“But…” L.J.’s eyes skimmed her face when Darah looked up. “He loves you.”

Her breath caught at the words. “He does?”

His expression turned quizzical. “You didn’t know?”

Dazed, Darah shook her head.

“You’re certainly are an odd one.” L.J. coughed and drew in a raspy breath, his brow furrowed in pain.

Alarmed, she reached out. “My God, are you okay?”

He held out a hand to ward her off. “Calm down before they hear you.”

Settling back in her seat, she warily eyed the prongs in his nose and the mask resting on his chin. “Are you sure you should be discharged?”

“Not you too,” he groaned as he lay back against the pillow. Then he sighed. “I hate hospitals.”

“Not many like ‘em.” She eyed his taut features. He wasn’t good at hiding much of anything, including pain. She motioned to the oxygen mask he wasn’t utilizing. “Maybe you should wear that.”

He didn’t even blink. “And maybe you should hush…”

Darah drew a hand over her mouth like a zipper. Relief loosened her shoulders when his lips twitched a smile. Maybe J.R.’s father could be charmed after all.

“Anyway, I’m sure you already know about J.R.’s mother.”

She sobered. “Hana told me about her.”

His brows raised, then shrugged. “Yeah, well it’s been a while since we had a woman in the house.”

“Except Hana.”

“Not counting Hana… she’s family.”

Ignoring the painful twist in her gut, Darah managed a smile. “I know she’s your pick for J.R.”

“Marrying Hana or anyone else…” he grimaced, unable to mask his discomfort. “… is his choice to make. I only make suggestions based on my experiences. It’s what parents do.”

She wrung her hands together. “Well, he values your opinion.”

“A bit too much, but that’s my fault.” L.J. muttered, fidgeting gingerly. “Ugh… I really hate this bed.”

Darah hurried to his side and ignoring the weight of his suspicious stare on her face, she fluffed his pillow before returning it behind his head.

“Thank you,” he mumbled as she took her place at the foot of his bed. “Where was I?”

“You’re welcome. And J.R.’s valuing your opinion being your fault…”

“Right,” he played with the rubber of the oxygen mask. “Well, it’s been a struggle for me to let him make choices for himself… and now I wonder if I haven’t held on too long.”

Darah nodded, knowing the gist of it all.

“I’d always assumed I’d live to see him get married and have kids.” His cursory gaze swept over her. “To live and bounce my grandchildren on my knee, and tell them stories of their heritage.”

Her shoulders tensed under his probing stare and she tightened her clasped hands.

“I guess I’d forgotten life can be unjust at time—” L.J. drew in an uneven breath that caught in his throat. His brows furrowed and alarm flitted in his features as he choked on the breath. The sound of the cough that left his mouth was violent and harsh, the sheer pain of it deepened the lines in his brow. He gasped for air, hand moving to his throat.

Frightened, Darah jumped to her feet. “I-I’ll get the nurse.” She hurried out the door before he could stop her, not that she noticed as she barreled down the hallway.

Nurse Karen turned the corner just as Darah hurried toward it. She grabbed Darah’s shoulders, chuckling. “Whoa, you okay?”

Heart racing, she gestured over her shoulder. “Please help. He can’t breathe.”

The woman’s amusement fled as her eyes drifted over Darah’s head. She brushed past Darah toward the room, and Darah didn’t follow, hurrying around the corner in search of J.R. and Hana.

She found them standing just inside the conservatory windows that overlooked the garden. Clement was nowhere in sight and from their identical stances, Hana and J.R. were in deep conversation. She bit her bottom lip, hesitating to interrupt them. Then the alarm in L.J.’s eyes propelled her forward. “E—“

“What will he say once he finds out?” Hana stifled Darah’s words.

“I don’t know,” J.R. answered in a strained voice. He was clearly exhausted.

“I know,” Hana countered. “He’ll be against it, especially since it’s not even your child.”

Darah’s stomach turned violently and she shifted from view when Hana turned her head to glare at J.R.

“What are you thinking, Bhaiyaa?”

Curiosity of J.R.’s thoughts temporarily outweighed Darah’s urgency to inform him of his father. So she stalled, waiting and dreading his response.

J.R. sighed heavily. “I don’t know.”

Darah’s brow furrowed. What didn’t he know?

“Are you really thinking of marrying her?”

J.R. was silent a little too long and Darah bit the inside of her cheek a little too hard, drawing blood. Her pulse thumped violently in her throat as she stared at his back and broad shoulders.

Hana sighed heavily. “Maybe I shouldn’t say this—”

“Then don’t.”

Darah glared at Hana. The woman was meddling more now than before she knew Darah’s little secret.

J.R. sighed, dragging a hand through his hair. “Look, it’s complicated.”

Darah frowned at the back of J.R.’s head.

Hana snorted. “Well it’s about to get more complicated, Bhaiyaa. Are you really going to let Uncle think the baby’s yours? And what if the father wants to be part of the baby’s life, can you handle the drama?”

With each second J.R. remained silent, Darah grew more troubled. Blood pooled in her mouth as she gnawed the inside of her cheek, eyes stinging with tears that threatened to spill, her stomach in gnarled knots. His hesitance condemned her for putting him in such an awful predicament; having to tell his dying father that the woman he’d chosen was having another man’s baby. She could imagine the horror and disappointment in L.J.’s eyes, and the hurt and shame in J.R.’s.

Darah took a step back, losing courage to announce herself. She was the bad guy in the story—the villain dashing L.J.’s dreams of beholding his grandchildren and seeing his bloodline through his only son. And every time J.R. would gaze at her son, he’d feel cheated and resentful. The thought of J.R. resenting her hurt more than the pesky ache in her stomach.

Taking another step back, Darah decided against revealing herself to the couple. They didn’t need to know she’d come for them, and Nurse Karen was more than capable of stabilizing J.R.’s father.

Suddenly Clement opened the door leading to the garden and stepped inside, greeting the couple with a smile. When he spotted Darah standing by the column, he started to call out to her.

Putting one finger to her mouth, she shook her head adamantly, pleading with him not to call her out.

Noticing Clement’s furrowed brow, J.R. turned in the direction of his gaze.

Darah ducked behind the column, heart pounding violently in her chest. If he knew she’d been standing there and overheard their conversation, he’d feel even more shame. She didn’t want that for him.

“What is it?” J.R. inquired gently.

“Uh, it’s nothing.”

Darah released the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding, and a solid tear slid down her cheek.

“What are you still doing out here? Thought you’d be heading back.” Clement asked.

“Darah’s still with Uncle,” Hana answered. “So we’re giving them privacy.”

Wiping the tears with the back of her hand, Darah slunk away before Clement’s could respond. She’d make her decision now. J.R. didn’t deserve to bear the shame and pain of what she’d done.

“I see…” Clement spotted Darah trudging away and frowned. He’d noticed the sadness in Darah’s face, as if she’d been gutted. Something was wrong. He returned his attention to J.R. “Well, I better go see about her before I head back. The family’s wondering if she stay with you or come with me.”

Deciding to keep his opinion about that decision unspoken, J.R. simply nodded.

Hana placed her hands to her hips. “It’s not advisable that she stay here in her condition. Expectant mothers need as much rest as possible, don’t you agree Reverend?”

At the look of alarm on Clement’s face, J.R. nodded. “It’s okay, we already discussed it.”

Clement frowned. Was the discussion the cause of Darah’s shell-shocked expression? He turned to J.R., gaze wary. “You told her?”

“Actually,” Hana spoke up before J.R. could. “I figured it out on my own and confirmed with your sister.”

His frown only deepened as she confirmed his concern for Darah. He tamped a weary sigh. “Yeah, you’re right, Doc. I better get my pregnant sister home then.” Cutting J.R. a withering glance, Clement brushed past them to go after Darah.

The three found Darah standing outside the door to L.J.’s room. Clement scowled as Darah kept her head bent, hiding her face. No doubt she was crying.

Concerned that she was outside and not with his father, J.R. stepped forward. “What’s wrong?” He glanced toward the door and then back at her. “Did something happen?”

Clement frowned as J.R. placed his hands on Darah’s shoulders. “Why don’t you go find out about your old man first? I’ll handle my sister.”

J.R. hesitated, looking at Darah’s bent head. Her silence was unsettling, more so than her taut shoulders that drew in defensively when he touched her. His heart skipped a beat, afraid of what his father might have said to her? “What happened?”

Hana stepped around him to open the door, and gasped at the sight of the doctor and nurse by L.J.’s bed. “Bhaiyaa, come quick.”

At the panic in Hana’s voice, he looked up and spotting the somber expressions awaiting him inside, he released Darah’s shoulders.

Clement came to stand by Darah as J.R. stepped inside and closed the door. Then he placed a hand on her shoulder, feeling it tremble against his palm. “What happened?”

This time, Darah let out a whimper and leaned her forehead against his chest. Clement swallowed a sigh and wrapped his arms around her.

“Can we go home now?” her voice was faint, reminding him of the nights when she had terrible nightmares as a kid. “Please?”

The soft plaintiff made him tighten his hold around her. “Alright, let’s go.”

J.R. frowned at his sleeping father’s form, wondering what went wrong. The niggling thought of a morose Darah standing outside the door crossed his mind. “I thought you said he was stable. What happened?”

The doctor nodded, expression somber. “It seems the edema is taking its time to clear up. The oxygen levels are gradually increasing, which is good, but we’ll have to monitor him a bit more closely.”

His shoulders sagged. “So his discharge date…”

“We’ll have to postpone that for now.” The doctor glanced down at his patient. “His immune system is a bit compromised, so we’ll have to watch for infection also…”

The calmer of the two, Hana nodded and placed her hand on J.R.’s shoulder. “Thank you Doctor.”

Nurse Karen stalled after the doctor left the room, then she turned to the couple with a wan smile. “He’ll be fine, he’s in good hands. I’ll be praying for you.”

J.R. nodded listlessly and lowered to the chair beside his father’s bed, staring at his mask-covered face. Just when he thought his father was getting better, bad news re-surfaced. He dragged a hand over his face and let out a weary sigh.

“Thank you for catching it on time,” Hana said, her hand still resting on J.R.’s shoulder.

“Oh, it wasn’t me. The fiancée Darah found me first,” Nurse Karen responded. “She was a bit shook up, so I immediately knew something was wrong.”

J.R. looked up, surmising why Darah trembled in his arms. He was instantly reminded by the Teka siblings’ deeply-rooted aversion to hospitals. Just like him, they’d had their fair share of traumatic events and didn’t need another to remind them of their painful past. Maybe it was best for Darah to return with Clement than staying here with him. As much as he needed her now, she was better off at home with her family. Resolved, he turned to Hana.

She nodded with a half-smile. “I’ll check on her.”

He sighed as Hana stepped out, then arched a brow when she returned with a frown on her face.

“She’s gone,” Hana answered, hand on the doorknob. “She and her brother.”

His phone then dinged and vibrated at his hip. Fishing it out, he answered Clement’s call. “Hello?”

“Don’t worry about Darah. I’ll take her home.”

J.R. swallowed the lump in his throat. “Alright.”

Without another word, Clement disconnected the call and J.R. lowered the phone to his thigh. Part of him was relieved, part of him disappointed with the news. Deciding to worry about Darah later, he shook out of it to ask Nurse Karen the next steps in his father’s recovery.

In the car, Clement lowered the phone to the cup-holder and exhaled deeply. “You alright?”

In the passenger’s seat, Darah had her face to the window and kept silent.

When she sniffed back tears, Clement reached up and patted her head. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Unfortunately, his words offering no balm to Darah’s aching heart. The decision that awaited her would be the hardest one she would have to make, probably harder than her decision to keep the baby. More than anything, she dreaded and resented the resolution altogether.

Darah closed her eyes tightly shut, pushing one last tear down her cheek.

<<Chapter 21 || Chapter 23>>

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