Geraldine hesitated stepping out of the comfort of her bedroom. Last night, Joselyn’s night terrors had saved her from spending another awkward moment with her in-laws. She felt bad that her baby still cried through the night, but if it prevented her from watching her mother-in-law’s resentful glares or her father-in-law’s probing stares, she was relieved to retreat to her room to take care of Joselyn all night.

Now, her daughter and mother were on the other side of the door and she could hear stilted conversation in Spanish. She’d stalled as long as she could in her bed, contemplating what to do with her in-laws and Bart for a week! More so than her in-laws, Bart was becoming a challenge for her. He didn’t stick to the script and she needed him to stay focused.

When Joselyn giggled aloud, Geraldine shook out of her reverie, took a deep breath and pulled open the door. “Good morn…” her greeting died down when she spotted Bartimeus holding Joselyn at his hip, playing with her.

Behind him, her mother Yelena watched with gentle amusement while their in-laws looked as perturbed as she felt. Geraldine blinked and turned back to Bart. “What are you doing here?”

Bart looked up at the sound of her voice and grinned. “Good morning, love.”

His grin and the gently-spoken endearment hit her square in her gut. How could he say those words so freely? And why did he look so comfortable holding Joselyn? And why was Joselyn not squirming as she usually did with strangers?

Joselyn whimpered and wriggled in Bart’s arms and Geraldine sagged with relief. Good. She started toward him, hands out to take her daughter from him.

Then Bart made a funny face and her daughter giggled, causing Geraldine to freeze in her tracks.

Her mother moved from around Bart, a knowing twinkle in her eye. “Come help me with breakfast.” She turned to the in-laws, Geraldine having forgotten they were there in those few moments, and asked what they’d like to eat.

The mother-in-law didn’t say a word, her fierce glare directed at Bart’s back. The father-in-law entreated Yelena for coffee only and averted his eyes from Bart and Joselyn, as though unable to watch this strange man charm his dead son’s daughter.

Geraldine cleared her throat and stepped in close. “I should feed her,” she said pointedly, giving Bart a look that would tolerate his protest.

He merely smiled and placed a kiss on Joselyn’s cheek before relinquishing his hold of her. Joselyn came willingly into Geraldine’s arms and snuggled in her bosom. Bart slowly lifted his gentle gaze from Joselyn to Geraldine. “You slept okay?”

Geraldine refrained from rolling her eyes. Although it was a show for her in-laws, even she was getting as unsettled as they were. “Fine. You?”

“Yup, not bad at all.” His lips twitched a smirk. “Just thought I’d stop in and properly introduce myself to your in-laws.”

“We see you already yesterday,” her mother-in-law said in English. She ignored her husband’s nudge and frowned at Bart. “You live close here?”

Bart turned to face Geraldine’s mother-in-law. “Yes, in fact, we live a few blocks from each other. My family and I live in the same neighborhood.”

The older woman’s face darkened as his words dawned on her and she jerked her glare to Geraldine. Bart subtly moved so Geraldine was shielded from her glare.

“Actually, my other reason for coming was to invite you to dinner at my place tonight.”

Geraldine gaped at him. Yelena peered from the kitchen and the in-laws stared in silence.

Bart grinned. “My sister-in-law, Phoebe, loves to entertain. And since Geri and I haven’t yet celebrated our engagement,” he glanced over his shoulder at Geraldine. “They want to combine it into a night affair.”

A-affair?” the mother-in-law eked, eyes wide. The father-in-law frowned at the connotation.

Yelena laughed and quickly translated for the in-laws since Geraldine’s tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. Then she turned to Bart with a grateful smile over their heads. “Thank you, Bart. That is a wonderful idea, right?”

Geraldine blinked out of the daze and met Bart’s expectant gaze. She didn’t know whether to throttle him for going ahead of her or hug him for accepting responsibility for her.

He smiled. “Her silence means yes.”

She scowled. Throttling him was a better idea.

Yelena chuckled. “Geraldine, you better stop that before Joselyn picks it up too.”

Geraldine glanced down and saw that Joselyn was in fact mimicking her frown at Bart who mirrored her expression also! She choked a laugh and smoothed her daughter’s brow, her annoyance easing away. “Fine.”

“Not fine!” the mother-in-law barked, standing to her feet. She swung a seething look at Geraldine whose smile faded. Then she glared at Bart before storming off in a huff.

Her husband had the decency to look chagrined as he too stood. “Sorry. I speak to my wife,” he said in his awkward English and hurried after her.

Yelena clucked her tongue in disapproval, muttering something under her breath before she turned back to the kitchen.

Even Bart looked chagrined. “Too soon?”

Though she was annoyed by his presumption, Geraldine was grateful for his presence nonetheless. “She’ll be fine…”

“Your father-in-law seems nice.”

She shrugged. He’d been silent even though he knew about his son’s misgivings, while her mother-in-law directly accused her of making her son unhappy. Whether or not they seemed harmless to the rest of the world, Geraldine had suffered in their household and she was a long way from forgiving them.

“Geraldine…”

She looked up and met his dark eyes. Ignoring the hitch in her pulse, she raised both brows in silent question.

“Phoebe wants to have you guys over tonight. We all need a little cheering up after yesterday.” A flicker of pain crossed his features and Geraldine felt inclined to reach for his hand. He smiled when her fingers closed around his. “You’re not hesitant now, are you?”

She rolled her eyes and tugged his hand. “What happened after you got home?”

He winced. “Eli had an attack…”

Alarm gripped her insides. “Is he okay?” she eked out. Eleazar was prone to panic attacks when he was just a child, but she hadn’t been around in a while to know if it was still prevalent.

Bart dragged a hand over his face. “I would be lying if I said he was. The house feels so stifled, like the day we were altogether and without our parents…”

She swallowed hard, the memory of those days still painful. She’d been close to his parents; Yonas and Ester Teka were like her second parents–Yonas was the father she never had. He’d taken her under his wings, teaching her about interior and exterior design, encouraging her to hone her skills. He and Ester fostered her as their own whenever her mother had to travel overseas to be with her ailing mother. .Just remembering the kind couple brought tears to her eyes. She still missed them.

“Geraldine…”

She blinked the tears away and met his tender gaze. “I’m sorry.”

He smiled gently. “I forgot that you were close to them.”

She shrugged. “What will you do about the woman?”

His smile waned and he heaved a sigh. “No idea. I think for now, we’ve discouraged her from approaching us like that again… but who’s to say she won’t try to approach Eli alone?”

Fear tightened her gut and she gaped at him. “She wouldn’t dare.”

Bart’s expression turned fierce. “She better not.”

Joselyn whined then and both looked down to see the toddler attempting another frown. The two chuckled and Geraldine smoothed her brow once again.

“We better be careful around this one,” Bart said with a boyish smile.

Geraldine nodded and gave him a half smile. “If Phoebe doesn’t mind dealing with my cantankerous mother-in-law–”

“Trust me, with Eli and Phoebe, she has no choice but to loosen up.”

The two chuckled low, aware of the charms of certain members of the Teka family. Then Geraldine tilted her face in curiosity. “Is Junior really going to be a missionary?”

Bart rolled his eyes. “That’s what he said.”

“You don’t believe him?”

He eyed her warily. “I’m pretty sure missionaries get degrees first. Won’t they need to work if they go to another country to serve?”

“Not necessarily. The missionary pastor at my grandmother’s church didn’t have one.”

Bart’s wary expression morphed into disbelief. “Junior, a pastor?”

She smirked. “Wonders never cease.”

He grunted his reply.

“Barty,” Yelena spoke from behind them. “Are you staying for breakfast?”

Geraldine purposely avoided Bartimeus’ narrowed expression and fussed with Joselyn’s tangled curls.

“No but thanks, Mrs. Yelena… I’m late for work.”

“Ah okay, see you tonight then?”

Geraldine peered over her shoulder at her mother, who gave her a pointed look that said they would be going to Bart’s home for dinner.

Bart turned and smiled at Yelena. “Yup. I’ll let Phoebe know so she can prepare.” He then turned to Geraldine, his expression inscrutable.

She felt her heart flutter as he swept past her toward the door, her feet frozen. When he said his farewell and closed the door after him, she lowered herself to the nearby seat.

Yelena studied her daughter from the door and smirked knowingly before speaking. “Call your in-laws. Breakfast is ready.”

The directive jerked Geraldine from her confused thoughts of Bart and she nodded, standing slowly. “Yes Mama….” she dragged her feet toward the guest room where her mother-in-law was undoubtedly fuming and her father-in-law quietly watched.

The day ran so fast that Geraldine was breathless by the time they pulled up the driveway of the Teka home.

Yelena whistled in awe in the back seat. “You did a great job with this place, Geri.”

Geraldine smiled. “I had help…”

And the help opened the door and strode out onto the deck, looking quite handsome in a suit jacket that encased his broad shoulders and slim jeans that accentuated his strong legs. On Bart’s right stood Darah in a blue and pink summer dress.

Suddenly, Geraldine felt under-dressed in her slacks and muslin flower blouse. Feeling the heat from her mother-in-law’s fierce glare, Geraldine didn’t dare look into the rear-view mirror.

Yelena opened the door just as Bart and Darah stepped off the last stair onto the pavement.

Darah grinned at the sight of the toddler in Yelena’s arms. “How cute!” she gushed, opening her arms to receive the child.

To Geraldine’s surprise, Joselyn willingly went to Darah’s arms.

Bart’s gaze barely skimmed Geraldine and moved to greet Yelena and then her in-laws. But once he was done with his greetings, his gaze swung back to Geraldine.

She noticed over his shoulder that the rest of the Teka family had moved onto the porch. Bart moved into her line of vision and she tilted her head back, noting the same inscrutable look from earlier that morning.

“Hey…” she managed to say, not understanding why her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth for the second time that day.

He didn’t answer, moving even closer until her vision was filled with only his face.

Her heart slammed against her ribs as he leaned down, knowing he was about to kiss her. Funny thing was she didn’t lift her empty hands to stop him.

Bart’s mouth landed on hers and her eyes closed willingly, her face tilting back as he kissed her.

She barely heard the sharp intake of breath as Bart’s hand cupped the back of her head to guide the kiss, and she did nothing to stop him. Didn’t want to.

Until Bart’s lips lifted from hers and he stepped back. She blinked out of the daze and spotted Darah’s amused expression. Heat surged her face, realizing what they’d done and she jerked her eyes to her in-laws, seared by her mother-in-law’s enraged expression.

Then Clement laughed from the porch and Geraldine looked away. “That’s what I’m talking about. Now come in so the entire neighborhood doesn’t start cheering.”

Bart chuckled and draped an arm around Geraldine’s shoulder. He leaned in, pressing a kiss to her ear. “Warned you,” he muttered against her skin.

Suddenly, Geraldine recalled the warning he gave yesterday about her calling him Barty and fumed inwardly. But because their families were watching them intently, she only smiled and slid an arm around his narrow waist, letting him lead her inside. For now, she’d play along.

<<Chapter 14 || Chapter 16>>

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