Pulling up the curved driveway, J.R. spied up at the darkened windows of the family house and breathed a sigh of relief. Grabbing his suit jacket from behind the chair, J.R. stepped out of the car and used the manual lock instead of the automatic which would make a distinct sound. Even if his father was fast asleep in the master bedroom, J.R. was taking no chances.

Slipping into the house, he turned off the alarm before it made a sound and without taking a look at his surroundings, he started for the grand staircase.

“Raju?”

J.R. paused in mid-step and spun about, seeking the gravelly voice in the dark. Then he saw the shadowed form in the family room, the one they hardly used until countrymen folk came in from out of town. It was a room solely meant for entertaining guests but not family. He frowned. “Babuji?”

The shadowed form stirred and light flooded the room. A white-haired man with dark weathered skin and deep-set eyes sat in silk pajamas, with his hands perchef on the cushioned arms of the leather chair. “What time is it?”

J.R. tamped a sigh, knowing full well what his father was up to.  He stepped away from the stairs and dragged his feet toward his father. Paying homage by bending at the waist to touch his father’s feet in greeting, J.R. perched on the chair adjacent to his father’s. “Close to midnight. What are you doing awake?”

Lalana Joel Obed, better known as L.J., eyed his son warily before speaking. “Waiting for you.”

Ignoring the niggling sensation at the pit of his stomach, J.R. frowned. “Is… everything okay?” He could count on one hand the times his father had waited up for him; all not good.

L.J. bobbed his head, wisps of snow-white hair gliding his forehead. “Tell me about your work.”

J.R. stifled a groan. Though his father had retired from the thriving law firm and officially named him as his successor, he’d felt more pressured than when his father was in charge. He knew some of the lawyers and his father’s secretary remained on staff mostly to keep an eye on him. He wondered what they’d shared to his father about how he was running the firm.

“I heard you took on yet another pro-bono.”

J.R. fought a wince at the disdain in his father’s voice.

“We are not running a charity, Raju,” L.J. said firmly. “Maybe here or there for our special clients, but not every time pro-bono.”

At the sound of his father’s accent thickening, J.R. knew he’d heard about the recent case. He sighed and met his father’s stern expression. “I couldn’t turn them away, Babu. If you knew what nightmare they were facing, you would–”

“You are not an immigration lawyer. Civil cases only, Raju. That is what I assigned you to do.”

J.R. clenched his jaw and for a charged moment, he and his father stared each other down. They didn’t have J.R.’s mother, Tayla, to stand as mediator whenever they argued. Her twenty-fifth anniversary had barely passed and the two had grown accustomed to resolving their differences on their own, or at least pushing it aside until the next disagreement.

L.J. broke eye contact first and sighed. “A word is enough for the wise.” He started to rise.

J.R. rose too, ready to end the night.

“One more thing.”

He paused and looked down at his father whose body bent slightly from age. “Yes, Babu?”

“You remember my old friend from home, Dabir?”

J.R. merely blinked; his father had too many old friends from home. He couldn’t even begin to place this one among the many he’d met through his childhood.

L.J. grunted. “Anyway, he and his family are moving to Houston next month. I want you to take care of them.”

Alarm bells started to ring in his ears at his father’s words. He frowned. “Take care of them?”

“Yes, especially their daughter, Hana. You probably don’t remember her.”

JR shook his head, unable to form a word. Even from the dim lighting, J.R. noted the glint in his father’s eyes and didn’t like it one bit.

“It’s late, we’ll talk more about it later.” L.J. moved around the table and started for his bedroom. “Goodnight, son.”

“G-goodnight, Babuji…” J.R. waited until his father’s lanky frame disappeared into the shadows before he blew out a shaky breath.

He should’ve known he wouldn’t go scot-free for much longer even without a mother to nag as others’ mothers did. His childhood friends got married and although he experienced the occasional side-eye or weighted suggestion about his singlehood, he’d truly believed his father didn’t worry himself over such trivial matters. His father was much too preoccupied with growing his firm in his absence to care about only son’s marriage or producing the next generation of Obed.

But J.R. was wrong. So very wrong. And in true tradition of arranged marriages with little input from either the groom or bride, J.R. Obed’s marriage planning had just begun.

Disturbed by the looming arrival of a Mr. Dabir and his family, J.R. turned off the lamp and trudged upstairs.

Darah gaped at her boyfriend Jeremy who avoided looking at her. Feeling light-headed, she perched on the arm of the sofa. “What did you just say?”

“I don’t know.” He rubbed the back of his head.

“What do you mean you don’t know?! You said something so simply repeat it!”

“Stop yelling at me!” he shouted defensively, retreating to his desk. “I told you this wasn’t permanent.”

She scowled at his back. “What about marriage isn’t permanent?”

He mumbled something under his breath as he pulled up a browser.

Darah shot to her feet and stomped over to his desk, grabbing his shoulder. “You lied to me!”

Jeremy yanked his arm from hers. “Oh come on! I just said I’m not ready for marriage right now.”

“So you gave me a line? Is that it?” Darah bunched her fingers to keep them from trembling. Her whole body was hot with rage.

He pushed away from the desk, walking around her to enter the bedroom they shared. “Start packing, I gotta leave soon.”

“First answer my questions, you coward!” she called after him, scowling when he slammed the bedroom door behind him. She grabbed the first thing she could find, a textbook and flung it at the door.

The door opened and Jeremy bent to pick it up before tossing a glare her way. “For goodness’ sake, Darah. I borrowed this!”

Darah folded her arms. “Answer my question first. Are you kicking me out or is this a breakup?”

Jeremy dusted off the pages. “What part of ‘I broke the lease’ don’t you get, Darah?”

It took everything in her not to throw another book his way. She clenched her jaw. “And where am I supposed to go, Jeremy? You made me mov—“

“Now wait a minute,” he held out a hand. “I didn’t make you do anything. You wanted a place to stay, I offered my place and you moved in.”

Darah scoffed incredulously. “You offered? Not groveled? Like you didn’t benefit from me moving here!”

Jeremy rolled his eyes and focused his attention on the gnarled pages. “The binding is broken and this was my professor’s. You really need to work on your temper.”

“Yeah sure, right after I throw this book at your face.” A perverse satisfaction filled her when he jerked his head up in alarm. She clenched her jaw. “Are you breaking up with me?”

“Would you stay with you if you were me?” His tone was cold, his expression detached.

Darah held the tears at bay. It was better to stay unaffected even if she wanted to cry. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “So in the end, you’re just as bad as the other guy, huh?”

His expression darkened. “That’s not fair. I protected you.”

“No Jeremy, you didn’t.” She felt such shame, knowing she’d compromised herself all because a guy promised to protect her but in the end caused her more pain. “You used me.”

He scowled. “Now wait—“

“Pretending to be a knight-in-shining-armor when you’re really a snake, a low-life.” Darah nodded, bending to pick up her purse. “It sucks that I only had to find out now. But it’s cool. I’ll gladly leave.”

Tears pushed at her eyelids and she willed them away. Darah forced herself to look at Jeremy who glared at her with his handsome features twisted in rage. She wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. This wasn’t the guy who swooped in to save her from the stalker a semester ago, the guy who comforted her with confident flowery words and blood-stirring kisses. No, this was definitely not the guy who gave her pleasure and promised her forever once they graduated.

As she started for the door, anger made her turn to face him. “You’re scum, Jeremy, and I wish you nothing but a life full of pain and regret.”

Not the most mature thing to say as a third-year master student but Darah had devoted her life to making this relationship work. For him to care very little about tossing her aside made her hot with rage. “In fact, you dying a lonely and bitter crag would be the best you can do for mankind.”

He just stared, accustomed to her sharp tongue and harsh words. “Just make sure you get your stuff out by tomorrow. I need my security deposit back.”

Darah looked him down from head to toe, her lips curled in distaste. “I have no idea how I fell for a nut-job like you.”

“Same here.”

His words were like a punch to her stomach and Darah choked on a laugh. She turned away and yanked the door open. Pausing at the door, her lips twisted in a sardonic smile. “Actually you know what? Just throw it away. I’m done with you.”

She stepped out and slammed the door as hard as she could. Her smile widened at the sound of glass crashing to the floor, most likely that ostentatious picture he hung by the door. Ignoring the stream of expletives from the other side of the door, Darah headed down the sidewalk to her car.

Jeremy Landsing was a green-eyed, devilishly-handsome post-doctorate fellow studying geology when she met him a year ago. She and a couple of friends had just finished off a class project and were celebrating with pints of Haagen-Daas at a café when he and his friends stepped in for coffee. Their eyes met across the divider and he flashed her his signature grin. She’d rolled her eyes and focused on her ice-cream.

Back then, she lived by her ‘I don’t date’ mantra and had no qualms about snubbing men interested in her. Jeremy wasn’t discouraged though and walked up to her table to introduce himself. Of course, Darah brushed him off and went on with her life, ignoring him whenever he sought her out. Until she had no choice but to turn to him after a messy incident involving a scorned date where Jeremy saved her. Then she quickly fell for him soon after and they became inseparable to the point of moving in together.

Smile faded, Darah yanked the car door and ducked inside. She slammed the door and propped her forehead on the steering wheel, tears streaming down her face. Her body shook with the sobs she’d held in when he announced he would be moving away, with no plans for her in mind.

Early in their relationship, he’d teased her mercurial temper but said it with that signature grin and then comforted her with his touch. She’d believed him when he said he loved her and would marry her once he’d finished his research. She was so hungry for romantic affection; to have what her sisters-in-law had with her brothers. She’d wanted it for such a long time and after being rejected by the only other person she ever liked, Jeremy’s pursuit made her feel wanted and loved.

Darah wept long and hard until she couldn’t anymore. Then she straightened in her seat and wiped her eyes. Ignoring the stares she got from students strolling in front of her car, Darah turned on the ignition key of her car and reversed out of the parking lot. This would be the very last time she would cry for a man; the second and absolute last time.

< || Chapter 4>>

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