Hana remained mum as she led the way, refusing to give J.R. a clue on why his father summoned him. Anxious about his father’s condition, he had no choice but to follow. Then she came to stop in front of the room and gestured for him to go ahead. Unlike before, her face was now expressionless, her lips pursed and gaze blank as she waited for him to enter the room.
J.R. grabbed the handle and pushed open the door. The four, including his father looked his way as he entered. He quietly assessed his father’s visitors; Mrs. Ganesh, Mr. Peters and his father’s former secretary Mrs. Adebo. Then frowned. “What’s going on?”
“Close the door and come here,” L.J. answered, closing the portfolio and placing it back on the hospital tray propped on his bed.
Hesitating at his father’s firm tone, J.R. slowly closed the door and made his way over to the bed. He nodded a silent greeting at the three who watched him and then faced his father. “You asked for me?”
“That I did.” L.J. folded his arms across his chest and regarded his son in silence.
J.R. frowned at the weight of their stares on him. “What’s going on?”
“We were discussing your venture and my will.”
His stomach tightened and J.R. swallowed the hardened lump in his throat. “My venture?”
L.J.’s lips twitched wryly, noting that his son chose to ignore the part about his will. “Yes, your venture with the center. Earl and Preethi are in agreement that it’s needed in our community.”
J.R. snuck a glance at the two elders who had readily rescinded their support of him. He didn’t know why they’d change their minds now but didn’t articulate his skepticism. Instead he returned his attention to his father. “And what do you think?”
The smile on L.J.’s face widened. “I have to agree with them.”
The knot in his gut loosened, but his shoulders remained tense. Something was fishy about this gathering, and the portfolio on the table. “Okay…”
“It won’t be easy,” L.J. continued, his smile waning. “Our people are not the easiest to reach, and some will take advantage of you.”
“I’ve planned for it.” He pictured the contingency procedures he’d drafted in his laptop computer.
Mrs. Ganesh snorted derisively. “You can’t plan for rain, beta. It comes when it wills.”
J.R. fixed his stare on his father. “What is your decision? Do I have your support?”
L.J. stared right back. “If I don’t give it, will you still go ahead with your plans?”
Mr. Peters chortled. “Gutsy, this one.”
L.J.’s smile was faint but there was warmth in his eyes. Pride lit up his face. “That he is.” Then he nodded and looked down at the portfolio, opening it to the only printed page.
“What is this?” J.R. asked, peering down at the signatures already printed on it.
L.J. peered up at Mrs. Adebo and gestured for her to speak.
“On behalf of Obed and Associates,” she said in her most-official voice. “Esquire Lalana-Joel Obed graciously awards the Obed Immigration Center a grant amounting to 1.5 million dollars after taxes.”
J.R.’s mouth dropped open and he gaped at his father.
“Congratulations, beta,” Mrs. Ganesh said, hands clasped together.
“That should be enough money to cover the rest of construction and the permits you need,” L.J. answered, nudging the portfolio to his son.
“More than enough!” Mr. Peters exclaimed, clapping excitedly. “You’re one lucky man, son.”
J.R. stared at the print, at the signatures of his father and law associates agreeing to support his venture. His heart thudded violently in his chest as he skimmed over the words written there, at his father’s spidery signature marking his complete and generous support. It seemed like a dream.
“It just needs your signature,” Mrs. Adebo instructed, holding out a pen.
When J.R. looked up at his father, L.J. smiled warmly. “Go ahead, son.”
And when he still hesitated to take the pen, Mrs. Adebo frowned. “Is there a problem?”
J.R. sniffed back tears. “Just one.”
All brows furrowed. “What is it, son?” L.J. asked, confusion etched in his face.
“It’s not the Obed Immigration Center…” J.R.’s lips trembled, tears pooling and blurring his vision. “It’s the Lalana Hope Center.”
Mrs. Ganesh gasped. “Oh my…”
Mr. Peters dropped a hand over L.J.’s shoulder who looked as though he’d been hit by a freight train.
“We’ll step out for a bit,” Mrs. Adebo spoke in the stunned silence and the other two followed her out of the room, leaving the two Obed men alone.
“Since when?” L.J. eked out. His eyes now glistened with tears forming.
J.R. shrugged. “I hadn’t really given it a name yet, but I knew I’d want to make it in honor of what you and Mom sacrificed to come here. You gave up everything, all that you knew back home, so that you could take care of Mom and me. There are many other families with similar stories living in this foreign country, and I wanted them to know that they weren’t alone. To tell them your story; that my dad understood their plight. I want them to find hope in your journey, your success.”
L.J. lost it. A garbled moan escaped his throat and he bent his head as he came undone. J.R. hastened to his side and gathered his father in an embrace. Then they wept together for times lost, and for the future that was most uncertain.
Once the sobs subsided, the two men remained in each other’s arms, L.J.’s head propped against his son’s shoulder. J.R. marveled at how small his father seemed, how fragile. His heart ached at the thought of losing him to this disease, to be without him.
“I’m sorry,” L.J. croaked softly. “I’m so sorry, my dearest Raju.”
J.R. tightened his hold around him. “I’m sorry too… We wasted so much time.”
L.J. sniffed. “I should’ve let you be who you wanted to be, trusted in your dreams and ambition.”
“I didn’t believe in myself, I was too uncertain.”
L.J. sighed. “That was my fault too. I planned everything about your life, you had no choice but to feel unsure of yourself. I should’ve let you grow on your own.”
“It’s fine now,” J.R. reassured his father, not wanting to dwell in regrets. “We’re fine.”
“Son… I promise to support whatever you decide.”
“I know, Babuji, thank you.” He squeezed L.J.’s shoulder to assure him.
“I’m sorry about pushing Hana on you. My guilt about her father made me blind to what you wanted.”
“It’s okay,” J.R. muttered, loosening his hold when L.J. squirmed. “Babuji, there’s something I need to say about that.”
“I heard already.” L.J. peered up at him, sadness in his eyes. “Your girl is pregnant.”
He frowned, figuring Hana beat him to it. Deciding to deal with her later, he sighed. “It wasn’t planned and the situation isn’t ideal, but I love her. And I want to marry her.”
L.J. nodded. “Okay.”
J.R. paused, having not expected that response one bit. “Okay? What, no protest?”
His father’s smile was wry. “I knew you didn’t understand when I said I’ll support whatever you decide. I meant it, Raju. If you want to marry her, marry her.” His gaze warmed J.R.’s face. “As a grown man, you make decisions about your future. Just like the immigration center, trials and tribulations might make you question if you made the right one, but you must work through and live with the choices you made.”
L.J. chuckled softly at the stunned look on his son’s face. “I know it’s hard to believe, but I too wondered if I’d made the right decision stealing your mother’s heart and running away to America the way I did. At times I felt like a selfish coward, but there was no turning back. We were raising a child and trying to make a life in a foreign land. I knew I had to make a better life for my family, no matter what.” L.J. squeezed his son’s hand. “I trust that same stubborn gene is in you to see things through no matter how hard it’ll get. And I trust you’ll do far better than I ever did. So marry the woman you love, Raju, and build a life for you and your family. I will support and honor your decisions.”
All J.R. could do was drop his head against his father’s shoulder, and let L.J. wrap his arms around him. The emotions were raw as J.R. wept again in his father’s embrace; relief, gratitude, regret and joy all mixed up. He wrapped his arms around L.J.’s skinny shoulders and wished his father would live long enough to see him live out his legacy. He just had to make it work, in honor of the father that sacrificed it all for him.
Darah glared at Jeremy sitting across the room, she refused to let him take the stool by her bed. It was a wonder that her brothers even allowed him inside the room, them standing just outside ready to pounce in the sign of trouble. “What did you say to him?”
Jeremy frowned. “To who? The guy who claims to be your fiancé?”
“He is my fiancé,” Darah answered curtly. “What did you say to him?”
“That was quick.” Jeremy arched a brow. “You certainly didn’t waste time getting over me.”
Darah didn’t bite the bait; much too mature for goading. “What did you say to him?”
He shrugged. “I didn’t get to say anything. Someone came to get him, something about his dad.”
Her eyes widened in alarm. “What else did they say?”
Jeremy arched a brow. “Like I care. Wanna tell me what’s going on here? Tess said you had to tell me something.”
Darah scowled. “Of course she did.” She would’ve preferred he leave so she could ask about J.R., but from the way he sat with his arms folded and gaze expectant, he had no intentions of leaving soon.
“Is the baby mine?”
Her eyes flitted to his face, noted the deep furrow in his brow. She sighed. “Yes.” Unfortunately.
His eyes widened and he gaped at her. “And you weren’t gonna tell me?”
“As far as I was concerned, we were done.” She shrugged. “Didn’t see any reason to tell you—that was my bad,” she barreled on when he started to speak. “Regardless of how I feel about the situation, we made a child together.”
Jeremy looked like he swallowed a golf ball and Darah sighed, dragging a hand over her hair. “Look, I’m not asking you to take responsibility. That’s why I didn’t tell you, I’d prefer you don’t.”
“Why, because you’re getting married?” Jeremy croaked out, disbelief and something indecipherable in his face. “Do you really think I’m that bad to suggest I wouldn’t want to?”
Darah frowned. “You want to?”
He looked away, features tense. “… I don’t know what I want.”
She nodded, understanding his conflicted feelings. “Take your time.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“And that guy doesn’t care that you’re carrying someone else’s baby?” Jeremy shifted to face her, brows furrowed in confusion. “He’s not mad about it?”
She bit the inside of her cheek. “I’m sure he’s disappointed, I am too. I had loved him for most of my teenage life and beyond, and yet in my moments of weakness, I settled. No offense.”
“None… taken,” Jeremy muttered begrudgingly.
Darah sighed. “I still love him and it’s a wonder he wants me regardless of the fact that I’ll be a single mother.”
“But does he want the responsibility of raising another man’s child? Because if he doesn’t…”
“What you’ll ask for custody?” At the shocked look on his face, Darah couldn’t help but laugh. “Look Jeremy, it’s fine. We don’t have to discuss this now. It’s new to you, you’ll need time to think about it. It’s a messy situation, and we’ll be dealing with two families… so take your time. I mean that, no pressure.”
His expression turned skeptical. “You’ve… changed somehow.”
Darah’s lips twitched a smile. “No Jeremy, I’ve just grown up a bit.”
“Maybe…” Jeremy stood slowly, his eyes drifting to her stomach, then back at her face. “I’ll call you.”
“Let’s plan for the four of us to talk when you’re ready. I’d want both J.R. and Tess to be there.”
He nodded haltingly and edged toward the door. “Hope you feel better soon.”
“Thanks. Goodbye, Jeremy.”
When Jeremy opened the door, J.R. was standing in the doorway. Darah held back a laugh when Jeremy edged around J.R. and her scowling brothers to leave the room. She flashed them a grin and waved for J.R. to enter. “How’d it go?” she asked as he settled in the seat beside her. Immediately she noted his reddened eyes and sat up in alarm. “Is he okay? What happened? What did they say?”
J.R. pulled her into a hug and rested his cheek against her ruffled mane. “He’s fine.”
Unconvinced by the sound of his voice, she leaned back and looked up at him. “Then why were you crying? You almost never cry.”
He gave her a gentle smile, gaze warm as he searched her face. “You told me I could.”
“Yeah but…” she paused when he embraced her tightly. Then she sighed and rubbed his back. “You okay?”
“Better than okay.” He planted a kiss on her forehead and then loosened his hold. “My dad wants to see you. When you’re ready, of course.”
Anxiety rolled in her stomach as she looked up at him, unable to reconcile the gentle smile on his face with the dreadful announcement of his father summoning her. “He does? Why?”
“He wants to meet his daughter-in-law, of course.” J.R. laughed at the shocked look on her face and stole a kiss. “We must not keep him waiting long though. He gets cranky when he’s impatient.”
“Are you serious? Seriously?” Darah smacked his arm when he kept laughing. “J.R.!”
The door opened, the whole family curiously peeking in when her protests grew louder. “You guys okay?” Phoebe said bemused, stepping in with Darah’s brothers and Geraldine who recently arrived.
“Better than okay,” J.R. said amid laughter and enveloped a grumpy Darah in his arms.