Once his sobs subsided, J.R.’s body tensed up. Darah slowly opened her eyes though she made no move to release him. She liked holding him like this, feeling the unsteady beat of his heart against her palm. Matching the rhythm of her breathing to his, she closed her eyes again. This was where she’d always wanted to be. When he exhaled a deep breath, she did too with a smile twitching her lips. If he would only see they fit perfectly.

“Darah…”

His timbre of his low tone reverberated through her, and she fluttered her eyes open. “Hmm?”

He didn’t say anything but she noted the mood had shifted. Her body tensed instantly, her fingers loosening its grip on the cotton of his shirt. Then his hand cupped hers, pausing the movement. Warmth pooled in her belly at the intimate touch and she raised her head, staring at the wide breadth of his shoulders, wishing she could see his face.

Then his fingers curled around her palm and lifted her hand from his chest. She held her breath, waiting to be pulled to his front and… then J.R. applied pressure on her hand, lowering it away and letting go. Pain pierced her chest as her abandoned hand fell empty from him. Robbed of speech, she watched him take a step from her, his broad back barring her from stepping close.

He then turned around slowly, shadows sharpening his angular features. Darah felt her heartbeat pounding hard and painfully in her chest as she waited for his words but wishing he wouldn’t say a word. His actions spoke loud enough.

When he sighed, Darah closed her eyes briefly and exhaled harshly. “I’ll go.”

“I’ll take you.”

She opened her eyes again, meeting the shadowed face of the man who would never accept her. The pain was more unbearable now that she’d had a taste of what he would feel like in her arms. She needed to go home now.

“No thanks,” she said as casually as possible and shoved empty hands behind her back to clutch her trembling fingers. “I’ll take a cab.”

J.R. was silent as Darah started around him. Then he started to follow her.

Darah grimaced at the sound of his even footsteps behind her. “You need to be with your father. I’ll take a cab.” She swallowed a growl when he grabbed her arm but maintained a straight face. “Let go, J.R.”

“You’re my responsibility,” J.R. answered whilst holding her arm.

“Responsibility?” Darah angled her face to his, wishing they stood near the streetlamp so she could read him. He was infuriating. “Is that all it is, your responsibility?”

J.R. stared at her in silence, grip loosening.

Darah tightened her lips. “Are you only tolerating me because of your ties to my brothers?”

When he didn’t answer, she yanked her arm from his loosened hold and plowed forward. “Don’t follow me!” she barked at the sound of his footfall, and quickened her steps toward the crosswalk.

Then she stopped hearing it and slowed her steps against her will. Unbelievable—he’d listened and stopped following. She dared not look over her shoulder or she would do a lot worse than curse him out. Body trembling with rising rage, she plowed on, crossing the street toward the parking lot.

The hot tears pooled in her eyes, blurring her vision. Frustrated and angry at herself, Darah swiped a forceful palm over her face and quickened her pace. Blinded by the insistent tears, she stumbled forward when her right foot caught the median. Darah put her palms out to break her fall, her knees scraping the cement.

Then she heard pounding feet approaching her. “Don’t!” she screamed at him sightlessly.

J.R. reached her within seconds and grabbed her elbow. “Be careful,” he said evenly, helping her to stand.

Darah yanked her arm from his and glared through tear-filled eyes. “Leave me alone!”

He clucked his tongue, moving the unwelcomed hand to her back and bending to sweep her off her feet.

She inhaled a sharp breath as he upended her balance and lifted her from the ground. Lightheaded wasn’t descriptive enough as she found herself cradled against his chest. Even though anger coursed through her body, Darah remained stiff and frozen in his arms. Her heart was the only thing unfrozen, pounding rebelliously against her chest. She stared ahead, mouth parted in shock.

J.R. grunted. “Your stubbornness knows no bounds.” He shifted his feet in the direction of his parked car near the front of the hospital, his hand tightened around her legs. Once reaching his car, he lowered Darah to her feet but kept the hand bracing her back. Opening the door, he angled his head to the passenger seat and waited for Darah to sit down.

She stiffly moved her legs inside and flinched when he swooped down and over her. Darah held her breath and kept her gaze lowered as J.R. secured the seatbelt across her lap and into its lock. She only released the breath when he ducked out and closed the door.

“Jerk,” she muttered as her rebellious heart tripped over his proximity and she gripped her fingers tight to keep from fanning away the heat of her frustration.

He opened his door and ducked inside. Darah shifted to face the window, not baring to be any inch closer than he already was, all the while trying to calm her racing heart.

Every movement of his arm, him shifting gears, brought him too close for her liking and she edged further away. Her blurry gaze remained on the scenes zipping past them, her throat tight with words unspoken.

“How far along are you?”

Darah stiffened at the unexpected question. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.” And when he didn’t counter, she frowned. “First answer my question and I’ll answer yours.”

He exhaled loudly. “I’ll just ask Phoebe.”

She gritted her teeth and glared out the window. “Why do you treat me like this?”

“Like what?”

Scowling, she scooted to face him with eyes flashing from tears unshed. His casual disregard unleashed pent-up frustration and hurt. “That letter I gave you at graduation…”

Her eyes clocked the tightening of his knuckles around the steering wheel and realized he’d read it. There was no way he hadn’t… although the knowledge hurt more than the possibility of him never reading it. He’d cleanly rejected her.

Staring at his striking profile, her lips twitched a wry smirk. “It must’ve been really burdensome for you… so burdensome that you couldn’t bring yourself to tell me you read it.” Tears fell without her permission, sliding down her cheeks. She drew in a breath and averted her face to scrub away the evidence. “Embarrassing,” she mumbled, scolding herself.

“Are you hurt?” J.R. spoke up, concern plain in his voice.

Darah opened her mouth to curse him for taunting her when his hand touched hers. Ire sparked as the forbidden reaction to his touch, and Darah flung his hand aside. “Don’t touch me.” Her words were even harsh in her ears and the tears spilled freely down her face.

“Have you eaten?”

Darah sniffed noisily. “Stop it.”

“You’re my respo—”

“Say that rubbish one more time and I’ll walk home.” She jerked around. “Why? Why bother caring about me if you’re gonna disregard me the next second.” Her facial muscles twitched, betraying she was quickly losing control of her emotions. “Why not just hold me at arm’s length all the time and not when it’s convenient, you jerk.” She choked on a sob as she remembered him holding her hand firmly and introducing her as his fiancée.

“Darah…”

“Shut up!” Darah snapped and spun away. “Just shut up and take me home. I don’t want to hear any of your useless excuses. You’ve said more than enough.”

J.R. tamped a sigh as Darah turned away from him. He glanced her way, catching the telltale shake of her shoulders as she fought a cry. Gritting his teeth, he deciding to respect her decision to stay quiet and faced the road once more. Nothing he could say would change a thing.

They arrived at her family home and before J.R. could put the car in park, Darah was yanking the seatbelt off. In a desperate attempt he didn’t know was in him, J.R. pressed the lock button to keep her inside the car.

Darah growled when the door handle wouldn’t budge and jerked around to glare at him. He stared right back, unintimidated by her fierce eyes trained on him.

“Hear me out,” he said simply, hand hovering the lock just in case she tried to manually unlock the door.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “So now you want to talk. Well, tough because I’m done with you.”

“And what of the father? You’re done with him too?” J.R. grimaced as soon as the words left his mouth and reached his ears. He sighed in frustration. “Wait, I didn’t mean—”

“Yes you did.” Darah’s fingers lowered from the door handle. “You meant every word.”

J.R. stared in silence at her profile, suddenly at a loss for words.

“I get it,” she said, her voice sounding strange. “I must seem like a loose woman, throwing myself over you when I’m…” her voice shook and she swallowed hard, the sound clear in the silence of his car. “When I’m pregnant… and I’m sorry.”

His throat tightening as a lone tear slid down Darah’s cheek, and his fingers curled into his palm to keep from reaching up to wipe it away.

“Maybe I’ll only ever be an immature, ill-tempered, impulsive kid in your eyes…” Darah slowly turned to face him and he caught his breath as her dark eyes glistened with tears pooled there. “But I’ve always been sincere toward you, then and now.”

He sat frozen, watching her open the door and step out of the car. His eyes followed her as she rounded the front of the car and head for the stairs of her family home. She stumbled up the stairs and it took everything in him to keep from going after her.

Darah caught a sob when August crashed into her legs as soon as she stepped into the house. She quickly blinked away the tears before Karla reached her. Bending at the knees, she caught them in a bear hug and buried her face against their joined shoulders. “My babies,” she said, her voice shaky.

“You’re back?” Phoebe drawled, walking up to meet them.

Composing herself, Darah rubbed her cheek against August’s shoulder before raising her eyes to Phoebe’s face. “Hmm.” She managed a wobbly smile that didn’t go unnoticed.

Phoebe arched a questioning brow and peered over her head at the closed door.

“He’s gone,” Darah mumbled, pressing a kiss on both August and Karla before releasing them. They giggled and hurried around Phoebe to return to their TV program. Darah slowly stood to her feet, though she didn’t meet Phoebe’s searching gaze. “Sleepover?” she asked casually.

“Nope. Family emergency.”

Darah jerked her attention to Phoebe, just now realizing the tension around her sister-in-law’s eyes and pursed lips. Her heart skipped a beat, thoughts of J.R. pushed to the side. “I-Is it Junior? Eli?”

Phoebe heaved a sigh and put her hands to her hips. “Worse.”

Darah’s heart went into overdrive, remembering the moment news of her parents’ fatal accident reached her while she and Eleazar were in school. Her eyes widened. “Abe?!”

Phoebe cringed visibly. “I think it’s time you start talking, Darah… Who is Jeremy?”

Her eyes widened even further, heartbeat picking speed. Her head started to spin, the sensation from earlier in the hospital returning with full-force. Her breathing quickened. “H-How?”

“Geri spotted a guy lurking around the house. When he asked to speak to you, we knew something was fishy.” Phoebe’s features tightened. “We didn’t get a chance to field him since your brothers came home at the same time. The minute they saw him—”

“Where are they?” Darah peered around Phoebe’s shoulders for her brothers, her racing heart in her throat. She started for the kitchen when Phoebe grabbed her hand to stop her.

“They’re at Bart’s place while everyone’s here. Darah, is this Jeremy guy—”

Darah’s knees gave way under her just as the front door swung open.

Flat on her back, Darah’s haggard breathing deafened the frantic sounds of her niece, nephew and Phoebe calling out in alarm.

One hand reaching for Darah, Phoebe jerked her gaze to the door, to an alarmed J.R. standing in the doorway. “Quick, help me!”

J.R. rushed forward, gently nudging the frantic nephew and niece aside so he could reach Darah. Her eyes were open but unfocused as she lay there shell-shocked. He gritted his teeth and lifted her into his arms, hedging around the young children while he carted Darah to the couch. “What happened?” he called over his shoulder.

“Aunty fell down!” August and Karla said in unison.

Grateful the older kids were upstairs doing homework under Nana Yelena’s firm tutelage, Phoebe quietly hushed the youngest Teka kids and gently herded them to the living room where J.R. lowered Darah onto the sofa. “Abe and Bart are playing big scary brothers right now.”

Concerned, J.R. looked down at Darah’s frozen features. “Where are they?” he asked, his hands still around her tense body.

“The other house,” Phoebe answered stiffly. “I think you should go to them, J.R.”

J.R. nodded and started to stand when Darah grabbed his sleeve. He looked down at her, the sight of unbridled terror in her eyes a sucker punch to his midsection. He quickly put a hand over hers and squeezed it gently. “Everything will be fine.”

Darah shook her head adamantly, tears pooling in her fear-filled eyes. “Help me. Please.”

The break in her voice was his undoing, J.R. realizing in that very moment what a big fool he’d been.

<<Chapter 14 || Chapter 16>>

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