In silence, Bart and J.R. watched the construction workers standing in front of the overpass, Geraldine gesticulating as she instructed them on the new changes.
When a couple of the construction workers saluted Geraldine before turning back to their duties, Bart smirked. “Glad I didn’t make the mistake of demanding that she become a housewife. This is what she does best, bossing folks around.”
“You two have a good partnership,” J.R. agreed, watching Geraldine pause to speak with another construction worker.
“Not to mention she looks good in jeans.” Bart nudged J.R.’s shoulder. “It’s all thanks to you.”
J.R. glanced at his friend, wishing Bart would stop referring to the past. Any lawyer could’ve helped Geraldine escape her wicked ex in-laws; his involvement wasn’t all that special. He shrugged. “It’s nothing. Just did my job.”
“I meant this. She’s kept me awake every night, going over the blueprints.” Bart grunted. “There are three occasions a man’s woman looks the most beautiful. The wedding day, the day she gives birth and when she’s doing what she loves. I thank you, my friend.”
J.R. smirked. “I wouldn’t know about all that…”
“You would if you stopped chickening out. You’re the only brother-in-law we’d accept.”
J.R. refrained from rolling his eyes. “Don’t start with this. Besides, doesn’t she have five years left?”
“If you’d make your decision soon enough, we’ll decrease her sentence.”
J.R. snorted but didn’t get to respond when Geraldine joined them on the top floor. He smiled in greeting since she’d been too busy earlier on. “Everything going well?”
“Yep.” Geraldine flashed him a grin. “We should be done with the lobby and kitchen by next week.”
Bart clapped a hand over J.R.’s shoulder. “That’s not an issue. Everything cool on your end?”
J.R.’s smile waned. “Yep, fine.”
“You say one thing yet your face says another, my friend.”
Geraldine’s brow furrowed in concern. “You haven’t told your dad, have you?”
J.R. sighed. “No.”
Bart shook his head and removed his hand. “He’s bound to find out that his only son’s building an immigration and refugee center. Better to tell him sooner than later.”
“Indeed.” Geraldine parked her hands at her hips. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
J.R. didn’t answer, predicting how badly his father would react if he caught wind of what his son was using his hard-earned money on.
Immigration was a sticky subject for his father who steered clear from the issue after several incidents involving their firm in the past, some explicitly noted and some not. After a few federal government investigations were done on his establishment, L.J. rejected any immigration cases from that day forth and began planning out J.R.’s career as an attorney and finally director of the law firm, hoping his son would be too busy with civil cases to feed his compassion for refugees or ‘illegal immigrants’.
“By the way, Darah’s home,” Geraldine’s voice pulled J.R. from his thoughts.
“For the weekend?” Bart drawled, scrolling through his phone.
Geraldine snuck a glance at J.R.’s face before smirking. “Nope, the summer and maybe even longer.”
Bart looked up in alarm. “Something happen?”
Thankfully Geraldine looked away before reading his expression. J.R. grew weary of maintaining nonchalance whenever Darah was mentioned, especially when he too worried about her.
“We’ll probably find out at dinner.” Geraldine’s gaze swung back to J.R. and he gave her a blank stare. Her lips twitched in amusement. “As always, you’re invited to come.”
As much as he wanted to see Darah, he shook his head. “Can’t.”
“Running away again?” Bart muttered beside him.
J.R. sighed. “Have to play host at home. My father’s got visitors from back home.”
Geraldine’s brows raised. “Oh really?”
J.R. nodded. “Maybe next time. But tell her I said hello.”
Bart snorted and Geraldine rolled her eyes. “Or you could tell her yourself. Call her.”
“She changed her number,” J.R. mumbled, though admittedly he’d only texted her once after their misunderstanding years ago.
“I’ll give the new number to you.”
J.R. tamped a sigh, wishing Geraldine would leave well enough alone. “Doubt she wants to talk to me.”
“You won’t know until you try calling her.” Geraldine nudged her husband. “Give him the number. Let me go check on the guys in the backyard.” She walked away before Bart could respond.
“I was like you once,” Bart remarked, his eyes watching Geraldine sashay across the open field. “Battled a boatload of conflicted feelings about that woman, and because I didn’t face them, face her, I lost her for a while.” His gaze shifted to J.R. “Don’t make the same mistake I made.”
J.R. frowned. “Why do you insist on me? What if she wants someone else?”
“You’re the best man for her.” Then Bart smiled and clapped a hand over his shoulder. “And if Darah doesn’t pick you, she’ll have to wait five more years before she has permission to marry someone else.”
J.R. watched in silence as Bart ambled in the same direction as his wife Geraldine, and his shoulders slumped. He didn’t deserve Bart’s confidence, not when he was too much of a coward to be with someone as brave and bold as Darah.
Hours later and J.R. wished he’d accepted Geraldine’s invitation to join them for dinner. He would rather face an irritated Darah and her meddlesome sisters-in-law than his own father.
Seated on a cushioned chair that felt like he sat atop rocks, J.R. maintained a pleasant expression in front of his father and guests; Dabir and his wife Jaswinder, and their only daughter Hana.
“So Raju,” Mr. Dabir finally spoke, the leather of the chair squeaking as he shifted in his seat. His dark eyes studied J.R. as if he was on an examining table. “Lalana tells me you are a director at the law firm.”
“Yes,” J.R. simply answered, feeling the weight of the women’s stares. He preferred Phoebe and Geraldine—at least he knew what was on their minds.
“It is my hope he will be able to take up my role,” L.J. interjected.
“But of course,” Dabir chuckled. “Although I’m still shocked that you retired.”
“Bhaiyaa, you are too young to retire,” cooed Jaswinder.
Lalana’s eyes danced with mischief. “I can’t keep up with this generation. It’s time to step down and let them get the chance to lead.”
J.R. wondered at the truth of his father’s words, when dictating every aspect of his son’s life was his full-time job after retiring the law firm.
“I hear Hana is graduating top of her class,” L.J. continued, turning to the quiet girl seated between her parents. He gave her a gentle smile only reserved for her. “Have you decided what you will study?”
Hana dipped her head, the thick plaited ponytail sliding along her shoulder. “Internal medicine, Babuji.”
J.R. frowned at the endearment of her calling his father hers, saw the warmth of his father’s smile grow and Hana’s parents sneak a glance at each other. He stifled a groan.
And as if Hana heard him, her light-brown eyes peeked at him through thick lashes.
He stood abruptly, alerting the adults. “Can I get you tea?”
“Thank you, Beta…” said Dabir, referring to J.R. as his son.
J.R. nodded stiffly and rounded the couch for the kitchen without hearing what kind of tea they wanted. Closing the microwave door and tapping the start button, J.R. leaned against the counter and breathed out a shaky sigh.
What happened to letting him pick who he wanted to marry? Why couldn’t he dream of having a partnership like Bart and Geri or Abe and Phoebe? Could he really let his father pick a bride for him like he did a career?
The sound of shuffling feet behind him had J.R. look over his shoulder. Hana stood there, her hands folded in front of her. J.R. stifled yet another groan and arched his brows. “Did you need something?”
Her caramel eyes skittered from his face to the microwave behind him. Then her lips twitched as if holding back a smile. “Do you need help?”
J.R. shook his head. “Nope. I can make tea.”
“Uncle Lalana said I should help you.” Hana rounded the counter toward him.
‘Of course he did.’ He held back the thought, instead replying. “It’s fine. I’ve got it covered.”
“Oh?” She cocked her head slightly. “Do you know what type of tea my parents like?”
J.R. blinked. “I assumed they’d like the same as my dad.”
A slow smile lifted her lips and she shook her head. “That’s why I came to help. Relax, Bhaiyaa.”
Bhaiyaa was a term to mean ‘older brother’, and her off-handed use of the word should’ve set J.R.’s mind at ease. But that smile on her heart-shaped face and the knowing gleam in her caramel eyes made his stomach roll with apprehension.
Darah groaned over the toilet bowl after expelling what was left of the night’s dinner. She winced when Phoebe pounded her back. “Hold on…”
Phoebe’s hand stayed on her back, stroking in a soothing motion. “This is your third time tonight. What did you eat?”
“I only ate what you gave me.”
“No one else is sick—”
Darah dry-heaved into the toilet before letting out a wrought moan.
“This won’t do. We need to go to the hospital.”
Spent and disoriented, Darah sagged against the toilet. “Maybe it’s a delayed reaction. I did have some suspect burrito on campus days ago.”
Phoebe grunted as she handed Darah a cup of water to swish her mouth. “It doesn’t matter. You can get dehydrated while hurling your guts all night long. Get dressed.”
“It’s three o’clock in the morning, Phoebe,” Darah protested before gargling the water. She spat into the toilet and then flushed the contents. “I’ll try to sleep it off.”
When Phoebe didn’t answer, Darah snuck a glance at her and the deep frown on Phoebe’s face made her sigh. “Don’t worry. I’m sure it’s just food poisoning.”
“Well if this continues through the night, we’re going to the hospital. Got it?”
Darah nodded begrudgingly.
Phoebe sighed and held out a hand to help Darah stand. “I don’t know why you are like your brothers about hospitals.”
Darah didn’t answer, following her sister-in-law out of the bathroom. It was best she didn’t know why any of them hated hospitals. “Goodnight, Phoebe.”
“First thing in the morning, we’re going to the hospital. No protesting, got it?”
“That’s if I still feel badly,” Darah insisted, waving over her shoulder at her. “Goodnight.”
Entering Eleazar’s room, Darah leaned against the door. Her stomach was a jumbled mess and her throat felt raw from vomiting. She rubbed her belly and trudged to the twin bed. Even though he’d taken most of his clothes to his grandmother’s place, Eleazar’s scent lingered and made her miss him.
“At least call home, jerk…” she mumbled, climbing into his narrow bed.
At dinner, Abe seemed more subdued and his eyes drifted occasionally to Eleazar’s empty chair. Apparently J.R.’s presence was to detract Eleazar’s absence but even J.R. flaked, making the dinner a most awkward affair.
Darah’s lips twitched derisively. “Of course he’d flake… Jerk.”
To distract Abe and Bart from getting upset about Eleazar’s absence, Phoebe and Geraldine interrogated Darah about her sudden change of heart to live at home.
Her stomach turned violently and Darah shot off the bed and out the bedroom. She met Phoebe standing in the hallway with her arms folded.
Phoebe arched a brow. “First thing tomorrow.”
Nausea pushed up her throat and Darah slapped a hand over her mouth, nodding at her sister-in-law. Phoebe then stepped aside, clicking her tongue in disapproval as Darah rushed into the bathroom.