A male and female duo, both of whom I had worked with in the past, introduced themselves to all of us. They both crouched and listened while my sister told them what happened. Apparently Eldon had seen Kate at the park earlier with all three kids and she was talking to one of the other dads. He hadn’t confronted her about it until bedtime, when Tanner had asked if he could play with one of the kids again soon. When Kate had said that they would go back to the park, Eldon had lost his shit.
The more of the story she told, the more confidence she gained. The more she spoke, the more rage I felt, though. I was grateful when Stella whimpered that she needed to go potty. I walked her down the hallway and stood in the doorway while she did her business.
Once she was done, we checked in on Ryder, who was sleeping soundly in his crib. Instead of going back to the den where everyone was, I led her to her room. I told her to find a few books off of her shelf and then, while she was occupied, pulled out my phone.
Making that call to my parents was heartbreaking. After making me repeat myself four times, Mom had started crying. She handed the phone to my dad, who went eerily silent once I told him, and he finally proclaimed that they were on their way after a minute of quiet air.
Robin was just walking into the den when I came back out of the hallway with Stella’s hand in mine. She stood with Keon, not saying anything, while Kate finished giving her statement. Once she was done, one of the detectives told me that Eldon had been arrested and taken to their station, not the one he worked at.
My boss didn’t say anything but just reached out and squeezed my hand in silent support. Again, Keon had made the right decision when he called her. She was going to have to oversee everything Keon did to keep me from another conflict of interest.
Mom and Dad arrived a few minutes later and Mom wrapped Kate in her arms immediately. They insisted on going with her to the hospital and I volunteered to stay behind with the kids. Tanner and Stella were both so shaken up and I knew that the whole family was going to need counseling before they could heal.
Robin and Keon left shortly after the ambulance. My boss told me not to worry about anything work-related and that she would take point on that report and cancel anything on my calendar for the following day. I was really thankful for her and Keon.
“Mommy’s going to be okay,” I told them quietly as I sat on the edge of Tanner’s bed, where they were both cuddled together. Stella looked up at me with sad eyes.
“Daddy hurt her.”
I ran my fingers through her soft hair. “I know, baby. She’s fine, though. You’re all safe. Go to sleep, okay? I’ll be here all night on the sofa bed in the den.”
I read them a story and sat in there until their breathing was deep. I tiptoed out of the bedroom, checked on Ryder again, and went out to the main area of the house.
Sitting on the couch my sister had been on just an hour before, I pressed Jared’s name on my phone. It was almost ten but he picked up on the third ring.
“Hey, sweetheart. How’s it going?”
I squeezed my eyes shut when tears filled them. Just hearing his voice made me feel like I didn’t have to keep holding it together. When I didn’t respond, he said my name quietly. I took a deep, shaky breath and managed to speak.
“Hey. Were you sleeping?”
“Are you okay?” he asked, ignoring my question. Obviously my attempt to sound unaffected didn’t fool him. “What’s wrong?”
On a sob, everything that had happened that evening spilled out of my mouth. I sat with my forehead in my palm and Jared didn’t speak while I verbally vomited every single detail. I sniffled when I was done and he finally spoke.
“What’s your sister’s address? We’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“Jare, no,” I protested quietly. “Chris is already in bed and it’ll throw him off.”
“Sweetheart, I can get it from you or I can call Briana and get it from her.” His voice was firm and my throat clogged with emotion. “Tell me your sister’s address.”
I rattled it off for him and he promised to be there soon, ending the call with a declaration of his love. I sat on the couch for a moment, just staring at the wall, and finally pressed another name on my phone.
Marco and Briana were in Maine for Shaylee’s wedding and even though I knew she would kill me later, I opted not to tell Briana right away. I did call my brother, though.
He had obviously been sleeping but was instantly on alert when he answered the phone. When I told him what I’d found at our sister’s house that evening, a wave of curse words and death threats filled my ear. He told me he was going to head to the hospital and that he’d call me once he got there.
We ended the call and I sat on the couch with my head in my hands. The sound of a car door shutting snapped me out of my zombie-like state and I stood to head to the front door. I got there just in time to see Jared lifting the car seat into his arms. I stayed in the doorway and neither of us said anything as he moved up the front path. I stepped aside to let him in and Jared’s eyes swept along the messy living room.
I led him into the den and he put Chris down, who was still fast asleep in his seat, and immediately pulled me to his chest. I pushed my face into his shirt, taking comfort in his familiar scent, and held onto him for dear life. Somewhere since that moment we met in the coffee shop, Jared Hart had become my anchor and I thanked whatever deity had brought him to me.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he murmured with his lips against my hair. “Kate is strong, though, and she comes from a family of strong people. With you guys in her corner, she’s going to overcome this.”
I nodded my head but didn’t reply. We stood like that for another moment before Jared pulled back and gave me a gentle kiss.
“I brought the pack-n-play for Chris. It’s in the car.”
“Kate has one,” I said. “Let me move it to Stella’s room since she’s in with Tanner and we can put him in there for now.”
Once I had the playpen set up, I gently lifted Chris out of his seat. He stirred slightly but just pushed his face into the crook of my arm and continued sleeping. When I laid him down, he whimpered but stopped the moment I placed the lovey against his cheek.
When I came back out to the den, Jared wasn’t there and I moved through the house until I found him in the living room, sweeping up glass. He glanced up when he heard me and a small smile hit his lips.
“He still asleep?”
I nodded and disappeared into the kitchen to grab the trashcan. With it in hand, the two of us cleaned up the living room in silence. When it was back to normal, I started unfolding the couch in the den. Jared joined me a moment later and we got the linens put on it in no time.
“Will we be able to hear the kids in here?”
I held up the small monitor I’d taken from Kate’s room. The split screen showed Ryder’s crib and Stella’s bed with the playpen containing Chris next to it. “Kate got a double receiver when Ryder was born since Stella still wasn’t consistently sleeping all night. The older two know I’m sleeping in here tonight.”
“Okay.” He bent down and grabbed a backpack he’d brought with him. “There are some sweatpants, a sleep shirt, and your toothbrush in here.”
I stared at the backpack and absorbed what he said. Without my permission, my eyes filled with tears. How was it that I had a man who loved me, who thought of little things like pajamas and toothbrushes, while my little sister had a man who used his fists against her? It wasn’t fair.
Jared seemed to understand my internal struggles because he didn’t question my tears. He just dropped the backpack and pulled me to his chest while I fell apart completely.
He held me, whispering words of love and words of comfort until my crying finally let up. I suddenly felt completely drained both physically and mentally. Jared and I got ready for bed and once we were lying on the uncomfortable mattress, we faced each other with our heads on the pillow.
“I love you so much,” I whispered, reaching out to take his hand. A small smile appeared on his face and he brought our conjoined hands up so he could kiss the top of mine.
“I love you, too, Stephanie. Everything will work out. We’ll help them get through this. I promise.”
I shifted until my face was pressed against the crook of his shoulder and he tucked one arm under my body so he could hold me tight. It wasn’t long before I was asleep.
When I woke up, I was alone and my back was aching from the shitty mattress. The French doors that led to the den had been pulled closed and I had no doubt that Jared was up with a kid or two since the monitor was missing.
I pulled myself out of bed and grabbed my phone to check my notifications. My mom had texted sometime after midnight saying that they were keeping Kate overnight and thanking me for being with the kids. She promised to update me sometime that morning.
Austin had also sent a message letting me know that he had seen Kate in the hospital and that he and Rhea would be over for breakfast.
So when I walked out of the den and into the dining room, I wasn’t surprised to find Jared, Austin, and Rhea in there with all five children.
Ryder was in Jared’s lap, sucking down a bottle. Stella was sitting next to Rhea and smiling as she cut up her pancakes. Austin was holding Chris, who was smiling up at him like he was hilarious. Lila was in the highchair that was set up at the table and happily shoving fistfuls of food into her mouth.
Tanner, on the other hand, was sitting at the table and staring at his plate of food. He was completely disconnected from everyone else and my heart broke.
Jared caught sight of me first. A wide smile stretched across his face and caused