Bart barely heard Abe talk about Phoebe’s plan to get him away from work for a quick holiday. He kept replaying Geraldine’s words, picturing the serious look on her face. He’d sat dumbfounded at her unexpected proposal, feeling the erratic beat of his heart pounding against his ribs.

The disappointment that flitted in her features when he didn’t and couldn’t answer made him grimace. But how did a man respond to a woman proposing to him?

“Are you even listening?” Abe’s deep voice broke through his thoughts and Bart blinked out of his daze.

“Yeah,” Bart answered, gaze listless.

Abe frowned. “Yeah to you listening or you agreeing to watch the kids while we’re away?”

“Huh?” Bart frowned. “Watch the kids for what?”

Abe scoffed, turning the family van onto their street. “Phoebe wants me to ask for a week off work. Says she booked some secluded mountain retreat for the two of us.”

“Nice.” Bart smirked, unbuckling his seatbelt. “She’s not giving up, is she?”

His older brother heaved a sigh, pulling into their driveway. “I just hope it works this time.”

The smile waned and Bart regarded Abe. “It bothers you, huh?”

Abe put the car in park. “When my wife’s growing more desperate to have kids and I can’t do a thing to help her… of course I’m bothered.”

Bart winced. “Abe…”

“Didn’t think we’d be one of those couples that have to depend on ovulation schedules. We’re young and she’s healthy. I just don’t get it.”

Bart watched Abe fighting back frustration. “You don’t need to act okay if you’re not. Especially not with me. I told you that before.”

“I know.” Abe sat back in his seat, his face taut with emotions he attempted holding back.

He thought back to when Abe and Phoebe lost the baby in their first year of marriage. And though Abe stayed strong to comfort his wife, Bart knew he hurt deeply. No doubt he blamed himself for causing Phoebe pain, and inadvertently gave in every time she grew desperate to have a child all the while keeping his own desperation concealed.

“There’s no shame in what you and Phoebe are experiencing,” Bart said in a calming tone. “Mom and Dad experienced a similar case before deciding to adopt. Maybe you—”

“We’re not adopting,” Abe cut in, his tone firm and unyielding.

Bart frowned but didn’t say anything yet.

Abe pushed opened the door. “Mom and Dad had no problem adopting you, me and Darah. We had no family. No one to look for us and demand us back. But Junior and Eli…”

Anxiety trickled down his spine and Bart sat up, all thoughts of Geraldine’s proposal forgotten.

“See Junior,” Abe continued. “He’s got relatives still alive and if he wants to, he could decide to accept them as family.”

Bart scoffed, for they both knew Clement had little love for whoever left him in the foster system.

“But Eli…”

He frowned; not wanting to imagine what would happen if their youngest was taken from them.

“Any of his family could come for him and—”

“What family?” Bart scowled at Abe. “And where was this so-called family when he was left in that crummy foster home as a baby?”

Morose, Abe regarded him. “It doesn’t matter if he’s curious about them, wants to know them. And if they want him back, we have no choice but to let—”

“He’s our brother, not some random kid!” Indignation swelled up inside him at the thought of Eleazar being forced to choose between them and a family who didn’t care he existed. He gritted his teeth. “It won’t happen.”

Abe shook his head. “I won’t put Phoebe through the added fear of losing another child or two.”

Bart remained seated, watching Abe duck out of the car and walk up the steps to their front door. In that moment, Geraldine’s shocking marriage proposal was overshadowed by the sick feeling of his family being separated.

When the door opened and a grim-faced Phoebe stepped out, Bart’s heartbeat jumped in alarm. He quickly left the car and hurried up the steps just as Phoebe spoke in hushed tones to his brother.

“What?” Bart demanded, joining them on the top step. His eyes bounced between the two, settling on Abe’s. “What is it?”

The look of pain on Abe’s face gripped Bart’s gut, made him imagine the worst.

“Is it Junior?!” he demanded. “What happened?!”

Phoebe touched his arm. “Keep your voice down. The kids will hear.”

He almost took a step back if not for Phoebe’s staying hand. He forced himself to breathe, his head pounding with all sorts of dark thoughts. “W-what is it? Is he…is he…?”

“It’s not Junior,” Phoebe said firmly, gripping his arm.

Though relief washed over him, Bart dared not blink. “Then what?”

A wrinkle marred Abe’s forehead and he swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing visibly. It would be hard for him to speak.

Impatient, Bart turned to his sister-in-law. “What is it, Phoebe?”

Phoebe glanced once at her husband before looking to Bart, sorrow tightening her features. “Uncle Harry came by with news… Eli’s maternal grandmother wants to meet him.”

Bart gaped at her in disbelief. “What?” he eked out, suddenly feeling lightheaded.

Abe caught Bart’s eyes, their worst fears realized.

Geraldine stared listlessly out the window, listening to the lazy pit-a-pat of the rain hitting the windowpane. Her mind replayed Bart’s baffled expression after she’d asked him to marry her.

He hadn’t say a word, instead jumping out of the car before she could offer him a ride home. She’d taken him by surprise, that much was certain, but Geraldine hoped she hadn’t scared him off. Everything depended on his answer, and she hoped it was a yes.

The door swung open and Geraldine shifted her gaze to the door, smiling at the sight of her little girl in her mother’s arms. She pushed to her feet and joined Yelena, opening her arms to accept the sleeping child. Her eyes caressed her daughter’s cherub face. She would do everything to protect her child, even if it meant giving up her pride.

Mija,” her mother’s soft voice made her look up to see concern etched on Yelena’s face. “You sure?”

Geraldine nodded without hesitation. “This is the best way, Mama…” Her gaze lowered to her sleeping daughter. “I’ll do anything to keep her safe and with me.”

Yelena breathed a heavy sigh. “And you’re sure he’ll say yes?”

This time, Geraldine paused in thought. She and Bart had always butted heads from the beginning because they were equally stubborn. There was always a case to contend with him, whether the shade of blue in his parents’ bathroom or the polish on the doors.

Bartimeus Teka was as hard-headed as she and convincing him to help her would be an uphill battle. She would have to yield more than once, divest her pride and plead for his help. But for some reason, Geraldine rejoiced that he was a stubborn man. Once he was firmly in their corner, Bart would undoubtedly defend them as he did his own family.

A warm shiver trickled down her spine at the thought of stalwart, unyielding Bart standing at her side.

Mija…”

Geraldine looked back at her mother. “For our sake, he’ll have to.” She had to marry Bart and soon.

Yelena eyed her warily, undoubtedly struggling to accept this crazy plan of hers.

“Mama, trust me. It’ll be okay.” She looked down at her daughter snuggled up against her and managed a smile. “It’ll be okay…”

“You’ll call him?”

She squelched down the wave of anxiety threatening to wash over her and lifted her eyes to Yelena. “He’ll call.” Her lips twitched a smirk, grateful that he was as predictable and he was stubborn. “The man won’t sleep until he does.”

Except the next morning rolled in and Bart didn’t call.

When she drove across the highway to his neighborhood, Geraldine did everything to keep her frustration and anxiety hidden. She couldn’t afford to annoy Bart and lose this once-in-a-lifetime chance. Pulling into their driveway, she scowled upon spotting him with Abe, both dressed for work.

Climbing out of the car, Geraldine told herself to remain calm. Walking up the path, she caught his eyes and heard him groan before he turned away. Irritation rushed to the surface as she plowed forward.

Abe glanced over his shoulder and gave her a gentle smile. “Hey Ger—”

“Wanna tell me why you’re ignoring me?!” Geraldine demanded with her hands at her hips.

Bart adjusted the sleeve of his well-fitted jacket. “Not now, Geraldine.”

She clenched her jaw. “A simple no would suffice, Bartimeus.” Except she couldn’t accept a no. “At least say something, anything. Just don’t brush me off. ”

Abe’s gaze volleyed between the two. “What’s… going on?”

Bart dragged a hand over his face and tugged on his goatee. “It’s nothing. Let’s go before my car gets towed.” His eyes skimmed over Geraldine before walking around her.

All reason flew out the window as Geraldine spun around to face him. “I think this is more important than your stupid car, Bartimeus!”

“Hold on,” Abe called to Bart, though his gaze remained on Geraldine’s face. “What’s going on?”

“We don’t have time for this nonsense!” Bart snapped. “Let’s go!”

His words felt like a slap across her face and Geraldine gawked at him. “Me proposing is nonsense?”

Bart grimaced as though realizing what he’d just said, but he didn’t take it back.

“So it’s a no?” she eked out, panic rising up her throat when Bart evaded her gaze.

“You proposed?” Abe inquired softly, confusion in his voice.

Geraldine swallowed hard. “Yes I asked him to marry me… and I guess his answer is no.” Tears filled her eyes, clouding her vision of him and her last chance at hope slipping away.

“You did what?!” Darah demanded a few hours after she’d come back from school, and the entire Teka clan sat in the living room. Her eyes flashed with disbelief. “Are you insane?!”

Abe, still wearing a perturbed expression on his face, sighed heavily. “Sit down, Darah.”

Darah whipped her glare at Abe. “And you let him?”

He frowned. “I can’t force him to accept her proposal.” As though the word sounded strange on his tongue, he shook his head, confused.

Phoebe clucked her tongue. “This all sounds so strange.”

Bart half-listened, replaying Geraldine’s indignation and teary eyes. The old Geraldine would’ve clunked his head for saying no. He frowned. No, the old Geraldine wouldn’t have asked in the first place. Something was off about it all.

“I thought after her husband passed she wouldn’t want to marry again.”

Darah scoffed. “Obviously she loves Bart enough to try marriage again.”

Bart gawked at his sister, hearing her statement clearly. “Huh?”

“It’s not that simple, Darah…” Phoebe glanced once at Eleazar who sat quietly with a contemplative expression on his face. Then she looked to Bart, eyes pleading. “You should find out what’s going on with her.”

“Like she’ll want to see his face now,” Darah scoffed, folding her skinny arms. She eyed Bart with open disgust. “Can’t believe you got a second chance and screwed it up. You’re hopeless.”

“Darah,” Abe warned in a low voice. Darah rolled her eyes but didn’t add another word.

Bart couldn’t agree more with Darah. He was a hopeless fool.

“There has to be a reason why after leaving an unhappy marriage, she would want another.” All eyes except Abe’s faced her in surprise. Phoebe sighed. “Something’s going on, Bart. Go to her.”

All the siblings watched as Bart stood quietly, no hesitation in his steps this time as he headed for the door. Waiting until they heard his engine roar to life and fade into the distance, Darah turned to her sister-in-law. “What did you mean? Geri wasn’t happy?”

“Was he a bad guy?” Eleazar asked with eyes wide with alarm. Abe slung an arm around his shoulders.

Phoebe sighed. “It’s a long story… one she’ll have to tell herself.”

<<Chapter 3 || Chapter 5>>

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