A wave of panic threatened to wash over him as he sat silently in the wake of her words. His eyes swept over her face, trying to read her like he easily could before now. But there was a veil of detachment over her face; and as he reached out to touch her, she leaned away.

A knot formed between her brows. “I’m being serious, J.R.”

His gaze remained fixed on her. “I hear you.”

Her frown deepened. “So leave.”

“I won’t be doing that.” As he said the words, J.R. resolved in his heart to stay with Darah no matter what troubles arose—and there were plenty to tackle, just not now. He had to get her to trust him first.

Darah snatched her hand from his hold, tucking it under her other arm. Then she shifted her gaze to the wall, her silence dismissing him.

J.R. stared at her for a brief moment, wondering what went wrong. She’d been so excited, the love for him shining in her eyes a week ago. Now she was cold, detached, and unresponsive. He tamped a sigh. “Explain to me first, then I’ll give you my response.”

“Your response doesn’t matter,” she said curtly. “I want you to leave.”

“And I said I won’t. Not until you tell me what’s wrong.”

Darah clenched and unclenched her teeth, and he noticed her fingers tightening to a fist as though holding herself from telling him what was wrong.

“Is this about the baby?” he inquired gently, hesitantly.

She tensed and pursed her lips, staying quiet.

J.R. shifted closer and she edged away, pressing her back into the pillow. He refrained from reaching out for her hand, knowing she would only get agitated. He couldn’t afford to lose her, not now. “Darah… I’m not going anywhere. We’re in this together.”

When she didn’t say a word, J.R. had to push back the anxiety looming over him. The fear of losing Darah was worse than the fear of her initial rejection and push-back. He would try harder, get her to see he was committed to her. “Sweetheart, listen…”

She sniffled and he paused, staring at her. A lone tear slid down her face and J.R. scooted from the chair to perch on the bed beside her. She stuck an elbow, nudging his side. “Leave me alone…” she whined, losing control of her tears and her will to keep him away.

J.R.’s heart beat hard and fast as Darah pressed her forehead against his chest. She didn’t weep openly but sniffled and hiccuped through the silent tears. He nestled his face in her hair and closed his eyes, holding her tight. “It’s okay…” His fingers tightened on her shoulders. “We’re okay.”

As Darah whimpered quietly, J.R. knew he could never let her go. She was the beat of his heart, the rhythm to his rhyme—and as cheesy as he knew it sounded, J.R. now understood why the strongest of men surrendered to love.

Though she was perplexing and infuriating, she equally intrigued and thrilled him. Once his heart accepted his feelings for her, J.R. admitted her presence demanded purpose in his. She challenged his existence and relevance, making him know shame in settling for less and not questioning the questionable; constantly pushing him, daring him to dream beyond what he could imagine. In other words, she scared him and rocked his world off-kilter. He was like a fish out of water whenever she opened her mouth or spared him a glance—a force to be reckoned with, even at the age of 15.

Maybe that was why he ran away, why he hid the letter she’d written, and labeled her confession and intentions as childish and naïve whims. He’d been the fool, but not anymore. “Sweetheart…”

Darah sniffed against his chest, one hand splayed near his heart. There was no way she couldn’t feel the erratic beating against her palm.

“Sweetheart…” he began again.

“Why are you calling me that?”

J.R. pressed a kiss to her temple. “Because…” He peered down, his heartbeat jumping at her illuminous gaze on him. God, she even looked appealing with tears in her eyes. Though tempted to steal a kiss, he refrained himself. He’d waited ten years and could wait ten more minutes until she realized his intentions. Cupping her face, his thumb caressed the soft skin of her cheek. “I was a fool a little too long to see you.”

Darah lowered her gaze and sighed. “J.R., please don’t…”

“No listen.” He wished she’d look up again, but had a feeling he’d get too tongue-tied. So he continued, hoping she would grant his wish. “I meant what I said earlier. We’re in this together. I have no intentions of letting you go. Not now, not ever.”

She sniffled. “What about your dad? And Hana?”

He frowned, deciding to address the obvious first. “I’m not marrying Hana, Darah.”

“Okay, but your dad really likes her.”

J.R. barely stopped himself from snorting. “And he’ll like you better since you’re the one I’ve chosen.”

Darah shuddered, recalling L.J.’s words. “He’ll be unhappy about the baby. Besides, after what just happened, I I don’t have time to focus on anything other than keeping this baby alive.. and safe.”

“Of course, that we can do together.” J.R. knew he couldn’t hesitate or she would protest. “When I said I loved you, I meant every part of you, including this child.”

“It’s not that easy…” She trembled against him, unable to accept his promises.

He ignored her mumbling, deciding to press a little. “Why you didn’t pick up my calls?”

Darah stiffened and though her silence broke his heart, J.R. smoothed the curls around her temple. “Did you think I wouldn’t want the baby? Because that’s not true. I want this baby as much as I want you.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying…” Darah peered up at him then, eyes swimming in tears. “When your father finds out or when the child’s grown up and looking for his biological father, won’t you resent me for making you stay with me?”

Though he’d predicted her train of thought, hearing it from her mouth pierced him to his core. He tightened his hold around her. “Resent you? Never.”

She narrowed her eyes, disbelieving. “It’s easier said than done, J.R. Not every man can raise another person’s child.”

“But he won’t be another person’s child, Darah. He’d be yours… and ours. We’ll raise him or her the best way we’ll know how, with love and care. I’ll protect and care for you both all the rest of my life.”

Giving her a faint smile, J.R. brushed a thumb over the stray tear that slid down her cheek. Emboldened, he leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on her lips. Then he raised his head and watched her lashes flutter slowly, her eyes opening once more.

“Forgive my foolishness and my selfishness.” His thumb lowered, grazing the curve of her bottom lip. “I shouldn’t have waited this long to tell you how I feel, what I want.”

“What do you want…?”

“You.” His lips twitched a smile when her eyes widened. He tapped her bottom lip. “Heart, soul, mind and body… and the baby you’re carrying, are what I want. The rest we’ll figure out together.”

His fingers traced a line along her jaw and down the slender column of her neck, feeling the rapid pace of her pulse. Her light complexion betrayed a tinge of dusky-rose on her cheeks. He held back a smile and rested his hand lightly at the back of her neck. “I have a question though. Will you answer honestly?”

“What is it?” She could barely keep her eyes on him, the blush giving her away.

“Why is Lighthouse my caller ID on your phone?”

Darah’s eyes widened. “W-what?”

He didn’t dare blink, wanting to read every emotion plain as day on her face. He loved watching her, could imagine doing it for the rest of their lives together. “Lighthouse… what does it mean?”

She bit the bottom of her lip, hesitating to answer. Then she frowned. “Wait, how did you know that?”

J.R. arched a brow. “Answer me first and then I’ll explain.”

Darah wrinkled her nose and lowered her gaze. Her fingers found the zipper of his jacket, fiddling with it. “It’s embarrassing, cheesy actually…”

“Let me hear it first.”

She exhaled a breath and mumbled something under her breath. He leaned down. “Say it again.”

Darah whined a little before replying. “You’re like a lighthouse to me, that’s why.”

“A lighthouse?” He frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“Sometimes I feel like a ship wandering out to sea, with no sense of direction… Everyone thinks I’m flighty but you don’t see me that way, or at least you never articulate it like the guys do.” She sighed. “Like when I didn’t know what to study and my brothers gave me a hard time being indecisive about my future, you just had that silent but understanding way about you. You never judged me or made me feel like a kid—well, except when you rejected my confession.”

Darah snuck a peek at him and immediately dropped her gaze. She continued fiddling with the zipper of his jacket. “I guess I’ve just always felt safe with you in a way I don’t understand. Like I can find my way, like I’d never get lost with you.”

When he still hadn’t responded, Darah huffed a sigh. “Anyway, I was reading this book about lighthouses and you came to mind. And I didn’t want the guys teasing me for crushing on you, so I just put the name instead of your real name so—”

Suddenly, J.R. tilted her chin and kissed her; this time more passionate and intentional than the others. Darah gasped against his mouth, her fingers tightening around his shirt. The emotions wrought between them was poured into this kiss as they clung to each other, unveiling feelings long since suppressed.

Then the door swung open and the two sprang apart, Darah shoving J.R. hard before scurrying under the bed blanket. Upended from the bed, his hip slammed against the bedside table and J.R. quickly grabbed the railing to keep from toppling over.

The mad scramble was witnessed by a wide-eyed Phoebe standing in the doorway, and three glowering brothers behind her. “Is that why you had us leave?” Bart groused. “So you could make out?”

Darah kept the blanket over her head, knowing her brothers would see the heat in her cheeks.

J.R. straightened himself and glared at his friends. “Y’know you could’ve knocked first,” he said, grumpy about more than his sore hip.

The brothers scoffed incredulously. “Unbelievable,” Bart muttered.

“This guy…” Clement fought a smirk.

Phoebe giggled as she circled the bed to pluck the sheet over Darah’s face. “There’s no need to hide, you’re both adults.”

Darah peeked at Abe from behind the bed blanket. “So I don’t have to wait until I’m thirty then?”

“Wait for what?”

She frowned. “That nonsensical rule you and Bart made up on your own about my love life.”

Noncommittal, Abe and Bart shrugged. Darah rolled her eyes. “Never mind.”

Then Bart grinned in J.R.’s direction. “We did say she could marry earlier if she chose you, didn’t we?”

J.R. smirked. “That is correct.”

Darah snorted. “And you waited this long, knowing you’d gotten their permission. Really J.R., really?”

He graced her a honeyed smile. “I thought you’d already forgiven me for that, sweetheart.”

Sweetheart?” Bart and Clement echoed in disbelief. Abe chuckled, his stern façade forgotten.

“Love can change a person, fellas…” Phoebe pinned Clement with a stare. “Take note, Junior.”

Clement held up both hands. “Now wait a minute, leave me out of this.”

Abe put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Knowing her, you’d be next in line.”

“Nuh-unh, I’m not getting married.”

Phoebe choked on a laugh and eyed Darah and J.R. gazing adoringly at each other. She shook her head incredulously and cleared her throat. “So when can we plan the wedding?”

The three brothers groaned at once and Darah blinked at her sister-in-law. “Uh…”

“As soon as I talk with my father,” J.R. answered without missing a beat.

“Ooohhh!” the brothers said in unison, Darah’s eyes wide in surprise. J.R. winked and grinned at her. He was wasting no more of their time.

Someone cleared their throat amidst their ruckus, and Phoebe waved them to pipe down. Her brow furrowed. “May we help you?”

All attention turned to the man standing in the doorway, and their faces darkened. Darah sat up in her bed, frowning. “Jeremy?”

“I knew he looked familiar,” Bart muttered, starting for the door. “I thought we told you to stay away—”

J.R. stepped into Bart’s path. “I’ll take care of it.”

The brothers nodded, though glaring at Jeremy who held up both hands and edged backwards. “Please, I need to talk to Darah.”

“You’ll talk with me first.” J.R. gestured for the man to follow and without a glance back at Darah, led the way down the hall.

Jeremy flinched as J.R. suddenly came to a stop and turned to face him. He held up his hands once more. “Look, I don’t mean any harm.”

“What do you need to see Darah for?”

“It’s a private matter,” the younger man said, eyes shifty. “One between me and her.”

“Considering I’m the man she’ll marry, that matter concerns me. So talk.”

Dumbfounded, Jeremy stared at him. Impatient to return to Darah, J.R. started to speak.

Bhaiyaa, there you are!”

J.R. turned at the sound of Hana’s voice. Noting the aggrieved look on her face, his confrontation with Jeremy was momentarily forgotten. He hurried to her. “What is it?”

“Your dad, he’s looking for you.” Her melancholic gaze stirred anxiety within J.R. “Please come now.”

<<Chapter 24 || Chapter 26>>