Phoebe’s words echoed in his head as he drove the short distance to Geraldine’s house, battling disbelief and regret at the thought of Geraldine in an unhappy marriage. It made him dislike her dead husband more than he already did. He pulled up into her driveway and wasted no time stepping out.

Her sedan was parked beside the old truck she used to drive to their house three years ago. The familiar sight made him pause at the doorstep, wondering what would’ve happened if he hadn’t left things unsaid between them.

The front door opened and Bart peeled his gaze from the truck to the door. Yelena squinted at him through the narrow crack of the door, the woman showing no intention to invite him in.

He cleared his throat. “Hola, Mrs. Pena, yi—”

“I speak English,” the woman answered in a no-nonsense tone.

Bart nodded with relief, his Spanish embarrassingly-rusty. “Hello… uh, is Geraldine home?”

Yelena regarded him for what seemed like eternity before pulling the door wider. “In the study.”

With another jerky nod, Bart stepped into the house. The sweet aroma of cheese and pork tickled his nostrils, and although he’d just eaten a scrumptious dinner courtesy of Phoebe, his stomach growled in anticipation to taste.

A baby’s cry pulled him back to the matter at hand and he followed the sound to the study, for he’d never been in Geraldine’s home before. He didn’t have time to marvel at the sturdy wooden floors or the warm colors painting the walls, adorned with family pictures. Turning the corner, letting the baby whines be his guide, he stumbled on a striking scene that arrested his steps.

Geraldine sat while cradling her baby girl close, humming a melody to soothe her. Her short hair covered part of her face but Bart could see the serene smile on her lips as she gazed down at her child. The little girl looked cross-eyed as though fighting sleep, her hand curled in a tiny fist, resting on her mother’s bosom.

Bart wanted to pull out his phone and take a picture to remember this moment forever. That thought alone rocked him off-kilter and he took a step back, shoulder bumping the side of the door.

The sound lifted Geraldine’s head and her smile froze, doleful eyes staring at him.

Too late to run now, Bart gave her a wobbly smile. “Hey…”

She didn’t smile back and instead looked down at her baby girl who was now staring at Bart. Geraldine sighed. “She’s been agitated since I got back.” Her voice was gravely as though she’d been screaming for an hour straight, or crying. Because of him.

He winced. “Can we talk?”

For a moment there, Bart expected her to ask him to leave. He prepared himself for her sharp rejection, knowing he deserved it and more for not allowing her the chance to explain.

Geraldine brushed a hand over Joselyn’s hair and slowly stood. “Wait for me in the living room. I’ll give her to Mama first.”

Bart nodded and stepped aside as Geraldine walked past, leaving a becoming scent of lavender and baby. As he followed her down the hallway, Bart realized that he preferred the simple and un-fussy quality of Geraldine. She didn’t wear exotic perfumes that could damage one’s sense of smell or wear uncomfortable shoes that made her walk like a newborn calf. No, in every way Geraldine epitomized a woman a man would be proud to call his, and she was a good mother too.

Once she passed a drowsy Joselyn to her mother, Geraldine turned and pinned him with her brown eyes. “You don’t listen very well, do you?”

He flashed her an unrepentant smirk. “Since when did I ever listen?”

She didn’t take the bait, staring with a straight face until his smile faded. Then with a sigh, she gestured to the living room.

Bart watched her walk around the sofa, her shoulders bent in defeat. Then he moved to the chair she offered and sat, facing her.

Geraldine leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, eyes on the coffee table and not on him. Behind them, Yelena took up the duty of putting her granddaughter to sleep, mumbling the same melody Geraldine hummed in the study.

Bart didn’t take his eyes off Geraldine, noticing for the first time the lines around her mouth and lining the corners of her eyes. Though she was physically beautiful, Bart knew something had aged her. He cleared his throat. “I’m ready to hear it now, if you’ll tell me.”

Her eyes didn’t move from the coffee table. “Thought it was nonsense.”

“I apologize for saying that.”

This time she looked up, not accustomed to him apologizing.

Bart wanted to laugh aloud; what a stubborn pair they were. He didn’t laugh though, not when she looked so serious.

Geraldine frowned. “So you’ll marry me then?”

He squelched the wave of panic that rushed over him. “Why don’t we discuss why you want to marry me first?”

Something unreadable flickered in her eyes and she lowered her gaze.

Bart shifted in his chair, fighting the urge to reach for her shoulders, to make her look at him.

“Three years ago, my only living grandmother passed…” she began in a hushed tone. “We usually spend the holidays with her and this last one, I barely saw her before she died. I was devastated and so was my mom. She hurt so bad and I didn’t want to make things worse.” She shrugged. “I was foolish and desperate, feeling alone in my grief. I didn’t know how to express the emptiness that I felt… so I just kept it in.”

He marveled silently how very different Geraldine was to Kasey although both were the only children of their parents. Geraldine was self-sacrificing and generous where Kasey was self-seeking and critical.

“Then I met this guy.”

Bart frowned.

“He was attentive; listened when I spoke, didn’t judge me when I went into one of my moods… y’know how I get.” Geraldine didn’t look at him when she said that, as though she figured he’d judge her.

Bart only felt shame for himself. He’d pushed her away and into another man’s arms.

She sighed, drawing back his attention. “My mom said it was too soon, that I was acting out of grief and needed to deal with it properly. All I knew was he made me happy and wanted. I didn’t have anything waiting for me back here so when he proposed marriage, I didn’t hesitate.”

The words felt like blows to his ears and heart, accusing him of treating her like a foe rather than the friend she’d come to be during those long days and nights arguing over the perfect shade of paint for the walls or the right size of tiles for the bathroom. He’d enjoyed her wit almost as much as he did her sharp tongue. Sure they’d fought like cat and dog, but Bart always looked forward to seeing her, talking to her, fighting with her.

“The first few weeks were fine,” Geraldine continued. “The honeymoon stage always is.”

Her tone had changed; less wistful and more exacting.  Bart sat up, reminded by the startling indication that Geraldine’s short marriage was anything but happy.

“But that’s what happens when you marry before really knowing that person, before becoming that person’s friend. The things that a friend could overlook in you, a stranger will hate with his very soul.” Geraldine licked her dry lips. “That was my husband in summary. He hated that I challenged him, told me shut up more times than I’d ever heard in my life. At first, I was shocked that this wasn’t the man that pursued me when we dated. But now I know my desperation to belong, to find comfort and refuge in someone, had blinded me to what was plainly there. He hated being challenged, being disrespected, being questioned. It just simply wasn’t done.”

Bart could feel rage rising within and he gripped his fists. “Did he hit you?”

Her silence was loud enough and he whispered an expletive, angry that she’d allowed herself to marry such a man and stayed even after finding out what a monster he was.

Geraldine looked up, sorrow in her eyes. “Yeah I know. The dumbest thing I’ve ever done.”

He scowled. “Geraldine…”

She held up a hand. “My mom begged me to leave, said it wasn’t worth it… but you know how I get.”

“Most stubborn person I know,” he said through clenched teeth. She’d probably stayed to prove to herself and anyone else that she could make her useless marriage work. He muttered another curse.

“I tried to be more subservient, hoping he’d just calm down and be normal again.”

His scowl darkened. “You, subservient?”

Slighted, she cut him a glare. “It worked… for a few months.”

Bart scoffed in disgust. “There’s nothing normal about a man who beats his woman, Geraldine.”

“I thought that maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. Maybe there was some pride in me that challenged him without me knowing it did. I tried everything from being quiet for weeks to apologizing for everything, but even the sight of me made him so angry.”

Never before had Bart wanted to drive his fist into the wall. He wished to conjure up this deceased husband of hers and beat him to death again.

“Then I got pregnant.”

He stiffened.

“So I started to pray again. Hadn’t done it in a while.”

Bart looked at her, frowning. “Pray for what?”

“Anything. I don’t know.” She lowered her head but not before Bart saw tears pools there. “I didn’t tell him about the baby, too afraid of what he’d say, what he’d do.”

Bart couldn’t look away; gone was the strong and self-assured Geraldine and in her place sat a terrified woman shaking in her chair. He wanted to go to her but feared his touch would invoke more painful memories of what that coward did to her.

“At some point, I started praying for death.”

A cold shiver trickled down his spine. He couldn’t fathom it; Geraldine dead? Bart shook his head.

She sniffed. “And then he went away on a business conference trip. Didn’t tell me where but I knew the truth, knew what he was doing.”

Bart’s face tightened. “Was he cheating?”

Geraldine shook her head adamantly. “He barely had time to deal with me. But his work was practically his first wife and often the cause of our many arguments… He got caught up in some get-rich-quick pyramid scheme and I was afraid for him and our family.”

“Rightfully so,” he forced out, getting all the more furious.

She was quiet then, eyes glued to his hands. Bart quickly loosened them. “Then I got the news,” she breathed out as though from relief. “His boat had capsized somewhere south and he plus his employees were missing. For days, we waited for news, for his body, anything. I couldn’t eat or sleep, consumed with waiting for him, for anything. I hated myself for praying—“

“You did not pray for your husband’s death, Geraldine.”

She looked up at him now, guilt plain in her eyes. “I did, Bart. Even though I prayed it would be me, I wished it would be him. And God answered me.”

He scowled. “Stop it. God doesn’t cause people to die on account of others. You know this, so stop that nonsense talk.”

Geraldine sniffed. “His parents blamed me for pushing him to go on the trip. Said he’d been overwhelmed with the added responsibility of taking care of me, a college dropout who could barely speak the language and only caused him grief. They said he’d died trying to make me happy.” She let out a mirthless laugh.

Rage shook his inner-most being. “Don’t tell me they didn’t know what he’d done to you.” His scowl darkened. “You didn’t tell them?!”

She eyed him warily. “What mother wants to hear that her son was a wife-beater at his funeral?”

“So you quietly accepted guilt that wasn’t yours to bear?” Bart could barely mask his anger, it was suffocating him. To think that for three years he lived ignorant of Geraldine’s pain made him furious.

“It was all talk, Bart. He was the one that hurt me and he was gone.” She shrugged. “I figured their words couldn’t hurt as much.”

“Geraldine,” he forced out, impatient with her illogical reasoning. “They marred your character after their son tried to destroy you. That is not okay.”

She sighed heavily. “Which brings me to the next part.”

He stared in disbelief. “What could be worse than that?”

She snorted mirthlessly. “You have no idea.” Her face straightened. “They didn’t think I could raise Jozy well, questioned me as a mother since I was such a rotten wife.”

“They’re one to talk, after raising a monster.” He wished he could meet and call them out for blaming Geraldine,their son’s victim, and causing her unnecessary drama. “Someone needs to let them know the truth.”

“See?” Geraldine breathed, awe in her eyes. “That’s why I need you, Bart.”

He blinked; the look in her eyes and the thought of her needing him causing his brain to short-circuit. “Huh?”

Fat tears slid down Geraldine’s cheeks and she made no move to wipe them away. “Help me keep my child, Bart. Marry me and help me protect Jozy.”

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