“So J.R., are you single?” Yelena asked the young man accompanying them to the baggage claim.
“Mama,” Geraldine hissed and gave J.R. an apologetic look. “Don’t feel like you must answer her.”
J.R. only smiled. “It’s fine. And yes, Mrs. Pena, I am single.”
“By choice or by–”
“Mama! Will you leave the poor man alone?” She paused to lift Joselyn in her arms as they approached the escalators. Joselyn whined, wanting to stay on her two feet but Geraldine was too distracted with trying to keep Yelena harassing J.R. “Mama, quit already.”
“What’d I do now, mija? Leave me.”
Fighting a laugh, he gestured them forward on the escalator. “By choice. I’ve got time.”
Geraldine nodded. “Hear that Mom, he’s got time. End of story.”
Yelena snorted and crossed her eyes at Joselyn who giggled again, reaching up to touch her grandma’s face. “Nothing wrong with taking interest in people’s lives, mija.”
“Your interest is borderline nosy,” Geraldine insisted, adjusting her daughter on her hip. Though Joselyn was old enough to be led by the hand, Geraldine was still shaken up by what had taken place in their two-week stay in Peru.
On one occasion, Cristina and Andres had attempted to take Joselyn by force. They demanded their rights as Joselyn’s grandparents, disregarding J.R.’s threats to sue them for kidnapping a child from her mother. Even the civil lawyer J.R. worked with had little help in their family discord. Then government summoned Andres to court for embezzlement charges, and things began to swing in Geraldine’s favor.
At first, Andres and Cristina denied being involved in embezzlement of companies. When their dead son was accused, they easily separated themselves from his illegal activity, blaming Geraldine instead. But when Geraldine was called to testify, they changed their tune. Andres and Cristina bargained to be nicer in the future; Andres offering to forgive their debts owed his family.
Even in Geraldine’s silence, however, other families testified that Andres and Cristina were responsible for the growing slave labor in the community. The accusations were far too great in number to ignore and the court summoned Andres and Cristina for an emergency trial.
Right before her very eyes, Andres and Cristina were sentenced to prison on embezzling charges. Debts owed were nullified and the families, including Geraldine’s, were free to go.
“I see them!” Yelena’s excited voice rang in Geraldine’s ears, drawing her attention to the open lobby. Her eyes widened at the sight of the Teka clan, and her heart skipped a beat.
“Everyone came!” Yelena laughed, stepping off the escalator.
J.R. chuckled, pulling his carry-on after him. “Looks that way.”
Geraldine’s heart was pounding hard and fast as she too stepped off. Joselyn wriggled in her arms and she reluctantly lowered her two-year-old to her feet. She watched as her race to Yelena, standing by the Teka family. Her eyes quickly scanned the crew; Abe and Phoebe beamed with joy as they greeted both Yelena and J.R. Darah picked Joselyn and planted kisses on her cheeks. Even Clement and Eleazar were there, smiling in welcome.
She came to a stop, realizing Bart wasn’t among them. She scanned the crew again, not wanting to miss him in her excitement. She stopped at Clement once more, her stomach sinking. Did he not come?
Phoebe paused in mid-laugh and gestured Geraldine over. “Why the long face?”
Pushing aside her disappointment, Geraldine mustered a smile and walked into her friend’s arms. She closed her eyes to hide her disappointment.
“Long week, I know. Good to have you home,” Phoebe said, drawing back to study her friend.
“Good to be back.” Geraldine’s face was warm and she could feel tears gather.
“It’s been too hard for you, my dear friend… but not anymore. Thank God.”
Grateful that her disappointment of Bart’s absence was mistaken for relief, Geraldine accepted another hug.
“Alright, alright,” Darah spoke up. “We’ve got things to do. Let’s pack up and get moving.”
“Sure you don’t wanna say hi to your friend first?” Clement wriggled his brows suggestively.
“You’re lucky my hands are full,” Darah mumbled and flashed Geraldine a smile. “Welcome home, Geri. But let’s save the weeping and hugging for later. We need to go home now.”
Clement snorted. Phoebe squeezed Geraldine’s shoulder. “We better listen to her.”
“What’s going on?” Geraldine asked instead of the pressing question in her heart.
There was an impish glint to Phoebe’s smile. “You’ll see.”
Bemused, J.R. watched the teenage girl barking orders at Clement and Eleazar. He looked to Abe. “Everything alright?”
Abe shook his head. “The man that marries her’s gonna have his hands full.”
J.R. smirked. “Something going on?”
At Darah’s call for them to follow, the two men fell in step behind. Abe sighed. “The wife and sister are natural-born meddlers. Once they’ve got a plan, nothing can stop them whether everyone else is on board or not. Best thing’s to get in line and cooperate with the plan.”
“This plan… does it explain Bart’s absence from the welcome committee?”
“You catch on quick.” Abe clapped J.R.’s shoulder and they caught up with the others walking to the parking garage.
Geraldine was happy to be home, really she was. Peru was more humid than Houston, and held only bad memories for her. Houston was where she learned to laugh and love again. It was where her family wanted to be, where she wanted to be. But on the drive back to the Teka home, Geraldine found it hard to hold her smile.
The car seated Phoebe and Yelena in the front, with she, Joselyn and Darah in the back. The guys and their luggage closely trailed behind them in the SUV. Laughter filled the car, as the women giggled over anecdotes. Meanwhile, Geraldine bristled over Bart’s absence.
Was he really busy as everyone said, or was he purposely avoiding her? And what right did he have to be angry when he was the one who rejected her proposal? Just thinking about the embarrassing incident made her bristle even more.
The car came to a stop in the Teka driveway and Darah nudged Geraldine from her reverie. “Hope it’s okay but we’re gonna eat lunch before we drop you off at your place.”
Geraldine shrugged, too tired to argue. She pushed open the door and started to get out when she noticed no one else was moving. She paused in her seat. “Are we not getting out?”
“Why don’t you head inside first?” Phoebe suggested, handing over the car keys. “I want to discuss something with your mom, if that’s okay?”
“Of course!” Yelena gave Geraldine a smile. “Go on. Remember you held yourself on the plane.”
Geraldine’s cheeks warmed in embarrassment. “Mama…”
“What? We’re all girls here.”
Darah stayed her hand when she started to unbuckle Joselyn from her car seat. “Go on ahead. She’ll only slow you down if you really have to go.”
Geraldine sighed and stepped out. “Thanks. See you inside.” She hurried up the steps, scolding herself for not visiting the restroom once they landed at the airport.
Pushing open the door, Geraldine hurried down the hallway and bumped into Bart. Her heart slammed hard into her chest as she gaped at him. He was dressed in a business suit, as though he’d just returned from work. She should’ve been relieved that his siblings hadn’t lied about him being too busy to come to the airport, but the sight of him made her scowl.
“Hey,” Bart said in his moderate baritone, and she instantly forgot why she was mad at him.
“Hey–” Geraldine’s eyes widened and she rushed past him toward the bathroom.
Bart blinked in surprise as she slammed the door behind her. Was she still mad at him?
After a minute and no sign of her opening the door, Bart shuffled to the door and knocked. “Geraldine?”
His brow furrowed. “Geraldine?”
Still no answer.
Sweat broke out on his forehead, the tie around his neck tightening. He nudged the doorknob.
“Don’t come in!”
The sound of flushing made him quickly release the knob. He heard the faucet run and then shut off. Then the door opened and a visibly-relieved Geraldine stood before him. Laughter tickled his throat. He missed her more than he cared to admit to anyone. It didn’t matter though. She was here now.
“I missed you—” He blinked as she pushed past him toward the front door. He grabbed her hand and tugged her back to face him. She was scowling. He frowned. “Didn’t you hear me?”
“You didn’t miss me enough to call or come to the airport.” She tugged at her hand, her frown darkening when he smiled.
“You didn’t call me either, Geraldine,” he pointed out gently, loosening his hold.
She snatched her hand back but made no move to step away now. “Why would I when you flat out rejected me?”
Bart’s smile eased away, replaced by a penitent expression. “I was a fool.”
“Glad we agree on something,” she groused, crossing her arms over her chest..
He sighed and stepped closer, placing his hands on her shoulders. “I wanted to do it right.”
Geraldine’s frown eased up. “Do what right?”
“This,” his thumbs caressed her shoulders, drawing a warm shiver down her spine. His brown eyes met hers. “Us.”
Her pulse quickened. “W-what?”
A ghost of a smile twitched his lips. “You’ve caught me off guard since the day we met. Since the day you kissed me without my permission.”
Geraldine’s racing heartbeat thundered in her ears. What was he saying?
“I’ve always felt like I was a step behind you but I want us on the same page from now on.” Bart squeezed her hands. “So, Geraldine, let’s start from the beginning.”
Her tongue dried up. She didn’t know what the beginning meant to him, what this meant for them.
“Geraldine Pena,” Bart said resolutely. “Will you…”
Geraldine inhaled a sharp breath, eyes wide. Was he–?
The door swung open, Darah and Phoebe stepping inside. “Did she say yes?!”
Bart sighed in exasperation but didn’t break his gaze. “I haven’t asked her yet.”
“But we sent her in ages ago!”
“Well she made a restroom stop so I had to wait.”
“Ask me what?” Geraldine spoke up, impatient with the siblings’ exchange.
Bart gave her a tender smile that warmed her all over. “Will you let me court you?”
Geraldine blinked, not expecting that at all. Marriage yes, but courting? She frowned. “Huh?”
His smile only widened. “Your first marriage was pushed on you, and you proposed that first time because of your in-laws. I want this relationship to happen because we both want it. No manipulation, no coercion, no drama. Just us wanting to spend our lives together.”
“But I’m ready to do that now,” Geraldine protested weakly, gazing at the man her heart wanted. “Why waste time courting?”
“My thoughts exactly,” Darah mumbled, earning a good-natured nudge from Phoebe.
Bart smiled patiently. “Because you’ve never been courted before, and because I’ve wanted to do that for a while now. Am I forgiven for not being there today?”
Geraldine refrained from pouting. “Forgiven, yes. I want a short courtship. There’s no sense in us dragging it out if we both want each other.”
Bart let out a breathless laugh, his eyes dancing with amusement. “If that’s what you want.”
“I want you,” Geraldine said honestly and tilted her face up, pursing her lips.
Bart chuckled and dipped his head, obliging her with a kiss.
Phoebe slung an arm around Darah who mumbled about them messing up her plans. “Look on the bright side. We’ll have more time to plan a bigger, better wedding.”
Darah grinned. The rest of the Teka clan and friends stepped in as Bart and Geraldine broke apart.
Geraldine frowned at the expectant looks on their faces. “Wait, everyone was in on this?”
“Of course!” They said in chorus.
Geraldine shook her head as Yelena and Joselyn came forward. “Sneaky!”
Relinquishing Joselyn to Bart, Yelena grinned unapologetically. “You have no idea how hard it was with you pining and sighing over him. I almost told you twice.”
“Couldn’t be worse than Bart sulking like a child,” Phoebe countered with a grin.
“He was impossible!” Eleazar piped in and everyone laughed.
“So is that a yes?” Abe inquired with a grin. He was beyond thrilled for his brother who had found his soulmate in Geraldine. He had no doubt the two would do well together.
“Not yet,” Geraldine pouted this time, watching Bart and Joselyn together. It warmed her heart, knowing that soon he would be part of her family. Better yet, she’d finally have more brothers and sisters than she’d ever hoped for. Tears tickled her eyelids and she ducked her head to hide them.
Phoebe rushed over and hugged her. The tears flowed. Bart froze, alarmed at Geraldine’s sniffling.
“See, Bart?” Darah snapped. “Haven’t you two waited long enough? Just get married already.”
“It’s okay,” Phoebe said, rubbing Geraldine’s back. “They’re happy tears. Right, Geri?”
Geraldine nodded. There were people apart from her mother who sincerely cared for her unconditionally. How could she ever be sad or alone when she was finally home? “Y-yes, I’m… happy.” Then she erupted into a full-out wail.
Bart grimaced as Joselyn started crying with her. Darah and Yelena moved quickly, Yelena grabbing Joselyn from Bart’s arms. The women ushered to the kitchen, leaving the men standing in silence.
Then Abe chuckled and patted J.R.’s shoulder. “Normal occurrence around here.”
J.R. nodded and gave Bart a smile. “Congratulations.”
Bart’s smile was dim, worried over Geraldine. “Thanks…”
“She’s fine,” Abe assured his brother. “Just give her a minute to calm down.”
“Make the courtship short just to be sure,” Clement suggested.
“Or just do what Abe does when he’s in trouble,” Eleazar offered, all eyes turning to him in curiosity. He flashed a grin. “Buy her flowers and beg for forgiveness.”
Abe and J.R. chuckled, and Clement slung an arm around Eleazar’s shoulder. “Looks like Eli knows a little something about the art of being a man.”
Bart rolled his eyes. “Yeah… but what type of flowers–”
“Tulips… You’re welcome,” Eleazar said sagely and this time, even Bart laughed along.
Please stay tuned for the next installment of the Heart of a Home series, ‘Lighthouse’.