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

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4 - The Family Reunion

“Gabrielle! Check on the mac and cheese for me. It should be ready to come out of the oven by now,” Clara instructed her daughter while tasting the turkey neck broth.

“Yes, Mama.” Gabrielle opened the oven and pulled out the large tray of mac and cheese layered with mixed cheeses. She hadn’t had a feast like this since Christmas.

The Johanssons were in the Richardsons’ kitchen preparing the food before everyone’s arrival. Gabrielle wasn’t at all surprised that her mother’s tendency to serve had not wavered. It was in her nature to care for others.

“Start putting the food out on the living room table. We’ll set it up buffet style,” Clara said picking up a tray of collard greens. She carried them to the living room and her children followed.

They had just finished laying out the last bit of the food when Sally and her sons walked through the door.

“Wow! It smells amazing in here!” Chris said, walking towards the couch to take a seat.

“Clara, you are too much. You didn’t have to do all this,” Sally said with teary eyes. She looked over the vast arrangement of food with gratitude.

“Sally, hush. I wanted to. Now, I don’t want you or your boys to lift a finger. We’ll serve the food,” Clara said comfortingly.

“I’m sorry, we’ll do what?!” Eli blurted. He spun around abruptly holding a bowl of ice water, which splashed onto his sister’s dress.

“Eli!” Gabrielle shrieked.

“Whoops! Sorry, sis,” Eli chuckled. Gabrielle gave him a dirty glare and looked for a cloth.

“Here,” Charlie said abruptly, handing her a small towel.

“Oh! Thanks, Charlie,” she said grabbing the towel. She wiped the water from her chest and looked up to see Charlie’s eyes lingering on her. He lifted his eyes to meet her gaze and immediately snapped out of it.

“I’ll be outside,” Charlie muttered. He glanced at Chris on the couch, eyeing him with a raised brow. Charlie rolled his eyes dismissively and walked outside to the patio.

Gabrielle stalked over to Chris and plopped down next to him on the couch.

“Is it me or does your brother all of a sudden hate me,” she muttered.

Chris chuckled at the irony. “Far from it, Gabs.”

He looked behind her and caught his brother lighting a cigarette on the patio.

“I really missed you, Chris,” Gabrielle said suddenly. Catching him by surprise, she laid her head on his shoulder and rested her hand against his chest.

His heart sped up a bit faster as he grabbed her hand and held it close.

“I missed you too, Gabs,” he said quickly.

“NUH UH! Girl, I know you are not getting comfortable. You. Are here. To serve,” Clara said, knocking them out of their serenity.

“But, Mom!” Gabrielle whined.

“Child. The only ‘but’ I wanna hear is yours marching to the kitchen to start serving this here food,” Clara ordered, waving a spoon in the air.

“Ugh. We’ll catch up later,” Gabrielle said, getting up. She turned to Chris and gave a quick smile before following her mother back into the kitchen.

Chris watched mesmerized as her hips switched all the way to the kitchen.

“Christopher. Some people have started to arrive. Be a dear and go greet them. And make sure your brother behaves. I can’t handle an episode right now,” Sally said, putting a glass of red wine to her lips.

“Of course, Mom.” Chris got up from the couch and headed towards the patio.

“Hey,” Chris walked onto the patio to greet his younger brother. Charlie turned slightly to face him and took a long drag of his cigarette.

“Hey...”

“You doin’ alright?”

Charlie shrugged and looked down, taking another drag. “I miss him.”

“I miss him too,” Chris said. He leaned against the railing next to his brother, looking out over the front yard. They both watched as people pulled up to their estate.

“You might wanna ease up on Gabs,” Chris said, turning to him.

Charlie raised an amused brow and snickered. “Ease up how? I haven’t done anything.”

“We’ve all been best friends since we were kids,” Chris said. “Her last memory of us was when we went skinny dipping in the river by Rogers and threw eggs at Mr. Drear’s house the night before graduation.”

Charlie grinned mischievously. “Oh yea! Remember when Gabs threw one of the eggs through an open window she thought was closed. She smacked him right in the back of the head.”

Chris threw his head back in laughter. “I have never seen her freak out that badly. She swore she was going to get arrested.”

“Expelled at best,” Charlie smirked.

“Right before graduation? That would have been pointless,” Chris chuckled.

Charlie puckered his lips and rubbed his blonde beard thoughtfully. “That was an unforgettable night.”

“Yea,” Chris said fondly. “So, stop being a grouch.”

Charlie rolled his eyes.

“Hey, I know it’s your way of coping, but she doesn’t know that,” Chris added.

“Not that she’d ever get it. Oblivious as always,” Charlie muttered.

They both nodded in agreement. Seconds later, their neighbors walked up to the patio to shake Chris’s hand. Charlie couldn’t be bothered to socialize.

“Thank you for coming. It means a lot to us,” Chris waved off the last person walking into their family home.

“It’s best that she stays oblivious. Especially considering our… family business,” Chris said looking at his brother with tired eyes.

“Don’t remind me,” Charlie groaned. He closed his eyes and cocked his head up towards the sun.

“Heh. Anyway... she thinks you hate her,” Chris said eyeing him.

Charlie’s eyes abruptly popped open. He looked at his older brother in disbelief, then scoffed loudly.

“Yea, I know,” Chris chuckled. “So maybe… tone it down a little. She cares about you.”

Charlie dropped the cigarette to the ground and snuffed it out with the toe of his shoe.

“It’s all I can do to stop myself from wanting her,” Charlie said, looking at him with guilt. He tore his eyes away and dropped his head. “But… I’ll try...”

Chris looked at Charlie with a warm smile. He appreciated that he and his brother had such a strong connection and felt comfortable enough to discuss their feelings, including being in love with the same woman. Being so in sync with each other had its positives and negatives. Always knowing when something was wrong with the other proved most useful. Falling in love with the same woman was not.

“Just... don’t let it mess you up. There’s not much we can do about it anyway. Losing dad is one thing. Mom can barely keep it together. I need my brother. Alright?” Chris said, placing a comforting hand on Charlie’s shoulder.

Charlie nodded. Suddenly, the sound of an engine pierced the air. They both looked up to see a red Lamborghini and a blue Corvette pull up to the house.

Their uncle Eric stepped out of the red Lamborghini and walked to the other side to open the door for his daughter Natalie. Eric and Natalie were a perfect picture of British elegance, class, and wealth. With long, bone-straight blonde hair that accentuated her bright blue eyes, Natalie was practically a spitting image of her father. Natalie wore a sophisticated off-the-shoulder black pencil dress that stopped just above her knees. Her Christian Louboutin pumps accentuated the curve and strength of her legs as she walked. She linked her hand around her father’s arm and together they walked down the pathway.

Eric Richardson was one of the most powerful men in England. He ran multiple large businesses in the United Kingdom, with thousands of subsidiaries in the United States. He was a force to be reckoned with and most people often feared him. Still, he was always a perfect gentleman. Being a witty quick talker made him the perfect businessman. It was what Chris admired most about him. When his uncle first approached him about his new role in the family business, Chris knew he had to mimic his uncle’s calm, cool and collected demeanor.

Natalie oozed as much elegance as her father, with an air of grace that always made her stand out. However, as one of the few women in a male-dominated business, she had to be sterner just to be taken seriously. Thus, people usually regarded her as cold-hearted and nothing short of a bitch. Natalie was her father’s Chief of Investments, one of the most important roles for the business. And lately, she had been raking in a lot of clients.

The brothers braced themselves as Eric and Natalie approached them.

“It’s a pleasure to see you two again,” Eric said, shaking Chris’s hand.

“Nice to see you too, Uncle Eric. Thank you for speaking at the service,” Chris said.

“Of course. Your father was a good man. And my favorite brother,” Eric nodded.

“It’s hardly difficult to see why,” Natalie chimed. She glared at her uncle Gerald and cousin Arthur as they exited the blue Corvette.

Gerald had a rather rugged, Old English, look to him. Sporting a thick, short beard that barely hid the soft wrinkles of stress on his face, his light grey eyes was his most endearing attribute. Arthur, known to look like a younger version of his father, had a strong jawline. Its sharpness was magnified every time he made that dazzling smile that made women weak at the knees.

“Well, I’m going inside before I’m subjected to their idiocy. We’ll catch up later,” Natalie said, hugging her cousins.

Just as Natalie walked into the house, Gerald and Arthur stepped onto the patio.

“Well, if it isn’t my little brother. And! My favorite nephews!” Gerald said in a thick British accent. A cigar hung casually from his mouth.

“We’re your only nephews, Uncle,” Chris said with a raised brow.

“Well… not if we count yer mother’s side. And we all know what an awful lot they are,” Gerald grinned. He plopped a large hand on Chris’s shoulder, nearly making him stumble forward.

“Classy,” Charlie said with disgust and a roll of his eyes.

“No. What’s classy are these cigars I brought you from Glasgow. It’s a gift to make you feel like a real man. Instead of that shit you keep using. Here,” Gerald said, patting around his suit jacket.

“Er... perhaps after dinner,” Eric said, gesturing to the door.

Gerald smirked amused. “But of course! Anything for the Queen’s most loyal, royal pet. After you,” he said smugly. Eric scoffed with a roll of his eyes and headed inside. Gerald trailed behind him.

“I would apologize for my father but, well… you already know how he is. So, I don’t have to,” Arthur snickered. He pulled Charlie in for a hug and shook Chris’s hand.

“Yea… thanks for coming, Arthur,” Chris smiled.

“I missed my cousins. But I’m sorry about your father. He was a good man,” Arthur said in his thick English accent.

“Thanks, man,” Charlie said with an awkward twist of his mouth.

“Um... are you guys gonna come eat?” rang Gabrielle’s voice from the doorway.

The three men looked up to see a smiling Gabrielle in a black apron flattering to her figure. She held a large wooden spoon dripping with tomato sauce.

“Well, hello. And who, pray tell, are you?” Arthur inquired. His eyes widened as he gazed upon her from head to toe.

“Hi! I’m Gabrielle. I think I met you before. Maybe when we were kids?” she said, tilting her head to the side.

“Ah yes! Gabrielle! Wow... you have certainly grown,” Arthur grinned. He took her hand and kissed the back of it tenderly.

Gabrielle blushed, surprised by his comment and even more taken back by his welcome.

“Th-thanks?” she said retracting her hand. “And you’re… Arthur? Charlie and Chris’s cousin, right?”

Arthur looked back at his cousins with a Cheshire grin before he turned back to Gabrielle. “The one and only.”

“It’s nice to meet you again,” she smiled politely. “You guys should really come inside to eat. These people were not playing. They must have emptied their stomachs before arriving. The food is nearly gone.”

She noticed tomato sauce starting to drip from the spoon she was holding.

“Oh shoot,” she said, catching the sauce with her finger. She quickly licked it from her digit, not realizing the effect she was having on the crowd before.

“Okay... now that’s good sauce,” she grinned. “And you know why? Because I made it. So, hurry up before you completely miss out-”

“Yes, yes, thanks, Gabs. We’ll be inside in a second,” Chris said impatiently waving her off. He knew if that performance she pulled was killing him, he could only imagine what it was doing to his brother. Arthur surely had no intention of hiding the effect it had on him.

“Fine, fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she said, waltzing back into the house.

Chris heard a deep sigh from Charlie, who quickly turned around for another cigarette.

“Fuck me! Little Gabrielle ain’t so little anymore, is she? If that’s not perfection, I don’t know what is. And that ass...” Arthur craned his head to follow Gabrielle’s walk into the house, watching her hips switch side to side.

Charlie roughly shoved Arthur in the chest. He glaring at his cousin heavily annoyed.

“Oh, my apologies. Does she belong to one of you?” Arthur eyed Charlie suspiciously.

“She doesn’t belong to anyone,” Charlie said irritably. He tried not to give himself away. He took a long drag from his cigarette and his death glare never wavered from Arthur.

“So then… she’s available,” Arthur smirked mischievously.

Charlie clenched his fist when Chris quickly stood in front of him.

“Arthur, please. This isn’t the time. Everyone’s already a little on edge. Let’s just go inside and have a nice family dinner, alright?” Chris said, motioning Arthur towards the door.

“Christopher, Christopher. So rational. Always the diplomat. I suppose that’s why our fathers chose you to take the lead. You must be so proud,” Arthur smirked mockingly. He winked patronizingly at Charlie before walking into the house.

Chris sighed with aggravation and turned to his brother.

“Don’t say it,” Charlie said abruptly. He flicked the cigarette and snuffed it out. “I just wanna get through this fucking dinner.”

“I know... Charlie, I know you better than anyone. I’m not trying to parent you, I just... you gotta learn to control your emotions a little better. For Mom. I can’t referee another brawl,” Chris sighed.

“I actually thought you’d be on my team,” Charlie smirked at him.

“I’m always on your team. But that’s not fair to Arthur. You’d knock him out with one blow,” Chris smirked back. “Let’s go.”

They both walked into the house populated with people eating, drinking and talking.

They noticed Gabrielle talking to Eric and Gerald as she served them their food. She was blushing so hard her cheeks took on a pinkish tint beneath her dark brown skin. She looked as if she were trying to hold back laughter.

“Oh God,” Chris muttered as he started towards them.

“Hey, hey now. Leave them be,” Natalie said, stopping Chris with a hand to the chest.

“Natalie,” Chris said looking down at her. Her bright blue eyes sparkled, and a pert smirk crossed her perfect face. Luscious blonde locks fell delicately around her face.

She handed him a full glass of red wine and then grabbed her own.

“Let’s talk, cousin,” she smiled up at him. He looked at Gabrielle one more time, talking to his uncles. She seemed more relaxed and was genuinely laughing. His uncles seemed as enthralled by her presence as he and Charlie were. He couldn’t help the smile on his face. Her smile filled with pearly whites accompanied by a soft laugh echoed throughout the house. Her laughter was infectious as he noticed both uncles laughing with her. And they didn’t even like each other.

“Come on,” Natalie persisted, leading him towards the balcony.

“So... how have you been?” she asked, turning to him. She took a sip of her wine.

“I’m… fine,” he said stiffly. He leaned against the railing and looked into the house.

“Except that you’re not,” she said, looking him over curiously.

“Excuse me?” Chris said with a raised brow. “I mean... it’s just a rough time right now…”

“It is. And you’ve spent so much time tending to your mother and Charles that you haven’t taken a moment to grieve and tend to yourself,” she said to him matter-of-factly.

Chris’s words caught in his throat.

“I...I guess you’re right.” He frowned and looked into his wine glass before taking another sip. “I don’t consider my own needs that often. I can’t. I have to take the lead.”

“I know you don’t. You got that trait from your father, bless his soul. But it’s not healthy, Christopher. I knew you would do this. That’s why I’m here. To remind you.” She smiled up at him and leaned her head on his shoulder.

“Thanks, Nat,” Chris smiled and kissed the top of her head.

“Glass is empty. Care to join me for another,” she grinned. She twirled the stem of her empty glass between her long, slender fingers.

“Sure,” he smiled. She plucked the empty glass from his hand and sashayed inside. Chris shook his head with a chuckle. He looked up to see Charlie walking towards him.

They could never seem to stay too far away from each other for too long...

“Hey. How are you managing?” Chris asked as Charlie sat next to him on the balcony.

“Let’s just say... thank God there’s alcohol,” Charlie said. He took a chug of the beer and sighed. “What were you and Nat talking about?”

Chris shrugged. “She’s just checking up on me. Trying to take on some ‘older sister’ duties again. Says I’m not really taking care of myself apparently.”

“Well, she’s right,” Charlie said. Chris looked at him curiously. “I know you’re always looking after me, Chris. You have ever since we were kids. And I appreciate it but... you have to look after yourself too. I’m just… disappointed as shit in myself that I haven’t returned the favor.”

“That’s not your fault, Charlie. We’re all a little fragile right now. Hell, I envy your ability to feel so much. Sometimes, I feel this business has made me… cold,” Chris said. He caught Natalie walking back towards them with Gabrielle trailing after her.

“It’s a blessing and a curse, I guess. More of a curse these days,” Charlie said, taking a gulp of his beer. His eyes were instinctively set on Gabrielle.

“Charles! I’m so glad you could join us,” Natalie said, handing Chris his wine.

“Nat,” Charlie nodded.

“Hey guys,” Gabrielle greeted the boys cheerfully. “Are you doing okay? Did you eat enough? Silly question. Neither of you have eaten. I know because I would have served you. Here. I made you both plates before the savages ate everything up.” She handed them both their plates.

“Gab-,” Charlie started.

“Don’t turn me down, okay? Just eat. Please,” she said sincerely.

They both smiled at her with gratitude as they took their plates. “Thanks, Gabs,” Chis said.

“Do you need anything, Natalie? There’s still some more of my mother’s peach cobbler left,” Gabrielle offered. “It’s so damn good and she doesn’t make it often. So, consider it a treat.”

“Oh no, thank you dear. I’m quite full. Though I may take you up on that peach cobbler later. Save me a piece?” Natalie smiled at Gabrielle.

“Of course! I gotta get back and help clean up, but I’ll hide it for you. Keep it secret. Keep it safe,” Gabrielle joked with a snort. The 3 Richardsons smirked at her fairly amused.

“Sorry... Lord of the Rings references... make me... snort...ugh... I’m gonna go before I embarrass myself further,” she said nervously. She waved them off and stumbled back into the house.

“Okay... she is the most adorable thing I have ever seen,” Natalie sighed fondly. She watched Gabrielle assist her mother in packing up the trays. “Almost a little too perfect...”

Charlie and Chris purposely ignored her comments and quietly ate their food.

“So, you’re both in love with her, then,” Natalie said, tapping the side of her cheek with her pointer finger. Chris nearly choked on his food and Charlie looked at Natalie with wide eyes. Natalie could only scoff in offense.

“Oh please. I’ve known you both since we were children. You don’t think I can tell by now when you’re in love? I changed your diapers for goodness’ sake. Give me some credit,” she scowled.

Charlie sighed in frustration and continued eating his food.

“I don’t blame either of you. She’s a very beautiful girl. Kind and endearing. Heck, she got my father and Uncle Gerald to like her. And it looks like Arthur might just try to bring her back to England with him by the way he keeps flirting with her,” she chuckled slyly.

This time Charlie choked on his food. Natalie looked at him, half worried and half amused.

“It’s just... not something we really talk about, Nat. Can we drop it?” Chris said, feeling uncomfortable.

“You two? Not talk about how you’re both in love with the same woman? I hardly believe that, Christopher. But sure. Whatever. I won’t push it,” she shrugged nonchalantly.

“Anyway, I see Gabrielle and I becoming good friends. I’ve asked her to show me around town for a bit, and she is more than happy to accompany me,” Natalie said, finishing her wine.

“There’s not really much to see around here, Nat. Especially considering your fancy, diva lifestyle,” Charlie said.

“Well, I can be... regular... for a change. See how the average commoner has fun.” She pulled a mirror from her purse and checked her face in the mirror.

“Commoner? Jeez, Nat. You sound like the Queen herself,” Charlie rolled his eyes.

“Charles, don’t flatter me,” she chuckled. She looked at her face one more time before returning the mirror to her bag.

“And I want you both to come with us,” she added.

“I’m sorry, what?” Chris asked, surprised.

“I want you to accompany me. Arthur invited himself and I’d rather take a smelly taxi than be alone with him for too long,” she scoffed.

“I don’t know, Nat. We’ve got a lot to take care of,” Chris said, looking at Charlie.

“Oh please, Christopher. For one night? You can’t take a break to hang out with your cousin all the way from across the pond for one night? If anything, you need this just as badly as I do. Maybe more.” She put her hands on her hips and impatiently tapped her foot.

“...Fine.” Chris gave in and put his empty plate down.

“Charles?” she persisted.

Charlie looked at Chris, who gave him a pleading “don’t you dare ditch me” look.

“Fine...” Charlie muttered annoyed.

“Perfect! Now, I’m going to go mingle some more. Too much testosterone over here,” she teased. She gave them both a kiss on the cheek and disappeared back inside the house.

“Well, this should be fun,” Charlie said sarcastically.

~*~

Eric and Gerald joined Chris and Charlie outside on the patio, just as they were kindling a fire in the fire pit.

“There you boys are. Haven’t seen you the whole night. You haven’t been avoiding us have you?” Eric joked with a pat on Chris’s shoulder.

“No, just... trying to catch our breaths,” Chris smiled wearily at him.

“Here,” Gerald said, handing each of them a cigar.

“Uncle-” Charlie started.

“No. For your father,” Gerald said. The men cut off the end of the cigars and lit them, taking a moment of silence for Steve Richardson.

“...I... know I can be a bit of an ass,” Gerald started.

“A bit?” Eric smirked. Gerald playfully gave his brother the finger..

“But your father was a really good man. A pain in my arse and one of the most self-righteous people I knew. But a good man... I see a lot of him in you. In both of you,” Gerald said, looking at his nephews.

“Well thanks, Uncle Gerald. Means a lot coming from you,” Chris said.

Gerald nodded when he noticed something in the driveway. “Is that bike out front yours, Charles,” he asked.

“It was Dad’s. I’m just... fixing it up,” Charlie said.

“I knew it looked familiar. I remember when your father first got that bike. He loved it like it was his child. Rode it everywhere… It suits you. He’d want you to have it,” Gerald said.

Charlie gave him a small smile. “Thanks.”

After a few moments puffing on cigars and looking over the horizon, Eric broke the silence.

“That Johansson girl is really quite lovely. Is she with one of you?” Eric asked.

Charlie and Chris exchanged looks. “Just a close friend of the family,” Chris assured him.

“Aye, I’d like to make her more than a friend. If I were 10 years younger,” Gerald muttered.

“Uncle, please,” Chris laughed.

“Eh... sorry. Your uncle’s right though. She made me tolerate him for at least half an hour. Must be a record,” Gerald joked.

“She did have a lot to say about your father. And about you boys. Main reason I asked,” Eric said, taking a puff. “But enough of that. As much as I like reminiscing with you all... we have to talk business at some point.”

Chris and Charlie exchanged looks just as Arthur came waltzing through the door with Natalie and Gabrielle in tow.

“What are you boys talking about?” Natalie interrupted.

“We were just about to have an important meeting, dear,” Eric said, trying to dismiss them.

“Meeting? Honestly, Father, have you no respect? There will be no talk of business on the night of Uncle Steve’s memorial. We should be talking about him. Right, Gabrielle?” Natalie said latching herself onto Gabrielle’s arm.

Gabrielle looked down, smiling nervously. “Yeah... though I kind of feel like I’m intruding.”

“Intruding? What on earth are you talking about?” Natalie said. She took a seat in the circle that Chris, Charlie, Gerald, and Eric already sat in around the fire pit.

Gabrielle glanced at all of them. “This seems a little... personal?”

“Well according to C-squared, you’re already family, sweetheart,” Arthur grinned. He winked at her and sat next to Natalie who rolled her eyes irritably.

“C-squared?” Gabrielle asked.

“It’s what he calls them when he’s too much of a lazy buffoon to call them both by their names,” Natalie said, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Oh!” Gabrielle chuckled. “C-squared. That’s clever.”

“Don’t encourage him!” Natalie sucked her teeth.

“Well, since my daughter has laid down the law of the land, Gabrielle, you really should come join us,” Eric offered.

Chris and Charlie exchanged glances again, trying to garner if her presence was a good idea.

Gabrielle frowned when she noticed how awkward Chris and Charlie had been acting. She looked behind her into the house.”I don’t know. I should probably check on Mrs. Sally-”

“Is the fire pit on?” Eli’s voice thundered as he walked outside.

“Eli! Join us!” Natalie waved.

“Y’all having a party out here?” Eli smirked. He wrapped Gabrielle into a hug and kissed the top of her head. “Hey, sis. You okay?”

“Yea, I just... how is Mrs. Sally? Does she need anything?” Gabrielle said, a bit agitated.

“Moms is having tea with her in the kitchen. They both seemed like they wanted to be left alone after everyone else went home. That’s why I came out here to see what all the commotion was about.”

“Oh...” Gabrielle said looking down.

“We were just reminiscing about Uncle Steve,” Natalie informed him.

“Aw man, I’ve got stories about Papa Steve for days,” Eli chuckled. He plopped a seat next to Arthur. Gabrielle stayed standing.

“Sis, sit down,” Eli said. Gabrielle pouted and sat between Eli and Gerald, completing their circle.

~*~

The group talked for hours about their favorite moments with Steve Richardson.

“Remember when Steve covered for your ass when you hot-wired father’s car and drove all the way to London?” Eric laughed, holding an empty beer bottle.

“I still got in a shit ton of trouble,” Gerald smirked, puffing on his cigar.

“You would have gotten in so much more if Steve hadn’t defended you,” Eric grinned.

“Yea, the little boy scout was always saving my ass from his wrath,” Gerald said thoughtfully. “Unlike you, who always tried to do me in.”

“I didn’t have to do much. You were already a mess,” Eric teased.

“Like father like son,” Natalie scoffed, hovering her hands over the fire pit.

“Damn right,” Arthur laughed, taking another swig of his beer.

“I remember when Dad took me on my first joy ride,” Charlie smiled, looking into his glass.

“I’m sorry. Did you say FIRST joy ride? As in more than one?” Natalie said surprised.

Charlie gave a wicked grin. “Mom used to get so pissed at me for taking the car out. She got on Dad about punishing me for it. Instead, he took me on a couple joy rides. But I mean, he also taught me about the importance of driving safely.”

“That story was going well until you added ‘driving safely’,” Gerald grunted.

“You know, Charles. Sometimes I think you’re more like me than you are like Chris,” Arthur grinned.

“Uh, I HIGHLY doubt that. Charles is a rebel. You’re just a menace,” Natalie said.

“That’s hurtful, Nat,” Arthur feigned offense.

“Remember when Papa Steve taught us to swim?” Eli said, nudging his sister.

“That was one of the most embarrassing days of my life,” Gabrielle murmured.

“Embarrassing? Now I gotta hear this,” Natalie said. Her eyes lit up with curiosity.

Gabrielle chuckled. “Papa Steve offered to take Eli and I for swimming lessons at the local YMCA when our mom was working extra shifts. Eli was already so good doing all these tricks and being a big-headed showboat as always.”

“Hey!” Eli exclaimed.

“But I struggled... badly. I was terrified of the water. One day, I forgot to wear my swimming cap and I had just gotten my hair done...”

Everyone looked at her fairly confused.

“They’re white, Gabs. You gotta explain the struggle of your naps,” Eli laughed.

Gabrielle gave him a dirty look before continuing. “My hair is naturally kinky, er... curly? My mom used to straighten it for school. But when it touches water it shrinks and goes back to its natural state which is frustrating since the hot comb is terrifying. I still have nightmares.”

She shuttered dramatically causing the others to laugh.

“Anyway, Papa Steve tried to comfort me by giving me tips. But they didn’t really help.” She covered her face in embarrassment. “So then he stripped down to just his jeans and hopped in the pool just to help me learn to swim.”

“He did what?!” Natalie exclaimed with a huge shocking smile on her face. Arthur started laughing uncontrollably while Eric shook his head.

“How come I don’t remember this story?” Chris said suddenly.

“There are some things I didn’t tell you for a reason, Christopher!” Gabrielle exclaimed with embarrassment.

“Honestly... that definitely sounds like something Dad would do,” Charlie smirked.

“That wasn’t even the worse part. I mean I learned to swim thanks to him. But my hair got wet. He didn’t read my mom’s text about wearing a shower cap until the nightmare had already happened. The look on his face when he saw my hair shrink into an afro is still burned into my memory.” Gabrielle could barely contain her laughter.

“This is gold,” Arthur laughed.

“But it gets better!” Eli said in between laughing hysterically.

“Eli please... don’t do this to me...” Gabrielle pleaded, covering her face.

“How could it possibly get better than this?” Natalie asked.

“Papa Steve tried to fix Gabby’s hair!” Eli struggled to say between his laughter.

Gabrielle, Chris and Charlie loudly groaned, covering their faces simultaneously.

“First he tried combing it,” Eli said. They all looked at him expectantly. “The comb broke.”

They all burst into laughter.

“Then he decided to take her to a hair salon,” Eli continued.

“Well at least now he’s making better decisions,” Natalie noted.

“But he didn’t know how to describe what he wanted. So, Gabrielle went blonde for a few weeks,” Eli said before doubling over in laughter.

“Wait... THAT’S why you wore that stupid Cinderella hat for the first month of school? You told us it was for a play!” Charlie said surprised.

Gabrielle raised her hands not knowing what to say. She covered her face, wishing she had a hole to hide in.

“You could totally pull off blonde,” Natalie said, after she gathered her bearings. Gabrielle smiled at her brightly.

“Other than pure comedy, that story tells you all you need to know about my brother,” Eric said, clearing his throat.

Gabrielle nodded. “It’s true. He was a kind, selfless man who was always willing to go above and beyond for others.” The mood changed to a more somber feeling.

“Papa Steve... he was one of my biggest cheerleaders. Heck, he rivaled my mother at times. I loved him and he loved me despite how different we were. Because of him, I never felt… fatherless...” Gabrielle trailed off and quickly wiped at the tears brimming over her eyelids.

“Hey...” Eli grabbed her hand and squeezed gently. Chris watched her intently while Charlie fumbled with his hands, wanting to say something but unable to.

“Shoot. I’m sorry, guys. I didn’t mean to dampen the mood,” she said apologetically. She tried to wipe away any other tears before they could escape.

“You’re fine, dear,” Natalie said comfortingly.

“You guys must have been really close,” Gerald said. Gabrielle responded with a small smile.

“We should probably get going,” Eli said, getting up.

“Yea, we have a long day tomorrow, as I’m taking you shopping, I believe,” Gabrielle said, getting up as well. She tried to collect herself by not looking at the two that hadn’t taken their eyes off of her. She felt embarrassed about being so emotional over Steve when his own sons had been able to hold themselves together.

“Yes! I’m so excited! Show me what this quaint city has to offer,” Natalie said getting up.

“Well it’s nothing like London, so don’t get your hopes up too much,” Gabrielle chuckled. The two women linked arms with each other.

“Are you guys staying in the estate?” Eli asked.

“No. We are taking temporary residence elsewhere,” Eric said.

As everyone headed back into the house to leave, Eric called out to Chris.

“We’ll need to talk soon,” Eric said to him seriously. Chris merely nodded and proceeded to follow everyone off of the balcony and into the house.

~*~

Back at home, Gabrielle searched for her ringing cell phone and found it in her purse.

“Hello?” she answered.

“Baby... hey, how are you?” came Damian’s smooth voice from the other end.

“Damian! I tried calling you days ago!” she blurted.

“Yea, sorry, babe. Work has been really busy,” he said sounding distant and distracted.

“It’s okay,” she said quietly. “What have you been up to?”

“Just work.”

“Hey um… did you go to a get-together or... dinner party recently?” she asked.

“Huh? Yea, something like that. Why do you ask?”

“Oh... I just noticed some girl on your newsfeed and was just wondering if she was like... a friend or a co-worker or something,” she inquired.

“She’s a co-worker,” he said abruptly.

“Oh... what’s her name?” Gabrielle asked. But she was met with silence until another woman’s voice could be heard in the background.

“Babe?” Gabrielle asked.

“Huh? Hey, I gotta go. I’ll talk to you later,” Damian finally said.

“Wait! Damian!” But he had already ended the call.

“UGH! Forget this!” she said, tossing her phone.

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