Playing Cupid

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Chapter 7 : Spilled Milk

We whip our heads in his direction and step away from each other. James jeers and shakes his head.

“Nice of you to finally come home,” He cheers sarcastically, trash bag in hand. “I see that sleepover at Nikki’s went well?”

I flash an apologetic smile and throw up a peace sign, “Funny story actually.”

Judging by his stance, he was not thrilled finding out my actual whereabouts. He narrows his eyes at Ace, dropping the bag onto the ground. James marches towards us and I jump in front of Ace, shielding him.

“Okay, wait.” I say, extending my palm out. “Before we get snarky, let’s talk about what happened last night.”

“That doesn’t justify you lying to me,” James huffs.

“Then get mad at me, not Ace. If anything, you should be thanking him.” I point out.

“Oh, I am mad at you,” He sneers. “But, I’ll deal with you later.”

“Sure,” I shrug, knowing he wasn’t going to do much.

“Bennett told me everything,” James sighs and faces him. “Thank you for protecting my sister,” He goes on to firmly grip Ace’s shoulder in gratitude.

“However,” James says, shifting his attention back to me. “You could’ve at least answered my calls, I was worried sick and I couldn’t sleep all night.”

“Shut up, we both know you slept fine. From the looks of it, you probably just woke up.” I roll my eyes and call attention to his outfit.

“You’re one to talk,” He scoffs. “Have you even showered?”

I fold my arms into my chest and heave, “Yeah, well I was out all night. You’ve been home, yet you still look homeless.”

“Now’s really not the time to give me attitude, Jade.” He threatens.

We bicker a little more until Ace finally clears his throat, “Uh, I should probably get going. You two clearly have a lot to talk about.”

I stop arguing with James and my expression softens.

“Yeah, you probably should.” I breathe. “Thank you again for everything,” I smile and he gives me an assuring nod. I move forward to give him a hug, but he had his palm raised for a high-five. He awkwardly rubs his hand against his neck and I opt for waving him goodbye instead.

“Thanks, mate.” James pats the hood of his car and Ace drives off.

James reaches for the bag he dropped and tosses it by the curb to be picked up. Before he even realizes, I run to the front door to escape the lecture I knew was coming. He chases me into the living room, and I throw up another peace sign.

“Jade,” He berates.

“I’m sorry okay,” I express apologetically. “It wasn’t like I planned on staying over his house in the first place. It kinda just happened.”

I know James only wants the best for me, but sometimes he can get a little overbearing. Out of all the people in my family, I thought he would be the one to understand.

“I’m not mad you stayed over, Jade. I’m just disappointed you find the need to lie to me.” He explains.

“I’m sorry,” I say quietly.

“I’m not trying to lecture you, I’m just looking out for you.”

“I know,” I sigh, and walk over to hug him.

“You’re my little sister. Even though you’re such a pain, I could never let anything happen to you.”

That was the last thing he promised mom; he was always going to protect our family, and that’s what I love most about him. Even before, he’s always had such a protective mental outlook, and no one will ever safeguard us like he will.

“Thank you,” I break away, and he squeezes my bruised shoulder.

I clench my jaw, stopping myself from wincing. I smile harder to conceal the pain. If James finds out that Liam bruised me, I don’t know what would happen and I don’t want to find out.

“So, what did Liam say to you last night? Did he try to do anything?” He interrogates me.

“No, he was just really mad. That’s all,” I lie. “Ace stopped him before he could do anything to hurt me,”

“I never liked him. Good thing he moved to Liberty, who knows what I would’ve done if he stayed in Eastwood.” He punches his fist into his hand.

“Okay, Al Capone. We get the message and I’m sure he does too.” I joke. “I’m gonna go shower, clean the house up before dad arrives,” I yawn.

All three of my brothers whip their heads with their ears perked, “Dad’s coming home today?” They ask in unison.

“Yeah, didn’t I tell you guys the other day?”

“No?”

“Oh, then oops,” I laugh deviously and ascend the stairs, watching them scramble out of their seats to clean up.

***

The house sparkled by the time I finished ridding myself from any trace of last night. The three of them were pretty effective as a team, proving that they were more than capable of doing their own chores. They all retreat to the living area, with Jace and James playing video games while Jeremy sits on the side, focused on a mountain of homework.

I crash onto the sofa and lay vertically. With my head on one side, I stretch my legs out on top of both their laps. They start groaning, doing everything they can to shake my legs off. I counter by exerting more force onto my legs and go on to laugh at their failed attempts.

“Jade, your legs are so heavy,” Jace grumbles.

“Can you go be annoying somewhere else,” James whines.

“No,” I ignore both their pleas and continue scrolling through my phone. The more invested they got playing the game, the more they started to ignore my weight. We stay like this for over an hour until Jace’s bladder finally gives in.

“What time is it?” Jace asks.

“A little over five,” I check my phone to respond.

“Are you sure he’s coming home today? Not tomorrow?” Jeremy asks, finished doing all his work.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure. That’s what he told me at least.” I shrug. “Is anyone hungry?”

“Me,” They answer in sync.

“Okay, then go get food.” I laugh.

“You’re not funny,” Jace says, not amused.

I get up and skip to the pantry to retrieve a bag of chips. I tear the bag open in front of them purposely while they watch me devour a handful.

They reach their hands out, gesturing for some and I shake my head, “You guys didn’t want to get food so you can’t have any.”

Feeling bad, I end up passing the bag around anyway. Another hour goes by and we start doubting whether our dad was going to arrive tonight, until we hear the doorbell. We have a last-minute scan of the area, while his golden child goes to help open the door.

Parents like to say they don’t play favorites among their children. For our family, it was quite evident who the darling child was; Jeremy. The rest of us weren’t necessarily bitter from the fact that he was, but we did like to bring it up every time we were in a losing side of a disagreement. Dad would always try to justify it by saying Jeremy was the youngest, and therefore needed more attention and care.

My dad walks in with a suitcase in hand while Jeremy clings on to his briefcase. He lets out a sigh of relief when he sees us lined up with happy faces.

“Dad,” I squeal and run up to hug him. I exert too much force and he grunts.

“Missed you too, kiddo.” He chuckles. I let go to give Jace a chance to greet him.

Dad kneels to his level and gives him a hug. “Did they take good care of you? No parties?” He squints his eyes.

“Don’t worry dad, they took care of us the entire time.” Jace looks up at me and I wink at him. Dad then examines our faces, and both James and I throw our hands up in innocence.

“There’s my football captain,” Dad moves to high five James and rubs his knuckle against his head.

“How was Singapore?” I ask him.

“I spent the majority of my time working, so I didn’t really get to go sightseeing. The view from the office was just breathtaking.” He pauses. “We should all go down there next holiday.”

“You still owe Jace a trip to France,” I remind him.

“Did I say I’d take you?” Dad backtracks jokingly and Jace frowns.

***

The dining table explodes with laughter, and my heart swells seeing all the people I love happy. Each of them gleaming in joy that we were all finally together again, but my heart tightens knowing we will never be complete. I look up at the empty seat in front of me, and I’m overwhelmed with emotion.

Dad catches a glimpse of me looks at me helplessly. I smile, assuring him that he was doing a great job. Dad was the only one who never got to fully grieve. He knew he had to stay strong for us, he was our rock.

We often catch him talking to her on the mantel, pleading for her to come back and guide him. He could never admit that he struggles a lot with raising us, and so we do our best to assure him he’s doing an amazing job. He never wants to fail us, and neither do we want to fail him.

“I thought it would get better, but I just miss her more everyday.” I look up and they all watch me in sympathy. I step up from my seat and move to embrace my dad, “I don’t think we thank you enough for all the things you’ve done.”

He lets go of his fork and pats my arm, “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for all of you,”

Jeremy walks over to us and does the same, sniffling. I peer over to him, and he starts bawling. “What’s wrong?” I ask him.

“You’re making me feel bad for always asking dad to buy me new toys.” He says in between sobs and the room was instantly lifted. We laugh as my dad scoops to comfort Jeremy.

“Tell you what, we should all go down to the Dempseys tomorrow. You know, get a little bit of sunshine, and put ourselves out there again.” He suggests. “Get our mind off things a little,”

“They still invite us?” James asks, scooping his last bit of food. “We haven’t gone in so long, wouldn’t it be weird to just show up?”

“Alan actually gave me the idea when we bumped into each other at the airport. Their family would love to have us and celebrate both boys making the team.” He tells us.

“How convenient,” Jace comments, shaking his head.

“So, how about it?” Dad prompts cheerfully.

“Can’t wait,” I reply, trying to mimic my dad’s enthusiasm.

***

We all buckle up and I cradle the baked potato on my lap. Hopefully, no one slips up and mentions any of us attending a party, especially Rhett. Dad was a little bit more strict than mom. She was free-spirited and the life of every party, while he kept her grounded. They balanced each other out perfectly.

We sit in our usual formation, James up at the front with the rest of us at the back. I sit in between Jace and Jeremy, with each brother occupied by their own interests. I watch as Jace reads through the words on his Kindle intently with his brows furrowed. He has his head tilted down, pushing his glasses back up every time he turns a page.

“Doesn’t your head hurt reading a book in a moving car?” I ask him.

“No, not really. I’m used to it.” He replies.

“Aren’t you scared your eyesight might get worse?”

“I don’t think it can get any worse than this.” He jokes, pointing at his glasses without breaking away from the page.

I turn to face our youngest, and he had his new figurine clutched in the palm of his hand.

“Are you excited to see Miles?” I ask.

“I guess,” He responds.

Rhett had one younger sibling, Miles. He and Jace have a closer age gap, but shared more common interests with Jeremy. Jace was more on the introverted side, while his brother was the opposite. Jeremy thrived in seeking out adventure and challenging himself.

We arrive at the Dempsey household and Mrs. Dempsey ushers us in gleefully. Nothing much has changed since I’ve last been inside. The only noticeable alteration was the white suede carpet that coated the living room floor, replacing the gray one.

Walking further in, I can already smell the aroma coming off of the grill. Mr. Dempsey had his apron on like always, eyes focused on his cooking.

“Smells great,” My dad says, catching his attention.

“Jonathan,” Alan greets, placing the freshly cooked piece of steak on a nearby plate. He walks over to us and gives my dad a small pat on the back, “Glad you guys could make it,”

“We brought baked potato,” I smile.

“Come sit,” Alan beckons us, and we all follow him.

We take our seats outside on the cushioned wooden chairs, patiently waiting for everyone to come down. Rhett was tasked to buy some groceries, and should be arriving shortly. Their corgis, Bailey and Whiskey come running down, and Jeremy lights up in excitement.

“Be gentle, Jer.” I remind him, and he pats their head softly.

I look around to see Jace and Miles giggling over something next to the garden gnomes, and Mrs. Dempsey balancing plates by the table. I jump to help her set the table.

“Here, let me help you Lucia.” I offer, taking a few plates off her hands. We place them down and she clicks her tongue.

“Anything missing?” I ask.

“I left some napkins on the counter, do you mind fetching them for me dear?” She smiles warmly. I make my way inside, and try to recall which way to go.

My intuition leads me to the right place as I spot the orange napkins placed on top of the counter. I go ahead and grab a few more utensils in case there aren’t enough already. It always feels like an intense game of scavenger hunt trying to find things in other people’s kitchens.

The ruffling of a plastic bag from behind startles me, and I jump. I turn around to Rhett towering over me, his eyebrows furrowed in worry. I look up at him and he lets out a sigh of relief. He takes one big step forward, wrapping himself around me. He shifts his weight onto me and I stumble back against the counter which supported both of us from falling over.

“I’m so relieved you’re okay,” He mumbles. I break away from the hug and laugh.

“Why is everyone acting like it was a life or death situation,” I shake my head. “Everyone always underestimates how tough I am,” I huff.

“I tried to get to you that night, but you disappeared.”

“Don’t worry, Ace took care of me.” I assure him. He doesn’t know how to react with his face flashing both confusion and shock.

“That’s um, that’s good.” Rhett nods, trailing off. “Let me help you with that,” He diverts my attention to something else and escorts me into the yard. Our exchange was odd, especially on Rhett’s part but I shrug it off.

“Let’s start plating up.” Mrs. Dempsey claps. I arrange the bright colored napkins around the table, placing the extra cutlery on an empty plate by the side. Alan brings out the grilled meat with his chest puffed out, positioning it at the center of the table. Lucia walks over to kiss the cook, fittingly bringing to life the words sewed onto his apron.

We take our seats around the table, while my dad quietly explains to Jeremy why he can’t have Bailey sit on his lap. Mrs.Dempsey tries to sit across me, but Rhett gets her to swap seats.

“Rude,” I joke. He sticks his tongue out, and I do the same. He kicks my leg under the table and I gasp. Everyone at the table turns, and I disguise it as a yawn.

The smell coming off from the table was heavenly. The aromatic fusion of the food in front of us filled the air. My stomach grumbles as I wait for everyone to be finished plating up in courtesy. I feel Whiskey’s breath on my leg from under the table and carefully sneak a piece of my platter for him to snack on.

“I saw that,” Rhett says disapprovingly.

“A piece of grilled chicken won’t kill him,” I counter.

Taking turns, we share stories of our first week in Eastwood. Our dad’s were particularly invested in hearing about the football team, going as far as making them name all of the members to evaluate their potential.

“It’s a promising lineup,” My dad comments, taking a bite of salad.

“I don’t know about McClaren. Didn’t he injure his knee last season?” Alan opposes.

“McClaren’s back and better,” Rhett says confidently. “You can even ask the captain,”

James laughs to conceal his growing ego, “Yeah, he’s been doing great.”

“What about Wilde? I don’t think I know him do I?” My dad asks.

“No, he’s a transfer student.” I pipe in. “He’s a great addition to the team,” Memories of yesterday start swimming in my head and I take a sip of fresh orange juice to mask my smile.

Rhett notices my reaction, clearing his throat and keeping his eyes on me. “There’s definitely room for improvement,”

“Really?” I direct my question at Rhett.

“Really what?” He counters.

“Nothing, I guess I just don’t agree with you.” I shrug, stabbing my steak with a fork. I lock eyes with Rhett, challenging him.

“All this talk about football. Can we talk about something else?” Mrs. Dempsey prompts. I nod, throwing on a disingenuous smile at Rhett. He mirrors my smile and we both carry on eating.

Jeremy and Miles excuse themselves from the table, running around the yard vigorously. Bailey and Whiskey join them soon after and their shrieks of laughter can be heard all the way from across the yard and inside the house. They start an intense game of tag, with Jace tasked to catch them both.

Despite his valiant effort, Jeremy met defeat against his brother. Miles was yet to be tagged with Jace launching off at full speed, putting everything in just to catch him. Watching them play was like watching James and Rhett play when they were younger.

Miles starts speeding off directly towards us with no sense of direction and his face turned back at Jace. Lucia yells at him, but he doesn’t listen and crashes right into the table. The glass of orange juice slumps onto my chest and gushes down onto my lap. I gasp from the cold sensation on my stomach and leap out of my seat. Miles looks at me in horror and hides behind Mr. Dempsey.

“Miles!” Rhett exclaims.

“I-I didn’t mean to Jade,” He starts, eyes watering.

“Don’t cry,” I coax. I grab a napkin and start rubbing it against my dress. It didn’t help much, the damage had been done on my white dress.

“It’s okay. It was an accident,” I assure Miles.

“Oh honey, I’m so sorry.” Lucia puts her over her mouth.

“It’s cute. It’s like tie-dye.” I joke, trying to lighten the mood.

She guides me inside the house and tells Mr. Dempsey to clean up the shattered glass from the floor.

“Your dress can still be salvaged. I should have something for you to borrow first.” She nods. I smile at her generosity and follow her up the stairs.

I sit on the edge of their bed while she rummages through the depths of her drawers. I’ve only ever been inside their bedroom twice. The first time was when I barged in thinking it was the bathroom. She pulls out a dress similar to my size and hands it to me.

“I kept this as an homage to my teenage years,” She laughs, before pointing me to their bathroom.

I throw on the dress and it’s a little snug. Not that I was surprised, Lucia was known to keep fit and had a pretty petite figure. Imagine her dimensions at 18. She throws my stained dress into her laundry basket, insisting she take care of it.

We return to the table to see everything back to how it was. I check up on Miles to ask if anything hurt, but the kid was made of steel. He apologizes repeatedly, but I assure him it wasn’t a big deal.

Lunch wraps up and we all take part in helping carry the dishes out to the kitchen. I quietly walk down the hall, barely noticing Rhett’s shadowing figure next to me.

“That dress looks like it was made for you,” He smiles.

“What do you need, Rhett?”

“I’m serious,” He says, resting his palm on top of my shoulder.

“Ehem,” James clears his throat from behind. “What’s going on?”

Rhett quickly retracts his hand and looks away in fear of James.

“Nothing, Rhett’s just being weird.” I snort.

We stay at their house a little more with my dad and Alan discussing multiple topics ranging from high school football to politics. I shoot my dad a subtle look, prompting him to take us home. He ignores me and continues chatting away with the Dempsey’s. I’d text Nikki, but my phone was going to die and there was no way I wasn’t going to listen to music in the car.

After what felt like eternity, my dad finally gets up from his seat. He stretches his arms out a little, and relief washes over me. They call everyone down to the living area and we bid farewells.

“It was so great having you guys over,” Lucia chirps.

“Maybe dinner at our’s next time?” My dad proposes and she claps.

I peer over at Jace who was surprisingly not the one who initially proposed the idea of going home. He wipes the sweat off his forehead from all the running he would never have done if it wasn’t masked as a game of tag.

Rhett slides next to me, flashing me a bright smile, “See you tomorrow,”

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