Darbie's Secret

Alexio Dallorto was literally the poor step child. His status became reality when his widowed mother, Marie, married her boss Howard Howell a few years after Mr. Howell became a widower.

Mrs. Dallorto was the Howell family housekeeper for years, living with her quiet son Alexio in the small apartment over the Howell's garage but all that changed when she married Mr. Howell and moved into the 'big house'.

Alexio moved into the big house too, getting his own bedroom on the second floor with the two Howell children, Darbie and Eddie.

But as Eddie was quick to point out: "You can move the housekeeper's son out of the garage… but that didn't make you a Howell."

Alexio was treated as the poor step child by Eddie and, to a lesser extent, Darbie, both of whom resented having an extra sibling added to the mix.

Alexio looked nothing like a Howell, of course, dark skinned with the hint of an accent picked up from his full Italian mother, with a black curly mess of a hairstyle on the top of his head while the two Howell siblings were light and blond.

Because the Howell kids went out of their way to make sure Alexio remained a second class citizen, their peer group refused to accept Alexio as well. In fact, that peer group ridiculed Alexio for not living up to his name.

Alexio, they claimed, was supposed to be a smart hot athletic Italian stud known for dating older women but, unfortunately for him, Alexio Dallorto met none of those characteristics.

Alexio Dallorto was an average looking non-athletic kid who struggled to maintain a B average. He wasn't popular with the girls let alone with his own siblings and he was ostracized by the Howells and their friends because of his less than acceptable status.

Mr. Howell barely gave his step-son the time of day and Alexio often wondered why his mother married the man - until he noticed the new dresses and jewelry she was wearing and how she never wore her housekeeping uniform anymore even though she continued with most of the same chores and requirements as the new Mrs. Howell as she had when she was Mrs. Dallorto, the housekeeper.

Eddie and Darbie didn't complain about their former housekeeper's new status. They knew that Marie (as they called her now) was a fantastic cook and an excellent housekeeper and they now had a buffer in the house to help deflect some of their father's controlling behaviors and demanding expectations.

The first Mrs. Howell had been dead for nearly five years now and Alexio barely remembered his own Dad who died when he was five.

It was the first Mrs. Howell who hired Mrs. Dallorto to work for the family and while the Dallortos were considered separate but equal living above the garage, Alexio remembered the first Mrs. Howell as a nice lady who showed him kindness and included him in some of the family's activities, although he always knew his place, especially when Mr. Howell was home.

Eddie was a lot like his father - driven, intense, preoccupied, competitive, egotistical and aloof and Alexio had little to do with him. They certainly weren't brothers in any measure of the word and Alexio learned to avoid Eddie as much as he could and to never challenge or confront him.

Eddie looked a lot like his father too- the same blond hair and brown eyes, the square chin, the frowning eyes, the straight mouth. Mr. Howell had a booming voice and after his first wife died he became more demanding and less compassionate, bitter at the world.

Darbie liked to think she looked like her mother. She wasn't as hard edged as her brother but she worried about her looks and her image. She had sympathy for her step-brother because he had lost his father and she had lost her mother and that had given them an unspoken linkage and commonality but Darbie never talked to Alexio at school and most kids beyond the Howell circle of friends were unaware the two were step-siblings.

Eddie and Darbie were honor roll students and there were times at home, with a little prodding from Marie, when Darbie helped Alexio out with his homework.

There were family rules to follow and the three kids (and Marie) knew that they were expected to follow them at Mr. Howell's insistence least they risk his wrath. Mr. Howell could get angry in a flash, often over small annoyances and unnoticeable affronts.

Dinner at six - everybody at the table, no exceptions - although Eddie was excused for sports practices. Mr. Howell would quiz the kids on events of the day or confront them on political discourse and opinion (never disagree with Mr. Howell's stance) during the evening meal.

Alexio remained the outsider at the table two years after his mother married Mr. Howell and he learned to speak only when spoken too. The house was more relaxed when Mr. Howell wasn't home and noticeably tenser when he was.

The Howell abode was a large modern well-furnished and decorated house, comfortable in its appearance. Alexio knew it beat the small apartment over the garage with the one bedroom where Alexio's mother slept on the old living room couch for years.

Mr. Howell was preoccupied with running his company - including many business trips for meetings and conventions - and he left the running of the family to his second wife, unless he was home and he'd pull rank when he felt compelled to confront one of the kids or drop some law and order for no other reason than he could.

Alexio was the sensitive one. He defended his mother when his step-father was being particularly unfair or demanding. Alexio became aware of Darbie's anxieties and he had a knack for running interference and defecting some of Mr. Howell's wrath or displeasure to spare Darbie.

In the two years since he had moved into the house, Darbie recognized Alexio as an uncommon ally, even though she ignored him at school. There were times when Alexio would come to her room when he knew she was pissed off or upset at her father and he'd distract her by asking for help with his homework or telling her about a movie he had recently seen.

There was one particular night when Darbie got yelled at by her father for nothing important and Alexio found her sitting in one of the (three) cars in the garage, sulking and crying. She was annoyed when her step-brother joined her, violating her space and privacy and she told him to get lost but instead Alexio moved closer and gathered her into a tight hug.

"It's okay," Alexio whispered, brave enough to stroke her hair.

He half-expected her to slap his arm away and go off on him - Darbie was dating preppy Elton Edwards of the prestigious Sun Rise Lake School for Boys after all -but instead Darbie sobbed hard into Alexio's chest and she let him continue to brush his hand through her long brown hair.

After a few minutes of crying, Darbie leaned back and looked at him.

"I'm sorry you're sad," he said knowingly.

"Just hold me," she requested, so he did.

Alexio knew better than to say anything to anybody about those special private moments between him and Darbie. Eddie would go ape shit and Mr. Howell would probably kick the pervert out of the house (back to the garage at best - out of town at worse).

Alexio didn't want to make things hard for his mother who didn't deserve to live in a garage either – so he kept Darbie's secrets.

On another night, after her father had complained all through dinner about the credit card charges Darbie had racked up on her various trips to the mall, Alexio sneaked into Darbie's bedroom late.

"What are you doing here, Alexio?" Darbie asked, still upset at her father.

She was sitting on the bed with her phone in her hand. Alexio sat on the bed next to her, pulling her into an embrace and slowly rocking her.

"I just wanted to make sure you're alright," he said, hugging her tight.

"I'm fine," she insisted.

"No you're not," Alexio replied.

"You always think you know me," she said with annoyance, shoving him away.

"Don't I?" He asked gently pushing her back on the bed and laying next to her, each of them on their sides facing each other. He wrapped his arms tightly around her waist.

"Elton will kill you," Darbie warned, pressing her body into his.

"You're worth dying for," Alexio grinned.

"Get out of here," she ordered with a giggle, giving him a jolt strong enough that he almost fell off the bed.

He grinned but he did as she asked and Darbie was smiling as she watched him go. She admired Alexio's bravery and confidence, his willingness to break the rules and boundaries to show her some attention and affection in a way a step-brother really shouldn't.