“You might want to keep it a secret for now,” Hana’s words echoed in Darah’s head as she sat on the garden bench, staring listlessly at the stagnant pond. She closed her eyes and drew in a breath.
“Like I said, it takes him a while to get used to things. You’re still very much a stranger, and he’ll have to get used to you. Ease into the baby news once you’ve won his heart.”
Darah released the haggard breath. That was easier said than done—not many people understood her much less liked her.
“There you are.”
She snapped her eyes open at the sound of Clement’s voice and shifted as he settled beside her. “What’s going on?”
He eyed her warily. “I should be asking you with all that sighing.”
Darah groaned and looked away. “I don’t think he likes me.”
She rolled her eyes. “His dad.”
“Hm,” Clement rubbed his chin. “Well, he’s a bit cranky, but who wouldn’t be after all this? He’s had it tough.”
“Well, he’ll have more reasons besides me taking his son from him.” She dropped her gaze to her stomach.
Clement grunted. “That’s ridiculous. Who said that?”
He snorted. “The ex-fiancée?”
“They weren’t engaged.”
“Okay… so that’s why your sighing, J.R.’s old man? Since when do people’s opinion about you get you down?”
She wrinkled her nose, her fingers tracing the slight bump on her tummy. “I just…”
He nudged her. “You worry too much. Leave that to J.R. and be your charming self. He’ll like you soon enough.”
Darah wasn’t so convinced, so she asked. “Junior?”
“If Eli brought a pregnant girl home… would you let them get married?” His silence made her stomach churn violently and she edged away. “Never mind. Forget I asked.”
“After beating the crap out of him…” Clement said after a moment of tortuous silence. He looked down at his sister’s illuminous eyes. “If he loves her and she loves him, what right do we have to get in the way?”
Tears pooled in her eyes and she bit her bottom lip to keep from crying. “Really?”
“Really,” he answered. “Although we’re very disappointed about what you’ve gotten yourself into, and don’t condone your actions one bit…”
Darah swallowed the lump in her throat, the tears filling her eyes.
He sighed and poked her cheek. “You’ve gotten weak.”
She brushed his hand away and ducked her head to hide the tears that slid down her cheeks. Though his words should’ve brought some relief, Abe’s visceral reaction kept replaying in her head. What if J.R.’s father reacted worse?
He cleared his throat and shifted away. “I’ll let the man tell you himself.”
Darah wiped her eyes as her brother rose from the bench. Her heart was in her throat as she heard J.R.’s low baritone responding to Clement’s bass, and she heard his measured steps approach the bench.
Then he sighed and came to sit beside her. She kept her gaze lowered, staring at his muscled legs clad in slacks. His hand rested on his left knee and her fingers itched to touch him. She curled her fingers into fists.
The soft inquiry threatened to undo her. She shook her head forcefully, unable to put words to her growing fear.
He scooted close, his knee bumping her thigh and his arm encircled her. When Darah’s cheek pressed against his chest, the tears spilled free. His fingers tightened on her shoulder as he pulled her even closer. He didn’t say anything, which for now was what Darah needed.
Once the sobs subsided, Darah remained in his arms with her eyes closed. His fingers lazily stroked her shoulder as they sat in companionable silence.
“Will you tell me now?”
Her eyes fluttered open and she stared at the starless sky. “I don’t want to.”
His arms tightened, the warm cocoon of his embrace comforting. “I won’t release you until you talk.”
Her lips twitched despite the dread weighing on her mind. “I’m not complaining.”
He clucked his tongue. “Darah.”
Darah closed her eyes again and nestled in his embrace. “I just wish things were simpler.”
J.R. stayed silent, but she knew he agreed with her.
“I wish my parents were still alive, and that your mother was here.” She paused when his fingers paused their stroking. She continued. “I wish your father wasn’t sick, and that he’d like me.” I wish I had waited for you.
Darah smiled wryly, grateful that he didn’t try to pretend his father was fond of her. “I hope so.”
J.R. pressed a kiss to her temple, sending warm shivers down her nape. He squeezed her. “You cold?”
She shook her head. “Just… content.”
“So why the tears?”
Darah slanted her head to peer up at him. “Weren’t you listening?”
His lips quirked in a smirk. “I heard you. But I believe Junior told you to let me handle it.”
She gazed at his handsome face, her heart hurting. “I wish I’d waited for you.” I should’ve waited.
His smirk eased away, his expression sobering. “I shouldn’t have made you wait.”
Darah looked away. “You needed someone mature and understanding. I was impatient… stupid.”
His hand cupped her chin and tipped it so their eyes met. “Don’t say that.”
The light brush of his thumb on her chin made her tremble. His brow furrowed in concern. “Sure you’re not cold?” His other arm slipped off her shoulder.
She grabbed his arm and wrapped it around her, then tipped her face closer. “Kiss me, J.R.”
Even under the streetlight, Darah could’ve sworn there was a gleam in his eyes. She shivered in anticipation for the touch of his lips against hers and closed her eyes.
His low snort made her squint one eye open. His wide grin caused her to snap both eyes open. He chuckled and Darah bristled. “What’s funny?”
“You,” he said, poking her cheek.
Annoyed, Darah elbowed him in his gut. When he grunted and his arms loosened around her, she escaped from his hold to stand. J.R.’s hand caught her wrist and tugged her back into his arms.
Biting back a smile as he enveloped her in his arms, Darah puckered her lips as J.R. dipped his head to kiss her. Except his mouth landed on her cheek and proceeded to pepper butterfly kisses there. “Ooh!” she protested when he raised his head and continued laughing.
A clearing of throat interrupted J.R.’s playful laughter and the couple sprang apart.
A sober Hana and frowning Clement stood near the entrance, and J.R.’s humor fled with alarm. He quickly stepped forward. “Father?”
“Calm down, Bhaiyaa.” Glancing over to where Darah inconspicuously adjusted her clothes, Hana turned back to J.R. “He wants to speak—not you,” she said as J.R. started for the door and pointed her chin at Darah. “Her.”
J.R. blinked. Open-mouthed, Darah gaped at Hana. “Me?”
Hana nodded and folded her arms. “Yes you. I’ll take you down.”
With her heart in her throat, Darah hesitated taking one more step. She glanced once at J.R. and her brother, seeking some sort of intervention.
“Go on ahead,” Clement said and clapped a hand over J.R.’s shoulder. “Seems your guy and I’ve got things to discuss out here.”
J.R. only gave Darah a slight smile meant to comfort her but only made her stomach twist in knots. Her feet remained glued to the floor, not wanting to go. If only he could read the silent plea in her eyes, would he go with her?
Hana stepped in Darah’s line of sight and flashed a smile. “Let’s not keep Uncle waiting.” She hooked an arm under Darah’s and tugged her toward the door leading into the hospital.
As the two girls entered the hospital, Clement loosened his hold on J.R.’s shoulder and grunted. “You sure you know what you’re doing?” He moved to lean against the back of the bench and folded his arms.
J.R. watched the door for a few seconds before turning to his friend. “I’ve wasted enough time as it is.”
“What does that mean exactly?”
Without hesitation, J.R. stared at his friend. “I want to marry her.”
Clement was silent only for a few seconds before letting out a laugh. When J.R. didn’t laugh, his faded. “You’re sure about that?”
“Never been surer than this moment.”
The corner of Clement’s lips twitched. “Even with the baby? And the drama that comes with her?”
J.R. nodded. “Yes.”
Clement released a breath and pushed away from the bench. Without breaking his gaze, J.R. tensed as the man approached him slowly.
Then Clement’s solemn expression broke into a smile. “It’s about time!” He grabbed J.R. by the shoulders and pulled him into a bear hug. “Welcome to the family, officially.”
He smiled when the tension slid off his shoulders, and accepted the warmth that came from Clement’s words. Once he disengaged from the hug, J.R. glanced over his shoulder at the door Hana and Darah exited, and his smile waned.
“Don’t fret,” Clement clapped a hand over his shoulder. “Darah’s a strong one. She’ll hold her own with him. Meanwhile, we’ve got phone calls to make.”
J.R. nodded distractedly, wondering if he could trust in such confidence. The small woman who trembled in his arms and wept silently seemed more fragile than the spitfire he’d fallen for.
Darah and L.J. sat on opposite ends of the bed, embarking on a staring contest. On her end, Darah bit the inside of her cheek to keep from trembling as she focused her eyes on J.R.’s father. On his end, L.J.’s eyes narrowed and his lips pursed tighter by the moment.
The intermittent hiss of the humidifier broke the silence, and the mist caused L.J. to blink. He grunted in annoyance and Darah finally released a sigh.
“How old are you?”
Darah tamped a sigh of irritation. What was everyone’s fascination with her age? She shifted on the cot before answering. “Twenty-five, close to Hana’s age.”
His lips only tightened. “Are you still in school?”
I was. Darah nodded. “Masters in Ceramics.”
L.J. arched a bushy brow. “And what can you do with that? Make plates?”
Oh he’d get along well with her brothers, that much was sure. Darah bit back a retort and gave him a patient smile. “That, or work in the museum.”
He slanted his head, gaze probing. “Is that what you want to do?”
Darah blinked at the unexpected question. “Pardon?”
“It’s a simple question. Is working in a museum your aspiration after graduating?”
At a loss for words, Darah gaped at this man whose eyes gleamed with derision. Compared to Hana, she was just a graduate-school pregnant dropout detracting his son from a bright future. Cold frisson ran down her spine and she shifted in discomfort.
“If you’re uncomfortable, sit on a chair.”
Darah shook her head. “I’m fine here. Thanks.”
L.J. didn’t look convinced but didn’t argue. His dark eyes swept over her face, inspecting her no doubt.
Unable to help herself, she tilted her face. “No moles or warts, just a few freckles along my neck.”
“I beg your pardon?”
She met his glare without flinching. “I know I’m not what you expected for J.R., but I’m healthy as they come.” She didn’t dare mention her pregnancy or he’d chase her out for good.
L.J. pursed his lips and was quiet for a few moments. Then he arched a brow. “You must’ve gotten in trouble for that smart mouth of yours.”
Darah bit back a smile. “I get that a lot.”
“Though not nearly enough trouble since you’re talking back.”
She sobered instantly and clasped her hands together. “Look, Mr. Obed—”
He held up a hand to stop her. “I admit, you’re not at all what I expected for my son’s wife. You’re audacious and uncouth. You’re too short and too skinny, like you’ll break at any moment.”
Darah’s cheeks flamed at his unflattering observation of her. “Actually I’m pretty strong, sir.”
He waved her off. “The thought of him continuing my legacy with someone who doesn’t share his heritage or culture leaves me grieved and unsettled. I’m not sure I can just let that go.”
This time Darah lowered her gaze, feeling defeated. If he was already making a fuss about heritage and culture, there was no telling how he’d react to the child she carried—a child that wasn’t J.R.’s.
And with those softly-spoken words, Darah peeked up with a sliver of hope stirring within her.