“I don’t understand how this could even be happening.” I raked my fingers through my hair and continued pacing across the waiting room. “I thought you said she would never be able to petition to get her rights back again.”
It wasn’t anything I hadn’t already said to Stephanie, but I felt bad the second the words were out of my mouth. She was sitting in a chair against the wall, just staring at her hands in her lap. I knew I needed to go to her, to comfort her and make sure she understood that none of this was her fault, but I couldn’t even calm myself down.
The weekend, which had started out perfect, had ended up being hell. After I realized what the legal documents were, we had gone upstairs to my place and started making phone calls. Steph had called a few people she knew within the court scene to try and get answers and I had immediately called a lawyer. The stress had followed us through Sunday and Stephanie even skipped her family’s dinner just to sit and listen to me vent.
Now we were waiting outside the prosecutor’s office. My lawyer was supposed to be meeting us in ten minutes and we were all going to try to figure out what to do. I would do anything, give up every cent I had, to keep Christopher away from Angela.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Her broken whisper finally penetrated through my cloud of panic and I dropped into the chair next to the one she was sitting in. I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her to my chest, pressing my cheek to the top of her head.
“No, I’m sorry. It’s not your fault, Steph.” I kissed her hair and let out a long sigh. “Out of everyone involved, you’re the least culpable. I’m just freaking out.”
“I know. Me, too.”
We stayed like that until someone said my name. I turned my head, not letting go of Stephanie at first, but had to when my lawyer walked up with his arm outstretched. I stood, shaking his hand, and gestured to Stephanie, who had also moved to her feet.
“This is my girlfriend, Stephanie Gibson.” Her lips tipped up slightly at the girlfriend label. “She’s also the social worker in charge of Christopher and the one who went to court to terminate Angela’s rights.”
“Rick O’Connor. Nice to meet you, Stephanie.” He looked like he wanted to say something to me but the door to the back opened and my name was called again.
The three of us went back into the office. The prosecutor, Kaleb Lansing, was a man Stephanie swore was good at his job and was waiting for us. He shook everyone’s hands as we all found a place to sit. With a heavy sigh, he turned his eyes on me. “I’m sorry we had to meet under these circumstances, Mr. Hart. I’ve read through her application and I have to tell you, I don’t think she has a chance of getting what she’s after.” He shook his head and leaned back in his chair slightly. “My case for child endangerment is pretty airtight and from what I can tell, the termination of her rights by DCS was done completely by the book.”
My lawyer spoke up. “I need to point out a potential issue.” His eyes flashed between Stephanie and me. “You’re dating the social worker who did all of that. That becomes an ethical issue. Angela can argue that the termination was rushed or done solely for personal reasons. That Ms. Gibson wanted to play mother to the little guy.”
“Wait.” Stephanie leaned forward and I could see the fire in her eyes. My girl was pissed. “Jared and I literally started a romantic relationship on Friday. That’s three days ago. Everything I’ve done in regards to the Hart case has been strictly professional.”
“Anyone who knows you doesn’t doubt that, Stephanie,” Kaleb said in a gentle voice. “But I understand what Mr. O’Connor is saying. It can look suspicious.”
Steph made a strangled noise and stood from her chair to begin pacing like I had been minutes earlier. I tore my eyes from the frustrated woman and looked at Kaleb.
“What do we do?”
“Well, the hearing is in six weeks and we’ll bring up all of the reasons why what was done followed the law and why consideration should not be given to Ms. Roberts.” He cleared his throat and focused on Stephanie. “We can’t be sure your relationship will even be discovered or brought up during the proceedings but you need to get someone else reassigned to his case immediately, Steph.”
She stopped by the window and looked out, offering only a nod in acknowledgement.
“Don’t make yourselves sick over this, guys. I honestly don’t think it’s going to go anywhere.”
Easy for him to say.
We went over a few more things and left an hour later. I walked Stephanie down to her car since we both had to get back to work. The early March air was already warm and instead of opening her door, I used my arms to cage her in against her car.
“Get out of your head, Stephanie Gibson.”
She blew out a long breath, causing some of her blonde hair to flutter around her face. Her pale blue eyes looked sad and it gutted me.
“If she wins this-”
I interrupted her before she could finish her sentence. “She won’t. She left him in the garbage, sweetheart. She left him there to die.” It hurt to say but I had to get it out. “He’s not going anywhere.”
“I hope you know that I’m not with you because of Chris,” she replied, snaking her hands up my chest until they were resting on either side of my neck. “I mean, he only makes everything better but baby or no baby- I’m yours.”
“Damn right you are.” I leaned in and gave her a long, hard kiss that was probably a bit too much in public but I couldn’t bring myself to care. She didn’t seem to either, because Stephanie pressed her whole body against mine and kissed me back like she was starving for it. When we finally separated, she looked at me with a dreamy smile.
“I have to get back to work.”
I nodded and brushed one more kiss along her lips before stepping back so I could open her car door. “Thanks for going with me today.”
“No need to thank me. I’ll call you later.” She kissed my cheek and slid into her car. I stepped back and watched as she left, only turning to go to my own car once she was out of sight.
It was around eleven when I made it back to my office and I had barely settled into my chair before Dave and Marco walked in.
“Marco thinks we should do the Sandstone Spa ad in sepia and highlight any Sedona colors.”
Marco nodded and handed me the tablet in his hand so I could see the mockup he had done. The graphics looked amazing with the changed tone and allowed the focus to be on the spa environment, which was one of the client’s biggest sell points.
“Damn, that looks awesome, Marco.”
The young former-intern grinned proudly. “Thanks, Jared.”
He and Dave sat in my office while they did something with the mockup but I was lost in my own head. Remembering Stephanie’s face from earlier made me want to punch something. Or someone.
“What do you think?”
I looked up and realized that both guys were staring at me. I shook my head and offered them both an apologetic smile.
Dave chuckled and leaned back in the chair he was sitting in. “The woman I’ve been seeing has a friend she’s trying to play matchmaker for. I asked if you were game. It’s been awhile since you dated.”
“I’m actually seeing someone so count me out.” I couldn’t stop the grin that hit my face and both guys looked at me in surprise.
“Since when?” Marco asked and I shrugged my shoulders.
“Funny, because my brother-in-law mentioned you were having dinner with Steph on Friday.” A smile broke out on his face. “You’re dating my sister-in-law.” When I didn’t deny it, he looked up at the ceiling. “Finally.”
Dave shook his head and looked between us both. “Your sister-in-law?”
“I’ve told you about her,” I said with a roll of my eyes. “Stephanie.”
“Oh, the famous Stephanie is your sister-in-law, huh?” He waggled his eyebrows at Marco. “Tell me, Romano, is she hot?”
I picked up the small nerf football that I had on my desk and he barely ducked out of the way when I threw it at his head. He stretched his long arms behind him so he could pick it up off of the floor and tossed it back to me with a laugh.
“I’ll just take that as confirmation.”
The three of us went back to work but I wasn’t very productive. I ended up leaving my office once Marco and Dave had gone to the printer and found myself standing in front of the daycare center downstairs. I entered my code to get in the main door and smiled at the receptionist.
The infant room had a window along one wall that allowed people to see in from the hallway and I stood in front of it. Chris was in one of the infant swings and it slowly moved while he stared up at the jungle animals that hung above it. I couldn’t hear him but his little face held a smirk and I could tell he was doing his favorite squeal.
At that very moment a year before, I never could have even imagined I’d be where I was. Now? I couldn’t imagine not having that little baby in my life. The thought of giving him to Angela in any aspect scared the shit out of me. If she was a good mother, the kind our son deserved, it would suck to be apart from him but at least I wouldn’t be fearful. She had already left him in the garbage once before.
Who was to say she wouldn’t do that again?