Darah and J.R. stood in front of the hospital bed while Hana perched beside a cranky L.J. Obed who glared at the couple before him. A tick jumped in his tight jaw as he eyed their joined hands before lifting his gaze to J.R. “Raju, what is the meaning of this?”
“Meaning of what?” J.R. drawled softly.
The elder Obed shifted his gaze to the girl and his lips thinned in disapproval. “Who is this… child?”
J.R. sighed. “She’s not a child, and her name is Darah.”
L.J. arched a gray brow. “She looks like she barely just graduated high school.”
Darah choked on a laugh. “Oh wow…”
L.J. squinted at her. “Is something funny here?”
“I get that a lot but really sir,” Darah ignored J.R. squeezing her hand a bit too tight and met the older man’s disapproving eyes. “I’m twenty-five years old, twenty-six come September.”
He sniffed and turned his attention back to J.R. “And what is she doing here?”
“We were together when we heard the news,” J.R. answered dutifully, loosening his grip on Darah’s hand. “We need to talk, Father.” He glanced pointedly at Hana.
Hana nodded and stood, only to be stopped by L.J.’s hand on her arm.
“You stay.” L.J. instructed Hana and then looked to Darah with his brow arched. “Since this is a family discussion, please leave.”
“Not a problem,” Darah said breezily and slipped her hand from J.R.’s. She flashed the older man a grin and spun on her heels, exiting the room.
“Cheeky little…” L.J. muttered, and Hana fought a smile.
“Did you really have to do that just now?” J.R. scowled. “That was completely unnecessary.”
L.J. snorted. “I won’t stand to be disrespected in my own hospital room.”
Hana cleared her throat and rose. Her eyes volleyed between the two glaring at each other, both forgetting she was still there. “You two should talk. I’ll be just outside.”
She maneuvered her way out of the room and immediately spotted Darah leaning against the opposite wall, her arms folded across her chest. She managed a smile that easily slipped when Darah turned away. “Hey, hold on.”
Darah paused in step and turned to face her, brows raised expectantly. “Yes?”
Hana strolled up to her. “Sorry about Uncle L.J., he’s naturally grouchy.”
Darah shrugged. “It’s whatever.”
Her eyes swept over this young woman, J.R.’s fiancée, and was curious about their relationship. They seemed polar opposites, especially after witnessing Darah’s impetuous behavior with J.R.’s father just now. But maybe the ‘opposites attract’ theory applied to—she shook out of the thought, not wanting to entertain such foolishness.
“I was on my way to the restroom,” Darah spoke up. “Can I go now or you’ve got something to say?”
Hana swallowed a laugh. This girl was cheeky indeed. She nodded. “Yeah, I need a potty break too.”
Darah didn’t reply and just turned around. Hana fought a smirk and followed her down the hall toward the bathroom.
L.J.’s scowl darkened the minute Hana left the room. “Where did you find such an outrageous girl?”
“I would rather discuss why I’m just now finding out you’re in this hospital bed.” J.R. folded his arms across his chest.
“You tell me. I was unconscious this whole time,” L.J. replied brusquely. “Imagine my surprise waking up in a foreign place and seeing that insolent chit—“
L.J.’s scowl slipped in surprise at J.R.’s raised tone. He studied his son’s brooding expression and then sighed, his narrow shoulders drooping. “I know you have questions.”
“And I want answers.”
L.J. nodded, now somber. “I’ll try to answer as much as I know.”
“How long have you known about the cancer?”
L.J. blinked in surprise. “They told you?”
J.R.’s lips thinned. “How long?”
His father lowered his head. “A year and a half… almost two now.”
The silence prompted L.J. to lift his head and read his son’s expression. Anger marked J.R.’s furrowed brow and tightened his facial muscles. “Son, I…”
“And when did you plan on telling me?” J.R. asked, his tone low and uncharacteristically steady. His brow furrowed deeper. “When you had one more day to live? Or maybe when I’d receive another call from the hospital?”
L.J. lowered his head so he wouldn’t read the pain displayed in his son’s dark eyes. Regret and shame gripped his throat from answering.
“Th-that’s why you retired early, isn’t it?”
L.J. closed his eyes.
J.R. choked on a dry laugh. “Th-that’s why y-you’re so hell-bent on g-getting me settled, i-isn’t it? Y-you’d kn-nown all that time y-you wouldn’t live for much longer.”
The stutter had returned, indicating J.R. was quickly losing control of his emotions. All because of him.
L.J. sought his son’s face and his stomach dropped at the sight of tears swimming in J.R.’s angry eyes. He sighed and reached out a hand to his boy. “Beta…”
J.R. took a step back, glaring at his father. “H-how could you do this?”
The accusation in J.R’s eyes was worse than the words themselves. L.J. frowned. “If I could’ve prevented myself from getting cancer I would’ve, Raju.”
“You should’ve told me!” J.R. roared, eyes flashing with rage.
L.J. inadvertently flinched. J.R. cringed and L.J. instantly regretted it.
“I-I can’t do this.” J.R. took a step back and another, ready to run. He spun toward the door.
“Raj–!” L.J. groaned when J.R. slammed the door behind him and he covered his face.
Not a moment later, the door opened and he looked up, stifling another groan when an alarmed Hana hurried in.
“Uncle,” she rushed to his side and reached for his hand. “Are you okay?”
L.J. looked past her at the door. “Raju, please go to him…”
Hana paused in counting his pulse. “He’s with Darah, don’t worry.” She ignored his growl and squeezed his hand. “For now, you need to calm down or the nurse will come in—”
Nurse Karen Wells stepped in and gave both a smile. “Good, you’re awake. Just in time for your checkup with Doctor Yancey.”
L.J. dropped his forehead against Hana’s shoulder and groaned, unaware that Hana and Nurse Karen exchanged a cautious smile.
The two sat in silence, facing the brick wall that separated the hospital garden from the bayou. Bullfrogs and crickets croaked in unison, deafening the silence.
Then Darah sighed and peeked from the corner at J.R.’s profile. “Did you two fight?”
J.R. merely snorted and looked down, the sole of his loafer scraping the cement.
She arched a brow. “You two resemble each other. He’s practically an older version of you with the thick hair, tanned skin, dark eyes.”
“It’s the only thing similar between us.”
Her lips twitched in a wry grin. “Unfortunately.”
J.R. jerked his head to gape at her. “What does that mean?”
Darah shrugged. “Just that he’s more expressive than you. It’s refreshing to know not all Obed men are the same.”
He raised a brow. “I don’t see what—“
“I wish you’d be more expressive about your feelings, J.R.”
J.R. sighed and looked away. Darah sighed also and turned her eyes back to the fence.
“It’s not that easy…”
Darah rolled her eyes. “Actually it is. When you’re angry, you show anger. When you’re happy, you show joy or laugh or at least smile. You have a great smile when caught off-guard.”
J.R. didn’t respond and Darah scoffed aloud but didn’t say anything else. She needed to pee again. Pushing to her feet, she started for the door.
Pausing in step, Darah turned around to his lonely figure. His broad shoulders were bowed in defeat, his thick hair streaked with moonlight. Her fingers itched to thread through the strands.
He heaved a sigh and she quickly refocused her attention on him. Her feet shuffled back to the bench they’d once shared and she lowered herself beside him. Peeing could wait.
“I’m scared too.”
Her gut clenched tight. Her eyes traveled up his profile and rested on his furrowed brow. She could only imagine the pain he faced at the thought of his father facing a terminal illness.
“But mostly angry.” J.R. leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands. “And scared and confused. I don’t know what to do.”
The catch in his voice made her scoot closer until their hips touched. When J.R. didn’t scoot over, Darah released the breath she’d been holding and placed a hand on his back. “What scares you the most?” she asked softly, not knowing what else to ask.
Darah ran her palm over his back in a soothing motion. “I think you do, J.R.”
He was silent for a long while that Darah was afraid she’d pushed him too hard. He wasn’t very good at expressing his feelings, so of course expressing fear for his father’s health wouldn’t be easy to share.
Then she heard a sniffle and her hand paused in motion. Darah willed the bullfrogs to quit their pesky croaking so she could hear it clearly. Then she saw J.R.’s hand swipe under his nose, and she gaped.
The muscles in his back twitched under her hand and Darah bent forward. “Wait, are you crying?”
J.R. cupped a hand over the visible part of his face. “No.”
She frowned. “You are crying.”
“No, I’m not.” He shifted away then, causing her hand to fall.
“J.R—!” Darah pouted when he stood abruptly and started for the door. She quickly jumped to her feet and hurried to him, wrapping her arms around his waist. He froze. She laced her fingers together and rested her cheek against his back, listening to the rapid beat of his heart. He was agitated with worry or fear for his father, and she only made it worse by goading him. “Oh Jay…”
His muscles twitched against him; and Darah knew from nights she’d held Eli after a terrible nightmare that J.R. was holding back tears.
“Let it out, J.R.,” she said gently. Unlacing her fingers, she moved her open palm to his left breast, to where she could feel his racing heart. “Stop giving yourself a hard time and let it out.”
A garbled moan escaped his throat and Darah felt his body bow slightly.
Darah cringed as he choked on a held-back sob. Her other hand wrapped around his narrow waist and the other patted his chest, silently encouraging him to release the tension from his chest.
J.R. choked on a sob and it wasn’t long before he began to weep bitter tears.
Exhaling a breath, Darah pressed her face against his back, allowing his sobs echo against her body also. If only she could take away his pain, she would. For now though, she’d be his rock and his comfort. Closing her eyes, she held him tight while he cried like a baby.