Katherine stood in front of Judge Ambers, cheeks red, heat searing her face. The judge eyed her with a glint of amusement in his eye. He barely was able to control the burst of laughter threatening to spill from within him.
“Your honor,” Katherine pleaded. “The plaintiff is openly flirting with my client,” she whined in frustration.
The judged narrowed his eyes at her and then he did explode in a very loud chuckle. He rapped his gavel to bring order to the courtroom, then realized he was the one out of order, and laughed harder.
“Your client is flirting back,” he gasped between bouts of laughter.
Katherine snapped her head toward Austin and, seeing the moonstruck look on his face as he practically seduced Betty Lee with his eyes, took her elbow, and jabbed him very hard in the ribs. He let out a yowl and gave her a pout, which brought bouts of laughter from the audience, who were waiting their turn in front of the judge.
From the moment she had received the devastating news that, while Austin Reynolds may not remember Miss Betty Lee—he had fathered her child — Katherine knew there would be trouble.
Austin had been distracted, obstinate, had refused to listen to advice, and continually called Betty Lee on the phone. Katherine had pleaded with him to leave her alone, but apparently, whatever had attracted him to the girl in the first place, definitely was urging him on now.
“May I have a brief recess?” Katherine asked.
The judge rapped his gavel in reply, gasping out something that sounded like, “court adjourned for lunch”. He stood and took his leave, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes as he exited to his chambers.
Austin wasted no time and immediately began to strut over to Betty Lee. Katherine grabbed his arm just in time.
“I need to see you in private,” she said between clenched teeth.
Austin looked over at Betty Lee longingly. She blew him a kiss. Austin caught the kiss in his hand and returned it with one of his air-blown kisses.
Katherine sighed in exasperation and pulled a reluctant Austin from the courtroom.
Sequestering him in one of the conference rooms, she whirled on him. “What are you doing in there?” she snapped.
“What?” Austin asked innocently.
“You’re flirting with the enemy,” Katherine screamed at him.
A look of anger flashed across Austin’s face. He pointed a finger at Katherine. She had never seen this look of intenseness from Austin. “Betty’s not the enemy,” he protested. “She’s the mother of my child.” He thrust out his chest like a proud peacock. Much more like the Austin she knew.
“Well, that mother of your child is asking you to give her sixty thousand dollars a month,” Katherine reminded him.
Austin smiled. “She has big plans for the money,” he crooned. “She’s going to buy a nice house, and start saving for college, and buy the baby some nice things.”
Katherine groaned. “It doesn’t take sixty thousand dollars a month to do all those things,” Katherine told him. “It doesn’t even take six thousand.”
Austin stared at her in shocked disbelief. “Are you saying my baby isn’t worth that much money?”
“Austin!” Katherine shouted. Unable to control herself, she smacked him across the head.
“Ouch! That hurt,” he whined.
“Not as much as your father’s fist is going to hurt if you blow this,” she fumed.
A knock sounded on the door. Katherine opened it and let John into the room.
He was still chuckling from the earlier courtroom antics. “Need any help in here?”
Katherine waved a hand in Austin’s direction. “Can you talk any sense into him?”
John looked past Katherine and smiled at the grinning Austin. He shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he said. “The poor guy’s smitten.”
Katherine sighed in exasperation, pushed past John, and fled from the room.
John rushed after her, grabbing her arm as he caught up.
“Wait a minute, Katherine. I’m sorry.”
A single tear slip down her face. He reached up to wipe it away. He frowned. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I guess it’s just this whole thing with Austin.”
She tried to pull back, but John reached for her, pulling her head against his chest, oblivious to the stares of the people around them. “What’s happening to us?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she choked out, tears running down her face.
John pulled her into a different conference room and held her while she sobbed.
When the sobbing subsided, she looked up into his face, comforted by the familiarity. An odd look crossed John’s face, one that she wasn’t able to read.
“I’m fine now, John. Thank you.”
He cupped her face and forced her to look into his eyes. “I’m always here for you. You know that.” The confession came out as a whisper.
She nodded, tried to look away but John pulled her face back. They locked gazes and couldn’t seem to pull away.
He had dreamt of kissing Katherine, but dreams weren’t real. She was right there standing in front of him; their mouths only an inch apart, this was real. His lips came down slowly, gently upon hers. An electrical pulse raced through his body. “Katherine,” he whispered.
She pulled away, blushing. “John. I…don’t know what to say.” She turned and fled.
He watched her flee, taken aback at his boldness. He looked down at his hands. They trembled with desire. Suddenly, he knew. He finally understood all the odd feelings he’d been having the past few weeks. He was in love with Katherine, and he didn’t know how to tell her.
Katherine ran down the steps of the courthouse. She stopped at the bottom, gasping for breath.
“Are you all right?” a woman stopped to ask, placing her hand gently on her shoulder.
Katherine turned to stare up into her face. She recognized Judged Waverly’s clerk. She tried to smile.
“I’m fine, Rhonda. Thanks for asking. I’ll be fine now.” She dismissed her, embarrassed by her outburst.
“Are you sure?” Rhonda was reluctant to leave her side.
Katherine only nodded her head and waved her on.
Rhonda hesitated for a minute. “Well, all right, then.”
She moved on but turned around to check on her when she reached the top of the courthouse steps. Katherine waved her on again and managed to find her way to a bench placed off to the side of the sidewalk that overlooked a rose garden.
Sitting on the bench, she pondered her encounter with John. She flashed back to the look in his eyes. If she hadn’t known better, she would swear she saw the longing in them. She shook it off.
“Want to get a bite to eat?”
Katherine looked up to see John hovering over her. She blushed, embarrassed now to look at him.
He started to speak. “I’m sorry about that in there.”
She nodded, pulled herself up high, and sighed. “I know. It was just the intensity of the moment. It was silly.”
He forced a smile. “Sure it was.” He held out his hand to her. “Then how about lunch?”
She nodded but remained silent. She stood and followed John to Madeline’s, a local sandwich shop frequented by local attorneys. Madeline waved as they walked in and seated themselves.
A waiter appeared at their table with an iced tea for Katherine, and a diet coke for John.
“Thanks, Kevin,” Katherine said, as she picked up her tea and began to drink.
“Are we okay?” John asked.
Katherine flashed him a radiant, yet nervous smile. She leaned forward in her chair. “Of course, we’re okay, John.” She hoped she sounded more convincing than she felt.
He regarded her warily but decided to drop the subject.
“What are we going to do about Austin?”
She sighed and sat back heavily in her chair. “I honestly don’t know. His father is going to fry me if we lose this case.”
“He can’t do anything to you. He’s not that powerful.”
She raised her eyebrows in dispute. “Chandler Reynolds owns judges.”
“He does not,” John protested. “Those are just rumors.”
She sighed again. “Well, nevertheless, he knows them. Besides, he can make my personal life miserable. My father’s already upset over this whole matter. He was hoping I would marry the idiot.”
She laughed and John stared at her in disbelief, his mouth agape. Then he burst out laughing.
Her face twisted into a wry grin. “What do you find so funny? Is it the thought of me marrying, or me marrying Austin?”
He didn’t answer but stared at her, the laughter slowly subsiding. He looked deeply into her eyes.
“My dear, sweet, beautiful Katherine... I would never laugh at the idea of you marrying. That day will be my greatest heartache. Because the day you marry, is the day I lose my best friend.”
He said this with such sadness that Katherine reached across the table and took his hand in hers. She wiped a tear from her eye.
“Don’t say that, John. You’re never going to lose me as a friend.”
“Maybe not, but it won’t be the same.”
She sat back and thought about it. “I suppose not,” she said.
She reached across the table and took John’s pickle off his plate. He wasn’t going to eat it. She knew that. John hated pickles. He looked down as she swiped the pickle from his plate.
“Do you know there isn’t another soul alive in this world who knows I don’t like pickles? My mother knew, of course, but she’s gone now, so now you’re the only one who knows.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “That’s very interesting. What point are you trying to reach?”
“No point really, just talking out loud.”
She wiped her mouth on a napkin, took another long swallow of her iced tea, stood, and reached for the bill.
John snatched it before her hands could reach it. “I’ve got it.”
She laughed. “I guess it’s tit for tat, my expense account or yours.”
He joined in her laughter, feeling foolish. He wasn’t sure what he was trying to prove.
She reached up on tiptoe to reach his cheek. She planted a light kiss. She had done this so often that it should have been just part of their daily routine. It was different this time for some reason. He inhaled as a curl touched his cheek. He relished the sweet smells of her, the balsam on her hair, the sweet scent of heather that was her signature perfume, and the fresh smell of pickles and sweet onions from her recently-consumed sandwich.
They had reached the bottom of the courthouse steps when Katherine stopped and turned to John. She reached up and whispered in his ear, “It was a sweet gesture.”
She stepped back and smiled at him. With the sunlight glinting off her golden hair, she looked like an angel. “Let’s go before we’re late for court.”
She turned and walked away, leaving John staring after her.
“What the hell is happening here?” he asked aloud.
“She’s a beautiful woman. It would be hard for any man not to react to her.”
John whirled around to stand eye-to-eye with Peter Winters.
“Yes, she is,” he whispered.
Peter chuckled softly and slapped John playfully on the cheek. “You’ve got it bad, boy, just admit it.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” John said. “I haven’t got anything.”
Peter turned serious. “You don’t even see what’s right in front of you, do you?”
John shook his head, refusing to acknowledge Peter’s accusation.
Peter grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him. “Wake up boy before she gets away.”
He turned and walked up the steps to the courthouse. Halfway there he turned. “Are you coming? It’s time to see our kitten in action.”
John ran to catch up.
Moments later, he stood beside Katherine at the defendant’s table, trying desperately to pay attention to the judge, but his mind wouldn’t stop wandering back to the conversation in front of the courthouse.
He glanced over at Katherine, admiring her profile. She was beautiful, strong and kind. Her long hair flowed down her back like strands of pure silk. Her crystal blue eyes stared so trustingly that it made his heart pound.
She looked at him and smiled. “What is it, John?”
He shook his head, ready to speak, shout out his love for the world to hear when the judge rapped his gavel on his desk.
“Are we ready to proceed?” he asked. He looked directly at Katherine, who shook her head. “I’m sorry, Your Honor. My client doesn’t seem to be here yet.”
The judge stared at the spot next to her as if he didn’t believe her. She expectantly waited while he decided what to do. Finally, “Well…where is he?” he asked in exasperation, drumming his fingers on the bench.
“I don’t know, Sir. He should be here.”
She glanced away, looking down at her watch, willing Austin to walk through the door.
She looked back up at the judge, holding her breath. “Yes, Your Honor?”
“I’m afraid if your client can’t be bothered to show up to court, then I have no choice but to rule in favor of the plaintiff.”
Katherine glanced at the plaintiff’s table and smiled.
“Excuse me, Your Honor, but it appears we have a little problem with the plaintiff as well.”
The judge followed Katherine’s gaze and stared in mock amusement at the empty seat beside the plaintiff’s lawyer. The lawyer, having kept quiet during the previous exchange between Katherine and the judge, hoping his client would steal stealthily into her seat, cleared his throat. “I’m afraid my client has gone missing as well, Your Honor.”
“Is this someone’s idea of a joke?” the judge asked.
“No, Your Honor,” both Katherine and the plaintiff’s attorney shouted at the same time. “I have no idea what could be keeping my client,” Katherine added.
No sooner had the words escaped than a breathless Austin Reynolds, and his beautiful rival rushed into the courtroom in a flurry of excitement. They kissed each other passionately, and then took their assigned chairs.
Katherine stared down at Austin, who looked back at her with obvious guilt written all over his face.
“Austin, what is going on here?” Katherine whispered between clenched teeth.
Before he could answer, the judge rapped his gavel again. “I see both the plaintiff and the defendant have decided to grace us with their presence. I assume we can proceed now.” He raised his eyebrows in question.
“Yes, Your Honor,” both attorneys replied.
“All right, then. Ms. Winters, I need your response to the plaintiff’s request for a monthly child support payment of sixty thousand dollars.”
“In all due respect to Miss Lee,” Katherine began, “I think her demand for sixty thousand dollars is a bit out there. I understand the high cost of raising children, but the plaintiff is clearly trying to extort money from my client. After all, Your Honor, they didn’t even know each other before the night they conceived the child.”
The judge raised his eyebrows, and Katherine knew she had stepped over the line. She had heard judge Ambers was old-fashioned and suspected he might have a little trouble with Austin’s carelessness. However, it had taken two of them to create the child, so both of them had the responsibility of caring for it. She was well prepared to point this out to the judge if need be.
The judge waved her off. “I’m well aware of the cost of feeding, clothing, and educating children,” the judge scoffed at her. “After all, Ms. Winters, I do have three children of my own, all attending university classes.”
Katherine blushed. “Yes, Your Honor. I didn’t mean to imply you were naïve.”
Just then, Betty Lee stood from her chair and raised her hand. The judge narrowed his eyes and frowned at her.
“Miss Lee,” he began. “You need to take your seat, and if you have something to say you need to let your attorney speak for you.”
She ignored the judge and spoke anyway. “Yes, I’m sorry about that, but I was just wondering, Judge.” Her lawyer whispered in her ear. “Oh,” she said, blushing. “I mean—Your Honor. Well, as I was saying. I was just wondering if I still get the sixty thousand dollars now that Austin and I are married.”
The judge roared with laughter, and soon the courtroom audience, who was still waiting patiently, thanks to the humorous outcome of this hearing, joined in. Katherine grunted in exasperation, and Austin ducked his head.
“Married!” Chandler Reynolds screamed from his seat behind Katherine. He whirled on Katherine. “You’re fired!” he screamed.
The judge finally began to regain control. He reached his hand to the bailiff, who was already second-guessing him and had a handkerchief halfway to his outstretched hand. He took off his glasses and dabbed at his eyes. When the last of the chuckles died down, he rapped his gavel again.
“Sit down, Mr. Reynolds. You can’t fire her.”
Chandler Reynolds scowled at Katherine but nonetheless obeyed the judge.
Judge Amber addressed Austin. “Is this information correct, young man? Did you, in fact, marry this young woman?”
Austin only nodded.
Betty Lee piped up again, “Did you know you can get married right here in this courthouse, with only a lunch break to spare?” She beamed.
The judge nodded. “Yes, Miss Lee, I did know that. Is that what you did with your lunch break?”
She nodded excitedly. “Yes, Sir, I mean, Your Honor. Only we ate, too because Austin said I shouldn’t skip meals because of the baby.” Betty Lee smiled sweetly and innocently at Austin. “He loves the baby and me,” she cooed.
Katherine saw Chandler Reynolds slap himself in the head.
Katherine glanced down at Austin, who was staring fixedly at his hands, playing with a hangnail or something. She fought an overwhelming urge to smack him on the back of the head again. On the other side of her, John was desperately fighting the urge to burst into laughter again. She picked up her foot and stomped down hard on his.
“Ouch!” he exclaimed between clenched teeth. “What was that for?”
“You’re not making this any easier,” she accused.
“Sorry,” he apologized, then burst out laughing, clamped his hand over his mouth, and fled the courtroom.
“Is Mr. Wheaton okay?” the judge asked.
Katherine smiled innocuously. “He will be, Your Honor.”
The judge looked harshly between Austin and Betty. He clearly was at a loss as to what to do with the case. Finally, he rose from the bench. “I’ll see both clients and their attorneys in my chambers, please.”
He exited the room while moans escaped the mouths of the onlookers, who were clearly disappointed to miss the outcome of the humorous hearing. Katherine and Austin followed him. Betty Lee and her attorney caught up to them as Betty Lee snuggled down into Austin’s shoulder. He smiled down at her and patted her abdomen. Katherine sighed.
Once in the chambers the judge turned a serious eye on Austin.
“This is not a game, Mr. Reynolds.”
“I know, Sir.” Betty Lee elbowed him. “I mean, Your Honor.”
The judge nodded. “I can annul this marriage right now if you think you’ve made a mistake,” he offered.
Betty Lee gasped and looked horrified. “No!” she screamed. “Please don’t do that.”
“You can’t collect your sixty thousand dollars, or any amount of money for that matter, Miss Lee, since you married Mr. Reynolds.”
She started to sob. “I don’t care about the money. It was my father’s idea. He said if I got pregnant, we could make a lot of money. I only want Austin. I love him, and I want to be with him.”
The judge looked at Austin. “You’ve been pretty quiet about this. How do you feel about this woman?”
Austin put a protective arm around Betty Lee. He looked down into her eyes. “I love her. I want to take care of her and the baby. I want to spend the rest of my life making her happy.”
“This is a very serious commitment,” the judge warned. “A baby isn’t a plaything. It’s a living human being with needs and emotions. Are you prepared for fatherhood?” he asked Austin.
To Katherine’s utter amazement, Austin turned the table and answered the judge with a question of his own.
“Were you ready to be a father when your first child was born?”
Katherine had never seen Austin look so serene. Was it possible the idea of impending fatherhood could settle him down some? Even more to her surprise, the judge seemed stirred by emotions from his question.
“No, Mr. Reynolds. I guess I wasn’t,” he answered honestly. “I guess nobody is ever truly ready, are they?” He wiped at his eyes again.
“Well, all right, then. I guess there’s nothing left for me to do but wish you two the best of luck with your marriage and parenting. You’re going to need it,” he added with a chuckle.