Another bites the dust, J.R. thought to himself as he stormed up the sidewalk to his father’s home hours later. True to his pessimistic prediction, another sponsor called just before closing to rescind his support of the immigration center. Mr. Earl Peters from Baton Rouge was not a part of the Southeast Coalition as Mrs. Ganesh or his father, but benefited from business connections with both in the past.
The battle between the older and younger Obed men must’ve made Mr. Peters squeamish about continuing his support of J.R.’s project.
“Family misunderstandings should be settled sooner than later. If family’s not in your corner, young buck, you’ve got no one,” Mr. Peters advised J.R. before ending the call.
But how could J.R. back down when he wasn’t the one at fault? How could he settle a matter that his father refused to let settle in the first place?
He heard laughter as he entered the house, the sound prickling his already-agitated nerves. He rounded the corner and came to a complete stop. In the family room where they hardly ever entertained sat his father beaming from ear to ear, and beside him a smiling Hana. A basket containing sparkling grape juice and fruit sat in the middle of the coffee table.
J.R’s brow furrowed darkly as he swung his glare to L.J. “What’s this?”
Hana’s smile waned at the sound of his voice and L.J.’s chuckling eased away.
“You’re late.” L.J. leaned into his chair; the leather squeaking under him, deafening the awkward silence.
“Had things to do,” J.R. replied offhandedly, catching the widening of Hana’s brown eyes. He couldn’t help but frown at the sight of her. What was she doing here?
She dipped her head slightly to acknowledge him. “Good to see you again, Bhaiyaa…”
Under normal circumstances, he would’ve been polite and said ‘likewise’ or something to that effect. However, his father’s smug expression and the pesky sight of the fruit had him return his accusing glare to L.J. “What happened to dinner?”
L.J.’s salt-and-pepper brows raised pointedly. “I couldn’t very starve while you finished the things you were doing. So Hana made me dinner. Butter chicken. Delicious, I might add.”
Hana dipped her head shyly. “Thank you, Babuji.”
He winked and patted her hand. To the normal eye, it was a harmless and kind gesture between the two, but all J.R. saw was the conspiring smile marking his father’s lips and he stood. “Good for you. I’ll take my leave then since you’ve got it covered.”
He heard the leather squeak behind him as he turned away.
“Bhaiyaa, won’t you eat?”
He stiffened at the entreaty in Hana’s voice. She was a kind, innocent soul and didn’t deserve his anger but at that moment, she was siding with his enemy. “I’m not hungry.”
Hana’s silence made him hesitate. L.J. snorted. “Don’t mind him, he’s just sulking.”
J.R. started up the stairs, wise not to respond to his father’s goading as he used to as an adolescent.
“Did something happen?” Hana asked just before he closed his bedroom door.
There was no time to stew over his father’s underhanded methods to get him to yield. Bringing Hana over was the last straw and he would fight fire with fire. He just wasn’t sure what weapon to use. Flipping through an old rolodex on his desk, J.R. summoned memories of his father’s former business partners and acquaintances, all who either separated from L.J. because of his ruthless tactics or abrasive personality. Though L.J. had softened a lot from when J.R. was just a boy and had just lost his mother, J.R. had a feeling there were many who had yet to forgive L.J. for his harsh treatment of them while he was grieving.
Ignoring the niggling sense that this was dishonorable, J.R. flipped the pages while fueled on frustration and revenge. His phone rang in his pocket but he ignored it, intent on finding ammunition in whatever way possible to fight back against his father’s undermining tactics.
Then a knock sounded on his door. He paused and glanced once at the door, frowning that he didn’t lock it behind him. When the knock sounded again before the knob twisted, he pushed the rolodex behind him just as the door squeaked open. His brow furrowed as Hana stepped in, hesitation making her steps awkward. “Yes?” he asked, struggling to keep his voice even.
Hana gave him a faint smile, having the decency not to inspect his room as others would’ve done on first sight. Or maybe his father had already given her the grand tour without his permission. He fumed inwardly, knowing his father all too well. ‘That old—’
“You had a long day?”
J.R. stepped out of his rising irritation and met her eyes. “Pardon?”
Her smile widened and softened at the same time. She had this calm disposition that only troubled him, as though she knew something he didn’t.
“How old are you?”
Her brow arched in question. “Isn’t that rude to ask?”
Her lips twitched. “You’re an odd one, Bhaiyaa…”
“So are you.”
She blinked but recovered quickly. “Oh?”
He folded his arms across his chest. “You seem old enough to hold your own, yet you allow my father to play games with—”
“It seems you’re the one that is odd…”
It was J.R.’s turn to raise his brows. “Oh?”
She dipped her head and her smile returned. “You think your father immature to play games and me foolish enough to let him lead me on.”
J.R. smirked. So she had a backbone. Good. He could speak more freely then. “I have no intentions of marrying you, Hana.”
Hana tilted her head slightly. “What makes you think I want you to, Raju?”
He paused, not expecting that response or the personal use of his name. His brow furrowed. “Then…”
She chuckled, her laugh soft and breathy. “You are certainly the odd one.” She started for the door.
“Wait,” he heard himself speak and grimaced when she turned expectantly. He had nothing to say.
Hana smirked knowingly. “Not many people can make butter chicken as good as me. I graciously brought you a plate before you had any regrets.”
J.R. choked a laugh. Her boldness was reminiscent of someone he knew. His smile waned as Darah’s face came to his mind’s eye, recalling the disappointment in her clear hazel eyes that night. He hadn’t spoken with her since that day, and he wondered when he ever would. Was she okay? Did she finally step out of her room to speak with her brothers? Did Abe and Bart make things worse–?
“So will you eat?”
He blinked from his thoughts and met Hana’s expectant gaze. Then he sighed, relenting. Butter chicken was his favorite meal and L.J. knew that all too well.
She didn’t wait for him to give a word, turning to the door. Within seconds, she returned with a tray of the scrumptious meal and J.R.’s traitorous stomach growled on cue.
He sheepishly accepted the tray, practically salivating. Only a few people knew how to make butter chicken the way he liked it, and L.J knew that too. He set the tray on his lap and forced his gaze back to her face. “Thanks for coming to make it.”
Hana shrugged a shoulder. “Not a problem. Goodnight.”
J.R. watched her exit the room and took a minute to ponder why he still felt unsettled even after she’d gone. Something seemed off about her being there, cooking in his house, and his father’s annoying smug smile. But his stomach growled and ached to taste his favorite meal, so he shoved the pesky feeling aside and dove in.
The next morning his stomach turned with vengeance, sending him out of his room and down the hall to the bathroom. The door was locked under his insistent nudging, and J.R. groaned. His father’s room was downstairs, which meant J.R. must’ve locked it by mistake. His stomach burned to expel the contents from last night, the guilty pleasure of a meal he should’ve been careful to eat. Reaching up the ledge of the doorframe to grab the key placed there, his hand stilled at the sound of flushing on the other side.
He frowned as the faucet ran and stopped. Then the door opened and J.R. stood frozen, mouth agape.
A bare-faced Hana with a towel turban over her dark locks stood on the other side of the door. His hand dropped and he took a step back. What was still she doing here? It hadn’t occurred to him until that moment that even though her parents had returned home, she would still be here.
Then she gave him a kind smile that only made his stomach clench tight. “Good morning, Raju.”
J.R.’s hand dropped to his side, too stunned for words.
A soft giggle escaped her throat as she edged around him. “The bathroom is all yours.” She peered over her shoulder at him before turning away.
J.R. didn’t enter the bathroom, instead storming down the stairs for his father’s room. The door was unlocked and his father stood in front of his closet, sorting a slew of ties he had long since retired. J.R. plowed forward, not bothering to knock. “Father!”
L.J. dragged his eye to J.R.’s stormy expression in the mirror. “So you’re awake?”
“W-what is she doing h-here?”
“Hana!” he didn’t bother lowering his voice. “W-why d-did she come b-back?”
“Lower your voice.” L.J. hung another tie. “And I said we’d be hosting her for the duration of her stay.”
“H-how long i-is she s-staying?” J.R.’s brows slammed in a deep V, silently praying it wasn’t long.
“As long as she likes.”
J.R scowled. “Why?!”
L.J. huffed a sigh. “If you’d waited to hear the reason we were celebrating, you’d have known why—“
“Babuji, please…” J.R. breathed in exasperation, weary of the back and forth.
“Hana matched her chosen residency for internal medicine.”
L.J.’s expression was akin to a cat that just swallowed a canary. The fire that burned J.R.’s stomach rose up his esophagus and he swallowed it down. “Let me guess… it’s in Houston.”
“Indeed.” L.J’s smile widened. “So be a good boy and congratulate her properly. You two should get along since she’ll be staying with us until she finds a place.”
Not sure whether to rant or just run of the house, J.R. stared at his father’s reflection. “Don’t you think you’re taking this a bit too far, Babu?” he marveled at his calm tone.
L.J. must’ve been surprised at his tame reaction because his dark eyes skittered over his, hands stilled over his ties. “Taking what too far, Beta? Can’t a father assist his son with his future?”
The gentle lilt of his father’s tone and the endearment almost caught him off guard. Almost.
J.R. shook his head. “Not if you’re taking the reins of my life completely.”
“I’m merely pushing you in the right direction.”
“That’s unnecessary since I know what I’m doing.”
L.J.’s brows lifted. “Do you?”
“Yes. Let go, Babu.”
“You remember what I said, don’t you?” L.J.’s gaze was unrelenting, hardening. “You have a year to fulfill my request or that center won’t happen.”
Ignoring the wave of panic, J.R. nodded. “Yes. Let go, Babu.”
L.J. smirked. “You won’t find someone by then. Just marry Hana and save yourself the trouble.”
J.R. smirked in return. “I will figure it out. Let go, Babu.”
L.J.’s smile waned and his brow furrowed slightly. “You have someone?”
“I might.” He didn’t. Not yet. But if he wouldn’t allow L.J. to win. Not this time. “Let go, Babu.”
L.J. squinted. “Who is she?”
“You’ll see in due time. Let go, Babu.”
“We’ll see.” L.J. rolled his eyes. “Fine. I’m letting go.”
J.R. watched his father step away from the closet, heard him murmur something under his breath as he disappeared into his bathroom. Although L.J. agreed begrudgingly to stop meddling, J.R. wasn’t taking any chances. He had to come up with something and fast. And he knew just where to start.
“That’s insane!” Phoebe protested, her voice carrying up the stairs. Darah could hear her and Geraldine talking, about her no doubt. The children were at school when Darah woke hours later, having ignored the breakfast and lunch taps at her door. Now her stomach turned with a fury that worried her and had Darah leaving her refuge to seek food downstairs.
At eight weeks, her breasts felt sore and the curves she’d coveted for years were starting to fill in. Instead of rejoicing, she panicked at the implications of becoming a single mother. Closing her eyes tight, she told herself to breathe. Being a mother was what she’d always wanted. Her hands moved to her stomach. Sure it didn’t come in the right order or in the right circumstance, but she was still going to be a mother. Preparing for it wouldn’t be easy but–
“Can his father really do that?” Phoebe continued, jerking Darah from her thoughts. “And I thought I was a meddler…”
“You are,” Geraldine answered. “But looks like Mr. Obed is a lot worse. Giving J.R. an ultimatum to get married or he won’t be able to build and operate his center is ridiculous.”
Darah paused at the stairs, recalling Clement’s words about J.R.’s father. She’d laughed it off earlier; J.R. was much too stubborn for matchmaking. But an ultimatum was different and no laughing matter.
“And J.R.’s desperate isn’t he?” Phoebe asked.
Darah frowned. Could J.R. be considered desperate? That man was the most composed, well-put-together person she’d ever known. Annoyingly sensible and could never do wrong by her except when he rejected her eighteen-year-old confession of love–
“This is his life’s dream, Phoebe. He’s always wanted this center and put his whole life’s saving into establishing it. If his father blocks every source of support, poor guy’s without a center.”
Her gut tightened, imagining J.R. stalwartly supporting her siblings during every trial they faced, supporting them in whatever way he could. He was family and the thought of him facing something troublesome troubled her.
“So he has no choice but to consider the girl his father picked?”
She shook her head as she took another step down and another. There was no way J.R. would agree to something so undermining. He was much too principled.
But then again, desperate times called for desperate measures. Could J.R. be convinced? Her heart fluttered as an idea sprang forth in her mind.
“I don’t see what other choice he has,” Geraldine answered.
“Of course he has a choice,” Darah spoke up as she got to the landing. Her sisters-in-law turned in their seats, brows raised as though surprised to see her standing there. She placed her hands on her hips. “And I’m gonna help him make it.”
Geraldine arched a brow. Phoebe blinked. “What choice is that?”
“The obvious choice. Me.”
Phoebe’s mouth dropped open in shock. Geraldine frowned. “Huh?”
Darah’s lips twitched. “J.R. and I will get married. Problem solved.”
Geraldine’s jaw slackened.