Geraldine’s welcoming smile slipped at the lack of warmth in Phoebe’s tone. She glanced over Phoebe’s shoulder as though looking for Bart.
“Can I come inside?” Phoebe asked, one shapely brow arched inquisitively.
“Uh yeah, sure,” Geraldine pulled open the door and stepped aside to let Phoebe enter. In Bart’s absence, worry snuck in behind Phoebe and gripped Geraldine’s heart. What if he’d sent Phoebe with his response, unable to face her? Swallowing hard, she closed the door. “Is everything alright?”
Phoebe’s eyes swept over the house before turning to Geraldine, expression still revealing nothing. “Why don’t we sit first?”
Geraldine swallowed hard. “Would you like some coffee?”
Phoebe wrinkled her nose. “I don’t touch that stuff.” She gestured to the couch and Geraldine had no choice but to follow. Once they seated, Phoebe sighed. “I don’t know how else to say this except to just go ahead and say it. What’s this nonsense about a marriage of convenience?”
Geraldine stiffened and she eyed Phoebe. “He told you?”
“I’m married to his brother and best friend. Of course I’d know about it.” Phoebe frowned. “What’s going on, Geri?”
The door near the stairs propped open and Geraldine’s mother stepped out without Joselyn. Her eyes took in Phoebe, who quickly straightened her features and gave the older woman a smile. “Good morning, Mrs. Pena.”
The older woman gave her a placid smile in greeting, and then her eyes moved over Geraldine in silent question.
Geraldine managed a smile and a nod. “Jozy okay?”
“Tea party. We need cookies.”
Phoebe grinned, understanding enough Spanish to decipher what the mother and daughter shared with each other. She waited until Geraldine’s mother retreated into the bedroom before turning back to Geraldine. “From the way he looked when he came back from your place, I knew even before he spoke that it wasn’t anything good.”
Geraldine’s chest tightened. “H-how did he look?”
Phoebe speared a withering look. “How any flesh-and-blood man would look if a woman suggests a loveless marriage.” She sighed heavily. “Geri, what are you thinking?”
For her in-laws, she’d planned out words for getting remarried. When Bart questioned her, she’d come up with a good explanation for why he had to marry her. When her mother asked if she knew what she was doing, Geraldine didn’t falter, believing she was making the right choice. But Phoebe’s question, she hadn’t prepared a response. At least none that would make sense even to her. Geraldine dragged a hand over her face and groaned aloud.
The sound of rustling was Phoebe moving from her chair. The hand on Geraldine’s shoulder confirmed her settling beside Geraldine on the sofa. “Geri…”
Geraldine shook her head, refusing to lower her hands and see Phoebe’s concerned expression. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Do you really? Then explain because it certainly makes no sense to me. Why do you want to get married again? And why to Bart? You knew he was in a serious relationship, didn’t you?”
“Well, he’s not dating her anymore,” Geraldine said, wincing. She was a horrible person, through and through.
Phoebe’s disappointed silence echoed her sentiments.
Geraldine blew a breath of exasperation. “I can’t believe he tattled.”
“Oh will you stop it already?” Phoebe crossed her arms. “What man wouldn’t be weirded out by such a crazy proposal?”
“Then tell him he doesn’t have to answer my crazy proposal.” She stood to her feet, arms crossed. “Thanks for delivering the message.”
Phoebe didn’t attempt to stand. Instead she kept her glare fixed on Geraldine. “Sit down.”
“No. You’ve done your part as his big bad sister, so now you can go. I won’t bother him anymore.”
Clucking her tongue in disapproval, Phoebe shook her head. “Even now, you’re still behaving like a child. I had hoped motherhood would mature you.”
Geraldine bristled, almost saying something she would most certainly regret.
Chagrin tightened Phoebe’s features. “Okay, that was mean. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Geraldine shrugged. She’d survived more verbal abuse than Phoebe could ever dish out.
Phoebe finally stood. “I just want to help. Bart is obviously struggling to wrap his head around it, and I know you wouldn’t just come up with such a fool-brained idea without a good reason. Can’t you let me help?”
Geraldine shook her head and looked away. “I can’t… I just need Bart to say yes. Well, I needed him to say yes.” She swallowed the panic that threatened to suffocate her.
Geraldine looked up, meeting Phoebe’s imploring stare. “Why not Bart?”
Phoebe stared with a glint in her eye. “I thought you couldn’t stand him.”
“That’s not true,” Geraldine protested, tightening her arms around herself. When Phoebe eyed her suspiciously, she sighed and dropped back onto her chair. Placing her elbows on her knees, she stared at the carpet. “My mom and I were still trying to get accustomed to life there; Mom hadn’t been there since her twenties and things had changed since then. My in-laws wanted me and my mom to move into their place and help take care of Jozy… I wanted nothing to do with them. The thought of living in a house where he grew up to be that-that monster sickened me.” She drew in a harsh breath and released it. “I had to do something. If I stayed there, they wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Phoebe only listened, her hands folded on her lap, eyes riveted to Geraldine.
“So I lied.” Her lashes fluttered in memory of her in-laws’ shock and disapproval. “I told them that a man back home had asked for my hand in marriage. That we’d been corresponding a year after their son’s death, said he didn’t care that I was a widow with a child. Said that I’d accepted his proposal of marriage. At first, they refused to believe me, saying that my resentment toward their son kept me from wanting them to be a part of Jozy’s life. When I insisted it wasn’t that way, they demanded to see pictures of him, wanted proof of his existence and of our relationship. I refused to show them letters or emails but I did show them a picture…”
Phoebe frowned. “Bart’s?”
She shrugged. “Must’ve been some pictures we took when preparing the house. Some were of him scowling as usual, but there were a few he smiled in. Especially the ones with Eli and Darah.” Her smile was wistful, as though reminiscing on better times. “He looked like a loving, proud brother who cared for his family.”
“He is.” Phoebe regarded her carefully.
“I know.” Geraldine sighed. “That’s why when they asked who I was marrying, I didn’t even hesitate to say his name.”
Phoebe was silent but only for a moment. “Does he know this?”
Geraldine hesitated, gaze lowered to the carpet. “No, not really.”
“Don’t tell me you lied to him too?”
“No.” She grimaced at the sharp accusation. “I just didn’t tell him all of it.”
“Geraldine,” Phoebe breathed out in exasperation, sounding as she did when reprimanding a child. “This is completely unnecessary.”
She clenched her teeth. “To you it might seem that way, but to me–”
“Hush. Why lie when you can just tell the truth?”
Geraldine snorted. “What truth? All I know is my in-laws are coming in a couple of weeks and expect me to be married to the man I lied was my fiancé.”
Phoebe’s eyes widened as saucers. “Say what?”
He just couldn’t do it. No matter how many times he replayed the image of Geraldine’s tear-filled eyes, Bart couldn’t see himself being married to a woman who would never love him. There was clearly attraction between them, had always been. Ignoring that, plus his growing feelings towards her, seemed unnatural. He wouldn’t do it.
Pulling into her driveway an hour before heading off to work, Bart planned to make his answer short and as painless as possible. He pocketed his keys and walked up the driveway, so preoccupied with his thoughts that he missed his sister-in-law’s bug parked in the driveway.
Knocking on the door twice, Bart rehearsed his words under his breath. “I understand your situation but I can–”
The door swung open and a harried Phoebe stood in the doorway.
He blinked out of his thoughts and frowned. “Huh? What are–”
Phoebe grabbed and yanked his arm, pulling him inside. “I was just about to come find you.”
Geraldine stood a foot away with a pained expression on her face. Turning back to Phoebe, he eyed her warily. “You could’ve just called.”
She waved him off. “Nevermind that. You need to marry Geri.”
His brow furrowed deeper. “E-Excuse me?” His eyes skipped over Geraldine, noting she nibbled on her bottom lip.
“Listen,” Phoebe pressed on. “It’s not a real marriage, Bart. Just pretend for the next couple of weeks while her in-laws are visiting.”
“Wait what?” Bart turned back to Phoebe, staring at her as though she had horns sprouting from her forehead. “Pretend?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, Bart. Pretend.”
“Please Bart, just pretend to be my fiancé while my in-laws are here,” Geraldine finally spoke up, drawing Bart’s attention once more. Her eyes silently implored him to give in, to rescue her. “I promise I’ll make it as painless as possible for you. Please say yes.”
Phoebe came to stand beside Geraldine and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Yes Bart, say yes.”
Mouth agape, Bart stared at both women, his words snuffed out in growing confusion.