Looking up from my desk at the sound of my name, I see Ashley making her way toward me, a tray with two Starbucks cups in her hand.
“Oh, you’re my favorite person ever,” I groan, reaching for my coffee and giving her a grateful smile. She sits down at her desk next to mine and grabs her own drink.
“Where have you been? I feel like I haven’t seen you in forever.”
“The James case. I’m wiped.” Setting my coffee down, I settle back in my chair and set down the file I was holding. Everyone in the office is aware of the Katy James case, her mother causing quite a scene here on more than one occasion when she was fighting to get custody back.
“When is your next home visit?”
“Next week. Last month went okay, but I’ve been worried about her. The dad is never there when I go for my checkups. I know that poor little girl is being neglected, and I’m sick of everyone sitting on their hands about it.”
“The system is so screwed up,” Ashley agrees, giving me a sympathetic squeeze of the hand. “But you keep fighting for that girl and she’ll get the help she needs. It always works out, babe.”
“Now, tell me what I really wanna know. How are you and Jace?”
Just his name brings butterflies to my stomach and a cheesy smile to my face. “We’re good. I’m going to his place tonight.”
“Damn, girl, you got it so bad,” she teases me.
I laugh, reaching for my coffee.
“I do not.”
“Liar. I can see it all over your face.”
“Oh shut it,” I groan, giggling when she leans over to push my shoulder.
“Seriously though? I’ve never seen you this happy. I can’t even tell you how excited I am for you. It’s been what, a month?”
“Almost,” I say, crossing my legs and letting my pump dangle from my toes. “Four dates, not including our hookup. But we talk every day. We FaceTime at night too.”
“Damn,” Ashley says. “You better call that bridal shop downtown and make an appointment.”
“Oh please, not even close to that. But I really like him, Ash. He could be the one.”
“Ekkk!” she squeals, hopping from her chair to come hug me tight.
“Stella Cole?” I hear a deep voice ask, and I pull back from Ashley to see an older gentleman in front of me in a delivery uniform, a huge bouquet of lilacs in his arms.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Enjoy, miss.” He sets the flowers down on the side of my desk.
Ashley gives me the biggest shit-eating grin known to man.
“And clearly he’s right there with you, Stell. I’m so happy for you.”
Removing the small white envelope from the bouquet, I pull the card from it and immediately feel my eyes well with tears.
I finally figured it out. You smell like lilacs, making them my new favorite flowers.
See you tonight, beautiful.
“Oh my gosh,” I whisper, pressing the note over my heart.
“Did you tell him?” Ashley asks gently, and I shake my head.
“No. He mentioned my parents the night he met Mason, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him while we were driving back to my place. I know it’s been a long time, but I can’t just tell anybody about them. They were special, and their memory deserves more than me just flippantly telling people I barely know what happened. Does that even make sense?”
“Of course it does, Stella. I can’t imagine losing Mom and Dad so young, much less at the same time. And I’m an only child, so I wouldn’t have someone to get through it with. You had Mason, and honestly, girl, I think he’s the only reason you did.”
“Yeah. I didn’t tell Jace this, but when we were leaving Mason’s house after Jules went to bed, he told me I picked good. For Mason to say that after meeting other boyfriends and getting me through college, I know he really meant it. Jace got my brother’s approval without even trying.”
“Then you’ll tell him when you’re ready. And then you continue on,” Ashley says softly. I nod and tuck the card into the top drawer of my desk. I’m lost in thought when my desk phone starts to ring.
“Stella Cole,” I answer.
And just like that, all thoughts of Jace are gone as I get down to work.
It’s been a long day. It’s only a few hours away from five, and then I’m on my way to Jace’s. I’m in the break room heating up some tea when Ashley comes bursting into the room.
“You need to get over to the Jameses’ house, Stella.”
“What happened?” Worry churns in my stomach as I abandon the mug of tea, racing toward my desk for my bag and purse.
“I don’t know, but your desk phone went crazy, so I answered. You’re needed right now.”
I run out of the office, my heels clicking on the linoleum as I go. Tearing across the small parking lot, I’m at my car in just moments, and then I’m peeling out. My mind is running a mile a minute, scared that something bad has happened.
When I pull onto the street of the run-down neighborhood, I find three police cars with their lights on lining the street, along with an ambulance and the coroner.
Parking my car, I toss my keys into my purse and climb out, leaving my briefcase. My badge is attached to my blouse anyway, so I won’t need anything else.
Making my way toward the house, I watch as the coroner and another person wheel out a stretcher, the black body bag standing out more than anything.
Please let Katy be okay.
“Are you Miss Cole?” an officer standing on the sidewalk asks. When I nod, he speaks into his radio and then motions toward the house. “They need you inside.”
As I walk in, I look to my left and notice Jace and another officer talking to one of the neighbors. When he sees me, he lifts his hand to wave, and I give him a tight smile.
When I step into the living room, I see techs all around gathering evidence, and there are a couple officers standing just outside the small hallway that I know leads to the bedrooms.
“Sir, I’m Stella Cole. What’s going on?”
“Miss Cole, I’m Officer Thomas. Thank you for getting here so quickly. We were told you’re the case worker at this house, and you’ve been assigned to them for a while, correct?”
“Yes, I’ve been seeing Katy and her family since just before last summer. Monthly check-ins, well visits. Sandra and Malcolm had just gotten custody back when I was assigned to their family.”
Officer Thomas makes a note in a small book before tucking it into his breast pocket.
“A neighbor walking her dog noticed this morning just after eleven that the front door was slightly ajar, so she called it in. We found Malcolm and Sandra James in the living room, both dead from suspected drug overdoses.”
My hand comes up to cover my mouth, my eyes wide in shock. When I saw the body being removed I assumed that there had been a domestic fight or a break in.
“Officers were here a couple hours before they heard a banging down the hall, and when we opened the door, we found a young girl around five years old huddled in the back.”
“Katy? Oh my God, is she all right?”
“Seems to be, but we can’t seem to get her to come out. The coroner believes they’ve been dead since sometime last night, but until an autopsy is performed, he won’t know the exact time. We have no idea if she’s injured or what she may have witnessed. Does she trust you, Miss Cole?”
Nodding, I set my purse down on the floor next to him and make my way down the short hallway. When I arrive at the closet door, I kneel down and peer into the darkened area. I can see her bare feet, and I’m barely able to make her out.
“Katy, it’s Stella. Remember me? Can you come out here, sweetheart? We need to make sure you’re okay.”
Silence. My heart starts racing, worried something has happened to her.
I try again, this time crawling into the closet a little more.
“Katy, can you hear me?”
It takes some coaxing and gently speaking to her, but I hold my hand out and I feel her little one take hold of mine. Breathing a sigh of relief, and with her hand tightly clasped in mine, I back up slowly, bringing her with me. Once I’m next to the open doorway, the light from the hall gives me enough light to see Katy.
Her blonde hair is matted down, and her cheeks are tearstained. She has a dirty yellow blanket in her hand, and she’s dressed in too-small pajamas. She looks terrified.
“Hi, sweetie,” I murmur softly.
More tears fall down her cheeks.
“Are you hurt anywhere?” I ask, reaching out to move some hair off her face. She shakes her head and begins to sob.
Reaching out, I hug her tiny shivering body to me and rock her back and forth, whispering to her. With her still in my arms, I stand and carry her out of the house and down to the ambulance that’s waiting. I try to set her down on the stretcher inside, but she clings to me, so I pick her back up and sit down with her on my lap.
I do my best to comfort her while the paramedic checks her out. Thankfully, except for the fact that she probably hasn’t eaten anything today, she seems to be fine.
As I’m using a tissue to wipe off her face, I hear a knock on the outside of the ambulance and watch as Jace climbs inside.
“Hey, Stell. I figured this little one might be hungry, so I found some crackers in the cabinet. There wasn’t much else, but I had an extra water in the squad car, so it’s hers.” He hands the items to me, and I set them down on the bench next to me.
“She okay?” he asks, reaching out to run his hand over the back of her head.
“Physically she is.”
“Poor kid. I gotta go help out, but I’ll see you tonight, right?”
“Yeah,” I respond softly. Sitting here with Katy in my arms, knowing what’s happened and now Jace helping, my emotions are beginning to splinter. He runs his thumb down my cheek, and then he’s gone.
Blinking back tears, I look down at the little girl in my arms and see that she’s fallen asleep, blanket tucked under her chin. A few minutes later, the paramedics start to load up the vehicle, and I set Katy down on the stretcher, still fast asleep.
“You riding with us?” the paramedic who checked her out asks.
“I’ll follow you over. I don’t want to leave my car here.”
Climbing from the ambulance, I hurry inside to grab my purse and follow up with Officer Thomas. I don’t see Jace again before I make my way to my car. The whole drive to Memorial Hospital, my hands continuously clench and unclench the wheel. When I arrive at the hospital, I park in the emergency section and head inside. At the front desk, I show my badge, and they direct me to where they’ve taken Katy. Thanking them, I walk to the nearest bank of elevators and push Up for the third floor, where the pediatrics wing is. Stepping off the elevator a minute later, I go to where they said she’d be and find the door wide open, a nurse carefully taking vitals on a still sleeping Katy. Introducing myself as her case worker, I settle into the chair next to the bed. Grabbing my cell from my purse, I call the office and let them know what’s going on. Reaching into my briefcase, I rifle through my papers, looking for the one I need. It has the only listed family member for both Sandra and Malcolm: Sandra’s younger sister, Callie, who lives just outside of Nashville. Grabbing the card Officer Thomas gave me, I call him to let him know I have a next of kin for them to contact, then recite the cell phone number I have listed. He promises to call me when he’s spoken to her, and I tell him I’ll be at the hospital until she gets here.
Ending the call, I place my things back into the briefcase and get comfortable, not knowing how long I could be here for. I pray that Callie is willing to help with Katy, hoping that, for Katy’s sake, she’s nothing like the little girl’s parents.
A terrible thought, but unfortunately the honest truth.