With Joselyn in Darah’s arms, Geraldine had no one to shield her from her mother-in-law’s heated glares. And once they’d entered the house, Abe asked Bart for help in the backyard so he wasn’t available either. She looked around the room, where Phoebe and Eleazar sat together, Darah sat beside Yelena, and Clement stood off on the side, watching her.

She blinked in surprise, her cheeks warm at his amused expression. How long had he been watching her? Heat scorched her face in embarrassment, wondering if he’d noticed the long gaze she gave Bart as he strode out with Abe. She certainly hoped not! Things were complicated enough.

Clement cleared his throat and looked to her in-laws. “Pardon me, I didn’t get your names.”

Geraldine gnawed on her bottom lip as her in-laws glanced at each other and back at him.

“Andres,” her father-in-law spoke up and gestured to his sour-faced wife. “Cristina.”

The Teka family nodded in acknowledgment and Geraldine grimaced. “Sorry, my head’s not where it needs to be.”

“Yeah, that kiss must’ve scrambled your brain huh?”

“Junior,” Phoebe sighed in exasperation.

Yelena covered a laugh with a cough. Cristina’s scowl darkened and Andres looked as if he’d swallowed a rock. Darah buried a snicker against Joselyn’s hair. Only Eleazar looked undisturbed.

Geraldine eyed Darah with jealousy, wishing she could hide her hot cheeks behind Joselyn. She turned to Phoebe. “Uh, can I help with dinner–”

“No!” Darah and Clement shouted, alarming Andres and Cristina. Geraldine looked wounded.

“She’s actually better than before,” Yelena spoke up, giving her daughter a smile.

Cristina snorted derisively and Geraldine’s shoulders drooped.

“Uh sure, Geri,” Phoebe spoke up and smiled at Geraldine. “I could definitely use your help.” She stood and gestured for Geraldine to follow. The two women made their way quietly to the kitchen before she turned, concern etched on her features. “Your mother-in-law is horrible!”

Geraldine gave her a dry smile and leaned against the counter. “That’s her being courteous.”

“Courteous, my big toe!” Her eyes swept over Geraldine’s face. “And you look like you’ve aged a decade in just 24 hours!”

Grimacing, Geraldine lifted a hand to her face. “Does it really?”

“I’m exaggerating but seriously, they can’t stay.” She frowned over her shoulder to where Abe and Bart were setting up the grill. “Bart told us they’re planning to stay more than a week.”

Geraldine heaved a sigh. “Seems that way.”

“Not if we can help it.” The determination in her voice made Geraldine look back at her. “If we have anything to say about it, they won’t last a week.”

The door swung open at the tail end of Phoebe’s firm declaration. “Who won’t last a week?” Abe asked, carrying an empty pan. Bart’s brows were furrowed in concern, seeing Geraldine in the kitchen.

“Should you be in here?” he asked Geraldine and arched a brow at Phoebe.

She scowled, affronted. “I can cook, Bartimeus.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “Do you want me to repeat what happened outside?”

Though a warm shiver rushed down her spine and her lips welcomed a repeat, she steeled her frame and tilted her chin. “Try it and I won’t let you off.”

“Save your lover’s spat for later,” Phoebe cut in and turned to Abe. “I don’t like Geri’s mother-in-law.”

Abe glanced worriedly at Geraldine. “That’s not nice, Babe…”

“It’s okay,” Geraldine assured Abe.

“I don’t like the way she looks at her like she’s the one at fault,” Phoebe continued, her expression tightening. “Who does she think she is?”

Bart glanced over Geraldine’s shoulder at the open door. “I’m pretty sure they can hear you.”

“Let them hear mfff–” she scowled when Abe placed a hand over her mouth. The look he gave her softened her expression and she sighed when he lowered his hand. “Fine… but we have to do something.”

“We are doing something,” Bart answered, draping his arm over Geraldine’s shoulder. “Showing ’em Geraldine and Jozy are doing just fine together, then they’ll leave.”

“Well then, we better get you guys engaged first,” Phoebe muttered, hands at her hips.

The two brothers exchanged glances, knowing Phoebe’s mind sifted through ideas. Abe sighed and draped his arm over his wife’s shoulders. “I have a better idea.”

All three turned to him, surprised and expectant. It wasn’t often Abe formulated ideas; he mostly critiqued and then implemented the ideas Phoebe or Bart or Darah came up with. His nickname aside from Big Bro was the Implementer.

“What you got?” Bart inquired quietly.

Abe glanced once at the opening and then beckoned them closer before sharing his idea.

“Mr. Andres,” Abe began as soon as everyone had settled on the table with their chicken and beef fajita meal. When the man looked up in surprise, Abe smiled. “We’re curious to hear more about Geri’s life in Peru… and her late husband, your son.”

Geraldine fought hard not to squirm and Bart’s tense body beside her echoed her thoughts on Abe’s plan to woo her in-laws. He believed that honoring their son’s memory would assuage Cristina’s resentment toward everyone especially Geraldine.

Finding redeemable qualities of her late husband proved harder than finding a needle in a haystack. Bart wasn’t exactly jumping for joy over having to hear about the man that had abused Geraldine… and even Phoebe was wary, but their options were limited.

In return for their good treatment toward the in-laws, Phoebe insisted that Abe’s plan last only for a week. She too was finding it hard to forgive Andres and Cristina for not interceding in Geraldine’s mistreatment from their bad-tempered son. Currently, she maintained a stiff smile as her husband addressed Andres.

“He was a good man,” Cristina spoke in Spanish, not caring for whoever didn’t understand. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears and Andres placed a hand over her shoulder. “He cared for those who loved him…”

Even though they had the good sense not to look at Geraldine, she felt the words addressed to her alone. Painful words accusing her of not loving her son enough.

“Yeah well, Bart’s a decent fellow.” Clement spoke up; throwing out Abe’s plan before it began. His eyes stayed on Cristina. “Even if my brother didn’t love Geri, which he does, he still wouldn’t lift a hand to her.”

The whole table fell in shocked silence.

Cristina narrowed her eyes at him. Andres looked constipated.

“Love never hurts, love endures and never fails. If your son really loved Geri,” Clement continued, their silence his platform. “He certainly didn’t treat her as you’re describing, did he?”

“Enough!” Andres slammed a hand on the table and Joselyn started to wail.

Eleazar, who had been sitting morosely between Clement and Darah, started to rock in his seat. Abe shot from his seat and pulled Eleazar into his arms.

Andres glared at Geraldine in disgust and turned to his wife, speaking in rapid Spanish.

Heart racing, Geraldine gratefully accepted her wailing child from Darah and started to rise.

“No!” Yelena put a hand to Geraldine’s, stopping her from leaving. She glared at both Andres and Cristina. “I have had enough of this, with you two!”

“Mama, no,” Geraldine pleaded with her mother. “Don’t.”

“Mija, it’s enough.” She looked back at the two. “I won’t take any more of your disrespect and shaming of my daughter. I don’t care if I stay in debt to you forever, go away and leave my children alone.”

Insulted and enraged, Andres’ face was red as was his wife’s. No longer was he the more docile of the two. He shot to his feet and barked for Cristina to stand. Then he spoke to Yelena in heated speech, and when she shot back an answer that sounded rude even to the non-native speakers, Andres’ face only got hotter and angrier.

Eleazar trembled and so did Geraldine even though Bart had pulled her into his side.

Then Yelena gestured for the scowling couple to leave. “Leave the food and get out.”

Phoebe’s eyes were wide in alarm as Andres and Cristina did just that. Then she faced Yelena. “What debt?”

Yelena wore a pained expression at the sight of her daughter and granddaughter’s tears. “My mother, Geraldine’s grandmother… incurred a great debt to Andres’ father. When she got sick, she asked for more money instead of coming to me, all because I despised my childhood with us being poor. She thought I would be ashamed of her and died with that belief, not knowing I would have to deal with it once she left.”

“Mama, please,” Geraldine pleaded, pressing her face against Joselyn’s temple.

Yelena sniffed. “Mija, I refuse to let them to hold you captive because of my mistakes.”

“Hold on a minute,” Clement spoke up, his voice strained as his face. “Don’t tell me Geri married that creep to take care of her grandmother’s debt.”

Bart breathed a curse in both women’s silence and the remorse on Yelena’s face. His hold tightened around Geraldine when she started to squirm like Joselyn.

“That’s slavery!” Darah cried out, hushing up when Joselyn started wailing again.

Phoebe scowled darkly. “I knew I hated that woman for a reason.”

“It’s my fault,” Yelena eked out, tears streaming down her face.

“No Mama…” Geraldine began weakly, attempting to shush Joselyn.

“It is, mija,” Yelena insisted firmly. “I should’ve never succumbed to that weakness of fear for money. Just because I fear debt doesn’t mean I allow them to treat you like a criminal.” She shook her head. “Your father would be so angry with me. Your grandmother too.”

When Geraldine pressed her elbow into his side, Bart relented and let her go. He watched as she stood from her chair and moved to Yelena’s side. The two women and Joselyn cried together, the Teka family left to watch them in shocked silence.

Then Bart sighed. “So that’s it then?”

All eyes looked to him, but his remained on Geraldine.

“If you don’t let them be in Jozy’s life, you owe them your grandmother’s debt?”

“Bart…” Phoebe began.

“No,” Bart said, his voice hard. “Two times, Geraldine, you failed to tell me the whole truth. How can I help you when you don’t trust me completely?”

Tears brimmed her eyes as she looked at the angry man across the table. “I’m sorry, Bart.”

“As you should be, Geraldine.” He stood from the table and stormed away. Abe nudged a quiet Eleazar to the seat beside Phoebe and hurried after his brother.

Darah shook her head, incredulous. “What a mess.”

Yelena nudged Geraldine. “Go to him.”

“Yeah Geri,” Phoebe said softly. “He deserves an explanation.”

Geraldine swallowed hard as Yelena pulled Joselyn into her arms, bouncing her on her knee to quieten her. Arms empty, Geraldine slowly stood. “I’m really sorry,” she said to the remaining siblings.

“Word of advice,” Clement answered. “If you really care about Bart, don’t lie about it.”

She nodded, heart in her throat. He was completely right; she needed to be honest with Bart and herself.

For as long as she could remember, Abe was the big brother she never had. Of course she didn’t know that at the time, but looking back, her feelings for Abe had been that of admiration for his unflinching devotion to his family. In comparison, Bart wasn’t as gentle but no one could deny he was as devoted to his family as Abe. His sarcastic humor, unbelievable charm was as frustrating as it was appealing and she found herself anticipating his crooked grin and unsettling presence.

From the beginning, Geraldine knew her heart didn’t beat the way it did around Abe, but she tried her best to ignore it. After all, he didn’t know her as she knew him.

That day he returned home after Yonas and Ester had been laid to rest, he looked through her as though he’d never heard her name before or seen her face. It pissed her off majorly but she shrugged it off. They’d only known each other in passing and Geraldine told herself she’d mistaken Bart altogether.

The phone call she made to him in the airport before leaving for Peru three years ago, she’d hoped he would say something to change her mind. It was her fault for not being honest, but she blamed him because it was easier that way. Blaming others for her plight was her way to defend herself, or so she thought.

She’d spent her whole life blaming everyone; her grandmother’s foolishness had angered her, her mother’s self-sacrificing nature had frustrated her. Even before they treated her poorly, she despised Andres and Cristina, and their spoiled son. Maybe it had translated into disobedience and disrespect in their marriage, but she knew marrying him had been a terrible idea from the beginning.

Walking out to the porch, her heart skipped a beat at the sight of the two brothers standing in the driveway, their backs facing her. Abe was turned slightly to face Bart, his brow furrowed in consternation as though he tried to get through to Bart. When he sighed and glanced over Bart’s shoulder, his expression changed.

Geraldine managed a smile. “Can I speak to him alone?”

“No you may not,” Bart answered in a cold tone. “Go inside, Geraldine.”

“Bart…” Abe nudged his arm.

“I can’t go inside until we talk,” she answered gently, determined to beat his stubbornness in this.

Now you want to talk to me,” Bart muttered derisively. “If it’s not the whole truth, Geraldine, I’m not interested.”

“It is the whole truth,” Geraldine said gravely and nodded her silent thanks as Abe moved past her to go back inside. She swallowed a breath, strengthening her resolve. Even if nothing changed between them, Bart deserved to know the whole truth. “I swear it, Bartimeus.”

He heaved a sigh and turned around, expression brooding. “Stop calling me that.”

Geraldine only smiled; even when scowling, he was a sight to behold. How long had she told herself she didn’t feel anything for him? Too long. “At least you turned around. At least you notice me when I call you that.”

“Notice you?” He arched a brow. “Geraldine, what–”

“May 9th, 1991, you remember that day?”

“Of course, high school graduation.”

“Mine too.”

He nodded, perturbed. “I know.”

“We went to the same high school, Bartimeus.” Geraldine drew in a breath and let it out slowly. “May 9th, 1991 was the day I got my first kiss. From you.”

<<Chapter 15 || Chapter 17>>

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