Esquire J.R. Obed was a young lawyer, two years out of law school but intelligent and successful at his firm. That didn’t stop Bart and Clement from sizing him warily as he explained the complications with Geraldine’s dilemma. After divesting his navy-blue suit jacket, he sat with his knees apart and leaned slightly forward, using his hands to gesticulate as he spoke with confidence on the subject.

“Considering they are your daughter’s biological grandparents, they have every right to request to visit her,” J.R. spoke on, barely batting an eyelash as he addressed both Geraldine and her mother. “Especially if there has never been a claim that she was in danger with them.”

Geraldine gnawed on her bottom lip. Sure, her in-laws loved Joselyn and would never hurt her, but their venomous and resentful attitude toward her wasn’t healthy for her daughter. How could she allow her daughter to believe the lies they would undoubtedly tell her?

“Unless there is proof that they knew about your husband’s, my apologies, ex-husband’s violent mistreatment of you.”

“Oh they knew,” Yelena spoke up, bitterness in her tone. “Every time Geraldine came home with some bruise on her body, they would send monetary gifts or food baskets. The coward would buy Geraldine a new jewelry or kitchen appliance, but we never kept any of them. I refused for us to be more indebted to them after what they were doing to my daughter.”

Geraldine didn’t dare look up and see the piteous gazes all over the room. It was embarrassing enough that she’d stayed in a loveless and abusive marriage, she didn’t need everyone to hear the grimy details about it. Especially not Bart.

Sitting beside Clement across the coffee table, Bart kept his distance and Geraldine wasn’t quite sure how she felt about it. One thing was clear; she wished he could reach over and grab her hand. Something about his touch calmed her down and assured her everything would be okay. She folded her hands together and avoided his eyes. Would he be angry or–

“Did you go to the hospital for any of the bruises, Ms. Pena?” J.R. asked gently.

Geraldine’s face warmed violently, shame bowing her head. The thought of going to the hospital and announcing that her husband, a man well-known and well-liked in the community was beating her seemed insurmountable. No one would believe her; the foreigner who stole away their golden boy.

“There was that one time,” Yelena spoke up, breaking through Geraldine’s musings. “Geri, remember that expensive jewelry set he gave you after pushing you down the stairs?”

Geraldine could’ve sworn she heard intake of breaths and an expletive where Bart and Clement were sitting down. She stared mutely at her mother, tears stinging her eyes. Why did she have to bring it up and make her relive those moments?

Finding no cooperation from her daughter, Yelena faced the young lawyer. “I remember it well. He came home angry and behaved like the devil–”

“Mama,” Geraldine wheezed, remembering the sharp pain in her ribs when she landed hard on the cement steps. She closed her eyes and told herself to breathe.

“The jewelry set,” J.R. cut in. “What did you do with it?”

“Giving it back to him would only make things worse, so I sold it.”

The room was so silent; one could hear a pin drop.

Then J.R. cleared his throat. “Do you have the receipt?”

Yelena hesitated and Geraldine opened her eyes, looking at the young lawyer, wishing he’d go away and stop provoking horrible memories she’d thought were firmly in the past. “I tore it and made my mom give away the money.”

“Why?” Clement spoke up, impatience in his voice. “You could’ve–”

“Shush,” Phoebe hushed her brother-in-law and moved to kneel beside Geraldine. Placing her hands on Geraldine’s knees, she looked up at her friend. “This isn’t your fault. You didn’t cause him to be a monster. He had it inside of him and didn’t yield to it. Don’t blame yourself for what happened.”

By this time, tears were streaming down Geraldine’s face. She shook her head. “What if I was already pregnant with Joselyn when he did that? Why didn’t I leave when I had the chance?”

Yelena scooted close, draping her arms around her daughter. “It’s my fault, Mija. I blame myself every day for making you marry into that devil’s family.”

Bart was in physical pain as he watched Geraldine turn her face into her mother’s shoulder to weep. His fingernails dug into his palms and he gritted his teeth to keep from cursing the dead man to hell where he belonged. A dark thought rejoiced that the man had died before he ever got wind of what he’d done to Geraldine.

“Not all men are as evil as that man,” Phoebe was speaking in a hushed tone. “You don’t need to be afraid of that ever happening again.”

Clement nudged Bart’s knee and inclined his head toward the lawyer who watched the women pensively. Bart sighed and turned to the lawyer. “What can we do?”

J.R. turned to face Bart, brows lifted. He’d obviously lost his train of thought watching the woman grieve over her hurt. “What do you mean?”

Bart refrained from rolling his eyes. He glanced once at Abe who eyed him curiously and then faced the lawyer once more. “What would be a better way to resolve this custody issue? Pay off the debt–”

“No!” Geraldine spoke up firmly. She lifted her head from her mother’s shoulder and met Bart’s gaze with teary eyes. “My debt is none of your business, Bart.”

“Geri,” Yelena cautioned her to be calm.

Geraldine shook her head. “For as long as I live, I won’t be indebted to anyone. No one, understand?”

The room grew silent again and she pushed out of her mother’s arms. Phoebe lost her balance and fell on her backside, causing Abe to jump from his chair in alarm. Geraldine flinched at the quick motion and Bart stood also, moving to her side.

Geraldine held up both hands to stop him. Face tight, holding back tears, she glanced down at Phoebe who stared up wide-eyed. Fighting a whimper, she stepped around Phoebe and fled from the living room and out the front door.

Mumbling an apology on behalf of her daughter, Yelena hurried after her. Scowling, Abe reached down to help his wife up.

Phoebe patted his hand. “I’m fine. You scared her.”

“She should’ve been careful,” Abe groused, leading Phoebe back to her seat beside him.

Bart stared at the door Geraldine had exited from and dropped onto his seat beside Clement.

Clement patted his shoulder in silent comfort and looked toward the pensive lawyer close to his age than his older brothers. “So you were saying?”

J.R. nodded, pushing aside the distraction. “What’s more pressing is acquiring evidence that her in-laws were aware of the abuse and did nothing to stop it. We could reach out to the government, prove that they are fit for neither partial nor sole custody due to the mistreatment and/or neglect during the alleged abuse.”

“Nothing alleged about it,” Phoebe mumbled, rubbing her belly. “Geri was abused and her good-for-nothing in-laws turned a blind eye to it all.”

J.R. nodded. “We have our work cut out for us then.”

The Teka siblings, aside from Bart, nodded. They would have to spend a few nights planning with Yelena, even if Geraldine refused to cooperate.

Then the door swung open, Darah and Eleazar stepping inside. “It’s a good thing she didn’t recognize the car…” Darah halted her speech, eyes spotting the visitor in the room.

“Welcome home,” Phoebe addressed the youngest Teka siblings. “Who’s she?”

Too distracted by the stranger to respond in kind, Darah stared at the young man a bit longer than normal and Abe squinted at her. Eleazar moved around his sister and walked up to his older brothers Bart and Clement.  Squeezing between them, he propped his head against Clement’s shoulder.

Clement raised a brow at Eleazar’s silence and turned to Darah. “What happened?”

Darah blinked out of her daze and looked to her brothers. Then she scowled. “Eli’s grandma’s stalking him at school.”

“What?!” Clement draped an arm around his youngest brother. “You okay?”

Eleazar closed his eyes and shook his head. All the brothers grumbled and Phoebe frowned. “This is getting out of hand.”

“That woman won’t quit,” Abe said through gritted teeth.

J.R. raised a brow at his friend. “Who’s stalking your brother?”

Abe heaved a sigh, pulling Phoebe to him. “It’s a long story, man.”

“This was my only appointment today. I’m willing to hear you out.” As a young lawyer, J.R. was keen on giving legal advice whenever he could.

“First things first, who are you?” Darah demanded, hands on her hips.

Geraldine didn’t want to return to the Teka house, mostly because of embarrassment at her outburst but also because she’d frightened Phoebe and incurred everyone’s wrath. Convincing her mother that their house would be more comfortable was challenging, especially when Joselyn was doted openly by Darah. “Mama, I won’t stand for it. They have no right to chase us out of our own house–”

The door opened behind them and Darah stepped out with Joselyn, the diaper bag slung over her shoulder. “There you are.”

Yelena straightened and Geraldine walked up the steps to meet Darah. Her eyes did a cursory sweep of her daughter’s face before looking back at Darah. “Is Phoebe okay?”

Darah gave her a gentle smile and turned her shoulder toward Geraldine. “She’s fine. Your phone was ringing so they told me to bring it out to you.”

Yelena watched Geraldine fish out the phone with shaky hands and frowned at her frown. “Who is it?”

Geraldine stared at the digits of the international caller and swallowed hard. “Andres.”

Yelena promptly snatched the phone. “I’ll talk to them.” She dialed the number and moved around her daughter, walking away so she could speak uncensored.

“Please take it easy,” Geraldine said over her shoulder, too fatigued to monitor her mother’s temper

Darah bounced a smiling Joselyn on her hip. “She’s so cute.”

“She’s not disturbing you, I hope.” Geraldine smoothed her daughter’s flyaway hairs.

“Nope, I love babies. And she’s not the one causing trouble.” Darah gave Geraldine a pointed look. “What’s the deal with you and Bart? You don’t like him or something?”

Geraldine hesitated, not sure how to explain herself to the fifteen-year-old. “It’s complicated.”

Darah snorted. “That’s because you’re making it that way, Geri. Bart’s a simple guy who avoids drama like it’s the plague. He barely dates because he hates complicated stuff.”

Joselyn’s giggle interrupted Geraldine’s reply, causing both she and Darah to laugh also. “She really likes Bart. He makes her laugh and I think he likes her too.”

Geraldine sighed, glancing over her shoulder to where her mother talked, gesticulating wildly.

“Uh-oh,” Darah mumbled. “She looks pissed. What’s she saying?”

“I don’t really understand Aymara…” Geraldine shook her head regrettably and glanced once at her daughter. “Take her inside for a bit. I’ll come get her when we’re leaving.”

A knot formed between Darah’s brows. “You’re leaving?”

“We can’t impose on you guys any longer. We have to go home sometime.”

“Oh whatever,” Darah snapped impatiently. “You’re running away, again. Just admit you’re too much of a coward to trust anyone.”

Geraldine frowned. “You don’t know anything.”

“What I know is you two act like fools. Hiding your feelings, misunderstanding each other–just say what you mean and mean what you say. So tiring!” Darah halted when Joselyn whimpered and squirmed in her arms. She turned away, stomping up the steps without a backward glance at Geraldine.

Shaking her head at the closed front door, Geraldine heaved a sigh. “You don’t know anything…”

Yelena’s tirade escalated, her voice picking up volume and echoing in the quiet neighborhood. Geraldine spun around and hurried across the street to meet her mother. “Mama, the neighbors!”

Anger darkened Yelena’s face and she snapped the phone shut, ending the call. “You won’t believe these devils!” She continued her tirade in quick Aymara and her face was flushed with mounting rage, it alarmed Geraldine.

“Mama, calm down.” She pocketed the phone and braced Yelena’s shoulders. “What happened? What did they say?”

Yelena cursed them in Spanish and blew out a haggard breath. “They say they will break the debt under one condition.”

Geraldine’s stomach churned at the thought of another condition; another debt to owe. Did they have another son or cousin hiding somewhere, ready to make her life a living hell? She swallowed hard, afraid to ask but knowing she had to. “W-what is it?”

Yelena hesitated, eyes still lit with fury.

“Mama, what is it?” Geraldine willed herself to suppress the wave of panic. “What is the condition?”

Yelena sighed heavily. “They will forgive the debt and not ask for custody if you…” she closed her eyes.

Geraldine felt like throwing up. “Mama…?”

Her eyes opened again. “If you vow to remain their son’s widow for the rest of your life.”

Her knees weakened under her and this time Yelena had to hold her up. Air rushed through her ears, deafening her mother’s panicked words for her to get a hold of herself.

<<Chapter 20 || Chapter 22>>