Finding a Hart

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Chapter 39

Stephanie

When I finally left Jared’s place shortly before midnight that evening, my lips were sore, my chin was slightly red from his scruffy jaw, and I was walking in a daze.

He stayed true to what he said and never tried to take it beyond kissing. When I told him I needed to go, he frowned but didn’t verbally protest. Instead he walked me to his door, gave me a long, sweet kiss, and kept his eyes on me until the elevator doors had closed.

“Holy hell,” I muttered, staring up at the mirrored ceiling above me. My cheeks were red, my hair was a mess, and the smile on my face seemed permanent.

If someone had told me that my evening would have ended with me making out with Jared Hart, I would have laughed in their face. When I had seen that woman flirting with him in the elevator, however, I had barely been able to contain my jealousy.

And now? Well, letting that jealousy bubble over in his condo had apparently been a good decision because it led to a four hour make-out session with the man I’d been pining after for months.

Score one for losing my impulse control.

Angelo, the third doorman who only worked overnight shifts, nodded his head at me. He and I had only encountered each other a few times and those interactions were limited.

“Would you like me to walk you to your car, ma’am?” he asked and I just shook my head.

“I’ll be okay. Thank you, though. Have a goodnight.”

The lights were all off when I got home so I was surprised when Alyssa, dressed in her pajamas, stepped out of her bedroom just as I reached mine.

“Hey.” She reached up to rub her eyes with a long yawn. “Been at Jared’s?”

I nodded my head and tried to hold back my smile but Alyssa’s eyes widened anyway.

“You look like you just had the best sex of your life, Steph.”

“Well, I didn’t have sex,” I replied as I stepped into my bedroom. My best friend followed and flopped onto my bed. She just stared at me with raised eyebrows as I began to undress. “But he is a damn good kisser.”

She let out a small huff of laughter and got settled on one of my pillows. “Jesus, it’s about time. Did you finally tell him that you love him and want to have more of his babies?”

“Why are we friends?” I asked after slipping into my sleep pants and Alyssa just laughed again.

“Because you love me.”

I went into the bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth, and she was still in my bed when I came back into my room. I climbed under the blankets so I was next to her and she looked at me through heavy eyelids.

“Are you guys together now?”

“I don’t know.” I closed my own eyes and sighed. “We didn’t get into semantics.”

She slipped her hand into mine but didn’t say anything else and we eventually fell asleep that way.

When a trilling ringtone woke me up sometime later, the room was full of sunlight and I was alone in bed. I reached over to grab my phone and answered it without bothering to look at the display.

“This is Stephanie.”

“Steph, It’s Kevin.”

I sat up, immediately awake, and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. “Kevin? Is everything okay?”

The heavy sigh on the end of the line spoke volumes. “Can you come down to the QuickTrip on Southern Avenue?” He paused and I closed my eyes because I knew I wasn’t going to like what he was about to say. “I have Bettina Kelly here.”

“Damn it,” I muttered as I stood from the bed rapidly. “What happened?”

“Seems she showed up here at little after five this morning and was caught shoplifting as much candy as she could fit in her pockets.”

Damn that girl. I had no doubt in my mind that her intention had been to get caught. If that wasn’t a cry for attention, I wasn’t sure what was.

“I’m getting dressed now and then I’ll be on my way.”

“Thanks, Steph.” Kevin ended the call and I rushed to put on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.

My teeth were brushed, hair was in a ponytail, and sneakers were on when I made it out to my car. I spent the whole drive getting my emotions under control and when I pulled into the parking lot of the service station, I had a brilliant poker face on.

One police car and an unmarked car that I knew Kevin drove were parked out front but I didn’t see anyone when I stepped inside. The man behind the counter looked at me and I offered him a smile.

“I’m looking for Officer Kevin Pick.”

His smile instantly dropped and he gestured to a door on the side wall. “He’s in the office with the little delinquent.”

I managed to bite my tongue so I could politely thank him and headed towards the door. I knocked twice and pushed it open, revealing someone who looked to be a manager, a uniformed officer, and Kevin. They were all standing with their attention focused on the young girl sitting in a chair by the desk.

Bettina’s eyes met mine and I saw shame cloud them for a split second before she schooled herself. She defiantly crossed her arms, brought her chin up, and dared me to say something.

I gave her my best look of uncaring before glancing at Kevin. “So, are you taking her to Durango then?”

“What?” Kevin looked confused for about five seconds and then caught on to what I was doing. He nodded his head and gave Bettina a stern look. “I guess so. This is her second offense in six months so juvenile detention is our next step.”

“Okay.” I shrugged my shoulders with mock indifference. “I’ll call her foster parents and let them know she’s not coming back.”

“What?” Bettina’s voice sounded slightly panicked and I arched my brows as I looked at her.

“That was the plan, right? To get caught and get our attention?”

It broke my heart to see her eyes tear up but I didn’t show it. When Bettina looked at the floor sadly, it took everything I had not to wrap my arms around her. Instead, I looked to the three guys.

“Can I have a minute with her?”

All of them nodded and the QuickTrip manager said, “Sure. Take as long as you need.”

Silence stretched between me and the twelve-year-old once we were alone and I finally couldn’t take it anymore. I crouched down in front of her and sighed.

“Betts.”

She tilted her head so we were eye-to-eye and the tears running down her cheeks about killed me.

“They’re moving.”

“Who is?” I asked, reaching out to take her hands in mine. “Who’s moving?”

“Bryson and Carin.” She sniffled and freed one of her hands so she could wipe her face. “I heard them talking last night. He’s being transferred to Utah and that means they’re leaving. And we all know that means they can’t take me.”

Understanding and sadness washed over me as the tough girl demeanor disappeared completely, leaving Bettina looking younger and more vulnerable than I had seen in a long time. I reached out and pulled her to my chest as sobs began to wrack her little body. I held her while she cried for a few minutes, allowing her to release emotion in a way she always tried not to. When her cries had tapered off, I pulled back slightly and grabbed a tissue from a box on the desk. She had no idea that she was close to legally being a member of the Lampkin family and it wasn’t my place to tell her.

“So, what? You decided to act out and get sent away before they sent you to a new home?”

Her chocolate colored eyes met mine briefly when she shrugged. “I guess.”

“Oh, Betts.” I pushed some hair off of her face. “You need to talk to Carin and Bryson. You overheard a conversation you weren’t supposed to hear and jumped to conclusions.”

“I know what I heard!” Bettina’s face twisted angrily. “I’m not stupid, Stephanie.”

“I know you aren’t, kiddo. That’s not what I’m saying.” Before I could continue on, my phone rang from my pocket and I pulled it out. When I saw the display, I sighed. “It’s Carin.”

I didn’t have a chance to greet her before Carin spoke frantically.

“Bettina’s gone, Stephanie! We just woke up and she’s not here.”

“I know,” I replied softly, squeezing Bettina’s knee before straightening up. “She was caught shoplifting at the QuickTrip by your house. I just got here.”

“What?” Carin was silent for a moment. “Why would she do that? Why would she sneak out of the house in the middle of the night again, put herself in danger, and steal? What are we doing so wrong with her?”

By the way Bettina’s eyes filled with tears, I knew she could hear her foster mother perfectly. I cleared my throat and tried to give the girl a reassuring smile.

“I’ll bring her home as soon as I can, Carin, and then we can all talk.”

I slipped my phone back into my pocket and looked at the girl in front of me. “You stay here. I need to speak with the police.”

She just nodded and I walked out of the office. Kevin and the manager were still there, although the patrol officer had left. I spoke with everyone for a few minutes and after explaining the situation, the manager agreed not to press charges. I thanked Kevin, made Bettina apologize, and drove her back to Bryson and Carin’s home.

They burst out of the front door when I pulled into the driveway. Bryson reached us first, hugging Bettina close to him. Carin, who was now sporting a tiny baby bump, basically shoved him away so she could hug the young girl herself and when she finally let Bettina go, Carin gave her a look.

“What were you thinking? You could have been hurt, Bettina. Why do you keep doing this?”

Bettina glanced over her shoulder at me and I gave her a nod of encouragement. She turned back to face her foster mother and let out a long sigh.

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