He had a tight fist around the money and around her. His unrelenting grip suffocated her; his beady eyes watching her every move. He analyzed every word of her broken Spanish whenever she requested some cash to buy groceries or goods to make their home cozier. He reprimanded her for lack of domestic sense, and rebuffed her whenever she asked for too much but never too little. Better yet, he preferred when she didn’t ask for money, quick to remind her of the overwhelming debt her family owed his.

She felt herself sinking under his forceful hand, felt her throat close up over the protests. If she spoke out of turn, which was more than he would’ve liked, she received a deserved punishment. Some days, it was a backhand slap, sometimes it was a shove. If she was lucky, he’d turn a cold shoulder and ignore her for days. She preferred his screaming to his silence, dreading the moment he would unleash all he’d held in all those days of quiet.

But this silence was different; he was in the house, safe behind the closed door of their bedroom with several men. She couldn’t hear a thing with the stone walls and most times, she didn’t care to. But now, she wanted to know something. She needed something to hold against him whenever he raised a hand to her, when he threatened to increase their interest rate of debt.

Tiptoeing to the door, body trembling with fear at the thought of him yanking the door open and catching her eavesdropping, Geraldine held her breath and tried to pick out the muffled tones in the bedroom. She imagined the bulky men in their greasy fishermen coveralls sitting on their bed, soiling the freshly-washed sheets she’d just brought in from the clothesline. It would take another day to wash them, all because her husband accused her of being lazy for wanting a washing machine.

Her limited understanding of Spanish infuriated her now more than whenever her husband lashed out at her for being ignorant. The men started talking calmly as her husband did; she could pick out his accented tenor anywhere, had trained herself to hear it even in half-sleep.

From what she could pick up, she heard the words widows and unclaimed land but frowned, as another man started up in a frantic tone.

Then her husband spoke in an attempt to calm the man down. His tenor sounded irregular like whenever he spoke to his parents over money and the “family” business.

She swallowed bile in her throat, disgusted with the unseemly business of living from others’ debt and desperation. Like her grandmothers, there were many naive seniors who invested in shady pyramid schemes, only to lose everything they owned and had to turn to her in-laws to bail them out. These naive seniors and their families had no choice, becoming the most destitute as the amount they earned from jobs arranged by her in-laws would be given as payment for their never-ending debt.

In the same way, her grandmother had worked herself to exhaustion and finally death. And now her mother worked in her place, as so many other children did for their elders. If only she’d been sentenced to manual labor rather than tied as a daughter but treated no better than the debt slaves.

She absentmindedly rubbed a healed scar across her forearm. There had to be a way out of this hell; all she needed was a piece of incriminating evidence to use as blackmail for her family’s freedom.

Her eyes widened as one of the aggravated men raised his voice and threatened her husband, daring to go to the police if he didn’t get his allotted funds.  A few others piped in and her husband sought their patience while he got his finances in order. At this, the group of men scoffed and she heard scuffling feet approaching the door. They wouldn’t be dissuaded this time.

The door flung open and she ducked around the corner, watching the disgruntled men exit the room, stomp down the stairs and slam the door on their way out.

A cold shiver skittered along her forearms and she wrapped her arms around her. She couldn’t hear her husband from where she hid behind the–

A hand clamped around her neck and she yelped at the force of his fingers tightening against her pulse. Her eyes sought her attacker, knowing the unrelenting hand too well.

“You rat!” He shoved her against the wall, eyes wild with rage.

She gagged when he tightened his hand and she could feel the blood draining from her.

“What did you hear?” he demanded, squeezing her throat.

She wanted to scream that she heard nothing but didn’t; it was a lie and he knew it. She dared not close her eyes. If this was to be her last minute, she would memorize the face of her killer and haunt him for eternity.

Something switched in his eyes when she didn’t blink though the blood vessels in her eyes must’ve freaked him out. He loosened his grip and she dropped to her knees, gasping for air.

Waiting until she’d caught her breath, he spat on the floor beside her and started to walk away.

“I want a divorce,” she rasped after him.

He stopped and turned, understanding what she’d said in English. “What?”

Her lips twitched and she dragged her eyes to his bearded face. “I want a divorce, and if you don’t want to get arrested, you’ll give it to me.”

His face morphed into anger as he rushed to her, grabbing her by her arm. “What did you say?” he roared in Spanish, shaking her.

She glared up at him. “You piece of trash. Messing with seniors wasn’t enough, now you want to mess around with widows and the government’s soldiers? You’re scum.” Then she spat into his face and awaited the punishment.

His jaw clenched tight as did the grip around her arm. Then he hoisted her into his arms, a surprising feat for a man a mere inch taller than her and more slender in frame.

She struggled free and started to run, smelling murder on him. She had no idea if he’d killed before, but she didn’t dare wait to find out. Moving toward the stairs, she sought the door and started for it.

His hands grabbed her shoulders and spun her around. Anger lit his wide eyes and she rolled her shoulders to brush his hands off. “Let me go!”

Then his lips twitched a cold smile that had Geraldine wishing to take back the words. His hands loosened and just before she could take a step back, his fingers nudged at her shoulder blades and teetered her balance backward.

A scream escaped her throat and Geraldine flailed to catch her balance, waking up in tangled sheets and arms holding her. At first she thought it was him, carrying her back to the stairs to throw her down a second time. She shoved her elbow in a precarious angle with what she hoped was his nose and silently rejoiced when she heard him yelp.

“Wake up, Geraldine!” a strong baritone shouted in her ear, not a weak and cowardly tenor.

Geraldine stiffened at first, fearing the sound, awaiting the fall.

“Open your eyes,” the voice beckoned her softer this time.

She squinted one eye open and came upon Bart’s face inches from hers. She gasped and drew back, afraid. Why was he in Peru? Was he going to hurt her also?

His hand moved toward her face and she flinched. Was he going to bloody her nose as she did his? His hand lowered to her shoulder and she trembled. Was he going to push her too? His hand cupped her shoulder. Geraldine whimpered.

Bart sighed and pulled her to him rather than away; the motion gentle and slow as though giving her time to pull away.

Trembling, Geraldine leaned into him, resting her cheek against his shoulder.

His other hand braced her back, rubbing gently. “You’re safe. You’re safe.”

A silent tear escaped her eye, slid down her cheek and onto his shoulder.

“That coward won’t hurt you anymore,” Bart vowed, holding her tighter. “You’re okay now.”

Geraldine choked on a sob or two, overwhelmed by the dark memories of her marriage and the fear that accompanied her long after her husband’s timely death.

Bart kept rubbing her back, muttering words she didn’t comprehend but appreciated instead of the daunting silence. “It’s okay,” he whispered when she whimpered and sniffled. “Cry it out. Once and for all, Geraldine, let it out.”

And she did, unloading on her friend every emotion she’d hidden in the nightmare of a marriage. She clung to Bart, weeping openly and shamelessly until there was nothing else to surrender.

When the sobs faded, Geraldine rested her face against his chest, spent.

Bart drew back and gave her a gentle smile when she mewed in protest. Brushing damp hair from her face, he tucked it behind her ear. “Do you know where you are?”

“Peru?”

He snorted, rubbing the curve of her ear. “No, Houston. An emergency clinic.”

Fighting a shiver at his touch, Geraldine drew back and gaped at him. Then looked over his shoulder at the pristine walls and the IV near the bed. Then her eyes widened. “Where’s my mom?”

Bart eyed her with warmth that made her cheeks tingle. “Outside with the family.”

She blinked. “The f-family?”

“Our family, Geraldine. Joselyn, your mom and my siblings.”

She squelched the hope that fluttered in her stomach and looked down, only for Bart to tip her chin with his thumb. The gentle look in his eyes only made her anxious. “W-what happened?”

His thumb brushed the skin of her chin, gaze unwavering. “You fainted. Dehydration, lack of sleep…” his brow furrowed slightly. “And lack of food.”

Geraldine bit her bottom lip and his gaze lowered to it. She released her lip and drew both in.

He snorted. “I’m not an insensitive goat to kiss you now, Geraldine.”

Her cheeks warmed. “I-I never said a-anything like that.”

One dark brow arched inquisitively. “Since when do you stutter?”

Her whole face ignited into flames and she drew away from him only for him to seize her by the waist and draw her into his chest. Her eyes were wide on him.

“Twin bed,” he said simply, loosening his hold. “One more move and you’d fall off.”

Just when she thought her face wouldn’t get any hotter, it did. Geraldine nudged his hand off her. “Why are you on my bed?”

“As your fiancé, with your mother’s permission, I’ve been on watch duty all night.”

Her eyes widened, imagining Bart witnessing a nightmare and staring at her. She swiped a hand over her mouth. “T-the whole night?”

Bart nodded solemnly. “Your mom had the first watch, and then Phoebe who stayed for a bit until Abe came to get her and bring the younglings.”

Geraldine lowered her heated face. “Why did y’all come? It wasn’t that big a deal.”

He cupped her chin and tipped it so she was looking up at him once more. “Anything that concerns any member of the Teka family is a big deal.”

She frowned. “But I’m not…”

“You will be.” Bart stroked her skin and smiled. “But first, you have to do me a favor.”

She wanted to ask what he meant by the first comment but couldn’t, too distracted by his kind smile. “What favor?”

“No more lies, no more secrets?”

Geraldine didn’t hesitate this time and nodded, warmed by the smile he gave her.

“Good girl.” He tweaked her chin and lowered his hand to seek hers. “Now, start from the beginning.”

She frowned. “That’ll take forever. How long can you stay?”

“You’re my number one priority right now.  Tell me everything.”

Suddenly overwhelmed, Geraldine blew out a breath. “I don’t know where to start.”

“Start from the widows and governmental soldier… you threatened him to give you a divorce.”

Her eyes widened. “My mom told you?”

“No, you did in your sleep… now start talking.”

<<Chapter 22 || Chapter 24>>

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