Bart easily relinquished his queen-sized bed to the Pena women, giving Geraldine a faint smile when she insisted he take a pillow at least. He gestured to the blanket under his arm. “This is enough. You guys get some sleep.”

“Thank you,” Yelena whispered from the bed, stroking her sleeping granddaughter’s cheek.

Geraldine nodded, lowering her gaze. “Yes, thank you.”

“Not a problem. Good night.” He exited the room, closing the door gently behind him.

Geraldine heaved a sigh, releasing the breath she’d been holding while he was in the room.

“What a good man,” Yelena mused aloud and Geraldine turned, finding her mother’s pointed stare directed at her. “One would be blessed to have him.”

“Then you marry him,” Geraldine muttered, moving to the empty space beside Joselyn. Then stalled, realizing that this was the bed Bart slept in. She swallowed hard.

“I would if I was twenty years younger.” Yelena chuckled.

Geraldine scowled. “Mama, that’s not funny.”

“Yes it is…” She shushed Geraldine when Joselyn stirred in her arms.

“Why are you shushing me when you’re the one saying weird stuff?” Geraldine perched on the bed, her fingers tracing a line on the plaid-printed sheets. Even after he’d left the room, the heady scent of Bart was ever-present.

“What’s weird about marrying a man you love?”

Geraldine choked on a gasp and jerked her wide-eyed stare to Yelena.

“What? Am I wrong?”

She shook her head. “Mama, please stop with this.”

“You think I don’t see the way you look at him?”

Geraldine gaped, scandalized. “What are you talking about?”

Yelena scoffed. “I’m not blind, Geraldine. I know what I saw.”

“You didn’t see anything.” Geraldine scooted off the bed and moved toward the door. “You sleep first. I need to potty.”

“Run, run, run,” Yelena taunted gently. “When will you stop running, Mija?”

Geraldine rolled her eyes. “I’m not running.”

“Then sit down. Let’s discuss what to do next.”

“Jozy’ll wake up and I really need to pee.” She moved to the door and pulled it open. “We’ll discuss it tomorrow.”

Yelena mumbled something in her other native tongue, one Geraldine didn’t understand but didn’t need to. Clucking her tongue in disapproval was notice that she’d displeased her.

“Goodnight,” Geraldine forced out and fled the room. Except she didn’t hurry to the bathroom, and instead leaned against the wall beside the door.

The door to her right opened and she jerked to stand upright as Bart stepped out, the sound of flushing undercutting the squeaky door. He paused, finding her in his path and frowned over her shoulder at the closed door. “Everything alright?”

Her cheeks warmed under his perusal and she managed a nod. “Hm. Bathroom,” she pointed over his shoulder.

Bart nodded and shifted to the right, giving her space to enter.

Geraldine ducked around him and shut the door. Then she leaned against it and held a hand over her thumping heart. “Get it together,” she mumbled to herself.

Standing in the darkened hallway, Bart stared at the closed bathroom door. He stalled in the bathroom instead of retreating downstairs, hoping for some alone time with Geraldine. Yes, it was way past their bedtime, but he had to apologize for his pushy behavior earlier.

When the door opened and Geraldine froze in her tracks, eyes wide, his chest tightened. “I apologize for my behavior earlier,” he began without preamble. “It won’t happen again.”

She frowned. “What won’t happen again?”

“Being pushy. Sleep well.” He turned to go.

“Wait.” She bit her bottom lip when he turned back to her. “Uh…”

“Let’s talk in the morning. It’s already late,” he said and gave her another faint smile, his dimples hidden. “Goodnight.”

“Right… okay.”

Her hesitance drew a smile on his lips and he quickly turned before she noticed. “I leave for work by six so maybe after I get back. Goodnight.”

“… Goodnight.”

Bart bit back a chuckle as he made his way down the stairs slowly. It took Geraldine a minute before she finally retreated to his bedroom and he muffled a laugh into the blanket. Then he lay back on the leather settee and settled in for the shortest night ever with a smile on his face.

Someone yanked on his ear and Bart snapped his eyes open, imagining his mother tugging him to wake. Two doleful brown eyes stared at him and he blinked the sleep from his own. A small cherub face was inches from his. Bart drew back and a smile twitched his lips. “Hi.”

Jozy flashed a toothy smile that warmed his heart. “Hi.”

His smile widened and scooted to sit up, thankful that she didn’t flinch or edge away. He opened his arms and chuckled when she leaned into his embrace. “Good girl.”

“I good girl,” her voice was muffled against his arm.

“Yes you are.” He lifted her onto his lap and kissed her forehead. “Where’s Ma…” his voice trailed off when his gaze fell on Geraldine curled up on the opposite sofa, sleeping.

Jozy tugged at his ear, pulling his attention. Then she gave him another charming grin.

He shook his head incredulously. “You’re just like your mom, aren’t you?”

She only grinned, playing with his ears.

He kissed her forehead, breathing in the scent of baby lotion and Geraldine. “Did you keep Mommy up?”

“No,” Geraldine’s groggy voice turned his gaze back to the chair. She remained curled up against his bed pillow, eyes open and on him. “I didn’t want to miss you leave for work.”

Something snagged in his chest, stealing his breath away. How easy it would be to reach over and pull her onto his lap too. Clement’s words from earlier that night cautioned him to take things slow and Bart swallowed a groan, giving Geraldine a smile instead. “Why? Think I was running away?”

She didn’t smile and his waned. Then she uncurled her legs and sat up. “Are you hungry? I made pancakes.” She pushed to her feet and came to him, hands out for Joselyn.

“She’s fine. You made breakfast?” He was still in awe with how much she’d changed and wondered what else he was yet to discover about her.

“For you, yes. It’ll be cold by the time everyone else wakes.” She smoothed Joselyn’s curls and turned to the kitchen. “Wanna eat before you get ready for work?”

He refrained from watching her hips sway and lowered his gaze to Joselyn who grinned at him. Bart shook his head inwardly; he didn’t stand a chance with both Pena girls charming his socks off. “Sure. Jozy, want pancakes?”

She nodded emphatically. “Cake.”

Bart chuckled as he stood, perching Joselyn at his hips. “Same thing I guess.” He strolled into the kitchen, watching Geraldine pull out a bottle of syrup from the pantry. He marveled at her easily she moved in the kitchen, as though she belonged there. His chest tightened with the need to make that happen sooner than later.

Once she’d set before him a plate of four thick Buttermilk pancakes and a mug of steaming black coffee, Geraldine rounded the counter and opened her arms. “She won’t let you eat.”

He unwillingly released the child, eyes on both instead of the sweet-smelling food before him.

She arched a brow. “You’re not hungry?”

His heart was full just watching them, wanting them as his own. Bart shook out of his thoughts and nodded. “Thanks.”

“Something smells good,” Clement’s voice sounded behind them. He grinned. “Pancakes!”

Geraldine stepped into his path. “You’ll have to make your own.”

Clement frowned over her shoulder to Bart’s plate, and then the frown eased off. An impish smile replaced it instead. “Oh I see…”

“You see nothing. If it was your bed we ransomed, I would’ve made you pancakes instead.” She glanced over her shoulder at Bart. “Have a good day.”

Throat too tight to utter a word, Bart nodded and watched Geraldine retreat up the stairs with Joselyn in tow. Then he heaved a sigh and nudged the plate toward Clement. “Here you go.”

Clement grunted though he accepted the plate. “Thanks Bro.”

Bart stared at the couch where Geraldine had spent the night, and wondered what went through her mind. Heat flooded his face, imagining her sitting there and watching him sleep. Oh, if only he wasn’t such a deep sleeper.

“Man, she really got better at cooking,” Clement broke through his musing. “You sure you don’t want some?”

“I’m good,” Bart mumbled, taking a sip of the hot coffee and burned his lip.  He muttered an expletive and drew in his bottom lip.

Clement shook his head, chewing slowly. “Give her time. She’s probably fighting herself.”

Bart eyed him warily. “How can you be so sure?”

“It’s a hunch.” His brother took another bite. “Besides if I tell you, you’ll act a fool and ruin everything by your over-eagerness. Remember, the slow and steady wins the race.”

He dropped his hand from his scalded lip. “Tell me what?”

“Well you know how cheese runs through me. I should’ve stopped with one enchilada–”

He scowled. “Junior–”

“Anyway my stomach wouldn’t let me rest so I got up to use the restroom. Then I heard Geri shushing Jozy downstairs so she wouldn’t wake you.”

Bart froze. “What time was that?”

“Don’t sleep with a watch on, sorry.” Clement’s lips twitched. “It was definitely hours ago, long before she needed to prepare you this fine meal. Obviously she’s more comfortable sharing her heart when you’re unconscious.”

“What did she say?” Bart stared at Clement who seemed wiser than his twenty years.  “Tell me.”

Clement shoved a forkful of syrupy pancake into his mouth, taking his time to chew and swallow. “Something about not wanting to cause you trouble or whatever.” He shrugged when Bart scowled. “Don’t shoot the messenger, ask her yourself.”

“I was unconscious, remember? She’ll deny it and I have no basis to stand on otherwise.”

Clement rolled his eyes. “Must I teach you everything?”

Bart sighed and stood. “Nevermind.”

“Take it easy out there.” Clement watched Bart climb the stairs and shook his head. He took a swig of Bart’s coffee and choked in disgust.

<<Chapter 18 || Chapter 20>>