Written in 43 minutes.
Confronting Lucky had felt good at the time, but as the day continued, Jason started to have his doubts. Elizabeth had warned him that her custody issues with Lucky were going to get bad, and he’d known that Lucky was trying to stay in Jake’s life. The last thing Elizabeth needed was Jason getting in the middle when he was so close to being in Jake’s life full-time.
The worry that he’d done something to harm her chances gnawed at him long enough that he decided he needed a second opinion. Unfortunately for him, Diane wasn’t in the mood to help.
“I cannot discuss Elizabeth’s case with you,” Diane sniffed as she swept into the office at the warehouse. She wrinkled her nose as she took in the dingy, cramped room where Jason did the books, but offered no verbal opinion. “You wanted her to have the best attorney possible. That comes with some drawbacks—”
“I’m not—” Jason scowled and shoved himself to his feet. “I’m not asking for state secrets. Or even anything about her case.”
“No?” Diane arched an eyebrow. “Then what exactly am I here for?”
“I’m asking as Jake’s biological father,” Jason said, his teeth clenched, “what can Lucky do about visitation and can he keep me away my son?”
Diane pursed her lips, folded her arms. “Speaking in general terms, stepparents don’t usually have a lot of power to push for visitation or continued contact. It’s unfortunate when there’s a longstanding relationship, but the court defers to biology.” She hesitated. “There’s a nuance to this case that a family court judge might entertain as Lucky is the parent on the birth certificate and has provided support as the father for the last three months.”
Jason’s heart sank. “So he can win.”
“If I were in court arguing for your right to visitation,” Diane began, “I would win. You’re the biological father looking to establish contact. Beyond that, Jason, I honestly can’t tell you much more. You’d be better off asking Elizabeth. I can’t even meet with both of you sine you are not party to the case. Any meeting with a third-party won’t attach attorney-client privilege.”
He was frustrated by that answer, but Diane was devoted to her profession, and he wanted Elizabeth to have everything she needed to get Lucky out of her life. It wasn’t her fault. “I’ll talk to her.”
“Elizabeth is my client,” Diane reminded him as she picked up her purse. “I plan to give her the best advice to maintain full custody of her boys.”
“That’s a goal,” Jason said with a nod, even though he wondered if the best way for Elizabeth to keep the boys and get rid of Lucky would be to eliminate Jason from the equation. What would he do if that was the answer?
Robin marked the patient’s dosage adjustment in a chart, then handed it to Leyla Mir, the nurse on duty. “Thanks,” she told her. “That’s effective with the next round.”
“I’ll take care of it.” The pretty, dark-haired woman disappeared around the corner, and Robin turned to Emily.
“Nikolas wants me to go to dinner with him,” Emily said, with a sigh. She flipped through the charts at the desk. “I told him I’d think about it. Am I insane? Should I just go for it?”
“As the queen of overthinking everything,” Robin said, “I am definitely not the person to ask for advice.”
“After everything we’ve been through—” Emily set down her pen. “It would be stupid to waste time. You know? After losing my dad this year—” Her voice faltered slightly, then her tone firmed. “But I don’t know. I don’t want to go back. Or rest on nostalgia.”
“I get it. Jason and I dated way past our expiration date,” Robin reminded. “Everything about that last year was just postponing the inevitable. And look at Lucky and Elizabeth. They kept trying to go back, and where are they know? Miserable and fighting bitterly in court.”
“Yeah. That’s a good point. Right now, I’m lonely,” Emily admitted. “That’s why Elizabeth and I moved in together. Nikolas wants me to remember how good it was, and he’s not wrong, but it was also terrible. At he humiliated me at the end—” She took a deep breath. “I just can’t.”
“Fear of being alone can make you do terrible things,” Robin said softly. “I put up with Carly and lying about Michael because I thought no other man would ever want me with the HIV. I’m so glad I got out of it, even if I had to burn everything down around me.”
“I’m glad you did.” Emily made a face. “If you hadn’t told AJ about Michael, Jason might have ended up with Carly. That would have been a disaster.”
Elizabeth answered the door with Jake perched on her hip and half-twisted away from the door to remind Cameron that he couldn’t just touch everything because it was in front of him—she barely registered Jason at the door before Cameron reached out for one of her grandmother’s glass sculptures she’d left on the coffee table by mistake. “Cameron—here—” She shoved Jake at Jason and hurried across the room.
“What did I tell you—” Elizabeth snatched up the dolphin, and Cameron blinked up at her with his wide blue eyes. “Cameron.”
“But it’s fish. I like fish.”
Elizabeth put the dolphin into the curio cabinet she’d brought from Audrey’s house and closed the door. “It’s glass.”
“A glass fish,” Cameron corrected. “Makes it different.”
“Glass—” She shook her head, counted to five, then tried again. “Gram’s glass animals were one of her favorite things. You know how your train is your favorite?”
“What if I let Jake crawl around and touch your train and he broke it? By accident. Would that be okay?”
“No. He’s a baby. Trains are for big kids.” Cameron jabbed a thumb into his chest. “I big kid.”
“Exactly. Trains are for big kids. He gets stuffed animals, you get the train, and I get—” Elizabeth gestured. “Glass animals.”
“Oh.” Cameron studied the now closed cabinet with all the animals tucked away safely. “Glass animals for really big kids.”
“Yes. Really big kids.”
“Okay.” Cameron beamed at her, his tiny baby teeth flashing. Then he looked past her. “Hi, Jase.”
Elizabeth turned to find Jason still holding Jake. He’d closed the door and stepped down the two steps into the living room. “Hey. Sorry about that.”
“No problem. Hey, Cam.”
“Why don’t you go play with your trains?” she told Cameron. “Aunt Em and I finished the playroom last night.”
Cameron nodded and started the climb to the stairs.
“I wasn’t expecting you, was I?” Elizabeth asked. She started to reach for Jake, then stopped herself. Jason should get to hold his son as much as he wanted. She folded her arms behind her back. “I’ve been distracted — I’m supposed to go back to the hospital full-time next week—I’ve only been part-time for the last month—and we’re still unpacking—” She sighed. “Not that you need an appointment or anything—”
“No, I came over to talk to you. And you’re fine.” Jason hesitated. “I ran into Lucky earlier today.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes and went over to another box with her grandmother’s glass collection. She knelt down and started to unwrap them. Jason set Jake down on the baby blanket, arranging him on his back so Jake could wiggle and reach for the toys tied to the plastic arch above him.
“That must have been fun.”
“Yeah, well, I usually ignore him,” Jason admitted. She looked up at him. “I didn’t this time. He’s going after Cameron and Jake to punish you. I mean you told me that, but—”
“Yeah, he’s telling his lawyer that he loves them, but he’s not paying an ounce of child support and he hasn’t even asked to see Cam since we moved out, much less Jake. Diane says it’s going to screw him in court, but I’ll guess we’ll see.” Elizabeth sat back on her heels. “I’m sorry, Jason.”
“It’s really not. None of this would be happening if I hadn’t been stupid and weak last fall. If I had just told you the truth from the beginning or—”
“We can’t go back.” Jason knelt down next to her, stopping her as she reached for another animal to unwrap. She met his eyes. “Regrets don’t solve anything, okay? I also didn’t have to listen to Carly. I could have told you no in February. You’re not the only one who made mistakes.”
“No, but—” She closed her eyes. “Diane keeps telling me that it’ll be okay. Lucky’s getting a hearing only because he’s Jake’s legal parent. The court will order a paternity test—that’ll take care of it.”
“I talked to her,” Jason said. “But she wouldn’t give me anything. I get it—she’s not my lawyer, but—”
“Oh. I should have—” Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “If you tell me what you want to ask, I can find out. But she’s already told me Lucky can’t win. If you weren’t in the picture, he might get visitation with Jake. But you are. And, like I said, Lucky hasn’t even tried to see the boys. He’s going to argue I wasn’t faithful—” Her cheeks flushed. “And, no, technically in August, I wasn’t. But I’ve got Maxie. And this year—” She bit her lip and their eyes met again. “The court doesn’t really care about emotional affairs.”
Emotional affairs. Like admitting that they loved one another and had for a long time. Jason exhaled slowly. “They won’t?”
“No. Because I can honestly say that nothing physical happened, and then Lucky will have to explain about Sam. Like I said — I’m going to win,” Elizabeth said. “It’s just going to suck for a while. But you being around Jake—that’s going to help. So you can come whenever you want. You don’t even have to ask—”
“Thank you.” Jason released her hand and they both looked over at Jake as he kicked his feet and giggled, his tiny hand latching onto one of the toys, releasing it to watch it bounce back, then repeating it. “Thank you,” he said again.
It was late that night when Leyla Mir completed her shift and headed to the parking garage. Her feet were aching, and all she could think about was running a hot bubble bath and soaking with a book —
She only had time to hear the scratch of something against the concrete floor before something wrapped around her throat and her airway was choked off. She dug her fingers into the thin strap at her neck, but she couldn’t get beneath it—
Then she was being dragged backwards—and then—
There was nothing at all.