes. Steve was leading the construction project that built homes for some of the homeless children in the local Philly area. Christopher decided to help finish his commitment.”

“That’s so sweet of him to do that,” Gabrielle said fondly.

“Yes... He gets that trait from his father...” Sally trailed off. She zoned out for a moment, lost in her thoughts, until she looked up at Gabrielle.

“Why are you still here? Go!” she shooed Gabrielle towards the back.

“Okay! Okay!” Gabrielle chuckled as she walked out through the back of the house. She turned the corner and was immediately tackled by a huge, fluffy golden retriever.

“Thor!” she laughed, falling to the ground as the dog licked happily at her face. His tail wagged ferociously from pure excitement.

“I missed you too, boy!” She ruffled his fur and nuzzled his face with her nose.

She stood up to pet him before continuing around the corner of the house. She found a group of men in construction gear circling a taller, more animated gentleman at the center.

Gabrielle almost didn’t recognize Chris.

He was wearing a dark pair of jeans and a black, long-sleeved sweater that clung deliciously to his finely-sculpted physique. His sophisticated, business-like demeanor complemented by his well-groomed, dark, brown hair made him stand out from the group of haggardly-looking construction workers in safety gear.

Gabrielle bit her lip and awkwardly shifted her weight from one leg to the other. Her pupils dilated at the way his muscles flexed as he crossed his arms over his broad chest. He pensively rubbed the short beard on his chin that looked as if it were conditioned by angels.

Thor nudged her, trying to get her attention. But when she didn’t respond, he barked loudly, causing all of the men to turn in her direction.

“Shh! Thor!” she whispered frantically.

But it was too late. Gabrielle felt embarrassed when she saw Chris’s bright, blue eyes widen in shock. She tried to wave, but Thor tugged at her sleeve, restricting her movements.

She immediately regretted her presence.

The men turned to face Chris again who spoke rather anxiously. He talked with his hands and obsessively looked back at her, as if to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him.

Gabrielle anxiously bit her nails, waiting for him to finish. Her heart began to race the moment he started walking in her direction. She didn’t understand why she felt so nervous, suddenly. This was her childhood best friend. Yet, she felt like she was meeting him for the first time.

“Well, look who’s back all the way from the West Coast! Gabrielle Marie Johansson!” Chris gasped in fake bewilderment. He walked up to her with open arms and pulled her in for a hug. His deep, baritone voice took her by surprise. It was crisp and commanded attention.

“Nice to see you too, Richardson,” Gabrielle smirked. His arms completely enveloped her body. His chest felt hard and firm against her, but his touch was gentle, warm… and secure.

“I can’t believe you’re actually here!” he said, effortlessly lifting her off of the ground. He excitedly swung her around. “It’s been like what... 10 years? A whole decade?!”

“Excuse you! You saw me at my college graduation. It’s only been 8!” she corrected him.

“Only? Gabs, come on,” he said putting her down. “It was clearly long enough for you to switch teams on us. I mean L.A. Rams? Really? How could you ditch the Steelers? I’m hurt,” he smirked, feigning offense. His hands still held her by the waist.

“You know damn well I always preferred the Eagles,” she teased. “But yea... I guess that’s still a really long time, isn’t it?” she said rather embarrassed.

“Just a bit,” he teased with a wink. He gently pinched her waist like he used to do when they were kids.

Gabrielle chuckled and looked up to see Chris’s soft blue eyes staring deeply into hers. His thumb tenderly rubbed her waist as he took in her beautiful dark brown eyes, her soft plump lips, and her smooth dark brown skin.

A warm smile crept on his face.

“What?” Gabrielle smiled back.

“I… I’m just really glad you’re here,” he said, pulling her into another soft embrace. He inhaled deeply, taking in her scent. Cocoa butter and vanilla. Exactly as he remembered.

Gabrielle felt Chris’s arms tighten around her waist. The smell of his pine-scented cologne overwhelmed her senses. She nervously bit her lip.

“I’m really sorry about Papa Steve, Chris... I’m so... heartbroken...”

She tightened her embrace before releasing. Chris removed his arms from her waist and looked down at her. The same warm smile painted his face, but it hadn’t quite reached his eyes.

“Thanks, Gabs...”

Gabrielle habitually licked her bottom lip and stuffed her sweaty palms into her jean pockets. “Where’s Charlie?” she asked.

“Uh... think he’s by the shed. He’s been trying to fix one of dad’s old motorcycles.”

“Whaaaaat? Papa Steve used to ride?!”

“I know, right? Came as a shock to us too. We found it when we were going through some of his storage. His employer gave us the key to empty it after he...” Chris trailed off, looking down as he stuffed his hands into his pockets.

Gabrielle put her hand on Chris’s arm in comfort. He looked up at her longingly, not at all indifferent to her touch. He smirked at her and straightened his posture.

“Anyway, Mom told us he got that bike for his 30th birthday. Charlie mainly rides bikes, so he’s trying to fix it up. Come on. He should be over there still.”

Chris led Gabrielle to a shed where loud rock music was playing. Charlie was found lying back on an old skateboard, working a ratchet into the underside of a motorcycle. Only his torso and legs were visible.

“Charlie,” Chris called. But Charlie neither heard him nor responded. Chris walked over to Charlie and kicked him lightly in the leg to get his attention. Still no response.

“Charlie!” Chris shouted, this time yanking the skateboard from under the motorcycle.

“What?!” Charlie exclaimed irritably. His annoyance quickly diffused when he noticed Gabrielle. He stood to his feet and looked at her rather perplexed.

He turned the radio down and faced Gabrielle and his brother.

“...Gabs?” His voice was deep like his brother’s, but significantly hoarse.

“Hey, Charlie,” Gabrielle smiled, stepping forward to hug him. He wore a soft green shirt that clung to his muscular build. A bit of dried oil stained his arms and hands. Gabrielle noticed that his green shirt accentuated the green of eyes that she had become so accustomed to as a teen. His blonde locs that he had inherited from his mother had grown longer and thicker than she remembered. And he sported a short unkempt beard that matched his rugged appearance.

Charlie hesitantly took her into his arms. He embraced her with such caution, she could feel the tension in his hug.

“Huh... it’s been what... 12 years?” Charlie said.

“10 years,” Chris snickered. He folded his arms across his chest, casually leaning back against the shed’s main post.

“8- Chris!” Gabrielle scowled at Chris who stuck his tongue out at her in return. “8. 8 years,” she said to Charlie.

“8, huh? Feels longer,” Charlie said, leaning back against the table. With his arms folded across his chest, Charlie gave her the same intense look that Chris was giving her. Only his glare was significantly less friendly. It seemed that the brothers’ ability to be completely in sync with each other still hadn’t changed after all these years.

“Yea...ugh...I’m sorry about that. I didn’t expect work to... control my life so much,” Gabrielle said embarrassed. She looked down at her hands, away from Charlie’s intense gaze. “But, I’m here now! And I’m honestly just... really happy I got to see you guys,” she perked up, trying to dissipate the awkward tension in the room.

“Sure...” Charlie scoffed, rolling his eyes.

Gabrielle looked between Charlie and Chris sizing them up. “Jeez... When did you guys get so big? You’re towering over me.”

“We’ve always towered over you,” Chris smirked.

“Mm. I distinctly remember being like 3 inches taller than Charlie back in 4th grade,” Gabrielle teased.

Charlie sucked his teeth. “We were 9, Gabs.”

“Still! It happened!” she retorted. The fact that they both laughed brought her relief.

“Besides... now it’s just intimidating. And why are y’all so damn buff?” Gabrielle said pinching Charlie’s bicep. “Are you training for the NFL?” she teased.

Charlie rolled his eyes with a shake of his head. “That’s what happens when you ditch us for 12 years. You miss out on important life changes... like puberty,” he said coldly.

“10,” Chris reminded him.

“8! Oh my gosh! I can’t with y’all,” Gabrielle said, throwing her hands in the air with exasperation.

“Well, she says 8,” Chris grinned mischievously. His playful smirk made her cheeks flush.

“Feels an awful lot like 12...” Charlie said coldly. He glared at Gabrielle, lacking his brother’s playful smirk.

Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably. I deserve this… she thought as she wrapped her arms around herself.

“Charlie. Chris. I’m- I’m really sorry about your dad. I can’t believe he’s really gone. I wish... I’m sorry I wish there was something I could have done to help,” she said apologetically.

Chris put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Hey. It’s okay, Gabs. There’s nothing anyone could have really done,” he said encouragingly.

“Yea, shit happens,” Charlie mumbled, turning back to the motorcycle.

Gabrielle looked at Charlie with worry, completely put off by his attitude. She looked up at Chris who merely shook his head, as if to tell her not to push Charlie further.

“So... how’s the bike coming along?” Gabrielle inquired, looking over Charlie’s shoulder.

“It’s fine,” Charlie said curtly, trying to ignore her.

“Oh, shit! You found that engine cover you were looking for!” Chris exclaimed.

“Fuck, yea! I couldn’t believe it myself! Pretty difficult to find for this model as old as it is. But I only found the front end. Need to find the back end which is gonna be difficult in this town,” Charlie said, wiping his dirty hands on a towel.

“You should try Benny’s Thrift Shop. He’s always got whacky mechanical stuff in there,” Gabrielle said, trying to enter the conversation.

“Benny’s Thrift Shop has been shut down for 4 years,” Charlie said without looking at her.

“What?! Benny’s is closed?!” Gabrielle said shocked.

“More like burned down. Bunch of idiots were smoking around his shop and dropped their cigarette in a pile of leaves right outside his back door. He couldn’t salvage anything,” Chris said, shaking his head.

“Oh no! Poor Benny! That’s awful! I remember going to his shop all the time to find parts for our robotics class back in high school. How is he getting through?” Gabrielle asked.

“Well, he moved back to Florida to be with his son and his son’s family. Couldn’t support himself anymore without that shop,” Chris said, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Oh my goodness! He’s not even here anymore?!” Gabrielle said, covering her mouth in shock.

“Yea. You’d know that if you visited more frequently than 12... s’cuse me... 8 years,” Charlie said with an aggravated sigh. He turned around to face her and she could see pure frustration in his unfriendly glare.

The tension in the room grew thick. A wave of guilt washed over Gabrielle and she couldn’t look him in the eye for long.

“Charlie... I-”

“Hey, Chris!” a man in a hard construction hat called from outside of the shed. “We’re headin’ out now. Yer mother is callin’ fer both of ya.”

“Thanks, Joe! Be there in a sec!” Chris called back. The men nodded and left the premises. Charlie followed immediately thereafter, without giving Gabrielle a second glance.

Gabrielle watched stunned as Charlie sauntered off like he wanted nothing to do with her.

“Come on,” Chris gestured to her. She rushed to catch up with Chris and followed the boys into the house. Once they entered the house, Sally called them into the kitchen.

“There you boys are! I was wondering when you would actually come back inside. Did you see Gabrielle?” she asked, carrying food to the table.

“I’m right here, Mrs. Sally,” Gabrielle said, walking into the kitchen.

“Oh good! Did you and the boys get to catch up?” she asked, placing the food on the table.

“A bit...” Gabrielle was still disturbed by how cold Charlie had been towards her.

“I’m glad to hear that! The boys don’t live here anymore, but it’s such a treat when they visit. Especially now that my Steve...” Sally faltered as emotion clogged her throat.

“Mom?” Chris said, alarmed. Both brothers came to their mother’s side for support. Sally smiled at her two sons as tears cascaded down her cheeks.

“I’m okay,” she smiled ruefully. They walked her to the table and sat her down between the two of them. Their eyes kept careful watch of their mother.

“As you can see, I’m being very well taken care of,” Sally smiled up at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle stood at the entrance of the kitchen, watching the three of them fondly.

“You and Papa Steve raised a beautiful, supportive family. I know Charlie and Chris are taking good care of you,” Gabrielle said solemnly.

She garnered a look from all three of them at once that made her anxiously step back. “I-...”

“Won’t you join us, Gabrielle? You are part of this family. I want to hear more about your time in L.A.,” Sally said. She squeezed Charlie’s hand while he poured her a cup of water.

Gabrielle glanced at Chris. He winked at her, encouraging her to join them as he took a bite of mac and cheese. For just a moment, she considered joining them until she caught a glimpse of Charlie glaring at her. She could only see his intense green eyes over the rim of his cup, but it felt as if he were staring into the deepest parts of her soul.

“Umm... actually, I better be getting back to Mama and Eli,” she said, reluctantly.

“Are you sure?” Sally asked. Chris couldn’t hide his disappointment.

“I am. There are a few things I have to help them take care of. But thank you, Mrs. Sally. I’ll make sure to give you some time later,” she said, nervously glancing at Charlie.

“Oh wait! Give this to your mother for me!” Sally said, handing her an envelope. “Oh, Gabrielle! It’s so good to have you home again.” She pulled Gabrielle into a warm embrace.

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Sally and met the brothers’ gaze. Chris still looked disappointed, and Charlie looked even more agitated.

“Thanks, Mrs. Sally. Have a good night,” Gabrielle said waving goodbye.

~*~

When Gabrielle arrived back home, she headed straight for her old room and relaxed on the bed. She glanced around at all of her old teenage decor.

“I really need to redecorate,” she sighed. She sat back on her bed and pulled out her cell phone to see if she had any missed calls.

None from Damian.

She sent Emma a text, letting her know she safely arrived home. Then, she called Damian. 3 rings and no response. She called again, but only received his voicemail.

“Weird…”

She held the phone to her ear, waiting for the beep. “Hey, babe. It’s me. Just wanted to let you know I got home okay. Um... call me back when you get this message. Love you.”

She hung up the phone and frowned. A strange feeling settled in the pit of her stomach.

Grabbing her laptop, she opened a web browser to check her social media. She scrolled through her newsfeed and saw pictures of Damian tagged by another woman. The pictures revealed him at a dinner party. Gabrielle smiled at how dashing he looked in his suit, as he held a glass of champagne.

She continued scrolling until she noticed a common theme: there was a beautiful brunette in every picture with him. She scrolled down to another picture of him embracing the same woman. His hands were wrapped intimately around her waist. The woman looking up at him was clearly flustered by Damian. They looked as if they were about to kiss.

“What the hell?” Gabrielle said furiously. She called Damian again, but again, it went to voicemail.

“UGH!” she grunted before tossing her phone on the bed and closing the laptop shut.

~*~

Sally got up from the table with her plate and walked to the sink.

“Mom, don’t worry about that. We’ll clean up,” Chris said, taking the plate from her.

She smiled at him as he turned to wash the dishes in the sink. She walked to the corner of the kitchen and grabbed a broom.

“Ma, come on. I’ll take care of it,” Charlie said, grabbing the broom from her. “Just let us handle it.”

“You should go relax in the living room and watch TV. Or maybe get some sleep. You’ve been up a while,” Chris said over his shoulder.

Sally sat down at the kitchen table and watched her sons clean. The still silence caused them both to look at her questioningly.

“I just… I miss him so much,” she broke down. “You both remind me of him. I just want to be around the both of you. Then it feels like he’s still here.” Tears fell from her face as her hands began to shake.

“Mom...” Chris said remorsefully. He dried off the last plate and rushed to kneel beside her. Grabbing her frail hands between his, Chris looked up at his mother just as she tenderly caressed his cheek.

“You look just like him when he was your age,” she said between sobs. “You look so much like your father.”

Charlie leaned on the broom and silently watched his mother sob into his brother’s chest. Anguish tightened his chest. Each sob from his mother’s broken heart tore at him.

“I know you both have your own places to stay. But... it’s been so long since you’ve been home. Please stay with your mother,” she sobbed into Chris’s shoulder.

Chris looked at his younger brother with sadness in his eyes. They read the intent in each other’s gaze and exchanged looks of understanding.

“We’ll stay, Ma. We’re not going anywhere. We’re here for you,” Charlie said softly, taking a few steps towards them.

With red, puffy eyes, Sally looked up from Chris’s shoulders and into the tender forest green gaze of her youngest son. She raised her hand, softly stroking Charlie’s face. He gently grabbed her hand and held it to his face as they indulged in each other’s touch.

After sharing an intimate moment, Charlie let her hand go, allowing Chris to walk her out of the kitchen and up to her room. A few moments later, Chris walked back downstairs to join Charlie.

“How is she?” Charlie asked.

“It’s... gonna take her some time...” Chris sighed heavily, rubbing his forehead.

Charlie plopped down in the kitchen seat. “Losing dad was hard enough...”

“I know...” Chris said, pouring himself a glass of water. “We just gotta be strong for her right now.”

Charlie nodded. He looked up at the ceiling, lost in his thoughts for a brief moment before speaking. “I really wasn’t... expecting to see her…”

Chris arched an amused brow. “Is that why you were so cold to her?”

Charlie scowled. “I wasn’t cold...”

“No, you’re right. You’re like that with everyone,” Chris chuckled.

Charlie gave his brother a rueful smile. “She’s different...”

“Of course, she is. And... she’s off limits.”

“I’m sure she won’t be staying long enough for that to matter anyway.”

Chris shrugged. “Probably not.” He took a large gulp of water. “Still...” He swished the water in his mouth before swallowing. “She’s even more beautiful than when we last saw her.”

“Which was over 8 years ago. I still only remember her as the dorky teenage girl we grew up with, not this… gorgeous fucking woman, goddammit!”

Chris sunk into his seat and looked up thoughtfully. “You noticed that too, huh?”

Charlie dropped his head on the table, groaning in agony.

Chris chuckled, amused by his brother’s theatrics. “Just grin and bear it for now. She’ll be gone sooner than you know it. Then you won’t feel tempted.”

“As if that’s any better,” Charlie mumbled.

Chris looked at his brother with a frown. It was hard enough keeping his own feelings at bay, but safeguarding his brother’s feelings? The task felt impossible. As the eldest, Chris was expected to be the more responsible and stable brother. Yet, seeing Gabrielle sent him into a spiral of emotions and it frustrated him that his first thought was to kiss her the moment he lay eyes on her.

He knew Charlie’s coldness was his brother’s own method of keeping his feelings in check. The more deeply he felt for her, the colder he came off.

The fact of the matter was... Chris and Charlie had been in love with the same woman for years. It was in high school that they had come to this troubling realization. Being in sync with each other allowed them to read how the other felt. The brothers only had each other to find solace when Gabrielle moved across the country for undergrad.

By society’s standards, Gabrielle wasn’t considered the prettiest girl in high school. But it wasn’t her looks that made them fall for her. It was friendship that blossomed into something more.

Chris thought back to one of the many nights he and Gabrielle used to spend on his patio.

“I wanna go to med school to be a doctor,” Gabrielle said, sipping her strawberry milkshake.

“Don’t you have to be in school for like a million years for that?” Chris said, stirring his milkshake with his finger.

“Kinda yea... But it’s worth it. I just wanna be able to help people. Help save them so they don’t die... like my dad... I just... hope I’m smart enough to get in,” Gabrielle said, feeling discouraged. “Med school is so hard...”

Chris watched her with a smile. “You’re the smartest person I know, Gabs. I’m sure you’ll get into the best school there is,” Chris said, nudging her with his elbow.

Gabrielle looked up at him and grinned. “But…?”

“What? No ‘but’?” Chris said innocently.

“There’s always a ‘but’ with you, Richardson.”

“Well… you have a nice butt, if that’s what you mean,” Chris laughed.

“You idiot,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“But seriously... I have no doubt you’ll be one of the best doctors there is,” he said encouragingly.

Gabrielle looked into Chris’s eyes and noticed that he was looking at her a little differently. At least different than she was used to. She blushed under his gaze and turned away from him.

“Thanks, Chris...”

“You still love her?” Charlie asked, interrupting Chris’s thoughts.

Chris looked at his brother for a long moment and poured himself another glass of water.

“I never stopped...”

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