An hour after he left the house for the Obed Law Associates office downtown, J.R. had no viable solution for keeping his center. Begging Mrs. Ganesh was next to impossible after he’d laughed her out of his office, and the other two wouldn’t budge without his father’s consent. Getting married by the year’s end was ridiculous; who would marry him?
“Good morning, Mr. Obed.”
J.R. glanced up at the greeting and offered a half smile as he approached the young clerk standing on the opposite side of the front desk. “Good morning Devlin. Didn’t I tell you to call me J.R though?”
The freckle-faced intern beamed. “I tried to but Mrs. Edith said first-name basis was off-limits.”
J.R. shook his head, picturing his father’s secretary of twenty-odd years and recalled her lectures when he worked as an intern while in college. He glanced over his shoulder once before leaning in. “She’s a bit of a stickler, isn’t she?”
Devlin covered her mouth to hold a giggle.
“And this stickler has been waiting for an hour,” an accented voice drawled behind him.
Devlin’s face dropped and she ducked behind the computer. With nowhere to hide, J.R. turned with a sheepish smile and met Mrs. Edith Adebo’s stern expression. “Good morning, Mrs. Edith.”
Her hawkish black eyes swept over him in the same critical manner she used every morning. “You are late for your morning meeting, Mr. Obed.”
It felt weird that she addressed him so formally even though she’d known him since he was in grade school and her first son, Segun, was one of his childhood friends. He remembered her dragging both he and Segun by the ears when they were caught doing something naughty, recalled her sharp reprimands as she treated him equally as her sons.
When his mother passed, she’d been the one to hold him as he wept, mostly because he’d been playing Nintendo upstairs the afternoon his mother succumbed to her pain. Seeing Segun’s mother regard him through the lenses of professionalism, all because he was now her boss, made him squirm.
He blinked from his reverie. “Pardon?”
“Morning meeting. Late.”
J.R. nodded, heat filling his face. “Right, of course. Lead the way.”
Mrs. Edith sniffed and strode past him. “Don’t get distracted, Devlin,” she said on her way.
“Yes Ma’am,” Devlin answered sheepishly.
J.R. met Devlin’s eye and mouthed ‘she’s a ninja’ which earned the girl’s giggle. He chuckled.
“Coming,” he called back to Mrs. Edith and with a quick thumbs-up to Devlin, hurried to catch up with his father’s secretary. “How is your morning going, Mrs. Edith?”
“Back on schedule now that you’re here,” she responded, her sensible heels clicking as they walked in unison down the hallway. A junior attorney greeted them both as he strolled past, to which Mrs. Edith merely nodded her greeting.
J.R. wondered if she’d always been this unfriendly, or merely putting up a front because his father didn’t want J.R. making alliances at work. He thought of her stern expressions as she reprimanded Segun and his lips twitched a smirk. Nope, she’d always been stern—
“After your morning meeting, I have a few files I need you to review before I pass them along.”
He looked back at her. At six-feet-two, he was accustomed to peering down at his female colleagues but Mrs. Edith Adebo was only a few inches shorter and her heels put her at eye-level. He raised a quizzical brow. “Files?”
She rolled her dark eyes. “If you would pay attention to the happenings of the office, Mr. Obed, you would understand that our civic cases are piling up.”
He wondered if she’d spoken to his father this way, but nodded. “I apologize for the distraction.”
“Distraction is correct.” She gestured to the conference room where a few attorneys were present, discussing amongst themselves as they awaited his attendance. “After you, Mr. Obed.”
J.R. swallowed the anxiety that always crept in whenever he had to sit with his father’s executives, all older than him. Their aged gazes sized him up and found him inadequate, but what could they do but accept Lalana-Joel’s decision to hand the reins over to his son. Not that they trusted him, and J.R. was sure his father preferred it that way. It would keep him grounded, or rather apprehensive and watchful.
“Mr. Obed?” Mrs. Edith spoke through his thoughts and she arched a brow at him.
He squared his shoulders and nodded. “Yes, coming.”
Drawing in a breath, he released it slowly before entering the room. All eyes turned to the door and the conversations ceased as the older attorneys regarded him with open disapproval for his lateness. Donning a smile, J.R. took his seat at the head of the table. “Good morning, gentlemen. I apologize for my tardiness; had an important meeting with Obed Sr. that ran a little long. You know how he gets…”
He expected a chuckle or two, but only one snorted and another coughed while the others merely squinted at him. Humor was lost on these old coots.
“Bad joke,” J.R. muttered and turned to Mrs. Edith at his right. “Let us proceed.”
She dipped her head and began reading the minutes of the last meeting.
J.R. tamped a sigh and sat back in the chair; but not to relax. He quietly regarded each attorney and executive, taking note of their furrowed brows and pursed lips. They didn’t approve of his father’s decision but this was their livelihood, so biting back their protests was all they could do. Not that they made leading them easy for J.R.
His phone buzzed loud on the desk and all eyes turned to him. Face on fire, J.R. snatched the phone and lowered it to his lap.
The men sniffed and resumed their debate on the cases at hand. Since none cared to ask for his input, J.R. furtively turned to his phone. Two messages awaited his attention; the earliest from Darah and another from Geraldine. He opened Darah’s first.
“I need to talk to you. Let’s have dinner tonight, my treat.”
J.R.’s brow furrowed. After ignoring his calls for weeks, she suddenly wanted to have dinner with him? He tamped a sigh and opened Geraldine’s text.
“Be warned. Darah’s up to something.”
His heart skipped a beat as he reopened Darah’s text, looking for a hidden message. Finding none, he shrugged it off and quickly typed out a reply. “Okay.”
“Mr. Obed,” Mrs. Edith’s voice stopped him from sending it. Her brow was furrowed in disapproval.
He lowered the phone. “Yes…?”
An executive snorted, another chuckled. “You’ve got something more important to attend to?”
J.R. shook his head and turned the phone face down. “Nope, I’m all yours.”
She’d been so sure of herself after sending J.R. that message in the morning, but hours later and no response from him, she started to sweat. It didn’t help that neither Phoebe nor Geraldine took to her line of thinking.
“This is the craziest thing you’ve ever done,” Geraldine shouted. “And that’s saying a lot considering…” she gestured to Darah’s midsection.
Darah put a hand over her stomach. “How is it crazy? Did you and Bart almost get married that way? And besides, you’ve been trying to hook me up with J.R. for years. ”
“Not like this,” Phoebe insisted. “This doesn’t make any sense, Darah.”
“He needs to get married to get his dad off his back, and to support his center. What’s the issue?”
Geraldine snorted. “The issue, Joan of Arc, is if your brothers hear about this—”
Darah sniffed and looked away. “Trust me, my brothers will be relieved. They won’t have to bear the shame of having a single mother as a sister.”
Silence filled the room and Darah instantly regretted her words.
“So that’s what this is about?” Phoebe asked in disbelief.
Darah snuck a look and found her sisters-in-law gaping at her. She sighed and looked down at her silent phone. “Isn’t it true? They haven’t spoken to me since then.”
“How can anyone speak to you when you lock yourself up in Eli’s room?” Geraldine countered.
Phoebe sighed. “Not gonna lie, Abe’s pissed. But the reason he’s avoiding you is because I said he should.”
Darah frowned, more hurt by Phoebe’s admission than Geraldine’s sharp tongue. “Why would you do that?”
“Abe has hypertension, Darah.”
She sat up. “What?!”
Phoebe exhaled a breath and rubbed the side of her face. “We’ve had it under control for years but—”
“Years?!” Darah’s head and heart began pounding. Abe, healthy and ever-present big brother, sick? Her chest tightened as fear gripped her. Would she lose another person she loved?
“Calm down, he’s fine,” Geraldine muttered, reading the look in Darah’s eyes. “We just have to stop causing trouble… starting with you and Eli.”
Darah scowled. “How can I calm down? For years, my brother was suffering from high blood pressure and no one told me. Does everyone but me know?”
The silence and lowered eyes made Darah’s stomach turn.
“I see,” she managed to say and stood to her feet. She had no one to blame but herself for choosing to stay on campus and avoid coming home so she wouldn’t feel left out as her siblings got on with their lives and built their families. But was it worth not knowing about her own brother’s condition?
“Where are you going?” Phoebe asked, trailing Darah to the staircase.
“I need to get ready for my dinner with J.R.” Darah’s tone was cold, detached; a sure sign she was angry, which she was. Well, more hurt than angry. More afraid than hurt. She hurried up the stairs to put distance between her and Phoebe, and reached Eli’s bedroom door before Phoebe could catch up with her.
“Darah–!” the door slammed behind Phoebe’s protest.
Tears started to fall as Darah fell facedown onto the mattress and she allowed herself to weep, blaming the pregnancy for her uncontrollable emotions.
A knock sounded on her door hours later. Darah stirred from sleep and peered up at the darkened window. She groaned and turned onto her stomach. Another day wasted.
Then she sat up. Her dinner with J.R.! Snatching up her phone, she peered down at it. Her frown deepened at the blank screen. No messages from J.R.
Another knock sounded on the door.
Darah sighed. “I’m sleeping!” she answered, settling back in bed and poising to call J.R. about their dinner.
“It’s me,” J.R.’s voice sounded on the other side.
She sat up again and stared at the door. Then down at her phone and back at the door again.
Darah pushed to her feet and walked to the door, creaking it slightly open. She squinted at the man standing there. “Your phone doesn’t work?”
His dark eyes never wavered from hers, sensible enough not to dip his gaze to her nightshirt. “Better to talk face to face. Can I come in?”
His shoulders were too broad to see if Phoebe stood behind him. Giving in, Darah pulled open the door and light from the hallway spilled into the dark room. She folded her arms, making no move to welcome him in just yet. “Are we going out to dinner?”
“Not when there’s plenty of food here,” J.R. quipped, making no move to enter. “Can I come in or is this a conversation you want your siblings to be a part of?”
Darah rolled her eyes and stepped out of his path. Then she flicked on the light switch and moved to perch on the bed. She patted the spot beside her, knowing him well enough to decline but offering anyway. “Sit.”
True to form, J.R. ignored her offer and perching on the desk. “What’s up?”
His stubbornness knew no bounds. She wanted to stamp her feet. “I said we’d talk over dinner.”
“I already ate downstairs. We can ask Phoebe to bring you a plate—”
“Nevermind,” she snapped, gritting her teeth. “Can’t you just cooperate with me for once?”
J.R. eyed her warily, the same look he gave her when he thought she was being dramatic.
Darah blew out a breath and folded her arms. She hitched her chin and met his gaze. “I have a proposition to make, and I want you to think about it before you say no.”
His dark brows lifted in silent question.
She drew in another breath, calming her nerves. He always made her nervous, reminding her of that incident years ago when he stared at her like this before rejecting her. Nausea rolled in her stomach and she frowned. “I mean it, J.R. This is a serious proposition and I’m laying it all on the line here, so I want you to consider it seriously.”
J.R. frowned. “What is it, Darah?”
The gentle plea had her seeking his dark, kind eyes. This was a man that cared for her—maybe not loved her as she’d once loved him—but he liked her. Their friendship spanned a decade and could tolerate a few more. They knew each other fairly well, her family adored him; and most importantly, J.R. was kind and gentle and caring. He would be a good father to her child, and she would be the key to getting his father’s approval. Yes, he’d disappointed her in the past and he was stubborn as a he-goat, but he was a dependable man. They could have a good partnership.
Gazing at his face, she smiled. This could really work. “Let’s get married, J.R.”
His eyes widened and like Geraldine and Phoebe before him, his mouth dropped open.