Hearing it the second time around didn’t make it less startling. Maybe even more so now that she leaned in close, her illuminous eyes gazing up at him. “Uh…” He shook out of his daze. “I don’t see how us getting married will do anything.”

“It’s like this; they claim that as a single mother who relied fully on her husband until his death, I am not a good candidate for raising my daughter. They feel that with them, Jozy will be the most cared for. They don’t believe Jozy can thrive in a single-parent home.”

“That’s nonsense!” Bart snapped in annoyance. “You’re a good mother. And yours raised you well enough on her own.”

Geraldine gave him a weak smile. “If I was married to someone stable, they won’t have any reason to dispute Jozy’s well-being. And in all honesty,” she said, her tone hushed. “I don’t want Jozy not to have the presence of a father in her life. I want her to know what a good father is.”

He stared as though horns sprouted on her forehead. “And you think I’ll be that guy?”

She nodded without hesitation. “I do.”

Her confident response made him pause, consider what she was saying. She wanted to marry again for the sole reason of providing a stable home for her daughter, one that would not be disputed by her in-laws or anyone else. She thought he would be a good candidate to provide that for her and Jozy, but for the life of him Bart couldn’t understand why. So he asked. “Why me?”

Exasperation flitted in her gaze. “Why not you?”

“Answer the question, Geraldine.”

She looked down, her lashes providing a shutter for her expressive eyes.  “Because I trust you.”

Warmth surged through him.

“And because you’re my friend and a good man.”

Her words doused the warmth he felt. He frowned. “What about love?”

Her head snapped up, panic lighting her eyes. “Huh?!”

Squelching the disappointment at her odd reaction, Bart shook his head. “I meant, don’t you want to marry for love?”

Her expression switched to derisive. “People don’t marry for love, at least they shouldn’t. I have no need for it.” She looked down, fondling the sleeve of her shirt.

“Abe and Phoebe married for love—”

“So will you marry me or not, Bartimeus?” she cut in, tone firm.

Bart stared, wondering if she would’ve still come to him if Abe had been single. It was an ugly thought but he couldn’t help it. Irritated with himself for thinking nonsensical thoughts, he rose. “I better go.”

“Bart.” She stood as he moved around the coffee table toward the front door.

“I’ll think about it,” he clipped out.

Geraldine was by his side when he pulled open the door. “How much time will—”

“I said I’ll think about it.” He cut her a severe look that made her step back, and Bart immediately regretted it. Softening his gaze, he sighed. “Let me have a day to think about it, okay?”

Geraldine resembled a fawn caught in headlights, her eyes wide and terrified.

Bart scolded himself for being short with her again; it was the reason she’d gotten entangled in this abusive marriage, because he’d been too much of a coward to share his feelings.

He started to reach for her when she flinched.

Brow furrowed, he pulled his hand back to his side. “If we’re gonna get married, you need to know I’d never lay a hand to hurt you or Joselyn.”

She hesitated briefly before nodding. “I… know.” Her eyes roved his face. “You’ll have to marry me so I can hold you to that promise.”

Solemn, he regarded Geraldine . She didn’t want a marriage of love but one of convenience for the sole purpose of protecting her child, while he’d never thought of marrying anyone except for love. Could he really devote the rest of his life being with a woman plagued by the ghost of her former marriage, knowing she would never allow her heart to heal and be loved?

“Bart?” she tilted her face inquisitively.

His eyes lowered to her full lips and imagined what kissing her would feel like; then he sobered, remembering her firm decision to be without love. Could he live in a marriage without intimacy, especially when he found her irresistibly attractive?

“Bartimeus.”

He snapped his eyes to her face. “Huh?”

She wrinkled her freckled nose. “I know it’s unfair asking you to give up your bachelor life to become a husband and father all at once.” She licked her lips. “And to someone who might never want anything but companionship from you.”

Bart fought a wince, her words confirming his fears. “Give me time to think, alright?”

Geraldine nodded. “I understand… Thank you, Bart.”

“I haven’t answered yet.” And Bart wasn’t sure what his response to her proposal would be.

She gave him a sad smile. “Even if your answer is no, I thank you for listening, for being on my side.”

He forced a nod. “Goodnight, Geraldine.” Then he turned swiftly before he could reach for her.

Touching her now would only confuse them both, especially when all she wanted was a knight in shining armor, not a flesh-and-blood male with physical and emotional needs of his own. She needed a selfless and stalwart protector for her and Jozy, but wanted nothing else that came with marriage.

Bart just wasn’t sure he could fit the bill, and that alone unsettled him on the quiet drive home.

Finding Phoebe and Abe kissing on the couch did nothing to ease his bad mood. He closed the door a bit firmer than usual, causing the couple spring apart. Phoebe stood from Abe’s lap, adjusted her top and hurried to meet Bart at the door. “What did she say?”

He glanced once at her before looking over her shoulder to Abe leaning back in the seat, resembling a satisfied man. If Bart married Geraldine, there would be none of that for him. He shook his head, growing more annoyed.

“Bart,” Phoebe buzzed around him. “What did she say?”

He dropped onto the couch and pressed his palms against his eyes. “She wants to get married.”

“Yeah, we got that part.” Phoebe perched on the coffee table. “But why?”

“Marriage of convenience.” The silence between Phoebe and Abe made Bart laugh mirthlessly. “Yeah, exactly.”

“What’s this about, Bart?” Abe inquired, resting his elbows on his knees.

Bart hesitated, not wanting to divulge Geraldine’s problems with his brother and sister-in-law.

Phoebe brushed Abe’s question aside. “What are you thinking?” she asked Bart, eyes exploring his face for the answer.

“I don’t know what to think,” Bart answered, rubbing his eyes. “I mean a quick wedding’s already shocking enough, but marrying like this… I don’t know.”

“Is she… in trouble?” Phoebe inquired quietly. Her keen sense of reading a situation was certainly working tonight and Bart was grateful for it.

Bart nodded. “An understatement.”

Abe whistled under his breath. Phoebe sighed.

He leaned his head back and dragged both hands over his face. “I don’t know what to do.”

And the fact that Bart seemed stressed about the issue, Phoebe looked over her shoulder at Abe as though asking for permission. They shared a look that only a married couple would understand; her wanting to do something and he cautioning her to be careful. She nodded, expression pensive.

Abe eyed his wife, imagining the million wheels turning in her head. Three years and counting, he’d learned not to stop her from interfering—it was her God-given way of caring for those she loved. And although it often got her into trouble, this time Abe would have to let her handle it for Bart’s sake. He hadn’t seen his brother this troubled since their parents’ passing.

He pushed to his feet and moved to Bart’s chair. Clapping a shoulder on his brother’s shoulder, Abe nudged him. “Go get some sleep. The issue will be here in the morning.”

“That’s the problem…” Bart mumbled, hands over his face. “The issue won’t go away except if I say yes.”

Phoebe and Abe exchanged worried glances, and then Phoebe sighed. “Don’t make any rash decisions tonight, Bart. Take a breather, pray on it and then decide tomorrow.” Again Abe gave her a cautionary glance to back off and though she rolled her eyes, Phoebe relented.

When Bart grunted his goodnight and trudged up the stairs to his bedroom, Phoebe rose to her feet; both she and Abe watching Bart climb the steps like a dead man walking.

“A marriage of convenience?” Abe breathed incredulously.

“With the chemistry those two have, that’s impossible.” Phoebe shook her head. “Something’s up.”

Abe’s hand cupped the sensitive part of her neck, kneading the tense muscles there. “Don’t get too involved,” he muttered, translating the firm looks he gave her earlier.

She leaned into his chest and tilted her face to him. “Even if it’s for their benefit?”

He gave her an exasperated look. “We both know what happens when you do things for the benefit of others.” He kissed her mouth to soften the impact of his words.

Phoebe snorted derisively and lifted a hand to smooth the crease of his brow. “Same goes for you, Mr. Teka. Let’s sleep on the subject till morning.”

His lips twitched a smirk. “I’m sure you’ve already planned how you’re gonna tackle the subject. Why wait till morning?” his hands slid down her back and parked on her hips.

She fought a laugh. “Don’t act like you’re not gonna stay up all night with me thinking about it.”

“We’ll be staying up all night, but not for that.”

Phoebe laughed. “You rasca—ee!” She squealed as Abe lifted her up in his arms and she buried her face against his shoulder.

“You’ll wake the kids!” Abe hushed her all the while trying to hold back his laughter.

Phoebe’s giggles were muffled against his shoulder as Abe carried her upstairs to their bedroom.

Bart stood on the other side of his bedroom door, and shook his head as Abe and Phoebe tried to muffle their giggles from the adjacent wall. He walked up to his bed, replaying all that Geraldine had told him. She had every right to lock her heart away from feeling again, and though she said she trusted him, Bart knew it wasn’t fully.

He lay back and stared at the ceiling until he fell into a fitful sleep filled with thoughts of Geraldine, her daughter Joselyn, and what decision would be right for the three of them.

Mija, watch what you’re doing!” Yelena shouted in their native tongue from across the room, jerking Geraldine from her reverie.

Geraldine swallowed a gasp at the fish sizzling on the grilled pan. Quickly turned it over, she made a face at the encrusted skin.

“You probably burned it.”

“I didn’t burn it, Mama,” Geraldine protested in return. “Not completely…” she mumbled in English, scraping the burnt parts stuck to the pan.

“I heard that.”

Geraldine smirked. “What happened to watching those silly cartoons Jozy likes?”

“Jozy wanted to watch Mommy cook—“

The doorbell rang and Geraldine’s heart dropped to her stomach. Bart. She dropped the spatula and started for the door.

Mija, the fish!” Yelena rose, propping Jozy on her hip and shuffled to the kitchen. Clucking her tongue, she turned it off and turned, frowning at Geraldine standing at the door. “Open it.”

Geraldine swallowed hard, hand hovering the doorknob. “What if he says no?” She didn’t want Bart to say no, wouldn’t know how to take it if he rejected her proposal.

“Then we’ll figure something else. Open it.”

The doorbell rang again and Geraldine straightened, blew out a breath and slowly opened the door. Her brows shot up in surprise when it wasn’t Bart but his sister-in-law that stood in the doorway. “Phoebe…”

Phoebe didn’t smile in welcome. “Morning. Let’s talk.”

<<Chapter 5 || Chapter 7>>

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