Stephanie visibly swallowed. She clasped her hands in front of her and inhaled a deep breath. “I love him, sir. That little baby owns a piece of my heart and anyone who knows me is aware of it. That being said, I have never done anything for him or any other child that was not in their best interest and within the letter of the law. I have never manipulated the law for my own personal gain. At the time when I filed for the termination of parental rights, I did so with Christopher and only Christopher in mind.”
The room was so quiet. Even the court reporter had finished typing so there wasn’t a sound. Finally, the judge nodded.
“Thank you, Ms. Gibson.” As she sat, he turned his eyes on Angela’s table. “Ms. Roberts, what do you have to say for yourself?”
Angela stood next to her lawyer and ran a hand down her dress to smooth it out. “I deserve a chance to be in my son’s life, your honor.”
“What makes you so deserving?”
“I’m his mother,” she stated plainly, obviously missing where the judge was going with this.
“His mother,” he repeated calmly. Hearing her claim she deserved time with that baby because of some biological link enraged me. The fact that they shared DNA didn’t excuse what she had done. Obviously Judge Bauer felt the same way. “The same mother who left him to die. From what I can tell, Ms. Gibson and DCS followed all of the proper steps in terminating your parental rights. And so far, I haven’t heard even an inkling of anything that would suggest you have the claim for an appeal. Why did you leave your son outside that night, Ms. Roberts?”
Angela looked down at the table and didn’t speak until the judge said her name a second time. “I don’t know.”
“Beyond being his mother, why do you feel that Christopher belongs with you?”
I waited for her to say she loved him. That she wanted to do right by him. Anything. But instead, Angela said nothing. The judge nodded at her silence.
“I see.” He glanced between both lawyers and shook his head. “From what I can tell, no lines were crossed. Stephanie Gibson recused herself once the relationship became romantic but maintained her professionalism until that point. As someone who has seen this caseworker in my courtroom time and time again, I can speak with the upmost confidence in her abilities. At this time, I am upholding the termination of Angela Roberts’ parental rights. As such, she has no right to file for any sort of visitation in regards to Christopher Hart. The petition has been denied.”
I blew out a long breath and could feel the relief from Stephanie, too. People began to murmur behind us and behind where Angela was sitting.
“I want to remind the court,” the judge continued, causing us all to go quiet again. “That there is an order of protection in place barring Ms. Roberts from making any contact or going within a thousand feet of the minor, Christopher Hart. That order is continued. We’re adjourned.”
I surged to my feet when we were told to rise and shook Rick’s hand enthusiastically. Over his shoulder, I saw Angela sitting at the table, staring at her hands. A wave of sadness ran through me for a moment. That woman, the cold one who couldn’t even say that she loved her son, was not the same one I had started dating more than a year before.
I didn’t dwell on it because the woman I loved was in front of me and I wrapped my arms around her in a tight hug. She returned it with an equally hard embrace of her own and we stood there like that for a moment. All I wanted to do was tell her how I felt, to let her know that she meant the world to me, but I didn’t want it to happen like that. Not because we were relieved.
“He’s not going anywhere,” she whispered and I nodded my head.
“He’s staying with us. This is all thanks to you, sweetheart.”
We pulled apart and I grinned at her beautiful face. She leaned in and gave me a quick, sweet kiss but we were interrupted when the detectives and Steph’s co-workers spoke beside us.
“I told you that you were worrying for nothing.” Robin offered Stephanie a smirk and my girlfriend let out a huff of laughter as we turned to face them.
“I know how much you love hearing it so I’ll just say it now, Robin. You were right.”
Her boss jabbed her fist into the air triumphantly, making us all laugh. The laughter died off when Angela and her lawyer walked past us, followed by the older couple who paused when they were next to where we were.
I had met Angela’s parents a few times while we were dating. They were nice enough people but I instantly stiffened and went on guard. Angela’s father looked at me and I thought he was going to say something. At the last minute, he changed his mind and just nodded in my direction before heading off with his wife.
I watched them go and suddenly had the urge to ask them different questions. Had they known she was pregnant? Why were they helping her with this quest to get him back when she obviously didn’t want Christopher?
Stephanie squeezed my hand and knocked me out of my fog. I turned my head and looked at her with a small smile.
“Think your boss would let you go get an early lunch with me?” I glanced to Robin and winked before looking back to my girlfriend. “I mean, I know you told me she’s a real battle axe, that one.”
Robin let out a loud peal of laughter. “Haven’t you heard? Gibson is basically the boss right now. Go eat, kids. Celebrate this because it was definitely a win.”
Stephanie made sure to hug Robin, Keon, Valerie, and Kevin and I shook all of their hands before taking her by the hand and heading towards the exit.
Even though I had been insanely happy being with Stephanie over the past six weeks, stepping outside into the sunshine made me realize what a constant cover of clouds we had been living under. The knowledge that Angela wouldn’t be able to obtain any sort of custody of Christopher was like a weight coming off of my shoulders. I could live my life with my son and the woman I was in love with and not be afraid of what could possibly happen.
“Look at you.” Stephanie’s soft voice broke through my thoughts and I glanced over at her.
“What do you mean?”
She pressed a kiss to my shoulder. “You look so happy right now.”
“I am happy, sweetheart. So happy.” I squeezed her hand and pulled open the door to a Mexican restaurant that was one block over from the courthouse.
We took our time at lunch and I didn’t walk her back to work until after two that day. Even though it was just a battle we’d won and not the war, I felt incredibly triumphant.