Bart frowned after Geraldine had paused to take a breath. “Let me get this straight… you told your in-laws that I’d asked to marry you?”

Geraldine didn’t say a word, wringing her hands in her lap.

He scoffed at her silence. “So what you told me was a lie?”

“It wasn’t a lie,” Phoebe inserted. “She just didn’t tell you the whole story.”

He spared Phoebe an exasperated look. “Omission is still lying. You say that all the time.”

She rolled her eyes. “Since when do you listen to me?”

Bart turned back to Geraldine. “Did it ever cross your mind that I’d want a say in all of this? That I’d want to pick the woman I want to marry? Who are you to decide that for me?”

Geraldine bit her lip. Phoebe sighed heavily. “Okay, enough. You can see she’s regretting it all but that’s not what is important. Are you gonna help us or not?”

“Us?” Bart echoed. “Since when did this become your problem?” At her pointed silence, he exhaled a harsh breath and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“You’re missing the point, Bart,” Phoebe spoke again. “It’s not like you’ll be getting married for real. All you have to do is pretend for a few weeks while her in-laws are visiting.”

Bart glanced once at Geraldine before looking to his sister-in-law. “Are you serious?”

Phoebe didn’t blink. “Yes.”

He shook his head incredulously. “This isn’t a game or some dumb romance movie, Phoebe. I refuse to lie about a relationship.”

“Even if you could save a family from being separated?” She arched a pointed brow, reminding him of the battle they’d faced through years ago to keep their family together.

His gaze drifted to Geraldine, struck by the tears that now streamed her face. His chest tightened at the sight and he wanted to go to her, wrap his arms around her.

“If her in-laws find any reasonable cause why Geri’s an unfit mother—”

“She’s a good mother. No one should doubt that,” Bart inserted firmly, his pulse jumping when Geri lifted tearful eyes to his face. He could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears.

“We know that,” Phoebe continued, her voice soft. “But it’s their dead son’s word against Geri’s.”

His jaw clenched tight, overwhelmed with anger and frustration. “Why didn’t you just tell me that from the beginning?” he demanded of Geraldine, annoyed that she didn’t trust him in the first place. “Why lie in the first place?”

“Now Bart—” Phoebe paused when Geraldine raised a hand to stop her.

Geraldine sniffed back the tears. “Would it have made your decision easier or harder to make?”

His expression darkened. “That was my decision to make, not yours.”

“Did you come over to accept my proposal?” she asked, voice strangely clear.

Convicted, Bart swallowed.

“Didn’t think so.” Geraldine heaved a deep sigh. “This is my fault. I should’ve known better than to ask you.”

He frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

She regarded him warily. “You never liked dealing with hard stuff. It’s not your style.”

He scowled. “Excuse me?”

“Three years ago, you wanted nothing more than to sell your parents’ house and go back to your easy, convenient existence in California. If Abe hadn’t insisted on you staying—”

“Stop it Geri,” Phoebe said firmly. “That’s uncalled for.”

“Isn’t it true?!” Geraldine demanded, eyes blazing.  “Tell me, if Abe hadn’t asked him to stay and help, would he be here?”

“Shut your mouth.” Bart stood, his teeth clenched, anger and indignation stirring within him. “You don’t know a thing about me.”

Fear flickered in her gaze but Geraldine averted her gaze and pushed herself to stand. “You’re right, I don’t know you. It seems I made a mistake getting you two involved in my problems.” She turned to Phoebe. “I should do this on my own.”

Standing, Phoebe frowned in concern. “Geri…”

“Thanks for offering to help, but this is something I need to do on my own.” Geraldine braved a smile. “She’s my daughter, and this is my fight. I have to face them on my own.”

Bart snorted in derision. “If you were gonna come to that conclusion, why make a fuss in the first place?”

“Okay, that’s it,” Phoebe grabbed Bart’s arm. She pushed him around the sofa and toward the front door. “Let’s go.”

Geraldine bit the inside of her cheeks, struggling to maintain a facade of bravery. On cue, the sound of a baby crying behind closed doors filled the silence. Grateful for the sound, Geraldine turned her back just as a lone tear slid down her cheeks.

Bart glared at Geraldine’s back as Phoebe shoved him out the door. He scowled when Phoebe smacked his arm. “What was that for?”

She glowered up at him. “Must you be such a jerk?!”

He squinted. “I’m the jerk when she’s the one—”

“She’s desperate, Bart!” Phoebe’s eyes were blazing with indignation. “She’ll lose the only person that matters to her. Can’t you see that?” She turned away in disgust and stormed down the driveway to her car, leaving Bart behind.

By the time he made it to work, Bart could barely concentrate on anything but Geraldine. Now that he knew the whole story, he kept replaying it in his head, growing all the more angry.

Barely coming to terms with her new status as a widow and soon-to-be mother, Geraldine received a divorce notice filed by her husband two months before his death, him claiming that Geraldine was lazy, disrespectful and could not properly fulfill her duties as a wife. Consequently, his parents demanded that she surrender her rights as Jozy’s guardian.

He clenched his jaw. The sorry excuse of a man dragged her name through the mud while abusing her in secret.

Bart frowned. But was it really in secret or did his parents choose to ignore their son’s monstrous behavior toward another human being?

A knock on his door removed him from his thoughts. He turned towards the door that swung open and frowned at the receptionist popped her head in.

With her managing five other real-estate agents in the office, the receptionist rarely stepped away from her desk except if… He glanced once at his desk phone and grimaced at the flashing light of missed calls.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, contrite.

She gave him a patient smile. “Your fiancée is here.”

Automatically he imagined Geraldine’s face and sat up. “What?”

“Kasey?” she raised both brows at him.

The name drew a frown on his face. “She’s here?”

“Yup. Should I let her in?”

The word ‘no’ was on the tip of his tongue but Bart nodded instead.

Summoned by the receptionist, Kasey sauntered into the office with a bright smile, dressed to the nines and fumigating his office with her expensive perfume. When he silently gestured for her to be seated, her smile dimmed slightly.

“You wanted to see me?” Bart asked nonchalantly, arms folded over his chest.

She pouted her rouge lips. “I was under the impression you would’ve missed me.”

He arched a brow. “Is that so?”

She tilted her head, confused. “You… don’t?”

Bart glanced down at the papers on his desk and frowned. Most of the day was spent thinking about Geraldine; he didn’t get any work done.

“Barty?”

“It’s Bart.”

“Pardon?”

He looked up. “It’s Bart. Not Barty.”

A scowl wrinkled her features. “You certainly didn’t have a problem before.”

“What are you doing here, Kasey?”

Her features softened as she stuck out her bottom lip. “Against my better judgment, I waited thinking you just needed time.”

“Needed time for what?”

She paused, taken aback. He’d always deferred to her, apologized first, and appeased her when she was upset. Why wasn’t he trying to appease her now? “What’s going on here?”

“You tell me.”

She blinked rapidly, summoning tears on cue.

Bart rolled his eyes. “Kasey, I have work to finish, so if–”

She sniffed, eyes swimming with unscheduled tears. Crocodile tears. “Why are you doing this?”

“Doing what? We broke up, didn’t we?”

Her eyes widened. “I didn’t think you were serious. You—”

“I meant it, Kasey. This,” Bart waved his hands between them. “It won’t work.”

“B-But…”

“Besides,” He bent to gather the papers on his desk. “I’m engaged.”

“… you’re what?”

Bart met her gaze and read the disbelief plain in her tear-filled eyes. Then her doll-like features hardened and he braced himself.

“You’re kidding me,” she gritted through clenched white teeth. “This is some sick joke, right?”

He sighed, awaiting the barrage of insults that were sure to follow.

“You certainly didn’t waste any time, did you?” Kasey continued, eyes flashing with rage. “Or was she some side chick you fell back on after I broke up with you?”

He should’ve stayed quiet, accepted the blame for being a cad. Instead, Bart gave vocals to the petty words in his mind. “Don’t misunderstand. I broke it off, Kasey. Not you.”

The storm raged in her eyes.”You self-righteous scumbag! How dare you do this to me?!” She grabbed the first heavy object on his desk and hurled it at him.

Geraldine squinted at the document on the computer; frantically searching for loopholes or anything else that could offer some hope. Now resolved to fight alone for custody with her vengeful in-laws, Geraldine desperately needed a solution. There wasn’t much time left.

“Found anything yet?” her mother inquired over her shoulder.

Geraldine shook her head and blinked quickly to focus. Pages of online documents about custody of children held little information relevant to her circumstance. Her in-laws chose to believe the lies of a dead man all because he was their son. She was the villain even though she had suffered under their son’s relentless abuse.

Her mother placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m praying. There will be an answer soon.”

Geraldine sighed. “Let’s just hope it’s an answer we want this time.”

Silence responded to her bitter tone but Geraldine refused to apologize. If God really cared, she wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.

“I’ll go check on Jozy.” Her mother squeezed her shoulder before stepping away.

Grunting her response, Geraldine closed yet another document. The throbbing in her temple intensified as the day turned to night and she groaned inwardly.

The doorbell rang, and rang again in quick succession.

Worried the obnoxious sound would wake Joselyn, Geraldine stood quickly rushed to the door. Seeing Bart’s profile in the peephole, Geraldine scowled.

He rang the bell again and she yanked the door open.

“Stop that—!” she hissed sharply when he turned his full face, revealing a bandaid above his left brow. Alarm chased away resentment. She grabbed his arm and pulled him inside. “What happened to you?”

“Accident,” he answered, his hand covering hers on his arm.

His touch gave her pause and she looked up at him. There was no trace of annoyance in his stare.

Then he smiled gently. “Alright Geraldine, let’s get married.”

<<Chapter 7 || Chapter 9>>

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