Turned out Phoebe had a feeling she was pregnant before the dry heaving that lasted deep into the night. She confessed to a dazed Abe that she’d known of her condition weeks ago but was too nervous to mention it, just in case it didn’t work out.
Long after the two youngest had gone to sleep and Clement retreated to his room, Geraldine watched as Abe enveloped his wife in his arms and cradled her against his chest. When Abe pressed a kiss to Phoebe’s forehead, Geraldine tamped a longing sigh and looked away, gaze colliding with Bart’s.
His lips were pursed, eyes squinted in clear suspicion.
She looked down at her phone and grimaced. “Oh man. I better get going…” She stood from the chair propped near the couple’s bed.
Phoebe peeked from around Abe’s arms and gave Geraldine a weary smile. “Thank you Geri…”
“Congratulations. I’ll check on you tomorrow,” she said to the couple and stepped around Bart to the door. Hearing him tell her to wait, Geraldine hurried from the master bedroom and out of the house.
Bart caught up to her before she reached her car. She yelped when he grabbed her by the waist and pulled her into his chest. Face aflame, she nudged at his arms. “Let me go.”
“What’s your rush?” he drawled out, unaffected by her hands shoving at his chest.
“It’s midnight and I have to go to my kid. Let me go!”
The raised inflection in her tone made him release her, though his fingers parked on her hips. Under the flickering streetlamp, she could see his brow was furrowed in consternation. “Now what’s with you?”
She avoided looking at him. “Nothing. I just have to go.”
“I’m not stopping you.”
Heat coursed through her and she stepped back. “Goodnight then.” She turned on her heels to go.
“Let’s get married.”
Her footsteps stalled from rushing off and she spun around. “What?”
He didn’t blink, didn’t move. “You heard me.”
She gaped at him. “What on earth for? My in-laws already think we’re getting married, and once they’re gone, we don’t need to pretend any more.”
“This isn’t pretend for me, Geraldine. I want to marry you.”
His words felt like a sucker punch in her gut, stealing her breath.
Bart moved toward her, frowning when she took a step back. He paused. “What are you doing?”
Geraldine regained her composure. “What are you doing? This isn’t part of the plan.”
He squinted at her. “What plan?”
She gritted her teeth. “Bartimeus–whoa, stop there.” She inched backward until her back was pressed against her car. “I said stop, you stubborn oaf.”
He only smiled wickedly, coming to stand directly in front of her.
She could barely breathe at his proximity–this insufferable man. “What are you doing?”
Bart placed his hands on either side of her shoulders, resting his palms against the car windows. “Stopping you from running away again.”
“A-again?” Her pulse tripped when he lowered his head. She turned her face away. “Bart, stop this.”
She glared at his shoulder. “I have to go home.”
“And you’ll go home when I get my answer.”
“I already told you there’s no reason for us to get married, Bart.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“You didn’t ask. You said–”
“Marry me, Geraldine.”
She squeezed her eyes shut; fighting the warm shivers that traveled down her arms. “No.”
“Stop mumbling. Look at me and give me your answer.”
Geraldine forced her eyes back to his shadowed features. It hurt to look at him. “I said no.”
Bart leaned away and dropped his hands. She didn’t need the streetlight to know what her answer did to his handsome face. “So what, I’m good enough to be your pretend husband but not enough to be the real thing? Is that it, Geraldine?”
Her chest tightened in regret. “That’s not it, Bart.”
“Isn’t it? Then why–”
“I can’t marry you.”
“You can’t or you won’t? Speak plainly because I’m tired of your games.”
She frowned. “This isn’t a game.”
“Right.” Bart snorted in disgust and took a step back. “Goodnight, Geraldine.”
“You left three years ago because you weren’t sure of my feelings. I’m telling you now that I—”
“Stop!” she shouted, her voice echoing in the quiet neighborhood. A lone dog barked in protest and she dropped her head. “Please don’t.”
Bart heaved a sigh. “Fine. It’s late. Get going.”
At the sound of his footfall retreating, Geraldine looked up. “Please don’t make this more complicated than it already is, Bart. They’ll be gone in a week and we can get back to our lives.”
He paused and turned to look at her. “I hear you. Go home, Geraldine.”
When he didn’t turn away, Geraldine had no choice to leave. She didn’t want to fight with him and it seemed like he didn’t want to either. There was much to say but she couldn’t bring herself to say any of it without sounding like a crazy person. With a nod, she turned away and ducked into her car.
Bart muttered a curse under his breath as she eased the car from the driveway and drove away.
“Nice going, Big Bro,” Clement drawled from the porch.
His face darkened. “Go away.”
His brother’s footfall sounded on the steps. “You pushed too hard, y’know.”
“So you’re the love expert now?” Bart turned to Clement, more annoyed than he expected. Somehow, he’d imagined Geraldine’s pretty eyes welling up with tears and a wobbly smile on her pretty mouth before she flung her arms around him and kissed him with gratitude.
“Sometimes you need an outsider’s perspective to point out your screw-ups.”
“Remind me to do the same with you,” Bart drawled, sweeping past Clement up the stairs.
“Geri’s got a whole lot of hurt, Bart. You have to be careful.”
Bart paused in step and turned to his brother. Before their fake engagement, Geraldine had spoken jadedly of romance, but he was certain she had feelings for him.
“She obviously cares a great deal for you,” Clement continued, kicking a pebble. “No woman would allow you to kiss her like that if she didn’t.”
“What’s with the lack of privacy? We’re not some peep show,” Bart groused, only mildly annoyed.
“It’s expected. Abe and Phoebe barely got alone time before they got married. Even now, they have to ask for permission to get away for a weekend.” Clement shook his head. “Unreal.”
Bart felt a flush at the thought of marrying Geraldine. The more he thought about the idea, the more he liked it. But how could he get her to see it his way?
“Even if you’re the better choice, being forceful like her family was about marrying that jerk isn’t gonna work for your benefit or hers. You’ve gotta be firm about your feelings yet gentle in your approach.”
“Gentle in my approach?” He sought Clement’s gaze.
“Take a lesson from Abe. Remember she did have the hugest crush on him.” Clement chuckled when Bart scowled. “What I’m saying, Big brother, is you gotta learn the art of push and pull.”
“Push and what?”
Clement walked up to his brother and clamped a hand on his shoulder. “The Art of Seduction.”
Bart eyed him warily. “And you want to be a missionary?”
“Missionary, not priest. Now come on.” He nudged Bart toward the door. “Let’s get started if we’re gonna get you married.”
Geraldine sat in the car long after she arrived home from Bart’s house, trying to calm her unsteady breath. She put a hand over her heart and closed her eyes. “Stop it… stop it.”
It scared her how hard her pulse was racing because it only happened whenever Bart gave her that impish dimpled smile of his. She shook her head to clear the image of his grin and leaned forward, pressing her forehead against the steering wheel.
“You can’t or you won’t?” Bart’s question echoed in her ear.
She squeezed her hand against her racing heartbeat. “I can’t…” Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t marry Bart. It was better this way.
A tap on the passenger window made her jump in her seat. She turned and quickly rolled down the window. “Mama? What’s go–?”
“Shh.” Yelena gestured to the sleeping baby in her arms. “Open the back door.”
Dumbly, Geraldine did as her mother said and glanced over at the front door. “Where are they?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Yelena muttered while strapping Joselyn in her seat. “Once I came home, I locked me and Jozy in your room.”
“What?” Geraldine gaped at her mother; she’d gone home hours ago.
Yelena slid in beside her granddaughter and closed the door. “We can’t stay in the house while they’re here. I don’t trust them to leave without trying anything funny.” She and Geraldine peered down at the child whose head lolled back and forth.
A cold chill trickled down Geraldine’s spine and she gripped the steering wheel. “They can’t take my baby. I won’t let them.”
“Good.” Yelena adjusted Joselyn’s head. “Let’s go back to the Teka house–”
“Shh!” Yelena put a finger over her mouth and frowned at her daughter. “What? Why?”
Heat infused her cheeks and Geraldine looked at Joselyn sleeping undisturbed. “They don’t have space,” she said lamely, fumbling with her hands.
Yelena snorted. “They have a couch and Joselyn can stay with the youngest girl, Darcy…”
“Darah,” Geraldine sighed heavily. “Mama, that’s not a good idea.”
Yelena smiled. “It is. I already called Barty and he said they’ll make room.”
Her eyes widened in alarm and she gaped at her mother. “You did what? When?”
“Just now. He called to see if you’d made it home yet and when I shared my concern, he invited us to come back. They’re probably making space in the house now. Let’s go, Mija.”