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Chapter 10

Mary’s Saturday passed with a blur. Her morning run on the beach was the most peaceful time of the day. The early dawn lights, dolphins splashing slowly down the shore, pelicans diving in for bait fish. And grey white sandpipers, the cutest of birds marching in front of her and then scattering to clear her path. Mary fingered a delicate sand dollar she found. With a little luck there would be a sunset walk tonight.

The ring from her cell phone broke the serenity.

“Hey, Mary. What are you doing today?”

“Hi, Joseph, just the usual, shopping, chores, catching up on reports. What about you?”

“Not too much. I thought maybe we could get together today or tomorrow.”

Joseph was kind on the balcony last night. He showed a tenderness that she found surprising in a large, intimidating detective. She liked being with him and spending time with him, but that all-consuming spark wasn’t there. She and Chris had shared a gentle love, but this time, if indeed there was a “time,” she wanted more. She wanted the passion and the love that would endure.

“I don’t know, Joseph. My day is pretty much set and tomorrow I have the Sunday lunch at Mom and Dad’s house.”

Joseph paused. Mary wondered if he would invite himself to lunch. He probably knew well that an Italian family meal would mean enough food for an extra family or two. But she wasn’t ready to bring him home. One look at Joseph and her whole family would fantasize. They wanted her to be happy and to be safe. A tough detective, Italian to boot, would do the trick.

Mary jumped in before Joseph could answer.

“I’ll see you next week at work. Things are pretty hectic here.”

“You’re wounding me, Mary.”

“Oh, I think you’re tougher than that. Thanks for last night, by the way. It meant a lot to me.”

“Ditto here. No pressure. I mean it.”

They hung up. Mary knew she’d put the brakes on Joseph. Time would tell if those brakes would hold.

Mary drove up to her parent’s two-story home on Belleair Bluffs the next day. The pretty piece of property on the Intracoastal Waterway and the large but homey house her parents had built never failed to impress her. The views were magnificent.

Her folks had retired a year ago. Her mother, Mary Ann, had been a teacher and her father Tony, who some still called Anthony, owned an insurance agency. Older brother, Tony Junior, ran the agency now. Her younger sister, Adrienne, was married three years now to a man named John and she was six months pregnant.

When Mary walked through the front door, the men were yelling at the football coach on TV. The lasagna, just taken out of the oven, smelled wonderful and always reminded her of home. Her mother didn’t feel her children were properly welcomed home until they ate her homemade pasta.

“Hi, Mare,” her sister said as she walked in the family room. Adrienne was looking rounder in the stomach. The whole family was waiting for the birth of the baby like the second coming.

Mary gave her a grin and a gentle hug. “You look good, Adrienne. You’re really starting to show. Did I thank you yet this week for taking the baby pressure off of me?”

“Funny. Are you saying I look fat?”

“No, no, no. You are glowing and beautiful.”

Adrienne swatted at Mary’s shoulder. “Well, you better not think of a baby without a husband, Mare. That would be a tough discussion for Mom and Dad at St. Brendan’s scripture reading class.”

“No chance at the moment. Did you know I invited a friend from work and her son?”

“Yeah. Momma said it was a new judge.”

As if on cue, Kristin and Anders rang the bell. Her heart was in her throat, but wasn’t this what she really wanted for herself and her son? To have more friends? To have more good friends? She ruffled her son’s hair and then almost fell off the step when the door jerked open to reveal an entire army of people to greet them. Oh my gosh….

“Come on in, Kristin,” Mary called from somewhere behind all the broad male bodies.

Anders walked in first and went right up to Momma Visconti.

Mary Ann looked down at him with a smile. “Well, you must be Anders. And this is your mom, Kristin?” she asked.

Anders nodded.

She enfolded them both in her arms. Introductions were made all around.

“Anders, you can call me Nonna. Do you want to help me fill the cannoli shells?”

Anders looked at Kristin, who smiled and nodded. He followed his new Nonna into the kitchen, asking what they were going to do with these sea shells. Kristin let out a sigh of relief. But then, Anders wasn’t the one with the poor social skills, was he?

Sitting at the dinner table, Kristin felt enveloped in Mary’s family, the food, the wine, the sense of belonging. It reminded her of the Sanders family in Tallahassee and her own family in Norway, way back then. One family Italian, one Jewish, one Norwegian… but all family. She sometimes felt like the little match girl, looking through a frosted window. But she and Anders were inside today. It felt good.

She watched Anders’ concerned expression at the heated discussions about politics and sports, particularly between Tony, John and Anthony. He was not used to loud conversation at the dinner table and people talking at the same time, gesturing with their hands. But he looked relieved when Anthony took his son’s face into his hands and told him he loved him.

At dinner’s end, Anders looked at Nonna.

“Is it time, Nonna?”

“It’s time, Anders.” She took his hand and led him to the kitchen.

Minutes later, he returned with a proud smile and a tray of cannoli.

“What’s this?” Anthony asked, like he’d never seen one before.

“This is Cannoli a’la Anders. He filled them all himself and dipped them in pistachio nuts,” Mary Ann said.

Anders served his mother first. “I’m happy the cannoli shells weren’t seashells,” he whispered.

Kristin felt grateful to Mary and her family. She saw Nonna looking at her inquisitively over her second cannoli. She knew it was time to share something of herself. She looked at Mary, who rolled her eyes at her mother but smiled in encouragement.

“I want you all to know that Anders and I have really enjoyed ourselves today at your beautiful home and with your family. We don’t go out very often, except with Berit and her family.”

“Can I take them to Berit?” Anders whispered to her as he pointed at the three remaining cannoli. “I can tell her how to make them.”

“Of course, Anders,” Nonna jumped in. “Cannoli a’la Anders might become a famous dessert. I’ll wrap them up for you. And, you’re welcome to bring your friend Berit here to learn to make them herself.”

“We could make them for our birthday, instead of cake,” Anders exclaimed.

“Anders and Berit are not only best friends,” Kristin explained. “They share the same birth date. Berit lives close by with her two fathers, Dad and Daddy.”

Nonna’s pause was brief. “Where is your family from, Kristin? I hear a bit of an accent in there.”

Mary leaned in to object but Kristin shooed her away. It was time. Anders knew all of this.

“Thanks for asking, MaryAnn. I was born in Norway, in a town called Bergen. It’s on the west coast, on the North Sea, known for its fishing and art. It was the home of Edvard Grieg, Norway’s famous composer of classical music.

“My father ran a charter fishing business and my mother was a social worker in the courts of Bergen, and sometimes in the schools. They loved to hike, bike and ski in the mountains of Norway. As an only child, I enjoyed all of that with them.

“When I was a junior in high school I became an exchange student and lived for a year with a wonderful family in Tallahassee, Allan and Claire Sanders and their young sons. They were a lot like my parents, very big hearted and socially minded. I learned a lot of Jewish traditions and holidays from them, even though Claire wasn’t Jewish. Like my mother, she was a social worker and Allan was an advocate for children all throughout Florida.”

The whole family was quiet, eyes fixed on Kristin.

Anders took his mother’s hand.

“Tell them about the ski jumping,” he said.

She laughed. “Oh yes, my father was a famous ski jumper in Norway before I was born. He made the Olympic team and won a gold medal for our country.” She squeezed Anders’s hand.

“Anders is named after him. He’s becoming quite the athlete, too.”

“But not ski jumping, Momma. Maybe waterskiing or surfing. Anyway, I never met him.”

“And that’s a shame,” MaryAnn said. “But you carry his name. How wonderful.”

“So,” Kristin continued. “The terribly sad part of my story is that while I was in Tallahassee my parents were killed in an avalanche while skiing before the ski season officially opened. I never returned to Norway after that. It was too painful.”

“I’m so sorry,” Nonna murmured, patting Kristin’s shoulder.

“My parent’s estate was settled and that inheritance allowed me to finish high school and attend Florida State University, where I got a degree in criminology. The Sanders family was totally supportive and I still maintain close contact with them when I’m in Tallahassee. They are terrific people.”

Nonna leaned in. “And after college…?”

Mary put a warning hand on her mother’s arm. “Enough for tonight, Momma. You don’t want to wear her out.”

“But I want to know how she became a judge!” Mary Ann said, placing her hand on top of her daughter’s.

Since it was common knowledge in the court system, Mary rolled her eyes, but quickly explained.

“Kristin graduated at the top of her law school class, opened a small office and won a huge sexual harassment case which funded her campaign for circuit judge. She beat an incumbent who’d been in office too long, who was rude and disrespectful in court and who was caught a month before the election, pants down, with a legal secretary in his chambers the night of his wedding anniversary. Kristin won with a huge victory. And we’re glad she did!”

Kristin felt the heat in her face, but was relieved that Mary had so quickly created an acceptable bio for her. She rose from the table and motioned for Anders to do the same.

Tak fer matten, which means ‘thanks for the food.’ It’s been wonderful for us to get to know you and, of course, the meal was delicious. I look forward to seeing you again–just not in my court!”

The family laughed and everyone pushed away from the table to help Mary Ann move the dishes into the kitchen to be washed.

Mary walked them to their car. Anders walked ahead to carefully place the cannoli inside.

“You look like you survived my family.”

Kristin laughed and gave Mary a hug. “You have great parents. It was nice being a part of a family, especially for Anders. Those cannoli were delicious and I can’t wait to hear what Berit says about them.”

“They are loud, physical and in your face,” Mary said. “Not the cannoli,” she laughed, “my whole family.”

“To the contrary, I don’t think Anders wants to let go of them. I didn’t realize how much he missed grandparents in his life.”

“And did you see my father drool over him? Adrienne just better have a boy. Anyway, anything that takes the pressure off me finding a nice man, getting married and having babies is a good thing. I’m going to rent Anders a couple of times a week.”

That night, Mary reviewed the chart for Robby Hartman, the so-called school bomber. There would be more information coming in during the next few weeks. She noticed that Robby’s name was different than his biological father’s name. His grandmother said something about Robby’s behavior becoming a little more erratic when he found out about his father. That would take some investigating.

She looked over the charts, noting what supporting documents were still needed to make a plan of action for the upcoming week. She was in for a hectic week, navigating the court as well as Joseph. She hoped that a beginning friendship with Kristin would grow, despite the different roles of judge and child psychologist. Kristin had revealed a lot about herself. Nonna’s persistence had paid off.

Her last thoughts were of Anders. What a nice boy. Polite and certainly handsome, but also a lot of fun. He was so proud of the grandfather he’d never met. Anders Dahlen, Olympic medalist.

Just before she slipped into a deep, glorious sleep, she thought of the perfect surprise for Anders.

Chapter Eleven

Kristin lowered the top on her black Volkswagen convertible as she turned onto Gulf Boulevard. The breeze from the Gulf of Mexico was cooler in October, much like April. Although her Norwegian body temperature had adjusted to the Florida heat long ago, she was grateful for the change of seasons.

October was passing by quickly. Her difficult cases remained difficult. Robby was still in detention by agreement, while Mary worked furiously to keep him out of adult court. Mikayla was still running away and getting picked up by police. She plead to a misdemeanor assault for the knife incident with her mom. While on probation for forty- five days she followed the rules and had perfect attendance at school. Once off probation, she took to the streets, undoubtedly with older men. She was back and forth to her Mother’s home and attending just enough school not to be chronically truant.

For Kristin, each passing October meant so many things.

It was the month that Chad was arrested and taken to federal prison in Miami. Another year that she wouldn’t have to see him. She was ashamed of what she’d done with him, the crimes she had inadvertently committed with him, all forgiven by the government when she’d worn a wire and turned him in.

“You betrayed me, you bitch,” he’d yelled as he was taken from her bedroom in handcuffs.

October was also the anniversary of her promise to Ron and Jackson, a promise that had brought about their little girl Berit. Ron and Jackson were now her rocks. Because of them she’d made a commitment to listen to her conscience regarding men, not her pocketbook. Once that decision was made, she’d never looked back.

Kristin inhaled the floral smell and charm of her Pass-A-Grille beach community, with its quaint pastel-colored cottages, old sprawling ranch houses and two-story bungalows turned into bed and breakfast lodges. Add to that a profusion of flowers in window boxes, a wide, sandy beach, a few great restaurants, small library, church and tiny yacht club, and why would you want to leave?

Unless you had a courtroom full of people waiting for you. She pulled into the courthouse parking lot and dashed into the building.

This Monday morning court might have to wait a little longer. Chief Judge Roger Cruz had called a special meeting for 8 a.m. with the sheriff. All judges were required to attend from their chambers by webcam. With nearly sixty judges in four different courthouses in the county, it was the only efficient way to conduct a meeting.

“In view of another murder of a young girl from Pinellas County, our office has formed a Special Victims Unit to stop the exploitation of young girls and women as sex slaves, which is a form of human trafficking,” the sheriff opened, commanding attention with his six-foot, three-inch uniformed presence on the computer screen.

“This is different than prostitution, which involves a willing buyer and a willing seller. This is different from forcing immigrants to work long hours in slave-like conditions for little money, in lawn businesses, massage parlors and the food industry. This is one American exerting control over a young woman or young girl—often a foster child—making them perform sex in order to make money. Obviously, most of the money doesn’t go to the young girl, although she’s solicited and enticed with cell phones, clothes, manicures and false promises of love, in the beginning of the relationship.

“This is exploitation, pure and simple. Many of the pimps were former drug traffickers that we’ve busted often enough that they found other employment, so to speak.

“Just last week our office broke up a trafficking ring in which two runaway girls, ages fifteen and sixteen, were forced to have sex with as many as five men a day. Men found the girls through Internet ads. Word gets around on the street, and young men stalk foster girls at group homes. Looking for love, often alone and abandoned, these girls are the most vulnerable.

“This month, we charged a sixty-year-old woman with trafficking a fourteen-year-old foster child. She offered the girl up for sex to any man who would pay her. As you know, judges, these children can’t consent. We’re talking about rape—forcible or statutory.

“And yesterday, in this specific case, we learned that a foster girl, Nikki Grassi, was found murdered in an alley behind a known drug house. This is damned complex; we’re combining drug trafficking, sex with minors, exploitation of foster kids, and now, murder.”

Oh, my God. Kristin raised her fist to her mouth. It was Nikki they found last night. She remembered Nikki, a tousle-headed imp with a big mouth and bold ideas. Her mother had died of cancer. Her father, a long distance truck driver, was having great difficulty raising a rebellious daughter. He sought help from the state. A voluntary shelter case was opened and, as the judge, she’d placed Nikki temporarily in a group home. Then everything exploded.

Nikki missed her Dad and fought the group home restrictions. She ran away, was spotted on the streets but never caught. Kristin signed a pick up order just last week. She could see Nikki going easily to an older man who offered benefits. Now Nikki was dead, and Kristin could only imagine her father’s grief.

She turned back to the screen and watched through tear-filled eyes.

“To the judges out there that deal with these foster kids, we’re leaning on you hard. You are the first official line of intervention for these kids. You simply have to take better care of them.”

Was he blaming the court system? Kristin wondered. Will Nikki’s father blame me?

“We have to train the community to identify these pimps and report them to us. To alert our office if they see young girls out soliciting on corners– the pimp is probably close by. At football games, at concerts, at the dog track and the horse races.

“As judges, you need to be aware of the effect of power and control over these young, vulnerable children. Your Honors, that’s what they are. Children. They need your protection.

“So whether its criminal court, or family court, or dependency or delinquency court, you need to look for the signs of human sex trafficking. Especially for minors. This week, our office will be providing all of you with brochures and video material to further educate you so that you can educate others.

“Congress just passed a human trafficking bill, putting money into prevention and increasing the sanctions for the purchasers. You need to be as diligent in court,” he finished.

Purchasers?” Kristin flipped the off switch. “They are predators, pedophiles, pimps. Don’t sanitize them by calling them purchasers,” she muttered to the blank screen.

She zipped up her black robe and hurried through the corridors to the back door of the courtroom. Deputy Sandstrom stood waiting.

“All rise,” he announced.

It was her signal to take the bench, this morning a half hour late.

One look at the crowded courtroom told her she’d have to move the cases along quickly to catch up. She had a trial scheduled to begin at eleven. A termination of parental rights trial, which some judges compared to a death sentence. She saw it differently. It was a second chance for a child, a chance to have a permanent, stable home and a forever family. But she had to get through these other hearings first, including two domestic violence cases.

Kristin recognized the thin woman in the low cut dress standing at the podium, in between her court-appointed lawyer, who was looking grim, and Raphael Gonzalez, the assistant state attorney. Last week, Kristin had denied the state’s request to remove the woman’s small children from the home and put them in foster care, due to on-going domestic violence between the mother and her new boyfriend. Although the woman was wringing her hands and wouldn’t look at her, Kristin could see some fresh bruises on her neck and what looked like another black eye.

“Your honor,” Raphael spoke first. “Last week you gave the mother a break, an opportunity to keep her kids with her and out of foster care, if she would get a domestic violence injunction against her boyfriend and keep him out of the home, away from her kids. She got the injunction but dismissed it two days later.

“Last night the neighbors called police because of the loud arguments and the kids’ crying. Sure enough, the boyfriend was there. He’d actually moved into her house and within the hour he beat her up again. Police found an empty vodka bottle, a dozen Vicodin pills and some marijuana within the children’s reach. We’re asking that these small children, ages two and three, be removed and placed in foster care until we can locate their fathers, or other relatives. They simply shouldn’t be exposed to this type of violence.”

Kristin looked at the woman.

“Judge,” her lawyer said. “My client recognizes that she needs help and that she made a bad mistake. But she’s a victim herself. I believe the boyfriend was arrested and charged with aggravated battery. He posted bond at the advisory hearing. He has a good job working road construction. She’s unemployed. He pays most of the household bills. The children weren’t hurt. They were in the other room when the fight occurred.”

Raphael started to speak but Kristin interrupted.

“Let’s get something straight,” she said. “These children are victims of domestic violence along with their mother. They are victims because they are exposed to the fighting, the screaming, the drunken or drug-induced behavior and, of course, their mother’s bruises and black eyes. They are not just witnesses, they are victims, and my first obligation is to protect them, regardless of how sorry I feel for the mother.”

“She attended her boyfriend’s advisory hearing,” Raphael said, going in for the kill. “She told the judge she wanted continued contact with him.”

“Is that true?” Kristin looked at the mother, who nodded as she wiped away tears.

“Then I have no choice but to grant the state’s request and remove your children until you get some help,” Kristin said, softly. “Please look at me. I have pity for you and your situation. You’re not the first mother who stood before me after making the decisions you did.

“There are domestic violence advocates in the court house. There are shelters you can go to with your children. But you need to take the first step. You need to reach out and seek help, to get out of this terribly unhealthy relationship. I need to protect your kids until you do that.”

She glanced at Raphael. He’d served up the information she needed. He could be lethal in the courtroom, but she caught a nanosecond of empathy in his eyes as the mother left in tears.

The next few hearings were judicial reviews, required by law for the court to assess how close the parents were to completing their case plans when the state was involved with their children. Kristin never ceased to be amazed at the extent of prescription drug abuse, mostly opioids. People stood before her that no one would never expect to see in dependency court. Adults who’d been responsibly raised by their parents with good jobs and a good education, had turned into addicts, passed out on the sofa while their toddlers ran loose in the house or, worse, in the streets.

Until very recently, Florida had been the pain pill capital of the country, producing and selling more of the pills than all the other states combined. Thousands of people flew or drove into Florida and left with enough controlled substances prescribed by unscrupulous physicians and filled by complicit pharmacies to sell at home, saving some for themselves. It was an epidemic, somewhat under control now, thanks to actions by the attorney general, but with lasting damage. Opioids were the worst, heroin in a pill.

Her fellow juvenile judges each dealt with pill addiction problems in different ways. One judge counted on her bench, the pills in open court, comparing the count with the prescription. prescribed to a mother or father, often calling the prescribing doctor to demand a plan to wean the parent off that medication, pain or not.

Another judge brought up horror stories of small children poisoned by swallowing pills carelessly left around.

A third showed extraordinary patience. “You’re an addict,” he would say, “and I’m addicted to helping you recover, and get your children back. Relapse is part of recovery.”

Regardless of the approach, all judges struggled with opiate addicted parents who brought so much heartache onto the children that came through their courts.

Shortly after eleven o’clock Kristin had cleared the courtroom except for the people present for a termination of parental rights trial. The door was locked, with a deputy standing nearby. Those trials and adoptions were the only closed hearings in the court house.

Kristin was very familiar with this case. She expected a smooth trial without hitches and a quick verdict she could reach that was in the best interest of Jordan, a lovely thirteen-year-old, freckled girl with a mop of red curls who reminded everyone of little orphan Annie. Jordan deserved a far better life than her birth parents had provided, and Kristin was eager to be a part of that.

Plus, her very favorite guardian ad litem, Skip Walters, would testify in the case. He was so thorough, so compassionate and so dedicated to his volunteer assignment. Laser-focused on his task, which was to testify as to the best interest of the child, Kristin wondered what his business partners in the advertising agency thought of the time he spent on these difficult cases. The kids couldn’t have a better ally than Skip.

Skip sat next to the state attorney, waiting for Kristin to call the case, jiggling the coins in his pocket, fiddling with his pen and adjusting his collar with his left hand, the one with the gold wedding band.

At the other table sat Jordan’s mother, a drug addict, who should have been close to tears since she was about to have her parental rights terminated. Instead, she smiled at Kristin. What was wrong with this picture? Kristin’s joy dissipated quickly. Something was up and she’d bet her gavel that it wasn’t something good for Jordan. Please, dear Lord….

Deputy Sandstrom opened the court room door for Paula Travers, a high-level supervisor for Community Cares, the private agency operating the child abuse system in Pinellas County. Kristin blinked, surprised to see her involved in this case which, until now, had been a rather routine dependency matter. Paula took a seat next to Raphael, who rose to start the proceedings. Kristin’s alert-meter went off again. Raphael looked chagrined, ashamed or something in between.

“Your honor, there has been a new development in this case. Ms. Travers is here representing our client, the Community Cares agency, and she can best state the reason that it won’t be necessary to go forward with the trial scheduled for today.”

Kristin recoiled, then hoped it didn’t show. She’d never liked or even respected Paula Travers, who seemed driven to statistical results that would make her agency look good, without regard to the best interest of the child. Today’s child was Jordan. Kristin liked her a lot. What was Ms. Travers going to say that would affect Jordan’s future?

“Judge,” Paula said, “you are aware of course that in all these cases, right up until a termination of parental rights trial begins, a parent has a right to identify a relative who may be able to adopt her child, and the court must give preference to those relatives, if they pass a background check and home study. That’s what’s happened in Jordan’s case. I apologize to the court for this happening at the very last minute.” She looked at Jordan’s mother and gave her a slight smile.

“The mom’s sister, Erin Flynn, who previously couldn’t take custody of Jordan because of her own financial problems, has recently become engaged to a fine gentleman who has a good income and stability. After their wedding, they would like to adopt Jordan. Jordan’s mom is ecstatic about this, eager to keep Jordan with family members as she acknowledges her own continuing problems with drugs, alcohol and a number of criminal convictions. She’s agreed to surrender her parental rights and let her sister and fiancé be Jordan’s guardians until the adoption is final after they are married.

“In the meantime, our agency has rushed to do a home study and background checks, which are favorable. Jordan’s father isn’t in the picture. His rights have been previously terminated, due to abandonment. Relatives are preferred, I emphasize, so this should be perfunctory and eliminate the need for today’s trial.”

Kristin hoped she didn’t look or sound as stunned as she felt. She cleared her throat and fought back the urge to sneer at Travers.

“Well, Ms. Travers, that’s a lot to digest at the last minute. I don’t know what verdict I would have rendered in this trial. I do remember that there is a foster mother who Jordan has lived with for more than two years, who has expressed a strong desire to adopt Jordan if her mother’s rights were terminated. Jordan is very happy there, doing well at school and at the foster mother’s home.”

“May I be heard, your honor?” Skip rose from his seat, now looking distraught.

“Certainly, Mr. Walters. Please,” Kristin said evenly.

“Like the court, I just learned of this today. Jordan and her foster mother, Cecilia Holland, are in the witness room, waiting for the outcome of the trial and to testify if necessary. I advised them that it was up to your honor to terminate the mother’s rights, and that I thought that likely to occur, in view of her continuing instability, erratic visits with Jordan, alcohol and drug dependence and criminal charges. The other option, I told them, was for your honor to extend the mother’s time to complete her case plan.

“I’m here prepared to testify that it is in Jordan’s best interest to have her mother’s rights terminated and to allow Cecilia Holland to adopt her. Frankly, Judge, Jordan’s been with Ms. Holland for over two years, they’ve bonded as mother and daughter, the relationship is good for Jordan and represents permanency and a forever family for her. Jordan doesn’t really know her aunt, Erin Flynn, and has never met her aunt’s fiancé. This is terribly last minute and a big shock to me, to Jordan and to her foster mom.”

Raphael stepped up to the podium, hesitant, looking uncomfortable. “What the guardian says is true, your honor, until today. With a designated relative, an approved home study and background checks, we no longer need to look for foster care or foster parents to adopt. Ms. Flynn and her fiancé are also outside, ready to assure the court that they can take custody of Jordan today, as a relative placement, until the adoption occurs. That’s the law, your honor.”

The mother’s attorney stood and shrugged. “We agree, of course. That’s the law.” He looked as enthusiastic as a law student re-taking a bar exam for the third time.

The law has no soul, Kristin thought. No feelings, and no connection to a thirteen-year-old girl who had bounced around in foster care until she found a secure, loving placement, with someone who wanted to adopt her. Everyone here knew what was in Jordan’s best interest.

“Let’s bring everyone into the courtroom. It’s clear we’re not operating on Plan A anymore, so let’s get a look at Plan B.” Kristin found no reason to exclude Jordan. For heaven’s sake, this was about her life.

Kristin called Jordan’s Aunt Erin and her fiancé to the podium first.

“Judge,” Erin said. “I’ve always wanted Jordan to be safe and have a good home, but I’ve struggled so much financially that I didn’t think I could promise her the stable home she needed. But Luke and I are getting married and we’ve talked this over. We can certainly manage to care for Jordan together. . .”

“Your honor,” he broke in, “I’m Luke Haller. I love Erin and I know this would make her happy. I know I could make Jordan happy, too. I’ve got a good business building and managing websites for insurance agencies and I work from home most of the time. The pay is good and steady. And I like kids, I worked part time as a swim coach at a private school. Didn’t pay much, but I really enjoyed being around the kids.”

“I see,” Kristin said. “Well, thank you for speaking up.” Is he just excited or a bit overzealous? she wondered.

“Your honor,” began Raphael before Haller interrupted him at the podium, trying to push Raphael aside to get closer to the bench. Raphael elbowed him back.

Kristin watched Deputy Sandstorm head full speed toward the bench.

“Whoa.” The deputy grabbed Haller’s arm to stop him. “There’s a reason for that podium. It’s there for you to stand behind. No closer than that to the judge.”

Haller backed off and grabbed Erin’s hand. He seemed totally oblivious to the sobbing Cecilia Holland, Jordan’s foster mother, and to Jordan, who held Cecilia’s hand, pale faced and shaking, standing next to her.

Raphael looked like a seething volcano, but he was in control so Kristin turned her attention to Cecilia Holland and nodded.

The grieving woman spoke through her sniffles. “In the beginning I hoped that Jordan’s momma would get her act together so that Jordan could be returned to her, but when that didn’t happen, I assumed all responsibility for Jordan, including school and soccer, church and youth group. I’m more than ready to adopt Jordan if her mother’s rights are terminated.”

Tears continued to trickle down her face as she waited for questions.

There were none. Everyone looked at Jordan, face so white that her freckles jumped out.

“I love my momma deep down inside,” she said. “But I don’t love her on the outside. I love Ms. Cecilia, my other momma. I want to live with her. I’m safe with her and she loves me, too. I’ve got friends there, I’m doing well in school and I really want to stay there.”

Skip stood next to Jordan and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Judge, you’ve heard my recommendation. Jordan and Ms. Cecilia are a family. You shouldn’t break that up.”

“The law,” Paula Travers repeated. “The law requires the Court to accept a relative. . .”

Kristin interrupted. “I’m well aware of the law, Ms. Travers. I’m also astounded by your insensitivity. I’m taking this matter under advisement. I’ll announce a ruling a week from today. Meanwhile, the trial is continued and Jordan is to remain with Ms. Holland.”

Luke Haller glared at Paula Travers and threw his hands up in disgust. Kristin looked quizzically at both of them and then smacked her gavel on the bench, wishing for an instant it was someone’s face.

Grief, she thought, calling a recess for lunch. She was right. Juvenile court is all about grief.

In chambers, she took off her robe and hung it up, then dug around in her little refrigerator for something light to eat. She grabbed a cup of yogurt and an apple, then collapsed on the sofa in her office.

Maybe, with luck, Erin Flynn would find another boyfriend or Luke Haller would be run over by a delivery van.

She tossed the apple core into the air and missed the waste basket.

Shit. She couldn’t think of any way out of a legal, but terrible, decision.

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